Yogi Certified

Its official. I’m a Yogi. I completed my 150 hour course in Rishikesh, culminating in a beautiful ceremony where the initiates were given a garland of flowers, a bindi and a blessed bracelet.  We held a miniature talent show, where I read a IMG_4534poem and other students played guitar, sang or acted. It was also in this final week that I felt an incredible bond with the small group of us that had  completed the program. It is very beautiful thing, growing close to a group people after a very short time when you share a deeply transformational experience together. I underwent a significant amount of emotional and spiritual growth and my friends here acted as mirrors to reflect on some of this change.

I’m now in Dharamsala and have been reflecting on how to describe the Yoga course, my experience and impressions about it. Sometimes when I find myself explaining it to friends in an e-mail or people I meet while traveling I get a little frustrated and feel like saying “You have to have been there”. Let me try again!

If I’ve learned anything as of late, its that we each have our personal Karma and path, mixed with our experiences and actions in this life. We are all on different trajectories, crossing various thresholds and situations at different times. Have you ever read a spiritual book and gotten nothing out of it, only to return to it years later to then appreciate the profound nature of it? Or sometimes a friend tells you that you HAVE to read a certain book or see a certain movie as it moved them incredibly, only to discover that nothing resonates for you?  I think I attended this Yoga course at just the right time in my life (aka the stars were aligned). Five years ago I would have laughed off much of the teaching, disregarding things that did not fit into my contextual framework or understanding of the world. My recent travels, self exploration and interest in various cultures and theologies has allowed my framework to shift. For one to experience growth and recognize value in the Agama program, or Yoga in general (referring here to the ancient Indian practices, not the gymnastics we practice in the West), one has to believe that there are human experiences that cannot be described or put into a box by modern science. For example, one of the primary threads of Yoga practice is working with prana (Japanese – Ki, Chinese – Qi), the vital, life-sustaining force of all living beings. There are many of these – clairvoyance, astral projection, levitation, rebirth, universal consciousness, telekinesis to name a few. Modern science simply rejects things that it cannot explain as unfounded, the primary examples being the existence of God, Divine Consciousness, soul or spirit.  Yet, millions of individuals throughout history, including the greatest philosophers, sages, and creative geniuses of Asia, have held such experiences and have shared them. Are they all deluded? Or does science simply not have all of the answers?

With that said, let me describe the course a bit for those who may be considering it or are simply curious. First of all, when they title it the “First Level Intensive”, they should really bold-face the word intensive. You will practice and study Yoga 6 days a week for 4 weeks, approximately 8-10 hours a day.  Each day a new asana (posture) is discussed, demonstrated and practiced, which allows for a slow ramping up of the physical practice. In the evenings a lecture is given, varying from topics on physical purification, explanations of the chakras and koshas, spiritual aspiration and music meditation. The full curriculum is below:

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The class was taught by a group of four teachers, all of whom I gained a lot of respect for as the month progressed. It was clear that these individuals were practicing what they were preaching, embodying an aspiration for union with the Divine (Yoga), and genuinely interested in our progress. Certain aspects of this month I can compare to the Zen meditation retreat last year. Giving myself over to the schedule, wavering between moments of bliss and moments of extreme suffering and having many powerful breakthroughs to name a few. Relying on the sangha (group) was also critical in order for me to discuss and dive into the parts of the program that were difficult to understand or to compare aspects of mind and body that were being challenged. 

As I mentioned in a previous post, the most powerful part of the course was the asana practice – the lecture curriculum was almost too much at times, and in order to maintain my sanity I was discriminating on which lectures I would focus on. Ultimately my practice is about moving more into my body and out of my mind! I would love to dive into many of the more specific details of the course, but feel they are a bit out of context here and due to their very personal nature and sacredness, best discussed one-one or privately. I must say that I am highly considering continuing my studies under this school in the future, potentially at the headquarters on Ko Pha Ngan island in Thailand.

That’s all for now.

Life in Rishikesh

Hi friends. I know I haven’t written or called or e-mailed in a while. That’s on purpose. This has been a calculated effort to dive deep into the land and practice of the Yogis, experimenting with life and self and soul without the energetic influence of my relationships and habits from home. I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity to have stepped aside, to be purposely introspective and examining of everything I have called reality until this step of my journey. 

IMG_4506I’m nearing the end of my month long course and I will soon have the element of time returned to me where I can share many of the practices, postures, cleansings and spiritual insights that I have gathered. I have learned more about my body, mind and soul in one month than I have in any other single month in my life.

My life has been monastic in quality – with the exception of a single motor bike excursion I haven’t left the the quaint area of Swarg Ashram in Rishikesh. A brief insight into my daily life here:

7:00 Wake-up to the mixture of a cool morning breeze rattling the windows and children playing outside next door. I do my morning “Kriyas” which include scraping the tongue, cleansing the nasal passages and gums with rock salt and washing out the eyes with cold water.

7:15: My favorite part of the day. The walk from my guesthouse to the Yoga Ashram. Indians generally do not get started this early, so early morning is an extremely peaceful time when the morning light mixes with the first signs of motion on the street. My first hello is to the same cow that occupies the same space each and every morning, waiting for my orange peel. I provide the aforementioned and move on towards the yoga ashram, passing the bums pretending to be saddhus and nodding hello to the chai walla as I enter the ashram for morning meditation. A small group of 4-6 usually sit for the optional meditation and I find it an opportunity to set my intention for the day. The teacher usually reads a poem or small section of a book and off we go, asking who am I? for an hour.

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8:15: Meditation ends and I use my break to get a 10 cent cup of chai, eat a couple of oranges and mingle with the animals and fellow yoginis on their way to class. My favorite cow is usually around and walks up to me to say hello and get his orange peel. I generally sit between the cow and the dog in the photo below. The bums are usually trying to talk me into buying them a cup of chai in broken English and the monkeys are beginning to descend looking for unsuspecting people not carefully guarding their fruit. Turn your attention away for a second and poof!, a monkey will be happily snacking away on your food and grinning at you from a nearby rooftop or tree.

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8:30: Yoga! Practice usually lasts 2.5 hours, the first 30 minutes dedicated to answering questions and learning the technical details of a new asana (posture). We discuss which chakra(s) we are activating, where to focus our attention and various alternatives for the asana if it is too difficult. We learn the transformational and healing effects of the asana that come with extended practice. For example, improved abilities to give and receive love when focused on the heart chakra. We move into our full practice, which generally takes a total of two hours.

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11:30:  Moon Dance Cafe for for conversation and breakfast. A group of Nepalese guys run the place and they provide amazing food and service. Depending on how hungry I am, its either a bowl of muesli/fruit/curd/honey or a couple of eggs on toast, washed down with a lemon ginger honey tea. Usually I will mingle with various people from, class or town, discussing the Yoga practice or something else.

13:00-15:00: My only real down time of the day. Generally used for doing laundry, cleaning, shopping, checking e-mail or anything else to beat the heat.  The temperature in Rishikesh has been steadily increasing since my arrival – now in the mid 90’s during the high part of the day. The first week here I was wearing a jacket in the morning and evening, now that jacket is firmly packed away for the season.

15:15: Stop by the German Bakery to see Lila and his son, another Nepalese family who make killer Yak Cheese/Avocado/Tomato sandwiches and juices. I will usually find my friends Marcelo, Karina and Dave here discussing something New Agey – Gurus, Clairvoyance, Chakras, energy, on and on. I join in the fun and sip on either a pomegranate or mango juice and if alone, jot a few thoughts down in a notebook.

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16:00: Time for afternoon Yoga. Similar to the morning except we simply practice. We begin with Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutations), making 12 devotional salutations to the Sun. In the final six, we chant the various Sanskrit words for the Sun. Surya Namaskara allows me to scan my body and mind, let go of the various attachments and thoughts I’ve built up throughout the day and drop into practice. We then continue with our typical practice, usually doing different asanas in the afternoon, sometimes focused more specifically on a single chakra such as the heart or third-eye. Afternoon Savasana (final relaxation) is always very powerful for me and when I walk out of the ashram I generally need a few minutes to fully return to my body.

18:30: My favorite (I know I already said this!) part of the day: Taking the back roads from back to Moon Dance Cafe for dinner along a windy stone walled path lined with massive trees. The sun has just set, the birds are singing their evening love songs, the dogs and monkeys and cows are making their final preparations for night. I like to call this the Jewel of the Day, those waning moments between sunset and darkness that are charged with energy. As I reenter my body I try to walk meditatively, sometimes holding my hands at my navel as we do in the Zen tradition as a reminder for mindfulness. Once at Moon Dance I will say hello to my friends and usually take my food to go so I can return on time for evening lecture.

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19:00 – 21:00: Yoga Lecture time – various topics from the morals and ethics of Yoga, things like nonviolence (ahimsa), nonattachment, vegetarianism, karma yoga etc. We learn things like conscious dreaming (Nidra Yoga), music meditation and of course discourses on the many branches of Yoga. We discuss topics such as healing through Yoga, Brahmacharya (sexual continence) and tantra. Most of the lectures have been fantastic – I will discuss this more later when I review the entire first month. There is so much information that comes at you that you have to mine it – I found myself primarily focusing on the physical practice, pulling various items from the lectures that I could apply or incubate into my daily life. After lecture, I would sometimes have a juice with friends or simply return to my room for some reading or a movie to unwind, crawling into bed simultaneously exhausted and invigorated, looking forward to repeating it again tomorrow.

There you have it – nowhere near the action-packed adventure of 2009, but equally powerful on the subtler planes of existence. This time its much more about penetrating deep rather than seeing it all. Turning the lens inwards.

Namaste.

Calm as a Hindu Cow

I’m two weeks into my month-long Yoga intensive in Rishikesh. I feel as if this incredible unfolding is happening right before my eyes. Actually, the unfolding is occurring behind my eyes. Yoga, combined with a beautifully enriching spiritual community, mixed with the current state of my own path, throw in a small group of friends committed to sharing their own process and exploring the beauty of existence together have all come together at this amazing time in my life.

A cosmic unrolling I will call it, that at moments seems to accelerate change in myself and solidify a connection with the Divine. I’ve shaken off the stagnation that I was feeling at home, processing what I now know was caused by a lack of preparation and lack of energetic defense against the onslaught that is one’s past. I am, to the best of my abilities and intentions, back in the here and now. I plan to write about my time at home eventually, but I am still sitting with various aspects of it. Plus the here and now is here and now. 🙂

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Yoga practice has provided the underlying framework for this unrolling. But I’m not talking about the cartwheel Iron Yogi style of practice we have grown accustomed to in the West. Yoga this time refers to the ancient tradition of spiritual awakening first developed in India that morphed into Buddhism and continues to influence thought and culture in the East.

I was introduced to the Trika Yoga program from my friends Al and Nicole whom I met while traveling in Nepal. They participated in the introductory first month course in January and when I checked in with them to see how it was going, Nicole said “It makes me feel so much like a million bucks that if someone offered me a million bucks to quit I would say no." That, in addition reading this link on Trika’s website (answering yes to the 7 questions as the bottom), and I was SOLD! I still consider myself a Zen Buddhist, but I believe the physical aspects of certain Yogic practices (Zen developed from something called Yogacara (meaning one whose practice is Yoga)) are beautiful complements to my Zen practice.

A bit about the program – it (as many popular programs in India today) was developed by a Westerner who assimilated the teachings of many masters. Trika has a holistic approach that provides insight into several Yogic disciplines, primarily aligned with Hatha Yoga (Ha=Sun, Tha=moon), focusing on balancing cosmic and telluric energies in our energetic bodies through our  emissive and receptive functions (Yin and Yang), respectively. The text from Trika’s website:

An introduction to Hatha Yoga, Kriya Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Laya Yoga, and Tantra Yoga. It also includes theory and practice on techniques from Raja Yoga, Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Nidra Yoga, and Bhakti Yoga, thus constituting a genuine example of Integral Yoga.

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Information and explanatory lectures are given on a variety of related topics such as: diet in Yoga, healing through natural methods, purification and cleansing techniques, Ayurveda, yin/yang balancing, relaxation, physiology and psychology in Yoga, mastery and transmutation of the sexual energy, Eastern philosophy, mental concentration, the use of music in Yoga, and meditation, to name but a few.

Yoga in general is not dogmatic and the ashram where I practice is dotted with photographs and quotes of masters from all disciplines – many Yogis and Hindu deities of course, but also Christ, Gandhi, Buddha, contemporary individuals who have gained realization in various forms.

One can become quite proficient in this Trika path – undergoing 5 years or so to become a certified teacher. The primary introduction lasts 3 months, with most instruction and practice coming in the first month, what I’ve committed to. The first month consists of a 28 day program, 6 days a week for 4 weeks. Each day is similar – the only difference being the new asana we learn in the morning and a unique lecture in the evening. The schedule is very intense and tiring. I’m in the ashram from 7:30-11:30 in the morning and then 4-9 in the evening. The morning begins with a 45 minute meditation, followed by short instructions on the new asana (posture) for the day. We then proceed to practice for approximately 2 hours. We repeat this in the afternoon, incorporating a series of sun salutations(Surya Namaskara) with devotional chanting to begin the practice in a symbolic act that is a complete surrender of oneself to God. We then proceed with the asana practice and once finished, we take a short break and move into a lecture on various yogic disciplines. Yogi Training 101 I like to call it.

I’ve found that the lectures are hit and miss – for example last nights was on the merits of vegetarianism of which I need no convincing. Some are also very high level morality issues that I’ve already spend a lot of time on in my Buddhist path. However – others, on various cleansing techniques, in-depth discussions on chakras, sublimation of energy, tantric sexuality and others are great. So I pick and choose which lectures to go to, tonight skipping a discussion on Non-Attachment in order to blog!

I pick gems out of the lectures to avoid intellectual overload (there is some contradiction in the teaching method as we are trying to get OUT of our heads and into our bodies and yet we are bombarded with 200 pages worth of techniques and philosophies…), working with these gems in my physical practice. This is where the gold nugget is. Spending 5-7 hours on a Yoga mat each day. Instead of running through 50 postures in 60 minutes like I do in Boulder, flexing muscles and treating Yoga like another competitive sport, we do a small series of Hatha Yoga postures generally holding them for 5-8 minutes each. We are taught about the flow of energy in each of these postures and which chakras are activated and how. For example, Padahastana, the first asana is the simple forward bend, touching your toes while keeping your legs straight. Peace of cake right? Try doing it for 8 minutes. It turns out to be one of my favorite postures as it activates your muladhara chakra (root) with telluric energy from the earth, providing a sense of grounding, security and stability. If my mind is full of chatter during the warming exercises, Padahastana usually drops me right into a place where I can practice.

I could go on forever about the postures but what I want to talk about is the subtle explorations that are going on in practice. The real goal here is to clear and activate all of your chakras, remove blockages, learn to sublimate energy from lower to higher (i.e. root to heart) chakras and ultimately to raise your level of consciousness to higher planes or vibrations. The truth is we all have access to this at any time and realized people don’t need to do a hundred asanas to get there… but for the rest of us it is a path to the destination. Once at the destination you realize you were always there and can drop all of the dissections of practice and chakras and all the rest.

One of the most incredible moments for me was an afternoon where I untied a sanskara, an impression derived from past experiences that form desires that influence future responses and behavior (karma). These are often stored in the physical body, far away from where the conscious mind can act or even be aware of them. While working on the emissive side (right/Yang) of Trikonasana (triangle) which activates aspects of the Manipura (navel) chakra such as inner balance, self confidence and inner harmony I began to be overwhelmed with emotion. We immediately moved into Bhujangasana (cobra pose) which arouses the anahata (heart chakra). At this point I started sobbing uncontrollably. I just let it go. There was no conscious thinking, emotional stimulus or anything at the level of the mind that could have caused this. I’ve really never experienced anything like this before. From experience I have a lot of blockage between my navel and heart chakras and this was just one step of many in the slow process of opening this channel. My mind wants to analyze it to death but I’ve just let it go, knowing that it is unexplainable. I’ve experienced other things that don’t make scientific sense and I’m afraid a little too personal and to share to the world.

I’m learning so much about my body, my impulses , my karma , my relationship to self, to others, to God.

Let the unrolling continue.

Return to the Pilgrimage

Did I ever actually stop? Of course not, but traveling to a holy city such as Rishikesh, India, really brings it up close and personal. I realize I did not keep my dear followers apprised of my plans, disappearing into the comforts of home and finding writing a challenge. Two months ago when I left Bodhgaya and returned to Colorado, my intention was always to return to India. I held a non-exchangeable ticket for Feb 23rd and determined that unless the universe had significantly different plans for me and presented them to me during my time home, I would be on that flight. This time however, my trip will be different. I plan to spend the majority of my time in only two cities – Rishikesh and Dharamsala. In Rishikesh I’m already 5 days into a month-long intensive Yoga program. In Dharamsala my intention is to volunteer for the Tibetan exiles that live in this mountain community where the Dalai Lama now calls home.

I already have a tremendous amount to say – about home, about here, about me. Let me look back before I look ahead. As I noted earlier, I could not seem to find the energy to write, despite my free time and comfortable surroundings. There was this sense of a fog that always enveloped me in subtle ways. Stepping away for only a few days gives me a much clearer impression of why this was. The demands on my energy at home are so much higher – and yes I’m talking about a lot more than just physical energy. When you live somewhere for a long time, you build up a vast network of karmic ties, energetic connections to other people, places, activities and objects. Yesterday I visualized a tug-of-war that I was playing at home. I was on one end of the rope and on the other side was society, my friends, my family all wanting me to come back. To be that productive capitalist, the same guy he was two years ago and all the rest of it. There are also all of the aspects of living in a society dominated by second chakra energy, pulling on our desires, our sexuality and our anxieties. The most frightening aspect of this game of tug-of-war was that I eventually realized that I was on the other side of the rope too!  There is part of me that wants that ease – the ease of a life already lived, a path well trodden and relationships that are static and easy. After spending two months playing this game, a Zen master appeared in the form of the friend sitting next to me as I related this visualization at breakfast and said “just drop the rope”.   Woah. wait. Not yet. Too scary. Then what?

The immediate contrast of going from home directly to Rishikesh and into an intense practice is powerful. My trip was fantastic, facing several nail-biting detours and changes, but always in the end a travel angel would come along and make sure everything was fine, eventually dropping me in Rishikesh with a couple hours to spare before my first session on that mat. I found my friends Al & Nicole and have been befriended by the small community of people that they’ve developed after being here almost two months. I will get into the details of my course in my next post but for now wanted to highlight the aspects of life in Rishikesh. First, its one of India’s oldest and most sacred cities, located on the mother Ganga (Ganges) river. Life is very simple. I’m spending most of my time in Swarg Ashram a small community of ashrams in a pedestrian-only area separated from Rishikesh City by Ram Jula bridge.  My guesthouse is a five minute walk from the Yoga ashram, there are two restaurants that I frequent and a handful of shops that have everything I might need. Alcohol and meat are strictly prohibited and the food served up is incredible vegetarian fare.  I spend 4 hours in the morning at the Ashram and another 5 in the evening with a few hours to rest and eat during the day. Today class was Del364748 canceled for the festival of Holi. Holi, one of the largest festivals in India and despite its roots in ancient Vedic history, today consists primarily of Indians getting drunk, spraying each other with paint and lighting things on fire. As soon as I post this I’m going to head out and check out the festivities.

Back to the contrast – the shock to the system, along with some crazy jet lag, provided a great opportunity for some lucid moments and a reset, self-likened to the old ‘reboot’ option on a computer. I found myself half-awake in challenging environs, half-asleep in others, moving immediately into my yoga course and dropping into conversation about self and soul. I’ve escaped the rope for now. I’m still holding it, but the forces on the other end have decreased and I can relax into my daily existence.

I’m looking forward to letting go, to exploring this contrast further and eventually gaining the courage to drop the rope.