When my son was a toddler, he played with four beautiful Indian children; Swati, Mili, Ankur and their close friend, Manisha. These kids were over nearly every day and soon they became our family.
It was a time of change for the suburbs of major American cities, with an influx of immigrants from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. This influx brought a lot of xenophobia to the forefront of everyday life and racism towards this culture. The only people who didn’t seem to see this was the children. These kids and my son couldn’t have been closer and whatever differences there were made no difference to them.
Having these beautiful children in my home made me wonder what their culture was like and I began asking them questions about it.
These children went from quiet and reserved to excited and outspoken and soon were bringing over just about anything you could possibly imagine that pertained to their country: herbs like cardamom they use in chai tea, food, sweets, clothing, pictures of famous temples like the Ganesha Temple, Taj Mahal–and many others–Gods and Goddesses, like Shiva, the destroyer, Vishnu, the preserver and Lord Krishna, a teacher of the sacred scripture called the Bhagavad Gita his devotee prince Arjuna, which was my first introduction to the book and still one of my favorites. Each day they brought me something different.
Soon, I became good friends with the parents, even though they hardly spoke a word English, we managed to communicate with the children interpreting for us.
One summer afternoon, one of the parents, Cashmera asked me if I would be interested in going to Yoga class. A couple of her friends had been trying to talk her into attending at this place called an Ashram. I was satisfied running my races and weight training at the health club, I really didn’t believe Yoga would be a good fit for me, so I declined. She continued asking me and I continued declining but there was this voice inside my head that wouldn’t ease up, so eventually I gave in and went to the yoga class with her.
The only thing I knew about an Ashram was that the Beatles all attended one in the 1970s. As a teenager, I remember seeing pictures in a magazine.
An Ashram teaches daily practice of all aspects of yoga to achieve improved health, emotional well-being, mental clarity, unconditional compassion for others, and joy of living. An Ashram doesn’t charge a fee for their services and does not believe in profiting from teaching Yoga. Donations are accepted and are used to support the Ashrams expenses. The ultimate purpose of Yog Sadhan Ashram is to help others understand that the true nature of the Self, revealed through the practice of Yoga, is the same nature as God. This Ashram offered authentic education about the ancient spiritual practice of Yoga. There was more to learn than just physical practice like here in the West. They teach daily classes which include Asanas, (postures) Pranayama, (breathing exercises) and meditation. There are devotional services called Satsang (prayer), Havan (fire ceremony) Kirtan (chanting). And personal consultations and workshops.
Yog Sadham Ashram was first established in India, by Prabuhu Ram Lal Ji, Shri Chapman Lal Kapur who lived in India and died on April 22nd, 2012 at Yog Sadham Ashram in Hosiarpur, Punjab. By his grace, The Yog Sadhan Ashram in Chicago, was established in 1992. His daughter Hersh Khertarpal, is the Acharya of the Ashram.
When I decided to attend yoga class with Cashmera, I told myself I’d give it six sessions to really give this practice a chance before I made a decision to continue or quit. I actually liked yoga and one Sunday after class, Hersh invited everyone to attend Satsang. I stayed oddly enough, even though except for a twenty minute devotional reading, they didn’t speak or chant in English. I felt like I was home. Cashmera quit after two weeks of class. I been associated with the Chicago Ashram for twenty years.
I wanted to learn more so I kept following Hersh around asking her if she would teach me, she’d giggle and say, ‘okay,’ but I couldn’t ever pin her down. I decided to go to Barnes and Noble and purchased the Bhagavad-Gita, by Ramananda Prasad.
After I read the book, I held the book up in front of Hersh’s face and asked, “Now will you teach me?”
She smiled and said, “Yes alright.”
Then I asked, “Why did you make me wait a year before committing to teach me?”
“I wanted to make sure you had a burning desire to learn,” she replied.
I was her first student or devotee, an American woman. I find that interesting not only because an American devotee is odd enough, but being Hersh’s first is even more odd. But that’s not all. The day Hersh’s father blessed and opened the Ashram in Chicago is the same day my son, Jordan was born; October 6th, 1992. I believe there are no coincidences.
I follow Hinduism and in all honesty, I take what I want and leave the rest behind. To me its religion and religions are made by man. I follow my intuition. That is my God. I find God in everything and in everyone. I feel God speaks through you and I see his beauty in everything I can touch, smell, and hear.
I didn’t always believe in God. As a child, I was told about a man who lives in a place called Heaven. He wears a long white beard a white robe. To enter Heaven, he judges you. Those he doesn’t let in, he punishes and they have to go live with another man named Satan, who has horns and a pointy tail and always wears the color red and lives in some place called Hell that’s very hot and there’s fire everywhere. I was told in order to accept the blood of Christ and his body the bread, I would have to attend Confirmation classes and then be tested. I’m not a test taker so this scared me to no end. I clearly remember thinking, “Why do I have to take a test, shouldn’t God just share this bread with me?”
My mom would drop me off at the front door of our church or in the parking lot and leave me there to attend Bible School and then church. I always thought of this as some way for her to get rid of me for a couple hours. When I would enter the church there was my neighbor Mrs. Stares . She was always shaking people’s hands and smiling and acting really nice. This confused me even more because at home, she was really mean. She screamed at her children and beat them nearly every day.
My mom and dad fought constantly. I laid in bed listening to them yelling and calling each other bad names. One night, I asked God to please make them stop fighting. He didn’t. I figured he had way too many other people he was taking care of and he probably didn’t have time for me, so I wrote him off. I was about seven years old. So when my mother would drive me to church and drop me off, I’d act like I was going and when her car left the parking lot, so did I. Why would I want to go learn about someone who was not only a mean man, he punished people? I felt that I was doomed anyway. This God Guy just didn’t make any sense to me.
But even as peculiar as my journey is, I couldn’t possibly imagine being such an integral part of such a beautiful and significant ceremony.
It’s my sixth day in India and as we continue celebrating Ramnavami, my heart chakra opens up during morning prayer and tears come streaming down my cheeks.
I realize how fortunate and grateful I am to be part a loving family, that just so happens to be the family of a renowned realized Guruji.
Since his passing, this Ashram here in India is being run by another amazing Guru, Chander Mohan Arora. I’ve experienced first hand what it’s like to be a part of this amazing family and being included in their everyday life and traditions. They have welcomed me with open arms!
We head from the Ashram to a huge celebration. As we exit our cars, the driver jumps out of the car and opens my door. There are people everywhere. The Guruji and his wife Amita, lead us walking down a white runner, similar to a bride walking down the isle on her wedding day, with deep Red Rose petals down the center and bright Orange Carnations along the border. The air is pungent with the smell of incense and fresh cut roses. People are crying and placing flowers in our hands and bowing and touching our feet.
We enter a small temple with an alter. Everyone is chanting. We head into the Ashram and people sob as they drop to the Gurus feet, as well as his families feet, myself included! They’re taking pictures and bowing their heads with hands in the prayer position. There is a feeling of royalty in the humblest sense. I realize in this moment, I’m experiencing an event that people in India only dream of.
The celebration takes hours. It’s very hot and I’m perspiring to the point that I’m soaking wet. The devotees are going into a trance state, called samadhi. Some people drop right to the floor, very much like passing out. I was concerned someone might get injured but my Guruji Hersh assured me that this never happens. There are people dancing, some are singing and many rush up to the alter where the Guru sits and drop down to his feet, staying in one position for twenty minutes to an hour or sometimes even longer.
This was unsettling to me at first, however, I quickly adjusted. After the celebration there was chai tea and lunch provided for the family. It was right then in this moment that I had a spiritual awakening–how does an American woman end up in India at an Ashram, with a Guru and their family breaking bread?
I saw the Banyan trees fade into the horizon as we left the valley and couldn’t help thinking, “My God, if it is true that we create our own realities, I’ve just gone above and beyond. I feel just like a princess, and I just created one fabulous dream!”