Tuesday, September 30, 2008
~ More Ashrams than hotels
~ Pure vegetarian and Ayurvedic food
~ A ban on Alcohol
~ Hindu prayers and songs flowing through the streets
~ Yoga instructors galore of all styles and disciplines
~ All kinds of travelers and pilgrims interested in a similar path
My yoga experience at the Ashram was lacking and I was just not feeling satisfied. I decided to look elsewhere and discovered a myriad of options. That day Bob and I moved from the Ashram to a family run Guest House down the road. After three days of treatments I stopped my Panchakarma to focus exclusively on Yoga. Dr. Maurya recommended I meet Sarinder Singh at the Raj Palace Hotel. My first class was like coming home. It all felt so right, so comfortable. I immediately connected with Sarinder’s kind and loving energy. His attentiveness to each individual and knowledgeable adjustments instilled confidence. He gave me renewed hope of healing my left hip that has been in pain and tightly locked for the past year and a half. My entire practice has been redefined and injected with insightful alignment principles, relaxation techniques and a suite of new Asanas to open the hips, shoulders, spine and mind.
Occasionally during the class, Sarinder discusses the benefits of meditation and has used a few creative analogies:
~ If a seed is split in half it cannot grow. As a whole and under the proper conditions, the seed can grow into a beautiful flower with solid roots, a nice fragrance and beautiful petals. Similarly, acceptance is our blossoming. We can become more balanced, peaceful and whole through meditation, asana and pranayama. The flower is the centre of nature while the soul is the centre of our being.
~ Do you look at yourself in the mirror before you leave the house? This is a common habit to make sure our physical appearance is OK before we interact with the outside world. How do we check our mind? How do we look inside ourselves? Through meditation, we can look at our mind to observe inner selves, recognize our negative patterns and eventually through practice and patience purify our thoughts. Turn your mind to the inside.
~ How do you make a lassie? By mixing milk with curd. In order to make the curd, we must first boil the milk, add a little bit of curd and let it sit in stillness for a very long time. We can then enjoy a tasty lassie. Again, by observing of our thoughts, breathing consciously and relaxing the body we can quiet the mind. Access peace and true happiness.
I have the best intentions to practice meditation. I understand the benefits but don’t know why I am not making the time to sit in stillness with myself. I have found an early morning session at another Ashram where a Swami will guide you through meditation techniques. But alas I have yet to attend. What is holding me back? Why am I clinging to old mindsets and not exploring new possibilities? I will set my alarm for tomorrow morning and try to go. Stillness in action …
Now back to Yoga classes … Last Sunday evening, I had somewhat of a different experience with another teacher at a hotel just down the street. I ventured into the yoga room, curious to explore alternative teachers and styles. This young man had quite the opposite vibe and it didn’t help matters that I was the only student in a space that resembled a dingy cave with room for a maximum of three people. The routine started off fine but quickly digressed as we moved through the standing postures. The door was locked behind us, curtains drawn and the room became more and more claustrophobic with his monotone instructions piercing my eardrums. With each adjustment I felt his presence becoming closer and closer. At one point I had to set my boundaries and let him know that his adjustments were making me uncomfortable as they were beginning to infringe on the nether regions. You want to give the yoga teacher the benefit of the doubt but at the same time you have to listen to your inner voice. And this time it was shouting loud and clear. The class finally came to a close with bazaar yogic breathing techniques that I had once witnessed but never practiced myself. He told me that if I lifted my shirt he could see my belly motions better and therefore help more. I abruptly declined and managed to get myself through the practice as well as his final relaxation that resembled a 45-speed record set to 33. Needless to say I ran out at the end of the class and didn’t look back.
For the past 8 mornings I have found a really neat teacher that focuses on Iyengar techniques and Restorative Yoga. Suryans’ classes are a great compliment to Surinder’s evening set. The Iyengar approach slows things right down by deconstructing each pose to truly understand it and feel the alignment principles in action. We practice each pose multiple times and use a lot of props such as bolsters, blankets, blocks and straps to assist the body while in the pose. Tomorrow I am going to start a 10 day course with Suryans. They are installing ropes on the walls to also assist us in the postures. It should be fun to tie ourselves up and then release down completely into the poses. I am sure Downward dog will be an entirely new experience. I’ll keep you posted on the progress.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
‘Parmarth’ means ‘dedicated to the welfare of all’ and ‘Niketan’ means ‘an abode’. This includes both the spiritual welfare of the guests, seekers and pilgrims who come to stay as well as the physical welfare of the needy, impoverished people. In addition to the programs run by the Ashram they are also actively involved in a variety of programs and activities to care for the poor, sick, hungry, homeless and illiterate.
Imagine living in a place that is completely isolated from the rest of the world for 6 months every year. This is the case for many of the mountain communities in Ladakh. Once the roads close in October the locals know winter is upon them. This is considered a ‘State of Emergency’ in many other parts of the world. Extreme conditions make for resilient and humble people. Every task necessary for survival is tedious and cumbersome at best. Running water ceases to exist as the pipes freeze so trucks deliver water in huge canisters to various stops around town three times per week. Every household meets the truck with as many containers as they can muster and trudges the heavy, cold loads back to their homes. This water must first be boiled for drinking and cooking. Laundry becomes the most dreaded chore as it is all washed by hand and hung on the line where it freezes for three days and then eventually dries.
As I spoke to Dolma about the winter experience, I could only imagine the difficulties her and her family face everyday. Life has no choice but to slow down with only the basics taken into consideration – food, clothing and shelter. There are no fresh vegetables available so food such as potatoes, rice and corn must be stockpiled. Often times, the basic necessities such as sugar and salt run out in the community. Families must ration themselves and prepare from the onset of winter.
But why do the roads close for 6 months of the year? Well if you have ever experienced a Ladakhi mountain road you may understand. Twisty, turvy, bumpy, lumpy, single-lane roads slither through the mountainscape. Some are edged with cliffs that drop death-defying lengths to glacial riverbeds far below. Others switchback time and again giving new meaning to turning a corner. Hand painted signs line the road and warn motorists of the dangers and hazards. Some noteworthy signs include (and you have to love the underlying connotations):
~ Better to be Mr. Late, than Late Mr.
~ After whiskey, driving rhiskey.
~ Don’t gossip. Let him drive.
~ Drive slow, live long.
~ If you married, divorce speed.
Compound these roads with ice and snow during the wintertime and you have a recipe for disaster. Pavement seems to be a relatively new phenomenon but is found few and far between. And there definitely are no snow removal mechanisms in these parts. During the warm season, work crews comprised of young boys and men set out to conquer and construct the mountain roads one rock at a time. Everything is constructed by hand using tools that look like they are from prehistoric times. Huge boulders are smashed down to big rocks, which in turn are beaten down to smaller stones, which eventually become gravel and finally sifted to sand. Fire blazes under makeshift containers as tar is churned and asphalt formed. The work crews look extremely exhausted; their faces and clothes blackened by the tar and intense heat of the sun. Yet there are still smiles on their faces as they squat by the side of the road smoking a beadie and watching the world drive on by. They call themselves ‘The Mountain Tamers’ and it is these brave men that provide access to the mountain communities for the 6 months of the year that travel is possible.
Friday, September 19, 2008
Saturday, September 6, 2008
The school has completed its first two phases of construction. The design is centred on a ‘Mandala’ structure with all the other buildings radiating outwards from this focal point. The buildings are configured in such an intelligent way to catch the best sunlight in order to retain heat in the winter and keep the rooms cool in the summer. Construction is still underway with more plans in the works. This is a serious endeavor spearheaded by ‘His Holiness’ here in India, as well as, a non-profit organization based in the United Kingdom. Fundraising is key to its continued growth and success and its fair to say that the school is faced with new challenges everyday.
Currently there are over 400 students of which 123 live on campus in the residences. The children come from far and wide … some right from the community of Sheh, others take the bus from Leh and surrounding areas while others are from remote mountain communities. The new school year starts in November and a goal has been set to attract 60 new students to register. In order to meet this objective aggressive strategies must be implemented including radio and print campaigns that offer promotional incentives such as free uniforms and hot meals. Wendy from the UK along with Sarla, a genuine Ladakhi Princess that works with the school will also be venturing out on a three day trek into the remote mountain communities to create awareness and meet families first-hand. Talk about grassroots style. I was invited to go along on the trek but lo and behold my boy, Bob finally arrives in Leh on Monday and I want to be there to pick
During the three week summer break in July the campus could also be rented to groups as a retreat centre. This is a truly powerful and spiritual place set within one of the most stunning mountain ranges in the world. Think trekking, yoga, meditation, art, writing, holistic healing, organic food … Now, that gets my creative juices flowing.
“Saboo, Saboo, Saboo,” chimed Padma. “Yes, please come.” We all piled into the car for a Sunday drive to visit Padma’s mother who lives in Saboo and works in the fields tending to the acres of gardens for the guest house family. Saboo is a small village that lies on the outskirts of Leh. It was like stepping back into time. We parked the car and walked to the homestead down narrow passageways, past the bubbling creek and climbing over makeshift stonewalls. Padma’s mother was delighted to see us and greeted us with milk tea in the family’s rustic home built from clay blocks and small trees. She stoked the fire using a hand pump and proceeded to the garden to pick fresh pea pods to include in our lunch. I helped to prepare our simple meal, shucking the peas and molding round discs of dough with my thumbs for a traditional Ladakhi dish called ‘Skew’. I felt so content sitting on the dirt floor as part of the family contributing in my own small way. We communicated with our smiles and laughter, knowing in our hearts what we were saying to one another. Lunch tasted delicious and it was wonderful to see Padma so happy to be with her mother for an afternoon.
When I decided to sponsor Padma two years ago, it was a great relief to her mother. Working in the fields she makes just enough money to live day-to-day and struggled to pay for the annual school admission fees. Needless to say, she was extremely grateful that I took on the responsibility of providing $240 per year for Padma’s education. As we were leaving Saboo to return to Leh, Padma’s mother grabbed my hand and placed a silver ring with a small topaz stone in my palm. The ring was scratched and worn and likely one of her few possessions. I wear this ring proudly and think of Padma’s mother … I think of how giving just a little can profoundly touch the lives of so many and at the same time reciprocate in ways that fuels the soul and warms the heart.
~ Rise to the crazy barking of the packs of dogs at approx. 5am
~ Toss and turn on my thin matress and lucid dream about weird and whacky things until 6:30am
~ Get out of bed and take an Indian bucket bath to wake myself up
~ Go downstairs for breakfast in the kitchen - typically one piece of Ladakhi bread with Apricot jam. There has been a shortage of eggs recently as the road has been closed from Srinagar due to internal conflict
~ Padma and I walk hand in hand along the pathways to the bus stop downtown
~ The bus is a wild trip ... picking up little cuties left and right and just when you think you can't squeeze any more kids onto the bus a dozen more find their way aboard
~ The Hindi music blares as we bump down the streets en route to Sheh where the school is located approx. 45 minutes from Leh
~ We enter the school and the sun is scorching ... desert dry I am greeted by a multitude of smiles and 'Good Morning Madam'
~ Morning prayers in the prayer room led by a resident Monk who has the most friendly face ... the voices of the children sing the Tibetan prayers and I try to sit quietly in a cross legged position while my legs fall asleep
~ Outdoor prayers follow in the morning sun ... it resembles a military brigade somewhat ... it is so neat to watch the little ones with their palms together and their eyes closed
~ Classes begin ... I typically teach 2-3 40 minute yoga classes in the prayer room before lunch
~ You can imagine the dust and dirt on the floor from all the children wearing their shoes in this space for the past few months ... it was not so pleasant to be putting your nose into this carpet. I have managed to get it cleaned out ... much better now - whew!
~ The kids love the yoga - we laugh so much and now they are remembering some of the poses and their names. Some classes we start with a game like 'Over and Under', others we practice partner yoga or go on a jungle safari making all kinds of animal sounds together.
~ By 1pm I am famished. Finally lunch at the residence. The food keeps getting better and better. The first day I was a little concerned after biting into a deep fried egg. A typical lunch consists of dal, rice and a veggie ... I have yet to venture into the meat after seeing goat's carcas attracting a multitude of flies hanging in the various butcher's stalls.
~ After lunch I take a little time to visit Naropa Palace, a temple where Buddhist Nuns from the surrounding area and as far as Nepal reside. My first visit was incredible ... I have never heard such sweet, serene sounds with such a hypnotic beat ... I wanted to stay for days. I have been welcomed and sit behind the nuns for a short while as they chant the afternoon away ...
~ I then take a visit to the Nursery or the Kindegarten classes to say hi and observe the organized chaos. Sometimes we practice English and others we play games ... Duck, duck goose was a real hit!
~ And then it is time to go home - 3pm. I take the bus with the children ... the music plays and we are on our way.
~ By the time I reach home, I am absolutely exhausted. Working with kids takes a lot of energy but is so rewarding in so many ways. Hats off and my deepest respect to all the teachers in the world.
I visited a few of the surrounding monasteries and listened to the chants of the monks. The beauty of the deities within the temples were overwhelming ... a 20 foot carved sculpture of Buddha captivated my senses.
And back to Shanti Stupa; a temple that was built for the visit of the Dalai Lama located just on the edge of town. Up, up and up many steps. I felt quite the accomplishment making it to the top for the first time after numerous winded stops. The view is incredible ... a craggy mountain scape fills out the backdrop as monks silently circle the Stupa three times. I will try to come to this special place as often as I can ...
I arrived in a weary state on August 14th after traveling for over 48 hours from Toronto ... talk about sleep deprivation. Let's just say my body was in a state of shock. I caught a nasty little sore throat, cold, cough and fever. This could be attributed to many factors ... the long, arduous journey, the altitude and change in weather, the whirlwind tour of Ontario that involved many late evenings of excess and yes, debauchery visiting friends and family. Whatever the reason, I was flat on my back for a solid week and a half and felt miserable.
Now when you are visiting such an incredibly different place you want to be up and at em. You want to tackle the streets, visit the sites and climb the hills. I was forced to surrender to my situation and to simply lay low until I was feeling better. Just walking into town from my guest house took all of my energy ... and we are only talking a 10 minute rendez-vous. But alas the heavens were telling me to take rest and let go of my expectations.
Thank goodness I was staying at the Ashoka Guest House where I stayed two years ago and became very close with the family who owns the establishment. They looked after me keeping a watch on my temperature and concoting traditional Ladakhi remedies that I happily choked down. It was such a treat to see little Padma Dechen again ... the girl who I have been thinking about everyday since my last stay at the Guest House. In such a short time she had grown so much ... her baby teeth that were rotting were replaced with healthy adult teeth ... her hair had grown to her shoulders ... and her smile was still the same... enough to melt your heart. She was so shy at first but it didn't take too long to open up. She remembered Natalie and myself from our last encounter. It made me so happy to reconnect and be in a place that I once felt such peace and tranquility.