How a 100-Year-Old Yogi in a Himalayan Cave Helped Heal My Trauma
We parked the Land Rovers at the bottom of the mountain. It took an hour to hike up to the cave, which was located near the top of a jungle-covered foothill. I suppose we were at an altitude of about ten thousand feet, but it seemed as if we were in the stratosphere. I unlaced my shoes and looked at the cave’s entrance, a low, narrow hole in the granite wall that appeared to lead only into darkness. We will have to get on our knees and crawl, I thought. I slipped off my shoes and set them on the ground behind a stone bench. I stood up and breathed in the moist jungle air. The leafy green canopy blocked all signs of the crisp blue sky. I followed six friends from the group up the trail’s last ten yards toward the cave. One by one, we passed under a brass bell slung from a tree branch. I tapped my fingers against it until its ring filled the jungle air and echoed across the valley. Then I crouched on all fours. With my neck mala — a string of blood-red beads purchased the day before at a nearby Hindu temple dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman — dragging in the dirt, I crawled through the gap between two large boulders. The sandy ground felt like sandpaper on my hands and knees. Seconds later, it was as if somebody had turned out the lights.
I squirmed along the coarse ground, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the candlelight. A strange world began to reveal itself. My eyes darted around at the cave’s walls decorated with indecipherable writing and framed pictures of Hindu gods. I spotted Ganesh, half-elephant, half-man, known to be a remover of life’s obstacles; Hanuman; and others. The cave wasn’t large — about the size of a small living room — but it was bigger than I’d imagined when my friend David, one of the retreat leaders, told me about it and the ancient yogi who lived there. “He’s one hundred years old,” he’d told me. I didn’t believe him.
I was still breathing hard from the hour-long hike up the mountain, and my throat felt scratchy, as if I’d swallowed sand. The air was thick with smoke from incense and a small fire located near an opening at the back of the cave, where the smoke escaped. I set my gaze straight ahead. There he was. The one-hundred-year-old yogi. I didn’t know his name. David called out to him. I saw that he had a wrinkled face and a long, orangish-white beard. He wore the type of orange one-piece outfit I’d seen other sadhus wearing in cities. He was seated by the fire, where he sat stirring the contents of an aluminum pot.
I kept crawling. I had butterflies in my stomach and my heart beat hard against my sternum. I felt my age. I felt my knees. I felt the potential ridiculousness of it all. I remembered the weeks and months I’d spent lying on the couch. I remembered my absurd, middle-aged soak in the River Jordan and my visit with my personal Satan at the Mount of Temptation. And along with the inner critic, it was as if I could feel every seeking moment of my life entering the cave with me. I could feel every one of these memories, every one of these experiences. I could contact them all at once. And this feeling was big and noisy, and it felt nearly uncontainable.
I was at the tip of the spear of my life.
And then, the feelings subsided. And a straightforward thought formed: This better be good. This visit with the yogi in the cave had better live up to its billing. This experience had better be what I am looking for. It had better feed the insatiable spiritual hunger that now lived in me like a tiger. This fucking yogi better be fucking real, I thought.
Why? Because if he wasn’t real, if he felt at all contrived, I didn’t know where to turn next. If this yogi was a sham, I’d have played my final hand. I would not be able to continue the strict diet of constant inner work. I would not be able to keep up my quest. And then what the fuck was I going to do? Buy a dilapidated Airstream and move to a trailer park and spend the rest of my life binge-watching Netflix?
And as I entered the cave, and the light faded, and I felt cool air on my neck, I felt the in-betweenness. In the cool, dim, candlelit air, I became the in-betweenness. And then, with hair rising on the nape of my neck, I settled in. In Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, one of my favorite books, Larry, the protagonist, a survivor of World War I, finds himself wandering the Himalayas seeking the wisdom of a yogi in a cave. That book instilled in me an image that I never shook, even as it seemed impossible that I’d ever find myself in such a weird situation. Now I was the seeker in the cave.
Despite all the worldliness and travel street cred I’d accrued, despite all the supposed spiritual and deep personal growth work I did — the yoga, the meditation, the reading of scriptures, the therapy, the books, the tapes, the weekend retreats — nothing had prepared me for what was about to happen in the cave and over the next twenty-four hours. Absolutely fucking nothing.
David approached the old man first. He took off his stocking cap and then bowed until his head kissed the dirt floor. As he rose again, he moved the hair from his face. He smiled widely. Then David crawled over to the right and took a seat on a burlap sack. I watched a half-dozen of my fellow travelers follow suit. Each bowed, sat up and looked at the yogi, who gave each of them a subtle nod. Then it was my turn. Mimicking the others, I bowed until I felt my forehead touch the hard dirt floor. The ground was cool like nighttime, and I felt sharp grains of sand pressing into my skin. I reached my hands out. There was nowhere to put them and so, hesitantly, I rested them on the old man’s leather shoes. I worried this was disrespectful, and then I remembered reading somewhere that that’s what you’re supposed to do with saints, sages, and holy men in India. Still, it felt strange, awkward even, although certainly this moment never could have been easy. But I stayed there, in what Hindus call full pranam, for four or five seconds. At first, I wondered how long I should stay. I’d never bowed to a yogi or a guru before. And then I tried to listen to my breath. Down there, with my head on the ground, my breath sounded loud and uneven. Then, I don’t know whether I willed this or it just happened, but every muscle in my body relaxed. My breath evened out. Maybe I just thought, Fuck it. In any case, I surrendered. I left all of me on the dirt floor in that cave. Body, soul, heart. I suppose, on some level, I said, Take it. All. Away. And then, I realized I’d been down there quite a while. I better rise, I thought.
As I pushed my hands into the sandy floor and lifted my forehead off the ground, I felt the yogi’s palm strike the crown of my head. It was harder than a tap, but not quite a forceful slap. I rose so that I was on my knees, my eyes level with his. Our eyes met. His eyes were dark brown. It was like peering into the ocean from the side of a boat. At first you see what’s immediately below the surface, maybe the first two or three feet down, but then if you try to look deeper, you can’t. You give up. The water is too deep, too impenetrable. I held my gaze. He kept looking into my eyes. And then I felt a tsunami of emotion well up from my pelvis. It passed underneath my belly and rose through my solar plexus. It filled my chest and wrapped around my heart. And then it kept rising, up through my neck, jaw, sinuses, and, when it reached my eyes, I began to cry. I kept looking into his eyes. The wave of emotion rose into my skull all the way to the crown. Weeping. And then, he nodded. I was dismissed.
Fuck, I thought. What just happened?
Stunned, overwhelmed, I crawled off to the side and took a seat next to David on the burlap sack. I was embarrassed by the intensity of my sobs but felt powerless to stop them. I covered my face with my hands. Occasionally, I peered through the cracks in my fingers and looked at the yogi, who kept stirring the contents of the pot.
The next twenty minutes are a blur. The tears flowed like never before. They flowed like they’d flowed when Dr. Benjamin told me I had PTSD. I didn’t dare move my hands away. I felt too embarrassed, given that I’d only known the members of my group for a few days. But, as much as I wanted the embarrassment to ease, I didn’t want the crying to stop. It felt so good, like the tears were from decades ago. I feared that trying to stop them would risk stopping them forever, and they felt like they needed to come out. And if they didn’t come out now, they might never. And I might lose my one chance to finally feel healed. As it happened, there was no stopping them. I couldn’t have if I’d tried. And like a scene in a disaster movie, a dam had burst, and the head of the water board and the mayor of the town at the foot of the canyon were helpless to stop the wall of water. Nature was in charge. It was what it was.
As I wept, I heard Narendra, a local man who had agreed to guide us to Baba-ji’s cave and serve as translator, talking to my friends in English. He was explaining that the yogi had spent twenty years living alone in this cave. He was a sadhu, a yogi ascetic. When he was younger, he’d been in the military. But when he reached middle age, he had a conversion or transformation. He’d met an Indian saint named Neem Karoli Baba, or Maharaj-ji. Maharaj-ji changed Baba-ji’s life with his yogic teaching, similar to how he changed Ram Dass’s and Krishna Das’s lives. Actually, Maharaj-ji didn’t do much teaching. He spoke in riddles. He playfully threw bananas at his devotees. He fed them massive quantities of food. He repeated this phrase: “Love everybody, feed people, and remember God.” It was his loving presence, not his words, that his followers say was so powerful. Unlike other Hindu sages, who had complex teachings, Maharaj-ji didn’t offer a method. He simply loved you. And you felt it. Apparently, in his company, you felt intoxicated with love. In recorded interviews, I’ve heard his followers say things like, “He loved you from the inside out.” In recent years, people have postulated that Baba-ji had an abundance of mirror neurons, a preverbal system that links mammals together “brain to brain.”
Baba-ji wandered as a sadhu for twenty-five years. And then he retreated to the cave we were sitting in now, where he’d been since he was seventy-five. Narendra pointed to a date scrawled in ink on the wall. 1995. In 1995, at seventy-five years old, Baba-ji moved into the cave. He was seventy-five then…I did some quick math. This made the yogi almost one hundred years old.
I thought the crying was easing, but it welled up again as if another dam, behind the one that had already burst, had given way. And my body shook. Jesus, what’s wrong with you? Pull it together.
Had my life been leading me to this point? From editor to adventure journalist to homebound, drugged-up invalid to yoga teacher sobbing at the feet of a holy man? To this cave in the Himalayas? Who was writing this script?
The crying let up and my mind began to wander. I tried to imagine what it would be like living in a cave like this for a quarter century. What would it be like to meditate, chant, and pray all day? One would finally figure out a lot of shit in here. India’s Himalayan foothills and their caves are a famous refuge for yogi ascetics. The idea is to deny comforts, simplify one’s life, and distill or purify the mind into its essence. This is the path to enlightenment. The yoga texts call the purification process tapas. The word literally means “heat” or “discipline. By sitting in life’s discomfort for long periods, you burn away dysfunctional patterns of conditioning. You sit in the fury and flames of the conditioned, ever busymonkey-mind, and eventually, it all burns off, and you are left with…yourself. As you indeed are. I didn’t care about achieving Buddha-hood, full-blown purified Shiva mind. I would have been happy with reduced suffering. I only wanted to sweep out the dark corners of my heart.
Something about the cave, and the yogi, felt familiar. Months later, I understood why. As far-fetched as it might seem, Baba-ji reminded me of me. I realized I too had been living in a cave. Admittedly, my studio in Boulder was luxurious by yogi standards. And I left my studio-cave plenty. But I also spent an awful lot of time alone, especially compared to most Americans. Some weeks I saw no one except the people I passed on my morning walks. I lived on simple meals of rice, vegetables, and the occasional fruit smoothie. I got rid of my TV, including Netflix. I dedicated most nonworking hours to spiritual practices: I meditated and practiced yoga for three or four hours per day. I abandoned many of the luxuries that most Americans enjoy and consider to be essentials, like movies, vacations, hobbies. In my studio-cave, I read a lot of books about yoga and Buddhism, and I sat in the discomfort that thinking about my earlier life brought up for me. The memories of my family. The trials and tribulations of life. Loss. Lies. Hiding. I had been sitting in a cave with these things for quite some time. And love. Love was starting to emerge in the cave of my heart, just like it had for Ram Dass, Krishna Das, and maybe this man here.
My new friends were speaking with Baba-ji through Narendra. Katey, a seventy-ish yoga teacher from southern Indiana, asked Narendra to ask Baba-ji about the spirit of her recently deceased mother. Narendra, speaking in Hindi, asked. By now, the tea in the pot was steeped, and the air in the cave smelled sweetly pungent. I could see the yogi forming his thoughts as he passed out cups of tea. Then he answered in long, flowing, Hindi sentences. Narendra listened, nodding. And when was finished, he turned to Katey and related to her what said. “Your mother is at peace now. It’s time for you to focus on your life.” Katie nodded her head and cried. She looked awestruck, relieved. I could tell that she too needed peace.
Baba-ji reached into a cabinet and brought out nuts. He prepared a tray and began passing them out.
We ate nuts, drank tea, and my other friends asked questions. Then it was my turn.
There were so many questions that I wanted to ask. I wished I could be alone with him. So many questions. And after receiving what Indians call the “glance of mercy,” I felt silly asking a question in this group format. For god’s sake, he was a yogi, an ascetic meditator, not a fortune teller. I ended up blurting out a question that he couldn’t possibly answer.
“Should I try to rebuild my writing career or follow the path of teaching yoga and maybe teaching meditation someday?”
“Yes,” he said. “I should think both.”
It made sense. I nodded, yes. But I didn’t really listen or even care about his answer. I was still thinking about his eyes and still feeling the impact of his glance of mercy.
Baba-ji passed the tray again. I chewed on the bland nuts and on his answer for a while. We chanted to Ram in Sanskrit. I wondered how long we’d been there. I guessed three or four hours. Narendra informed us that our time was up. Our small group posed for pictures with Baba-ji. And then, one by one, we turned to crawl back through the cave’s opening. I left last. I made prayer hands and bowed to Baba-ji. I thanked him. As I turned away, I felt a tug on my shirt. It was Narendra. “He said come back.”
I nodded. “Yes, I will.”
Outside the cave, the sunlight hurt my eyes. I slipped my running shoes back on and followed the others back down the steep trail for the long walk back to our cars. My eye caught a high tree branch swaying. I looked up and saw three or four large Hanuman monkeys moving swiftly across the canopy, swinging from branch to branch, an image of grace and ease.
We rode in silence on double-track dirt roads alongside thousand-foot drop-offs back to the ashram. Overhead, more Hanuman monkeys swung on trees. In the middle of the road, dogs held their ground until the last possible second. When we arrived back at the ashram, I was still shaking my head in disbelief as I walked alone down the trail past the dining room and glass meditation room. I skulked through the fragrant flower gardens and past the lotus pond, where a single pink flower bloomed in the muck. The sun was setting, and the lush, green Himalayan foothills appeared to be wrapped in a light gauze. I kept walking until I reached the small apartment I shared with Amanda. I sat alone on the back porch. I wanted to think about the day. I thought I might journal about the yogi in the cave and the crying spell. But as soon as the sun went down, I felt fried. I crawled into bed and fell immediately asleep. It turned out the yogi in the cave was only the beginning. The monkey on my back — the self-doubt and loathing, the seeking, the doubting, the anger — was about to be shaken off forever.
The next morning, I woke before dawn. I snuck out of the room so as not to wake Amanda and navigated the path in the dark and cold toward a chair I’d spotted the day before on a small patio set beside a steep drop-off into the valley below. I stopped in the kitchen, where I poured myself a cup of chai, and then I took a seat on the patio. I sipped my chai and read a book about yoga that I’d brought along. I was finally reading about the limb of yoga called ishvara pranidhana, “surrender to God.” It was a section I’d dismissed before. As I sat there reading, I heard a bird chirping loudly. Then a second bird. I looked up at the roof of the dining room and saw two large green birds preening each other. They seemed to be in love — partners. I grabbed my phone to take a photo of them, but they were gone. I scanned the valley and found the pair again, soaring. They soared high and far, making big sweeping loops over the valley. When they got to the slope on the other side, they swooped again, making a big looping arc and then circling back toward me. They got almost close enough for me to reach out and grab them, and then they turned again and soared back out over the valley. Out, out, out, out they flew, making several tight loop-the-loops before reaching the opposite slope, and then headed back toward me. I watched, mesmerized, as they repeated this elaborate flight path six or seven times. I wondered if their skywriting formed a message for me.
Then they disappeared.
Disappointed, I stood and walked toward the kitchen for another cup of chai. I stumbled. I caught myself and tried to take another step, but I could barely stay upright. My feet felt too heavy to lift. I must be getting sick, I thought. I set my chai down on a table and stumbled through the garden toward my room. Barely a foot in front of me, a giant garden snake crossed the path. But something was extraordinary about this snake; in its wake, the ground squiggled and vibrated. Scratching my head, I looked toward the mountaintops across the valley — the edge of the dark-green peaks blurred into the blue sky. The whole valley vibrated.
Back in our room, Amanda lay awake in bed. I told her about the birds and my heavy legs, the snake, and the vibrating ground. I felt paranoid. “I think somebody slipped me acid.” I was grasping for an explanation. I was having a terrifying embodied experience that felt also out of my body, out of time.
“I don’t know what to say,” she said. “Tell me more.” She sat up in bed, looking irritated. In those days, she seemed to wake up already upset at me. On some level, I knew that as a couple we were fucked. It was hopeless. I refused to give up. I did love her. But as strong as my love was this: I did not want to be single again. I feared the loneliness that I knew would set in.
“I’m tripping my balls off. The mountains and sky are blended. The earth is vibrating, even the monkeys and snakes. What’s wrong with me? It’s too big to describe. Sweetie, I have to keep walking. I want to find those birds again. It’s like they cast a spell on me.”
I walked out of the room and returned to my bird-watching perch. But the birds were gone. The sun was up, and the entire valley appeared wrapped in gauze. A wave of emotion rose from my belly, passed up my torso into my neck and head. I burst into tears again.
I’d taken psychedelics a few times in the past, so I knew what tripping felt like. I’d also reached mildly altered states through meditation and yoga. I definitely wasn’t taking drugs that day, and yet I was completely out of my mind. Inside my skull, I soared like the birds I’d seen. A voice kept repeating the phrase, “It really is all one.”
This altered state of consciousness lasted all morning — and all afternoon. I sat in wonder. I wept. And then, as the sun set and the valley filled with shadows, my wild ride subsided. I eased back down, and again I was the man I knew myself to be. And yet I finally had glimpsed the man I had longed to become.
Adapted excerpt from INTO THE SOUL OF THE WORLD: My Journey to Healing by Brad Wetzler. Copyright © 2023. Available on March 21, 2023 from Hachette Go, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.