Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Sweet Truth

The ecstatic experience of eating something sweet is a metaphor for exploring the deeper mysteries of existence.

By Mary Taylor and Lynn Ginsburg

Why is the taste of something sweet so alluringly pleasurable? You bite into a chocolate truffle and you are filled with bliss. You long for the feeling to last forever. But eventually you must swallow, the sensation fades, and you're left longing for your next encounter with such happiness.

Sweets and the ecstatic feeling they provide are metaphors that frequently occur in ancient Indian philosophical texts. Food metaphors are used by the poets of the Vedas and Upanishads (the most ancient of Hindu philosophical texts) to describe the indescribable mystical experience, which, by definition, is beyond all thought, language, and concrete reference—a merging into pure consciousness. But these ancient Indian poets masterfully used language to evoke the mystical experience, pointing the way for those seekers who followed.

The Deeper Meaning of Food

Food metaphors are powerful for evoking the mystical experience: Food is the "staff of life" that sustains the universe, and food is the tangible foundation of every being's existence.

Because all people can viscerally experience the connection between food and

life, it serves as a potent metaphor for exploring the deeper mysteries of existence—it's a familiar door, opening onto the path of spiritual understanding. In efforts to address the more elusive questions such as "Who am I?", "Why am I alive?", and "What does it mean to be alive?", food as a metaphor became a common denominator that could speak to all people. Nectar (amrita) is one of the most frequently repeated food references in mystical texts. The meaning of the word is comparable to our modern definition of ambrosia: that which is sweet. But it also conveys a deeper meaning in Indian philosophy, as the nectar which confers immortality and final emancipation.

Nectar: The Payoff

The Vedas and Upanishads make explicitly clear that no matter how alluring the taste of nectar, it can only be gained by hard work and right intention. These texts strongly emphasize the relationship between sacrifice and the reward of amrita. Sacrifice can be both an actual ritual offering made by the Brahman priests, and a more figurative sacrifice that can take place on an internal level.

This figurative sacrifice must be made with an intention of utter devotion, with no thought to personal gain. Nectar as the reward for this type of sincere effort is yet another definition of amrita: "the residue of the sacrifice."

This notion of sacrifice and nectar differs from what many think of as sacrifice—a calculated self-denial: "If you give this up, you'll get something better in return." From the Vedic point of view, sacrifice is considered something that is offered, not lost. It is given without the expectation of receiving anything in return. This is a fourth definition of the multifaceted concept of nectar, as "wisdom that is gained without begging."

The Chandogya Upanishad is especially rich with food metaphors. We are told in the Chandogya that one who can learn the deepest mystical meaning of the chants, "becomes rich in food, an eater of food."

Similarly, we are told that "the hidden teachings are the honey producers. Brahman is the flower." When you make a great effort to penetrate the mystery of the highest goal, Brahman, by meditating upon its meaning, this effort is the sacrifice.

A Taste of Yoga

You can experience this understanding of sacrifice and nectar in your daily yoga practice. Whether it's a "good" yoga practice or a "bad" one, whether or not you are able to sustain your focus, you offer up the practice as your sacrifice. But when your actions aren't offered with a sense of sacrifice, but rather are motivated by a desire for personal gain, then you look to the actions themselves as the key to your reward. You start desiring a body that can be toned by asanas, or you want to develop increased flexibility as the nectar of your practice, missing out on the true amrita: the inner balance that the practice may offer.

In much the same way, people want the foods that they eat to do something for them. You want to be tantalized, entertained, or soothed. The result is searching for ever more intense sensations: You adore the saltiest olive spread, or turn to hotter and hotter salsas. You look for the perfect diet to maintain your body—one year it's the carbohydrate diet, and the next year it's protein. But eating food can also be performed as a sacrifice. A good way to start is by saying grace. By beginning your meal with a moment of introspection, you can drop your preconceptions about how the food will serve you. Instead you can set your intention to stay present and open to the tastes you encounter and the act of eating itself. This is an opportunity to connect to your role within the universe—life eating life to sustain life. Staying present in this way is hard work. This work, and your intention, constitute a sacrifice.

When you eat food without any expectation of the reward that a particular food will provide, you may win the great nectar of experiencing the deep connection to the mysteries of life itself. And once you start acquiring a taste for the sweetness of true nectar, you develop a hunger for truth that's hard to resist.

Mary Taylor has studied yoga and meditation since 1981 and has written three cookbooks. Lynn Ginsburg has studied yoga, vipassana, and Sanskrit since 1983. Her articles appear in Travel and Leisure and the Los Angeles Times. They are writing a book on women, food, and spirituality.

Lifeflow Brainwave

How do you reconcile the subjective experiences of meditation with the exact world of science?

A full house at a special event held at the Lifeflow City Studio heard Professor John

Willoughby (Dept of Medicine, Flinders University) say that a recent study (a collaborative effort between The Lifeflow Meditation Centre and a researcher at Flinders Medical Centre) was unique in providing such a close correlation between subjective meditation experiences and actual recorded measurements,and that the success of the experiment was underpinned by the work done at Lifeflow making the experiences of meditation accessible and intelligible.
Twelve Lifeflow students took part, each spending a day in retreat before the experiment. A team at Flinders University set up each volunteer, which included attaching a skull cap with over 100 electrodes – each one measuring a different area of brain activity. Brain activity was recorded whilst each student spent about an hour going through various stages of meditative concentration.
Dylan Smith, the researcher conducting the study, commented that, “…for the first time as far as we are aware, [we have] correlated changes in brain activity to states of meditation delineated in ancient Buddhist traditions”.
Does Lifeflow meditation just put you to sleep, or is something else going on!?
Other important findings:

In this study, both left and right hemispheres appeared to be equally involved in the process of meditation.

There is a significant difference between just resting with eyes closed and holding a light meditative state (alpha activity increases as soon as you go into meditation).

Particular brain rhythms decreased measurably in the deeper states of meditation. This appeared to correlate with the subjective feeling of decreasing mental activity (and greater tranquillity) as the mind settles more strongly into the meditation.

Meditation is quite different from sleep. In the early stages of meditation, the brainwave patterns are similar to the start of sleep (many beginning meditators can confirm this!), but in this experiment recorded brain activity in deep meditation was quite different from what is normally seen in sleep.

The results of this experiment should be formally published later this year. Preparation is being undertaken for another research project, part of which will be to study and measure the deeper levels of meditation in greater detail.

Police defuse bombs found in western Indian city

AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) - Police defused several unexploded bombs in the western Indian city of Surat, one of the world's biggest diamond-polishing centers, on Tuesday, three days after a series of blasts in the same state killed 45 people.

"We have defused seven bombs and (are) working on three more," senior police official H.P. Singh told Reuters

A series of 16 bombs ripped through Ahmedabad, the main city of Gujarat state on Saturday, a day after bombs killed one woman in the IT hub of Bangalore. Surat is about six hours drive south of Ahmedebad.

One bomb was found near a police station and another hanging from a tree, police said.

Extra police were deployed on the streets of Surat. Schools closed early and children sent back home. Large crowds gathered in the streets to watch police defuse the bombs.

A group called the "Indian Mujahideen" said it carried out the Ahmedabad attack, writing in an e-mail sent five minutes before the first blast that it was in revenge for a 2002 massacre in Gujarat of around 2,500 people, mainly Muslims, by Hindu mobs.

The sophistication of the recent wave of bomb attacks in India has caught the country's police and intelligence networks unaware and triggered fears of more attacks by the group.

Police official Singh said the bombs on Tuesday were all found in one of Surat city's most crowded neighborhoods, but gave no details about the nature of the explosives or who could have placed them.

On Sunday, two unexploded car bombs were also found by police in Surat.

Two other cars were used in the bombings in Ahmedabad, and police said they were looking for people who stole the cars from a suburb of Mumbai, India's financial capital.

"In all, four cars were stolen between July 7 and July 15 from Navi Mumbai," Parambir Singh, a senior anti-terrorism squad officer, said, referring to a Mumbai suburb that is home to many of the city's millions of immigrants and several IT firms.

Singh said Navi Mumbai was also the place where the email originated.

Media reports said the internet address of an American living in Navi Mumbai was hacked into to send the email. (Reporting by Rupam Jain Nair and Krittivas Mukherjee; Editing by Krittivas Mukherjee and Valerie Lee)

Myanmar Arrests “8-8-88″ Anniversary Marchers

by Aung Hla Tun

YANGON - Myanmar’s junta arrested 48 activists on Friday for a protest march marking 20 years since the army crushed an “8-8-88″ democracy uprising with the loss of an estimated 3,000 lives, an opposition official said.0808 03 1

The group of mainly young men in t-shirts bearing the numbers 8-8-88 — a reference to the August 8, 1988 nationwide revolt — staged a silent walk through the northwest town of Taunggok before being stopped by a police barricade.

“They were all picked up and are being questioned at the moment,” Ko Thein Naing, a local official from the opposition National League for Democracy, told Reuters.

Given last year’s widespread fuel price protests, the junta was taking few chances with the anniversary, posting armed police and pro-government thugs at strategic sites in towns and cities.

Leaders of the 1988 uprising, the biggest challenge to army rule dating back to 1962, have been behind bars since the start of the fuel-price demonstrations last August. They are just a few of an estimated 1,100 political prisoners.

Some students in the northwest city of Sittwe wore black, one of them said, but for most of the former Burma’s 57 million people, the sense of fear and futility, as well as the daily struggle to survive, trumped any lingering outrage.

“Nobody is happy with the present situation, but most people know from experience that protests will not change their lives,” English teacher Hla Maung told Reuters.

Outside the pariah Southeast Asian nation, however, human rights groups and activists who fled the 1988 bloodshed staged demonstrations outside Myanmar and Chinese embassies.

China is being targeted on what is also the opening day of the Beijing Olympics because of its commercial and diplomatic ties to the generals, gate-keepers of Myanmar’s plentiful reserves of natural gas and other resources.

In Bangkok and Manila, dozens of protesters chanted anti-junta slogans, burnt Myanmar flags and waved placards calling for the release of democracy icon and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest in Yangon.


August 8, 1988 was chosen as the start-point of the uprising because of its numerological connotations for most Burmese. It was also said to be a powerful foil to then military supremo Ne Win, whose lucky number was nine.

“This anniversary is testament to the Burmese people’s enduring demand for freedom and to the world’s failure to end repressive military rule,” Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

“And China, more than any other country, has enabled the survival of the brutal Burmese regime,” she said.

Meeting Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein in Beijing ahead of the Games, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said he hoped Myanmar could sort out its problems “through democratic negotiation”, the official Xinhua news agency said.

“China will continue to follow a good-neighborly policy towards Myanmar, and work with the international community to help Myanmar overcome difficulties,” Xinhua quoted Wen as saying.

On Thursday, President George W. Bush used a visit to Thailand, home to more than 100,000 Myanmar refugees and more than a million migrant workers, to highlight the 1988 bloodshed and call yet again for Suu Kyi’s release.

“The American people care deeply about the people of Burma and dream for the day the people will be free,” he told former ex-political prisoners at a lunch in Bangkok.

Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani

Friday, August 08, 2008

Indian student group ban upheld

Aftermath of bomb blast in Mumbai in July 2006
Simi has been accused of numerous attacks

An Indian government ban on an Islamic student group accused of terrorism is to remain in force after a Supreme Court ruling, officials say.

The court suspended a high court judgement which had said there was no evidence to show the Students' Islamic Movement of India (Simi) was unlawful.

The government appealed, saying lifting the ban would harm anti-terror policy. It has three weeks to present evidence.

Simi denies claims it is linked to militant groups and bomb blasts.

The group was first banned in 2001 and several of its members are in prison.

Officials say that the Supreme Court overruled the lower court to allow it time to consider further evidence to be presented by the government within the next three weeks.

Correspondents say that Simi has been blamed by Indian police for almost every major bomb attack in India, including explosions on commuter trains in Mumbai two years ago which killed 187 people.

The group is also accused of a role in last month's bombings in the western state of Gujarat which killed 45 people.

The Delhi high court gave its ruling after Simi appealed against the ban on its activities. It has been extended three times over the last seven years.

The government now wants to extend the ban for another two years.

Man killed in wild monkey attack

Monkeys in India

A man has died after being attacked by wild monkeys in the Indian city of Delhi.

The man - SS Bajwa - was the deputy mayor of the city. He died after the monkeys went for him on a terrace at his home.

He fell from the first-floor terrace when trying to fight off the monkeys and died the next day.

The city has a long-running problem with wild monkeys snatching food and scaring people.

Last year, a court ordered city officials to try to solve the problem.

Monkey catchers and bigger monkeys have been brought in to try to frighten off the ones which cause the trouble.

Monkey god

Many people are opposed to killing the creatures because people who belong to the Hindu religion have a monkey god called Hanuman.

For this reason, they think the monkeys should be left alone and often feed them bananas and peanuts.

Connoisseur of Emotions

Take time one day to be actively conscious of how the rasas show up in your life.

By Sally Kempton


Sit for a few moments, allowing feelings and emotions to arise. See them as flavors or colors of the Self, threads in the weave of your consciousness, details in the tapestry of the great consciousness. Notice that when you become the spectator at the emotional dance, the dance becomes interesting, even beautiful. Now try offering each emotional flavor to the heart of the universe, or to God.

Just for fun, take time one day to be actively conscious of how the rasas show up in your life. Identify the rasas you move through. See the rasas being played out in conversations, in events you see on TV, in situations you pass on the street.

With a few friends, spend an evening acting out the full range of the rasas. I've done this as a party game, in which everyone picks a slip of paper with one of the rasas written on it, then remains in character during the conversation that follows. Give yourselves permission to be unabashedly dramatic in your expression. Be terrifying. Tell a gross-out joke. Inhabit it fully.

Then sit together in meditation for a few minutes and let it all subside into the shanta rasa, the flavor of peace. Discuss afterward how it felt to do this.

Try doing your yoga practice with awareness of the rasas. Practice a round or two of Sun Salutations as if you were saluting your beloved. Then try it with the heroic energy of a samurai. Let yourself wobble in Tree Pose until you do a comic prat-fall. Set your body into Warrior II, then let out a terrifying roar. See how many different rasas you can express in your asana practice. Notice which rasas give you juice. Experiment with others until you feel their natural flavor.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Nepal arrests anti-China Tibetans

Police clash with Tibetan protesters in Kathmandu, Nepal, 7 August, 2008.
Nepalese police moved in to disperse the Tibetans who were praying

Hundreds of Tibetans have been arrested in Nepal's capital during a protest against Chinese policy on the eve of the opening of the Olympics in Beijing.

Around 2,000 Tibetans, including monks and nuns, gathered in Kathmandu to highlight what they said was religious repression in Tibet.

The protesters gathered outside one of the world's biggest Buddhist shrines, praying and chanting mantras.

But later, police with batons moved in to disperse the large crowd.

More than 20,000 Tibetan refugees live in Nepal after fleeing China in 1959.

The Tibetan exiles wore yellow jackets with slogans including "Stop cultural genocide in Tibet" and "Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama" - referring to their spiritual leader.

They said they wanted to tell the world that their religious rights were not being respected.

"We timed our demonstration just before the Olympic Games begin in China to try to draw maximum attention," Lakpa, an activist, told the Associated Press news agency.

Others called for imprisoned Buddhists to be released.

"Many Tibetans including monks and nuns are tortured and imprisoned by China," Karma, a 54-year-old nun, holding a yellow and white Buddhist flag, told the Reuters news agency.

"We are protesting for their release and appealing to the international community to help to release these religious people," she said.

The exiles are also demanding the release of the eleventh Panchen Lama, an important Buddhist figure, allegedly abducted by the Chinese authorities as a child.

In the Indian capital, New Delhi, nearly 4,000 Tibetans took to the streets in one of the biggest protests in recent months, saying China had no right to hold the Olympic Games.

A poster of Dalai Lama torn during scyffle between the police and Tibetans in Kathmandu, Nepal, 7 August, 2008.
Protesters said they wanted to highlight religious repression in Tibet

Hundreds of Tibetan exiles also marched in Dharmsala in northern India, where the self-declared Tibetan government-in-exile is based.

Police move in

The BBC's Charles Haviland in Kathmandu says there were scuffles earlier in the day as police made a show of strength against the Tibetan exiles.

A huge poster of the Dalai Lama was torn and then the police just watched as the crowd, mostly seated, chanted Buddhist prayers and listened to speakers alleging that Beijing was involved in religious persecution in Tibet.

Around 1500 local time (0915 GMT) the security forces decided enough was enough and started arresting people, says our correspondent.

He said the crowd said that they did not want violence and many had moved forward in batches, singing prayers as they offered themselves up to the waiting police and army vehicles.

According to the Associated Press news agency, some the protesters threw rocks and bricks at police, who retaliated by beating some of them with bamboo batons.

More than 500 protesters were detained, according to agency reports.

Our correspondent says renewed emphasis on religion comes after months of mainly political protests by Tibetan exiles here.

The Tibetans have been holding regular protests after deadly anti-government riots broke out in the Tibetan capital Lhasa and elsewhere in China in March.

Many Nepalese people have little sympathy for the Tibetan cause, says our correspondent. They see Tibet as a territory the Chinese are rapidly developing, he adds.

Neighbouring China is an important trade partner and aid donor to Nepal, and Nepal does not allow anti-China activities. Hundreds of protesters have been detained over the past few months.

Zen Library Link

This is a very comprehensive library of Zen teachings and information by
Thich Nhat Hanh

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Rare India documents 'go missing'

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

Rabindranath Tagore
Tagore composed the Indian and Bangladeshi national anthems

India's national audit agency says many rare manuscripts and documents have gone missing from the National Library in the eastern city of Calcutta.

A senior official with the Comptroller and Auditor General's (CAG) office said that the early works of renowned writer Rabindranath Tagore were missing.

So too were letters and paperwork of independence heroes Subhas Chandra Bose and Sarojini Naidu.

The library has denied the charges and said the allegations are untrue.

'Dereliction of duty'

A recent inquiry was carried out by an 11-member team set up by the CAG to probe irregularities in the National Library after complaints of large-scale thefts.

The CAG has now written to the Indian Culture Ministry accusing National Library Director R Ramachandran of "dereliction of duty".

National Library in Calcutta
The libary stores some of India's most precious artefacts

"We have found readers complaining that they cannot get most of the rare books and manuscripts they like to read for research purposes," a CAG official - who did not wish to be named - told the BBC.

"Almost 40% of the rare books and manuscripts are not available. Even inventories have been lost."

Mr Ramachandran has strenuously denied the allegations.

"We have an inventory for rare books and it is surely not true that Tagore's early works have gone missing," he said.

"When the CAG team came for an inquiry, we gave them all co-operation but some of our staff were on leave and we could not provide all documents. We can provide them now."

He said the National Library had set up a five-member committee to examine the CAG allegations.

"Much of what they have said is not true and we will prove it," he said.

Neither the Calcutta police nor the central investigating authorities have taken up the case so far.

But police are known to be suspicious that many rare artefacts, paintings, coins and manuscripts have gone missing from the Indian Musuem, the Asiatic Society library and the Victoria Memorial over the last few months.

The federal agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), is investigating these thefts into heritage institutions which are famous for their collections.

The worst such case was in 2004, when Rabindranath Tagore's original Nobel medallion of 1913 was stolen from a museum in West Bengal's western town of Shanti Niketan.

Tagore, often referred to as Bengal's Shakespeare, is the first and only Indian to win the literature prize.

He wrote poems and short stories and composed both the Indian and Bangladeshi national anthems. He died in 1941.

Food shortages warning for Nepal

Family in the village of Sokat
There are many mouths to feed and not enough food to go round

The government of Nepal and the UN have warned that hundreds of thousands of people in the country are facing severe food shortages.

A new report says that efforts to get food to the most vulnerable people are being hampered by fuel shortages, strikes, and bad weather.

The price of rice has risen by up to 50% in a year, and the price of cooking oil has gone up 30% in six months.

Rising prices for food have hit poorer people in South Asia badly.

The new report by the government in Nepal and the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) confirms that rising food prices and destroyed harvests are hitting Nepal very hard.

The WFP believes two and a half million Nepalis around the country need immediate food assistance.

In certain villages it runs some feeding programmes, including monthly ones to mothers and young babies, extended in conjunction with medical check-ups by doctors.

The BBC's Charles Haviland, who visited a badly affected village in Nepal in the western district of Achham, says many families are coping by eating less, selling their meagre possessions or sending their men folk to neighbouring India to find work.

In May, Nepal banned the export of rice and other grains to try to control food costs and prevent shortages.

Nepal is not a major producer of food items but it exports some wheat and Basmati rice to China and Bangladesh.

Seeking Samadhi

Reclaim the wholeness that's your birthright with the final three limbs of Patanjali's classical yoga: dharana, dhyana, and samadhi.

By Judith Lasater

Each scorching afternoon during the summer I was 8 years old, I'd crawl into my favorite chocolate brown, fringe-bottomed easy chair and dive into a Nancy Drew novel. Completely mesmerized as I read about the daring exploits of my favorite heroine, I was transported to another time and place. I wouldn't notice anything around me until I surfaced to find my mother standing close by, repeatedly calling me to dinner.

Years later, this ability to focus completely on one thing proved surprisingly valuable as I tried to understand what the second-century philosopher/yogi Patanjali was writing about when he discussed dharana—the state of concentration—in his Yoga Sutra.

The most-revered ancient sourcebook for yoga practice, Patanjali's Yoga Sutra describes how the mind works and how we can integrate yoga into our lives. Patanjali's ashtanga yoga includes eight components of practice ("ashtanga" means "eight-limbed" in Sanskrit), and dharana or concentration is the sixth of these eight limbs. The seventh limb is dhyana, or meditation, and the eighth and final limb is samadhi, or enlightenment. These last three limbs are often studied together and are called antaratma sadhana, or the innermost quest.

In chapter III, verse one, Patanjali explains concentration as the "binding of consciousness to a [single] spot." I like to honor this state of absorption whenever and wherever I find it. Sometimes I see it in a musician who is focused on the music to the exclusion of all else, or in an athlete in a tense moment of a crucial game. Of course, yoga practitioners actively seek out this depth of concentration in the practices of asana (posture) and pranayama (breathing exercises), as well as in meditation itself. But I believe that dharana can be found whenever a person is fully present and focused on an activity or object.

By definition, this focus cures the inner conflicts we so commonly experience. When you're completely focused, you can't be of two minds about something.

Like many people, I've found that when there's a disparity between my actions and my thoughts I become more fatigued and feel less joy in my life. But I don't feel conflict—even though I may encounter difficulties—when I'm truly focused on and committed to the moment.

This ability to focus all the mind's attention toward one thing is the foundation of the next limb—dhyana or meditation—and is absolutely necessary if the practitioner is to reach the liberation of samadhi. One way to understand the distinction between concentration and meditation is by using rain as an analogy. When rain starts, the moisture of clouds and fog (everyday awareness) coalesces into concentrated moisture and becomes distinct raindrops. These raindrops represent dharana—intermittent moments of focused attention. When the rain falls to earth and creates a river, the merging of the individual raindrops into one stream is like dhyana or meditation. The separate raindrops merge into one continuous flow, just as individual moments of dharana merge into the uninterrupted focus of meditation. In English, we often use the word "meditate" to mean "to think," but in yoga, meditation is not thinking; instead, it is a deep sense of unity with an object or activity.

Happy Meals

Transform unhealthful eating habits with yoga.

By Dorothy Foltz-Gray


When L. was five, she went to spend the night at a friend's. Soon, her mother got a call from the sleepover mom: L. had eaten 10 hot dogs. L.'s mom was horrified. But to L., the story makes sense. Eating the hot dogs had helped her deal with overwhelming emotions. "What I remember is how nervous I had been about going to my friend's house," says L., who's now 36 and lives in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. "That story is my clue that I have had issues with food my whole life."

By 14, L. was bulimic, a condition that waxed and waned through her 20s until, at age 30, shortly after she married, she entered an eating disorder treatment program. There L. met Jill Gutowski, a psychotherapist and yoga instructor, who offered yoga classes to patients in the program. "From the moment Jill talked us through the initial meditation, I thought, 'This is a practice I need to know more about,'" says L. "I recognized that for the entire class I didn't think about how many calories I'd eaten. To go into an environment where I could shut off those thoughts was just incredible."

In the years since, L. has begun to bring the calm awareness she experiences in yoga with her to the dinner table. She has not been bulimic for the past several years, and her relationship to food has become more joyful; she now enjoys spending time cooking with her husband. Like thousands of others with eating disorders as well as many people who overeat simply out of stress or loneliness, L. found that yoga can radically change one's relationship to food. In fact, at eating disorder programs across the country, therapists are incorporating yoga and mindfulness meditation into their work—at a time when millions of Americans are struggling to develop healthful eating habits. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 11 million Americans have eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia.

As too many of us know, you don't have to have a clinically diagnosed eating disorder to have disordered eating. A Harvard survey released in February found that binge eating—defined as eating copious amounts within two hours at least twice a week for six months, and feeling distressed and unable to stop—affects nearly 3 percent of the adult population. On any given day, 45 percent of American women and 25 percent of men are on a diet, yet nearly one-third of American adults are obese. We eat to quell boredom, sadness, or fear, and we often eat without thinking, finding the potato chip bag empty before we even realize we opened it.

It's no wonder that many people troubled by such issues are looking to yoga for help, says clinical psychologist and registered yoga teacher Lisa Kaley-Isley. She began offering yoga classes to eating disorder patients two years ago at the Children's Hospital in Denver, where she is chief psychologist. "Yoga addresses the mind, where the anxiety and compulsions are, and the body that is the focus of the anxiety and compulsion," says Kaley-Isley. "It does so with an emphasis on creating strength and flexibility in both."

Slow Way Down

So far, little research has been done to verify the therapeutic effects of yoga on eating disorders and more garden-variety eating problems such as emotional eating or yo-yo dieting. But a few studies do show that yoga can help. One well-known 2005 study of 139 women by a researcher at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California, found that women who practiced yoga felt better about their bodies, had a better sense of what their bodies were feeling, and had healthier attitudes toward food than women who did aerobics or ran. A 2006 State University of New York study of 45 fifth-grade girls also found that after a 10‑week program that included discussion, yoga, and relaxation, the girls were more satisfied with their bodies and less driven to be unhealthily thin.

Initially, yoga affects those with eating problems simply by slowing down anxious and chaotic thoughts. "When you are anxious, your mind is like a fan on high speed," says psychotherapist and yoga therapist Michelle J. Fury, who joined the staff of Kaley-Isley's program two years ago. "But when I ask the patients in yoga class to pay attention to their breath, to their feet on the mat, I am bringing them back to the present moment and slowing their negative thought patterns down."

Over time, that slowdown allows people to begin to reconnect with feelings that might be uncomfortable, including hunger and fullness. At Four Winds Yoga in Pennington, New Jersey, Gutowski and psychologist and yoga instructor Robin Boudette offer Inbodyment workshops. They combine Forrest Yoga (a practice created by Ana Forrest and centered on heat, deep breathing, and long-held poses) and mindfulness meditation. In the three-day workshops, each day begins with breathing exercises followed by a series of warming poses, then asanas, including hip openers and mild backbends.

"When you are in a difficult pose, you want to come out of it," Boudette says. "But you learn to stay in it and realize that discomfort comes and goes."

That process has had a profound impact on G., 49, of Princeton, New Jersey. Before she began private therapy with Boudette a year ago, she had stopped paying attention to her hunger. Because she traveled constantly for her high-powered business career, she simply ate whatever was in front of her. As a result, she gained weight, quit exercising, and felt heavy and lethargic. "It didn't even occur to me to ask the question, 'Am I hungry?'" G. says. "My body and eating had become completely disassociated."

Eat Like You Mean It

To help G. connect with both her body and her eating habits, Boudette led her in an exercise popularized by mindfulness meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn. Boudette gave her a raisin and asked her to take a full minute to look at it, to smell and feel it, to put it in her mouth and roll it around. Then she asked her to bite into it, to feel the texture and to experience the sweetness. "I was thinking the exercise was ridiculous," says G. "But then two days later, I would be eating something, and I would think, 'This is a really interesting texture,' or 'This smells good.' It made me think about what I eat and how I eat. Now I catch myself and say, 'I can just enjoy this.' I'm being kinder to myself."

As yoga replaces impulse with reflection, troubled eaters can also think differently about what it means to nourish them. Certainly that's true for Kathy McMillan, 43, of Knoxville, Tennessee. For six years, McMillan experienced joint pain and severe fatigue. She says that she tried to soothe herself with food. "I'd make a big bowl of pasta and immerse myself in a carbohydrate fog." Finally, the sixth doctor she saw diagnosed her with Lyme disease and, among other things, sent her to an Ashtanga Yoga class. "I was the worst student in the room," she says. "I couldn't lift into Downward Dog. But I was willing to try anything." In the two years since, not only has -she regained her strength and energy, but she has also revamped her eating habits.

"Before, I didn't think about what I was doing with my body," McMillan says. But within a month or two of beginning yoga, she noticed a shift. "I can feel my legs internally rotate in Downward Dog," she says. "The body awareness is unreal." As that awareness grew, McMillan's attitude toward herself changed and, with it, her relationship to food: "I started to respect my body more. I could see that my doctor was helping me and that through yoga I was going to be well. So, every time I put something in my mouth, I asked, 'Do I really want this?'"

What McMillan and others experience on the mat is a rising consciousness that follows them home. Mary Taylor, a yoga teacher, chef, and coauthor of What Are You Hungry For? says, "Instead of coming home and feeling the need for an emotional eating experience and then being mad at yourself for grabbing the chips and salsa, you begin to ask, 'What does my body really need at this point?'"

In her slow evolution, L., too, has begun to ask such questions. "My teacher stresses that there's no perfect pose—the pose you do today is perfect. If there is no perfect pose, is it possible that there is no perfect body, and I'm not lacking anything? If so, then I'm not eating to change myself but to sustain myself. That's a very different way of looking at it."

Dorothy Foltz-Gray is a writer based in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Planted Planet

Yogis reforest the globe, one donation at a time.


Yoga-related businesses are putting their formidable positive energy toward giving back—to the earth, that is. Jade Yoga, Shiva Rea's Yoga Trance Dance, and the Yoga Center in Carlsbad, California, are among a handful of companies and studios that contribute to reforestation efforts in some of the most needy regions on the planet.

"Trees are part of the lifeblood of our industry," says Dean Jerrehian, president of Jade Yoga, which manufactures PVC-free yoga mats from rubber trees. Jerrehian, a former lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency, explains that he decided to plant a tree for every mat sold. Through a partnership with Trees for the Future, Jade Yoga has planted more than 20,000 trees since the initiative launched in 2006.

Shiva Rea is also a big fan of Trees for the Future. Her Yoga Trance Dance program has supported the group's planting of approximately 300,000 trees, and Rea has pledged to support the planting of around 1 million more in 200 villages, mostly in southern India. She invites yogis to join "community pods" that will each sponsor one village. "I'm attracted by the people-to-people grassroots dimension of Trees for the Future," says Rea, who donates 100 percent of the revenue generated by the Trance Dances she leads to the organization's reforestation efforts.

Trees for the Future—which has planted more than 50 million trees since 1988—doesn't simply plant trees and decamp. Throughout impoverished areas of Central America, Africa, and Asia, it also teaches communities about sustainable agroforestry practices, investing local people in their own environmental welfare. For example, community members learn how to use the trees' foliage for food, wood for fuel, and roots to mitigate soil erosion.

With 10 trees planted for every $1 donated, the benefits of contributing to Trees for the Future are tangible, an aspect that appeals to its supporters. Eden Goldman, director of the annual charity yoga festival Karmapalooza, which gave all of its 2007 proceeds to the nonprofit, sums up its appeal: "You know exactly what you're getting when you donate money to Trees for the Future." Sarah Acker

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

India court in key abortion order

By Prachi Pinglay
BBC News, Mumbai

Niketa and Haresh Mehta (Photo: Fotocorp)
The couple say they may not be able to afford the medical expenses of their baby (Photo: Fotocorp)

A court in the Indian city of Mumbai (Bombay) has rejected a couple's plea to abort their 25-week foetus.

The case was as a key test of India's abortion law, which does not permit termination of pregnancies after 20 weeks unless it is fatal to the mother.

Niketa and Haresh Mehta approached the court after doctors told them that the baby had a congenital heart block.

The Mehtas took judicial action last week after doctors refused to abort the foetus. It is the couple's first child.

'Least chances'

The Mumbai High Court constituted a committee of doctors last week to assess the risks if the baby was allowed to be born as well as the risks to the mother if an abortion was allowed.

The committee told the court on Monday that there were "least chances" of the baby being born with a handicap.

Doctors also said it could be risky for the mother if she had an abortion at such an advanced stage of pregnancy.

The couple had urged the court to allow a delayed abortion because they learnt about the problem only in the 24th week of pregnancy.

Their doctor told the court that certain ailments could be detected only between the 20th and 24th week of pregnancy.

In their submission before the court, the couple said the child would need a pacemaker from the birth and would not be able to lead a normal life.

They also said that they may not be able to afford expensive medical treatment for changing the pacemaker every few years.

A pacemaker operation costs nearly $2,500.

An NGO offered to look after the baby if it was born with defects but the Mehtas turned down the proposal.

Everyday Ecstasy

See the Divine in everything, when you practice bhakti, the yoga of devotion.

By Nora Isaacs

Four days a week, Nancy Seitz unrolls her yoga mat for a 90-minute asana practice in the Sivananda Yoga tradition. But her "yoga" doesn't end when Savasana does. By ardently embracing some of yoga's devotional practices, Seitz—a 55-year-old editor in Manhattan—has developed a sweet sense of connection with the Divine that permeates her entire life.

Each morning she practices a 30-minute devotional mantra meditation. Before she leaves for work, she repeats a mantra for safe passage. She offers gratitude before each meal. She attends a weekly arati (light) ceremony at her local Sivananda center. At home she performs a puja ceremony at her altar—offering milk, rice, flowers, and water to Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of music, arts, and knowledge, as well as to other deities. She devotes her yoga practice to the spirit of the leader of the lineage she follows, the late Swami Sivananda.

"Bhakti just gives my practice a different dimension," Seitz says. "It's really hard in the day-to-day world to keep awareness and stay positive, and this awareness of the Divine helps." Like other modern yogis, Seitz has found bhakti yoga, known as the yoga of devotion, to be a lifesaver as she navigates a hectic modern existence. The Sanskrit word bhakti comes from the root bhaj, which means "to adore or worship God." Bhakti yoga has been called "love for love's sake" and "union through love and devotion." Bhakti yoga, like any other form of yoga, is a path to self-realization, to having an experience of oneness with everything.

"Bhakti is the yoga of a personal relationship with God," says musician Jai Uttal, who learned the art of devotion from his guru, the late Neem Karoli Baba. At the heart of bhakti is surrender, says Uttal, who lives in California but travels the globe leading kirtans and chanting workshops.

Yoga scholar David Frawley agrees. In his new book, Yoga: The Greater Tradition, he writes that the ultimate expression of bhakti yoga is surrender to the Divine as one's inner self. The path, he says, consists of concentrating one's mind, emotions, and senses on the Divine.

As American yoga matures, interest in bhakti yoga has exploded. The Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, holds an annual bhakti festival, and Yoga Tree in San Francisco hosts the Bhakti Yoga Sunsplash, a celebration with music. Today's Western yogis don't necessarily practice devotion to a Hindu deity, a guru, or "God" as a patriarchal figure in white robes (although some do). Many Westerners who practice bhakti yoga tend to connect with a more encompassing idea of the Divine, the Beloved, the Spirit, the Self, or the Source. As Uttal says, "Everyone has their own idea or feeling of what 'God' is."

"For me, bhakti means whatever strikes your heart with beauty, whatever hits the mark of your heart and inspires you to just feel the love," says Sianna Sherman, a senior Anusara Yoga teacher.

As you tap into this universal love, you naturally develop a sense of trust that this benevolent, wise universe provides; you relax; and you can't help but generate positive energy for others.

Frawley calls bhakti "the sweetest of the yoga approaches" and says it is often more accessible than other forms of yoga, which may explain its growing popularity. "At first, American yoga was just a fitness thing," says Carlos Pomeda, a yoga scholar in Austin, Texas. "But more and more we are seeing people discover this whole other world of love and devotion."
A Brief History of Love

In its purest form, bhakti burns like a devotional fire in the heart. An early and extreme example of a bhakti yogi comes from the 12th century, when a 10-year-old girl named Akka Mahadevi shunned childhood games and instead became a devotee of Shiva, the Hindu deity known as the aspect of destructive forces. Mahadevi eventually married a local king. But she found that her overwhelming love for Shiva overshadowed mortal love. She rejected her husband and ran away. According to legend, she gave up all of the riches of the kingdom, leaving even her clothes behind, and used her long hair to cover her body. For the rest of her life, Mahadevi devoted herself to Shiva, singing his praises as she traveled blissfully around India as a wandering poet and saint.

Akka Mahadevi is part of the rich tradition of bhakti yoga, which, historically, is seen as a reaction to a more ascetic approach to self-realization. Five thousand years ago, yoga represented a spirit of struggle, a solitary pursuit of overcoming the body and mind. In his quest for enlightenment, the archetypal yogi gave up clothes in favor of a loincloth, shunned material possessions, and paid little heed to the body's desire for food and sex. By renouncing all worldly pleasures, he sought to quiet his mind and know the Self.

But another idea was also brewing—one that emphasized the importance of channeling love toward God. The turning point in accepting this new path was the Bhagavad Gita, which was written somewhere between the third and second century BCE. The Gita, often called a "love song to God," expressed the idea that it's possible to move toward the highest goal—that of spiritual realization—by developing a connection with the heart. "The Gita is the birthplace of bhakti yoga," Pomeda says. "It was the first statement where you see bhakti as a separate—and complete—path."

With this idea cracked wide open, yogis began to view devotion as a legitimate route to enlightenment. But the Gita doesn't prescribe any specifics on the bhakti path. According to Pomeda, it would take several centuries for a systematic practice of bhakti yoga to solidify.

By the fifth century CE, the first devotional schools in the Shaiva tradition started to spring up in Southern India. These schools advocated devotion: worshiping and chanting mantra to deities like Shiva, Krishna, Vishnu, and Kali; singing devotional songs; following a guru; meditating on the Divine; reading and writing ecstatic poetry; and performing rituals like puja and arati ceremonies. The bhakti tradition emphasized the intense longing to know God, often called "the Beloved" in the poetry of the time.

In a beautiful way, bhakti yoga values love and tolerance, which was revolutionary in the conventional caste system of India. Traditionally, women stayed home and only upper-caste men undertook serious spiritual study. But texts show that everyone, of whatever gender or class, was welcome to embrace bhakti practices. "Lower castes and women don't show up much anywhere in the narratives of this time, but they do show up in the bhakti traditions in India," Pomeda says. "This speaks to the democratic spirit of devotion, the universality of devotion."

Bhakti yoga is one of six systems of yoga revered throughout history as paths that can lead you to full awareness of your true nature. Other paths to self-realization are hatha yoga (transformation of the individual consciousness through a practice that begins in the body); jnana yoga (inner knowledge and insight); karma yoga (skill in action); kriya yoga (ritual action); and raja yoga (the eight-limbed path also known as the classical yoga of Patanjali). These paths aren't mutually exclusive, although, for many, one path will resonate more deeply than another.

Ayurvedic physician, scholar, and author Robert Svoboda illuminates one way these systems overlap: He says that an asana practice (as part of hatha yoga) provides the opportunity to gather and direct the prana (life force) necessary to follow the rigorous path of a true bhakti yogi. "Only when you have removed the obvious obstructions to the circulation of prana out of your kosha [bodily sheaths] will the prana [be able to circulate]," he says. "Then you can collect and refine it and get it down deep into your marrow." But while getting your prana circulating is a worthy goal, Svoboda thinks it's not important—and potentially detrimental to the path of bhakti—to get caught up in complicated asana practice, which could deter you from the true goal of knowing your authentic Self.

Some Western yogis dabble in bhakti yoga through an occasional prayer or kirtan. But if you're a serious practitioner looking to find union with the Divine, a more rigorous practice is in order. Svoboda says the path of devotion involves total dedication and surrender. He doesn't identify a person, deity, object, or idea to which bhakti yogis should devote themselves. Each individual needs to discover that through whatever process they believe in—a prayer to God or a request to the universe—to ask for guidance, he says. "You need to say, 'I desperately need to be guided, and I request guidance on what to do, whom to worship, how to worship, and when to do it. I am requesting your permanent direction in my life.'"

And you may need to do so repeatedly, Svoboda says, until you actually surrender, not just surrender superficially. He says that you need determination, patience, and a certain desperation to fully surrender to the bhakti path. It sounds like a tall order for Westerners, but it's certainly worth trying. "If you have an asana practice, do a little bhakti practice every day," he advises. If it works for you, dedicate yourself to it; determination does pay off. "You have to decide that this path of devotion is what you're going to do—[that] this is what is most important to you. Tell yourself that life is short, that death is inevitable. Tell yourself, 'I don't want to be where I am now when I die.'"
A Devotee Is Born

Just as Akka Mahadevi devoted herself to Shiva, some modern bhaktis devote themselves to a specific deity. For example, Seitz feels guided by Saraswati and other deities in her creative work in the field of book publishing.

Still others devote themselves to a guru, living or dead. For practitioners of Integral Yoga, it is Swami Satchidananda; Sivananda yogis revere Swami Sivananda; Siddha Yoga members follow Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. Each of these traditions maintains ashrams or centers where followers gather to receive spiritual instruction and to come together for meditation and acts of worship such as puja ceremonies.

Some find having a guru essential to the bhakti path. Northern California yoga teacher Thomas Fortel was deeply involved in the Siddha Yoga tradition for two decades. He says that his teacher, Gurumayi, made him feel safe enough to explore and surrender to God. Uttal says that his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, helped teach him that divine energy is in everyone. But both students bring a modern spin to the guru question. "In the end, it's all about internalizing what I learned and making it my own," Fortel says.

Uttal suggests that a Hindu guru is not essential. "I believe that everyone has a guru. That guru doesn't necessarily take a human form, but if they need it, it's there," he says. "For me, bhakti takes a particular form: singing kirtan, playing music, and being married and being a daddy. I think my little boy is as much an expression of my bhakti practice as any mantra." But he hesitates to say that he can give a true definition of bhakti or say what the practice involves for anyone but himself. "One of the scary things about being asked the definition of bhakti is that it opens the door for me to think I know something. For me, one of the hugest parts of bhakti is remembering that I don't know anything. Anything I do for my ego just brings more ego. All I can begin to do is offer everything to God."
A Looser Approach

Many modern bhakti yogis believe that "the guru" can be found in all things. Bhakti, then, becomes a state of mind, a consciousness that involves embracing the Beloved—in whatever form that takes. San Francisco yoga teacher Rusty Wells calls his style of yoga "Bhakti Flow." To him, the definition of bhakti yoga can get unnecessarily complicated: "What I've always understood is that it's a simple way to embrace the Beloved, the Divine, God, or the connection to other sentient beings on this planet," he says. He often begins class by encouraging students to offer their effort, compassion, and sense of devotion to someone in their life who is struggling or suffering.

Sherman, who also relies on a contemporary interpretation of bhakti, aims to inspire the practice of devotion in her students. "Everyone shares the experience of love, but it looks different for every person," she says. "Some people fall madly in love with different aspects of nature; for others, it's a way of dancing or speaking poetically. It can look like so many different things. I don't try to determine what that is for somebody, but just by teaching from that place of love inside me, my hope is that people feel welcome to find that place inside themselves."
Singing Toward Enlightenment

One way to find that place inside yourself is by singing, especially singing hymns to God. Kirtan, or call-and-response chanting, is one of the traditional forms of bhakti yoga; the word means "praise." In India people worship specific deities by singing songs of praise to them. Today you can find kirtan gatherings at many yoga studios, concert halls, and retreat centers around the country.

Uttal says that kirtan can help channel emotions in a healing way. "We as a culture need to heal the heart, share the heart, express the heart. Ultimately, we need to use the heart to heal the world and connect us to God. The two things happen together."

Uttal sees the surge of interest in bhakti yoga in the form of kirtan as a wonderful thing for the collective consciousness: "The approach to spirituality in the West hasn't taken into account all of that stuff in our heart. It's been physical asanas and rigorous meditation techniques that, unless understood deeply, can put the emotional self off to the side." Singing your praise for God, on the other hand, tends to open your heart and can create a direct connection to the Divine, or at the very least create a positive feeling in your heart.

Svoboda agrees that it's good to sing bhajana (Sanskrit hymns) to get into a new space. But he cautions against thinking you can really engage in bhakti yoga by occasionally joining in a kirtan. "That in itself won't be sufficient to have a transformative effect that will penetrate into the deepest and darkest parts of your being," he says. "I don't think most people in the yoga community have a concept of the degree of emotional depth and intensity and texture that is necessary for bhakti yoga really to flower."
Looking Forward

Still, it's a good thing that Westerners are beginning to experiment with bhakti yoga and explore this path to connection with the Divine. "The Gita opened the door so that anyone can have their own relationship to God," Pomeda says. Hatha teachers aren't trained much in bhakti, but Pomeda predicts that, as the American yoga practice deepens, more instructors will discover it within themselves—and bring more bhakti into the practice to teach others. "It's great," he says. "We are finally discovering the richness of what yoga has to offer."

Although this is an ancient tradition, that richness extends beyond the mat and even into the fast pace of modern life. For Seitz, the bhakti path has changed the way she experiences life. In the frenzy of Manhattan, it has connected her with a community of like-minded yogis who attend ritual ceremonies at the Sivananda center. Her devotional practices help her stay positive and feel gratitude during life's mundane activities such as eating a meal or riding the subway. "I guess people maybe think they don't have time for bhakti yoga," Seitz says. "People think, 'OK, I've got 5 minutes, enlighten me.'" But when you do take the time, you might realize that bhakti is just another way to move along on the spiritual path. Echoing the feelings of many, Seitz says simply that it's a practice she does in the hope of achieving enlightenment one day.
Nora Isaacs is a writer in Northern California.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Pilgrims return to India shrine

Relatives of the dead and injured in the stampede
Thousands of devotees had gathered to celebrate an annual festival

Worshippers have returned to a Hindu temple in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, a day after a stampede at the shrine left 146 people dead.

About 50 people have been injured in the stampede at the Naina Devi temple.

Heavy rains and a rumour of a landslide and falling boulders caused widespread panic, leading to the stampede.

Many of the victims were children, trampled to death during the panic. Eyewitnesses blame insufficient police arrangement for the high casualties.

Tens of thousands of devotees had been gathering to celebrate the annual nine-day festival of Shravan Navratras.

An investigation is now under way into the incident at the temple located in the Bilaspur district, about 160km (100 miles) from the Himalayan hill town of Shimla.

A stampede at the shrine had killed 55 people in 1983.

'Question of faith'

The temple opened early on Monday with worshippers queuing up to pay obeisance.

"The tragedy is unfortunate. But that has not affected the flow of devotees," temple priest Rajesh Kumar was quoted by news agency IANS as saying.

Path after the stampede
Many of the victims were women and children

"It's a question of faith. The tragedy does raise a question in your mind but faith is supreme. Life has to go on," Ram Prakash, a devotee from the state's Mandi district said.

Meanwhile, grieving relatives have been searching through the rows of bodies and officials say 132 bodies have been identified so far.

At least 14 bodies remain unidentified, they said.

Hospitals in Bilaspur and Anandpur Sahib (in Punjab) have seen a stream of people trying to find their injured relatives.

Most of the worshippers who died in the stampede are believed to be from the neighbouring state of Punjab.

Thousands of Hindu worshippers were climbing up a 4-km (2.5-mile) trail leading to the hilltop temple, chanting and singing hymns, when the stampede happened.

Children lost their grip on their mothers' hands and were crushed under the feet of scared pilgrims attempting to leap over broken railings to save themselves, witnesses said.

Television footage showed the narrow path strewn with torn clothes and bags of flowers and offerings.

The chief minister of Himachal Pradesh has announced compensation to those injured in the stampede, and to the families of those killed.

Heartbreak can feel devastating, but it can also help you access your deepest spiritual essence.

By Sally Kempton


When I was six, the cutest boy in my class, Hughey Wise, asked me to meet him after school. I showed up; he didn't. Maybe, in the way of six-year-old boys, he'd decided it wasn't cool to spend the afternoon with a girl. Maybe he had a dentist appointment. I never found out, because neither of us ever mentioned it again. It was my first recognition of the unreliable nature of romantic agreements and the sheer unpredictability of human relationships.

Clearly, this unpredictability riles all of us from time to time, and it is at the heart of many of the questions I get from readers. So I've decided to do this special column of answers to questions about love. Of course, I'm not a therapist or life coach, and the intention of this column is not to offer advice that will help you "fix" your love life. The question-and-answer format simply seems the best way to look at some of the problematic aspects of romantic connection and to see how we can use them for deeper spiritual practice.

Of course, people rarely ask for advice when things are going well. They look for help in times of upheaval or stasis or loss. The good news is that help is available: the wisdom of yoga, which can help you let go of your expectations and fantasies and discover love's unconditional essence.

Set Love Free

I am having trouble letting go of a relationship that is over. We had a soul-mate connection but an unsatisfying and stormy relationship, yet I keep hoping that it's not quite over. I am still in love, and my instinct is to nurture the love. How do I let go?

In our culture there's a basic assumption that being in love means we are supposed to walk off into the sunset together. The truth is that two people can be close, love each other deeply and romantically, and not be suited to have a long-term relationship. In fact, having a soul-mate connection is not necessarily a good platform for a permanent relationship. If you accept the idea of karma, you can view that strong sense of connection as a sign that you share an intense karma from the past. The feeling of being soul mates can actually be the karmas drawing the two of you together so that you'll work out some unfinished business or help each other in some specific but limited way.

Paradoxically, being willing to accept the fact that you may not be a couple is the first step toward keeping the love while letting go of the suffering. There may still be pain—loss and endings are painful. By accepting the loss, however, you open the door for a different kind of flowering, between either you and this person or you and someone else.

So, here's my suggestion: Every time you feel the love and pain of the relationship, formally offer it up to the universe or to God. Do this over and over, and you'll begin to notice that your love is being freed of its clinging, possessive quality and becoming more a tender feeling.

When this happens, another possibility emerges. The soul-mate quality in the relationship can develop into a deep friendship. You can then free yourself from romantic expectations and the pain they engender, and genuinely wish the person well. That takes time and attentiveness to your own mind. I'd suggest working with your mind and heart through the following inner practices.

Set aside 30 minutes when you can be alone in your room or in nature. Go into your heart center. Imagine that this person is there with you and say, as if to him, "I release you. I offer our relationship and the love I have for you to the universe."

Stay with this thought or prayer until you feel a shift or release. There may be tears, emotional release, and pain. At some point you should get a sense of letting go. It doesn't have to be a big letting go—just a small release will do. Then, whenever you think of him, have the thought, "I release you and our relationship to the universe." Send him loving kindness by saying or thinking, "May you be happy; may you be healthy; may you be free." Whenever you wish him happiness, wish the same for yourself.

Second, along with that, I strongly suggest that you keep noticing the thoughts and fantasies that come up around this person. Practice seeing them as passing thoughts, instead of identifying with the thoughts and the patterns of feeling. Once you can see a thought as simply a thought—not necessarily a truth—the next step is to let it go. In Sanskrit, certain kinds of thoughts are called vikalpahs, sometimes translated as "dreams" or "fantasies." One vikalpah that really hooks us is the dream of the perfect love, the perfect relationship. If we identify with that fantasy, it can become an escape for us—a kind of alternate universe that we enter over and over again, effectively preventing us from inhabiting the places and situations of our "real" lives. Fantasy keeps us out of the present. When we practice the mantra If only I were with him, I'd be happy, we make our happiness unreachable, unattainable, outside ourselves, and outside the moment in which we are living. Working with the thoughts—noticing the thought arising, recognizing it as simply a thought, then letting it go—begins to break this pattern and takes us back into our present.

Instant Love

I recently attended a meditation retreat, where I became drawn to another attendee. The last day, during a partner exercise, we looked into each other's eyes and fell in love. This unexpected eruption of romance feels both compelling and destabilizing. It's called our long-term relationships into question on all levels. What should I do?

Nearly everyone in the yoga world has, at one time or another, fallen into a retreat romance. There's a natural intimacy that comes from sharing the retreat space: The heart is open; the mind is focusing inward and is often longing for distraction. I've known people who actually got married while in the throes of just such a spiritual romance. Some of these marriages worked; others exploded when the couples had to face their differences.

The most important action to take right now is to do nothing. For the next month use this experience as a way to learn about yourself and to be fully present with whatever feelings arise. It's common to avoid strong emotions like love, fear, desire, sadness. Instead, you might find yourself fixating on the stories that you associate with the feelings, which might go something like this: "I'm a terrible person for having these feelings" or "If I could fall in love like this, it means that my long-term relationship is flawed."

Yet such stories are spins on reality and not necessarily true. Narratives about the meaning of an experience are often based on unconscious default settings or on ways of seeing the world that you picked up from your family and culture. When you become a yogi, you might superimpose yogic principles and values on top of your old values. When you go through an emotional upheaval, you might find yourself caught between several competing narratives. The yogic ideal of detachment wars with the cultural ideal of romance; the desire for a new adventure fights with your wish for stability and depth of commitment. The conflict between these narratives can send you jumping through endless mental loops and spinning between alternatives, leaving you confused, fearful, and uncertain.

To complicate matters, your story about an experience can both define and direct your emotional response. If you feel a rush of anger at someone's careless words, your interpretation of their motives and of your reaction will determine whether you get into a conflict with them. Likewise, if your heart melts one day while in someone's company, you might interpret that feeling as a signal to pursue a romantic encounter. The way you choose to interpret things will deeply affect the future of that encounter.

But when you put the story aside, emotions are simply emotions. At the heart of all these emotions is energy itself. Love is a particular kind of energy. Sadness is another. Anger is another. Each of these emotions has a characteristic felt sense—for anger, perhaps a hardness in the heart or the gut; for love, a melting, rippling heat in the heart; and for sadness, a sinking, heavy feeling through the chest.

In times of upheaval one of the most powerful things that you can do is to practice catching each wave of emotion as a felt sense in the body, without acting on it or attaching to it. This is a kind of meditation practice; you keep bringing your attention to the sensation of the emotion in your body, just as you would bring your attention back to the breath again and again. You sit in the felt sense for as long as you can, noticing the stories and thoughts that arise, constantly bringing attention back to the present moment and to the feeling of the emotion in your body. As you do this, the feeling will begin to change. It might dissipate, or it might just lead to a different series of feelings. It's in that gesture of learning to be with emotions as sensation and energy, and then letting them shift, that you will begin to recognize the path you are meant to follow. Being present with the feeling of emotion without getting swept away in the story lets you act from a place of authentic instinct, rather than from the excitement and confusion of your stories about romance and betrayal.

Dream Lover

I'm in a relationship, but recently I've been attracted to an unsuitable man. For a while it served as a fantasy, making me feel alive and enhancing my creativity. Now it is taking up too much energy. How can I get rid of this obsessive fantasy?

You are intuitively recognizing the double-edged quality of romantic fantasy. Any sort of fantasy is distracting, removing you from being present and often covering issues that you need to resolve. But fantasies can also be a doorway into the mystical that yogis have used to recondition their inner world.

In other words, there's a gift in romantic longing if you can follow it past the personal and discover its deepest source. Romantic feelings compel us precisely because they so powerfully connect us to the experience of unconditional love. In his book We, psychologist Robert Johnson argues that romantic love is displaced love for God. And certainly, the great romantic passions of life have a God-touched quality, which is one reason that Rumi's poems about his love for his beloved companion, Shams, speak so deeply to us.

The Bhakti Sutras, a great text of Indian devotional literature, teaches that any human emotion serves as a way to love God. God can be loved as a friend, as a parent, even as a child. And the sutras say that the most powerful form of devotional love is the romantic style of devotion, called madhura bhakti (literally, "sweet devotion"). The intensity and longing in romantic love creates a powerful fire in the heart. When that fire is turned inward and is directed toward God or toward the inner Self, then it can transform our character, open our heart, and move us into great depths of surrender and adoration. I'm telling you this as a prelude to suggesting a way to work with these fantasies.

There are two approaches to dealing with an impractical and potentially dangerous romantic passion. One way is through discipline, self-inquiry, and renunciation—in other words, by cutting off the fantasies when they arise. The other, more inclusive, path is the way of the ancient yoga philosophy known as Tantra. Tantra asks you to focus on the feelings behind the fantasies—the pure feeling of longing for love that we all possess. This longing is activated by our connection to another person, yet it is much larger than that individual. When we find it and follow it, the longing can lead us toward Essence itself.

Both approaches work: One uses discipline to remove the fantasy, and the other moves into and through the fantasy to the longing at its core. By attending to the call of your deepest desire, you can make your fantasies into pointers rather than ends in themselves.

The way of discipline is the basic practice of interrupting thoughts and fantasies, the way you would do in meditation. Begin by making a decision that when the fantasies arise, you'll interrupt them. You may have to do that again and again—perhaps every morning when you wake up. Remind yourself that you don't want to go down the road of fantasy. Explain to yourself that they distract you and ultimately cause suffering. Then, each time one comes up, imagine yourself offering it to a fire in your heart. Just keep offering your thoughts to the internal fire again and again. This is an essential meditative discipline that helps break any kind of cognitive pattern.

To try the Tantric approach, begin by finding a quiet place to sit that's free from distractions. Then spend some time bringing up the fantasies. Fully feel the emotions and inner sensations aroused by your fantasy romance: the pure longing, the pure sexual intensity, if that is how it manifests. Try to feel the sensation deep inside the core of your body. Then bring the sensation up into the heart area and hold your attention there, feeling the emotion expand. Imagine it as light.

At that point, totally remove the image or the fantasy of your dream lover. This is crucial. Instead, concentrate on the feeling state itself. Notice its flavors—perhaps aliveness, sadness, longing, heart-ache, love. Let yourself sit with the feeling state of your heart. Recognize that these are your feelings, your longings, your love. With that awareness, let the feeling state continue to shift and expand.

The result of this practice is the dawning recognition that what you really are after, what you really long for, is the felt state triggered by your romantic fantasies. The more you can touch the feeling state in your body while letting go of the image that triggered it, the more you'll begin to see that it is your own love, your own internally generated aliveness.

A second step with the Tantric approach might be to expand the feeling to include people other than your lover. Bring into your awareness the image of different people in your life—people whom you love, people whom you're annoyed by, people whom you've seen on TV, people who are suffering, people who are sick, people who are happy and well. One by one, bring those people into your heart space and hold them there within the feeling space that you've created. Or, if it feels more natural, imagine yourself breathing the feeling state into those people.

Let the romantic feeling spread to include as many others as you possibly can. Realize that the love you feel can be universal. When you allow your focused, personal affection to expand in that way, you can begin to recognize how many opportunities for loving there actually are in this world.

Take it one step further and acknowledge the truth that is at the heart of the bhakti or devotional path: Inside your feeling is God. A feeling of love—any feeling of love—is God. Be aware that this feeling within you is Divine Presence.

These two practices, the basic mind discipline and the Tantric, both help fantasies lose their stickiness. But the Tantric approach can help you open your heart to love's healing depths.

Sally Kempton, also known as Durgananda, is an author, a meditation teacher, and the founder of the Dharana Institute. For more information, visit

Sunday, August 03, 2008

'Scores die' in India stampede

A stampede at a hilltop temple in northern India has killed at least 120 people, police have said.

Police said the victims included 30 children. Dozens more people were hurt and have been taken to hospital.

This footage has no audio

Timeline: Most deadly stampedes

Relatives await news of those caught up in the Nainadevi temple stampede
Many of the victims of the Nainadevi temple stampede were children
Scores of pilgrims have died in a stampede at a hilltop temple in northern India, during a Hindu religious festival. BBC News chronicles the deadliest stampedes of recent times.

12 January 2006, Mina, Saudi Arabia: At least 364 die in a crush during the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

Officials say the stampede happened after pieces of luggage spilled from moving buses in front of one of the entrances to the bridge of Jamarat, causing pilgrims to trip.

31 August 2005, Baghdad, Iraq: Up to 1,000 Shia pilgrims are trampled to death or drown in the Tigris river after rumours of a suicide bombing sparked panic. Many of the dead are women and children.

25 January 2005, Maharashtra state, India: Up to 300 Hindu pilgrims die in a stampede during a Hindu pilgrimage to the remote Mandhar Devi temple.

Many pilgrims are crushed and burned to death as fires in roadside stalls force crowds into a narrow stairway leading to the hilltop temple.

1 February 2004, Mina, Saudi Arabia: Some 251 pilgrims are trampled to death in a 27-minute stampede during the Hajj.

Officials say many of the victims were not authorised to participate in the Stoning of Satan ritual, after new procedures were introduced following previous stampedes.

9 May 2001, Accra, Ghana: Some 126 die in a stampede following a football match.

The tragedy takes place at the Accra Sports Stadium during the match between rival teams Accra Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko.

The Ghanaian police are blamed by many survivors for causing the stampede by firing tear gas in the packed and locked stadium, after angry demonstrations by fans of the losing side.

9 April 1998, Mina, Saudi Arabia: At least 118 pilgrims die and more than 180 are hurt during the Stoning of Satan ritual. The pilgrims, mostly from Indonesia and Malaysia, are trampled to death after panic erupts when several people fall off an overpass.

2 July 1990, Saudi Arabia: Some 1,426 pilgrims, mainly Asian, die in a huge crush in a tunnel leading to Mecca's holy sites.

The authorities say most died of asphyxiation after the tunnel's ventilation system broke down.

15 April 1989, Sheffield, England: Some 96 Liverpool supporters are crushed to death during the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.

Police had opened the doors at one entrance to Hillsborough Stadium to allow about 2,000 people without tickets to enter the stadium, crushing others in the stands.

Sri Lankan families count cost of war

Roland Buerk
BBC News, Veruppamkulam

It was 25 years ago this week that a minor insurgency in Sri Lanka began to turn into a full-scale civil war.

Sri Lankan soldier
The army is advancing in the north

An attack by Tamil Tiger rebels in the north sparked rioting across the country targeting members of the Tamil minority. The events came to be known as Black July.

More than 70,000 people have died in the conflict. Now the army says victory is finally in sight.

In recent weeks the pace of the advance has quickened, but the Tigers deny they are facing defeat.

The army is recruiting hard, especially from rural areas.

Not long ago the Defence Ministry sent out a text message to mobile phones nationwide.

"Young Patriots," it read. "Come join with our armed forces and be a part of a winning team."

Earnings and tragedy

Over the years war and the army has become a way of life for many families.

KB Leelawatti
KB Leelawatti had two sons in the army who died in action

Take the village of Veruppamkulam, midway between the capital, Colombo, and the Tamil Tigers' northern stronghold. Some 125 families live here and all but a handful have at least one person in the armed forces.

The war has brought them some relief from the poverty of rural Sri Lanka.

There are brick houses, complete with colour televisions. Some have shiny new Bajaj three wheeler scooters parked outside, others have Indian motorbikes.

Last week the roof was being put on a house being built by a military family. The man overseeing the work said 47 of his relatives were in the forces. When the conflict began, he said, they were living in shacks.

Fighting has become the best career option for young men. There is little other work in the village.

Nuwan Charmara Dinepala, 18, planned to go to the army camp to join up the next day.

"I can't stay at home. I have nothing to do, no job," he said as he took a break from a game of cricket with his friends, many of whom were soldiers at home on leave.


The war has also brought tragedy to Veruppamkulam. There are graves of fallen soldiers in the village. One headstone features a map of the island and a Sri Lankan flag.

KB Leelawatti has only photographs as reminders of her two soldier sons. They were killed within months of each other, aged 22 and 23, and their bodies were never recovered from the battlefield.

"I am happy because they sacrificed their lives for the country," she said tears steaming down her face.

"On the other hand I am so sad to have lost them. And it's not only my children, so many young Sri Lankans have joined the forces to go to war."

'Houses burning'

This month became known as Black July back in 1983 because the explosion of violence was so bitter.

The Tamil Tigers attacked an army convoy in the Jaffna peninsula, killing many soldiers. The next day rioting broke out in Colombo and mobs attacked members of the ethnic Tamil minority.

Kaderaveil Sunder
Kaderaveil Sunder was rescued from Sinhala mobs by other Sinhalas

The violence quickly spread. No one really knows how many Tamils were killed before the situation was brought under control. Estimates range from 400 to 3,000.

Many thousands of Tamils left the island. Others stayed, including Kaderaveil Sunder, a shopkeeper in Colombo.

"Houses were burning, everywhere there was fire," he said. "We were hearing the sounds of the fire brigade going here and there. Police... we couldn't see and we were very frightened because we thought we might get killed.

"Thank God [Sinhalese] people came to help us who were known to us. And that's how we escaped from the situation."

Tamil arguments

Twenty-five years on much has changed as the war has ebbed and flowed across the island.

A ceasefire signed in 2002 was finally abandoned after breaking down on the ground two years ago.

Evening prayers in Veruppamkulam
Villagers in Veruppamkulam pray for peace

The government says its forces, which are advancing into the north, have already driven the Tigers from the east.

Provincial elections have been held in the east that the government says will be the basis for limited devolution intended to end the conflict.

They were won by a government alliance including a breakaway faction from the rebels which still hasn't given up its guns. A former Tamil Tiger child soldier is now chief minister of the Eastern Province.

"The fact that the present chief minister in the Eastern Province is a Tamil doesn't resolve the Tamil question," said R Sampanthan, the leader of the pro-Tiger Tamil National Alliance grouping in parliament.

"The Tamils want political power in their hands. Tamils want the principle of self-determination accepted in the areas of historical habitation.

"There may be Tamil militants, or ex-militants who are under compulsion to make common cause with the government, to appease the government, to placate the government. This is no solution to the Tamil question."

Back in Veruppamkulam, as evening drew in, people gathered at the Buddhist temple for prayers that would last all night.

Some mourned lost sons. Others worried about their loved ones on the frontlines.

The government says an end to the conflict is coming soon. But people in the village have heard that promise before.

KB Leelawatti believes the war should stop. Otherwise, she asks, how many more mothers will have to mourn?