Silence, Rishikesh, Northern India

I am just catching up with my writing after a long period of silence. So before this trip looks like yesterday I will begin with a few entries.

Starting from the mid-way point of my journey I was in Rishikesh, the land of yoga ashrams, retreats and spas. Not only are there plenty of ashrams to choose from, a very popular reason to head to Rishikesh, but people say the meditative vibration is higher and purer there. Many great saints and sages went up to the mountains seeking solitude from their worldly existence. The word 'Rishikesh' is literally translated as the land of the preserver, Vishu. Some people also say if you want to be closer to God then you go to Rishikesh.

When I first visited Rishikesh in 2000 it was with the firm idea that I would never return. The heat, the dryness, the congestion, the sadhus running around, my own irritation, lack of attention and inability to figure out what was driving me to stay in such a place made me blind to all that was around me. But one should never say never because I have been back 3 times.

Why the silence? It was a deliberate withdrawal from the external world and including interactions with people, computers, internet and phone. As Swami Veda (a senior disciple of Swami Rama) says “at some point in one’s spiritual progress an urge to silence arises uninvited; a wave that carries the mind self-ward, atma-ward)." The best place to do this is in the north of India which is closer to the parents of spirituality. That is, the Himalayan father and the Mother Ganga. Swami Rama often laid claim that these were his ‘real’ parents (both the mountains and the water).

Swami Rama Meditation Hall, Ashram

A journey into silence is from the gross level to the more subtle one. There are preparations before taking such a journey but the process cannot be rushed, directed or controlled. In fact, everything that one learns in yoga is understood as treading the path to this means. The journey to Atma, the eternal ‘self’ (re: that which I am) is beyond the modifications of the sense organs (indriyas) and actions. It is the inner state of ‘being’. In European languages Atma means “auto” and in German it is Atmen, to breathe. To realize Atma (self) is to understand eternity, body without form, mind without limits and freedom from the past as well as the future. Ideally it is also coming to understand that this body is not who we think we are. It is an illusion, a dream and a configuration of the mind. All suffering, pains, disappointments are also illusions. This is a hard concept to fully unerstand. Because if this is true why do we suffer at all?

The Buddha says it stems from attachment and not understating the impermanence of all relationships, circumstances and self-created identifies. I once read a good way of putting it in that you don’t wear the same shirt you had when you were 5 years old. Just as you change your shirt with age, you change also your attitudes. You learn to adjust and to understand that all things are moving even when they appear still.

The ancient texts describe the mind as being like a cow out to pasture. It has no consistent stream of thought and moves from one idea to the next, reacting and responding out of habit and conditioning. Taking a step toward silence is not just a literal one in terms of ‘no talking’ but a return to the natural state of being in which the flow of the energy (the prana) rises from within.

Undergoing such a period of silence is not a program in learning new techniques. In fact as many Swamis have already said, ”There is nothing new to learn.” The key is to apply (at one’s very best) what you know. There are of course guidelines to follow, but it is not about mechanical learning or drills. It is a practice in staying present moment to moment, embracing the energy of healing, expanding the life force and cultivating the internal world. As Swami Rama put it, “we are citizens to the inner and outer world.” Most of the time we have only learned to expand externally, not inwardly.

While I was up north and in silence it rained for 4 days straight. The clap of thunder from over the mountains and the pouring of rain was like the endless 'hum' of a vacuum cleaner. Life at the ashram is simple food, prayer, chants, karma yoga, self-study, meditation and a bit of hatha-yoga. To me, the mountains lay stretched out to my right like a lazy dog while the Ganga was to the left rushing, running and forever moving.

One of my most vibrant memories was walking to breakfast in knee-deep water. I had borrowed or rather an aspirant living at the ashram had taken an umbrella from another foreigner and given it to me. We could only walk small tiny steps to get from the cottages to the breakfast hall. A walk of 2 minutes now took us 8. I remember one Indian fellow in front looking backward to see if we were all together. I lifted my umbrella and gestured that all was fine. He laughed and kept walking. Inwardly I laughed too; what a precious moment in time.

Maintaining silence was not difficult (re: the not talking part). There are so many others ways to communicate (eyes, facial expressions, hand gestures) that I felt as though I was communicating all day long. I broke my silence verbally twice when I said hi to a one-month year old calf and to a cat. The practice, however, was difficult in remaining present, staying disciplined and not nodding off due to boredom, exhaustion or just plain laziness.

At the end, I broke my silence with the word, “om”. But even afterwards, I did not feel like talking. It was a divine time with many layers.


The Journey So Far

Life is an adventure and yoga is the greatest one of all. Here I share my love of Yoga, travel, practice and becoming a part-time cook. My life adventures have taken me from growing up in Toronto to living and working in South Korea to studying in India, marriage and finally closing my Yoga school of 15 years.

What I can say so far is that I truly believe that it is necessary in life to let go of one dream in order for another to be born. This might be painful to do so but it is the only way to move forward. We often believe that if our original plan does not succeed it is the recipe for failure. But what if it is the door to something new and great? The horizon is wide and life is not a straight line. This is the way I see it and my journey so far. Having also recently given birth to my first child and at 43, it is another new beginning.


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Heather Morton
is a perennial teacher and devoted student of yoga. Having made 18 extended trips to India she studies with her teachers annually. In 1997 she founded and directed The Yoga Way (TYW), Toronto's only school for 6-week yoga programs and not drop-in classes. For 15 years, TYW was a part of the growing Toronto yoga community and supported many charities by offering karma classes. As a teacher she holds many academic degrees including a BFA (Fine Arts in Theatre) and a Masters of Education. With a published thesis on Yoga for Children in School, her post-graduate work was a 2-year ethnographic project in the Indian school system. Heather has produced 2 dvds, meditation cds, a backbending manual and podcasts. Freedom of the Body DVD is the first of its kind as an instructional practice to the backbends of yoga. Heather has been featured in the Toronto Life magazine, The Globe & Mail, Yoga4Everybody and other on-line sources. She contributes to MindBodyGreen, Hello Yoga in Japan and Elephant Journal. She writes to inspire and share her experiences with others on yoga as a life's practice.
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