Blog Archives

Ananda …. The enchantment of awareness

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I booked a stay at Ananda months ago, not knowing much about it … love surprises. Had I researched high and low, I could not have found a more appropriate spot in all of India to assimilate and reflect on my experiences of the past two months ….. to breathe them in …. and ah yes, work in some great spa treatments while doing so!! …. super way to move into this new decade. The owner of Ananda has worked hard to create a place where there is a sense of synergy with the environment …. it is an oasis of calm, as understated a spa resort as I have ever been to …. and the Ayurvedic treatments are outstanding …. they all start with a beautiful prayer, feet are washed in a copper bucket laden with smooth stones and warm aromatic water …. there is such wholeness to every treatment …

My ‘wake up call’ at Ananda is a steaming pot of their signature tea …. lemon/ginger/honey, delivered just before yoga stretches …. this is the Webb family tea formula when we have colds or flu but I am starting to appreciate it at Ananda as a healthy alternative to morning coffee ….. Madeline, who had a cold last week, drank it exclusively with our meals. As I walk for breakfast later in the mornings, a couple of peacocks are always near the door to the restaurant, peeking in and I watch and wait sometimes for five minutes before they flitter away ….. Certainly not your usual sight at any spa I have been to πŸ™‚ Ananda …. translates as bliss …. appropriate.

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Namaste

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Because we shared two weeks of rather intense time together pretty much all day, everyday, (I referred to it more than once, as a yoga boot camp!!!) one goes through a few stages in the development of friendships in rather quick order ……. Initially we all ‘like’ each other in that well mannered superficial way people do, dictated by an ancient code of civilized social behavior …. but sometimes, like a precious gift from heaven, we click with someone instantly …….. and with others, once the early stage has passed, we become aware and sometimes annoyed by each other’s quirks and personality issues, and we all have those quirks, whether we acknowledge them or not …… eventually for most, not all, an acceptance of each other sets in, with more authenticity and honesty, facilitating a more meaningful and deeper level exchange. I have learned over many decades to be patient and wait for that stage to occur …. it is lovely when it does ….

We flew and drove from all over Northern India and various other countries, from different backgrounds, cultures, traditions, all with differing agendas but somehow, like a good family should, we learned to move in the flow of life at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh. I feel honored to have lived with this group of ‘trainee yogis :)’ these past few weeks. We have shared and learned much under the tutelage of Indu ….. She is a lovely human being, married to a beautiful gentle soul, Somesh Sharma. Indu’s Mataji (mother) is just as lovely a woman, with a soothing, beautiful voice. Indu shared a little of her life story with us one day after class …… she refers to her mother as her guru, which intrigued me, so I asked about it …. She was adopted as a young child by Sadhi Abha Saraswati, (Mataji) and raised in this very spiritual environment of the ashram, where every day rituals of celebration and gratefulness are preformed via chants, prayers, singing. Sadhi is a highly revered senior member of the ashram, often singing the prayers and chants during the nightly Aarti ceremony ….. I doubt I have ever been in the presence of anyone who shines with so much kind gentle energy ….. I wish I had taken a picture to share but alas, she left Rishikesh recently and will not be back before I leave 😦

There have been many moments of humor as we navigated our way through asanas, yogic breathing techniques, chanting prayers in Vedic verse and just life in general, both within the walls and outside of the ashram …. Daily treks out to the street that parallels the mighty Ganga (never referred to as the Ganges as we Westerners call it and the pronunciation is NOT ‘gang ah’ but guhngah using a hard ‘G’.) produce even more humor at times such as yesterday when Madeline and I walked to Laxman Jhula for lunch …. Busy chatting away, I turned back to Madeline as we walked along the narrow road … almost always single file, given we are constantly dodging people, motor bikes, vegetable carts, cows, and looking down frequently to avoid stepping in the pies or other undesirable refuse …… well, I walked smack dab, with a fair amount of impact, into a cow, most definitely surprising the cow ….. Madeline was hysterical with laughter … Thank God for small blessings it was the cow’s head I butted not the other end, about to lay a dump πŸ™‚ … or worse, a bull! Madeline feels sorry for the cows and feeds them some veggies later in the day πŸ™‚

On a more serious note, we heard recently that a veterinarian who is researching the eating habits of cows in India, has preformed surgery opening the stomachs of various cows and discovered pounds of garbage in their intestines, including several plastic bottles!!! At the risk of sounding repetitive, India must address the garbage problem in their country …. It is beyond abysmal.

Managed to meet the Swamiji tonight, albeit very briefly ….. apparently he is a somewhat famous spiritual leader in India and heads many charities, hence his busy travel schedule and of course head dude at the Parmarth Niketan … our group was supposed to have an audience but unfortunately a handful of politicians trumped us, dropping in unexpectedly and ‘took our spot’ so we are booked for tomorrow night after the Aarti instead …. Aman’s husband managed a quick photo before we were ushered out ….. see below …. will see if he keeps his promises tomorrow …. there must be an equivalent term in India to ‘maΓ±ana, bukra Inshallah, or a Greek shrug, with regards to keeping promises ….

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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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚ ….. 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 πŸ™‚ ……. 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 πŸ™‚ ….. 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 πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚ …. 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

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 πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚ … 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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

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