What I wanted for my birthday was to just relax in the mountains, do yoga, hang out in coffee shops and not worry about budgets or practicalities or anything really.
What India gave me for my birthday was two days (including my birthday) with no access to my funds because both of the ATMs in town were broken, leaving me to stretch 300 rupees over those two days. What India also gave me was a two day philosophical head trip that cumulated in me sitting on a rock under a tree in the middle of the Ganga with a Swami1 discussing religion, God, love, relationships and life.
“Rishikesh” is really a loose collection of neighborhoods/villages that are about a 20-30 minute walk from each other. Rishikesh became famous in the 1960s when the Beatles came to do yoga in a now closed ashram and write the songs that became The White Album. It has long been a holy town for Hindus, largely because it straddles the Ganges. Since the 1960s, it has added to its spiritual identity in this formation of a western-oriented New Age spiritual and yoga center. The two neighborhoods where Western travelers congregate the most around are Luxum Jhula and Ram Jhula, each with their own pedestrian foot bridge of the same name that is usually teeming with people and monkeys.
I checked into an ashram in Luxum Jhula Friday morning too late to do yoga, as most of the classes are scheduled in the mornings. The ashram I stayed at offered hatha yoga2, which I tried Saturday morning to the unsurprising discovery that hatha yoga drives me nuts. I think we spent more time in savasana than not and I was crammed up against a sink that made many of the poses difficult. The class was not only ill suited for me, but poorly taught, so I spent Saturday afternoon looking for ashtanga3 courses. During the search, I ended up signing up for a day trip white water rafting down the Ganges Sunday.
So, I spent Sunday getting thoroughly acquainted with India’s holy river. One memorable moment involved me and most of our raft getting dumped into a class III+ and swimming the rapid while I held onto the life line of the raft with one hand while holding on to both my paddle and my pants with the other hand. My pants are a size too big and it turns out, when you add water and remove the belt, they become two sizes too big. I very nearly lost them, which would have made for an interesting walk through town afterward.
Another memorable moment exemplifies so many of the people that flock to Rishikesh. Kristen, a woman that I had chatted with for a bit was talking to another woman about her guesthouse. The other woman said “Swami So-and-So said we should stay at [Guesthouse]. And when Swami So-and-So tells you to do something, you do it.”
Some people need their Path laid out for them, with another to pull them along the path and tell them how and who they should be. Rishikesh is filled with these people, starry eyed over charismatic spiritual leaders, taking in every word and direction and trotting along Swami So-and-So’s path accordingly.
I am not, and will never be, one of those people, though I understand the appeal of it. Carving out and building your own path in life, spiritual or otherwise, is fucking hard. I’m a fan of the piece meal approach: I learn from the teachers that cross my path, the things I like, I keep, the things I don’t, I discard. I am the architect of my own path.
After whitewater rafting, I started out on the path from Luxum Jhula to Ram Jhula in search of an ashtanga yoga course and to go to the ATM.
Along the way, a Swami walking along the same path asked me how I was. “I’m fine, and you?” I responded automatically.
“I am super-fine!” He said exuberantly.
Like my gel pens, I thought to myself.
This turned into a conversation over chai at a street side chai stall. Swami Sanatan, known better at Ladu Baba4, has a simple message that he had printed on little cards and posters – both of which have no contact information at all, as he insists that is not the point and detracts from the message.
LIFE IS SHORT, FIX YOUR MIND ON GOD
TIME IS PASSING FAST, YOUR DEATH IS WAITING.
FOLLOW YOUR INTUITION, LISTEN TO YOUR INNER VOICE
OPEN YOUR THIRD EYE, WAKE UP
EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE, GOD BLESS YOU
Ladu Baba is a former businessman who reminded me a bit of Santa Claus.
If Santa Claus was five foot even, Hindu, with not an once of extra fat on him, wearing a bright orange wrap, and barefoot.
I make the comparison because his eyes, half hidden between bushy eyebrows and his mustache, have that warm twinkle and his laugh is deep and from the gut. His small frame is filled with a simple love and acceptance and he carries himself with that peace you sometimes see in deeply spiritual people of all faiths.
Chai turned into sitting in a cafe eating chocolate banana samosas. Our conversation danced around life and possibilities and direction and spirituality.
“What do you want, Amy?
“I want to leave a mark on those closest to me in this lifetime. I want to be remembered.”
“Yes, but where are you going?”
“… I don’t know.”
“Amy is aimless. When you find the aim, then you can be complete.”
Our conversation was nothing earth shattering or particularly brilliant. It was a simple philosophical exchange between people. The whole time, one line of my mental thought was roughly: My life is so damned bizarre. I can’t believe that I am sitting here having this conversation with this guy.
He was very excited that my birthday was the next day and said that it would be a very special day and that he wanted to be a part of it, so we planned to meet after my morning yoga class on my birthday. Before we parted was, he placed his fingers to his red dot on his forehead and marked my own forehead and throat with the red, solemnly stating, “This is my love for you.”
Both the ATMs in Ram Jhula were down (the next closest one is a rather long rickshaw ride away, a rickshaw ride that I’d have to pay for). I was told that they’d be back up in the morning – something that I would have to take care of before yoga class or risk running out of cash completely.
The morning of my birthday, the yoga studio I wanted to practice in turned out to be closed on Mondays. My second option was also a moot point because I noticed that the ATM was still down and all I had on me was 300 rupees ($6.75). I usually budget 100 rupees ($2.25) per meal. While I can eat for less than that, a 200 rupee yoga class was out of the question. I made do with my own yoga practice, a little grumpy that I came all this way to do yoga and seemed to have everything standing in the way of me doing so.
After breakfast, Ladu Baba and I spent several hours in the Ganges near the ashram he was staying in. Not in the Ganges as in the river itself, we rock hopped to a large rock that was under one of the trees that grows in rocks and we continued our discussion. Life. Love. Religion. Relationships. Sex. Energy. Temples. I couldn’t begin to chronicle the conversation.
Immediately before retreating to the rock, I had politely declined to join him in prostration before his ashram temple. I always show respect in the temples and churches that I visit around the world. Regardless of how I feel about the God or Goddess in question, the… energy a church/temple/shrine acquires after years of devotion and worship is palpable even to me and I respect that. But respect is not the same as worship, and to me prostration is worship.
Sitting on that rock in the middle of the Ganges, listening to the sounds of the river, which drown out all other sounds but that of our selves, I said
“I am not a spiritual person. But if I was, the river, the forest, the mountains, the Earth itself would be my temple.”
“Fah. I do not believe you. If you are not a spiritual person, what are you doing sitting here talking to Babaji?”
He dug out some Indian milk sweets to celebrate my birthday and wrapped my wrists in the traditional red and yellow threads of protection (to ward off evil). He gifted me with one of his strings of holy beads and a Hindu spiritual name:
It means divine mother.
I needed a break. To process, to think, to write in my journal a bit. I left him for a few hours, promising to meet him for a puja5 in Ram Jhula that evening. On this “break,” I ate a late lunch and ran into a man that I had seen several times over the past few days. He looks a lot like a friend of mine back home and twice now I had wanted to chat with him in familiarity’s name. So, I sat down and introduced myself this time. We chatted for a bit and I joked about how the universe did not want me to do yoga.
“Why do you do yoga?”
“Because it is one of the few times where, if I push myself hard enough, my mind shuts up and I simply am.”
[In a thick Hebrew accent] “That is futile, why do you want your mind to shut up? It is like sitting at a bus stop yelling at traffic to stop. If you saw someone doing that, you would call the men in the white coats to take them away.”
This conversation continued along the lines of searching for your Self. “You cannot find your self, because your self is not tangible. It always is. By searching, you are already looking in the wrong place.”
The Universe, apparently, did not want to cut me some philosophical slack on my birthday.
When I returned to Ram Jhula for the puja, the ATM was still broken. I sat through the puja, one part of my mind thinking about the ceremony, watching the way the statue of Shiva seemed to glow in the setting sun, thinking about how powerful the place felt with all the attendees crowded in the riverside temple for the ceremony. The other part of my mind was like: Fuck.
I have 150 rupees after judicially eating – both on the cheap and timed so lunch was late enough that I could skip dinner. Tomorrow, I check out and need to pay for my bus ticket and I still need to eat. 150 rupees. Fuck.
By the end of the puja, this train of thought had shifted. Yes, 150 rupees is less than ideal. But I can work with that. I have food, I have myself, the rest will fall into place.
The ATM was working on the way back from the puja. (I ended up treating myself to dinner and a conversation with a fellow traveler that had absolutely nothing to do with the meaning of life.)
As we walked back to Luxum Jhula, I asked the barefoot Baba:
“Do you ever step in stuff particularly icky?”
“It is my karma.”
A moment later, he grimaced and wiped his foot on the pavement. “Bad karma.”
And, in the morning, the yoga studio that taught Ashtanga, the one that was closed on Mondays, had changed the time of their class from 8:30 to 8 am and had not bothered to change their sign.
The Universe did not remotely give me what I wanted for my birthday.
But it is possible that it gave me exactly what I needed.
1 “”Swami”, used as a prefix usually referred to human beings who have taken the oath of renunciation the person abandons his social status, including a monastic name. The monastic name is usually a single word i.e. there is no title/firstname/lastname.” Source: Wikipedia.
2 “Hatha is a very general term that can encompass many of the physical types of yoga. If a class is described as Hatha style, it is probably going to be slow-paced and gentle and provide a good introduction to the basic yoga poses.” Source.
3 “Ashtanga…is a fast-paced, intense style of yoga. A set series of poses is performed, always in the same order. Ashtanga practice is very physically demanding because of the constant movement from one pose to the next. In yoga terminology, this movement is called flow. Ashtanga is also the inspiration for what is often called Power Yoga. If a class is described as Power Yoga, it will be based on the flowing style of Ashtanga, but not necessarily keep strictly to the set Ashtanga series of poses.” (Ibid)
4 Baba is an honorific for a wise old man in several South Asian cultures.
5 Puja – a religious ritual performed by Hindus as an offering to various deities, distinguished persons, or special guests. It is done on a variety of occasions and settings, from daily puja done in the home, to temple ceremonies and large festivals, or to begin a new venture. Puja is modeled on the idea of giving a gift or offering to a deity or important person and receiving their blessing. Source: Wikipedia.