The “spiritual scene” around the world these days is so inclusive and open that I imagine my story is similar to many others. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Trying classes, healings, pulling coconut oil, retreats and getting somewhere but then a shift, a change and a move to something else. The two paths that have recurred consistently and with the most effect, though, are Tibetan Buddhism and the advaita vedanta non-dual teachings which I feel are well captured by the Hridaya yoga school that I am just about to embark on a three month teacher training with.
As I start the course it is with a mixture of anxiety and excitement. I know this has the potential to be the biggest life-shift yet and that is by no means an easy thing to go into!
My journey has been a bubbling under for most of my life. It was only really on visiting India that things started to blossom for me and I was able to see the need for a spiritual path through existence – something which I had always kind of known but never really been able to put into practical terms.
Mrs Jones was my teacher in Junior school and where others did PE or country dancing we spent several afternoons practicing yoga with her. I don’t remember a lot about the classes but she was one of my favourite teachers and despite seeming quite old to my 8 year old self, I’ve seen her recently and she seems just as sprightly as she was back then. Perhaps because of this I’ve always had a positive view of yoga despite an experience in Thailand that put me off for some time.
I had a desire to travel, because I felt my life was stagnating so I went to Australia. I’d made some good Australian friends in London but I soon found that it wasn’t so much their Australian-ness that made them fascinating people but the urge in them to travel. I met wonderful people from all over the world, embracing life and trying different ways to spend their days.
It was my time in South East Asia on the way back that I really loved, though. Connecting with a thoroughly different culture, visiting temples (that I had little clue about) being fascinated by Buddhist Monks and climbing hundreds of steps to Hindu temples.
I visited Angkor Wat, without knowing the significance. (I just watched this documentary which is fascinating (only about 10 years later…)
I looked around Chinese shrines in Vietnam shrouded in incense smoke as well as the Cao Đài temple near Saigon which brings together Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. I spent time with Muslim friends in Malaysia celebrating the end of Ramadan and feasting, I tried meditation for the first time and was absorbed by the beautiful offerings which were a clear backdrop of life in Bali.
This trip was an eye-opener for me in terms of seeing different ways of living although I knew nothing of the philosophy or practices that underpinned these religions. I was more drawn to the amazing nature and animal life in the Borneo rainforest or on Thai beaches. I was also in love with the food.
I came back and had a relationship with an English girl I met in Brisbane. She has a story of her own but I think living with her changed me a great deal and the breakdown of our relationship started a profound shift in me which is where this journey somehow really started.
She was all about healthy living, organic food, growing vegetables and alternative healing techniques like homeopathy reflexology and shiatsu. I wasn’t on the same self-development page at that point, thinking that this sort of thing was somehow for people who couldn’t face reality. Having said that, I was interested in changing my lifestyle, I tried to meditate, started jogging and practiced yoga once or twice, albeit encouraged by her Yoga with Miss Jayne Middlemiss DVD.
When we split up I wanted to make a change. I slipped into depression for a while but had an epiphany one day, a moment of absolute clarity which encouraged me and pushed me on. I decided it was time to go travelling again but couldn’t decide whether to go to South America or India.
I watched this film – I Heart Huckabees – and it was only much later that I realised the references to Eastern Philosophy, spirituality, and how it influenced me. It’s a silly film in some ways but is one I’ll always remember as a point of change.
The trip to change it all
My paternal grandfather, Ken, was dying at the time and it was painful to see him in such a bad way. We were quite close and I had deep love and respect for a man who never seemed to find life a chore.
He was utterly single minded in his advice – “go to India”. He had been good friends with several Indians in the motor trade over the years while South America I think was like the wild west for him.
With this encouragement India became a very easy choice and I set off, not with particularly spiritual aims at that point but India has a strange effect on the open traveller.
Before I left I had signed up to volunteer with the Tibetan charity LHA, working with one of their partners, The Tibet Post, to write articles for their English language website in Dharamsala.
I learnt a lot about the Tibetan people and their struggle, about Buddhism, at a high level, both from Yeshe, the editor and also from my fellow correspondent, Jimmy who was a bundle of energy and the most positive thinking guy you could meet.
Dharamsala is in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh and is full of Tibetan refugees.
It is quite different from other parts of India as monks hang out in their saffron robes, lay Tibetans play carom on the street, momo‘s abound and there are opportunities to do charity work with the community everywhere.
I had a beautiful month meeting people and it was here that I took my first yoga classes. Vijay’s Universal Yoga was in a school down the hill and although I didn’t know what I was doing and his instructions were somehow difficult to understand it really felt like the right place to be.
Before I left the UK I’d also signed up for a 10 day “Introduction to Buddhism” course at the Tushita Meditation centre.
Just prior to the course, the Dalai Lama was visiting his home temple and gave three days of spiritual teachings which I struggled to understand, sitting at the back with a transistor radio and listening to the translation.
It was a bit much for me at that stage but from talking to Yeshe and Jimmy I began to grasp some of the basics.
With this as a backdrop I nervously entered Tushita in a (literal) hailstorm and dove deep into Buddhist philosophy under the teaching of Ven. Robina Courtin.
Robina is an Australian nun who brought the teachings to us in a beautifully down to earth way. It was jarring for some of the participants who were coming from Western Christian backgrounds and who objected to some of the explanations of Karma, the hell realms and hungry ghosts.
it was quite an experience for me and being in silence felt like a real relief. I didn’t really even want to participate in the daily group discussions, preferring to let things settle in my mind first rather than be shaken up in dissenting voices.
We learnt about the four noble truths, practiced mindfulness and analytical meditation along with versions of some specifically Mahayana style tantra practices – visualisation of the Vajrasattva deity for example.
Robina was a massive inspiration as someone who lived a secular (and wild) life for many years but then quite abruptly decided to throw her all into following Lama Yeshe, taking vows and becoming a nun.
The course led to a number of connections and friends as well despite not being able to talk to each other during the period. A large number of us stayed a while in Mcleod Ganj and then gradually regrouped in Rishikesh a couple of weeks later.
Yoga and Music
Rishikesh is on the banks of the holy river Ganga, considered the mother by the Hindus, its holy water able to wash away all sins.
The town is overrun with ashrams and teachers sharing yoga and meditation as well as a number of large temples that serve as pilgrimage sites on the way up to Gangotri – the source of the river.
I was interested to do more yoga and also visit the “Beatles Ashram” where the mop tops had stayed practicing trancendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
The site is now an overgrown ruin but still has a tangible sense of calm about it.
There was great syncronicity, arriving in town as a free yoga and music festival was about to start. The range of teachers offering classes here helped me to see the diversity of practices that fall under the large “yoga” banner. It was also Diwali while I was there where pilgrims and locals turned the town into a war zone with fireworks and firecrackers.
From Rishikesh I carried on travelling with friends from Tushita for the rest of my six month trip, practicing yoga, having deep philosophical conversations, but also being awestruck by everything that India had to offer.
Ongoing discoveries of India
A couple of us discovered the Chinese Chi Gung exercises of Falun Gong and began a regular practice which was the first time I had really experienced energy moving within my body. I finished each session feeling ready to explode into the day.
We spent some time at the Shivananda ashram in Neyyar Dam, Kerala. I loved the yoga there but was a bit distracted by outside factors to fully integrate into spiritual ashram life.
Carrying on the journey
I visited Nepal and was awed by the mountains and the ancient shrines nestled among the everyday. I had to return to the UK but it was with the feeling that I had not yet completed my journey.
I wanted to continue with the one month “November” course teaching the Lam Rim, or Graduated path to Enlightenment at Kathmandu’s Kopan monastery. This was the first centre established by Lama Yeshe before he opened Tushita and the stories I had heard were enough to encourage me it was the place to go.
First finding of Agama
First though, I found myself back in South East Asia, exploring temples and meditation in Bangkok and discovering Agama yoga in Ko Phangan.
I went looking for yoga on the island best known for it’s immense full moon parties but it was another syncronicity that I ended up where I did.
I was offered a bungalow by a guy on the boat across from the mainland on a beach that I knew nothing about. Within a day though I had met several people studying at Agama’s “yoga university” and was intrigued to give it a go. My first day saw us learn the powerful energy sublimation exercise Udiyyanha Bandha – particularly good for moving sexual energy to the higher charkras. If this wasn’t enough to pique my interest the 3 hour lecture from Swami Vivekananda Saraswati that evening on Brahmacharya which was a talk about sexual continence and an introduction explaining how tantric practices could lead to higher states of consciousness and ultimately spiritual enlightenment.
It was here that I read The Power of Now in a hammock, a rental from the Chocolate brownie cafe. I knew at the time that the collected writings here were powerful and would be hugely important but I didn’t realise how far the teachings would take me.
I was encouraged to do a ten day brown rice diet. Taken from George Oshawa and theories of Macrobiotics this simple diet cleans the blood and increases levels of Yang energy in the body. It was tough going, particularly since I began at the same time as I took the first Tantra course with the school.
The theory covered in Tantra 1 was fascinating, although it was a very large group, the majority of whom had just completed their teacher training together, so it felt a little exclusive. I thought there could have been more exercises to work on energy and connection but as it was I finished the course feeling a little dissilusioned. The teachings have stuck with me though and in terms of a view of spirituality it particularly resonated with me by placing sex in a devotional place.
I didn’t stay long after the course, I felt the need to move on and let the teachings sink in. I went to Bali to see a friend and continued to practice the yoga I had learnt and had numerous bodywork therapy sessions.
I continued into Java to be awed by powerful volcanoes (and their effects) and the beautiful temple of Borobodur.
This was powerful stuff before I arrived where I planned to at the outskirts of Kathmandu. I spent some time enjoying the valley, visiting the magnificent Bodinath stupa and volunteering at a small community centre offering some time to school children before they started their day.
Diving deeper into Buddhism in Nepal
At the start of November I headed up the hill to stay at Kopan and recieve teachings from another Australian, Ven Dhondrup. The one month course had its ups and downs and is worth a post all by itself but I was a little taken aback by the level of dogma that seemed to be part of the teachings. It was a much more overtly “religious” experience than the Tushita equivalent and I guess I found it a bit too much like a recruiting centre at times. Still, we learnt some powerful philosophy and the lectures on emptiness in particular were really beautiful for me.
I left feeling like I needed some respite, though, and the next step, Pokhara, for Christmas and New Year, was full of lightness and fun with fellow students from the course and a mutual friend from London who I connected with on philosophy of life and through a sharp sense of humour.
I’m not sure exactly when I decided I wanted to complete the first month level of Agama in Rishikesh but this was my next goal, although it took a few months to come around.
Landing in Tiru
After some time on the beaches of Gokarna I headed off by myself with no clear destination in mind but there had been subtle signs directing me which only became clear when I arrived in Thiruvanamalai. Even though there was no accomodation and I ended up staying next to the temple in the centre of town rather than in the enclave of travellers and gurus near the Sri Ramanaashram, I knew it was the right place to be.
I’ve written about it – here – but it was the syncronicity that struck me. I’d read Paul Brunton’s “A Journey in Secret India” without really knowing much about it or understanding that the gurus he talked about were really not so distant.
Sri Ramana was the guru that he connected with the most. Not only that but the teachings of non-duality and present moment awareness which can be broadly associated with Advaita Vedanta are also very much the philosophy of Eckhart Tolle. It was a powerful jolt to me when I realised the connection with The Power of Now from my hammock in Ko Phangan.
I’d also just read a David Frawley book Yoga and the Sacred Fire which referenced the holy mountain of Arunachala that dominates the town.
I went to see Mooji and his beautiful, heart based, teachings of non-duality. At first I was put off by the new age trappings and serene looking girls floating around carrying “silence please” signs in the queue but it didn’t take long before I was hooked.
Walking up the stunning Arunachala, the mountain said to be an emanation of Lord Shiva, and reaching the point where the honks of the town are blocked out is a powerful moment of spiritual and material peace. Walking around the base of the mountain on the full moon with thousands of pilgrims is a different experience altogether and arriving at the temple in town to a fire ceremony shows the strong devotion.
Melding Rishikesh and Agama
After a trip to the incredibly beautiful Andaman Islands and a journey that took in the place of Buddha’s enlightenment in Bodhgaya, I arrived back into Rishikesh a short while before the Level 1 course at Agama was due to start.
I took several classes with an amazing teacher, Surinder and it was hard to give up but I’d committed to complete the first month of structured teachings and it was well worth it.
In a month the level one course covers around 20 asana and has lectures on every conceivable topic vaguely related to yoga all addressed with a strong spiritual backdrop.
We learnt cleansing kriyas, meditations, yoga nidra, and yogic philosophy. It is enough to give you pointers for further learning for a lifetime.
Agama level 1 was transformational in many ways but not least because after talking to some of the teachers I was inspired to go back to Ko Phangan for a 10 day Hridaya meditation retreat.
I travelled some between Rishikesh and Ko Phangan, rising to the amazing heights in the Spiti Valley and Leh, Ladakh where I did a short retreat, Theravada style, with a Malaysian Nun.
I went to Thailand to meet some friends which led to high levels of drama; the perfect thing to resolve in retreat.
I’ve written about that here but it was really like meditating for the first time “properly” and I came out the other side quite different.
I leapt into Agama’s level 2 course in order to really deepen my practice because that was what I felt strongly called to do. My group of friends on the beach fostered a creative energy which was joined in partying and lightness.
I entered into an attempt at a conscious Tantric relationship with a girl I met there and we returned home to the UK together with big ideas but little way to make them manifest. It was a journey that we undertook together and made sense when we were travelling but our differences became apparent after returning to the UK. We “consciously uncoupled” not long after moving in together and I learnt much more clearly what my needs are in a relationship and that I shouldn’t compromise on them.
Around this time I met Naz, teaching Hridaya yoga and meditation in the Jamyang Buddhist centre in Kennington, So uth London. Jamyang is another branch of FPMT, the organisation that Kopan and Tushita are a part of, so this joyful connection between two strands of my spiritual life was another powerful synchronicity.
I started going regularly to Naz’s class despite it being the other side of London for me. She teaches with great heart as well as knowledge and has developed a strong community around her so it was easy to be committed.
Our group went on a “yoga holiday” to Morrocco and had a wonderful time, while I’ve also explored the spiritual scene in the UK more with her, going to festivals and to see Amma at Alexandra Palace. She has become a dear friend as well as teacher.
She inspired me further to take the Hridaya Teacher Training Course and after I attended a four day retreat led by the teacher Sahajananda that she organised in Stroud, I knew it was the right thing to do.
I discovered Kirtan, or devotional singing in India and Thailand and have attended many events dedicated to this spiritual practice back home which really helps to bring me back to my centre very quickly. Events like the Bhakti gatherings in the UK have shown me that there is a beautiful group of people in selfless service to this practice.
I was introduced to a couple of Tantra teachers through my writing – Elena Angel, who inspired this piece on Cacao and Jan Day who runs Osho inspired relationship workshops. It was at one of these workshops, Meetings Without Masks, which I was invited to, that I met Sarah and started what is a powerful relationship.
We started out knowing that I would be away for several months but decided to let that be a reason and invitation to dig as deeply into the relationship as possible. We explored Cacao and its effects together and practiced open communication with each other, discussing all that came up for each of us, good and bad, and working through those triggers to make things even more juicy and delicious.
I haven’t touched on star signs in this piece but I think that in a spiritual philosophy where all are connected, as above, so below and being influenced by the teachings of sacred geometry such as explained by Nassim Harramein the celestial bodies playing a part makes sense for me.
I first learnt about the stars in Brisbane where “Linda Goodman’s Love Signs” led to lots of interesting matches but it was in Rishikesh where I discovered a lot more by taking a workshop on how to read the star chart.
I’m triple water – Sun in Pisces, Scorpio rising and my Moon is in Cancer. In fact, while I’m putting it out there – here is my chart:
Sarah has her sun in Cancer, Pisces ascendant and Moon in Scorpio so maybe it’s no surprise that two such watery creatures would flow together so sweetly and merge in such a deep way.
So that is my spiritual journey so far. I’ve come to realise that what is needed for me is to take time for deep internal observation, practice more selfless service and be happy and truthful in relationship. I need to have physical well-being achieved through yoga, diet and connection with nature. The realisation of interconnectedness with all things and the compassion that comes from it is a huge thing to grasp but all the fingers are pointing towards that moon.
I have recently been told that in Jungian psychology I’m entering the 5th 7 year cycle of man which is all about taking stock, determining what is really us and what traits we’ve taken on from family and society. It is characterised by creative peaks and peak experiences in terms of insights and inspiration so I guess I’m in exactly the right place for this to emerge!