06/24/2012 11:24 EDT | Updated 08/24/2012 05:12 EDT

My Experiences as a Yogic Nun

In The Orange Robe: My Eighteen Years as a Yogic Nun, Marsha Low shares her experience with the controversial Indian spiritual group Ananda Marga. In this excerpt, Low describes her time in Cairo, where she witnessed a lack of basic freedoms available to women -- the same freedoms Egyptian women now fear they may lose in the aftermath of the revolution.


The following is an excerpt from The Orange Robe: My Eighteen Years as a Yogic Nun.

In the excerpt below, Low describes her time in Cairo, where she witnessed a lack of basic freedoms available to women -- the same freedoms Egyptian women now fear they may lose in the aftermath of the revolution. Editor's note: In Ananda Marga, monks are called "dada" (older brother), nuns "didi" (older sister).

A month later I was in Cairo, anticipating my first real experience as a didi fulfilling Baba's great mission. The initial sights and sounds were not unfamiliar. There were crowds on the streets and throngs at the bus stops. Day after day, I would fight my way onto an already over-packed bus, which threatened to capsize as it squeaked and rocked its way down the dusty streets. In that way, Cairo resembled Calcutta. As in Calcutta, here, too, were heat and humidity. Most days would find me dabbing away at the sweat on my face with my handkerchief. I was unable, though, to do much of anything about the rivulets trickling down my body, too well clad as it was in my nun's dress. None of that mattered to me, though. One should be ready always to accept all the sufferings as rewards and become the ideal son or daughter of the Cosmic Father, went the conduct rule. To suffer such physical discomforts for the mission was a privilege, I reminded myself.

A few dadas had gotten to Egypt before me. Narendra, from the Philippines, had already established a meditation center in an apartment building, and it was to that address that I first reported. Narendra was very young, his round, smooth face only beginning to show the first traces of a beard. He had a sweet and charming demeanor and played guitar. People, most of them young men, flocked to our classes, jamming themselves into our small centre after packing themselves into buses to get there. Some were in jeans and T-shirts; others wore the traditional gallabiya, a flowing ankle-length white robe.

They loved our singing and chanting. We provided them with an outlet previously unavailable in their lives and had come with the kind of universal message that appealed to youth everywhere. It was an exotic message, too, wrapped as it was in incense smoke, Sanskrit chants, and orange robes.

One weekend, we held a retreat in Giza near the pyramids. The buildings we rented were boxy and totally unremarkable. Even so, the pyramids lent everything an air of mystery. At night, they loomed large in the moonlight, casting shadows upon the sand, and our chanting had an ancient quality. For those few moonlit hours, we were cast into a state of utter timelessness, thrust as we were into a magical world where the present and ancient past seemed to merge.

The men who came to our meetings didn't quite know what to make of me, and some cast quizzical looks my way. Here I was, a woman in the role of a spiritual teacher, almost unheard of in their spiritual tradition! Even so, most treated me with respect. Very few women came, though, and those who did rarely attended regularly because most of them didn't have the freedom to do what they pleased. I was allowed to teach meditation only to women and so had few initiations, in contrast to the large numbers initiated by Narendra. Whenever we had group meditation, the men formed long lines on their side of the room, but there would be only two or three women on my side. This frustrated me.

One of my initiates who did come regularly was Subira. A student in high school, she came to nearly every meeting and even stopped eating meat, which, she confided to me, was quite difficult to do in her home, where meat was served at almost every meal. I could only imagine what it must have been like trying to explain it to her mother. (Her father was away on a business trip, so at least she didn't have to explain it to him.) She also told me that the radio was constantly blaring songs when she tried to do meditation. Despite all of the obstacles, she kept meditating, practicing twice a day.

I began conducting yoga classes at her home, in an extra apartment that her family used for guests. Spacious and fabulously decked out in the Arabesque style with multi-colored Persian rugs, and full of traditional furnishings like large, ornate gold vases and wall-hangings with reds and golds predominating, it made quite a contrast to the rather drab, crowded apartment her family lived in.

After a month of classes, Subira starting dropping hints that something wasn't quite right. "It's my father," she said. "I don't think we can continue to do this after he gets back."

One particularly humid afternoon, I went to her home, and there he was. He confronted me in the hall, a short, stocky man with a hard look to his face. Pointing a stubby finger in my face, he accused me of brainwashing his daughter. "We are Muslims," he growled. "We don't need another religion!"

My efforts to explain that yoga was not a religion were fruitless. What was even worse, he had been in India and had read about the imprisonment of Baba. He repeated to me some of the sensational stories he had found in the newspapers. My own words in defense of my guru could not get through his stony exterior.

"Leave my house," he shouted, "and if you should ever see my daughter in the street, I want you to walk right past her as if you do not know her. You are not to say a word to her. Get out!"

He nearly threw me out of the door. Before he slammed it behind me, I caught a glimpse of Subira's shocked, hurt face behind him, appearing shrunken and beaten by his words.

That was my first experience of Muslim men in authority. It would not be the last.