Scenes from the Kumbha Mela in Hardwar on the solar eclipse – the worlds largest mustering of people and holy men…
After 5 weeks of intense immersion in all things mind, body and spirit – we finally (and quite reluctantly) managed to eject ourselves from Rishkesh. It’s amazing the difference a month makes! Since Christmas we have fallen all the way through the mystical Indian “Looking Glass” with experiences in Yoga, meditation, ayurvedic medicine, zen macrobiotics, reiki, astrologers, enlightened guru’s and much more; all set against the backdrop of the worlds largest religious festival & spiritual mustering (the Kumbha Mela) and the beautiful, peaceful setting that is the Ganges River and Rishkesh. An indoctrination that was equally balanced through sharing the experience with an amazing, talented and eclectic bunch of people (Indian, Korean, Icelandic, Greek, Canadian, Chinese, German, Bolivian and American amongst many others) that should ensure the experience lasts just as long in the memory, as the new friendships forged.
Stumbled over the edge there have we, I here you say? And perhaps so! Certainly I feel a bit like I have succumbed to my childhood fears and programming and sought out the Indian equivalent of a Christian boot camp! A seemingly well worn path in India and scarily stereotypical, but I can see why the Beatles and millions of others got stuck here for so long. Its not that most of this information is wildly new conceptually or unexpected, but there is a simple liberation in being able to completely open the mind to the possibilities, throw oneself into it and in the process wipe away the rusty cobwebs of the soul, gained through years of neglect. India uniquely probably cultivates this effect – so rich in its traditions, history, veneration and cultural acceptance of the rightness of the grand spiritual pursuit, that explorations of this kind can happen here much more unchecked than other places.
It will certainly take some time for me to really sit down and process all that we experienced and learnt here. It is definitely more akin to a spiritual awakening and the new knowledge and awareness necessitates much more meditation, practice and perspective over the months ahead. But as we rush southward to warmer climes and away from this spiritual Disneyland to the waiting tourist traps of Rajasthan and the beaches (and retoxins) of Goa, I thought I should document some of my more lingering reverberations and thoughts while they remain fresh, pure and unjaded by the return to reality ahead.
- Having not studied anything in almost 15 years, this whole course was really a mental exercise in itself with often several lectures broaching fascinating new subjects on a daily basis. Each subject, new exercise or technique had supportive notes and opened seemingly infinite gateways for further reading, practice and research.
- What I did appreciate most about the Yogic method though – is that it largely see’s itself not as a religion but really as a scientific method for self realization. The Yogic systems have been developed over thousands of years and are seen as proven paths towards systemic improvement of the human spiritual condition and evolving higher states of consciousness.
- The basis of the course we studied was essentially introducing this in detail and the requirements of the path of the Yogi. Accordingly there were many references to the great Indian texts and the works / deeds and experience of the great Yogi masters.
- Important in this, was a series of lectures on Yamas & Niyamas – the ethical codebook of the Yogi’s if you will, exploring the do’s and don’ts of the Yogic system. These include topics such as truth, theft, non-violence, celibacy (or the tantric alternative ejaculation control!) and self study, taking tapas (or vows) which were all worthy contemplations in themselves.
- Central in all this as well though was receiving an understanding and scientific explanation of the various stages of consciousness and the 5 bodies (ie physical, pranic, astral, causal etc) as outlined by the Yogi masters. These are critical to the Yogic system and really where it starts to leave modern science behind. Our general conception of an energetic (pranic), aural (astral) body is minimal and the science while able to prove they exist, is limited beyond that. Whereas the great Yogi’s describe these planes in great detail and offer that progressing our awareness and control of these, beyond just the physical body is central to all transcendence .
- We also learnt about the stages of mind – conscious, sub-conscious and higher consciousness and some beginner techniques for embarking on the difficult task of exploring / training / stilling these – starting with mental concentration exercises and some preliminary meditation techniques.
- Among many other subjects, there were some particularly interesting lectures and initial practical explorations into the field of “Yoga Nidra” – a yoga focused on the development of lucid dreaming, the ability to relax the body completely during sleep, travel in the astral plane and develop / program the subconscious mind whilst sleeping!
- At an internal level – we studied Yogic purification, eating and alternative medicine techniques. These included a series of lectures on things like diets & vegetarianism, Zen Macrobiotics and included the learning of a series of traditional yogic cleansing techniques (Kriyas) that include tongue scraping, gum salt rubs, nasal / eye flushes, vomiting and bowel cleanses – some of which I have been doing everyday & can atest that they work wonders. (But I will leave it to you to guess which
- Of course true to its name we also studied Yoga and over the course learnt 20 asana’s in detail, (plus 6 warming exercises and sun salutations). Each of which had their own individual physiological (and healing) benefits. I can now rather surprisingly do a headstand for 5 minutes (and an inverted table) and at the end of the course we were working up to holding some poses for 5-10 minutes across a 2-3 hour session. The result being I am feeling a lot more flexible, healthy (and impressed with myself) though back bends are a struggle and I still rather frustratingly cannot touch my toes.
- There were also some interesting lectures that introduced other more exotic and traditional Yogic healing techniques – the most interesting and surprisingly compelling of which was Urine Therapy – but I will give you a reprieve on the details there. (Suffice to say that it does make sense and that these Yogi’s really do go at things hard!)
- We also learn’t about (and visited) several Ayurvedic doctors – Ayurvedic medicine is a 5,000 year old medical science that works hand in hand with Yoga as a system and is based on an analysis of your body type into its constituent dosha’s (there are 3). By simply feeling my pulse a doctor I visited was able to tell me that I suffered from prolonged back pain and a range of other previous conditions that were unnervingly accurate. He then told me what foods I should eat to keep balanced and prescribed some herbal supplements to improve vitality / energy (which has actually worked quite well). This same doctor has had significant success in curing Alzheimer’s disease and ageing with these methods.
- I should also add here that living in a completely alcohol free and vegetarian town (and mostly organic restaurants at that) on top of all the exercise, has also meant that I am back to a weight last seen as a teenager. Though I sincerely doubt that can last!
- A lot of the Yoga we learnt was specifically designed to work on different Chakra points (7 energy points on the body) and in doing so open up / increase our awareness and specific capabilities through the direct development of these. Examples of this might very briefly include cultivating such things as vitality (Root Chakra – Mulladara), sensuality (Sex Chakra – Svadisthana), willpower (Belly – Manipura), love (Heart – Anahata), mastery of time / space (Throat – Vishuda), mental control (3rd Eye – Ajna) or higher states of consciousness (Crown – Shahsrara). As we got more into the yoga postures, you could really start to feel these chakra’s individually become more activated and actually affect your overall state of being, as the energy starts to run and flow more effectively. Additionally through specific sublimation exercises we learn’t to convert energy between the chakra’s, focused largely on energy movement from the lower more popular chakra’s energy centres to the higher and more transcendent ones.
- Assisting these, we also did a serious of music meditations designed to support the yoga with music specifically targeted at stimulating / resonating with a chakra to increase the overall effects.
- We also learnt some meditation techniques – based around chanting and the heart that focus on trying to calm the “wandering monkey mind” and open up for explorations of self. This is obviously really the focus of the great yogi masters and the “yoga of the mind control” was really only a basic introduction at the course level. The greater emphasis being to open things up to start with through the physical yoga systems.
- Outside class, Megumi did also embark on some explorations in Reiki, a Japanese system known more for its healing powers that seems similar to Yoga. With a lot of commonality with what we have learn’t it is certainly something she would like to learn more about.
- But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the Rishkesh metaphysical experience was the Astrologer. A strange, early 40′s innocuous looking Indian man whose family had been doing astrology for 20 generations, he possessed the amazing and particularly freaky ability to perceive very personal, secret truths about everyone’s past and key glints into aspects of the future. Everyone who visited him came back equally astounded at his insights and psychic levels of perception – revealing unnervingly accurate truths without exception. I wont go into personal details, I will leave it simply at that – but he left a lot to ponder!
- Daily around Rishkesh as well – there were also a series of Gurus – all wise sages conducting different hearing sessions or lectures with disciples and others at their ashrams on any given day – many featuring dancing and devotional singing which all added to the spiritual vibe and magic of the place.
- Many Guru’s were actually in town as part of the greater Kumbha Mela happening in nearby Haridwar - a gathering (up to 50 million people) of all the great Yogi’s, saddhu’s and hindu’s held every 4 years as they gather to bathe (purify their souls) on the Ganges. Haridwar had prepared by building a tent city 50km by 10 km around the town and while it was only early in the 3 month festival and a bit cold when we attended – the energy was still electric and quite magical; emphasized by the solar eclipse taking place that day – a special experience that warrants its own blog when I find the time.
- There were other workshops / lectures that also proliferated – some that we attended included heart meditations, devotional chanting / singing and bio-wave dance experimentations. The list goes on…
As you can no doubt imagine, my head is now spinning with all this information, ideas, possibilities and experiences and my sincere apologies if I do come across here like a naïve schoolboy. Full to the brim – I have loved every bit of it, though I am very much looking forward to the break of normal travel again. Even as we pried ourselves away, Rishkesh was conspiring to keep us there longer. The 2nd last day we trialled the second month yoga class that was even more engaging than the first month and our last experience on the way to the train station, was sitting down to hear Shantimayi – an American female guru give a beautiful 2 hour open session on love & quantum connectivity, mixed with some lovely chanting. It was cultish but beautiful, pure & inspirational in its simplicity.
As for next steps I really don’t know, I am not a Yogi yet, as tempting as the call has been. But I am certainly inspired and want more. Much of it resonates very well with me and seems a natural extension and development to my own independent naval gazing and latent attraction to buddhism and so I emerge keen to continue my explorations deeper down some of these new paths. There is plenty of time and thinking to do yet though and many more experiences to be added to the mix – including a 10 day silent meditation retreat (Vipassana) in Hyderabad at the start of March…….. It would appear that the Plots are definitely Melting and starting to thicken…!!.
Some Suggested Reading:
A Search in Secret India, by Paul Brunton
Autobiography of a Yogi, by Yogananda
Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha, by Swami Satyananda
Yoga Nidra, by Swami Satyananda
Meditations from the Tantras, by Swami Satyananda
After almost a month exploring the dusty, loud and chaotic treasure chest of Northern India, we arrived in Rishkesh and were immediately seduced by the clean, relaxed magnetic energy of the place. We had arrived expecting to maybe stay a week, perhaps two if we really connected. But here we are, 10 days later and 1 week into a 1 month esoteric yoga course; ensconced in an ashram apartment overlooking the Ganges and enjoying more than 6 hours a day of yogic activities focused on balancing the mind, body and soul. Surprised – wasn’t quite on my radar either.
In setting out on this travel adventure, our goals had always been about using this time to focus on rebalancing & realigning ourselves; to clean out some of our baggage and forge new experience’s and perspectives on life. From our auspicious early experiments with the detox, this focus has resonated particularly well and here, now, with the fresh start that a new decade and the onset of the “year of the tiger” augers (we are both tigers!), yoga & meditation seems especially relevant and Rishkesh – the right thing in the right time and place.
Made famous care of an extended stay by the Beatles in the 1960’s – Rishkesh has been a major destination for Westerners seeking the spiritual delights of the Indian sub- continent ever since. The Rishkesh of the pilgrims and travellers though, is set back from the main town, among scenic hills that conceal several settlements either side of the beautiful, smoky aqua waters of the Ganges. Largely car free, it is packed with hundreds of Ashrams, guru’s, sadhu’s (ascetics), yoga / meditation centres, shops and vegetarian restaurants, all linked across the holy river by a pair of long walking bridges.
The yoga course we have signed up for is called Trika Yoga & Meditation under the Agama school. Focused on the esoteric traditions of Indian & Tibetan tantric yoga, it purports to represent many of the secret spiritual, mental and physical techniques as they have been practised for more than 5,000 years. The curriculum is a modern construct though that draws from a range of Yoga practice areas – Hatha Yoga (Physical), Kriya Yoga (Purification), Meditations (including music, yantra’s) and others, along with ideas integrated from other eastern (Tibetan, Zen, Daoist etc), Christian or alternative medicine practices. This is all neatly presented as a fusion of theory, practice, science and philosophy that engages on many levels and seems especially suited to the curious requirements of the enquiring Western mind. In truth it is a bit “new age in a box”, perhaps trying to integrate too much in places and a tad over zealous in its approach to others, but overall it is well structured and captivating; a sound and comprehensive introduction to the path of becoming a Yogi.
Along with a dozen or so other fantastic and engaging classmates from all over the globe, our daily routine has become fairly regulated and full. In the morning, following an early meditation session that I in truth rarely make (Megumi is a star); we learn a new “Asana” (A yoga position) and receive a small lecture on its relative physical, healing and Chakra related effects (ie key body energetic flows). From there we jump into an hour and a half of practice focused as much on holding and visualizing the energy flows of each position as on physical movement or flexibility(rather gratefully). Then in the afternoon, we do a solid 2 hour practice of the various asana’s, which is often supplemented by other practices (ie music meditation or mental concentration) and following a short break, finish with a 2–3 hour evening lecture and discussion on a specific aspect of an esoteric Yoga practice (ie Meditation, Ethics, Mental concentration, Healing etc).
It does all feel a long way from the yoga classes that I had managed to avoid so effectively to date (My classic stereotype of popular yoga as mostly just physical exercise at any rate). In fact, ‘downward facing dog’ has not come up once in any class to date and I hesitate to think how I could rationalize its energetic and healing benefits if it ever actually did. The experience thus far has been transformative and thoroughly enjoyable, not least because it provides an intriguing insight into all those mystical Indian traditions that endlessly fascinate; but also because it forces one to allocate time and systemic study for genuine self analysis and does so against a potential blueprint for self improvement and realization. In truth, I am not sure what will actually really stick and become personal dogma at the courses end, but I can definitely see many seeds for further practice and investigation on several fronts and I look forward to updating these in more detail down the track. For the moment though, mired in the physical – I still have not managed to touch my toes. But I am closer than I have been in years & happily I now realize that this is not really the point anyway…