Tag Archives: meditation

An Update and a new beginning…

This is a new start. I left my flat in the beautiful Kew Gardens, my job after a successful year and finished a relationship which was at times wonderful but often tumultuous and energetically very draining for me.

I decided I needed a change. Some time out. A reset and also the opportunity to give back and offer my service.

So what have I been up to? Well, following on from The Hridaya TTC  I stayed in Mexico for a few months. We had the intention of starting something in the village of Tepoztlan. Things didn’t work out there and I returned to London virtually penniless and looking for a way to become unstuck.

The Hridaya teacher training course was an intensive 3 months of meditation, yoga, theory and community. I wrote about it on their blog here.

Passion, Power and Love

This change has been brewing within me for some time. Some inspiration arose in the Passion, Power and Love workshop I did over new year with Jan Day. The next year holds adventure, learning, sharing and practice.

The above picture is the vision board that I created during the Passion, Power and Love workshop. I created it as the climax of 3 days of deep connecting, both with others and with myself.  There is a lot of gratitude for the learning and dancing on the edge that happened at that time. I returned to work in London with a great deal of positivity and aliveness, even in the depths of winter.

The vision board allows me to look forwards and see great potential. Some of the exercises we did helped me to view memories with a fresh outlook.

 

Gong!

Having been inspired by receiving gong baths at various festivals over the last few years I decided to take a workshop to learn how to play. It was organised by Ali and led by Sheila Whittaker. The two days of training with around 15 gongs in a small space and 16 students created such a powerful energy and vibration. I had been suffering from recurring headaches for several weeks before and I noticed over the weekend the intensity getting stronger. At the end of the weekend we participated in an all-night gong puja. We settled ourselves in for the night and took turns playing the gongs for half an hour each from 9pm through to 7am. By the end of this night my headache was completely gone and didn’t come back even after returning to the office.

Glastonbury Retreat

I was delighted to share the experience of running a yoga retreat at the lovely ShekinAshram in Glastonbury with Ben.  We had eight students who came for two classes of yoga a day. We also had Kirtan with the amazing Tim Chalice, fire puja by the ashram staff and walks to Glastonbury Tor and Chalice Well.

Ben and I also experimented with a sound journey. Leading with the gong and incorporating harmonium, drums, rain stick and various other bits of percussion that were lying about we had a strong hour and a half of relaxation. I was completely gonged out by the end. I don’t know about the students. It’s something I’d like to do more of so will do more gong training work in the next year.

 

The Globe & Sangha

In a brief moment in London some of my Hridaya Sangha were going to Shakespeare’s Globe on the Southbank. I’m so glad I went along to an exuberant performance of Twelfth Night complete with bearded, sparkly, giant drag queens, “We are Family” and a lot of laughs.

Yoga show

I went to the yoga show a couple of times… I found an unfinished post about it so let me take you back there…

“This weekend I visited an exhibition in the beautiful surrounds of Alexandra Palace, perched atop a hill to the north of London and with a stunning vista around the capital.

The Yoga Show is kind of a strange event. The consumerisation of such an ancient art is always going to be slightly jarring. For a practice that is supposed to bring you deep inside to a place of stillness and connection with the universe, being around thousands of people, all pushing their own take on wellbeing, can be overwhelming.

I thoroughly enjoyed it though, from wandering through the stands trying organic chocolate, tasting teas and natural supplements to taking in workshops and chatting with vendors about yoga accessories.

I went partly due to being a member of Yoga Alliance, an organisation that attempts to provide a level of confidence among yogis that the schools they are studying with and the teachers that are spreading the word are of a certain standard. They had a large stall at the yoga show and Emma was helping them out with it during the day.

I went to a couple of their sessions for teachers – Refining Adjusting Skills (Part Three) with Brian Cooper and Master Class: Relax with Tara Stiles. Their classes were away from the main body of the yoga show in a separate room making for a more relaxing environment.

I’m not one for celeb yoga teachers but I had somehow heard of Tara. I wasn’t sure about walking into the hall with the Chemical Brothers booming from the stereo and Tara posing for selfies with the early birds but I was willing to see where she wanted to take us.

The class was towards the end of the day but I must admit I came out feeling thoroughly blissed out. She has obviously worked hard at delivering a sequence that is aligned with the music. (getting more “spiritual” as the class progressed). It was somewhat challenging without being pure gymnastics and we did a nice bit of alternate nostril breathing at the end. I did find she kind of mumbled through the instructions a bit. I felt she was trying to squeeze in more words than is really necessary. This lead to a few occasions where I was taken out of the flow by wondering – what was that? If the effect is all important though I came out on a different level so I take my hat off to her.

Brian has just released a book focusing on the anatomical side of yoga and his approach to alignment clearly comes from a deep understanding of the body and a training in Thai yoga massage.

This class was in much more of a workshop style with Brian and an assistant showing us a posture and a way to adjust before we paired up and tried the same on each other. There were some great ideas in here and although some of the suggestions were perhaps better suited to a “partner” style of class, since I think it would be difficult to go around the whole class applying some of the techniques It was good to learn from someone who clearly has a lot of knowledge and a very precise and focused teaching style, although with a sense of humour.”

 

Resonance Academy

I’ve been inspired by Nassim Haramein and his teachings of sacred geometry for some time and have mentioned it before. I signed up for the Resonance Academy delegate programme and have been studying off and on for the last year or so. I don’t always follow the science.  Quantum physics equations might as well be in Martian to me I’m afraid but it’s been interesting. I’m hoping to get through to Module 4 soon where apparently the juicy stuff resides!

 

Colourfest, sacred sound and volunteering

Colourfest continues to be one of my favourite festivals. I went there last year with some friends which was hugely enjoyable despite some stresses beforehand. This year I volunteered as a steward – the first of several yoga festivals I will be helping at this summer. (The next ones are the World Yoga Festival and Buddhafield) Volunteering was a different way to experience things and very enjoyable to be part of the team. By having a limited amount of time to enjoy what was on offer I actually made more of an effort to do things. Hanging out on the main gate and welcoming people was fun. We were on this gate the first morning before the gates officially opened and some people were really difficult.

“Sorry, we’re not open for another half an hour so you’ll just have to wait here for a few minutes”
“Well, why are there loads of cars and tents already in the field then?”
“… I mean, do you think the festival just appears by magic or what?”

My other interesting shift was on the Saturday night on Gate B. This was the tradesman’s entrance and exit from the festival. I was here alone and other than one person setting up lighting I had to redirect everybody back to the main entrance. It was quite peaceful. Then it got dark and I was lit by just three candles in the forest. Thankfully I had the site security guard coming to see how I was every so often. Ben and Jonathan took pity and joined to keep me company for half an hour as well.

Highlights of the festival itself were yoga classes with Swami Asokananda, one of which I followed with a shamanic journey and then a gong bath for the ultimate in chill. Kirtan with Sivani Mata, Elahn and Radhe and plenty others were also great. There were dance collaborations and some tantra workshops although I pretty much stuck with the sacred sound.

Krishna Das

Speaking of sacred sound I saw the amazing Krishna Das at the Union Chapel and it was one of the most incredible heart opening Kirtans. It is always a joy to do this practice but somehow he led the huge audience into raptures; I was full of bliss.

Yogific

Colourfest wasn’t my first yoga volunteering event this year actually, I helped at a couple of events for Yogific including the Yoga and Vegan food festival in my old stomping ground of Kingston. It was held in the Guildhall which is a lovely setting and was a huge success. There were lessons to be learnt, though. So many people came we ended up with a queue out the door as venue security restricted capacity. It was great to do some yoga, try delicious vegan food and have interesting conversations with people. I’m hoping to help them out later this year in India.

AOL and the Cote D’Azur

I went to a workshop called Awakening of Love which led to musings here… The next opportunity to do this workshop is in Devon from the 22nd to 24th Setember.

Some detail I cut out is here –

Simon Matthews is an unassuming group leader, he remains centred and is able to connect easily. His journey started in 2003 with the Hoffman Process but before this he was sceptical about any sort of therapeutic work. Taking part in the Path of Love in 2011 changed everything and within a year he had trained to lead sessions. His commitment and clear faith in the power of the work, as well as the assistants who hold space so beautifully, create a container that is safe and yet profoundly open.

Awakening of Love is a short introduction to the longer Path of Love workshop which has been running since 1995. Founders Rafia Morgan and Turiya Hanover came together to develop a system from their combined experiences in development and spiritual work.

These teachings stem from the work of controversial Indian sage Osho. He introduced a series of dynamic meditations and an open approach to working with sexual energy which is an influence on most modern teachings of “tantra”.

The workshop also connected me with someone who I went to visit in the South of France for a week. We had a lovely time cooking delicious healthy food from the local produce.  We hiked in the mountains surrounding the Cote D’Azur and swam in the sea.

Mooji

Mooji is still a strong influence, we went to see him in London last summer and I had a lovely hug afterwards. Oh, and we were offered his kettle – truly blessed!

 

Meadows in the Mountains

Meadows in the Mountains was pitched as a hippy adventure in the Bulgarian mountains with a Burning Man vibe. It lived up to that although I wasn’t expecting it to be full of kids from Hackney getting wasted to techno. It was still a lovely experience.

Amazing views, stunning sunrises, and beautiful people made it the most visually arresting festival I’ve ever been to.

I managed to do one class of yoga nidra. It was more like a yoga class with a long relaxation. This was a really nice way to dip into a different energy at the festival. I needed to catch up on sleep as well.

We also spent some time in the delightful tea shop which was run by “goldilocks” who worked tirelessly to keep the place spic and span. Our awesome neighbours in the campsite were tango teachers from Argentina. They always seemed to be in the midst of some family crisis but were such a bastion of calm in the madness.

 


I saw the sun rise over the mountain twice. On Sunday night the mist rolled in and created a fantasy scene of islands of trees in the valley.

We found a drum’n’bass dub party in the yoga tent which went off like a bomb.

We spent a lot of time people watching. In a perfect flow scenes would emerge before us. The pirate ship became our domain for a while, the uneven slopes making the zombie children stagger and the sneezing guy fall over.

We arrived at the right time for food, and this was no mean feat. The soul food curry stall took 3 hours to prep and would be gone in 20 minutes. To arrive at the right second took some synchronicity. Otherwise the festival was fuelled by cheese on toast and Prosecco. People swigged from the bottle in a search for psychedelics which seemed to consume the site. I can’t say we saw much live music but the afro-beat collective were pretty great.

Sofia

On our return to Sofia Sev’s family welcomed us as Herman insisted on taking us out for a beer. We were somewhat reluctant due to tiredness and nursing a 5 day accumulated hangover. Herman’s nighttime city tour turned out to be a highlight, though.

Unbeknownst to us the centre of Sofia has some real sites. The “5 wings and 7 dicks” monument looking like something from the nightmarish vision of a video game. The thousand year old churches. Roman ruins that you can wander amongst, with a can, even in the middle of the night. The Church where Sev’s grandmother got married, with it’s golden domes. The huge statue of a king with piercing golden eyes. We ended up in a bar down a pitch black alley, a knock to be let in and all the lighting by candlelight. The only downside – we forgot to take a camera!

Austin Kleon

I’ve been inspired by the books and newsletter of Austin Kleon who is a Texas-based artist with great ideas about sparking creativity and how art is created through careful appropriation of existing sources. His “Steal Like an Artist” takes the view that all art comes from a combination of influencers and by digging deep into your favourite work you can find the inspiration to make something new and interesting.

 

Politics

So while all this has been going on and my world is turning, the outside is equally messy. Brexit was a moment for me, in turmoil in relationship at the time, where it didn’t seem that the shifting sands of politics could really have an impact and then…

Unprecedented in its wake up call to the progressive left who have been somewhat sleeping over the last 20 years, myself included in that, I hope the upheaval we are seeing will lead to a shift in the way we see our society and how it is constructed.

I voted remain for inclusivity, and the desire to work together with people from all cultures, religions and backgrounds to improve the lot of all of humanity. The petty jingoism and casual racism that seem to have emerged since, and with the Trump effect adding to this normalisation, are not just unacceptable from a moral point of view but also take us backwards when we should be striving forward for evolution.

The recent election showed the number of young people waking up to the recognition that they can influence. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn I hope means that there is a new paradigm emerging in British politics. The Grenfell tower tragedy brings into sharp contrast the differences between the rich and the poor. It cannot be long before the masses realise the lies of the right wing press and stand up against this Tory government. It’s time for an end to an austerity agenda which only benefits those who are already comfortable.

I hope we can rise above self-interest, gain those Bodhisattva ideals (that I’m reading and writing about currently) and shake the magic money tree (which certainly exists if you are an investment banker) to provide for all those in our society.

What Next?

So next I’m volunteering at the World Yoga Festival in Reading and Buddhafield. After these two I’ll be flying down to Lyon to help the renovation efforts at the new Hridaya France centre – Ramana Village

I have been published in a few other places since I last wrote here…

http://www.yogiapproved.com/?s=Ian+Marshall

http://www.hridaya-yoga.com/ready-for-a-meditation-retreat/

http://www.elephantjournal.com/2016/07/how-i-used-my-spiritual-practice-to-break-unhealthy-relationship-patterns/

https://goodmenproject.com/sex-relationships/men-in-tantra-what-they-are-missing-out-on-grmx/

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Filed under General, India, Thailand

Spiritual Heart Journey

I originally published this piece about my Spiritual journey on www.spiritualheartjourney.com. I’ve decided to merge these two sites.

I imagine my story is similar to many others embarking into the spiritual scene. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Trying classes, healings, pulling coconut oil, retreats and getting somewhere but then a shift, a change and a move to something else. The two paths that have recurred consistently and with the most effect, though, are Tibetan Buddhism and advaita vedanta.

My journey has been a bubbling under for most of my life. It was only really on visiting India that things started to blossom for me and I was able to see the need for a spiritual path through existence.  Something which I had always kind of known but never really been able to put into practical terms.

Mrs Jones was my teacher in Junior school and where others did PE or country dancing we spent several afternoons practicing yoga with her. I don’t remember a lot about the classes but she was one of my favourite teachers and despite seeming quite old to my 8 year old self, I’ve seen her recently and she seems just as sprightly as she was back then. Perhaps because of this I’ve always had a positive view of yoga despite an experience in Thailand that put me off for some time.

Early Travels

I had a desire to travel, because I felt my life was stagnating. So I went to Australia, inspired by my Australian friends in London. It turned out that it wasn’t so much their Australian-ness that made them fascinating people but the urge in them to travel. I met wonderful people from all over the world, embracing life and trying different ways to spend their days.
It was my time in South East Asia on the way back that I really loved, though. I connected with a thoroughly different culture. Visiting temples, being fascinated by Buddhist Monks and climbing hundreds of steps to Hindu shrines.

IMG_0351

Thai Buddhas

Thai Buddhas

Buddhas

Buddhas

I visited Angkor Wat, without knowing the significance. (Ten years later I watched this documentary which is fascinating.)

I looked around Chinese shrines in Vietnam shrouded in incense smoke as well as the  Cao Đài temple near Saigon which brings together Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Landing with Muslim friends in Malaysia celebrating the end of Ramadan and feasting. I tried meditation for the first time and was absorbed by the beautiful offerings which were a clear backdrop of life in Bali.

Bali Offering

Bali Offering

Hari Raya feasting with the king of Malaysia

Hari Raya feasting with the king of Malaysia (not pictured)

This trip was an eye-opener for me in terms of seeing different ways of living although I knew nothing of the philosophy or practices that underpinned these religions. The amazing nature and animal life in the Borneo rainforest or on Thai beaches. The food had me swooning.

I came back and had a relationship with  an English girl I met in Brisbane. She has a story of her own but I think  living with her changed me a great deal and the breakdown of our relationship started a profound shift in me which is where this journey somehow really started.
She was all about healthy living, organic food, growing vegetables and alternative healing techniques like homeopathy reflexology and shiatsu. I wasn’t on the same self-development page at that point, thinking that this sort of thing was somehow for people who couldn’t face reality. Having said that, I was interested in changing my lifestyle, I tried to meditate, started jogging and practiced yoga once or twice, albeit encouraged by her Yoga with Miss Jayne Middlemiss DVD.

When we split up I wanted to make a change. I slipped into depression for a while but had an epiphany one day, a moment of absolute clarity which encouraged me and pushed me on. Itchy feet and the call to go travelling again hit me but  I couldn’t decide whether to go to South America or India.

I watched this film – I Heart Huckabees. It was only much later that I realised the references to Eastern Philosophy, spirituality, and how it influenced me. It’s a silly film in some ways but is one I’ll always remember as a point of change.

The trip to change it all

My paternal grandfather, Ken, was dying and it was painful to see him in such a bad way. We were quite close and I had deep love and respect for a man who never seemed to find life a chore.
He was utterly single minded in his advice – “go to India”. He was good friends with several Indians in the motor trade over the years while South America seemed like the wild west for him.
With this encouragement India became a very easy choice and I set off, albeit not with particularly spiritual aims. India has a strange effect on the open traveller.

Little Tibet

Before I left  signed up to volunteer in Dharamsala with the Tibetan charity LHA. I would be working with one of their partners, The Tibet Post, to write articles for their English language website.
It was in doing this work that I learnt a lot about the Tibetan people and their struggle. I learnt about Buddhism from Yeshe, the editor and from my fellow correspondent, Jimmy. He was a bundle of energy and the most positive thinking guy you could meet.

Dharamsala Prayer Flags

Dharamsala Prayer Flags

Dharamsala is in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh and is full of Tibetan refugees.

Mcleod Ganj Valley Flags

Mcleod Ganj Valley Flags

It is quite different from other parts of India as monks hang out in their saffron robes, lay Tibetans play carom on the street, momo‘s abound and there are opportunities to do charity work with the community everywhere.
I had a beautiful month meeting people and it was here that I took my first yoga classes. Vijay’s Universal Yoga was in a school down the hill and although I didn’t know what I was doing and his instructions were somehow difficult to understand it really felt like the right place to be.
Before I left the UK I’d also signed up for a 10 day “Introduction to Buddhism” course at the Tushita Meditation centre.

Tushita Gompa

Tushita Gompa

Tushita Stupa

Tushita Stupa

Just prior to the course, the Dalai Lama was visiting his home temple and gave three days of spiritual teachings which I struggled to understand, sitting at the back with a transistor radio and listening to the translation.

With this as a backdrop I nervously entered Tushita in a (literal) hailstorm and dove deep into Buddhist philosophy under the teaching of Ven. Robina Courtin.

Robina is an Australian nun who brought the teachings to us in a beautifully down to earth way. It was jarring for some of the participants who were coming from Western Christian backgrounds. They objected to the explanations of Karma, the hell realms and hungry ghosts.

It was quite an experience for me and being in silence felt like a real relief. I didn’t really even want to participate in the daily group discussions, preferring to let things settle in my mind first rather than be shaken up by dissenting voices.

We learnt about the four noble truths, practiced mindfulness and analytical meditation. There were also versions of some specifically Mahayana style tantra practices.  (Visualisation of the Vajrasattva deity for example.)

Robina was a massive inspiration.  Someone who lived a secular (and wild) life for many years but then quite abruptly decided to throw everything into following Lama Yeshe. She took vows and became a nun within months of meeting him.
The course led to a number of connections and friends as well. This despite not being able to talk to each other during the period! A large number of us stayed a while in Mcleod Ganj and then gradually regrouped in Rishikesh a couple of weeks later.

Yoga and Music

Rishikesh is on the banks of the holy river Ganga, considered the mother by the Hindus, its holy water able to wash away all sins.

Ganga Rishikesh

Ganga Rishikesh

The town is overrun with ashrams and teachers sharing yoga and meditation. There are a number of large temples that serve as pilgrimage sites on the way up to Gangotri – the source of the river.
I was interested to visit the “Beatles Ashram” where the mop tops had stayed practising transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram meditation pods

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram meditation pods

The site is now an overgrown ruin but still has a tangible sense of calm about it.
There was great syncronicity, arriving in town as a free yoga and music festival was about to start. The range of teachers offering classes here helped me to see the diversity of practices that fall under the “yoga” banner. It was also Diwali while I was there. Pilgrims and locals turned the town into a war zone with fireworks and firecrackers.
I carried on travelling with friends from Tushita for the rest of my six month trip. Practicing yoga, having deep philosophical and spiritual conversations and being awestruck by everything that India had to offer.

Ongoing discoveries of India

A couple of us discovered the Chinese Chi Gung exercises of Falun Gong and began a regular practice which was the first time I had really experienced energy moving within my body. I finished each session feeling ready to explode into the day.

We spent some time at the Shivananda ashram in Neyyar Dam, Kerala. I loved the yoga there but was a bit distracted by outside factors to fully integrate into spiritual ashram life.

Carrying on the journey

I visited Nepal and was awed by the mountains and the ancient shrines nestled among the everyday. I had to return to the UK but had the feeling that my journey was not yet complete.

Nepal Street

Nepal Street

I wanted to continue with the one month “November” course teaching the Lam Rim, (or Graduated path to Enlightenment) at Kathmandu’s Kopan monastery. This was the first centre established by Lama Yeshe before he opened Tushita.

Nepal Himalaya from the plane home

Nepal Himalaya from the plane

First finding of Agama

First though, I found myself back in South East Asia, exploring temples and meditation in Bangkok and discovering Agama yoga in Ko Phangan.
I went looking for yoga on the island best known for it’s immense full moon parties but it was another syncronicity that I ended up where I did.
I was offered a bungalow by a guy on the boat across from the mainland on a beach that I knew nothing about. Within a day though I had met several people studying at Agama’s “yoga university” and was intrigued to give it a go. My first day saw us learn the powerful energy sublimation exercise Udiyyanha Bandha – particularly good for moving sexual energy to the higher charkras. If this wasn’t enough to pique my interest the 3 hour lecture from Swami Vivekananda Saraswati that evening on Brahmacharya which was a talk about sexual continence and an introduction explaining how tantric practices could lead to higher states of consciousness and ultimately spiritual enlightenment.
It was here that I read The Power of Now in a hammock, a rental from the Chocolate brownie cafe. I knew at the time that the collected writings here were powerful and would be hugely important but I didn’t realise how far the teachings would take me.

I was encouraged to do a ten day brown rice diet. Taken from George Oshawa and theories of Macrobiotics this simple diet cleans the blood and increases levels of Yang energy in the body. It was tough going, particularly since I began at the same time as I took the first Tantra course with the school.
The theory covered in Tantra 1 was fascinating, although it was a very large group, the majority of whom had just completed their teacher training together, so it felt a little exclusive. I thought there could have been more exercises to work on energy and connection but as it was I finished the course feeling a little dissilusioned. The teachings have stuck with me though and in terms of a view of spirituality it particularly resonated with me by placing sex in a devotional place.
I didn’t stay long after the course.  Feeling the need to move on and let the teachings sink in I went to Bali to see a friend. There I continued to practice the yoga I had learnt and had numerous bodywork therapy sessions.

I continued into Java to be awed by powerful volcanoes (and their effects) and the beautiful temple of Borobodur.

Borobodur

Borobodur

This was powerful stuff before I arrived where I planned to at the outskirts of Kathmandu. I spent some time enjoying the valley, visiting the magnificent Bodinath stupa and volunteering at a small community centre offering some time to school children before they started their day.

Bodhinath Stupa

Bodhinath Stupa

Diving deeper into Buddhism in Nepal

At the start of November I headed up the hill to stay at Kopan and recieve teachings from another Australian, Ven Dhondrup. The one month course had its ups and downs and is worth a post all by itself but I was a little taken aback by the level of dogma that seemed to be part of the teachings. It was a much more overtly “religious” experience than the Tushita equivalent and I guess I found it a bit too much like a recruiting centre at times. Still, we learnt some powerful philosophy and the lectures on emptiness in particular were really beautiful for me.
I left feeling like I needed some respite, though, and the next step, Pokhara, for Christmas and New Year, was full of lightness and fun with fellow students from the course and a mutual friend from London who I connected with on philosophy of life and through a sharp sense of humour.

 

Landing in Tiru

After some time on the beaches of Gokarna I headed off by myself with no clear destination in mind but there had been subtle signs directing me which only became clear when I arrived in Thiruvanamalai.  There was no accommodation and I ended up staying next to the temple in the centre of town rather than in the enclave of travellers and gurus near the Sri Ramanaashram. Despite this, I knew it was the right place to be.

Tiru temple from Arunachala

Tiru temple from Arunachala

I’ve written about it – here – but it was the syncronicity that struck me. I’d read Paul Brunton’s “A Journey in Secret India” without really knowing much about it or understanding that the gurus he talked about were really not so distant.

Sri Ramana was the guru that he connected with the most. The teachings of non-duality and present moment awareness which can be broadly associated with Advaita Vedanta are also very much the philosophy of Eckhart Tolle.  It was a powerful jolt when I realised the connection with The Power of Now from my hammock in Ko Phangan.

Sri Ramana Maharshiq

Sri Ramana Maharshi

I’d also just read a David Frawley book Yoga and the Sacred Fire  which referenced the holy mountain of Arunachala that dominates the town.

Arunachala from Werner's Satsang

Arunachala from Werner’s Satsang

I went to see Mooji and his beautiful, heart based, teachings of non-duality. At first I was put off by the new age trappings and serene looking girls floating around carrying “silence please” signs in the queue. It didn’t take long sitting with him before I was hooked.

Walking up the stunning Arunachala! The mountain said to be an emanation of Lord Shiva! I reached the point where the honks of the town are blocked out! A powerful moment of spiritual and material peace. Walking around the base of the mountain on the full moon with thousands of pilgrims is a different experience altogether. Arriving at the temple in town to a fire ceremony shows the strong devotion.

Tiru Temple ceremony

Tiru Temple ceremony

Melding Rishikesh and Agama

After a trip to the incredibly beautiful Andaman Islands and a journey that took in the place of Buddha’s enlightenment in Bodhgaya, I arrived back into Rishikesh a short while before the Level 1 course at Agama was due to start.

I took several classes with an amazing teacher, Surinder and it was hard to give up. I’d committed to complete the first month of structured teachings, though, and it was well worth it.

In a month the level one course covers around 20 asana and has lectures on every conceivable topic vaguely related to yoga, all addressed with a strong spiritual backdrop.

We learnt cleansing kriyas, meditations, yoga nidra, and yogic philosophy. It is enough to give you pointers for further learning for a lifetime.

Agama level 1 was transformational in many ways. Not least because it inspired me to go back to Ko Phangan for a 10 day Hridaya meditation retreat.

I travelled some between Rishikesh and Ko Phangan, rising to the amazing heights in the Spiti Valley and Leh, Ladakh where I did a short retreat, Theravada style, with a Malaysian Nun.

Spit Valley Prayer Flags

Spit Valley Prayer Flags

Spiti Valley Mountain

Spiti Valley Mountain

I went to Thailand to meet some friends which led to high levels of drama; the perfect thing to resolve in retreat.

I’ve written about that here but it was really like meditating for the first time “properly” and I came out the other side quite different.

I leapt into Agama’s level 2 course in order to really deepen my spiritual practice because I felt strongly called. My group of friends on the beach fostered a creative energy which was joined in partying and lightness.

I entered into an attempt at a conscious Tantric relationship with a girl I met there and we returned home to the UK together with big ideas but little way to make them manifest. It was a journey that we undertook together and made sense when we were travelling but our differences became apparent after returning to the UK. We “consciously uncoupled” not long after moving in together and I learnt much more clearly what my needs are in a relationship and that I shouldn’t compromise on them.

Around this time I met Naz, teaching Hridaya yoga and meditation in the Jamyang Buddhist centre in Kennington, So uth London.  Jamyang is another branch of FPMT, the organisation that Kopan and Tushita are a part of, so this joyful connection between two strands of my spiritual life was another powerful synchronicity.

I started going regularly to Naz’s class despite it being the other side of London for me. She teaches with great heart as well as knowledge and has developed a strong community around her so it was easy to be committed.

Our group went on a “yoga holiday” to Morrocco and had a wonderful time. I’ve also explored the spiritual scene in the UK with her, going to festivals and to see Amma at Alexandra Palace. She has become a dear friend as well as teacher.

Morocco Sunset

Morocco Sunset

She inspired me further to take the Hridaya Teacher Training Course. After I attended a four day retreat led by the teacher Sahajananda that she organised in Stroud, I knew it was the right thing to do.

I discovered Kirtan, or devotional singing, in India and have attended many events dedicated to this spiritual practice back home. It helps to bring me back to my centre very quickly. Events like the Bhakti gatherings in the UK have shown me that there is a beautiful group of people in selfless service to this practice.

Colourfest Kirtan Wallahs

Colourfest Kirtan Wallahs

Harmonium Workshop with Tabla Tom

Harmonium Workshop with Tabla Tom

 

Tantra themes

I was introduced to a couple of Tantra teachers through my writing – Elena Angel, who inspired this piece on Cacao and Jan Day who runs Osho inspired relationship workshops. It was at one of these workshops, Meetings Without Masks, which I was invited to, that I met Sarah and started what is a powerful relationship.

We started out knowing that I would be away for several months but decided to let that be a reason and invitation to dig as deeply into the relationship as possible. We explored Cacao and its effects together and practiced open communication with each other,  discussing all that came up for each of us, good and bad, and  working through those triggers to make things even more juicy and delicious.

Astrology

I haven’t touched on star signs in this piece but I think that in a spiritual philosophy where all are connected, as above, so below and being influenced by the teachings of sacred geometry such as explained by Nassim Harramein the celestial bodies playing a part makes sense for me.

I first learnt about the stars in Brisbane where “Linda Goodman’s Love Signs” led to lots of interesting matches. It was in Rishikesh, though, where I discovered a lot more by taking a workshop on how to read the star chart.

I’m triple water – Sun in Pisces, Scorpio rising and my Moon is in Cancer. In fact, while I’m putting it out there – here is my chart:

astro_2gw_01_ian_marshall.72231.18544

So that is my spiritual journey so far. I’ve come to realise that what I need is to take time for deep internal observation, practice more selfless service and be happy and truthful in relationship. I need to have physical well-being and can achieve that through yoga, diet and connection with nature. Spiritual realisation of interconnectedness with all things and the compassion that emerges is a huge thing to grasp but all the fingers are pointing towards that moon.

I have recently been told that in Jungian psychology I’m entering the 5th 7 year cycle of man which is all about taking stock, determining what is really us and what traits we’ve taken on from family and society. Characterised by creative peaks and peak experiences in terms of spiritual insights and inspiration I guess I’m in exactly the right place for this to emerge!

 

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Connecting to the Heart

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
― Kahlil Gibran

I’m in a period of transition and uncertainty at the moment. All the major areas of my life are in flux and changing. My living situation is unclear, my job is only short-term and chaotic and my girlfriend is all the way over in Mexico (although not for long!)
It would be very easy not to feel grounded and to get overwhelmed by all the change and lack of a clear way forward but I naturally like to flow, (my triple water star chart reflects what I have already recognised in myself) and when I allow this all is good.

Legs and heart

Legs and heart – Hermione Armitage

Things were getting a bit much last week though and while I was discussing all of this with Felicity she suggested I pull an Osho Zen Tarot card. I got “Traveling” which you can read here.
To summarise it reminded me of the Lao Tzu quote

“A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving”

because it was all about enjoying the journey as a reminder that the important thing is to stay with the present. Your future is not created by endless planning and worrying but is instead manifested as a direct result of what you do right now. We plant seeds and as long as we are aligned and allowing, the right things will emerge for us.

The universe will unfold as it should…

So, how do we know we are aligned, and by that I mean in touch with what is really true for us, what we are passionate about, what makes us feel connected, at peace and happy?

The heart is a wonderful gateway. You can feel all of those things in your heart, you can’t figure it out in the mind because it will always be a reflection. The connection in the heart is always in the present and is where we feel this deep motivation.

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I was at the “Be Love” 11 hour Bhakti Immersion, an event all about the practice of devotion and singing which brings you straight into the heart. It was an amazing reset for me, an opportunity to ground in something far more powerful than the “material” security can offer.

I can have a big house, job and so on but if I’m feeling adrift from this centre then I don’t have peace. All the material stuff is impermanent and when you have this anchor in the deeper space of the heart it seems less important. If you can be happy in any situation then this is surely real freedom.

What is Sufism?
To feel joy in the heart when sorrow appears.

I should mention the fantastic work the Sivani Mata does in arranging these events which bring a large community together in such a beautiful space. We first met while travelling to the fantastic Colourfest, separated in the back of a car by bags stacked so high we couldn’t see each other!

I started teaching yoga on Wednesday at the Jamyang Buddhist centre, taking over from the lovely Naz who is taking the opportunity to head back to Mexico. I’ll be there every week with the class starting at 7.30. I’m charging £10 with the option to pay for a pass at a reduced rate – contact me for details!

I’ll also be running a meditation day with my yoga sister Emma in Bedford on the 8th November, it would be great if you can join with us in diving deep into this heart space and feeling our deep connection.

Feet and Heart - Hermione Armitage

Feet and Heart – Hermione Armitage

Photos courtesy of Hermione Armitage

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Hridaya retreat and aftermath

Sat, Chit, Ananda. Existence, Conciousness, Bliss. The teachings of what we really are. The true self within us all and the awareness that we all spring from. Call it Shiva, or Nirvana, Brahman or the Absolute, Buddha Nature or Christ Conciousness during the 10 day Hridaya Meditation retreat I got some sense of the stillness and peace that lies at the heart of all of us and it opened me to great creativity and love.

Last night,
I saw the realm of joy and pleasure.
There I melted like salt;
no religion; no blasphemy,
no conviction or uncertainty remained.
In the middle of my heart,
a star appeared
and the seven heavens were lost
in its brilliance.
– Rumi

In Chiang Mai I had managed to get myself involved in a total shit-show, blown out of proportion by a lack of solid communication. It was playing on my mind because the events had affected my relationship with three good friends. I felt short-changed by their reactions but also upset with myself for dealing with the situation badly. So the retreat came at the perfect time for me, an opportunity to go deep into myself, to figure out what is really important and to connect with the heart. It was more profound and life-changing than I could ever have expected.

I came to the paradise island of Ko Phangan for the retreat having been told about it by several teachers at the yoga school in Rishikesh. It sounded like the perfect way for me to start to grasp the real meaning behind so much of the spiritual philosophy I had absorbed in the previous months, and it would certainly turn into an experiential beginning.

Hridaya is the Spiritual Heart, a place in the middle of the chest which is the gateway to access the “true self” as talked about in many spiritual traditions. Most clearly this retreat is based on the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi (who I talked about in my post on Tiruvanimallai here) He explained that the Spiritual Heart is not the same as the physical heart and nor is it the Heart Chakra Anahata but it does contain the sacred tremor and stillness that enables you to touch base with your emotions and realise the greater reality.

The techniques that we used during the retreat were simple but profound. Leaving short pauses after each inhalation and exhalation and trying to be in the stillness that pervades during this pause. This allows the thoughts to slow down and the mind to relax into a point of deeper meditation. When thoughts do arise you counter them by realising that they all stem from the “I” thought. Either “I want” or “I have” or “I am” or some other variation, everything stems from this association with a solid entity we associate with “I”. The question to undercut all of these is “Who am I?” It sounds deceptively simple but when you deeply meditate on this thought you find that there is no “I” there any more, there is nothing solid that you can identify with that is eternal. There is conciousness and there is an observer – but what you see as yourself is not that which is observed. The body is not it because you can observe your body as a seperate entity and the same can be said of the mind. As you watch thoughts arise and fall away it becomes clear that you are really not these thoughts, you are just observing them. We were taught that allowing “I don’t know” to be the answer and greeting that with wonderment can connect you with the sacred within and give you an intimate feeling of existence without consistent form.

10 days of silence was difficult at times, especially when 6 or so hours a day were taken up with meditation but as the time progressed I found the course to be having a profound effect. Some of the meditations for me were unbelievable, with a real feeling of peace, tranquility and physical bliss flowing over my body far more than I have ever experienced with any other type of meditation. I still found 2 hour meditation sessions to be too much for me physically as much as anything and there were times when I wondered what the hell I was doing there. The first few days saw a lot of anger come up, with myself and others as I worked through some things that had been bothering me but I came to a point where I decided that I would let this go and settle into the meditation. After that it became a lot easier as I surrendered into the practice. One effective method for me was when we were taught “Blowing on the Embers of the Heart” where you breathe deeply and focus on the breath in your chest area to invoke feelings in the heart to remind you of this divine source. The technique had me feeling like I was burning anger and negative emotions in the energy that was centred there and I felt a great peace after the meditation. This focus can make you aware of the “Sacred Tremor of the heart”, the divine mystery of the deep throb or tremble at the chest, called the Spanda in Kashmiri Shaivism which shows you the way into the dynamic stillness that at a universal level is the very source of everything.

Last Night As I Was Sleeping

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.

Antonio Machado

The course included a lot of inspirational teachings and poetry, such as the couple of pieces I’ve quoted here, and also a hatha yoga practice each day. The hatha was similar to the Agama style I was used to but even more internalised making the class almost into a meditation in itself and leaving me perfectly ready to go deep into the practice after finishing.

The teachings in general were getting to the crux that the universiality that one can sense in the heart centre is the microcosmic experience in our ego-self of the greater whole and that it is pure bliss to settle there. Internalising and following practice can lead to this peace – “You are either in Dharma or in Drama”

One simple tenet that really fundamentally affected the way I have thought since is that “Love is in you – you don’t need it from the outside”. That and the advice that out of life’s experiences we choose to emphasise which aspects we remember. We have the choice to be positive or negative and so to avoid getting stuck in patterns we should emphasise the love and be grateful…!

I could go on and on about the teachings but it is apt to remember another snippet and not try to explain my experience too much:

“Silence is the language God speaks and everything else is a bad translation.”

Thomas Keating

After this amazing experience I was glowing. I came into my own power and manifested a world on this island that was quite simply magical. It wasn’t until the day after that I realised the profound effect the retreat had on me. I was seeing the world through eyes that saw things brighter and more intensely but also without fear or attachment. I threw myself into yoga practice, taking 2 classes a day of the Agama level one course and being totally present throughout each.  I pushed myself to the limit in all of these classes and found them extremely powerful (although after 4 days I’d exhausted myself in this fashion.) I was glowing and spoke to several other attendees of the retreat who had a similar experience. We would simply look, smile and sigh and know we were both feeling wonderful. I had amazing phone calls on Skype with my Mum and Dad and every interaction seemed to be full of joy.

I can’t mention all the people who I had great friendships with on the island but I have to bring a few characters in to explain the wonderful time that I had.


Sharon who I met before the retreat and who joined at the last minute to have a similar if not quite as deep an experience as I did. We had a very close friendship and she introduced me to the Shangri La restaurant which I would spend many a happy afternoon. She left to go to the jungle wanting to adopt a Thai girl she met on the beach, a very typical example of the “Sharon zone” the way wacky things seemed to happen around her..!

I met an Israeli girl in the sea one day, Nili, who was a fellow Pisces and we clicked immediately. We had a beautiful friendship for the few days she was on the island as we opened to one another in such an easy and mutually beneficial way. She was studying psychoanalysis and viewing the route to self-improvement very differently but our approaches were complimentary and the empathy we shared was tangible.

When Nili left things began to blossom even more fabulously as there were beautiful people around and our little gang of creatives continued hanging out at the wonderful beachfront restaurant making artwork. All of us were looking to bring more creativity into our lives by opening to the universe, love and being receptive to all that was available.


So there was Jackie O or Coco, living on the island for 2 years while writing some inspirational childrens books. Lulu Kattie, working on creativity through writing, a fellow water sign and showing her nurturing quality with everyone in such a beautiful and loving way. She named Shoo Shoo (and wanted to eat the little pumpkin) and was so in the love with everyone she had approx 13 leaving parties.


Flora, High Security kept us on the straight and narrow with her determination and ability to keep her wits about her when all others were losing their minds (let alone lighters). She led us to the right Mart and made sure we never paid more Bart than we should for a taxi. Strong willed and independent she would be first at the bar, last to bed and always goading us to more adventures.
‘Erbalicious lived up to her name, providing a laid back viewpoint over the whole situation and always ready to indulge in some great Shangri La grub when not getting seasick on her dive boat.


Johnny Hoops was wise and considerate with openness to all our ideas and some great additions. He and I riffed off each other and created a corner of Shiva while surrounded by the girls.


Sabine entered the group late but was one of the most beautiful, gentle souls and totally connected with the loving creatitvity that the group had established.


And then there was Sophie Wilson. Veronica, Kavita Shakti, as she became known, joined our merry group and added a new dimension of fun, flying, sexuality and spirituality all at the same time. We clicked very quickly. In fact it didn’t take long before we were living together in Chiang Mai in a New York Style apartment and starting a business empire … but then, that’s a different story…



So after artwork, writing postcards in the round, day trips to the other side of the island where we made Shiva Lingam sandcastles swam and swung on swings, had meditations interrupted by bacon sandwiches, got lost looking for the right mart and saw Johnny off in the nick of time at the pier we came back for fire shows on the beach and full moon astrological blanket ceremonies, bhajans, bungalow parties and of course that pink bucket…

It was magical and I felt my heart open with all these wonderful souls and somehow I think the retreat allowed me to be in that space and watch everyone blossom and be so grateful to see it and be a part of it.

I don’t want to forget Sofie D and Jade as well as the others who were also an important part of the energy as I continued with level 2 Agama and learnt more and more.
As the original group changed when people left and others joined we carried on in a similar vein and when Gray, Sophie’s Dad arrived he didn’t bat an eyelid, settling into the island vibe very easily and being more than happy to hang out at the Three Monkeys Bar on the beach with the rest of us. We took a second trip to the Sanctuary with him where he discussed football with Chard Jumlong and ate great fish and chips at the most incongruous place on the island the Mason’s Arms…

Good times one and all…
Some photographs are from Clara Jansen, Georgina and Chaitaly Jay

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Spiti

Leah left us in the early morning to head back for a Tantra workshop in Dharamsala which left Sev and I alone. I don’t think Siddarth wanted us to leave as his instructions on how to catch the bus were somewhat reluctantly given but we walked down the hill to the main road and then waited by the chicken shop for about 2 hours. As we are cursing Siddarth the bus eventually comes and Caroline, a French girl we met in Peo is sitting at the front.

We have to stand for some time but eventually arrive at Nako where we stay in an odd room with the most terrifying water heating system I have ever seen. The village is amazing though and we walk up to a past the lake to a pass where we see even more mountains.

It is our first experience of walking at really high altitudes and is noticeable but exhilarating – Sev climbs to the top of a rocky outcrop where for a moment I consider what I would do if he didn’t come back.

There is an old monastery here, a shop that sells Nutella and we find a place with some decent Tibetan food.
Our next stop is Tabo with its very old monastery and meditation caves up the hill.
The road here is particularly treacherous, with steep drops, narrow roads where the bus has to pull over often to allow trucks and cars coming the other way to pass and often you are driving seemingly through the side off the cliff that has been hollowed out.
The bus stop is an incongruous start coming from this direction as you approach the edge of town surrounded by big, ugly, modern buildings, part of some sort of agricultural centre and stop in a big car park.
Things change when we get up early and hear the Monks giving a puja in the new monastery, however. It is a beautiful, meditative experience and the first meditation that I had done for a while.

The ancient mud walled monastery has some incredible frescoes and statues in its dark corners (torches very necessary) and is still well used by the community of Sangha here.
We find a restaurant with a load of local food on the menu, and being adventurous we order about 6 dishes between the 3 of us. This prompts great activity as the 4 staff jump up from their TV watching and begin moving. Two rush out to the market while the others start preparing and soon all four are beavering away in the kitchen leaving new customers unserved as our feast is cooked up in a dervish. The tsampa porridge with Yak Cheese was a bit disappointing but the other dishes were great. A local type of Momo which was more like a Cornish Pastry, another Momo that was similar to normal and a “local” thali, which was a slight variation on the normal sabji.


Our next stop, off the main road and up a hill overlooking the valley and river is the mighty Dhankar, a village pretty much situated on top of a rock.

There is a monastery here as well (of course) and an old fort, although that is pretty much derelict.

The monastery is literally balanced on a rock, on the edge of the world. We were given tea by the monks there as we looked around and climbed onto the roof.

It was here that we stayed with Anil and his family in a basic but beautiful little homestay at the top of the village. He helped us wash our clothes in the stream, served us home cooked food and then took us on a five day trek.

He has worked with Ecosphere who do a lot of great work in this very impoverished region and Caroline had heard people who had done a similar walk from village to village, ending up at the main hub of Kaza.

After a couple of days exploring the village, visiting the beautiful lake and doing yoga on his terrace we set off for the first town…

The first day in blistering sun took us on an easy 4 hour hike to the village of Lalung along dusty paths and into the wilderness of Spiti. As well as the three of us we had Anil as guide, Tenzin our young porter and the donkeys, later to be named Prem and Dill. We were shown the ancient monastery here, a theme in all parts of the valley, and spent some time meditating by a beautiful tree.

That night we sat and practiced our Momo making skills with the family – mine leave something to be desired but it was nice to have something other than rice and dal to eat.

Day two saw an easy start and then a very difficult second section after crossing the river. We had to climb 800m on this day and the majority was straight up on a steep series of switchbacks. I found untapped energy during this, listening to the Prodigy and storming ahead but we were all knackered by the time we reached Dhomul at the top of the hill. We were fed tsampa porridge with Yak cheese when we arrived and it was significantly better than in Tabo – really tasty actually, but it did include a big heap of sugar which might have helped.

The basic family room was comfortable enough and the corridor was filled with cow dung to be used as fuel for the long winter.

In the morning we had omlette and parantha (as usual) before setting off on the next stage.
This was the day we reached our highest point, the Dhomul pass at roughly 4500m with snow covering the sides of the path and the wind whistling a shrill and freezing breeze around us we only stopped long enough for a quick photo.

Our next stop was slightly lower at Komik where I wasn’t feeling the best. We had a look around the monastery, one of the biggest in the region, but all bar two of the monks were away attending a ceremony in Kaza. The guesthouse was pleasant enough although the large windows made the room a little cold and I couldn’t really stomach much dinner.
The next day we set off for Langza which would be the highest place we would stop at 4325m. We approached through some fields and scanned the whole village before finding the homestay (Anil’s first choice was full.) Sev wanted to go on a search for fossils so we went to a dried up riverbed but I was more interested in the huge herd of animals, yaks, cows, goats, donkeys, sheep etc that were grazing down there. I went and checked out the monastery and the big Buddha statue on the hill and the place felt noticeably closer to civilisation, being just up the road from Kaza.

During this time we spent our evenings watching Arrested Development on my laptop – it’s great by the way. I think this is the best episode…

One night we watched I heart Huckabees which seemed to mirror what was going on in the trek… Caroline and I loved it but Sev wasn’t so sure. (He preferred The Expendables..) For me though I realised that, having watched Huckabees after my last trip to South East Asia and really enjoyed it, this movie could have been my first introduction to Buddhist ideas and explains a lot how I took to Buddhism very quickly. I mean the film isn’t explicit in this, it very cleverly talks philosophy without really specifying where the ideas come from and the techniques clearly aren’t Buddhist per se but the concepts.. oh yeah.

Kaza is the administrative centre of Spiti and finds itself cut off from the rest of India for most of the year when the nearby road to Manali is closed. The town itself is nice though, split into old and new Kaza by a small river but there isn’t too much to distinguish. There is a modern Gompa which is great and I saw the monks doing a big puja with horns, cymbals and drums – one of the more dramatic ceremonies I have attended.
We spent a couple of days winding down from the trek, though, eating Indian sweets and pastries from the German Bakery and enjoying the things we hadn’t been able to get on the trek. Sev and I did a trip up to Kibber for the night, which used to be the highest village in the world with a road (although there are now places higher in Tibet.) We walked down to see Ki Gompa, one of the most famous monasteries in this region and found ourselves on one of the steepest paths we had been on..

Looking back where we had walked from it was hard to believe we had just come down what looked like a sheer cliff face!
The Gompa was impressive as you can see but we found ourselves without a lift back to Kaza and started walking. At first we thought, there will be something we can hitch-hike soon. After a while, with all the traffic going in the opposite direction, it became clear we would have to walk the 11Km back to Kaza – we got a lift for maybe the last 1 or 2 K but pretty much walked the whole way..!

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Himachal Pradesh Valleys

 

Stage One: Parvati.
We could hardly believe it as we sat down in the warm tent on cushioned seats more like beds and perused the menu of Indian, Continental and Israeli food while the more established guests cleaned their chillums. The culmination of a five hour trek through challenging but quite breathtaking scenery led us to this point and it was only then that someone mentioned the hot springs. Pinching myself to be sure my near death experience on our walk had not landed me in some sort of backpacker heaven I was eventually able to relax.


 Our journey had begun 3 days earlier in Rishikesh where Leah, Sev and I set off without a clear destination but with a motivation for mountains, nature and adventure. We took the bus to Dehra Dun and then asked where their buses were going. Kasol was the place that jumped out and despite not entirely being prepared for a lengthy Himachal Pradesh local bus ride we took it in our stride and arrived in the early morning for tea and an omlette while Babaji, our guesthouse owner, shared a joint with an Israeli girl on the opposite table.


The Parvati Valley is known for its beautiful lush valleys, its charas and in recent years its influx of Israeli tourists from where a burgeoning psy-trance scene has developed. It was incredible to hike out of the town into the woods, meditate on a rock by the river and enjoy the serene countryside but less enjoyable to hang out due to every place blasting innappropriate music. There was a festival “Shiva Squad” just out of town when we were there but the whole place felt a bit like the dodgy part of a festival to me, all black light t-shirts and posters and people wandering about looking lost, confused and pale.

From here we follow our noses and some scratchy notes from Leah’s sister towards Pasani by hitch-hike and bus before setting off towards Khir Ganga, the destination we know little about.
Pasani is dominated by a hydro-electric dam project, so we just get off the bus and follow a route pointed to us by tourists and locals. It turns out to be the long way, but what a way… Possibly the most amazing trek I have ever been on saw 5 hours of enormous trees, gushing waterfalls, grassy clearings and the light coming through the leaves and making the place look like a kaleidoscope of colour.

It was challenging as well, with steep sections, muddy sections, slippery sections, bits where you had to climb over trees or hop across rocks and the bit where I nearly lost my footing on a rock and slipped down a ravine. I made it though and arriving in the most amazing place with hot springs and schakhlab with nutella has never been sweeter.

We stayed 2 nights, and it would have been longer but we hadn’t really brought anything with us. So then we returned, this time by the more simple, but still beautiful, path and then took a last minute detour to stay at the small village of Tosh. Tosh is actually a village, with people living there, and things happening. I mean, not much happening, but still. We stayed at the basic Last Resort Guesthouse and were really upset while having a rudimentary chat with the woman running the place on understanding that her husband had died three weeks previously falling from a cliff. It was one of those conversations that started normally and then ended up without any of us knowing what to say or do. The eldest daughter came and showed us a photo of her with her Dad and looked sad so we did our best to keep the children amused and were as generous as we could be, although we hadn’t brought enough money with us to be really charitable.


The next morning we stroll down the hour to Pasani and just make the bus for Kasol where lunch is taken and our next long journey on to Reckong Peo via Mandi begins immediately.
Peo is the entrance to the Kinnaur Valley which leads on to Spiti, one of the most remote places in India.

We self-medicate for the overnight bus from Mandi to Peo and riding along the treacherous mountain roads with the bus swinging from one side to the other it was a good move. From the window all you can see is darkness, lit up by the headlights to show either nothing, or a rock face in front of you. Sometimes you can see stars twinkling but then you realise that stars aren’t below you and that actually these are houses a long, long way down in the valley. To say it is terrifying would be an understatement. At times you start praying, chanting mantras, fingering your mala and crossing yourself in an attempt to cover all the potential bases. It turns out this isn’t even the most dangerous road we travel on during the trip.


We don’t stay in Peo, despite the exhausting journey, but take the bus up the mountain to the pretty village of Kalpa where we meditate in the ancient gompa, are amused by the erotic artwork and enjoy not being on a bus for a while.

We had been recommended a place called Chitkul in the adjoining Sangla valley so take the bus along the scarred countryside where dam projects, military bases, and other construction have left the place looking pretty ugly. Chitkul itself seems pretty well shut. We are greeted in an unfriendly manner, if we are greeted at all and the guesthouses seem to be waiting for the season to start. Apparently in a month the valley is lush and verdant but when we are there it is cold, barren and looks like the end of the world. Entertainment is in the form of the farmers abusing some oxen to plough a field but it is effective farming as while we watch they turn the earth, plant some seeds and cover with fertiliser. Food is hard to come by as is decent accomodation and after one night we turn around and get the 6AM bus back to Peo.


From Peo into the Spiti Valley it is necessary to get an “Inner Line Permit” because of the proximity to the Tibet/China border. The talkative travel agent suggests an option for us since we don’t want to take another 6 hour bus journey onwards the same day and so we get the bus to the village of Ribbe where we are put up in a homestay by the generous if slightly overbearing, Siddarth. We are most welcome in his awesome house – one of three his family own in the village, and after all the travel it is the most amazing place to relax.
The sun is shining and we have a lawn to relax and do yoga. Siddarth shows us around the village, taking us to meet his father and baby daughter and arranging for a local monk to give us a tour of the three gompas in the village. Ribbe seems to be a pretty well off place, with Siddarth’s family alone having a large farm growing apples as the cash crop but also almonds and wheat alongside the house among other things. Visiting this “backyard” was absolutely beautiful and felt like the garden of Eden in comparison to Chitkul.
Siddarth also made us sit through his wedding video which was interestingly produced and included a segment that was a good 20 minutes long showing cars arriving. There was a lot of money being draped over peoples necks as well. For an hour or so this would have been interesting but I think the film went on for at least 3 hours. He fed and watered us very well though and it would be churlish to complain too much, even when he woke us up at 6 in the morning with a chai. Ribbe was a great experience and off the tourist route so I’m really happy to have stopped there.

It was here that Leah left us and Sev and I found ourselves waiting by the side of the road next to a chicken stall cursing Siddarth for getting the bus times wrong.

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Meditation dans le Park


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Meditation course here.

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Camel Safari. Day One

After the Camel Fair a few of us had not had enough of the beasts, or at least the opportunity they provide for getting out into the desert.

Our original plan was to take camels from Jodhpur out on a journey to Jaisalmer which is really far away from anywhere.  Due to some time pressure for Esther and speaking to a friend of a friend we were talked in to taking the camels from Pushkar to Jodhpur, a route that proved rather hazardous.

Before I start recalling some of the calamaties that befel us, let me say that I did enjoy the trip, it was great fun and done with great company but it could have been even better for reasons I’ll explain.  I don’t feel particularly attached to the camels but being outside for almost a whole week was pretty cool.

Day One we were picked up by Dharmo on his motorbike without brakes and taken to his house where we were immediatley surprised by how small the camel cart was and how packed it already was with camel grass (feed).  We crammed in four big backpacks and our other stuff along with food and cooking pots, covered it all with thin duvets/blankets and pondered how we would also fit.

After a spot of lunch at the house we set off full of excitement but slightly dubious about just how professional this outfit was. (NB it wasn’t)

Riding on the cart could be comfortable if you had it set up in the right way, which for the most part we didn’t due to being rushed in the morning and while Thomas always seemed to be able to find his comfy spot I was often either half hanging off the side balancing precariously or sitting on something hard and not designed for the purpose.

The first few hours passed pleasantly as we trundled through dirt roads past farms and small settlements.

I tried riding a camel, first with Koen, who seemed to have the knack.  I was sat up front and hadn’t really got to grips with sitting up so high or understanding how to control the direction with the reigns, let alone keeping watch for potential hazards, before I managed to ride us into one of the really spiky trees that the camels love to eat.  We rode straight on through the branches, with one large one nearly knocking us off and I got properly served in the face with a large scratch above my eye and on my ear lobe and several more on my arms and hands.  Luckily, Koen is a nurse and just happened to have a bandage handy.

This wasn’t to be the last injury on day one though, my laptop bag was secured to one of the side poles of the cart by an unbreakable metal tie, or so I thought.  Stupidly really, after a scare in the morning where it slipped, I should have moved it somewhere more secure.  Anyway, I didn’t, and the next thing it was lying on the floor, tie snapped and covered in dust.

When we got to camp I discovered its contents hadn’t held up too well.  My laptop was well and truly knackered, the screen bent in an angle it shouldn’t be and the base not any better, although I hold out hope the hard drive may be salvageable.

After Tushita, I could only think to look on this as a test of attachment and I meditated on it that evening after yoga, rather than get upset about it.  I was getting fed up carrying my heavy laptop around, it was old and would need replacing when I got home anyway etc etc.

Slightly harder was the loss of my mp3 player, again, the HD actually works but the display is gone, and since it’s touch screen that renders it useless as a player.  Finally, and equally as annoying, my camera was also gone, the SD card is ok but the screen was no good.

Travelling without a camera or music could be a real issue but the meditation worked and I was able to come to terms with the loss without any real distress.

That night in camp was really damp as well with the blankets saturated, leaving us tired and cold.

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Rishikesh – Yoga, Meditation & more

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Rishikesh – spiritual supermarket on the Ganga

Rishikesh

Rishikesh

Rishikesh

Rishikesh

Rishikesh

Rishikesh

Looking back on my trip, Rishikesh is the place that I think I am most likely to return to.  Perhaps aided by having many people I knew in town (half of Tushita were there for example) but also because it is a very beautiful, very spiritual place with loads of yoga happening everywhere.  Not least the International Yoga and Indian Music Festival which by a wonderful coincidence was taking place a couple of days after I arrived.  With a programme starting at 7AM with a Kriya (or cleansing) Yoga session and going through until 7PM when there was an hour of live music it was such a fantastic introduction to all sides of Yoga.

The Kriya Yoga, led by one of the festival organisers and Rishikesh resident, Yogacharya Kamal was something of a new experience.  Taking a Netti Pot (small spouted receptacle) and filling it with warm, salted water, tilt your head to one side and pour through one nostril and out of the other.  It was great for me, often blocked up by dust in my sinuses, I felt a totally clear head.  I tried the next step, which was to take a mouthful of the salty water and then attempt to expel it through the nostrils.  If you can get a dribble then supposedly you are on the way but I wasn’t able to get the technique at all.  The third step (which I didn’t even attempt) was to drink quite a bit of the water and then vomit it out.  All of these techniques are for cleansing the body from within and we also learnt about doing this with a rubber tube (danda) through the nostril and out of the mouth, and a further thorough inner cleansing by passing salt water through the system.

Kriya Yoga, Rishikesh

Kriya Yoga, Rishikesh

Umesh

After this, the first actual class was with Umesh who quickly became one of my favourites with his wide-eyed delivery of stories and the joy with which he introduced his ideas.  Bringing things to the present moment through meditation, chanting mantras and some tough Asana classes he will be someone I would like to seek out in the future.  He is a personal disciple of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ji the guru who the Beatles spent time with here in Rishikesh in the 60’s… speaking of which…

Beatles Ashram

Beatles Ashram, Rishikesh

Beatles Ashram, Rishikesh

Beatles Ashram, Rishikesh

Beatles Ashram, Rishikesh

Visiting this spot, now overrun by nature and falling to pieces, was exciting and eye opening more than I imagined.  Led by a guide who was able to explain what the buildings had been used for and where the Beatles had stayed in their time there (not least John Lennon’s room #9).  He had me clambering through broken windows, leaping from rooftop to rooftop and beating a path through the overgrown foliage.  The place was taken over by the Forestry department in 1997 and they haven’t done much to keep it up which makes it more authentic if you like, it also means you have to bribe the gatekeeper 50Rupees to get in.

Beatles Ashram, Rishikesh

Beatles Ashram, Rishikesh

Beatles Ashram, Rishikesh

Beatles Ashram, Rishikesh

Beatles Ashram, Rishikesh

Beatles Ashram, Rishikesh

The Office

Perhaps the only problem (although, what is a problem?) with the programme at the yoga fest was that such an early start made it impossible to get breakfast and sometimes meant we would skip out, not because we were done with the Yoga but because we were hungry.  This was especially tempting because Ram Jhula, an area in Rishikesh, had one of the best little food places you’re likely to find anywhere.  The Office came onto our radar because of a rumour about Chocolate Banana Samosas – a rumour I should add, that was totally true.  They also did an Apple Cinnamon Samosa that was equally, or perhaps even more, delicious.  Their menu in general was small but perfectly formed, with some of the best Chai i have had in India not even making the highlight reel because of the fruit, muesli, curd, honey which as you can see, was truly epic.  Add to this a scrummy pakora plate for 15 Rups and always happy service, the only thing they need to sort out is the fly problem on the balcony.

Muesli, Fruit, curd, Rishikesh

Muesli, Fruit, curd, Rishikesh

Sivananda – Om Dwivedi

Sean, who had done a Sivananda Teacher Training Course, was particularly interested in attending this class, and since spending time at the Ashram in Neyyar Dam since, it is a style I am now most familiar with.  Following 12 basic asanas after an initial relaxation and warm up, Sivananda style is characterised also by long periods of Savasana as well as a lengthy final relaxation to allow the body and mind to appreciate the benefits from the Asanas. Swami Sivananda opened a large ashram here in Rishikesh and it is here that he spent a lot of time meditating on the banks of the Ganga.

Other teachers included female Yogacharya Kiran who was keen on making us hum like a bee, Yog-Vibhuti Yogrishi Swami Shivyogi jee Maharaj who had lived in a cave for 20 years and seemed pretty wild.  Naveen Joshi (“little yogi”) who liked getting us into a posture and telling us all how “Beauuuutiful” it was and Yogiraj who is a highly regarded practitioner  who’s class I did enjoy, although I found it more like a form of aerobics.  It was a memory I think I will struggle to forget though, seeing a fat old guy in an orange robe doing the lion pose and causing everyone to roar in delight.

Kundalini

Kundalini Yoga, Rishikesh

Kundalini Yoga, Rishikesh

So, following on from the Yoga as aerobics thing, I went along to watch, although not participate in, Gurmukh’s Kundalini Yoga session.  Billed and then rearranged, presumably to fit into her busy schedule, this was pure new age California and I found it difficult to take seriously.  The session started with vigorous running on the spot and jumping and such like before the music really kicked in and everyone was skipping in pairs, swaying from side to side with arms around each other, and crying to a song with lyrics that went something along the lines of ” We are the people the world loves to hate”.  As if this wasn’t enough to induce hysterics or vomiting, there was a mantra recited while touching the relevant areas – ” I love you my heart, I love you my eyes, I love you my head, I love you, I love you.” (there is a video of this but I’m not going to post it due to the embarrassment factor of those taking part)  I’m not sure it could have got any cheesier and I don’t know quite how this fits with loosening ego-grasping but those who took part seemed to really like it. (Brainwashing springs to mind and one guy described her as an “honest swindler” which I guess would sum it up.)

Surinder Singh

Another Sikh got rave reviews from those that went to his daily classes held in Rishikesh town because of his skill with adjustments, although with a group of 100 or more this wasn’t so easy, one great reason to go back at least.

Usha Devi – Iyengar Yoga

Iyengar Yoga, Rishikesh

Iyengar Yoga, Rishikesh

Iyengar Yoga, Rishikesh

Iyengar Yoga, Rishikesh

Usha Devi taught one of the classes I enjoyed least and yet I still remember hints from it to this day.  Teaching in the Iyengar style, which focuses on very precise positioning and holding the Asanas in exactly the right way – we spent 90 painful minutes doing a Triangle pose, but I still remember where my feet should be…! She also teaches regular classes in Rishikesh.

Swami Yogananda Ji

Swami Ji, Rishikesh

Swami Ji, Rishikesh

Swami Ji, Rishikesh

Swami Ji, Rishikesh

Finally, the oldest and most inspirational of the teachers in some ways is 101 year old Swami Ji who took us through a traditional yoga programme of light stretches and exercises for all parts of the body from the eyes to the ankles.  He also showed us some of the Kriya techniques.  Coupled with this he had myriad tips on health, usually to prevent constipation.  We should have motions after every meal apparently.  Eat Papaya in the morning, no fried food ever, Jaggery after each meal, hold a point in the centre of the right arm for two minutes each day to live to 100 etc etc.  He was in perfect health and a little bit more flexible than I am…

Swami Ji, Rishikesh

Swami Ji, Rishikesh

Along with the Yoga Asana classes there were lectures about life philosophy and also Ayurveda, although sitting uncomfortably on the floor in a hot stuffy room meant I didn’t stick around for too many.  One I did go to saw Thomas getting chastised for leaning backwards, the teacher thinking he was lying down, maybe sleeping and started complaining about western students not having the right levels of respect and so on.  What was a slightly awkward moment amongst the entirely western audience was dispelled when the teacher’s mobile phone loudly went off in the middle of his rant causing laughter throughout the room.

Mama’s

So other than Yoga and some good traveller restaurants (Mahoosive Hello to the Queen courtesy of the Little Buddha or the ridiculous Joney OK at Mohan’s Ganga Beach View) the best food was up at High Bank where Mama would serve up an illicit beverage alongside her sensational thali.  The pumpkin dish was incredible in its sweet tastiness and the Banoffee Pie made with oodles of condensed milk was total decadence.  Add to that a friendly communal atmosphere and Mama being a total enabler for indulgence and it was always a good place to spend a Rishikesh evening.

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