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Published: April 10th 2008
A lot has been moving and shifting for me in the month I have been staying at Anand Prakash Ashram (www.anandprakashashram.com). Yes, I have been strengthening my physical yoga practice, but what is more important, I have only now begun to understand what Yoga really means. Through practising Akhanda Yoga, a holistic, integral form of yoga with an emphasis on the balanced sequencing of asana (postures), pranayama (breath control/retention), relaxation, mantra and meditation, I have come to realize that the postures are only a small part of what constitutes the Yogic lifestyle. What's been really groundbreaking for me was to fully feel and experience the power of the Vaidika mantras which we chant every day as part of the classes, during the daily fire puja, and the thrice-weekly kiirtan sessions.
In fact, the fire rituals have been the greatest gift and joy for me here. Intrigued by the ritual's almost tangible power that increases daily, I translated the Vaidika mantras and studied the different Hindu Sanskaras (sacraments) with the aid of a fantastic book called 'Vaidika Mantras - The Key to Spiritual Knowledge’
by Uma A. Saini. In addition, Yogi Vishvketu's cousin Sanjay has been teaching me how to conduct
the ceremony, and for the past week, I have been lighting the fire and feeding it with ghee, which is a great honour. My dedication paid off, and last week, I was asked to write an article for the 'Times of India' about my experiences here (fame at last!). The article should appear this week sometime.
What's so powerful about the Vaidika mantras is that they affect the energy centers of the body and produce spiritual power. The vibrations affect you, even if you don't understand what the mantras mean. When you chant with complete bhakti (devotion), lots of things happen simultaneously on different levels. Saini writes that 'the flame of Agni (sacred fire)i is symbolic representation of the victory of light over darkness, of knowledge over ignorance, prosperity over poverty, and truth over untruth.' By offering ghee and herbs to the fire, we also offer up our negative emotions and surrender to the symbolic fire of transformation. Anger, greed, jealousy, as well as illusions, are burned up in the rising fire and transform into love and compassion over time. I have certainly found this to be true:after regular daily immersion in this ritual over several weeks, I have
experienced profound changes in the way I see and relate to the world around me. Whilst physical yoga remains important, I am noticing myself shifting increasingly towards a more harmonious and collective way of life, with an increased interest in karma yoga and bhakti (devotional) yoga, which focus on serving others and on connecting with the Divine. Living in a community has also been very educational, in a way the greatest spiritual practice of all: how to live with other people. It's very easy to stay centered and focused when you live in a cave or in splendid isolation, but to remain so in a busy community of people who all have very different ideas and motives is a different thing altogether.
The photos on this page are from the last big puja we had in the ashram for the Full Moon and Holi, during which we celebrated the 100th birthday of Yogi Uday's grandmother as well. The ritual's power is best summed up with the following words which I wrote into my journal the same day: 'We chant over and over again. Suddenly, I feel shakti energy rising from the ground through my feet, my groin, my heart,
Feeding the fire
Photo by Deepika
my head. The fire crackles and the flames lick higher and it feels as though they surge through my body. These mantras are powerful.' On that day, we also offered free food for 21 Saints, as every Full Moon. I was one of the lucky servers. 'Make sure the serving bucket doesn't touch the floor, and don't touch their eating bowls with the serving ladle under any circumstances', Yogi Uday warned me. I was mortified, clutched the big metal bucket of liquid food and hoped for the best. The Saints hardly looked at me and I mastered the task without spilling anything. Phew.
Yesterday night, Yogini (or should I say Priestess?) Chetana led an incredibly powerful healing circle/ritual as part of the Kiirtan chanting. Whilst chanting the mantras, we created a circle of light in our minds, and continued to sing the sacred songs for the next hour. After we chanted the Gayatree Mantra, the most sacred mantra of the Vaydas, Chetana asked us to focus on a situation we would like to bring healing to, and see and feel that situation in our minds and hearts, completely healed already. We then drew or wrote this situation onto a
piece of paper, which we held to our hearts and placed around the candle in the centre of the circle, whilst chanting the healing mantra 'OM. Tryambakam yajamahe
Mrityor mukshiya mamritat'
several times. This mantra, roughly translated, means 'OM. We worship and adore you, O three-eyed one, O Shiva. You are sweet gladness, the fragrance of life, who nourishes us, restores our health, and causes us to thrive. As, in due time, the stem of the cucumber weakens, and the gourd if freed from the vine, so free us from attachment and death, and do not withhold immortality.'
I felt like I was in a different sphere, floating somewhere in space, whilst maintaining complete awareness and focus - and such is the meaning of a great ritual done with intent in sacred space. This morning, some of us burned the papers in the ceremonial fire whilst chanting the mantra again. I have been reminded once again that ritual is where my heart is, and how important the Priestess work is for me, wherever I am in the world. Thanks, Chetana.
Anyway, all good things come to an end, and it is
Photo by Deepika
time for me to leave the ashram in a week or two. Vishvketu and Chetana are off to Canada next week, which is where they teach over the summer, and most of the residents are leaving as well. It's getting hotter by the day, and I am currently considering my options. I have been in Rishikesh for three months now (gasp) and I fancy a change of scenery. I will either go further up North to the mountains and the Valley of the Flowers; or, I will go to Canada - by cargo ship. I have moments of being sick of India (literally: we fight off one virus and tummy bug after another at times, another joy of community living!), the heat, the noise. As I want to do the Yoga Teacher Training with Vishva and Chetana, I'll either have to wait around in Asia until October, or I'll take a freighter from Mumbai to New York and then continue overland to Canada. I'm currently looking into it, and if the right opportunity comes up, I might do this: it sounds fun for the journey alone! The other alternative is to return to Nepal in July and August to do
the Vipassana Retreat and study shamanism, before returning here in October. To make up my mind, I'm planning to retreat either to the mountains or a remote ashram at the Ganga for a week. Watch this space!
PS For those of you living in the West Midlands of England, I will be on Radio BBC Coventry and Warwickshire at 7.25 am (DAB Digital Radio or 94.8/103.7/104FM) on a slot called 'Around the World' this coming Saturday (12th April) -- if they can get through to me on my Indian mobile, that is.
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