Provence Yoga Retreat 2018

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.

Morning Yogis at Clos Saint Christol
Il est interdit d’ interdir: It is prohibited to prohibit. I.e. no censorship! at the first local brewery in Saint Christol
Yogis enjoying some wine
Plums!
Horses and bulls get along in Camargue.
Camargue horses
Saintes Maires de la Mer fishing boats
Aigues Mortes salt harvest
Aigues Mortes castle
Flamingoes in Aigues Mortes
Beep beep!
Saint Paul Asylum, Saint Rémy garden
Van Gogh’s bedroom in Saint Paul Asylum, Saint Rémy
Abbey de Frigolet window
Yogis at Abbey de Frigolet!
Phyllis and Rose in partner Tree Pose
Daria and Linda wishing you Peace
Some of our group in Warrior III on UN International Day of Peace
Sète harbor and lighthouse

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.

Amazing Things About South India: Part 1

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 1: The South Indian People

These folks win the prize for resilience. It is their “winter” season and the temps were in the 80s and close to 90 everyday. A “three shower day” I call it. It is a harsh climate, especially without air conditioning. And if you have air conditioning, you are not always guaranteed that the electrical grid will hold up throughout the day. It is challenging, and yet, I saw so many smiles on people’s faces.

Their homes come in many shapes and styles, but we visited one village, where our tour guide Babu has a small farm. We first stopped at a traditional potter’s home. He was spinning pots on his porch, where the roof made of bamboo and thatch hung low. So low in fact that one of our travelers hit her head on the bamboo post sticking out. It was bloody. Everyday they have to duck to get into their home. It is low for a reason though — to keep the sun out.

At this same village we visited a small outdoor temple. Douglas advised that most of the goddess deities we saw here are related to the monsoon and even small pox, the things one has to deal with in this climate in order to survive. Even in this small village, it is clear the villagers take pride in their place, the artwork and attention to detail is amazing.

We visited Babu’s farm after that. He also allows his home to be used as a school for the village children. He told us that when the children first started meeting visitors like us they were so shy, if they said anything they might ask your name, but now they are friendly and open and asking how we are doing. We offered the girls bindis, nail polish, and hair ties. The boys were all about the pens.

In Babu’s home some villagers served us a traditional South Indian lunch. Thali meal. This consists of rice placed in the center of a large banana leaf (yes, literally a banana leaf) with a variety of curries spread around the rice. You mix the curry into the rice with your hands and eat with your fingers. There is no silverware anywhere. The tamarind curry is truly dee-lish.

Our group wanted to be respectful of the culture and so we would wear saris — it took the ladies hours to get ready in the morning. Guys get to wear dhotis, which is basically a big sheet wrapped around your private area. 15 minutes tops to get ready for them. It was so worth it to dress the part. When South Indians would see us in traditional dress, they would be so happy and want to talk and take our photographs. It was interesting to me how, seeing Westerners dressed in traditional South Indian fashion, they weren’t repulsed by cultural appropriation, on the contrary, they were so happy that we were trying to “fit in” as it were that they printed a photo in the newspaper. It was a Tamil language newspaper that Babu and Douglas translated to say basically, ‘look at these Westerners going to temple in traditional Indian clothing, doing their best to follow the tradition and temple rituals, they might help inspire our young people to do the same.’ I am paraphrasing, for sure.

One temple that I really loved was the Murugan Temple in Tiruchendur. This is right on the Bay of Bengal. I think perhaps the laid back beach vibe might be a universal experience. Many people would go to the temple, have darshan, which means to see the deity and be seen by the deity, and then walk outside and take a dip in the sea. The people we met here seemed especially joyful and happy to see us. There were Shakti pilgrims dressed in red saris, and Ayappa pilgrims in black dhotis. Once, after some of our group had darshan, a few of us were waiting in the hallway for the rest of our group. We were standing in front of other shrines where a continuous stream of people were rolling by. One of the Ayappa pilgrims spoke to one of our male travelers within my earshot. As I was listening, he was saying that they are so pleased to see us at the Murugan Temple. It was not just his words but the whole gestalt of smelling the incense burning, the heat of the day, the darkness inside the temple, the sacred air we were breathing… as this pilgrim was speaking, my heart was bursting. It felt as though some hard outer shell was crumbling and an even greater love was beginning to shine through my own chest. It felt like a deeper connection to my own soul. It felt like a merging of different layers of my awareness so that I became more complete as myself. I wanted to hug everyone, but in that moment I just kept breathing deeply and feeling even more deeply. It was enough to just be there.

Yoga in Provence May-June 2017

It has been a world traveling year. I’ve swum (swam?) in the Arabian Sea and dipped my feet in the Mediterranean Sea, all in the name of yoga. Thank all the various gods. This trip we stayed in a villa in Provence near Vernègues. It had a vineyard on the property and a salt water pool, but we did plenty of sightseeing in Gardes, Les Beaux, St. Remy, Avignon, Cassis, and Aix-En-Provence, not necessarily in that order. La société était merveilleuse et notre séjour était incroyable. Revenons l’année prochaine! Merci beaucoup.

A few photos from our travels:

Annette at Mas de Gancel
Vineyard at Mas de Gancel
Rita preparing some delicious concoction
Rita and Lisa
The group at Senanque Abbey
Nancy’s Inspiration
Gordes

St Cecily overlooking some Roman ruins and the city- countryside

That’s a lot of wine
Diana at peace with Buddha

Our host at Montirius vineyard, “We want two things: balance and harmony with nature.”

Callanques de Cassis

The gang in Cassis
Palais du Popes, Avignon

Yes, we did yoga too
Naked in Aix

Modern day Moby meets ancient sized parking space
Birthday Girls: Sharon, Carolyn, Liz, and Nancy
Annette and Rita at an Abbey

Pano in Arles

Yoga Center of Columbia India Trip 2017

It is our second trip to India. Rimmi Singh, Pammi Singh, and I led another group of intrepid travelers to Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, and we finished our trip at an amazing resort in Goa. Along the way we experienced a long and rich culture of family, society, myth, and history right next to some modern-day amenities. As expected, the variety of sights, smells and tastes filled our senses in both incredible and challenging ways. Below are a few highlights.

Yoga class at the Taj Hotel in Delhi
At the Gandhi Memorial, Delhi

India Gate in Delhi, a war memorial
Shopping with the Gods
Flute Player at Taj Hotel

Girl at Gurudwara Bangla Sahib
Buddhist Temple next to Hindu Temple
Hindu Temple, Delhi

Yoga at City Palace, Jaipur

Transport

Red Fort, Agra

Hungry?

Monkeys!

Make way for buffalo
Puppy Savasana Expert
Yoga in Goa by the pool by the ocean
Cats like yoga too

Exhale
Lord Shiva
Nandi

Yoga Center of Columbia India Trip 2016

I have an obsession with India. I admit it. The colors, the sights, the smells, the people. So naturally I was thrilled to have this opportunity to assist in turning others on to my own addiction. From March 1-15, Rimmi Singh and I led a group of intrepid travelers half-way around the world to this timeless place that is the Indian subcontinent. We visited Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, these three known as the Golden Triangle, and then we went to Amritsar and Dharmsala. Each place had its own special personality, its own special offering for the world and us. And did I mention the food? Superb. Here are a few photos from Delhi.

sunrise in delhi

first morning yoga

helloooo

Agra Fort

Naked Monk Jain temple

Jammu Masjid gate

Jammu Masjid

Market outside Jammu Masjid, Delhi

Traffic Jam

two wheeled transport

Bamboo Flute in Taj Hotel

Bahai Temple Delhi

And a few photos at the Taj Mahal and Red Fort in Agra and at the Amber Fort and City Palace in Jaipur.

Selfie!

Tree Taj

Taj detail

Taj Pooch

Taj from Gate

Agra Fort

Ladies Quarters, Agra Fort

Cuspid Arch

Taj from Agra Fort with Awilda

Tajafar

Detail of Agra Fort

Detail of Agra Fort 2

Ladies

Three Ganeshas

Krishna Temple with Michael

Stained glass

Sweeper

Ride to Amber Fort

Elephant back

Inside the City Palace, Jaipur

The Peacock Gate, City Palace

Next up, Amritsar, home of the Golden Temple, which we saw pre-dawn for a prakash ceremony and then returned midday. It was a new moon the day we visited, a holiday for the local villages, so the temple was packed.

Prakash Seva ceremony, predawn

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Group at Golden Temple

Version 2

Dharamsala, the exiled home of Dalai Lama. We arrived on March 10. Every March 10 there is a march for Tibetan freedom. So many monks, so many Tibet flags. And, the Netherlands cricket team staying in our hotel, Fortune Moksha.

View from Morning Yoga

Himalayan glacier

Our Sherpa

St. John Church

St. John Church inside

Dalai Lama Temple window

Dalai Lama's Temple monks studying

Gyoto Monk temple, yes, the throat singers

Monk boys, monkettes?

Seen on the wall

Norbulinkga Institute for Tibetan Culture

Monkeys 1

Monkeys 2 leaping

Monkeys 3

And our return to Delhi before the flight home. Ladies cricket team from New Zealand was at the Taj Hotel with us upon our return.

shopkeeper

madam

shopkeeper 2

shopkeeper 3

bellhop

Cindy, Carolyn, and Shiva

 

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Up next: Absorption.

Return to Costa Rica Good Times.

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