I hoist my backpack up higher and buckle the hip straps. Pull the laces of my worn black Frye combat boots tighter, wrap them around each ankle and double knot them. In the heat of midday, it feels like a thousand degrees in the scorching Himalayan sun, and I have all of my belongings either on or strapped to me. The distance ahead is not far, but it is fettered with traffic and turns, uphill and down. I focus forward, one foot in front of the other, slowly repeating a mantra to myself.
“Om mani padme hum,” the Buddhist mantra of compassion. Although the meaning of this mantra is complex in that each syllable represents the purification of the corresponding six realms of existence, it can be roughly translated as, “Hail to the jewel in the lotus.” It teaches compassion for others, and in turn, compassion for the self.
It is with the essence of compassion in mind that I set forth towards the Anand Prakash Ashram in Tapovan, Rishikesh. In my search for a home in India, and above all: a yoga teacher, I repeatedly found my path directed to Anand Prakash.
The course was full, I already knew this. I had gone a day prior with one of the Kaivalya Misfits to inquire about the month-long yoga teacher training. When we arrived to the ashram’s lobby, we were politely–and promptly– told our questions could only be answered by the teacher and he was expected to arrive the following day.
Later that afternoon, my Kaivalya buddy told me he decided to venture further into the Himalayas in search of his truth– that a Sadhu he met who read his face and soul’s intention like a book he knows by heart– told him he would not find what he was looking for in Rishikesh. So with a leap of faith he carried on North, leaving me to continue on my own, alone as I had been when I arrived to New Delhi in the middle of the night only ten days earlier.
I find myself standing in front of Anand Prakash. A golden-hued multi-story house, with vine-covered balconies and a lush garden nestled between the ashram’s entrance and the reception area. Potted green plants happily soaking up the afternoon sunshine, orange and red flowers setting an attractive contrast to the yellow of the facade.
I wipe the dampness from my face with my butter-cream cashmere shawl and step inside. The same gentleman from the day before stands behind the desk. He looks up as I enter, stares for a moment, and with a face of recognition bids me “Namaste. Welcome back.” I bow my head, hands in namaskar, before releasing the hip straps of my pack and settling it on the ground at my feet.
Cool air blows from a fan, and Rawat invites me to help myself to a cup of fresh cold water. “Why did you not call? The teacher is not yet here. He will arrive in three hours approximately,” he tells me. I respond that I do not mind, I will wait. There is nowhere else I would rather be, nothing more important for me to do.
“But what will you do?” he asks.
“I will meditate,” I tell him.
For the next two hours I sat in stillness, meditating on the mantra of compassion. With each repetition of “Om mani padme hum,” my mind quieted further, sending me deeper and deeper into a state of supportive calm. As I practiced this fundamental aspect of yoga known as japa, my heart rate and breathing slowed. I could no longer feel the sensation of the sun’s heat, nor the burden of insecurity or fear. I felt weightless and protected.
Japa, or the repetition of a mantra or a word–usually in conjunction with the use of a mala– is a powerful aspect of traditional yoga which relates directly to the yogic limb of Pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses leading to relaxation, self-awareness and stability.
My experience with sitting two 10 day Vipassana silent meditation courses in 2014 gave me a solid foundation for meditation practice. I learned the art of sitting with strong determination, an internal battle of willpower versus ego, response to sensations, and scattered excuse-making.
Japa helps my meditation go further– it becomes something of a work of art, each repetition like a note of an ethereal song, only to be heard in the moment, from within.
Rawat interjects my internal chanting with a gentle hand on my shoulder. “You go eat lunch now,” he tells me. I think to decline, but reconsider, bowing my head in gratitude. The dining room is small, brightly lit, and half-full of yogis sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of little tables. I take a seat near the door and observe my dining companions. Serene smiles and gentle energy abounds, making me feel welcome, dispelling any worry of interrupting the meal.
I am served lentils and rice by a beautiful young woman, with a big smile and glittering chestnut eyes. She winks at me as she pours, and I wink back. I later learn her name is Niru and she is from Nepal. Each spoonful from Niru is like a dose of pure love.
After a heart-and-belly-warming lunch, I take up my seat in the garden, with the intention of continuing my meditation. A commotion stirs as the ashram dog races out the front door and into the street. I am told the bus of students has arrived. The teacher is finally here. My heart starts to pound. My palms sweat. So much for hours of meditation, I am experiencing an extreme sense of nervousness.
I close my eyes and practice deep belly breaths. There is nothing to be nervous about, I tell myself. I know why I am here and I know that I am on the right path. I am following my truth. The teacher, if he is the one, will know this too.
Cheerful students file into the courtyard, chatting and taking photos of the ashram’s luscious entrance. Amongst the crowd, I spot a bearded man wearing white with a mala around his neck. My gut instantly tells me that this is the man I came to see. He notices me too and our eyes lock for a brief moment. He nods and disappears in the crowd of students and teachers.
Moments later Yogrishi Vishvketu reappears in the garden beside me.
“Are you here for the course?” he asks me. I tell him that I am, provided he will accept me as his student. He sits next to me in a wicker chair, tucking his bare feet in the grass underneath and clasping his hands.
I begin to describe the journey leading up our introduction. The revelation I experienced sitting in a Vipassana course in the Andes of Colombia only a few months prior– the realization that my path would not be one of strict Vipassana meditation– I knew in my heart I had to pursue yoga.
He listens intently, watching me with kind eyes. I tell him about my arrival to Rishikesh, finding out the yoga school I had chosen was not what I expected it to be, searching high and low through all of Rishikesh for a place where I would pursue my studies, searching for my teacher.
“Everything inside of me tells me this is where I am meant to be,” I say.
“You have been waiting,” he responds.
“Yes,” I tell him, “I have been waiting and meditating on compassion. The time flew by.”
He says he recognizes the effects of the japa, that he recognizes me somehow. He goes on to tell me that I am very lucky. A single student had to drop out last minute from the course. There was not enough time for another student to board a plane to India and make their way to Rishikesh.
“You are meant to be here,” he tells me. My eyes fill with tears. Tears of joy and relief, streaming down my face as words of gratitude tumble from my lips. He stands. I stand. We hug. In his hug I feel certainty in the preceding notion of truth in my path leading me to Anand Prakash and to Yogrishi Vishvketu.
I have found my teacher.
He gives me one strong pat on the back and ushers me toward the opening ceremony in the ashram’s courtyard. Flowers and incense, prayers and smiles, I am home.