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

Articles in “Active Hands Yoga”

Why meditate in a cave?

Dieng Plateau Telaga Warna

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.

Natural Mountain Spring behind Skandashram on Arunachala Mountain

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.

Renouncer in front of natural spring at Tiruvannamalai

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 way to Virupaksha Cave

 

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.

Doorway to Virupaksha Cave on Arunachala Mountain

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

Misty Telaga Warna on the Dieng Plateau, 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.

Gold Rishi Statue around Telaga Warna on the Dieng Plateau

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.

Dieng Plateau Meditation Caves

Rishi Meditation Cave on Dieng Plateau, Java, Indonesia


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.

Nataraja Yoga Pose in South Indian Temples

Dancer Yoga Pose

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.

Nataraja Sculpture

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.

Chidambaram Temple Sculpture

 

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.

Shiva Navaraja at Meenakshi Temple

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.

thandava Roopam at Kailasanatha Temple in Kanchipuram

Thandava at Kailasanatha Temple in Kanchipuram

 

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.

Shiva as Kalari at Muvar Koil in Kodumbalur

The Nataraja image has been partially destroyed at Kodumbalar, but it gives the same impression of grace and movement.

Nataraja at Muvar Koil in Kodumbalur

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

Changes

You Only Live Once In Neon

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.

YouTube Preview Image

 

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!

 

Signature from Bettina of Active Hands Yoga

 

 

 

Photo found on tumblr (site no longer up)

How could your life change if you were relaxed?

Relax at the Beach Anthropolgie-Style

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

Sharing the Love

Berlin Urban Sketchers

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.

Signature from Bettina of Active Hands Yoga

 

Fusion Coconut Milk Soup Recipe

Vegan Coconut Milk Soup Recipe

 

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.

INGREDIENTS

coconut oil

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

whole-grain noodles

coconut milk and water

salt and freshly ground pepper

INSTRUCTIONS

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.

Enjoy!

* Garam masala just means a mix of Indian spices. You can find these spices pre-mixed at your local Indian grocery.

New Try Vegan Icons

Oh my goodness! My designer friend Nicolas showered me with new Try Vegan icons, so please download one of these badges if you’d like people to know that you’re trying vegan for a month.

Spread the word–vegan doesn’t have to be bitchy or militant!

Signature from Bettina of Active Hands Yoga

3 Tools to Stop Worrying

Bare-Legs-and-Heels-by-Catherine-Just

How many times a day do you find yourself doing the following?

  • obsessively worry
  • hit up sugar
  • reach for a cocktail
  • vent on your partner or friend
  • compulsively shop
  •  pin mindlessly on Pinterest
  • watch too much TV
  • fill in the blank with your favorite way to soothe yourself to avoid your real fears?

Usually to stop one of these obsessive and unproductive behaviors, I turn to yoga and yoga nidra to bring myself back to the present moment.

Photographer and coach Catherine Just shared another way to stop worrying (hap tip to Helen Hunter McKenzie‘s Cause Effect) :

photographing your feet.

Let the act of seeing your feet bring you back to your body.

Let the act of photographing your feet remind you that you are not your thoughts or your actions.

I love Catherine’s idea for a few reasons.

First, it’s creative. Worry is anything but creative. By being creative, you’re no longer in worry mode. You’ve replaced it with expressing yourself.

Second, by photographing your feet every time you worry, you’ll have a physical reminder of all the times you were able to set worries aside and move on to something productive.

Third, it can be a project. Make a journal of your worry photographs either printed on your wall or online so that you can see not only your feet change over time but also your frequency of worries.

So here are my three tools to stop worrying : yoga, yoga nidra, and photographing your feet.

How often do you worry? And what do you do to stop worrying?

 

 

 

 

 

Photos by Catherine Just, used with permission.

5 Magic Vegan Rock Star Ingredients

Vegan Umami Ingredients

One hard thing about eating vegan for me is finding ways to make food delicious without the use of cheese.

For many vegetarians cheese, especially freshly grated Parmesan, is the magic dust that makes almost all foods delicious.

Cheese, especially aged cheese like Parmesan, adds a kick of umami, a taste that translates as ‘meaty’ or ‘savory’, to pasta, grains, over soups, pizza…almost everything except for chocolate, unless you like your chocolate savory.

To help you get over cheese during your try vegan challenge, here are my top five magic vegan umami ingredients to bring some savory flavor.

Top Five Vegan Umami Ingredients

 

1. Tomatoes in any form but especially sun-dried tomatoes (top right in the photo)

2. Nutritional yeast extract / Marmite / Vegemite (bottom right in the photo)

3. Mushrooms, especially dried mushrooms, because drying increases their guanylate content (top left in the photo).

4. Fermented soy like miso or fermented soy sauce aka shoyu

5. Kombu and nori seaweed (bottom left in the photo)

 

What’s your secret weapon to make vegan dishes taste amazing?

 

 

 

 

Photos clockwise from top left by Edwinek, televiseus, Johnson Cameraface, and katteballetje 

Fancy Vegan in Berlin : Lucky Leek in Photos

To kick off my try vegan month, the last night in July I had dinner at the best vegan restaurant in Berlin–Lucky Leek. There are quite a few delicious vegan restaurants in Berlin, but Lucky Leek is consistently surprising in their menu options. In addition, I love how complex their dishes are, with several layers of tastes. It’s the total opposite of my dead simple vegan lunches. I’ll let the food speak for itself through below.

 

Strawberry Juice Sparkler and a tall Beer

We started with a strawberry juice sparkler and a tall beer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vegan Gazpacho and Salade Nicoise at Lucky Leek

For starters I had the Apple Melon Gazpacho – Iced Spanish Vegetable Soup Mint, Cripy Hazelnut Ball, and my dining partner had the Salade Niçoise Nori-Cucmber Rolls, Marinated Cherrytomatoes, Green Beans, Pesto Potatoes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vegan Saltimbocca and Mystery Main at Lucky Leek

For our mains I had the Saltimbocca made from Sweet Potato Baked Almond Cheeze Potato, Olive Caponata Vegetables and I cannot for the life me remember what my dining partner had. I believe it was some sort of pumpkin risotto ?

Mystery Deliciousness from Lucky Leek

I did get a close-up of the mystery main, however.