January 1, 2010. Soni came at 10am to get me from the hotel he had arranged for me. Not quite sure what exactly I was expecting, but Soni certainly wasn’t it. I was introduced by my father to Sajan, Soni’s brother, in New York. Sajan is a slim, very smart looking, glasses-wearing, economist type guy. Soni is a bit rounder ; ) bursting with laughter and from the short time I was with him, enjoys life to the fullest. We went on a whirlwind tour of Fort Cochin and in the evening I got on a train to Thiruvalla.
I was registered to do a one month Hatha Yoga Teacher Training Course at Tulasidalam Ashram in Thelliyoor, near Thiruvalla, Kerala. This is a tiny village in the middle of a magical jungle; it felt like a mystical place that I could call home. I came across the program when I was in Delhi, searching like crazy for a program and this jumped out at me. I felt really good about it when I signed up. As the days went on, however, I felt very strongly that I was not going to stay the whole month there. I didn’t really know what I was looking for, and what I was getting from the program. I had emailed a few times asking what would happen in terms of payment if I forfeited the program and had gotten no response. My last days in Goa, I felt really good to be with Tamara and Dorian, so had considered not going. But I felt like I had to go.
So, I went. There were two other students – two women from Luxembourg in their 40’s. initial reaction was oh my god I’m going to be stuck with them in the same room as them, in the same intense classes all day as them?! I mean, it’s eating, drinking, sleeping, learning, all with the same people. I felt initially very good with the teacher.
About two days into it, I was overswept by a wave of confusion, irritation, and frustration. My mind was telling me it was my co-students. So I separated myself, did a day of silence, and tried to let my inner voice tell me what was going on. It turns out, the woman running the course was really not the guru I was looking for. We may be able to twist our bodies into imaginative postures, and we may be able to eloquently speak about Patanjali and the Bhagavad Gita, but unless we live yoga, embody it, it is meaningless. That is the lesson I (re)learned at Tulasidalam. This was intensified by the presence of our asana workshop teacher, Narayana. This man, 70 years old, who has been practicing Hatha Yoga for 57 years, is pure embodiment of compassion, joy, and stillness. He walks in the room and you feel it. He leaves the room and his essence is still there. He doesn’t talk about philosophy, he seems to have a simple conversation with you, but when it ends, you realize you’ve learnt about Keralan politics, environment, nutrition, which of course can be related to the whole world, and you realize, this is yoga. Yoga means union.
Our teacher is a brilliant lecturer, very very intellectual, and quite simply put, I’ve never had anybody lecture as well as she does regarding the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. But she doesn’t live it. Simple things we spoke of jumped out at all 3 students in terms of seva, responsibility, love, compassion. And so I decided to go.
The 2 days before I left were really magical; the 3 of us just really gelled and spent beautiful days discussing, experiencing, feeling, and it really seemed that the universe was opening up to us and we were entering a new dimension. Yes, I know, some people reading this are now going to think I’ve gone off the deep end and have been brainwashed or lost my mind or something. But it is true. We took Apu, the lovely dog for many walks – he is normally encaged the whole day – and all the villagers were just coming out to connect. Animals followed us around – things were vibrating with a different frequency (actually we were more attuned to the real frequency of things perhaps).
The day I left, the teacher disappeared and didn’t come back. I spoke to Narayana and asked him if he could be my teacher if I came back to Kerala, he agreed, and all the blocks and doors that had been put in by our teacher released and a flood came forward. The ashram has the most beautiful staff, the secretary and the cook. They came with me to my rickshaw, everyone was crying…I cant put this in words. But it felt like the right decision, and although I struggled a lot that week, I learned a tremendous amount and it was clear that I had to be there, and it was also part of the big picture that I leave early.
When I was contemplating my departure, I remembered that isha foundation near Coimbatore was doing Inner Engineering Programs Jan 7-10 and 14-17. I called one day when we were outside the ashram and there were two spots left for the program from Jan 14-17. I registered. I got in touch with Darlene, the lovely Canadian I had met in Udaipur, and she was headed to Kerala. We agreed to meet for the houseboat in Alleppey. It gave me 3 nights free. I had planned on going to Amma’s ashram at some point during my stay in India, so it made sense to go there from the yoga course I was abandoning. A place where I could just put my stuff down, and hopefully fall into some sort of schedule structure.
So I left, sobbing, and finally got on a bus to Kayamkulam, then a rickshaw to the ashram in Amritapuri. Who is Amma? Amma means mother in India, and well, that’s who she is. She is widely considered a saint, and she truly deserves the title. I won’t go into it, but go to www.amma.org and you should be convinced pretty quickly. Her darshan, or blessing, is to give hugs and over the past 3 decades she has given more than 30 million hugs. And contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to humanitarian efforts in India and beyond. The ashram is quite big, with about 3000 permanent residents, supposedly. For 150 rupees a day, which is roughly 3 US dollars, you get a shared dorm room and 3 Indian meals and 2 chais. If you prefer, there is an Indian canteen, Western canteen, and a café with ridiculously delicious baked goods, pizza, veggie burgers etc. I’ll be perfectly honest, I didn’t do all that much meditating, I just explored the buzz of the place. Hundreds of people from all over the world and all walks of life were at the ashram. I spoke to dozens of people every day about their experiences with Amma (or not, since many had never met her but came for a variety of reasons – like myself). I went to a harmonium class that resonated so deeply within me, I would really like to pursue that. A harmonium is similar to a piano in that the notes and the keyboard are the same, but you play it only with your right hand ,using your left hand to pump air into the instrument like an accordion. It’s a very powerful, moving instrument.
Key characters during my stay at Amma’s place – in no particular order…
Heidi from Toronto, on some sort of ashram/guru/yoga search in India, we connected a lot on hatha/vinyasa yoga teachers in the west (and kirtan/chanting!)
Joe from Rio de Janeiro who has spent the past 2 years travelling, and more than 7 months at the ashram in the past 3 years.
Visnu (spiritual name) from Reunion who has spent 6 months annually for the past 3 years at the ashram.
Renee from Haiti living in DC who has never met Amma but in India for some spiritual path.
Virginie from France, living in Canada and also in India to try to figure out what next to do with her life.
Krishnan, half Indian half Chinese, living in Santa Fe and taken a year off to stay at the ashram.
I’m not going into their stories and personalities, it’s just an effort to show how global the place is.
4 blissful days at the ashram…and off I was to Alleppey to meet Darlene. It was great to see a familiar face, and Darlene had also picked up Marie, a German girl, and the plan was to go on a houseboat, the Kerala must-do. They had met Praveen Das who had a variety of boats, and my oh my was he quite the personality. A great salesman, he won the ladies over and we booked an overnight trip on the boat. The rest of the day was spent searching for playing cards and toilet paper (yes, in India this can be a 4 hour endeavor).
The next morning, we took off on the boat and it was simply marvelous.