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To Be or Not to Be at Winter Solstice

By Hari Atma Kaur / Jennifer Miller

I had been vacillating between not wanting to go and really not wanting to go to Winter Solstice. So why spend $641 (plus $108 to sleep in a 10 person cabin on bunk beds!) to do something I didn’t want to do? Going meant flying from Chicago to Florida the week before Christmas. Hello?

In one of my strong moments, I registered for a Sadhana cabin figuring if I’m going to do this, why not immerse myself in the discipline? Sadhana cabin number eight is for the hard core yogis who aspire to get up every morning at 3:00 a.m. to attend Sadhana from 3:45-7:00 a.m. Sadhana starts with reading Japji, followed by a Kundalini Yoga set and finishes with seven meditations that total 62 minutes. After that comes breakfast and, trust me, you are ready for any breakfast including the special diet intended for yogis to help prepare their bodies for meditation. But I am getting ahead of myself and aren’t I supposed to be slowing down?

Settling In

When I get to cabin number eight, and it’s dark and cold, I start wondering how far away the nearest hotel is. The only problem is, I was dropped off, so going AWOL isn’t an option. I use my cell phone to find the light switch inside the cabin and when I flick on the light, I see that all the lower bunks are taken. Surprise. I knew this was going to happen to me. I tell my “negative mind” to snap out of it. How the hell am I going to climb up to the top bunk like a 13-year-old with my knee? Did I mention my bum knee? I select the upper bunk in the middle where the ceiling is highest, but once on the top bunk I wonder if I’m going to hit the beam when I wake up in the middle of the night to pee. Yoga has many benefits, but not having to pee in the middle of the night isn’t one of them! I make my bed with the twin sheet, but in the process realize that I’ve managed to forget my towel and spoon!

I have two cotton blankets that, hopefully, will be warm enough. I’m trying to keep a neutral mind, but I’m dubious. There were frost warnings all over the news. I have a premonition that I’m going to sleep in my winter coat. It’s getting colder by the minute and I’m alone. I want to go home. I want my warm bed and my dishwasher. I want some white sugar. I want to bake Christmas cookies with my kids!

Why the hell am I doing this again?

How do I fit into this world of men and women wearing all white clothing and turbans? From the outside, it definitely looks like I’ve joined a cult. I should make it back home alive since I also forgot a cup for the Kool-Aid! And my kids already think I’m strange…if they only knew.

Time for dinner, which is being served in the main tent. The 500 or so yogis in attendance are mostly in the main tent setting up their yoga mats in long, neat lines when I enter with my blanket (aka yoga mat). Food is being served out of some Home Depot looking buckets. I look for a place to set up camp, and I see a single woman in a red hat and I ask her if I can join her.

We are served by a group of volunteers doing their seva (service). They walk up and down the rows dishing out some sort of veggie, green, yogi stuff that tastes a whole lot better than it looks. What the heck is a mung bean anyway?

When a post-dinner meet-and-greet is over, I hobble back to cabin number 8. I don’t want to break my leg climbing into my bed in the dark! I get back to the cabin and the lights are already off and it’s not even 10:00 p.m.! I do my best to brush my teeth and decide it’s too cold to change into my pj’s. I sleep with my winter coat on, yet still I freeze during the night. I swear I’ve just fallen asleep when someone’s alarm goes off. I decide I need another five minutes. I don’t hear a thing after that until it’s time for breakfast at 8:15. Sadhana can wait.

Since I’ve slept in my clothes getting ready for breakfast takes about one minute.

The question is, what is for breakfast? There is no caffeine or sugar anywhere, only “yogi tea.” I’m trying like hell to be a good yogi and doing my best to forget about the cherry scone that I’m lusting after. Instead I’m served some type of soup broth with two floating carrots, along with some bananas.

The First Class

Today is a day of yoga workshops. I want to go to all of them, but decide to take “Fire into Light, a Spiritual Approach to Illness and Life’s other Challenges” with Dr. Sham Rang Singh Khalsa. Sham Rang tells us he is a recovering “jerk” and his wife divorced him, which he doesn’t blame her for. I instantly like this man’s honesty.

Sham Rang talks about how pain blocks the flow of energy. A lot of things can block energy, like food and insomnia, but emotions block energy the most. How do we unblock these blockages? We chant for others who can’t chant, and we chant for ourselves. We become the divine sound current to allow the divine energy to flow through us.

He talks about the six levels of disease and I scramble to write it all down. Disease first shows up in our energetic bodies and takes some time to physically manifest. Even if we get to the final phase of disease, however, healing can still take place, if not always on the physical plane. “Don’t waste a good illness,” he urges. Everything delivered your way is servicing your higher consciousness.

But how do we know when the lesson is done, I wonder. “It’s not your job to say it’s over.” It’s God’s business to say when we are done; it’s only your job to be authentic. When the workshop ends, I want to talk with him. I don’t remember what spills out of my mouth after my “planned” comments don’t happen. He asks me what would happen if, instead of feeling like I couldn’t handle life’s challenges, I started to believe I really could? What would happen if I really believed in my own divinity!

My brain starts hyper-ventilating over this paradox: if I’m a “healer” how is that different from my old hyper-responsibility where I falsely thought I was running the show? If I’m divine, then I must save everybody: all the starving children in Africa, all the oil-soaked ducks in the Gulf, all the people who are contemplating taking their own lives, etc. Who can handle that?

Maybe it’s more like being a teacher where all I am is the conduit. I simply hold the space and let the healing flow through me. Yeah, what if I really believed I could do that? What if instead of trying to control things, I simply trusted the Divine Intelligence and stepped aside? As a teacher, my job is to teach, but I am not responsible for the outcome. That is what has gotten mixed up in my head. I’m where I don’t belong. I need to butt out of God’s business!

I leave the tent and walk out into the sunlight and let go and begin sobbing, and I don’t know why. Do I feel a burden lifted or maybe I’m getting closer to my divinity? Maybe it was simply because this man saw me, really saw me, and knew me, after talking for only three minutes! Wow.

The Bunk Challenge

When I arrive back at the cabin I notice my blankets have been thrown on the lower bunk. My sheet, however, is still on the top bunk, but someone has put their blanket and belongings all over my bed.

I ask the two women in the cabin if they know whose stuff it is, but they don’t know. This is an opportunity for me to use my neutral mind. But the truth is I’m pissed. I start to think if this kind of stuff happens here, then no place is safe. I can see my negative mind putting on her dancing shoes and getting ready to party! Why me? Is God “testing” me to see if I can remain in this place of love even though someone has “stolen” my bed?

I start obsessing about what to do. Should I leave her a note? As the day wears on, however, I start to understand that this isn’t really all that important. I decide to simply remove my sheet off her bed and set up camp on another top bunk without even calling a therapist!

The next morning I manage to get up for Sadhana. Snatam Kaur is chanting. She is worth getting up at 3:00 in the morning for. Trust me on this. However, the kriya was kick-ass tough and I kept wondering, “Why does it have to be so hard?” On my way to breakfast I get in the porta-john line and ask a young woman standing in front of me this question. She looks at me, smiling, and says that I just “perceive” it to be hard. This makes me want to slap her in the face and tell her that she is just perceiving the sting on her now red cheek. I ask a cute guy who is chopping vegetables the same question and he has a totally different answer. He tells me it gives us something to reach for. It’s not about perfection or perception, it’s simply being in the moment and striving for something more: what’s, real, authentic, and transcendent. Okay, I’m grooving on this guy.

White Tantric Yoga and Me

Today is White Tantric Yoga! Typically yoga is a solitary activity done in a group, but White Tantric is an entirely different experience. White Tantric is partnered yoga. After anticipating who I will be paired with, I ended up partnered with Michael, an Irishman who lives in NY. We set up our space and wait. A woman on the platform in the front of the tent signals us it’s time to begin. She explains each meditation and then we view a recording with Yogi Bhajan.

In the first meditation the mudra (hand position) is with three of our fingers straight and held up, with arms bending at the elbows, while our thumb and index finger pads touch in Gyan mudra. We breathe in through our nose and out through our mouth. Of course, it’s not difficult at first, but try holding up your arms and breathing that way for 62 minutes, people! There is no music and I found myself totally bored and distracted. I don’t want to do this at all. My mental mantra was “I hate this, I hate this, I hate this.”

The second meditation is also a pranayam (breath meditation) and I don’t like it much better, so I am surprised when feelings started to come up. Although Michael and I aren’t touching each other, we gaze into each other eyes for 62 minutes. When we complete the 62 minute meditation, Michael hugs me tightly and tells me he sees my divinity.

By the third meditation I knew it was time to have the chat with myself. It went something like this: enjoy this deep and profound intimacy, but don’t get attached to it…don’t get attached to Michael. You’ve had this happen before… just be fully present in the moment, but then let it go.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

The afternoon consists of three more meditations. One meditation is designed to bring the “Devil” out. At first I think that’s funny, until the Devil starts to come out. I was shocked at the ugly feelings/thoughts that ordinarily I would never even allow myself to think: deep, dark, violent thoughts that any sane person would repress. But they were there and I was gazing into Michael’s eyes the whole time thinking all these terrible thoughts and he just gazed back at me…a steady loving gaze… regardless of what abomination my mind spewed out. I allowed all the ugly thoughts to surface and no one died or went insane. My bad thoughts, even the ones about death and destruction, weren’t all that powerful.

Day two and three began to blur together except that Michael remains my partner. The key is the flow and not getting attached to whatever comes up… and everything comes up, from stifling boredom, to anguish, to joy. It is like living a lifetime in 62 minutes. Having a partner is proof that we are not alone, and our roles are fluid—moving from receiver to giver, back and forth, all happening on one breath. It peels away the layers and I find myself getting closer to my naked divine self. Then in a blink of an eye I was yawning, or stretching out my leg trying to comfort my aching knee. But all I could do was flow. And in that flow I was happily (sometimes) aware that I was definitely not in charge (except for my reactions).

The funny thing is that on the last day, the last meditation was almost the exact meditation of the day before: holding hands except with eyes open instead of closed. What had been amazing the day before was now nearly unbearable. I just couldn’t wait for it to be over. Sixty-two minutes can be pure torture or it can be sublime.

Everything happened in those 31 or 62 minute meditations. My entire life happened. From shear boredom and frustration, to extremely violent and disturbing thoughts, to the greatest and most tender feelings of love, compassion, and sweet forgiveness, to feelings of utter joy and pure surrender. Everything was found in those moments of releasing pain and bliss.

And then it was over.

Going Home

There was a moment of elated disorientation as I sat there, and then someone turned on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller!” Oh my God! Suddenly I had to stand up and move. I could feel my body start to shake and tingle and rejoice. I was alive! Imagine sitting perfectly still for hours and hours and days and then suddenly giving way to some sort of climactic wild, ecstatic frenzy. It was the dance of liberation and bliss and I ate up every movement.

After that was a blur. I had a flight out at 7:00 am the next morning—Christmas Eve day. It was the compromise I made to leave a day early so I could be home in time for Christmas. That meant getting up at 3:00 again, but this time to catch a shuttle instead of going to Sadhana. The really funny thing is I wanted to go to Sadhana. I didn’t want to leave!

I went back to the tent where Michael was sleeping and gave him a hug and then hopped on the shuttle. Christmas was a whirlwind, not at all what I expected. As the days continued to pass by, my memories started to soften and open. I wanted to reconnect with Michael and talk with someone who had been through it. It was a roller-coaster ride and I was surprised to find myself feeling depressed and endlessly tired despite napping whenever I could.

I had to let go of my lost white head covering, Michael, the experience, and my youthful body that once upon a time could have sat easily in easy pose. My knee still hurt. I was home doing my best to digest everything, trying to accept everything exactly how it was.

I know better than to “want.” But I do want (in no particular order!). I want my old knee back. I want more massages, hot baths, naps, and sunny beaches. I want more intimacy and more lovemaking and a partner through thick and thin. I want more time to read all my books and time to laugh with my kids. I want a clean house and organized closets and a perfectly healthy body without any effort (and all the sugar I want!). I want to be a famous author and make a difference in the world. I want to play the drums and dance wild and uninhibited and lose myself in bliss. I want so much—a world full of love and peace where every creature is treated with reverence and compassion. But wanting, the Buddhist and Yogis say, creates suffering. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I want a “happy ending,” but I understand there are just more and more beginnings, more and more lessons.

And I want to go back. I’m sure I will go through the same dance about not wanting to go, but I will go anyway. Knowing that “God is my beloved,” I have to make time for God. This intense longing I’ve felt is not just my need to connect with others, but the need to be fed through this deep and powerful (and difficult) spiritual practice. This intense longing is for none other than my own Divinity and the Divine Intelligence that reassures me it’s okay to surrender and to remain in the flow with every breath.

Sat Nam. 

Hari Atma Kaur aka Jennifer Miller teaches at Five Phases Wellness Center in Evanston, Illinois. She can be reached at [email protected]