Can a hug change your life?

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The ashrams and culture of each ashram are as diverse as India herself. Before this trip I had many preconceived ideas about ashrams. I thought one had to be a devout believer in a guru, that people living there long-term were crazy (even though I don’t like that word) or brainwashed, and that the space would be very serious and austere. So far, my journey has taken me to five ashrams over the past two months and as a result I have completely shattered my previous notions. As I mentioned before, it was not my intention to have a spiritual tour of India, I just let the events unfold naturally, like a sleuth on a trail to solve this mystery we call life (or at least make an attempt!).

Amma’s ashram, located on the southwestern coast of Kerala, was the second place I visited after the Sivananda ashram. It’s a MASSIVE compound with approximately 10-15 thousand residents plus hundreds of visitors arriving daily. Everything that you could possibly want or need is available… like a cappuccino and chocolate cake for instance, a pharmacy, clothes, and hundreds of book titles about Amma (you may not be lucky if you want to read something else though!). Many of the long-term residents work full time for the ashram or on Amma’s social and education projects, which include a university, aid relief, and organic farming…  Of all of the ashrams I’ve seen, I have to say Amma’s projects and social impact is the most impressive.

 The day I arrived at the ashram was Amma’s first day back after her long North American tour, so the place was buzzing. There weren’t enough rooms and mattresses to go around, but I was lucky and given a room in one of the looming residential towers to share with two women from Japan around my age. When I introduced myself to my new roomies they were so excited because they had brought a stuffed animal from home, which one of the girls proudly produced from her bed, that was also named ‘Jennifer’. I thought this is a good sign even though I don’t have a mattress to sleep on, all will be well. That night I slept on the floor albeit on an air mattress that was kindly lent to me from another woman in the ashram.

One of the reasons visitors flock to Amma’s is due to her famous hugs, which have reportedly changed many lives. I was fortunate to have a hug, also called ‘darshan’ on my very first night! I admit, it felt awkward running to the front of the temple with a crowd of other ‘first day’ visitors to greet Amma in her golden velvet chair. The volunteers ushered us into a line and when it was my turn, I approached her crawling on my knees while one of her assistants pushed my head into her bosom. I didn’t embrace her because there’s a strict ‘no arms’ rule. I wasn’t prepared for what was to happen. She held me tight, rocked me back and forth, and whispered in my ear “my darling daughter, my darling darling daughter.” In that moment I felt nearly intoxicated. I don’t know if it was the sweet smell of her jasmine soaked clothes (seriously, she smells lovely!), or to have a warm embrace after my arduous journey. My heart felt open and I was giddy… laughter erupted when I ran into people – what was happening to me?!

 As I started meeting more people at the ashram everyone was asking about my hug – what did I feel? Did it change my life and did I experience a miracle? Life, I’m not sure yet. Miracle? Maybe. The afternoon after my hug I went on a mattress run. After much inquiry, I finally found one on the first floor of my building. Unfortunately, the elevator was broken so I had no choice but to walk up 11 flights of stairs. It was a hot day, around 40 degrees with humidity, and I was also carrying my yoga mat, water bottle, and what felt like half of my belongings. I started awkwardly trudging my way up the steep cement stairs with the plastic coated mattress and two bags on my arm. I must have been distracted, singing a new mantra or something, because amazingly I climbed all the way up without stopping once!! I felt like a machine with limitless amounts of energy. So, I would say yes, I experienced a miracle!

 Amma’s ashram definitely changed my ideas about ashrams. Even though there were pictures of her everywhere, and some of the devotees were clearly obsessed with her, it had a peaceful feel amidst the chaos. Nothing however, could prepare me for what I would experience at Isha though, which was next on my journey, and really the only place that I planned.

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A return to the land of curry…

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KeralaHello, it’s been a long time! You may or may not know this, but I’m back in India! I’m in the early stages of planning a small business with a friend from Canada. I won’t get into the details of the business right now, because they are still being worked out, but I will let you know soon – I promise!

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve already been in India for six weeks! Before I left I promised some people I would continue this blog, but to be honest, I hadn’t found the inspiration to write until now. In many ways it’s been one of the most transformative experiences of my life and it’s hard to put into words…

I arrived in Delhi mid-July just before my birthday and almost exactly 11 months after my last trip to India.  I’m currently travelling alone, my business partner will be arriving in a couple weeks, so I’ve mostly been focusing on self-realization and spirituality – a journey that I wasn’t intending to take…

Have you ever made plans and had nothing work out? Well, that’s pretty much what the past couple months have been like and I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. All of the travel hiccups, cancelled tickets and delays have actually been enormously helpful and led me on an interesting trail, which may in the end be quite useful for my future project.

What I’m going to talk about in the next couple blogs are things that I don’t usually talk about with many people (even if you already know I’m a new age hippie). For some reason though, I think these stories need to be shared so if you’re interested in gurus, mysticism and miracles then you may want to keep reading!

My trip started in Delhi. I thought I would feel like I had returned ‘home’ upon arrival because of my previous travels, but I was terrified.  There was more poverty, more noise, more stray dogs, more pollution AND more of everything that distressed me plus hackers that were trying to attack me through the free wifi at the hotel!!! I was paranoid and couldn’t sleep despite three days of travel. I thought that I could distract myself by working on business details, and I desperately wanted to get stuff done, but my body which was very fatigued and my heart weren’t quite ready. After a couple days in a hotel room I moved into my friend’s apartment in a posh part of Delhi and tried to sort out my plans. My head was spinning and I was searching for clarity so I signed up for an “inner engineering” course that I saw on the internet taught by a guru! Yes, an enlightened spiritual master. I’m not sure why I did it. I didn’t even know about the guy in Canada but something about the course, the guru’s wise eyes, and his logical yet mystical perspective intrigued me… the course was two weeks away and in south India. I didn’t have any other plans, but I heard the Sivananda yoga ashram in Kerala was good so I booked my ticket to Trivandrum (very close to the most southern tip of India) for a mini yoga vacation.

Kerala is a popular tourist destination on the southwest coast of India. I’m generally not very concerned about weather conditions, so when I heard there was a particularly wet monsoon in Kerala this year, I didn’t think it would be that bad. The rain was non-stop. It was so wet that I kept thinking I was smelling dog crap, but it was actually mold from my clothes that wouldn’t dry! Overall, I had a wonderful time and it was a beautiful ashram with about 40-50 people, mostly foreigners practicing yoga. There was a mandatory schedule which included: four hours of yoga, chanting and more chanting, a philosophy lecture, karma yoga (i.e. volunteering) and two delicious meals. I paid about $8 a day for everything including accommodation! It was an excellent deal and a great experience. I met some lovely souls there.

After a week at the Sivananda ashram, I found out that Amma, the world-renowned hugging guru, had just returned from her North American tour and was at her ashram, about three hours away. Despite rumours from other travellers that her place was a cult, the food was bad and the beds were uncomfortable something inside of me said that I should go. I decided to leave my yoga vacation early and made my way by bus, boat and taxi to see her.

Many people believe that Amma is a living goddess or guru. People also believe that being in the presence of a guru can bring miracles into your life including healing and enlightenment – Amma is no exception. I’m very open minded about these things and I wanted to see if there was some truth to these tales…  You’ll have to wait until part two to find out though…! It’s an interesting story 🙂

Back in Canada!

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Back in Canada!

 

It’s been a whirlwind since my last post! I graduated yoga school (200 hour teacher training), turned 30 (and had friends from Punjab visit me in Rishikesh for the celebration), I became a Reiki Master (completed my level 3 course) and survived a 10-day Vipassana (silent) meditation course. I also spent two weeks in Ladakh, northern India, surrounded by the rugged mountain tops for my “vacation” and saw the Dalai Lama (from a distance that is…).  Ladakh is one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen and probably the closest I’ll get to Tibet for awhile… On my way back to Delhi I met some strangers on a train and had a whirlwind trip to see the Taj Mahal. It’s been quite the experience and I’m still trying to process my reflections.

I’m back in Canada now and going through a reverse culture shock…  I miss India but it’s nice to be on my Prairie tour catching up with friends and family. I’m finding some odd things about being back like: empty streets (ok, only in the Prairies), lack of noise (I miss the temple chanting!), that I’ve become invisible (do people even look at each other on the street here?!) and that everything is at least 5 times more expensive. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about getting bitten by stray dogs and monkeys anymore, which is a huge relief because I regretfully did not get a rabies shot before I left. It’s also been a bit difficult adjusting to a new climate (is anyone else cold?) and diet, though I found out it’s less the food and more the intestinal parasites I brought back (eeew!). So, I’m slowly getting back into the groove… figuring out my next plan and moving slowly. It is nice to be back.

I’ve decided I’m going to continue this blog for awhile longer since I have more stories to tell. I actually attempted more blog posts while I was away but I encountered many difficulties with a combination of lack of computer access, slow internet connections, suspicious internet cafes and India’s famous power cuts. So stay tuned there will be more to come…

[note: I’m having difficulties posting a photo gallery with WordPress (there are too many glitches with this site)… Hopefully I’ll have some pics up soon]

A day in the life of a yogi

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A day in the life of a yogi

I’m really enjoying the yoga teacher training. It’s a complete immersion into the life of a yogi, though for me living the yogi life is literally a stretch, and more like a boot camp for the mind, body and spirit. At times it can be exhausting with little time to relax, but fortunately I have a clean room facing the Ganges, they serve delicious sattvic food (i.e., vegetarian food with no stimulating spices) and I’m in the company of interesting people from all walks of life (there are 11 students in my course from 7 different countries including two other Canadians from Saskatoon and Winnipeg!).

To give you an idea of what a yoga teacher training in India is like, I’ve written an outline of a typical day (Monday to Saturday). Most days I feel like I’m in the movie Groundhog Day as the days are very similar but purposeful. I don’t mind because I can tell that I’m improving my asanas (postures) and gaining a deeper understanding of the philosophy and nature of yoga every day.

A TYPICAL DAY:

5:30 am – Wake up

6:00 am – Pranayama or detoxification yoga – In this class we learn different breathing techniques to cleanse our physical body and energy field as a preparation for meditation. For the first week I found it very difficult to not fall asleep during the meditation at the end of class as I’m not used to getting up so early. For some reason I thought the teacher wouldn’t be able to tell, but apparently that’s not the case! It’s becoming less difficult now and I can see the effect that conscious breathing is having on my mood and body. Surprisingly, it’s easier for me to wake up in the morning now and I’ve never been a morning person!

7:00 am – Shatkarma – This involves the study of various types of yogic cleansing. So far we’ve learned about nostril cleaning (Jala Neti, Sutra Neti), different techniques for activating digestive fire (Agnisara Kriya and Nauli), and intense gazing (Trataka) to make the eyes clear and bright (it’s like a staring contest but with a candle). The most challenging so far has been Sutra Neti, which I call “nose flossing” because it involves putting a string through your nose and pulling it out through your mouth. If you can handle pulling a snotty string out your mouth, the benefits are great – it clears debris, makes you feel more refreshed and  can also make you look younger with regular use. Jala Neti, or cleaning your nose with water using a neti pot (small watering can), is much more gentle and has similar benefits. I will likely continue to use a neti pot at home though I’m not sure about the nose flossing…

8:00 am – Chai time!

8:30 am – Hatha yoga (i.e., deep stretching postures) – This is my favourite class. We’ve been learning the basics of each pose starting from beginner/modified to advanced postures. When I first started the course, I was a little out of practice, but for the two weeks I’ve been here I’ve noticed a considerable improvement in my technique, strength, flexibility and most importantly my ability to concentrate and relax in the poses.

10:00 am – Breakfast and mini break – Usually we have fruit salad with nuts, honey and yoghurt in the morning.

11:00 am – Yoga theory and philosophy – An interesting class where learn about the meaning and history of yoga, different yoga styles and teaching philosophy. It’s a good preparation for teaching and I’ll be teaching my first class this week!

1:00 pm – Lunch and break – I usually have lunch at the ashram (curry and rice) and then venture off or rest for a bit in the afternoon. Initially I was trying to resist the Cafe Coffee Day in town because I thought I should stick with the purity vibe, though lately I’ve been sneaking away for a latte and air conditioning. I feel that my afternoon is improved when I go 🙂 My other, and slightly more dangerous pastime, is swimming in the Ganges 1-3 times daily. I know, you’re probably thinking it’s not very clean and I would say that you’re right (it’s only 20% dirty in Rishikesh, they say…), but it’s a delightful way to cool off and to clear my karma, as the locals put it.

3:30 pm – Mantra class and self study – We’ve mostly been learning to sing Sanskrit mantras from the Bhagavad-Gita.  I’m not a big fan of singing, though I think this class is slowly growing on me.  Mantra practitioners say that chanting mantras has a deep meditative effect and can instill peace in the mind and body. I have to admit that the “vibrations” do feel and sound nice when you practice with a group of people… It’s actually quite relaxing.

5:00 pm – Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga (i.e., fast paced flow like yoga) – I have not practiced much of this type of yoga, so I find it a bit challenging because of the speed, fluid movements and arm strength required to do many chatarangas (like half push ups).  This type of yoga follows a particular set of postures and I’m always getting a finger pointing and head wag from the teacher for not remembering all the moves. While it’s physically exerting, it’s a good way to build stamina and strength so I’m focusing on this aspect to give me inspiration.

7:00 pm – Evening meditation – This class is really cool. We’ve tried various types of meditation including laughing yoga, humming and chanting, breath work, holding hands with the group and singing, and dynamic (or screaming, crying, laughing meditation) –  pretty much everything but “traditional” meditation.  It’s always different and lots of fun (when I still have the energy)!

8:30 pm – Dinner – Usually curried veggies, dal, salad, rice and roti.

10:00 pm – Lights out at the ashram – I’m usually in a deep sleep by this time… 🙂

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And then there were zero…

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Today is my last day in the Punjab. I finished my five month contract and I have decided not to extend my stay with the NGO… The past couple months I’ve been feeling like the centre in Adampur was unravelling. Almost everyone left and we were running the centre and projects with only three people. Now the three of us are leaving and two new volunteers just arrived, with more hopefully to come. I’m very sad to leave, especially with so little continuity, but I feel that it’s the right time to go… I’m confident the new volunteers will find their peace with Adampur and do great work.

Living in the Punjab has been an amazing and colourful experience.  I learned a lot during my time here and I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to live in this part of India. I’ll definitely miss all of the local and international friends I’ve made, the delicious food, kindhearted people, and my daily adventures (seriously, it was never boring!). Despite the sometimes difficult and challenging situations it is one of the best experiences of my life.

There are so many random and funny things I’ll miss about the Punjab including:

  • Getting candy or gum for small change instead of coins
  • The hospitality of the local people. People are very open and I’ve often had chai and snacks at complete stranger’s homes. My local friends have also been more than amazing!
  •  How the migrant kids (snake charmers) call me China. I shortened my name to Jenna because they like names that end in a vowel, then they started calling me Channa (spicy chickpeas), and eventually it turned into China. It always makes me laugh when I hear them calling out “CHINA!”
  • Seeing progress in the projects I participated in (Young women’s leadership club and after school program). The women are more confident and the children seem more disciplined and eager to learn. It makes me feel positive that development really does work.
  • Cafe Coffee Day in Jalandhar – it’s an air conditioned oasis that has proper coffee and it’s only 45 minutes away!!
  • How music plays from loud speakers in the Gurudwaras (Sikh temples) every morning from 4am to 8am and for a couple hours each evening.
  • The overall playful ambiance… Festivals, rallies and parties on the street, music and incense in the air, random adventures and interactions that keep me amused all day long… It is not at all how I imagined the Punjab.
  • All of the volunteers I met in Adampur, Janauri, and Sotla. I was so fortunate to be working with such an amazing group of people.  The experience wouldn’t have been the same without their humor, support and friendship.
  • I can’t even describe all of the things I love about this place, but I know that I’m definitely going to miss wearing Punjabi suits and lots of fake jewels… 🙂

Not everything was easy though… Some aspects I found quite difficult…

  • Staring and picture taking. I feel like a celebrity sometimes without having earned any status… I often miss the anonymity of life in Canada.
  • The extreme weather. I know this sounds very odd coming from a Canadian but I found the winter to be more cold, due to poorly insulated housing and lack of central heating, and the summer to be nearly unbearable at times. The hottest I’ve experienced so far is 48 degrees and, nope, there’s no AC at the house! Oddly enough though, the heat is more preferable to me than the cold.
  • Run-ins with the Adampur mafia who stole my phone…
  • Lack of structure and support in the organization… it was difficult at first but perhaps it was a blessing in disguise because I found my own way and gained skills I might not have otherwise cultivated.
  • Being confronted with issues such as theft and corruption at both micro and macro levels. I have too much to say about this one unfortunately…

Overall, the experience has been wonderful and the positive aspects far outweigh the negative. I was craving a new challenge before I left and I wanted to have a different cultural experience. I feel that I made a positive contribution and I’m definitely glad I made the decision to come to India. I still have two months left so I’ll keep posting on the blog. Tonight I’m heading to Rishikesh, the yoga capital of India located at the foothills of the Himalayas, for an intensive one-month yoga teacher training program. After that I’m going solo for 3-4 weeks to explore Kashmir and Ladakh. It’s going to be an interesting adventure!

So with many tears I say good-bye to Adampur…. I know that I will one day visit again.

p.s. More Adampur photos to come!

“Save Water, Save Life!”

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Last week the women in our Pandoori Nijjaran young women’s leadership club organized a campaign to save water, which culminated in a school presentation and a rally in the village. The women wanted to implement a project or campaign that would inform and benefit people in their community. After some brainstorming it became clear that water conservation and reducing water pollution are important issues.

In all of India, but particularly in the Punjab, water pollution is a major concern. Since farming, and the production of farming chemicals, are huge industries in this part of India the ground water and rivers have become tainted with pesticide run off and factory dumping. In some parts of the Punjab this has caused serious health issues including cancer, developmental disabilities in children, asthma and skin conditions. In addition, it’s a common practice for people to throw garbage in the waterways, so yes, the water here is quite polluted.

Our main priority for the campaign however, was to address water conservation. The women in our group felt that too many people were wasting water from both public and private taps. With frighteningly low water tables and a general concern regarding a water crisis (“Save Water, Save Life” is the main slogan in India) we decided to challenge villagers to use less water. We made dozens of flyers that included a list of tips to conserve water and prepared large posters with slogans in Punjabi and English. Our end goal was to present the issues to senior girls at the local secondary school and recruit them to rally with us through the village.

Gurpreet, a young women’s club member, made an excellent presentation to 35 senior girls (and a handful of the women’s club members).  After practicing our slogans and pumping up the students in the classroom we were ready to tackle the village. The principal almost wouldn’t let us take the girls off site despite prior arrangement, but in the end we managed to win him over and “mini” rally close to the school. The rally was smooth. The girls chanted with passion to bikers and pedestrians and we handed out flyers to passersby and houses in the area. It was a successful day that hopefully has a lasting impact.

 

Below: My shaky attempt at recording the rally

 

 

A culture of empowerment

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Sorry for the long hiatus. I don’t really have an excuse other than the busyness of everyday life. I just got back from a beautiful two-week vacation with a friend from Canada and we toured Mumbai, Goa, Chennai, Mamallapuram and Bangalore. It was nice to have a mini escape from routine, soak in the sun and sea, explore new cities and recharge my batteries.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about empowerment and what it means to “empower” and to be “empowered.” I couldn’t help but ponder the complexities of this topic while travelling around South India, which is very different from the North, socially, culturally and physically. While all of India has been touched by colonialism and globalization the influence is quite visible in the South with regard to architecture, city design, and types of establishments (European bakeries, churches, language centres, etc.). While I was excited to lounge on the beach, drink a real cappuccino and eat Portuguese pastries in Goa, it somehow didn’t feel like I was in “real” India. Feeling hyper-sensitized about western culture, it made me consider how my subconscious beliefs and cultural background might be influencing the way I do development work, particularly related to “empowerment.”

It’s interesting to think about empowerment in a post-colonial globalized world. Working in India it sometimes seems as though globalization and development are the new colonialism. People tend to overvalue the assumption, myself included sometimes, that developing countries want to be like “western” countries in terms of economy, dress, culture, urban landscape and attitudes toward empowerment. While this is true to some extent, it tends to influence the way we impose development and aid to countries because we think, whether conscious or not, that it will empower them if they become like “us.”

In some ways international development can be related to personal empowerment. A country or region that solely bases development goals on an outside model is like an individual setting false goals based on another’s ideals. You’re not bound to be happy or attain true growth if you’re always living for your parent’s, friend’s or societies’ (yours or another’s) standards and expectations. Like an individual’s life path, development works best organically and from within  – only then can empowerment be possible.

I’m reminded that it’s important to be mindful of our actions and how our thoughts unconsciously influence the world around us. I’m especially cautious when I’m working with women in the Punjab that I’m supposedly here to “empower.” I see my role as a facilitator, to listen and create an environment where women can set the agenda to learn and confront issues they consider important. It’s not easy though. I’ve encountered many challenges and learned lots of lessons along the way. It’s been an interesting experience.

Below: pictures from my trip 🙂