01.06.2006 Yoga

India, the Heart and Soul of Yoga

Mandy Becker Knox knows from her own journey, what it is that draws so many of us, consciously, to India.

It started with a dream, as nearly everything in life does. There was an Indian woman - beautiful, radiant, dressed in a white sari with long unkempt hair and a smudged red circle on her forehead. She had"that" look in her eyes, she was here, but not here, in this world,but not of it. She smiled, she didn't exactly speak but transmitted the words "Sadhana Guru". The dream lasted seconds, was merely a flicker of consciousness...yet its effect was profound.Something in me was instantly awakened - a longing for something intangible,something spiritual, indefinable.

I was 20 years old, I wasn't unhappy, I had a good life, but in that moment I realised there was so much more to it. I had merely been grazing surfaces and understood nothing...it was time to go deep, to discover who I really was and what lay beyond. The dream offered an irresistible pathway: Sadhana is the Sanskrit word for spiritual practice; Guru means guide or teacher; and the woman was so obviously Indian - I would find my spiritual guide in India! I was wide awake.I had a new and unexpected direction, I had a goal.

I knew absolutely nothing about yoga, but vaguely associated it with India, so went along to the yoga school listed first in the Yellow Pages. Soon after, I was initiated into yoga by an acharya(nun),became a vegetarian, read Autobiography of a Yogi and to the best of my ability adopted a yogic lifestyle. Within six months,I'd left behind my family, friends, fledgling career and life as I knew it for India.

I stepped off the plane, and inhaled the heavy Indian air, a unique blend of diesel, sewage, pollution and incense. I felt deeply alive, more alive than I ever had. An inner transformation was in process, I didn't know what I was to become, but I did know this was exactly where I was meant to be.

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India is like a magnet to anyone even vaguely interested in yoga. The country, particularly the northern Himalayan region has a tangible spiritual vibration, which can be sensed the moment you step onto its soil. Its saints and seers have the ability to reach out to us in our dreams, guide us in our lives, until we are awake enough to experience our own essence, our soul, and seek out union with the greater universal soul for ourselves.

Yoga has become a popular form of intelligent exercise,relaxation and self improvement in Western countries. It was bought to the West in the late 1800s and early1900s, when Indian yoga masters began travelling abroad. Since that time yoga's popularity has increased with the establishment of yoga centres, ashrams and yoga communities around the world, and millions of people practising some form of yoga. With its popularity has come a fascination with India, particularly with its spiritual culture, which we have largely romanticised.

Many yoga practitioners make the pilgrimage to India to experience an "authentic" yoga under the tutelage of a realised master, and to live within a spiritual community. They arrive with many romantic notions about the place and its people: that it is an ancient source of spirituality populated with wise mystics and wandering ascetics, a place of spiritual salvation, serene ashrams and blissful meditation practice, worlds away from the materialistic culture of the West. It is true that our expectations and intentions will largely shape our experience of India, but in a place so diverse you can expect to have every illusion shattered!

To us, India is yoga, but for the people who live their yoga is something private, an inner practice which is done quietly at home and within the community. Yoga is an attitude, a philosophy, a way of life. It is an integral part of daily life which just isn't made a fuss of, labelled, or separated into structured classes.There is, of course, a small sector of Indian society who renounce worldly life for a monastic existence and seek out a guru or yoga ashram where they devote themselves entirely to sadhana. The gurus and yoga masters who visit the West often appear humble, enlightened, endlessly compassionate and patient. Their charisma and radiance takes you in, and you desire nothing more than to bask in their aura...but don't be fooled!

The guru takes form in many different guises, and may come across as stern, scolding or indifferent. However, their intention is always the same: to uplift humanity and help us realise the true nature of things - but each has a different way. Lessons learnt under such a master in an ashram environment will accelerate your spiritual growth, but will challenge and confront you along the way. There may even be suffering involved, and it is the community which forms around such a master to whom you will most likely turn. At the heart of such a community there is a shared goal: to live a divine life, to realise god. Even so, spiritual community and ashram life in India is not exactly utopian. Amongst residents there may be politics, jostling to get as close as possible to the guru, intense interpersonal dynamics often replicating patterns and dynamics which were present in previous or outside relationships. But because of the shared goal, there is a greater chance of overcoming the distractions and obstacles, of keenly observing interrelationship patterns through meditation and contemplation, and helping each other transcend them. A major focus for those living in a spiritual community is selfless service or karma yoga.

The realised yoga masters see no real difference between themselves and the rest of humanity. Our suffering is their suffering, and they will do everything within their vast powers to help eliminate suffering on earth.The disciples and devotees who gather around such a yogi will be put to work under the direction of the master. In a country with a population of well over one billion people, many of whom have little or no access to money, religious organisations and ashrams have become the social welfare system in India. Where the government is unable to, it is the ashrams which provide free healthcare, housing and feeding programs for the poor; orphanages and schools for the many abandoned, neglected, or abused children; pensions; and educational and work schemes for underprivileged people and societal outcasts including widows. In times of crisis, such as the 2003 Boxing Day tsunami which devastated the south east coast of India, it is often better to donate directly to a reputable ashram within the country (such as Amritananda MayiMath or Sivananda Math), as they are the ones on the ground in the immediate aftermath providing real assistance,while government and relief agencies flounder, and politicise.

It is the gurus and ashrams the local people turn to for assistance in times of need, and the gurus, in turn,do what they can to help the people. Being part of such a yoga ashram, even for a short while, is an opportunity for us to be involved in social welfare on a personal level and to really understand what yoga is all about. Through selfless service and sacrifice of our personal goals for more universal goals, we come a little closer to understanding the true meaning of community. We come to realise that yoga is not all about our own personal evolution, but about the interconnectedness of all beings. There are many ashrams, and yoga centres in India which will take foreigners for both short and long stays. A visit to such a place, even for a short while maybe a spiritual tonic for anyone juggling the priorities of job, family, and spiritual life, and trying to incorporate yoga and spiritual practices into daily life. When we remove ourselves from our families and everyday routine even for a short period of time we gain better perspective, clarity, spiritual direction, compassion for our community and a deeper appreciation for life itself.

From my experience, the growth and development, and the insights and inspiration gained in just a few intense weeks in this country are the equivalent of many months or even years of yoga practice at home. Three weeks in India may just be enough time to change your life! There are many, many ashrams, yoga centres and spiritual communities you could potentially visit in India. During my journeys to India I have visited a number of ashrams, studied under amazing yoga masters, stayed with families and yoga communities, explored the diversity of the culture and immersed myself in the soul inspiring landscape of the Himalayas.

It is only really in India that you can experience the heart and soul of yoga.

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I followed a dream in which my soul led me to the yogic path and to India. I learnt many things in this great country. I learnt from the average Indian that yoga is something deeply personal, and has nothing to do with a perfectly toned body. I learnt that if you are receptive and have faith, the guru will guide and uplift you, even if it doesn't seem pleasant at the time. I learnt the importance of community, and that each person, animal and plant is a unique expression of the same great soul, and deserves to be treated with reverence, and helped when in need. I learnt that when you persevere you evolve, and I learnt that regardless of circumstances there is always something to be grateful for. Most importantly, I realised the guru was within me all along! The woman in my dream was not an external person, but an aspect of myself, a manifestation of my own soul. I returned home at peace,contented, committed to my yoga practice. So yes, I found my spiritual guide in India!

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A Guide to Spiritual Communities & Ashrams in India

This is a gentle community of soulful, spiritual, creative,musical people bought together under the guidance of the Mother, a well educated French devotee of yoga master Sri Aurobindo. Quite a visionary, the Mother authorised construction of a "Town of the Future" in which people of all countries and cultures could live together. The township is so far home to about 1700community members and hosts many visitors. Aurobindo also has ashrams in the major cities, and these make pleasant places for short stays.

Ananda Nagar, Munger, Bihar: Bihar is the poorest and most dangerous state of India recently divided into two states due to civil unrest. Still, it is home to two international yoga organisations, the first of which is Ananda Marga.Sometime between Christmas and New Year, the Ananda Melaat Ananda Nagar is held. This is a large gathering in which Margis from all over India, and the world, converge to remember and honour the Guru Sri Anandamurti. At the heart of the organisation is a core of Acaryas completely dedicated to uplifting humanity through their selfless service. AM has yoga centres and ashrams inmost cities in India and around the world and teach yoga and meditation at no charge. The meditation they teach is systematic, profoundly blissful and transformative

Satyananda Yoga Bharati, Bihar: The only dedicated yoga university in the world where you can gain a degree or postgraduate qualification in Yoga Studies.There is a residential facility offering long and short stays. Founder, Swami Satyananda, lives at another centre five hours drive from there, and it is also possible to stay there too. There is a strong emphasis on karma yoga in Satyananda Yoga, so be prepared to develop your work ethic! Satyananda Yoga is popular worldwide and you will find residential ashrams in many countries, including Australia.

Himalayas: If India is the heart of yoga, then the Himalayas are its soul. Immerse yourself in the mystical presence of these great mountains,and you will find the greatest teacher of yoga!

Rishikesh, Uttar Pradesh: Rishikesh is a holy city at the foothills of the Himalayas where the Ganges first comes down to the plains. Rishikesh is a spiritually imbibed place with many yoga centres and ashrams along the banks of the Ganges, many of which offer short yoga intensives,retreats, and the possibility of long-term deeper study and practice. It is possible to arrive here and look around before committing to any one place, but beware Rishikesh has become something of a spiritual marketplace with some would-be gurus shopping for disciples, and would-be disciples shopping for gurus!

Divine Life Society, Rishikesh: Founded by the great yogi Swami Sivananda Saraswatiand situated in Rishikesh. This is a place to immerse yourself in yoga,as Sivananda's influence is still very present. There are daily programs, courses and a comprehensive library. If it is not possible to stay in the ashram there are beautiful places nearby,and you can attend the daily program.

Vandana Mataji: Mataji is a nun who heads the Christian ashram Jiva Dhara in Rishikesh, a humble, peaceful ashram on the banks of the Ganges, promoting an integration of Hinduism into Christian spirituality. Mataji is a fascinating scholar and author who gives darshan and satsangs when she is in residence. A long-time disciple and friend of Swami Sivananda, Mataji is a beautiful and kind lady who quietly inspires with her gentle wisdom, subtly guiding lost souls home.

Anandamayi Ma Kutir, Haridwar: Sri Anandamayi Ma was another contemporary of Swami Sivananda. As a quiet village girl, she was revered for her beauty as well as her spirituality. She grew up to become one of the most inspiring yogis of her time. Enshrined here, the place still retains her essence, with its quiet beauty and peaceful atmosphere. No particular teachings are given.

Sri Somanatha Kshetram, Hyderabad: The powerful yogi and founder of Mano Yoga, Sri Somanatha Maharshi, is in residence here, and you will feel his aura instantly! A peaceful place located on the highest hilltop in Hyderabad, you can expect to have an "authentic" experience,learning and practising a powerful form of yoga healing under the guidance of the guru. Annual international retreats are held in February each year.

Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Chennai: Probably the most famous yoga school in the world, founded by the great yogi T Krishnamacharya who was teacher to Iyengar and Patahbi Jois. KYM is currently run by his son TKV Desikachar. It is quite a small place so there are no residential facilities, but you can join the annual programs or book a series of private lessons in yoga therapy, vedic chanting and philosophy. Book well in advance.

Mata Amritanandamayi Ma, Kerala: Amma, the "hugging saint" is one of the best known spiritual leaders in modern times. Her ashram is located in the backwaters of Kerala and literally houses many thousands of people. When Amma is present this is a vibrant, high-energy community. There is the possibility of yoga and meditation tutelage and Ayurveda programs, but the emphasis for most people who come here is most definitely the guru herself and her schedule.

Ramakrishna Vivekananada Kutir, Bangalore: Sri Ramakrishna was another great contemporary yogi. His disciple Swami Vivekananda went on to establish Yoga Vedanta (philosophy) centres in India and around the world. It is possible to come here to study Vedanta, or stay for one month long yoga training courses.

Sadhus: There are many sadhus (wandering ascetics) in India.They live outdoors, without clothing, food or shelter, roam the forests,villages and cities. They are largely solitary, but when they come together they seem to be a joyous community, chanting and singing for hours and days on end in circles around small fires,oblivious to the people around them.

Kumbha Mela: The ultimate gathering of humanity. Held every four years, the Kumbha Mela attracts more than 10 million pilgrims from all over the country each with the same intention - to bathe in the Ganges at the same place at the auspicious time! I was lucky enough to attend Kumbha Mela in Haridwar, and witness the transformation of this quiet centre into a massive tent city where people lived together without proper facilities, with a quiet dignity and in relative harmony! The generosity of spirit and the amazing patience of the crowd is a lesson in community spirit.

Staying with a Family: The ultimate in spiritual community! Staying with a family gives a real insight into Indian culture. Indian families are generous and hospitable to a fault - they feed you, care for you, include you in all aspects of family life, asking for absolutely nothing in return.There is a strong family ethic in India and for reasons of necessity people live very closely together, which, at first,may be a little overwhelming for the average Australian! But through the love, warmth and tolerance of the people you soon forget any discomfort.

Mandy BeckerKnox teaches yoga at Kookaburra CreekYoga Centre in the Perth hills, and facilitates yoga study tours to India in January each year. Website:www.geocities.com/kookaburracreekcentre.