Vipassana: 10 days of silence

I picture a tree when I imagine a silent mind. Still and grounded. It is simply right there, inviting sunshine and rain, allowing itself to grow and bear fruits, letting its leaves to fall and wither, allowing flowers to blossom and seeds to be planted, giving others a shade, a place to rest.

When was the last time your mind was peaceful and quiet? No phone app to thumb through, no social media to peruse, no book to read, no pen and paper to put your thoughts in order, no human being next to you to talk to.  It might sound like being in a 19th century prison camp.

But it was a 10-day meditation retreat called Vipassana  which I attended right after I quit my job. My friends jested it seemed like being in jail for 10 days. But being trapped was the last thing that would ever happen to you there. My goal then was to set my mind free, away from the noise, pollution, distractions in and out of myself.

Yes, it was a challenge of sort, a new experience. I had been meaning to try Vipassana for years but I simply could not have the time. Once the time and opportunity came, I had to seize it.

There in Dasmarinas, Cavite, about 50 kilometers south of Manila, is Sico farm, the meditation place surrounded by full grown mango trees. There were two dozens of people who came before me.  After briefing us of what to transpire in the next 10 days, the volunteers of Vipassana led us to our residence halls. Men and women were  segregated. But we were gathered all together at meditation hall for the daily meditation sessions.

We had our first vegetarian meal that evening. We can still talk to each other as the Noble Silence will start after the first evening session. So everyone was chattering in a rush fully knowing that the next days will be completely silent.

What was silence in 10 days like?

I have been drawn into the practice of quieting the mind since the time I attended a trauma seminar for journalists organized by an organization teaching meditation called Brahma Kumaris 7 years ago. But sitting still for an hour with my eyes closed in an attempt to declutter my mind has always been difficult. My mind would stay still for 5 minutes but after that it will wander off to what I should be doing after an hour, to what happened yesterday, to what I want to have for dinner, etc, etc. Quieting the mind is easier said than done.

In Vipassana, our schedule was rigid. We started to hear the sound of the bell, our wakeup call at 4 a.m. Then, we started meditating at 4:30 a.m. You can choose to meditate in the meditation hall or in your bed. But it proved wise for me to choose the former because in some occasions I ended up happily snoring in my bed instead of focusing on my breaths.

There were hours when we were required to sit in the meditation hall for the group meditation. The group meditation was guided by the recorded voice of the Vipassana pioneer S.N. Goenka in the beginning and end.

In one day,  we sat in silence for 11 hours. But during the rest and breaks, any form of communication, be it a gesture, eye contact, or notes, is not  allowed.

I broke the rule  when I accidentally used the mug of my seatmate in the table (with her name plastered on it rightfully calling for attention) out of, well, ironically, unmindfulness. I giggled unable to control myself and showed her my blunder. She didn’t laugh. (But she laughed so hard while we were talking about it after the Noble Silence was lifted and the retreat was over.)

During the breaks, I can’t help but talk to myself in my head. I had so many stories in my mind while I lay under a mango tree. To be honest, it fascinated me that I wasn’t bored at all. And, I wasn’t scared of possibly going insane. But in those breaks, I allowed my mind to wander because sitting cross-legged with your eyes closed and your mind focused for hours could be hard work.

The first three days were difficult. I simply could not focus. But after some time, meditation for hours became easy and refreshing.

Vipassana, which means seeing things as they really are, teaches one of India’s ancient meditation techniques said to be rediscovered by Siddharta Gautama. While anchored on Buddhism, Vipassana has a non-sectarian approach so people from different religions may try practicing it. Vipassana trains the mind to be equanimous. Such a big word.

Equanimity is the “evenness of the mind,” the capacity for mental composure despite adversities. I have loved this word the first time I heard it. It was like a balm to my agitated mind.

After days of watching my breaths, the sensations in my body from my head to my feet, “their rising and passing away,” it dawned on me, why meditation can bring me equanimity and why monks are among the happiest people on earth.

Vipassana certainly taught me what it means to be alive.

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With fellow Vipassana students in Sico farm in Cavite after completing the 10-day meditation course.

Did I become a new person after the retreat?

My friends asked me this over dinner after the retreat.  “Of course not. How can 10 days change me in an instant?” My friends thought they will see a new me, someone totally zen.

But what happened was I gained an ancient knowledge and practice which I strive to continue to incorporate into my daily life.

After 10 days of Vipassana, I felt victorious. It was the same feeling I had after my trek in Mt. Apo. But the real challenge is putting it into daily practice.

Note:  Vipassana courses are run on a voluntary donation basis. Those running it accept donation only from old students.  There is no charge for the teaching, the food or the board and lodging. But students who benefited from the experience may donate, according to his or her volition and means.

I got news that Vipassana Philippines no longer holds its courses at Sico Farm in Dasmarinas, Cavite as it is preparing for its transfer to a 3-hectare property in Tiaong, Quezon. For more, information about Vipassana, you may visit their website at http://www.phala.dhamma.org.

 

 

Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace, its ironies and my misadventures

Lumbini was in my list of must-see places in Nepal. I visited it out of curiosity of what Buddha’s birthplace was like. While I am not a religious person, Buddhism, among all the religions in the world, resonates with me the most. And, Lumbini is one of the top holy sites among the Buddhists. It is their Mecca.

Taking two to three days from my 45-day stay in Nepal and coming to Lumbini, thus, seemed like an obligation.

But Lumbini, which is located in the Terai plains of southern Nepal close to the Indian border, turned out to be underwhelming, not to mention the long and dusty bus ride from Kathmandu and the subtle harassment I got from the tour guide I hired for one day.

My experiences in Lumbini were punctuated by ironies and ugliness. At first I thought writing about it would be all-zen. A magazine editor had even asked me to write about it before my supposed trip. But it would be too hypocrite of me not to tell exactly what happened and what was on my mind while I was there.

I left Kathmandu for Lumbini a day after a three-day international conference on investigative journalism which I attended because it happened to be held just where I was in that month. I was still recovering from cough and colds so I was not in my top shape. I arrived at the bus station in Kathmandu 5 minutes after the AC bus en route to Lumbini had left. I had no choice but to take the non-AC bus to Bhairawa. In Bhairawa, I had to find another bus going to Lumbini. All in all, the travel took 11 hours because these ordinary buses stopped frequently to pick up passengers.

While in discomfort and sweating inside a full bus that was like a sardine can, I consoled myself: “Everything will be better in Lumbini.” To get through the day, I tried to think of impermanence, a Buddhist thought. Everything, without exception, is “transient, evanescent, inconstant.”

I arrived in Lumbini at half past 6 in the evening. On the bus, I was half-worried that it might be too dark to find a guesthouse to stay for the night.  I didn’t book my accommodation beforehand because I thought it might be less costly to simply scout for a cheaper room, which turned out to be a right decision. I found a room for 5 US dollars.

But still it was a risk to come in the night. (Tip: Make sure to get the AC bus at the Kathmandu bus station at 7 a.m. because the travel would surely  take six to seven hours. You will arrive in Lumbini by 2 or 3 in the afternoon.)

The caretaker of the first guesthouse which I had checked asked me how much I was willing to pay for a private room and quickly I replied: “500 rupees.” He initially said 700 rupees but he eventually agreed to my price. The room was clean and had basic amenities- shower, fan, and a queen-size bed, all that I needed.

Lumbini has been identified as the birthplace of the Buddha way back in 248 BCE. A pillar of the Indian Emperor Ashoka, who visited Lumbini in 248 BCE,  stands erect there with an inscription commemorating the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, whom the world knows as the Buddha, or the enlightened one.  The exact place where Buddha was born has always been a subject of debate. Some claim he was born in India. But Buddhists for more than 2, 000 years believe that the enlightened one was born in Lumbini, a town located in the present-day Nepal.

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When I came to Lumbini, I was disheartened to see poverty everywhere. I saw several children with gaunt eyes, tiny bodies and bloated bellies. While I was eating outside a restaurant, one child carrying a tiny baby, probably 1 to 2 months old, was begging for alms. “Should I give her money?” a Caucasian woman sought our help in her decision whether to give or not. A Japanese tourist replied: “It’s up to you.”

After an hour another girl came with the same baby asking the other tourists for money.

 

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My misadventure started when I met an unusually friendly owner of a restaurant near the guesthouse where I was staying. When he found out that I was Filipino, his face brightened up and in an instant he became chatty. He even Skyped his former Filipino officemates in Dubai so they could talk to me. So he somehow earned my trust. He offered me a tour guide to go around with me the next day. I asked how much and he said I shouldn’t bother and it would be up to me. (Note: This was a mistake. Hiring a guide turned out to be more costly than just hiring cycle rickshaws and figuring out where to go on your own. )

I met the tour guide the next day. He was supposed to drive me around with his motorbike. But an hour after visiting the gleaming white Peace Pagoda, his motorbike began to malfunction. It wouldn’t start. We had to take a rickshaw and then bus from where we were.

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It was totally fine with me. I know shit happens on the road. But what pissed me off big time was this tour guide’s subtle sexual advances. There were several times he put his arm around my shoulder despite my disapproval. I told him, still politely, that, it is inappropriate to touch a woman. “But we are friends,” the guide reasoned out.

His advances, no matter how subtle, made me uncomfortable throughout the day. Worst, after I paid him 1, 500 NR (15 USD) , he stroked my back in a sensual way.

I stood up and shouted “I told you not to touch me!” I walked away. But I felt I didn’t do enough to punish him for his acts. It was clearly a harassment. While in my room, I was boiling over. I should have expressed utter disgust, curses and all, to prove a point. I shouldn’t have allowed it to pass.

But I actually allowed it to pass. I felt I had to leave Lumbini as soon as possible.

(My advice to solo female travelers: team up with fellow travelers if you are in South Asia. And for your safety, look for a female tour guide instead. You can also go around around Lumbini on your own. And if anything like this happens to you too,  tell the guy to F*ck off!)

My misadventures actually didn’t end with that. Perhaps due to the rough day, I found it difficult to sleep on my last night in Lumbini.  I did manage to sleep eventually, so soundly that  I missed my 7 a.m. bus to Pokhara. I had to take a non-AC ordinary bus, which again crawled on the road to pick up as many passengers as possible.

So if you’d ask me if I got my zen while I was in Buddha’s hometown? My answer is definitely not.

I went back to Pokhara where the approaching winter cooled the air. And the sight of the Annapurna Himalaya cheered me up again.  I went back to my yoga mat the next day. And, all things had gone well.

In a way, Lumbini gave me a taste of ironies and some lessons learned.

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Maya Devi Temple, the main highlight of my tour. It is believed to be the place where Buddha was born. Siddharta, born a prince, is said to have been born beneath a sal tree. The temple was named after Siddharta’s queen mother Maya Devi.

 

10 reasons India is a paradise for budget travelers

My travel to India got a lot of people curious: How did I manage to stay in India for a long period. And, one had even asked me on Facebook: “Why India?”

Well, India appears daunting at first, especially for solo female travelers. The news about the medical student gang-raped on a bus in New Delhi has never left our memories. It shocked the world once upon a time and every time we hear a woman raped in India, we distance ourselves from this country.

When I set off for a backpacking trip in India, I carried a let-us-see attitude and an open mind so I can see how incredible India is, its beauty, warts and all.

After staying in its northern part for 79 days and having visited towns and cities like Dharamsala, Manali, Leh-Ladakh, Agra, and New Delhi, India would always be the top country I’d recommend to those who want a dose of adventures and new experiences.

Here is my own list of reasons why it is indeed heaven for budget travelers and adventurers out there.

1. The Philippine peso is stronger vs the Indian rupee.

Travelers get more value from their currencies here, including the Philippine peso. With the 1.4 PHP/INR exchange rate, you get 140 Indian rupees for your P100. I intended to stay in India for just a month solely for the 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training Course in Mcleod Ganj in Dharamsala. I planned on staying for another week after the yoga course. But in the end, I was able to stretch my budget and extend my stay for a month and three weeks more.

2. Everything is cheap-from the accommodation, food, bus tickets to clothing, trinkets, and even a visit to a beauty parlor.

A visit to the salon in India will cost you less than a hundred peso. To my surprise, in one corner at the Main Square of Mcleod Ganj, an eyebrow threading costs 20 Indian rupees (PHP14) and the underarm waxing 50 rupees (PHP35). The services were ridiculously cheap that I was scared of what the salon staff would do to me. But they turned out just fine. And still afterward, I marveled at how cheap they were. And I had to repeat before I leave the parlor “Seventy rupees, right?”

Others were incredibly cheap too, considering that Mcleod Ganj is a touristy area, mainly because of the scenic Himalayan ranges and the fact that the Dalai Lama  resides there. It was the same case in other places like Manali and Leh-Ladakh (although prices in Ladakh were slightly higher ). A complete meal (chapati, mix vegetable, curd, dhal and rice) which you can share because it could be too much for one person will cost you 150 rupees (PHP106). There will be places where it could be 50 to 100 rupees.

Often I’d wish to buy fruits. Guess how much half a kilogram of mangoes in Mcleod Ganj is? 20 rupees. What a bargain!

Sometimes, I would splurge and feast on a sumptuous vegetable sushi, dessert and a cup of cappuccino and still the bill will range between 300 and 400 rupees.

The room where I stayed for 10 more days after the yoga course was 300 rupees (PHP213) a night. It is a room good for two people and with an attached bathroom.

While most public buses in India are rickety and old, you will still be amazed by how affordable their public transportation is. A 45-kilometer bumpy bus ride from Kangra to the Masroor Temple, which Indians claim to be the Pyramid of the Himalayas, costs 50 rupees per person. (I avoided taxis in my stay in India because drivers generally charge more). A tuktuk (rickshaw) is a cheaper option. They charge 30 to 70 rupees a ride.

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3. Choose a mountain and you will have story to tell. 

You can find so many amazing treks in India. I did at least three short treks in Himachal Pradesh and a 7-day trekking in the Markha Valley in Ladakh. The last one made it to the front page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

India boasts of having the huge part of the mystical and glorious Himalayan ranges, from the lush mountains rich of green deodars, high-altitude deserts in the Ladakh region to snowcapped mountain ranges. All look stunning and ethereal.

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Trekking across the wide expanse of barren landscapes and deserts in the Markha Valley of the Himalayas in Ladakh was indeed a profound experience.

From where I stayed- whether in Mcleod Ganj, Manali or Leh, I was always treated to scenic views of the vast mountain ranges, forever tempting me to go on more treks.

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The view from Dharamkot, a hippie village just above Mcleod Ganj in Dharamshala

4.  Every place is different. Every town and village in India has a unique trait.

If you are a culture buff, you will enjoy India for its diverse cultures.  While Hinduism is a predominant religion, you will revel in the healthy fusion of religions in India. Turban-wearing Sikhs, maroon-clad Buddhist monks, and Hindus’ holy people Sadhus could be a common sight in a usual five-minute walk on the street.

When I went to Leh, a high-desert city in Ladakh, a region in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, I felt I was in another country. The sceneries are out of this world, the culture, the language are so much different from other Indian states. And when I moved to Manali, a hilltop resort town in Himachal Prachesh, the weather and the sceneries likewise changed.

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At the top of Leh Palace, a former royal palace overlooking the Ladakhi city of Leh.
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On one of the busy streets in Pahar Ganj in New Delhi

5.  It is the best place to try to learn new things like yoga, reiki, ayurveda and meditation.

You can have the best yoga holiday in your life in India, where yoga began 5, 000 years ago. After the 28 days of yoga practice in McLeod Ganj, I learned more about myself more than the basic asana poses. (Read related story) I extended my stay in Mcleod Ganj after my classmates and I chanced upon this Ashtanga teacher Vjay. For the next 10 days, my French yoga classmate and I found ourselves Vjay’s morning classes. His classes could be literally back-breaking so just be gentle on yourself.

In suburbs of Dharamsala like Mcleod Ganj, Dharamkot, and Bhagsu, you can see a great deal of posters advertising courses practically about anything- Ayurveda massage, reiki (healing through energy), cooking lessons, and meditation. Choose whatever you feel will make you grow. More than the parties and selfies, I have chosen to devote a huge part of my travels to learning and gaining new experiences.

6.  Traveling in India can recharge your spiritual batteries. One yoga classmate of mine voiced out what she noticed about Mcleod Ganj. “I can feel the spiritual vibe. There is so much positive energy,” she said. And I totally agreed with her. It could be because of the rich Buddhism culture that is present in Mcleod Ganj. It could be the mystical Himalayas, which many cultures have regarded as the “home of the Gods.” “Even the dogs are totally zen,” another yoga classmate jested. But I thought perhaps the dogs were always just sleepy during the day.

In India, I had a beautiful experience of seeing the Dalai Lama. It was a dream that has come true. Pardon me, but I couldn’t help to say: “I feel so blessed.” Read my previous blogpost. 

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These Tibetan prayer flags looking old and faded adorn the Leh Palace, a 17th century royal palace overlooking the high-desert city in the Himalayas.

7.  You will have a gastronomic adventure in India. 

 If food makes you happy and it can make or break your travels, then India is for you. Its cuisine offers a wide variety of local and regional dishes. Eating Indian food is like having an explosion of tastes in the mouth. I am at a loss for words how to describe a tasty dish which is sour, spicy, sweet and salty, all at the same time. If you are vegetarian or vegan, then India is heaven for you. I did try to be one in my first two months in India. My favorite is Masala Paneer with butter nan, so flavorful! But often, I go for Thali, a combination of chapati, curd, mixed vegetables in curry sauce, lentil soup, and rice, which to me is a healthier option.

But for days when I wanted something different, I would get, vegetarian sushi, burger, pizza, pasta, humus and falafel and a lot more.

One caveat though in your food adventures in India is food safety. I have met a lot of westerners who got sick during their trip in India which has one of the poorest food safety records in the world. I got sick for one whole day after I ate two samosas in a food stall at a bus station in Kullu in Himachal Pradesh. Be sure to buy a bottle of mineral water instead of the tap water in restaurants.

8. You will enjoy India’s distinct culture, Bollywood in other words.

From the music, dances, movies, and TV shows, Bollywood is its own kind. I am surprised that India has preserved its culture despite the allure of globalization.  A Bollywood movie would have 7 to 8 original songs and dances. So before I left India, I found myself humming popular romantic songs which have been repeatedly played in shops, restaurants and public buses.

9. India is photogenic from a lot of angles- Mountains, structures, people, clothing, festivities.

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A Rajastani singer performs outside the Hadimba temple in Manali

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The streets in Changspa, a tourist district in Leh, has its own charm.

Before I left my country, I made a commitment to take a lot of good photos. And I found myself in the best place. The splash of colors everywhere is beautiful in photographs. It was such a good place to practice.

10. It is a paradise for history lovers.

Traveling in India is like traveling through its rich history. Well, India’s northwestern part was the heartland of the oldest civilization in the world that flourished along the Indus River. I got a taste of history in my trips to Taj Mahal in Agra, India gate, the ancient Qutb Minar, Masroor Temple which is touted as the Pyramid of the Himalayas in Kangra, and the 17th century Leh Palace overlooking the high-desert capital of Ladakh.

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Taj Mahal: Nothing can beat this architectural masterpiece
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Masroor Rock Cut Temple in Kangra is a Shiva temple complex touted as the Pyramid of the Himalayas.

I didn’t have the opportunity to visit the other parts of India, but I am sure for travelers, most places in India will never fail to amaze.

The places I have visited in India like Mcleod Ganj, Manali and Ladakh are not as dangerous as it seemed for solo female travelers. But I myself took seriously the warnings I got before leaving for India. Don’t walk the streets at night, especially in big cities. So after sundown, I stayed in the guesthouses most of the time. Mcleod Ganj is an exception though. You can find its streets still filled with tourists even past 9 p.m.

But as in other places, the rule of thumb in traveling is to have fun and stay safe!

(On the visa: I obtained my visa valid for three months from the Indian embassy in Manila. A three-month tourist visa costs PHP2210. But if you intend to stay for less than a month, you may apply for a visa on arrival at any airport of entry in India.)

 

A month of yoga in Mcleod Ganj, also known as Little Tibet

On the day I arrived in Mcleod Ganj in Dharamsala in India in June, I instantly felt home. It has a hodgepodge of everything I wanted- the scenic mountain ranges, the fusion of the cultures of Tibet and India, Buddhism, Hinduism, yoga, and a wide variety of vegetarian food.

I found myself giddily stalking maroon-clad Buddhist monks at Mcleod Ganj’s Main Square with my SLR camera on one hand on my first day. They are everywhere. You can see some sitting in coffee shops tinkering with their phones, some buying goods from the stalls along the main street, others you can see chatting with the locals.

“Tashi delek,” I greeted a monk walking on the street to practice the first Tibetan words I had learned. Looking surprised, the monk smiled at me and returned the greeting.

“This is not India,” an Indian tourist from New Delhi told me and my yoga classmate over coffee.

My picture of India before I left Manila was far different from the image of Mcleod Ganj. I was bombarded with warnings from friends and relatives about India before I took the flight from Manila to New Delhi. “Be careful. Don’t walk alone in the night. It’s dirty and polluted, worse than Manila.” These warnings could be the reason I decided to sleep away my time at the Indira Gandhi International Airport just to avoid New Delhi in my first month in this country.

But India means a lot of things to be judged in two to three sentences. You can find the best and worst things in this huge country with an exploding population that is the world’s second biggest.

 

Mcleod Ganj, a hilltop suburb in Dharamsala in the Himachal Pradesh state of India, draws  tourists from all over the world, either because of the stunning views of the mountains or because of the Dalai Lama who has been residing there with the Tibetan government in exile since his daring escape in the 1959, or both. It is called Little Tibet because of the large population of Tibetan refugees living there. In fact, there seems to be more Tibetans than Indians here.

 

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The lush greenery along the trail to Triund Hill in Dharamsala
From my room at a guesthouse, about 10-minute walk from the Main Square, was a striking view of the lush Himalayan ranges with the snow-capped Dhauladhar mountains peeking through the clouds. Every day, I will see this, I told myself before the start of the month-long yoga course.

 

It was a good decision to practice yoga in this place. Back in April, I was scouting for 200-hour Yoga Teaching Courses in India, Nepal and Thailand. Why did I choose India? The answer was obvious. Where else do you want to learn yoga but in its birthplace.

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The view from the guest house where I stayed in Mcleod Ganj
I chose the teaching course instead of a month-long retreat because I thought then teaching was the best way to learn.

I found online Chandra Yoga International , a yoga school accredited by Yoga Alliance, which offers 200-hour Yoga TTC in Dharamsala on dates ideal to me.

Starting with an hour session of controlled breathing and meditation at 6:00 a.m., our usual day was packed with two to four hours of asana (postures). We took one day of rest a week. “You are breathing yoga,” a teacher told us one time.

For the entire 28 days, we stuck to our vegetarian diet, an Indian Thali made up of dhal, mixed vegetables in curry sauce, rice, chapati, salad, on a metal plate. Drinking coffee was not encouraged. But I felt like a school kid breaking a rule. My newfound friends, my Italian, Russian, and British classmates, would often break this soft rule on coffee during our afternoon breaks, while munching our favorite pastries.

 

In the first two weeks I saw my body improve. It was more flexible and stronger. My mind was calmer than ever, too. Yoga, after all, is the alignment of the mind, body and spirit, as we draw our attention inward and allow our body and heart to open up.

The second part of the course was devoted to our practicums- teaching a 30-minute asana class for beginners, an hour-long class, and a 30-minute meditation class. These made me a bit anxious, because in my mind I knew I was not a yoga teacher yet. But I told myself. “This is a new experience, let’s have fun.” And I did, thanks to my wonderful classmates and teachers.

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During our afternoon Asana workshop with our teacher Taryn
The people I met in Mcleod Ganj were the jewels in this course. For a month, we considered each other family. I could feel the class pulsating with love because every one has put his/her heart and soul in the practicums.

 

Will I teach yoga? Perhaps. I can start with my friends first. The best thing in this is not the Certificate after the course but the lifestyle that it has taught me.

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My Yoga TTC classmates and teachers, all 30 of us in one frame.
How to go to Mcleod Ganj in Dharamsala:

I took a Manila-New Delhi flight via Kuala Lumpur with AirAsia. Arriving shortly before midnight on June 12, I decided to sleep in one of the paid lounges at the Indira Gandhi International Airport and wait for my flight the next day to Gaggal Airport in Dharamsala. From the airport, I shared a cab with a female Indian traveler I met upon landing.

Where to stay in Mcleod Ganj:

You can easily find private rooms with attached bathrooms for 400 INR a day. I stayed in Sharma Cottage, which was paid by the Chandra Yoga International as part of the YTTC package.

On finding the Dalai Lama

Before I left Manila for India two months ago, I made a wish: to see the Dalai Lama in the flesh.

Since I would be staying in Mcleod Ganj in Dharamsala to practice yoga for a month, this possibility was not too remote.

The 14th Dalai Lama has been residing in Dharamshala along with the Tibetan government in exile after his escape from the Chinese authorities in Tibet in 1959. Mcleod Ganj has been his home. And the Dalai Lama temple was just within walking distance from where I was staying.

I became a fan of the Dalai Lama after having watched “Kundun,” the film about his life from the time that he was found by the search teams in the northeast of Tibet up to his dramatic escape to India. Only then did I learn that the line of succession of the Dalai Lama is determined by reincarnation according to Tibetan beliefs. Thus the 14th Dalai Lama now is a reincarnation of the previous spritual leaders. According to some Tibetan texts,  the Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. 

If you had been following the animation series Avatar, you’d immediately realize that the Dalai Lama’s story is similar to that of the cartoon’s hero Aang, the last airbender. How amazing is that? And similarly, the 14th Dalai Lama conceded that he may be the last. But it would be up to the Tibetan people to determine the fate of the institution, he said in several interviews.

I was in Mcleod Ganj when the Dalai Lama turned 81. The celebration at the Dalai Lama temple was festive, complete with cultural performances. It would have been perfect time to see the Dalai Lama, but the celebrant was not there. We were told that he was in the southern part of India then.

My month-long yoga course ended and I had even extended my stay in Mcleod Ganj for 10 more days to do more Ashtanga with another yoga studio. But in those days, I had no sighting of the Dalai Lama. I left the Mcleod abandoning that wish. Maybe he would eventually visit the Philippines? I cheered myself.

I continued my journey, finding myself in the high-desert region of the Himalayas. Guess what? The Dalai Lama came to Leh in Ladakh. After my epic seven-day trek in Markha Valley, I heard that he would be holding a public teaching in Thiksey Monastery, a Tibetan monastery on top of a hill at the Thiksey village in Leh. I woke up earlier that day on a mission to see the Dalai Lama. I walked down to the bus station from Changspa Road and immediately found one shared taxi going to Thiksey.

The ground below the monastery was already filled with thousands of Ladakhis by the time I arrived. I searched for the stage and found my way to the media spot at the aisle, just within striking distance of the Dalai Lama. I had covered the historic state visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines in 2015. But the reaction of the people and the security around the two religious leaders weren’t the same. The people before the Dalai Lama were more contemplative, not in a mad rush to get near or touch him. A local policeman allowed me to take photos near the stage even if I don’t have a press ID. I was lucky, a Korean journalist following the Dalai Lama told me later.

So there he was sitting on a wide golden chair. He was speaking in Tibetan which was being translated in Ladakhi language over a loud speaker. I couldn’t understand a thing. But I was sure his three-hour long speech was sprinkled with anecdotes and jokes because he often laughed and smiled. The Dalai Lama was so full of life.

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Oh I was completely mesmerized! It came to me later that there was a designated area for foreigners and his talk there was being translated to English. In the last part of his speech, he said: “Discrimination is the source of harm.” The translator said you immediately gain friends by being kind and warm-hearted.

Other photos at Thiksey Monastery:

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I had actually thought of approaching him and shooting him one political question after the event. But the journalists covering him said it wasn’t possible. I have to write his office a letter request first. I actually did that before I left the Philippines but unfortunately, probably because of his busy schedule, I got no reply.  Nevertheless, still seeing the Dalai Lama here in India was such a beautiful experience.