Meditations by the river

A story has been passed from person to person, from friends to friends, acquaintances, family members and etc — maybe like a real life telephone game. Natalie in our yoga course told us the story in a jeep as we drove up the windy mountain roads on the way to an ancient meditation spot today. She heard it from talking to someone at a café. The story goes, there was a shrine nearby Rishikesh that protected the pilgrimage sites on the Char Dham Yatra. It was moved in the name of development and its original spot was paved over as a road. Three days later, the flooding happened and the hardest hit included the holy pilgrimage sites.

Maybe the movement of the shrine angered the gods. Maybe the movement of the shrine disturbed energy patterns with far reaching consequences. Maybe this story is a way of understanding the disaster and maybe there wasn’t actually a shrine in the first place. What is important, I think, is the moral message behind the story: natural forces are powerful and we need to consider the costs of what is done in the name of development. It is perhaps salient to think back to the Ganga Aarti on the first week we were here when a prominent social activist and a famous guru came together to talk about pollution and  industrial chemical run off into the Ganges River and also about deforestation. A lot of the talk about the heavy, early monsoon rains also discussed global issues of climate change.

We went to the ancient meditation spot today on the Ganges River about an hour drive outside of Rishikesh. There are caves there that mediators have been coming to for ages to find self-realization. In one cave that was attached to the temple, the cave stretch back into the rock so you are completely enveloped in Mother Earth, encased in stone and it is pitch black and completely silent. On the beach of the Ganga River, there were other caves that overlooked the flowing water and the tall mountains on every side. We all sat and meditated. I sat on a rock with my feet in the cold Ganges water, considered the river of flowing consciousness, and the sun’s energy heating my back. It was a very beautiful moment and beautifully shared with all of the other people in our yoga course. Apparently, the peaceful energy cultivated in meditation attracts cows. Lo and behold, when we opened our eyes after the meditation, we had a whole herd of cattle lounging on the beach all around us.

Meditating on the Ganges

Meditating on the Ganges

The drive to the meditation spot was beautiful, winding on the side of stunning tall mountains after mountains and the road dropping off on the side down to the fast flowing Ganges below. Some of the mountains were terraced with farms and homes and temples nestled in the vibrant green.  Our jeep driver weaved through cattle and swerved around monkeys on the road – sometimes making me feel a little like I was in a video game wondering how we were going to make it through without hitting any. Bryan would be proud – our driver knew the dimensions of his vehicle perfectly and the cows didn’t even move or blink an eye as we drove past.

However, the darker side of our drive was that I became more astute on reading landslides. You could tell which old landslides were because they had plants growing upright on them. You could tell which were fresh because the trees tumbled in them still had green leaves but no bush had started regrowing yet.  The road becomes very narrow at times with one side of the road crumbling into a steep cliff down to the water below and the other side narrowed in by the encroaching rocks.

All together, we were a group of three jeeps. As we were driving back, we came to this rock overhang where a bus stopped before it. We could see some hand sized rocks on the road. Our driver stopped to assess the situation and then gunned it through. I remember looking up at the roof of the jeep and thinking that our driver must be good because it was dent free. In my mind, I had only considered the possibility of more falling hand sized rocks that we had avoided.

The second jeep, which was about 5 minutes after us, were met with soldiers on the other side who were starting to stop traffic.

The last jeep in our group did not make it through. They were about 10minutes behind us and when they got to that section of the road, it was completely blocked. The whole overhang had come down. They ended up hiking over the tumble and then catching another taxi on the other side.

Thinking back to the story about the shine at the beginning of this blog, it’s ironic that a shrine was moved for a road and in the aftermath of the rains, the roads are moved by mountains.

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The fantastic sari adventure

Sari shopping is an experience.

Ashlinn and her boyfriend, Havie, recently got engaged and they’re going to have a marriage blessing at one of the local temples. I am so happy for them and they are both absolutely amazing people. We also saw this as an occasion to go sari shopping.

Our merry band on the tuk tuk to town

Our merry band on the tuk tuk to town

Swargashram where our yoga school is located is actually not in Rishikesh city proper but rather a spiritual suburb. Last Wednesday, we walked across the Ram Jhula bridge to the auto-rickshaw/ tuk tuk stand and hopped on a ride 3 km to the city market in search for saris. After being in Swargashram where there only motorbikes and a few jeeps that function as taxis, it was kinda chaotic be to be back in a city. There were no more cows and a hell of a lot of vehicles!

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We went to a sari shop in the busy city market and Schulpa, our classmate who is from Mumbai and I am probably completely misspelling her name, helped us. The small shop is divided into two sides with a mattressed show area and cushioned benches on each side. It is ceiling to floor shelving filled with packages of colourful, silky saris and any extra spaces are covered with mirrors.

When we first arrive

When we first arrive

The staging area is thick with saris!

The staging area is thick with saris and we’re not finished looking yet!

The show area quickly becomes covered, thick with saris that are shown to us. At first, we thought there were so many staff in the shop – like 8 just sitting around.

Staff refolding saris

Staff refolding saris

Embroidering delicate beadwork

Embroidering delicate beadwork

After the number of saris that were unfolded to show us, I started to understand why there was so many staff! Some staff were in a loosing battle, refolding one sari for every six that was shown to us. Staff were throwing sari packages back and forth from one side of the store to another. Another staff was carefully embroidering jewels and sequins on another sari. It was a blur of colour and sparkle. They modeled saris for us to see them fully and wrapped them around us when we wanted to see how the colours would match our complexions.

Does this make me look fat?

Does this make me look fat?

Trying on my sari

Trying on my sari

Ta da!

Ta da!

They wine and dined us – or well gave us water and tea – to keep us going. Afterwards, it felt like we had run a marathon!

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Tea cheers!

We went back today to pick up the saris as the blouses had to be made to our measurements.

Eye of the storm: Contemplations on disasters

It is kind of strange. We are currently in the middle of a natural disaster reported by global media outlets. The drone of helicopters and planes buzz back and forth overhead when the clouds and rain lift momentarily. Flying from the nearest airport at Dehradun, approximately half hour weaving through winding mountain roads away from Rishikesh, the helicopters fly low seemingly just over the yoga hall on the way deep into the mountains. They bring food and supplies up to stranded people or people in relief camps up in the mountains on the way up and bring people back to camps nearby Rishikesh, Dehradun and Hardiwar. I try not to look too closely at any debris floating down the water for fear of what it is.

The death toll is now over 1000 people and more rain has delayed rescue efforts for remaining people who are lacking food, water and shelter. Good news however is that most people have been relocated in relief camps, where they still may be stranded but at least they are in safer locations with access to supplies. Not so good news is that recent heavy rains have also delayed mass cremations at the shrine sites, such as Kedarnath, where decomposing bodies are apparently piling up. The yoga teacher from the other school that we met expressed concerns about a longer effect of water contamination as the Ganges River water is consumed in holy rituals and an important source of water for many people across India.

Though Roshan, our teacher, gives us news updates and the drone of helicopters is unmistakable, I find it strange that I get most of my news about the event from global media (some recent reports: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/asia/2013/06/201362562341480260.html; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-23042438). It’s like we’re in the eye of the storm – people keep on living and working, the shops and restaurants are open, streets are still crowded with people, motorbikes, cows and playing children and we’re still doing yoga. In contrast to rescue efforts, our concerns seem rather small: the periodic disconnection of electricity and consequently internet, debating the pros and cons of the rains, including cooler temperatures but harder to explore the city in, the invasions of flies which is annoying but mirrored in the beautiful proliferation of these small yellow butterflies that are everywhere right now, if we’re going to get the much loved chocolate balls for dinner and a reality of group travelling where a remarkable amount of conversation is devoted to bowel movements.

Looking at global media, you would never guess these moments of peace, where life moves on though rescue efforts swirl around us. We are basically in the middle of it but also removed. Eye of the storm indeed.

A part of me feels very helpless and every time it starts raining, I worry about people stranded in the mountains.

A part of me feels like a hypocrite contemplating the nature of reality, self-realization and of the underlying bliss and contentment in oneness with the universe while people are struggling to survive.

A part of me feels frustrated that I can’t help out more.

Though he was commenting on something else, a story that Roshan told us today spoke a lot to me.

The world can seem like a dark place, he said. It can seem overwhelming and inner AND outer peace seems like a distant dream. However, you have to find your own way and it is your intention and effort that’s important. Roshan told the story of the sun and the small candle. The sun had worked for thousands of years and desperately wanted a vacation. The sun went to the moon and the moon said that the sun’s role was too big and the moon was not up for the job. The sun went to the other stars and planets and with each got the same response – the job was too big and there was no way that they could accomplish what the sun did. Finally, the sun went to a small candle as a last resort. The candle replied that its small flame could not fulfill the large role of the sun, but it could keep the light going in the small area around it. In the sunset rituals where a small candle is held up to the fading light, it is an affirmation that devotees will keep the light going in the darkness and that small candles can become a brilliant field of stars in the hands of many people.

Intentions and effort are good but feeling overwhelmed in any situation does not help anyone. Stress is good when you choose it to motivate you for a task but unhealthy if it consumes your life.

In my experience, those hardest hit by any situation are those who were the most vulnerable and in hard situations before the event. I may not be able to directly help the people stranded in the mountains or in relief camps and the number of helicopters that fly over us seems to suggest that the Indian government have a system working to get people out as much as possible (the air force is apparently flying an average of 115 flights a day currently). Where I can help is the people in the village around me – including supporting the small cafes and shops more often than the more popular expat restaurant.

Like practicing yoga poses, good intentions and efforts are needed but also needed is a focus on the present. Do your best in a situation and as Roshan says, that is perfect. Obsessing and worrying about what you cannot do just stresses you out, which helps nobody…least of all, yourself.

We can always be in the eye of the storm; we can always cultivate that small flame of inner peace. From that place of awareness and calmness, we are then in the best space to rationally consider our actions to best help in a situation rather than succumbing to feelings of apathy if overwhelmed.

Sacred blessings and healings

Against a backdrop of the disaster of the Himalayan Tsunami, life continues.

Roadside popcorn vendor and monkey eating popcorn

Roadside popcorn vendor and monkey eating popcorn

Last night was the graduation ceremony of the 300 hour yoga teacher training course and we all had a Hindu ritual blessing us and traditional Indian music concert with haunting violin and wooden flute, melodious sitar and rhythmic tabla drums.

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A shrine at the graduation ceremony

Getting blessed at the graduation ceremony

Getting blessed at the graduation ceremony

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Meditative beats

This morning, one of the other classmates led us in a 3 hour Thai massage workshop where we learned foot and leg massages. Thai massage, which partly originates from Indian Ayuvedic traditions, has a lot in similar with Ayuvedic massages. Like Ayuvedic massages, it is medicine. It is a healing process, removing blockages of energy and removing toxins from the body. Similarily, it also works on energy lines in the body and chakras (energy centres/transformers in the body). Thai massage works on stretching the body, so it is like yoga except the massage recipient is completely passive and relaxed.  In contrast to Ayuvedic massage, the massage therapist aims to use gravity and the weight of their own body to massage and stretch rather than muscles in their arms and hands.

The amazing Cynthia teaching us some Thai massage techniques

The amazing Cynthia teaching us some Thai massage techniques and Stuart, the willing volunteer

In the afternoon, we took a trip to a local temple high up in the mountains. With 10 of us each in safari jeeps, we winded up mountain roads through small villages, beautiful green terraced slopes of mountains, and passed many groups of monkeys sitting at the side of the road. Apparently, they gather as people sometimes give them bananas. It is amazing the effects of the rains though as our jeep was constantly slowing down to go around small landslides where mud and rocks encroached on the already narrow roads.

A hike to the temple

A hike to the temple

Jennie in picture perfect dancer pose

Jennie in picture perfect dancer pose overlooking the staircase up the mountain to the temple

We three warriors. From left to right, Jennie, Caitlin and me

We three warriors. From left to right, Jennie, Caitlin and me

The temple was up high on a mountain top after a long white staircase. We were blessed by the resident priest.

Prayer bracelets Hindu priests ties on our wrists as sacred blessings

Prayer bracelets Hindu priests ties on our wrists as sacred blessings

Feeling blessed

Feeling blessed

Aspiring yogis and our teachers who visited the mountain top temple today

Our merry band of aspiring yogis and our teachers who visited the mountain top temple today

Himalayan Tsunami

Complete the sentence, “It’s raining m…”

Bet you didn’t guess maggots.

Ever since the rains last week, the air has been a haze. It is a thick, hot, humid cloud that has settled in the valley. The sun glows as a burnished red orange orb over the fog wreathed mountains and the moon hangs in the sky as ethereal misty white gold. In our yoga class, ever since the rains we have been pestered by flies, which is an extra challenge in an already challenging meditation practice. Now, this morning in class, we had maggots dropping from the wooden ceiling.

It’s a kind of ridiculous situation but hilarious in how randomly ridiculous it is.

Rapids in the Ganges river caused by the rush of water. The Ganges rose 3 metres above the danger flooding mark in Rishikesh

Rapids in the Ganges river caused by the rush of water. The Ganges rose 3 metres above the danger flooding mark in Rishikesh

On a more serious note, the Indian government has begun calling the heavy early rains “the Himalayan Tsunami”. We are living in a yoga bubble, perfectly nestled at a safe distance from both the mountains and the river, avoiding both landslides or flooding from rising Ganges. Though our days continue in routine and I emphasize that we are safe, there are numerous signs that a disaster is happening all around us. As we walk down towards the bridge, I first noticed that a muddy ground patch in front of a temple have been increasingly filled with people and their smoky cooking fires fill the air. Another sign are the endless drone of helicopters flying over us as they fight against time to rescue people in the mountains.

I read in the paper today that villages have been completely washed away, over 600 roads including highways and over 200 bridges have been washed out. Helicopters are the only means of reaching people.

Let me give you some background. Uttarakhand, the province we’re in, is considered the Land of Gods. Uttarakhand has some of the country’s most sacred sites including the holy Ganges River and mountain top shrines believed to be the home of the Hindu gods themselves. Thousands of people from across India, especially during May and June, come here each year on a pilgrimage known as Char Dham Yatra, which visits four of the holiest Hindu shrines. A friend who works at a local restaurant was telling me that doing this pilgrimage is necessary for moksha, liberation. Rishikesh is the gateway city to this pilgrimage.

One of these shrines is the Kedarnath Shrine, dedicated to Lord Shiva, where the centuries old settlement have been basically flattened with flooding and landslides. Nearly 27,000 people are still trapped in this area alone.

So far, the death toll is 600 with 1,400 people still missing and though 34,000 have already been evacuated, 50,000 people are still stranded. We were talking to another yoga teacher in the area who has a local friend involved in the rescue process and he emphasized that the stranded people have nothing – no shelter, no food, no drinkable water, nothing. Some are still trapped on top roofs surrounded by water for over a week now. Rescue personnel are still digging people out who have been buried or trapped in collapsed structures. Unfortunately, as they pull people up, they are only pulling up arms and legs as the rest of the body has begun to rot in the water. He also said that the dam by Hardiwar, the next city downstream from Rishikesh, was clogged with bodies of people and cattle.

I said to our friend at a local restaurant that this was a very sad situation that so many people died on a holy pilgrimage, especially by flooding of the sacred Ganges. He said that it is truly sad for families who have lost their loved ones but the eternal optimist he seems to be said that it is not so sad for the people who died themselves. Maybe this is a way of coping with the immensity of loss but he emphasized that the people who died on this sacred land, on pilgrimage seeking spiritual liberation, will be liberated.

Still, as the rains have started again tonight with violent streaks of lightning in the sky making the black night like a strobe light and torrential rainfall pounds the earth, my heart and prayers go out to all those devastated by the rains.

Om shanti, shanti, shanti.
May there be peace for all and forever.

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Some pilgrims still coming to the Holy Ganges. On top of those poles used to rest broad marble staircases and platforms.

Some media reports on the disaster below. There are some crazy pictures of the destruction.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/world/asia/flooding-kills-hundreds-in-northern-india.html?_r=0

http://news.yahoo.com/rescuers-food-sent-flood-hit-india-shrine-area-110128508.html

http://edition.cnn.com/2013/06/20/world/asia/india-floods/index.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/50000-trapped-by-flooding-and-landslides-in-himalayan-tsunami-8667854.html

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/fa949750-dbe1-11e2-8853-00144feab7de.html#axzz2X3Lu9yql

“This is called armpit”

In our morning asana yoga practice, our teacher was demonstrating the correct alignment of a seated spinal twist pose. Echoing a lesson from a standing revolved side angle pose which also featured a spinal twist, he pointed to his armpit and said, “This is called armpit. Put it on the knee and twist.” We then all got into groups of two and helped each other get into the proper position. For the seated spinal twist position today, one leg was bent with the foot flat on the ground and the other straight leg and the arm corresponding to the straight leg aimed at putting the armpit on the knee, the arm internally rotated so much that the forearm can then shoot towards the back where the hand can clasp the other hand that is twisted behind the back. Describing the position as a seated spinal twist is a bit of an understatement as there is a lot of twisting of the shoulders as well. Needless to say, some of our shoulders were not yet that flexible so we would start get into position as much as possible and have our partners brace their legs on our shoulder and the bent leg’s thigh and pull with all their weight on our hand…trying to get that armpit to the knee. As we contorted ourselves in positions our bodies resisted but are said to be our actual natural range of motion, monkeys walked on the rails past the windows. They probably wondered what the crazy humans were up to.

At around sunset, we had a more relaxed yoga practice where our teacher took us on a mental journey up a snowy mountain. This class started with some joint stretches and the sun salutation sequences and then sat to do various breathing and meditation techniques.  We breathed in for a count of five, held our breath for a count of five and then exhaled for a count of five. The purpose of breathing exercises typically is to make the breath slower and more rhythmic. The goal is eventually two breaths per minute, which as a group we did a series of 108 om chants last Saturday taking us approximately 30 minutes and consequently about 2-3 breaths a minute. Basically, with breathing exercises, the aim is to slow down the breath and eventually go into a kind of bodily and mental hibernation where you connect to everything in the world. They say that sleeping is unconscious meditation and meditation is conscious sleep. We did more om chanting – emphasizing each of the syllables and the vibrations the sounds made travelling through our body. Om is actually a-u-m sounds with the ‘a’ sound deep in the belly, the ‘u’ sound vibrating from the chest and the ‘m’ sound from our nose and bringing the vibrations higher. The om chant aims to bring our energy levels higher. Interestingly, we all sat in a circle with our palms out and almost touching as we chanted some more and I actually felt energy build between our hands. It was a pretty magical feeling. After, we laid on our mats in savasana pose, or corpse pose, as our teacher led us through a guided meditation. We were walking up a mountain in the early predawn morning, she said. A large crescent moon hung in the sky behind us and the twinkling lights of the town below us. We climbed up on top of a snowy peak and watched the sun break over a range of snowcapped mountain and in our meditation, we visualized sitting down at the summit and meditating.

We contemplated the questions, who are we? What do we truly want?

I might want a sailboat but why do I want the sailboat?

…To be happy.

We all do things to be happy or to feel satisfied in some manner. This is what yogic philosophy says unifies all of humanity. However, in conflating the sailboat with happiness, or in other words that stuff will bring you happiness, your well-being always fluctuates and is conditional. By saying that, “If I do or get this object, then I will be happy”, you are actually delaying your happiness. Rather, be happy and be open to all experiences life may throw your way. Each experience is an opportunity to learn, grow and understand more.  Instead of getting a sailboat to be happy, rather be happy with a sailboat.

As Roshan says, “Don’t fall in love, rise in love.” In other words, don’t make your love conditional where it can fall but rather raise yourself and others through your love.

Deep.

So what is yoga? This question was asked to us on our very first class here. Is it contorting ourselves into poses or relaxing and contemplating reality? Is it a focus on the armpit or on a smile?

They may seem like two very different things but actually it is the same. They’re both about being present in the moment, experiencing to the fullest and being aware of ourselves and our bodies.

Talking to some of the other students here, it seems like we’ve been here for an eternity yet arrived not that long ago. This is how I feel about most of my travels – I feel that I have lived multiple eternities, multiple lives in my various trips. Time somehow loses its meaning a bit. It loses its urgency and rigidity. I think travelling is a form of meditation (or at least how I travel). The future is considered for travel plans but really the focus is on the present and experiencing local environments and cultures.

Our lives are falling into a bit of a blissful routine. Morning comes too early as usual and we have sunrise and sunset yoga asana practices, two hours of philosophy and anatomy classes before lunch and our afternoons free until the evening to relax, explore Rishikesh and do too much shopping. We take naps, read and chill with friends over chai and snacks.

Some very friendly ladies visiting from the Gujarat province of India that loved talking to us in Hindi though we didn't actually understand a word...except Gurjurat

Some very friendly ladies visiting from the Gujarat province of India that loved talking to us in Hindi though we didn’t actually understand a word…except Gurjurat

Shopping!

Shopping!

Eating delicious samosas at a local cafe while a small crowd of local people started gathering around. We're sort of like superstars here as Indian tourists especially love taking pictures of us -- sometimes sneakily and other times asking us to be in seemingly endless family photos

From left to right, Sarah, Marlette, me and Caitlin eating delicious samosas at a local cafe while a small crowd of local people started gathering around. We’re sort of like superstars here as Indian tourists especially love taking pictures of us — sometimes sneakily and other times asking us to be in seemingly endless family photos

I had a Ayuvedic massage the other day, which is my first professional massage!  For under $14 CDN, I had an hour long full body massage with two massage therapists working simultaneously on both sides of my body. After the amazing massage, I had an herbal steam. It was pure bliss.

I think this is yoga too.

And then the waterfall came to us…

Yesterday, we were thinking of going to a local waterfall but instead the falling water came to us. It rained solidly the whole day basically and most of today as well. At home in Vancouver, it rains a lot as well. However, it is often a day of overcast skies drizzle that soaks into everything with a cold dampness. With the monsoons, it rains like buckets. It’s like someone breached a flood gate and then everything pours out. In my experience of tropical rains, it usually lasts for a couple hours and then skies clear up for some sunshine.

Not in this case.

It was like buckets after buckets the whole day. Like if you went out, you are immediately soaked like you had a shower.

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The platform lamp is almost under water

We were supposed to go river rafting today with the yoga school but it was cancelled due to the heavy rains and the dramatic increase in water level and ferocity of the water. The Ganges River is now a raging fury of racing water, swirling and catching everything in its path. Where there were steps before for people to go down to the water and bath, the water level is now so high, it is reaching the road. Apparently, water levels went up over 20 feet in 24 hours! It has broken an 88 year record for highest levels of rain in June.

Before

Before

Now

Now

As we watched the raging waters, we could see uprooted trees floating down the river. Kerissa and Chad, who were staying at an ashram on the river where the first floor flooded so they had to move, said that they saw unfortunate cattle and buffalo in the fast waters. Even sadder, the surrounding mountain villages have experienced landslides and have been completely cut off for two days without access for outside food. At least 50 people are reported missing and our prayers today went out to them. The Shiva statue where we all sat to watch the Ganga Aaarti and the bridge platform it was on washed away a couple hours ago. The city is currently without power and there is the drone of generators in some places and the two suspension bridges that connect us to Rishikesh City have been closed.  From our yoga school, which is about 10-15 minutes walk (down the hill!) from the river, I can hear the roar of the rushing water.

This Shiva statue is on a platform facing the below picture

This Shiva statue is on a platform facing the below picture

Note the chariot ontop of the arch and the number of stairs until the water

Note the chariot ontop of the arch and the number of stairs until the water

The river today. No more statue

The river today. No more statue

Even though the river is now only a foot away from the market road, life goes on as normal in Rishikesh. The street vendors are out including the bindi paint salesman that asks me every time I pass by without fail for the last two weeks. The plums, peaches and mangoes glisten with rainwater on the fruit sellers’ carts on the side of the road.

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There is even a street cart that has a little metal oven baking fresh butter cookies. Super delicious! All around the yoga school, which is up on a hill back from the river, there are sounds of children playing cricket in the nearby field and crickets themselves cricketing away. It is crazy times but the rain has stopped for now and life goes on.

There is something poignant about the Shiva statue being washed away in the holy Ganges River, which scripture says starts at Shiva’s head. Shiva being the God of Destruction reminds us that creativity and change sometimes needs endings for new beginnings to happen.

“Stop hitting yourself”

“If you are super flexible but cannot yet along with your neighbour, you have learned nothing… You want to be a source of inspiration, not someone people want to run from… Yoga is all about relationships”  Roshan

Yoga is about building relationships. The poses are often named after animals and things in the natural world, like cobra, cat, cow, upward and downward facing dog, mountain pose, and tree to name a few. It seems that the natural names of poses are not just superficial but actually attempt to align our energies with the natural world – to better understand and build relationships with animals and nature, who are seen as natural yogis. The asana poses are also about building relationships with ourselves as well. Through breath, we connect to the life-force within us. Through poses, we connect to our muscle tissue, our nerves, our joints and deeper into our willpower and deeper yet into a sense of relaxation and inner peace. Through connecting with an inner peace within us and acknowledging that every person also has that deep well of bliss within them, there is also a connection with others.

In our yoga philosophy class today, we talked about some virtuous practices. These included non-violence, truth, non-stealing and balanced behaviour. Yoga is really about balance, I realized, and balance is equated to bliss and contentment. Because there is an understanding that there is a collective mind….

…and I realize here that I should give a little background to this idea…

Simply, we are all made from the same substance – atoms. These atoms are constructed from energy particles – protons, electrons and neutrons. What makes each atom different are not different substances (everything is made from protons, electrons and neutrons) but rather different positive or negative charges by different numbers of electrons. In essence, we are made from energy. It’s the E=MC² equation thought of as a philosophy. The idea of a “collective consciousness” is just the pool of energy as potentiality, and it becomes “mind” when it begins vibrating and the vibration manifests the reality around us. I might be wrong but it sounds kind of similar to some tenants of string theory in quantum physics.

“We are eternal energy… We are not human beings looking for a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings looking for a bodily experience… Once you realize you are here to experience, you can truly enjoy this most fantastic roller coaster called life,” said Roshan.

In other words, if all is one, why not be nice to others because others are actually us?  Violence to others is actually doing violence to ourselves. You don’t need to steal things because it is all us.  We are all inside the universe but the universe is also inside us; all is one.

With the maturity of a grade 3 school child, I lightly punch my friend Sarah beside me and say, “Stop hitting yourself.”

Giggling, I do this a few more times.

The world really is an interesting place though and there is a joy in going with the flow (while at the same time being attentive to inequality and holding true compassion to those in hard situations, though I’ll save this conversation for another day). It is amazing that I am laying here typing on my computer in Rishikesh, India listening to babbling family sounds of the home next door with the occasional moo of cows and the beep of motorbikes. The other people in the group are amazing, especially my sister. I realized I didn’t bring a clock – another girl in the group lent me their watch. I realized I brought the wrong cord to charge my e-reader, thus had over 400 books in hand but couldn’t access them, and one of our teachers gave me hers as she had broke her Kindle. I was looking for a make-up artist at a reasonable rate for my wedding without really any luck in Vancouver and found that one of the other students in the course is a make-up artist….and from Vancouver…and available on the date of the wedding!

Perhaps one of the most amazing things is hanging out with Kerissa. I met Kerissa in 2008 when Rigel, Keith, Bryan and I travelled Guatemala. Kerissa was a super cool solo female traveler who was looking for a Spanish course without much luck in finding one that she clicked with and ended up travelling with us for most of the two weeks we were there. We kept in loose touch through occasional Facebook stalks seeing where in the world we each were at and “liking” periodic travel photos. A month ago, I thought I recognized a picture…it was from India! It looked like Rishikesh! I quickly messaged her and no, she wasn’t in Rishikesh but she was in India and doing a yoga teacher training course in Dharmasala. A few days ago, I get another message that she is done her course, travelling and had arrived in Rishikesh. We met up today, had chai and ice mint lemon tea in a little rooftop café overlooking the Ganges River. There is something wonderfully crazy about meeting up with Kerissa  5 years later after really only hanging out with each other for under 2 weeks years ago and chatting like no time had passed since we were travelling together.  It is also kind of crazy that we both connected in India due to doing yoga teacher training courses since in Guatemala, we had hiked up to the top of an extinct volcano in Lake Atitlan on my birthday and did yoga at the summit.  It was awesome to see her again and also to meet her fiancé, Chad. They are really inspirational people.

From right to left, Chad, Kerissa and me!

From right to left, Chad, Kerissa and me!

Quit monkeying around

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We lay back in savasana, the final resting pose in our yoga asana practice, darkly translated to “corpse pose” as we lay on our backs with our legs and arm spread and bring stillness to our bodies. We go deeper into our relaxation, there is a CRASH, BANG, SCAMPER along the roof. Monkeys are jumping along the top of the corrugated tin roof.

Most of the time, I see a male and female with a small baby monkey hanging off her torso as they scamper from building to building. There are, however, other monkeys too.

Later, I was craving a chai tea as we are basically on a zero caffeine and almost zero refined sugar diet currently. We have herbal tulsi (sacred basil) tea in the morning and honey, lemon ginger or honey, lemon mint tea with our meals. It is kind of funny that we are in India but don’t have any chai as in the heavenly sugary, milky black tea. I was walking to a nearby café for a chai and chat and as I was walking down from my room to the lobby, I ran into a monkey on the second floor.

Let me first tell you a little about the environment. The staircases wind down and there is a little open area on each floor. On the second floor, the opening to the back of the building is completely covered by a metal trellis where vines are growing. In other words, I had the monkey cornered.

It looked at me. I looked back. I quickly looked away.

Apparently, the trick to monkeys is no eye contact. Then, you are not playing their dominance games and do not seem like a threat. I stayed put for a little while. The monkey did not move. I thought of going over to the other staircase but then I thought, “Why should I go to the other side of the hotel compound pretty much completely out of the way?” After all, I am the bigger primate! Haha

I slowly went down the steps, staying as far away from the monkey as possible and not making eye contact. I got by and quickly walked to the café with a bit of a giggle at how silly the situation was.

India, perhaps one of the only places where you can say, “Sorry, I’m a bit late. There was a monkey in my way”

Seeing yourself in the river

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Jenn and I

“Buddha is the most selfish man in humanity. All the sages were selfish,” said Roshan, our sage-like philosophy of yoga master a couple days ago. “Everybody is selfish. The issue is we need to know the self first. We need to expand our  idea of  the self. They (Buddha, other sages) can see themselves in others…. They didn’t do it for other people’s happiness. They saw themselves in others… If your self includes the world around you – the plants, the animals – is it bad to be selfish?”

It is our day off but the devoted aspiring yogis that we are, we woke up before dawn and went to a yoga class at the famous ashram of Parmath Niketan. It was still early so the gate to the hotel was still locked and 11 of us jumped the gate. It is kind of funny to break out of our hotel to go to a yoga class.

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The rebels who jumped the fence

We thought the yoga class was at 6am but when we got there, there was no sign of anyone and a sign said that class was at 6:30am.  We went up to the roof and did some sun salutations to the rising sun while monkeys scampered around the edge of the roof around us. It was a very beautiful memorable moment.

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Saying hello to the rising sun

As we were wandering back to the yoga school after yoga class and meditation for breakfast, we noticed that there was a very large uniformed presence. We wondered if there was an event going on or something…then we realized they were taking pictures and buying souveniers.

We are currently staying in Swarg Ashram, a spiritual community made up of temples, ashrams, a busy bazaar, bathing gaats where people dip their feet or whole bodies into the holy Ganges river and streets are filled with both Indian and foreign tourists. Sacred cows and holy men dress in orange robes, called sadhus, wander the streets.

Jenn and I went for a long walk all around Rishikesh today, shopping, exploring temples and dodging cows. We walked across the Ram Jhula bridge to the busy market and auto-rickshaw terminal on the other side and walked along the busy road past High Bank to the other bridge, Lakshman Jhula.

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Lakshman jhula – jhula means bridge

Lakshman Jhula bridge itself rocks a lot and the area itself is an interesting place filled with temples, German bakeries, yoga schools and jewelry and clothing shops. From one temple, we walked down a “shortcut to Lakshman Jhula” – a covered staircase passage that was crammed with people and jewelry shops – that led to another temple.

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Jennifer shopping in the busy baazar

At home in Vancouver, you can say that there are Starbucks on every corner, some kitty-corner with each other. Here, it is like that with temples. Temples, each to certain gods and goddesses with amazing histories, are everywhere. What does this say about our society? We walked back on the Swarg Asharm side of the river from Lakshman Jhula back to the yoga school.

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Temples galore

That evening, we went to the sunset Ganga Aarti ritual at Parmath Niketan. We were especially honoured to see Pujya Swamiji, the guru of Parmath Niketan, and Anna Hazare, a prominent Indian social activist whom one of the Indian student in our course called “the next Gandhi.” Ashram disciples and Pujya Swamiji led us in an hour of singing and chanting accompanied with traditional Indian musical instruments. Though we didn’t understand the words, the energy was infectious and soon we were singing along to the words we had picked up, clapping and swaying to the beat along with the crowd.  They both gave speeches about how protection of Mother Ganga is important and chemical run off into the river needs to be stopped. Pujya Swamiji spoke about how we needed to see ourselves in the river. The river is not a part from us but rather a part of is. It is, along with the rest of the earth, our mother. He also led a pledge for people  to plant trees to celebrate special occasions, which I did raise my hands in cheer so expect lots of trees in the future I guess.

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Beginning of ganga aarti sunset ritual

After, the singing and speeches, the sunset ritual started. When the sun was setting, and the sky was slowly starting to get dark, the orange robed ashram disciples lit candles. Small candles in dishes were passed through the audience while the guru and disciples had large candelabras. We all sang in prayer and those with fire made circular motions to the music. The sky darkened and the candles kept the light alive like lots of brilliant stars forged in human relationships and human action. At the end, some people set their dishes with candles on them into the river flowing off into the horizon.

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Ganga aarti

Good things come in threes

I think there is this saying that good things come in threes. Three does seem to be a particularly important number – the Holy Trinity in Christianity, the saying that third time’s the charm, and here there is also a sacred trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva – the gods of creation, sustaining and destruction. Today, three awesome things happened:

First, my amazing sister, Jenn, arrived. I felt someone tap me on my shoulder during breakfast and turned around to see a happy, smiling Jenn. Her trip from Delhi airport to Rishikesh was seamless and she had a very chatty taxi driver who wanted to teach her Hindi overnight… literally. A part of this trip is to hang out with my sister more since we have not gone a trip together just us before and as my maid of honor, the two of us make up the female portion of the wedding party and this yoga trip is basically my bachelorette party. I thought that strippers and getting wasted was a bit overrated so here we are in India learning to will our bodies into different positions (sometimes rather crazy positions as we were workshoping the reverse triangle pose today and it is a very unnatural position! Haha) in order to better understand our minds and ask deeper questions about the nature of happiness, love and reality. Good questions for going into marriage I think!

Secondly, I found out that there is a lady who teaches classical Indian dance. She comes to the yoga school and uses one of the yoga halls on the roof. Kathak is a style of traditional dance from northern India that dances out a story. It is really expressive in the whole body performing the narrative through facial expressions and hand gestures. It reminded me a bit of the traditional Chinese dance my mom used to do in how it was very performative in telling a story through movements in the body. I learned to dance to a poetic song about Shiva today, which is extremely tricky because in addition to starting to learn a completely new style of dance, it’s in Sanskrit! Sanskrit is an older form of Hindi and as someone explained to me, Sanskrit is to Hindi like Latin is to English. The poem is translated below:

Shiva Panchashra Stutra

Nagamandraharaya (He has a snake necklace) Trilochnaya (He has a third eye) Bhasmangragaya (He has ash on his body) Maheshvraya (Shiva)

Nityay (Always) Shudaya (Pure) Digambaraya (Naked)

Tasmaya (To that ) ‘na’ (Hindi alphabet) Karaya (I am doing) Namah Shivaya (salute to Shiva)

*I am going to try to add a video of my teacher performing this soon*

Thirdly, we did our evening meditation by the Ganges River in town tonight. The marble covered ground beside the swiftly flowing river was still warm from the sun. All around us, the lights twinkled and there was periodic chanting rising into the night from different ashrams in the area. We all sat facing north towards the Himalaya Mountains and sat still for half an hour, meditating. It was a pretty amazing experience. I am ok with meditating for the first 15-20 minutes, then I get sore and/or the mosquitoes have found me but I think my meditation practice will only get better from here.

Om Namah Shivaya

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A shrine to an incarnation of Shiva

Today on our lunch break, Caitlin, Sarah and I walked up to the temple on the hillside above our yoga school. We hike up the hill past dogs sleeping out the heat on the sidewalk and cows chilling out in the shade. The road ends and turns into a dirt path through mango trees lush with fruit. We hike up the hill then reach the temple where it is stair-master to reach the entrance. It is a tall structure with multiple, tiered levels painted in yellows and oranges. There are bells on each level that you ring as you go by and the resonating sound is like the resonating ‘om’ in our mantra chant. The sound seems to carry on through the hallways and stairs, out into the air over the river and mountains.

Caitlin, Sarah and I ringing the "doorbells" to the temple. Anyone home?

Caitlin, Sarah and I ringing the “doorbells” to the temple. Anyone home?

We go up and up until we reach the top and it is a breathtaking view of the city, river and surrounding mountains. We can also see Hardiwar which doesn’t seem that far away. Our journey took longer probably because we’re on the other side of the river where the suspension bridge is the main access point and the only road here is a one lane windy road though forested mountains.

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After circling around and around, going up seemingly endless flights of stairs, we reach the top. At the top is a figure of an incarnation of Shiva, the god of destruction and change but in those things, also creativity. Our yoga teacher discussed with us that gods and goddesses are really personified energy. It is actually all one, a shared consciousness that Roshan referred to as a giant server that we all have stored our individual websites on. The gods and goddesses represent aspects of that energy that have become anthromorphicized because it is easier for people to understand and interact with. The priest is an older man dressed in a long white tunic and yellow robe. His English is limited but speaks the universal language of friendliness. I was expecting solemn and strict but rather he was like someone’s grandfather. He unlocks the shrine to Shiva for us and we enter and kneel on the rug beside the figure of Shiva. He gives us a spoonful of sacred water to drink, some white flowers made from sugar for us to drink, ties a red string around our right wrist and marks a third eye on our forehead with yellow pigment while blessing us in Hindi. We take in the breath-taking view and slowly descend, making counter clock-wise circles going down the flights of stairs, ringing the bells as we pass.

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Monsoon is coming

The air is thick with anticipation. It is a wall of heat and humidity that actually feels to have weight. Yesterday, we were down in town during our lunch break getting some juice – I had a fresh mango lassi DELICIOUS! – at a little café that had a patio lined with rugs and cushions overlooking the Ganges River. All of a sudden, we feel a breeze and some drops on our face and then it started to rain.

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The rain starting to roll in from across the river

You could see it rolling in the wavy splash patterns coming across the wide river. It rained cats and dogs…or should I say monkeys and cows? It soaked us completely on our walk back to the yoga school. The streets had turned into murky brown streams that I tried to not think too much about. On the plus side, the streets were that rare occasion of being empty with everyone, including the cows, huddled in covered places. There are a couple covered tunnels in amidst the shops and restaurants and it was really cute to see how the cows were almost like people, standing there crowded among people. I kept on having to wipe my eyes and wished I had windshield wipers on my glasses, it was raining so hard.

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Rain rain rain!

This has happened a few times now. The humidity and subsequently the heat builds and builds and builds like we’re in a giant oven. There is no escape as you take a shower and almost immediately after, you’re that sticky, hot feel afterwards. The fan whirls overhead in my room but it just blows hot air. I have a cross-breeze through my front and back windows but again, it is just hot, humid, sticky air. It builds and builds until snap, it’s like the oven door opening and the sky breaks open and pours. It is not a long rain like at home when it is cloudy and drizzles all day. When it rains, it rains. After, however, it is cooler, the air feels distinctly lighter and there seems to be a breeze.

In the night, in the aftermath of a particularly large downpour, the wind was really blowing. It was blowing so hard that it rattled my closed door until the pin which locks it fell down and the door blew open.

Waterski Asana

An asana is position in yoga that shapes our bodies and consequently our minds. At this moment, I am “waterskiing” amidst the Himalayan Mountains.

I have worn but still strong belt strapped around the waist of my raven-haired and extremely bendy co-student. She is in downward dog position where her she is bent forward, hands on the ground, feet on the ground and hips up high in the air dreaming of being Mt. Everest. Our fiery yoga teacher tells us to check our alignment – that our fingers are even spread out with weight distributed to prevent wrist injuries, our feet are parallel with our pinky toes in line with our heels and to shift the weight of our bodies more onto our feet rather than our hands –an 80/20% ratio he said. To help this process out and to help our hips reach the heavens and tilting our tailbones upward, we are doing partner work. Thus, here I am with two hands grabbing a relatively short strap that is looped around my new very close friend’s waist and through her legs and pulling backwards with my toes on her heels to make sure they’re flat on the ground. Waterskiing asana. Happiness, friendship, laughter fills my mind.

There are about 50 of us in the 200 hour yoga teacher training course from all over the world. Lots of us are from Canada and the USA but there are also some from Singapore, Ireland, Mexico, Slovenia, Russia and India. Everyone is very nice and has amazing stories. We have all come to do yoga for different reasons but there was an underlying theme of wanting to explore the something-more to life.

Our mornings come early here with a 4:30am wake-up. The sky is just barely starting to lighten, perfect for sunrise yoga, which apparently sunrise and sunsets are the best times to do yoga. All of a sudden, the sun salutation yoga sequences make more sense to me. Yoga originates in Vedic traditions dating back to prehistory. In the ancient Indus Valley Bronze Age civilizations of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro dating back to 3300 BCE where archaeologists have found stone seals with carvings of people in yogic positions surrounded by cattle, suggesting the early cultural value of the position and cattle. Around 1800 BCE, there were signs of a gradual decline theorized to be due to drought, decline in trade with Mesopotamia and Egypt and in migration of pastoralist Aryan peoples from Central Asia. Vedic culture developed from combination of the in-migrating Indo-Aryan peoples and the richness of Harappan civilization. Though Vedic culture is an oral tradition, orality and teacher/student still emphasized today as our yoga teacher told us today that something is lost in books and wisdom travels from person to person, it has been faithfully passed down to us today orally then textually in the form of the Vedas, four sacred collections of texts. The Vedas, with veda translating to wisdom in Sanskrit, contains mantras for rituals. Many rituals are associated with the sun, moon and natural forces like thunder which I think has a lasting legacy today in modern day yoga with sun salutations (and moon salutations).

There are also many rituals for purification in the Vedas and after a morning herbal tea at 5 in the morning, we have yogic cleansings before our yoga asana class at 5:30am. Our “nettie pot” is like a cheap, white plastic version of an Aladdin lamp that if you rubbed it, a genie would pop out and give you three wishes. With its rather phallic spout, I hesitate to contemplate the three wishes. You crouch by and lean over the garden and pour water from the spout into one nostril until water comes out of your other nostril. Then we snort all the water out with strong diaphragmic breaths. As someone who has an issue with nosebleeds, I was pretty hesitant on pouring water up my nose and the feeling the water in my nasal cavity is a truly strange experience but it wasn’t actually that bad and my nostrils felt very clean and clear afterwards.

At 5:30am, we have pranayama, mantra and asana practice. Pranayama is breathing exercises, such as diaphramic breathing or breathing through alternating nostrils while blocking the other nostril, to bring a more meditative state but also to cultivate energy of your life force. Mantras are chants; many of which are developments from Vedic traditions. Mantras as one of our yoga teachers told us are healing sounds, sounds being vibrations of energy. These healing sounds consequently help us realign our vibrations, our energy, with that of the world around us. Asana are the poses and movements we commonly associated with what we think of as yoga. We started off basic with joint stretches and strengthening exercises and now are just starting into the actual yoga positions. My body is loving it. The 3.5 hours of yoga practice a day is amazing for my body. I’m going into poses that I was never able to do like full lotus and refining others like how half lotus seems natural to me now and I can actually get my heels down in downward facing dog!

our philosophy and anatomy/physiology class

our philosophy and anatomy/physiology class

The relationship of the body with the mind and the self is explored in philosophy, anatomy and physiology classes from basically 9:30am to noon after breakfast at 8am (which is a buffet of delicious fruit salad including succulent mangos, papayas, watermelon and banana and some starch like porridge or curry rice or etc.). A healthy body, a healthy mind and healthy actions that help create healthy relationships and a healthy world all around us are all related. Roshan says,

“There is a mind inside you but you are also inside mind. You are inside the universe but the universe is also inside you”

In other words, how you treat yourself is a microcosm of how you treat other people and how you interact with the world around you. Through your attitudes and thought patterns, you create your world that you live in. Roshan further says,

“For some, life is a struggle…but you can also say that life is an ever happening festivity… We are going to experience what we are looking for so what do you want?”

At 12:30pm, we get lunch, usually a tomato and cucumber salad, rice with always a special treat (one day it had mint in it, another day it had diced tomatoes in it, another day it had paneer chunks in it), a lentil/bean stew dish and butter carrots and cabbage dish. All meals are vegetarian. We get a long break after lunch when we explore the city of Rishikesh including wander through its markets and try our luck at bartering, going for delicious juices and lassies (a kind of yogurt smoothie) and I recently found ice cream! Yay!

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Mint ice cream and a fabulous sundae called “Hello to the Queen”. It is three scoops of vanilla ice cream over fried bananas and crumbled cookies drizzled with chocolate. YUM!

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Chilling out at a local cafe (where those tasty ice cream dishes are at) in our break.

We’re back with another asana yoga class from 5:30 to 7pm. After 7pm, silence time starts where everyone remains silent for the rest of the night except for any essential communication. I thought it would be really weird, especially to eat dinner with other people and not talk to them but it is actually really nice. Dinner is at 7:15pm and usually consists of chapatti, a soup, a salad and a curry dish. It’s kind of crazy to think that we have no refined sugar in our diets as far as I can tell. The only sweet comes from this molasses like honey that’s dark, thick and flavourful. We get honey with our porridge and in our herbal teas (ginger-lemon-honey and mint-lemon-honey). At 8:30pm, we meditate for half an hour and then it’s “lights out” at 10pm. The lights don’t actually go out but it’s more like a suggested bed time. Since we got up at 4:30am, I am usually in bed right after meditation at 9pm.

Welcome to your Inner Self

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On the road to Rishikesh – over 100 km down and just under 100 left to go. However, the last 100 km was the longest because the empty roads at night turned to a chaotic dance of cars, trucks, cyclists, motorbikes, wayward cattle and donkey drawn carts.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” says ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. In our yoga course, a journey to your inner self begins an awareness and curiosity to ask deeper questions about who we are and how we are living. The combination of the two had landed me at 1:30am in Delhi’s international airport.

After a long flight, filled with fluttering butterfly feelings, excitement and mediocre airplane food, I arrive in hot, humid Delhi. A group of us that are all heading up to the ashram together and after some tricky taxi driver antics where they pretended to call the number of the ashram but instead called a friend who told us that our driver has broken down along the way and that we should grab a taxi at the airport, we found our actual driver and was on our way. Our driver arranged by the yoga school was amazing and kept on stopping to get us little paper cups full of piping hot sugary, milky tea, stopped for us to feed monkeys on the side of the road from inside the car  and even a short detour to show us an elephant. The last part of the drive from Hardiwar to Rishikesh took us through winding mountain roads through a jungle filled with little monkeys with black faces framed in wild grey fur peering at us from the trees. The trees were alive with the buzzing of insects challenging the drumming beat of Bollywood tunes blaring from the stereo.

Our ashram, yoga school, is located in a city of ashrams – the holy city of Rishikesh. The city is framed in mountains and cut in two by the swift flowing Ganges River. As it flows deeper into India, the river becomes slower like a stately waltz but here, it has only recently been birthed in the Himalayan Mountains and the water flows quickly, dancing with energy. There is a suspension bridge that connects the two sides that feels the footsteps of thousands of pilgrims, residents, tourists, yoga students, cattle and annoyingly, motorbikes that cross each year.

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Rishikesh is how I remembered it when I first visited it with Bryan on our first major trip together seven years ago in 2006, though there are now vehicles and motorbikes on the eastern side of the river now. On the western side of the river is the major road where you have to cross using the suspension bridges to the eastern side where there are many holy temples and spiritual centers. The sides of the rivers are lined with steps that lead down to the water for pilgrims and worshippers to touch the sacred waters. Instead of skyscrapers, the peaks of temples and statues and monuments of gods form the city skyline against the backdrop of green mountains. The air is thick with smoky incense and sacred cattle meander through the busy people filled streets. Colours are everywhere – in the beautiful saris worn by women, in the delicious yellow mangoes, the juicy fuchsia watermelons and vibrant green mint leaves sold by vendors and in the brilliant orange marigold garlands draping the entrances to holy places. Chanting can be heard from multiple locations, as is the rather frantic calls of “rickshaw” and “ice cream” from vendors hawking their goods and services.  Also heard is the loud blaring horn of motorbikes that try to part the ocean of people – rather convincing since their horns are loud and annoying.

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Our yoga school, Rishikesh Yoga Peeth, is a bit closer to the mountains, about 7 minutes walk from the busy temple and ashram lined river, which I can see it from my room window and patio. The horns are only occasional and distant sounding, competing with bird calls, “moo”s of cattle and the occasional barks of stray dogs. Rishikesh Yoga Peeth seems to taking over this little corner of the city with a network of 3 or 4 hotels with yoga halls on the roof. I am in the main building – Krishna Cottage, a green and white hotel with rooms circling an inner courtyard with a vegetable garden in the middle – where the dining hall is and the main yoga hall is on the roof. My room feels a bit like a palace with a comfortable king sized bed, tile floors, a full bathroom with a working western flush toilet and shower and I have balconies and windows on both sides of my room looking out to green of trees and mountains. The front balcony is a shared walkway between the rooms and the back is a private patio. I used to keep my back door open in addition to the front door and windows to make a lovely cross breeze, especially with the fan, but one day I woke up from my nap to a troop of monkeys walking across the patio! Apparently, you’re not supposed to make eye contact with them, with each aware of the other but pretending to pretending to not know to keep the peace. I went to close my door and locked eyes with one of the last monkeys in the party. The monkey growled. I growled back. The monkey scampered off.

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Imagine monkeys going across that railing 

Just a couple amazing quotes from our very eloquent yoga master, Roshan, who teaches us philosophy and anatomy & physiology:Just a couple amazing quotes from our very eloquent yoga master, Roshan, who teaches us philosophy and anatomy & physiology:

“Love what you do, do what you love. This is perfection in action. This is yoga”                                              “Advancement in yoga is not bending yourself by your awareness of it (the self)”                 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Explore. Dream. Discover.

First entry of this blog:

 

Mark Twain once said, “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Some birds fly south for the winter. Smart creatures. I apparently do the opposite. The heralds of spring, the cherry blossoms petals that paint Vancouver streets in pale pink snow have come and gone and the rainy, cold weather of May always makes me think that it should be warmer. Summer plays peek-a-boo from just around the corner and my wanderlust pulls at my heart strings. Last year and the year before, I spent my summers in Tanzania doing my masters research in a small fishing village nestled in coconut palms, turquoise oceans and grand plans for development that unfortunately helped global consumers more than local people. The year before that Bryan and I kayaked from Vancouver to Alaska exploring the beautiful, rich wild coast of British Columbia that sustained a wealth of cultures for millenias to raise funds for a project in Western Kenya. The year before that I spent a semester in safari across Eastern Africa  then Bryan joined me and we backpacked from Cape Town to Cairo,  exploring the diverse landscapes from grasslands of the Masai Mara, the labyrinth of streets in Old Town Zanzibar, the highlands and the random Macbethian castles of Gondor in Ethiopia, driving through the massive baobao tree forests in Mozambique to the highest mountain in Africa, Mt Kilimonjaro – all hopped up on anti-malarial meds which warn of possible side effect of anxiety, hallucinations and psychosis. The year before that I did worked on an archaeological dig in Jordan and solo backpacked across the Middle East, the year before that I was surprisingly at home and the year before that Bryan and I backpacked across South and Southeast Asia. This year, I am on a plane flying to India to do my yoga teacher training – a bachelorette trip with my sister who will be joining me in a week before my craziest adventure to date, getting married.

With each trip, I always get a little butterfly feeling in my stomach as I leave the safe harbor of every day routine and working steadily to build a successful career.  As I worked three jobs simultaneously this past year to save up money for travels, weaving work hours like an intricate puzzle that somehow always worked out though often forgetting my need to sleep, a well-paying, Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 job sounds absolutely delightful.

However, my daydreams fly to different places I want to visit and my daydreams become real dreams.

Some people ask me, “What is it that you actually want to DO in life? What do you want to settle in? Why do you want to do all these things and walk away from educational and career advancements?”

I think somehow it returns to Mark Twain’s quote that looking back, people are more disappointed by the things they didn’t do than the things they did. Being driven is great and don’t get me wrong, I truly admire people who build beautiful families and/or have a great career that they have worked so hard to get to – exploring, dreaming and discovering can happen a lot closer to home too. However, I just think that sometimes, if we set ourselves on just a narrow definition of success, we put blinders on the amazing opportunities for experiences that may come up.

The word for happiness in Cantonese Chinese literally translates to “open heart” and I think it is such a beautiful phrase to reflect opening your heart to new experiences and people. In travels, you meet some interesting, some awesome and some truly inspirational people – often (but not always), all three combined. Such openness is sometimes painful – but often the painfulness comes from shattering pre-conceived ideas about places and people rather than the pain of being ripped off or sore butts from long rides on buses you’re amazed they somehow keep running… though there are many crappy buses so sore butts is a quite common occurrence.

My background training is in cultural, medical anthropology and though I’ve stepped off the idealized educational path from undergrad to grad to eventual professor (with forays into the bog of self doubt, bushwacking through thick jungles of trying to finish a thesis/dissertation, swimming through shark inhabited seas of trying to get published and trudging across deserts trying to reach oasises of getting a tenure-track position) for now, I do still feel like it continues to be a part of me. More than just academics, it is a bit of a philosophy. Underlying the debates and critiques and though different schools of thought vehemently disagree with each other sometimes, I think underlying it all is a core ideal (though of course not always achieved in practice) of being anti-racist and trying to understand people and situations from local points of view before judging.

Understand before judging – I always thought there was something beautiful about that – it is critical thinking at its highest.

It is a philosophy that the world around us and the objects and people we interact with are meaningful – they have cultural values and norms of practice. Meaning is socially developed thus there are many different ways of perceiving the world but it is also constructed in contexts of power that can reproduce social inequalities.  I guess in my travels and in my attempts of keeping an open heart, I try to hold on to some of these philosophical tenants of anthropology. Travelling for me is like experiencing anthropology – through all of the senses. In contrast to psychology where experiments look at effects of variables on test subjects, the anthropologist himself or herself is the site of the experiment, immersing into a situation to try to understand it better, reflexively through effects on the self. Learning about something different often uncovers more about the self just as judging non-compliant medical patients often reveals more about the barriers health discourses construct.

These lessons from anthropology seem especially salient as I embark on the adventures of this summer – off to India to do a 6 week residential hatha yoga teacher training course. I will be located in Rishikesh, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas where the mighty Ganges River tumbles out of the mountains. The landscape is charged with stories as it is where many of the events in Hindu scriptures take place. More pop culture, it is also the place where the Beatles went and wrote the White Album. For the next six weeks, I will be studying yogic philosophies and meditating through movement in yoga positions, though music in chanting and through stillness in sitting meditation from dawn to dusk for six days a week.

All of a sudden, those fluttering butterflies in my stomach return.

Sometimes it is crazy to drop everything to go on the next adventure… however, sometimes I think it is also crazy to sit back and let the world go by.