One morning I woke up, freezing cold, in the Himalaya. The clock read 3:15. The
room I was staying in only offered one thin wool blanket per bed, and I was grossly
unprepared for the winter chill.
I rolled out of bed and went for a hike along the Ganges to warm up. It was still
several hours to sunrise, but the moon was out and the river was raging. That far
North, the Ganges roars. It doesn’t trickle or run, it screams with a white noise that
drowns out birdsong, thoughts, and careless travellers alike. I steered clear of the
water’s edge and hugged the large boulders that bulged out from the hillside.
As I continued along I found an even flat ledge that jutted out from a boulder. If
you’re a meditation dork like me you notice flat rocks, as it’s rare to find one that is
comfortable to sit on for more than a half hour or so. This one looked perfect. It was
smooth, even, and actually appeared swept clean of debris.
I sat down, crossed my legs, and closed my eyes.
The sun was still a long way from rising over the mountain, but the sky was
brightening and I was a little warmer from my hike. I chose the ‘breath of fire’ to get
me warm before my meditation.
After just a minute of this forceful breathing, it was clear the pranayama was
working: my palms were beginning to sweat, and the shivers I’d had since waking
And, was it my imagination, or did I smell smoke?
The smell was faint but I quickly checked my own armpits to make sure I hadn’t
overdone the breathing. Surely no yogi has accidentally set himself on fire with
No, I soon realized the smoke was not coming from my manipura chakra, it was
coming from a crack in the boulder I was sitting on. Smoke means fire, and fire is,
historically, a sign of human presence…so my heart started to pound: was there a
person living underneath this rock?
I hopped down off the ledge and inspected the boulder in the growing light. It was
large, like a two story home, and relatively spherical. As I looked underneath I
noticed a short clay wall built up underneath the boulder, complete with a three-
foot door off to the left.
By this point my Yogi-meter was going berserk: after years of living in India, I had a
still unfulfilled dream of meeting a true guru living in a cave. And here I was,
standing outside the door.
But what do I do? Surely if someone is living in a cave they don’t want to be
disturbed. I decided the best course of action was to make a little offering. I gathered
a few flowers and found some incense and a colorful card of Ardhanarishwa, my
favorite deity, and placed them ceremoniously in front of the door.
And then I watched. Of course, nothing happened and I quickly grew impatient. So
this time I walked back to the door and sort of awkwardly stomped my feet around a
bit—not knocking, exactly, but making enough noise to be heard unless my host was
running a vacuum, which I presumed he wasn’t.
Quickly, the small door opened and out crawled my guru-to- be. He was unshaven,
unwashed, and relatively undressed, in a sort of one-piece pajama suit. His eyes
squinted in the light, and he stared at me.
I tried to explain in the simplest English, with lots of gesturing: “Hello! I, um, I was,
sitting, you know, sitting, for meditation, over there, and doing pranayama(huff huff
huff), and, um, and then there was smoke coming, and I (sniff sniff) smelled the
smoke, and so I saw your home, and…”
He replied in perfect British English: “So, would you like to come in for a cup of tea,
Within a few hours my new friend had made me wild mushroom parantha and
played me The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” on the harmonica.
I tell you this tale, which is true to the best of my recollection, only to suggest that
something of India’s mystical reputation is true. Things happen there, that quite
simply, don’t, elsewhere. You may need to face some discomfort in order to discover
them, but in my experience, the sweetness of the sugar is worth all the grittiness of