Sunday, March 29, 2009

I Heart Yoga

When I was back in Colorado in January I spent six lovely hours in the Denver, Cherry Creek Mall while the Mac Geniuses tried to fix my ailing laptop. During my time at the Genius Bar I met a Kirtan leader. My meeting with him was the first time I ever heard of Kirtan and he piqued my interest so I started looking for a group to join in with. In Mysore I arrived right as the leader of the weekly Kirtan group was leaving and so I never got to practice there.

Now I know it wasn’t meant to be before, because I was meant to participate in my first Kirtan in Bali, with fifty other people at a benefit for a local orphanage.

My first Kirtan was led by a maverick in the world of chanting, Dave Stringer. Dave looks more like he should be in an Indi Rock band than leading sacred chanting sessions, but he brings that unconventional energy to this ancient tradition and breathes new life into the words which alone serve to inspire and resonate.
Kirtans are basically group-singing events. Mantras are sung in call and response form, Dave calling and the collective ‘We’ responding. We begin timidly, none trusting their voices to not offend, but soon enough we are attuned and we raise the roof with our song, some stand up to dance, no one remains still. It’s like attending a participatory symphony. On this night we sang Om Namo Shivaya, my mantra, and I was hooked immediately. At that moment, I mentally committed to attending every Kirtan I can during my travels.

The teacher training continues and I continue to be expanded in my practice, my understanding and my appreciation of Yoga. Most days we have three practices, and I thank my time in Mysore for preparing me for the rigors of this training. During our limited free hours we sleep, or sunbathe and sometimes we explore.

Our group went rafting down the Ayung river a few days back. The trip began with a long stairway leading down into the gorge and eventually the river. Eight kilometers later the gorge has widened and softened some, making way for rice terraces and high-end resorts along the sides. At the deepest, darkest point the black rock walls are covered in intricate carvings telling the tale of ancient Hindu battles and love stories. Waterfalls and natural springs feed the river from every crack and crevice. The pool-drop rapids are fun and technically challenging, but the warm water makes everything seem easy going.
The next day our group was invited to join in a sunrise chant by Dave and Patrick who are here hosting thier own retreat. The forces that combined to get us all up to the base of a Mt. Batur that morning are far too intricate to map out, but somehow, someway we all found ourselves singing the Gayatri mantra as the sun rose over the volcanoes.

Once the sun took up residence in the sky, we were lead by Maya Fiennes through a Kundalini practice, another first for me, and finally through sun salutations by Shiva. It was the most beautiful practice of my life, and again I know that it required every step along my path to get me to that porch on that morning. The overflow of joy I felt there was enough to sustain me for years in my practice.
After the morning practice we all cycled back to Ubud.

When I was in Bali last year I learned about the Balinese New Year celebration of Nyepi. Here they forgo champagne, poppers and illuminated dropping balls, instead they celebrate complete silence and stillness.

For 24 hours no one leaves home, there are no scooters whizzing by, no offerings are made, no lights are turned on, even the airport closes. 3.3 million people stop what they are doing and stay home, in silent stillness for a day – it is palpably powerful. When I was sailing to Singapore I experienced the same dark calmness, but never before have I experienced it with so many, the sheer magnitude of an entire population pausing is magical.

The morning after Nyepi was the last practice of Shiva’s retreat. We all enjoyed another intensely fluid practice together and now that the course is over I have lots of processing to do. Since I came straight from India into this training I haven’t really had time to imbue the lessons from there and now I have a whole new flow to digest. My body is tired, my mind is swimming in different schools of yoga and my heart can’t wait to get back to my personal practice.

I heart yoga!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Return

Leaving India, flying out of Bangalore I was a full 20 kilos over the apparently unevenly enforced luggage weight limit. The creative counter agents began negotiations at $18 per kilo, for an opening bid of $360. I raised my voice, pierced them with my blue eyes, and the negotiations continued... I offered to remove all liquids from my bags, to start adding layers to my modest travel outfit and finally after about 45 minutes I gave them all I had, 1200 rupees, $24. The agents were disgusted with my measly 'offering'.

They asked for credit cards or if I had any US dollars. I explained that this was all I was giving up and that thanks to them now I had no money for dinner and would surely starve. After a brief conference involving every counter agent in Bangalore, they decided I wasn’t worth their time, threw my 1200 back at me and sent me on my way with no fee and all my bags checked. As I left the manager said, and I quote... “next time lady, you bring us money!”

The rest of my journey was blissfully uneventful, I did a somewhat expedited Ashtanga practice in the business lounge of the Bangkok airport and made it Denpasar in time for lunch.
Coming back to Bali really did feel like a homecoming in many ways. It’s easy, comfortable and settling.

Upon arriving I was greeted by my friend Pande’s beaming smile. He brought me to his house and I took up residence in his guest room, which months before I attended the blessing ceremony for. Pande said then that he knew I would end up being his first guest and indeed I was. His wife Kadek, daughters Putu and Kadek made me feel welcome, stuffed me with sambal and rice and the girls kept me entertained with their Balinese dancing.
Bali has a seemingly endless stream of holy days, festivals and national holidays to celebrate. Twice a year Gulangan is celebrated to honor their perseverance over the bad spirits. The last Gulangan took place the day I graduated from Yoga school, and now six months later I feel that cycle completing for me as I return to host my first retreat.
Pande’s family invited me to join them in their small mountain village for the celebration. It was an all-day affair filled with food, ceremonies and lots of sitting around waiting for the next ritual to commence. I was once again the only Westerner and much like I had been on the third class Indian train … I was like TV to them, something strange and different to be openly gawked at, smiled at and ultimately accepted into the fold.

Unless you have really been the center of prolonged, unwanted attention you can’t really grasp how truly uncomfortable it is. Most of the time I sat cross-legged on the ground and just smiled, what else is there to do when dozens of people are staring at you?
During the day of celebration I was force fed non-stop by the local villagers. It is a holiday steeped in ritual eating. Offerings are meticulously crafted, taken to temple, blessed and then doled out for all to enjoy. As we sat out front, after making our own offerings, a steady stream of devotees came, prayed and left us fruit, rice crackers, sates, you name it. Early on I tried to explain my preference for vegetables, and my aversion to unidentifiable pork products, but it was for not. Language and cultural barriers left me unequipped to refuse the offerings and so I ate, and ate, and ate.

The next day, I settled back in the apartment I lived in this past fall, right across from the resort where I did my training. It feels homey and easy, a nice combo for a weary world traveler.
I came back to Bali a bit earlier than originally planned to attend a training/retreat with Shiva Rea, the pioneer of Vinyasa Flow Yoga. She is beautiful and powerful and so free in her movements. As we practiced that first day I felt like the stiff Ashtangi in the room. Everyone else is flowing, they are so organic and unrestrained, then there is me who is like... but wait, that wasn’t five breathes, hey we skipped Chaturanga, and what do you mean move however your body tells you to?

Vinyasa Flow is the practice that first brought me to yoga. It is where the seed of yoga was first planted in me and it too feels like a homecoming. It only took me a day to get into the flow for myself again. I look forward to returning to my personal Ashtanga practice next week and am equally as excited for this opportunity to refocus on my original practice and the kind of yoga that I teach. I feel well-rounded and balanced through both practices.
The first night of the retreat, as we lay down in Shivasana, Shiva turned the recorded music off and this guitar player, who snuck in while our eyes were closed, began playing live in the room. He was AMAZING!!! His name is Steven Gold and he was accompanied by his lovely wife Anne Emily. The music was infectiously inspiring and as he played and sang Om Nama Shivaya, my mantra, the dam on my tears broke and I just started weeping. The fact that we are practicing in the same shala that I did my teacher training in, and the culmintaion of all the experiences I have had since I was here six months ago combined to overwhelm me in one steady stream of tears. It was a beautiful.

Only taking every single step along this path could have led me to be in that place at that moment and to experience it in such a powerful way. It was one of the most affirming moments I have ever known.

I tell you, the universe is kicking my ass with all these gifts. I am humbled and awakened and most of all, filled with unending love.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

No Fear, No Fun

Sharath, our teacher, has some trademark sayings. His English is not perfect so some are made all the more endearing for their grammatical incorrectness. He can’t possibly remember the name of every student, but he manages to remember countries and each morning as he shuffles students’ practice times around he says things like “Canada sisters, you come 6:30 tomorrow - Japan, why you late? - Holland, you stop there”. If a students falls during a headstand or a drop back he says “don’t break floor!”

One of his favorites is “no fear, no fun”. He says this often to students who are just learning a particularly difficult or fearful posture. Drop backs for instance are when you stand at the front of your mat and bend backwards until your hands touch the ground behind you, then you spring back up to standing. This asana for sure instills fear but the look on my fellow Ashtangis’ faces when they stand up for the first time is definitely all fun.
For my last week in Mysore I adopted this as my mantra. No fear, no fun led me to a party in a teak forest, it led me to eat an unwashed tuber straight off the turnip truck, and finally … to an Indian water park, where the real fear of water-born parasites only helped to amplify the fun.

My Mysore sister Shelley and I had been trying to come up with a good party plan for weeks. We had bandied about the idea of renting a hotel suite and throwing an air conditioning party, a particularly enticing idea when the temperature wasn’t dipping below 95 Fahrenheit until the wee hours of the night, we managed to venture out for a few dance party nights at a very surreal Mysore discothèque, but it wasn’t until we passed the water park that the epiphany came.
We invited everyone who would give us the time of day, in the end 13 hardy souls hit the park on Friday the 13th. The park was so much fun! I felt like I was ten again, like I was Charlie and all of India was the Chocolate Factory.

We slid, we splashed , we bumper car-ed. The highlight for me was the Aqua Dance Party, a dance floor covered in dousing sprinklers and Indian men in long pants and tank tops dancing like we were all in the final scene of some Baliwood epic. to quote the bumper sticker, I danced as if no one was looking. In that moment I had no reservations about anything, no inhibitions, no fear, purely fun.
My final days were filled with friends, plans for the future and reflection on my time in India. On the morning of my last practice, Sharath gave me permission to return to the shala in August. Insallah, I will be back that soon, and then I will stay for a more extended practice of three to six months.

The last night Shelley, Cary, Emma, Bernadette and I climbed up Chamundi Hill and drank champagne in the pouring rain, honoring the goddes Raguphuthi had assigned to me the week before. My friends and I laughed freely, gazed intently and I loved fully the women I was with, the country I was in and the person I have become. After a glutenous dinner of Tali and one last visit to the dazzling palace it was time to sleep away the night.

My neighborhood dog Ruby decided to help me fully experience that last night by howling at the moon beneath my window. Thanks to Ruby I lived that last night fully. Sleep seems less important now; in those last hours I was appreciative of Ruby’s perpetual alarm and I tracked time by watching the moon move across the sky.

In the morning I drug out my practice for as long as I could, soaking in the energy of the shala and gaining three new postures for the road. As I left, I touched my hand to the threshold and then to my heart to honor my teachers and all of my Ashtangi family members who have crossed this way before me, and to those who will arrive wide-eyed just as I did a month ago.

I pulled a breakfast hat trick stopping in at all three of the yogi haunts. At Santosha I met Thomas and collected my painting, now I have Chamudiswari Parviti to remind me of this time and to evoke when I need strength or humbling. One by one I said see you soon to my friends and fellow yogis, taking the moment to look into their familiar eyes and absorb one last bit of them before leaving.

As a final memento I had my nose pierced like all good Indian women do, to honor the part of me that resides there now.

When it was time to go, Shelley saw me off and took over where Claudia had left me weeks before. She moved into the 12 Cross flat, adopted Pepe the Honda Scooty motor bike and settled in for her final weeks. Saying goodbye to her or to Mysore seemed all too premature … after all I feel like I will be there again very, very soon.
Please allow me the indulgence of gratitude. I wish to thank my Ashtanga teachers, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Sharath, Saraswati, Marco and Sandra Bianco, Katiza Satya, Claudia Pradella, Paul Dallaghan, Neil Barker, Steve Roger and all of the beautiful yogis who I have had the honor and privilege of practicing with. My Mysore sisters Shelly, Cary, Kelly, Maggie, Melissa, Danielle, Nina, Ursala, Emma and Bernadette, my brothers James, Thomas, PJ, Javier, Arne. I thank you for the gift of yoga, the lessons of the path and the luxury of your attentions.

I live in gratitude. Namaste. Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Samyama

It is about to rain here. The sky is heavy with grey-blue clouds; you can feel the static electricity in the air and hear the thunder roll across the valley. The plants are craning up, opening to the sky in anticipation of long awaited moisture and the smell of damp Jasmine is blanketing the town.

The storm started rolling in last night. As Shelly, Joe and I stood on one of our friend’s rooftops, awaiting his ride to the Bangalore airport and subsequent flight back to the states, the clouds loomed on the horizon. To the west the sun set under a canopy of jet black clouds turning the sky into a pallet of pinks, oranges, magentas… heat lightening illuminated the clouds giving the approaching darkness an ethereal feel.

To the East the pale, yellow, full moon began to rise as it if and the sun were on the same fulcrum, it seemed that for one to rise the other must set. It was a truly magical night and I was almost jealous that PJ was getting such a spectacular send off knowing that my own impending departure would come before that days’ sunset and moonrise.
Mysore is like living in a magnified world. Our practice bonds us together. Meeting someone new takes on a heady weight because you already know how much the same you are and that you will have plenty of topics to converse about in the coming weeks. Introducing yourself to someone over breakfast implies the impending relationship, soon enough you will be Facebook friends and you will be regularly planning coconut stand rendezvous’. It’s a commitment.

I have been outgoing and social while I have been here, forging intense friendships with people I may only get to know for this month. Some of course I will see again, the yoga world is a small place and the yogic path is a well-worn trench from which none of us diverts easily. No doubt many will meet again at a retreat or in India, but for now, we live in the moment and revel in the long days. I have come to have deeper connections with some I have only know over the course of two or three days here than people I knew for years back in Colorado. The Mysore magnifying glass makes us open, honest and communicative.

You cannot come here and not be changed, expanded and intrigued. There is a man here who is interviewing yogis for his PHD thesis. When he came to interview me, deemed worthy of an interview because of my year through yoga travels, I asked him how he could possibly choose his subjects, everyone here has a story, everyone here is powerfully interesting.

They say that yoga can give you super powers, and while I haven’t seen anyone levitate in the shala yet, I believe all these Ashtangis are living on an other-worldly level in a lot of ways. They are some of the most interesting people I have ever met. It’s like they have super lives and super personalities, if not obvious x-ray vision.
Patanjali said that through Samyama (meditation, turning the senses inward and Samadhi) one can obtain the power of an elephant by focusing on that creature. Samyama can make you light as a feather, or heavy as a boulder, it can make you giant like a tree or small enough to fit through a keyhole. The yogis here seem to be practicing Samyama on relationships. Samyama can make you lifelong friends in a week or it can help you obtain all the teachings you need from a person over the course of a single breakfast.

It is a belief among many Buddhists that you continue to meet the same people over and over again in all your reincarnations – an idea I can believe in since so many people here, that I am seemingly meeting for the first time, are so intensely familiar to me. If that is the case, then I think all of us Ashtangis must have had our own village once upon a lifetime. Pattabhi Jois would have been the mayor, my friend Shelly was for sure the social director, PJ would have been the sheriff, Thomas was the town sage, and thrown in the mix were a few tramps and gypsies. I was probably a gypsies or maybe I was the scribe, I can’t be certain.

Through lifetimes and eons our Ashtangi village has spread around the globe, but nonetheless we still know each other when we meet. I feel like I’ve known you all before and seeing you again feels like home.
As the rain starts to fall, the smells become even more intense. India smells a lot better than you might imagine. The dampness brings relieving cool to the scorched dirt streets and fields. The Technicolor pallet is slowly enveloped in the cloudy night sky and the full moon disappears from view. This dark and stormy night I will sleep like I did growing up in Ohio on rainy nights. The lullaby of raindrops, the safety of friends, the comfort of practice, all conspiring to lull me off to a deep relaxing slumber. If I’m lucky … I’ll dream about the last time we were all together.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Shiva

In Hinduism there is a Trimurti of three gods, Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva. Shiva sometimes gets a bad wrap as he is known as the destroyer. Nonetheless, he is my favorite of the three and the one I evoke daily when I don’t like the way I am thinking or behaving, I call on him to destroy bad patterns.

This week Shiva has been popping up all over the place.

There are two main breakfast spots for yogis here in Gokalum. Om Café and Santosha. Santosha is owned by a lovely couple, Tam and Thomas. Thomas collects and creates traditional Mysore paintings, which are intricately detailed and adorned with bits of gold leaf. I was enamored with one of the paintings in his collection and was discussing purchasing it. He and I got to talking about art and he offered to introduce me to a local artist that he has befriended.

That afternoon we paid the artist a visit, shared a chai and before we left I commissioned a piece. Ganjifa Raghapathi Bhatta is a handsome man in his early fifties, whose face reminds me of my own father’s. His soft eyes and gentle stare made me want to spend the whole day listening to his stories, watching Hindu history unfold through the windows to his soul. He is a studied man whose vast knowledge of Hindu lore provides the most consistent subject matter for his paintings.

I came to his studio with two other women who had each commissioned works by him. They had chosen the goddesses Saraswati and Lakshmi, which left me struggling to come up with a goddess of my own to evoke. Raghapathi jokingly said Parvati, consort of Shiva, mother of the elephant-headed god Ganesh. But Parvati is a mischievous goddess and not one most people chose to have hanging on the walls of their homes.

However, here in Mysore there is another incarnation of Parvati, one who is good and who saved Mysore from a demon. Chamundeshwari is a beautiful goddess and Thomas assured me she is a good one to evoke when you need to defeat your ego.


The day before, my Mysore friend Kelly and her two year-old daughter Maggie invited me to join them for a day trip to Melkote. I had no idea what or where Melkote was but I figured I’d accept the invitation and see where it led us.

Turns out Melkote is home to several temples, one in particular honoring Shiva. The landscape surrounding the city is dotted with large rock formations that reminded me of Moab, Utah and which gave me a brief sense of my beloved Four Corners region. In the city center there is Cheluvanarayanaswamy temple built some 900 years ago, Yoganarasimhaswamy temple is on the hill overlooking Melkote.

The views and natural beauty of the area were awe inspiring. The colors of saris draped along fences while people bathed in the ritual waters were a photographer’s dream and the throngs of people who greeted us, asked us to take a photo with them and invited us to join in their picnic lunches was heartwarming and unselfconsciously generous.
My week was rounded out with a discussion about which of the three Tirmurti gods we each felt an allegiance to. Brahma is Thomas’s favorite because to him he embodies family. Some prefer Vishnu as the sort of the top god from whom the universe began and for his reputation as the protector. Then there are us Shiva loyalists, we are a wily strong-willed bunch and if you ever see me spinning my Om Namo Shivaya necklace you will know that I am evoking Shiva and asking him to help me change my mind.