On my way back from India I made a pit-stop in Zurich, Switerland. I have always wanted to visit or rather see the Alps. There is of course a world-wide aura around the Swiss Alps, Swiss banks and Swiss chocolate. In fact, the legendery Toblerone chocolate was shaped after the infamous Matterhorn; a beautiful part of the Alps. Matterhorn stands at 4, 478 meters (approximately 14, 000 feet) and lies between the Swizterland and Italy border.
In the ski town of Zermatt, Matterhorn is the center-piece no matter what direction you are moving. Zermatt is filled with beautiful chalets, hotels, lots of restaurants, cafes and shopping. It can be difficult to find food for a vegan, but ´Grand-Pi´s Pizzeria´ had a great green pasta dish with wild mountain mushrooms.
Although Matterhorn is the last Alpine peak, and a part of the Pennine Alps lying motherly to the side, it is definitely a mountain onto itself. Known as one of the deadliest mountains many people have died during their ascent. There is a cemetery honouring all those who have fallen for their passion; some of the grave stones even include the climber´s ax. The interesting part is most of the deaths occured on their descent and not on the way up. I would have thought getting there is the hardest part, but perhaps it is the way down that is much more dangerous and when the climber is tired.
Getting to Zermatt is first by car, then a train-car (you drive onto a train in single file) and again followed by train, but a passengar one. Around Zermatt are electrically driven cars so indeed the air is cleaner and better than probably most places in the world. We were fortunate to have dry, sunny days with good views of the mountain region. There was this wonderful feeling of being smothered by the mountains and such freah clean air; a welcome encounter after India.
Outside of skiing there is hiking, shopping and eating (don´t mind if I do all three). At the end of these stressful days most hotels offer evening sauna and solarium time (don´t mind if I try both)....And it would not have been right to have skipped practising Yogasanas with Matterhorn as the perfect backdrop.
My Indian sojourn has slowly come to a close. I hope you had a chance to catch up with the news by reading the various posts. It has been a wonderful period of study, travel, rekindling friendships and seeking new teachers.
These journeys are an extremely important time for me both professionally and personally. When I took my first trip in 1999 it was for the sole purpose of learning yoga. These last few trips, I have to admit, have also been for my love of India; the people, the culture, the food and the incredible landscape.
This year marked my 12th annual trip. In Hindu mythology, the number twelve represents growth and maturity. Since I am not sure about how much one ever “matures” I will suspend any comments. But these opportunities to continually learn, study and travel are well worth everything that takes place to make it happen. I never take it for granted that I will be heading to India EACH year. I work hard for 10 and a half months out of the year to be able to afford such a trip (the bills never stop while away). From the time I get back to Toronto, I am saving, planning and organizing the ´next´ sojourn. And being self-employed does not allow me to get the company to pay for it, because I am the company.
Over the years I have made and maintained many good relationships with the people in India. So much in fact that when I end up owing them money they trust I will repay it the following year. It’s funny since a debt owing to people in my own country has been asked for within a few weeks. It is so sweet as well when street vendors, shop-keepers, hotel staff and friends are now customized to asking, "Next year Madam?"
And they add, "I will wait for you."
On my way from Bangalore to Mysore this September (today a smooth 3-hour journey by car, in prior years it was a nightmare), I was thinking about how I would never exchange these experiences for the world...(well, okay, if it came with a chai...maybe...or the chance to stay in India forever.)
If you missed my blog (it is never too late to get started). There were posts on Kolkatta, Haridwar, the land of the Gods, the Himalayans, dancing in the street and taking a dip in the Ganges. The more recent ones were on crashing an Indian wedding, the cost of living in Mysore, teaching Indian children and head massages.
Thanks for your read and being a part of this remarkable journey.
No sooner had I sat down on a cofy chair in the reception area the attendant said, "It is ready, Madam." Being lead to a small dimmly lite room, I was escorted by Gita, my favourite massage therapist, into the change area.
"Change your dress, mam."
Following these instructions as if I had entered a dream world I hung up my shirt, pants and took off my shoes. Each of the towels had flower-heads arranged on them. I felt a bit funny destroying the presentation, but this is how it was meant to be. Entering the massage room with soft waterfall music playing in the background and Gita standing by is like a dream world far away from many of the things I know of India and life. Inside of these walls there is nothing to do but relax.
Sitting on a chair, Gita chants a short Hindu prayer for healing, restoration and energy before the session started. She then started to apply hot oil with a continual separation of each part of my hair until my entire head was drenched in hot sticky oil.
"Temperature okay?" asks Gita.
So far all is smooth, soft, serene, slow and gentle until we get to the actual head massage. Watch out is my advice because this can be rather non-relaxing. Pulling at the strands from the roots this is suppposed to promote hair growth. Rubbing vigorously on the scalp prevents hair loss and pre-mature greying. Pushing each part of the hair back and forth is understood to promote hair strength. The pressure is firm and Gita doesn´t react to my occasional whinces or wines.
She asks softly, "Pressure okay, mam." Not wanting to look like a wimp I tell her it´s all okay.
"Ah, Eee, Oooo...",the massage continues with my head being pushed forward and backward while she folds my ears over and covers my eyes. This time there is very little hair on the floor from the hair pulling. I comment about it to Gita.
"More protein, mam."
With regular hair oil treatments, shampooing and a bunch of treatments I had in Kolkatta at the Vedic Spa, I have noticed a definite thickness and decrease in the loss of hair. One of the oils that was recommended to me promotes an Indian woman with long thick black hair down to her knees. I asked the doctor at the clinc if I would have such long, lusty hair. His reply was a short laugh. I took that to be a possible ´maybe´ if I used the stuff regularly.
It could be Bollywood time...and I could look like this...In India having long thick wavey hair is the fashion. Most Indian woman despite wearing it in a pony-tail have this fabulous long flowing mane. And talk about THICK! It's like four times the amount of mine.
After the head massage comes the neck and shoulder treatment which is divine. Sort of makes up for the hair pulling! Full head rolls, left and right and shoulder movements backward and forward. I specficially had asked for Gita because she has these long spindle-like fingers that give both great pressure and the tinkles.
"S´okay mam," asks Gita as I nod off during the treatment.
"Hm fine," I say while being jostled out of the dream-world.
The treatment ends with the ritual of hot steamed towels on the back, head and face.
One of them was pretty hot and I have act to confess to being the whimp and yelping in my chair. Gita removed the towel and fanned it around before reapplying it.
The session ends with Om Shanti....I say it along with Gita and go back to the dressing room. Gita had thoughtfully placed a small red flower on top of my shirt as I slowly bring myself back to earth with the mundane task of getting dressed.
To help the scalp and hair absorb the medicated oils it is recommended that you do not take a shower or wash for 24 hours. Gita had braided my hair into a tight pony-tail which helped keep some of the oil on my hair and not my clothes. But during the day most of it was on the back of my shirt.
Back out at the reception area and paying the bill reality was not all that shocking with a cost of $15 for the 30-minute treatment. And just as I prepared to leave a group of white swans with one duck in the middle marched by in a single file. They walked in perfect unison with one another and it was a delightful vision to follow.
Looking amazed the attendant asked me if this is something I would see in my country.
I only laughed as I signed the receipt and left. We all know that swans are not walking around freely even in the best of places.
I love teaching English to the Indian children. I love the interaction as much as I do the chance to feel as though I am helping them in a small way. The children are full of life, love, purity and passion. It feels very rewarding especially when they ask or rather demand that I keep teaching:
“Keep going, Miss.”
“Yah, more Miss….more opposite words.”
“Good teaching, Miss”
“Really Nice, Miss”
“You a teacher in your country?”
“Stay longer, Miss”
Our latest lesson was on finding opposites and making sentences with the new word. It was a strain on my brain to figure out how to explain the meaning of some of the English words. English is weird especially when I assumed I understood it well enough to explain to others but also end up getting stumped. In Korea, I had this same problem when a student once asked me what did falling in love mean.
That’s a tough one.
How do you explain it?
Ah, falling down, getting hurt, becoming stupid and losing your good sense, getting into trouble, going insane, crazy or mad.
Or, being on a cloud (something else that needs explaining), feeling light, happy, excited, like you died and went to heaven….
With the Indian kids, I did not encounter this problem but we did have a few interesting words that needed clarification:
At the end of the class all of the children stood up and shouted in unison, “Thank you, Miss.” Entering the classroom was also with a similar fan-fare (re: all the children standing up like a military drill). I thought my duty was over but as I headed for the doorway the children had other plans for me. They barricaded the entrance to the class so they could have their school books signed. Picture 55 kids shoving a notebook in your face with a pen!
`”Here Miss take mine.”
“I am here Miss.”
“See me Miss, I am sitting nicely here Miss.”
Definitely hard to say no. And once you start with one you start with all of them.
The wonderful part is being made to feel like a bit of a celebrity rather than a lowly English teacher. Some jobs indeed have their perks. And seeing how happy the children were as I signed their book made me smile so much. Sometimes it is the simple things in life that matter.....and the things we cannot pay for which are truly the most valuable. Those things are indeed the smile of a child.
For the last several years part of my daily routine in Mysore has been teaching English at a local private school. One of the first things the staff asked me about was my absence at the Independence celebration. It was sweet to hear that some of the parents were asking for me. And also a bit strange as I have never met or seen any of these people.
Since 2003 and after finishing my thesis paper on yoga in school, I started attending the celebrations on August 15th (Independence Day). As I became a regular guest, I was soon asked to say a few words on India, my experiences and thoughts on their school. It was again sweet to hear that even though I was not there they still mentioned me as ”Hee´ther Morton, the foreigner” as I am known to them.
The principal of the school, Jayashree, is a very nice traditional woman; always dressed in a sari and carrying her handy (re: a cell phone). She was interested in how I had gotten to the school because she wanted me to come to her home. I assumed she meant in the evening, but she was talking about right then and there (re: the middle of the school day). She´s the boss so we cut school and left on my scooter with her driving. I regret not having a picture (re: an Indian principal and a foreigner doubling on a scooter).
(This is one of the amazing things about India. RE: Everything else becomes secondary in relation to social activities.)
Her home was a lovely 3-storey house with teek covered walls, marble floors and a beautiful rain shower. As far as I understand 3-storey dwellings used to be pretty rare but these days, with the growing economy, many people are putting lots of rupees into their home. In India it is referred to as ground level with a first and second floor.
When her husband, Venkatesh, arrived we got into his car and drove off to a relative´s wedding. Like the truly uninvited and unannounced guest, I entered the reception area like nobody´s business, greeted the other guests, the bride and groom, and proceeded to take part in the food! Sitting down to the wedding meal without a formal invitation would never take place in my country. To top off this experience I walked away with a gift. A coconut!
(This is the second amazing thing about India. RE: Total inclusion unlike most religions that exclude others for not being the right colour, race or religion.)
It was a beautiful traditional thai served on a banana leaf. Eaten with my right hand, of course, made it taste that much better. My money-changer in India and now a good friend said he felt the food is more delicious eaten this way. I definitely agree with him.
(The third amazing thing in India. RE: Eating with your hands and NO one thinks you are rude.)
Frankly, I´d LOVE to eat with my hands at home, but I doubt it would go over well. My brother and mother once scolded me for how I was sitting when I returned to India. I guess they have something against the squat-position. So imagine if I threw in the hand-eating manner.
Family: "We are not in India, you know."
Me: "Too bad."
Each part of the thali is served and eaten in a specific order. The curd with rice is taken at the end because it aids digestion. Of course, this all depends on how observant you are to FOOD rules. Another Indian friend told me,
“Ah sure, rules, but you can eat however you wish and I do the same.”
On my way out and with a full stomach, I was curious about how much such a wedding would cost. Venkatesh, the principal’s husband, told me it´s about 700,000 rupees (That´s almost the same as a very small wedding in Toronto...10, 000 to 20, 000 dollars). Cheap in our standards but expensive to Indian ones.
“And yah”, added Venkatesh. “A sort of meaningless waste of money.”
Of course, he knows that he will have to do the same when his daughter wants to get married. Something he may look forward to with both trepidation and excitement. But even in spite of one´s personal view it is a cultural and an expected ritual for each family. I felt sorry, however, when I thought of those men who might have 4 daughters and be a poor family. Generally it is the father of the bride who will pay for the wedding. There is a lot social pressure over these things including being a girl and not coming from a rich family.
After the wedding feast, I was off to my back bending class. The next day at the school Jayahsree asked me if I was a little full. She also admitted it´s a lot for them too.
Hm, yah slightly. Heavy back bending and a full thali stomach do not go well together.
(And the fourth amazing thing about India. RE: Eating too much good food.)
This year Yogacharya moved into a beautiful new kutira (hut). He did a wonderful job along with his wife Hema in renovating it and redoing the structure from bamboo to cement. An additional room was also added for more practice at the back. Much of the work was still being completed while I was having my classes. This was the unlucky part: noisy and smelly. The lucky part was in being the only student (at least for the first week as Yogacharya was not admitting any other people).
Each year I look forward to my time with Yogacharya. I have known him since 2000 so he feels like an old friend, not just a teacher. And in spite of all the changes in my life and his own (those I know about and those I probably have no clue about), I feel there is a deep karmic connection. Along the way I have had a few doubts about whether he was my teacher with no adjustments, no vinyasas and no applause at my performance. In fact, with Yogacharya I have the feeling he is not even looking at me as a body. I am energy, consciousness and air. I am not Heather in Canada, brown hair and blue eyes and with a certain body type. I just ´´am´´.
Before coming down to Mysore I was up north doing a meditation program. I wrote about this in the blog called Silence in Rishikesh. I loved being in the mountains and was going to change the entire plan to stay north and go further into silence.
Being in the mountains and at an ashram is the ideal place for meditation. Mysore is getting too much into the business of yoga. (Getting is definitely an understatement because it has already happened!) There are very strong asana Gurus and teachers in Mysore but not in meditation. This is why many of the great saints, masters, sages and meditators have lived in the mountains. An incredible book to read is Swami Roma’s account on living with the Himalayan Masters. It is a look into a very rare and inspiring lifestyle as well as learning and tutelage experience. Today this kind of learning and upbringing is dead. The entire Guru-Disciple tradition is absent in the world of yoga business, you-tube messages, circus acts and mass class teaching. Rare and authentic teachers are not out selling themselves. I have always believed that the ones you truly want to learn from are living quietly, doing their Sadhana (practice).
One of the attractions in studying under Yogacharya is that he not interested in 90 students per class or building a huge shala (school). He is not into the hugging and smiling Western way of doing things either. Many people don´t understand it and I also understand that from the Western point of view. But at the same time, I can fully appreciate his no-nonesense and straight-forward approach. Some yogis, I know, have taken this to mean his is uninterested. However, a great deal has to do with the Western approach of appeasing the teacher, looking for recognition and feeling the need to work hard at practice. Yogachara banks with different figures.
What I appreciate is that I know for a fact whatever Yogacharya has said to me has only been to me. I never have to worry that he has told the same thing to another student with all the ´good´, ´great´, etc...I know he hasn’t. What he says is to me only and not a parrot-like persona. This is traditional teaching with one-to-one contact.
As I made my decision to stay or go (a general theme that seems to be emerging in my life), I called Yogacharya while up North. How cool to call from the mountains on a cell (mobile in India). I can still see myself standing out in an open field with the Himalayan mountains lingering silently in the background. They were just watching the drama unfold...and me a little player in it.
Yogaharya asked me where I was and replied, “You come”.
It was as if he was calling one of his lost sheep back home. I also felt it was right so called a taxi and within a few hours was on my way to Delhi from the hills. That night I stayed at the Swami Rama guest house in Delhi for 4 hours before catching the plane at 6 a.m. I shared it with a big cock-roach. I told him or her:
"You sleep in the washroom and I´ll sleep in the bedroom, Thanks."
So back home in Mysore I had a 3-hour class in the morning, which included a 20 minute discussion. It was not just a question and answer period, but a time in which Yogacharya dicussed philosophical issues and insights on practice, life and people. A lot of his questions also revealed certain aspects of my own mind. And this indeed is a remarkable thing. That is, to reveal to a student both directly and indirectly the state of their own mind.
The poet Khail Gibran in his book entitled, “The Prophet” has a beautiful passage On Teaching. In it he describes that the true teacher is the one who leads you to the threshold of your own mind. I have read and re-read that passage many many times with tears in my eyes. It is so moving and wonderful. Because to be able to see your own mind (like seeing your nose) is something we can spend a whole life-time never understanding.
It is relatively easy for a yoga teacher to point out to a student what they are doing wrong in their physical practice. All the technical stuff can become very mundane. A Japanese friend of mine and long-standing practitioner of yoga told me that a yogasana teacher will always have something to point out. There has to be something...:-)
But to lead a student to the threshold of their own mind takes a much different talent and ability than roughly pushing or pulling people into various body poses. During one of our first discussions, Yogcharya told me that Ashtanga people do not understand how he is teaching. This might be hard to explain but I understand what he means. I think one of the most important things to help frame this discussion is being aware of the mind-set of best or better yoga types. Most of the time people are approaching yoga with physical intentions. With this outlook you can lose sight of the subtle intentions (not the gross) if unconsciously comparing the approach to a more physical practice like Ashtanga. I certainly don’t look down upon the whole body workout thing because I was not much better and consciously knew this is what I was looking for. The trick of course is not to get stuck. This can happen if the practice is only centred on the body.
There is a vital argument that thru the body you can work on the mind. But this is not going to happen unless you are consciously working with this theory all the time. Most of the time we hear that it starts with the body first. However, according to Patanjalim´s yoga it starts with the mind. There is only one verse on yogasana. Yogacharya´s classes are not focused on how many asanas you are doing, how many you can do, getting thru the routine in record time or performance. The focus is:
INTENTION, ALIGNMENT AND INTERNAL AWARENESS
INTENTION, ALIGNMENT AND INTERNAL AWARENESS
INTENTION, ALIGNMENT AND INTERNAL AWARENESS
It is an interesting journey in learning to investigate if it is your body falling apart or your mind. Many times in class my legs went numb after 10 minutes of holding a posture and my breath completely faulty. During another class my body did well and my mind was fighting.
So I wonder...and continue to explore.
In Mysore there are several yogis and yoginis I personally know and shard a meal with who have made it their permanent (if not all too frequent) home. Although any part of India comes with its fair share challenges and problems, I can understand why many people are drawn to settled down in this part of the world.
For despite the obvious headaches there are many wonderful things that can only happen in India. I often think it is probably these little things which make it so worth while. Like everything in life you learn to take the plus with the minus and hopefully the latter never outweighing the former. And even if it does, it is something you work, live with and learn from. If not you leave! I have yet to encounter any situation, place, person or relationship that is 100 per cent perfect (and if there is such a place or a relationship, please, would someone tell me).
In India, life can be very rural. If you don´t have money to stay in a place with a generator there are frequent power-outs. You cannot and should not drink the running water unless you have a filter system. There may not even be hot water, because most homes are heated by solar energy. In the monsoon this can be challenging. And then there is the lack of internet (or should I say the off and on again system), the many festivals, parades, road-blocks and protests.
I know some people don't 'bast in the glory' of these hardships. Visiting a home with a dirt floor, cow dung smeared on the walls and a squat toilet hardly seems too enlightening! I know many students who drove their Mercedes also were the first to complain about feeling 'crippled' after 10 minutes of sitting for meditation. Crippled to me is the fucker who glamoured on the taxi window as he begged for money and hobbled on one foot with another bandaged and his clothes in tatters. That's crippled. Not the feeling stiffness and the ability to climb into the luxury car. Many mornings on my way to my yoga school I passed several blanketed humps who slept on the subway vent. Many mornings in Mysore I walked by beggars not always adults but children to who had no home, no practice, no proper meal that day and certainly no way to easily drive away.
All these experiences have made me appreciate the simple fact of taking a hot shower at home whenever I please, having regular electricity and running water from the tap. These are the little things we consider part of ´normal´ living elsewhere. The things we demand and expect. But in India it is just not that way and certainly not all the time.
A few days ago one of these remarkable experiences took place that emphasizes life in India and only in India. My friend who lives in Mysore permanently had blown a tire on her scooter. She dropped off her scooter and within an hour it was ready to be picked up. I had been hanging around her home so when she returned I drove her back to the shop.
The amazing part was not it being ready in a hour but the cost of 20 rupees! (That's about 50 cents in Canadian dollars or close to 50 cents in US dollars.) When my friend handed over the worn out rupee note to the shop-keeper I had to say, "That´s incredible." She smiled and bobbed her head side-ways (a common Indian gesture meaning ´that´s just the way it is´).
And just the way it is is pretty great and if I dare say, close to perfect.
Yesterday I went shopping for shoes. I know, that’s a mundane thing to write about. However, if you read any of B.K.S. Iyengar´s work he'll tell you your brain is in your feet (so maybe our shoes have something important to tell us).
I went shopping to replace the old, haggard ones I was wearing. Boy, putting on a new pair sure felt swell. I decided to wear the new shoes out and get rid of the old ones. I pointed to my old shoes and said to the shop-keeper, "These garbage."
"Put out?" he asked.
"Yes," I replied. "Bye-bye."
He then took the shoes from me, put them in a plastic bag, went to the front of the door and threw them out onto the street. They landed near the gutter and next to a sleeping dog.
Well, that's one way of handling the matter.
It reminded me of the time I was having troubling getting onto the Internet in Mysore. This was over 10 years ago and long before the explosin of Internet cafes and wi-fi. The attendant at the shop picked up the computer and started banging it on the desk. He turned to me and said, "Now you try, mad'am."
"Err, the computer or hotmail?"
The cost of living is something can really make you smile. Here’s an itemized list of how much things cost in Mysore:
Groceries: 10 rupees for 2 cucumbers (the little kid wanted 10 rupees for 1!)
Customized items: 50 rupees to have a shirt stitched and 40 rupees to replace a zipper.
(India has the worst zippers. I once wore a new shirt made for me at a concert in India and the zipper spilt open! Luckily, the zipper was at the back and not the front. )
Dinner: 20 rupees for 1 rice, 1 curd and 2 chappitis.
Sweets: 1 rupee for candy or gum.
Snacks: 18 rupees for 100 grams of cookies or chips.
Spiritual: 5 rupees for a pack of incense.
Fashion: 10 rupees for a bracelet.
Health Food: 100 rupees for 5 large apples.
Study: 15 rupees for a writing book.
43.3 rupees is 1 Canadian Dollar.
At the Sri Ganapati Sachchidananda Ashrama (ashram) in Mysore, South India, there is a large auditorium dedicated to the power of music as well as magnificent gardens for medicinal purposes. (Ashram means place of spiritual dwelling.) The significance rests in how music heals and nature aligns us to our inner-self. One of the gardens is a unique collection of herbs while the other is an exquisite display of bonsai ('bon' means tray-like and 'sai' small tree). The art of bonsai originated from China and Japan in the 10th and 12th century. There are also clear indications of these miniature trees in the Ramayama (one of India’s great epic).
Okay, nice tour, but what does this have to do with September 11th?
Situated in the middle of the herbal garden is a very interesting statue. Upon first site it looks like an overly bumpy replica of displaced arms and faces coming out from all directions. Getting closer to it you can see that there are actually small heads, which make-up the entire surface.
The pillar is called a Stoopa; a terracotta figure in honour of all those who died untimely deaths either by accident, natural disaster or suicide. Those who approach the Stoopa should offer prayers to the deceased because it represents the idea of elevation and liberation (moksha) for the soul’s journey toward peace. On the bottom of the pillar is a plate that reads: "This is a YOGA conception.”
Indeed it is the higher Yoga; the ultimate purpose of practice in order to relieve suffering, obtain liberation and break the cycle of death, and rebirth.
Given the immortalized meaning of September 11th this pillar is more than appropriate.
When I began reading about the path of other meditation teachers I came across the biography of Sharon Salzberg. She described one of her primary teachers Dipa Ma with the feeling of being deeply loved. During one of her early trips to India, Dipa Ma asked Sharon,
'Are you happy?' 'Are you sleeping well?' 'Did you eat well?'
I was so touched by this it made me cry. The way Sharon depicted Dipa Ma it was as if you could feel her asking you these questions in a very personal and sincere way. Of course, when I shared the story to my students during a meditation class one of them did not appreciate the reverie. He remarked, "My doctor asks me the same thing!" I can only speak for myself but my doctor appointments are routine. Even if my doctor did ask if I was happy (and I don't recall her doing so), she would not be talking about my soul's happiness.
The soul's happiness, however, is what Dipa Ma was concerned with.
These tender questions were the impetus in learning more about Dipa Ma. So much in fact I travelled to Kolkatta to visit her only living daughter Dipa. I guess you could say I was searching for my own teacher too. I recalled many years ago my teacher in Mysore saying the spiritual teachers you really want to be with are not passing out their palm cards (he meant their business cards). To a large degree, I knew he was right. Possibly the most authentic and truly evolved teachers are not those who are feverishly advertising themselves. Like Neem Karoli Baba they don't want anything from you. They might also act like he did and say, "So now that you have seen me --- you can leave."
It was my eleventh trip to India and I had always told myself travelling within India did not include Kolkatta. It's fairly ironic I should then organize, plan and figure out a trip there. I had heard Kolkatta was worse than Mumbai and been told from a travelling yoga student she was sexually assaulted in the street. These were pretty good reasons not to go. However, my purpose to visit Dipa took presidence over these trite details.
Who is Dipa Ma? She was a very rare and special woman known to have reached several stages of enlightenment. But more importantly she studied and practised meditation during a time when women were openly discouraged and certainly not recognized for doing so. During her practice she developed incredible insight and knowledge. Prior to this she had experienced many hardships including the death of her husband, a child and a severe illness. But it was these painful events, which she said gave her the motivation to learn meditation. Dipa Ma was also married off at a very young age as was the norm in India and lived in poverty.
Planning this trip was a game of snakes and ladders. It was not as if Dipa was readily available. I had to hunt around to find out where she was living, if she was still in Kolkatta and how to get there. The most obvious place to start was with Sharon Salzberg. She suggested I write to the director of the Insight Meditation Center who suggested I contact one of the administrators, who suggested I contact one of the teachers, who felt I might get a hold of a student there and who then believed Dipa Ma´s son might know something.
Back and forth with e-mails and finally I got in touch with Rishi, Dipa Ma's grandson. I received directions to Dipa's home (the same house where Dipa Ma lived). I was also given an unexpected reassurance of a warm welcome from Dipa. She was looking forward to meeting me.
This was wonderful and exciting news. It was even more meaningful because my travel partner (who is now my husband) felt I might be viewed as a noisy tourist. You know, some people might be plain noisy. Some people might not have the passion, will or even the interest to make such a trip. I am curious, yes, but never noisy.
Fast-forward and I am at the airport waiting to check-in. “Oh, Dum-Dum,” said the attendant at the counter. "Kolkatta's other name. Dangerous."
Getting to India involved flying to Delhi with two lay-overs and a total of seventeen hours of flying from Toronto. I rested at the Maidens Hotel for about five hours and left the next evening on a seventeen hour train trip to Kolkatta. (As an aside, the Maidens is an old colonial-style hotel that was established in 1903. Since 2000, I have stayed regularly and it remains one of my favourite heritage hotels in India. With high ceilings, white columns and a few friendly faces who remember me, it is always a treat.)
Travelling within India is certainly never what it looks like on paper. I imagined the time in between with the rest of the hotel was totally doable. My exhaustion set in somewhere along the line and I slept most of the time on the train. Spending the entire day travelling usually leaves you spending the next day resting. At any rate, by the time this entire Indian trip is over I will have gone from one end of India to the other and sideways.
Notwithstanding the facts about Kolkatta as a dirty, ridiculously overcrowded and congested city it is also the city of lovers, poets, mystics and great saints. I concentrated on these points while I stared at the wilted rose we received upon boarding the train. We had a first class cabin and were served corn flakes and milk for breakfast and french fries and cutlets for dinner. I gave the latter to my husband who will eat just about anything (at least on the way there).
Perhaps people don't consider a Kolkatta a spiritual hub, but many saints and enlightened beings have made it their home. Mother Theresa, Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna lived and worked there for several years. Ramakrishna, the Guru to Vivekananda, spent sixteen years at the Dakshineswar temple. In this temple there are 13 inner cells dedicated to Lord Shiva and an inner one to Kali (the black goddess). Unlike many temples throughout India non-Hindus can enter the inner sanctum. The temple is situated near the Ganges where Ramakrishna is said to have experienced spiritual visions that included uniting all religions and entering Samadhi trances. Scholars claimed he was a mad-man but spiritual followers understand he was truly an enlightened soul.
Riding a train for close to twenty-four hours gives you a lot of time to 'think' (or sleep). There isn't much else to do. And funny enough we had the same routine on the return trip. A wilted rose, a paper wash cloth and a snack before dinner at 8 p.m. Dinner, however, was a bit better with rice, sambar and samosa. Breakfast was worse. Four fries (literally), two vegetable cutlets (they looked like they were dead), mouldy toast (and that was after I had taken a bite) and instant coffee. Totally gross. It must have been the left-overs from last´s night dinner. Talk about spoiling the diet regime of healthy living. I tossed them aside and even my husband was disgusted (a rarity).
Once in Kolkatta we choose a richshaw driver (not difficult to do and the same protocal in all major cities) who followed us from the train to the exit gate. We drove three hours to west and eat and looked at three different hotels. According to the Internet they were ‘lovely.’ In reality they were crappy. Nothing but run down and completely in the middle of nowhere. We ended up driving all the way back from the east to the west and settled at a nice resort.
By the time I called Dipa it was early evening. I was not sure what to expect or not to expect. The conversation was natural as I heard a soft and tender-hearted voice over the phone. Not long into the conversation she asked if we would stay for lunch.
"Lunch? Wow, we would love it," I replied. This is great I thought.
On the following morning we made our way to see Dipa through the Kolkatta rain. It rained for the whole day. Because of this we were over an hour late. Apart from the rain we were also up against other obstacles (see below). When I called Dipa to tell her we would be late she misunderstood and thought we were not coming.
"Noooooooooooo", I said on the mobile. This will be terrible if she disappears. When we finally arrived Dipa had waited in the rain at a subway station just outside of her apartment. Just thinking about it makes me want to cry. What a lovely and humble woman.
Dipa still resides in the same home where her mother Dipa Ma was living and past away in. I found her home so beautiful as we sat in the same room Dipa Ma had greeted foreigners and meditated. Many Western students who visited her here described the room as small, but with an incredible feeling of lightness and space. It like like this and so much more.
Indeed a small and ever so modest room. For many this would not even be enough to be considered comfortable. But what it had over any fancy room was a very big heart. There was an extremely good feeling of comfort, ease, calm and peace. Several pictures of family members, monks, teachers and the Buddha accompanied this simple, quiet place. It was so ordinary that anyone looking inside could easily turn their nose and think, "Nothing special here". It's like the people who see the busy streets of India and the poverty but miss its spiritual heart.
There is a lot to share about my visit with Dipa. The important part, however, is an exceptionally kind and gracious woman and being the space of an enlightened mother. After serving lunch, Dipa offered her bed to take a nap and slowly began talking about her mother in a gentle and caring way. She expressed,
With this she began to weep, which took me by surprise. I felt helpless and so deeply for her as I tried to understand her loss as best as I could. A loss that really was not much more for me than as a curious stranger could understand. Death, a mother and especially Dipa Ma are such personal and private matters. I do not think anyone can rightfully say they understand. And frankly speakly, I can't believe it can be any other way.
After I met Dipa it felt so right that I had meet her. She is a small woman physically, but a strong one internally. As a gift (a surprise for sure) she gave me a large picture of Dipa Ma for my meditation room. She had left it sitting on the sofa while we talked. I hadn't noticed it, which was funny because I am usually very observant about any misplaced items in a room. Dipa told me she had taken it to the photoshop to have it enlarged. I was overjoyed and touched. The photo is of Dipa during one of her trips to the United States. She is standing dressed in a white sari and wearing a black socks.
In the Life and Legacy of a Buddhist Master one of Dipa Ma´s students shares the story of having given Dipa Ma a pair of socks. I presume it is these same ones as seen in the picture. For the sake of this post I have shortened the story, but when Dipa returned to India she left them folded neatly on the bed. This showed the way Dipa did not believe anything belonged to her. She did not take anything for granted or make assumptions.
When Dipa gave me the photograph she said, ``You put in your meditation room and mother is there. She is your mother as she was a mother to all.`` It was just a photo, but it felt like a piece of gold.
When we left Dipa walked us back to the driver who was waiting for us. Even despite the busy traffic of cars, taxis, cows, bicycles and goats Dipa stood out like a light. She waved good-bye and gently said, “I will miss you.”
Wow, miss me, I thought? Dipa had never met me before but she was so friendly and unreserved. Her words were exactly like those of my own mother when we parted.
In my mind, I still see Dipa standing in the middle of the street. As we parted I took a few steps away and looked back. It was as if she knew I would and turned around to wave again. I waved back and tried to memorize the fleeting moment of saying good-bye as the traffic moved, the lights changed and we climbed into the taxi.
During the taxi ride to the hotel my husband and I fought over who would take care of the picture.
I claimed it should not be folded and how we better make sure it doesn't get damaged. He was busy replying, ``Do I look like I am folding it?`` After wrangling back and forth we both agreed to place it on the ledge of the back of the taxi. Once we were back at the hotel we would store it safely in the suitcase for the train ride.
Our visit was simple, clear and filled with meaning. There was no heavy fan-fare. It was in many ways a quiet lunch, a relaxed talk and a happy time. Lunch, tea, cookies, our talk and finally our departure seemed like a dream. It was complete and whole. There was nothing undone, no where to do and nothing to do.
This visit is makes me think of life in so many ways. We cannot stop or hold a single moment in it. But a moment can be etched into us to last a long time; even a lifetime.
The Ganges is not only recognized in India but all over the world as being a body of water that signifies evolution, the cleansing of karma, Indian culture and religion, as well as a sacred stream of holiness. Some people consider it unfit and unclean for even their baby toe to enter. Others, however, consider it to be the other way around (re: it is us who is unclean and the water that is clean). Nevertheless, the Ganges is an immeasurable container and like many of the texts arising from Indian culture (e.g., the Vedas, Upanishads and the Great Epics) it cannot be controlled or completely understood.
During one of my first trips to India I visited Varansi, Bernas; the ideal place for a bath. Mark Twain made reference to Varansi by naming it the holiest of the holy. I still have the little brass container that held water from the Ganges. And I still fondly remember the old man who shared with me in great detail his daily ritual at the water to heal his bad foot. With his back to me I took a quick snap-shot of his private ritual. The picture showed his white coloured dhoti just barely touching the water and his grey hair glistening in the morning sun.
Many books, poems, songs and legends speak about the holy Ganges. One interesting book entitled, “The Flow of the Ganges” (Ganga Lahari) is said to have been written by a Sanskrit scholar, Panditaraja Jagannatha. The book was named the 'waves' of the Ganga to signify the ever-moving and present waves of the mind. Pandit wrote the book in order to cleanse his sin of marrying a foreigner.
The background on how the book came to be written begins with a chess game. During the game the Emperor was about to defeat Pandit so he challenged him that if he lost he would grant him anything he wanted. Just at that moment a beautiful Muslim princess entered the room. If he won the game, Pandit requested that he be able to marry her. As luck would have it, Pandit won the game and the Emperor granted him his wish.
But this story does not have a happy ending. After Pandit finished his duties he was deemed an outcast for marrying outside of his religion and forced to leave his home. Tormented by this disgrace, he went to one of the bathing ghats to try to cleanse himself of his actions. But the Ganga also seemed to forsake him and began to recede.
Feeling very distraught by this he began to chant. He wrote the 53 slokas that comprise the “Flow of the Ganges”. It is understood that with each sloka (verse) the water returned until finally the last verse was written. It was then that the Ganga embraced him and cleansed him of his suffering.
I was inspired to take a dip in the sacred waters when a local artist and business man asked me if I had bathed yet. When I told him I had not gone he was very straight in saying, “Just one time, once you should do. In my community it is holy water.”
The next day when I saw him I was happy to report that I had taken a bath. “All day?” he asked as if it might be true. “No” just in the morning I told him and he smiled brightly. I felt happy to have taken a dip in the holy water. It was bright, cold and stimulating. Even the sand as I learned from my artist friend has medicinal purposes, which should be rubbed on the body.
I am just catching up with my writing after a long period of silence. So before this trip looks like yesterday I will begin with a few entries.
Starting from the mid-way point of my journey I was in Rishikesh, the land of yoga ashrams, retreats and spas. Not only are there plenty of ashrams to choose from, a very popular reason to head to Rishikesh, but people say the meditative vibration is higher and purer there. Many great saints and sages went up to the mountains seeking solitude from their worldly existence. The word 'Rishikesh' is literally translated as the land of the preserver, Vishu. Some people also say if you want to be closer to God then you go to Rishikesh.
When I first visited Rishikesh in 2000 it was with the firm idea that I would never return. The heat, the dryness, the congestion, the sadhus running around, my own irritation, lack of attention and inability to figure out what was driving me to stay in such a place made me blind to all that was around me. But one should never say never because I have been back 3 times.
Why the silence? It was a deliberate withdrawal from the external world and including interactions with people, computers, internet and phone. As Swami Veda (a senior disciple of Swami Rama) says “at some point in one’s spiritual progress an urge to silence arises uninvited; a wave that carries the mind self-ward, atma-ward)." The best place to do this is in the north of India which is closer to the parents of spirituality. That is, the Himalayan father and the Mother Ganga. Swami Rama often laid claim that these were his ‘real’ parents (both the mountains and the water).
A journey into silence is from the gross level to the more subtle one. There are preparations before taking such a journey but the process cannot be rushed, directed or controlled. In fact, everything that one learns in yoga is understood as treading the path to this means. The journey to Atma, the eternal ‘self’ (re: that which I am) is beyond the modifications of the sense organs (indriyas) and actions. It is the inner state of ‘being’. In European languages Atma means “auto” and in German it is Atmen, to breathe. To realize Atma (self) is to understand eternity, body without form, mind without limits and freedom from the past as well as the future. Ideally it is also coming to understand that this body is not who we think we are. It is an illusion, a dream and a configuration of the mind. All suffering, pains, disappointments are also illusions. This is a hard concept to fully unerstand. Because if this is true why do we suffer at all?
The Buddha says it stems from attachment and not understating the impermanence of all relationships, circumstances and self-created identifies. I once read a good way of putting it in that you don’t wear the same shirt you had when you were 5 years old. Just as you change your shirt with age, you change also your attitudes. You learn to adjust and to understand that all things are moving even when they appear still.
The ancient texts describe the mind as being like a cow out to pasture. It has no consistent stream of thought and moves from one idea to the next, reacting and responding out of habit and conditioning. Taking a step toward silence is not just a literal one in terms of ‘no talking’ but a return to the natural state of being in which the flow of the energy (the prana) rises from within.
Undergoing such a period of silence is not a program in learning new techniques. In fact as many Swamis have already said, ”There is nothing new to learn.” The key is to apply (at one’s very best) what you know. There are of course guidelines to follow, but it is not about mechanical learning or drills. It is a practice in staying present moment to moment, embracing the energy of healing, expanding the life force and cultivating the internal world. As Swami Rama put it, “we are citizens to the inner and outer world.” Most of the time we have only learned to expand externally, not inwardly.
While I was up north and in silence it rained for 4 days straight. The clap of thunder from over the mountains and the pouring of rain was like the endless 'hum' of a vacuum cleaner. Life at the ashram is simple food, prayer, chants, karma yoga, self-study, meditation and a bit of hatha-yoga. To me, the mountains lay stretched out to my right like a lazy dog while the Ganga was to the left rushing, running and forever moving.
One of my most vibrant memories was walking to breakfast in knee-deep water. I had borrowed or rather an aspirant living at the ashram had taken an umbrella from another foreigner and given it to me. We could only walk small tiny steps to get from the cottages to the breakfast hall. A walk of 2 minutes now took us 8. I remember one Indian fellow in front looking backward to see if we were all together. I lifted my umbrella and gestured that all was fine. He laughed and kept walking. Inwardly I laughed too; what a precious moment in time.
Maintaining silence was not difficult (re: the not talking part). There are so many others ways to communicate (eyes, facial expressions, hand gestures) that I felt as though I was communicating all day long. I broke my silence verbally twice when I said hi to a one-month year old calf and to a cat. The practice, however, was difficult in remaining present, staying disciplined and not nodding off due to boredom, exhaustion or just plain laziness.
At the end, I broke my silence with the word, “om”. But even afterwards, I did not feel like talking. It was a divine time with many layers.
The Gateway of the Gods. Haridwar is a sacred and divine place. It is the entry point to four of the major Hindu pilgrimages: Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamontri and Gangotri. One day I will do all four of them. To date, I have done the trip to Gangotri, which was 10 hours driving up and around two mountains. It's a long way and many areas of the roads were completely washed out. We waited over an hour at one spot while fellow drivers jumped out of their cars to clear the rumble from the road.
Each of the four points led into the Himalayan region, over 3000 meters. Millions of people flock to Haridwar or take the journey further north to wash away their worldly sins. Given the power and depth of the Ganges it is a shame if you take such a trip and do not bathe in the Ganges. My only thought and advice on that is to check your self-preservation at the door and be free.
Haridwar itself is situated on the right of the Ganga; the land of wandering monks, sadhus, spiritual seekers and gurus. Many of the sadhus are thought to be recovering drug-addicts (and mostly still in the process of recovery). Some people feel that those who are serious about spirituality stay in Haridwar and those more spa or ashram-oriented travel further north to Rishikesh.
Every morning at sunrise and evening at sunset there is a beautiful aarti (worship of light) along the Ganges.
It is a celebration and ceremony of light, emotion, music and chant. It is a magical time with burning lights, prosad (offerings) and chanting. Even if one does not attend the public service with hundreds of people, there are other ceremonies taking place within the community.
These are held in much of the same manner as the larger one but on a smaller, private scale.
Even Indian people say that there are so many festivals and ceremonies taking place they cannot possibly follow them all. In my humble attempt to learn more about Indian culture, ritual and belief, I found myself increasingly lost in the ‘more information’ syndrome.
It is true the more you learn the less you remember.
Many street parades take place during the festivals, inviting everyone to participate. Being pulled from the sidelines and into the activity was a total surprise to me but lots of fun. The video below is an excerpt of exactly how much fun it was dancing with strangers. Afterwards they thanked me whole-heartedly for joining them and gave us candies for our efforts.
It is just amazing how everyone sees you first in India because I was just minding my own business.
Ganesha signifies the remover of obstacles and is understood to bring good luck as well as happiness.
Because of the heavy rains in the north there are handy body wraps (ponchos) that you can buy for 10 rupees (25 cents). India’s rain were said to have broken a 15-year record with many roadways shut down because of landslides and floods.
So here’s to the rain man . . . and to the hundred of Rudrakshas in the background.
In Haridwar there are about as heavy sales on Rudraksha as there was the rain. I had never seen such an array of styles, sizes and colours. Usually they are deep red but for the fashion-oriented and deviant obtain wooden and clear ones are also available.
Rudrakshas represent the third EYE of SHIVA and are understood to ward off evil spirits. Sometimes men wear up to 5-6 necklaces at a time or wrapped around their wrists.
Situated on a small bill, the Bilwa Parvat, in Haridwar there are pujas and devotees flocking from one shrine to the next. The Wish Fulfilling Goddess, Maa Mansadevi Siddhpeeth, is understood to fulfill your deepest wishes. Legends say that the Goddess, Mansadevi, was born from the mind of Rishi Kashyap. The statue of Mansadevi has 3 faces and 5 arms (others usually have 8 arms); and that's more than enough to get the laundry done, the cooking and the cleaning at the same time! After tying a thread and making a wish, and after it is fulfilled, one should return to untie the thread.
It’s not clear to me if it is the same thread, but I assume so.
Ah! Good luck. This may take some time...Re: in retracing my steps and finding the thread I tied or for as long as my wish lies unfulfilled...
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.
- ► 2012 (20)
- ► 2011 (24)
- the Alps
- India Sojourn
- Head Massages
- English Fun
- An Indian Wedding
- Only in India
- My Shoes & the Cost of Living in India
- September 11th
- Dipa Ma Calls: My Journey to Kolkatta
- Ashram Gardens
- Flow of the Ganges
- Silence, Rishikesh, Northern India
- Haridwar, Northern India
- Faces of Haridwar
- Ganesha Festival: Dance, Dance, Dance
- The Rain Main
- Wish Fulfilling Goddess
- ▼ September (19)