Ladakh 1987

In April of 1987 I went to Ladakh. As I flew into Leh, I was the only foreigner in sight. The pass from Srinigar in Kashmir to Leh was still closed for the winter.fullsizeoutput_6b2A man named Tashi led me to a place to stay and we became fast friends. He loved that I was Canadian. He had been one of the porters on the 1982 Canadian Expedition and I happened to know some of the climbers on the expedition who lived where I was living at the time – in Banff.fullsizeoutput_6b1fullsizeoutput_6b0fullsizeoutput_6afTashi had walked from Ladakh all the way through Tibet to Lhasa to trade salt with his father. The journey took two years. I had been traveling at this point for seven months, and my journey had begun wandering throughout Central Tibet. His stories filled my heart with longing.fullsizeoutput_647

fullsizeoutput_6aefullsizeoutput_6abfullsizeoutput_6a8Tashi took me under his wing as there was not much business for him as a guide in the early days of April. He brought me to a funeral in this area below beyond Leh towards Thikse. I remember someone trying to describe how two men fought over a woman and someone was murdered. The wailing and shouting and clanging pots and pans is indelible in my memory.fullsizeoutput_6a7fullsizeoutput_6a6I have recently been reading a book about the sacred geography of the Himalayas. It is written by Dave Zurick who I met on my first trip to Nepal in 1985. Dave was describing the ancient Sea of Tethys and mentioned how the huge Maitreya Buddha at Thikse Gompa had a beautiful ammonite fossil in it’s third eye.fullsizeoutput_6a5fullsizeoutput_6a4I thought, I must have a picture of that! Even though I was not aware of this ammonite, despite being obsessed with fossils, the image of it was already in my mind. He says, “Even seashells are found on the icy summits – additional reminders of the fact that the Himalayas arose from the marine environment of the Tethys Sea.” fullsizeoutput_6a3Dave elaborates, “And among the remnants of the Tethys Sea are the treasured ammonites, believed to be sacred mandalas, whose spiral patterns represent the cosmos. So important are the universal qualities ascribed to this maritime relic that it occupies a place of honor as the “Eye of Wisdom” on the broad forehead of a ten meter (thirty-three-foot) tall golden Buddha enshrined in the Thikse Monastery in Ladakh.”fullsizeoutput_6a1fullsizeoutput_6a0fullsizeoutput_69fI decided to go on my own far west to the Fotu La Pass and visit as many monasteries as I could find. I first went all the way to Lamayuru Monastery – originally the foremost Bon Monastery in Ladakh – which is 15 km east of the pass on the Srinigar-Leh Highway.

As I left, Tashi was worried for me, as was the family I was staying with. They said, “Don’t get in an army jeep!”. There were presently 200,000 military troops in Ladakh to guard borders towards China and Pakistan, and only 60,000 Ladakhis. Women were going missing. fullsizeoutput_69efullsizeoutput_69dWhen I got to Lamayuru, there were no guest houses open. I can’t remember how it happened, but they suggested I sleep in the monastery with the monks – literally in the same bedroom! I can still remember hearing the monks chanting all night long.fullsizeoutput_69cfullsizeoutput_699fullsizeoutput_691fullsizeoutput_68dfullsizeoutput_68cfullsizeoutput_68bfullsizeoutput_68afullsizeoutput_6b3This monk in particular was incredibly helpful and accommodating. After sticking close to home for a couple days, I asked him where I should go for a walk. He gestured to go down into the valley then up, then over to Wanla Gompa. I had no map or guide book, so I just headed out trusting the earth to guide me.fullsizeoutput_689It took forever to get on top of this pass, and I rested a few moments when a postman all the sudden appeared out of nowhere. Through sign language, he assured me all I had to do was go down and then left further down the valley.fullsizeoutput_688I wondered, “How deep down into the valley, must I go?”, as I looked down into this jumbled terrain. My concerns were founded as it was as deep into the gorge as one could go.fullsizeoutput_686And once I got to the bottom of that drainage, it was still quite a way further down the valley until Wanla Gompa finally appeared on the top of a hill. fullsizeoutput_685I was exhausted when I got there, and if one can believe it, the gompa was closed that day of the week! I had brought nothing with me – no extra clothes or food. I hung out in the village surrounding the gompa for a couple hours and then walked all the way back home to Lamayuru. I remember shaking my head at my monk friend as I arrived back at dark completely spent.fullsizeoutput_681fullsizeoutput_680fullsizeoutput_67fBut I had no worries that day. It was beautiful, and I felt free. Unlike an experience that happened a couple days later when I feared for my life. I had decided to leave Lamayuru and go back east towards Leh visiting other monasteries. My next destination was Rizong Gompa.fullsizeoutput_687I got up in the wee hours to hang out at the side of the road to wait for a ride. There was no one around. I had seen no other foreigners my whole trip, and very few vehicles were on the road since the pass was closed. I waited and waited. At one point one of the monks came and joined me. He spoke no English, but it felt good to have his company. We waited for hours. Finally a vehicle came. It was an army jeep. I knew the danger, but felt safe as I was with the monk. I piled into the back with the monk and a half dozen soldiers. We drove along.

The monk was talking here and there with the soldiers. I had no idea what they were discussing. All of a sudden we arrived in a town, and as quick as could be, the monk jumped out and said goodbye. I was in shock. He knew I was planning to go further to Rizong, but must have not worried for me. And as soon as we were on our way past the town, everything changed.

The soldiers in the back of the truck sidled up close to me. I was dressed in a Ladakhi coat, the man’s version, trying to look as androgynous as possible. I was sitting next to the back door of the truck with two lengthwise rows of seats at either side and my pack was on the roof. I began chanting mantras, trying to not imagine what could happen to me. It would be useless to just jump out of the back of the truck. There were no other vehicles or people around.

The soldiers started becoming more aggressive, their tone of voice belligerent and degrading. I couldn’t even look at them. I just kept my head down furiously chanting. I don’t know how long this lasted. Of course it felt like an eternity. And in the midst of the taunts and them pressing up against me, I heard other yelling from the front of the truck. Someone – the driver – was yelling at them.

The energy was intense and reached a peak when the truck all of a sudden came to a grinding halt and the driver stepped out and threw my pack on the road and motioned for me to get out, slammed the door and drove off.

I was in the middle of no where. I just laid down on the road and cried. And if that was a narrowly escaped hell, heaven was to come. I walked along the road for sometime until I could see a village in the distance. As I got close all these children started running towards me, grabbed hold of my hands, and brought me home.

fullsizeoutput_67dimg277The fellow below in the left made me lunch. I remember it too clearly. He had canned tuna! A complete delicacy for me after traveling in Tibet, Nepal, Thailand and India for seven months.fullsizeoutput_66bfullsizeoutput_66aAfter a good rest in the village a bus came by and dropped me off at the road leading up to Rizong. I walked amidst purple mountains and blue skies feeling soothed and safe and melting with gratitude.fullsizeoutput_669fullsizeoutput_668fullsizeoutput_667fullsizeoutput_666fullsizeoutput_665I have mentioned in my post of traveling in Tibet, six months before this, how life was so different back in the 80’s. Not as much to consume. Quieter. Less information. And me trying to merge into the landscape and not be a tourist at all. Barely taking any pictures in slide form with a manual camera. Hiding out in the wilds of nature.

When I was back in Leh, Tashi brought me on a couple day trips. He had a guiding job for some folks from Thailand. I gladly went along after my frightening solo venture. Months later when I was back home in Banff, I received a packet of photos from Thailand. The Thai family had sent me a bunch of photos they took of me – looking like a tourist! They made me laugh.

I worry about the planet and unsustainable tourism. I have heard Ladakh is now over run by tourists since the release of the Bollywood move, “3 Idiots”. Plastic waste litters Leh and a ridge near Khardung La pass, where bikers and SUV’s pass through to Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake – the sights many Indian tourists want to visit because of the movie.

I hope we can change our ways. I end with these photos from my Thai friends to show the land uncluttered and free. I wrote in my diary 33 years ago, “I could sit in this one place for the rest of my life, and be perfectly content, totally at peace, my eyes gazing to the infinity inside and outside, the plateau of life, the freedom of mind and spirit”.

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Piano and Yoga

I am looking forward to lots of yoga and piano, practice and teaching this fall!

What ever your passion is, let yoga be the gateway to being in the present moment and to be present in your body as the pathway to your dreams…

Come journey with me 🙂

Tibet 1986

Of all the travels that I have been blessed to experience in my life, the traveling I did in Tibet in the 80’s was the most utterly magical and life altering experience I have had.

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I suppose the story of my travels to Tibet began in May 1984, as that is the summer I moved from Toronto to Banff. I had already become obsessed with Tibet after seeing a coffee table picture book at my boyfriends house when I was 19 years old. I had never been west of Toronto, and yet felt compelled to go to the Himalayas, and thought I would start with immersing myself in the mountains of Canada. So, when I was 20 years old I signed up for an Outward Bound month long “major challenge course” in Keremeos, BC, and then found myself living in Banff.

That same year in September of ’84, Tibet became open to individual travelers. As Mark A. Cohen wrote in the Washington Post on June 6, 1985 :

“This year marks the 20th anniversary of Tibet’s incorporation into the People’s Republic of China, and finally the roof of the world is accessible to individual travel. Until last fall — when Tibet was officially opened to individual tourism — you had to take a rushed and expensive tour to reach this outermost region of China. But today, independent travelers can spend as little as $10 a day and take as much time as they want to explore this land of exotic customs and rugged scenery.”

It didn’t take long for word to spread amongst the adventuresome folks in Banff that travel in Tibet was possible, and by the following fall of 1985, I was determined to go. I had saved $3500 from my job with Parks Canada cooking for trail crew in the back country of Banff National Park. I spent half of that on a flight to Kathmandu, which I booked for the day after my job finished. After our last helicopter flight back to Banff, I did my laundry, packed and then headed to the Himalayas for 3 months of diving into the unknown. 

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And it was truly the unknown! There were no guide books at this time for Tibet. The first Lonely Planet guidebook had not been published as the writers Michael Buckley and Robert Strauss had just themselves started traveling there mid-’85.

And so I arrived in Kathmandu with great hopes, yet, didn’t find out until I was there that it was not possible to access Tibet from Nepal, unless you already had a Chinese Visa – and that year you could not get a Chinese Visa in Kathmandu. Instead, you had to get one in Hong Kong or Delhi, or elsewhere. Because of this most people were traveling overland from Chengdu, China to Lhasa, or traveling the long journey from Golmud, in the far north of Tibet, to Lhasa rather than from Kathmandu.

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Regardless of not getting to Tibet, I had an incredible trip, and trekked for 2 months – in Langtang area, as well as spending a month doing the Annapurna circuit. I remember climbing the Thronla Pass on the north side of Annapurna and dropping into the Kali Gandaki basin. There was a sign saying “Restricted”. I knew if I travelled up this valley it would take me to the Mustang region and then Tibet, yet what you see below was the closest I got to Tibet on this trip…

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When I got back to Banff I immediately set to saving money so I could go back to the Himalayas and find a way to get into Tibet. I worked a winter season with Canadian Mountain Holidays at a heli-skiing lodge in the Bugaboos and another summer with Parks Canada, and then I was ready.

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So, in October of ’86, me and my boyfriend at the time, flew straight to Hong Kong, got our Chinese Visas and began the journey into Tibet.

We crossed the border from Hong Kong into China and took a train for 3 days to Chengdu, and a few days later got on a plane to Lhasa. We did consider going overland, however we heard horror stories of land slides and road blocks as trucks had to navigate the deep river valleys of the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween and we wanted to avoid any obstacles.

I remember the excitement and anticipation of going to Lhasa, and as I was waiting in the derelict airport in Chengdu, looked over and recognized Jeffrey Hopkins – renowned Bhuddhist Scholar whose book “The Tantric Distinction” I had bought the year before. It was an auspicious meeting! He was leading a group, and I don’t recall seeing any other individual travelers at all.

And then we flew. I remember looking down at Namche Barwa in Eastern Tibet. I remember landing on an insubstantial runway, with barely a building in site. I remember thinking that nothing could have prepared us for the experience of arriving on the plateau. The thin crisp air, the deep blue sky, the rustic airport and gravel road that brought you to the Western Gate of the Potala felt like a dream.

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We somehow managed to get transport into Lhasa, but as most of the tourism infrastructure was set up for tours, we were on our own in all sense of the word. We walked down the main street of Lhasa with our packs on our backs as though in another world. There was no commercialization of Tibet at the time. It was like a medieval city. There were throngs of nomads arriving on pilgrimage dressed in their yak skin chubas, the women with braided hair, many Tibetans wearing Mao suits and caps, herds of yaks and flocks of sheep in the roads.

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You may be wondering why I am telling this story now. Well, after 30 years of wanting to return to Tibet, I finally did last summer. And I suppose I have been reminiscing. As I was preparing for my journey, I knew I had these slides from my trip in 1986, but didn’t pull them out. When I returned from my pilgrimage, I was so engrossed with just digesting it, I still didn’t look at my old slides. Anyways, the other day, I got a scanner and scanned them.

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The most incredible thing is what I found. During the trip I made to Tibet in 1986, I only too 41 pictures! I was there for 5 weeks and only took 41 photos!! And not one of them had me in the photo! Oh, how times have changed! Traveling to Tibet was just the beginning of a seven month trip. From there we would go to Nepal for a couple months, then Thailand, and India. All in all I travelled from October ’86 to May ’87. I brought 6 rolls of 36 exposures – film for slides. I had a Pentax K1000 camera, and barely did it leave my pack.

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Last summer, in Eastern Tibet I took 1260 photos! It’s hard to recall how different photography was back in the old days. One took a photo with no idea what it might look like or whether the exposure was right, and then had to wait till you were back home to develop and see the photos. That is, after you set up a slide projector and screen! Well, I am so happy with the photos I have, but so wish I had more.

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To top this off, when I returned to Tibet two years later in 1988, I did not even have a camera, and didn’t take one photo! I was traveling with a friend, and at the very start of our trip we had been drugged and robbed on a bus going from Ko Samet to Bangkok. They took all our money, my camera, but left us our passports. We were able to continue our trip undaunted and got our travelers cheques back, flew to Kathmandu, and soon after flew from there to Tibet for a few weeks. My friend thankfully did take some photos…

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Again, it was an absolutely magical, mesmerizing trip.

But back to 1986. We were so blessed to go to Tibet when there was so much freedom to explore. There were restricted areas, but with perseverence you could find a way to get there, often in the back of a truck. After a week exploring Lhasa area, we travelled to what was a restricted area south east of Lhasa – the Yarlung Valley, Tsedang and Samye Monastery. We spent a whole day the Yumbulakang palace, which according to legend is the first building built in Tibet. We did not see one other person there all day long, except this woman and child and the caretaker who was an old man with one long brown tooth.

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I wrote in my journal:

“The sky was so blue as the palace framed itself against the sickle moon. Prayer flags and clove wine and a little old man who danced through the woodwork. Hopping from side to side and smiling his toothless smile, save the beauty: the big long brown tooth that made up for all the rest. But the Yumbulakang itself – high up on the rocks looking so far from east to west through fields of yak and sheep, fabulous Tibetan homes, and a river like sapphire coloring the vegetation around it.” 

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“The expanse of the valleys and ravines seem wider than the mind can fathom. So flat and big, and then so deep and broken, discovering camouflaged monasteries and pilgrim paths as forlorn and barren as all the rest. And one sits for ages just staring and following over and over again the line of the deep blue sky against the brown corrugated mountains. Then to the snow peaks. Then to the fields. Then to the palace that has been there for hundreds of years. The kings. The monks. The lifetimes…”

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From there we crossed the Yarlung Tsangpo River to go to Samye Monastery and then had a plan to do a three day hike on a pilgrim trail which went north to Ganden Monastery. We camped in the trees above, after traveling across the river with some pilgrims.

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I remember being so entranced with their yak skin chubas, fur hats, braided hair, and warm disposition. We did not see one other westerner the whole time there.

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The next day we walked through the sand dunes seen at the opposite shore to where Samye sits – the bottom of the first ridge on the left.

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Samye is the oldest Monastery in Tibet, and had been almost completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. When we were there it was being rebuilt and only the first story was complete. This photo below was taken two years later when it was restored completely with it’s three storeys and gilded golden roof which you can see off in the distance.

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After a few days at Samye Monastery, we embarked on our pilgrimage to Ganden Monastery. We had no maps. We were young and strong, and had our tent, gear and as much edible food as we could muster from the market in Lhasa. Food which I remember being unbelievably meager. We had dried yak cheese, yak jerky, canned goods and ridiculously hard, dry biscuits from the Chinese army called 481 Biscuits.

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We had hiked from the bottom of this valley, and it was strenuous and exhausting. From the fields in the bottom left of the photo above, we hiked further up the valley towards a pass. All we knew from word of mouth is that we would hit a high plateau, and eventually we would find another monastery, a famous huge one – Ganden. We knew this – and also that Tibetans were telling us not to go. We were told there were bandits up there and that they would steal all your belonging and eat you!

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Well, after two days of hiking, forging a terrifying river, eating cans of pork that were mostly sauce and no pork, battling the altitude, seeing the pass and being horrified by the distance, we turned around. We didn’t feel confident we had enough food, or that I could handle the altitude. When we returned to the high fields in the picture before the last one, we camped for the night.

In the morning we were woken by a group of pilgrims fascinated with us and our belongings. They poked through all we owned playing with zippers, laughing and gesturing to things. Then pointed up the hillside above saying, “Gompa? Gompa?”

We scanned the slope unsure of what they were talking about. Until we discerned a small temple perched high in the rocks. You can see it in the above picture a little bit below the ridge line.

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And so we climbed the switch backs up to the temple. I only found out later that it is an incredibly important temple where Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal spent time.

On the Dharma Wheel website, it says: “It is here, when Yeshe Tsogyal was 16 years old, that Guru Rinpoche taught her the Tripitaka, the basics of Buddhism, and bestowed the first tantric empowerments along with the sacred commitments. Afterwards, Yeshe Tsogyal meditated here, assimilated the teachings, and achieved a high degree of understanding. The goddess Saraswasti appeared to her in a vision and graced her with complete retention of what ever she was taught.

Reflecting on her experiences at Yamalung, Yeshe Tsogyal said, “I received all the teachings as if the contents of one vessel were being transferred into another”. At the end of this period, Tsogyal returned to Samye and then journeyed to Zhoto Tidro which was to become her principal place of practice.

She returned to Yamalung several times and hides secret treasures.”

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There was only one monk there on a three year, three month, three day retreat. There were two rooms – a shrine room on the left with a rock painting of Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, and living quarters on the right. The monk was practicing silence, and so hand gestured for us to sleep in the shrine room, and also graphically demonstrated to not have sex there!

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I remember hearing him chant all night long and we stayed a couple days exploring the meditation caves and stupendous views down the valley.

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From here, we returned to Lhasa, but of course had to go to Ganden to see the monastery and what was to be the end point of our pilgrim trek.

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This photo that I took above shows the long winding road to Ganden Monastery. But, it’s hard to believe that I took no pictures of the monastery. It was heart wrenching to see the devastation of the Cultural Revolution, which you can see below is a photo taken by John Stratton from his book, “Tibet: Journey to a Still Land”. His book was written in 1997, and much more had been restored than when we were there in 1986. When we were there, I only remember the main temple and building to the right being there.

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Here is another photo of Ganden below from the book “My Tibet” by Galen Rowell written in 1990. We sat all day on the terrace in front of the monastery on the left, which you can clearly see in the photo, with a group of monks.

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We were showing them a stack of photos and postcards from our life in Banff, and as they were being passed around they all the sudden disappeared! We hung out for the longest time as various monks interrogated each other and showed their concern. Hours later a poor monk showed up and sheepishly returned the pictures.

The only photo I took other than the prayer flags on the ridge above of the monastery was of the freshly painted wall of the neighboring building.

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Meanwhile, our journey was still full of such adventure. When back in Lhasa, we spent time at Sera Monastery, a bicycle ride from Lhasa.

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Everyday brought fascination.

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Beauty…

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We wandered freely through Sera Monastery, and climbed the boulder field mountainside above the monastery. I wrote in my journal at the time:

“And that drum emanated my spirit. So deep and thorough it was pounding my soul. Looking around that dark room. So many figures, so many lifetimes. And I buzz through even more chambers, more rooms, more statues, more storeys, more drums, more cymbals, more bells and another moon. The same moon drifting through the sky, watching me telling me there will always be peace and light.”

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“…Oh, to feel the sun so hot on my skin, lying on boulders, that are really meditation mountains, so still and so content…”

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The land around Sera was amazing – the shapes caressing you, the deities watching over you.

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I only saw later on that there is a hermitage in the distant mountain scape. Always everything felt so distant and vast…

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An old monk at Sera. I look at a photo like this and wonder what happened to him. Did he survive the riots? The rampant imprisonments?

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The Potala was unbelievable. We would wander through endless chambers with no supervision. I remember being in a room with a single monk and a huge damaru drum with paintings of Mahakala on the wall. I knew at that moment I would never be the same.

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We tried to learn all we could. Entranced by the deities. The artwork. The carvings. The chanting.

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It was never ending…

Every afternoon we would go to the Jokhang Temple. The first time we went inside, there was a line up of hundreds of pilgrims squashed close to each other, chanting and spinning the prayer wheels that line the circumference of the temple. We spent hours slowly in the line making our way to the inside of the temple and then rubbing our foreheads on every shrine.

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We then were told because we were foreigners that we did not have to line up! We were free to walk straight in. So every night we would go, listening to the puja, mesmerized by the statues and shrines, climbing to the rooftop to take it in…if one possibly could – the people prostrating below, the views of the Barkhor and the Potala, the distant mountains.

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I wrote in my journal at the time, ” The smell of the burning juniper pierces my nostrils as the prayer flags blow peace right through me. there is something so special and deep. Incomprehensible and unattainable.”

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The above photo was taken in the cave temple on Chokpori Hill across from the Potala – the Palalubu Temple. It is a sign of the lenience of the times that there are so many photos of the Dalai Lama. Of course we brought many and carefully gave them out. We were invited into so many homes, and people tried to communicate their stories. You just had to look in their eyes…

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This was in someone’s home. We were invited to this healing puja for someone who was sick. On the shrine there was a jar with fingernails and hair from a person who had attained the rainbow body. Through the practice of trekchĂś, the practitioner can attain the so-called ‘rainbow body’, in which the body becomes smaller and smaller as it dissolves, emanating rainbow light, and finally only the hair and nails are left behind.

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It’s still hard for me to reconcile that our trip was only half way through and I took almost no more photos. We left Lhasa to visit Shigatse – a 14 hour bus trip west of Lhasa. We were ultimately headed to Kathmandu, but for some reason as an individual traveler, you couldn’t buy a bus ticket from Shigatse to Kathmandu. So, after lots of time in Shigatse, we bused 14 hours back to Lhasa for yet more momos, more time at the Banakshol hotel, more yak burgers and circumambulations of the Jokhang Temple.

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Then we had the long journey once more on a bus to back to Shigatse, and onward to Kathmandu. Again, we got to marvel at the incredible beauty of Lake Yamdrok Yamtso and the barren, corrugated plateau. I remember being again in Shigatse and watching a group of men killing a yak in the courtyard of the hotel for meat. At the time there were hundreds of dogs in the town, and the monks would feed them as they rested around the pilgrim circuit of the Tashilhunpo. I remember being at the market in Shigatse and walking through a labyrinth of streets with mud brick dwellings, but have no photos…

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Finally we dove down through the Himalayas with the full moon in the sky – the only foreigners on a bus with deeply generous Tibetans feeding us tsampa, chanting their mantras and prayers…

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May all beings have happiness…May all beings be free from suffering…

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Pilgrimage to Kham 2017

For over 30 years I have wanted to go to Western Tibet to walk around a holy mountain called Mount Kailash. It is a mountain sacred to Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Bonpo, and is the headwaters of the four major rivers of the Asian Continent.img002Photo by Gary McCue

At the beginning of May this year, I heard about a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash which was to be led by Ian Baker. It was scheduled for July 3 – 18, and it just felt like the perfect medicine for me in my life at this time. So I signed up! I knew of Ian Baker, and had read a few of his books, one on the lower left which he wrote with a friend of mine – Carroll Dunham. FullSizeRenderI met Carroll in Nepal in 1985 on my first three month journey which brought me the around Annapurna Circuit and to the Gossainkunde Lakes. I visited her frequently over the next three years while I travelled further in Tibet, Nepal and India. Twice I was in Tibet – in 1986 for 5 weeks and 1988 for another 3 weeks.

It was the most incredible experience of my life. During this time, I was able to travel extensively throughout Central Tibet with my boyfriend completely unsupervised, pretty much going wherever we wished. It was a magical time with the recent opening of the region for individual travel, with throngs of nomads and pilgrims in the streets, folks traveling in public buses, or biking across the plateau.

During this time, I tried to go to Kailash, but it was an epic and illegal journey – usually taking a week to get there while hiding in the back of a truck. It was Carroll’s story of circumambulating Mount Kailash in 1987 while being chased by Chinese authorities that filled my mindsphere, and the idea of this journey has been in my heart ever since. 16603139_10154422105612099_6745106970285938925_n

Photo of Carroll Dunham taken by Thomas Kelly

In mid-May, a week after I signed up for the Pilgrimage to Kailash, there was a little hiccup. I found out that Ian Baker was wanted by Interpol for “possession of animal body parts” and wildlife smuggling! In 2008, two of his apartments in Kathmandu were raided while he was out of the country, and the Nepalese Police has had a warrant out for his arrest since then. How bizarre!

I asked Carroll what she thought and read some articles in his defense including a fascinating one in Outside Magazine. Carroll responded that she could not go into details about Ian’s past, but he would be a great guide for Mount Kailash. Well, I just hoped that this situation would not get in the way of our journey. My bags were already packed!!

IMG_2490A couple weeks later at the beginning of June, there was another glitch. A big one. Ian sent an email letting us know that he been denied the necessary “Tibet Travel Permit” (TTP) in order to enter the Tibet Autonomous Region. He said that he was denied because of his association with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who he wrote a book with, called the “Dalai Lama’s Secret Temple”.

He assured us that we would be able to continue with the pilgrimage. He found two new guides, and applied again for the TTP.  I felt huge disappointment to not have Ian as a guide, and quite a bit of uneasiness to not have a permit in place. I had been rereading his incredible book, “Heart of the World”, and was so looking forward to his 40 years of experience immersed in the spiritual landscape of Tibet and pilgrimage to wild and unknown places. Each day I prayed things would fall into place.ian copyWell, the worst happened. At the end of June, two days before leaving  to get to our meeting place in Chengdu, China, we received an email saying that our whole group had been denied the Tibet Travel Permit for the second time. At the 11th hour, our permit was cancelled at the 6th office that had to approve it – the police.

Ian sent an email saying: “We have just received some very distressing news from the agency in Lhasa. It seems that after having gone through all the necessary steps in securing the many required travel permits within Tibet – the Tibet Tourism Bureau (Tibet Entry Permit), Public Security Bureau (Aliens Travel Permit), Border Control Permit, Military Affairs Permit, and Permit from the Office of Foreign Affairs – the process was suddenly stymied at the last stage, the Tibet Police Department, which has denied the permits for “political reasons”.”

It was devastating!  We were ready to get on planes, if not already in the air, en route to various stopovers in Asia. Ian immediately gave us some options – a refund, or a new trip to match the dates of our existing itinerary. Immediately, within 48 hours, Ian put together a new trip for us – traveling to Eastern Tibet to the Kham region, where we did not need a permit. He arranged for a friend of his, a former monk, Joshua Kinney to lead the trip. And so, with a spirit of adventure, our group ended up going on a spontaneous pilgrimage to circumambulate a totally unknown mountain, with a guide whom none of us knew.

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Out of the 16 original participants, ten of us decided to go to Kham, and began the long journey to meet in Chengdu, and then fly 2 hours northwest to a city in the Qinghai province called Yushu.  It dawned on me that this was a true pilgrimage! A pilgrimage of “not knowing”, just like the Zen pilgrim koan.

In this koan, Jizô asks Hôgen, “Where are you going?” Hôgen says, “I am on pilgrimage, following the wind.” Jizô says, “What are you on pilgrimage for?” Hôgen says, “I don’t know.” Jizô then says, “Not knowing is most intimate”. Well, I like Hôgen certainly had no idea where I was going, nor the deep intimacy it would bring.IMG_2728In the short time I had before leaving I did some research to try to figure out where I was going. I read that the city of Yushu sits at 12,100 ft and did not have an airport until 2009. In 2010, there was a huge earthquake in Eastern Tibet and Yushu was completely flattened, and since then has been rebuilt. You can find Yushu below in the southeast corner of Qinghai Province.tibet map

Not only is Yushu the name of the biggest city in Qinghai Province, but it is also the name for the municipality – the Yushu Autonomous Prefecture – which lies in the southwestern part of Qinghai Province. Historically, this is a region known as the borderlands of Eastern Tibet, and contains the headwaters of 3 of Asia’s longest rivers – The Yangtze (Dri Chu འབྲི་ཆུ་), the Yellow (Ma Chu རྨ་ཆུ་) and the Mekong (Dza Chu རྫ་ཆུ་).Rivers

In the brief time I had to research, I was amazed at what I read. Most of the region of high altitude grasslands lying at elevations between 13,000-16,000 ft. In the past, this region was nearly entirely nomadic. It also includes the amazing Hoh Xil plateau which is the part of the third largest uninhabited place in the world after the North and South Poles. Who could imagine!P1070398I was blown away that Hoh Xil region lies at an average elevation of 16,000 ft and is predominantly permafrost. It is home to abundant wildlife including wild yaks, Tibetan antelope, white-lip deer, brown bears, snow leopards, black-necked cranes, wild donkeys and Himalayan marmots, as well as a home to thousands of nomads.

P1070418What was most astounding to me was that 97% of the population of the Yushu Prefecture is Tibetan. It has one of the highest percentages of Tibetan people anywhere on the Tibetan Plateau and has some of the best preserved Tibetan culture remaining. This was incredible to me. Other parts of Tibet and particularly Central Tibet are more Chinese now that Tibetan. And on top of that, 15-20 % of the population of Kham are monks and nuns, and the nomad culture is still prevailing despite relocation strategies of the Chinese government.

P1070409It was an unreal experience to go somewhere we were not expecting to go. After flying into Yushu, our group acclimatized and then piled into Jeeps, and struck out into the vast Tibetan Plateau. I shared a jeep with Wendy and Jacqueline – and we were like birds of a feather.P1070093As we visited different nunneries and monasteries in the vicinity of Nangchen, south of Yushu, each day we were blown away by the surreal and endless beauty of the region. We  visited the most stupendous hermitages on cliffs, we chanted in caves, zigzaging through deep valleys that wind up to the platueau.

P1060726After a week of driving around the plateau, not seeing one other foreigner or any Chinese Police, we were ready for the true pilgrimage – six days of circumambulating a mountain called Jowo Zedgyal, This is the ultimate unknown – you will find nothing about it on the internet and almost no westerners have ever been there.P1070022Jowo Zedgyal is like hidden land – so remote and difficult to access. Our travel there was possible due to our leader Josh, who has spent an enormous time in Kham since 1997, and has done 21 trips there since 2003. He has studied with many teachers in the region, has practiced extensively and spent time in caves in retreat. He knew everyone, everywhere we went.P1060938Through his connections, we were able to visit Gepchak Nunnery.P1060961These yogini nuns are famous for their accomplishments in profound yogas and meditation, particularly in ‘tsa lung‘ (practices such as tummo or inner heat), Dzogchen (the highest meditation), and chöd (cutting through all clinging to ego).

P1060948The nuns live in mud brick dwellings underneath the Gompa.P1060932The beauty of the place sinks into your pores…P1060933After spending a night with the nuns at Gepchak, we visited the hermitage of Josh’s present teacher Pema Drimay. P1060989At the audience we had with Pema Drimay, he said, “I have nothing to say. I am just an ignorant man full of desire and aversion”…P1070002 2It was auspicious to meet such a profound teacher.25152027_10215013889130543_5239327886405676788_nAfter a stupendous time in the most spectacular landscape, we climbed towards Tana Gompa.P1070057This centuries old monastery is where Yeshe Nima resides.P1070076It is reached by switchbacks through a cedar forest and hangs high in cliffs with meditation caves dotted everywhere in the mountain scape.P1070070Yeshe Nima embraced us warmly, gave us a long tour of the Monastery, invited us into his personal chambers and invited us to practice with him in his shrine area.20728401_10155608356594727_1131219906180629818_n

From the deep corrugated valley we climbed up onto the plateau and finally arrived at the hermitage of Josh’s late teacher, Pema Dorje.P1070187Pema Dorje is one of the most renown yogis in Nangchen. He died in 2014. For 13 years after the Chinese invasion in the late 50’s, Pema Dorje hid among the peaks that boarder Nangchen and Tibet.P1070179He had gone on pilgrimage to Jowo Zedgyal as a child and had a vision there and in recent years built a hermitage in the vicinity.P1070336The land is magical with wild flowers, yaks and prayer flags fluttering with the wind.pemaPema Dorje was a true yogi, practicing pranayama and yoga up to five times a day.

“Train in yoga and faith will increase. Knowledge of mind essence will strengthen…The text will tell you about it but just train the body and then it itself will know what to do.”IMG_2728We spent a day acclimatizing at the hermitage and had a puja on the ridge above the hermitage. P1070265 Our group ate and slept in the hermitage kitchen.P1070270Finally we began the pilgrim circuit.P1070333At first we followed a dirt road, past endless nomad encampments and yaks everywhere.P1070379 The distances were vast, and some of us chose to take advantage of a lift on a motorcycle.20184570_105874223419342_44931095992467456_nHow How exhilarating to be here – complete freedom.P1070388Always, the nomads were hospitable and offered us lunch.P1070354At the end of the road we spent the night with a nomad family.P1070399Next morning, a dawn, we began the long walk up the valley, over a 17,000 foot pass and continue to walk a huge distance down the valley beyond the pass to a village in the TAR.58khora4 A monk from Pema Dorje’s hermitage joined us with two horses to carry our packs. We affectionately named him “Horse Monk”. P1070408I had no idea I was going to fulfill my decades old wish to wander for days on the plateau surrounded by nomads, yaks, and eagles. 60khora6 copyHiking over two 17,000 ft passes, boulder hopping on rocky terrain, fording freezing creeks over endless hours was a dream come true!P1070445Yet, it was the hardest, most physically challenging experience of my life, as we navigated vast distances at a high altitude on minimal sustenance. P1070447We lived on tsampa, millet gruel, yogurt, noodles and Tibetan tea. I often felt so queasy it was hard to eat anything at all.P1070461But it was more than intense hiking, and simple food that was the challenge. It was sleeping as a group in monastery kitchens, and nomad tents, it was inter-personal relationships, and inner demons, and it was all ultimately what the pilgrimage needed to be!P1070464

I hit rock bottom half way through our six day circuit – hungry, sick and collapsed on the steps of Gochen Monastery.  We had been hiking three days. Day one began with diareah and vomiting, day two was a 14 hour endeavor over the pass, and day three brought us into the TAR (illegally!) and our first outhouse which gave little privacy from passers by.P1070465Feeling desolate and horrible in such a remote place, brought me in touch with my most raw vulnerabilities. And something shifted inside. P1070452The world started to look different. It’s like everything was thinner or more transparent.20526180_10155574007839727_6747773475089262353_nAs I recuperated and rested and replenished myself with the first protein in days – boiled eggs! – some of the group went up the valley above Gochen Monastery for this fantastic view of Jowo Zedgyal. This photo was taken by Wendy Brown.P1070486As I was feeling dizzy and weak, I saw my patterns of behavior and reactivity so clearly. I had a profound experience of not being able to react to life as I normally would. I felt less selfish, more compassionate and present…P1070510Medicine came my way on all levels. The medicine of letting go of reactive patterns. But also, medicine from a Tibetan doctor who read my pulse. He gave me bitter white pills, and intense green powdered herbs. P1070513I shared my medicine with Horse Monk, who was quite convinced he needed it too… P1070531The next day we climbed a second 17,000 foot pass, after bathing in an auspicious stream. P1070538I couldn’t believe how good I began to feel.P1070585And to be surrounded by nomads continuing to live their traditional lifestyle warmed my heart and soul.P1070590I could spend the rest of my life here and be content.P1070596Ian had told us of a Tibetan phrase that’s often invoked in the context of pilgrimage. It translates as “Whatever arises, bring it to the Path!” – in Tibetan – “Ka Sher Lam Khyer”.P1070603 He said it’s what really distinguishes an inner journey from an outer one, and to penetrate to the inner level, hardships are not to be rejected or abandoned, but openly embraced.P1070605 I somehow felt an incredible resilience and eagerness to embrace the hardships I was experiencing as we descended the valley beyond the second 17,000 foot pass filled with hundred of yaks, nomadic encampments, and crystal waters.P1070614We walked forever.P1070617Deeply nourished by the landscape.P1070622Grateful to the core of our being…P1070633The nomads set up a tent for us and we slept on the earth, replenished by yak yogurt and the gleeful laughter of children tethering the sheep.P1070636In the morning Wendy gave an acupuncture treatment an old lady who was in pain.P1070642Her grand-daughter was such a great presence to behold.P1070640Or was this her grand-daughter and the little girl her great-grand daughter?P1070645The holy mountain Jowo Zedgyal is known as a pure land and place of wisdom quality. P1070649One of my goals or intentions for this pilgrimage was to shift my perception of life, to see the world in a clearer, expansive way…P1070653 - Version 2I had no idea this world could feel so pure…P1070655In his description of the Kailash Pilgrimage, Ian talked about:

“the power of pilgrimage and prayer to alter the course of our personal and collective lives. At the very least it is… an opportunity to immerse ourselves in an alternate vision of the world and to reforge our place within it.”P1070686In the cool crisp air of the plateau, I felt the way I inhabit the world changing.34906671_10156471433559727_7917032079936716800_nDeepest gratitude to Joshua Kinney, our incredible guide, for bringing us here!

An Adendum:

A week after we arrived home, I found out that Ian Baker had been detained in Greece since mid-June! It was big headlines in the Nepalese newspapers. He had not been able to leave the country for more than six weeks while Greece decided whether or not they would extradite him to Nepal. He had to wait for 70 pages of documents to arrive from Nepal, and then to be translated into Greek. When the decision was finally made, Greece exonerated him. P1070769

In the end, I suppose we were destined to have the trip that we did. As much as I wanted to go to Kailash – and still do – I have to admit I am worried about the impact of a modern highway, abundant tourism and Chinese check posts in the region. Meanwhile, our trip to Kham was like traveling back in the 80’s  – driving in jeeps through rivers and streams,  wandering for endless hours following the wind…P1070737In his book “Heart of the World”, Ian says: “Pilgrimage implies – in part – a journey beyond the human impulse to control one’s experience and an openness to serendipity”.

He had no idea how serendipitous our journey would be.P1070760.JPG

 “There are no wrong turns, only unexpected paths”.
-Mark Nepo
One other little adendum! In May 2019, Ian Baker published an amazing book on Tibetan Yoga – and asked permission to use one of my photos which I took of Josh in Kham.
IMG_E7014What an honor and thrill!! It is the photo below of Josh practicing next to the sacred bathing spot.
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Searching for Saraswati

IMG_2080I have long been fascinated by the lute playing goddess, Saraswati. Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of learning, music, arts, and wisdom and for all these reasons strikes a chord in my being.

And so, when I was in India and I read that there was a temple at the Ellora Caves with an important carving of a Buddhist version of Saraswati, I was thrilled and eager to see it.

Little did I know that it would lead me to the oldest known statue of Tara, the goddess of compassion.

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The Ellora caves are a a few hours from Mumbai, and are a complex of temples and monasteries dating from 600 – 1000 CE.

On the Unesco World Heritage website it says, “not only is the Ellora complex a unique artistic creation and a technological exploit but, with its sanctuaries devoted to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, it illustrates the spirit of tolerance that was characteristic of ancient India”.

Wandering through the 34 different caves -12 Buddhist, 17 Hindu and 5 Jain- one not only feels a sense of tolerance, but also such deep influence and sharing of ideas.

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The cave temples at Ellora are mesmerizing. I have never in my life seen something that seems so humanly impossible -like the dry stone walls of Machu Picchu, the Pyramids in Egypt and the Coliseum in Rome.

But unlike these sites where rock has been carved and relocated, all the cave temples at Ellora are carved directly out of the rock – the rock has been taken away to reveal these exquisite, intricate, ridiculously detailed monasteries, temples, obelisks, elephants and  endless representations of Buddha, Siva, Parvati, Bramha, Vishnu, Ganesh, Tara and other deities.

P1050801While hanging out in Pune, and researching the Ellora caves in the Lonely Planet guide on India, I read that the Buddhist Cave 6 contained a statue of the Buddhist goddess of learning looking very similar to Saraswati.

Who was this goddess? And why in thirty years of practicing and studying Buddhism had I not heard of such a deity? What would she look like? As I used my limited internet on my phone, I could not even find anything about her.

I looked at the little statue I bought of the Hindu Saraswati.

She is dressed in white and sits on a lotus – symbolizing knowledge and truth.

In her fours hands she holds items with symbolic meaning — a book, a mala, a water pot and a lute.

The book she holds symbolizes the Vedas representing universal knowledge and learning.

A mala of crystals represents the power of meditation and inner reflection.

A pot of water represents the power to purify the right from wrong, truth from ignorance.

The musical instrument, typically a veena, represents creative arts and harmony, the love for and rhythm of music, and all emotions and feelings expressed through it.

I thought of how music, particularly playing piano, has been a deep and spiritual journey for me.

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At the end of my time in India, I was finally going on a two day pilgrimage to visit the caves. Our trip began at the Caves of Ajanta. The caves there are all Buddhist, dating from 200 BCE – 600 CE and are totally incredible.

What is so fascinating is that the Ellora Caves appear to be a continuation what began at Ajanta. It is as if the inhabitants of Ajanta picked up and moved to Ellora right around 600 CE.

I imagine this valley a home to these devoted Buddhist practitioners who are then joined with the Hindu practitioners, living there together, harmoniously for two hundred years.

Then, as Buddhism declined around 800 CE, there being an influx of Jain worshippers overlapping for a hundred years with the Hindus. Finally, as the Hindus leave the site, the Jains staying there alone for another hundred years.

As I approached the 12 Buddhist caves, I felt that I, TOO, could live there for hundreds of years.

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So, finally in the middle of this complex of Buddhist Caves I approached the greatly anticipated, Cave 6 – home to the statue of the Buddhist Saraswati whom I so wanted to meet.

The Sacred Destinations website explains further the significance of Cave 6. It says that it was carved in the 600’s and then elaborates to say: “Cave 6 is home to two of the finest sculptures at Ellora. On the left is the goddess Tara, with an intense but kind expression. Opposite her on the right is Mahamayuri, the Buddhist goddess of learning, shown with her attribute, the peacock. A diligent student sits at his desk below. Significantly, Mahamayuri has a very similar Hindu counterpart, Saraswati”.

What a great example of the aforementioned sharing of ideas and spiritual influence! And so, towards the end of my day at the Ellora, after already visiting 28 other caves, I finally happened upon Tara, the female goddess of compassion and representation of the divine feminine.

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In Wikipedia, it says, “Tārā embodies certain ideals which make her attractive to women practitioners, and her emergence as a Bodhisattva can be seen as a part of Mahayana Buddhism’s reaching out to women, and becoming more inclusive even in 6th-century CE India”.

Even though I have long been devoted to Tara and performed practices associated with her, I had not completely appreciated this dramatic shift towards revering female deities.

It then dawned on me what a striking contrast this was with the caves at Ajanta. In the Ajanta caves  most of the woman depicted are queens, princesses, ladies of court and their maids, dancers, and gorgeous renditions of the temptresses sent by Mara to Buddha on the night of his awakening.

IMG_1752There are no images of Tara or other goddesses.

To prove this point, I read – “the earliest, solidly identifiable image of Tārā is most likely that which is still found today at Cave 6 within the rock-cut Buddhist monastic complex of the Ellora Caves in Maharashtra (c. 7th century CE), with her worship being well established by the onset of the Pala Empire in Northeast India (8th century CE)”.

WOW. The earliest!!! Just this would easily be enough on such an incredible day.

Yet, just opposite Tara, finally I meet the goddess of my quest- the Buddhist goddess of learning, Mahamayuri.

She is depicted in a very different way from her Hindu counterpart, and I still know little about her.

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What I do know, is that if you look closely below, you will see sitting at a desk, the pupil. For me that is the most significant symbol – the student ever learning, humbly sitting at the feet of our possibility to evolve, to pursue our innate creativity, to express our innermost emotional landscape through sound.

In my last post, I mentioned my father and his influence through years of archeological digs, and instilling in me a feeling of a solid foundation, to sit in silence and to feel and know my home in the rock of the world.

Surrounded by this female energy made me think of my mother. Her influence, rather than being solid, is instead what is most ethereal- the influence of sound and vibration, of female energy bursting forth in the form of her continuous giving, years of nursing, and of her profound musicality.

No doubt it is because of her playing the piano and flute, and singing all the harmonies to hymns at church that I fell in love with music early in my life.

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Well, I feel so blessed, inspired, and now at home surrounding myself with glorious music and the amazing potential we have as human beings to learn.

Whether divine or temporal, awakened or every day, may the grace of Tara, Mahamayuri, Saraswati and my mother’s gift continue to be an ever present force in my life….

 

A Month in India 2015

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I had the good fortune to spend the month of January 2015 in Pune, India at the Iyengar Institute known as RIMYI -the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute.

Before going I had the notion that I would have so much time and would spend my days reading, trying to fill the hours of the day, and writing blog posts.

Well, I did not write one blog post. I read only three chapters of a book, and the days were so full, they whizzed by way too quickly. The reasons that I didn’t write are two fold.

One, I left my computer at home which gave me such a great opportunity to retreat from social media, and secondly a fellow yogini at the Institute was writing a blog, and her posts were so wonderful that I lost incentive to try to capture what she has captured so wittily and astutely.

Tania Baxter’s description of our main teacher Prashant Iyengar had me floored, as well as her article about poona bloomers. If you are interested, check out her website as well as her other articles:

http://www.mitchamyoga.com/blog/2015/1/6/word-riffing-prashant-style

IMG_0896That said, I have been home a couple weeks and have been reflecting on what the experience was for me. Well, it was amazing.

Incredible to go to the other side of the world and feel so at home.

Fabulous to be in a warm, sunny place and rent an apartment for $400/month and eat a paneer paratha and sag paneer for $2.

Stupendous to practice yoga with dedicated students and teachers from all around the world.

Perhaps it is a mid-life thing, or just the state of my personal life, but I was so happy to have a simple room with four walls around me with time to practice and reflect.

IMG_1685And there was a lot of opportunity for practice. Each day, we had a two hour long class, a three hour personal practice session, and were also able to observe a two hour medical class as well as observe other studio classes taught by other teachers.

With regards to daily practice, it was informative and inspiring to be amongst a sea of experienced practitioners -Russians, Italians, French, South African, Argentinian, Australian yogis executing so many variations of postures with such thoughtful sequencing!

kapotasana-4-2webI hate to admit that I was spying, but how can one resisit observing Lois Steinberg practicing a sequence to get into Kapotasana? And not just getting there, but how to recover afterwards?

In fact one of my biggest asana insights came from Lois during our self practice session while I was working towards a different deep backbend pose -Eka Pada Rajakapotasana.

She not only gave me feedback in the pose, but made some suggestions for a particular pose to follow that would bring more breadth into my lumbar area after practicing the posture.

I remain grateful to her as I integrated her wisdom over the month -finding balance, finding awareness, finding space.

IMG_0917Well, that said, I admit to being busy and distracted while in the practice hall, and often opted to do my daily practice on the terrace of my apartment with the flocks of birds and the canopy of trees and the wild pigs in the stream bed below.

While Sumon, the housekeeper in her gorgeous sari, did her chores I was well aware of my privilege to focus on practice, to not vacuum and shovel snow, to not drive continuously around a city, and to not use my body in a way that often results in fatigue and injury.

IMG_1494In the Toronto yoga community, many practitioners have been speaking up about yoga and injury.

I have to admit I was concerned what it would be like to study at the Institute. I had heard rumours of 10 minute headstands and shoulderstand with out support.

What would it be like? Am I the only one who would rather do rope Sirasana than stand on my head?

For the first week I was so relieved that I was able to hang on the ropes whenever I felt it was best. I was able to practice consistently and quietly.

And most importantly, I had the opportunity to ponder, to slow down, to REALLY listen to my body and it’s niggles and complaints, and not stress it out with housework and bad habits.

As we moved through weekely rotation of postures, I began to feel better than I have felt in years.

IMG_1801I feel the most important part of the trip for me was this listening. Like hearing a whisper of something said thousands of years ago.

In fact, the long spacious sessions of yoga became the easy part -walk down the street, go to class, try to capture the sublimity, piety, sanctity, purity, and transcedancy of Prashants mind boggling wisdom.

The hard part was figuring out how to interface the experience in such a way as to not return to the old samskaras, the old grooves, the unskillful habits.

Who was I before these patterns? What layers of contraction, self criticism, judgement and ignorance have I stored in my body and what do I need to dismantle?

Mid way through the month, I wrote in my journal, “I feel like I am becoming who I have always been but forgot”. So, how do I remember now, and again and again?

P1050662I still don’t know the answer, but I ended my trip to India with something that turned that whisper of listening into a roar of silence.

The Monday before I was to fly home happened to be Independance Day, and we had two days off. It was the perfect opportunity to go to the ancient cave temples at Ajanta and Ellora.

The 28 caves of Ajanta are Buddhist and date from 200 BC to 650 AD. This world heritage site is tucked in a remote river valley northeast of Mumbai.

Ellora, a few hours away, is a larger complex of cave temples as well as massive structures carved out of rock faces. These temples and monasteries date from 600 – 1000AD and are Buddhist, Hindu and Jain.

I have heard people talk of them, but nothing prepared me for the power of this pilgrimage.

P1050745Perhaps it is in my history of pilgrimage from when I was in my early twenties traveling in Nepal and Tibet and India thirty years ago.

Perhaps it is in my genes, as my father is a scholar of early Christianity and spent a good chunk of his life amongst archeological sites two millenium old.

Perhaps it was just the place for me to sit in silence, to slow, to relax, to accept, to soothe, to know, to heal.

But whatever the reason, the caves at Ajanta made me feel connected to life, to our history as human beings, our potential to awaken, to endure, to continually be present.

IMG_1856Cave after cave, I wandered, imagining a life of dedicated practice, a life of living simply in a stone room, a life sitting and of DEEPLY listening -to sit through everything, to sit through all time.

Opening to the Vastness

P1000576 “The goal of the spiritual path is to be flexible, courageous and exploratory in the face of life’s joys and paradoxes, while never parting from a connection to its deepest meaning.”

-Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche-

This past summer I was blessed with a journey that connected me with the vastness of our country, and gave me an opportunity to explore the hidden parts of my inner landscape…the unconscious parts…the shadows. To celebrate 50 years on this planet, a group of us went for a two week long canoe trip on the Wind River in northern Yukon. The Wind is part of the Peel Watershed and is one of North America’s largest intact ecosystems–a region of mountains, deep canyons, plateaus, wetlands and rolling hills.

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Over 14 days, we paddled 190 km on the Wind River and another 90 km on the Peel River. I have never witnessed such immense terrain, clear translucent water and mesmerizing vistas. Our journey began with a long drive to a town five hours north of Whitehorse caled Mayo. From here we flew in a bush plane for an hour to get to the access point which would take us to the Wind. At this point you are hundreds of kilometers from any roads and instead you are in the depths of the Peel Watershed which contains a staggering 77,000 square kilometers of boreal forest -an immense area the size of Scotland. It was unbelievable to begin our trip paddling through this phenomenally remote landscape to then head further north to the tundra just south of the Arctic Circle.

We were blessed with unusually warm, sunny weather, perfect river conditions, with visits from cariboo, bear, moose, dall sheep, eagles and osprey. We were in bliss…or were we? I remember for the first days of the trip that it was hard to take it all in. It was challenging to adjust to the scale, like you couldn’t fully compute and digest the reality around you. Yes, we could look, but could we really have a clear experience of this land?

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On day two, as we were traveling in the upper stretches of this 280 km water slide of turquoise rapids, and rambling mountainous terrain, I was overwhelmed by the desire to go slower. I felt that we were traveling too fast for me to take it in, to savor and sink into the land. I was reminded of traveling through Tibet in 1988. It was my second trip there and we decided to travel from Lhasa to Kathmandu in a Jeep. The first time I was in Tibet, I had travelled in slow rickety buses and trucks, weaving between Lhasa and Shigatse many times, stopping frequently, eating tsampa with the locals, waiting at roadsides and tea houses. With the Jeep, we could travel fast, and we whizzed by the truck stops, the yak herds, the terrain unfolding, the boundless land disappearing as quickly it appeared. 

And here I was 25 years later, feeling the same frustration, wanting to shift the course of events, in conflict with “what is”. I was in bliss, and I was also in a place of resistance, wanting our group to stop and smell the mosses and the lichens, to wander in the plateau-scape that reminded me of Tibet. I paddled chanting invocations to the mother goddess to clear the dust from my eyes. I reminded myself of the ultimate practice of “Chöd”- to go beyond hope and fear and to look directly at our emotional states- to reject nothing, either good or bad, to face our demons and to follow the path of bare-naked pristine awareness.

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 Carl Jung says: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves”.

Yes, in this resistance there were moments of conflict, of irritation. Nothing that got in the way of the poignancy of the trip, but enough to allow me to confront my shadow. According to Carl Jung, the shadow lies in your unconscious – it is your murkier, unconscious self. It is believed that the shadow contains the parts of yourself that you do not like, and that you try to suppress. Jung believed we project these qualities onto others, that we have difficulty with people who exhibit traits that we ourselves have suppressed.

Well, what an opportunity to practice. It reminded of being on retreat at Gampo Abbey years ago. One of the monks there called it “a house of mirrors”. There was no escape from the close proximity that you had with other practitioners. So, it was an inescapable opportunity to see our patterns, to turn the mirror to our self. Or as Buddha said when he awakened- to see the builder of the house. We have spent our life building our notion of self according to our strategies, our hopes and fears, our likes and dislikes. And, on this canoe trip, it was like being in that monastery.

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So here I was in this vastness, the largest space I had ever inhabited, to make even more space- space for the joys and the paradoxes…the beauty and the difficulty, the bliss and the sorrow, and all the dispossessed aspects of myself. As I remember the unparalleled beauty, the purity and perfection of the landscape, I try to figure out what I can do…what I can do to hang out in the translucence of my own inner landscape, to illuminate my ignorance, to find the source of my well-being. 

 “Large intact wilderness is disappearing. We are facing an unprecedented crisis on this planet. So at this point what is a hedge against the uncertainty of the future (is that) we have got to leave as much of nature as intact as possible because THAT IS THE SOURCE Of OUR WELL-BEING. This is what we need- large intact areas as a hedge against our ignorance and I believe the Peel represents that.” -David Suzuki

That and so much more…

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Learning how to Listen

I write this post as a testimonial to piano technichian, Mark Figotin. Yesterday, Mark spent 8 hours “voicing” my piano. The day was a journey of deep listening, of fine tuning my ear to hear the vast array of nuances and subtleties of sound. He opened my ears to hear the way a note sustains, to hear the difference between a ‘harsh’ sounding note versus a round, deep and mellow note, and to hear when the vibrations of a note are utterly clear.

When Mark arrived, he gave me a recording of Rachmaninoff -himself -playing in 1916 on a Steinway concert grand piano. It was totally mesmerizing and unfathomable to hear the sounds Rachmaninoff was able to make with the piano- the diversity of tonality, all the colors in the different voices, and above all the quietude of the pianissimos. He was able to make the softest sound and yet somehow keep it perfectly articulated.

imagesWell, I am no Rachmaninoff, and my piano is not a Steinway concert grand. I am yoga teacher who loves playing the piano. As a child I thought the piano was magic, and the music that came from it seemed a greater mystery than those of Nancy Drew. I loved to play and despite inconsistent lessons and poor practice habits, I hobbled along.

After many years, when I was 16, the most miraculous thing happened- I met a Bulgarian concert pianist and she took my under her wing and I got hooked. This amazing wondrous woman made me actually believe that I could play! We would fly together through a landscape of Bach, Beethoven and Chopin, while sitting in her small bungalow with her two grand pianos side by side.  And every week I would leave deeply inspired and ready to dive into my upright piano and visit that flowing, magical terrain again.

IMG_1913The whole story is too long to tell, but the important part is that it took my piano teachers death to catapult me back into the world of pianos and music making. Seven years ago my musical soul mate and teacher Marian Grudeff passed away. Up to the end of her life, I had always kept in touch with her, but had stopped playing for 14 years while I raised two boys did lots of yoga. During those busy years I always felt I would someday get back into playing. Everyonce in a while I would sit down and be equally inspired and then horrified by the challenge of pressing your fingers into keys and creating sound.

IMG_1920 10-33-35Six months before her passing, I talked to Marian about starting lessons again. She reminded me that I would need to commit at least two hours a day to practice. I was so excited. I just had to clear my schedule a bit and decided that spring to start lessons in the fall ahead. Well, the fall took Marian away. The leaves and snow blew her music away in the wind.

And then a second miraculous thing happened. Marian’s son oragnized a recital a month after her funeral for all Marian’s students to come to her home and play once more on her two pianos- a Heintzman, and her marvelous 7 foot Steinway. And so I carved some time in my life- 15 minutes, then a half hour, then an hour, to practice a piece I would play for her at the recital. After the recital, she still had me hooked. She visited my dreams, and I started to work on new pieces, and my whole journey unfolded once more.

So, this brings me back to Mark and learning how to listen. In the months after Marian’s death, her son Chris had given me the opportunity to buy her Heintzman piano. I had always dreamed of having a ‘Grand’ piano, and never had  been in a position to afford one. I still wasn’t. Yet, when one dreams, crazy things happen. What seems impossible becomes a possibility. And, so after lots of reasearch and planning I bought a piano.

Buying a piano is a daunting process. I embarked on the most complicated search to find an instrument that was priced right and felt right and in the end I didn’t buy Marians piano. I bought a ‘Shigeru Kawai’. A well priced Japenese piano that is hand made and they say all the marvelous things about.  Things like this:

“The sensitive nurturing of every part, every joint, every subtle nuance vests each piano with an intangible quality—a soul—that lives on from generation to generation. And those who own a Shigeru piano know that they possess not merely an instrument, but a partner in the musical pursuit of dreams.”

And even more mystically:

“If there is an underlying secret behind the resonant song of the Shigeru grand piano, it is this tranquil place of origin where heart, mind and spirit are given the time to breathe and the freedom to soar.”

IMG_1480Well, I have had moments of soaring with my piano, but I have to be completely honest. I fell in love with it in the store. Yet, as soon as it was in my home, it sounded different, and for six years since I have owned it I have been dissappointed. It has always felt too bright, too loud, and somewhat like a bucking bronco. It is so hard to control the volume, the subtleties of the sound, and above all to play it quietly.

Because of this I developed many bad habits like over-using the soft pedal, and playing on the surface of the keys rather than sinking my fingers into the depths of the keyboard. Well, this was the case until the yesterday.

I am astounded. I am in heaven. I now have a partner in the musical pursuit of my dreams. And I owe this to Mark Figotin- the sensitive, patient artist who came and voiced my piano. Who for hours patiently shaved down the felt of the hammers, pricked needles into them and smoothed them so they would hit the strings just perfectly. His passion for music- the tone, the vibration, the clarity- is infectious. His long years of playing piano and conducting in Russia has given him an aesthetic and and a fine tuned ear to know and to savor the glorious beauty of sound.

Chopin and Savasana

Every day while I practice I am reminded of how intertwined the practice of yoga and creating music is. Lately, I have been gradually learning a piece by Chopin, or “Freddie” as one of my teachers calls him. It is one of his most beautiful and sensuous pieces called the “Barcarolle”, and it is a piece which has given me enormous challenges.

For the first few months I would go to lessons and attempt to communicate the subtleties and swells of the piece, the sublimely lyrical, sumptuous melodies and rich chords. My teachers mantra became, “relax, relax…relax”. We would barely get past the opening bars. Each week I would meditate at the keyboard, dive into the moment to moment sensations of my hands caressing the keys. I would return sure that I had relaxed enough, and she would shake her head, no. Week after week she would try to find yet other ways to help me sink weight into the keys, to relax the tension in my arms, and to listen through the tips of my fingers.

Arch Structure of the Arm

One of the biggest challenges for me is to maintain ease and steadiness as the piece builds in intensity, particularly if I am feeling any nervous anxiety while performing. I have to be honest that I have never found performing natural or easy and am amazed how everything shifts as soon as someone is there listening!

When I become nervous,  it feels to me like I am climbing steep, rocky mountains. One moment everything is blissful and you feel one with the universe and the next moment, if feeling fear, you stop breathing, your legs shake, you lean into the steepness of the slope which throws off your balance and makes the situation even more precarious!

With the piano, thank goodness nothing life threatening is going to happen. Yet it may feel just the same for your nervous system… one tends to restrict the breath, to carry tension in the body, to lose postural balance, to distort the tempo of the music, and to definitely lose the blissful connection to the moment.

Well, after eight months, I am beginning to find the ease and the breath that must be found if I ever am going to be able to perform this piece. I feel that Chopins’ Barcarolle has been so precise in it’s teaching- that the key to the piece is SLOWING DOWN, and the ability to RELAX. It is about calming the nervous system when under siege, of cultivating a moment-to-moment awareness of the breath, the arising and passing of sensations in the body, as well as letting go of any inhibiting thoughts that surface in the mind. Which brings me to SAVASANA…

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Thank goodness for the teachings of yoga. Yoga has been the gateway for me to cultivate an awareness of body, the breath, and the mind. For me, I know if I can’t find a deep place of relaxation, of subtle awareness on my yoga mat in savasana, then there is no way I will be able to find it at the piano. Savasana continually gives me the opportunity to stop, to listen, to relax accumulated tensions, to dive into the felt experience of my body and breath, and to release all the encrusted preoccupations of my mind.

I feel that when lying in savasana, there are deeper and deeper layers of release that are possible- at first, dropping into one level, and then sinking further into another deeper level of letting go, and further and further until we dissolve completely into a place of no separation- the experience of bliss and emptiness. There is a great documentary on called “The Art of Piano”. In it, the great Chilean concert pianist Claudio Arrau says:

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“If you keep your body relaxed, your body is in contact with the depths of your soul. If you are stiff in any joint, you impede the current of emotion, physical current, what the music dictates to you. If you have stiff joint you don’t let it go through the keyboard.”


Well, I have no doubt he has mastered that, the sublime genius that he is. Yet for me, this may require a life time of practice both on the mat and at the keyboard, continually observing the tensions that surface, continually finding ease, continually connecting with the breath and emptying the mind.

So, I continue on the journey of the Barcarolle- filling my mind and my heart with its sensuous beauty, letting go of neurotic tendencies, tensions, and notions of perfection…and instead being with the current of emotion, the physical current, relaxing my body-mind to be in contact with the depths of my soul.

 

Iyengar and Menuhin

“I have always intuited that the only real ‘spirituality’ lies in our direct and personal relationship with Nature, with the Universe, and have long since backed away from asking others, including books, how I should live my life, how I should relate to Nature and the Universe…

To learn from Nature, to let the body vibrate with the vibrations of the Universe, to let the heartbeat beat in rhythm with the heartbeat of the Earth, to let the senses listen to the murmurings of all that lives, and to hear the last breaths of all that dies.”

-Dona Holleman-

I am always greatly inspired by yogini Dona Holleman, who has been teaching yoga over 50 years. Dona studied with B.K.S. Iyengar in the 60’s and was part of a group of professional musicians and spiritual teachers who spent time together in Italy. This group included Yehudi Menuhin, Vanda Scaravelli (seen above), and Jiddu Krishnamurti among others. It is interesting to see how her journey has evolved through the years. On her website she expresses how her “two main interests in life, yoga and horses, have finally come together harmoniously”.

I feel the same way about my two passions in life- yoga and music. Studying the sublime and deeply spiritual music of the great masters has widened my horizon even more than I imagined. Music has been an avenue of practice, and has taught me, and continues teaching me, many things about myself, and life in general. For me yoga and music are not such different disciplines but two spiritual art forms that inform and support each other. A great example of this is the relationship between B.K.S. Iyengar and Yehudi Menuhin.

B.K.S.IYENGAR and YEHUDI MENUHIN

yehudi 2Menuhin met B.K.S. Iyengar in India in the early 50’s while Menuhin was on a concert tour. He had been invited by Jawaharlal Nehru to give a series of charity concerts for the Famine Relief Fund. While he was there he  expressed his interest in yoga and during a meeting with Nehru and performed a headstand for him, which made the headlines all over India. Menuhin wanted to learn more about yoga and B.K.S. Iyengar was one of the yogis invited to come and meet him. Iyengar was reluctant to go, due to the amount of travel time involved, but then agreed. He spent a couple hours with him, correcting his Sirsasana, and then brought him into a long 50 minute Savasana. This was a wonderful gift as Menuhin had been suffering from insomnia.

When Menuhin woke up from this deep state of “Shanmukhimudra” which Iyengar induced by manipulating his eyes, ears and nerves, he immediately requested to study more with him. In 1954 Iyengar spent more than six weeks in Gstaad, Switzerland, as Menuhins’ personal yoga instructor. He travelled with him to Britain and France and then continued to teach him in Europe most summers until 1984. Through Menuhin, Iyengar was introduced to, and taught many famous musicians including Pablo Cassals, Rudolph Serkin, Jacquline du Pre, and Vanda Scaravelli.

yehudiMenuhin had already been suffering from a variety of muscular and skeletal aches and pains. Under the programme of asanas that Iyengar prescribed for him, Yehudi Menuhin’s muscular pains disappeared completely. Menuhin wrote that “yoga made its contribution to my quest to understand consciously the mechanics of violin playing”. He and Iyengar developed a life long friendship and he called Iyengar “my best violin teacher”.  Through his  yoga practice, Menuhin was able to sustain a long, illustrious career.

His recording contract with EMI lasted almost 70 years and is the logest in the history of the music industry. He made his first recording at age 13 in November 1929, and his last when he was nearly 83 years old. In 1982, he was invited to conduct the celebrated Berlin Philharmonic  Orchestra at it’s 100th jubilee celebrations, and he conducted the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony standing on his head while directing the orchestra with his feet!

Although I am a very amateur musician, my experience with yoga and playing the piano is equally profound. Yoga has made it possible to find physical fluidity, postural balance, focus, and the body awareness which are necessary on the journey towards allowing the music to express itself unhindered. The practice of listening, of deepening the mind-body connection, of releasing obstructing tensions involves everything psychological, physical and spiritual, which is what yoga is all about!

If  you are interested to read more about  Iyengar and Menuhin, here are the sources for this info:

Gateless Gate Magazine: Interview with B.K.S.Iyengar

Kofia Busia: The Maestro and the Queen