March 2016 ByAparna Talaulicar A visit to ISKCON’s Govardhan Eco Village, near Mumbai, with her yoga teacher, afforded Aparna Talaulicar a rich immersion in yoga and spirituality A full moon was rising behind us. About a dozen of us were seated on the steps of Radha Kund, a small tank which is a part of the mini Vrindavan created in ISKCON’s Govardhan Eco Village (GEV) in Palghar district, near Mumbai in Maharashtra. Listening to Yaduanath Swami’s voice lifting in devotion as he chanted Radha’s and Krishna’s names in a soul-stirring chant, we all sang after him, “Radhe, Radhe, Govinda, Radhe…” Bathed in moonlight and caressed by a gentle breeze, as we sat in the semi darkness, my heart opened and I felt a deep connection to the others, many of whom I had just recently met. I also felt like I belonged to that space, connected to the water below, the sky above and the trees and the sand around me. I was visiting GEV for a yoga holiday led by my teacher, Robert Moses, a direct disciple of Swami Vishnudevananda who founded the Sivananda Yoga centres and ashrams worldwide. Robert and his wife Meenakshi, both yoga teachers based in Dublin, New Hampshire, in the USA, decided to throw open their own India holiday to whoever would like to take a yoga break with them. And who wouldn’t, considering that this ISKCON ashram was set in the midst of 100 acres of beautiful farmland and orchards in the foothills of the Sahyadri mountains? Two of their children, Satya, age 20 and Sita, 16, were there too; the third, Tejas, age 18, was traveling in South India. Radhakunda Das, a congenial ISKCON monk who takes international yoga groups to pilgrimage places throughout India, and Menaka, a Gurgaon-based Sivananda yoga teacher, made up the rest of the group. Apart from these members, there was a floating population of ISKCON devotees, visitors and brahmacharis who would join us every now and then for yoga classes or other activities. The panoramic and verdant landscape at GEV That moonlit evening, we were fortunate to spend time with Maharaj, as H.H. Sri Radhanath Swami, GEV’s founder and guiding light, is lovingly known. A sandy path winds its way through GEV’s Vrindavan recreation, going past replicas of temples, Govardhan hill, even the Yamuna river, complete with ghats and stone chhatris (umbrellas) on the banks, and an arching bridge across the flowing water. There is also an exact replica of ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada’s room and kitchen where there is a seated, lifelike sculpture of him; one can sit in his presence and meditate. At sunset, we spent some time sitting under one of the stone chhatris, enjoying the river and its sound. Then there was a beautiful Yamuna aarti and as dusk fell Maharaj waved the lamp in offering to the river. The lamp was passed around as we all chanted the aarti. Maharaj then led us on a magical parikrama on the sandy path. We walked barefoot in the gathering darkness, feeling the sand cool and soft underfoot. Every now and then we would stop and Maharaj would say a few words to make the surroundings come alive. Later as we sat on the moonlit sand, gazing at the lit facade of the Radha Govinda temple, Maharaj spoke of love and compassion and how each of us can serve by simply shining our light, just like the moon or stars do. Morning yoga The late December mornings at GEV were chilly, and we wrapped ourselves well before leaving the relative warmth of our rooms. The day began with Robert and Meenakshi’s yoga class. Here we paid attention to our breath and our body, warming ourselves up with surya namaskar and then making our way through a number of asanas and finishing with a breathing practice and savasana, final relaxation. Feeling wonderfully stretched and relaxed we would go out on the porch outside the yoga hall and enjoy the sun and the view of the Sahyadri hills. The one looming up right across from us had a small rocky outpost put on the hilltop by Shivaji, the Maratha king, several centuries ago. Satya was the only one in our group who scaled that mountain early one morning, trekking up the steep slope and making it to the fortress and some caves on top of the mountain. Next on the agenda after yoga was the first meal of the day (out of two daily main meals), brunch. This was a sumptuous vegetarian feast comprising of a vegetable dish, lentils, pulao, salad and roti. Nearly all ingredients fresh and sourced from the farm, lovingly cooked and then offered as prasad. We also received it as a divine offering, sitting together on the floor and saying a prayer before we began to eat. We would assemble soon after brunch to go exploring a part of those 100 acres, striking off in a different direction each day. Each foray into the ashram grounds revealed different aspects of the spiritual attitudes of service and love. The grounds nurture many grains, plants, trees, bushes, flowers, insects, birds, animals, and of course humans. Sustainable, eco-friendly practices are used for growing things as well as for recycling material and creating energy. GEV provides a shelter for many cows, bulls and their babies. Cow dung is used as construction material and for bio gas which is used in the kitchens. Ayurvedic medicines made out of cow urine are available in the ashram shops. Other animals too find a home here. Horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, guinea fowl and dogs to name a few. One hears the trilling and chirping of many birds. If you are lucky you may spot a thin, black non-poisonous snake crossing a path. All the sewage is safely treated using a natural method. Growing on top of the sewage treatment plant is a treat for the eyes, a green expanse of colourful, flowering creepers, papaya trees and rose bushes. The purified and recycled waste water, as well as harvested rain water is used for irrigation. Mud is used to make home-pressed bricks which are sun-baked before they are used to create the spacious, airy and comfortable accommodation spread out on different parts of the property. GEV also makes its own, delicious jaggery out of freshly harvested sugarcane. Other home products include tooth powder, incense sticks, ayurvedic medicines, pain-relief balm, shampoo, and perfume. If you are a plant lover, you will be spoilt for choice in the nursery which has a range of over 500 varieties of plants and a lotus pond. The ashram also has a small ayurvedic spa and a swimming pool with different timings for ladies and gents. And for those in-between- meal hunger pangs, there is Govinda’s Pantry, with homemade ice-cream and freshly squeezed juice on offer; plus some special thin crust pizza as a weekend special. Anyone who comes to stay at the ashram has a choice of doing seva (service) by participating in any of the various activities in the farm or gardens or temples or kitchen. You may choose to help take the cows out to graze and then help with their grooming and feeding or milking. Or you could help with the upkeep of the gardens, or picking vegetables for a meal or help in the jaggery unit. Being in a place like this ecofarm, literally in the lap of nature, one feels time slow down and each activity takes on a new meaning. The joy of seva For me, seva came in the form of an opportunity to teach a children’s yoga class to the students of the gurukul for boys which is an inherent part of this community. The students are orphans or other underprivileged kids from the surrounding villages who are given a Vedic as well as a conventional education at the gurukul. Robert, knowing that I teach kids’ yoga back home asked me to teach a yoga class at the gurukul. A bracing, 15-minute walk in the pre-dawn cold brought me to their school. Soon after, the boys came in from their chanting session at the main temple. Teaching a group of Marathi speaking, dhoti-clad, head-shaven youngsters was a completely new experience for me. But we had no trouble communicating and soon the boys were up in headstands or crawling through tunnels made out of a line of chakrasanas or wheel poses; or hissing in cobra pose. Our class was so much fun that everyone wanted more, including me. So I went for two more mornings while I was there, sharing with them all the fun yoga things I have learnt with the kids in my classes back home. On the last day each child picked something they had liked in the class, and I realised that I had shared something precious, and was filled with gratitude for having had the chance to teach here. The week that we spent at GEV happened to be the time of the Bhagavad Gita’s anniversary and there were many readings going on. Our group also read from the Gita every evening after the evening yoga class and dinner. We sat on cushions on the floor, reading aloud the Sanskrit verse, and then taking turns to read aloud the English translation. It was a first for me to read large chunks of the Gita in a flow and I was surprised at how easy it was to understand and how relevant it felt to life today. Radhanath Swami conducting a sublime aarti On our last morning there, we visited the Sri Sri Radha Vrindavan Bihari temple for the morning aarti and darshan. Never had I witnessed or been part of such a lively satsang, where the chants and the drum beats just draw you into a rhythm and before you know it you are sucked into a group dance, moving round and round or back and forth, or skipping or jumping to the unstoppable beats. It was a wonderful way to say farewell to this precious oasis of spirituality and peace. For information on Robert’s yoga courses and yatras please visit www.namarupa.org For information on Govardhan Eco Village please visit www.ecovillage.org.in About the author : Aparna Talaulicar is a Gurgaon-based Sivananda yoga teacher. For yoga classes in Gurgaon please visit www.yogashowstheway.com
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