A conversation with Gurmukh.
By Anna Dubrovsky
As Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa finished teaching a women-only class at her Los Angeles studio one April morning, a note of regret crept into her voice. “I have to go next Wednesday for too long and too far,” she said. On the agenda: classes and workshops in London, England; Antwerp, Belgium; Zurich, Switzerland; Stockholm, Sweden; Reykjavik, Iceland; and Berlin and Munich, Germany. “It may sound really romantic,” said the longtime Kundalini Yoga teacher, “but I’m really wanting to stay home. I think I did my thing out there.”
It’s not without irony that Gurmukh (who, like Madonna, one of the many celebrities she has taught, is known far and wide by her first name) is loath to leave LA. For years, it was the last place she wanted to live.
Born Mary Mae Gibson in rural Illinois, Gurmukh has spent much of her life on the move. After leaving home at 19, the self-described “wanderer of the ’60s” lived in the epicenter of hippie culture in San Francisco, hitchhiked her way through Mexico, slept on a beach on the Hawaiian island of Maui for two years, and spent a year meditating seven hours a day at a Zen Buddhist temple before a friend delivered her to a Kundalini Yoga ashram in 1970. Along the way, she’d married, lost a seven-month-old son to a congenital heart defect, and divorced. “I’d always write home to my mother saying, ‘I have to find my tribe,’” recalls Gurmukh, 68. “She didn’t know what the heck I was talking about. When I walked into the ashram in Arizona, I said, ‘I’ve come home.’”
It was there that she met Yogi Bhajan, the Indian-born Sikh who inspired legions of American hippies to trade hallucinogens, free love, and freewheeling ways for Kundalini Yoga, family life, and a strong work ethic. He gave her the name Gurmukh, which she says means “one who helps thousands across the world ocean,” and a directive: Help people. “He said, ‘If you’re depressed, find someone who’s more depressed. If you’re sick, find someone who’s sicker than you. That’s the way out,’” says Gurmukh, who peppers conversations and classes with references to her late spiritual teacher.
It’s because of her teacher that Gurmukh found herself in Los Angeles in 1977. The plan was to stay for 40 days, performing seva (service) at his then-headquarters, before returning to the New Mexico ashram that had become her home. “After forty days, he gave me something else to do and something else to do. I tried to get out of here for ten years,” she says between bites of a salad in the airy offices of Golden Bridge, her studio in the heart of Hollywood. Panoramic windows afford a view of the iconic Hollywood sign. “When I was living in The Haight and on Maui, we thought all the hippies in LA were fakes. They didn’t make their own bell-bottom trousers. They weren’t committed to change. We were allergic to this place.”
But LA had much in store for its reluctant transplant. It’s here that Gurmukh met Gurushabd Singh, her husband of nearly 30 years. In 1984, at the age of 43, she gave birth to their daughter, Wahe Guru Kaur, who now runs the Golden Bridge café, a post-yoga pit stop serving the likes of veggie reuben sandwiches, tempeh wraps, and dal, along with a host of decadent desserts. Here’s what else she found in the City of Angels: plenty of people looking for help. “So many people here are so lost,” she says. “They’ve left their families. They’ve left their ties, for whatever reason. They have a dream to be an actor, actress, producer, screenwriter. The product is themselves, and so they have to be concerned with how they look and how they present themselves. Golden Bridge is a haven where they don’t have to look a particular way. They just come, and they get in touch with their souls.”
Gurmukh, who taught yoga out of her home before opening her first studio in 1985, is best known for helping mamas-to-be. They started flocking to her shortly after her daughter was born—at home, and after just two and a half hours of labor. Fans include Madonna, Reese Witherspoon, Rosanna Arquette, and Cindy Crawford, who wrote the foreword to Bountiful, Beautiful, Blissful, Gurmukh’s 2003 book on pregnancy and birth. Like her previous book, The Eight Human Talents, it’s packed with short exercises and meditations designed for long-lasting relief. Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan is foolproof, Gurmukh insists. “It’s a science. It’s not just, ‘I sure hope this works.’ Science works. If you do a meditation to stop smoking, you will stop.”
Recently, Gurmukh stopped teaching prenatal yoga. For a while, the most famous name in Kundalini Yoga considered stepping out of the limelight altogether. “I felt like, there’s so many books out there, so many people out there. Why do I have to be out there?” Then she remembered her years spent traveling and soul-searching. “I would search out anybody who had known [Autobiography of a Yogi author Paramahansa] Yogananda. I would carry his photograph and ask, ‘Did you know him? What was he like?’ I realized I’m one of those people now. I’m one that carries the lineage of a master that’s gone. I have to keep [his] voice alive. It’s a responsibility, and it’s a destiny. But how to do it without getting on and off planes every other minute?”
The answer, she believes, is to embark on a new journey, to venture into the unfamiliar world of the Internet. “I’ve kind of resisted the progressive changes in the world,” she says. “But modern technology has potential to bring us closer together. I just had a revelation that I could fit into that program.”
So catch her on the road while you can. Then look for her in the two places she never imagined herself: sunny Los Angeles and somewhere online.
Contributing editor Anna Dubrovsky writes and teaches yoga in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Photo by Martin Herrera Soler