India! How can one begin to describe the experience of two weeks in this challenging, energetic and sacred land? Eight adventurous students, plus my husband, John, daughter Kate and I, embarked on our second Yoga Pilgrimage to the foothills of the Himalayas in December 2007.
Landing in the New Delhi airport after a 16-hour flight, we were immediately confronted with new and strange sights, sounds and smells. With our large bags stuffed into and on top of the small taxis, we were driven to a Delhi hotel for our first night in India.
We left the next morning for the seven-hour drive to our home for the next two weeks in Laxman Jhula, a small community about two miles north of Rishikesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Whether in Delhi, the small towns we passed through, or the relatively unsettled land between the towns, the roads are used by all - cars, heavy trucks, buses, diesel rickshaws, motorcycles with entire families of four on them, wooden carts carrying heavy loads propelled either by black oxen or a single man, bicycles and pedestrians. And, of course, the many cows, dogs, and even an elephant, all jockeying for some space to get where they want to go - including our taxis. I remember from my first trip to India hearing someone say, "You don't know what prayer really is until you've ridden in an Indian taxi."
The next morning, after our first jet-lagged night in the Tapovan Resort hotel, we had our first yoga class. We each set our intentions for the retreat, feeling the deliciousness of moving with our breath as the warm morning sun rose up above the steep mountains to the East. Our yoga practice was our twice-daily constant, anchoring us to the eternal spirit of the land we visited. Each day we had different adventures - some great, some small, but each with something to teach us, to nourish us. We brought our outside experiences into our practice on the mats, and they began to seem inseparable. The same spirit, experienced in so many ways in the India surrounding us, also permeated our early morning meditations, our vigorous morning practice, and our more inward afternoon classes.
The Ganga (the Ganges River) flows clean, cold and green out of the Himalayan Mountains through the rugged hills that rise up from her banks in Laxman Jhula. The Ganga is considered much more than a body of water to spiritual seekers. She is a deity, a living Goddess that receives all that people give to her, including their own cremated bodies. One of the first things our group did was to take a Ganga dip, an initiation into her spiritual flow. We hired jeeps to take us four miles up-river to an old ashram where the water is very clean. Leaving John behind a big rock, we stripped, tied big sarongs around us and took the plunge. It was VERY cold, and our gasps and shrieks carried far down Ganga's banks.
During our stay, we often visited Ramana's Garden, an orphanage and school for destitute children, a mere three-minute walk from our hotel. Ramana's Garden was founded and is run by Prabhavati, an American ex-Hollywood actress who's lived in India for 25 years. Our Willow Street community has embraced Ramana's Garden and helped with generous, much needed support for the past four years. There are 65 children who live at Ramana's Garden and many more from the area who come in for school and meals each day. The miracles of love that occur here know no bounds. Children's lives are transformed. We made great friends with some of the kids. We attended some of their evening satsangs and often ate lunch at their wonderful new rooftop cafe.
All the food is organic, freshly prepared and absolutely delicious. Run by volunteers and a small staff, it also serves as vocational training for the kids, honing their English skills and preparing them for jobs in the burgeoning tourist industry or other positions unheard of for most children from their backgrounds.
Another day, we took taxis about 20 kilometers up the winding road hugging the steep hillsides above the river to Vasistha's Cave, right on the banks of Ganga. This cave has been used for meditation and as the residence of countless yogis for thousands of years. Today, there is an ashram surrounding the cave and a small, covered entrance area with a door and a Yajna fire pit outside, used for rituals. The entrance to the cave is about five feet high, and there is a narrow tunnel leading 60 feet or so in to a somewhat larger cavern. At the end of the passageway is an ancient rock altar, lit with butter lamps. We slowly felt our way through the initial darkness towards the light. The air was still and the cave was silent. The butter lamps cast a warm, unwavering glow. We sat where yogis have sat for thousands of years, feeling the palpable energy of the cave. We chanted the Gayatri Mantra together, sending waves of this most powerful prayer for the enlightenment of all out to the world. We then went into silent meditation, feeling the space and the spacelessness. This was the first sacred site we visited and we felt deep gratitude to be able to participate in the rich tradition.
Another day we ventured up into the mountains to the small temple town of Neelkanth, where Shiva is said to have drank the poison of the world, turning his throat blue. Travelling as usual in old white Ambassador cabs, we spiraled and looped our way up steep ravines above the Ganga river valley, passing incredible vistas of terraced hills, and huge monkey families that sat on the road or in trees. The temple is a small complex built around a living Banyan tree, which must be hundreds of years old. Above the entrance is a multi-layered multi- colored pyramid, stacked with legions of Hindu deities and figures. This is a sacred site and Hindus will travel many days to visit for the blessings they believe they will receive.
Our adventurous group decided to a person to find the walking trail to take us more directly back to Rishikesh rather than taking a taxi back down the mountain. What we didn't know was that we first had to go UP the mountain for about a thousand feet before we crossed over to the downhill trail. All in all, it was a challenging, exhilarating four and- a-half-hour trek to cover the seven or eight miles back to the Ganga. Back at our hotel, we all fell asleep that night with a great feeling of accomplishment. We were reminded of this accomplishment for several days afterwards by our tight legs and calves. Thank God for yoga!
One morning early on we had the good fortune of having a private darshan (spiritual blessing) with ShantiMayi's guru, Shri Hans Maharaji. Maharajji is now in his early eighties, and though frail in body, he is incredibly strong in spirit. Many of us felt the strength of his darshan helped to open our hearts and minds to a deeper experience throughout our journey. ShantiMayi arrived during our second week and we had the blessing of several satsangs with her in the hall in Maharajji's ashram, where she lives for several months each winter. Her passion for life, the way in which she embraces all traditions, her strong voice in leading the chanting and lively talks all helped to nourish and stimulate the seeker within each of our own hearts.
We had the great blessing of another spiritual teacher, Siddhi Ma, spiritual successor to Neem Karoli Baba, a truly great saint of the last century. Siddhi Ma is a small, elderly, and lovely woman, somewhat resembling Mother Theresa and quite ageless in her face. At her ashram near Rishikesh we sat in her peaceful presence on a rooftop courtyard. Through an interpreter, she asked us questions, blessed our malas, and exuded quiet yet powerful energy.
Of course we didn't go off adventuring every day. Our "down days" included exploring the many local shops for gifts for families and friends back home.Almost everyone found time to sit peacefully by Ganga-Ma just listening to Her voice and watching Her flow. Corrie, one of our participants, writes:
One afternoon near the end of our time in India, I walked across the Laxman Jhula bridge over the Ganges to a small, clean, white beach.The beach was empty except for four reclining cows. After picking up some smooth, pretty stones that had been washed up onto the sand, I sat down on a large rock near the cows just being, as they were, with the river. During the hour I was with them the sun warmed us and the soft wind made the gentlest ripples on the water. In the distance I could hear occasional voices and sounds of work being done somewhere, but it was mostly quiet. A young boy picked his way silently along the opposite shore. A perfect hour...
On these days with no agenda, one could drift and sit, and watch away the days. We sipped chai at the German Bakery overlooking the Laxman Jhula bridge. We read books and took pictures.We checked email at one of the internet cafes. We made friends with many of the wonderful Indians and Nepalese who worked in the hotels and shops, communicating mostly with the eyes and heart.
In closing, I want to honor the members of our India kula. I feel so privileged to have had these beautiful seekers enrich my own experience, and help me to see India through fresh, new eyes. I thank each of them for the beautiful gifts of themselves they shared with Kate and John and me. I considered our little kula quite extraordinary in this regard, and the deep friendships that were made will continue I'm sure. We are planning our next pilgrimage, probably in 2010. We hope some of you will be inspired to join us. For a longer version of Suzie's Reflections, including the India impressions of several participants and many India pictures, visit our website.