Near-Death and New Life Experiences in India

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If you do yoga and meditate six days a week, for six weeks, something big will happen to you. Sure, you will become more fit, and will start to relax. But there's more to it. The experience changed my head and my heart in ways that I can't fully explain. 

Yoga and travel are similar in that both of them are difficult to convey in words. They're experiential. I can tell you that after doing all that yoga, I am more aware of possibilities in my life that I never considered before. But what the heck does that mean, if you weren't there and haven't experienced those same physical and emotional sensations yourself? I really don't want to start spewing a bunch of New Age platitudes, but our language falls short of being able to convey what it's like to crack your whole self open and breathe.

At the end of the first week, I wrote this: "I feel lighter, freer, than I have in a long time. I am starting to let go, slightly, slightly. My sweet little room is sunny and a nice cross-breeze is coming through. I am relieved: it is not so difficult to be alone. My body and mind are feeling cleaner, clearer. My life will be different from now on. I am a stronger person, and I am starting to know myself."

In the middle of the second week: "My muscles, my sinews, my bones, my joints ache.... I have a headache, am slightly shivery, and feel drained." 

The third week: "I want to be radiant with love and peace and happiness. This is a choice I can make right now. Love. Peace. Joy. If I show up to my classes, learn the lectures, grow a bit stronger each day in asana classes, then the time will pass, perhaps wisdom will come, and then it will be over and I will decide what to do next. I will not live my life halfway. But part of that is this: yoga takes discipline. Discipline has amazing rewards. I will take this training, this education in the discipline of self, and I will apply it back in my daily life. I will keep cultivating a beautiful future by creating positive intentions. I will keep my focus on the good things I want for myself and for the world, and most of all--most of all--I will let go. I will seek pleasure in every day, including the pleasures that are found in self-discipline. My body, my mind, my soul can relax now. I can let go. I don't need to hold everything together any more. All is well. I am safe."

The sixth week: "I feel as though I am in control of, aware of, inhabiting my whole body in a way I never have before. My hands look stronger; my belly swells slightly with voluptuous, ripe strength. My face is open, my eyes are bright. I am not afraid any more. I can do anything. I can be who I want. Five weeks ago, I was a different person. Five weeks ago, I was unsure of my strength, afraid of learning where my limits are at any given moment. I was wondering if I could handle this, and thinking in terms of what it's already too late for. This week, all of my thought and non-thought, all of this work on my body, mind, emotions, all of this has come together. I am a brighter, stronger force than I ever knew was possible, and my yogic path has really only just started."

All that blissed out yogic strength was necessary on the day that our yoga teacher training class went to the city of Haridwar for the Hindu festival of Kumbh Mela. This is said to be the largest religious festival in the world, and I believe it. We took three oversized auto-rickshaws (the Indian version of mini-vans), six of us in the back of each on thinly upholstered benches, with our heads bumping the riveted metal ceilings when we went over the larger bumps and potholes.

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We walked from the taxi stand in Haridwar, a long way through streets and alleyways, shopping districts and campsites set up for the pilgrims who have come to stay for the festival, which lasts for a month. We passed through seemingly endless crowd-control structures, set up like movie ticket lines or bank queues, except they are made of rough branches nailed together like western-style fences.

We arrived at the banks of the Ganges, which at this point are made of red stone or concrete steps. Several of our group bathed in the river on this very auspicious day, while the rest of us set out the picnic lunch. The chef at Shiva Resort had prepared chapatis (flat Indian breads) and a tasty potato curry. He packed the curry in double-layered plastic grocery bags, so it was a squishy, unappetizing presentation, but the food was still warm and it turned out to be very satisfying. I washed my hands afterward at one of the public taps that are so common here, a cement pillar about four feet tall, painted with blue and white stripes, with a small spigot coming out of it. Two Indian guys were standing around the tap, and asked where I was from. "The United States," I said. "USA!" They said. "Thank you!"

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It's strange to be stared at in India; it feels very different than in Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia, sometimes I feel like I'm supposed to be ashamed of myself, like I'm doing something wrong by even leaving the house. In India, I feel like some kind of beautiful, exotic goddess. 

After lunch, we walked on, following the river, and the crowds increased. We saw a bunch of crusty, sagey-looking dudes who looked more like side-show spectacles than actual wise men. They sat in statue-stillness with dreadlocks piled up on top of their heads and ashes smeared on their faces. Some were staring into the middle distance smoking big joints. They generally were looking for donations, I think. Entire families were sprawled out on blankets, picnic-style, in the middle of the concrete walkway, or arrayed next to dusty trees with their saris and shawls hung up on branches and tied to clotheslines. These people were making themselves at home!

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We kept walking, past towering statues of Shiva, alongside policemen mounted on horses, next to the swiftly flowing Ganges, and the crowds kept getting thicker. Finally we got onto one of the many bridges that cross the river. On the bridge, we were pushed to the side to make way for the craziest parade I have ever seen. Ash-caked sadhus, or holy men, strode down the middle of the street. Completely naked, their dark skin was caked with pale grey ash, their long hair and beards matted with it. A couple of marching bands followed them, with glittery uniforms, shiny tubas, the works--but they were just randomly tooting their horns and banging their drums. I heard no actual tunes.

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The group of us crossed the bridge, and the road continued on and intersected with another, equally crowded street. The crowd pressed closer, until we were being physically, seriously squeezed on all sides. I would think it couldn't get any tighter, and then another parade entry would appear, and we had to squeeze even closer to allow passage of the float, the dignitary's car, the group of sadhus, whatever. At one point someone tried to get through this melee on a moped. When I felt the front tire start to roll over my foot, I looked the driver right in the eye and shouted, "stop!" He just looked away, but he did not run over my foot. Meanwhile, another student, Sharon, got her ass thoroughly grabbed and was unable to move away from the letch standing behind her. Carrie, who stood in front of Sharon, leaned over Sharon's shoulder, put her face right in front of the greasy yellow-toothed ass-grabber, pointed her finger inches from his nose and said, "No!"

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Meanwhile, my friend Kathy and I were holding on to each other and beginning to panic as the whole crowd swayed. If one of us had fallen, we surely would have been trampled to death. The human stream was pushing towards a group of policemen who were, at this late hour, trying to set up a crowd control barricade. They were attempting to push big metal barriers into the crowd, and brandishing their batons for emphasis. We were being pushed closer and closer to them. I kept yelling, "No! No!" and was very near to screaming in panic. Then, suddenly, the crowd eased. I don't know why. We were able to pass, and catch up to the rest of our group, who had watched us get trapped but had been unable to do anything. 

The school director collected us all back together and led us around the corner, down an alley, and to another intersection. Here we watched a more orderly section of parade with yellow, orange and red floats carrying severe, mostly older men: gurus. Some were waving gently, like seasoned politicians; some had on their meditation faces. Honestly, if all you do is meditate, why are you going to agree to be paraded through the insane spectacle of Kumbh Mela? I don't get it. We watched the parade for a while, and then got chai from a street vendor. We sat on the curb with and sipped the hot, milky tea, then handed the empty glasses back to the vendor when we were through. The vendor gave the glasses a quick rinse under the nearby public water tap, and put them right back into service.

Then we walked to the train station, where we learned we would have to wait over two hours for the local train back to Rishikesh. We voted instead to walk back across town to the taxi stand. We walked and walked. The police had blocked off this way, so we had to go that way. We walked on and on in the hot afternoon sun, until we reached another barricade, not far from the taxi stand, and were turned away once again. Roshan was beginning to be discouraged, I could see. He led us over to the grass (okay, the litter-strewn dirt) on one side of the path, and we sat for a rest. Within two minutes, our circle of western faces had drawn a crowd of Indian men, who stood and frankly gaped at us. We waved at them, and they smiled and waved back--and continued to stand there and stare. Finally, they dispersed, and soon after that we continued on, down one road and another, across a bridge and under a big ornamental gate, on and on and on, until at last we reached the taxi stand from the other direction. Roshan bought us all roasted, salted peanuts in newspaper cones from a street vendor. Then we got in our taxis and put-putted back home.