Day 18 Lockdown in France

            Down in the valley, where I lived before moving here, at the turn of the road where the main road swerves right into the village, there is a cottage on the left-hand side. In fact, if you drove too fast, you would not even notice it. The cottage lies far back hidden behind tall pine trees and a bit of scruffy and overgrown weedy garden in front. The only way to notice this cottage would be to walk into the village. So few people seem to do that these days. The next village is about 7 kms down the road, past vast fields of wheat and barley, mainly grown as fodder up and over the gentle slopes of the hills. Wherever the field breaks into little forest areas, one can spot the high wooden raised stand for hunters. The only reason why one could walk into the village would be if one got lost in the forest and then found the way back by walking alongside the road. So, like I said, no one would notice the cottage. Neither did I, for a long time.

            It was while I was visiting a friend of mine who had a beautiful garden at the bottom of the village, that she asked me if I knew who lived in the cottage. I did not, of course. In fact I did not even know there was a cottage. Oh yes, there is, she said. It seems like the house is on sale and she just wondered. The next time I drove in the village I slowed down to take a look and sure enough, behind the tall trees was a house, completely darkened by the shade of the pines in front. It looked dark and uninviting and honestly, uninhabited. After some months, the same friend came excitedly to my house and said, we are invited! Where to? To the cottage. I forget the real reason why and how she secured an invitation, but there it was. So, on the appointed day, I opened a small gate and walked over slippery and broken flagstones to knock on a door, where the paint was fading and peeling off. I nervously held a small bouquet of flowers I had picked that morning in my garden. The door creaked open and there stood the oldest woman I have ever seen, or so I thought. Her entire body was bent over her walking stick, but she did not seem weak. Oh no, there was a fire, a strength, in spite of her extreme old age, that I found almost frightening at that point. Now, I have to stop and tell you that Hela, as she was called, is long gone and I feel comfortable telling you about her. Where were we? Ah yes, she opened the door and bid me in with my name, properly pronounced, which does not happen very often. I walked through a dark passage into a really bright and cozy living room. It was such a change from the front of the house. This room faced the back garden with a bit of lawn and shrubs, sunlight flooding in through huge windows that were flung open. The garden sloped down to the small creek and went up on the other side which was the back garden of the church. Perched at the edge of the sofa with a teacup in her hand was my friend. She smiled brightly, too brightly I thought, or maybe it was a triumphant yet pathetic smile. I don’t remember and anyway, that is not important. 

            To this day, I remember a lot of details of that first meeting. Hela had a kind face and very watery eyes, the wrinkles on her face and hands so numerous it was difficult to imagine how she must have been when she was younger. And yet, there were photographs on a sideboard. Hela, smiling, Hela, holding a small baby, her niece, Hela, in her wedding dress, her head turned to one side, arm in arm with a man in a suit and hat, all proud and happy and beaming. Yes, she was married, a long time ago, her husband died 10 years ago, or was it 12? She did not remember anymore. No, there were no children, but she had a family. Her sister, her brother who died in the war, her numerous nephews and nieces. All grown up now, with their own families. Oh yes, they visit, they call. She even has a mobile phone, but she does not use it much. She never uses the front door, there is another door through the back garden that led right up to the road through the side lane. Ah, that’s why she is not worried about the broken flagstones. And so I came to know Hela and her life and her stories. There was tea and cake that day. I remember the cups with their floral prints and golden rim. They were old too, just like her, and fragile. Time passed and I visited Hela a couple of times, but my friend always insisted on joining me. I don’t remember why she did, because she hardly said anything, merely sat on the sofa and smiled.

            That autumn when the storms began, we had a warning one day of a particularly severe hurricane coming our way. The children were sent home early that day, and I drove to the train station to pick them up. Already, on our drive back home, we saw the treetops sway madly and gusts of wind blowing twigs, leaves, branches on the road. We drove home and in the face of the storm that had already darkened the sky to an inky black I started to secure the door to the shed, locking it shut before putting in all the pots and tools lying around. Then I put heavy bricks on top of the dust bin lids to keep them from flying off. There was news on the radio that we might even lose electricity, so while the children searched the house for candles, I quickly warmed up soup and we ate, all the while listening to the wind pick up speed outside. It was at this point I remembered Hela. Hela, in her house, surrounded by giant pine trees that might just fall on the house and crush her and no one would know. What would happen should everything grow dark? I quickly collected some candles and poured some of the soup in a container. Are you really planning on going there? But I have too, she is all alone. It is not safe. I know. Call her. I don’t know her number. And I have my mobile.

            The short car ride was terrible, the branches whipping the air violently, dust circling around carrying all kinds of debris. I drove and parked the car away from the trees. Fighting my way through the wind, holding on to the bag of soup and candles, I banged on the front door. The pines were swaying dangerously, and I heard the branches rattle on the roof, the cones falling like rain. There was no answer, so I held on to my jacket, pulling the hood over my head and protecting the face as much as I could, ran to the side lane and saw light at the back window. Then I saw Hela. She was sitting on her armchair, her eyes closed, seemingly oblivious to everything around. She had a fire lit in the fireplace, the lamp by her chair adding light to the already bright room.  I did not knock. I watched for a moment at her calm and serene face, as if she was in a different place and time. And the world outside howled and bellowed and twisted and swayed. Was she asleep, was she dreaming, did she know of the storm, did she know of the danger of falling trees, was she afraid. I don’t know, I did not have a chance to ask. As I huddled back to my car and drove back home, I did not ask myself these questions. I was only relieved that she was okay. Only many years later, while thinking of this incident did I wonder what she felt. 

            A month after this, her house was sold, and she moved. She left her new address with my friend and expressed her wish that I should see her. But I never did. Life took its various twists and turns, and I did not get to see Hela again. Today, I can hear her voice asking me why I did not knock. I could have come in, sat by the fire and had some tea. She would have told me about her family, her nephews and nieces and how they are all grown up now. Do you hear the wind outside? It is quite loud today, isn’t it? 

Day 17 Lockdown in France

The forest after a rain always has a magical quality to it. Steams that rise from the ground envelop my dog as she runs forward to meet a friend. As I stop to chat with the other dog’s owner, the dogs play, jump, skip in the air, completely oblivious to everything around, happy to roll in the mud, happy to play chase, happy to meet. After a brief playtime, my dog runs back to me, panting, her tongue hanging out, her eyes shining and runs on ahead. I know where she is headed, to jump into the cold stream that gushes down the side of the hill. I hear the splash and see her jump around a bit and then run up the hill, wet and with a wagging tail expectedly looking at me, wasn’t that fun. I walk on, along the hillside, with the stream in the gorge on my left and the rising hillside on my right. Do you see the tiny sparkles of periwinkle and how they shine through the dark leaves running all along the sides, first on the right cascading down and then on the left almost flowing down to the water? Star-like beauties, they lighten up the mossy cracks of the wall that runs on the right, built years ago when this path was used for crossing probably avoiding the vineyards and forest which has now given way to the village. The branches on both the sides are lichen-rich, the greenish white crusts camouflaging the dark woody stems below. And everywhere the bright fresh green bursting forth, be it the oak, the elm or the very ancient strawberry tree. What delight there is to see so much of brightness after a quiet and subdued winter. Winters here are not harsh, there is frost but not much and many of the trees, like the majestic cypress or the pines, of course, do not shed. But here in the valley where it is a bit damper and cooler than the more exposed top of the hills, deciduous trees and shrubs reign. And right now, after the rain there are tiny droplets hanging from the lips of the leaves, all ready to fall to the ground. While they remain there gracefully poised between heaven and earth, the light shines through and they twinkle like jewels. The stones below my feet are similarly wet and slippery, lichens growing around little pools that have formed between crevices. 

At the point where the path bends away from the stream a new bed of boulders appears. My dog sniffs around before jumping up the rocks to the other side and I navigate my way across the slippery stones to cross to the other side. The hill side as seen from here seems immense and the trees that grow send down long windy roots, which have been conveniently used by dark green ivy to climb up, such that the entire scenery here looks primordial. There is something very ancient about this place. It is hushed, the stream is now a faraway gurgling entity, the birds seem quieter and even my dog knows that these are secret terrains and runs ahead softly, her paws hardly touching the ground. The canopy grows far above me, covering the sky at this point with dark green lushness. I climb up, jumping, skipping over the boulders until I reach a path on the top. Here, a small canal leads the water down from the mountains to the village. Originally built years ago to water the vineyards, the water is now used for the numerous vegetable gardens dotted along the canal. In the hot and dry summer, these water ways are a refreshing welcome. We walk along the canal towards the top the hill and climb again, this time leaving the damp valley below and going on a path that winds upwards towards light. The trees are wider spread here, different from the dense growth below. Tiny delicate violets dot the path to the left where the canal turns to vanish in another direction. I keep climbing and reach a small plateau of green grass with small white daisies. They have wisely shut themselves to the rain and will eventually open when the sun’s tickling rays touch them. I turn right and continue the climb, the trees now giving way to shrubs.

Rows of broom with yellow flowers and white flowering erica run along the sides of the red and yellow path as it winds its way up. See those pretty topped lavender bushes, their smaller petals sitting like crowns on top? Even after the rain and in the cooler morning air, they give off their typical spicy smell, but that could also be from the twisted branches of rosemary or even the cistus bushes that have just begun to sprout fat buds. The path here becomes narrow and as I brush against the bushes my jacket collecting the rain drops from the spiky leaves, the perfume now is only a hint of what is to come when the air becomes hotter and lighter. With the next bend around the hill, the plains of Roussillon open up in front and I can see the distant Corbières mountains as they rise pale blue and ghost-like against a grey sky. And towards the right where the horizon flattens off to a large sheet of whitish grey expanse, is the sea. I halt for a while to gaze towards the place where water and sky meet. Soon, as the weather warms up, the sand will turn yellow once more and the sea will sparkle below a blue cloudless sky.

My dog runs ahead towards the pine forest. These gentle giants of the hillside also have their own perfume, which I love on hot summer days. Now, they stand still, for today there is no wind that rustles their tops. While the tops are green, many of the older branches towards the ground have died. I collect one from the ground and send it flying through the air with my dog running behind it until she picks it up and runs back to me, only to playfully run away. This part of the pine forest winds its way down all along the hillside towards the street and we begin our descent. The paths to do go down are numerous, no doubt caused by other dogs, or wild boar or even rainwater in winter. They are stony and full of roots protruding up at various places catching the incautious walker and sending them stumbling down. So, watch where you step! We scoot, slide until we reach the bottom of the hill, leaving the pine forest behind us and walk back home along the footpath at the side of the road.

And just now, while taking off my jacket I remove a small head of purple lavender that got stuck at the side. As always, I carried a part of the forest back home with me.

Day 16 Lockdown in France

These days when one day bleeds into another, it becomes all the more important to find a meaning that will serve us throughout that day and perhaps into the next. How can I still find inspiration if my mind is full of anxiety? Not only is anxiety a primary emotion of the world, I believe that inner restlessness is a very common state as well. We are all worried about the future, whether it be for our jobs that are uncertain or our heath or that of our loved ones. Let us list them, shall we? That way we can take a good look at all, well, most of our worries and then we can process these. Once that is done, some places of our mind will be cleared up leaving behind spaces of tremendous possibilities. So here comes my list, my worries that I have these days: I am not sure how my family, both near and extended, and friends will cope with the health threat. There is always the danger that someone will be affected. Then, I worry about our jobs, knowing that many of us, even within my circle of friends, will either lose them or have already lost them. I worry about the communities and the small businesses that have relied on daily transactions and now have nothing. I worry about the exodus of thousands of daily workers who are now walking home to their villages from the bigger cities in India, with no food, no shelter and the police constantly on their backs. I worry about the homeless people around the world, the sick, the lonely, the depressed, the mentally ill. I worry about the animals, now abandoned. I prefer to now stop my worry list, because to be really honest, at this point I have to think to find what I am worried about, and I am sure the list can continue but I believe this is enough. 

Now that I have put these on paper, I look at these and see that most people will share similar worries. We are today, like never before, united in our anxiety. Because, this anxiety is real, it is a part of us and our daily lives. Can we, however, accept this as a part of us, to say, yes, this is me, the whole me, as it is a part of my partner, my children, my parents, my neighbour, the guy in the next village, the mother in Paris, for my alumni group at university, for people I don’t even know? Acceptance always has a sidekick and that is humility. When I accept, I bow my head down to something greater than me and my physical existence. If this sounds too bizarre, think of the movement you automatically do when you accept something, could it be a slight nod of head, an inaudible breathing out? Isn’t this the fabulous moment when we acknowledge the fact that something greater is at work here outside of our realm of understanding. Does that mean to say, we should simply accept our worries and sit tight? No, of course not. After we see the whole picture, we begin to ask ourselves, what can we do? What can do? The key is to do what you can, accept what you can’t. Going through my list of worries, I now ask myself: I am not a researcher nor a scientist, so I can’t stop the disease, but I can certainly practice all the precautionary measures and encourage my family to do the same. I can’t give the jobs back to people, but I can support local shops by shopping there once we are allowed to and encouraging them to continue. I can’t stop thousands of people, hungry and without jobs, walking to their villages in India, but I can donate to the Relief Fund set up by the government. I can’t adopt every animal abandoned, but I can support organizations that do. The more I think about it the more I realize just as we are in this together, we can also find ways to help together. But the key really is, do what you can, accept what you can’t. 

While, what I write might seem like a to-do list, you tick off the first list on our item, then move on to the next, it actually isn’t. The worries and the possibilities are two sides of the same coin. I am flipping the coin, you might say. Once I do that, the space and opportunities simply explode. We have been given this gift of life, which by no means is to be taken for granted. There will be someone or the other, who we know in our circle of friends, who has lost a child at childbirth. But, we lived, we survived, we are the lucky ones. We can breathe this air, watch the trees and the sky, count stars at night, listen to the evening bird song, feel the cold water as we dip our fingers in the mountain stream. So, here is my possibility list: I can eat ice-cream under the hot summer sun, I can watch the waves wash out footprints as I walk along the shore. I feel lucky that I can dance under the warm rain. I can drink coffee, poke my fingers in dirt, pet my dog, run my fingers over the cool ivory keys of the piano, hum in the shower, walk through the forest, sit in a café and watch life pass by (well, not right now, but soon). How are these possibilities, you might ask. Because life has given me the possibility to do these and so much more. If acceptance’s sidekick is humility, then possibility’s is exuberance. Can we promise ourselves to make our lives full of possibilities? Can we check-in with ourselves to see where we are today? Do we need some adjustments? Some places to pull, some places to push? Can we be exuberant each day? Can we commit to that? 

Tomorrow, let us go on a trip, shall we? Through the forest? Let me share the beauty and wilderness of the forest with you tomorrow. For today, bask in the exuberance life has to offer.

Day 15 Lockdown in France

One of the lessons I learn from my garden which I think has the most impact on other aspects of life is the moment when I have to pull out the plants once their life cycle is over. This is especially true of annuals but also other plants that have died, or are in the wrong places, weeds that have sprung up where they shouldn’t, thinning out seedlings too closely sprouted. Numerous occasions when I have to orchestrate this cacophony of plants to create harmonious music. And I am quite sure that without my intervention, the plants would do just fine and maybe jostle with each other and the boisterous ones will survive, and the tender ones perish. In time, no doubt, the garden will become unsightly to our eyes trained to look for a certain kind of beauty. For a garden is nothing more than an unnatural space created by the gardener to make it look as natural as possible. But that’s okay, That’s what gardening is all about. We, as the caretakers of our gardens, dig, pull, adjust, maintain, plant, remove, all to create spaces of harmony, interest and great beauty. 

But, back to where I got side-tracked. The letting go part. When the time comes to pull out the plants at the end of their life cycle that I raised from seeds and pile on the compost heap I find myself acutely aware of this task. Of course, it is a natural life-death-life cycle, but remembering the tiny seeds that I once held in my hands and carefully put in seed trays, watching every day for signs of green and then the joy I felt when the little sprouts poked their tender shoots up through the dark soil, and afterwards transplanting them to the flower-beds, watching them grow and become big robust and vigorous plants and finally burst into colourful flowers that dance in the wind, does not make the task of pulling them out easier. But, once their job is done, the plants themselves send out signals, asking the gardener to pull them up and return them to the compost where in due time they will turn into soil that will nourish and feed the next generation of plants. And so, letting go in the garden actually takes on a very tangible meaning. How easy it should then be to let go in real life, right?

Wrong. The garden, or nature, in general merely tells us how it should be done, points out the natural flow of life, of existence. But we as humans, come with an entire package of emotions, feelings, sentiments that complicate life and the rhythm that it actually has. There is beauty in that, too.  Today, sitting at my desk my mind, my being is flooded with emotions, both great ones and ugly ones. I carry all the hurt, the dejection, the melancholy like a trophy on my back. Something to be proud of? Definitely not. Something to pull out when a little self-pity is needed. Yes, but a small yes. Why do I keep lugging something so heavy that no longer serves me in any way? I don’t know that answer to that. But I do know that the moments when my loved ones said hurtful things to me, the moments when I felt the whole world turned its back on me, the moments when extreme loneliness led to excesses in food and drink, mostly drink, are not moments I want to remember. But memory is a fabulous trickster. It allows us to re-live moments of our lives, over and over again. Press the re-play button and off we go on our carousel of emotions.

What if I only wanted to remember the good things? Ah, now that won’t happen, my friend. Because then you would be in denial. Denying entry to the “bad” ones, accepting only the “great” moments. For memory is everything that is past, including the good and the bad. Just as the gardener knows that the life-death-life cycle consists of all parts, death as well, so must we accept the negative in lives. It is the wholeness of us, the greatness and the lowness that makes us fragile and vulnerable beings. Are we ready to embrace that? Am I ready to embrace the full me, with my ups and downs, my shortcomings, my anger, my hurt, my temper, but also my joy, my compassion, my love? Can I accept myself just as I am, today, right now? The transition from unconscious behaviour to conscious thoughts and actions, from ignorance to acceptance, from complex to simple is all that is asked of me. The letting go will be the natural consequence of the awareness. Where do I begin? With the breath, of course. It always begins with the breath.

We cannot see Beauty till we let go our hold of it- Tagore

Day 14 Lockdown in France

I looked up the word “meditation” on google and within less than a second 384,000,000 results were produced. The number is so huge and so insanely absurd that I could not even begin to imagine it. 384 million results, but it had close to everything: Wikipedia entries, meditation centers close to where we live, meaning of meditation, centers offering techniques, youtube videos, all the how-tos and whys and whens, researches, activities. It also shows the enormous popularity of meditation. On closer look, people were mostly concerned about how to meditate for beginners, and the answer to this was manifold. Numerous videos gave examples and methods, it seemed as if the entire web was filled with buddhist gongs and waterfall sounds and shaman deep trance humming. Everywhere I clicked on, someone was talking softly, explaining, playing music, giving instruction, guiding a session, writing (just like me!). I also looked up synonyms of meditation and the Thesaurus said thus: introspection, reflection, rumination, self-examination, concentration, deep thought, pondering, quiet time. Other words I found associated with meditation were consciousness, awareness, focusing, tool, technique. 

            To add to this vast pool of information already available seems almost sacrilege and yet, since I started talking about yoga, meditation is the most natural next step. But, I don’t want to talk about techniques, for that the videos on the web are a great place to start. So here comes my two pennies’ worth. What if, I were really bold and ventured to tell you that we all meditate. Some of us do it consciously, most of us unconsciously. The next thought process might be to take away the action part, stop seeing it as something we do, but just like yoga, something we are. We are meditative. Think about every time you stop to smell a beautiful flower, a rose maybe, with its musky or citrusy perfume. About the time when you watch the wind sweep over the lake, making ripples on the surface. When you hold the hand of a loved one. When you laugh at a whatsapp joke sent by a friend. The time when you read a good book and you sigh as you close the cover over the last page. The time when you run and hear the blood pump through your body and in your ears. There are so many moments when we actually touch that realm of meditative mind. For us gardeners, this task is fairly simple. We have infused our lives with moments when we are naturally lead to a meditative state. Think about tending to the plants, sowing seeds, planting out seedling, weeding, cutting grass, dead-heading, cutting back, harvesting, putting the garden to sleep at the end of season. Singers and dancers have their meditative moments too: when they compose melodies, mixing tunes to create harmony, when they raise their voices to sing, modulating sound to produce music. Dancers that raise their arms above their heads and use the language of movement to create fleeting beauty for those who behold. Painters are equally blessed, they use their paint brush or pencil or the computer to put layers and layers of evolving images and forms and textures. Did I also mention writers, engineers, cooks, home-makers, factory workers, teachers, students, dog-walkers, care-takers, the elderly, the young, the middle-aged, man, woman, gender-neutrals? 

            We all are in a meditative state. The only question to ask is if we are conscious of this. Being conscious just means being in that present moment. And we all experience this regularly, through various ways. But are we really really present then? Are our thoughts wandering off? Are we thinking of the to-do list on our desk while we cut the vegetables for dinner? Are we really listening to our partner tell us about their day but actually thinking of what to get granny for Christmas? Are we taking time now to look at the sky and not fret about how and when this will all end? I know, it is all easier said than done and believe you me, I can only be really conscious only parts of the time, but with regular practice of heightened consciousness, call it meditation, call it yoga, it doesn’t really matter, there is a quality of ease that is diffused through every action taken.

The how-to videos are a good place to start. I only encourage you not to stop there, try to incorporate that quality in your actions, all the time throughout your day and night. For, we are all exuberant, meditative beings, we only need the consciousness to make our lives blossom.

Day 13 Lockdown in France

Picking up where we left yesterday, my yoga story continues. After I found my at-home yoga practice teacher in Austin, my entire perspective of yoga changed.  Saying things like, it changed my life, sounds cheesy and let’s be honest, something out of a novel you buy at rail-stations to read on a holiday and deliberately leave behind at the hotel room. But this yoga actually did just that. The way I looked at things, but mostly myself, whether on or off the mat changed. The first few sessions were simply “cool” and “fun.” But I soon realized that just as my body was changing, so was my mind. The changes were subtle and crept in quietly and steadily. Changing from a weekly practice to a daily practice was a huge step in transformation, mostly in terms of the commitment that one takes to dedicate both time and space to the practice. That, I found, was one of the biggest beauties of at-home practice. There was no travel involved, no time spent waiting at traffic-lights or train stations. No mats to carry around, and if you add the clean clothes to wear after, that can be quite a weight to carry around. Don’t get me wrong here, I believe that going to a physical space and to having a real teacher align you is equally important, especially because you cannot see yourself in a posture and are thus not able to make the adjustments. But, with regular practice you gain such a deep knowledge of your own unique body that at one point only you can know how you need to move and adjust. It only needs an experienced practitioner to give you guidance on the method. 

            Since the transformation is evolving and will continue to develop, I find myself in an ever-changing mind-structure. And I ask questions, lots of them. All to myself, of course. When I am digging up weeds or potting up tiny seedlings. Moments when I walk through the pine forest, particularly in summer, when the perfume of the pine is the strongest and the sunlight burns and burns the earth to red and yellow dust. I ask questions when I look at the snow-capped distant mountains, vapours rising from the warming coffee mug in my hand. Questions like, what does it mean to be in yoga? We all know, by now, that yoga is not something you do, it is something that you are. What does that mean? To dissolve boundaries, yes, but how? And why does this happen only when I am in a good mood or when I am at peace with myself. Can I apply this in stress or conflict situations? I would say, no to the last one, especially, when I am in the conflict situation. And let’s face it, we all have conflicts and stress and unbalanced parts, definitely more than we would like, but we do. It is a part of what being human means. Maybe better questions to ask would be, is it caused by me? If so, can I change it? If it isn’t, can I let it go? If I am honest with myself, and many times within conflicts, I am not, I hate to think of myself as the responsible party, I don’t want to change anything because of course, my viewpoint is correct. And yes, change is welcome, if the other party implements the change, because I am always right, right? Always? Well, most of the time. Really?

            How does doing yoga asanas assist when in conflict? Well, for one, when doing asanas there is simply so much going on within the body and a little bit outside of the physical frame that by the time the adjustments, chanelling of energy, breathing into the posture is all done and the time for quite comes, I am glad to simply be. No thoughts, no goals, and no expectations. Once you start practicing with a heightened awareness, there will be no opportunity to have other thoughts. After that, comes the part I love most. Once I have breathed, adjusted, pulled, pushed, aligned, breathed again, I hold. This is where, for me, the challenge actually begins. While holding and breathing, I ask myself, am I shaking, am I trembling, how am I holding, what is the primary thought, is it when can I leave this posture, if it is, can I hold a little longer, can I breathe into that thought, can I still maintain grace even in this difficult pose, are my muscles sore, where is my breath going, is it okay to try to relax even here and in fact, dare I say, enjoy this moment. This matters, the way the challenging postures are held matters, because that is what will manifest when we are off the mat. The more we can practice grace and equilibrium on the mat the more we can apply it to difficult situations off the mat. This has been one of the biggest, one might call, recognition, that I have received from my practices with my teacher.

            There are so many things one can say about the experiences and so many thoughts one can share, but it is also always an individual journey. What holds true for me might not hold true for you. I would however, encourage you to go on your path and see what you can discover. Every path and every life, for that matter, is unique, every story needs to be told and heard. And every journey is varied, just as we are. And that is wonderful.

Yoga.

I practice asanas.
I practice silence.
I practice lying under the stars.
I practice loneliness.
 
I see the sky.
I see the bees on the flowers.
I see the hurt in someone’s eye.
I see your name written across the horizon. 
 
I hear the rise and fall of the sea.
I hear the wind sing on treetops.
I hear the birds chirp.
I hear lively family chattering. 
 
I observe my limbs.
I observe my hands, my feet.
I observe my eyes.
I observe my breath.             

Day 12 Lockdown in France

France has extended the lockdown period by another two weeks until Easter. Which means, another two weeks of creative ways to spend days interned at home. We also have a new restriction of being allowed only within 1 km of our residence for an hour for all outdoor activities. This seems to be the perfect time to deepen our at-home yoga practice. And if you have not started this, what a great time to begin. What? you might say…and you will be right. If you never had an encounter with yoga, I invite you to give it a go, try it out. Perhaps, you tried and had an injury and somewhere you just stopped. Or you lost interest. Or you never really understood the whys and hows. That’s okay, because today I will tell you about my yoga story and maybe that will encourage you to think about yoga in a different way, and hey, who knows, maybe also try it out!

             There are a thousand books and journals that address the topic of yoga. And many are good, and many are not. There are discourses, seminars, teachers and studios in every city, village, town. In the 70’s when Bikram went to California to teach yoga to the rich and exhausted stars, he jacked up the heating to replicate the hot and humid Indian climate. Around the same time, the Iyengar style of yoga by maintaining strict precision and alignment started gaining popularity too. Ashtanga meanwhile had the postures that were to be followed in a pre-set order, calling these series. Then there was Jivamukti, that connected a vinyasa flow with humanitarian and spiritual practices. All of these, and many more, have their roots in the classical hatha yoga practices of ancient India. Hatha practices are merely the preparatory steps one needs to do when on the yogic path. These postures or asanascomprise of breathing and holding that posture to also allow the physical and energetic body to align with the cosmic energy. The ultimate goal, here, as in all yoga, and in fact, even in the word yoga, which means union, is to eradicate the boundaries of self. And just as all journeys should begin with the basic, so in Hatha Yoga we start with the physical body. So much for a little background. And now, to my story.

            We had yoga as a part of physical education class in school for a short while. We were simply practicing going into our postures and holding it, and as such I found that yoga only served those who were supple with their bodies. There were no explanations, no methods, it was very military-like, in fact, our teacher, a straight-backed severe lady, even had a whistle hanging around her neck on a cord. She used the whistle when we were to begin, when we were to stop, to signify anger, displeasure, almost everything. So, rightly or wrongly, I did not bother with these strange yoga asanas after school. At home, I knew my brother received some breathing techniques to fight his very painful asthma attacks from a yoga teacher. Then, I left to study. Whilst in College and even later at University, yoga was the last thing I worried about. I was a family person by then, we had small kids and our worlds were revolving around kids, education, job. Then, as all kids do, our daughter used to stand on her head using the wall, at that point we laughed and took photographs. A visitor who came to visit us, did a head-stand in our flat, when conversation got around exercise. My father decided on one of his visits, to demonstrate a yoga posture, which I am quite sure does not exist, and we were left trying to hide our laughter and of course, take photos of this very strange posture with legs and arms spread in the air which he termed yoga. And then the wave of yoga swept over from the West and hit the East Coast of America. I still was not a regular practitioner then and was still only occasionally doing the Surya Namaskar, as I knew it, simply jerking myself from one posture to the next, all the time wondering why.. 

            In Germany, I signed up for a yoga class in our village. It was nice, until I figured out it was more a place to get the latest gossip and then use a blanket to cover up the body after a little exercise, which was termed hatha yoga. One of our acquaintances, who turned from a corporate magnate to a self-styled yogi stopped by to talk about his transformation from a puny sized, head-ache and back-ache ridden, very rich, needless to say, managing director to a well-muscled, eye-glass-less yogi, travelling the world, but mostly to South-East Asia, yoga teacher. He coined the phrase cuddle-yoga, when I told him about my class in the village. I found that horribly offensive, but as a true host, I laughed with him. After that, I stopped going for my weekly yoga sessions in the village. Which was in a way sad, because in spite of all the ridicule I was hurling at it, I did feel some muscles turn on, which I had forgotten existed. But it was still only a physical exercise. 

            Then I met my teacher. He was the first yoga teacher who absolutely refused to relegate yoga only to the physical body and always talked about the energetic body. I would travel to the city early morning before work, just to sit in his class. That is when I began to make a connection between the body and the breath that I used to reach my energetic self. I only had to listen to what he said, of how to get into a posture and how to get out. He explained what one needed to concentrate on while holding a posture. When in Virabadrasana 2or the second warrior pose, he would guide us into the posture: 

Stand with your feet wide apart,  left leg bend at a right-angle, turning the right foot a little inward, left foot points to the front edge of the mat, draw energy up from the soles of your feet and the inner thighs, stack the tailbone up over the neck, the spine straight, see that energy rise from the soles to the crown of your head. Hands parallel to the ground, spread the fingers, energy spreading into those fingertips and beyond. Even in this posture feel your entire body active and sink even lower on your left leg, breath… 

            Years later, after I stopped going to his classes, I still practiced with his voice in my head. For by that time, I was beginning to understand the whys and hows. But there was still something missing. Then we moved to France. Now the problem was to find a studio and a teacher who would pick up where my previous teacher left. Now, this is a really remote area, it is beautiful no doubt, but this is not New York, or Frankfurt or Paris. The only yoga studio here is in the closest city and from what I have seen on their website, fast moving yoga is termed Vinayasa, yoga in a hot room is termed, well, Hot Yoga and anything slow, Hatha. I may be doing them wrong, for all I know. But that is not what I was looking for. I wanted to delve more into the energy part of yoga and felt that I was on the right path before circumstances changed. So what now?

            At-home yoga to the rescue. And I cannot even begin by thanking the gods of the internet enough, capricious as they may be, for bringing this possibility right into my home. And I discovered every possible varieties of yoga one can imagine, until I found my next teacher all the way in Austin, Texas. It is with her, that today I practice almost every day, it is with her that I can again make that connection between yoga asanas and the energetic body. It is with her that I have learned to use the breath as the thread, the glue, if you will that joins the body with the mind, spirit and soul.

            I see that I have rambled on for a goodish while now, so I will sign off. But I would really like to share my yoga experiences with you, so we will continue tomorrow, shall we? 

Day 11 Lockdown in France

I read a very beautiful and touching poem by Brother Richard Hendrik, called Lockdown, which many of you will probably know, as it has made its round on the internet. It talks about hope in times of despair and how life always has a way of manifesting itself in the gentlest ways possible. It talks about the squares of Italy, ringing with songs that reverberate through open windows for everyone to hear. About the love that we feel for each other, even in the face of tragedy, death even. About ways we reach out and whisper, you are not alone. About the birds singing again and the air becoming purer and purer for us to breath. 

            Within the city, close to our home, was a lake. There still is one, but I am talking of another time that was before now. The lake was one spot that had numerous tall coconut trees, amongst other old specimens of banyan, bakulmaulsari, all green and abounding in leaves, fruits, flowers. It was also a haven for birds. In winter, there were herons that flew from Siberia and rested on the little island in the middle of the lake, and we could see them fly in circles above the treetops. In spring the songs of the kokil echoed from tree to tree as they called to each other with such sweetness in their voices. And the tall coconuts had the green parrots, the ones with the red collar. Every evening as they got ready to dive into the trees, they would circle above them, calling out to each other, making a perfect racket that signaled the end of day. Years later, all that almost disappeared. 

            Two days ago, my excited parents recorded bird song on their phone and send it to me. They spotted birds outside their window, singing, hopping, flitting. Glorious signs of life, the one that we had forgotten, the one that was almost pushed to the boundaries of our existence. The birds have come back, and along with them, hope, relief and extreme gratitude. 

Here is the poem, Lockdown, by Richard Hendrik, as featured in Holstee:    

Yes there is fear.
Yes there is isolation.
Yes there is panic buying.
Yes there is sickness.
Yes there is even death.
But,
They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise
You can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet
The sky is no longer thick with fumes
But blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi
People are singing to each other
across the empty squares,
keeping their windows open
so that those who are alone
may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland
Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman I know
is busy spreading fliers with her number
through the neighbourhood
So that the elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples
are preparing to welcome
and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting
All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
To how big we really are.
To how little control we really have.
To what really matters.
To Love.
So we pray and we remember that
Yes there is fear.
But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation.
But there does not have to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying.
But there does not have to be meanness.
Yes there is sickness.
But there does not have to be disease of the soul
Yes there is even death.
But there can always be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Today, breathe.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic
The birds are singing again
The sky is clearing,
Spring is coming,
And we are always encompassed by Love.
Open the windows of your soul
And though you may not be able
to touch across the empty square,
Sing.
   

Day 10 Lockdown in France

Today the European Space Agency (http://www.esa.int) will broadcast a live stream with astronauts who have practiced isolation for major parts of their career. The hash-tag generation has of course given this a very appropriate name #SpaceConnectsUs. Scientists and researchers who spend months in complete isolation, orbiting the planet, will talk about their own isolations so we can better cope with our present situation.

What fascinates me most, however, is the unique choice of words: space, connects, us. As I look at the sky, it becomes obvious that space is, after all, that which truly connects us. It is the single blanket, closer to earth we call this sky and atmosphere, that envelops the earth. We see space, we breath space, we embrace space, our lives happen in space. I guess, astronauts are at an advantage to see this connectivity because they actually seeit. Carl Sagan rendered this marvel and wonder when he said: 

“Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”  — Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

I love that image of our earth suspended in space, of imagining that what we have around, that who we are, is just a tiny speck of dust in a vast space that defies time. We cannot even begin to keep track of the zillions and zillions of years as we know and call them that takes to create, change, explode, destroy. And we are only a very very small part of these gigantic cosmic happenings. 

            When I was small, I wanted to be an astronaut. We had the Discovery series books at home, all navy blue leather-bound, glossy papered, full of pictures. My favourite was the one titled The Age of Space Exploration. This well-thumbed volume had fascinating pictures of the blue earth, various colourful constellations, the bejewelled milky way. It had photos of Yuri Gagarin, of Laika, of the historic giant leap moment of Armstrong. I never bothered too much with the text, looking at the pictures instead. I saw the reds and blues and yellows of supernovas, dreamed of floating in space capsules like the astronauts did in their white space suits, to watch our earth grow smaller and smaller as my shuttle headed off into space. Then as I grew, the goals changed too. From astronaut to marine biologist to artist to musician and I finally landed up with literature: the doorway to all past, present and future wishes, because all that was needed from me was my imagination. And that I had plenty of.

            Wouldn’t it be inspiring to really imagine ourselves in a closed shuttle, hurtling through space with a huge glass window through which we can see our earth recede? What would we see? What would we notice? First, I can spot the village where I live, maybe the house as well, then the mountains that rise and fall between France and Spain. Now, I see my beloved Mediterranean, all blue and calm with white sails of boats out in the sea. As I go further, I can see Europe, can guess where the borders might be, all I can see are settlements and mountains and the rivers, I see the Rhine and know where the children are, I can roughly guess, a bit north of the river where the Taunus mountains are. By now, the details are getting difficult to distinguish. Then Asia, the great spaces of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and then the Hindukush and Himalayas, and finally south of it, home. But even that recedes and soon there is only land and sea. And further away, clouds increase until white frothy swirls cover the whole planet. Now I see a blue globe, I begin to realize that home has now spread, it is everywhere, it has transformed into the blue ball and slowly but surely, all that remains is the tiny dot, suspended in vast cosmic darkness.        

Day 9 Lockdown in France

It is late March and spring is definitely here in the Mediterranean belt. The trees are all poised to explode into different shades of green, the warblers are busy flitting about the sky and the small black lizards are out of their hiding, darting across the wooden stakes in the vegetable beds. The first rose, Edith Piaf, has bloomed way too early, and true to its name, its vibrancy and dark burgundy colour, along with a heady spicy perfume, makes it irresistible. So, I snip it off to arrange it alongside the tulips and camellia. The cool mornings are filled with a kind of heartache, knowing that transitions happen just too quickly, too fast. The mountain sides that are now awash in little green were almost barren some weeks ago. And within that time, the world shifted, the sun burned stronger, the air became warmer and everything changed. Some transitions are huge, some imperceptible, but they are there, nevertheless. All moving, changing, shifting, transforming. 

My neighbour who has been repairing his boundary wall is out since morning, mixing concrete and slapping it into the crevices and cracks. His two young sons play football in their small courtyard. The curly haired one is definitely better than the brother, but they continue, each accepting the other and constantly improvising. When the little one scores, he does a little jiggly dance from one end of the yard to the other. On the other side of their wall, another neighbour is out with her basket of laundry and is hanging up the wash on a clothesline stretched between their house and the wall. White sheets sway in the morning breeze. Isn’t is incredible how these small things can stir up memory? As I watch the sheets, I remember another place where all the senses were magnified, it was louder, hotter, most certainly, dustier.  In that place and time, my mother hung up her wash on the clothesline out in the sun on our balcony, as did everyone else those days. And we ran between them, chasing each other, laughing, our hands impatiently brushing against the still wet clothes while the not properly wrung clothes dripped water. But no one really cared, the sun was just so deliciously hot, it really didn’t matter. And we ran and chased and laughed. Like the neighbour’s son, who is doing his crazy dance, which makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time.

And so, the world shifted, the seasons changed, time passed. Until we find ourselves in a different time, different place and yet, not so different after all. The heartache persists, but only because it still beats to reveal all that is and all that isn’t.

Don’t change for the sake of changing.
If you ask me, I will ask you to change
because you must,
because it is the nature of things.
 
Change like the sky changes colour,
every single day, every single rainbow colour,
from dawn till dusk, 
And way into the night.
 
Change like the ocean breathes
Between tides, sometimes low,
and sometimes high,
crashing and pulling back.
 
Change like the boy who became the man
outgrowing his shorts,
replacing them with suits and ties,
footballs traded for wristwatches.
 
 
Change like the seeds become plants,
to blossom into flowers of all colours,
opening up to the sky and bees
before becoming the soil again.
 
 
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