India: Stepping into Grace
"You are moving down the river of Prana in the boat of your mind."
— David Frawley (Vama Deva)
I never felt I needed to go to India to be an authentic yoga teacher, and yet, as my 60th birthday approached, and I had felt for a while I wanted to mark it with a meditation retreat, my teacher and friend suggested and encouraged the idea of a retreat in India. In fact she suggested the teachers: David Frawley and his wife, Shambhavi Chopra, respected teachers who have led the Ganga Yoga Shakti retreat together in India for over ten years. What at first seemed impossible became a flame in my heart, and my husband surprised me (and yet it was no surprise) by his strong support for the idea of this arranged-at the-last-minute trip.
Landing in India felt like stepping into grace, as I shed fears along the slow entry: fears of chaos, crowds, poverty. All of that was there, and my short trip gave me only glimpses of those, enough to stave off romanticizing this wide and deep culture and society. Grace was how cars, trucks and motorcycles negotiated in and between narrow and non-existent lanes with a language of constant horn beeps not about anger, first in Delhi, and then in the foothills of the Himalayas, along high mountain roads with blind hairpin curves, in what seemed to be a focused, organic process. Did I let go entirely while being driven? No, but the process of traveling accelerated the shift. Incipient irritation at the process of no recognizable lines through security queues in Delhi's domestic airport, on my way to a flight to Dehradun, was pacified by jet lag and sleep deprivation, transforming into bemusement as I let go of ideas of order and priority.
Along the pell-mell drive from Dehradun to Rishikesh, glimpses of monkeys, road-side cows and countless motorcycles with helmeted male drivers and non-helmeted female passengers continued the process of shifting into a new sort of logic. Surprise at discovering that the sacred Ganges is a hot-spot for river rafting was just part of stepping into grace. The location of our Ma Ganga Shakti retreat alongside the wild and swift Ganges was gorgeous beyond measure. And yet how did it remain wild as rafts on some days floated by every half-minute? How was it that I wasn't distracted or irritated by the interplay of rafters' shouts and shrieks over the river and big-city-like honking from the road winding above our location at The Glass Hotel? Because Ma Ganga carries away everything. Because of the "densely Sattvic atmosphere" of the location (how it was put by Shubha, who led yoga in the huge tent by the river where we gathered every day). "Can you feel how soft this place is?" was how Sundari, another of our leaders, described it.
This sacred river was grace, and being near her for eight days was an unfolding gift. Her constant sound, her steady and powerful unending flow, somehow insistent. As Vama Deva said, a lot of the yoga teachings are embedded in the land. It was this land; it was this river. Glimpsing the Ganga from our drive, I was stunned by her turquoise hue, almost Caribbean blue. Facing the Ganga from the beach, I was in awe. Here was nature--one could say River as an expression of Spirit, and yet completely a river, and more fiercely a river than any river I had ever witnessed.
Each quiet evening along the Ganga, with the guidance of a Vedic pandit, his Sanskrit chants, and ours, we held sacred ceremonies (aarti) and rituals, offering light to light with diyas (ghee lamps), propitiating the moon and planets with rice, lentils, mung beans, flowers; we offered our wishes to the Ganga, floating them in camphor- and flower-filled banyan leaf boats balancing small diyas. On one auspicious day, I let go of my fear of being swept away, joining in the Ganga Snana, or sacred bath, as we fully dipped, wearing white, seven times, our heads strewn with flowers. We all worked together one afternoon for many hours to create out of flowers a huge and beautiful Shiva Yantra (a mystical geometrical design used for meditation). On one of our last evenings we had a fire ceremony, the "fire pit" intricately decorated with flowers. The ceremony was said to transform what we had carried with us--tiny paper notes tied in thread--intentions, wishes, what we wished to set ourselves free of. Later, these notes, their ashes, would be poured in to the Ganga.
Our teachers taught us to let nature and observing the Ganga build resiliency, pointing again and again to the river. They suggested we "flow with the Ganga" as we slept, letting her soothe us, take away our sorrows and fears, anything we wanted to let go of. It was said that one could throw a stone or flower into the Ganga and make a wish.
The hamsa is a flying bird, similar to a goose or swan, said to represent the inner being, a rich spiritual symbol, often used as a mantra, and yet here they were, real birds above the Ganga. Vama Deva said, "You always want to keep your inner being awake, and keep it flying."
Shambhavi-ji, the epitome of fierce grace, walked the talk, and gave us many spiritual gems. Nature, she said, taught her to just surrender. And in a sense, this whole trip was about that. Another teaching of Sthira: steadiness, stability. Cultivate Sthira in your life. Be more grounded, make your home with attention to detail. Your home is your Sthira. She told me I should plant a tree by the Ganga, and on our last full day there I did: a night blooming Jasmine, the lady of the night, or Raat ki Raani.
Grace is a mantra, a river of sound connecting us to something greater than ourself. Grace is the fabric woven by the elements of our experience: land, river, bird, blossoms, ritual. Grace is the space we all occupied, and how it filled us. Grace is what I received from India. I am left with wonder and gratitude.
Stay tuned for part two.