By Brian Bergman
Once upon I time, when I was a young child, I often found myself unable to sleep puzzling over this question that I could not answer. Not in any satisfying way. Who created this world? And I would then spin into an endless insomniac loop of … if someone created this, then who created the creator? …. And who created the creator’s creator? And who…..etc. It made me feel super insecure and I was unable to really voice this. The world seemed so content in not only not knowing, but not asking either.
The question came with a very visceral feeling of longing that burned a hole in my chest and in my belly. I needed to know. The feeling is what really kept me awake. I’m no closer now to the answer than I was then. The question has been framed differently over the years but the feeling remains the same. It has directed my life. Informs my choices. All my desires, passions, creativity and drive ultimately come from trying to understand this feeling. To answer the questions it poses or at least fill the enormous unease it creates in my being. Keeping me from settling fully into the comfort of forgetfulness, it appears others find so easy to do (although I suspect it is just appearance). They say ignorance is bliss. Monks say, if you have not started on the path, it’s best not to start, but if you’ve taken the first step, best to finish. Well the first step for me was lying awake at night contemplating that feeling. Of course, life has a way of getting busy, and being a kid is no easy journey in itself so this feeling subsided into the back of my consciousness until I finished school. Although when I look back now, I guess it was there calling the shots, in the choices I made, the books I read, the stuff I got up to.
After university, I finally felt more time and freedom to pursue personal interests. That feeling started to burn a bit more intensely. I started to dabble with magic mushrooms at outdoor trance parties. The combination of the mushrooms and the dancing lead me into fairly deep experiences of what consciousness has to offer. The untapped potential we have as a human. I became even more curious and began to explore everything I could find. I did Reiki, studied Chinese medicine, conscious dreaming, urban shamanism, meditation, and tai-chi. I read about chakras, astral travel, and energy. This exploration really appealed to my intellect. I seemed sure would help me find answers. I walked the minefield of spiritual teachings on offer. Luckily early on, I had read the book, “If you meet the Buddha along the road, kill him.” This book gave me some power to discern the rice from the chaff. Also by pure grace, I was mostly exposed to fairly genuine traditions. I managed to avoid joining cults and swearing allegiance to the crazy charlatans that parade around out there. When I discovered the works of Carlos Castaneda it absolutely blew my mind! I read just about everything he had written. Any free time I had was spent walking alone in nature, tracking, looking for signs and messages, trying to access other realities and really wishing that Don Juan would suddenly appear and train me as a worthy pupil. The teachings fuelled the desire to know and inspired action to meet that desire.
It’s hard to pin a time or a point in this life to when I was set on the path that I’ve followed. Maybe the path is simply life itself?
One afternoon, I was hanging out with my girlfriend. I was trying to learn Chi-gong from a book I had just bought, while she was going through a yoga sequence from another book. I could not help but notice what effect the yoga was having on her and became curious. It somehow seemed more accessible than what I was doing. There was less need to find a master to teach you and more you can do this as a means to explore yourself more deeply through your own effort and be your own master. True yogic spirit. I asked her to show me some stuff. So began my yogic journey. Before I discovered yoga, I had a wealth of intellectual knowledge and practices that I “knew” about. I was enthralled by the worlds and realities of Carlos Castaneda but also frustrated in having it all dangle like a big carrot just in front of me but without enough practical methods on how to actually eat that carrot. Then yoga came along. I had discovered Satyananda Yoga. An integral style with practices, methods and a system that brought everything under one umbrella and gave me all the tools required to explore everything I had been reading about and trying to have experience of. I cannot express how grateful I am to have found this style of yoga. This was when my path finally got given direction and focus.
People often ask, how I found Satyananda yoga, but I must say, it felt more like, Satyananda yoga found me. Every bit of yoga I was exposed to in my exploration for the first two years came directly from this style. In the most unlikely of ways. I’d be in an esoteric bookstore in Glastonbury, and pick up a yoga cd. It would be from Satyananda yoga. I would find the only yoga book in a second-hand bookstore and it would be Swami Satyananda’s. Traveling in Nepal, I found an advert for a yoga center on a hill looking over lake Pokhara, the teacher had studied Satyananda Yoga. I spent 10 days there. The teacher there told me to track down a Yoga Nidra CD from a teacher in Sweden with whom he learned kriya yoga. In doing so I discovered the Satyananda Yoga center in London, who sold that CD. I was living in the UK at the time and started going there for workshops.
What was amazing about this style was in how accessible the practices where. You could teach yourself everything! And mostly I did. There were practices for the body, the mind, the heart, for all aspects of your personality. All written with simple step one, two, three instructions. The philosophy was the most complete system I had come across, and the true genius of Swami Satyananda was that he had taken the deepest and most profound aspects of yoga and made them totally accessible. He spoke about and taught yoga in ways relevant to today. My thirst for deeper experience ultimately led me to the source. I found myself living in India for a year and studying a diploma of yogic studies at the Bihar Yoga University, an ashram and institution set up by Swami Satyananda as a way of fulfilling the mission his Guru Swami Sivananda had given him, to spread yoga from door to door and shore to shore. He renounced it when he felt he had fulfilled this mission, and wandered around India for a few years as a Sadhu until he got his next directive from the Divine Mother to settle in Rikhia where another ashram sprung up around him and another chapter in Satyananda yoga got started. The work and teachings of Rikhia is the complete inspiration for what I do now in life.
So I spent a year, studying under the guidance of Swami Niranjananda, who is Swami Satyananda’s successor and who, after a year of feeling it out, became (yes believe it) my guru. One of the biggest components of Satyananda yoga is karma yoga. And a large part of the year at the ashram was engaged in Karma yoga. The yoga of action. Finally, I was able to apply all the knowledge and spiritual understanding to everyday life and all it’s mundane tasks. How do you get enlightened cleaning toilets, checking books for printing errors, or cleaning stones from lentils for hours a day, weeks on end? Karma yoga is the method. And it’s a rite of fire! At least for the western mind. It also turns yoga from being just a practice into a lifestyle where everything in life becomes a means towards understanding and awakening.
The most profound thing that happened this year, besides meeting Swami Niranjan and listening to his satsangs, was spending a week at the other ashram, Rikhia, were Swami Satyananda was living. We went there to help with the Sat Chandi Maha Yajna that he was performing. It is an ancient Vedic ceremony to invoke the divine grace of the Mother. The work that Swami Satyananda did in his last period of life was to propagate Seva Yoga! His intention was simple. Serve, Love, Give. This is the principle that Rikhia is built on. Until then, all the practice I had been working with was self-oriented. Selfish actually. And here for the first time, through Swami Satyananda, I was exposed to something else, Seva Yoga. The path of union through Selfless service. He said that this branch of yoga is the most needed yoga for this century. Not Hatha or Raja or Kundalini, no, Seva. When I look into what’s needed in the world I can see how true this is.
Swami Satyananda said that Seva yoga is the most needed yoga for this century. When I look into what’s needed in the world I can see how true this is.
It was here at Rikhia that my heart opened for the first time. Being exhausted and pushed to my edge through days of strenuous work moving prasad, divine gifts to be given to the poorest of the poor, including clothes, rice, oil, cooking utensils, and shoes, I got to witness thousands of smiles on the villages faces when they walked out the ashram having received this Prasad. My heart just burst open and tears flowed from my eyes. I could see how working to help and uplift other people, created a sense of connection and meaning that I had never known before. Before this, my seeking had largely been intellectual and very heady and very self-oriented. That was my nature. Seeing and participating in the festival with the aim being upliftment of over 20000 rural village families (Swami Satyananda’s neighbors) was something indescribable. Swami Satyananda used to laugh and say that people came to this ashram for open heart surgery and that he was a heart surgeon. And well that is the only way to describe what happened to me there. I had open heart surgery.
So another piece of the puzzle was added. Now I could work on myself, cultivating awareness and mindfulness, and I could work in the world and perform action that if done right, created upliftment, which in turn would open me up further. This then became the basis of how I operated in the world. The jobs I chose to do, the work I got involved in, all of it became the means to growing and exploring the mystery in a way that also created connection and a more meaningful experience. I returned frequently to India to get a hit of inspiration from Rikhia ashram and from the teachings being offered there by Swami Niranjan and Swami Satyananda. In 2009 Swami Satyananda took mahasamadhi. He called his most senior disciple, Swami Satsangi and told her that it was the time he had been waiting for to leave his body. He sat down in lotus pose and left. I was at the ashram just before this happened and he was in perfect health. I feel blessed to have been in the presence of a living yoga master who attained the highest that is possible through yoga and left this world in a way that provided me with further inspiration on how to live life.
The key to note here is that he was just another human being who reached and expressed the fullest human potential and was able to understand and answer the questions caused by the feeling inside him. It showed me that it is possible and at the same time, our lives can be useful to others. He helped me break free of the self-obsession I see so much of in the so-called spiritual circles. He taught through living example that the fast track to enlightenment is to serve. So inspiring. What I learned in the ashram, led me to establishing with other like-minded friends, SevaUnite, that is a Non Profit organization that propagates Seva Yoga as a path and we run a successful Prison yoga project, that takes yoga and mindfulness inside prisons in South Africa.
“The big thing and the thing I won’t forget about yoga is reaction. I don’t react anymore to a conflict or an argument. I am the witness of my thoughts and my emotions.” [Feedback from a participant in the Prison yoga project.]
Over the years that followed my year in the ashram, I continued to practice yoga, go on retreats, meditate and also I started to practice conscious dance. It rekindled the love I had for movement and seemed to be the next step in the practice of asana for me. I always think of the original yogis who developed the asana’s in the first place, how they would have discovered the postures through experimenting and being aware enough to see what effect each movement and gesture had on their body, mind, and spirit. Dance allowed me to drop the form and play in the formless and begin to discover my personal repertoire and language within movement. All my experience in yoga and meditation slotted right in, as I was able from very early on to apply a large amount of awareness and presence to my dance. So I began to have very deep experiences in dance.
Life, of course, has its own ways of teaching and I think that most of our wisdom comes from living through the experiences that come to us. It gives us an opportunity to put to test all our spiritual beliefs and ideals, so we can empty ourselves of stuff that is not true, go deeper into what is true and make sure that what we believe actually translates into reality, as it should. Life is the testing ground for all our spiritual effort and if your spiritual practice doesn't help you navigate challenges and hardships of your life, then it’s not worth holding onto.
During one of these particularly difficult times in my life, sitting in a depression and grief so deep that my mind simply could not navigate out of it or do anything constructive with it. Grief is the domain of the heart, not the head after all. I actually doubted my entire path. I just let everything go for a while. My head has always been too good at talking around and can “spiritualize” anything in a way that sounds really good and possibly true, but in this case felt empty and offered no solace. It was a profound time. A real dark night of the soul. A time I really got what surrender means.
Over a year I drew a complete graphic novel about the journey I was going through
During this time there were two things that helped. Conscious dance and art. I could draw! I just let go the idea that it had to look like something, and simply love it as my way of creating with pencil and ink. I used art as a way to process what was too painful for my left brain to deal with, and over a year I drew a complete graphic novel about the journey I was going through. The other thing was dance. At the time to even contemplate getting up and doing yoga or meditating, was impossible.
Luckily dance was easier, you just needed to listen to music and start moving. The rest happened on its own. Even if it was for just 5 minutes of a two-hour dance class, there would be a moment when my body would move itself into remembering the fullness of what it was, rather than being only identified with depression. It was like coming up out of the water for a quick breath, before going under again. I found as I danced more and more, the body was much more able to express in movement what I could not find or feel in the empty words my mind came up with. The visceral or somatic experience of ‘I am more than just this’, is infinitely more powerful than the words. I mean my mind gets it, but the inquiry stops there, without actual experience. Dancing was the embodied experience and the experience was the medicine.
Two things helped with my depression: art and dance.
One day I was sitting low in the kitchen and a good friend was visiting. She mentioned the Dancing Freedom Training coming up almost a year later that she was thinking of going on. The moment she mentioned my body lit up and starting singing! I have been learning to guide myself from that voice and this was the loudest I had heard it for a long time. I knew I had to do it and booked myself on it immediately. I think I was the first person to book on that course. And a year later, there I was, doing the training. At this stage, as I had mostly danced and created art for the year before, I had moved through the worst of the grief and depression I was feeling, and I discovered in the training the next incredible insight. The tools are great for processing everything we are going through in our lives, but what happens when you don’t have much going on that requires you to process and move through? I discovered that we are then creative and that this is something humans do magnificently. I understood the value of creativity in human expression.
So this is a little of the story that has arisen out of following and living into the questions arising from that empty feeling burning in my heart. The current edge of my journey seems to be a process of deep listening to the space within and around. Really feeling into things, being present, moving beyond labels and mental constructs to what is actually going on, at least to the best that I’m able to. I then listen even more carefully for the response or action that I feel is required. And I then act! It is usually a movement of what I’ve come to understand as Love with no opposite. When I feel I get it right, it has an uplifting effect on the space, the situation, and myself. When I get it wrong, well the outcome is 50/50 and I try to learn from that too, looking at what I missed or where I wasn't courageous enough to do the right thing. Where fear got the better of me, or selfishness, or whatever ignorant demon crept in and took charge at the time. Acting from this listening also doesn't always mean doing what is popular, or what will make me look like a nice person. That’s tough as my ego really likes being liked. Getting it right feels more like it is in alignment with nature and the impersonal life force that seems to move through everything.
It seems the choice at this stage is to move with nature or move against it. To me, the choice is obvious but surprisingly hard at times to chose the up level, rather than the safe, or comfortable options. Trouble is once you see a little more clearly, it becomes harder to chose against nature. It has led me to see that the more aware and awake a human becomes, the more in touch and in tune to our true nature, the more we start to feel connected to everything, the more our lives start to align with something greater than our small self. Waking up to this also initially brings a fair share of grief for all the actions done from ignorance and the pain they will have caused. At some point, we have to face that. Pay the bill for the ignorant lifestyle we have been living. Take responsibility for it. Stop blaming others.
The feeling I feel inside, I’m sure all of us feel it in some form or another. And all of us find methods to deal with that hole. Some more graceful than others. I feel grateful that my path has always felt guided. It takes a little courage to not chose the normal, or the safe, or the predictable. For me it never really felt like a choice, the feeling would never have allowed me to settle into something like that. I wonder how many people just ignore and ignore the feeling, distract, throw money at the problem, dull themselves with their choice of poison until it becomes so quiet they barely hear it, until perhaps on their deathbed they hear its call again and think…. what? I think a lot of us have ignored it for too long. And a lot of us are waking up, saying no more and taking the first step or the hundredth step. For everyone who does, well there is yoga, dance, poetry, art, music, nature, and plenty of inspirational people out there walking the path. For this, I am truly grateful. As Ram Dass says, “We are all walking each other home.” Home is where I suspect the piece that fits that burning hole in my chest lives.
Brian is a yogi, dancer and social activist, based in Cape Town, South Africa. You can follow him here:
Brian is also the founder of SeveUnite, an organization that runs the Prison Freedom Project in South Africa. Starting initially with one yoga and mindfulness class at the admissions center of Pollsmoor Maximum Facility in Cape Town, it has expanded to include classes in the admissions center, male juvenile section, and the women’s unit. The organization also gives weekly classes at Malmesbury Medium Facility. Besides these volunteer-led yoga classes, inmates are able to enroll in a FREE six module Yoga and Mindfulness Correspondence Course. And if yoga truly inspires, they can then enroll in our six module Teachers Training Course.
An article from The Guardian, a TEDx talk by Brian and a documentary about SevaUnite.