"Leave my shoes out here?" I thought they had to be kidding. While I was used to shedding my shoes before yoga or meditation, or even before entering my own home, this was New York City. The sweet woman informing me that the shoes must come off was not from India, but she dressed like she was. Beside her was a kind gentleman who explained. "We remove our shoes out of reverence for `the Mother' Ammachi."
Well, to leave my cherished Birkenstocks on shelves with the ocean of Birkenstocks already there seemed a risky thing to do. But I did it, leaving a book I'd been reading beneath my shoes to help identify them. Upon walking back into the church's foyer, I nearly bumped into a young man with dazed eyes and a grin so full of bliss that it seemed he would have kept grinning if I'd inadvertently knocked him down. Suddenly I wasn't so sure about this grand adventure.
I had come to meet a living saint and heal my faith. And in fact, it would be twelve hours before I saw my shoes and book again, still together but on a different part of the shelf. Twelve beautiful hours I would never forget.
I had come to see Ammachi (or Amma as those who follow her say with reverence) at the exuberant recommendation of a new friend at a yoga teacher's training I'd been attending that week in Connecticut. It was our day off, and the director had mentioned that Amma was on a New York City leg of a world tour, and that this was a wonderful opportunity to meet the Hindu "Hugging Saint," a remarkable woman who channels the spirit of maternal love and grace, "the Divine Mother". Every year she comes to the states to embrace, bless, and encourage followers of any faith.
An unidentified woman receives a hug from Ammachi.
Over the past five years as a yoga teacher and consistent meditator, I had made myself available to mystical experiences of the divine, and I felt naturally drawn to Amma. And I knew that in the path of yoga, it's considered a good idea to have a guru or teacher on hand to guide you down the path of enlightenment. I had begun to realize that being enlightened was a long process of letting your own inner light shine, but I was skeptical and not always comfortable asking for help. Additionally, guru shopping was something I found altogether distasteful. I had friends that went from one to another. That wasn't for me.
"Here's your ticket for Darshan, please go in and join the line," said my guide. Darshan is the respectful gazing upon a divine image, or venerable person. The radiating energy is healing and spiritually charging to all present.
I went into the church and was bowled over by the sight. I was accustomed to seeing a church with pews in place. And I guess I had also expected silence. But this church was packed with all kinds of people, most of them sitting on the floor with the pews set to the side. Amma's kirtan band was playing Indian bhagans to stir the soul. In the front, where the altar usually is, were many people dressed in white, guiding the public to a petite and beautiful woman, resplendent in her white sari and all embracing smile. Her presence was immense. It was Amma.
Wanting to stay and wanting to get out of there, I froze on the spot.
I was brought up as a devout Episcopalian. But I always felt that something was missing. I wanted to commune more closely with the divine. My spirit and inner guidance always felt very strong, but as I matured, I needed to explore and understand more of the world and its religions. Eventually, I understood that union with the divine meant opening my heart and having more compassion for myself and others.
As I stood transfixed at the back of the church, I sensed that meeting Ammachi could possibly be the experience I'd been waiting for, and I felt mixed about it. I had begun my spiritual study with Hatha yoga as a fifteen-year-old ballet student. Over the years my friends and teachers had each in their own way helped on my path of development. At that moment in the church, I felt drawn to Amma, a laser-like connection that I had never felt to anyone before. I had to go to her, to have her hug me, it suddenly became essential and I was awed by the intensity of it.
"You should be in the Darshan line, please come with me." The man gently guided me to my place on the floor in the line and others quickly sat behind me. After a half hour I was still on the floor and slowly moving toward Her Grace, Amma. She took her time hugging each person like a mother who had not seen her only child in years. Watching her could bring one to tears. Then came the smell of roses, the same one that had been in my bedroom!