31 January 2007

om muruga, goodbye madurai

The last stop on the Madurai tour was the Thirupparamkunram Murugan temple, about five miles outside of Madurai. Unfortunately this was much later at night when everyone was tired, hungry, and complaining. Most of the people did not even get off the bus to walk to the temple.

The temple would have been the highlight of my day had it not been the last stop because it is a very important temple, one of the six abodes of Lord Muruga, an important South Indian Tamil god. Many people in the west are familiar with Ganesha, the god with the elephant head who is the son of Shiva and Parvati, but few know that Muruga is his brother. His temple is huge, carved in rock, and it is where Muruga married Deivanai, the divine daughter of Indra. In the main shrine, besides Muruga, the murthis of Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha, and Durga are housed. There was no way I could have explored it in the time that was alloted to us, so I had to be satisfied with a quick walk-through. This made me a bit sad because for reasons having to do with someone in my life, I had promised myself that on this trip I would spend time at an important Murugan temple, maybe go to Palani, a town near Kodaikanal. I realized that instead of the bus tour, I should have hired a driver and gone out by myself to spend the better part of a day here. I should have planned my last day more carefully, but I was tired and wanted to rest my brain and leave the planning to someone else, even if it was a bus driver who did not speak English. Oh well...go with the flow, there will be a next time....

Less than 30 minutes was not enough time to explore this temple, so we piled back on the bus and headed back to Madurai, everyone quiet now for the ride home. Despite the heat, the dust, the migraine, the incessant touts that I experienced over these last few days, I again felt at peace here on a bus with strangers in a strange city in a strange land, and I almost fell completely asleep, dozing in and out of yogini dreams.

I woke up to people yelling. We were back in Madurai and people were yelling at the driver again. Apparently he wasn't dropping people off at their hotels, he was dropping people off wherever he felt like it. It was late, and the streets were crowded with people walking to the Meenakshi Temple so the bus driver had trouble getting through the streets. I watched everything with detachment, as I usually did, a half smile on my face -- watching group dynamics and mentally placing bets on who would win, on what the outcome would be.

Every few blocks he would kick people off the bus, and the people would complain as they tried to get autorickshaws to pick them up. Finally it came down to me and an older couple. I started to get off the bus and the husband started arguing with the driver. I assumed he was complaining about not being taken to their hotel, being dropped off in the middle of the street. They got in each others' faces with much hand waving and head wobbling. It was just another Indian adventure for me. The husband finally got off the bus, the bus left, and the three of us stood in the middle of the street. Suddenly they start speaking to me, perfect English, complaining about the bus and driver. How funny, I thought, that they never said a word to me all the day, yet we had sat across the aisle from each other.

As we commiserated about the driver's rudeness, the wife gave me their business card. They were from Andra Pradesh, a state north of Tamil Nadu. She was an artist, he ran some type of nature preserve. Two people whom I would haved loved to talk to during the day about two of my favorite subjects, art and nature. They told me to come for a visit...maybe one is these chance encounters with people that I treasure the most from my trips.

They asked if I wanted to share a rickshaw with them, but we were going in opposite directions. I got back to my hotel and spent the rest of the evening in the roof-top restaurant, looking out over the temple complex, digesting not only my dinner, but also what India had taught me so far....more patience, being more present, and detaching from the outcome. Anyone on the yoga path knows that these are qualities that sink a little bit deeper into the consciousness the longer one does the work. But somehow, being here, my heart could open more fully, just as a lotus rises out of the mud and into the light.

Goodbye Madurai, hello Kodaikanal. Om Muruga...lead me from the darkness and into the light....

30 January 2007

last day in Madurai

My last day in Madurai was uneventful and actually a bit relaxing. I spent the last day on a city tour, going from an old palace to some small temples and a return visit to the Gandhi museum.

The bus picked me up and stopped at other hotels along the way picking up other passengers. An Indian tour bus (or a city to city bus) is usually not decked out with plushy seats, air-con, and a restroom in the back – most of the seats were ripped and frayed, but they were adequately comfortable. Sometimes you have the pleasure of listening to music played full blast through a shabby speaker that is circa 1970, driver’s choice of music, of course. And don’t ask about a rest stop. I settled in and waited for the day’s adventures.

Once again, as is so common during my trips, I am the only westerner on the bus, and I love it this way. Indians stare at all foreigners, that’s just the way it is, and if you are uncomfortable with being stared at everywhere you go, don’t go to India. But I was dressed Indian-style, and after I got the once over (or twice over or thrice over), I found that Indians generally left me alone (except in Kodaikanal, but’s that’s another story, stay tuned.)

I love watching group dynamics so I watched everyone get on the bus – young couples, parents with kids, seniors. It was funny seeing almost everyone have the same reaction to the condition of the bus. They walked up the stairs, stopped, looked around at the frayed seats, either gulped or sneered, especially the travelers who looked more “upscale”, then took a seat. Off we went, all windows open to the Madurai heat and dust.

I really don't remember exactly what was on the tour. I just enjoyed being out riding around with a bus load of Indian tourists. The driver did not speak English, so every time we stopped, he would announce in Tamil what we were seeing and how long we would be there. At the first stop I asked him how long and he just looked at me and grunted. I was on my own – I had a feeling that if I didn’t get back to the bus in time, he’d leave without me, wherever we happened to be. Finally a man told me in English “20 minutes”, and at every stop I would look at him and he’d smile and tell me how long we’d be at the stop.

Everywhere we went, I loved the vignettes that were framed by the bus window, glimpses of Indian life. Sometimes I was lucky enough to snap a picture, but there were many that I wish I could have gotten – the huge ram with massive curled back horns sleeping peacefully in the gutter while a woman swept the street around him, not disturbing him; two flower sellers with their carts, talking quietly, engrossed in conversation as only women can be, as a street goat happily munches the day’s profits from one cart. Thinking of those scenes now make my eyes tear up because I miss India...

It was a lazy day and the only excitement we had was when the driver took a curve too fast and I literally felt the tires on my side of the bus lift off the ground for about three seconds. People started yelling at the driver and the woman next to me flew out of her seat. She would have landed face-first in the aisle had I not caught her sari and pulled her back down. My reaction to this was total equanimity -- I shrugged it off, and went back to staring out the window, listening to the other passengers yell at the driver. I must learn more Tamil!

At one stop we were besieged by begging children, girls and boys. On my trips I saw that Indians do not usually give to beggars, so anytime they see a foreigner, it’s a no holds barred onslaught of constant cries for money. Trapped on a bus, I was ripe for the picking.

Some of us were sitting on the bus waiting for the others. I was sitting next to the middle door so it was the perfect place for one girl to plant herself on the steps in front of me with her hand out with a constant call that sounded like “ma” over and over and over again.

In India, you have to develop a hard skin and pick and choose which beggar you will give to, if at all. Right then I was not in the mood, so I ignored her constant cries and stared out the window. Occasionally I would look at her and shake my head and tell her no in Tamil, but she never stopped. Every Indian also ignored her, staring out the windows. Finally I got an idea. I saw how Indians rarely give money to beggars so I pointed to each person on the bus and told her “ask him” or “ask her” and rubbed my fingers together, the universal sign for money. I said, “they give rupees, I give rupees”. She left me, and went over the Indians. AH! That finally got everyone’s attention, and once she started harassing the Indians, a woman said something to her and the girl left the bus. We finally left and I looked back to see the children swarm the next group of tourists.....

One of the last stops was the Gandhi museum. This was late in the day and people were feeling tired and hungry, they moaned and groaned and really did not want to get off the bus. By this time I surmised that many of the passengers could understand English so I said that I had already been here, and it’s not to be missed. That perked everyone up and with big smiles most got off the bus. Some of the women didn’t, and the driver pulled the bus underneath a tree for shade. We could have stayed there the rest of the afternoon, that’s how peaceful I felt at the museum.

I got off and walked to the little book stall. The old clerk remembered me, gave me a big smile and put his hands together for “namaste”. He gave me more pictures of Gandhi, which he had also done the day before. I walked to the chai cart and ordered three cups of chai. An older couple said hello to me, asked where I was from and what I did, and we chatted for a while. I found out later that yoga classes are conducted at the museum. Mmmmm...if I lived sweet that would be to take or even teach yoga at place dedicated to Gandhi....

29 January 2007

50 million women are missing

Some of you might be familiar with the online photo gallery Flickr. Rita Banerji wants to raise awareness of female feticide/infanticide in India. She asks everyone to upload photos of Indian women and girls to represent the 50 million (and growing). This is her statement:

"About 50 million women are currently missing from India's population. Through rampant feticide, infanticide, and the murder of young women by their husbands and inlaws for dowry, India has managed to invert its population ratio from 10:9, women to men, as is normal for any population, to 9:10. Furthermore, India has even warped the gender ratio for 1/5 of the entire human population.

It is the intention of this website to have every one of the 50 million missing represented by a photograph. These can be of Indian women or girls, of any age, and community represented as portraits or shown as engaged in various activities -- which is life. It would help very much if there is a small personal commentary with the photo about the girl or woman so we can invert the process of dehumanizing Indian women. This is India's silent genocide -- and it is time for it to stop.

I am hoping that at some point those of us who are able to will be able to collectively either put out a book or starting a touring exhibition -- so bring this matter to head.

But in the meantime please contribute a poster, a photo or a comment to show your support for this campaign. If not, then JUST YOUR MEMBERSHIP is a voice against this silent genocide. SO PLEASE JOIN ANYWAY."

There are now about 400 photos, including five of mine. I will be uploading all of mine that have Indian women. Other photos include those of my gal pal in India, sirensongs (see her blog in the links).

Those of you who have listened to me blab on incessantly about India ("will she ever shut up? she's doing that head thing again.") know how much I love the country and how I can't wait to get back. But female feticide/infanticide is a grim truth -- India is not all about yoga and incense and spirituality.

Please click on the above link, look into the eyes of these women, and post a comment to show your support of this effort.

may all beings have happiness, and the causes of happiness
may all beings be free from suffering, and the causes of suffering...


get this book

I have enough yoga and Buddhism books to read to last the rest of my life and into the next, but I've started reading "Enlighten Your Body: Yoga for Mind-Body Awareness", and I can't put it down. It's not written by a show biz yogi like Rodney Yee or by an old master like Iyengar, but by Linda-Christy Weiler, a relative unknown in the western yoga world. The depth of her writing and her understanding about pure yoga surprised me (well, OK, it shocked me) because I know her name through the fitness organization NETA (National Exercise Trainers Association), one of the organizations that conducts "become a yoga teacher in a weekend" trainings. I humbly admit it -- that was my own avidya....

Weiler writes about yoga from the somatic perspective, i.e., the body experienced from within (soma) and the science of experiencing the self as a body (somatics). This is something that I've come to appreciate over my years of yoga practice and teaching. I work with students on a daily basis who are disconnected from their bodies, whose minds are "out there" instead of "being here now." Sometimes people are so detached from their bodies that they can not literally feel the difference between a rounded back and a flat back. They have no idea how to drop their shoulder blades down their back because they have never been asked to connect with their bodies. ANY sensation to them, no matter how small, is immediately interpreted as "pain." They do not possess any filters, no varying levels of discernment, they either "fly" or they "cry".

I truly believe that many people in this modern world have lost the ability to "feel", both on a deep emotional level and on the physical level because modern life has so many things for us to attach to externally -- the media, the latest computer, the latest electronic gadget, the latest whatever it is. It is easier and more comfortable to go "with-out" than to go within and feel and intuit and explore. I remember being in a yoga class where the teacher said that to do yoga takes courage, because yoga teaches people how to feel and sometimes that can be a very scary thing. Some people know more about the insides of their computers than they know about the insides of themselves.

I've only read the first 30 pages so far but have found more value in it than in some of the books written by the bigshots of the yoga world. Some excerpts:

(Weiler quoting someone else): "The way you practice asana is the way you live your life." - I LOVE that! How many of us have seen students bully their way through a pose, lie in savasana with open eyes and tapping fingers, then are the first ones out the door after class leaving their mats and props behind for someone else to clean up?

"My duty is not to fix the world. My duty is to fix myself. And if by fixing myself, I have in any way contributed to fixing the world, then I have been
doubly successful."
We can not love or have compassion for others, if we do not love or have compassion for ourselves.

"Today's trendy version of yoga have cute and clever names like Spinning Yoga, Yogilates and the uplifting 'Yoga Butt'...but I wonder if these programs provide
a valid mind-body experience. ...something essential to the experience of yoga asana has been forgotten...and this essential element is exactly what yoga asana is all about. It is the attention given to the somatic aspect of the experience. It is
the unfolding understanding of how we can apply the lessons of asana toward the evolution of the self..."
As my journey to the heart of yoga in India taught me, yoga is truly about personal transformation.

"I no longer sympathize with yoga students who tell me that they don't have enough time in their busy lives to commit to a yoga practice or to eat breakfast or to get enough sleep, etc. When people say 'I don't have time for this,' what they are really saying is that they have chosen their priorities and 'this' is not
one of them. We can always find time for what we really want to do. Over-scheduling is the most blatant sign of a life lived without attention to
one's priorities... The time crunch mentality deceives us into thinking that our time should only be allocated to activities that result in a net gain. We believe that anything else is silly and insignificant..."

As my own teaching has morphed and evolved, I am no longer reticent about telling students certain things, such as that yoga is a committment, first to themselves, then to the deeper aspects of yoga -- anything less and they are cheating themselves. When people find out that I teach yoga, sometimes I hear "I heard it's supposed to be good for me, but I don't have the time..." or "I read that meditation relieves stress, but I don't even have 10 minutes to sit down..." I tell them that is exactly the reason why they should run, not walk, to their nearest yoga or meditation class. Why is it that people make so much time for other things and for other people in their lives, yet consider themselves so unimportant, so unworthy of nourishing themselves? I have noticed this particularly more so with women than with men.

It's a good book, and I look forward to diving more deeply into it.

19 January 2007

crosstown traffic

here's another video for y'all to check out -- I love embedding these videos!

this is called "crosstown traffic" -- turn on your speakers and you'll hear the Jimi Hendrix song as a soundtrack while you check out the Chennai traffic and the street scenes that I experienced everyday...note the women construction workers helping with excavating dirt from the huge hole in the street -- the dirt is carried on top of their heads...and we westerners throw our backs out making the bed...hmmmmmm....

this was shot in the back of Suresh's rickshaw by Scott, who was a student at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in 2005 before I was there. Scott gave me Suresh's telephone number and the rest is history.

Funny how life is all about the connections we make...
I "met" Scott online before I got to India when I was googling around looking for information on KYM and I came across his first blog In Search of Darshan. His second blog, Scott's Thotts, is posted in the links, so check him out. Maybe one day we'll meet in person. He quit his real job to teach yoga full-time.....FOOL! only kidding, the way, thanks for Suresh's number and this video!

I can see from this video that I picked the wrong month to go to KYM -- the guys in my class weren't as good-looking as the ones in the back of this rickshaw...

so click play and enjoy!

18 January 2007

the Kumbh

Kumbh Mela

start making your India travel plans now for a future Kumbh -- it's going on right now at Allahabad. It is said that a dip in the sacred rivers during Maha Kumbh or Ardh Kumbh takes one out of the cycle of life and death -- who can resist that?

"Maha Kumbh is the largest human gathering in history for the single cause. This auspicious time & space is attended by millions of people on a single day. Since the beginning of time Kumbh has been a center of Hindu culture & faith. The participants from all the walks of life attend this cosmic zone. Irrespective of all worldly barriers of caste, creed, region, the Kumbh Mela has wielded a mesmeric influence over the minds and the imagination of the ordinary Indian...

...The Kumbh mela is huge gathering of Sadhus & Gurus from all over India & abroad. They come in millions from all the corners for this common goal. There are thousands of sects in India the most common are two, Vaishnava (Followers of Vishnu) & Shaiva (Followers of Shiva). The greatest feature of this mela are furious & exotic Naga Sadhus (The N@ked Ones) covered in ash, matted hairs. They are known as preservers of faith...."

(*from the Kumbh website)

I'm going to plan for the Kumbh in 2010, in Haridwar at the foothills of the Himalayas...need to get out of my comfort zone of south India...

See you there.

17 January 2007

1938 video of Krishnamacharya

following the ridiculous with the sublime, watch this 1938 video of Sri Krishnamacharya doing asana and bandhas at the age of 50. Sri Krishnamacharya, the grandfather of modern yoga, teacher of Iyengar, Jois, Desikachar, and my teacher, Srivatsa Ramaswami. Sri Krishnamacharya died in 1989.

I humbly and with gratitude follow this lineage. It was an honor and a privilege to study at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai and I hope to return as soon as I can.

om shanti shanti shantih

Yogi Victor

take another break from my India travelog and check out Yogi Victor (voice of Johnny Depp) on the show "King of the Hill"...funny!

it's a mad, mad, mad, mad Madurai

I arrived in Madurai and was instantly accosted by rickshaw drivers, so much so a train station security guard told them to leave me alone.

After a 9 hour train ride, sweaty and hungry, I was not about to put up with any crap. I chose one driver and as we walked toward his rickshaw, he yakked it up with his fellow drivers along the way. More drivers started yelling, "here madam, here madam, you want ride, madam?" "That's it," I said as I threw down my bag. I stopped and yelled loud enough to make all the stray dogs howl within a five mile radius..."ENOUGH OF THIS BULLSHIT!", together with a few more choice words in south-side Chicago vernacular. Not very yogic, but I had had it. Needless to say, that immediately got everyone's attention, I never saw a gaggle of drivers shut up so quickly. The wrath of Kali! "No tension, madam, no tension, come with me...." That's more like it, and when I got to the place I thought I was going to stay in, I paid him more than what we agreed to.

I stayed exactly 90 minutes at Sri Devi, a guesthouse close to the great temple. I took the recommendation of the Rough Guide, and all I can say is that the writer must have been hallucinating when he/she wrote the review, smoking too many chillums.

I don't mind staying in a cheap hotel in India, but I draw the line at a "bath towel" that looked like it was just used to wash a car, and at greasy hair stains on the pillows. The place was disgusting. And this was the "deluxe AC room" as described in Rough Guide -- uh, yeah, the AC that had its guts hanging out.

The room was considered "deluxe" because you could walk out of the long window to the roof of the floor below me, and sit there and have a fab view of the temple. Unfortunately, the window did not lock, so anyone on that roof could crawl into your room. There was also a frosted glass door to this room -- the entire door was glass, so not very safe for a solo female traveler. When a guy tried to get into my room about a hour after I was there, I asked for another room but it was no better than the first....

So I got out of there and switched to the Hotel Supreme that has ceiling fans where you can actually control the speed! If you've ever stayed in an Indian hotel you know that your two choices for a ceiling fan are "off" and a 747 taking off. I stayed in their cheapest room (about 500-600 Rs) which was heaven compared to the Sri Garbage.

now off to explore...


Day One...

I'm in a town where the touts are worse than in Mahabalipuram. Now I know why so many westerners walk around India with a glazed "dead man walking" look in their eyes, no reactions, no smiles. It's a defense mechanism, act like your deaf, dumb, and blind and maybe you'll be spared...but I really did not want to morph into that animal.

I walked around the temple area and if I had a rupee for every time I heard "no buy, madam, just look", I'd be able to pay for my plane fare home. I'm tired of looking like a walking $$$$ sign. I know everyone has to make a buck, but I did not come to India to support every shop keeper in town.

I was "befriended" at least three times by nice old men who told me their life stories, how America is a great country, and oh, by the way, my brother/uncle/son/cousin/sister's husband has this clothes/jewelery/art/silver shop that has a great roof top view of the temples, "just look, madam, no buy." The unfortunate thing is that I am beginning to not trust anyone's friendliness because my first thought is "what do they want from me", and I don't want to react that way.

There is a market across from the great temple that is filled with little stalls of all types of merchandise -- a great place to see dead men walking because the calls to buy are incessant -- so much so that I walked out totally drained and physically ill with my first migraine in years. However I was not THAT drained that it kept me from ordering two custom made skirts for $10, which will look fabulous! What finally got to me was that not even inside the temple is one left alone in peace...time to go before I get totally disgusted...

I finally ended up using one of these lines for shop keepers and touts: 1. I'm a poor yoga teacher, no money; 2. YOU buy ME something?; and 3. it's against my religion. The last one usually works.....

Honestly though, I don't consider anything I have experienced so far on this trip as a "hardship" or something that I can't handle. I take everything and everyone I encounter with a huge grain of salt and just chalk it up, go with the flow. However, I don't like the assumption that I am a walking bank account, pull my arm and rupees come pouring out of my mouth! And tell me why if I ask to look at one salwar kameez, I am shown 25 more in different colors?? AARGH!! I have run screaming from more than one store!

Day Two...

I highly recommend the Gandhi museum in Madurai! It's very interesting and inspiring, but when I was there, there were about 100 school girls who were more interested in me than in reading about their own history!

A large group of school girls were sitting on the floor listening to the curator, as I walked into the museum. He immediately stopped talking and all the girls turned around to look at me, the only westerner. Silence. I smile and put my hands into "namaste" and bow. Then everyone says hello in unison to me, in English, and I respond with a loud vanakkam, which is Tamil for "hello" -- this causes a huge explosion of laughter. The curator asks loudly, "what country, madam? America or UK?" "America" "Ah....America!" Big smiles all around. Their poor teachers have their hands full trying to keep order all because of me!

As I walk around the exhibits, followed by a crowd of school girls, I feel eyes on me. I turn around, and a few start giggling. "Shhhh," I said, "read your history, don't look at me,", I told them with a wink. Occasionally I would feel a light touch on my back or arms and I would turn around and a hand would suddenly cover a mouth and a giggle is unsuccessfully suppressed....

The cloth that Gandhi was wearing when he was shot is there, blood-stained, in a room painted all in black. His sandals, his is in awe...

There is also a government museum on the grounds -- admission Indians, 5Rs, foreigners, 100Rs. I was "invited" in but when I saw the price I said to the guard, "hmmmm......I thought Gandhi was in favor of equality?" No comment in response......

I loved the museum and the surrounding grounds, but was disheartened, once again, to see garbage all over the place. A center for transcendental meditation is also there -- tried to find my piece of quiet -- but sitting outside amongst garbage did not appeal to me.

to be continued...

16 January 2007

my third eye itches...

...I couldn't have said it better myself...

take a break from my India travelog and check out the YogaDawg's hilarious!

I've always thought that too many yogis take themselves WAY too anyone else sick of seeing Shiva Rea's hair blowing in the wind?

Shiva, honey -- I moved like you LONG before you ever trademarked "yoga trance dance"! I wish I would have thought of that because then I wouldn't have to depend on these Google ads to finance my next trip to on these ads, y'all, and send me back to India!

nice marketing strategy, girlfriend!

anyway, check out YogaDawg and see if you recognize anybody...or yourself!


all aboard, Madurai

March, 2006

I left last night on the 9:30 Pandian Express, and contrary to what I was told, the train left right on time.

I was sitting alone in my 2A/C berth when two young guys came in to be my berth mates. They looked to be in their 20s. When they saw me, the looks on their faces were as if I had lifted up my kurti to flash them. Both their mouths dropped open in unison. Not a word was said, and I thought their reaction was strange. "Hello, boys," I felt like saying, "you've never seen a woman before?" I said hello in Tamil and flashed them a big smile. As they sat across from me, and as I sat across from them with a half smile on my face, they tried to look everywhere but at me - they stared at each other, they looked at the floor, they looked in their bags, they looked at their hands, they tried to look out the window. Again, I thought this was a little strange considering they looked "modern". How I wished I could understand Tamil!

But from what I learned in India, this is common behavior for some Indian men when confronted by a woman, especially one as strange as me -- western, hippie-looking, dressed in Indian-style clothes, and bold enough to look them in the eye. I've been told that most "boys" in the 15-25 age group are starved for any kind of normal interaction with women -- usually there is no sex before marriage, and there is hardly any communication between boys and girls at school. Growing up like this culturally there will be lots of illusions about women, and therefore, men will be clueless as to how to behave when confronted with an "outside the box" man-woman situation.

Thirty seconds before the train left, an older Sikh man came to sit next to me. As he sat down I said, "now we're all going to be just cozy, aren't we?" The young dudes again looked like I not only just flashed them, but blew them a kiss while doing it. At least the older man had manners and was friendlier, he said hello. These young dudes looked so disconcerted I really felt like playing with them for 9 hours but thought better of it -- I did not want to scar the poor babies for life....

The train ride to Madurai was very comfortable and my berth mates did not say a word to me. The young guys probably had trouble sleeping thinking about the western woman of a certain age sleeping in such close proximity to them.

As the train pulled into Madurai, the Sikh gentleman wished me a nice day, and the two young guys could not wait to leave -- it was comical watching them trip all over themselves in a rush to get out. Might have been the first time in their lives that they've slept so close to a woman...

In the station I paid 2rs to use the very clean Indian toilet (using an Indian squat toilet is like doing malasana in yoga, no problem!). The rupee collector made me smile when he told me that he liked the OM tattoo on my wrist and then asked what my "sweet name" was -- in these two trips to India, that's the first time a man had ever asked me what my sweet name was -- and he happens to be a rupee collector sitting outside a train station toilet. Oh was a nice change from the boys on the train....

15 January 2007

glimpses of Pondicherry

March 2006

big Gandhi and little Gandhi, on the beach...

beggar girl with pup...

bowing to Ganesha...

be free, be free!

March, 2006

The day I left for Madurai, I went to the beauty parlor across from my hotel (The Hotel "Gimme" Shelter in Mylapore) to get mehendi on my feet. When I went there to make the appointment, the ladies were fascinated by my tattoos -- I have one on each ankle, flowers with OM symbol on my right wrist, plus big ones on my left shoulder and lower back. They only saw my wrist tattoo when I made the appointment.

I went for the mehendi and while I was waiting, all the customers and employees gathered around me to look at my ankles and wrist. Then the owner walked in with her entourage -- she wore a beautiful sari, was loaded down with gold jewelery, and had a "big" personality to match. I loved her loudness! She shoved her way through the crowd, "I want to see everything!" She announced, "I want to learn this!", as if learning the art of tattooing is the easiest thing in the world!

I said I had a tattoo on my shoulder, which of course they all wanted to see. I was not planning on taking off my clothes in the reception area of a beauty salon, but the owner said "take off top, BE FREE, BE FREE!!" -- how could I resist? I had a skimpy camisole on underneath, but I removed the top of my salwar kameez. The women ooohed and aahed at my tattoo -- it's a flower vine with a butterfly that has a yin/yang symbol, very bright and colorful.

Then they caught a glimpse of my lower back and two women began to pull down my salwar! By this time, there were about 15 women gathered around -- workers and customers and no work was getting done. The tattoo on my lower back is a large sun/moon combo (representing hatha yoga) with a Tibetan OM symbol. A beauty instructor who was from Nepal loved it so much, she kissed her fingers and touched it -- the moon has eyes and she kept saying "the eyes is talking to me (KISS-TOUCH), the eyes is talking to me (KISS-TOUCH), the eyes is talking to me..."

After about 30 minutes of this inspection -- they took pictures of all my tattoos -- I finally got the mehendi started, and the Nepalese lady started to draw my tattoos in a sketchbook. She told me that she loves tattoos and wants to become a tattoo artist, but there is no good place in Chennai to learn and/or get a tattoo, maybe in Bangalore she told me. They asked if I wanted to get my nose or navel pierced, so we started discussing that, and the Nepalese lady said Indian women get their nipples pierced. "But only married ladies after one baby," she said very seriously. I thought it was great that she would tell me that, a westerner, it was no big deal...

I loved the commaraderie I felt in that salon and the owner's command to "BE FREE, BE FREE!"

...and I love my mehendi.

remember to be free...

14 January 2007

ayurveda and me

The Eco Cafe, my sanctuary from the dust and grime of the Chennai streets....


yoga school is over and now my India adventure really begins...I will travel, solo, for two weeks, taking trains and buses, going to Madurai, Kodaikanal, Rameswaram, and Tiruvannamallai -- all temple cities, except for Kodai....

I am back at the hotel where I stayed last year and I leave Monday night for my first stop, Madurai, the town with the famous temple to Meenakshi (Meenakski means "Fish-Eyed"), Shiva's consort, otherwise known as Parvati or Uma -- Shakti power, without whom Shiva would be half a man....

today I had an authentic ayurvedic oil massage with shiro dhara. shiro dhara is where sesame oil is dripped onto your forehead -- it was heaven! In fact, the whole experience was heaven.

I did not go to a spa or a fancy retreat -- it was an authentic Indian ayurvedic place (but the owner lives in New Jersey, figure that one out!). Definitely nothing fancy, the real deal. Massage done by a little Indian woman. I won't go into the details, but imagine being on a table that looked like a doctor's exam table from the 1950s with a thick plastic "sheet" on top and me n#ked as the day I was born, all greased up with sesame oil like a Thanksgiving turkey. Instead of a fancy brass funnel for shiro dhara like they have in spas, she dripped the oil from a clay pot held up by a rope attached to the ceiling. Might not be a pretty picture but I assure you it was authentic and more than wonderful. forget the fancy Shiva Rea yoga retreats at an ayurvedic spa, I'll take this anytime!

After the 90 minute oil massage, with acupressure, she did the shiro dhara, then I had a 10 minute steam, then a shower -- actually an "Indian shower" which is out of a bucket. I sat on a stool as Vesanthi washed off all the oil and shampooed my hair. I was incredibly nurtured by this little Indian woman who barely spoke English, and I felt like a rubber chicken when I left. A two hour ayurvedic massage for 1000Rs, about $23.00. I gave her 200Rs for a tip, almost $5-- nothing to an American, to Vesanthi, it means a lot. She had told me that she works because her husband drinks, he's not a reliable wage-earner. When I gave her the tip, she kissed her fingers and touched her forehead...then we hugged each other....

I scheduled another massage for the day I leave. She said I had hair "like an Indian", which I took as a compliment because Indian women have beautiful hair...

I spent the weekend after yoga school in Chennai, just hanging out, shopping, and one of my favorite places to chill is the Eco Cafe, located on an "upscale" street. It's a place for Westerners and Indian yuppies to hang out. I love the "Indian" places, but I can relax here with my tea and read the international version of the New York Times, away from the cacaphony of the Chennai traffic. It's green and peaceful, and I can spend hours there. They even have a mean basil pesto that's not bad...

on to Madurai soon...nine hours on the overnight train...

Pondicherry revisited

temple elephant going to work on Sunday morning....

fuschia vine on steroids on Pondicherry house....


March, 2006

My first weekend in India, outside of Chennai, left me with a very different feeling this time as compared to last year. I told my friends that India is different this time, there can never be another "first time in India".

This time I feel a bit jaded. Last year I thought everything was wonderful -- this time I can see the shit on the streets, notice all the starving dogs and the beggar girls. But that is reality, all things change, nothing remains the same.

Just like last year, my first trip outside Chennai was to Pondicherry, the city where the French tried to get their teeth into India before the Brits kicked them out. I tried to get a room at the Park Guesthouse, where I stayed last year, which is run by Auroville, the ashram of the late Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. Was told "no rooms", yet the couple who came in behind me got a room. I was told later by a woman from New York who now lives in Pondy that the Park is "funny" about a solo woman showing up asking for a room. Ended up at the Hotel Soorya...for only one night, it was fine....500Rs, a little over $10.....

Spent lots of time at the Ganesha temple this morning, saw the puja with the temple elephant. Yet the people in the stalls outside.....people asked me for pens, pens, pens besides money, money, money. The temple's shoe man (who watches your shoes when you go into the temple) told me his daughter studies in Chennai, he wants my "best pen". I gave him a pen I had. Later on, as I came out of the temple he tells me "pen no write". I told him "your karma, boss. Chennai man give me sandlewood pen last year, fell apart, cheap. karma is gum gana patayai namaha...."

Something about Pondy this time just seems so.....mean and hard, can't describe it. I've been walking around for hours now and I keep thinking, why does everyone look so pissed off? No smiles. I stopped at a chai bar on the beach and told the clerk how great I thought the chai was (it was! all for 3 rupees!) and the look on his face would have melted glass. Walked around the market streets, and all I saw was....America. American clothes, American plastic shit, American money-grubbing.

On the bus to Pondy I sat next to a Muslim man who kept offering me candy, he was great, so open so friendly. On the other side was an Indian woman who spoke excellent English so we talked about spirituality when she found out I teach yoga. She said she had done yoga a long time ago and wants to get into it again. I said, but you have the best yoga schools here, Westerners come here to study yoga but Indians don't do yoga here. She said that's because we don't appreciate it. She said it was her karma that she sat next to me because I have given her inspiration to start doing yoga again.

Then she started talking about America and Bush. I am sick of people asking me "do you support George Bush?" I said, no, you can't blame me for him, because I did not vote for him, twice! I told her not to judge America or Americans by George Bush. I told her, if you do that, you are no better than Americans who judge India and Indian people by the pictures of filth, poverty, and beggars that they see, they think all of India is like that. So how can you judge America by George Bush? I told her, you talk about spirituality, but you have one opinion only about America because of what you see in the press? She apologized to me, said I had opened her eyes about her own closed mind.

aaaah......all that in a 3 hour bus ride to Pondy.....

Unless anyone think I am dissing Pondy, I'm not. It was just different this time. I stood on the rocks by the sea this morning looking down at all the garbage as I drank my chai. Last year I thought "this is India, it is what it is." This morning it disgusted me -- I thought, doesn't anyone care what they are doing to the ocean, to the environment? Then a man walked up next to me with a plastic bag with something long and oval looking in it. He made sure that when he threw it, it landed in the ocean. He walked away without a second thought. I thought about what it might be: garbage, or a cat, a puppy, a baby, maybe a girl baby? It did not float, it sank immediately.

I would not be a clear-eyed Buddhist if I did not see things as they are, not as I wish them to be, without the garbage and the starving pups and the big-eyed beggar girls. It is what it is. And I absolutely believe that the people are friendlier in Chennai than they are in Pondy! Even the Westerners in Pondy all looked like they were pissed off....

On the bus trip back to Chennai two men helped get me to the right city bus stop to get me back to my hotel and I did not have to ask them for help....they only asked if "American madam" needs help....

Ah yes..... while my fellow students were lounging all weekend at Ideal Resort, a beach resort in Mahabalipuram, I was watching men shit and piss next to the road on the way back from Pondy.....the "naughty stop"!.

On the return trip from Pondy, the bus made a "rest stop" between Mahabalipuram and Chennai. The bus stopped at a grove of what looked like pine trees, lots of space in between each tree. Also lots of garbage, crows, dogs, and a few cows. Most of the men got off the bus, and started to shit and piss in plain view. Too bad for any women on the bus who had to relieve themselves! I watched this unphased, I did not look away. The man next to me, who I noticed was dressed all in white, looked embarrassed that I was witnessing this. He clucked his tongue a few times, waved his hand toward these two legged dogs, and said "naughty stop". "Sorry?", I said. More tongue clucking....."naughty stop" he repeated and shook his head. He looked mortified that I was seeing all this, and that we were in plain view of the road, with cars, buses, and rickshaws speeding by....

this is India, darling.....

13 January 2007

last day in Chennai

the story sequence is out of order, but so it goes...
above pic taken on my last afternoon in Chennai, September 2005, at the flower warehouse


September 2005

My last day in India was the best day I experienced in Chennai.

On my last night in India I met one of the yoga students (Pat from Tanzania) at the Eco Cafe for our goodbyes and she told me that I was probably the only one who was not in the group picture. She also said that a tea was given for the students at the end of the day. But frankly, a group picture, a tea, and teary goodbyes to people I only knew for a month and probably will never see again, mean nothing to me compared to what I experienced that last afternoon.

The Banyan is a women's organization that is about 60 minutes from where I stayed in Mylapore. I wanted to donate money and also clothes and toiletries that I would not be bringing back with me. Suresh got lost a few times, but we finally found it. I was amused that he never asked women for directions to a women's shelter, he only asked men for directions.

Visiting Banyan was an overwhelming experience for me because I teach yoga in a shelter similar to this one. There are approximately 300 women there, and not just from Chennai.

I almost started crying when I walked through the gates -- two dogs came running up to me, barking loudly, protecting their home. One dog had a bad rear leg so he was running on three legs. The other dog, was dragging her back end, pulling herself with her front legs, she must have had a broken pelvis. But she was still fierce, trying to protect her place, her paralysis did not stop her. I watched her as she dragged herself all over, with old crusted sores on her back legs from dragging herself around. But when she laid down exhausted, she looked up at me and seemed to smile!

I was greeted by a young Finnish woman. She came to volunteer after the tsunami and stayed on in Chennai, learning the Tamil language. I asked her about the dogs and she said "oh, we adopt them too..." It did my heart good when she told me that they also have yoga classes for the women.

I was given a tour and I talked with tsunami survivors, to an ex-movie actress who was rescued from the streets, to a woman from Mumbai who has the same curly hair as I do -- she hugged me because we had something so mundane in common, our hair. She did not speak English, but she came up to me smiling, pointing to her hair, and then touching mine.

I lost it -- I started crying because I thought about the women in the shelter back home where I teach yoga. The woman who was the ex-actress came up to me and told me in perfect English, "don't cry, madam, we love it here, we are happy here." They have nothing and yet they have everything.

I left and Suresh took me to the warehouse district where we walked through huge warehouses filled with fruit and veggies and flowers. I was the only Westerner and Suresh made sure no one crowded me too much. I took my best and most favorite pics of India at these warehouses. I was mobbed everywhere I went, people wanting me to take their pictures, then crowding around me to see their pic on the camera. Surrounded by 20 men and never hassled once -- would that happen in NYC or Chicago? They yelled their thanks to me and kissed their hands and touched my cheeks, some bowed and made anjali mudra to the OM tattoo on my wrist.

Attend final classes that afternoon? Scheduling classes after our "graduation" ceremony in the morning was an anti-climax. I never would have given up the experiences I had that afternoon for anyone or anything. The best part was experiencing it alone, on my own terms, deliciously secure as only a woman of a certain age can be.

emails home

Unfortunately, during my first trip to India in September, 2005, I did not keep the emails I sent home. Y'all will have to be satisfied with my musings and rants from my second trip in March, 2006, including those I wrote for, where I am now a moderator...


the first pic is me with Suresh's three darling daughters, his nephew, and a neighbor boy....such a simply sweet and beautiful day.....

the picture of me and my very large friend was taken in September 2005 in front the temple in Pondicherry....the blessing only cost me 1 rupee! definitely the money shot!


...the intensive is going to be awesome, of course! this time we have Desikachar's senior senior teachers teaching us and....Desikachar himself is teaching the meditation class and his son, Kausthub, is teaching the class on how the Sutras teach us how to transform ourselves.

This is a yoga teacher's dream -- at least for a teacher who believes that this is the heart of yoga. We chanted with Desikachar this morning, and he told us we sounded "fantastic"....

Once again, being here confirms for me that yoga is not about the body, but about transforming the mind. And once again it confirms that no one can put their own name on a 5000 year old tradition -- not John Friend, not Ana Forrest, not Bikram....

This morning they talked about how true personal transformation, on a deeper level, can not come from a group class, it can only be done on an individual level, one-on-one, like Krishnamacharya taught. It can start in a group yoga class, but can only reach culmination, one-on-one.

As I laid in bed this morning in the throes of jet lag, I realized what coming here does for me -- India integrates me, takes the yin and yang and pulls it together into the One that gives me peace. It is hard to describe, but when I realized it, it literally felt like two halves melting into one. India .....

first weekend of traveling...

woke up this morning in Pondicherry . Starting walking at 7 am -- to beach on the Bay of Bengal , taking my time..... stopped to make "happy birthday" call to hubby while I was drinking REAL indian chai for 3 rupees a cup -- had 3 cups. 44 rupees to $1 so figure it out!

There is a Ganesh temple in Pondicherry -- the temple where the elephant blessed me last year. On my way back from the beach, they were walking the temple elephant thru the streets to the temple, her face decorated, her "ankles" wearing bracelets. They took the real Ganesha into the temple and walked her around. Following her were the priests beating drums, blowing horns, and pulling a movable altar with a statue of Ganesh covered in garlands. They walked her around the temple about 5 times or so, then took her outside. Every time she passed me I said OM GUM GANA PATAYAI NAMAHA, Ganesh's mantra. The whole experience was awesome. And yes, Ganesha blessed me again.....when I gave her a rupee. The elephant is 15 years old by the way, still a young temple elephant.

I had breakfast on the beach in a tiny restaurant, 30 rupees. Idly with chutneys and a sweet lassi, of course.....

My trip is a bit different this year -- I realized that now that I see the underbelly of India , last year, I saw only the good thru rose colored glasses. Now I see everything more clearly, the garbage, the shit -- dog, cow, and human -- on the streets, the starving dogs, the beggars holding puppies or babies to get your sympathy. There were two little girls, one holding a little puppy not more than 2 months old, so of course I gave them all my rupee coins and 30 rupees in paper money, how could I resist? I told them to feed themselves and the puppy. Who knows if they will feed the puppy?

But in spite of this, I love it here. I am a true buddhist when I can see reality as it really is, not as I wish it to be with no starving puppies and little beggar girls and no shit on the streets! This morning I called from the beach on my cell phone to Madurai , the temple town I will visit in two weeks, called 2 places to reserve a room. I have a reservation at a 1000 rupee hotel and a 118 rupee guesthouse next to the temple.....guess which one I will stay at??

well, think I will go back to hotel now, to shower, and go out for another walk. Will head back to Chennai about 3 pm or so.....

bye for now -- and think about elephant blessings.... and all the other blessings you have in your lives.....

3/16/2006 was a great theory class today, all about the bandhas, so interesting!! once again, being here re-confirms for me how this is the pure, traditional yoga, the heart, anything else is just faking it.....and anyone who puts their own name on yoga...

the teachers keep emphasizing how personal transformation is the true goal of yoga, not getting the yoga butt or abs, but personal transformation, changing our states of mind, replacing negative tendencies with positive ones, and connecting to the True Self, how ultimately this can not be done in a group yoga class, it can only be done one-on-one with a teacher, as Krishnamacharya taught.

They showed us the sequence on how to teach the bandhas, starting with jalandhara going down to mulabandha, and how people should be able to inhale and exhale at least to a count of 10 or 12, before even attempting to work with the bandhas. Also told us about contraindications. Again, once more this emphasized for me, what NOT to teach in a group class, because everyone is different and everyone will have a different reaction to it -- uddiyana bandha aggravates vata for example.

We were told that Krishnamacharya did not believe in kriyas. He said pranayama practice -- properly done -- was effective enough to cleanse the body of impurities. Desikachar was with us last night and he told us stories of his father, about how Krishnamacharya stopped his own heart for 2 minutes -- it was only then that Desikachar took up the practice of yoga, when he saw the power of it. Until then he was not interested in it. This was in 1962 or so.

I've have gotten pretty good at chanting the Gayatri mantra....I don't sound too much like a howling dog anymore!

other than that, was in a very minor rickshaw accident the other night, but was not hurt. Went out with a South African student to a bookstore and in search of sweet lassis. A Muslim woman on a scooter turned into us, her front wheel ended up underneath the rickshaw and she fell off. no one stopped to help, but the guy I was with got out to help her up. She just got on the scooter and took off like nothing was. We were lucky -- two other students were in a rickshaw accident where the rickshaw rolled over. Lucky for them that they escaped with only bruises and scrapes, nothing broken.

This is India....


I just got back from another beautiful day in Chennai, thanks to my rickshaw driver, Suresh. I used his services last September. He usually hangs out at The Woodlands Hotel (a hangout for Westerners in Chennai) but is available for hire for the "American madam". Thanks to Suresh I got my best photos last year, when he took me on my last day to Chennai's veg/fruit/flower warehouses....

Suresh does not speak the best English, but we communicate. At the beginning of this week he invited me to his house for Sunday (today), and kept reminding me about it -- "wife make fish, good, Madam..." with a big smile. He said he would buy a fish, and his wife would use a little oil (because he knows I don't like "grease") and some spices, and his wife will cook us a feast! He picked me up and I knew it would be a traditional South Indian meal when he stopped to get some banana leaves (banana leaves are used for plates.)

I kept thinking about how our relationship has changed since last year. He invited me to his house so he must think I will not be judgmental of him as a poor rickshaw driver. Many people I know would scoff at the idea of sitting on a concrete floor eating a wonderful meal with a rickshaw driver and his wife and kids (none of whom speak English!). Many higher caste Indian would not even consider it....

The fish was great, with steamed rice and a veg salad, and a dish of mutton besides. I hoped that his wife would not be insulted that I could not eat all that she gave me -- I don't eat much, and after a few slices of fish, I was full. The funny thing was that they gave me utensils and I said, no, I will eat with my right hand, south Indian style. The kids tried to use the spoons -- they sat up nice and straight looking proper, and I motioned for them to forget the spoons, just eat Indian style, which they gladly did, immediately. It was a good laugh....

It amazes me how Indian women, no matter how poor they are, always look beautiful in their saris and gold jewelery, and we Westerners always look like refugees. With many there is a certain elegance as they glide through the dirtiest and dustiest of streets, seemingly without a drop of sweat on their brows....

We got to his house (two rooms, and the Indian squat toilet is outside in another room of the building, clothes washing is done in a bucket, and pounded against the ground), and of course the neighbors had to come to see the American (I don't think too many westerners visit this part of Chennai.) His place costs 1500 rupees per month, the one across the way costs 3000 rupees/month -- for "rich people" he says (44 R = $1)

He told everyone I am the American yoga teacher he drives around. They were all interested in my tattoos, especially the kids. Suresh has three daughters (which is a curse for a poor Indian man, he must come up with a dowry for each one when they marry), and I also met his nephew. After lunch, we went up on the roof where the laundry was blowing in the breeze, and the kids started posing for pictures. I took a ton of pics of the kids and some neighbors. It was a beautiful way to spend an afternoon, to me, the "real India". I felt honored to be there, on the roof, running around with the kids, showing them the pics on the camera, it made me want to cry. These Indians I was with, none of whom speak English, treated me like family, someone who they will never see many of us would do that?? It was a day I will never forget.

I heard the kids calling me auntyji, which is a term of respect for the older "aunty" in the family.....

this is my India ....tomorrow night on to Madurai, and more Indian adventures....