After an hour of careful breathing and the gentle coaxing of my body into various positions, an hour of twisting, bending, and sweating at the local yoga studio, I am laying flat on my back in the Savasana pose, palms facing upward, eyes closed, breathing, calming, relaxing, reflecting. The yoga instructor has changed the music for the last five minutes of our Vinyasa practice, and we listen to a beautiful voice, accompanied by a tamboura and a harmonium, singing, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna . . . . . .” The lights in the studio have been dimmed, and all is silent save our breath and the music. I am new to this yoga. I am stiff and heavy and physically inflexible. I feel as though I have just painfully wrung years of toxins from my cells, and my inner organs have shifted and feel a bit revived. But something else has happened in this wringing. I find myself suddenly flooded with unexpected emotion, with deep cellular memory of a past life, of a life I have rejected and feared, a life I have loved, and a life I have hated. As I bridge decades, I am moved to tears. I was a yogi, once. I was a Vaisnava, a Bhakti yogi.
I have chanted the Maha Mantra over 5,676,000 times.
I have meditated for over 7,000 hours.
I have blissfully danced and sang in over 6,500 kirtanas.
I have recited the Bhagavad Gita, in Sanskrit, from memory.
I have studied the Vedas and the Upanishads and the Mahabarata.
I have worshipped the sacred Tulasi plant.
I have taken pilgrimage to Vrindavana and washed my face with water from the Yamuna River where it is said that Krishna subdued the great serpent, Kaliya, and where he played with the cowherd boys and girls.
I have bowed on the banks of the holy RadhaKunda, the bathing place of Krishna’s favorite girlfriend Radharani, and I have worn mud-beads from its banks made by little girls who bartered for buttons and bobby-pins.
I have been welcomed into temples where no tourist has ever set foot only because I was a Vaisnava, a devotee of Krishna.
I joined the Hare Krishna movement when I was just eighteen, and I spent nine years in the group. I loved the philosophy of Bhakti Yoga, the food, the saris, the music, the meditation, the idea of serving God and being committed to the greater good. I still love these things. What I didn’t love, though, was the abuse, the overwhelming lack of freedom, the brainwashing, and the destructive and narcissistic behavior of the leaders. Unfortunately, the group distorted the philosophy and used it to control and manipulate its members. I was brainwashed, and I could not see what was happening to me. Even to the point of having an arranged marriage, I believed the group leaders knew what was best for me. It was only when I had my first child and was instructed to give her to another woman to wet-nurse that I said “No.” Then, when it was time to send my almost five-year-old daughter to a Hare Krishna school, I rebelled. I had seen children abused and mistreated. A spark of independence stayed with me thanks to my mysteriously acquired maternal instincts, and I made a terrifying decision. With my three children in tow, I left my husband and the Hare Krishna movement. I have always believed that my children saved me.
After leaving, it took a long time to re-acclimate to the mainstream having been insulated and isolated from society. I was totally unprepared to be responsible for so many little people’s lives. It frightened me that I had allowed such abuse and manipulation to affect my life so significantly. At the time of leaving, these nine years made up an entire one-third of my lifetime. Being quite naive as I adjusted to ‘normal’ life, I was compelled to reject my involvement in the movement and the philosophy. I was determined to put as much of it behind me as I could. I can still see, in slow motion, my beautifully burnished sandalwood meditation beads in their little saffron cotton sack soaring up and into the dumpster where I tossed them. Nine years of burnishing gone. Or so I thought.
Today, I am happy to be learning how to be a new kind of yogi, a yogi who respects her body, her mind, her spirit, and all of everything that makes up who she is. My hope is to maintain balance. I can be mindful, wise, graceful, compassionate and kind without living a life of austerity and deprivation. I am happy, after all of these years of reluctance, to confidently enter a yoga studio, to sit on my own yoga mat in a lotus position, and to practice yoga. I am grateful that my past-life cells are waking up and bringing to the surface positive memories and a sense of pride for those nine years. I am willingly embracing the idea that many of my strengths and uniquenesses are directly related to my past life.