|AHYMSIN NEWSLETTER, ISSUE - Jan 2017|
Yoga Youth and Children’s Retreat
by Joanne Sullivan (Divya)
The mood here was jubilant and friendly and as far as I could see no child was left out at the Yoga Youth and Children’s Retreat 22 – 31 December 2016 at Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama (SRSG). They took one another in, gently, with an arm around a shoulder and sweet words.
Guru Puja: Auspicious Beginnings
Swamis Ritavan, Tattvananda, Ramcharit and Prayag Giri offered prayers with Pandit Deepak. 30 children were present, many with their parents.
Most of our Rishikesh children were not yet present because school was still in session. Swami Ritavan introduced Pandit Deepak, our new full time priest, whose happy, shining presence can be seen practically everywhere here. The word “Deepak” also means lamp and is cognate to the Sanskrit “deepa” (source of light). Pandit Deepak was trained by our beloved Pandit Harshanand, who served as priest both here at SRSG and at Sadhana Mandir for many years.
Children learned the meal prayers on day 1, and except for some of the smallest children, almost every child chanted them at every meal by day 6. One little girl, whose Mom hails from Italy and Dad from Brazil, often asks to do asanas and prayers and knows many of them by heart, even though she is not even 2 years old yet! Her name also means “light.” I have not heard her cry once. More about her later.
Evening program: Orientation and getting to know one another
Rabindra Sahu led the way with a game which helped every child remember each and every child’s name. “They really got to know each other. The new friendships were quite visible,” said Divya Gupta, an adult volunteer whose exuberance is infectious. Swami Ritavan welcomed everyone lovingly. Evening Prayers followed.
The schedule was brimming with performances, hatha, pranayama and short meditation practices, storytelling, outdoor games, special outings, and workshops in music, dance, ashtanga yoga, application of yamas and niyamas, gratitude, pay it forward, cooking, a talent show and special Christmas preparations and celebrations.
The retreat culminated with a big bonfire on the last night.
Who was here?
They met most every afternoon with Swami Ritavan, Swami Tattvananda, and Swami Prayag Giri to receive their loving smiles, blessings and Prasad.
The demographic of this year’s retreat was mostly Indian. One child was Italian-Brazilian. One family brought overflowing love and smiles back to Uttarakhand all the way from America; Saras, the mother, is originally from Dehradun.
51 children attended the retreat. Most classes were bilingual, in both English and Hindi.
Teachers included Borim Murali, Yuko Metsugi, Divya Gupta, Chandramani Arya, Mamta Nakoti, Surendra Nakoti, Pierre Lefebvre, Adhikari Bhoi, Ramprakash Das, Geeta Bhoi, Swami Ramcharit Das, Rahul Kataria and Rabindra Sahu. Prakriti Bhaskar taught dance; Shivananda Sharma taught vocal. Meena Bhatt's positivity, patience and quiet strength was an important guiding force with the children throughout the retreat.
The teaching team was very strong. I witnessed tremendous engagement among the teachers and the children. Committed, responsive, well prepared and lots of one-on-one meaningful interaction. I did not see one frazzled teacher. They really seemed to enjoy what they were doing.
None of this felt random or unfocused. The teachers met together at the end of every day to share and to fine tune the planning of yet another extraordinary day. I walked by these meetings a few times and noticed a happy anticipation. No one looked bored.
I was reminded of Swami Veda at one of the teatime satsangs I attended. There Swami Ritavan offered sweets with such sweet affection for the children. Yes, the Guru presence abides.
Love held this whole retreat together. There was a certain pervasive aura that reminded me of something Swami Veda said at the closing ceremony of our first international children's retreat: “I will tell you a secret. You may believe me or not. The Guru Parampara has been walking among you, unseen, watching you.”
Yes, I think they let their presence be known.
The AHYMSIN Youth Group coordinated the retreat. The members include Apoorva Pal, Bharati Dekate, Chetna Tandon, Divya Gupta, Namita Sinha, Rosa Dacri, Tarinee Awasthi, Yuko Metsugi, and Rabindra Sahu. The group would like to invite people to join them; contact [email protected]
There was a beautiful concert from Shivananda Sharma and his students from C.J.Maa Music School, a classical music school for the children of Rishikesh. They get better every year. Many of Shivananda’s older students who started with him quite young have become accomplished musicians in their own rites, with several going on to study music in Varanasi at Banaras Hindu University. Shivananda also gave a workshop in Indian Classical Music.
Sometimes there are small children who can tell you nearly all you need to know. Who can know who they are or where they came from or why they came, with what work ahead, what love to give and receive?
Sometimes you meet a grown man or woman with the heart of a child—like Swami Veda. Some of them were here at the children’s retreat. At the 2011 children’s retreat here, Swami Veda gave everyone this saying in both Sanskrit and English laminated on beautiful Florentine stationery:
“Seek to remain in childhood,
With the child nature through whole life.”
You may have heard this before. Once Swami Veda came upon a small group of children at play. Upon seeing him, they all stopped what they were doing. One of the kids piped up something like this. “It’s okay. He’s one of us.”
The Little Black Dog
One day a little one-eyed black dog appeared. “The children loved that dog so much,” said Adhikari. He continued, “They would complain to the guard again and again. ‘Why are you throwing him out?!’ they would shout at the guard.” No matter how many times the guard put him out he found his way back---especially onto the place dubbed “Kurukshetra” at the first children’s retreat here—the playing field. He was frail but spirited.
When I sheepishly told Adhikariji that I thought that the little dog was a sadhu, a great teacher, his face lit up as he exclaimed “Yes! Yes! I agree with you!” We both felt that he was someone who had come to check in on the people here. Yes a dog, but a sadhu dog. I was sure I knew that dog from before—and not as a dog.
I said to Adhikari, “I wonder if he could be so-and-so---nah.” Sometimes I longed to see him. I know. Strange to say such things about a dog.
Hungry as he looked, this dog didn’t beg. He didn’t whine and cry. He never bit. The children loved him. They didn’t pet him but they ran after him, laughing and playing. He loved them.
Even after the last child left, I thought about that dog. How do I presume to shamelessly admit that I think he was one of our teachers? I hear that they finally drove him away in a car.
The evening program on Christmas Eve was quite special. Medha began by singing a song. An incredible display of exuberant song arose from a sea of joyful faces. Shanu sang a rousing tribute to Garhwal. Soma sang “Amazing Grace.” Gita Bhoi and Ramprakash Das sang a Nepali song. Bharati, Swami Tattvananda's daughter from an earlier ashrama, invited everyone to dance. She began and half the audience got up and joined her on stage and danced and clapped their hearts out, laughing as they copied her hand gestures and foot moves. Then Borim Murali of Korea stilled the entire hall with her deep and moving rendition of “Silent Night,” first in Korean, then in English. Brenda Vander Meiden told the story of Christmas beautifully and simply. Swami Ritavan sang a few strains of “Silent Night” and led us in a brief meditation. He blessed us, saying may each of us become an abode of the infinite Lord, breathing in and out the holy name. We ended with evening prayers. A surprising number of children sang those prayers so beautifully. Gita Bhoi had taught them the prayers on the first day.
On Christmas Day many gathered with Pandit Deepak and Swami Ritavan for a special Christmas puja by the beautiful murti of Mother Mary and Baby Jesus.
There was a gentle, somewhat shy and retiring 4-year-old named “Aryaman.” When last I saw him he was running for all he was worth downhill with one of the little twins, Upretiji’s kids. I shouted “Faster! Faster!” (He was already practically moving at the speed of light.) Some of the kids teased him for his name. The name “Aryaman” is almost like calling a kid “Superman.”
One day, after all the children had gone home, I sat on a bench in the brilliant sunshine. I had been quite ill and chilled and wanted to warm my bones. Along came little Aryaman. He wanted to tell me everything he was thinking about. He was a deep thinker. Finally what he was thinking about was a book called The Tiger Who Came to Tea. But he didn’t just say it. He pondered it. Here was a child who could ponder the sky—the whole thing!
We chatted for quite awhile and said our goodbyes. The family drove off. I went inside. And I felt remarkably better after having been ill on Christmas night.
The next day, the family car pulled into the driveway again. They could stay longer after all. Some days later, I was chatting with Aryaman’s grandfather and he said that the child had somehow come into his own, that so many people here had blessed him.
“You would not believe the wise words that come out of that child’s mouth at the dinner table these days,” said his grandfather. He felt that the children’s retreat had awakened something in the boy. He had been initiated by Swami Veda as an infant, his grandfather said, yet after the children’s retreat, the child seemed utterly transformed.
A Visit to HIHT and Swami Rama Himalayan University
One day directly after a superb breakfast, everyone gathered at Mandala Office for a bus ride to the Himalayan Institute Hospital Trust (HIHT) and Swami Rama Himalayan University (SRHU). Divya said that the most remarkable part of the day was that the children got to make beautiful decorations and Christmas cards in small groups, organized by the HIHT Rural Development Institute (RDI) staff. Swami Ritavan and Medhawati came later and gave each child a lavender-scented candle and sweets. There was a musical program that included both HIHT children and participants from our retreat. This included guitar accompaniment by a young fellow from HIHT. Lunchtime followed with a delicious meal served with love by HIHT people. After lunch, everyone went to the Swami Rama Centre and Meditation Hall, and then to RDI for a video on the life and mission of H.H. Swami Rama of the Himalayas, who among other things, founded HIHT.
The Walk to Kunaun
One day all of the children went on a nature walk to Kunaun, the village where Bhatt, our cook, grew up. Kunaun is a small enclave of maybe 100 people on the other side of Ma Ganga. They crossed the bridge to the other side of the river. They met some of the villagers and went to their little Shiva temple where they sang some traditional songs celebrating the divine and had snacks. Then they walked back in the bright sunshine.
One day, the older children divided into two competing teams for a treasure hunt. Someone had buried treasure in a hole. Some of the younger children quietly watched and revealed some of the secret hiding places to one of the teams. Such intrigue, such adventure! When one of their teachers noticed, the small children pleaded “Please don’t tell! They will scold us!”
A Walk to the Mother Ashram
All the children walked to Sadhana Mandir, the ashram founded by H.H. Swami Rama one day. Surendra taught them the meditative walk. They got to go upstairs to the old quarters of Swami Veda and meditate for a short while. Then they went to Swami Veda’s havan kunda (fire hut) there. Surendra told them stories about Swami Veda and his relationship with that little mud hut, his late night fire practices and how he guided aspirants in their practices there. Swamiji would meet a student or a small group in that small sacred space to instruct them at the start of a purashcharana. Others he guided there were embarking on their 3-day silent, solitary journeys in that mud hut before taking the vows of a sanyasin (monk or nun). He talked about how, before sanyasa, there were certain observances such as fasting on fruits, milk and water.
Feeding the Cows
Many children liked to save something small from their meals to feed the cows a chapati or grass. The small children especially liked this and many of them went every day to see the cows.
A Philosophical Playground
Children sitting in a circle. Chandramani is totally engaged. So are the children. Here we have an accomplished Sanskrit scholar playing philosophy and everyone is having fun. “How is this possible!?” I ask myself. Playing, he elicits the 8 angas, the 8 petals, the 8 limbs of yoga. They take turns drawing on the white board in the middle of the circle. They are filling in the petals, one by one, with the names of the 8 limbs of yoga.
“What is the first petal?” he asks.
“Yamas!” They all know. They are happy and smiling. Some are dancing and still totally attentive. They know he is having fun too and he loves them. I see children who only met 2 days ago acting as if they came from the same family. One older girl puts her arm around a little boy’s shoulder, taking him in.
Chandramani asks “Did you hear your breath flowing? Not with your ears but with your mind?” They are taking it all in. One little girl’s tooth is loose. Her finger keeps checking that wobbly tooth to see if it is still there. Another very shy little girl becomes the teacher’s assistant. One of Bhagavandeva’s 120 Odisha children steps forward to write the Sanskrit word “Pratyahara” in Devanagari script on a petal.
By the time they leave this class they all know the 8 limbs of yoga by name—shouted with glee.
Chandramani joyfully asks “Can you show me your mind?” Now they are talking about pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses. There is an easy rapport in the group. There are very few distractions. Each and every child has found his, her place in this beautiful family. The guru is smiling.
The teacher asks something about a fruit. The answer is the name of a planet. The sage Vashistha is here. I am reminded that Dr. Arya (later Swami Veda) once related an excerpt from the Yoga Vasistha in which the earth is compared to one small fruit on a tree among many such fruits, countless planets, on a vast tree, one of countless such trees, in a vast forest, one of countless such forests in the vastness of space.
By the end of this class I am wonderstruck at how anyone can teach and evoke practical philosophy in its far reaches to a group of children of such different ages.
Then Chandramani asks “Do you ever feel that you forget yourself? Do you remember yourself when you are sleeping?”
“Okay,” Chandramani says. “Let me know if it happens to you. Somebody, what is it?”
Several enthusiastically shout “SAMADHI!”
2 Classes in Indian Dance
Prakriti Bhaskar and her husband Bhaskar came all the way from Mumbai. She delighted the children with 2 classes in Bharat Natyam, classical Indian dance, her love and gentle wisdom overflowing. The two classes she taught this time invoked the presence of Ganesh, the great tusker who is the remover of obstacles. She explained that Ganesh is the symbol of absolute positivity. “Ganesh has small eyes (concentration), large ears (listens carefully) and has complete control of the mind.
First they learned a 4-line shloka and then the footwork. She talked about how “hasta” or gesture conveys so much. “We don’t need words,” she said. She asked “Do you want to invoke these energies?” Prakriti then discussed how prayers, mantras, yantras (mystical diagrams), music and dance can invoke the divine. Her dancing and her way of teaching once again remind us that mastery in art is surrender. Then the divine works through you. She will teach a course on Indian Classical Dance here in February.
Pay It Forward
On the last day, I sat in the very back of the Meditation Hall watching Divya Gupta talk with the children about altruistic behavior in the class on “Pay it Forward.” What I saw was a group that was not just well behaved. Everyone seemed reflective and highly engaged.
She explained that this is taken from a movie by that name. I asked her if she could tell us more about the class. She wrote:
“Pay it forward is a concept wherein we don't pay back someone when they do something good for us. We pay it forward by doing good for 3 other people, hence, spreading the goodness.
There was a movie by same name too and I didn't know--the children told me—that the Bollywood movie Jai Ho also talked of same concept which itself is very old.
We introduced the concept during the orientation on Day 1. We asked them to do 3 good deeds for others and keep notes. On the last day, during my Pay It Forward workshop, we reviewed these good deeds for everyone.
Some children had done up to 10 good deeds in the 10 days and they agreed that if they continued the practice in their daily lives, we may eventually be able to create a better world for all. That was heartwarming for me. I didn't have to say it out loud. They will hopefully carry it with them in their hearts.”
Keeping a Journal
Each child received a drawing book and they were asked to make a journal of their experiences during the retreat. Divya Gupta once again kindly wrote:
“Two sisters--Anika and Angel--made perfect and beautiful journals. Later, I explained the importance of journaling to all of them.
I received a call yesterday from one 10 year old, who had questions on journaling. She is planning on continuing her meditation, gratitude, and yama/niyama journal for one year!!”
Yuko returned once again from Tokyo, Japan with a suitcase full of surprises for her classes in origami, Japanese calligraphy and making a gingerbread house.
In her origami workshop, the children made various animals out of beautiful papers, some with solid colors, some with intricate geometric designs and some with flowers. Her manner of teaching is crystal clear. Yuko explained the steps before the whole group, then went from one child to the next, checking each one’s work. The music was in full roar with happy voices sharing their little pigs! Oink, oink!
Her Japanese calligraphy class began with asking children to focus and sit in vajrasana with their backs straight. She explained how, in Japanese writing, a system of pictograms, pictures became symbols. Each stroke goes in a specific order, not randomly. After that, everyone made the strokes in the air as if drawing in space. “One rule,” she said, “is that you cannot draw the same line twice. You cannot do it again and again so please focus.” It was wonderful to watch the cheerful and friendly dynamics around the room.
10 Odisha Girls from Nav Prabhat
Bhagaban Dev’s 120 village children from Odisha (formerly Orissa) could not all come but 10 girls from his Nav Prabhat School represented them well. Nav Prabhat is situated in a jungle and now has a girls’ school in addition to the original boys’ school. The first time I saw students from that school at our first children’s retreat, when they walked into the hall, I asked myself “Who and what is that?” I was stunned by the disciplined way in which they carried themselves, each with their towering tall posture, and unmistakable sankalpa shakti. They worked hard and they played hard. When they later led a fire practice, the firelight that spread from the fire through these children and through the entire fire hut was stunning. There was a depth of understanding, commitment and attention.
The same thing happened this year. On the last day of the retreat all the children and parents and a few of our residents joined Pandit Harshanand and Pandit Deepak for prayers with fire offerings. The Odisha girls served as yajnamanas and everyone offered samagris into the fire with each utterance of sacred words. The guru presence felt strong. When they sang the “Shiva Sankalpam Astu” it was more than a rote repetition. It carried force. Listening, the force of that practice swept through me.
The Nav Prabhat girls also gave a performance of traditional dance in colorful costumes. Though many of the gestures seemed repetitive, each step invoked a fierce commitment and a deepening. This struck me as a sort of repetitive prayer and an awakening. It was so much like when a mantra is repeated over and over, hundreds, thousands, millions of times over and it finds its deep home within. Was it possible, I asked myself, that these children were invoking secret prayers as they danced? As with the first representatives of Nav Prabhat here, mindfulness seemed strong.
Luce, Little Light
Speaking of the last morning’s fire practice, Luce, whose name means “Light” was a profoundly interested participant. I witnessed the residue of those prayers in her soon after the fire practice as she wandered in nature, communing with all the living beings with wonder. Her mother followed, watching from a few meters behind her, letting Luce explore on her own.
Her mother said that while Luce normally did not like getting up early, on that particular morning she practically bounded out of bed, eager to get to the fire hut. She knew. This is a child who often seems to know. She is a toddler who is often asking her mother to do prayers, mantras and asanas with her, asking myriad questions. With immeasurable delight and attentiveness, she sunk herself into the retreat with a depth that is unusual for one so young.
I can still hear Luce’s voice like one of the forces of nature here. Though I don’t understand the language she speaks, just as I don’t understand the language that the stars and the flowers speak (Swami Veda once said that such a language exists).
Something flutters in like the wind as your own breath. Like the breath of all those who came before us. Every exhalation and inhalation that ever was is still circling the earth, taking us along, breathing us. One exhalation of Jesus. One inhalation of Lazarus. And something whispering inside me says “Lazarus, get up! Carry your tomb if you must but get up!” And I feel Swami Rama calling in that sibilant movement through the trees. One exhalation of Mohammad. One inhalation of Krishna. One exhalation of the great matriarch generations back whom I never knew but whom I know unconsciously through my own breathing and genetic codes. Maybe we are each and every one of us vortices of pure light and I don’t fully grasp this so easily.
Little Luce is a constant reminder of this pervasive love, light and wonder that moves through all of life and all of us.
If you haven’t yet read the article by Tamara, Luce’s mother, treat yourself. It gives the nearly palpable footprints of someone who deeply wants to learn how to give and receive, who is asking oneself the hard questions straight on.
After the retreat, I learned that some children had really liked what they learned. Just one example is Dimple and Saniya Chauhan who told me that they were continuing with their hatha and meditation daily with their Mom. Little Saniya said "Back straight, Mummy!" These 2 sisters were quite inspiring. Like many of the other children, they wholeheartedly joined the very full schedule of sadhana and play of a retreat that felt many times to me like it was encircled by an abiding presence.
Photos by Jay Prakash Bahuguna.
The next Yoga Youth and Children's Retreat at Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama (SRSG), Rishikesh, India, is scheduled for 24th - 30th December 2017. Contact: [email protected]
More on kids from Odisha in another article "Meditation in Action by Wolfgang Bischoff"