Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Miracles, Monkeys & Chai

~ The Beginning ~

“You are like a fruit,” said our Indian Yoga Philosophy teacher, rather matter-of-factly.

“When you will ripen – when you are ready – you detach from the tree. You remove yourself gracefully and allow the cycle to continue.”

I internalized the words of my wise teacher. 

The rest of the group let out a “mmmmm” noise, that sound of re-remembering a kernel of wisdom you always knew.

We sat cross-legged with straight-spines in Bamboo Hall, the burgundy-carpeted room in which we spent most of our mornings, afternoons, and evening hours, practicing asanas (postures), meditation, pranayama (breathing technique), and studying yo ga philosophy. Lined along the walls were banners with proverbs, one of which read: “There are only two ways to be happy: minimize your needs and harmonize with your surroundings.”

I smiled, noticing the connection between the lessons of the day: the fruit falling naturally, the banner proverb, and remembering the need to” let go” in each posture.

Of all the teachings from my many teachers in India, this one stuck with me in a deep way.

I think the imagery helped. Not only did it remind me that every law of nature is also a law of spirituality, it also reminded me of the interconnectedness of life.

Fruits so beautifully symbolize essence of letting go…of harmony. When the fruit is ready it falls off so seamlessly, with no force.

I realized in that moment that this is how I want to live my life—with this ease, grace, and patience—in harmony with my surroundings, which I know only comes from letting go of expectations, doubts, and attachments to specific outcomes.

This concept of non-attachment is one of the building blocks of this yogic lifestyle; specifically, the 5th of the 5 yamas, which are the ethical, moral, and societal guidelines for the practicing yogi.

When first learning the concept, nonattachment sounded like indifference, which we all know is dangerous.

Nonattachment, however, is the opposite of indifference.  

Indifference is passive and letting go, or detaching, is active. Indifference is “I don’t care” and letting go is feeling whole with the fact that we are not really in control.

Personally, I’ve felt the liberty that comes from peeling off the layers that form around the true self when I “attach” to things, whether it is a label, a stigma, or even a common thought pattern.

When I successfully peel off these layers, I feel an enormous clearing of emotional blockages that prevent harmony and true connection.

Interestingly, India is one of the least and most harmonious places.

When picturing India, people either imagine the overcrowded, poverty-stricken streets of Delhi or the peaceful ashrams tucked away in the Himalayan mountains.

Indeed, before coming to India, I wondered how harmony could exist in a place with so much polarity. 

My first rickshaw ride
From the eyes of a western-raised Westchester gal, the streets, at first glance, feel like utter chaos: you walk down the street to hear incessant honking, face near-death by rickshaws, scooters, and cars speeding by, bypass multiple cows, a pack of hungry monkeys, and take in a big whiff of cow dung, masala dosas, and burning trash. 

Naturally, on my first day in India, I faced that inevitable culture shock. 

I was the only westerner for miles in the middle of Bangalore. 

Carrying my huge lime-green backpack, I lingered awkwardly on one side of the street, contemplating how on earth I will cross it to get to the Chabad house. The street was impossibly wide and filled with speeding cars, rickshaws, scooters, and cows.

There was no crosswalk in sight. 

I watched with awe as a group of Indian men calmly walked in front of the moving vehicles. 

I had no choice but to do the same. 

I took a deep breath (as the people behind me stared - probably very entertained) and stepped into the street.
Step after step, I observed with amazement how the rickshaws, motorcycles and cars stopped as I crossed the jam-packed street. It was at once terrifying and (retrospectively) empowering. A proper initiation to life in India.

In that moment, I decided that my motto for this leg of my post-army trip would be:  “be fearless, not stupid.”

Relieved, I entered the Chabad house, spoke with the Rebbetzin (who proceeded to call me crazy for crossing the street), dropped off my huge bag, and ventured into the city. I had the entire day to kill before my 11 pm sleeper bus (overnight bus) to Hampi.

I spent the day touring around the botanical gardens, the downtown city center, finding a spontaneous yoga class and drinking chai with a new European friend. 

While eating my first meal alone, I scribbled in my journal a few observations from that morning: 

1.     A father and his 3 daughters riding on ONE tiny scooter. They waved at me as I stared, amazed.
2.     A friendly shopowner who watched someone try to scam me, and then proceeded to explain (with true care) “don’t take riks. Don’t take any riks” (risks).
3.    Realizations: 
·      There is need no real need for silverware, toiletpaper, or even toiletbowls. A hole   in the ground will suffice.  
·      Yoga in India is not fluffy or sugar coated (my first class was humbling).
·      Things in India work themselves out in a magical, mysterious, miraculous way. 

By 8:30 pm I was still deep in a chai-filled conversation with my new European friend. When I noticed it was realized it was getting late, I hopped on a rickshaw back to the Chabad house. In the back of my mind, I knew I soon had to travel downtown, alone, to get to the bus stop by 11 pm. The thought was unnerving.

So, during my bumpy, speedy ride back to the house I did what your average person would do in an unsettling situation –

I prayed.

I didn’t recite anything specific from my siddur (prayerbook).

I just closed my eyes and asked for a bit of help. I desperately wanted company for my way to Hampi—at least at the bus stop. I was unsure what would happen, because that entire day in Bangalore I met only one tourist (the European) and spotted a handful of others on the street.  

So, when I arrived at the Chabad house that evening, I was ecstatic to hear Hebrew from outside the apartment, coming from the mouths of two young, Israeli men. As soon as I arrived, one of them said, “you must be Leora.

Surprised, I exclaimed, “ummm…yes, actually! How…how did you know?

“We saw your name on the bag. Yours is the last one here. Good think you came now because they are closing their doors now.”

Oh, I thought to myself, having been oblivious to the fact that the family probably needs to sleep, too.
Sunsets in Hampi mountains

Relieved, I ran in, grabbed my bag, and immediately asked, “where are you guys headed?”

“Hampi,” they replied.

I let out a sigh of relief and joy. “YESH. ME TOO! What bus stop?” I asked.

“Anand Rao Circle.”

“ME TOO! What time?

“11.”

"Thank you Hashemmmmm!"

I had found my first two guardian angels in India.

We all split a Rickshaw and began the arduous journey to Hampi. And one sleepless night later on the “sleeper” bus, I arrived safely in my first India destination.

The remaining 2 weeks in Hampi and Goa was a recipe for your average visit to India:

 ~ 65 scooter rides through the mountains, the villages, and a few gypsy neighborhoods.
      ~ 25 new Israeli friends
·      ~ 10 masala dosas (YUM)
·     5 sunrise meditations atop mountains made of boulders
·      ~ 2 seconds of being surprised that almost all the signs are in Hebrew
·      ~ 1 full sick day in which I dropped at least 1 kilo
·      ~ 1 standoff with a pack of water buffalo who were also trying to bathe in the same river (true story)
·      ~ 1 beautiful Shabbat @ the Jewish house filled with Carlebach melodies, dvar torahs, and motzei-shabbat jamming
·     1 million bioluminescent sea plankton that completely blew my mind (In Goa)
·      ~ 1 helluva wacky, intense, action-filled time

While these first two weeks in the south were filled with adventure and change, the real intensity came when I ventured north to begin my yoga course—the  second chapter of the India journey.  

~ A Friendly Reminder ~

Ganga River in Rishikesh
The adventure began with one quick flight to Dehradun and one long, windy taxi ride up and through the mountains. 

The ascent to the city felt oddly familiar—like ascending to Tzfat but with a completely south Asian, unfamiliar twist.

I was instantly entranced by the clear, bright turquoise water of the Ganga river; by the aromas of incense through the street; by the orange-robed Babas and the rambunctious monkeys lining the Lakshman Jhula bridge.

I had arrived in Rishikesh.

Though a bit jostled by the sudden change of environment (Rishikesh is a more bustling place than Goa and Hampi), in my gut I knew I picked the right city to learn yoga.

By day 3 in the new city, the daily schedule at World Peace Yoga School began and I lost track of the days.

In the afternoon break from class, I strutted down the street to the local clothing & tapestry shop I had visited the day prior. It was around 3:30 pm. The owner – who knew I was Jewish and from Israel – said to me excitedly,

“Leora my friend, sababa! Shabbat Shalom!”

With a delighted yet confused expression I answered him…”aw, gee thanks! But it’s not Shabbat yet!”

“Isn’t it Friday?” He asked quizzically.
Instantly, my stomach twisted and I realized he was right. Friday had arrived sooner than expected and I wasn’t ready for Shabbat.

It was the first time in two years that I didn’t think about how to prepare for Shabbat, and who had to remind me?

Naturally, a random Indian shopowner.

I hurriedly dashed out of the store to scan the streets for tea light candles. I had 20 minutes before my next class, and I knew I wouldn’t have time afterwards to buy candles before Shabbat.
Rishikesh monkey

Though I couldn’t get my hands on tea lights, I found a pack of the classic tall white candles and figured I’d find a way to light them. I had to.

Miraculously, I made it back to class on time and during my next break, led myself in a solo Kabbalat Shabbat & candle lighting on my balcony. The stares of passerby’s didn’t stop my one-woman-service.

In fact, in only reinforced my dedication to Shabbat rituals. In that moment of embracing Shabbat on my own, in the middle of India, I felt more connected than ever. 

There was something about owning and internalizing my Jewish practice that made it all the more special.
I continued to light those candles on the balcony throughout the course and something mysterious always happened—after coming back from class, they would disappear, leaving no melted wax residue!

That means every Friday, someone saw my candles and removed them (I was on the ground floor).

Perhaps they though I was a ritualistic pyromaniac—I will never know.

But every Friday, as the locals lit their fire ceremony (puja) by the Ganga river, I lit my own on my little balcony…and something about these two fire rituals coinciding felt extremely right.

~ Holy Cow ~

On the Himalayan mountain peak
It was 6:00 am, and we just finished watching the sunrise on one of the highest mountain peaks in the Himilayan foothills. We were all still on a natural high from the intense yoga and meditation session that the head teacher, Yogi Vishnu, led for us.

Before heading down the mountain, Yogi Vishnu invited all the students to walk into the local temple.

He suggested, in a nonchalant fashion, that we ring the bell, enter, and then bow down to the statues inside.

Now, to everyone else, that was a normal request—it’s a gesture of respect in the Hindu temple.

But I – I was frozen. My heart sunk for a minute and jaw dropped when I realized what was staring back at me: a golden calf.

That’s right. When the Guru invited the group to bow, I was staring face-to-face with a statue of a golden cow.

The symbolism couldn’t have been more in my face.

While everyone else entered the temple, rang the bell, and bowed, my internal Jewish security system beeped out of control and I abstained.

One of my friends asked why I didn’t go in, and I explained how Jews in the past gave up their lives to resist bowing to statues/idols…to avoid breaking one of the holy 10 commandments.

I explained that bowing to a statue is actually a bigger deal than it seems.

My friends could sympathize—and weren’t judgmental for a second–but couldn’t really understand; for in that moment I felt 24 years of Jewish education suddenly come to life.

The feeling was like the moment before a (near) car-accident. When I heard the words “bow down” I felt myself slam the breaks. Though the car didn’t spin out of control, I was 10% jostled and 90% grateful that my breaks still work.

~ Nations, United ~

**Names changed for anonymity**

So, why exactly are you becoming more religious? You were in the ARMY? Why Israel?

I was faced with these questions quite often during my yoga course.

Although everyone asked with respect and good intentions, some of the questions unintentionally raised political issues. And since I was the only Jewish/Israeli person in the course, I was solely responsible for answering questions from the “Jewish/Israeli” perspective.

These questions became more contentious when discussing them with two of my friends on the course: davka my left-leaning, middle-aged German friend Frederick and my Muslim-Lebanese friend Amira.

Though I did by best to just share my personal story and to transcend the political sphere, there was nevertheless a blatant difference of perspectives. And inevitably, as soon as the discussion got a tad political, the energy shifted in the room and mild tensions rose.

The following day I got the chance to speak with Frederick again; but this time, we spoke after 2 minutes of silent eye contact—in the context of a dynamic partner mediation. After a minute of standing in silence, eyed locked, we simultaneously began tearing up, until streams of tears rolled down our cheeks.

We held hands in a moment of unity and understanding.

He told me about the deep healing that still needs to be done between Germans and Jews and I nodded, speechless. Though I don’t mainly associate Germany today with the holocaust, it is evident that remnants of guilt, heaviness, and darkness remain even amongst the grandchildren of Germans.

In that moment I felt lucky that Yoga brought us together.

~                          ~                            ~

With my Lebanese friend, Amira, the moment of healing looked a bit different.

We were lying in our final resting position (savasana) at the end of an intense yoga class. The student-teachers of the day were walking around the room, offering to each student an aromatic head massage. (The perks of yoga school…)

When my turn came, I was pleasantly surprised by the lavender-scended, soft hands on my scalp. The hands moved gradually to my third-eye center (the point above and between the eyebrows) and I quickly felt a vibration come through me.

I knew was receiving a healing and also, from whom.

When the class was over, my eyes met Amira’s eyes from across the room. A smile on both of our faces, we acknowledged that something real just transpired. We gave each other a warm embrace and from that point on, tensions were replaced by love.

We exchanged some phrases in Arabic and in Hebrew, found commonalities in our faith and began building bridges between our worlds.

~    Like Fruits of a Tree    ~

Jai Jai shiv shambo. Shiv Shiv Shiv Shambooo, Mahadev Shambo. Mahadev Shambo. Jai jai shiv shambo…

My fellow yogis sang this hauntingly beautiful mantra with focus and devotion.

It’s a popular mantra and song that can be heard daily on the streets of . The song is essentially praising “Lord Shiva” of the Hindu tradition.

Though our teachers emphasized the distinction between yoga and religion, there were certainly Hindu influences in the teachings. Understandably so – after all, we were in India.

[Note: Throughout the course, I made an effort to separate Hinduism from yoga by abstaining from chanting certain mantras without knowing their meaning, by not making references to Hindu Gods, etc. I was, for the most part, confident in my abilities to distinguish between the two. It was one of my apprehensions and reasons for studying yoga in India. While I could have done a more ”western” course anywhere else, I chose to go right to the source of yoga – India – and do my own sifting. ]

After sitting in the group and just listening to their voices, something inside me told me to leave the room. The words of the mantra repeated over and over in my mind, and I realized I needed to sit outside and get a new song stuck in my head.

I sat in the courtyard and basked in the sun, soaking in the fresh air and sweet smells of flowers around me. I repeated the sh’ma prayer to myself and took a few deep breaths. After a few minutes, my yoga teacher exited the room, sat next to me, and asked if I was ok. I told him about Judaism and about certain restrictions we have about engaging in other faiths’ rituals.

“With total respect for the Hindu tradition,” I said, “I’d rather watch from the side, not participate.”

My teacher respected my adherence to Judaism and my talking to him about G-d. 

Realizing that I was OK, he returned to the class, and I was happy for the mutual understanding. Though the minute he left, the tears came.

I felt a deep longing for Hebrew, for prayers in my language, for Israel. I felt the diaspora like a void in my heart – I was a stranger in a strange land. 

Yet, at the same time, I was grateful for my longing. It reminded me that although my spiritual home lies in Judaism and Israel, I can feel home wherever I am simply by connecting.

So as the tears rolled down, I picked up my pen and notebook. What came out was a stream of consciousness that turned into a poem, comparing the human body and spirit to a tree.

A few days later I decided to share the poem with the class, as a pre-practice meditation.

That day, when looking at the Hebrew calendar, I realized that this poem came through me (unknowingly), on tu’ B’shvat, the Jewish “new year” of the trees.

I suppose I didn’t miss the holiday after all. 

~  Back to Roots  ~

I touched down at Ben Gurion airport on March 1st still smelling of incense.

While the plane was taxying, I peeked out the window and saw the Israeli flag on the tail of an El-Al plane.

I nearly burst with excitement.

After a wild 3.5 months, I was home.

I didn’t need anyone to wait for me at the airport with a sign. I didn’t need a welcome ceremony, or even a house or a plan.

I felt a new calmness—a new sense of ease in the country I’d come to know and love.

*         *          *

Ripe as a fruit that falls from the tree, I let go.

Released,

Refreshed,

Reunited,

With the land

From which I came.





Friday, January 13, 2017

Reflections of a Wandering Jew

Overlooking Granada, Spain

It was my third day in Granada, Spain. 

I spent the daylight hours awed by the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains and energized by the adrenaline of exploration, hopping lightly from one spot to the next, in full embrace of the unknown. 

I didnt think I would cry that night. 

After all, I was on on vacation. In one of the most beautiful places in the world. With my best friend beside me, holding a box of tissues. 

Of course, I was grateful to be in this romantic new city, uncovering ancient architecture and trying fresh olive oil that made my taste buds want to dance Flamenco. 

And from my Instsgram and Facebook account, I appeared to be living the dream. Just released from the army, my life packed up in suitcases and garbage bags at my friends house, no address, job, or relationship "tying me down," I was fully "liberated," some might say...free to be fully present, to take this new stage of life by storm. 

It was only after speaking on the phone with a close friend in Israel that the emotional dam collapsed, and I realized what was going on. 

I felt totally distanced from everything: from my Israeli life, from Hebrew, from Judaism, and most critically: from myself. I hadn't really given myself time to process all the change and the manic transition from the army to post army "freedom" to Europe. I was swept away, leaving any semblance of stability packed away in my suitcases, in the past. 

And once the adrenaline of the beginning wore off, I was shaken, left looking at myself from a birds eye view in a Spanish restaurant -- tons of Jamón hanging from the ceiling -- wondering: where am I? And what is this nice Kosher Jewish girl doing under so many dry-cured pig legs?

I suppose I needed to have the rug pulled out from under me to realize how important stability is--how great it is to have responsibility, a loving community, a sense of rootedness and belonging. 

Sure, there is something to be said for the nomadic life; it's certainly not dull, and there is constant change, stimulation, and new obstacles to overcome. 

But it's not for me. 
The famous lime-green backpack

It's funny, people have said to me, "I'm jealous of all this traveling you're doing, it looks so fun," to which I say: don't be. I'm living out of a backpack in order to visit family and friends who live so far from me. 

It's mentally and emotionally exhausting, hauling from one place to the next, each separation and union filled with tears of time spent and unspent together. 

Of course, in spite of all the complexity, I am enjoying myself. It has been such a blessing to reconnect with my loved ones in NYC, Atlanta, New Orleans, San Francisco and now in Portland. 

And soon (this Sunday, welp) the next let of the journey begins: India, where I will complete (with G-ds help!) a yoga teacher training in Rishikesh. 

But it's important to note that all of this moving around hasn't been for the sake of moving around. And that's one of the points I'm hoping to make here. I'm not against traveling in any way. But I am for deliberate traveling, for moving around with purpose--whatever you make it to be. 

I've seen so many people travel for its own sake, consuming and checking off bucket lists and snapping photos to the point of mental and physical burnout. 

The rumors are true, there are travel burnouts, and I've met them! I've heard the pride-filled conversations of "where I've been in the world" that turned competitive, fast. 

Perhaps its a byproduct of social media, of society's attempt to tell us that where we are in life isn't good enough so we better buy their product, get our butts on the treadmill, or to some beach in Hawaii. 

I fear that this general sense of dissatisfaction with life, this incessant comparing to others, is hijacking our happiness and demolishing our gratitude. And unfortunately, travel has become a part of this phenomenon, and I want to challenge it. 

Let's take this popular quote by St. Augustine, for starters: 

"The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page." 

I think quotes like these are part of the problem. To me, it's saying: "If you're happy staying in your hometown your whole life, think again. You're not happy, you've only read one page!" 

And while there is definitely merit to expanding ones' horizons, to meeting new people and gaining all of the beautiful adventure that often comes with travel, I don't think Mr. Augustine got the whole picture. 

In my eyes, French philosopher Marcel Proust summed it up pretty well, over a century ago: 

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." 

I believe that we can only appreciate the new landscapes once we learn how to truly "see" -- to appreciate the moment and our surroundings, to enjoy our stability, to find peace in routine and excitement in the changing nuances of every day. 

Because vacation can be a state of mind, and usually is. Sure, we can physically plop ourselves on a beach in Jamaica, but if our mind is filled with stress and anxiety it is as if we aren't there at all. The reverse holds true, as well. 

So don't let my Instagram fool you! While my trip had a taste of European sight-seeing and adventure, most of it has been regular moments with family and friends, with a lot of laundry in-between. (The benefit of living out of a backpack, amirite?) 

It's true: there hasn't been much external excitement in my day-to-day. All of the excitement was internally-inspired; excitement to reunite with loved ones, to help out a bit around the house, to teach a lesson on Israel to my sisters' 1st-grade class, to grab a coffee with my Grandma down the street from her Upper East Side apartment. 

Seemingly dull or not, I wouldn't have changed it for the world. 

Perhaps my riding a motorcycle with a Spaniard all over Lisbon is a better (and true) story, but when did my soul feel most joyful and aligned? 

Undoubtedly: 

~  While watching home movies with my parents (who are divorced yet more than amicable), sitting on the couch drinking tea and laughing at our 90s fashion. 

~ While saying the morning gratitude prayer with my 7-year-old sister, both of us still cozy in bed, the excitement of Chanukah propelling us into the new day.

~ While listening to my Grandma tell stories of her childhood in Belgium, her plight escaping the Nazis and then later, her life as a sassy teenager in NYC.

~ While reminiscing with middle-school friends at a restaurant in downtown New York, talking and laughing as though we're still socially-awkward 13-year-olds dealing with hormones and crushes. 

~ While deciding, with a good friend, (on our trip to New Orleans) to skip-out on bar-hopping  to talk about our issues and life goals over wine & cheese. 

~ While escaping the cold of NY winter in a Chabad house that I didn't know existed until I stumbled upon it on my way to another synagogue. #religiousgirlprobelms 

~ While trekking through a Portland snowstorm -- with both of my parents -- to my Mom's synagogue, just to make it in time for Torah reading; and, upon arrival, being greeted by a warm community that I've grown to know and cherish. 

These have been some of the highlights of my trip. 

It hasn't been glamorous, but it's been good...you know, that old-fashioned, Jewish-penicillin chicken-soup-good. The kind of good that in the long run, matters.

Now, it is clear to me why the hashtag #lovewhatmatters has taken social media by storm. Because with all the BS that surrounds us -- all of the comparing, the commercials, the mind-numbing shows and social media-induced narcissism -- we are forgetting to pay attention to what really matters. 

And if traveling has taught me anything, it's taught me that we MUST love what matters.  

Because pretty views are transient
Food will waste away
Photographs will be deleted or forgotten

But the love we give in the world ripples infinitely, 
another candle in the darkness.