My Taj Mahal Experience

Greetings from one of the most famous and most photographed places in India. 

Our train was a couple hours late arriving at the station in Agra so our Taj time was cut short but I still managed to get some decent shots. Except one. I started doing a handstand and was stopped by a guard. Apparently you can only stand upright for pictures here. 

The money shot, sans scaffolding

Taj Mahal translated from Arabic means Crown Palace, which is misleading because no one actually lived here. Quite the opposite, actually. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the mausoleum built in 1632 to house his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal. He was later buried there as well. 

I always thought it was just the white centerpiece and surrounding four towers topped with minarets but the complex encompasses 42 acres and several other structures. It's flanked by two red sandstone structures on each side; one is a mosque and the other is thought to be a guest house. It took 20,000 workers over 20 years to complete the project and would cost 52.8 billion rupees ($827 million USD) by today's currency (source: wikipedia). 

One of the reasons for this insane pricetag is that all the colored details are not painted but in fact it is inlayed marble. No wonder this incredible piece of architecture is a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Don't forget to look down

Don't forget to look down

Kerala, India

Our last day off was spent in the neighboring district of Kerala, India. We left the ashram at 5 AM and got to see the sun rise on the road. We drove through the famous Kerala forest where it's rumored you can see elephants and leopards but we only saw deer and birds. The greenery surrounding us for several miles on each side was lush and lovely. 

We arrived at Lincy's beautiful home for a special breakfast that included her famous curried eggs. (She helped prepare the Onam meal for us at the Ashram the previous week.) After some food and some hospitality, we headed off to the Banasura Sagar Dam. Surrounded by the water and the mountains, we practiced some yoga poses and discovered a family swing park in the nearby woods. We could fit two at a time on the swings and at one point a guy plopped his kid on my and Amanda's laps for photos. It was so cute/awkward because the kid clearly was not as excited about this encounter as his dad. 

Then we had perfect timing when arriving at a tea plantation as the ladies who pick the tea were coming in to process their bags full of leaves. They were so friendly and most of them balanced the loads on their heads. Its a great reminder of how much work in a land far, far away goes into your morning cup of tea. 

After that we stopped at stupid lake, which paled in comparison to the dam, and I was starting to get 'hangry' so our next mission was lunch. We stopped at a local restaurant and had a bit spicier food than we were used to at the ashram. All six of us were stuffed for about $20 USD. Then I indulged in Cardamom flavored ice cream that came served in a little clay pot. 

The day lingered on as we visited a dilapidated old Jain temple and did a bit of shopping before finally returning to the ashram around 7 PM. So went our 14-hour day off. 

Mysore, India & Namdroling Monastery/Golden Temple

I spent two Mondays off in Mysore city and they were both fantastic. Compared to what I've seen on TV and other peoples' own tales of India Travel, it seems like Diet India - cleaner, less crowded and slightly less chaotic, than your typical tourist city like Mumbai or Delhi. 

I enjoyed some relaxing massages at a spa called Windflower and visited some local sites like the temples, the cow and the palace. We also had an interesting experience traipsing through a traditional Indian market, complete with seller-stalkers that followed us all the way to our cab, trying to sell us trinkets. 

Mysore is a famous spot for all the Ashtanga yogis, so there were tons of cute yoga-themed shops and other ahsrams/teacher training facilities. We stocked up on snacks, essential oils and supplements at Dhatu, a mini, Mysore version of Whole Foods Market. 

I could go on, but I think the pictures can say more than I can type. 

During our second trip, we drove to the Namdroling [Tibetan Buddhist] Monastery aka the Golden Temple in Bylakuppe. The sights and sounds here were incredible - one of the most inspiring places I've ever been. We arrived during one of their prayer times, so we heard the chanting of hundreds of monks ranging from like 8 - 80 years old. The deep voices were accompanies by deep gongs and the sound traveled through your ears and straight to your soul. It was almost mesmerizing. Not to mention the temples were ornately decorated with ginormous, golden Buddha statues, a rainbow of colors & murals and intricate carvings. I am officially adding Tibet to my travel list! 

Yoga Boot Camp Week 3

The teacher training definitely got kicked up a notch this week so I'm upgrading it from summer camp to boot camp. 

Monday was our second day off and our second day spent in town in Mysore. (But more about that in a separate post.) 

Tuesday was back to our regularly scheduled yoga program starting with 6 AM meditation. After that, I had to sit off to the corner of the class by myself in what felt like yoga time-out, doing my own, gentler practice since my shoulder/bicep still wasn't fully healed. It was so frustrating seeing everyone else do asanas that I know I can do but just not at that particular moment with my almost-healed injury. 

That afternoon, I taught my first official class. Our total group of 15 was split into five smaller groups and we each take turns teaching our sub-groups in the afternoon. We were instructed to pick a team name and I suggested The Chakras, which sounds like a hipster band name, and everyone else liked as well. I even drew us a quick team logo: a five pedaled lotus. I volunteered to teach first mostly because it would be easier on my injury and give it maximum healing time. Our teachers observed our classes with emphasis on Sanskrit names & pronunciation, time management and posture corrections. I envisioned they would be standing there all serious with a clipboard and a pen, taking notes and staring at us intently but they just kind of wandered in and out of each class, sometimes doing their own asanas and just listening with a few glances here and there. 

So there was definitely room for improvement but overall I felt pretty good about my popping my yoga teaching cherry. I need to learn the Sanskrit asana names better and and I think I need to slow down and be a bit more confident. But I got a lot of positive feedback from the rest of the chakras during the recap discussion. Honestly I was a bit nervous before I started but once I finished, it wasn't so intimidating any more. 

Wednesday was ok but Thursday I hit a metaphorical wall. Not sure why but I woke up in a bad mood and everything hurt and the morning practice just seemed to be a collection of all my least liked postures. Extra sun salutations, extra core, extra hip flexer openers. By the end of the class my blood was boiling and I know my negative energy was palpable. At one point I unconsciously yet very audibly slapped my thighs out of pure frustration, stuck somewhere between standing prayer position and forward fold. (A friend told later me she noticed during class and started laughing. Then I started laughing so I'm glad I was at least entertaining to others during my mini tantrum.) 

But I couldn't stop it. I think all the pressure and stress and emotion slowly accumulates all week until it reaches a tipping points and spills out onto the mat. Everyone I talked to seemed to have at least one day a week like that. 

After that, I was back on the upswing and definitely had more energy and a more positive attitude towards my practice. Sunday night was a full moon so we had a chanting session outside complete with percussion. We went thru several rounds of the usual Sanskrit selections then we mixed it up with people taking turns leading the group to sing their countries' own indigenous moon-related songs. Represented in the international mash up was Norwegian, French and English. But Team English was pretty weak sauce with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. The first American Moon song that came to my mind was Bad Moon On the Rise by Creedance Clearwater Revival but I didn't know all the words and would hate to insult Mr. Fogerty with my own inferior rendition. 

I found the lectures on Chakras this week particularly interesting. Basically, they are 7 points of Prana energy concentration located kinda sorta along your spine. Each one is associated with different adjectives and affects different parts of the anatomy. Whether you believe the theory or not, focusing on these points definitely helps with focus and meditation. 

But hands down, the highlight of this week was our Onam Festival celebration at the Ashram. Onam is celebrated in August in Kerala, South India in honor of King Mahabali. For us, that meant dressing up for a special brunch feast on a banana leaf, singing, dancing, a gorgeous flower carpet and games like draw the bindi on the forehead (an Indian version of pin the tail on the donkey). It was so much fun! 

One of my favorite aspects of being here is the shared sense of community. 

Its like a cycle - not necessarily with everyone paying back their kindness debt to the one from whom they received it, but more often paying it forward. Maybe the kindness passes through a few other people first before it comes back to you. Hey, that kinda sounds like Karma.

Everyone just wants to help everyone else out. Steph asked her mother in law to bring me some specific meds from Australia that we couldn't get in India. Rama gave me some Ayurvedic lip balm. Clem gave me an amazing shiatsu treatment when my shoulder was sore. Amanda did a Reike energy reading for me. Chand shared his contraband stash of chocolate. I picked up Joi's body scrub in town for her from the spa in Mysore. I shared my ibuprofen with Chand and Caroline. Caroline and Steph gave me natural oil for my dry hair. I am going to attempt to draw a mandala tattoo for Amanda. Joi introduced me to the awesomeness of essential oils. Oh and I'm working on a new logo for the ashram. 

Everyone shares everything and sincerely wants to contribute. I can kind of see the appeal of hippie communes in the 60s. But all it takes is one person taking advantage of the system to ruin it. 


Yoga Summer Camp Week 2

I know my last post made it seem like this place is all sunshine, soft breezes and butterflies, and there is plenty of these things, but it's also quite challenging. Not just physically but mentally and emotionally as well. 

Several people have collapsed on their mats and cried, and some wait til they get behind the closed doors of their rooms before they let it out. Something is sore at any given time and several people take naps during the mid day free time to be able to make it through the afternoon. 

We are fully engaged from before the sun comes up until well after the sun goes down. And we are confined to the ashram 6 days a week, with only one day off when we can rest here or take a taxi elsewhere. 

And meditation is hard. You know the myriad of modern distractions the world has to offer, so it's very challenging to block literally everything else out and just be quiet and alone. And you're constantly thinking "Am I doing this right? I bet everyone else is blissfully meditant except me who's swatting at flies and Mosquitos and constantly adjusting her legs because they're going numb." Probably not, but I don't know because my eyes are closed and I don't have telepathic powers like my favorite childhood superhero, Jean Gray. 

It's mostly summer camp with a dash of school mixed in because we take notes and have to study for exams. Our first test is on anatomy, which I really enjoy learning more about. Since I double-majored in marketing and Communication, there wasn't much time left for science so I only took the basic required Biology and Chemistry in college. 

On Friday I had a breakthrough. I was able to go up into headstand with straight legs, as opposed to bending the knees in close to the stomach first for more leverage. I was so excited to discover I had acquired "almost abs" and subsequently the strength to pull my legs up vertically. With more practice, this newfound skill will help further both my forearm and hand stands. (I was on an asana accomplishment high and actually went back to the studio later that afternoon for more core work. And if you read my last post, you know that previously core exercises drove me into a silent rage.) 

Only later in the day did I realize that the night before I had been focusing on my Manipura chakra as I drifted off to sleep. This is the third (from the bottom) of seven concentrated energy (prana) areas believed to be in the body. The Manipura is associated with vision, feet and digestion, all things I have issues with, so I figured it couldn't hurt to try to get some good vibes going there. It's situated in the spine behind the navel, the chakra closest to my lower abs, which is where I found that extra strength today. Now obviously I'm not saying this is causation because I've also been pushing my practice forward for 5 months but I think it's a bit more than coincidence. 

Chanting that night was also more enjoyable and a handful of folks even got up and started dancing. I was content to stay seated on the floor clapping but I may feel the urge to move around more during one of the later chanting sessions. 

This weekend was like a rollercoaster in the dark; several unforeseen highs and lows. As high as I was from my newfound ability on Friday, I crashed a bit on Sunday when I woke up with pain concentrated in my right bicep. It only hurt when I contracted it, so I figured I'd modify any of the asanas that required me bending at the elbow, namely sun salutations. So instead of chaturanga and cobra, I just held plank instead for two extra counts (Because, you know, I love ab work so much now.) 

I could do pretty much everything else with straight arms. I didn't feel much pain during the morning session but afterwards, the pain steadily snowballed all day until it reached critical mass during the last afternoon session and by then it had spread to my shoulder as well. I almost reached a breaking point on my mat, due more to the frustration of not being able to perform up to my usual self-imposed standards rather than the pain itself. I shut my eyes tight during the relaxation but one stubborn read managed to squeeze out of the corner of my right eye and roll down my cheek. I had been trying to avoid having to take any meds and just work through the inevitable muscle soreness but I had to take an ibuprofen before dinner. 

Oh and by the way, we also had our (unnecessarily stressful) anatomy test that afternoon as well. It was in the wall-less, open dining hall which is usually so relaxing, letting the perfect amount of breeze roll through unobstructed, except today of all days when we experienced what I'm fairly certain qualifies as our first monsoon. In the middle of the exam, we had to scramble to move ourselves and the tables and chairs to drier, more central parts of the hall. And the temperature dropped so much that my fingers started going numb as I wrote down my answers. All angles of this were just miserable, including the exam itself. Then even after the rain is gone, you have to worry about mud and puddle traps that spring up across the ashram grounds like liquid land mines waiting to explode all over your clean(ish) clothes. 

Anyways, Sunday night after dinner (with dessert - a weird dessert with inedible pieces of wood in it - but it still counts!) we headed to the smaller studio next to the dining hall for a talent show. Long story short, the talent show on our schedule was planned for the last night of teacher training in September but I guess they wanted to do one for the last night of the two week yoga immersion that was happening simultaneously as well. I had recorded some funny thoughts here and there in my phone but felt nowhere near ready when I was asked to participate prematurely in this one. I decided to just go with what I already had and asked to perform somewhere in the middle or end. 

It was a nice mix of talents from the group. One girl sang a beautiful, traditional Norwegian song, one girl

Read her favorite poem in her perfect British accent, a few others read poems and the most adorable German couple sang a few songs with their eukalele, shaker and small cymbals. Then it was my turn. I had a few key words scrawled on my hand and hoped for the best. I had about 10 jokes and an impression and was relieved/delighted that I had to pause so many times to wait for everyone to stop laughing. It was nice to hear especially since everything else we do at the ashram tends to be more on the serious side. Afterwards, so many people came up and complimented/congratulated me. I sincerely appreciated it and the attention made my heart flutter but I'm really bad at receiving compliments so I usually follow it up with something self-deprecating like "This is just what goes on in my head. That's why I'm so bad at meditating." 

(A lot of people said they wished someone had recorded it and/or that I needed to do it again and record it. So if there is indeed a subsequent performance, the video will end up on my blog.) 

But speaking of meditation, one quick anecdote. On our first day of class, Krishna had promised chocolate cake to anyone who could count up to 108 breaths then count backwards back to zero (so 216 breaths total) during morning meditation. "Challenge accepted" I thought to myself. Because I'll do almost anything for cake. 

I was finally to accomplish this task with the help of some wooden prayer beads I bought in town for just 100 rupees. It's a long string of 108 normal beads then one extra with a tassel at the end. (Ages ago it was the inspiration for the Catholic rosary.) giving my hands something to do actually helps my mind focus more. So I told Krishna in class earlier that week that I had met his challenge and to my pure joy and amazement he actually followed through and I enjoyed a dense and delicious slice of chocolate cake after dinner on Sunday. (And even shared it with a few friends in my immediate vicinity even though I could have inhaled it all myself.) 

I had some trouble falling asleep that night, probably a combination of the positive reception of my performance and that fact that tomorrow was our second day off, which I was looking forward to spending at the Golden Temple and in town back in Mysore. 

Finally, a decent sun set!  

Finally, a decent sun set!  

Our expert chant leaders  

Our expert chant leaders  

Class time

Class time


Welcome to Yogi Summer Camp

When you're a kid, going away to a special spot surrounded by nature its called summer camp. When you do it as an adult, it's called a retreat. I'm somewhere in between here at Ayur- Yoga Eco Ashram located about an hour outside of Mysore in Southern India. (You know you're getting close when there are more cows than cars on the road.) 

It took 5 terrifying hours to get here from the Bangalore airport in the middle of the night but once I arrived, and had a nap, I realized I am in my own personal paradise. 

The Ashram is spread out over several acres on a grassy slope that leads down to a river. The dining hall is at the top of the hill above a small studio and about 20 cabins. The main  octagon-shaped studio looks like a giant gazebo and is situated down closest to the water with panoramic windows and a red, concrete floor. The rest of the land belongs to nature and is a mixture of organic fruits and vegetables, trees and flowers. (They grow a lot of our food here as well.) There are colorful clumps of flowers dispersed like confetti across the grass. Butterflies come in just as many colors as and mingle erratically with the flora. Seriously, I don't remember the last time I saw so many free flying butterflies. They're everywhere. 

Although it's August and the rainy season, the weather is still pretty incredible. It's often cloudy and rains intermittently throughout the day, which causes the horizon to disappear into a haze in all directions. Sometimes if the clouds dissipate enough, you can see the silhouettes of the hills in the distance and heaps of palm trees in front of them. And once in a while, we'll be treated an incredible view of the night sky when the clouds feel like giving the stars a little time to shine. The temperature hovers around a perfect 80 during the day and drops just enough to need a light hoodie or sweatshirt at night. 

Our cabins are the perfect size and level of comfort. There are singles and doubles and they are adorably constructed, almost fairy-take like. The beds are ful- sized, as opposed to twin-sized, and the pillows, sheets and mattresses are all clean & comfortable. We have a large cabinet to share as well as a desk and a nightstand. The bathroom has a toilet capable of flushing toilet paper and the shower has hot water, supplied by a solar powered heater! There is a small porch out front where you can read, admire the view or hang your wet, bucket-washed clothes to dry. 

So here's a typical day at yogi summer camp. 

Someone walks around with a wake up bell at 5:30. I'm already up because I always wake up at 5. I'm usually braiding my hair by the time the bell gets to my cabin. 

Meditation led by Swami Prabodh starts in the gazebo at 6 AM, for which we all wear white clothes. It's kind of cultish but kind of cool at the same time. I didn't have room for any whites in my rucksack so I was happy to scavenge some from a bag of clothes left behind by previous students. I got an embroidered tunic and linen drawstring pants with two little wooden balls on the ends of the strings that fit very comfortably. 

Mediation lasts 30 minutes. Everything is still pretty dimly lit at dawn when we start and by the time we're done, the sun is up and the sky is bright. I'm still struggling to find the perfect position that doesn't make one of my legs go numb. It looks easy from the outside but being alone with yourself and your thoughts is one of the hardest things to do. 

At 6:30 we have the option to walk up to the dining hall and have a "hot drink." It not quite tea - just hot water with some natural flavoring a like lemon or ginger. After a few minutes it's time to head back to the cabin and change for morning yoga practice led by Vinod which starts at 7 AM and lasts two hours. Vinod is like a compact-sized, shaved-bald basketball player with lean muscles and the most animated personality. An incredible & admirable teacher. 

Every day is different but one things remains constant: sun salutations. I hate the way we are taught to do them here - seems choppier and more awkward than the vinyasa flow that I learned back home. I can't help but get angrier with each repetition. I think our record so far has been 20 in a row, which is more like 40 because you do the same sequence on each leg. Thankfully they're always at the beginning so after we get them over with, I am on a steady incline towards bliss at the end of the practice. (Unless we do core work, then I'm a bit angry again, lol.)

During practice and meditation, there is no music. Just the birds and crickets trying to out-chirp one another. 

After class everyone makes their way back to the dining hall for Breakfast. I think the dining hall is intentionally uphill, as far away as possible from the studio to give us more exercise. We have to earn those meals! We grab our round, metal trays and progress down the line to fill up the four sections buffet style. The general formula is: raw veggies that they define as a salad, a protein dish containing lentils or chickpeas or beans, chapati, some kind of other veggie dish and your choice of milk tea or ginger lemon tea. 

Oh and quiet time is from 10 PM til 10 AM so we are silent until after breakfast, which is actually pretty nice. When you're not distracted by other people, you notice so much else. For instance, there are so many birds and butterflies fluttering around that it feels like I'm in a vintage Disney movie. 

Ten thirty marks the beginning of our first class, Yoga Sutras, with Swami. P. He's like a brown, balding, gray-bearded yoda/smigel that tends to talk in circles. We sit, constantly shifting and fidgeting, on mats and cushions on the floor and he sits perfectly cross-legged facing us at the front of the room and delivers esoteric lectures on subjects like consciousness, detachment and the correct meaning of I. Sometimes it's hard to stay awake so I maintain my own consciousness by massaging my feet. Then students are allowed to ask questions and he sorta-but-not-really answers them and lastly we have to chant the 51 Samadhi Pada  yoga sutras in Sanskrit at the end. (Basically the same themes and ideas from the movie Avatar.) 

Free time starts after class, about noon. You can either do some extra asana practice, read, take a walk or take a nap. At 1:30 lunch is served which is fruit and fruit juice. Everything tastes so fresh and so clean (clean) and the selection is different everyday. My favorites have been pomegranate, papaya, mango, this rice/rice flake/banana mixture and drinking coconut water straight from local coconuts with a straw. 

Our next and more technical class Yoga Anatomy & Physiology (and a bit of history) starts at 2:30 led by Krishna. He's tall and sinewy with a short black ponytail, glasses and shorter grating beard. His toes are well separated and his voice slow and soothing - pretty much the ideal image of a yoga guru. This is where we learn how yoga affects, interacts with and often improves the systems of the body. It's very interesting and practical advice and information. 

Our last class of the day is a teaching workshop at 4:30, again led by Vinod, where we examine a few asanas (poses) at a time in more depth. We discuss the common corrections you need to help students make, injuries that can prevent someone from doing them and their overall affect on the body. It typically ends with us splitting into pairs and teaching each other.

Then it's finally dinner time at seven o'clock and we all trudge back up to the dining hall for the fourth and final time that day. The selection is similar to breakfast and some random days it includes a small dessert. Dessert days are my favorite days of course. The food has ranged from ok to incredible but my tummy hasn't felt this good in a long time, so that's the best part. 

Some nights there are activities after dinner like watching a video or chanting with instruments. The videos have been an interesting supplement to our daily schedule but I still can't say I enjoy the chanting. 

By this time it's getting late, and by late I mean 9 PM so I try to squeeze in a quick hot shower and some reading before bed. I am beyond grateful for this incredible experience. 


Namaste, y'all!

What? Is this real life? I just got accepted to AyurYoga Eco-Ashram in Mysore, India for 200 hours Yoga Alliance Certification. I start in August as a student and emerge 28 days later as a legit yogi. 

This will be me in a few months, except with less facial/chest hair and more clothing... 

This will be me in a few months, except with less facial/chest hair and more clothing... 

Ok I guess I should provide a little context for this decision that seems to have appeared a little out of the blue. I've actually been doing yoga classes sporadically for several years since about 2007. It's kind of a vicious cycle: get really stressed from school and/or work. Start doing yoga classes to bring some balance (literally and figuratively) back into my life. Start getting busy again & decide I don't have time for it anymore. Then I reach a tipping point again and force myself back onto my mat. 

I finally broke that cycle when I quit my corporate job in March. As soon as I got back from my South Pacific trip, I signed up for a month of unlimited classes at my locally acclaimed Red Pearl Yoga studio and enjoyed practicing almost every day since. In this short amount of time, I've noticed several positive physical, mental and emotional changes, that I know will only get better and deeper with more practice. 

So I figured, why not commit 100% and get certified at the source? After researching about 10 different retreats and schools across India and Southeast Asia, I selected this one based on my preferences, my gut instinct and my budget. 

AyurYoga Eco-Ashram is a 20 acre organic farm situated on the banks of the river Kabini in Mysore district in India. Traditional, Hatha yoga six days a week and three vegetarian meals a day without the burden of modern technologies? Yes, please!