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articles The last disciple of Shri Dhirendra Brahmachari
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Interview with Reinhard Gammenthaler
(published in Schweizer Yoga-Journal, 2003; translated by Julien Balmer)

After having devoted many years to intense self-practice, Reinhard Gammenthaler, a native of the Swiss capital Bern, began offering yoga classes in 2002. The following interview was conducted in the run-up to a seminar for the Swiss Yoga Federation.

  YJ: How did you first encounter yoga?
  RG: In the early 1980s when I was going through a difficult period in my life I was desperately looking for a way to find back to myself. After looking in many places I felt strongly drawn to the Indian body of thought, and when I eventually lay hands on some yoga books I began to practice. These books, among them the works of Selvarajan Yesudian and Swami Vivekananda, were interesting but they didn’t electrify me. This changed when I came across the two books of Dhirendra Brahmachari. I began practicing with heart and soul and withdrew more and more. Many of my old friends and acquaintances thought I had lost it and was going bonkers.

My only work back then was to deliver newspapers during one hour per day, which paid about 700 CHF a month. I was living in a cheap attic and was eating exclusively rice and lentils. I was practicing yoga all day long. Some unusual experiences came into being. To give an example, I had a photo of Dhirendra Brahmachari in my room, and when, in a moment of feeling low and doubting my doing, I was wondering whether or not to give up the yoga practice, the eyes in the photo became alive and from them emanated a beam of light that electrified me, and I began to feel the vibrations of an unknown energy within my entire being. I knew in that very moment that I was going to care about this energy from then on and bring it to blossom. After this experience I always had the feeling of having a teacher on my side and mainly on my inside. I decidedly approached difficult practices und for instance also cut my frenulum of tongue in order to be able to perform Khechari Mudra.

Even though I was poor and was eating meagrely I was always healthy and felt very vital. I indeed ascribed this extraordinary vitality to yoga.

It is interesting to note that when you practice that intensely, new practices come to you automatically. In this way I have trained to push out the rectum, as is described in the classical texts of yoga, and suddenly I realized that I was capable of sucking water into my intestine through my rectum. This practice virtually came about spontaneously, I had never read a description about it or anything. I am mentioning this here because later on, this practice, which goes by the name of ganesh kriya, was going to be of primary importance during my time of apprenticeship in India. It helps to awaken the kundalini, but actually should be practiced only under the oversight of a teacher.

At one point I wanted to ask a relatively known yoga teacher in Bern several questions that had come up with my practice. When I told her that I was practicing yoga between five and eight hours daily, she was alienated and warned me. I realized that she couldn’t help me in any way whatsoever und that remained the only contact with the local yoga scene.

But what I was searching more and more was a personal teacher, a teacher that could give me answers to my specific questions. I always thought of Dhirendra Brahmachari with whom I felt a spiritual connection. I once also discovered that my name "Reinhard" practically is an anagram of Dhirendra.

I tried to contact Shri Dhirendra and wrote many letters to India, but never received an answer. But after some time I all of a sudden received a parcel containing a couple of books on yoga. I was now determined to head to India in order to meet my guru in person, and that is how in 1989 I went to India and to his ashram. Through his books and the fact that he was the personal guru of the then-Indian president Indira Gandhi, Dhirendra Brahmachari was very well-known. He had several ashrams, in Delhi and in Kashmir, in Jammu, Katra, and in Mantalai. However, he had recently stopped teaching and closed down all his ashrams.

When he granted me an audience I was asked whether I mastered Khecari Mudra. I affirmed and had to show him, whereupon he was very content. He said that he had had almost everything in his life, but never a disciple who became a yogi. Thousands had come but hardly anybody was prepared to do the inner work. I could become a yogi and he would accept me as his last disciple. This offer made me infinitely happy.
  YJ: How exactly did he impart the teachings?
  RG: He gave me instructions on how to practice and sent me from Delhi to Mantalai, into the mountains of Kashmir, and said he would follow later. So I headed to Mantalai where I found his big, multi-storey ashram orphaned, exception made of a few animals that were taken care of by servants. Shri Dhirendra had forbidden me to accept any kind of support from these people. So I had to prepare my own food, do my own laundry, and, totally left to my own devices, was to practice, practice, practice…

It was a very hard time for me. It was very cold in this area, Mantalai is about 2000 meters above sea level. I had to get up every day at three in the morning and take a freezing cold bath. Subsequently I had to practice Pranayama in order to warm myself and eventually practice the most varied practices. In between these cycles, therefore several times a day, I had to perform the aforementioned ganesh kriya. At noon I had a spicey milk drink and in the evening my only meal. My teacher insisted that I would study in the evening and not sleep before midnight. I also wasn’t allowed to nap in the daytime.

I lived in this rhythm for four months, I also wasn’t allowed to speak to anybody, and already after the first weeks my consciousness began to change. I felt as I was made of glass. Sometimes I thought I wanted to relax my efforts a little bit, but even though I was all on my own I constantly felt supervised. Even a white she-dog, she was the favourite she-dog of my master, seemed to be infused with a mysterious human life and I thought to myself that she was watching me, checking whether I was really making every effort possible. Again and again I told myself: “I am going to go through with this – never give up!”

Among others, my teacher had requested me to attempt to hold my breath more and more, and in the beginning I really had the feeling I was succeeding at increasing my breath retention. Especially, I had discovered that I cold be without air for a fairly long time when a fainting-like state occurred as a result of practicing the pranayama technique murcha. But in time I had here, as well as with other practices, the feeling that I wasn’t making any progress, but regress. In this way many questions that I could not discuss with anybody accrued.

When Dhirendra Brahmachari eventually came to Mantalai he ignored me for a couple of days entirely and only attended to his own business. He after all granted me again an audience and asked me whether I was meanwhile able to hold my breath for one hour. When I answered in the negative he was visibly displeased. He told me that in this case I could no longer stay there but had to return to Switzerland and continue to practice there. This sack deeply upset me since I had thought to stay forever in India.

I was very angry and wanted to disavow. But at home the love for my guru reawakened. I wrote again. He suggested I travel to Africa and become acquainted with animism and voodoo before coming back to India. So I flew to Nigeria where I indeed got caught up in a voodoo story. It got very eerie and I felt helplessly possessed by spirits. Even back home in Switzerland I still felt affected. In this emergency situation I remembered that I had the phone number of my master. I called him – by the way this was the only time I ever did that – and asked for help. He said to continue with my practice and these states would diminish and eventually disappear which is what then also happened.

Later on he suggested I travel to Pakistan in order to study Sufism. When there I indeed encountered some very knowledgeable Afghans who instructed me. However, also there I ended up in a very delicate situation. In the end I got off lightly though.

In retrospect I think that by sending me to Africa and Pakistan, my master wanted me to face my own shadows. And indeed these experiences brought about changes in my personality.

In 1993 I then travelled again to my master in India. He was very happy to see me and didn’t speak of things past any more. I again went to Mantalai where I practiced alone in the ashram. He was around most of the time, but for the most part attended his own business. I don’t really know what he was keeping busy with. Sometimes he spent days on end in his room, with curtains closed. I assume he was meditating. He also had an artificial cave built in Mantalai. It was a grave of sorts in which he wanted to practice Samadhi. Dhirendra Brahmachari always had a personal cow. He valued milk very highly as an aliment.
  YJ: How did it go on after your second visit to your Indian master?
  RG: I returned home and a short while later my master died in a plane crash. I read about it in the newspaper.
The past eight years basically looked as follows: I had a night duty job with the Swiss Post which kept me busy between 22.00 – 02.00. The rest of my time was devoted to yoga practice. I tried to constantly deepen my practice and acquire deeper states. In doing so I always felt that Dhirendra Brahmachari was still around. I also knew that I would never again search for a guru. I am of the opinion that such an intense relationship comes only once in a lifetime. I took a couple of months off every year and went back to Mantalai. The former ashram now belonged to the government and had become a police base, so it wasn’t possible to go back there.
I somehow felt like continuing the work of my guru and joined forces with his former cook. I brought a little bit of cash every year in order to build a new small ashram. But you have to be aware of the fact that Mantalai is in Kashmir and that the political situation is quite difficult. This and further problems eventually disposed me to give up this project.
  YJ: Have you been teaching in Switzerland?
  RG: During the first years I did not want to teach. My master had advised me not to become a yoga teacher but a yogi. I had the feeling that teaching would dissipate my own energies. The main focus was very clearly on my self-practice, my sadhana.
But when things changed unfavourably at work and I at the same time was asked to go public, I decided to offer yoga teachings.
  YJ: What is your understanding of Kundalini Yoga?
  RG: The fundamental idea of my yoga path is brahmacharya, that means the transmutation of the sexual force into elixirs that expand the consciousness of the practitioner. This is accomplished through the various practices, paired with right nutrition. On my path I have at times renounced many things, for instance eating out. Through the mentioned initiations in India and in extreme life circumstances I began to perceive my shakti, my inner spiritual force, better and better. At the latest in 1991 I knew that I wanted to devote myself to this force with everything I had.

To me, this kundalini experiece is not a nuclear explosion as it is described by e.g. Gopi Krishna, but rather a feeling that a living seed begins to sprout and grow inside of you. This seed is like a goddess and becomes stronger and stronger. One approaches the deeper layers within one’s being, finds one’s roots and connects more and more to this elementary force that created us all.

It is an energy that can be felt and that has a connection to you personally. Practices such as the purification techniques impact the nervous centres, particularly at the level of the head, and these in return influence the glands that control our mental states and steer our sense of self. These glands are often referred to as “glands of destiny” (pituitary, pineal and thyroid glands).

Through body postures, in particular when they are being held for prolonged periods of time, new muscles and structures in the body become aware and one begins to feel the nadis. I see pranayama, which I have practiced very intensely, as a process of purification of the nadis, a way to gradually expanding one’s consciousness and to gain control over the life force.

Hatha Yoga is regarded as a slow, painful process. Initiates sometimes call it the wet way, because many tears are shed along the way. My guru always used to say: “Slowly, slowly! Kundalini shakti is like a lioness or a tigress that you need to approach with great respect and caution!” What he meant was to do things gradually, step by step. The shakti becomes more and more alive and the consciousness expands more and more.

I was mostly alone on this path. I also never met other disciples of Dhirendra Brahmachari. I believe it is important to be alone during certain periods of life. Solitude helps to cut certain attachments, to change old habits, and to become established in a new way of life. One thereby begins to approach oneself.
  YJ: What do you teach your students?
  RG: Basically, I want to pass on my own experience, that means to put participants in contact with shakti. In the past I was expecting a lot from my students, but I have meanwhile relaxed my standards a little. There certainly are only a few who wish to practice yoga with the same intensity that I have been doing it over the past 20 years. I think it is already an accomplishment to come regularly to yoga classes for people who have a civic life.

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