How I got to Istanbul

Istanbul on mapThere are times in one’s life when you meet someone, even very briefly, and there is a mutual sense of maybe knowing one another without any explicitly shared history, of having an inexplicable connection or resonance, of a simple smile of some recognition while passing one another in a stairwell. Not that anything much is made of it at the time…Mahaprajapati nunnery the only immediately registered feeling may be just a little bit of curiosity. This describes my encounters with Birsen while we were both at the Sakyadita Conference on Women in Buddhism this past January. We did not even talk together that much at the conference, but at the end of it we exchanged email addresses. When I told her of my travels she insisted on my coming to visit her in Istanbul if I ended up coming through Europe.

It was over four months after the conference while I was in Cambodia that I started to entertain the notion of traveling back to the US through Europe. It all started when I found out about the sesshin in Stockholm with Tenshin Reb Anderson. I started making preliminary inquiries. I emailed Birsen and told her I was thinking of it. Within a few minutes she emailed me back saying how uncanny it was: she had been talking about our meeting at Sakyadita and the inexplicable connection between us just the day before with a friend! Needless to say, the response I got from my inquiry was more than enough for me to book a flight from Stockholm. Birsen encouraged me to come stay for at least two months(!), but unfortunately that was way more time than I had for this trip. It would have to just under two weeks instead…

I flew from Stockholm through Riga and into Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen International airport (named after the first female combat pilot in the world, and first president of Turkey, Mustafa Attaturk’s adopted daughter). I met Birsen at her apartment in the Moda district of Kadikoy (on the Asian side of Istanbul) and was totally taken care of from that point onwards! First of all, her apartment was absolutely beautiful in its location four stories up and overlooking a park and the Sea of Marmara:

She knew I had been living at Tassajara for years and was traveling on a low budget, and she wanted me to enjoy her country and stay safe. To that end she got me a sim card for my phone so that I could call her if I ever needed to, she booked tickets for my travel to Mako in bedroomcentral Anatolia so that I could visit more of Turkey than just the city, she made me food and brought home all sorts of treats, like Turkish delights and a whole variety of Baklavas, and she even gave me her own bedroom to stay in while she took the smaller room of her apartment! But most wonderfully of all, she welcomed me into her network of family and friends and took me all over the place with her. She insisted that it was all a part of normal Turkish hospitality, but after getting to know her a little more I could tell that her generosity and good will came from an even deeper place.

Bodhisattva paintingAs a young Turkish woman growing up in a traditional family in Istanbul she really broke out of the box. Spiritual seeker from the time she moved out on her own, she met a poet and teacher of meditation who introduced her to Buddhist practice and Zen in particular. She eventually started her own business in the city with her younger sister, but that did not deter her from traveling to assortment of world religion conferences and events in India, China, and other places, even being invited to several as a dignitary from Turkey. Indeed, she was the first Turkish person to attend the Sakyadita conference where we met in January.

We stayed up fairly late talking that evening (and many others) and in the morning we had our first breakfast together, which made me simply fall in love with Turkey:Breakfast with Birsen

Over the course of my time there I was on my own a lot during the day because Birsen had to work (being the head of her own company). With Birsen's relationsAt night we would sometimes go for dinners and outings with her sister Nursen and sometimes with Auntie Shardaman and Uncle Ali (who were staying in her mother’s apartment nearby while she was on vacation). It was always wonderful to see them as they were always so loving (despite the language barrier), and showed their love by feeding me delicious foods each time we met. And, on weekends (of which I had only two, regrettably) we would go on various trips into Kadikoy or across the Bosphorus to the European side of Istanbul, either just the two of us or with friends and/or relatives. dinner at Birsen's

On our first Sunday afternoon Birsen arranged to have a meditation session and discussion with a few of her friends at her apartment. In the morning we went into Kadikoy for some shopping and returned with all kind of delicious Turkish sweets. When her friends arrived we all chatted for a bit before moving the furniture around and placing assorted cushions down to sit upon. After a forty minute period of zazen (all of them had sat before) we sat and talked in the living room before eventually going out onto the balcony for cake, tea, and the sumptuous pastries… Post meditation teaDuring the time that I was communicating with Birsen over email before my arrival I had become aware of the riots and turmoil that had broken out in the city over discontent with the Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government. The catalyst appeared to be over the government’s decision to tear down valued parks for the erection of barracks and commercial buildings, but Birsen told me that the fundamental reason for the protests were that the current government had become increasProtesters from Yogurtcu Parkingly religiously conservative, seeming to set the country back from the original reforms put in place by the first president of the country, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. During that first wave of riots the police used teargas, water cannons, and even machetes to disperse the crowds. Four people were killed and 7,500 wounded. When I asked Birsen about the danger of coming to visit and asked about her and her family’s safety she assured me that things were fine where they were. And while I was there it appeared to be so, even though there were a few times when we could hear protesters marching and chanting in the nearby Yoğurtçu Park.

Over the course of the next few weeks Birsen and I would get to know each other better and better, sharing our stories and photos and lives with one another. I found her to be an amazing and inspiring woman, and will be forever grateful for our developing friendship as well as for the incredible hospitality that she offered to me. She absolutely made my trip to Turkey something to be treasured, and hopefully the next few posts will be the proof of that!

Catching up with a friend

I had only one full day to spend with my friend from Tassajara, Joanne, who was about to embark on a several week long hike along the King’s Trail in northern Sweden (where the sun doesn’t bother to set at all this time of year). Culture shocked makoUnfortunately, unlike the last eight days I had spent in Sweden, this last day was filled with a cold and relentless rain. That did not stop us from going out, but our day was characterized by running from cafe to market to restaurant to bookshop so as to avoid getting soaked. Neither of us had an umbrella, but she did lend me an overcoat, which helped me to blend into my new but temporary environment. The rest of the day was spent in her sweet but really tiny apartment where we sipped on many cups of tea and had a chance to catch up a little bit after not being in contact for the past nine months.

We started off our day with a nice breakfast at Joanne’s favorite coffee shop. Then we paid a visit to the covered urban market with its chic and boutique food stalls and gorgeous and sometimes gruesome displays of everything from pastries to cheeses to fishheads and gigantic slabs of reindeer.

After the market we made it out to a restaurant near the opera (I think the place was even called “Opera Cafe”) for a classic Swedish meal that you might find a far lesser version of served at an Ikeas. Marty, a good Tassajara friend and significant contributor to the Tassajara Work Periods had sent me a generous donation and wanted to treat Joanne and I to a nice meal out while I was visiting her in Stockholm. Well our meal was very nice and we took our time with it in the charismatic little cafe safe from the near constant drizzle happening outdoors. Joanne at OperaWhen it was time to pay the bill I nearly passed out from astonishment, for Stockholm was NOT CHEAP! Needless to say, Joanne and I had a recurring conversation about class, consumerism, and wealth (or lack of it) that afternoon as well as about where we were and what was next in our lives. When we got back to her apartment we had a brief little Skype call with Marty, and it was really sweet just to hear his voice. Actually, it gave me a strong pang of sadness about not being at Tassajara any longer and made me really miss it. How many people feel this way about Tassajara, I wondered.  While traveling over the past near-year I had been exposed to so much, variety: of people, cultures, practices, and lifestyles, that I did not have so much room to even think of Tassajara. But sitting sesshin with Reb, spending time with Joanne, and hearing Marty’s voice really hit me. Tassajara, and even the San Francisco Zen Center were no longer my home and I did not even know where my next home would be, even though I had an idea. Sad as it made me feel, it was really good to reflect upon such questions during that inestimable but short little excursion to Sweden…Crazy Joanne

Joanne and I continued out conversations until well into the night, each of us packing for our respective next journeys. In the morning we headed out to the airport together and said our farewells in the train. Neither of us knew when our paths would cross again, but somewhere, sometime…

Happy Birthday and goodbye

At the end of sesshin Reb, Liselotte, Samir and I headed back to Stockholm to eventually meet up and have dinner with Joanne who had finished her Qigong retreat and was back at her apartment. We spent a little time at Samir’s apartment where I got to peek into his one-person zendo and see an old photo of him and Reb, both in robes.

Afterwards we did a little drive-by sightseeing and eventually stopped at one of the many waterfronts looking out over the Baltic sea. I don’t know how the others were feeling, but I was delighted just to have some time after sesshin to just hang out with Reb doing nothing in particular. And it was fun to see a little more of the city on yet another beautiful mid-summer evening in Sweden. Liselotte Samir Reb


Reb walking in stockholm Eventually we made it to dinner in an outdoor plaza (apparently the Swedes understandably take every possible opportunity to sit outdoors during the summer months) and met up with Joanne and Marie (Samir’s friend and ex-wife) there. After we ordered our food Reb shared with us a beautiful line drawing that one of the sesshin participants had done, illustrating some of the teachings over the course of the sesshin as well as the story of the lost luggage…

We lingered over dinner, recounting stories from life & travels & sesshin & retreat and generally enjoying the time spent with good company until the topic of ice-cream came up.  We made a plan to meet bReb's birthday icecreamack at Joanne’s place, and she went off to procure some while we took our time to get there. Once we were settled at her apartment I was let in on a little secret (at least, it was a secret to me), which was that it was Reb’s birthday! A single candle was placed into his bowl of ice cream and lit for the occasion, and yes, we did sing the horrible “Happy Birthday” song to him as well… Sorry, Reb… Shortly thereafter we said goodbye as he and Samir returned to what Samir called “Reb’s apartment in Stockholm.” He was to fly out of Stockholm for Berlin on the following morning, and I had one day in Stockholm before flying to Istanbul. I did not know when I would be able to see him again, or where. But what I did know was that it was precious to be able to spend that time with one of my beloved teachers, both in sesshin and out, and on such an auspicious occasion. I was very lucky indeed…

Shopping for food for sesshin

Ok, I have tried to visit markets in the various places I have traveled to, and while this is technically more of a super-market, I could not help but take some photos, if only for contrast to what I have posted earlier. Talk about culture-shock! Especially the food-in-tubes…

At one point in our shopping spree Petter pointed out the “American” shelf. Fellow Americans should be able to identify this as the equivalent to an “Asian” or “Mexican” section in a run-of-the-mill grocery store in America (depending on what region of the US you shop in, of course). Notice the random assortment of products on this shelf… Snapple, Jiffy, Swiss Miss, Coke… but have you ever seen “Fluff” before?

Travel Plans and a Sesshin in Fellingsbro, Sweden

forest floorAfter traveling for the past nine months across various countries from southeast Asia through the Indian subcontinent it felt like I had somehow just  found myself mainland Europe! When Graham and I first set off on this trip I had hoped to be able to travel for a year, but I actually had no intention to go to Europe at all. For one thing, I was particularly interested in visiting cultures that were further afield from the one I had spent most of my life in, and I did not really consider Europe so different. entry buddhaAlso, part of the intention of this trip was for pilgrimage: to experience and practice within other forms and traditions of Buddhism and to visit both the birthplace and spread of my chosen spiritual path. I was also vaguely concerned about the heat and monsoon of Asia, especially in India, although as I previously mentioned, I would have been thrilled to revisit friends there that I had made earlier on in the trip, especially in Kerala. And as much as I hate to admit it, traveling alone in India was a little daunting, especially on a shoestring budget where the choice of accommodation usually involves the more seedy areas of places. kobakoAnd perhaps for an equally compelling reason, I considered Europe far too expensive, and there was no way my ideal budget of $15/day would allow for it. But, I was going where the wind was blowing me, and when I received a message that one of my Zen teachers, Tenshin Reb Anderson, was leading a sesshin in Sweden and that they were looking for someone to help in the kitchen, I contacted Liselotte the coordinator and before I knew it I had booked myself on a plane from Delhi to Stockholm. clouds and fieldsThere were other factors, of course. I had to make my way back to the US eventually (although a strong part of me wanted to continue traveling for as long as I could, staying longer in places and going deeper in my explorations). I had several friends in Europe with whom I could stay, and I had even met a few fellow travelers over the course of the trip who strongly encouraged me to visit them if I were to come through Europe. ManjusriWhile I was in Cambodia and agonizing over the whole decision-making process my dear friend Beth Goldring of the Brahmavihara Cambodia AIDS Project gave me tremendous encouragement, even going as far as to offer me a loan if I needed one! And so, when my friend Joanne first sent me the email about the sesshin in Sweden it set into motion a whole swirl of possibilities… I emailed some people inquiring about their whereabouts, availability, and interest in hosting me over the late summer months and gradually a course was charted across the continent. At the time of my decision to take up the offer to cook for the sesshin in Sweden I also planned to visit a friend in Istanbul that I had made at the Sakyadita conference in Bihar, India back in January. Beyond that I was not sure what would happen, but I had a few zen friends in Europe that also encouraged me to visit them at some point. Just the first steps were all that was needed…flowers in foregroundIt was only when I first arrived in Sweden that I realized it was my first time on the European continent as an adult, and it felt really good to be there! On my second day I found myself in the cool crisp country air of Scandinavia along with twenty eight other sesshin participants plus Reb. The 9th annual Swedish sesshin with him leading it was held this year just a few hours outside of Stockholm in a rural area close to Fellingsbro, at a beautiful residential Zen center (of the Philip Kapleau lineage) called Zengarden. Zengarden signThe regular residents were taking their interim holidays and the zen group in Stockholm was fortunate enough to be able to rent the whole center for our sesshin. Liselotte, Samir, Reb, and I made the several hour journey together from Stockholm, and although I promptly fell asleep in the car, I later awoke to the slight rolling hills, rocky outcroppings, mixed deciduous and evergreen forest-land alongside fields of grain and wildflowers, and the occasional dark red and white trim farmhouse.

Coming from Asia, I was a little startled at the lack of people, noise, trash, and even other vehicles. How alien all those large, open, and impeccably pristine spaces seemed to me! micro forestAfter I got the chance to venture into the forest the land reminded me of Northern Ontario, with the seasonal struggle for life after a long dark winter. The greenery looked almost hesitant: as fresh and tender as if it had just emerged, unlike the thick deep frondery found in places like southern India or southeast Asia. I was reminded of a comment Graham made speaking of flora and fauna while in Indonesia: “It seems there’s no fallow time here. It’s relentless. When do things get the chance to rest?” And unlike the hardy and gnarled tropical vines and creepers extending out in every which way, I imagined these soft little mosses and ferns of the north as perpetually young and even tentative in their comparatively brief time on the earth.

It was a perfect place for a sesshin, and I was also just grateful for the opportunity to practice with Reb outside of Tassajara. It came complete with a zendo, large kitchen, dining hall, dorms, private rooms, office, rock gardens, and even a dokusan room with a formal waiting area (for face to face meetings with the teacher).

I would be working in the kitchen (my way of paying for the sesshin) with the Tenzo, Petter, and another worker, Per. The three of us would be responsible for preparing all of the meals and would receive help from some of the sesshin participants during the daily scheduled work period. Petter, Per, MakoOver the course of the week there were a lot of potatoes to be scrubbed and peeled as well as cheese to be grated and vegetables to be sliced and diced. Breakfasts always consisted of a hot cereal alongside muesli with yogurt, milk, a variety of seeds and nuts, lingonberries, honey, and a whole side table complete with a hearty hunk of cheese (Emmentaler, Swiss, Edam, or Havarti), various kinds of breads and crisps, bean spreads, and a wide selection of teas and coffee. Lunches were mostly soups and salads with grain, also with the massive cheese hunks and breads. And, as all but two of the residents were away for the month we were given access to the temple gardens: fresh lettuces, cilantro, dill, arugula for the finest tossed salads possible.

Halfway through sesshin Petter needed to go on a shopping trip and I asked to go with him to the “market.” That was a shock after sampling some of Asia’s markets over the past months! You know you are back in the western world when you find food that comes in a tube, giant warehouses of mostly processed foods, individually wrapped everything, and shopping carts so large they could house a family of four. “Aren’t there farmer’s markets around here?” I asked Petter. “No,” he replied, “only in the city.” I guessed that made some sense… there’s really not so many people out here to see your produce to, after all!Han instructionsEarly on in the sesshin I was given the opportunity to help with some of the forms and ceremonies as well (doan and tenken instrument training) even though I was never in service due to being in the kitchen. Zengarden kitchen altarTrying not to overstep my role as a kitchen helper, I was still able to make a few suggestions when asked, regarding basic kitchen practices as well as formal ones, like the use of the umpan (gong to call people to the meals). As there was an altar in the dining hall and a matching set of offering bowls in the cupboard underneath Petter, Per and I started having a meal offering and bows before breakfast and lunch. A few days into sesshin while cleaning the bowls Per looked underneath and there we found the words: “Form is emptiness” under one of the bowls and “Emptiness is form” under the other. Ah Zen, and the aesthetic of Zen! How delightful to discover such a thing days into sesshin!emptiness is formform is emptiness

Reb began the sesshin with the question about practicing within a worldly life, and how it is the ground of awakening. Through his words and with the aid of a variety of zen stories (as well as a story from the Brothers Grimm) he spoke on our original mind as a ceaselessly flowing river that cannot be grasped, and how through our conceptions and ideas and discriminations it is as if we build a road over that elusive flow, and then we find ourselves believing that our own creation is reality. I was reminded of my past month in the yoga teacher training in India, and particularly on some of the fundamental teachings from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra regarding our mental modifications and how they can be a trap which leads us far away from awakening to our true nature.zendoAs I referred to in an earlier post, when Reb first arrived in Stockholm we noticed that he was missing something: his rakusu, as well as all of his checked luggage! It turned out that British Airways had somehow lost his bag and he had been traveling for weeks without it, with no idea where it and all of its precious contents were located. Reb walking to zazenI say precious because among his personal effects he had been carrying a number of robes that students of his had sewn for both lay and priest ordinations that he was to officiate in the coming weeks during sesshin in Germany and England. Not only that, but his own robes were also in the luggage… quite priceless and irreplaceable robes that had belonged to Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and that had been given to him by his wife, Mitsu, many, many years ago. He spoke about his own practice with such a potential loss and how he himself was practicing with it many times throughout his Dharma talks. Needless to say, it was theZendo Altar flower longest time that I or any of the sesshin participants had ever seen Reb without a robe of any kind. I offered my own rakusu of course, but he graciously declined and said that he was wearing the robe of no-robe.

The story continued to unfold over the course of the sesshin, and eventually (after weeks of inquiries by many people on his behalf) he received word that his luggage had been found in the San Francisco Airport, where it had never left! After some more jerking around from the airline companies (yes, they had his luggage, but no he could not have it) Liselotte and Samir took a midnight trip out to the airport to retrieve it, which they were barely able to do. It was only in the last days of sesshin that he was able to once again wear his patched robes, and to be able to assure those who had spent months to years sewing their own ordination clothes that they would be able to formally receive them in their own tokudo ceremony.

One of the participants later sent out a set of seven haiku he composed after the sesshin:

7  haiku (the 7th is blank) – by Phillip Harris

Look at what you see – Appearances do deceive – Look another way.

Peck on the inside – And the outside will peck back – The shell disappears.

Rumpelstiltskin out, – In, out shake it all about – But where did he go?

Sit walk sit sit walk – Sit walk sit walk sit walk sit – Sit walk sit walk sit

Ordinary mind – Liberates words using words – Inconceivable!

To be free of them, – The priest lost his precious robes – Then the robes returned.

[                                                          ]

Jisha following RebThank you Joanne, for thinking of mentioning the opportunity to come cook for the sesshin in the first place. Thank you Liselotte and Samir, for taking such good care. Thank you Tenshin, for your teachings and your presence. May all beings discover their original face and open to the breadth and depth of the river beneath the road.zen friends Wendy at bus


Stockholm Zen Reception

After a grueling 32 hours of travel in which I went from a yoga teacher training in Bhagsu, India to Dharamsala to Delhi to Moscow and finally to Stockholm (in order to help cook for a sesshin there), I found myself in somewhat of an altered state upon arrival. Of course after spending the past nine months away from western culture I was sure that the fantastic ABBA display that accosted me upon first getting off the plane did not help matters! My first thought was something like, “Toto, we’re not in Asia anymore!”

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I was met at the airport by a long term zen practitioner, friend of Joanne Pirie (my Tassajara mate) and main coordinator of the sesshin I had come to cook for: Liselotte. We found each other easily and had a cup of tea in the airport while waiting for another plane to arrive. It turned out that Tenshin Reb Anderson, beloved Senior Dharma Teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center who was to be leadReb Samir Liselotte in Stockholming the sesshin would be flying in from Warsaw, Poland. Another long term zen practitioner and priest, Samir, also arrived at the airport in time for Reb’s arrival and whisked us to downtown Stockholm in his car. I say “whisk” because there was no waiting at baggage claim for Reb’s luggage as he didn’t really have anything except a small satchel. More on this later… After setting down what luggage we had at our respective apartments (Reb at Samir’s and Liselotte and I at Joanne’s) we all went out to a Lebanese dinner in the evening light of Stockholm.

I cannot even begin to describe how fantastic it was for me to see Reb after being out of Zen Center range for so long, and it was also just sweet to see him outside of that context and with some of his non Zen Center students. I thoroughly enjoyed the good company of Liselotte and Samir as well, and felt honored to be spending this time with all of them together. So, despite my sleep deprivation and immense travel fatigue it was a fun and lively evening for me. Both before and after dinner we managed to drive and walk around the city a little bit while talking and catching up a bit, and it was marvelous to see the beautiful old architecture and faded oranges, yellows, and browns of the elegant buildings. The bridges and waterways between the fourteen islands that make up the city were also spectacular, and I swear I have never seen a more impeccably clean urban area before! It was a bit of a shock to me as well, going from one of the poorest regions in the world to one of the wealthiest.

After dinner Liselotte and I walked back in the eerie nighttime light to Joanne’s apartment (she was on a Qigong retreat and not there) and turned in for the night. Even though the sun had set, it apparently did not get dark until almost midnight! After a much-needed (but far too short) sleep Liselotte and I got up, grabbed our bags, and went out for coffee and pastries at a nearby cafe that had some of the most beautiful cakes and confections on display.

After a leisurely breakfast we were picked up on the corner by Samir and Reb, and together we made the two hour trip out to Fellinsgsbro where the sesshin was to begin that afternoon. Of course I conked out once we were on the highway, only to wake up in a rural and rustic region of Sweden, complete with rolling hills, dark forested land, red farmhouses, and absolutely no one else in sight! It was a lot to take in after Asia, but I was very happy to be there, excited to be among zen friends again, and looking forward to jumping into sesshin!!!Fellingsbro

A day of celebrations, and then a flight out of India

Graduation ceremony with YogeshThe last week of the YTT course in Bhagsu, India was intense and exhausting, even though there was plenty of time given to us to prepare for our final exams and teaching practicum. It was also really sweet, as we had some more contemplative classes on topics like the role of giving as spiritual practice. We were finally able to have class outside in the lovely garden of Trimurti, and the few times the sun came out we all basked on the large boulder in front of the yogashala.

Our final exam would include a teaching demonstration where four of us were to give a two hour yoga class together to the remainder of the students. I was in a group that was to give a standard Hatha Yoga class. I had done so earlier in the class (less than a week ago), but for some reason I was less inspired this time around. The other part of our exam would be a written as well as oral portion where we were given forty questions ahead of time to prepare from. Questions like “explain the 8 limbs of yoga,” or “name the contraindications to these yoga postures,” or “what muscles joints, and tendons/ligaments are involved in these particular postures?” Sadie's tatooThey were fine study questions and deserved time to reflect on, but  I seemed to be having a little bit of anxiety unrelated to the exams and presentation, although I am sure they had an effect as well. As I mentioned in an earlier post, as soon as the course ended I needed to make my way back to Delhi from Dharamshala and board a plane to Stockholm, where one of my teachers from the San Francisco Zen Center, Tenshin Reb Anderson, would be leading a sesshin (and I would be cooking for it) in a country zen center two hours outside of the city. It was going to be a bit of a rush to get there after the course and I was aware that with the extreme downpours we had been having I really was cutting it close! I was also suffering a little bit from my greed. In leaving so quickly I was going to miss out on many things: from trekking to Triund with some friends who were staying on, to receiving teachings from HHDL at his home temple in exile (McLeod Ganj) over the week of his birthday, and even just sleeping in a little after a strenuous month of serious yoga practice!Post-teaching exam smiling

However, even though it had been raining and raining, on the last day of the course after our exams were over we had an unexpected opening in the heavens and a massive celebration as an end of our time together. Before our exams however it was fun to sit around Trimurti Garden with the others for a last minute cram session, reminding me of college days long gone by. Pre-exam cram After our exams we had a bit of a break for lunch and returned to find the yogashala transformed. Saraswati flowersThere were flowers scattered everywhere, candles, and the colorful yoga mats set out in a large circle for the students to take their places on. For the actual graduation ceremony each one of us in the course was called up to the front where a row of our teachers stood, and were given our diplomas amid cheers, applause, and photos. Mako with certificateBut not only were we to have a graduation ceremony, for immediately following it there would be a wedding! Two of the founders (and teachers) of BodhiTree International (currently changing its name to Trimurti Yoga) who although they had already been married for some time, had decided to have the Indian wedding ceremony that they never had! Karolina Sharma and Ajay Krawczyk, whom we had been cared for and taught by over the past month (from Poland and India respectively) were taking the opportunity to make their vows again in a festive rather than legal setting. Ajay’s family had even come up from Pune to attend, and  many of Karo and Ajay’s friends as well.

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A little after the wedding ceremony we had a combination graduation party and wedding reception out on the lawn of Trimurti, complete with cake, music, dancing, and of course the group photos:Yoga graduation photoYoga pose photoYes, we were all pretty giddy at that point, but the celebrations did not end there! There were plans for us all to meet later on for a last evening dinner party up the mountain at the “Trek & Dine” in Dharamkot. Unfortunately my travel fears were realized as I happened to check my flight status online, only to find that my flight from Dharmashala to Delhi had indeed been cancelled due to the inclement weather! I spent most of the time in between running around in Bhagsu trying to figure out if there was some other way to get to Delhi, by local bus if necessary, as the tourist bus had already departed and would not have gotten to the Delhi airport in time for my 4:30 am flight to Stockholm (a 13 hour bus ride no less!)… One of our teachers, Yogesh, tried diligently to help me to find a train that might get me there in time, but it would be cutting it too close even if it were to run on schedule, and Indian trains are notorious for delays in bad weather. In the end I was able to book a flight on an alternate airline, which was pricey, but not as pricey as missing the flight to Stockholm! After completing my booking I heaved a great sigh of relief and headed up the mountain for a lovely and lively dinner with my fellow yogis.Trek & DineMy last evening in India, and strangely enough, I was eating pizza… Late at night I would get back to the “yellow house,” pack up my belongings, and in the morning catch a ride to the Dharamshala airport with some friends who were heading to Amritsar. I was exhausted but happy, sad to be leaving India but looking forward to another big change: being in Europe!


Yogesh Kriya practicumOn the first Saturday of the course I woke early to a dramatically cloudy and cool morning. We were to have our kriya yoga practicum with Yogesh at 7am, and it would be taking place on the side of the “yellow-house” guesthouse where Clare, Dylan, Rainu, Sadie, and I were staying on the second level, and two of our yoga teachers, Yogesh and Sana, were on the first. Yogesh, as our main yoga anatomy and physiology teacher, would be leading the practicum and he set up a table with a variety of supplies for the class. We all gathered around him and sat on the rocks, grass, or stone wall to listen to his lecture and watch his demonstrations. Then we would be given a few tools to attempt some of the kriya techniques ourselves.

Neti demo with Yogesh“Kriya” in sanskrit comes from the syllable “kri,” which means action of the elements, and “ya,” which means soul/atma, and by extension, breath. Together “kriya” can mean something like completed action, or in yoga, a technique used to achieve a desired effect. There are many Kriya practices, and different levels to the various practices. However, the standard goal is to join one’s individual soul, or atman, to the universal Brahman, sometimes called “spirit” The word “yoga” itself describes this, as the root, “yuj” means union, or yoke. The breath is considered the conduit by which the gross body and mind are connected to spirit, or soul, and much of yoga seeks to align the breath with the soul from each inhalation to exhalation. In short, all of our physical actions are based on what we take in through the senses, combined with the mental attitude one has to them. It is the tendency of the mind to identify with the habitual patterns of body, speech, and mind that in turn get solidified into strong beliefs about ourselves, in the form of our samskaras (impressions) and kleshas (hindrances), mixed with environmental factors and formed into vrittis, or mental modifications.  These mental modifications provide the basis for ego, and may be tempered by the breath, which then connects us to the higher (and impersonal) soul.

In Pâtanjali’s Yoga Sûtra, the second line is “Yogâs citta vritti nirodah,” which basically states that the practice of yoga is the cessation of all mental modifications. For those with a background in Buddhist philosophy and practice, you can just imagine how excited I was to hear this in the yoga philosophy classes!! Arainu and TanyaOf course the practice of controlling the breath has been, across religious and spiritual traditions and from time immemorial, the major form of meditation and behavior modification. Even non-meditators are familiar with the practice of counting to ten and breathing deeply before speaking or acting so as to avoid inappropriateness or unskillfulness in action. But cessation of all mental modification? Note that it is not cessation of mentation itself (new meditators sometimes get into the trap of believing that is what they are “supposed” to be doing on the cushion: Not Thinking!), but of the modification. I would be very interested in exploring more about the possible connections between traditional Yoga philosophy and the Yogacara (Cittamatra) school which developed in the 4th century with the two Buddhist philosophers Asanga and Vasubandhu. And of course I am very excited to consider the similarities of practice between the Yoga tradition and Zen Buddhism. How many times do we hear the admonition to not believe our stories? This is a difficult practice, but as I was learning in the first week of a 200-hour YTT, there are many, many techniques to assist the yogi in such a task. Some of the most basic would start to be addressed in this Saturday morning Kriya class.

According to the classical text: the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, there are six basic Kriya cleansing techniques to prepare the yogi on their journey towards the fundamental practices of joining the individual (apparent) atman with the universal (real/true) Brahman. On this occasion we would be examining a few techniques of neti (air-passageway cleaning) and dhauti (internal cleansing), while leaving kapalabhati (cranial sinus cleansing) for a later time. While we would briefly discuss the remaining three – basti (colon cleansing), nauli (exercises for digestive organ cleansing) and trataka (eye exercises) –  we would not be practicing them in this course. Further, we would be given a demonstration-only of some of the more advanced dhautis. If we wanted to try them at a later time we would have to make an appointment with Yogesh for additional training!

Elizabeth tounge-scrapingWe started off with some very basic cleaning techniques: the eye-cup for rinsing the eyes in tepid saline (chakshu dhauti), the tongue-scraper for, well, scraping the tongue (jihva dhauti), and tips on cleaning the teeth (danta dhauti) and the ears (karna dhauti). Then we moved on to the nasal passages, beginning with the basic neti-pot for jala neti. For those who may not know what this is, it is simply the irrigation of the nasal passages performed by pouring warm saline water into one nostril while tilting the head so that the water can run out the other one. While it is very refreshing and really cleans out the sinuses (removing all kinds of dust and dirt particles bound up in globs of phlegm), it apparently should only be done a few times per week.Jala Neti practicumThen we moved on to sutr neti, which is the cleaning of the nasal passages by poking a length of surgical tubing up one nostril at a time, wiggling it through the pharynx, reaching into your mouth to take a hold of it with your fingers, holding both ends and “flossing.” This action is intended to stimculate and tone the glands and nerves of the entire nasal-cranial area, including the eyes, ears, sinuses and cranium. Also used to treat mental sluggishness, eye/ear/nose/throat problems, sinus headache, it is seen as an aid in clearing a blocked ajna and/or crown chakra.

We continued with more naulis, and were given the opportunity to try out kunjal kriya dhauti by which one cleans out the stomach by drinking several glasses of warm saline water until we feeling like throwing up, which we did (for those of us who tried this one, which was not mandatory). Given the instruction to not eat anything at least twelve hours before the class, I found it amazing to see what kind of yuckiness actually did come up with the rejected saline water after ticking the back of the throat with the fingers! This exercise was a big step for me, as I have had an incredibly strong aversion to vomiting from the time I was around 11 years old and had to throw up in the bushes of the public library one evening. But what is yoga if not for getting over one’s habitual ideas and behaviors? Needless to say, I found the whole event of almost twenty of us round the backside of the guesthouse bent over with our fingers down our throats and making horrible wretching sounds especially humorous…

Yogesh Vastra Dhouti KriyaAfter recovering we moved on to the final demonstrations by Yogesh of more advanced dhautis. In one he used a tube inserted down his throat and up to the stomach in which to expel the swallowed saline water through. This of course takes a lot of will power to get over the gag reflex, and indeed one of the main benefits of the practice of yoga is develop such strength of will. The final demonstration was that of vastra dhauti, another stomach cleansing technique which involves swallowing a length of cotton muslin cloth that has been soaked in saline water. The size of the cloth should be as wide as the tongue and around 15 feet long, so you can imagine that the swallowing takes quite a bit of time as the yogi needs to hold down their gag reflex as they are swallowing bit by bit of the cloth. After it has been all but completely swallowed, the cloth is then pulled back out from the mouth, bringing up impurities from the stomach along with it. The students watched this demonstration with slight horror and perhaps some empathy as well, for it was quite clear that it is not such a simple task to swallow 15 feet of wet cloth! Yogesh was kind enough to let us take photos and even video of his display of the technique. He later advised against attempting to do this on one’s own and even offered to assist if any of us were inclined to give it a try.Yogesh Vastra Dhouti Kriya with students Judging by some of the horrified reactions of some of the students in the group I was not sure that he would get any takers.  If there were more time in the month I would have liked to delve deeper into the world of Kriya practices, but as it was, the course was to zip by very quickly and not leave too much time for additional exploration.

SareetI thought back to the time spent in Varanasi with Graham after he had completed his 250 hour YTT and was suffering from some kind of vomity/diarrheal bug. He attempted to clean out his system with a Kriya technique they learned in his course: varisara dhauti. In this practice one drinks about sixteen glasses of warm saline water two at a time while stopping in between to perform a series of asanas. This is continued until the need to go becomes overwhelming and the yogi runs to the toilet to evacuate it through the bowels, and repeated until the water runs clear… I can’t say that it cured Graham of his illness unfortunately, because it didn’t. But the practice did seem to liven him up at a time when he was feeling rather down, at least!

Making friends, practicing yoga

Trimurti Garden mist 1The month of June went by quickly as I settled into a regular routine with the month-long Yoga teacher training in Bhagsu/Dharamkot of Himachal Pradesh, India. Trimurti Garden was an idyllic location with its serene outdoor space and its lively guesthouse area, especially set as it was in the misty region of the Himalayan foothills, far above the bustling town of Bhagsu and below the less hectic but no less hopping Dharamkot. Trimurti Garden mist 2Our asana classes, adjustments classes, teaching methodology and some of the meditations were the more active classes, while the yoga anatomy, physiology, and philosophy classes had us all sitting around on a concrete floor for hours at a time, which took some getting used to. Of course the hours of asana practice each day was challenging to me at first, but I could soon see the improvements in my flexibility, balance, and strength as the course went on. For example, in the beginning of the course I was not able to do a full plough pose with my feet touching the ground behind my head or a headstand without assistance. By week two however, both of these poses were very satisfyingly within my reach!

Over the month we had a number of optional classes as well: prenatal, “golden-age,” partner yoga, as well as yoga for kids. As a previous philosophy instructor and Buddhist practitioner I was also particularly interested in the Yoga Philosophy classes, and in the principles of yoga put into practice throughout the rest of the scheduled classes. It was hard for me to refrain from doing constant compare and contrasts with Buddhist philosophy and practice, but I found it all so engaging and thought provoking, as well as inspiring to my own personal history and unfolding practice. Darja outside TrimurtiWe were offered a lot more than I had anticipated, and it made me yearn to study more deeply and to put as much of it into practice as I could within my life after the course was over. Of course as a 200-hour class there were many topics that we could not get that too far into, like the pranayama practices, the panchakosha theory, the chakras, chants, mudras, and deep study of the foundational yoga texts like Patanjali Yoga Sutra and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. On more than one occasion I found myself wanting more: to enter into a practical but also university setting to really get into theory as well as practice. Perhaps in this lifetime I will explore that more thoroughly…

It was also the first time in what seemed to me like quite awhile that I was around so many westerners, and it was a delight to get to know people through the classes and the practices we did together. Actually, for me it was even more strange as it was the first time I have spent a significant time (over ten years) among a group of people that were not part of my extended sangha at Tassajara and SFZC: “normal” people with Trimurti Breakfastregular (and not so regular) jobs out in the world. We had writers, an acupuncturist, physiotherapist, firefighter, dive instructor, yoga and dance and elementary school teachers, social workers, techies, people in the music industry… just to name a few. It was great fun for me, and as the month progressed I was to grow closer and closer to the people in our little yoga community. Of course as aspiring yogis they all had deep commitments to the practice of self-awakening and self-exploration, which is probably why it felt so natural to be around them! But for whatever reason, I found all of them such beautiful people with tremendous gifts to offer the world. It also seemed that every other day someone was having a birthday and so we were having near-constant celebrations, eating cake made by the proprietors of Trimurti Garden and hanging out together.Yogesh birthday

As we had the evenings to fend for ourselves for food, there were many occasions to hang out, grab a bite to eat, and explore our surroundings: both in the immediate vicinity of Bhagsu and Dharamkot as well as further afield. Garden temple at TrimurtiA couple of times different groups of us made it down to McLeod Ganj to explore the town and its mostly Tibetan community, which was quite a trip, especially on a Friday night as the place was quite crowded. Of course it would have been wonderful to spend more time with that community, especially as His Holiness the Dalai Lama was in the area. It was easy to see my greedy mind arising over such missed opportunities, but forgoing such activities only made me want to return to this place again, hopefully with Graham as well. I was missing him, and while we were able to talk over skype a few times, it was still very hard to be so far away for so long, and skype conversations seem never to be as satisfying as the idea of them sounds! And,there were plenty of conversations that were much-needed about our future plans when the summer came to its inevitable end… but more on that later.

Besides getting down to McLeod there were other times when we stayed close to the Trimurti Garden where our yogashala was located, especially when the weather was stormy, which was quite often as the monsoon had come to HP early that year. Unfortunately, the region suffered some extreme weather, causing massive landslides throughout northern India, flooding the Ganges and other waterways, stranding hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and killing thousands of others (click here). The horrific stories kept trickling into our little bubble of a world as our course progressed. Even though we got some pretty bad storms where we were, because we were so high up in the mountains we did not suffer the kind of damage that other places further downstream from us did. The worst that we had to contend with was the frequent power cuts, hard rain and hail on the slate roof of the yogashala (sometimes rendering classes almost impossible to hear) and dark daytime skies that prevented our instructors from using the dry-erase board (too hard to see). I avoided purchasing an umbrella for as long as could, but eventually caved in.Class in the dark

I had been looking forward to doing some day hikes up to nearby Triund in the mountains, but the combination of bad weather and soreness from asana practice made it difficult to pull off. With only one day off per week, we were all getting both a mental as well as physical workout as the course continued through the month. It felt good to me, and even though I was tired my body felt better than it has in a very long time. I felt nourished and happy and alive. It was funny: I had struggled so hard for several months over the decision to take this course for financial reasons as well as time constraints, and even though I was still concerned about being able to make it across Europe without going into further debt, at this point I was thankful that it seemed to be turning out to be the right decision…Dylan Clare Sadie on rock Mako and Darya Yellow-house mates

Back to India… for YOGA!

Rainbow over Bhagsu After much deliberation over the expense of doing a month-long yoga teacher training course in India, I finally decided that for the sake of my body and its healing it was well worth the time and money. I did some fairly extensive research and ended up enrolling with Bodhi Tree International (soon to become TrimurtiYoga) in their 200 hour Yoga Alliance-registered multi-style course held just north of Dharamsala in a little place nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas called Bhagsu.

Mako with BindhiIt was so wonderful to return to India, to spend a month in an area that I had sadly neglected to visit during the five months that Graham and I had spent in India several months back, and to practice and learn yoga as intensively as I did. The only regret that I had was that I did not have the time to visit the amazing friends I had made on my earlier trip, something I had fully intended to do upon returning. However, the month-long course was to end only one day prior to the start of a zen sesshin held outside of Stockholm, Sweden, led by one of my SFZC teachers, Tenshin Reb Anderson – and I had already agreed to help cook for that retreat after hearing about it from my old Tassajara chum, Joanne Pirie. It was too bad, but perhaps one thing I have learned while on this trip is that there are always vastly more opportunities than one can possibly even consider taking. I would have to visit them some other time…McLeod

After my few days in Bangkok with my friend Quang I flew to Delhi and caught the night bus to McLeod Ganj. I woke up around dawn just in time to be a little terrified at the hair pin turns going into the mountains and the speed at which the bus driver was going. I had checked out a hand-drawn map of the area online and was under the impression that the yogashala was only a few hundred meters from the bus terminal, so when we arrived in McLeod around 6:30 am I politely declined all the rickshaw driver offers and headed out on my own. View from the roadFour steeply uphill kilometers later I found myself in a bit of a maze of mountain paths heading off to countless unnamed guesthouses tucked into the magically misty and forested countryside. I encountered monkeys, donkeys, goats, cows, as well as countless little Shiva temples. Fortunately I ran into a woman who just so happened to be taking the very same yoga course as I, and she kindly walked me up to the Trimurti Garden guesthouse where the course was to take place. Stairs up to GHI checked in, laid down my bags in a room of one of the nearby unnamed guesthouses (later to be called “the yellow house”), and headed down to the actual town, called “lower Bhagsu” (which I had by-passed on the hike up) in search of breakfast. Over the course of the month I would make that trip down and back up the rocky mountain path many, many times, as well as to the uphill village of Dharamkot. On this occasion while having breakfast a colossal thunder storm appeared (the first of many in an apparently early monsoon season) and kept me under cover in various cafes for several hours. I had a little chance to do some preliminary exploring on that afternoon in between cloud bursts.

Beyond the cafes (Japanese, Thai, Israeli, Indian, Italian, etc.) there were what seemed like a hundred little shops selling everything from groceries, jewelery, clothing, vegetables, woolen goods, trekking gear, leather goods, marijuana stash-packs, souvenirs, cheap t-shirts, and something called “Bhagsu Cake” (which I later found was NOT available in nearby Dharamkot or McLeod Ganj). Eventually I made my way back up to Trimurti for our first official YTT-200 meeting and orientation.Mountain mist

There were to be about 20 students in the course altogether, along with about five regular teachers and a few others. We were from various backgrounds, but mostly westerners and mostly female, and our teachers were mostly Indian, with the main exception of the head teacher and founder of BodhiTree: Karolina Sharma, originally from Poland, and soon to be revealed to us as an inspiring and very talented yoga teacher. We were given a syllabus that revealed a nicely shaped schedule from 7am to 7pm with Saturday afternoons and Sundays off. It was full of Yoga philosophy, anatomy and physiology , teaching methodology, adjustments class, meditation, teaching practicums, and of course, Asana practice. I felt very keen and ready to jump in!music at trimurti 2On that first evening we celebrated the birthday of the Trimurti Garden owner by having chocolate banana cake and a concert on the front porch and lawn.It was only the first of many birthday celebrations to come. I was excited, as were my cohorts, teachers, and soon to be friends…

Here is a photo of my four yellow-house mates, heading down past the cows to our nearby class in the morning:Heading to class