I told her I would write a blog post about it so here I am.
A few years ago, I was traveling in India, thinking about a novel I wanted to write. I wanted the book to be about 'seekers,' I, myself being one, and also, a breed I encounter a lot in my line of work.
So it's probably safe to say, I didn't travel to Amma's giant pink Kerala ashram to be liberated. I didn't expect to give up my life as I'd known it to become a devotee. No, I came there as the skeptic I am.
I planned to stay a week. I was assigned a room with two bunk beds and a mattress on the floor, surrounded by images and books with Amma's face. It was on the 10th floor of the pink skyscraper where a good chunk of Amma's 10,000 follower live.
My roommate was a Finnish woman in her late forties, who had lived at the ashram on and off for over 10 years. Once in awhile she went back to Helsinki, where she stayed with her mom, and worked whatever jobs she could find, to save up money so that she could afford to pay rent (nope, not free) and pay her way whenever she (along with hundreds of others) accompanied Amma on a leg here and there of her world hugging tours.
This woman didn't talk about anything or anyone but Amma. She didn't read books by anyone by Amma. She slept on the floor on a thin, narrow mattress. The two bunk beds were inhabited by travellers, the curious, the skeptical -- people like me -- who would come and go.
It didn't seem like much of a life to me, but then again, who am I to judge?
On the first evening at the ashram, I also ran into a guy, we can call him Tom, whom I knew from a co-working space in Berlin. I was quite surprised to see him there, as he didn't strike me as someone who would join a cult. We went for a walk and he told me that he had received a hug from Amma when she was in Berlin last, and that it was shortly after his boyfriend had broken up with him, and he was incredibly heart-broken. But in Amma's arms he had felt an unconditional love so strong that he just had to follow her to India.
Hmmm, was probably all I could say.
The next day I took a queue- number first thing in the morning in order to receive my hug. I spent my day eating delicious, but quite pricey vegan and gluten-free baked goods at various stands on the ashram premises. I talked to some devotees, all of whom made me feel very lonely, and I kept on having to go back into the main hall to check what numbers are being called.
It wasn't until around five o'clock in the evening that I got to pass through the metal detectors and then go upstairs to the room where the Darshan (hugging) was taking place. After I was cleared by security I passed by a gift stand where people where buying gift baskets and flower garlands for Amma. later I go to see with my own eyes, how they were recycled as soon as they had been handed to Amma's assistants. Then they were brought down again, and sold again and again.
Upstairs I got to sit on a chair and every minute or so I had to move my ass onto the next chair, and the next, getting closer to an inner sanctuary, where I understood was where Amma did the hugging. At a certain point someone handed me a laminated sheet of paper which stated the rules. The only one I now recall was: 'Do not touch Amma, put your hands on the armrests of her chair.' My ass moved chair a few more times and suddenly someone took my glasses of my face, put them on a tray and handed me a towel to wipe my face with. I was getting closer and closer. I could see Amma, but didn't dare to look, as I was feeling quite stressed, fearful that I would do something wrong, embarrass myself. And then it was my turn. It all happened very fast. I was pushed forward by one helper. Another one pushed me onto my knees, and made sure my hands were on the arm rests, not on Amma. A third helper pushed my head into Amma's quite voluptuous bosom. She smelled vaguely of sweat and sandalwood. She whispered something I couldn't decipher and pressed a candy into my clammy hand. The helpers pulled me up, shoved me towards the exit, where the tray holding my glasses re-appeared. I put them on and rushed back out through the metal detectors.
I felt very little except stressed and confused.
A couple of hours later Amma was holding court down at the beach. I joined the hordes of thousands who acted as if they were in the presence of god, and not a chubby middle-aged woman. There was singing and ecstasy, as the sun was setting on the fat Kerala palm trees.
I wondered how Amma's hugging became this world-wide phenomena and big business. There were several gift shops on the premises. There you could buy Amma teas, Amma keychains, Amma earrings, Amma tote bags, fridge magnets, toe rings. You could get an Amma t-shirt, Amma chocolate, at least twenty or thirty different Amma postcards. You could get Amma posters, Amma dolls. Yeah you get the idea. There was also a yoga studio at the ashram. Naturally the style was Amma yoga.
The ashram is situated where Amma grew up. Previously it was a little unassuming fishing village. The official story goes that already as a young child people Amma was exceptionally compassionate, giving away her food to others etc.When she was only ten, grown men started coming to her for advice and consolation.
But right around the time when I was at the ashram an Australian woman named Gail Tredwell, who for years was one of Amma's closest aides, published a book called 'Holy Hell' in which she describes physical and mental abuse in the inner circles, being beaten by an Amma who was increasingly in a terrible mood, when out of the public eye. Gail also talks about shady business practice: cash and gold meant to be for Amma's charities, instead being funnelled into building insanely luxury homes for Amma's parents and siblings.
I haven't read the book, just excerpts, and I'm not sure if everything or anything is true. But given how many guru scandals we've already seen in the spiritual world (and they just keep on rising to the surface), I would be more surprised if Amma actually was a goddess or saint, than if she was a mere human (and perhaps also a bit more of a narcissistic one than the average).
It is hard to live. Especially in this day and age, when we are being probed and poked from all directions. We are increasingly both more isolated and more overwhelmed and overloaded by information and by choices. Most of us are really out of touch with our intuition, and really out of balance. And there is always someone ready to take advantage of our suffering, our confusion. There are healers, doctors, life coaches, energy readers, astrologers, psychics, shrinks and yoga teachers. I'm not saying that all of these 'professions' are bad. I especially believe in a good shrink, for example, but YOU are the one that has to do the work. Osteopathy has been the most instant 'magic' experience for me, for example, but YOU still have to make the lifestyle/posture changes to prevent the problem from re-occurring. There are no shortcuts. Also, with yoga (ESPECIALLY WITH YOGA), it's a practice of self-study, of introspection, of discipline and persistence. It's not something to believe in, it's something to do. Sure a good teacher can usher/encourage you a little further along the path, but YOU are the one who has to walk it.
As someone who makes a living as a yoga teacher, I spend a lot of time thinking about how I sell my offerings. I need to pay my rent and bills from the money I make from group classes, workshops, private lessons and retreats. So I really need to make them sound attractive. But I also need to steer clear of outrageous claims. I am not a healer. A yoga class/private or a retreat will probably not transform you. But my hopes are that they will, at least momentarily give you a respite from the mind torment, that they will relax you and raise your spirits. Maybe they will help your heal pains and aches in the body. But sadly there's also the risk that you create new ones.
At best, my offerings may even spark a willingness to work diligently to change your own mind, your own path.