Asana, Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Poop, Pray, Move [Part 3] – with apologies to Elizabeth Gilbert

MOVE …

Parivrtta-Trikonasana-Revolved-Triangle
Easing into Revolved Triangle Pose (Parivrtta Trikonasana) at Kailash Tribal School of Yoga

I’ve been condensing two months of extensive yoga studies in India into 5 key areas, to simplify maintaining this healthy lifestyle, back home. Part 1 and Part 2 covered the Poop and Pray part, and now we add Move.

Surprise, surprise … in India, yoga is not typically an exercise you come to perform on your mat three times a week – it’s a way of life; more than just a workout.

Asanas (the physical yoga postures) are not yoga. They are a part of yoga. Here’s a perfect analogy, from our teacher, Yogi Sivadas: “It’s like touching a thorn on a rosebud and thinking that is all that a rose is – you’ll say ‘rose is prickly’ and you’ll miss out on smelling the perfume, because the flower hasn’t blossomed yet. If you only do asana, you won’t find the hidden beauty of yoga, which is inner peace.”  The true beauty of  yoga is hidden beyond the asanas.  The asanas are a way of purifying the body and when the flower unfolds, we experience the hidden beauty within. A sort of yoga perspective on “Stop and smell the roses”.

Rose-beauty-yogaOf course, we were on a yoga teacher training program, so we were smelling the roses AND we were touching the thorns; we were doing asanas.

Every day.

Twice a day.

Four hours a day.

Here’s the difference. We didn’t approach our asanas with the kind of fervid and fanatical drive that we so often see in yoga. Yogi Sivadas’ constant message was, “slow down, take your time, feel your breath, always be mindful about what your body needs, rest when you need to”. We listened, and ironically, our bodies became stronger and more flexible through a path of ease and mindfulness, as opposed to a grim determination to muscle our way through countless vinyasas and pretzel poses.

“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.” – The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali

Patanjali reminds us that calm and measured breathing is a critical part of healthy yoga movement, even when we are doing challenging poses. In fact, especially when we are doing challenging poses. That’s the barometer for whether we are overdoing it. Throughout our yoga asanas, we keep connecting again and again to the breath; breathing fully and allowing a smooth and even breath to feed the body and calm the mind.

We also learnt it’s not necessary to hold a pose at its maximum, for as long as possible. I’m not a physiotherapist nor a physiology nerd, but if the muscles fatigue to the point where they’re no longer doing a good job of holding the pose, we can end up stressing the joints (NOT good!) And if we then lock the joints to maintain a pose on behalf of fatigued muscles, we’re not engaging and strengthening the muscles – instead we can end up compressing the joints (NOT good!) Finally, when we’re straining and forcing the pose, the muscles become tighter, instead of stretched. The tighter they become, and the more we push into the stretch? Perfect combination for injuries to happen (yes, here it comes again … NOT good!)

Yogafunnies-flexibilityI’ve been practicing a less zealous form of yoga for years (often being encouraged to do more, hold it longer, “work to your edge”) and yet I’ve still suffered injury in the hamstring attachments and I’ve overstretched ligaments at the back of my knees. Even when I felt I wasn’t overdoing it. Are you a knee hyperextender? Don’t know? See this excellent article from Julie Gudmestad and find out.

I love my asana practice. It makes me feel alive, it calms my mind, it connects me to my breath. After my  time in India, my asana practice is both strong AND therapeutic, a place of even more ease. I’m being kinder to my joints, I’m aware of my heartbeat and breathing, and any time I feel the need to do MORE, I pause and ask myself if what I am already doing is enough, and can I still feel the relaxation in the effort?

And when the answer is yes, I know am in that perfect place to experience the unfolding of the rose flower and inhale the heady scent of yoga.

Next up: Part 4 of Poop, Pray, Move … what else do you think is fundamental to a healthy yoga lifestyle?

Meditation, Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Poop, Pray, Move [Part 2] – with apologies to Elizabeth Gilbert

PRAY …

Meditation-OmSummarizing two months of extensive yoga studies into five key areas may seem like oversimplifying things, but this simplicity helps me to maintain healthy habits back home. Part 1 covered the Poop part of Poop, Pray, Move.

Now, let’s add Pray. Our minds are engaged in an almost continuous internal dialogue, moving from one thought to the next – some 60,000 thoughts a day, apparently! Meditation allows us to focus inwardly, experience silence, and calm the turbulence of the mind. It requires an inner state that is still and single-focused, so that the mind becomes calm, no longer distracted; ultimately developing mindfulness and insight.

When we meditate, or pray, or take a moment every day to release from the relentless hamster wheel of the busy mind, we can move beyond stress-inducing thoughts and emotional upsets, and find inner peace and calm.

“Meditation is a precise technique for resting the mind and attaining a state of consciousness that is totally different from the normal waking state. It is the means for fathoming all the levels of ourselves and finally experiencing the center of consciousness within.” – Swami Rama

Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of meditation is “The awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”. I would add “without expectations” to that description, Meditationsince we often find ourselves anticipating what’s meant to happen, and what makes “A Good Meditation”. Did you see swirling colors and vivid imagery of eagles and panthers? Did a powerful voice boom out at you, sharing the secrets of the Universe, echoing in the cavern of your mind?

Any meditation is a “good” meditation when you’ve taken the time to just pause for a few minutes and bring the mind to a quieter place. Let go of any expectations and allow your meditation to be exactly as it is.

(More on that later, when I’ll post some musings on meditation. It’s a hugely personal experience and I would love to hear what meditation means to you, so please do post comments below to share with others).

Meditation was part of our daily routine at Kailash Tribal School of Yoga and Holistic Healing; most of it private, some of it in a group setting, listening to the soothing tones of Yogi Sivadas’ guided meditation. Our yoga teacher training schedule kept us busy; ten hours a day, six days a week, yet all of it was calmer against a backdrop of consciously creating harmony and ease at the beginning of every day.

Back home now and in a routine that is different to the yoga school, I continue to rely on  meditation to positively influence my life.  A regular (daily) meditation practice trains the mind to be in a state of relaxed awareness, not just during the meditation, but throughout the thoughts and actions of the day. And a relaxed mind makes for a healthier body. Provided you pooped, of course.

Next up, Part 3 of this recipe for a happy, yogic life … now, if you’ll excuse me, my meditation mat is calling and I have Oms to Om and thoughts to still.

[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 :-). ]

Ayurveda, Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Poop, Pray, Move [Part 1] – with apologies to Elizabeth Gilbert

This is my secret recipe for inner peace and outward calm, the kind I felt during my yoga stay in India last year. I’ve summarized the most important things I learnt at Kailash Tribal School of Yoga into five essentials. Yes, we studied yoga philosophy and yoga psychology and Vedic wisdom and ancient Sanskrit and sequencing of yoga asanas – all of it fascinating and interesting and rewarding. And all of it enhanced when it was layered on top of this yoga blueprint for a healthy body, mind and spirit.

The recipe isn’t complicated. It’s simple, but not necessarily easy (isn’t that often the case?) : Poop, Pray, Move, and two other vital ingredients. 

(With an I-am-not-a-guru disclaimer inserted here. These suggestions are what work for me, and I invite you to explore and adopt those that make most sense to you.)

POOP

Please excuse the toilet language, but the reality is that poor digestion and sluggish elimination means our bodies are filled with toxins, and our minds and emotions become toxic, too. Elimination at least once, maybe twice, a day is healthy, so if that’s not happening for you, check your diet. When we eat well, we eliminate well.

Scrumptious veggies from the garden
Scrumptious veggies from our garden at home

Already eliminating happily, every day? Good for you, you pooper trouper! Nevertheless, the broader subject of diet is still crucial, as it affects not only digestion and elimination, but also our emotions and state of mind.

“We dig our graves more through our mouths than anything else.” – Swami Satyananda about our approach to food.

Our teacher, Yogi Sivadas, had an Ayurvedic and therapeutic approach to yoga and kept emphasizing how a healthy diet is the basis for a yoga lifestyle. He described eating as the most sacred part of the day, when we create an awareness and reverence for the food we’re eating, rather than shoveling it mindlessly down our gullets (my words, not his). He encouraged us to see the colors of the food, smell the aromas, imagine the taste, prepare the digestive juices for what’s coming and then eat slowly, savoring every mouthful.

Perfect pineapple
We’re lucky enough to be able to grow delicious pineapples in our own garden – be inspired to grow whatever’s possible in yours.

The Ayurvedic belief is 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. Doing simple things like eating dinner no later than 7 p.m. helps the digestive process. Other common sense advice was to follow as much as possible a vegetarian diet of fresh food, in modest quantities, avoiding or reducing refined foods, caffeine and alcohol.

I love a cappuccino with a chocolate croissant, and I enjoy a glass of wine, so does that make me a bad yogini? No, it doesn’t; but if I am anxious, impatient or irritable, chances are it’s because of the amount of caffeine/alcohol/refined sugar I’ve consumed. When I pay attention to my diet and reduce or remove those elements, I notice I am a mix of calm, vitality and a joy for life.

And if this sounds like advice from a health food magazine instead of a yoga teacher, Yogi Sivadas’s point was if we practice yoga, then by association we also practice Ahimsa (non-violence), which includes non-violence to the body, through a healthy diet. To “do yoga” is to start with the fundamentals of a healthy diet. As he said,

“Yoga only BEGINS when you regulate your diet and lifestyle”.

It doesn’t begin by rocking a kick-butt Astavakrasana.

Your thoughts? Your tips on following a healthy diet and yet not feel like you’re missing out? I’d love to hear what you have to say!

Next up, Part 2 of this recipe for a happy, yogic life … in the meantime, here’s to your healthy diet, digestion and elimination. I’m just off to grab me a handful of sunflower seeds and bran.

[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 :-). ]

Travel, Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Book Packing In McLeod Ganj

Book-packing-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
Book-packing-McLeod-Ganj
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.

Book-packing-McLeod-Ganj
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.

 

Book-packing-McLeod-Ganj
Signed, sealed and ready for mailing
Book-packing-McLeod-Ganj
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:

McLeod-Ganj-post-office
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

Dalai-Lama-yogaressa
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.

Dalai-Lama-yogaressa
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!

Dalai-Lama-yogaressa
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.

Dalai-Lama-yogaressa
Smiles

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.

Travel, Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Goodbye, McLeod Ganj

Mcleod-Ganj-clouds
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.

Eagle-McLeod-Ganj
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.

Simba-Tibetan-Dog
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.
Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Yes, I Have a Yoga Name

Blessings-for-my-yogini-nameI’ve always thought it was faintly ridiculous when I’d hear someone in the US use their “yoga name”, especially when clad from head to toe in Lululemon lycra. I had cynically joked about how my chosen yoga name would be Yogaressa Sri Shakti Jai Murphananda.

Yogi Sivadas playing sitar
Yogi Sivadas on Sitar

But here in India, after several weeks of advanced yoga teacher training with Yogi Sivadas; absorbing his yoga knowledge, querying some of his statements, enjoying discoveries about body, mind and spirit because of his teachings – suddenly now I am thrilled to have been given a yoga name of Yogi Vimala, which means “pure” or “clean”. At our ceremony, Yogi Sivadas had laid out symbolic statues, crystals, musical instruments, plants and a burning flame. It was a special celebration of our progress as yoga teachers and he spent a few minutes talking about how he wanted us to continue studying, learning and developing our personal perspective of yoga. The burning flame was a butter lamp; symbolizing how we could bring light to others through teaching yoga, and he wished for us to be “little lamps of Conscious wisdom”, as we continue on our yoga teacher path.

Yogi Sivadas on the tabla drums
Yogi Sivadas on the tabla drums

How can you not be delighted with your yoga name, after those wishes? Add to that, the special touch of Yogi Sivadas playing classical Indian music on sitar and tabla drums, and I was ready to go and change my name on my passport 🙂

I’m not sure yet how and when I will use Yogi Vimala, but it’s special to me and it will be a meaningful reminder of a happy and fulfilling time with Yogi Sivadas and my fellow teacher students at the Kailash Tribal School of Yoga.

Yogi Sivadas and Yogini Vimala
Yogi Sivadas and Yogini Vimala
Graduation with Yogi Sivadas and my fellow yoginis
Graduation with Yogi Sivadas and my fellow yoginis
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.

Moonrise

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

Gee, I can Make Ghee!

Love butter, but worried about cholesterol? Guilt-free ghee is your alternative!

Butter About to Become Ghee
Butter About to Become Ghee

Fat is good for you! In fact, “good” fat (in moderation) is an essential part of a healthy diet if you want happy joints, healthy tissues and good digestion. This is what I learnt today at our Ayurvedic cooking class with Dr Arun Sharna of the Ayuskama Ayurvedic Clinic in Bhagsu, Himachal Pradesh.

Ghee (clarified butter) is:

  • easily absorbed by the body
  • a pure form of fat, with no milk protein in it
  • a healthy form of fat, nourishing the tissues and helping to prevent diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s (note: I am not a doctor, so insert my disclosure here about doing your own research about what is good for you)
Gee, I Can Make Ghee!
Gee, I Can Make Ghee!

I use ghee (from my local Indian shop) when I cook Indian food, but always thought it was a convoluted and difficult process to make your own. Same with paneer … as much as I love this cheese, when a recipe’s ingredients calls for cheesecloth, I immediately file it in the “Complicated” category.

I’ve been eating my way through a mountain of paneer here in Macleod Ganj. Paneer in curry sauce. Paneer with grilled green peppers. Paneer with peas. The thought of being able to make my own paneer when I get home, instead of buying frozen paneer, had me salivating. And so I found myself spending cheerful cooking time with Arun, learning his family recipes for ghee and paneer.

Straining the paneer through a muslin cloth
Straining the paneer through a muslin cloth

Arun is one of the many Sanskrit words for “sun” and he couldn’t be more aptly named – he was sunny and smiling throughout, answering our questions and smiling as he told us that healthy eating is not complicated; it’s common sense.

He explained the Ayurvedic belief that the body has 7 different types of tissues and they all need different foods for healthy functioning; so a balanced diet consists of grains, protein, cooked vegetables, raw vegetables, fruit and yoghurt or milk – all of this, every day.

Simple advice, like avoiding processed and refined foods (white rice, white flour, processed sugars), keeping a regular eating routine and not eating in a hurry or late at night, are a good start. All things that we inherently know, but often ignore – well, I know I do!

I’ve only just recently been introduced to Ayurveda and there’s lots to learn, but I’m inspired to ditch some of my bad habits and try a healthier approach. And if the lifestyle results in a sunny disposition like Arun’s, that’s an added incentive. (recipes to follow soon, once I have better wifi access!)

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.

Buddhist-Nun-McLeod-Ganj
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.

Meditation, Travel, Yoga in India, 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.

Tushita

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.

Shhhh...
Shhhh…

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?

Ayurveda, Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Ayurveda and Yoga

Ayurveda is the Vedic science of healing for both body and mind, developed in ancient India around 1500 BC. The word means “wisdom of life”. It’s a vast subject, and I like the way it’s summarized in the book, Yoga for Your Type – An Ayurvedic Approach to Your Asana Practice (David Frawley and Sandra Summerfield Kozak):

image“We develop disease because of two factors that usually go together: externally, a wrong relationship with environmental forces like food or climate and, internally, a wrong movement of internal energies brought about by disharmonious thoughts and emotions”. It’s an excellent book, as is Mukunda Stiles’ Ayurvedic Yoga Therapy.  [[Update: 1 October: many people have asked me where to find these books. My photos show covers printed in India, but if you click on the links, you’ll find the same books online, even if the covers look different.]]

Today, Ayurveda is emerging as one of the most important systems of mind-body medicine in the world. Its treatment of disease prevention and cure is based on key lifestyle changes, individualized diet, herbal formulas and a spiritual focus of Yoga and meditation.

The practice of Ayurveda first identifies our body types and behaviours into three different categories, or “doshas”: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. We’re typically a blend of all three constitutions, with one more prevalent than the others, and when all three are in a balanced state, we naturally choose what is good for us in terms of diet and lifestyle.

When they’re out of balance … Look out! A cocktail of fear, anxiety, panic attacks, rage, impatience, criticism, laziness or lack of motivation follows, depending on what your dosha is. And guess what a major culprit is for imbalance of the constitutions? Diet and the digestive system. We’ve heard this so many times during the past 3 weeks, it’s like a broken record. We just keep coming back to the logic of You Are What You Eat, and Your Body Is A Temple.

Ayurvedic-yoga-therapy-Mukunda-Stiles
Mukunda Stiles’ easy to read book on Yoga and Ayurveda

“Food is that which you eat, as well as that which eats you” – Anonymous

When we eat without awareness, shoving the wrong food into our bodies at the wrong times of the day or night, we place stress on the systems of the body as it attempts to balance hormones, digest and eliminate toxins.

Not surprisingly, Yoga and Ayurveda are a perfect match.

“Yoga and Ayurveda belong to each other like a brother to a sister, the breath to the body, a plant in its soil”. – Mukunda Stiles

There are specific yoga poses, breathing techniques and meditation types that vary for each of the three dosha types. It’s ironic how a Vata-dominant person who is out of balance will often seek a fast, active and potentially harmful style of yoga, when what that constitution really needs is more meditation and a gentler yoga practice; holding the poses for longer. Or a Pitta-dominant person will benefit more from shorter holds without strain, but when they’re out of balance they’ll tend to overdo it, pushing their bodies too much with over-enthusiastic intensity. And a Kapha-dominant person when out of balance would like to lie around on restorative yoga boulsters or dedicate their yoga time to kirtan chanting, when they would get more out of a regular and active yoga practice.

Yogi Sivadas tells us that when we live a healthy and balanced “Sattvic” (clean) life – in diet, lifestyle, exercise, attitude and meditation, we will create an environment for a happy body and a calm mind. And if you can’t live this totally Sattvic life, obeying every single discipline? He’s in favour of the 80/20 rule; being pure and clean 80% of the time and allowing yourself indulgences 20% of the time, making those choices with awareness.

And as it’s getting late and I’ve already eaten a bar of Cadburys chocolate tonight, I would like to keep in line with the circadian rhythms of the body, so I’m heading to bed for a good night’s sleep!

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

Street-vendor
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
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
Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Great Yoga Master, Guruji BKS Iyengar, Leaves Us

BKS Iyengar
Sri BKS Iyengar – no longer with us, but always in our hearts

Sad day today … Yogi Sivadas came into class and told us “Guruji Iyengar has reached Samadhi for eternity”. I received an email from a friend who said it was “sadly beautiful” that I was in India when he passed – and indeed it is exactly that. Just last week, I wrote down an Iyengar quote during class – “I started yoga for health and then it became a dedicated service to humanity.”

When I heard the news, I realized just how much of an impact BKS Iyengar has had on my yoga – as a student and as a teacher. I immediately thought of the Iyengar community back home in the US, and imagined how they would feel when they heard he was no longer with us.

Yogi Sivadas had us hold silence for 3 minutes in his honour, saying that “he has now found ultimate unity with Infinity.” Loved that. In our asana class tonight, I dedicated my practice to Guruji and smiled as I held my palm rigid, fingers closed, full of Iyengar discipline in Utthita Trikonasana. I paid extra attention to putting the blankets and props away tidily, lining them up neatly as is always done in any Iyengar yoga studio I’ve ever been to.

I’m sure there were yogis and yoginis all over the world who dedicated their practice to him tonight. He must be one happy yogi up there in Samadhiville, with all the yogis and yoginis sending him blessings to rest in peace. Thank you, Guruji, for everything you gave us; your wisdom, experience, discipline, knowledge and love for yoga. May your legacy continue.

Yoga in India, Yoga Philosophy, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Yoga Philosophy

We’ve been diving quite deeply into the extremely broad subject of Yoga Philosophy. The mind is swirling with concepts of Vedanta, Sankhya, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa, Jainism, Charuvarism, Buddhism, the Vedas, and the Ashramas (four stages of life). It’s fairly heavy going, but also fascinating and rich in the history and the culture of ancient India.

Parts of the Vedanta philosophy appeal to me: focusing on the “right understanding of life”, by inquiring and understanding through direct experience, not only from prescribed texts or structured education. “When knowledge ends, intuition begins”. If we want to explore Consciousness and subtle energies, we try not to have expectations based only on the past. Instead, our minds explore intuitively in every moment, expanding our perception of reality; changing our reality by changing the way we look at the world (we’re back to the What is Elephant story again!)

BuddhaThe Buddhist Philosophy that human suffering is caused by the constant craving for things that make us happy (temporarily) and that we should systematically destroy those cravings, is challenging, but it makes sense to me.

This echoes Patanjali’s teachings that practicing detachment from desires brings us to a more peaceful state of mind. It’s not the renunciation of the desire itself – what causes suffering is the cravings for those desires and attaching to them as the only way to find happiness. The yoga Yama (observance) of Aparigraha speaks of this same non-attachment.

I’ve been trying to practice non-attachment to the lemon cheesecake apparently favoured by Richard Gere on his visit to Nick’s Restaurant in McLeod Ganj!

You can still desire gooey chocolate cake, sex, a car, a fab new handbag, a holiday, or rocking a fantastic Astavakrasana pose [insert any other experience or material item you desire here], but the key is to be detached from your desires to the point that if they remain unfulfilled, you can still be content – you are not relying on the hit of pleasure to create a contentment within. Because when we crave something as the solution to finding happiness, that joy is short-lived and then we restlessly go back to craving more pleasure again and are never satisfied. Sound familiar?

Per Yogi Sivadas: “The Yoga of Emotion is maintaining a feeling of contentment, without dependency on external things”.

Throughout our yoga philosophy studies, Yogi Sivadas constantly tells us he is not preaching about what is the right way, or the only way. He encourages us to consider what we’re taught, and question the parts that don’t make sense to us. “Yoga is about learning through experience,” he says. “When you repeat yoga concepts like a machine, you’re simply storing the information, like a computer. You should not be a hard drive.”

To make your yoga more meaningful, allow it to be a continuous adventure of researching, questioning, experimenting, observing, learning – and absorbing the messages that make most sense to you.