In August 1998 I remember looking up from my desk at work and all I could see was a dark corridor of filing cabinets, a window and a brick wall beyond. There had to be more to life than 'occasional episodes of happiness in a general drama of pain', to quote Thomas Hardy in one of his cheerier moments! I was twenty-seven and felt like I had reached some sort of crisis point.
I had been attending classes at the London centre for three years but I could at best be described as regularly irregular in my practice. However, yoga was beginning to work its magic and something inside me was yearning to know more about the ancient system. Looking at the notice board one Thursday night I saw the advert for the 4-month certificate course at Bihar Yoga Bharati. The decision to go was made at the last minute so I only had a few weeks to prepare. Running like a machine with no time for thought, I skidded to a halt at Ganga Darshan at the end of September.
On the first night, as part of the Durga pooja, there was a program of dance and a fire ceremony. The next few nights Swami Niranjanananda gave satsang under the moon and stars. I listened to his words, as much just hearing the sound as understanding the meaning. I remember walking back to my room and feeling a deep resonance of peace as if the purity of such a spirit was enacting a change in me almost in spite of myself.
Over the next few weeks students arrived for the certificate course until at final registration our class numbered fifty-four, a truly international group. Those first few weeks were quite daunting and many people were having doubts about whether or not they could hack it. Still, once classes began, as a group we began to fit in with the routine.
Looking back now I can understand how finely crafted the certificate course is. An organic mixture of practical asanas, pranayama, yoga nidra, meditation and lectures covering yoga philosophy, psychology and physiology. No previous knowledge or experience was assumed and besides I remember being told in the orientation talk that any previous ideas or preconceptions about yoga were best forgotten. It is only in a clean empty vessel that new ideas can be transmitted.
The lectures and practical classes were integrated in a strict routine with meal times. Food was certainly one of the greatest pleasures of ashram life, consisting of subji (potato and vegetable curry), dhal and chapatis, with a feast of fried food on a Sunday night masala dosa or vegetable pakora and the best yet, freshly baked bread rolls. If all this wasn't enough help was at hand in the form of Guptaji the market man. Every Friday night he would return laden with our orders from the previous day. Newspaper wrapped bananas, apples and oranges, sweets, nuts and coffee for desperate times when no amount of bhastrika breathing could substitute for a chemical rush of caffeine.
The only other commitment in the day was 'seva yoga', selfless service, an active contribution to the ashram in the form of cleaning, gardening and kitchen work. Many people found this quite an imposition. I too was not always joyful at the thought of cleaning toilets every day. However, work completed with awareness and an attitude of selflessness can serve as the best medicine for confusions and anxieties in the mind. Swami Sivananda said that the ego is the greatest barrier in realizing your true nature and seva is the most potent weapon to dispel the ego.
Living in such a close community without the usual distractions of television, alcohol, friends, and more than this, keeping mouna (silence) between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. every day, it is impossible to avoid yourself. Undoubtedly I came face to face with my ego and this is not always a pleasant experience. So at the end of the day, the opportunity to become absorbed in work was a blessing. We were never put under any pressure for the results of our labour so an hour spent in the beautiful garden was as much about enjoying the myriad and wonderful forms of nature while sweeping up the leaves Indian style with a coconut broom.
Kirtan at the end of the day was a great balance to the intellectual 'head trip' that comes from too much study and reading. It was an inspiration just to feel the sound and commune with the words a few times we even rocked to guitar and didgeridoo. The Jyotir Mandir where all this took place is a site where Swami Satyananda is said to have had many visions. It certainly felt like an extremely spiritual place.
Living in the ashram community is as much part of the 4-month course as what is taught in the lectures. I felt that what I heard in words, read in books and saw as a living example in Swami Niranjan converged to become an expression of yoga. The best way to describe the experience I had was like diving into a crystal clear lake full of toxins, confusion and insanity to emerge purified, wiser and stronger, and all this by the grace of guru.