Green Mountain School of Yoga
Neem Karoli Baba
Neem Karoli Baba was a great yogi who has had an immeasurable influence on the spread of yoga from India to the West. The extent of his involvement on the Western yoga movement will never be fully known as he was so adverse to fame and personal publicity. Also known as Maharaji (literally, “great king,” but commonly used as a title, like, “sir”), Neem Karoli Baba was a great exponent of the power of the repetition of the simple mantra, “Ram” (rhymes with “mom”). The Ram mantra is an easy and wonderful way to develop compassion within oneself and spread positive vibrations to others. I was introduced to the Ram mantra by Maharaji and have worked with it for some 30 years.
Neem Karoli Baba died on September 11, 1973. The teachings of this great man of love are a stark contrast to the beliefs that later brought forth the events of September 11, 2001. Same calendar date, completely divergent thought systems. I have come to believe that humanity has reached a crossroads, and these two events are reflections of our possible futures. We can follow the teachings of the sages to love and serve one another, or we can hate and try to destroy each other. The paths diverge, we must choose. Will it be “Ram or the bomb?”
One of the most remarkable things about Neem Karoli Baba is his teaching style. Rather than speak about something at length, he would offer a few words, then seemingly instigate a situation so the individual would find out for himself the validity of the teaching. I have witnessed this so often that it no longer even seems odd, or miraculous. I feel like I once had a taste of both Maharaji’s unique teaching style, as well as the power of the Ram mantra.
One Spring, I had lead a workshop at the Ananda Ashram in Monroe, N.Y., and was traveling home to Middlebury via the New York Northway. I was in the car with my good friends, Shivani and Barsani dasi, both young women in their 20s. At one point we were talking about Neem Karoli Baba. I was expressing my disappointment at the way some of his devotees had behaved in the past couple of years. I held that they had acted in ways in which I judged were conceited. I felt they were trying to make themselves rich and famous by presenting yoga in a commercial manner, often using Maharaji to bolster their position as teachers. I found this upsetting because Maharaji was well-known for avoiding the superficial and for generously sharing everything without concern for fame or fortune.
My being upset, of course, had nothing to do with anyone else’s behavior. It was my own reaction, and it certainly didn’t have anything to do with Maharaji, anymore than we should blame Jesus for the fake preachers on late-night television. I guess I needed someone to blame, though, so I declared that my faith in Maharaji and, by relation, the Ram mantra, had been diminishing.
After driving a bit more, the three of us stopped for a bathroom break at one of the rest areas. It was a dark night, and the rest area was seemingly deserted. We were the only car in the lot. The men’s and women’s bathrooms were separated by a thick cement wall. I was in the men’s room taking care of business when I heard Shivani and Barsani dasi screaming from the women’s room.
Their cries, muffled somewhat by the wall, terrified me. All I could hear was their shrieking, “No! Stop!” I had the fleeting thought that they were being assaulted. Adrenalin shot through my system. My reaction must have bypassed my mind because if I had stopped to think I would have been paralyzed with fear. Instead, I ran to the women’s room, swung open the door, charged in, and with fists clenched I roared as loud as I could, “Ram!”
When I raged into the women’s room, I found no assailant to fight. Turned out the screaming was due to a malfunction in the toilets resulting in streams of water shooting up from the bowl onto the ladies’ butts! Anticlimactic, for sure, but I was tremendously relieved. I had really been frightened to my core, thinking I was entering some violent situation. It took a bit for my heart to stop pounding. The girls were very sweet, apologizing for upsetting me, and praising me for my almost heroism. I was not up for the praise, though, because the goal of yoga practice is not to be courageous, but to be fearless. Fearless, believe me, I was not.
What was most astonishing to me was how my mind knew where to turn when the proverbial stuff hit the fan. My spontaneously calling out the Ram mantra was not the result of calculation or any rational process. It came from a place of raw emotion, because I had grown to trust the mantra and the great sages who have professed its benefits. I didn’t even realize I would rely on the mantra until confronted with this event. It is comforting to me, now, to know the mantra has taken root in me. I believe it will be there for me as a support and comfort in any dramatic life situation, including the transition of death. Finally, considering the absurdity of the way I learned this lesson, I can’t help wondering if there was not a mischievous finger in pie of the situation, a finger on the hand of the giggling Neem Karoli Baba.
Dr. Ramamurti Mishra
When I was younger, I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. My girlfriend at that time and I took a summer bicycle trip through New England. When we got to Vermont, I thought the State was so beautiful that I dropped out of school, waved goodbye when the girlfriend went back to Philadelphia, and borrowed $400 from my grandfather so I could settle in Burlington.
I was only in town for a few days when, being a big fan of libraries, I was strolling through the library at the University of Vermont. I noticed a poster announcing a yogi scheduled to give a presentation on campus. I looked at my watch and found the talk was to begin in about 15 minutes. I was amazed at my good luck and thought to myself, “I think I’m really going to like it here in Vermont.”
The yogi’s name was Dr. Ramamurti Mishra, later to become Swami Brahmananda Saraswati. Dr. Mishra was the founder of the Yoga Society of New York, Ananda Ashram, and the Yoga Society of San Francisco. He gave a discourse and concluded by asking for questions from those in attendance. I raised my hand and asked a question which I thought to be earnest, but the yogi apparently recognized an underlying arrogance.
He called me up to the front of the room and asked if I could sit in the half-lotus posture. I did so, and he praised me. Then he asked if I could sit in the full lotus. I took this posture, trying to appear humble in front of the group, but actually feeling quite proud of my ability. He next instructed me to grasp my hair, which I did. Finally, he asked me to pull myself up off the ground. Obviously I was unable to do so and everyone, including me, had a good laugh. It only took a few more words for Dr. Mishra to clarify how subtle pride interferes with the need of the student to recognize his own limitations.
Baba Hari dass
Baba Hari Dass is my yoga guru, the yogi who gave me my name and permission to teach. Back when I was studying intensely with him, I only saw him once a year, at a Labor Day retreat outside of Toronto. The rest of the year I was doing my yoga and meditation on my own. My only contact with him during this time was when I wrote to him once every 3-4 months. His response was always just a terse, “keep practicing,” so I really looked forward to spending the retreat time with him.
Over the years, I had developed quite an emotional attachment to Babaji. He was the major figure in my life, and our relationship was the most important that I held. The retreat was in someways the highlight of the year for me. I cherished the time to communicate with him more intimately, and I appreciated the chance to practice before him and receive his guidance. What I didn’t appreciate, however, was that the guru’s job is not to have an emotionally dependent student, it is to have the student become free.
One year, I arrived at the retreat thrilled to see Babaji, but he ignored me all day. Likewise, on the second day he ignored me. On the third day he also acted like I wasn’t there, which might even have been hard because I was teaching at the retreat. When he also ignored me for the remainder of the retreat I was pretty much freaking-out emotionally.
Finally, the retreat was over. It was time for me to drive back home, not to see him for another whole year. I was disappointed and a little angry about the way he acted towards me. Mostly, though, I was sad and hurt.
I figured I should at least say goodbye to Babaji, and I can still remember the scene where I approached him. He was sitting with a group of about a dozen people, and it seemed like everyone was joking and laughing. I came towards him from the rear, and leaning over his right shoulder, I said, “Babaji, I came to say good-bye. I have to leave now.”
He didn’t even look up. He took his arm and waved it in my face, as if pushing away a pesty insect. If body language spoke English, that arm would have said, “Get lost.”
I sulked away, shocked and discouraged. I was amazed that he would be so darn rude. I loved him so much. How could he act this way towards me? I was really heartbroken.
Just then, a 5 year-old girl who was at the retreat with her parents came running up to me. I had played with her a bit, so I thought it sweet of her to say goodbye. She did not, however, simply offer a little girl’s farewell. She threw herself on me, wrapping her arms around me, and sobbing with a voice that seemed to come from heaven, she cried, “Oh, Prem Prakash, I love you. I love you so much. I will never leave you. I will never forget you. I will love you forever.” Again and again she professed her love, crying until my shirt was wet with her tears.
By the time she walked away and left me to continue to my car, I was dazed and emotionally charged. Her outburst, her language, and her whole demeanor were nothing one could expect from a child. I felt like that guy in the Bob Dylan song -- I knew something was happening but I wasn’t sure what it was.
By the time I drove away from the retreat, however, I was convinced I knew what had happened. I wonder if you’d think me silly if I told you I believe those words of undying love did not come from the little girl, they came through her?
When Ambika and I got married, we flew to Grenada to honeymoon in the Caribbean. On the plane, a flight attendant approached me and asked if I was Prem Prakash. I told her I was, and she introduced herself as a yogini who was a devotee of Karunamayi Ma, an Indian woman that many consider a modern-day saint. She had picked up on my yogic name and decided to say hello. We had a delightful conversation. So much so, that Ambika and I decided when we returned from our honeymoon we would try and meet the woman’s teacher, Karunamayi.
Later, after returning home, we received an invitation from some friends of ours to celebrate Halloween in Woodstock, NY. These folks were part of an artists’ collective and they put on something called “The Phurst Church of Phun.” It was an extravaganza of silliness, partying, and music.
We went to Woodstock and had a blast. The main stage was usually occupied by very talented musicians in one grouping or another, all wailing away to a dancing crowd. During the set breaks, the microphones were left on and people were welcome to come onto the stage and sing, tell a story, joke around, whatever. It was a loose and fun scene.
At one point, I felt inspired to go to the mic and chant some Sanskrit mantras. I eventually began to repeat, over and over, the extremely potent mantra, “Ma,” which, in most every tongue means “mother.” In yoga, the Ma mantra is highly revered, as it is an invocation and evocation of the Divine Mother, the Goddess of all energy. I was in an elevated state and I felt like a small child, on the edge of my known universe, calling out into the Great Mystery of Life for my eternal Mother. “Ma, ma, ma ma….”
Make a long story short, we soon after learned that Karunamayi would be coming to Woodstock. Ambika and I went to meet her and, wouldn’t you know, we found her in the same hall in which the Phurst Church event was held, sitting on a chair on the very same stage where I was calling out for Ma.
Ambika and I have gone to see Karunamayi every year in Woodstock to receive her teachings and blessings. Our son Jahnu received initiation from her. We feel so close to her, as if she has been present with us when we were feeling sweet on our honeymoon, and when we were feeling wild, dancing and chanting.
Shree Maa & Swami Satyananda Saraswati
Ambika and I were traveling with Shree Ma and Swami Satyananda Saraswati of the Devi Mandir in Napa, Calif.
Shree Ma is one of the most amazing human beings I have ever met. She is a tiny Bengali woman who, when fully wet, hauls about 90 lbs. on a 5 ft. and not many inches frame. Yet she emanates a power that makes her feel like she is a giant.
One time, Shree Ma asked me to give her a foot rub. In Indian spiritual traditions it is considered an honor for the student to massage the teacher’s feet. Regardless of custom, Shree Ma was relatively older, probably in her 60’s, and I loved her a lot, so I was happy to do something to make her feel good.
I got a towel and some nice oil, and she placed her feet on my lap. At that point I was astonished at how petite she really was. Her feet were so tiny they looked like they belonged on a little girl. Her ankles were about the size of my wrists, I could practically wrap a hand around them.
I began to massage her feet. She smiled and said, “Rub harder.”
“Sure, Ma,” I answered, and I applied some more pressure.
A minute or two later she said, “Use more force.”
I was concerned with her request, so I said, “Ma, to tell you the truth, I’m afraid I might hurt you.”
In response, she said, “Go like this,” holding up her fist with the knuckle of the middle finger protruding, “and use all your might.”
I asked, “Are you sure?”
“Do it,” she said.
I thought to myself that this was going to be very interesting. I took my knuckle and pushed into her little foot. I kept pushing harder into her flesh, waiting for her to wince. I was eventually using so much strength I actually began to sweat. Dear reader, if I pushed into your foot that hard with my knuckle, I don’t care how big you are, I promise you would jump! Shree Maa leaned back on her chair, smiled and closed her eyes. “Ah,” she said, “that’s very good.”
|Green Mountain School of Yoga|
|Since 1991 A.D.|