Goodbye India!

Culture shock is a funny term.  In my case, I’m not sure it’s accurate.

OK; maybe that’s a lie.

December 9 and 10, my first two days in India, I spent basically hiding inside a bewilderingly abandoned hotel complex, waiting for Fenwick to arrive, too nervous to enter the chaos of the city of Aurangabad without her.

Fenwick, after she arrived, speaks to one of our many personal staff members at the weird abandoned hotel

When I say the hotel was abandoned, I mean it was abandoned in terms of guests.  After emerging from an interrupted night’s sleep in which the front desk called me three times to confirm the spelling of Fenwick’s name for her airport pickup the next day, I crossed the lawn to the dining area for breakfast to be attended by about 15 waiters.

I could barely get a bite of food into my mouth before they were clearing dishes away and asking if I needed anything else.

I asked if there were other guests.

“Oh yes; many,” they said.

But there were no other guests.  I know because I was there continuously for a day and a half and no one but staff members appeared anywhere.  If they had, I probably would have sprinted over, scaring the daylights out of them.

I asked about the swimming pool and the concierge pointed the way.  I approached it eagerly.  It was lovely and big.  But there was no water in it.  I returned to the front desk to ask about WiFi. “Go to your room,” they told me.

So I went to my room and stayed there for a day and a half, experiencing culture shock.

The culture shock of everyone wanting to have photos taken with us on our first outing - the Ellora Caves near Aurangabad

From there, Fenwick and I learned together that no matter how much money you spend to protect yourself from India, you cannot spend enough.  Even though we rode in private taxis, took flights when we could, booked rooms in impossibly fancy hotels, we still breathed the black air, still stepped in puddles of excrement and garbage, still were harassed by men and street children, trying to take advantage of us in different ways.

Money didn’t solve the problem of culture shock in India.

For me, time did.  After a while, the shock wore off.  I became (sort of) used to breathing toxic fumes throughout my yoga practice.  This trip has been about challenging some of my most fundamental expectations of life.

1.  Air – In New Zealand, I breathed in mold and cat dander.  I felt poisoned and couldn’t wait to fill my lungs with air in India.  Ha – have I mentioned?  The air in India is poisonous.  I am angry about it because now there are friends all over the country, breathing that air, becoming sick.  Breathing, so vital and key, is a gift we ignore.

Best meal by far in India - Banana Leaf Ayurvedic Thali!

2.  Food – In India, you can’t eat raw food.  In the north, sometimes your only options are sugary or fried, or both.  Feeling nourished by nutritious food went out the window for a while.  Now, in Thailand, I think I scared some fellow travelers because after one bite of intoxicating, crunchy, sweet, spicy green salad, I couldn’t fill my mouth with more of it fast enough.

3.  Movement – I couldn’t hike or run and the yoga I knew then was pretty gentle.  My body wasn’t getting its daily sweaty exertion-dose of endorphins.  Poor Fenwick had to deal with the fall out.  Throughout the three months, I learned to listen to my body in new ways.  Instead of forcing it up a mountain first thing in the morning, I gave it time to tell me what it needed.  Which, it turns out, is powerful Ashtanga asana first thing in the morning.  The difference?  Ashtanga Primary Series is a specially formulated process to develop strength and flexibility in the body AND mind, while focusing the thoughts on the Divine more than on the firmness of one’s ass or the time you are beating in summiting the peak.

4.  Men – None.  Enough said.

I lied again.  There was a pudgy gentleman on the flight down from Delhi to Aurangabad back in December who was escorting his sister down for a visit with him, his wife and their two children.  He asked me about my life and I told him I was unmarried and a yoga teacher and wanted to learn to cook the saag paneer we were served on the flight. I was feeling quite contemptuous of everyone’s advice to lie and always say I was married.  I didn’t want to lie.

To make a long story short, my gentleman friend visited me at the strange abandoned hotel complex the next day to “learn meditation” which I learned means something culturally different to at least one Indian man.

That dose of culture shock was healthy.  I misplaced my shock and sadness about a real live Indian person (the first I had met in India!) not knowing the secrets of yoga and meditation, his own cultural treasures!  In this case, my desire to share yogic knowledge led to questions about whether my boyfriend needs Viagra (because present company finds it unnecessary) and persistent suggestions to move the session from the patio to my hotel room.

Ayur Dara Panchakarma in Kerala

My desire to help got me into trouble many times in India.  Culturally, I needed to learn boundaries and respect.  When the Ayurvedic Doctor’s neighbors had an unhappy and unruly yellow lab puppy that was locked in a cage all day and night, I offered to train it to give it more freedom.  Instead of the joyful wagging I expected, I got a nasty cut and trail of bruises across my arm from its vicious attack.  Culture shock, big time.

These lessons out of the way, halfway through the trip I began to embrace India.  And India truly embraced me back.  I paid tiny bits of money for thin mattresses, freezing showers, all night bus journeys.  I gave up my agenda of fitness and salads even though it was scary to think of what my body would become.

Walking ashram dogs along the Ganga

By now (this was early January), I began to prefer India.  At Santosh Puri ashram, I chanted and prayed and blessed my food before consuming everything (even buttermilk) with my hands.  I roamed by the Ganga with cows.

Mataji, chanting at the 5 AM Aarti fire, Santosh Puri Ashram

Listening to Mataji daily speak about devotion to God, how everything is God – even suffering because it purifies and burns away what keeps us from God, I was beginning to change.  I was feeling peaceful and content.  I was afraid, though.  I was afraid to go back into the world and lose what I had gained.  What I had gained was a glimpse of what truly matters in life – getting close to God.  What I was afraid of – being pulled back into the pursuit of all the things that don’t matter in life – how I look, what people think about me, whether I can do handstand.

Lighthouse Beach, scene of my dismay

The next day I met the cool yogis for a course in Ayurveda.  We lay on Lighthouse Beach in Kovalam, after a beautiful early morning swim, listening to the bass beats of some American song from 15 years ago, baking in our bikinis as Indian men in business suits walked past and pretended (or didn’t) not to stare.  Suddenly, I was crying.  A lot, and loudly, on that bright beach.

Pushti, source of much contentment at Santosh Puri

I couldn’t stop.  I missed the ashram – Pushti, its tiny puppy, its quiet order and respect for what matters.  How could I give that to myself?  I didn’t know how.  I had said goodbye to Mataji; now I just wanted to be near my mother.  But also, I didn’t.  I wasn’t ready to go home.

I spent the afternoon crying and wandering around the hotel room, glugging bottled water.  I felt at a crossroads.  I didn’t want to spend my life in an ashram but I didn’t know where else to go.  Re-entering “normal” life was too much of a shock.

Kali, at her temple in Hampi. See how she slays those men while looking lovely?

Happily, I adjusted and began the last segment of the journey, which we shall call “Boot Camp.”  My new friends Liza and Merrin decided to school me in the ways of Kali, since I had been adopted by that destroying, fiery Deity that same week in Kovalam.  Both Liza and Merrin tend to live-by-Kali already.  We decided they needed the grounding, sleepy, sweet-eating Ganesh for their journey.

Anyway, my Kali-boot-camp entailed overhauling my eating habits – taking away sweets and adding fiery spice to pretty much all food; drinking coffee black; drinking vodka for dinner on occasion; I speak as if in jest.  But truly, the “diet plan” gave me freedom from this idea I’d picked up somewhere along the way that a hungry, empty feeling is one that should elicit panic.  That anxiety can be soothed, always, by sweets.  Really, what I was doing by eating in excess of three times a day, by satiating myself with sugar regularly, was keeping me from what I truly wanted – strength.

Other Kali bootcamp lessons – wear shorts, and purple eyeliner.  Lie in the sun. Don’t take things so personally – be a bit tougher.  Stop doubting yourself- be confident.

These are not the lessons I came to India to learn, per se.  My Liza and Merrin gurus, cute yoga teachers from San Diego, were the opposite of ash-smeared holy men inhabiting caves in the Himalayas.  The biggest lesson I gained, upon reflection after graduating Kali bootcamp, was not to be so shallow.

I was judging my San Diego gurus and their gin-drinking, sun-tanning ways.  I wanted a real guru, chanting mantra 20 hours a day.  I wanted to escape my desires, transcend the need to inhabit my body and the challenges I face with it.

Instead, I inhabited my body by doing stronger asana.  I learned how to dress more flatteringly (you need a waist – Merrin).  I even learned to stand up straighter and walk more gracefully – Kali bootcamp style.

My desire to have a strong body and accomplish challenging poses is not wrong, I learned.  In fact, as Liza said, my desire to be above that desire is shallower than anything else.

We are all given a body.  We’re not just floating ethereal shapes wasping around the firmament.

And in embracing this desire to be strong and accomplish poses with my body, I actually feel more free.  To think about what counts – which is loving God, and serving others.

Hmmm, so dear Kali, put me through culture shock any day, and send me gurus in any form that might be humorous to you.  I know I don’t need to be in India to learn these lessons, but I’m sure grateful I got to learn so much in your shocking homeland.

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Love

I am falling in love, in India.

Who with?  I know you are curious.  I’ll give you a hint: not a man.  Not motorcycle exhaust, dirty feet, Goan trance dance music echoing from the beachside restaurants, not fully dressed Indian men harassing me on the beach.  Not being constantly hustled to buy a sarong, or a jackfruit.

I am in love with the hours between 6 and 10 AM.  Those previously panicked hours first thing in the morning are now suffused with heat, joy, breath, inspiration, frustration, sore shoulders, tight hamstrings, bhandas and the soft German voice of one of the kindest teachers in the world, Rolf Naujokat.

Ashtanga Yoga is India’s gift to me, even in the yucky Westernized Goan jungle.

Ashtanga takes many of the limbs of yoga and combines them into a beautifully physical practice that isolates muscles previously undiscovered and encourages meditative concentration to the soundtrack of your own breath.

My friend Samar told me once, as we were walking on Ouputere Beach, “You have a belief that you can’t have what you want.”

I didn’t know what she meant.  Now I begin to.

I had a belief that my desire for a strong body and yogic ability was wrong.  Totally shallow.  It’s what’s inside that counts, I would tell myself scoldingly.

But what if the outside reflects, to some degree, what’s inside?  I am an increasingly happy and more able person, and my body and its ability to move with strength and efficiency, is following suit.

Another friend Josie, said once, “Flabby thoughts = Flabby body.”

To some degree, I recognize this as true.  But I also believe that unless we find what truly works for us, on a purely individual level, a strong body and mind are elusive.

I learned, through my Ayurvedic teacher Madan, that a cookie-cutter prescription for healthy living is ineffectual and ridiculous.  We are diverse as Indian coastal towns.  We each need our own food and schedule and rest.

Yoga bridges these differences, to an extent.  On some level, any kind of yoga will work to the benefit of any person, if done safely and properly.

Ashtanga yoga, for me, works even better than more relaxing or free-flowing styles of movement because it requires so much focus and physical effort.  I literally burn off anxiety and flabby thinking in the early morning hours.

Also, I will never master Ashtanga yoga.  This is not defeatist thinking.  It is just true.  The point of the practice is just that: to practice.  The point of the practice is not to master the system.

I am fully, at times, completely inhabiting my body – my muscles, bones, heart and lungs.  Except when a cow sticks its head over the wall of the shala (school) enclosure.  Or I fall out of a pose.  Or when a hot Portuguese guy distracts me momentarily.

But all in all, Ashtanga yoga is immediate.  Slowly, slowly, it directs the gaze and the attention to “this,” what is, right now.

Bhakti

What is a Realized Soul? I asked Shanti once.  And how will I know if I see an Enlightened Being in India?

He started a story, as usual, about a shopkeeper near Rishikesh.  It didn’t answer my question.  It means he doesn’t know.  He mentioned that if someone advertises that they are an Enlightened Being, they are probably not.

There are billboards and posters all over India plastered with the smiling faces of saint-type people.  Not being able to read Hindi, I can’t say for sure that they are advertising themselves as Enlightened Beings.  But many Hindus travel to see these god-men and say that even touching the fabric of their clothes will purify their souls.

Umm, no.  I am a doubter.  I doubted Mataji when I arrived at Santosh Puri Ashram.  She dresses all in orange, with a crystal mala, two rudraksha malas, and a tears of Shiva double-rudraksha bead around her throat.  Her gray hair falls in a curtain of heavy dreadlocks.  She is nearly always smiling and at 67, she still works all day, directing the cook, setting out cushions around the Aarti fire, feeding the dogs.  But I didn’t see what made her so special.

Her three children are more immediately special – their articulateness, their sweetness and their knowledge of yoga and Ayurveda are endearing and command some respect.

It wasn’t until yesterday that I let Mataji in.  We sat in front of her in the yoga hall, in a meditative asana.  She opened the Baghavad Gita and we chanted, as we always do before her lessons.

It was the chapter on Bhakti Yoga that day, the Yoga of Devotion.

Something has been missing for me on this trip.  All the yoga postures, pranayama and meditation techniques seem like magical spells I have to get right in order to gain the reward: peace.  It’s been producing peace’s opposite: Pressure.

Mataji

Mataji, over the course of this week, has changed that for me.  The Yoga of Devotion broke it all wide open – the purpose, expansiveness and hope of yoga.

Anything becomes boring, stale, dissatisfying, if love is missing, she said.

She summarized a myth about Bhakti.  The god Shiva transformed himself into a legless leper on the day of Khumba Mela, where all the saints take a Ganga bath to achieve liberation.  His wife Parvati asked him, “Will all these Saints achieve their goal?”  He said, “No. Watch.”  Shiva the leper asked millions of Saints to bring him to the water because he would like to attain liberation, but they hurried by.  Finally, a poor man rushed down with only moments before sunset.  He stopped when he heard Shiva’s request, and said I wouldn’t be worthy of liberation if I didn’t help you as well.  The poor man won his reward.

As Mataji told us this story, tears ran down her face.  Her expression was gentle, joy-filled love.  Bhakti right in front of me.  She personified the whole point of everything – to see what you are doing as worship!

Make everything in your life God, she says.  A thorn, anger, a cough, an enemy, a mishap, death – all God, purifying and refining you.

Then see how much love will fill you! she says.  Krishna says ‘there is nothing besides me.’ He is the scent in the flower; not the flower, because the flower will die.  He is the light in the sun; the fluidity in the water; the playfulness in the puppy.  (She said the last one for me.)

Santosh Puri with baby Ganga

Mataji doesn’t claim to be Enlightened.  She came to India from Germany at age 24, in 1969, and found her Guru, the one she had dreamed about as a little girl, sitting alone and nearly naked on a small island in the middle of the Ganga, near Haridwar, where I am now.  She stayed with him on the little island for 10 years, caring for cows, sleeping on the ground and only eating when someone brought them an offering of food.  For the first year, all she said was Om Nama Shivaya.  She nearly died many times.

Her guru Santosh Puri, was, from all accounts, Enlightened.  He left home as a boy to devote all his energy toward union with the Divine as a yogi, renouncing worldly pleasures.  When she arrived, he fought terribly to stay a renounciant, but in the end, they married and had their children.  He felt God called him back to ordinary responsibilities to test his devotion.

Santosh Puri was generous, devoted and angry.  Once he threw Mataji physically across the island because he was fighting his desire to be with her.  Once he told a man who was harassing one of their cows that his son would die if the cow died.  The next day when the cow died, the son also died.

The Samadhi Temple built over the cave where Santosh Puri was buried.

These stories are confusing.  But what I find here is that Mataji is sincere, and there is a deep peace pervading the ashram that Santosh Puri founded.  He died consciously, by all accounts, sitting in padmasana, the lotus pose.

I can’t begin to understand everything.  But, returning to Bhakti, it’s nice to remember that I don’t have to understand everything.

Like Mataji says, Just bow down like a child.  Say ‘I am small and God is great.’

It’s easy to forget that yoga is about more than “party poses” and secret formulas.  True yoga is so much easier than all that.  True yoga can be anything, as long as it’s done with the spirit of bhakti, love and devotion to something larger than yourself.

Yoga of Meditation

This morning at the ashram, I hit a wall. I was playing happily with the yellow lab Pushti in the sun, with a plastic water bottle (if it is not going to be recycled, at least it can be reused!) and Babaji (the cute Sanyassin with a white beard and orange sunglasses) grabbed the puppy, making her yelp, dragged her over to the gate, and tied her to it.

Babaji feeding Pushti peanuts on the rooftop (vegetarian ashram dog)

She looked at me, crying because she had so much puppy energy just bubbling over.  She wanted to play.  I saw red, and not the orange-holy-meditation-type hue.  I rushed over and wanted to release her, but what would be the point of that?  Instead, I piled all kinds of pieces of wood and little scraps of things next to her.  If she couldn’t be free, at least she could bite and destroy things.  Which to a puppy is nearly as good as running around free.

I went into the sadhana room and stood at the top of my yoga mat.  I placed my hands in prayer at my heart center.  I could not calm down.  I just stood there, angry.

I wasn’t just angry about the puppy, I realized.  Here are some other contributions toward my rage on the mat:

1.  This morning, Ganga informed me that today is the solstice, marking the burning away of winter.  To celebrate, we were going to walk to the freezing cold Ganga, and immerse ourselves.  I ran upstairs to change into cheap huge Indian clothes.  All the others stripped down to their underwear but I, being a woman, had to plunge into the water fully clothed.    “Close the gates,” Ganga said, and having been around yoga long enough, I knew to put my fingers in my ears, over my eyes and on the sides of my nose.  Closing my lips together, I plunged under.  I was supposed to chant underwater, but it was a#$ cold, so I chanted on my way back out, turning once to offer water in my open palms to the sun.  My clothes were so heavy I kept slipping on the green slime-covered rocks and had to slog my way home while the men happily put their dry clothes back on and practiced Pranayama on the banks of the river.  Oh, the holy chauvanism of India!

Santosh Puri monkeys on the rooftop

2.  Last night I skipped evening Aarti chanting, because I was overloaded with the day’s spirituality beginning as it does at 4 AM.  On the way to my room, I passed the balcony where the chained monkeys sit.  The boy who holds the flame and decorated the hoven fire altar was there already,in the moonlight, watching the monkeys.  The smallest one was squeaking.  He noticed me and said, “Maybe she is cold.”  Just then the larger monkey came to sit with her and put his arms around her.  “Oh good,” I said, smiling at the boy.  “Yes but she is afraid of him,” he said.  “Sometimes he fight her.”  The thought of her chained to something that would attack her was a bit too much.  I walked up the darkened steps to my room, put on six layers of clothes, lay down under all the sheets and blankets I could pile together, and turned out the light.

Santosh Puri from the rooftop where I write the blog

3.  Sadhana.  Part of my advanced yoga teacher training is to practice the same thing at the same time for the same amount of time each day, preferably before sunrise.  I haven’t done this.  I didn’t realize how much I’ve been chastising myself for it until I was eating breakfast (Indian sweet potatoes that taste faintly of passionfruit) with a German man Volo who practices the kriyas.  He asked me about my sadhana.  “I do yoga every day,” I said.  “But I don’t have much self-discipline.”  He said, “I disagree.  You are here every day; you do not go out to have fun in the town.  You wake up every morning at 4 AM for chanting.  You have a great deal of discipline.”  It felt so good.  I realized I had not thought something nice about myself since my friend Fenwick left India a month ago.

So what did I do?  I practiced yoga asanas.  I lay in shavasana and pictured a pink lotus opening at my heart center.  I practiced Pranayama breathing, Bhastrika and Nadi Shodhana.  I even did Prana Mudra, moving energy from the base chakra up the spine to the space behind the eyebrows and back down, which is energizing and calming.

Then I sat still and watched the space behind my eyes, moving my mantra throughout the body with breath.  The orange color of peace washed through the space.

Krishna says in the sixth chapter of the Baghavad Gita, The Yoga of Meditation, “offer your desires to me, your hunger, anger, wealth, to me.”

Mataji goes on to explain, “You are not the Master of your life; you are not even the doer.  Nothing can ever be complete without faith in the Divine.”

I think I have that, but it’s hard to put into practice.

“You can never suffer if everything is God,” Mataji says.

The way women, animals are treated, the way I treat myself, is still part of what exists outside.  Maybe the way to live within an imperfect world is to submit to something larger than my small self.

“You are sitting to purify the senses,” Mataji says.  “”You are sitting to come to the soul.”

So I do.

“See me in everything,” Krishna says.  “I will never become lost to you and you will never become lost to me.”

I guess if I can’t be truly free, and am always tied to something like anger or confusion or desire, at least I can retreat to that silent space within.  Which to anyone living in this imperfect world is nearly as good as it gets.

Surrender

The cool yogis have come to Santosh Puri Ashram.

They arrive, dressed in stylish western clothing, making inside jokes and stretching their crazy flexible limbs in all directions.  One immediately noticed I have tightness in my hips and recommended I put my leg behind my head to stretch it out.

All of a sudden I am concerned about my third eye area, which has broken out from all the anointing.  The SoCal yogis’ skin is fresh and glowing from a month of Ashtanga practice in Mysore.  I look in the mirror for the first time in a week and realize my hair is strangely caked (with what?  dust?) and at the same time, frizzy.

I see my place of contentment with new eyes – the aarti chanting is out of tune; the yoga practice (which focuses on subtle energetic channels) is too gentle; the Indian way of speaking takes to long for the average American attention span.  (Maybe I am not being fair to the SoCal yogis.  This is just how my impression of the place begins to change around them.)

I pull out my Western clothes again and try to clean my hair (which just becomes more weird and cake-like so it must be the water here).  During yoga practice, I think more about how I must look than how I feel.

Auughh!  I thought I was making spiritual progress.  But just when I was getting comfortable with my new sattvic self, the Divine sends a challenge over.  OK, I think, SoCal yogis, I can handle this challenge!  Bring on all your amazing twisting asanas and brand-new lululemon!

Ganga Aarti in Rishikesh

We go to Rishikesh.  They are so stylish.  They look like they’ve just stepped out of the pages of Yoga Journal.  We do touristy things in Rishikesh.  We see the Maharishi Ashram but we don’t meditate there.  We make American jokes, with references to South Park and YouTube.  We eat at the German Bakery, although there’s an authentic Tibetan restaurant that comes highly recommended by Indian people at the ashram.  At the German Bakery, I eat more than I need, for the first time in weeks.

It is a different experience of India.  And now I have a choice.  To continue my little spiritual quest on my own with more local people, or to meet up with the cool yogis to study Ayurvedic Medicine and Ashtanga Yoga in very westernized parts of Southern India.

It reflects, on a small scale, the tension in the Baghavad Gita.  Mataji just taught us this the other day:

– The body wants fulfillment of its passions and desires (to learn lots of Ayurveda and cool hard-core yoga asanas).

– The soul wants fulfillment from another source (peace of the mind, tolerance, non-violence).

The Gita’s battlefield is where the two natures inside of us fight.  According to Krishna, the wise one identifies with the spirit and the foolish one identifies with the body.

I can choose either option (cool American option or solitary spiritual quest-type option) but regardless, I need to sit in the knowledge that right now is the completion of my desires, and the basis of peace is surrendering my desires to the infinite wisdom of the Divine.

That’s the gist of the Gita so far, anyway.

It is beautiful, and I believe it.  So I will just sit today, and ask for guidance from wisdom that is infinitely larger than mine.

Maharishi Mahesh Yoga Ashram

I am indebted to Maharishi, not so much for inspiring the Beatles (although in high school in Memphis, one of my favorite late-night spots was a coffee shop where we could drink iced mocha lattes and play Let It Be on the jukebox) but for inspiring a type of meditation that is gentle and comforting.

Here is Uncle Greg, trying to bond with my beloved dog Watson.

One Thanksgiving after dinner I mentioned to my Uncle Greg that I found meditating difficult.  “I am a yoga teacher,” I told him, “and I intensely dislike trying to meditate.”  At which point Uncle Greg mentioned casually, “I am a meditation teacher.”

What?  I have been traveling to New Zealand and all over the country trying to find a meditation guru, and there he is, sitting across the table at Thanksgiving dinner!  Sometimes life surprises you by revealing what you already have.  I was cautiously optimistic, and told him I would be glad to come over to his house the next day for a lesson.

Uncle Greg spent some time at UC Davis studying with Mararishi, and then traveled to take the TM Meditation Teacher course with the guru.  While there, chanting holy mantra, practicing yoga asanas and meditating, he experienced something profound.  All around him, people were chanting and the sound went from being sound to being something (I won’t say transcendent) but, yes, kind of transcendent.  It sounded like the source of sound, like what sound would have been when it was first invented.

He walked out from Maharishi’s presence to the beach and the sand beneath his feet, the gentle whooshing of the waves and the light on the water all felt like they were a part of him.  That is to say, he was as much a part of everything as everything else was.  Where he ended and the universe began was the same; all the lines were dissolved.

He felt love and compassion.  He always wanted it to be that way.

(Uncle Greg, please add to this if you like!  This is just what I remember from your story.)

The feeling of union with the cosmos dissolved, and later he was the same person surrounded by the same everyday sounds and movements.  But he meditates twice a day, every day, because of the memory of those moments of time in the Maharishi’s presence.

Here are the Beatles with Maharishi in 1968 at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram in Rishikesh, India.

Did I mention?  Uncle Greg is a VERY big fan of the Beatles.  And so, in honor of my meditation teacher, I visited the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram in Rishikesh, India.

Transcendental meditation is gentle, because you don’t need to worry about a straight spine, or what your breath is doing.  Your teacher gives you a mantra and you sit still and repeat the mantra.  After a while, the sound dissolves and travels into various parts of the body like warm breath.

Signpost marking the way to "The Beatles Ashram"

I loved my TM mantra, but Shanti, my yoga teacher, said because of the gentle tones, it would take a while to go deep into the practice.  So I’ve replaced the soothing TM mantra with a tantric mantra, with a much more jarring, abrasive effect on the mind.  I also now combine this mantra with breath awareness, a straight spine and visualizations.  I miss the old days of TM meditation, but I am committed to furthering my practice and the experience of peace that it promises.

Entrance to Maharishi Mahesh Yoga Ashram, guarded by two Indian men with a lock, who charged us 50INR ($1) to tour the ruins.

Here is a beginning meditation technique you can practice even without a mantra, called Antar Mouna (Inner Silence).

1.  Sit with a straight spine, in a comfortable posture you can hold for 25-30 minutes.

2.  Close your eyes.  Imagine the outline of the body in its seated position.  Feel sensations on the skin.

3.  Listen to sounds.  Send your awareness far out in search of sounds.  Right now, there is no need to identify sounds, just hear them, sending your awareness farther and farther out.

Little hobbit-type cottage; maybe George Harrison stayed here?

4.  Begin to identify sounds.  Identify the source of a sound; hear the sound and be aware of the process.  Keep doing this. Then focus on sounds nearest to you.  Indentify the source of sound, hear the sound, and be aware of the process.

5.  Release awareness of sounds.  Now bring to mind a negative thought.  It may take a while to locate a negative thought.  Just calmly wait until one arises.

The ashram was abandoned in 1997, but its state of disrepair recalls a much more ancient time. Very weird...

6.  When you have found a negative thought, hold onto it.  Expand it.  See it grow larger; fill it out.  When you have finished, wipe your mind clean like you are wiping off a blackboard.

7.  Keep finding a negative thought, expanding it and wiping it away.

8.  Release this process and let your thoughts flow.  Then pick any thought.  Pick one isolated thought and expand it; ask where it came from; where is it going?  Then wipe it away.  Pick 3 or 4 more random thoughts, expand them and wipe them away.

9.  Release this practice and stare into the dark, infinite space of the mind.  Try to

Beatles devotee grafitti

keep this space free of thoughts.  Keep watching the mind space and if a thought or image arises, dissolve it and gently watch the mind space again.

10.  Now allow thoughts to flow.  Allow any thoughts or images to enter the mind space.  Watch as if you are an observer of the thoughts and images.  Try not to become attached.  If you do become attached, just gently

My favorite grafitti

release the attachment when you realize it and go back to watching the thoughts as an observer.

11.  Now become aware of the breath at the nostrils.  Become aware of the body and its seated outline.  Meditation is now complete.

Let me know if you have questions about this practice, and how it works for you.  Often, we suppress

Maybe this led to the schism between the Beatles and their guru.

negative thoughts so that they act on our unconscious mind.  When we let them arise fully, we can release the emotional tension surrounding them.  This frees us to live, ultimately, in a more positive way!

Back to the Ashram.  Not being a huge follower of the comings and goings of Beatles, I did not realize that they split with their guru and wrote songs on the White Album about their disillusionment with his character.  (They neither confirmed nor denied that he was sleeping around and that he tried to grope Mia Farrow in a cave.)

Shivalingam at a central temple-ish place

The yoga teachers I was traveling with had just read Patti Boyd’s biography, which included details of her marriage to Beatle George Harrison.  She referred to him being “on TM” just like she referred to him being “on acid”.  It’s as if he temporarily replaced one drug with another.  Maharishi is credited with weaning the Beatles off drugs, but there are rumors that they split over the Beatles’ continued drug use.  Maybe the Beatles tried to replace drugs with meditation, but weren’t successful.  I prefer to believe this rumor, than the one completely discrediting the Maharishi.

Whatever else is true, the estate of Maharishi is loaded, his US assets alone worth $300 million.  He made some serious money.  So it’s hard to imagine why this ashram is abandoned – it’s one of the most beautiful places in India, with incredible jungle views, shivalingham–shaped meditation halls and dormitories with great balcony spaces.  With its history, it would be an amazing destination spot.

Business idea…anyone?

Top of the Lingham!

Some of the most interesting ruins in India are less than 20 years old...

Ashram Life

Ashram life.  I’ve been so caught up in my thoughts I haven’t had a chance to describe what it’s like to live at Santosh Puri Ashram. Santosh means contentment, and it’s a good descriptor for this life.  Outside the walls, there is mud.  There are assorted vehicles blaring their horns, spilling around you on all sides as you try to walk to the English bookstore to buy mala beads for your friends.

Inside, there are flowering trees and there is always tea.  There is Mataji, who usually offers you fruit if you catch her eye; her son Ganga, who is alternately wise and frustrating because he thinks he is wise; her daughter Mandakini, who teaches cooking and just married Vikram, who pretended he couldn’t swim to woo her.  There are 10 or so workers, building another set of buildings on one side of the compound.  There are the ashram monkeys, leashed until they become pets that will protect the gardens from the bad monkeys with red butts.

There are the ashram dogs – a German Shepherd named Shikara, a huge chocolate lab named Mongolam and a 12-week old white lab puppy named Pushti.  Every morning after Aarti chanting, yoga asanas and breakfast, I take the dogs out to walk the jungle path along the Ganga.

Santosh Puri Ashram is on the outskirts of Haridwar, one of India’s holiest cities, where glacial melt streams from the Himalayas into the River Ganga.  The ashram faces the Ganga.  Right now the river flows quietly through grassland, only slightly polluted, foam bubbles collecting behind rockpiles and the slight sheen of oil or something slick on the surface in still places.

Mataji is always reminding us that it is dangerous along the jungle path, but I feel safe with my posse of dogs.  Every Indian man I have met along the way is either meditating and oblivious or runs at the sight of the big dogs.

Today, as we walked past the near-naked dreadlocked saddhu sitting in padmasana near his hut constructed of sticks, I tried to be quiet.  I shushed the dogs and motioned for them to pass quickly.  He looked like a holy man and I didn’t want to disturb his meditation.  Then his cell phone rang.

On the way back into the ashram garden from the jungle path, I always stop to greet the calves, who are 10 and 14 days.  The cows live in a lovely apartment facing the jungle.  Each morning, the floor of their house is scrubbed clean and each evening, fresh straw is put down for the calves to lie on.

They ring the bell at noon for lunch, and we sit cross-legged around the grass at the center of the courtyard, being served rice, dahl, vegetables and chapatis.  Sometimes there is a glass of fresh buttermilk from the cows.  We chant thanksgiving mantras in Sanskrit, sprinkle the food with water to bless it, and eat in silence, using all the senses to offer food to the temple of the body.  The Indians eat everything using the thumb and middle two fingers, a mudra signifying fire, water and air – the elements needed for proper digestion.

After the meal, we sit in vajrasana, on the knees, to promote digestive fire, and we place the right hand beneath the left arm to encourage the right nostril to flow, which also activates the digestive system.

After lunch, I take the puppy Pushti, some sticks and a blanket up to the rooftop courtyard, and read, write and meditate.  I try to watch my negative thoughts so long they turn into contented thoughts.  This system generally works, to a degree.

In the evenings, we again have Aarti (chanting in Sanskrit) around a fire.  We move to face the Ganga for a portion of the ceremony, and then gather around a temple for the last bit, where Mataji offers us a prasad (sweet) at the end.  I am now addicted to the Prasad at the end.  Even though I vowed not to have refined sugar ever again after Panchakarma, I justify this sweet because it is blessed and holy!

I like the rhythm of the days here, and the aspect of devotion that accompanies every action, no matter how mundane.

I keep thinking I should go visit Rishikesh; I should immerse myself in more stringent yoga to master some poses; I should see what I can during these last two weeks in India.  My brain rebels against staying here at Santosh Puri for two more weeks.

But, like it says in the second chapter of the Baghavad Gita, we can roam to and fro trying to learn more, and see new things and add more to our lives.  The secret lies in sitting down in the place where you find yourself, and growing roots a little deeper.

As Krishna tells Arhuna in the Gita, you have everything you need right now.  How can you find happiness in anything unless you are contented right now?