Friday, October 28, 2011

Reflections of Shabbat in Fort Cochin

It’s Shabbat in fort Cochin. Tonight is my 3rd Friday night here and my 3rd attempt to attend services in the 400 year old synagogue in the city. It is the only functional synagogue remaining from the 7 that once lined the streets of Jew Town in Montecherry.

As I approach the entrance, the Indian guard at the door stops me and says, “Closed. You can’t go in.”

But I’m Jewish”, I said. “I want to pray. It’s Shabbat.”

He seems confused, unsure of how to respond.

Just then, a lighter skinned man approaches. In his Indian accent he says,

“Minyan? Tomorrow will be a minyan. Tomorrow night.”

“But it’s Shabbat now.” I remind him. “Tomorrow night won’t be Shabbat anymore.”

“Many people will come tomorrow. “ he assures me. “Minyan tomorrow night.”

A vibrant active Jewish community used to exist here. The synagogue, though small, reflects a modest and traditional character. There are about 5 Jews left in this multi cultural, multi religious town. Most families have chosen to bring up their children in Israel. That migration has left the synagogue empty.

One of the things that I love most about Fort Cochin is the diversity of culture and religion that is apparent here. In the 19th century Fort Cochin was a place in Kerala where a multitude of religions co-existed with mutual respect and appreciation for each other. Jains, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, all had large communities of people who practised their own religion and lived and work in cooperation with each other in perfect collaboration and harmony.

Lately I am noticing that I am looking for ways of demonstrating my Jewish identity. As I travel to different places and experience various spiritual cultures in the world I rejoice in the discoveries of similar practices. Yoga is not a religion. It’s about prayer and selfless service. It’s about seeking love and connecting to the divine within. It’s about striving for compassion and generosity and wisdom and applying it all to our relationships with others and to our interactions with Nature. Yoga is chanting and singing and learning and seeking truth.

What I am learning through Yoga fits beautifully into my Jewish life. There is nothing keeping the two practises a part. In the name of Unity (Yoga) I can embrace it all and continue to practise towards a pursuit of tikkun olam (healing the universe) and a world of peace and compassion and love. Shabbat Shalom to all!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Diwali Inspirations

The skies of Fort Cochin are dazzling with fireworks tonight. The crackling sounds are continuous as Malayalam people ignite the city. Today begins the festival of Diwali, a five-day holiday commemorating the story of Krishna and Narakasura and the prevailing of good over evil. The story tells us how, against all odds, Sri Krishna conquers the evil Narakasura and brings peace and goodness to the people. Though the holiday is celebrated more elaborately in Northern India than in the South, it is still acknowledged with firecrackers, sweet foods and joyful parties and gatherings.

The full name, Deepavali falls the day before the new moon in the Malayalam month Thulam (which usually falls sometime between October and November.

I spent some of the afternoon with Amma and Sardha in the kitchen today because I wanted to help make the sweet for the holiday. We shopped together to buy the ingredients for Payasam, a delicious, very sweet, pudding made from vermicelli, jaggery, milk, cardamom, coconut, and cashews. The vermicelli is broken into bite size pieces before frying it in a small amount of ghee. Then everything is put all together into boiling milk and stirred into a pudding.

Diwali is a holiday of lights. Ultimately it’s about rejoicing in the Inner light. Tonight after our Yoga practice and supper, we all gather around to light candles. Each person’s candle is a symbol for directing light to a part of our self that we consider to be dark. Identifying that part of our self is an acknowledgement that I am not perfect and creating a plan to change it is important. I like that idea, because it allows me to make mistakes. I also like the concept of accepting imperfection in myself. Then I can accept it in others too.

Diwali is a story about good succeeding over evil. We are born with the capacity and ability for both. Life is the pursuit to battle between the two. Striving to be a good, loving and compassionate person seems so easy when it is just about the ‘what’.

I just finished a book by Dr. Brian Weiss called Many Lives, Many Masters. In the last few pages he writes, “Lip service without the behavior has no value. It is easy to read about or talk about love and charity and faith. But to do it, to feel it, almost requires an altered state of consciousness. Not the transient state offered by drugs, alcohol or unexpected emotions. The permanent state is reached by knowledge and understanding.”

It is not what we say that makes us good. I’ve spent too many hours in school staff rooms to know that if wteachers actually did what they talk about doing, our classrooms would be much richer learning environments.

Most of us know what it means to be a good person. We talk about it all the time. It is sustaining the physical behaviours, the acts and the practices, that make the real differences. It is understanding that the more we practice, the easier it gets and the ‘habit’ becomes ingrained in our soul.

I do believe we are becoming more conscious. I know many of us are mindful and intentional about the way we live our lives. We are, perhaps out of necessity, cognizant about our environment, about our personal relationships, business relationships and global relationships. We are learning, and attempting to put into practice what we learn. It takes time. We are all still in school.

I can only hope that the light continues to shine brightly this year, and that by this time next year (Diwali 2012) we will notice that our world is just a little bit brighter, and clearer and strong. Happy Diwali to all!

Monday, October 24, 2011


A rainy beach

Black gulls flying, gliding, searching.

Dodging the kites sailing freely above our heads

And the multi colours of the umbrellas

The faces of India,

So down to earth
Grounded in the joy of being here
Playful, reserved,

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sunday Afternoon in Fort Cochin

The ominous clouds and heavy atmosphere didn’t stop our group of 11 from our plans for a Sunday outing. Minutes after our morning Yoga practise, we set out by ferry and then bus to the local public beach. Joined by our commitment to Yoga, we range in age from about 25 to 70. Our ages don’t matter. There is love, compassion and respect for each other. And we just have fun together!

Crowded, with the boisterous laughter of men and children, the Arabian Sea provides a playful opportunity and a welcome respite from the crowded bustling villages. The waves are wild, delivering mucky clumps of seaweed and large broken pieces of sea vegetation to the shore. Men and children play joyfully in the waves.

Women in Kerala don’t wear bathing suits! Expected intimidation from males, and unnatural shyness prevent women from wearing appropriate clothing to join in the ocean play. Instead, clusters of women clad in colourful saris, stand, lining the shores of the sandy beach. They are quiet, passive, almost smiling as they gather together, watching enviously as their families play.

I can’t help but wonder what life is like for these women inside their vibrant, lively saris. The outer layer seems so brilliant and glamorous and rich. Having worn a sari once before I know it is awkward and heavy. With 9 meters of unstitched fabric wrapped around my body I found it challenging to move around. Maybe it would take time for me to get used to it. But…. why would I? If I go shopping for a dress and try on something that feels uncomfortable, I don’t buy it. I don’t try to make it feel comfortable. Saris look beautiful, no doubt. And I can’t imagine that many women would rather be wearing bathing suits and joining their families in the ocean!

I am mindful of being respectful of the cultural mores, and, at the same time, don’t want to hold back my own desires as long as it doesn’t hurt any body. For instance, I do wear sleeveless dresses and tops in the oppressive heat, and, I always carry a shawl to cover my shoulders if I’m in a place where I need to be especially modest.

Though I didn’t have a bathing suit with me today, I would have worn a full piece suit and felt comfortable enough to join my friends in the water. One woman from our group wore a two-piece (itsy bitsy kind of) bikini. After some unwanted attention from hoards of boys, everyone settled in to a comfortable game of ball throwing in the waves. The attention waned, the attraction blended in with what was going on before and everyone went back to just having fun!

I just love hanging out on a beach, in the sand with friends. We play guitars and sing, eat (non- satvik) treats and enjoy the playfulness of the day. When the rains became heavy we took shelter under a metal roof. We watched the rains come while drinking hot chai, and talking with the local people. I continue to watch as umbrellas shoot up and Indians remain in the rain, on the beach, enjoying the day. It’s Sunday in Fort Cochin and we’re here!

Now, I’m back in my cosy little room after a delicious and fun meal at Dal Roti with my friends. Life is so good. I feel incredibly blessed to be where I am, with whom I am, and having the opportunity of being right here now! Is it just luck that has helped me find this little community of wonderful people who I now call my friends? Or is it all really meant to be?

Saturday, October 22, 2011


Yoga means Unity. The practise of Yoga is seeking unity in everything we do. Unity of body, mind, and spirit, unity of emotion and intellect and soul, unity of breath, and motion, unity of the energy between the sun and moon and planets and the stars. The opposite of unity, according to Yoga, is diversity.

Brahman is defined as a state of absolute. Like understanding God, Brahman is almost impossible to describe. It is trust and acceptance…the absolute. Ultimately, it is a place of constant love, compassion and wisdom….Yoga. For me it's the ultimate!

For Sajee, Yoga is not just about the postures (although he has me in positions I never thought I’d ever be able to achieve.) With Sajee, I am learning an Indian way to Yoga. Seven hours a day we practice Yoga together. Ultimately, the intention is to make it completely a part of our lives. Sajee models that in every thing he does. It is through his modelling that I am learning how to apply Yoga in to our every day lives.

By the time I arrive at Sajee’s house for pranayama (breathing exercises) he has already been meditating and practising complex asanas for 1 ½ hours, often with other eager students. At 6:00 we gather together for an hour of breathing exercises to clear out the passageways and strengthen lungs and muscles. We then have tea before we make our way ½ kilometre to The Secret Garden, a beautiful garden where, below a tree house, we protect ourselves from the early morning mosquitoes, and have a 2 ½ hour Yoga class which includes asana practise as well as meditation and chanting. Breakfast follows; a delicious homemade satvik meal that noticeably nourishes the body and even feeds the soul. I am noticing a difference in my cravings lately. I haven’t had coffee in 6 days!

I cherish the time between 11:00 and 2:00 as my own. During that time, I read, or write, or ride my bike around the area, doing chores or visiting building that look interesting, or talking to people who sit in their shops with nothing going on and no one to talk to. I like this time, too, to be alone and reflect.

At 2:00 I go back to Sajee’s for Philosophy lesson and dialogue. It’s a bit like a daily Satsang. We use a manual that outlines the certification programme for international Yoga Teacher Training. But I don’t think I’m learning the same things as other students taking this certified course. Not everybody has Sajee as their teacher!

At 4:00 we begin our evening asana and meditation practise for 2 ½ - 3 hours. Our Yoga day ends with another wonderful meal.

Recently I heard a beautiful metaphor that likened Yoga practise to a car. The Asana (postures) is what keeps the vehicle in good shape. The Prana (breath) is the battery that helps the energy flow. Sivasana is the radiator of the vehicle that provides cooling and relaxation. Proper (Satvik) diet is the gasoline…. preferably low octane and pure. Relaxation – Vedanta is what puts you in control of it all.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


In the best of times even, I have trouble sleeping. Usually, by the time I climb into bed, I am so exhausted; I fall asleep before I read even a page from my book. Falling asleep is never a problem. Staying asleep is another story!

My mind never stops. Naturally, left to it’s own desire, my mind is busy. That’s what keeps me awake. Thoughts flow continuously, sometimes so deeply that I create crazy convoluted stories from one tiny thought. In my head I can go from “I made a mistake” to “ They’re going to think I’m so stupid.” within minutes, just by allowing my mind to dig deeper into thought. Or I can spend the night planning an incredibly complicated lesson that would not have been able to happen during the busyness of the day. I suppose that during the quiet of the night, I take advantage of the opportunity to think. That’s not always good!

Quieting the mind is necessary and sleep recharges the body and soul. Yoga, meditation, and internal focus help me to guide inwardly and maintain some distance from thoughts that interfere with my own integrity... my own truth. I am better able now to teach myself to be still. I am learning to quiet my mind and find peace in my own inactivity. That has been my challenge. During sleep it is easiest to lose that intent. I wake up in the middle of the night and my mind starts. I struggle.

Today I began a series of Massage Therapy called Shirodhara. Shirodhara is an Ayruvedic practice that is recommended for quieting the mind. It is used for stress reduction, insomnia and for realizing balance of body, senses and spirit. In Sanskrit, Shirodhara comes from two words; shiras 'head' and dhara 'flow'.

The treatment begins with a basic head massage while sitting in a chair. Sithu, the therapist, pours oils onto my head and gently massages my scalp while blending the oils gently through my hair. The massage continues around the hairline, circling the periphery of the face. That complete, I am guided to a table. The oils are massaged into my face, emphasizing the spaces around the eyes, nose, lips and ears. A full oil body massage is the next step to warm the body and energize the inner circulation.

Then, I am wrapped in a cocoon like sheet to preserve the heat that has been generated from massage. A thin cloth is tied around my forehead to maintain a clear identification of my ‘third eye’. It’s the inward focus on my third eye that makes the Shirodhara as powerful as it is.

A thick cord hanging from a clay bowl is placed directly above my forehead in perfect line with the cloth. Sithu, seated at my head pours the oil into the bowl. The oils flow from the bowl through the thread across my forehead in a back and forth motion. For me, the doctor has chosen a Sandalwood oil because of my dosha constitution. As the oil flows though my hair into a receptacle below it is gathered so that Sithu can re-circulate the oils when the top bowl is emptied. For 45 minutes Sithu manages the continuous flow of oil passing repetitively over my third eye. With my eyes closed, I lay quietly focusing on the repetitive flow and the gentle stream that passes across my brow.

I am almost immediately transported to a place of complete relaxation. I am aware of my thoughts at first. Then I begin to notice the fading of their intensity. Within 10 minutes I am in a state of complete well-being and peaceful meditation…not sleep…. not awake…just bliss.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Changes-Everything Stays the Same

I think I might have been an Indian in one of my previous lives. I feel so comfortable here even though the culture is, oh, so different and I definitely don’t speak the same verbal language. Yet, I do have an understanding for and a basic acceptance of the way people here behave. It’s so unlike Canada!

Saying “Thank you” is rarely something you’ll hear in India. Its expression is experienced regularly, though, through the broad, teeth exposed smiles, or the common playful shaking of the head, or the energetic shuffling wave of an open hand. “Thank you” they say, as I ride my bike in the streets! ”Thank you for being here!” I get it!

The ridiculous, constant honking of the vehicular traffic, so annoying and intrusive at times, is just another way of saying “I’m here! Here I am! I’m alive! Move over!”

I ride down the familiar streets. The storeowners, wave vigorously as I pass. Some of them even say “Hey. Where have you been?” I’m almost laughing as I yell backwards. “I’m back!”

The streets of Fort Cochin are abuzz. I have had a beautiful sleep and I’m ready for the day. Finding my way back to the waterfront, I sit in my old spot on the shore. It looks the same. The water continues to flow. The fishing ships have stayed in their same place. The crows still fly in search of food as they did last year. The playful rabbit garbage pail still smiles from the boardwalk. It’s all the same. I think it is me who has changed.

I hear things differently today. It is all a bit clearer….maybe even louder. It is easier for me to discriminate.

A family stops beside me to take a photograph. I right away offer to take it so they might all be included in the pose. They willingly accept. When the picture is taken, I hand them back their camera. But, no, they insist on taking one with me in there too! New friends; we will be together in print forever now.

India has taught me so much! “Call us when you have bussed, hitchhiked, walked your way to India”, mocks my son before I leave Canada. I might not go in luxury, but I sure am glad I’m here!

My smile is almost constant! I can’t help it. It is coming from inside and I don’t hold back!

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Life offers me yet another adventure. I am off to India again! I feel different this time; confident, open, and satisfied. Yoga, making new friends, spending time with old acquaintances, visiting schools, learning all are parts of my intention while I'm here.

Landing in Mumbai Airport I am immediately reminded of why I love this country so much. Making my way to customs I notice there are signs that give me choice as to which line I can join. “Women with Small children” says one. “Handicapped” is another, and still another “Senior Citizens”. In Canada we might think this is segregation. Here, in India it is simple respect and a na├»ve ignorance of how it could be anything but offensive. I chose the one that says “Everyone else”.

The line is moving quickly and I am shortly directed to booth # 11. The dark skinned official is busy turning my passport pages, stamping sheets and scrutinizing my picture. I notice the officer in booth #12. He is waiting patiently for the couple in front of him to present their papers. As he waits, his long index finger digs deep into his nose. He removes the dirt from inside, and rolls his fingers gently. There is no sign of shame, no effort to hide. He flicks the dried up snot into the air before he goes back in for another search. I am sent on my way long before his nose picking adventure is done. I smile as I move forward. This is India. It’s raw, and crude, and natural and oh so real! I smile, inside and out.

As I finally make my way to the shuttle bus that will deliver me to Terminal 3 or Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, I smile as I wander. The airport is bountiful with airport attendees. Everywhere in India is people. Human labour represents India’s most common and abundant commodity. The more people available in any public place, the more help patrons receive. I like human help!

I walk confidently and smile. A young attendant smiles back and says something to me that I don’t quite understand. “Excuse me?” I say and lean a little towards him. “Your hair style. I like your hair style.” He says. "Oh! Thank you” I reply and carry on. Yes….in India they tell it like it is. I like that.

I make my way to the Kingfisher check in. “Oh, it is way to early for check in mam.” Says the woman behind the desk. “You’ll have to wait”. A young man approaches. He is very young; young enough to be one of my younger children. His smile is innocent as his eyebrows crunch upon his forehead. “Don’t worry”, he says,"we can go and have coffee. We’ll wait. My shift is over. I am free for a while It won’t be long. Where are you from?" He asks as he begins to push my cart along to the nearby coffee stand. “Where have you come from? What is your good name”

My journey has begun.