When I was 18 years old, I was introduced to one of the world’s great spiritual leaders: The Siri Singh Sahib, Yogi Bhajan.
I had been practicing Kundalini yoga for one year under the guidance of my forever teacher Guru Singh, and, while a student at UCLA, I began working at Yoga West, the original home of kundalini yoga in Los Angeles. And I’d been anxiously looking forward to Yogi Bhajan’s visit for months.
It was evening, and the single, moderately sized yoga studio at Yoga West held at least a hundred American Sikhs and a sprinkling of those of us who valued the lifestyle and teachings of the Sikh philosophy. Mind you, this was a good decade before “namaste” became a part of our daily lexicon; before ladies lunched in Lululemon and politicians performed asanas between conventions. For better or for worse, I became a yogini back when devotion to the yoga tribe was considered a CULT rather than the CULTURE.
I knew that on this night, surrounded by yogis draped in white flowing robes and mala beads, and the soothing hum of mantras wafting from the modest speakers that sat on the small stage at the front of the room, I would have the opportunity to meet Yogi Bhajan and, if all went as planned, receive a “spiritual name” from the Master of Kundalini Yoga himself.
As I knelt before him, nervously fidgeting with the silk scarf around my neck, he surveyed me with an intensity I’d only ever experienced a handful of times in my life. I was a combination of thrilled, anxious, and enamored. I had no idea what he was going to say to me. I mean, after all, as much as I thought I knew about life, I was just a kid in college, who loved Pearl Jam, lived for Ralph Waldo Emerson, and worked at a yoga studio. Needless to say, I was in awe; at once intimidated and yet, somehow, utterly at home in his presence. And it was seriously important to me in that moment to come across as calm, wise, and meditative. Honestly, I think I secretly hoped he’d see me as some kind of especially enlightened being; you know, like, somehow more ‘in tune’ than most (uh, yeah… right! Ah, naiveté!).
He looked straight into my eyes and then surveyed my entire being. I’m certain- absolutely certain- he could see straight through me. My boss at the time, the Manager of Yoga West and the woman who I’d come to regard as my very own guardian angel, Sat Kirin Kaur Khalsa, introduced me to Yogiji. Then, softly, through a heavy Indian accent, he spoke:
“Evan? Your name is Evan? I now give you the spiritual name Ardas Kaur. It means Princess of prayer. Prayer is your greatest tool. Or it can be your greatest weakness if you do not use it. Also, you must clean up your diet. It is a mess. Eat grapefruit with toasted almond slivers on top for one month straight and nothing else.”
And with that encounter, I had a new name.
Okay, so I am well aware this whole incident may sound strange to some. (My parents are somewhere cringing and my husband is laughing). But the truth is, I knew from an early age, my path was not going to be conventional. And, honestly, before being blessed with such a beautiful other-worldly moniker, it’s not exactly as though my birth-name was all that commonplace.
As a girl with the name Evan, life had not been entirely uncomplicated. Substitute teachers always expected a boy to appear at my desk, my Seventeen Mag was addressed to some guy named MR. Evan Cooper, and being asked “wow, isn’t that a boy’s name” occurred almost as frequently as I napped (daily). Ultimately, I only went by the name Ardas at Yoga West and strictly with my Yoga West family, but it was an identity I readily embraced.
As we all well know, post-college life is about finding yourself…. even, perhaps, MAKING NAME FOR YOURSELF. At least, that’s what it became for me.
Eventually, I graduated college (Go Bruins!), began teaching yoga, and, after a few years, began writing professionally. My life was and remains a constant teeter-tottering between the “real world” and the world in which sometimes I wish I could just disappear entirely into– the spiritual realm. Don’t get me wrong– or immediately call my shrink- who is the absolute best, btw)– I’m not ready to leave THIS world yet or anything! I just really really really LOVE the way I feel when I’m immersed in my spiritual practice. Because it is truly only then that I am not thinking about worldly success and how to attain it. I can’t help it. No amount of meditation is going to change the fact that I have the genetics of two wildly intellectual, type A, high-achieving individuals. Neither that nor the naturally curly hair escaped me. And lately, the pressure to create a “name” for myself in the world has been intense.
A few years back, I sold my first book. That helped. Suddenly, I felt, I had a NAME. And hey, maybe other people would come to KNOW that name?! I’m not talking about that combination of syllables to which one automatically responds. I’m talking about a recognizable designation that, when spoken, resonated with images of someone the general public- and not just one’s mother- valued and admired. And, to my delight, for a while, girls across the country (and a few across the pond even!) KNEW MY NAME. I was “Evan Cooper! Girl Goddess Guru!” And it was fun. And fulfilling. And it’s who I wanted to be.
Having the world know my name was validating. To me, it meant I was more than just another person, I was SOMEONE. Of course, even THEN, I knew that the pleasure I experienced surrounding my little piece of stardom was pure EGO taking over. After all, I wrote a book on yoga for girls and taught yoga to girls not for fame (and certainly not fortune!), but out of SERVICE. To help and share what I had been gifted and taught myself.
A few years passed. I got married and a new last name was tacked on. (Officially rendering me ‘Evan Elizabeth Cooper Cohen’). And through it all, I’ve been on a perpetual quest to get to the bottom of, well, ME. My soul searching has never slowed and my quest to know myself fully and deeply continues.
As I now work dutifully on a second, and in my opinion, long over-due book, I’ve struggled with notions of worldly success and what it means to me. Particularly since my subject matter is all about putting the ego in it’s proper place, not letting it take over! (trust me, the irony has not been lost on me!) Lately, I’ve been thinking about NAMES again and how they give shape to what is an otherwise an elusive, spiritual entity.
With twitter and facebook and blogs and social media, it seems like everyone is trying to do more than just have a name; they are trying to BE a name. But really, aren’t we more than just our worldly moniker? What if no one ever learns our name? Does that mean we don’t exist or aren’t important or special?
Okay, so, for example… Over the past year or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about two extraordinarily lovely ladies– both roughly the same age as myself- but on vastly different paths than one another. The unifying element and the fact which draws me to both so strongly is the success each has achieved in THIS world. More specifically, each has made a recognizable NAME for herself.
Funny, because it just so happens, one of these ladies could readily epitomize my love of the material, while the other, easily embodies my commitment to the spiritual: The former, downtown romantic fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff; the later, life coach and self-proclaimed “Spirit Junkie” Gabrielle Bernstein. I am pretty darn obsessed with the savvy stylings of Mrs. Minkoff (if you don’t own one of her cross-body bags, you MUST!) and my life path seems to mirror Gabby’s in so many ways, I feel as though we are sisters on some other-worldly plane. I love these women. They are strong, successful, determined, talented and tenacious. And I so admire them for their commitment to make the world more beautiful, each in her own way. It is women like these two who remind me again and again that ANYTHING and EVERYTHING is possible, if only you put your heart and soul into your life’s work.
In light of the worldly success of those I admire, I continually make the choice to remind myself that even if no one ever knew my name, MY purpose here on earth is to give what I have, teach what I learn, and simply and exactly be who I AM.
Okay, okay….So then, the question becomes who am I?
I suppose the answer is simple: All of the above. Because no one is just one thing. And it’s each of our jobs to figure out for ourselves who we are and who we want to be. It’s like the new awesome FUN. song “Some Nights” where he asks “What do I stand for? Who am I?” Some nights, we don’t know. Some nights we don’t even care. But most nights, we do. Most nights we want to know that people care about us; that our lives are of value. And you know the way to be VALUABLE? It’s to be of SERVICE to others. In whatever form that may take for you. It doesn’t have to be some huge gesture or donation; you don’t have to be the next great fashion designer or spiritual leader or pen the next great American novel. You just have to be YOU. By whatever name you go by.
And personally, I think the best NAMES are the ones that do more than simply signify one’s persona or reputation; the best names are the ones that represent our TRUEST SELF.
And my truest self? Well, I’m sticking to mommy, wife, writer, and yogini. Maybe someday you will hear of me. If not, you can always just ask for me by name.
“If you can’t see God in all, you can’t see God at all.”