Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Happy Navaratri!

Today is the first day of the annual Hindu nine-night festival of the Divine Mother! 

Each fall for the past ten-ish years, my Mom and I have celebrated this festival together. 

Our first introduction to Navaratri was in Val Morin at the Sivananda Ashram.  We arrived just as the leaves were turning from lush green to a spectacular rainbow of gold, orange and red, clueless but eager.  We left the morning of the year's first snowfall with more than we could ever have expected!

Tantric priests performed Pujas, offerings of rice and flowers, japa, Devi Bhajans, and readings from the Devi Mahatmya

 photo borrowed from Wikipedia

Written by Rishi Markandeya around 1500 years ago, this Great Glory of the Goddess tells the story of how the Divine Mother (known by many names including Kali, Chandika, Devi, Shakti, and loads more) kicked some serious demon butt and saved the Devas!  They had to put all their powers together to create her and then had to spend aLOT of time writing and singing songs about how awesome She is to thank her!

We were told that if you practice all nine days (plus a tenth for blessing books and tools of your work or spiritual path) with sincerity and devotion, all your prayers, spoken and unspoken will be answered.

The End.

Or not...You know how it goes - every year I come up with new prayers, and so every year it's like starting from scratch...

On our own, we don't practice as formally as we did at the ashram.  Our pujas are held each day whenever our schedule allows, and we act as our own pujaris.  Our altars are dynamic and personal. 

Our flowers are simply whatever we grew ourselves or nature provided us.  Mostly we're just grateful for whatever the frost hasn't taken! 

This year we've been blessed with a bumper crop of marigolds that we have been re-seeding ever since that first Navaratri when part of our karma yoga was deadheading the flowerbeds in Swami Vishnudevananda's Samadhi Estates

This humble little flower, sacred in India for it's fiery color, represents "Plasticity" according to Sri Aurobindo's disciple, The Mother who considered that the highest attribute of a yogi.

Styling our own ritual has become a part of the devotional practice.  We honor our own craftiness, courage, creativity and abundance.  We trust that our "mistakes" will be overlooked. 

We embrace unconventional thanks and praises too, like Rob Brezny's heartfelt and hilarious poem/prayer:  A Prayer for Us.

And we eat fruits and Indian milk sweets and just in general - whatever we please - as in, whatever we think would please the Goddess in us!

I encourage you to craft your own ritual to the Divine Mother for the next couple of weeks. 

Make a little altar somewhere where you can sit for a few minutes each day and offer your longing, your dreams and your gratitude to the Divine Mother.  See Her in your Self.

I will post more in the next nine days as we celebrate the three main personalities of ShaktiDurga, Lakshmi, and SaraswatiShakti means power.  Empower your yoga practice by checking out the tools and rituals of the ancient yogis for yourself, embracing those that feel right to you now. 

I'd love to know how and where you're celebrating so please leave your comments and feedback!

Jai Ma!

Sunday, 25 September 2011


I'm still swooning from the kirtan this afternoon at Acu Harmony and Health in Stony Plain!

I can't quite tell if it was the talent of Brian McLeod and Marcus Fung or the delicious raw chocolate Lacie handed me on the way out, or both, but I'm still feeling kirtan-high, and its so sweet!

Kirtan is a call-and-response style of singing.  It is a practice of Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion.  Basically, you sing divine names over and over and over again!

The simplicity of the words, the stories behind them, and the way the songs start out slow and quiet and get louder and faster and then softer again seems to rattle things into place. 

I think of kirtan as a pressure washer for the nadis - it really gets the crap out!

Today, we were a small group of women, like giggly gopis, charmed and enchanted by Brian's Krishna-like flute and digeridoo, and Marcus's infectous smile as he shared songs and dances honoring the voluptuous curves of the Divine Mother. 

But kirtan events can be anything from a family gathering to a huge festival featuring famous kirtan wallas like Jai Uttal, Krishna Das, Shyam DasBhagavan Das, Deva Premal and Miten, Snatam Kaur, Karnamrita Dasi, Durga Das (David Newman) and many more.

Kirtan is sweet in a way you can't understand unless you've tried it.  The same way you can't explain honey to someone who hasn't tasted it.  It's Madhava....

Madhava is a name of Krishna meaning "Sweet as Honey", describing the irresistable allure of the divine. 
One morsel of the All-Attractive One and you're hooked!
I didn't always find Kirtan sweet. 

When we were first introduced during my Sivananda Yoga Teacher Training I found it intruiging but strange. 

The Sanskrit words got jumbled.  I couldn't read the long strings of syllables fast enough to join in.  I was sore from sitting crosslegged on the hard, rough, sloped cement floor of the temple and worse yet, like most people, I was brutally self conscious of my voice. 

Sometimes the melodies were filled with dreamy longing or dripping with devotion I wasn't relating to.  Sometimes the tamborines and droney harmonium were just too clattery and wierd. 

And sometimes the songs made me feel things... things I wasn't aware I was feeling... good or bad, happy or sad, the kirtan drew it out.

Soon enough, like commercial jingles, the tunes got stuck in my head.  I started to have favorites.  They started to mean something to me.  The taste of the divine name was growing on me.

It stopped mattering to me whether or not my voice sounded "good".  I realized that like the other practices of yoga, it wasn't about performance or perfection.  It was a medium for transformation and I had lots of love and pain all mixed up together in my heart that needed an outlet.

Now my favorite ashram pastime is singing these love songs to God in the ocean of bliss and tears with my friends.  In times of joy they are a celebration and in times of heartache and disappointment they are medicine.

Kirtan lets us express ourselves and our emotions without indulging in or having to share our personal stories.  We can be in community with friends or strangers regardless of our mood, and lift our spirits by actually loosening knots around the Anahata Chakra

In other words, in kirtan we can literally sing our hearts out!

It was super sweet today to be part of the Stony Plain Sangha!  As sweet as honey in fact... or rather Lacie's artisan raw chocolate! 

Thank you, it was wonderful,  I can't wait for the next one!

Monday, 19 September 2011

Meditation and Momos

I can hardly believe the Tibetan Bazaar has come and gone! 

Every year (this was the 19th)  Gaden Samten Ling Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Society hosts a bazaar that brings the Tibetan community and their friends together for a weekend of travel and cultural presentations, music, meditation and momos!

Momos are a Tibetan and Nepali delicacy; delicious dumplings that are steamed or fried and served with hot sauce.  There are different designs for different celebrations, New Year momos, birthday momos, bon voyage momos and welcome home momos, sweet momos and savory momos, each little works of art! 

I look forward to the bazaar and those savory little bundles that make me Om-sick for India and especially Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama in exile and the Tibetan refugees who gather around him.

I spent just a couple of weeks there several years ago practicing yoga and meditation, and volunteer teaching English to the Tibetan refugees. We read Paulo Coehlo's The Alchemist together sitting on the basketball court of a local school in tight little circles. 

It was inspiring and humbling to meet these hardy and beautiful people who suffered so much, and yet maintained an attitude of dignity, courage, and kindness.

In addition to sampling momos from every restaurant we visited, I took a momo making class. 

It was taught by a young man who had been a monk in Tibet but was forced to break his vows in a Chinese prison.  (They made him drink beer, he told us, though I strongly suspect from talking with other escapees that was just the small part he felt ok sharing.) 

In Dharamsala, he had a tiny room with a single bed, a wooden wardrobe, a small table, 2 chairs (two of us sat on his bed), and another small table which served as a counter space for the single burner he used to teach cooking classes to tourists for a living.

I can't say I learned the method all that well.   I was distracted by his story.  It was hot, and I was self-conscious of the nasty smell rising from my only pair of travelling shoes.  It was difficult to understand his English, and impossible to ignore the monkey reaching through the bars of the one small window to steal his shoes. 

He was a calm and smiling model of resilience, and it was a delicious cross-cultural reminder of the sacredness of "breaking (or baking) bread" together.

We crowded together to chop the veggies, and make the dough.  We struggled to fold the tidy pleats that seal in the filling.  But even our sloppy results were delicious, and the basic concept is practically universal. 

For traditional momo recipes and to see Tibetan momo makers at work click here

Each year at the bazaar, I sit with friends eating momos.  We laugh, we cry.  We discuss our travels, our purchases and our lives.  We see the merchants and their families, the volunteers, the shoppers, and the resident teacher, Kushok Lobsang Dhamchoe greeting each other warmly. 

It is something of a ritual for us.  It feels like an annual real-life meditation on who we are and where we are. 

And it is a great reminder of the fragility of this precious human life. 

Every day,
think as you wake up,
today I am fortunate
to have woken up,
I am alive,
I have a precious human life,
I am not going to waste it,
I am going to use
all my energies
to develop myself,
to expand my heart
out to others,
to achieve enlightenment
for the benefit of all beings,
I am going to have
kind thoughts towards others,
I am not going to get angry
or think badly about others,
I am going to benefit others
as much as I can. 

- H.H. the XIV Dalai Lama

So thank you everyone!  It was wonderful to see you again, and to eat with you, and to laugh with you.  It fed my tummy and my heart,  I am so grateful!

Tashi Delek! Blessings and Good Luck!  May all auspicious signs come to you!