Last week I received an email offering me the opportunity to help on a yoga teacher training taking place in October in Northern India.
The email came from Lila Conway, a wonderful yogi who first taught me how to teach a few years ago in the Sivananda ashram in Uttarkashi in the Himalayas. We’ve stayed in touch and I even bumped into her in Kerala last November.
The course will be wonderful. Based at the Yoga Niketan Ashram on the bank of the Ganga in Rishikesh, it will be four weeks full of devotion, fun and hard work. It’ll be a memorable and life-changing experience. I thought long and hard about whether to accept such an incredible opportunity.
I declined. On this occasion it doesn’t work with other commitments I’ve got at home in October. I know we can make it work another time and I know this will be the first of many that she’ll run. If you’d like to find out more, visit www.yogaprema.org.
But what is it about the pull of India? I was talking to a friend the other day who came back around the same time as me last December. She’s returning later this month – for how long, she’s not sure.
I know I’ll be back. If not October then perhaps at Christmas. India is an addiction. It does your head in, assaults you in every possible way but she’ll win your heart and you’ll keep going back for more.
Another yoga friend came back to the UK a month ago and, like me, she’s considering whether life in London is for her. She’s turning her back on a stressful job and instead wanting to do work that makes her happy. She wants to rent out her high rise flat in East London and move somewhere a bit more green.
It’s nice to know that I’m not alone in my thinking. Staying connected to my practice will keep me grounded until I book that flight…
Some of you may be wondering how I’m settling back in to life in the UK after five months away. Well, I can say that’s going alright. I went away to deepen my yoga practice and I feel that it’s paying off.
Last weekend I skyped my thumb chum Laurie who I met in Thailand doing my 500 hour training. We talked about how our five weeks of learning ashtanga has benefitted our yoga practice immeasurably.
Michel adjusting me in class
A year ago I was tentatively dipping my toe into a beginners ashtanga course prior to going away. Now when I practice ashtanga, it feels like a pure meditation. Every movement flows with the breath and, ok, so I forget the sequence from time to time but it works. It makes me feel so alive.
Since being back in the UK, I’ve had teachers come up to me at the end of classes telling me that they could watch me practice all day. They’ve asked me where I learnt ashtanga and I tell them to seek out Michel Besnard. I am so grateful to him and Roslyn.
I remember him saying that the gift he was giving us was an ashtanga Mysore self practice but really he’s given me so much more than that. I’ve learnt so much about myself and I love Michel’s motto of ‘who cares!’ Who cares if you can’t do a backbend/sit in lotus/ lift your leg as high as the person next to you etc etc. Just enjoy your practice.
Laurie was saying the same thing. She’s based in St Louis, Missouri, and is now on the teaching faculty of a 200 hour yoga teacher training at the studio where she works. We feel so lucky to have had the experience.
I feel that everything that I’ve learnt over the past few years is coming together in my teaching. Before my time with Michel I would never have focused so much on standing postures or suggested to
students that they lift their middle toes to engage the muscles in their legs. In the class at the Yoga Hall I threw some yin postures into the mix, whilst also teaching some Sivananda-based pranayama and relaxation.
While students laid in savasana, I speedily made herbal tea in the kitchen for everyone after class. Swami Sivananda looked on with his reassuring eyes from a picture on a cupboard door, and a postcard of Swami Vishnudevananda was blu-tacked onto the wall above the mugs. It’s a lovely place and I feel at home there. Their satsang/chanting evenings once a month are wonderful too.
I’m also lucky to have met an ashtanga teacher out near me in Harpenden who is fast becoming a good friend. In jolly proper Harpenden you’d be hard-pressed to find many Californians who’ve lived in ashrams and follow silent gurus… but I found one! April is inspiring me to keep up my daily practice and we have plans to run a local ashtanga/yin yoga workshop together.
I’ve also decided that after ten years, I’m done with living in London. I’m happy to work in an art gallery there for a couple of days a week but it feels too busy and stressful. Hertfordshire’s fields, fresh air and friendly people are a-calling. I just need to work out how I can afford a car and a flat. I can’t live with my parents forever…
Any of my 500 hour training buddies reading this? How has the training affected your practice and teaching? Feel free to leave your comments below.
I’m on the beach at Kovalam watching the sun set on India for the final time. I recognise a middle-aged couple from the Sivananda ashram standing in the shallows watching the sun too. They both wear silver om necklaces and look sun kissed.
I walk towards them and they welcome me like a long lost friend. We didn’t speak once at the ashram. They say in broken English that they speak no English. I tell them that I leave for London tomorrow morning. They leave for Berlin in two day’s time.
She mimes singing and points at me. They must have heard me leading a chant during satsang. “Sing… engel” she says pointing at me. She points to her forearm and mimes what can only be goosebumps. “Singing… engel” she says again. She beams at me and touches my arm tenderly.
I thank her for such a wonderful compliment and we part. I continue to walk along the beach letting each wave wash over my feet. Tears spring from my eyes. India is beautiful. Whatever you offer to Her, she returns it ten-fold.
I walk further along the beach. The glamorous girl who played terrible Russian pop music in the dorm is sitting on the beach watching the scene. We wave to each other from afar.
Groups of Indian boys throw sand at each other and boldly ask me how I am. Young couples in love take photos of one another. Indian women in drenched salwar kameez sit on sun loungers waiting for their daughters to finish playing in the water.
Stephen from the ashram is throwing a frisbee in the air, trying to catch it. He goes to the Putney Sivananda Centre from time to time and lives in Plymouth. He talks enthusiastically about how yoga saved him from an unfulfilling life down the pub. “Pubs contain such dark energy, don’t you think?”
Thinking about my time away since July, my goal was to practice and increase my knowledge of yoga and I certainly feel like I’ve achieved that.
From my five weeks in Koh Samui with Michel Besnard and the gang, I learnt so much about Ashtanga yoga, my own body and about other types of yoga such as Yin and Acro. My teaching will never be the same again.
The Absolute Yogis
I learnt what it means to be ‘yo-glam‘ on Koh Phang An, and I can now give Thai Massage based on the time I spent in Chiang Mai.
I was also glad to have the opportunity to catch up with my yoga buddy Sherylee and her husband in Sri Lanka.
Three on a motorbike: with Sherylee and Brett
During the two months I’ve been in India, I witnessed the madness of Osho’s glitzy ashram and felt Amma’s love through her ‘darshan’ or blessing. In Goa I was barked at for two weeks doing Iyengar and I got to see the big man himself in Pune.
Hangin’ in Goa
I’ve had a go at learning the harmonium and gained insight into the daily life of an Indian family courtesy of Babaji and the Dhabolkars in Arambol, Goa.
The sun has set and it’s time for my final meal. I feel sad but happy and blessed to have had this entire experience. I know I’ll be back. India does that to you. The yoga helps too. It certainly brings people together.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my blog while I’ve been away. Thank you for all the comments, encouragement and the personal emails prompted by my witterings.
From next year I’ll continue to write about yoga related things. Have lovely Christmases and New Years and remember to stay positive and follow your dreams.
Yes, this is my last day away from the UK. In the early hours of tomorrow morning I’ll fly from Trivandrum to Mumbai and then home to London.
For the past two weeks I’ve been at the Sivananda ashram at Neyyar Dam, Kerala, and today I’ve come to seaside Kovalam for some present buying.
I’ve only just realised that it’s Christmas. In shops I’ve spotted my first tinsel of 2012 and Indians celebrate by hanging star-shaped paper lanterns outside their houses.
The only hint of Christmas at the ashram was on Friday evening when some ‘carol singers’ turned up. I use the term loosely as it comprised ten children and adults standing around banging drums and singing something incomprehensible. A Santa dressed in a creepy mask, pointy red hat, red robe and white surgical gloves danced manically hitting his ankles. It was like Morris Dancing gone even more wrong.
From the nearby temple you could hear 84 year-old Swami Gayatriananda (a small Indian lady and regular at the London Sivananda Centre) and others chanting the 1000 names of the Divine Mother. It was very surreal. So no Noddy Holder shrieking “It’s Chrisssmaaaaaasss” for me yet this December.
Home sweet home
It was lovely to be back at the Sivananda ashram. I was last there in 2009 and that visit prompted me to do my teacher training at their small ashram in Uttarkashi in the Himalayas the following year.
The ashram is pretty basic. There were about 60 of us in the women’s dorm but at least we had bed frames (a step up from Amma’s). They have recently added air-conditioned rooms which I feel is going against the spirit of staying there.
The first bell of the day rings at 5:20am getting you up for morning meditation and chanting. During the two daily meals (10am and 6pm) you sit on the floor in silence eating food with your hand from a metal plate. The schedule is intense and everyone gets rather excited about the chai (with sugar!!) served prior to the morning asana class. Lights out is at 10:30pm. To stay in the dorm, you pay £6 a day for everything. It’s a yoga all-inclusive and serves as a good introduction for those who want to know more about yoga as a way of living.
About ten days ago I bumped into Lila (who taught me how to teach at Uttarkashi). She suggested I asked if they needed any help teaching and before I knew it, I was dressed in white and yellow assisting the afternoon intermediate class. I ensured that people flexed their feet, followed the eight steps into headstand and relaxed deeply in savasana.
Lila and I
Over the next few days they got me teaching parts of the classes so the main teacher and I worked as a tag team. In some classes there were 50 or so people and the main Shiva Hall was rather intimidating with its high ceiling and busts of masters Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnudevananda looking down on you. When they were short-staffed I taught the full two-hour class. It was a great feeling to be back where it started for me, but this time playing a more active role.
The silent walks to the lake were magical and I led a couple of chants during satsang. We had a musical group entertaining us one evening and, on our day off, some of us visited Kanyakumari – the southern-most point of India and a pilgrimage site for Hindus.
People at the ashram were from all over the world and who’d have thought that I’d be practicing my Italian sitting in chai shops or discussing the sights of Highgate in North London. I even met a lovely man but that’s all I’m saying about that for now.
Chai with the Italians
Have you been to the ashram? What are your memories? I’m off to pack my bag for the final time…
I’ve just spent a week at the Mata Amritanandamayi Math ashram in Amritapuri, three hours south of Cochin. It’s the home of the female guru Mata Amritanandamayi, commonly known as Amma or The Hugging Mother. She gives people a blessing in the form of a hug and has blessed over 30 million people worldwide thus far.
In fact, I’ve tried to have a hug twice before at Alexandra Palace in London on her world tour but for one reason or another I’ve left hug-less. I was hoping for third time lucky in India.
The lady herself
Amma’s teachings are all about ‘Bhakti’ or devotion. The ashram sits where she was born and her family knew something was up when, as a toddler, she sat meditating for hours. Much to her father’s frustration, she used to give away their possessions to the needy and devotees started visiting her when she was still a teenager. She believes that anyone can be healed through love and I read about how she cured a leper by licking the pus from his angry wounds. She’s now in her late 50’s and the ashram is home to thousands of people from India and the rest of the world.
I’d heard mixed things about the place. I’d been told it was a bit weird and full of grey-faced Western women wearing white. I’d also heard that it was worth a visit and I was eager to experience it for myself.
I checked in and made my way up to the tenth floor of Amritanjali block. Accommodation was basic to say the least. In a three metres squared room were three of us girls sleeping on mattresses a few inches thick. At least it was clean and the views were stunning. The ashram has the only high-rise buildings for miles around and are bright pink. We looked out over a never ending carpet of coconut palms, the Keralan backwaters and the Arabian Sea. Below were crows and pigeons flapping and sea eagles soaring. Every morning at 6:30 I visited the balcony on the ninth floor and joined a group of eager yogis for our morning self practice. It was wonderful.
B.A (before Amma)
Amma was due back from her world tour but no-one knew exactly when. Despite Amma’s teachings, there didn’t seem to be much love between the devotees.The place was a hive of frantic activity and tempers were short. I saw one woman lose it when she got wet paint on her beautiful white sari and another lady started having a go at a girl for putting a chair in the wrong place. Everyone looked knackered and no-one returned my smiles.
I visited the ‘seva’ desk to be issued with my task or ‘karma yoga’. I got allocated cleaning rooms and toilets and the idea is that you do it selflessly with no expectation of reward. The seva coordinator was a guy in his thirties and I learnt that after meeting Amma twice on tour in Canada, he decided to get rid of all his possessions and move to the ashram for five years. “When you meet your guru, you just know” he said.
In the lead up to Amma’s return I heard many stories like this and listened with interest. I was told that everyone has a ‘the moment I met Amma story’. She is revered like a god and she’s beaming at you everywhere – on stickers in the lifts, posters in our bedroom, even from photos attached to street lights around the ashram.
I tried to remain positive but the atmosphere was oppressive. I hoped it would change on her return. It didn’t help that the daily schedule was almost non-existent. The highlight of each day was the evening chanting in the Kali temple. I wanted to be part of it but I didn’t want to buy the six different chant books. Elderly Indian women fell asleep slumped in chairs and the enthusiastic bell ringing was deafening.
If she hadn’t been arriving imminently, I would have left.
I got along with people who had arrived the same day as me: namely Sayuri from Japan and Ernst from Holland. Ernst is the wisest and most mature 20 year-old bloke I’ve ever met. Sayuri is lovely and nutty and she told me that she was tall for a Japanese person. She’s still shorter than me but we felt tall next to the ageing Indian women squished up against us in the lifts.
There was also a very friendly and smiley Swami who chatted to Ernst and I at meal times. He comes to meet Amma twice a year from a Sivananda ashram in Pallakad, Kerala. I was delighted to find out that his name was Swami Rajananda, meaning ‘the king of happiness’ or bliss. How very apt.
A.A (after Amma)
And then three days ago She arrived. The last time I saw such hysteria was from grown women trying to catch a glimpse of Gary Barlow and the boys at Wembley. “She’s coming! She’s coming!” People lined the path into the ashram as her car drove past at the speed of the Popemobile. My room mates and I watched from a respectable distance as we observed the goings on around us. She waved and people threw themselves at the car.
The next day there was a meditation on the beach at sunset. She sat on a raised platform resplendent in a voluminous white sari surrounded by ashram kids and the resident dog, Bhakti. Amma spoke through an interpreter about how we have to rid ourselves of our ‘vasanas’ or tendencies such as negative thinking or judging people by chanting our mantra. Devotees talked emotionally about how their lives had been turned around by her. And then we were told that those leaving the following day could have a hug. I wasn’t totally sure when I was going to leave but Ernst ordered me to get in line.
After about 15 minutes of typical Indian queuing (ie. much jostling and confusion), my turn arrived. Swami Rajananda was in front of me and I watched as a guy gripped the back of his head and pushed him into Amma’s plentiful bosom. She bear-hugged him and spoke into his ear. He was given a Hershey’s chocolate kiss as prasad and then I felt hands propelling me into her arms.
My face squished into her sari folds and the smell of rose enveloped me. I realised she was having a conversation with Swami Rajananda and held me for what felt like an eternity. Then she put her cheek to mine and whispered something in my ear that I couldn’t make out.
I stumbled back into the throng of people and watched her hugging others. I couldn’t stop smiling and felt like I was floating. I was all warm and tingly.
I made my way to an aircraft hanger hall and Amma started chanting bhajans backed by a full band of musicians. It was wonderful. Flailing her arms in the air, she built the crowd up into a frenzy of ‘jai mas’ and ‘shanti oms’ and I was overcome with emotion.
I found myself thinking about the last time I’d had a similar hug and I was transported back to being a little girl and getting cuddles off my Dad’s Mum in her kitchen in Finchley Central. Because of my height and the fact that she was a slightly larger lady, you’d be suffocated by her cleavage and her special smell. You were left in no doubt about how much she loved you.
Sitting on a plastic garden chair in that vast hall, I was overwhelmed by feelings of love. I knew that I was loved – by my Nanny, by my family and friends, and by Amma. And I wasn’t the only one overcome. Two seats from me was a lady dabbing her eyes with the corner of her sari and there were many others.
They say that she’s the Divine Mother and who knows, perhaps she is. What I know is that I’ll be there when she comes to London next year. Anyone coming with me?
Two weeks ago my Mum and Dad (Simon) arrived in Fort Cochin, Kerala. It’s my Mum’s first trip to India but my Dad has been a couple of times before.
We’ve spent time travelling by train and taxi around northern Kerala. From Cochin we went to a homestay in Wayanad and visited Muthanga National Park where we saw wild elephants; we stayed on a houseboat on the deserted northern backwaters near Bekal; and visited a homestay on an empty beach in Kannur. We’re now back in Cochin and they fly home tomorrow.
I asked my Mum a few questions about our trip and these are her answers.
As the most different place you have been, how did you feel about coming to India?
I felt very apprehensive. Bearing in mind I don’t like curry, mosquitoes love me and I’m not good in the heat, I knew it was going to be a challenge. The only reason I really wanted to come was to see you.
You arrived into Cochin very early in the morning. What were you first impressions of the country?
It wasn’t as chaotic as I’d expected. My husband Simon had talked about the madness of Delhi but Cochin felt very civilised. We got a taxi from the airport at 4am and everyone seemed to be up and about already.
I was surprised by how busy the road was. There was manic overtaking which scared the living daylights out of me, accompanied by a constant hand on the horn. There were no pavements, the driver swerved from side to side to avoid potholes, dust was everywhere and I was staggered by how much litter was at the sides of the road.
But for all that, Fort Cochin had a magical atmosphere and reminded me of Sinbad the Sailor stories from when I was a little girl. We stayed at a lovely place opposite the Chinese fishing nets and I was relieved that the fishy smell didn’t pervade the hotel. I have certainly inhaled a lot of interesting smells over the past two weeks.
What’s been the best thing about this trip?
Seeing you! Also, the fact that both you and Simon have been to India and you’ve talked about it a lot. I can now understand why. I don’t really know what it is, but there’s definitely a magic to the place – the people, their smiles, their friendliness and generosity; and the beauty of the countryside. From walking along the beach of the Arabian Sea to the wild mountains of Wayanad. It’s been fantastic and I look forward to returning.
What memories will you take home?
My strongest memory will always be the friendliness of the people – so many groups of children approaching us wanting to shake our hands, ask our names, find out where we’re from and take our photos. Sometimes they’ve never seen Western people before and approached us shyly. At other times we’ve been bombarded and overwhelmed with cameras in our faces. This happened when a school teacher asked us to meet his students on a school bus in Wayanad.
It’s been such an insight to meet the owners of the homestays. They’ve opened their homes to us and we’ve been made to feel so welcome. They’ve sat with us at dinner and we’ve had the opportunity to discuss anything and everything about our countries – from Hijras to the UK’s austerity cuts, and from John the Baptist to the Hindu god Shiva.
What do you think of the food?
I’ve eaten all the food but it’s been rather spicy. I’m also very grateful for advice from a friend to bring some shortbread biscuits. I brought three packets and we’ve done the lot! I can’t wait to have a roast dinner and some fish and chips when I get home.
We’ve used a lot of different types of transport over the past two weeks. Do you have a favourite?
Auto-rickshaws without a doubt! They’re such good fun. Whizzing around the streets, avoiding potholes, buses, cows, goats and people.
Riding on the back of a elephant would have to come very close though.
If you could change India in any way, what would you change?
Most definitely the poverty. I found it hard to see people living under sheets of tarpaulin. Also the dirt and rubbish everywhere. As a local litter picker at home in our village, that was difficult to handle.
We walked into Kannur station this morning and there was a little tot of two or three asleep on the floor in the busy ticket area. Mum was nowhere to be seen and she looked dirty. Commuters formed long queues and she was huddled at the back draped over a bag. It would have been so easy to step on her and it made me want to cry.
And has this trip changed you in any way?
Yes, most definitely. Previous to this holiday I had been to the US and Europe. The furthest east I’d been was to Egypt and Israel. But now I feel prepared to venture further afield. I’d like to visit China, Thailand and other parts of India.
And finally… what four words would you use to describe your time in Kerala?
Assault on the senses! The sights, the sounds, certainly the smells, the tastes.
Thanks Mum and Dad for coming out to see me. It’s been fun and very memorable. See you in London in three weeks!
I write this sitting in the departure lounge of Goa’s airport waiting for my flight to Cochin. I arrived here after travelling for an hour and a half on the back of a motorbike. My main concern during the journey was not getting sunstroke. It cost £6 and if I’d taken the bus it would have been about £1. I’m such a big spender.
The driver had my rucksack perched between the handle bars, over the petrol tank and nestled between his thighs. I had my smaller bag on my back and sitting across my thighs was… wait for it… my newest purchase… a small harmonium called a dulcetina! Or actually, this one’s called ‘Don’ but that’s another story.*
My friend Radasi (see previous post) was selling hers and so I decided to buy it. How very exciting. Now when I return to see Babaji (a previous post includes a photo of him), I can show him how much I’ve improved.
My Diwali dinner with Babaji’s family was memorable, as were his son Shriniwas’ final words of “Do not forget us”. Whilst I said my farewells, Babaji played a bhajan (chant) on his harmonium to send me on my way. Anyone who knows me will be unsurprised to hear that I struggled to hold back the tears. They have suggested that I return next year with my parents and stay with them.
I am also happy to have completed two weeks at the Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Centre and my tadasana (simple standing pose) will never be the same again.
Our teacher Leo was brilliant and on the last day of each week, he’d give us a musical treat. He’d get us all into halasana/plough over benches and play his flying saucer-shaped ‘hang drum’.
I’d never heard one before and we couldn’t see what he was doing. Was it a drum? Was it a string instrument? Don’t question it! Just relax and focus on your breath! Anyway, week two I was prepared with my camera and this is 15 minutes of bliss:
I’m sad to leave Goa but tomorrow I’ll see my parents in Cochin and I can’t wait.
* Radasi sometimes gets words wrong and when she first bought the harmonium, she thought her music teacher said it was a ‘donsetina’ hence calling it Don. She said that I was welcome to change its name but I don’t want to give poor old Don an identity crisis.
I’ve now been in Arambol for almost two weeks and I must say I’m really enjoying it. Friends at home said that I should avoid Arambol (“rat infested” was how one buddy described it but I’m yet to see the evidence). They suggested I head further south to quieter Palolem and Patnem but I came here specifically to do the Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Course.
People here are friendly. It probably helps that loads of us doing the course are staying at the same place. We’re always bumping into each other – on the beach, in restaurants – and it’s nice. I’m beginning to recognise many familiar faces and a lot of the long-stayers are living at this end of the beach as it’s more relaxed than up near the cliff.
Having my breakfast in a hastily thrown together bamboo beach restaurant this morning, I bumped into Zuzu. I first met him a few days ago at a bonfire night party. He’s in his fifties, Dutch and this is his ninth winter here. He’s an interesting character. With ginger Afro hair and a beaming smile, he told me that he works in ‘musical theatre’. This means he invents crazy acts to take to music festivals. He proudly told me about his latest act in which a small carriage is made to look like a UFO. It plays Japanese electro music whilst he and a couple of friends are painted green and “dance like aliens”. His words, not mine.
He organises a carnival event on the beach every February and last year it didn’t go according to plan. Some girls were dancing topless and a photo somehow made it onto the front page of a Goan newspaper with a headline suggesting debauchery. I bet that edition sold a lot of copies. Zuzu told me how the police tried to prosecute him for organising a pornographic event. Not unsurprisingly he had to lay low for a while after that.
There’s also Radasi, a Bolton lass who I met at an ashtanga class when I first arrived. She talks about “letting the universe decide” and calls people “love” with a husky voice that perhaps can only be found in Bolton. She teaches yoga at a centre on Koh Phang An in Thailand and we know some of the same people from The Sanctuary. She’s preparing to go on a pilgrimage with her Indian guru and is a good giggle.
“Mamma Mia” it’s Leo the Iyengar teacher
Our five-day course for ‘continuing students’ started today. Whilst I was disappointed that we haven’t got Sharat, the guy that set up the centre, Italian/Argentine Leo who is one of his students, is doing a fine job. Putting us down at every opportunity, attempting to break our ego and make us more humble, it’s an authentic Iyengar experience.
Every class he’s exclaiming “Mamma Mia!” – shocked at our inability to remember a detail or stretch adequately. I’d heard that Sharat was the same. A friend of mine said that he’d once told a woman in class that she was too fat to do a pose.
I’m learning lots about alignment and that every small adjustment in the body counts. He’s making me focus on my turned-out feet and had us doing urdva dhanurasana with a belt around our thighs. That was two days ago and I’m still aching.
Urdva dhanurasana (from Yoga Journal)
My harmonium efforts
And my lessons are continuing (read a previous post about my lessons). After accidentally showing the entire family a photo of some naked bottoms from my yoga training course in Thailand, I thought I’d blown it – living up to the stereotype from the front of that Goan newspaper. But either they didn’t realise what they were seeing on my iPad before I rapidly flicked to the next picture whilst inwardly dying a thousand deaths, or they were willing to forgive me.
This is a family who approvingly said that I dress well because I cover my shoulders and I always wear knee-length trousers. And then I give them naked bottoms. Shock. Horror. And no, I am not sharing the picture on here.
I’ll share a clip of Babaji playing when the connection’s good enough to upload it.
In less than a week’s time my parents land in Kerala. I can’t wait!
A few days ago, I’d anticipated that my next blog post was going to be about how I’m learning to play the harmonium. You know, covering the trials and tribulations and that sort of thing, but actually the story must be about how I’ve been adopted by an Indian family. And it’s wonderful.
I’m in Arambol – a proper old-school hippy hangout in Goa. There are a surprisingly large number of Europeans in their fifties and sixties with long hair, tattoos and substantial moustaches. And that’s just the women…
Arambol’s just starting up for the winter season so it’s really quiet. There’s vast swathes of empty beach and it’s beautiful. Many of the beach huts and restaurants are still in construction and there’s a new yoga class starting up every day. I’ve come here for the five-day course at the Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Centre. Today I had my first class and I’ll tell you more about that some other time.
In the meantime: the harmonium and my adoption. I have been wanting to learn the harmonium for a while. It’s an Indian instrument used to accompany the chanting of bhajans (Sanskrit chants). I like chanting so I thought would be nice to be able to play. I asked a guy who worked on a musical instrument stall if he knew of anywhere I could learn. Later that day I was walking with him to Arambol Market where locals live, slightly inland of the main tourist area. Here there’s guys sitting in chai shops, old women squatting at the side of the road selling piles of fresh fish in washing up bowls. Men sell bananas and cows rummage in grassy verges.
Sharma led me into a tiny shop with a glass counter. The counter contained a haphazard collection of shirts wrapped in plastic. They must have been from the 1970’s. Sharma started speaking in Hindi to an elderly man standing behind the counter. He was shorter than me with grey hair sprouting from his head. He wore a white threadbare grandad shirt that had a hole in one shoulder. He looked grumpy and shuffled about in pyjama trousers that threatened to fall down at any moment. Yes, this was to be my teacher.
Sharma was deep in conversation and referred to him as ‘Baba’ meaning ‘father’ as a sign of respect. I decided to add ‘ji’ on the end as a further sign of respect (Babaji). I got the impression that Babaji wasn’t interested in teaching me. His face remained stern, his brow furrowed. He barely looked at me. I was therefore surprised to hear that he was happy to have me as a student.
We agreed on 5pm everyday and Sharma reiterated how Babaji was a great harmonium/tabla/sitar teacher.
The next day I learnt that the only words Babaji knows in English are “good”, “again” and “more fast”. He’s taught me the Indian version of the do re mi scales (sa, re, ga, ma, pa, de, ni, sa) and we’ve even started on some bhajans. He began with a simple Hare Krishna, Hare Rama and then last night with the help of a piano keyboard app on my iPad, I worked out the tune for Krishna Govinda – one of my favourites. Perhaps I shouldn’t have shown him my findings as today he had me on Raghupati Ragava Raja Ram which was tough.
This video off YouTube gives you an idea of what I’m talking about. I might even get a clip of Babaji before I leave.
We sit on a bench in the living room. The room is quite bare with a ceiling fan and a cabinet containing metal plates and cups and a staggering array of plastic fruit. Next door we hear his daughter and daughter-in-law teaching about 40 children in the small room. The children giggle and peer round the door and get told off. It must be funny to hear this Western girl singing Sanskrit mantras during their after-school club.
Sharma popped by yesterday to see how I was getting on. I will have to say thank you to him in some way.
While I huff and puff working the squeezebox, Babaji’s grandchildren watch TV on the set in the corner and absentmindedly sing along to the bhajans, swinging their feet under the seat. Pradnya is 13 and translates for us, smiling and encouraging me when I hit a wrong note. She smiles a lot.
I am wary of outstaying my welcome but today Babaji’s son and son-in-law came home to find me sitting having a cup of chai and a rich tea biscuit with their children, wives and mother/mother-in-law. They asked me questions about my life in England. What age did I move out of the family home? How far do I live from there? How old are my parents? They were shocked to discover that my Mum is older than my Dad. The women thought this was wonderful as it’s more likely to be the other way round in India. Their son wanted to know what hobbies I had. He’s good at chess. Babaji’s wife was keen to know if I spoke any Hindi or Marathi. I was sad to say no.
They love my iPad and I have been instructed to bring some family photos to show them tomorrow. Babaji showed little interest in all these discussions and instead lit candles at their garlanded altar depicting Ganesha, Shiva and Parvati in the corner of the living room.
I told them that I’ll be around until 15 November and Pradnya excitedly started chatting to her father in Hindi. “You must come for dinner,” he said. “And you will be here for Divali, the festival of lights. Please join us.” I said I would love to. He then gave me a lift back to my guesthouse on the family scooter.
It’s so lovely to get an insight into how Indian people live. I’d much rather do that than hang out in cafes in Arambol eating ommmmlettes (hahahaha), listening to old hippies playing acoustic guitar.