March 2010, The Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South announced the winners of their annual essay competition. My story, Rich, was awarded first place. Even though it is very long for a blog entry, I’d like to share it here. Please take 5 minutes after you read it to ponder and savour the rich blessings in your life today. ENJOY.
“Stuck in Jackson, Mississippi.” I re-read the words I’d printed, big and bold, in my journal. My ex-husband had brought me here twelve years earlier from England. Now I was divorced, burnt out with work, my daughter was staying with her Dad and his family in New Orleans, and I needed to get out of the deep-south.
The one sure thing I had, after a decade of yoga classes, was a great love of yoga. I yearned to learn more about yogic lifestyles and earn my living as a yoga teacher, if it were possible.
Instead of interviewing for a university position in Georgia, and continuing up the career ladder, I decided to spend July in a study program at a yoga ashram in Pennsylvania. I hoped immersing myself in yoga classes, meditation instruction, and yoga philosophy for a whole month would help me figure out how to get out of my rut and find a new creative niche somewhere in the USA.
The ashram was housed in a former monastery, surrounded by gardens and fields. The Indian Guru-Swami in charge of the place was tall, debonair, and well-educated. From afar I studied his interactions with program participants, Indian visitors, colleagues, and tennis opponents. Some shook his hand, some bowed, and some kissed his feet. I cringed when I saw the Swami pat his afternoon tennis fans on the head as he imparted pearls of wisdom.
Swami was very stylish. I glimpsed him a few times in elegantly tailored suits striding down hallways, in full length saffron robes cross-legged on his throne-like chair during Saturday night talks, and in polished tennis whites for his daily game. One night he phoned a woman in my wing on the hallway phone waking us all up at four am with an errand. I imagined him reclining on a couch, wearing maroon and gold silk pajamas, a long matching gown and hand made slippers.
I avoided the Swami as much as possible. Instead I picked the brains of the American and Indian teachers, men wearing western suits and ties or traditional Indian dress. They gave us lectures from books they had written on yoga philosophy, stress management practices, and the traditional yogic diet.
The days consisted of hatha yoga, meditation, vegetarian meals, lectures, and karma yoga: cleaning, cooking and sharing the ashram work. We weren’t allowed off the grounds.
At first I found ashram life extremely oppressive. No hairdryers before 7am. No showers after 9pm. No talking at mealtimes. Lights out 10pm. One breakfast I sat opposite a long, lean, ashramite chewing his oatmeal 80 plus times looking ascetic with his eyes lowered. I couldn’t face my oatmeal. I left the dining hall and escaped to the woods. As I walked and swung my arms a chant emerged. “Rules. Rules, ruddy, bloody rules.” I repeated the phrase over and over in time with my stride. The faster I walked the louder the chant became and I imagined the ashramites in the silent dining room chewing to the rhythm of my rebellious chorus. I burst out laughing and my attitude lightened up. I remembered this was their home and I was just visiting briefly.
I decided to focus on learning all I could as I’d originally planned. I interviewed the teachers, studied bio-feedback, practiced numerous breathing techniques, and learned gobs of yoga philosophy. My group gave me a prize for making the most of all the resources. Some of us even snuck out for pizza and beer one evening.
At the end of the month I could do a fancier headstand, cook Indian dhal, recite facts about doshas, koshas, and chakras, but I was no clearer how to move out of Mississippi, and support myself somewhere new teaching yoga.
At my last Saturday night satsang, everyone was singing the Sanskrit chants before Swami’s talk. I sang with passion and became more and more energized. The rhythms and melodies stirred me. I needed to move my arms, sway my spine and wiggle my bum. I thought I’d burst if I didn’t get up and dance. Dancing was forbidden at the ashram.
Suddenly, I couldn’t sit still a second longer. I stood, strode upstairs to my monastic cell, opened the window to hear the music and danced. I sang, clapped, and twirled. As I huffed and puffed a powerful energy built inside me. When the music ended I was trembling. Was I angry? I banged the window shut and began ranting at the blank, white wall. “I’ve been here almost a month,” I raged, “I’ve put up with all the ruddy rules and regulations, but I haven’t got what I came for. I still don’t know diddly-poop about how to move forward.”
I paused, stood taller, and addressed the Swami’s essence through the wall. “I admit, Swami, I haven’t liked you from the start, haven’t fawned ’round kissing your feet, haven’t gazed adoringly at your tennis game. But, damnit, Swami,” I slowed and spoke with a new authority, “I do want something from you. I want something transformative, some, um, some amazing new awareness. I want an, um, a multi-million-dollar-moment.” I shook my finger at the wall. “And I’m not hunting you down, Swami. You’re gonna find me.” I smiled, savored my monologue and got tickled at my audacity. I was certainly no longer the polite, compliant Brit I’d been brought up to be. Satisfied, I lay down in the narrow bed and slept.
For my work-study karma yoga, the next afternoon, I was cleaning the bathrooms in the health center. I stepped into the empty hallway, pulling my trolley of towels and cleaning supplies. Suddenly all six feet four of the Swami was towering in front of me. He wore his long, saffron robes. I couldn’t see a door; he was just suddenly there, staring down into my face. His forehead crinkled with horizontal furrows, his eyebrows pinched over his nose, and his eyes were popping out on stalks. I caught my breath. Should I shake his hand? Kiss his feet? Curtsey?
He looked as furious as I’d been the night before. Staring into my eyes he looked through me to the back of my head. “Lady,” he growled. He spoke five words as if underlining every one. “Lady,” he said, “You are very rich.” What? I snickered, embarrassed. Rich rhymed with bitch. It wasn’t for people like me.
I looked away, saw my trolley and quipped, “Yes, I’m rich in towels.” Swami wasn’t amused. He stepped even closer and glared down on me. “Lady,” he repeated with more vigor. “You…are…very…very…RICH.” A tingling shot through my head. The workings of a wind-up clock flashed across my mind. Was he re-setting something mechanical inside my brain?
I turned away again and touched one of the towels. I AM rich in towels! I thought to myself. And I’m rich in friends, and life experiences, and resourcefulness. I’m rich in courage, rich in health.” I turned back to tell the Swami I understood, but he was gone. The hallway was empty.
For days I wrote lists. “I’m rich in stories, rich in poetry, rich in words.” “I’m rich in rhythms, melodies, dance-moves. In fact, my whole life is rich with all sorts of possibilities and opportunities, no matter where I go.”
When I returned to Jackson, Mississippi, still vibrating with this new awareness, I had a garage sale, tuned up my twelve year old Toyota, and took off to find my niche. A sense of rightness and richness remained as I travelled.
I arrived in Raleigh, North Carolina, in February 1990. In March of 2010 I celebrate my twentieth anniversary of teaching yoga as my livelihood. I am enormously grateful for the strong, spiritual surgery I experienced at the ashram.
When I find myself worrying about the economy, health insurance, or my very small business, I try to step out into the rich world of nature or find beauty in another person’s eyes. The goodness of gratitude seeps back into my brain, breath, and bones. Feel free to remind me lest I forget!
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