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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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Andaman Islands

Guide to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are an archipelago of over three hundred small crops of land, governed by India, in the Andaman sea although they are closer to Burma and Thailand.

There are some uninhabited islands and others which are off-limits to tourists due to the protection of the indigenous population. The Nicobarese are a tribal people and the government is now making every effort  to stop modern influences disrupting their traditional way of life as has happened with other groups on some of the main islands. There was controversy a couple of years ago as video footage emerged of “human safaris” being carried out where tourists could go and view local dances and rituals, observing from a jeep as if these people were wildlife. These were the islands on old maps marked “here be monsters” due to the wild nature of their inhabitants.

The contrast between pristine white sand beaches and dense rain-forest is breathtaking at times, and the Andamans have truly some of the most amazing and beautiful beaches in the world. Clear turquoise water framed by bush as far as the eye can see, on Havelock Beach 7 I could go down at 8AM and have the entire Radha Nagar stretch entirely to my self.

Radha Nagar beach, Havelock Island, Andamans

Radha Nagar beach, Havelock Island, Andamans

There is cultural diversity you can explore in the Andamans but given the history of the place and how the British and other rulers treated the indigenous population it is perhaps best to stick to the amazing beaches and nature. The Scuba diving and snorkelling in the Andamans is  some of the best in the world with great visibility and a huge array of fish, rays and other sea creatures. Dive sites include shipwrecks gorges and the like to explore.

Flights to the Andamans are from Calcutta or Chennai and they are sometimes expensive, check for deals! There is also a boat that goes from Chennai or Calcutta, it takes 3 or 4 days and some will say is the only “real” way to get to the islands, man.

 

The Capital: Port Blair

Port Blair is a hub, where flights land and boats dock and although it’s a pleasant enough town in its own right generally it isn’t a place you would want to stay for more than a night or two. It’s small enough that you can stay around the main Bazaar in some cheapish hotels and explore the whole town either on foot or by auto rickshaw. We stayed at Azad lodge where the owner was helpful and you can choose between super cheap and grotty or pay a little bit more for a nice room.

Things to do in the Andaman capital:

– Visit the old Cellular Jail to learn about the history of the islands

– Treat yourself to a massive Royal Falooda at one of the Cool Bars in the Main Bazaar

 

Outside of Port Blair there are several other islands which are on the backpacker trail…

 

1. Havelock Island

Popular for being one of the closest Islands to Port Blair, excellent for diving and with the closest the Andaman Islands have to a party scene. Hang out amongst the scattered guesthouses with large groups of Israelis on Beach 5 or escape to Radha Nagar, Beach 7 with fewer places to stay and a much more relaxed vibe (and a far better beach).

  1. Little Andaman.

More off the beaten track as it takes about 10 hours by ferry from Port Blair and isn’t as developed or hospitable in many ways than Havelock. You kind of need a motorbike to get around and the beaches are notorious for sandflies (some bites can get really infected and cause swelling so be careful). It’s worth it though for the surfing, amazing jungle, waterfalls and end of the world feeling – bring a hammock.

                 3. Neil Island

The island next to Havelock is less developed and so more relaxed. It’s more accessible than Little Andaman so if you want the easy middle ground between the two then this is a good option.

TOP 10 BEST Experiences / Adventures in the Country 

1. Scuba Diving

2. Becoming a beach bum at Radha Nagar Lagoon

3. Surfing Little Andaman

4. Riding a motorbike through the jungle to the crocodile infested waterfall on Little Andaman

5. Exploring villages down little roads

6. The freshest seafood grilled to perfection with magic sauce at Swapan’s on Havelock, the best little local place you will find…

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7. Snorkeling

8. Did I mention the beach?

9. Going up to the north to visit jungle or the beautiful Smith & Ross islands

10. Bonfires, beer and brilliant simplicity


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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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Ko Phangan Part 4

In the meantime, hanging out with Nadine was keeping me sane. She was at the end of an 18 month trip away from her work as a social worker in a prison.  She had spent it in India and Nepal as well as Thailand, meditating, studying yoga, doing detoxes,teaching children yoga at an orphanage in Kathmandu, and despite still suffering from some feeling of not deserving love, she is a total sweetheart who I think, actually, everyone falls in love with. We went to a local fair and to a beautiful sunset spot as well as to a fabulous home made ice cream parlour where we were served the goodies in a coconut.

Mainly, though, we just hung out at the bungalow restaurant on our net books, ordering coffee and going for an occasional swim.

That is, until we decided it was time to do a brown rice diet.

It took us a while to commit to it but once we did it was full power – the Oshawa No 7 Macrobiotic diet is the most extreme of a series of diets that the Japanese nutritionist devised. Number Seven is a ten day course that supposedly completely cleanses the blood.  It is a diet where you should only eat foods which are Yang in nature, that is, the masculine, solar energy.  Given what we had available we were limited to brown rice, garnished with sesame seeds and soy sauce, miso soup, oats with water sweetened with bee pollen, black or mint tea and water which was converted from Yin by the addition of either Basil or Cinnamon.

It wasn’t an easy diet at times although I was quite impressed with my willpower which was actually improved when Nadine decided to break the diet after about three days. Once a system had been established and we had Good Times as our regular supplier of takeaway rice it was pretty straightforward, and it helped that Esmee, a Dutch girl at our bungalows had decided to join me, and also came to the Tantra course.  Munching on brown rice in the breaks where other people were bemoaning the fact that they didn’t have food at all definitely helped.  On day four or five I felt amazing, totally energised and with an intensity which was new to me.  As the days drew on I grew quite bored with the lack of variety and tired, although that may have been down to doing the Tantra course at the same time which was draining in itself.

We were taught to this principle to avoid losing Ojas:

The man should limit himself to between 50-70% of pleasure during sex to avoid getting too close to the Point of No Return where ejaculation will occur.  At this point stopping and using subliming yoga techniques like Uddiyana Bandha and the headstand which moves the energy away from Swadisthana Chakra.  These techniques are framed by the concept of offering to a higher place the fruits of the action.  Allowing the man to last longer also gives the woman more opportunity to reach deeper, longer lasting orgasm.  To really get the full power from the practice it is necessary to get into the role of Shiva and Shakti.  Shiva, the male, single pointed, steady force of the universe “bliss etc” and Shakti the feminine representation in material existence.  Everything that is, is Shakti, in movement and action.

The final exercise we did was a transfiguration where the guys sit in a circle and the girls move around sitting with each guy in turn.  Everyone holds hands and in the other’s face visualises the presence of Shiva, for the guys, and Shakti, for the girls.

This was such a powerful exercise.  It, and the meditation that followed, left me floating in Sahashara, the “crown Chakra” somewhere.  It was fascinating to see how different girls reacted to the exercise.  Some powerful, some nervous and some with a loving gaze.  They all meld into one at the end.

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Ko Phagnan Part 3

So Allison and Alex started off by asking if we were “From Agama” the local yoga school on Ko Phagnan and we continued by comparing stories about India, spirituality and the reality we live in.

I loved it, I’m not sure Marion was quite as interested (having already had an earful of philosophy from me earlier)

They told us all about the school and some of the things they had learnt (without mentioning the Tantra element actually) and I took it as a total sign that I had to go to this place. We were the last ones at the restaurant and I left having arranged to meet Alex and Allison at a lecture on the Bhagavad Gita the following night.

Agama is a controversial school but I didn’t realise that until a little while later. I was confused a little at my first Yoga class when people asked me if I knew what I was “letting myself in for” but to be honest I didn’t find it intimidating and I think there are a lot of insubstatiated stories. Certainly from the first lecture I found the Swami immensely well read, very knowledgeable and a good speaker. I’m not sure I felt in the presence of a realised being but this large Romanian guy in orange robes with quite a brash manner perhaps just doesn’t fit my restricted idea of a guru.

Marion and I spent several days together, hanging out at various beaches on Ko Phagnan and exploring before we went to the Half Moon Party. I had spent a long day at Agama, walking to both the morning and afternoon classes as well as staying for the lecture with Nadine, the sparkly eyed German who Marion had met on the bus and had been another pointer to Agama, having completed the first level course previously.

I didn’t really fancy the party after this long day but Marion and I had been planning to go so I didn’t want to pull out last minute. I probably should have though because she knew some French guys there and we ended up hanging out with them. The guys were alright although it was pure Gallic Drama as one had injured his leg meaning his holiday may be cut short while his companion was in the grip of great despair due to not wanting to travel alone. I had a traditional bucket of Sang Som with Red Bull and Coke to try and enjoy the party but apart from the fire show which was, in equal parts enchanting and extremely dangerous it wasn’t really a great do.

It was this night and the resulting hangover which made me decide to quit drinking, for a while at least, and I went a good month before having anything again.

Meanwhile, the Yoga was really interesting, I arrived on the last day of week 2 of the 1st level 1 month intensive course. This proved to be a good day to start since we were taught what I would call Agama’s “Special Move” the ultimate energy-sublimation asana, Uddiyanda Bandha. This involves exhaling through the mouth to empty the lungs and then doing a “fake inhalation” pulling the chest up and navel towards the spine with knees bent and hands on the thighs to hold the exhale with a concave stomach. This causes energy to rise up the spine, moving it from the lower chakras.

The Class in general is characterised by its intense focus on these energy centres and movement, either bringing in cosmic energy from above or channelling through the Telluric Earth energy from below.

This is achieved by concentrating on particular chakras during the Asanas but also by holding the postures for much longer than I am used to.

I liked the slow, reflective and meditative style though and the classes were certainly challenging, leading to a deep final relaxation.

My first day was a big one because as well as Uddiyanda Bandha the evening lecture (led by Swami Vivekananda) was about the Yogic concept of Brahmacharya which is basically Sexual Continence.

Interpreted by most as meaning a celibate path is the only way to enlightenment, Tantra sees things differently. Outlining that the real reason behind Brahmacharya is preventing the loss of Ojas and not specificially refraining from sex.

Ojas is described in Click Here!” target=”_blank”>ayurveda and is a kind of “life force” which is lost in large amounts through ejaculation for men and so it is understandable that there is a correlation.

The ascetic path which takes the “fastest” route to enlightenment by cutting out all opportunities to failure by for example heading off to a cave, teaches celibacy as a way of cutting out the sexual urge at the root. Tantra however, teaches the mantra “sublime, sublime, sublime” that this energy can be harnessed and transferred to higher chakras to actually aid in spiritual development

For men this means giving up ejaculation, and in the short term the orgasm – we learnt that the two are not explicitly linked.

Orgasm causes certain muscle contractions which cause ejaculation but the two can be separated (although this takes a while)

This means that with practice and by offering the fruits to the divine it is possible for men to have multiple orgasms without ejaculation.

So maybe you can see why this school has a slightly “odd” reputation – I should clarify that some of the details here weren’t taught in this initial lecture – in fact Swami made a point of keeping away from the sexual side since the yoga classes are kept totally aside from the “tantric” side.

However, I did attend the separate “mens meeting” and after much deliberation I did sign up for the one week Tantra Level One workshop.

It turned out to be much more Sex-ed than I was expecting or really hoping for…!

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Ko Phangan. Part 2

Of late, things have been kind of leading on, one step to the next without too much attention from me. I have been happy to let the universe do its thing and let the experiences that I want to have come to me. (Of course I had to make the initial leap of coming away in the first place and be constantly willing.) It’s all about meeting the right people to resonate with but the place you are in obviously helps you meet those people and be directed onwards.

Allowing for the natural order of things to pan out is sometimes more challenging than it sounds. These connections can be very strong and unnerving as you realise that you have met someone for a very specific purpose, however unlikely it may at first seem.

I guess places and courses can work in a similar way and I was drawn to Ko Phangan despite my previous visit being purely for the Full Moon Party in all its dayglo, bucket swilling glory. That is the main reason most people visit this place but after spending just an hour or so in Haad Rin I was glad to be nowhere near it. I enjoyed my time here 6 years ago but was in a totally different zone this time.

So my arrival, by accident, in what appeared to be the hippy central of the island on a beach so beautiful that I couldn’t believe my eyes when I sat in my hammock, became even more profoundly interconnected by meeting several people within a couple of days of arriving.

I was wandering and wanted to see the local Sri Thanu Wat, set apart from the main street down a dusty side road lined with trees and with nothing else much around. The Wat seemed to be still under construction with bamboo scaffolding surrounding it and piles of yellow dirt and other materials lying about in the sun. In the background a few monks went about their daily business in the hermitage which I decided against entering.

Slightly feeling that I had made a wasted trip up this street I decided to have a look at the little cafe advertising books and home-made brownies in a ramshackle way that I had passed. I entered through the rickety looking furniture with toys strewn about the dirt floor to be greeted by Jenny, 8 months pregnant and also from England. We had a little chat, I ordered a brownie and browsed the books for sale or to borrow, realising that the fantastic selection of interesting spiritual books were all for rent.  I decided to take Eckhart Tolle‘s The Power of Now which I subsequently spent several days reading in a hammock and at every other opportunity. It speaks about living in the present without the distractions of a past and future that only really exist in our minds anyway and fits in with Buddhism, Yoga and all the other stuff that I’ve been learning. He came to a realisation after sinking to a low but seemingly opened his eyes, looked on the world differently and now teaches this around the world to an adoring audience, it’s inspiring actually. Of course, synchronicity meant that this book had come up before and has been mentioned by various people a lot since, I feel it is one I need to buy and revisit often.

Jenny also told me about the buffet that they had on that night of healthy local vegetarian fare which seemed like something not to miss, ever the indecisive diner, I do love a buffet.

So when I turned up that evening with Marion, the beautiful French girl from my guesthouse with an accent to make the knees tremble, we found the place abuzz and ended up sharing our table with a couple who were clearly a sign…

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Ko Phangan. Part One

I arrived on Ko Phangan looking for Yoga but not really knowing where to find it. Through my online and guidebook research I had seen there were a few places mainly on the West coast of the island which was also far away from the party central Haad Rin but there were other spots spread about as well. I took it as a sign when the only tout offering accomodation on the island while waiting for the ferry was a guy from the Laem Son bungalows on Sri Thanu beach, right on the West coast.

I wandered around the village and came across the Orion healing centre, a cute family run spot offering Yoga and detox courses with Reiki and massage. I went for a class here and although it was fine I knew it wasn’t going to be challenging when the girl taking the class was pregnant, my friend was doing her first ever Yoga class and the other girl there was in the middle of a detox. It was a nice setting though and the teacher was very friendly and introduced us to her son who was running around the place.

I also found the Art Cafe which had adverts up for all sorts of Chakra Balancing, Theta Healing, Cosmic Energy Massage and every wonderful and unusual form of alternative practice you can imagine. They sold home detox kits and advertised Colloidal Silver, Gold and Platinum that you could drink for various benefits.

This was my bungalow and view from the beach, so yeah, I figured I was in the right place.

I gradually became introduced to a Yoga school called Agama which I started to attend, but that will require at least one post of its own…

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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

Click Here! ” target=”_blank”>meditation

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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