Kerala: Backwaters & Presenting at the Global Yoga Festival
I’ve been in India for five winters now but that by no means is an indication that I’ve seen all of this huge country. Far from it. I’ve been practicing yoga for almost ten years now but that doesn’t mean I know everything there is to know about the practice of yoga either. Far from it again.
So when the opportunity to explore Kerala, the southernmost state of India, and present alongside some of the most eminent yogis alive at the Global Yoga Festival arose I got pretty damn excited! The festival was held on the palace grounds of Kanakakunnu in Trivandrum. The conference room was actually the old dance hall of the last Maharaja!
There were two icons present at the festival whose teaching I really connected with: Sri Amrit Desai and Dr. Bohle. Amrit Desai is one of the pioneers to bring yoga to the Western world in the 60’s. He has spread his teachings far and wide, establishing ashrams (the most famous being Kripalu in Massachusetts) and inspiring countless yogis. Amritji brought us into states of deep internal stillness through his leading of yoga nidra. He is also a transmitter of shaktiput energy. I can’t really put into words what it feels like to receive this energy except to say that I felt like I didn’t need to eat or sleep much for the next few days from all the energy that seemed to be stirred up internally. I was fortunate enough to explore the backwaters after the festival with Amritji and our personal discussions contained many insights and opened new mental doors. We spoke of the concept of polarity, other people servings as reflections for ourselves, and the idea that whatever you wish to cultivate in the future is dependent on you incorporating that vision into this very moment in the present.
Accompanying Amritji was one of his students, Kanu. I really hit it off with Kanu, a native of Canada who owned a farm on Belize for 42 years, becoming one of the first non-native citizens of Belize. Kanu is a man who is not afraid to take chances and live life to the fullest. He has survived being stranded at sea for over two weeks in the midst of a tropical depression, fallen over 20 feet face first onto concrete, and overcome a scuba diving accident after reaching a depth of over 150ft below sea level that initially left him partially paralyzed. Keeping with the spirit of other people serving as reflections of ourselves, I see a lot of similarities in myself when I look at Kanu. His zest for adventure, compassion, curiosity, connection with nature, and love of music are all ideals I’d like to continue cultivating.
Dr. Bohle is one of the leading pioneers of yoga research in the world. It was a unique experience to have the combination of scientific leaders and yoga teachers working in collaboration. Dr. Bohle stated that we have to teach at the level of our students’ understanding. Oftentimes we use fancy words in yoga classes or abstract concepts that leave our students scratching their heads. Dr. Bohle lead us through some very basic, yet subtly powerful exercises to draw our awareness to breathing using the whole body. There are always so many lessons that are revealed by coming back to basics. This festival really focused on more traditional yoga, not yogis showing off how advanced their practice has become but sharing the subtle magic in the most accessible ways.
At the festival I lead a few hands on workshops with different focuses. One workshop focused on how to create stability internally using ujayi pranayama. The second workshop focused on using different terminology to draw our awareness to creating more space in the body during asana. (To check this out for yourself check out this blog post I wrote on the subject.) Alongside the yoga festival I also presented at the Conference on Health Eating & Aging. My presentation focused on the little known enteric nervous system, the ‘second brain’ in the gut. Exploring the ecosystem of microbiota (bacteria and other organisms) in our guts and the connection of our guts to our brain has many implications for our overall health and our yoga practice. Did you know that deep abdominal breathing can increase your propensity towards compassion by stimulating your vagus nerve? If you want to watch my presentation there will be a link to the video available in the next few weeks.
In my free time I explored the city of Trivandrum and hung out with the friendly locals (five of whom it took to show me how to tie a lungi, traditional Keralan garb). The city contains many impressive temples, museums (like the Napier Museum below), and has a nice diversity of nature intertwined with the city atmosphere. The first morning as I sat outside Yogi Jayadevan’s house (the organizer of the festival) I saw a mongoose intently standing watch a few feet from the front porch. While it may look similar to a massive rat, don’t say that to Rikki-Tikki-Tavi! Kerala is also famous for its South Indian cuisine. Many of the local restaurants are a fixed low price where they come around with different curries and ladle them onto your plate until you’re so stuffed you literally have to shoo away the waiters who are eager to dole out more deliciousness. Ketrina and I also made a quick afternoon venture down to Kovalam beach with its famous lighthouse overlooking the sea.
Although sharing and absorbing information and experiences at the yoga festival was my main motivation, close behind was the desire to explore the legendary beauty of Kerala. Kerala is world famous for its backwaters ecosystem. I have never seen so many exotic birds or water lillies in one place! When I first came to the canal where the local ferry would pick me up in Kottayam I wondered ‘Where is the water?’. As a boat trudged upriver I realized that the dense vegetation in front of me was water lillies resting on the water’s surface!
Many tourists opt to trudge along the backwaters in houseboats with beautifully woven thatch roofs. This is certainly one way to explore the backwaters, although a bit more expensive than the local ferry. For 15 rupees, the equivalent of 23 cents (that’s not a misstype!), the ferry took me on a 3 hour journey past the local villages and the many larger houseboats. This ride may have been one of the most quintessentially beautiful cruises of my life. Beyond the narrow palm tree lined canals rice fields extended as far as the eye could see. This was the sort of view that I know my dad and grandfather would have enjoyed, although I doubt you can go crabbing in the waters!
I returned back to Goa quite exhausted after a 17 hour train ride. I returned with a renewed inspiration to deepen my yoga practice in the true sense of yoga. I returned with many new friends and fond memories of this beautiful state and its friendly people.