In 1978, in the Jemez mountains of northern New Mexico, nine girls sat in the sun on a big cement construction pipe, dirty as all heck, laughing about only God knows what, and well... I was one of those girls. It all started out when our spiritual teacher Yogi Bhajan asked his students to send their children to camp, to a place where they could learn to be, as I remember him saying, "dependable children, not dependent children."
My parents packed up a nice bag for that first year and according to them, only a few of my belongings made it back. A lady who was my guide back then relayed how our meals were cooked under a car hood placed over a hole in the ground with a nice hot fire that burned the beans on the bottom of the pot – consistently, every night. The cooks managed to scrape enough off the top to serve everyone. The first students of Yogi Bhajan were trying very hard to follow yogic teachings, and at times experimented with certain ideas, one of which was around food. We had a very yogic and healthy diet, which was not really all that yummy for a child. Orange peel soup being one of the favorite choices of the cooks. Certainly not mine! I remember after one year at camp my friend and I ate an entire tray of lasagna that my parents prepared for us upon our return.
Now the food is much improved. But as you can see, things were kind of rough back then. But my memories, the real visceral ones, are not rough at all. They are different, of a spirit being born in an experience that would carry on for many years through many generations. Here are these memories.
The smell of sage after rain.
Playing my recorder as I walked to our tent hidden in the pine grove near the frog pond that lay as an oasis in the high desert mountain terrain.
The feeling of dirt all over my face and in my nose. (Ok, that may qualify as rough!)
Handing Yogi Bhajan a basket of zucchinis that we picked from the garden and watching him take a huge bite out of one right then and there.
How could I describe this sensation of freedom? Let me start by relaying to you my experience as a 43-year-old mother who sends her daughter to this very same camp and who works there as a teacher.
This camp is called Khalsa Youth Camp. Every year about sixty children come from all over the world to be together in the high desert camp site called "Ram Das Puri." It is a little under 200 acres, with a beautiful view of the Española Valley. The main focus of the camp is to give children tools to experience their own strength, their own sense of self worth and capacity to rise to excellence. Campers learn Kundalini Yoga, meditation, martial arts, singing, dance, art, and outdoor skills. The sacred space of the camp is held by a Sikh temple, or Gurdwara, and campers have the opportunity to experience universal concepts of Sikh spiritual life that can be applied to any walk of life. I teach the sacred music of the Sikh tradition, or Kīrtan, to the children, and every year we pick one sacred song, or Shabad to focus on.
Early on in my time as a teacher at the camp, I had a lot of notions about how I could help out. I totally loved the idea of helping out with the early morning practice and was all too eager to do everything I could to assist. On one particular morning the sun was rising amidst soft colors of pinks and yellows. The billowy clouds in the west hinted at the coming of rain later in the day. The birds in the nearby juniper bushes chirped happily - a lot like the children who were chatting with each other as they came from their cabins to the central gathering place at the camp, a large open air shelter overlooking the Española Valley. As the children set up their mats, they faced the rising sun and this morning's teacher, Siri Nam Singh. The coolness of the air was not to be forgotten, as many children zipped up their jackets amidst little gusts of wind that ruffled the collection of yoga mats and shawls that had been newly assembled. Siri Nam Singh all the while played his guitar gently as the children set up their mats. But then, with the same urgency as the wind, he put down his guitar and called out to the children, "Alright Khalsa Youth Camp, let's begin!"
After tuning in, the teacher guided the children into a series of yoga postures and movements from the Kundalini Yoga tradition. Some of the postures were easy, and others were challenging, yet the children for the most part applied themselves and actually did them. I noticed in that class and in many others to follow that Siri Nam Singh, who had directly trained with Yogi Bhajan in the ways of teaching children, was very purposeful in his communication style. It was not an adult speaking to a child, or to children. It was a soul to soul conversation, and a teacher truly desiring to inspire.
However, as always, in the back of the class there were two girls who were giggling. Making eye contact with one of the girls, I shook my head in disapproval, trying to get her to focus, but to no avail. Both girls couldn't stop giggling. I was beside myself, wondering what to do, wanting them to participate. Just at that moment, a little girl who sat next to me tugged at my sleeve and asked me if I could take her to the bathroom.
So, off we went.
By the time we came back the yoga practice was finished, and the meditation had begun. The kids were singing the Mul Mantra. Siri Nam Singh played the guitar, Gurujodha Singh accompanied on his drum, with Sopurkh Singh on tabla. The kids were singing at the top of their lungs! Eyes closed, in total focus, every single one of them was completely engaged! Even the gigglers were in. In fact, I took a peek at one of them. There she was, straight spine, in total and complete union with the Mantra. A look of light shone on her face, as it had come rising from the base of her spine to the top of her head. She was in total merger with the One. This was the look of freedom! This was the sensation that had been awakened in me some 37 years ago at this very camp, and that would stay with me and her forever. She would always know how to access the light of her spirit. She would know the power of Mantra, and the power of effort and discipline. Yes, this sensation came amidst giggles and mischief. Yes, she was just a child. But that is Khalsa Youth Camp. Children, having fun and making mischief in the desert land, finding union with God.
For this reason, I heartily invite you to send your child to Khalsa Youth Camp, so that they can be a part of this incredible experience. In tandem, there is a International Women's Camp that mothers can participate in. In this camp, women learn the many teachings for women including meditation, yoga, healthy lifestyle ideas that Yogi Bhajan gave us. I will be teaching at both camps this year.