At the start of the four-month Yogic Studies course a young South Korean woman stated more directly than most: "I want to change my body and I want to change my mind."
Someone suggested that we should take before and after photographs to track our transformation. It was an offhand comment, but some people did exactly this, snapping themselves head-on and in profile. As the cameras flashed, I thought about the idea of change. What had brought most of us to the ashram, whether we were willing to admit it or not, was a desire for change. How would we measure success though? For people who wanted a narrower waist or a straighter spine, their progress would be perfectly clear to see, but what about subtler types of transformation? How do we gauge psychic change? How do we take a before and after shot of the mind?
If you want to see your physical self you need something to help you – a camera, a mirror, a reflective surface. For the image to be clear, the thing that's capturing you needs to be clean, and it needs to be still; compare the quality of reflection you get in a pure, waveless lake with a filthy rushing river. The same holds true for seeing inside. Happily for the yogic studies group the practices we were performing – shatkarmas, asanas, pranayama, meditation – were helping us to get both clean and still. Therefore, our main challenge was to look squarely into the mirror.
In addition to our formal classes and tutorials we had to do a few hours of karma yoga every day. The tasks were wide-ranging: lifting, sweeping, mopping, chopping, serving, constructing, dismantling. Few of the jobs were obviously yogic, and on several occasions I had to draw on my faith in the ‘Satyananda way' in order to apply myself to tasks which I considered unnecessary (scrubbing a spotlessly clean floor, for example). As the course progressed, however, I came to see that there was something to karma yoga: the external work mattered less than the internal work it generated – to see ourselves as we really were.
The diary entries I made during my stay in the ashram serve as useful snapshots of my mental state. Here is one from 22 September, six days after I arrived at Ganga Darshan: "Afternoon karma yoga was farcical. We had to redo all the prasad we prepared yesterday because unbeknown to us, every bead and grain of powder should have been counted and distributed evenly. I don't know whether the administrators here deliberately give you incomplete information and then criticize you in an attempt to provoke you, or whether it's just poor organization on their part."
There are several other entries like this – self-righteous, defensive, full of complaint: my co-workers are lazy, my in-charge is mean, the systems here are shambolic. While it embarrasses me to re-read my notes, they are useful to compare with later observations. Here is another from early November, a month and a half into my stay: "Funny Sunday morning. I arrived at the courtyard at 5:30 am and spent an hour helping with the set-up for satsang. I then quickly ate my breakfast so that I could go back to the courtyard to help with seating. When I got there, I was told we had to put everything away because the satsang had been cancelled. No explanation was offered. What struck me was how utterly unaffected I was by this news, I started stacking the chairs as cheerfully as I had un-stacked them."
No grumbling about the loss of the only available lie-in that week, no regret for the rushed breakfast, no questioning the lateness of the cancellation. It could simply have been that I was growing accustomed to the ashram's unpredictable ways. However, I think something else was happening: I was slowly morphing from involved judge to impartial witness, becoming increasingly even-minded in the process.
As the weeks and months went by it dawned on me that almost everything we were doing in the ashram was helping us to cultivate a witnessing mindset. The ultimate aim of the asana class was not to make us better at paschimottanasana, the goal of meditation class was not to prepare us for samadhi, nor was the point of karma yoga to get the clean floor even cleaner. We were being trained to observe ourselves, to refine our awareness, to become the drashta, witness, of our experiences. It was fascinating that by casting ourselves as spectators rather than doers, and by glancing regularly into the inner mirror, change arose spontaneously. Muscles softened, feelings settled, minds steadied.
It wasn't until I arrived in the ashram, that I discovered the meaning of the word darshan, which is to see, to observe, to know. Ganga Darshan was a place where I learned to see deeply inside, and this naturally led to change. While I didn't have any before and after snaps as evidence of my evolution, what I do now have is a highly polished inner mirror, which I am sure will come in handy.