Spring is getting closer. Vaccines are becoming more abundant. I am in the mood to move! To help clear out the lethargy and stagnation of wintertime, Ayurveda recommends eating more bitter greens, spring vegetables, light grains, pulses and berries. Nature is beginning to offer an abundance of bitter greens like arugula, kale, beet greens, bok choy, dandelion, and collards. Other vegetables that help to clear the dampness of spring include asparagus, brussels sprouts, fennel, onions, garlic, green beans, and sprouts. Light grains, such as millet, basmati rice, and quinoa assist in the clearing of mucus and excess water in the body. Legumes like lentils, chickpeas, adzuki beans, and black beans have a drying effect on the body. Berries, once they come into season, have a cleansing effect on the liver and also help to remove excess sludge from winter. Try this yummy recipe to help you lighten up for springtime.
French Lentil Dal
1 c French lentils soaked overnight
4 c water
1-2 Tablespoons ghee
1/2 teaspoon coriander seed
1/2 teaspoon cumin seed
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 inch fresh ginger, chopped
1/2 c chopped sweet onion, spring onion, or leeks
1/2-1 teaspoon turmeric powder (or 1/2 inch chopped fresh turmeric)
pinch asafoetida (also called hing, has a taste similar to garlic)
1 teaspoon maple syrup
1 teaspoon prepared mustard
salt and pepper to taste
After soaking the lentils overnight, drain and add 4 c fresh water for cooking. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat to simmer for about 1 hour or until lentils are soft.
In a separate skillet, heat ghee over low-medium heat. Add the cumin, coriander, and fennel seeds, ginger and onion to the ghee. Saute until onions are transparent.
Add this mixture to the cooked lentils.
Add the turmeric, asafoetida, maple syrup, prepared mustard, salt and pepper.
Stir and let simmer for 5-10 minutes to allow the flavors to combine.
Enjoy with steamed or sauteed veggies and white basmati rice.
We are about to reach the one-year anniversary of living with Covid19 in isolation. Normally at this time of year I would be preparing for our annual journey to India (See photos from past trips here and here) but this year is quite different. This year has seen so many changes in life, death, and lifestyle. I hope that yoga practice has brought you some comfort in this past year.
For myself there have been ups and downs. Transitioning to teaching yoga classes online was certainly challenging, but I was also able to complete an idea that had been brewing for a long time, my first online course. When the pandemic began, Wildflower Yoga started offering monthly Yoga Nidra to benefit various social justice causes. We raised a total of $8,272 last year! Our Benefit last week will add another $660 to that total. 100% of all proceeds go directly to the non-profit organizations; no funds were held back. If those were “up’s,” then a down would be that the physical space in which we were holding class is no longer available. The ups and downs are both waves in the ocean, eventually one settles and the other rises up. With yoga practice we learn to dive deep into the ocean and move beyond the surface push and pull to be able to observe life’s challenges from an objective place — with any luck, from a more harmonious place. We begin to recognize changes as different phases, different tides within the same ocean of consciousness.
My colleague, teacher, and friend Kathy Donnelly has been talking about community a lot lately and I agree with her that our community of like-minded souls is an important part of surviving the pandemic with a level head. It is great solace to me each time I see your faces in class. The effort it takes to bring peace and well-being to your own body-mind-heart really inspires me. Who knows how much longer this social distancing needs to be in place — I have always thought it should be called physical distancing, not “social” distancing — but I am thankful for each of you and for your effort to support your own good health. Let’s continue building community together by practicing together, and even on your own at home; home practice is an important part of yoga where you can really explore the poses and how they feel in your body. If I can be a small part of your yoga journey, for that I am truly thankful.
As mentioned in my previous newsletter, during this pandemic I have been dealing with a different health issue, hyperparathyroidism. The surgeon had to make an incision at the base of my throat to remove the “offending gland.” With that surgery behind me, I was able to get to the task of healing. It took a week before I really felt like moving again, I even had to support my head with my hand as I would transition from sitting to lying down for example. Once I felt stronger and ready to move, I really wanted to do some yoga! Practice was slow at first, with lots of full breaths and no hurrying. It involved much stretching and breathing from a seated position. And then, Child’s Pose, Balasana. I would bring big toes together and take my knees wider, fold forward from the hips and rest my forehead on my stacked hands.
Pre-surgery, balasana was a resting pose for me, but post-surgery it became respite; in Yoga Nidra terms, it became my Inner Resource. If you know anything about fascia, you know that if there is an injury or trauma in one part of the body, it can affect the rest of the body in a three-dimensional matrix. Because my neck was intensely healing, the rest of my muscles felt compressed, pulled toward the incision like covered wagons in a circle to protect the precious humans inside. Child’s pose helped those muscles to lengthen again; the sweet release of elongating my spinal extensors was better than a hot bath. The gentle opening through hip muscles was like my body exhaling, gently easing back to a state of normalcy. These inner sensations helped to remind me that all is well and on the path to healing, it just takes time and patience.
If you are feeling out of sorts, please make time in your day for a “yoga snack” and take balasana for several deep breaths — as many as you need until you feel your nervous system settle and you return to a state of calm.
Winter is a time for rest, rejuvenation, and renewal. You may or may not agree with me, but I love the snow. Especially when I do not have to go anywhere, the snow just blankets the earth with quiet and to see the sparkle of the snowflakes reflecting the sun once the storm has passed, it just makes me want to exhale fully into a state of joyous relaxation. We may not get that lucky this year to see a beautiful snowfall, but I’m still hoping.
Here’s an idea — I hope that even during these cold temperatures you have been able to at least get outdoors to take some walks. Along your way, choose a spot that you can return to each day or each week to simply stop for a moment and view; take in your surroundings. When you return to the same spot over a period of time, you can really observe the changes in nature, from winter’s stark barrenness — there is a beauty to the stillness — to the first buds of the spring time. Your “viewing spot” can help you observe the transition from the hibernation of inner life to a vibrant outer life as spring shows its signs of approaching. We’ve still months to go, but taking time to observe the here and now in each moment can be a great practice in present moment awareness and even in cultivating gratitude regarding the gifts and things we have to celebrate. Keeping some sort of daily routine, be it regular walks, a time for reading, or yoga practice, can be a rejuvenating habit that supports you for years to come.
Mmm. Fall is here and I usually greet it with a little apprehension because I know that winter will follow. The funny thing is, September is probably the most beautiful weather-wise and October brings the brilliant leaf color as the trees succumb to the changes. There is plenty to celebrate in nature even if our ‘leaders’ might seem to be failing us right now. Life seems to be a continual balance between making effort to change what I do not want and letting go of the need to be in control of things to get what I do want.
Yoga teaches that very thing. We need to make effort to express ourselves through a yoga posture, but at the same time, we need to allow for things to unfold in their own time. If we want to do a handstand or hold Warrior III with elegance for example, it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes practice. If we want to touch our toes with ease, we must put forth the effort. Sthiram sukham asanam, a yoga posture is steady and comfortable, Patanjali says in Yoga Sutra 2:46, but that is not generally true at first; we must put forth the effort.
Yoga Therapy uses yogic techniques — yoga postures, breath work, meditation, mantra, mudra — to support a wholistic approach to life, good health, and mental and emotional prosperity. In honor of Global Yoga Therapy Day, I created a video about coping with the global (and local) crises and anxieties of the moment. Enjoy!
Our annual India Retreat was interesting this year, special thanks to Coronavirus. The day before we left, we knew it would be a challenge because Emirates had already canceled our return flight due to the lack of passengers. We were some of the last people allowed in to the country and thank goodness we were able to get out in time as well.
We made the most of what we had. Rimmi led our first yoga practice at the Taj Hotel in Delhi, beginning with a loving-kindness meditation that we sent out into the world for the upliftment of all beings and closing with a quote from Swami Vivekananda:
Give me understanding
Teach me patience & acceptance
Help me remember that whatever happened in the past
happened for the best
And whatever is happening now is also happening for the best.
I came with nothing
And I will leave with nothing.
What belonged to someone else yesterday is mine today
But what is mine today will belong to someone else tomorrow
In this ever-changing world help me see your unchanging principle
Which is that true happiness and peace come from the simple understanding that we are all connected and that we all come from the same source.
We saw the Taj Mahal with a very small crowd of people. We visited the Ahaneri Step Well on the way to Jaipur and we got to spend some time in Jaipur — meditating, doing yoga, and visiting.
Udaipur and Rishikesh will have to wait for next time.
There are many things I love about India that keep me coming back, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the warm and friendly people. But one of the things I like best is, it seems like everywhere you look there is something to bring you back to Consciousness — like the random sign in Delhi, or the monkey feasting, or the kids laughing. They all become a reminder that we are all part of one big human family, no matter where we live.
This past weekend I had the great good pleasure of meeting Dr. Loren Fishman when he came to Yoga Center of Columbia to offer his certification training on Yoga for Back Care to a full house of yoga teachers and therapists. It was just about 20 hours worth of sciatica, scoliosis, piriformis, quadratus lumborum, facets, herniated disc discussion, and more. I continue to be amazed at just how supportive yoga can be to one’s good health.
As you may know, I became a Certified Yoga Therapist in September of 2016 (three years ago!) when IAYT first began certifying yoga teachers. This is the highest level of certification a teacher may receive. It is a fascinating prospect to me because, my yoga practice has been so healing in my own life journey, and it is an honor to be able to offer similar healing to others. When drugs and conventional medicine fail, yoga offers hope without the side effects. The main issue is, one has to practice! This is the hardest part, just getting onto the mat every morning (or at least at some point during the day). But if you can discipline yourself for a regular practice, the benefits can be immense.
I once heard the phrase that indulgences like sweets, alcohol, and other recreational activities are elixir at first, and poison later on. Whereas, yoga may feel like poison in the beginning, but it is elixir in the end. And, I am here to say, it only gets better with age. My practice has been 28 years running and I only want to do more yoga, not less.
Some students were asking about his books. He has many, including: Healing Yoga; Yoga for Back Pain; Yoga for Arthritis; Yoga for Osteoporosis.
Or, you may contact me. I will be happy to meet with you to create a home practice specific to your needs. One on one with a qualified therapist is really the best way to make the most of your own practice.
Nelson Mandela once said “When you let your own light shine, you unconsciously give others permission to do the same.” Dr. Fishman spent many years with his teacher, BKS Iyengar, and that light is being passed along even today.
This is the third year that Rimmi Singh, her sister Pammi, and I have taken a group of yogi travelers, yatri, to India. Each time the trip is to somewhat different places, and this time 22 of us had an amazing tour of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. South India is quite different from north India in terms of the food, spices, language, and landscape. Perhaps there is a slight difference in the people too, as a whole. In the whole of the subcontinent, there is just a mind-boggling amount of variety in everyday life as the sacred sits right next to the mundane which sits right next to riches which sits right next to poverty. It is all mixed up in a colorful stew. Quite often when one thinks of India, I believe it is common to first think of the third world and poverty, but what we experienced was a great depth of culture and progressive ideas.
This city has a heavily French influence as it was founded in 1674 by the French East India Company. It is home to Auroville of Sri Aurobindo fame and the famous flower market. All of India seems to be covered in flower petals; they seem to always be blossoming and are ever fragrant, and the flower market here begins early in the morning to avoid the midday heat. It is more like a wholesale place, where people come to buy in bulk and then sew the flowers up into beautiful garlands to wear or offer at the many temples. It stands in the midst of fish sellers and vegetable sellers and there is an amazing amount of activity even before 7am.
Sri Aurobindo is a famous guru at the turn of the 20th century who had a great influence on Indian and even American culture based on his teachings and the books that he wrote. The Mother was also quite prevalent as she was his spiritual equal who helped found the Auroville ashram. About Auroville:
Auroville (City of Dawn) is an ‘experimental’ township in Viluppuram district in the state of Tamil Nadu, India near Puducherry in South India. It was founded in 1968 by Mirra Richard (since her definitive settling in India called ‘[The] Mother’) and designed by architect Roger Anger. Auroville is meant to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.
Some words from the Mother:
Be courageous, enduring, and vigilant and above all, be sincere, with perfect honesty. Then you will be able to face all difficulties.
The Ganesha Temple in Pondi was our first elephant sighting, the first of several more. Here I am receiving a blessing from Lakshmi.
Our hotel was right on the Bay of Bengal and I swear people were up all night long walking the promenade, feeding the cows and dogs, and chanting by the sea.
I visited here with Douglas Brooks just a few weeks previous, and this is my third time to this temple. It is the Nataraja Temple, Shiva in his form as Lord of the Dance. Each time I arrive here, it feels like home. Visitors are not allowed to take pictures in the temple, so memories will have to do, but I will say that this temple, like many in south India, is arranged in such a way so that when you step inside its walls, it is as though you are stepping into your own Self. The concentric circles of walls lead you through the layers, koshas, of your own mind until you get to the inner sanctum, where Nataraja resides, and where your innermost Self resides.
At most temples, there is a “flagpole” outside of the main sanctum, sometimes it is brass or wood, sometimes it is covered in gold. There is no flag on top, but the pole itself is often ornately carved. It rises higher than the roof or if indoors, usually goes through the ceiling. This post represents your spine and the spiritual energy, kundalini shakti, held within it. To me, just gazing at the pole brings a sense of power. It is taller than the ceiling to represent the fact that the kundalini energy or power rises up from the base of the spine to the crown of your head, which leads the yogi into a more expansive state of awareness.
We experienced a sacred abishekam ritual with the crystal lingam, “the formless form of Shiva,” in which the priests known as dikshitars would pour many substances like milk, yogurt, ghee, sandalwood paste, rice, honey, sometimes even flower petals, over the lingam, washing it clean after each substance. It is a strange practice, but when you observe it, it is quite evocative, you cannot help but feel something inside. This ritual is concluded with an aarti, the waving of light from a candle flame, around a ruby Nataraja statue. This little statue I’m guessing is about a foot high, and it is pure ruby, so when they shine the light behind it, it glows a brilliant red and takes my breath away.
As my friend Bharati, who assisted us at the temple, said: there are three main parts to Tamil culture, wearing a sari is sacred for women, also the bindi placed on the third eye, and jasmine flowers strung in one’s hair. There is nothing like the smell of jasmine in your hair in south India.
We had a brief stay at Svatma Hotel. This place is a must stay because it is a converted Brahmin home that is so elegant and completely welcoming. The staff meets your every need, and one may experience yogic rituals like morning chanting and yoga, even dance performances in the evenings. My good friends Michael and Karen Levin treated me to a sound immersion — in the spa, there is an entire room dedicated to creating different sounds and tones so that one might bathe in the vibrations of gongs, chimes, a thunder-making instrument, a table that has harp strings underneath the bed that one lies upon while someone plucks the strings and the vibrations move through your entire being. It is a complete vibrational experience that left me feeling refreshed and cleansed.
We saw a fascinating and beautiful traditional Indian dancer perform too.
In Madurai we visited the Meenakshi Temple. This little lady’s claim to fame is that she was born with three breasts. As a princess, her father the king was so very proud of her, and there was an oracle that said when she met her match, her mate for life, that the third breast would disappear. As luck would have it, the only match for her was the great lord himself, Shiva. This temple and the Chidambaram temple have some ethereal connection for this reason. A god is never far from a goddess.
As with many south Indian temples, this one owns an elephant. She greets pilgrims and offers blessings, and each morning, her keepers take her out for a walk around the town. Tamil people love their elephants, and for six weeks out of the year she goes on “vacation” to an elephant preserve. We all have to blow off a little stress once in a while.
At any temple, there is a daily schedule. The priests wake the gods in the morning, they bathe them, they clothe and feed them, and in the evening, they get put to bed. A few of us took part in this night ceremony. First, only Hindus are allowed in the main inner sanctum, so Bela was the only one of our small group to enter there to receive darshan. But when she emerged from the sight of Meenakshi, she was so radiant, we received her darshan by osmosis. As she rejoined us then we walked over to the Shiva shrine where the night ceremony begins. The priests take out a Shivalingam from this sanctum and carry it over to the opening of Meenakshi’s sanctum, where her shoes are brought out as a symbol of her whole self. The lingam and the shoes mingle side by side for a few moments as the priests chant, and then the lingam and shoes are put to bed. Again, such an odd thing to do, but at the same time there is a visceral sense that something deeper is happening. Inner spiritual structure is reorganizing somehow. As Douglas Brooks puts it, either grown men are playing with dolls here or something visceral and deep is going on. In reality, it is both.
Thekkady, Periyar National Park
Spice Village is a progressive property that does not allow any plastic on the premises. The hotel is a series of cottages spread out over many acres on a mountain in the Western Ghat range. Did I mention most of this trip has been in the 90-100° range? This was the coolest portion of our trip.
Naturalists provide nature and bird walks, they filter their own water and make paper here. The bags to hold receipts or souvenirs from the store are made of newsprint being reused. They compost in several different ways and have a beautiful garden from which they use the food in their restaurants. It is so close to nature, there are guinea fowl that roam freely on the property and only occasionally get eaten by the monkeys. And so many birds! After the busy-ness of the cities in Tamil Nadu, this was a great time to unwind.
Upon leaving Spice Village, we stopped at a tea plantation school. This may have been one of the most moving parts of our trip as the elementary age children were overjoyed to see us. We brought pencils, notepads, erasers, pens, stickers, and candy to the kids and everyone wanted to get their pictures taken. We sang songs together and treated the kids to ice cream dessert after lunch that day. It was truly precious. Being around the kids brought thoughts of my sister in North Carolina, who daily works with children facing great challenges regarding their ability to learn, homelife, and poverty. These children at least have homes, food, and schooling, but poverty is there, and they have unique challenges due to culture and climate too.
Kumarakom, Vembanad Lake
Here we stayed at the largest lake in Kerala, known as Vembanad and famous for its houseboats. Seeing these things on the water made me think of some creature from the 80s television program Fraggle Rock. We had a whole day tour on a house boat which was really wonderful. The crew fed us lunch and after lunch our guide, Raj, set up his playlist, which of course was American golden oldies type music and the main deck of the houseboat became a dance floor. His comment to me was unforgettable, “this is the true yoga, when people are happy and laughing and dancing.”
We stayed at Coconut Lagoon, which is another CGH Earth property like Spice Village, so no plastic anywhere. I haven’t mentioned the food yet — I will never tire of dosa or idly and sambar. Delicious. You have to take a boat to get to the property, and there are canals throughout the property to help manage the landscape, which is filled with flowers and fruit trees and butterflies. The canals gave me a strong memory of growing up with my grandparents in the summers in South Bethany Beach Delaware the way the canals were in the backyards of the beach houses and you could boat around and see people’s intimate backyard lives or head to the bay to enjoy nature. And waterskiing. These memories are some that seemed long gone and therefore gave me a greater sense of integration with my life, connecting past to present.
There is an Ayurvedic spa here with two doctors on hand to treat your every need based on your ayurvedic constitution and life habits. And plenty of swings for relaxing and watching the sunset over the lake. The meditation teacher here, Naveed, seemed to be trained in the Shivananda style, I never asked him but his practices leaned that way. Morning yoga and evening meditation daily was a real treat.
Finally, we landed at the Taj Malabar resort in Cochin or Kochi, two names for the same place. We were right on the water across from a huge port. Again, a memory of childhood and family, in particular my brother who I am so proud of as he is now Chief Engineer for the Virginia Port Authority and works at a location just like this one. Seeing the whale of a huge ship entering the inland waterway and docking at the port and watching the cranes add to or remove cargo was like a connection across the planet to family.
Some of our group attended a Kathakali Dance performance. This ancient technique involves only men, and lots of make-up. One of the dancers demonstrated the different emotions used in Indian cultural dances; the subtle control of his facial muscles is like I’ve never seen. Kathakali uses mudras, hand or even body gestures, to tell a story, in the same way Classical Indian Dance does, but it certainly has its unique south-Indian flavor.
Chinese fishing nets are an amazing sight at the waterside. Made of wood and hand-tied ropes, this ancient fishing practice stands side-by-side to modern buildings and technology of the city. Case in point: the Cochin airport is the first in the world to be 100% solar powered.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Twenty two intrepid yoga yatri, travelers. Twenty two hearts and forty four eyes from which to experience this vast and rich culture and country. And each moment leads me back to my new family of these travelers, my lifetime family at home, and my own Self.
I went to South India with my teacher, Douglas Brooks, and an intrepid group of 22 other travelers. We flew into Chennai and visited Thirupathi, Thirutani, Kanchipuram, Thiruvannamalai, Chidambaram, Kumbakonam, Thiruchendur, and Madurai. It was a whirlwind trip both geographically and internally. There were so many amazing and incredible experiences that I would like to recount, so this five part series is my attempt to do just that.
Part 5: Elephants, Peacocks, and Snakes, Oh My!
There is a “no photos” policy inside the temples that is strictly enforced. At the Chidambaram Temple, when I stood in front of the black Ganesha, big, fat, phat (am I dating myself?), and completely composed, I stood and stared to commit his image to memory. There is something so steady, so weighty, so grounded in his presence. And then, to my pleasant surprise, Babu and Bharati brought us a case of coconuts. Really it was a big bag, but I mean it was a *big* bag. We got to take turns smashing coconuts on the steps of Ganesha’s shrine. The symbolism behind this is wonderful. The coconut is your head, your brain. When you smash it open, you are breaking through to a new, deeper level of conscious awareness. It is an offering to the gods, to Ganesha particularly, the Guardian of Thresholds, the Remover of Obstacles. You offer yourself, your mind humbly and he is there for you. When you feel smashed in little pieces by events, relationships, life, he is there, hiding in plain sight, supporting you.
As the group of us were smashing coconuts, there were local people there to pick up the pieces. Nothing is wasted. That coconut meat probably made a great chutney later that day.
By the way, it is not necessarily easy to smash open a coconut. You have to aim it just right to hit the corner of the step and you have to put some muscle into it. It felt cathartic to generate that much effort to break it open, and if you think of how it feels when a firecracker goes off, how the air is displaced in order to make that loud boom, that is something of the feeling of the coconut smashing open, there is an internal displacement that awakens you to something more. And there is always more, like an iceberg with its tip above the water, three-quarters of it is still hidden below.
Ganesha is the ultimate elephant. The son of Shiva and Parvati he is often found sitting in thresholds, the obstacle himself — elephants are rather large — and the one who removes the obstacles. He is the first one you greet walking into a temple or even into someone’s home. Images of him often show him holding Indian sweets, modaka, and he is offering them to you, to everyone, in an invitation to enjoy the sweetness of life.
Upon arrival in India, I had this desire to see peacocks in real life. As we were preparing to leave the hotel one morning early on in the trip, I asked Douglas if we would see any peacocks that day, knowing that the peacock is the vahana, the vehicle of Murugan, and that we would be going to a Murugan temple that day. His response, “now we will.” I just love this idea of planting the seed and then allowing things to take their course. That day in that temple, there were many images on the walls of peacocks. It is the Mazaradi of deity transport. In contrast, Ganesha rides a moussaka, a mouse, which is a testament to Ganesha’s lightness of foot and of heart. Durga has her tiger, Sarasvati has her swan, Lakshmi her elephant or sometimes a peacock too, she is the goddess of abundance after all. Vishnu has his eagle. The vahana seems an extension of the quality that deity offers or reflects within.
A few days later we did see real, living peacocks in Tiruchendur. The peacock is so majestic with its feathers on display. Seeking a mate it puts its best face forward. Our group in our colorful saris felt a little like peacocks to me, and it was interesting when Douglas once mentioned that the reason we follow the tradition of wearing a sari is because it is sacred. We play the part “as if” we are Hindus and belong there because we do belong there. There are no rules to participation in these rituals of the self, the universal. Show up and act “as if.” Not only is it sacred to dress the part, it is a part of the culture that is being lost. Many younger women no longer embrace the wearing of a sari, I dunno, maybe because it is a little fussy, maybe because it can take a long time to get dressed, you often need someone else’s help, and getting the pleats just right is a real skill that needs to be practiced. We dressed in so many fanciful colors to honor the tradition and just maybe in some small way, to rekindle the love of the sacred.
Snakes Naga in Sanskrit, images of snakes are abundant. Snakes are wrapped around Shiva’s arms and waist while he dances his ecstatic dance, snakes are wrapped around many deities, and they are wrapped around each other. Snakes represent spiritual power, one’s true potential, and fertility, which is really the passing along of one’s power. There is a relief image on a wall here of Murugan riding his peacock with a snake coming out of his mouth, and his father Shiva and brother Ganesha beside him. They say that spiritual energy, kundalini, is a coiled serpent lying at the base of the spine, and through meditation she awakens and rises, piercing the chakras so that the aspirant awakens to deeper levels of existence, deeper levels of humanity. It is a metaphor, a way to describe the indescribable. Awakening.
At the Kalahasti Temple in Srikalahasti Andra Pradesh in particular, there is a great naga forest just outside the gates. Many many images of snakes wrapped around each other, piled on top of each other, where young couples go to pray for children. It was an amazing and fecund sight. Kalahasti is the Shiva temple that is connected to the wind element. This naga forest had an overwhelming sense of earthiness, and a great sense of hope, potential, power, and fertility, again. It was real and palpable.
Snakes represent power. This is a difference with the goddess cult so prevalent in southern India, compared to say the Kashmir Shaivite tradition of northern India. Kashmir Shaivism philosophy is a bondage to liberation model. When one is born into a body in this life on earth, one is shrouded in darkness and must practice yoga in order to return to the light; this is the rising of the kundalini energy from base to crown chakra. According to this philosophy, the yogi should do anything to get out — relief from the suffering — of this world. In the goddess cult, one lives with kundalini energy in the world. The idea is not to leave the world through liberation or emancipation, but to remain in the world and feast on its spiritual fruits. Generally in northern India, Shiva is represented as a lingam, a formless form, which you do also find in temples in the south, but you also find images of Shiva’s family much more prevalent in the south. Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha, Murugan, and rarely the bastard son Ayappa [see Part 3 of this series for more on him]. A family represents a full expression of love in its many forms.
And forests represent the place of human existence. They say there are three places that you can find Shiva, on the mountaintop, in the cremation ground, or in the forest. If you are on a mountaintop, the sun shines brightly and you may see vast expanses of lands. In the cremation ground it is dark and scary and there are goblins there, gravesites are often associated with the night. However, in the forest, it is the combination of these two, the sun shines brightly through the leaves of the trees, so in the forest there is light and darkness intertwined. Dappled light — which is the human experience, sometimes we are in the light and sometimes darkness reigns. It is up to each one of us individually to find our own pathway, to navigate the places of light and the places of darkness. Yoga gives us tools to navigate, and through practice we become skillful. As Douglas’ teacher Appa once said, “yoga is virtuosity in being yourself.” The Bhagavad Gita states, “yoga is skill in action.” A peaceful warrior. Impeccable and awake.