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.

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.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Banyan Trees

Banyan trees are large, stately trees that grow all over Rishikesh. Their trunks are very wide and layered, looking as if a grove of trees has merged and grown together into one super tree. They look almost like the equivalent of the blue whale in the tree kingdom: large, gentle, sonorous. They are sacred here. Many are adorned with red, yellow and white paint and tied with red strings around their trunk, some have offerings of candles and flowers at their base. All feel ancient and wise, as if they’ve seen a thousand buddhas beneath their gnarled branches. If you are quiet and sit with them in their shade, they will teach you to meditate. Sit up straight, they say. Ground yourself. Feel the sun. Vibrate, grow, just be. Do nothing, which is everything.

What strikes one most about the banyan tree is the growth of the roots. Instead of building a subterranean root system and then reaching up out of the ground to build a tree in the expected tree fashion, the roots of the banyan tree appear to grow down out of the branches of the tree. It almost looks like fringe hanging down off the sleeve of a jacket. Ever so slowly the roots grow further and further from the sky down, reaching towards a ground they trust is there. There is no way these roots can know for sure the ground is there, that their nourishment and life will be provided for. But the tree trusts. It knows innately to put down roots, to patiently continue to grow, because some day they will find nourishing soil.

Can we do that as humans? Can we grow our roots without any way of knowing that something will take? Can we reach for our dreams without any reassurance that they will manifest? Can we release fear and walk boldly into trust? What if humans became like banyan trees, gently growing the roots of our own highest potential, knowing that God is managing the process and the someday we will reach the fertile soil of our own manifestation? No angst from the banyan tree, no drama from us, just utter belief that what it needs and what we need will be there in the end.

Be brave, the Banyan trees say to us. Be brave.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Ganges Meditation

Meditation here along the banks of Mother Ganges is astonishing. In a chicken or an egg type of question, one wonders whether the energy of so many saints meditating for thousands of years has created the energy of this place, or whether the energy of this place has created so many saints. Sitting on the banks of the Ganges with the foot hills of the Himalayas at your back, you feel the flow and surge of the Ganges washing away your subconscious garbage. It is easy to fall into deep meditation on her banks. For me, the roar of chatter in my head is silenced by the roar of her ceaseless flow. North of Rishikesh are beaches where you can swim privately and peacefully in her clean, cool waters. No matter how tired you are from your hike there, you emerge refreshed and full of grace with some to spare.

I want to share the power of this with all of you, no matter where you are in the world, in the form of a guided Ganga meditation. Mata Ganga, or Mother Ganges as they call her here, is too powerful to be confined to the limits of a river.

Get into a cool shower, bath, or pool of water. Shut your eyes and slow your breath. Inhale for 5 counts, hold for 5 counts and then exhale for 5 counts. If you are more advanced at pranayama, build your times up to 20 seconds for each cycle. Focus your inner gaze upon the third eye, the point between your eyebrows which holds the seat of your higher intuition. On the inhale, silently chant "Sat" (pronounced like "but") and on the exhale chant "Nam". Sat nam means true name or true identity. It is a powerful mantra that slows the pulse of your brain down to allow it to refocus on the truth of its own nature, its true self. Repeating "sat nam" while focusing on your breath allows you to set aside this human drama and remember the truth of your soul, which is love, which is light. Allow your breath to guide your heart, deepening with each inhale into your heart, and deepening with each exhale into the water.

Let the power of the Ganges fill you. She is gentle as the dawn and as powerful as an atom bomb. Feel her cold fingers massaging your heart. She can be icy, but only to put out the fire of pain your ego has created in you. Her current is strong, but only out of mercy for you, for any second you spend not in your highest bliss. Feel your lungs expand slowly, filling with the grace of her waters as they swell in the winter melt-off. Feel your lungs contract as you breathe out, watching her waters dip in the dry seasons, exposing the polished stones at your core that make you grounded, centered and able to withstand the challenges that come your way. Breathe in and out slowly for a few minutes and then imagine yourself floating in her arms. Her waters are washing away all those parts of you that aren't really you, all those things that prevent you from knowing your true self. She washes away judgment, cleanses pain, heals sorrow. There is no such thing as a broken heart in her embrace. Things you have done and things that have been done unto you become labels on boxes that are packed up and shipped away downstream. Things done and undone, thought and unthought are all removed. What remains is your Sat Nam, your true identity.

Feel yourself suspended in her waters as you were suspended in the waters of your mother's womb. You are full of unborn promise, potent with latent potential. Your entire life is ahead of you, a life longer and bigger than you can dream of from your small home under your mother's heart. Focus on your breath. Feel yourself inhale prana, the energetic essence of life. In the womb, we survive for 9 months without using our lungs at all. The yogis believe we survive on the prana of our mother. Take the prana from the water and use that to grow yourself into a new human, into a new version of you. Become Sat Nam. Feel the sweetness of the water as, even as it is cold against your skin. When you are ready, emerge from the water and rub yourself vigorously with a towel, chanting "Waheguru", which means the experience of the awesomeness of God. Feel invigorated and refreshed, clean and reborn. Say a simple prayer of "Thank You" to Mother Ganges for her love and her healing. Vibrate the infinite for the rest of the day.