What Breaking My Leg in the Himalayas Taught Me about Faith
by Yogi Aaron
What makes great people great? What gives them strength in their darkest hour? How do the weak become strong in moments of need?
It is that simple.
My faith was put to the test on a mountain. And I am not talking about a metaphorical one. I'm talking about a real one. What occurred near Tapovan, India, at an altitude of 4,463 meters (14,640 feet) in the Himalayas, is one of those moments—and not only because it's one of the most majestic places I've visited during a lifetime of travel. Descending on foot toward Gangotri in 2007, some 24 kilometers (approximately 15 miles) from Tapovan, everything I had practiced as a Tantric was tested in an instant. I heard the members of my group cry, "Look up!" And that was it. A boulder twice the size of a basketball flattened me. My leg was shattered. Genuinely. Painfully. Dangerously. Broken.
I’ve made many journeys to India and to the Himalayas, each one challenging in its unique way, but this one, by far, was the most life-altering. It was on this particular trip that I set my personal intention—to emulate Gandhi. It’s said that though he died a violent death, he passed with a smile and the name of God on his lips—a level of peace, contentment, and equanimity I still strive to cultivate. I have discovered that walking in the footsteps of Himalayan sages and pilgrims deepens my connection to all that is good, bringing me closer to that intention.
Tapovan, which is celebrated in Hindu mythology as the "abode of the gods," is one of the most glorious places I have ever visited. The Ganges has its source in this remote massif at the sacred shrine of Gangotri, rushing down to the plains in a torrential fury. Very few pilgrims follow this itinerary, which leads to one of the most important spots in Hindu spirituality.
Here we met Mata-ji, also known as Mama-ji. Mata means "great mother." Ji is a sign of respect and an acknowledgement of a kindred spirit. Mata-ji is a beautiful, old sage who lives here, deep in the Himalayas. I had met her on a previous trip and was fortunate to see her again during this visit to have darshan with her. (Darshan means to sit with an enlightened one.)
The real sages, like Mata-ji, can only be found deep in the Himalayan Mountains, and they are not easily accessible. But once you do find them, they pour their love and spirit out to you, and it feels as if they are standing at the gates of heaven. Saints like Mata-ji constantly remind us to “Surrender to the Mother of Life, surrender to her arms. The eternal mother is always holding you, cradling you and protecting you.” These blessed sages teach us that we suffer in life because we forget where our inner sanctuary resides. Yet through consistent spiritual practice, we not only begin to remember, we also begin to experience the Lord and Mother of Life, who dwells in the deepest chamber of our hearts.
I was not always close to the Divine Mother. For many years, our relationship had been an estranged one. Being raised a born-again Christian, I turned away from God and faith in my teens. I hated anything church. When I started to teach yoga, I even refused to chant “Om” in my yoga classes.
I was not always close to the Divine Mother. For many years, our relationship had been an estranged one.
However, many years before this trip to Tapovan, I had met my teacher, my guru. I first met him when I attended a week-long Living Tantra retreat at Kripalu. After a couple of days settling in, he led a class that involved chanting, something I’d never gotten into before because I thought it was strange. I clearly remember that notion shifting for me during a chant to the Divine Mother. And it was magical. I realized I was just scratching the surface of possibilities in yoga, and I was struck by the recurrence and significance of the Divine Feminine in my life. At that retreat, Guru-ji became my teacher and my practice was transformed from a physical one to a devotional one. The Divine Mother became an anchor for my practice and my life. Now, knowing I’m always protected and cared for is the foundation of my faith and contentment. (And since then, I have chanted “Om” in all of the yoga classes I teach.)
It was this cultivation of faith that allowed me to live life in a big way. As my inner relationship to the Divine Mother grew, my resolve became stronger. Spending time with Mata-ji on Tapovan gave me the cup of strength and endurance I was going to need to cope with what came next. As I sat with Mata-ji, I felt as if I had come home. I experienced this deep remembrance of who I was and what I was searching for—as well as the power of the latent fire and its potential that lay dormant within me. As I gazed at her beautiful, serene, peaceful face, her eyes overwhelmed me with compassion and love. In many stories, seekers who meet these kinds of saints often tell a story of “coming home,” and I, too, felt as if I had come home in meeting Mata-ji.
The following day, we departed from Tapovan at 7:00 a.m. and headed for Gangotri. The sun had already risen over the peaks of the mountains and the beautiful abode of Tapovan was beginning to wake up. At about 8:30 a.m., we were getting very close to the bottom of the steep descent.
Suddenly I heard Robert yell, “Look out!” My initial reaction was “Yeah, right,” because during the climb up and the first part of the descent, every time a quarter-sized rock rolled down, someone would shout a warning that inflated a piece of rubble into a miniature Volkswagen. So, when I heard the admonition to “Look out!” I didn't look up until I heard Brian’s booming, fearful cry, “Look up!!! Look up!!!”
As I looked up, I saw a rock about twice the size of a basketball heading right toward me. The next few moments are a complete blur. No matter how hard I try to remember, those moments are gone to me forever. What I do remember is lying down and screaming. The intensity of the pain from a broken femur was excruciating and inconceivable.
Here's the short version of what happened next:
When I regained some semblance of composure, we sent a few people in the group ahead to seek help, and to see if the Indian army stationed close by would send a helicopter. No helicopter came. As time passed, the day drew on and it started to get cold. All of our belongings had gone ahead with the porters and I realized that I might be stuck in the mountains for the night, and there was a good chance I could freeze to death.
With that realization, I continuously brought my attention to my breathing, my third eye, and the grace that Mata-ji had bestowed upon me. Finally, after a lot of debate about what we should do, the remaining group members built a stretcher out of sticks and blankets. The porters created a kind of hammock or sling with the blankets, and they tied that to sticks with me inside, wrapped up like a cocoon.
I continuously brought my attention to my breathing, my third eye, and the grace that Mata-ji had bestowed upon me.
Being in that cocoon was an experience that brought up a vast range of emotions from deep within me. I felt completely helpless. There was absolutely nothing I could do about anything. When a person breaks a bone, especially a bone that enables movement like walking or being able to stand up, they are totally incapacitated. I remember being able to wiggle my toes, and that was about it. I was not able to do anything else. And as I was being transported down the mountain, I learned a valuable lesson in surrender. I often tell my students that one of the beliefs in Tantra is that the whole world is a manifestation of the Divine Mother, and that bliss is the experience of being held in her arms. Coming down that mountain, wrapped in that makeshift cocoon, I began to feel a blissful sense of being held, tended, and cared for.
No, it was not smooth sailing, and there were a few times when I was dropped (though the porters were delicately doing their very best to transport me over the glacier). Intermingled with the experiences of pain and bliss, all my fears about being dropped down the cliffs into the Ganga also surfaced—and when I say that the practice of yoga has led me to this experience, this understanding that I will be taken care of by the Divine, I really mean that.
Yoga teaches us to embrace the moment and face our karma, which is expressed in and through the situations that life presents to us. Yoga also teaches us that we are where we are, and to be content with the moment. If we are not content, we need to adjust. As I brought my attention to my body, I began breathing in for six counts and exhaling for six counts—and this went on for the better part of the following two days. I was rewarded with a continual, gentle return to that feeling of being held in her arms, with my mind keeping a vigil on her grace, as well as the mantra my teacher had given to me. Three-and-a-half days later, I was finally in the hospital and operated on.
Guru-ji taught me that the bigger my faith, the bigger my life. And the sages teach us, “Oh Man, thou art greater than God, because God does not have Man in him, but Man has God within him.” While our choices may lead to physical pain or discomfort, if we remember the sacred fire within, we will always be happy. We have the capacity to know everlasting happiness. Our practice has the potential to cultivate our faith and bring us back to the Lord of Life, who resides in the deepest chamber of our hearts. The greater our faith, the brighter we shine. Because we shine brighter, the more we give permission for those around us to do the same.