While I was still recovering from the physical damage inflicted upon me by my first husband, I turned twenty-four. I was living a very tense life in the realm of my mother. I slept on a couch in her art and silver-smithing workroom while I was trying to save enough money to get back to Upstate New York, where I had some connection to the Earth and a good friend waiting. I was staying in the house because my father had interceded for me with my mother, and had said I could stay until I was back on my feet. He was silent beyond that, though, and I didn’t feel the support from him as I had hoped I would. My mother was clearly upset that I was there, and I was a constant target for her verbal jabs and passive-aggressive behavior.
There is no nice way to say it: my self-esteem was non-existent. I was drinking heavily to numb the pain I felt, and sleeping with a lot of men to both give me a place to sleep that was not at my mother’s, and to try to fend off the loneliness and despair.
By the end of summer, my divorce was final, and I had enough money saved to pack what little I had into my $350 used car and head east. The freedom I felt on the highway was glorious. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got there; I only knew that I was going. I was getting as far away from everything and everyone that had made my life miserable for two years. It was a fresh start, a new time, and a new beginning. I was able to stay with my dear friend, Cindy, and her family while I found a job and got myself together enough to find a place to rent on my own.
She was so tolerant of me. Our long-lasting friendship and her knowledge of what I had been through gave her the strength to be an anchor for me as I flailed around trying to re-connect with myself. I was still drinking pretty heavily, and I really didn’t show much sign of slowing down. I do not think that I was an alcoholic, but I certainly was a drunk, and I was smoking heavily. At twenty-four, with a failed marriage, and cast out by my family for standing up to the wrong done they had to me, I was sure that my life was over. I stopped caring. Drinking made that easier.
There was a part of me that struggled to stay alive: the poet part, the part that was in love with the land, the part that saw the changes in Nature, the part that had hope. On my days off from my bartending job, I would drive through the Berkshires and find a place to stop and just sit. I breathed in the mountain air and let my eyes soften to the smoky hues that drifted over the hilltops. Those days were little islands of calm in the raging storm that was me.
One morning, even though I had my own apartment, I woke up on Cindy’s couch. I had no idea how I got there. I had no idea where my car was. I had no memory of driving there, parking the car, taking out my contacts, getting out the blankets, and settling myself in. I did have a slight picture of me climbing over a “kiddy gate” on the back porch to get into the house. To this day, it is a joke between Cindy and I that there was no gate on the porch; to this day I do not know what I climbed over, if anything. All I know is that I woke up in a panic hoping I had not hit anyone while I was driving.
That day, I called my older sister. She was living at a yoga ashram in the Gold Country of Northern California. She had offered the chance for me to live there, too, when I had seen her last at my parents’ house a few months before, but I had declined the offer. Now I knew that if I didn’t get myself straight, I would surely die; and so I called to ask for her help.
She told me that there was a symposium that was going to be held at one of the other ashrams in the Bahamas, and that I had permission to go there. My job there would be to photograph the symposium, and do daily work as a member of the staff. In exchange, I would be fed and given a place to put my tent. I would be required to attend yoga classes and meditations, both of which I had done before. All I had to do was get myself down there. I knew that all I had to do was want to save my own life.
My car chose that day to break down for good, so I packed my things and got on the train to Chicago. Back at my parents’ house, I re-organized myself and prepared to get myself to the ashram. While I was there, I received a phone call from a dear friend, my former lover, with whom I had lived in Mendocino before I had gotten married. He was in Chicago, and was calling to say hello, and to check on me. He’d heard that I’d had a rough time of it, and wanted to make sure I was okay. We had dinner, and when I told him about the road I had been on, and the road I was looking for, he handed me $500 and told me to use it to get to the islands. A day or two later, I heard that another friend was driving down to Florida on vacation, and would give me a ride. The Universe provides.
Arriving in Ft Lauderdale, I said goodbye to my friend, tossed what would be my last cigarette, slung my cameras and film cases over my shoulder, and boarded a sea-plane for Paradise Island. We flew low over the ocean, my thoughts winding through my past as I watched whales and dolphins swimming below me in the clear, crystalline water. The plane landed in the bay between Paradise Island and the big island, and I was let off at a little shack that passed for an airport. I called the yoga ashram, and was told to wait, that I would be picked up.
I sat, facing the little road that came towards the shack from out of the thick tropical forest, and wondered what the hell I was doing there. After a while, I heard someone singing at the top of his lungs in a language I didn’t recognize. I was struck with fear. I was alone, and had nowhere to turn for help should this person come after me in some way. Ever since that fateful Halloween, people coming at me, especially out of bushes, sent me in to a deep panic. I kept looking up the road, hoping for the car from the ashram to appear and rescue me. The singing man came in to view, standing in a little motorboat, and called out to me, “Are you the little sister come to stay with us?”
At that moment, I entered another world. I entered another life. I was re-born in a way that entering in to another culture can effect. I met people who had been given Sanskrit names, names reflecting the pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses. People referred to things by Sanskrit words, or by using Vedantic philosophic terms. I had no clue as to what people were talking about. I felt completely lost, and yet I was aware that I would find myself. Somehow I would make sense of it all. Before that would happen, though, I would go through three weeks of physical and emotional upheaval. The craving for a cigarette, the wishing I had a drink, the confusion, would send me racing down the beach indulging in primal scream therapy.
Swami VishnuDevananda was a man who had been sent to the West from his home ashram in Rishikesh, India by his teacher, Sivananda. The years Swamiji had spent training in Raja and Hatha Yoga had been in preparation for his coming to teach in the West. In the years that he had been in this country, and traveling in Europe and South America, he had been teaching people to teach Hatha Yoga, and had built up an international network of yoga ashrams and centers. Swamiji was not on Paradise Island when I got there, and when he did arrive some three weeks later, he did not think I was the “little sister” because the stories he had heard of how I was when I first got there did not fit the person he saw before him.
I had been doing my work, and had calmed down quite a bit. I was learning to understand the rhythm of ashram life. I was full of questions and was getting mini-lessons from people who explained things to me. I had many patient and kind teachers there who were very helpful in getting me to understand my new surroundings. When I described the things I had experienced, I was not ridiculed. I was accepted, and encouraged to explore and open to my own understanding. Most importantly, I was learning the language which described things I had known since childhood. I felt a bit like Helen Keller at the water pump when she realizes that what’s coming out of it has a name: water.
I learned the word for the energy that I was seeing and sensing in all things was shakti and that the great love I felt for Nature meant I was a bhakti, one who actively worships the Divine and that the love had a name also: bhav, the mood of ecstasy, self-surrender, and channelling of emotional energies that is induced by the action of devotion. I learned ways to explain myself and my relationship with the Universe. I not only learned the words for it, I learned ways in which I could take myself more deeply in to it. My meditations became extremely intense, and the fragrances of the ocean and the tropical flowers around the open-air temple added to the experience.
By the following April, the symposium had come and gone, my sister had visited with two-year-old Tara Jyoti, and I celebrated my twenty-fifth birthday. My sister arranged for my party, and I felt a part of quite a large family. The greatest gift was receiving a Sanskrit name and mantra from Swamiji.
It was late at night, and we met in the meditation area: an open-air pavilion surrounded by beautiful foliage. We sat near the altar, Swamiji sitting on his special seat, and me sitting in the lotus position in front of him. He prayed in the beautiful sing-song of Sanskrit, a language I had come to love. Each morning and evening during chanting and prayers, I would feel the music of the language vibrate in the very core of me. There were times when I thought that I would just start speaking in Sanskrit; the sound of it was so familiar to me on such a deep, primal level. Swamiji prayed and then began to repeat a mantra over and over. I listened to the rhythm of it, and it began to draw me into a deep place within my spirit. He then told me what the mantra meant, and that in order for him to be able to give it to me, for him to be able to bestow the power of it upon me, he had had to repeat it thousands of times, as had his teacher who had given it to him. Then, I was made to repeat it and repeat it until he was satisfied with my pronunciation. It was, he said, very important for the pronunciation to be absolutely correct. When he was satisfied that I understood how to say it, he touched my forehead at the third eye, and I was overcome with a flash of light that almost knocked me over.
Then, he gave me my Sanskrit name and told me the significance of it. He told me to stay and repeat a mala (108 prayer beads) of my mantra, and he left me to my own understanding.
I stayed on Paradise Island for months. I was only supposed to have been there for a couple of weeks, but I had found a home. When the sun became too intense for my much tanned, but still sensitive skin, I left the Island and headed for the Sivananda ashram in Quebec. I spent the summer there, doing karma yoga (the yoga of action, referring to daily duties) and spent a lot of time organizing Swamiji’s slides and photos. There were thousands of them from all the years he had been in the West.
Swamiji took time each day to teach me about Ayurveda and the bodywork that is part of it. At the start of the summer, he had referred to me a couple of times when he had been talking about giving massages, and I had replied that I didn’t know how. He said that I did, I just had to remember, and he would remind me.
There were other of his female staff who had private time with him for other reasons, but for me it was all for the deep discussions of healing work and mind-body connection that we had every evening. I loved learning from him, but his angry outbursts and ravings kept me from accepting him as my guru. I had lived on the receiving end of that reactive anger as a child and in my marriage, and saw no reason to continue the pattern with him regardless of the knowledge he was sharing with me.
That summer, during the festival to honor the guru, the teacher, I had a great opening of my inner self. I had been doing special prayers and ceremonies for a couple of days, and at one point, I was receiving a blessing from Swamiji, and suddenly the colors of the energy in everything came back to me. As I looked around me, I was able to see the dancing lights in the trees. Ecstatic, I went to the shrine for Sivananda and as I prostrated, my head touched the floor. I felt the same surge of light and energy that I had experienced when I received my mantra. I spent the rest of the day and evening alone, basking in the joy I was feeling.
That night, I was awakened by what I thought was lightning. I sat straight up in my sleeping bag, looked over at my friend sleeping next to me, and since she was still fast asleep, I assumed it was my imagination, and went back under my covers. I heard a voice, but there was no talking. It was a kind and sweet voice, a man’s voice. It echoed throughout all of me, not just in my ears. It said a lot of things to me, but the bottom line was that I was on the right path, following the right direction, and that I must keep going.
A few nights later, I had a very vivid and specific dream. I dreamed that Swamiji was standing next to a car with one of the students from Spain. I could see him standing there, but he had no legs from the knees down. I knew that Swamiji had a trip to Spain planned after the Teacher Training course in California, and I became worried. The next morning, I went to his assistant, and told her about the dream. She put me down completely, especially when I told her about the voice I’d heard, and how I had become sure that it was the voice of Swamiji’s teacher. Why would that kind of thing happen to someone as lowly as me, she wanted to know. I never got the chance to talk with him, and soon the fear left my mind.
At summer’s end, I was told that I would be traveling with the entourage to California, and that I would take Yoga Teacher Training there. We traveled across the country in a motor home, and being in such close quarters with Swamiji proved to be very challenging. I had witnessed his horrible temper many times since I had met him, and had been the target of it more than once. The smallest thing would set him off; the fact that I didn’t hand him a pen from the cup of them sitting right next to him resulted in a ten minute tirade. A lot of what he said or did or directed others to do made no sense at all. Often, I would find myself shaking my head at the craziness of it all, but at the same time, I was learning so much and growing in so many ways that I was able to separate out the wheat from the chaff. It was really no different than the rest of my life had been. I began to see the thread of the strength and discernment that my childhood had given me.