Ajeet Khalsa worked in musical theatre, television and production in new york and europe for over 20 years before discovering kundalini yoga and meditation. she met her spiritual teacher in 1987 and began her journey of self-awareness. she studied with yogi bhajan until his death in 2004. through her heroine’s journey, she now practices svaroopa© yoga and has a spiritual counseling practice. she regularly leads her popular teacher-training weekend retreat in how to teach children’s yoga. she also lives in community, running a yoga bnb in her cozy home ashram through airbnb. She lives in knoxville, tennessee and is looking forward to a year of traveling, with a son now in college.
Garden Spices interviewed Ajeet Khalsa. Here’s her story through the lens of 12.75 year old:
John David Haws[JD]: Can you tell me a little bit about what you do?
Ajeet Khalsa[A]: I do a couple of different things. I am a certified yoga teacher in Kundalini Yoga and meditation, I lead training workshops, and I teach people how to become yoga teachers; especially in the area of children’s yoga. I also run a holistic home in yoga bed and breakfast in Knoxville, Tennessee; so, I host world travelers who are interested in holistic living, yoga, meditation, or just healthy living. So I make them comfortable in my home and help them to find farmer’s markets and things around town while they stay with me. And then I’m a spiritual counselor and mentor.
JD: That’s very cool. What do you mean by “holistic living?”
A: Holistic living to me means just doing your best, say in the area of food, to eat sustainably and organically; I do my best to buy local foods, go to farmer’s markets, and to be in touch with people who are growing their own foods. I eat locally, I recycle, I compost, etc. The other part of living holistically is through the lens of mindful living. I do yoga and meditation, you know, to handle problems in your life, as opposed to going out and having a drink. I encourage people to maybe do meditation or maybe get some counseling. On an emotional level living holistically just means that you’re constantly in a conversation with yourself about self-improvement, self-growth, and self-awareness.
JD: That’s really interesting. So, can you tell me more about your house and what you do while hosting people?
A: [Laughs] Yeah, my house. So my house is called an Ashram. And an Ashram in India–actually my house is called Yoga Nivas, and in India the Nivas, and the reason I got that name, is that in India, which is where my yoga lineage comes from, the Nivas was the house next to the temple that took in travelers. And after doing yoga for a while, and moving back and forth from the mountains, I had been doing yoga for about ten years, so I just decided to make my house an Ashram. So, from the outside it looks like any other normal house, a suburban brick neighborhood, but when we go inside we take off our shoes at the door and the first thing that you walk into is my yoga studio. It doesn’t have any furniture, it’s all wood in there, and it’s just, you know, nice, relaxing, pictures on the wall. And then it’s an open floor plan, so you walk into the seating room and there’s books and a computer, you know, for people to use, and then there’s an open kitchen with a refrigerator. I can host up to two travelers at a time, so everyone generally eats together or there’s a shared common area for people. And then I also have a teenage son who lives with me part time, so he has become used to and actually looks forward to meeting all the guests that are travelling through. And so, like I said, people usually come here because they want to live in community, if they’re here for a month or something. They’d rather live with other people than by themselves.
JD: Cool. So you call your children’s yoga training program Dancing Spider Yoga? Why do you call it that?
A: I initially called it Dancing Spider Yoga just because it was a cool name. I liked the idea of dancing spider yoga; it just was fun and it made me laugh. I also did a survey of all the children I was working with and they all liked that name. And then the more I taught it, I came to realize that the spider in Native American culture represents, you know, like grandmother wisdom. The web is like a cultural icon that brings up images of community and us all being connected somehow. So I feel that as I’ve gotten older, and I carry the grandmother wisdom as I’ve gotten older, I feel like dancing spider yoga is a way to connect with all children and all families and all people, and that to share this great technology of yoga, that I know has really benefited my life and my son’s life–I just wanted to share that with people.
JD: So, can you tell me more about the program itself?
A: Sure. The program itself is a weekend training where I teach teachers and parents how to adhere yoga to their children and also how to do yoga themselves. Dancing spider is all about keeping alive your inner child, and really engaging in your life. And it also teaches children how to self-regulate themselves, how to become more self aware, how to use humor to teach, and also how to be in touch with your body. It’s really based in the mind/body connection.
JD: That’s great.
A: Yeah. It’s all about keeping yourself healthy and happy and holy. You know, staying connected to all of your gifts that you have. And in the training weekend, I find that the teachers really connect with their inner childlike qualities, why they love to teach children, but also it gives them tools that they can use in their classrooms, especially tools that are good with special needs children, to help them self-regulate and just be happy in life. Just another tool to stay happy.
JD: How do you think yoga in general relates to diversity?
A: Great question. It totally does. For instance: I just went through an injury, as you know. I was in a serious bike accident, and I fractured my pelvis, I fractured my sacrum, my shoulder, my collar bone, like basically everything you can fracture, I fractured. And while I was in the hospital, I was in a trauma unit, and while I was there,even though I was laid up and completely incapacitated, you know, I couldn’t even leave my hospital bed, all of the nurses, even the cleaning ladies, and you know, people who worked in the hospital, would stop by my room and go, “Oh I have an ache, and I’m not feeling very well,” or, “I heard you’re a yoga teacher. Can I talk to you a minute?”
A: Yes! And it was… just incredible. I found that yoga crosses cultural lines, social lines, economic lines- what I really saw was the differences in rehab. There’s the cleaning people, and their job is just to clean the waste baskets and clean the floor. Then you have people who have the job of being the nurse’s assistant, and their job is to tuck you in at night, and help you bathe, and check your blood pressure, etc. And then there’s the nurse, and their job is like if you have any medicine you need to take, or if there is anything more medically wrong with you, to talk to you about it. And then there are the doctors, who are there to diagnose you. And those people were from all races, from all economic backgrounds, and I found that the diversity there, you know, black, white, and I figured that a lot of the people there were probably working class because oftentimes this was their second job. And I found that because my room, I know, looked different from everybody’s room and because I was a yogi (I was always meditating in there), people would just come and sit with me. Or, they would say things like “Oh, it smells so good in here,” or “This room just feels so good,” you know? So it opens a door for you to really… see the connection that you have with people. And to me, that’s cultural diversity, us all being able to find a thread that we can connect with, and to me the thread of self awareness or the thread of self involvement, you know with your friends or your family, supports diversity.
JD: That’s great!
A: Yeah. it was such a beautiful… It was such a beautiful reminder that we’re all just here, we’re all here together. And, you know, a lot of times people would say, gee, when you get out, I have to come to your yoga class. I have to see you again. So, I think it was really good. And it does have a lot to do with diversity.
JD: How long have you been doing yoga, and how did you start?
A: I have been doing yoga, sort of officially since 1987, so, I don’t know, twenty-six or twenty-seven years. I began in my early thirties, and how I got started was that I basically I had an emotional upheaval in my life; I was really going through a lot of stress, and it was during the AIDS crisis in New York, and I had been a performer before that so I was out on a tour through Europe. Actually I was doing Hair (talk about cultural diversity!), a very culturally diverse show. But when we came back, two of my best friends contracted HIV. At that point, many of our friends were dying in the gay community–actually one of these friends was black and one was white, and they were actually boyfriends. Both of them are still alive, but it was their imminent death, and sort of the burying my friends and having to get really spiritual really quick that just said to me, “I really don’t understand myself.” I am a performer and I know that I make people happy but I’m sad, you know, and I feel so powerless. I felt like there must be something better than this, you know, I must be missing something. I would go out and have a couple of drinks after work and I just felt like this isn’t it, this isn’t cutting it. And thank god I had a dear friend, and she was always more eclectic than I was, and this was before yoga was a hot topic, right, when yoga was kind of underground, I guess. But she said “there is a yoga class at a dance studio and I think you should go.” And so I was like, I’ll do anything because I’m so depressed. And I went, and I loved it. I loved it because the guy didn’t ask anything of me, and the exercises were really invigorating and at the end we meditated. I had never meditated. I had never been able to stop. And then it turned out that I was hosting a cable television show the next week. I show up, I was the host of the show, I was doing a cabaret act and in exchange for this guy filming my cabaret act, he said “would you be the host of my cable show?” And I said, “yeah.” I said, “well, who’s the guest?” And he said, “Well you’ll meet him when you get there,” and so I went to this dance studio, and lo and behold its the yoga teacher.
A: [laughs] whose class I had just taken. And the setup crew was like an hour late, and so this guy basically told me my life right now. He said to me, “I think you’re going to be a really well-known yoga teacher, I think you’ve got what it takes, you’ve got incredible energy, etc.” And at that point I was like, Yeah right. You’re crazy, I’m gonna interview you for this show and “have a nice life.” And he was the one who said to me, “no really. You need to come and do this yoga camp.” And I was like, “what’s a yoga camp?” And he said “it’s for seven days, down in Florida. You do yoga for seven days.” [laughs] And I said “I don’t think I can do yoga for seven days.” He said, “no, you really need to go.” And I said no again, but eventually he convinced me to go and paid all my fees for the trip.
A: And I went. And, as they say, that was the ticket. That week… changed my life, and I’ve been a yogi ever since.
A: I know!
JD: That’s really cool.
A: It’s really cool. And who knows, you know, it’s like serendipity. But there was something about it that he saw, and then finally I saw in myself. And now that’s what I say to people. I’m really happy to say that I’ve mentored people who never would have thought yoga would be part of their lives, from like the guy who laid carpet in my house–he used to complain about his back, and I said you know, yoga could help with that. And he was like, no, no, no, and you know, not only did he used to take my classes, but then he became a certified yoga teacher, and now he pretty much teaches yoga full time.
A: Yeah, so it’s just, you know. And P.S., though, I should tell you that the yoga I do is not the “skinny in tights” yoga. [laughs] I try and tell people that our image of yoga now in the West is “skinny people in tight clothes” and, you know, flex. The people who bend over. The yoga that I do is really about self awareness and about being able to quiet your mind, and being able to be supported in postures so that you can begin to become self aware and begin to have a relationship with yourself. It doesn’t matter what you look like, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing, last season’s t-shirt will do. I mean, obviously you want to have loose-fitting clothes. My yoga classes, and why I think they’re diverse, is that everyone needs to be able to have a technique where they can develop a relationship with themselves.
JD: That’s great.
A: Yeah. I love it!
JD: So, the issue that we are doing this interview for is about “light.” It was originally about passion, but obviously we weren’t able to get the interview done in time, because of everything that you had to deal with in the last month. So, sorry to surprise you with this question, but can you tell us about how yoga can relate to, like, having light in your life?
A: Yeah, so how yoga can help you have light in your life, or even how living holistically can help you have light in your life? Yeah. The one thing, too, John David, is that light can be, you know, “oh, I feel light as a feather,” or it can be the physical sensation of light on a beautiful sunny day, like you feel the lightness, and I have seen, and I have felt myself. So, I’ll talk personally, and then I’ll talk about what I’ve really learned while being a teacher. Even today, when I am feeling depressed. And, P.S., even when you teach yoga, you can still feel depressed or compressed, you can feel life wearing you down, but the difference is that the heaviness, or that darkness, it doesn’t stick to you. It’s like you become very reflective, so its like instead of the velcro being turned, you know, towards you, so the darkness sticks to you, the velcro is turned the other way, so that it repels the darkness. When you feel heavy, there’s a light that happens within you, and you just feel brighter. Say, for instance, when I start a yoga class, or start a meditation, I can feel really heavy, right? I might feel the pressures from the day, I might feel angry, I might feel heavy and dark. And then as I go through the poses, or as I go through the guided awareness, and I go back into my body, it somehow lifts that depression from me. It dissolves it. And that’s yoga’s job, is to dissolve away the darkness, and to allow you to be in the light. And you physically, after a yoga class, and I’ve had teachers I’m training tell me this, you feel lighter, you feel that your burdens are lifted somehow. Because burdens, heaviness, is really imagined. You know, it’s our minds being bombarded with a lot of chatter. And so, what these practices do, or even living in community can do, is to help lighten that heaviness by focusing only on what’s good, right? And the way you get to “only what’s good” is, funny enough, that you focus on yourself. And not in a selfish way, but you focus on… your toes. You focus on… your feet. You focus on… your calves. Your knees. Your thighs. Your hips. Right? And as you go inside of of your body, and you stay there, you literally clean out your cellular structure. Right? And then after you do that, you focus on your breath. And once you’ve done that, your breath naturally slows down, and as your breath naturally slows down, you feel a lightness coming in, because you return to your natural state. And your natural state is light. Hmmm?
JD: Right. That’s really, that’s really cool.
A: Yeah. It does take practice, and obviously, if you sat around a yoga master or you sat around even the Dalai Lama…. For instance, I was with him in Giants’ Stadium with about 5000 other people, but he still put everybody asleep. [laughs] He was so funny, and so humorous, but he has such a “light,” that it’s like he dissolves… just by his very presence you feel better that you are with him, you get a sense that even just for the hour, everything is really okay. And so that’s what I’m going for, is to develop that lightness of being, if you will, right?
JD: Well, I think we’re done… This was really great and interesting, everything you said. Thanks. I’ll, I’ll try yoga.
A: So what’s your experience with yoga?
JD: I… I haven’t really done anything…
A: How old are you?
JD: I’m twelve.
A: You’re twelve! Oh, perfect! For twelve years old, there are really fun kids or teen classes. I’m sure you can find one in Birmingham… So, yeah! Give it a try! See if you like it.
JD: Thank you so much for talking with me!
A: You’re welcome!
Interviewed by John David Lott-Haws
John David is a 7th Grader. At 12.75 years old, he is an avid reader, an aspiring writer, a lover of music who plays the piano and the saxophone, and a traveler who especially loves the beach. John David plans one day to work at a desk in front of a shelf full of best-selling novels that he has written, and hopes that sitting with him will be his dog, Princess, and his two daughters, Marley and Ginger. Though he lives in Alabama, John David does not like football, although he has an interest in tennis. He is a friend of many, and a struggling selfie addict.