I’ve recently come back from Buddhafield festival in Somerset. It was a beautifully free and open place to be with plenty of opportunities to grow, learn, laugh, stretch and be stretched.
I went to early morning ashtanga yoga classes with Joey Miles and enjoyed cups of chai with my yin teacher Norman. I caught the end of a Shamanic Journeying workshop where I was supposed to identify my power animal. No idea. I furrowed my brow when I realised I missed the ‘how to stop frowning’ workshop. I looked deep into strangers’ eyes and said what I felt in my heart.
But for me, the highlight was Mahasukha’s singing workshops. In essence, he’s a smiley bloke with a drum who teaches people songs with nice harmonies. But really, he does so much more than that.
On Friday evening there were maybe 300-400 people at his Beauty of Mantra workshop. He announced that we’d be singing the Padmasambhava* mantra:
Om ah hum vajra guru pema siddhi hung
You can listen to a recording of it on his website but it’s not the same as doing it surrounded by hundreds of people.
Split into groups according to our singing voice, he taught us the tune each group would sing. And then we were off.
Now I know that singing and chanting makes me happy. I’ve talked about it often enough on this blog but there’s a deeper connection to voice. I know for me it offers a release, a connection to emotion held within my body.
People sang with heart and I got lost within the words and tune. My voice became stuck. It’s like it catches in your throat and the only way through is to allow the emotion out. Tears fell. I didn’t know why I was racked with sobs, but they came. At times I was able to come back to the music, and at other times, the tears were the focus.
People were going up to the front, doing prostrations and lighting candles and incense in front of a statue of Padmasambhava. The candle light lit tear tracks down people’s cheeks. And you knew there was no need to hide. We were in a safe space and it was ok to let it out. The last time I felt anything close to this was when I was at Amma’s ashram in Kerala (read about it).
I’m not sure how long we sang for but at the end, there was a feeling that we’d all been through a cathartic experience and there was hugging and smiling. There were words and silence. We’d created something beautiful together. Harmonies created by humanity. We were singing sounds that have been sung by cultures and communities for centuries.
The next day I went to Mahasukha’s Soulful Singing workshop and we sang South African songs – one sung during apartheid that translated as ‘white men, we are coming’. It was Nelson Mandela’s birthday so we sang his song (hear song). Again, it was all stirring stuff but it felt much more joyful and celebratory. People let go. There were beaming smiles. We moved our bodies in ways that felt good and natural.
I took a short video and you can watch it here: Morning workshop. You may need to turn your screen 90 degrees…
Towards the end of the festival, I was sitting drinking chai with friends around a fire and Mahasukha came into the tent and sat nearby. We got chatting and he spoke of his enjoyment in bringing people together and the connectedness that singing creates. He said, “As clichéd as it sounds, the harmonies create harmony.”
And they really do. The human connection creates happiness. It doesn’t matter if you get a note wrong or you come in at the wrong moment. You’re simply held in the space by everyone around you – whether you’re bawling your eyes out or grinning like you’ve never grinned before.
I guess that’s Buddhafield in a nutshell.
Have you been to Mahasukha’s workshops? What are your experiences? Feel free to comment below.
Off the back of what may have been Harpenden’s inaugural evening of Sanskrit chanting last weekend, I’d like to share my favourite chanting albums with you.
You’ve got no excuses now – you can get your Om on in the car, whilst doing the washing up, or on the 8:04 to London St Pancras. As with all the best hit parades, we’ll start in reverse order (click on the titles to buy/listen to the albums):
Amma, otherwise known as ‘the Hugging Mother’ loves to chant. I’ve chanted with her on her world tour when she’s visited Alexandra Palace in North London, and I’ve also been honoured to join her at her ashram in Kerala. In Kerala she had me in tears (read about my Amma experience).
Her chanting is proper traditional Indian yoga chanting and a proper slice of devotion (bhakti).
I first heard of this group last year via the harmonium teacher Daniel Tucker and I really like this album. They’re not amazingly well known and you can download via their website by simply naming your price.
When they chant ‘Hari Bol’ I always think they’re saying ‘horrible’ over and over again.
Ok, this isn’t strictly a kirtan (chanting) album. It’s the soundtrack for a film about His Holiness the Dalai Lama but it does feature Tibetan Buddhist chanting. It’s by multi-platinum selling Pianist/Composer/Producer Peter Kater, who has received six Grammy award nominations. He’s amazing. It’s amazing.
This album features snippets of audio sung by Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnudevananda – the teachers who founded the school of yoga where I originally did my teacher training.
It also features modern takes on traditional chants, including one led by Swami Krishnadevananda who ran the Putney Sivananda Centre where I taught for a few years. He was about six foot five, from South Carolina and he rocked the harmonium. The version of Raghu Pati Raghava provides a chance to hear his voice.
Snatam is slightly different to the other yogis included here. She chants in Gurmukhi – a language that’s Sanskrit based, but not pure Sanskrit – and she was brought up in the Sikh Kundalini yoga lineage as taught by Yogi Bhajan.
She has a wonderful voice and the name of this album – Anand – translates as ‘bliss’.
As part of a new series on the blog, I’ll be interviewing various yoga teachers – each with their own story to tell. The first of these is Lila Conway.
I first met Lila on my Sivananda teacher training in 2010. Having signed up for the month-long course in the Himalayas, I simply wanted to deepen my understanding and learn more about the practice. I had no plans to ‘be a yoga teacher’. In the final week, she sat us all down and said that it was our duty to share our new knowledge with people back home and teach. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Here she talks about her love of India, Sivananda yoga and teacher training.
CW: Tell me about your first experience of yoga.
LC: In the early 90’s I was living a typically fast paced, hectic lifestyle working 24/7 in the London fashion industry. It was really demanding and competitive and I often used to feel physically ‘burnt out’.
It made me start questioning the meaning of life and I started searching how I could lead a more peaceful existence. I found ‘The Book of Yoga’ by Sivananda and started practicing at home. Although I found it a bit weird at first, I really began to feel a sense of peace after chanting mantras and practicing Tratak (candle gazing).
Soon after, I made the decision to leave my London life and take a year out travelling. Everything moved quickly from then on. I went to a yoga class in Thailand and was hooked… it was really my first deep experience of true connection, peace and healing.
CW: How do you bring the practice of yoga into your every day life?
LC: Yoga is a way of life, it’s not something we do only when we step on a yoga mat. And so I try to see everything as an offering – whether it’s preparing a meal, teaching a yoga class or gardening. We are divine consciousness itself and yoga is a means and a method to awaken to that realisation.
The moment I wake up I offer gratitude and repeat a mantra. I do the same before I go to sleep. My daily practice routine is that I start the day with a small Puja (devotional worship of deities) to connect to my spiritual teachers and God. I think it’s a beautiful way to begin each day – offering light, incense, flowers and water to the divine. I then sing some devotional mantras, do some breathing exercises, mantra meditation and yoga asanas.
The practices we do in yoga are varied according to the path you follow. Flexibility, peace of mind and improved health are all wonderful side effects of the practice. However, keeping the ultimate goal in mind keeps me motivated and committed to the practice.
Yoga is a process of awakening consciousness, removing the layers that obscure our inner divinity and ultimately returning to the eternal abode of love. Every small act we do helps in this process of evolution.
CW: Who or what inspires you?
LC: Wow, so many things inspire me! Nature, life in all its forms, seeing the transformation yoga brings to people. My students inspire me so much too. I’m also inspired by spiritual texts such as ‘The Bhagavad Gita’, the healing power of raw food, plants and herbal medicine.
I have such deep gratitude and inspiration for my first teachers – Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnudevananda – for giving me a strong foundation in my spiritual life.
I also am inspired by various spiritual Masters and their service, humility and pure love: Bhaktivinoda Thakura for the poetry and beauty of the Bhakti yoga tradition, Amma for her message of love and service, and BKS Iyengar for being a living legend in Hatha Yoga.
The list really could go on and on!
CW: You’ve spent lots of time in India. What do you feel makes the country so special?
LC: It’s the land of the Rishis (sages), saints and yogis. The ancient texts of the Vedas were revealed to the Rishis in India. Lord Krishna, Buddha, Jesus and many incarnations of God have appeared in this sacred land.
The people of India teach me so much: patience, tolerance, acceptance, surrender, simplicity, devotion, faith, family values… so many qualities.
India has a wonderful way of magnifying my inner stuff and things I need to deal with in my life. Although not always comfortable at the time, it definitely helps to have an internal spring clean and I always feel better for it!
My greatest moments of inspiration often come in India. The place makes me feel alive and at home. I love the culture, food, language, temples, music, colours, smells (well… most of them), smiles, frustration and the joy that this magical country brings.
CW: How come you’ve spent so much time there?
LC: I first went to India to study yoga and stayed in the Sivananda ashram in Kerala. I stayed so long my teachers advised me that the next step was doing a teacher training. I completed the course in 2001 and it was a huge journey and personal transformation.
It didn’t just ignite a spark but a raging fire! I couldn’t walk away from this whole new world that had opened up to me so I stayed on as voluntary staff. Three months became nearly eight years spread across both India and Canada.
Every year I was actively involved in many yoga teacher training programmes, including advanced teacher training courses. I would assist the main Hatha yoga teacher in all classes and demonstrated postures, adjusted students and taught a little. I was trained slowly and systematically over a period of seven years.
In 2007 I was given the authority to teach yoga teachers and taught my first course in Canada. Although I left the ashram in 2008, I continued to return to India each year to teach on training courses at the Sivananda ashram in the Himalayas – where I met you! This year I am very happy to be back in India teaching my own teacher training course in Rishikesh.
CW: What do you enjoy about training people to teach yoga?
LC: Swami Vishnudevananda beautifully put together a month-long intensive yoga teacher training course unlike any other. It is an intense programme which is a systematic introduction and direct experience of the traditional yogic lifestyle and system of learning in the Gurukulam way (meaning teachers and students live together).
As the course is residential and the programme is from early morning until evening, we spend the full month working with the students and supporting them. I feel very blessed to be part of this journey in people’s lives and I do my very best to represent my Guru and his teachings. It’s a wonderful exchange of energies.
I feel alive and challenged and even though I have been teaching for many years, I always learn so much every time. We go through the highs and lows together and by the end of the course students are always positive, inspired, shining and full of energy. It’s so good to see and it really inspires me seeing the effort, commitment and heart that each teacher trainee puts into their practice and the course.
CW: What qualities do you feel make someone a good yoga teacher?
LC: The highest quality is humility. When a yoga teacher is humble, they remain open for the divine energy to flow. A yoga teacher is a channel for the ancient teachings and always has the student’s best interests at heart and never teaching to impress or for name and fame.
A good yoga teacher always remains a student and shares from direct experience and a proper understanding of the spiritual teachings and discipline of this beautiful science.
CW: What’s in store for you over the next few months?
LC: Excitingly, I am in the process of writing a new manual for our next teacher training course in Rishikesh in October. I am also busy in communications with Swami Guruprasad in India – we are running the course together.
We are also working on some short videos of Swamiji so students can get an early peek of his wonderful words of wisdom.
My Bhakti Yoga teacher from India is coming soon so I will be fully immersed in his teachings for a week. This will give me a huge boost of inspiration ready for our August weekend yoga retreat near Bath, ‘The Heart of Yoga’ for which I am preparing some beautiful heart opening practices and have some amazing friends also coming to give talks, kirtan, delicious food, massage and more!
I’m also getting ready for a new term with Yoga Prema in Bristol. And then before I know it I will be on a flight to India for the October yoga teacher training course!
CW: Thanks Lila. Good luck with it all!
To learn more about the Rishikesh teacher training course Lila talks about, visit the Yoga Prema website.
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?