It began in October 2002. One day in meditation the thought came that even though as teachers and disciples we may have the knowledge of yoga from an intellectual perspective, the bhakti or devotional aspect of yoga was underdeveloped. I was inspired to host a yajna in a similar way to the events held in India by my guru, Swami Satyananda, and chose Sivaratri on March 1st 2003 as the auspicious date. During that event my group and I established a ritual worship to the Divine Mother by building a mandala of flowers around the Sri Yantra in front of a statue of Mother Mary. A distinguished Hindu priest chanted the 1008 names of the Divine Mother and installed a shiva lingam. A Christian ceremony was included and I washed the feet of several Catholic nuns and guests. During this yajna I set a sankalpa (resolve) to let go of my past karma and re-dedicate myself to the path of dharma and service to my guru. For those who attended the whole day there was definitely a very special energy or shakti transmitted from my guru, and everyone who attended must have felt it.
After this event many students expressed a desire to visit Sri Swamiji and I wrote to him with the following request: "I have done all that I can, but I am unable to infuse the spiritual power of bhakti and worship. Please can we come and live with you for a short period so that the students here can taste the life of yoga that the Satyam Yoga School is trying to establish here in South Africa."
His reply offered two dates and I chose the most difficult and at the same time the most auspicious. Guru Poornima is the full moon of July and the traditional time to worship the guru. It is also the peak of the wet season, which is very hot and uncomfortable. Without compromise, I explained to the students that this was a pilgrimage and not a holiday. With great enthusiasm we all set off to visit India on the 5th of July.
The main group arrived in Calcutta at night on the 6th to meet with me after long delays in Johannesburg and Mumbai. We slept in a comfortable hotel opposite the Mother Teresa Convent and in the morning went to the famous Kalighat temple. For most of the group this was their first experience of a temple in India and an overwhelming experience for all of us.
After travelling by taxis and train, we arrived at Swami Satyananda's ashram in Rikhia in the early evening. We were immediately allocated accommodation and soon we were sitting in the stillness of rural India. The monsoon clouds cleared for the first time in three days to reveal the waxing moon and stars. I felt as if intoxicated with a pulsating vibrational energy that permeated my whole body and knew Sri Swamiji was giving us our first taste of his spiritual power. For the rest of the group it was a new experience. Words cannot describe the incredible feeling that came over us. Finally, about two hours later, it subsided and we went to sleep.
We took breakfast at 6.00 am and by 6.45 we were given karma yoga, which at Sri Swamiji's ashram is physical work. The Shaktis (women) started sorting leaf plates and clay cups used to feed the visitors. The Shiva Baba's (men) were taken to Sri Swamiji's residential garden to lift the extremely heavy steel window frames that took four men to carry. While we worked Swami Niranjanananda observed us from a short distance. This was our first encounter with him. Although we did not communicate, he observed our spiritual energy and we began to see the difference between his energy and our own. By 9.00 am we were reunited with the Shaktis and together we built a brick path to act as a walkway for Sri Swamiji into the main hall. This task involved the physical labour of carrying bricks and digging soil to act as a filling agent.
We all worked very hard that day to complete a two day job in half the time. I was very proud of the commitment and determination displayed by the South African students and their courage immediately earned them the respect of all the swamis and residents in Rikhia. By night we were exhilarated by the incredible energy created in our karma yoga and we enthusiastically participated in the evening program of kirtan.
The following morning we all woke up at 3.30 am and practised our sadhana before breakfast. The energy of Swami Satyananda is extremely powerful. Everyone found that even though we only slept for five hours each night and worked physically all day, we were never tired. At 7.00 am we were invited into Swami Satyananda's personal residence for a two hour private darshan.
He chatted to us about the tantric significance of the yajna we had hosted and explained the important role of fire, mantra and worship within the structure of a yajna. He then addressed members of the group and finally he invited us to sit with him for photographs. This is a rare event. We left this private meeting in a dream and spent the rest of the day wandering in contemplation.
It is difficult to describe the feelings, but a sincere yoga practitioner will understand that Sri Swamiji created within us a taste of the most powerful experience, samadhi. This is a blissful state of deep peace and inner calm. You have to experience it to know what we felt.
The following days were dedicated to the actual program of Guru Poornima. Each day was a little more intense than the previous, with more and more group mantra chanting and initiations by Swami Niranjanananda. He initiated into mantra by blessing a tulsi mala and giving a white shawl to wear during practice. He also spoke about how to use the mantra and a booklet was given out to each student who was initiated, explaining every detail about what initiation is and how it works.
My personal experience was that Sri Swamiji would build the vibrational energy up each day to a crescendo which would slowly subside in the early afternoon, only to build up again in the late afternoon until 10.00 pm in the evening. This vibrational energy is the prana shakti, the spiritual power of Swami Satyananda, and he is able to infuse everyone with it at will. The end result is that when we left, it felt as if each and every particle of our body and mind had been rearranged and renewed.
We had a special meeting with Swami Niranjanananda on the third day and he spoke individually to each member of the group as we exchanged gifts. Photos were taken and we all had our own unique experiences during that time. On the sixth day the Guru Poornima celebrations had reached a peak with a havan. During the fire ceremony the shakti was so intense that some of us could not even speak. We just laughed with joy, intoxicated by the overwhelming bliss and spiritual power that was generated there. The final day of Guru Poornima was a formal affair that lasted five hours, with powerful kirtan and mantra chanting. Everyone performed their own worship at the altar of flowers and donations.
Throughout the entire visit Swami Niranjanananda was a generous host, but seemed to hold back any display of his spiritual power. John asked me earlier why Swami Niranjanananda had not made direct eye contact with him and I said he was saving it for later. The day after Guru Poornima, five members of our group were invited to a private meeting with Swami Niranjanananda at about 4.00 pm in the afternoon. Once again the shakti was very strong, and while we were waiting in the garden for Swamiji to arrive, there was a moment when John and I looked at each other and realized that we were once again unable to speak. John closed his eyes and went deep inside for a quite a while and said that while he was meditating everything became calm and suddenly he felt a presence in front of him. When he opened his eyes, Swami Niranjanananda was in direct eye contact with him. One student in particular left us speechless. Ronnie, who is normally very quiet and reserved, spoke with such eloquence to Swami Niranjanananda and then asked for his malas to be blessed. We were all humbled by his pure devotion and acknowledgement of Swamiji. Swamiji spoke to each person there and left a very deep impression on all of us.
Yoga has been accepted in the west, but at the same time we have imposed our own culture. Especially in the USA, yoga is competitive and body orientated. The true science of yoga is a lifestyle that fulfils the need of every aspect in our individual personality. We may be able to stretch and perform advanced asanas. We may be able to talk about some aspects of yoga philosophy, but it is all based on our intellect. This wisdom of yoga culminates in bhakti and the deep inner wisdom of jnana yoga. This highest achievement in yoga can only be realized with intensity of sadhana and surrender of our individual ego personality. This is a difficult and frightening concept because we all like to have control over our lives. Surrender of the ego is a lesson in humility. The external guru is simply a catalyst to awaken the dormant kundalini, but it can only happen when we are able to let go of our 'I, me and mine' attitude and embrace the guidance of the guru. We can never achieve the power of shaktipat like we experienced in Rikhia while we live in the world of personal desire and stress. This kind of shakti power can only exist when the personal desires of ego have gone and the only thought in our minds is of devotion and reverence for a power greater than ourselves.
When you meet a guru there are no doubts. He will touch you in such a way that even you yourself have been unable to reach. My advice is that such a guru is living today in India and, if you have it in you to experience a true guru, then visit Rikhia as soon as you can. Swami Satyananda is 80 years old and certainly one of the very few accessible satgurus alive today.
—Reprinted from Complete Yoga (Official Journal of the Yoga Teacher's Fellowship of Southern Africa), Summer 2004, Vol. 1.