From Light On Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar: "According to Sri Vinoba Bhave, the Latin word Omne and the Sanskrit word Aum are both derived from the same…
Photographs by Mark Hart.
Patty and I just returned from a two-week adventure with 16 yogis in South India, and it was absolutely incredible. I’ve been dreaming about this trip since I was last in India in 2013, and I’m awed at how seamlessly it came together.
We all arrived in Chennai in the middle of the night after 20+ hours of travel, and after spending a few worried minutes looking for our driver, hopped on the bus for a three-hour drive through the dark to Auroville, the city of dawn. We drove out of the city and through small towns that were waking up, roadside chai stalls with groups of men gathered, chatting, smoking. Past cows and goats, streets littered with half-burnt garbage, and into the countryside. Palm trees, cashew and casuarina plantations, rice fields, and the acrid smell of backyard burn pits and kitchen stoves powered by wood and dung. We turned off the highway in the growing hazy light and down a forested lane, giving way to a village. Homes, shrines, a temple, shops, dogs, children preparing for school.
In Auroville we stayed in Verite, a small eco-community within the broader city that’s set up as a retreat space with two yoga halls, including mats and props. The rooms are small but comfortable, with no AC but strong ceiling fans and good air flow. There’s no hot water in the showers because Verite is off the grid and totally powered by solar and wind, which also means that it’s not subject to the occasional rolling blackouts. But there are solar hot water heaters where you can get a bucket full of hot water if you need it.
Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. And the purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity. Its charter decrees that:
- Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But, to live in Auroville, one must be a willing servitor of the divine consciousness.
- Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.
- Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realizations.
- Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual human unity.
We settled in to what would become a familiar breakfast – a sweet porridge called ragi (made from a local millet mixed with raisins, peanuts, and mango jam), fresh fruit from the local trees (papaya, banana, pineapple, watermelon), fresh-baked bread with nut butters and jams, and fresh yogurt. All three daily meals were similarly delicious and fresh, highlighting local favorites like idli and dosai while also including raw salads with homemade dressings and sometimes extras like banana lassi.
Throughout the trip we spent time getting to know Auroville and practicing Embodyoga with Patty and Karen Miscall-Bannon. Their deep and inspired teaching helped to ground the experiences we had exploring Auroville and Tiruvanamalai, and added layers of depth to what we took in. They taught the kosas, the chakras, mantras and chanting. We sang the seed sounds for the chakras in asanas, and dove into the nature of the body’s energy centers and how they relate to the organs, glands, and fascia. We found the pits of our bellies and inhaled South Indian breath, saluted the sun in the land where surya namaskar was born, and felt our fluids seeping and washing and pulsing.
Ashesh Joshi and Vera Lipen, Aurovilians who teach Integral Yoga workshops locally, shared with us the background of the yoga and the yogis that inspired Auorville, helping us place the space in context. Aloka shared Awareness Through the Body, helping us understand Integral Yoga through play and embodiment experiences, the way children in Auroville learn about the layers of self and explore their energy bodies in space. And then we went to the beach, basked in the blazing sun and played in the waves like dolphins. We ate fresh fish by the saltwater pool in the shade of palm trees.
Vera took us to the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, where we learned about the Mother and Sri Aurobindo, saw the small museum that houses some stuff of their lives, and then sat for some time at the Samadhi, the place where their bodies lay in rest. We drank in the charged air of the Samadhi, sharing space with devotees who wept and laid their heads on the shrine, overflowing with devotion and love. We ate at the ashram dining hall, walked through the sprawling Pondicherry park, and along the seaside.
Then we left in the early morning and drove two hours to Tiruvanamalai, the small city nestled into the crook of Mount Arunachala. The mountain is the embodiment of Siva, creator and destroyer of the universe, and home of Ramana Maharshi’s ashram. We met author, ayurvedic doctor, and vedic scholar Peter Malakoff, heard stories about Tiru’s past and Ramana’s teachings, and then woke up at 4am the next day to circumambulate the sacred mountain and visit the eight sacred shrines that line the eight-mile route. Saran was an excellent guide, sharing the significance of each shrine and helping us engage with the spiritual roots of the place intimately. It was transformative. We sat and felt the reverberations of vedic chanting in the Samadhi hall at the ashram, basking in the aura of Sri Ramana Maharshi’s life and work. Zipping-zagging rickshaw rides through the city past the giant and voluminous Siva temple and buses, cars, motorcycles, animals and people.
After Tiru we came back to Auroville and the Matrimandir, radiating globe temple to the Mother, descending the ramp and then rising into the sphere, walking the spiral stairs widening into a wrapping spiral ramp up to the inner chamber, struck by the majesty of the giant flawless crystal with sunlight streaming down into it, pouring out into the silent white room. Light entering the womb of creation, the mystic heart, the cells. And then emerging into the Park of Unity and the shade of the Banyan Tree – solid and grand. Peacocks and brain fever birds calling.
Sadhana Forest showed what can be done with 60 acres of barren deforested land by a few devoted souls who love the Earth so much that they plant all day and find innovative ways to keep the seedlings alive. Living on one bucket of water a day, hauled by hand to the rough outdoor shower and sleeping in keet huts through sun and monsoon. Their inspiring spirit has flowed to Haiti, where they planted 80,000 trees with a 80% surviaval rate (the next highest NGO’s survival rate was 25%) and the deserts of Northern Kenya, Samburu Land.
We drank in the local lore at Irumbai Siva Temple, basked in the harmonies of Vera’s sacred bells, and joined the OM choir at Savitri Bhavan. We saw a new and creative building project, with a natural cooling and dehumidifying system, and got a sound bath at Svaram, where we learned about Aurelio’s commitment to preserving the local heritage and create livelihoods for local instrument makers.
And then, suddenly, it was time to go. Mahabalipuram and ancient stone carvings framed the day of travel to the airport. And hours and hours and days (but somehow only one day) later, we were back. Home. Disoriented, cold, confused about how this life we had shared and left would integrate and fuse with the old life that was now new and looming around us. And over time it has seeped in. For me, the experience ignited something deep within, so deep that sometimes it’s hard to find. But the radiant heat warms me, and inspires me. I find myself more engaged with life, willing and able to bring more of myself forward – not necessarily more of my personality but more of my soul. I feel the Earth breathing and the blood pulsing through my heart and body pulses in a rhythm that I hadn’t noticed before.
Here’s how a few of my fellow travelers described their experiences:
“If you love yoga and feel drawn to deepen your meditation practice, and have a curiosity as to where it all began, then I highly recommend taking this trip with Matthew to Auroville. Ample opportunities to explore the culture and teachings that India is known for, in a safe, fun, interesting and well organized environment. Staying in the forest, listening to the birds sing in the early morning, was so conducive for clarity, calmness, peace and inner resolve. A perfect reset. Above all, I had a blast!!!”
“This trip is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Auroville and the experience of that community cannot be adequately described in words. You must experience it in person to feel the power of the intentions set by this beautiful community. Matthew’s guidance was phenomenal and the group experience was deeply enriched by his knowledge of Auroville and his reverence for the teaching of its founders. I can’t recommend this trip highly enough.”
“It was a very comfortable way to visit India compared to my prior solo trips, and I got to visit two south Indian spiritual hotspots, Tiru and Auroville, and be with two fabulous teachers, Patty and Karen. So glad I went.”
“Outstanding yoga in an idyllic setting in a beautiful part of India. Life-changing.”
“This was an intense threefold experience of 1. a yoga/meditation retreat 2. learning about Auroville – its history and fascinating projects – a unique experiment, and 3. touring and getting a flavor of some of South India – beaches, temples, ashrams, markets, food, and people.”
“A wonderful experience, can’t wait to return”
“What an awesome experience, touring India and Auroville with a Yoga group!”