an ascetic in DC

journeys

This is the true story of how I lived as a sanyasi in the heart of our nation’s capitol.

My grandmother, like each of her grandmothers and each of their grandmothers and even each of their grandmothers, has lived her whole life in India. Before she was my grandmother, she was a school principal, and before that, a history teacher. I call her in Calcutta because I love her and also because I love to learn from her: her lessons cross oceans and eras with ease. Through her stories and teachings, I consciously learn what the rich culture of India gives to her children. And while the US sends fast food and Amazon Prime to India, I request a return to the ancient, natural, knowledge that still permeates my grandmother’s words.

Ancient India teaches us that there are four stages to every person’s life. Each of us begins first as a child, then becomes a student, then matures to a householder with duties to family and community before retiring to the forests for the last stage of life. In this fourth and last stage, one becomes the sanyasi, leaving behind worldly duties (i.e. bills and 9-5) to return to nature and live in peace until it is time to leave the body.

I think I did well as a child, but where I truly excelled was in stage two, as a student. I went from winning science fairs and national history day contests to graduating from Duke University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology and Neuroscience. It was my design to continue straight to medical school and prolong studentship for another decade, but gap years were in vogue, which is how I unintentionally found my 22-year-old self in stage three of householder.

Reality struck me full force. None of my pre-med coursework had prepared me for the stark facts that I would have to pay for electricity (which I still believe should be given freely) or that it would again be necessary to rush for the morning bus, an indignity I thought I had left behind in middle school but is still an integral part of life with Georgetown University. I called my grandmother for clarification: Are two years of stage three enough to earn stage four?

My grandmother confirmed that householding/adulting must follow studentship, and that I had about 50 to 60 years to go until forest retirement was an option. The conclusion of that conversation was the beginning of my realization that I had to get creative with this whole business of living.

I left Georgetown University and the field of Neuroscience at age 25, and because I had already spent the prior decade teaching math, dance, and cycling classes, I made a very smooth transition from Neuroscientist to Fitness Instructor. I dropped my last name, gave my Duke diploma to my mother for safe keeping, and began living in spandex. My parents were horrified. I taught 20 to 25 fitness classes each week at the high-end gyms and studios of Washington, DC, including the White House Athletic Center. Super-fit, I taught grown women how to tone their bellies and flex their butt cheeks; I became popular with their boyfriends and husbands because I was still a scientist and still driven by results, but now, the results were measured by high, tight, bums instead of p<.05.

It is worth repeating: my parents were horrified.

But I was having a ball. I was getting paid to work out, and when I was on my own, I pursued my own explorations of yoga and ancient philosophy, teaching myself the Bhagavad Gita, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Dhammapada, and Ayurveda, all of which inspired me more than formal education ever had. These ancient texts answered all the questions that had driven my pursuit of psychology and neuroscience; my quest to understand the mind, the human being, and the universe. I felt kinship with my Indian ancestors, who sought answers to these same questions in the Himalayas 200 BC. Though they, of course, did not have my penchant for leg warmers (or did they?).

By the time I turned 27, I not only had an awe-inspiring athlesuire collection, I had also transitioned to teaching exclusively private classes, which honored my understanding of how ancient Indian arts are taught: directly from teacher to student. This also meant that I had naturally transformed from scientist to fitness instructor to entrepreneur in just two years. I registered myself as an LLC, scheduled my clients to come to my home, and got into the habit of waking up without an alarm clock. I lived my teachings, taking my self-driven coursework into Sufi poetry, Buddhism texts, and the Indian epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. This full access to knowledge, and my many hours of unscheduled time, inspired me to dip into stage four of forest retirement, armed with my textbooks and my vision.

I didn’t actually go to live in the forest, primarily because I love indoor plumbing and secondarily because I didn’t think my parents would be able to handle that kind of stress. But I began regarding my life as a scientist regards an experiment, toying with variables, collecting data, and praying for funding.

My source of funding was teaching, which is such a fulfilling livelihood that the only prayer I ever need to say is Thank You.

The conclusions I searched for were: mental clarity, emotional balance, physical vivacity, and intellectual fervor. The procedures that enhanced my desired outcomes were: practicing yoga, continuing my studies, sleeping well, and incorporating Ayurvedic knowledge into my diet and lifestyle. The variables that distracted me from my studies and practices were: social media, the internet in general, and difficult relationships. So I left Facebook, limited my daily tech time to 30 minutes, and did my best to stay single. Frankly, it was easier to leave Facebook than it was to leave boyfriends, though perhaps the biggest miracle of all was running my own business in Washington DC with only half an hour of daily phone and internet access.

As you may imagine, my life changed in unusual ways.

I began integrating the teachings of the ancient philosophers with the teachings of my Duke professors and the knowledge I had from about a decade of science research (microbiology, genetics, neurology, and cognitive neuroscience). The commonality between ancient yogic philosophy and modern science is our shared passion for understanding the mechanisms of the mind and body. I began to see that yoga and Buddhism were no less scientific than today’s data driven approaches. It is all about the rigorous application of principles, such as: non-attachment, integrity, awareness, fulfillment of purpose. And so I began to study myself as carefully as I studied my textbooks, working through my mind and body with the intention of living as a yogi: in peace and harmony with myself and my surroundings.

I did as much work on my inner self as I did on my surroundings. I redesigned my entire apartment from top to bottom. I gave away furniture and possessions until I finally created space, physical and energetic space, to cultivate my creative pursuits of yoga, teaching, writing, reading, music, and art. (The reason I had so many creative pursuits is that my yoga practice, and lack of internet time, gifted me the kind of vibrant energy normally reserved for three year olds.) And though I still live just down the street from the White House, I found that I can easily walk into Rock Creek Park for daily hikes.

This new relationship with nature was as transformative as my rigorous 5-hours-daily yoga practice. When I was among the trees, listening to the birds call and the creek flow, I felt what it was to be a human in harmony with nature. I saw how the trees accept all that is given to them, without asking for more. And I saw how the birds fly in their own freedom, without asking society for approval. I heard the wisdom of the water, saw her many moods, how they shift from day to day so that she is never the same and yet always following her own true course. And as I learned to listen to the sounds of the world, I learned to listen to the sounds of myself, which are not so different.

Everything that I learned alone and in silence was manifested in my teachings, my writings, and my music. At age 28 I was inspired to buy my first guitar and teach myself how to play (this is especially remarkable if you consider how musically un-gifted I was before hand). A new world unveiled itself. I was a beginner again, fumbling to create what came so easily to others. It helped me to be a better teacher, because I was again experiencing how hard it is to learn something new, to pull time out of an already-full day to practice something difficult.

I had other difficult practices as well. I was a young Duke-educated entrepreneur, but because of my devotion to the ideals of yoga, I was not trying to “build my brand” or create a following or even increase my revenue. (My parents were horrified.) Instead, I learned how to live with less: less income, less desire, less need. I visited the farmer’s market every week, cooked every meal, and learned to eat less. I nourished my body with yoga, my mind with silence and meditation. My monthly expenses dropped by about 40%, partially because I already had a lifetime supply of spandex and partially because I learned well the lessons of the woods.

Towards the end of my 29th year, I read Thoreau’s Walden. It is his life’s story: a Harvard-educated teacher leaves society to live in the woods, fully immersed in his studies of the Vedas, his writings on nature, and living with less. He stayed there for two years and left when he realized it would have been easier to continue in solitude than it would have been to return to modern life.

When I closed that book, I knew that it was time for me to close my own chapter of life as a sanyasi. I had also spent two years in independent study, with the freedom to creatively integrate my knowledge of mental health and physical health from both ancient India and modern science. My body, my mind, my awareness had all transformed in miraculous ways through practicing my own teachings; my teachings had transformed in miraculous ways through following my own practices.

Perhaps most remarkable is that every transformative experience was directly available while living in the middle of a metropolitan city. Modern life is fraught with the kind of over-connectivity that results in under-connectivity. This is why yoga has exploded in popularity, and yet, I learned from the river that something that flows broad often flows shallow. What we need today is not more, but deeper, something that is rich with the colors and culture that created yoga in search of peace, of harmony.

Through my years of experimental learning, I felt that I came to a deeper understanding of what it is to live a full and fulfilling life, and I know that when a beautiful conclusion is reached, it is time to publish the findings. And so I return to the world 30 years old, as a householder, as an entrepreneur, as a yogi and as a creative, though I still cannot see my body as my brand or my mind as my money maker. I return to share the vision of a life that is full of intention, and peace, and joy.

And you know what? I think my parents are happy.