January 17, 2014:

"This is India!"


     On January 17th we picked up Shanti from the international airport at Trivandrum and left the tourist town of Varkala near the international airport and journeyed toward our first interview destination, the Arsha Yoga Gayatri Gurukulam, about an hour and a half north of Cochin.                                                                                                                               Varkala Cliff

 Thaipusam devotees     Along the way the road was blocked for several hours for the Thaipusam religious festival, which happens all across south India. In this festival, inspired devotees go into trance and place a metal stake through their cheeks as a symbol of penance and the ability to overcome pain. It is said that after the festival a paste of Koorkama is applied and heals in one day because of their great faith. We spent hours with the dancers passing by us carrying richly decorated wooden arches painted in gold, some of them beckoning us to join in the dance.

Travancor Palace Hotel 
     When we arrived at Arsha Yoga we participated in the opening ceremony of their one-month Yoga Therapist training program. After an introduction each of the students was initiated receiving three marks on their forehead; one of ash as a symbol of purifying the mind. Sandalwood paste for holding the knowledge received, and red Turmeric paste as a symbol of the light of illumination.

     The next morning we joined the Yoga Therapy group for a Vedic Puja dedicated to Ganesh as an auspicious opening to their training program. This Ganesha Homa performed by a Tantric Brahmin priest involved drawing sacred symbols, mandala, on the ground, followed by an intricate ceremony comprised of carefully orchestrated mudras and mantras. 

     At the end of the ceremony each of the students received Arati, the smoke from the sacred ritual fire, as well as Prasad, a sweet treat which holds the essence of the divine awakened during the ceremony. We also felt that being at the ceremony was an auspicious beginning for our journey and we received the Prasad with gratefulness for the gift of being given this time at Arsha Yoga Gayatri. 

Opening ceremony at Arsha Yoga
                                       Ganesha homa     Each morning at the Gurukulam begins with Pranayama and meditation from 6:00 until 7:00. The practices here are inspired by the Yoga Vishisda with an emphasis on never forcing or straining, but of adapting a natural approach in which we perform all the practices spontaneously and easily. After a short tea break, there is an hour and a half of classical Hatha Yoga postures. We especially enjoyed the sun salutes accompanied by a singing version of the Gayatri Mantra. Yoga practice is followed by the morning meal and karma yoga. For those in the yoga therapy group, the rest of the day is taken up with theory and practice. All of us reunite in the evening for an hour and a half Satsang that includes twenty minutes of meditation, chanting verses from the Bhagavad Gita and a question and answer session with our host and yoga therapy master Harilal Karanath. We complete the evening singing Bhajans. 


Pranayama and Meditation
Satsang with Harilalji

      The three days we spent at Arsha Yoga Gurukulam gave us a much deeper sense of the vital link between Vedic culture and lifestyle and Yoga Therapy. The Asana, Pranayama, and meditation practices create a space of openness in which the Vedic mantras can communicate a deeper knowledge of Yoga beyond all the techniques that is the essence of health.

     While at Arsha Yoga we visited the ashram of Swami Bhoomananda Tirtha, a large cluster of buildings set around a garden and filled with flowering trees. Swami is considered to be an enlightened master and one of India's clearest teachers of Vedanta and the Bhagavad Gita. We spent an hour with Swamiji and he spoke of the union of Atman and Brahman, explaining that both of these are really just concepts in the mind used to point to an experience beyond words. That experience is the deeper "I Am" that transcends time and death. It was not a passive presentation. He stood up from his guilded throne, walked over to each of us, looked deeply into each of our eyes and asked "Do you really understand?" Swamiji further explains "This is not a theory or philosophy, it is the lifeblood that radiates ecstatically through all of Indian spirituality. It is the essence of our culture. "This," he states as he claps his hands together loudly in front of our faces, "is India!"


Swamiji Bhoomananda Tirtha


     After our meeting with Swamiji we received Prasad and joined the ashram community for a midday meal. As the food is being served the residents chant the fifteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita in a voice so clear, sweet, and deep that a light and spaciousness fill the entire dining hall as if the space itself and everyone in it is naturally levitating. As we eat in silence we see, touch, taste, and feel that the Swami's words are much more than theory.

     On the way home we pass a group of dancers with an elephant decked out in its finest gold ornaments. On the way to the ashram, we had seen the same elephant bathing, preparing for that special moment when it too would join in the stream that is the lifeblood of spirituality that fills the air around us. Yes, this is India!  



~ Joseph Le Page

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