Joelle's Yoga

Soul Sight

(To be published in YUJ magazine)

I remember my very first rickshaw ride on my first trip to India thirteen years ago. I went there to see my mother, Maalaa, whom I had not seen for over a year. It was to be a cathartic reunion, one that would take me on a journey that would change my life forever.

Maalaa and I sat in the back as the driver twisted and turned at break neck speed through the shadowy streets of Old Delhi. He narrowly missed other rickshaws, cars and jaywalking pedestrians. I gripped Maalaa’s arm and hissed into her ear “I’m scared! What if he drags us into an alley, steals our money and leaves us there?!” Just shy of twenty, I wore a silk mini skirt I had had made in Thailand. I quickly discovered that it was very inappropriate garb for Indian sensibilities. I didn’t want to be mistaken for a wanton Western woman. Maalaa assured me it would be fine, and of course, it was.

As a nineteen year old, I was self conscious and wanted to fit in. I had a big hole in my life ever since my Mom left my sister and myself when we were five and three. Maalaa’s motivation was to build a yoga and meditation retreat center in South America. From the age of six to seventeen she lived in Canada intermittently. I missed her though my hurt and anger often prevented me from fully embracing her. As I matured I found needed her influence, not only because she was my Mom but also because her light, exuberant presence resonated with me. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was spiritually parched and found no outlet through which I could relieve this separation from myself. With Maalaa I could express this longing and find release from the inner restlessness I felt.

Maalaa inquired openly about the meaning of life. For her it was not just like a buried treasure you discover at the tail end of a beautiful conversation in a quiet coffee shop, but full time work. The word for this work in Sanskrit is ‘saadhnaa’ which means practice, the discipline of cultivating evenness of mind in the midst of mental fluctuations. While everyone I knew focused on careers, marriages, and material security, Maalaa lived in an Ashram community in the Kullu Valley, India studying with a guru named Swami Shyam. She wrote songs about enlightenment and devoted herself to realizing a state of freedom that is possible through meditation. Every couple of years she returned to Canada to work and reconnect with my sister and myself.

I remember on one of her visits to Canada she visited me in Ottawa and attended my Canadian Literature class. My professor was the hippest thing around; long dark hair and engaging blue eyes. He gave us the opportunity to express the angst we felt as we stood on the threshold of adulthood. The question of the day was “Is there a “Universal Self”?” Maalaa piped up from beside me and said “The knowledge that “I exist” is a universal experience.” Her comment enlivened my fellow students, but just when the conversation began to open up, my professor shut it down and pulled us back into Susanna Moody’s account of the early Canadian settlement experience. Instead of feeling angry with my Mom for over stepping her bounds and embarrassing me in front of my friends, to her delight I was both impressed and intrigued.

It was in this spirit that I took my first trip to India when I was twenty. I wanted to move past my fears and have new experiences that made me feel open and free. My first meeting with Swami Shyam was an emotional and cathartic experience. When I walked into the meditation hall, Swami jumped up and hugged me while a group of a hundred people or so cheered. I was immediately reduced to a sniffling mush ball of tears. It felt like coming home.

I was so taken with Swami’s teachings and the warm community that I found in Kullu that I later returned and spent the years between the ages of twenty-four and twenty-seven studying with him. His message that our true nature is blissful and unchanging resonated with me. I embraced the practice of meditation that he recommended. I observed that the mind is a sea of desires, memories, hopes and fears. The more I focused on the awareness at the source of these endless waves, the more blissful I felt.

I lived in Kullu for almost four years. Over this period I felt something inside pulling at me to return to Canada. By this time Carrie had already lived in Kullu and returned to Canada as did Maalaa. Though I loved living in the Himalayas and devoting my time to meditation, study and reflection, I desired experiences that my life in Kullu couldn’t provide, such as working, paying rent, falling in love and finding my own way. I felt the need to travel outside the safety of the Kullu community and see that I could remain centered in a variety of uncontrolled situations. It was difficult to leave. I had grown attached to my daily dose of Swami Shyam Shakti Pat. (Shakti Pat are experiences with a Guru that produce the same effect on one’s mind as an acid - hit on a psychedelic seeker.) I worried that I when I left Kullu I’d find myself in a spiritual desert in which my well watered roots would begin to wither. As someone who grew up in the West and found spirituality in the East, I craved integration. I knew that ultimately it was up to me to find the enlightenment experience inside myself and not just in a remote Indian village in the company of a Guru. I returned to Canada and joined Maalaa and my sister, Carrie, in Vancouver.

In the eight years since I left Kullu, I have established myself as a yoga teacher. Through my teaching I have the opportunity to meet people who are approaching meditation and yoga for the first time and those who are long time practitioners from a variety of traditions. I feel privileged to be a part of a growing community of people who support each other to live in peace and cultivate respect for all. Whether I am playing botchi ball at a potluck birthday beach party, or attending my weekly hatha yoga class with my beloved teacher and long time fellow practitioners, I get recharged by the company of like minded people in what for me used to be like a spiritual desert.

This past January, I traveled back to India on my own for the first time. I was curious to return to Kullu and see what it would feel like to see Swami again and be among the spiritual community I once called home. I knew that the atmosphere in Canada was different and I had had experiences that expanded my previous view of spirituality. I saw, and continue to see, that there are many ways to express one’s spirituality. I knew that this had changed me. I wanted to see how it had changed me and whether I would feel the same being back in Kullu again. So rather than go straight to Kullu as I had done on all previous trips, I spent some time in Kovalam Beach, Kerala, a tropical destination in the South of India. I wanted to take some unscheduled time in India where I could be a student of my own practice.

The first few nights in Kerala I was up on the hour when some vestibular voice shook my body from sleep and called out, “Where the hell are we??” I awoke to the darkness which obscured the gentle jungle of towering palm trees, pathways snaking through rice paddy patches and low rise dwellings. The morning sounds were a slowly building cacophony of crows kawing, love birds chirping, men clearing their throats, babies shrieking, dogs yelping, coconuts falling and waves crashing. At first, I was irritated by the noise. This was not the picture perfect atmosphere I had carved in my mind. The worst sound award no doubt went to the white, yappy dog next door. He seemed to have no other purpose than to shriek into the most slumberous hours of the night. My first impulse was to throw something at him but later decided that the best approach was to sit through it and try not to lose focus.

Balance depends on both fluidity and structure. At times we learn from doing; action is our teacher and we gain strength when we rely on our own resources. At other times we are inspired to seek direction and/ or collaboration from the outside. This is the ebb and flow of life; sometimes inward, sometimes outward. There is no set formula other than listening deeply and being guided from within. After three weeks in Kerala, I found myself longing for Kullu and the concentrated atmosphere of meditation there.

I arrived in Kullu the first week of February and stayed for six weeks. On warm, sunny days Swami sat outside and gave satsang under the Bee all tree. On one such day I sat against a sunlit stone wall with my eyes closed. Swami's voice trailed in and out of my consciousness, gliding in and out of emotions, physical reactions and intellectual reflections. Nowhere else have I heard anyone tell me with total conviction "You were never born, you never die. You are beyond your mind, senses and feelings of attachment, fear and desire. These are only surface waves which do not reveal the vastness that you truly are." As I listened my reasonable, rational, future and past tethered mind slowly dissolved and I was left with myself. It was like I was deep sleeping but totally awake. I realized that this was what I had for.

While I was in Kullu, I read bits and pieces of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s centenary work, Indian Philosophy Volume I. In it he says that “darsana” is a soul sight “which is possible only when and where philosophy is lived”. Having traveled to and from India four times, lived both here and there, I can say that soul sights go with me. It’s all in how we choose to look at it. As the surly, toothless Frenchman at my guest house in Kovalam Beach, Kerala said, “Il n’ai pas suffisant de voir, il faut regarder.” (“It is not enough to see, you must look.”) The truth is there is beauty in the present moment just as it is. Whether it be the voice of Enlightenment or the shrill bark of a yappy dog, if I look I find it wherever I am.


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