Emma Lynch was an unemployed actress in Los Angeles when she blacked out, drunk, behind the wheel of her car and T-boned another vehicle at an intersection. All involved escaped serious injury, but Emma knew she could no longer survive as a broken person if the cost was to be borne by others. After five days in jail, and being ordered to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous course, she came upon a spiritual form of yoga called kundalini. “A lot of the AA group were doing it – in particular, Russell Brand. He kept me sober. The problem was I couldn’t seem to figure out how to do a lot of things, let alone how to get to yoga.”
Emma’s words are gentle. To her students, she is known as Daya Prakash. She explains that in Gurmukhi, a sacred Indian language, Daya means compassion and Prakash is the light from the guru. In translation, her name is Compassionate Light.
“A lot of the steps in AA talk about God, and that’s whatever it is. You can make the god the tree outside your window if you want to. AA teaches you to give your life over to this higher power. That’s why you’re in AA, because you can’t manage your life.”
Sitting in her studio in St Kilda, Emma admits these steps in AA were vital for her, in particular the moment when she gave herself permission to relinquish control. She exhales, her relief palpable. “I was a little worrier, always the one running the show, thinking I was in control, but in reality I wasn’t.”
Different shades of white bind Emma’s body, from the leggings to the turban wrapped around her head. As she leans forward in her chair, I catch sight of a mirror behind her – a silhouette of a bird in flight.
“After my friends managed to get me to my first kundalini class, I had an experience. I cried and I felt something real, something really beautiful. I was still crying when I walked up to my teacher and I said, ‘I can’t believe that just happened, I really want to come to kundalini but I have no money.’ Because you have no money if you’re an actress unless you’re working, and I was a non-working-just-got-sober-out-of-jail actress.”
To her surprise, her teacher offered her a job as a car-park attendant. “Everyone drives in LA, and there were about 80 to 100 people coming to each class, so I had to manage the stack-parking situation.”
Emma attended class daily, becoming stronger. It was during these classes that she made the decision to abandon acting and become a kundalini yoga teacher. The course lasted nine months. She stipulates the difference between the yogas. “Kundalini is such a vast technology, it needs to be processed. Otherwise you blow your neurons.”
During her training she had an incessant thought, telling her to return home to Australia and start her own yoga studio. She describes it as a message from the universe. “The thought got stronger and stronger,” Emma says. “It was my intuition, that higher intelligence telling me this is what I needed to do.”
After a year’s preparation to move her life back to Australia, Emma had the chance to teach before she left LA. “I felt the same rush that I experienced in the times I got to be an actress,” she says. “I was so thankful, because the moments where I was acting were the only times I felt fulfilled, and I was always scared that I’d never find anything to equal that until I found kundalini yoga.”
A timid-looking woman peeks from behind the office door, inquiring about signing up to the class. Emma ushers her in and greets her, and the woman’s shoulders immediately relax. Emma’s face cracks into a cheeky smile. “You can quickly fill out these forms,” she tells the woman. “Class will start in five minutes.”
As we roll out our mats in the next room, Emma sweeps across the front stage, burning a handful of sage. She announces that this will clear the energy. The scent reminds me of the makeshift camp fires we burnt in the outback, but this smell is stronger. It leaves a taste at the back of my throat. Emma says the cleansing is an important step for a practice that she repeatedly describes as a powerful transformative yogic technology. Although it’s an inward exercise, primarily done with eyes closed, she signposts that we will be doing a physical set today. “It will change the dogma of your muscles,” she says. “It’s going to be pretty epic.”
She explains the basic theory behind a mantra. “It is an ancient sound current or code, and together with prana, our breath-work, it unlocks a higher energy that helps eliminate fear, doubt, depression and anxiety.”
The Gurmukhi mantra we use to tune in before class is chanted three times and translates to: “I bow to the creative wisdom, I bow to the divine teacher within.”
The woman from earlier asks if Emma could also translate the meaning of the studio’s name: Sadhana. Emma flicks on an audio track through the speakers before responding. “It means a spiritual practice, or, literally, accomplishing something.”
The voice of Yogi Bhajan, the guru who brought kundalini to the West in the ’60s, echoes out around us. He repeats three commands: Wake up. Feel. Excel.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 19, 2018 as "Coming to light".
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