Swami Veda Bharati initiated Richard in the Himalayan Yoga Tradition. Richard is the President of the Yoga Health Institute and is a published author of "Naked Before God." He is a guest teacher in the Himalayan Yoga Tradition, an international lecturer, Yoga Health Coach, certified Herbalist, Certified Ayurveda Nutrition Practitioner, member of the California Yoga Teachers Association and member of the International Association for Yoga Therapists. This article was reprinted with permission of the author.
When I met Swami Veda Bharati for the first time at Gurudev Walt Baptiste's memorial in 2001 at his daughter's, Sherri Baptiste's, house we talked for a total of one minute. Then in September of 2003 I met him again at a lecture in Marin County. At the end of his lecture I told him I felt stuck and if he was willing to help out I was willing to listen. I was hoping he would be able to meet with me privately before I returned to Modesto later that afternoon. He shut his eyes for a minute. Opened them up and said, "O.K., give my assistant your email address and get mine. We'll talk later." That took about thirty seconds of conversation.
Two months later, after a couple of brief emails back and forth, I received an email from him inviting me for a forty-day silent retreat to his Ashram in Rishikesh, India. I silently clamored, "Forty days of silence! No way. He's got the wrong guy! He made a mistake." Surely, he must have entered the wrong email address. I wasn't even familiar with his background, nor the Himalayan Yoga Tradition as it was passed down from Bengali Baba to Swami Rama to him. "Besides, he doesn't even know who I am." I mumbled aloud.
I shuttered to think what my students would say if I wasn't able to remain silent for forty days. My poor ego was already suffering before I even made my decision to go. Over the next two weeks I meditated on his invitation and to my utter surprise the message stayed the same. That inner voice kept repeating, "Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes." I trusted it and emailed back and said, "I accept." His response was simple and to the point, "Good. Get the details of what you need to bring and any travel arrangements you need from my assistant, Silvia."
Even though in my twenty-seven plus years of doing Yoga I had never done a silent retreat, I knew in my heart of hearts that I was ready for my next step in my spiritual growth and that this was it.
My next challenge: What to do with my business, the Yoga Health Institute? Who would teach while I was away? How would I keep the doors open? My friend and close business associate, Lucy, said, "Don't worry. You started a business from scratch. You can start a new one if it totally fails while you're gone. Let your students run the center. Trust, Richard," she said. She beamed from ear to ear as she spoke.
So I made the necessary arrangements with key students who were involved in a five-year Yoga apprenticeship program with me. Everything was arranged. All the pieces were put into place. I was ready to go or so I thought.
Getting there was like a Charlie Chaplin Hollywood movie. The day I was supposed to leave I missed my flight.
I smiled as I sipped a Chai tea at an outdoor café, Café Deva, in Modesto as I looked over my ticket thinking that my flight left at 12:15 noon. I looked at my sterling silver Citizens watch. It said 7:00 AM. I had plenty of time to get to San Francisco International. Then I began to stare at the time on my ticket. It was written 12:15 but right after that it said AM in small print. I thought, "Singapore airlines made a mistake, 12:15 is PM and 00:15 is AM."
I called Kim at the travel agency and she informed me my flight left seven hours ago.
I spoke hurriedly to her, "Book a new flight. Just get me there on time." She tried to book another flight that would get me there in time for when the retreat started but to no avail. "Cancel everything. My insurance will cover all the moneys already spent," I said feeling, ironically, a bit of relief, thinking to myself, "Well I dodged that bullet."
Somewhat relieved and disappointed at the same time I went back to the Yoga Health Institute, sat down at the computer and began contemplating how to tell Swami Veda I wasn't coming. I was in the process of creating my email to India when my business associate looked over my shoulder and read my email to Swami Veda. She exclaimed, "Don't send that! Just take a forty-day vacation and arrive whenever you can. Go make new arrangements and enjoy yourself. So you don't do forty days of silence. Relax. Enjoy India. Travel around using the Ashram in Rishikesh as your base camp."
I hesitated, then thought, "Why not, I need a vacation." I called the travel agency once again and as I started to speak, Kim, said, "Oh, by the way I was able to get you on another flight day after tomorrow and was just about to call you. It's only a hundred dollars more. You'll arrive two days late but in time to start your retreat." With a great big smile on my face, "Book it," I said.
Upon arriving in New Delhi I was treated like a king. I was chauffeured to the hotel, the Raddison, a five-star hotel, located by the international airport. I highly suggest staying in five-star hotels in India. You deserve it. It's an experience well worth having while you are in India.
The Ashram sent a taxi to pick me up and take me to Rishikesh, a six-hour trip. They failed to tell me what traffic was like on the highway let alone anything about how they drove in India.
I was about to be introduced to "demolition derby" Indian style. The next day my trip to Rishikesh from New Delhi was a ride to hell and back. I was a passenger with a kamikaze pilot in blood alley. He did his best to run off the road oncoming cars, bicycles, bullock carts and motorbikes. He left his best for the buses. He challenged oncoming buses like he was Attila the Hun. I thought, "If I get to Rishikesh in one piece it will be beyond a miracle." With that I relaxed into what might be my last breath.
After my arrival and a day of recuperation Swami Veda called for me. He gave me two secret mantras with which to begin the forty-day silent retreat. The first mantra I was to use in four different one-hour meditations in each of the forty days. The second mantra I was to chant in the other two hours of meditation each day. And whenever my eyes were open, and when I wasn't in a formal meditation, I was to chant the second mantra, making it my faithful companion.
His instructions were simple: "Meditate six hours a day. Do Yoga postures as needed to help you to meditate. Do them preferably alone and not with the other students. I want you to go to sleep with your mantra on your lips and wake up with your mantra on your lips."
Next he instructed me in Yoga psychology and how to deal with the emotions that I would encounter during the next forty days. He gave instructions on how to ask questions and process the emotions. I remember his quaint unassuming smile as he spoke about handling emotions. Little did I realize how important and profound these instructions on how to process emotions were going to help me, let alone play a critical role in my having a quantum leap in my spiritual growth.
His instructions for next forty days were clear. He said, "No company. No cassette recorders. No Yoga classes. No music. No cell phone messages. No T.V. No reading of books and no newspapers. No lectures unless I personally invite you. No journaling unless you have a spiritual breakthrough. Walk in silence. Eat in silence. Stay in silence. Once a day meditate with the other eight people who are doing the silent retreat with you. If you have a medical emergency, write a note and give it to a staff member. Have as little of contact with Ashram members as possible except during dinning hours and then pick a quiet corner and don't gaze at anyone."
"Ouch! Is that all?" I stammered silently.
So every day during meal time I wore my RayBan sunglasses in order to avoid all eye contact with others. "If you feel you have something that is urgent and you need my help then give a note to one of my staff. Otherwise, you're on your own," he said in a calm, firm, authoritative voice.
"What the hell did I get myself into?" I mumbled to myself. I'm ten thousand miles from home. I've never done a silent retreat of any kind, ever! I know nothing substantive about the Himalayan Yoga tradition. I've only known Swami Veda for five minutes before arriving at the Ashram in India. Was I insane? "Of course!" my ego shrieked.
The night air was cool against my skin as I left Swami Veda's cottage after being initiated into the sacred mantras from the Himalayan Yoga tradition. This signaled the start of my forty-day silent retreat. I felt a sudden surge of joy explode in my spine. A smile crossed my face and my sanity returned.
I knew I was in the right place at the right time with the right people for the next step in my spiritual growth through Yoga. Eight other brave souls & I set out on a journey that only God knew what was going to happen.
What was forty days of silence like?
The first day was refreshing. I felt as though I was lying in a hammock on a warm afternoon day being rocked back and forth, feeling less stress and more relaxation as my mantras lured me into a false sense of security. On the second day my world started to crash. On day ten my world collapsed. Then day thirty-six arrived and suddenly a new Richard emerged.
The second day they gave me a roommate, a short, stocky, overweight New York Jewish fellow, who spoke incessantly. I silently nicknamed him, "Motor mouth." He followed me around saying, "I know you're on a silent retreat, so I'll do the talking. You just nod your head." I shook my head and wrote him a note, "Don't talk to me. I won't respond by writing or in any other way."
For two days he followed me around talking to me while I ignored him. Even when I was meditating he would walk in my room and say aloud, "Just checking to see if you were meditating." I felt his loneliness, his despair.
Yet, whenever he was around I could feel my frustration growing. He served his purpose as his rudeness and interruptions brought forth my hidden anger that I thought I had processed years ago. So there it was once again, this anger that disguised itself as irritability. It was not as intense as it used to be, but there it was like old wounded mountain lion waiting to pounce if I rubbed the wound the wrong way.
After two days they gave me my own bungalow. What a relief to be alone. I quickly established my new routine:
5:30 - 6:00 Awake - toiletries
6:00 - 6:30 Yoga postures
6:30 - 7:30 Meditate
8:00 - 8:30 Breakfast
8:30 - 9:00 Brisk walk
9:00 - 10:00 Meditate
10:30 - 11:00 Contemplative meditation walk
11:15 - 12:15 Meditate
12:15 - 1:00 Contemplative meditation walk
1:00 - 1:30 Dinner
2:15 - 3:15 Meditate
4:15 - 5:15 Meditate
5:20 - 6:00 Contemplative meditation walk
6:00 - 7:00 dinner
7:30 - 8:30 Meditate
9:00 - 10:00 Contemplative meditation walk
10:30 - Bed
I posted this on my door with a note: Do not disturb!
The six hours of meditation challenged me as I had some old nagging injuries in my hip, low back and neck that begged for my attention every time I meditated. On day six, surprisingly without provocation my anger erupted once again. This time it came as a deep rage coupled with the realization that this rage was in all men and it was mans dark side. No one was immune! You either controlled it or it controlled you.
It took three days to process this rage. As the rage subsided I was informed by Swami Veda's assistant that he wanted me to go higher into the Himalayas to a sacred shrine. I would be there for three days with five other people. The shrine was six hours from the Ashram. I braced myself for another journey with a kamikaze taxi driver. It was here in the Himalayas while in a deep meditation at the holy shrine that I understood at deeper levels of my being what yoga teacher Walt Baptiste meant when he told me, "Yoga is a Silent Mind. And the journey is mastery of the mind, body & emotions. All it takes is practice, practice, practice!"
How many times in twenty-seven years had I said that thinking I knew what I was saying when in fact I was parroting what I had been taught without knowing in my guts what it really meant. Now I knew. I felt elated in this realization.
Walt would always remind me, "You didn't wake up one morning and say I think it's a good day to be a Yogi. Yoga called you! You didn't call Yoga. This is your path to God in this lifetime. Pay attention." If you knew Walt Baptiste you would know he was a man of few words and always spoke directly and to the point.
While hiking up and down the mountain to meditate in the holy shrine I injured my hip. From my injury I learned a profound truth about the Yoga postures as my injury forced me to move like a snail when I practiced postures. It forced me to pause between each movement, to breathe consciously-slowly from the diaphragm, to relax all body parts, to feel the pain and relax into the injury. I felt life force energy pulsate in my body as it caressed my injury.
I knew for the first time what Swami Veda meant when he talked about the Yoga postures and he would say, "Stirtha Sukham," (steady & comfortable, Yoga Sutra 2.46). I experienced the energy behind the posture moving in the nadis through the marma points. My injury became my teacher.
On day ten in the Himalayas all hell broke loose. I was sitting in the holy shrine meditating in pitch-black darkness when fear exploded in me like a volcano erupting, spewing forth its fire for miles around, consuming whatever was in its path. From a deep meditative state my mind was abruptly jolted out of its tranquility. It focused on the sounds behind me. I turned and looked and swore I could see two beady eyes eyeballing me. My mind raced wildly for an explanation. In my fear and confusion I thought a Bengali tiger was eyeing me for its midnight snack. My heart leaped into my throat. I jumped up and stormed off to my quarters never looking back to see what was behind me. As I bolted I swore I could hear something following me.
I felt fear from the bottom of my toes to the top of head. My hair stood on end. No matter what Yoga breath, Yoga posture, psychological technique or mantra I tried my panic would not quiet down. Fear stalked me like an African lioness getting ready for the kill. "Welcome to hell," I thought.
For the next twenty-six days fear, anger, rage, jealousy, darkness, confusion and frustration hounded me relentlessly like a wild hyena. All of sudden my silent retreat turned to terror. I was being cooked, broiled, turned inside out, upside down hour after hour with no let up. I was being pounded like the blacksmith would pound those horseshoes in the old western movies. He would just beat the hell out those horseshoes. And if the horseshoes didn't look right he beat them some more.
I was being forged like hot steel in a steel foundry where they melted it, bent it, reheated it and bent it some more till they got it just right. I would melt under the intensity of the emotions that played havoc with my consciousness. Then I'd cool down and in a blink of an eye I'd be reheated and melted down. Cooked, broiled and pounded that was my daily lot in life. And when I reached that threshold where I felt that I could not take it anymore, I'd hear Swami Veda's voice in my ear repeating my sacred mantra to me over and over until I came back to my senses and got back on track. My strength would come back. A smile would cross my face and I'd think, "I can do this, I can." And once again I'd start my practice with that same enthusiasm I had right after initiation.
Then when I convinced myself it was over, the process began again to my utter disbelief. It took all my strength, mental, emotional and physical to deal with these emotions that had masqueraded as a variety of physical ailments which I had often complained about. Emotions that hid for an entire lifetime in my bones, muscles & spine ravaged my consciousness to the point where I felt like puking.
Day thirty-six arrived. And like magic the wave of terror was lifted and I entered into a beautiful serene Silent cave somewhere deep within. Something shifted in me and I knew it. Over the next four days Swami Veda invited me to attend nightly lectures on Himalayan Yoga Meditation practices and the subtleties of the Hatha Yoga postures.
As quick as the silent retreat started it ended. I felt a great loss when the forty days ended. I cherished my silence. It was my new friend. I knew I could easily have done another forty days. My words came forth slowly as people started asking me questions about my experience. When I did speak I spoke in whispers to people who wanted to know that happened. What was it like they asked? What did you learn they prodded? Do you think I should do it they wanted to know? Was it worth it they would query?
I answered people with a smile on my face in a quiet, raspy voice, "I had a quantum leap in my spiritual growth. I found parts of me that I had denied all my life."
Then grinning from ear to ear I'd whispered, "The goal of Yoga as defined by Patanjali in Yoga Sutra 1.2. "Yoga citta-vritti-nrodhah" (Yoga is the control of the mind-field) was revealed to me. The subtleties of the Yoga postures came to life and I was shown the hidden meaning of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra 2.46 "Stirtha Sukhamasanam" (steady & comfortable). Then as tears filled my eyes and I could taste the salt on my lips, I humbly said, "I faced myself, as I really am, not how I pretend myself to be. I could see myself for the first time as others saw me. I could hear others talking but saying nothing, reminding me of myself often talking and saying nothing." I said in a soft, firm tone of new-found respect for myself and for Yoga, "I learned patience, perseverance and to trust in the process of Yoga and where it was taking me in this lifetime." I added, staring directly into their eyes as though I was able to see into their soul, "Yoga, if you cannot apply it in the real world of everyday life and make spiritual progress in making yourself a better person by building your character and in treating others better, then whatever kind of Yoga you are doing is not Yoga, but a shoddy substitute that is fake and superficial!"
My whole body smiled as the plane landed at San Francisco international. As I sat quietly in my seat watching people scramble to be the first off the plane silence enveloped me and from a deep cave within I stood naked before God, the Source of All That Is like a child knowing perhaps for the first time who I really was.
Then I heard a voice from eternity whisper, "This is only the beginning"