The first in a four-part series on experiencing bliss, Indian-style, with a "bliss-ercise" at the end that anyone can do.
Gurus are everywhere in Rishikesh. A Hindu holy city on the Ganges River (called Ganga by locals,) Rishikesh attracts yoga students from the world over, which attract business-minded gurus. They post signs for their yoga classes or healing energy workshops or satsangs, which are spiritual question-and-answer sessions. Less organized gurus simply wander about, looking to instruct. And other gurus hide in their caves and let themselves be found.
I have come across all of these types of gurus, even though I do not need one. Just as I get propositioned much more when I have a boyfriend than whenever I'm available, during my last trip to India, when I wanted a guru, none were to be found. This time, I had only been in Rishikesh for two hours, after having just traveled for over 22 hours by taxis, train, and two planes, when a guru found me by the large Hanuman statue outside the Parmarth Niketan ashram. Even for the jaded traveler accustomed to the constant presence of god statues--here a god, there a god, everywhere a god god--this Hanuman was impressive. The monkey god stood twenty or so feet high and half as wide, towering over devotees like a kindly King Kong. Hanuman is known as the god of devotion, having rescued the goddess Sita out of devotion to her husband, Lord Rama in the story from the Ramayana. On the statue, this story was depicted with the two gods standing inside Hanuman's open heart, which I found both touching and a bit macabre.
(Spend five minutes around the wild monkeys that terrorize Rishikesh and you'll see the irony in using a monkey as an emblem for devotion. The monkeys here are devoted only to stuffing themselves with food and committing petty thievery. A monkey stole my friend's sandal, and why? What would a monkey do with a human-sized sandal?)
As I approached the Hanuman statue, a man fully dressed in orange passed me, walking in the other direction, and then he was by my side. His blondish-white dreadlocks and long white beard marked him as a baba, or Hindu renunciate, along with the orange cloth wrapped around him: one as a dhoti skirt, one around his upper body, a third as a scarf. This baba even had orange tennis shoes to match; many go barefoot. As devotees to God, babas live very simply, sleeping in the street or an ashram. In America, we might call them "homeless" or "crazy people." As mystics, plenty of babas are crazy. Some are drug addicts. But some are holy. It's a bit of a crapshoot.
Slightly bug-eyed but with a kind, smooth voice, this baba spoke enough English to introduce himself as Swami (Something I don't remember) Saraswati and to invite me to go with him for a cup of tea. Even if other people might not see the wisdom in wandering off in the dark with a dreadlocked stranger wearing bedsheets, I went.
As we walked through the dark alleys, negotiating around silent cows, I realized that this guy had nothing for me that I didn't already have. This might seem obvious to you, but this thought held the weight of a revelation for me: I needed nothing. On my previous trip to India four years ago, my heart would have leapt at this opportunity for an "authentic" experience--chai tea with a real baba!--but this time, I was only mildly curious about what would happen. Mainly I went with him because I wasn't quick enough to think of an excuse to give him.
We stopped at "Krishna Tea Stall," an alleyway cart run by Swami Something's friend. Swami sat down on a plastic chair. I hopped up onto a flat wagon covered with a blanket. As we waited for his friend to make our tea on the cart's gas burner, Swami asked me where I was staying.
"Oh, I don't remember my hotel's name," I replied, deliberately evasive. I tried to make conversation, asking Swami what he was thinking about, but got no answer. Instead, he spoke to his friend in Hindi, so I sat and stared at the yoga-class notices pasted on the wall. Because there were so many to choose from, a thin stream of anxiety began to thread its way through me at the prospect of deciding which ones to try.
Then Swami Something addressed me: "Standing!"
I got off the wagon. He demonstrated what he wanted me to do: lift my arms and clasp my hands behind my head so that my elbows would point forward and down. I did this, and he stood behind me. He then threaded his arms under mine and lifted me up. Yes. Lifted me and bounced me up and down as if I were a bag of flour he was trying to settle. Fairly impressive for this skinny old guy. Not once did he actually tell me what he was doing, and I was too surprised to protest. After a half-minute of this--by far the most exciting thirty seconds of my day so far--he put me down. "No crack," he declared, disappointed.
I sat back on the wagon. Then Swami Something scooted his chair closer to me so he could take my hand. He squeezed different points on the palm, really squeezed hard, working over each of the fingers, then tugging them from the joints. It was almost painful, but I was mesmerized by the intensity of the experience. Tiny cracking noises came out of my joints, which seemed to satisfy this strange man tugging at my hand.
We were finally served our tea. It came in 3" tall glass cups as is the usual Indian custom. As we waited for the tea to cool, I felt my hand tingling from Swami's free massage, wildly alive. Even though he'd only touched my hand, the whole area at the front of my chest, what the yogis call "the heart center," was growing warm and subtly pulsing. Now I was quite content to simply sit with Swami Something and watch his friend try to fix the sagging corrugated-metal roof over his cart by standing on a chair and working with a buddy to jam a thick wooden post under the metal to prop the roof up.
The tea was delicious, as whole-milk street chai always is, the combination of freshly-mashed ginger and cardamom tasting a little like caramel. Before long, Swami made me an offer: "Foot rub?"
I nodded. If he could make my feet feel half as good as my still-tingling hand, he really was a guru.
"But we go," he said, gesturing to the dark alley.
"No. No good for baba to touch lady legs in street. We go."
And that was when my appetite for adventure reached its natural limit. No doubt having his hands on my feet would be a blissful experience, transcendent perhaps, but who knew where such an event would end?
"No, I go home to rest." I shook my head vigorously to emphasize the point. "All day I travel. Need rest."
He nodded, and I got up. We bowed to each other, using the Indian salutation of palms pressed together at the heart. He watched me go, and I took an indirect route to my hotel, just in case. When I got back to my room, my hand was still tingling.
Bliss-ercise 1: Self-Foot Massage. Renew yourself in 20 minutes or less!
You don't need to walk the grubby streets of India to need an excuse to sit and soak your feet in hot water. Fill a basin and put it at the end of your bed. Sit at your bed's edge and have a good soak. You can use a pumice stone to rub off any dead skin and a towel to wipe the skin away. If you have massage oil, pour some on one foot.
Press all the toes away from your shin, then pull them back towards you. Squeeze the base of each toe, and pull each one forward and back. Then thread your fingers between the toes and twist your hand from side to side. Then, with your thumb on one side of the foot and second two fingers on the other side, squeeze all of the spaces of your foot until you forget your worldly troubles.
Repeat on the other foot until your worldly troubles are really gone. Then lie back on the bed, setting your feet on a towel that can get oily, and practice relaxing into a state of bliss.