At the International Yoga Festival, the sun had yet to rise over Rishikesh, as more than 300 yogis from around the world unrolled their mats along the banks of the Ganges River. Ma Ganga whispered an eternal ohm as she rushed over the rocks, reminding us that she flows from the feet of Shiva and carries the shakti (spiritual energy) of the sadhus (holy men) and sages that have chanted, worshipped, fasted and meditated along her upper banks for thousands of years.
A hush fell in the morning darkness as H.H. Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, Spiritual Head of Parmath Niketan Ashram and host of the International Yoga Festival, arrived in his saffron robe and softly moved to the stage with the peaceful smile that ever seems to grace his face. His full beard and flowing black and silver hair seemed to glow in anticipation of the sunrise as he sat facing a towering white stone statue of Shiva on the river’s edge. “Swamiji,” as he is affectionately known, lifted his ethereally beautiful voice into a song of prayer, calling in blessings from the gods, asking that all beings be released from ignorance and suffering, that all might know true freedom and peace.
Those of us who embrace Yoga more deeply in our lives may feel our hearts fill with a profound gratitude for this sacred spiritual wisdom, for the source of our healing and inner awakening. My wife, Laura and I felt this innate longing to return home to the Divine Mother of India and made this pilgrimage for the first time, attending the Ayurveda & Yoga Conference and the International Yoga Festival at Swamiji’s ashram, as well as a retreat with our teacher, David Frawley.
We also wanted to give something back, to pay homage to India in our own small and humble way. The opportunity arrived in an email from Yoga Aid Challenge, asking us to join in 108 Sun Salutations at the festival. Clive Mayhew and Eriko Kinoshita of Australia are the founders of this global effort to raise money for children in India and Africa. Their mission is also to raise awareness of the benefits of Yoga and unite all practitioners and styles into a deeper oneness.
Feeling blessed, we embraced the challenge: students, family and friends joined us by pledging funds, as did the supporters of the more than 300 yogis from 32 different countries supporting Yoga Aid. On the morning of March 5, we gathered, 12 teachers from India, Japan, Europe and America, each leading nine rounds of sun salutations. As the sun rose, hundreds of arms reached to the divine, palms pressed to heart centers, bowed to Mother Earth. All began to breathe as one. Hearts began to beat as one. Nationality and style melted away and we began to be as one.
The Bhagavad-Gita and Yoga Sutra speak of Karma Yoga: acting selflessly, serving others, releasing all attachments, transcending the ego and surrendering to the divine. Clive and Eriko provided a perfect opportunity to live this sacred wisdom, and more than $50,000 was raised. That evening Swamiji sang at aarti (worship with light and sound), flanked as usual by dozens of the precious children who live at the ashram. Their schooling will be funded, in part, by the money raised.
We returned home to learn that a group of our students had gathered at sunset in San Diego as the sun was rising in India and performed 108 salutations in honor and support of the challenge, as did scores of others around the world. There will be more challenges this year, in Hong Kong, Japan and Australia, and anyone can participate without even leaving home, an opportunity to merge into the oneness of Karma Yoga, to live the Gita, embrace the Sutra, and pay homage to the spirit of Mother India that flows like a deep and gentle river in all of our hearts.
Learn more about Yoga Aid Challenge at http://www.yogaaid.com.