22 Hearts and 44 Eyes

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.

Pondicherry

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.

Chidambaram

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.

Tanjore

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.

Madurai

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.”

Kay, tour guide Raj, and Liz setting off on a three hour tour

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.

 

Cochin

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.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

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.

Rimmi, Kathy, and me
Ganesh’s brother
At Taj Madurai
Love me some elephant
Working lady
Our tour guide Raj
Brihadeshwara Temple
Lady Police

Chidambaram musicians

Yes, we did do yoga

Amazing Things About South India: Part 5

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!

Elephants
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.

Peacocks
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.

Amazing Things About South India: Part 4

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 4: Smoke… And Fire
If you travel to India, one of the first things you might notice is the massive amount of sensory input that bombards you from the moment you step off the plane.  There are so many sights, sounds, smells and tastes that are available to you; it can be a little discombobulating.  It also happens to be one of the reasons I love India.  You are surrounded by sensory experience.  And people.  And cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses, bicycles, trains, rickshaws, tuck tucks.  And cows.

In the temples, there are so many sculptures, on the walls, the pillars, in little nooks and in big shrines.  For me, just knowing that these works of art have been around for hundreds or even thousands of years connects me to a certain timeless quality that offers a sense of letting go of the small, petty, everyday realities that are not so important in the long term.  This outer timelessness provides me a connection to the inner quality that is the underlying truth of experience, that which is changeless, formless, without any external supports, that which is radiant, peaceful and drenched in bliss.

Om Namah Shivaya Gurave Satchidananda Murtaye Nishprapanchaya Shantaya Niralambaya Tejase

Smoke

In the before-mentioned Murugan Temple in Tiruchendur, there was a shrine for Murugan and the priest standing outside it was cultivating a small flame.  He would pour vibhuti, white ash, on the flame and as it would smoke, he invited you to put your face directly into the smoke while he fanned it on you.  The first time I did this, I was not sure what to do, looking into the small fire, trying my best to do what the priest told me to do and going through motions.  The next morning when we returned to the temple, I had the chance to do it again, and this time I was ready.  As I stepped up to his little flame, he began to fan the vibhuti smoke into my face and I inhaled deeply.  I had the sense of the smoke penetrating nostrils, lungs, and then following the nadis, subtle nerve pathways that infuse the body with consciousness – they say there are 72,000 of them in the human form – to the furthest reaches of my awareness.  It was as though the smoke clarified and purified each layer of my awareness, body, mind, heart, emotion, spirit.  I can still remember that sensation if I close my eyes and inhale.

Fire

Chidambaram Nataraja Temple feels like home.  When I’m outside the gates, I can feel the temple calling me inward.  When I step in the gates I am open to a larger version of my own heart.  When I take the 21 steps into the inner courtyard, mantra arises in my mind without me making any effort.  The subtle vibration rises up from the very ground of the temple, through my feet and into my field of consciousness.  When it is time to go, the ounces of my being cling to the temple, not wanting to leave.

Traveling with the Poonai, we had an extra special treat when the dikshitars, Brahmin priests of Chidambaram Nataraja temple, prepared a homa ceremony for us.  A homa ceremony is a fire ritual.  They decorate the place with banana leaves and other natural ornaments, we all sit around in a big circle as the priests chant their mantras, and then the dikshitar of the day offers many things into the fire – ghee, yogurt, honey, rice, sandalwood paste, milk, and more; the whole process takes several hours.  There is a large silver trough that each of the substances flow down and then get poured out into the fire, to then transform into smoke that rises up to the gods.  This process is fascinating… and painful to sit on the stone floor cross-legged, and quite often it is hot and uncomfortable, but it is fascinating.

There may be many ways to interpret this ritual, but one part of it is the idea of abundance.  Here are all kinds of food items that someone might be able to eat, but it is being offered into the fire.  The funny thing is, there is always more.  At points I would want to laugh at the ever more outrageous offerings sent into the flames, at points the laughter was at the spectacle itself, but in the most joyous way, there was nothing self-serving or sarcastic about it.  The child-like joy of the South Indian people is infectious.  Several times throughout the trip, our guide Babu would mention that it is rare for someone to go hungry in India, that may sound a little questionable, but it is what he said.  In the giving away of the food, something greater is actually retained.  After the ceremony we distributed buckets of food that our group had supplied, that dikshitar wives had cooked, to other temple attendees.  It was literally buckets of food, served in little banana leaf bowls.

Later, as our way of providing back a small token of what the dikshitars had offered to us, we offered sugar cane and turmeric to the dikshitars.  Sugar cane is for the sweetness of life and turmeric is for good health. Piles of sugarcane and turmeric branches stacked up are the very picture of abundance itself.  Having experienced these offerings first-hand, it makes me feel that I am connected to a larger whole within the universe, the part that continually offers, continually creates, continually transforms.  It is the plus one factor.  There is always more.

And each more forms a new memory, a new story to tell.

  

Amazing Things About South India: Part 3

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 3: Brahma Chamundesvari

Stupa at entrance to Thillai Kali Temple, Chidambaram
On the outskirts of Chidambaram sits a breathtaking temple known as Thillai Kali Amman. Thillai Kali herself used to be located in the Chidambaram Natarajan Temple until the 1200s when a Chola dynasty king moved her. Legend speaks of a dance contest between her and Shiva in which she was to mimic every move that Shiva made. He went too far and in order to preserve her dignity, she wouldn’t follow him in a particularly unsavory dance move, therefore she lost the contest and in her anger at him “cheating” chose to move outside the city just to prove that we humans need both Shiva and Shakti in our lives. ‘You are gonna miss me when I’m gone.’ There are other versions, as is always the case with Indian mythology, but there is no question that the story is much more involved and complicated.

Chidambaram means the space, ambaram, of consciousness, chid. It may also be translated as “clothed in consciousness.” In fact, there is a unique connection between these two temples, Thillai Kali and Nataraja, in that each one contains a piece of the other. The akasha linga, akasha meaning space as well, and linga referring to Shiva in his “formless form,” sits in the Thillai Kali temple, and there is still a place for Thillai Kali in the Nataraja temple where she is not. But the funny thing is, there is a place for this lingam, under a five faced naga, cobra, and it is completely empty. The lingam is in the ether, not in the physical, visible world.

When you first enter the temple, you notice that Ganesha is on the wrong side. Usually Ganesha is to the left when you enter a temple, and you offer him mantra, mudra, and your love at the threshold and then go about your way. His brother Murugan sits on the right. At Thillai Kali Temple, Ganesha is to the right and Murugan to the left. Which means that when you leave the Thillai Kali temple, they are in the proper position; so when you leave Thillai Kali temple you are actually entering the temple of the outside world. Everything is reversed, a reflection of Nataraja and other temples, in the same way that Shakti, the feminine divine manifestation is a reflection, reversed, of Shiva, the masculine divine consciousness. It is a brilliant way to acknowledge that in Shakti practice, the world that we live in is divine, it is the universal, it is the truth for which we have all been searching.

There are many things to capture your eye and your spirit in this temple, and on this particular trip, it was Brahma Chamundeshvari who captivated me. She is the deity in the innermost sanctum, and she is Kali, Shakti, Parvati, the divine feminine in murti form. She has four faces. The one facing out, toward you looking in, is Shakti herself. Shiva is to the left and Vishnu is to the right. And then there is the face in the back. These faces represent a little known story, told in Rajanaka lore of South India. Shiva and Shakti, Parvati, Kali, are married, but in the course of time, Shiva was attracted to the feminine form of his best buddy (and Parvati’s brother) Vishnu, called Mohini. Shiva and Mohini were in the Thillai forest to awaken some sages who had become complacent in their yoga and meditation practices. They were able to shock the sages back into reality and when that deed was done, they had a tryst with each other. This resulted in Vishnu becoming pregnant. Vishnu, being a man after all, had no way to birth this baby, so Parvati, after already being wronged by them having a tryst in the first place had to suffer the indignity of then helping her brother betrayer birth this baby through the pores of his skin. She was the midwife to the bastard child of her husband. Talk about feminine strength. Despite all of the things she must have been feeling because of her husband’s and her brother’s betrayal, she held strong and supported them through this most unusual and perhaps even life-threatening event.

Thillai Kali Temple, Chidambaram
The child’s name is Ayappa. You may recognize him in south Indian art because he is often sitting in a squat position with the yogi’s strap around his legs supporting him. In the Thillai Kali temple, he is the face of Brahma Chamundeshvari that you never see. He represents the broken piece, the missing piece, the thing that guarantees there is always something more, something else, something different, something interesting. It might be something painful, but it in contemplation, it will always bring you closer to your own Self.

We have things that are broken right? Something about ourselves that we might not want to show to the world, but that gives context, richness, fullness, story. It is something that makes one unique and perhaps even colors our decisions or actions. This is what this story is about, recognizing that the figurative bastard child is not something to be thrown out, but to be embraced, for all the heartache that he causes, he brings more love into the world. Or perhaps better stated, he brings more experience into the world. The broken piece in our own lives causes more trouble when we try to deny it or ignore it, because then it festers. If we recognize it for what it is and accept it — no matter how much we may or may not be able to forgive — still acknowledging it, then it adds a new pattern, a new detail to the fabric of life.

Brahma Chamundeshwari is the peak of strength of the Divine Feminine. She holds those things that she loves and those that have betrayed her, and she still shows her best face to the world. She may be inspiration to us all.

Amazing Things About South India: Part 2

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 2: The Poonai
Poonai means cats in Tamil. As in, our tour guides feel like they are “herding cats” to get us on the bus, get us off the bus, into the temple, out of the temple, checked in to the hotel, checked out of the hotel, and make sure everyone gets their bio break when the need it. Oh, and, of course, to make sure everyone has their chai. Over the years the trip has become more and more sophisticated in that our guides now know that shopping must take place in the beginning to make sure we have the best saris (and dhotis) for our travels; they know when to make a pit stop as well as where and how; even during our picnic lunch in a banana field, we had everything one could ask, hot delicious sambar, tamarind rice, and curry complete with straw mats to sit on so we weren’t on the hard ground.

Inside MC Poonai

Of course the Poonai come mostly from the US with a few other countries represented, Sweden and Thailand, but I believe we all are a little South Indian at heart. How else could we get up so early to have someone else help us dress — I tried diligently to tie my sari myself, and came relatively close, but my sari-tying never lived up to our guide Bharati’s standards — and not to mention, eating with our fingers. You have to want to be in South India to be in South India.

Bus Chuck

Sometimes the challenges were real, being so far away from comforts of home, but daily, the people on the bus, my friends new and long-time were continually nurturing, supportive, curious, welcoming, open, and maintaining a positive attitude. It was hot and the roads were sometimes bumpy, and the ground on which we walked barefoot was often less than clean. Over the years, the Poonai have developed some rituals and nicknames. Once, there was a guy named Chuck (which may or may not be his real name) who tended to wander and who accidentally got left behind. Of course this was discovered relatively quickly and they went back for him right away and all was well, but now, after every temple and every re-boarding of the bus, we do a “Chuck check.” You have to make sure that your roommate is there. I ended up with two Chucks, my bus-mate whom I would sit with, my “Bus Chuck,” and my roommate in the hotels, my “Chuck Chuck.” These ladies were so wonderful.

Chuck Chuck

My Bus Chuck, Harriet, is a head-strong activist resisting the corruption in government that we are seeing so much of lately and standing up for women’s rights in so many ways. My Chuck Chuck, Shannon, is a brave soul who is stellarly living her truth and being a positive influence in the world. The conversations that we had really helped me figure some things out in my own life and to get in touch with places and events that I may have rejected, ignored, or wished away. This past year has been emotional for many of us, as the American “Id” has risen into power and the #MeToo movement has swept social media. Figuring out not just ways to cope and to deal, but ways to make positive change is truly priceless. Having a non-judgmental sounding board is really the best therapy. 🙂

We may not have all known each other at the beginning of our trip, but we all came for similar reasons, to “see and be seen,” darshan. Please check out Douglas’s post regarding darshan. “The practice of darshan arrests the mind into singular focus, places the body in often uncomfortable positions (spoon up, lean in…), and it compels the heart to race into a kind of fury, chaos, and wonder that is difficult to explain but from doing it, and doing it, as it were, “properly.” Think of it this way: our whole cognitive and somatic being allocates our attentions, regulates and assigns meaning to our environments, in terms of both inside and outside awareness.”

Speaking of spooning up, at most of the temples, there were long lines to see the inner sanctum deity. We had to hurry up, rush rush, and then wait, and then the moment when he or she is revealed. Quite often we had to squish really close in order for everyone to have a chance to see. In that moment we were “Spoonai”… and when the new folks needed to get up front in order to have the best view, they were “Newnai.” Joyful, child-like enthusiasm at every turn.  And at the same time, we were immersed in one of the most sophisticated philosophies on the planet.  The rituals, habits, and mantras reveal a rare depth of humanity.

One temple, the Tillai Kali temple in Chidambaram, is especially breathtaking.  The images of Shakti, the goddess, are striking and they can and will meet you at every level of your awareness.  We visited twice, once at the beginning of our trip and again at the end.  On a particular occasion, as I was standing in the back courtyard area, somewhat dazed and just absorbing the experience of being there, Mariah walked up to me and whispered the 66 syllable Durga mantra into my ear.  I was caught by surprise because at first I thought she was offering the mantra that I was familiar with, Om Dum Durge Bhagavati Namasthite, but then it became clear that she kept going.  More syllables that spun into an amazing mantra that represents the churning of the milky ocean of consciousness.  Shakti, the feminine form of infinite consciousness who manifests in the world, is continuously churning, making more, giving the value added experience, the “plus one.”  As Mariah, unprovoked, spoke this mantra to me, I felt it a gift to help me recognize that churning within and all around, and in the next few days myself had committed those 66 syllables to memory.

By the end of our travels, we were functioning as a unified whole. A group of individuals with our own unique desires, needs, and habits that existed completely in support of each other as well. Friends, Poonai, for life.

Samkalpa – Trust and Do More Yoga

You may have heard me mention Samkalpa in class before.  We use it during yoga nidra practice and on other occasions too in order to help set a positive direction for class or in life.  Samkalpa means resolution or intention, and truly, it is your own heartfelt desire.

Generally speaking it is a short statement in positive language in the present tense.  One makes a statement regarding his or her desire as though it is already happening, already taking place.  Then, she feels into the statement as though she is already living it.  In many ways, when we do this, we already are living at least the seeds of making that desire come to life.  It may not have fully manifested yet, but if it is a deep, heartfelt desire, the seeds of positive change have already been planted.

At the new year, I like to set a one-word intention.  It is a little more open to interpretation, and it becomes a great guide as to how to conduct myself and my choices throughout the year.  I got this idea from friend and colleague Kathy Donnelly, owner of Yoga Center of Columbia, and partner in our upcoming 200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training.  For years now, she has been making this suggestion and I love the idea.  When I began this practice, my samkalpa that year was ease.  And so, for any decision I made, I would start by asking myself, “does this promote more ease in my life?”  That happened to be a very challenging year personally and so this one word samkalpa was really a godsend as far as keeping me sane.

This year, I’m choosing Trust.  Trust in the universe and trust in myself.  Seems to me there is some crazy sh*t going on out there in the world and it is easy to be overwhelmed and angry about all the greed, corruption, and ignorance.  When I feel overwhelmed, I return to my practices, daily meditation and yoga asana.  These practices ground me, bring me back to myself, and help me to recognize that the first place that real change occurs is inside myself.  These practices help me to trust that my decisions are the right ones for me in the moment and I try to make them based on uplifting others around me too.  For example, if I say something in a reactionary manner, perhaps that helps me feel better, but how does that affect the other person?  The practices help to give me pause when I’m in situations that could go either way, towards the positive and helpful or towards the detrimental.  The pause is the instantaneous moment in which I can mindfully choose to do something uplifting rather than defeating.

When I see crazy weather patterns, I trust that Mother Earth is doing what she needs to in order to restore balance in the world.  That is similar to trusting that the universe is doing exactly what it is supposed to in each moment, but I am not a fatalist.  My teacher Douglas Brooks talks about mantra and malini.  Mantra is a word or phrase, a sound vibration really, that you can count on.  When you utter it, verbally or internally, it produces a certain effect, whether it is words that we understand or just vibration that evokes feeling, it is the thing that generally doesn’t change, therefore we can count on it.  If you do a thing, then a thing will result, consistently.  Malini on the other hand is complete randomness.  If you do a thing, then any result could happen.  Malini is the thing that adds interest, excitement, even playfulness.  However, it can also lead to the unexpected or ugly so it becomes the scary factor if you do not have trust that you can meet the challenge when it arises.

Where mantra offers comfort, support, regularity, malini brings possibility, excitement, newness.  Both are a part of human existence and human experience.  It depends on our own perceptions as to whether one or the other is ‘better’ in any given situation.  It depends on our own skill as far as how we respond to either type of situation.

Doing yoga practices gives us the skill and helps us to build trust within ourselves.  So, you know what I’m going to say here: Do More Yoga.  Who knows what 2018 will bring really, but I choose to trust that I will have the proper answer at the right time for the given situation.

 

The Joy of Child’s Pose

How did you get here? Close your eyes and surrender. The hurt that we embrace becomes joy. 
 -Rumi

For the past five months I have been dealing with fluid in my knees. I think it began with a long flight overseas and back (did I mention I am obsessed with India? See here, here, and here) where I was cramped in an economy seat for hours without much movement. At first they were only painful with some restricted movement, but after an anniversary weekend in NYC walking everywhere in not the greatest shoes (go see the World is Sound exhibit at the Rubin and The Great Comet!) and a bit of landscaping with a shovel into the hard Cheverly clay, my knees became two little orbs of sharp, burning, stabbing pain.

Needless to say, there was no child’s pose for me.

My yoga practice really changed. Instead of yoga postures each morning, I became fast friends with my tennis ball. If you’ve been to my class, you’ll know that fascial release is one of my favorite things, and all you need is a humble tennis ball to support you in this endeavor. So instead of coming to my mat for yoga postures, I would press and roll the tennis ball into and over hamstrings, calves, quadriceps, even on the outside of my feet to help open the peroneal muscles, IT band and tensor fascia latae. This tennis ball rolling, making space in and around the knee joints, felt really good relative to the constant pain and it was about all I could do for a while. My meditation was in a wide-legged seat, upavista konasana, sitting up on blankets with rolled towels or blocks for support under my knees.

A yoga pose I found really helpful was elevated pigeon pose. With my back foot on the floor, I would place my front shin on a bed or raised surface. You have to spread the toes of the front foot wide and draw the pinky toe back toward the knee to do this safely when there is knee pain. Going slowly, I would sink in to the sensation and breathe with it, allowing time to release gripping and holding, and believe me, there was a lot of gripping and holding.










This kind of practice, patience, massage, and acupuncture began to offer results and my knees became not so cranky. Yesterday, slowly, with toes active and pressing into the mat, I was able to slowly lower my hips toward my heels and, even though I was very wary of not going too far, it felt like heaven. In child’s pose it was as though the earth swallowed me up and held me in her embrace, reassuring me that this pain is just a phase, and like many things in life only temporary. But it takes work, patience, and persistence to overcome.


About Blessing Counting

I grew up with a tangential relationship to church. We went to a Methodist Church (several different ones over the course of my school years in fact) in order to “gain a moral background” according to my parents who would gladly say that they do not believe in God. These Sunday morning outings usually involved getting donuts together on the way home. I was pretty much there for the donuts. But this is not to say that I do not have a connection to spirit, that is very much alive…

This is to say that I was never totally convinced that “blessings” were a thing and that I should be counting them. The very word blessing seemed kind of wimpy to me in some way. Please forgive me, my church-going friends, but I am only speaking my experience.

Longwood RoseIt was not until a friend and fellow yogi suggested to me that a blessing is really anything that makes your heart feel lighter, that I gained a better relationship with the word, and with the idea. Anything that makes your heart feel lighter. How amazing is that? We all experience ups and downs, some more than others, and it’s true, right? That when we feel bad, the heart gets heavy. Emotions have a physical seat in the body. This is a thing that yoga practice teaches us directly; often on the mat as we move through different shapes and forms, emotions and memories rise up, and in that safe space on the mat we can allow ourselves to feel them and recognize them for what they are — feelings — like waves in the ocean that are a part of the ocean but do not represent the full depths.

So with this new understanding of blessings, I began a practice of gratitude.

Each morning, as I begin my meditation practice, first I take the time to name three things that I am thankful for. Taking a walk, breathing fresh air, having a good meal, watching the birds in the yard, good health, good friends, a loving partner, a vibrant community in which to live, a career that I really enjoy. I try to vary it each day and think of even the smallest everyday things that make my world a better place.

If you have not tried a gratitude practice, I recommend it! Perhaps first thing in the morning upon waking is the best time because then you are immediately reminded and can maintain that feeling of thankfulness throughout the day. Three things.

And now scientists are discovering a biochemical reason for gratitude too. Neuroscientist Dr. Alex Korb has a book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, in which he says that practicing gratitude boosts dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that governs pleasure and serotonin the one that governs mood.

“One powerful effect of gratitude is that it can boost serotonin. Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.” —Dr. Korb

And he goes on to say that it is not the finding of gratitude, but it is the remembering to look for it that creates the beneficial effect. The more you remember to look, the more the dopamine and serotonin increase. It is an upward spiral. Fascinating. Thank you for reading!

Morning Sadhana

My name is Kelly. I am 45 years old.Positive Vibes

That is a difficult thing for me to say. I am not ashamed to be 45. In fact, I feel a little bit of wonder that I’ve made it this far and that the things I did in my 20s feel like another lifetime away from me now. But still a lifetime to love and learn from those friends whom I may not see anymore. Southwest Virginia is a long way from Washington DC, let me tell you.

My spiritual name is Kalpana Devi, the “goddess of creative imagination.” And I do not feel 45.

Nobody calls me by that name anymore, but it was given to me by one of my first meditation teachers. Another friend whom I do not see anymore, but I hear she is happy and healthy and with family in her home country of Norway.

Sometimes I feel much older than 45, like when mysterious aches or pains arise in my body of which I may or may not know the origin. In my mind though, I pretty much always feel younger, like when a ray of sunshine breaks through the clouds and I want to go out and turn cartwheels in the yard. Coincidentally it has been raining for something like 17 out of 20 days this month.

In the present, my body is going through changes and has been for a few years now if I am being honest (which I am), and some days it really affects my mind too. Some days my mind indulges in that downward spiral of I am not worthy or I am not good enough, and I wonder where those thoughts are coming from. A lifetime of meditation and yoga practice has made me self-aware enough to recognize that I am more than my thoughts, and it has given me techniques to overcome that negativity. But due to these changes in my body and emotion, I am now more than ever so grateful for having the foundation of these practices.

Many people refer to it as simply “yoga.” However, these practices are so much deeper than the physical postures. A better term is really sadhana. Sadhana literally means practice and one who practices is a sadhaka. This means not just yoga postures, but the breath work, contemplation, meditation, concentration, and even daily routines that a sadhaka maintains, like taking food, waking and sleeping, the list goes on. When yoga is in your blood, that desire for relationship with the higher self is continuous –no longer a seeker, but really existing in seeing. I left the “k” out of “seek” on purpose.

Doesn’t mean daily life challenges disappear. In fact, due to being 45 as stated above, there many times seem to be more challenges physically, more mental stresses and stressors, more ways to have to be serious rather than light-hearted. Then, it all comes back to the practices. A few months ago, I set a conscious intention to do more yoga. Yoga Teacher, heal thyself, I said. And whatdoyouknow these practices, this sadhana actually works! Physically I am feeling stronger and there are less of those negative-spirally thoughts floating around in my head. Once in a while, I actually feel spontaneous joy. And this even happens while I’m “working” teaching classes. Some might say it is because I am teaching classes. My students are really the best, I am so proud of them for the attention they bring to their practice every week. That is something that makes me truly happy.

So, I thought I would let you in on my morning practice routine involving both yogic and ayurvedic habits. When I wake up, bathroom calls. Brush my teeth, scrape my tongue. Then I go in and sit for meditation, 30 minutes or more if I have time. I subscribe to what the Chopra Center calls RPM: rise, pee, meditate.

Next, two mugs of warm-to-hot water with 1/8 t of turmeric, a few shakes of black pepper, and a squeeze of lime in the first one. Then, yoga! At least 30 minutes of yoga, but if I only have 5 minutes, I still do 5 minutes worth. When I jump in the shower, I start with oil pulling with coconut oil, which is a mouth gargle instead of mouthwash, so for that 10-20 minutes it takes, I’m in the shower and not talking to anyone anyway. If I have time, dry brushing before showering stimulates the lymphatic system and makes my skin feel good. Moisturizing with a fine sheen of sesame oil afterward keeps my skin soft.

That may sound like a lot, but most items take only a few seconds. I would make meditation and yoga a little longer than that however. Due to being 45, this routine has become extra-special-important and I really miss it when it’s not there. Set an intention to take care of yourself.

What do you know, yoga actually works.

Absorption

Lifting the Veil 3

This morning my mantra was
like water to a thirsty soul.
There was no question
I needed my cushion.
Wanted it
Loved it
It was a compulsion as easy as
a mountain stream flows to the sea.
No effort, only lightness
Each breath elixir
Each moment a chance to awaken
Each repetition a soft calling
To the one, the many.

Ever since my return from India
I’ve been highly inspired to maintain
Her attitude,
Things will happen when they happen.
It is so easy to default to the opposite
To push things, force things, rush things
Why? Just because
But reality is in the moment
The precious moment the sun rises
and the light touches your face.
Ease is there for the receptive taking,
Things will happen when they happen.

I am absorbed in love.

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