A Tribute to my Teacher, Rama

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 Late the other evening I heard some startling news which meant no possibility of sleep for me. I heard that my former Yoga teacher, Rama Berch, has become a monk. Her new name is Swami Nirmalananda. That news in itself is arresting, but there’s more.

 The more is that she was ordained in Ganeshpuri, India, by Swami Shankarananda, who leads the Shiva Ashram in Melbourne, Australia. It was news to me that there was a connection between these two inspired human beings. 

 Why does the connection of Rama with Shankarananda matter so much? That question kept me up for much of the night! As I lay there on the floor with my legs up on the wall, (a yoga thing) I pondered the meaning of the relationship between these two Swamis and my relation to both. 

 It’s simply a fact in my life that I continue to feel some kind of deep affinity with them. I don’t fully understand it. But it is not to be denied. It cannot be. The connection is too vital and life-giving. 

 The connection with the two Swamis is, I think, related to my continuing experience of a particular energy or shakti - an experience of almost incomparable bliss and joy. Both Rama and Shankarananda live in that unmistakable energy and radiate it. 

 Of immeasurable importance to me, too, in light of my plunge into Eastern Orthodoxy, was to learn that Father Anthony Bloom, (Metropolitan Anthony) whose writings led me to Orthodoxy, had travelled to India to meet with the Shakti-filled Roman Catholic priest, Fr Henri Le Saux (Abhishiktananda). 

 Why did these two men meet? I don’t think it’s much of a leap to suggest that what brought them together was that same unique energy that united Swamis Nirmalananda and Shankarananda, and which altered the course of my life. Bloom’s writings simply burst, as Le Saux’s do, with this unique and powerful energy.   

 I always seem to know, immediately and absolutely, whenever I meet someone who is living in this certain and particular, energy. I say certain and particular, in an effort to distinguish my emphasis from the murkiness that characterizes much of the New Age Movement. I have never had even the slightest interest in the New Age Movement.

 My practice therefore is to avoid like the plague the New Age section of any bookstore. I avoid, similarly, by the way, the vast majority of books that line the shelves of the Christian section in any bookstore, including the music, of most, if not all, of the contemporary 'Christian' rock stars. 

 I find almost all contemporary Christian music insufferable. Whether it’s contemporary Christian music or new-age fare, it all has the same 'feel' for me, a scent or flavour of sentimentalist piety, which, when I hear it, literally makes me sick.

 My response has been that if these expressions of piety are what religion is, then I’m not interested in religion. 

 What I am drawn to is something radically different. The depth and intensity of that hit me forcefully the other night when I heard the news of Rama’s ordination. It was the presence of another kind of energy, an unbelievably powerful and uplifting energy that, exists on an incomparably higher and deeper level. 

 What a mysterious energy this feels to me to be, uncontrollable and unpredictable, like the wind which blows wherever it wishes to, as John’s Gospel articulates.

 It’s an energy that breaks down any neat and tidy categories about what true religion is or isn't. It’s an explosive energy that blows minds and shakes certainties in order to release human beings from the unreal to the real.

 I was first drawn to Yoga because of the spiritual movement called Siddha Yoga and in particular to its leader, Swami Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. When I met Gurumayi at her ashram in New York state, there was a sense of coming home. Sitting several yards from her, the joy was so intense my body could barely contain it. I told someone later that it was like all of my dreams had come true

 My relation to Gurumayi led after a while to meeting Rama Berch. Now it wasn’t that anyone within the Siddha Yoga movement recommended that I seek out a Yoga teacher called Rama. I don’t think any of my friends in Siddha Yoga, Calgary, had ever even heard of her.  

 What happened was that after two years of training in Calgary to become a Yoga teacher, I’d concluded that I did not want to teach. Why not, after all the effort? Because the Yoga I was taught was not rooted in the kind of deep spirituality that I experienced in Siddha Yoga. 

 In Siddha Yoga, the emphasis was upon chanting, meditation and the resulting, deep bliss. In the Calgary Yoga school, I too often felt that the emphasis was upon athletic prowess. At its worst, I had the feeling that the stress was upon whether you could do a good head stand or not. Rama later would later call these kinds of efforts, ego poses. 

The spiritual dimension of Yoga, though acknowledged, wasn’t, from my perspective, foremost. And my desire was to put the spiritual and the physical together, but I didn’t know how. 

 Fortunately, at the height of my despair during the Yoga Teacher Training program, I leafed through a magazine featuring other Teacher Training programs in North America. There was one in particular, in La Jolla, (San Diego) California, that leapt off the page at me.

 It was completely unlike the others, although I could not have named, at the time, what was particular about it. But there was that energy again, somehow radiating from the pages!

 That energy, I knew, was in that program and not in the others. I wrote the California school, searching for information.  

 Several months passed before I heard anything. I had forgotten about it. It was July of 1995. As I said, I’d given up the idea of teaching Yoga. One day, I arrived home to find a huge packet on the doorstep. It was from that Yoga School in La Jolla, The Master Yoga Academy.

 Please forgive my telling of the dramatics that happened next. I found myself trembling as I opened the packet and then began to read. I read article after article by Rama Berch on Yoga as primarily about spiritual awareness. Poses were to be done not for their own sake, but were meant to lead the practitioner to the bliss of his being

 This was the spiritual emphasis that I had been seeking. I was astonished!  The bliss of discovery was overwhelming.

 My wife was asleep upstairs, having an afternoon nap. How was I to tell her that I had to go to La Jolla, though we had no money. I felt I had no choice, and to go as soon as it could be arranged.

 It sounds crazy, I'm sure, but I was so pulverized by grace that I could hardly walk. I crawled up the stairs to talk with Wendy, weeping the whole way. Her response when I told her about Rama and LaJolla was, and I’ll never forget her words: “Well, of course you have to go!”

 The world might think and perhaps rightly so, that I’m either mad, or live on the edge of madness, but my wife, who nobody thinks is mad, has always believed in me and backed me up. 

 A few hours later, I phoned La Jolla to speak with Rama. There was an immediate connection, to put it mildly. A few weeks later, I arrived in La Jolla for Yoga Teacher Training. 

 Walking around at the Yoga school before I met Rama, I ventured into the Academy bookstore. The first thing I noticed was that the store featured a beautiful cello piece that I’d heard several years before. 

When I had first heard that music, I felt I’d never heard anything more haunting, lovely and captivating. I felt I had been waiting to hear this music all my life! It became the central piece of music in my life.

 Several years later, during a Yoga Intensive in La Jolla, Rama and I spontaneously sang this same chant together.  

 In the magazine advertisement about the La Jolla school, nothing was said about Siddha Yoga or Gurumayi. I had simply felt that there was a connection. That connection made all the difference! A career of teaching Yoga came into being and eventually resulted in the creation of the Calgary Yoga Academy. 

 I could write for hours about the relationship with my teacher, Rama. I ended up bringing her to Calgary seven times for Yoga Retreats. I remember that she loved our new puppy at the time, whose name was Amy. As a puppy, Amy would run as fast she could up the stairs. Rama used to chase after her!

 Rama called Amy a bundle of consciousness. For years later, hardly a day passed without my thinking of that phrase to describe Amy - my bundle of consciousness, ever so alive, alert and aware. More than a dog - a bundle of consciousness.

 Rama loved Amy. Amy loved her. They were quite a pair!

 My teenage, son, John, did not like my teacher, Rama. He was rude and hostile every time she visited. We apologized to Rama for our son’s impolite behavior. Rama’s response? She laughed and said: “He reacts to me because he knows what I represent. John is very spiritually perceptive. He’s resisting now what later he will embrace. Give him some time.” 

 Well, it turned out that Rama was prescient. Some time later, I discovered that John had been reading all of Rama’s articles. He then read all of Gurumayi’s writings and devoured the writings of a Siddha Yoga Correspondence course. 

 One of life’s great moments for me as a Father was to look over at my son,  chanting with his whole being, at the Seattle Siddha Yoga Center. He’d been smitten by the Siddha Yoga bug, which has formed a sacred relationship between father and son ever since.  

 From Rama’s Teacher Training program, I have another powerful memory.  One of the course requirements was to lie in Yoga’s corpse pose for an hour.  Perhaps it was an hour and a half. I can’t remember. Anyway, all of we students thought how great it would be simply to lie down for such an extended period of time!

 It turned out to be one of the hardest things many of us had ever done.  (After all, we were practicing dying!)

 The instruction was not to move at all. We were to listen to Rama’s guided exploration.

 The first several minutes were great and then came the restlessness, the desire to move, to get up, to do something else, instead of having to face the many barriers that seem to come up after lying there, without moving, for more than forty minutes.

 Lying down and staying there turned out to be an ordeal.   

 But that’s what it was about. We were to die to ourselves. And die we did.  After the ordeal, we would sit up. We were then asked to describe our experience. 

 One day, nobody said anything. Rama said nothing. I found the silence almost unbearable. Finally, Vicki, the psychologist, my kindred spirit friend from Colorado, began to say something and then stopped. She was struggling to speak.

 My first thought was totally selfish. I presumed that Vicki was really unhappy and was going to tell everyone that she was going to leave the program, leaving me friendless. 

 Talk about a projection of my fears that would turn out to have nothing whatsoever to do with what was really going on! The silence continued. Vicki said nothing. Rama said nothing.

 Then, came these gentle words from Vicki: “I’m so happy I could die...”  Again, silence. No feedback from Rama. Nothing. Nobody said anything. 

 Finally, Rama asked the group a question: “Can you imagine the state that Vicki is in?” I could not, but tried to imagine it anyway.

 I don’t know whether it was Vicki or Rama or the two of them together, but the words then expressed were: 'Imagine a fulfillment so deep, an experience so completing, that you literally could die and that would be just fine. No unfinished business. No restlessness. No pain. So much peace. So much contentment that it would be the same whether you lived or whether you died.'  

 Well, that was some kind of freedom! That was religion! That was spirituality! I will never forget.

 A few years later, I heard that Vicki had cancer. I have lost touch with her. Perhaps she’s gone. I don’t know. But whatever she had to face with the cancer, her experience in La Jolla would have served her well to face any challenge that came her way.  

 After quite a few years of naming Rama as my teacher, I felt that it was time for me to move on. But though there was a physical separation, there has never been a spiritual one.

 Rama had warned me once that if I went to India I’d be disappointed if I went anywhere other than to Ganeshpuri, the home of Siddha Yoga. How right she was!

 I had imagined for a little while that I could study with another teacher. When I arrived in India to spend time with one of the Yoga world’s renowned teachers, I found within minutes of my arrival that, the particular Shakti I’ve been writing about, simply was not there. I was out the door in a matter of minutes.

 A while later, I discovered a book called Happy for No Good Reason at a Vancouver bookstore. It was written by Swami Shankarananda, the Swami, who was, years later, in 2009, to ordain Rama.

 I was to use that book as the foundational book for my own Yoga Teacher Training Program - Yoga Practice for Spiritual Transformation. I read Shankarananda’s other books and would always find that same particular Shakti pulsating through my body that I’d experienced with Gurumayi and with Rama. 

 Nobody had recommended this Swami to me either. I had found him on my own. So, who was his teacher, his Guru? Swami Muktananda of India. Who was Rama’s Guru? Swami Muktananda. 

 The force behind the shakti, the energy, which I have described as unique and which I have felt so powerfully is related to the spiritual teacher, Muktananda. 

 During an Advanced Teacher Training Yoga Intensive with Rama, we were asked to write about the Scriptures we were studying. Rama shocked me by reading out my commentary to the class saying: “This is better than the commentaries."  

 'Yes, Rama, I remember your words. You may not. I don’t know. But I remember that you saw a potential in me that I did not see in myself. You knew that I had a deep desire to write.'

 I’m doing it now, years later, completely in the grip of writing. And I don’t seem to be able to do anything else! And your words go through me over and over again: “This is better than the commentaries." Somebody believed in me. 

 I celebrate with you, Rama, and celebrate that you are now Swami Nirmalananda. I am your former student who remembers you well and is grateful. With great respect, love and all my heart, Al McGee

Offering, Parijat

*the above article is a revision of one written four years ago.