Walking with God
Having practiced yoga for nearly a century, Professor Shri Narayan Agnihotri (“Chachaji”) reflects on the beauty of a simple life.
Interview by Irene Petryszak
Until the age of 90, I did not know what it meant to be old. For years, I got up each morning at 3:30, did an hour and a half of hatha yoga, then practiced pranayama and meditation. Every day I walked for miles and miles. But now that illness has touched me, I find that, at the age of 95, my eyes and ears don’t work so properly. Still I make whatever little effort I can to move forward in my spiritual life.
In India, morning is considered the best time for practice; it is known as brahma muhurta, the time for meeting God. These days, I start my morning between 4:30 and 5:00 with breathing exercises, walking, worshipping the sun, and reciting the Gayatri mantra.
First I sit for five to seven minutes, focusing on my breath. Then I do kapalabhati for about a minute, and then nadi shodhanam (alternate nostril breathing). And last, a variation of brahmari called Omkar breathing: Without pressing, I cover my eyes gently with my two middle fingers (the tips of the fingers rest against the bridge of the nose), close my ears with my thumbs, and place my index fingers above my eyebrows (the little fingers rest on the cheeks). Then, while repeating Om (with my lips closed), I exhale and enjoy the vibration it creates. I do this 11 times.
Then I take my bath and go for a long walk before breakfast. I repeat this entire breathing practice series again in the open air at the end of my morning walk. This makes me feel fresh throughout the day. Later, I do it again after my evening walk (before I eat supper).
I like to walk by myself at my own natural pace. My philosophy is that as many times as you eat, you should walk. So I take a little stroll after breakfast, after lunch, before taking tea in the afternoon, and then again in the evening. When weather permits, I walk outdoors—when I am in Kanpur, I go to the nearby park, but in my village, I walk along the dirt path among the goats and chickens and children playing. Otherwise if it’s raining or dark, I make many rounds on my verandah or indoors.
I don’t wear my glasses when I walk. The eyes must see the greenery—it is a feast for them. You get from nature what you cannot get from any tonic or food—inner power, spiritual nourishment.
When the sun is at the level of my eyes, I walk as worship to the sun. The sun is the source of life. At the end of my walk, I sit in the sun and close my eyes—it’s as if I am drinking from the source itself. (In the winter, I take in the sun through the window.) And I say the Gayatri mantra, which is the best source of energy.
I try to take the mantra with its meaning to its depth, its deepest, subtlest level. Know yourself and you will get the best. That is the secret. For that, do the Gayatri mantra. Walking and hatha are just aids to help you to be able to sit and concentrate, to experience the joy of living.
Sometimes as I sit for meditation I feel good and sometimes my mind is invaded with stray thoughts. Then I concentrate on some noble idea. It’s as if I am wading through my mind to find a good spot, for the mind is very difficult. It is like a substance that won’t stay still. But I try. I sit and sit and wait without impatience to enter into that vast inner space which makes the imagination stagger. When I can do this successfully—when doing feels like not-doing—I feel so light, just as the body feels light when doing hatha.
I owe much to my spiritual master, Swami Rama, whom I met when I was 44. In his simple and humorous way, Swamiji taught me the proper way to meditate and live. Yoga, he said, is just to learn to be yourself. He taught me to sit humbly without any thought of gain or profit. The Bhagavad Gita, he said, tells us that whatever we do, even if it is just ever so little, will make a difference. Just keep making effort, keep trying. So with his encouragement I began to do my spiritual practice, and continue to this day to keep moving forward in whatever small way I can.
The best teacher is not just one who knows yoga but who also knows what his students need. I never asked Swamiji to please teach me this or teach me that. I waited for him to give me what was right for me, what my body and mind could support.
I feel best when I can contemplate on some noble idea, whether it is something I have heard, or something I have read, especially in the Bhagavad Gita or the Upanishads. Attitude is important. I tell people, Think nobly. Keep your humor, as if you have found a wonderful secret. And do not lose your childlike nature. (That’s why I enjoy playing with children.)
Have faith in a greater power. We are made in the image of the Lord. The body perishes, but not the soul. The soul is immortal, eternal. Thanks to Swamiji, I was given an inkling of something that is greater than this physical reality. This realization removes the greatest fear—the fear of death. We are not the body. Our true self can never die. Swamiji is always with me. He is even more with me now that he is no longer in his body.
The simple life is the best. So in a simple way now I pass my days. Swamiji taught me: Enjoy life and the gift of happiness will be yours. When you only have your own interest in mind, he said, you become disturbed. Try to do as much good for others as you can. Give the best of what you have. That is the best service to humanity—and that is how I try to live my remaining days.
Shri Narayan Agnihotri, PhD (known lovingly as “Chachaji”), was the head of the English Department at the University of Kanpur, India. After his retirement in 1978, he continued to tutor and guide university students. In 1992, at the age of 80, he became the principal of the school in the village of Narwal. He retired in 2004 at the age of 92.