Was it dangerous to be at the border? No. Exciting? Yes. Nationalist? Extremely.
To be honest, it was more like being at a foot-ball game than at a ceremony that celebrates independence, identity and culture. It was a maze of anticipation before the half hour ceremony called "lowering of the flag" began. People were dancing on the road, the border security were directing the crowd "how" to cackle and officers tried unsuccessfully to get people to sit down. The ritual takes place every evening from about 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. I say 'about' because on our way to the border there seemed to be a lot of confusion as to when it actually started. The hotel receptionist insisted we get there before 4:30 p.m., the taxi driver assured us that getting there by 5:30 p.m. was fine and the vendors at the border told us that nothing gets started until closer to 6 p.m. It was like asking directions for the same place but getting five different answers.
Once at the border, which was organized more like a stadium, I could not see much more than the heads in front of me. To make up for this the man next to me kept creating shrill-like calls that lasted for far too many seconds! I have to say that being there had a certain alluring quality, but I started to think about many things.
I started to think if people's desires, motivations and intentions are not completely misguided. It's not that the border ceremony is unimportant. It's more the possibility of channeling all this energy to create world peace as well as ending poverty, child-labour, domestic violence and abuse. Somehow I was only reminded of the superificality of our so-called 'good' intentions as well as the lack of consciousness we have regarding what we are doing and why we are doing it.
During my trip to India this year I planned to visit Rishikesh again. This time, it was for the purpose of visiting Swami Rama's ashram. The first time I visited Rishikesh was in 2000 and it was mainly to kick around. I had heard it was nick-named yoga town; being littered with yoga ashrams on the banks of the Ganges. I was curious about the place and wanted to be a wanderer. Rishikesh was also the same place where the Beatles met their Guru and studied Transdental Meditation (TM). My second trip to Rishikesh was in 2005. This was mainly as a pit-stop in order to take a 10-hour drive up the mountains to reach the Sivananda Ashram in Gangotri. Because I had visited Rishikesh in the hot summer and stayed in the main city, my memories were of a dusty, over-crowded city with lots of sadhus walking around. I did not have nice memories of mountains or a peaceful atmosphere.
I made plans to visit the ashram after unexpectedly meeting Swami Veda (a disciple of Swami Rama's) at a yoga conference in Los Angeles. It's funny how through a series of unforeseen events one thing led to another. Had I not been invited to the conference in LA, had I not befriended a woman doctor at the conference who was a student of Swami Veda's and had she not told me about the 'secret' meditation that Swami Veda was holding in his room, I never would have met Swami Veda! When he told me he would be at the ashram in the middle of India, I knew I had to try to arrange my schedule to see him. Fortunately it fit perfectly as I would be able to finish my training with my teacher in Mysore (the south of India) and still have time to do some travelling in between before getting to the ashram.
We arrived at the ashram after taking the overnight train from Amristar. For anyone who has NOT seen the Golden Temple, I highly recommend taking the time to visit Punjab! We got to the the ashram in the late afternoon after changing drivers twice and getting the directions from a Swami at the wrong ashram.
It has always bloggled my mind as to why driver A takes you about 4-5 km's, gets out of the car and is replaced with driver B and C. Or, asks you to get out and into another vehicle with a driver looking very pleased to take over. The first time this happened to me, I was alone and pissed off. The second, third and fourth time, I came to the understanding that these guys must have some bizarre social network in which everyone does and says the same thing. While driver A switches with driver B and/or C he always reassures you with the same thing. "No charge!" I have always thought, "Okay, that's very nice, but you haven't gone any where yet!" And it gets even stranger because from the time driver A had met us, it was all about "no problem", "he knows it" and "come, I take you." Hence, I have learned not to trust any of this and to expect the unexpected. So, after getting 2 new drivers (B and C), we headed off to what we thought would be Swami Rama's ashram.
As it happens, we first paid a visit to a local ashram, which I am sure was the first one the drivers spotted. Here, I met up with an orange clad-swami man, who told us we were at the wrong ashram. Certainly it did not look anything like the pictures I had seen! Normally the drive from the Hardiwar train station to Rishikesh should have been 30-40 minutes, but in this case it was more like 2 hours. Okay, no problem, we had time to spare (I guess). Our drivers, who looked about 16 years old, were certainly in no rush and offered us a "smoke." They looked so disappointed when I said, "I don't smoke." But this should have come as no surprise since Indian people (re: men) tend to make many assumptions about travelling Westerners; in particular females. I have read about Indian men thinking that Western women show up to India in pursuit of sex. Well, to be frank, if that was the case, which it is not, I highly doubt that any of us would travel all the way to India. It would make more sense to go to a single's club or an all-inclusive resort!
When we arrived at the ashram I was impressed with the service we received as the first thing that Gloria, our host and personal greeter, did was tell the drivers they were over-charging. Tired and not willing to get upset over an extra $5 bucks, I said it was okay. We got our bags and headed into the receiption area.
The ashram provides extremely well kept and comfortable huts. Each hut has a full kitchen (re: stocked with plates, cups, etc.), separate bedrooms and an attached toilet with a shower. I had the feeling that if you wanted to stay for a long period of time you would be very comfortable. At other ashrams I was either in a tent or a dormitory with only a small room (250 square feet). Staying a month was a good exercise in 'basic' living. At the Sivanada ashram in Trivadram I even stayed in the 'newer' addition, which ended up having an unfixable clogged sink and not much privacy.
The ashram was very relaxing and appealing. This was my first time at this particular ashram having only been to Sivanada ashrams in Canada, the United States and India. Although my prior stays were as a serious yoga student than as a tourist, I did spend time at the Sivananda Ashram in Quebec as a guest and still felt I was in "training." Generally speaking, if you go as a tourist or guest you will tend to experience things thru a very different filter as compared to someone on a holiday. From the yogic point of view, the tourist who goes to India accumulates more karma while the yogi burns off karma. That said, however, I felt that there was an air of relaxation and ease at the Rishikesh ashram that I had not experienced at the Sivananda ashrams, which tend to be more traditional. At most Sivananda ashrams attendance is mandatory even as a guest for all the classes. As well, couples have separate quarters unless they are married. In Rishikesh they were more relaxed about these things, including what classes you wanted to take and how you were going to spend your day. Bear in mind, too, we only stayed a few days so perhaps the powers in-charge were letting us off easy. Still, I felt a sense of warmth and friendliness not only in the more relaxed schedule but from the people themselves.
I made several good connections at the ashram. The people made a 'real' effort to know our names, were interested in what we were doing, what we had done and were happy to share about themselves as well. My prior experiences at some of the Sivananda ashrams were of 'pretensious know-it'alls' who seemed to have an 'in-group' mentality. In Rishikesh, the people made us feel 'good' that we had come and expressed an interest in the classes we were taking. We also had the good fortune of being taught by a senior yoga teacher and physiotherapist, Peter, who provided a private class to myself and my partner. He made some very accurate insights about my body alginment and posture. I was impressed by this as he made these fairly quickly by observing how I was sitting for meditation and not by seeing me do any of the postures of yoga. Peter, like many of the others working at the ashram, had 'normal' lives with children, wives, husbands, etc., Yet, like Peter, they had taken several weeks off or even years away from their lives to stay at the ashram. This was a time for seva (re: work done without monetary gain) and to establish their on-going sadhana (re: spiritual practice).
Aside from the people and the schedule, one aspect of ashram life that tends to be univeral amongst all ashrams are the beautiful grounds littered with lovely flower beds and the great food. The surrounding view of the mountains in Rishikesh were wonderful and inspirational. And the food, as always, was simple but excellent! Personally I enjoy going to ashrams for the home-cooked meals. You can feel the love and care taken in preparing the food. The dining area had both low wooden tables for sitting on the floor (Indian-style) and 'normal' tables and chairs for the Westerners. At many 'traditional' ashrams you will only find one option (re: you sit on the floor). As well, there are usually signs indicating that eating is sacred and to eat in silence. Here, I did not see any notices. If you wanted to be left alone you could and if you wanted to mingle with others and chat this was okay too.
At the Himalayan insitute there was also a 'real' focus on meditation. I say 'real' because unlike the Sivanada ashram in which it is a synthesis of all 4 parts of yoga (re: raja/hatha-yoga, bhakti yoga, karma yoga and jnana yoga), there was a very good 'starter' class on the sitting practice. Although the ashram also offered classes on breathing, hatha-yoga, chanting, etc., there was an emphasis from the start on meditation. In comparison to my experiences at the Sivananda ashrams where the focus tended to be more on the hatha classes and kirtan (re: chanting) than on meditation in which people came and sat in on the sessions. It was my understanding that before you could do this in Rishikesh, they first wanted to go over with you several key points that are unique to the Himalayan tradition of meditation.
On a final note, this ashram was established by Swami Rama's disciple, Swami Veda; my meditation teacher. To this day, people say that Swami Rama's spirit is still there and he is influencing many things. They also say this about the ashram in Val Morin, Quebec, where Swami Vishnu-Devananda (the disciplie of Swami Sivananda) spent a lot of time. Hmmmm, who is this infamous "they"...? Well, in the end, I believe, you have to travel to these places to understand if this is the case or not.
You don't have to be Sikh or even know much about the religion to be able to appreciate the incredible architecture and the ambience of The Golden Temple in Amristar, Punjab. Everyone and anyone can enter the temple provided they leave their shoes outside and place a handerchief or hat on their head. There is also a waiting pool to dip your feet into while passing thru the entrance; another small requirement for entering the grounds of the temple. These preliminary requirements are small indeed and you don't waste your time thinking it over. It's not important how many people wore this handerchief and/or how the pool is a good breeding ground for foot fungus. Nah....these are petty concerns in comparison to seeing the temple in 'real' life!
The temple is situated within a large water tank that is accesible from a marble platform. From any and all sides of the rectangle-shaped platform there is a perfect view of the temple. The most amazing part is the magical feeling that lingers there especially at night. Literally hundreds of people come daily to worship and pray from 6 a.m. until it closes at 11 p.m. Because of this there is an incredible energy of devotion; you don't have to be Sikh to feel it.
While sitting on the marble platform, I was capitvated by the temple as I watched people moving from across the tank and into the temple or from behind me. There is a dream-like effect inside of the temple with women's colorful saris swaying back and forth and men's turbans bouncing up, and down, as they walk in a clock-wise direction in slow, and deliberate steps. Time stands still in such a place; I had the feeling I could have stayed all night. There was a kind of erry peacefulness, however, especially if you are familiar with the history of the tank and/of or Punjab. In particular, thousands of Indian people were shot down on April 13, 1909, by the British without any warning while listening, ironcially, to a speech on liberation and independence.
One of the most memoriable aspects of being at the temple was the way that the Sikh people were so welcoming. In other Indian cities if you look lost people either ignore you or stare back at you. In Amristar strangers were very quick to ask, "What are you looking for...Can I help?" Inside of the temple was no different (although we probably looked very lost). People went out of their way to tell us how we had to watch the "closing" ceremony and showed us how to eat the prasad (offering) at the ceremony. Another one of those small things in which you don't want to think about where the hands of the guy serving the brown sticky stuff have been or what this stuff is made out of! Instead you think, "This is good. How do I clean my heads?" To my surprise, Sikh people were also very conscientious of being in the way of me trying to take a photo and "placed" or rather pushed me into a better spot!
The hotel we stayed at was located right outside of the temple. From the hotel window there was a full view of the temple and the tank. Advertised as the "luxury room" and "spacious", which really meant a large window, a bed and about 1.5 feet around the bed from the wall. Believe it or not, there was a writing desk, TV and a closet. As I had mentioned earlier, I usually order all the furniture out of the room to practice yoga. However, in this case that would have meant throwing everything out the window.
I still managed to find space in this cramped room to practice! If you looked for me over the bed, I was there. And if need be, I would have practised under the bed.
This ain't breakfast at Tiffany's, but yoga and breakfast in the Himalayas (and it will be more than sufficient). In the Kangra valley within the state of HP (Himachal Pradesh) is Dharamsala; a refuge for Tibetians and the seat of the Dali Lama. We stayed in a suburb called McLeod Ganj, which is elevated about 2000 m (or 6000 feet).
The view was breathtaking of the white mountains or known as Dhauladhar. It ranges up to 5000 m (17, 000 fett). The state of HP has the advantage of having all the major Himalayan peaks represented within it. Imagine walking out of your little hut each morning to look at this view? I could not help but wonder what kind of person I might be had I grown up around the mountains rather than in the city. I have always had a romantic notion that being in the mountains brings you closer to God. And if there is a God, this is what God would look like.
In the mountains it is "easier" to comtemplate on what's important in life; how petty the thoughts can churn and how low the ideas can run in comparison to just how big life actually is. Questions of life arise such as what is love? What is the true nature of pain? What is life? Who am I? Why am I here? These are all the questions that spiritual seekers have sought to ask for thousands of years. And this is why 'sat' (true) seekers have generally headed to the mountains; the ego is less here and worldly concerns far away.
There are three regions here; the upper part called McLeod Ganj, the middle region of the Kotwali Bazar and the lower area of Kaccheri. After an extensive search for the 'right' place to stay, I decided upon Uduchee Huts in the upper region. All the travel guides and on-line advisors I had consulted said the same thing. That is, it was inconveniently located but had an awesome view of the mountain range. (And this was not a lie.) Being here made life in Mysore, travelling throughout Europe and life back in Canada
seem like a dream I had.
Within this region there are many good treks. We choose a 15 kilometer trek that took up most of the day. Some of it was very challenging as we moved up and around the mountain region. We were headed to Devi Guru Temple and when we arrived I had the distinct feeling that not many tourists find their way here. It was completley deserted. There was only one man there who crunched down near where we were resting. As he prepared to roll a smoke, he smiled grimly and puffed away.
On the way back down, we stopped at this River Cafe; a make-shift cafe that sold a few snacks, chai (tea) and drinks. It looked homely, run-down, dirty, old and limited. It reminded me of an apartment I once wanted to rent near the beaches in Toronto. It was advertised as having a "lake-view". What it had was a square foot window. My father told me, "I wouldn't shake a stick at it." I liked it. I am sure there are many who would turn their noses at this place too. We felt it was 'perfect'.
PS: We did not order the chow-mein
After leaving Mysore, I headed to the Rishikesh (the foothills of the Himilayas) to meet with my meditation teacher, Swami Veda, the oldest disciple of Swami Rama (1925 to 1996). We flew from Bangalore to Delhi and took the overnight train to Haridwar. Finding a taxi driver from the train station is always fun since they don’t speak English well in North India. They never seem to know “where” you want to go, but you don’t find this out until you have been travelling for close to an hour. It became obvious the drivers were confused when they stopped every few minutes to ask for directions. In the end, they brought us to the wrong ashram where I got the 'right' directions from a helpful orange-robed Swami. Along the journey, our drivers (probably not much older than 16 years old) invited me to have a smoke. They looked pretty disappointed that I did not share in the fun! "No smoke, mam?" "Nooo."
The first time I visited Rishikesh was in 2000. My memory consists of watching a large pig peeing in the Ganges while a man dressed as Hanuman diligently wiped off body make-up just a few yards away. "Hmmmm", I thought, "the holy waters of purification." I also walked several kilometers from where I was staying to avoid being cheated by any overpriced rickshaw driver. I can't believe I would argue over 50 cents; the 40 degree weather must have shifted my common sense to zero cents. I walked to and fro from the Ganges in which there are literally hundreds of ashrams stacked on top of each other. I remember walking past the sign for the Sivananda ashram, Omkaranada ashram, Swami Rama Ashram, the Vivekanada Institute....etc, etc. I was on a strange mission in those days and kept up a brisk pace.
In the latter part of the 60’s Rishikesh became quite well known to the West as the Beatles travelled there and met with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It also became nick-named as Yoga-town because of the large number of ashrams located in one central area. For tourists, there is something for every budjet, level of comfort, level of study, interest and non-interest in the spiritual path.
For Hindus, it is a totally different matter; it really is a sacred city. The name “H-rishikesh” is Sanskrit for Vishnu (the preserver) and means “the lord of the senses.” Certainly it is an array of sensations for the senses with many sadhus, wandering monks and swamis walking around. One Swami, whom, I know I had never met before, was convinced he knew me. "Yes, I saw you here 10 years ago!" Ironically, I have returned 10 years later, but this is 10 years in the future not the past.
The banks of the Ganges are also well visited by locals who perform pujas, rituals and other ceremonies understood to cleanse their karmas of both past and present lives. A group of boys were no exception to the rule as they played along the river banks without a care in the world. They reminded me of the freedom of being able to run naked. Once they spotted me taking their photo, they were very eager to see it. I cannot explain what it meant to be surrounded by several naked Indian boys jumping up and down. It was one of those moments in which there are no words.
Ah, the invention of digital, the innocence of childhood and the freedom of the body.
What I love about India are the children....and their mothers. Their faces tell a story untold...a way of life vastly different than I could ever pretend to understand. The children are full of curiousity, life, love and vigor. Such youthful bright faces with wise eyes. Their mothers are protective, serene and strong.
In the Wodeyar tradition (Maharajas of Mysore), the final day of Dasara ends with a magnificent procession (called Jumboo Savari). The procession begins inside of the Mysore Palace and makes its way through the city.
Several hours before the parade got started hundreds of people were already sitting along the road, with many areas blocked off. As an eager spectator and my first time to Dasara, we had purchased "GOLD CARD" seats inside of the palace. It was no joke finding our way by foot to the palace. The streets slowly became a crazy maze of people, animals and vehicles. Unfortunately, we started off in the wrong direction and ended up running around the palace (a good kilometre) to get to the ‘main’ entrance for "GOLD CARD" members. The fastest way to get thru the crowd was to join the traffic by running down the middle of the road (not something you tell your mother). When we arrived at the gate we huddled like cattle behind the iron fences with all the other card holders; our gold status was rapidly diminishing. Finally after being pushed and shoved sideways and backwards we made our way to the next queue, and into the palace.
Meanwhile this sort of event brings out the worst in yourself as well as those around you. I became very irritated and angry and started yelling at my companion to run faster as well as to push himself thru the crowd so that we were not separated.
When we got to our seats, we were quickly approached by hungry reporters who wanted the foreigner's veiw on Dasara. Given my mood and the events that had taken place to get there, I blew my shot at getting on live-radio and my name in the Indian Express. Had I told the reporters how magnificent it was, how wonderful to see the elephants, etc., etc., it would have been published news for sure. Today the headlines read, “and the homemakers were mesmerised” (The Times of India). Instead, my comments were on the people shoving, pushing, crying and fighting. I was not pointing my finger at Indian society as you would find the same thing at a rock concert in North America or at Carnival in Rio. I suppose I found myself thinking about what really takes place; i.e., the 7-10 day journey the elephants make to get to Mysore as well as the poor living conditions of the villagers who maintain them. The truth, however, is not newsworthy.
Yet I am no better than that of which I complained about. I was also amongst the lakhs (100,000's) of people who came out to watch the procession and who pushed their way thru.
Locals told me you have to experience this at least once in a lifetime. However, if this experience has anything to do with "organized chaos" then my memory lies more in being lead astray by police officers, jumping fences and barricades to get to our “assured" seats, and becoming desperate to get inside of the palace. It has less to do with the pagentry of this great event.
Still, I guess can say, “I attended Dasara.”
There is a good zen saying (well, there are actually many great zen sayings), but this one is particularly relevant to the teacher-student relationship. It reminds us as students to empty ourselves if we want to learn from a teacher. The zen phrase states it beautifully by using the image of a tea pot and a cup. The tea pot is the teacher and the cup is the student. When the teacher teaches they pour out their knowledge and into the student. If the student's cup is empty they can receive the teachings. However, if their cup is already full they cannot receive anything and the tea (re: knowledge) is wasted.
The trouble, however, with many 'good' sayings is just that. They sound good, but are hard to follow. It can be relatively easy to believe that you are open-minded and that there should be no problems with learning under a 'new' teacher. And yet when in a 'real-live' teacher-student situation one may find that this is not ex-actly the case. One may feel very resistant to everything the teacher says and/or how they say it.
Last Friday, Yogacharya offered a talk on how it is important to be open to the teachings. He said that he cannot teach us if we are closed; there is nothing he can offer. But how do you become open? What does it truly mean to be 'empty'? Is it really possible given the hundreds of thousands of ideas and impressions we carry with us from all of our experiences? How can we truly become open?
Years ago in the time of 'true' Masters and Gurus, it was very common for the Master to provide lessons in humility (re: lessening pride, ego and arrogance) as well as testing the sincerity of the student. Many swamis such as Swami Rama and Vishnu-devnanada describe the lessons they received in humility from their Master. Today, I think this type of teaching is dead. In fact, if many yoga teachers to test or to treat their students in a similiar fashion they would probably find they had no students. I really feel, however, that many of these lessons were important in order for the student to progress. Without them they would have at best remained the same or at worst regressed. Today many of these lessons have not been well understood by Western students who sneer at the austere practices of the Master or consider it "bullyin". We just don't understand what it means to surrender ego. Some people even take offense from the word, "surrener". But the fact is we live in a totally different time, context and era....
Teaching is a 2-way street; something that should be kept in mind. Essentially the more open one becomes the more one can learn and receive the teachings.
Today during class Yogacharya instructed 3 of the students undergoing the AtmaVikasa Teacher Training program to hold a posture. He said, "Hold it until I tell you to come out". A few seconds later one of the students gave an instruction to her fellow collague. A few seconds after that Yogacharya asked her, "Why are you telling the student what to do? Did someone give you authority? Am I not here?"
This was followed by a few defensive comments by the student in question. Yogacharya lost his patience and told the her, "Roll up your mat. Your practice is over." This was also followed by a few more defensive comments including one of the students jumping to the rescue of the accused. Yogacharya continued, "When I tell you to stay in a posture, you stay. If I give you the authority to talk then you can talk. Otherwise you have no such authority in the class."
The student rolled up her mat and left.
I know as a teacher it can be very tempting to want to say something to another student especially if you see they are doing something incorrectly and/or you feel your suggesstion would benefit them. But why? Really? I know, as well, when one is undergoing a training program it can feel good to be able to spread your wings a bit by applying what you know. One of my students did this to me while she was undergoing a teacher training program I was running at the school. Not only was it not her place to do so, but the instructions she gave to her fellow student was incorrect.
Overall, these are good lessons in understanding that:
1) it may only be your ego wanting you to tell another person to do something, which should be saved for your own classes (if you are a teacher) and,
2) when you are a student in a class enjoy being a student and do not mix your roles.
There is also another good zen saying:
When walking just walk,
When talking just talk,
When eating just eat,
And when sleeping just sleep.
This also relates to the role of the teacher and the student. When you are a student be a student, with the mind of a child. When you are a teacher be a teacher, with the mind of a student.
It's pretty straight-forward.
During my first class, Yogacharya explained how I was practising to reach the mind thru the body. Now, I will learn to practice how to reach the body thru the mind. And he stated:
"Maybe...this time...you will learn something."
This year's practice includes the 2nd series of AtmaVikasa yoga, a series that Acharya developed consisting of 30 postures. The overall sequence contains 2 versions of the sun saluations, standing postures, sitting postures with various combinations of the lotus including kukutasana and parvatasana. The closing sequence also involves an intermediate series of the lotus in shoulderstand and headstand.
Throughout my classes with Yogacharya I have been given many comments, suggestions and commands. After my first class I was not able to complete the full sequence within the 2 hour slot. I had some concerns about how to sequence the postures (re: what to leave in, what to leave out). The next class, however, Yogacharya told me, "Pick 2 postures. These will be the ones you practice for the rest of the time here."
It's amazing to reflect on the array of attitudes that grew inside my mind from such a simple statement. This year would involve no elite back bends and coming out of class drenched in sweat; having given it my all! I wondered if I would become bored. I also wondered if I could manage holding postures for 20 minutes; maybe longer if required. I did not feel deprived by his recommendation (re: in the sense that doing less would also equal to receiving less). Even if you have your doubts, however, following the lead of the teacher is a lesson that gets repeated if you want to learn. I have learned this lesson every year from Yogacharya.
Right now, my own practice has done a full circle. I began in 2000 only learning the sun salutations (a series of 11 postures) for 1 hour. One year I spent the first 2 weeks only practising conditioning exercises. What hell that was for me and my ego. I already had done the primary series of Ashtanga under Pattabi Jois and knew a few advanced asanas. This really felt like moving backward and not forward. I felt extreme resistance to the simple wrist, neck and leg exercises. However, I was really surprised when I found that these concentrated exercises were more difficult than some of the advanced postures I had learned.
Over the years with Yogacharya, the individual asanas (postures) were gradually and slowly added. Slowly is a key word. In the years that followed the routine got more demanding and the sequence changed as my practice evolved. To date, I feel I have "maxed" out my body potential. There is a inner need to learn something deeper beyond asana practice....which as far as I can tell can become more like ass-anna practice!
Below is a brief description of the some of these classes thus far:
Today one of the pictures in the shala (school) fell down during shavasana (resting). I was the only one startled by it and looked over to see if it had fallen on the woman beside me. She was, however, completely oblivious; resting peacefully in the corpse pose.
After the prayer Aharya told me, “See you have some fear...”
"True." I said. "I thought it was falling on someone."
He smiled brightly and said, "When something falls down it is related to bad karma. And even if it falls on you then it’s okay.....Even if a bomb was beside you, its’ still okay. Let it come. Death is fantastic."
Today's lesson: You can not escape Death. Embrace, welcome and relax with it.
While holding the forward bend lotus posture (ardha baddha padma-pashchimottanasana), I came out earlier from the left side. Yogacharya told me to hold each of the postures the same length. This particular morning I was only aware of the severe pain travelling up my right leg.
"Watch the breath and not your body. Observe the nature of the pain," he said as if I should have known this already.
Ahhhh, to know is one thing...but to practice is quite another. And come to think of it I was telling myself this while in the position....
It is easy to zone-out and to see how the mind can become very complacent after holding the same posture for 10 mintues. It is also easy to see how conditioned the mind is to activity, sweating, working hard....and labelling this as yoga. What is yoga then? What is yoga-asana?
During this practice Yogacharya told me not to go for the final position. "Don’t even bother. Concentrate on the process. Concentrate on the breath. Watch your thoughts, feel your body and then you might get an idea of what yogasana is."
He walked away.
For 2 hours I practiced the sun saluations (simple yoga postures) and 2 rounds. This process teaches a lot about patience, the process, becoming mindful of the breath, feeling the body and watching both the mind and the body. Initially I wondered if I would get bored. Surprisingly enough boredom is the last thing which has visited me. How the mind wanders, the lack of awareness of the breath, how it’s easy or rather a habit to move the body and not think of the breath, how it’s a habit to want to get to the final position....are many of the observations I have made. Of course, I could say I was always learning this indirectly. However, holding postures for no more than 5 breaths will not break down your mental wanderings. One of the most interesting aspects to this process is watching how the mind when doing something it feels it knows and understand is automatically assuming many things. It's an interesting experiment to approach the sequence on the basis as Yogacharya said, "You don't know anything. You only think you know."
At the bus station the gruff calls of "My-sur, My-SUR, MY-SUR!" sound more like an auctioneer's call for the final bid than it does for the bus into the quaint city known for its sandalwood oil, incense and silk saris. From Bangalore to Mysore its a mere 125 Rupees ($2.50 CDN) for the semi-deluxe bus. Cheap. Very cheap by North American standards when you consider it's at least a 3-4 hour journey. Mysore is such a lovely city to be as it still possesss an old-world charm. So far the growing population has not ruined it with Mysore's population increasing by 20 per cent increase from 1991 to 2001. A census conducted in 1931 showed there were just over 100,000 people. Today, there are about 900,000 people.
It's always funny talking to any local as one of the first things they will remark upon is how easily you can get around. It's not like Bangalore, which has about 6 million people! But Delhi and Mumbai they say is "too much crowded." I learned recently that Mysore holds the largest number of Indians who were not born here as compared to other cities. It's sort of interesting when you probably assumed that everyone is from 'here'.
I first came to Mysore in 1999. I visited the zoo, roamed around the Maharaja's Palace (royalty of India) and witnessed the 90,000 lights that came alive from the palace. Every Sunday from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. the palace becomes a glowing array of lights for one hour. During my brief 3 day visit, I did not know that Mysore was the home of many famous yoga teachers, the most well-known being Shri K. Pattabi Jois. I also never imagined I would continue to return to this city after meeting Yogacharya Venkatesh in 2000. Funny, too, as for years I was saying the name incorrectly. Many local people showed me their pride by shouting at me, "My-sur". But with so many different accents and helpful people, I grew confused as to whether it was My-sur, My-sir or My-sore! Many yoga students have simply stuck to My-"s-o-r-e" and for obvious reasons. Last year, the department of tourism officially changed the name to My-su-ru! This seemed to make things easier, but I have yet to hear anyone refer to it as such.
Right now is a very exciting time to be in Mysore because on Friday, September 18th the Dasara fesitval will begin; a 10-day fesitval that commemorates the victory of good over evil, light from the dark, knowledge from ignorance and bliss from sorrow. There are performances and processions that mark this very special time. Probably one of the biggest event is the last day when the 4900 kg gold "howkah" (seat of the Maharaja) is placed on the back of an elephant. During the festival there are also nine rituals performed that are understood to break the attachment to the body and the mind; bringing forth the divine love of the mother (also known as Navaratri).
The daily scene, however, appears the same as usual. This photo is typical of the Indians who are busy with their mobile phones. Here they call it the "handy". It does not matter if they are driving a scooter, walking along the street or talking amongst friends, everyone seems to be on their handy. If you have any problems, for sure, they will know how to resolve it. Very savvy 21st century crowd.
Two weeks ago I arrived in India. On the same day that I got into Mysore city I also had a meeting at 8 a.m. with Yogacharya Venkatesh. It is customary to visit the teacher first before starting the classes. These discussions while brief have usually consisted of Yogacharya's two famous questions: “How’s your practice?“ and “What do you want to learn this year?” Since 2000, I have been studying under Yogacharya and as far as I can recall his questions have never changed.
It was a speedy ride from the Bangalore airport into Mysore. My driver, Ravi, told me we would probably only arrive at 9 a.m. “Hmm, not good,” I thought. So I asked him, “Can you drive a little fast?” “Do my best,” said Ravi and off we went into the bumper to bumper traffic at 5:30 a.m. with the classic horn blowing during the entire drive. As the road gods would have it I arrived at 7:55 a.m.! I waited outside of the shala (school) for Yogacharya to appear.
No smile. No gesture. No expression. Only a slight nod from Yogacharya as he opened the gate. “Hello,” I said fumbling to place my hands in prayer position. "Come." "You sit," he replied. Yogacharya placed a woolen mat on the marble floor for me to sit on while he sat across from me. Next came the familiar us questions.
Yogacharya listened intently as I rambled on about being consist in my daily practice but also experiencing several body pains during the year. Yogacharya told me that whenever you practice very intense and advanced asanas many difficulties will arise due to the alignment. When the alignment is not perfect many problems will arise. Unlike many other years, however, I did not have the same deep desire to continue to push the edges of my asana (posture) practice. I felt as though I have reached the summit (for now) and needed to go in a different direction that is deeper and beyond the physical mastery of the asanas. I had already started to feel that no matter how many asanas I practiced, learned or how many new levels I encountered there remained something within me that was unsatisfied. The pain-staking evolution of time and practice had revealed to me that while the impossible is possible the body is truly limited.
The three most important things from pratice as Yogacharya described them are:
3) Inner faith.
The interesting thing is how each of these are tied to each other. Devotion only arises from practice and faith only comes from having devotion. Both are lost and cannot be developed if practice is not consistent.
Usually I have looked to Yogacharya to advise me if I should be doing a deeper program on meditation or asana practice or both. I can never figure out why I do this because Yogacharya’s position has always remained the same. That is, he has never tried to influence me one way or another by telling me what to do. He may recommend something, but never points to it as being an absolute. Instead, he has like a true Master does reflected back to me my current state and reaffirmed to me that I, indeed, know.
This time is no different. I decide to focus more on meditation, pranayama and only the second series of AtmaVikasa. I will miss the advanced asana practice of backbending, but there are lessons in detachment and this is one of them as far as I can tell. I also feel that sometimes you have to leave something completely in order to come back to it later with a fresh and clear mind. I will still practice on my own and it will be a better test anyway in terms of my own discipline.
In Yogacharya's teachings there are 10 sequences of the AtmaVikasa yoga system. He has only taught the second series to a few foreigners. We agree this year to focus on the second series, which is a similar format to the primary series of Ashtanga, but without the vinyasas. Postures are held from 20 to 30 breathings (sometimes more) with a focus on the internal alignment to stabilize the body and mind.
“Come to practice on Monday”, Yogacharya tells me. And our meeting comes to an end.
Getting settled in India happens fast. Within just a few hours of arrival not only have I set up my classes, but I have done the following:
-Gotten a scooter;
-Had the money changer drop-by;
-Bought necessary toiletries (i.e., sandalwood soap, detergent, hair oil);
-Arranged for a head-massage;
-Had a wonderful breakfast of papaya, bananas, pineapple and curds;
-Cleared the room of its furnishings except the bed and;
-Received calls from my friends asking when I will come for dinner.
Life is good and I am ready to begin classes on Monday at 5 a.m.
This year the schedule looks like this:
5 a.m. to 7 a.m. 2nd series AtmaVikasa
8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Meditation
10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Bhajans (chanting)
3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Sanskrit and sutra class
In between there is self-practice and consultations with Yogacharya.
In preparing to leave for India there is always a long "to-do" list. Some people have often asked me how do you pack for 2-3 months. I think the only way you can: selectively. Far beyond the usual stuff, however, of visas, medical insurance, immunization shots, airline tickets and packing my bag, this year also included packing The Yoga Way.
The Yoga Way had made its home in a beautiful studio located in a 150 year old building in Toronto. I started the school in 1997 and with 4 students. At the time, there was no gas fireplace, separate entrance, chocolate-maroon coloured office, sunshine yellow bathroom or a personlized shower that doubled as a change room. My office sat at the back of the practice room. I still recall the time a student was sitting behind the desk! I guess it was considered public domain and anyone could sit there.
It was a humble beginning with the school starting off in a space once used for offices. The carpets showed their wear and the walls needed a fresh coat of paint. In 2003, The Yoga Way was renovated to suit exactly the needs of the school. The entrance to the school was no longer a part of the main building, a tiled hallway was added and the office was separated from the practice room.
Now after 12 years of teaching, practice, travel and running the school, there was no doubt a fair amount of stuff I had accumulated. The purge that begins with all moves ended with 15 boxes that now encase the life and times of The Yoga Way. It's funny to think of it this way.
Although The Yoga Way will begin its new home in the coach-house (just a walk across the parking lot on the same premises), I had grown very attached to the place. I think some of my students even felt the same way when they wanted to come for their "last" class. I like to think of this as a new beginning and not a sad ending. I also like to think there was some decent teaching taking place, some good practice and valuable times spent there. In many ways it had become my home with practice starting and ending each day.
All paths speak of non-clinging and the practice of detachment. When presented with a real life situation it is not difficult to see how easy it is to cling and to possess. It also seems natural that we become attached to a place we call "ours". There is a certain pain in moving out (although I feel packing was probably more painful). However, if we are to become more whole and balanced then there will be lessons both in being attached and becoming unattached.
First things first: Europe. On my way to India this year, I have been travelling to Germany, France, Swizterland and Holland. By car, plane, taxi and bicycle, it has been an enjoyable yet sometimes arduous journey. The only thing left out was by boat!
Keeping up with practice while on the road is a 'required' effort. But it only confirms that one can indeed practice just about any where, under any condition and circumstance. I have generally found that practising in 'strange' places creates a new awareness about practice. This is not only in terms of oneself, but the environment. You also start to appreciate why practice in the morning is best; you will probably never get around to it otherwise. And you learn early that just because there is enough space for the mat in the hotel room does not mean there is enough for you! Some asanas tend to spill over the parameters. Rearranging the furniture (or more actually described as getting rid of it) is first on my list. The hotel staff usually appear baffled when I no longer want the television, the coffee table, the lounge chaheirs, the floor lamp or the stool. What's left is the bed and (only if there is room) the writing desk.
In the first pada (chapter) of the Yoga Sutras it states, "Success is immediate where effort is intense" (1:21). For the sake of argument, let's argee that the word 'success' is referring to simply keeping up a daily practice; not how elite or un-elite the practice is. While travelling the effort to continue with practice requires intense measures in staying focused. There are a lot of distractions with places to go, people to see and things to do. However, bringing yoga off the mat and into the world can prove to be a means in practising in the "now".
Here's a few examples:
~ Teaching others to rotate their shoulders while standing in queue.
~ Practising pranayama (i.e., exercises using the breath) on the plane.
~ Using the moola bandha (i.e., anus lock) to lift upward from the car seat.
~ Twisting your spine sideways in a chair with a long exhalation.
The Journey So Far
- Heather Morton
- is a perennial teacher and devoted student of yoga. Having made 18 extended trips to India she studies with her teachers annually. In 1997 she founded and directed The Yoga Way (TYW), Toronto's only school for 6-week yoga programs and not drop-in classes. For 15 years, TYW was a part of the growing Toronto yoga community and supported many charities by offering karma classes. As a teacher she holds many academic degrees including a BFA (Fine Arts in Theatre) and a Masters of Education. With a published thesis on Yoga for Children in School, her post-graduate work was a 2-year ethnographic project in the Indian school system. Heather has produced 2 dvds, meditation cds, a backbending manual and podcasts. Freedom of the Body DVD is the first of its kind as an instructional practice to the backbends of yoga. Heather has been featured in the Toronto Life magazine, The Globe & Mail, Yoga4Everybody and other on-line sources. She contributes to MindBodyGreen, Hello Yoga in Japan and Elephant Journal. She writes to inspire and share her experiences with others on yoga as a life's practice.
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