Hi, I’m Bettina. What I'm working on : Forget to slouch. Relaxing is freedom. Choose life.

Articles in “Active Hands Yoga”

What is a silent Vipassana meditation retreat really like?

My Bare Feet in Front of Stone Mandala in a South Indian temple

My Bare Feet in Front of Stone Mandala in a South Indian temple


Two months ago I went on a silent 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat in Poland. Since so many people have asked me about it, I want to put my thoughts down here.

What is a Vipassana meditation retreat like?

Essentially, you go somewhere outside of your normal life for 10 days where all you do is meditate. The retreat is structured to take you away from the urgent details of living life so that all you can do is focus on what is inside yourself. In a way, it’s quite selfish. How often can you focus just on yourself without thinking about your work, your family / social obligations, your social media feeds, the daily news, or even the basics like when to go to sleep or what to eat or what to do next? Without having to think about such things, I could finally focus on the important but not urgent things.


What showed up in my mind at the Vipassana retreat?

The biggest gift the retreat gave me was seeing what was important to me. When I signed up for the retreat, I wanted to make big decisions about my career, but in reality I didn’t think about work at all. Instead, I remembered the people I had met and what I experienced with them. I met again strangers I met while traveling who left an impression on me without me knowing it at the time. Scenes from movies I had watched replayed in my head just as real as memories of real events. I realized then that the movies did happen to me like real life.

The face of my beloved partner haunted me constantly. I was anxious to get home to him before it was too late to show him how much I loved him. It was already too late; how many times have I spoken out in petty anger at him? How many times have I leaned on him without being grateful? I wanted to rush home, ask for his forgiveness, and get to know him all over again. My teeth ached when I thought of all the moments I’ve missed to show him how tender my love could be. Instead, I had chosen to stew in anger or a grudge.

The second biggest gift the retreat gave me was a much bigger perspective. I came to the retreat thinking of the next 1-2 years. I left the retreat focused on the next 10 to 20 years. “Long-term” no longer meant months but decades. I pulled back from the thick of thin things, from the pale busyness that a life even full of meaningful work and good friends can be. I experienced inside my body, not just knew as dry fact, the impermanence of my life, how fleeting these memories go. For the first time in a long time, or maybe ever, I sat cross-legged to watch memories go by like snowflakes dancing with gravity in the wind before surrendering to the ground. And I experienced, not just knew as dry fact, that snowflakes will go on dancing even when I’m no longer here to watch them.

Third, I found myself better able to focus. Previously, I had many todo lists in my head. After meditating for 10 days, I was able to focus my thoughts.

My long-term takeaway: Surround myself with good media, good stories, and good people. Meet good people and have good experiences with them.


What about the Vipassana meditation experience didn’t work for me?  

One minor aspect of the teaching that gave me pause was the purported origin of the meditation style. We were told that the Vipassana meditation practice comes straight down from the Buddha Gautama through the text Satipatthana Sutta. But Gautama has written nothing that has come down to us. The Satipatthana Sutta seems to be an anthology of different texts written by different authors. So even if the Vipassana teachers believe that the Satipatthana Sutta was uttered by the Buddha Gautama himself, I don’t believe it. 

That said, almost all yoga and meditation styles claim to be descended from some partially divine teacher way back in time. For example, the author of the Yoga Sutra Patanjali is depicted in some Indian temples as half-snake. Some Indian gods have animal heads. No one can prove this; no one can disprove this either. Who really knows the truth of history? To me, the origins of the teachings doesn’t really matter if the teachings help me in any way.

The major aspect of Vipassana that didn’t work for me was that Vipassana is no longer a living tradition. They are led by a teacher S.N. Goenka who passed away in 2013 and lives on in books and videos. This means that not only can the teachers of this tradition not progress deeper than those recordings over time, but also the teachings themselves cannot adapt to the times.

S.N. Goenka popularized and spread the Vipassana meditation style from the north of Burma to India, and then from India to the rest of the world. In both Southeast Asia and India, people are used to sitting on the floor instead of on chairs, so their hips are already open enough to sit on the floor. Almost everyone who normally sits on chairs has tight hips. During the retreat I saw meditators using cushions, pillows, and cloth bands to build miniature forts to support their knees and back. If the teachings could adapt to the needs of meditators, then teaching us how to sit comfortably on the floor for a long time would have made the actual meditation technique  much easier to digest for people who struggle to sit comfortably cross-legged on the floor.

In addition to adapting the teachings to the physical needs of new audiences, the style of communication would be more effective if it could adapt to the times. Every evening we watched videos of Goenka explaining our meditation practice during that day and giving a preview of what we’ll be doing tomorrow. Since Goenka made the videos in the 1990s, these evening lectures address an audience from almost 20 years ago. Maybe 20 years ago, sermonizing and lecturing made sense. But today people don’t want to be told exactly what to do; people want to be guided to make the right decision for themselves. Even if the message is timeless, the way Goenka communicated in some of his lectures sounded too much of a micro-manager to me. How can these teachings and lectures stay current as they age without a lead teacher to evolve them?

Again, this is an issue that all traditions have to address, so the Vipassana style is not alone in this.


Half-Snake People Carved into the side of a Temple in Hampi, India

Half-Snake People Carved into the side of a Temple in Hampi, India


How does the Vipassana meditation technique compare to other kinds of meditation techniques?

For context, I’ve learned meditation styles from only India. Many Indian-origin meditation styles involve vocalization, visualization, and breath control. For example, in yoga nidra, a voice leads the meditator through the rotation of consciousness through different parts of the body, the counting of breaths, and ends with a visualization. Since Vipassana explicitly asks meditators to not vocalize, not visualize, and not control the breath, I find the meditation style precise, dry, and logical. It cuts like a scalpel. For more details about the Vipassana technique, you should learn it from a Vipassana teacher.

The teaching of the Vipassana meditation technique is progressive and systematic. Meditators start with 3 days of foundational work to build up to the real meditation technique. Each day they teach one more step to go one level deeper. On the last day the rules are eased so that your re-introduction to the ‘real’ world on the 11th day doesn’t come as a shock to the system.  


What are the long-term effects of the Vipassana meditation retreat?

For the first two weeks after the retreat, I did everything–sitting, breathing, eating– with intention. As I was more conscious of all the details of my life, everything I previously did on automatic became a real choice. I could choose to be attentive of how the sidewalk felt under my feet as I walked to the bus stop in the morning or I could choose to be in my head, planning my upcoming work day. I could choose how I reacted to people instead of just blurting out whatever comes out.

Over time, I slowly lost this awareness. It is recommended that after leaving the retreat, one meditates one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. I aimed for just 20 minutes a day of sitting meditation, which was something I personally could commit to doing daily. Eventually I want to meditate longer.

Two months later, I am using the Vipassana technique in my everyday life, while walking down the street or when dealing with uncomfortable feelings. I concentrate on how it feels inside my body rather than the drama of other people. I remind myself that this too will pass. And so it does. I find that being able to use this technique outside of sitting meditation have been the most valuable part of the technique for me.

On the last day of the retreat, I decided that I will go back to the retreat again, ideally every year.


Do I recommend doing the Vipassana meditation retreat?

I definitely recommend trying the retreat if you are at all curious. Even if you can only judge whether the Vipassana meditation technique works for you when you do it, eating healthy food regularly, sleeping regularly, being away from the stress of daily life and internet media will improve your physical and mental health.

There is almost no financial risk. Because the retreat is by donation only, you can decide at the end how much it was worth to you.

There is almost no time investment risk, because you could leave the retreat early if you really wanted to.

So if you’re curious, just try it out. You only put in the time or money you want.


When is a good time to do a Vipassana meditation retreat?

Over lunch a friend told me that he has always wanted to do a Vipassana meditation ever since he traveled around in India, but he’s afraid of what will bubble up–all those things in his life that he didn’t make time to process. I asked him: Who doesn’t have things that will bubble up?

Vipassana gives you a set of tools and the perfect setting in which to work on what bubbles up. The set schedule of when to wake up and go to sleep, the food prepared for you at regular hours: you have everything you need physically and mentally to deal with the things that bubble up. It’s better to deal with these here in this supportive environment than in your normal life. If you are thinking about it, then do it now. Even if you are afraid, now is the right time.


Lotus in the Pond at Rameshwaram Temple in South India

Lotus in the Pond at Rameshwaram Temple in South India




What is the schedule of a Vipassana meditation retreat?

I loved this schedule. You wake up to ringing gongs at 4am, and lights are supposed to be out at 9:30 or 10pm, so this meant that one slept about 6 hours a day. Since a sleep debt financed my normal life, however, the first few days I slept a lot more than that. I fell asleep repeatedly during the meditation times, because I couldn’t stay awake with my eyes closed. I felt guilty about this, but the meditation teacher said falling asleep is totally ok and that many people do this.

Starting the first days of the retreat getting all the sleep I needed to catch up on left me feeling refreshed and ready for the next part. After a few days I didn’t need to sleep anymore during meditation. In fact, the teacher told me that when you meditate more, you need less sleep.

In addition to the sleep schedule, the meal times are also regimented. We ate breakfast at 6:30am, lunch at 11am, and dinner at 5:30pm. Since dinner was only fruit and as much herbal tea as you wanted, that meant we were only eating solid food during an 8-hour window and fasting for the other 16 hours. We were pretty much fasting intermittently but without noticing it.  


Was I hungry going without dinner at the Vipassana retreat?

I was never hungry, even though I was afraid that I’d be. Instead, it was more of a mental challenge for me to accept that my body didn’t need dinner. I skip breakfast in favor of brunch during the weekends, so why was it so hard to wrap my head around to cancel dinner? Especially since we weren’t expending many calories by meditating all day and we were in bed at 9:30pm?

In the beginning I ate double portions at lunch because I wanted to ‘save up’ enough food to last through the night. Over time, however, as my stomach learned how much I needed to eat to last until the next meal, I tended to eat about 75% of a portion for lunch. Eating at the same time every day helped my stomach learn what is “enough” for me.

My takeaway: My normal habit of eating dinner whenever I felt it doesn’t help my stomach learn what’s enough.


What was the food like at the Vipassana meditation retreat?

Experienced Vipassana meditators told me that the food at every center is different, as it is influenced by the local culture. The food is always vegetarian. At this retreat the homemade, Central European food was healthy and simple. For example, breakfast was millet or oats porridge with milk, yogurt, and jam. My mouth waters when I remember the thick cherry jam with whole cherries I had there every morning. In addition to the hot porridges, there was also bread, butter, oil, sprouts, sunflower seeds, and ground flaxseeds. Eating this healthy for 10 days reset my digestive system. At this retreat, they labeled the dishes with milk and provided rice cakes so that I could stay vegan and gluten-free during the retreat.


Can you exercise or do yoga at the Vipassana meditation retreat?

They recommend not exercising during the retreat. You could stroll in the woods right next to us, but that was not meant to get you into a sweat.

They do say that yoga is compatible with Vipassana meditation but ask that you do not practice yoga outside of your room. They don’t want you inadvertently teaching people yoga. I did some yoga in my private room by myself.


Without reading or writing materials, what can you do if you get bored?

Because we were not allowed to bring reading materials, I thought I would get bored. Instead, my mind brought things to my attention that would not have popped up had I been focusing on other people’s words. Being without reading materials really helped me focus on my own thoughts, especially the ones that are important but not urgent.

Since in my normal life I journal every morning and write a list of things for which I’m grateful, not being able to write anything down was the only challenging part of this retreat for me. I worried that I’d forget all the things I ruminated about and resolved to do. In the end, the ideas that were really important came back to me, over and over, sometimes even with more fleshed out details than before.


How was it being silent during the retreat?

Silence was very broadly defined at the retreat: in addition to not talking, making eye contact or gesturing with your hands were taboo. I loved this; I found staying silent liberating. Because I didn’t have to interact with people around me, I didn’t have to worry about harmonizing social interactions like I normally would — for example, normally I would be conscious of people’s reactions to my actions and words.


How difficult was not having contact with the outside world?

We all leave our phones in little lockers for the entire retreat. Meditators couldn’t even get letters. I did miss not being able to connect with my partner, but shutting down this down helped me focus on what was inside.

In addition to not having access to our phones, we also did not have internet. Again, no daily news or social media feeds distracted me from concentrating on whatever showed up in my mind.


At which Vipassana center should I meditate?

On the global Vipassana website, you can find meditation retreats at centers and non-centers all over the world. Centers are permanent centers where they host many meditation retreats all year-round. Non-centers are temporarily rented spaces like a campground or hotel room where volunteers organize 1 or 2 retreats a year. I would recommend trying to meditate at a center where possible, because the infrastructure for meditation is better set up.

I had always thought I’d do the Vipassana meditation retreat in India or Thailand, where they have centuries-long meditation traditions. After my interview with another Vipassana meditator, I was especially tempted by Wat Suan Mokkh in Chaiya, Thailand, because they have a hot spring on site! Since I was impatient, I decided to go to the next available meditation retreat within Europe, so I ended up doing my first Vipassana meditation at a new center that just opened up in Poland, Dhama Pallava.

I really lucked out, because this center can host everyone in a room of their own with an individual attached bathroom. I had expected to have at least one roommate and to share the bathroom with many people. In some centers people have to sign up to take showers, whereas I could decide to shower whenever it suited me. I could focus much more on my inner experience in this way.


How much does it cost?

Nothing. Literally you don’t have to pay for the food, the lodging, the teachings. You do have to pay for your transportation to the meditation center, and they ask for donations at the end so that you enable future meditators to come. But you don’t have to pay anything.


I hope this post has been useful. If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll try to answer.

Signature from Bettina of Active Hands Yoga


Sadhguru in Berlin — Ticket Giveaway

The water tank beside Dhyanalinga.

The water tank beside Dhyanalinga.

When I was traveling alone in India for 2 months, I met a real live guru by accident when I stopped by a temple called Dhyanalinga. On Sunday he will be speaking live in Berlin! If you want to win a free ticket to see him live, keep reading until the last paragraph to find out how to win.

I meant to stay one night at the Dhyanalinga temple but I ended spending probably two weeks there.

Why go out of my way by a few hours to Coimbatore to visit a temple I found on the internet?

Because at that time I had been reading David Gordon White’s book about medieval yogi alchemists, and so my mind was curious about alchemical yoga where “power” substances like mercury and cinnabar were used to try to turn a human body into metaphysical gold. Mercury at room temperature is liquid, but one thing medieval yogis tried to do was to solidify mercury at room temperature.

So while researching south Indian temples, my interest was piqued by the solid mercury lingam (in short, an ovoid statue) at the water tank outside of Dhyanalinga. I wanted to see the temple, stay one night, and be on my way to Bangalore.

When I arrived at Isha Yoga Center, where Dhyanalinga temple is, I felt so much care and attention paid to the temple and the grounds around it that I decided to stay longer. At first I was there just for temples, as there were more than one temples at the ashram. Then I got curious about the man who leads the ashram and who built the temples, Sadhguru. As there were many of his books around, I started reading one. And then another. Eventually I signed up for a weekend of Inner Engineering, the introductory meditation course. I never made it to Bangalore, and I don’t regret it.

Sadhguru is quite prolific on Youtube. Below I’ve embedded one of his talks below:

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Why haven’t I blogged about Sadhguru yet?

I’m wary of gurus. I know how many gurus or yogic leaders have abused their power, so I hesitate to recommend one. My approach to Sadhguru is the same as my approach to yoga : try it and see for yourself. If it works for you, keep going. If it doesn’t do anything for you, drop it. Try it as an experiment.

And this Sunday Sadhguru will be speaking in Berlin…and I have a FREE ticket to give away. To enter, just write a comment at the end of the blog post. I will pick a winner on Saturday night and notify the winner via email.

Photo from Isha

Meditate in Caves in Thiruvannamalai, India

View of the City Thiruvannamalai from Arunachala

View of the City Thiruvannamalai from Arunachala


I read your article about meditating in caves.
I am interested to know more about this topic. What is it actually like? Is it even possible for a westerner nowadays, to go to the Himalayas and meditate? Is it possible to be totally isolated?

I look forward to your reply.

Reader Name Redacted

Dear Reader,

First of all, thanks for reading my blog! I’m happy that my adventures in India have piqued your curiosity.

As I’ve never been to the Himalayas, I can’t comment on any caves there.

It is, however, totally possible for anyone to go where I was in southern India and meditate! In southern India there is a holy mountain called Arunachala in the town of Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu.



Arunachala has many fantastic stories told about its origins, and every November or December there’s a huge festival called Karthikai Deepam here where devotees light a pillar of fire 10 feet tall that burns for 10 days. I stayed overnight on the top of the mountain while that pillar burned, and I recommend the experience if you’re a seeker. And I guess you are seeking, otherwise, you wouldn’t be asking me about meditating in caves, right? 😉

The city Thiruvannamalai has more sacred sites than just the mountain Arunachala: the fire temple of Shiva, Annamalaiyar Temple, is located in the city’s “downtown” and a bit further away is the Ramana Ashram, which abuts Arunachala. Those two are the main sites, but there are more than 100 shrines and temples around the base of Arunachala. Because of all the sacred sites and what people say the sacred energy of the area, there are many babas, holy men, sadhus, and seekers in Thiruvannamalai, which means you can totally find a place to stay among other pilgrims.

A nice Sadhu I met who showed me where to get drinking water from the rocks

A nice Sadhu I met who showed me where to get drinking water from the rocks

Since almost all the sites to see in this town are sacred, that means the other travelers here are pilgrims. I don’t know if you will ever be truly isolated, but because other people are also here to visit sacred sites, they will respect that you’re meditating. In fact, while I was meditating in Virupaksha Cave, a group of men came in to pay their respects, and it didn’t bother me at all. Then again, I was also very deep in meditation, so your experience may be different.

Because Arunachala is volcanic in origin, there are many caves around the mountain. The two caves in which I meditated are maintained by Ramana Ashram: Skanda Cave and Virupaksha Cave. These caves have walls / buildings built around them, which I think is good so that animals don’t come inside. The photo below shows the entrance to Virukpaksha Cave:

Entrance To Virukpaksha CaveEntrance To Virukpaksha Cave

I hope I’ve given you enough details to convince you to go 🙂

Let me know in the comments if you have any other questions or maybe a photo of you at Arunachala?

Signature from Bettina of Active Hands Yoga





Why change yoga styles?

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When I started out with yoga, I tried every kind of yoga out there: Iyengar, Ashtanga, hot yoga, Acroyoga, Jivamukti, whatever. I wanted to learn from every style and take from every style what worked for my body. The magpie style worked really well for a maximizer like me: I took the best from every teacher and left the rest.

Over two years ago, I stopped teaching yoga because I started learning a new style. I wanted to go in deep and so I left my magpie vinyasa yoga practice behind.

Some people ask me why.

How can I choose and commit to one yoga style?

I’ll answer the question using a parable from yoga history.

David Gordon White in his 1996 book The Alchemical Body tells the story of a siddhi (power) contest between Gorakh and Allama-Prabhu, two accomplished yogis:

Gorakh is very proud of his yogic accomplishments, bragging that no sword can cut through his body, polished to the hardness of a diamond through his craft. 

So when Allama Prabhu takes a sword to Gorakh, its blade shatters on his adamantine body.

When Gorakh raises his sword to Allama Prabhu in return, its blade passes through his body, which is wholly ethereal.

Allama Prabhu then chides Gorakh, saying that such bodily density is merely the mark of a density of illusion (103).

After this, Gorakh puts down his sword and asks Allama Prabhu to take him on as his student.

Letter to a Young Yoga Teacher : How to choose a Yoga Teacher Training Course



One of my dear friends recently asked me how I chose a yoga teacher training program. I didn’t really put so much thought into it, so I’ve decided to write up my thoughts below about what I wish I had known before.

So you want to teach yoga?

Here’s everything I wish I had considered before deciding on a yoga teacher training program.

Before you sign up for a yoga teacher training or YTT for short, decide why you want to teach yoga.

Do you want to make money / a career out of teaching yoga?

Then I’d recommend a YTT that is part of a larger tradition with a well-known “brand” behind it. It doesn’t have to be a trademarked brand like Jivamukti; Ashtanga and Iyengar are also styles of yoga that are very well-known, is part of a larger community and tradition, and so they function like brands. It’s like going to the Ivy League equivalent of YTT :

  • Students and studio owners know what you trained in as well as the YTT’s quality.
  • There is most likely a yoga studio of that style in cities you might want to live in in the future so you can move without worrying about building your teaching reputation and student base from scratch.
  • If you do go with a YTT that’s part of a chain like Jivamukti, hopefully the chain is growing and needs more yoga teachers trained in its style so you can move into a teaching position at a new studio as soon as you finish your training.
  • If you decide to teach independently, you don’t have to do as much marketing on your own — the brand does the marketing for you.

One caveat is that being a good yoga practitioner does not make a good yoga teacher necessarily. Teaching is hard. Explaining to people something new in a way that they get it is hard, especially if it’s a room of 30 students of different backgrounds and experiences. Make sure the YTT gives you actual experience teaching.

By the way, there’s not that much money in teaching yoga. Even if you get a high hourly wage (30 students x $20 = $600 !!), you can’t teach classes for a full eight hours. The studio takes part of that money. And some parts of the teaching are not paid: no one pays you to design the class, practice the class before teaching it, and to commute to and from the studio. Don’t forget all the paperwork that comes with being self-employed! That’s something else you have to do on your own time.

Do you want to deepen your yoga practice?

If you want to teach yoga to deepen your practice, that’s awesome. Teaching yoga forced me to break down all the postures, especially the ones that were easy for me. I had to get to know them all over again from a beginner’s perspective. I thought about yoga a lot more, and I dove deeply into the history and texts. I even started learning Sanskrit at the local university.

In this case go with your heart and body to choose a yoga teacher training. You’re not here for the money anyways, so go where you can learn the most. Go where the challenges are hardest. That’s where you’ll be transformed.

Hope that helps! Let me know how you decide…

Signature from Bettina of Active Hands Yoga




Image by Eliza Gauger of Problem Glyphs

Yoga Teachers: Where to Rent a Room in Berlin to Teach Yoga?



Yoga teachers new to Berlin email me lots of questions, even though I don’t teach yoga anymore.

Recently one new yoga teacher emailed me to ask (personal information edited out to respect her privacy) where she can rent a room in Berlin in which to teach yoga and Pilates:

I am interested in renting a room to teach my classes.

For now I have a class every Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.

I wonder if it is possible to rent a room in your Studio, know the price i have to pay and know if we can talk in person. I also offer my services to teach in Spanish and English for Yoga or Pilates classes in your studio if you need a professional, I have 5 years experience and have certification for EHFA in Pilates mat and Pilates elements.

I expect a prompt response on your part, happy week and thanks for your kind attention.


When I was teaching yoga, I rented a room at Heilehaus in Kreuzberg 36.

They have two rooms for movement classes. The room which I rented was on the upper floor. I chose it because it was sunny and cozy, with a wall full of windows and wooden floors.

The room on the lower floor also has wooden floors and a wall full of windows but also a wall of mirrors across from the windows. Because in my yoga classes I emphasized the feeling of the positions rather than how it looks, I deliberately chose against the room with the mirrors.

Other places where I considered renting rooms in which to teach yoga included the following:

  • Gelber Raum is mostly used by dancers and actors in which to practice. I’m not sure if they are still active, as I can’t find their website anymore. They are located at Mariannenstr. 48, 1st backyard, 2nd floor, in Kreuzberg 36.
  • Kurz und Klein is a children-centered activity center in Reuterkiez. They have a cafe space in front of one or two private rooms. They are at Nansenstr. 2, right on Reuterplatz behind the pizza shop.

I actually considered a few other places in Neukoelln and Kreuzberg, but they no longer seem to be around anymore.

Other good places to ask include acting or dance studios, because dancers and actors also need space in which to practice–and they might be interested in yoga too as students!

The same reasoning applies to martial arts studios, especially places where the practices taught include aikido or tai chi, because those are “gentler” practices.

Hope that helps, V.N., and let me know where you end up teaching.

Signature from Bettina of Active Hands Yoga






Photo by Mirna H.

Raw Stuffed Mushroom Caps Recipe

Raw Stuffed Vegan Mushrooms


These raw vegan mushrooms were delicious! Try them with a large leafy salad.

Prepare the stuffing by blending the stems of the mushrooms, a handful of parsley leaves, about two tablespoons of soaked sesame seeds, two small cloves of garlic, two tablespoons of soaked raisins, two tablespoons of olive oil, a little vinegar, and sea salt.

Stuff the mushroom caps with the mixture, sprinkle some sesame seeds on top, and enjoy!


Terrified on top of a Sacred Mountain

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.

Arunachala Hill

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.

Tiruvannamalai Temple from Arunachala

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.

Deepam Lighting on top of Arunachala

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.

Pitchfork on top of Arunachala

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.

Fire Tenders on top of Arunachala

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.

Tiruvannamalai and Arunachala at Night

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.

Feet and Sunrise at Arunachala

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.

Monkeys on Arunachala



Is Kundalini Yoga Supported by Science?

Once upon a time one of my yoga teachers would end class with a 12 minute hold of this Kundalini yoga pose:

Kundalini Yoga Power 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.”

Power Posing

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?

Runner Crossing the Finish Line 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

What are you looking for in yoga?

Melissa Steckbauer Painting


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