The one thing I used to know about myself, without a shadow of a doubt, was that I loved God. Now it seems like the easiest thing to forget.
I wrote that just months after losing my guru of 31 years.
What do I mean by God? I mean connection to something bigger, something that feels right, something that is deeply connected to the world as a whole.
On Mother’s Day last May, I went to the beach with two of my friends. I had lost my mother many years ago, but this would be their first year without their mom. We are all in our late twenties or early thirties, and by society’s standards, young to have experienced this loss. I stood on the edge of the ocean, looked out and commented on how close to God the ocean made me feel.
In that moment, I felt the connection to the essence of what I call God, it made me feel whole.
The mother that my friends lost was also my guru. We all shared the unique experience of growing up on an ashram. From our births we were steeped in meditation, kirtan and tradition. We sang the Hanuman Chalisa in school every day before lunch; tales of Hindu gods and goddesses were our bedtime stories and Ma Jaya, their mother, my guru, was the glue to our satsang—our spiritual family.
My guru’s name was Ma Jaya and she was the wildest person I have ever met. She had jet-black hair and was covered in tattoos. She had a Brooklyn accent that would come and go for the right occasions and a hilarious sense of humor. Her personality was larger then life and I loved that about her, but the deep spiritual essence she could bring to any moment made her my guru.
Growing up we had Darshan (mediation and sharing), anywhere from five to seven nights a week. She was both light-hearted and extremely real, depending on what was needed in the moment.
Over the years, I had many one-on-one experiences with Ma Jaya. When my own mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, the doctors gave her two weeks to live; Ma Jaya helped my mother believe in her ability to fight for her life, physically, through the help of the doctors and also, spiritually, through the use of meditation and community.
I believe their relationship helped my mother not only fight cancer but also find gratitude and love in her life during her battle. My mother lived a good life for over 10 more years—I think that my mother’s beliefs about God, family, the ashram and her faith helped her fight for her life.
One temple that was special to my family was the Durga Temple. My mother used to take care of this temple when I was young—it was private only for the ashram residents. As a family, my mother, my younger sister and I, would dress and clean the Mother Durga murti. My sister and I spent most of our time playing with Durga’s intricate jewelry, while my mother would ceremoniously dress and clean the murti.
Looking back, I see that being in this space with my mother installed a deep sense of faith in me.
Ma Jaya gave me my name, Durgaya, at birth. My mom’s name, Durga Mayee, was given to her in her early twenties when she took Ma Jaya as her guru. These names are not given lightly; they are a part of our path in life. Durga is a connection my mother and I shared, and the Durga Temple now holds my mother’s ashes.
I remember being in this temple with my mom once when Ma Jaya came to get me; I played with Ma’s jewelry and spent the day in her personal temples. It was magical for me as a child and now as yogi, it’s an amazing memory.
I moved away from the ashram in 1999, as soon as I was old enough to go to college; thirteen years later, I decided to move back home. I had wanted to move home for the past two years but I couldn’t bring myself to do it; I liked being out in the world.
However, it was my love of God that brought me back and my belief that Ma Jaya’s teaching was my connection to God and faith.
One week after being home, I found out that Ma Jaya was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer—I was shocked. I had to believe that Ma Jaya would be okay. I had seen so many miracles over the years and somehow, Ma always seemed larger than life.
I watched Ma fight for her life, just as I had watched my mother fight, with gratitude for life, with love for our community and I never felt so grateful and so scared at the same time.
One of the last teachings that Ma gave me was about Tantra.
I sat on her bed—she was very weak,but we both wanted this. I wanted to be taught by my teacher, my Ma and she wanted to teach her student, her spiritual daughter. She showed me how to feel connected to the world around me, how to create energy in my hands, how to feel the energy all around me. As I left her rooms that day, I felt the energy of the earth and the movement of the trees through my hands and through my body.
I walked home feeling that a new stage in my life, and my understanding of my life, was upon me. Only a few months later, I felt I lost all that when I lost Ma—it felt so strange to feel this empty or disconnected.
Ma’s passing was a mere five months after my move back to the ashram and exactly 10 years and a week since my mother’s passing. At this time, I began to feel a steady decline in the connection that was once so easily accessible to me.
The ocean felt empty, my yoga classes felt dry, I couldn’t even think of meditating or getting still. What would I do when I felt stuck and disconnected?
Of course, I would talk to Ma; talk to my guru; practice yoga with my teacher, spend time near my spiritual mother. Ma was all of these to me and that’s what I had done for longer than I could remember.
Recently, scanning my Facebook home page, I saw a picture of my friend, and she had a string of Rudraksha beads around her neck. Rudraksha beads are sacred beads in Hinduism and as children we were encouraged to always wear them; they were a way to protect our heart from hurting and to remind us to always serve others.
Looking at my friend I thought, “I wish they still meant that for me,” and the lack of that connection broke my heart.
I started to think about the idea of the formless. What was it about the ocean that felt so special? What is faith anyway? I certainly can’t touch it or see it, but more importantly was I prepared to live the rest of my life without it?
I started to get still, first through Yin yoga and then eventually through meditation. I started to give back to the community through a project created with my friends called Sustainable Kashi; I started to connect with the people around me who also felt lost.
I began to realize that service or helping others, meditation, breath work and general mindfulness are my connection to my faith.
At times, I am able to reconnect with the feelings of the formless all around like I was on that day in Ma’s rooms; we all have this when we find the practice that works for us.
For most of my life, Ma was my vehicle to this connection.
Now, I have to find a new way but thanks to my mother and Ma I have everything I need for this journey; I have seen strong women fight for what they wanted in their lives and I don’t intend to give anything.
Durgaya Palmieri is the resident Yoga Instructor and Communications Director of Sustainable Kashi. She was raised on Kashi Ashram and holds a love for teaching yoga and meditation that is a deep part of Kashi’s history and presence in the community. She studied Kali Natha Yoga and meditation under Ma Jaya, the founder of Kashi Ashram, and is a devoted student of Anusara Yoga. She recently returned to Kashi Ashram and has found her path, creating sustainable community events, children’s programs and yoga retreats that preserve and create deep connections to the ashram culture that she grew up in.
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Assistant Ed: Karla Rodas/Ed: Bryonie Wise