my surrealistic version of Eat Pray Love

I’ve always received messages in my meditations.  Some might call them visions although that is too strong a word for me because I certainly don’t consider myself any type of psychic.  I do get flashes of peoples’ lives when I do energy healing — I usually don’t tell them what I see but when I do it is always confirmed.  But for the longest time a picture came into my head of an older me, with long gray curly hair, wearing orange robes and sitting with my eyes closed on a ghat somewhere in India.  I don’t know if it is a picture of the future or from the past.  When I first started to receive these images I did not know what a ghat was and India was not even a thought in my mind.

After five years of going to India this was my first trip to north India, to the Ganges.  When I walked onto our hotel terrace overlooking the river in Haridwar it took my breath away.  I stood there amazed because I instantly knew I had been there before.  I have written before about how for the past two years I knew in my bones I had to be at THIS Kumbh Mela at THIS time in my life.  Nothing was going to stop me.

I stood there for a long time taking everything in and it was such a deep, visceral knowing that I could only compare it to when my feet first hit the ground in Chennai five years ago, the feeling that I had come home.  Everything that was in my view I had already seen and known.  There was no mistake about it, I had already been here, in this spot.  It was the week of Mahashivaratri and the orange robes of the sadhus across the river looked so familiar to me on a level that was very different from seeing them in photographs.

Before the Mela we had been in Kolkata where we went to Kalighat. When I walked into that temple I received such a blast of shakti that I had to sit down before I fell down.  When we were in the inner chamber itself my friend told me that my eyes were so dilated that I looked like I had dropped a hit of acid.  The cockroaches crawling all over the metal grill surrounding the murthi of Kali Ma sparkled so brightly that they looked like crawling jewels.  I mentioned them to my friend but she could not see what I saw.

After we made our offering and the priests thumped our foreheads we walked around and came to the area where the goats are sacrificed. The idea of an animal or a human dying for the Divine is abhorrent to me but I take many things in stride in India.  If the thought of legless and deformed beggars or slum children pulling on your sleeve for a rupee is too much, then India is not the place for you.

I watched a woman butchering the meat as stray dogs gathered waiting for a morsel of goat to drop.  Goat heads with blank staring eyes lined the edge of the sacrificial platform and I looked at the dogs.  In my shakti induced high their panting mouths seemed to be smiling. Kalighat is next door to where Mother Theresa tended to the dying whether they were Christian, Hindu, or Muslim, and instead of feelings of revulsion about the decapitated goats, I took in the entire scene and all I felt was pure love.  In the Bengali tradition, the goal of the Kali devotee is to become reconciled with death and to learn acceptance of the way that things are.  The love that I felt was raw and primal and my heart space filled with the fire of bhakti.  I felt as if I were on fire.  I felt extraordinarily alive.

All the people who had died next door, all the goats who had given their lives for the Mother, all those dogs who were going to eat.  It was my own surrealistic version of Eat Pray Love.  And I was filled with joy.

On Mahashivaratri we watched the procession of the naga babas to the Ganges and I knew that I had never been to such a joyful event in my life.

devotees of a swami

Our hotel in Haridwar had its own ghat and after the naga babas took their bath on Mahashivaratri I walked down the steps into the Ganges and dunked myself three times.   We had already been in Haridwar for five days but I wanted to wait until the day that Shiva married Parvati to really feel the river.   I had immediately felt the energy of the river just standing on the terrace on the first day so I knew it would be even more energized after the holy men bathed.

I was right. During my third dunk I stayed underwater a bit longer and I felt electric.  I came out and sat on the steps with my feet in the water.  Bathing in the river is thought to wash away one’s sins, a death, so to speak (“you will die in India” I had been told.)  The waters of the Ganges are called amrita, the “nectar of immortality”.  Hindus believe that there is nothing as cleansing as the living waters of Ganga Ma.  I wanted to sit there all day with the water on my skin.  Something was coursing through me and once again all I felt was joy.  Our true nature.

As it turned out it was an auspicious day for me because that night I met a swami of the highest order, a man who is the Acharya Mahamandaleshwar of the Juna Akhara.

That morning he had thrown a rose to me from the procession — he stopped his chariot, looked right at me, threw the flower and smiled, and then moved on.  At that time I did not know that in the afternoon I would be invited to a special puja that night at his ashram, the oldest one in Haridwar.   A mantra teacher friend from Mumbai sent me a text telling me he was staying at an ashram and would I like to come for a special Mahashivaratri puja.  He said he would be chanting during the ceremony and maybe I would be interested in attending.  I had no idea that he was staying in the ashram of the rose throwing swami, I did not even know the swami’s name.  Before I left my friend said, “what if it’s the swami from this morning?”   I told her that would be too much of a coincidence — but there are no coincidences, all things happen for a reason.

When the rickshaw arrived at the ashram and I saw the swami’s picture on a billboard outside the ashram, I froze in my seat.   I couldn’t believe it.  Once again that shakti blast pieced the coconut and all I could do was stare at the billboard with his picture.  I sat there for so long that some of the devotees asked me if I was alright.  I walked into the ashram grounds and eventually was taken back into the swami’s compound before the start of the puja.  Nothing was planned, everything just happened, merely the flow of the experience, the essence of allowing things to unfold.  I was told that night that it was my good karma to be there, that I was meant to be there from the moment I caught that rose. I returned every day to the ashram before we left Haridwar.

For whatever reason, maybe it was my jump into the Ganges, but my personal practice and my yoga teaching have changed.  I really can’t describe it, but the energetics have changed, even my students say so. I’ve read that when shifts of consciousness occur it changes your DNA.

The new message I received during my recent meditations was that the day I stop teaching here will be the beginning of my Indian life.  But not yet.  I still have some cooking to do, it will take a few more years.  I’m coming to end of my marinating and it’s nice to begin to see what the feast is going to look like.  Or not.  That’s OK, too.  Kali is said to not give what is expected.  It is said that perhaps it is her refusal to do so that enables her devotees to reflect on dimensions of themselves and of reality that go beyond the material world.

Everything with a grain of salt. All things happen when they are ready to happen. They always have.

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emails home

Unfortunately, during my first trip to India in September, 2005, I did not keep the emails I sent home.  Y’all will have to be satisfied with my musings and rants from my second trip in March, 2006.

The first photo is me with Suresh’s (my autorickshaw driver) three darling daughters, his nephew, and a neighbor boy….such a simply sweet and beautiful day…..

The picture of me and my very large friend was taken in September 2005 in front the temple in Pondicherry….the blessing only cost me 1 rupee! definitely the money shot!
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3/6/06

…the intensive is going to be awesome, of course! this time we have Desikachar’s senior senior teachers teaching us and….Desikachar himself is teaching the meditation class and his son, Kausthub, is teaching the class on how the Sutras teach us how to transform ourselves.

This is a yoga teacher’s dream — at least for a teacher who believes that this is the heart of yoga. We chanted with Desikachar this morning, and he told us we sounded “fantastic”….

Once again, being here confirms for me that yoga is not about the body, but about transforming the mind. And once again it confirms that no one can put their own name on a 5000 year old tradition — not John Friend, not Ana Forrest, not Bikram….

This morning they talked about how true personal transformation, on a deeper level, can not come from a group class, it can only be done on an individual level, one-on-one, like Krishnamacharya taught. It can start in a group yoga class, but can only reach culmination, one-on-one.

As I laid in bed this morning in the throes of jet lag, I realized what coming here does for me — India integrates me, takes the yin and yang and pulls it together into the One that gives me peace. It is hard to describe, but when I realized it, it literally felt like two halves melting into one.

mmmmmmm……my India …..
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3/11/2006
first weekend of traveling…

woke up this morning in Pondicherry . Starting walking at 7 am — to beach on the Bay of Bengal , taking my time….. stopped to make “happy birthday” call to hubby while I was drinking REAL indian chai for 3 rupees a cup — had 3 cups. 44 rupees to $1 so figure it out!

There is a Ganesh temple in Pondicherry — the temple where the elephant blessed me last year. On my way back from the beach, they were walking the temple elephant thru the streets to the temple, her face decorated, her “ankles” wearing bracelets. They took the real Ganesha into the temple and walked her around. Following her were the priests beating drums, blowing horns, and pulling a movable altar with a statue of Ganesh covered in garlands. They walked her around the temple about 5 times or so, then took her outside. Every time she passed me I said OM GUM GANA PATAYAI NAMAHA, Ganesh’s mantra. The whole experience was awesome. And yes, Ganesha blessed me again…..when I gave her a rupee. The elephant is 15 years old by the way, still a young temple elephant.

I had breakfast on the beach in a tiny restaurant, 30 rupees. Idly with chutneys and a sweet lassi, of course…..

My trip is a bit different this year — I realized that now that I see the underbelly of India , last year, I saw only the good thru rose colored glasses. Now I see everything more clearly, the garbage, the shit — dog, cow, and human — on the streets, the starving dogs, the beggars holding puppies or babies to get your sympathy. There were two little girls, one holding a little puppy not more than 2 months old, so of course I gave them all my rupee coins and 30 rupees in paper money, how could I resist? I told them to feed themselves and the puppy. Who knows if they will feed the puppy?

But in spite of this, I love it here. I am a true buddhist when I can see reality as it really is, not as I wish it to be with no starving puppies and little beggar girls and no shit on the streets! This morning I called from the beach on my cell phone to Madurai , the temple town I will visit in two weeks, called 2 places to reserve a room. I have a reservation at a 1000 rupee hotel and a 118 rupee guesthouse next to the temple…..guess which one I will stay at??

well, think I will go back to hotel now, to shower, and go out for another walk. Will head back to Chennai about 3 pm or so…..

bye for now — and think about elephant blessings…. and all the other blessings you have in your lives…..
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3/16/2006

…it was a great theory class today, all about the bandhas, so interesting!! once again, being here re-confirms for me how this is the pure, traditional yoga, the heart, anything else is just faking it…..and anyone who puts their own name on yoga…
PUH-LEEEEEEZE!

the teachers keep emphasizing how personal transformation is the true goal of yoga, not getting the yoga butt or abs, but personal transformation, changing our states of mind, replacing negative tendencies with positive ones, and connecting to the True Self, how ultimately this can not be done in a group yoga class, it can only be done one-on-one with a teacher, as Krishnamacharya taught.

They showed us the sequence on how to teach the bandhas, starting with jalandhara going down to mulabandha, and how people should be able to inhale and exhale at least to a count of 10 or 12, before even attempting to work with the bandhas. Also told us about contraindications. Again, once more this emphasized for me, what NOT to teach in a group class, because everyone is different and everyone will have a different reaction to it — uddiyana bandha aggravates vata for example.

We were told that Krishnamacharya did not believe in kriyas. He said pranayama practice — properly done — was effective enough to cleanse the body of impurities. Desikachar was with us last night and he told us stories of his father, about how Krishnamacharya stopped his own heart for 2 minutes — it was only then that Desikachar took up the practice of yoga, when he saw the power of it. Until then he was not interested in it. This was in 1962 or so.

I’ve gotten pretty good at chanting the Gayatri mantra….I don’t sound too much like a howling dog anymore!

other than that, was in a very minor rickshaw accident the other night, but was not hurt. Went out with a South African student to a bookstore and in search of sweet lassis. A Muslim woman on a scooter turned into us, her front wheel ended up underneath the rickshaw and she fell off. no one stopped to help, but the guy I was with got out to help her up. She just got on the scooter and took off like nothing was. We were lucky — two other students were in a rickshaw accident where the rickshaw rolled over. Lucky for them that they escaped with only bruises and scrapes, nothing broken.

This is India….
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3/20/2006

I just got back from another beautiful day in Chennai, thanks to my rickshaw driver, Suresh. I used his services last September. He usually hangs out at The Woodlands Hotel (a hangout for Westerners in Chennai) but is available for hire for the “American madam”. Thanks to Suresh I got my best photos last year, when he took me on my last day to Chennai’s veg/fruit/flower warehouses….

Suresh does not speak the best English, but we communicate. At the beginning of this week he invited me to his house for Sunday (today), and kept reminding me about it — “wife make fish, good, Madam…” with a big smile. He said he would buy a fish, and his wife would use a little oil (because he knows I don’t like “grease”) and some spices, and his wife will cook us a feast! He picked me up and I knew it would be a traditional South Indian meal when he stopped to get some banana leaves (banana leaves are used for plates.)

I kept thinking about how our relationship has changed since last year. He invited me to his house so he must think I will not be judgmental of him as a poor rickshaw driver. Many people I know would scoff at the idea of sitting on a concrete floor eating a wonderful meal with a rickshaw driver and his wife and kids (none of whom speak English!). Many higher caste Indian would not even consider it….

The fish was great, with steamed rice and a veg salad, and a dish of mutton besides. I hoped that his wife would not be insulted that I could not eat all that she gave me — I don’t eat much, and after a few slices of fish, I was full. The funny thing was that they gave me utensils and I said, no, I will eat with my right hand, south Indian style. The kids tried to use the spoons — they sat up nice and straight looking proper, and I motioned for them to forget the spoons, just eat Indian style, which they gladly did, immediately. It was a good laugh….

It amazes me how Indian women, no matter how poor they are, always look beautiful in their saris and gold jewelery, and we Westerners always look like refugees. With many there is a certain elegance as they glide through the dirtiest and dustiest of streets, seemingly without a drop of sweat on their brows….

We got to his house (two rooms, and the Indian squat toilet is outside in another room of the building, clothes washing is done in a bucket, and pounded against the ground), and of course the neighbors had to come to see the American (I don’t think too many westerners visit this part of Chennai.) His place costs 1500 rupees per month, the one across the way costs 3000 rupees/month — for “rich people” he says (44 R = $1)

He told everyone I am the American yoga teacher he drives around. They were all interested in my tattoos, especially the kids. Suresh has three daughters (which is a curse for a poor Indian man, he must come up with a dowry for each one when they marry), and I also met his nephew. After lunch, we went up on the roof where the laundry was blowing in the breeze, and the kids started posing for pictures. I took a ton of pics of the kids and some neighbors. It was a beautiful way to spend an afternoon, to me, the “real India”. I felt honored to be there, on the roof, running around with the kids, showing them the pics on the camera, it made me want to cry. These Indians I was with, none of whom speak English, treated me like family, someone who they will never see again….how many of us would do that?? It was a day I will never forget.

I heard the kids calling me auntyji, which is a term of respect for the older “aunty” in the family…..

this is my India ….tomorrow night on to Madurai, and more Indian adventures….