Greetings friends & Yogis,
I have embarked on a healing journey to write my story, my heart wishes to allow a river of forgiveness to flow through it, and to flow through all of us.
I love the title 5 Raisins for this chapter. I would love to hear your thoughts and feelings this chapter evokes, and which title you prefer.
From my heart to yours.
In love and light,
Mahan Kirn (aka Mahani)
Chapter 1 Q-Tip Head at the Florida Ashram/Five Raisins
My new pink-tinted bifocals made me feel proud on my first day of first grade. Pink was my favorite color, but we were not permitted to wear pink clothing. This was the only pink item I owned: large bifocals, with pink-tinted lenses on the top and baby blue on the bottom.
The elementary school in Altamonte Springs, Florida, seemed large in comparison to the ashram where I lived with my parents. As I stood nervously in line in my tall blue cotton-knit turban and long white dress over baggy leggings, I realized immediately just how different I was from the rest of the kids who wore jeans and sneakers and had cut hair. A tall, red-headed boy with freckles turned around, pointed at me, and shouted so everyone could hear him: “Look! A four-eyed Q-tip head!” He had to write on the blackboard over and over that he would not call me four-eyed Q-tip again. This made me feel somewhat vindicated, but as a roomful of strange children continued to gasp and point and laugh at me, throwing their questions—"What are you wearing?" "Why are you wearing that?" “What is this thing on your head?”—I was overwhelmed and grew shy.
Lunchtime arrived. I had never eaten outside the familiar comfort of the ashram. I sat at a table and took out my thermos from my lunch bag. Everyone was comparing their lunches, bologna and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches—foods I'd never seen or tried before. As I opened my thermos, I noticed the red-headed boy sitting at my table. My heart sank.
“So, what does Q-tip head have for lunch?” he called out loudly. The lid of my thermos was dripping with oil and soy sauce, which spilled on my white dress. The rice and broccoli, mashed and filled to the brim, had become stiff and hardened. It smelled terrible. I was mortified and wanted to cry. But I held back my tears, closed the lid, and decided it was better to be hungry than be ridiculed. I ate only carrot sticks, as I enviously watched the other kids eat candy bars and drink chocolate milk.
Back in kindergarten I had learned that we looked different from our neighbors, that our customs—to never cut our hair, to wear a turban, and eat only vegan— were different from theirs. Now I began to think of my classmates as the "normal" ones and of myself as the odd one out. And worse: I felt I was not "normal" inside. I did not know what to do to fit in and I was terrified that something was wrong with me. Going to school became an act of courage.
I was born a Sikh just before the Summer Solstice of 1975 to a former Midwestern Episcopalian father and a former free-spirited topless dancer from California. Yogi Bhajan had joined them in an arranged marriage the year before. We lived in an ashram—a white brick house with red shutters at the end of a dirt road in Altamonte Springs. The house would have been large for one family, but we were twenty-eight people, adults and children. Each family had a small corner they made their own, as private and comfortable as was possible. From the time I was born till the age of two, my parents and I slept on sheepskins on the floor. Every morning my mother woke me up at 3:00 a.m., put me under a bitter cold shower, wound my hair in a tight knot on top of my head, and wrapped my turban. Then, as had been our routine since I was one-and-a-half, we joined the other kids and their parents in the dimmed prayer room for yoga practice. I was still sleepy when she put me in positions with names like “washing machine” and “lion pose,” followed by a two-hour meditation. The most exciting part was the reward afterwards: five ever so sweet, chewy, divine raisins that I wished I could hold in my mouth forever.
Food was sparse, partly because the turbans and beards made it difficult for the men to get jobs. Everyone pooled their money and kept only a $10 weekly personal allowance. My father and the other men went to the farmers’ market after hours and dove into dumpsters to salvage rotten bananas and smashed grapes. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner we ate bananas: mashed bananas, fried bananas, banana smoothies, banana curry, banana ice cream, and banana juice—which was slimy and difficult to swallow. The women cleaned houses. I went with my mother sometimes and loved to watch her; she could clean like an ox! She took off her turban when she cleaned, but covered the tight bun on her head with a net to keep it neat and unsullied. One time, when she was cleaning the bathroom, I stole candy from a jar on the living room table in a fancy apartment. In the evening, my father caught me eating the candy and lectured me about stealing. To my mother he said: “You better keep your eye on her. You know Yogi Bhajan said no sugar. Especially for kids!”
While the grownups struggled with financial issues, I ran around with Sat Puran, a boy my age and my best friend, climbing the tree-house in our large back yard, chasing his guinea pigs and iguanas that roamed freely around the ashram, and making perfume from flowers we crushed in water and sold on the street near the ashram. It was a fun time until a new family moved in, and their two daughters dared me to cut my hair, promising not to tell. I wanted to be their friend so I readily agreed. I pulled half of my shoulder-length hair in front of my face.
"Cut it," they commanded. "And cut bangs in front. You will look so cute!"
I threw the cut hair over the edge of the tree-house and watched my blonde locks fall to the ground. They ran down, grabbed my hair, and ran inside to tattle. I got into big trouble. I was spanked and made to feel ridiculous in front of everybody.
Every year Yogi Bhajan came to Florida from his residence in New Mexico for the Winter Solstice celebration. It took place at Lake Wales, not far from our ashram, and lasted a full week. Hundreds of his followers came from all over the world to practice White Tantric Yoga—the meditation method he created that he created and that he said cuts through conscious and subconscious programming and leads to a peaceful mind. They slept in tents and ate mung beans and rice all week.
By now my father and our house director, Sam Puran, had started “Nanak Landscaping”—named after Guru Nanak Dev, who founded the Sikh religion in the late 1400s—which they owned and ran, and which turned quite lucrative. My parents could afford to buy a double bed for themselves and a twin bed for me, and we moved upstairs to a larger room. In preparation for Yogi Bhajan’s arrival, the women cleaned the house for weeks. They washed the floors on their knees, scrubbed the kitchen cupboards and bathrooms, polished the dishes and cutlery and back yard, every vase and picture frame in the house until they sparkled and you could see the sun reflected in them. They laundered and ironed the curtains, swept the leaves from the front of the house and the and they cooked.
When I came home from school that day all excited, my mother grabbed me. “I need to do your hair,” she said. “Yogi Bhajan will be here soon.” She was already dressed in her best white silk dress and shiny white turban. She pulled my hair so tight I felt like the top of my head would pop open or my hair would detach from my scalp. Why couldn’t I have my hair loose like all the girls in school, I thought. I followed my mom outside. All the ashram members were lined up by the garage, everyone in their best white clothes, and we joined them in chanting to Guru Ram Das, the lord of miracles from our tradition.
My father owned the nicest car, an old BMW with leather seats and a mobile phone, and was picking up Yogi Bhajan at the airport. I wanted to go with him and sit in the passenger’s seat and play with the mobile phone, something he let me do sometimes, but not today, not when he was driving our Guru. Finally, we saw the car turning into our road. Everyone gathered their palms together in front of their chests in the prayer position. The car approached us and stopped and the passenger’s door opened.
The first thing I saw was Yogi Bhajan’s feet—clad in white leather Birkenstocks—stepping out of the car. Then the rest of his body, a big man, all in white. Everyone kneeled. I thought they had dropped something on the ground. But as I peered out from behind my mother, I saw that they were touching his feet with their right hand, and then with the same hand touching their foreheads. So I did the same. I saw Yogi Bhajan look at me and felt heat when I touched my forehead. I had seen Yogi Bhajan before, but this was the first time that I remember him looking at me—and the heat that flowed from him to my forehead.
In the evening, my parents were seated with Yogi Bhajan and a few other people in the back yard, talking. It was a warm evening, the kind people flock to Florida in the winter months to enjoy. I was asked by the cook to bring them a plate of cookies. I placed the cookies on the table and looked up to see if Yogi Bhajan was looking at me like he had earlier. He was not. But as I walked away, I heard him say to my parents, “Mahani has grown up, she is ready.”
That night my parents took out the old sheepskins and laid them on the living room floor. I protested. “I don’t want to sleep on the floor.”
My mother explained, “When Yogi Bhajan travels, he gets the nicest room in the house. We are lucky and blessed that he will sleep in our bed.” Falling asleep next to my parents on my sheepskin, I thought back on what Yogi Bhajan had told them. That I was “ready.” But ready for what?
The answer soon came from my mother, who said excitedly, “Yogi Bhajan said that you’re ready for Ladies Camp. You’re old enough now, so you will not be going to the children’s camp this summer. We’ll get to see Yogi Bhajan lecturing every day!” I was six years old.
The Ladies’ Camp
When summer came, all of us women and young girls and baby girls from the ashram piled into the back of a VW bus. The cold metal floor of the bus had been covered with sheepskins, so we would be warm during the three-day trip west and our white dresses and turbans would remain clean. We had packed our simple belongings and lots of bananas. I was excited about the rice cakes with almond butter snacks. We drove three days and nights straight. I loved drifting off to sleep to the women chanting our beautiful mantras. On the fourth day at dawn we reached the high desert of New Mexico—the “Land of Enchantment,” as all their license plates said. The air was cool and dry, so different from the hot moist air of central Florida. A crescent moon was still visible in the sky, a few stars shining their last light before fading, and the sun was just rising over the mountains. We unpacked our large canvas tent and placed it in the designated area, next to the tents of other devotees who had travelled from ashrams all over the United States. Many kids were helping out, or just playing around, and I was so excited that they looked and dressed like me and not like my classmates back home.
There were 100 women in the Ladies’ Camp, women and girls. As instructed by Yogi Bhajan, the women were to spend six weeks of the year away from their husbands and devote themselves to their inner lives and women’s studies, and return to their husbands rejuvenated and empowered. A large white tent where Yogi Bhajan gave his talks had been erected, and with all of us wearing white clothes and turbans it was like being in a sea of shining white. Yogi Bhajan sat on a small elevated platform—grand, wise, charming, exuding an aura of grace, power, and all knowing. A beautiful secretary adorned with gold jewelry and looking like a princess sat next to him and handed him a wet washcloth to wipe his mustache and beard when he took a break from speaking.
I sat quietly in the back with one of my friends and didn’t pay much attention to what Yogi Bhajan was lecturing. I didn’t understand it, yet I felt the power of his words in my heart. There were special times when women came up to him and asked for an arranged marriage. I recalled my mother telling me how she had travelled to New Mexico all the way from Amsterdam, where she had first been introduced to Kundalini Yoga, to ask Yogi Bhajan for an arranged marriage. I recalled my father telling me that when he saw her, he felt he was in the presence of a Nordic goddess—blonde, blue eyed, tall, and gorgeous. The women I now saw in front of Yogi Bhajan looked shy, timid, almost scared of him.
At night, the skies were clear and crisp. Wind was blowing in the cottonwood trees, and the white cotton puffs seemed to me like snowflakes. It was magical. One night, we were waiting by the gate for Yogi Bhajan’s car to arrive. Cars came and went, but it wasn’t him. I was bored, and as a car drove through the gate, I jumped out onto the road like a jumping jack with my arms spread wide. The car stopped in front of me, and out walked Yogi Bhajan. I was horrified. It was not the limo that usually drove him to class. He called me over, laughing, and said “What do you think, little one, you can play with death?”
This was the first time he spoke to me directly. I was mortified, but I was also ecstatic that he spoke to me. I felt I was special in his eyes, even if I was mischievous.
During the six weeks at Ladies Camp we were trained to march, do summersaults and gymnastics, and at the end of the summer I was proud to perform in the final presentation. But mostly I recalled Yogi Bhajan’s bushy eyebrows and smiling eyes when he asked me why I was playing with death. I understood that there was more to his words than the words themselves. He taught through his lectures, which I did not understand, but he also taught in such small instances as scolding a little girl, but with a smile. I understood that when he had told my parents I was ready, he knew I was ready to be his devoted disciple. I’d always loved him, but now I loved him even more—he was the grandest of all grand teachers and masters, and I was ready to follow him anywhere.
So, when I was eight years old and my parents told me that Yogi Bhajan said I was going to boarding school in India, I jumped with joy! They pointed to the floor-to-ceiling mural of the Golden Temple in Northern India that was painted on a wall in our prayer room—a temple made of gold and surrounded by water as if it were a floating lotus—I imagined that’s where I was going. “People from all over the world come there to heal and to learn about healing,” my parents explained. As young as I was, I knew with all my heart that I wanted to be a healer. Their words and Yogi Bhajan’s prospects for me seeped into every pore of my being. I went to sleep that night imagining myself in school in a temple made of gold.