Scanning through the past ten months, numerous images flash across the mind. The most positive include: Swamiji, taking a pre-breakfast dip in the Ganga on Earth Day, Sufi dancing at satsang, singing kirtan, trying to learn a little Spanish and Hindi, learning to drink (and depend on) tea with sugar, dancing the dandia, making pizza, pre-dawn bread baking sessions in winter, darshan with Paramahamsaji, Rikhia, getting a 'haircut', the pink setting sun, the rising sun, yoga nidra, havan, the first sight of a sannyasin, morning practical classes, gardening, the flowers, the Yoga Sutras, being inspired, feeling free, my initiation, the warmth...
But did I gain anything of real importance during my stay? I've fulfilled none of the 'objectives' that I arrived armed with when I joined BYB's one year diploma course in July 1998. My 'breathing difficulties' still crop up from time to time, and no, I haven't yet figured out the fundamental lessons of life that I hoped to walk away with ('in order to pass onto my future children'). But what I have learned is this: I now know that I know very little about life, death, and the point of it and that it's OK not to know. But most important, I'm starting out on a path of discovery.
Before coming to Ganga Darshan, I didn't even know that much. I had acquired all sorts of funny notions about life, morality, happiness and sadness. I am now none the wiser, but I feel a lot lighter as I slowly shed much of the dross that has grown, accumulated, on 'me'. I feel as though I've woken up from a long slumber. I'm still a little drowsy but I'm awake. And the wider I open my eyes, the more astounding and playful life appears.
So what was the catalyst that woke me up? As much as the course lectures on the basic theory and philosophy of yoga were stimulating, they did not help me to see things more clearly. Indeed, they threw more 'stuff' in my way. (It was simply another set of ideas.) Experience, rather than book knowledge (no matter how profound) was what I was after. It's what I crave. What shook me awake was simply having a change of scenery. Ashram life has allowed me to see things from a different, more intriguing, challenging perspective to the work-play-sleep existence that I'd accepted, without question, to mean life.
Ashram life, Ganga Darshan style is dynamic and disciplined. It's quite different from the solitary and tranquil image I'd had in mind prior to coming here. It was the key which has scratched the surface of my existence. In the ashram, one faces life head-on (as in normal life), but without the escape routes of external stimuli and security. Add 'awareness' to the picture and one can gain much insight into the patterns, the play of life.
For the first time in my life I was able to seriously take stock and to look at the wheres, whys and whos of life. I stopped questioning why on earth people even bother to question the meaning of life and recognized, within me, a deep urge to explore and question life. With this in mind, it seems apt that it was only here, after twenty-eight years, that I learnt the actual meaning of my birth name: Zoe Lynch (meaning 'life' and 'death').
So, if someone were to ask me what I understand about yoga, I would be reluctant to say anything. But if someone were to ask me what I have learnt during my stay at the ashram, I would speak of five things: awareness, change, detachment, expression, and of course, karma yoga.
'Awareness' is a word that often flies around the ashram. It makes sense one is more focused, efficient and alert. But it took me a long, long time to really grasp that concept. I struggled with it, analyzed it and wondered what was the point of it...until I grew exhausted and began to watch myself, my thoughts, the attraction of getting lost in thoughts. I now know what it is (and also how little I am aware). But I have faith that it leads to a deeper, more joyous understanding of life. This faith, belief, comes from my trust in Swami Niranjan. At times I've found it quite fun to be aware. I've noticed that if I think about something or someone, in either a positive or negative or hopeful way, the thoughts manifest as such. I'm beginning to pick up the signals and clues of life. Being aware allows one to notice opportunities and challenges, which can only mean growth.
Despite the systematic structure of life at BYB, it offers plenty of scope for change. Change that can appear more acute than in conventional life because here one runs the risk of becoming stuck in one's ways, patterns (as much of the nitty-gritty day-to-day decision-making is already made). Superficially one's lectures, responsibilities, accommodation and plans may change. That's life. But I have come to accept that; and rejoice in it. Not only because it allows me to loosen my attachment to set ways, a set routine, a set lifestyle, and a set pattern of living, but also because it enables one to grow. It's a great opportunity to watch reactions, emotions and thoughts run rampant, and to ignore them. They'll pass. Understanding and embracing change is to be able to participate actively and happily in life. It takes the struggle out of life.
Becoming sick-in-charge of the building in which I was resident within a week of arriving enabled me to learn some hard, yet very pure, lessons. It was one of the most special gifts I received here. And I feel blessed to have learnt it so early on during my stay. Throughout my life I've had many opportunities to care for sick children, mentally and physically disabled people, and the elderly. Yet it was only here that I learnt to go about it properly with detachment. Strangely I learnt the importance of not giving. Of standing back when necessary. Of learning to say no. I am aware that often people act out of pity and sadness. Yet this is not love. It does not provide the strength that the other person needs to restore health. At Rikhia Paramahamsaji spoke to the BYB students about love without affection or attraction. Just pure love with no expectation or attachment. Care must be motivated by respect and love, not pity.
Before leaving Hong Kong in July 1998, a friend asked me what I would miss most during my stay at Munger. Music and dance, I replied. The prospectus started that no radios and personal stereos were permitted in the ashram. I didn't know how I would be without music or whether I would really miss it, as I thought I would. Singing (although largely limited to my bathroom walls) has always been a release, an expression, for me. And it feels good, and right, to sing. It often sounds much better than the standard monotony of day-to-day speech. It stops one in one's tracks and takes one into a different space. It inspires a myriad of moods and provokes inner joy, vitality, and sometimes sadness.
At Ganga Darshan, I learnt to sing with joy and purity, because kirtan praises, and touches often the essence of life. At first, singing kirtan was a way of crushing my ego, my unfounded fear and nerves about singing in public. (A sort of therapy.) Later, I can thankfully say, it became an expression of happiness. To be able to sing every day is a unique and rare opportunity in life.
There was also plenty of opportunity to dance. During one satsang, shortly after Sita Kalyanam, Swamiji suggested that the following afternoon satsangs of that week would include some form of dance. It was a vibrant week of salsa, Sufi dancing, Serbian, Greek, Iranian and classical Indian dance. Likewise during Navaratri and Christmas, dance was a highlight of the celebrations.
Initially, when I first started the diploma course, karma yoga was the least of my concerns. I did it and enjoyed it but I didn't understand the attitude, the philosophy, of karma yoga. I saw it simply as a necessary part of life one needs to clean, garden etc. to keep things in order. After a few months, my interest in my studies waned. I began to spend more time in the kitchen under the pretext of 'doing karma yoga'. When I assessed my motives honestly, it was clear that I was avoiding what I least liked doing studying, whilst devoting more time to what I enjoyed doing...being in the kitchen. From then on, I began to view my studies as my karma yoga, my sadhana. This attitude, or approach, to work gave me the willpower to do my work, without question.
Karma yoga, for me, is doing whatever I have to do at a specific time. I learnt this lesson, when, on one occasion I purposely missed a one and a half hour satsang and went to the kitchen to cut vegetables instead. As it turned out, the satsang was an inspiring talk on spiritual 'masters' (the subject of my course project). Consequently I spent six hours transcribing the satsang to hear what Swamiji had said. The attitude of karma yoga prevents one from becoming too attached to either one's studies, sadhana or duties at the ashram. It restores balance.
I leave Bihar Yoga Bharati a lot lighter, a lot freer and with a lot more strength than when I first arrived. It has been a great opportunity for me to study. The material, the textbook, for the course was myself.