Kukkarahalli Lake

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Fruit Bats resting in the treetops

Banana trees

No idea what they are, but they look (and act) like colorful chickens

Tightrope walking anyone?

 

My favorite place for an afternoon walk

The lake is beautiful. The bathrooms, not so much!

 

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Change of Plans

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Normally I absolutely LOVE to travel, but recently I have been feeling like the work I am doing here in Mysore with my guru is far more important. It's hard to describe why, but in the moments when I feel very in touch with my heart, my innner soul, I know I need to stay. When my brain gets involved, I think, “but what about all the money you already paid for flights/hotels/etc” or “but think of all the great sights and experiences you will miss out on?” But as my guru, Sharath said in a recent Sunday afternoon conference, “What are you searching for? Why are you going to Thailand or Goa? What you are searching for is already in you.”

Although I had been getting little glimpses into my desire to stay on longer, it wasn't until last Tuesday that I really truly FELT the urge to stay so strongly. It seemed like the only logical thing to do, like my heart ached to stay here in Mysore and NOT travel on my way home. When I mentioned this to some of my closest friends here, they all seemed to think it was a good idea to try to stay on at the shala despite the general rule of “no extensions”. Many of these friends have been to Mysore and studied with Sharath several times, so when they said, “just go ask him for an extension,” I took their advice to heart.

But I was still afriad and hesitating. Afriad of what? I didn't know but it took me several days to finally decide to actually ask. I was trying to nap while listening to a recording of “Om Mani Padme Hum” (a traditional Buddhist mantra) when I was suddenly struck with the thought that I HAD to go to Sharath's office. Right then, right in that instance, which happened to coincide with his daily afternoon office hours. So suddenly I found myself walking to the shala and by the time I got there I was shaking. Shaking in fear and near tears. But it wasn't as if I was scared that he would say no. I knew I would simply accept his “no” and just travel as planned on my way home. Instead, I was afraid and emotional about staying. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I was scared, about what staying would entail.

I am here to do the difficult work – the deep dark, emotional work. Yes, I am practicing yoga. Yes, I am meeting new people. Yes, I seeing new things. But ultimately, my trip here is to look deeply at myself and see the real, true me. The authentic self buried under years of experiences and abstractions that have crafted the person I believe I am now or the person I want people (myself included) to think that I am. That authentic self is hard to reach. She is sensitive, innocent and caring. But she is buried under my current ego, the person I have become through years of social, familial and cultural conditioning. And this person I am now, is NOT attractive. Sure, I can easily hide behind an extroverted enthusiastic fascade as a modern, independant woman, but deep down I am self-centerd, perfectionist who can't seem to stop criticizing herself and those she loves. I am a control-freak who feels safe only when everything goes my way, otherwise anxiety creeps in I feel lost inside myself. And instead of facing all of these truths, I bury them deep inside me and never really stop or slow down long enough to let the reality of it all settle in.

But here, in Mysore, on AND off my mat, I am learning to slow down. To sit with the painful, sad place deep inside. By seeing this place, being in this place, I am trying to change myself to be more in-line with my authentic self. It's not a linear progression of course. There are days when I feel like I am the same, closed-off person I was, but there are other days where I can tap into that authentic self and FEEL who I am, who I want to be all the time. Those are the days when I feel “cracked open,” vulnerable. And yet those are the days I feel the overwhelming urge to be compassionate to my fellow human beings. I want to give the small child a hug, or the stray dog a biscuit or some water. I want to smile at others and touch their arm to let them know I am present and listening.

So, sitting in Sharath's office, asking for an extension, my voice was heavy with emotion. His response was, “For how long?” “As much as I can get,” I sweaked in reply. “Ok.” “Ok?” “Ok, one month extension.” And then I was dismissed, just as the dread settled back in – all those travel plans to change and the financial repurcusions of my decision. My mind raced with all the things I needed to do in the coming days – reschedule/cancel flights, hotels and tours; contact friends, family and my employeers that I will be home in early April, not late March as originally planned; arange housing for another month in Mysore; and of course, re-register at the shala.

Fortunately, many things have worked out and within a matter of a week, I have been able to check off MOST things on my to-do list. I have been fortunately that most of my travel plans have been easily changed/refunded. A surprise lesson that planning/booking/changing travel CAN work out on short notice and not just on my usual 2-4 month in advance timetable. Yet, most importantly, somewhere along the way, I have come to fully embrace my decision to stay on for another month. The fear seems to be gone, replaced with determination and understanding that this is the best way, the ONLY way forward!

“Sometimes it seems we have a preference for darkness and speed.” -Pema Chödrön

For the first time in my life, I am slowing down to find the light.

 

Wishing you all very Buddhist Valentine!

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As a special treat for this Full Moon Day/Valentine’s Day, a few friends and I made a trip out to Bylakuppe, a Tibbetian community about 80 kilometers west of Mysore, India. Established in the 1960s for Tibbetian expatriats, this community ihas grown to approximately 20,000 inhabitants today. Specifically, we enjoyed a very peaceful afternoon at the Namdroling Nyingmapa Monastery, the world’s largest teaching center of Nyingmapa – a lineage of Tibetan Buddhism – and home to over 5,000 lamas (monks and nuns) as well as the “Padmasambhava Buddhist Vihara” (also known as the “Golden Temple”).

A call to prayer

A calm and peaceful aura envelopes the room as the monks chant

Prayer wheels surround the monestary

Buddha through the beads

An elderly nun strolls the gardens

Buddha Shakyamuni flanked by Guru Padmasambhava and Buddha Amitayus

Buddha Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism

My first occasion to walk around on clean grass since I arrived in India

Ultimately, we sat down in a quiet grass filled courtyard for a picnic and to watch the clouds go by…

Relaxed and happy after spending a day away from the typical chaos of India

Back Bends, Heart Opening and Vulnerability

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For as long as I can remember, there has been a tightness in my shoulders, chest and back that have been my constant challenge during my daily Ashtanga practice. After decades of hunching up my shoulders and protecting myself from the world, I had the beginings of Kyphosis (think little old lady, with a hunchback) in my mid-20s! Fortunately, my yoga practice has been changing that, albeit slowly.

 

When I first started Urdvha Danurasana (aka Wheel pose) over four years ago, I couldn't even get my hands on the floor behind my head. No matter how wide I tried to place my hands or how bent my elbows were or how far behind me I tried to put my hands, the best I could do was to brush my fingertips on the floor. About a year ago, I started being able to press up and completely straighten my arms for the first time! At first it was only for a breath or two, but now, it's consistently, for 5 long, even breaths for all 3 repetitions, everyday! While it's an accomplishment I am certainly proud of, there is still a lot of work to go to open up my shoulders and chest as I walk my hands closer and closer inwards.

 

Despite my progress in this pose, the last three years, I have had a constant, dull pain in my back, just below my shoulder blades. Something feels stuck. Occasionally during my practice, often on very warm flexible days, I can get a nice crack or two in that area and it feels GREAT. But after practice, the pain always comes back. Nothing really helps. No amount of massage or bodywork has brought about any long term relief. And by log term, I mean anything more than a few hours!

 

That was until my arrival here. On my second day in the Shala, Sharath (my guru) saw me picking up my mat to move to the back for finishing poses and said, “Did you do back bending?” When I replied, “Yes.” He asked me, “Like this?” (Implying the drop backs he was currently assisting someone with). “No,” came my reply. “Then you stay.” So, I put my mat back down and sat down. “No, stand,” came his voice. And so I stood and waited or him to come over and help me. Instruct me on how to start dropping back and standing up from the floor.

 

It's a strange feeling, doing drop backs. You have absolutely no idea where you are in space or what you look like. But often, you feel like you can't breath or your back might just snap in half. Some days feel better than others, and I am pretty sure I am making progress, but really I don't know that for sure. The one thing I do know is that for the first time, my chronic back pain is gone. Sure there are a few days here and there where it comes back and becomes an acute pain (mostly on the right side) but otherwise, it's gone and I usually feel great after my back bending. And usually I want to spend the rest of the day back bending (but of course I don't).

 

Recently I had red an article about healing emotionally through yoga. That's what I feel this experience in Mysore has been; it's my “yoga rehab.” Aside from the essentials (eating and sleeping), my days consist of an hour and a half yoga practice and then a whole lot of time to think about my life – past, present and future. So while I am not necessarily fighting the demons of drug or alcohol addiction, I am fighting to change old emotional habits and patterns that are not healthy or are no longer serving me.

 

One day, just over a week after starting drop backs, Sharath indicated to me from across the room that I was the “next” person he would assist. He then followed up with, “Catching?” Asking me if I am catching my ankles with my hands during the back bends. My initial response was one of shock and then a prompt and vigorous head shake, “NO!” He just smiled, a big warmth emanating from his eyes. Immediately, I started thinking, why would he say this? Does he not know who I am? Doubtful, since he seems to know everyone and everything in that shala. And I do mean EVERYTHING! Besides, he had helped me every single day with this pose, so the chances he was thinking of someone else, were low. Maybe he was joking? He does have quite the sense of humor, but then again, I always believe, “even in jest, is truth.”

 

And then it hit me, he really thinks I can catch. Maybe not that day (since we didn't even attempt it) but maybe one day. Maybe on my trip here or maybe 10 years from now. It was something I really truly NEVER thought about. Not that I thought I could never do it, but it just wasn't even something on my radar screen. And it all stemmed from a lack of self-esteem and faith.

 

In my first week at the shala, I found myself questioning why I was allowed to do full primary when other students with more beautiful practices, more perfect asanas were stopped earlier. If Sharath had told me to stop anywhere along the sequence, I would have believed his decision implicitly, yet I couldn't seem to trust his judgement when it came to letting me do the whole series. I knew then and there that I needed to learn some self-confidence and realize we were all on different journeys but that I WAS capable of more than I could possibly imagine.

 

A point that Sharath reminded me of when he mentioned “catching.” Just by mentioning it, he opened my mind to something I hadn't even imagined for myself. So the next day, I decided to “measure” the distance between my fingertips and my heels using my yoga rug as a landmark. Turns out, despite feeling like my hands are MILES from my feet, they are much closer than I could have imagined. And thus, the IDEA of catching my heels one days has been planted inside my head, growing until one day, it blossoms.

 

In the meantime, I met with Sharath during his office hours to ask him about my back pain and what I should do when I get home if I don't have a teacher who can do drop backs with me. “Use the wall, or some cushions and just go back.” He also said, “Yes, your back is flat in a spot. It needs to open. You need to have patience. This takes time.” Simple words and instructions all said with a smile. And yet somehow, there were things unspoken.

 

As I walked back from his office, I felt raw and suddenly, I started to cry. I was reminded of being a child and cuddling close to my mother. I craved that kind of closeness again and realized I was lonely. Isolating myself inside. Letting my ego go through the motions and put up walls to get through life. But really what I needed was unconditional love… for myself. I also started to make connections about my childhood and realized there are learned behaviors that I have been using in adulthood which are unhealthy and coming from a place of self-doubt. Things I want to change but just the thought of making these changes is frightening. Sure the old habits are bad, but like any habit, a life without them seems strange and unfathomable. Though often times the way forward is through the unknown. So here I sit, vulnerable and afriad, but hopeful because at some point, much like drop backs, you need to have faith that when you “just go back,” the floor (and yourself) will be there to prevent you from falling on your head.

Lessons from Sankranti

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Makar Sankranti is a Hindu festival that marks the harvest and the transition of the Sun into the Capricorn Zodiac sign. Often combined with the Winter Solstice, it is also used to celbrate the sun ending it’s southward journey to the Tropic of Capricorn and starts moving northward towards the Tropic of Cancer. Ultimately, the event marks the end of the “winter season” and the beginning of a new harvest or spring season. Often marked with great fanfare, the distinct rituals vary greatly in different parts of India. In northern India, they take to flying kites as a metaphor for reaching to their beloved Gods. While here in Southern India, they celebrate by decorating cows with turmeric and other adornments before sending them over large flames in a celebration of the cattle’s importance in the harvest.

A parade of the animals through the dirt streets in the village of Siddalingapura is met with great fanfare

In addition, even the daily Kolams (or Raongolis as they are referred to here in Mysore) are made more intricate and elaborate for the occasion. Kolams, like most beautiful things in the world, are impermanent. Drawings done in white or colored sand, every morning, and disturbed throughout the day – walked on, rained on, blown around by the wind and then purposefully washed away the following morning to start again.

A muggu design made with white sand

A more colorful kolam

These believe these ornate designs are washed away the next morning

The sand comes in so many different colors and can easily be purchased in the market

The sand comes in so many different colors and can easily be purchased in the market

 

Even in the outlying villages, they create these beautiful drawings in the dirt

This beautiful artwork can be time consuming and yet seems like non-attachment in action. Living in the moment and enjoying what you have today. And along the same lines, so does the main event…

The community in Siddalingapura Village gather outside the temple to watch the festivities

Quite the crowd assembles as they light three large hay stacks on fire

It’s getting hot in here…

The festivities begin

Most animals are led through the flames by their owners

And most of the owners are in flip flops!?!

Although running through the fire doesn’t seem like the best was to celebrate livestock, it does seem to me to be more of an offering to the Gods or maybe even a rebirth. Shedding old habits and attachments to material things in a form of transformation and purification through the fire. A way to mark a changing season, much like the inevitable changes in life and start anew. Something I think we try to do here at the Shala with our yoga practice; walk directly through the fire of my asana practice and be awakened by it, forever changed by the experience, hopefully for the better.

Adventures in eating

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When I am on vacation in a foreign place, one of my favorite things to do is to enjoy the local traditional foods. Often times I have NO IDEA what I am ordering, but sometimes it’s better that way. With the first bite, I test the food trepidaciously… Will it be salty, sweet, savory? When you don’t know what you are ordering, you don’t always know and that’s the fun of it! Rarely have I been let down by this method. If you have no expectations of what you are ordering you can’t be easily disappointed but usually instead, surprised. Oh, that was eel? Oh, that’s what leeche looks like? Plus it’s easier to like a unique or unusual food if you don’t know what you’re eating but instead taste the flavors of it. I would NEVER have tried cow’s brain if I knew that’s what I was eating before I tasted it. Yet now that I’ve tasted the flavor, I would indeed try it again.

I bet you would never guess that I used to be an extremely picky eater. As a kid, I had a very set diet that despite my mother’s best intentions didn’t really vary much. Hot dogs with ketchup and Kraft Macaroni and cheese were two staples and I probably would have starved without them. So, how then did I become someone who’s enjoyed escargot, reindeer and mink whale? The first trick was not always knowing what I was eating. My second trick was trying everything more than once. There are so many different ways to prepare something that just because you have tried it once, doesn’t mean you won’t like it this way. Also, just as you get variations at home, sometimes, food isn’t cooked well at a particular restaurant or it’s a poor quality of that particular product that you tried. I believe I read somewhere that it can take up to 7 different tries before you really like a particular food. So, try and try again.

My third trick is to try foods at different times during your life? So you HATED brussel sprouts as a kid? You may find your palate has changed and now you really enjoy them! Or you may still hate them, but you will never know unless you try. Just as your body changes with aging, so do your taste buds, so give that dreaded dish a second try now that your are more mature.

A traditional Emirate lunch

Traditional Mysore cuisine at Sandhaya’s

Cookies, Indian-style

Rice and a spicy biscuit

Homemade Brahmin cooking for Sankranti

Lunch on a plantain leaf

The best dinner in Mysore, Anu’s banana smoothie & her divine chocolate cake… And it’s remarkably healthy, made with only fruit, nuts and chocolate 🙂

And then there is of course, the fun of visiting the local market:

Banana stalks, used in India cooking

Red bananas? The locals warned me they weren’t very sweet but they tasted just fine to me

Banana flowers and elephant’s feet yams

The oven where bananas are ripened

Wood apples (used for cooking)

Now those are some vegetables I recognize

So get out there and try something new… Everyday 🙂 even if it’s just something in your own backyard!