31 January 2016

Rishikesh – Yoga tourism in the middle of the mountains

We did a day trip to Rishikesh, which is only around 30 km away from Haridwar. The day started by a satsang (question and answer session) with a Brazilian guru, Preem Baba. My only encounter with a spiritual teacher so far was listening to Tony Samara in Be-In festival in the summer, so I was excited to find out how this person would feel like and what sort of energy would he radiate. And boy, was I blown away: the minute he came in the room, my eyes filled with tears and I felt a rush of love in my heart. Such a powerful presence! I mean, say what you want about these "big names" who attract masses of spiritual people to listen to them, I really was impressed by him. His answers to the questions didn't provide any new information as such, but I think it's always interesting to approach the same things (moving from darkness into light, facing up to all your qualities and befriending them etc.) from a different angle. Everyone understands these things differently, so getting different perspectives to these themes always make me realize something a little more.

After the satsang we had lunch (malai kofta! jeera rice! salty lassi! hummus! Stomach was like "Noooo wtf are you doing to me" ;)), shopped a little and walked around.

Being out of the ashram for the first time was pretty exhausting. Sensory overload, plus my body was still quite weak from the diarrhea and cold. But it was great to get to see a bit of Rishikesh. I had contemplated rebooking my flight to Goa and spending a week in Rishikesh after the retreat, but now I realized I didn't want that. It was beautiful, yes, the town situated snug between the amazing mountains, but I was a little put off by the yoga tourism. Every building was a yoga school and travel agents were touting mountain treks and rafting and whatnot. I think Rishikesh is a place where you need to know where you want to be. If you just go there without a plan, you won't know where to start, there's so much on offer. I was interested in doing a reflexology or ayurvedic massage course there, but decided against them in the end, mostly because of the cold. I just need warmth. Less layers of clothes on me. Not sleeping with 5 layers of clothes and 3 fleece blankets. Thank you very much.

Mandakini and Nicole, an American living in the ashram

Sooo many monkeys

Ram Jhula bridge

A different kind of spirituality – Yoga retreat in Santosh Puri Ashram

So, I am back. I Landed on Goa two days ago and decided that today was the day to take care of all sorts of computery things, including the blog.

The last couple of weeks have been trying, to put it mildly. It took me a while to get to this post since I really don't know what to say about my experience in the ashram. It will take much longer to process all of it (if I ever will), but I'll try to put something in writing, as much for myself as for you readers.

So, here goes. After spending a day and a night in Delhi and enjoying myself, it was time to finally start my way towards Haridwar and the Sanosh Puri ashram we'd be doing the yoga retreat in. The other yoginis had managed to get to India and they picked me up from Paharganj around 8 in the morning. And off we went. Out of Delhi, into the countryside. I would like to say that the scenery was picturesque but it really wasn't. Or there wasn't much of anything to be seen. A thick layer of mist/dust/smog wrapped the landscape in a milky sheet of nothingness, from which cars and donkeys and mopeds and tractors and the occasional camel emerged and into which they again receded. The atmosphere was quite dreamlike, and I found a profound stillness settle upon me. It seemed that the more chaotic it got outside, the more quiet it got inside. A wonderful experience!

We stopped at a roadside restaurant to eat amazing palak and paneer pakoras and I had the most tasty aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower curry) I've ever had. Also the chai was divine. The other yoginis were very tired and rattled by the sheer overwhelm of everything that was India, but my spirits were high. It seemed I'd gotten a head start and had already forged some kind of a bond with the country of abundant color, noise and movement.

The ride to Haridwar took around 6 hours, and everyone was very relieved when we finally stretched our cramped muscles on the yard of the ashram. There were a couple of long time residents besides our group in the ashram, but all in all it was quite a small place, not one of these huge guru ashrams some of the westerners go to seek spirituality. The gurus of this ashram, an Indian babaji and a German-born mataji have both already left their bodies (as they say in these circles) and the ashram is now run by the children of the guru/disciple couple: son Ganga and two daughters, Alaknanda (who works as an ayurvedic doctor in a nearby hopsital) and Mandakini.

Everything is hand-built to look natural: there are few sharp edges or straight lines in nature, so also the traditional ashrams are built accordingly.

The two temples: left for Babaji, right for Mataji

And so our trip to deepen our knowledge of yoga and spirituality had begun. And what a trip it turned out to be.... I'd tried to come to the ashram without expectations and thought I could handle what was coming, but the Universe had other plans. First of all, the all emcompassing damp cold took everyone by surprise. It was like we were on a camping trip in the early Finnish springtime: there was no such a thing as comfortable warmth to be had anywhere. The temperatures dropped to 5-10 degrees during the night and even in the daytime when the sun was shining, I still needed to wear a couple of pants and long sleeved shirts for most of the day. And you couldn't escape the cold, it went everywhere with you. Indoors was colder and damper than outdoors. The shower was usually lukewarm at best, and the two times I actually got a hot shower felt like little slivers of heaven. Most of the time I wore at least 3 pairs of pants, 3 shirts and 3 pairs of socks and carried a blanket with me wherever I went. Yes, it was seriously cold. And I had nowhere enough clean warm clothes, so I ended up wearing pretty much the same stuff for 2 weeks, day and night. Taking my clothes off and setting my feet on the ice cold tiles of the room seemed like the worst idea ever, but most of the time I could persuade myself to have a shower every two days. I could go on, but you get the picture probably. And who knows me, also knows that I really really dislike being cold. So it was a real struggle.

And like these things go, there was more. My body decided that it was not amused and rebelled in every way. My bowels turned to water accompanied with a mild fever. I developed a hefty cold. I also had my period and let me tell you that using a mooncup in such conditions where you really want to avoid any type of internal contact with the local tapwater was an artform in itself. And my mind was resisting it all so badly and resenting my body for letting me down once more. So, my spirituality practice basically ended up consisting of trying to deal with my condition and not breaking out in tears of desperation and frustration all the time. I was being taught patience and acceptance in a very tangible way. And at some point I did come to terms with the fact that no, I would  not be having such a yoga retreat I though I would. Instead, I would need to learn to listen to my body, take it easy and not rush it. So so difficult. But I did manage it in the end.

Yantra panting. Our living quarters in the background
And luckily we had the ayurvedic doctor Alaknanda there to take care of me. As a supplement and self-medication enthusiast it felt very cozy to again have a row of bottles and jars containing all sorts of weird powders and liquids and pills lining my nightstand. I wasn't made to take any of it of course and I could also use my own western medicine, but after the initial internal battle and worry I decided to trust her and use these two weeks to try to heal myself slowly. And I did, more or less. The energy levels fluctuated daily, sometimes I was super exhausted and the mind was cloudy and dull (which also causes worry in itself) but there were also clear moments. I tried not to think in terms of good or bad but to let things unfold the way the were.

A side stream of the Ganges

Papu and Pushti the fat labrador

Another thing that I had thought the yoga retreat to bring was time to be by myself and to reflect. To be somewhere quiet and serene. Not so: the day was scheduled from beginning to end and a temple to Mamaji was being built, so our daily routines were accompanied by building noise. The wakeup-call was at 4 (I made it maybe 3 times), and we got to bed after 20 in the evening. Yoga classes were 3 hours, which in my conditions were not doable in the beginning and I only got 4 or 5 classes in during the 2 weeks. Meals consisted mainly of fruit, wheat, rice and root vegetables with the occasional lentil thrown in. But in my case, my main fare was kitchari, an ayurvedic stomach-friendly and balancing gruel made out of rice and daal. Which I really did enjoy and was very grateful they made the effort to cook it specially for me.

We also had lectures: on Bhagavad gita, an ancient Hindu holy scripture and Patanjali yoga sutra, the origin of yoga. The highlight for me was the cooking class we had the first week, and the yantra painting on the second week. We also did a daytrip to Rishikesh and Haridwar city center (separate posts to follow).

Palak paneer in the making
To sum it all up: Did I enjoy myself? To be honest, most of the time I didn't. It was so challenging physically that I couldn't really concentrate on anything else that much. I also learned that ashram life as such is a bit too rigid for me. Was it a valuable experience? Totally. And I really don't know what would have been a better place to be ill in India. But it does seem that despite what I thought before coming here, there is no such a thing as a soft landing. This country just overwhelms you in every way. And my stomach still hasn't recovered... but I still have a month and a half to go, so maybe during that time it will come to grips with the local bacteria here. Fingers crossed!

17 January 2016

Surprise! Delhi time

So I accidentally Delhied. Is this bad?
Hey, it's me again. So, last night didn't go quite according to plan. After "waking up" shivering from sheer cold from the concrete floor, ordering another ridiculously expensice toast, a lemon tea and a chocolate cookie from Costa Coffee around 4 am I found a message from our yoga teacher Marijana. The plane from Berlin to Istanbul had been delayed and they would be arriving in Delhi 24 hours later than planned. Somehow I've already gotten used to these surprises and took the news in stride with the bleary and fuzzy sleep deprived brain. I really had no interest in hanging out at the airport a minute longer, and after abandoning the idea of splurging into a luxury spa bed I bought a token and made my way to the metro. I guess Delhi wasn't to be avoided after all.

I think arriving in New Delhi station around 5.30 am was probably the best possible time. It was smoggy, chaotic and there were indians everywere, but I imagine it was still probably a tad less busy than at other hours. And probably also the sleep deprivation induced fog helped to blunt down the impact of culture shock a little. For some reason it all just seemed natural. This was India, but there was a certainty in me that things would go well. There was no fear, no panic of not finding my way. I skirted round all the taxi, tuktuk and riksha drivers and made my way to what I hoped was the right direction. It was, and I got offered help and directions which took me through the New Delhi train station, with people sleeping on the floor and others hurrying to catch trains, to the overpass leading to Paharganj, Delhi's backpacker district.

When there, I had a plan to go to the first accommodation that was open and ask for a room. Didn't make it very far until a guy popped up, like they do around here, and offered to show me a room for 700 rupees in a “new and luxurious hotel, with own private room and warm shower, madam“ and although I was very aware that it probably would turn out to be some sort of a rathole, I followed him along the almost deserted side alleys of the Main Bazaar road. The room was fine (not new or luxurious by any standards), but I didn't manage to get the price go down, so I decided to try my luck somewhere else. The same guy offered to show me another room for 500 rupees and took me to a little shabbier place where I said no another time to a tiny and cigarette smelling room. But I was exhausted and the sum we were talking about wasn't really that big (700 rupees is around 9 euros), so I decided to take the first room anyway. I really needed my own place now, although I'm sure I could've got a dorm room for 200-300 rupees if I'd bothered asking around a bit. I didn't. This was perfect.

Home street
A first hot shower in 2 weeks felt amazing and I settled in to sleep. Which didn't happen, so around 10 I gave up trying, washed my hair (I knew there was a reason for coming to Delhi!) and set out for a little stroll around the neighbourhood. In the morning everything was still relatively quiet and I eased my way into the Indian way of doing things bit by bit. Had a lovely warm milk drink at the corner of my side street. Mozied down along the Main Bazaar street, taking photos and minding my own business. And so a little by little I felt more and more comfortable. I was in Delhi, baby! And it didn't feel bad at all. Yes I was being stared at and shouted „hello madam“ a gazillion times. But nobody was too pushy, and people let me do my thing, which was to take in all my zombified mind could. It was lovely. I found myself walking along with a huge grin on my face. Also had first encounters with Indian men and found out that a little conversation was nothing to be afraid of. Everyone was polite, wanted to exchange a couple of words, enquired where I was from, and then went pretty soon on their way again. Nobody tried to force themselves on me or push me into going somewhere I didn't want to go. What a wonderful thing to notice, after all the fearmongering I'd been hearing from left and right: that these are just people like everyone else. No reason to be afraid or worried, as long as I use common sense. Deep down I knew this to be true already, but it was amazing to get it proven now in practice.

One 25 rupee hot milk drink coming right up!
Deliciousness from the street. 10 rupees.
First impressions: I do love India. It's chaotic, crazy, vibrant, loud and tasty. And I needed to experience Delhi, no matter what plans I had. During my stroll I also had my first street food (a deep fried crispy bread-type something with a sauce that had at least potatoes in it, wonderful) and did a little necessity shopping, and just walked and marveled. Around 13 it started to get a little too busy for my liking and I still hadn't slept a wink in what felt like forever, so I headed back to my hotel. Soon I'll go and stuff my face with more delicious Indian food and then try to lure the elusive sleep a bit closer. Just wanted to do a quick post with some photos, now that I have the time. Energy no, but time. 

Maybe tomorrow at this time I'll already be in the ashram, enjoying a different kind of India experience. I really do hope so, although in the end I'm really glad I did get to see a little bit of Delhi as well. I find it really nice that although Paharganj is a backpacker district, there are still way more locals than foreigners and it feels way more authentic than, say, Khao San road in Bangkok. The only thing I'm not liking is the cold. After Thailand it really feels freezing in here although it is around 15-20 degrees, and Haridwar will be even colder. Brr... But otherwise:  Loving it! Who knew! <3

Wanna buy a giant club balloon?

Lovelovelove the old style architecture <3

Found an amazing food market

Awareness in a shirt. Would you wear this?

Amazing coconut / daal flour cookies in the making

16 January 2016

Bye Thailand, hello India!

Hello, mother India! Today was finally the day to step into the unknown. A place I've heard so much about and treated with awe and respect seasoned with a dose of fear. Would it be too overwhelming? Could my stomach take it? Would I hate it? Or would I fall completely and madly in love with it and end up spending all my money and travel time between India and Koh Phangan? Well, now I have about 2 months to find out.

Surat Thani bus station. Tiny.
Yesterday evening I took the ferry from KPG to Donsak, a bus to Surat Thani and stayed the night in an affordable 200 baht dorm (Banana cabins, center of the peace since 2014, according to the sign outside) in the middle of nowhere. In the morning when even the sun was still sleeping (ok, it was at 6, so not super early, but still early for my schedule) me and an Ohio girl shared a taxi to the airport. Another last coconut and a short flight later I was in Dong Mueang again where I was delighted to find mr. Osprey waiting for me and proceeded to take the easy free shuttle bus to Suvarnabhumi. 

Eels happen when light is lit. Be very afraid.
Since I wouldn't have made it to my original Lion Air flight with the earliest ferry from KPG and needed to spend the night in Surat Thani anyway, I'd decided to buy some peace of mind in the form of an earlier Air Asia flight. So I had plenty of time to spare on Suvarnabhumi, which was pretty sweet. And even sweeter when, after desparing for something to eat and wondering where all the restaurants were hiding, I spotted an escalator to the floor below with lots of munchies on offer. Score! Well, food left a lot to be desired for but the mango shake was excellent. Another goodbye to mr. Osprey (and some nervousness after noticing the info poster that banned taking power packs (recharging batteries) on the airline I had chosen (Jet Airways)). I decided that my karma could take a white lie, so I told the check-in people that of course I don't have any such things in my backpack. Oops. Well, they didn't explode on the plane, so all good! An indulgent Cold Stone Creamery ice cream (coffee and coconut. Ok, but a bit bland - no Swensen's, which is my abso favourite) later it was time to head off to the gate.

Which is when it finally hit me. Oh my god, I was actually doing this! Koh Phangan and Thailand were such easy peasies and familiar territory that now it felt my Journey was actually starting for real. There were Indian people around and everything was already a hassle (extra security screenings and bag checks and stamps on boarding pass and whatnot). But even with the sugar coursing in my veins, I was calm. This felt like a necessary step. India had been calling for a long time and it was time to answer.

In storage: irons, office supplies, clothes pegs, cats
So, what did it feel like to leave Koh Phangan? Well, it didn't feel nice, that's for sure. If I didn't know I'd be back in 2 short months, I'm pretty sure I'd have been devastated. I just got into the flow of the magical island and now it was time to leave again? Not cool. I'd sang bhajans on the beach a couple of nights with the accompaniment of a harp, a guitar and occasional other instruments, watching the sun paint the sky orange and the stars light up around the grinning moon. I'd thought long and hard about redoing 1. level of yoga at Agama in May and definitely doing all the tantra workshops I could. I'd released more emotional blockages with breathwork. I'd done a relaxing ajna chakra activation session with the help of a synthesizer and hang drums. In other words: I was deeply in love with the myriad of spiritual and healing events the island is teeming with. It did feel like something was missing, though. A structure of some kind. But I'd made the decision not to dive into any lengthy workshops yet, so these 2 weeks were really just a dip in the spirituality pool, a soft landing into the trip. Now I'm ready to go deeper, live in the rhythm of an ashram for 2 weeks, which means among other things getting up at 4 am and going to bed at 21, and then do some more India. Maybe a reflexology course in Rishikesh and an ayurvedic massage course in Kerala. Or not. Time will tell. I'm so looking forward to all of it!

In the name of honesty and on the shadowy side of things, I must also write about the first anxiety attack of the trip. Yep, it came pretty soon, but on the other hand I'm glad it happened in familiar territory and not in India. We were having green tea and vegan brownies (sheesh, so many vegans here!) in Art Cafe when I felt my cheeks burning a little bit and G commented that I had a bit of colour on my face, maybe an allergic reaction? They also started itching a bit, and lo and behold, it took all of 2 minutes for me to be full-on in the grips of an almost hyperventilating panicky anxiety attack. See, I'm not allergic to anything. And the last time something like this happened to my face was when I had dengue fever, when the whole of my face got red and swollen. And yes, I'd been protecting myself from mozzie bites as well as I could, but of course there are always a couple that slip through the guard. I'd been surprisingly chill about all of it, but The Fear of Dengue Monster had been lurking somewhere in the subconscious and now pounced on my peace of mind full force. I couldn't do anything to prevent it, suddenly just boom, it was there. Luckily G was there to calm me down a bit, and I did settle down enough to drive myself home and rummage through my med supplies for some antihistamins. I did find some, but decided to see how the situation would progress before taking any. The thing is, I really wanted to avoid starting to medicate every little twitch like I sometimes have had a tendency to do. This trip is also about trusting the Universe and my own healing powers and applying the mindfulness and peace of mind approach to my often prevailing hypocondria. And boy was I proud of myself, when after meditating for a little bit (well, quite a while actually) I felt better, calmer and the antihistamins were still untouched on the table. Rational and calm Lilje 1 – worrying and anxious Lilje 0. Yay! And the redness did calm down by itself quite soon as well.

So, another lesson in dealing with my issues learned. Did I manage to avoid the anxiety attack? No. But did it pass much more quickly than previously? Yes. Did I end up blaming myself for being such a silly hypocondriac? Well, yeah, a little. But it what G said when I was shaking and panicking really hit home: “Now is the time to love yourself the most. Now is the time to be there for yourself and not run away or assign blame.“ It rang even truer later on when I reflected on the whole situation. I cannot always prevent getting anxious but if I could remember to accept the situation and accept myself in the situation, offering comfort and consolation and not blame or accusations, I think it would make a world of difference. Of course it's hard to remember something like that when I'm in the middle of the mind-whirlpool of “fuckfuckpleasenotnowIdon'twannabreakdown inpublicgetittogetheraaaargh“ but next time I'll try.

That's that. But hey, India! I'm, like, really here. The flight was smooth, and I spent a lot of time reflecting on happiness and what really interests me. Didn't find anything that new, but it felt good to greet the usual suspects: I love cooking and baking. I love the healing arts and exploring them deeper. I love feeling a part of something, like I belong. I love being useful to others. I love adventure. I love being independent and brave enough to do this by myself. But I'd also love to have someome to share these travels with at some point. Since I'm pretty sure that this trip will only be the beginning. On a lighter side, I also watched a Bollywood movie and giggled all the way through it like a little girl. India!

Airport biryani
So, here I sit now, on Indira Gandhi International airport. Outside the door is Delhi, but it is still at a safe distance, where I also intend to keep it. I have no interest in Delhi, actually, so I'd rather sit here on the concrete floor, blog and wait for 2 hours to pass so that my new SIM card will be activated and I'll have internet. I managed to withdraw some rupees which I absolutely love the look of, buy an adapter and have the first vegetable biryani (not awesome – airport food). My fellow yoginis will arrive from Berlin around 5 in the morning, so I still have 6 hours to while away. Probably won't even try to get any sleep, but we'll see. It will apparently be a rather gruelling drive to Haridwar, but perhaps sleeping in the car would still be easier than on the airport where the music is blaring and I need to entangle myself in my stuff to have peace of mind that nothing will be taken while I'm off in slumberland. So, probably just gonna watch some Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Or try to sleep. Or both.

Hippie camp at Delhi airport. Thanks, Vodafone, for the electricity!

So, this is Lilje in India. One more Level Up! Over and out.

 Next stop: Santosh Puri ashram, yoga and peace. Om shanti <3