Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Many of us operate from the perspective of good is good and bad is bad. This black and white way of looking at the world, at people, experiences and emotions, is terribly limiting in my humble opinion. This being my blog, I have carte blanche for the content to be chock full of exactly that ;-)
Anyone who has been through something seemingly bad and come out the other side must have something good to say about it. Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, you made it through, there was something to be learned or gained through the struggle, whether for you personally or to the benefit of others, and you're here to tell the tale. Where is the bad in that outcome?
Now, I'm not denying there are things in life that just suck. And that's ok. We need to experience the suck just as much as the luck. One allows us to better appreciate the other. The trick is to not allow yourself to become so consumed, so single-mindedly focused on the perceived negative that you miss out on the opportunities for so much positive to flow into your life.
All this is on my mind because a week ago today, as I was processing my emotions on the four-year anniversary of my father's death, I received the news that my best friend has breast cancer. What kind of cruel irony was this? Cancer had already taken my father, and my grandmother years before. Now my best friend was facing the same demon? I'd had my own scare last year, going all the way to the point of a lumpectomy in order to find out I had a perfectly clean bill of health. Why was she being met with this outcome? Why cancer? Why her? Why now?
Somehow this news was even worse than the times that damn "C word" had appeared on my immediate, personal radar before. This time it was my contemporary, my confidant, someone I identify with and relate to so much because she and I have been bound in a precious way for the past fifteen years as only true soul friends can be. We live very different lives on the outside, but few people know my heart better than her and there are few people that I love more.
She is 34-years old, beautiful and kind. She is the most devoted mother to two ridiculously adorable, intelligent children and, what is perhaps the hardest part for all of us who have an emotional stake in this, she is in her third trimester of her third pregnancy, so everything that has to happen now must take her life and well being into consideration as well as that of her unborn child.
There may not be much that seems good about this news on its surface. In fact it absolutely sucks. But that is exactly why we are taught not to judge a book by its cover. That applies to more than just people. It applies to life circumstances as well. And that is exactly what's been coming through so strongly for me in the week since receiving this game-changing news. Bad news doesn't have to be all bad. There is ALWAYS something good to be appreciated in every situation.
After my initial tears dried and I was able to hold the space of strength and compassion she needed and deserved, that is exactly what I stepped up to do. I listened to her cry in a way I had never heard from her before. It was so raw, deep and heart wrenching. Her fear, her pain and her love were all swirling together in this moment of pure truth. And equally truthful was the way she brought all that emotion under complete control as the sweet mommy tone returned to her voice when one of her kids needed her. I knew in that instant she'd be just fine, as would everyone who loves her, and moreover, there was tremendous growth and opportunity laid out before her.
When the worst possible circumstances you can imagine arise, the sun still shines, children still maintain their innocence and curiosity, love still courses through us. Joy can be felt alongside grief, strength alongside weakness. What begins as our darkest hour very often leads us to shine our brightest light. And all of it is temporary, all of it subject to change. Love remains constant, though it too has the ability to expand and take on new forms. We need these moments that suck so we can be lucky enough to experience love in its fullest, richest potential. It's how we are reminded that there is no separation from the love we feel, give and receive, and that which we truly are.
Friday, May 31, 2013
Being alone and being lonely are not the same thing. That's a concept I've explored throughout my adult life because, even if I grasped it intellectually, I didn't always feel it viscerally. There have been periods of time when solitude has been my most welcome and treasured friend, and other times when it was all but intolerable.
As children, it's natural, effortless and genuinely pleasurable to be alone with ourselves, making up games, letting our dreams play out on the stage of our imagination, innate creativity simply pouring through us. We live for ourselves, we live authentically and in our true state of grace. It's divine. Then we begin to develop attachments to people and external distractions and stimulus, and for some of us, a dependency forms. We take on the standards and ideals of others as our own. We forget how to be alone and the joy it brings, and as a result, we fill our days and our lives full of things and people that don't necessarily fill us up in a meaningful way.
But meaning is subjective. Each of us, a unique soul living a unique earthly life, finds meaning in different pursuits, experiences and relationships. And in the course of that life one's own definition of meaningfulness is likely to change. What once thrilled us no longer ignites the same spark. The love so warmly felt toward another grows cold. Goals that seemed to worthy of all our efforts just to reach them suddenly lose their importance.
Lately I've been reflecting often about what and who I fill my life with. Why am I doing what I'm doing? What do I really want, and who do I want to be? My definition of meaning has evolved radically, especially over the last few years, even the last few months, and it has prompted me to look hard and deep within.
I've been balancing what, by most standards, is a very successful career with the pursuit of my passions for yoga and travel. I'm about to have my eight-year anniversary with my employer. I earn a respectable salary, especially for a single woman with no children, and I get to do a corporate job, with its benefits, from the comfort of my own home and rack up personal airline miles from all my business travel. I teach and take multiple yoga classes a week. I've been able to travel to beautiful, far-flung destinations and have amazing experiences thanks to all my job has afforded me. I've even been able to slowly nurture my side business, Ocean Om, to the point where it is really gaining traction and growing. Not a bad deal, right?
For a long time I certainly didn't think it was. I thought it was a great deal! I considered myself so very blessed to strike that balance and live such a full life. Especially after my divorce, it was gratifying for me to see just how awesome of a life I could provide for myself all on my own. I thrived. My social circle expanded exponentially. My passport got quite a few new stamps. I'd never been happier.
Then began the shift. It started slowly, making brief appearances, bringing on the hazy veil of a funk or the nagging urge to shake things up. So I'd take a trip or I'd start a new project or I'd find myself newly enamored of my latest flame. And that would clear the fog and the funk away, for a while anyhow. But it would come back. And I'd repeat the same remedies. You can get the gist of the cycle. And perhaps you've heard what they say: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, yet expecting a different outcome.
I'm not insane (or so I think!) but living that way certainly was. Then a light went off for me, and suddenly I realized I was living a life dictated in large part by priorities that were no longer current or meaningful to me. I began my career as a young newlywed who unfailingly wanted to start a family. I was determined to have a stable, lucrative professional life so my future children would have whatever was within my power to give them. I hadn't fully tapped into my spirituality, heck I'd barely scratched its surface at that time of my life, and I was so afraid of being lonely that I couldn't fathom the thought of being alone.
That is not the woman who is writing these words right now. This woman has reconsidered her ideas about marriage and family, taking a much softer and broader approach to the many shapes they can come in and the timing involved. She is deeply committed to her spiritual path and practice, and knows living fully and authentically in that faith, letting her every offering be one to the greater good, is what she really wants to work toward. She has learned to embrace and enjoy the pleasures of being alone, and to distinguish loneliness from solitude, honoring her desires for connection, intimacy and partnership alongside her need for private space and time.
That woman is me now. I know who am I and where I want to go. I know what holds meaning for me. And I know there is a major leap of faith on my horizon in order for all of this to fully align, in order for me to feel full and fulfilled by each aspect of my life. While our definitions of what is meaningful might be very subjective and change along the way, the end game is the same for us all. We seek nothing more and nothing less than happiness. That is our true nature. We are all on a journey back to that place. And if we can get clarity around the self-imposed fears, limitations and attachments that stand between us and our happiness, it is ours to be had.
Monday, May 27, 2013
There seem to be two competing schools of thought on the matter of returning to the place from where you came: you can never go back and you can always go home. I'd always put myself in the former, practically speaking because I don’t have my happily married, aging parents living in the sunlit house where I spent my formidable years. That house never existed. My parents weren’t happily married though they did manage to last more than 35 years together. My father passed away almost four years ago, and since then my mother has moved four times, most recently under my roof and then to share a home with my brother.
If a tinge of cynicism or resentment came through when I described my familial situation, you read right. My feelings about it all are the hard truth that I just recently came to acknowledge during the two and a half months my mother and I shared a home for the first time in fifteen years. As someone who intellectually understands that looking at the world and living from a space of lack is simply not good in any which way, it was a pretty devastating blow to come to grips with when I recognized that, emotionally, there is a child within me who is in pain over a perceived sense of lack, and I have much healing and growing to do in this area.
For as long as I can remember, I have been independent and self sufficient to an extreme. Couple that with intelligence and a “wise beyond her years” persona, and I never had trouble advancing in life or holding my own. When you’re known as the smart one, the strong one, the one who gets things done, people start to forget that you might need someone to be smart and strong and get things done for you from time to time. But more importantly, you yourself can start to forget that. I’d have moments of feeling this way, but they were always fleeting, and then I’d draw on my resolve, my spirituality, my firm knowledge of the fact that no one is responsible for my happiness except for me to keep moving forward.
Then my mom came to stay with me temporarily, and the game changed. It was an interim period between her moving out of the nearby apartment I’d set her up in a little over a year prior to now moving across the country to be a full-time grandmother to my brother and sister-in-law’s tiny little miracles. This was an exciting time for our family as a whole. They were buying the sort of dream home you raise a family in that their kids might look back on one day as adults and recall backyard cookouts and neighborhood shenanigans. My mother was finally going to have a sense of purpose in her role as “Bubbee” (grandmother in Yiddish) after years of struggling hard to find steady ground and meaning. And I was going to have the freedom to travel more, maybe relocate and live my life the way I want to as a single, early 30-something without concern over mothering my early 60-something mom.
My initial enthusiasm for mom coming to stay under my roof wore off quickly. My house is setup for one, not two. And for every ounce of self-sufficiency I possess, she possesses an equal if not greater measure of need. Her life long battle with severe and chronic depression and anxiety has left her far less competent as the years have gone by than she was when I was younger. And even the little things, like a trip to the grocery store, preparing a simple meal, cleaning the house, became tasks that required detailed instruction and hand holding. All of a sudden, mothering my mother wasn’t a metaphor, it was a reality, and I wasn’t dealing with it anywhere near as gracefully as I’d imagined I would be able to.
Here I was, established in my yoga practice, a regular meditator, a proponent of conscious, healthy living, non-judgment, kindness and compassion, and the person who deserves the best of me, the person who brought me into this world, was getting my dark side. In response to her near constant need and genuine confusion over things I deemed so basic, my fuse was short, my patience ran thin, I’d snap too quickly and then find myself feeling terrible for having been so short on grace and compassion toward her. And yet she showed such tremendous grace and compassion toward me. She didn’t snap back. She was endlessly considerate of the fact that I had a million things to do and her needs and tasks were just a few among them. She simply tried her very best to give all the love she could, help in whatever small ways she was able and whether consciously or not, was patient while I worked through the wounds of my inner child that were being revealed in order that they could be healed.
One morning just a few days before her departure, I had a massive breakdown. Sitting at my altar, chanting mantras to the Divine Mother, I was overcome by tears. There was no gentle trickle happening there. This was my body racked by sobs, breath gasping and heaving in my chest, hot tears spilling down my cheeks onto the prayer shawl wrapped around me for protection. This was crying the way a despondent child cries for her mother. I was that child. I still am. Only now, I know why she is hurting, and I can help her heal. I can bring her to her mother.
I realized in those moments of grief and sadness that I was refusing to accept my mother’s love, grace and compassion because it didn’t come packaged in the way I thought a mother’s love should. At some point throughout the years I created this perception of lack and alienated myself from my mother's love. I’ve carried the pain of that separation inside for all this time. The emotional scars remained even as my intellectual understanding of these things changed. And now it was as if a dam had burst open in my heart, the darkness flooding out and the light flooding in.
My mom may not have what it takes to take care of me in the traditional sense, but she has more love for me than anyone on this planet. She is my cheerleader, my teacher and my confidant. If I’d let her, she’d bring nothing but that light into my life, the Divine light she carries within that I was refusing to see. Sure, she’s still going to need me a little more than I might want to be needed, ask questions that I think she really ought to know the answer to, and do things that might cause a mother to get on a daughter’s nerves. But I can choose how I perceive her and our relationship, I can choose to see that I do have someone I can count on for love and support, I do have a home I can go back to, and that home lives in her heart. My mother gave me that gift, and will continue to give it for as long as we live. For that I am so very grateful.
Tuesday, February 5, 2013
As I recently read an article in Yoga International about satsang, directly following a poignant conversation with a friend and fellow bhakta about the loss of one of our community’s great souls, I began to ponder the depth and significance of this concept. Satsang is usually translated as “good company” or “company of the wise”, its root stemming from the Sanskrit words sanga (a union or meeting) and sat (truth). Funny how you can intellectually understand the definition of a word for so long, but it isn’t until the Universe provides you with direct experience that your heart truly comes to know its meaning.
I just returned from my maiden voyage to Mother India. Yoga has been in my life loosely for around fifteen years, shifting to a major focus over the last six or seven. It started with just asana, seeing the practice as nothing more than exercise, until the time came when I was ready for a spiritual awakening and so the Universe provided it. We say life works in mysterious ways, which it often does, but sometimes it isn’t so hard to see how things unfold precisely when and how we need them to.
My path shifted from gross to subtle as I began to tune into the enchanting mantras that certain teachers would play during a pumping vinyasa class, and before long I was studying mantra and chanting myself. I started regularly attending what we call “satsang”, a weekly gathering for meditation and kirtan at the yoga studio I’ve now called my home and taught at for five years. Then came the yoga conferences and eventually the festivals and retreats.
It was during an indescribably beautiful Omega Institute retreat at Blue Spirit in Nosara, Costa Rica that I first met Shyamdas. Admittedly, the thought of a week with Sharon Gannon and David Life leading the asana practice, and Deva Premal and Miten chanting was what had attracted me to this incredible gathering. It was my 30th birthday present to myself. I was going to paradise, and I was ecstatic.
Ecstatic is another word that took on a whole new meaning for me that week when I came to know Shyamdas. This unassuming man wasn’t just some guy filling in the agenda between the Jivamukti and kirtan superstars. He was the glue holding everything and everyone together, as I’d learn in later experiences is pretty much the role he played everywhere he went. Shyamdas was many things to many people: teacher, mentor, friend, guide, brother, father, son. He was, and is, beloved by so very many, I believe because he has the rare and powerful gift to share his ecstatic energy through his sheer presence and bring all those around him into a space of satsang, a state of grace. Never had I met someone who radiated such humility, enthusiasm and pure, true light.
During that week at Blue Spirit I made many friends and many memories. In the time since, the one I held closest was sitting at breakfast with Shyam just talking. You could pose any question or introduce any subject, and then just sit back and enjoy the ride he’d take you on discussing it. Only the depth of his passion rivaled his depth of knowledge. And when he began with the lilas and led us in chanting of mantras, we all joined him in the bhav, transported to another space and time. To know him was to love him, truly.
It was because of this experience, and subsequent ones at bhakti gatherings back in the U.S., that I knew I absolutely had to see Shyam in India. I didn’t know him best, I didn’t know him longest, yet I had always felt this powerful bond with him, and if I was going to make the journey to India, then there was no way I was doing it without seeing my beloved teacher. He called me tenacious after learning of my itinerary: I’d take an overnight bus from Dharamsala to Delhi, connect with a car and driver who’d drive me roughly four hours to Vrindavan, continue a little further to meet Shyam in Gokul and, after our brief visit, spend another five and a half hours returning to Delhi to catch a flight to Bangalore first thing the following morning. I might also mention this was done during a time of record low temperatures and persistent fog. I was a woman on a mission, though at the time, I couldn’t know how important that mission was.
My car stopped in a little square in Gokul. Through the haze, both mental from the rigors of travel and literal from the fog, a splendid face appeared by my window to lead me to Shyam. The face belonged to another captivated devotee of Shyam’s, Govind, and he took me down narrow alleys, through doorways and up stairs until we emerged on a rooftop. There he was, book in hand, with Ally by his side, laptop perched for translating, both of them serene and content. Another friend was there as well whose name unfortunately escapes me. The sun was finally peeking through the mist.
For those who have only known Shyam in a public environment, to see him in his home, in his space, is to see him on retreat. Just as we might go to Blue Spirit for a week or make a pilgrimage to India to “escape”, it seemed to me Shyamdas was enjoying that same sensation by being somewhere quiet, simple and uncrowded. He was at home in the land of his beloved Krishna. There was no performance to introduce, no kirtan to lead, no unending flow of people wanting to talk to him or bring him on stage. While he always handled those situations with total grace and came to them so naturally, being with him in this private setting showed a different kind of light emanating from his beautiful being.
We sat and talked. There was laughter and levity. It was decided we should take a walk down to the Yamuna. More stories were told. Monkeys were fed in the street. A particularly tenacious one, not unlike myself, surprised us all by running into a tiny temple and snatching a banana right off the altar, Shyam and Ally laughing and bewildered at the sight. Shyam said he’d never seen anything like that in all the years his spent making India his home.
Spontaneously Shyam suggested we hire a small boat and take a quick sail on the sacred Yamuna River, topped with foam from the pollution, glowing in the light of the soon-to-be-setting sun. Despite the cold and late hour, there was a boat right there and we set off. The sky began to turn shades of orange and pink before giving way to night. We were all peaceful and content. Never would I have imagined I’d be sitting with Shyam and Ally in such an incredible moment of satsang. Never would I have imagined it would be the last time I’d see Shyam.
They walked me back to my car, Shyam stopping along the way to buy a necklace of thin, tiny tulsi for me to wear. I put it around my neck, grateful and honored, and said goodbye with my hands in Anjali mudra, prayer, reverence, as it would have been inappropriate to hug him in public there. He told me to email him, and I said I would.
I never had a chance to send that email. Two weeks later I would return to my home in Kannur, Kerala after a weekend at a nearby ashram to learn via a mutual friend on Facebook that Shyamdas had left his body. I was stunned and it took a couple hours of trying to gather details, find someone in India I could talk to about Ally, praying and chanting to Krishna with all my might before an overwhelming flood of tears overtook me. As the tears came, I understood that the love I felt for Shyam, more than anything, was that of a daughter toward her father. He was my spiritual father in many ways, guiding and inspiring me through his example and presence. I lost my own father a few years back, and I cried from the depths of my soul for them both in those moments.
Fast-forward a couple more weeks, and my time in India is drawing to a close. I’ve experienced grief and sadness, but also the comfort and strength fostered by the satsang of our incredible kirtan community who came together to not just mourn the loss of Shyam’s life, but honor his lasting legacy and celebrate his union with Krishna. As I made the drive back to Bangalore to catch my flight to the U.S., I stopped along the way at a few temples by the roadside. I’d been practicing japa mala in the car, the tulsi necklace along with a treasured necklace of my father’s traveling with me in the same pouch as my mala beads. At some point, mala in hand, when I got out of the car to pray at one of those temples, the pouch must have fallen out.
At first I was devastated at the loss of the sacred tokens of these two men I loved so dearly. Backtracking through the night to find the pouch proved fruitless. In the light of the following day, I felt a wave of peace wash over me, as I understood nothing had been lost. They wanted to stay in India. The physical piece of Shyamdas and my father I had carried with me was meant to be at home in this magical land, the land of Krishna, the land of love. There they shall remain, just as their memory and all the gifts they gave shall remain in my heart.
Saturday, February 2, 2013
It's been just shy of six weeks and once again I find myself in an airport, trying to process the emotions that surface when taking a big journey. I've traveled by plane, train, bus, car, taxi, auto rickshaw, boat and motorcycle. I've crossed the globe, crossed from the north to the south of the Indian subcontinent, crossed cultural boundaries and perhaps most significantly, crossed personal borders. What a long, strange trip it's been!
There's been a lot of lost and found on this journey. Loss of life touched me directly not once but twice in India. In both instances I found the singular connectedness that death can foster in those who remain to be a source of so much joy and comfort that it far outweighed the grief. I lost the token of my father that I have carried with me since his passing, a gold mezzuzah he'd worn on a chain around his neck. I kept it with me in the same pouch that held my mala beads and would wear it around my own neck while praying, meditating and other such sacred moments. Recently added to that pouch was a delicate tulsi necklace given to me here in India by Shyamdas, another token of a dearly departed soul who touched my life in so many ways. I can only interpret the loss of these two necklaces to mean that neither my father nor Shyamdas wanted to leave India. They found a home here, so the little piece of them that I physically carried with me shall remain. A little piece of me will too as I've found myself very much at home here.
I've lost any qualms imbedded in me by western upbringing when it comes to things like squat toilets, eating with your hands or belching freely for all to hear. I've found I delight in customs like never passing something to another person through a doorway, touching your heart in apology should your foot come into contact with someone and sitting around a "torch" chatting with whoever happens to have popped by during the scheduled power outages. There's a certain beauty and simplicity to these things that I find so compelling.
I lost the notion that I'd be hard pressed to connect to an Indian man, having met someone who I've undoubtedly shared many lifetimes with. But I also found that I am very attached to my independence and autonomy and struggled hard to be authentically amorous in a place that heavily restricts outward signs of affection. I've been in interracial and interfaith relationships before, more so than with partners that match me with those particular demographics, so I have an understanding of what it takes to nurture a relationship between individuals of distinct backgrounds. Yet even with that experience and my fascination with all things Indian, this particular cultural divide seemed so great I never thought I'd cross it romantically. I'd now say that is partially true, but not in all cases. I've found that love is love no matter where you are from, and while we may not readily see it's outward signs if our eye is untrained, they're always there. It's down to the lovers involved to find a language of their own to communicate in, to transcend the boundaries.
Also lost is a little bit of my ego, while the recognition of how much is left to sublimate has been found loud and clear. It's easy to be all "peace, love and lentils" when you're on vacation, away from the stresses and expectations of life at home, flowing along. But when things go pear-shaped and life gets challenging, so often it's our ego that takes over in the form of anger, fear, jealousy, etc and it is in those moments that we can truly gauge just how big our ego truly is. I've been consciously working to be a more patient and compassionate individual for quite some time now, and for the most part that is exactly the face that showed up during my time in India. Yet during the few stressful moments that arose, I saw I still have much ground to cover, and I welcome it.
Life is largely about finding balance, and so I'd say between all that was lost and all that was found on this adventure, I'm emerging more balanced than when I started out. I've had the experience I so longed for, immersing myself in such a magical place, connecting deeper to my spirituality, coming to know more about my own inner workings as well as the world I inhabit. I connected to old relationships and forged new ones. I've come to appreciate my past and my foundation in a new way while simultaneously forming a new vision for what my future could hold. The trip may have been long and strange in ways, but it was also completely magical, informative and inspired, everything I hoped and more, leaving me feeling very balanced and centered in the present moment. What more could I ask for than that?
"Ok, goodbye," he said with a quick hug that wouldn't cause any undue notice among the mass of strangers surrounding us at the airport. Though we didn't know most of them, there was one friend of his with us for navigation purposes, and this friend didn't really know me well. So despite us having just shared weeks of intimacy and traveling solo together for days around various parts of Kerala and Karnataka, two consensual adults having their fun, what was happening between us in private was not fit for public consumption in India. Welcome to the land of oh-so many contradictions.
This aspect of the last leg of my journey was as frustrating as it was exhilarating. I ended up meeting someone in Kannur, and cast in a certain light, it was all very romantic in the way of novels and movie scripts. Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. They come from different lands, different backgrounds, different norms. They're both strongly attracted at a subtle level, sharing deeply meaningful conversations from the start. Spiritual beings that they are, they believe there is a soul connection, yet can't be totally sure of the other's feelings because there's the chance of incorrectly translating the signals across cultural bounds. Finally the moment presents itself for some private time and their mutual affection is revealed. Sparks fly.
From there it began as stolen moments, lest anyone find out who might deem the affair inappropriate. By anyone, I mean practically everyone because we're in India after all, and not presently in a big city that would afford the degree of anonymity and modernity that would make such a tryst no big thing. Effectively permission had to be sought from those closest to us (by him, not me, of course) and even then, we had to be very careful about how and where we interacted.
Let me tell you how this sort of thing can drive an independent, passionate western woman a bit crazy!
One of the things that confuses me most about the Indian culture is the way love and affection are shown. The interactions between men and women can be very curious to someone who comes from a more sexualized society where freedom of expression in most all ways is encouraged, at least among the crowd I run with. On the one hand, you look at traditional Indian dance with its stunningly beautiful, sensual women, dressed and decorated provocatively, using their hands, eyes, hips and every other body part as an expression of love. This is a completely acceptable aspect of the culture, considered an expression of love for the Divine, but who could argue that it isn't tantalizing and evocative for the opposite sex? You have Bollywood, MTV and the like showing gorgeous men and women, dressed and dancing to evoke all the blatant sexuality and party-crazed focus that you'd find elsewhere. You've got places like Goa and big city night clubs. And yet on the other hand, many here still consider even the most innocent of interactions between a man and a woman entirely unsuitable for anyone else's eyes.
In many places you'll rarely see a couple holding hands in public. Often wives walk behind their husbands, ride sideways off the back of the motorcycle so as not to inappropriately touch the driver, stay home at night while their men are out and about. What I might consider a completely innocent touch could be seen by prying eyes everywhere as scandalous. Some men won't even shake a woman's hand, lest he invade her personal space. All this is evolving in bigger metropolitan areas, but I wasn't in one of them at the time this relationship blossomed, so I had to get a crash course in what I could and couldn't get away with. We jokingly established touching and no touching zones while riding on the bike, but I still felt stung every time I confused the two and was told "no" by the man who was so attentive and expressive toward me at other times.
It is mainly for this reason I'd never really considered the prospect of meeting an Indian man on this trip. I just didn't think I'd have the opportunity to get close enough to anyone for that type of connection to be revealed. I also didn't think I could deal well with this particular cultural divide, even having so easily embraced many aspects of the Indian way. I was wrong about the former, but I was not far off base about the latter.
I tried my very best to accept what I intellectually understood to be necessary, but emotionally it was a big challenge. I'm a self made woman who has accumulated enough experience to know what she likes and wants, and how to express that. Adults living with their parents, ever-present neighbors, aunties and everyone else keeping watch over your comings and goings, public displays of affection as taboo, it's just all a bit much to take when you live alone in total privacy and have years of experience and cultural conditioning that tells you love is celebrated and expressed, often in at least a semi-public way. To me, walking hand in hand with your honey is a sweet pleasure of being in a relationship. Kisses goodbye that linger on your lips fan the flames of longing. The freedom to be comfortably in your own space with your lover allow you to get to know each other ever more intimately. Take those away because you so seldom have privacy and suddenly the whole game changes.
India certainly isn't all bad where love is concerned. Love takes on a general, communal form here. Romantic intimacy between couples may be largely hidden behind bedroom doors, but you get love from a broad, welcoming community that acts like one big family in so many ways. There is something very special about that, and that is hugely different from western ways. Being forced to be pretty puritanical and chaste so often actually causes you to take note and appreciate every little touch and gesture all the more. There's a youthful innocence to the exchanges that is novel at first. Maybe that charm would hold longer for some. For me though it was the source of some inner turmoil, and in that perfunctory airport goodbye, I knew for sure this was not something I could tolerate for the long haul.
I felt jarred by the abrupt goodbye, expecting one more tender exchange between us before I returned to my corner of the world and he to his. He'd implored me to keep in touch, asking when I'll return, speaking of a future together that deep down I believe we both know isn't likely to become manifest. I, being more of a realist and having had the flames of the romance dampened by all the cultural restraints, encouraged us to just live our lives happily and leave the rest in God's hands. Despite that, I still reacted to the pain of that last moment. He professed so much love yet left me there so unceremoniously, so unaffectionately, that it took me a few minutes to reconcile his actions as being typical of the place and circumstance, not personal toward me. And though I was physically still on Indian soil, that exchange catapulted me out of the dream state of this journey and back to my reality. I come from a land where love takes on a very different public image than it does in India, and for better or worse, I carry that ideal with me. I look forward to returning to where I am free to love, and to show that love, without restraint.
Thank you, Mother India, for all you've given and taught me. Thank you, dear lover, for the many beautiful moments we shared. Thank you, to everyone who has been part of this journey. There is no sadness in my departure now, only peace and love. And if it is the will of the Universe that I should return to India, something I believe will come to pass, then so I shall, ready to learn more about love and all the lessons this land holds.
Sunday, January 27, 2013
My fascination with India cannot be separated from my love of yoga. It was born out of the practice that has changed my life in infinite ways, so even though I didn't come to India with the specific aim of practicing yoga in the way we so often think of it in the west, it was always bound to be part of the program.
I started my yoga practice as a purely physical one. I walked into a class at my gym one day with no idea my life would take a radical turn. Mostly my intention was to get some exercise and maybe socialize a little. Not long after showing up on a regular basis, something began to shift. The physical component was great, but the mantra music was intriguing me. The teacher's spiritual words were resonating with something deep within. I was opening up in ways I didn't even know I'd previously been closed to. There was a shift.
I remember my first introduction to meditation, a Kundalini yoga workshop with renowned teacher Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa. As often happens, it would be a little while before I'd incorporate that into my personal practice since those sorts of things need time to percolate and take hold when the time is just right. Then I was making my home away from home at the local Sivananda yoga studio, attending weekly satsangs where meditation and mantra were the focus, not asana. I received my mantra initiation and took a spiritual name. Jessica still existed, but Gauri had also been officially baptized, as it was, in this new and intoxicating ocean that I was just dipping my feet into. Teacher training soon followed and in the years since, many a yoga retreat and an increasing attraction to and emphasis on chanting mantras at ecstatic kirtan gatherings, large and small.
With all this, I began to think of myself as sort of a separate class of American yogi when stacked side by side with many of those I regularly practice asana with. I love my sweaty, juicy power vinyasa flow, but to go really deep I need and want the spiritual high that I experience only through the chanting and philosophical study. That should have tipped me off to the reality that I was on an ego trip, which is exactly what I'm trying not to do through my practice. Yoga is all about sublimating the ego, erasing any separation between self and Self, self and other. Allowing myself to think my practice was at all different, better or any other form of distinction goes against the whole premise. We're all on our own unique paths as we journey through life. The same holds true for our approach to yoga. Who am I to judge or qualify another's practice in any way? And in comparing myself I was separating myself.
Fast forward to the present day. I've been in India for close to a month. My yoga practice has changed substantially here, as has my concept of what a yogi is or does. The trend here is not to file into the coolest studio in the most stylish yoga outfit and contort your physical body into impressively challenging postures, something that I, and I'm sure many of you, can absolutely identify with. Really, there is no yoga trend here. Unless your in a place like Rishikesh, Mysore or another very popular yoga city frequented by foreigners, chances are you won't see or here much about yoga. Locals will be fascinated to find that you practice, let alone teach. And those that are in the know spend years studying and develop largely solitary practices focused on the subtle bodies and the mind, using the physical body only as a vehicle to approach them.
While I may have had some general intellectual appreciation for this true essence of yoga previously, and perhaps even allowed myself to believe I was practicing in this way, I see know how precious little I know and how I've only just skimmed the surface of potential for my practice. The depth and breadth of yoga is immense, endless really. What I have tasted in India while being guided to sit very, very still with my hands in a particular mudra for extended periods of time has provoked such strong physical, mental and emotional responses in me that it has taken my breath away. The respect and reverence I have toward those who have been guiding me, knowing how long and hard they themselves have studied and practiced before coming to the point where they feel ready and worthy to teach me gives me a whole new perspective on what it means to be a yoga teacher. What I spent a month getting certified to do they have invested years in. And though I also know that much of what I have to offer as a teacher comes from the experiences I've garnered through my personal practice as much as what I've been taught, the extent of their study is enough to humble me.
With this trip I set out to have my horizons expanded and hopefully awaken something within myself I hadn't been able to stir previously. As I encounter these individuals who spend days in meditation, testing and experimenting with their very bodies and minds, humbly shying away from showy asanas in favor of subtle effect, I am growing. I am being shown what it is my heart really aspires to with my yoga practice: true spiritual development. Because I like to keep my body healthy and enjoy the physical effects of asana, I choose that for exercise. But my yoga practice is becoming something else, and it is something really beautiful. I am tremendously grateful to have had my eyes opened in this way and am excited to swim deeper into this ocean.