Upon deciding to attend the four-month course in Yogic Studies at Ganga Darshan, I embarked upon my journey from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, to Bihar, India. Having no prior experience with Satyananda Yoga, I was following my heart and a strong inner feeling that something very important was awaiting me. The initial adjustment period was quite extreme, ascetic conditions in the ashram are a part of living tapasya (austerity, the process of burning impurities). One had to get accustomed to living without air-conditioning in the blistering heat of summer when temperatures often reach 47 degrees and without hot water in the winter when temperatures can dip to 5 degrees.
However, through my time at Ganga Darshan (which extended from the planned four months to an unplanned ten months), I gained an unexpected vastness of experience and knowledge. In fact, I have come to the realization that yoga cannot be so much taught as experienced, and it seems that is exactly how Bihar School Yoga aims to develop the understanding of yoga in its students.
There were the obvious skills acquired from roti-making to practising yogasanas (postures) and shatkarmas (cleansing practices), a delicate balancing of academics and action. A copious amount of reading on subjects from yoga nidra to tantra was interspersed with learning to integrate this information during daily seva duties. Actually, this provided the perfect training ground for testing ones ability to maintain awareness, non-reactiveness and self-observation. These were ideal conditions for eradicating mixed samskaras (unconscious memories; past mental impressions), putting into practice the comprehension of the vrittis (mental modifications) and kleshas (five causes of affliction); and how one is able to recognize and overcome them.
At first I struggled with the process, questioning the relevance of this ashram routine in the tasks I was delegated, asking myself how cleaning toilets, chopping vegetables or sweeping paths was going to affect my life. How these sometimes difficult, sometimes mundane duties would equate to yogic study? For a time I was blind to the understanding. In the process of my frustration to ascribe a sense of meaning to it all, I was essentially fighting myself, struggling to suppress emotions and samskaras, ineffectively trying to push the river instead of flowing with it.
When realization dawned, I began to recognize that, in fact, these actions of karma yoga were truly allowing me to know myself, become aware of my emotions, behaviour patterns and mind. This is all a part of the natural progression of karma yoga. Noticing boredom, aversion, competitiveness, irritation and, instead of reacting and perpetuating the vicious cycle of mental drama, being able to react with vairagya (non-attachment), abhyasa (repeated practice) and viveka (discrimination). To retreat into a state of antar mouna (inner silence), a state of dhyana (meditation), to truly practise swadhyaya (self-study). Fundamentally, this shift in cognition and appropriate responsiveness is the way to free oneself from these patterns, these traps that prevent us from being the drashta (witness).
My time in the ashram was allowing me the opportunity to evaluate whether I was living artha (accomplishment), living kama (emotional fulfilment), and that when one is not, there is, ultimately, conflict. Regardless of the environment we find ourselves in, if we try to exist by living and fulfilling the purusharthas (four areas of human endeavour to be fulfilled: artha, kama, dharma and moksha) in a balanced sattwic state, we will be more at peace in that place.
This concept is complex and requires the practitioner to develop constant awareness, courage, determination and, ultimately, faith. Faith not only in oneself, but in the process. In the acknowledgement that with time, patience and discipline one will begin to gradually transform, disconnect from negative attitudes and associations, cleanse and purify the mind to a state where it begins to flow with the river instead of struggling upstream. In this transformational journey of the self, a great connection is made to ones spirit. It is an integration of sorts that unifies the individual with the inherent qualities of their own divinity. This intrinsic divinity is within each and every one of us. Like a latent charge waiting to be ignited, we hold the light.
Our course was a group of 80 students from 25 different nations, a vast composition of cultures, languages, customs, beliefs, lifestyles and personalities. However, regardless of separateness in identity, we began to synchronize ourselves in a unified form, becoming a group dance if you will. Whether it was a blending of notes and voices in Om chanting, kirtan and song, coming together in shared dynamic breath as we flowed through surya namaskara, for brief periods our bodies would become one homogeneous instrument. There was no need to alter our traditions, our vastly ranging abilities, degrees of flexibility, or levels of experience (from 1770 years old). We learnt to relinquish our egos along with prejudice and judgement. We became each others witnesses; we became our own witness.
This attitude we adopted during our time in the ashram created a mass energy, a group essence, a divine pranic charge. In moments it seemed we embodied a light, void of identity or orientation, the light that shines in all.
The experiences at the ashram brought about change at various levels. The personal experience was beginning to lead me to a greater realization of the state of the world. The analogy of microcosm and macrocosm comes to mind. What each of us experiences on a personal level within our own bodies and minds is also occurring within our communities, institutions, nations and planet. This group consciousness also struggles with lack of awareness, direction, integrity and faith. It is not just individuals who need yoga, but our future as a whole. As Gandhi once said, Be the change you wish to see in the world.
How can we change as a whole when the individuals that make up that whole are themselves fragmented, separated, unaware and suffering from disconnection? What are the ways in which we could bring the yogic unity into our world culture? Apart from the obvious need for individuals to seek change for their own well-being, we might introduce yogic practices in our everyday lives, not necessarily a 90-minute asana class but short periods of group consciousness, say, chanting the Gayatri mantra each morning: ten minutes of sound therapy.
I also came to a greater realization of the fact that the biggest obstacle in our way is our egocentric mentality. The Me, me, me, my house, my car, my country, my food, my religion. This limited mentality is where greed, hatred, intolerance, cruelty and pride stem from, creating conditions of poverty, crime and pollution. But what if we took this I and turned it into the eye that sees truth, sees light?
Hatha yoga can help purify and prepare our body, pranayama can facilitate the pranic flow through the nadis, kriya yoga can develop awareness of our chakras and energize them, helping to move us through these physical, psychological, physiological, mental, emotional and ultimately spiritual obstacles. For as many types of personalities that exist there is a path of yoga: hatha, raja, bhakti, karma, kundalini, jnana, mantra, laya, kriya, tantra, etc. Whichever path one chooses, the process comes only in the self-knowing, the self experimentation that when done purely will connect one with the divine quality. And once you have known this light, felt its touch and allowed the radiance to fill you, you will know it to be real.
For each this dawning may come in a unique form, the face of God, Jesus, Isis, Allah, Athena or Durga. It will be what the mirror of your heart is reflecting. For, as Jesus once said, There is no heavenly kingdom outside yourself. The key and love lie within your heart.
Yoga is the movement that can carry us to this place. It does not require us to share a belief in one god, it is not a religion, it is not just a philosophy; it is the truth of experience, a science. As Swami Niranjan says, It is the unconditional simplicity of the self that helps one to realize the spiritual nature or godly nature.
So, I urge you to give it a chance, to try with your head, heart and hands this dance of peace and bliss. Not because it will lead you to the doors of heaven, but because it will lead you to the door of yourself and then give you the keys. With these keys you can become the master of yourself and in doing so secure balance, health, well-being and harmony. The cells of your own organism will cease to fight against one another like a cancer, and begin instead to radiate, to resonate a blissful light that you can feel, that others can perceive and that will inspire them to follow. You will become the embodiment of this light, even if just a tiny candle flame that can dispel an eternity of darkness.