Welcome Home

The title of this blog comes from the words of Indian Prime Minister Nehru after the passing of Mahatma Gandhi. "The light that shone in this land was no ordinary light," Nehru said of the peaceful modern saint. The name of this blog, which chronicles my journey deeper into Spirit, is to remind us that there is no such thing as an ordinary light. The spiritual scriptures of many traditions such as the Bible, the Vedas, the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, the Koran and others all tell us that God is Light and so are we. It is the essence of who we are as a universe. Turn on your inner glow and shine it like a search light across the darkness of the world. We are the stuff of suns and stars.
We are no ordinary lights.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Letting Go

Even now, in this moment, is it hard to let these words go. When words hit the page, the author is revealed. You can see the inner working of my mind in an intimate way. I cannot pull them back once they are out there. It's not quite the fear that they won't be good enough; that would be too easy, too predictable. I haven't figured it out yet. It is a difficult thing for anyone...artist or not...to give all they are to the world and then let go. To deliver what they have to offer and trust it will be enough. Mothers who watch their children go off to school must feel similarly. She who was one body with that divine, young creature must trust that this now separate being will be safe without her.

Letting go is part of life. Death is the only guarantee for each human, and so everyone must let someone else go. The seasons change, lives move on, the world is not the same. Our cultures do not stay stagnant, nor return to any golden days of yore despite political pressure. You cannot return to any value fashioned out of old...nothing will never be the same. Life moves forward, never back. We let go of each breath, each heart beat. We let go of each birthday, each birth. We become very accomplished at letting go, and yet, it is so easy to fight nearly to the death to hold onto the things.

This does not make us weak. In fact, this is natural. We are eternal beings in bodies that die. This illusion of impermanence offends to the very core our endless nature. If we identify with the illusion, letting go wounds us. If we identify with our infinite nature, with the boundless creativity of the Universe, we begin to realize that letting go is a perfect part of constant expansion. We can't think our way into this peace. We can't reason our way into this knowing.

We must experience a connection with the larger plan to know this gentle grace. We must reach out to the Infinite and say "Are you sure?" in order for God himself to lean down and whisper in our ears "Yes!"

Choose the pain you need to let go of. Choose the fear, the anger, the thing you did years ago that you can't forget. Choose the situation you are ready to leave behind. And chant this mantra:

Ardas Bhaee, Amar Das Guru,

Amar Das Guru, Ardas Bhaee,

Ram Das Guru, Ram Das Guru,

Ram Das Guru, Sachee Sahee.

This is a way of calling upon Guru Amar Das and Guru Ram Das (who represent the Hope of the Hopeless and the Lord of Miracles). It begins by affirming that what you are saying is a prayer. You then connect with their powerful energies. And then "sachee sahee"....you release it and let it go. You know that your prayer is heard and it is done. This is the mantra of answered prayers, of moving beyond difficult situations, and gracefully letting go.

Need to "Let Go and Let God"? There's a mantra for that. And an answered prayer waiting for you just around the bend. And me? I let my words out into the world...see? It works..

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Day 40 of the So Purkh Global Sadhana

Sat nam beautiful ones,

Day 40 of the Spirit Voyage Global 40 Day Sadhana Challenge: So Purkh. Final count: 360 women, 6 men and 26 countries.

I am humbled and honored to have shared every story, every question, every dream, every hope, every tear, every fear, every victory, every smile, every prayer, every word, every ounce of joy and love and peace with each and every one of you who has walked on this path with me.

What started as a birthday present for Harnam Singh grew and grew and never seemed to stop....like love, like God.

I thought perhaps 10 women might join with me and walk along this path of prayer, but God and Guru Ram Das had very different plans. And I find myself now, not at the end of a road but at the very beginning of one…my heart is wide open and I have gained prayer partners in parts of this world that I could never have imagined. Just like I have made friends with parts of my heart that I never thought I could touch.

I bow to each of you for your bravery. Some of you have finished valiantly. Some fell and had to start again, bravely dusting yourselves off and deeping into your commitment to yourselves. Some have had miracles, some fell in love, some released years of tears, some left relationships that no longer suited you, some saw profound changes in the men you prayed for, some experienced tremendous pain, but all of us -- all of us -- have experienced the power of the Infinite at the center of a prayer within our own hearts. It is not always easy to make a commitment for 40 days and keep it. But it is always worth it.

You have in me a prayer partner for life, a coach and cheerleader in your journey through this crazy age. You have in Spirit Voyage a family and tremendous resource on your path of life and growth. Spirit Voyage will always be there for you, sharing the music and the teachings that we know can help.

Everyone at Spirit Voyage is amazed by every one of you. I am in awe of your trust and love, letting me into the deep stories of your hearts. I prayed for all of you that contacted me in pain, and for all who reached out to me with joyful news. I am honored to be your teacher, and I remain your student.

Some say a woman's heart is a treasure trove of secrets. You were brave enough to clean out those secrets, some privately, many publicly. Many of you reached out for help when you needed it, either to me or to your fellow So Purkhers. The ripple vibration of the field of love and light that you created, and continue to create, cannot ever be measured in human terms, but I am sure that the furthest reaches of the Universe feel the power of 366 of us unified in praise of the Divine. There is more Light on this planet today, and I believe there is also more Love in our hearts and the hearts of the men we prayed for. Prayer works. Mantra heals. Miracles happen.

Although Spirit Voyage will not officially be leading the So Purkh past day 40, I will personally be continuing the So Purkh, as it is a part of my daily spiritual practice. Many of you plan to continue on, and I hope you forge bonds of friendship and sisterhood in this process. I will let you know when Day 90 has come, should you choose to continue.

Spirit Voyage and I, joined by special guests, will be leading another 40 Day Global Sadhana Challenge (to be announced soon...you are going to LOVE it!), and I hope that you join me in creating another powerful global field of prayer and meditation. It will be another amazing opportunity to deepen into yourself and into the teachings of Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan.

I thank Nirinjan Kaur for her amazing recording that so many of us use to bond to the sacred Naad of this technology of the So Purkh, and I thank her father Hari Singh for producing it. I thank Nirinjan Kaur, SatKirin Kaur, and Snatam Kaur for their kind words of wisdom and encouragement that they sent to us throughout this journey.

I thank my team at Spirit Voyage, especially the amazing Jeanne, who set up so much of the technical wizardry behind the scenes (including the UStream Live Video Recitation) and works so hard, and Danny, who shipped out each of the So Purkh cds to all of you. I thank Patwant Kaur who translated everything into such beautiful Spanish and opened up this sadhana to a whole other part of the world. Hargobind, Karan and Guruganesha Singh at Spirit Voyage have all been watching you every step of the way with pride.

I thank sweet Harnam Singh, for his inspiration to do the So Purkh and to share it with all of you (Happy Birthday!).

I thank my master Yogi Bhajan for sharing this amazing technology with the women of the world. And I thank the great Guru Ram Das for writing these transcendent words of tender devotion. I bow at your feet in gratitude.

Most of all, I thank you all for participating. Each one of you made this so special and it would not have been the same without you. Thank you for being my soul's companions. Thank you for keeping up.


Peace to all, light to all, love to all.

So Purkh nirinjan, har purkh nirinjan....


Ramdesh Kaur

Monday, October 18, 2010

Your Inner Harvest and Gobinda Hari

The leaves outside my window have begun their gentle transformation from brilliant emerald green to rich golden yellows and warm plum-toned reds. I regretfully close my window to the chilly air, taking a final whiff of the woody, pine scented breeze. The season is changing and our hearts undergo their own transformations.

Too often we develop an idea of ourselves that we forget to update. We give ourselves and our lives labels…what we do, who we are…and treat them as if they are static and stable. But the leaves on the tree of our hearts, grown from the roots of our karma, change color and fall to the Earth in one last, glorious dance. Our hearts are microcosms of the beautiful world that surrounds us. Ek ong kar. The creator and the creation are one.

The fall is a time of harvest, and we have an opportunity ourselves to take a moment, center ourselves into our breath and reflect. Hit the pause button. Take a deep breath. Be here now. What have we done this past season of action and growth? What have our lives become? Who is better off for our having been in this world? Often we don’t want to reflect because we are afraid of our own answers, afraid that we won’t measure up to the expectations of the world or of the little critic that lives inside of our own minds. But if we look with different eyes, determined to our fan instead of our critic, we can also find moments of goodness and grace. We can find times where we lived up to our potential and smiled in the face of adversity.

This world, for all its chaos and challenges, is a beautiful world. The leaves could fall off the trees with no real fanfare, but instead they change into a rainbow that circles the globe, each leaf falling at its own time, spinning and twirling to the ground in graceful tumble. Humans are like that, too. Our lives could just exist and end without any real trace left on the world, and often we feel like that is exactly what is happening. But we grow and expand, we change our colors from green to yellow and red, we sway in the wind, and then finally we dance home to arms of our Creator in our final flight.

In this time of change, I can feel myself changing. I look at the leaves and feel my own transformations in my heart. I see the harvest brought in on the farm down the road, the glorious orange pumpkins, the blue gnarly squash, and the knobby and humorous yellow gourds. What have I created this year within me? I can feel the pulsating, warm pumpkin shaped joy inside me, created by chanting and mantra and yoga and most of all love. I can see a few blue gnarly squash created my moments of sadness and loss. And there are the funny little yellow squash from times of laughter so intense my sides might have split to reveal the seeds within!

This season for me is contained within the mantra “Gobinda Hari”. Its words are simple, like falling leaves, Gobinda Gobinda Hari Hari. Gobinda is the aspect of God that is the Sustainer that has kept us going all year. But it is also the aspect of God that is beautiful and lovely. Hari is the aspect of God that is the Creator, that is action, but it also the healing force within us. When we chant Gobinda Hari, we connect with the beautiful harvest within ourselves and we connect with the creative aspect that accomplished it. It’s like saying, “Beautiful! Beautiful! I did that! I did that!” We connect to God in a way that allows God to experience His own creation through us and our lives, and allows us to connect to the beauty of our own experience. Gobinda Hari also allows us to heal ourselves and feel security in a deep place in ourselves through a connection with the knowing that God is a sustaining and healing force at the center of our own hearts.

For 11 minutes, cross your hands over your chest at the wrist, right over left, palms resting near the shoulders. Close your eyes and chant “Gobinda Gobinda Hari Hari” feeling the grace and the kindness of the One who lies in the center of your own Being.

When you are finished, look outside with fresh eyes. See the bountiful harvest of the Universe. See the play of life in all its cycles and rhythms. Then look inside with fresh eyes, and see the beauty of God’s harvest within You. See the miracle of every breath you take and every smile you give. See yourself as a leaf in God’s forest -- unique, beautiful and bright. Happy to sway in the breeze until that day when we all fall into our last dance, embraced at last by the One.

Gobinda Gobinda Hari Hari.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Ocean

Recently, my father had surgery. He'd been in a lot of pain before the surgery and upon waking up, although he was in additional pain, said that he felt a kind of internal release, as if a long held grimace had left him.

Now my dad isn't really the kind of man who gets involved in yoga and chanting. You're more likely to see him watching Fox News than a kirtan concert and more likely to hear him listening to the Rolling Stones than Snatam Kaur.

But when he woke up from the surgery, just a short time out of recovery, he called me closer to his bed and said in a kind of whisper, "On the way to the hospital, your mom played some music in the car. They were singing about the ocean. Who was that? What were they singing? It was really nice. Made me feel peaceful."

Once I got over my shock, I realized he was talking about Mirabai Ceiba's Ocean. The words he was referring to are "The ocean refuses no rivers, no rivers. The open heart refuses no part of you, of me. Guru Guru Waheguru Guru Ram Das Guru." Somehow, despite his constant vigilance against public participation in the overtly spiritual (I promise not to tell anyone about how he meditates silently every morning with my mother, owns a tarot deck, and loves to juice veggies so much that his juicer has a name -- Penelope), he felt within him something move and shift when listening to Mirabai Ceiba. Not surprising of course, given the power of their music to heal. But I felt like in spite of his growing curmudgeony-ness (that CANNOT be a word), the healing energy of Guru Ram Das pierced through his veil and brought him comfort.

I cannot pay a higher compliment to Markus and Angelika of Mirabai Ceiba. You got my dad to open his heart and heal. And his new hip is doing just fine, too. And that takes one heck of an Ocean.

(You can listen to a clip of this song, or purchase it for yourself on SpiritVoyage.com at this link: http://www.spiritvoyage.com/yoga/Ocean/CDS-001910.aspx)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Falling Star

It has taken me awhile to write this blog. Grief and shock go hand in hand, neither lending themselves to an exalted piece of writing. But I’ve come to terms with the fact that I don’t have to write something miraculous…nothing that I write with stale words could ever do justice to the vibrant life of a friend.

Lindy “Morningstar” Morris was a dear friend. A master of living off the land, she revered animals in a way far too few do today. She knew the old ways of living, of brain tanning your clothes and making fires in the outback of Australia. She taught a return to the wisdom of living with a small footprint. She heard the voices in the wind and the trees and the brook and the hoof and the scale and the feather. She lived on the leading edge of thought and remembered the divine each and every day.

She passed in a flash of lightening and a fallen oak, deep within the forest of her adopted home. She was surrounded at her end by mutual loved ones. I wish I could have been there to hold her hand and remind her, needlessly, to be brave. She was always brave.

I can offer her no stunning eulogy, no worthy prose. I can offer her only the Akal, the chant of a tradition that was not hers, but which she would have appreciated. Chanting “Akaaaaal” is said in the Kundalini Yoga tradition to help liberate the soul from the dense field of the earth, giving it a boost into the peace of the divine beyond. Akal means undying, and it is the truth of the soul.

Shine like the Morning star, dear one. We will meet again.


(Want to use the Akal for your loved ones? There are two beautiful recorded versions. One by Snatam Kaur available as an MP3 free download, and one by Simrit Kaur on The Sweetest Nectar, both on www.spiritvoyage.com)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Clean! Clean! Clean!

My last few days in India have not been what I had hoped. I suppose that a last hurrah at the Golden Temple and parties with friends in Amritsar just wasn’t in the cards.

Food poisoning. There is nothing, my friends, nothing like food poisoning in this country to make you homesick. Horrible, intense food poisoning no less. I think I threw up nearly thirty times in a 24-hour period, accompanied by severe diarrhea. I had a high fever and was sweating out of nearly every pore of my body. The headache and body aches couldn’t really compare with the knives stabbing me in my stomach, so I hardly noticed them.

My friend Ravinder Singh went to the chemist to get me some medicine. It promptly made me throw up again. But knowing he was checking on me from time to time as I lay moaning in my bed made me feel safer, because certainly he would get me to a hospital if it looked like I was on my way out.

Two absolute angels showed up in my life. Siri Atma Kaur and Balwant Kaur, both from South America, stayed up with me rubbing towels dipped in ice water over my body to draw out the fever. Balwant gave me a few hours of reflexology to try to stop the vomiting. They spoke to me softly and gently, keeping my mind off of how sick I felt. I literally fell asleep on them. After a beautiful night’s sleep thanks to these angels, I’m strong enough to go to the airport at least.

Thanks, India, I think. You have a way of cleaning the poisons out of people. (Although, the reverse is also true, for you always have a way of putting poisons into people.) When I was studying with Ustaad-ji one day, he looked at me and said “Ramdesh Kaur! You have to clean, clean, clean your insides! Clean your body! Clean your mind! Only then will you be able to sing!” I guess I wasn’t moving fast enough for the universe. I’ve never been the best housekeeper. India thought, “I know! I’ll clean her up!” and promptly polluted my body just enough to make me think death was a possibility and then pull me back.

What an end! If nothing else, it helps mitigate the nostalgia. It is easy to romanticize India. Easy to make it a land of red and pink saris, of painted elephants, of sadhus with their hair wrapped up into rishi knots of the top of their heads, of naughty monkeys cavorting in the branches of banyan trees, of magical rivers and hidden caves. It is all of these things, but it is also the opposite. It is a land of incredible poverty, of terrible corruption, of extreme pollution. Anything you can say about India is true, and at the same time, the reverse is also true. That is, of course, one of its greatest lessons. It’s all God, all the time: the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly. Most of these states are just human judgments anyway. Let go of judgment, and you feel the presence of the Divine.

Ek ong kar: the creator and the creation are one. You and I are one. Thanks to India, I’m a leaving a little cleaner than I came. Thanks to Oneness, so are you.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mata-ji, Guru-ji

One day in Rishikesh, I decided to have a vedic astrology consultation. I found the man who was considered one of the finest astrologers and went for an appointment. I provided the details of my birth date, time and location. He calculated a complex chart.

For the next half an hour he proceeded to tell me about my life in great detail. I felt like if I asked him what I ate on June 12th the year I was 18 for breakfast, he could have told me. After some general advice for the future, he asked me if I had any questions. Here, in the land of India, ripe with stories of Baba-ji at Kumbha Mela and fresh from reading The Autobiography of a Yogi, I asked him who my guru was.

He looked back at my chart. I anticipated perhaps Yogi Bhajan or even the name of an ashram in the hills I should go to in order to find my guru. When he looked up at me again, he smiled. “Your guru?” he said. “Your guru is your mother.”

It struck me hard in the gut as truth. Obviously, she was. My mother is a lovely woman. She is a dynamic minister and the inspired leader of an interfaith spiritual community. She taught me how to pray, how to meditate, and how to find God in everything. She taught me to reach out to the divine and ask for help, and to trust that the universe is always conspiring for my good. If a guru is the teacher who shows you the way to the divine, then obviously, she is my guru.

But I think, really, all mothers are. If your mother was awful and abusive, then she drove you into a place of such inner darkness that you could not help but reach for the light. Her cruelty drove you into a search for something more. She put you on the path of light.
If your mother, like mine, was a delight and a treasure trove of strength and faith, then she laid the path to Infinity beneath your feet like a yellow brick road. And she, too, put you on the path of light. How amazing mothers are. Despite their limited human personalities, whether full of light or full of darkness, they cannot help but be so connected to the great cosmic mother that they put you back on the road to her arms, one way or another.

I honor you, mothers of the world. I honor you, for better or worse. I honor your role in setting us all on the path of light, whether consciously or unconsciously. I bow and touch your feet, honoring the guru in your heart, the flame of the divine mother, which burns and burns and never stops.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mama. Happy Mother’s Day, Guru-ji.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Leper of Sandhu Colony

On the outskirts of Amritsar, away from the clamor and din of life around the Golden Temple, tucked into a little suburb called Sandhu colony, is an enclave of houses frequented by western Sikhs. They all come here, as I did, to study with a great master of Raag and life named Ustaad Narinder Singh Sandhu, lovingly called Ustaad-ji. They are usually all musicians, mostly singers with albums of Western-style chant music, or devoted Sikhs who come to connect with the shabad guru, the teacher in the song. Me? I can play piano, or I did in high school. I do not, however, have any apparent vocal talent.

Here is where you say, “Oh, she’s just being modest.” Everyone says that. They say the best singers always say they are the worst. They say I’m just being self-deprecating. Maybe I am being self-deprecating, but I’m not being modest. I’m not good.

When Ustaad-ji sings, he whirls up and down the scales, rolling notes and half notes and quarter notes and sixteenth notes around and around his velvety throat. The class follows, half of them crying tears of bliss at the beauty of his voice and the sweetness of the holy songs.

One day, after singing a particularly lovely raag, he stopped the class. He gestured for me to come closer to him and to sit in front of him. I did so and we started singing again. He stopped the class a second time. He looked at me, eyes pregnant with too much to say. He sighed. “Your blood is stuck in your neck. It is stopping your voice. I’m going to have to touch you. Tee kay?” “Sure,” I replied. We started singing again. Then he hit me hard on the back of my lungs. I practically choked. The other students’ eyes widened into quarters. Then he pinched the back of my neck, closing off some blood flow. I made a face, a mixture of confusion and pain, and kept singing. For a moment he looked triumphant. Then his face fell again.

“Guru has sent you to me as a test.” This didn’t sound good. He continued, “You play harmonium so beautifully. Your hands are so musical. And then you sing. And no, your voice is all over the place. Up and down, over and back.” He looked near tears. He wiped the sweat off his brow. The room so hot it was like sitting under the interrogation lights you see in bad cop movies. “God has sent you to me to test me.” He looked like he was struggling to find a polite way to tell me that I was the worst student he ever heard. I knew he was trying not to let me in on exactly how bad I am, but I know it.

I knew it before I ever came to him. I have known it every day since I lost my hearing and with it my beautiful singing voice. His heart was only now breaking where mine had broken many times before.

“It will take so much work to fix this, Ramdesh. This is a very big problem. So much work.” And he sighed. “Who sent you to me?” he demanded.

“Guru must have.” I said. (Isn’t that the right answer? When in doubt, blame it on God.)

“Gurumustuk Singh?” he interjected.

“No. No. Guru,” I said again, a little concerned to name names, as if he was expecting me to say the angel of death had sent me to bring him home.

“But Balwant,"I said, gesturing to another student in class, "She says my voice is like a butterfly, flittering about all over the place, but so pretty when it lands on something.”

“No butterfly. So much work.” He held his head in his hands. That was a bit disappointing…no butterfly even? I looked around at all the beautiful singers in the room and wondered if my presence in class was making it harder for them to learn. My ego reared its ugly head, and I felt lost and alone. I felt like the leper of Sandhu colony.

I held my head up high and told him he was up for the job. I smiled brightly. But inside I cried everything except tears. When I was young, before I lost my hearing, my voice would soar out of me so easily with perfect pitch. I remember when I was the best singer out of every class. It is a profound and humbling experience to watch yourself in life go from the best to the worst.

It happens sometimes. Perhaps as you go from high school to college, and realize that while you were the star quarterback in rural Montana, you can’t hold up to the standards at your major university. It happens if you are a surgeon, and you develop a hand tremor. For me, it happened in Amritsar, where I could see myself as a child singing circles around my peers, and then watched myself as an adult struggle to sing a scale.

We need that, though, in life. I need that. You cannot appreciate being the best unless you understand what it feels like to be the worst. Humility is a virtue that needs careful honing.

What a privilege it is to be disappointed, really. For one, it means that you are still full of enough light to have dreams. It means your heart is open and searching for more. It may also mean that you have attachments to things that you would do better to release. Disappointment may be a bitter pill to swallow, but it is a good medicine for the ego.

His sadness on my behalf burned bitterly that night, during class. But under the gentle shade of the leaves on the tree of passing time, my wounds have cooled. And I find a lightness there that wasn’t there before. By seeing his sadness for me, I let much of the sadness that I had for me go. Singing for me was always a bittersweet event. Although I loved it, I was always haunted by the thoughts of what might have been if history had been different for me. Once Ustaad-ji told me, “You must put your emotions to the side and do the work, Ramdesh. Give me the responsibility. You have so much emotion weighing down your heart about singing, give me the responsibility to make your voice good. Just do as I tell you to do, and let the heart be free from worry. This will help the voice.”

The baggage of lost dreams that I carried on my back like a dowager’s hump, I left at his feet. And it is funny, in that very Indian way that whatever your plans are never have the result you intend here. I went to Amritsar to learn to sing, but there I laid down the banner of sadness and loss, and suddenly I am realizing that with it, I laid down the shackle of attachment to an old dream. I have other talents and other gifts. I have other songs to sing.

I may be a leper and a schizophrenic, but my heart is healed again. At long, long last, my heart is whole. And that is something to sing about, isn’t it?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Schizophrenic Shabad Singer

The train from Rishikesh to Amritsar was a test in patience. That is the nicest way I can describe it. Imagine if you will…Kumba Mela season. That alone should be descriptive enough for those of you who might have been to the smoosh of humanity that is the Kumbh. Now further imagine a low class seat. Further smoosh. Now visualize if you will an unfortunately large women with no assigned seating deciding that the area between the back of the seat in front of me and my face is a perfect place to park herself. Now continue along with my cough worsening until I am full-blown sick.

When I finally arrived in Amritsar, I got into an auto-rickshaw to take me to Sandhu colony to a home full of people studying with Ustaad-ji, the beloved singer of raag (classical Indian devotional music). All was working out until a man jumped into the rickshaw and began putting his hands all over my body. While I decided whether to stab him with the kirpan I was wearing or push him out of the rickshaw into oncoming traffic, he jumped out of the rickshaw with a “Thank you, madam.” So rude, and yet, so polite. So India.

The next few days I laid in bed overcome with a serious cough. I completely lost my voice. And here I was to studying singing. Ustaad-ji became concerned that I was seriously ill and sent me with another student to the hospital. This student explained in Punjabi to the doctor there that I was studying with Ustaad-ji and wanted to sing the shabads (Sikh hymns). The doctor turned to me and asked in English, “You want to sing shabads?” I croaked a meager, “Yes.” He wrote a prescription and sent me out of the room. (As is the norm for my experiences with Indian doctors, this was without either examining me or asking if I was allergic to medicine or taking another drug.) I picked up the medicine and went home. Looking it up on the internet to check to make sure it hadn’t been recalled in the US for causing cancer or something, I learned that I had been given wonderful drugs…for schizophrenia. That is what you get when you say a white girl with no voice wants to sing the shabads. Obviously, I am nuts. That is a much bigger problem than a cough.

When I told Ustaad-ji later that day that I had been given drugs for being crazy, he gave me my first of many lessons. Ustaad-ji said, “Yes, you are crazy. Good. Everyone is crazy. The men who sang the shabads were crazy. They sat outside of society and sang to God with intense love. Everyone thought they were crazy. Look outside, people who live from their head and not their heart. There are crazy! They are crazy with maya. Everyone is crazy. Do you want to be crazy with maya [illusion], or crazy with God?”

If there is something to experience about India, it is that it is crazy. It is both crazy with maya and crazy with God. It provides you with a powerful opportunity to choose.

Ask yourself today; do you want to be crazy with maya or crazy with God? Then decide whether or not to take the pills. Me? I’m crazy, but not that crazy. I’ll stick with good, old-fashioned TLC. It might not fix the desire to sing, but it should take care of the cold.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Moving On

Everything must come to an end. So must my time in Rishikesh, at least on this leg of my life’s journey.

So many things happened here, some I blogged about, some I didn’t. I still have stories to write and things to tell you about my time here. There will still be tales of Rishikesh for a while I am sure, as I acclimate to other surroundings, and tales of my adventures in Amritsar and abroad.

So many things I learned here, some universal, some personal. I am still processing all of these lessons, trying to integrate them and understand why they have come into my life at this time.

I learned about the sweetness of seva, about how your heart can breathe after the weight of its own hurt is lifted by putting yourself aside and working for others. I learned about the strength of childhood, about the resilience of the human capacity for joy in the face of the most atrocious realities. I learned about the magic that is still in this world, and that is worth searching for and worth finding. I learned about the power that all people have to be your teachers, whether saints and gurus, or waiters and crazy people. I learned that loving a cow could be a mutually rewarding experience. I learned that I love to teach and that watching someone have an experience with his or her own soul is just about the freshest thing in the world. I learned that my desire to retreat from the world into prayerful solitude could be just as easily accomplished by staying in the world and retreating into my own heart than it can be by retreating into an ashram. I learned that beauty sometimes looks ugly if you are looking with the wrong eyes.

I bow before Mata Ganga and the banyan trees and the brown-faced monkeys and Ramana’s Garden and my sweet Beatrice and all my teachers here. I have been honored to share space and time with each and every one of you.

May the long time sun shine upon you, all love surround you, and the pure light within you, guide your way on. Sat nam.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Garden of Eden

Just north of the Lakshman Jhulla Bridge in Rishikesh, up the stairs from the German Bakery and past the bends and twists of Tapovan, you find the Garden of Eden. It is a surprising place to find paradise, in the middle of dung fires, mangy stray dogs and dust storms. But nevertheless there it is. Ramana’s Garden. Home for Destitute Children, as the sign says.

When I first heard of the orphanage in town, I had images of Oliver Twist and a dark nightmare out of Charles Dickens, where children are punished when they ask for more food. India constantly surprises. Just when you expect to see the worst of everything, you come upon the best. An American woman started Ramana’s Garden twenty years ago because she thought she could make a difference. And what a difference she made.

There are gardens sprouting everywhere, growing the organic produce fed to the children and used to make food in their café, which supports the running of the orphanage. The children themselves are smiling and laughing, and game to join you for a dance or a joke. There is a playground, schoolrooms, and even a yoga hall.

In this yoga hall, I taught Kundalini yoga to the children. Yogis all, some could do advanced asana such as arm balances, and most of them were familiar with the most common Kundalini mantras, seasoned by volunteers from years past. It was not difficult to get them to pay attention or stay interested. They were so excited to be doing yoga.

When they discovered that my iphone took video after class one day, I became an instant Bollywood producer. Each little girl wanted her own solo dance scene. There was so much love and so much joy, you would never know what hard lives they had already lived.

You would never know that the little girl dancing the bhangra for my iphone video had been found unconscious after having been ganged raped in a Delhi bathroom by the men her father sold her to. You wouldn’t think that the boy who could do such good headstands in yoga class got those scars on his head when the Maoists set him on fire. You couldn’t know. They have such a special glow and sweetness to them. They live in the now moment, and that moment is now good.

While I taught them yoga, the children taught me to live in the now. I hope I have been a good student. I hope I have been able to integrate some of their precious wisdom. Let the past go. Let the drama drain out of you. Find the grace of God in the present moment. Listen to the sound of your breath. Marvel at it. Smile at it. Dance with it. Let the beauty that can be found in the most unlikely places on this planet take root in your heart and bloom into a Garden of Eden wherever you are.

You can help Ramana’s Garden by making a donation at www.friendsramanasgarden.org

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Kumbh Kraziness

I do not think I exaggerate: the entire state of Rajasthan was camping outside my door. To walk anywhere, you stepped over sleeping bodies, cooking pots, dirty bags that had been carried on heads for days, saris draped over bushes to dry, stray dogs and the obligatory cow patties.

I do not think I exaggerate: the entire state of Rajasthan was unsure of whether or not I was real. Old ladies poked my face with one finger and looking quizzically at my response. Old men touched my turban. Young men stood 4 inches from my face and stared, not responding to anything I said. Young girls either giggled or cried at the sight of me. Whole groups of women walked up to me and touched my clothes, stroked my skin, pinched my cheeks, pulled my turban and tried to take my jewelry off.

I do not think I exaggerate: the entire state of Rajasthan was either lighting a fire to cook food, or burning trash, or burning dung and otherwise creating such a cloud of smoke that the cough in my chest has me worried about pneumonia.

I really, really don’t think I am exaggerating. If anything, there is nothing I can say to convey to you the craziness of Kumbha Mela and the last royal bathing day in Rishikesh. The roads to Haridwar closed and they diverted all the pilgrims to Rishikesh. If you went out onto Swarg Ashram, the road in front of the ashram, then you would absolutely smashed between the most beautifully colored saris, tattooed arms and plastic bangles and their wearers. On all sides you were boxed in, smooshed, and crushed nearly to death. People pushed and pushed to move forward. If you weren’t going fast enough for the person behind you (never mind the fact that there was absolutely no where to go as a wall of bodies was stopped in front of you) the person behind you pushed, poked, and even grabbed your butt to get you to move forward.

For an entire week, Rishikesh was a sea of crazy. It felt crazy, looked crazy, and was crazy. Plus, it was almost 110 degrees. The heat was so hot you couldn’t do anything in the afternoon but take a cold shower, lie naked under your fan and try not to move.

It was amazing to think that these people had left everything…whole villages emptied, jobs were left, everything stopped in order for people to walk, pack buses, ride on trucks, cram into trains and try anything and everything to make it to the Ganga in time to dip in her holy waters on just the right day so that their karma would be released. All came: the sick, the weak, the old, the frail, and the babies. Such is the determination of the faithful.

I wonder what would happen if we showed up for ourselves with as much faith and determination as pilgrims show up for Kumbh. What if we believed in our potential to heal and bless as much as they believe in Mata Ganga’s? What if we stopped at nothing to find our true path? Measure your faith in yourself. Would you walk for a week across hot sands and brave stampedes just to arrive at the home of your own soul and say, “I believe in you. Bless me!”

Oh my soul, grant that I look to you with as much faith as the pilgrims to Kumbha Mela. May I honor you, my sweet spirit, on your path and may my actions support your growth and evolution. Oh beautiful divine of my heart, help me to walk across a thousand lifetimes to arrive at the feet of the true beloved, full of faith, full of determination, at whatever the cost.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Durga Emerges in the Marketplace and Leaves Gopala in Her Place

In the morning, I often make a long hike (forty-five minutes each way) up to the orphanage called Ramana's Garden to teach the children Kundalini yoga. It’s an exhausting walk in the heat and a true labor of love for these special children.

One day on the way home from teaching the children, along a dirt path next to the Ganga framed by beautiful cactus and bougainvillea and populated by orange-drenched sadhus, I saw a black cow walking along the path. She was struggling. It appeared that her leg was broken, perhaps having been run over by one of the crazy motorcyclists that zoom along at break-neck speeds. With every step, she would groan the most pitiful sound and as she put weight on her leg to move, she would dry heave from the pain. Although I am not a cow behavior specialist, it was pretty obvious that she was way beyond the point of pain. Before me, I had the definition of agony.

She was searching for food. I looked both ways down the road for a produce vendor, who set up their ramshackle carts with greens, turnips, cucumbers, papaya, grapes and mango. The only man some ways down along the road had a cart heavy with cucumbers, which he would juice for people to quench their thirst. I ran to him and bought some cucumbers whole and raced back to find the cow. By now, she had walked into a gated garden next to the one of the simple homes given by an ashram to a sadhu to live in until his death. I went into the garden and walked down a lane back into the forest. I saw many cows, but not her. In the garden, a sadhu stood on a ladder pruning a tree. I caught his attention and asked him if he had seen a hurt cow and I mimed a cow with a broken leg and made a horrible sound. He pointed to the rear of the forest, and I walked up to her and put the cucumbers in front of her so that she could reach them easily. I went back to the sadhu. In very simple English, I said that the cow was badly hurt and did he know a doctor for her? He told me that she comes every day looking for food and said, “What can you do, madam?” quite indifferently.

The fact that this man had seen her suffer day after day and had not bothered to try to help her inflamed me. You earn the right to call yourself a holy man in my eyes not after initiation ceremonies or taking a vow of poverty. You earn it through compassion and service. I looked at the sadhu, so indifferent on his ladder. I uttered seriously, “You had better never so much as think the name of Lord Krishna again until you help his beloved cow.” Lord Krishna is a beloved avatar who guides Arjuna through battle in the Bhagavad-Gita. Cows are sacred to him and receive his special blessings. People walk through the streets touching their heads to get a boon of grace. I cannot allow that the same people who would touch this cow’s forehead to receive grace cannot find it in their hearts to try to help give her some grace in return.

What can I do? I can refuse to allow a creature to suffer. I can try to find help. I can do something other than shrug at someone’s agony and say “karma.” And so I made it my mission to get her help. I gave the sadhu a final withering look and went to search for someone else who could help. I immediately thought of Santosh, my friend of the Brown Bread Man shop, who had helped me when Beatrice the French lady had lost her shoes. (See blog entry “A Pair of Shoes and a Cow.”) I ran the distance to Santosh’s shop, filled with the sounds of the cow’s pain. I explained the situation to Santosh. It didn’t get much of a reaction out of him. So I decided again that a higher level of emotion was going to be required to get my point across. I started to cry. I told him how much pain she was in and how it wasn’t right to let her suffer. He called a vet. But the vet wouldn’t come because a certain bridge was closed for Kumbha Mela, and he would have to walk across the river. I told Santosh the vet’s legs weren’t broken and he should get over here. But as often is the case in India, the person in a position to help, isn’t moved to do so. I was furious.

I went to the ashram to find Siddhi Yogi, (see blog entry “The Ayurvedic Shaman”) who I knew worked with animals. When I finally found his room, he was sleeping but woke up to talk to me. I told him about the cow and asked him to come help. He said he couldn’t leave the ashram, but proceeded to go into meditation and find her soul. He made some agonized sounds and favored his leg and then opened his eyes and told me a recipe for a poultice that I needed to bind around her leg. I told him that I was sure the cow would try to kill me if I touched her leg. He admitted it was a problem, but offered no solution.

This process was fast exhausting me. I left Siddhi Yogi because I had to teach my yoga class at Parmarth. I went to class and told the students about the cow and about taking our yoga out into the world through compassion in action. I taught my class and when it was finished, immediately ran back down the road where the cow had been and went to find the old man dressed in white who had told me I was doing good work (see blog entry “The Light of the World”). I walked up to his home, where I could see him staring at me through a crack in the wood. A younger man was peeling vegetables on the front porch. I told him I needed help for a sick cow. The young man asked what was wrong with the cow and I told him. He set down the peeler and gestured for me to follow him. We walked further down the road to a large ashram. We walked into the gate, down a seriously of steep stairs and then came onto the beach. A few people sat in meditation. “Wait”, he said and left.

The ashram was beautiful in location if very simple in build. Unlike Parmarth, the buildings were dirt floors, with one wall and a ceiling and open to the Ganga. The natural setting was stunning, with beautiful white beaches, a cliff next to the Ganga with a Shiva lingam on it, and large boulders deposited from glaciers that melted long ago. As I was admiring the view, an old Indian woman came up to me and in beautiful English asked me what I wanted. I told her about the cow and her agony and how no one would help. She smiled kindly and told me that her guru had set up this ashram specifically to take care of the cows. She asked questions about the cow, how she looked, where she was, et cetera. She then told me there was a vet coming that evening to take care of some other sick cows and that they would help her, too. She kept nodding at me, saying “Very good, very good.” Then she handed me a large leaf and spooned daal into it. “Eat.”

I ate. The daal was very rich and thick. The warmth calmed me down, almost as much as the idea that someone agreed with me and was going to help. We smiled at each other for a while and then I said I had to go as it was getting late. She told me to come back sometime and I promised I would.

The day was staggeringly hot. Walking back to Parmarth Niketan when the heat hung in the night was no easy task. I was dehydrated and emotionally spent. As I went to buy some water, I saw what I least wanted to see. A beggar was beating Beatrice, my favorite cow and the occasional star of this blog. She would try to get away and he would pull her tail. I lost it. I flew at him and started yelling at him to get away from my cow. He let her go and brushed me aside, dismissing me. “That cow is under my protection! Don’t touch her! Don’t you dare touch that cow! May Krishna curse you if you even so much as look at her!” He walked away. The vendors around knew me and were very surprised to see me in my white turban and chuni, usually so calm and meditative, channeling the ferocious protector goddess Durga. “He’s just crazy,” one said to me. I spun at him. “Unacceptable. If he is crazy, then your obligation is to protect the defenseless from him. You should protect the cows from his anger or you are no better.” They hung their heads. I bought some bananas for Beatrice and stroked her neck to calm her down.

I had never lost my temper in India before. I felt like Durga sprang from my body out into the marketplace to do battle for the innocent. I am a little embarrassed, as if I should maintain meditative peace at all times, but I am reminded of the spiritual tradition of the Sikhs, which requires strength and the fearlessness to do battle on behalf of the innocent. I know now that strength is alive in me.

One unexpected outcome of this day is that both Siddhi Yogi and a beggar on the street I never really noticed before have begun to worship me as the divinity Gopala. Both at separate times have touched my feet and bowed, chanting “Gopala, Gopala, Gopala, Hare Gopala” as I pass. Gopala is an aspect of Krishna, a lovely, white-skinned sheperd who takes care of his cows and protects them from harm. Durga emerged in the marketplace and left Gopala in her place to maintain peace.

The black cow was eventually taken care of by the ashram next to the beach. And my beautiful white Beatrice and her Gopala are often seen sharing a banana and a snuggle by the Ganga, Lord Krishna dancing and playing his flute in the sand.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Guru Sparky and Her “Ma”

Last November there was a young dog who would come visit our yoga class regularly. She loved to get up on stage and sit on the teacher’s pillow and be the center of attention. She picked up the name Guru Bambi from her resemblance to the Disney character and her desire to sit in front of the microphone during class to “teach”. One women fell in love with her and decided to adopt her and take her back to the US. Guru Bambi currently lives and teaches yoga in Washington, DC.

Last month a dog who bears strong resemblance to Guru Bambi started to come to my class. She was lively and animated, always wanting you to jump and play with her. I named her Guru Sparky to honor her apparent family tie to Guru Bambi and her playful nature. She is too shy to come into the classroom and never seems to want any of the food you offer her. She will, however, lie on her back for hours while you pet her belly.

One night for evening meditation, I led the Divine Shield Meditation. You sit in a particular fashion with one hand cupping your ear and chant “Maaaaa”, singing to the universal mother and listening for her response. For a half an hour, forty people from all over the world sang to our divine mother, chanting “Maaaaaaa” with all our hearts. As we closed the meditation, I spoke about the universality of the sound “Ma” and how it has come to represent the word for Mother in languages all over the world. We all share our divine mother and know her name.

Just then, Guru Sparky ran into the room with an older female dog. They ran around the room playing with each other for a few seconds and then ran out. Guru Sparky had heard our chant and wanted us to know that animals speak the language of “ma”, too. She introduced us to her mother. If we had been listening for a response from the divine mother, we could have heard no stronger message.

The mother of our soul is listening. She hears us. She might even come to play sometime.

Oh, and Guru Bambi? Your mom says “Hi!”

The Dance of Six Year Old You

In my Kundalini yoga classes I often ask my students to get up and dance as part of a kriya. Most of the time, they shyly get off the mat and start looking around. They listen to the music and sway slightly, waiting for someone else to be the first to pick up the rythym of the music. They look at me, as if I am going to show them exactly how to dance and which steps to use. I’ll tell them to get off the mat and move to the music. They hesitate. Sometimes they ignore me altogether. Usually there is one free spirit who gets things going, and the rest of the group loosens up and begins to dance. Most of the time, it is not a full-tilt boogie, but rather a nursing home bossa nova.

Today in class, I decided this kind of half-hearted dancing was unacceptable. “What would the six year old you say if I told him or her that when they grew up, they wouldn’t even like dancing? That when I asked them to dance in class, they would just stand there? What on earth would six year old you think of you now?”

“I think the six year old you would say ‘Nuh-uh! Not me, I’m gonna be a great dancer! I’m gonna show you! I’m gonna jump and leap and twirl. I’m gonna love dancing!’ Put aside your ego! There no such thing as a dancing fool, only a fool who doesn’t dance!”

The class got in touch with their younger selves and beautiful dancers emerged. Swinging, twirling, whirling little girls with ballerina dreams appeared before my eyes and became the dance. I could see temple dancers from ancient India emerge from within them and saw old men reclaim their youth on the dance floors of their memories.

When was the last time you really danced? Danced like six year old you dreamed you would? Put your whole heart and your whole body into the music and left it there? When was the last time you swam in a pool of music? Angels envy us these bodies, with which we dance for God. Use them! Put on some high vibration music and dance the Dance of Six Year Old You!

The Universal Waiter

There is a restaurant in Rishikesh on the banks of the Ganga that has a roof top perch much like a treehouse. I retreat there when my stomach threatens mutiny if I eat one more meal of rice and daal. The two ceiling fans do nothing to decrease the oppressive heat this time of year, but the sight of Ganga is like doing Sitali pranayam for my soul. Named “Tip Top”, the English spoken here is as simple as the name suggests.

One waiter in particular speaks very limited English. No matter what you say to him, he responds with a yes. “Can I have my bill?” “Yes.” “May I have extra onions?” “Yes.” “Does this turban make me look fat?” “Yes.” Whether or not he responds to your request in the way you would like is questionable, but his positive response is clockwork.

He reminds me that the universe is always saying yes to the vibration that we are offering. Feeling depressed? “Yes!” says the universe, “Here’s more depression.” Convinced that all men are liars? “Yes!” says the universe, “I have another liar for you!” By the same token, if you persistently offer up a vibration of joy and peace, the universe says yes and brings you more of the same. It has to do with the quality of your electromagnetic field and the weight of your karma. Karma is simply the sum total of your vibrational offering.

This doesn’t mean that the universe is necessarily specific in the way you might anticipate. It doesn’t mean that when my friend recently had a lizard run up her pants while she was sleeping that she had specifically requested this experience from the universe before she went to bed that night. But she did feel uncomfortable at the ashram and she was unhappy with her room. Both of these thought forms are states of mind which would increase if a lizard ran up your pants in the night.

I am so grateful to this waiter, who always says yes, for reminding me to watch my words and hold my vibration into the pattern of what I do want, rather than the alternative. Asking for specifics is tricky, both with the universe and with Indian waiters. Best to smile at both in gratitude and joy and see what they bring.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Lord of the Flies

You cannot miss the flies in India. Where there are cows, there are flies. There are large swarms in the sunny spots in front of the ashram and no matter where you go to hide from them there is no hiding place they can’t find. When you meditate, they land on your arms or your face, seriously challenging your concentration. Some of the students in my yoga class have outbursts over the flies, swatting them away continually. The flies don’t take it personally, however, and come right back.

Ever since the Dalai Lama’s visit, where I saw him rescue bugs from the floor so they wouldn’t be trampled, I have been examining my relationship to all things creepy crawly. I cohabitate with the ants in my bedroom peacefully. Although I get annoyed when they get into my food, I never retaliate with violence. They live here too after all, and their community is large and well established. I’m only here for a few months, and I can afford to share my honey from time to time.

I have also taken on a new perspective on the flies. As they land on my body while I meditate, instead of feeling irritated and uncomfortable, I have begun to respond with love. “Sat nam, fly,” I think. “Thank you for providing me with this opportunity to deepen my meditation practice and stay focused despite outside stimuli.” I send a vibration of love and gratitude to the flies instead of annoyance and frustration. What a powerful change that makes in the strength of my energetic field. During the powerful time of meditation, instead of offering annoyance to the world, I am free to offer gratitude.

The more I think about flies, the greater an appreciation I develop. It is easy to dismiss them as nasty creatures that hang around the cow dung on the streets. But what a miracle that what most living things dismiss as disgusting, the flies can see as an enormous blessing and a source of food and life. They recognize the fertilizer when most creatures only see the dung. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, as they say.

In one of my favorite quotes, Yogi Bhajan said, “If you can’t see God in all, you can’t see God at all.” I understand this more and more everyday. I have begun to see God in the smallest fly. The Lord is in the flies, of the flies, and as the flies, too. There is a purpose for all creatures, and they are all my brothers and sisters. Thank you, Dalai Lama, for reminding me to look on the floor for opportunities to be of service. I am reminded of the Christian song that says “all creatures great and small, the Lord God made them all.” Thank you, flies, for helping me see God in the smallest things and for challenging me to strengthen and deepen my meditation practice. Sat nam, creepy crawlies!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Mind the Bugs

When the Dalai Lama was sitting on stage this week, during insufferable heat and very long speeches, people were throwing flower petals onto the stage to honor him. I watched His Holiness look carefully among the petals. He reached down and sifted through the floral offerings and began to pick up several bugs, one at a time. Each time he turned and offered it to a monk behind him to take outside. It was as if there was nothing more important to His Holiness than to make sure the bugs were taken care of. No speeches, no dignitary, no accolade was more important to him than the simplest of creatures.

It struck me that if you pay attention to your karma on a small scale, your frame of mind will be such that you cannot help but to mind it on a large scale. The old British saying goes “Mind the pence and the pounds will mind themselves.” If you mind the bugs, literally watching your interactions and intentions with the smallest creatures and getting into a habit of compassion for the little things, then your interactions with the larger creatures around you will be smoother. Mind the bugs and your interactions with people will take care of themselves. The atmosphere of kindness and compassion you will have cultivated in your heart will have become a habit and you will interact with everyone in the world with more grace and ease.

Hello Dalai!

There is a beautiful practice in the tradition of Kundalini Yoga called the Sopurkh that involves the recitation of a certain mantra 11 times a day. The Sopurkh was given by Guru Ram Das, the 4th guru of the Sikhs, to women as a way of helping women to raise the vibration of the men in their lives. A woman can say the Sopurkh for a particular man in her life such as her husband, to help him live up to his full potential, or she can say it even to attract into her life her perfect mate if she has not met him yet. The Sopurkh, if said for a minimum of 40 straight days, is said to manifest God in physical male form in front of a woman.

I had been reciting Sopurkh for 39 days for the men in my life. It was a beautiful, healing process that I could feel was releasing my own karma around men. Many nights I had dreams where I met old boyfriends for tea and we had conversations about our present day lives and said goodbye. I could feel karma lifting and ties being cut. I could also see positive changes happening in the lives of the men for whom I was saying the prayer.

On the 40th day of my half an hour recitation of the Sopurkh, I met the Dalai Lama. He came to Parmarth Niketan to speak and stayed in a room just down the hall from mine. He shook my hand and looked kindly into my eyes. Ladies and gentleman, the Sopurkh works. God in male physical form was manifested in front of me on the 40th day. One week previously I had not even an idea that the Dalai Lama would be coming to Rishikesh and on the 40th day of my meditation, I received the blessing of the one who many consider to be the holiest man alive.

I’m still reeling from the meeting. His energy was graceful and peaceful, self confident and humble. I certainly can’t stop my meditation now…if that happens at day 40, what can happen at day 90 or even day 1,000?

A beautiful recording of the Sopurkh was done by the lovely Nirinjan Kaur Khalsa (Sopurkh That Primal God) and can be purchased on www.spiritvoyage.com.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Ayurvedic Shaman

I admit it… I freaked out. I woke up with about sixty red bumps on my feet and all I could think was that some bizarre Indian parasite had entered into the souls of my feet while walking around barefoot in a temple. That or leprosy. So I went to the health clinic near the ashram, where the doctor promptly dismissed me as having mosquito bites. Oops.

While leaving the clinic, I ran into a man I had seen before. Once, while coughing up a storm, an old man with wild white hair and a scraggly beard had run up to me in the street and screamed “Sun prana! What you need is sun prana! I learned ayurveda from a 300 year old man in a cave! Sit in the sun and breathe in the prana!” Only in India of course would this suggestion and situation seem both plausible and reasonable. I recognized him instantly this time as he ran up to me and shouted “You! Come, come!” and ushered me into an office inside of the clinic. Inside was an exam table and hundreds of copies of the Bhagavad Gita. He began to flip through the holy book to find passages that he shoved in front of me with a “Read this!” or “Here! Here!”

He looked at me with eyes that seemed to glow and said, “You have mucus behind your pituitary! Hold your head over steam for four minutes and then….HAAAWK!” He made an awful noise and a retching motion. “Practice!” An unlikely cure for mosquito bites, but I’m sure useful in the long run.

He explained that he was the head of the ayurvedic clinic at Parmarth Niketan. His name is Siddhi Yogi. A few different times a beggar would approach his office and he would break out into a monstrous demonstration of insanity, flailing his body and making high pitched squeals. When the beggar would back away and leave us alone, he would stop and continue on with the conversation like nothing unusual had occurred.

“Watch me! Watch my aura!” Every word was an intense command, and then he closed his eyes and began to do very heavy pranayama unlike what you might learn in your neighborhood yoga class. I could not see his aura, and told him so apologizing, but his eyes were like lightbulbs they were so bright. The conversation went to and fro so fast I could hardly keep up with him. This passage in the Bhagavad Gita, that pranayama, how the local sadhus were frauds and hash had no place in yogic culture (the smell of marijuana is common while walking among the local renunciate crowd), his guru, the practice of meditation, and on and on.

When he found out I was teaching Kundalini yoga and meditation at Parmarth Niketan, he said “Good! Good! Teach! Teach! No student of yoga ever becomes a terrorist.” Not exactly a benefit of yoga I had ever thought about, but it certainly feels true.

The conversation then spun to the true sound of “Om”, which he said most people completely mess up. “It is the sound of the universe, all creatures make this sound, calling home. Listen to the tigers, to the elephants, to the trees bending in the wind…they all make the same sound.” He demonstrated a breath that sounded like a very gutteral and less well enunciated “Auummm”. He told me that he takes care of sick tigers and elephants up in the mountains and that he can use mantra and pranayama to communicate with them, and listens to the change in their pranayama to indicate where the pain is in their body. As he was speaking about his work with animals, I was struck by how the tradition of ayurveda that he follows is so strikingly similar to the shamanic practices of Native America. The herbs are different and there are more asanas involved, but the system of using sound to communicate with animals and heal them is so connected.

Speaking with Siddhi Yogi is a treat. You never quite know what to expect. If you saw him on the street you might think he was just a beggar, but at Parmarth he runs a large ayurvedic clinic and is treated with great respect. You feel in him someone with great reverence for the old ways and a deep understanding of the connection of all life. He is a good teacher. I listen harder now. I listen to the breathing of the cows and the sound of the wind of the Ganga. I hear it in my own heartbeat. Wherever you are now, listen for it. In the animals, in the plants…listen for the sound of the universe that connects us all.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Chasing Waterfalls

You never end up where you plan in India. I should know this by now. And yet even though I keep a flashlight, toilet paper, batteries, snacks, water, first aid and a knife in my purse, I am still caught unprepared for the unexpected.

I went to a waterfall outside of town for the Spring Equinox with some students from my yoga class. The waterfall was by all accounts “just off the road.” I wore flip-flops and a flowing skirt, which is standard weekend in Rishikesh attire.

When we started up the trail to the waterfall, I anticipated a pleasant walk. I soon realized that we were in fact hiking up a very steep trail, full of loose rocks. It was very hot and the sun was boiling our backs. I began to get winded and was struggling up the trail. My students delighted at the opportunity to tell me to “keep up” for a change, since I am always pushing them physically in class. So I kept up. I tried to make a journey a physical and emotional challenge, training my subconscious to climb any mountain in front of it. I was sweating and shaking, but I continued up. The trail split into two, one section that went down into a ravine with a path about six inches wide between a sheer face and a 200 feet drop. The path itself, if you could call it that, was full of loose stones and abrupt drops. We thought for sure that could not really be a path, and continued climbing up the well-trodden wider path that wound up the mountain. We kept climbing, the incline progressively getting harder. Each step was harder and harder, and the sweat on my feet was making me slide in my flip-flops.

We passed some women in colorful saris cutting leaves from the jungle and putting them into bundles. We stopped and shared water and snacks with them and asked them what their bundles were for. We gestured our way into understanding that it was for their cows. Big smiles and a namaste later, we continued our quest for the waterfall. We emerged out of the jungle into a terraced agricultural village on the top of the mountain. I finally said to my companions that there couldn’t be a waterfall up at the top of a mountain unless it fell out of the sky. We had clearly passed it. We wondered whether that non-trail could possibly have been the real trail.

Walking down the mountain was worse. I slid half the way down, due to sweaty flip-flops and stones giving way beneath my feet. I practiced staying in the moment, trying to be extremely conscious of only thinking about the step I was currently taking. I asked God to help me not sprain my ankle, or worse, fall off the mountain. I finally made my way down to the lower path and the women I was walking with by this time appeared to me more mountain goat than human. They would leap from rock to rock, whereas I would step in the same spot and the rock would slide out from under me. About twenty feet onto the second trail I slid pretty dramatically. There was really no room to slide and I almost slipped off the mountain into the ravine. I pulled the plug. Making my excuses, I told them to go ahead without me and started back down the mountain alone. Walking down a very steep mountain sliding everywhere by myself,feeling faint, didn’t feel like a particularly bright idea either, but I went very slowly and continued to stay totally focused on the present moment.

Present moment by present moment, I made it by myself down the mountain, never seeing the waterfall. We never know what mountains we will have to climb in life. Even if we plan for one eventuality, more often than not a possibility that we never considered comes to pass. Flexibility, determination, and mindfulness are the tools we need in our “emergency kit” in our bags. And a good pair of hiking shoes wouldn’t hurt, either.

The Energy of Money

One of the German bakeries in town has some delicious little chocolate balls that hit the spot when you crave something sweet, so I picked one up on the way to teach my yoga class. I gave the cashier 20 rupees and should have gotten 5 rupees back. I didn’t even look at my change and thought that perhaps I should give the change away either to a beggar or use it to buy vegetables for Beatrice. I looked at the change in my hands and realized it was a 2 rupee piece. I was instantly annoyed. Had he short-changed me because I was white? All sorts of reasons filled my head for this discrepancy. I was watching my own annoyance with interest, rather surprised at the sudden way my mood shifted. The difference of 3 rupees is not much at all (45 rupees is one US dollar), but the energy that I was surrounding this two rupee piece with was one of lack and disappointment.

As I neared the ashram I saw a small boy selling a flower boat as a offering to the Ganga. Wrapped in a leaf boat, there are flowers of several colors and types, a small clay plate and wick with wax, a sprig of incense and some matches. I asked him how much it was and he said 20 rupees. “Too much for me, my friend,” I said. “Ten rupees!” He shouted to me. I really didn’t have time to go down the ghat before class so I looked at him and smiled. I told him to keep his flowers and to take the 2 rupee piece. As he took it, he had the biggest smile on his face. 2 rupees is just enough for a piece of candy in the local shops. He lit up the night sky, shining so brightly, and he transformed the negative energy I had put on that two rupee note.

The time is coming on this earth when we will need to transform the energy that we have put on our money. We can continue to put stress and feelings of lack on it and watch that vibration change hands with the coins, or we can radiate bliss onto it, no matter how small the denomination. That little boy by the Ganga was a great teacher to me. Bless your money and watch it bless you.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Holi Holy Moly!

Holi Moly! Holi is the Hindu festival of color and the welcoming of spring. People walk through the streets throwing paint…a pink, purple, green, red, yellow, orange explosion. Young boys hide on roofs with water guns full of dyed water waiting for an unsuspecting passerby. A water balloon or two gets thrown. Old women in bright saris walk up to you with a smile on their face, say “Happy Holi!” and smack you in the face with pink paint. Cows, dogs, people, trees…no one is safe. The paint stains your clothes and skin and can be quite toxic, and I was advised to steer clear of participation and stay within my ashram cell.

But curiosity got the best of me. As a white woman who walks around dressed in all white, I was a ridiculously brazen target, so I bought purple pants and a purple and red top for the occasion, hoping to look like I had already been someone’s victim. I wanted to see Holi but not participate. One of the Rishikumars, the boys who are attending the monastic school here at Parmarth Niketan, came up to me and asked me if I wanted paint thrown on me. I said I did not. He said, “But it’s Holi!” Then he gently smeared paint all over my face. I gave up. I was Holied.

Beatrice, my special cow and the star of this blog, was no longer white either. She was a rainbow. The two of us stood in the street watching the dancing festival, people running through the streets shouting and throwing paint, everyone a crayola experiment. To celebrate, I bought a can of coconut water and after taking a long sip to cool off, I poured the rest onto Beatrice’s tongue. “Happy Holi, Beatrice!”

Let the springtime into your life. Don’t be so worried about the purity and holiness of yourself that you forget to experience the joy of color and a celebration of holi-ness. There is a time for meditative austerity and a time to run through the streets, dripping like a melting rainbow, shouting “Happy Holi!” to the Divine Love Intelligence that painted the canvas of this universe with such gleeful, colorful exuberance.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Light of the World

There is a dirt road that follows the banks of the Ganga lined with cactus and blooming bushes. Cows and dogs play cuteness games to compete for scraps from the humans that pass with warm butter cookies in their hands. There are small shacks with large yards full of flowers, wood piles and cows that are surrounded by gates all along this road. They are homes given to sadhus by the ashram that owns them for them to live in until they die, when possession will be passed along to another sadhu. You can hear the roar of the Ganga and see her rocky shoreline from this road about fifty feet above her. It is the place of legends, where Sivananda held his unbroken meditation for years and was not the first, nor the last master to do so. I walked by one gate and was attracted by the white cows walking into the yard. I went to check to see if one was my favorite cow Beatrice to pass her a butter cookie I had saved in my pocket. It wasn’t her, but instead I attracted the attention of an old man inside the yard wearing all white robes and with three lines of yellow sandalwood paste on his forehead.

I suspect that in my all white robes with matching white turban and chuni (which looks like the white bridal veils worn in western weddings), I was enough of a curiosity to rouse him from his normal routine of privacy. My friend Ramprakash, who speaks fluent Hindi, was walking along with me and the sadhu called out to him and gestured to me. A conversation which I didn’t understand ensued, but I caught enough to get that he was explaining that I was a Kundalini yoga teacher at Parmarth Niketan and that it was a yoga of the Sikhs (thus explaining the Adi Shakti symbol I had on the pin that fastened my chuni). My name was Ramdesh, he explained, and his was Ramprakash. The sadhu responded for awhile and then my friend turned to translate. “He says that wherever you see Ramdesh (God’s Land) there is Ramprakash (God’s Light). He wants to tell you that you should keep teaching and keep learning. You will shine a lot of light in the world.” The old sadhu talked about many things, including about how when the cows in town are sick, they are brought to him and he takes care of them, so to let him know if I see a cow that needs help. My heart melted. Anyone who takes care of the sweet natured cows here gets an A in my book. It was time for aarti by the river, time for our evening prayers of chanting the Hanuman Chalisa, so we said our goodbyes.

It occurs to me that his message had nothing to do with what I am doing here in Rishikesh in so far as it being me personally or teaching yoga at an ashram. He was not trying to build up my ego, nor should I allow his message to do so. We can all say to anyone that we meet, “You should keep teaching and keep learning.” We should all be able to see the truth in each other and say with confidence, “You will shine a lot of light in the world.” If we all live up to the potential that lies within our hearts, our lives would effortlessly unfold in cycles of being a student, a teacher and always a light. It is our truth. We can turn off the switch if we want to, but it still is our potential as light bulbs to shine when the switch is turned on.

Look around you…can you see a budding flower, a strong tree, the blue sky, a white cloud? Is there a crack in the sidewalk where a little green blade of grass bravely peeks through? Even in the wreckage of a war, there is life. There is the wind. There is the moon and a sunset and a dawn. God’s Land is everywhere. And when you can see God’s Land, then you will see God’s Light. And then you see the light.

The Saint and the Crazy Woman

There is a woman who attends aarti at Parmarth Niketan some nights. You cannot miss her if she is there. She is a white woman with dirty blonde hair who wears an all white skirt and all white robes. She stands on the ghat and dances, a very solemn expression on her face and a series of complex and intense mudras on her hands. Everyone stares. She makes no indication that she notices and continues along in her dance, winding her hands from mudra to mudra, twist and contorting, sometimes holding a small sprig of white flowers in her hands. People whisper, some laugh. You can’t help but notice.

One day while walking in front of the ashram I saw her go into a bookstore. I followed her inside and told her that I thought her dance was beautiful. I figured that she was the object of so much ridicule that she might like to hear a friendly voice tell her something kind. Her voice was small and delicate and she spoke very deliberately. Often she would close her eyes and squint, as if trying to hear some very quiet voice on the inside of her head tell her what to say next. She was eager to talk and share spiritual discussions of her path and her practice. She said she lived in the mountains and experiences much harassment from the locals. She said that she works with flowers and herbs, spent four years in a cave, is a total renunciate, fasts for much of the year and practices levitation as a form of daily meditation. She said her name was Upasana and that she had come to India after a very painful upbringing of abuse to find God. She spoke of specific intense sadhana practices, her guru, and asked me to say prayers of protection for her from my tradition. I asked her if I could watch her levitate, but she said that only her disciples were permitted to view it, as people outside of their order were not allowed to watch other than in certain very public instances that have been, according to her, well documented. She was a gentle and delicate woman, seeming more fairy than human. It was time for arti, so I suggested we walk together and I told her I would sit behind her and do a meditation for protection for her, since she had said that she was very aware of the negative attention she got. We went through aarti like that, me chanting softly “Aad guray nameh, jugad guray nameh, sat guray nameh, siri guru devay nameh” behind her and her dancing her mudras. After aarti, she thanked me for my mantras and my kind words, said she would pray for me and we went our separate ways.

I asked someone I knew at the ashram afterwards who she was. They said she was a “mentally unbalanced” woman who lived in the hills. Now I do not know whether she is a levitating saint or a crazy woman with visions of grandeur. It doesn’t matter to me. She is a woman who is living her life how she chooses to live it, and I don’t agree with her being the object of negativity from so many just because they don’t think what she is doing is normal. Maybe she is crazy, so she should be looked upon with compassion. Maybe she is a saint, so she should be looked upon with compassion. Essentially who and what we are doesn’t matter. Our souls all deserve to be treated with compassion, tenderness and the freedom to express ourselves how we choose. We all deserve a mantra of protection.

Choose Wisely

Our emotions are our choice. Our reaction or non-reaction to our emotions is a choice as well and a product of a disciplined mind. We don’t like that word discipline and resent that word choice. “I can’t help it, it is just how I feel,” we say, and yet in truth we can help it at every moment.

Yesterday India got the best of me. Mother India is a wonderful teacher of patience, for anytime you try to get something done that you would expect to take an hour or a day takes six hours and two weeks to accomplish. You must be prepared for twists and turns and unexpected side trips to have mango lassi with someone’s cousin. After weeks of careful planning, financial investment and reassurances, at the unveiling of what it was I wanted, in fact, it wasn’t what I needed at all and wouldn’t work for me. Disappointment set in. I went back to my room in the ashram and for a few seconds I began to cry. Then I stopped to examine myself. “I want to honor your emotions,” I said to myself, “But this is unnecessary. Go outside and look at people with real problems, then find someone to help.”

I splashed cold water on my face, went outside and gave some Indian sweets to the man who had tried to help me arrange what I wanted, fed my favorite cow her nightly turnips and walked down to the ghat on the Ganga where pilgrims from near and far where making their way down the stairs to the holy river. The sounds of the tabla, the harmonium and voices harmonizing in Sanskrit filled the air. One after another I found older women who were unsteady on the steps and offered them my arm. I filled water bottles for them with Ganga water so they didn’t have to bend down and hurt their backs. I lent a simple hand to others and pulled myself up.

My emotions and tears were a habit. They were the result of years of conditioning that let my emotions run wild before me and let reaction rule my day. I had to short circuit that habit and choose a different path. My emotions were my choice, and I choose to feel good. There is nothing that will make you feel better faster than giving. In serving another, you remove your ego from the equation. The ego is where your emotional pain lives, so by stepping outside of your ego by being in service, you separate yourself from your drama and your place of pain for awhile. You can catch your breathe and regain emotional equilibrium.

Practice non-reaction. With the daily discipline to choose devotion, non-reaction and introspection our whole lives can change. The Swami here at Parmarth Niketan says to start your day with devotion, live it with non-reaction, and end it with introspection. It is like a multi-vitamin for your spirit and protects you from illness and depression.

When your mind and your expectations of the world around you lead you into depression, recognize that you can take control of your experience and change it. You can decide not to allow negativity into your life. The practice of daily sadhana gives you the strength to practice non-reaction and begins to rewire your brain so that your emotional reactions are easier to control. Whatever that sadhana is for you, whether it is yoga or meditation or prayers, do it consistently. Honor yourself with that time and watch the nature of your experience change.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Sacred Wind

One of the most remarkable aspects of Rishikesh is the wind. During the amrit vela, or ambrosial hours between four and six am when meditation and prayer is considered most potent, the wind becomes very intense. Every night my door shakes on its hinges as the gusts swirl off the Himalayas and down into the Ganga valley. If you stand by the river, the wind is so intense it feels like it will knock you off your feet. Once the sun rises, however, the wind is gone. During the day there is no hint of a breeze as you sweat under the hot sun. Why does wind howl down the Ganges during the early morning and at no other time? Is there an energetic effect of all the meditation and prayer practiced by the sadhus and yogis here? Is it spirits and devas rising in the amrit vela to practice their own form of worship? Is there an enlightened being in a cave in the Himalayas whose morning sadhana is so intense the wind howls down out of his cave and into the valley? Is the wind sent by Shiva the destroyer himself to blow down the Ganga and carry away negative vibrations? I’d like to think the wind is calling us to worship, waking us up with her song and her caress, reminding us to rise up and dedicate the day to the Creator. She carries away negativity and brings blessings from the ancient mountains that so many saints have called home. Stand on the banks of Mata Ganga with me before the dawn and feel the wind and the water carry our prayers to the One.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Tuning In

Ong namo
Guru dev namo

Chanting “Ong Namo” opens every Kundalini yoga practice. We call it “tuning in” and it is a mantra that both protects us and connects us to the highest source of wisdom. There are many ways to translate it, but one is “I bow to the all that is. I bow to the divine wisdom within myself.” As I sit in this city of spiritual seekers and the saints and frauds that attract them here, I have never been more struck by the urgency of this mantra and its meaning. Not all that glitters here is gold.

Yogi Bhajan, who brought Kundalini yoga to the west, said that in the Age of Aquarius there would be so many spiritual seekers there would not be enough gurus to instruct them in paths to enlightenment. It is easy to see that happening here, where spiritual tourism is the local economy and the real deal is harder and harder to find. We must hone our ability to hear the Guru Dev, the guru within our hearts. Our Guru Dev, or higher self, can be the source of all instruction and inspiration. We must learn to listen to the voice within ourselves. Meditation is vital because it allows us to learn to calm down the mind, which only chatters on drowning out the voice of our soul, which speaks in our heart. You cannot learn to meditate effectively without controlling your breath. My teacher Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa talks about how yogis have no allegiance to anything other than breath. No country, no religion, no sexual orientation, no race…nothing defines a yogi other than breath. This makes us powerful, because our only allegiance is to our true self, our Higher Self, which animates us on the breath. In the Kundalini tradition, this is called our Sat Nam, or our true identity. We greet each other with the words “Sat Nam” because we try to see only the Higher Self of the person we are meeting.

A real mastery of the meaning of Sat Nam is not attained until you recognize one basic but often difficult lesson. If you can bow comfortably to the Guru Dev but not to a Guru or teacher outside of you, even if it is simply nature or the Universe, then you are stuck identifying with your body. You see there is no difference between the Guru within and the Guru without. All is one. You must be able to bow to something both in you and out of you, because YOU are the illusion. Before I found the yogic path, I was very uncomfortable with the word Guru and the idea of bowing before anyone. I thought that meant I was giving away my power. I am not advocating going out and listening to whatever the latest yahoo says to do. It can be very difficult to figure out what is fact and what is fiction as you tread the spiritual path and bowing to a person is not the same thing as bowing to divine wisdom. But I have come to understand that a Guru is simply an energy that brings you out of darkness (unconsciousness) into light (consciousness). It is a divine and cosmic teacher, which may act through a person.

The Guru Dev in me is essentially the Guru Dev in you, regardless of whether either one of us is acting from its guidance. The separation between Me and You because of our bodies is the illusion of this material world. Listening to a Guru is only necessary if you are unwilling or unable to listen to the Guru, or divine teacher, within your own heart. In these fast and crazy times, where human consciousness is evolving at an unprecedented rate, we can no longer afford to ignore our inner guidance system. The plenty of spiritual seekers has grown an industry of fakers who unfortunately try to capitalize on the times. We must, through mediation and pranayama, learn to control our minds enough to silence them in favor of our hearts, where there can be no faking and no mistaking. Don’t take my word for it…ask your Guru Dev.

There are many versions of "Ong Namo" sung by talented artists. In particular, I love the version by Snatam Kaur on her album "Grace" and the version by Gurunam Singh on his album "The Journey Home." Both of these version are available for purchase on www.spiritvoyage.com.

Monkey Business

In Rishikesh there are two types of monkeys. Red monkeys and brown monkeys with black faces. The black-faced monkeys have long, lean bodies with dignified faces and long curvy tails. They walk serenely down paths, lounge near the temples of Hanuman the monkey God, calmly take the food offered to them by well meaning humans and generally behave with dignity and grace. You can sit with a black-faced monkey and have a conversation over a bag of nuts. The red monkeys would bite you for that same bag. They are smaller, with more compact features and wrinkly faces. They knock over garbage bins, steal food, attack humans, fornicate everywhere and at every opportunity, and generally behave in an aggressive and unsettled manner. In the morning they wreck havoc on the roof of my building in the ashram, howling and banging things as if some kind of war is happening. Both of these species are our relatives in the natural world. The question for us as humans is, do we want to behave like brown monkeys or red monkeys? The time has come to set aside our more base instincts of aggression, fear and greed and to move onto dignity, fellowship and elegance. We have to make a leap in our own evolution into a new version of ourselves.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Hari Om!

Walking along the road in Rishikesh, there are many sadhus and beggars that you encounter in their startlingly orange robes, with their malas, begging bowls and sticks ever present. "Hari Om!" they say to me in happy greeting. Reminded of the amazing song by Guruganesha Singh, I sing back, "Dear Lord, Sat Nam, Holy Name...!" I may look a little crazy and they don't understand the reference (and if you don't, find this beautiful song on www.spiritvoyage.com, on the Joy is Now album!), but it brings a smile to their face nevertheless. We all look a little crazy: them in robes and sandalwood painted foreheads with ashes smeared into their dreadlocks tied up onto the top of their heads, me in all white robes with a white turban and a smile from ear to ear. But we are happy and peaceful and full of life. Maybe the world needs a little crazy. What harm could a little more singing to acknowledge the God in the strangers you pass possibly do?

Hari Om! Dear Lord, Sat Nam, Holy Name, when I call on the light within, I go home!

My Tibetan Partner

Today in Rishikesh Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa taught a Kundalini yoga class to several hundred people on the banks of the Ganges as part of an international yoga festival. We did a wonderful kriya to raise the heavens within ourselves and then a meditation to merge with the waves of the Ganga. To my immediate right was a Tibetan Lama who had traveled for six days with about twenty children from his school in order to participate in the festival. Holding this Lama's hand doing my meditation, I was struck by the Buddhist practice of never praying only for yourself. I began to pray that all sentient beings be freed from suffering and experience the heavens within. Too often in my yoga practice, it becomes about releasing my anger or raising my kundalini. Too much my, my, my. Let us all stand in for humanity in our yogic practices and raise us all into a new paradigm. May we pray that the benefit we receive from a practice of yoga be shared amongst all sentient beings everywhere.

Taking Out the Trash

Trash is a very public part of Indian life. Almost every square inch of ground is covered in rubbish of some sort and even the trash is a colorful sort. Everywhere you look here are little green and red foil packets from beetlenut chew, empty yellow potato chip bags, colored newspaper scraps that remind me of Sunday comics, water bottles with bright blue labels, and the dastardly plastic bags, which despite a nationwide ban are ever-present. There is trash in the streets, in the river, in the jungles, and in ditches. I struggle with the idea that Rishikesh is a holy city and yet they litter it with trash. It is hard for me to understand either how they can revere the Ganges so intensely and travel for days to arrive at her banks for ceremony and then throw trash in her. However, it is also hard for me to understand how in America our homes can be so spotless and our hands rubbed nearly raw with hand sanitizer, and yet we spend no time every day detoxifying our bodies or our minds with yoga and meditation.

One of the spiritual practices I was so lucky to be introduced to by my mother is called Ho’oponopono. It is an Hawaiian practice whereby you accept that since you create your reality from the vibration that you offer, whatever comes into your experience is your creation on a vibrational level. You are never a victim and everything in your experience is both your responsibility and your opportunity to clear. Therefore the trash in India is my trash. It is a representation of the trash, clutter and dirt that litter my subconscious and sometimes conscious mind. It is therefore my opportunity to clean it up and to clean me up. In the tradition of Kundalini Yoga, doing daily spiritual practice is also seen as “taking out the trash” everyday. This can be in the form of meditation, prayer, chanting or yoga. In particular, there is a kriya called So Darshan Chakra Kriya, which helps you remove the unconscious garbage from your psyche.

Karma yoga, which is yoga through selfless service, is a spiritual path where taking out the trash is taken very literally. Many spiritual leaders have corroborated my belief that karma yoga is my spiritual path in this lifetime. In order to bring some attention onto the problem of trash, to encourage people to pick it up and to clear my subconscious of my own garbage, I dressed in full white bana, which is the traditional garb of a Kundalini yogini and my “Sunday best” outfit in India. My flowing white chuni fastened to my turban looked rather like a bridal veil, and I walked through the streets of Rishikesh chanting in Gurmukhi, a language not often heard in this Hindu holy city where Sanskrit is the norm. I chanted “Guru Guru Waheguru, Guru Ram Das Guru” which honors the Lord of Miracles and calls upon the humblest of the Sikh gurus to help me in my seva. I walked through the city picking up trash and praying to God to help me clear out my own garbage in my heart and mind.

Everyone stared, but I didn’t care what they thought of what I was doing. Picking up trash is traditionally only done by the untouchable caste, and they certainly weren’t prepared for someone rather ghostly in all white to flutter through the streets picking up trash. I made my way through the marketplace down to a main ghat in the city, which is a platform along the Ganga from which people take their dips into the river, wash their clothes and relax, accompanied by the dogs, cows and beggars who live there. I stepped into the Ganga and picked trash out of her, grabbing plastic bags, newspaper and bits of food packaging wherever I could reach. All the while I said prayers to Mata Ganga, thanking her for all the clearing she was doing on my heart and spirit and offering back to her this very small act of cleansing her physical self in return.

Don’t allow yourself to be fooled into the thinking that if you didn’t throw the trash it isn’t yours to pick up. The problem is never outside of ourselves. Yogi Bhajan gave us this sutra, or teaching, for the Aquarian age and it is repeated throughout philosophies and spiritual traditions all over the world: “Recognize that the other person is you.” It is your trash, whether you threw it there or not, because you are one with the person who did the throwing. Therefore by cleaning it up, you purify not only yourself, but also the person who did the throwing. We are one cosmic, vibrant being and must begin to act accordingly. Far from making it “all our fault”, this simply means that we are divine beings whose boundaries and capacities extend far beyond the limits we imagine for ourselves. We should not allow our egos to rise up, thinking we are too good to lower ourselves to something like picking up trash. This is a dangerous impediment to a truly spiritual life.

India is very dirty on the outside, but you find yourself getting very clean on the inside of your heart and mind. In America, on the other hand, it is very clean on the outside, but your heart and mind become murky and muddled. Trash heaps up in India uncollected in the outer environment, but your inner environment has an opportunity to clean itself out. Your thoughts settle, your subconscious clutter is picked up by the garbage man. America is sterilized and bleached, but our subconscious is filled with every imaginable and unimaginable form of trash, garbage, clutter and random thoughts. Which is more dirty? Which is easier to clean?

Try this spiritual practice of karma yoga in your own life. Find a place near you with litter, such as a park, a road, a forest, a river. Take a garbage bag, plastic gloves if you need, your ipod full of spiritual chants or devotional music, and pick up the garbage in your outer world. Make each piece you pick up represent some part of your inner garbage that you are cleaning up. Honor Mother Earth by humbling yourself before her in service. Notice how light and clean you feel afterwards and feel the energy of gratitude that vibrates from the land you have cleaned up.