India Odyssey

Jan. 22, 2014 – Feb 12, 2014
Reflections from my three week adventure with Sarahjoy Marsh and fellow yogis & yoginis to Agra, Delhi, Varanasi, Sarnath, Tiravanamali, Pondicherry, Chennai, & Bangalore.  It would be an experience of a lifetime.

 

Taj Mahal – 1st stop

At this point, the plan is to get a night’s sleep after arriving in Delhi at 11:30 pm, then 3 early travelers (Alena, Jeff, & myself) head to Agra in the morning to see the Taj Mahal. After that, our full cohort will spend several days in Varansi, take a sunrise or sunset boat on the Ganges, and a few other regional highlights, and then head to points south. The itinerary keeps changing. Par for the course I understand.

 

I’ve talked with several people about their adventures & survival tips for India (it seems I’m almost the last person who hasn’t been to India.). The list is long.

1) Stay covered up.

2) Don’t trust water bottles – look to see if there’s a wax plug on the bottom indicating the bottle has been refilled.

3) Don’t drink any milk products unless you want roundworms.

4) Scrape off the cilantro garnishes atop your main dish. It could be the last thing you’ll ever want to eat again.

5) Hold onto your plate & glass when you’re not actually eating lest the waiter hustle it away from you.

6) Don’t eat any fruit without a peel.

7) Don’t let anyone help you with your bags if you ever want to see your luggage again

9) Take a slash-proof indestructible bag w/ RFID protection.

8) Take your own antibiotics; you’ll need them sooner or later.

9) Any respiratory history? Take an asthma inhaler; the air is worse than Beijing.

 

Gee, I can hardly wait. I have asked myself, “Why am I doing this?” To witness, learn, experience, grow, confront my edges, be open, present, and let it all go. And do that each day… be of service when & where appropriate. I’m sure the real answers will be revealed once I’m there.

 

Wed.  January 22, 2014
– The night before take off

I managed to get everything packed into a carry-on bag & a day pack (including school & art supplies and a bag full of balloons to give kids we’ll be serving)  a few nights in advance leaving the last day fairly open to hang out with Alan.  Since Malarone (anti-malarial) has recently become generic, it made my $8 decision a lot easier to just go for it.  As it turns out, I never had measles, so I got that vaccine as well.  I just finished typing my notes on the book, The Yamas & Niyamas by Deborah Adele (another page here); I think her ideas will help remind me to be present, open, and compassionate.  Time to print boarding passes & get some sleep.   India, here I come!

 

Thursday morning – Flight Day … Supposedly.

8:00 a. m.  We made it out to the runway in Eugene. After several minutes, the announcement came, “We’re experiencing problems with the de-icer & need to taxi back in.” They’re already checking for alternative flights for those of us with close connections. I am scheduled to leave Portland at 9:25. How fabulous that the universe is giving me this gift to practice staying present, surrender, and not worry about the future. Lucky me.

 

Dancing with the Universe

 

After the scheduled 30 minute Eugene – Portland puddle jumper got delayed, I was waiting in line to find a solution when a former YG classroom parent who works at the airport called me to another ticket counter. He miraculously was able to re-route ALL my flights JUST in the nick of time to catch the next flight out of Eugene. He wasn’t sure if my bag got on or not. It was good news for me; I got bumped up to business class for an unexpected leg of the trip which was more direct than my original plan: instead of changing planes in Boston, he got me on a direct Seattle to Amsterdam flight in business class followed by a first class upgrade from Amsterdam to Delhi. I got some good rest to boot! Woohoo! Mike Girard, you win the Most Valuable Player award today!

Who knew I’d be going to Amsterdam today? Gutentag everybody! I love it when in the face of chaos, I can close my eyes and accept the universe’s invitation to go with the flow and trust this exquisite “dance partner”. Sitting here in Amsterdam, where it appears to be very flat, I’m momentarily curious whether my luggage made the jump with an unexpected change in flight plans.

Buddy goes Business Class!

 

January 25 – Arrival in Delhi airport 2:30 a.m.
Two Words: No Luggage.
One Word: Breathe.

I really appreciate having read the Yamas & Niyamas and the Yoga Sutras. They helped remind me that contentment is within & whether “bad” or “good” things happen, it’s all just an opportunity to stay/ be surrendered, and to reside in contentment within.
I felt pretty solidly that my luggage was in the right place, and that that place may not be with me; it’s possible that someone else needed my luggage more than me. I was good with that. After all, it’s only clothes, shoes, coat, yoga mat… Nothing of true value. Nothing.

 

Jan. 26, 2014.
I met the REAL Luke Skywalker

 

Sordi… The Real Luke Skywalker. May the force be with you!

 

After a few hours of sleep, we got up and three of us were driven to Agra to go see the Taj Mahal (Alena, Jeff, & I)
We had an amazing 4+ hour drive on the back highway. Nobody pays attention to the white lines on the road or the “fact” that there are only 2 lanes – a conceptual illusion I had to give up quickly in order to enjoy the trip. People honk all the time, but not like NY cabbies who are so aggressive, braking & speeding until you almost get whiplash. No, in India, honking is like a courtesy to let the cars, scooters, trucks, tuk-tuks, buffalo- driven carts or the occasional camel-driven cart know that you are coming up behind them – one inch behind them. Jeff pointed out that they seemed to honk their horn sometimes just for the fun of it. For those of you who know Oregon Country Fair and how you can move rather fluidly from place to place, weaving in & out of “traffic”, moving through intersections with relative grace. This was the flow of our Masterful Driver, Sordi (?) He weaved in and out and across and through every possible form of transportation. Remember Obi-wan Kanobe telling Luke Skywalker to just surrender and be with the force, let it guide you through all those tight spaces. Moment to moment total surrendered presence. This was Sordi. I found myself in the zone too. Had to be else I’d freak out. Sordi liked to keep his options open; this meant he frequently straddled two lanes to see where the next opening in the universe flowered. I was in constant awe. At times, it was exhausting.

 

The Long and Winding Road

Out for a stroll

We kept passing people on the sides of the road enjoying a little fire to stay warm as their cow or buffalo grazed on scraps of food in the heaps of garbage. Small little dingy hovels where day to day life was happening, a boy getting a haircut, someone repairing tires for the many scooters, people selling & buying fruits and vegetables…and everywhere piles of garbage. For miles on end. I kept thinking we’d be leaving this neighborhood, village, …but for hours on end, this was the story. People finding their way to eek out a life. I checked my judgments, and just witnessed with acceptance that this is how it is. We finally pull into Agra where the traffic was so intense, I almost felt nauseous. Breathe. Children try to sell you flowers or postcards at your car window. We’re told not to give them any money as it will most likely go to support a type of mafia and not the kids directly. A food offering is better as the kids can eat it as if it is unreported income. It was strange to see an 8 year old boy smoking a cigarette on the side of the road while his little sisters perhaps, no taller than the car door handle, come up to the window singing a sweet little song, flashing their beautiful brown eyes at you hoping you’ll give her a few rupees. A few miles down the road, we pull into the gated area of our 5 star hotel. 180 degree different world. Spacious lawns landscaped with fountains, wide sidewalks, delicious food served by a small army of wait staff. Do we really need someone to put the napkin in our lap and another person to put the rice onto our plate? Well, if it gives them a job, maybe allowing this service is more benefit to them than to me. I learn to say “thank you” in Hindi, and try to use it as often as possible.

 

Taj Mahal and Fort Agra

Taj Mahal cloaked in morning fog

Stunningly exquisite architecture thoughtfully designed to deal with cold, heat, rain, invaders, you name it, they had it covered. The morning was foggy which gave the Taj a mysterious Mists of Avalon feel. A testament to love, the Taj is a mausoleum built by Shah Jihan for his favorite wife and childhood sweetheart, Mumtaz (favorite, that is, out of 500 wives). So steeped in grief by the death of his love who died giving birth to their 14th child, he seemed intent on draining his kingdom’s treasury. So much so, his 3rd son imprisoned him for the rest of his life (after killing his 2 brothers who were in line to accede to the throne – opportunist corporate type) (Where’s a copy of the Yamas & Niyamas when you need one? Shah sir, you must begin with Ahimsa, work on contentment, non-stealing, and then….).

 

Gridlock in Vrindivan:  Some might say it was likely caused by a woman driver.

People are encouraged to honk… as a courtesy.

 

We were on our way back to Delhi with a stop to see Neem Karoli Baba’s ashram (Ram Das’ guru for those of you who are old enough, (not you Jeff) to remember the book, Be Here Now.) We slowed to another crawl until traffic came to a complete stop. Somebody was not going with the flow and nobody at the 4 way intersection could back up or go forward. You could feel everyone in the area praying to Ganesha to please remove the obstacle. After an hour of waiting for a miracle, the sun went down, and the possibility that we could be stuck there overnight crept into Jeff’s brain. I was reminded not to joke about such things. Probably wise. Ganesha came through, and traffic somehow started moving. We were all so cramped in the lanes, that I could have reached out to a small group of people enjoying a cup of tea and some chapati at a little table and passed them the salt. We eventually made it to Baba’s ashram after open hours where we were blessed, given prasad and charan Amrit. We prostrated before a painting of Hanuman, a monkey god, where bands of monkeys surrounded us. It was a very sweet vibe there despite the fact I couldn’t understand 90% of what the guide for this ashram was saying. We got back int the van & wound our way on a tiny lane until finally merging onto a main highway. Traffic was good.

 

As we approached Delhi, my tired mind started wondering about my missing luggage. I asked Luke Skywalker to help me communicate with the hotel staff about it. The emotion was right there; I started to lose it once I got in the hotel lobby. No luggage. No word of luggage. The manager tells me the phone number for the hotel was incorrect on my bag claim form from the airport. Oh! Not wanting to get my hopes up & ride the emotional roller coaster, I recover my peace of mind, take a shower, FaceTime with my husband and my sister, and feel complete and so fortunate.

 

Medicinal Laughter Prompts an Emotional Release

 

Sleep comes easily after the long day until the phone rang at 4:00 am. Someone in our group arrived and needs a place to stay. Alena says we have no room; we’re already two in the bed. Click. Next moment. They’re knocking at our door. Alena opens it, and I hear Tiffany. Of course we take her in, the staff set up a cot, and within minutes the lights are out. I get this end-of-life instant picture of all the various quirky Lila’s on this trip so far. I begin to laugh hysterically to the point of tears. I can’t stop. This is some kind of emotional release. Accept, accept, accept. Breathe! I fall to sleep. In the morning I borrow the manager’s phone to call KLM airlines about my bag. Good news: they have it. And they’ll deliver it to the hotel. I indulged in a moment of jubilation (uh-oh, beware the roller coaster).

 

The Spice Market

Delhi Spice Market

We go sight-seeing, walk around the spice market where the air is so thick with mostly delicious aromas, we’re all starting to cough. Peppers, cardamon, cumin, clove, turmeric, vanilla, cashews, almonds, rose petals, saffron….endless bags, the size of hay bales, and displays of every spice and herb on your kitchen shelf. Except its fresh and so much more fragrant / pungent. We get schooled on spices by a very handsome young man who I think was Afghani. Many of us leave with small fortunes of spices and teas to last us into the next millennium.

 

 

 

Later we walk through a newer quieter part of New Delhi where you can actually hear the birds singing. We eat lunch, do some shopping in a “craft market”. Unlike the Saturday Market, think $10,000 silk Kashmir rugs, medium high end embroidered pashmina shawls, fancy saris, beautiful jewelry. I tried on a lovely ruby & diamond necklace and asked the price: $4,000. But he could give me the special discount because I’m such a nice lady.

The Sirens of Pashmina

Julia in Agra

The best salespeople whisper softly in the language of love as they begin the dance of bartering.

Yesterday, I met one such fine salesperson who seduced me into buying not one, but two pashmina scarves that could have fed so many people just outside his shop for an entire year. I figured between the reimbursement for my lost luggage from the airlines and my travel insurance, I’d get this covered. Later on in the day, another sweet siren whispered his magic spell and freed me from even more rupees. Now that I have witnessed this particular vulnerability in myself, I’ll be more careful. Famous last words.

 

 

“Madam, we have your luggage.”

We get back to the hotel, and the moment of truth after four days: “Madam, we have your luggage.” I high five Alena in a moment of Jubilation. Beware the roller coaster.

 

1/29/14. Varanasi Ventures with Our Wonderful Guide Arun

We arrived yesterday by plane. Our hotel, Palace on the Ganges, is just that. We did a restorative yoga class with Sarahjoy in the hallway before bed to help those most recent arrivals deal with jet lag… Lots of gentle inversions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life and Death on the Ganges… An early morning boat ride.

Funeral pyre

For a few rupees, we each get a candle and flower offering which has been blessed. We would place them into the Ganges while out on the boat.

India 01 river offering candle

Scores of these flower and candle offerings were floating in the Ganges. Photo courtesy of Jeff Reifman.

We received blessings from a Brahman and purchased some flower & candle offerings to be placed in the Ganges and then boarded a row boat. Along the ghats, we saw people bathing, washing clothes – often done as a service by the untouchables or the labor class, we passed a funeral pyre where there is always a service being performed for someone. Arun chanted a blessing and we placed our flower & candle boats in the River. Very deep moment / connection with the Mother Ganges.

 

Alena and Tiffany

 

The Smiling Sadhu


Upon our return to shore, we came across this smiling sadhu who we paid to have our picture taken with him.  He seemed to have taken a vow of silence as he didn’t talk with us.

 

 

 

 

Varanasi Street Scenes

in a small alley way near the Ganges

 

Street food served in clay cup

 

We enjoyed a bite of hot breakfast food served in small pottery cup and a block down the street we had a special treat only served in the morning at certain times of year (I think) Malay (?) – super light saffron foam. Yum!

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Music is Love”
Deobrat “Debu” Mishra
– Academy of Music

Today I met one of the most sweet and loving human beings on the planet, Debu, who kindly gave us a singing lesson – Indian-style.
The sound of his singing voice flowed into every backwater eddy in my soul. My heart was so filled, and it kept opening and opening and opening deeper and deeper until I could barely contain it. Tears of joy were right there. Debu learned from his father who sang the music scales in his ear since he was a baby. As a child he learned to play a small sitar; today he sang & played harmonium for us. Sound healing goes back 11 generations in his family. Possibly back to the court of Shah Jihan in the 16th century. Some of us will go back tomorrow for another singing lesson and a harmonium lesson. Something I would not have imagined for myself. Proving once again to me that life is so much greater than anything I can imagine. It’s more than that if I’m open. Ganesha has been working on me here, me thinks.

 

Arti Ceremony

After a short rest, we were driven to a well known ghat along the Ganges for Arti ceremony – a devotional song & fire ritual. The air is filled with the sound of bells, gongs, and incense. There were snippets of melody that were familiar to me from an Arti song I used to sing more frequently. They do this each night. Those who are hungry can stay for some food as there is a practice that no one should go to bed without food. There is a strong sense of community here in Varanasi; even the hotel staff make you feel like this is my home. Water bowls filled with fragrant flowers, small kindnesses, … Service from the heart.

 

Brown Bread Bakery

Julia & Miko - by Jeff

Julia & Miko. Photo by Jeff Reifman

After the Arti ceremony, we went to dinner at this marvelous place atop a six story building – open air dining with lanterns on the table. Totally worth the walk up the stairs. For those who are tired, they could stop at the little shops on each floor. They served organic food, freshly-made bread and cheese. Yum!

 

Staying Healthy

Steripen 2

I’ve been grateful for my Steripen (ultraviolet light for water purification) and grapefruit seed extract (anti-microbial). It’s allowed me to minimize the number of plastic bottles which will undoubtedly end up as garbage somewhere along the road. I’ve enjoyed some hot street food & Masala tea when Arun says it’s safe. So far so good.

Time for sleep… Tomorrow promises to be another blissfully busy day.

 

 

January 30, 2014
New Life: Bathing Day in the Ganges

 

Ganges Girls: Tiffany and Ananda

A few of us go out for a boat ride on the Ganges to witness a celebration of sorts where thousands of people come from who knows where to bath in the Ganges and be blessed. Including two of our own: Tiffany and Ananda – our nurse and naturopath. Brave souls, indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

End of Life … Back Into the Ganges

As we were being rowed down the river, we witnessed people in the boat next to us place what we believed was a baby who had died wrapped in a shroud into the Mother Ganges. Not everybody is cremated in the pyres along the river: babies and children under the age of ten, pregnant women, those with leprosy or those who have been bitten by venomous snakes. These people are wrapped & placed in the 40 meter deep River with a big rock. It’s become a fairly common sight to see teams of people carrying their newly dead loved one, laid out on a litter & wrapped in golden – orange foil with marigold flower leighs draped around the body, through town on their way to the Ganges. Sometimes they’re being transported on the top of a car. Kind of like being in Florida… where there is always an ambulance whizzing by you.   Times ten.

 

Tastes of Joy

Debu’s Music School started with his mother’s help.

After enjoying morning yoga at the music academy, some us us stayed for a second singing lesson with Debu (Deobrat Mishra). With great patience, kindness, love, & encouragement, he taught us how to sing a beautiful devotional song – Indian style. We’re not so great yet, but it was fun to play with the techniques. As a teacher he is masterful. If a person wants to study with him, they can. Free of charge. He works with them for a month (and can live there at the academy if they ‘re not local). If they show some promise, they may continue on. He teaches sitar lessons via Skype around the world. Music is his passion, and he’s intent on sharing his Knowledge to keep the traditions alive as well as turning people inward through the path of music and sound healing. Music as a spiritual path.

 

 

Tight Spot

After seeing the Shiva temple, we meandered around to a narrow little alley… maybe 4 feet wide; Ananda knew of a Lonely Planet hotspot called the Blue Lassi. The place was packed. As we were deciding Plan B on the side walls of this alley, in the span of just a few minutes, six processions of dead bodies passed us, numerous scooters & motorcycles going in both directions. And just when we decided we needed to get out of this urban capillary, a huge bull came wandering up at a pretty good clip. Had he turned his head 20 degrees, he ‘d have gored me. Fortunately, my animal brain performed uddiyana Bandha – instantly – making myself as thin as a single grain of rice. Before we had a moment to catch our breath, a second cow came from behind. Surprised, I yelped a bit & I pressed myself into another human being; together, we took up the width of two grains of rice pressed against the wall. After the cow passed, I looked up to see who I was clutching. Nobody from our group. Awkward. I apologized to the young man afterwards for holding onto him for dear life; he nodded and we went our ways. Life in India. Jeff surmised that the Mad Max movies wouldn’t be popular in India, “What’s the big deal? This looks like a normal Tuesday.”

 

Sarnath – Buddhist Holy Place

IMG_0324

Buddhist monks used to place gold leaf thumb prints on some of the structures at Sarnath.

We traveled to Sarnath where the Buddha became enlightened & gave his first sermon. I collected some leaves from the offspring of the original tree. I felt some incongruity: the Buddha gave up wealth & power, yet so many grandiose temples & statues were constructed in his name. Couldn’t that wealth have been put to better use according to the concepts he preached?

Service with a Smile … And a Warm Heart

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We did some more temple-hopping with Arun, our guide. He arranged for us to have a cooking lesson from these chefs at a marvelous restaurant where we had dined earlier. They prepared 4 different dishes for us & gave us instructions for each step. Most of the ingredients are available where we live. They gave us their business cards & encouraged us to contact them if we needed help with any of the recipes. In fact, the owner gave me his personal number to connect directly to him. That’s how people are here – service from the heart. Hotel staff, rickshaw drivers, shop owners, master musicians, people on the street who notice you are looking for somewhere to go… And always with a smile. In true spirit, they touch their heart when they greet you, “Namasté”. Today, I saw Muna, the 70+ year old rickshaw driver who biked us around yesterday; we chatted like we were old friends. He offered to take me back to the hotel for free. It was just around the corner, so we exchanged our friendly farewells & went our separate ways. That we even remembered each other & had exchanged names was remarkable to me. Okay, not everybody is like this. I watched some local kick a monkey AT the Hanuman Temple. Go figure.

 

January 31, 2014
Different Approaches to Enlightenment: Music, The Eight Fold Path / 4 Noble Truths, and The Science of Vagyoga.

Debu singing lesson

Debu singing and playing harmonium. Pic courtesy of Jeff Reifman.

 

1). A handful of us stayed after morning yoga for a harmonium lesson with Debu – Keep in mind he is a world-renowned master who is taking 5 days off to make himself available to Sarahjoy and our group. That’s friendship. With the exception of Sarahjoy, the other 5 of us have never touched a harmonium. This sweet man is teaching us how to play a C major scale with proper fingering. We then learn to play Twameva, a beautiful devotional song played & sung during Arti. Fortunately, it only has about 6 notes. He teaches us to listen with our hearts and make every note beautiful… a full expression of love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vagish

Vagish

2). Later in the day we meet an 81 year old guru who teaches us the science of yoga. He’s an academic with a vast degree of knowledge. Within a minute, I realize I barely know what yoga is, and I use words I have no business using because I don’t know what I’m talking about. This sense is reinforced because I was sitting just in front of him & raised my hand when he asked who the yoga teachers were in the room. He keeps looking at me; it’s conspicuous, so when he asks a question, he looks at me. I feel compelled to say something each time. Sometimes I bite my tongue. My group probably wanted to bind and gag me as I kept trying to answer his questions. Incorrectly I might add. I’m shameless and am willing to risk sounding stupid for the sake of interaction. I may want to rethink that strategy. He tried to teach us a chant that will unlock it all for us – the universe, kundalini, the highest states of samadhi…sadly, we are all unable to follow his lead. He’s not a very good singing teacher. Too bad for us. This one chant holds the key to all the teachings he has just expounded upon for the last two hours, and it’s nearly impossible for us to learn. At that point, he returns the flower leighs we placed on him, he blesses us and we leave.

 

Evening Concert with Debu and His Father / Guru and two other relatives


Sitar music touches my heart strings. Even greater when performed by someone with such an open heart and mad skills. Multiplied many times more by the fact that the one who taught him, his father, is playing with him. The love and respect between teacher and student, and father – son is unimaginably moving. I was smiling so much, I thought my face would break. A clarinet player from Germany who is studying with Debu also performs on a song with them. This is basically a house concert for their students and our group. Debu and Sarahjoy clearly have a deep & abiding friendship. During a break between songs, he says that there is only one place where sitars are being made anymore. Unbelievable. How can that be? Such a beautiful expression of the heart comes through those strings. What can I do? India is teaching me that everyone makes a little effort, and a little progress is made; it works. So, maybe I can make a small effort. I resolve to bring it up the next day. After the concert, Debu’s family prepared a meal for us all. There are CD’s for sale, so I buy three. Small effort. Let go of the judge.

 

February 1, 2014. Last day in Varanasi

After yoga at the music academy, Debu teaches us the Salt March chant used by Gandhi and his followers. We’re writing the notes & syllables of the song in Hindi, and learning the melody as well. At one point, we bog down; too much to remember. Debu stops and teaches us that it can take 10 years or “snap” in an instant. We need to learn how to listen with our hearts and feel our way into the song. “Now, let’s sing the song!” I put my notes down & follow his lead, listening with new intention. He is pleased with the effort and result as are we. One member of our group is considering coming back to study with him. I totally get that.

 


After some free time, (some shopping, Joseph got a shave on the street), we say our goodbyes to Arun, and the wonderful staff, and the River Ganges, and pile into the cars & head to the airport – back to Delhi and on to Bangalore in the south. Our baggage has bulked up and many have to pay excess baggage fees. All the bartering for a good price just became nullified. Oh well. Move on. Although my one carry on piece is stuffed to the max, it is still within the weight range.

 

Bangalore

1:00 a.m. We arrive in our hotel. It’s beautiful and very quiet. The power goes out on our floor. Minor detail. We brought headlamps and our iPhones have flashlights. Later we will learn that Ananda’s surge protector took the whole floor out. So much for big fancy hotels. I updated my blog and now sign off at 2:30. Bus pulls out at 9:00. Zzzzzzzzzz

Note: There are so many stories to tell, so many emotions, so many contrasting images happening simultaneously… I can’t keep up at this point with the writing quality this experience deserves.

 

The Long and Bumpy Ride to Tirivanamali

Our bus stops on the side of the road to buy some coconuts from this guy. They were so refreshing and delicious!

 

Apparently we took some long and convoluted way from Bangalore to Tirivanamali. I appreciate American roads so much now. Even the highways often have buckles that constantly jostle you. It’s exhausting. Our Eco-hotel is wonderful … Beautiful grounds, brimming with many species of birds. No horns, just quiet stillness.

 

Circumnavigation Around Mt Arunachala


Our new guide, Dharma, takes us on a 7-8 mile walk around the sacred mountain shaped like a lingam. I was thinking we’d be on a nice path; however, it was all in town walking on sidewalk. S. Our group got pretty spread out and poor Dharma was trying to keep track of everybody. I think everybody but my group of four bailed and took a tuk-tuk back to the start point. Admittedly, I wondered if we were lost and were starting to go around a second time. Just at that point, we saw Sarahjoy and three other group members crammed into a tuk-tuk. Their driver said we were only a hundred meters from our destination. Whew! Time for lunch!

 

Feb.3, 2014
The MAYA House for HIV Orphans

Ramu is the force behind starting 25 orphanages in Tiravanamali so that there are no street kids.

Last night we went to an orphanage called the Maya House in Tirivanamali.  Ramu, the director, now has 25 houses for (mostly) girls. Each house houses 25 children.  One house is dedicated to HIV children.. It’s incredible not to see any begging children in the streets here. The children are so well cared for here. They get yoga, karate, they attend regular school… They have a phone number / hotline, so that anyone can report a child in need within a 100 mile radius. Most of the girls’ mothers died of AIDs, so it is a great comfort for them to know that at least their children will be cared for. So amazing.

 

I taught a yoga class to about 12-14 of the girls in front of a crowd of 50+ other girls, “house mothers”, social workers, staff, & a few boys. I had written a little adventure story with yoga poses to match; it was so much fun. Towards the end of the story I invited them to show us some poses and continue the story. They all got to show off their skills which were incredible. I was able to do some of their poses which drew some laughs & cheers for trying, but they had me beat by miles.

 

Yoga story

 

yogi

 

We all came with pounds of school & art supplies, glow stick bracelets, balloons, fingernail polish… They were so well dressed, friendly, and genuinely happy despite their horrific backgrounds. We walked around the sacred mountain – Arunchala – where Shiva & Parvati reside.

 

Feb. 4   Silent Ama

We had Darshan with Silent Ama today, better known locally as Shivashakti.
She had a calm presence, but I didn’t feel any strong connection there.

 

Ramana Maharshi Ashram

Then we went to Ramana Maharshi’s ashram which had a majorly strong vibe. We sat as they did a lingam puja after circumambulating three times around the place where he attained samadhi. We also sat in the room where he used to give Darshan before he died in 1950.  Later, we would go into a cave atop Mt. Arunachala where he spent time.    Such a deep presence…

 

A Great Restaurant: The Dreaming Tree

 

Alena savors the very last morsel.

We found some fantastic food at this restaurant – a rooftop cafe serving organic food mostly. Veggie juices, mushroom tofu burgers, quiche, Hippie salads, and delicious chocolate cake!

Tomorrow we’ll summit Mt. Arunchala starting at 4:00 a.m. to watch the sunrise.

 

Feb. 5, 2014. Stairway to Heaven …

4:00 am, we load the bus to climb the sacred mountain, Arunachala. Big story to tell later. Perhaps tomorrow. A Benedryl is currently kicking into gear. I need to be up at 4:30.

 

If there’s such a thing as Yoga Heaven, I may have found it:  Mt. Arunachala

Okay. Mt Arunachala is a sacred site believed to be a manifestation of Shiva. It’s 2700 feet. The town of Tirivanamali is at 500 ft. The ascent was very steep. At about 30% of the way to the top, I became ill in a matter of seconds I became a human firework with all manner of bodily explosions. Fortunately, most of the group had gone on. One fellow, Tyler, kindly stayed behind with me.

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My hero forever, Tyler, who stayed with me when I got sick and made sure I made it up to the top of Mt. Arunachala.

I recovered rather quickly, set my pants out to dry after using most of our drinking water for cleaning, and wanted to continue climbing. So I wrapped my shawl around my waist, and off we went. I had to stop a lot, and Trekkers passing us reminded me that there is no place to get to. “Om Nama Shivaya!” was my chant up the mountain which means something like, “Oh my God!”. We made it to the summit after sunrise, and it was amazing. I was in a rather altered and weakened state.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joti helped me almost all the way down Arunachala

The top is covered in burnt ghee offerings to Shiva which made it a bit slick.  There was also a large chalk mandala that smelled of roses. A Shiva devotee, Joti, spotted me and invited me to his cave around the side at the top.  Rather foolishly, I followed him.  I received a special blessing in a cave from him. I gave him some rupees (a small fortune probably by India’s standards), and then he took my hand and guided me all the way back down the mountain; it was like contact improv, dancing our way down these rocks. I didn’t have to expend what little energy I had left thinking about which rock to go to next. I was so grateful! I’m also grateful to Miko who made sure I wasn’t left behind.  Logically, I had no business following this this young man clad in an orange loin cloth into his cave away from the group.  I definitely had an experience of something amazing… There was so much kindness and grace shown on so many levels. I felt as if Shiva was greeting each foot step I took on the path. Hard to explain… I’ll post pictures that other people took later. Amazing day.

I could barely walk the next morning. My quads were nearly non-functional from going downhill. Flying downhill in slow motion. Om Nama Shivaya

 

Pondicherry – The French Quarter

 

We took our bus to Pondicherry where we enjoyed sea breezes off the Arabian Sea. There’s a strong French influence here as seen in the architecture. After morning yoga in the park the next day, we walked to Sri Aurobindo’s ashram… Nearly 2,000 people live in this neighborhood ashram. He was like a freedom fighter who later turned to a spiritual path. He is very much revered here. He died around the same time as Mahatma Gandhi; two great leaders lost within a few years of each other was difficult.

 

Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014
Pondicherry to Chennai…Krishna’s Butterballs and Arjuna’s Penance

Trust

Sarahjoy poised under Krishna’s Butterballs at Mahabalipurim. That’s trust!

We headed to our last stop -Chennai – on the beach. We stopped part way in Mahabalipuram to see the world’s 2nd largest bas-relief called, Arjuna’s Penance. Also home to an enormous roundish rock balanced on a slope of granite called Krishna’s Butterballs. Frikin’ amazing! I have to post more pictures.

Friday, February 7, 2014 – Chennai
First day with Yoga Therapist Saraswati Vasudevan … on the beach

Our last four days together in Chennai afforded us some “western creature comforts” away from the noise, refuse, and bad smells.  We enjoyed morning yoga on the beach just before sunrise and saw dolphins and fishermen just offshore as the sun rose.

 

 

 

 

 

India Sunrise Chennai

After breakfast, we started the first of many workshops with one of Sarahjoy’s teachers- yoga therapist, Saraswati Vasudevan.  A remarkable human being. The day was filled with touching moments & insights… She explained that one of the main jobs of a yoga therapist is not to remove the pain as much as it is about facilitating the person being able to come into greater joy. When we see suffering, we can use that to learn about ourselves… To note how we respond to the suffering of others and then make wiser choices to be of service to them.

 

 

 

Heading Home…

 

leaving Dubai

I left Chennai a bit earlier than the others to catch my flight out of Bangalore to Dubai.  I had time to go visit a few places in Bangalore… the Botanical Garden was lovely.  This was the first time I’d been on my own this whole trip. Actually, Redback Travels had arranged a day guide for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life Changing Memories…

photo courtesy of Jeff Reifman

photo courtesy of Jeff Reifman

I’m still chewing on what it is about this image that Jeff Reifman took near our hotel in Varanasi that sticks with me.  The dog on watch, the grandeur and history of Varanasi, the ruble and refuse, the nightlife, the young teenage boys who would adopt us and try to sell us all kinds of souvenirs throughout the week; at times, they were quite helpful. Their friendliness grew on me.

 

As did the 70+ year old man who had taken me on his bicycle cab when he called out my name on the street two days later and offered to take me where I wanted to go… for free.

 

Just down the street from here, homeless beggars (some of them lepurs) lined the streets for miles on a given day, and those more fortunate, armed with beans and rice, passed out handfuls of food to them.  I bought ten pounds of rice and beans for almost nothing and it took a very long time to walk down the line, look each person in the eye and place a few handfuls in their basket, can, headscarf, cardboard, whatever they had to hold these meager offerings from people to get them through until the next “reverse buffet”.  So much dignity.  Such open hearts.  Human to human.

 

India taught me about the vital need to nurture an unwavering awareness in the present moment.  So many extremes come at you all at once: Beauty. Death. Kindness. Unscrupulousness. Flowery fragrance.  Rank odors. Heavenly music. Miles of endless rubbish. Secret gardens. Potent places for meditation. Unbelievable traffic that mysteriously works despite the myriad forms of transportation – car, camel, bicycle, scooter, oxen, truck, feet occurring at different speeds simultaneously in the same place.  All of it drives one deeper inside, surrendering to one breath and then the next.  Hanging on sometimes for dear life.  I am forever grateful for each and every experience in India.

 

Many thanks to Sarahjoy Marsh, Jay, and those at Redback Travels who organized and facilitated this trip!  And to my dear fellow travelers who shared these experiences… Namaste!

 

 

 

 

 

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