By Diego Guidi
Diego was a banker and rugby fan living a party life in London before he took a trip to India, and stayed at the ashram of Mata Amritanandamayi (better known as Amma or the ‘hugging mother’) in Kerala, South India. What was planned as a short trip of a few weeks turned into several months and a new life mission, as seva and sadhana transformed his life.
“Why don’t you go and work in India for poor communities?”
My friend Jo in London had just sent me a link to Embrace the World, the charity of Amma, or Mata Amritanandamayi, known as the ‘hugging mother’, who I knew nothing about – even less than the little I knew about India.
“No way! I’m too exhausted!”
2 weeks later, on the 29th of December 2010, I arrived at Amma’s main ashram in Amritapuri , Kerala, a place located between Cochin and Trivandrum. I got my first sight of Amma or darshan on New Year’s Eve and shortly afterwards embarked on her tour of South India, spending 3 weeks with a thousand Western followers, singing odd devotional songs (bhajans) on long bus rides, doing seva (community work) for long hours and sleeping on the floors of schools and temples. The experience was tougher than a rugby tour or boarding school!
Soon after some friends from Biarritz in the south of France called me up and asked me to join them on a surfing trip to the Maldives, just a one-hour flight away… I said yes right away. I surfed liked crazy for two weeks but felt strange and out of place all the time. Drinking and singing rugby songs did not appeal to me any more… I had been pulled by the ear. I went back to Amritapuri: a new journey had started for me!
Back at the ashram, I wanted to help and quite arrogantly offered my expertise in philanthropy strategy to one of Amma’s close swamis (a Hindu holy man). He smiled and suggested: “Why don’t you start by doing some seva?” So I was recycling… for four hours per day over two months. They say you get the seva (selfless service for the good of the community) you need: cleaning other people’s shit is like cleaning yours! This was my first experience of karma yoga and I started to feel… divine love in everything through this sacred aspect of service and serving selflessly…giving something and working without expecting anything…motherly unconditional love, brotherhood, detachment, intemporality…
That is when I started to practice yoga. I took a meditation course called IAM (Integrated Amrita Meditation technique – a technique created by Amma) and learned some key asanas (yoga postures). Meditation and yoga gave me a new understanding and a strong link between body and mind, far from the hot Bikram yoga I had done in London!
A normal day at the ashram starts at 4:30am. From 5 to 6am is archana – mantra repetition of the 1000 sacred names of Amma, in the beautiful Kali temple for women. Yoga class is usually from 6 to 7:30am on the rooftops facing the sea, either individually or in groups. This is followed by breakfast and seva for at least two hours. Two days a week, Amma takes us for meditation at the beach on the Arabian Sea. Tuesdays are reserved for meditation and prasad – sacred food served by Mother). In the evenings, there are bhajans from 6:30 to 8pm, followed by dinner and an early sleep before the day starts again the next day at 4:30am.
If years of rugby and judo had shaped me into a heavy dude (I arrived in India weighing 102 kilos!) I started to unload unnecessary armour, a heavy weight which had rested on my shoulders and my whole body…outside and inside. I lost 10 kilos in a few months.
I ended up spending five months in Amritapuri the first year, though I had planned to stay only a few weeks, followed by a trip to North India and an amazing Vipassana meditation retreat in Dharamsala, where I experienced the release of a heavy past. I lost an additional 10 kilos and many certitudes!
The following year I started to teach social innovation and social entrepreneurship at Amrita University and created many social projects with students on renewable energies. In the meantime I had received a mantra on universal love, and a spiritual name: Jnananand, which means bliss of/in knowledge. I was hoping for Murali, and a singing mission!
I was back at Amrita University in December 2012, embarking on a PhD, the toughest learning experience I ever had, and again a strong sadhana (spiritual practice). I carried on with daily yoga classes for men at the ashram with some of the best yoga teachers I ever had: Vinod and Gitamba. They were also friends outside class and amazing guides. Amritapuri now offers 2-week intensive yoga classes, and other various yoga and meditation programs, as well as ayurvedic treatments, that have also been pivotal for my health.
Today I do IAM meditation every day followed by a few asanas to strengthen my back. I now teach at some of the most prestigious universities in India like IITM (Indian Institute of Technology Madras) and IIMA (Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad), as well as developing a thesis/research project on social innovation and waste management for poor communities.
I have not become a yogi, and will surely never be one! But my life has definitely changed tremendously: from a trip to an ashram, to yoga, seva, and bhajans. From a banker, rugby, and party life in London, to a regular yoga practice, mostly vegetarian diet, and teaching and doing a PhD in India!
Read more about Diego’s experiences in India on his blog: http://lecaminodediego.blogspot.com/
Photos courtesy of the author.