Friday, September 09, 2011

A wonderful time was had by all

I was blessed to spend nine-and-a-half hours studying with Sri Dharma Mittra in his beautiful new center last week at a retreat that ended with a kirtan by Bhagavan Das. It was an irresistible double bill for me (even more alluring than Radiohead, Sigur Ros and Merce Cunningham at BAM back in 2003 - which was a great show by the way).

My cheap flight had me getting into town several hours early, so I took the opportunity to take the #4 train down to Ground Zero (following in the footsteps of Tommy Gavin on Rescue Me).

On September 11, 2001, I was in NYC practicing yoga with Pattabhi Jois at Chelsea Piers. After class, I promised him I'd come to Mysore in January. Then we walked outside and saw the cloud of black smoke, and everything changed (read my riveting 9/11 diary, published in the Chicago Reader, here).

On Friday, I ended up taking a guided audio tour of Ground Zero. The place had a surreal quality, and I felt strangely disconnected from the massive construction site.

At some point my watch (purchased in Mysore) fell off the wrist, and I never found it. A short time later a pounding headache started. I ended the tour early, went back north, had the usual lunch at Angelica Kitchen, checked into the hotel, and took a two hour nap. Apparently I was affected by the massive graveyard after all.

The head was still pounding when I walked to the center for the opening night of the retreat. Dharma was compassionate and humorous as always. He began the Friday session with a series of Oms and other chants, and then led us through a Level II class. During the savasana that followed, the headache completely disappeared.

Dharma then led us through pranayama and a powerful meditation followed by satsang, during which he spoke about the concept of time and encouraged us to contemplate its origin – which made me think about losing my watch at Ground Zero earlier that day. Dharma patiently answered questions from students, and led us through some chanting and aarti (light ceremony). Then, some devotees of Swami Kailashananda led us in a beautiful kirtan.

Saturday’s program began at 8:30am with a long, relaxed pranayama and meditation session, where Dharma led us through several different breathing practices and an intense concentration exercises. Even more students joined us for the Maha Shakti class, which concluded with partner yoga exercises - including assisted handstand. It was followed by Dharma’s amazing Relaxation Meditation Method – during which I could literally feel the energy moving through the body.

For lunch, Dharma's wife, Eva, and some students put out a sumptuous home-made vegan buffet. I spent the break talking to Eva and another a devotee of Swami Kailashananda, doing karma yoga, wandering around the center looking at the deities and images of Swami Kailashananda, and doing the Sleeping Baby pose (which is good for digestion).

Dharma began the afternoon program with a Self-Realization lecture, where he shared the highest knowledge with us. Then he led us through 27 sun salutations and another deep savasana. Afterwards we sat up and spent a long time chanting rounds of “Om” that stimulated the pituitary gland and filled us with bliss. He suggested that we observe mauna (silence) afterwards.

Eva and the students put out another wonderful meal for dinner, and before eating Dharma led us through a prayer and a chant.

During these sessions, we did many of the asana, breathing, and purification and chanting practices I normally do at home, on my own. But there’s nothing more powerful than doing it with likeminded souls, in the presence of the Guru, at his prana-infused shala.

As usual, Bhagavan Das and Kali put on an amazing, nonstop, high-energy kirtan. At one point, Baba took a few moments to deliver a brief speech on the nature of time – warning us that it is running out. Again I thought about my missing watch.

I left the retreat feeling spiritually recharged and filled with gratitude.

And with the sense that I shouldn't waste any more time....

* * *


I bought a new watch at the airport. On the way home from the airport (via rapid transit and bus), the watch broke. The next day, I took out all of my old watches. Not one of them worked. On Wednesday, I planned to use the smart phone as a watch while teaching. Then I lost the smart phone (Dharma and I had also discussed non-attachment when I was in NYC, and it was interesting to watch the mind react to its loss; not as bad as one would have thought, probably due to the bliss from the retreat). Fortunately, the smart phone eventually turned up, and I was able to take the train downtown for the midday class.

We were halfway downtown when the power on the elevated train went out. The train glided to a halt. Its engine quieted down and became silent. The AC stopped working. And we all sat there on the train on the elevated rails between stations as the sun streamed in through the windows and it got hotter and hotter. It reminded me of when the monsoon comes in India, and everything just grinds to a standstill. Everything on the train was perfectly still - until it became apparent that we'd be there for awhile, and people got on their smart phones to tell others they were running late. But I just sat there, enjoying the stillness (and the fact that I had a seat, a book, a mantra, some water and some food). It was as if time stood still.

For a little while anyway.


  1. Very interesting – especially of ‘losing time’ and your sensitivity at ground zero. As I was reading this, I kept thinking of the French mystic and philosopher, Simone Weil, who said: “There is a reality outside the world, that is to say, outside space and time…”

    Ralph from Dekalb

  2. Ralph-

    You hit it on the head.

    That's *exactly* what Dharma was trying to get us to think about.

  3. Anonymous11:25 PM

    The weekend sounds fascinating and quite delightful. Interesting that both Dharma Mittra and Bhagavan Das commented on time...unplanned (I imagine) but synchronistic. Of course perhaps it's in response to "us" because many of us notice time speeding up- maybe b/c of too much movement and activity?

    I don't know a lot about the Mayan calendar, but the "days" and "nights" actually get shorter as we approach 2012. If the first periods (first day and night) lasted billions of years, we're now in a phase where the cycles ("days"/"nights") are roughly 20 days.

  4. Anonymous11:27 PM

    By the way, access to that "reality outside the world... outside space and time" can (only?) happen when we are able to still ourselves sufficiently. I think that's quite the challenge!

  5. Anon 1: There are no coincidences.

    Anon 2: The definition of yoga as stated in the second Yoga Sutra is to still the fluctuations of the mind (or, as Dharma says, to settle the mind into silence). The Sutras provide a blueprint for how to do this. Contemplation can also be helpful.