where in the world (2010)


After 5 trips to India I finally made it to the north, to the banks of the Ganges in Haridwar, a city in the foothills of the Himalayas. I was attending the Maha Kumbh Mela, the largest spiritual gathering for Hindus that has gone on for milennia.  Me and about two million of my closest friends.  When I walked onto the terrace of my hotel the river took my breath away. I stood there amazed because I instantly knew I had been here before. I had known in my bones that I had to be at THIS Kumbh Mela at THIS time in my life.

I stood for a long time and it was such a deep, visceral knowing that I could only compare it to when my feet first hit the ground in south India five years before, the feeling that I had come home. It was the week of Maha Shivaratri, the Hindu festival to honor the god Shiva. The orange robes of the sadhus across the river looked familiar to me on a level that was very different from seeing them in photographs.

The week before I had been in Kolkata at Kalighat, the main temple in India for the devotees of the goddess Kali. When I walked into the temple I received such a blast of shakti that I had to sit down before I fell down. It felt like I had been punched in the chest. Inside the temple a Western woman told me that my eyes were so dilated that I looked like I had dropped some LSD. The cockroaches crawling over the metal grill that surrounded the statue of Kali sparkled so brightly that they looked like crawling jewels. I mentioned them to the woman but she could not see what I saw and turned away.

After I made my offering and the priest rubbed my forehead I came to the area where goats are sacrificed. The idea of an animal dying for the Divine is abhorrent to me but I take many things in stride in India.

I watched a woman butchering the meat as stray dogs gathered waiting for a morsel to drop. Goat heads with eyes that contained their last image of life lined the edge of the sacrificial platform and I looked at the dogs. In my shakti induced high their panting mouths seemed to be smiling. Kalighat is next to where Mother Theresa tended to the dying and instead of feeling sick at the sight of headless goats I took in the entire scene and all I felt was pure love. In the Bengali tradition, the goal of the Kali devotee is to become reconciled with death and to learn acceptance of the way things are. The love that I felt was raw and primal and my heart space filled with the fire of bhakti. I felt as if I were on fire. I felt extraordinarily alive.

All the people who had died next door, all the goats who had given their lives for the Mother, all those dogs who were going to eat. It was my own surrealistic version of Eat Pray Love. And I was filled with joy.

In Haridwar on Maha Shivaratri I watched the procession of the mostly naked naga babas as they marched to the Ganges and I knew that I had never been to such a joyful event in my life.

My hotel in Haridwar had its own ghat – steps into the Ganges – and after the yogis took their bath I walked back to my hotel and down the steps into the Ganges and dunked myself three times. I had been in Haridwar for five days but I wanted to wait until the day that Shiva married Parvati to really feel the river.

During my third dunk I stayed under a bit longer and I felt electric. I came out and sat on the steps with my feet in the water. The waters of the Ganges are called amrita, the “nectar of immortality.” Hindus believe that there is nothing as cleansing as the living waters of Ganga Ma. I wanted to sit with my feet in the water and never leave. Something was coursing through me and once again all I felt was joy.

That night I met a swami of the highest order, a man who is the spiritual head of the Juna Akhara, the naked yogis I watched that morning.

That morning the swami had thrown a rose to me — he stopped his chariot in front of me, looked into my eyes, threw the rose and smiled, and then moved on. I held the rose tight because people were already pushing me out of the way to pick up the holy rose petals from the street. I did not know that in the afternoon I would be invited to a special puja that night at his ashram, the oldest one in Haridwar. A mantra teacher friend found me to invite me to a special Maha Shivaratri puja. I had no idea that he was staying in the ashram of the rose throwing swami, I did not even know the swami’s name.

When the rickshaw arrived at the ashram I saw the swami’s picture outside and froze in my seat. Once again a shakti blast felt like a punch in the chest and all I could do was stare at the billboard with his picture.  I sat there for so long that some of his devotees asked me if I was well. I walked into the ashram and was taken into the swami’s compound before the start of the special puja. That night my friend chanted to Shiva as I sat on the floor gazing up at the swami. The gold in the mala around his neck looked like the crawling sparkling jewels I had seen in Kalighat a week before.

Everything just happened, merely the flow of experience, the essence of allowing things to unfold as if by Divine plan. I was told that night that it was my good karma to be there, that I was meant to be there from the moment I caught that rose in the morning.

I thanked the Goddess I was capable of such joy.

shiva and kali

(The Dance of Shiva and Kali)

I returned last night from my Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training retreat at Spirit Rock in California. before I blog about my experience there, I thought I’d write about an insight I gained on the last day.

As I say in the sidebar, I bow to Buddha but I rock with Kali. I never resonated with any other Hindu goddess. I have a tattoo that includes Kali’s eyes and I wear a necklace with a Kali pendant.

One of the students saw it on the last day of the retreat and asked me who it was. I told her it was Kali and she looked like I slapped her. “Ooooh….,” she said, looking scared and backing away. fear. so many people live in fear of the unknown, out of ignorance. true believers in Kali know that she is very misunderstood, like all wild women are. this student told me that Thomas Ashley-Farrand said that a woman who worshipped Kali brought all her bad karma into play and she broke out in a terrible skin disease.

I looked at her and slowly smiled a Kali smile. “do you know who Ramakrishna was?,” I asked her. “uh, vaguely.” “then you would know that Ramakrishna worshipped Kali and Ramakrishna is considered a Hindu saint. she was the Mother to him.”

I realized how yet again some people (even women) are afraid of the power of a strong woman. there is a story about how both Kali and Durga, along with the Divine female powers of the male gods, Brahma, Shiva, Skanda, Vishnu, and Indra, destroyed an army of demons. the story symbolizes the destruction of our inner enemies by our higher nature. the demons represent our pride, passion, inertia, non-discipline and rage when thwarted — qualities of the ego that hinder our spiritual progress. Kali goads us to higher levels of self-perfection so that we can experience the bliss of our True Nature (from Kali: Slayer of Illusion, Sarah Caldwell.) Kali Ma is the destroyer of negative egos, yet she is only seen by many as the Dark Goddess. the Bad Girl.

Just like in the real world where women are supposed to be “nice”, people like their goddesses quiet and demure, to know their place.

After my conversation with this student I realized how sexist the attitude is that goddesses are supposed to be meek and mild, the nourishing Mother archetype instead of the Woman Warrior, Woman as Destroyer. even modern women buy into it. in fact I think many women are more frightened of strong women (at least women stronger than themselves) than men are.

Shiva is the Destroyer, but he is male, so that’s appropriate. but Kali Ma, a woman, and the image of her standing on top of Shiva with her necklace of skulls (which represent the letters in Sanskrit by the way), is too potent an image especially, surprisingly enough, to some women. there is something frightening to people about a woman who has power and control and confidence.

Nice is for little girls and kittens.


UPDATE: I just ordered the book The Quest of the Warrior Woman: Women As Mystics, Healers and Guides by Christina Feldman…I’ll let y’all know how it is.

addthis_pub = ‘yogagal60510’;

yoga from hell

more from the “yoga is evil” battle front thanks to a link on souljerky

Vicars are Right to be Afraid of Sweaty and Sensual Yoga

“Children’s yoga classes have been banned from two church halls in Somerset, by vicars who regard the practice as “un-Christian”. ‘Yoga impinges on the spiritual life of people in a way which we as Christians don’t believe is the same as our ethos,’ said the Rev Simon Farrar.

I’m a yoga devotee, but I can understand Mr Farrar’s position. If he wants the kiddies of Somerset to grow into passive, faithful churchgoers, he’s right to keep them away from the ancient Hindu art of self-realisation….

…In Hindu mythology, yoga was developed by Shiva, the maverick, dreadlocked god of destruction and regeneration. He renounced the world and sat atop mount Kailash, manipulating his body in 8,400,000 postures, to reveal the basic animal instincts and desires that motivate us. Shiva was an outsider who refused to fit into mainstream society, cultivating his innate individuality instead, and yoga became the practice of rebels and nonconformists throughout Indian history.”

I love the comment about the early yogis being the nonconformists of Hindu society because if you read my post about my California training, Stephen Cope emphasized that the renouncers of the Hindu rituals, the sramanas, starting from the 8th Century BC to the 2nd century CE, used their own bodies and minds as laboratories for the direct experience of yoga and for the research on the nondualism of body and mind.

The actions of the sramanas were similar to that of Martin Luther when he told the Catholic Church, in essence, “I don’t need a priest to be the intermediary between me and the Divine.” In the same way the sramanas told the Brahmin priests “we don’t need your fire rituals and sacrifices to know the Divine.” Iconoclasts and rebels, I love it. By the way, I’m a very lapsed Lutheran. and always the rebel.

The author of the Guardian article finally asks, “Who knows what dangerous urges the Rev Farrar has repressed with his Anglican dogma, which might gush forth with a mere sun-salutation? Perhaps it’s not yoga that scares him, but what it might release within himself.”

What indeed makes someone so fearful of the unknown and the unfamiliar, whether it is within us or out there? Once I gave a cloth painting of Durga to the owner of the yoga studio where I used to teach because she said she wanted something that expressed “strong feminine energy.” She returned it to me within a week because she said that two students complained about it — two out of over 100 students that attended the studio every week. They told the owner they were “Christian” and the painting of Ma Durga made them “uncomfortable” because it was “Hindu.” sigh…it’s always the few….

No one tied them up, taped their eyes open, and made them stare at Durga the same way Malcolm McDowell was forced to watch graphic violence in A Clockwork Orange. I have never been to a yoga studio where anyone was forced to chant those evil MAN-tras to Vishnu and Krishna, those MAN-tras that strike fear in the heart of Pat Robertson. I wouldn’t go to a studio where anyone forced me to do anything. Apologies to any kundalini yogis out there, but I never went back to a kundalini yoga class because I was told I HAD to wear a white scarf. uh….no thanks.

I have my own opinion about what the owner should have done, but the fact that these women were so fearful of something that was not in their realm of experience gives me pause. Hmmmmm…how would it go over if I walked into a church (my own choice, forced by no one) and told the minister or priest that as a Buddhist, looking at Jesus on the cross bugs me and I want it taken down. I would probably be politely told, “get over it. this is a church. this is what we do.”

Be afraid. be very afraid. yoga might make you think.