Category: Journey to India


A Last Reflection from India

trio meditation

Everyday is a CELEBRATION at Maher! We remember this with poignant reflection as we hold the fullness of our time here, nearing our departure.

Once during our days at Maher, Sister Lucy went to Mumbai to meet with the Governor of Maharashtra, the state in which Maher is located, to invite him to Maher’s 16th anniversary celebration in February.  She also made some practical requests regarding licensing, and in true form, found a way to advocate for women and children as well.  Each morning the community gathers for prayers, and in addition to the daily ritual, special prayers are offered for trips such as this, for a competition a student may be attending, for birthdays and goodbyes and for WELCOMING. 

We were continually welcomed by the children and staff of Maher; this community is a living example of what Sobonfu Some describes in her Dagara rituals involving healing and preparation of the mind, body, spirit and soul to receive the spirituality that is all around us. “It is always challenging to bring the spiritual into the material world, but it is one of the only ways we can put people back in touch with the earth and their inner values.” We lived this moment-by-moment in the daily heartbeat of Maher.

And now, on the brink of departure from South Goa, and India, celebrating Brel’s 28th birthday at Ordo Sounsar, which translates to “another world,” we continue in this tradition of heart and spirit infused living.  In the morning, the young men working here hang red balloons surreptitiously on our beach hut porch before Brel awakens. The guests wish him happy birthday.  We take a boat out with Captain LUCKY to catch crab for a birthday feast that we will share with whomever is in our midst…and of course, Lucky himself…no invitations, no formality, just welcoming the moment and welling up with gratitude for the grace of our journey. 

We arise in the morning and walk to the north end of the beach where the river meets the sea to offer prayers, awaiting our return to the Nooksack, the river of change that daily reminds us of this one and only constant.  We will soon reunite with you, our home community, and look forward to welcoming each of you with the same expansive love we received time and again at Maher.  We will carry in our hearts, bodies and souls the living example of daily celebration and generosity that nourished us so fully in south India.

We began our journey just before the North American winter solstice.  Yesterday, January 14, was the equivalent of the solstice here, Makar Sankranti, a time when the sun ascends to the northern hemisphere and the light returns. God receives prayers in many forms, including thousands of kites that fly overhead.  We found a fire on the beach, after witnessing the nightly fireworks display, into which we threw our written hopes for transformation. This poetic bookending of our journey, with nature in her fullest moments of light as we arrive and as we depart, becomes a poetic blessing we had not anticipated. We end with “Tamaso Ma Jyotir Gamaya,” may you go higher and higher to more light, and send our love always,

Elizabeth, Brel and Jillian

 

happy welcome 

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Thoughts about Bellur

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Now on vacation in India, in South Goa, I continue to have limited Internet, available only for the occasional email from my phone. Stirring within has been the desire to convey something of my experience of yoga in international community in Bellur, birthplace of Guruji Iyengar.  Ordinarily I have referred to the Yoga Master of my lineage as BKS Iyengar; but when I had the experience in Colorado in 2005 of direct teaching from this master of yoga, what surprised me most were the tidal emotions of love and gratitude that seemed atmospheric as we witnessed and experienced his radiance and knew the bhakti element of our form, which had sometimes in my  “second generation experience,” been eclipsed by precision and brilliant methodology, the heart obscured by the technique. But in that moment, the experience of my “first generation teachers” all of whom studied for many years arduously and with devotion, in repeated immersions in India with the master himself, became in essence SOMETHING more of my own, and the love and devotion now palpable to me, reflected itself in an authentically uttered “Guruji,” a more clearly reverential and devotional naming of Mr. Iyengar.

 

In Bellur I touch this experience again in my heart, and remember in my body, and in my soul, the naming that suits the true inner feeling of blessedness to have been given this path towards liberation that carries me most deeply and persistently in my spiritual pursuits. I overflow with gratitude to make pilgrimage to this birth place of the master Guruji, and to see the flowering of a village from abject poverty into a thriving village graced with a small hospital, water facilities, a high school and college, a temple for Patanjali, as well as restored heritage temples for Vedic Celestials, Hanuman, Shiva, and Vishnu.  Just four years ago, I visited Bellur for Guruji’s 90th birthday celebration, and the transformation of his birth village continues with alacrity, now turning towards completion of a yoga school on the campus above the little village where the temples exist. BKS Iyengar and family, as well as his students, have generated the resources for this transformed village. Some of you may have seen the images I posted of the village children chanting the Invocation to Patanjali, and the asana demonstration with which we were graced as part of our visit.

 

Teachers for the 2013 Bellur Retreat were “first generation Senior teachers” Patricia Walden, an American teacher from Boston,  and Rita Keller, a German teacher from Cologne, for asana and pranayama.  Paul Sherbow from New York, and Georgie Grutter, originally from Germany taught the philosophy section of the retreat, while Jarvis Chen from Massachusetts assisted in the asana classes. We arrived as an international sangha at our retreat site on December 31st, ushering in the new year with a puja (sacred ceremony) at the Patanjali shrine.

It felt truly auspicious to step into the new year at this place, with sacred ritual and chanting, gathered together with people from all over the world.

 

Our daily schedule included a 7 am pranayama class, followed by tea and a light breakfast, and then chanting of the 108 names of Patanjali , the Invocation, Aum for lengths of time, the Gayatri Mantra, and other less familiar chants as part of puja; asana class followed, for 1 hour to 3 depending on special events, and then an afternoon lunch and tea, followed by philosophy class; then asana class once again, usually with inversions. asana, pranayama and philosophy classes were taught by the various teachers, but in sync with one another, and with a weaving among them, which added to their excellence. Again in the evening we chanted and had puja, followed by dinner and the return to our rooms. Lodging on the campus where I stayed was sparse; I was housed with two German women, our three cots in one room with a shared bathroom. We thoroughly enjoyed one another, and I had the chance to practice the small bit of German I know! Our days were brimful of practice, with truly hardly a moment of leisure. Our meals were delicious South Indian cuisine, and thoroughly enjoyed, from curry to curd to mango pickles!

In the daily immersion in all aspects of integrated practice, I experienced a fulfillment entirely unique in my 25 years of Iyengar yoga practice. Hindu priests led the puja, and the sense of inclusion in sacred rite that is difficult to know in visiting temples on one’s own in India, lent a feeling of acceptance to me as a Western practitioner; the priests in Bellur of course know the international nature of Guruji’s following, and have no apparent ambivalence about sharing the rituals with Westerners. The manager of the retreat, whom we called Mr. Govinda Sir, also knows English well, and was able to help us to understand the rituals  in which we partook. Just as one example, at the culmination of the puja ceremony, there is a passing before each person present, of a tray with a lit fire for purification. Each person sweeps his or her hand near the fire and brings its warmth and light into him or herself.  Then one receives water into one’s hands that has been infused with tulsi plant and cardamom, and drinks for internal purifying. And lastly a red powder is offered to each person to place a tika mark on the forehead. What has seemed an Indian cultural “marking” little understood held new meaning as Mr. Govinda described it as a signifier to oneself of the intention around meditation of concentrating one’s attention inwardly, with single pointed focus, or dharana from the eight limbs of yoga.

 

I am uncertain how this deeper experience of my own tradition will translate into my own practice and teaching at home, though I imagine it filtering through like a time release capsule, slowly more fully understood and integrated. 

 

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Before these children, who attend the high school built by the Iyengar family, along with international yoga student donations, did their yoga presentation, they chanted the Invocation to Patanjali. It is the same chant as we do before every class, though the melody and rhythm they use is somewhat different. Elizabeth made a very sweet video of the children doing the chant. To see it and hear what must be perfect pronunciation, go here.

Asana Demonstration by Children in Bellur

On the last day of the retreat in Bellur, the students attending the high school built by the Iyengar family, along with international yoga student donations, performed classical dance and demonstrated beautiful asanas in an artistic group display. Here is a small sample! I am presently in Goa with scant Internet, hoping to find eventually a spot for sharing more.

 

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Elizabeth Travelling on the Path of Yoga

Tomorrow I leave for Bellur, and my week of Iyengar yoga, in international community! All the income from this retreat will be utilized to help build a yoga school in BKS Iyengar’s home village, where the retreat is being held. In the meanwhile, you may be graced with a guest blog postIMG_0215 from Jillian and Brel. I will not have our shared computer, so will not be able to write again until after January 7th! I wish all of you a Happy New Year, and look forward to sharing more…..

Maher RallyMany of you may have read about the woman who perished just recently, from medical complications after being gang raped in New Delhi. We hesitate to write about this, as we are not wanting to reinforce negative ideas about India, but sadly it is true that as women gain momentum economically and socially here, there is a backlash that has meant increased aggression and violence towards women. Tragically, there is little police accountability, and many who commit crimes against women escape without chastisement.  Women who are assaulted here bear the brunt of the crime in the original assault as well as the subsequent shame and  shunning that often occurs.

Yesterday we spent the better part of the day painting signs with slogans related to these issues; when enough signs in English had been created, Jillian and I painted in Marathi (the local language ) in fluid strokes foreign, yet beautiful. Working with the older youth leaders and following their directions was just one way to witness the significant role they play in the daily operation of Maher. Today the community here, from various Maher sites, marched into the small local villages, chanting about the violence needing to stop, and drawing in sympathetic spectators along the way. The march through sun and heat along dusty roads culminated in a gathering at a stage, where local community and government leaders gave speeches.  The older students performed educational “awareness skits” about subjects related to violence against girls and women. While we could not understand the language, the depth of expression and fine acting were so clear and moving. We also knew that some former victims of abuse themselves acted in the role play, adding a dimension of power and pathos to our witnessing.

Role Play

Young students milled throughout the audience assembled around the rally and collected about 1,000 signatures of support for the protection of girls and women in this society.  We were moved to see the courage of the students functioning with such competence in all aspects of this march and rally. Maher communities held prayer and meditation circles the evening before the rally, and spirits were high in taking action with issues so relevant to Maher. It is such a gift to be here and to participate in just one of many Maher public actions in the name of justice. Maher works lovingly with each individual, and has perpetually in mind and heart the direct actions that will heal not only the individual, but the larger ills in the cultural and political landscape of India.

Died of Rape

We piled onto a bus with many children at the culmination of the rally, and returned to the wondrous fabric of this all inclusive “family home,” where about 200 children, just at this site, are cared for and care for one another in countless ways. The love here is palpable and expressed though shining eyes and smiles, gestures of sharing, and hugs and a deep wish manifesting each and every day for the comfort and well being of all. The Indian way of calling all women “Didi” or “Aunty”, and men “uncle,” reflects a larger sense of interconnectedness; the atmosphere rings with these everyday terms of recognizing deep kinship, beyond the bounds of biological family.  The coupling of social and political activism arising from such a strong spiritually enacted base is an inspiration  and worth emulating in our own communities.

Children meditating

Heart of India Journey: Maher Ashram

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Maher Ashram

We have entered the heart of our journey, both literally and figuratively as we have crossed the threshold into Maher, and its embrace.  We know well our longings for a still more integrated life, where spiritually held values, as well as social and political beliefs enacted through loving and mutually supportive community, can be known and lived more fully each day.  Here at Maher, the “walking of the talk” is clearly more deeply realized and lived day to day.  At home we often contemplate the inconsistencies and paradoxes of our lives on planet earth.  And though we know challenges and questions would arise here as well, and that there is inherently questioning in all ways of living, for the moment this model of existence fulfills us in significant ways. We recognize that there are intricate and complex cultural differences and “laws of the land” that mean there is no direct translation of the Maher experience into American life. And yet we are questing to understand how elements of this time can weave their way into life at home more fully than we have known.

Part of the Maher “mission” comes in the many ways in which Sister Lucy envisions a new society for India, free of class and caste divisions, safety and nourishment for all, an ecological sensibility and way of life, and a binding together through acceptance and understanding in mutual cooperation for a higher purpose of peace, and loving community.  Pictures of Ghandi and Mother Therese hang conspicuously here in many of the buildings. Sister Lucy, a Catholic nun and founder of Maher, wears a crucifix with an Aum symbol for Hinduism on one side of the cross, and a crescent moon symbol from the Muslim tradition on the other. In a previous blog entry, see the Maher poster which shows the wheel of all religious traditions represented, and the reflection of this community’s enacted dedication to an interfaith and peaceful celebration of all ways of prayer and spiritual living.

There are over 1,000 children now living in the various Maher homes in and around Pune, in Kerala and in Jharakhand.  Other outreach programs offer food, health education, schooling and various social support programs within local communities on site, in poverty-ridden villages and slums. There is a home for the aged, and another for mentally disturbed women. All homes have at least partial solar power; some utilize waste biogas, and one grows much of their own food.  They visit farmer’s markets at the end of the day where the local farmers often donate what they have not sold.  Women and men create candles, bags, and cards, among other goods to be sold to help support Maher’s work. By this point in Maher’s nearly 16 year existence, there are older children who grew up here, and now have become leaders and teachers within the community. Each day we become aware of new initiatives and projects rooted in Maher, doing profound good in this state as well as in two others, Kerala and Jharakhand, quite far from here.

Our small group, Friends of Maher in Bellingham, has held the awareness that in all likelihood we would receive as much or more than we could ever give to Maher Ashram—- and now we have an embodied experience of the accuracy of our collective impression.  Sister Lucy’s manifest and ever flowering vision of a community where life’s backbone is love, justice, and the reliance upon the grace of one unifying higher Source inspires us deeply. Various slogans remind inhabitants and visitors at the many Maher homes in and around Pune,  “Is God so small to be possessed by one religion?”  This implied–in-the-question unifying spirituality is the underlying nourishment, grounded in an interfaith meditation and prayer practice, that fuels this community, all of whose members have stories of deep pain and disenfranchisement that have landed them by grace in this integrated healing environment.

Our days before Christmas Eve and day, which are their own wondrous stories, were filled with visitations to the homes that provide nourishing food, shelter, education and a loving, structure to women and children. Each place we arrived, children, House Mothers, House Cooks, and sometimes a Social Worker sang welcoming songs, offered blessings, and beautiful kollum, or sand paintings at the entry ways of the homes, acknowledging our visit! The sea of bright shining eyes and hearts bathed us in the warmth and the communion of love with mutual gratitude and kindness, bridging the more superficial distinctions that are culturally determined.

Another sign we have seen in many of the homes reminds us of the Maher mission, “Plant me where I can bloom.”  For the short time we have planted ourselves in this inspiring community, much is blooming within and around us; some blossoms are easily recognized, and others await our return home to be watered in our own beloved community.

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Life in Pune, India!

P1080882Having arrived in India, we landed in the IT capital of Bengalaru, and then went on to Pune, where we are preparing for a journey to Maher, and immersion in understanding in our direct experience, the life of the healing community birthed by Sister Lucy Kurien, for those otherwise left destitute to fend for themselves on the streets of India.

In Pune, we have engaged in practical tasks, and feasting on South Indian dosas (pancake like savory food staple with delicious and varied fillings), and temple visiting!
Our tasks have included purchasing some Indian attire, as this style of clothing is requested as a gesture of modesty and respect for those who come to stay at Maher Ashram. This was easily accomplished—-we even found a shop known for its eco produced clothing.

Being in the neighborhood of the Ramamani Iyengar Yoga Istitute, I strolled by and paid my respects, recalling the intensity and joy of my period of study there in 1998, during the summer; now I am here in winter, and the temperatures could not be more pleasant, generally in the 80’s during the day, and cool in the evenings.

The challenges of moving about and accomplishing tasks would be difficult for the unitiated to imagine. We set out today to accomplish three seemingly simple tasks, and hours later, having sucked in more diesel saturated air than I care to contemplate, found our way back to the Hotel Ketan having accomplished only one of three tasks, and that one the simplest— exchanging traveller’s checks! And yet, in typical paradoxical form, we were aided and assisted by numerous angels disguised as ordinary Indian citizens, a Muslim young woman, a Bengali young father of a two week old baby girl, and several others— so in the midst of lack of accomplishment and deep frustration comes this illumination, come the enormous kindness and generosity encountered here, again and again! As we walked in search of a particular insurance agency/money exchange operation, ready to give up as we felt eyes burning and sinuses reacting to the filthy air, a painted sign that simply had the word persistence and the symbol of a side lying 8 figure— the symbol for eternity, catapulted us into a surge of energy that landed us where we needed to be!

Last night we sat for hours waiting in a small clinic, for the gift of consultation with world renown Ayurvedic physician Dr. Vasant Lad. Since arrival in Pune I have been having allergies that vanished after a brief treatment with him. As instructed, I hopped up on a table, dressed with a sheet not changed between patients, and Dr. Lad then slathered his hands with healing oils and ablutions, released some tight muscles in my shoulders and upper back and neck, and then cracked my neck chiropractic style, put drops of cooling elixir into my nose, and burning drops of potion in my eyes. I received a prescription of various remedies to take or a three month period. I will soon obtain the herbs from a shop on Laxmi Road…. it will no doubt be a health zapping, traffic laden, fume infused journey in a paradoxical quest for more vibrant health.

India is its usual profound and paradoxical mix of completely entrancing and utterly frustrating…. its like being in a love affair that I just can’t shake, even though it might make good sense to break up…. Sigh….. Am indeed so happy to be here, especially with Jillian and Brel, my partner and son, and preparing for reconnection with Sister Lucy and Maher. Then on to Bellur, BKS Iyengar’s home village, and the benefit yoga retreat with Patricia Walden, Paul Sherbow, Scholar of World Religions, and Rita Keller, Senior Iyengar teacher from Germany.