It's already been over a month in India and several very intense weeks of yoga teacher training with Dominique - an incredible amount of 'doing' and 'being' every day, from four hours of asana practice and an hour of pranayama and meditation to a 3 hour block on anatomy and philosophy - eight hours a day, six days a week. It's amazing, humbling...and it'll take much more than 6 weeks to absorb everything she is giving our way. Today is a break day, and I started the morning by picking up the Bhagavad Gita and opening it randomly. And I opened coincidentally to a page that we've discussed many times over the past month - Chapter 5, Verse 18 - translated by different sources in various ways, but essentially:
The wise men treat everybody as equals O Arjuna, whether it be a learned and cultured Brahman, a cow, an elephant, or a dog and an outcaste. He does not differentiate between anybody. (http://thegita.net/thegita-chapter-5-shloka-18/) or
The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste]. (http://vedabase.net/bg/5/18/en)
Seeing people, animals, people who eat animals or don't eat animals - as equal beings, all deserving of dignity and life... Not exercising judgement over other beings or seeing another life as superior or inferior to your own. These are concepts that would seem simple but are so hard to put into practice. Less judgement of others seems like it fits in so well here - and is a theme I've also been grappling with over the past few months. I see myself judge others, I see others judging me, and so many of the ills, diseases, discriminatory and harmful practices in the world stem from judgement. Across cultures, across countries. Taking this verse and trying to remember and apply it to daily life seems like a powerful way to a kinder and healthier existence. For people, animals, our planet and beyond!
"Yoga is taught by Lord Krishna. He is the first teacher," said Mataji during her introductory class on 'Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita.' The 17 of us gathered in the 2nd floor yoga hall at the Parmath Niketan ashram in Rishikesh, India nodded our heads, eagerly waiting for her to expound on this statement.
Mataji began by explaining that the Bhagavad Gita is a part of the Mahabharatha, one of the world's first recorded historic epics. Much of the Gita revolves around the teachings of Krishna to his cousin and first disciple, Arjuna. The lessons were presented as Arjuna struggled with his duty to take care of his subjects and debates going into battle or surrendering. While Arjuna was swaying from his duty to go to the battlefield, Krishna overpowers him by his teachings.
"Your attitude is what matters most," explained Mataji, relating the ancient texts and presenting their wisdom for today's realities. "Expect the best, prepare for the worst, work hard and don't worry about the results."
She spent the next several days further explaining these thoughts and breaking them down as such - when you expect the best, you have to apply yourself and work hard to get to your destination. If you are prepared for the worst, you have nothing to lose.
"Being prepared for the worst is what empowers you," said Mataji. "It's especially important in trying situations. It is easier if you are prepared. You need to balance yourself in life - that is yoga, not balancing on your head," she continued. Yoga is about choosing right over wrong, and maintaining balance. And as she further noted, making the right choices, as Arjuna had to do, is a great responsibility that lies within each of us.
We have to realize that results are not in our hands - results will take care of themselves. "You are the author of your actions, but not their results," she said. We discussed acceptance of results with gladness and a cheerful disposition - and the difficulty of doing that.
I thought about how many times I've worked so hard to plan events at work, and fretted if they didn't turn out perfectly despite hours of preparation. Once, a rainstorm severely impacted the attendance for a university event we'd been planning half a year. Who would've ever dreamed of a storm at the end of May? Looking back, I realize that all of my lamenting didn't really serve a purpose - in the end, those who came had a great time and enjoyed the event. And my team members and I did our very best in terms of planning and controlling what we could.
As Mataji explained, you can't necessarily change the circumstances of the outside world (rain in my case) but you can change your attitude toward events and their outcomes. I see parallels in relations with others as well - be it at the workplace or at home in our families. We live in such a results-oriented atmosphere, and often purpose and intent are overshadowed by a superior's desire for cold, hard results or numbers. It's important to remember that balance and attitude are key for wherever we chose to focus our energy and efforts!
I appreciated Mataji's candor and straightforward attitude with us. The 'Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita / Yoga Sutras of Patanjali' classes were among my favorite part of our two week yoga course. She taught us through the Bhagavad Gita and the yoga sutras how yoga can assist us to live better, more ethical and honest lives. Her deep reverence for and knowledge of the spiritual texts was evident, as was her conviction that, as she stated, "everything is God and God is everything." And regardless of countries of origin, professions, age, or countless other factors, it was apparent that everyone present appreciated the gems of advice from Mataji's philosophy lessons.
Parmath Niketan Intensive Yoga Course
September 2014 - First Impressions
We've all heard the word ashram and in the west, have images in our head more often than not from Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love. The yoga courses I've done in India have usually been held at what you might consider a 1 or 2 star hotel - single rooms and toilets, with minimal furniture but functional. Coffee is allowed, and talking is the norm during meals. In all my years of yoga, my stay at Parmath Niketan was really the first time I've truly had an ashram experience.
Parmath Niketan is an ashram in all senses of the word. The place seems to exude worship, serenity and devotion. Silence is required at meals for course participants, and encouraged throughout the day to foster a mindset of contemplation and reflection. A strict dress code of modest white attire for course participants is followed. The ashram runs a wide spectrum of social services for India's needy and is involved in environmental activism as well. In fact, while we were there, Swamiji was attending the UN Climate Change conference in New York. Of course, the evening aarti ceremony on the Ganga is known widely for the beautiful chanting of mantras and lighting of lamps, a time every evening to offer light, love and devotion to God. The ceremony draws hundreds of spectators and participants every single evening!
The yoga course
Our group of 17 hailed from many corners of the globe, including India, Singapore, UK, Spain, Italy, Hong Kong, Brazil, Spain, Russia, Bulgaria, and the US. Surprisingly, we weren't all that young either - ages ranged from 19 to 50+ with most participants in their late 30s and early 40s. Our two teachers, Sadhvi Abha Saraswatiji (referred to simply as 'Mataji') and Indu, were brilliant, kind, considerate and caring souls. Both are deeply knowledgeable about so many different aspects of yoga, and both of them have gorgeous voices that guided us through movement , prayers, chanting and discussions.
We started with chanting every morning at 5:30 a.m. Mataji led the chants - I've seen her over the years at the Ganga aarti and love her voice. What a treat to walk into a yoga hall and see her on stage, looking resplendent in orange. Her voice as she chanted Sanskrit prayers was melodic, and I listened to it with my eyes half closed, aware of the birds chirping and the sky gradually becoming blue.
After prayers, Mataji led us in pranayama breathing practices. We started with kapalbhati, exhaling forcefully for 60 breaths and then 100. We shifted to covering one nostril, then the other. This was a new pranayama practice for me and it quickly builds heat in the body. 'The benefits of this pranayama are countless,' she said. 'It not only cleanses the respiratory system, but goes deeper and further in ways we cannot even comprehend.' She reminded us of the importance of consistent practice. 'You don't just read one day and then say there, I've read all day, I'm done. You read the next day too. Same with pranayama - be consistent.'
Mataji then led us through warm up practices and several rounds of sun salutations and standing asanas. I was amazed by how spry and limber she is - a clear testament to the power of yoga and a regular practice. I worked up a sweat through the sun salutes, and her gentle verbal cues got me further and deeper in Virabhadrasana than I've been in quite awhile.
We chanted om numerous times throughout the practice. At one point, Mataji said 'never forget the countless blessings that you have been given.' This was a two hour practice to mark the first day of a 12 day intensive yoga course.
Indeed, what a blessing to be at Parmath Niketan!
One of the gems I heard today in my harmonium lessons became the title to this blog post, which was originally going to be called ''Nada Yoga." Upon arrival to Rishikesh last week I sought out a harmonium teacher. I took lessons last year with the wonderfully talented and super friendly Neeti Kumar at her ashram in Tapovan, but it's a bit far from my current location. I found a teacher very close to Parmath Niketan ashram. On our first day of lessons, the class went something like this:
Teacher: Please sing sa re ga ma as you know it.
Me: Sa re ga ma pa da ni sa (straining a bit toward the end)
Teacher: Hmmm...you don't sound like you have classical music training, isn't it?
My music teacher is a delightful personality in his 40s who peppers each lesson with his stories and words of wisdom. We're taking classes much, much more slowly than I'd be accustomed to normally. Each day starts with 30 minutes of voice and breath training - listening to the voice both within and to the outside environment. His philosophy of nada yoga - the yoga of sound - is that your own voice eventually becomes your harmonium...after years and years of practice! He also strongly associates music and sound with healing, inner harmony and happiness.
We've had seven lessons together and thus far I've learned some basic breathing and voice techniques that Tilak (Guruji) says will help to improve my voice quality and breath over time, if practiced regularly. We've also worked on a version of the Hare Krishna Maha Mantra that I hadn't heard before. I'm anxious to try it out with the harmonium and friends back home!
When talking about kirtan in India, he had the following comments - 'In India, every family sings kirtan. Before dinner, after dinner, sometimes people take dinner and then do kirtan. The whole family. Singing, dancing, being happy. You don't sing for other people, you sing to and for God. The whole family performs, and God is the audience."
What's it like to witness somebody use a computer for the first time? In today's world, many toddlers are already more proficient with IPads than their parents. But there are still places in the world where for some, a good old fashioned desktop computer is still a novelty. Indeed, for the Children of the Ganges in Rishikesh, India, some of our children touched a keyboard for the first time this week. I was lucky to be there to witness the excitement.
With the generosity of Anand, who donated computers to the school, we were able to rent a third room in our current ashram complex and establish a computer laboratory. With Yogi ji's great help, it officially opened this week!
On Tuesday evening, I gathered the senior students (ages 10 - 16) for their first class. "How many of you have a computer?" I asked, to which no hands went up. Next question - "How many of you have never used a computer?" Only three hands went up. Most of the children have been exposed to computers, a contrast to the junior group, for whom many touched a keyboard for the first time the next day.
As luck would have it, an elementary school teacher from Canada, Andrea Limon, is currently in Rishikesh and expressed an interest in volunteering with the school. She started computer courses on Wednesday with both the younger and older children, drawing up a 'computer agreement use' with the older group. Both groups quickly picked up the paint program, a useful tool for the younger children to start practicing and mastering use of the mouse.
We have ambitious plans to teach the children word and excel this fall, and eventually to integrate the computer lab resources into their English and math lessons. Once internet is set up next week, this will be another educational tool to enrich their studies. We can't wait to connect via skype with students in schools around the world!
It's all about staying alert - watching in front of you and perking your ears to listen to the clues around. Bicycles and motorbikes are merciless as they zoom toward their destinations, a stark contrast to the generally very friendly atmosphere here and the cows languishing on the roads. The motorbikes' honking says it all - get out of the way! It's these little things that I forget when I am not here. And upon arrival, these daily quirks brought me fully back into the moment - and the town that I love so much. I've already had to sidestep my way numerous times and swerve through the crowds to get where I need to go.
It's been a hectic 24 hours in Rishikesh. My romantic notions of coming here and sitting with a philosophy book for hours on end, sipping masala tea, studying Hindi, learning the harmonium and taking several yoga and meditation classes a day...will have to wait for another visit. This visit, I've already discovered, is more about fulfilling some of the responsibilities I've taken on over the past year here.
Upon arrival last night, I found the Green Guest House near Parmath Niketan Ashram. Though I much prefer staying in the Tapovan area, what with its beautiful expansive views of the Himalayan hills, I wanted to select a location more convenient to the Children of the Ganges school. I checked into the guesthouse and quickly walked to the Ganges to take part in the Parmath Niketan's evening sunset aarti ceremony - devotional songs, prayers, and a fire ceremony. I made an offering of flowers and incense, keeping a sick friend in mind as I lit the candle and set it to float down the Ganges.
Dancing with the Devotees
The ceremony concluded and the sun was setting. I can go back to the hotel, order dinner and have a relaxing evening, I thought, or, I can walk the 20ish minutes across the bridge and go to the Krishna temple. I decided to set foot across Ramjullah bridge and take part in temple festivities. After all, Tuesday, September 2nd was Radhastami, the celebration of the appearance anniversary of Srimati Radharani, Krishna's greatest devotee. I knew this because we'd just celebrated the holiday in Kazakhstan as well. Approaching the temple, I heard the sound of the Hare Krishna Maha Mantra accompanied by drums and harmonium. Taking off my shoes, I entered the temple to the overwhelming scent of jasmine and roses - there were fresh flowers in all colors of the rainbow everywhere for the occasion. Among the huge crowd of devotees, I saw several from the Russian-speaking world; otherwise, all looked local and the excitement was palpable in the air. I listened to a lecture in Hindi and then took the chance to admire and pay respect to the deities. As the chanting started again, I swayed to the music and couldn't help jumping up and down with the crowd. Later on, walking back to my hotel, I couldn't help but hum the Hare Krishna mantra as my flashlight helped me to avoid cow dung, mud and sleepy cows and dogs on the path ahead.
This morning, I woke up and tried to figure out how to charge my various gadgets in a room without electricity. I solved the problem by taking my computer and phone to a cafe at the next hotel over, where I charged them in as I enjoyed a breakfast of pancake with fresh fruit. I spent the morning with the Children of the Ganges' head teach Swati, talking about some of the issues we'd work on over the next few weeks. She took me to her home, where her mother-in-law insisted I eat two bananas and smiled widely as I took her up on the offer. After Swati's, I looked at my watch. It was 11:35 a.m. Should I go to a yoga class that I know starts at 12:00? Yes, I thought, and ran back to my hotel room to change into shorts and a gym shirt.
Ashtanga Vinyassa Yoga in India: Sweat, Sweat, and Sweat Some More
I entered the yoga shala right on the river to find one guy already on a mat. I took a seat across from him, until he beckoned me to come over to his side. "These mats have towels on top of them and believe me, you'll probably need one,' he chuckled. Was he ever right - the sweat starting dripping off my brow before the first pose! Deepak, our young instructor clad in white, entered the room and started giving detailed instructions for poses. Thank goodness I've been doing yoga regularly over the past week, or else this would have been one tough class to follow. Five sun salute a's and five sun salute b's into the practice, a pool of sweat had formed around my body. My only consolation was that I was keeping up with the poses, and thoroughly enjoying the view of cows wandering right outside near the Ganges river. Deepak gave us a good 10 minutes in relaxation pose, which was magnificent. "Eat well, sleep well, and drink lots of water," he said to conclude the class. After yoga and a quick lunch at my favorite Buddha cafe in Laxmanjula, I decided to go for a 50 rupee haircut before going back to the hotel to get ready for the evening with the school.
Children of the Ganges: Year 4 Begins
The main purpose of my trip to Rishikesh this time around is to help out with the school my dear friend Truike founded 4 years ago. We've done two fundraisers over the past year together and I wanted to make certain that we make cards of thanks for donors…friends and strangers who've shown their generosity the world over to help the school function. I also wanted to spend some time getting to know the new group of children. Imagine my surprise when I've learned that we've grown! We now have 2 groups - younger children from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. and the older group from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m each day. We've also moved recently to occupy several rooms of an ashram that requires a short walk through the woods to find. Two months into the new location, we are still adjusting to the environment. The major goal over the next week is to set up the computer laboratory for the 10 computers that were recently (very generously) donated, and start teaching the children some basic computer skills. There are lots of other issues to tackle as well. The senior children were in good spirits this evening as they worked on their English grammar lesson with Swati and her team teacher. Yogi ji, another board member for the school, was also there this evening to negotiate the computer room issues. We'll have to fit the room for electric sockets, establish an Internet connection, and then assemble the computers before introducing the children to them. We hope to do it in the next several days!
Nightcap: An Ayurvedic Thali to Complete the Evening
The walk from the school to my guesthouse was about 20 minutes, and by that point in the evening I was pretty hungry after all the walking and yoga today. I couldn't help but notice that the Vedanga cafe next door was advertising an 'ayurvedic thali,' displaying a picture of several scrumptious vegetable dishes accompanied by rice and chapatis. "I'll have that," I said to the cafe waiter, pointing to the poster. The serving was enormous and I couldn't possibly eat the whole thing, but it was a beautiful culinary experience to finish the first 24 hours in Rishikesh.
To tell the truth, I feel like I've already been here a week. It's my fifth visit to the town over the past five years and despite the humidity, the somewhat haphazard and slightly chaotic way life operates here, I absolutely love it. From the temples and stunning views of the Ganges to the devotional sights and sounds everywhere, Rishikesh definitely earns its nickname as one of the yoga capitals of the world. And there are a number of friends here I need to see over the next few days. So...the adventures begin!