29 April 2010

holding feet to the fire

I received an email today from Yoga Journal asking my permission to publish my email to them as a letter. This is what I had to say about their ad choices:

"On page 53 of the latest Yoga Journal there's an ad for Slim Quick Ultra Calorie Burner to lose weight. In the same issue there is a story that the healing power of yoga will cure what ails America without pills or surgery.

Some magazines don't accept advertising for products that are anathema to their magazine's philosophy.

Apparently Yoga Journal does not have those same advertising ethics.

I think that Calorie Burner is for everyone who wants to look better in those naked yoga classes.

Just sayin'"

Yoga Journal may not consider moi as having one of the best yoga blogs (but YogaDawg stuck up for me), but they love my letters! Years ago they also published one of mine about how yoga is not one size fits all.

Somebody's gotta do it.....

dharma talk: Michael Stone

What a surprise it was to receive an email from Michael Stone, author of Yoga for a World Out of Balance: Teachings on Ethics and Social Action.

Michael told me that he likes this blog (and it always does this old English major's heart good when published authors tell me they like my writing - he thinks LYJ is "not simply the repetition of familiar yoga cliches") and asked whether I wanted to contribute to the conversation about his book.

I am sorry to say that I have not yet read the book, but I'm getting a copy from the publisher. When read, I will review it here. I am especially interested in his book that will come out in September Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind. The subject is one that is near and dear to my heart, the yoking of yoga and Buddhism:

"Buddhism and yoga share a common history that goes back centuries. But because yoga and Buddhism came to North America from Asia as two separate traditions, their commonalities in the West often seem invisible. Most people choose to study either yoga or Buddhism and generally don’t combine the practices. Michael Stone brings together a collection of intriguing voices to show how Buddhism and yoga really do share the same values and spiritual goals."

In my humble opinion, Patanjali could not have written the Yoga Sutra-s without being a bit influenced by the wandering Buddhist monks during his time. When I sat in my Sutra-s classes I would think "yes! and Buddhism says...." Then in any Buddhism classes I would think, "yes! and the Sutra-s say...." In my own mind, there was never any separation of the two philosophies. As they say in India, "same same but different, madam!"

For those of you interested in this idea, read Chip Hartranft's translation, The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation with Commentary.

Here is an exceptional video of Michael Stone. It's about 30 minutes long, so make some tea, pull up a comfy chair, and listen to a dharma talk on things such as the Self, karma, transcending patterns, and meditation. I like the reference to "heat" in the title since I always tell my students how yoga marinates and cooks us!

Michael Stone Dharma Talk: Let the Heat Kill You from Centre of Gravity on Vimeo.

28 April 2010

if only

©Linda-Sama, 2010, Kolkata Botanical Garden

“If only it were all so simple. If only there were evil people somewhere else insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who among us is willing to destroy a piece of their own heart?” -- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

26 April 2010

more questions than answers

The New York Times article A Yoga Manifesto has really made the rounds of the yoga blogs with each blogger approaching the story a bit differently.

As I wrote here there is a new movement in yoga -- moving away from the rock star yogi mentality to donation-based classes. Yoga to the People in New York City is riding the crest of this new wave.

On the surface I think it's a great idea and I give YTTP founder Greg Gumucio mucho credit for what he has accomplished. I've always thought that yoga should be accessible for everyone and even more so for people in the lower-income bracket. But Roseanne raises an interesting question in her post about YTTP. Roseanne tried a YTTP class and has this to say about it:

"Their “manifesto” sounds good in theory ~ but my understanding of it changed when I actually experienced one of their classes in NYC last month. As I noted, the final effect was “discount” yoga, complete with fluorescent lighting and classic rock radio, rather than the DIY proletariat experience I had expected. After reading this article, I now know where the problem lies: 'High volume is the key to [YTTP founder Greg Gumucio's] business model — he says up to 900 people may go to a Yoga to the People studio in a single day....'

Sure, more people doing yoga is a good thing, but herding hundreds of them through a rotation of anonymous teachers in crowded studio classes… how does that improve the world? Especially when the spirituality, teacher-student relationship and, in my experience, quality are sacrificed in the name of economy."

As I read her post some thoughts popped into my head: how many of the people going to the inexpensive classes can easily afford to pay the standard prices at a yoga studio, such as $15 or $17 a class? Are these inexpensive classes taking away from a small, independent, non-franchised studio that can not afford to price their classes at $8 or another lower rate? And if that small studio closes because of the cheaper competition and yoga teachers lose their jobs because cheap yoga put the studio out of business, how is that a good thing? Should we just chalk that up to good ol' American marketplace economics? Cheaper will always bring in more people but is it really better?

I would rather see people doing donation-based yoga who truly can not afford standard yoga studio prices than the ones who only want a deal.

Living in my suburban area where it is difficult for a yoga studio to survive raised these questions for me. People live in $500,000+ houses (which in my area is a "starter home") and drive Hummers, but many go to health clubs or gyms or park districts for yoga because it's "free" (i.e., part of the membership) or the price is less than $10 a class. I've been teaching a long time and I've heard the rationalization of "why go to a studio when the gym yoga is free?" That attitude is one of the reasons that has kept me from opening a yoga studio -- because there's lots of cheap yoga around. A yoga studio is a business just like any other business and that would not be a good business decision.

Just throwin' the questions out amongst yourselves.

25 April 2010

river of love

Photo by omtapas, 2010, Krishna River, the Lord of Love. from Piduguralla to Malkangiri (Orissa)

in om's words: "I start at 6:30am and after maybe one hour I reach the Krishna River. There is no bridge so I have to wait for the little ferry to reach my side and then the other side. My energy level on those first two days is incredible, I feel as if I am in complete love and that I will see my beloved one at Malkangiri."


Photo by omtapas, 2010. Taken at Malkangiri Lake in Orissa, India.

The photo says peace and serenity. In om's words: "the picture is a nice reflection of Peace to meditate on."

A picture of shanti for Sunday.


Photo by omtapas, 2010. taken in Andhra Pradesh, India

24 April 2010

hand me that Anusara and a chicken wing

When a product with a well-known brand name is seen in a movie or television show, that's called "product placement": "product placement, or embedded marketing, is a form of advertisement, where branded goods or services are placed in a context usually devoid of ads, such as movies, the story line of television shows, or news programs. The product placement is often not disclosed at the time that the good or service is featured." An example of product placement would be when the characters are drinking Budweiser beer and eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and the labels are featured prominately so you don't miss them. Companies typically pay for product placement.

What a surprise then when one of the characters who was under suspicion for murdering his girlfriend in this week's episode of Law and Order: Special Victims' Unit ("Beef") say he was an Anusara yoga teacher. Not just any old yoga teacher, but an ANUSARA yoga teacher. The writers made sure to have the character tell detectives Elliot and Oliva that his yoga teaching was all about "grace" (John Friend's tagline for his trademarked style of yoga) so how could he possibly be a murderer? Wow. It's usually cigarettes and booze that are product placements, but now yoga? in America.

Sounds like someone on the Law and Order: SVU staff digs Anusara because why was character an ANUSARA yoga teacher, not just a plain vanilla yoga teacher? Being an ANUSARA yoga teacher added nothing to the plot, a non-branded yoga teacher character would have worked just the same. Of course, only someone who knows about Anusara yoga and who was listening carefully would have caught the reference. It would have gone over the head of someone who knows nothing about trademarked yoga, but it made me go "hmmmmmm......." Just sayin'.

So it was a breath of fresh air to read the New York Times story A Yoga Manifesto about yoga's "new wave" of "a brewing resistance to...the cult of personality,", i.e., the rock star yogis. Years ago I did a weekend workshop with John Friend before he was filling up the huge halls and he had an entourage of yoga groupies students that would rival any rock star.

From the NYT article:

"And is it surprising that yoga, like so much else in this age of celebrity, now has something of a star system, with yoga teachers now almost as recognizable as Oscar winners? The flowing locks of Rodney Yee. The do-rag bandanna worn by Baron Baptiste. The hyper perpetual calm exhibited by David Life and Sharon Gannon, who taught Sting, Madonna and Russell Simmons. The contortions (and Rolls-Royces) of Bikram Choudhury.

...'The irony is that yoga, and spiritual ideals for which it stands, have become the ultimate commodity,' Mark Singleton, the author of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, wrote in an e-mail message this week. 'Spirituality is a style, and the ‘rock star’ yoga teachers are the style gurus.'"

The article speaks about the success of Yoga to the People, the New York yoga business that is at the forefront of the "no rock star yogis" yoga. While Yoga to the People has a contribution-only, pay-what-you-can fee structure, apparently it's a cash cow for Greg Gumucio. He has three studios in New York (including two hot-yoga studios that charge $8 a class), one in San Francisco, one in Berkeley, and one scheduled to open in Brooklyn. He is considering expanding to Austin, Chicago, and Los Angeles. I say good for him because it's a great idea.

The irony of success is that Greg Gumacio and his brand of "yoga for the people" will become as popular and as well-known as any rock star yogi.

What say you about the mention of Anusara yoga (albeit in an off-hand way) in a primetime television show? Does it go along with what Mark Singleton said in the NY Times article that "yoga, and spiritual ideals for which it stands, have become the ultimate commodity", something to be sold just like a pack of cigarettes or a jeans label? Why not have commercials for all the name brands: Forrest, Jivamukti, Core Fusion, YogaFit, and of course, Bikram. I bet the ad agencies would line up to get a piece of that pie.

This post is not about Anusara yoga or John Friend. Replace those words with any other trademarked and name brand yoga and the post would be the same. The selling of yoga as a commodity.

As Tony Soprano would said, whaddayagonnado?


uh oh....they're on to me! from site meter: "Atlanta, Georgia arrived from on 'linda's yoga journey'." I'd better lock the doors and pull the shades.

....wait...I hear a mob outside....instead of fire and pitchforks they're all holding Shiva's tridents that have been set on fire....quick! help me! they are banging down the doors yelling "GET HER!!" AAAARGHHHHH!! Save yourself!

22 April 2010

yoga ink redux

There are three things that I spend most of my yoga earnings on: more yoga, India, and tattoos.

This is (dare I say it?) the completion of a tattoo project that started in the late 1970s, an era before AIDS when tattoo artists used the same needles on everyone after sterilization in an autoclave. My first artist was named Snake. Snake tattooed that little flower that is to the left of the butterfly. I took some Tylenol with codeine because I was afraid of what a tattoo needle would feel like. That little flower took all of 10 minutes and the codeine didn't kick in until I got back home. Now look at me, and what you see aren't the only ones I have.

It's the Kali yantra surrounded by hibiscus, her flowers. They will be red and "this form of the Kālī yantra is used for her representation as one of the ten Mahavidyas or main forms of additional Shakti triangle is "hidden" by the circle and ring of lotus petals circumscribing the central portion of the yantra. This probably signifies the "hidden" true nature of Devi as Maya (illusion)."

"In the center is a group of five triangles. Each point represents one of the fifteen Kali Nityas or eternities, one for each day of the waning Moon. In the eight petals are eight Bhairavas and eight Bhairavis, coupling together."

"The Kali Yantra contains within it the transformative energy of change.

When we internalize this energy and surrender to its sweet transformative power of love, we begin our inward journey toward healing and spiritual growth. According to the Tantric tradition, the 36 corners of the Yantra represent the 36 principles (tattvas) of creation, from the Most Transcendent to the most minute expression of Materiality. The bindu is the central point, the seat of the soul, the Atman; the internal link with Brahman the Absolute. The bindu is also Kali, and all the phenomenal world emanates out from Her. In the Tantric tradition, Kali as the energy (Shakti) aspect of material nature is united with the Absolute (Shiva) for the sake of creation."

In an arch above the yantra will be "love devotion surrender" in Sanskrit.

Put a fork in it. I'm done.
(tattoos by Serena Lander)

"Sadashiva is without energy (lifeless) when Mahakali is manifest. He also is like a corpse when in union with Shakti. Clearly, without Shakti, the primordial god is lifeless and cannot act." -- Todala Tantra, I

21 April 2010

foreign astanga students: INDIAN VISA ALERT

Over the years I've known more than a few people who have gone to Mysore, India to study at Pattabhi Jois' Ashtanga Yoga Institute, many more than once.

For those of you who want to study yoga in Mysore, be advised that foreign yoga students must now obtain a "yoga" visa instead of a tourist visa:

"From March 2010, all students coming to study at KPJAYI must enter India on a yoga visa, as required by Indian law. You may email for admission letters from our Institute to include with your visa application form to the Indian Embassy in your country. Upon arrival, students should follow the relevant registration formalities with the Foreigners Registration Office (FRO) in Mysore."

Apparently it's not India's immigration department, but the Mysore cops who are the source of this change....


"The booming yoga tourism in Mysore city may take a beating, thanks to a police circular to yoga schools ordering them not to teach foreigners visiting on travel visas.

The schools have been asked to teach only foreigners who arrive on ‘student visa’ or ‘yoga visa’ and to obtain permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs. Besides, police further cautioned the managements of yoga schools in the city that they would face legal action if they violated the order. They have also been asked to furnish to the nearest police station details of foreigners learning yoga on ‘student’ or ‘yoga’ visa with permission obtained from Ministry of Home Affairs."


"The police, who recently sent out a circular instructing the yoga schools in the city to teach only those who arrive on yoga visa or student visa, claim there is more than what meets the eye. Speaking to Deccan Herald, a top source said, at any given point of time, there are 3,000 to 5,000 foreigners living in Mysore on tourist visa, mostly enrolled with different Yoga schools....

While they appear before the police when they arrive in the city, it becomes difficult to trace them afterwards. As a result, the police instructed the hotels to provide them with details of their foreign visitors."

Or you can stay home and study astanga with Madonna.

change is good

It was high time for a change and the original blog designer was nowhere to be found.

Thanks to Blisschick I learned that Blogger had new templates (where have I been?), and Svasti offered her design expertise. Eventually I figured it all out.

Yes, some of the words are a bit hard to read when they are on top of a bird image, but that is my way of focusing your awareness and concentration. Mindful reading. Frankly I find it much easier to read than blogs with black or very dark backgrounds with small light fonts -- they make my eyes cross so I never read them.

Ever since my trip in general and my jump into the Ganges specifically, I have felt things rumbling and tumbling. This new look represents that. Flying birds have always represented freedom to me so they represent my flying to India and flying on my dharmic path. The butterfly in the title represents transformation, all that marinating and cooking. The eyes represent strong purpose.

I surprised myself that I liked all the white space because I love crazy, wild colors, the colors of India. My toenails are always painted hot pink or bright orange. A new me, a new look.

I have felt a need to move away from previous teachings and explore new ones on my next trip to India. I want to apply for the 2011 yoga therapy course at Yoga Vidya Dham. I want to return to the ashram in Haridwar and just BE, soaking everything up like a sponge.

My gut is telling me not to return to teaching in the college in the fall. This semester my friend took over the class for me and the seeds of not wanting to return to it were planted in India. Sometimes when a yoga teacher wants to quit it's not where or what they teach it's who they teach to. I feel like I've done my time with these kids, it's time to move on for ME.

I started teaching a new class in a great space on my terms and I've caught myself wondering "but what about next year when I want to travel?", but the next thought is an equal willingness to give everything up, no attachment. Somehow it is a deep knowing that everything happens when it is supposed to happen and I should be open to it, whatever IT is.

No attachments.

I would rather fail at the right things than succeed at things that are not right for me.

Practice-breath-practice-breath and all things are forthcoming.

19 April 2010

yin-yang yoga and meditation immersion weekend in Brazil

Join me in Sao Paulo, Brazil at YOGA FLOW STUDIO over Memorial Day weekend. I'm doing the same teaching I did in Arusha, Tanzania. If you'd rather experience yin-yang yoga and mindfulness meditation instead of drinking beer and eating hot dogs over Memorial Day weekend, come on down to Brazil!


We will explore both practices of passive (yin) and active (yang) yoga. Yin yoga consists of long-held poses (3-5 minutes) focusing on the connective tissue of the hips, pelvis, and spine. We will passively stretch the tendons and ligaments in order to unblock and distribute chi (prana) throughout the meridians (nadis), clearing blockages, and helping to balance our organ and meridian systems for our general health. This powerful practice opens your body and enlivens your mind for meditation.

A slow flow vinyasa class follows the yin practice visiting the poses that you already love. You will relish the extra space cultivated in the yin poses as you discover a new sense of freedom and grace in yang movement.

Recommended for students of all levels with a “beginner’s mind”, and is especially recommended for athletes and all “stiff” yogis! An open mind, rather than an open body, will deepen the experience of this profound and powerful practice.

8pm to 10pm
Yin Practice + Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is the most natural method for us to see things as they are. Through sustained attention to the unfolding of each moment we learn to abide in the present rather than becoming lost in our memories, desires, and fears. Mindfulness meditation develops equanimity and insight using the yogic path of the Buddha. The physical practice of yoga encourages a holistic experience of the body, heart, and mind. When we bring mindfulness to our yoga practice, we begin to fully inhabit ourselves, learning to come home to our bodies and minds regardless of what is happening in us or to us.

10am to 12:30 pm, Yin + Yang Practice + Mindfulness Meditation
2:30 pm to 5:00 pm, Yin Practice + Mindfulness Meditation
7pm to 9pm, Dharma talk:

"Mindfulness on the Mat: Buddha's Four Foundations of Mindfulness and Your Yoga" --
"Asana is simply another way to practice mindfulness. Buddha taught the Four Foundations of Mindfulness as the basis for establishing mindfulness throughout our daily life. Learn how exploring the Four Foundations of Mindfulness on the body, the feelings, the mind, and the dharma can enrich your yoga experience and cultivate awareness of the union of body-breath-mind."

10am to 12:30 pm, Yin + Yang Practice + Mindfulness Meditation

Ayurvedic and massage treatments will also be available.



18 April 2010

you are what you are seeking

I needed to hear this today at this moment. And I think you do, too.

11 April 2010

the fundies are everywhere

Yes, even in the yoga and meditation worlds.

After my last post about not being allowed to attend a vipassana retreat in the strict Goenka style, one of my long-time readers and supporters, Kevin, sent me this email. I loved what he had to say and he gave me permission to to reprint it.

"I was sorry to hear about your recent encounter with Goenka fundamentalist fervor. I appreciate the fact that that community provides retreats all over the world on a dana basis, but Goenka-ji's virulent fundamentalism and complete misunderstanding of the history of Buddhism generally and Theravada in particular make him about as good an ambassador and spokesperson for Buddhism as Jerry Falwell is for Christianity (I'm not exaggerating).

As an Indian who "found religion" in Burma he has the fervor only converts can have, and he's certainly expressed his contempt for Hinduism, yoga of any sort and all other forms of Buddhism many times. It's clear much of his defensiveness come from the fact that he clearly knows at some level that the particular form of Buddhism he practices and teaches was invented out of whole cloth less than 100 years ago, and has nothing to do with the way meditation is taught in the broader Theravada tradition, let alone the Tibetan or Zen traditions.

The thing is, there is no such thing in the suttas as "vipassana" meditation. Vipassana is insight that arises out of calm abiding (samatha/shamatha) meditation - i.e. anapanasati, or mindfulness of breathing. "Mindfulness" or sati means one thing only: keeping the attention focused on the object of meditation. The superb and well-regarded teacher Thanissaro Bhikku defines this very clearly in the article I've attached (from Insight Journal).

Now what's taught at Spirit Rock is a hybrid of Burmese-style instructions coming from Mahasi Sayadaw and his successors (with Goenka being an offshoot of that) and the Thai forest tradition as represented by Ajahn Chah, which teaches and practices samatha and vipassana the way it is presented in the suttas. The Tibetan tradition preserves the original progression as well: you learn calm abiding (shamatha) and do that for a long time, until the mind is stabilized enough for vipashyana (with Dzogchen and Mahamudra being the ultimate such practices).

The Burmese aberration happened because meditation practice altogether had been lost in Burma by the middle half of the 20th century. The whole tradition had become completely scholastic. The philosophical perspective and techniques they came up with are based on the abhidhamma, with its theory of mind-moments, and in particular on the Visuddhimagga. To put it another way, what Goenka presents as the definitive and original teachings of the Buddha is a lineage-less aberration invented out of whole cloth by scholars who at least had the good sense they needed to learn hot to meditate.

Jack Kornfield goes into huge challenges they had trying to integrate contradictory teachings in his recent article on the history of Spirit Rock, which I've also attached.

As someone who really loves the Theravada tradition but who came to it after years of practicing in the Tibetan tradition it kind of drove me crazy to see the total lack of clarity about what is and isn't mindfulness and how concentration practice differs from insight. I finally got to the root of the problem when I read the fantastic book A History of Mindfulness: How Insight bested Concentration by Sujato Bhikku (who, intellect-wise, is the Ken Wilber of Theravada Buddhism). I think anyone who teaches dharma should be required to read this book, which can be downloaded here:

The fact that Goenka's clueless staff person said you can't practice mindfulness on one of their "vipassana" retreats just floors me. What a bunch of Moonies! Well, it's their huge loss since you are knee-deep in the middle of the transformative yoga and meditation practice that the Buddha himself lived."

After his email I told Kevin that I just love it all. I am "officially" Buddhist since I've taken both the Five and the Eight Precepts in ceremonies, but I love Kali Ma. The shakti blasts that hit me in certain temples in India are too much for me to ignore. I am not going to choose ONLY ONE WAY, I don't see why I should. It's all good in my book. I've been in the Dalai Lama's as well as Gelek Rimpoche's teachings which are Mahayana Buddhism and I study with a Sri Lankan Theravadan Buddhist monk, but sometimes when I sit Kali's mantra reverberates loudly inside. I certainly don't feel "confused" as was implied by the vipassana fundie. I feel peace.

"The winds of grace are always blowing, but you have to raise the sail." -- Ramakrishna

This was Kevin's response:

"Alan Wallace...has become my favorite meditation teacher over the past few years. In person I find him even clearer than Tibetan teachers I love such as Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche and others. One really cool thing about Alan is during his 14 years as a monk he not only did Goenka retreats but also studied with a Sri Lankan master for the better part of a year, doing classic breath meditation the way the Buddha taught. There's a fantastic contemporary teacher names Leigh Brasington (great web site too: who specializes in teaching samatha and jhana in the old way, and he is the dharma heir to the wonderful Ayya Khemma, who also got all her training in Sri Lanka. My point is in connecting with your Sri Lankan teacher - and of course Bhante Gunaratana is another great example - you are connecting with the oldest strains of Theravada there are, unadulterated for the most part with the stuff they came up with in Burma in the 1950's (though there are Goenka and Mahasi places even in Sri Lanka now).

I'm with you 100% on being open to anything that liberates. Yes I am a Buddhist, but to me that means (as I say when I do the refuge every day) "I take refuge in the teachings and practices that lead to lasting freedom and happiness."

Patanjali, Sri Krishnamacharya and his successors, Shankaracharya and Ramani Maharishi, Sri Nisardatta Maharaj and countless liberated beings from various traditions throughout the motherland of India are just as much a part of that refuge for me as Lord Buddha - and I don't think he would have wanted it any other way."

Neither do I.

(correction: Goenka-ji was born in Burma to Indian (and Hindu) parents. The comment about the fervor of converts still very much applies.))

09 April 2010

I've been kicked out of better places than this

OK, I really wasn't kicked out. I just wasn't let in.

In 2006 I did my first 10 day silent vipassana retreat here that is in the strict Goenka tradition. A requirement of the Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training that I did at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California was that one had to sit a 5 day or longer vipassana retreat.

The vipassana retreat was my first long silent retreat and it was the hardest thing I have ever done but the most transformative. I went through 6 days of hell, but on the 7th was reborn, so to speak. I ended up loving my experience. In fact, if I had my own yoga teacher training program a vipassana retreat would be one of the requirements for certification, that's how important I think it is. If you want my piece of paper you would have to sit in silence 10 hours a day for 10 days, no excuses.

I've always wanted to return. When I came back from India I felt the need to sit intensely like that and desired the structure of the retreat, don't ask me why. I wanted to do a three day retreat instead of a 10 day so I applied for a sit in August. If you go to the Illinois website you can see what the lengthy application is all about. They ask you lots of questions about your practice, if you have done any other meditation styles, if you teach any other meditation styles, plus the usual questions about your mental health since strict vipassana is a very intense practice. After writing the application you are then called for a telephone interview.

So being the good yogini that I am I was honest. You know, that whole satya thing. I wrote about my retreats and training at Spirit Rock, who the teachers were, that I am a yoga teacher, that I incorporate meditation in my classes, and that I teach mindfulness meditation.

A very nice woman called to interview me and she was very impressed with my application commenting on everything I have done. She said I could do the retreat as long as I understood not to "mix" my mindfulness meditation with the vipassana practice. I said that I totally understood that and she said I could go on the retreat.

She called me yesterday with the bad news: I could not attend the retreat. Instead of becoming angry or disappointed, feelings of amusement arose. I REALLY wanted to do this retreat (and some of you might think I'm nuts for REALLY wanting to sit 10 hours a day), but for some reason I thought it was hilarious. Maybe it was the woman's voice. Ginger had the stereotypical voice of a grandmother that you might hear in cartoons. It was classic and precious. How could I get angry at her and besides, what would be the point? She was just following Goenka's rules. Don't kill the messenger.

She told me that she looked at my website and was very impressed with my "accomplishments" in yoga teaching and that I trained at Spirit Rock and go to India to study yoga. But I don't consider myself "special", I just do what I do. I thought, so just because I've done the training that I've done, that means I can't do a 3 day vipassana retreat, something that I really want to do? I mean, I don't know very many people who would subject themselves to a strict vipassana retreat. In fact, most yogis I know would probably prefer to hang upside down over a fire. WHAT DO YOU MEAN I CAN'T GO?!?

I tried not to chuckle. Ginger sounded so sincere in her compliments about my yoga and meditation practices, how could I dare laugh? She said it was BECAUSE I teach mindfulness meditation that I can't go. She said that Goenka was very strict about the mixing of any other practice with vipassana (which I already knew) and her supervisor was afraid that I would mix everything up and get "confused" (and go nuts -- the teachers are afraid people will freak out because vipassana is an intense practice.) Please stay home she told me.

The bottom line is that one has to make a choice. It's either a strict vipassana practice or the highway. None of this take one from column A and one from column B. I told Ginger, yeah, but the roots of mindfulness meditation are in vipassana. "Yes, dear, we know," she said, "but unless you make a choice of what practice you want to do, you can never come back here. Go to Barre instead." Goenka, via Ginger, banished me to the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. I hung my head. Oh, the shame of it all.

Damn it. I'm banned from every vipassana center in the known and unknown Universe! Sigh. I was really looking forward to all those kriya nightmares ridding me of my samskaras. Mara won't be visiting me in my dreams now.

So much for honesty is the best policy. If I had said nothing about everything I have done since my first retreat, I would have gotten in. I should have kept my mouth shut.

Well, you know what, Goenka? According to your rules, one is not supposed to do any yoga on a vipassana retreat. But listen up, dude -- you know that 4 AM wake up call to sit? I blew that off every day and DID MY YOGA IN MY ROOM!! Yeah, that's right, I broke the rules!

Gee...ya think they found out about that?

08 April 2010

join the fan club!

Check out this blog's new fan page on Facebook and post your favorite yoga rants and musings from the last five years.

See you there!

05 April 2010

the surrealistic version of Eat Pray Love

I've always received messages in my meditations. Some might call them visions although that is too strong a word for me because I certainly don't consider myself any type of psychic. I do get flashes of peoples' lives when I do energy healing -- I usually don't tell them what I see but when I do it is always confirmed. But for the longest time a picture came into my head of an older me, with long gray curly hair, wearing orange robes and sitting with my eyes closed on a ghat somewhere in India. I don't know if it is a picture of the future or from the past. When I first started to receive these images I did not know what a ghat was and India was not even a thought in my mind.

After five years of going to India this was my first trip to north India, to the Ganges. When I walked onto our hotel terrace overlooking the river in Haridwar it took my breath away. I stood there amazed because I instantly knew I had been there before. I have written before about how for the past two years I knew in my bones I had to be at THIS Kumbh Mela at THIS time in my life. Nothing was going to stop me.

I stood there for a long time taking everything in and it was such a deep, visceral knowing that I could only compare it to when my feet first hit the ground in Chennai five years ago, the feeling that I had come home. Everything that was in my view I had already seen and known. There was no mistake about it, I had already been here, in this spot. It was the week of Mahashivaratri and the orange robes of the sadhus across the river looked so familiar to me on a level that was very different from seeing them in photographs.

Before the Mela we had been in Kolkata where we went to Kalighat. When I walked into that temple I received such a blast of shakti that I had to sit down before I fell down. When we were in the inner chamber itself my friend told me that my eyes were so dilated that I looked like I had dropped a hit of acid. The cockroaches crawling all over the metal grill surrounding the murthi of Kali Ma sparkled so brightly that they looked like crawling jewels. I mentioned them to my friend but she could not see what I saw.

After we made our offering and the priests thumped our foreheads we walked around and came to the area where the goats are sacrificed. The idea of an animal or a human dying for the Divine is abhorrent to me but I take many things in stride in India. If the thought of legless and deformed beggars or slum children pulling on your sleeve for a rupee is too much, then India is not the place for you.

I watched a woman butchering the meat as stray dogs gathered waiting for a morsel of goat to drop. Goat heads with blank staring eyes lined the edge of the sacrificial platform and I looked at the dogs. In my shakti induced high their panting mouths seemed to be smiling. Kalighat is next door to where Mother Theresa tended to the dying whether they were Christian, Hindu, or Muslim, and instead of feelings of revulsion about the decapitated goats, I took in the entire scene and all I felt was pure love. In the Bengali tradition, the goal of the Kali devotee is to become reconciled with death and to learn acceptance of the way that things are. The love that I felt was raw and primal and my heart space filled with the fire of bhakti. I felt as if I were on fire. I felt extraordinarily alive.

All the people who had died next door, all the goats who had given their lives for the Mother, all those dogs who were going to eat. It was my own surrealistic version of Eat Pray Love.

I was filled with joy.

On Mahashivatri we watched the procession of the naga babas to the Ganges and I knew that I had never been to such a joyful event in my life.

devotees of a swami

Our hotel in Haridwar had its own ghat and after the naga babas took their bath on Mahashivaratri I walked down the steps into the Ganges and dunked myself three times. We had already been in Haridwar for five days but I wanted to wait until the day that Shiva married Parvati to really feel the river. I had immediately felt the energy of the river just standing on the terrace on the first day so I knew it would be even more energized after the holy men bathed.

I was right. During my third dunk I stayed underwater a bit longer and I felt electric. I came out and sat on the steps with my feet in the water. Bathing in the river is thought to wash away one's sins, a death, so to speak ("you will die in India....") The waters of the Ganges are called amrita, the "nectar of immortality". Hindus believe that there is nothing as cleansing as the living waters of Ganga Ma. I wanted to sit there all day with the water on my skin. Something was coursing through me and once again all I felt was joy. Our true nature.

As it turned out it was an auspicious day for me because that night I met a swami of the highest order, a man who is the Acharya Mahamandaleshwar of the Juna Akhara.

That morning he had thrown a rose to me from the procession -- he stopped his chariot, looked right at me, threw the flower and smiled, and then moved on. At that time I did not know that in the afternoon I would be invited to a special puja that night at his ashram, the oldest one in Haridwar. A mantra teacher friend from Mumbai sent me a text telling me he was staying at an ashram and would I like to come for a special Mahashivaratri puja. He said he would be chanting during the ceremony and maybe I would be interested. I had no idea that he was staying in the ashram of the rose throwing swami, I did not even know the swami's name. Before I left my friend said, "what if it's the swami from this morning?" I told her that would be too much of a coincidence -- but there are no coincidences, all things happen for a reason.

When the rickshaw arrived at the ashram that night and I saw the picture of the swami who threw the rose, I froze in my seat. I couldn't believe it. Once again that shakti blast pieced the coconut and all I could do was stare at the billboard with his picture. I sat there for so long that some of the devotees asked me if I was alright. I walked into the ashram grounds and eventually was taken back into the swami's compound before the start of the puja. Nothing was planned, everything just happened, merely the flow of the experience, the essence of allowing things to unfold. I was told that night that it was my good karma to be there, that I was meant to be there from the moment I caught that rose. I returned every day to the ashram before we left Haridwar.

For whatever reason, maybe it was my jump into the Ganges, but my personal practice and my yoga teaching have changed. I really can't describe it, but the energetics have changed, even my students say so. I've read that when shifts of consciousness occur it changes your DNA.

The new message I received during my recent meditations was that the day I stop teaching here will be the beginning of my Indian life. But not yet. I still have some cooking to do, it will take a few more years. I'm coming to end of my marinating and it's nice to begin to see what the feast is going to look like. Or not. That's OK, too. Kali is said to not give what is expected. It is said that perhaps it is her refusal to do so that enables her devotees to reflect on dimensions of themselves and of reality that go beyond the material world.

Everything with a grain of salt. All things happen when they are ready to happen. They always have.

03 April 2010

from sadhus to zebras, part 2

After spending five nights on Zanzibar -- no internet, no phones, just lots of sun and beach and alone time and daily power cuts and one day of the Zanzibar version of Delhi Belly -- I flew to Arusha via Dar es Salaam to lead my yin-yang yoga retreat.

Years ago an akashic record reader told me that something so potent would occur during one of my trips to India (this was before the Kumbh Mela was even a thought in my mind) that I would have to go a "green place with palm trees" in order to recoup. Yep, that happened. Everything that spiritual adepts told me would happen, did happen on this trip.

I have to say that if I hear anyone whine about how terrible airport security and the TSA are in American airports, they are getting one tight slap (and if you know old Bollywood movies you know what that is.) AMERICANS HAVE NOTHING TO COMPLAIN ABOUT REGARDING AIRPORT SECURITY, so get over it, keep your mouths shut, and get on the planes. Until you've flown through African airports, you have nothing to say. For one thing, you are x-rayed twice, once going into the airport and again before your gate. If you are lucky, you won't get your carry-on searched. In detail. So shut up.

I spent two days chillaxin' at my friend Pat's house before we left for her friend's property where I was to teach. The retreat started on a Friday night, but Pat asked me to guest teach her class the night before. I taught the class by candlelight and flashlight because the electricity AND the lodge's generator went out. I just went with the flow and it was a great experience! During savasana I chased inch-long black ants away from one student who had baggy shorts on -- didn't want one of those humongous ants crawling up his shorts and biting his asana or worse!

I was blessed that the weekend was a screaming success. I did two dharma talks and four yoga sessions and each one was filled with 17-20 people each. Not too shabby for my first global teaching experience.

Of course the energy was very different -- different students, different cultures, a different country. There were a few Americans, but most were British and Dutch ex-pats with varying degrees of yoga experience, however, many did not have a consistent meditation practice. That's where I tweaked them.

My first talk on Friday night was "Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation" and I felt like crap. After all my traveling I had finally hit the wall and my stomach had started bothering me again. All I wanted to do was sleep and this was only 7 at night. It was also obvious to me that these yoga students were not accustomed to sitting and listening. One woman was trouble -- if you teach long enough you can figure out in a heartbeat who's going to be a challenge as soon as they open their mouth. Pat even got upset about how rude this woman was and how fidgety the students were. I let it all wash over me. Everything is temporary.

I wouldn't exactly call this woman rude but I could tell she had some type of anger and control issues. She asked questions not to learn more but to challenge me and then she eventually walked out on the Friday night talk. Her husband came with her for the yoga sessions and the funny thing was, he was the exact opposite of her -- he was funny, kind, and self-deprecating. As it turned out, by the end of the weekend she had softened up a bit. I had directed some of my dharma talks on JUDGMENT to her during the yin sessions. She ended up thanking me for the weekend and wrote down the name of the book I had read from. Everything is a teaching, even for the teacher.

The morning sessions were yin yoga plus vinyasa and the afternoons were all yin yoga. All sessions included mindfulness meditation. During the first session on Saturday a most wondrous and serendipitous thing happened: zebras walked through the retreat. I was teaching the vinyasa portion and I saw the zebras and stopped everything. I pulled out my camera and said that I had to take a picture because no one back home would believe it. Teaching here just isn't the same, believe me!

I could tell that few had experience with mindfulness meditation, so I thought I would take them out of their comfort zone. After the first session on the first day, I told them that since the weekend started out with a talk on mindfulness, I wanted them to keep mauna between the sessions and if they could not do that, then at least practice mindfulness as much as they could. I gave them examples such as keeping their voices low, deeply listening to someone, not interrupting when someone was talking to them, and mindfully chewing their lunch.

Some looked shocked but they tried it. Most were into it, but I saw a few reading books and texting at the same time. I tried the mindfulness experiment on the second day between sessions, but many blew it off. The funny thing was that on the second day those who weren't into the meditation part did not even try to hide it.

I would have them sit for about 20 minutes at the end of each session. Eventually I would open my eyes a bit and I saw people with their eyes wide open big as day, looking around, adjusting their clothes, scratching an itch, or picking their feet. It's always the feet-pickers who get me (and you know who you are.) Hey, if you're not even going to try to sit in stillness, then sit quietly with your eyes closed and stop squirming around like some two year old kid with ADHD.

At one point I also had them do a 30 minute walking meditation which had profound impacts on some people. The majority had never done walking meditation before and they liked it. Probably because they weren't sitting still!

I loved teaching to a totally different group of people. Even though they were westerners, they were still different compared to American yoga students, at least my students back home (mine are much more mindful!)

I must say that after being in Arusha I can see why people there are fidgety and easily distracted. While the area outside the city is a wonderland of indescribable beauty, the energy I felt in Nairobi and Arusha was one of underlying violence waiting to happen. I couldn't shake it. Some people told me that they felt Kenya will be the next country with a genocide, it's just a matter of time.

The fact of the matter is that all these westerners, even if they have lived in Tanzania for 20 years, could be kicked out if the government decides they no longer want non-Tanzanians in the country. I saw buildings with huge red Xs on them. Pat told me if the Arusha city government decides it wants to widen a street, your building will be Xed and knocked down at a moment's notice with everything inside. You can come home from work one day and no longer have a home. One of the students ran a restaurant and his building was knocked down just a few weeks before. Poof, gone.

Pat will soon move to a town outside of Durban, South Africa. Her and her husband have lived in Arusha for 15 years, but she told me that it has never felt like home. Pat will build her own yoga shala somewhere on their land so she can teach and she has asked me to come back and do another retreat. Who knows? Maybe next year. I know there is at least one yogi in Durban because someone from there did a search for "Mark Whitwell" and found this blog!

We went on a 48 hour safari after the retreat. On the second day we went to Ngorongoro Crater, the place where humankind took its first steps. When you are witnessing the beginnings of the wildebeast migration, an event that has been going on for thousands of years, and all you can hear are the animals, the wind, and your breath, it does something to you on a primal level. I was told I would die in India and be reborn in Africa. I now know what that meant.

I don't think Africa will ever be my India, but with an open heart I look forward to returning. I am very grateful for having this opportunity that was set in motion five years ago. Hari om.

"We are stardust, we are golden,
We are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Well, then can I roam beside you?
I have come to lose the smog,
And I feel myself a cog in somethin' turning.
And maybe it's the time of year,
Yes and maybe it's the time of man.
And I don't know who I am,
But life is for learning..."