2009-10-24

Crossing Borders

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.

When in Doubt Go to an Ashram

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.

2009-10-23

You Don't Have to be Sikh



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.
2009-10-22

Mountains for Breakfast



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
2009-10-21

Dancing Naked


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.

The Journey So Far

Life is an adventure and yoga is the greatest one of all. Here I share my love of Yoga, travel, practice and becoming a part-time cook. My life adventures have taken me from growing up in Toronto to living and working in South Korea to studying in India, marriage and finally closing my Yoga school of 15 years.

What I can say so far is that I truly believe that it is necessary in life to let go of one dream in order for another to be born. This might be painful to do so but it is the only way to move forward. We often believe that if our original plan does not succeed it is the recipe for failure. But what if it is the door to something new and great? The horizon is wide and life is not a straight line. This is the way I see it and my journey so far. Having also recently given birth to my first child and at 43, it is another new beginning.


ME

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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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