One of my early journeys was to the Himalayas. The Ganges bursts out from a glacial spring high in the Himalayas, two-thirds of the way up Mt. Shivling, at an icy outcropping known to the locals as Gaumukh, or “the mouth of the cow.” I had hiked for several days to pray at the source of the Holy River, near where the Yoga Sutras had been put to parchment some 2,500 years earlier by a sage named Patanjali. As I climbed, I observed the sadhus, the pilgrim yogis, sitting in stoic meditation and bathing in the frigid waters.
Then, at a point nearly 13,000 feet abover sea level, I took off my shoes and tested the water with my toes. I concentrated on my breath, and immersed myself.
A few moments later, I sensed myself hovering above the stream and observed my body below me, shivering silently. I remembered what Patanjali had written about the yogi being able to leave his body at will. I felt free and unbounded; and could perceive the snowcapped mountains arounds me, the forest below, and the vast expanse of blue sky above that both enveloped and held me. I was perceiving all of this at once. Nature and river and sky and I were one.
Then something drew my awareness back to my body. In a flash, I was back in my own skin and let go a yell that echoed through the mountains. I leaped out of the stream, and as the circulation returned to my limbs, my body felt as if it were being pricked by a million tiny icicles. I sprawled on a large boulder, laughing and crying, soaking up its warmth. I reminded myself that yoga is an inner practice and that braving ice and fire is fine, but the real tests of the yogi are spiritual.
I had come to the source of the Ganges to research a book. I was also there to ask for a blessing from Devi, the Mother Goddess, to compose a version of Patanjali’s Sutras that brought forth the juicy, feminine, and nondogmatic wisdom of this ancient tradition. I spent many years practicing yoga, as well as studying with the sages of the Americas. In the Yoga Sutras, I found many parallels to what I’d discovered among indigenous shamans I’d met halfway around the world.
Both yogis and shamans sought to master levels of consciousness that would help them break free from suffering and bring them to a direct and immediate experience of the Divine. Both sought stillness and enlightenment and the expression of their fullest human potential. Both sough the heal themselves through their discipline and practice. The more I learned about the ancient yogis who had lived thousands of years ago in the foothills of the Himalayas, the more I came to realize that these yogis were the ancestors of the shamans of Tibet and the Americas. Their descendants were the men and women who settled the snow-capped mountains, entered
Siberia, and later crossed the Bering Strait into America.
Yoga is an inner practice and the real tests of the yogi are spiritual. What spiritual tests have been important in your life’s journey?