INDIA: MEETING MY GURU (THE DOOR BLOWS OPEN)
(Continued from Steps Towards Yoga)
I was only 23, fresh off the plane from Canada. It was my first time in India. Though I felt like I was right side up for the first time in my life, I had no idea what was in store for me. They say the guru appears when the student is ready. I suppose I was ready.
A guru is not just a teacher. A guru-disciple bond is a profound relationship, as deep or deeper than marriage. It holds an intimacy within its embrace that speaks to the furthest corners of the soul and carries one through an inner landscape we never knew existed. The body of the guru is not bound by the finite, but extends through time and through all things. At least, so it has been for me.
Going to India was a true calling. I told my parents, much to their chagrin, that I was not doing my master in architecture and to not expect me back for five years. I would call when I could. (I now realize how painfully scary that must have been for them!) I was going to the other side of the world fuelled by the deep desire to meet my guru.
I knew there was someone “out there” to guide my yoga practice, to help me fulfill my spiritual potential. We have doctors to help heal our physical bodies. We have schools and universities to teach us the ways of the world. The guru is a realized being who has traveled along and completed the spiritual journey. Knowing the pitfalls along the path and understanding the mysteries of the universe, he or she can guide our way home. I did not know what that relationship would look like, but I knew how it would feel.
I flew into Madras greeted by a family member of an architecture classmate. I had never met the middle-aged man before. But since it was in the middle of the night in a strange land, I was very glad he was there to greet me. I arrived in India with a fever, what I attribute to a sort of cabin fever, hardly able to stand the confines of the 18 hour flight. When I felt the energy of the land as I stepped onto the ground, I knew I had come to a place I would call home.
India is a land of extremes. It either spits you out or embraces you and never lets you go. It is not a place of niceties. You either love it or hate it. Within any given moment as you walk through a city of village street, you can see the most exquisite sight you have ever seen and the most horrific scene; you can smell the intoxicating fragrance of fresh cut jasmine flowers right beside piles of debris and fresh excrement. It is raw, in your face and real like no other place I have been. In the West, we tend to hide our shadows under layers of prettiness. In India, the beautiful, the sinister, the painful, the rapturous were all hanging out in plain sight for anyone to see.
I celebrated my 23rd birthday at a New Years’s party (yes, I am a Dec 31st baby) on a roof top watching young India boys show me how they could moonwalk, Michael Jackson style. It was just a couple days after I had arrived, and I was still feverish. It all felt surreal.
A day or so later, I boarded a sweaty, smelly bus for another heroic 18 hour ride to Trivandrum, still further south, where I would then pile into a jeep with at least twelve other people and arrive at my final destination. At the Sivananda ashram just outside of the village Neyyar Dam, Kerela, I would attended my first yoga teacher training program and discover a classical approach to Yoga. I adored the whole program and the experience of daily immersion in the practice and study of Yoga.
After the month-long program, I remained in India for nearly a year while I traveled from temple town to ashram, often with sadhus (wandering aesthetics) or other fellow seekers. I spent six months in the South of India, then six in the North, staying in villages and cities and all the spaces in between. With just a small backpack carrying all I needed, and often sleeping outdoors on rooftops under an open sky, I had profound experiences outside the well traveled tourist paths. I learned from Brahmin priests, went to religious festivals, lived with impoverished villagers and lavish city folk; and I met my guru, Amma. My life is marked by BA (before Amma) and AA (after Amma) (rather than a BC and AD). This year changed my life completely.
When I was at the Sivananda ashram, I met two young teenagers, a brother and a sister, who simply glowed. They emanated a light that was notable. I asked them what they were doing to exude such radiance. They knew exactly what I was seeing and simply said, “It is our guru.” All I knew was I wanted some of THAT! It was intoxicating. By Grace, they told me that their guru’s ashram was very close by.
As soon as the teacher training program was complete, I went to Amritapuri and met Amma, also known as the Hugging Saint of Kerala, South India. I now know that what I experienced for the next two months were precious jewels, experiences few had. Today, Amma’s presence draws crowds that fill football stadiums as She tours the world. But when I first met Her in 1993, I was just one of a handful of people milling about Her. I did not know how lucky I was. I look back on those times with deep fondness.
Etched in me forever is the presence in the temple where Her devotees chanted bhajans. The modest, cathedral-like space echoed with a sublime sound that set every cell on fire. The hall walls seemed to dissolve into the ephemeral. They were no longer made of white tile, but liquid light. The atmosphere pulsated with a dewy luminosity that saturated the tropical air. If there were a heaven, I was in it. This was Brindavan.
Amma gives blessings, or darshan, in the form of a hug. Hugging, considered audacious for her humble South India upbringing and taboo for an Indian woman of her caste, is a gesture of motherly love. Today, thousands of people gather to receive Amma’s darshan all over the world. Then, perhaps 30 or so people would gather about her at any given time. I sat for hours with Amma, immersed in a spiritual presence that seeped into my hungry soul.
It is hard to describe a darshan as each one is unique and perfect on so many levels, going to places where the mind cannot explain. I could only recreate the experience with the shortcoming of words, which would never do the experience justice. What I can say of my first darshan is everything stopped and I started to cry, and it did not stop. I cried for days. It just would not stop. I was neither sobbing nor whimpering. The tears were not tears of joy, nor of sorrow. I just cried, and cried more as some form of deep inner release. It was like a dam had broken inside of me and my soul started to flow again along the current of the Divine River of life.
For the next weeks, I followed Amma and Her renunciate monks and nuns on rickety buses on bumpy dirt roads through South India as She inaugurated temples and performed pujas (worship) in various spiritual settings. I meditated all I could and immersed myself in Her.
THE BOND BEYOND
Despite the immensity of the experience, after a couple of months, some itchy part of my brain began to stir. I figured I needed to move on and see other things in India. After all, I came to meet my guru. Surely, in India, there were many such saints. I needed to make sure this Amma was “the” one. I left Amritapuri and went from ashram to ashram, temple town to temple town. Though I met phenomenal people and had life changing experiences, nothing compared to the immensity I felt in Amma’s embrace.
I would take me nearly ten years to fully accept Amma as my guru. Though there was always a “before and after Amma” since the moment I met Her, I was clearly not yet truly ready to fully say “Yes!” Amma continued to make Her presence known to me through the people I would meet over those years or by a broad array of coincidences that made me realize She was keeping her eye on me. I realize now that part of me needed to erode and soften so that I could receive the Grace of Her presence in my life. My ego wanted to do it on my own.
When Amma first came to Toronto, I told my partner that I wanted to go see Her. I told him, that I wanted to go see an Indian woman that I stayed with when I was in India. That was how much the denial of Her presence was for me. It was not until I saw Her immensity through his eyes, that I realized what had gifted my life. After that point, both my partner and I have fully accepted Amma as our guru.
The magical year in India blew my soul’s doors open. I met Amma. That was everything. I also read books that painted a fuller picture of yoga and the spiritual path, such as Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, the Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. I studied classical yogic texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradhibika, the Mahabharata, the Yoga Sutras and texts by Iyengar and Sivananda, to name a few.
I was only 23, but I felt like I had lived more than most people twice my age. This year changed everything. Though I was immersed for over eight hours a day in yoga, study and meditation, no external action I had taken was the source of any change. It was Amma all along. I realize now that She had called me to India. She had brought those books, people, places and teachers into my life. It is only by the guru’s Grace that I am at all. It is only by God’s Grace that I have the capacity to evolve, love, think, act, speak, breathe or walk. This year in India created the foundation for my understanding and aspiration to live my whole life dedicated to God, to spiritual truth in service to the magnificence of love. This year showed me that Yoga is everything, everywhere, always.
(Continued tomorrow with “The Healing Begins“)