Tuesday, February 5, 2013

In Memoriam, In Celebration

As I recently read an article in Yoga International about satsang, directly following a poignant conversation with a friend and fellow bhakta about the loss of one of our community’s great souls, I began to ponder the depth and significance of this concept.  Satsang is usually translated as “good company” or “company of the wise”, its root stemming from the Sanskrit words sanga (a union or meeting) and sat (truth). Funny how you can intellectually understand the definition of a word for so long, but it isn’t until the Universe provides you with direct experience that your heart truly comes to know its meaning.

I just returned from my maiden voyage to Mother India. Yoga has been in my life loosely for around fifteen years, shifting to a major focus over the last six or seven. It started with just asana, seeing the practice as nothing more than exercise, until the time came when I was ready for a spiritual awakening and so the Universe provided it. We say life works in mysterious ways, which it often does, but sometimes it isn’t so hard to see how things unfold precisely when and how we need them to.

My path shifted from gross to subtle as I began to tune into the enchanting mantras that certain teachers would play during a pumping vinyasa class, and before long I was studying mantra and chanting myself. I started regularly attending what we call “satsang”, a weekly gathering for meditation and kirtan at the yoga studio I’ve now called my home and taught at for five years. Then came the yoga conferences and eventually the festivals and retreats.

It was during an indescribably beautiful Omega Institute retreat at Blue Spirit in Nosara, Costa Rica that I first met Shyamdas. Admittedly, the thought of a week with Sharon Gannon and David Life leading the asana practice, and Deva Premal and Miten chanting was what had attracted me to this incredible gathering. It was my 30th birthday present to myself. I was going to paradise, and I was ecstatic.

Ecstatic is another word that took on a whole new meaning for me that week when I came to know Shyamdas. This unassuming man wasn’t just some guy filling in the agenda between the Jivamukti and kirtan superstars. He was the glue holding everything and everyone together, as I’d learn in later experiences is pretty much the role he played everywhere he went. Shyamdas was many things to many people: teacher, mentor, friend, guide, brother, father, son. He was, and is, beloved by so very many, I believe because he has the rare and powerful gift to share his ecstatic energy through his sheer presence and bring all those around him into a space of satsang, a state of grace. Never had I met someone who radiated such humility, enthusiasm and pure, true light.

During that week at Blue Spirit I made many friends and many memories. In the time since, the one I held closest was sitting at breakfast with Shyam just talking. You could pose any question or introduce any subject, and then just sit back and enjoy the ride he’d take you on discussing it.  The depth of his passion was rivaled only by his depth of knowledge. And when he began with the lilas and led us in chanting of mantras, we all joined him in the bhav, transported to another space and time. To know him was to love him, truly.

It was because of this experience, and subsequent ones at bhakti gatherings back in the U.S., that I knew I absolutely had to see Shyam in India. I didn’t know him best, I didn’t know him longest, yet I had always felt this powerful bond with him, and if I was going to make the journey to India, then there was no way I was doing it without seeing my beloved teacher. He called me tenacious after learning of my itinerary: I’d take an overnight bus from Dharamsala to Delhi, connect with a car and driver who’d drive me roughly four hours to Vrindavan, continue a little further to meet Shyam in Gokul and, after our brief visit, spend another five and a half hours returning to Delhi to catch a flight to Bangalore first thing the following morning.  I might also mention this was done during a time of record low temperatures and persistent fog. I was a woman on a mission, though at the time, I couldn’t know how important that mission was.

My car stopped in a little square in Gokul. Through the haze, both mental from the rigors of travel and literal from the fog, a splendid face appeared by my window to lead me to Shyam. The face belonged to another captivated devotee of Shyam’s, Govind, and he took me down narrow alleys, through doorways and up stairs until we emerged on a rooftop. There he was, book in hand, with Ally by his side, laptop perched for translating, both of them serene and content. Another friend was there as well whose name unfortunately escapes me. The sun was finally peeking through the mist.

For those who have only known Shyam in a public environment, to see him in his home, in his space, is to see him on retreat. Just as we might go to Blue Spirit for a week or make a pilgrimage to India to “escape”, it seemed to me Shyamdas was enjoying that same sensation by being somewhere quiet, simple and uncrowded. He was at home in the land of his beloved Krishna. There was no performance to introduce, no kirtan to lead, no unending flow of people wanting to talk to him or bring him on stage. While he always handled those situations with total grace and came to them so naturally, being with him in this private setting showed a different kind of light emanating from his beautiful being.

We sat and talked. There was laughter and levity. It was decided we should take a walk down to the Yamuna. More stories were told. Monkeys were fed in the street. A particularly tenacious one, not unlike myself, surprised us all by running into a tiny temple and snatching a banana right off the altar, Shyam and Ally laughing and bewildered at the sight. Shyam said he’d never seen anything like that in all the years his spent making India his home.

Spontaneously Shyam suggested we hire a small boat and take a quick sail on the sacred Yamuna River, topped with foam from the pollution, glowing in the light of the soon-to-be-setting sun. Despite the cold and late hour, there was a boat right there and we set off. The sky began to turn shades of orange and pink before giving way to night. We were all peaceful and content. Never would I have imagined I’d be sitting with Shyam and Ally in such an incredible moment of satsang. Never would I have imagined it would be the last time I’d see Shyam.

They walked me back to my car, Shyam stopping along the way to buy a necklace of thin, tiny tulsi for me to wear. I put it around my neck, grateful and honored, and said goodbye with my hands in Anjali mudra, prayer, reverence, as it would have been inappropriate to hug him in public there. He told me to email him, and I said I would.

I never had a chance to send that email. Two weeks later I would return to my home in Kannur, Kerala after a weekend at a nearby ashram to learn via a mutual friend on Facebook that Shyamdas had left his body.  I was stunned and it took a couple hours of trying to gather details, find someone in India I could talk to about Ally, praying and chanting to Krishna with all my might before an overwhelming flood of tears overtook me. As the tears came, I understood that the love I felt for Shyam, more than anything, was that of a daughter toward her father. He was my spiritual father in many ways, guiding and inspiring me through his example and presence. I lost my own father a few years back, and I cried from the depths of my soul for them both in those moments.

Fast-forward a couple more weeks, and my time in India is drawing to a close. I’ve experienced grief and sadness, but also the comfort and strength fostered by the satsang of our incredible kirtan community who came together to not just mourn the loss of Shyam’s life, but honor his lasting legacy and celebrate his union with Krishna. As I made the drive back to Bangalore to catch my flight to the U.S., I stopped along the way at a few temples by the roadside. I’d been practicing japa mala in the car, the tulsi necklace along with a treasured necklace of my father’s traveling with me in the same pouch as my mala beads. At some point, mala in hand, when I got out of the car to pray at one of those temples, the pouch must have fallen out.

At first I was devastated at the loss of the sacred tokens of these two men I loved so dearly. Backtracking through the night to find the pouch proved fruitless. In the light of the following day, I felt a wave of peace wash over me, as I understood nothing had been lost. They wanted to stay in India. The physical piece of Shyamdas and my father I had carried with me was meant to be at home in this magical land, the land of Krishna, the land of love. There they shall remain, just as their memory and all the gifts they gave shall remain in my heart.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Lost and found

It's been just shy of six weeks and once again I find myself in an airport, trying to process the emotions that surface when taking a big journey. I've traveled by plane, train, bus, car, taxi, auto rickshaw, boat and motorcycle. I've crossed the globe, crossed from the north to the south of the Indian subcontinent, crossed cultural boundaries and perhaps most significantly, crossed personal borders. What a long, strange trip it's been!

There's been a lot of lost and found on this journey. Loss of life touched me directly not once but twice in India. In both instances I found the singular connectedness that death can foster in those who remain to be a source of so much joy and comfort that it far outweighed the grief. I lost the token of my father that I have carried with me since his passing, a gold mezzuzah he'd worn on a chain around his neck. I kept it with me in the same pouch that held my mala beads and would wear it around my own neck while praying, meditating and other such sacred moments. Recently added to that pouch was a delicate tulsi necklace given to me here in India by Shyamdas, another token of a dearly departed soul who touched my life in so many ways. I can only interpret the loss of these two necklaces to mean that neither my father nor Shyamdas wanted to leave India. They found a home here, so the little piece of them that I physically carried with me shall remain. A little piece of me will too as I've found myself very much at home here.

I've lost any qualms imbedded in me by western upbringing when it comes to things like squat toilets, eating with your hands or belching freely for all to hear. I've found I delight in customs like never passing something to another person through a doorway, touching your heart in apology should your foot come into contact with someone and sitting around a "torch" chatting with whoever happens to have popped by during the scheduled power outages. There's a certain beauty and simplicity to these things that I find so compelling.

I lost the notion that I'd be hard pressed to connect to an Indian man, having met someone who I've undoubtedly shared many lifetimes with. But I also found that I am very attached to my independence and autonomy and struggled hard to be authentically amorous in a place that heavily restricts outward signs of affection. I've been in interracial and interfaith relationships before, more so than with partners that match me with those particular demographics, so I have an understanding of what it takes to nurture a relationship between individuals of distinct backgrounds. Yet even with that experience and my fascination with all things Indian, this particular cultural divide seemed so great I never thought I'd cross it romantically. I'd now say that is partially true, but not in all cases. I've found that love is love no matter where you are from, and while we may not readily see it's outward signs if our eye is untrained, they're always there. It's down to the lovers involved to find a language of their own to communicate in, to transcend the boundaries. 

Also lost is a little bit of my ego, while the recognition of how much is left to sublimate has been found loud and clear. It's easy to be all "peace, love and lentils" when you're on vacation, away from the stresses and expectations of life at home, flowing along. But when things go pear-shaped and life gets challenging, so often it's our ego that takes over in the form of anger, fear, jealousy, etc and it is in those moments that we can truly gauge just how big our ego truly is. I've been consciously working to be a more patient and compassionate individual for quite some time now, and for the most part that is exactly the face that showed up during my time in India. Yet during the few stressful moments that arose, I saw I still have much ground to cover, and I welcome it.

Life is largely about finding balance, and so I'd say between all that was lost and all that was found on this adventure, I'm emerging more balanced than when I started out. I've had the experience I so longed for, immersing myself in such a magical place, connecting deeper to my spirituality, coming to know more about my own inner workings as well as the world I inhabit. I connected to old relationships and forged new ones. I've come to appreciate my past and my foundation in a new way while simultaneously forming a new vision for what my future could hold. The trip may have been long and strange in ways, but it was also completely magical, informative and inspired, everything I hoped and more, leaving me feeling very balanced and centered in the present moment. What more could I ask for than that?


"Ok, goodbye," he said with a quick hug that wouldn't cause any undue notice among the mass of strangers surrounding us at the airport. Though we didn't know most of them, there was one friend of his with us for navigation purposes, and this friend didn't really know me well. So despite us having just shared weeks of intimacy and traveling solo together for days around various parts of Kerala and Karnataka, two consensual adults having their fun, what was happening between us in private was not fit for public consumption in India. Welcome to the land of oh-so many contradictions.

This aspect of the last leg of my journey was as frustrating as it was exhilarating. I ended up meeting someone in Kannur, and cast in a certain light, it was all very romantic in the way of novels and movie scripts. Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. They come from different lands, different backgrounds, different norms. They're both strongly attracted at a subtle level, sharing deeply meaningful conversations from the start. Spiritual beings that they are, they believe there is a soul connection, yet can't be totally sure of the other's feelings because there's the chance of incorrectly translating the signals across cultural bounds. Finally the moment presents itself for some private time and their mutual affection is revealed. Sparks fly.

From there it began as stolen moments, lest anyone find out who might deem the affair inappropriate. By anyone, I mean practically everyone because we're in India after all, and not presently in a big city that would afford the degree of anonymity and modernity that would make such a tryst no big thing. Effectively permission had to be sought from those closest to us (by him, not me, of course) and even then, we had to be very careful about how and where we interacted.

Let me tell you how this sort of thing can drive an independent, passionate western woman a bit crazy! 

One of the things that confuses me most about the Indian culture is the way love and affection are shown. The interactions between men and women can be very curious to someone who comes from a more sexualized society where freedom of expression in most all ways is encouraged, at least among the crowd I run with. On the one hand, you look at traditional Indian dance with its stunningly beautiful, sensual women, dressed and decorated provocatively, using their hands, eyes, hips and every other body part as an expression of love. This is a completely acceptable aspect of the culture, considered an expression of love for the Divine, but who could argue that it isn't tantalizing and evocative for the opposite sex? You have Bollywood, MTV and the like showing gorgeous men and women, dressed and dancing to evoke all the blatant sexuality and party-crazed focus that you'd find elsewhere. You've got places like Goa and big city night clubs. And yet on the other hand, many here still consider even the most innocent of interactions between a man and a woman entirely unsuitable for anyone else's eyes.

In many places you'll rarely see a couple holding hands in public. Often wives walk behind their husbands, ride sideways off the back of the motorcycle so as not to inappropriately touch the driver, stay home at night while their men are out and about. What I might consider a completely innocent touch could be seen by prying eyes everywhere as scandalous. Some men won't even shake a woman's hand, lest he invade her personal space. All this is evolving in bigger metropolitan areas, but I wasn't in one of them at the time this relationship blossomed, so I had to get a crash course in what I could and couldn't get away with. We jokingly established touching and no touching zones while riding on the bike, but I still felt stung every time I confused the two and was told "no" by the man who was so attentive and expressive toward me at other times.

It is mainly for this reason I'd never really considered the prospect of meeting an Indian man on this trip. I just didn't think I'd have the opportunity to get close enough to anyone for that type of connection to be revealed. I also didn't think I could deal well with this particular cultural divide, even having so easily embraced many aspects of the Indian way. I was wrong about the former, but I was not far off base about the latter. 

I tried my very best to accept what I intellectually understood to be necessary, but emotionally it was a big challenge. I'm a self made woman who has accumulated enough experience to know what she likes and wants, and how to express that. Adults living with their parents, ever-present neighbors, aunties and everyone else keeping watch over your comings and goings, public displays of affection as taboo, it's just all a bit much to take when you live alone in total privacy and have years of experience and cultural conditioning that tells you love is celebrated and expressed, often in at least a semi-public way. To me, walking hand in hand with your honey is a sweet pleasure of being in a relationship. Kisses goodbye that linger on your lips fan the flames of longing. The freedom to be comfortably in your own space with your lover allow you to get to know each other ever more intimately. Take those away because you so seldom have privacy and suddenly the whole game changes.

India certainly isn't all bad where love is concerned.  Love takes on a general, communal form here. Romantic intimacy between couples may be largely hidden behind bedroom doors, but you get love from a broad, welcoming community that acts like one big family in so many ways. There is something very special about that, and that is hugely different from western ways.  Being forced to be pretty puritanical and chaste so often actually causes you to take note and appreciate every little touch and gesture all the more. There's a youthful innocence to the exchanges that is novel at first. Maybe that charm would hold longer for some. For me though it was the source of some inner turmoil, and in that perfunctory airport goodbye, I knew for sure this was not something I could tolerate for the long haul. 

I felt jarred by the abrupt goodbye, expecting one more tender exchange between us before I returned to my corner of the world and he to his. He'd implored me to keep in touch, asking when I'll return, speaking of a future together that deep down I believe we both know isn't likely to become manifest. I, being more of a realist and having had the flames of the romance dampened by all the cultural restraints, encouraged us to just live our lives happily and leave the rest in God's hands. Despite that, I still reacted to the pain of that last moment. He professed so much love yet left me there so unceremoniously, so unaffectionately, that it took me a few minutes to reconcile his actions as being typical of the place and circumstance, not personal toward me. And though I was physically still on Indian soil, that exchange catapulted me out of the dream state of this journey and back to my reality. I come from a land where love takes on a very different public image than it does in India, and for better or worse, I carry that ideal with me. I look forward to returning to where I am free to love, and to show that love, without restraint.

Thank you, Mother India, for all you've given and taught me. Thank you, dear lover, for the many beautiful moments we shared. Thank you, to everyone who has been part of this journey. There is no sadness in my departure now, only peace and love. And if it is the will of the Universe that I should return to India, something I believe will come to pass, then so I shall, ready to learn more about love and all the lessons this land holds.