One Small Story of a Small Awakening
Have you ever wondered when your yoga practice will transform you? When will your practice make you a kinder person? When and how will your heart soften and you will emerge as truly more compassionate and humble? What, when and how do the practices of yoga transform our existence in the real world? When will you notice it working?
I remember taking my first yoga class with chanting and my love for Kirtan was discovered. From that initial exposure until now, I have embraced the act of chanting and crying out the Holy Names of the Goddesses and Gods with others. Back in 2001 I purchased a CD called “Nectar” by Jai Uttal and was totally taken by the sweetness these mantras express and the depths of the moods they invoke. At that time I felt I needed to listen to this CD everyday to feel whole, and not a day went by where I didn’t listen to the 25 minute ‘Om Namah Shivaya’ track.
About a year after that, on a cold rainy night in October, Jai Uttal was in town and leading a Kirtan at Integral Yoga Institute. I got there a little late and the room was packed. Somehow, by luck, my yoga friend Tobias Fields was sitting near the front middle and waved me over. This gave me an unsaid permission to tiptoe over the crowd, plop down and smush myself into the center of this energetic tornado that is Kirtan. I had never felt anything like this before – it was like the music and mantras picked me up and carried me beyond to some blissful planet where I could understand that everything was perfect. I felt full of love and oddly enough found myself mentally forgiving people I felt wronged me! How healing!
I didn’t know it at the time, but this evening was the linchpin in my ongoing love affair with Kirtan. Long story short, I signed up for all the programs Jai was doing that weekend and followed him around for the next several years from NYC to Kripalu and onto Guatemala for his 8-day Kirtan Camp. It was at that Kirtan Camp that my own small awakening occurred – so simple yet so profound.
By the time I went to this camp, I had been practicing yoga for a few years, completed a teacher training and was teaching yoga. I felt I was a sincere student of yoga. I listened intently to the talks in classes and in workshops about the practices and the possible outcomes yoga could provide to dedicated students. I learned about enlightenment, compassion, mindfulness, meditation, oneness, devotion, prayer, self-care, pranayama, asana, chakras, mudras, alignment and mantras.
But I was confused.
I observed long-time yogis acting badly. I witnessed people who were self-proclaimed yogis and yoga teachers being very flawed individuals. In fact, I was a yoga teacher and was observing my own lack of compassion and various human flaws. I remember feeling embarrassed about how little I felt I was an actual yogi, whatever that meant, while being a “yoga teacher”. Could I really call myself that? Should any of us call ourselves true yogis?
One observation I found particularly troubling – a yoga teacher being mean and lacking compassion towards their students. To be fair, there are many different kinds of teaching personalities and students respond differently to various methods, this way just didn’t feel right to me. One day a student walked into the practice space without realizing to remove her shoes, and I saw the teacher embarrass the hell of out this person and treat her like a complete fool. The message was something like “this is a sacred yoga room and you should never ruin it with shoes!”. But, somehow it was ok to ruin the sacred environment with humiliation? Shoes are bad and humiliation is ok. Confusion and lack of faith enveloped me.
Back to Kirtan Camp. This camp took place in a beautiful retreat center “Villa Sumaya” on the sacred Lake Atitlan eleven years ago. There were about forty souls attending. Jai Uttal, his wife Nubia, their eight-month old baby Ezra Gopal and awesome tabla player Daniel Paul together led an eight-day deep dive into Kirtan and Bhakti Yoga.
We chanted around eight hours every day and I never knew how Jai’s voice held out. Every evening Jai would tell stories about his Guru and the epic tale The Ramayana. People were lying down on body-sized pillows and getting comfortable while he spoke. I was mortified. I was taught you were to always show respect for the teacher by sitting upright while they were speaking. Jai seemed 100% undisturbed by our relaxed state. We were on a cozy retreat and it was evening story-time, but still I was surprised and intrigued by his openness – it felt so loving.
The owner of the retreat center had a few children, and they were friends with the other kids around the Lake. While the kids played, the adults gathered for yoga, storytelling and Kirtan in a big space called the Tiger Temple room. It really was a temple and so we all removed our shoes before entering. This made total sense. One afternoon Jai was speaking and here come a group of kids running into the Temple, making noise, playing and wearing shoes!
I felt my chest tighten. I thought Jai would be so disturbed by this. Everyone is going to feel annoyed and interrupted and these kids are ruining the sacred space with their shoes and joyful playing noises. OMG! OMG! OMG! Will he yell at them? My whole body tightened, bracing for the embarrassing reprimand these kids were about to receive.
Guess what? Nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. Jai was completely unfazed. I remember a genuine sweetness in his tone praising the sounds of joy and play!
I realized in that moment that I was bracing myself for conflict and harsh words and that never came. I was shielding myself against Jai, or anybody else, schooling those kids. I was ready for Jai to be disappointing and I would forgive his anger because he was doing the appropriate thing. Admittedly, one part of me felt somebody should teach these kids that they should not interrupt the adults learning about Bhakti Yoga and how to soften their own hearts – irony intended.
I was happy for the awareness that slowly washed over me. As with any humbling experience, I was internally saddened that I had come to expect anger from yoga teachers. I understood that Bhakti Yoga was working on somebody – I was seeing it personally! I was surprised that this was the simple example I needed. What a profound and simple gift from that week – I could also embrace this mood! I had permission! I didn’t need to be that type of teacher who humiliates students for making mistakes! I desired loving teachers and people like Jai in my life. I wanted to be openhearted, humble and inwardly secure enough not to take everything personally. In other words – less ego.
I am still learning and need to remind myself often as I continue to observe my own flaws, that we are all where we are. We may have chosen a path, but it doesn’t mean it’s perfectly paved or the journey is smooth. There is no real timetable for progress, which is why humility is so essential.
But thank you Jai and fellow Kirtan Campers for that moment. You may not remember it, but that 100% awakened and shifted my heart. Jai told us at this camp, “Bhakti Yoga is a practice to soften your heart. You can be a great yogi and still a great demon, but with a soft heart, you can become loving.”