Posts from: March 30, 2013


I met the mad pilgrims in Delhi, a day before flying to Varanasi. Amongst them was Astrud, the Laughing Lotus teacher assigned to the task of ‘being’ Jasmine whilst she stayed home and looked after herself and her (as yet unborn) baby. And Cristina, a dear old friend I hadn’t seen since university days. Meeting Astrud – who turned out to be as thoughtful as she was beautiful – I knew we’d get along. Cristina looked the same as she did a decade ago! She attributes this youthfulness to a very small bowl of chia porridge enjoyed every morning and a tiny appertif most evenings.
The pilgrims – apart from Cristina, who I’d describe as a ‘world citizen’ – were from New York, California and Australia. All very diverse backgrounds with our only common threads being yoga and a fascination for India. Turns out that’s all we needed.
Varanasi is considered the holiest of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism. It is said that if you die in Varanasi, you are guaranteed salvation. Despite being built at the point where sacred waters meet, it is considered Shiva’s City or the City of Death.
It is easy to see why: Shiva is everywhere; his imposing image – wide eyes, dreadlocks, trident and a cobra for a belt – in the ancient temples and on the walls of Varanasi. And even when the temples are too small for a full-size deity (tiny duck-your-head-and-have-a-peak-inside affairs), well there is Shiva lingum; Shiva in his, ahem, most masculine form… His eternal consort, Shakti, also makes innumerable appearances in her many incarnations including the downright terrifying, man-beheading Kali. Her temples are often blood red; a detail I love.
The ghats (ancient staircases that lead directly into the Ganges) at dawn are a straight up mystical sight: countless Varanasi locals taking their ritual bath and morning puja as their ancestors have done for perhaps hundreds of generations. Incredible. I felt downright honoured to be their guest.
Our boatmen were deeply philosophical young men who were used to seeing bodies being cremated here on a daily basis. They let us know- quite light-heartedly – that ‘Burning is the learning’ and ‘Cremation is the education’. And after spending a few days, I started to get a feel for what they meant: cremation in India does not hide anything. Nothing at all… Here it is impossible to hide from the reality of physical death.
Back on the banks, despite warnings from countless friends back home – I found myself dipping my legs in and washing my face. It was as if I was being led by Mother Ganga; no more just a physical body of water, but Ma herself. Jai Ma…
My most treasured memory of Varanasi was a private kathak performance organized for us by the lovely Seema . Cristina and I studied kathak at university and it was a treat to see it performed in the country of its birth. The dancers (considered two of the best in India) and the band were all family members but you probably could have guessed that witnessing them gel so much. They were more than ‘in sync’; they played and danced as one. Both Seema and I got goosebumps watching the two dancers perform the stories of Shiva and Parvati (an incarnation of Shakti) in a perfect balance of technique and expression. And when they performed the stories of Krishna and Radhe in Vrindavan, well let’s just say all of us pilgrims were swooning…
I’m not a deeply emotional person but I’m man enough to admit it was hard to hold back when the male of the duo – a very distinguished looking man in his fifties – thanked us for being his audience. ‘On behalf of my family, thank you for appreciating us. In the band is my nephew and he is also being my kathak apprentice. I will dance until I die. But when I die, I am knowing that the dance and the music will continue’. Lost it. Completely. In the west, you would scarcely see a dancer in his fifties perform at all; let alone with such power, grace and ultimately, humility. I thought about the nature of creativity and how it will never die. And that we in these temporary bodies – like the boat that carried us down the Ganges – are but vessels for this infinite source.


Pre-pilgrimage trip to Goa.
Coastal Goa is made up of beautiful beaches. There is not a lot of surf where I stayed, but the water is amazing. My home was a tiny hut in a very quiet cove between two noisy beaches. And just my karma, I managed to ‘pay off’ my stay by teaching a yoga class a few steps away from the hut.
Every morning I’d self-practice in the humble little shala and quite often I’d take a beautiful class taught by Lauren who at the time, part-owned all the little huts and the shala in the cove. The rest of the day I would read; chant; drink chai if I wanted to feel Indian, or coconut juice if I wanted to pretend to be Robinson Crusoe.
One day, a dark-skinned man came into the communal area of the cove. He was carrying what turned out to be a tiny, portable shrine with several lego man-sized deities on it. I recognized one to be Krishna. Immediately, the staff started fishing for coins, which they promptly placed on the tiny shrine. The dark-skinned man thumbed dark red tilak on their brows. Out of curiosity I asked the staff members what religion they were. Some said Buddhist, some said Hindu. But they all said it didn’t matter which I thought was very charming… I fished for coins.
In Old Goa, faith is even more fluid. It is distinct from the rest of India in that the main Heritage Road is lined with churches of many different sizes, many of which are hundreds of years old. A mixture of Portugese and Spanish architecture, these churches are also the burial grounds of the many who served here in the early missionary days. I came to pay my respects to Francis Xavier, the patron saint of my school.
Throughout Old Goa, the cab drivers have little shrines on their dashboards. And commonly these shrines have combinations of Hindu deities, different incarnations of the Buddha AS WELL as Christian saints. And of course when I asked the cabbies what religion they were, they said it really didn’t matter. I was falling more in love with India every day.
Deity shops in Old Goa are just awesome: you can buy little Krishnas and the Baby Jesus, mala beads and rosary beads. There was one shop I favoured because they had literally hundreds of types of stickers of different Gods and deities. I exclaimed, ‘So many Gods!’ and the shopkeeper smiled, held her hands up in that very Indian way and said ‘as long as we are praying, right?’ I left with my stickers, she said ‘God bless!’ and I said ‘Haribol!’
My last day in Old Goa and I went to mass at Bom Jesus Basilica, the burial place of St Francis Xavier. I felt so at peace in this ancient Church and so connected to Father Hernandez’s voice, even though I couldn’t understand Goan. Maybe it was my hair or the mala beads or the faint traces of tilak on my brow, but a number of the church patrons let me know that I had to be Catholic in order to receive Holy Communion. I assured them I was indeed baptized Catholic and that was the first and last time any one asked me what religion I was. Because you know why? In India in particular, it really doesn’t matter…


I was recently given the divine opportunity to teach yoga as part of the Laughing Lotus San Francisco/Jivamukti Sydney Mystic Madness India Pilgrimage. I had not been to India before, though I had dreamt of going to Vrindavan since I was a teenager learning how to chant Lord Krishna’s holy names. We would meet our fellow pilgrims in Delhi and then we would spend time in Varanassi (City of Death), Allahabad (Life) and then Vrindavan (Birth/Rebirth).
I had heard the term ‘Guest is God’ many times over the years and I really had no idea what it meant until I landed in Delhi. It was here that I first met our guide, Seema. Seema-ji is the kind of person who is impossible to dislike. Upon meeting her, I felt instantly at home. Later I came to realize that she really represented India.
The evening of our meeting, Seema took me to her family home and had me sit down and eat a blessed home-made dinner of dahl, vegetable curries and bread. All made with love, and incredible flavours that re-ignited my flame for Indian food (Seema’s father was the late Harish Johari, renowned teacher of Ayurveda. So not only was the food delicious; it was healing on many levels. Harish Johari was also a deeply gifted painter whose works have sold internationally; as well as an author of many books whose subjects ranged from the energetics of gemstones, an in-depth study of the chakras and of course, Ayurveda).
The following day, Seema asked me what my favourite vegetable was so she and her lovely daughter, Anushree could prepare curries based on that vegetable. I made it difficult by admitting that they are all my favourites…
Over the next few days in Delhi, we sat and shared our favourite stories about Krishna (the ones where Krishna played his flute and the ladies of Vrindavan dropped EVERYTHING to be with him) and also our favourite Bollywood movie stars (male: Sharukh Khan, female Aishwarya Ray), movies (Devdas and Ashoka) and scenes (Khabi Kushi Khabi Gham where Hrithik Roshan enters college and dances his way into the hearts of all the girls in the multi-racial campus. Incidentally, Anushree admitted that, although he was a sensational dancer, she thought Hrithik Roshan’s face was ‘too sharp’ for her liking). Within days, the separation of visitor/guide disappeared. We got along like crazy and we could see that the pilgrimage would be madness for sure, but a familial madness…
Throughout my trip I met many people who were just like Seema: people who would walk several kilometres out of their way to take you to the place you are searching for; people who would invite you as a guest to their daughter’s wedding simply because you looked like you were enjoying the wedding parade and people who would literally give you all their lunch because you happened to be walking through their farmland. I came to realize how important it is for us to ‘disappear’ out of our own preferences in order to make others feel at home. That is, to help everyone see God in the form of completely selfless hospitality. And since my trip, I’ve tried to remind myself – in my vocation as a teacher as well as my role as a human being – that sometimes I have to get out of my own way in order to give the very best I can.