A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Stravaigin

It's a wrap!

sunny 40 °C
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There is a new vision of myself that I treasure. It is from an asana practice on a beach in South Carolina. We came here for a week with my parents before settling into our new lives in Chicago. This is the capstone to our five months of stravaigin traveling. Jim and I set our mat spaces (towels really) among about twenty other yogis for a 7:30am practice. The sun was already well above the horizon, already burning bright yellow and moving towards the searing white it would be later in the day. The temperature was in the mid nineties (yep, we are back in Fahrenheit land), but the ocean breeze was strong and constant. With my eyes mostly closed against the light, the class began our warmups and sun salutations, and my thoughts shifted to an entirely different Surya Namaskara.

Just outside Jaipur, Jim and I left our tuk-tuk driver parked with his richly decorated vehicle and climbed up the steep hill of Galtaji to the Surya Mandir, the temple of the sun. It was Janmashtami, Krishna's birthday, and so the city was seasoned with parades and brightly dressed people visiting their favorite temples. Drums, bells and chanting wafted dynamically through the air like the whirling aromas of spices, insense and refuse. As we walked up, we shared the path with men, women, children, packs of teenegaers, ascetic men in face and body paint, but also dogs, sheep, goats, pigs, macaques and of course cows and water buffalo. "Namaste" is the normal greeting used among people, used as easily as we do "hello" or " hi." It is always expressed with the hands pressd together in front of the sternum and a slight or deep bow of the head. "Namaskar" is the formal variation, to be used when we encounterd older people of ones that looked "holy." (We had to judge our books by their covers on that). We had been corrected a couple times already. As we approached the temple, passersby shared this greeting with us and we with them. They asked for their photos to be taken, or to take our photos, or to shake our hands. One gorgeously dressed group of women paused and each shook my rough dry hand in their elegant henna-painted ones and said in gentle but perfect English "how do you do." It was a beautiful morning, hot but dry, and the "Pink City" stretched out below us in a compact arrangement of salmon colored hovels, palaces and tiny alleyways that have probably been in their places for centuries. Our spirits were buoyed by the sinceity of the people we passed. After the rapacious touts and frauds in Delhi these folks were honestly curious and friendly. It was exhilerating to be out in the sun, feeling its warmth reflected in the eyes and faces of these marvelous people, so generous with their smiles.

The temple at the crown of the hill was small but high and eleborately carved of white stone. We took our shoes off and were welcomed by a man standing outside the door. We rang the temple bell as an outward sign that we were leaving behind our distractive preoccupations and entering the spiritual space with hearts and minds receptive to God. We sat on the floor in front of the altar and a woman came to place a dyed red dot on our foreheads, a sign of hospitality we would enjoy many times while in India. Two men were already sitting on the floor, one next to us and the other sitting in the altar niche itself, snuggled close to the murti (statue) representing the divine. Both men were chanting their prayers, one silently as he turned the pages of a book in front of him, the other with eyes closed, swaying and plenty audible. He chanted on and on, rhythmically, with an imperfect but zealous voice and I felt a small buddha smile lift the edges of my mouth when I recognized the Gayatri Mantra. I closed my eyes as well and felt blessed by the opportunity to travel to such a place, and to be in the presence of genuine worship. I focussed for a few moments on my breath, and brought to mind the faces of all the people that I loved, especially the husband sitting patiently next to me while I soaked in the energy and atmosphere of the place. He thought the whole thing was extremely cool as well. We left a small donation for the temple and felt a gorgeous blend of peace and enthusiasm as we set off for the rest of our day.

I came back to that feeling of peace and enthusiasm on the beach as we moved through Surya Namaskara A, our atheletic sun salutations. My practice wasn't perfect - beach yoga is messy with blowing sand, a divot-dug surface, and gusting cue-snatching wind; I'm out of shape, and the situation is distractingly beautiful. I wobbled, I shook, I careened off course, my back leg kept forgetting to be an anchor, my hands and arms occasionally flailed, and there was hollowness where there should have been stabilizing core strength. Nonetheless, I was loving it. The temple bell had rung in my heart, and as Diane Ackerman has written about "deep play," I was in an altered state of clarity, wild enthusiasm and saturation in the moment. My acting and thinking had become the same thing, and there was no room for other, especially judgemental or frustrating thoughts. The teacher invited us through some of my favorite poses - flipped dog, bird of paradise, pidgeon, double pidgeon and mermaid- and reflecting afterwards, although I have lost strength and flexibility in the past few months without regular asana practice, my yoga has grown in other ways. There are surprising openings in myself, and delightful connections as well. Altogether, there is more poetry and a more colorful vision.

The stravaigin trip has been woven into my life, and so into my practice. The scenes of transcendent beauty, sites and artifacts crafted by inspired and brilliant people, the kindnesses of strangers, sorting ourselves out of confusion and anxiety, considering a different perspective, surrender to things outside our control with faith that it would come out alright, overcoming fears, and walking hand in hand in love. All these things and more are expressed in my newest vision of myself. I lie sweetly tired in savasana on an Atlantic beach, my exquisite partner by my side, our hearts and minds floating together with the clouds in an immense and glowing blue sky of possibility and confidence. We are of course, surrounded by love and radiant light. Namaste.

Posted by Stravaigin 08:58 Archived in India Tagged beach sun jaipur yoga mandir surya salutations namaskar Comments (1)

So good to be a beginner


Long before I practiced yoga, I spent an academic semester studying Zen Buddhism.  One of our seminal texts was Shunryu Suzuki's "Zen Mind,  Beginner's Mind."   I have always been attracted to the ideal he set forth, which was to be able to approach practice, to approach life, with the freshness, excitement and openness that brand new students bring to a discipline.  If we could only stay away from the arrogance and narrow-mindedness that seem to slip into our relationship with anything that becomes overly familiar!  My husband, early in our courtship, asked for two things : monagamy, and that I avoid taking him for granted.  He was asking, in other words, that we try to keep that "beginner's mind" attitude which inhabits new couples with fascination, gratitude and attraction. Being a perpetual student is one technique for keeping things fresh in my yoga practice, but the last couple weeks have given me another opportunity to remember Suzuki's book.

After the invigorating immersion in yoga we enjoyed in Bali, the exhausting pace of our tour in India and the fact that our entire group passed around a respiratory infection for two weeks gave me reason to interrupt my asana practice for a short time. During this most challenging part of our trip, my meditation also became unsatisfying and irregular. Our diets were very clean and vegetarian, but the climate and stress pushed hard at us and I wrote in my journal "my body is really unhappy here." Arriving in Europe, exploring Istanbul, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Croatia, Italia (per l'amore di Dio!) and southern France, our days remained packed with all we wanted to see, and we celebrated the bounty of European food and drink. Coffee with hot milk, wine, cheese, meat, pastries, gelato, crepes, butter and cream tucked in everywhere - everything was so delicious. I believe the apotheosis was in Plovdiv, Bulgaria where I had pork ribs in a sesame honey glaze that I sucked like lollipops because they were so amazing! Childlike glee coupled with practiced gourmand appreciation.

Every couple of days I would "stretch a little," - wiggle into a stiff and awkward downward dog, prop one foot up on the bed and see about a modified twisted triangle, maybe roll my shoulders and try gomukasana arms or an eagle bind. I did reconnect to my meditation practice during this time, and most of my "stretching" truly was to loosen myself up enough to sit still for that. Unfortunately a good eight weeks went by without a real sun salutation, and as we traveled north and west through the longest rainy and cold early spring of our lives, I didn't break a sweat once. My curves became curvier, joints became crankier, and I marveled at how fast my muscles atrophied. The only physical upside was the hope that a couple injuries I left Chicago with were healing from this "rest". Through the fog of dismay, I do stutter out proudly that I foresaw this situation, and had already planned a remedy. Our trip is structured to finish with three weeks settled in an apartment in Sancerre so that Jim can study French, and I can rebuild my practice and start redirecting my life towards the yoga career I have committed to. This part of the plan is one of the smartest things I could have done ( other than skipping those prok ribs, but that is just crazy talk)! There is a lot of work ahead of me, but I am finally back on track.

During a college weekend of games and parties, I was on a tug of war team made up of other students like myself: spectacle wearing bookworms unsure of where the sports facilities on campus were located. Our opposing team played field hockey and worked out "just for fun." The teams were supposed to be equal in body weight, so there were maybe 12 of us and 7 of them. I was the smallest, so they put me right in front, with the best view of that flag in the middle of the rope. There was no question in anyone's mind how this was gonna end, but we had to put in a showing. The judge's whistle blew, and my feet which had been dug into the dirt started to slide forward at a regular rate. My joints were all locked in stubborn opposition, but nonetheless that slide forward seemed inevitable and the flag's position was just a few inches away from ending the contest. My heart had already given up when something unexpected happened. I heard the story afterwards, because I didn't at the time know what was going on.

The anchor on our team was named Ginger. She was like the rest of us scholastic types, but perhaps softer and quieter, and certainly more amply bodied. When all was surely lost, Ginger made a noise. There was some discrepancy later what that noise actually was. A grunt? A growley groan? Just a determined hmph like steroidal ujaii breathing? At that moment, our fate shifted. Ginger made that sound from somewhere deep inside her, and then resolutely turned around in her rope loop and started pulling the other way. The woman on the rope right next to her also turned around and added her determination to Ginger's. Then so did the next woman, and so on down the line. By the time I realized I was facing the WRONG WAY, the shift in inertia lifted my feet off the ground, and as the other team let go when the whistle signalled OUR victory, I went sailing with my teammates into a pile of ecstatic, incredulous glory. We all need a Ginger on our team don't we? Something in ourselves that turns us around when we are sliding down a slippery slope and sends us in the direction we really want to go, towards the lives we really want to live.

So here I am turning it all around, and boy do I have "beginner's mind!" Child's pose is not comfortable, and downdog is NOT a resting pose! Um, ab-work? How can I get my foot from downward dog to a lunge, with grace? I don't have a mat, my knees hurt on the floor and my hands and feet tend to slide. Those old injuries are still factors to contend with. I rely heavily on the kitchen furniture to keep myself from falling over. Yeah, it's awkward, and that is part of the equation. Being a beginner is not just eagerness and epiphanies, but also chagrin, restlessness, frustration, hesitancy, inefficacy, and so on.

How lucky that I am not just a beginner! I am in this marvelous zen-like place straddling the experience of being a beginner with my experience and knowledge as a long-time student and teacher. I have the skill to work my hands and feet so that I can build stability. I have the patience to move slowly and mindfully, noticing assymetries as I rebuild muscular strength. I know when I should be using my core and not my joints to do a pose (disaster!). I have a practiced awareness of my body that few real beginners ever do. Since it is a home practice, augmented by some downloaded sequences, I can pause, repeat, modify, explore, refine, take a break, talk to myself, and so on. I'm enjoying moving around in my body in a way that I often suggest to students while we warm up - think of your mat as a canvas, and spill a lot of paint on it, smear it around, get creative and don't worry what the picture looks like. I couldn't cue what I'm doing, can't even articulate it to myself, but it's a pleasing way to send some fresh energy into those dark and dusty corners of myself.

I don't actually remember much from my first couple years of yoga.  I took classes in the neighborhood gym, and though I remember the faces of my first two teachers, I can't remember which poses we did, or how we did them.  I do remember how I FELT during and after classes - so refreshed and delighted with myself and the world that I returned whenever my busy schedule allowed. It is that feeling that I crave, and that feeling that drives me back to the habit of asana practice. A great physical workout is enough of an incentive to me to change what I eat, because my workouts feel stronger and more fluid, and my recovery from vigorous work is easier when my diet is densely nutritious. When my body feels great, I am more relaxed, in a more positive frame of mind, and my meditation is easier and more rewarding. When all those things are in place, it is easier to make wise choices and behave ethically, generously and lovingly. When the Ginger in ourselves changes direction with determination, it is like changing a keystone habit in our lives that causes a chain reaction, turning the whole team around and ending up in a pile of glory. It is so good to be beginning again. NAMASTE.

Posted by Stravaigin 04:59 Archived in France Comments (0)

Being "positively" frustrated

Partnership in travel

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A few minutes past midnight on October tenth 2010, I, Jenni Anne took James as my exquisite partner.  I wasn't sure of what would follow, but I knew that I wanted to experience a lot of it with this fascinating, adorable guy.   So we made some promises to each other, the best we could at that point in our lives, suspecting that there would be some follow-up conversations as we moved on.  After the wedding, Jim and I found our lives rapidly shifting  into a routine that we didn't like.  Jim took a new job with irregular hours and on-call duties, and I started building my new yoga teaching career on top of my full time job.  Often we would have only one evening free each week, a few hours before sleep to dine together or go to a show.  On top of that, the house became a  money pit with first one thing and then the next going wrong.  It was a relic from Jim's first marriage, full of emotional landmines and piles of undiscarded refuse, but in any case far too big for us, expensive and time consuming to maintain.  The house anchored us to lives we didn't want and like in the David Byrne song we looked up and said "this is not my life!"

Referencing my blog post about Bali, a strong part of our conversation with the Aussies in the Ubud coffee bar concerned the need to make a definite break with old routines before really dedicating ourselves to a new life.  That is, a strong break with ALL routine was something we all thought invaluable.  Two of our new friends had just finished internships in Jakarta which had nothing to do with their future career paths. Thay just wanted a chance to get away from home and family and their daily lives, an experience of elsewhere to rattle their thinking and dreaming about the life they really wanted to live.  A dramatic caesura, time to regroup. 

Growing up, our family shared a little joke called the "marriage encounter."  A marriage encounter was a weekend retreat for couples at our church.  Under spiritual guidance, husbands and wives could get away from their responsibilities of home and family and dedicate some time to nurturing their relationships.  The joke was my mom wanted badly to attend and my dad, being a "regular type guy" certainly did not.  Periodically our church bulletin would announce the upcoming marriage encounter, Mom would vocalize the opportunity, and Dad would tell her to forget it.  Us kids in the back seat smirked.  Mama, I am on one heck of a marriage encounter!

As I write this, we are on day 103 of our five month project.  Jim and I have been together almost every minute of all those days.  We have shared every meal, every cafe break, every performance, museum and tourist site visit, every plunge into the ocean, every hike, and even for awhile we read the same book.  (I had about a seven hundred page head start.)  We have had a lot of conversation- some serious, some light-hearted, some tough.  Jim and I travelled a bit together before getting married, and I have taken long sojourns several times alone, but such a lengthy trip shared with another person, all those days, all those hours, this was another level of togetherness entirely.

In everyday life, or on a long sabbatical, we buffer ourselves in some routine. Our conscious decisions are like mountain peaks that poke up through the cloud cover of our habitual lives. We have a chance to try things out, to spread our mistakes out along a long line, and of course to repeat successes. With this kind of trip, there is no such luxury. Every moment is telescoped with choice. Stay here, go there, eat this now, eat that later, pause and look, ask questions, keep going, get up early, sleep a little longer, see this exhibit, walk through slow, linger under this tree, hurry to the next castle, splurge on that, keep to the budget, etc. There is no chance to find the best way to get from the train station to our hostel, because we're only doing it once. There is little chance to settle on our favorite cafe or restaurant because after a meal or two we leave town. This means pecentage-wise that we make more mistakes. We should have taken that road instead of this one and now have to backtrack. We shouldn't have spent so much on that service, but we should have spent more on that meal, things get forgotten or lost, we continue to lug around things that should have been discarded. We even seek advice from people that don't know us and our proclivities, and so get led astray by well intentioned strangers whose opinions we shouldn't have used. With solo travel this all happens as an internal soliloquy. With a partner, every single waking moment needs to be negotiated. The shared successes are great, but how we deal with mistakes has become a really salient challenge in our lives.

Our darkest hour occurred on February 14th. We had completed an euphoric tour of southwesten Australia and were driving back to Perth to return our rental car. Jim driving, me navigating, clock ticking, small print map, unfamiliar place names, gasoline and blood sugar meters on low, bladders full, heavy metro expressway traffic - I think you get the picture. We were both vibrating at low frequencies, and both on downward-spiral trajectories. As mistakes, blame, regret and apprehension layered on frustration, stress, defensiveness and self-pity, the day became less romantic and loving with every breath. My vision of the two of us hand in hand, hearts and minds in PLAYFUL communion with the world seemed an unobtainable dream. How to realign with that vision?

I spent the rest of the day and a miserable sleepless night contemplating this conundrum. The point, I thought, was for us to enjoy being together. I had learned a valuable lesson with my "second family" in Finland, living for three months with children. It is more imortant to do things together than to do them "right." That is why the kitchen is always covered in flour and recipes for six dozen cookies only ever make four when you bake with someone you really love. I wanted very much to get back into this spirit. Things might go wrong, but hey, we were having a great adventure traveling around the world together, as exquisite partners! We really had to become skillful in dealing with mistakes, keeping our frustration and disappointment from escalating into blame or self-righteous gloating, keeping our embarrassment and regret from turning to self defeating apprehension. In other words, we had to keep "I told you so," "you always," and "you never" out of our thoughts and hearts.

I shared these thoughts with Jim the next morning (after he'd had his coffee) and he agreed, but our emotions were still a little too agitated. What we needed was a miracle. Handily, we orchestrated one. While exploring Western Australia, we had found an advertisement for Philip Glass performing in Perth the weekend that we would be in town. Of course, searching for tickets online indicated that the show was sold out. To be a good sport, I'd said we could go to the concert hall on that evening, and just see if someone didn't show up and we could buy their spots at the last minute. Um, it COULD happen. Instead, still grouchy from the previous day, Jim wanted to go to the box office two mornings before the show and ask. Internally rolling my eyes, I agreed, even though I thought it would be a waste of time, and possibly embarrassing. I needed to put into practice my ruminations inspired by our terrible Valentine's Day. I was ready to be soothing when he would still be frustrated, not to say or even think any of those things that would exacerbate the situation and prevent us from living in trust. Long story short, they had just released more tickets, and we bought two in the exact center of the sixth row, right in front of the piano keyboard. Yes, we did. It was so much a miracle, that I actually got teary eyed. Our vibrations shifted stars!

Jim is an exquisite partner. He persists when I give up, has excellent intuition when my direction gets muddled, and remembers exactly what I just forgot. He is whimsical and outrageously clever with language, and pretty handy with a map. I don't believe anyone out there can make an armoury museum half as interesting as he does. Moreover, we have built these layes of trust, that despite the liklihood of making mistakes as we go through our travels and go through life, it will be ok. We wil not resent each other for them. We will buy tickets for a lame performance, spend too much on mediocre sushi, go the wrong way, make a wasteful purchase, and make worse mistakes than these. We will not always do things "right" but we will do them together. Despite other difficulties, some really challenging situations, we have never again sunk into those mental and verbal ruts that dragged us down on Valentine's Day. I teach my students to practice cultivating awareness without judgement. Not only good for asana and meditation, this is an excellent way to travel. Not only good for travel, this is an excellent approach to partnership. The essence of this practice is forgiveness, forgiveness even before something has offended us. The essence of this deep knowledge without judgement is love.

Posted by Stravaigin 08:25 Comments (1)

Sufi Stillness

Pick a simple asana - or one that looks simple.  Imagine practicing that one asana for the rest of your life.  Imagine dedicating yourself to that one physical expression of all that you celebrate.  Imagine living a disciplined life, studying scripture, developing ethical attitudes and practices and performing just one pose that encompassed your spiritual experience and ambitions.  That is my yogic impression of whirling dervishes.  Jim and I were lucky enough to attend an Islamic Sufi Sema in Istanbul at the Silivrikapi Mevlana Cultural Center.  I apologize in advance for the details I may get wrong here, please take this as a traveller's impression, not an expert account.

We were careful to arrange for a real service, avoiding the "cabaret dervishes" that perform in clubs and restaurants just for tourists, and that meant sitting patiently through a prayer service before the Sema ceremony started.  It was the first Muslim gathering either of us had attended, so much of it we simply didn't understand.   We had visited a Sufi Tekke (lodge) museum earlier in the week, so had some understanding of the dervish lifestyle, but we were still pretty uninformed.  The community was gathered in one room, with devout men and women sitting separately, some on cushions, some on chairs on the periphery of the room.  Leaders of the community all sat on the floor. Visitors were all given chairs, and not segregated by sex.

The prayer service involved speeches by several men, chanting from the Koran accompanied by extremly simple flute and drum music, and then lengthy call and response sessions between another man and the congregation.  This was ritualistic, repetitive, on the edge of mesmerizing.  Most members rocked, at least their heads but many their whole bodies. Some wept openly.  Waiting for the devishes to take the stage, we enjoyed this precursor to rhythm and heightened emotion.  My own body, and those of many other visitors' were also gently responding to the vibrations in the room.  And then without any discernible finale, it was over.  The lights became brighter, and dinner was served.

The dinner was unexpected.  Like passenges on a transcontinental flight, we were each given a fork and napkin, a hot aluminum dish of mixed grains and lamb, and ayran- a drinkable salted yogurt.  Everyone in the room ate quickly,and our young flight attendants came around to collect up the trash.  In a gallery above and behind the main space, musicians gathered, started tuning thier instruments and donned capes and caps. The space where people had been sitting on the floor was cleared, visitors were reminded not to use the flash on cameras, and the room settled into silence.

A group of twelve dervishes, including their sheik, poised at the back of the room.  Sufi beliefs are centered on love and tolerance, as taught by Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi. Dervishes are Sufis who have completed an incredibly dedicated training process.  Their initial training is 1001 days.  You yogis who have taken the 40 day challenge, think about that!  Among other things, they learn absolute obediance to their master, immerse themselves in scriptural study and practice charitable service. They practice whirling as well, and develop the skill of effacing their egos so that God can shine through them.  Until recently only men could participate in this Sema ceremony.  As a representative of the community related the story to us, a group of women approached the sheik and asked why they are still excluded.  The sheik gave them three months to practice and show him what they could do.  At the end of that time, they came and peformed the ceremony and the sheik was so impressed with the ego-less spinning that they offered he exclaimed that they were even better than the men!  I will add that the six women involved with this group completely held our attention.

All twelve wore an earth-colored tall hat - a sikke- which symbolizes the tombstone of the ego, a black robe - a hirka - representing the ego's tomb, and a full skirted white gown - a tennure- representing the ego's shroud.  The sheik walked to the front of the room across a carefully selected equatorial line to a red carpet which was his place.  As the ceremony continued, the other eleven semazens discarded their hirkas and bowed to pay respect to the sheik and each other.  They started with their arms crossed over their chests, hands resting on their own shoulders to demonstrate the unity of God, the oneness of all creation.  As they circled the room and then started to turn, they let their hands float up, shedding their egos, and extended their rights hands upturned to God in a gesture of receiving, and their left hands out and down in a gesture of generosity to all humankind.  In between, they keep nothing for themselves.

With admirable precision, the semazens began whirling in place, with one foot fixed and the other launching the body around and then touching again the same place on the floor to push off for the next turn. With each spin, their heads hung at a blissful angle between outstretched hands, they whisper in their hearts the name of Allah. I tried to match their rhythm and that whispering in myself, but they spun so fast, and my habit is to match my movements, even a silent mantra, to my breath. Distracted in my attempt to keep up, I let it go after awhile. Over and over in exact circles, perfect and perfect and sweetly perfect they whirled. This continued on and on, the music simple, melodyless and yet easy to settle into. The whirling went for quite some minutes, interrupted three times to shift the meaning of the practice, and repeat the respectful bow. During these short transitions, the dervishes's faces stayed placid, though their chests lifted with the fullness of deep breathing. They seemed to have found that yogic target of balance between effort and ease. The angle of their arms and hands and heads never change. Their eyes stay closed, or nearly so. As a vinyasa student, I sat enraptured by this moving meditation. The effect is visually stunning and marvelously photogenic as the white skirts lift and ripple in exquisite waves. The simultaneity of all the dervishes moving together with gentle joy and complete presence of mind was something I could have sat and watched for hours, like water spilling over a steep cliff into a welcoming pool.

It's true I am a sucker for physical peformance, especially at such a skill level. I get teary-eyed watching the Olympics - of seeing an athlete at the top of their game who has practiced and trained and practiced until they distill all their concentration and muscular control into the most brilliant moment of their athletic life. The same happens watching dancers or solo musicians, the highlights of sports news, a male bellydancer in Istanbul, Rajasthani women carrying loads of bricks on their heads with such grace. All these things interrupt my breath and widen my eyes. But these dervishes enacted this skillful physical control in a way that wasn't just physical. Their ease and simplicity brought to my mind a monk mindfully closing a door, or of a loving hand fondling another's head. Erich Schiffman has written of yogic stillness that it is movement centered and focused so perfectly that it resembles a spinning top that can move with such speed that it appears to be absent of movement. This whirling had that quality of stillness in the heart of movement. It was obvious watching these people that they do embody the tolerant loving faith they espouse, that in fact they hold nothing in reseve for themselves. This was a gorgeous example of mind/body/spirit actualizing God.

One asana, one pose, one twirl. Without tottering, without dizzyness, without the smallest imprecision or even the sense of exertion. Could I ever enact one motion so lovingly, so efficiently, so skillfully that another person would be inspired or enriched by witnessing it? I suppose to some extent, this is an egoist ambition. As I practice the physical limb of yoga, I try to remember that physical control is nothing if not an outward sign of my spiritual experience, of love and light. As a teacher, I hope to invite my students to the same. Namaste.

Posted by Stravaigin 12:03 Archived in Turkey Tagged sufi dervish sema Comments (0)

Bali, India, Connections

sunny 30 °C

"India really pushes at you," Danielle said. We were walking down the side of a busy road in Ubud after finishing a cooking class focused on Balinese ceremonial (holiday) foods. Danielle and two of her friends from Melbourne were showing us their favorite coffee house in town. Bali pushed at us gently. This trip was the first time in our travels when the very color of our skin broadcast the fact that we were foreigners, and further cues easily underscored the case that we were tourists. "Taxi? Transport? Where you going? From what country, ma'am? Have a look! More sarong? Another batik? Massage? What size? More colors inside! Yes? Yes? Yes?" As we walked down the street, we negotiated a gauntlet of men and women eager for our comerce. "No taxi, thank you," was quickly rejoined with "what about tomorrow? Where you go? What's your program?" They were incredibly persistent and the hotel staff were in on the game. A casual conversation about who we were, and what we' d like to see quickly threatened to become organized for us faster than we could blink. The tiniest crack in our facade would give them a way into our wallets -their personal ATM- spewing money through a stuck-open sphincter. Of course things were delightfully cheap, but the incessant offers and inquiries were maddening. As they pushed gently, how not to push back rudely with irritation?

The saving grace here was that they DID take no for an answer, were happy to give directions, information and help, even for free. After the pattern was realized, we could relax and concentrate instead on the beautiful smiling faces and sweet manners of so many people. Imagine walking down the street in Chicago, Wheaton or Naperville and making smiling eye contact and a soft bow with namaste hands to everyone you pass! Their offers and our repeated refusals became after a few days a private joke we all shared. One taxi driver held a sign in front of his chest, as did many of the men, which read "TAXI." When we said "no thank you," he flipped the sign around and it read "how about tomorrow?" We all three laughed. The Balinese believe that their forthcoming reincarnation is partly dependent on their attitude and reactions to their present circumstances and so they practice smiling inside and out, no matter what. Usually we said "no," sometimes we said "yes", to transport, to an article of clothing, and with neither obsequiousness nor casual off-handedness, they provided what they had offered skillfully, efficiently, and at a comfortably low price. On both sides we expressed sincere gratitude.

At the coffee house in Ubud, Jo, Danielle and Steven shared their stories and we realized that all five of us were at a place in our lives rethinking our priorities. We noted it is the Year of the Snake, a year for shedding old skin. All of us were changing careers or reorganizing the allotments of our time and resources to allow opportunities for the things that truly enrich us. We want to nurture the parts of our lives and relationships that make us vibrant, healthy and creative. The biggest focus of our convesation was letting go of the things that we really don't need, especially the attitude that pemeates our corporate, consumer cultures of constant material and financial increase. Steven reminded us that excessive and uninhibited growth is the mark of cancer. When we focus instead on identifying what is most important, we can separate out the extra trappings that we thought were unavoidable and yet drain the energy of our lives. It was a marvelous, supportive, energizing afternoon. As we broke up our group, we simply wished each other an amazing life!

As I start writing this, I am on a train from Delhi to Agra (and the Taj Mahal)! The first two days in India, as Danielle predicted, have pushed us hard. We are too powerless here to push back rudely, even if we would want to, so our psyches instead pull us inward. Instead of looking out with curiosity and excitement, we are frustrated, tired, nervous. Anticipating even before our arrival the logistical challenges that faced us, we signed up for a 15 day tour with a small group. This is quite uncharacteistic of our do-it-yourself, freedom-in-the-moment mode of travel. After one day in New Delhi we were glad we had. We made abortive attempts to leave our hotel on our own, at first just to wander and get a feel for the neighborhod, and later to visit a prominant site. The map our hotel manager gave us was useless, and in any case pulling it out for a look drew an instant and constantly cycling barage of touts. In every other place I've travelled, the "kindness of strangers" as Blanche DuBois put it, has been something to rely on. Unfortunately those first two days, "the kindness of strangers" in every case was someone telling us that wherever we wanted to go was closed, too far, or not very interesting. Instead, they would be happy to take us to a shop that had a good discount! Every single person who approached to help us had the same scam. Unlike in Bali, we couldn't relax here. Even a private driver arranged by our hotel to show us some sites not on our tour had to be repeatedly and insistently refused the chance to take us shopping.

Knowledge that both historically and contemporaneously our cultures co-create the disparity between us that leads to these behaviors and interactions does nothing to help us cope in the moment. Jim and I started speaking brokenly in French when we were on the street so no one would believe we understood their English. We were advised to absolutely avoid eye contact, or any sign of comprehension or notice whatsoever. How dismaying to travel somewhere and deliberately refuse to engage the local inhabitants just as a survival method! A woman who has come to India three times says she loves it "visually, not personally." Yet traveling in a group, often with private transport, without navigational worries isn't really enough in itself to deliver peace of mind either. For starters, there is the traffic. (For a video of that, go to Jim's facebook page). The congestive assault of motors and horns is both fascinating and brutal to body and soul. As well, the human drama on display in public is disconcerting as often as wonderful.

Nonetheless, India is filled with places of sublime serenity. Pocket after pocket of clean green surrounds ancient structures layered with sacred meaning and the accumulated spiritual treasure of daily reverance. In every way, India has a complexity and density defying rational digestion. This place shifts under our feet and arround my heart, refusing cursory summarization or even description. I recall an old impression of Hindu mythology and folktales which challenge a simple understanding of good and evil, of hero and monster. The stories here are long and convoluted, and it's hard to tell if there is a moral or model to teach at all.

Of course, as Jim noticed, India can be chopped up into beautiful images - into photos cropped in such a way to accent bright colors, exotic clothing, tools and accessories, livestock in charmingly unlikely places, fruit and wares stylistically arranged, smiling women and children, ascetic holy men. But widen the lens and you also see endless piles of trash, waste from human and beast, dust, beggars and touts. The same is true for all the senses. The smell of spices and mouth-watering food intermingles with sewage, urine, brackish water, gasoline and smoke from burning trash. The sound of chanting, of music, of children and birds is drowned out frequently by vehicular horns that shatter the eardrums. We have tried to keep our hands to ourselves and away from bacterial hazards, so I cannot even comment on the textures available to us. Places of serenity, holiness and historical import are surrounded by congestion and stress, or at the vey best by "extreme livliness." Combinations and contrasts of India are delivered like fractals - you know there is reason, a mathematical computation at its core, that there is predictability involved somewhere, but the end result is a display that seems random, ephemeral, perplexing and irresolute.

As I finish writing this piece, we have been in India eight days and Delhi is far behind us. "The real India is in the villages," our guide told us. Certainly our experience in the small towns and villages of Rajasthan has been much more to our liking. We have come back to people whose faces we can look into with curiosity and shared joy. Children wave eagerly as we walk or ride by. They insist we take their photos, and whole families pose for us. We've had the chance to enjoy local temples and sit alongside people during their daily spiritual practice. How easily we slip into the common greeting here of hands pressed together as we say "namaste." Accepting a hot cup of chai from a roadside purveyor has an element of trust difficult to convey. The chai was boiling but how well did his son wash those cups? Absolute strangers in the market offer their hands for us to shake, and it sometimes seems like such a bridge to cross just to take it. We are fanatical about the hand sanitizer, and hope we don't seem offensively fastidious. But what a joy to feel that pressure, that touch from someone who lives in this place so different from mine, and who calls this place home.

Posted by Stravaigin 03:27 Archived in India Comments (0)

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