Chocolate, Hugh Jackman, Papa Perusha…and (of course) Chickens

In the manner of a tribe, we’ve formulated a common language.  Outsiders who come to stay a few nights look around the dinner table (no chairs – we sit Indian-style), smiling blankly.

Concepts like the vrittis from Patanjali’s Sutras (the five types of mind content that are blocked by constant practice in order to achieve Pure Mind) are tossed about over dinner.  Dozed off during satsang?  That’s your sleep vritti acting up.  Keep fantasizing about Wolverine during meditation?  Hugh Jackman vritti.

Snuck off to your caravan to wolf down half a chocolate bar between sessions?  Chocolate vritti.  Editor’s Note: Thank god for your black market chocolate supplier, or you’d be forced to light a fire behind Shanti’s shed, sneak a few eggs from the chooks (New Zealand term for chickens), and boil them when the two meals in 15 hours system isn’t working for you.  This would be risky because the winds have been approximately 90 miles an hour, so it’s possible you could set the whole swamp behind the shed ablaze and end your yoga teacher training six days early.  Oops, maybe your escapism vritti has just activated.

Somehow, our common language seems to encompass all the evil and bothersome ideas we learn about.  Although, we do equate chocolate with samadhi (incomparable bliss).  But, mostly it’s the mischief that pervades daily conversation.

For example – Papa Perusha.  Let’s start at the beginning, by explaining that Shanti doesn’t hold back.  Whatever weird or esoteric practice he’s witnessed or experienced, he shares.  We love it- mostly.  Let’s see – oh yes.  Balding?  Here’s the tantric Indian version of Rogaine:

  1. Gather urine in a vial (presumably yours).
  2. Let it sit (presumably for a while).
  3. Mix with tumeric (quantity unspecified).
  4. Apply to area lacking hair.  Let the mixture sit (presumably not long enough that you have to go out in public.)
  5. Wash off.

See what I am learning in yoga school?

We’ve also discussed the Three Faces of Shiva, which led to an account of Shanti’s dealings with the Aghoris, who worship the Divine Consciousness in everything…and eat human flesh.  Apparently the skin of the Aghoris is often covered in ash, and this image leads Shanti into the subject of Papa Perusha.

One of the most endearing qualities of Ashram Yoga is the four generations of the family that live here.  This blog has contained a lot of description of three of the four men in the family – Laszlo (age 2), Shantimurti and Karmatmurti.  In fact, Laszlo’s father, Shanti’s son and Karmamurti’s grandson, lives here as well – Prasad.  Prasad doesn’t like yoga much.  He has an office near the entrance to the property, where according to Shanti, he smokes cigarettes, drinks beer and sleeps.  (He also seems to be constantly fixing things and cooking amazing food, as far as I can tell.)

Anyway, in Prasad’s “man-cave”, Shanti says, there is an image of Papa Perusha willed to him by Bhaktimurti, his grandmother.  “If you are brave enough,” Shanti says, “you can go take a look.”  (I was brave enough – see below.)

Papa Perusha is apparently the embodiment of all the worst kinds of sin.  Shanti looks around and says, “For example, the sin of hiding chocolate in your rooms or talking in your rooms when you are in silence.”  Sometimes it feels like Shanti can see deep into my soul.  But that is silly, right?

“So how do you overcome Papa Perusha?” I ask.

The answer is complicated.  If you really want to know, here’s a link.  The process is called Tattwa Shuddhi and it involves a lot more ash.

I prefer to focus on the tattwas themselves, which are actually what our session that day with Shanti was about.  Tattwas are the five elements that make up the created element – the ingredients inside everything that exists.  By understanding them and their roles a bit, you have the potential to restore balance in many areas of the body.

Here are the Tattwas:

  • Earth – Grounded, Connected
  • Water – Emotions
  • Fire – Creative, Transforming
  • Air – Subtle, Spiritual
  • Ether – Purifying, Clear

Papa Perusha - from Man Cave

So, despite all the talk of urine, cannibalism and ash, I am still learning amazing methods every day to teach better yoga!  And, in the process, maybe shed some vrittis, throw them at Papa Perusha.



SURVIVOR: Yoga Teacher Training

Welcome to this episode of SURVIVOR: Yoga Teacher Training, where 14 contestants struggle to obtain the title: Level III Advanced Integral Yoga Teacher.

Why do they want this title?  No one seems to remember anymore.

Location: The beautiful Opoutere Beach, Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand, where recently deceased blue penguins have been washing ashore.

4:30 AM: The sound of iphone alarms ring throughout the still-dark morning air.  Some of the Tui birds now imitate this wonderful sound, warbling it through the windows into sleepy ears.

Stumble across the grass from your caravan by the light of a clear half-moon.  Stand in line for the bathroom.  Don’t brush your hair.  Wander into the sadhana room, sit on your mat.  And wait.

5 AM: Chant 11 rounds of the Shanti (peace) mantra and 11 rounds of the Gayatri (healing) mantra.

Practice postures in a carpeted room full of cat dander.  No matter how many times it is vacuumed, you still sneeze.  Breathe deep anyway.  Meditate, on the spine, on the heart space, in the chiddikasha mind space.  Open your eyes, refreshed.  Even if they are red and itchy from the cat dander.

7 AM: Have a piece of fruit and tea.  Wander from table to table.  At one, they discuss the merits of wolf breast milk versus dolphin breast milk from a naturopathic perspective.  At another, German and Italian politics.

In the end, you opt for playing trucks with Laszlo on the beach.  You are a truck, running and then (Big Crash) falling face first, over and over, while he collapses in laughter at the chaos and destruction.

8 AM:  Feed the chickens.  Watch them high-tail it toward you, picking their legs up delicately even at such a high speed, when they see the blue feed bucket.  Separate the cannibal chicken from the flock and put it in a separate coop.  Hear it squawk like crazy.  But it can’t keep eating all the eggs, its beady eyes darting from one nest to the next.  Name it Lector.

9:30 AM: Have a break.  Drink some water.  Check facebook for your brief connection to the outside world.

10 AM: Grab a box of tissues and head to the sadhana room, for satsang with Shanti.  You are discussing meditation, again.  This time, the focus is on the koshas.

Diagram of the Koshas

He asks if you have questions.  You wonder why, when you close your eyes now, you see bright pink circles.  He says the color symbolizes anahata, a movement toward love and devotion in the unconscious space.  You think that’s pretty cool.  You also ask why you usually only see black when you close your eyes.  Some of the other contestants see all kinds of visions and colors.  He says something about a consolidated astral body.  At more elevated levels of consciousness, he tells you, you can work with the higher mental body.

“What does that mean?” you ask.

He tells you that this is the very first tiny step toward being able to send your consciousness through time and space.  But it doesn’t really apply to discuss this because you are nowhere near that stage.  You agree.  But you are secretly thrilled, because you’ve been reading books like Autobiography of a Yogi and A Search in Secret India, which describe ancient yogis performing magical feats like this.

Noon:  Rush to the beach with the other contestants and plunge into the cold clear water.  “Lunchtime crack,” you call this ritual.  You’ve come to crave it all day.  The rush is icy in intensity like a high alpine lake, but you try to move your limbs enough to swim.  Stay in longer if the sun is shining out from behind the clouds, making the surrounding space a glittering limitless blue.

Clamor around the pots of rice, sabze (vegetables) and dahl, trying to get some splashes of food in your bowl.  This is where the competition really heats up.  Sit near Karmamurti, age 86,who might read your palm or dispense a word of advice.  Usually, it’s “relax,” which always seems to apply, no matter what the situation is.

1 PM:  Lie down on the sadhana room floor for Yoga Nidra, a special session from Karmamurti.  You close your eyes and hear him ask you to breathe light in and out of your heart center.  You don’t remember anything until you are asked to repeat your san kalpa, your personal resolve.  You say silently, three times, “I love and approve of myself.”  Then you sit up, chant aum, and wonder if there’s a snack.  There isn’t.

2 PM: Hanumanasana postures sequence.  You remember Alanna Kaivalya‘s class at the Telluride Yoga Festival, where she built you up to take the greatest leap ever taken.


It was the greatest leap ever taken. The speed of Hanuman’s jump pulled blossoms and flowers into the air after him and they fell like little stars on the waving treetops. The animals on the beach had never seen such a thing; they cheered Hanuman, then the air burned from his passage, and red clouds flamed over the sky… (Ramayana, retold by William Buck)

Around you, the other contestants take their Hanuman poses.  Josie feels like she is flying.  Samar is concerned about her knee.  Erika’s hamstrings aren’t warmed up enough.  Tonya knows a better way to get into the position.

4 PM: Practice Bhramari, the humming breath, with Shanti.  Hum the breath all the way down the spine, from ajna to mooladhara.  Then he leads you in Spinal Awareness meditation.  You focus on moving the breath, and prana in the form of bright white light, up and down the spine.

5:30 PM:  Surya Namaskara practice: Sun Salutations that you learned on Survivor: Season I.  This time though, you close your eyes while flowing from downward dog, to eight-point pose, to cobra, to ardachandransana, and you imagine the white light moving from trigger point to trigger point.  You move the awareness, breath and light from endocrine gland to endocrine gland and when you are done, you are lightheaded and nauseated.  Atma says you are detoxifying through the glands, and you lie down with your eyes closed.

6:30 PM:  Dinner.  (Your black market supplier Samar hands you half a ripe, perfect avocado.) Afterwards, you walk along the beach, sun squinting beneath clouds bouncing off water and jagged edges of broken seashells.  The wind exhales gently through the tall grasses above you and the surf softly rumbles.  You think this is the best thing ever said about God (via Thomas Merton).

7:30 PM:  Nada Yoga and Kirtan.  Shanti explains Nada Yoga, the yoga of sound as “a non-confrontational way to deal with our ‘bits and pieces’, due to its tendency to dissolve emotional content.”  “Nad” means “flow” in Sanskrit, referring to the constant flow of consciousness within us, underlying everything.  Piercing this content with sound (especially Sanskrit, which is a precise mathematical language) can be transformational.  So you chant along with the other contestants and you lose yourself in the larger sound.

9 PM:  You lie down under two large comforters in your caravan and turn your head to peak out through the front window at the waning light over the water.  Settling your head on the pillow, you close your eyes and wish your anahata would settle down, let everything turn from pink to dark.  Regardless, you fall asleep.

R. E. S. P. E. C. T.

Moonrise over Opoutere Beach, 11/11/11

Respect.  That’s what I am learning to practice, slowly, within my body.  Usually, I connect with my body in two ways:  working out hard or resting.  Either exerting muscles or relaxing them.

In fact, there are so many subtle states in between the two – within the breath, the muscles, joints and bones and the nervous system.  I can move within my skeletal structure; I can relax a muscle to deepen and broaden a movement; I can rest in spaces between moments of effort in order to achieve benefits like a more active thyroid and a calm state of mind.

Physically, my body’s response to this new-found respect is to open and release in new ways.  My hips shift into positions I never achieved before coming to New Zealand.  Part of this is due to balancing ease and physical exertion.

The other reason: I’m relaxing my mind with the inner stillness of meditation, and preparing for meditation with Pranayama breathing techniques.  Shanti and Atma say, “Relax the mind; relax the body.”  There is a clear connection between the two.

Bonfire, Opoutere Beach, 11/11/11

In a few days, we will wake up an hour earlier, rising at 4:30 AM for the Level III portion of the course.  We will also eat only twice a day.  The energy level from the practices is such that we’ll need less sleep and food.  In this present state, I almost even believe that!  Everything feels better.  In two short weeks, my mind is clearer and sharper.  I worry less.

I was so excited yesterday – I accomplished Toe Stand (Padangustasana) and inverted into full shoulderstand (Sarvangasana) for the first time, as well as an assisted headstand (Sirsanana) and handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana).  These postures, in addition to the lotus, represent for me, the look of a real yogi.  That’s my ego-driven side wanting to show off and accomplish a bit.

Shanti is always telling stories about the headstand. He describes a teacher from the Satyananda lineage who taught at a US Yoga Journal Conference, who said “I thought yoga was about learning to stand on your own two feet, not on your head.”

A woman came to Shanti recently about migraines, and he asked her what postures she practiced regularly.

“Headstand, for three minutes, twice a day,” she said.

He noticed that her head literally wobbled and wouldn’t stay straight.  “Do you think the migraines could have anything to do with your practice?” he asked.

“But it’s headstand,” she said.  (Headstand is nicknamed the King of Yoga Poses.)

I had a similar experience the same day, the triumphant day I like to call it.  After performing so many asanas I’ve been longing to master, we ended the session with a twist, Ardha Matsyendrasana.  I really wanted to take it further, to bind my arms.  We held the pose for seven breaths, and I bound my arms the whole time, knowing that my shoulder was not aligned properly.  I’ve suffered shooting pains in the area ever since.

Respect is so important in every area of life, but I need to begin by respecting my limitations and strengths equally.  They make me who I am, and yoga teaches that that’s perfect for now.  Aspire to be more complete while also appreciating how perfectly complete you are.

“We should be doing yoga for our own benefit,” Shanti says.  “That’s what we should be doing.”

I now aim to give myself years, or a lifetime, if that’s what it takes, to completely get into a pose.  I will probably rescind this resolve tomorrow at 5 AM when I work on headstand in my sadhana, but that is the goal.  To detach expectation from action.

And, as Shanti points out – “Nothing is instant, unless it’s coffee.”

Chickens and Saint Francis

Lately, part of being present in the moment has been to stay away from the computer and dip my skin in the cool clear water, feed the chickens and watch their hilarious running for the food, and of course, play with little Laszlo.  Also, I was going to write a post every day but after my last disjointed rambling, I’m opting for the quality over quantity approach.

There are so many humbling experiences on the path toward yoga.  A powerful one happens for me this afternoon.  It is a sunny day after lunch and karma yoga (for me – organizing the vast library).  We spread out our mats in the airy bright yoga tent for our afternoon session.  Dee, one of our instructors, and a few neighbors (one who stashed away three barking purses full of chihuahuas) are present because it is a special class.


Karmamurti, aged 86, is teaching.  Karmamurti has a varied past – an avid Episcopal church goer, chiropractor, Shakespearean actor, and founder of several yoga ashrams throughout Australasia, he now spends much of his time watching TV and baking bread.

I bring a chair out to the tent in case he needs it, but Atma laughs.  “He won’t be needing that,” she says.  I wasn’t so sure; he hasn’t taught a class in years.  I hide the chair away in the corner, to bring out if needed.

He arrives, and takes a seat.  Of course he sits in lotus, which I can’t even begin at this point.  He takes a deep breath and begins a series of brief instructions that basically open our lungs to expand the breath, and bend the spine in all six possible directions.  He says very little, although he does mention we shouldn’t be shy about neck rolls – that if our heads fall off, he’ll help.

We do a series of incredibly simple postures, but our whole bodies tingle from the oxygen flush.  After about thirty minutes, we sit in meditation.  We breath in light while thinking the word “Aum”.  We exhale, thinking the word “Love.”

We picture people – people we love, people who need help, the whole world.  And send them light and love.  Which is, as Shanti says, the most aerie-faerie expression, but in this context, it is heartbreakingly sincere because of his simple presence.

He reads us the Prayer of Saint Francis as we sit still with the sound of waves breaking in the distance.

Where there is hatred, let there be love.
Where there is injury, pardon and love.
Where there is doubt, faith and love.
Where there is despair, hope and love.
Where there is darkness, light and love.
Where there is sadness, joy and love.
With that, he thanks us and says he is ready for dinner. 
We are left with the thought that we’ve been in the presence of wisdom.  All our striving – for fancy poses, new breathwork, interesting meditation techniques and being fun yoga teachers – is stilled. 
We sit with the essence of it all. 

Tough Love

“I like writing the blog,” I tell my roommate Kaja when she asks if I want to go walk on the beach.  “It makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something.”

“You’ve accomplished loads today,” she says in her German accent, laughing.  “Lots of spiritual growth.”  She shuts the door to our room, heading to the beach.

I’m sure that this yoga teacher training, where from 6 AM to 9 PM we are practicing some form of yoga – whether it’s meditation or working with the chickens or postures, or the latest form I’ve discovered – playing with little Laszlo, is producing spiritual growth.  But I’m not sure it’s any more valid than spending the day ski patroling or working your desk job or taking care of your children.

We are all growing spiritually, every day, from every experience, as long as we stay open to it.  The way we stay stuck is by indulging the vrittis, our addictions, whether they be partying or constant napping or zoning out and watching tv.  Doing anything in order to disengage keeps me stuck the patterns I’m trying to escape in the first place!

Yoga, in essence, means union.  When I am fully present with an action, whether it’s skiing or watching tv (still not sure about napping), I am in yoga.  If I can say to myself, “Wow, here I am doing this (skiing, watching tv, eating, etc.) and this is how I’m feeling, and I am there, then that’s it.  It’s totally unachievable much of the time, but if I just bring the awareness back, over and over, it gets easier.

Yesterday was a rough one – Day Seven.  We’ve spent the week practicing energy-releasing techniques from morning until night, and the energy is beginning to release.  This is good, because stuck energy and emotion within the body causes injury and illness.  But after a while, it’s – what’s the word – unpleasant – to be in a group of nine women all releasing pent-up energy 15 hours a day.  (A side note – also, you can’t escape discussions about such things as dolphin breast milk and UFO’s.)

Everyone is a little bit on edge at this point, even – especially – Shanti.  He oversees a session in which we instruct a targeting breathing practice to help specific cases.  We choose Pranayama techniques to alleviate insomnia, asthma, anger and distraction.

Shanti becomes more and more agitated throughout the class, closing his eyes, shifting position and sighing audibly.  He breaks in at points with exasperated comments like, “Who’s the teacher here?” and “Create an experience – you didn’t settle them in for the practice and you didn’t take them out again with your instructions.”

We begin to feel anxious and frustrated – more from his tone than his advice, although he keeps repeating, “There’s no animosity here.”

Later I walk on the beach with another teacher, Erika, who reminds me about what Shanti keeps telling us.  “If you react to a certain person or situation, it’s not about them.  It’s about what you hold within you.”  He gave us the example of a friend, an old man who had survived Auschwitz.  The man told stories that would make people weep, with a smile on his face.  He’d moved through the negative emotions surrounding his past and was at peace with them.

Erika thinks Shanti meant the session as a lesson not to take things personally, to derive meaning from a message no matter how it is delivered.  To take the truth from the message and let go of the rest.

I, in my energy-releasing state, cannot say for sure if this is the case.  But it is something to aspire to do, especially before going to India, where apparently some teachers beat you with a stick if you don’t do a posture correctly…  =)

Wanting to be a Super-Yogi

Yogis can be so fancy.  When someone tells you they are a yoga teacher, you automatically think they are pure and also badass, bending like a pretzel and balancing on the tip of their finger, for example.  I am surrounded by able-bodied, athletic yoga bodies constantly.

remedial yoga

It can be intimidating to teach these flexible, strong people (also enjoyable when certain unnamed male students remove their shirts because they are so sweaty; not to be creepy or anything).  It can also be aggravating when your friend who mostly drinks cocktails, skis and rides his motorcycle can perform lifted lotus without effort.

We practice ashtanga this morning for two hours, after which I have breakfast with Shanti.  “How’s it going?” he asks.

“Fine,” I automatically say.  I take a bite of orange and think a moment.  “Except I can’t do very many fancy asanas.”  I have inwardly rotated hips at the moment (because progression is always possible), and many fancy poses require the opposite.

Some of the best things I’ve learned from Shanti come in story form.  He is not much given to dispensing direct advice.

“Several months ago a guy arrived for class at the Auckland studio,” Shanti says.  “I could tell he was going to be able to perform all the poses I gave him, and that he had some arrogance about that.”  (Shanti can pick out people’s qualities quickly.)  He shifts his legs the other way in half-lotus.

“I gave the practice and he was physically able to perform all the asanas well.  Then it came time for pranayama breathing exercises.  I instructed the exercises precisely.  The guy began the breaths, and then stopped.  I gave the instructions again.  Again, he began and stopped.

We finished the rounds of breath work and sat for about 20 minutes in meditation.  After about fifteen, he became restless, shuffling around.  After class, he saw a flyer and asked, ‘Would I be qualified for the advanced class?’  I said, ‘Physically – yes.  Mentally – no.

Later I learned he ran a studio in town.  He never came back to class.”

Yoga is about so much more than poses.  Basically, physical asanas prepare the body to settle so that you can enter meditation in a relaxed state.  Breath work and quieting the mind are the areas in which you can really grow and transfigure your thoughts, actions and situation.

Much of this work has to be done in a relaxed way, as well.  You have to let go – a lot.  You have to perform yoga in a way that’s natural to you.  For example, in February after my Level I Teacher Training, I asked Shanti for a Sanskrit name, just for fun really.  He said, “What are you working on?”

“Being tougher,” I said.  “Mentally and physically.”

“OK,” he said, and went off to the beach.

The name he gave me, Asha Devi, means goddess of spiritual aspiration.  Many months later, he mentions what I’d told him back in February.  “Being soft is a good thing,” he says.  “Sometimes you work with what you naturally are.  You don’t always have to go around changing things.”

At some point, I have to decide.  Do I care more about appearance or substance?  Doing beautiful and powerful asana is lovely, but if I were to treat the poses as the end goal, I would miss out on the real treasure within the ancient yoga teachings and techniques.

I still want to do an awesome lifted lotus.  But I guess finding some peace might be a little more desirable.  So, I echo my beautiful friend Mandie, whose mantra this month is “I love and approve of myself.”  Make it your mantra too!


Lord Krishna’s Pose

Be careful what you wish for because you will get it.  I’ve heard that saying many times, but in this case it rings very true.

Like almost everyone I know, I’m a striver.  I like to work hard and rest hard.  Either way, working or resting, I like to get it right.  In yoga, like so many of us in the west, I want to work my muscles as well as achieve peace.  If my ass isn’t firm, enlightenment doesn’t seem quite as appealing.

Each morning a different teacher leads us in a two-hour practice starting at 6 AM.  In most posture classes, you warm up to a challenging “pinnacle” posture.  Today we warm up, get onto our feet, and our instructor Liz announces that we are moving into a balance pose.  I inhale deeply, ready for the challenge.

“Lord Krishna’s Pose,” Liz says.  My mind rebels.  This posture (see Lord Krishna below) is very gentle.  I don’t remember any of the internal benefits and it is definitely not working anything on a muscular level.  I feel silly standing there holding a pretend flute.

Over the course of many asana classes throughout the last few days, I resent being asked to do simple exercises or to relax very long.  Resentment seems to me the opposite of being completely present and open to whatever may arise – the primary goal of this journey.

I look up Lord Krishna later.  In many ancient traditions, he symbolizes personal devotion, a love for the divine that transcends formal religion.

I look up the pose itself and find that it is supposed to balance the brain hemispheres, regulate the nervous system and calm anxiety.

If I hadn’t been so anxious about the benefits of the posture, I could have reaped them!  And, as my friend Bexie tells me, you don’t always have to be achieving something.  “Sometimes,” she says, “it’s nice to have just a moment of grace.”