Thoughts & Ideas

Monday, October 05, 2009

A Visit to the Bihar School of Yoga in Munger

The Journey to Munger
Very few people are aware (at least in the circles I currently move in) as to where in India is Munger and that this small town in Bihar has a world class teaching and research institute specializing in Hatha Yoga practices at the Bihar School of Yoga (BSY). The only and immediate connection most people have to the word “Munger” is to the TV serial “Mungeri Lal ke Haseen Sapne”, which unfortunately brings only smirks to their faces and incidentally has very little to do with either Munger or the subject of this essay.

I had been keen on visiting the BSY and profiting from their knowledge and skills but in spite of my repeated attempts over the last 20 years, somehow the visit never materialized. My first attempt to go to BSY was in August 1989 when I was doing my rural assignment at Kursela, which is virtually across the Ganges from Munger (should be about 60 -70 km as a crow flies). Since the nearest bridge across the Ganges was some distance away, I along with a friend of biked down to Khagaria from Kursela and then crossed the Ganges on a boat (along with the motorcycle). It was an exhausting journey and to our dismay on reaching BSY we were not only denied permission to enter but apart from a cryptic instruction to write and find out details about programs we were not entertained at all.

A few years later, while posted in Patna, the bank I was then working for arranged a 10 day Yoga course held for a couple of hours every morning which was conducted by sanyasis from the BSY. I was elated to get this opportunity, but alas could not attend all the sessions as I had to go out of town on an official engagement. I meanwhile purchased the basic book published by BSY and a couple of cassettes on Yoga Nidra and Ajapa Jap and tried to practice on my own. But Yoga is a difficult subject to appreciate and impossible to understand without a competent and committed teacher.

Some years later, I again made a serious attempt and corresponded with BSY and got admission for one of their courses. However this attempt was also not destined for fruitation since I could not get leave. As such, my attempts to become familiar with the practices of Yoga remained just attempts and slowly the idea of ever going to BSY nearly faded from my consciousness. Meanwhile the dictates of making a living forced me far from Bihar, initially to Bangalore and Hyderabad and eventually to Bahrain.

In September 2009, I had planned to go on a 2 week trek in the Garhwal Himalayas – specifically to the Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Saheb and over the previous 2 months had been making preparations for the trip. By the middle of August most of my preparations were complete and I was set to leave for India on 30th August 09. But destiny had some other ideas in store for me. On 15th August while idly surfing the net I went to the BSY web site and noticed that a Yoga Sadhana and Health Management Course was scheduled to be held from 3rd to 20th September 2009 – approximately the time I would be in India. Further enquiry on the net revealed that the process for enrolling required sending a self addressed envelope along with an advance, something that was difficult to handle sitting in Bahrain in view of the short time available and so I did not even entertain the thought of even attempting to apply for the course.

Over dinner that night I happened to casually mention this to my wife, who thereafter wrested the initiative from me and ensured that I faxed my application and followed it up with phone calls to ensure that the fax had reached BSY. Later after more than a couple of phone calls to ascertain the status of my application I was informed that my application had been received and accepted and that I could join the course. Since my air tickets for the India trip and my leave were already in place I decided to utilize the opportunity by attending the Health Management Course (HMC) and experiencing Ashram life at the BSY.

The 4 hour flight to Delhi was quite uneventful, leaving Bahrain at midnight and arriving at Delhi at 6 in the morning. I spent the day with my nephew who had also arranged to get me the train tickets from Delhi to Jamalpur and also caught up with my eldest brother and my other nephew and niece at Delhi. The next afternoon I boarded Vikramshila Express from Delhi arriving at Jamalpur the subsequent day. A 20 hour train ride by a super fast express for traveling 1000 odd kms! Jamalpur to Munger is a further 8 kms and I got a decent taxi who took me across for Rs.100/-.

Based on my earlier experience I had some misgivings in my mind as to whether I would be permitted to join the course since I did not have any confirmation to the effect and the web site was quite categorical about having a written confirmation and depositing the advance fee for participating in the course. However, on reaching the gate and announcing that I had come for the Health Management Course I was promptly admitted inside the campus.

The BSY Campus
The road from Jamalpur snakes through wonderfully green though quite unkempt countryside and then meanders through Munger town before entering the Munger fort. After passing by the residential compounds of the local administrative big wigs it stops at the gates of BSY. The BSY Campus is located inside an ancient fort atop a hillock beside the Ganges. The main Ashram gates are not just imposing but quite forbidding and very rarely open. There is a small side gate which can let in one person at a time which is opened only after the visitor identifies himself to the satisfaction of the people inside. Peering through whatever gaps that are there in the gates reveal little. However, the moment I told the persons at the gate that I had come for the HMC course starting on 3rd Sept 09 (the next day) I was permitted inside.

Thereafter, after an identity check, to my great relief I was advised that my application had been accepted and I could join the course. The Swamiji manning the reception desk (who I later came to know would be my course coordinator and instructor) only inquired of me if I had come fully prepared to attend the course. I had a distinct feeling that he was trying to warn me about the difficulties ahead of me, but since I was fully mentally prepared to participate in the course as well as gain experience of Ashram life, I happily replied in the affirmative.

It was nearly 2 pm by this time and the next question asked of me was whether I had had my lunch. I replied in the negative adding that since I had been traveling I had not even been able clean up or even brush my teeth. I was immediately led to a small but spotlessly clean bathroom where I freshened myself before going and having my lunch, a light but well cooked meal.

As I earlier mentioned the BSY Campus is on a hillock. The main ashram building is on the top of the hillock, an imposing building named Ganga Darshan, with the other buildings located all around at various levels below it. The entire campus is covered by beautiful well tended terraced gardens (more like a hanging garden) with very well laid out open spaces, pathways, trees, shrubs, building, and a fountain – giving the campus an extremely open and spacious feel. That, along with a panoramic 270º view of the Ganges takes you to another world.

Just beside the main ashram is the Jyoti Mandir where a small oil lamp (diya) is perpetually lighted. This building is in the nature of a large rectangular hall with the diya at one demarcated end. This was also the place where most of our classes were held.

In front of the Ganga Darshan is a large garden leading to some steps which go down to a small path way and then to one of the hostel building. After walking through it, one comes across another flight of steps leading to the Kitchen Block which consists of the men’s hostel as well as the kitchen and dining space. In addition there are some other building for residence, publications etc.

A day in the life of an ashram inmate
As an ashram inmate attending the HMC our day started at about 3.30 am when we got up from bed and went to the toilet and had our bath. Stipulated waking up time was 4 am, but due to the shortage of toilets and bathrooms it made more sense to get up a little earlier so as not to be late for class.

The first class started at 5 am, though most of us as per regulations tried to be in the class by 4.45 am. The class started with recitation of Sanskrit shlokas (hymns) followed by the theory and practice of “Asanas” and lasted till 6.30 am. Then it was time for breakfast which was a simple fare of tea with a light snack. This was followed by one hour of allotted “Seva” (or Duty). “Seva” was work related to the upkeep of the Ashram and its regular activities and was shared by all Ashram inmates. The first round of Seva from 7 am to 8 am was related to the maintenance aspects of the ashram such as helping in the kitchen by cleaning / cutting the vegetables to be cooked on that day, or general cleaning of the Ashram precincts (toilets, gardens etc). Immediately after this the next set of Seva was allotted for the 8 – 10 am time slot. This “Seva” depended on the requirements of the ashram and varied from day to day, and we had to go back to Ganga Darshan to get our respective work allotted.

The seva work was without pressure and with nearly everybody actively participating it was quite enjoyable though sometimes a little monotonous. Other Seva work allotted to us involved helping out in other Ashram activities such as its publications division or in sending out the monthly news magazine (reviewing that there were no misprintings, putting into covers, and then sticking the address labels), putting together prayer beads etc.

The next class was from 10.15 am to 11 am and it was to do with the theory and practice of Pranayam. This was quite interesting and one realized that there is much more than breathing exercises to Pranayam.

Lunch time was from 11.30 am to 12 noon and dinner from 5.30 – 6 pm. The idea being that ideally we should not be having more than 2 meals a day. Initially it was difficult getting used to this regime, having been used to having at least 3 full meals and one snack a day and not having dinner before 9 pm. But in a weeks’ time one not only got used to the practice but also started enjoying it. I have been trying to stick to this practice since I returned from the Ashram and I may reassure my readers that it is not difficult.

We had some free time after lunch for attending to our personal chores like washing clothes, cleaning our rooms, buying books published by the Ashram, calling up people outside the Ashram (cell phones were not only prohibited inside the Ashram but also there was not a single charging point) etc. This was followed by classes from 1.30 to 3 pm on Yoga Nidra and meditation. Again from 3 – 5 pm we participated in Ashram life by doing Seva before it was time for dinner. After that we went to the main Ashram building for the evening Satsang from 6.30 to 7.30 pm, before returning to our hostels by 8 pm. Technically we were expected to maintain complete silence (Mauna) from 6 pm to 6 am the next morning with lights out by 8.30 pm. Both of these were largely followed in the breach.

Reflections on the Ashram
The BSY foundation is presently headed by Swami Niranjana Saraswati, a tall, handsome and youngish looking man of about 50 with a great sense of humour and impeccable command over both English and Hindi. One remarkable aspect of his personality is that he never makes pompous statements one usually associate with most of our holy men. It was not just a matter of being politically correct but always being on a level ground. The remark by him I most liked was that the most important yoga asana was standing on ones own two feet with the head held high. I can not agree more to this point of view.

Our main teacher and the coordinator of our course coordinator was Swami Atman Abhishek who at 74 could not be referred to as an old man in any way. Not only was he ram rod straight, but one could see him active from morning to night, conducting our classes, walking up and down the 90 steps of the Ashram countless times each day taking 2 steps at a time, manning the reception counter while he was not taking our classes. Of course as a senior member of the Ashram he would have other administrative responsibilities too.

Swami Atman Abhishek had joined the Ashram after retiring as Chief Inspector of Mines with the Directorate General of Mines Safety, though he had been associated with BSY from much before that date. In fact, he mentioned that he had been offered a lucrative post retirement assignment, but he had made up his mind to take sanyas after retirement and devote himself full time to the Ashram which he did. The only condition Swami Niranjana seems to have made in accepting him in the order was that the choice was made with the full consent of Swami Atman Abhishek’s wife and so he was accepted in the order only in the presence of his wife. Swamiji was a stickler for discipline in class but did not tire from our repeated failures and questions and went a long way in making the course memorable.
There was much discipline and laid down processes at the Ashram, but I was struck by a seemingly lack of discipline in one particular area. There was no one to question people throwing away left over uneaten food which they had been served to them as per their own request! There was a person to remind people not to speak while eating, there was a person to ensure that people did not waste water while washing their plates. But in the 18 – 19 days I spent at the Ashram I did not find any mention on the importance on not wasting food – and that to consecrated food (prasad). I saw people throwing away part of the food for reasons that it was more than they could eat or because they did not like the taste. There were a number of people who used to pick out the potato pieces and leave it uneaten to be thrown in the dust bin. These things happened day after day and was quite exasperating.

Another anomaly which struck me was the near exclusive use of English at various stages of the Ashram functioning. For example, while we were at BSY a batch of students completed their 4 month Basic Yoga Training course and their passing out ceremony was a warm affair. They were also issued a certificate of having done the course. The surprising thing was that the certificates were neither in Hindi nor Sanskrit but in English. I remarked this to one of the recipients, who very proudly enlightened me that since this certificate has acceptability around the world it needs to be in English. I was left wondering. My BA degree from BHU is in Sanskrit and it has found acceptance with my various employers across India and lately in the Gulf. If at some later date I move to some other part of this globe in all probability it would find acceptance there too. Since the BSY certificates were in all probability composed on computers and printed in house, they could easily be done in Hindi or Sanskrit with English translation on the reverse side.

Some reflections on my experience at BSY
One of my personal expectations in attending this course was to understand “Yoga” as a concept or philosophy. However, the focus of the group in which I found myself was quite different and was oriented towards using yoga for maintaining and building good physical and mental health. As such, there was very little discussions on the philosophical aspects of yoga during the regular classes. Though some topics were touched upon during the discourses that we heard during the evening satsangs or even during class.

What I gathered on the practice of Yoga is that its aim is the evolution of the consciousness for opening up the path of achieving complete oneness with the Almighty. The process used at BSY is Hatha Yoga with its emphasis on Asanas, Pranayam, Mudra, and Bandh which has profound mental and physical effects on the dedicated practioner.

Though the practices were largely Hinduism oriented, the emphasis was on a Supreme being who is One and beyond religion. What I experienced was that there were no questions asked on the personal religious beliefs of the participants. However, there are strict restrictions on eating of non-vegetarian food, liquor and other intoxicants, as well as of tobacco in its various forms while living in the Ashram. There was no preaching on restricting oneself to eating vegetarian food only. The emphasis was on eating food which was easily digestible rather than rich or even nutritious. This makes sense since even the most nutritious food is useless for the body if it cannot be digested. Another interesting observation was that milk was produced by cows (and buffaloes, goats, camels etc.) for its calf and not for human beings. As such, too much emphasis on goodness of milk and milk products for the health of human beings is misplaced.

The first thing that we were told about Asana is that it is not a form of exercise. The higher practices of Dhyana (or meditation) demands sitting for long periods without movement or discomfort. Asanas are practices for developing the body and mind to be able to do so. It involves gently stretching and massaging the joints, muscles, and internal organs. The movements in any Asana should be coordinated with the breath and the mind and ultimately with specific mantras if it is not to degenerate into mere exercises. The second important point to note while doing asana was that one should immediately discontinue if there is any discomfort and that one should not get tired while doing it. There is no question of “working up a sweat” while doing Asana. I understand that even while doing “Surya Namaskar” the most dynamic of Asana, one should periodically practice resting in Shavasana so as not to get tired. In fact, after doing the entire set of Asana which we were taught one feels as if the entire body has been thoroughly massaged and one feels rejuvenated.

Since most of us participating in the HMC were novices to Yogic practices, we were introduced to only the most basic asanas designed to make our bodies more flexible and suitable for more elaborate practices in due course with regular practice.

Pranayam is not just a system of breathing or breathing exercises as many people describe it. To my limited understanding, it may described as:

a) a technique for controlling and taming the mind. The effort of continual concentration on the breath cleans up the mind of all thoughts.
b) It is used for bringing in physical coolness (Sheetali and Sheetkari Pranayams)
c) For massaging and energizing the pineal gland (Brahamari pranayam).
d) Awakening the chakras (advanced Nadi Shodan).
e) Tranquilising the mind if one is distressed due to any extraneous incidents (Ujjayi)

One interesting yogic practice developed at BSY (which does not find mention in traditional yogic practices such as that of Patanjali) is that of Yoga Nidra, a technique for deep physical and mental relaxation. According to research conducted on persons practicing Yoga Nidra, this practice enable the person to reach a level of relaxation equivalent to that of deep sleep while remaining fully conscious. This aspect seems to have been demonstrated by studying the practioner’s mind waves through EEG (Electro Encephalo Graph).

In addition to practice of Asana & Pranayam, we were also taken through some basic meditation (Ajapa Jap & Antar Mauna) techniques.

At the end of the course all of us participants were given a written personalized set of instructions based on our condition as to what all practices we should follow. These are broken up for practice at various times of the day and with a little discipline fairly easily to follow.

We spent nearly 3 weeks at the Ashram but apart from the closed circuit of our allotted duties, we were neither expected nor encouraged to get to know more about the Ashram activities. It would have been nice if as part of our orientation on the first day or even later, we were taken around the Ashram and introduced to its various activities. In fact, while we were at the Ashram, an Akhand Ramayan session was held. My timid request to be permitted to even witness it was immediately frowned upon.

In course of one of the classes, the swamiji who was conducting our class spoke about mental and physical problems and illnesses of women and about a book (Nava Yogini Tantra) brought out by the Ashram dealing with these issues. He may have sensed that the men-folk in the class were not giving the attention that this subject deserved, for he immediately stated that he was speaking to the entire class and all the men should also read this book and try and understand the problems of women. For all men have mothers, sisters, wife, and daughters and it is absolutely essential for them to understand their problems for balanced family and social life.

Ashram Inmates
The participants in HMC, i.e. the course in which I had enrolled were mostly middle class people from in and around Bihar suffering from various health problems and looking for a solution for their problems in yogic practice. However, it was made amply clear during the orientation itself that the Ashram was not a hospital and the course did not offer cures per se. One had to be physically and mentally fit to be able to participate in the course, which by itself offers understanding of means on how to manage and cure common mostly lifestyle related physical and mental ills through Yoga.

Our HMC group consisted of about 35 persons of whom about 15 were women and 20 men with age ranging from 17 to nearly 70. It was very interesting interacting with them and we quickly became one large family sharing thoughts, dreams, difficulties, ideas, and items of personal use.

Personally for me the Ashram life was a very welcome change as it meant coming out of the sterilized environment I was getting used to living in and coming to terms with real life. The first mental block I had to break was sharing living quarters with strangers. Hostel accommodation was by way of 4 seater rooms. Of my room mates, one was a middle aged priest from a small village in Jharkhand, another was a mechanic for some specialized coal mining machinery while the third was a young manager with the accounts department of large company. It took a few days for our raw edges to get filed away but over time we became very good friends.

In addition, there were participants of other courses. The most prominent were those who had come to do the 4 month certificate course in Yogic Studies and consisted of young men & women including 2 – 3 men seconded by the Indian Army. Then there were people who had come to participate in other short duration courses such as Kriya Yoga or Mantra recitation. There were also quite a complement of people who had come to spend some time at the Ashram just for the pleasure of participating in Ashram life and doing Seva while being there.

Around the time our course was to end, another batch of people started arriving for the 4 month Yogic Studies course to be held in English. This was a really diverse group of people from all over the world. Name a continent and there was more than one representative from it.
During my stay one thing noticed was that the bulk of lay people who came for short term courses or simply for offering Seva were Tamilian Brahmans, though the Ashram itself was a pan Indian affair. I do not know whether this preponderance of Tam-Brahms was something to do to the time of the year or their predisposition to attend Yoga courses.

A summing up
Over the first few days of my stay at BSY I was continually asking myself on how did I get involved in such a mess and I had constant thoughts of giving it all up and withdrawing from the course and spending my leave more productively by catching up with my other personal affairs. Not only was the weather really hot and humid, but also the sheer physical effort of climbing up and down approximately 90 steps from the kitchen / hostel block to the main ashram building at least 5 times a day was too much for my enfeebled body. Another difficult aspect was sharing my room with 3 other people and even bigger mental block was using common toilets.

In retrospect I am extremely glad that I did not give in to my base feelings and dropped out of the course. It took some time getting used to the life and the regime of Ashram life. However, there were some things about life at the Ashram which I am still not reconciled to. One of them was repeated chanting of mantras and the benefits of the practice even when did not understand their meaning. I however realized the value of supposed vibrations of the mantras. The sheer physical force of loud chanting of mantras vibrates through ones body for long, though for me it was far from pleasant and disturbed my sleep.

Another idea that is difficult to digest is the view how our ancient sages were able to discern all the aspects of life by simply mental gymnastics without any physical experimentation. This line of thought was expounded in our lectures more than once and since questioning of any kind was quite severely frowned upon, I just did not have the gumption to openly question this line of reasoning during my stay there. To my understanding one of the weakest aspects of Indian civilization is the high importance given to theory while denigrating physical labour. The hand is nothing but the cutting edge of the mind and the dialectics of knowledge creation requires the simultaneous pursuit of theory and practice. Exclusive or too much emphasis on the theoretical aspects of knowledge renders knowledge and society sterile. This was the direct reason for the fall of Indian civilization and its subjugation to foreign powers. Strangely, the same swamiji who generally expounded this point of view also once mentioned how one of the founders of BSY had said that an ounce of action is more important than a tonne of theory. Maybe I have not been able to understand the nuances of Yogic philosophy properly.

Overall I feel that the sheer force of oneness generated by Ashram life is extremely beneficial for one’s psyche and look forward to spending some time each year at BSY.

PS: The BSY campus would be an ideal setting for a John Le Carre kind of novel. At least it has all the ingredients for it. An exclusive monastery situated in a remote part of India. Enigmatic and inscrutable sanyasis managing it. Entry by invitation only. Beautiful, extremely well managed campus. Inmates from nearly all over the world with exotic interests in life and beyond.