Saturday (28) - Arriving at Parmarth Niketan Ashram
International Yoga Festival - Sunday 1
Today was the start of the International Yoga Festival in Rishikesh. This is the festival I just missed two years ago when I arrived from Paharganj, where I had attended the Dalai Lama's teachings for a few days. However, it was a divine plan that helped me walk into this ashram, of all the ashrams that are here in Rishikesh, and that is why I am here today. This year is the 8th year the festival is being held and there are almost 400 participants here. There were about 500 participants here last year, and the decline is probably due to the Mumbai bombings last year and the recession.
This morning I did not attend the Kundalini Sadhana (spiritual practice) which starts at 4am every day. My body was still adjusting to the cold temperature and recovering from the long journey, so I had decided to skip that session. I started at 6:30 doing Sukshma Yoga with Swami Yogananda who was born in 1909, i.e.: he is 99 years old. He was quite something, shouting orders very fiercely in another language while a translator gave us direction, although the Swami knows English and would occasionally speak some English. He started doing some simple warm-up exercises and then moved on to some asanas, but finished with some very advanced asanas, including Matsyendrasana with one leg in half lotus and Yoga Nidra (both legs behind the head), which of course nobody could do, especially since we in a large tent and was very cold.
We had some light snacks like a banana and a bit of porridge and tea and next I attended Deep Yoga with Bhava Ram and Sundari Ram. Bhava Ram has an interesting experience of Yoga, since he used Yoga and Ayurveda to heal his broken back and recover from stage 4 cancer. He started the class playing the guitar and chanting a mantra to Shiva, the father of yoga. The class was not very vigorous as I expect most classes will be, but I need to relinquish my attachment of the hard ashtanga asana practice for a while. What I am feeling though, is that because I am experiencing so many different yoga styles so quickly, I am feeling ungrounded, and this is another reasone I am missing my ashtanga practice... a regular practice and a practice that I know, and a grounding practice.
At 10:15 there was brunch, which is one of two big meals we have in the day. The food is extremely sweet, which I am not enjoying. The porridge is already prepared with so much sugar, you cannot taste the porridge, only the texture. I am missing the fruit salads and dosas I had in Mysore.
At 11:30 there was lecture in the big tent, which was not very interesting. The big tent that they have put up for the festival has been decorated nicely with white and gold linen sheets creating a false ceiling on which the monkeys like to climb and look at us through the gaps. One of them decided to pee right above me. Luckily it just missed me and went onto my yoga mat... I guess I was blessed by the Indian monkey god called Hanuman :-)
At 13:15 was the first Reiki session, which was a simple introduction. She will do this every day during the festival at the same time and if we attend all of the sessions we will gain the level 1 Reiki certification.
At 15:00 I attended the Shinto Yoga class. This was very interesting and it had a very big Japanese influence. We did sun salutations the shinto way, both standing and kneeling and then we did some things on our backs, which he said was like a fish writhing. We had to do it for thirty seconds or more, which became quite difficult. Towards the end I felt like I was back in a martial arts class when we were facing a partner holding there hand and trying to throw each other off balance, but it was a very playfull atmosphere which was enjoyable. At then end we each got a piece of paper and a pebble from the ganges, which he said will help us clear our minds while we practice Dharana (concentration).
At 17:00 was the welcoming ceremony, during which some of the boys at the school in the ashram showed us some yoga poses. They were incredible, but what struck me was that the poses were sloppy, just like Krishnamacharya in his 1938 video, which Nancy had mentioned during her retreat. According to the book "The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace", it was only BKS Iyengar who introdruced precision into the asanas, and the west has taken this even further applying anatomical science. Afterwards was the evening aarti (devotional singing), which happens on the banks of the ganges every evening. At 19:00 was finally dinner. I am finding that I am extremely hungry here, even though I am eating a lot, which I think is due to the colder temperatures. After dinner there were Indian cultural dances, which went on until just before 22:00.
IYF - Monday 2
I was late for the 6:30 class, so instead I decided to practice Ashtanga in the room, which by the way I am sharing with Prana, a guy who runs the ZenDen Mountain Retreat near Cape Town. The space was cramped but it felt good and I got up to Janu Shirshasana and then did finishing sequence so that I would be in time for the next class, which was Kundalini Yoga with Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa. She seems to be a big favourite with everybody and she seems to have been teaching at the festival for years already. She does not teach in the tent or in one of the large rooms in the three story building, but she teaches on the ghat (steps next to the ganges river). Yesterday I did not want to do this because I was very cold, but it had actually warmed up a bit since I arrived on Saturday and when I got onto the ghat I was happy I came, because it was so very beautiful.
I had attended very few Kundalini classes before and hated all of them until I did Gurmukh's workshop in South Africa last year in May. I did enjoy it, but I was still not convinced this was my cup of tea, so I had a little worry in the back of my mind. I did not need to worry though, because the Kundalini Yoga class was fantastic. Gurmukh's theme was one of Yogi Bhajan's (founder of this lineage of Kundalini yoga) sayings, "Understand through compassion, otherwise you will missunderstand the times", and she talked about the fact that we all pick our parents, our bodies etc through our karma and that we make a living by what we get, but that we live by what we give. Then she made us shake our bodies while sitting with our arms raised above our heads for about ten minutes and then another eight minutes standing up. I think my shoulders felt like my arms were lead after the first minute, but then the pain subsided and I could hold my arms up throughout and I felt elated. The session was quite similar to what Gurmukh had taught in South Africa. We finished by clapping hands while sitting in a circle in groups of four, chanting "Sat Nam", "Har" and "I god, you god".
Then we had breakfast at around eleven and I did not attend the lecture afterwards. The Reiki was very nice and we learnt more about the seven energy centres or chakras in our bodies. I then did the Vyayam Yoga session, which I found very interesting. The only problem I had with the session, like so many Indian teachers, they do not introduce themselves or their session. He started by singing and playing the harmonium with two assistants. He then did pranayama with us, but while we were doing the pranayama (seated) there was a lot of arm movement and mudras that we had to do.
He then handed over to one of his assistants, a young teenager I think with a shaved head, except for some long hair flowing down from the top portion of the back of her head. This seems to be something a lot of kids do here... need to find out more about this. Anyway, she then took us through some movements and explained that the movement follows the breath, so this was very similar to ashtanga, and the breath was also ujjayi. The movements were very circular and flowing continuously, there were no postures and the whole system is based on a system used by ancient Indian warriors, so one movement for instance was supposed to look like drawing a sword from the sheath. The hands and arms move with strength in the muscles, however, we should not be thinking of the muscles moving the body, but the breath, which is exactly what Gurmukh was teaching in the Kundalini class this morning.
I then went and had a "swim", more like a quick three dips in the cold waters of mother ganga with my room mate Prana. We bought a ready made small basket of flowers with a candle, lit the candle and sent it down the river before we entered the water.
Brunch at 10:30 and Dinner at 19:00 are almost always the same with two types of rice, dhal, kitcheree, chapati and naan, some vegetables such as carrots and green beans and sometimes some ochre. So it is very monotonous, but the desert is always different. Today was gulab jamoon and I had a total of nine of them... they were sooooo good! After dinner was satsang (divine association) with Pujya Swamiji, who is the head of the ashram where the festival is at. Pujya Swamiji seems to be a very well known spiritual leader, as I have seen pictures of him with the Dalai Lama, with Bill Clinton and with the Israely Prime Minister. Swamiji's right hand person, an american lady, who renounced the material life to lead a spiritual life of service to others unser Swamiji's guidance, who lives at the ashram talked about the first two yamas from the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, namely Ahimsa (non-violence) and Satya (Truth). Ahimsa included mentioning that we should not eat meat as this could save our lives, our families lives and the earths life. Apparently there is no food shortage in the world, only a distribution problem, as we feed the grain to cows, chicken and pigs, that could feed the poor instead. Regarding truth, she said that we should always ensure that our words serve a purpose and are kind. She used the metaphor of the monks cleaning a clay Buddha and finding gold in a crack and then discovering that there is a clay Buddha hidden behind the clay, which was put on the statue to protect it from warriors who were marauding the country. The truth does not always need to be the cold heartless facts that are required in a court of law.
Pujya Swamiji was then asked a question about how we can make a difference considering all the poverty around us and he answered that we should live a simple life and give to those in need.
IYF - Tuesday 3
In the morning I attended a Kriya Yoga or Nada Yoga session with Sadhvi Abha Saraswati, who gives month long training to lead chants. We started off with some pranayama exercises and then went onto singing the Vaidika Shanti Mantra and she was really good because she actually was very clear on which syllables are high notes and low notes. There are only three notes, the middle one being the same as OM. There is a fourth note, which is a double note, which she explained in the Gaayatri Mahaa Mantra, which I have already mentioned in my blog about Kirtan with James. Then we moved onto the Mrtyujaya Mantra, which I love and we finished with the Asatoma chant. I can only tell you what the names of the mantras are because she actually handed out books with the words, so that is quiet nice!!!
After a quick snack I headed off for another session of Kundalini Yoga with Gurmukh. My calves are stiff from jumping around yesterday. She actually arrived on time today and was quite funny when she welcomed the newcomers, saying that those of us who attended the first few sessions will have stopped wondering, "Where are the downdogs?" as there are none. Kundalini is very different to normal Hatha yoga, and I can only remember doing one asana with her so far, namely Ushtrasana (Camel pose). Today she actually made us hold camel pose for a full three minutes while chanting "I will not take the bait" (of complaining and having a normal negative mindset). She gave us another hard class with the theme being another of Yogi Bhajans sayings "See others as yourself." My shoulders were really saw from her class because we were holding up our arms almost the entire class starting at 8:15 and she ended late again at 10:40. The partner work I did with Indra whom I had met in Mysore. She is from Malaysia and actually taught a workshop on kids yoga in Mysore, which I had missed. The end of the class was very enjoyable. Gurmukh asked an american lady who had studied Bangra dancing in India for six years to lead us in dancing bangra to two songs after which we got into a huge circle holding hands and singing and then repeating something the Dalai Lama had said.
After the big brunch, was a lecture with Pujya Swamiji during which he talked about what it means to be a yogi. It mainly means that a yogi is always content - santosha (one of the niyamas in Patanjalis Yoga Sutras). We should always be content. The reason people are unhappy is because they constantly want more and he said when he came to Rishikesh there were no shops between the ashram and Laksman Jhula (pedestrian bridge) and Ram Jhula did not exist, so people had to walk (this side of the ganges river is a pedestrian only zone) all the way up to Lakshman Jhula to go buy something and people were happy with that. He talked about a poor beggar within whom he saw a yogi, because the beggar was not complaining. He said god wanted him there, and his journey was over.
He also said that everybody we worship today is someone who had special powers, and that those people went through tests without complaining and always used their powers or gifts to help others and never to help themselves. We should accept the divine plan.
He made two other points, namely that we need to be consistent and that we should practice moderation and he finished by saying that the yamas and niyamas are the foundation of yoga - union with the divine. We can miss our asana and pranayama practice, but we should always keep the connection with the people around us and see the divine in everyone.
After some questions he concluded saying that the most important of the yamas and niyamas is surrender!
Afterwards was another Reiki session and then I wanted to attend the Om Meditation session, but I went to my room as I was in a bit of pain and have trouble sitting. Don't know exactly when I got hurt, but hopefully my left QL muscle will recover soon. In the evening after dinner was a cultural musical performance in the tent organised by the Uttarakhand (state) Tourism Department. It was absolutely fantastic. I was very unhappy because my camera battery packed up! What was also sad was that hardly any of the yogi's attending the IYF actually attended. I was there with Almendra from Mexico and Jetal from the USA. There were probably less than 10 others. However, lots of Indian people from outside had come including lots of kids, as well as all the Rishikumars (orphans and other poor kids going to school in the ashram) of course.
IYF - Wednesday 4
The program for today was slightly different in that there were no classes at 6:30, instead there was a walk up behind the ashram into the Himalayas with Pujya Swamiji. He seems quite fit because the pace was quite good. The walk was only an hour, so I was disappointed when we had to turn back. Afterwards I decided not to do Kundalini again as my back was still not happy. There were quite a number of other people who had sore legs or other complaints from the Kundalini yoga. I attended the Deep Yoga (San Diego) class again, which was very new agey again, but it is very grounding and nurturing.
At Brunch they served masala dosas today, which everybody enjoyed. The lecture today was with Dr David Frawley and his wife on Lord Shiva and Shakti energies. I had bought one of Dr Frawley's books during the trip on Ayurveda and yoga, and everybody else also seemed quite excited about the lecture, as he is I think the only westerner ever to have officially been recognised as a master of Vedanta. Kerry had heard him speak before the last time she came to the conference and said he was too intellectual and she went to bed as she had had no sleep. The lecture was very intellectual and Iola from Cape Town just immediately lay down and dozed because it was straight over the top of her head. I started taking notes furiously, but there was so much new information I could not keep up. I was also lying down on my chest so that I could take notes and not feel any pain, but lying down was not conducive to staying alert. At one stage I realised that his wife was speaking and I did not remember when she took over from him.
Straight afterwards was another Reiki session, and then into another session, so three sessions back to back, one and a half hours long each. The third session I chose to go to a Kundalini yoga class taught by Siddhi, an elderly german lady, who teaches hand mudras. Other people had loved her class and I also really enjoyed it, but again not something that I see myself practicing daily in the near future. We basically sat for the entire one and a half hours, learnt several mudras and then she put on some music and we would do the mudras in a sequence chanting to the music at the same time, so it was quite enjoyable.
IYF - Thursday 5
IYF - Friday 6