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The yoga teachers we have in the West can be brilliant, amazing, and inspirational; there is much to learn from them. However, there is a massive part of the yoga wisdom that does not reach us. This is due mainly to the fact that it remains in India with the traditional yogis and sadhus (monks).
I studied for many years under western teachers, but always had a yearning for the deeper and hidden sides of yoga. I found myself in India for the 3rd time in 1997. I was living at the Ved Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, Uttranchal in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. Rishikesh is known as the ‘Yoga Capital of India’ and there are, in fact, many yogis and sadhus in the area. It is also a centre for Indian pilgrims to come and soak in the holy atmosphere. Westerners also come here seeking yoga teachings or wisdom.
I, too, was in India seeking the wisdom of yoga at its source. I started with ashram life: living in a comfortless cement cell, eating the tasteless food, helping to clean the living areas, and practicing yoga morning and evening. Ashram life is supposed to help you focus on your spiritual practice because the environment is supposed to remove distractions like television, cooking, and the like.
After some weeks of this life, I was not feeling fulfilled. There was a yearning in me for the deeper teachings of yoga and it did not seem to be coming from the ashram. The ashram swamis/teachers were a bit jaded and did not put much effort into teaching the westerners who came through there to live or practice. This particular ashram had been hosting westerners since before the Beatles moved into the area (along with thousands of followers) to seek their own deeper teachings. It’s not a surprise the swamis in this ashram were a bit callus.
Most yogis in India do not live in ashrams because there are too many rules to abide by. They prefer to have a more carefree life in the forests. The life of the forest and river is better suited to the nature-loving yogis. This is what drew me to them, once I found out what a real yogi was like: a nature lover. All I knew up until then was that a yogi was a person who did asana, often on a sticky mat with some blocks and bolsters around. I was not prepared for the traditional version of yogi, who looks a little wild, is often hard to find and even more difficult to speak to, and holds some of the ancient wisdom of India.
The traditional Indian yogis (many of them at least), are a peculiar group. They try to live their lives immersed in nature and tend to live outside, wandering from place to place. They frequent temples, rivers, caves, springs, and other powerful places. Often on their wanders they meet old friends, who are also wandering or on a pilgrimage. They forage for food and cook it themselves. They may also obtain food from ashrams, or go hungry. Their fate is often left up to the whims of nature and chance. Sometimes there is a shelter to sleep under and sometimes not.
These people have to be extremely tough and adaptable to survive in their environment. Many of them head up to the very high mountains in summer and live above the tree line. They will bathe in icy cold rivers, shiver at night, and roast during the day. They suffer these trials because they say they are closer to the Divine Shiva, who is the lord of the mountains and the ultimate yogi. One does feel different at such extreme altitudes. There is great power and energy to be gained there, if you can handle it.
This prana, or life-force, is one of the reasons that traditional yogis live as they do, in nature. They believe that if one can receive true and solid harmony with nature, great health and personal power will result. These yogis never have a sticky mat (as far as I’ve ever seen) and rarely do any asana, but they are some of the most powerful and peaceful people I have ever met. Their wisdom comes from the timelessness of nature. Their power comes from the mountains and rivers, from the moon and sun, from the earth and sky.
Once I discovered the magical and fascinating creature that is the Indian sadhu/yogi, I was hooked. I wanted to learn some of their ways and spend time with them in nature. I left the ashram and went high into the Himalayas, seeking the yogis. What happened there I cannot currently say….
We can all take a lesson from these yogis of nature, by going outside as much as possible. If you can, take your practice to the park or forest. Bring your sticky mat (the old yogis would not mind) and soak up some natural prana. Try to sleep outside sometimes and make sure to go places with good air and water. You too can gather some of the nectar of nature. It’s free and all you have to do is find some nature and spend some time there. The peace and power will come.
Read More by the author on his website: Jungleyoga.net