Mysticism and the Inner Way

Photo Courtesy of Isha Yoga Center

Group Photo Courtesy of Isha Yoga Center

Pulling up to the security checkpoint at the Isha Yoga Center I saw the outline of the Vellangiri Mountains stretched out against a clear blue sky. Not knowing what to expect or even what clothes to bring, I arrived in Coimbatore to do the Inner Way program with Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev because of a recommendation from a friend.

“If you’re open to meeting a Guru who’s something special, you must do this program. It will be profound, “he told me.

Sitting with Sadhguru was an experience I can’t articulate. Some people believe he’s not human; he is an energetic, embodiment of something divine few of us understand. Some can’t find the words to talk to him or hold a conversation. Sitting on his yogi bench hooked up to a mic with a huge screen to his right, at times I thought we were on Oprah. “South Indian mysticism has its own flavor,” he once told us,”It’s not better than other styles of mysticism, it simply has a unique flavor.” Part of the experience was about expanding consciousness, feeling something energetic shift and take root through his transmission.  Magic happens inside us, we just need to tune into it. At times, I felt as if an energy transmission was happening inside me and something was being subtly awakened. It wasn’t anything I could understand or explain intellectually, it was something sensed and experienced.

He didn’t talk “spiritually”. Instead, you felt his absolute love for all human beings and sometimes his total compassion for our stupidity. He distilled complicated yogic sciences down to the bare minimum we needed, to taste the experiences he was talking about. He amused me endlessly with his passion for racing cars, flying planes and charming snakes.

Photo Courtesy of Isha Yoga Center

Sadhguru – Photo Courtesy of Isha Yoga Center

Quietly, I questioned how and why I came to such a magical place, meeting this particular group of people. Before I arrived at the Ashram I had that strong inner voice telling me to not get caught up in thinking about what it was going to be like. My expectations were based on life experiences up to this point and I had not  experienced anything like this before.

Every day at 5:30am we woke up to someone playing the drums. At 6:00am, we’d hear the second drum which meant it was almost time to go. Then at 6:20 someone walked around playing the flute, which told us we needed to be on our way to Spanda Hall and on our mats ready to start at 6:30am. The yoga mats were set up for us with soft cream-colored cushions and small back support chairs. Each day would build on the practice from the day before, with the Sadilaja asana, Surya Shakti and Suraya Namaskar, until we were in Shavasana (a favorite asana). The two final days our practice included Sadhguru’s transmission of the sacred Shambhavi Mahamudra.

Photo Courtesy of Isha Yoga Center

Photo Courtesy of Isha Yoga Cente

Sadhguru led discussions about the yogic sciences and meditation. He shared life experiences, made fun of people who were falling asleep in the front row and kept us laughing with extraordinary storytelling. One morning our session was a short hike into the mountains to have our talk and lunch by a stream. Every night there was a fantastic dinner accompanied by live music, which Sadhguru usually attended.

Our class had 115 participants from UK, Spain, Lebanon, Bulgaria, India, China and the U.S.. Over the five days, I gelled with a small international group of friends. As we processed Sadhguru’s talks, danced to the Sounds of Isha and took in the beauty of the place I felt myself relax.

Photo Courtesy of Isha Yoga Center

Photo Courtesy of Isha Yoga Center

Over lunch one day as the program was ending, Shreedevi Chowdary of Hyderabad, turned to us and said, “If any of you come to Hyderabad just let me know. I’ll have my driver pick you up at the airport and you’re welcome to stay.” Feeling at ease I chimed in right away, “I’ll take you up on that. I’d love to come and stay.” She made me feel her invitation was genuine. In that moment my journey took another twist and turn.

Where do you meet a live Mystic & Yogi in India?

Sadhguru

Sadhguru

“Why are you going to Coimbatore?” he asked me. I noticed his mustache was little long. He blue and white shirt was neatly pressed, he spoke English and he was dressed like a business man.

“I’m going to an Ashram for a week. I’m not exactly sure of the name, I think it’s called Isha. It’s a last minute decision.” I told him.

“Ah, yes, how do you know about Isha?” He asked

I explained that I had been travelling with friends for the last week when our tour guide Bharat, from Delhi, mentioned it. He has been going for a few years and loves Guru Jaggi Vasudev. He recommended I go for  Mahashivarathri, a Hindu festival celebrated every year in honour of Lord Shiva, the Adiyogi – the first yogi.

Dhyanalinga

Dhyanalinga

Bharat found out Sadhaguru was leading a program  called “The Innerway” for 5 days before Mahashivarathri. All my friend could tell me was that it would be  transformational and something I  must experience while in India.  I went on-line and read what I could about the Guru and his Ashram / Foundation. He’s a mystic and a yogi who facilitates mediation and yoga programs all over the world. The Ashram has a Dhyanalinga yogic temple, with a 13 foot 9 inch lingam made of high density granite. The temple is purely a meditative space that does not ascribe to any particular faith or belief system. The Isha Foundation is a non-religious non-profit organization entirely run by volunteers. One of the many social initiatives funded is called Project GreenHands. The project is currently in the Guinness Book of World Records for planting over 8.2 million trees by over 2 million volunteers. I decided to throw caution to the wind one more time and do the program.

“I have many friends that go there. I’ve been once. It’s very powerful. It’s magical. You’ll experience magic after a week there. Really,” he said. I could feel the excitement in his voice.

Not knowing how to respond I stayed quiet. Silently I was thinking, “Good,  I want to experience magic in India. I wonder what he means.” I listened to him tell me about a German colleague that was considering going to the Ashram on his last visit to their office in Coimbatore. In the end the colleague decided not to go. He wasn’t open to a new experience  that he  didn’t understand or have context for. It sounded like he was trying to advise me to stay open to a mystical and spiritual experience. Something different from our Western ways of thinking and understanding. Again,  I sat quietly nodding my head and agreeing it was about staying open.

After the plane landed we said goodbye at the baggage terminal, he gave me his business card and said, “Here’s my email, please write me after your week there. I would really like to hear what you experience. Really. Please tell me about it.”

I smiled politely and gave my word that I would send him an email as we shook hands and said goodbye.  Waiting for my bag at the carousel, I felt inside this was the sign I was heading to the next place I needed to be. Whatever doubts or negative thoughts I was holding onto were all in my head.

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Parachuting In – AJWS Global Circle in India

Bikharipurwa Village

Bikharipurwa Village

As a group of 12 young, professional women we arrived in Bikharipurwa village outside of Lucknow to volunteer for one day. Roughly 200 of the Scheduled Castes (Dalits), the lowest castes in India, live there. The day had been arranged by Sahbhagi Shikshan Kendra (SSK), an organization working to empower economically impoverished communities by promoting their participation in self governance and positive social change. In contrast to more remote villages, Bikharipurwa had access to water through pumps but they had no working drainage system. In June 2012 SSK had coordinated a group of AJWS (American Jewish World Service) volunteers to stay and work in the village for six weeks. They installed new drains, maintained the road and worked on the school house. When we arrived for a two day visit, I felt like we “parachuted in” just to maintain the groundwork. We smoothed over the school yard, laid bricks and planted trees. The village had asked for these minor things. In a few months another volunteer group was coming for 10 days to help them with more work. By the end of the day I began to see how our day of manual labour was actually part of a bigger picture. I began to understand how connected we were to the group before us in the hearts and memories of the people who lived there. We maintained their connections and hard work as well as smoothing the ground for the next set of volunteers to come.

Wearing Northface and Lucy style travel pants and cozy long sleeved shirts, our early morning conversations revolved around when to take Pepto Bismal or Imodium and using bug spray. By the end of the day, our conversation shifted to whether doing manual labour for one day was benefiting the villagers or whether we were just patting ourselves on the back trying to feel good. As we sat around a conference table with the SSK staff after we left the village, I began thinking about this idea of “parachuting in”. I recalled how each day after visiting AJWS partners, hearing their personal stories of courage and strength while facing, discrimination, poverty and even abuse, we’d find ourselves back in our comfortable air conditioned bus. At times I spaced out, staring out the window as neighbourhood after neighbourhood of slums, naakas (central meeting points were people can be recognized as day labour and pick up work), cows and water buffalo passed by. Those street scenes felt like movie sets. I experienced a disconnect between my perception of how I feel about my life and the way of life in India.  ” Productive Discomfort” is the jargon AJWS uses to describe the feeling. It means we’re uncomfortable with what we see and don’t know how to react. Most days after meeting with an AJWS partner we would talk about this as a group. What could we do with the discomfort and questions that came from these meeting? Did we have unrealistic expectations that we could make a positive impact after such a brief encounter?

Celebrity Alanna

Celebrity Alanna

When we arrived at Bikharipurwa we were given the warmest welcome, as if we were honoured guests. Little kids ran up to us yelling, ” Alanna! Alanna!”, and we were all confused why they were so excited to see our lovely Alanna. She was a celebrity. Then someone explained that in the last volunteer group a there was an Alana and she became like a daughter to some of the elder woman in the village. They cried when she left. Everyone assumed that because we were from AJWS, we knew their friends. They were excited to see us because of their perception that we were connected to those people they loved and trusted. If we were friends with them, we must be good people.

Sunita

Sunita

Sunita, our AJWS India country representative explained some of the social nuances and changes she noticed that day. With her wide, warm smile and her voice of years of experience she explained that even the moment when one of the elder woman from a higher caste joined everyone for lunch and sat with “the lower castes”because of foreign visitors, was a subtle yet significant shift. She described the attitudes people held that certain jobs were for the “lower castes”, such as cleaning drains. Seeing foreigners come and do menial jobs happily was creating a shift. Little by little attitudes were changing and people were feeling more empowered to maintain the drain system their American friends had installed, or sit and have lunch with the whole community when visitors came. She gave us a small insight into the long and difficult process of creating social change in India. It made me think how much we’re all connected and that showing up for one day, when it supports Sunita and SSK’s long term goals, was valuable. I left feeling respect and admiration for the change we were all creating, very slowly, very methodically, one day at a time, one activist group at a time.

Bikharipurwa Village

Bikharipurwa Boy

Ariel at Bikharipurwa

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Lily planting trees

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water pump photo

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AJWS Sistahood Trip

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A group of twelve women, all professional, well educated, funny and not all Jewish. Thanks to Jamie’s adventurous spirit we had an honorary member of the tribe. We met in Mumbai and started our seven day whirlwind tour of Mumbai, Lucknow, Agra & Delhi, meeting with AJWS (American Jewish World Service) partner organizations in Mumbai and Lucknow. Just outside of Lucknow we volunteered for a day in a village called Bhikharipur. In India, AJWS support reaches tribal, Dalit and Muslim communities through advocacy campaigns on land and labor rights, and sustainable livelihood training.

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Each day we met innovative and courageous activists working hard towards social change and we were mesmerized listening to their compelling personal stories. Certain groups specifically asked us not to write about them to keep their work confidential.

One visionary who shared his story with us was Shubhranshul Choudhary. He’s Indian and worked for over twenty years as a journalist with the BBC and the Guardian. He left journalism to devote his time to an experiment which creates a model for democratic media. In the process he has created the world’s first community radio using mobile phones. It allows people in remote villages to access local news and events, connecting them to what’s happening in the other remote communities around them.

As we parted in Delhi I felt like it was ending too soon. Two of the talented sisterhood, Jesse and Julia, wrote a song for Bharat, our tour guide, to the tune of the Beatles, “all you need is love.” They titled it, “All You Need is Bharat.” We sang it to him at our last lunch together and I’ve never seen a man so completely shocked, moved and speechless all at once. He was serenaded by a group of beautiful women. That moment reminded me that laughter is one way to digest the difficult issues we became aware of about life in India.

With Bharat

With Bharat

At the end of the trip a few of us admitted we were curious about what it would be like travelling with all women.  It can be a hit or miss experience without the male energy to balance things out. Luckily Bharat sealed the deal, as he was a pro at managing our time, our shopping and our different needs and wants. I was reminded that in the midst of a tight schedule with heavy personal stories and meetings to process, a group of women can always fit in a little power shopping and keep the laughter going with their warm sense of humour.

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Taj J and J

Flashback

With Sukri in the kitchen

With Sukri in the kitchen

Flashback to the beginning of January when I’ve been living at the Ratu Bagus Ashram for a month.  This Ashram is in East Bali and Ratu Bagus teaches an ancient shamanic shaking practice. Everyday we shake for an hour and a half, three times a day to a whole range of music from techno/trance, to pop or chanting. We do this to raise our energetic vibration for health and well being, as a spiritual practice and as a healing practice. With Ratu’s guidance people have healed themselves of Cancer, Hep C, and other fatal and chronic diseases. Some people are on the spiritual path and others are cleansing and healing themselves of drug and alcohol addiction. Initially, I came to write an article but over time I realized I’m on the spiritual path and I’ve stayed because I love the people and I’m learning how to love myself and laugh again. That’s what Ratu actually teaches. He brings out  that deep spontaneous belly laugh that babies do naturally. For so long I had lost my laughter. Life wasn’t funny  any more and I lost my sense of humour about it all.  I realized how much I needed to laugh and how much I wanted to laugh. Laugh at myself, laugh at my ridiculous thoughts and all the wild things I do.

By the beginning of January I found my laughter again, so it felt strange that as my laughter was coming back and I was happy at the Ashram,  I kept getting this powerful feeling that it’s time to go to India & Nepal. At the same time I got an email about an AJWS (American Jewish World Service) trip to India. About six years ago I went on a volunteer trip to a village in Mexico with AJWS and it was a fantastic experience. Their mission is to empower people throughout the world (not only in Jewish communities) to achieve justice and self-sufficiency through the promotion of human rights, education, economic development, healthcare and sustainable agriculture.  This  trip was designed for younger donors and the itinerary consisted of one week of going to three cities in India primarily to meet a few of the partners who were receiving money and support. I knew it would give me access to people and experiences in India that I wouldn’t be able to have on my own. When I arrived at the Ashram in November I wanted to go to Burma and now I was definitely getting the pull to go to India & Nepal.

I can hear you…please stop saying, “This is sounding more and more like Eat, Pray, Love everyday…”

India has not been on my radar and I don’t write like Elizabeth Gilbert! I admit I had moments of serious doubt before I left. No men signed up for the AJWS trip so it was going to be a “sisterhood trip” and that made me hesitate for a moment. Some very cool and very wise women quickly talked me out of that negative self-talk.

Then slowly it started to come together. First Bangkok for a few days to brush up on my photography. Then, Chennai & Pondicherry for a week before I met up with the AJWS group in Mumbai. After that it was just going with the flow to see what unfolded next. That is how and why I came to India. I was shaking at an Ashram in Bali, I got an email about an AJWS trip to India in February just as I was asking the universe for a fun, heartfelt trip anywhere that was filled with love, friendship and romance.

Ratu on his 63rd Birthday

Ratu on his 63rd Birthday

Ratu & his son Gede at a Fire Ceremony

Ratu & his son Gede at a Fire Ceremony

Putu & little Gede on Christmas Day

Putu & little Gede on Christmas Day

A Person’s a Person, No Matter How Small…

“If we are to teach real peace in this world and we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.”

~ Mahatma Gandhi

Pondicherry, India

Pondicherry, India

Pondicherry, India

Pondicherry, India

“Life doesn’t count for much unless you’re willing to do your small part to leave our children – all of our children – a better world. Even if it’s difficult. Even if the work seems great. Even if we don’t get very far in our lifetime.”

~ Barak Obama Speech, 2008

Pondicherry, India

Pondicherry, India

“Most smiles are started by another smile.” 

~Frank Clark

Pondicherry, India

Pondicherry, India

Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened!”

~ Dr. Seuss

Pondicherry, India

Pondicherry, India

“Think and wonder,

wonder and think.”

~ Dr. Seuss

Pondicherry, India

Pondicherry, India

Pondicherry, India

Pondicherry, India

The Journey

“People travel to wonder at the height of the mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long course of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars, and yet they pass by themselves without wondering.”

~St. Augustine

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“If you wish to travel far and fast travel light. Take off all your envies, jealousies, unforgiveness, selfishness and fears.”

 ~ Cesare Pavese

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“What does it mean to pre-board?

Do you get on before you get on?”

~ George Carlin

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“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”

~Martin Buber

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“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.”

~ Susan Heller

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We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”

~ Anais Nin

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“Often while traveling with a camera we arrive just as the sun slips over the horizon of a moment, too late to expose film, only time enough to expose our hearts.”

~Minor White

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I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.”

~ Joseph Campbell

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OM

Spontaneously, OM came through me.

My voice was cracking, it didn’t sound pretty and I felt out of breath. As I sounded MMMMMM my chest was vibrating inside and out.

It was a chilly November day, on a solitary island in Croatia.  Almost everything had closed  for the winter.  Getting off the boat in Sipan, the sky was bright blue and the leaves had turned a golden brown and orange hue. Small, weather-beaten boats were tied up along the banks. The stone aged buildings with their faded terra-cotta tiled roofs sat desolate, signalling the end of tourism time.

The day became a walking meditation. I followed a small brown sign with arrows that read CHURCH and MONASTERY pointing up a quiet, winding road. Rhythmically walking I noticed the lush vegetation all around. Meadows with giant pine, cypress and palm trees stretching out on my left. To my right the sun illuminated the green, red and sandstone shades of the sprawling coastal mountains. Turning off the road I climbed up a crud, stone path to a tiny church on the hill.

And sat quietly continuing my “I” meditation.

Time seemed insignificant. I had a sense of something familiar around me. I felt completely alone yet not lonely. There were no thoughts about someone hearing me or if other people were around. Sun beams burst through the cloud covered mountains on the west, as the sun was falling below the horizon.  Perched on a jagged rock in front of the church my breath was winded as the crisp air filled my lungs and the vibration rang through me.

AAA—UUU—MMMMMM began in my body as deep down as it could reach and my mouth changed shape slightly as it rose up through my chest. As my lips were closing the vibration was moving along with the sound and …MMMMMM was buzzing in harmony with everything around. The mountain range, the olive groves and the trees seemed brighter and more vivid. The wind was whistling softly with me as the sun was going down. I felt the mountain range would wrap itself around me like a warm winter shawl. Feeling a presence and vibration of HOME more than of OM. As if I had come home.

I can’t remember how many times we all riffed in harmony. The wind, the birds, the leaves on the trees still playing their evening song as I made my way down.  Back to the battered boats on the shore and the old convenience store. I sat quietly again, hearing the soft murmurings of the crystal clear waves washing up on the shore.  Waxing and waning fluidly and whispering to me of secrets they could share that I would adore. Listening momentarily from inside myself, I felt there was nothing more to explore.

Dubrovnik Old Town [Hipstamatic]

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Black and white photos of Dubrovnik Old Town have that Medieval feeling of history and the passing of time.

I thought Orlando’s Statue was a multipurpose monument. It’s a symbol of the freedom of the Dubrovnik Republic. Back in the Middle Ages it was a central meeting point and the center for public events. Just to make the Medieval Knight completely functional, his forearm measures exactly 51.1 cm. People buying textiles used it to measure and make sure they weren’t getting ripped off.

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Family Friends

Looking for a break from the crowds at the Trevi Fountain, I sit at an outside table on the cobblestone road of Via del Lavatore and order a beer. Next to me, two American college guys are talking to each other in low, monotone voices. As I look up, one of them flashes a smile. He has rectangular, thick, black glasses, a light five o’clock shadow and a rash of faint pimples all over his neck. Leaning forward he says to his buddy,

“So any cute girls in Madrid?”

“Yeah, there are cute girls.” his friend replies matter of factly. There’s an awkward pause between them.

“Do you have a girlfriend or something like that?” asks the guy with the glasses.

“I did …at some point…” his friend says. As he leans back in his chair I notice his blue, flannel button down shirt is tucked neatly into his pants. His hair is neatly trimmed and his skin is smooth and shaven. Before he can finish he’s interrupted by, “At some point? Where was she from? Did you split up or something?”

“Nicaragua. Right before summer,” the guy in the flannel shirt responds quietly.

There’s a lingering silence in the conversation. Two more people sit down at a table on the other side of me. The guy in the blue flannel shirt leans forward and rests his arms on the table hugging his beer.

The guy wearing glasses asks, “Yeah… sooo…how do you like the Peroni?”

Looking up from his beer he perks up, “It’s good… remember when we all went out for dinner that night with your father and we were so smashed. Charlie was SO nervous and he was like, the only one who was completely fine. It was me, I think both Joes were there, Connor…”

They laugh together.  Tossing his head to the left, his heavy bangs brush against his thick glasses as he remembers, “Yeah, you guys were SMASHED. It was so funny.”

“I think your Mom knew and like, that’s why she drank back that whole bottle of wine,” the guy in the flannel shirt chuckles.

The kid with the black glasses has an air of cool, collegiate confidence. “She totally knew. Yeah, you can’t fool Carrie, she the master of knocking back bottles of wine.” He laughs at the thought of it, “Yeah good times. A lot of fun.” Sitting up in his chair he looks into his glass before taking another sip. In a slightly louder, sing song voice he says,

“Sooo, tonight we’ll go to Campo de Fiori … 1 Euro shots…then Trastevere. Trastevere’s fun, it’s like where all the study abroad students go. Some cool bars there.”

Both sit back in their chairs as the late afternoon breeze ruffles the red and white checkered table cloths. People walk by looking at maps and pointing towards the Trevi Fountain. A waiter leans against the doorway of the restaurant with his arms folded watching people go by. I glance over at the two guys and smile, remembering a time when I had almost the same conversation in a different setting.

After a moment, the guy with the black glasses breaks the silence, “Well, do you want to pay and keep walkin’?”

“Yeah”, the guy in the flannel shirt says, “Sounds good.”