Tag Archive for 'Himalayan Institute'

Ganga Carnaval: Kumbha Mela by Night

Wrote this way back in February… and then lost access to the Internet for a good long while… Enjoy!

The night before the massive influx of pilgrims to the Kumbha Mela, Ali, Stewart, Cathy and I snuck off campus.  Feb 1oth was going to be an “auspicious bathing day”—a very special day to take a dip in the Ganges—under a new moon, a time to let go of the past—habits, events, troubles—and inaugurate new beginnings.

In fact, ten MILLION people were expected. One million were already on site. We wanted to go into the Kumba at night, to see a different Mela.

We wanted to go before the swelling masses became impassable. Not to mention potentially hazardous. (post script: one of the makeshift pontoon bridges across the Ganges collapsed, and some pilgrims did die…)

We also wanted to escape what has come to feel like a very pleasant and highly scheduled summer camp on the HI Allahabad campus.

Night friends at Sangam

Why not? says Ali

We set off at 5pm aftert signing out at the Himalayan Institute’s main gate, knowing that we would miss dinner. We walked the mile up the Ganges over uneven goat paths and piles of trash.

For the first time, my feet did not hurt in spite of my blisters. It was exciting to be out of the herd. We reached the first and second gates into the Mela in a buoyant mood.

Night gates at sunset

First gates — advertising for holy men is everywhere

We didn’t have to go far to encounter something spectacular: a steady line of pilgrims coming across the first bridge. They were  hunched under bags of bedding striving forward with their walking sticks.

It was sunset, and the sight of all those scarved heads and sandaled feet crossing the river at dusk with such purpose was pretty impressive.

It gave us all a deep feeling for the importance of the pilgrimage, the scale of it in people’s lives. There’s no way that other huge festivals—such as Burning Man or Brazil’s Carnaval—could have such a massive feeling of sweet purpose.

Night pilgrims bridge better

Setting sun illuminates pilgrims

Past the second gate and down a side road we entered the main grounds of the Mela. People were walking, bathing, attending talks, but most were cooking over wood fires.

Those who weren’t already encamped in a tent camp, simply slept bundled up person to person on the side of the road. The sheer number of people was astounding, and the vibe—so different from a few days before, in the afternoon—was of purposeful excitement.

Night cooking by river

The air was burning with smoke

We walked pretty easily through the masses of people streaming past us, no jostling, no harassment, except for the very gentle delight of every single Indian (it seemed) to have their photos taken. Or to take photos of us, the impossibly light skinned people.

“Single photo! Single photo!” shrieked the children we passed, waving madly at us. “Tata! Tata!” (tata = goodbye)

Walking through swarms of pilgrims

Walking through swarms of pilgrims

We didn’t go into any of the makeshift palaces that lit up the main streets  like Las Vegas, but we window-shopped.

In one, an allegorical play was underway (we understood nothing, but the costumes were fab).

In another much more modest one, a man with long wooden earrings was dancing a very feminine dance on a stage lined with male  musicians.

Night Mela spectacle

KM spectacles

In yet another, a group of very pale Westerners sat around a ceremonial fire (kund) with zombie expressions on their faces throwing offerings of herbs and flowers into the flames. We looked, but we didn’t taste.

Ali was eager for snacks since we’d missed dinner back on campus. Truth be told, we were eating so much (3 very good meals a day) that I was not hungry at all.

But the snack stand was interesting. Ali bought dried and spiced chick-pea sticks mixed with dried peas, served in little cones of Indian newspaper. Yummy.

Night snacks

Night snacks

Finally, our eyes were streaming from the fire smoke and the wandering around began to be painful. We were coughing and a wee bit concerned to get back to campus not too late after our agreed-on time.

For a disorienting 1o minutes we argued about directions and took a few wrong turns (to some dark and smelly corners of the Mela)—but then Stewart expertly guided us back to the road we needed.

We arrived back—smokey and tired, but exhilerated—just before 10pm. And it seemed that back in the Mela many of the more energetic and vocal camps were just getting their kirtans started.

The chanting, singing, preaching, and “swa-ha”s went on all night, as usual. They were loud and fervent and clashing and wonderfully chaotic.

Ah, KM, so much to offer, so hard to decipher.

Night sunset fishing nets

Sunset downstream from the Mela

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

2011 Yoga Journal Conference, NYC
Part Une

This weekend in is the second Yoga Journal conference in New York (the first was in 2009), and through a stroke of good fortune I was able to attend. Not wanting to waste a single drop of my precious pass, I chose to do the Friday all-day intensive with Rod Stryker, creator of Para Yoga.

In other words, I would spend the entire day with a Tantric teacher instead of at my day job. You can imagine that my choice was not difficult: reviewing manuscript for a remedial English textbook, or learning about how to overcome my limitations by becoming a living embodiment of the divine. Hmm. I put in for a personal day, rolled up my blue piling yoga mat, and packed off to the Hilton Hotel in mid-town.

I had another agenda, too. Stryker is a long-time student of Panditji Rajmani Tigunait, the spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute where I’ve been doing the Living Tantra series since July 2010. I wanted to see how Stryker interpreted the teachings of Panditji—and Panditji’s teacher, Swami Rama—for American yoga people. Truth be told, I was having some trouble with the mysterious and magical stories of Tantra’s history and practices. How exactly was I supposed to conduct a fire ceremony, or the secret rituals? How did my urban Brooklyn life fit in with Tantra’s esoteric take on reality?

So here they all were again, Tantra’s basic ideas, but presented in the low-lit conference room of a corporate hotel, rather than in a vegetarian ashram in northeastern Pennsylvania. In Tantra, Styrker reminded us, we don’t make the self go away in order to have a spiritual practice. Rather, we alchemize ourselves so that the divine works through us. How do we attract divinity? Not by giving up worldly things, but by becoming more like the divine in our daily lives. Tantric asana practice is a discipline to refine your energy so that the alchemy can happen.

What about sex and death, you ask? Well, in the left-handed path, which is all about enjoyment, no desire is denied because all desires are expressions of the divine. In the left-handed path, you can have all the sex you want, but you might also meditate in a cremation ground by sitting on a corpse. Ewww.

Since many people are not always comfortable with corpses—and truthfully probably not so much with hedonistic sex either—they have to practice asana, pranayama, mantra and ritual to clear out their misconceptions of the Source and limitated conceptions of the Self. In other words, on the right-handed path, which emphasizes liberation, people have to work to align their desires with the divine, to know that there IS a source behind everything. And this source is beyond what we can conceive of with the rational mind. In the right-handed path, no ecstatic copulation—and no visits to graveyards—is required.

Stryker talked for most of the morning session, introducing the subject of “god” and all its forms at about the half an hour mark. “We have all these choices but they are not related, not integrated. It’s like going to several specialists and getting several opinions–it almost paralyzes you. In Tantra we integrate them.”

Then we practiced. Gentle asana—that reminded me very much of ViniYoga asana practices—with the emphasis on the breathing pattern. On the inhale bring the breath down the spine and relax the bandhas, on the exhale bring the breath up the spine and contract the lower two locks. We were trying to build fire in the belly, the fire of manipura chakra, where our issues get burned up and purified, and where our sense of agency originates.

We did this in standing poses, back bends, and forward extensions, even adding in the mantra, Om Agni Namaha—the mantra to stimulate and propitiate the fire at our navel center.

Then we sat for meditation.

By the time we broke for lunch—and again after the afternoon session—I was high as a kite, floating on a pulsing current that eliminated every thought and even the need to breathe. When I asked Stryker a question in person afterward, my eyes felt dilated like I’d become a wide-eyed alien who had just visited the optometrist. It seemed like light and energy were pouring through them, but Rod answered my question without seeming to notice. No matter, I will bathe everyone I meet with my Tantric-generated fire, I thought, walking unsteadily out into the glaring hallway of the enormous hotel.

Clearly that wasn’t going to last long. In the evening I was signed up for David Romanelli’s “Yoga & Chocolate” class. While “yoga & chocolate” might seem to qualify for the left-handed path, it wasn’t hedonistic at all. In fact, going from Stryker to Romanelli was like falling from the breathless heights of Kilimanjaro and landing with a thump in a Starbucks.

Not that the chocolates weren’t good—the Vosges chocolates were complex and intriguing, especially the vegan one with Oaxaca chilis. It was the yoga that was prosaic. Your basic sun salutation, your basic back bend, your basic forward fold. And the sprinkling of interesting factoids throughout the class felt calculated to deliver a message to a demographic to which Romanelli, a self-proclaimed “major Gemini,” assumed we belonged—the too busy, too distracted crowd who was out of touch with our emotions and our five senses.

Romanelli was a clever marketer, but his delivery was flat—and in fact, he read from his factoids from a script. He seemed happiest when he was embracing beautiful women—of whom he seemed to know a great many (I saw him embracing them all over the Hilton).

Still, the 100 or so women—and 8 or so men—in attendance thought that “Yoga & Chocolate” was the way to go, and who am I to question how people approach meaning in their lives? I’d just dropped in from Mars, after all.