Category Archives: Sutras & Ahimsa

gratitude:yams and Niyamas for the holidays

Honoring the Yamas and Niyamas at the Holidays

Today is Thanksgiving. I don’t celebrate traditional Thanksgiving. Rather, I try to abide by the age-old Yoga Sutras. The lessons of the Yamas and the Niyamas. No stuffing myself on holiday fare. Not interested in Black Friday or CyberMonday. I don’t need anything. Rather than amassing more, I give. Seva (self-less service) is a part of my long-time I practice.

Following is a rundown of a few of Patanjali’s Yamas and Niyamas that we can relate to the holidays.

The Yamas: What NOT to do

First off. Ahimsa. Non-violence. Mahatma Gandhi spread the concept of ahimsa, widely. According to the Gandhi Book Centre, “The concept of ahimsa extends to all living beings, and therefore, protection of environment, natural habitats and vegetarianism are its natural derivatives. Buddhism and Jainism impose total non-violence on their followers.”

As a 40-year follower of ahimsa, I don’t like to see a big dead turkey on a table. Or a pig on a plate. I prefer my cows (and other animals) live, roaming about. Not on a spit or BBQ.

Two of the other Yamas respond to the materialism that is rampant in our society. Especially around the holidays. Asteya and Aparigraha. The two, are related. Both, about being content with what you have.

Aparigraha can be translated as non-greediness or non-possessiveness. Non-accumulation. Not pining for what’s not needed. Non-attachment. As I was taught it, it’s ok to enjoy a piece of chocolate. However, to have a deep desire — or addiction — to the chocolate is the problem. Yet, offering one’s favorite chocolates to others represents non-possessiveness and non-attachment.

Among the Yamas and the Niyamas, asteya is often translated as non-stealing. Of course, most of us don’t knowing steal from other people. However, we ARE stealing, if we upset the balance of the universe. For example, overconsumption of gasoline, water, food and natural resources, are forms of stealing. Hence, wanting and taking more than what’s needed is not honoring asteya.

When it comes to material items, most of us have way more than what we need. When I was young, it was common for kids to have one pair of school shoes, and one pair of tennis shoes. Now, I’d guess most kids have closets filled with a wide assortment of footwear. Plus, closets, shelves, dressers and other storage areas filled with clothing, toys, and other non-essential items.

When I recently sold my house, my realtor said everyone want walk-in closets. Clearly, that doesn’t represent the Yamas and Niyamas. When I went to live in Mexico for one year, all I took with me was two duffel bags. Still, I had more than what was necessary.

The Niyamas: What TO do

Moving on to the Niyamas, the first is soucha. Some, translate this as cleanliness. But, as with most Sanskrit words, it means so much more. For example, I was taught to bathe and put on clean clothes before devotional practice. To ready one’s body and mind for the holy. Not unlike wearing your Sunday best.

Soucha can also refer to purity, and a sattvic diet is considered pure and clean. I closely adhere to a sattvic diet. That means no alcohol, no caffeine, no garlic, onions, mushrooms or other foods that upsets the natural constitution. Patanjali, 5,000 years ago, referred to soucha and sattvic, together.

Next on the Niyamas, I see santosha (contentment) as being complementary to asteya and aparigraha. Not surprisingly, a few years ago, the community at Yogaville focused on santosha for the month of November. Swami Ramananda reflected on that practice.

“Of course, we all grow up in a culture of “never enough.” We can easily fall into an unconscious and never-ending effort to acquire, arrange or achieve the things that we feel bring us security and love, our most basic needs. Of course, we all grow up in a culture of ‘never enough.’ We can easily fall into an unconscious and never-ending effort to acquire, arrange or achieve the things that we feel bring us security and love, our most basic needs. Thus, this moment is continually warped by anticipation or anxiety over the next thing to do or get.” He explained that Santosha is about being at “peace with this moment as it is and with ourselves as we are.”

That’s something that I can accept for the holidays.

For more on the Yamas and Niyamas, read the following from the Art of Living.

Note: All images are mine. India 2019.

Goat Yoga

Goat Yoga Hits Urban USA

One of the newfangled yoga trends is goat yoga. It’s not about a new style of yoga where you imitate goat poses. Rather, you practice your cat/cow or downward dog as baby goats walk around—or on top of— you. If you’re lucky, maybe a goat will cuddle next to you in your savasana.  However, on the down side, the goat may decide it’s time for a bio break. On your mat.  

The Birth of Kid Goat Yoga

It shouldn’t be a shock that the origins of goat yoga come from the Western U.S. As recently as 2016, a woman living on a farm in Oregon recognized the healing aspects of yoga. At the same time, she understood that being close to animals had benefits. In need of some physical and emotional boosts, she meshed the two. She named it Caprine Vinyasa and got a slew of media coverage. And, boom. Goat yoga was everywhere.  Not just in the country, or in the trendier spots like San Diego and Austin. But even in Chicago’s inner city.

Goat Yoga in the Inner City

Urban goat yoga

What at first glance seems far removed from the prana in the midwestern cornfields is a hopping spot for goat yoga. Chicago’s west side. The goats are let loose to meander around the yoga mats, regularly, in Austin, the far west side of Chicago. Also, at Garfield Park, 10-15 minutes west of downtown. Both sites are right off the Eisenhower Expressway.

David is the goat herder that supplies the animals for the yogis. An urban farmer, he has a goat refuge just a few blocks from the rapid transit elevated line. From the street side of his house, you’d never know that he’s got a backyard full of chickens laying fresh eggs, and a large family of goats. He and his wife live in a traditional city house with a backyard that’s been converted into an organic mini farm. There’s a milking station where the goats, one by one, are milked. David and his wife then sell the fresh goat milk, plus goat milk yogurt and cheese.

He has about a dozen baby goats in his hay-filled garage. Each day, he loads the goats in his truck and releases them in a neighboring empty lot. Here, his babies graze. And play.

Goat Yoga in Chicago

When it’s time for goat yoga, he can lead the goats to a community garden just down the street. The open space has a pen inside the fencing to keep the babies closer to the yoga practitioners.

Five Reasons for Goat Yoga

Before you jump into the pen with the goats, or start bringing goats into the studio, let’s break down pros (and cons) of Caprine Vinyasa.

First, yoga is fundamentally about surrendering your mind and body. Perhaps one of the end results of goat yoga is that you give it up for the baby goats. You relinquish your control and go with the flow. Like the adorable kid goats. Don’t Worry. Be Happy. Nonetheless, Sarah, a yogi enthusiast and mother of two children, is not particularly a goat yoga advocate. Her take is that the more gimmicky, the more it dilutes the practice.

Second, in American society people get caught up in physical boundaries. Even for yoga practitioners. Many have clearly delineated “no touch” zone. Oftentimes, American yoga students want at least four or five feet of space all around them. The more space between them and their neighboring yogi’s mat, the better, they feel. So, just maybe, the goats prancing wherever they want helps people to get beyond that required emptiness surrounding them. And, maybe, it’ll even get them more comfortable with having a person less than a meter away during their practice. 

Third, yoga is all about mindfulness. Emptying your mind. Closing your eyes, or maintaining a dristi. However, keeping your eyes from jumping around to check the whereabouts and antics of the baby goats isn’t easy. Kim, a personal trainer who has been close to yoga for years, tried goat yoga at a conference. She found it was “distracting.”

Fourth off, yoga should be about absorbing, and relishing, the elements of nature. Prana. Breathing in the fresh air. Pressing your toes into the grass, or sand. Letting your skin soak up the sun.

Ideally, goat yoga is done outdoors in a farm-like environment. But that’s often not the case. My first view of goat yoga was inside a warehouse in East Austin. Definitely not an optimum spot for oneness with nature.

Fifth thought. Yoga teaches us ahimsa. Do no harm to any living being. So, any practice that helps us get closer to animals, and respect for ALL lives, is a plus. Hopefully, goat yoga is an entry point for urban Americans to get closer to farm animals. Then, as they appreciate the personalities of the baby goats, the participants may think twice before they eat goat meat. 

Introducing Yoga a la Ferme

Ahimsa and the Sacred Cow

In India, the cow is sacred. So, I’d expand upon goat yoga.

Sacred Cow, ahimsa is yoga

I’d broaden caprine vinyasa to yoga a la ferme. For starters, I’d let a few chickens scamper about.

More importantly, I’d be sure that beautiful cows were within everyone’s view. Next, I’d require all partcipants to pet the cows, before they get on their mats. Moreover, have them meditate while gazing into the huge happy cows’ eyes. Adding in sound therapy, I’d ensure that each of the cows had cowbells on their necks, tuned to different chakras. For special effects, during savasana I’d lead the cows in a circle around my resting yogis. Or, ring the cowbells myself.

Finally, I’d suggest that everyone’s sankalpa include how they would have greater respect for farm animals, and take the plunge to refrain from eating farm animals for a week. Better yet, commit to a plant-based diet for 40 days.

A Meditation Practice IS Yoga

In the Western world, too often, yoga means physical fitness practice. People focus on mastering a pose, or hope to work up a sweat in a yoga class. But, that’s not what yoga really is. Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras wrote Sthira Sukham Asanam. To me, that means stillness in your seat, or space. Sounds much more like a meditation practice to me.

That’s also, why I tend to encourage Yin, Restorative, and Kundalini styles of yoga to my students. There’s great stillness in the first two, and mantra meditation, mudras and breath work are fundamental in Kundalini.

Likewise, I’m happy to announce a meditation and kundalini retreat at The Namaste Getaway in Wimberley, November 15-17. A few spaces are still available.

Following are personal testimonials from me, and Carrie Edmond, a meditation pro who’s leading the retreat.

My Meditation Practice

meditation

My personal path to “yoga,” began with meditation. Having struggled with digestive issues since childhood, early on, I experienced the benefits of stillness. Stillness of body. And mind.

When I added Hatha asanas to my practice, stillness of body and mind was crucial. Basically, my personal asana practice became a meditation practice. With movement.

Off the mat, I also adhere to a meditation practice. Daily, I practice japa mantra meditation. Plus, I have a labyrinth on my property for walking meditation. And, a creek for sound meditation. Finally, for traditional silent meditation, I switch between my deck, my yoga room, or my tree house.

Over the years, I’ve taken many a meditation class or workshop, across the country. In San Antonio, I found Carrie Edmond. She is unique in the way that she tries to pass the torch. On the one hand, she educates others to lead meditation. At the same time, she is expert at making meditation enjoyable and easy to practice.

Carrie’s Meditation Practice

journaling at The Namaste Getaway in Wimberley

“Meditation is an essential part of my life,” notes Carrie, who has been making meditation accessible to San Antonio public school kids for many years.

“Since I was very young, I have experienced intense anxiety. Before I learned to meditate and developed my own practice, life often felt chaotic, overwhelming and unmanageable. Through meditation practice, I have become more aware. With this awareness, I have found an ever-present ability to notice, and allow, in a way that reduces suffering and confusion.”

“Life still offers all its joys and challenges,” continues Carrie. “But my relationships, especially to those uncomfortable hard moments, are easier to navigate. I have learned to embrace the full human experience. I have also seen first hand how others have found healing, peace and a sense of freedom through their own meditation practice.”

Carrie’s Meditation Retreat

meditation at The Namaste Getaway

Joining Carrie, November 15-17, will be Angela Harper. Angela is a San Antonio-based KRI-certified Kundalini instructor. The retreat is designed to help nurture women. In part, because women, too often, don’t have the bandwidth to nourish themselves. The retreat will help ladies to explore the dynamic energy of the feminine. Plus, nourish the body and mind through Kundalini, meditation, gong, Reiki, journaling, healthy foods, and more.

“I love when women come together in this way to share, explore and learn from one another,” adds Carrie. “By applying what we share and learn from each other, we can go back into our daily lives with inner resources along with the collective wisdom to thrive and be in service to others.”

To register, for more information, or links to articles on Reiki and meditation, visit Carrie’s Facebook event page. Or, read more on the health benefits of meditation on my blog. Note: Photos are from The Namaste Getaway, just an hour from Austin, or San Antonio.

eco-friendly yoga mat

Ahimsa and an Eco-Friendly Yoga Mat

In keeping with the theme of Ahimsa for the planet, people should be mindful of their yoga gear.  The vast majority of yoga mats in the U.S. are made out of a toxic, non-biodegradable ingredient that may be a carcinogen. PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride). As a result, knowingly, or unknowingly, yogis are harming our environment by not choosing eco-friendly yoga mats.  

Yoga Without a Mat

yoga-with-out-a-mat

First off, I am a proponent of yoga any where, any time. No mat required. To me, the most eco-friendly yoga mat is a sandy beach. A wood floor. Or, a grassy field. In fact, I’ve done full-fledged yoga routines in my dentist’s waiting room. Even if the flooring was as comfortable as a visit to the dentist. At home, while I have a closet full of mats (for my students), I prefer to feel my patio wooden deck underneath my feet and hands. 

yoga anywhere

Indeed, in February I attended group classes in Varanasi, India. Markedly, the only ones with yoga mats (out of nearly 100 practitioners) were the handful of White Western women. Undoubtedly, I look like Westerner. But, I practiced with the Indians. Sans mat. 

That said, we are in the U.S. of A. Here, few Americans feel comfortable without a yoga mat. For one, it delineates their turf in a group class. However, most rationalize the need for their own yoga mat based on comfort, and concern for cleanliness. Whatever one’s perceived need may be, that shouldn’t trump the preference for an eco-friendly yoga mat.

Finding an Eco-Friendly Yoga Mat

cork-and-pvc-mats

If searching for an eco-friendly yoga mat seems more difficult than nailing your mayurasana (peacock pose), ConsumersAdvocate.org has done all the work for you

To honor ahimsa for the planet,  the team of testers only assessed mats manufactured without PVC. Taina Cuevas was the lead researcher. She’s editor at ConsumersAdvocate.org, a 20-year yoga practitioner as well as a mindful meditation instructor. 

By comparison, she notes, “Almost half of all yoga mats are made from PVC. These mats have a number of plasticizers and additives and, given that studies haven’t been conducted on yoga mats, in particular, it’s not certain how these would affect people who come into contact with the mat every day.” Equally important, “The second reason is the staggering amount of pollution PVC creates during its ‘lifetime,’ from manufacture to disposal. It’s not biodegradable and almost impossible to recycle. In fact, if it’s mixed in with recyclables, it can actually contaminate the rest of the batch.”

yoga in Mexico City

Just as yoga has become commercialized, and most probably don’t pay attention to ahimsa, or even know what that means, the yoga industry for the most part, just dabbles in eco-friendly efforts. Or, worse, make claims that can’t be substantiated. That’s one of the reasons why  each of the. ConsumersAdvocate.org preferred eco-friendly yoga mats was sent to the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, MI for additional testing for any toxicity. 

What may be marketed as green, might just be a shade of blue or yellow. While the unbiased, independent consumers group chose not to consider any mats made with PVC, they included mats made with less detrimental man-made products. However, I’m only highlighting the two most eco-friendly yoga mats. One, is made out of cork and natural rubber. The second, recycled wet suits.

The wet suit yoga mats were also voted the best for many reasons. Furthermore, 100 percent of the testers said they’d buy one for themselves or as a gift. While I’ve never seen the mats, I love the concept. 

Yoga Mats Made From Wet Suits

eco-friendly yoga mat

Suga mats were created by a surfer yogi (I’m guessing SUGA comes from that). He’s also a former environmental attorney. Beyond the obvious benefits of taking discarded wetsuits that would remain in a landfill forever, and turning them into yoga mats, the factory is run totally on green energy. 

Additionally, Suga recycles their own mats along with any scraps. As a practical side note, the mats can be hosed down or even cleaned in the shower. Finally, a portion of Suga mat sales benefits the non-profit, Sustainable Surf.

Cork and Rubber Yoga Mats

eco-friendly yoga mat

So, I have a cork yoga mat. And, I had a rubber mat, which was my favorite until it may have gotten a bit of heat stroke. That said, I haven’t tried a cork on top of rubber eco-friendly mat. Canada-based Tranquil Yogi is the maker of what ConsumersAdvocate.org found to be the most eco-friendly yoga mat. The company offers additional yoga gear from biodegradable materials, such as cork blocks and massage balls

My cork mat is heavy, so I keep it at home. Likewise, the Tranquil mat weighs six pounds. To offset the weight, a bit, it comes with its own carrying strap.

According to the researchers, “Cork might just be one of the most environmentally friendly materials on the planet. Cork provides natural protection to some of the most common bacteria.” It’s also interesting to recognize that harvesting cork does that affect the life of the tree.

For a complete review of all the mats analyzed, visit https://www.consumersadvocate.org/yoga-mats

pura vida costa rica

Ahimsa for the Planet

save-our-planet

Ahimsa (non-violence) is at the core of a yogic lifestyle. It may include a vegetarian diet, seva (selfless service or karma yoga) as well as ahimsa for our planet.

According to an Earth Day article in the Hindustan Times, half the world’s wetlands have been lost since 1900. Global warming is on steroids, with the ten warmest years occurring in the last 12 years. National Geographic reports that “plastic production has increased exponentially from 2.3 million tons in 1950… to 448 million by 2015.” 

My Efforts at Ahimsa for the Planet

hand wash clothes for the environment

My green undertakings date back 31 years. I hand washed and air dried my daughter’s old-fashioned flat, square, cloth diapers. Sometimes, 13 in a day. It was a major pain. But it felt right. The sun was nature’s disinfectant, and bleach. No chemicals or toxins to irritate her. Nor huge piles headed to the land fills. 

Today, my ahimsa for the planet routine is far more enjoyable. My favorite: DIY toiletries.  Most store bought items are expensive, filled with toxins, and heavy packaging. Handmade versions are affordable, clean and green. And, simple to make. Mouthwash. Body scrubs. Room fresheners. Insect repellents. Shampoo. Conditioner. Even de-tangler. Basic ingredients are baking soda, vinegar, coconut oil and your favorite essential oils.

Finally, as a 45-year vegetarian veteran, I’ve saved about 4,500 animals’ lives, As a vegan, according to researchers at Loma Linda University, I’ve generated 41.7 percent less greenhouse gases than a meat-eater.  

Tips from a Yogi in Nicaragua

Ahimsa for the Planet: it's easy being green

To make eco-friendly differences in the planet, it helps if you find things that work with your lifestyle, and about which you feel good. Following are green practical living tips from others mindful of ahimsa for the planet

“If you think about what’s happening around the earth, and how humans are treating the planet, and the helpless other beings living amongst us, you can’t help but feel a sense of violence. Violence doesn’t have to come in a form of a punch, or a fight. It’s a form of violence to take advantage of what nature provides us, and not care what our footprint leaves behind,” comments Kristen Claeys. Kristen is an American yoga teacher and Thai Massage body healer currently living in Nicaragua.

She notes that in Nicaragua, litter is much more visible. In part, because of the lack of garbage and recycling facilities. At the same time, life is inherently less wasteful in Nicaragua. 

“We consume less waste down. Life is much simpler,” she explains. Moreover, when you pass by landfills daily, our eco-system is hard to ignore. “So you feel it’s your duty to do better. When we return to the States we realize how bad it really is there as well, and do our best to keep with the same practices, even if we’re only there for a few days.”

Among Kristen’s ways to respect the environment, is avoidance of single use plastics. Beyond the water bottles, she has a stash of reusable bags, even for veggies and fruit. Equally important, she makes concerted efforts to reuse—and reuse— before trashing. 

Sourcing is also important to this vegetarian.

“I order clean, organic veggies from a local farm where I know my food is being sourced sustainably. We also unplug all electronics when we’re not using them, and don’t use A/C to cut down on electricity use.  And, our houses have solar hot water heaters.  This is our small way of protecting the earth. Practicing nonviolence against Mother Earth, Pachamama.”

Tips from Yogis in Wimberley

Jeanne Lamb was raised vegetarian, and cognizant of ahimsa. A yoga teacher with several kids, and a small grand baby, she tries to keep ahimsa for the planet top of mind. She has always recycled, and practiced low/no impact camping and hiking with her kids.  Her newest favorite green tip helps keep waste to a minimum when not at home. 

“I bought this set (of bamboo travel utensils) at a little health food store while traveling, and love it so much. I think everyone should have one,” she says. Additionally, she takes reusable straws with her.

Oona Mekas is a yoga teacher, doula, student midwife, and mother of a young child. She, too, takes stainless steel straws with her when she’s out and about. Additionally, she stores a large stainless steel bento box in the car to use as a grab-and-go doggy bag.  

When it comes to laundry, she notes that drying times are shortened when you add a ball of woolen yarn. She makes her own from scrap yarn. For laundry detergent, she foregoes plastics jugs in favor of powders in cardboard boxes that can be composted. 

Additionally, Oona recommends reusable silicone bags, wax paper, and cloth napkins for school lunches (such as the ones pictured here). 

Vedas Promote Less Waste

Finally, Dayananda is a San Antonio-based author of “Modern Culture—A Dangerous Experiment.” He runs a culturally-based movement, Save Earth Now to share his concern for the planet. “Human greed causes most environmental destruction. If we corrupt the earth, our happiness will suffer,” he says. 

ahimsa for the planet

Turning to the wisdom in the ancient scriptures, he points to a passage in the “Bhagavad Gita.” “The Gita makes a brilliant analysis. Greed starts with attachments to bodily comfort. The attachment turns into craving. From craving those comforts, greed is born and grows.” 

Conversely, detachment is one of the key principles in yoga, and Vaishnava culture, of which Dayananda relates.“ The concept of detachment is deeply engraved in Vaishnava society. The idea of collecting too many material goods is not a part of the culture. It is a modern intrusion.”

Additionally, he notes that one of the three essential components of dharma is austerity. As a result, “Vaishnavas are model environmentalists. They minimize meat eating, periodically fast, waste less … honor detachment instead of consumption, and establish practices that are enjoyable without being destructive.” In other words, ahimsa for the planet.

Authentic Yogasanas

It’s not everyday that you see beautiful yogasanas in a museum. That’s why I did a double take at the Albert Hall museum in Jaipur. There is a great collection of sculpted clay yogasanas (postures). 

padmasana-mayurasana-peacock pose in ancient clay sculptures at Albert Hall, Jaipur, India
Lotus and Peacock Yogasanas

Albert Hall is named for a former Prince of Wales. It is the oldest state-run museum in Jaipur, and one of the oldest in Rajasthan. It “became a centre for imparting knowledge of history of civilizations, inspiring traditional Indian arts, crafts and architectural forms…”

The museum dates back to 1887. Of course artifacts far precede the opening of the facility.

Authentic and Everlasting Yogasanas   

cobra pose at the Albert Hall sculpture display, Jaipur, India
cobra pose, bhujangasana

The display of yogasanas features some of the modern-day common poses. At the same time, most are not part of your typical Western yoga class. Beyond the cobra pose, the other yogasanas can require years and years of practice to master. Together with patience.

Cowherd Yogasana at Jaipur's Albert Hall
gorakshasana-cowherd-pose

According to the museum exhibit, yogasanas lead to the higher goals of yoga.

Namely, to control and govern the “erratic Ego to restrain it from generating worldly desires and to aid the mind to concentrate within itself. Yogic postures and meditation help in achieving these objectives for physical health and spiritual evolution.”

The featured yogasanas, “exquisitely sculpted and painted 19th century clay models, are on display here. Their provenance is probably Krishnagar, West Bengal, where the art has survived and flourishes to this day. The figures show a range of postures (Asanas) by different Hindu sects.”

What’s more, taking a close look at these small sculptures, one can ascertain which lineage they represent. In particular, from their forehead markings.

Four Different Hindu Sects

adhomukh-nirguna clay model at Albert Hall, Jaipur

First, are the Shaiv. As the name indicates, they are worshipers of Lord Shiva. This lineage traditionally wear the burnt sienna-colored rudraksha beads. Most notably are the colored tilak (markings) on their foreheads. They paint three horizontal lines above the eyebrows. 

Next are those that honor Vishnu. Again, the name refers to Lord Vishnu. These are the Vaishnavs. They trace yellowish tilak in two vertical lines at the forehead. The parallel lines narrow down and connect at the bridge of the nose.  

Different from the Shaiv, Kanphata are ascetics that venerate Lord Shiva. Their traditions meld different practices. For example, bits of Buddhism, yoga and alchemy. As such, they are recognized by their gauged ears. Often, the earlobes are plugged with metal or wood. Plus, they may insert pieces of bone in their hair. While their heyday was between the 12th and 15th Centuries, there are still followers today. 

Lastly, the Nirguna are Vedantists, followers of Shankaracharya. This sage was born in Southern India, in the state of Kerala, around 780 CE.

In any case, the exhibit confirms the legacy of yogasanas among the different Hindu sects. And, the benefits that, even today, its practitioners recognize.

Pushkar, India has 52 ghats surrounding a lake

Feeling Blissful in Pushkar, India

Pushkar-temple

Recipe for feeling blissful in India. Start with a small town. Next, be sure it’s sacred. Far from an airport. No railroad station. Temples and ghats (ceremonial bathing spots) everywhere. Finally, for the icing on the cake: no alcohol or meat anywhere in town.

I knew Pushkar would be a special, place. But I had no idea that I’d feel so blissful here. Especially since my first two weeks in India were hectic, running from one place to another. Buses. Planes. No sleep. Maybe my Pushkar hostel boosted by blissfulness by being away from the center of town, surrounded by green crops and trees.

Pushkar was a charmer. I felt blissful here. As did others. 

I chatted with a New Yorker at a Pushkar outdoor cafe. She seemed super blissful, despite the jet lag. She arrived in India and headed straight to Pushkar. This was not her first, or even second, time here. She knew what she liked. Pushkar. Hence, she came here as soon as she could.

She said that Pushkar has a special energy. Hence, she was in no hurry to go anywhere else in India. 

Feeling Blissful with Baba

Cave temple in Pushkar, India

While much of India moves at lighting speed, Pushkar has a slow flow vibe. You can easily chill at a cafe. At a temple. A ghat. Your guest home. Or, in the marketplace. 

My high five for being blissful was a visit with the potato baba, about eight kilometers outside of Pushkar. 

Aloo Baba has survived eating only potatoes, for 25 years. His ashram is, in part, in a cave.  Way off the beaten path. It’s a good guess that American women rarely visit with the Baba. While he spoke no English, and there were about eight other men seated on the ground around him, I felt pure bliss in his presence.  

Aside from feeling blissful with the Aloo Baba, another area where mylevel of bliss was extremely high was at the Jain Mandir (temple).

Pushkar-temple

Perhaps the abundance of bliss in this town is a result of the holiness? Or, the fact that there’s a temple almost at every corner. It’s a place for pilgrimages and there are temples galore here. 400.  And, the last census counted about 250 households.

Whether it’s admiring the temples from the outside, or watching the devotion from inside, the sacredness fills the town. Or, does it diffuse outward from the center of the town. The lake. This is where blissfulness — and holiness — is even more evident. Pushkar Sarovar (lake) surrounded by 52 ghats. Not for splashing around, the ghats facilitate immersing oneself for a spiritual cleanse. 

The Holiness of Pushkar

Pushkar, India has 52 ghats surrounding a lake

In Varanasi, the ghats are like a string of pearls on the shore of the Ganges River. In Pushkar, the ghats are 52 beads of different shapes and sizes that surround the lake. I was definitely blissful hanging around one of the ghats, getting blessed, and hearing stories about the legends of Pushkar. 

“Vishnu made tapasya (a commitment to an austere spiritual life) here for a long time. Then, water came out of his body to form a lake. Originally it was much bigger. But during Kali Yuga (the age of darkness) it shrunk,” an elderly Brahmin explained to me.  Additionally, he said that one of the three mountains in Pushkar, visible from most anywhere, is called Nag Parvati (Lord Shiva’s wife and mother of Ganesha). He tells me it’s in the shape of a sleeping cobra (nag).

Feeling blissful near Pushkar, India, at sunset

“Vishnu was sleeping and then meditating, and a lotus flower came out of his belly. That’s how Brahma (the supreme God of creation) was born. Said ‘tap, tap, tap.’ And Brahma meditated for 60,000 years on the lotus flower. Vishnu said to Brahma, ‘what’s the purpose of meditation?’ Brahma said, ‘I come from the lotus and I want to make a new universe.’ So one lotus flower became Brahma, and from the heaven he threw the lotus and wherever it falls, this is your place.” 

Surely, that’s why this lovely city it called Pushkar. Pushpa means lotus flower. Kar is a symbol for hand, or, doing/making/causing. Like Kar-ma.

Thereupon, “Brahma said, ‘I am born here, and want to make a puja’ (fire ceremony). But ceremonies require the spouse, and Savitri was late.” Like most women, the Brahmin laughs. So, what was he to do? Find another wife.”

What’s more, Indra, the rain god, or god of the sky, was also at the puja. Brahma enlisted him to find him his next consort. 

temple off the beaten path in Pushkar, India

“A gopi gave grass three times yielding a cow each time.”  While Gayatri is the name of one of the best known mantras,  it literally means three cows. Furthermore, according to legend, Gayatri was the consort sent down from the heavens by Indra, to fill in in Savitri’s absence. 

But, alas.  

“Brahma’s son, Narada, brought Savitri down from the heavens. Savitri said you can only do a puja here.”  

In the end, better late then never. Enraged that he wasn’t going to wait for her, she put a curse on Brahma so that others would no longer worship him. In reality, this is one of the few Brahma temples in India. 

Unquestionably, the woman had the upper hand.

Ahimsa in India: Wildlife Sanctuaries

Travel, to me, is about learning and sharing. Karma yoga (self-less service) has been integral to my trips the last ten years. The yamas and niyamas also surface when I travel. No cruises or resorts. I enjoy home stays, and support ethical tourism.  Likewise, when I shop, I prefer to buy from artisans or non-profits.

Travel, to me, is about learning and sharing. Karma yoga (self-less service) has been integral to my trips the last ten years. The yamas and niyamas also surface when I travel. No cruises or resorts. I enjoy home stays, and support ethical tourism.  Likewise, when I shop, I prefer to buy from artisans or non-profits. On my last trip, I sought out examples of ahimsa in India.

Among my greatest memories were visits with non-profits displaying ahimsa in India. I learned firsthand about societal needs. Plus, I witnessed the operations and enterprises of those dedicated to make a difference.

One day, we had the choice of shopping, relaxing, or visiting an elephant sanctuary. I opted for the elephant sanctuary. Easy choice. Especially after I discovered it was part of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s India itinerary.

Canada’s PM has always been one of my favorite politicians.  He can rock some very challenging asanas. More importantly, married to a yoga instructor, he reflects yogic principles, such as ahimsa. Do no harm to any living being. 

Wildlife SOS in Mathura is a great example of ahimsa in India. Himsa (violence), unfortunately, has been common in India for centuries, when it comes to some animals. The essence of ahimsa isn’t reserved for humans. So hearing and seeing the vestiges of the animal abuse was disheartening. Hopefully, people will recognize how animals are tortured in the name of tourism, religion, or traditions, and help put the A in A-himsa.  

Ahimsa in India at Wildlife SOS

ahimsa in India at Wildlife SOS

Wildlife SOS opened its elephant sanctuary in 2010 in response to the dire need to protect, rescue and rehabilitate elephants in India. Mathura, the birthplace of Krishna, is 60 kilometers northwest of Agra. About 8 million tourists head to Agra’s Taj Mahal, yearly. However, highly linked to the tourism industry, are slave-like conditions of beautiful animals. 

Our Wildlife SOS guide, appropriately named Siva, made it clear that elephants should not be toys or photo opps for tourists. Ahimsa. Siva shared that big businesses, including hotels, often circumvent the laws. Just to put wild animals on display in an unnatural, harmful manner.

Thanks in part to Wildlife SOS, the Indian government enacted laws to protect the animals. Ahimsa in India. However, laws can’t erase the damage done…to the wildlife and eco-system. Nor can laws can’t reverse cultural attitudes and practices overnight.

Hence, the role of Wildlife SOS goes beyond rescuing and rehabilitating the animals. Wildlife SOS lobbies government to protect the animals. At the same time, public awareness is essential to stop abusive animal trades.

Animals are Sentient Social Beings

ahimsa in India at Wildlife SOS

Himsa is obvious when you see the tools of the trade for the elephant “masters.” Torture is routinely inflicted on the elephants to force them to follow man’s orders. This is against the rules of nature, Siva suggested. No animal that weighs thousands of pounds should be subservient to a 140-pound man.  

Beyond the methods of torture use on the animals, they are separated from everything that’s normal for them. Elephants are long migratory animals. In fact, the roaming contributes to proper gene flow. Aside from the fact that these elephants are brought to some of the largest cities in the world, their natural habitats are now almost non-existent. Humans have encroached on the elephants’ eco-systems and patterns. At one point in time, “The whole of India was for elephants,” says Siva. “Now, it’s just patches.” Stark patches. Himsa. Consider that six out of every seven elephants in India are now captive.

Regrettably, once elephants have a taste of captivity, they cannot be released back into the wild. They no longer can fend for themselves.  Moreover, elephants are social animals. In captivity they are isolated.  

“It’s like a slavery industry,” adds Siva. “These are wild animals. They should never be in the human world.  We are trying to give them as much space as possible (at Wildlife SOS).”

Himsa vs. Ahimsa in India

All the 21 elephants at the Mathura Wildlife SOS sanctuary were in critical state when they arrived. Emaciated. Wounded. Physically and emotionally. 

Wildlife SOS dispenses veterinary care, proper diet, and positive attention. Additionally, the staff encourages the socialization between the elephants. Several of the elephants are partnered with their best buddies. 

Before and after pictures of the elephants display the realities. Appalling. Inhumane.

One case. Raju was in chains for 50 years. He passed through 27 owners. “He was a skeleton when he came to us,” Siva says. 

Another example. Asha had joint and leg injuries as a result of carrying tourists up steep inclines on hot pavement.

Still another. Phookali was a “begging elephant” for many decades. When rescued, she was blind, and could barely stand. 

And yet another. Kalpana was eating the dirt and mud when Wildlife SOS transported her to their animal hospital. She was blind and dehydrated. The Wildlife SOS ambulance, the first of its kind in India, included watermelons, pumpkins and sugarcane to immediately nurse her back to health. 

11 Sanctuaries Across India

In 1995, Wildlife SOS began to rescue dancing bears – and their owners. In 1998, the 400-year-old practice was banned. The non-profit recognized that livelihoods passed down from one generation to the next were lost. As a result, Wildlife SOS re-trains the bear owners, and even supports them to launch new businesses. 

Today, India is free of dancing bears. Wildlife SOS has 11 centers. Among them, six are for bears, two for elephants and one for leopards. The organization also rescues, rehabilitates and attempts to release back into the wild, hundreds of primates and thousands of reptiles.

Wildlife SOS, with a 501c3 designation, welcomes donations. Visitors in India can shop at their cafes and gift shops. Better yet, volunteer for several weeks at a time.

candramauli swami of ISKCON Prison Ministry

Men in Orange #8: ISKCON Prison Ministry

Candramauli Swami is one of the Men in Orange who sat with us at our wall-free classrooms in India. He has been wearing his orange robe for five decades. However, he spends much time with men that some of us picture wearing black and white stripes. Five decades ago he became a direct disciple of Srila Prabhupada. The founder of ISKCON, Prabhupada first approached incarcerated populations in Delhi in 1962, not long before he came to America to bring spirituality West. His teachings led to the creation of the ISKCON Prison Ministry, established more than 30 years ago.

Candramauli Swami currently leads that endeavor, and has authored two books about spirituality and the incarcerated. The “Holy Jail” redacts activities of the ISKCON Prison Ministry that has changed the lives of hundreds of inmates. His second book is called “Forbidden Voices.”  

Originally from New Jersey, he spends most of his time based out of an ashram in Chicago. Nonetheless, he travels frequently to share his wisdom. Our stars aligned. He was at both the Mumbai Flower Festival and later Govardhan Eco Village while my group was there. The following summarizes his pre-kirtan discussion with our group.

What About Me?

From 1986-1991 Candramauli Swami visited directly with people in prisons. Later, he began letter writing outreach. Today, he does both. “Prabhupada wanted this kind of preaching. We have good success.” As part of the ISKCON prison ministry, one former inmate joined the Chicago temple and writes a newsletter for the incarcerated. 

Candramauli Swami of Iskcon Prison Ministry
Candramauli Swami leads kirtan at Govardhan Eco Village

The ISKCON prison ministry program is a wonderful way to reach the hearts of people that are considered persona non grata, explains Candramauli Swami. The inmates can start to relate to other people more. ISKCON prison ministry transforms them inside and outside. 

Matter changes. It begins, develops, deteriorates and vanishes. Likewise, this body will begin and end. What is the heart? It’s a machine. It’s just an organ. The brain is simply a machine.

But WE (our souls) are eternal. The soul (you) is in the heart region. We naturally want to feed that soul. On the spiritual plane, every thing is perfect.  Yet, we spend practically all of our time doing things that are related to body. But what about me (my soul)?. When we focus on the material, we are surrounded by temporality. 

If you take all the parts of the body and put them together, do you have a life? There’s something else that gives animation to the body. That’s you. The soul.

So what is the answer? Spirituality.  As we connect with God, we connect with ourselves. 

Spiritual activity is reality. Peace in spiritual life is always growing.  Spirituality only gets more and more brilliant when you feed it. For example, the closer you get to fire the more you feel the heat.

Spiritual Life is Life. 

Participants chant with Candramauli Swami at Govardhan Eco Village

Material life is what we do in this life to fulfill our desires. Our relationship with God is our relationship with everything. Everything is connected to the source. Everything is connected to God. 

Consider the tale of a man in search of a buried treasure. He never finds it. Once he dies, he’s buried. And guess what? When they dig his grave, they find the treasure. That is an analogy for the concept that happiness is in your soul. It’s always part of you. Just buried sometimes. However, oftentimes, spiritual life can awaken you.

Or, consider your dreams. Who is seeing, and who is being seen?  Who’s real?  The one watching is the soul. Even in our wakened state we are seeing ourselves.

We need to turn things around. Educate that which comes from within. At the Universities we don’t get an education. We get a coat of paint. God is like the stomach. When you feed it, it expands. The soul knows everything. Past, present and future. The soul experiences no unhappiness. 

As we connect with sound, it awakens this happiness. The most powerful form of energy in this world is sound. Sound can create, destroy, transform. 

ISKCON Prison Ministry Feeds the Soul.

Sound vibrations are so powerful. The ear never stops acting. It is always alert to sounds, and our bodies feel vibrations.

Most of us recognize music as the language of the heart. It brings us happiness.

By chanting, you’re feeding your soul.  Chanting leads to a deep sense of peace. From that peace comes happines.  That joy is not something you can manufacture. It all starts from sound. 

Trying to understand through logic and reason falls short. You must feel it. Experience it. Then, you’ll believe it.

Move On. Karma is the Past.

Close up of ISKCON Mumbai temple carvings adorned with flowers

Some people think they have bad karma. Karma is very difficult. Some children may show signs of superb intelligence. Like a Beethoven. That, too, you can say is karma. Karma is not just the bad. Karma is simply our past histories. The soul is carrying karma from previous lives. No one is born with a clean slate. No one is perfect. Bad things happen to good people, and vice versa. Regardless, you can improve your standing. That’s one of the intangible benefits of the ISKCON prison ministry program.

For those incarcerated, they have a heavy burden, and slimmer futures that most of us. Yet, we all experience periods of unhappiness. We we can’t stay in that state of consciousness. We have to move on. When you’re connected on a spiritual level, you move on. When we live our life around God, when we lose something from the material world, we move on. 

Give your love and emotions to God and you’ll always feel positive. He’ll reciprocate. 

We are all coming from the spiritual world. Some have chosen to leave God, and enjoy their days separately from God. God doesn’t interfere with your independence, or your choices. 

You can’t force someone to love you. If so, it’s not really love. Love is voluntary. Same with love for God.

Finally, time is conspicuous by its absence. Anything that’s born is under the influence of time. But in the spiritual world, there is no past or future. Just present. We think in terms of future and past. Learn from the past. Live in the future. However, everything exists now.

More Men in Orange

Read the other installments of Travels in India with Men in Orange, featuring learnings from Radhanath Swami, Chaitanya Charan and Shyamananda Das.

Photo of Srila Prabupadha in Vrindavan

Men in Orange #7. Radhanath Swami Speaks about Vrindavan

One of the many reasons why I chose to travel to India, earlier this year, was to visit the holiest of places. Vrindavan was top of the list, and my group stayed in Vrindavan for four nights. Throughout our journeys, we were accompanied by two men in orange, about whom I previously published six articles

Both these two Mumbai-based monks, as well as the two Chicago-based women who coordinated our tour, are disciples of Radhanath Swami. Coincidentally, Radhanath Swami was born and raised Jewish, in Chicago, as was I.  I’d heard this best-selling author and founder of numerous mega-charitable initiatives speak many times during his travels to the U.S. This trip was different. We were on his turf. My small group was graced to have an intimate get-together with him in his Mumbai office. Later that day, we were among the lucky ones granted entrance into his jam-packed temple for an incredible Flower Festival. 

A week later, we heard him speak to visitors at his award-winning Govardhan Eco-Village, located several hours north of Mumbai. At one of those open-air sessions, as we sat upon cow dung “flooring,” he spoke about the importance of visiting Vrindavan.  The following is a synthesis of his remarks. (Note: Radhanath Swami will give a rare public lecture in Chicago April 27, from 6-8 p.m. at Harris Hall in Evanston.)

Vrindavan is the world capital of bhakti (devotion/divine love).

Throughout the Bhagavad Gita, there are references to devotion.  Krishna says, “as one approaches me, with the sincerity of one’s motivations, that’s how the lord will respond.”  Other interpretations are, “As they approach me, so I receive them. All paths, Arjuna, lead to me.” Or, “In whatever way a devotee approaches him, he accepts them, for men approach him from all directions (4.11).

If you look at the history, such as England and India, “control,” is not positive.  When we are subordinated, we are controlled. Subordinate means losing. It’s a negative word. Yet in the spiritual world, it’s most beautiful to be subordinate to God’s heart. That is the highest liberation. The ultimate liberation. To love is to serve selflessly. Without arrogance.  

All of the great spiritual enlightened people have taught us that we must experience happiness in our heart. Real wisdom is to see the hand of God and to be grateful, as a grateful heart can recognize the blessings in everything. Gratitude is one of the most essential virtues for real inner prosperity and happiness because it can connect us to the Divine.

In the science of divine love, there is union and separation. That is magnified in Vrindavan. Here, the bhava or the feeling of prema or love between the Lord and His devotees is always increasing through union and separation.  Actually, the Lord never leaves Vrindavan, neither does He leave our hearts.

Vrindavan is a holy pilgrimage site

It’s important to be in a holy place of pilgrimage. Vrindavan has always been a primary aspiration for Vaishnavas seeking a spiritual pilgrimage. 

Why do all the spiritual paths recommend pilgrimages?  During a pilgrimage, one puts everything else on hold. It’s a time when we can invest — spiritually. Whatever benefits we get are forever there in our hearts. Going to a place of pilgrimage is so important. It’s a time in our lives to just seek our spiritual goal. 

We take for granted all the miracles all around us, such as the light from the sun. Vrindavan is not only an incredible place from the spiritual aspect, but also from a place of history. Vrindavan was Krishna’s playground. The sites for his lila

At a holy place, there is eternal love and beauty.  When we speak of spiritual energy, it’s never lost. The blessings of a spiritual energy you never lose. If you’re tuned into the spiritual channel it’s very clear. Without that energy, it’s static. If we go to a holy place, we can be spiritually transformed. We pray together. Chant together. That association (sangha) is very important.

The power of grace in Vrindavan

Radhanath Swami at ISKCON Chowpatty, Mumbai

Bhakti means to tune into grace – to Krishna’s grace which is all pervading. The path of bhakti is to access that grace by humility and devotion. Thus, we cleanse our heart through the path of bhakti

The power of grace may be the greatest power. This grace which is the extension of God’s love can heal. The grace can intervene, and bring light to where there was darkness. Even when there’s such misdirection. 

The founder of ISKCON, Srila Prabhupada, said, “if one chants the names of the Lord sincerely, without any ulterior motives, and practices bhakti in that spirit, we can tune into that grace.”

Vrindavan is a place emanating this grace. Not only is it almost synonymous with Krishna, but neighboring Barsana was the home of Sri Radha — the supreme reservoir of love. 

The power of grace in Vrindavan

artwork by Vrindavan schoolchildren

Bhakti means to tune into grace – to Krishna’s grace which is all pervading. The path of bhakti is to access that grace by humility and devotion. Thus, we cleanse our heart through the path of bhakti

The power of grace may be the greatest power. This grace which is the extension of God’s love can heal. The grace can intervene, and bring light to where there was darkness. Even when there’s such misdirection. 

The founder of ISKCON, Srila Prabhupada, said, “if one chants the names of the Lord sincerely, without any ulterior motives, and practices bhakti in that spirit, we can tune into that grace.”

Vrindavan is a place emanating this grace. Not only is it almost synonymous with Krishna, but neighboring Barsana was the home of Sri Radha — the supreme reservoir of love. 

Losing focus on the material  in Vrindavan  

deities in Vrindavan, India

The word Krishna means magnet, and all attractive. In our real world, everyone seems to be looking for pleasure and trying to avoid suffering and pain. Have you ever seen anyone that didn’t want to be satisfied? Some seek satisfaction through clothing. Others, with music. There are many different material ways that people seek satisfaction. But these are temporary.  

The most obvious things, we don’t recognize because we’re distracted.  Petty things. All the little things like fish in our lives could elate us. The big fish is the higher purpose of life. When leaders are consumed with all these petty things that never bring satisfaction to the heart. 

In the scriptures Krishna says “I am the primary manifestation of nature.” Krishna controls time and teaches us to remember him in eternal forms such as the sun and the moon. In reality, everything is eternal. Which is summed up when Krishna says “I am.” 

Human beings are not meant to be like computers that store data. We are not infallible memory chips. Theoretical knowledge has no true value, unless it brings realization. The purpose of knowledge is to bring wisdom. 

Nothing is material. Rather, the energy of the supreme. Just as a shadow is the absence of sun, we recognize there is a sun that causes the shadow. Likewise, to focus on the material is to forget god’s spiritual energy. We can turn that around through seva. That “selfless service” is about being in harmony with with the supreme by focusing our efforts away from ourselves or the material. That leads us to karuna, or compassion. To really care about others. Make sacrifices for others. 

Each and every one of us is limitlessly beautiful because each one of us is reflecting the dignity of our creator. We are all emanating from that same sun. Unity in diversity.