I met Amma with my family around 2010 on one of her North American stops. As I arrived this time to Amritapuri, I was looking for the Amrita Yoga Retreat. I found the 4-Day Beginners Retreat in January 2015 right in place during my time of stay.
I happily registered and was surprised that an Indian Brahmacharini was leading the retreat. I was curious to know more about Indian culture and Indian women. Brahmacharini Shobhana was very much plugged into Amma’s vigour and joy. She infused a vital spiritual understanding into the asana practice.
During one of our classes, Brahmacharini Shobhana directed us to do three asanas we disliked followed by three asanas we liked. She was bringing our attention to our thoughts in how we react in each asana. Ultimately, I could feel it didn’t matter whether we did the asanas we liked well or struggled in the poses we disliked. The point was not how far we could bend or stretch but to observe what happens in our minds while doing the asana.
It was such a direct example of how our minds react to likes and dislikes. What was interesting to me was that, in the end, there was no difference between the two. There was a lesson in detachment and equanimity in both cases. Now, if only I could apply that to my life!
When she asked me if I would write an article, I knew I wanted to focus on this important difference between Amrita Yoga at Amritapuri and Yoga in the West as I had come to know it.
I had been taking ‘yoga’ or asana classes for many years. It was my way of staying connected to the yoga I had been introduced by an instructor from the Swami Satyananda School of Bihar. This was the traditional yoga with all the forms, dhyana, karma, and various practices such as sakshi bhava (observing the mind), ajapa, japa, pranayama, etc. Of course, I found none of this in my daily ‘yoga’ classes! The teachers bring knowledge, and many of them care about their students. But they ultimately focus on the body, on alignment and proper form.
In the West, teachers pay large amounts of money to be trained in a certain ‘brand’ such as Iyengar, Bikram, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Moksha, etc. They are expected to not deviate from the set format. Classes are always packed and yoga in the form of an exercise class has become hugely popular!
Unfortunately for us Westerners, there is no mention of the spiritual purpose of yoga. We largely live in a secular society where the idea of God is either institutionalized or rejected outright by a scientific rationalism. None of the forms focus on Karma Yoga, the yoga of purifying oneself from the constant swing between running towards our likes and running away from our dislikes.
Ultimately, it is the goal of yoga to merge with the source that is Unconditional Love.
In our society, this would be anathema, as our whole economy is fueled by our desires, which can never be fulfilled! Karma Yoga in a class in the West means simply that you can clean the bathroom in exchange for a free class.
Devotion is also non-existent; in a society that celebrates individualism, we are taught from a young age to outcompete each other in a race to happiness based on acquisition.
Surya Namaskarah, for example, a deeply devotional worship of the Sun that sustains life in our planet, is never taught that way. It is simply jumping into each posture while looking at yourself in the mirror!
Bhakti Yoga is non-existent. The various yoga lineages have their leaders but they are revered as masters of their bodies, not their minds. There are exceptions such as Swami Sivananda’s great lineages.
We do worship the body in the West, but it is in complete identification with the body alone. The idea of a higher consciousness animating the body is non-existent. The body is simply a vehicle to attract health, sex and wealth, not a vehicle for Liberation.
I remember one older yoga teacher, who once shocked her class when she said that yoga would not keep the body from dying! These Lululemon-clad ladies had either never thought about death or else maybe had thought they could live forever, like rock stars!
Amazingly, yoga still manages to help us in the West even in its watered-down form. I have seen people find a temporary relief from the stress of the rat race. Some become vegetarian, others quit stressful careers to follow a simpler more holistic life. Others discover meditation in the form of Buddhist practices; as meditation is also never taught in yoga, the Buddhists have taken the initiative.
Yoga with a Living Master
Reflecting on all this, I imagine how much my yoga friends would benefit from Amrita Yoga. It would expand from a narrow focus on the body to encompass all the paths of yoga. I imagine the peace they would feel if they practiced here at Amritapuri in the presence of a living master.
I could imagine a dawning of a higher consciousness in the form of Amma’s mantra chanting throughout the practice, humming through their bodies. They could feel higher knowledge being gently infused, not through ideas in a book but as living ideas. They offer themselves to something higher as they stretch their arms and chests to offer their hearts to Divinity in whatever way they imagine or connect to. They would be introduced to Karma Yoga in the various volunteering possibilities at Amritapuri. These include working at the Tulsi gardens, working in the kitchens, even carrying flyers in the Kali temple!
Finally, they would be introduced to the heart of yoga, the path to liberation, the whole reason Amrita Yoga is different from the other yoga schools. Because at the heart of it all is a living master, Amma. She represents and embodies the perfection of yoga, and meeting the result of all these practices is hugely inspiring!
In Amma, all the branches of yoga merge. She is an embodiment of the perfect Karma Yogini; her whole life is service to humanity. To see her endlessly showering selfless love to everyone who comes to her all while managing her huge organization is awe-inspiring. My meditator friends found their practices galvanized in the presence of Amma, who is completely established in the state of Oneness they are striving for. Just sitting in her presence would effortlessly give them a glimpse of the higher states of meditation.
I imagine the peace they would feel if they practiced here at Amritapuri in the presence of a living master.
The Realm of the Heart
Finally, if they have the courage to abandon their prejudices against the idea of a Living Master, they could take the leap of faith out of the realm of the intellect into the realm of the heart. By having her embrace called darshan, they experienced Bhakti Yoga in the form of awakened love in their hearts and start “Living From The Heart”. This is our philosophy of living Amrita Yoga.
Of all the things we miss most in the West, this is the most poignant; as we are disconnected from love. Many of us had or have difficult families and relationships. We live in isolation and crave a deeper connection to each other. Amma’s embrace is so universal that we experience the possibility of feeling love on that scale. Ultimately, it is the goal of yoga to merge with the source that is Unconditional Love. This is the love that has no conditioning, no conditions, no obstacles—just a flow, a spontaneous flow.
As always, thoughtful comments are invited and appreciated. Share your reflections with us! See below to leave a comment.