HAPPY NEW YEAR, dear Ones!!
Finally, a personal post! Rob & I have been looking forward to this trip for SO long… Our wedding bookings rarely allow us the luxury of getting away for too long, so 2 years ago we decided to book 6 months off to travel to India, Thailand, Laos, and Bali – to 1) take our advanced yoga teacher training; 2) research all we can about various yoga / ayurveda / wellness retreats and resorts and get inspiration for building our very own in Dominican Republic in the next few years; and 3) expand our horizons and consciousness as artists and good planetary citizens. I’ve been diligently sharing our adventures with you on Instagram (@katyanovaphoto) – but here are never-before-seen images to give you insight into what it is like to spend nearly 7 weeks studying, living & breathing the art of Yoga in a traditional Ashram in Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga & the ancient Vedas. ‘Surving ashram living’ is perhaps a bit overdramatic for the title – admittedly, I just wanted it to sound more badass so that you click on the link! At times, it did get really, really tough – but only disguised as a tricky mental battle with our own selves – because ‘the mind is slippery,’ as one dear teacher of ours says.
To quote a movie I love (Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), India is ‘an assault on the senses.’ It is a place where to ask ‘why‘ is unwise, silly, and utterly useless, because things simply are as they are, existing and functioning in karmic harmony, according to an unseen, beautiful cosmic law. Life and death, manifest and unmanifest, tender growth and merciless decay – all dance unpretentiously right if front of your eyes. India demands that you are present and humble at all times, a Witness (Saksi) to its brilliant ‘lila’ (Sanskrit for ‘Divine play’).
I felt such a deep, palpable love, longing, and reverence for India even before the plane landed. Every cell of my being vibrated, as if something really big and important was about to happen in my life. I had this vision that I would come out of the airport, surrounded by colourful saris, playing children, smells of spices and incense – and that I would get down on my knees, touch my forehead to the earth… Bhaha! It didn’t quite happen that way. Our guru Vishva-ji met us at the airport in Delhi and together with with 24 other eager and wide-eyed yoga teachers from all over the world, we traveled to Rishikesh from Delhi, by bus. How do people in Delhi survive the smog? It’s insane. The further North we got, the clearer it became… but the haziness never really dissipated. I gotta admit, I used to think other people’s pictures from their travels in India were hazy because they had crappy cameras. Nope – there’s just an opaque layer of smokiness on everything. Just the way it is. I kinda like it - the vibrant hues appear ancient, mysterious. Oh wait … Mother India swiftly teaches you to drop your ‘likes and dislikes’… otherwise, there’s a chance you’re gonna be pretty miserable at times and just might miss the essence of it all.
Our first of many tuktuk rides in Rishikesh – off to visit Dayananda Saraswati Ashram. The drivers ask for about 50-150 rupees ($1.5) from Westerners while locals ride for 5-10 rupees.
During the Dipawali festival: Bandara offering is when sadhus and babas (‘holy men / Hindu ascetics) come down from their caves to be fed. It’s WILD how much they can put away in one sitting!
The dining hall at Anand Prakash, our ‘home away from home.’ I often shared images of plates on Instagram, but let me tell you how it really is! For starters, you have to FIT into the designated seat / spot. In fact, one of the major issues most of us struggled with was the SITTING. I mean, when do we ever, in the West, sit on the floor? Seems like such a simple thing, but it’s not. ‘Asana‘ (or the physical practice of yoga postures) actually means ‘seat‘ and traditionally, its sole purpose is to allow the practitioner to sit in meditation comfortably for a prolonged period of time, in Lotus. No more, no less. It is pretty humbling (and transformative in itself) to come back to basics… as in: 1) SIT 2) PRAY / THANK YOUR FOOD 3) EAT 4) CLEAN UP AFTER YOURSELF.
After the 30 minute meditation and a 2 hour yoga class, we would work up quite an appetite. We were in SILENCE 9 pm – 9 am daily, so that’s how we ate our breakfasts. So good – no filler chit-chat of ‘how did you sleep / me too / oh good / oh no, i also had a shitty dream / can i have some of your soaked almonds? / oh yeah, we also didn’t have hot water last night / when is samosa day again?’ Not that there’s anything wrong with friendly chit chat, but there’s something very powerful and healing in simply keeping to yourself and nourishing your vital tissues.
One of our dear friends once made this comment on Instagram ‘Katya, I love you, but this looks like prison food!’ Haha. Is it the metal plates?!
It was a safe bet that for every lunch & dinner we’d be served: sabji (a saucy veggie medley), rice, daal (soupy lentils or beans), and chapati. Sometimes ‘pickle‘ (very spicy & salty marinated peppers, radishes, and carrots) and on rare glorious days, plain yogurt (the excitement would be through the roof!) Not sure if this sounds enticing to you right now – but let me tell you, the ashram food was always soooooo good. There are plenty of amazing places to eat out in Rishikesh, but we tried not to leave the ashram, for fear of getting sick. About 2 weeks in, we couldn’t handle it and went out for fries & ice cream – it was so good and felt a little bit like committing a petty crime.
You quickly fall into the rhythm of the ashram and find many creative ways to stay ‘sane’ – for us, one such guilty pleasure became SNACKING. Just before the halfway point it got really ‘bad’ and we found ourselves annihilating 1-2 big chocolate bars a day (you know the really heavenly and super expensive Lindt kind?) My mouth is watering as I type this and I really wish I had some right now!!!! Mmmmmm, the decadent rich dark chocolate kind with surprises of real dried strawberry pieces inside… and MMMMMMMMMM, the silky smooth milk chocolate kind with embedded bursts of crunchy caramel… ‘Okay, last piece… at least until after dinner!’ and we’d be rushing up the stairs to class.
There were also bags of salted cashews, jars of nut butters (+ banana + honey = staple ashram snack), fruit (we’d keep guava in the room so that it smelled nice), cookies galore, and lastly (I can’t believe I’m coming clean about this) even a couple of mega stacks of Pringles. The latter we kept underneath the bed for emergency cases.
Yogi Yum Yums deserve the last word (and their own paragraph). I don’t have any pictures – by the time I’d remember that it would be a good idea to get a shot, I would already be licking my fingers clean. Around the ashram (and other Western tourists in the area), these handmade delicious treats, which are made without white sugar, flour, or processed ingredients and as many organic components as possible, are jokingly referred to as ‘yogi crack.’A Canadian-born yogi and entrepreneur, Yogi Udei, has these for sale for about 3 hours every day and his stock gets cleaned out fast. It also helps that the proceeds, in entirety, go to support a local orphanage, Ramana’s Garden. To give you an idea of the divine and irresistible nature of these treats, here are some of the ingredients: raw almonds, cashews, sesame seeds, figs, goji berries, amla (Indian gooseberry), honey, ghee, tumeric, cumin, cardamom, cacao beans, coconut, jaggery, spirulina, copper water, etc. I am so inspired that I’m publicly announcing that I’m bringing this concept to our Cabarete, Dominican Republic home – these will for sure be a part of the offering at our future Retreat Center, if not sooner!
We didn’t have much free time. At all, ever. But it was really amazing how the Anand Prakash team lovingly put together the program to expose us to many incredible events! One of these was an evening concert of world renowned musicians (tabla & sitar) and a classical Indian dancer.
On Saturdays, we were taken on cultural day trips.
Helping Hands For India is an organization established by the dedicated Anand Prakash team. They are building a school in a small village about 2 hours from Rishikesh. ‘Educating a young girl essentially means educating 3 generations,’ Vishva-ji says. The kids were SO excited to see us. As we arrived, they threw flower petals on us… (in anticipation of our modest presents).
Guru = the one who dispels darkness and removes ignorance; a spiritual teacher. Here’s our Beloved Vishva-ji. Together with his wife Chetana, he founded Akhanda Yoga – a holistic yoga system which includes the most integral aspects of practice like asana, pranayama (breath control) and mantra (which Vishva-ji calls ‘the best antivirus’ for our system). ‘Akhand‘ means ‘whole, indivisible’ and is a balanced, rich, all-encompassing Hatha yoga practice and tradition.
Later that day we visited Sri Santosh Puri Ashram (also known as Yoganga Retreat) for a satsang with Mataji (Narvada Puri). The timeless sanctuary is situated in Haridwar (about an hour from Rishikesh) where the Ganges river flows. It is a place like no other. The vibrations here, along with the story of how they had come into being, are incredible.
Mataji came to Haridwar in her early 20′s from Germany and never left. She found her destiny and dharma at the feet of her guru, Baba Santosh Puri. Mataji joined him in the life of extremely severe tapas (ascetism) on an island in the Ganga, renouncing food and sleep, ever in service to cows and all other sentient beings. She describes their other-worldly spiritual relationship in her poetic and compelling book ‘Tears of Bliss‘… sitting in her presence is like sitting with Pure Consciousness itself.
Baba Santosh Puri left his body in Mahasamadhi – the conscious state of mind when the realized, liberated soul of a saint or yogi reunites with the supreme soul. It was in the full moon night of early 2001; his body remained in the Lotus pose for the following 24 hours until he was bathed an clothed by Vedic monks so that he may be placed to rest in the cave-like ‘samadhi’ ground. A few years later, this majestic structure was built by devotees.
For the full moon meditation, we gather on the rooftop to take it the glorious prana of Rishikesh.
This is Fire Puja, a beautiful daily ritual of offering ghee (clarified butter) and fragrant herbs to the fire. It’s about 30 minutes and is so beautiful and peaceful. Here are the kinds of things we chant, so that you get an idea of what it’s all about:
First, many joyous rounds of the revered Gayatri mantra: ‘Evoking earth, sky, and the heavens | Let us bring our minds to dwell | in the radiance of the Divine Truth | May Truth inspire our reflections.’ (Om bhoor bhuvah svah Tat savitur varaynyam Bhargo dayvasya dheemahi Dhiyo yo nah prachoda-yat.)
Then, a series of beautiful and powerful mantras like this one: ‘Om. Om is the Giver of spiritual knowledge and physical strength. Anyone can meditate on Om. Happiness and immortality are achieved under Divine protection and blessings, through spiritual knowledge. We should meditate with faith and devotion upon the universal Divine. Om. O Divine Creator of the universe and the Giver of all happiness! Keep us far from habits and deeds that obstruct Truth. May we attain everything that is auspicious.’ (Om ya atmada balada yasya vishva upasatay prashisham yasya day-vah. Yasya chchha-ya amrtam yasya mrtyuh kasmai dayva-ya havisha vidhayma.) Isn’t that beautiful?! Your entire day takes on the glow.
Minutes away from the ashram, the glorious Mother Ganga.
Perhaps my favourite portrait so far. They are super cute and are everywhere – but you better hold on to your own balls (and especially purses, bags, cell phones, and sunglasses), because Rishikesh monkeys are quick, sly, and lack morale! How they’ve come to possess such a sense of entitlement, I don’t know Apparently, Vishva-ji’s wife Chetana once had her handbag snatched from her hands this way… the monkey, from a safe distance, proceeded to throw ‘useless’ items into the river one by one, including her wallet and passport.
One of our favourite buys so far, an antique Tibetan conch. The workmanship in silver is so intricate and the sound it’s capable of producing is bound to awaken all your charkas at once. Here, we bathe it in the Ganga before watching an ‘aarti‘ ceremony at a nearby ashram.
We turned one of the shelves in our room into a colourful altar to liven up the living space.
The following three portraits are from a Saturday outing to a magical temple of Anandamayi Ma. You all know how much I LOVE to take portraits, but I must confess that I’ve been putting my camera away quite a lot on this trip. There are some great photojournalists who get right in there and snap away, but I’ve found it extremely difficult to do in India. For one, most eyes are on us because we’re tall and white and totally a novelty. So everyone STARES. For every time we take a picture, groups of Indians want to take ours. (We even had one taxi driver stop at a tourist place and pay a dude to take a picture of the 3 of us, which he then immediately had printed and placed in a plastic sleeve.) Another reason is… It often just doesn’t feel right. Rob & I have been immersing ourselves in the flow of life here and taking out my giant Markiii with an equally giant lens immediately interrupts and separates the ‘oneness‘ and the ‘flow.’ There have been so many moments I WISH I could capture the image with my eyelids – as I know that by the time I get the camera out and fumble with my settings, the moment is gone. In India of all places, I’ve most appreciated being a witness to such moments. It’s such a privilege. Anyway, here they are.
We talk a lot about ‘sadhana‘ in yoga and Ayurveda. It basically means ‘spiritual practice’ or path that awakens our consciousness and enhances our ‘inner medicine’ potential for healing ourselves and others. ‘Sadhana‘ practice cultivates inner awareness by reclaiming our connection to Nature’s ways. I contemplated these definitions when I noticed this man: day in, day out, he sits at the ashram gates and patiently, methodically strings together garlands of flowers to be sold as the offering. His face, free of worry lines, is illuminated by the saffron buds. This is sadhana.
Inside, a young sadhu ‘sneakily’ takes a picture of our group, as we break out in song. Sri Anandamayi Ma was an Indian saint from Bengal. Swami Sivananda described her as ‘the most perfect flower the Indian soil has produced.’Precognition, healing and other miracles were attributed to her by her devotees. She is believed to be the incarnation of Pure Consciousness itself.
This is the orphanage supported by Yogi Yum Yums, Ramana’s Garden. German-owned, this place is an absolute treasure and a fantastic place for long-term volunteering. They have a great restaurant where we had the best chai ever (well, most places have the best chai ever, but still) and the view is gorgeous.
Also: have you ever held a tiny baby goat in your arms?! If you haven’t, please add it to the list of things to do before you die!!!
The view from Red Chili internet cafe, where Rob & I spent many lunch hours and most Sundays (our only free days)… It is here that we worked on the six Weddings we shot just before coming to India.
Swami Yogananda was nicknamed ‘Yogi 101‘ about 4 years ago. He’s now on his 106th year and says that he plans to live to 250! He has outlived all his 10 children and at the question ‘who has made the biggest difference in your life?’ without hesitation replies, ‘meditation.’ Below, he demonstrates his use of a neti pot before doing his pranayama. Oh, and swami-ji is also learning English.
One morning he came in to teach our class, it was quite something! Swami Yogananda’s favourite way to amuse us seems to be ‘lion’s breath‘ – sticking his tongue out at us and very loudly roaring like a lion.
At last, on the last Saturday before the course was finished, it was time for the Naming Ceremony. Most of us were looking forward to this moment even more than the graduation. Our main yoga hall was beautifully decorated and a pundit (priest) was brought in for the occasion, to perform a very special fire puja and bestow blessings on us. I wore a sari for the very first time, my very own! (So underneath, you’re supposed to wear a special skirt that’s called a ‘petty coat,’ which keeps all the folds in place. Mine was missing and we were in a rush, so the lady dressing me simply tucked the folds into my leggings. Good enough – I felt so pretty and ready for my new Name. Of course, durning the ceremony, I was moving around a lot taking pictures for everyone, so by the time it was my turn to go up to Vishva-ji, I nearly lost my entire sari)
The magnificent light streaming in to expose our vibrations.
Vishva-ji dresses up one of my dreads.
Talent show & wild dancing to the beat of Indian drummers & ‘This Head I Hold‘ by Electric Guest.
Niranjana & Niranjan Nath = ‘purity of well-being.’ The Sanskrit names are said to come to Vishva-ji as ‘downloads’ in meditation. We trust what our Teacher sees in us and are to devote our lives to living up to and into these names as well as what they represent.
The last week was all about transformational experiences, self-expression, yoga therapy, integration, love, healing, and a LOT of hugging. Vishva-ji’s very first student, Prem (which means ‘love’ in Sanskrit), flew in from Canada to present a brilliant program to us. On the very last day, an activity that would become our favourite was revealed to us: the ‘carwash‘… it’s when everybody makes a ‘tunnel’ with their bodies by standing shoulder to shoulder, facing each other. Then one person at a time slowly walks through this ‘tunnel’ with their eyes closed, as people s/he passes by whisper something really sweet and nice about them, to them. It was so much fun to come up with something heartfelt and thoughtful to say to each and every person – 6 weeks seemed like a mini-lifetime and we’d all gotten to know each other so well. I didn’t think I would cry when my turn came. But somewhere down the line, among the super sweet and kind things I heard was ‘I wish you were my daughter‘ and I burst into gratitude-filled tears.
Gratitude overwhelms me.
Huge thank you to my parents for making me and being the Light; to my Beloved, Niranjan Nath, for loving me and accepting me; to my Teachers (and their Teachers) for gently and patiently moulding & guiding the way; to our Family, Friends & the yoga Sangha for holding the space and supporting us along the way.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!!
P.S. if you have any questions about this experience (or anything else), feel free to email me. This post was such a labour of love and took me forever – comments are most welcome!!