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.

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Panchakarma

Santosh Puri Ashram

It’s taken a while to write this one, because I wanted to have some resolution and understanding.  As fortune (or Something) would have it, I arrived at Santosh Puri Ashram four days earlier than than the Yoga and the Baghavad Gita course I planned to take, right at the end of Ayurvedic Cooking.

So I have learned here that eating everything from the earth is ok, in moderation.  Moderation has always been a scary word to me because it is not black and white.  It could mean anything, really.  In the past, I have not interpreted it correctly.

There is a word in yoga and ayurveda – sattva.  Sattva means pure, balanced, spiritual.

I came out of the Panchakarma clinic on Vypeen Island feeling sattvic, maybe for the first time.

My blood was cleansed; my liver detoxified; the callouses on my toes from hiking were buffed to a beautiful shine.

(Excuse me.  I was just interrupted by Ananda something, wearing an orange nightdress-looking thing and a Tennessee VOLS colored beanie and fleece.  He offered me prasad (blessed gift) of a section of orange and began to explain Krishna to me.  Here’s a part of what I understood – when you have purified your senses in the service of the master Krishna you have perfected your life. Then he started explaining the rest to my chest so I told him I needed to work.)

But yes, my senses are purified.  I feel much more clear, and I naturally eat now in moderation.  I am a delicate flower, it seems.  A few bites of any meal and I am full.  Amazing what happens when your physical systems are detoxified and you train yourself to eat at the same time each day.  I think the body is a little bit like a child.  Mine is anyway.  It is very relieved and comforted by routine, in terms of food and sleep.

Also, at the ashram, we are encouraged to treat the acts of cooking and eating as worship, which has been profound and lovely.

Here’s what led up to this.  I had a final consultation with Dr. Subhash, who was going to prescribe natural remedies for my various minor complaints, and give me a diet plan.  (Not like a DIET; a diet – using the correct foods as medicine for the body to continue to heal and then maintain balance.)

“You are not a thin person,” he said.

I heard the words but I was in a tunnel, or a glass container.  The words were disembodied and floating.  The words were like the words at the end of your life, when you wait for God to tell you if you’ve been good or bad.

Really.

I don’t pass the test.  I have failed at all the minutes and hours, days, years that being thin, acceptable, desirable have consumed me.  All the times I pass on the food I would like to eat, and wake up two hours early to hike the Telluride Trail before work.  All the mornings I open my eyes and immediately begin to negotiate the calorie ratio for the day – what I can eat versus what I will do to make up for it.

I. AM. NOT. THIN.  The words keep recycling like stale air as Jancy gives me a final oil massage.  My mind is a dirty vent, and the words keep gathering bits of dust and clods of debris.

Transformation is not always quick.  I am willing to let go of how I look, but all the triggers still exist.  Sometimes it seems like I’m sinking.  I get a firm grip and then it dissolves and there is just mud again.

Peace is not a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work.  It is being the the midst of those things and still being calm in your heart.

I repeat it like a mantra, but the other is too powerful.

I let the words, coated with dust bunnies and debris, sit in my chest cavity.  There they are – sitting, rigid, with sharp points.  I let them be.  I can’t go for a run here, or turn on the TV, or call a friend.  They sit, unnatural and solid.  They are ice.

Gradually (in that space) the words lightly pulsate, turn softly warm and milky green.  Just barely.  It is like the thaw before the real thaw.  Like in Telluride when you begin to see some brown ground in spaces between snow.  Then it snows and the ground is covered again, but you know the real spring is coming.

Baby Goats in the Jungle - Vypeen Island, KeralaI go back to my cottage in the jungle after the treatment.  I practice Surya Namaskara.  Folding forward, I am enveloped in a night-black space of anger.  I get the sense that here in India, I am expiating not only my sins of false-belief, but those of generations that preceded me.

All the women in my family, maybe all the women in my life, that have accepted being objects, emptying themselves of all their precious vital force to settle for being reflections of themselves.

Sliding from Eight-Point Pose into Cobra, feeling my triceps engage and my heart open, I think we are better, certainly more, than this.

I release and lie face down on the mat, breathing hard from something other than physical exertion.

This Panchakarma stuff is brutal.  Cleansing toxins from my body is the easy part.  It’s the brain-cleansing that I didn’t expect…

Stop Fixing It. It Was Never Broken.

Beauty.

The women of India are striking, the luster of their dark eyes, the smooth polish of their skin.  The way they carry themselves – with strength, steadiness, implying inner resources (which it seems evident they use, considering their outer resources are often few).

I may be generalizing, but so do they.  Every woman I talk to (whether they are at my guesthouse or asking me to pose for a photo with them on the street) tells me how beautiful I am.  The first time, I was flattered.  As it continued, I realized, it’s because I am white.

The business of super-toxic, endocrine-disrupting Michael-Jackson-style skin whitening cream here is booming.

They can’t see their unique beauty.

Once a palace guard in the glowing city of Jaisalmer told me he would gun George Bush down if he could find him.  Aside from that exception, Indian people are thrilled by the fact that I am American.  Many have not heard of Germany, France or New Zealand, but they know America.  Television provides dreams to the impoverished, and an American seems like a possible ticket out of their nightmare.

Media is infecting the minds of more than American women, dreaming of emaciation and unattainable perfection.  It’s angering to see American’s adolescent girls striving for sexiness over everything else, but it’s almost worse to watch people who have so little wasting their money and time trying to be light-skinned and Western.

It’s not surprising to me that we equate goodness with beauty.  I do it all the time.  (Here’s a study if you doubt.)

What has struck me on this trip, is how loosely beauty is defined.  I inherited light skin from the Hungarian side of my family, and I spend lots of time outside making sure I am always brown.  Here, my natural pale state is beautiful.  (Blows my mind, actually.)

Also (and this is a big one), being curvy is the standard of perfection here.  Hollywood hasn’t yet infiltrated that national beauty standard.

Not skeletons, but round.  Are you kidding me?  This is absolutely paradigm-shifting.

I must bow here to the hero of women’s bodies everywhere – Eve Ensler, the guru of channeling our collective body-hating thoughts into a river of eventual self-love.  She chooses the stomach as the example of her own body self-hate in The Good Body.

When a group of ethnically diverse, economicallydisadvantaged women in the United States wasrecently asked about the one thing they would change in their lives if they could, the majority of these women said they would lose weight.  Maybe I identify with these women because I have bought into the idea that if my stomach were flat, then I would be good, and I would be safe. I would be protected.  I would be accepted, admired, important, loved.

Here’s the week’s new mantra, also from Sainted Eve:

I am stepping off the capitalist treadmill. I am going to take a deep breath and find a way to survive not being flat or perfect.  I am inviting you to join me, to stop trying to be anything, anyone other than who you are.  I was moved by women in Africa who lived close to the earth and didn’t understand what it meant to not love their body.  I was lifted by older women in India who celebrated their roundness.  I was inspired by Marion Woodman, a great Jungian analyst, who gave me confidence to trust what I know.  She has said that “instead of transcending ourselves, we must move into ourselves.”   Tell the image makers and magazine sellers and the plastic surgeons that you are not afraid.  That what you fear the most is the death of imagination and originality and metaphor and passion.

Then be bold and LOVE YOUR BODY. STOP FIXING IT.

IT WAS NEVER BROKEN.

Allow Change to Happen

Allow change to happen. 

I sit at a desk and gaze through the window screen at myna birds and coconut palms.

I have seen poverty before.  In high school, my parents and school sent me on all kinds of mission trips – to build houses in Tijuana slums, to dig pits in a deaf village in Jamaica.

It’s what you allow to enter in.  (Let it enter in.)  Sometimes, you are affected without trying – you see a small horse attempting to walk with a broken leg, or a dead dog on the side of the road.  When your friends and family are affected by loss, you can’t help but feel it.

But the world at large is infected with so much sorrow you have to keep it away or you will go crazy.  You have to focus on joy, and friendship and healing.

Yesterday, Elizabeth, the cook at my beautiful Ayurvedic retreat center, invites me to her house, about ten minutes away by rickshaw.  At 1:30 PM, after she cleans up the remains of our lunch, I hear her voice from the road outside my cottage.

“Rebecca!” she calls, louder than the other women chattering in a group around her.  “Four o’clock; my house; today.  OK?”

“OK!” I yell back.

Elizabeth is a fantastic cook.  She won’t eat anything she prepares for us; none of the Indian staff will eat our food.  It’s too bland, they say.  They want spice and crazy flavor.

But, after weeks of eating regular Indian fare (spicy and FRIED), Elizabeth’s food is nourishing: cumin and cinnamon flavored vegetable dishes, perfect rice and always fruit – papaya sprinkled with lime juice and local bananas.  Sometimes there are flat, hot chapatis or little dishes of coconut pudding dotted with roasted cashews.

She brings us the experience of abundance, and perfect order.  The kitchen is always spotless.  Our table is perfect, every day.  She stands back, watching us eat.  Yesterday, I walk in to breakfast and she sings a song about me – something about “sweet” and waggling her finger back and forth, laughing with the other ladies, “no, no!”

I ask, “Elizabeth, will you come back to America with me, in my suitcase?”

“Yes, madam,” she says.  Always yes.

At 3:45, Irin arrives in the rickshaw.  He is always early, always happy to wait.  His hair is perfectly oiled.  His dress shirt is, as usual, rolled up to his elbows, neat and ironed, tucked in to his white dhoti, a scarf wrapped around his thighs that comes to his knees.

I sit back on the rickshaw’s shiny green cushion and notice (now it’s a habit) the statue on his little dashboard. It’s Christ on the cross.

In Northern India, the rickshaws and taxis were adorned with miniature Hindu Krishnas and Ganeshas.  Here, in Southern India, Jesus grimaces, bleeding from his crown of thorns, or Mary smiles calmly.  Being a Christian is a way to escape the Hindu caste system, although the church exacts its own dues, in the form of tithes and strict adherence to its rules, according to Dr. Subhash.

Irin accelerates through the narrow streets, honking loudly at each (and there are many) blind turn.  In India, it’s as if they assume all drivers are meditating with their eyes closed.  They use the horn to signal to everyone – drivers, dogs, camels, pedestrians, that they are coming.

Sometimes, driving in India, I’ve found it’s advisable to keep your eyes on the dashboard Christ rather than what’s happening on the road.  You feel better.

I’ve become accustomed to the view from the rickshaw – rancid drains, sleeping stray dogs, adorable children with their mothers in bright saris.  Shops with bright tacky signs selling food, dirt everywhere, and men outnumbering women 30:1.  My Rajastan taxi driver Hanuman says this is because “Men are allowed to go here and there.  But women must stay at home, and the husband can tell her if she go here and there.  Usually, not.”  The smell of exhaust, the feel of blackened soot across the skin of my face.

We pull up to a road of large houses.  So many large houses in Southern India, unlike the tiny cement squares, huts made from clay with thatched roofs and makeshift shacks in the north!  They are surrounded by garbage and small flowering trees.  They have high roofs and are painted bright pink, lime green and purple.

Elizabeth is waiting, dressed in a fresh purple sari.  We frighten a few stray kittens as we walk down the dirt pathway to her front yard.  It is a typical stretch of flat brown dirt, soft and sandy in texture.  We walk past a dilapidated awning that her son uses as a carpentry workshop, up some steps onto a small porch.  We remove our shoes, and three small girls, like those Russian stacking dolls (what are they called?), appear.

The girls are so clean.  The skirts of their dresses stand out like they’ve been starched.  They all have names that sound like Mini.  They smile, in a row, gold bracelets sparkling on all six wrists.

It strikes me that I’ve never left the taxi before.  In India, I have gone from plane to taxi or rickshaw to site to hotel.  I’ve been such a tourist.  I point and smile to the skeleton of a tree, decorated for Christmas with streamers and foil stars; the clay figures of the Nativity placed outside the window on a bed of fake grass.

We go inside.  The floor is marble.  It is the only finished part of the house.  The walls are tall, so it is cool.  The walls are unfinished cement, like a cave.  Like a ruin.  Or in this case, a partially-finished building, inhabited by necessity before completion.  Over the mantle is every kind of replica of Jesus.

Elizabeth takes me farther within.  “My room,” she says.  There is a tiny cot with a blanket.  There is a table with a huge photograph of a handsome man, right next to a smaller painting of Mary.  This time she has huge streams of blood running from her eyes.

“My husband.”  Elizabeth points at the man.  “He die.  Bladder cancer.  Thirteen years.”

“How old are you, Elizabeth?”  There are no lines on her face.  It is beautiful, like the skin of a Buckeye.  Her hair is slightly graying at the temples, and I know she has a daughter older than me.

“53,” she says.  She pulls me away from her room, and I see the girls’ room and her son’s room with his wife, also the kitchen.  It is like a cave, a ruin, partially complete.  It is such a contrast from the perfect walls, perfect decor of the guesthouse where I am used to seeing her.

She watches my gaze.  “We finish house,” she says.  “First we pay bank 30,000RP ($561 US).  Then, we paint.”

I ask her what colors she is planning, like I would to any friend at home.  “Blue.  White,” she says.

“Everywhere?” I ask.

Everywhere.  Mary’s colors.

“Sit,” she says, and brings a chair to the kitchen table.  She places a full glass of mango juice in front of me, a huge platter of pistachio cookies and another of a spicy nut mix.  I ask her to sit with me, but she stands, smiling.  The three girls all stand as well.  They smile.  I offer them cookies; they each take one.

I am smiling too much.  I am saying silly things.  I want to put them at ease.  I want to find ease within.

The girls bring family photos.  I point and ask questions and they smile and answer when they understand.  I don’t want the snacks, because I am on an Ayurvedic cleanse, but I eat something from each dish.  I drink all the mango juice even though it has added refined sugar.  I feel terrible thinking about these things.

In my regular life, I spend so much time thinking about these things.

Elizabeth has to leave soon.  She is going to the hospital.  She has already been once this week – a cough, and a pain in her chest.  She shows me the medicine they gave her; it isn’t working.

I wonder if her employer, my Ayurvedic doctor, can treat her.  She has worked for him for 13 years.  She shakes her head (of course not).  She is not asking for sympathy, but the average Indian citizen doesn’t have the money for Ayurvedic treatments.  Even though I am paying less than $15 US per day – the hospital is free.  You get what you pay for, I’ve been told.

Elizabeth’s sister also worked for the guesthouse for many years.  Last Christmas, she was leaving work in a rickshaw.  A motorcycle ran into her, and she was taken to the hospital.  “She use…” Elizabeth pushes her hands in a forward motion.  A walker.

I ride back to the guesthouse.  Irin has been waiting.

There are things you can say.  That people become used to anything, that they are even happier without a lot of stressful possessions.  Healthcare and relative safety.  That you (one person) can’t really make a difference.  That having a house (even a partially-built one) puts an Indian family so far ahead of most.

Poverty is everywhere.

Sometimes we let it touch us.  Only rarely can we allow it in.

I want to pay for Elizabeth to see Doctor Subhash.  I want to send her money to pay off her house, once I begin to earn again.  I want to give her 600RP ($12 US) when I leave, so that her granddaughters can pay for a month of their schooling.

I want to buy my way out of the guilt that I feel for having so much, and not always valuing it.

Allow it.  Allow your love for this woman across the world from your mother, who is your mother’s age, to flow.  Allow it to flow like those bright red streams from Mary’s eyes.

One voice is a bit dramatic.

The other voice says, Maybe she brings guests here each month, and tells them the same stories.  Maybe this is her way of extracting money from rich American tourists.  Everyone seems to have one.

I have to decide to open my heart, or to allow doubts and distance to build another wall between my privilege and anothers’ lack

don’t be afraid, don’t resist, don’t delay. be what you are.

I would like to talk about being a woman in India.  I would also like to point out that I recognize I have been a woman in India for two weeks, and my mother and grandmothers have never been women in India.  Having just had a series of 8 poems about the Ute people accepted to an online journal, I feel especially sensitive to the need to explain that I am very clear where I come from, and who I am.  I cannot begin to know what it is like to have been born an Indian woman, born to other Indian women, just like I cannot know what it is to be a Ute living on a reservation in Colorado or Utah.

OK; I feel better.  But, like a good Presbyterian Church-raised girl, I feel bad about feeling good.  I feel bad because I am a tourist looking in on a life that I’m relieved I can escape in a few weeks.  I feel bad that I don’t appreciate the wonderful opportunities in my regular life.  Here are some:

  • I breathe clean air.  In India, the air feels like poison.  It smells like incense, burning rubber, black smoke and rot.  I cough and hack my way through this country.
  • I do yoga.  In India, the land I thought was full of wandering holy men and reverent contortionists, yoga is only for the very rich.  Almost every Indian I have met works to survive, with little time for the study and practice of their country’s ancient teachings.
  • I drink clear water.  I work for an environmental film that comprehensively explains the evils of single-use plastics.  But I would rather deny my principles and drink bottled water than try water-purification tablets in local water filled with brown sludge-like particles, as my travel-acquaintance Emily did.  Either option is certainly not ideal.
  • I have opportunities.  As an American woman, I can work my way up the corporate ladder.  I can be an artist or a teacher or throw together an assortment of jobs that inspire me.  I don’t have to stay at home and obey my parents and then a husband.  (I am also not trapped by the caste I was born into.)
  • I can wear tank tops.  Enough said – it is hot sometimes and a salwar kameez is not cool.
  • I can be single.  Even though everyone I know from college in the South is married, I still don’t feel stigmatized for being single in the way an Indian woman in her 30’s would.  I thought I could be truthful in India.  I have learned I cannot, several times now, with various Indian men who assumed all kinds of awful things about me.  I am married, I tell everyone, even the Swiss couple staying at my guesthouse.

On this day in particular, with thousands of brave women marching through the streets of Cairo, I would like to take this opportunity to celebrate being a free woman!  And using another powerful mantra originated by my friend Mandie, I say to you – use your freedoms.  don’t be afraid, don’t resist, don’t delay. be what you are.