All I had to do in Albuquerque was rent a car and drive away from the place. I had asked the people at the rental car place for the smallest, cheapest car possible, and the attendant described my choices to me, stressing that one of them was bigger but got better gas mileage, and so I said, sure, that one is fine, why not. When he handed me the bill to sign, I discovered that the car he had led me to choose was in fact $150 more than the other one. "That," I said, pushing the list of charges back to him over the counter, "was so fucking lame."
The attendant was about twenty-five, handsome, animated but blank. I wasn’t sure if he was gay or straight or if he even knew himself. He stared at his fingers as he retyped my order, and said, "That’s why we like to go through the whole thing first, to make you understand everything."
"Oh my God," I said. "You did not just really say that."
"As I said, that’s why we like to go over everything right upfront, to make sure you’re understand everything."
"You do know that it’s apparent that’s a script? I mean, I just want you to know that I know that we’re not actually communicating."
"Well. That’s why we like to go over everything upfront…"
"Just admit you didn’t say that the other car was more expensive. That’s all I want. Just admit it."
"Ok, you’re right," he said. "I didn’t say that it was more expensive. I never said it."
Then he flushed with shame. I felt good, like I’d just run a fast mile.
Then I drove 100 miles through the desert towards 2000 people and seven days of sleeping in a tent and getting up at 3 o’clock in the morning to meditate.
Yogi Bhajan is not the founder of Kundalini Yoga, but he is credited with bringing it to the west. He was born in the Punjab in 1929 and he died in Española in 2004. Kundalini and Kundalini Yoga both defy easy explanation, still here are some attempts, from Bhajan himself. "Kundalini Yoga is the technology of human consciousness." Also: "Kundalini is known as the nerve of the soul." (Is it?) "Kundalini Yoga is the fastest way to establish an aligned relationship between the body, mind, and the soul." (What practitioner wouldn’t want to believe this?)
One of the first places Yogi Bhajan taught was a church in Altadena. Before going inside he would litter the parking lot with dollar bills so that people who didn’t have money could still come to class and still technically pay for it, since he felt it was important for people to offer him something. He loved movies. A friend of mine who grew up in the dharma (this means her parents were followers of his) was going through a rough time in her adolescence, and she and Yogi Bhajan had an emotional conversation. When it was over, he announced, "Now we will go the movies." They saw Rush Hour 2.
Yogi Bhajan believed women should eat eggplant pakoras to help with menstrual irregularities and advocated a variety of mono diets. One involves days of eating nothing but melon. Another calls for days of eating nothing but avocado sandwiches on the toasted crusts of sourdough bread, which sounds delightful. He also believed that eggs made your pituitary gland spin the wrong way. Upon discovering that a student of his ate eggs, he made her some himself, adding a disgusting amount of salt, and she ate those, but never ate eggs again.
You camp at Solstice. It’s just what’s done.
I am a particularly terrible camper.
I borrowed my tent, and before I left, I put it up in my backyard in Nevada City, CA. Actually, a friend of mine put it up, and I pretended I was helping and that I understood what he was doing, but really what I learned from the experience was that I was just going to have someone at Solstice put up the tent for me, hopefully someone I could pay so as to not feel guilty about it, and that is exactly what happened.
Some people’s tents are beautiful. They bring beds and things to hang their clothes on. My tent was essentially a garbage dump that I slept in. Any time something was dirty or I didn’t know what to do with it, I just threw it under my cot. Some day I may master camping, this time, I merely endured.
The site of The Summer Solstice Sadhana Celebration is called Guru Ram Das Puri. It is 8 miles from Española up a rutted dirt road. The Solstice website directions say "PLEASE DRIVE SLOWLY AND CAREFULLY on this portion of your trip" and because my car—a Chevy Cruze—was so shitty, "SLOWLY AND CAREFULLY" were my only options. While I bounced along willy-nilly, I was passed from both fore and aft by speeding SUVs, nearly all which were driven by people wearing enormous white turbans. Each car sprayed me with pebbles. Clouds of dust rolled up all around my car, so thick I had to pull over. Viewed through the milky white filament of the slowly dissipating dust the surrounding landscape of dry yellow soil, scrubby green brush, and the dimming blue sky was so beautiful I almost forgot its visual enhancement was the result of such a dick move.
Guru Ram Das Puri is a 160-acre preserve of land in the Jemez mountains. On the land is a very large tent called the Tantric Shelter. It has a concrete floor and a high roof and stays cool and breezy under the worst conditions. The three-day long meditation called White Tantric Yoga will take place here, as will Sadhana. Meals are eaten in the Tantric Shelter sometimes, and the bigger teachers—Harijiwan, Guru Singh, Gurmukh—hold enormous classes here as well.
There are three main camping areas. Tantric Hill is known for being windy and crowded. The Water Tower area is known for being popular with families and also, for its proximity to a loud generator. The Valley is known for being more protected, quieter, and a bit mellower, but further away. This past Solstice I told a friend I thought the Valley had a jam bands vibe. He laughed out loud, so I guess it’s true.
There is also a tent, on one side of which food is served, and on the other side of which is a bazaar, where the kind of items one would think would be sold at a Solstice gathering are sold: yoga wear, yoga music, crystals, books, and spiritually profound jewelry, like malas, which are beaded necklaces used as meditation aids—rosaries for hippies.
At the edge of the property, up above a few acres of parking lot, are a few cabins.
There is a solstice diet, which was designed by Yogi Bhajan.
The Solstice Menu
Solstice Potato Soup
Solstice Mung Beans and Rice
Beets and Carrots
Solstice Hot Sauce
Naturally, the lines for the porta potties move along quickly.
Golden Milk is milk with turmeric paste dissolved in it, and it is served at night after White Tantric to ease muscles sore from long hours spent in meditation. This is what Yogi Bhajan had to say about turmeric: "There is nothing more effective than turmeric to clean your body and purify it. There is nothing more precious on this earth but turmeric. Turmeric, 'haldi,' it solves every problem which cannot be solved."
I love Golden Milk. I go through stages where I regularly include making and drinking it on my daily to-do lists. I don’t know why I never follow through. I mean, since turmeric solves every problem that can’t be solved.
Temperatures during the solstice event were between 90 and 100 degrees. The sun felt like it was sitting on my head. A fire raged somewhere off in the distance—I never did figure out where North was, or anything else. The open space there reminds me of the water in Maine. It’s pretty, but all you can do is look at it. There’s no venturing into, no chance of consummation. I can appreciate New Mexico, but it doesn’t really move me.
The camping areas are fairly far from the Tantric Shelter and the food. So if you leave something in your tent, your options are to brave the landscape and get heatstroke or to spend the whole day with a sense of paralysis: "I can’t go on without x, I must go on without x." At least this gives you something to talk about when you run into people. "My toothbrush/yoga mat/sunscreen/ is in my tent." You’d be surprised how many times you can say that sentence in one day and preserve a feeling of self-pity.
Yogi Bhajan wrote a lot of poems and songs, or poem-songs really, that are principally in English. They are interesting documents. I made a joke that he used to sit around late at night getting drunk and writing songs to use in White Tantric Yoga but it didn’t go over so well.
One of the poem-songs used in our White Tantric Meditations contained the following: "Prosperity, Originality, causes Ick sound."
I repeat: "Prosperity, Originality, causes Ick sound."
So, you know what prosperity and originality are. I will explain "Ick sound." Or I will try. Ick is a very important sound in Kundalini Yoga, which is all about sound. Ick is a sound of being, of identity, of strength. So. Though I understand how prosperity and originality cause Ick sound, I don’t know if I would have put that as directly as he did.
Luckily the woman sitting next to my White Tantric partner also thought "Prosperity, Originality, causes Ick sound," was extremely funny. Every time we got to this part of the song she would start to howl and I would join in.
Japji was written sometime in the 16th century by Guru Nanak, the first of the ten Sikh gurus. It was written in Gurmukhi. It takes about twenty minutes to recite and what it mostly says is A. it is good to chant God’s name and B. you can’t comprehend how great God is so you need to chant his name and C. doing so is the only way you will really make any headway in life, so don’t bother trying to figure life out, really, it’s too complicated, so you should just chant God’s name.
I don’t believe in God, really, or maybe I do. Either way, metaphorically, that all makes a lot of sense to me.
If you are a strict Kundalini yogi you get up every morning at dawn, take a cold shower and recite Japji. Naturally this is done at Summer Solstice. At 3 a.m, a teacher from Los Angeles named Guru Singh who is a good teacher (yay) but made a couple really bad songs with Seal (boo!) walks around the camp with an entourage and a guitar, stopping in different sections of camp to sing a song called "Rise Up." For the next half hour people make their way to the Tantric Shelter. Some are showered and dressed in pure white. Some are crusty and curled up in sleeping bags. Japji starts at 3:45 a.m. A man and woman recite it from the stage in alternate lines, and everyone reads along with them. Or sleeps.
Japji is a big topic of conversation at Solstice. "I missed Japji," "I was late for Japji," "I got there in the middle of Japji and the Tantric Shelter was already packed." "Whenever I miss Japji my whole day is thrown off."
The only experience I have ever had that made me believe in reincarnation involved Japji.
Kundalini Yoga is not the up-dog, down dog, wrap your leg over your head type of yoga that one associates with yoga, though there are rare moments in it that have that sort of flavor. More often, we are seated, or flat on our backs, and doing strange things with our arms and legs, and breathing in strange ways, or making strange shapes with our mouths. Here is a direction from a Kundalini yoga class that is not atypical: "Begin alternately bringing your palms in as if to beat your chest, but do not touch your chest." Here is one that is more out there than usual, but would still not surprise a practitioner, "Lie down on your back and put your arms up to 90 degrees, holding your piece of fruit." (At the end of it all, you eat your fruit.)
Another thing about Kundalini yogis: they don’t say hi to each other. We say Sat Nam. In emails, on the phone, passing someone. It’s both hello and goodbye. You just get used to it. Sat Nam.
There are fewer than twenty real toilets for men and about the same for women at Solstice. Other than this, you are supposed to go to the bathroom in the porta potties. There are probably about 150 porta potties at solstice. No one likes a porta potty even under the best of conditions, and six days of 100-plus degree heat is not the best of conditions. Everyone knows about not breathing in a porta-potty, but I have actually learned to block out the entire experience of using one, even while doing so.
The basis of Kundalini yoga is the recitation of mantras. The idea being that instead of saying to yourself the usual sorts of things that go through your head such as, "Holy shit, I suck, I am so worried about money/my relationship/dying, I’m stupid, I’m fat," you might say the Mul Mantar, which roughly translates into God is great, you should say his name to show him that you are aware of his greatness, and, although this not explicit, to thank him for having provided you with mantras that are far more uplifting than your own. Here is a transliteration of the beginning of the Mool Mantra: Ek Ong Kar, Sat Nam, Karta Purkh…." It sounds nice, right? Certainly it sounds better than "I hate my job, I wish I was dead, I hate everything."
One year at Solstice I went to Guru Dev’s class. Guru Dev is a big Kundalini guy, very smart, but unfortunately, and this is particularly true in the enormous Tantric Shelter, you can’t really understand a goddamn word he says. He’s just one of those deeply self-assured guys who is like, "Hey, I’m Mexican, I don’t care about speaking English like fucking Winston Churchill, and I mumble too, so just figure it out." So I put myself right near a speaker and was giving it my best shot and would have been doing fairly well if not for a persistent and mysterious sound of tinny music. It was definitely some kind of spiritual music; I could make out sitars, drums, harmoniums. I thought it might be coming from one of the other tents but I realized after a few minutes that its source was actually the sequined rucksack of a very pretty young woman sitting in front of me. "Excuse me," I said, "I think your iPhone is on."
I waited for a look of concerned alarm. I waited some more.
"It’s my mantra," she said.
"I’m sorry?" I said.
"It’s my mantra." Her tone made it unnecessary for her to add the words, "you fucking retard."
"Oh," I said. "Ok."
"I never turn it off," she said. "Ever. Sat Nam."
"Sat Nam," I said.
Biggest no-no ever of Solstice: staying in the cabins.
The Adobe Cabins, set on a little plateau above the parking area, are a lovely deep brown shade with a cheerful turquoise trim, and from far away look magically sweet. But no one should be fooled, for they are the very chambers of hell. Each cabin is the size of a medium-size bedroom and houses eight people in four bunk beds that take up most of the space. I stayed in them last year because I was flying to Solstice from somewhere else and couldn’t very well lug camping equipment all over creation. When I arrived at my cabin two days into Solstice every one else had arrived and there was nowhere to put my stuff. Only two people in my cabin spoke English as a first language, and, when tensions run high, let me assure you, fluency matters. There was a woman from some country whose face and nationality I have forever blocked from my mind who had brought the most enormous suitcase I had ever seen, plus a giant box, and I hated her so much I would sneer at her every time I saw her. We finally had a showdown over her luggage, which I don’t mind telling you I won.
For the years 2013 to 2017, each Summer Solstice has a saying, or sutra, attached to it. This year’s was "Recognize that the other person is you."
On his second day there, my friend Carey was putting out some of the enormous five-gallon coolers full of electrolyte drink that sustain solstice gatherers through the hot days. As he did so, there was a woman standing near him eating, and, to the best of his recollection, he gave her a brief, acknowledging glance and a smile. She said, "I really don’t like people staring at me when I’m eating."
Carey said something to the effect of "I’m not staring at you," and she said something to the effect of, "Yes, you were." He left.
Later he said to me, "I will recognize that everyone at Solstice is me, except for her."
In the bazaar I got a white, empire-waisted cotton dress which my friend Suraj quickly named "The Goddess Dress." I also bought two raw chocolate drinks, a book of Kundalini Yoga kriyas called "Self-Knowledge" and a white piece of fabric patterned with gold thread which is currently in use as an emergency bathroom curtain. Here is a pathetic story: When I arrived at Solstice this year I said to myself smugly, "It is so funny that last year at Solstice I wanted a mala. I was in such a different place then. I can’t imagine wearing one now. I am not so susceptible to this bullshit." Within twenty-four hours of being there. I was once again looking for a mala. I did not purchase a mala, but this is only because I couldn’t find one I liked. I am still actively looking.
The quiet hours of the camp are from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m.
My last night there, at around 10:15 p.m., someone was playing what I can only describe as a combination of Bhangra and Reggaeton, loud, over an iPhone. The worst part was they kept turning it off, and you’d think it was all over, but then, it would come back on. At around 10:30, as it re-started itself for about the fifth time, I shouted, "You’ve seriously got to be kidding me," and someone else shouted "Yeah!" and it went off for good.
I had the following conversation about reincarnation at Solstice.
Me: I don’t believe in it, but I wish it were true.
Male yogi: Well it is, so don’t worry about it.
Female yogi: I don’t want to come back.
Me: You don’t? I do. I don’t want to leave. I hate it here sometimes, but I want to try again.
Female yogi: Not me. I’m done.
Me: You are? You’re really done?
Female yogi: I want to be with [a deceased relative].
Me: Oh, right. I forgot. Sorry. Did I tell you about my weird Japji experience? Where I already knew part of it, like had it memorized?
Female Yogi: Several times.
Me: That’s the only thing that’s ever made me believe in reincarnation. Anyway. Do you really think if I want to come back, I will?
Male yogi: It’s just the way it works, so yes, I promise.
Me: Alright. If you say so. I really hope you’re right. Even though I seriously doubt it.
The cornerstone of Kundalini Yoga is something called Sadhana. Sadhana refers generally to any practice that is done every day, more specifically, it refers to a set pratice done in the morning that consists of Japji, which takes about 20 minutes, about 40 minutes of a Kundalini Yoga kriya, a seven-minute recitation of a mantra referred to as "long ek-ong-kars" and five other mantras set to music. The whole thing takes two and a half hours, and ideally, one is supposed to do it every day. I once did it for forty days in a row. Many people have done that, and more, but not many people actually do it daily.
Two days into Solstice a friend of mine asked how I’d been, and when I said I’d been incredibly anxious lately, she shook her head and said in her thick Texas accent, "Have you been doing your Japji?" When I said no she looked very sorry for me. She said, "You need to restructure your brain chemistry. This is your sadhana now. I want you getting up at four a.m. Take a cold shower or at least, get some cold water on your spine. And then I want you reciting your Japji." Then she promised me that after a week or two of doing it I would feel like a different person. It’s the kind of thing you hear all the time in the Kundalini Yoga world, and you think to yourself, "How can doing this weird thing possibly solve my problems? That is ridiculous." But then you don’t have a better idea, so, you get up at 4 a.m and take a cold shower and recite Japji every day for two weeks, and you find yourself feeling much better, and you think, alright. Whatever. Fine. I’ll do it.
Yogi Bhajan was a Sikh. Consequently many of the practitioners of Kundalini Yoga are Sikhs. You can tell the difference between Sikhs and non-Sikhs because Sikhs wear turbans. In case you thought people just wore turbans for the hell of it, let Yogi Bhajan disabuse you of that notion. "When you tie the turban, that is when the cranial adjustment happens. All parts of the skull are pulled together, and they remain together. This gives you the cerebral power to work things out."
There is a lot about Kundalini Yoga and White Tantric and Solstice that is very unbelievable. Does a turban really hold your brain together? Does one day of White Tantric Yoga really equal years worth of meditation? If you revolve your life around Solstice, as Yogi Bhajan says, will everything really be taken care of? I laugh at all of it, but I keep coming back, so I either believe it, or I want to.
One day I was wearing my Goddess Dress and walking with a friend when we spotted a woman coming towards us wearing the exact same dress. As she got closer my friend and I observed that whereas I was wearing the billowy white cotton yoga pants traditionally worn with such garments, she was only wearing underwear. As the girl passed, she called out cheerfully, "We are wearing the same dress!" My friend, in a whisper, completed her sentence, "except in mine, you can see my vagina!"
White Tantric Yoga is a day-long meditation done in pairs. These pairs are lined up, shoulder to shoulder, from the front of the Tantric Shelter to the back, in six or seven rows. (I should probably know how many because numbers are pretty important in Kundalini Yoga.) The "male polarity" (not necessarily a man) faces the outside of the Tantric Shelter and the "female polarity" (not necessarily a woman, though there are more women here than men and a lot of female/female pairs and not so many male/male) faces the inside of the Tantric Shelter. There is a facilitator who sits at the front of the room on a stage, propped up, pasha-like, on a pile of pillows. One of them has a lion’s face on it. The other ones are sort of non-descript, in wan pastels. One of my White Tantric partners has been hating the pillows for years and kept floating the idea of donating the money to replace them.
None of the meditations are easy, because sitting on the ground is not easy, but some are worse than others. For example, holding your arms out at a right angle from your body for sixty-two minutes is not easy. (I did about eleven, then raised them, then lowered them, as best I could. My partner, a 54-year-old Kundalini yoga teacher from Berkeley, had his up the whole time.) In another meditation, a fairly easy one, we pressed our partner’s hands over our heads, making a sort of tent shape, and sang the Donavan song "Happiness Runs."
The 2012 Solstice was very large, too large, mostly due to a number of attendants who were either coming from or going to various Rainbow Gatherings or other similar festivals. These people were under the misapprehension that because there are people at Solstice in white who meditate to Donovan songs, there are also drugs here and people to do them with. While Solstice is a fairly welcoming occasion, there was valid concern that a crowd like this was perhaps not in the right place and could adversely affect the atmosphere should their numbers swell. The most recent marketing of the Solstice has emphasized the getting up at 3 a.m. part of the experience, and consequently this summer very few of this sort of attendee found their way to Guru Ram Das Puri.
Yogi Tea is served every morning after Sadhana. Here is a recipe for it.
1 Gallon Water
30 whole green cardamon pods
30 whole black peppercorns
1 large finger of fresh ginger, thinly sliced
5 sticks cinnamon
1 teabag, Black Tea
Milk and Honey to taste (optional)
1. Bring water to boil.
2. Add all spices except black tea bag. Boil 30 to 45 minutes Longer is stronger.
3. Finally, add black tea bag and boil another 5 minutes. The black tea is added last because it amalgamates the spices and sort of seals them. Also the tannins help assimilate the spices into the body.
You do not sleep very much at Solstice. On my last day there, a friend of mine came up to me and said, "You look so…" And I thought she was going to say "beautiful," because, after all, I had been meditating for five days, but she instead said "tired."
On the way out of the Guru Ram Das Puri parking lot to head back to Albuquerque, I backed my rental car into a fairly large rock. The side and the hubcap both sustained noticeable damage, and I was like, "Fuck, what was the point of all this? I look like shit and I just trashed my rental." But when I dropped the car off, they didn’t notice anything. "You see?" a friend of mine who’d been at Solstice said, when I told her the story: "That’s the kind of luck you have when you start doing sadhana every day." I made fun of this comment to my friends who don’t do yoga, but the truth is, I guess I totally believe there is something out there that knows that I get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and take a cold shower and recite Japji. If I didn’t, there’s no way I would do it. Sat Nam.