Sunday, January 27, 2013

Yoga Evolution

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.

Bright light shining

I'll always give you a light.

We jotted down that line a few nights back while having an evening song writing, guitar strumming, chit-chatting rooftop session. Presumably it was to be a starting point for another creative collaboration. That's the best way to describe these last few weeks in and around Kannur: a creative collaboration. I've been blessed with a built-in crew of kindred spirits to share with while here and they've been the most incredible gift. Independently and collectively they've shown up as family, friends, teachers, students, guides and fellow seekers,  partners in manifesting something magical. I've even met a soulmate here and am soaring with that particular high. Light shines brightly all around me.

My frequent prayer is that whatever unique light I am meant to shine in this life emanate brilliantly from my heart in all I think, say and do. I pray that all my relationships, interactions and endeavors flow with grace. I know that light exists, I know others feel it too, but sometimes I succumb to doubt or confusion about how exactly to keep it growing stronger and clearer. I wonder just what I need to do to channel it into something greater than me, something that will have meaning and endure beyond this physical life. It touches my heart when I'm told my light has touched the heart of someone else, but I continue to feel I have so much more to give, something much broader reaching.

A little over a year ago the tantric priest at the ashram I frequent read my horoscope and told me I'd come to India and study Ayurveda for a month. While I dreamed of such a thing, at that time there was no way you could've convinced me of it becoming a reality so soon. But it did, and here I am. I've made pure, virgin coconut oil in the way of ancient, indigenous technique. I've worked side by side with a true Kalari medicine man cum village chiropractor/orthopedist, learning beyond language. I've shared countless meals with  conversations that start "And this is medicine for. . ." I've given nurturing and comfort through the healing energy that is innate within me and enhanced by this place.

I feel the light flicker a little brighter through this experience, and with the company I've been keeping a dream is slowly shaping itself into a plan. The vision, passion and intention are there: healing, sharing, teaching and inspiring via the knowledge and love we all possess. Part ancient tradition, part modern comfort, full community, constant satsang. My heart has come alive in so many ways. It's intoxicating.

And then comes the ego, the American conditioning, the fear and the doubt. Could I really? Should I even consider this? Will I be happy? What about my family? my friends? my career? my lifestyle? my finances?  I'm here in a place so steeped in spirit, surround by the example and inspiration of so many amazing souls, and still I can't fully let myself go into the dream space. They've given me their light so graciously and generously, yet still the real work for me is to release my need to control and simple bask in the glow.

It's an amazing process, really. Being in India, receiving the energy of so much history, spirit and amazing company has prompted tremendous self exploration and examination. It has me seeing myself, this world and my place in it in such a different light. So the promise made has been fulfilled. . . light has been given to me. Now I must decide how to spread it.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

All I asked for and more

I'm not really a believer in coincidence. The way I see it, between the power of the Universe and the power of our own minds to manifest, when we find ourselves in a situation that seems too good to be true or too right to be a casual mistake, it isn't coincidence but fate. So it is no coincidence that I've chosen to come to this particular place with the particular people I've met here so we can fulfill very particular purposes, individually and collectively.

My home for this month is Kannur, a growing, thriving city in the southernmost Indian state of Kerala. More specifically, I'm living with my hosts and volunteer coordinators, Ranjit and Katja, as well as a few other volunteers and family members. We all come from different places, speak in different native tongues, live very different lives in our respective homes. But we are here together in this place at this time because fate has made it so.

I wanted to have a spiritual experience in India, yet I didn't choose to spend my time at an ashram or studying scripture or anything like that. I opted to live with a family, work at a local medical clinic and immerse myself as much as possible in the pool of life in this place. I figured spirit would find me no matter where I am and what I'm doing, if my intention was strong and clear enough. I figured correctly.

By no coincidence, the translator who's been helping me at the clinic is of course a fellow Krishna lover who is all too happy to talk at length with me about Hinduism and drive me around on his motorcycle to visit the many different temples in the area. The medicine man I am assisting is a true Guru, deeply skilled in the arts of Ayurveda and Kalari, with healing hands, and though we cannot converse much, I am learning from him constantly. My host is something of a spiritual renaissance man, having dabbled in and gathered wisdom from many disciplines and ideologies. Accordingly, his crew is a diverse and interesting one, so our nightly gatherings up on the roof alternate between English folk and rock songs sung along with guitar strums, Sanskrit mantras chanted to hand claps, conversations highly esoteric and others simple, humorous and grounded. 

Because I have no frame of reference from which to judge anyone or anything on outward appearance here, I have no expectations and am just constantly grateful when a meaningful moment or experience is offered up to me. What a refreshing way to be! It's what I work hard to do at home- suspend judgment, release expectations and just let the Universe deliver what it will. Definitely easier said than done. In India it is near effortless. I've placed my trust wholly in the hands of these "strangers" who are my friends and family here. I allow them to lead me in just about every sense. And I can do that with complete comfort and peace of mind because I know that I'm with the right people. I also know I have something to offer them as well. There is a reciprocity and balance about all the dynamics of and relationships within this group. It is beautiful. 

What a gift to be right here, right now. I'm getting the opportunity to slow down, to open my heart, mind and eyes in new ways, to connect. I'd say that it's everything that I wanted, but it turns out to be so much more.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

An unexpected arrival

There are themes that are universal. Smiles are understood even when language barriers limit conversation. A glance can portray so much. Energy can be read between people. And no matter where you are love, family and death are certain to be present. Upon my arrival to Kannur, a city in the northern part of the southernmost Indian state of Kerala, I got to be part of all three.

I landed in the home of my host family after what amounts to three consecutive overnights of travel with precious little sleep, after a rigorous journey through the cold north of India. I was exhausted, depleted and running a fever.  Thankfully it was 6am, and I was promptly shown the simple accommodations that would be mine for the next four weeks so that I could rest. I crashed out for a few hours but then rallied my energy in my excitement to meet everyone and get a sense of the people and place I'd be living with. I was unaware that there could be any bigger meaning to my forcing myself to be functional. 

It turns out there was. The day would unfold with introductions made amongst my host family and the other few westerners here for various volunteer programs, gifts of American candies and Florida-themed goodies given and an overnight trip idea hatched and then derailed when a car couldn't be found. I felt strongly that I wasn't well enough to make that trip, yet hated the idea of missing out on something fun so soon after my arrival, so when it fell through, I felt kind of bad that perhaps I'd sabotaged the trip for the others with the power of my thoughts. However, when we awoke the next morning, the real reason we had stayed became painfully obvious. The father of my host, Ranjit, who was a beloved, gentle patriarch still at the helm of his family's affairs and tremendously respected in the community, had died peacefully and quietly in his sleep, not ten feet from the room I'd been asleep in.

I was up on the roof doing my morning yoga practice when another of the volunteers came up to tell me. It seems everyone in the family thought, while odd that he hadn't risen early and started the day with the paper on the porch, maybe he just needed some extra sleep. It was around 8am when the revelation was made. Almost immediately people came. The house began to fill, and it stayed that way. Neighbors, church members, friends, family, old colleagues. People from near and far. It was an instantaneous outpouring of love and support, and it was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen. It was pure, humble and generous human spirit at it's finest.

Just as instantaneous were the funeral arrangements. People came together to make it all happen. Not even twelve hours later a grave had been dug, a coffin specially built and a proper burial organized for this kind, lovely man. There was no pomp and circumstance, no concern for appearances or formalities, just a group effort to ensure that the family was supported, and he was treated with dignity and respect. His body remained in the home, on display, until it was time to go to the church, a custom that seemed strange to me as an outsider, yet is obviously understood and accepted among the Indian Christian community that was grieving this loss.  

I'm neither Indian nor Christian, but what I could and did immediately become was part of the community, part of the family. I shared their sadness because of my understanding of it, and felt their pain because of the immense compassion it opened in me. They embraced me for that same reason, accepting my hugs and the message my eyes conveyed even if an embrace is not their custom and my words not readily understood by all. Though the initial response of all us volunteers had been to make ourselves scarce, we quickly realized we needn't make behave like outsiders among a group so willing and ready to accept. 

Acceptance is an important lesson that life will continually offer us. Death is hard for many in the West to accept because we are afraid of it and feel like we're somehow invincible. Personally, I've never felt that way. I'm so very happy and grateful to be alive, yet I have no real concern over my own mortality or that of others. Having been with my grandmother in her final moments and held my father's hand as he took his last breath, I know what it is to have someone you love dearly die a physical death. My immediate sadness was real in those instances but my grief was exceptionally brief. I guess I accept it so easily because I wholly believe that death is merely physical while we are so much more. We are souls, we are energy and we are infinite possibility. 

Perhaps it is my understanding of this that has allowed me to be present for the deaths of others. Ranjit told me today he believed his father was only able to pass because of my presence in their home. He told me he had said to his family "Get to know this one. She's an interesting woman." having met me only so briefly. What an honor to be held in this regard, to have held a sacred space of love for someone else, even if subconsciously. If that doesn't make for family, I don't know what does.

What a welcome into this family! I am so glad to be here with them, my family, even if not the one I was born into or the one I've knitted together back at home. I am grateful to share in their love and their loss, their lives and their deaths, and to accept and embrace whatever else is to come during my time in Kerala.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

What am I doing here?

There's so much about this country and my journey through it that is disorienting. Between the ceaseless traffic, noise and crush of humanity, the languages, foods and smells that are foreign to me and not being at all sure of where I'm going every time I trust myself to the next driver or guide, suffice it to say getting my bearings in India isn't easy. These first couple of weeks I've been on the move all the time, exploring and then changing cities every few days, so just when I got comfortable in the smaller of the towns, it was on to the next. Now that will change.

I've committed to a month-long stay volunteering with a traditional medicine man at his Ayurvedic clinic. During that time I'll live with a family and make my home in Kerala. The significance of that commitment has just hit me as I'm on a rickety old bus that's supposed to take me to my second overnight bus in three days, though I'm not really clear on how all that is going to work. The intervening 24 hours between overnight buses included lengthy car rides, 5 hours sleep and a flight from Delhi to Bangalore. I'm physically exhausted. My body held out incredibly well through the rigorous travel schedule and amazing adventures and experiences of these first couple of weeks. That's saying a lot given the fact that I'm breathing air so polluted in many places I can literally feel it clogging my lungs as I inhale, I'm eating very differently than I would at home, my yoga practice has been minimal,  I've been in freezing cold weather and sleep has been in short supply on more than a few days. Not that I'm complaining. . . it's what I signed up for, for better or for worse.

The fatigue has brought on a vulnerability and perspective different from anything I've felt so far. Life here is hard and raw. And I'm getting more exposed to it as I travel on. Squat toilets are now normal, preferable to people peeing wherever they please in public. . . How I take for granted the convenience and modesty of our toilets. I've learned how to bathe with a bucket and a cup, shivering as I squatted to make myself small in the tiny bathroom that contains bath, sink and toilet all in one little space, no heat aside from the water to provide relief from the cold. . . To think of the luxury that my readily available hot shower and jacuzzi jet tub provide. I then scrubbed laundry in that same bucket using a bar of detergent. . . Shame on me who has never thought to give thanks every time I toss a load of laundry in the wash with my organic detergent. I've sat around the kitchen fire with my hosts, watching the ladies prepare meals in the simplest, most humble spaces, using simple, humble ingredients. . . As if swinging by Whole Foods and dropping a small fortune is nothing.

I asked to be challenged and taken outside of my comfort zone, and I'm quite sure this trip will deliver. It already has, and we're just getting started. Right now, feeling worn down and fatigued, a piece of me wants to eat my words. Do I have what it takes to see this through? But a much bigger piece is ready for this. A much bigger piece of me wants it and knows I can handle whatever comes at me. In such a short time I've been gifted more than money and material comfort can ever buy just by bearing witness to this way of life and dipping a proverbial toe into the pool. Now it's time to dive in.

Inspiration and encouragement abounds, of course. Yesterday I wrapped up my backpacking tour with a very special visit to a very special man. Shyam Das, who many in the kirtan community at home will know, has been living in India for 40 years. I had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of years back on a retreat, and the best way to describe it, for me, was a kind of love at first bhajan. It's love for a man with a beautiful spirit, an immense depth and breadth of knowledge about subjects very dear to my heart, and a fascination for this jew from the northeast who decided to make his home in this strange, magical land. I consider him a teacher and guide, so the chance to see him in India was one that I was determined to make happen, even if it had to be brief.

My driver, frustrated but accommodating, wound us through unfamiliar streets south of Vrindavan to Gokul, sacred land for Krishna lovers and one of the places Shyam makes his home here. We pulled into a little square and the most serene, lovely face attached to a terribly thin body appeared alongside the car to retrieve me. Gopal, a helper and student of Shyam's. He led me through winding passages, up flights and flights of stairs until finally we emerged on a rooftop where Shyam, his assistant Ally and another friend where sitting. I was so hugely happy to see them, familiar faces in a foreign land.

We sat and talked, then we went and walked, monkeys fed along the way, greetings exchanged. We ended up taking a little sunset sail on the sacred Yamuna River, now sadly poisoned from so much pollution, but beautiful still. To have that satsang, that blessed company, reaffirmed me. It was the reminder of why I chose to come here in the first place. This is not about selfless service, though I am thrilled to be volunteering here and doing some karma yoga. It isn't really selfless at all because I'm here for me. I'm here to further explore my spirituality in the birthplace of the traditions I've come to adopt as my own. I'm here to practice devotion, bhakti, outside of the cushy retreats and kirtan festivals I enjoy at home, and instead find that bhav in the simultaneously gritty and gorgeous way of life here. I'm here to learn about being alone in a land of a billion people, and find comfort in the uncomfortable.

And maybe if I'm luck, I'll get a little sleep tonight! ;-) Happy trails, fellow travelers.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Om Mani Padme Hum

Om Mani Padme Hum, the Buddhist mantra of compassion. It's one I've been familiar with and chanted for a long time, but it's taking on a new meaning since I've been in Dharamsala. This region, specifically the town of McLeodganj, is the center of Tibetan Buddhism and culture since this incredible nation was systematically eliminated from it's physical home by China decades ago. 

Most of us are well acquainted with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tibet's dynamic, enlightened, humble, genius of a leader. He has become the ultimate symbol of compassion, preaching and practicing it constantly in the face of being exiled from his home, watching his people suffer atrocities that most of us could barely begin to conceive of and working tirelessly to ensure that Tibetan culture and religion are preserved against the odds. He is simply a delight to just look upon, so often smiling and gesturing animatedly. Many of us, Western or Eastern, religious or not, consciously spiritual or not, have been influenced by this incredible man.

But what being here has made me realize is the Dalai Lama is not the only Tibetan to be such a vivid, living simple of compassion and kindness. The energy of Dharamsala is so different from what I've felt in the other parts of India I've visited thus far, and it can't be coincidence that the Tibetan element is the biggest variable here. Where Indians largely tend to ignore me or gawk at me, aside from my gracious guides and the few hotel or restaurant hosts I've interacted closely with, Tibetans smile warmly and are comfortable with eye contact. Several elder, wrinkled faces I've been admiring while walking around the temple complex have stopped me to take my hand or say "Hello" and "How are you?" in deliciously accented English. They all exude so much warmth. It's obvious just how tightly woven compassion is into the fiber of their beings and their culture.

So as I've walked along, spinning prayer wheel after prayer wheel, watching red, yellow, white, blue and green prayer flags flapping in the wind, chanting Om Mani Padme Hum, compassion has been the subject of my thoughts and consciously integrated into my actions, especially when confronted with situations that have required me to really offer it up. 

There was my first encounter with a hostile native- a monkey- eating a chappati on the stairs down to my room, who made to attack me. I quickly stepped back in fear. Unsure of the correct way to proceed and mostly concerned for my safety, I figured I had two choices: growl, stomp and try to scare him away or show some patience and compassion while he finished his meal. He is a sentient being after all, and the Dalai Lama teaches compassion for all. So I waited, and tried to radiate compassion instead of fear, which I knew he sensed. A few moments later, he walked away and I walked after him without any trouble. There was a young bull in the midst of a crowded, narrow street who shuddered visibly when a car honked right alongside of him. I reached my hand out to touch him between his scared, innocent eyes and he shirked away at first, gradually sensing my compassion as I stroked his brow. My guide laughed. Cows may be sacred here, but I guess showing them tenderness isn't necessarily the norm.

But compassion towards animals tends to come a lot easier for many than it does toward people. I know that can be true for me. So it's been challenging to balance showing compassion while part of me is wondering if I'm not being played or ripped off. That makes me sad and causes a lot of internal conflict because I want to be of service, especially to people less fortunate than I am. So I've been placing food in hungry hands, rupees in begging bowls of disabled, displaced souls, offerings at altars and donation boxes to support the monks who are spiritually supporting us all. This morning I allowed a small, put-upon woman holding a baby to lead me to a store so I could buy a bag of powdered milk for her child. All of this has come naturally and felt good. I guess for me compassion is as easily given to those in need as to animals. 

The conflict has arisen in situations like the one that unfolded for me earlier, on the prayer path around the Tibetan temple no less. A boy of about 18 was walking close to me. He started down the path just behind me, which I know because I passed him standing around as I entered. As I stopped to take a photo he overtook me and kept walking. So it surprised me when he doubled back to sit alongside me on a bench looking over the mountains. Once again, I thought I'd be doing a bit of meditation, but the Universe had something else in store for me. In pretty good English he began to relay his story. He was far from home, here to take a test required for admittance to the Indian Naval Academy, lost his wallet and needed money to take the bus home to Delhi. He said the Hindus refused to help him, as did the Tibetans and the police. Clearly he felt a white Western woman would be more likely to buy into his sob story and cough up the needed funds. And just as I've felt almost very time I've gone to buy something here, a piece of me sensed I was being taken advantage of. It isn't a good feeling. 

So I debated as we alternated between conversation and silence, he with his head in his hands, me looking out over the mountains for an answer to magically appear in the sky. Finally I decided to give him a 500 rupee note, a bit less than $10 US, and not quite the full amount of a ticket, but a pretty decent start. I reasoned I've certainly spent more than that on plenty of unnecessary and unworthy things, so even if I was getting royally played, that's his karma, not mine. I chose compassion and helped someone in need. And just as I've been blessed by wonderful travel karma, meeting teachers and helpers and dear friends along my journeys, I considered this a chance to pay that back in some small way. I'm choosing compassion toward my inner skeptic that says I just got taken for a fool, compassion for this boy who may or may not have been telling me the truth, compassion for all of us souls who are traveling around trying to find our way down our respective paths.

Just as His Holiness the Dalai Lama has taught, just as I've seen and felt here in Dharamsala, compassion and love are the way forward. And the best way to spread that message is to lead by example, as he does. So I've consciously started that here, toward myself and others, and hope that you will be inspired to do the same.