Life in Rishikesh

Hi friends. I know I haven’t written or called or e-mailed in a while. That’s on purpose. This has been a calculated effort to dive deep into the land and practice of the Yogis, experimenting with life and self and soul without the energetic influence of my relationships and habits from home. I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity to have stepped aside, to be purposely introspective and examining of everything I have called reality until this step of my journey. 

IMG_4506I’m nearing the end of my month long course and I will soon have the element of time returned to me where I can share many of the practices, postures, cleansings and spiritual insights that I have gathered. I have learned more about my body, mind and soul in one month than I have in any other single month in my life.

My life has been monastic in quality – with the exception of a single motor bike excursion I haven’t left the the quaint area of Swarg Ashram in Rishikesh. A brief insight into my daily life here:

7:00 Wake-up to the mixture of a cool morning breeze rattling the windows and children playing outside next door. I do my morning “Kriyas” which include scraping the tongue, cleansing the nasal passages and gums with rock salt and washing out the eyes with cold water.

7:15: My favorite part of the day. The walk from my guesthouse to the Yoga Ashram. Indians generally do not get started this early, so early morning is an extremely peaceful time when the morning light mixes with the first signs of motion on the street. My first hello is to the same cow that occupies the same space each and every morning, waiting for my orange peel. I provide the aforementioned and move on towards the yoga ashram, passing the bums pretending to be saddhus and nodding hello to the chai walla as I enter the ashram for morning meditation. A small group of 4-6 usually sit for the optional meditation and I find it an opportunity to set my intention for the day. The teacher usually reads a poem or small section of a book and off we go, asking who am I? for an hour.

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8:15: Meditation ends and I use my break to get a 10 cent cup of chai, eat a couple of oranges and mingle with the animals and fellow yoginis on their way to class. My favorite cow is usually around and walks up to me to say hello and get his orange peel. I generally sit between the cow and the dog in the photo below. The bums are usually trying to talk me into buying them a cup of chai in broken English and the monkeys are beginning to descend looking for unsuspecting people not carefully guarding their fruit. Turn your attention away for a second and poof!, a monkey will be happily snacking away on your food and grinning at you from a nearby rooftop or tree.

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8:30: Yoga! Practice usually lasts 2.5 hours, the first 30 minutes dedicated to answering questions and learning the technical details of a new asana (posture). We discuss which chakra(s) we are activating, where to focus our attention and various alternatives for the asana if it is too difficult. We learn the transformational and healing effects of the asana that come with extended practice. For example, improved abilities to give and receive love when focused on the heart chakra. We move into our full practice, which generally takes a total of two hours.

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11:30:  Moon Dance Cafe for for conversation and breakfast. A group of Nepalese guys run the place and they provide amazing food and service. Depending on how hungry I am, its either a bowl of muesli/fruit/curd/honey or a couple of eggs on toast, washed down with a lemon ginger honey tea. Usually I will mingle with various people from, class or town, discussing the Yoga practice or something else.

13:00-15:00: My only real down time of the day. Generally used for doing laundry, cleaning, shopping, checking e-mail or anything else to beat the heat.  The temperature in Rishikesh has been steadily increasing since my arrival – now in the mid 90’s during the high part of the day. The first week here I was wearing a jacket in the morning and evening, now that jacket is firmly packed away for the season.

15:15: Stop by the German Bakery to see Lila and his son, another Nepalese family who make killer Yak Cheese/Avocado/Tomato sandwiches and juices. I will usually find my friends Marcelo, Karina and Dave here discussing something New Agey – Gurus, Clairvoyance, Chakras, energy, on and on. I join in the fun and sip on either a pomegranate or mango juice and if alone, jot a few thoughts down in a notebook.

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16:00: Time for afternoon Yoga. Similar to the morning except we simply practice. We begin with Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutations), making 12 devotional salutations to the Sun. In the final six, we chant the various Sanskrit words for the Sun. Surya Namaskara allows me to scan my body and mind, let go of the various attachments and thoughts I’ve built up throughout the day and drop into practice. We then continue with our typical practice, usually doing different asanas in the afternoon, sometimes focused more specifically on a single chakra such as the heart or third-eye. Afternoon Savasana (final relaxation) is always very powerful for me and when I walk out of the ashram I generally need a few minutes to fully return to my body.

18:30: My favorite (I know I already said this!) part of the day: Taking the back roads from back to Moon Dance Cafe for dinner along a windy stone walled path lined with massive trees. The sun has just set, the birds are singing their evening love songs, the dogs and monkeys and cows are making their final preparations for night. I like to call this the Jewel of the Day, those waning moments between sunset and darkness that are charged with energy. As I reenter my body I try to walk meditatively, sometimes holding my hands at my navel as we do in the Zen tradition as a reminder for mindfulness. Once at Moon Dance I will say hello to my friends and usually take my food to go so I can return on time for evening lecture.

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19:00 – 21:00: Yoga Lecture time – various topics from the morals and ethics of Yoga, things like nonviolence (ahimsa), nonattachment, vegetarianism, karma yoga etc. We learn things like conscious dreaming (Nidra Yoga), music meditation and of course discourses on the many branches of Yoga. We discuss topics such as healing through Yoga, Brahmacharya (sexual continence) and tantra. Most of the lectures have been fantastic – I will discuss this more later when I review the entire first month. There is so much information that comes at you that you have to mine it – I found myself primarily focusing on the physical practice, pulling various items from the lectures that I could apply or incubate into my daily life. After lecture, I would sometimes have a juice with friends or simply return to my room for some reading or a movie to unwind, crawling into bed simultaneously exhausted and invigorated, looking forward to repeating it again tomorrow.

There you have it – nowhere near the action-packed adventure of 2009, but equally powerful on the subtler planes of existence. This time its much more about penetrating deep rather than seeing it all. Turning the lens inwards.

Namaste.

Book Review – The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Food. Its interesting how much more time I spend thinking about it on the road – especially when in new places and countries, attempting to find what works and doesn’t work for me. At home, our industrial food system (as Michael Pollin) calls it, makes it easy for us to not think about food, relying on the system to deliver what we need, when we need it. Today, American’s spend a smaller percentage of their income (around 10%) on food than any society in history. While our industrial food system may be providing cheap, easy food, Pollin is suggesting that we may want to spend more time getting to know what we eat, and I happen to agree with him.

Michael Pollin explores in detail 4 different meal options available today:

1. A meal provided by the Industrial system – culminating in a McDonalds Happy Meal

2. An ‘Industrial Organic’ meal through Whole Foods

3. A ‘Beyond Organic’’ meal grown and created on a sustainable, closed eco-system family farm

4. A meal hunted and foraged.

This book has been on my radar screen for some time, especially since I became a vegetarian 4 years ago and started looking much more carefully at what I was putting in my body. I funny side story is that I picked this book up in Bali, only to find out that the guest house where I found it was not selling it! Despite my pleading, generous offers of money and trading another NY times best seller, I ultimately didn’t end up with the book…. Two months later in Chiang Rai I stumbled upon it in a small bookstore and grabbed it immediately – it was a sign!

Pollin goes into excruciating detail with a detective/journalistic approach to the various food chains. A few things really stood out for me:

1. Corn. Our entire food chain has been predicated on corn. We feed it to our animals and fish, we use it to create everything from soda to gasoline, drastically altering the natural order of things (especially when he looks at the life of a cow growing up on corn – horrific).

2. Industrial Organic. Pollin points out that 2 farms in California produce 90% of the organic produce in the United States. And despite the labels, most of these farms are do not adhere to the original principles of Organic, rather following loose guidelines from the USDA and essentially creating a corporate industry of Organic. That organic asparagus shipped in from Argentina has a much greater cost (calories of energy to deliver to the plate versus calories when consumed) than the non-organic, local variety. I’m not knocking Organic – it still means that the tons and tons of pesticide are kept out of the environment and the food is likely more nutritious. Just don’t throw blind trust into the word organic.

3. A new appreciation for the sustainable farm – Pollin spends a week on a farm that is nearly a closed eco-system with a very few exceptions. The local farm manages his farm such that the plants and animals complement each other, recycling and reusing almost everything. People drive hundreds of miles to pick up his chickens and eggs at the farm. Not only do these people feel they are getting higher quality food, they also have a relationship with the person who grows their food (see # 4). I will be much more motivated to shop at the local farmers market and eat seasonal produce when I return home.

4. The system is designed to cloak. We have no idea what happens in a slaughter house (he was unable to see any because they are all closed to the public), even ‘free range’ can be a misnomer when it comes to industrial-organic food due to lax USDA regulations. Most of our food originates from corn and runs through a vast and efficient supply chain before it ends up on your Whole Foods or Wal-Mart shelf. We have been told to think all carrots are carrots, beef is beef, etc, despite the fact this is very untrue as carrots grown in Michigan are much different than those in Florida and of course grass-fed versus corn-fed cattle hardly compare.

5. Marketing. A recent grocery store slogan stated “We pile it high and sell it cheap!” American’s, despite out growing affluence, spend less and less on food. When it comes to other items (cars, electronics, clothing), we almost ALWAYS are willing to spend more for better quality. Why is food the exception? Because corporate marketing has gotten you to believe it is a commodity and not an important aspect of your life you should spend time considering.

6. A look into the merits of vegetarianism. Reading this book may make you come a vegetarian. However, Pollin does discuss the history and culture of meat-eating. Historically it was more ritualistic, with humans paying respect to animals, individuals in societies taking turns in the slaughter, etc. Basically there was a more direct relationship to the animal that ended up on the plate, and the meat slaughter/eating often became a large part of a culture’s identity and customs through the family eating a meal together.. He argues there is still a place for this, but we are very, very far removed from this in America.

I could go on and on, but will stop with this. I consider it a must read if you have any interest in improving the quality of food that you put in your body and simultaneously decreasing the footprint you create by eating and all of its hidden energy costs. The only way to truly change the system is to support local, sustainable farmers, ask your grocer questions about where they get their produce, and demand better. Of course this implies rising costs. But what are the long-term costs otherwise? Yes, you will have to spend more of your already busy life procuring food, but as Pollin believes, having a relationship with your food and people who grow it is important.