Always Broken

I saw a palm reader in India. It seems almost like an unnecessary statement. When in India, not seeing a palm reader is like somehow avoiding rice, or temples, or Shiva priests that try to grab your ass.  (Oh…what?)  Back to the point: palm readers are nearly as profuse (but not nearly as cute) as holy cows in India.

It was like – blah, blah, blah – as Guru Shruti Prakash (Seventy Rupees for Five Minutes) explains the lines on my hand: more opportunities for travel; I investigate thoroughly whatever catches my attention; the first part of my life has been harder than the rest of it will be.  Fine; whatever.  Lots of stuff about Mars, Jupiter and Neptune.  I should wear moonstone and pearls.  (Ummm, no…the Ayurvedic doctor told me white colors would make me fat…)

I tell him I would like to discontinue the palm reading when he begins listing auspicious numbers.  I’m not really a numbers person, and I never know the date or time anyway.

He asks if I would like some chakra balancing.

Confession: I am a sucker for chakra balancing.

For some very awkward, long minutes, I gaze into the frizzle-haired face of the old Goan palm reader.  More specifically, I gaze into his eyes.  Have you ever tried to gaze into someone’s eyes for a long time?  I have, in yoga classes, and it is uncomfortable.  Try this with an old Indian man who is muttering Om and whose pupils dart wildly back and forth, while somewhere in the back of your mind, there is the question of whether he is planning something nefarious and inappropriate.

Anyway, somehow I sit through it, pressing my palms hard into the carpeted ground while I sit crosslegged on the floor.

After a while, he stops muttering Om, and says, “think of something happy.”  I keep awkwardly gazing deep into his eyes and bring up the feeling of running on the hill trails behind my parent’s house along a stream in the springtime while my dog darts through rows of wild daffodils.

The palm reader stops me.  “Why didn’t you tell me you were depressed?”

“Am I?” I ask him stupidly.

“This is not your true nature,” he says.  “Your true nature is light and joyful.”

“Umm, ok,” I say.  I seem to have lost powers of articulation.

“I can heal you, but we need more time.  Come back to see me.”

“No,” I say, adding some excuses about having only a few days left in India.  I don’t trust this guy and I (did I mention) HATE staring into people’s eyes.

So he blesses a ring woven from three metals and some wooden beads, pouring sacred water over them, cupping the items in his palm and chanting before handing them over.  “These will help you,” he says.  “No charge.”

I stumble out from his dark room into the sunlight as my friend Anna goes in to take her turn with him.  Our other friend, Rui, asks “How was it?”

“I don’t know,” I say, dazzling her by my insightfulness.

“Am I depressed?” I think, as I sit with Rui, watching a boy shimmy up a coconut palm and slice big bunches of coconuts off with a machete.  “I get wound up and anxious.  When I see a child kicking a cow, or a street dog with a bloody back, and all manner of unfair things in the world, I get deeply, seemingly irretrievably sad.”

So I say – “Dear Universe, or Shiva, or God, If I am depressed, I trust you to pull me out of the deep well of sadness.  I don’t need a frizzle-haired old palm reader, or magic beads.”  (Although it is never not fun to be given jewelry.)

So then I travel on to Thailand, where I am struck ill with the most massive flu possibly ever experienced, coughing from deep in my lungs where the yogis say grief resides.

I move on to Cambodia, a country of even more color and contradiction than India, and am blown away by deeply spiritual experiences of Shiva and Kali’s fiery inner incinerator as I chant mantra at sunset in the yoga hut of the retreat center.

Things are moving through, and I hope, out.  Which is our natural state – moving, breaking, repairing.  The gods of Creation, Preservation and Destruction are always in action, moving within us as we move within them.

The goddess Akhilanda, The Always Broken Goddess of Hindu mythology, teaches that we are never stronger than when we are broken.  When we believe we are whole, we are separate and limited.  When we are broken, we are infinite.

There are infinite paths to union (yoga) with the Divine.  There is one way to unite with strength – to break and re-form and be created again.

So, in the 30 days before I end this 6 month journey, I’ve asked for the expansiveness to contain all this breaking and re-forming without trying to escape.  I’ve asked for the power to receive, and sit still, and…repel this word with every fiber of my being, but yes, to submit to being broken, and sustained, and re-formed by forces outside myself, forces I can’t control or even name.

This is the essence of being truly alive – to sit still and be acted upon, rather than succumbing to the enticing idea that I am the actor, isolated, separate from the whole seething, moving, messy universe of broken pieces shifting into a beautiful whole.

Eat, Love

Food.

I’ve alluded to food and my love/hate relationship with it a lot.

The private Ayurveda course I took in Kerala changed some of my beliefs and ideas about food.

I guess, since I was a child, I have harbored some latent belief that eating is somehow shameful and wrong.  There are varied clear reasons for this, but I’m not feeling a big desire to delve into those.

There’s a healthy way to view food.  Our Ayurvedic Doctor/Professor Madan put it best.

Delicious Ayurvedic dishes representing all 5 tastes, or elements

“One of our biggest tasks in life is eating,” he said gravely as we sat around him, crosslegged.  “We treat it with respect.”

I’ve tried lots of diets.  Over the past few years, I’ve diligently tried no type of diet (just mostly pure and organic).  Neither way, hard-core restriction or permissive free-for-all, seems to work for me.

Turns out, Ayurveda, just like yoga, prescribes a scientific and slightly magical, prescription for the task of eating.  Based on your specific dosha (constitution), there are specific times of day to eat, specific things to eat at those times of day, and also specific combinations of food to promote healthy agni (digestive fire, metabolism).

Tip: Serving food on a banana leaf provides astringency, which helps with digestion and food metabolism. Also, baking in earthen vessels takes some of the caloric content away from the food!

For example, my Kapha element needs spicy food, ginger tea and lots of astringent vegetables, sitting on hard surfaces and doing vigorous exercise.  My friend Liza’s Vata element needs milk, sweet food, cushions and naps.  Surprisingly enough, I crave the cushions, naps and sweets while Liza can’t get enough of spices and activity.

Sometimes, in Ayurveda, you also have to give your body the opposite of what it thinks it wants.  That is why it can often be a confusing science.

But once I began to eat in the proper way, my body has actually begun to respond by telling me when it’s hungry and when it needs rest, when it wants to move and what, specifically, might be good for it.  Crazy!

Sometimes, my brain might be hungry, but I can feel that my physical body is still working hard to absorb the nutrients from the last meal into all seven tissues (this generally takes at least 3 hours), so I try to drink warm tea (for my Kapha imbalance, no sweet fruit juice) and wait it out.  When my body is actually hungry, it now usually craves vegetables or a chapati (no yeast in bread for me).

“All the things you are served in restaurants are utter foolishness,” Madan said once.

We aren’t easily given the guidelines for healthy Ayurvedic eating in any culture.  For example, fruit is too complex to be digested with a milk product.  Dinner should be very light – a small soup and chapati while lunch can be sort of a feast.  And the two tastes in Western food (usually sweet and salty) are only two of the six tastes needed to compose a complete meal (the other tastes are sour, pungent, bitter and astringent).

I stuck to my new-found rules well for a while in India, and now I’m giving myself some grace (grace like vodka and mango juice).

I feel the best policy is always to learn rules in order to break them.

So, being in Thailand for two days as a tourist, I am making the most of it by eating everything I damn well please!

I have followed this self-imposed rule wonderfully since I am leaving tomorrow for a hill tribe village to learn Thai Yoga Massage, and then will head south to Cambodia directly to begin a job as Resident Yoga Teacher at Hariharalaya Retreat Center in Siem Reap, right near the ruins of Angkor Wat.

Chaing Mai Buddhist Temple

I have filled my two days with Buddhist temples, $6 massages, shopping for silk and skirts, deciding about where to get a haircut after 3 months of scary India hair (should it be Best Haircut and Laundry?  or the place with snapshots of the same old lady all over the mirrors?), AND eating AND Thai cooking school!

My first Thai food experience was on the 14-hour train journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.  A group of friends, all 70+ year-old ladies, sat next to me and took great delight in feeding me morsels, watching my face to gauge a reaction.  They fed me delicious “Thai mushroom” balls, “finger” bananas (tiny), and much to my dismay, what I think was marinated water buffalo and some kind of pig-in-a-blanket (I hid the “pig” part in my coffee cup).

The train itself provided all meals for the journey, with no stops to get out and choose anything from the station vendors.  So, even though I am now a vegetarian after befriending so many chickens in New Zealand and cows in India, I decided “when in Thailand…”  Conclusion?  Even train food is tasty in Thailand.

Teacher selects fresh produce from the "Cooking School Market"

Cooking school at May Kaidee’s was pure foodie bliss, from the selection of fresh vegetables and herbs at the market to the cooking of all the vegetarian classics in an open lanai surrounded by mango and jackfruit trees, the occasional calf meandering past the fence.

When you cook Thai with fresh ingredients like lemongrass, kafir lime leaves, homemade chili paste and grated coconut, it is like you have never actually tasted Thai food before.

Here is the recipe for absolutely killer Thai peanut sauce.  This should not be limited to Pad Thai, but can also be a dip, a salad dressing and a spread for crackers and bread.

Luscious Chiang Mai Thai Peanut Sauce

1.  Fry half a coarsely chopped tomato in a wok with a tablespoon of boiling vegetable oil.  Mash the tomato into a paste while stirring.

2.  Reduce the heat a little, then add red chili paste or Thai chili jam (GET THIS – it rocks).  Fry until the fragrance wafts over you and you feel like swooning (my embellishment).

3.  Add 6 tablespoons unsweetened coconut milk, 3 tablespoons at a time, along with 1 tablespoon crushed dry-roasted peanuts (dry roast them yourself if possible).

4.  Add 2 teaspoons raw sugar, 1 teaspoon fresh lime juice and 1 teaspoon soy sauce (we used 1/2 teaspoon each of light and dark soy sauce).  Cook just a minute or so until consistency is thick.

EAT and LOVE!

Added note:  In Ayurvedic tradition, you can eat a lot on a FULL MOON DAY (today) without it being “increasing”.  So if you want to try to be scientific about it, make this closer to the full moon than the new moon (at which time you should consume very little, which is nearly impossible if you’ve made a batch of luscious peanut sauce).

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.

When You Try to Ride a Bus to Hampi…

Goa is a teeny bit soul-destroying.  Not to be dramatic or anything.  But when one is on a spiritual quest-type adventure and enjoying bungling one’s way through confusing Hindu ceremonies and making inappropriate choices to follow Shiva priests to the top of pitch-black rat-infested towers, being anointed with all sorts of colorful powders that subsequently stream down one’s face as you sweat in the sun, and enjoying the mystery and great gentility of the Indian people, one does not want:

  • trance music blasting through one’s ear canals all night and shaking the bed, making sleep a remembered concept
  • white people everywhere one looks (because why did one travel across the world then?)
  • restaurants full of strange western-indian hybrid food (incorporating the best of neither)
  • no ceremonies or religious rituals to be had except that of vacationers taking lots of drugs and swaying weirdly to aforementioned trance music
  • a strange Osho-massage teacher who requests that one hold hands with him and close one’s eyes and dance and then tells one they are too shy (while charging an obscene amount of money for this service)

So, like any self-respecting yogi, I changed what I could about the situation.  I had a Moon Day (full moon=no Ashtanga practice), so I high-tailed it over to Hampi for two days of historical and religious bliss.

Hampi contains everything I love about India – gorgeous history, beautiful landscape and temples and ceremonies everywhere you turn!

The overnight bus ride contains everything strange and upsetting about traveling in India, so let’s start there, as it might provide more entertainment.

You arrive at the travel office indicated on your bus ticket, but the man from Paulo Travel says the bus will pick you up on the side of the highway, gesturing vaguely “down there”.  You wait by the side of the highway and eventually the bus actually comes.  You board and make yourself comfortable on a sort of shelf for sleeping.

After 15 minutes, the bus stops.  “Get out!’ the conductor yells.  So you get out and stand with a lot of confused white people as Indians try to sell you dolls made out of foam and ice cream and travel pillows.  After about an hour you see the friend you were going to meet and together you determine the location of the actual bus going all the way to Hampi.

Together you finally board, the bus starts moving, and when he sees your ticket the conductor yells, “this is not your bus!  get down!”  You say you booked this bus to be with your friend and where are you supposed to go?  He disappears so you feel as if you’ve won that argument, albeit far too easily.

You chat with your friend and then you both lie down on the sleeping shelf and fall asleep to the tipping, swaying motion of the bus and its frequent lurches and honks.

“Get out; get out!” you hear.  You sit up quickly.  He is telling you to get out.  It is dark.  You’ve been asleep.  “Your bus there!”  He is pointing out the window.

You get out.  You get on the other bus, as your friend gives you instructions on how to find her in Hampi.  You try to sit down on the other bus.  The conductor asks for your ticket.  You can’t find it because you were asleep and maybe you left it on your sleeping shelf.

“Get out; get out!  No ticket; get out!”  You get out.  It is dark.  The original bus is pulling away, but you flag it down and find your ticket.  Your ticket in hand, you are surrounded by a circle of screaming Indian men in the dark on the side of a road.  You duck out of the circle, and they remain, still screaming.

You are finally on the other bus.  You have paid for a sleeping shelf but you are seated in a cramped upright seat.  You point to the space on the ticket indicating “sleeper” but the conductor says, “too late.”

You are too late to sleep.  An Indian man who was forced to relinquish his seat for you keeps yelling and pointing to his eyes, which seem to be streaming with some kind of disease.

At the next stop, you are directed to a toilet, and you stand outside near a small shop, patting the forehead of a cow and wondering if you will ever see your traveling friend again.

This time, when you board the bus, there is a German girl in the eye-disease man’s seat.  You have had it and yell to the conductor, “Sleeper.  I paid for sleeper.  You find me a shelf!”

So he does.  You sleep a bit and then you are in Hampi and things improve a lot…

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.

Slowly, slowly

Hello, sun in my face. Hello you who made the morning and spread it over the fields…Watch, now, how I start the day in happiness, in kindness. ~ Mary Oliver

I don’t know about you, but I used to open my eyes in the morning, blink…and panic.  The panic was unremitting and two-fold.  Here were the early AM options:

1.  Shoot.  I have so much to accomplish.  How can I get everything done efficiently and completely?  Most importantly, how can I fit a lot of exercise into the day to burn off every calorie I consume?

2.  Yikes.  I don’t know what this day holds.  What if I can’t find anything fun or productive to do?  What if I’m lonely/bored/missing something, etc.?

Even in the first daytime moments, there was no way to win.  Anxiety was my faithful companion, like a rescue dog with baggage that seems sweet but could turn on me at any second.

Anxiety is a friend because it gets shit done.  Anxiety is an enemy because it tortures you constantly.  It’s important to begin to quietly mention to yourself the following: being you, you will probably always get shit done.

I always have trouble discerning between hunger and anxiety.  Between fatigue and anxiety. Basically, between being alive and being anxious.

There are endless metaphors.  Here is one: I am the vehicle; anxiety is the fuel.

There are endless reasons: childhood messages, ambitious Western culture, friends and family who can’t determine either, for the life of them, where anxiety leaves off and life begins.

There’s a reason I found yoga and ayurveda, the two sciences that intertwine around freedom like the ida and pingala nadis around the shushumna, or astral spine.  (Sorry, but months of yoga and tantra discourse makes me like this.)

Yesterday in a Goan jungle clearing, a fellow from the University of London described the roots of tantra (from which originated yoga and ayurveda).  Tantra was a rebellion against the Brahmin priests’ obsession with cleanliness and purity.  To sum up the lecture, yoga began with ash-covered cemetery dwellers experimenting with disgusting practices involving corpses and urine.

To be completely free, those early yogis believed, you free yourself first of social convention

To be completely free, I have to ask my mind to throw off its coils of anxiety.  To help with this process, I find myself balking against much of what I’ve ever been taught to believe.

I am not covering myself with ash in a crematorium, but I am changing my eating, waking, exercising and thinking habits.  (And to be honest, at this point, if covering myself with ash and growing dreadlocks facilitated the process, I would probably do it.)

The whole basis of yoga is this: The repeated action of mental discipline with building heat in the body is designed to change the brain’s chemistry.

Ayurveda gives you prescriptive methods to support the yogic system by telling you how to eat, how to wake up, how and when to move and rest, all for your specific constitution or dosha.

I have changed the way I wake up because I have changed the way I live enough to begin to change the way I think.

Here, for your benefit, is a recommended Ayurvedic morning for all doshas (meaning I have left out some of the weird stuff – email me if you want to know more specific info.):

1.  Wake up 30 minutes before sunrise.  Think about how well your body has assimilated the food you ate the previous day.  Drink a glass of warm water.  Practice alternate nostril breathing to balance the brain’s hemispheres.

2.  Brush teeth.  Gargle with sesame oil.  Wash face with cold water.

3.  Practice Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation).  This is also the time for extended physical yoga practice.

Maybe it is a placebo effect, but my mornings have changed a bit.  I open my eyes now, and if I forget to think about my very efficient digestion, at least I have a strong and inspiring yoga practice to begin before the coils of anxiety clamp down at all.  And ever since Mataji taught me about true Bhakti, the practice of yoga inevitably draws me, at least for a moment into acknowledging the Divine.

It seems small and ordinary.  It may not be full moon rituals in cemeteries.  But as Ganga, Santosh Puri’s yoga teacher says about change and progression, “Slowly, slowly.”

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.