I am the mother of two adult children, a former English teacher, practicing yoga instructor (25 year practice; 20 years a teacher); lead singer of The Starlight Honeys); I garden, hike, snowshoe, cook, write poetry, and hang out with my squeeze, Declan, my kids and two kitty cats. Life is good in NH, where we live on "Dragonfly Farm," a 30-acre hilltop and forest paradise that borders White Mountain National Forest and Conservation land. Our studio is Dragonfly Yoga Barn, where I teach daily classes, lead yoga retreats, run yoga teacher training, and more!
I woke up thinking about my India peeps this morning, and look what showed up in my Facebook memories today! I took these five pics in March of 2020 at the market in Coonoor. Nagaratjan (bottom left selfie w/me) has been my “chai” buddy since 2015, always offering me masala tea at his little stall packed full of toiletries and surrounded in decorative bindis. I always buy a pack or two, and stick a tiny jewel to my third eye, as I think about the energy of a particular goddess I want to connect with that day. Nagarat wears a horizontal tilak on his forehead, and I’m not sure if it is made of sandalwood or vermillion, or if it is to show devotion to a particular deity or simply cultural, but whenever I go into the market to snoop around and take pictures, he is there with his sweet face, and he always calls me in with a smile and says: “Tea? Sit.”
After three years of not traveling to India, I wasn’t sure if any of my market acquaintances would remember me right off the bat when I peeked my head into town this past February… but it was as though I’d just been there. Some smile, some bobble their heads (a typical Indian gesture of affirmation or recognition), one older gentleman I’ve purchased jasmine from year after year, sees me and puts his hand over his heart and hands me a red rose, and then seven more–one for each of the women with me.
And then out of seemingly nowhere, Miss Shanti runs up to me under the blue tarps in the middle of the market and throws her arms around me asking how I’ve been all these years I’d been away (I literally cried tears of joy as my friends took pictures of us hugging each other).
All of the beautiful people in these photos from 2020 still hold their shops in the market, and it is such a joy to take their hands in mine, share a few words, and say “namaskar,” or “see you again soon.”
I miss the simplicity of the days there… the rhythm of sunrise, teaching yoga on the mountaintop, the feel of warm oil over my skin on a chilly morning, cows and dogs walking in the same little lanes as the people, eating food so fresh and being so close to the land, bowing to each other, smiling with our eyes and hearts… sunsets and stars over the mountains, smelling herbs in my hair when I hit the pillow each night…
And then I realize, this IS my life, both here in NH, there in India, and everywhere I am. No matter where I wander, I’m always surrounded in Nature, always seeking beautiful food, always sharing yoga with people, always singing a song, always in practice, always learning, a seeker of beauty in people, places, creatures. There is no other way but to go out each day and let my heart lead me.
I feel an integration after this past trip like I’ve never felt before. I’ve been home for six weeks, but I’m still settling. Steeping. Turning it over like I’m turning soil in my spring gardens. I’m still “me,” but shifting. Dr. Sundara said to hold steady and just do the work. To surround myself in the energy of the goddess Durga. To practice my kriyas. To sit on the roots of trees and chant. To keep up with my meditation. It feels good. It’s sometimes uncomfortable. It’s an excavation. It’s kinda messy, but I like it. I hear that voice that reminds me to “do no harm, but take no shit.” I’m standing up for myself more (thank you, Durga). I’m giving myself permission to take time outs and just get off grid and off grind. I’m growing a spiritual being inside this human body, and that requires dedication and practice–sometimes with my pals and sometimes on my own.
So if you see me sometime and I’m wearing a bindi on my forehead to connect with the energy of a goddess I love, or if you smell cardamom and cinnamon in my hair after I’ve been cooking all day, or if I’m a bit slick with sesame oil after taking care of my skin, and if I choose to bow and say “Namaste” or “Om Nama Shivaya” and it’s not during a yoga class, it’s just that I’ve decided not to separate my personal daily practices from my day to day “social” life anymore. Yoga and Ayurveda are living practices, meant to be integrated into our days, not hidden in the yoga studio or left in the back seat waiting for a moment when self care is convenient. The faces in these pictures reminded me of that today, and I am grateful.
To say our therapists, Dr. Sundara Raman, and the staff here at Mountaintop have held us all with so much love and care is an understatement. Words cannot describe the physical and emotional outpouring of compassion, attentiveness, and detail for our individual needs. I feel so held, so seen, so deeply nourished. The gratitude between all of us at the retreat is flowing in every direction–we are literally bathing in love here.
As many of you know, this is our 6th Ayurveda India Retreat, and in the pre-Covid years we were at a different location than we are this year. As excited as we were to begin this new journey, my heart also yearned for the staff at our old retreat, where all of the therapists had become our family and our friends. To my deepest surprise and excitement, two of the staff from our old site are now at Mountaintop: Parvathi, the therapist who gave me my very first abhyanga massage ever back in 2016, and Balaji, who came from the Ayurveda Retreat here to Mountaintop to become part of the male therapist team. Having Parvathi as one of my panchakarma therapists this year has been the sweetest gift I could ask for. From facial massage to deep tissue, from to oil baths to enemas, from to nasya and herbal pounding, Parvathi has been a steadfast and loving hand in my treatments. I cried when I saw her standing with the staff of therapists on the first day (below), and I cried at my last appointment (too many tears to let someone take a picture).
Each day when I go to see her, she holds me tight like a sister. I tell her I love her, and she says “I love you too, mam.” I take off my robe, hang it on a hook next to her cardigan, sit down on the stool, and she begins: “Head massage, Katie, mam?” “Yes, please.” She kneads her fingers into my scalp and does a little gentle karate chop with her two hands all over my head. Then she pours warm coconut oil into her hands and makes circles on my cheeks with her palms. She fluffs her fingertips under my neck, and uses her knuckles like a guasha tool as she traces the line of my jaw.
Then to my shoulders with special herbalized oil prepared just for me. She sweeps long strokes on my arms… then hand massage… in between the shoulders and up and down the spine. Parvathy’s touch is soft, slow, strong, and when I’m in her hands, it is as though she becomes my mother, sweeping away all of my worries. Each touch is a blessing, carefully and genuinely offered from her heart.
And that’s just all the prelude to the massage. When it’s time for the primary treatment of my session, the second therapist hops up out of her seat on the floor and begins to bring up the heat on the oil. After a round of karate chops to my back (and if I’m with Jansi or Indra, a quick little love tap to my hips!), I move from the stool to the table, a humongous plank of wood with brass fittings and drain holes for the oil to pour down into a collection pot to be reheated and again brought by hand to the body. The first few days are dual massage abhyanga, meaning two therapists work the entire body: long strokes for long bones, softer strokes over joints. Indra and Parvathy ask: “Pressure okay, Mam?” “Perfect,” I say. “Both same, Katie-mam?” “Yes, my ladies,” I say. I give them a good squeeze at the end of every session and tell them how grateful I am.
The entire team of therapists is outstanding, and we are so lucky to get to experience treatments with every single one of these remarkable women. Each one is incredibly special, gifted, sweet, giving, and expert in their care: Indra is one of the veteran therapists who worked at the other retreat for years before coming to Mountaintop. I love her deep brown eyes, the even stroke of her strong hands, and the way she always comes right up to hug me before every treatment. Indra also gave me four days of steam treatment, sitting in the room with me while I was in the “box,” making sure I wasn’t too hot and asking if I needed a sip of water. I love this silly picture of me in the steam with my sweaty head poking out!
Jansi is small but incredibly powerful, and her deep tissue massage is DEEP. Hello hips!! I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the unique combo of “it hurts so good” and been able to stay with the intensity of the work. Her sweet eyes and reassuring “I’ll take care of you, Baby,” were the balm in some of those first deep tissue massages. She is in the middle of the picture below:
Selvi is the quiet one (second from left). Beautiful, strong, loving, and always arms open for a morning squeeze, She is calm and steady, and she always makes me feel like I deserve to be there receiving the gift of all these treatments. At the end of every treatment, we receive a “bath” with a powder scrub to absorb excess oil. You literally stand naked in the corner while they pour steaming water over you, washing you face to foot. Selvi always had a little mischief in her eyes when she’d throw the last few pails of water at me.
Latha is the youngest in the crew (far left in the above pic), and training to be a PK therapist. With three babies at home all under the age of 7, she has to leave her family with her mother each day to pursue a career in Ayurvedic massage. It now takes three years of training and practice to earn the title of therapist, so Latha shadows her four sister therapists, heating the oils, offering the post massage baths, practicing the abhyanga strokes, all under the watchful teaching eyes of her elders. There are many treatments to practice and master, one of which is shirodhara, or the pouring of warm oil across the forehead in a slow stream. It is incredibly calming, soothing, and most of the time, I fall asleep in the middle of the treatment. I have received shirodhara from all of the therapists; I think Indra took this photo of me:
So here’s one of the touchier (ahem) panchakarma therapies: enemas. But your bum bum is as important as any other part of your body, so I’m going to make a place for this in my post. Vasti (oil or ghee enemas) are a big thing in PK. Most of the folks in our retreat had these therapeutic treatments as part of their protocol, and the benefits are many (I’ll get to that in a moment). It’s important to understand how and why these treatments are so effective. Dr. Sundara explained that we take enemas after our midday meal so the belly is full and the organs and tissues in the area are ready for the process of absorption. When herbal formulations are administered anally, the oils enter the rectum and can even reach the lower colon, especially if held for several hours. Here the absorption rate of the mucosa is very high, and more herbs can be absorbed.
Not only is this treatment great for your colon and surrounding tissues, it’s pretty awesome for your enteric, or intestinal, nervous system. We’ve all heard that your gut is the “second brain,” but Dr. Sundara said in Ayurveda it is seen as the primary brain–and it is super important to your mental wellbeing. So, long tubular story short, Ayurvedic enemas are a prized therapy, helping us to unclog years of fecal plaque and icky bugs while restoring gut flora and helping to balance excess Vata. It is a longevity treatment I am very grateful for. Still need a list of benefits to be convinced?
Helps those with acid reflux
Clears bowels and helps with constipation
Helps eliminate gluten intolerance
Removes unwanted toxins and accumuluated ama in the tissues
Helps with joint issues and low back pain
Helps with obesity and supports weight loss
Good for IBS and Crohn’s
Helps with lactose intolerance
Excellent for supporting the reproductive system and balancing hormones
Used to support those with Chronic Fatigue syndrome,
That’s the short list. There are hundreds of kinds of enemas and preparations for all kinds of medicinal and therapeutic purposes. I highly recommend! At the end of the day, each one of us in grateful that all of our therapists are so dedicated to us and this process they are helping to facilitate with the doctor’s guidance.
So let’s put an end to the enema convo for a bit, and go back the beginning of the digestive system. Even though the focus of this post so far has been the PK therapies, the food is really the primary medicine we take in each day. Our amazing kitchen staff is incredibly talented and hardworking: Indrani, Maheswari, and Mahalakshmi are our three wonderful lady chefs who serve us the most beautiful meals each day, and always with genuine smiles.
Indrani’s husband, Narayana, is also a huge part of the dining experience. This husband and wife duo are at the helm of the operation, working from morning til night for us. This beautiful picture below was taken by Mary Lenihan, one of the guests in our retreat. Can you imagine chopping that much papaya?
After 6:30 am yoga class, we all pour into the dining room to see what the daily fruit will be. One day it’s papaya, another it’s pomegranate with two humongous gooseberries soaked in white honey (amazing vitamin C and highly beneficial during rasayana, or the rejuvenation process), and then this beautiful bowl of mango with bananas… O. M. G. Sometimes there are figs, one day there is avocado with honey, and twice we had cool applesauce with golden raisins on top. Some of us eat just the fruit for breakfast, while others receive a second grain-oriented breakfast of oatmeal, some type of dosa, vegetable rice, or a millet dish. I love my morning fruits!
Lunches are plentiful and always include a pile of vegetable sabji (could be pumpkin, okra, cabbage, or ivy gourd with mild Indian spices and a bit of shredded coconut for sweetness); then there is a veggie soup or dahl (so yummy), and always a fresh, hot chapati, made by either Maheswari or Indrani. I kindly ask Narayana for ghee to drizzle on my chapati, and he raises his middle finger, his gesture for”one minute,” and then he glides back out and silently delivers the golden liquid to my hands. I spread the ghee out all over my bread and sprinkle pink sea salt and a pinch of black pepper on my steaming delight! For anyone weary about bread and wheat at home, let me tell you, I ate chapati every single day and still lost considerable weight and digested well–what a wonderful gift to make friends with wheat while I was here. Check out this beautiful dish below: cabbage sabji, beet salad with orange peel and lime juice, lentil stew, and hot chapati!
And during ghee week and purgation, we ate two kitchari meals per day:
We had access to various churnas (spice mixes) for each dosha (meaning, in this case, our current state of imbalance, or Vikruti). Because our food is mildly spiced, the effect is sattvic (balanced, peaceful, calming), rather than too spicy, which can increase pitta (fire), leading to inflammation in the body and aggravation in the mind. Even without salt and pepper, the food is delicious–purifying yet grounding. Even the bitter gourd was delicious (and typically I steer completely clear of it!)
Here are a couple group kitchen shots–one of the “shiro” crew at cooking class, and the other of the group at dinner:
Finally, a few words about our wonderful physician, Dr. Sundara Raman. I found our good Dr. years ago online and have been following his FB and checking in on his website to watch the growth of his small center since I began studying Ayurveda back in 2015. To know he and my friend Dr. Mouli were colleagues at the previous retreat and that Dr. Mouli speaks of Dr. Raman with such high regard truly helped John and I choose Mountaintop as a new location for our retreat. As someone who owns and operates a retreat center, and as a group leader who facilitates retreats around the world, I take finding the perfect location very seriously, and it was an arduous choice to bring people to a place I had not attended personally. Dr. Sundara (as we call him) exceeded every expectation I had and then some. From his kind, humble demeanor to his incredible breadth and depth of knowledge in Ayurvedic medicine, energy body knowledge and ability to diagnose chakra imbalances, his profound spirituality and his tenderness with each and every patient in our group, I feel we could not have been in more perfect hands or a purer heart. Early on in the experience when so many of us were “on” ghee, we would sit to have our pulse read, and then he would ask us to stand in the sunlight to prepare the body to receive the energy (prana) of the sun into our ghee and our bodies. For a half hour, the doctor made his rounds, chanting blessings over the ghee and standing with each one of us in the rising sun. This photo might be one of my favorite captures of all this year.
You might wonder what it’s like to be held in this doctor’s awareness: daily pulse diagnosis, tongue check, and conversation about how we are feeling physically and emotionally. He asked if I remembered what I dreamed in the night and then proceeded to help decode them (if I chose) based on my personal experiences with the medicine. Each day I was asked “do you have anything to share with me? Do you have any questions today? Do you have any feedback on your therapies?” and each day I have been thanked for my presence at the retreat.
I know I have gained an incredibly talented and intuitive physician to support my body~mind~spirit medicine, and I know I have nurtured a beautiful new friendship with a person who is able to see me through a lense through which I don’t think a health provider has ever spent time to really see me. It has been one of the deepest dives I have ever taken in recognizing myself, caring for myself, and nurturing all aspects of my being. These words are inadequate in describing the level of gratitude I have for Dr. Sundara and his loving and abiding care.
As we depart from Mountaintop and say goodbye to new and old friends, hug our therapists tightly with gratitude, and bow with our hands over our hearts as we say “Namaste,” the well of my heart feels impossibly and wonderfully full.
John and I have already booked next year’s Ayurveda India Retreat, and we will be so overjoyed to return to our new hOMe here in the Nilgiri Mountains. Until then, wishing all of our Dr., therapists, cooks, staff, and dear retreat guests so much love. Oh, and John de Kadt: thank you for sharing this amazing experience with me as your co-leader. I am so blessed to call you my friend and brother in this endeavor.
Hullical is the sweet little tribal village that shares the tippety top of the mountain with our retreat center. It’s just a stone’s throw across the tea, and if we step out the back gate and scoot up the path to the twin trees and the blue temple, we can be there in less than two minutes. The people are warm and open, they are always asking if we can come for tea, and they have the purest smiles–it is just a wonderful thing to see people living so simply, so peacefully… so presently. A couple other teeny villages sit on the slopes of the mountain where little plateaus stretch out just far enough for a row of terraced houses, each unique, some decorated with chalk mandalas, some with laundry, and others with dishes drying in the sun.
I love how the gentlemen come out to sit in the sunshine every day. This smiling man is taking a break from tiling his entryway. His kitty cat certainly enjoys his company!
Whether resting, walking, or carrying a 50 lb. bag of tea, each of these men share a warm smile and engage us in conversation: “Namaste,” “Vanakkam!” (hello), “Where are you coming from?”
And then there are the ladies who sit in doorways, rest on stoops, pause in the shade after hanging laundry or putting dishes out to dry in the sun:
Each house is brightly painted, some in need of much repair, some kept tidy with the doorway decorated, some seemingly vacant while others are a beehive of energy with people in and out, babies, kittens, and a tiny puppy all adding to the thrum of life in this happy village where we have been met with so many smiles.
These two ladies just came from the tea fields with their “cut” for the day. Each bag gets weighed and then added to the overall harvest.
There is a family of women who come out to greet us nearly every day. The young girls, Karthiga (14) and Bhavya (12), ask us about our families, wanting specifically to know about our sons. We scroll through photos and show them pictures of our husbands, and when we get to our sons, they call their mothers to look at the photos and croon with “ahhhs” and “ohhhhs.” Karthiga asks what our sons do for work, and the younger sister tells us if they are not married next year, we can talk when we come back to visit!
We see these old friends sitting most days just resting and talking:
I have so many photos of houses, doorways, and beautiful faces in this little pastel village, that I could fill a hundred posts just like this one. We have all loved walking here and visiting with our new friends that have made us feel so welcome here. Blessings on everyone here in this peaceful place.
TREK: roam, ramble, tromp, traipse, hike, jaunt, plod, pilgrimage, wander, take a long journey, or explore. TALK: chat, converse, chatter, catch up, share stories, communicate, address, utter, express…
Each day we find a new path to walk or a village to visit. Our treks through the tea zigzag up and down hillsides and can be as wide as a dirt road or narrower than your hips. Since Mountaintop Clinic (MTC) is situated at the very top of and overlooking the massive Glendale Tea Estate which encompasses thousands of acres, we can literally see hundreds of pathways through the immense carpet of green. Each day we watch teams of workers out clipping tea — so many that the estates build cottages up here in the hills to house their workers and families, complete with schools.
On the other side of the mountain is the Bengorm Tea Estate, and beyond that another, and another. The entire mountain is carved into plantations with swaths of forest breaking up the cultivated tracts of land.
There is a stark difference here between the manicured tea, trimmed neatly every few weeks with box cutters, compared to the forest which is a veritable jungle of cypress, agave, eucalyptus, wild ashwagandha, groves of lantana, silver oak trees, Indian sage, neem trees, and giant champaka magnolia trees. It is home to indigenous bears, panthers, leopards, elephants, wild dogs which look like foxes, and even boars (we saw one today!). It’s for this reason we are not allowed to leave the retreat on foot after 5:30 pm and until well after sunrise, as that’s when the wild things are about. Just a couple nights ago, several bears were outside the electric fence not far from Molly and Tiffany’s room, and even though there was no way for them to get in, apparently they caused quite a ruckus! In the morning the doctor said they made a visit because they could smell the mangoes in the kitchen that were for our breakfast!
Anyway, back to the walks. Clearly we are not walking in the dark, but when it’s bright and sunny, most of us head out for a jaunt at some point in our day in between our therapies, so we buddy up with folks who have similar break times, and off we go.
There’s the loop that begins at the bottom of the MTC driveway and goes through the forest and wraps around the mountain top (fine in daylight hours). Most of us have done that one a few times now, as it was the first guided walk Dr. Sundara took us on, pointing out all of the indigenous plants and their medicinal properties and uses. Point to a plant, and the doctor can tell you its name, its family, what it is used for, and anything else you might want to know–just fascinating! Mary Beth asks about the little blue beehives we see, and the doctor goes off on a tale about all the various mountain honeys and shares that our breakfast gooseberries (Amla or Amalaki), are soaked in a local white honey.
One of the days we walk with the doctor, he takes us to visit a family that cares for Lakshmi, one of the well- loved mama cows that gives us all of the milk for our retreat. The milk is used in chai, it is made into ghee, which is used both for cooking our chapatis and other tasty meals, and it is the base for numerous herbal preparations, including the herbalized ghee we drink, and even in some enemas folks are being given. We all thank her for her wonderful milk which is the base for so much of the medicine here.
We meet tea cutters, old men hanging out on temple railings, and a woman carrying a huge bag of tea on her head while talking on her cell phone! And these two old ladies just could not smile enough when we asked them about their bag of tea–they wanted us to reach in and smell the leaves. Here’s Mary Beth taking a scoop:
A little closer to home, there’s a short walk to an ancient olive tree with a small shrine under it. We are told it is wonderful for anyone to go and sit under, especially women, and particularly to support the root chakra. One day Karin, Val, and I go here to sit and chant “LAM” under the tree. It is a sacred place.
The doctor guides us on another trek where we get to walk through the tea and down a set of steps over 250 years old and left over from the time of Britain’s occupation here. Yes, they are as steep as they look!
One of my favorite walks is through the little tribal village of Hullical, which is full of smiling people, puppies, kittens, and brightly painted houses lining a little patio-like street just for foot travel. Every time we stroll here we are asked in for tea, or where we are from. Often we ask if we can take their photo, and then some ask if they can take our picture, and we all laugh. The people are so dear and sweet, and they are genuinely curious about us and interested in our fascination with them!
Karin and I keep remarking how we have a perma smile each time we visit this village. I’ll do a story in pictures of this town in a separate post–it is so sweet.
One day, Karin and I wander off the beaten path and end up walking through a little row of houses and feel like we’re in someone’s back yard. Imagine a stranger walking through your yard in the US? It would feel like such a violation of your privacy… but here, people see you and want you to come in for tea. So we are wandering along, and in the distance is a young woman, maybe 18 or so, hanging laundry in the sun, sees us and smiles. We ask if it’s okay to be walking there, and she beckons us to come, and when we get to her, she is so intrigued by us, that she asks if she can take a photo of us. Karin and I sit on a rock, and pose. Then we do a selfie with her, and I ask her name: “Jyoti,” she says. We bow to each other, say thank you, and continue our hike, looking back and waving at Jyoti as we climb the path out of the village.
Today a dozen of us walked 5 miles with Dr. Sundara through the tea, a village, the forest, the winding road, and then finally back into the tea and up the MTC driveway.
The gently setting sun warmed our faces and backs, and except for the forest where we had to go single file and silently, we walked and talked, our little pockets of conversation like the path, up and down, around, and through. It feels so good to walk on this ground, like my feet have been here for lifetimes. The red dirt has become a part of my sneakers and socks, and the people–they are just so beautiful and don’t even know it. I look out over the mountains each morning and wonder where I will roam today?
With love and worn out from both walking and talking,
Here on the top of the mountain, the sun rises early between two bumpy hilltops I can see from my bedroom window. I draw the shades open before dawn, when just a thin red line slices the horizon in half. Below is the valley, stretching out for hundreds of miles and through layers of gray pre-morning light; above there are still stars and a sliver of moon hanging in the eastern sky. The villages in the hillsides below are half hidden in the dark, except for a few twinkling street lights, and the first bulbul has begun to sing his song.
With every moment that passes, the sky becomes redder, then a deep peach rises upwards, and before long, the orange sun squeezes up between the two hills and pours light over the tea on this side of the mountain. Birds sing from every tree, from all the rooftops here, from the tea plants, from the lantana flowers–a bird lover’s paradise! Green swallows, tiny chipping sparrows, demonstrative crows, a wren of some kind–even a trio of peacocks walked through campus the other day!
So what IS this place where we are parked for three weeks in the middle of the wilderness? Mountaintop Clinic is a residential Ayurvedic facility that hosts people from around the world who are on a quest to restore health and balance in their body, mind, and spirit. Ayurveda is the world’s oldest medical system, born here in India and is said to have been received intuitively by the ancient Rishis (a Rishi is an Indian seer or mystic who obtains and reveals divine knowledge), in this case directly from all of the plants in Nature. If we break the word Ayurveda down, we get: Ayur = life and Veda = knowledge. This venerable, intricate, and beautiful system of medicine is based on the idea of balancing the body via diet, herbs, treatments, and yoga practices; in fact, it is often called the “sister science” of yoga.
Most of us begin the day with some kind of herbal remedy, whether it’s in tablet form or kashayam (a potent herbal blend we mix with water and then drink). Mine are bitter and the liquid is a bit hard to take. I pinch my nose and thank the herbs as I drink them down in one gulp.
We dress in layers and head to the chilly yoga hall by 6:30, roll out our yoga mats, and practice our pranayama, some warm ups, and then sun salutations as the hall fills with light, and the first heat of the day allows us to peel off a layer. I love teaching here, and our wonderful group loves yoga, so we have fun and are playful, each one of us listening to our own body as we move, breathe, and explore.
By 7:45 Mahaeshwari, Mahalakshmi, and Indrani are ready to serve us fresh fruits: juicy papaya and ruby pomegranates. We pour cups of ginger and fennel tea, and there is a porcelain bowl of crushed jaggery to sweeten it up just a little if we like. I relish every bite of fruit, and listen to the chorus of happy voices as we eat with pure joy. Some will stay for a breakfast of oatmeal or dosa and chutney or grains of some kind, and others are doing a deeper dietary cleanse and will only have the fruit in the morning.
The sunrise, yoga, and fruit might make it look like a resort, but I promise you, it is a challenging undertaking not only to commit to this program and to get here, but to be present with all of the things that come up when you experience what we call the “deep dive” into your health. All of us here at the retreat will experience the benefits of Panchakarma therapy (pancha = 5; karma = actions), a powerful and dynamic protocol of Ayurvedic practices to cleanse the body from the inside out to rid the body of toxins (Ama), and then to rebuild and heal the body & mind. The first three prepare and then cleanse the body, and the last two are considered rejuvenative actions:
Snehana (literally means “love”) Abhyanga (warm oils are applied over the body to induce calm and relaxation, generally by a team of two therapists)
Ghee cleansing (internal oiling with medicated ghee to remove toxins from the organs and tissues) for 1-5+ days, followed by
Virechana (purging the body of toxins, generally via the bowels), induced by an herbal decoction
Vasti therapy (oil or ghee enemas), which nourish the colon and surrounding tissues; and finally
Nasya (nasal oiling), which not only softens and nourishes the nasal tissues, but calms the mind and is known to help clarify the third eye.
Many other therapies are used to support these primary ones, including svedhana (or steam baths to promote sweating out toxins during the taking of ghee–see me sitting in the steam box, left), Shirodhara (the pouring of warm oil over the forehead in long, even strokes), or rejuvenating eye treatments, for example (I did those for two years in a row–amazing!). All of these therapies intend to provide rejuvenation and promote longevity by curbing and potentially eradicating (with regular panchakarma) diseases in the body and mind.
One of the things I love so much about this medical practice is that it includes not only curative advice (when we might really need to work on a chronic imbalance or ailment in the body or mind), but also preventative suggestions from the doctor that, together, over time, bring us closer to a state of balance and harmony.
Abhyanga massage is standard for everyone the first week to help us ground and to soften our tissues for the days ahead when all of us will be taking medicated ghee for 1-5 days, followed by a day-long purgation, before our other treatments and rasayanas begin. Most people have one of these in the morning before lunch
When it’s not our turn for a therapy, there are consults with the doctor, beautiful nature walks, time to read a book on the patio or have a nap. In the early days of the retreat, our mornings are pretty sweet. We settle in together to begin a journey that is hard to put into words, but I’ll keep trying to give you a taste of what it is like to be here. SO much more to share on the treatments we experience–just wait!
For now, the morning is calling, and I’m headed out to watch the sunrise.
At 6,000+ feet up on a 35,000 year old mountain older than the Himalayas, it might be easy to understand why I fell into tears upon arrival here in this beautiful place on a pristine hilltop surrounded by tea plantations in every direction as far as the eye can see! But let’s back up so you can hear about the journey to get up here.
This is my 6th visit to these beloved mountains, and our driver, Shiva, has been navigating this singular road up and down from Coimbatore to Coonoor for 35 years. He collects us at the airport and whisks us off into thick Coimbatore traffic full of bus horns, tuk tuks jockeying for position, pedestrians crisscrossing the road, and, of course, a cow or two that slows the whole process down.
The first hour or more is flat as we pass from city to sprawling towns into countryside full of banana and palm fields. Neither Karin nor I have eaten since last night (it’s now 11:45 am), and we are pretty parched after our flight, so we ask if Shiva can stop at a coconut stand. He pulls into the teeniest roadside stall I’ve seen, and a little man plucks a green coconut out of a pile and whacks the top off with a machete.
He pokes a pink straw into the hole and hands it to Karin. Next one is for Shiva, and finally for me. It is the most delicious nectar, and I drink it down in between “mmmms.” After the coconut water is gone, we hand our empty nuts back to the man, and he chops them in half and makes a spoon out of the skin for us to scoop out the coconut “jelly.” To say it’s delicious is an understatement. We relish each bite before we get back in the car for the mountain portion of the journey.
In no time, we are rising into the clouds, and Shiva takes the gazillion hairpin turns with incredible precision. I imagine he could do it in his sleep, but he is alert and focused, even as he tells me stories of all my old friends and what people are up to in the three years since I’ve seen them. I’m in a place of trust, but I remember my first ride up here, and I’m sure I squealed on numerous occasions. I imagine all of our new guests coming the next day and picture their faces as they experience this ride. One can either feel terrified and maybe woozy, or decide to tap into the race up the mountain. Trucks beep their horns, motorbikes try to pass us on the curves, and a gigantic lorry nearly plows into our bumper on a blind corner. Karin and I gasp, then laugh… Is it delight? Horror? Relief? All three, I suppose! I hold my handle in the back seat and imagine I’m on a motorcycle, lean into the curves, let my head sway toward the slope of the mountain.
As we ascend, the steep pitch of the Nilgiri Hills emerges out of the flat plains we left behind, and the crags of the mountains reveal rockslides, dried up waterfalls, and a thick lining of trees that shade the roadways and pit stops on the way up. Every once in a while a pop of purple jacaranda trees breaks up the foliage, and monkeys hang out on the guard rails, spectators of this daily race to the top. Sorry, guys, but we are driving too fast to get any good photos. I am reminded of the annual rally timed race up Mount Washington in my home state of NH, which is also just over 6,000 feet. Here the constant jingle of horns is a language of its own: it’s as if the cars, trucks, bikes, and occasional tuk tuks are all playing different musical instruments–some are percussive, some are in the brass section, some have almost the delicacy of ivory keys; but all of the drivers all communicate in this unique and intelligent concert that gets everyone up and down the mountain safely. We don’t see a single fender bender, even though it defies logic that we make it up without a scrape.
Shiva stops the car momentarily at a fork in the road and says, “if you go that way it will take you to the old retreat,” and my eyes peek uphill with a little pang in my heart. I’ve gone that way so many years now, and here I am taking a new road to a new center. I am excited but a little nervous. Will I love the location as much? Will our retreat guests feel the same affinity for the doctor I’ve come to know over the past few years of emails and What’s App calls? What about the staff at the old retreat? I miss them and long to see their familiar faces, even though I know they have all left there now since Covid. Will we fall in love with these new therapists the way we love our old friends? My heart feels a tug. Shiva drives on and on through the tea estates and a bit further up the road stops and points: “See that red tent up there? “That is Mountaintop.”
One more swish of a cow’s tail, a few more bends through the brilliant green tea, and we are nearly there.
The driveway is so steep, the tuk tuks don’t even attempt to drive up here. Shiva guns it and has to stop, reverse, and crank hard to the right to get up the last slope up to Mountaintop Clinic. At the top, Dr. Sundara appears to greet us. Karin and I thank Shiva for getting us up the mountain safely, and he takes our bags as the doctor blesses us with rudraksha malas and asks to show us around. I hug him gratefully, for it is so good to see his kind face for real after all this time.
He takes us to the new kitchen facility and dining room completed just in time for our arrival; he shows us the yoga hall, perched high up in the back corner of the property overlooking the mountains; we peek into different bedrooms and see staff making beds and cleaning in preparation for our group that arrives tomorrow. And then he walks Karin and I up onto the new patio that sits like a grecian deck, overlooking the mountains and entire valley below. I am so overwhelmed with joy, relief, gratitude, and awe that the tears slip easily over my cheeks, and I feel a deep heave in my chest that tells me I have landed in the most perfect little home on top of the world. I try to hide my tears, but the dear doctor can see I am emotional. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Dr. Sundara says. “It’s okay?” My heart is so full, I can barely get a word out of my mouth. “It’s just beautiful,” I say. “Okay,” he says sweetly, with the most earnest smile. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
We retire to our bedrooms, get ready for our first abhyanga massage, and the rest of the day is spent settling in, having our first of many Ayurvedic consultations with the doctor, eating delicious meals overlooking the tea fields, and unpacking. With few photographs of these first sweet hours, I’ll leave you with this one of me after my first massage with Indra, Selvie, and Jansi:
Nalanda is a yoga retreat on Mandrem Beach, tucked into a quiet nook between a few other retreats and boutique hotels. The sand is white and soft, and the vibe is easy going. There is a yoga teacher training (ytt) group here right now, so Karin and I are among those who are just enjoying the view, the amazing food, and the twice daily yoga classes.
Our classes happen at another retreat nearby because of the YTT, and we have to walk a dusty red pathway and cross a footbridge to get there. The river is wide enough and sadly polluted, but once on the other side the entrance to Ashiyana is beautifully decorated with statues and bowls of floating flowers.
We investigate a pathway that winds through philodendron, umbrella trees, palms, and red and green croton plants. Bright green vines creep up through the branches, and sunlight drips down through the trees.
When we step into the round shala, Prianka invites us to get a bolster, a sitting cushion, and blocks as we roll out our mats. The class will be “restorative,” she says, and her melodious voice guides us slowly and mindfully into the most wonderfully meditative deep stretch class I think I’ve ever taken. The class is over 2 hours long, and neither Karin nor I want to come out of savasana. Ever. It was that good.
We happily take the bridge and dirt path back to our little couch by the sea. Dinner is a divine buffet with different curries, rice, and cauliflower fritters that would have knocked my socks off had I been wearing shoes! Watching the bright red sun dip into the Arabian sea, turning the sky pink on its way down and eating such beautiful food was a highlight.
For three days we practice yoga twice daily with various teachers, all of whom are interesting and different. I never tell the instructors I am a teacher. I just want to be a student, and it is so enjoyable just to experience this practice with a beginner’s mind. Each shala is beautiful, and I learn so much in just a few days here.
The rest of our time we walk the beach, manage to get tans in the shade, watch yoga teacher training students come and go to their classes, and eat delightful vegetarian meals. It is a respite. From Mandrem we walk all the way to Arambol and Harmal Beaches and clock 15,000 steps in one morning as the sun rises. Yoga and meditation on the beach is a common sight on Mandrem, each group accompanied by a crew of wild dogs which lounge attentively as bodies stretch this way and that. Can you count the dogs in this picture?
Yoga cues are offered in French, Russian, Dutch, English… groups from around the world, all practicing this thing we call yoga. Pretty cool.
On the days we sunbathe (or shade bathe), we are visited by a dozen merchants, all selling trinkets and shawls, malas, and carvings. Karin and I each buy some clothes from a lady named Sita who is so engaging–we really enjoy our time with her. Three guys with malas come around and two of them (Raoul and Akilesh) are in a bit of a drama over who got to us first, so even though I want to, I don’t buy any strands, since I don’t want them to argue (although I’m wishing now I had just got a handful from each of them).
I have to say, I don’t really want to leave–the food is too good, and the view is so pretty. Our last morning we eat a pile of fruit and drink masala tea in our little spot. We watch the dogs, check our email, and then have to tie up our loose ends before heading South.
When we arrive in Bogmalo, it’s hot, and the little seaside town is busy with locals. The place we had planned to stay at smells so strongly of moth balls, Karin and I decide in one sniff that this is not going to work for us. We head down the street to Saritas, where the receptionist greets us with a beautiful smile and shows us to a room that opens up to a small restaurant on the beach. The glare of the afternoon sun on the water illuminates the nearly hundred people at the shoreline. Bogmalo, we learn, is a place for water sports, and a spot where local Indians come to play. There are boats, jet skis, and parasailing, and a small motorboat does donuts with an inflated “hot dog” raft attached with 6 or so people sitting inside and hanging on for their lives. The boat driver’s intent is to spin the passengers out, and they seem to enjoy being thrown from the hot dog bun, as there is plenty of squealing and laughter from the crowd–both spectators and those overboard alike.
Once we’re unpacked, we walk the strand down to Joet’s, a restaurant and inn that claims to be the best on the beach. Karin orders fresh mackerel in garlic, and I try the coconut curry with fish. It’s got quite a kick! We drink lime seltzer and share garlic naan as the sun sets over the beach.
Our two days here run together into an easy blend of beach walking, shop peeking, and lounging over long breakfasts as we attempt to check emails. The wifi is weak, and you have to sit in the restaurant to get it, so we make ourselves at home and sip watermelon juice or lime seltzer as the days grow hot. The handful of restaurants and bars here sit directly on the sand, and folks are genuinely happy and relaxed.
On our last evening, we eat gobi manchurian, jeera rice, and a yummy curry dish for dinner. A lovely couple with two children eat nearby and apologize for the behavior of their kids, who are not a bother at all. We end up exchanging What’s App numbers, and Wassim and Rafia invite us to come and stay if we are ever traveling to North India.
Before heading back to pack our bags and head to bed we take a stroll into the teeny town; the sunset is peach pink, and a ball of red fire dips over the distant island (hard to see in the pic), but the light is so striking, we stop to just take it all in. The temperature is perfection, so we continue down the road, pass a church and a little barber shop where a guy is getting a trim.
On our way back to town we crash a wedding reception at the Bogmallo Beach Resort. The pink sunset matches the decor of the wedding: pink tulle drapes, pink flowers, pink elephants, pink spotlights, pink beaded gowns. It is so fun to slip between saris and suits. A few people look at us curiously, but one handsome young man asks us to take his photo against the sunset backdrop. He then takes ours. It is a beautiful evening, complete with fireworks.
Bags packed, we set our alarms, excited about the journey home to Coonoor, where our retreat center sits up on a mountaintop at over 6,000 feet! I am so ready to begin my panchakarma here in the hands of Dr. Raman and his staff. It has been a long 3 years, waiting to come back to these mountains that have become such a home for me. So we fall asleep fast, and rest up for the journey up the mountain tomorrow.
Of the approximately 50 beaches in Goa, Karin and I are happy to stay on three very different and beautiful strands, each with its unique landscape and personality, each catering to its specific crowd of people. As a former Portuguese territory, Goa’s food, architecture, and culture have been steeped not only in its colonial heritage, but also influenced by hundreds of years of invasions, occupations, and religious wars. I was surprised to learn that Goa was still under Lisbon’s dominance until the 1950s, and that even after India reclaimed the “island” of Goa, as it is sometimes called, it didn’t become an Indian state until 1987. Perhaps this is why Goa feels both youthful and ancient at the same time. While old temples and estates crumble, yoga studios and retreat centers pop up between shacks and fishing boats. The old and the new live side by side, and walking the streets here, one can sense the tug of cultures.
In my previous post, I shared how we landed at de Soul Sante in Morjim, a pretty little boutique hotel just across the street from the beach–a long white stretch of sand with a thick waistband of bars and restaurants hemming it to the street. We like our room, and the staff is sweet, so we’ve decided to camp out here for another night and enjoy watching the sunbathers in such an array of beach attire and varying degrees of sunburn. If you had just dropped me here out of the sky, I could hardly believe we were in India at all. The only natives on the beach serve cocktails and smoothies to the tourists, and a few souvenir sellers carry their wares and plop down to share their anklets, shawls, or beads. Make eye contact, and you are done for, and if you buy from one, the next and the next will visit too. Karin and I end up with a lot more trinkets than we need even after one day.
A swath of lounge chairs line up under flimsy bamboo and thatch coverings which stretch out in deep rows on the way to the water’s edge, and upon all these sun beds in the shade are droves of tourists moving slowly after emerging from the haze of last night’s party. We already know we want to migrate up the coast to Mandrem Beach where things are a bit quieter and more of a yoga vibe, so we take a taxi from de Soul up to our next place to check it out. On the way, we learn about the night market in Anjuna, and after securing our room for the next three nights, our driver agrees to take us to the market for an extra fee. He talks the whole way about how much Goa has changed in his lifetime, and we listen and learn a lot on our journey. At the gate of the market, he pulls in and tells us not to let the return taxi charge us more than 500 rupees.
We are quickly swept into the colorful mix of locals and tourists, shopping for everything from spices to rugs to malas to beaded gowns. We stop at the first spice stall and each buy a variety of delicious churnas: coconut curry, biriyani masala, and Pav Bajhi, which smells amazing! I can’t wait to cook with them when I get home.
After my nose is saturated with deliciousness, we let our eyes carry us from stall to stall, each brimming with so much stuff, you can hardly get in to look around. Silk dresses and beaded dupattas hang like drapes in every shade of color, and women cram in to watch each other change and offer approval. I think many are buying outfits for weddings. I don’t know where to start, and before long the overwhelm sets in. We are literally roaming with no real focus–just in awe of the color and lights and noise.
Not far from the display of silks and in the main square an Irish band plays on fiddle and guitar with an Indian guy on a frame drum. I must be dreaming, I think… but yes, it is a strong Irish accent I hear, and the fiddler is ripping it up while the crowd dances and cheers. I take a video to convince myself what I’m seeing is real.
Around the bend is a table covered in beads, and prayer malas dangle from a line in the spotlights. As we start to finger through the beads, Karin gets to one and says, “this looks like the one I got here three years ago that broke!” She’d packed the broken mala, hoping to get it fixed while here, and sure enough, Shiva remembers her. They have a sweet chat while I pick amazonite beads and a bronze Ganesh pendant to make a mala. He agrees to make Karin a new mala to replace the one that broke, and for us to come back in a half hour.
The crowd ebbs and flows, and we follow the turns through the market. I try on some dresses, we pick through journals and handbags, silk shorts, and jewelry for at least an hour, and stop to marvel at a little makeshift spa pool where hundreds of tiny fish dine on the soles of several willing customers.
When we get back to Shiva, he isn’t finished just yet, so we hang out until he ties the last bead, and make a plan for him to meet us on the beach tomorrow so he can fix Karin’s other mala and deliver my Ganesh, which he hasn’t started yet. Bags in hand, we head for the exit and ask for a cab. The guy wants 700, but I tell him 500 and am firm. He says 600 and we start to walk away, but they call us back, agreeing to 500 rupees. Off we go into the night!
It’s after midnight when the taxi drops us off, and the Russian party is in full swing. Walking to our hotel, we see the last of sobriety sink into the disarray that will litter the beach in the morning. By the time we get back to our room, Karin realizes she has left her bag full of spices, new pants, and new mala in the back seat of the taxi! But by now the car is gone. We fall asleep to the thud of beat music pumping into the air, and I realize that even this close to the beach, I can’t hear the waves in this town.
After two nights in the party zone, we wake in the morning, enjoy a leisurely breakfast of masala omletes, fruit, and coffee, pack our bags, and go to meet Shiva on the beach. He hands me my new Ganesh mala and ties Karin’s broken one, adding the lost bead.
It is already steaming by noon, so we are game to get to Mandrem Beach where the streets are quieter and the clientele is a mix of bohemian, yoga students, and locals who run a handful of jewelry shops and pashmina stalls. Our room at Nalanda Retreat is again across the street from the beach, set back from the road, so it’s quiet and peaceful. As soon as we are settled, we find a sweet couch overlooking the beach, and have a cup of tea before yoga class. It’s a gorgeous spot with flower petals strewn over the tables and a sign that reads: “Today is a good day.” Yes it is.
Karin and I board the Delta ~ KLM flight from Boston to Amsterdam an hour before departure. My new Osprey backpack, which I chose for its compact profile, already feels heavy. The plane fills slowly, and we find there are many center rows completely empty, so once the plane is aloft, we snag a row each and plan our rest. After a quick dinner, I make a pile of pillows, cover myself in a blanket, and I’m out. This is only flight one of eleven we’ll take in six weeks, so four hours of uninterrupted sleep is a blessing on the beginning of this journey.
As we approach Amsterdam, the neon red sun is rising. I catch this snap as we taxi to the terminal:
Our 5-hour layover begins with a black coffee and a perfectly crisp croissant with butter and jam. We chat for a bit, then find a nook to sit and check emails. I lay down on the green vinyl couch and fall fast asleep. Karin has to shake me to wake me. Our departure gate has changed, and by the time we get there, it’s a pile up. Our section is already boarding, and we are miles from the top of the cue, so we wiggle up and pass through. Thank goodness. It’s a full flight and the overheads are bursting long before boarding is complete. I am in a window seat behind Karin with two Indian men to my left. It’ll be 8 hours to Mumbai on the inside, and I know I’m going to have to pee at least twice on this flight, so I make friends with my neighbor, Rajat, who immediately asks if I’ve been to India before, followed by his wondering about my favorite Indian meal. He tells me to try Pav Bhaji and Vadapav. I write it down, and a few minutes later ask if I can get by to go to the restroom.
We touch down in Mumbai on time at 2:15 am, but the plane is chockablock full, so it takes an age to disembark, and by the time we get to customs, the lines snake around in long coils and don’t seem to be moving. We have 3 hours ‘til the next flight, so neither of us is concerned, but then we learn our connecting flight is taking off at a different terminal requiring a taxi or bus ride. Karin asks a customs attendant about the wait line and if there is a way to expedite our getting through to our connection. We are directed to a different line with a half dozen or so people ahead of us (which was like a dream when looking back on the crowd of easily a thousand travelers all waiting in the snake coil).
Ahead of us is a couple who can’t seem to get through customs. They have to do their fingerprint images over and over on the little machine. The customs agent barks commands. By the time we get up there, another 15 minutes have gone by. No movement in the coil to our left. Three tries and my fingerprints are finally accepted–I’m through! Then Karin. We literally take off through duty free, which forces you to wander in a zig zag through chocolate and perfume. People stroll leisurely, but we need to book it, so we carve our way through, and sprint out of the main terminal to the bus lot. The driver and baggage attendant care nothing about our attempt to make our connection, and in fact say we have “plenty of time,” but by now it’s 4 am and our next flight is at 5. No worries, I tell myself as Karin and I sweat in the pre-dawn heat. Another 15 min, and the bus finally pulls out, packed full with foreign nationals just like us all trying to catch connections.
By the time we get off the bus, the “Go First” check in line is out the door. We report to the ticket counter, and the receptionist tells us the gate is already closed, but tells us to “cut the line,” and get to the front fast. No one bats an eye as we again maneuver our way through the thicket and up to the MP checking passports and boarding passes. Karin doesn’t have an official pass, and I don’t have a seat declared, so once we are through, we run to the next counter, cut the line, and the girl calls the final gate to hold what we think is the boarding gate while she prints us tickets. Another sprint, and we are directed to get on another bus (yes, another bus), which takes us ALL the way back to the International terminal to board our domestic plane. We had literally left the main terminal 90 minutes before, took a 10 min. ride to the domestic terminal, only to get a boarding pass and get back on a bus to our origin point. Only difference is that we board the plane on the tarmac. The most ridiculous time wasting travel situation I’ve ever seen. And this is normal. Once we are in the air, I look back to see the lights of Mumbai over the wing.
An hour later we arrive in Goa as the sun rises and our cab driver, Sarvesh, greets us with a smile and immediately takes Karin’s pack, and off we go. The air is thick with dew, and we drive into the morning with the windows down. Statues of Ganesh and Shiva sit on the dash, so I know we’re in good hands.
Sarvesh takes us to the pathway to our hotel in Mandrem, but it turns out to be a different place than Karin remembers from her previous trip, so we get back in the car and proceed to Morjim. The hotel is under new ownership and has a new name, but we stay anyway, and decide to give it a try.
Morjim is a bustling little town with beach bars and seaside restaurants that open onto the sand, and although our quiet little retreat is on the other side of the busy street, once the heavy bass beats begin at 1 pm, we quickly realize we’ve landed in the party zone.
The beach is lined with shade huts and chaises upon which are scantily clad sunbathers from Russia. They clearly own the beach; even the street signs and menus are duo-lingo Indian and Russian. By the time we lay down our heads just after 8 pm, the music is full tilt across the street. Regardless, I fall into a deep and long sleep. 11 hours later we awake to sunshine and crows. It’s our goal to practice yoga at least once a day, so we head to the shala, roll out a pair of mats, and practice as the sun rises. It’s hot by 8:30 am. We finish with a half hour meditation, then head to breakfast.
Our waiter brings us a bowl of fresh fruit: watermelon, kiwi, strawberries, pineapple, and dragonfruit. We order masala omelets and share a plate of aloo paratha. Oh and an espresso, which I mix with a cup of hot water to make a short Americano–just enough to brighten me up on this beautiful morning in Goa.
All week @ Dragonfly Yoga Barn I’m weaving in Warrior 2 pose to our Flow classes. Today I opened class with a message about how we can learn to find the strength and stamina to reside in our personal power and to consider what it is we “stand up” for, while maintaining a softness that allows us to be at ease and to do our work from a heart-centered place. What is each of us here to do on this planet, anyway? Standing in Warrior 2 (or residing in any pose for that matter) gives us a chance to practice what it means to maintain a sense of ease and to remain steady and grounded even when we are under physical and / or mental stress.
I shared a version (as there are several) of the mythological story of King Daksha, his daughter Sati, and her husband Shiva, the lord with the matted hair and dreadlocks, blue skin, a man deeply connected to Nature and preferring to hunt and meditate than socialize. Daksha had never been impressed with his beautiful Sati for marrying such a distasteful character with his weird skin and crazy hair. Sati stayed true to herself, however, and created a beautiful life with Shiva, despite her father’s dismissal.
On the occasion of this story, the King prepares a huge sacrificial celebration and invites all the deities but chooses not to invite his daughter and horrendous husband. Sati finds out and asks Shiva to accompany her to the party to confront her father, but Shiva stays behind not wanting to anger Daksha with his presence, while Sati stands in her own power and marches confidently into the party to confront her dad about the lack of invitation. He taunts his youngest child, unloading his litany of reasons why Shiva is a horrific beast of a husband, who is more like an animal than a man. While her father and his company of guests laugh and jeer, Sati, in silence and with strength, and fully prepared to separate herself from her family to stand in her truth, walks past her father toward the sacrificial fire, sits down on her own, and in deep concentration and focus, immolates herself by her own internal flame and dies in front of the array of esteemed guests.
When Shiva hears of his dear Sati’s death, he is overwhelmed by grief, confusion, and an anger that becomes a rage. He explodes into unfocused action, ripping dreadlocks from his head and throwing them wildly to the ground at Daksha’s party. Two swords erupt from under the earth where the dreadlocks land and form Virabhadra, an avatar of Shiva that stands with blades drawn overhead in Warrior I stance, ready to slice heads and dominate the guests with his anger and ferocity. When Virabhadra opens his arms wide (Warrior 2), he takes aim, pointing his swords out across the horizon and focusing his intense gaze. Swiftly, he moves to Warrior 3 and slices heads from necks with the whip of his blades, including King Daksha’s own head, which rolls on the ground, leaving Sati’s father in a heap beside her own burned body.
It takes a while, but eventually Shiva reabsorbs Virabhadra into himself and can see the horror his avatar created. He immediately regrets the severity of his uncontrolled anger and power, and he wants to make amends. Have you ever felt like this? When your anger was in the driver’s seat, making it impossible to connect with your heart, your “true North” as they say? In our heart of hearts, there is no room for anger and violence; that place is reserved for love and only love. Standing in Warrior 2 gives me a chance to contemplate this reality. One of my favorite of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is 2:46: “Sthira Sukam Asanam,” or to embody poses with both steadiness (effort) and ease (comfort and openness). For me, the “pose” this sutra refers to is every posture we make, both physical or mental, both on and off the mat. Is there too much physical effort or emotional struggle? Is there too much softness or a lack of will? Can we be strong and joyfully confident and yet empower others through compassion and with empathy? I believe we can.
There is more to the story (of course, there always is), but I’ll close with brevity and say that an available goat becomes Daksha’s new head, and with Shiva’s help Daksha is reborn with humility, as well as respect and admiration for Lord Shiva, gratefully calling him Shankar (shan / sam = happiness + kar / kara = cause), as Shiva restores good fortune to Daksha, whose former hatred severed him from his daughter, just as his head was severed from his shoulders. He had lost connection to his heart–clearly both men had done so. The two clear their bad blood through humility and forgiveness, and as Shiva lifts his dead wife into his arms, he weeps as he wanders back into the wilderness.
But what of Sati, the one who stood up for herself and her husband, and ultimately, what is right and true? Thankfully we don’t have to set ourselves on fire to demonstrate our love and compassion. For me, Sati is the true essence of Vira = Hero + Bhadra = Friend. I remember her when I stand in Virabhadrasana. She is the strong and compassionate warrior I want to be.
Who and what are you willing to show up for on your mat and in your life?
As in many of the Hindu stories, multiple characters come back to life, reincarnated, often with new names, and this is the case for Sati, who reincarnates as Shiva’s second wife Parvathi. But that’s another story 🙂
My point in telling the story is that we humans are often tested in this life. We have opportunities to be strong, to stand up in the face of challenging situations and people, to work hard to move through whatever is our current challenge, learning the lessons we are here to learn and hopefully while maintaining a sense of grace and ease. We breathe. We stay to do the hard work it takes to grow and evolve. While in the “fire” of the posture and in our day to day lives, we are tested and may feel the well of anger or fear or confusion rise up, but we stay despite the inner turmoil. We dig deep, remain rooted and connected to the Source, and by doing so we become polished, transformed, move closer to our true essence, with an opportunity to rebirth ourselves with greater clarity, more compassion and forgiveness for ourselves and others, and igniting a deeper sense of purpose for our walk on this planet.
This is my hope this week as we explore the challenges of Warrior 2 and all poses. If you’ve been rolling out your mat, thank you for showing up. Next time the pose could be a little harder–held a little longer. Are you ready? I think you are. All you need to do is show up for yourself and see how your Warrior story unfolds.