INDIA


In January 2007, I traveled to Mumbai, India, in order to meet with Yogi Amrit Desai and a small group of people who were taking a 'lineage tour' of various places in India that are of seminal importance to the history of Kripalu Yoga. Kripalu's yogic pedigree traces its roots back to the second century CE, when an historical figure named Lord Lakulish founded the Pashupats sect of yoga from which Kripalu Yoga is derived. Lord Lakulish is revered as an incarnation of Lord Shiva, and credited with systematically formalizing the earthly practice of yoga. Our itinerary included a trip to the temple in Kayavarohan, which is dedicated to Lord Shiva and houses an extraordinary likeness of the yogic body Lord Shiva appeared in as Lord Lakulish.

Though our first destination would be a visit and stay at a temple under construction that was located outside a small village called Malav, located in the Gujarat District of southwestern India. One of the significances of the temple in Malav is that it was being built over the entombed remains of Shrii Kripalvanandji, Yogi Desaiís guru and the namesake of Kripalu Yoga. It was widely felt in India, as well as among devoted yoga practitioners throughout the world, that Shrii Kripalvanandji in his lifetime achieved a rarified state of yoga mastery called nirvana yoga (absolute liberation), and following his death, or mahasamadhi, many viewed and experienced him as a saint possessing and dispensing eternal metaphysical attributes (miracles).

After a weekend in Mumbai to acclimate, we flew to the city of Baroda and then boarded a chartered bus that would take us to the village of Malav. Except for Yogi Desai and his son, Malay, none of the rest of us in the entourage were Indian and only a few had previously been to India. Of the Westerners, I was the only one who knew Yogi Desai from before the end of his tenure as the spiritual director of The Kripalu Center thirteen years earlier.

As most of us were encountering one another for the first time, the atmosphere in the bus was informal, relaxed and chatty as we eagerly exchanged stories about what brought each of us here. After about an hour into the trip Yogi Desai, who was sitting in the front of the bus, stood up and went into the cab to talk with the driver. He came out smiling gleefully, and then announced that we were going to be taking a little detour in order to visit the village where he spent the first ten years of his life. Eyes twinkling, he went on to tell us, "Those of you who only know me and how I live in America are going to be very surprised to see where and how I grew up."

Well, except for his son, that was all of us. Though in the course of doing research for writing this book, Iíd looked through some of Yogi Desai's archival materials and photos. So I knew that when Amrit Desai was growing up in this small village called Pratapurra there were about 250 residents. Photos of the village, including ones taken of Amrit Desai as a boy with his mother, father and siblings, had to be at least six decades old.

I presumed that like with most places in this day and age, Pratappura would have changed dramatically over that amount of time and be rendered unrecognizable. I began to get my first inclination that I might be wrong when the bus driver announced that we were there and simply pulled off onto the side of the highway to let us disembark. There were no signs on the highway marking our arrival in Pratappura, nor was there a road from the highway leading into the village.

Our bus was modern and air-conditioned and the first thing we noticed as walked out of the bus was a palpable wave of heat engulf us. I recalled that the average mean daily temperature in Gujarat was nearly one hundred degrees. I felt relieved that weíd come here in the Ďcoolí part of the year.

Our group variously walked, scuttled, and slid down a scree of rocks, pebbles, and fine gravel that safely raised the highway up and away from the surrounding landscape. (The predominant driving style in vast, overcrowded India is as fast as possible and with horn blaring.) Yogi Desai led us along a dirt path through brush into a clearing that was filled with flat plates and round bowls hardening in the sun on the earth. The plates and bowls were made from a mixture of clay and cow dung and served as the chief export and source of income for the village.

An elderly woman sitting in the shade of a lean-to made of stone with a tin roof, who appeared to be waiting patiently for the plates to dry and harden, greeted us with a mirthful grin. Yogi Desai returned her greeting by bowing his head, raising his hands in prayer position, and offering, "Jíai Bhagwan." A salutation that literally means, "I recognize and honor the divine in you".

We each repeated the gesture as we passed, and the woman grew giddier and giddier, rocking and laughing in place.

We then entered the village Ė a variety of fifty or so small- and medium-sized makeshift shelters circumnavigated by an unpaved dirt pathway. Cows and oxen meandered freely. The present state of the village was not just similar to the pictures Iíd seen from sixty years earlier -- except for a few motor scooters it was exactly the same.

Children literally shot out from their homes and schoolrooms and swarmed us. They yelped, giggled, danced, laughed and made us their playthings. Iíve traveled and lived before in places where people were 'deprived' of TV and other electronic distractions, so I was somewhat prepared for the onslaught of raw unfiltered energy. Though the level of kinesis exuded by these children was something special. The girls, dressed in brightly colored pastel saris and with their faces painted and pierced, and the dark skinned boys wearing bright white school-uniform shirts and swirling around us like dervishes, made it feel as though we were being abducted by a colorful tribe of mystically charged mini-people.

Yogi Desai good-naturedly and patiently allowed them to do their thing, and then explained to them in Gujarati what it was he and us were doing here. He then told them with words and hand gestures that they could flank us quietly and follow us around on our tour of the village if they wanted. Most were too excited and restive to accept such an invitation and bolted, but several of them did as he asked and thatís how we proceeded into the village.

It was remarkable to me that a dozen or so camera carrying light-skinned foreigners could walk into a self-contained hamlet like this unannounced, unexpected, and not receive a single suspicious or even circumspect glance. In fact, eye contact invariably triggered a mirthful grin or welcoming smile, as though there was a button in the villagers' eye-pupils that made their lips automatically soften and widen when you looked at them. The impromptu smiles and grins were more than welcoming; they were contagious and uplifting.

Immediately, our own circumspect feelings and logy pace picked up and became more spirited, liberated. Behind Yogi Desai and the Indian children, we nearly pranced into the center of the village.

The provisional-looking structures that served as permanent homes for the villagers did not provide much shelter from the elements, or privacy. Windows and entranceways were not covered. In passing during daytime, one could look through from one end of the homes to the other, as well as see everything in between. Elderly people lying on cots in their homes fanned themselves with one hand and with the other waved out to us nonchalantly.

When we came to a stone structure with a tin roof and a small makeshift wooden porch attached to it that displayed various daily sundries, Yogi Desai told us that this is how his father had made a living for his family. "We rarely exchanged money. People would come in with what they had, trade it for flour or sugar, which we would then trade for milk, and so on." Then he looked up at a roll of shiny cardboard tags hanging from the top of the porch and flickering in the sunlight. "Only back then we didnít have lotteries."

In a book published by the Kripalu Yoga Fellowship in 1982, The Life of Yogi Amrit Desai, Yogi Desai described growing up in Pratappura in the following way: "Every morning I would awaken on my cot to the sound of my father's hookah (water-pipe) bubbling and gurgling as he waited for the family's bath water to heat. I could hear the crackle of the fire, and the sweet smell of the fire's smoke filled the room. My mother would grind flour at this time. There were two round stones, with a hole in the center into which she would constantly feed the grain. She would turn the upper stone by a handle to grind the grain into flour. The whole time she was preparing the grain, she would sing bhajans, or devotional hymns. I would awaken to her sweet voice, the sound of the turning stones, and the songs of birds." [All the quotes in the remainder of this chapter, unless otherwise indicated, will be from The Life of Yogi Amrit Desai.]

Though he was a man of modest means, Yogi Desaiís father, Chimanlal, was literate as well as a devout Hindu. In the evenings he would read to his wife and children stories from the Mahabharata or Ramayana -- lush, epic tales of the adventures, loves, misadventures, wars and fractious personal interactions among India's exotic pantheon of Gods, Goddesses, Demigods, and Androgens. "Our young imaginations were tremendous," Amrit recalled, "and the entire scene of every story would come alive in my mind more vividly than a movie. Every day, no matter what I was doing, I was always dreaming of where the story would go next. We were all eager to hear the continuation of these fantastic epics."

No matter how richly young Amrit Desaiís imagination was being fertilized, I think itís safe to say that he could not have dreamt at the time that one day heíd live a parallel reality on another side of the world, and then return home for a show and tell with some of the people who were a part of that epic drama with him.

1942: HALOL, INDIA


When he was nine-years old, Amrit Desai suffered a near-fatal bout of typhoid fever.

Following his recovery, the Desai family decided to leave Pratappura. Sensing that their bright, imaginative, but shy and somewhat frail son might not be suitable for the types of occupations available to village-born Gujaratis – uneducated laborers or generational merchants -- the Desai family moved to a town where Amrit's grandparents lived and where he could continue his education.

In the larger and more metropolitan Halol (population 17,000), there was a secondary school Amrit could attend, something that was not available in Pratappura or its vicinity.

Initially, Amrit found himself intimidated by the way of life and the vast number of people in Halol, which contained, after all, a population sixty times larger than that of Pratappura. He relates: "I had a disconnected feeling when we moved to Halol. I didn't understand what was going on around me. I had been a good student at Pratappura, and suddenly my grades fell. But once I caught up with my new environment, I became very sharp. What I lacked in social skills, I had gained tenfold in living a very experiential life. From my upbringing, my mind was uncluttered and perceptive, and when I became comfortable in my new surroundings, my grades became excellent -- not first in my class, because I preferred playing to studying -- but always at the top level."

More attracted to active rather than academic pursuits, Amrit became the leader of a small group of boys who would get up early in the morning before school and exercise in the school gymnasium. One day during this formative period of his life, Amrit found a Gujarati translation of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. He not only read the book, but began practicing the principles and exercises for developing a positive attitude and optimistic outlook on life. For a young village boy trying to overcome shyness in the company of so many new strangers, this was a most welcome find. Decades later, when Amrit Desai returned to India with his family to attend his mother’s funeral, one of his sons took the opportunity to rummage through his father’s boyhood home in Halol. The son, Malay Desai, who had not only been born in America, but raised in a modern American ashram that doubled as a health spa, remarked that he could not believe first of all how meagerly and simply his father had lived in India. Then he reported that he was equally as surprised to find scores of notebooks filled with positive affirmations written by his father -- noting that at that time no one was yet talking about affirmations, let alone writing them. Grinning, he concluded, "Especially in Halol."

Amrit Desai expressed it this way: "I wanted to work on myself and grow so much. I felt very inhibited in this desire and suffocated in my search for self-expansion. I wanted to read more, but books were scarce. I longed to travel, but there was no money. I wanted to build up my body, but there were no teachers. Our family couldn't afford highly nutritious food, or even a daily glass of milk. I wanted to grow spiritually, too, but my thirst for spiritual growth could not be satisfied by following rituals that my young heart could not understand. I needed a living religion, and a living person who personified the teachings, rather than just preaching about them."

In Halol there was a town square where actors, singers, and orators came to perform and speak publicly. One day a friend of Amrit’s excitedly told him about a peripatetic teacher named Swami Chandra who would be coming soon and reciting passages from the Bhagavad-Gita, the Hindu bible. Amrit was assured by his friend that this vibrant young man was not an academically or religiously trained preacher, but a former actor and poet from an upper class Brahmin family who had renounced worldly attachments and taken vows of renunciation in order to become a swami. A true living holy man.

Intrigued that he might finally meet someone actually living the religious doctrines he’d been reading and hearing about all his life, Amrit made sure he was one of the first to get to the square that evening.

Amrit Desai recalled the first encounter vividly: "I went straightaway to the place where he was lecturing, and was immediately captivated. I knew that first day that he was my guru. When he spoke I had an inner knowing that everything I had been searching for in various ways could be found through him."

The fifteen-year-old Amrit Desai was too shy to approach the robust and outgoing swami, who was surrounded by an enthralled throng of adult townspeople. However, when Amrit found out that Swami Chandra was going to be staying in Halol for a fortnight – in a loft over a barn that housed the town’s sacred cows – he went to the loft every day after school to see if he could be of service to him. In Indian culture, it is a great honor to be allowed to be of any small practical aid to a holy man -- to quietly fetch him a glass of water or to fan him if he asks.

While Amrit had been exercising with his friends in the mornings, he came upon a chart depicting various basic yoga postures. Over time, he taught himself how to execute them. One day when Amrit was waiting outside the loft to catch a glimpse of the swami, a few of his friends came by and asked Amrit if he’d show them how to perform the yoga postures. Amrit obliged and, unbeknownst to him, Swami Chandra emerged from his residence and observed him instructing the other boys. The swami was so impressed with Amrit’s enthusiasm, sincerity, and skill that the next day he invited Amrit in to show him a demonstration of the sadhana, or spiritual practices, Swami Chandra executed daily. It was the first time the swami allowed anyone to observe his sadhana.

Amrit Desai described the experience this way: "Bapuji (term of endearment for a spiritual father) invited me in, locked his door and entered into a deep state of meditation. After a short while, his body then began to move and flow in a state of automatic movement. The energy became so strong that his body was hurled across the room with tremendous force, dancing, weaving, moving in and out of complicated movements and asanas (yoga postures) as I watched in awe."

Prior to watching Swami Chandra perform asanas as part of his spiritual practices, Amrit Desai had not associated yoga with anything more than a form of physical exercise. The immediate effect of this seminal experience on Amrit was to ignite his curiosity about yoga, and deepen his commitment to practicing it. Swami Chandra noted this, and took a more active role in Amrit’s personal and intellectual development.

So much so, that three years later, when Amrit Desai turned eighteen and was eligible for marriage, Swami Chandra asked him to postpone his arranged marriage for five years in order to allow them to continue their yogic training together.

Amrit reacted to the request this way: "At that time I didn’t understand why he was guiding me to wait so long, five whole years. But I trusted his insight for my life and approached my parents and told them what Bapuji asked me."

The following day, Amrit and his parents went to see Swami Chandra. Amrit Desai’s parents agreed with Swami Chandra’s request, seeing it as being in the best interest of their son’s development. In turn, Swami Chandra assured them that Amrit was going to reach a very high level of spiritual realization, and that the yogic practice of bramacharya (sexual abstinence) at this juncture in his life was going to aid him greatly toward that accomplishment.

During this intensive period of training with Swami Chandra, Amrit noted: "As I increased my practices and strengthened my observance of bramacharya, my energies became extremely focused and alive."

There are not any moral or quasi-religious underpinnings to the practice of bramacharya during specific stages of yoga. And there is more to it than just not acting or reacting to sexual impulses. The discipline involves a conscious and very difficult sublimation, assimilation and internalization of sexual energy. While practicing this discipline, Amrit Desai noticed that his creativity became acutely enhanced and his artistic perspectives increasingly lucid. It was during this period that Amrit got his first job as an artist, painting marquees for the town’s movie theater.

After completing his training with Swami Chandra, and graduating high school, Amrit Desai made a move that astonished everyone. He enlisted in the Indian Air Force . When I asked him about that, his eyes sparkled mischievously: "I wanted to do the most amazing, outrageous thing, something that no one in my town would have thought of doing. To travel one thousand miles away and join the Air Force was unheard of in our little town. Plus, I wanted to learn how to fly!"

Amrit Desai initially did well in the Air Force. Though when they informed him that he was being trained to be a gunner, not a flyer, he purposely began performing his duties inadequately until they discharged him from service.

Afterward, he returned to Halol, took a job teaching art at the local high school, and at the age of twenty-three married the young woman he was betrothed to, Urmilla. A few years later, they had their first child, a son they named Pragnesh. Amrit Desai had a respectable job, a wife, and a healthy child. This would have been a very comfortable and accomplished life for a typical young man in Gujarat.

Characteristically, however, Amrit Desai did not find typical accomplishments adequate, nor the comfortable engaging. During his brief stay in the Air Force, for the first time in his life, Amrit Desai encountered people who had traveled outside of India. The ones he met who had been to the United States spoke excitedly and enticingly about a culture that was uniquely dynamic, open, prosperous and innovative. That was all that a bright young man looking for a way to expand his horizons needed to hear.

After deciding that he wanted to go to America, Amrit Desai consulted with his village elders -- including palm readers and astrologers -- to see if there were any favorable signs aligned with his unconventional plans. They knew that the bright and talented young Gujarati man was not only asking for their approval to leave the sacred womb of Mother India, but a wife, a son, and a job, in order to go to a strange and exotic place that called its native population, of all things, Indians. And Lord knows what happened to them.

Predictably, the soothsayers divined no favorable signs. Undaunted, Amrit then went to see Swami Chandra, looking for a telltale from him that he should follow his instincts and follow through with his daring plans.

Amrit Desai remembered the day this way: "He (Swami Chandra) was speaking at a festival. There were so many people there that I couldn't find any place close to him. So I sat far away and started to silently pray from my own heart, asking for his guidance: ‘Bapuji, if you want me to go to America, please show me in some way.'

"Immediately, I saw Bapuji look through the crowd right at me, and from a distance he gestured with his hand for me to bring him a glass of water. There were many people nearer him to serve him, but he pointedly asked me to do this. In this way, I received my affirmation, and the blessing for my trip to America."