"Yoga is taught by Lord Krishna. He is the first teacher," said Mataji during her introductory class on 'Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita.' The 17 of us gathered in the 2nd floor yoga hall at the Parmath Niketan ashram in Rishikesh, India nodded our heads, eagerly waiting for her to expound on this statement.
Mataji began by explaining that the Bhagavad Gita is a part of the Mahabharatha, one of the world's first recorded historic epics. Much of the Gita revolves around the teachings of Krishna to his cousin and first disciple, Arjuna. The lessons were presented as Arjuna struggled with his duty to take care of his subjects and debates going into battle or surrendering. While Arjuna was swaying from his duty to go to the battlefield, Krishna overpowers him by his teachings.
"Your attitude is what matters most," explained Mataji, relating the ancient texts and presenting their wisdom for today's realities. "Expect the best, prepare for the worst, work hard and don't worry about the results."
She spent the next several days further explaining these thoughts and breaking them down as such - when you expect the best, you have to apply yourself and work hard to get to your destination. If you are prepared for the worst, you have nothing to lose.
"Being prepared for the worst is what empowers you," said Mataji. "It's especially important in trying situations. It is easier if you are prepared. You need to balance yourself in life - that is yoga, not balancing on your head," she continued. Yoga is about choosing right over wrong, and maintaining balance. And as she further noted, making the right choices, as Arjuna had to do, is a great responsibility that lies within each of us.
We have to realize that results are not in our hands - results will take care of themselves. "You are the author of your actions, but not their results," she said. We discussed acceptance of results with gladness and a cheerful disposition - and the difficulty of doing that.
I thought about how many times I've worked so hard to plan events at work, and fretted if they didn't turn out perfectly despite hours of preparation. Once, a rainstorm severely impacted the attendance for a university event we'd been planning half a year. Who would've ever dreamed of a storm at the end of May? Looking back, I realize that all of my lamenting didn't really serve a purpose - in the end, those who came had a great time and enjoyed the event. And my team members and I did our very best in terms of planning and controlling what we could.
As Mataji explained, you can't necessarily change the circumstances of the outside world (rain in my case) but you can change your attitude toward events and their outcomes. I see parallels in relations with others as well - be it at the workplace or at home in our families. We live in such a results-oriented atmosphere, and often purpose and intent are overshadowed by a superior's desire for cold, hard results or numbers. It's important to remember that balance and attitude are key for wherever we chose to focus our energy and efforts!
I appreciated Mataji's candor and straightforward attitude with us. The 'Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita / Yoga Sutras of Patanjali' classes were among my favorite part of our two week yoga course. She taught us through the Bhagavad Gita and the yoga sutras how yoga can assist us to live better, more ethical and honest lives. Her deep reverence for and knowledge of the spiritual texts was evident, as was her conviction that, as she stated, "everything is God and God is everything." And regardless of countries of origin, professions, age, or countless other factors, it was apparent that everyone present appreciated the gems of advice from Mataji's philosophy lessons.
Parmath Niketan Intensive Yoga Course
September 2014 - First Impressions
We've all heard the word ashram and in the west, have images in our head more often than not from Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love. The yoga courses I've done in India have usually been held at what you might consider a 1 or 2 star hotel - single rooms and toilets, with minimal furniture but functional. Coffee is allowed, and talking is the norm during meals. In all my years of yoga, my stay at Parmath Niketan was really the first time I've truly had an ashram experience.
Parmath Niketan is an ashram in all senses of the word. The place seems to exude worship, serenity and devotion. Silence is required at meals for course participants, and encouraged throughout the day to foster a mindset of contemplation and reflection. A strict dress code of modest white attire for course participants is followed. The ashram runs a wide spectrum of social services for India's needy and is involved in environmental activism as well. In fact, while we were there, Swamiji was attending the UN Climate Change conference in New York. Of course, the evening aarti ceremony on the Ganga is known widely for the beautiful chanting of mantras and lighting of lamps, a time every evening to offer light, love and devotion to God. The ceremony draws hundreds of spectators and participants every single evening!
The yoga course
Our group of 17 hailed from many corners of the globe, including India, Singapore, UK, Spain, Italy, Hong Kong, Brazil, Spain, Russia, Bulgaria, and the US. Surprisingly, we weren't all that young either - ages ranged from 19 to 50+ with most participants in their late 30s and early 40s. Our two teachers, Sadhvi Abha Saraswatiji (referred to simply as 'Mataji') and Indu, were brilliant, kind, considerate and caring souls. Both are deeply knowledgeable about so many different aspects of yoga, and both of them have gorgeous voices that guided us through movement , prayers, chanting and discussions.
We started with chanting every morning at 5:30 a.m. Mataji led the chants - I've seen her over the years at the Ganga aarti and love her voice. What a treat to walk into a yoga hall and see her on stage, looking resplendent in orange. Her voice as she chanted Sanskrit prayers was melodic, and I listened to it with my eyes half closed, aware of the birds chirping and the sky gradually becoming blue.
After prayers, Mataji led us in pranayama breathing practices. We started with kapalbhati, exhaling forcefully for 60 breaths and then 100. We shifted to covering one nostril, then the other. This was a new pranayama practice for me and it quickly builds heat in the body. 'The benefits of this pranayama are countless,' she said. 'It not only cleanses the respiratory system, but goes deeper and further in ways we cannot even comprehend.' She reminded us of the importance of consistent practice. 'You don't just read one day and then say there, I've read all day, I'm done. You read the next day too. Same with pranayama - be consistent.'
Mataji then led us through warm up practices and several rounds of sun salutations and standing asanas. I was amazed by how spry and limber she is - a clear testament to the power of yoga and a regular practice. I worked up a sweat through the sun salutes, and her gentle verbal cues got me further and deeper in Virabhadrasana than I've been in quite awhile.
We chanted om numerous times throughout the practice. At one point, Mataji said 'never forget the countless blessings that you have been given.' This was a two hour practice to mark the first day of a 12 day intensive yoga course.
Indeed, what a blessing to be at Parmath Niketan!