Coimbatore is sometimes called the Manchester of the south for its textile manufacturing and engineering products. Many professional conferences are held here. It was a pleasant and easy going city without too many attractions for tourists. Most tourists may use it as a hub to go to the Ooty, Coonoor and other Nilgiri Hill stations that are part of the Western Ghats range.
We traveled to the Karl Kubel Institute Foundation for Child and Family about 20 miles away. It is a beautiful retreat facility founded by a German philanthropist in 1999. He spent over a million dollars on the place. Surrounded by goat farms, hills, beautifully landscaped grounds and near Swami Dayananda’s Vedanta ashram, it was a perfect place to dive deep into our intermediate level training. A herd of 13 elephants roamed in the hills. We never saw any but we could hear them. Some photos of the place are at http://www.kkfindia.com/training/.
It was a rigorous training starting with a three-day silent retreat. We could only communicate with notes. It helped me to see how much of my communication is superfluous. It was tapas (discipline) of the tongue. I sat under the shade of mango, papaya, jackfruit, palm, coconut and guava trees enthusiastically journaling. We started at 5:30 am and crashed at 10 pm. We had a two-hour break in the afternoon to nap, walk, study and wash our clothes in buckets. Hatha yoga on the flat rooftops with the sun rising over the hills was a delight. My private room with shower was a refuge from group activities. Our traditional South Indian food was catered and cooked fresh every day.
A local university professor taught us the Bhagavad Gita. Swami Asokananda, the president of Integral Yoga Institute (IYI) in NYC was our lead trainer. He had several assistants. There were about 14 in the group including three Indian dudes from Coimbatore. We became good friends They would drive me into town and show me where they liked to hangout including a café with a bowling alley. They loved that I was familiar with the Gita and the Sutras. Shankar taught me how to do pujas. Shankar’s father is a priest who officiates at a Shankaracharya Shrine in the city. Shankara was one of the greatest teachers of monism or Advaita Vedanta (not two). I had read a few of his books and commentaries of classic texts. I was thrilled to be immersed in the living presence of this teacher.
In my opinion, too many 200 hour schools try to cover too much so a lot of it lacks depth. Some trainers even regard the “training” as more of an immersion in Yogic ideas than actually learning how to teach postures in a thorough way. Some are even teaching physically challenging poses without the building blocks of beginner and intermediate level methodology. No wonder there has been a rise of yoga-related injuries in the last 10 years.
The Integral Yoga (IY) approach is to offer beginner, intermediate and advanced trainings. It is slow, deep and comprehensive. I am a slow processor so I had taken the Hatha 1 or beginner level in 96. For seven years, I had studied under other systems and teachers to broaden my understanding of methodology. I felt like I was ready. One of the assistants said I should be helping them. I enjoyed observing how they did everything. Today, I hear about “trainers” of 200-hour schools who had only completed their own training a year prior to starting one. I have “auditioned” some of their graduates and they were not prepared to teach.
Anyway, after I gave my qualifying class to one of the trainees with none other than Swami Asokananda sitting behind me taking notes, we met for breakfast and his review. With trepidation, I asked, how did I do Swamiji? He replied, “I don’t think I can teach you anything. You were born to teach Yoga.” I was ecstatic. A few years later he was part of the committee that approved me to be an IY trainer in Erie. I was the first trainer approved who was not part of an IY Center or Institute.
During our training, we went on several field trips. Nearby was the Arsha Vidya Ashram of Swami Dayananda who represents Jnana Yoga. He also has ashrams in Rishikesh and Saylorsburg, PA. He was not there but we attended a Satsang conducted by two of his senior Swamis. One gave a brilliant talk about Advaita Vedanta offering insights into the psychology of perception and becoming free from projections. There was also a Q and A with both teachers followed by lunch served on a large banana leaf in the courtyard with 200 people in perfectly straight rows. I enjoyed the serene surroundings and people. They offer many programs including a three- year residential Vedanta and Sanskrit course. It is a perfect place to immerse oneself in a deep study of Vedanta. To visit go to http://arshavidya.in/.
One afternoon we visited the birthplace of Swami Satchidananda, the founder of Integral Yoga. The modest home is in Chettipalayam near Coimbatore. His humble beginnings belie the immense impact he has had on Yoga in America and with the western medical and therapeutic community. Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Dr. Michael Lerner have been influenced by his teachings. Dr. Ornish modeled his reversing heart disease program on the Yogaville lifestyle. To learn more about him, go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satchidananda_Saraswati.
We also visited his private international boarding school, Satchidananda Jothi Niketan. We were treated to presentations from the students including a play and a hatha yoga demonstration. The facilities and the academic, sports and cultural programs were very impressive. Visit it at http://sjnschool.com/.
One evening we went into Coimbatore to go to a program with Amma, the “hugging Guru”. She is recognized as a saint in India and is extremely popular She also has a following in America and tours here every year. Her ashram is in the backwaters of Kerala. I had been thinking of visiting it during my last week but since she was in “my neighborhood”, I was relieved it would be easy to meet her. She embodies Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of love and devotion.
Her devotees had erected a huge circus tent bedecked with thousands of lights in the forms of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. In one area, dozens of women were making garlands of flowers. Thousands of people had crowded under the tent to receive her darshan or blessing. She was seated on a makeshift throne on a stage with a polished Bhajan (devotional hymns) band behind her. She was surrounded by assistants dressed in white. I had heard they were from Germany.
There was a long line to meet her. Our Swami played his Swami card to try to get us in the speed line. We waited about 30 minutes. I was enjoying the music and people watching. Some were desperately in need of a miracle. Others were dancing in the queue intoxicated on the music and the energy in the tent. A person in white motioned us to come up. It was happening.
When it was my turn, an assistant asked me to empty my pockets including my passport and visa which made me nervous. Then someone moved me into Amma’s bosom and she hugged me. She spoke to me in the Malayalam dialect of Kerala. Then I was grabbed by the shoulders and stood up, spun around and given my stuff. I was disoriented as the Bhajan band rocked. I staggered back to the group. My darshan lasted maybe 2-3 minutes. I felt her universal love and my heart was happy. As a child, I had felt smothered by my mom’s need to control me. Her love was conditional. I was smothered in the heart center of Amma, but I felt there were no strings attached. I felt some emotional wounds continuing to heal. We left for dinner at a local restaurant and I felt giddy most of the evening.
She has hugged more than 33 million people in the past 30 years and has given darshan for up to 20 continuous hours. Her organization raised one million in aid for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. To learn more about Amma go to:
Our field trips were spread out during the three weeks of training. A longer one was when we went to the Nilgiri Hill town of Coonoor, population about 45,000 and elevation is 6070 feet. It is about 70 miles from Coimbatore. Part of the Western Ghat Range, the hill towns provide a cooling respite from the consistent heat of South India. We were in south India at the ideal time in January and February. Mid 80’s by day and mid 60’s at night. Mostly sunny most of the time. Otherwise, it can be hot, rainy and humid. The hill towns are popular from March on when day temps are in the 90’s.
There are numerous attractions for the nature lover like trekking to waterfalls and visiting botanical gardens. Sims’s Park has a collection of over a 1,000 species! There was an incredible array of plants, shrubs, and trees. I loved the camellias, roses and lotus pond. There were lots of monkeys trying to take whatever we were holding. Except for the aggressive monkeys, if there was a Garden of Eden, it must have been the model for this park. Another attraction is the tea plantations. Nilgiri Tea and its orange pekoe varieties are highly sought after on the international markets.
We visited the Taj Garden Retreat tea estate for an afternoon British tea service. We sat at white table cloth tables overlooking the orderly rows of tea shrubs scenting the hills with mountains in the distance. Indian waiters wearing white gloves served us tea, pastries, and breads with clotted cream. They even served us French fries! I felt like I was in a dream. It was formal and graceful. Then we went into town.
Again, it was like the Wild West. The big draw – pun intended – was the market with approximately a hundred stalls selling everything needed to survive from household items to clothes, furniture, silk, live chickens, stall food, groceries and portable altars. There were tenacious touts, serene Sadhus, belting buskers, open sewers, litter, roaming dogs, goats, cows and monkeys, kids playing soccer, scooters, Ambassador cars, auto rickshaws, Ox pulled carts and a mountain stream. It was exhilarating and overwhelming. I bought some gifts and played soccer and badminton in a littered alley with some kids while cows, goats, pigs, dogs and monkeys watched. A sign on a building said, “say no to plastic”. We dined at a local restaurant with delicious and cheap thalis.
To learn more go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coonoor.
We stayed overnight at a Catholic seminary that provided a wonderful respite from the chaos and pungency of the town. It was not heated except for a few fireplaces and for the first time in weeks I was reminded of being cold. The temperature only dropped to 45 but the contrast was dramatic. The stone floors and walls radiated cold. We hugged the fireplaces then dove under piles of blankets on our beds. The next day I was asked to teach a class after the subtropical highland climate warmed our buildings and the hills beyond. Usually, only the trainer’s and assistants taught the classes. It was an honor to be asked and I tried my best. Afterward, both Swami’s jumped up and gave me a hug. Swami Asokananda, the president of IY said, “Great class. I loved it. You are at the cutting edge of Yoga and in seven or eight years the rest of the country may be at the same place.” I was delighted and felt the support of like-minded souls as we drove back to the Karl Kubel Institute.
We graduated on Feb. 9, 2003. The ceremony was beautiful. They loved a chant from my Siddha Yoga days that I shared. When we received our diplomas the trainers described the essence of us. For me they said, Rhadeya is Raja; laughter and the life and soul of the group. My heart almost burst. Afterward, we went to the home of Ramaswamy for a celebration dinner. He is an inventor who invented a horn for vehicles that is sold worldwide. He is a devotee of Swami Satchidananda. A modest, humble and kind man he had built a home behind his home for Swamiji to stay when he was in town. There was an incredible catered feast and entertainment by a santoor player. He gave us his translation of the epic Ramayana.
My Indian buddies drove me back to the IY Institute in Coimbatore listening to the Chemical Brothers at full blast. We got a flat and while Vevek fixed it, the rest of us danced in the street! We said our goodbyes at the Institute. We had come from Switzerland, England, Lithuania, Columbia, Australia, Hong Kong, India, and America. We had discovered new depths to the meaning of the One in the Many and Unity in Diversity.
Our group and the tour group had spent many hours in vans throughout Tamil Nadu. We would chant and drum for hours bouncing up and down on bumpy roads missing other vehicles by two inches. We received the soul of India in thousands of fleeting images. Women beat clothes on rocks in polluted streams. Stands of coconut trees and groves of banana trees embraced in a valley surrounded by jagged mountains. Men scampered up trees to fetch coconuts. A shrine for Mary and the baby Jesus showed Mary dressed in a sari wearing a bindi. Poinsettias the size of small trees flashed by. Men and women labored in the fields under the tropical sun. A cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, and spices piled up in heaps in crates next to village roads in open markets. Hundreds of friendly faces waved and smiled at us as we whizzed by.
My tour group and my training group loved to eat. We agreed India was foodie heaven. We would stop in villages and scatter to buy road food. We shared our discoveries with enthusiasm. I avoided street and stall food. I avoided fruit with thin skins like apples or peaches. One time we spotted a cart vendor in a park selling mango-pineapple ice cream. It was 85 degrees. Most of us bought a cone and got back on the van. I tasted a little bit and my intuition said no more. I tossed it out the window. Four people in our training became sick for several days. I was fine. Other than a brief cold, I was healthy the entire trip.
It was difficult to say goodbye to the trainees. We had experienced three weeks of learning, fun, and adventure. It was intense and incredible. I am still in touch with some of them. I will always remember with great fondness our time together and the power of friendship and Universal Love.
I had about 10 more days on my trip. I hired a driver to take me to Ernakulam and Ft. Kochi in Kerala on the Lakshadweep Sea which merges into the Arabian Sea. It was a three-and-a-half-hour drive. Cost me $50. About the same cost to take a cab from JFK to downtown Manhattan! I had swum in the Bay of Bengal on the east coast of South India. I was looking forward to hugging the western coast for the remainder of my trip. I would complete my trip in Varkala, Thiruvananthapuram, Kanyakumari and Chennai. I would experience Portuguese, Jewish, Catholic, Chinese and, of course, more Indian culture. The amazing adventures will continue.