In the years around 2002 I made several journeys to India in an attempt to take advantage of the booming economy. India proved too elusive a business destination but did provide riches of another sort for which I am grateful.
I would spend about two thirds of my time preoccupied by day to day business chores and then spend the remaining time travelling to places of pilgrimage. Searching for India’s heart in this way made constant aeroplane travel worthwhile. When business was done I would just make “a mad dash” for my destination. No other words describe some of the journeys I made. May it be driving to Ayodhya from Delhi or to Varanasi or even to the South of India, very little planning was done. Limited by time and unlike the West where buses and trains generally travel to a timetable and where road travel is predictable, planning an itinerary in India required not hours but days “thrown in” as a safety net. I did not have days so there was no safety net. This made travel in India even more of an adventure.
The decision on the choice of destination was not arbitrary. Some thought went into this prior to travelling to India. May it be a book I was reading or something I had seen or discussed, the thought of the destination would be with me throughout and formed my main motivation for travelling to India.
On one such occasion I decided to visit Gangotri. I was in Delhi and had under four days to make the return journey. Gangotri is in the Indian Himalayas at a height of about three thousand metres and revered as a one of the four sites of a pilgrimage circuit known as chota char dham. A fifteen kilometre trek from Gangotri leads to Gaumukh, the source of the River Ganges, the earthily embodiment of a Goddess worshipped by hundreds of millions of Hindus and brought to earth by the many thousands of years of penance by sage Bhāgīrātha. The Ganges emerges from the mouth of a glacier as river Bhāgīrāthi and ends up two thousand five hundred kilometres later draining into the Bay of Bengal. I was overwhelmed by the idea of Gangotri and all the stories I had read about sage Bhāgīrātha and the Ganga.
It was late February and the wrong season to be travelling to Gangotri. The roads were impassable because of heavy snows, ice and avalanches. The season for travel to Gangotri is usually between April to November but my mind was made up and the desire to experience Gangotri very strong. I decided to go by car with a friend, Tyagi, who had travelled on other voyages with me. Tyagi is a man of very few words but when he did speak, he would often offend those in our company. He said what he thought and quick to anger. He enjoyed solitude and I would often say of him “Essa Naam, Essa Kaam” “he who lives up to his name”, as his names means solitude. He would often confide he had the potential to be a “firm” sadhu, so whenever we travelled, dear ones feared we would never return.
We made the dash, a seventeen-hour drive from Delhi interrupted only by toilet and food breaks. We passed one police check somewhere just after Uttarkashi. It was primarily there to stop pilgrims from traveling any further on the road to Gangotri. We arrived very late in the night and the guard in charge was asleep on his charpai, a traditional Indian bed woven with rope. The chairpai had been placed in line with the barrier so the guard did not have to get up when opening the barrier. He warned in a mumble with his mouth covered by a tan coloured scarf, “the road is closed”, but with gentle persuasion permitted us to continue. Like a see saw, the barrier swung up without the guard having to get out of his charpai.
After this check point the road became increasingly precarious. For about ten hours of the journey we saw no cars. I can recall only passing by, maybe, one person after the police check who to our surprise was herding animals. We asked him if we were headed in the right direction and without saying anything he pointed and moved his chin in the direction of his finger. We saw a big cat, and still do not know whether it was a lion, leopard or even a white tiger or just our imagination. Whatever it was, it has been a source of constant conversation between us. Evidence of rock and snow avalanches were apparent on the roads which had no barriers, so a slight slip in attention would mean the vehicle free falling many thousand feet. On many occasions we navigated collapsed roads where more than half the road had gone, as if somebody had taken a gigantic bite out of the road.
We arrived at about 4 am. It was dark and we were surprised as there were no cars in the car park and nobody appeared to be around. There was just us in Gangotri.
It was still dark and it was a cloudless night. We could not look up without tilting our heads back to such an extent that the back also arched allowing the eyes to follow the line of stars. They were everywhere. Spots of brilliant white peering and smiling out from the darkness of space. It was the only time where I have had a sense of the rotation of the earth because of how quickly the stars seemed to move.
Dawn started to break. One woke up in a valley surrounded by a panorama of white drenched mountains on a scale inspiring awe. The morning sun’s rays reflected a sheen on the spine of the mountains, making their whiteness dazzle, highlighting the snow mists flowing like a white stallion’s mane, swirling with the wind alongside the mountain ridge. The highest peak visible in the distance was Mount Shivling. It resembled Shiva meditating, shrouded in a white shawl save for his matted white hair draped over the head and neck of the mountain overlooking all the other mountain peaks.
River Bhāgīrathī, which becomes the River Ganga at Devprayag, meandered crystal clear through the valley. The only movement breaking the stillness of the experience.
I spent some time reflecting on the roller coaster journey to Gangotri and witnessing day break from a perfect night sky uncloaking itself to reveal the peaks of the Himalayas and the face of Siva. I had been elevated from the exhaustion and adventure of a seventeen-hour plus drive. The fatigue of which evaporated by what I had witnessed.
For all that I saw, my emotional experience reminded me of my family. It was like the warmth I felt when I was with them, like being in my living room.
We walked across a bridge over the Ganga to a shelter to see if anyone was around. The temple was closed but that was fine, I had entered nature’s temple. We pondered having a dip in the source stream of the Ganga but the finger dip test warned us the waters were, not surprisingly, freezing and we would probably come out bluer than the flowing and deceptively welcoming Bhāgīrathī.
A handful of guides began emerging from the shelter. We greeted them and they invited us in for chai whilst expressing surprise we made it to Gangotri. We remained with them for about an hour and then decided to return to Delhi, I had a flight to catch and a family to be with.
I reflected on my experience and surprised by my response to Gangotri. Either my range of emotional responses were limited or the experience revealed my home life was no different to this place of pilgrimage.
We live by pictures drawn and coloured in our mind by our emotions on the canvas of consciousness. My life at home and experience of Gangotri are both inspiring. The pictures are different but the emotional experience is the same and it is the emotions that give life to the pictures. Over time I have come to learn the world I engage in is very big but the world I enjoy is simple and small. They are no different and this is the secret to my happiness.
With humility to the destination, a pilgrim makes a journey devoted to its destination. The worldly self is left behind. A friend quite recently made the trip to Mecca and prior to embarking on his journey apologised to everyone he knew for either knowingly or unknowingly offending them. He explained that if he did not return, then he had made his peace with the world. I can see this opening him to his pilgrimage. I do not know if the destination is more important than the journey but reflecting on both makes the voyage both an outer and inner pilgrimage.
Shava Yātrā is a pilgrimage to sixty-one shrines around the body, hence it is also known as “sixty-one point practice”. It is a journey embarked with sanctity, openness and reflection. The journey is taken by awareness, moved by will and attention to the sixty one shrines around the subtle body.
It is a pratyahāra (sense withdrawal) practice, the fifth limb of Astanga or Raja Yoga and is a Yoga Nidra (meditative deep sleep) practice. When done properly, the practice opens the practitioner to an internal universe in which the sheath of food, Mind and breath become known. It gives insight to subtle concepts of the Mind such as awareness, intelligence, focus and concentration, an understanding of which is intrinsic to any advanced meditative practice.
Shava Yātrā is designed to induce deep relaxation or more importantly to allow the practitioner to experience and thus know what the state of deep relaxation means. The whole body, from the toes of both feet, the feet, legs, pelvic region, torso, chest, shoulder joints, arms, hands, fingers, head are brought within the awareness of the Mind. Breath is not confined to the lungs, chest, mouth or nose regions but liberated so that it is eventually experienced throughout the whole body. As if every cell is inhaling and exhaling, pervading the body and Mind with a pulsation of bliss. All tension evaporates. The breath calms, the body calms, the Mind calms allowing body, breath and Mind to merge. This is what it means to be relaxed. This journey opens the door to an internal unending universe ultimately introducing the practitioner to the Self.
The Practice is to follow mentally a sequence of points around the body whilst in Shavāsana, “corpse pose”. The first point is about three finger width deep at the eyebrow centre. The second at the throat centre, again about 3 finger width deep. The third deep in the right shoulder/arm joint, the fourth deep in the elbow joint, the fifth deep in the wrist joint, the sixth in the tip of the right thumb and so on. The diagram below shows all the points and the sequence to be followed. This is to be done methodically and in the order of the number count.
The Practice is multi-dimensional. The next level is to allow the luminosity of awareness to arise at each of these point. The points emerge into radiant orbs, each orb exhilarating yet calming with the ability to release, instantaneously, any tension in its field of influence. The orb gently expands and contracts, pulsating with every inhalation and exhalation, as if the act of respiration takes place at the heart of the orb.
This is a deep relaxation exercise but one needs to be calm when commencing the practice, rather like embarking on an external pilgrimage which requires a certain frame of mind. At the outset the breath should be reasonably measured, silent and moving under its own pace. The sixty one point practice is ideal after a session of yoga asana or a long walk. In class, I start this Practice by asking everyone to undertake makarāsana (crocodile pose) practice for about 10 to 15 minutes or until I am satisfied that everyone has entered into their natural breathing rhythm.
The key to calming breath is observation where no effort is required. Allowing the torso to find its breathing rhythm depends upon posture where lower abdomen region or sides of the lower ribs or even the small of the back begin to gently expand and contract with every inhalation and exhalation. Attention should then be given to the breath around the region of the cartilage between the nostrils and the region between the upper lip and base of the nostrils. Again, no effort is required, only the ability to observe and allow the body to do what it always has done – to breathe.
The first taste of life is in the first breath and the final, in the last breath. The body does not require any additional effort than it naturally uses to breath. Observe the process and allow breathing to occur. If you are not already in shavāsana, gently and whilst maintaining awareness on the breath, lie on ones back in shavāsana and allow the breathing rhythm to adjust to the posture.
Gently sense points of contact between the floor and the back of the body including the heels, backs of the legs, the bottom, the lower, mid and upper back and the back of the head. Allow these parts of the body to be supported by the ground, by mother earth. Let go and breathing becomes deeper.
Observe the breath move into and out of the nostrils with every inhalation and exhalation. Allow the mind to follow the inhaled breath deep into the nostrils. Follow the breath as it passes past the bridge of the nostrils to a point where the inhaled breath in the right nostril meets the inhaled breath in the left nostril about three finger width depth at the eye brow centre.
Breath, or more accurately, Prāna (subtle breath), has carried awareness to this point. Allow awareness to remain at this point experiencing, at the eyebrow centre, a gentle contraction and expansion with every inhalation and exhalation. The point starts to gently expand and contract with every exhalation and inhalation growing into a resplendent self-illuminated, effulgent orb. Once breathing is experienced in this region as a gentle expansion and contraction, gently move the focus and become aware of the next point, lying deep in the throat centre. At the throat centre, again, experience breathing at this centre, a gentle expansion and contraction with every inhalation and exhalation until out of that expansion a resplendent and illuminated orb emerges which is pulsating with every breath. And so on until awareness and breath has travelled to all sixty-one points.
There is a shorter version of the sixty-one practice called the thirty-one point practice and as the name implies, 31 shrines are worshipped, stopping at the heart centre and returning back to the eyebrow centre.
This practice, once mastered should take no more than fifteen minutes to complete although initially may take up to thirty minutes. One learns that the points are experienced differently, in particular, those running alongside the spine. The throat centre is light, heart centre more open to experience, the naval centre vibrant and the pelvic region, generally requiring a lot more attention for the illumination of light to appear.
Shava Yātrā gives insight to and allows one to examine the subtleties of the Mind and its higher cognitive faculties. What is awareness, intelligence, consciousness? Who is observing and who observes the observer? Why can one experience breathing at the points and why is it first experienced at the eyebrow centre? What is the cause of the will or determination shifting awareness from point to point? What is focus and at one point does it become concentration? Is this just an imaginary world or is their reality to this dimension? What stops me from moving awareness from point to point? These are some of the reflections of this journey and what may be revealed may surprise you about your worldly reality as did my journey to Gangotri.
There are three levels of teaching sixty-one points and at the more advanced level, all the radiant illuminated orbs merge into each other. The physical merges with the subtle so that the complete person pulsates. One no longer experiences the body, different to breathe or breathe different to Mind. They work as one and in that process that which identifies with the physical body, the ego, the I, evaporates.
Awakening out of this deep sense of being and returning to the process functioning Mind that makes sense of the external world requires gentleness in approach. Whilst keeping eyes closed allow awareness to become aware of itself at the eyebrow centre. Then shift focus becoming aware of the inhaled air and exhaled air in the nostrils then at the base of the nostrils, observing air sucked in with every inhalation and air blown out with every expiration. Become aware of the movement of the body with every inhalation and exhalation. May be at the abdo –pelvic region, the lower ribs or the small of the back. Then shift awareness also to the physical body, first the toes and fingers. Gently move them. Then to the legs, hips, torso, chest, arms, hands, neck and head regions. Allow the whole body to awake.
In your own time, cover the eyes with the palms of the hand and open the eyes whilst covered. Purposefully, bring the hands back to their original resting position. Remember this space, this is relaxation.
Slowly move to a sitting position and commence japa or a meditative practice.
Illuminate the Mind and Shine.
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