Nature, Travel, Yoga Retreats

Muy Bien — My Top Ten (Costa Rica) continued …

(Here’s the first part of the Top Ten list in the previous post).

6.  Pipa Fria

Pipa-fria-0328iWho needs Whole Foods, when you can pick up fresh coconut water at the numerous roadside fruit stands?  Pull over immediately (smiling and pura vida-ing) and don’t be alarmed by the machete the fruit guy is holding. Watch, as within seconds, he hacks open an unripened, green coconut and transforms it into a goblet of

coconut water
Here’s how you might be used to drinking coconut water …
pipa fria
Here’s your upgrade to a whole new world of coconut

heavenly sweet water, complete with a straw he’ll pop through the top. It’s the perfect, refreshing pick-me-up; loaded with vitamins and electrolytes, and the treat continues once you’ve drunk the agua de pipa, as you use the “lid” of your coconut to scoop out the soft flesh and eat that, too. Watch the creator of coconut nirvana nifty work:

7.  Toucans

So adorable that they deserve their very own mention, even though they kind of fall under #1 Nature. These comical birds arrived in the treetops in a flashy display of color and noise, looking like they’d just rented their feathers for Halloween outfits.

toucan in flight


8.  Howler Monkeys

The alarm clocks of the jungle, a sound that had me smilingly coming out of sleep and ready to greet each new day. The howlers also added their grunting and calling to our outdoor yoga classes, and we’d hear them in the trees around us in the evenings, providing the perfect backdrop for a story about Hanuman.

howler monkey

9.  Fireflies

Yoga spaceYes, I know they have fireflies in other countries, but the Costa Rican fireflies were bigger than any I’ve ever seen, and seemed to have adopted the pura vida culture too, as they floated into our yoga space during Savasana; big, bright, glowing orbs of light, dipping in the air around our yoginis, adding fairy-like magic to the already idyllic surroundings.


10.  Yogayoga-retreat-costa-rica-0449gi

A magnificent setting like Lake Arenal in Costa Rica will heighten your experience on the yoga mat and jumpstart your prana; whether you’re rocking a joyful backbend, or you’re deep in contemplation. Eckhart Tolle describes being in nature as “a compelling portal to presence”, and it’s true. Practicing yoga in a paradise like Costa Rica will create memories you can come back to, once you’re back home and living your Other Vida.

So, there you have it. As if you ever needed any encouragement to head to “The Happiest Planet on Earth” (according to the Happy Planet Index), these ten reasons to go to Costa Rica are a mere  introduction to the beauty that awaits you in this peaceful soul of Central America. Enjoy!

Nature, Travel, Yoga Retreats

Muy Bien — My Top Ten (Costa Rica)

I tried to keep it to just Five Fab Reasons, I really did, but it was impossible. I couldn’t condense a week of immersing ourselves in the splendor of our Costa Rica yoga retreat, to just five little cameos. So, I opted for a Top Ten (out of a shortlist longlist of over thirty), and here they are, in no particular order.


1.  Nature

The cheeky magpie jay enjoys breakfast

Nature, AMPLIFIED.  Wildly-colored frogs, prehistoric-like iguanas, vibrant bird life and a stream of gigantic butterflies that look like they’ve been added by the animators at Avatar.


2.  Pura Vida!

Translated as “pure life”, this exclamation is used as a greeting and as a Two Thumbs Up smile of appreciation, as you acknowledge a mutual zest for life and the joy of “real living”.

The always-smiling Flaco, anticipating every need on our yoga retreat

Note: You might look like a tourist, but try and sound like  a local, by pronouncing it, “poora beeda” (not pyura veeda), and feel free to adopt this as a happy mantra during your stay — I wasn’t sure if it was just a corny PR slogan whipped up by the Costa Rica Tourist Board, so I tested it the moment we landed, and received an enthusiastic pura vida! in response, from the smiling immigration tico, as he stamped my passport.

This gentleman, riding a horse and cart, was happy to pause and say hola to us


The ticos and ticas are the friendly, warmhearted Costa Ricans who echo and amplify the essence of pura vida. They’re proud of their eco-aware country, they have a great sense of humor and they seem to operate at a level of happiness that comes naturally, without trying to find it.

Their natural appreciation for people, nature and life in general, comes easily. An interesting recipe to consider, for those times when striving for happiness doesn’t work.



3.  Scenery

Arenal Volcano
Sunrise skies on fire – exactly like this, no photo enhancement required

Volcanoes and sunrises so spectacular, you’ll want to bottle them up and take them home with you. Pause long enough to take a break from the picture snapping (guilty!), and just sit and take it all in; creating an imprint on your mind of the colors and sounds around you. Costa Rica offers 20,000 square miles of abundant, unique biodiversity in a microcontinent of volcanoes, jungle, thermal springs, beaches and rainforests.

Rio Celeste waterfall
Rio Celeste waterfall

Sunrise Costa Rica

4.  Fruit

Fruit that looks, smells and tastes like real FOOD. Passionfruit, pineapple, mangoes, starfruit, papaya … they never tasted so good. A kind of juice-dribbling-down-your-chin-and-you-don’t-care good. Stop at the roadside fruit stands and indulge in fruit heaven.



5.  Adrenalin Rush 

This is the land that invented zip lining — because why wouldn’t you hook a pulley over a stainless steel cable and hurl yourself off a perfectly safe platform, to go whizzing through the treetops, hundreds of feet above terra firma? Pura vida, in full force.  I’d been mustering up the courage to try zip lining since my first trip to Costa Rica ten years ago, and  I kept finding (perfectly sane) excuses for not doing it.

Ziplining-costa-ricaThis time, I took the leap; inspired by our group of feisty and fun-loving yoginis, who were equally determined to try this adventure, and fortified by the very capable crew at Los Canones, who briefed us well. We listened very carefully to every instruction on how to avoid finding yourself hanging upside down, suspended above the forest, and Ziplining-costa-rica-0116how to stop in enough time to not go crashing into the next platform — all of this gave me the courage I needed to take that first step into nothingness. It’s around those few seconds that you vaguely remember reading zip lining described as “death slide”, which you then dismiss immediately, take a deep breath, an even deeper Ommmmmm, and then you’re off!Ziplining-costa-rica-0203Ziplining-costa-rica-0225





And the thrill and shriek-inducing exhilaration is immediately addictive, so that you’re eagerly looking forward to the next slide and the next one and the next one and then oh, no, you can’t believe it’s over.   Next stop: bungee jumping in New Zealand. Just kidding. Wouldn’t catch me doing that for all the pipa fria in the world.

Still need another five reasons to head to the land of pura vida? Here you go …

Travel, Yoga Retreats

10 Reasons To Go On A Yoga Retreat (on Lake Atitlán, Guatemala)

1.   Your Destination Is Dramatically Beautiful

Lake-Atitlan-Yoga-RetreatSet in the highlands of Guatemala, Lake Atitlán is celebrated as “the most beautiful lake in the world” — as famously described by German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt. It’s the deepest lake in Central America, a crater lake (caldera) formed by the very volcanoes that surround it today. The three giants rising up over the lake provide a majestic backdrop for the ever-changing colors of the day. Idyllic, unparalleled, magnificent views surround you, justifying the use of all superlatives in trying to describe its beauty.

When you pull yourself away from staring agog at the volcanic vista, you’ll notice you’re immersed in nature. The gorgeous gardens of our eco-resort are filled with exotic birds, butterflies and tropical flowers, with the added temptation of exploring the verdant green hills and traditional Mayan villages in the area.

2.   Unplug And Relax 

Yes! A reward for working hard and a much-needed break from daily stresses, a yoga retreat at Lake Atitlán allows you to invest in your wellness and top up your energy levels.

Lake-Atitlan-hikeA yoga retreat also has a smorgasbord of “additional activities”. Plenty on offer, depending on what your definition of relax is. Do you want a yoga retreat which is active and energizing, calming and contemplative, or a little of both? Notice what you naturally choose and consider doing something a little different, perhaps unplugging more than you typically would — or, at the opposite end of the frantic/lazy spectrum, perhaps getting off your bum and enjoying the natural beauty of a hike or kayak excursion. You get to decide what level of RELAX you need.

Lake-Atitlan-sunriseRelax also means UNPLUG. Less technology, more nature. Repeat that mantra. Less technology, more nature. Give yourself a technology detox, as you connect with magnificent sunrises, sunsets, star-filled night skies. And if you can’t go cold turkey on unplugging completely, at least minimize your connection with the outside world, so that it doesn’t drag you back into the busy-ness from which you’ve just traveled many miles to escape!

Disconnect from all those little white umbilical cords attached to phones, iPods, tablets, laptops, and anything else that remotely resembles something that knows how to ROFL and LMK. Yes, fellow yoga retreaters, ICW. It. Can. Wait.

3.   More Yoga!

A yoga retreat is the ideal opportunity to do more yoga than you typically would, with an already-crammed schedule at home. We offer yoga twice a day on our retreat; typically a vigorous morning practice and a quieter, more relaxing practice in the evening, with meditation.

Yoga-Retreat-Guatemala-AtitlanDon’t be intimidated by “YIKES! 3+ hours of yoga a day?” — you’ll be encouraged to abandon any grim determination more suitable to a gym workout, as you deepen the poses without aggression, but with a sense of curiosity. You’ll see progress in your yoga and open up to new experiences on your mat … which you can pack up in your suitcase and continue exploring at home.

4.   More Time To Meditate 

Meditation-yoga-retreatThe combination of having guided and/or group meditation as part of your yoga retreat program, and the simple fact of being in a place with reduced distractions, will allow you to truly explore meditation.  This could be an extension of your existing regular meditation practice, or the catalyst for establishing one.

Outside of a group setting, take a few minutes (hey! take an HOUR — why not!) in the morning and evening to be completely still and contemplative. Take this mindfulness with you on an energetic hike, or even a lively trip to the chaotic markets of Chichicastenango, and you can turn activity into a moving meditation.  Talk less. See more. Think less. Experience more.

5.   Step Out Of Your Comfort Zone

Life-begins-at-the-end-of-your-comfort-zoneGoing somewhere new – new country, new language, new food — all of these elements stretch us beyond the stretching of our muscles in physical yoga. Unfamiliar experiences open the door to yoga of the mind, yoga of emotion, yoga of psychology.

When we’re no longer behaving like automatons, or stuck in the rut of routine, this is an ideal time for self discovery, making space for personal growth. By stepping forward and doing unfamiliar, sometimes scary, things, we create the path towards discovery and new-found confidence.

In this new and liberating frame of mind, you might surprise yourself and find you’ve signed up for zip lining in the morning. Try new things. You’ll head home with a new perspective on life, whatever your personal yoga adventure.

6.   Healthy Eating

Scrumptious-veggiesMost yoga retreat focus on nutritious eating and the destinations we choose on Lake Atitlán, are no exception. The food is healthy, tasty, often vegetarian (with optional meat choices), and includes some local touches. You’ll enjoy delicious soups, guacamole, tamales, omelette, fresh local cheese, quesadillas and more.

At the end of your retreat, you can make a commitment to continued healthy eating and incorporate some of these elements into your diet.

7.   Coffee

Guatemala-CoffeeOkay, I know I just wrote about kickstarting a new eating routine and healthy diet and now here I am, advocating a good dose of diterpines, caffeine and kahweol.

But my grandfather used to say, “moderation in everything”, and I’m following his lead on this one. Plus … “The majority of recent research suggests that moderate coffee consumption is benign or mildly beneficial in healthy adults.” There we go. If Wikipedia said it, it must be true.

So, get used to saying the phrase, “Café con leche caliente, por favor” and prepare yourself for Coffee Nirvana, as you get to savor the world-famous, fragrant coffee of Guatemala.

8.   Cacao

How can you not love a country where chocolate is sacred? Arguably the first chocoholics, the Mayans saw cacao as the food of the gods (me, too!) and held annual festivals to honor the cacao god, Ek Chuah.

Guatemala-chocolate-ixcacaoCacao was the drink of choice for the Maya elites and it was used in royal and religious ceremonies. It’s even cherished enough to be written about in the sacred Mayan book, the Popol Vuh.

And here’s a fun discovery – it looks like the Maya invented the first chocolate bar snack! – “So that they could eat cacao at all times, the Mayans also created an on-the-go form by packing it tightly with cornmeal into small round slabs. Warriors carried these snacks, which their enemies envied and stole.”

I bypassed ancient Maya warriors and indulged in little snacks of cacao decadence of the modern type; rich and flavorful, heavenly bites of handmade chocolate bliss.

9.   The People of Guatemala 

The local people are welcoming, friendly, and proud of their country. You’ll see some beautiful Guatemalan faces against the vibrant colors and designs of traditional dress, especially in this region, which is renowned for the Maya people who still practice sacred and ancient traditions.
Regional dress is worn daily, not saved for special occasions, especially in the smaller villages. Cheerful and intricate weavings; women with bold designs on skirts and headdresses, men in jaunty cowboy hats and embroidered pants. In Guatemala City, you’ll see some traditional dress juxtaposed against the mostly modern and westernized sneakers and jeans, but the villages appear to be holding on to their traditions, which is a delight to see.

Guatemala-facesIf you’re so delighted and tempted to capture some of this on camera, don’t assume you can just click away at the people you see in the villages and markets. They will cover their faces or turn away in annoyance — and wouldn’t you, if the roles were reversed? Sometimes it’s appropriate to ask permission to take photographs in exchange for a few quetzales. Assess each situation, be friendly, and graciously move on if the answer is no.

10.   New Friendships

A yoga retreat in magnificent surroundings is likely to attract people with similar intentions and attitudes to life as yours. Your group may have a diversity of backgrounds, but you all have at least two things in common: you chose to go on a yoga retreat and you picked Guatemala. You’ll meet new and interesting people and have the chance to turn them into lifelong friends.

We’ve designed our next retreat on Lake Atitlán on October 21-25 with all the above benefits in mind, so that you can return home, restored and refreshed, and motivated to take that sense of peace back with you and into your daily life.

Join us at the eco-chic Villa Sumaya!

Click here for more info and to register

Travel, Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Book Packing In McLeod Ganj

How can FedEx compete against this charming setup?

Yes, that’s Book Packing in McLeod Ganj, not Backpacking. The latter being a travel adventure for those exploring the Himalayas in (most likely) scruffy-baggy-unisex trousers and cotton rasta-colored friendship bracelets; seeking budget accommodation, ethnic meals and meaningful inter-cultural connections with locals and likeminded international explorers. The former being an adventure of a different sort – involving 27 books and a cheerful chappy armed with calico, a big sewing needle and red candle wax.

I had somehow amassed 27 books during my yoga teacher training: some of them part of the Kailash Tribal School of Yoga curriculum and some of them literary treats I just couldn’t resist.

  • Happy circumstance: Snapping up inexpensive and interesting yoga books
  • Problem: Lugging them home in an already-bulging suitcase
  • Solution: Aforesaid cheerful chappy with his tailoring skills
Sewing the calico cover



Shipping things home will never be the same again.

No boring FedEx or UPS box required. Instead, you take your books to a tailor, who takes a break from sewing his colorful Tibetan wall hangings to create a custom-sewn, cloth-covered, neatly packaged bundle, ready for its voyage home. All of this done while laughing and smiling as he works speedily on his little Sagar sewing machine, weaving his tailor mastery around your precious yoga books.

Red wax seal to add a special touch



He finishes off the final seam by hand, with a big needle and thick thread. When he holds a red stick over a flame and drips hot wax along the seam, evoking the nostalgia of a bygone era, it makes you want to press a Downton Abbey signet ring into it, to seal the deal. Seriously.


Signed, sealed and ready for mailing
You’ve Got Mail.

Two weeks later at home, when my parcel of books arrive, the cream calico material now dirty and scuffed but books intact, I’m immediately transported back to Jogiwara Road, McLeod Ganj, to visions of nimble sewing fingers making an art form out of mailing things home.


For McLeod Ganj Travelers – How to send parcels from McLeod Ganj, with minimum fuss:

Left to right, on Jogiwara Rd : tailor with parcel packing, Tibet Quality Bakery, post office.

It’s an art form in itself, but it can also be a bit frustrating if you don’t know the ropes. In the event that other travelers hit the search button on how to send their books or other items home from McLeod Ganj, here’s the scoop:

  1. Pick up a customs form (one form per parcel) from the internet services place, up the stairs just past the post office on Jogiwara Road. Also ask them to make two copies of your passport per parcel.
  2. Fill out the forms ahead of time and make sure you state the books are personal and used.
  3. Take your books (or clothing, or souvenirs) to the happy guy at the store that makes Tibetan wall hangings a few doors down from the post office, just past the Tibet Quality Bakery (see photo). You can’t miss him, as the storefront is filled with hanging pieces of colorful Tibetan material. Look for “Parcel Packing Here” sign.
  4. Watch, in awe, as he speedily sews a cloth parcel around your books, and seals it with red candle wax. The price for the parcel wrapping service was nominal – I think I paid less than 200 rupees.
  5. Write your address and the sender’s address (your hotel or someone you know in McLeod Ganj) in big letters on the parcel. Friendly tailor loaned me his permanent marker pen.
  6. Take your parcel, customs form and passport copies to the post office BEFORE NOON – when I was there, I was told they only do international parcels in the morning, even though they are open in the afternoon. This part was fairly expensive – I paid $60 to ship 27 books home, but excess luggage on a domestic flight would have cost a lot more.
  7. IMPORTANT! Take CASH with you to the post office. I didn’t have enough money and hot-tailed it down the road to the ATM, to find it was offline, then to the bank to cash money, and ran back to the post office, huffing and panting, with just minutes to spare. (And then I left my raincoat poncho behind and had to go back later to fetch it. Much deep yoga breathing required to remain calm!)
  8. The books arrived safely, and took just over 2 weeks to reach me in the US.

Happy Book Packing and Safe Travels!

[A wee note here … if you’re seeing strange adverts (nose and ear hair trimmers) in the space below, it’s because WordPress randomly displays these ads in return for my free blog space. I don’t make money from the ads and neither do I have a choice on what appears. Perhaps over time, the hair trimmers will be replaced by yoga mats and yoga books :-). ]

Inspirational, Travel, Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Meeting The Dalai Lama at 36,000 Feet

His Holiness the Dalai Lama beckons me to come closer

Prepare yourself for every superlative and cliché in the book, as I try to describe the experience of meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama this week; an extraordinary and outrageously special experience (you see? I’ve already started with the hyperbole).

My journal entry says, “I’m not sure if ‘holy crap!’ are appropriate words to use in the same sentence as the Dalai Lama … but holy moly (holy guacamole? Holy Gautama?), I met His Holiness the Dalai Lama on my flight to Delhi today”. Since the experience was much more profound than that, I will now try to give it due reverence.

During my advanced yoga teacher training in McLeod Ganj, India, I was optimistic that I would get a chance to see His Holiness, since his residence was on our doorstep. Over two months, like a DalaiGroupie. I checked his official itinerary online, applied through the web site for a “private audience” (although I would have been happy to be one in a cast of thousands), visited the security office in the town, asked local Buddhists, monks and nuns (who had now become my friends) if they knew of any unscheduled appearances, and when I had a chance to visit the Buddhist temple adjacent to his home, I’d stay alert, just in case he felt a spontaneous urge to venture out and have some time with his peeps.

It was not meant to be. The harder I searched, the more elusive he was.

Finally, it was the end of my stay and time for me to accept I was not going to see HHDL. There’s some irony in that acceptance, since the Buddhist and Yoga philosophy of non-attachment suggests that to avoid suffering, we should detach from our desires to the point that if they remain unfulfilled, we can still be content. Best we accept, with grace, the things we can’t change – no Dalai Lama as part of my yoga teacher training? Okay, then, I could live with that … it had still been an unforgettable seven weeks at Kailash Tribal School of Yoga.

Taking it all in.

And so, on the Dharamsala to Delhi flight, I was staring out the window, saying goodbye and thank you for my special Himalayan yoga experience, when I noticed the American couple sitting behind me were now taking selfies with two Tibetan monks in the front row. I thought, “Oh, isn’t that sweet; they’ve obviously not seen many monks yet and this is still a novelty for them”.

Half an hour later, without really knowing where the question came from, I found myself casually asking them if there was any specific reason they were taking photos of “the two monks”, and they stared at me and said, “Uh, YES. That’s the Dalai Lama”. My jaw dropped. I hadn’t even noticed them boarding the aircraft, I’d been so lost in my Goodbye-McLeod-Ganj thoughts. To Art and Amy from DC … THANK YOU!

Note how strongly I was gripping his hands 🙂

All these weeks of wishing and hoping to see him, and now here he was, two rows in front of me, within an easy yoga stretch. The next slice of time (2 minutes? 2 years? 2 seconds?) passed in a daze (cliché, but true). I found myself crouching down in the aisle, waiting shyly and not wanting to disturb him, while simultaneously also wanting to sit in his lap and ask him for All The Answers to All The Questions.

He looked up and reached out towards me, beckoning me to come forward. I knelt down, simply holding his hands and staring at him. His grip was firm and strong and when I looked at the photos afterwards, I realized I was crushing his hands in my white-knuckled grasp, not wanting to let go.


Friends have asked me what I said to him and he to me, but there was no need for words. There was nothing I wanted to say. I simply held his hands and gazed at him; his deep, brown eyes alert and filled with light and wisdom, and a mischievous smile on his face.

I drank it all in. I felt his presence as pure; his spirit kind, humble and compassionate. It felt like I was bathing in his energy, on the receiving end of unconditional love and I wanted nothing more than to return this love to him, from my heart. (Yes, I warned you about the superlatives).

At some point, I placed my palms together in “Namaste”, and stumbled back to my seat. I sat for a while, not even looking at the photos my fellow American passenger had taken of me. I sat and absorbed what had just happened, and my eyes filled with tears as I realized how blessed I was to have experienced this. As many people pointed out, it was the perfect end to an already-perfect yoga adventure in India.

Once we had landed in Delhi, I looked down to notice I hadn’t been wearing my seatbelt after I had floated back to my seat. But somehow, I think our flight was in safe hands.


My Favorite Music and Books

Some of my favorite recommendations for good meditation music and yoga reads. Click to explore

Bliss Om Namah Shivaya Robert Gass






Dalai-Lama-Archbishop-Tutu-Book-of-Joy Bhagavad-Gita-Stephen-Mitchell  Bhava-Ram-Warrior-Pose-Book

Travel, Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Goodbye, McLeod Ganj

Morning light hits the clouds of Mcleod Ganj

It’s our last day in McLeod Ganj and my sunrise walk took me through the peaceful woods on the way to the Buddhist temple – a kaleidoscope of Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the breeze, prayer wheels spinning to the hum of Om Mani Padme Hum, stray dogs lazing in the early sunlight. I realize how little quiet time we’ve had during our stay and how this has not been a yoga retreat, but a dedicated commitment to yoga studies. Although I would have loved more time for reflection, ironically it’s good how the discipline of keeping to a schedule meant we haven’t been living in a complete yoga bubble of seclusion and tranquility, totally removed from “the real world” and finding it hard to adjust back to it.

Typical view while upside down in Sirsasana

We’ve had to prioritize our time and juggle multiple demands during a physically and mentally demanding, busy day. Sounds like “normal life”, doesn’t it? Our full schedule was good training for how to find balance, how to be an essentialist – only spending precious time on what was truly necessary – and how to make it a priority to carve out slivers of time for contemplation. Staying calm and peaceful within the often frantic flow of life. There’ll be another time when I can indulge in a yoga retreat.

The irresistible Simba, resident dog at Lhamo’s Croissant

Ten Things I’ll Miss:

    • Sunrise unfolding over the Himalayas
    • Sharing the road with the goats and dogs as they take their morning stroll
    • Greeting the street vendors and restaurant owners I’ve come to know as familiar faces
    • Paneer with peas. Paneer in curry. Paneer with scorched green peppers. Did I mention paneer?
    • The view of eagles soaring in the sky, sunlight catching their wings, while I’m in Sirsasana (Headstand)
    • Cows mooing OM during Savasana
    • Sammi’s magical massages for aching muscles
    • Sivadas’ snippets of wisdom, which appear spontaneously, unscripted and perfectly timed in our discussions … “If you want to achieve Samadhi, you have to drop your desire for Samadhi.”
Re-use, recycle, repurpose. Cat food bag becomes packing for Tibetan bowl.
Re-use, recycle, repurpose. Cat food bag becomes packing for Tibetan bowl.
    • Invitations to drink sweet chai – yes, sometimes this is a technique used to encourage you to buy yet another irresistible shawl, but often it’s nothing more than a genuine desire to socialize with you, and share a few perspectives on life.
    • How nothing is wasted…they re-use and re-purpose things here, in simple and practical ways. The wrapping for my Tibetan singing bowl is an empty bag of kibbles cat food, the veggie guys use packets made of newspaper for your groceries, and takeaway food is often poured into coffee bean foil bags.
Lhamo and her delicious pastries and cakes
Lhamo and her delicious pastries and cakes
  • Lhamo’s delectable and delicious freshly-baked carrot cake OMG OMG OMG – a constant temptation in my otherwise almost sugar-free diet.

Things I’m looking forward to as I head home:

  • Happy reunion with my husband, without a fuzzy Skype screen
  • Beach walks with friends and warm ocean swims
  • Seeing my old life with new eyes – thank you, Yogi Sivadas, and Namaste.
Travel, Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Mcleod Ganj Moonrise

I was going to write a post about Half Moon Pose (Ardha Chandrasana) and the Moon Salutations (Chandra Namaskar), to accompany photos of the magnificent moonrise last night and then I thought all that really mattered was to share the moon’s magic with you.

Every morning and evening, the view from my balcony here in McLeod Ganj is different, as the mountains appear and disappear through clouds, mist and sunlight and the birds or monkeys add their presence to the vista.

The yoga of movement – the physical poses like Ardha Chandrasana – is not quite as fulfilling as the yoga of beauty; when we are aware of the splendour of our surroundings and appreciate it within our hearts.

So, here was last night’s performance; moonrise over sunset-tinged clouds and the beauty of our world.


McLeod-Ganj-MoonriseMoonrise Mcleod Ganj

McLeod Ganj moonrise

Oh, and I was so enthralled by the exquisite moonrise that I almost forgot the vertical rainbow that preceded it! Enjoy. Have a beautiful day, and notice something extraordinary and beautiful about the world around you.


Vertical rainbow at sunset
Vertical rainbow at sunset
Eagle silhouetted in the rainbow 🙂
Travel, Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Buddhist Nun and Anger

A magical day today. I met a Buddhist nun at Tushita, after finishing morning meditation (sans Hairy Bearded Dude). The only reason we met was because I heard uncontrollable laughter as I walked past her home, so I stopped to see what was going on. She’d just thrown a papaya skin into the woods for the monkeys and by mistake she’d also tossed her plate down the mountainside. She was laughing like a schoolgirl about it, no trace of irritation.

Tenzin Tseyang, the Happy Buddhist Nun

She retrieved the plate, introduced herself as Tenzin Tseyang and invited me to stay for hot ginger lemon honey, a popular drink on every restaurant menu I’ve seen since we arrived here.

And so I spent an hour or so, sitting on her verandah, listening to her talk. She had made the journey from Tibet to India as a small child and had no memory of it, which was just as well, as I’ve listened to several hard-to-hear stories about refugees’ harrowing travel on foot through the snow, many of them without shoes, arriving in their new country with whatever they could carry on their backs.

She spoke about how much she loves animals; her eyes filling with tears about the time she found a tiny, mewling, newborn kitten at Tushita and she had tried to help, but it didn’t survive.

We looked at happy photos of her family and her trips to Ladakh. When she showed me pictures of the beautiful flowers she had grown in her garden, there was that tinkling laugh again as she said, “Monkey ate them. No more flowers”. She found that amusing and not annoying. When I asked her if she was angry when they ate the flowers, she said, “No. No anger. Anger no good. No more anger”.

Tenzin's radiant smile mirrors her delight with life.
Tenzin’s radiant smile mirrors her delight with life.

I asked her how she managed no more anger and she said through meditation. She had the same anger most of us have even when she first became a Buddhist nun. But after years of meditation, she no longer feels anger. “Anger no good for you, no good for me”.

I thought about that for a little while. Sometimes I’m like Tenzin Tseyang, laughing at life and seeing things in perspective when something irritating happens; sometimes I laugh at the monkeys. Other times, I could happily throw all the other plates down the mountain in a fit of rage. And possibly even go back inside to fetch all the papayas and hurl them, too.

And guess what? The more yoga, meditation and calm breathing I do, the more I can laugh at the monkey.

Travel, Yoga in India, Yoga Nidra / Meditation, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Tushita and the Hairy Bearded Dude Meditation

I finally made it to Tushita today, a Buddhist meditation center between McLeod Ganj and Dharamkot, where you can drop in for daily morning meditation. It was our day off, so the walk through the forest with its silent, tall trees was a welcome shift from the tuk tuk, taxi and car fumes we try to avoid by breathing through a scarf as they pass.


Silence through the forest and continued silence when I arrived at Tushita; a few people here and there, plus prerequisite monkeys and ever-present dogs. I walked into the beautiful meditation room, and had it all to myself for a little while before people arrived. Light reflected off the gold on the many peaceful Buddhas, view from the windows of the 100-feet tall pine tree sentinels, the morning noises of the birds, muted activity of the people in the kitchen below.

Tushita Meditation Room
Tushita Meditation Room

A fat, round meditation cushion with an orange centre beckoned to me as the place I needed to sit this morning, and so I did. Perfect. People started to come into the room, quietly taking their places. All ages, nationalities and types. So, out of a room full of fifty or so people, how did I manage to get the hairy, bearded dude in his dark purple dhoti as my meditation neighbour? From the moment he sat down, he was restless and agitated, fidgeting and noisily rummaging in his backpack and taking long, loud, snorts through his nose to clear his throat. Great, this is what I had to look forward to for the next 60 minutes.


I was furious. In ten seconds, Hairy Bearded Dude had wrecked my peace and my expectations of my long-awaited Tushita meditation morning experience. By the tenth coughing snort, I had to restrain myself from giving him a hard slap on his burgundy leg. Should I get up and move places? Oh, good, here’s the meditation lady, maybe he’ll settle down. Um, nope, not at all. Just inches away from me, every breath and movement and cough and sigh was an assault to my senses. With my eyes closed, the entire room was tranquil, except for the grunt machine to my right, ruining the tranquility. I followed the meditation guidance to notice the breath, and become aware of the air coming in and of the nostrils. Hairy Bearded Dude snorted harshly through his.

Through a veil of general disgust and irritation, I was determined to dismiss Hairy Bearded Dude from my thoughts, and keep bringing my awareness back to my meditation. I softened, breathed, focused on my breath and reeled in my monkey mind every time it leapt around like the monkeys outside. Miraculously, within a few minutes, Hairy Bearded Dude’s presence subsided and dissolved into the rest of the room and I started to feel quiet inside.

TushitaThe meditation guide’s words were ironically fitting, as she spoke about how we want everything to beautiful and perfect and how when it is not so, we reject it. How we create more suffering for ourselves when we reject reality. A suggestion instead, to rather accept everything as it comes and goes, without craving something else or grasping onto something we like. Sensible words about choosing not to react strongly to things, but to choose equanimity and balance instead. Was she reading my mind?

Everything changes, nothing is permanent – the air we breathe, the blood circulating in our veins, our cells regenerating and dying, the light outside; nothing stays the same. So, to crave something else or try and hold onto something we like, is futile.

My breath slowed, my mind quietened, the hour passed quickly and peacefully. At the end of the meditation, we were guided to send loving thoughts to those we love, with “May They Be Happy” wishes (lovingkindness meditation), and then to send the same love or compassion to people we don’t know, and finally to those we “don’t like as much”. Yes, Hairy Bearded Dude was on the receiving end of my wishes. I smiled softly as I thought of how I was drawn to sit on the cushion right next to him and how he had actually helped my meditation; by showing me I could choose to stay frustrated and angry at his presence (and increase my suffering), or just let him be, let go of my desire for the circumstances to be different, and not be affected by him.

Now for the ongoing challenge … can I repeat the same approach and bring this kind of response into my everyday life?

Travel, Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Daily Scenes of McLeod Ganj

Halfway through the teacher training tomorrow; amazing how quickly it’s whizzed by and how the foreignness of things has subsided into the new normal. The monkey that came ransacking last week appeared again tonight at my door and this time I was armed with my squeegee/mop thing to chase him off the balcony. I am officially a local!

Other signs that I have settled in:

Kerala veggie - how do you spell "bitter"?
Kerala veggie – how do you spell “bitter”?
  1. I know which guy sells the best fruit & veggies, ESPECIALLY the pomegranates
  2. I now know what this veggie is and do not plan on cooking it again
  3. I’m loving how nice it is to have thick, brown, oozy palm sugar (jaggery) on your oats in the morning
  4. I’m breezily holding Downward Facing Dog as a resting position for what seems like eternity and Chaturanga Dandasanas have transformed from challenging to cheerful
  5. All the Tibetan monks and nuns look like part of the scenery now and I smile when I see them, without grabbing my camera
  6. I know several of the street dogs, by name or shaggy coat or crooked tail
  7. I’m starting to dream in Sanskrit chants
  8. I’m no longer frightened for the safety of the cows/goats/dogs/cats in the road when the taxis, auto rickshaws and car come blaring past, missing them by a hair (and neither are the cows/goats/dogs/cats frightened – it all seems to work out, without casualties)
  9. I can’t spell it, but I know what Tashidelek and Jayla Jay-yong means
  10. The start to the day doesn’t feel right unless I hear the call of the eagles nesting metres away from my balcony

Daily Scenes from Mcleod Ganj

This is my new Publix
Not a bad view, for brushing your teeth and getting ready for the day
Not a bad view, for brushing your teeth and getting ready for the day
Laundry service
Lhamo's Croissant is a frequent indulgence - thank heavens we're doing 4 hours of asana a day!
Lhamo’s Croissant is a frequent indulgence – thank heavens we’re doing 4 hours of asana a day!
Mukti Hair Salon - Salvation for your hair?
Mukti Hair Salon … Salvation for your hair?
Roadside Snacks
Roadside Snacks
Travel, Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Hanuman Comes Visiting

Monkey Business

Today, a monkey strolled into my yogi cottage. And when I advanced towards him, shooing him away, HE advanced towards ME, and bared his teeth. I backed off and watched as he made his way to the kitchen shelves and started to pick things up and toss them across the room, while I tried my negotiation skills. “Not the carrot cake, PLEASE, not the carrot cake”!

My yogini neighbour, Elsa, wiith the cheeky intruder
My yogini neighbour, Elsa, wiith the cheeky intruder

He grabbed a container of moong dal, sauntered out, sat on my balcony, ripped the Tupperware open and nonchalantly ate his way through most of it, occasionally looking at me as if to say, “Look, you can spare a tub of lentils, and at least I didn’t take the carrot cake”. And then when he’d eaten his full, he tossed the remaining lentils and container over the balcony and walked off.

McLeod Ganj white monkey

Cheeky monkey. Reminds me of the stories of Hanuman, the Monkey deity renowned for his courage, power and faithful, selfless service. He makes frequent and often impudent appearances in yoga mythology, and the yoga splits, Hanumanasana, are named after him.

The monkeys are certainly naughty and bold here, but will leave you alone if you leave them alone (and share your lentils with them). They only tend to get nasty if you come between them and their young, or if you show your teeth, as they see that as a sign of aggression. If you find them amusing, remember no grinning when they’re up close and personal with you!

Monkey cuteness at McLeod Ganj

We see monkey families on our walks and the babies are irresistibly cute. Tiny little fingers, wizened faces, with bright and clever eyes peering out from under their wrinkled brow. And how adorable is this albino monkey in his little white fur coat?

I’m ready for any future uninvited monkey visits, armed with a broom in the kitchen and a mental note not to show my teeth.

Travel, Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Yoga Kriyas and Welcome to the Digestive System

Yogi Sivadas’ teaching of yoga is classical and is also strongly influenced by Ayurveda, the ancient science of better health. He believes that most emotional, hormonal and physical imbalances and agitations of the mind are caused by bad diet, poor digestion and a sedentary and/or stressful lifestyle.

Healthy digestion and elimination is crucial. The exasperated expression, “Oh, she’s full of shit!”, is literally that – when the body is clogged with toxic waste, it creates hormonal imbalances and makes us behave like crazies; unreasonable, impatient, fearful, depressed, bad-tempered, and the kind of person you hardly recognize as yourself. In fact, this is not your true self. It’s your body and mind poisoned by the toxins in your digestive system. Get them out!

The Kriyas are yogic cleansing practices which promote healthy digestion and well being and there are several basic and advanced purification techniques. None of them should be done without the guidance of an experienced teacher, and some of them should not be done at all, depending on your state of body and mind.

In our quest to create happy elimination, our daily routine involves Agnisar Kriya, “activating the digestive fire” first thing in the morning. It involves rapid contraction and expansion of the abdominal muscles, pumping the stomach with muscular effort. Great for the abs! It also kickstarts the digestive system and should result in a bowel movement. Or maybe I’ll just go back to the place that gave me Delhi Belly and get the same result 😉

Yes, this tongue scraper is coming home with me
Yes, this tongue scraper is coming home with me

We’re also scraping our tongues in the morning with a little metal tongue scraper – it’s particularly revolting to see how much gunk there is on your tongue in the morning, after your body has tried to digest what you threw into it the day and night before. And then you swallow those toxins on your tongue when you eat and drink at breakfast. Yukk. You shower, wash your ears and brush your teeth regularly, so why wouldn’t you keep your tongue clean? (If all this talk about poop and bodily functions is too much for you, fast forward to Hanuman Comes Visiting, for light relief. In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve learnt so much about the effects of poor digestion on our lives, the subject for me has now changed from being icky to being hugely therapeutic and helpful).

I am definitely taking the tongue scraping habit back with me, as part of a daily routine. The Neti practices? Um, not so much. Even as Yogi Sivadas describes the techniques, I start to feel panicky. OMG, I’ve seen this in one of those weird yoga books; is he going to make us all do it together?

I watch him demonstrate Jala Neti (nasal cleansing with water) and I instantly start to feel as if I’m about to be waterboarded. (Me, melodramatic? Never!). When he shows us Sutra Neti (nasal cleansing with rubber string), I stare at him, wide-eyed, and I feel tears streaming down my motionless face, in cold and abject fear. Misplaced and unnecessary fear, because of course we’re not forced to do anything that makes us feel uncomfortable (or evokes spontaneous and illogical, sheer terror).

Gargling salt, to kill unfriendly bacteria
Gargling salt, to kill unfriendly bacteria

The salt gargling I can handle. Yogi Sivadas gives us a bag of “black” salt, which is white and slightly sulphuric. When I mix the salt in water it smells like someone farted in my room. This completes our morning routine before we head to our 7am lessons – pump stomach, shower, scrape tongue, brush teeth, breathing exercises, meditate, gargle, and I’m also doing my usual daily Tibetan Rites – no wonder we get up at 5:30!

Travel, Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

How Important is Yoga Asana in India?

Another glorious sunrise over McLeod Ganj; eagles soaring in wide circles and birds singing happily, and as I sit on the balcony, I think about the class I taught last night as part of our teacher training. I smile and remember how at one moment during the class, I looked out over the valley and thought, “Holy crap! I’m standing at the foothills of the Himalayas and actually teaching a YOGA class, in INDIA!” And how much delight that brought me. The hundreds of times I’ve instructed my way through Adho Mukha Svanasanas and Utthita Trikonasanas, were all stepping stones to bring me to this point of my yoga studies.

Part of why I’ve come to India to complete my 500 hours of yoga teacher training is because I want to know more than how you place your feet in Utthita Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), or how to wrap your shoulders in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog). I want to learn more about the history, psychology and philosophy of yoga.

So, it’s interesting to hear Yogi Sivadas‘ perspective on the yoga Asanas (physical poses) and how they really are just a tiny part of what Yoga encompasses. Our obsession with yoga in the West as a fitness regime, a way to get a beautiful body, or rock a spectacular arm balance pose, seems superficial when he points out that there are 196 lines in the yoga Sutras (the 2,200+ year old summary of Yoga), and only 3 of those lines are about asana! And in the West, we often ignore the important message in those 3 lines, of coming into/being in a pose “with ease and steadiness”.

There's more to Yoga than Asana
There’s more to Yoga than Asana

According to Patanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutras, “Yoga pose is a steady and comfortable position. Yoga pose is mastered by relaxation of effort, lessening the tendency for restless breathing, and promoting an identification of oneself as living within the infinite breath of life.”

Wow! That sounds good! Is that what your yoga practice is like? Or do you push yourself too hard in yoga? We don’t need to overextend ourselves; we don’t even need to hold the poses to our maximum effort, because when the muscles fatigue, they don’t work efficiently anymore anyway, and the joints over stretch. And that’s when injuries happen.

“Asana is the coconut shell of Yoga,” says Yogi Sivadas. “It’s necessary; we need it, but we have to break through the shell to get to the sweetness of Yoga, inside” – to get to the parts of Yoga that extend beyond the physical poses, exploring healthy philosophies and ethics and calming the mind.

Some other interesting viewpoints, which make sense to me:

  • Yoga doesn’t begin on the yoga mat, through Asana – Yoga begins when your lifestyle and diet are regulated and healthy
  • Yoga pose is mastered by relaxation of effort
  • Hatha Yoga (physical yoga) is a preparation for a higher practice,” i.e. Pranayama, meditation and an awakening

“Rest as much as you need. Always be mindful of what your body needs,” is the constant reminder from Yogi Sivadas during our asana practice. He’s not into kick-ass, Facebook-showoff yoga poses, even though he can easily flip into full Salabhasana pose, with his chin on the earth and his feet and legs way up above his head, stretching to the sky. Or jump into a crazy arm balance pose, with his legs in Padmasana (Lotus Pose).

The point is, he doesn’t need to nail these poses in order to be “good at yoga”. He’ll do them for us if we want to see how to come into the pose, but his continuous message is to stretch, breathe, feel the poses in the body, and only do what the body needs, without over exertion. And for the super-bendies who can pretzel their way through multiple poses, it’s mostly genetic, and sure, it looks pretty, but they have different work to do; they need to do less stretching and will benefit more from strengthening their muscles and protecting their joints.

Perhaps if we practice yoga with this type of awareness, we can explore the value of the other 193 lines in the Yoga Sutras!

Travel, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Tibetan Prayer Wheels and Temples

McLeod Ganj Prayer Wheels
Tibetan prayer wheels

Our yoga teacher training schedule is crammed, so we relish the little bit of free time for exploring the area and early one morning I enjoyed a visit to the Buddhist Kalachakra Temple (no photos allowed). There were local Tibetans making their daily circuit of the temple; praying, spinning the prayer wheels, stopping to pay their respects to the golden Buddha statue.

The prayer “Om Mani Padme Hum” is written thousands of times on a scroll of paper and placed inside the prayer wheel. The translation is “Praise to The Jewel in the Lotus” and is repeated to invoke compassion. It’s believed that each time you spin the wheel, the effect is the same as reciting the mantra as many times as it is written within the wheel.

McLeod Ganj stupa
McLeod Ganj Stupa

I have a small Tibetan prayer wheel at home, but to be able to turn the prayer wheels in a Tibetan community, within walking distance of the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, was particularly special. I walked behind a group of Tibetan women, in their long skirts with striped pinafores, and I spun the prayer wheels clockwise, silently repeating the prayer. One of the ladies caught my eye and smiled at me. The temple was also the perfect place to sit and meditate; enjoying the quiet atmosphere. Even the stray dogs and monkeys seemed peaceful!

Ornate motifs inside the stupa

On the walk back up Temple Road, there is another set of prayer wheels in the street surrounding a stupa – a memorial to those Tibetans who lost their lives fighting for a free Tibet. Again, you’re welcome to join the Buddhists who spin the wheels on their way to work, as they walk past the cylinders of deep red and green and gold. There’s something very mindful about starting your day with a ritual that includes a wish for all beings to be compassionate.

Yoga in Dharamkot
Yoga in Dharamkot

My walk then took me through the quaint village of Dharamkot, with its charming higgledy-piggledy streets, laidback cafés, small shops with crystals and handmade clothing, and multiple signs for yoga. Many signs are in Hebrew, and I discovered Dharamkot is a favorite destination for Israelis visiting India. I felt a bit like I’d just walked from Little Tibet to Little Jerusalem.

Getting to know Shiva, on the menu
Getting to know Shiva, on the menu

Yummy lunch of paneer in curry sauce (don’t you love the menu, compete with introduction to Shiva?) and then I made my way to the Galu Devi T

emple. It looked like it was about a 20-minute walk on the map, but I kept hiking higher and higher up the mountain, red-faced and panting and asking locals how much further, and they all said “Ten minutes! Ten minutes!”.

Galu Devi Temple in Upper Dharamkot
Galu Devi Temple in Upper Dharamkot

It turned out to be a 4.5km walk (I noticed afterwards my map said “Not to scale”), but the fresh air and the spectacular views out over the valley were worth every step. As was my encounter with a friendly and funny goat, who grinned cheesily at the camera for me.

This is how a goat says CHEESE!

A gorgeous day out. And perhaps I walked off some of that carrot cake I can’t seem to resist at Lhamo’s Croissant, which is treacherously within metres of our yogi cottages!

Travel, Yoga in India, Yoga Philosophy, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Bhakti Chanting, Sanskrit and Mythology

imageOut of the mountain of our yoga teacher training study materials, I was immediately drawn to the chanting books; Bhakti or devotional chanting, which I love. We sing the invocation to Patanjali every day, and it’s nice to begin asanas with this familiar chant that I know well from many Iyengar yoga classes at Pura Vida Yoga.

For the first week, we have an hour of chanting in the morning, sometimes accompanied by the beat of tabla drums. Our voices are all a bit rusty and querulous to begin with as we get used to the melodies, but Yogi Sivadas‘ rich, deep voice fills the sunny room and we soon let go of our shyness or self judgment as we join in with the ancient chants.

My Sanskrit scribbles!

Repeated chanting improves concentration and is extremely calming, physically and mentally, as your brain focuses only on the words and the tune. Devotional chanting to the deities (and it doesn’t matter which religion or belief system you have; they’re all here, including Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Jehovah, Allah, Shiva, Ganesh, and more), when sung with intention, can create a peaceful mind. I took my blood pressure before this morning’s chanting: 199/97 with a pulse rate of 69. After an hour of chanting: 129/80 and pulse of 59.

Slightly less calming (i.e. challenging!) are our Sanskrit lessons. “Sanskrit” means well written, or purely written, and is an Indo-Persian tree of language that evolved around 30,000 years ago. We start to learn the basics of the sounds and letters – who knew there were so many ways to pronounce the sounds ‘s’ and ‘sh’! We practice lines and lines of squiggles and dots, repeating them out loud as we write.

Yogi Sivadas writes our names in Sanskrit
Yogi Sivadas writes our names in Sanskrit

Yogi Sivadas writes our names on the board in Sanskrit and they look so pretty, it encourages us to keep on squiggling. He tells us that even if we find it difficult, the very act of focusing your mind on something new in an attempt to learn something, is good exercise for the brain, and you will benefit from that, regardless of the results of the studying. And when he tells us that the Sanskrit word, “cittrashalabh” translates as “insect painting” or “insect art”, doesn’t that sound much more beautiful and poetic than the English word, butterfly?

Our daily studies are peppered with colourful analogies, as Yogi Sivadas explains some yoga philosophy concepts through yoga mythology and allegories. I am constantly reminded of how rich and mystical this culture is, making our own Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty seem dull, by comparison!