16 April 2009

India stories: It's a mad mad mad mad Madurai

The day I left for Madurai I went to a beauty salon to get mehndi on my feet. The salon ladies were fascinated by my tattoos and they were admiring them when the owner walked in. She was a big woman wearing a beautiful hot pink sari and heavy with gold jewelry -- her personality matched her appearance. She shoved her way through the crowd saying, "I want to see everything!" She stuck her finger in the air and announced, "I want to learn this!", as if learning the art of tattooing is the easiest thing in the world.

They caught a glimpse of my shoulder tattoo. I did not plan to take off my clothes but the owner commanded, "Take off top, BE FREE, BE FREE!" I wore a camisole underneath so I removed the top of my salwar kameez. Everyone gushed over the intricate flower vines surrounding a colorful butterfly.

Then they saw the large sun/moon tattoo peeking above the waistband of my salwar and two women began to pull it down. The moon has eyes and a Nepali woman loved it so much that she kissed her fingers and touched my tattoo. "The eyes is talking to me, the eyes is talking to me,” she said as she repeatedly kissed her fingers and touched the eyes of the moon.

Women took pictures of my tattoos, the mehndi was started, and the Nepali woman drew my tattoos in a sketchbook. She told me that she loves tattoos and wants to become a tattoo artist, but there is no place in Chennai to learn. The women asked if I wanted to get my nose pierced and the Nepali woman confided that some Indian women get their nipples pierced. "But only married ladies after one baby," she said very seriously. I loved that she was so open with me, a westerner whom she would never see again. I was just one of the girls that afternoon.

That night I left on the 9:30 train to Madurai and as I sat alone in my berth two young men in their 20s came in. When they saw me they looked as if I had lifted up my kurta to flash them. Their mouths dropped open in unison and they did not say a word. I thought their reaction strange and I felt like saying, "Hello, boys, you've never seen a woman before?" I said hello in Tamil and smiled. They sat across from me and as I sat across from them with a half smile on my face they tried to look anywhere but at me.

I’ve been told that sometimes this is typical male behavior when so close to a woman, especially one as strange as me -- western, a tattooed ageless hippie chick, dressed in Indian clothes, and bold enough to look them in the eye. I've also been told that some young Indian males are starved for any kind of interaction with the opposite sex -- usually there is no premarital sex and there is hardly any communication between boys and girls at school. Growing up like this leaves men clueless as to how to behave and some also believe the misconceptions about western women.

At the last minute an older man sat next to me and I said, "We're all going to be just cozy now, aren't we?" The young men again looked like I had not only flashed them but also blew them a kiss. At least the older man had the manners to say hello to me. These boys looked so nervous I felt sorry for them. They finally got their act together, i.e., making sure they never looked at me, and we all settled into our berths for the overnight train ride.

As the train pulled into Madurai in the morning, the older man wished me a nice day and the boys tripped all over themselves in a rush to get out. I was sure that this was the first time they had slept so close to a woman.

After a nine hour train ride I was in no mood for nonsense, but I was instantly accosted by a dozen auto rickshaw drivers, so much so that a station security guard told them to leave me alone. I chose one driver and as we walked through the phalanx of drivers they started to laugh and yell, "here madam, here madam, you want ride, madam?" "That's it," I said as I threw down my bag. I spun around and yelled loud enough to make the street dogs run: "ENOUGH OF THIS BULLSHIT!" That got everyone's attention and I never saw a gaggle of drivers shut up so quickly. “No tension, madam, no tension, come with me," my driver said. That was more like it and when we got to the hotel I paid him more than what we agreed to.

I stayed exactly 90 minutes at the guesthouse that was closest to the great temple. I took the recommendation of a well-known guide book and I decided that the writer must have been hallucinating from too many bhang lassis when he wrote the review.

I don't mind cheap hotels in India but I draw the line at towels that looked like they were used to wash a car and greasy hair stains on the pillows. The place was disgusting. It looked like a room for serial killers to hold up during their rampage. The guts hung out of the air conditioner in the "deluxe AC room."

The room was considered "deluxe" because you could walk out onto the roof of the floor below for a fabulous view of the temple. However, the window did not lock so anyone on that roof could crawl into your bed. The room also had a frosted glass door so it was not safe for a solo female traveler. When a man tried to get into my room about a hour after I checked in, I asked for another room but it had the same greasy towels and pillow cases. I got out, losing 500 rupees, and moved to a better hotel. I learned a valuable lesson for future trips to India: always look at the room before you hand over the rupees.

My first day in Madurai and now I knew why some westerners had that glazed "dead man walking" look in their eyes. It's a defense mechanism – act deaf, dumb, and blind and maybe you'll be spared from the incessant touts. I met nice old men who told me their life stories, and how America is a great country, and how their brother/uncle/son/cousin/sister's husband has a clothes/jewelry/art/silver shop with a great roof top view of the temple, "just look, madam, no buy."

The market across from the temple was filled with stalls of all types of merchandise and a great place to see those dead men walking. I ended up telling shop keepers and touts, “I'm a poor yoga teacher, no money” or “YOU buy ME something?” or “It's against my religion.” The last story always worked. I also ended up with a screaming migraine headache from the constant harangue of "just look, no buy" and the heat and the closeness. I went back to my room, turned up the AC, put a cold cloth on my head, and didn't wake up until the evening.

My second day was spent at the Gandhi museum, an inspiring and peaceful place where about 100 schoolgirls were more interested in me than in learning about their own history. The girls were sitting on the floor listening to the curator as I walked in. He immediately stopped talking and all heads turned around at the same time to look at me. I smiled and brought my hands to my chest and bowed. Everyone said hello to me in English, and I responded with a loud vanakkam. They exploded in laughter and with a big smile the curator asked, "What country, madam? America or UK?" "America." "Ah, America!" Bigger smiles all around. Their teachers had their hands full trying to keep order all because of me.

As I walked around the exhibits I felt the schoolgirls’ eyes on me. I turned around and the girls would giggle. "Shhhh," I said, putting my finger to my lips. "Read your history, don't look at me.", I told them with a wink. Occasionally I would feel a light touch on my back and I would turn around and a hand would cover a mouth, a giggle unsuccessfully suppressed.

My last day in Madurai was spent on a tour bus. An Indian tour bus is usually not decked out with plushy seats, air-conditioning, and a restroom – most of our seats were ripped and frayed but adequately comfortable. Sometimes you have the pleasure of listening to music played full blast through a shabby speaker, driver’s choice of music of course. I settled in and waited for the day’s adventures.

Once again I was the only westerner and I noticed that everyone had the same reaction to the condition of the bus. They walked up the stairs, stopped, looked around at the frayed seats, and either gulped or sneered. Off we went, all windows open to the Madurai heat and dust.

I don't remember exactly what was on the tour, I just enjoyed riding around with a bus load of Indian tourists. Every time we stopped the driver would announce in Tamil where we were and how long we would be there. At the first stop I asked him how long and he sneered at me and grunted. I was on my own. I knew that if I did not get back in time, I would be left in the street. Finally a man told me in English “20 minutes” and at every stop I would look at him and he would smile and tell me how long we would be.

I loved the vignettes framed by the bus window. I saw a huge ram with massive horns sleeping peacefully in the gutter while a woman carefully swept the street around him; two flower sellers with their carts, talking quietly, engrossed in conversation as only women can be, as a street goat happily munched the flowers from one cart.

It was a lazy day and the only excitement we had was when the driver took a curve too fast and I felt the tires on my side of the bus lift up for about three seconds. People started to scream and the woman next to me flew out of her seat. She would have landed in the aisle had I not caught her sari and pulled her back down. I practiced equanimity -- if I die in India so be it. I started to doze as the passengers yelled at the driver.

At one stop we were besieged by begging children, girls and boys. I saw that Indians rarely gave to beggars, so when a beggar sees a feringhi it’s an onslaught of constant cries for money. Trapped on a bus, I was ripe for the picking. I sat next to the rear door and it was the perfect place for a little girl to plant herself on the steps in front of me with her hand out with a constant cry that sounded like “ma” over and over and over again.

You need a thick skin to handle the beggars in India, even if they are children. I was not in the giving mood so I ignored her 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, but I had an idea. 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. That finally got everyone’s attention, and when she started harassing the Indians, a woman said something and she left. The bus finally started and as we left I looked back to see the begging children swarm the next group of tourists, like yellow jackets to fresh meat.

Late at night when everyone was tired, hungry, and complaining we stopped at a Murugan temple, our last stop, and most of the passengers did not get off the bus. The temple would have been the highlight of my day because it is a very important temple, one of the six abodes of Lord Muruga, an important Hindu god worshiped in south India. It is huge temple carved into rock, but it was impossible to explore in the time we had, so I had to be satisfied with a quick walk-through. I should have planned my last day more carefully, but I wanted to leave the planning to someone else, even if it was a bus driver who spoke no English. Go with the flow, there will be a next time, and I remembered the words of the Chennai beauty shop owner, “be free, be free.”

We headed back to Madurai, everyone quiet now for the ride home. Despite the heat, the dust, a migraine headache, and the incessant touts that I experienced over the 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.

We were in Madurai and I woke up to people screaming at the driver again. Apparently he wasn't dropping people 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 temple so the bus driver had trouble getting through the streets. I watched everything with detachment, watching group dynamics and mentally placing bets on who would win.

Every few blocks he would kick people off the bus, and the people would complain as they flagged down autorickshaws. Finally it was me and an older couple. I got off the bus and the husband started to argue with the driver. There was much hand waving and head wobbling, but the driver won and the husband finally got off. The bus left and the three of us stood in the middle of the street. Suddenly they spoke to me in perfect English, complaining about the bus and the driver. How funny that they never said a word to me all day yet we had sat across the aisle from each other.

I returned to my hotel and spent the rest of the evening in the roof-top restaurant, looking out over the temple complex and thinking about what India had taught me so far – more patience, how to be in the present moment, and detaching from the outcome. Anyone on the yoga path knows that these qualities sink a bit deeper into the consciousness the longer one does the work. But somehow, being in Ma India, my heart could open more fully, just as the lotus opens its petals as it rises out of the mud to reach for the glorious sun.

Goodbye Madurai. OM MURUGA, lead me from the darkness and into the light.

15 April 2009

India stories: I Heart Rameswaram

Writing the last post made me think of my own India stories. I leave for Spirit Rock this weekend and will be gone for 15 days so I decided to re-post one India story a day for your reading pleasure.

I entered these stories in a travel writing contest sponsored by a travel website (I didn't win so I'm not mentioning the name!) The grand prize was a trip to Machu Picchu and the other prizes were bags -- I would have been happy with a bag! I wasn't bummed out when none of my stories were selected because I know they kick ass anyway.

India is definitely not for everyone, but it must be in my DNA because as soon as my foot hit Indian soil (my first overseas trip, alone, at the delicious age of 51), I felt like I had come home. There has not been one single day since 2005 that I have not thought about Ma India. Not one. Not even when I returned from my third trip in January 2008 with virulent salmonella food poisoning. I flew 18 hours from India sicker than a mangy Indian street dog -- I almost passed out in the Chennai airport before I even got on the plane.

I used to be a moderator of the best India travel website in the world , a site with over 30,000 members, each one with their own story about India, and most, I'm sure, with a love/hate relationship with India. Last year one of my teachers told me that I'm a native now -- that the first time you go to India you're a little scared and apprehensive; the second time you love it and you want to stay forever because nothing is ever wrong; the third time you begin to see things as a native does -- the good, the bad, the horrible, the indifference, the enthralling, and the enchanting. India in all its glory. Last year instead of people asking me "what country, madam?", people asked me, "do you live here, madam?" Ahhhhh....I had finally arrived.

In an old post I wrote: "India has her hooks in me like an old lover — an old lover who you’ve told yourself that you never want to be with again but who keeps re-appearing like a hungry ghost tapping on your shoulder, and no matter how fast you run you can never escape him because he is a part of you forever. You know this and you hate it but you love it all at the same time."

India nourishes me and I need to visit Ma India as much as I need the air to live. One of my favorite bloggers once wrote: "...if I don't follow my Heart, I will lose a piece of my aliveness. It doesn't take too many compromises to become a walking dead person..."

So these stories are not about your India or her India or his India. This is MY INDIA and I count the days until I am in her arms again.



I arrived in Rameswaram about 3 pm on a Saturday after a 7 hour car ride from Kodaikanal. The ride was interesting as I watched India flash by. . .caught in a cattle crossing, eating lunch for 10 rupees at a tiny restaurant in the middle of nowhere where the proprietor took me in his kitchen to show me what he was cooking since he did not speak English. I can't remember what it was called, all I remember is that it was delicious. I was starving and inhaled the meal as all four people in the restaurant stood around my table with big smiles watching me eat.

I arrived at the Hotel Tamil Nadu, showered, and took a nap. I woke up about 5 pm and planned to walk to the temple and find dinner. The phone rang and being alone in India, getting a call was shocking. A man told me "if you want to see the temple, I can take you." Still groggy from my nap, I thought how did he know that's what I'm going to do? I babbled something like who are you, who's calling, where are you, whaaaat....? The man said he was downstairs at the desk, and I said, yeah, whatever, and hung up.

I got downstairs, still trying to wake up, and the clerk was behind the desk with another man. I had my torn out page from the Rough Guide that said "R. Kannan, who can also be contacted through the Hotel Tamil Nadu, happily gives foreigners advice, even if they do not use his services." I asked the clerk if he knew R. Kannan, and he pointed to the man who appeared to be waiting for me and said, "this is Kannan". Wow. He materialized out of nowhere. But how did he know exactly what time I was going to leave? Ah...delicious serendipity. No....most likely he got the call, "feringhee in da house, come on over!" I stood there, thinking go with the flow, whatever happens tonight, happens.

As it turned out, I spent four hours with Kannan that night. We went to the Gandhamadana Parvatam, where I took pictures of a beautiful sunset, and to the Nambunayagi Amman Kali Temple, where I saw a man with a pet egret, and sat with him as he fed it worms he dug out of the sand. Kannan and I planned my weekend all within one hour -- I was to spend it with him.

As we were driving back, Kannan asked me if I wanted to see the children dance -- of course I did! We stopped at what looked like a school, the yard filled to the brim with people -- local business people, politicians, parents, and children. The little girls were dressed in their beautiful South Indian dance attire, their hair and makeup perfect. One little girl was so beautiful I wanted to take her picture, but there were so many people, I got pushed along with the crowd. We ended up at the back of a long, narrow lot.

So many people, and me, the only westerner, once again. But the difference between where I was now and Kodaikanal in the morning was amazing. The energy, the attitude, the graciousness, was totally different from Kodaikanal. I did not feel claustrophobic here, even in this crowd of people.

We sat down and after a number of speeches, the show began. Little girls and boys dancing beautifully, carefully, with a few missteps that added to the charm, music that blasted my ears. Unfortunately I was sitting too far back to take any decent pictures. Then one group of kids dressed in street clothes started dancing to music I recognized from a Vijay movie. The only Vijay movies I had seen were on the Lufthansa flights from Germany to Chennai, but I know who Vijay is -- a very popular Tamil actor. You've heard of Bollywood? Tamil movies are Kollywood with their own set of popular stars.

There was a group of boys sitting behind me and as soon as the Vijay music started, they got up on their chairs, and started clapping and dancing, hooting and hollering. I got up and started to take pictures and of course that started a riot. "Madam, Madam, take me, take me!" I yelled "dance like Vijay!", and put my hand to my forehead in the gesture Vijay uses in his movies. All their eyes got wide and suddenly I was in the midst of hip shaking, pelvic thrusting Vijays. It could not have been choreographed any better. As soon as I took a picture, they ran over wanting to see it, then ran back to dance again. I loved it. Kodaikanal was already a distant memory. The people in the immediate area weren't watching the stage anymore, they were watching all this commotion and laughing.

We all sat down again to watch the show, and by this time of night, I was exhausted. Kannan asked me if I was OK, and I said we should go back, since I was dead on my feet, and we had an early morning walk to Danushkodi the next day. We started walking toward the front, but people were sitting on the ground, shoulder to shoulder. It was packed and not an inch of space between them. There was no way we could walk out through the front without doing major damage to someone's hand or foot on the ground. It was also hard to see because it was pitch black with only the lights on the stage.

We turned around and Kannan asked, "can you jump?" "Jump?" "Yes, climb and jump," and he pointed to the brick wall topped with three strands of barbed wire that was our enclosure. "Sure, why not, what choice do we have?"

Kannan jumped over the wall and I threw him my camera. The wall was about four feet high with barbed wire on top. This woman of a certain age is very flexible so I put one foot on top of the wall. Suddenly I heard a low "ooooohhhhh" coming from all the young Vijays. I grabbed a corner pole as I pulled myself up and put the other foot on top of the wall, straddling the barbed wire. A louder "ooooooohhhhh" now, mass rumbling coming from the Vijays. Louder and louder whispers in Tamil. How often did these boys see an American woman straddling barbed wire on top of a brick wall? Making sure my salwar kameez would not catch on the barbed wire, remembering that I had my tetanus shot, and hoping that I would not land in a big pile of whatever, I lept over and landed on my feet in a beautiful squat on the other side.

The young Vijays exploded. Laughing, clapping, cheering me on, fists pumping in the air yelling "Yes, madam!", as the music blared and the little girls danced on stage, swirling around in a rainbow of colors.

I turned around, curtsied, and ran into the Rameswaram night.

14 April 2009

Yoga School Dropout

I am not particularly adept at book reviews. If I like a book I tell people "just get it, you'll like it" and they usually do. So I'll tell you, get Yoga School Dropout, you'll love it. I couldn't put the book down and for any of you thinking of going to India to study yoga, this book is a must read because Lucy names names!

Yoga School Dropout is Lucy Edge's travel memoir of going to India to study yoga (much like my India travel stories here) so I could totally relate to what she was writing about, especially when she gets to Chennai to study at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram for a month.

I've read most of the books in the yogini-goes-to-India-to-find-herself genre (or you might call it the angst-ridden-yogini-in-general genre) such as Enlightenment for Idiots, Holy Cow, The Yoga Teacher, and Eat Pray Love, and I think Lucy's book tops them all. Lucy is authentic and insightful and her authenticity will strike a chord with a certain type of yoga practitioner. One reviewer wrote that Lucy is "neither boringly cynical nor stupidly gullible, she's open minded, warm, and funny."

Lucy is a former advertising executive in London and travels to India for a yoga school pilgrimage. She went to Pune for Iyengar yoga and Osho, Mysore for astanga, Chennai for viniyoga, Amma's ashram in Kerala, Auroville (built by Sri Aurobindo and The Mother) in Pondicherry, and other places along the yoga version of India's Silk Road. She thought she would return from India a Yoga Goddess, but when she got there she found the western obsession with self-perfection shallower than expected (particularly in Mysore with the astangis). Lucy went to India to conduct her personal yoga experiment but ended up writing a book that is love letter to India.

I have no experience with the yoga schools that Lucy visits other than the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram but I can tell you that her writing about Chennai and KYM is spot on, as the British say. What struck me is that Lucy had the same ephiphanies about yoga and India as I did.

At first Lucy calls the yoga at KYM "Pensioner's Yoga", "every movement so slow my granny could have done it." I felt Lucy's frustration because while I was already familiar with the KYM style before I arrived, when I was there I could see how westerners accustomed to a more dynamic yoga style would view it as yoga for old people until one understood how deeply transformative the style is. I met more than a few former astangis at KYM who told me that the style healed their bodies and now it was the only practice they did.

Lucy thought she would definitely become a yoga school dropout because of KYM -- the yoga was too slow, there were too many questions, she didn't understand the Sutras classes, and she had a hard time understanding "Tamglish", the combination of English and Tamil syntax that Tamils speak.

It was not until Lucy is in her Sutras class one day that her mind becomes crystal clear (her words.) The Boss (as we called Mr. Sridharan, KYM's manager and Desikachar's friend for over 25 years) was talking about duhkha (distress or suffering) which is caused by one of the five kleshas (obstacles.) Lucy suddenly realizes that she has been laboring under avidya, suffering under some severe misapprehensions. She realized that her problems were her own expectations, not KYM or the teachers. She had set up all types of goals for herself (like performing advanced postures) that she was totally unaware of what was going on in her own body (she had a neck problem that started in Mysore when she spent a lot of time trying to perfect headstand.) She remembers what Kausthub (Desikachar's son) had taught in his class:

"'Today asana has been made into a photograph. There is no difference between this and gymnastics. We see calendars with photographs of someone balancing on a rock in a headstand...even naked yoga. But asana is not a performance, asana is what happens in the posture and afterwards. A circus man can do many postures -- this is not asana.'"

Kausthub encouraged them to cultivate sthiram (stability) with sukham (being comfortable in the pose.) I remembered these teachings very well -- that if a practitioner is not 100% in each, you are not practicing yoga. And if you do not have both qualities in the breath and the mind as well as the body in practicing yoga, you are merely doing acrobatics, not yoga.

Months after she first arrived in India for her yoga journey Lucy finally realizes at KYM that she had only been operating on 1% sthiram and sukham, that she needed to start practicing this at all times. She says, "I had to learn 'to be', to be patient, to be here, content with where I found myself, both on and off the mat." It is only then that Lucy begins the slow process of arriving. As Sir (Desikachar) told her class (and my class), "We begin to open our eyes only when we are in trouble." With this ephiphany Lucy spends the rest of the course with a different attitude and after KYM travels to Auroville and Ramana Maharshi's ashram in Tiruvannamalai.

After five months in India Lucy realizes that her yoga quest is over. She asks herself what her motivations were, wasn't it all just an escape from real life? Wasn't being that Yoga Goddess with 18% body fat an escapist fantasy? She realizes that the transformation she was looking for wasn't going to be had by enrolling in yet another yoga school, buying another yoga book, or getting another certificate. Lucy realized she had to change her perspective. She remembers what someone told her that "change only occurs when we become what we truly are, not when we are trying to be something we are not. Change can't happen when we are trying to escape our true nature." She realizes that the most inspirational people she met in India were the ordinary people like the railway workers, the teachers, the government workers. She found these people so inspiring because their yoga practice stretched beyond their mat. Yoga for them was a way of living, not a physical goal, and if being "ordinary" could make one happy, she wanted it. Lucy fell in love with India and its people and decided to concentrate on the small stuff, just like she learned from her "ordinary gurus" -- trying to increase the moments of seeing clearly and choosing wisely in everyday life.

Like Lucy, I also found my yogic inspiration in the people of India. When I attended the month long intensive at KYM in 2005 I did not go to the tea that was scheduled for us on the last day but instead went off on my own -- you can read about my inspiration here. Like Lucy, I returned home a different person and in my opinion, a better person.

Lucy did not return to London as the Yoga Goddess she thought she would become but she did not feel like a failure. In fact her "failure" at achieving yoga perfection (whatever that meant) had set her free into being content and knowing that happiness is always available, you merely have to look inside.

I emailed Lucy after I finished YSD and told her how much I enjoyed it. YSD has not yet been published in America and Lucy told me that she is working on getting it to the American market. I bought YSD from an online bookstore in England. Lucy has a website and also has a new book coming out in August.

Krishnamacharya said that "yoga is about Life" and in Yoga School Dropout Lucy Edge wrote a travel memoir that personifies his words.

13 April 2009

I am blessed.... have such readers.

Kevin is a long-time reader and has always been very supportive of my cathartic rants and musings about yoga. As what sometimes happens in the online world, we struck up an email correspondence about all things yoga. In fact, Kevin and his wife Erin had also planned to visit the ashram in South India where I was originally scheduled to spend two months but life gets in the way and they had to change their plans -- so Kevin generously donated their deposit for my stay. I was overwhelmed by his gesture considering that we have never met. I will say again that I am always amazed at the support I've received in the global yoga community through this blog compared to my local "yoga community." And those of you who have read about my misadventures with local studio owners know what I'm talking about.

Kevin and Erin have relocated to Mexico and have started blogging -- Kevin and Erin in Mexico. So I was again overwhelmed to read Kevin's latest post:

"How could I mention India without mentioning.....?

That "yoga and meditation" (if one has the hard-to-come-by understanding of what yoga actually is, pre-spandex and pre-group class zombie world) is a redundant phrase - and that if you want to learn why that is so, and so much else about yoga, meditation, life, music, great writing, wicked humor and what it means to really love India you must check out this blog:

Linda's Yoga Journey

I find Linda's depth and breadth of experience, writing chops and fearlessness very inspiring, and have learned (and continue to learn) so much about all of the above topics from her. Her blog is beautiful in so many ways, and a portal to a vast array of positive things going on in the world. Check it out."

Wow, wow, wow. I am not only blessed but also humbled. Out of everything that he said, I am most touched that Kevin thinks I'm fearless, more so than being considered a good writer.

I want to take this time to thank Kevin and Erin and ALL my long-time readers -- and I know who my regular readers are even if you never comment -- for putting up with these "cathartic musings and occasional rants about my trips to India to study my heart's passion, and my sweet adventures along the yoga path."

I also want to thank all of the yoga bloggers who have put this blog on your blogrolls. I can tell from my site meter how people find me and I am amazed at how many blogs I'm linked to so mucho thanks for the link love!

May you all know happiness and the causes of happiness.
May you all be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May you all never be parted from freedom's true joy.
May you all dwell in equanimity, free from attachment and aversion.

a-salaam aleikum
so shall it be.

11 April 2009


Sindhu of Flower Girl's Rural India commented on my sense of my new found spaciousness. She said that she felt the same:

"I practice Silence "Mouna"

My dad used to practice this for a Mandala period, when he would be on complete silence....I am refraining from responding unless otherwise required. I have reduced responding nearly 70% to 75%. (I'm very talkative)

It has given me real inner peace."

In 9 days I leave for Spirit Rock Meditation Center to do the last retreat of my Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training. While we can talk a bit during the yoga training, the rest of the time we are in silence. I can't tell you how much I love that. But when I tell people that I've been on more than few silent retreats, even yoga teachers say, "no way could I do that."

Those sentiments lead me to thinking about speech in general, but particularly the first principle of ethical conduct in Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path which is RIGHT OR WISE SPEECH.

Silence makes people uncomfortable. I'm not a big talker to begin with, especially around people I don't know, and that makes people uncomfortable.

We had to read Phillip Moffitt's book Dancing With Life: Buddhist Insights for Finding Meaning and Joy in the Face of Suffering for this retreat (and I highly recommend this book.) When I read the chapter on Right Speech I kept nodding my head:

"The practice of right speech is built around meeting three conditions simultaneously:

Say only what is true and useful and timely. If any one of these criteria isn't met, then silence is the wise form of speech. This is such a simple formula and easy to recall even in moments of strong emotion, but it is very hard to execute even under the best conditions, because the grasping mind corrupts speech faster than it does action....

You may not realize the aggressive nature of your speech until you try to make it a mindfulness practice....

Applying the filter of saying only what is useful is even harder. We live in a culture where 'speaking your truth' is promoted as a form of empowerment and good communication. Yet this is not the case if your words don't provide useful information or better understanding....

Practicing right speech includes actively refraining from giving unsolicited opinions or stating your view when it serves no purpose....You also don't use the truth as a weapon for making yourself look better in comparison to another, or to put others in their place...don't use speech to satisfy your ego.

Right speech involves listening from the give full attention to the words of others and listen without judging, preparing a response, or comparing....

You may utilize right speech with others, but have violent, unsettling or crippling interior speech."
(DWL, pp.233-236)

I am the first to admit that my mouth has gotten me into trouble over these many years. Not that I say malicious or hateful things to people, but I am outspoken and am guilty of giving unsolicited advice (especially about yoga.) But the longer I am on this Path, I am much more mindful of things I say. Believe me, I try, and intention and motivation are everything. I think before I open my mouth and if it serves no useful purpose then I usually keep my mouth shut (my friends might disagree with that but they can also keep their mouths shut...;)).

I also pay close attention to when I listen with an open heart. I notice whether I am fully present when someone is speaking to me. I notice whether my Ego is telling me "I wish they'd shut up....hey, I have to get some rice milk on the way home...I have to call...." I think you get the idea. I have heard the Dalai Lama admit that in meetings even he thinks "this is boring. I'm hungry. I want some tea." True story.

Now with the internet and things like blogs and Facebook, it's this Buddhist's opinion that Right or Wise Speech is even more important. Right Speech also refers to the written word.

As bloggers many of us have dealt with trolls on our blogs, people who write nasty comments or argue with everything you write or insult your other readers. Useless.

As for emails I'm sure there is not one person reading this who has not regretted firing off a nasty response to someone and it's come back to bite them in their yoga butt. I am very familiar with that one. I wrote an unflattering email about someone and sent it to the person I was writing about instead of to the person I had intended to send it -- definitely the epitome of mindLESSness, not mindfulness. But I had the guts to own up to it and called the woman to apologize. I knew that this yoga teacher had said some untrue and nasty things about me before I wrote my email but two wrongs don't make a right.

As for blogs, online newspapers, and Facebook and MySpace, we all know the things that are said publicly on those websites. Accusations, misrepresentations, insults, oneupsmanship, always having to get in the last word, you name it. We can agree to disagree but it's good to remember to "say only what is true and useful and timely." As I told my husband four years ago when he was not supportive of my going to India the first time, "if you have nothing positive to say then don't say anything at all."

One of my students told me about her 9 year old niece who she said was out of control ADD. She said that ever since the girl was born there has never been a moment of silence in her brother's house, that a radio or TV is always playing, ever since this girl was one day old. I thought that supported Jon Kabat-Zinn's belief in his book Coming To Our Senses that it is not the ADD child who is dysfunctional, the entire family is dysfunctional -- we are an ADD nation. Think of all the people you see and know who are always texting, talking on a cell phone, or listening to their IPods non-stop. The thought of never being still or silent boggles my mind. We all know people who talk just for the sake of talking and end up saying nothing.

I am far from perfect and it will probably take me another lifetime or two to get over my penchant for sarcasm. I can certainly be the queen of yoga snark. I will always speak my truth but I'm definitely more mindful of what I say and how I say things. Intention and motivation are everything and each moment of mindfulness and awareness is a step closer to awakening. As Sarah Powers said in the last workshop I did with her, her favorite teachers are the ones who are also human as they teach and try to live the dharma. I am certainly human.

09 April 2009

dog face down

This is why my friends in India ask me whether I teach "real yoga" or "American yoga."

Bonding With Their Downward-Facing Humans

"....Call it a yogic twist: Downward-facing dog is no longer just for humans.

Ludicrous? Possibly. Grist for anyone who thinks that dog-owners have taken yoga too far? Perhaps. But nationwide, classes of doga — yoga with dogs, as it is called — are increasing in number and popularity. Since Ms. Caliendo, a certified yoga instructor in Chicago, began to teach doga less than one year ago, her classes have doubled in size.

Not everyone in the yoga community is comfortable with this.

“Doga runs the risk of trivializing yoga by turning a 2,500-year-old practice into a fad,” said Julie Lawrence, 60, a yoga instructor and studio owner in Portland, Ore. “To live in harmony with all beings, including dogs, is a truly yogic principle. But yoga class may not be the most appropriate way to express this....”

Dog Face Down is what one of my students called Downward Facing Dog.

I feel sorry for the spaniel in the middle -- he looks scared and his owner looks a bit intense. Put that dog down and step away from the mat, lady!

Can you do this with your Great Dane? The mind reels.


08 April 2009

talking the talk AND walking the walk

This is yoga.

"Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Hope flickers on
Siteki, Swaziland
4:30 pm 7/04/09

The world is full of tears.

Tears that would overflow the banks of any sea.

And yet I still believe in us. In humanity. In the power of love.

It has only been two days since I've been back on Swazi soil... The red dust is burning my eyes as I write these words at the 'veterinary clinic' which doubles as an internet cafe.

Each morning i spend an hour in clinic, before heading out into the communities to meet the people....

In every hut there is a story of sorrow.

Yesterday we drove up the most inhospitable hill.... Where there was a single hut perched upon rock after jagged rock.

In the hut we found a man with end stage HIV. He was lying naked in his bed, next to a pool of his own wastes.

Every bone in his body, literally every bone was palpable, visible. He had suffered a stroke secondary to complications of HIV/Toxoplasmosis and was unable to move his left side.

One of the wonderful Swazi nurses in the team explained that he had a caring daughter who washed him and fed him each day, but was only able to visit him once a day.

I cant remember a time ive seen someone so hungry.

We gave him an orange. He took it in his skeletal hands and devoured it.

We took out a bag of corn meal and the nurses mixed it with some milk into a paste.

He ate it faster than anything i've ever seen.

He held his hands in prayer and through wide brown eyes filled with tears said "Siyabonga" - Thank you.

There is a story of a sparrow, which my Dad told me once.

He was lying on a gravel road, with his little scrawny legs facing the open sky.

A horseman was walking past and seeing the sparrow, alighted from his horse.

He said "Little Sparrow, are you hurt? Why are lying there so awkwardly? Face up to the sky?"

The sparrow said "I have heard, that sometime today the sky will fall."

The horseman laughed and said "And you think you can keep it from falling with those little legs?"

The sparrow shrugged his shoulders and said "My friend, I will do what I can."

And that is all I am doing. What we are all doing here in this beautiful, little hamlet so filled with pain.

What we can.

From Siteki with love,


And this is Maithri.

My name is Maithri (pronounced MY3), and I'm a medical doctor living in Melbourne Australia.

I return to Swaziland for several months in April of 2009.

Swaziland is a country with the highest prevalence of HIV in the world (42%). 10% of its population are orphaned children.

It serves as a vivid microcosm of the most emergent and under-recognised humanitarian crisis of our generation: the cycle of poverty and HIV infection.

I have never seen grace, power, and hope so eloquently displayed as I have seen it in the lives of these beautiful people.

I want to share their stories with you.

Walk with me.

Together we will find ways of making a change.

My love to you, Maithri


I do not get to Maithri's blog, The Soaring Impulse, as often as I should, but every time I do I am overwhelmed. I don't know if Maithri has ever done an asana in his life, but he is a true yogi in my book. He is a buddha, an awakened one. Each and every one of us could take lessons from this man. He is the epitome of what Krishna speaks of in the Bhagavad Gita, about releasing from the fruits of our actions. If someone told me that I could only teach one class, I can honestly say that the only one I would continue teaching is the one where I am paid nothing -- teaching to women in a domestic violence shelter. Karma yoga.

I am certainly not a holier than thou yogini -- I still get angry and judgmental and I can still swear like a Marine on occasion (albeit all this is much less now) because I am only human. But when I got back home from my first trip to India and re-entered white bread suburban life, my reverse culture shock was severe. It took me about 6 months to get over it. I was not shocked at the poverty in India or being with slum children, far from it. I handled it very well when beggars with half their faces gone from leprosy would grab my arm for a rupee. But what I did not handle very well was the complacency, indeed the ignorance, of my fellow suburbanites.

I remember standing behind a woman and her daughter in a long line and listening to them whining and complaining about everything they were experiencing in the moment. I imagined twitching my nose like Samantha in Bewitched and dropping them in the middle of Chennai without their cell phones, surrounded by starving street dogs and beggars with no legs grabbing at their designer jeans. I wondered how long mother and daughter would survive without their Vuitton purses and Blackberries. I wanted to scream at them, "WAKE UP!"

And I wonder sometimes at how content and grateful yogis (or people who call themselves yoga practitioners) really are. After all, yoga teachers are supposed to be firmly grounded in the yamas and the niyamas and help their students know the santosha, contentment. But it's been my observation over the years that "yogis" are sometimes not very content at all. Especially on retreats. Especially when taken out of their usual environment.

I've been on more than a few retreats with lots of needy yogis. I won't go into specific details but as a kitchen worker doing my seva, if it was up to me there would be a lot less choices for condiments. You'd be happy with ketchup and mustard and salt and pepper. And no white sugar for you. It's bad for you anyway so stop sucking it down like there's no tomorrow. Stop hoarding your food because the cooks really DO make enough for everyone AND YOU ARE NOT STARVING. Has yoga taught you nothing about aparigraha? And you would drink milk one day past its expiration date instead of complaining about it and throwing it out. I am sure the starving man in Maithri's post would love to have that milk.

Two weeks ago I did a weekend training with one of my regular teachers and she told a story about the difference between Buddhist retreatants and yogis (we were talking about accepting things as they are.) She said she had just led a Buddhist retreat at a well-known yoga center with some well-known western Buddhist teachers and a yoga retreat was starting immediately afterward. They were sitting together in the dining hall after their retreat as the students for the yoga retreat were coming in. One of the Buddhist teachers said, " come the yogis. With all their special dietary needs...."

Wheat grass indeed. Yeah, you know who you are. Sometimes it's hard to look into that mirror that's held up to your face.

So this is a long-winded way of saying that next time you can't get your Starbucks mocha frappahooey done just right (OH MY GOD! I SAID TWO SHOTS!!) or you start salivating over the latest Lululemon pants that you have to take out a second mortgage to buy....

think about the dying African who is happy with an orange.

Cut out your Starbucks for a month and make a donation to Maithri's Swaziland Appeal. I did...because I believe in sparrows holding up the sky.

07 April 2009

yoga wisdom from a rabbit

"What is Real?," asked the rabbit one day. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you're made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you...It doesn't happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. Generally by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

--The Velveteen Rabbit

I believe that yoga helps you become real (real-er? more real?) It strips away your layers like the multiple skins of an onion, down to your essence. As the Skin Horse said, Real is a thing that happens to you, you become. Sometimes It sneaks up on you. You can't think your way into being, you can only be. You can't think your way to freedom, you can only be free.

I wrote here about a new spaciousness I have felt recently and it really hits me now and again. This just being is a lightness of being that is freedom, at least for me. The physical sensation of it is floating. Sometimes there are no words for these Things that happen on this Path, but that is my felt sense of it.

I think about people or things that I was very attached to six months ago or even one month ago and those attachments are gone....POOF! they never existed. Those attachments literally brought me to my knees, you have no idea. Of course "they" still exist but it is...different. Transcended. Free.

At my age I'm worn around the edges and yet somehow feel more alive than ever (you hear that Yoga Journal, with your ageist yoga advertising?), even with my aching back (the price of being uber-flexible among other things.) But I am not this Body.

I've been too many years on this earth to care what people think about me anymore. I'm not responsible for anyone's happiness, only my own. I don't tell my students what they want to hear, I tell them what I think they need to hear and what they choose to do is up to them. I am merely a yoga facilitator, I am nobody's guru --- "your breath will change your life"; "mindfulness begins now, not tomorrow"; "detach from the outcome and be free." You can give a person the tools and show them how to use them, but eventually they have to build their own house.

In 7 years of teaching I've had students quit after one class and I have students who've been with me since Day One and I'm grateful for them all. I've heard it said that as teachers we get the students that we deserve. Maybe so. One day not too long ago a (former) private student told me that she did not like the way I worded things, that I was too harsh. That night another student told me that she does not have the words to tell me how much she looks forward to coming to my class every week. Same day, same teacher, same words. My voice off the mat is my voice on the mat.

"....once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

I am not ugly. I am Real.

"I got lucky
I got everything I wanted
I got happy
There wasn't nothing else to do
And I'd be crazy
Not to wonder if I'm worthy
of the part I play
In this dream that's coming true."

--"Pilgrim's Progress", Kris Kristofferson