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Himalayan Masters Awaken New York – But to What?

How often does the New York Times offer critique-free write-ups of enlightened gurus from the Himalayas? In early January, their Cityroom blog ran a cute buzz piece on Mahayogi Pilot Baba and his teaching companion Yogmata Keiko Aikawa.

Wondering what was up, YogaCity NYC asked me to check them out. Were they for real? I am not a stranger to working with masters. I’ve been attending the Living Tantra series with Rajmani Tigumait, a Vedic scholar; received hugs from Amma, and had a daily meditation practice created for me by Gary Kraftsow, a senior teacher in Desikachar’s lineage.

Even so. . . Research told me that Pilot Baba was often a headlining saddhu at the Kumbh Mela, India’s enormous, once-every-three-years spiritual festival. As a pilot in the Indian Air Force, the story goes, he had been rescued from certain death by the sudden apparition of Hari Baba, a Himalayan master, in his cockpit, who guided the out-of-control plane to safety. Pilot Baba has since attained supernatural powers.

His teaching companion and fellow Himalayan master, Yogmata Keiko Aikawa, is the daughter of politically well-placed Japanese family. Yogmata is the first non-Indian woman to attain samadhi, something she’s done 18 times before huge crowds (!)

About 50 people had gathered on the 44th floor of the mid-town Hilton Hotel for morning darshan. In the afternoon, the masters would instruct us in pranayama, and extend powerful blessings. So far, so good.

“There is too much intellectuality here,” said Baba, who has been known for feats such as remaining buried for 7 days, or making himself disappear. “The mind here is super mind. Mind is too hyper. Mind wants to know everything with science. It is hard to teach to this audience. You are not your mind. Need to bring you back to the heart.”

Yogmata insisted that America needed these teachings, and so the two have appeared in New York and Los Angeles in the fall of 2010 and January 2011 as a part of their World Peace Campaign to help people let go of anxieties, doubts, and fears that prevent their spiritual growth. But the hefty price-tag associated with the afternoon workshops raised some doubts in my mind: $200 for Saturday and $300 for Sunday? Steep for enlightenment.

According to their New York contact person, the masters use their supernatural powers, known as siddhis, to publicly transcend time, space, and metabolic function, as a way to motivate normal humans to change their perception, and embrace spiritual practices. In other words, this shape-shifting is not intended as entertainment.

The audience sat cross-legged on white sheets. While everyone was respectful, participants didn’t always know what to expect from the masters. Two women I talked to briefly said they’d signed up without understanding what was going to happen. “I’m just going with the flow,” said Carol, who sat beside me on Sunday. Only one or two attendees were long-time students of the gurus. The rest had heard about it on Facebook or on South Asian public access TV channels.

But from such famous masters everyone did expect to trust that whatever was going to happen would be for their highest good.

“We have to get back to our Godly nature,” said Yogmata in her heavily accented English. We don’t know who we are, what we have inside us. Too much knowledge is confused. We want shining body, shining mind.”

Great – in theory – but how were we supposed to go about this mental spring-cleaning? Was the key information lost in translation? Or was I using my mind too much to try to understand what the masters were saying? It seemed very abstract, something a patchouli-wearing hipster might spout at a party.

I was more hopeful for the afternoon intensives. On Saturday, we were instructed in the practice of anughraha kriya, a sequence of purifying pranayama practices that began with a form of alternate nostril breathing and ended with thumping up and down on our sit bones to prepare us for meditation. After practicing the long breathing patterns a few times, we laid down in a 40-min savasana and were dismissed early.

Had we gotten our money’s worth? Or would we only know much later?

I debated attending the Sunday afternoon workshop. We would be receiving diksha, or initiation, that—they said—would clear our past karmas and project us forward on the path of self-realization. (In one afternoon – this was a fast process.) Yet no information was given as to what might follow after the blessing. Would I be responsible to the masters for the rest of my life? What were my responsibilities to them? What practices should I follow? What was their commitment to me? I was wary of entering into such a heavy relationship without really understanding it.

After consulting a friend who had once been a monk in India, I decided to attend. The diskha was intimate and ritualistic, with curtains drawn and lights lowered. Mahayogi Baba blessed participants one-by-one—including several children—using rose petals, rice, and secret mantras and yantras. Then, Yogmata came around and whispered a mantra in everyone’s ear.

Secrecy was important. Pictures were not allowed and I was asked to stop taking notes. We were warned not to tell the mantra to anyone. Not only would the mantra lose its power, it might bring us harm.

I left early, with their permission. As I scurried down from the Himalayan heights of the 44th floor, and across 6th Avenue to Starbucks to compile my notes, I noticed that the tingling at the top of my head—where Yogamata had recently tapped it 3 times—had not diminished. In fact, it was pulsing energetically.

My vision had changed, too. I saw the doormen, taxi drivers, pedestrians—and participants in the VogueKnitting International conference who were milling around the Hilton lobby—looking radiantly happy. I felt jubilant and energized. In fact, I could barely focus on the writing I needed to do. The mantra continued to resound in my mind. And to tell the truth, suddenly it was all I wanted to listen to.

It’s true that in the week following my encounter with the gurus none of my day-to-day worries vanished. It was still bitterly cold out, and my day job still frustrated me. I didn’t feel as if I’d reached a sustained place of enlightenment.

But I had to admit that something had shifted. The masters had transmitted their hard-won clarity through me so that I didn’t have to go sit silently in the Himalayas myself. Perhaps if I lived in a culture that was not so outright dismissive or as unquestioningly accepting—as the NYTimes was—of masters such as these, I might better know what to do with them when they come to town.

Published on yogacitynyc.com, February 2011

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