I went to Sivananda Ashram in the Bahamas, to take a chanting workshop. Or so I thought. With me I bring a book, about Indian Goddesses. I have been trying to read this book for 5 years, but the books just would not speak to me. After reading half a page, I could not tell you what I read. So, I figured, maybe when I am at an Ashram…
The Ashram is situated on Paradise Island, between the canal that connects to the mainland and harbours the cruise ships, and the ocean of turquoise blue. To get there, you take a boat. The moment you step into that boat and it leaves the shore – the disconnect from all that is familiar begins. The breeze is warm, the sun is gentle, the water is clear. Upon arrival to the Ashram dock, which is less than 5 minutes ride – gardens, flowers and palm trees welcome you. Swamis are dressed in bright orange colours and it is easy to spot them through the greenery. Students enrolled in the teachers training course are wearing yellow t-shirts and white pants, and they too are easy to spot. Some of them are both excited and exhausted at the same time, as the training is intense and theyalso must live the life of the ashram. It is not easy for everyone, especially the early hours spent in silent meditation and chanting. Outdoor platforms are built all thought the ashram, some for yoga classes, some for permanent tents huts, some for events. There are small groups meeting in all corners, much learning is taking place everywhere. Classes, workshops and courses are offered every single day, guest presenters and concerts are taking place every evening. This is a perfect mix of study space and resting space, and people can come to immerse themselves into the discipline of the Ashram and also come for a yoga vacation.
I am here to learn something about chanting and I cannot wait for Karnamrita Dasi to come. I love to chant, and do so often, but never really had much official training. Karnamrita Dasi performs tonight. And so, here she comes, this young-ish, short of statute, but tall of presence, beautiful Hindu lady. Karn means an ear, Amrita means nectar. She makes me think of Goddess Durga, and I wait in anticipation. Before coming up on the stage, she touches the Swami’s robe with reverence and bows to the paintings of the Swamis that are hanging on the wall. And then, there is silence. We all sit silently as well, even the birds fall silent. A moment passes, how long – who knows. Dasi finally takes a breath and begins to chant. I feel the hair rise on my arms, I feel lightness in my spine, and I feel being transported right out of my body. Her eyes are closed, she takes her times, and she offers a myriad of alankars, which are the permutations and combinations of swaras or the notes. Not one line sounds like the other, and every chant she offers is un-repeatable. I listen with every cell of my body. I drink the chants, I quench my thirst for these sounds, while my eyes begin to moisten. Her chanting touches me so deeply, I let go of my mind, and I let go of trying to follow what she does. I just listen. Knowing how to listen deeply is a part of the devotional or Bhakti Yoga practice. I leave Dasi’s concert elated and overwhelmed.
The chanting workshop is offered the next afternoon, on the garden platform. About 15 people show up, with notebooks in the hands, bottles of water. We say hello to each other. The most common introduction at the Ashram is this: What is your name? Where are you from? How long are you staying? Which program are you taking? And so, we ask each other these questions and we answer these questions as they are asked of us. Dasi comes in and we fall silent. She begins to talk. She tells her own personal story, her growing up in the ashram, her loving to chant, her struggles. She shares about the Indian Classical music and gives little demos of the notes and of the alankars. Her musicians are there as well and they lead us through the Indian musical scales, with the notes that slide, and the transitions that are smooth and slippery. We follow best we can. The workshop is over way too quick. I am in love with the music, I am in love with Dasi. For the rest of the day I float, unable to land on my feet.
I remember that I was registered for a chanting workshop at this Ashram the year before, and that I missed my flight due to a snow storm, and that I never got to the Ashram. I also realize what a blessing it was for me to miss that flight, for had I made it – I would have missed Dasi this year. The second night she gives another concert, filled with magic, mystery, beauty, and liquid gold.
Our workshop the next afternoon is even more amazing to me, as she explains the ragas, and she explains the importance of the correct pronunciation. For the mantra to vibrate, the sounds must be pronounced properly. Otherwise, it is just a song. It may be a beautiful song, but the power of vibration will be lost. And so we sit there, diligently trying to pronounce the Sanskrit words, just the way she says them. We finish chanting ragas, following the guidance of the musicians, and unbelievably, we are pretty successful at that. My understanding of the mantra chanting is already 1000-fold deeper, and also, I understand how much more there is to learn. The ocean beyond the palm trees is the size of the learning that is available. I grow quiet, unsure of where I could study, without having to travel to India. I am not yet in a position to travel to India, although I now know exactly why I would travel there. To study ragas and mantras. My heart continuous to open and grow in size. By the end of that workshop, my heart is as big as the Ashram, and everyone is now in my heart. I am having a a hard time containing it all. I walk away on my own, to walk on the beach and just breathe. I take my time, listening to the waves, listening to the pauses in between the waves, listening to the hissing sound of the water diving into the white sand. I see Dasi and her musicians on the beach, I am sooo drawn to them, but I am too shy to approach them, and so I just wave, a small wave.
Last concert is presented. We swing and sway with the music, we hold our breath when Dasi pauses, we chant along when she offers us the lines. It is all beautiful, it is all magical. The prana of the place – the ocean and the palm trees, the environment of service and dedication, the like-minded people – all of these come together taking me so high! I am grateful beyond words. Dasi notices me – of course, I am right at the front, yelling at the top of my lungs – and she nods. There is something in her eyes, where my connection with her is suddenly different. No words are exchanged. But it is different.
Our last workshop is spent on Gayatri mantra. In two hours she gives us so many teachings on Gayatri – it is overwhelming. I can’t keep up with writing it all down. We chant the mantra, 108 times, but in different rhythms. She pauses us about every 30 repetitions, to add more teachings, or to fine tune the pronunciation. By the time we end – my voice is also liquid gold. I could just go on chanting for the rest of the day.
When I see her on the beach, I approach. We talk. We walk. I chant for her. I tell her that I have been praying to find a teacher. She looks at me and says: I will teach you. I melt right down, I feel like a part of me literally dissolves, right in that moment. She speaks of mantras, of sounds, of meaning, of living in an ashram, of her personal life. I listen and receive. Hours pass. I listen and receive.
Then, she leaves the Ashram. We exchange numbers. We say our final good-byes. I am still floating. My hair are still standing on my arms. I don’t really want to socialize, I want to keep this feeling to myself, so I go to my tent hut, pick up the incomprehensible book about Goddesses that I brought and I open the first page, again. Except, this time, I get it. I read and I get it. I read 10 pages, and I can tell you exactly what I read, cause the book just started talking to me. The Devi awoke. The Devi energy flooded me. Dasi’s light flooded me.
I close the book, and I close my eyes. I give gratitude. I have met my teacher.