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Break on through to the other side

In early 2007 my life was a total mess. I was sleeping on a leaking air mattress, on the floor of a rundown shotgun house in a rough neighbourhood in a city shattered by the hurricane, and where murders were as common as kindness to strangers. My next door neighbour was a Boa Constrictor with a head as big as mine. I never saw him. But I saw the frightened face of the punk kid that stopped by every other week or so to feed the him turkeys, while the beast's roommate (my landlord) was cycling across the United States together with his dying father, to help realize the latter's dream.

Underneath my bathtub there was a hole big enough for my pitbull Stella to escape onto the streets via. It was also big enough for robbers, rapists and psychopaths to enter my ramshackle safe haven. This, the beast on the other side of the wall, and the fact that the air mattress kept on deflating itself made me sleep poorly. And sleeping poorly didn't exactly help me sort out the mess that was my life.

It was a year and a half after Hurricane Katrina struck and the aftermath of the storm, with floods, death and displacement had left the already troubled city badly scarred.

My green card application had been denied, and after 12 years in the United States, I was suddenly technically an illegal immigrant. And while I was trying to figure out what the hell I should be doing with my life, about my life, I worked three service industry jobs. I drank too much, and occasionally swallowed pills before waiting tables at my main job ( a very popular New Orleans restaurant serving dishes like 'Crawfish and Alligator Cheesecake' and 'Deep-fried Po'boys') to be able to handle the rampant alcoholism of my boss, who towards the end of any night at the restaurant would be staggering between the tables, in his crawfish boxer shorts cursing and rambling. And also to be able to handle waiting on the giggling bachelorette parties drinking their Hurricanes through Penis-straws.

And I practiced yoga. At least there was that. It was my life-line. Going to class was like hitting a reset button and afterwards I could have a few minutes or hours of feeling calm and grounded before the so called reality of my so called life would permeate my bubble of yoga bliss again.

I was also lonely. My circle of friends had been shattered by the storm. And my boyfriend had left me for his other lover: Booze.

I wanted to get deeper into yoga. I wanted to learn more about this mysterious practice that was so kind to me. I didn't have enough money to book myself into a yoga retreat. But I knew there were places; ashrams, were you could work in exchange for room and board and teachings. I had already done that a couple of times when I was living in New York and first fell in love with yoga. Once I had spent a weekend painting fences at a place called Ananda, just north of New York City. And once I had spent a week cleaning toilets at Kripalu Center in Massachusetts. I started googling.

I found a place called Shoshoni. Tucked away in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. I contacted them and made arrangements to spend a month there doing Karma Yoga.

First, I drove my baby blue pick-up truck from New Orleans to Northern California. My pitbull Stella sitting next to me, wearing a scarf around her neck. I felt like a I was the lyrics to a sad country song. Pulling up to horseshoe-shaped motels and checking in late at night. Checking that the cheap edition Bible truly was there in the nightstand, just like in the movies. Eating eggs and drinking coffee and OJ alone in diners, served by women with too much make-up around their sad eyes while Stella howled back in the truck.

I dropped the truck and the dog off with my brother, who was spending a few months near Lake Tahoe, snowboarding. Then I hopped on the Amtrak train that was to take me across Utah's dramatic landscape, to Denver, Colorado, from where I was to continue with bus to Boulder and then another bus to the town of Nederland (which I kept referring to as Neverland). But at some point in the middle of the night, a bored truck driver decided to try to race the train. He lost. The train hit his truck, he escaped unharmed, but the engine was broken and we remained stranded for hours and hours. Another passenger on the train explained to me that even if the train hadn't hit the truck, the train would most likely have been just as delayed anyway. That's just the way it is around here. That's just the way it is when you don't invest in public services ... when everything is run by for-profit business: health care, prisons, home for the elderly, the goddamn trains ...

I arrived, about 17 hours late, in the midst of a blizzard. I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. But I managed to fumble my way to a door I wasn't certain wasn't a mirage. But it opened. And I found myself inside another slice of Americana: A wood-panelled Saloon where I could get a cup of coffee and a slice of pie, and also call Shoshoni.

An hour later a blond petite woman arrived to fetch me. The snowfall had subsided as we wound our way up the mountain. A few buildings scattered about in the snow. At the top of the hill I could see the peak of a Pagoda. Our newly built Temple, the blonde explained. I'll take you on the grand tour but first I'll take you to your quarters.

She showed me a trailer-esque building, and led me through one dorm room where an alarmingly thin dark-haired girl was sitting in Lotus pose meditating. Her face betrayed no signs of her even having heard us enter. I was to room with Amber, a girl from Los Angeles. She had arrived the day before and already claimed the top bunk. I took one look at her blue-streaked hair and her shit-eating grin and knew we were gonna be buddies. She introduced me to her friend Nikki, who lived in the dorm room next to us. She was a brunette from Chicago, a lot more conservative looking than Amber, but the two of them were childhood friends. Amber shared the room with the dark-haired meditator we had just past, and who already had a 'spiritual name,' Jyoti and a redhead yoga teacher called Megan.

Amber, Nikki and I were the only newbies. Everyone else in the Karma yoga crew had already been there for weeks or months. Then there were the residents, Swami Omkari, the blonde who had picked me up, Gopala, the long-haired self-righteous Ashram handyman, who looked like he slept through the gruelling morning chanting and meditation sessions. But when I once made a joke about it, he got extremely defensive and claimed to be in a deep trance. And a few others.

I understood, already on that first day that Shoshoni wouldn't be what I had expected.

The days begun with a gong wake-up call at 4:30. I heard Amber groan above me. I flung my legs over the edge of the bed, while I heard her cursing. We put on layers of clothes and waded through nearly knee-deep snow, up the hill to the temple. There we spent the first hour chanting a text called the Guru Gita. Already fifteen minutes in I felt anger rising in me. What the fuck was this?!? I was here to do chaturangas and Warrior poses, to stand on my head. And to feel serene, not angry. When the torment of the Guru Gita came to an end, we still had to sit another half an hour or more for silent meditation. My hips, legs and back were all killing me. I was unable to sit still for more than ten minutes, then I had to change the position of my legs, stretch the neck, shift here and there.

After that was breakfast. And that brightened my day! The food at Shoshoni was absolutely amazing. But then started the long workday, 10-12 hours of physical labor. There were different tasks everyday. Cleaning the rooms and making beds in the rental cabins. Dusting the Ganesha, Shiva and Buddha statues in the Temple. Shovelling snow. Chopping vegetables. Doing dishes. Collecting fire wood. Which was one of my favorite jobs. Since that meant I got to hang with Oliver, a super-chill dude long-haired dude from Montana, who had been at Shoshoni for about a month already.

Hatha yoga was only something we got to do three times a week. It clearly wasn't the focus around here. That pissed me off. Because that was my focus, my happy place, the reason I had come here.

At night after all our chores were done, and after the evening group meditation was over, we were free. Almost every night Amber, Nikki and I would use the compound sauna and jacuzzi. Going out onto the deck and removing the cover from the hot tub and submerging our aching bodies in the steaming water, while surrounded by a night sky sprinkled with winking stars that illuminated the snow-covered mountain tops with a cool glow was a spiritual experience.

But then the gong would go off at 4.30 in the morning and Amber would be cursing and saying; I'm not fucking doing it, I'm not going. What the fuck are they gonna do?

One morning we were in the meditation hall at 05.00, not 04:59 so we were called into the Swami who told us that it was unacceptable to be late. But the Guru Gita starts at 05:00, we protested. Yes, so that means you can't walk in at 05:00, you have to be sitting down, ready to start at 5.

We probably called her fucking bitch amongst ourselves, but I must admit that this is something I've carried with me.

It wasn't until a little bit into my third week that the founder, Shambhavananda, the Guru, came to the ashram. I had seen him once before, when we drove into Boulder in a van, to participate in a group meditation. Amber, Nikki and I had each been given a Punjabi dress, meaning silky MC Hammer Pants with a matching tunic and scarf. Mine was purple. I felt like a clown. But the other women kept saying how beautiful we were. They acted like teenagers on their way to see their favorite pop star in concert. The conversation revolved around how long they could sit for meditation without changing their position (Jyoti could sit for two hours) and how much of the fucking Guru Gita they now knew by heart. And they were giggling a lot. They were going to be in the same room as their guru.

And when he walked into the dining hall were people were having tea before the sitting everyone got silent. Some even started prostrating.

Shambhavananda looked like Santa, with his big belly, white long hair and beard. I didn't think very highly of him, for no other reason than that all the others treated him like God, and that made me feel very uncomfortable. To his credit, I should say that when people got silent because he walked into a room he kind of laughed at them, and told them they could keep on talking, keep on doing their thing. But I was still quite appalled with the guru worship. There were also other disturbing things that had happened.

One of the guru's gurus was a guy named Swami Muktananda. There were pictures of him all over the ashram, including a snapshot tum-tacked to the wall just above the industrial sink were us karma workers spent a considerable chunk of our days washing dishes. We were encouraged to chant or to observe noble silence but none of us were very spiritually advanced I guess, all of us had come either for the vinyasa or to just get away from whatever it was that was haunting us. Muktananda (died in 1982) was a super-famous guru, an Indian in the United States, spiritual teacher to the stars, but he was also infamous for being a sexual predator, and having sex with underage girls. One day when we were washing dishes after dinner, Chuck, a karma worker, who had been at the ashram for almost a year, joked about the similarities between Muktananda and Michael Jackson -- that they both were into teenagers. It was only Nikki, Amber, Chuck and I there and we laughed until we cried. But someone must have been spying on us, because word reached the management and Chuck was expelled, and the three of us were warned. One more fuck-up and we would be out.

That night we sat in the hot tub under the canopy of stars, and bitched about the place, on how it felt like a cult, how some of the residents seemed brain-washed. We even contemplated leaving right then and there. Hitching a ride into Boulder. Checking into a hotel room and then getting really, really drunk. Amber and Nikki were fantasising about cheese burgers and cigarettes too. We traded stories of drunken mayhem.

But we stayed. Of course we did. I didn't have a home to return to in New Orleans. I was low on funds and a so-called illegal alien at this point. I was so lost in the world. I felt like an autumn leaf being tossed around by the wind. I still hated getting up at 4:30 in the morning. I hated Swami Omkari and her self-righteous smirk. She was about as much fun as a knife in the thigh. I hated the Guru-Gita and I hated meditation. But I had nowhere else to go.

And then the meditation intensive weekend happened. The Guru was coming and about a hundred people belonging to the community were coming. It was a big deal apparently. And a lot of work for us. I was skeptic and sarcastic as usual. After almost twenty days of at least two hours a day of meditation, I had gone nowhere. My mind was a flea market of damaged and used goods, being recycled over and over again.

At some point during this weekend I was to meditate with the guru in a smaller group. Big deal, I thought. I'm gonna get to sit next to Santa and chant a mantra. But at some point during that sitting my chattering mind grew silent and spacious. Concentration became effortless. Any aches and discomforts in the body were erased, as if with a magic wand. My body was light, bleeding light into the world and having the world bleed light back into it. I was flooded with pleasure and peace. I was high. I was floating. And when the little bell chimed to signal that meditation was over, a signal I up until that point had been relieved to hear, I now responded to with a feeling of not wanting to come out of whatever dimension I had entered into, not wanting to come down.

I was baffled. But I couldn't stop beaming. I thought; finally, I meditated, I didn't just try or pretend to meditate.

And the following evening all of us meditated in the meditation hall with the guru again, and I had the same experience. Pretty much immediately after closing my eyes and starting to silently repeat my mantra I was back in that wonderful place I had been forced to leave the day before. What was it though? Was it a place in my mind, beyond the thoughts? Or was it somewhere outside myself? Or was it a dream, a hallucination? Was it magic? I was confused, but curious.

And even though after those two experiences, I was back to mostly struggling with my concentration for the remainder of my stay at Shoshoni, I kept on sneaking little glimpses of that place, the experience. And a space, a peaceful meadow to lie down on, had opened up in me, and I knew, after saying a teary-eyed goodbye to Amber and Nikki in Boulder -- they were going to get shit-faced, I was going to take the long, slow train ride across Utah, back to California to retrieve my pick-up truck and my pitbull -- that I must continue the inner journey.

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