"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!
As I got closer I saw how tiny she was but her presence felt all-embracing. During that long journey toward Amma my heart felt like it was going to break. I didn't really understand what was happening. It was an exquisite separation, a melting of old wounds.
Amazed at the feeling, there was a darkness in my heart that definitely needed light. Then when it was finally my turn, Amma gathered me into her arms, whispered into my ear, "Daughter, daughter, daughter"...and I melted. My heart melted. Tears streamed down my face with a relief that healed my inner being to the very core. I felt she was accepting me, accepting me as I was right then: I was fine, I was fine. I just was.
It was definitely over too soon. Amma placed sacred ash on my forehead and gave me a Hershey's kiss, which made me laugh, and rose petals. The chocolate I found out is prasad, blessed food, as you eat it you receive a blessing from Amma.
I sat down near her and watched her continue to hug others for another hour. She had been there all morning hugging, hugging, hugging. No breaks. No water. And she didn't look tired at all. She accepts each person with a smile and a ready hug. She accepts you as you, teaching you to accept yourself and others. I was very touched and knew I could accept her in my heart as my teacher.
After Darshan, my friends from the yoga training wanted to go out and explore New York. I declined the adventure opting to stay and soak in the love and peace that was in the space of that church. I just wasn't ready to move. The day sped by, I ate there, and helped set up for the evening event.
That evening there was a Puja, a healing ceremony for peace. During the Puja, as I basked in the divine energy of the ceremony, I decided that I would ask Amma for my mantra. A mantra consists of a few syllables glorifying a divine name. A mantra is the most powerful tool a teacher/guru can give a disciple. Repeating the mantra over and over calms and focuses the mind. My mind, I knew, was often like a wild monkey looking for many things to occupy itself with, often causing utter confusion. The mantra given by Amma or any other genuine teacher helps to clear the mind of illusions that inhibit you from being fully who you are. This helps to conquer the fears which most of us share-the fear of life and the fear of just being ourselves.
I had to ask around and find out how I could receive my mantra. The process is not taken lightly. When I did find people familiar with the process, they sat me down and made sure I understood what it was all about. I liked that, there was no hard sell here. The receiving of a mantra was deeply respected.
More Darshan came next, and more hugging. Amma never stirred but again embraced all who came, healing hearts, minds, bodies, and souls. Again I found myself in the Darshan line, this time I was in one for receiving a mantra. When it was my turn I asked Amma for my mantra. I had been warned she could decide I was not ready. She gave me my mantra, and on hearing the words I felt such bliss. I knew I looked just like that fellow I had seen at the shoe rack, wonderfully blissful. Oh my!
I sat down and meditated repeating my mantra until I felt grounded once again. When I left, my shoes were still there. But as I walked in them, they felt like new shoes. Or perhaps it was that I had been renewed.
I returned home later that week with the story of this experience and I shared it with my husband and children. Thankfully they were all open to Amma, and looked forward to meeting her the next year. Through the grace of my mantra and the affect of Amma in my heart the next two years brought a whirlwind of change. My relationships deepened, after much work, of course. Then starting a yoga studio not far from my house became my way of sharing my light. I did not move to India to join Amma. It was not necessary. I knew she would be with me in spirit wherever I went.
That first visit was in 1999 and now I go every year to see Ammachi when she is in the United States on her usual summer tour. Ammachi's mission is to help others. Her humanitarian efforts are astounding - orphanges, care homes for the aged in both India and the US, food, housing, and pensions for the destitute in India. Her organization provides free medical help for the sick at Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS), a state-of-the-art hospital. Though divine, she is of the earth, grounded in the desire to help people here and now. She actively lives her own teachings. "Children, expand your heart and embrace all by doing selfless activities," Amma has said. "What is more important than to use this precious time to make this brief sojourn a journey of love?"