At the Sri Santosh Puri Ashram along the Ganges river at the foot of the Himalayas, I became fire. I became the flame that dances, tossing light to fill the darkness. And I certainly didn’t do it alone.
“Exhale light,” said Mandakini, eyes slightly open, sitting in half-lotus on a meditation cushion. Her eyes held straight ahead at a single candle burning on a small altar.
“Focus on the single flame until your eyes get tired. Then close your eyes and focus on the flame with your third eye.”
This was our introduction to tratak, the Hatha yogic fire meditation that was the bedrock of the personal practice for our instructor, Mandakini, the daughter of the ashram’s late guru. During our brief introduction to tratak, focused on the single candle I glimpsed something within myself, brief and fleeting like a shadow darting past an open door. So I returned to the hall later in the afternoon to continue on my own. Whatever was glimpsed needed to be found.
Closing the door to the wide yoga hall I lit a candle and took my place before it, cross-legged on a soft cushion. I inhaled slowly. Then exhaled. My eyes’ focus fell onto the flame and I began to open myself to its light. Breath after breath, a little more of myself melted away, thoughts, fears and ego dripping slowly like wax to the flame of spirit. The flame grew brighter, first from a low hum then to a proud light, melting the wax of Self faster away until eventually looking at the candle flame was like looking in a mirror. All ideas and thin understandings of identity and Self lay in a pool of melted wax and the wick to my Spirit’s flame was no more.
I was a single flame, suspended in space.
Inhale. Exhale. I was surrounded by a circle of other flames as if in the center of a chandelier. Inhale. The muted glow of the flame directly before me came into focus. Exhale. Clarity. My tía, seated before me with a glow emanating from her navel. All who knew her before her passing spoke of the fire of her spirit that shone through the brightness of her eyes like a foglamp in the mist. She wore a robe of light, eyes clear as glass by firelight. I hadn’t seen her so clearly since I was four, before she got sick. She smiled. Tears welled in the corners of my eyes. Inhale. Exhale.
Inhale. The two lights on either side of her focused into my abuelos. My grandmother seated elegantly, the tip of her long dress swaying like a whisper just as I remembered when she would sit by the sea for hours and let the waves bring her back her beloved Havana’s malecón. Exhale. My grandfather’s ruddy cheeks beamed like they used to when he, the proudest man in the world, would look down at me, his first grandchild, still small enough to curl up on the pillow of his portly belly. I hadn’t seen mis abuelos together since I was twelve, before abuela’s funeral. Eyes brimming. Inhale. Hold. Exhale. The flames burned in silent stillness.
Inhale. The light at my left snapped into my mother, with a dress of joy and the face she wore when I looked at her as I received my diploma from Brown. She always was fullest when celebrating others. The light at my right, my father’s face, glowing as when he would tousle my hair after Saturday morning soccer, saying, “Good game mijo,” with the grin of a young father. I was surrounded by the faces that have been my pantheon of guardians since before the beginning. I was as vulnerable as the newborn they once held.
I was nothing, it became clear, but a product of the love others have given. Inhale, shaking. Hoarse exhale.
The blaze engulfed me entirely.
Almost all at once, each of the remaining flames surrounding me ignited, blooming into the open arms of my sisters, my friends I’ve known since childhood, the ones I wondered about on long afternoons and the ones who will walk alongside me through each stage of life, friends from college who taught me how to laugh and how to cry, how to grow and how to lift my hands for help when I fell, my aunts and uncles, my cousins who’ve been as constant to me as a mountain to an evergreen, my partner in whose eyes I find the harmony of the sun and moon. And suddenly I am no longer. The circle of flames around me erupted and I was lost like a single candle engulfed by a blaze as bright as “the glory of a thousand suns rising at the same time” (Bhagavad Gita).
The faint rhythm of the dholak drums beat from the temple down the road in the late afternoon. Seated within a wide yoga hall at the foothills of the Himalayas atop a small cushion, staring at a candle, I collapsed, sobbing. Some channel, some locked door or gate within me had been opened by the flames of other’s love like the avatar sanctuary on Crescent Island, opened by the the simultaneous bending of the sages.
Spent yet purified as ash, I looked up to the photo of the guru’s late disciple Mataji, hanging above the small altar. She watched over me with eyes of understanding that seemed to say, well done, young man. Now, rest. With a bow I packed up the room and blew out the candle. Walking out of the hall a new flame burned within my chest, un corazón de fuego.
I walked back into the room where Gabriela, who has passed the afternoon photographing the riverside, greeted me. She held out her hand.
“I found some rocks.”
Immediately, the prediction of the water healer, Nadira, whom we met in St. Thomas came to mind.
“You’ll find a very special rock in India,” she’d said. “It may not mean anything to others but it will to you. It is waiting for you.”
In my sister’s open palm was a small stone with an odd shape carved onto its smooth face.
“Looks like fire,” she said.
“Looks like a heart,” I said at the same time.
We looked at each other.
Un corazón de fuego, a heart of fire, beat in her hand. Here it was. We’d found it.
BY: Tomás Quiñonez-Riegos
*According to the Aarti Fire Ceremony Handbook the dhuni is the “sacred fireplace where the fires of sacrifice consume your ego and anything that you offer to it with surrender and devotion.” The late guru of the ashram, Santosh Puri, had spent over two decades living as a renunciant by a dhuni along the Ganges that has been burning since before human memory. Then he met Mataji, became her guru and created his own fireplace with her in the center of the ashram they restored together.