It was at my Yoga teacher training certification when I first heard her name. And then just by chance, the law of attraction, God's work in my life or just the simple fact that she is simply SUPPOSED to be in my presence, that I happened upon this amazing woman quite a few more times in the following years.
Her name is Amma. She is the “hugging saint” to many, just a regular Indian saint to others. To some, she has healed their life. To me, she is the proof that miracles exist.
I had just turned 22 and I felt a strange push to go get a Yoga certification. I didn't even feel the least bit ready. I was by no means a Yogic master or Yogini. I had never had and still cannot say that I have worked with a master teacher for a regular period of time within the ancient art and philosophy of Yoga and feel ready to spread the teachings onto the world. But a drive almost completely subconscious in nature made me sign up for that random Yoga teacher training course in Litchfied, Connecticut. I was immature. I could not even do a head stand. I didn't know the first thing about Kirtan or meditating. But I had practiced Yoga for about 4 years, here and there. There were hardly any studios in America at the time. I practiced where I found teachers throughout my travels in the US, I searched for and read Yoga books and I religiously sought out and bought Patricia Walden and Rodney Yee Yoga videos for practicing at home. It was the Iyengar style of Yoga that first spoke to me. I see this as a gift since it is a style that has serious focus on alignment and form. But other than my private and meek practice, I was pretty much clueless. What I did know was I had a fresh and strong desire to learn more and then to pass on this peace to others. I wanted to do good in the world and that is all I knew as a young, college grad.
My first day at the Yoga teacher training consisted of us collecting our large stack of required texts and finding our rooms. We were to each have a roommate, unless we wanted to pay a ridiculous fee to have a private room. And as I signed in, it was apparent to my teacher I had not been assigned a bunk mate. So he said, “well, we will have to put you with one of the instructors,” as I am sure there were only so many rooms to go around and I had not paid that big fee. I recall I felt nervous to be roomed with a great teacher as I was feeling such a novice. But my learned Yoga instructor in Savannah, Hunter Leaf, gave me some wonderful advice as to how to squash that self consciousness. He told me “wherever you go and whatever you do, there will always be someone better than you and who is not as good as you.” And I'll be darned, he was right. From Art college to Yoga instruction, this came to always be true...so who cares! Hunter also taught me to just ask for guidance when I felt scared, from all the saints and sages of the past and present to be with me now. This was amazing advice. So I did. I asked for help and guidance from all those monks on a mountain from far away, from Jesus, from everyone great! Help me! Guide me! Allow me to not make a fool of myself!
My empty room was quaint. There were two beds and two dressers. I began unpacking. I made myself at home for the 3+ week course intensive. Classes began. I had yet to see my roommate. Well into our first day of lectures, my teacher stopped. He waved to someone coming into the back of the conference hall. It was a woman who I will never forget. In the back of our retreat room was a very tall, long blonde hair for miles, smiling face with a totally turquoise traditional Indian get up on, with bells on her ankles, blue, bright, eyes and a truly detoxified glow on her pale, pink cheeks. Lalita. And she was to be my bunk mate.
Lalita was a teacher at our certification who was there for the soul reason to teach about the practice of Kirtan, a form of chant. Some think it is religious chant, but it is not. Simply put: it is devotional music. Music that is like a list of prayers, gratitudes and rejoicing for our existence. It is a call and response style of music and sounds, sung from the heart which are meant to open up all the blocked or clogged energy centers of our body, spirit and mind. Yea, it is cool and I had no idea what it was before meeting Lalita. She was introduced to our class and I thought she was a beautiful and intimidating ray of light.
After class that day, I returned to my room. Lalita followed shortly after me and so did another young and beautiful woman, and fellow student of our class, named Darcy. I said hello to them and they back to me, politely. And they both began shouting in elation within their own conversation. Darcy asked Lalita, “so did you go?” “Yes! I got there in time” Lalita exploded! It was her reason for arriving late to our training. She went on to explain an experience she had just had meeting a woman named Amma. I could not help but listen in our small room. She told of how hundreds of people came from miles and miles and waited in long lines to see her. People came with disease, children who were deformed or missing limbs, poor people seeking wealth, rich people seeking spiritual guidance for their empty souls or meaningless and hopeless lives, and on and on. Tears came to her eyes as she explained what it was like to hug this woman. Lalita explained in great detail the bruise which lay on Amma's cheek from embracing, hugging and squeezing all these people, for all her life, every single day. She pulls each person who comes to see her all over the world on her tours and visits, into her arms, pulls them into her face and gives them a blessing, kisses and loving hug while wiping their tears away. I did not know much more than that about her for some time.
3 or so weeks pass of intensive Yogic training, philosophy classes, 5am meditations, frozen limbs, feet so asleep they prevent walking, joy and tears, nerves and fear and best of all celebration. My relationship with my funny roommate went from happy to odd to confusing to sweet. I was scared of her energy at times. I felt awed by her strong direction and strength. I had no idea what she thought of me. I felt I had offended her at times with my western ways in her eastern mind frame. She quickly told me over a breakfast, I could never upset her, nothing ever makes her mad, nothing bothers her......ever. Hm! Oky doky. I didn't understand her. She was older, much healthier, stronger and wiser than me, that is all I knew. I loved what she had taught us over the month and all in all I felt blessed to have her as my roommate. I felt much luckier to have a Yoga instructor to help me for my final exam than having another student to share a room with!
As a strict rule, we had to be silent after each dinner up until the completion of each breakfast the following morning. It took a load off, I must admit. If you pass someone on the way to the bathroom, no need to say hello for courtesy sake, just peacefully walk by. No needless chatter over breakfast, just consume your well-made, vegetarian food. We were not allowed to talk because it was a group of nuns who rented out this particular retreat center, so we were honoring their stringent Catholic tradition of silent hours. But even Lalita and her morals whispered to me that night before my final exam, “do you have any questions on how to teach your Yoga postures?” How kind I thought, I whispered back and forth with her for a while and she helped me greatly. So being fresh out of art school, I drew her a picture one final night in our quiet room. I left it on her bed and it contained a message of gratitude for her teaching us all and for helping me.
Before I left that crazy retreat, Lalita presented me with a gift back from her happiness with my drawing. In silence she handed me a pendant. It was an Indian coin-type thing. Later I learned it was the image of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of creativity. And in silence, I gathered from her that Amma had given this to Lalita. And Lalita gave it to me. I cherished this gift. I immediately put it on a necklace and wore it 100% of the time. After a while, I took it off and would only put it on when I felt I needed strength. Like I do with most important and beautiful things, I gave it away about 8 years later to someone who I felt could wear it when she needed strength as well. But there in Connecticut, my deep relationship with Amma began.
I immediately went from my Yoga certification to teaching a class in downtown Providence, Rhode Island. The woman who owned that Yoga studio still is one of my favorite people, Sherri Ryan. She was the first person to hire me to teach and she is a shiatsu massage therapist. While going in one time to receive one of her amazing massages I saw a photo of an Indian woman sitting on her window sill. I asked, “who is this in this photo?” Sherri looked and shouted with glee, “that is Ammachi! My guru.” I thought only Ram Dass and hippies from the 60's had gurus but Sherri did too and she went on and on about Amma. I felt love, I told her about my Yoga certification experience and coin pendant and said I wanted to know more about this woman Amma. She told me amazing things and how she changed her life when she went to go see her and asked for a blessing. It was her experience visiting Amma that guided Sherri to open her own studio and then eventually gave me my first, wonderful place to teach!
After some travels and years later, I decided to leave Sherri's studio and move out west. I went to visit a group of friends from Savannah who now resided in New Mexico. We were sitting around a gorgeous dinner one beautiful Santa Fe evening and a girl who I had never met before started to talk about her recent visit to India. She brought up the name Amma. I stopped her. Elated, I asked, “what was it like to meet her, I have heard so many things?!” The girl simply said, “when I was sitting in an intimate cirlce in front of her, I felt like her skin was my skin.” Enough said. I got it. Amma was amazing and she kept popping into my life. Later that trip, I helped out at a wellness fair and there was a booth dedicated to Amma. I bought a picture of her. I talked with the American women who supported her humanitarian causes and were trying to spread her love and aid awareness to this part of the planet.
I have had her framed picture in my bedroom or meditation areas in each residence I have ever lived. Usually people feel strange when they find that I have a picture of a chubby Indian woman in my space. No one in my life now understands. But looking at her face, it reminds me of the love that she spreads, of who I used to want to be. The more I learn about her the more I know she is speaking to me, she is working in my life and God is present. What Amma stands for is nothing short of God's work.
Later on down the road, when the internet came into my life, I looked up Amma. She is so much more than a woman who hugs hurting people. She aids people with terminal disease. She has received awards from the UN. She fights for woman's rights in third world countries. She visits areas of natural disasters. She builds schools in poor areas. She embraces each and every person who comes to see her. She is a miracle to me. In the past 36 years she has embraced over 26 million people, including me with her life.
“Amma has been fighting world suffering by tirelessly offering hugs.” -New York Times
"She stands here in front of us. God's love in a human body." -Dr. Jane Goodall
Please view this link and experience what we should all strive to be and do. Please view this link and know that miracles do exist.