Ben and I have spent the past 10 days at the Swan Yoga center in Goa, Southern India. We left Malawi at the end of October, after almost two weeks on project with All Hands.
I got the message that my grandfather had passed away while we were there and we made the quick decision to try to make it home for the funeral. The flight back was long (we may be the only people in history who’ve traveled from Blantrye, Malawi to Baton Rouge, Louisiana) but I’m so glad I went back. I couldn’t imagine not being with my family and saying goodbye in person.
We returned to Florida so Ben could see his parents. After spending a few days in Sarasota, we decided we would continue traveling until Christmas as planned. The project in Malawi was nearing its end, so we decided to go back to India. We flew into Chennai, where we eventually planned to go to the southernmost state of Kerala.
We were really excited to travel the South of India but forgot to consider the weather conditions, and upon arriving in Chennai came in contact with a natural disaster. Monsoonal rains had caused massive flooding throughout the city. The monsoon was predicted to continue for several days and extended across the entire South of India.
With our options limited we decided to fly to Goa, a province on the other coast just south of Mumbai. Goa is known for its beautiful beaches.
We stayed in a little cabana on one of Goa’s nicest beaches for several days. We spent our time reading, writing, swimming in the ocean, taking walks on the beach and eating lots of delicious South Indian food. But after a few days we both felt like we needed more. It wasn’t as satisfying as it once was to travel this way. After our experiences in Nepal and Malawi, it felt very disengaging to lie on a beach for days on end, especially in a country as interesting as India. Most of the interactions we were having with Indian people were when they were trying to sell us something or when we were interested in buying something.
Instead of feeling inspired by my surroundings I just felt like a spectator. I think it’s really easy for this to happen because of the way tourism has evolved in some developing countries. With only 10 days left before our flight out, we decided to change things up and do a yoga retreat. Ben and I have had some experience with yoga in the past but wanted to know more about it, being that we were in the country where it was founded.
From our very first day at Swan it became clear to us how little we actually knew about yoga. Before coming here, if someone had asked me what yoga was, I would have said it was putting your body in different postures to help put the mind at peace. I thought it was a kind of meditation achieved through exercise. I think the way I defined yoga is similar to the way many people in the West would describe yoga as well.
When we sat down with Gyan, the guru of Swan, he explained the true purpose of yoga. He said it’s a practice to improve mental health by increasing our awareness and restoring balance between the mind, body and spirit. It’s about awakening your consciousness, decreasing your ego, and understanding a higher truth.
He attempted to hide his frustration with the way Western countries practice yoga, saying that they’ve portrayed it to be nothing more than some kind of gymnastic. He believes that people who go to the gym twice a week for one hour of postures and then claim they ‘do yoga’ is an incorrect statement. It was very clear that he wanted us to go into this experience understanding that yoga is much more than various body movements and so much more than exercise. There are many different yoga practices, and most do not involve postures and poses at all. He referenced the Yoga Sutras, a comprehensive book written 1,600 years ago by Patanjali. The book has 196 verses in it and only 1 of those verses speaks about postures/ body movements. The rest are focused solely on the mind and expanding consciousness.
Gyan spoke with such clarity and understanding of the mind. Over the next 10 days my understanding of yoga increased through daily classes and weekend chats about yoga philosophy.
The overall objective and principles of yoga have a lot in common with that of Buddhism, which is to acknowledge that life is full of attachments and desires. We are always seeking fulfillment from the outside and never from within. Without understanding our relationship to the people or things around us, they can become the source of our unhappiness. The practices of yoga can raise one above unhappiness by alleviating suffering.
One of the more interesting things we discussed is the behavior of our subconscious and its sensitivity to our thoughts. How what we tell ourselves has a huge effect on our overall mental health. For example, if I constantly second guess myself and tell myself I am not smart enough, then my mind will come to accept this as truth. The subconscious will find a way to realize this truth, negatively affecting my relationships or job. This will also have a huge impact on my physical health as well. How the state of our mind affects our physical health is a big part of yoga.
I find it interesting because I used to think that my thoughts did not have any consequences. That when I thought something, either positive or negative, and then moved on to something else, that it was gone and had no lasting effect. But over time I’ve come to understand this to be false. Over the past few years I’ve seen myself change in various ways as a result of my thoughts. Either because of something in the past I dwelled on too much or holding on to something that I felt might reflect the kind of person I am, whether it was good or bad. The principles of yoga and Buddhism have helped me understand this better.
I thought Gyan put it perfectly in saying that the mind is the most powerful thing in the world and must be understood and managed properly to achieve inner-peace and happiness.
One practice to bring positive change is to develop a mantra or a resolve, such as ‘I will let go of the past’, ‘I will remain in the present’, ‘I will forgive myself’, ‘I will focus on the happiness of others’ or anything at all you feel you could work on. This resolve can be repeated mentally during meditation or throughout the day. If done on a regular basis, a resolve or mantra will slowly impact your subconscious in a positive way.
We were regularly asked to come up with a resolve, usually before our daily Yoga Nidra class. Yoga Nidra literally means psychic sleep. It’s a practice done where the person is somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. At the beginning of class, we would think of a resolve. Then we would start by lying down on our mats with our bodies in ‘corpse pose’, with our spine, head and neck in a straight line and our palms facing up towards the ceiling. We were guided to concentrate on an exact body part and then relax it completely. We would do one side of the body at a time. Starting with our right side our teacher would say ‘become aware of the right side of the body, become aware of the right hand, become aware of the thumb, relax the thumb, relax the first finger, the second finger, the third finger, etc. He would do this for every part of the body including our inner organs. The object was to internalize your thoughts and come into a state of deep relaxation.
This withdraw of the senses allows the mind to contact your subconscious or higher conscious. Once we were in this state, we would think about our resolve and repeat is several times. Most people in the class would fall asleep almost immediately or move within the realm of sleep. Sometimes there were visualizations about nature or sometimes we would count backwards. But I can’t really recall anything too specific because of the state of mind I was in. The practice usually lasted about 30-45 minutes. When it was over everyone usually lingered on their mat for a few minutes because it took a while to become totally awake.
One day, instead of doing the usual Yoga Nidra, we had a class called Prana Energizing Techniques. It’s a technique to awaken the prana (energy) in the body by channeling it through the hands. First, we sat in a meditative posture. Then we closed our eyes and visualized all the energy within our body collecting at the base of the spine. We followed the energy up the spine towards our neck where it separated into two channels through our shoulders, arms, and into our hands. We then did a series of movements bringing the palms of our hands close together and bringing them apart, first in front of our torso and then above our heads. Once we cultivated enough energy we brought it down and released it into our head. The process lasted about 30 minutes.
At first I felt a slight tingling in my hands. After moving my palms close together and then apart I began to feel a shape develop between them. My palms began to warm up and the feeling that there was something tangible between my hands started to increase.
Another practice they introduced to us was candle gazing. After dinner one night we all sat on the floor of the yogshala with our own candle in front of us. The candle was raised to the level of our eyes and we stared directly into the flame, just above the base where it burns the brightest. We had to try our hardest not to blink. After about one minute we closed our eyes and imagined the candle burning in our mind. Our teacher guided us on how to move the image up, down and around. This is a common practice to improve concentration and strengthen our control over the mind. You try to keep your eyes as still as possible. If the eyes are not moving then you are not sending any new information to the brain to process, allowing you to concentrate fully on the flame.
It felt like an hour had gone by when we stopped, but I found out later that it had only been about 10 minutes. I had some trouble because I couldn’t stop blinking when I looked into the flame. The brief moments I was able to fix my eyes without blinking I noticed that everything in my periphery faded away to darkness, which intensified the flame in front of me. I tried to hold on to this but couldn’t control my urge to blink. Ben’s experience was much better and he was able to visualize the flame with detail and clarity with his eyes both open and closed.
On the weekends after dinner our teachers conducted a fire ceremony. We all sat around a fire pit in the center of a room and they would chant several long mantras. Then we all joined together. We chanted the same 14 word mantra exactly 108 times, as 108 is considered a sacred number. The fire was lit halfway though and it continued to get larger and larger as we chanted.
Chanting is a big component of yoga. Most of them are about acknowledging our connection to all other living beings, nature, and the universe. The mantra we chanted is over 5,000 years old. It’s pronounced like this: “Aum Bhur Bhuvah Swah, Tat Savitur Varenyam, Bhargo Devasya Dhimahi, Dhiyo Yo Nah Prachodayat.” A basic translation is… “We meditate on the transcendental Glory of the Deity Supreme, who is inside the heart of the earth, inside the life of the sky and inside the soul of Heaven. May He stimulate and illuminate our minds.”
We also had sessions based on meditation and asanas. Asana yoga is the practice of body movements and postures and, as I mentioned before, it’s what people in the west are most familiar with. The style of the class was very different from any I’d taken back home. Instead of having a ‘power-yoga’ session, where you move your body continuously from one posture to the next, our teacher wanted us to focus on doing the movements slowly and perfectly. This method is a lot harder! We did poses like ‘baby eagle’, where we balanced on one leg with one leg wrapped around the other, and then bent over completely to face our balancing foot. We held this pose for a long time, becoming totally aware of our bodies and the intense pressure we felt. The goal was to feel the oneness between body, mind, and breath.
We were shown several poses that helped to reduce anxiety and some that helped to alleviate pain in certain parts of the body. We also meticulously worked on sequences such as sun salutations and warrior 1 & 2. I’ve done these sequences in yoga classes at home, but after re-learning here, I realized how incorrectly I’d been doing them.
Each day, at the end of all the classes, we had a small prayer (a puja) around a tulsi plant, or ‘mother tulsi’ as she was called. After circling the plant, we would each light a candle, burn incense, pour water of the plant, and place flowers at her stems. Then our teacher would chant a prayer and we would make a complete circle around the plant.
Like anything that’s different, this ceremony might sound kind of strange, like some form of tribal plant worship. But also like anything, the more you learn about it the less strange it seems. The daily ceremonial puja to the tulsi plant is done to acknowledge the role nature plays in our lives. To think about how nature is the very thing that gives us life and we should respond with gratitude, respect, and protection. The tulsi plant in particular is considered sacred for its healing properties. The different actions of lighting a candle, pouring the water, etc is done to represent all the earth’s elements that give us life.
The teachers at Swan said they feel many people living in the West have lost touch with nature and do not spend enough time contemplating and appreciating what it offers us…to which I agreed completely.
We discussed this topic when discussing the principles of Ayurveda. Ayurveda refers to the traditional medicine that was used for thousands of years in India. It is just now starting to gain popularity in the West. But with the overwhelming confidence in chemical drugs and the power of the pharmaceutical industries, it has been difficult to gain widespread respect and credibility as a practical form of medicine. Gyan said he tried to open an Ayurvedic store in Denmark, but it didn’t survive long because of government restrictions and huge taxes to import the products.
We left Swan after 10 days with our hearts full. We were both really thankful for the knowledge they had given us and were motivated to continue some of the practices we learned. This experience came at a really important time for us. We are moving back to the US where we will eventually look for jobs and settle down. It can be difficult in some ways to transition back home, but I feel better prepared after this experience.
Through daily resolves, meditation, stretching, asana sequences, a healthy diet, and maybe a little chanting, I feel like I have more control over my mental health. I think it’s important to know that yoga is for everyone. And even if you can only spend a few minutes a day considering the principles or doing some type of practice, it’s still worth it.
If I had to sum up what I’ve learned at Swan, it’s that the most important thing you can do for yourself is to learn how to manage your mind properly. And when you take care of it, positive things will follow. 🙂
**Thank you to Max Menschel (a guy in our group who sat out of several classes to take these beautiful photos and share them with everyone in the group) Thanks Max!