Greyhound to Tucson
By Gurumeher Kaur
When I was a young teenager, my high school boyfriend, Bob Ashton and I were fascinated with wanting to learn yoga and meditation. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing, except trying some postures we found in a book. We also thought this might be a good way to get high without having to do drugs. It was the early 70’s, the era of drugs, sex and rock and roll.
After we both graduated from high school I went off to Oakland College of Arts and Crafts and lost touch with Bob for at least 6 months. I only managed to stick with college for the first semester before I realized that this wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I headed back home and decided to pay him a visit. When I stopped at his home, his parents greeted me and invited me inside. Bob had just called and they handed me the phone. He had joined an ashram in Tucson. He was enchanted with their ritual of rising early in the morning to meditate, running a free kitchen serving the homeless and hosting daily yoga classes. He convinced me that this was a perfect opportunity for me to pursue my desire to learn yoga and I should come out and join him right away.
When I told my mother about my intention to go to Arizona, she simply said without hesitation, “That sounds great. Have a good time.” You have to understand my mother had five daughters, so maybe one taking off from home wasn’t such a big deal. So I packed my backpack, gathered enough money to buy a bus ticket and was off to the big unknown in Tucson. I think my enthusiasm and innocence overtook any practical concerns.
Bob met me at the bus station and whisked me off to a small pleasant looking home with a gold trimmed porch with the words, Maha Deva Ashram on a sign that hung above the doorway. Once inside my first introduction was to a young woman named Gurmukh, wearing a small white turban who was busily cleaning the kitchen. She turned and smiled and asked me if I would like to help her clean the shelves. Not finding any reason not to, I agreed. As I soon found out later, seva or selfless service was a big part of ashram life and this was something that was expected of all members. Gurmukh showed me where I would be staying and it was a large room that all the women slept in together on the floor and all shared one bathroom. All ten of us!
I quickly learned the ashram routine. Early morning meditation was held in the front living room in front of a large fireplace where we sat together to meditate and chant for 2 ½ hours.
Incredibly the ancient Gurmukhi mantras resonated with me much like the Hebrew prayers I had learned throughout my childhood. Breakfast was served afterwards and consisted of salvaged vegetables and fruits from a small food coop from up the street. One morning I distinctly remember being served grapefruit with raw garlic. Garlic was being served as an herb for purification but that was more than I was willing to ingest. Evenings were spent doing yoga in the nearby park on the grass. Not only would the yoga students from the nearby college join us but also spectators would come regularly to watch us.
Everyone in the ashram was expected to work to bring in money for the rent and food, so I immediately needed to find a job. Being 18 years old with no work experience, the only job I could land was at the local McDonald’s. This job was a little incongruent with my newly found vegetarian diet but I figured I could handle it. I was put to work frying apple turnovers, french fries and making milk shakes so I never really had to deal with meat. For my lunch break, I’d order a double cheeseburger without the burger and an apple turnover. Not the healthiest but it had to do.
The director of the ashram made an announcement that we were all going to go on a cleansing water fast for three days. Thinking this was an exciting challenge for a new yoga student, like myself, I agreed to do it. However, by the third day, I did not have my full faculties in place and leaned onto a steam table at work, badly burning the palm of my hand. Shortly after this incident I decided that this fast food job wasn’t syncing with my new lifestyle. Fortunately, I quickly landed a job at a juice bar in the local health food store and began making carrot juice and avocado sprout sandwiches. Much better than the greasy fumes of burgers and french fries!
The ashram was quickly outgrowing its capacity at our little house on 4th Avenue and we acquired an old fraternity house on the edge of the University of Arizona campus. We were in awe of its grandeur and we each had our own bedrooms, large dorm style bathrooms, a huge dining room, kitchen and living rooms. We immediately began transforming this college dormitory in a place of spiritual practice, a big change from the vibes of a fraternity.
Life was changing rapidly for me and it wasn’t without doubts and questions. This rising early every morning, taking a cold shower (this was another yogic practice we were expected to do), chanting the sacred mantras of an ancient language, and living in a communal lifestyle was all new to me. I remember asking a more seasoned ashram member if I would still be able to attend rock concerts. Being a young adult, this was still an important form of entertainment for me. She said, of course, so I felt somewhat resolved that I wouldn’t have to give up all the pleasures of worldly life.
Still the bigger question was what was this deep stirring inside that felt so right about being here? There was something that was fulfilling a longing that I had felt missing in my life. No, this wasn’t a cult and I wasn’t being coerced into doing anything I didn’t want to do. I had the freedom to come or go as I pleased and yet I loved the order it was giving to my life. There was a sense of peace and contentment that I experienced through the practice of yoga and meditation that I had never felt before. The light and ease I felt here was like an oasis in my world and I wanted to hold onto it as long as I could.
My parents made a visit after I had settled in, I think to make sure I wasn’t being brainwashed by some radical religious or hippy group. However when they saw the kindness and caring of my fellow ashram members, they were quickly relieved. My father was so excited that we were running a free kitchen, he went out and bought groceries to donate to our cause. My mother saw the glow in my face and she could see that something here was bringing a lot of light and happiness into my life. This gave me a new surge of contentment that I was doing the right thing for me, right now.
I had been raised in a middle class suburban life in southern Caifornia where I felt the goal in life for a woman of my age and status was to focus on getting married and make enough money to buy a house with a two-car garage. This seemed shallow and not what I wanted to do. Something felt empty and foreboding about this perceived future. I can remember that my close friends were experimenting with drugs to find some kind of deeper experience in their lives although not really finding that this could bring a more meaningful life long-term. So the searching had begun for me to find some kind of practice or lifestyle that would bring more meaning to my life.
So the practice I found at the ashram seemed to fulfill all of those longings. It was simple and pure. There was no deceit that I felt and a true feeling that all were trying to achieve something more through the simple practice of yoga and meditation. I also felt a respect for the sanctity of women and men living together that I hadn’t felt in the life I had before.