I took my very first yoga class in 1998 at Kashi Atlanta, a small studio a few blocks from my apartment in Candler Park.
I didn’t know much about yoga then, only that I needed some exercise and I was stressed out at my job at CNN, where most days you could find me with two phones up against my head, one at each ear, and three screens open on my computer, so I could simultaneously check the AP wires, stories from our reporters, and the latest news coming in.
At Kashi, we practiced on carpet and did a lot of seated, breathing poses in between our cat, cow and downward dog poses. By the end of class, I was high from the extra oxygen to my brain, and spaced out from all that Kundalini energy. My teacher, Jaya Devi, called it Shakti. All I knew is that I felt relaxed, light headed, and peaceful.
Soon I was going multiple times a week. After class, I would linger on the communal couch, blissfully, until the students arrived for Jaya Devi’s evening group talk. Eventually, I joined them. Many of Jaya Devi’s longtime students came to those talks. I met Agni Ma, Jaya Das, and a young doctor who spoke about the stress of working in an emergency room.
These talks were my introduction to the spiritual path. Like Buddhism’s three jewels: the sangha (community), the dharma (the teachings) and the Buddha, It was here that I learned yoga is much more than the poses.
At satsang, Jaya Devi introduced us to the spiritual teachings of her guru Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, and Ma’s teacher Neem Karoli Baba. During that year and a half I learned about the three pillars of yoga practice: service, compassion and devotion.
Together, as a group, we made food to handout to the homeless, sat together in silent meditation, practiced asana and breath work, and opened up about our greatest problems and worst fears. The compassion I felt for others felt limitless, and our devotion grew to Jaya Devi. I could see it in the eyes of the other students, as we sat on the floor, legs crossed in front of her.
On September 11, after a harrowing day at CNN headquarters where I watched raw footage of the planes crashing into the twin towers, and lots of b-roll of the aftermath, I went to Kashi, hoping Jaya Devi could help me make sense of the horror.
There, Jaya Devi taught a yoga class that held the space for us students. We had all come to Kashi seeking refuge from the outside world, to be together as a community, and share our collective anger, grief, sadness and confusion.
On that day, I realized that the most important part of yoga was not just the asana practice, but the community we had built. I understand now why sangha is essential to both yoga and Buddhism, and how our spiritual community stays with us, and is inside us, even after we physically leave a particular yoga studio or retreat center.
It’s been 20 years since I last stepped foot inside Kashi Atlanta. Today, Jaya Devi is a Swami and the leader of this lineage. That small studio is gone and they’ve moved to a much larger building that is a fully functioning urban ashram. I’ve changed too. I’m now a full-time writer and teacher up in New York.
On the day I left Kashi, Jaya Devi sent me back out into the world saying: “You know, you will never find a community like this one.” And she was right. I have not since found a community that had the same type of magical affect on me. But what I’ve also learned, is that once you’re part of such a special experience, that sense of community and inclusion never leaves you, no matter how far you travel.
(photo: The Shine Center, boutique meditation studio)
Jennifer Mattson writes about mindfulness, wellness, yoga, healthy living. She writes the Psychology Today The Wellness List column and teaches creative writing workshops at New York University and across the country. She started her career as a stringer in Budapest for USA Today, and her writing and reporting have since appeared in The Atlantic, the Boston Globe, Yoga International, Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, among others. She spent more than six years as a producer for CNN and also worked on the foreign desk at CBS News. She was a producer at NPR’s “The Connection” and senior editor at NPR’s “Tell Me More.” You can find more of her writing on her website: www.jennifersmattson.com.