Category Archives: India

My precious grandchild, Aliana Eeva …..

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FaceTime is great, yes, but as wonderful as it is, I am often left in tears, the waves of homesickness invade for hours …. when little Aliana touches the screen, probably thinking she will somehow touch my actual face, it breaks my heart and I yearn to hold her in my arms …. Two months is just too too long to be away from my ten month old grandchild!! A revision for my future travel plans is in order, certainly for the next few years! … Aah well, less than two weeks and I will be hugging and kissing the little munchkin 🙂

I love this picture of her that Sarah posted on her baby blog …. I like to think Aliana is “wondering if my grandma will soon be flying home over that big ocean”? :).

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The Sounds of Silence …. No classes for the weekend!

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A weekend silence blew in like a welcome warm summer breeze, allowing for many quiet, reflective moments ….. starting with sleeping in! …… meditating on a ghat along the Ganga River, dangling my feet in it’s cool holy waters, a walk along the forested road behind the ashrams, and savoring, rather than rushing through a morning coffee ……

As I walk the streets absorbing the scenes that are such a big part of life here and similar in many ways to the various places I have traveled to throughout India …….. there is a steady stream from early morning to late evening, of bathers at the River Ganga, the men with sarongs and towels, the women plunge in with full sari, an age-old ritual of washing away sins …..wonder if dipping my feet counts …. maybe a few sins will be absolved, surely 🙂 ….. there are the roadside food stalls, where the sight and scent of various battered food such as deep fried pakora, or onion bhajis cooking, fills the air, the varied fruit and vegetable carts, where ‘always in season mangoes’ rule! (heaven is surely Alphonso mangoes year round!) ……. or the least enjoyable …. the stench of the ubiquitous cowpies!! …… or the noisy motorbikes squeezing everything out of their way, horns blaring, always blaring, the sight of saffron robed sadhus lined up, holding out their tin begging pails, pushy people all trying to make their way throughout the busy day, the many street sellers and their transport carts, cows trumping everything and everyone ….. they are the symbol of Hinduism, the bull is seen as the vehicle of Lord Shiva, the cow, referred to often as the ‘mother’ ….. ‘as a mother feeds her young from her breast, so does a cow provide it’s valued milk to humans’ …. In my humble opinion, they belong in fields not tiny ashram streets or the ghats, where they pick their way through garbage along with various fruit and leftovers fed to them and then pooping anywhere and everywhere, but I remind myself I am not in Canada and not of the Hindu faith, but am in India where one has to learn to live with cows if not love them ….. I enjoy learning about other cultures complete with traditions, rituals, and such but I certainly have no need or desire to embrace everything 🙂 ……. particularly delightful are the smiley friendly children and their parents, so eager to become friends with us, the foreigners ….. the shop keepers selling their wares … water bottles, toilet paper, wet wipes, dettol, now wave with familiarity as I walk by, calling out, asking if I need supplies today …. the contrasts are so pervasive in India! …… the rubbish strewn streets and countryside …… garbage carelessly thrown out car windows, or dropped wherever, even when a receptacle is nearby …. amazes me, given these highly environmentally sensitive times we live in (education followed by strict fines would be of benefit but then, that is a western sentiment … must remember, this is India :)) …… such is the mishmash scene of my everyday reality here …… a mixture of good, not so good, creating the ambiance that is this ashram Mecca of spirituality in Rishikesh …

The Parmarth Niketan, it seems, is rather a commercial ashram … this week alone, PN was host to a convention of religious chanters, (I fell asleep one evening as they chanted for hours right under my window … woke up to the chant still resounding in my head 🙂 ….. Not altogether unpleasant!!), an American student group here on a study program, a political party convention, numerous large family reunions and of course our mini United Nations group of yoga students 🙂 three Canadians, Madeline, Nicole and I, Kate an American, Oleg from Latvia, Shamy from Mexico, Mirjam from Holland and Atul, Neera, Anchit, Jagat, Aman, Jitendra, Aysha all from Delhi and area, or Punjab …. Jagat, from a small town nearby ….. Madeline and I are the old sages of the group …. most are in their twenties, thirties and early forties…. oldest but not necessarily the wisest 🙂 Oftentimes, it is the youngest who provides the simple words of wisdom (similar to those that pop out of my son Tim regularly …. we called them Tim’s tidbits when he was a toddler) ….. In this case, 23 year old Shamy from Mexico, a sweet, kind young lady, wiser than her years …… with a very adventurous spirit. Mirjam leaves Friday to join up with a girlfriend in Delhi … they had their BMW motorbikes shipped there and will ride home to Holland through India, into Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, with plans to arrive home in two months …. a harrowing journey, if I have ever heard of one …. another brave young woman!! The unusual is the norm here at ashram alley.

The late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi once remarked:

“If you wish to know something about India, you must empty your mind of all preconceived notions. Why be imprisoned by the limited visions of the prejudice? Don’t try to compare. India is different and exasperating as it may seem, would like to remain so ….. it is a vast mix of races, languages, customs, traditions, where two diametrically opposing views could be perfectly true! This is the secret of India, the acceptance of life in all it’s fullness, the good and the evil.”

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Yoga, Prayers, Mantras and Monkey Business

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A mental lapse about the food rule cost me a bag of market cucumbers to one of the ashram monkeys! I felt a sharp pull on my arm and the bag was gone before I could blink … the monkey hugging it like a kid caught with a forbidden bag of candy … the little rascal quickly jumped over the fence and commenced munching away on my afternoon treat for Madeline and I! As I snapped a picture, a nearby ashram security guard warned I may want to put the camera away as the monkey usually follows his thievery with a second act ….. stealing the camera 🙂

Adjustment to ashram lifestyle, has been smooth sailing, but it is unlikely I would ever consider living in one for any longer than a few weeks, a month tops, peaceful, serene and spiritual as it may be. I have heard rumors here that some Westerners come and never leave …. although I made every attempt to come here with few, if any expectations, I did presume this would be a silent retreat, having always wished to experience one ….. but, not to be, as this is a very social ashram and one cannot walk far without chatting with other tourists, particularly the local ones … Indians are a gracious people, very giving and friendly and they love having us in their pictures :)!! There are also some very chatty women within the yoga group …. so, silence …. hmmmm, not so much. It is culturally very different from my treasured life in Canada, where family defines what I value most. Still, despite yearnings for the comforts of home and the love of my family …. I will always enjoy experiencing other countries. At heart, I am a nomad, a gypsy …. It is no surprise I have ended up in India. Sometime during the 17th century, tribal gypsies from parts of India migrated to Europe and are now scattered throughout the continent. It was in Finland, where as a three year old child, I became fascinated with the gypsies that frequented the summer open air markets of Joensuu …. If mother let go of my hand even for a moment, she would always find me in the midst of the gypsies, marveling, totally enthralled with their colorful, trinket laden clothing and tinkly jewelry, and the gypsies, in turn, marveling at the happy little golden haired toddler …. It is a well worn and much loved story from my childhood.

It is inevitable that something new is learned while traveling to different countries ….. over these past few years, I have come to know parts of this vast wonderful world on a much deeper level than I could ever have hoped for. Volunteering has played a big role in that …… helping out has also been instrumental in my own personal awakening. I am learning that the study of yoga goes hand in hand with helping those in need …… It is a beautiful field of study in India, where yoga is not merely an exercise geared to buff and keep the body flexible, as it is in North America, although that is certainly a welcome side benefit 🙂 …. but it is the spiritual component that has me sold. Yoga in India is about having a deep spiritual connection to God, ourselves and extending it to the world around us. The practice of yoga is, at it’s core, meant to transform us into kinder more compassionate people ……… inner and outer lives intermingled, merged, not apart …. walking strong with gentle loving steps …..

Indu teaches that precisely because of the concentration and effort required to perform the various poses/asanas, they are really a means, a tool, to focus our attention to our inner lives, our core, our spirit, our soul essence …… as I observe Indu, or her husband and mother-in-law, (both taught a class recently), yoga is like a state of grace …… as Indu teaches and moves into the various asanas, she becomes poetry in slow motion. Her voice during the prayers and chants is other-worldly, hauntingly mesmerizing …. In India, meditation, Vedic chants, mantras are integral to yoga …. it is totally foreign to an Indian, that one would have a yoga class without the spiritual element. It may have been a rather peculiar, circuitous way I ended up here in Rishikesh, but I know I have come to the right place to learn about this beautiful way of living …. It is called Yoga.

“The fragrance always remains in the hand that gives the rose”. Mahatma Gandhi

A sample of a prayer we chant every morning before asanas, in its Vedic verse:

” om sahana-vavatu, sahanau bhunaktu
sahaviryan-karavavahai
tejasvina-vadhi-tamastu ma vidvisavahai
om santih santih santih

Translation:

May He protect both of us. May He indeed nourish us. May we perform wonderful feats in our endeavor. May our brains be sharpened. May we have no disharmony and conflict. Om Peace! Peace! Peace!20120615-155649.jpg20120615-155635.jpg20120615-155616.jpg

Yoga and Vedic Chanting

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A quiet, somewhat religious reverence permeates, as we walk to the yoga center in the early mornings …. very peaceful here and even my body has become quietly and slowly receptive to the rigors of yoga asanas …. had no idea how stiff my body had become over these last five years … I felt like, well, an old lady at first ….. as I am still in slight denial about that recent birthday …. the big 60 …… I somehow thought I would swim through effortlessly right from the start … Needless to say, I felt every decade, and then some, last night 🙂 …. but the sun did rise again this morning in Rishikesh …. and strangely enough, I do believe I managed a centimeter extra depth during stretches and held poses a few seconds longer …. things are looking up! Yoga is so much more than postures … there is a mystery to this practice that is slowly revealing itself. Indu, our teacher is an intriguing young woman. I am looking forward to getting to know her over the weeks to come.

It is a full day we put in …. up at the crack of dawn, on the mats by 6:00 am with prayers and Vedic chanting before the postures … topped off with a meditation ….. and all this before 7:30!! A silent breakfast break follows but we generally break that rule …. women are just like that …. a half hour cool down in our air conditioned rooms and back at it for 10:00 am …. more Vedic chanting, asanas, and then, the big surprise ……. Shrama daana ……. Loosely translates as community service and in our case, ‘cleaning the floors’!! … Sweeping, washing and mopping using the garden keeper’s outdoor hose! Yup I came here to clean house ….. actually with fourteen of us working, it is jolly good fun, surprisingly, or rather, not that surprising! We got carried away in our clean zeal and washed all the yoga center mats and then started on our feet, rather dirty from the floor before we washed it! …. we were just having silly fun at that point … Hilarious … yes, we were on a roll, that first day!!

What was even more amusing was watching the four Indian men chip in …. Believe me, they looked as astonished as we did when our teacher, Indu, told us what we would be doing from 11:30 – 12:30 …. very comical … the men took turns taking pictures of each other to share, presumably with their wives who will probably drop dead from the shock … men in India do not do ‘women’s work’ as it was referred to during the dinosaur age …. it is an old fashioned society here to a large degree …. all in all, I was secretly thrilled about cleaning out the yoga room and I almost looked forward to it today …. what a freak I am!!!

Afternoons are a quiet time for lunch and a welcome rest ……. then back to more asana practice followed by a long guided meditation, in turn followed by a mandatory presence at the Aarti until 7:30!! …… Shortly after, we all stumble into the dining hall for our plate of rice surprise, coupled with a potato vegetable surprise or dal, washed down with water …… tea is only served during the breakfast meal, which is, surprise surprise, a rice surprise!! …….. not quite a bread and water diet but close 🙂

Madeline and I decided to break from routine today and walked to a little cafe on our ‘ashram street’, as I call it .. not many streets here in Rishikesh ….. and devoured or rather, inhaled a mushroom curry …. a delightful change for our taste buds …. it was ‘to die for good’ and I see us heading back there again tomorrow if not tonight 🙂 With our new restaurant discovery, Madeline is convinced we will be the only people to come back heavier from an ashram stay in India …..

More about our group of 14 beginner yoga students in the next few days, once I learn everyone’s names …. we are almost a mini United Nations ….. Totally loving the cultural variety!! Yesterday, a small group (20) of American university students and their profs arrived to add to our mix of Westerners here at Parmarth Niketan Ashram …….. They are here on a credit course on Comparative Religious Studies ……. friendly nice kids …. good youthful energy floating at the Parmarth.

A few pictures of our day and surroundings below, room at the dorm and gardens …… the monkeys are everywhere once late afternoon sets in, jumping on cars, grabbing food from people … or sometimes cameras, so one must be vigilant as they can be extremely aggressive especially with food …. bites and scratches are not uncommon …… I carry nothing but a water bottle for sustenance when I walk around the ashram to avoid just such an encounter ….. in the early morning, a zillion of them enjoy an early morning game of tag on the plastic roof over the open air corridors of our dorm ….. on my first morning here, I woke thinking it was a drumming group summoned to rouse all the pilgrims 🙂

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A walk into town ….. Rishikesh

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As it turned out, yoga and meditation classes start Monday, not Saturday as we had thought, leaving us a weekend to explore and orient to our surroundings … domestic duties done, rooms freshly scrubbed and smelling rather medicinal ….. still trying to air my room out after dropping a glass bottle of dettol all over the marble floor … stinky but you could preform surgery on it, as Madeline noted!) …. we set off to see what the world looked like behind the walls of the ashram.

‘Downtown’ Rishikesh, is a pleasant half hour stroll away …. I can’t say enough how refreshing it is to be away from the crowds of Delhi! … I think perhaps the total population of the Rishikesh area is slightly under twenty thousand …. A veritable village here in India! It is primarily a pilgrimage spot for Indians with the Ganga so accessible here but there are a good handful of European and North American spiritual seekers and the backpack trekkers thrown into the mix but we are a definite minority ….. the only time crowds are rather heavy, is during the evening ganga aarti musical celebration ceremony, when it appears everyone in Rishikesh shows up ….. it is a serene, happy, peaceful, friendly crowd …… a beautiful spiritual vibe permeates the air.

Madeline was digging through her Lonely Planet to locate ‘Little Buddha’, a breakfast stop for us, when a young man stopped us with a “oh ladies, throw that book away … the best spots are never found in guide books” ……. We made our first new friend! ….. Eric introduced himself, a Swede married to a Thai, living in Thailand and on a spiritual quest of sorts here in India. We walked along together looking for a breakfast cafe …. not much looked as promising as Little Buddha, so despite Eric’s hesitancy, that is where we went. His American travel mate, Mark joined us …… the food, coffees, fresh mango smoothies, ambiance (roof top overlooking the Ganga) were superb, contrary to his intro comment 🙂 I snapped a picture of Eric researching a few things in Madeline’s Lonely Planet later in the morning …. too funny …. Madeline is going to mail him the book after she gets home :). Nice to make new friends on our first day …. such a great morning sharing travel and life stories with lots of laughter and good cheer all around. The guys were off on a ten day trek to various temples, high in the Himalayas, ending at one special temple that sits at 12,000 feet …. a spiritual trek of sorts for both of them …… we wished them well on their journey and continued our exploration of the town.

We both picked up a few supplies (wet wipes, tissues and water!) …… checked out the various trinkets available and slowly meandered back to the ashram, stopping once again at the Buddha cafe for an early dinner! ….. it may yet turn into our favorite dining spot in Rishikesh! …. walking back involved dodging cows and their stinky pies, motor bikes, taxis, loads of backpackers, pilgrims, dozens of sadhus begging along the way …. some may actually be on genuine spiritual journeys, but the orange robes have apparently been used as a disguise by fugitives from the law since medieval times …. still, every now and again we make a little donation, hoping we gave to an honest sadhu …. but it really doesn’t matter if they are or not to me ….. just kind of cool to share ….. who knows the true circumstances of anyone’s lives ….. I am not here to judge …… and so ends another great day in India!

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On the road to Rishikesh

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It was a rather pleasant, half hour flight to our destination for the next two weeks, the yoga/meditation capital of India, Rishikesh! …. The taxi ride from Dehra Dun Airport to the Parmarth Niketan Ashram took slightly longer ….. a pleasant drive on a winding road through rolling forested hillsides, skirting the Rajaji National Park, home to 400 plus wild elephants, 30 tigers and a few hundred leopards and numerous species of deer, was a delight after the pollution and hectic pace of Delhi and Agra. There were many signs along the road, warning of wild elephant attacks on vehicles, complete with pictures of an actual attack (see below) … we were kind of hoping but hardly expecting to actually see an elephant … but right along the roadside, halfway to the Ashram, an elephant appears ….. our driver did not want to stop. I snapped a picture as we drove by, Japanese tourist style 🙂

Check-in was a slow process, or possibly we were just slightly impatient … not yet settled into the groove of the slower paced, meditative ashram life style …… thousands of forms, signatures, stamps and the like … okay, well maybe not thousands, maybe it was just two 🙂 … we made our way to our air conditioned rooms (horray!! …. something we were sure hoping for but not counting on getting) …… despite the AC, not exactly the Ritz here at the Parmarth but appropriate for the somewhat reverent spiritual atmosphere and nothing a bit of wiping and washing things down with disinfectant couldn’t fix …… what else to expect from two ladies of German and Finnish ethnicity 🙂

Temple bells rang, not long after settling in, heralding the nightly ‘ganga aarti’ …. a religious ceremony on the banks of that holy Indian ‘shrine’ ….. the River Ganga! …… certainly a reverent intro to this mecca for spiritual seekers ….. I rather enjoyed the drumming, singing, chanting, the lighting and passing around of candles. People watching was cool as well … lots of folk filling water jugs, dipping their feet, or washing hands in the cool waters of the fast flowing river ….. I saw an older lady drinking from the river …. Hmmm, not common and think I may pass on that! The river is very sacred to Hindus and is a place to wash away a lifetime of sins. A large statue of Vishnu stands on a platform style bridge over the river, overseeing the rituals of the aarti. There are so many Hindu deities, making this religion darn hard to figure out. The explanations from Indians themselves can often be confusing, so although the rituals are lovely to watch, I remain clueless to the significance of many of them. Although this is my second visit to India, and second time at a Ganga Aarti (first was in Varanasi), the number of people around all the time, still manages to astonish me …. I always think there must be a special holiday or something going on to attract such large crowds, but no, the crowds are there all day, every day! It is India after all, home to a few billion souls.

A communal vegetarian meal followed ….. I have been told meat dishes are not common anywhere in Rishikesh ….. no hardship for me! Madeline and I were both exhausted from the day and it’s infusion of sights, sounds, crowds, and oh yes, definitely smells, and crashed shortly after dinner, ready for our first sleep in a real live ashram 🙂

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Agra and the Taj

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Arrived at the Emblem yesterday to find Madeline looking cheerful and well rested, after a long flight from Victoria, followed by a city tour of Delhi, including that rather noisy chaotic Chandni Chowk region of old town! To boot, she was released from hospital barely a week ago, having endured a painful bout with a kidney stone issue … I marvel at her stamina …. What a trooper!! Our friendship dates back almost forty years, albeit, most of it from a distance … Madeline et al have lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for the better part of the last few decades … So it is just awesome to be here in India together … A first “girls’ trip” for us, after all these years …..

After a rather early and ungodly wake-up knock of 5:00 am from Madeline, we hit the road to Agra to explore that mighty tomb and ode to love, Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal …. We also worked the rather impressive Mughals Red Fort into the day … ready to crash early and catch our flight tomorrow for Rishikesh and our silent yoga meditation retreat ….. Ooommmmm

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