Have you ever been terrified? And wondered how you ended up there?
During my two months in South India I ended up at Tiruvannamalai, a middle-sized town, for the ten-day long Karthigai celebrations, which is the biggest holiday for Hindus in South India.
Among other festivities, every day at sunset a pillar of flame is lit on top of the Arunachala hill. They say that you can see the flame for miles around.
The Hindu god Shiva is supposed to have appeared as a beacon of light on top of this mountain as well as be the mountain itself, so it’s a holy place even outside of Karthigai.
In addition to walking around the mountain, hiking up the mountain is also one of the special things to do there. The hike up was surprisingly not easy, although the view of the town’s temple from high up is beautiful.
True believers walk up the hill barefoot. I kept my shoes on…until I got to the top.
When I got up to the top of the mountain right after sunset, the pillar of flame had just been lit. Since it had already been lit a few days, the area all around the top was covered in gooey black tar from the spent ghee. It was so windy up there that the wind picked up sparks from the pillar and blew them on to the tar, lighting up small licks of flickering flames everywhere.
I had to take off my shoes. I’m barefoot. It’s getting dark. We had planned to spend the night on top of the mountain, but I was no longer so sure. It was all men up here, and I’ve been having bad experiences with men in India. Many of them were leaving now that the pillar was lit.
I told my companion Josephine that I might go down now with the men who were leaving. She told me that I first had to pour my ghee onto the pillar. Yes, I agreed, but I was afraid to approach the pillar. I had no idea how I was going to even get close enough to pour the ghee. The black tar was slippery; I was afraid I’d fall.
At this moment I truly understood the word awe whose origins in Old English meant “immediate and active fear, terror, dread” inspired by god/s. I was scared into respect. Confronted with the smell of ghee burning for days and the sight of fire everywhere, I felt so small. What did I get myself into?
One of the fire tenders offered me his hand. He guided me to the pillar of fire and showed me that, from the back, I could safely pour my ghee in. And he held my hand as we poured the ghee in together.
I felt safe with him; he’s on the left-hand photo above. I no longer felt alone. I decided to spend the night up there with Josephine and the fire tenders. There were four of them. So I spent the night on top of the mountain with all of them, sharing tea and bread through the night. Josephine spoke some Tamil, and everyone taught me a few words. It’s completely different from Sanskrit.
I visited the flame before going to sleep. A lot of the ghee had burned away by then, and the flame was no longer so fierce. The wind spookily whistled around me. And all of a sudden I felt alone but no longer scared.
We slept in a row on a mountain so that we were protected from the wind, but it was still so cold. I woke up about once every hour and watched the moon make its way across the night sky.
In the light of the sunrise the fire was dying down. Monkeys woke up and picked at offerings left behind for the gods. As I made my way down the mountain up came a chain of devotees with gallons of ghee to prepare for that night’s pillar of fire.
Category: Active Hands Yoga ⇔ Tags: Arunachala, Deepam, fear, fire, Hindu festival, holy mountain, India, Karthigai, monkeys, shiva, south india, Tiruvannamalai ⇔ No Comments
Once upon a time one of my yoga teachers would end class with a 12 minute hold of this Kundalini yoga pose:
It looks easy until you’re five minutes into it.
And then your arms are shaking and you can’t believe your arms have turned into two monster trucks or giant elephants.
I had no idea why he loved that pose so much, but he also had a penchant for 3-minute planks and other practically obscenely hard yoga practices.
But now I have a clue–this posture is a “power pose.”
In the video below social psychologist Amy Cuddy talks about “power posing” — how posing your body powerfully influences not only how others perceive you but also how you see yourself.
In short, Prof. Cuddy’s research suggests that physical poses can change the amount of testosterone and cortisol in your body. Simplistically translated, more testosterone means more confidence and more cortisol means more stress. “Power poses” increase testosterone and decrease cortisol and, thus, increase confidence and decrease stress.
Practically speaking, your body language changes your mood.
Her research shows that if you just assume a power pose for just two minutes, you can change your feelings about yourself.
If you wrap your arms around yourself, this protective gesture makes you seem weak.
If you expand your body in space by standing with your hands on hips, shoulders back to open the chest, chin up, and feet spread, like Wonder Woman, you can increase your confidence.
Another power pose?
Prof. Cuddy showed a slide of a runner crossing the finish line–arms up in the air.
See how similar that is to the kundalini yoga pose above? Case closed.
These are power poses, made to make you feel confident and less stressed. Not a bad way to end a yoga class.
We yogis have always known that your body affects your mind, and now science proves that your body language can shape who you are.
Image credits from top to bottom: Pink Lotus, Ted.com, and Go Wow Team
Category: Active Hands Yoga ⇔ Tags: body language, power posture, psychology, yoga, yoga benefit, yoga pose, yoga postures, yoga science ⇔ No Comments
You go to India, not quite sure of what you’re looking for. On your itinerary is a long list of Hindu temples, though you’re not Hindu. You just want to go there.
At one temple that did not seem more interesting or more important than any other, you cry. You don’t know why: you’re not sad, you’re not upset–in fact, you don’t feel anything. You don’t feel good or liberated or guilty or even curious about the tears.
You simply don’t have an opinion about it one way or another. It’s just something that is happening, like rain in Berlin.
So what’s going on here?
I’m a skeptic with an open mind. I only believe in things I personally experience, even if I can’t explain it. For example, I can’t explain how a car goes, but in my experience it goes when you press the gas pedal. I believe that cars go, even if I can’t tell you how.
So when yoga teachers tell me that there’s a part of me that’s not my mind, not my feelings, and not my body, I don’t believe or not believe it. This part of me that’s not mind, not body, not feelings has never been within my experience.
But at this temple in India, I accessed that part of me through the tears. The crying doesn’t come from my mind, nor does it from my feelings. The crying is not a physical reaction from my body.
There is another part of me that’s accessed in this temple, a part of me that’s not mind, body, or feeling. Some would call this soul; one of my teachers calls this karma.
I don’t know what to call this part of me or this experience. I’m just reporting on the weather.
But I do think it’s this that you’re looking for when you go to India, this part of you that’s beyond what you usually experience.
And this is also what you sometimes experience in yoga.
Have you ever experienced this part of you that’s not mind, not body, not feeling? Tell me below.
Artwork by my friend Melissa Steckbauer
Category: Active Hands Yoga ⇔ Tags: India, tears in yoga, temples ⇔ No Comments
I’ve told my students that yoga is not what you look like.
It doesn’t matter if your tree pose is lopsided or your plank isn’t straight like a straw.
I always emphasized that yoga was how hard you tried, how you didn’t give up, how much you brought to the pose.
Now I don’t think yoga is about what you can or cannot do.
Yoga is a state of being.
I’ve known this, of course.
But somehow being able to do the advanced poses mattered still.
I recently found a list of my goals for 2012.
When I read through it, I was reminded that one of my intentions was to hold headstand for 10 minutes.
I still can’t hold headstand for that long.
Now it doesn’t matter to me anymore.
Why did I measure myself according to what I can do and for how long?
The same reason I have photos of beautiful yogis in perfect poses on my tumblr website.
Because yoga, for me at least, worked from the outside in.
I started with the physical, and now I’m working on the subtler parts.
I still have a barometer for my personal yoga practice.
But it’s no longer headstands, handstands, or anything else I can photograph.
What is yoga for you?
Category: Active Hands Yoga ⇔ Tags: yoga ⇔ No Comments
During my three months of travel in India and Indonesia, I’ve visited and meditated in a few caves that renowned yogis or ascetics have meditated in.
Why would anyone meditate in a cave?
Teachers say that because the temperatures are moderated in a cave–it’s cool in the summer and warm in the winter, it’s a comfortable way to meditate in nature. Sounds from the outside world are shut out. And you are inescapably alone in one. I mean, check out the ones below from Indonesia. They are really just for one person. So you can be in comfortable solitude in nature, protected from the elements.
Sounds great in theory, right? But meditators have reported online that meditating in a purely natural cave isn’t so pleasant, since you’ll be sharing it with critters and dirt, if you can find a vacant cave during high season in the Himalayas at all.
So there must be other, non-practical reasons for meditating in a cave. One spiritual reason is that when you meditate in a cave where others have meditated, they say that you can still feel their energies.
Totally hippie-dippie fairytale or is it for realz? You’ll have to visit a meditation cave for yourself to decide.
As for me, I meditated in a few caves in India and visited a few meditation caves in Java. To be frank, the reason why I am even writing about meditation caves is that I had one of my deepest and complete meditations in one of two famous meditation caves in Tiruvannamalai.
Maybe it was because the night before I had spent it on top of the mountain or maybe it was because of the time of year, since I was visiting during the ten days’ celebration period after the Karthigai Deepam, the biggest festival in Tiruvannamalai for the year. But once I sat in the cave, I was still.
Keep reading to find out my number one practical reason for meditating in a cave in India.
Meditation caves on Arunachala Mountain in Tamil Nadu, India
The two well-known meditation caves are known as Virupaksha and Skandashram on the Arunachala holy mountain the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
The Sri Ramana ashram maintains both of them, because Sri Ramana Maharishi–an acknowledged enlightened being–spent many years meditating in both of these caves as well as in other caves on the same Arunachala mountain.
Both Skandashram and Virupaksha are natural caves that have been added onto: they are both enclosed compounds now, so current meditators don’t have to worry about leaks or critters.
In fact, around Skandashram, there is even a natural mountain source for spring water behind the cave compound under a huge tree. Usually, the source is covered by a flat stone, which you can easily remove (see below). This is not from a natural spring but from rain runoff that passes through the interior of the volcanic rock mountain. Outside of the cave compound, the water gathered in a small pool.
Further down from the Skandashram cave compound an ascetic showed me another mountain water source. He was washing his hands, not drinking from it, I noted. You can kinda see it behind him in this photograph below.
Since the biggest holy festival day for Karthigai Deepam had just passed when I was there, I had personally seen the evidence of many pilgrims peeing on the mountain. I was pretty sure the urine went the same way as rain does, so when I tasted the water, it could have just been my imagination, but it faintly smelled of urine. So even though I wanted to fill up my water bottle like the other pilgrim meditators, I refrained.
If you continue hiking from the Ramana Ashram beyond the Skandashram, you’ll find your way to the Virupaksha cave a bit lower on Arunachala.
The Virupaksha Cave is said to be in the shape of the word ‘om’, but it felt just like a round cave to me. In the middle of the cave stands a pile of sacred ash–vibhuti–from the body of the first ascetic who meditated here in the 13th century, after whom the cave is named, Virupaksha Deva. Later on, Sri Ramana Maharishi meditated here for 16 to 17 years.
If you get a chance, try meditating in Virupaksha cave. It’s a cave with history that left a deep impression on me.
Meditation Caves on the Dieng Plateau in Central Java, Indonesia
On the Dieng plateau in Central Java were a few caves around the Warna Lake / Telaga Warna where ascetics / rishis used to meditate. Over 2000 meters above sea level in volcanic mountains, the name of the plateau in Old Javanese means “Abode of the Gods.” Along with meditation caves, scattered around the plateau are eight small 8th to 9th-century temples dedicated to Shiva, now sitting among rice and potato fields. According to scholars, as many as 400 temples were excavated at Dieng Plateau and records show that it was an important sacred center for quite some time.
When I visited Dieng Plateau I had assumed that these caves were contemporaries with the Hindu temples, but now that I’ve read up on these caves, I found out that these caves are used even today. The ex-President Suharto came by helicopter from Jakarta to meditate at the Ratu cave by the Warna Lake and had met the then Australian Prime Minister in one of Dieng’s limestone caves in the 1970s.
Outside of the caves are statues of the rishis / ascetics in miniature.
Actually, I had assumed at the time that the statues were of the rishis, since one of them (see photo above) is sitting in lotus posture–a classic meditation posture–but they could have been guardians of the caves as well.
The caves are behind bars, which I now have found out that you can ask the caretakers to open. I didn’t see anyone around when I was there, but I suppose you can ask the ticket sellers to open the gates for you. Below you’ll see how small and narrow these natural meditation caves are.
In this Semar Cave / Gua Semar above, the Javanese deity Semar, who although is a clown figure is said to be more powerful than all the other gods, is said to appear to seekers who fast and meditate here for days.
Since I did not meditate in these caves, I can neither confirm nor deny this. If you go, sit in these caves for a while, and tell me what you experienced.
So, really, why would you meditate in a cave?
In my own practical experience there are no mosquitoes or flies in caves, which makes a critical difference in India and Indonesia. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been irritated and distracted by mosquito bites while meditating; I find it easier to meditate on a bus with loud music and smokers, bouncing over potholes on a dirt road, than with a mosquito in my meditation corner.
Have you ever meditated in a cave? What was your experience? Please share them.
Category: Active Hands Yoga ⇔ Tags: Arunachala, cave, caves, dieng plateau, India, Indonesia, Java, meditation, Meditation cave, mosquitoes, Ramana ashram caves, Ramana caves, telaga warna, Thiruvannamalai, Tiruvannamalai, Virupaksha cave ⇔ No Comments
The Dancer pose aka Natarajasana is one of the most emblematic yoga postures. The Sanskrit name literally means the posture of the king of the dance. The Lord of the Dance is an aspect of the Hindu god Shiva.
Usually, Nataraja is seen in sculpture as dancing in a ring of fire, the left leg lifted in the air, the right foot stepping on a demon (the demon of ignorance and illusion). In his upper right hand is the the drum of creation; his upper left hand holds the fire that will destroy all of creation. No fear signals his lower right hand, held up in abhayamudra. His lower left hand, pointing towards his lifted left leg, signals refuge.
There are lots of temples in South India where Shiva is worshipped in his aspect of Nataraja. In Tamil Nadu, one of the southern Indian states, there are five main temples of Nataraja known as Pancha sabbas or the five halls where Shiva performed his cosmic dance. At these temples are stages / ambalams.
The most important temple for Nataraja among these five is the Kanaka Sabha or golden hall at Chidambaram, where on the temple gopurams (entrance towers) you can see sculptures of karana or dance movments.
Another important Nataraja shrine is the Rajatha Sabha or silver hall at the Minakshi Sundareshwarar temple in Madurai. Here you can see a rare representation of the Natarajasana.
The Lord of the Dance is shown raising his right leg and dancing on the demon with his left foot, reversing the usual posture of Nataraja. As a practicing yogi you might think it’s just to balance out the left and right sides. The reversal in posture here, however, is due to legend.
Once upon a time the king of Madurai was a devotee of Nataraja and tried to learn how to dance. Finding it very hard to dance only on his right leg all the time, as we usually see in the sculptures, the king prayed to Lord Nataraja to change his posture so that the king could also change his posture. The Lord accepted his request and thus Nataraja is dancing on his left foot here in Madurai.
Another temple in Tamil Nadu dedicated to Nataraja is at Kanchipuram. Although not one of the five places where Nataraja performed his cosmic dance, the Kanchi Kailasanathar temple was built by a devotee to Nataraja, the Pallava King Raja Simha. The low sandstone campus shows Shiva as Nataraja in various postures on exterior panels.
Finally, one of my favorite sculptures of Shiva is at the Muvar koil temple far off the tourist path at Kodumbalur in the Pudukkottai region. Built and carved by early Chola artisans in the 9th and 10 centuries, the architecture features lovingly detailed reliefs in the niches.
Here Shiva is shown as Kalari, dancing over the figure of Kala. The graceful smile on his face as well as the balanced positioning of his arms and legs make this scene quite lyrical. Instead of Shiva as the terrifying conqueror of Kala, here he is at ease, at play, dancing.
The Nataraja image has been partially destroyed at Kodumbalar, but it gives the same impression of grace and movement.
By showing this variety of images of Nataraja at Indian temples I mean to illustrate the different ways to take the dancer pose in yoga. Quite often we hear that there is only one right way to take a pose, but if we go back to the origins, you can see for yourself that Shiva himself danced in different ways over a period of time even in the same region.
What’s your favorite image of Nataraja? Let me know in the comments where to see your favorite representation of the dancer pose.
Images from the top : Elena Ray, Met Museum, Isabel Putinja, University of Washington Libraries, two photos from Sulekha.com, two photos from Saurabh
Category: Active Hands Yoga ⇔ Tags: chola, dancer pose, dancer yoga pose, indian fresco, indian sculpture, kalari, lord of the dance, nataraja, natarajasana, shiva, siva, south india, tamil nadu, temples ⇔ 3 Comments
I have something to say today.
I try not to get too personal here, because I want this space to be useful for readers.
So it’s difficult for me to tell me what changes I’m living out right now.
Watch the video below to find out.
As I said in the video, if you want to follow my evolution as I journey around half the world, visit me at my personal blog under my own name here : http://bettinashzu.com/category/blog.
While I’m traveling I’ll be updating this blog less frequently, but I’ll be visiting yoga ashrams, temples related to yoga, as well as studying yoga in India. So stay tuned for news about yoga abroad!
One last thing, I’m now looking for new and better ways I can help you live a sweeter, more relaxed life. Can you do me a favor and fill out a short survey? Your feedback will help shape what I share with you next.
Here’s the survey link:
Click here to take survey
Thanks so much!
Photo found on
tumblr (site no longer up)
Category: Active Hands Yoga, Active Hands Yoga TV ⇔ Tags: travel, video ⇔ No Comments
If you were relaxed,
it wouldn’t matter that
+ the website takes 5 more seconds to load than expected
+ a stranger calls you to sell you something you don’t need
+ you stub your toe
+ the person on the bus next to say is speaking way too loudly into their cell phone
+ you leave a tissue in your pocket and run it through the washing machine
+ tourists walk painfully slow ahead of you on the sidewalk
+ you get a paper cut
+ people don’t park inside their lines
+ buses arrive late
+ you have a bad hair day
+ it rains
If you were relaxed,
+ would you be irritated at the slightest thing or be the bigger person and let it go?
+ would you yell back and escalate road rage?
+ instead of ignoring the growth opportunities –because you can’t deal with anymore MORE right now–you’d welcome and search them out ?
+ would you be annoyed at your partner for forgetting to put the toilet seat down again?
+ would a rude shop assistant ruin your day?
+ or stepping in dog poo on the sidewalk?
If you were relaxed, the little things don’t matter.
You could focus on the big things, like saving the world, funding your start-up, or traveling for six months.
By relaxing, I mean to feel what you feel, to lean into it, and to accept it because its the truth of where you are.
When you stop fighting or judging your experience, you can relax.
Relax now in seven minutes with my free mp3.
Photo from Anthropologie via Fashionising
Category: Active Hands Yoga ⇔ Tags: how to relax, reasons to relax, relax, relaxation ⇔ 1 Comment »
Some good things I’ve found on the internet this past week:
♥ a video interview by Kara-Leah Grant of the Yoga Lunchbox with Mark Whitwell on the principles of yoga as taught by the yoga teacher of yoga teachers.
If you don’t have 45 minutes to watch the complete video, here are my notes on what Mark said:
+ Yoga is not for making money; it’s about caring for each other and communicating.
+ Yoga is direct intimacy with life itself, not spiritual or gymnastic idealism–that only makes people unsatisfied with their lives.
+ Trying to become something else is a denial of who I am right now.
+ Yoga is giving people direct access to the wonder of their present life: stop looking, start living–embrace your ordinary life.
+ Do yoga for the sheer pleasure of it–like sex, not as a duty.
+ Yoga is participation in what is already given.
+ There is only one illness–stress. Remove stress, and let life heal you.
♥ beautiful food photography, beautiful enough to frame as art
♥ urban sketchers in Berlin and all over the world–drawing is to photography what slow food is to eating.
♥ this sad and funny and true song from Jeffrey Lewis, called “Don’t Let the Record Label Take You Out to Lunch.” Be sure to read the lyrics here.
Jeffrey Lewis- Don’t Let the Record Label take you out to lunch from Zack Wolk on Vimeo.
Hope that floats your boat straight into the weekend!
Feel free to send me your good links–and it doesn’t have to be related to yoga, just beautiful and brings a smile to my face.
Category: Active Hands Yoga ⇔ Tags: berlin, links, yoga ⇔ No Comments
When I made my list of superstar vegan ingredients, I forgot another secret weapon in the vegan chef’s arsenal : coconut milk. Coconut milk just makes everything taste better, even if you don’t like the taste of coconut (like me!). Because it doesn’t taste particularly coconut-y, it’s actually quite versatile.
One of my favorite quick recipes is using coconut milk as well as garam masala or Thai curry paste as the base for a soup. I toss in whatever vegetables I have at hand, adding noodles and tofu if I have them around.
For today’s lunch I made one of these fusion soups.
onion, chopped up
garam masala* / Thai curry paste
3 small carrots, chopped
half a bell pepper, chopped
7 stalks of chard (my CSA won’t stop sending me these, so I’ve been featuring chard shows up in my recipes a lot), chopped
coconut milk and water
salt and freshly ground pepper
1. Heat coconut oil in a large pot until it melts.
2. Add onions and garam masala* or a Thai curry paste.
3. When the onions have browned, add the carrots, bell pepper, chard, and noodles. I like whole-grain because you can boil them a bit more than white noodles, and they still retain their texture.
4. Add coconut milk and water to taste as well as salt and freshly ground pepper.
What I love about this recipe is that you can eat it hot or cold.
* Garam masala just means a mix of Indian spices. You can find these spices pre-mixed at your local Indian grocery.
Category: Active Hands Yoga, Active Hands Yoga, Try Vegan Challenge ⇔ Tags: coconut milk, easy, eating consciously, eating vegan, recipe, recipes, try vegan challenge, vegan ⇔ 1 Comment »