Tag Archive for 'yoga'

Life in the Straw Village

Basic Luxury in Kajuraho

It’s been an interesting process of getting used to living outside in India.

HI Kaj straw huts

The huts are exactly the same

“Living” means: sleeping, changing, writing, reading, resting, bathing, and answering nature’s calls IN STRAW HUTS. We have real flush toilets (as opposed to squat toilets), buckets for “showering,” and outside sinks (which makes for chilly teeth brushing in the pre-dawn hours when we stumble off to meditation).

HI Kaj wash sinks

There was never any soap at the sinks

“Outside” means: we have the illusion of privacy as well as some real shelter. That illusion is worth a lot.

But the huts are not warm. And many leak. We’ve had several loud and violent storms to test out their waterproofness—and mudproofness and damproofness. I’d give them about 50/50.

Huts inside

Inside our straw castles. Four to a hut! Mosquito nets strung between bamboo poles; industrial green carpet (over straw over mud) keeps out the worst of the damp.

 

You know a lot about your “eco hut”—and yourself— after two days of torrential rain in an area that is not supposed to have rain as the clay earth sluices down the paths and makes a mud dam in front of your hut.

 

HI Kaj straw village doorway

A strip of yellow silk in the doorway brightens up our huts

And the huts definitely do not protect us from the sounds of neighbors. Who knew that SO many people snore so loudly?

For us middle class Westerners, this way of living is a practice of austerity.

But as we’ve been reminded, for locals in Allahabad and Kajuraho, the way we are living is luxurious.

HI Kaj baths and toilets

Toilets and showers

I will admit that this is a step up from tent camping. I am writing this from inside my hut, for example, sitting at a metal table with a blue plastic tablecloth stretched over it. We have metal cots off the ground, and clothes lines, plus lawn-green carpeting to protect us from mud and dust.

And one thing I know: I can get attached to anything. Anything at all.

I got attached to the readily available WiFi in Kajuraho. Even the cold, cold nights, bathing outside from a bucket of was bearable if I had WiFi to make Facebook updates and write blog entries (only slightly kidding).

HI Kaj bucket bath vertical

You haul in hot water with one bucket, mix it with cold from the spigot, then pour over you with the cup provided. Bucket bath!

That disappeared in Kajuraho. But the bucket baths and cold temperatures remained. Wah-wa.

In Kajuraho, I got attached to hut 7 where I weathered the interminable storms. Hut 7 almost flooded in the mud sluice, was crowded with 2 women from Duluth, another from Chicago, and me. It was damp and damp and damp. And damp. Then musty. My bed was both sloped downwards and tilted to the side like a permanent Tilt-a-Whirl.

HI Kaj bucket bath close up

Bucket bath set up–close up. Basic, basic, basic.

And yet I felt anxiety when I had to move into hut 49.

(Now the question is: what do I care whether I’m in straw hut 7 or straw hut 49?! They are exactly the same, just positioned slightly differently towards the bathrooms. Still I got fixated for a few hours on how much worse hut 49 was going to be. I had established my patterns and I didn’t want to budge. This is the stuff I came to India to deal with?!?! Answer: yes.)

But after two or three days in hut 49, I had completely forgotten about the charms of hut 7.

So it goes.

HI Kaj campus flowers and tree

Campus gets pretty after torrential rains

 

Most of us have gotten comfortable with this quasi-camping set up.

Temperatures are getting warmer now and days are brighter. I don’t have to wear every single piece of clothing I brought to India when I go to bed. I don’t have to wait for a warm patch in the day to bathe (or just skip it for a few days until bathing is urgent).

I don’t mind doing laundry by hand. And every time I shower now, I’m sure to wash some undies. Life has become easier.

HI Kaj Silvie laundry

72-yr-old Sylvia does laundry by hand at the hot-water station

And there are some surprise boons. After all that rain, the desert campus has sprung into bloom. Ceramic pots of marigolds, cosmos, and asters line the paths and decorate the huts. The trees are sparkling green.

Birds have arrived in abundance: green parrots, eagles, sparrows, a large swallow-like bird, peacocks, neelkanth, and many many others that sing and chirp and whir. In fact, a pair of sparrows just flew into my hut!

HI Kaj garden cosmos

After the rains

At night the jackals howl their mysteriously poignant songs arching back and forth across the hills. The farmers answer them with their ghostly shrieks meant to scare away nilgai—the large antelope/deer/horse-like creature that tramples crops (the male is actually blue colored).

 

HI Kaj guest services hut

Himalayan Institute campus, Kajuraho

Most of us have forgotten our discomfort in the straw village, our Western privileges, proving that you really can get used to anything.

Even basic luxury can be luxurious.

HI Kaj Sherry Sivlie lunch in town

Sherry, Sylvia and I go into town for lunch–breaking out!

And now some people don’t want to go back to their easy showers and toilets, central heating and A/C.

You really can get attached to anything.

HI Kaj kunda at tree

Kunda (fire pit) at the special banyan tree

Letter from the Kumbha Mela

Published on Yoga City NYC, February 2013. The Kumbha Mela explained.

Thousands and thousands of people crossing makeshift pontoon bridges over the Ganges river became a familiar sight during my 10 day visit to Allahabad, India

The men carried walking sticks or pushed bicycles, while many women, dressed in dazzling saris, lead small children or elderly relatives. They walked in silence with a steady, quiet focus, their belongings bundled on their heads and backs because they were headed to the Kumbha Mela.

While there are small Melas every year throughout India, the one near Allahabad, where the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers meet, is the most important and the most auspicious. This grand gathering happens only once every 12 years, with a Maha—or great— Kumbha Mela every 144 years (the last one was 2001).

Kumbha Mela

And of course, it is the largest. When I arrived, staying on the campus of theHimalayan Institute about a mile downstream from the main site, a million people had already taken up residence.

More problematic, it’s also the loudest, with countless PA systems blasting mantras, lectures, and “swa-has” for miles around, at all hours of the day and night. I got used to falling asleep to two or three of them chanting at top volume and completely at cross-purposes.

The incessant din added a very real challenge to my daily meditation practice. The banks of the Ganges were very noisy. Numbers swelled again on the auspicious bathing day of February 10th, that coincided with the new moon, a time of new beginnings.

In one day, 10 million people flooded the grounds. Over the month or so of the Mela, 100 million people were expected to visit, living in the makeshift tentcamps, or curled up at the side of the dusty dirt tracks, running shops, serving food to wandering sadhus, and policing the 8 square kilometer area.

For such an enormous “pop-up city” it was impressively peaceful. Saints, families, villagers poor and rich mingled. We never felt in danger, even in such huge throngs. In fact, our biggest hassle was Indian pilgrims taking photos of us Westerners, and even that was done in a very friendly way.

I had come to experience the energies of the crowds and the practices of the sages. But as I reckoned with my jet lag, the noise of the fair, and the exhaustingly huge gathering of people, I wondered what everyone was really coming for, and what it means to be a pilgrim.

Kumbha means “pot” and “mela” means fair: the story is that the demi gods, running out of the elixir of happiness, or amrit, joined with their enemies, the water demons, to churn the ocean and produce more of the heavenly nectar.

But when the nectar at last rose from the sea, the gods stole the amrit for themselves alone. A battle ensued until Vishnu intervened, whisking the valuable pot of nectar away. It took 12 days for Vishnu to escape—hence the 12 year lapse betweenMelas—hotly pursued by both angry parties.

The pilgrims crossing into the Kumbha Mela grounds were not concerned to hear the myth again—they already knew it. They might seek out a sage or take in a dance performance; but their main purpose was to bathe in the Ganges and be purified by her inexhaustible living waters.

And not just anywhere, but as close as possible to the Sangam—the confluence of three holy rivers, where auspicious energy is most concentrated at this time.

The Ganges, the mother and spiritual source, could not only wash away transgressions and karmic impediments, but also replenish the divine grace in our lives. The Yamuna river, representing worldly prosperity, helps to keep our home, work, and social lives to progress harmoniously.

Lastly, the mythical Saraswati river, important in Vedic times, but since disappeared underground, represents the  fortification of intuition and inner knowledge.

In other words, to bathe at the Sangam was like getting an extremely powerful recharge.

For Westerners, the massive number of people was undeniably exciting. Some in our group braved the highly toxic E. coli levels and dipped themselves in theSangam. Others just dipped their mala beads or sprinkled some of the holy water over their heads.

But the moment of highest spiritual buzz for me came outside of the official Melagrounds. On February 10th, the auspicious bathing day, senior teachers at the Himalayan Institute conducted a fire ceremony on campus, repeating a Durgamantra to help mitigate the fear and anger in ourselves—and in the world.

As we offered the samagri—the offering—to the sacred fire we chanted together in common purpose,  propitiating the forces of transformation and new growth, planting seeds of change. It was not an empty ritual; I could feel the energy we were creating.

One important element of meditation or spiritual practice is trustful surrender to the mysterious forces at work in our world. And feeling that palpably around me was worth all the effort of getting to India, the disturbance of the loud nights, the hot, dusty and exhausting Mela, and my initial bewilderment over what it meant to be a pilgrim. I felt fortified, and that, I believe, was the whole point.

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

Flowing with the Kumbha Mela

I always understood that I was coming on a pilgrimage when I signed up to come to the 2013 Kumbha Mela in Allahabad, India. I just didn’t know what part of this trip was going to be pilgrimage. Or even, perhaps, what a pilgrimage was.

Women in saris KM

On the road to the Kumbha Mela

I fantasized about meeting holy teachers who had descended from their reclusive, Himalayan caves—I had read about this in a newspaper article.

I dreamed of unexpected—but very enlightening—encounters with humanity on the dusty road to the great festival: After all, Parahamsa Yogananda famously met an incarnation of his teacher’s teacher at a Kumbha Mela in the early 20th century.

At the very least, I thought, the Himalayan Institute in Allahabad would invite some sages with whom they had personal connections to the campus for talks and maybe blessings, too. This was a long-awaited spiritual gathering  of up to 100 million people, and I was traveling from so far away, after so much preparation—something had to happen.

On the KM road

On the road

I’ve been in Allahabad for 2 1/2 days now. On the first day, we were hauled (literally) up the Ganges on wooden boats til we reached the most auspicious place, the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, as well as the mysterious Saraswati river that you can’t actually locate on any map.

Small, strong men rowed, punted (with long bamboo poles), and pulled us with string. The boat traveled against the current, under makeshift pontoon bridges,  dodging garbage and sand bars, until we reached the sangam, the meeting of the waters. There, we blessed ourselves by scooping up handfuls of the highly toxic river (E.coli levels at 100x what’s acceptable), saying a prayer, then sprinkling the auspiscious water over our heads—and liberally dousing with hand sanitizer afterwards.

It seemed like cruel labor for the men until we were informed that their previous cargo had been SAND (sand from the Ganges is highly prized by cement factories).

 

going up Ganges

 

Still, nothing happened. But no worries, I thought, tomorrow we are going into the Kumbha Mela for real, finally reaching a destination that I have been thinking about for 3 years. With 8 square miles and countless sadhus prominently dressed in orange robes, something was bound to happen.

I set out with Stewart, my new Glaswegian friend. We were so deep in conversation about the pilgrimage itself that we hardly noticed the piles of fine white sand that our feet were kicking up. Soon our mouths were full of sand, and any exposed skin slathering in sunscreen was covered, too. I noticed local women were holding the ends of their saris over their mouths.

KM road

Kumbha Mela road is dusty, muddy, and hot

It was the tremendous noise that stopped our conversation. Singers, chanters, proclaimers and lecturers projected at top volume through cheap loudspeakers. Meanwhile rickshaws, motorcyles, bicycles, and Mercedes Benz jeeps (full of sadhus in orange robes) honked and whistled and rang on either side of us. We couldn’t hear anything else.

We caught up with other people from the Himalayan Institute at a fork in the road: now we would go down into the mele, and maybe cross a pontoon bridge to the Kumbha Mela grounds on the other side of the Ganges.

Bike on road to KM

Anyway, anyhow

We added Ali and Mangesh from London, also Selina an English nurse transplanted to America to our two-some, and together headed down towards the sangam, the confluence. This time from the land.

Along the way, we browsed bangle shops, haggled for malas (since Mangesh speaks Hindi), took photos and generally wondered what was going on inside all the tent camps that lined the makeshift road. That’s where, supposedly, the sages held court.

Often, as we took our pictures, a small crowd would gather to take photos of us. It seemed fair, although it was weird. Or a sage would stop and, with a kindly expression, stand a little too close and stare at us with unblinking eyes.

Baba

A baba

After a packed lunch of potato chips, pakoras, and (fake) mango juice-boxes we  visited the bathing areas that faced the sangam. Here,  whole families and villages were bathing in the holy river, the Ma Ganga. Selina was excited to immerse herself, but I wasn’t interested in getting closer to the bacteria.

Ganges bathing KM

Bathing in the Ganges

Mangesh did buy a boat of flowers and sent it out into the waters. (It flowed right back in, and Ali made fun of him.)

Girl selling at Ganges

Flower boats

And then we had to admit that we were hot, still hungry, tired, and ready to go back to the campus. Which seemed a long ways away at that point. We were done and we still hadn’t really encountered that thing that was supposed to happen.

We were just tourists wandering in a fair ground, surrounded by thousands of people elaborately wrapped in gorgeous colors, or lining the roads trying desperately to eke out a living.

KM palace

Entrance to a sadhu’s tent camp

The language barrier made it so that we would never really understand whose tent camp we were passing, which ones to go in, and which ones to avoid. They all looked as if they could swallow us up whole, exotic as we were with our very pale skin. Even Mangesh, who is Indian, couldn’t understand what we were seeing.

Tired from the dust, the noise, the heat, and the more-or-less aimless wandering in search of the fulfillment of Our Pilgrimage, we turned back.

“Are you feeling the auspicious energy, or anything?” asked Ali, former IT guy for a London investment bank.

“Not really,” I said. “I mostly feel tired.”

There were some silent, tired nods around our little group.

At last, we picked a tent camp at random and stopped in. The less digestively-challenged of us  accepted the free meal being offered, sitting back to back on the ground with Indian pilgrims who presumably did know why they were here and what they were supposed to be doing.

On the way back, I suggested a rickshaw. Mangesh haggled a price and we dove in—Selina, Ali, Mangesh and me. We picked up Stewart who had booked it on ahead of us. He looked very pleased when we pulled up.

Stewart and Ali KM

Stewart and Ali in the rickshaw

“The Ganges is inside you,” said a senior Himalayan Institute teacher. “Don’t get caught up in whether you immerse yourself or not. Notice her qualities, how the river flows, how constant and abundant she is. This is what you want to connect to. The vitality, the power.”

“There are so many political factions at the Kumbha Mela,” said another teacher later over chai, “And in India politics and religions are completely mixed together, no separation. There are serious lobbyists working the Kumbha Mela. It’s all over our heads. Sure, there are some very accomplished holy teachers in there, but the chances of us figuring out who’s who are slim. Even so, we’re all here at an auspicious time, doing our own practice, and that’s the benefit. The Mela is not the benefit, it’s your own practice.”

The rickshaw ride back was wonderful. Back on campus, we bathed from buckets in straw huts equipped with clean water. I didn’t care how simple it was—the water, the quiet, and the afternoon breeze felt as “authentic” and “auspicious” as anything ever had.

The circus wasn’t the point: the point was—as it always is— all within.

JH Selina Mangesh

Selina, JH, Mangesh

 

Sweaty and Silent in the Amazon

It’s been painful, but I’ve finally broken in. I didn’t know what was breaking—or what needed to be broken—but it happened in the Amazon. I guessed that something was up, but the roar was so deafening I could barely make out what was happening. The change was confirmed the moment I set foot back in Rio de Janeiro. Here, where life is clearly cultured and (more or less) civilized, I could finally see, feel, and hear that I had been through something big. Something had to give—and something gave.

I traveled in the Amazon solo for almost 3 weeks. Since then, I’ve been spending long stretches of time in Rio—alone, too. Like, days at a time. This is not normal for me. I like to have people around, know that I can call someone, meet up for a beer, coffee, yoga class, chit chat whathaveyou.

In New York, I’m a text pro. I love getting and sending little messages, little reminders that people are out there, that *I’m* out there. Of course I have email and Facebook here, but most of my friends have been leaving me alone—not quite able to get over the *idea* that I am so far away. Communication with my normal life has been limited.

Traveling only in Portuguese—very intermediate level Portuguese, I have to tell you—meant there was a lot I couldn’t say. There was a lot I couldn’t understand, either. Eventually, painfully, I got used to expecting that I wouldn’t understand most of what was said to me. Or that I could say anything close to what I meant to express. No nuance, subtlety, or humor. I would go for a very long time, it seemed, saying things like, “How much does this cost?” “Where does the bus to X stop?” “Can I see the menu?” It’s not enough to make a person feel like a full member of society.

It was hard to get used to feeling like an imbecile, an outsider. Several places I traveled had no tourists at all, certainly no one who spoke English. I felt almost mute, my capacity for complex thought and speech dulled to the point of absurdity.

I was spending more and more time in silence. My cheekbones began to ache from spending too long in the same position.

Brazilians were patient with me. They were even fascinated that I would try to learn their language. Without exception, they think that their language is very difficult to learn. Conjugating the verbs is mind-scrambling. Learning the gender of nouns (and their adjectives and articles) is akin to learning to type on the QWERTY keyboard—at some point you just have to dive in blind and make lots and lots of mistakes. It’s impossible to memorize.

Brazilians also have a lot of different words for everything, a lot of slang and informal expressions. So whatever you learned in language school really might not be relevant on the street.

I’ve had the Portuguese-is-very-hard-to-learn conversation with almost every single person I’ve met in Brazil from friends to strangers to some passing dude at the bar, in Rio to Santarem to Mossoro and beyond. But I wouldn’t say it was harder then French, and certainly not harder than Russian or Japanese.

It’s just that living in another language is hard. Not just saying hello and thank you, but having a complete life in another language.

Negotiating every day life and the intricacies of travel in a very strong and wild place was even harder, I think. It was tough, like grating an old dry root with a rusty knife. It was work. And it seemed to yield so little. Sometimes I could tell that people had decided before I opened my mouth that they couldn’t understand me. And that didn’t help.

sweaty and silent in the Amazon

Sometimes people were incredulous that I spoke at all, like the middle-aged Carioca (someone from Rio) I met on a guided hike in the Amazon who exclaimed, “Ela fala!!” (she speaks!) when I greeted her and her husband with a general “bom dia.” (Although so few Americans speak any other language but English that it’s easy to understand her surprise.)

Everyone without exception—from fellow traveler to waiter to hotel proprietor to tour guide to ferry captain to river-dweller said my Portuguese was really good. But judging from how isolated I felt inside my language-skills, I did not agree.

Every day there came a moment when I needed to stop trying. I needed to let all the fun/exasperation of learning and the effort of communicating slip past me in a gentle burble of crescendoing and decrescendoing cadences. It can be a very sing-songy language.

I would crawl into my hammock and turn on my iPhone to read e-books by John McPhee. (My “Nook” and its entire library of travel reading was stolen in Ilha de Marajo, probably by someone who thought it was a much sexier iPad.) I’d block out everything else. Portuguese became background noise, like the wind in the trees, peppered with occasional guffaws of laughter and the clinking of ice cubes in caipirinhas.

Reading in my native tongue gave my overworked brain a moment to normalize. It was deeply gratifying. I felt human there. It turns out that I’m very attached to being able to communicate. To other people.

Of course, I’ve always talked to myself as most people do (though I try to be aware of this and not move my lips). And as someone who writes, I’m always making mental notes. But this was a much, much deeper level of conversation-with-self that I was comfortable with.

This was myself divided into the person who spoke, listened, acted, and responded, and the person who commented on how weird this all was. The person who commented was getting a much bigger role these days. I mean, isn’t it absurd to say that you “drink a bath” when what you mean is you “take a shower”?

Or how about when something doesn’t work, you say, “nao combina” or “nao da”—it doesn’t combine, it doesn’t give. Or that “vipee” means an exclusive section (of a boat or a club or a bus)–a Portuguese-ification  of “V.I.P.” But V.I.P.—very important person— does not, can not, exist in Portuguese. You just have to know this.

So it wasn’t just that I didn’t know the words, didn’t have the vocabulary, or couldn’t conjugate. It was that I had no idea where people were coming from. I was oriented in the wrong direction, without a clue. I was mystified, baffled, blind-folded.

And then there were the experiences—the hotel manager in Santarem who went out of his way to get a taxi for me, and then grabbed my ass as I got into it; the drunk university students from Sao Paulo who had noisy sex on the small boat we our NGO group was traveling on; the native boy who broke his shin bone playing soccer in the dusk in a remote community on the Rio Ararpiuns—on a Sunday when all the radio operators were off having dinner with their families.

All these things largely stayed inside since I had a hard time discussing them in my fumbling Portuguese.

I’m good at coping—excellent at it (my therapist would agree!)—and so I got by. It wasn’t the end of the world. I was meeting people anyway, I was having experiences. I was (more or less) safe. I wouldn’t be traveling in the Amazon for that long, after all. It was likely I would spend most of the rest of my life in English, my language.

But the silence inside me grew.

So did my knowledge of John McPhee’s oeuvre.

So did my risk-taking.

I said more, right or wrong, and hoped for the best. I started to care much less about being thoughtful, about having meaningful conversations. To communicate a few basic opinions about the medicinal trees on our hike became exciting. A couple of comments on Brazilian food or politics made me feel positively human.

(Though sometimes after being silent for a very long while, words in any language came out wrong, like I’d forgotten how to speak.)

What took so long to change was being comfortable living in this internal world of my own commentary—without anyone to share it with immediately and get relief from the absurdity and frustrations of so many situations.

Living alone with myself, deeply alone, with only my own company, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, relating my trials and triumphs to myself. This was work that was scouring my insides.

The enormity of what I was experiencing the in Amazon far outstripped the capacity of email or Facebook as modes of expression. Plus,  the Internet didn’t work during the rain storms, and there were rainstorms every day. The winds kicked out phone lines, cash machines—anything that relied on a signal, for hours and days at a time. The one day I wrote a long blog post I felt fantastic for the entire day. Ecstatic. Tremendously relieved. Otherwise, I was alone in my travels, alone in my language, alone in myself. Together in myself, alone.

Until I wasn’t. And that’s what changed today, when I noticed that I’d spent the entire day alone, and most of yesterday and the day before that. And for the first time, I felt quite content. I didn’t feel on the fringes, I didn’t feel cast out. My Portuguese has improved a lot, that’s true. People who I’d only spoken English to before I left for the Amazon now speak to me in Portuguese—with all my mistakes, but so be it.

Today, too, I went to a traveler’s clinic in Rio to get my cranky gut checked out. I did the entire visit in Portuguese, even though there were many many words I didn’t know. Somehow I just open my eyes really wide and let all the sounds rush into my face. I know that sounds weird, but that’s what it feels like: I make my face porous and I try really hard not to think. Then, I understand.

But it hasn’t improved *that* much. I’m still very far from fluent. And some days I just  feel very lazy about all this effort. I don’t even try to speak Portuguese without a gringo accent. I don’t even get worked up about the darned verbs.

But most of all—more than this—is that I now understand what had to change.

For years now, my life has been increasingly focused on the external—on other people, the demands of my job (in which I take care of other people’s books and projects), relationships (focused on other people), socializing (other people), the worry about being included or not being included (others).

Drawn so far outside of myself, I could not hear the internal conversation very well. I had kept a journal since I was 14, but in the last year or two that had begun to be less and less of a priority. I’d lost the itch for this private conversation. It used to be critical to my sense of well-being. Living, traveling and roughing it in the Amazon in Portuguese threw me back in touch with this long-neglected creature, this space of reflection and companionship.

I have to say, it feels really great! I suffered so much while traveling but the  contentedness now is so sweet that all the turmoil seems worth it.

And while I *could* go to the adorable and much-beloved local botequim next door, Bar do Gomes, tonight and have adventurous (and very imperfect) conversations, I’m staying in writing this. And feeling fine. Even knowing that tomorrow all the things I need to do require more solitude as well.

My reluctance to go deep inside appears to be over. Maybe I had thought, like my poetry, it wasn’t there anymore. That there was no there there. The there was the there of my youth. I hadn’t realized it had gone missing. Or that if missing, it could come back. It feels like I’m back to where I started from: in that place of deep listening that the poets know.

Here’s what Katy Poole, a Jyotish practitioner (Vedic science of the stars) wrote today on Facebook—so beautiful because it applies perfectly:

“Today the Moon is transiting Shravana, the Listening Stars. The tree full of ears. The inner voice. The prophetic vision. The revelation. Open your ears. And listen.”

My ruling planet is Shravana. I’ve been away a long time.

I Wanted to Know What Would Happen if I Spent My Last Centavo…

HSBC, “the world’s bank”: EXCEPT WHEN THEY’RE CLOSED.

I wanted to know what would happen if I spent my last centavo. I’m the kind of person who likes to be prepared. Having not even a cent to my name is anathema to me. I wanted to test my limits.
Uh-oh!!!
(In fact, I’d tried to get money out on the weekend but the HSBC machine at the Santos Dumont airport was not dispensing money.)
I’d been living on my last R$50 ($25US) since Saturday, and by Monday was down to R$4 ($2US).
That included R$1 that I pinched from my  friend Vinicius. Things were getting tight.
Still, I stayed at home, ate lunch there and went to the Canadian Consulate in the afternoon to return some poor sod’s driver’s licence and beat up wallet—the remains of a mugging in my neighborhood over the weekend.
I then spent R$2.75 getting the bus from Copacabana to Ipanema.
I was down to R$1 and 20 centavos. That’s sixty cents, folks.
Throwing the rest of my caution to the wind, I asked the pipoca man (popcorn guy) if he’d sell me a half portion, usually R$2, for my spare change. He did—in fact, he gave me a full portion.
I was looking forward to a more robust snack once I’d gone to the bank.
So there I was for about 4 blocks with not a scrap of money on me. Not even one centavo. Liberty? Wasn’t sure.
Then, as if fate decided to inject some incontrovertible certainty into the situation, my sandal snap broke with a sudden snap and crash, twisting my ankle and wrenching my back.
I was now limping to the HSBC bank. How I was going to get my shoe fixed before leaving for the Amazon, two days away?? But first, to fix my shoe, I needed money.
A pack of young Australians at the bank were having bank-card issues.
Probably didn’t pre-authorize their cards before they left home, I thought smugly as I dipped my white card into the machine. I had.
Then the machine spat out a slip at me. Then another. No money, just a grubby little dirty yellow slip telling me to ‘call my institution.’
The guard behind the now-locked glass doors of the closed-to-the-public (but not actually closed) bank told me to wait a second and try again.
That sounded cockamamie: there was clearly a problem. That damned airport ATM: Not only had it not given me any cash, it has also locked up my card in some incomprehensible security maneuver.
Unlike the Australians, I didn’t have an international cell phone to call my US bank. But I did have some Portuguese. The guard got an official looking woman to come talk to me.
Me speaking in the Portuguese of a 7-year old: My card doesn’t work, I’m totally out of money, and the free phone here in the lobby won’t connect to international call centers.
Official-looking Bank Lady: Your card doesn’t work? We can’t do anything until tomorrow at 10 a.m. We are closed.
Me: I can’t wait til tomorrow. I have not even one penny on me.
Official-looking Bank Lady: We do not serve anyone after we are closed.
Me: All I need is to use the phone.
Now distinctly a Bureaucratic Bank Lady: You can use the phones on the street.
Me: I did.  They didn’t accept the collect call that the bank operator told me to make.
BBL, handing me a pamphlet through the glass door: Call this number.
Me: I can’t! I have no money!
BBL: I cannot help you. It’s after hours.
Me, getting irate: YOU are here!! Those people behind you are there! You are surrounded by phones!  You want me to sleep on the street waiting for you to come back tomorrow to make a one minute phone call???
BBL: You can still use your [blocked!!] card at shops.
Me: I don’t think so! That’s the nature of a *blocked* card!
BBL: Well I cannot open the door to the public now.
Me: But all I need is a phone. I don’t even know if I can get back to my house to make the call myself! You are supposed to be MY bank!
BBL: Wait a second here.
—-long minutes pass. Then another Official-looking Bank Lady comes out. We go through the same thing all over again. To no avail.
I leave with no money.
The next stop is a yoga class where the owner, Coaracy Nunes, cheerfully hears me out and says: Don’t worry, darling, it’s all happening for a reason, maybe not so obvious right now. You don’t have to pay for class. No worries! Just roll with things, it’s gonna be fine. Don’t take it personally. These things happen! This is Brazil!
Class helps me focus on something other than how I wanted to strangle BBL. But how am I going to get home?
After, I meet up with Marcus, a fellow Canadian I met at a dinner party last week. He was going to give me his apartment keys–and a free apartment in the Flamengo neighborhood for July.
Breathlessly (and some what ravenously) I told him what had happened at the bank.  I’m still hobbling along in my broken sandal.
I even tried, I told him, even after the bank incident to buy a snack at a lanchonette (open-air snack stand) but of course AS I ALREADY KNEW, my card wouldn’t work.
Marcus showed me his one room apartment, with one burner, one window and one saggy couch-bed. Then he took pity on me and we went out for a beer and some aipim fries (like yucca) and frango de passarinho, a plate of small pieces of fried chicken. We talked a lot. We’d overlapped at college. We had lots of stories about Brazil.
When the choppe (draft beer) was drunk, he paid the bill and put R$20 in my pocket. That meant I could take a taxi when I reached my subway stop and wouldn’t have to clamber up the hill to Santa Teresa late at night in my broken shoe.
I’d arrived at yoga with nothing except massive frustration and a dose of fear. I’d all but forgotten my challenge to the powers-that-be: let’s see what happens when me, little miss organized, walks into a no-security-net situation.
And in fact, I already had everything I needed: near-strangers willing to help out, fill my belly and my pockets, as needed. Even give their apartments.
Okay, universe, that was a good one. You got me.

Get Real: Controversial Writer talks about “The Science of Yoga”

New York Times senior science writer, William J. Broad came under fire in early January for his article How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”. In it, he recounted shocking stories and studies of yoga-related injuries. The article enraged parts of the yoga community who felt it scared newcomers and discredited yoga.

As provocative as the article was, Broad’s book, The Science of Yoga, is solidly researched—and fascinating. He reviews 150 years of studies, giving readers a very good idea of the scientifically measured benefits (healing, inspiration, sexual power) and the dangers (physical injury, group thinking) of yoga asana practice.

I had the chance to interview WJB about the whole experience.

YN: Were you surprised by the response to the NYTimes article?The Science of Yoga by William Broad

WJB: I was surprised by lots of things. On the one hand there was lots of email about, “if you think that’s bad, let me tell you my horror story.” Spinal infarcts, vertigo, that kind of thing. But I also got extremely un-yogic responses like the bitter invective from a 30-year veteran yoga teacher who said, “Go fuck yourself,” and a yogini in L.A. who said, “You are a jerk, you don’t know anything about yoga.”

YN: Do you attribute this to the growing pains of what you call Yoga 2.0, “the modern variety” of yoga, especially in the West?

WJB: I hope that’s what it is! That’s part of my naive optimism. Science demonstrates lots of benefits of yoga—neuro-transmitters that help your mood, help your sex life and so on. The science also clearly demonstrates that yoga as we know it contains alluring myths such as, that yoga helps you lose weight, or it’s the only exercise you need, etc. This just isn’t true.

I hope the outcry is part of the process of starting a conversation. And I’m hopeful that there’s a growing realization that yoga can be better. Which for some people is a contradiction. They think, yoga is ancient and what can be better than that? But the science says that there are issues and it can be better.

Another surprising aspect of the feedback has been the depth of the reform movement. I had no idea. People using props, Iyengar teachers tailoring poses to people rather than the other way around. There are dozens of groups, schools, and styles that are working hard to provide this evolutionary agenda. That delighted me.

YN: So the reform movement would be more in the direction of Yoga 3.0 or 4.0.

WJB: Of course, those are arbitrary numbers. Yoga is this thing that’s being born all around us.

YN: What were some of your favorite “me too” stories from the letters you received?

WJB: Some of them moved me almost to tears. Two people who stand out are former studio owners, who say, ”Woah, you ain’t kidding. Do we have things to tell you,” such as a lifetime of surgery and therapy on their own spines. In one case, one of them had been working with celebrity yogis, creating curriculums. She was forming very visible programs and was very much in the mainstream.

YN: Speaking of reform, have you heard of International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT)?

WJB: I talk about IAYT in the chapter on healing. For 3 years I was a member. I’d send them my membership fee and they’d send me a credential with gold fancy lettering. I’ve seen them hanging in yoga studios—I hope they stop that practice because it’s just about the $75, not about having an actual diploma.

To their credit—because what I want is for yoga to become more professional—they are trying to create standards and schools with standardized curriculum. That’s great! I’m hoping for yoga doctors, myself. I think it’s an outrage that we spend 10s of billion dollars on fix-this, fix-that pills when anyone who does yoga seriously knows it’s a better way. Yoga done right is grown up. It says, “I take responsibility for myself and I have control over what I do” in a way that popping pills doesn’t.

So, I applaud them but on the other hand they did send me three fake diplomas

YN: So you think they don’t go far enough.

WJB: There’s a lot of guru worship out there and cultish schools finely dividing themselves into factions and sticking to what they think is the truth. That’s why science is so powerful because it looks at what is real and what is not real. It can be more objective.

The Science of Yoga is the first book to look at the century and a half of science on yoga. The science can illuminate a lot of what are bogus claims and what are understated truths.

YN: It seems like you’re saying that yoga is both much better and also worse than we thought. It’s much more extreme—handle with care!

WJB: Exactly. In my own practice, I did it for stress management. But fundamentally, yoga is much more extreme than a stress management system. As a science journalist I was blown away by the mysteries of the practice.

YN: Can you give an example?

WJB: How low can the human metabolism go while maintaining a level of consciousness? Is suspended animation possible? We can actually go into a deeper hibernation that a turtle or a bear—that’s quite amazing.

How possible is continuous bliss—sexual, or whatever you want? Some people can so stir their inner fire that they enter these states of continuous ecstasy that is allied with sexual ecstasy. Possibly these are states of enlightenment.

YN: You say that you started to research in 2006—did the subject matter require more research than you expected?

WJB: I thought I was going to do it in 9 months but it took 5 years. In many cases, the science was more difficult than I thought.

The sexual chapter alone took 3 years. There was some evidence to wrestle with. Some research said that yoga makes sex hormones decline. That wasn’t intuitively right to me and had not been my experience. I put that away for a while. When I’d go back to it, I’d still think that it didn’t add up. Then some advanced yogis talked to me about continuous bliss and all kinds of stuff, and then things started falling into place. But it took time.

YN: Speaking of sexual bliss, I noticed that you refer to Tantra only as a sex cult. The Himalayan Institute, where I’ve been studying, takes pains to separate left and right-handed Tantra. You don’t do that. Was this a conscious choice?

WJB: It’s very much in their interest to separate left and right handed, isn’t it? Tantra is a muddy subject. There’s layer after layer of symbolic misrepresentation. It’s gets so convoluted and strange—it’s a deep well.

YN: It strays into the magical, for sure.

WJB: Tantra gets into magic and trickery, frauds and pretexts for having fun. And they call it spirituality. Then there are serial philanderers such as Muktananda and Swami Rama, their 60-yr old bodies humming with vitality and they’re going down on any woman who’s willing—it’s bizarre.

How can they rationalize that appalling behavior? There’s lots of literature about the hard effects of betraying that doctor-patient relationship. There are women traumatized by these swamis: he was their God and their God kept going down on them and doing these weird things!

YN: It’s hard to understand—puzzling and disappointing.

WJB: And yet it’s worth meditating on in the sense that it’s real so we don’t want to hide from it.

YN: Your parameters for “yoga” didn’t include much meditation and pranayama. I’m sure you know of the research studies done by Jon Kabat-Zinn (on mindfulness meditation) and Richard Miller (on yoga nidra/iRest). What was your thinking there?

WJB: Initially, I wanted to have the research to be physically-based, but then my research went over into neurological areas such as in the muse and sex chapter. There’s a hugely overlooked area in what yoga does as a powerful stimulus to creativity, for example.

It’s also because it’s the way the industry goes right now—so much of the yoga we do is physical and doesn’t tolerate any meditation or pranayama. This is not Patanjali’s 8-fold path. It may be a misrepresentative slice of what got shipped out from India.

A Letter from Brazil

Last month I talked about my very personal reasons to sponsor a needy child—in Brazil.

About two weeks ago I received my first letter from Ana Vitoria, who lives in the northeast of South America’s largest country. Cool!

I’ve always loved getting letters in the mail. In high school, I wrote to my friends regularly—and they wrote back. I even wrote to strangers I met while traveling–and they wrote back. I remember very clearly how great it was to catalog my thoughts and the events in my life. Even more thrilling to receive a response.

letter from Ana

So, I was smiling from ear to ear as I opened the white World Vision envelope postmarked “Recife, BR.”  Ana’s funny, 7-year old thoughts were penciled in crooked letters on the organization’s stationary: she has a cat named Shena. Her favorite color is pink. She likes rice pudding.

I made my way through the Portuguese first (hard to read in crooked pencil marks) and then read the translation. Fun!

I imagined her sitting down with her project worker, maybe on some porch or outdoor bench near her school, maybe the fields are green around her, or maybe they are brown and parched.

I see her answering his questions about what she might want to say to me, this stranger so many thousands of miles away in this famous city of this famous country. I imagined how my life that must seem, in her imagination, to be overflowing with luxuries.

As we head into December—a time of unrelenting indulgences with presents to buy, trips to take, parties to go to, New Year’s hopes and dreams on the horizon—I’m gearing up to write Ana a letter of my own.

I’ll be thinking about how to put my life into simple words. I’ll be thinking about all the many, many blessings that I have, all the advantages I overlook everyday. I’ll look for the words that a 7-year-old would understand, one who struggles to have enough to eat. It makes me wonder if I couldn’t do more for Ana than just send her a Christmas card.

(In some countries that World Vision sponsors, you can buy a child’s family a goat!)

And in the meantime, I’m feeling pretty grateful to be sending her a little money every month. It’s a great feeling to contribute to her well-being. Maybe you’ll contribute at the office this year, or volunteer at a local food bank, or even sponsor a child of your own?

Happy holiday month and Hari Om!

RIP Jack the Cat

Maybe it’s pre-11.11.11 vibes—you know, on Friday we shift into the long-awaited Acquarian age, according to Yogi Bhajan. Oct 28 marked the long-awaited end of one big cycle of the Mayan calendar.

Or maybe it’s just me—I’ve  spontaneously stopped eating much meat or drinking much alcohol lately, and it’s making me sensitive to, you know, broccoli, kale, and stories about animals.

Jack in good health

This story about Jack the Cat really got to me today.

Jack the Cat escaped his carrying case before being loaded onto and American Airlines flight bound for California on August 25, where his owner, Karen, was moving.

Lost in the airport for 61 days, he fell through the ceiling at JFK customs on October 25 and was rushed to pet hospital in Manhattan.

American Airlines flew Karen back to New York to attend to her cat. But he was too weak from malnutrition and dehydration to continue on. On Sunday, after Karen had flown back home, Jack was put to sleep, surrounded by Karen’s friends and supporters.

Despite measures like a feeding tube, intravenous fluids, antibiotics and one operation, veterinarians finally recommended euthanasia.

“Forty to 60 percent of his body area was affected by devitalized tissue, tissue without blood flow,” Dr. Daly said.

A Facebook page devoted to Jack, Jack the Cat Is Lost in AA Baggage at J.F.K., had more than 24,400 “likes” as of Monday morning. On Sunday, a post entitled “RIP Jack — Full Info” reported that Jack had “gone over the rainbow bridge.”

Rest in peace, furry friend.

Sniff.

3 Reasons Why I’m Sponsoring a Child in Brazil

Flying back from my brother’s home in September was emotional. He was 4 weeks (out of 6) into intensive chemo and radiation, confused, weak, and scared about the future. His wife and I were working around the clock to care for him–and his two kids who were just starting kindergarten and pre-school.

It was hard to leave at that moment, especially to return to my rather foreign life in New York. I was a part of his family more than ever now, and they needed all the help they could get.

(Two 1/2 months earlier, Bill had been diagnosed with a stage 4 brain cancer, just a few weeks after his 36th birthday.)

My brother, Bill, one week after diagnosis, with his family. July 2011

On that September trip, I had gotten close to my 5-yr old nephew, Alex, and my 3-yr old niece, Sammie. I had gotten to know my sister-in-law in a way that only people thrown together into crisis can. I had one of the most intense—and in an odd way, satisfying—experiences of family I’d ever had.

I worried about leaving them at this moment, yet I needed to get back home to keep my own life going.  If my life fell apart—emotionally, financially, or otherwise—I wouldn’t be much good to anyone.

On my poignant plane ride back, thinking so much about family, I also felt lucky to be in a position to help. My brother’s airline (he’s a pilot) was flying me out to the west coast of Canada and back. My job as an editor was giving me the time off. I was able-bodied and I had a enough savings to afford miss a paycheck.

Still, I also felt the temptation to retreat into worry, sadness, and self-pity. Nothing compared to my younger—and only—brother getting stage 4 cancer.

Yet instead of descending into self-indulgence, something else, completely surprising, happened.

On the plane’s head-set TV,  an advertisement came on for an organization that sponsors children and their communities in impoverished parts of the world. Usually I leave that kind of work to other humanitarians. But that morning I felt an instant connection to those children. I deeply understood what it would mean for them to have some extra help.

In fact, for the price of a sandwich every week I could get a child a visit to a doctor, help her (or him) grow a garden, or even buy her textbooks or help her go to school for the first time. Thinking about it made me cry all over again.

I thought about it back at home and I investigated the organization. I waffled and I wavered. But the feeling that I needed to do this persisted.

So here are the three reasons why I decided to sponsor Ana Souza Silva, age 7, of northeastern Brazil.

Ana, 7

1. There is almost no price on giving ($10 a week? nothing), but there is a huge price to not receiving. To give to someone who needs help is an honor and a privilege.

2. I am Ana; Ana is me. We are connected. The act of giving is the understanding that our lives are, ultimately, bound together. It’s the, “there but for the grace of God go I” idea.

3. I’ve felt a special connection with Brazil for several years, and it’s a country I will most likely visit again. The fact that I might meet Ana one day makes giving her money all the more real, and all the more meaningful. (I’ve already started the paperwork!)

4. (I know I said three, but there are more!) It’s really, really easy. It’s the easiest way I know to give thanks for the privilege of my own life. It *is* the embodiment of “thanksgiving.” Why wait for the date in November before I embrace this commitment to living?

5. It’s almost hard to describe how exciting and moving it is to give a little money to Ana each week. It chokes me up every time.

Maybe this holiday season you might also give to a needy child or a needy family. It really feels amazing. I chose to work through World Vision. They are a Christian organization, but they get great reports. Happy November!