Rishikesh, first city as the Ganges emerges clean and cold from the great Himalayan massif, is the undisputed yoga capital of the world. I wanted to study that ancient devotion which hones the body and mind so I enrolled in an ashram there. It was extremely austere. I was a little put off at first because they wouldn’t let me inside to check it out until I paid for a bed. But then I was pleased when I saw the large sleeping-room which was nothing but thin mats on the floor of a big room staggered so that no man’s feet pointed at another’s. I selected one and stripped, donned the white linen pajamas I’d been required to buy at reception, then sat down and waited for someone to come and tell me what to do.
Time dragged. Finally I decided to take a promenade about the grounds.
It was a beautifully manicured oasis. High stone walls blocked not only the view of the mounds of garbage and feces outside, but also the smell and the sounds. A fierce sun blazed, but the ashram’s lush trees provided ample shade. I relaxed by a pond ringed by pink and blue flowers.
Two men approached and selected a bench opposite me so as not to infringe upon my meditations and engaged in a murmuring discussion. A woman sat down alone without looking at anyone. Others appeared and discussed things in earnest or sat apart not registering my presence until a bell sounded and everyone broke their leisure and filed through a door. I thought about it for a minute then followed.
A small archway opened on to a giant cafeteria where a male devotee ladled rice and lentils onto the metal plates of men sitting in long parallel rows; the women sat together apart and received their food from a female. Nobody spoke. I sat down with the young and old of my gender. Someone began a song and everyone chimed in. The words weren’t in English, obviously, but it was some sort of blessing.
We ate in unison with our right hands.
After we finished, people milled about the courtyard socializing quietly. Nobody registered my presence. Suddenly electricity leapt through the crowd! The Swami had deigned to grace us with his presence!
He made slow progress, because at each step devotees fell to their knees and blocked his path and kissed his feet repeatedly. He smiled beneficently as he ignored their obsequious humiliations and chatted over his shoulder to a peon taking dictation.
It took a great while for him to make his way through the gathering, as every member of the congregation insisted on prostrating himself before the exalted personage, but finally the Swami reached his private chambers, which were guarded by two serious-faced youths. As he opened the door I glimpsed inside and saw a lush gilded bedchamber, expensive art in elaborate frames, and many other beautiful material things.
A tall, exceedingly thin, haunted-looking boy approached and asked where I was from. When I told him the U.S., he replied that he was from New York but had been living here for eleven months and had nearly attained I forget what level of whatever. I told him I was happy for him and asked how he liked it. He said that it was total bliss, he never wanted to leave, but after his upcoming elevation he would be forced for a financial reason to go back to the States, but he planned to return as soon as possible and stay until he reached a ten syllable word which was clearly extremely impressive. I nodded and took my leave. He followed me. I went back to the sleeping room and began to unpack my bag. He sat on the adjacent mat and stared at me, so intently scrutinizing my aimless dicking around that I became aware it was clear to him that I was aimlessly dicking around. So I selected one of the books I’d been advised to buy and laid down. He appeared to accept this as proper behavior, but remained fixated as a fish eagle as other men wandered in and pulled blankets over their heads.
By eight PM it was completely dark, and the only sounds were the snores and rustlings and farts of the sleepers around me. I put down the book I had been not reading, and noticed that my gaunt fellow countryman was still sitting there watching me unblinking. I sighed, got up and went to the toilet area, where a single candle burned, and stared at myself in the mirror for a while.
Then I tiptoed the grounds, which were bathed in soft moonlight. The scene was quite beautiful, but the razor wire topped walls also unfortunately made it appear a bit like a prison. Keeping the world out are we–or being kept in?
At four next AM someone rang a bell, and the inmates rose and shuffled out single file. I was still very tired, so I rolled over and gave them my back. A few minutes later, the bell-ringer dinged it again, this time right in my ear, with a look of stern disapproval on his face- which was okay, I hadn’t really gone back to sleep. I was actually pretty excited to get initiated. I yawned and followed him to yet another large hall (it was amazing how big all the rooms were beyond their small nondescript doors), where everyone was already assembled and meditating. I joined them, and slipped into a deep sleep as soon as I closed my eyes. When I opened them some time later I was the only one not bent over with his ass in the air. Then everyone sort of dipped their hips and arched their backs and held a pose which looked like a cobra–Yoga! Yay!
I tried to emulate my companions, but it was tough. Lots of fluid moves and I couldn’t predict what should come next, and it was uncomfortable to crane my neck to see how I should. And after an hour or so of vigorous slow motion exercise, I gladly assumed the corpse pose.
Jolted out of a deep dream–all alone in the room–shit. Embarrassed, I slunk past the cafeteria and retired to my sleeping mat, where the thin boy soon found me and commenced glaring icicles.
Eventually I was summoned for a private audience with the Swami. I sat down before him, careful to tuck my legs beneath me without exposing the undersides of my feet, and bowed. He addressed me in perfect English, with friendly, loving eyes. He told me what the regimen was, what to expect, what to do–then asked if I would like to make a donation. I said sure, how much? He said it was up to me. I said, how much do most people give? He said according to their ability to pay. I said, what’s a ballpark figure? He said it was up to me. He sat there smiling enigmatically and I sat there feeling pretty stupid until I had a bright idea, which was to bend forward and kiss his feet. This seemed to please him, and he got up and left.
Later I was contemplating something by the pond when the New York skeleton came up and resumed his customary eyeballing. He asked if I’d met Swami ____. I nodded and made a sign like turning a key in my mouth, to indicate I’d undertaken a vow of silence–figuring this was the best way to dissuade him. I ignored his face two inches from my nose until it was time for lunch, completed that serious ritual with him right by my side, walked the lovely grounds with him half a step behind me, chose my afternoon yoga spot after he did, but then he moved his mat next to mine so I bailed and hid out on the roof exasperated until 5 o’clock when we all marched down to the river for evening ‘aarti’.
Which was chanting devotional songs to the beat of tabla drums. As we warmed up our pipes, someone moved around wielding a fire cauldron, to which everyone bowed. Then we let loose and went wild. I was aware of several tourists above and behind us on balconies because of their snapshot-flashes. I suppose we must have been quite a sight, dressed in full-white, bellowing to the sun as it sank.
But then I forgot about everything but.
Again the electric murmur happened, and our gathering parted, and a procession of young boys emerged from the gate of the ashram, danced down the steps, and placed torches reverently in position around a microphone on a floating platform.
The Swami, blissfully beaming and beautifully coiffured like Fabio Jesus, came forth. He was followed by three concubines, who sat off to one side and gazed at him lovingly as he arranged himself on a pillow then began in a deep resonant voice, which also reached the high registers and ululated wonderfully, a long mournful solo as the sun made its final descent. Our fires seemed to grow brighter as the mountains behind the river went black, and he altered the tune without breaking it and it became an upbeat number, and the tabla drums accelerated in perfect syncopation, and his women harmonized with him exquisitely, and everyone sang all together full throated hearts out clapping the beat and bounding around, and I was awash in unexpected magic, and supremely happy.
The song never full-stopped it just sort of changed organically several times. We must have been out there over an hour. Suddenly the Swami broke off–a deafening silence–then he emitted a hum beginning in a vibration so deep it was almost inaudible which grew and grew powerfully until I could feel in my gut then in my whole body its crescendoing O then finally from my eyebrows to my tippytoes its everlasting descending ‘mmmm’. My first experience of the correct pronunciation of the syllable Aum.
With that he departed smiling, preceded by his fire boys and trailed by his wives, and after they had disappeared through the gate the rest of us got up and followed, aglow. We pretty much went straight to bed after, and this time I slept soundly all through the night, and when the morning summons came I awoke snappily and marched to the meditation hall, and when everyone started doing yoga I did my very best to keep up.
I wasn’t given much explicit instruction. Control. Devotion. Calm. Humility. There were called: Yama. Niyama. Santosha. Ishwara. They were considered to be more important than Asana (physical) yoga. Because I’d already discovered experientially that yes these did maximize me, I determined to have a little faith that the rest of the doctrine might be similarly valid.
I listened to others’ breathing, and learned that exhaling allows you to go deeper. Breathe out slowly, relax every tendon and fiber, go even deeper into the pose. I was amazed at my gains in flexibility over a very short time. Initially my balance was somewhat precarious and I wobbled a ton, but I wasn’t the only novice. Actually, I felt I quickly became ‘better’ at yoga than many long timers.
We weren’t ever allowed outside the compound except for aarti and on Sundays, when we had the day free after morning meditation. I’d wander around town in my white lungi (like a sarong) and kurta (loose long-sleeved shirt down to the knees), and bump into other Westerners staying in various ashrams. Everyone seemed very into the lifestyle: No jokes. We would sit in restaurants drinking ayurvedic herbs, eating plain rice and curds, and arguing the relative merits of Iyengar versus Ashtanga, or whatever. Many were instructors back home, come in search of a ‘real thing’ certificate, and all were quite positive that the style that he (actually, mostly she) was learning was the very best ever, and that we others were completely wasting our time. It was an ostensible love-fest; in reality, prejudiced bitches bickering. We all smiled and bowed knowingly and blissfully and superficially, engaged in our little pissing contests, then blessed each other and retired to our respective oases. Frustrated by the hypocrisy of my peers, I eventually quit going, and thereafter thought over things.
They say one of the benefits of this lifestyle is it kills your desires. True, I do not miss intoxicants here. I take a toddler-sized dump every third day and reflect into the toilet bowl: Abstemiousness seems to give me a cleaner, lighter feeling. Whereas comfort-feeding produces superfluous shit.
They say also that a yogi comes to realize the impermanence of things. I believe this is true too, because as I focus on bodily discomforts I know unequivocally: This too shall pass. Spending an hour and half in walking meditation makes me want to leap to any stimulating task; being mindful of every little impression in the stone path I do notice a lot about Now, however, as I endlessly shuffle-pace concentrating only on ‘lifting foot lifting foot, moving forward moving forward, stepping down stepping down; lifting foot lifting foot, moving forward moving forward, stepping down stepping down’ I have to admit it is boring.
The sensation of my mind being gathered up and focused into the middle of my forehead, like pulling on a balloon, like invisible fingers pinching my brain and stretching it out between my eyes, is pleasant and interesting, as is the knowledge that there is no future, there is no past, there’s only this foot in front of me stepping on these grains of sand. The moment is neither good nor bad it just is–yes I’m sweating profusely because it’s fucking broiling out here under the midday sun but that’s just my body’s natural reaction to acknowledge and not contemplate–birds chirp and I set their music aside and chant to myself: lifting my foot lifting my foot, moving it forward moving it forward setting it down setting it down. My mind zooms out and I realize there’s nothing else in the entire world, there’s only me doing this now.
But the forced intensity of purpose seems kind of silly. Strict rigor in the routine, an hour of this, an hour of that, meals at exactly a certain time eaten a particular way: chewing, chewing, swallowing, swallowing, careful not to judge the flavors, mindful only of the taking of sustenance, the movements of the tongue, the internal workings of digestion. (But I’m enjoying it! Ha! You can imprison my body but you can’t dominate my mind!)
This ashram demands humble obedience, at which I’ve never excelled. Reeks of blind faith. Sure, discipline defeats impetuosity, which one imagines must be a positive thing–except I think the latter may be my spirit. I’d like to substitute meditation and yoga for the negative things I’ve used as nepenthe, I expect they’re excellent arrows to have in one’s quiver–I’m just saying. An obedient mind is an empty mind is a pliant mind isn’t for me.
I could sit like they say the Buddha sat, refusing to budge until. I could sit forever and cease all my suffering, all my attachments. I could emulate the skeletal Siddhartha living on 1 grain of rice per day mastering his pain under the tree 2550 years ago, which is certainly something to think about when I’m whining about minor inconveniences–much respect to the Buddha–but eschewing all the Edens of Earth?
Enough is enough, I get sick of navel gazing. Man that gets fuckin uninteresting. Give me life.
I never really got into my bag much because I only ever needed the one set of clothes. But one day I realized things didn’t look exactly right–that’s weird? So I pulled all my stuff out and looked it over quizzically until I realized my money belt wasn’t–fuck.
I closed my eyes and just breathed for five minutes clenching my jaw, knowing full well what had happened, trying to calm my shaking rage. Then I opened my eyes and saw everything in a very negative and cynical light, so I closed them again and forced myself to remain immobile for another five minutes, at which point it started working so I assumed a rigid lotus position while a million anxieties and plans raced around my head, until I had seen them all. Then I opened up and breathed deeply and emptied my anger as I repacked my bag, shouldered it, used ‘walking meditation’ technique to creep silently on footpads, dispatch the dead boy, and leave that fucking place without a word of goodbye.