From Chapter 4: Despair, Levitation, and Television Stardom in Six Weeks or Less
April – June: India
My grandmother: Susunka, you cannot go to India. There are too many people there. You won’t fit.
Our next stop was Tamil Nadu to visit the ashram. As our tuk-tuk rumbled past roadside snack stands and dusty fields, I wondered if this ashram business was a good idea. What if we were being lured into some sort of cult? What if they brainwashed us into having orgies and signing away all our money? Actually, the orgy bit didn’t sound too bad, but I wasn’t about to have my trip cut short because a bunch of om-chanting hucksters duped me out of my savings. One thing was certain: if I so much as smelled Kool-Aid, I’d be out of there so fast their auras would spin.
“It’s not a cult, it’s a spiritual retreat,” corrected Sara.
“The only difference between the two is a good public relations rep,” I quipped darkly.
“If you think it’s a cult, then why are we going?”
“I didn’t say it is a cult, I said it might be a cult. Or it might be just a place where people discover whatever sage wisdom it is that elevates them beyond the petty anxiousness of daily life.”
“What’s the difference between that and a spiritual retreat?”
Before I could think of an answer, the tuk-tuk suddenly swerved over to the side of the road and ground bumpily to a halt.
“Are we here?” asked Sara.
The driver responded with the head-wobbling gesture I had come to assume meant yes, no, maybe, or I’ve got water in my ears.
I leaned forward and peered out the front window with apprehension. We were definitely . . . somewhere. The scraggly fields and snack stands were gone. Our lonesome road was now flanked on both sides by a wooden fence, unbroken save for a lopsided gate. Beyond it, I could see a few low-rise, thatched-roofed buildings and a scattered grove of stumpy trees—but no people. It bore the creepy feeling of an abandoned summer camp.
“Ashram?” I asked. The driver wobbled his head again.
“This must be it,” said Sara, climbing out of the tuk-tuk and swinging her backpack onto her shoulders.
“Either that or this is the opening scene of a horror movie.”
She ignored me and unlatched the gate. It swung open with a rusty creeeak. As we stepped inside, a sudden breeze sent sinister whispers through the dried leaves of the trees. I turned back toward the road but the tuk-tuk driver was already gone, leaving us alone with our thoughts and the snickering leaves . . . and whatever hockey-masked maniacs lurked in the bushes.
“Hello?” called Sara. A dirt path wove between the long dried grass—bleached and matted like the hair of a dead co-ed—and she stepped onto it gingerly. “Is anybody here?”
“I think I’ve seen this one,” I said nervously. “You survive because you’re the heroic blonde and I wind up topless and hacked to pieces in the last ten minutes.”
She rolled her eyes. “Look, I’m sure this place is fine. It’s just low season right now because it’s so hot. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
Just what the heroic blonde would say, I thought—although I noticed her voice trembled.
The breeze returned, sweeping sandy dirt into the air and sending a rattling cackle through the leaves. Branches cracked hollowly, as if someone were rocking on an invisible swing. The sun was bleeding into the horizon, leaving behind shadowy pools that seemed to pulse at the caprice of the wind. My skin prickled with the sensation of eyes. I imagined a legion of brainwashed cult victims clinging to the trees, waiting for us to stumble into their clutches. And then, just when we were too far from the road for anyone to hear our screams they would sneak up behind us and—
“Ah!” I leaped two feet into the air.
“Ai!” The young Indian guy jumped back, and the two of us stared at each other with wild eyes and clenched bladders.
“What the hell!” he sputtered in a thick, popping accent.
“Don’t mind her, she’s a little high-strung,” Sara glared at me. “Namaste. I’m Sara and this is Sue. We preregistered on your website a few months ago?”
“This way,” he replied, shooting me a cautious look before turning his back and leading us into the complex.
The ashram was austere and clean. We dropped our bags in the female dormitory and then hurried upstairs to where the evening activities were already getting started. The room on the second floor (where yoga, meditation, and lectures took place) was spacious with a vaulted, thatched-roof ceiling. The outer walls were waist high, allowing the breeze to drift through. There was a gold-dappled shrine depicting traditional images of blue-skinned Hindu gods alongside portraits of the ashram founders. Tiny candles danced at their feet while saccharine plumes of incense rose up like charmed snakes.
Sara had been right about this being the low season. There was only a handful of other travelers there, and none of them fit the ’shram-jammer image I’d had in mind. There was nary a tie-dyed T-shirt or a Birkenstock sandal in sight, nor did anybody introduce themselves as Prism. In fact, with my dreadlocks, I was the only person who was visibly groovy. Everyone else looked pretty much . . . normal.
“Namaste. For those of you who have just joined us, welcome.” A short Indian man with gray hair and a round belly sat in the lotus position. “I will be your teacher; you may call me Amit-ji. Now, it is time to begin our nightly chanting and meditation. Please use the pages to follow along.”
I gave my cheat sheet a cynical glance. Although it was written out in Roman characters, the chants were actually in Sanskrit. Some of the words were nineteen letters long and seemed as intelligible as a spoonful of Alpha-Getti. But before I had a chance to ask how to pronounce anything, bells, shakers, and other small percussion instruments were handed out, Amit-ji gave a curt nod, and we broke out into a noisy rendition of . . . actually, I have no idea.
“Om namo bhaga—va? te? -eieieooo!” I sang, my voice warbling out of key as I struggled not to clap my fingers between my rhythm sticks. “Om namo bhagavate eieioooo!”
“It’s not eieio,” hissed Sara under her breath. “Vishnu did not live on Old Macdonald’s farm.”
I stifled a giggle. “Shh! You’re throwing me off!”
“You’re saying it wrong!”
“Fine, how would you say it?”
“Om namo bhagavate aya aya ayyyyaaaa!” she sang, and while her pitch was better I noticed that she was dinging her bells at all the wrong times.
“That’s not it,” I whispered. “You’re just saying aya aya aya. Look at all these other letters in there! There’s a v, an s, a d, I think I saw a 5—”
“Those letters are silent.”
“What, all of them?”
“Girls!” Amit-ji’s voice sliced sharply through the chanting. “Please!”
Blushing, we ducked behind our cheat sheets.
“Look, you’re doing it wrong and you’re getting us in trouble,” muttered Sara. “This is high school all over again.”
“I’m getting us in trouble?” Incredulous, I forgot to lower my voice. “It’s your bell-ringing that’s throwing off the class.”
“What’s wrong with my bell-ringing?”
“You sound like a wind chime in a hurricane!”
“Girls! Focus!” Amit-ji was not impressed.
Sara and I glared at each other before returning to butchering the chants in our respective fashions. Outside, the clouds were gathering. A distant rumble of thunder echoed over the plains like an empty wine bottle rolling across a hardwood floor.
“We will now move on to thirty minutes of meditation,” said Amit-ji when the chanting had ceased. “If you have a personal mantra, concentrate on that. If not, you may use the universal mantra, om. For those of you who are new, we will talk about meditation during our lesson tomorrow. In the meantime, sit in a comfortable, cross-legged position. Resting your wrists on your knees, form a circle with your thumb and forefinger while relaxing your other fingers outward.”
He held up his hand and demonstrated. “This is called the gyan mudra and represents the unity of one with the Divine. Good. Draw your focus to the space between your eyebrows, which is where your Third Eye—that which looks into the spiritual realm—resides. Now, take a long, slow breath, and allow your thoughts to pass you by until your mind is clear and peaceful.”
I chose not to dwell at that moment on concepts such as the Divine and my Third Eye, and inhaled deeply. The fresh scent of evening reminded me of how happy I was to be out in the countryside. Maybe this ashram thing was a good idea after all. The more I reflected on it, the more I wondered if perhaps India and I had gotten off on the wrong foot. Or if perhaps I just wasn’t prepared for the pandemonium that ensues when over a billion people share a home. After all, what else could I have expected from a place where there are thirty languages that each have over a million native speakers, where religious zeal runs as diverse as it does deep, and where the disparity between the haves and the have-nots is so astronomical? No wonder India was doing my head in. Maybe that is why yoga and meditation are intrinsic here—they are necessary tools with which to maintain a sense of calm within the bedlam. If that is the case, then the ashram was not only a good idea, but an essential stop if I was going to appreciate the country like an open-minded, culturally attuned backpacker. Besides, what better place to have an epiphany about what to do with my life than in a space devoted to mystic introspection?
My left butt cheek was starting to go numb. Sneakily, I cracked open one eye to see what everybody else was doing. They all seemed to be deep in meditation, legs crossed and hands mudra’d. Some people appeared perfectly still while others had their mantras dancing silently on their lips.
Oh yeah, the mantra. I needed one of those.
I immediately rejected the option of om. Even though I knew it was considered to be a sacred sound by hundreds of millions of people, I just couldn’t help associating it with cheesy television stereotypes. I also nixed peace and relax because the former was too impersonal and the latter . . . well, there was just something about repeatedly ordering myself to relax that made me want to scream. So what else was there? I contemplated I think, therefore I am (too pretentious) and we are all star stuff (probably copyrighted), and was trying to remember some of the more provocative fortune cookies I’d eaten (wrong country) when suddenly—and as clearly as if it had been whispered into my Third Ear—I heard the following:
Ebb and flow.
Hmm. That could work. Interpreted tangibly, it could refer to the tides, the seasons, the economy, our breath. Philosophically, it suggested that the only reliable constant in life was the element of change. And there was something soothing about it, something that made me feel in tune with the rhythm of the universe and the cyclical balance necessary for infinite motion.
Damn—an hour in an ashram and already I was thinking like a hippie.
I shifted again (now my leg was numb all the way down to my toes and my lower back was beginning to cramp) and took another breath. All right, I was officially pro-ashram, I had my mantra ready to go—time to get down to business. Commencing mental clarity and emotional bliss in T minus three . . . two . . .
Ebb and flow. Ebb and flow. Ebb—
“. . . And open your eyes,” Amit-ji’s voice wafted through the air like curling incense smoke. “Welcome back.”
Crap. So much for today’s meditation. Oh well, I still had thirteen days to go. I’d definitely get the hang of it by then. After all, wasn’t meditation just not thinking? Teachers and parents had been accusing me of that ever since I ate that tube of Lip Smacker when I was a kid—I was probably way ahead of the curve. Poor Sara, actually using her brain like an idiot all these years. And what had it gotten her? Well, a lucrative career and a stable future. But we’d just see who reached enlightenment first.
And her bell-ringing really did suck.
Our daily schedule for the next two weeks included satsang, which is chanting and meditation, and asana, which is the physical exercise that most Westerners think of when they hear the word “yoga.” In addition to regular chai breaks, we ate ayurvedic food with our hands while sitting crossed-legged on the floor in what was meant to be total silence.
“Do you think the reason why we don’t have any spoons is because all the gurus bent them with their minds?” I whispered to Sara over lunch.
“Shh!” scolded Amit-ji.
Our first asana class turned out to be harder than I’d expected. As Toronto boasts about as many yoga studios as it does fire hydrants, I had inevitably attended a multitude of classes over the years. And while I was no Gumby, my dogs had been acceptably downward facing, and my cobras neither hissed nor spat. However, something perturbing had occurred in the months since I’d left home. Sara insisted that my muscles were just tight from the trek, but I was convinced that my legs had gotten longer while my arms—mysteriously and without permission—had shrunk. Whatever the case, my toes were now miles away from my fingertips, and any stretching filled me with the fear of a sudden and unforgiving snap.
“What are you doing? Bend!” commanded Amit-ji as we sat on the floor with our legs straight out in front of us, reaching for our feet.
“I am bending!” I squeaked.
“Are you? Never have I seen such a young person so inflexible.” He clicked his tongue. “Look at Will, he is twice your age and yet he folds so nicely.”
The fifty-plus-year-old lifted his head from his knees and beamed at us from across the room.
“Come on, Sue, it isn’t hard,” said Sara. She reached her arms above her head and then gently leaned forward until her stomach was only a butterfly’s kiss from the top of her thighs. “You just need to relax.”
Pfft. There was an invisible sadist holding a blowtorch to the backs of my knees and she was telling me to relax? I strained harder, but my hamstrings would not relent.
“Okay class, time for headstands. With your forearms on the floor and your hands clasped in a fist behind your head, use your abdominal muscles to raise your legs—Susan, what sort of asana are you doing? This is supposed to be a still pose!”
“I know!” I cried as my legs flapped like laundry in the wind. “I’m just trying to get my—waa!”
But at least this time I wasn’t the only person who couldn’t manage the position. Sara’s attempt devolved into a series of unintentional somersaults, and even Will couldn’t get it up. Er—wait, that didn’t come out right.
But despite the challenges of asana, what really worried me was our first lecture. I had no idea what to expect. Was this Amit-ji’s license to get preachy and attempt to win some converts? Or was this the moment he busted out the Quaaludes and assigned us our new identities?
Sara pulled a notebook I’d never seen before out of her backpack.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“Duh, for taking notes!” she replied. “This is supposed to be a learning experience, you know. Which do you think is more Zen: the blue pen or the purple pen?”
I rolled my eyes. Freakin’ keener.
As it turned out, my reservations were unwarranted. Amit-ji’s first topic was simply a translation and discussion of the term “yoga.” He explained how, while the West had come to associate the word strictly with the physical practice (asana), its literal meaning was “union.” This referred to the process of becoming enlightened by uniting with the Divine.
My eyebrows sprouted skyward like spring crocuses.
“For those of you who don’t like the word ‘Divine,’ think of it as simply uniting with the universe,” said Amit-ji, and my brows retreated sheepishly back into their chrysalides. “Remember, we—everything that you see, everything that exists—are all fundamentally made of the same material. Whether you choose to interpret that material as a spiritual energy or in terms of protons and electrons, it amounts to the same idea.
“Right now, you see the world in terms of duality,” he continued. “There is you, and there is everything else. That part of you that chooses to see yourself as separate is fueled by your ego. The key to enlightenment is in understanding that if you break it down far enough, you are of the same energy as everything else. Therefore, you are actually part of everything else. There is no separation—you are one with the universe, one with God. And that is the union that yoga is referring to.”
I blinked. This was actually making sense. And I was even more impressed with the practical approach he took to meditation:
“A person’s mind is like a monkey: always chattering and fidgeting,” he said. “We have many unnecessary thoughts running through our heads. Sometimes they are negative, but most of the time they are just pointless and distracting. Meditation teaches us to be aware of these thoughts and overcome them. Its purpose is to calm down that monkey so we can think clearer and become more focused. If you can master staying in the present while sitting quietly, then it will be easier for you to remain calm and in control of yourself during stressful or overwhelming situations.”
Well, that certainly was logical. I thought of how often my inner monologue rambled on about something silly or useless, blaring like a television in an empty room. Or how I’d get so worked up over something inevitable that the preceding anxiety would end up more stressful than the event itself. Our tour in Africa was the perfect example: I was forever freaking out about how everything was trying to eat me—and yet here I was, perfectly unscathed! Although Kendra and I did get stalked by lions, but . . . whatever, there was a point in there somewhere.
I tried to keep Amit-ji’s discourse in mind that evening during satsang. Taking a deep breath, I crossed my legs and rested my hands in gyan mudra on my knees. Closing my eyes, I concentrated my energy on my new mantra and ordered the monkey in my head to sit down and shut up.
Ebb and flow. Ebb and flow. Ebb and flow . . .
Incredibly, it started to work. Muscles I didn’t know I had engaged—my jaws clenched together, my tongue pressed against the roof of my mouth—softened and released. My breathing slowed. A warm sense of tranquility began to creep at the edges of my mind as if my brain was sinking into a hot bath. Up until now, I’d written meditation off as dippy hocus-pocus or just a successful rebranding of the nap. But now I wondered if there wasn’t something to it, after all. If I start meditating on a regular basis, how long would it take before I noticed a difference in day-to-day life? Would Sara and I leave the ashram with some sort of transcendental glow? And if we kept up the habit for the rest of the year, would we return to Toronto blissful and focused? Although, if I was going to keep meditating at home, I’d have to pick up some candles and incense. How did they make incense, anyway? Wasn’t it just dried flowers and spices pressed onto a stick? I’d have to look it up. Hey, maybe I could find the instructions to make my own! Then I could just buy some flowers and come up with different incense recipes . . . I could even sell them online! The scents would be inspired by the ashram and all my badass meditation skills—
“. . . And open your eyes.”
“Mmm, that felt amazing,” said Sara as we headed back to the dorms. Her voice was like whipped butter. “I’m really starting to get the hang of it. How did you do?”
I sighed. “I spent so much time thinking about meditating that I forgot to actually meditate.”
“You have to learn to let go of your thoughts. Just chill.”
“First you’re telling me to harden the fuck up, now you’re telling me to chill. Which is it?” I snapped, a little more testily than I’d intended to.
But she just laughed and shook her head. “Oh, Sue.” Then she glided off toward the showers, leaving me to wonder what I was screwing up this time.