This article discusses Ayurveda and Yoga. I start by explaining both systems and the way they view the world, and then I give some tips on how to implement both systems in daily life.
Ayurveda came down to earth with Lord Brahma. It is first mentioned in the Rig Veda (the earliest Veda 1500-1100 BC) in the form of Agni (one of the most important aspects in Ayurveda). Lord Brahma taught it to Prajapati, who in turn taught it to Ashwini Kumaras (the twin doctors of the Devas). It continued to be passed down until Lord Dhanvantari emerged with it in the churning of the ocean of milk. It finally reached humanity through Charaka and Sushruta, who wrote two very important treatises: the Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita respectively. Ashtanga Hridayam, written by Vagbhat came next. Together, the three texts are known as Brihat Trayi (the three grands).
Ayurveda looks at the world as composed of five elements: Space, Air, Water, Fire, and Earth. Everything in the universe is made of these five elements. There are three pairs of these elements which compose the doshas. Dosha is a force which can go out of balance.
There are three doshas, Tridosha: Vata (Space+Air), Pitta (Fire+Water), Kapha (Water+Earth). Vata governs movement in the body, Pitta, transformation and Kapha, stability and strength. These three doshas are always working simultaneously in order to make our body fit and free of disease.
In Ayurveda, we look at ‘taste’ as composed of the elements as well. Shat-Rasa, the six tastes are: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent. Each of the tastes affects the doshas.
According to Ayurveda, we look to keep the doshas in balance in order to achieve good health.
Yoga came to the world through Lord Shiva, Adi Yogi, the first Yogi. The legend says that when Lord Shiva taught it to his consort Parvati, the snake (Vasuki) around His neck heard it, and from him emerged Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Matsyendranath learnt it while Lord Shiva was teaching it, and so is considered to be the one who brought Hatha Yoga into the world.
There are few books and treatises on Yoga – Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras being one of the most important. Shiva Samhita, Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Gheranda Samhita are more concerned with asanas and pranayama and how to perform them correctly.
As per the Yogic tradition, Yogis are doing all these practices in order to have control over the body, breath, and reach the ultimate goal of Self-Realisation.
Yoga sees the world with the same eyes as Ayurveda, as they both arose from the Samkhya philosophy of creation. This is why they are called sister sciences. The difference between them is that Ayurveda is more inclined towards the body and its health, while Yoga deals more with realisation of the Self.
Using Ayurveda and Yoga in daily life for better health
Wake up before sunrise, and go to sleep by 10 PM.
Eat at specific times every day. That way Agni will be balanced.
Do not suppress the natural urges of the body, like flatus, belching etc.
Practice asana and pranayama in the morning after evacuation.
Do not drink anything an hour after food, and an hour before food.
Eat food which is compatible with you. Experiment with food and observe your digestion to know what is beneficial for you and what is not.
Avoid ice cold drinks and food. Occasionally it’s OK, however, do not make it a routine.
Eat hot fresh food. Avoid eating stale and overcooked food.
Drink when you are thirsty. Don’t just drink water because you think it is needed. The body will send you signs when it needs water.
Just by following most of these tips, one can experience digestion improving, and overall health reaching the optimum state.
Steve Jobs’ obsession with the Autobiography of a Yogi, Mark Zukerberg’s visit to a temple in Nainital and the latest attempts by start-ups to ‘hack’ spirituality – what’s with Silicon Valley’s fascination with spirituality?
Perhaps the foremost example of the tech world’s fascination with spirituality is Steve Jobs’ deep appreciation of the book Autobiography of a Yogi by Parmahansa Yogananda. It was the only book Jobs downloaded on his iPad and read every year since he first came across it as a teenager. Jobs even asked for copies of the book to be distributed at this memorial service.
Mark Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com said at a TechCrunch conference in 2013 (2 years after Jobs passed away): “Yogananda…had this book on self-realization…. [Steve’s] last message to us was that here is Yogananda’s book…. Actualize yourself….I look at Steve as a very spiritual person…[Steve] had this incredible realization–that his intuition was his greatest gift and he needed to look at the world from the inside out.”
Seemingly continuing in the company founder’s tradition of an affinity with Indian spirituality, Apple CEO Tim Cook visited a famous 200-year-old Ganesha temple (Siddhivinayak) in Mumbai on his visit to India in May 2016.
It appears that Steve Jobs also inspired Facebook CEO Mark Zukerberg to visit the Kainchi Dham temple in Nainital, India. “He [Jobs] told me that in order to reconnect with what I believed as the mission of the company I should visit this temple that he had gone to in India, early on in his evolution of thinking about what he wanted Apple and his vision of the future to be,” Zuckerberg told India’s PM Modi at a town hall meeting in 2015. Google’s Larry Page and Jeffrey Skoll, co-founder of eBay, have also made the pilgrimage.
There are several other instances of the tech world drawing inspiration from the spiritual domain. Google, for example, is well-known for its mindfulness meditation training (having its roots in Buddhism) offered in-house. The tech giant has also given a platform to the views of spiritual leaders – Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev for instance recently spoke about ‘Developing Inclusive Consciousness’ at an event hosted by Jonathan Berent, Director of Customer Experience at Google.
A ‘ritual’ of sorts for tech titans like Zukerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk is the annual pilgrimage to the Burning Man festival in the deserts of Nevada, USA. According to Silicon Valley venture capitalist Greg Horowitt, “You come into Burning Man knowing that your values align with the values of the people here, and it’s all about creation and experimentation.” The festival has taken on a ritualistic reputation, almost like a religion or spiritual process for the faithful.
Coming to the new crop of Silicon Valley start-ups, there is a growing fascination with “bio-hacking” techniques. For instance, Nootrobox, a San Francisco company that makes brain supplements, has adopted a practice (what they see as a “ritual”) where the entire company collectively fasts for 36 hours every week. According to the start-up, the fast days are one of the most productive days of the week! Fasting, as we know is an ancient spiritual practice followed by almost all religions in some form or the other.
Then there’s the growing fascination with the mind and consciousness altering herb ‘ayahuasca‘ found in the Peruvian Amazon, that has been dubbed as Silicon Valley’s new craze. Apparently the psychedelic substance is becoming as ubiquitous as coffee. Its popularity with young entrepreneurs is based on its supposed ability to abate the insecurities and pressures they face in the start-up world and the fact that the Peruvian trips serve as much as a networking opportunities as spiritual retreats!
But should spiritual practices be hacked for productivity? Or should increased productivity and creativity be viewed as the beneficial side-effects of a deeper inner transformation which should be the aim? Surely some entrepreneurs’ trysts with spirituality will be more genuine than others’. One can only hope the genuine prevails.
The Ganga, rising in the Himalayas and emptying into the Bay of Bengal, flows through one of the most densely populated regions in the world. Draining nearly one-fourth of the Indian subcontinent, it cuts through the heartland of India where its earliest kingdoms were situated. On its banks, thousands of years ago, sages established ashrams and composed hymns and texts that form the core of the Vedic tradition. The wisdom of the Vedic rishis, in its various forms such as Yoga and Vedanta, continues to inspire people in India and the rest of the world and Vedic hymns are chanted today as they were millennia ago.
The river begins as the Bhagirathi at the edge of the Gangotri Glacier at the height of 13,200 feet. It becomes the Ganga after joining up with the Alakananda at Devaprayag. Other tributaries merge into it before it flows from the mountains at the ashram town of Rishikesh and then moves into the plains just a few miles south at the pilgrimage city of Haridwar.
In its course of 1500 miles, the Ganga passes through ancient cities such as Kannauj, Prayag, Varanasi, and Patna and via its distributaries in the modern cities of Kolkata and Dhaka; the modern capital of Delhi and the Mughal capital of Agra are on its tributary, the Yamuna. Its first major distributary is the Bhagirathi-Hooghly, which travels through West Bengal. Upon entering Bangladesh, it is known as the Padma and joins the Jamuna River, the name by which the Brahmaputra is known here. Farther downstream, the Padma joins the Meghna River, and takes on that name as it enters the Meghna Estuary, which empties into the Bay of Bengal. The Ganga delta is the world’s largest by breadth, which extends to 220 miles, and third largest by volume.
The famous River Hymn of the Rigveda lists ten rivers of which the Ganga appears to be the easternmost with Sarasvati to its west. Archaeological remains of the Sindhu-Sarasvati tradition (also called Indus civilization) that go back to about 8000 BCE have the Sarasvati River as the main focus with most sites scattered in its valleys. The Sarasvati arose in the Himalayas just to the west of the Ganga and it is lauded in another Vedic hymn as the greatest river of its time, going from the mountains to the sea.
Scholars believe that changes in climate and earthquakes caused the Sarasvati to dry up in the Western Desert about 2000 BCE. Some have speculated that the main cause of the diminution of the Sarasvati was that the course of its tributary, Yamuna, changed towards the Ganga after a major earthquake. By the time of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the encyclopaedic Puranas, the Ganga was the preeminent river of Indian culture. But, Sarasvati was not forgotten. Since it didn’t reach all the way down to the sea, it was imagined to join up with the Ganga — and the tributary Yamuna — through a subterranean passage at Prayag (Allahabad). If the Ganga was the river carrying Indian culture in its broadest sense, Sarasvati remained the goddess of wisdom and learning.
The Descent of the Ganga
The Ganga embodies all sacred waters in Hindu mythos and it is invoked in ritual just as Sarasvati was in an earlier age. There are three Gangas: in the heavens as the Milky Way; the familiar terrestrial river of north India; and a subterranean river. The mythology of the river can be understood within the context of Vedic cosmology according to which reality is recursive and the skies are mirrored on the earth and within one’s being and everything is interconnected.
The samudra manthana (churning of the ocean) is one of the central themes of the Vedas, and it not only takes place only at the cosmic level but also in the heart of each individual by the dictum yat brahmaande tad pinde (as in the cosmos, so in the body). The recursion carries into the very neural pathways of the body and I have seen an Ayurveda text showing channels in the brain that mirror the Sarasvati and the Ganga.
The Vedic sages, meditating on the banks of the Ganga and the Sarasvati, arrived at a subtle understanding of reality. They claimed that although consciousness is the one single basis of reality, limitations of the mind and of form engender duality of experience that becomes the source of ignorance and suffering. They came up with many means to overcome bondage and to find divinity within. These means can be viewed as the joining of the celestial and material currents in mind and body.
Ritual is one way to liberation. It is sacred theatre that helps one dissociate from reflexive behaviour to find the centre of one’s being. But it can also become reflexive, the sages warn and, therefore, creativity is essential even in ritual. Other methods to salvation include direct pursuit of knowledge, devotion, service and even a life of action that includes contemplation.
The variety of prescriptions may appear to be an excessively eclectic approach to living life. But it makes perfect sense and as the art historian Heinrich Zimmer stated: “The whole edifice of Indian civilization is imbued with spiritual meaning. The close interdependence and perfect harmonization of the two serve to counteract the natural tendency of Indian philosophy to become recondite and esoteric, removed from life and the task of the education of society. In the Hindu world, the folklore and popular mythology carry the truths and teachings of the philosophers to the masses.”
The point of the story of the descent (avatarana in Sanskrit) of the heavenly Ganga to Earth is to stress the connections between the spiritual and the material. The descent was a boon to King Bhagiratha who undertook austerities to restore ancestors who had met untimely deaths, and the river is, therefore, also called Bhagirathi. However, since her turbulent force would shatter the earth, Bhagiratha entreats the Great God Shiva to receive Ganga in the coils of his hair to break her fall. From Shiva’s dreadlocks the waters are released to many waterways in the Himalayas and to a subterranean channel. For this act, Shiva is depicted in Hindu iconography as Gangaadhara (Bearer of the Ganga), with the river shown as a spout of water, rising from his hair.
The Ganga is seen replicated beyond the plains of north India. The Godavari in Central India and the Kaveri in South India are each the Ganga of its region. Hindus in far lands choose a local river for the rituals.
Because Ganga descended to Earth, she is also the vehicle of ascent to the heavens. This ascent is accomplished by an actual or symbolic crossing of the river. For laypersons the crossing is done at the fords (teertha in Sanskrit) but for the learned it is through a training of the mind by one of the many forms of yoga. A person is deemed blessed if given a sip of Ganga-water on their deathbed.
The waters of the Ganga are considered purifying. People are aware that large portions of the river are now badly polluted but its effects are ultimately spiritual. The Ganga is all accepting and forgiving and it connects the worshiper to the larger currents of life.
Hindu temples all over India had statues and reliefs of the goddess carved at their entrances. The Ganga’s mount is the makara which has the lower jaw of a crocodile, the snout or trunk of an elephant, the tusks and ears of a wild boar, the darting eyes of a monkey, the scales and the flexible body of a fish, and the hind feathers of a peacock. She is shown carrying a full vase (kumbha or kalasha) which represents auspiciousness, fertility and generative power. She is also shown with a parasol.
Varanasi, the City of Light
Varanasi, known for its fine silk and cotton fabrics, perfumes, ivory works, and sculpture, is one of the most famous pilgrimage centres on the Ganga and also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities anywhere. Known also as Banaras, it is situated on the western bank at a place where it takes a broad crescent sweep toward the north. Seen from the river at dawn, the high-banked face of the city looks luminous, explaining its old name, Kashi (Kashi, City of Light).
Most of all, Varanasi is the city of Shiva and the home of the great Kashi Vishvanath temple. This temple which is called the Vishveshvara has Shiva’s jyotirlinga, the icon of sheer light, from which Kashi gets its name. The three hills in the city are seen as the tips of Shiva’s trident. During the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries, Muslim invaders destroyed the Kashi Vishvanath at least four times and it was last rebuilt by the Maratha queen Ahilyabai Holkar in 1780.
In the sixth century BCE, the Buddha visited Varanasi and in nearby Sarnath he delivered his first sermon. Varanasi is also home to two of India’s great devotional poets, Kabir and Tulsidas. The Chinese traveller Xuanzang (earlier spelling Hiuen Tsang) who visited Varanasi in the seventh century, attested that the city was a centre of religious and artistic activities, and that it extended for over three miles. He further described a mass bathing ritual held during the reign of Emperor Harsha at the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna in Prayag.
The eighty-four ghats – a series of steps leading to the river — along the arc-shaped Ganga symbolize the integration of the twelve signs of the zodiac with the seven divisions of space and time. Every morning approximately twenty thousand people arrive at the ghats for puja, the ritual bath, or just to gather. The number of bathers approaches a million on special occasions such as the full moon in October–November (Karttika Purnima) and on solar and lunar eclipses.
One of most important pilgrimages in the approximately fifty-mile Panchakroshi circuit around Varanasi includes visits to many temples and pedestrians take a few days to complete it. For the faithful, Varanasi is the holiest of places as celebrated below in a poem in the Kashi section of the ancient Skanda Purana.
Are there not many holy places on this earth?
Yet which of them would equal in the balance one speck of Kashi’s dust?
Are there not many rivers running to the sea?
Yet which of them is like the River of Heaven in Kashi?
Are there not many fields of liberation on earth?
Yet not one equals the smallest part of the city never forsaken by Shiva.
The Ganga, Shiva, and Kashi: where this Trinity is watchful, no wonder
here is found the grace that leads one on to perfect bliss.
(Kashi Khanda 35. 7-10, from Banaras: City of Light by Diana L. Eck)
Count Herman Keyserling in his highly regarded Indian Travel Diary (1914) wrote thus of Varanasi: “Benares is holy. Europe, grown superficial, hardly understands such truths anymore…. I feel nearer here than I have ever done to the heart of the world; here I feel every day as if soon, perhaps even to-day, I would receive the grace of supreme revelation. . . The atmosphere of devotion which hangs above the river is improbable in its strength: stronger than in any church that I have ever visited. Every would-be Christian priest would do well to sacrifice a year of his theological studies in order to spend this time on the Ganga: here he would discover what piety means. For in Europe all that exists is its remote reflection.”
The Kumbha Mela
The origin of the Kumbha as a congregational ritual is in the churning of the ocean by the devas (gods) and the asuras (demons). The purpose of this churning is the amrita (nectar of immortality) that both the devas and the asuras covet. At last, as the churning proceeds, a kumbha appears and in the struggle between the two parties to get hold of it, amrita spills at four places: Haridwar, Prayag, Nashik, and Ujjain on the banks of Ganga, the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna, Godavari, and Kshipra, respectively.
The seeker wishes to connect to the cosmic by journeying to the Mela at the four places where the amrita fell. In this he is guided by Brihaspati (Jupiter), the teacher of the devas and the pilgrimage is completed with a bath in the river. Since the orbit of Jupiter is twelve years, the Kumbha comes around at this frequency. The specific month is determined by the conjunction of Jupiter with a different nakshatra associated with the place. Every 144 years, the Mela is called a Mahakumbha.
Mark Twain visited the Kumbha Mela of Prayag in 1895. Told that two million pilgrims come to the Mela, he spoke of his experience thus: “It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining.”
The Kumbha Melas were traditionally managed by the akharas (organizations of sadhus), but now the government makes the general arrangements. The Melas are the greatest peaceful congregations of people and there are reports that the Prayag Kumbha of 2013 attracted nearly 120 million people
Pushkaram (or just Pushkar) is another festival dedicated to the worshiping of twelve sacred rivers that range from the Ganga to the Kaveri. This celebration takes place at specific temples along the banks in a manner quite like the Kumbha. Each river is associated with a zodiac sign, and the river for each year’s festival is based on the conjunction of the river sign with Jupiter.
The sequence of great ritual associated with the Ganga and other rivers in India is to help the seeker find connection with the cosmos. Indian social theorists, in the dharmashastras, foresaw the problem of emptiness arising from materialism, and to counter this resulting emptiness, they exalted the idea of renunciation and self-denial. To them the pursuit of happiness was a subtle dance between enjoyment and sacrifice.
To find the balance in one’s own life there is nothing as instructive as getting lost and rendered anonymous in the vast multitudes of the Kumbha. This is one of the reasons the Westerner is so fascinated by the congregations. These Melas, the Pushkarams and other pilgrimages are a wonderful system of spiritual journeying that is distributed across the entire land of India. They offer participation in a deeply personal yet universal act that has the potential to heal and let each person connect with the larger current of humanity.
“Understanding the anatomy of language through grammar enables us to reach a higher plane of creativity in art, as well as in science…The immense heritage of scientific works in Sanskrit bear proof to this creative capacity. Unfortunately, modern methods of academic instruction in mathematics and science have been disconnected from this heritage. Instead of a delightful marriage between scientific investigation and artistic beauty, we have the divergent worlds of sciences and humanities, where people fight to establish their egos in their theories. This disconnect has produced so much pollution in this world that people have forgotten that all of human endeavour is a shared enterprise, and that its objective is to elevate the consciousness to a higher Rasa.”
Diversity in Indian civilisation
For about ten thousand years, the Indian subcontinent was not only the most populous area but also the most technologically and economically advanced civilization in the world. But despite this, the region preserved its biological diversity. The forests of India housed vast numbers of tigers and other wild animals, whose numbers started to decline only during the colonial era. The same is true of linguistic and cultural diversity in human societies.
One can contrast how Irish and other Celtic languages were exterminated from the British isles with how Dravidian and South-East Asian languages thrived despite the dominance of Sanskrit. India is the only civilization in the world where tribal languages and customs are preserved, despite being in close contact with literate societies. Apart from protecting economic and lifestyle niches, religious beliefs and practices were also protected. Many external religions such as Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Syriac Christianity, Bahai’ism have sought and found refuge in India. This case of India is all the more surprising when we note that the aggressive European civilizations were but cousins to India, sharing a common linguistic and mythological ancestry. So what did its cousins lack that made India so tolerant?
Sanskrit – tool for elevating consciousness
The answer may be in the computational nature of the Sanskrit language and the sciences nourished by it. Taken together, they are a means of amplifying the consciousness of a person, making him aware of every single aspect of life and his conduct to it. This reinforcement of consciousness is the key to avoiding environmental catastrophe in any age. Often, humans destroy living ecosystems through sheer ignorance and lack of attention. Greed is a big factor, but stupidity results in greater violence in the long term.
The languages and belief systems that we think in are Prakrits – applicable to a specific place and context. A certain type of fish might survive in certain type of waters, but other fish may die. Such is the case with Prakrits – they cannot claim to be universal. Further, if they become polluted (become Apabhramsas), they cause suffering to the very creatures that thrived on them.
The greatest cause of suffering is the ego nurtured by the polluted mind. For example, after they conquered Bengal, the British systematically scorched the region with famine to break the morale of the people. The early Americans exterminated the bison so that they could starve the native Indian tribes that depended on it. It is hard to fathom the depravities of such egotism, which continues to cause ecological destruction today. There is an important lesson to be learned from human civilizations that survived for a long time without ecological collapse like in India (at least until today’s age). The lesson is the open computational grammar of Sanskrit, which makes it modifiable to be suited to specific local contexts in space and time, such that the human mind pays attention to the changing constraints of nature.
Sanskrit is unique, because unlike any other human language, there is no dictionary needed for Sanskrit. Instead, it possesses a generative grammar of computational rules. The number of Sanskrit words is potentially infinite. Even if we restrict to words less than 5 syllables in length, there are more than hundreds of thousands of words. Each word in Sanskrit is akin to a self-explanatory computer program that can be parsed into individual syllables (phonemes) by which its meaning can be derived. Thus, an infinite number of new words can be generated whose meaning will be unambiguous to a Sanskrit speaker. The magic of Sanskrit grammar is that you can have multiple ways of breaking a word and putting it together again, that leads to multiple angles of meaning, all of which converge on the denoted object.
From the Indian perspective, the physical analogy for an algorithm is not a mechanical clock, but a constantly flowing river that nourishes people. This river is Saraswati on the banks of which the Indian civilization flourished, and who was later glorified as the goddess of speech. In the Indian tradition, this river is supposed to flow through all the other rivers, blending at sacred spots of confluence. When Indians make pilgrimages, they carry small pots of water from the rivers of their places of origin to the sacred Ganges and mix them in. This is a way of acknowledging the commonality of all the rivers.
Interpreting this tradition with computers and algorithms, we should encourage interoperability of all computing systems, by periodically blending in the waters of computation with each other. Like the waters of a river, they can be enjoyed by all living beings. In a more general sense, we can say the same for open-source software if it achieves political and economic awareness amongst people. Thinking of algorithms and computer programs as rivers also requires us to maintain them free of pollution. Various types of pollution in terms of data-structures, security, network infrastructure etc. need to be addressed in a similar manner to how we address pollution in ecology.
Reviving the Sanskrit tradition
Throughout the cultural history of India, all great poets and writers in regional languages studied Sanskrit and were equally proficient in it. The power of Sanskrit in word formation and grammar has penetrated all Indian languages. In fact, the first writers of any regional language (Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam etc.) wrote a technical Paninian*-style grammar for their language before composing any literary work. This is because they understood the importance of grammar in imparting consciousness to the literary tradition. Understanding the anatomy of language through grammar enables us to reach a higher plane of creativity in art, as well as in science.
The immense heritage of scientific works in Sanskrit bear proof to this creative capacity. Unfortunately, modern methods of academic instruction in mathematics and science have been disconnected from this heritage. Instead of a delightful marriage between scientific investigation and artistic beauty, we have the divergent worlds of sciences and humanities, where people fight to establish their egos in their theories. This disconnect has produced so much pollution in this world that people have forgotten that all of human endeavour is a shared enterprise, and that its objective is to elevate the consciousness to a higher Rasa (essence). In Sanskrit tradition, the contrast could not be stronger. Great Indian mathematicians of the past like Bhaskara were also highly skilled poets. All the great Sanskrit poets and musicians used computational thinking that would pride a scientist. These bridges have to be rebuilt today, not only for the sake of lovers of Sanskrit, but for the whole world.
The mainstream narrative from western media is okay with letting Indians have their naked mystics, but not as open about acknowledging the full extent of scientific contributions. But anybody who tries to confine the applicability of Sanskrit to these narrow realms is an enemy, not of Sanskrit, but of science.
*Sankskrit grammarian in the ~6th -4th BCE, considered the father of Indian linguistics
Recently back from a trip to the Himalayas, the birthplace of the river Ganga and on the occasion of World Water Day, I take the opportunity to write about the river Ganga, the life-giving Mother of India.
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