This past weekend I had the great good pleasure of meeting Dr. Loren Fishman when he came to Yoga Center of Columbia to offer his certification training on Yoga for Back Care to a full house of yoga teachers and therapists. It was just about 20 hours worth of sciatica, scoliosis, piriformis, quadratus lumborum, facets, herniated disc discussion, and more. I continue to be amazed at just how supportive yoga can be to one’s good health.
As you may know, I became a Certified Yoga Therapist in September of 2016 (three years ago!) when IAYT first began certifying yoga teachers. This is the highest level of certification a teacher may receive. It is a fascinating prospect to me because, my yoga practice has been so healing in my own life journey, and it is an honor to be able to offer similar healing to others. When drugs and conventional medicine fail, yoga offers hope without the side effects. The main issue is, one has to practice! This is the hardest part, just getting onto the mat every morning (or at least at some point during the day). But if you can discipline yourself for a regular practice, the benefits can be immense.
I once heard the phrase that indulgences like sweets, alcohol, and other recreational activities are elixir at first, and poison later on. Whereas, yoga may feel like poison in the beginning, but it is elixir in the end. And, I am here to say, it only gets better with age. My practice has been 28 years running and I only want to do more yoga, not less.
Some students were asking about his books. He has many, including: Healing Yoga; Yoga for Back Pain; Yoga for Arthritis; Yoga for Osteoporosis.
Or, you may contact me. I will be happy to meet with you to create a home practice specific to your needs. One on one with a qualified therapist is really the best way to make the most of your own practice.
Nelson Mandela once said “When you let your own light shine, you unconsciously give others permission to do the same.” Dr. Fishman spent many years with his teacher, BKS Iyengar, and that light is being passed along even today.
This year eight intrepid travelers joined Annette, Rita, and me in a beautiful farmhouse in Pertuis, Provence. The owners converted the farmhouse, complete with stables and a few outbuildings — one of the bathrooms still had the feeding trough within it. There were many nooks to explore in this home with a unique spot for meditation in one of the smaller buildings and an excellent great room for yoga practice. We were able to practice yoga outdoors on the patio when the weather was a little warmer, and we had several dinners outside too. It was really a lovely setting to rest and restore, and enjoy the amazing French countryside.
It’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog, so I want to get you caught up on the 2019 trip to Southern India with Roaming Buddha’s Rimmi Singh and myself. I took over 300 photos, and it is difficult to choose which ones to show here, but below are some highlights from the last trip.
Next year we will visit northern India once again. Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur, Rishikesh and Haridwar. Join us!
Prakriti on the one hand means “Nature, She who is the first creation.” (Svoboda, Prakriti, Your Ayurvedic Constitution, p. 27) It also refers to your innate physical constitution, your personal metabolic pattern, or in other words your dosha signature. You may recall kapha, pitta, and vata from our first post. Your unique constitution depends upon many factors — some of them including genetics, your mother’s health habits during pregnancy, or any abnormal events that may have occurred surrounding your birth. The amount of each dosha present within you offers the framework for your life experience. At birth you had certain characteristics that define you, your prakriti, and that tends to not change throughout your lifetime.
There are eight different body constitutions according to ayurveda: kapha, pitta, vata, kapha-pitta, kapha-vata, pitta-vata, vata, and the eighth is much more rare, it is called tridoshic and refers to when kapha-pitta-vata are all of equal amounts. Everyone has one or more doshas predominant at the time of birth, but as life unfolds, it is possible and even likely that one or more of the doshas will go out of balance. In other words there may be accumulations or deficiencies of the different qualities.
A common misunderstanding is that when we attempt to bring ourselves back into balance, that means we want to maintain kapha, pitta, and vata in equal amounts within the body-mind structure. This is not true. Balance means that kapha, pitta, and vata are restored to your unique prakritic level.
There are many tests you may take to determine your constitution. You may find examples here and here. But the question really is, what is currently out of balance within me? The current state of your health is your Vikruti. You may be a Pitta-Vata but lately you have been incredibly hangry and have no patience with your family. Sounds like your pitta is a little excessive. To restore balance, remember the principle of “like increases like and opposites balance,” and you might want to take up swimming for example, an activity that has a cooling quality. You might add more cooling foods and herbs to your diet like melons, cucumber, or cilantro. Or, you may be a straight-up Vata, but you have a lot of congestion in your sinuses and lungs. In that case, Kapha is out of balance and so you might choose to add more warming foods and spices like cayenne pepper to your diet to help decrease the excess earthy-watery mucous.
Ayurveda suggests gentle ways to deal with imbalances before they get out of control and turn in to disease. Changing foods or exercise habits to meet your needs are excellent places to begin. There are many ways to look at vikruti, a current imbalance, and to restore your doshas back to your prakritic level. This is a longer discussion, no doubt.
Doshas may be in or out of balance based on other factors too. The time of day, the season of the year, the stage of life, all of these have an effect on the doshas as well.
In Ayurveda, 10, 2, and 6 are important transitions to the day, AM or PM. 6 0’clock is a little more fluid, one might refer to that time as sunrise or sunset instead. From 6am (sunrise) to 10am and also 6pm (sunset) to 10pm, the elements of earth and water, Kapha dosha, are predominant. This is the time of the day that we might feel more loving, more grounded, or more sleepy for example. It is a good idea to get to bed by 10pm to ride the coattails of Kapha’s sleepiness into a delightful slumber.
10am to 2pm and 10pm to 2am are fire and water predominant, Pitta dosha. Therefore, lunchtime is ideal for your biggest meal of the day, when the outer fire, the sun shines brightest, our inner fire is most ready to digest the foods we eat. This might also account for the desire for a midnight snack. However, at night when we are sleeping is really the best time to digest not only excess food already consumed previously during the day but also our daily sense impressions, so better to be sleeping from 10pm to 2am. Says your mother. In a loving way.
2am to 6am and 2pm to 6pm are air and space predominant, related to Vata dosha. This is a lighter, drier, more mobile time of the day. It is also a more subtle time. In the morning before or around sunrise is an excellent time for meditation or spiritual practice. Likewise at sunset. If you can at least arise out of bed by sunrise, quite often you’ll notice a “spring in your step” or just a sense of being awake and alert in a calm manner, as opposed to when you sleep in until the kapha time of day and then the rest of the day you feel logy and sluggish. Says your mother. In a loving way. But there is a reason for it, see?
The seasons also correspond to the doshas. In Ayurveda, we think of the year as containing three seasons. Kapha occurs in late winter and early spring when it is cold and wet outside. Pitta is related to summer, no question; and Vata is related to autumn and early winter when things are drying out and turning cool again. So you might be a Pitta who gets acid indigestion, but in winter a few hotter, spicier foods may be available to you without discomfort. You might be a Kapha, but in summertime when it is hot outside, having some ice cream may be good for you.
Time of life corresponds to the doshas as well. From birth to puberty, Kapha is predominant. Think of how babies are chubby and full of love. At puberty, a bit of hormonal fire kicks in and Pitta arises. From the teen years to middle age is when we study hard, find a fulfilling career, and start a family. These are all very active, busy activities. Pitta is the one who is motivated to get things done. Middle age to end of life is associated with Vata. In Ayurveda there is a saying that the process of aging is the process of drying out. This is why there are so many practices that involve oils. Sesame oil swishing in the mouth, self-massage with a doshic balancing oil, or even shirodhara, the process of dripping warm oil on the eyebrow center for relaxation and purification. Oil counters the drying out and keeps one looking young and beautiful. (with radiant skin!) 😉
So when we talk about Ayurveda being the study of aligning with Nature’s rhythms, these are some ways to be aware of Her rhythm. This is a long and complex discussion, but I think a fun one because it opens up so many possibilities for self care. To me, it is extremely fulfilling to flow with the rhythm of Nature, and in studying Ayurveda we learn how to do that. When you feel balanced and healthy, you make the world a more balanced and healthy place. We all owe that to ourselves!!!
In my upcoming Ayurveda Immersion, co-taught with Debbie Martin at the Yoga Center of Columbia, we will go into more detail on nature’s rhythms, prakriti, vikruti, and the ayurvedic clock. The Immersion is a great way to learn in community with others; the conversations will be interesting and stimulating, and the community support will help you to change unwanted habits for the better. If you would like to learn more, I hope you will join us!
If the subtle essences of prana, tejas, and ojas are the reward for living a healthy lifestyle, just how do we increase these qualities in our lives?
“It is the inextinguishable flame, the witness behind all our states of consciousness, the ever-wakeful seer.” (Frawley, Yoga and Ayurveda, p.105-6)
While there are specific ways to encourage more prana, tejas, and ojas, it all comes down to fire. Agni in Sanskrit means fire, and Hinduism deifies Agni into an anthropomorphic form because they consider it that important. Fire metabolizes, fire changes, fire transforms. It is the transforming force of the universe. It is not simply fire as we know it, but fire with all of its potential — heat, light, electricity.
The yogis tell us that this divine fire is the origin of all life and the impulse to love. They say it is the “power of the soul that motivates us from within.” (Frawley, Yoga and Ayurveda, p.105) Without fire there would be no warmth to cook our food nor warmth with which to hug and offer love. According to Ayurveda, there are over 40 different types of fire in the body. A few examples would be the digestive fire that transforms food into nutrients; the fire of awareness that helps us understand the difference between what is real and meaningful and what is not; the fire that affects body heat and fever when we are fighting off illness; there is even an agni representing cellular metabolism and functioning.
Cue the happy music: Agni is the force necessary for evolution to occur. This concept of fire in Ayurveda represents how the elements combine and convert into doshas which are refined into the subtle essences. The yogis advise us to cultivate balanced agni whenever and wherever possible.
Types of Agni Related to Digestion
Jatharagni is located in the stomach and duodenum. This is the one responsible for digestion. There are four types:
Samagni – a balanced digestive fire; this is the ideal, when food is digested and absorbed well; one will have a good appetite for nutritious food and very little gas, colic, or constipation
Tikshnagni – sharp or excessive digestive fire; in this case one may develop heart burn, diarrhea, or a host of other things involved with hyperacidity of the stomach
Mandagni – weak digestive fire; one may have a poor appetite, feel sluggish, or have a tendency toward weight gain
Vishamagni – variable digestive fire; there are alternating cycles of strong appetite and loss of appetite; one may be affected by gas, constipation, diarrhea, or a host of other things
We can use food, herbs, and spices to help regulate jatharagni. If one has a predominantly earth-water constitution of Kapha, Ayurveda suggests this person eat lighter drier foods like leafy greens and hotter spices like ginger or cayenne pepper to balance that. If one has the predominantly fire-water constitution of Pitta, she should consume more cooling foods like cucumbers, sweet melons, cilantro, or turmeric. Likewise if one has a predominantly air-space constitution of Vata, then he would favor foods with more earth element in them like root vegetables, avocado, or coconut. The principle of “opposites balance” is at play here.
When agni is balanced, one will experience nourishment, proper energy level, contentment, regular elimination, strong immunity, a clear radiant complexion, excellent circulation, and overall strength and vitality. Who would not want to cultivate proper agni?
But, what happens if agni is weak and food is not digested properly?
Cue the scary music here: Ama is the Sanskrit word for undigested food, sense impressions, thoughts, and actions; it is a toxic, sticky sludge that forms in the body and creates cloudiness, confusion, and excess weight. Ama can lead to fatigue and a feeling of heaviness. It may induce indigestion, bad breath, gas, diarrhea, constipation, and mental confusion. When ama is present, one might experience excessive mucous production, clammy skin, loss of appetite, hypertension, diabetes, or obesity.
So, it really does pay to support agni because agni is the fire that burns away impurities; it helps rid the body of ama or excess gunk. It enhances our experience of the subtle essences of prana, tejas, and ojas which we now know creates the experiences of creativity, inner radiance, peacefulness, contentment, and joy. Balanced agni is our friend in good health. Cue the fireworks!
In my upcoming Ayurveda Immersion, co-taught with Debbie Martin at the Yoga Center of Columbia, we will go into more detail on how to cultivate agni and reduce ama. The Immersion is a great way to learn in community with others; the conversations will be interesting and stimulating, and the community support will help you to change unwanted habits for the better. If you would like to learn more, I hope you will join us!
Last week we talked about the three doshas or body constitutions, the six tastes known as sat rasa, and the principle of how “like increases like and opposites balance each other.” This week we will discuss what happens when the body-mind structure is in balance.
According to ayurveda, there are three subtle essences that arise within the body from the doshas.
Kapha is the constitution related to water and earth. When kapha is out of balance, one may feel heaviness, sadness, or depression; one may be sluggish, lethargic or carry excess weight. When kapha is in balance, a person feels love and compassion for oneself and the world, she feels at peace and in harmony with herself and those around her. Ojas arises.
Ojas is the first of the subtle essences. Ojas is the lubricating part of the body that nourishes all of the tissues, such as blood, lymph, muscles, and bones. It is the stuff responsible for a strong immune system, vigor, longevity, and overall well being of an individual. We cannot have ojas without balanced kapha dosha. When ojas is present, one has a radiant complexion, youthfulness, cheerfulness, a high threshold for stress, and mental clarity. If ojas is weak or low, one may be timid, insecure, have poor appetite, or have feelings of worthlessness.
A few ways to protect ojas would be to eat a balanced meal which, according to ayurveda, contains all of the six tastes as discussed last week. Do not rush your meal or eat on the go in the car or on the run. In other words, sit and enjoy your meal, taste your food and keep good company when you eat. Nourishing your mind through meditation or quiet walks in nature also protects and increases ojas. There are more ways to support ojas, but this is a good start.
Tejas is the second of the subtle essences. Tejas is the inner radiance that shines in the luster of one’s eyes and the glow of one’s skin. Tejas brings clarity to the mind, will-power, courage and fearlessness to one’s demeanor. It is a type of fire that transforms food into nutrients the body can use and it transforms sensory experiences into knowledge and even wisdom. One cannot have tejas without balanced pitta dosha.
Pitta dosha is the constitution related to fire and secondarily water. When pitta is out of balance, one may feel sharp emotions like anger, jealousy, irritation, frustration. In the extreme, pitta becomes the “type A” personality. When pitta is in balance, one has energy to accomplish things, one has a healthy sense of competition, and there is a warmth to one’s personality that is highly attractive.
Keeping pitta in balance will stoke the subtle fire of tejas in a healthy way. Avoid excessive talking about menial things or gossip to strengthen tejas. A regular meditation practice or even chanting mantras will keep the inner radiance shining brightly. Long slow deep breathing and mindful awareness are also helpful.
The third of the vital essences arises from Vata dosha. It is known as prana. Vata dosha forms from the elements of air and space so a person with a vata dominant constitution will have qualities of lightness, mobility, tendency toward dryness, and plenty of creativity. Vata dosha is the primary biological force because it is the one that creates and supports movement. Without movement of any fashion there is no life. The key to managing all doshas and subtle essences is to care for vata.
When vata is out of balance, one may feel mentally scattered or ungrounded; one may be anxious, nervous, or fearful; and one’s behavior may be erratic. When vata is in balance, one is creative and open-minded; one is a powerful speaker with an enthusiastic personality and the ability to understand a broad range of topics quickly. When vata is in balance, prana is unblocked and flows freely.
Prana moves in five directions in the body: downward and inward like an inhalation, downward and outward like an exhalation, metabolizing or support during transformation, upward and outward as in speech, and circulating throughout the entire body-mind structure. When prana is unblocked and flows freely, one has abundant vitality and is a source of inspiration.
A few suggestions to keep vata in balance are to keep a regular schedule for your daily routine: wake at the same time every day, eat meals at the same time, and go to bed at the same time every day. This sets up a rhythm for life so one’s body-mind knows what to expect and even prepares for food or sleep so that one may gain more nourishment from those experiences. Turning off all electronics, including television and phone, one hour before bedtime to have a more sound sleep is another way; one could use that time for reading, quiet contemplation, or meditation. Third but not lastly, increasing one’s intake of root vegetables in the diet may have a grounding, soothing effect on one’s system to help balance vata.
So you can see that cultivating the subtle essences can be a very positive force in one’s life. Ayurveda practice offers techniques to enhance ojas, tejas, and prana to restore balance in one’s life but also to live life fully and to thrive.
In my upcoming Ayurveda Immersion, co-taught with Debbie Martin at the Yoga Center of Columbia, we will go into more detail on how to cultivate the subtle essences. The Immersion is a great way to learn in community with others; the conversations will be interesting and stimulating, and the community support will help you to change unwanted habits for the better. If you would like to learn more, I hope you will join us!
The word Ayurveda means the knowledge of life. Ayur means life or vital power, and Veda means knowledge or science. It offers a way of approaching life that encourages good health and well-being. I think of it as a handbook for living well. Ayurveda is considered a sister-practice of yoga because they both developed around the same time, several thousand years ago, in the same place, India. Yoga and other meditative practices are a part of Ayurveda, and there is so much more.
So, how does it work? In Ayurveda, one tries to align oneself with the rhythms of nature, and nature consists of five basic elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. These elements are the stuff of the universe and therefore are within our own bodies as well as in animals, plants, and everything we experience in life. Our senses perceive these elements in different forms, we smell the earth, we taste with liquids, we feel warmth, we see color, and we hear vibration. Ayurveda wants to find balance in all that we perceive, think, and do.
If all things are made of these five elements, then so are our bodies. Earth represents the density of our bones, and any physical tangible part of us that we can see, touch, and smell. Water is in the fluids of our bodies, blood, lymph, saliva, sexual fluid, gastric juices. Fire is found in body heat, and in the act of processing and digestion. Gastric juices are fluid but they also contain acids which are a type of fire that help us digest food. There are many types of fire, called agni, within the body, and each one is responsible for some type of processing or transformation. Think: once we take in some kind of sensory information, then we have to make sense of it, the making sense is the processing. Of course we breathe air and it provides vital life force for us to live — one can go weeks without food, days without water, but only minutes without air. And space is more ephemeral, it is more difficult to recognize, but space exists, and if we did not have space we would not be here.
In our bodies, these five elements dance together in different ways and each of us has one or two predominant elements that provide our constitutional make-up. There are three main constitutions that arise and they may combine in seven different ways to describe one’s particular essence and predilections. The three main constitutions are known as doshas. Dosha literally translates as “that which darkens,” or even “defect,” but this is referring specifically to the qualifying of the infinite, universal stuff that according to yoga is our True Nature. So, we all come from this infinite, expansive, universal consciousness, but Consciousness, or Light, chooses to embody, and it does so through the elements, appearing in the manifest world by way of the doshas, that which darkens the Infinite Light, so to speak. Here they are:
Kapha (kahp’-ha) – predominantly water and earth; kapha is nourishing, soft, related to the emotion of love, and a kapha person is someone you want to hug; some of its qualities include heaviness, coldness, tenderness, and slowness
Pitta (pit’-ta) – predominantly fire and water; pitta is a driving force that makes us competitive and compels us to do more, a pitta person gets things done; pitta metabolizes, and some of its qualities include hotness, moistness, sharpness, and of a spreading nature
Vata (vah’-tah) – predominantly air and space elements; vata is highly mobile, all movement in the body is because of vata, creativity is associated with this dosha; some of its qualities include dryness, lightness, coldness, and volatility
There are also subtle essences of these doshas. When a person is in balance, a more subtle form of these qualities or doshas arise, and that is typically when one feels healthy, vital, and connected to others in community. Stay tuned for another blog post on the subtle essences.
Life is centrifugal – as we live and grow, things tend to expand and change, nothing stays the same. We gain more life experiences and therefore (hopefully) we gain wisdom. Inevitably, life circumstances will pull us out of balance. Ayurveda looks at the five elements and how they are found in nature and offers ways to maintain balance within your own constitution. One of the ways it does this is by identifying six tastes. I will list them here:
Sweet – made of earth and water; builds bodily tissues; examples include of course sugar and honey, but sweet taste is also found in butter, cream, grains like wheat and rice, some beans and fruits like mangos or bananas
Salty – made of water and fire; builds bodily tissues; examples will include salt itself, sea salt, rock salt, and also sea vegetables like seaweed and kelp; foods like nuts, chips, and pickles have plenty of salt added to them also
Sour – made of earth and fire; builds bodily tissues; sour taste is found in citrus fruits like lemon and lime; sour milk products like yogurt, cheese, and sour cream; and fermented foods like sauerkraut, vinegar, wine, and soy sauce
Bitter – made of air and space; depletes bodily tissues; examples of foods with bitter taste are leafy green vegetables like kale, spinach, and cabbage; herbs and spices like turmeric, fenugreek, and dandelion root; and coffee
Pungent – made of air and fire; depletes bodily tissues; pungent taste makes food spicy — garlic, onion, and chili peppers for example and also spices like black pepper, ginger, and cumin
Astringent – made of earth and air; depletes bodily tissues; this taste is more difficult to discern, but think of kidney, black, or navy beans, or lentils; vegetables like artichoke, broccoli, cauliflower, and turnips; and grains like rye or quinoa
So the principle in Ayurveda is that “Like increases like and opposites balance each other.” When you have too much fire element within you, which might manifest as heartburn, then back off of the fiery tastes. Eat more cooling foods like sweet juicy melon or leafy green vegetables. If you feel too ungrounded or your mind is spacey or racing, eat more root vegetables. This is an over-simplification but the examples do hold.
We can work with foods, herbs, and spices in Ayurveda to restore balance, but there are other daily practices that also help to bring equanimity too. In my upcoming Ayurveda Immersion, co-taught with Debbie Martin at the Yoga Center of Columbia, we will go into more detail on many of these practices. The Immersion is a great way to learn in community with others; the conversations will be interesting and stimulating, and the community support will help you to change unwanted habits for the better. If you would like to learn more, I hope you will join us!
This year, we stayed in a wine village in the south of France, Saint Christol. Our residence used to be a home for nuns. It is a stunning Clos, walled home or cloistered home, with salt water pool and tennis court. Like last year, we had to move the furniture out of the living-dining area in order to make way for yoga.
Each morning we had meditation before breakfast. The boulangerie was a block away, walkable, so we had the freshest croissants possible. Rita also treated us to plum compote and fresh goat cheese. Ah, the French. Then, we had yoga class each morning focusing on the different elements within nature: earth, water, fire, air, and space. The final day of our retreat was the UN International Day of Peace so we had a partner yoga class to foster community support and offered our “Om”s so that Peace May Prevail On Earth.
Afternoon yoga classes were more restorative with forward bends, twists, and yoga nidra because most days after yoga we were out exploring somewhere. Annette chose amazing places for us to visit. Below are some photos from our trip.
This is the third year that Rimmi Singh, her sister Pammi, and I have taken a group of yogi travelers, yatri, to India. Each time the trip is to somewhat different places, and this time 22 of us had an amazing tour of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. South India is quite different from north India in terms of the food, spices, language, and landscape. Perhaps there is a slight difference in the people too, as a whole. In the whole of the subcontinent, there is just a mind-boggling amount of variety in everyday life as the sacred sits right next to the mundane which sits right next to riches which sits right next to poverty. It is all mixed up in a colorful stew. Quite often when one thinks of India, I believe it is common to first think of the third world and poverty, but what we experienced was a great depth of culture and progressive ideas.
This city has a heavily French influence as it was founded in 1674 by the French East India Company. It is home to Auroville of Sri Aurobindo fame and the famous flower market. All of India seems to be covered in flower petals; they seem to always be blossoming and are ever fragrant, and the flower market here begins early in the morning to avoid the midday heat. It is more like a wholesale place, where people come to buy in bulk and then sew the flowers up into beautiful garlands to wear or offer at the many temples. It stands in the midst of fish sellers and vegetable sellers and there is an amazing amount of activity even before 7am.
Sri Aurobindo is a famous guru at the turn of the 20th century who had a great influence on Indian and even American culture based on his teachings and the books that he wrote. The Mother was also quite prevalent as she was his spiritual equal who helped found the Auroville ashram. About Auroville:
Auroville (City of Dawn) is an ‘experimental’ township in Viluppuram district in the state of Tamil Nadu, India near Puducherry in South India. It was founded in 1968 by Mirra Richard (since her definitive settling in India called ‘[The] Mother’) and designed by architect Roger Anger. Auroville is meant to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.
Some words from the Mother:
Be courageous, enduring, and vigilant and above all, be sincere, with perfect honesty. Then you will be able to face all difficulties.
The Ganesha Temple in Pondi was our first elephant sighting, the first of several more. Here I am receiving a blessing from Lakshmi.
Our hotel was right on the Bay of Bengal and I swear people were up all night long walking the promenade, feeding the cows and dogs, and chanting by the sea.
I visited here with Douglas Brooks just a few weeks previous, and this is my third time to this temple. It is the Nataraja Temple, Shiva in his form as Lord of the Dance. Each time I arrive here, it feels like home. Visitors are not allowed to take pictures in the temple, so memories will have to do, but I will say that this temple, like many in south India, is arranged in such a way so that when you step inside its walls, it is as though you are stepping into your own Self. The concentric circles of walls lead you through the layers, koshas, of your own mind until you get to the inner sanctum, where Nataraja resides, and where your innermost Self resides.
At most temples, there is a “flagpole” outside of the main sanctum, sometimes it is brass or wood, sometimes it is covered in gold. There is no flag on top, but the pole itself is often ornately carved. It rises higher than the roof or if indoors, usually goes through the ceiling. This post represents your spine and the spiritual energy, kundalini shakti, held within it. To me, just gazing at the pole brings a sense of power. It is taller than the ceiling to represent the fact that the kundalini energy or power rises up from the base of the spine to the crown of your head, which leads the yogi into a more expansive state of awareness.
We experienced a sacred abishekam ritual with the crystal lingam, “the formless form of Shiva,” in which the priests known as dikshitars would pour many substances like milk, yogurt, ghee, sandalwood paste, rice, honey, sometimes even flower petals, over the lingam, washing it clean after each substance. It is a strange practice, but when you observe it, it is quite evocative, you cannot help but feel something inside. This ritual is concluded with an aarti, the waving of light from a candle flame, around a ruby Nataraja statue. This little statue I’m guessing is about a foot high, and it is pure ruby, so when they shine the light behind it, it glows a brilliant red and takes my breath away.
As my friend Bharati, who assisted us at the temple, said: there are three main parts to Tamil culture, wearing a sari is sacred for women, also the bindi placed on the third eye, and jasmine flowers strung in one’s hair. There is nothing like the smell of jasmine in your hair in south India.
We had a brief stay at Svatma Hotel. This place is a must stay because it is a converted Brahmin home that is so elegant and completely welcoming. The staff meets your every need, and one may experience yogic rituals like morning chanting and yoga, even dance performances in the evenings. My good friends Michael and Karen Levin treated me to a sound immersion — in the spa, there is an entire room dedicated to creating different sounds and tones so that one might bathe in the vibrations of gongs, chimes, a thunder-making instrument, a table that has harp strings underneath the bed that one lies upon while someone plucks the strings and the vibrations move through your entire being. It is a complete vibrational experience that left me feeling refreshed and cleansed.
We saw a fascinating and beautiful traditional Indian dancer perform too.
In Madurai we visited the Meenakshi Temple. This little lady’s claim to fame is that she was born with three breasts. As a princess, her father the king was so very proud of her, and there was an oracle that said when she met her match, her mate for life, that the third breast would disappear. As luck would have it, the only match for her was the great lord himself, Shiva. This temple and the Chidambaram temple have some ethereal connection for this reason. A god is never far from a goddess.
As with many south Indian temples, this one owns an elephant. She greets pilgrims and offers blessings, and each morning, her keepers take her out for a walk around the town. Tamil people love their elephants, and for six weeks out of the year she goes on “vacation” to an elephant preserve. We all have to blow off a little stress once in a while.
At any temple, there is a daily schedule. The priests wake the gods in the morning, they bathe them, they clothe and feed them, and in the evening, they get put to bed. A few of us took part in this night ceremony. First, only Hindus are allowed in the main inner sanctum, so Bela was the only one of our small group to enter there to receive darshan. But when she emerged from the sight of Meenakshi, she was so radiant, we received her darshan by osmosis. As she rejoined us then we walked over to the Shiva shrine where the night ceremony begins. The priests take out a Shivalingam from this sanctum and carry it over to the opening of Meenakshi’s sanctum, where her shoes are brought out as a symbol of her whole self. The lingam and the shoes mingle side by side for a few moments as the priests chant, and then the lingam and shoes are put to bed. Again, such an odd thing to do, but at the same time there is a visceral sense that something deeper is happening. Inner spiritual structure is reorganizing somehow. As Douglas Brooks puts it, either grown men are playing with dolls here or something visceral and deep is going on. In reality, it is both.
Thekkady, Periyar National Park
Spice Village is a progressive property that does not allow any plastic on the premises. The hotel is a series of cottages spread out over many acres on a mountain in the Western Ghat range. Did I mention most of this trip has been in the 90-100° range? This was the coolest portion of our trip.
Naturalists provide nature and bird walks, they filter their own water and make paper here. The bags to hold receipts or souvenirs from the store are made of newsprint being reused. They compost in several different ways and have a beautiful garden from which they use the food in their restaurants. It is so close to nature, there are guinea fowl that roam freely on the property and only occasionally get eaten by the monkeys. And so many birds! After the busy-ness of the cities in Tamil Nadu, this was a great time to unwind.
Upon leaving Spice Village, we stopped at a tea plantation school. This may have been one of the most moving parts of our trip as the elementary age children were overjoyed to see us. We brought pencils, notepads, erasers, pens, stickers, and candy to the kids and everyone wanted to get their pictures taken. We sang songs together and treated the kids to ice cream dessert after lunch that day. It was truly precious. Being around the kids brought thoughts of my sister in North Carolina, who daily works with children facing great challenges regarding their ability to learn, homelife, and poverty. These children at least have homes, food, and schooling, but poverty is there, and they have unique challenges due to culture and climate too.
Kumarakom, Vembanad Lake
Here we stayed at the largest lake in Kerala, known as Vembanad and famous for its houseboats. Seeing these things on the water made me think of some creature from the 80s television program Fraggle Rock. We had a whole day tour on a house boat which was really wonderful. The crew fed us lunch and after lunch our guide, Raj, set up his playlist, which of course was American golden oldies type music and the main deck of the houseboat became a dance floor. His comment to me was unforgettable, “this is the true yoga, when people are happy and laughing and dancing.”
We stayed at Coconut Lagoon, which is another CGH Earth property like Spice Village, so no plastic anywhere. I haven’t mentioned the food yet — I will never tire of dosa or idly and sambar. Delicious. You have to take a boat to get to the property, and there are canals throughout the property to help manage the landscape, which is filled with flowers and fruit trees and butterflies. The canals gave me a strong memory of growing up with my grandparents in the summers in South Bethany Beach Delaware the way the canals were in the backyards of the beach houses and you could boat around and see people’s intimate backyard lives or head to the bay to enjoy nature. And waterskiing. These memories are some that seemed long gone and therefore gave me a greater sense of integration with my life, connecting past to present.
There is an Ayurvedic spa here with two doctors on hand to treat your every need based on your ayurvedic constitution and life habits. And plenty of swings for relaxing and watching the sunset over the lake. The meditation teacher here, Naveed, seemed to be trained in the Shivananda style, I never asked him but his practices leaned that way. Morning yoga and evening meditation daily was a real treat.
Finally, we landed at the Taj Malabar resort in Cochin or Kochi, two names for the same place. We were right on the water across from a huge port. Again, a memory of childhood and family, in particular my brother who I am so proud of as he is now Chief Engineer for the Virginia Port Authority and works at a location just like this one. Seeing the whale of a huge ship entering the inland waterway and docking at the port and watching the cranes add to or remove cargo was like a connection across the planet to family.
Some of our group attended a Kathakali Dance performance. This ancient technique involves only men, and lots of make-up. One of the dancers demonstrated the different emotions used in Indian cultural dances; the subtle control of his facial muscles is like I’ve never seen. Kathakali uses mudras, hand or even body gestures, to tell a story, in the same way Classical Indian Dance does, but it certainly has its unique south-Indian flavor.
Chinese fishing nets are an amazing sight at the waterside. Made of wood and hand-tied ropes, this ancient fishing practice stands side-by-side to modern buildings and technology of the city. Case in point: the Cochin airport is the first in the world to be 100% solar powered.
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Twenty two intrepid yoga yatri, travelers. Twenty two hearts and forty four eyes from which to experience this vast and rich culture and country. And each moment leads me back to my new family of these travelers, my lifetime family at home, and my own Self.
I went to South India with my teacher, Douglas Brooks, and an intrepid group of 22 other travelers. We flew into Chennai and visited Thirupathi, Thirutani, Kanchipuram, Thiruvannamalai, Chidambaram, Kumbakonam, Thiruchendur, and Madurai. It was a whirlwind trip both geographically and internally. There were so many amazing and incredible experiences that I would like to recount, so this five part series is my attempt to do just that.
Part 5: Elephants, Peacocks, and Snakes, Oh My!
There is a “no photos” policy inside the temples that is strictly enforced. At the Chidambaram Temple, when I stood in front of the black Ganesha, big, fat, phat (am I dating myself?), and completely composed, I stood and stared to commit his image to memory. There is something so steady, so weighty, so grounded in his presence. And then, to my pleasant surprise, Babu and Bharati brought us a case of coconuts. Really it was a big bag, but I mean it was a *big* bag. We got to take turns smashing coconuts on the steps of Ganesha’s shrine. The symbolism behind this is wonderful. The coconut is your head, your brain. When you smash it open, you are breaking through to a new, deeper level of conscious awareness. It is an offering to the gods, to Ganesha particularly, the Guardian of Thresholds, the Remover of Obstacles. You offer yourself, your mind humbly and he is there for you. When you feel smashed in little pieces by events, relationships, life, he is there, hiding in plain sight, supporting you.
As the group of us were smashing coconuts, there were local people there to pick up the pieces. Nothing is wasted. That coconut meat probably made a great chutney later that day.
By the way, it is not necessarily easy to smash open a coconut. You have to aim it just right to hit the corner of the step and you have to put some muscle into it. It felt cathartic to generate that much effort to break it open, and if you think of how it feels when a firecracker goes off, how the air is displaced in order to make that loud boom, that is something of the feeling of the coconut smashing open, there is an internal displacement that awakens you to something more. And there is always more, like an iceberg with its tip above the water, three-quarters of it is still hidden below.
Ganesha is the ultimate elephant. The son of Shiva and Parvati he is often found sitting in thresholds, the obstacle himself — elephants are rather large — and the one who removes the obstacles. He is the first one you greet walking into a temple or even into someone’s home. Images of him often show him holding Indian sweets, modaka, and he is offering them to you, to everyone, in an invitation to enjoy the sweetness of life.
Upon arrival in India, I had this desire to see peacocks in real life. As we were preparing to leave the hotel one morning early on in the trip, I asked Douglas if we would see any peacocks that day, knowing that the peacock is the vahana, the vehicle of Murugan, and that we would be going to a Murugan temple that day. His response, “now we will.” I just love this idea of planting the seed and then allowing things to take their course. That day in that temple, there were many images on the walls of peacocks. It is the Mazaradi of deity transport. In contrast, Ganesha rides a moussaka, a mouse, which is a testament to Ganesha’s lightness of foot and of heart. Durga has her tiger, Sarasvati has her swan, Lakshmi her elephant or sometimes a peacock too, she is the goddess of abundance after all. Vishnu has his eagle. The vahana seems an extension of the quality that deity offers or reflects within.
A few days later we did see real, living peacocks in Tiruchendur. The peacock is so majestic with its feathers on display. Seeking a mate it puts its best face forward. Our group in our colorful saris felt a little like peacocks to me, and it was interesting when Douglas once mentioned that the reason we follow the tradition of wearing a sari is because it is sacred. We play the part “as if” we are Hindus and belong there because we do belong there. There are no rules to participation in these rituals of the self, the universal. Show up and act “as if.” Not only is it sacred to dress the part, it is a part of the culture that is being lost. Many younger women no longer embrace the wearing of a sari, I dunno, maybe because it is a little fussy, maybe because it can take a long time to get dressed, you often need someone else’s help, and getting the pleats just right is a real skill that needs to be practiced. We dressed in so many fanciful colors to honor the tradition and just maybe in some small way, to rekindle the love of the sacred.
Snakes Naga in Sanskrit, images of snakes are abundant. Snakes are wrapped around Shiva’s arms and waist while he dances his ecstatic dance, snakes are wrapped around many deities, and they are wrapped around each other. Snakes represent spiritual power, one’s true potential, and fertility, which is really the passing along of one’s power. There is a relief image on a wall here of Murugan riding his peacock with a snake coming out of his mouth, and his father Shiva and brother Ganesha beside him. They say that spiritual energy, kundalini, is a coiled serpent lying at the base of the spine, and through meditation she awakens and rises, piercing the chakras so that the aspirant awakens to deeper levels of existence, deeper levels of humanity. It is a metaphor, a way to describe the indescribable. Awakening.
At the Kalahasti Temple in Srikalahasti Andra Pradesh in particular, there is a great naga forest just outside the gates. Many many images of snakes wrapped around each other, piled on top of each other, where young couples go to pray for children. It was an amazing and fecund sight. Kalahasti is the Shiva temple that is connected to the wind element. This naga forest had an overwhelming sense of earthiness, and a great sense of hope, potential, power, and fertility, again. It was real and palpable.
Snakes represent power. This is a difference with the goddess cult so prevalent in southern India, compared to say the Kashmir Shaivite tradition of northern India. Kashmir Shaivism philosophy is a bondage to liberation model. When one is born into a body in this life on earth, one is shrouded in darkness and must practice yoga in order to return to the light; this is the rising of the kundalini energy from base to crown chakra. According to this philosophy, the yogi should do anything to get out — relief from the suffering — of this world. In the goddess cult, one lives with kundalini energy in the world. The idea is not to leave the world through liberation or emancipation, but to remain in the world and feast on its spiritual fruits. Generally in northern India, Shiva is represented as a lingam, a formless form, which you do also find in temples in the south, but you also find images of Shiva’s family much more prevalent in the south. Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha, Murugan, and rarely the bastard son Ayappa [see Part 3 of this series for more on him]. A family represents a full expression of love in its many forms.
And forests represent the place of human existence. They say there are three places that you can find Shiva, on the mountaintop, in the cremation ground, or in the forest. If you are on a mountaintop, the sun shines brightly and you may see vast expanses of lands. In the cremation ground it is dark and scary and there are goblins there, gravesites are often associated with the night. However, in the forest, it is the combination of these two, the sun shines brightly through the leaves of the trees, so in the forest there is light and darkness intertwined. Dappled light — which is the human experience, sometimes we are in the light and sometimes darkness reigns. It is up to each one of us individually to find our own pathway, to navigate the places of light and the places of darkness. Yoga gives us tools to navigate, and through practice we become skillful. As Douglas’ teacher Appa once said, “yoga is virtuosity in being yourself.” The Bhagavad Gita states, “yoga is skill in action.” A peaceful warrior. Impeccable and awake.