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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."