“Be still. Life is unfolding. Leave space to experience it”. Mooji.
Nothing ever prepares you for the overwhelm of landing in India, a feast for the senses and sights that you don´t find in other parts of the world. The smells, the colours, the smog, the poverty, horns beeping, mayhem on the roads, children without limbs begging, the sacred cows wandering where they please. Here I was, in Haridwar, an ancient Hindu pilgrimage site in North India. In awe of the Himalayan foothills in the distance, with the silky Ganges River running through, it was like a moving picture postcard, framed with chaos.
All I knew was that I was going to The International Yoga Festival in Rishikesh. I arrived at The Parmath Niketan Ashram who were hosting the event and looked for the reception. Many westerners were hurrying to and froe to different parts of the ashram, which seemed strange in such a majestically beautiful tranquil place with English style manicured gardens positioned on Mother Ganga. I was greeted by a man of few words. I naively asked if there was a room at the ashram, at what was their busiest time of the year. Unsurprisingly, I got a very straight Indian ´No´. Not a hint of the Indian head wobble from side to side, which often signifies a confusing yes in India. I then asked if he could point me in the direction of the nearest guest house. This elicited the same response. I took a seat and questioned myself as to why I hadn´t been prepared more and bought a Lonely Planet, my usual staple travel friend. It was at this point an American lady walked in, looked me up and down and said, “tell me your story” and ushered me in to her back office.
I briefly recounted my story of going to get married in Australia, changing my mind and ending up in India. Tara was the organiser of the festival and she very kindly offered me a shared room in the ashram with another lady. I could not have been more grateful. The room was basic and small with all that I needed. A single bed, a bed side table and a bathroom with a bucket for a shower, a sink and a hole in the floor for a toilet. I turned a blind eye to the Roach balls lying in wait to deter our cockroach friends.
It was a bit of a blur during the Yoga Festival. I settled in to the ashram as best I could and followed suit to queue up for my dahl at the appropriate meal times and studied the schedule to attend a few classes and lectures of some of the best international teachers. However, not really in the right head space, I took a back seat and watched everyone else trying to squeeze twenty events in to one day. Ordinarily I would have been that person, but this journey felt different. It was a relief when everyone left after a week.
Every evening, as dusk descended, in front of the ashram, it was time for Ganga Aarti. A very powerful and uplifting spiritual ritual that uses fire as an offering. Candles and flowers were floated down the river as an offering to Mother Ganga, the goddess of the most holy river in India. Lamps were lit and circled around by the Hindu priestsin a clockwise manner, accompanied by everybody chanting in praise. The lamps acquired the power of the deity. After the ritual was completed, devotees cupped their hands over the flame and raised their palms to their forehead in order to get the Goddess's purification and blessing.
I stayed on at the ashram, this time having the room to myself. I had no agenda and just lived every moment at a time. This was a far cry from my busy executive life at the BBC. My mum used to laugh at me if I had a gap in the diary. Every moment was so planned, so stuffed full of living life to the full. I became more and more introspective and soaked in the peaceful spirit of ashram life. More and more, I felt less inclined to be in contact with the outside world.
Shortly after the yoga festival had finished, Gurumukh, a very well-known Kundalini Teacher was starting a next level training. Funnily enough, I had been to her grand finale class that week at sunrise - Morning Sadhana. A daily self-practice which aims to clear your own consciousness and attune you to your highest self before you face the world. This includes meditation, mantras and yoga exercises and is done during the ambrosial hours. These are two and a half hours before sunrise, when the sun is at a sixty-degree angle to the Earth and the world is quieter making it easier to connect to the divine and meditate. It was beautiful, with the setting of the softness of The Ganges glistening and everybody looking graceful in their white clothes. In the Kundalini tradition, it is encouraged to wear white. In the words of Yogi Bhajan, the reason for this is ´to reflect what is outside and go within yourself´. Unusually that day, I was wearing all black as all my clothes were at the laundry. At the end of the class, Gurumukh asked all the teachers to stand up. There were hundreds of people in the class. It was a real black sheep moment, but I defiantly stood up and laughed to myself. It will be a moment that I will never forget. Non-conformity was a theme that was certainly shaping up on this journey.
When hearing about the training, my immediate reaction was to rush and sign up. I agreed to make payment the next day. I went to bed elated about the timing and how serendipitous it was that I was free to do the training and I was staying at the ashram already. However, the next morning I woke up with a really clear message, ´No Anna, this is not the time to put more information in, this is the time to empty out´. Call it your guides, your angels, but whatever it was, the message was loud and clear and I immediately went to cancel my place on the course. This was so against my usual personality, but something in me trusted the voice.
When the world is your oyster, it can be the most frightening thing in the world. Here was I with a year sabbatical from my career in television, which had defined my identity for twenty years, my flat in London rented out and no agenda.
I took every day at a time, feeling in to the moment of what I wanted to do that day. I was in equal measures feeling selfish being able to do anything I wanted to do, no commitments, not being accountable for anything but felt exhilarated having the freedom and I felt peaceful. For once in my life, I didn´t care about what anybody else thought, whether I was achieving anything, what was planned or not planned for the future. I just started learning the art of how ´to be´. A verb used in all languages, but so misconstrued as to what we should be.
Byron Katie was also staying at the ashram at this time and I got to know her a little. Her coaching formula was to question everything in your life by asking, "Is it true? Reality is always kinder than the story we make”. We spend so much time making assumptions and living our stories according to our own interpretations, which aren´t necessarily true. This was great food for thought for me.
Whilst doing my Kundalini Teacher training in London a few years before, I had started to question the corporate world whilst I was in it. I did my training over a year. I would work a full-on five-day week, and in the evenings and weekends I would attend lectures, read heaps of yogic literature and do a dissertation each month on subjects such as mediation, mantra and yogic lifestyle. This continues to be a lifetime of study, with a means to applying it to everyday life. I was fascinated by this world and to find myself in the epicentre, was like nectar for the soul.
During my long stay in Rishikesh, I was fortunate to be able to attend Mooji´s Satsang every morning. I would do my morning practice at the ashram and then wander past locals on their pilgrimages, beggars, shoe menders (who I would often drop off clothes and bags to be fixed), music and yoga schools and then on to the wibbly wobbly bridge over the river. Never alone, I was always accompanied by monkeys, cows, mopeds, tuk tuks and hurrying people, praying the bridge would hold all creatures great and small. After surviving that, the next hurdle was jumping in a tuk tuk, another experience to hand over your life and trust. It´s interesting how the aroma of Tuk Tuk drivers smells like cumin.
Mooji would hold a daily Satsang - a word which comes from Sanskrit, meaning "to associate with true people in a group meeting seeking that association, with a sat guru”.
Anybody was free to ask Mooji deep questions about life, with the rest of the group benefiting from the answers. I am yet to uncover what they are, but it is said that there are seven stories, that all of our lives play out to. They just manifest in different storylines in our own little dramas. It is up to us to let others fuel these. The power of these gatherings allowed us to view our own life questions through the conversations with Mooji.
Mooji´s whole concept of ´Just Being´ totally resonated and had a huge impact for me on this journey. I was learning the art of this more and more as the days went by. The power of silence and listening became very profound and I started to scare myself with how quickly I could manifest a thought into reality. I started to feel an expansion, a courage and realisation that everybody is doing their best, just getting on with their own lives. I was also transforming into the mindset of the power of being peaceful and being present to serve others. This was a unique way for me to view life, as I had always been such a doer, rushing through life. This started to pave the way for me to start the process of how I could hold a space for others going forward.
I decided it was time to see more of India and I headed up The Himalayas towards Dharamsala, the seat in exile of His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama. I made it on a sixteen-hour hair-raising bus ride and to begin with settled in McLeod Ganj, a suburb in Himachal Pradesh. It is known as "Little Lhasa" or "Dhasa" because of its large population of Tibetans. The Tibetan government-in-exile is headquartered in McLeod Ganj. A cute little town on the hillside. I found a guest house and settled in to a more backpacker vibe. It was great for a change to enjoy food with a more Tibetan influence such as Momos, steamed dumplings and Thukpa, a traditional noodle soup. The rain and storms were epic and my loved flipflops were trying to kill me on the slippery steep streets. I decided I needed a pair of close toed shoes, but all I could find in my size were a pair of bright yellow boat shoes. They did the job.
I had arranged to go to a residential Buddhist Silent Retreat in Dharamsala. Tushita is a monastery that practices Buddhism from the Tibetan Mahayana tradition. I decided to hike up to the beautiful forest hills that shroud the monastery to scope out my upcoming home for ten days. Tibetan flags hanging off the dramatic mountain side, stunning cloud formations and dreamy cedar trees welcomed me. I still had a few days before I was to reside in silence at the monastery, so I headed back down to the buzz of McCleod Ganj.
When I got back to the Green Hotel, I discovered that I had lost my phone. It was frightening how much it put me in to such a panic and to realise how reliant I was on it. I remember backpacking in my twenties and the only communication available was sending a fax and receiving letters at the Post Restante. I sat myself down and did a meditation to calm myself down. I managed to talk myself round and to look at it as a lesson in non-attachment. My first Buddhist teaching.
Full of apprehension, it was time to check in to Tushita. I wasn´t so worried about being in silence for ten days, as often when you are traveling alone, you can go days without speaking to anyone. However, the program was tough and I knew it would propose challenges seen and unforeseen.
Surprisingly there were sixty people on the course. We all formed a British style orderly queue, despite the different range of nationalities. It was the one time when language wasn´t relevant and that we were all there to develop the Bhuddi mind – an awareness for love and understanding.
We all got assigned a Dormitory, a Karma Yogi job and most of our possessions were taken off us, such as Phones, laptops, cameras, books and musical instruments. I had embarrassingly walked in like an all singing all dancing one-man band. Collecting instruments whilst travelling, I had acquired a Didgeridoo, Bansui Indian Flute and a Dramyin – a traditional Tibetan Guitar.
I headed to Dorm 8 to find two sets of bunk beds, where I was sharing with three other girls, two of which disappeared as the days went on. Another trusty hole in the floor toilet and shower. Not the most comfortable of beds and not being able to communicate in a room that small was interesting to say the least. We were told to sleep on our right sides with our knees bent and our left hand on our left leg.
We were also taught how to eat our meals mindfully. Chew each mouthful 21 times. Another interesting concept when you are sitting with a group of people all in silence. We were told to avert each other’s gazes throughout the ten days.
It was amazing how soon the different senses kicked in with more acute awareness. I seemed to develop an extreme sense of smell which was unfortunate when using the drop toilets and in the kitchen, where I was performing my Karma Yogi role. I was on duty to clear up after breakfast. At first, the smell of freshly baked bread and peanut butter was heaven, but as time went on, I developed a complete aversion to the smell and to the cleaning fluid. It´s the small things that break you along the way and help you investigate the true nature of the mind.
We started the day at 6.45am with a 45-minute mindfulness meditation. The Buddhists believe that “meditation is to develop wisdom, love and compassion. Not to clear the mind”. We would then repeat this mid-morning and after dinner. Activities in between would include lectures on Buddhism and three meals a day. Always the same meals.
Being seated cross legged most the day with no props was a challenge in itself. The lectures were all two hours and consisted of subjects such as Dharma, Death, Karma, The Mind, Non-Virtuous Actions and Attachment. All the subjects were fascinating, but sometimes I craved wanting to be next door in the Vipassana Centre in complete silence. My agitation during the lectures sometimes would be unbearable. We were taught that it “it is important to find compassion to those who you have an aversion to and change up the energy”. I would seek light relief in listening to the monkeys outside the meditation hall. We were told not to wear yellow items as the monkeys thought they were bananas. Thinking about whether my poor yellow shoes were going to be there when I came out, would make me giggle inside.
On day 8 & 9 we were invited to take the Buddhist precepts at 5.15am. It was full moon and we would walk clockwise around The Stupa, a monument that houses holy relics. This signifies honoring the Buddhist teachings and following the right path. During those two days, we would only eat an evening meal. The five Buddhist moral precepts are abstinence of taking intoxication substances, lying or gossiping, sexual misconduct, taking what is not given and harming living things. We were taught not to walk on ants or to kill mosquitoes and see it as a kind act to give one’s blood to an insect that needs it for its young. Something that I try and practice now outside the monastery, not always easy.
As days went by, the assumption and judgement buttons kicked in and before long, we were all attributing stories to people we had never spoken to in our lives. I found it astounding on the last day when we had a picnic, people would rush over and want to hear your story, to see if it was what they had fabricated in their mind. More due to the shock of having to speak again, I scarpered pretty quickly, first in the queue to get my belongings and get on the bus to Amritsar, back in my own comfortable silence. It was my 41stbirthday.
I had another mission on this Indian journey, other than go to Auroville which was an experimental community in Southern India. This was to go to The Golden Temple. The Sikh lineage was a big influence on my Kundalini teacher training and I wanted to go and understand it on a deeper level from the inside.
I arrived in Amritsar at 1am. Not a city I felt particularly comfortable wondering around alone in the dark. I had booked in to the accommodation for pilgrims, called the Niwas Athans. I had no idea what to expect and upon arrival there were thousands of pilgrims sleeping on the floor of the grounds of the temple. I found a man with a flash light at the entrance of where I was to sleep and he gently opened the door to a darkened room and flashed his torchlight briefly to a bit of mattress, which I took as being my bed for the night. I rested for an hour, but wanted to take in the glory of The Golden Temple and the Gurbani Kirtan, which started at 2.30am, followed by a whole program of prayer throughout the dawn until morning. It was a magical site with pilgrims soaking in the holy water of The Temple. A soft hew which you could almost touch surrounded all the inner and outer walls of this huge spiritual icon made of pure gold. I breathed in the wonder of it all, still finding so much of it hard to understand, letting it permeate all my cells and my being.
A complimentary breakfast was served to 3000 people in The Langar Hall. With everybody sitting in rows, served out of buckets, all were given a round thali tray with three segments. A vegetarian curry, a dahl and a chapati bread. 330 pounds of red chilies and 132 pounds of garlic later, everybody was fed and watered. Above the Langar Hall it read, “The Lord Himself Is The Farm. Himself Is The Famer Himself. He Grows And Grinds The Corn”.
When leaving the morning activities, I went to get my banana shoes. They were gone. I then learnt, “if somebody takes your shoes from a temple, they take your karma with them”.