Yoga Reflections from Mother India

Welcome to my latest blog.  Following my recent trip in India, I share with you some of my photos and key yoga learnings and experiences I had in my training and travel.

Overview of my travel and yoga training

I spent just under a month in India. A short time in Delhi, with the majority of my time in the north east state Uttarakhand and the small city of Rishikesh which is known as the Gateway to the Himalayas and the ‘yoga capital of the world’.  

Rishikesh, on the banks of the River Ganges or Ganga was the perfect place for my training, opening me to the deep wisdom of yogic teachings whilst on the sacred land of India.   

I stayed in the Parmarth Niketan Ashram, an organisation doing a lot for humanitarian and environmental peace and education.

The training was a postgraduate course into the depths of Jnana and Bhakti yoga.  Chinnamasta as the goddess of self inquiry represented the teachings of Jnana yoga, and Matangi is the goddess of devotional or Bhakti yoga.

I am very grateful to my teacher Lorraine Taylor for holding space for yet another transformational journey into yoga. And thanks to Maryz Helene (for her dance and voice work) and her partner Pierre (of the kirtan duo SuryaChandra) for the Bhakti and Kirtan.

It was wonderful to journey with a small group of women from all around the world  from Australia (yes two of us!), Chile, Colombia, China, Russia, Germany, USA, Poland, England and Canada.  

In addition to my yoga training, I had the opportunity to attend the International Yoga Festival, in the week before my training.  One of my highlights for me (as a baby of the 60’s) was singing ‘Imagine’ in the Beatles ashram! The Beatles being a part of yoga’s journey to the west, and the west to Rishikesh! And to sing this with Lorraine, who comes for Liverpool added an extra joy.

beatles ashram

I also had 4 days of travel in ‘less touristed’ Haridwar nearby to Rishikesh a sacred city  with many Devi temples.  I travelled here on my own, intrigued to understand more about goddess worship. Haridwar offered me an interesting contrast to the yoga teachings I received in Rishikesh compared to Hindu religious devotional practices.

Ganga Ma Sacred River: Fire, Water and Flower Rituals

Most of my time was spent on the banks of the sacred Ganga river, revered as the goddess Ganga Ma. I felt instant peace and ease the moment I saw her, and sat by the waters. I thought at first it was because I had come from our dry arid summer, knowing that flowing water is so important for my Pitta nature.

Gange River Near

Ganga River at the Vasishta Caves, 1/2 hour out of Rishikesh town.

But over my time by the Ganga, I saw and took part in many rituals (including fire, water and flower rituals) along the banks of the Ganga.  I came to understand and feel the deep and profound sacred energy that exudes from this river and the centuries of devotional workshop that pilgrims have given to its waters.

FIRE RITUALS

Fire rituals are an inherent part of Indian life. For example, fire is a part of many Hindu rites-of-passage ceremonies including celebrating a birth by the lighting a lamp, at weddings by the bride and groom circling fire, and at death by cremation.  Fire from a yoga perspective, is one of the elements of our bodies, so prayers and practices with fire can help awaken the Agni within our bodies and our lives.  

The Aarti (fire) lamp is used for both individuals prayers as well as the large gathering such as the Har ki Pauri in Haridwar.

WATER RITUALS

The waters of the Ganga are considered very sacred and pure.  The river is considered the personification of the goddess Ganga.

Ganga

Ganga Ma with Shiva

Ganga Ma is worshiped by Hindus who believe that bathing in the river causes the remission of sins and facilitates Moksha (liberation from the cycle of life and death).

Personally I found the Ganga to be profoundly healing.  Water is such an important element for us with our bodies being made up of mostly water.  I feel inspired to include water rituals in my yoga practice to bring greater balance to the water element.  

FLOWER RITUALS

I have always used flowers as a part of beautifying my home, and in my yoga practice and teaching in the creation of Altars.  It was wonderful to see flowers as an inherent part of Indian life, and the devotional ceremonies in temples and on the banks of the Ganga.

Flower stall in Haridwar

Flower Stall in the back streets of Haridwar near to the Ganga River

Flowers adoring statues and deities including the circle of gods and goddesses outside my ashram room (who were also included in the Holi celebrations of colour!) and the Shiva Lingham and Nandi the Bulls seen throughout temples and by the sides of the river. 

I also found so much beauty in the dying flowers and petals in the waters of the river or in the temples, the physical remains of the sacred prayers of so many souls.

As a part of the opened ceremony for my training, each woman took our intention for our yoga journey together, to the river and whilst chanted ‘Ganga Ma’ we set down our flowers with a ghee flame to the flow of the river. My intention was to Open to Love.

Open to Love

Chinnamasta: Goddess of Self Inquiry

Ever since I was a little girl I have always asked and loved reflecting on  ‘Who am I?

It is interesting, of the 10 Mahavidya goddesses, it has been Chinnamasta energy that I have most feared.  Well her imagery is quite formidable!

(Apologies for the quality of this photo which was in the Maya Devi Temple in Haridwar, where the Mahavidya Goddess artwork were enclosed within glass boxes which I assume was to protect them from damage)

Chinnamasta

Chinnamasta

Chinnamasta literally means ‘severed head’. To be without a head is symbolic for going beyond body consciousness or attachment to the thought composed mind.

Through embodying Chinnamasta we do not literally take off our heads. Rather through meditation and self inquiry we release our attachment to the limited mind so that we can access universal consciousness.  Dissolving our minds into pure awareness brings us transcendence. When we are free from the limitations of the mind, we can realise our true nature, beyond duality.

We need not fear losing our bodies or losing our heads. They are mere restrictions on our deeper reality (Frawley, 1994 p 114).

I find that non-duality can be a difficult word and concept to grasp or to explain.   Jeff Foster simply describes non-duality as   ‘…something we all know very deeply in our hearts: we are all One, all made of the same ‘stuff’, and separation is the greatest illusion of all.”

We attended different Satsangs with different spiritual teachers including Mooji and ShantiMayi.  I also visited Anandamayi’s Ashram in Haridwar. Through these and the meditation practices I learnt in the training, I had the opportunity to deepen my meditation and spiritual inquiry to new and profound levels.  I look forward to sharing some of these teachings and inspiration in workshops and classes.  

I like to reflect on where the goddess shows up in our lives.  On the Chinnamasta day, when we walked as a silent meditation on our way to a Satsang with Shanti Mayi, I saw this sacred cow and her calves which reminded me of the symbology of Chinnamasta feeding her ‘companions’ from the fluid that stream from the Ida and Pingala Nadi’s, who for me I see as my children (twins!), my students and the people I serve.  Through the central channel (Sushumna) she is feeding her own head.

Sacred cow and young

There is One unchanging indivisible Reality, which, though un-manifest, reveals itself in infinite multiplicity and diversity. That one – the Supreme Truth is ever present everywhere in all circumstances. Anandamayi

Matangi Goddess of Bhakti Yoga the Yoga of Devotion

Matangi is the goddess of the utterance of the divine word (Frawley, 1994). She was the Bhakti component of the training where we explored and embodied devotion through dance, voice work and Kirtan.

Matangi is considered to be the Tantric form of Saraswati as she governs speech, music, knowledge and the arts. Unlike Saraswati who represents the knowledge and virtue of the Brahmin or learned class, Matangi is the outcast who goes against the norms of society (Frawley, 1994). Lorraine fondly calls her the punk cousin or sister of Saraswati.

As an outcaste she is offered left-over or partially eaten foods, which is considered to be impure in classical Hinduism. In this way she is seen as the goddess of pollution.  We included dead flowers and banana peels on our Altar in the training!

Tantra embraces all as sacred!  

On the Matangi day I walked past this wall of rubbish in Rishikesh , which was not uncommon in the streets of India. The opportunistic monkey foraging for food.

Deities of Yoga

Many evenings we sat in circle chanting to the gods and goddesses of yoga.  Check out the huge Saraswati that adorned the yoga hall!  Some nights we opened our circle to the Rishikesh yoga community, chanting with up to 100 people. Listening to some of the recordings of these chants takes me right back there.

Matangi relates to the ears and our ability to listen. It was wonderful to practice the traditional call and response Kirtan, which requires us to deeply listen.

kirtan-circle-with-saraswati.jpeg

One of the greatest teachings I received from the training and my travels (which I am still integrating as it was so profound!) was the understanding of the difference between religious and yogic / spiritual devotion.

Visiting the Devi temples in Haridwar I was struck by the 1000’s of Hindu pilgrims visiting and making offerings and praying in the temples with alters of statues and images of the various gods and goddesses, including Durga, Ganesha, Lakshmi and Ganga Ma.  Some people handing over large sums of money to Lakshmi, and red flowers to Durga.  

In contrast, devotional yoga is focused more on spiritual experience and realisation at the individual level than the externalisation of a god or goddess. 

When we call in the goddess or god energy in our yoga practice, we are embodying and embracing their divine qualities within. Practicing yoga with the goddesses and gods bring the practitioner to union, to the realisation that a deity and the practitioner are in essence the same, that they are non-dual.

In this way we are Ganga Ma, and Ganga Ma is us!

In addition, in my ongoing quest to understand more about the Mahavidya Wisdom Tantric Goddesses I was struck by the stark contrast between the Hindu goddess temples that had 1000’s of devotional visitors, and in the same grounds, but a different building, a temple for the 10 Mahavidya goddesses which had few or no visitors! 

Mahavidya temple at Daksheswara Mahadev temple

The stunning Mahavidya Temple at Dakshewara Mahadev temple, Haridwar

Kirtan and chanting

One of the profound teachings and healings I received from Maryz was that each of us have a unique voice, a unique sound resonance, which has great power to heal. She offered us this simple mantra, which you may also like to use.

I love my voice. My voice heals me.

Ganesha

Ganesha, is the elephant headed God, is one of the best known and most worshipped deities in the Hinduism and widely revered as the remover of obstacles.

Ganesha worship can be in the more traditional ‘religious’ way, where we praying to the god who is external to us, to help remove obstacles or we can turn inward, more as a spiritual practice.  

As a yoga practice, we can use the symbolism and mythology as a way to draw attention to Ganesha’s symbolism. Turning inwards to our own lives becoming aware of what obstacles are in our path of liberation and freedom.  

This training offered me the non-dual lesson and understanding that obstacles on our path are a part of being human, and from these obstacles we can learn and grow.

Ganesha

Maryz and Pierre follow the tradition of  chanting to Ganesha at the beginning of Kirtan.  As the god of beginnings, he is honoured at the start of rites and ceremonies.  At the beginning of the journey (be it a yoga or kirtan session) chanting to Ganesh can help grounding ourselves with the energy of Ganesha in whatever it means to us. 

Here is Maryz and Pierre (SuryaChandra) and one of their Ganesha chants, which you can listen to for free, or purchase it if you like it.  I particularly like to play it at the warm up beginning of yoga asana practice. It is a beautiful chant, for warming up the body, and becoming aware of tensions, and blockages in the body, and gently releasing.  

Gayatri Mantra

On my graduation day, which happened to fall on Holi celebration, a festival of forgiveness, I spent the late afternoon and evening walking along the banks of the Ganga joining different international groups singing and chanting including Osho chants in English and more traditional Sanskrit mantra chanting.

We sang the Gayatri Mantra, which is traditionally sung at sunrise and at sunset.

Om Bhur Bhuvaḥ Swaḥ
Tat-savitur Vareñyaṃ
Bhargo Devasya Dhīmahi
Dhiyo Yonaḥ Prachodayāt

If you like, you can listen or chant along with this version of the Gayatri Mantra by Jaya Lakshmi and Ananda.,who I was lucky enough to chant with on the banks of the Ganga in Rishikesh!  

You can either Chant without knowing the meaning. Sanskrit is a devotional language, so simply by saying the words we can tap a collective human devotion.  And for those of us who like to have an understanding of what we are saying see the words below is an example or look it up, there are many interpretations. Here is one that I like by Douglas Brooks in yoga Journal  

The eternal, earth, air, heaven
That glory, that resplendence of the sun
May we contemplate the brilliance of that light
May the sun inspire our minds.

sunset on gange