The Yoga Youth and Children’s Retreat by Joanne Sullivan
There is a river. Sometimes you see it, sometimes you don’t. The long line of Gurus is that river, the Light that ties us all to one another. Swami Nityamuktananda spoke of this light in one of the noon-time classes for adults. It goes beyond all religio-cultural, racial and linguistic lines. In the boundlessness of the Guru, there is no room for smallness. Here in Rishikesh, a strange and beautiful “lila” (cosmic play) of the Guru’s love played out: the Children’s Retreat of 2011. The future of the lineage, the linking to the Guru Presence is alive here. Families learned yoga together in this vast global family, a many-petaled flower that kept opening, opening in this small enclosure whose roots are beyond. Here in a bowl of stillness contained by the surrounding foothills, in the throb of many colors, smells, sounds, languages and cultures that make up India, children of many lands came. Those who could not come were in some way here too, in the great space of the Guru’s heart that invites us all in. In the shawl of the Guru’s love, we learned. Here are a few glimpses.
Three years ago, Lela Pierce accepted Swami Veda’s invitation to bring together the Guru’s children, grand and great-grand-children to Rishikesh in order to preserve the wisdom of the lineage for future generations and strengthen the ties in the Guru family worldwide. Nalini Behari joined her as co-coordinator a year back. Carolyn Hodges and many others mentored the process. In some cases, three generations answered the call. There were structured classes in the foundations of the tradition, like yamas and niyamas, asanas, relaxation and meditation, diaphragmatic breathing and nadi shodhanam. There were also numerous specialty classes such as dance, Sanskrit, Ayurveda, puppetry, mask-making, drawing and kirtan. At noon every day there were classes for adults. In addition there was an entire day spent at Himalayan Institute Hospital Trust with art activities planned by the Rural Development Institute and guided tours of the hospital city, the last great known mission of H.H. Swami Rama. Other outings included ancient temples, Vashishta Cave, a walk to Sadhana Mandir, walks along Ma Ganga, and a jungle safari ride. By and large, everything went on schedule, as planned and with abundant blessings.
Su-baala Upanishad, The Upanishad of the Beautiful Child
“baalyena tishthaased baala-sva-bhaavah:
Seek to remain in childhood with child nature through the whole of life.”
—The Su-baala Upanishad
We all received a laminated bookmark from Swamiji of this excerpt from the Su-baala Upanishad, with Devanagari script on one side and Roman script on the other on traditional Florentine stationery. It was a blessing and a prayer that blanketed the retreat.
The Impossible Put to Shame
The impossible has once again been put to shame. There is no impossible. Take the family who found a way to make the big journey to India, using 1/3 of last year’s earnings to do so. Or the children of an African prince/diplomat who managed to abscond the parents away from pressing affairs of state.
The children are easy at play and seem to grasp one another’s deep languages, spoken and unspoken. Families help one another and even those without children join in to help. Early on, Swami Veda asks all the adults to think of all the children here as their own. It is a remarkable family.
Age, culture and language don’t seem to matter. How is it that children who do not speak the same native tongue play together like they have known each other forever?
How does a 6-year-old who has never left these Himalayan foothills speak Italian to his little Guru brother from Florence, Italy, after the first day?! “Vai, Vai!” (Go, go!) he cries in the flurry and excitement of a game of hide-and-seek. In team-choosing, all are asked to answer yes or no but this Indian fellow replies “Si.”
“Yes or no?” says the adult.
“Si,” he insists. He is an arrow in free flight. The target? No linguistic or artificial boundaries. Bull’s eye. No great philosophical ponderings, just pure fun straight from the heart.
One child is shy. The next you see, he is a driving force in an international, multi-aged soccer game. Another boy lost his father last year. He arrives withdrawn, tentative perhaps, with his big heart reflecting in big sunken eyes. Next, one sees him playing, then walking arm in arm with other children. Karuna (Compassion) incarnates— has found a friend.
An Italian woman in her twenties often played with the 7- and 8-year-olds from different countries with so much ease and so much love she could have been one of them.
There was so much genuine friendship and fun in the crisp winter sun, with children of all ages playing together as if they never wanted it to end. Some parents reported that they hadn’t seen their children so happy and free before and that they wanted to stay. Between sessions and often after meals, spontaneous play would erupt over the hillsides. One little toddler fearlessly ran after the soccer ball in the middle of a soccer game of some big boys. Alongside the playing field, toddlers and a few older children sat idyllically playing in a hill of sand, enjoying the feel and flow of the sand.
Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama and Her vast extended family from every human-inhabited continent, filled to overflowing with that presence the last days of 2011. The children of our lineage brought their parents by the sheer force of love. What, Who, is that love?
Play Beyond Language
An impromptu game of copycat mime took place on the patio in front of the Meditation Hall. The players were a 7-year-old Italian boy and an American college student. Their gestures and synchrony were sensitive and playful. It was almost a fun ballet, deftly executed with few words. One observer casually watched from a nearby bench and later commented that their play led her into a deep meditation, eyes shut.
And where does the play take place? They went bounding with joy and friendship in the bowers of dripping flowers, in the overflowing gardens of Sadhaka Grama by the Little Kali River, not far from Ma Ganga. Swami Veda frequently appeared out of the blue, sometimes with prasad for his children and grandchildren. I wanted to give a piece to a friend who could not come, but the human reach is not so big.
I privately nicknamed the field by the dining hall that spills out to every nook and cranny of the whole grounds “Kurukshetra.” In the Bhagavad Gita, Kurukshetra, the Field of Righteousness, is the place of a great historic battle. It is said that it also takes place at two other levels, the cosmic battle between the gods and the demons, and in the individual spiritual realm—the choices at each juncture of every human life, no matter the age or ethnicity. Our Kurukshetra during the Children’s Retreat sparkled with children of all ages laughing and playing in the sand pile, soccer, hide-and-seek, cricket, four-square and other games I didn’t recognize in languages like Hungarian, Italian, French, Japanese, Dutch, Korean, Hindi, Sanskrit, Spanish, Gujrati, Garhwali, Marathi, Oriya, Kannad, Moré, German, English and Irish, to name a few.
There was no language or age gap as far as I could tell. All the children seemed to instantly want to play together irrespective of ethnicity, religion or race. It was really something to see.
Walking among us
“I will tell you a secret. You may believe me or not. The Guru Parampara has been walking among you, unseen, watching you.”
– Swami Veda Bharati at the Closing Ceremony of the children’s retreat
Swami Veda had said that “the Master was roaming around invisible, watching over all.”
Pondering this over lunch one day, a father said “Well, I’m sure there are energies here, but I don’t know that I believe there are unseen beings walking amongst us.” Being a scientist, he doubted that this was possible. The next night, he was reading a bedtime story to his children. They were almost asleep when suddenly one, then the other, sat bolt upright, looking toward the kitchen.
“What are you looking at,” the father asked.
“Oh, the man in red in the kitchen,” said the little fellow. The other said the same. The father looked but saw no one in the kitchen though he could feel someone behind him.
When asked later what the man in red looked like and what he was doing in the kitchen, the boy said “he had gray hair and he was singing to me.”
“What was he singing?” asked the mother later.
“I don’t know. I couldn’t understand,” said the boy.
“Did he look happy?”
“Oh, yes,” replied the boy. “Very happy.”
The following day, Mrs. Dixit, head of our glorious gardens, gave the mother some small photos of Swami Rama—wearing red. The mother had not noticed his photo earlier and had thought that he would be in orange. She left the photos on the table. Later, one of the boys exclaimed “Oh, that’s the man who was in the kitchen!”
During the children’s retreat, every room and cottage was full so there was overflow to Sadhana Mandir, the Mother ashram up the road. One 12 or 13-year-old was meditating in the meditation hall there and later told his mother that during the meditation, his brother sat on his left and a man in maroon robes with a brown shawl sat at his right. No one else saw him.
The Benediction of the children
Swami Veda called the children upstairs to the Initiation Room in small groups for the Guru’s blessings. The younger children were called in small groups, each with a parent. One by one, each child came up. He sanctified each child with droplets of water touched to mouth, nose, cheeks, eyes, ears, and shoulders. Later, he sprinkled rose petals on the child’s crown. Wrapped in the divine circle of his meditation shawl, the child sat close to him or on his lap. He held the child very close for a time and whispered Om, the first mantra, into the child’s right ear. He held him or her in a deep chamberless chamber. One by one, you could see a change in the child, an inward pulling as if drawn into a great stillness; often the child’s whole demeanor changed; sometimes the spine went very straight. It was as if they had entered an invisible cave.
Looking across the room, I felt great affection. Then, “not that—this” enfolded me as if redirecting to the heart chakra where a gentle warmth was briefly lit. “Go there instead,” it said.
After the children left with their parents, Swamiji explained to a small group of initiators and this observer how he initiates small children and teaches them to meditate. I didn’t catch every word nor did I fully grasp the full meaning but this is some of what he said:
“It is a mantra-less initiation….There is no technique to mantra-less initiation. It is only understanding the meaning of objectless love, love without an object.”
He also said that the two become one.
This reminds me of a silent conversation I had with Swami Rama in 1971. I had just heard him talk and was now back home by myself. This is how it went.
“I’m not so sure I want a guru, not sure I like the idea of someone pasting their ideas on me. “
“Have you ever been in love?” came his silent reply.
“Yes.”Then two circles appeared before my mind’s eye, slightly overlapping. I understood that the locus of intersection, where the two are partially united, is love. Then the two circles slowly started to move together.
“When the two become one, this is perfect love.” In the space between the physical and the nonphysical, hovered one circle, no sign of two separate circles. I understood what he was trying to tell me, that when a student becomes a disciple who finally surrenders to the Light—not to a person—the master and disciple are one.
In the initiation of the small child, for a brief moment, the two are one. This kind of blessing is imparted in many cities and countries around the world. Swamiji has said that this 30-second meditation with small children is one of his greatest satisfactions. “If we populate the next generation with children who know compassion, love and the art of caring for others,” he said, “we will have given the world a great gift.”
When asked, some parents felt that the most important part of the retreat was Swami Veda’s blessings. Older children were blessed in small groups; some of them had been blessed by the initiation of the small child at an early age.
Scientific Enquiry by the Meditation Research Institute
Dr. Stoma Parker taught basic relaxation and meditation to a group of children which also served as a brief 2-session pilot study conducted by our on-site lab, the Meditation Research Institute. Two main areas were examined: Would children show less anxiety and better attention after meditation? The data has not yet been analyzed. H.H. Swami Rama devoted much time to bringing yoga into the awareness of the scientific community.
Pre-conference chanting with Swami Krishnananda
Families had begun to arrive at SRSG just before the start of the retreat when Swami Krishnananda arrived as if by Light Chariot to lead us in exultant kirtan. Swami Veda came. Swami Krishnananda is from Kerala and sings with tremendous shakti and devotion. I looked around the room, electric with the pulse and throb of singing the divine name. In the driving rhythms, some looked like they were exploding with joy. Some, like Bhagavandev’s ashram boys from Orissa, looked enveloped in stitha prajna, steady wisdom. I am unable to describe the wonder I felt at seeing so many different kinds of people in our family together in one place.
Six yellow-clad children, a Presence, a seed of fire
Bhagabandev’s young but very focused Orissa ashramites led us in daily fire offerings. Seekers of all ages sat around the big yajnashala (fire pit) by the main building, not far from Swami Veda’s window. Every day, it began in the dark of a brisk winter morning. Before it was over, the dawn lifted in the surrounding foothills and in us as well. Later I spoke with some of the boys and their teacher and wished that I might one day go to their ashram to experience the simplicity, devotion, and discipline that seemed to exude from these little fellows. One day, I saw them playing soccer and asked what language they were speaking. “Sanskrit,” they replied with polite affection. Bhagabandev had mentioned that they are only allowed to speak Sanskrit or English in their ashram. Last summer, during the heavy Orissa floods, I watched the online reports of flooding and learned that the bridge to the village where they get their supplies had burst in the floods. For at least three days they had no electricity, no cooking gas, and could not cook food. They live close to nature in the jungles of Orissa. “They never kill scorpions which are plentiful where we live,” Bhagabandev once told me. “They sometimes catch them, remove the stingers and set them free.”
Spontaneous bursts of song
Three ladies start to sing a Gregorian chant outside the dining hall after Christmas Eve dinner. A passerby joins in, completely swept off her feet. “Dona nobis pachem.” Grant us peace! The song makes its way uphill, one of its singers opening her heart to the high heavens. A door opens and someone says “Thank you. You’ve just given me my Christmas present. I mean it.”
Learning from one another
One little boy’s ball is snatched away in a game of soccer. He goes up and punches the ball-snatcher in the face; the recipient cries but does not strike back. He walks away. Soon enough an apology is offered and the boy who has been hit puts his hand out in expectation of a handshake, but instead receives big hugs and apologies. They are off running and playing together like old chums. They play together every day until departure and become good friends. Lovely how they remind each other of who they really are. If only adults could be as malleable as children! This calls to mind a 1971 interlude in Dr. Arya’s attic with His Holiness Swami Rama. Someone asked Swami Rama how to deal with the anger of another.
“Anger,” he said,” is temporary insanity.” He filled the room with the power and mystery that he was. “When someone expresses anger, do not see it. Look past it to the true person you know that one to be. In this way, it will pass more quickly and you will help that person—and also yourself.”
Satsangs with Swami Veda
Swamiji gave several memorable talks, which are worth hearing or reading in print form. One is the Story of Shukadeva, the child saint who was the son of the rishi Vyasa and who faced death at every turn during his sojourn in the palace of King Janaka-Videha. Janaka means father. He was like a father to his whole kingdom. Videha means someone who has no body. “You have a body but you are not the body. This body is like a house,” said Swamiji. “When you show someone your house, do you say ‘that’s me’? And so, my dear children, you are not a body. It is like a house to you.”
Swamiji also told the story of Manu and the Great Flood, a story told in many cultures, and spoke of its historicity. Another time, he talked about the importance of good dietary habits with sattvic foods and not too much fat (avoid heart disease), not too much salt (avoid high blood pressure) and not too much sugar (avoid diabetes.) He was often present in the early evening meditations and in evening events, as well as his spontaneous appearances during the day. Once again, he laughed in Sanskrit through the vowels of the Sanskrit alphabet. Many of the oldsters remembered his hilarious, spontaneous laughing in Sanskrit when he was a young man. He seems to be getting younger with each year. One of his students said to him last year “Swamiji, you are the only teenaged septuagenarian I know!” He replied “Yes, and soon to be Octo-plus!” It was a rare treat to see him each and every time. We are all so grateful that he could be with us and even more grateful when he takes rest.
Ammaji (Mrs. Lalita Arya) and Stomy Persaud, the 2nd Arya daughter, of KHEL Charities, which educates poor children in Dehradun at Lakshmi Devi Academy and supports three leper colonies, brought their students and staff for a day. The children participated in special classes throughout the day and treated us all to a special evening of colorful, traditional dance and song. Ammaji and Dr. Usharbudh Arya started this charity at the request of H.H. Swami Rama 26 years ago.
“Draagheeyaamsam anu-pashyeta panthaam: Let one see a long way ahead on the path.”
—The Rig Veda
Swami Veda met with the mostly teens and twenty-somethings to ask them to create a cohesive group that would take on the next leadership in the perpetuation of the lineage. They met several times afterwards on their own to plan and discuss how to keep in touch and how to do this. They elected leaders, talked about the next retreat, and discussed which topics might be of interest to the older youths.
Swami Veda repeated what he has said so many times before. “In 65 years of spiritual service in different organisations, I have passed through several generations. In some families, I am into my 5th generation. In each generation of leaders I have ensured that the next generation of leaders gets trained and successively takes over.”
Swami Veda says that the whole idea of the current effort to create the Future Leaders groups is twofold:
- As soon as they are ready, they will take over the leadership of AHYMSIN
- 50 years from now, these leaders and spiritual guides will host a similar gathering to prepare future leaders, who, in turn, will guide others in the meditation teachings and spiritual work of Swami Rama. The passing of the torch will continue for generations to come.
Jyoti Srivastava is an accomplished classical Indian “Odissa” dancer. Swami Veda pointed out that every gesture, every turn of the ankle or wrist, every mudra of face, hands, feet and eyes constitute a whole language all its own, a many-faceted dictionary of sorts. To illustrate this, he called her over to him at the beginning of her performance and asked her to give an impromptu demonstration of The Lord’s Prayer in dance. In her masterful performance of The Gita Govinda by Jaideva, she rendered the 10 avatars (divine incarnations) and the demons each conquered. Swamiji said that the entire epic poem of the The Gita Govinda was recited here in the grammar of dance. An empty stage was filled with a hundred characters in myriad settings. She brought to life a complex system of dance which is thousands of years old.
Llyn Evans, Master Storyteller
Llyn Evans, a master storyteller, originally from Wales, returned to SRSG from the West of England to enchant us with stories. Her words are studded with simple but evocative word choices that seem to create worlds. Her timing and subtle changes in voice complement her natural, intentional gestures and draw you in. Every story Llyn told enfolded the listeners softly into her flowing shawl.
Sabina Cesaroni and Alessandra Palma, Dance and Mime
Sabina Cesaroni and Alessandra Palma danced and did mime on several occasions. Children will long remember the big red nose that Sabina sported as she clowned about on stage with Alessandra, making all of us laugh. In contrast, there was also a performance that combined modern with Tandava dance in the powerful Dance of Shiva. In still another performance, they interacted mysteriously and sensitively, moving in and out of video images behind them, while creating silhouettes of their doubles on a great screen. This was a collaboration with Isaac Sullivan who made the video. The three spent several hours looking at how to put it all together, and with the excellent help of Shailendra Bisseswar on sound and backdrop, a cohesive work of art emerged.
In talking with Sabina later, she spoke of dance as learning how to hold space to contain the elements in your muscles and bones. “You learn how to hold space,” she said, “and how to drop space. You learn how to drop everything because you are not dancing. You are danced.”
Reading Picture books by the Shankaracharya
Several children came up to me one day and said “read me a story, oh, please do.” So I went home and fetched a few choice children’s books. We sat on the steps by the Shankaracharya statue and read picture books from the Panchatantra with Hindi in Devanagari script on one side of the page and English on the other. We also read about the lives of Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankar of Jainism, and the Buddha. This involved children from several continents who spoke French, Marathi, Hindi, high British English, American English and more.
Suddenly, they all went streaming after a boy from Mumbai who had taken his sister’s earring. After returning with the snatched earring, they all returned to finish the stories. When the boy came back, morality was gently, firmly served. I saw one very strong, little African girl ask him with probing eyes, “Why did you take her earring?” The boy hung his head down, which I think is a form of apology all over India – simply acknowledging one’s error in humility.
Scheduled Programs for Children
There were so many programs for children. Yoga for six different age groups. Arts and Crafts Yoga. Kirtan and Bhajan. Music and Brain Gym. Puppetry with Ioulia of Greece and Celeste and Ian of Minnesota. Mime, Dancing and Movement with Sabina Cesaroni and Francesca Palma of Florence, Italy. Ayurveda with Dr. Letizia Vercellotti and her daughter Ayana, also of Florence. Art and Body/Mind with Jessica Groff of Minnesota (Stephan and Carolyn Hodges’ daughter). Classical Indian Vocal Music with Shivananda of Rishikesh. I am unable to do justice to most of the programs.
Here are just a few words about Arts and Crafts Yoga with Carol Pierce of Minnesota and Cathy Gilbertson of Hawaii. Children made origami hats, dragons, homemade streamers and masks. In discussing their approach, the teachers emphasized that the experience of art-making was paramount. It was important, said Carol Pierce, Lela’s and Dr. Surya Pierce’s mother, that adults do not impose their views on children. This reminded me of something Dr. Arya taught us long ago in a Yoga Sutras class. The states of consciousness are their own definitions, not the words we might use to try describe them. When raising my child, I tried in the early years to remember this. Rather than defining “dog” or “plate” or “book,” one respects the referent as its own definition, thereby avoiding our own errors of perception that we so often unknowingly pass on to our children. Children are innately wise if we give them the opportunities to explore safely and freely.
Fourteen year old Sakhi has a voice that is not a voice but a clear mountain stream. She sang Raga Bhairavi and Kabir, who as Swami Veda pointed out, is beloved all over India in many great traditions. On another evening, Sakhi offered us a strong performance of traditional Indian dance that was well received by everyone.
On 29th December, Swami Veda talked to all the adults and initiated four projects with volunteers stepping forward to work on each of them:
- a book about sattvic Indian food
- a book about spices and how they can be introduced into Western foods for their health benefits
- a parent teacher conference about the Spiritual Family tentatively slated for 20th -25th February, 2013, and
- a book with teachings that Swami Rama and Swami Veda have given on the upbringing of children and on how to teach meditation to children with a target release time of February 2013. Swamiji commented, “preparing an SR-SVB (and parents’ input) book regarding children’s education (in reality the adults’ education) for the same time based on svb’s statements like ‘it is not children who need spiritual education; it is the adults who need the same’.”
In a nutshell, he said: Learn the prayers of all the religions. Learn the prayers of our tradition. Make yourself, not the kids, spiritual. Children pick up from you. They sense your emotions.
Sarah Lohan and Mariella Silva have stepped forward to work on The Spiritual Family event. Antuanette Khetawat will create a blog with a chat space for parents where they can also link up to the AHYMSIN website.
There is a presence that reminds me of Ouroborus, the snake who swallows its tail, ancient icon of the unbreakable, of the infinite return. It means many things in many cultures. I mention it here to honor the love and light which has brought us together, that which was never born and never dies. There was guided morning practice for families every day. Yoga for children was divided into different age groups and taught by outstanding teachers. The foundational prayers of the Himalayan Tradition were taught to children and adults. The Himalayan Tradition is alive and well.
Note: To view more photos and read more about the Children’s Retreat (December 2011 at SRSG in Rishikesh, India), you can read the January 2012 edition of the Ahymsin newsletter here.