Bodh Gaya – The Buddhist Theme Park

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There are four places which are important and the ultimate pilgrimages for Buddhists. There is his birthplace which is Lumbini in Nepal, his death place at Kushinigar, India, his first sermon at Sarnath, Varanasi (more about this in later blog) and the place where he sat under a tree for a bit, as steady as a tampon, before attaining enlightenment at Bodh Gaya in the lawless state of Bihar. (lawless today that is). The exact spot where he did this is now a shrine to Buddhists and spiritual seekers worldwide wanting to visit the tree where he battled off Mara. It of course is not the original tree but a descendant of it, but the spot is still the spot.

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Scholars have often debated what Mara is. It is commonly known as a demon who came to tempt Buddha back into worldly attachments, copied some 500 years later by Bible writers when their own version of Mara, S*tan, similarly tempted Jesus in the wilderness. The difference in these stories is that the Buddhist one is known and understood to be symbolic. Well the spot at Bodh Gaya is where that all happened though I think Mara was not the worst thing for Mr B, it must have been the mosquitoes because they seem to like it here better than anywhere else in India. One can only assume that the Buddha, when he eventually got up, was rather spotty.

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It’s not an easy place to get to, Bodh Gaya. We had to grab an internal flight to Patna which at first experience reminded me of Philip Pullman’s description of Hell in ‘His Dark Materials’. We stayed overnight at one of Patna’s better hotels – comparable to a bad Travelodge that has been taken over by a biker gang. We were on the top floor but luckily we were still able to hear, as if it was happening in the en-siute bathroom, the Indian rave going on in the function room three floors below. And this was a Wednesday!

Leaving in the morning, we tested our patience at the railway station to try to get a train to Gaya, 5 hours away. We had two hours to wait and became a curiosity to all other travellers because one guy could speak English and wanted to know everything about us.  Our answers were translated to the 600 people circling us at a distance of 6 inches. When the train came in, some kids ran in and jumped on to seats and said they were for us – and a pleasurable journey was had.
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Once at Gaya though, things got a bit scary. We needed to find a tuk tuk to take us the remaining 12 miles to Bodh Gaya itself and it was then that three young lads, doing a credible impression of a pack of hyenas, began stalking Alison, right on her tail. I nodded to my son James that we have a problem and we turned and faced them off. I gave them my best show of teeth and emitted a little growl and they backed off. This was noticed by approximately 10,000 other locals and then I remembered, from all the travel guides, that the state of Bihar should be avoided, if at all possible. I have learned, in my life, three tactics to ward off violence – the most drastic and risky being an actual teeth bearing growl. The other two are to either suddenly become very gay and very camp (people say I’m *too* good at this) or to cock one’s head, point randomly into the sky and begin slobbering. It is my experience that guys don’t generally hit you if you adopt one of these.

However, this incident marred our arrival into Bodh Gaya – which was met by a guy riding alongside our tuk tuk on a motorbike offering accommodation for only £3.50 a room per night. In exhaustion we instructed the tt driver to follow him and so began what would turn out to be the worst sleep or more accurately wake I’ve ever had. Apart from the room being bereft of air conditioning – just a wobbly ceiling fan -our bedrooms were a meeting place, if not the meeting place for mosquitoes, the likes of which I’ve never seen, the new mattresses were bedecked with plastic sheets, so when the power goes out, which is about every hour, the ceiling fan stops, the 90 degree heat mingles with the plastic sheet and the mozzies come out to play, and as there is no power,  you can only hear them, and hear them everywhere – and when the power does eventually come back on you catch yourself in the mirror, soaked with sweat doing a wonderful impersonation of a lunatic with rickets repeating words like ‘for fucks sake’ and ‘bastard’s at an unacceptable volume.

The next morning, bleary eyed, wandering around the town it becomes very obvious that Bodh Gaya is a Buddhist theme park. Each country has it’s own monastery, even China, vying to be the most impressive.

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It was so much like the Epcot Centre only with added cows and stray dogs. The Tibetans are currently constructing one which rivals a football stadium.

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We visited several and marveled at the architecture and artifacts, we visited the Big Buddha statue before going to the Mahabodhi Temple, where the tree is.

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Security was tight as there had been a bomb explode not too long ago but once inside the grounds, it was all very impressive. Shoes off, we headed for the tree. Fenced off, overhanging a courtyard in front of the temple, there it was, or there the spot was, and we sat with many others contemplating the significance of the spot and watching monks trying to out-monk each other with the best meditation posture, and then it happened – a gust of wind! And so began the best entertainment so far.  Each gust dislodged a few leaves, and fortuitously one fell near my feet, but looking up, I witnessed Buddhist mayhem. When the leaves came to the ground the monks didn’t actually fight, but ‘withdrew’, when another had beaten them to a leaf.  It was akin to a rock idol throwing plectrums into a crowd.  One tattooed Burmese monk had a whole bag.
I think they were learning about attachment.

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There was also a meditation garden which you had to pay admission to enter if you didn’t intend to meditate but it was free if you were to meditate or, I guess, pretend to. The irony of this was not lost on me.

That evening on the street we met some lovely teenagers who spoke good English who walked with us for an hour or so and couldn’t grasp that most English people can’t stand cricket. They asked me to buy them a football and I did and they are now facebook friends (Hi guys!)
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But it was time to arrange transport to get to Varanasi – the jewel in India’s crown and on inquiring I was whisked away on the back of a motorbike to a man who knows a man who can – and Varanasi is a whole new story

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all posts from this trip – ‘North India in 23 Days’ can be found at
http://kevollier.com/category/north-india-in-23-days/

and for other Yoga and Buddhist related posts as well as general randomness see
kevollier.com/

Still My Guitar Gently Weeps

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following on from http://kevollier.com/2014/07/25/rishikesh/

kevollier.com Rishikesh. The Beatles

Rishikesh before the arrival of The Beatles in 1968 was pretty much unknown to Westerners but there is no doubting that it was indeed this visit by the Fab Four that put Rishikesh, Meditation and Yoga onto the current mainstream map.

The Beatles, simply put, is why Rishikesh is what it is today – the yoga capital of the world – and the number 1 spiritual backpacking destination on the planet – but – you wouldn’t know this when there. There are no shops selling Beatles memorabilia, and their songs from the White Album, which was mostly written in this town along with other of their tunes, are not blaring from every shop and coffee stop. There is a Beatles Cafe hidden away in an underground blaze of buildings outside of he main tourist zone but that’s it.

The greatest monument to The Beatles is not the Cavern Club in Liverpool nor is it the National Trust owned childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and neither is it Penny Lane or the zebra crossing in Abbey Road. It is the crumbling ashram that The Beatles briefly lived in with the Maharishi in Rishikesh. That’s the spot where the Beatles opened their hearts and minds and in the case of Harrison and Lennon, were never closed again. It is the must visit antiquity for any fan of the Beatles but it has to be done soon because in 5 years it will be likely be gone as the jungle is taking it over – and fast.

In the mid-1960s, the Beatles became interested in Indian culture after using drugs in an effort to expand their consciousness and in 1966 Harrison visited India for 6 weeks and took sitar lessons from Ravi Shankar.
The band’s visit was one of the their most productive periods. Their interest in the Maharishi changed Western attitudes about Indian spirituality and encouraged the study of Transcendental Meditation to the rest of the world. They first met the Maharishi in London in August 1967 and then attended a seminar in Bangor Wales. They had planned to attend the entire 10-day session, but their stay was cut short by the death of their manager, Brian Epstein. Wanting to learn more, they kept in contact with the Maharishi and made arrangements to spend time with him at his teaching center located in Rishikesh.

Along with their wives, girlfriends, assistants and numerous reporters, the Beatles arrived in India in February 1968, and joined the group of 60 people who were training to be TM teachers including musicians Donovan and Mike Love of The Beach Boys.

So today was an exciting day for me. We were going to find the ashram. Brought up on The Beatles – my mother tells me when I was born, and subsequently taken back to the ward, the first song I ever heard was ‘She Loves You’ as that was playing on the hospital ‘wireless’. I was even born on September 19th, the same day as Brian Epstein (and Twiggy as it happens but that has no relevance) and I have known every word of every song, verbatim, since I was 7.

We had to ask where the ashram was, as it isn’t signed or mentioned anywhere yet every resident knows where it is. It is a mile down from the Swarg Ashram village, within Rishikesh, beyond where the path ends and forays into the edge of the jungle, or actually where the jungle forays towards town. Even 100 yards away, we had to ask some westerners where it was..

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The Ashram entrance

We were met at the gate by a local guide who was recommended by a departing scouse Indian couple. Then there was an entrance fee, of 5op each. The guide was invaluable. The first thing we learnt was that there were 121 two storey meditation pods circumnavigating the huge ashram where people were left to lose their minds. The Beatles had, wait for it….pod number 9 (explains a lot doesn’t it?)

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Number 9

We were taken to the levitation hall which looks like it was made from Chesil Beach and our guide assured us that levitation was a regular occurrence

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Taken on to the roof of a mediation room

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and into the collapsing and fascinating Yoga Hall which has been left to the graffiti artists and apparently the odd visiting Tiger…

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The weird thing was that if anywhere had a lingering spirit or ghost of the past then this was the place. The whole atmosphere of the ashram was haunting, a crumbling statue in time of the minds of people who were desperately  trying to get out of them and although I debated why it was that the local tourist trade were missing a trick by not opening this up and publicising, what is, such a culturally historic place, the part of the Earth where the Beatles went in search of God/Love/ Self, I also got the beautiful impermanence of it all, the earth itself grabbing back what is its from the footsteps of the greatest celebrities to have ever walked its soil.

Then going to the accommodation building which was that of the Beatles, and of course Prudence who simply wouldn’t come out to play, added a spine shiver. I swear if you were still enough, you could get back and be there, maybe, to where you once belonged

if you look carefully, you might see Lennon peeping out
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all posts from this trip – ‘North India in 23 Days’ can be found at
http://kevollier.com/category/north-india-in-23-days/

and for other Yoga and Buddhist related posts as well as general randomness see
kevollier.com/

Love

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Love cannot be visual as that would dismiss the blind
or audible as that would omit the deaf.

Love cannot be speakable as that would exclude the mute
or scented as that would eliminate cocaine users.

Love is not unconditional as that is still a condition.
It’s not in the body or the heart or the mind.

It’s not even a word.

Love cannot by anywhere – but only everywhere – all the time.
Ignoring that fact is the cause of all wars.

Rishikesh! Yoga capital of the world

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following on from http://kevollier.com/2014/07/02/beggars/

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The bus from hell pulled in at Dehra Dun at 5 in the morning and still being 10 miles from Rishikesh allowed taxi drivers to take advantage, or try to at least. They should understand that after the last 14 hours my inner yogi had gone awry and I was left with a strong case of the fuck it attitude. The greedy smiles of the drivers saying that ‘there is no other choice than to take our taxi as the first bus is 5 hours away’  found my yogi free body waving a finger at my face and saying ‘do I look bothered ?’ which was lost on them as I can’t imagine they knew who Vicky Pollard was. In fact, nobody we asked, and we asked a few after the shock of the first blank face, had ever even heard of Madonna, so Vicky had no chance.
Standing our ground the fare halved when all the other passengers had gone on their way and soon we arrived at our hotel in Rishikesh, waking the receptionist asleep on the floor behind the counter who, bless him, rounded up some sleepy staff and got our rooms ready.

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A few hours later we were up and out and immediately the senses were assaulted by more yoga posters than you could ever imagine. I confidently think that you could stay in Rishikesh a whole year going to a different yoga class each day without repeating one. The yoga posters though had stiff competition from the meditation posters. And it is a honey pot for westerners – most on month long courses and nearly all on a long term world hippy travel adventure – and of all ages – in fact the over 50′s were as abundant as the under 30′s.

We wandered down the narrow alleys to the first cafe – a chilled cushion seated affair called the Happy Buddha Cafe which afforded the first views of the Ganges. It maybe only a river in the same way the Himalayas are only a mountain range but breath is stripped from your body just the same.

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I struck up a conversation with an English threesome who were at the back end of a Sivananda yoga course, one I’ve never tried but their recommendation to do so will be acted upon. They told us of a circular walk that takes in all of Rishikesh so that’s what we decided to do. Heading off we soon came to the defining Lakshman Jhula pedestrian suspension bridge but spotting, what truly has to be, one of the best sited people watching cafes in the world, the Devraj Coffee Corner and Bookshop hovering above it, we decided to have another rest – this time a Honey Lemon Ginger tea was the order of the moment to watch the constant drama unfold below.

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To say this is a pedestrian bridge is pushing it to say the least. The only thing not allowed on it, and only because it isn’t wide enough, are cars and trucks.  Motorbikes and scooters cross it and it seems as long as you ‘peep’ it’s ok to kill a pedestrian. I assume a death resulting from no peeping results in prosecution.  But ‘peep’ doesn’t adequately describe the murder inducing sound that is emitted. Along with the motorbikes and scooters, also jostling to cross are cows, buffalos, dogs, the odd donkey and every sort of human alive, and constantly, the very naughty monkeys, who, looking all cute at first glance, are jumping down on to the bridge and then literally stalking and then grabbing and ripping any bags not held against a chest. There is no movie worth watching that is as enthralling and dramatic as the live action of Lakshman Jhula bridge.

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Once one runs the gauntlet of this crossing you come into the area that is itself Lakshman Jhula. To picture this imagine the Green Fields’ cafes of Glastonbury Festival crossed with the High Street of Glastonbury town with a splattering of ashrams to a backdrop of Himalayan foothills and a turbulent Ganges running through it all, accompanied by scents of Patchouli, Sandalwood and Hashish with yoga and meditation being the main stay of business.
One word.
Go!

 

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more posts on Rishikesh to follow…..

all posts from this trip – ‘North India in 23 Days’ can be found at
http://kevollier.com/category/north-india-in-23-days/

and for other Yoga and Buddhist related posts as well as general randomness see
kevollier.com/

 

Why the yoga mat is undermining your practice – Brian Cooper

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Brian Cooper. Probably the most down to Earth, un-fluffy, says it how it is, yoga teacher on the planet ruffles feathers with the yoga science of the non – mat.

copied directly from
http://loveyogaanatomy.com/attached-to-your-mat-why-the-yoga-mat-is-undermining-your-practice/

 

By Brian Cooper PhD and Chris Norris PhD

Much could be written about the psychological significance of rolling out your mat, with its implications of marking out your territory, creating your own space and perhaps saying something about your personality by the size and thickness of your mat. We will leave this for another article and focus on the anatomical error of mat-dependence.

If you are taking a yoga class and the teacher asks to put all props aside, away fly all the bricks, blocks, belts, bolsters and the whole paraphernalia of many yoga classes. But not quite all the props: Few would dream of also removing their mat. And yet they are the biggest, and in some ways, the most pernicious props of them all. They are both anatomical and psychological props, and they are pernicious because few students recognise the role they play in their practice. The general consensus is that props are useful for assisting in approaching a posture, but they should be discarded when it is recognised they are no longer useful and could even be holding a student back. But have you ever heard a student say ‘now I can finally discard my mat, I no longer need it’?

NO! Because students don’t consider the yoga mat as a prop, but a vital piece of equipment to, among other things, protect them from a hard floor, or an unclean or cold floor. Fair enough, but the trend over the last twenty years has been towards the STICKY MAT. Originally produced from carpet underlay to prevent whatever was being used from slipping on the floor, its purpose has shifted to preventing the student from slipping on the mat. One of the most frequent complaints of students who purchase a mat is that they are not sticky enough, and many mats come with instructions on how to get the optimal grip.

Let’s take a look at Adho Mukha Svanasana

Most dogs do this without rolling out a sticky mat. Humans using a sticky mat push their feet away until they are held by the mat, and use the reaction from this to lift the hips and straighten the legs. At the same time, they push their hands into the mat and exploit the hands being held by the mat to lift the hips and draw the head closer to the legs. Hence the typical upside down v shape much admired by humans but not so much by dogs.

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The photo above shows the usual posture on a sticky mat. The arrows show the overall direction of horizontal force applied to the mat. This combined with a downward force of compression results in a ground reaction force which lifts the hips and provides the stability necessary to move deeper into the posture. The muscles stretched are the extensors which include the calves, hamstrings, gluteals and latissimus dorsi. The muscles contracted are the flexors which include the quadriceps, psoas and part of the deltoids. When you practice on a sticky mat, you use the reaction of the feet and hands to lift into the posture, and do not have to engage the flexors. You can hang out with very little work being done to contract them.

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The effect of the sticky mat is amplified in the above photo by pressing the heels into a wall, a prop commonly used to move deeper into the forward bend. Again, the arrows illustrate the forces acting at the heel, which produce an equal and opposite reaction directed towards the hips.

So what happens if we take away the mat or the wall?

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To make it clearer, let’s turn the posture upside down to give Navasana. Here we see that it is a mild forward bend where the anterior muscles need to be contracted to lift the trunk and legs against gravity. The arrows show the direction of action of the anterior muscles used to maintain the posture.

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The same applies to the above posture being practiced without a mat. The arrows show the overall direction of the forces required to prevent the feet and hands from sliding. The flexors are now fully engaged. In addition, the slipping action of your hands and feet on a floor rather than a mat creates instability. Removing your sticky mat challenges your body’s proprioception to make it ‘feel’ the movement more. The result is a far more active and mindful movement. To prove this yourself, practice Adho Mukha Svanasana on a sticky mat, and then on a wooden floor. Initially you will find your hands and feet slip. Keep practicing however, and you will find they no longer slip as much. Your hands have not suddenly become sticky of course, all that has happened is that you have learnt to adjust your body subtly to produce the exact amount of muscle force to stop slipping.

By discarding the sticky mat, the extensors and flexors are working together in a coordinated and balanced action which teaches the body useful and healthy movement patterns. The sticky mat over emphasises one set of muscles and encourages a loss of truly integrated movement.

Prasarita Padottanasana

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With the feet apart there is a natural tendency for the feet to slide further, shown by the arrows in the above photo, an action which is resisted by the sticky mat. In this asana we are stretching the hamstrings as we bend forwards and the hip adductor muscles because the legs are apart. We also use the quads and hamstrings to stabilise the knee. As we reach forwards our lats are lengthened and as we allow the body to draw down to the floor for the final pose our back extensor muscles lengthen. Many students, particularly beginners, use the advantage of the sticky mat to relax their adductors and take the weight onto the inside edges of the feet. The following variation-Baddha Padottanasana-helps us to explore the action of the feet and the adductors in a very stable position.

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The mat is now replaced by clasping the hands behind the legs so the feet cannot slip apart. First push the legs strongly into the arms as you move into the forward bend which can be achieved with confidence. Go to your limit and now lift and activate the arches of your feet-you can do this by pressing the ball of the foot and big toe firmly downwards, and observe how much firmer your feet feel on the ground. At this stage, gently move your legs away from the arms as if you want to draw your feet together. This is the action we want to cultivate in the final posture without a mat. The adductors are now contracting, and the feet firmly planted.

Before moving to the final posture without a mat, let’s try one more variation to really feel the work the adductors should be doing in this posture.

Urdhva Prasarita Padottanasana

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To move into a deep forward bend, you will have to engage the flexors and the adductors very strongly. It is these muscles which are being neglected in the usual posture done on a mat. Hold this position for 10 breaths, making sure the back is not rounding and you are lifting through the sternum.

We are now ready to take the final posture without the sticky mat.

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The arrows in the above photo show the action required to hold the posture without the feet slipping. Again, as in Adho Mukha Svanasana, discarding the sticky mat will increase proprioception and enable muscles to work in a more balanced way. It teaches us to become more mindful or our body movement and limitations. If the above is not challenging enough for you, try it with socks!

Virabhadrasana 1

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Practicing this posture with a sticky mat encourages the front thigh to be pushed forward, and the weight taken onto the inside edge of the back foot, often with the result of bending the back leg. The posture can be explored further using the wall as a prop. This encourages grounding the outside edge of the foot with a resulting strengthening of the back leg. Again, these movements have to be cultivated if working without the mat.

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The photo below shows the posture without a mat. Now there is a tendency for the feet to slip apart (increasing hip abduction) and so the adductors must work more, especially on the back leg. On the front there will be more emphasis on the hip extensors to resist sliding into hip flexion. The feet must grip more without a mat and so the feet need a greater contact area which is achieved as above by activating the arch and grounding the outside edge of the back foot. The front femur feels as if it is being sucked into the hip socket. The overall effect is that of drawing the feet together.

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From the above descriptions we can draw some important conclusions highly relevant to the use of a sticky mat.

Essentially we are looking at synergistic actions which we learn as a motor program during walking and running. That is, hip and knee extension combined with plantar flexion of the foot / ankle. Although each muscle is working individually, the action is programmed into a single sequence (an engram) which is familiar to us and so requires less neural activity. Driving the heel down and lifting the arch of the foot combined with pressing the pelvis forwards to rotate the hip locks the lower limb joints more precisely – a sequence called ‘close pack’. During childhood we learn movement sequences such as lying, rolling, crawling, high kneeling, standing, side walk, forward walk, running etc. If we can lock into these sequences it becomes easier for a person to learn the action because the brain is familiar with the way the muscle groups and joints work together. What yoga is doing is to tap into these sequences and allow the body to function in an integrated fashion. If however we place too much emphasis on the use of a sticky mat, these sequences are blocked, leading to potentially harmful movement patterns which encourage unnatural movement combinations.

See also ‘Yoga Mat Death’ at
http://kevollier.com/2013/05/30/yogamat/

Profiles

Brian Cooper

Brian Cooper

Brian has been practicing yoga for a long time and is mainly self-taught. He completed the Primary and Intermediate Series with Sri K.P. Jois In 1990. He is currently working on Kechari Mudra without a razor. He holds a PhD in Biophysics and loves researching yogic practices from a western perspective.
His book ‘the Art of Adjusting’ was published in 2006 and is used in training programs world-wide.
He is the founder of Harmony Publishing which publishes out of print Yoga Classics including ‘Hatha Yoga’ by Theos Bernard and ‘Pranayama’ by Andre van Lysbeth, an early student of K.P. Jois in the 1950s.
Visit Brian’s website:
www.briancooper.eu
Find out about the trainings Brian is involved with:
www.unionyogatraining.co.uk

Christopher Norris

Chris Norris
Chris is a Chartered Physiotherapist (MCSP). He holds a Masters degree (MSc) in Exercise Science and a Doctorate (PhD) investigating spinal rehabilitation. Chris is the author of twelve books on physiotherapy and exercise, including textbooks on sport injuries (Elsevier) Back Stability (Human Kinetics), stretching, and exercise therapy (Bloomsbury). He is director of Norris Associates, a private clinic in Northwest England.
Visit Christopher’s website:
www.norrisassociates.co.uk

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Care Free Choice

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My dad once said to me (he is in his early seventies) that he realises that his generation have probably had it the best in the history of British civilisation though I wonder whether ‘British Civilisation’ is not an oxymoron if one has ever witnessed or indeed taken part in the hedonistic nights that are the weekends in UK towns and cities where parading ones naked boobs or bum seems obligatory, and of course Gandhi famously said when asked what he thought of western civilisation, that it would be a good idea, but I digress. My dad was referring to that in his lifetime he has experienced no wars that one was conscripted to join, people could retire at 50 or when they desired and then able to pick up a decent pension. It was easy to buy your own home, travel to any country in the world. They saw Concorde come and go as well as the Space Shuttle.

And here we still are living in a world of 4G broadband – (though in most parts of the UK, that isn’t called London, it would be nice just to have C, D or even G), where you can be classed as being in poverty whilst still smoking, drinking, easting to obesity and all in front of a 50 inch Tele. We have CCTV pretty much everywhere so others can watch our every move and make sure, in a minority report sort of way, that we don’t do anything to upset the apple cart. We have governments run by corporations and social media run by the psychologists employed by those corporations. We still have wars that we don’t have to get involved in unless we put the news on. We can eat organic vegetables and fruits which in my dads day were known simply as vegetables and fruits and the younger of us can walk around with their trousers below their underpants. without arrest.

We can still travel to any country on Earth and in most cases on any budget. Never in history have humans been able to have and to grasp this opportunity. If you have the money you go into Space and if you save up all your money and don’t spend too much during your lifetime you may be able to afford a gold plated coffin or at least pay for your care home – unless of course you spent it on living your life and then you will have to simply make do with free care from the same carer that is looking after the avid saver in the next bed.

Choices choices! ;)

 

The Karma of Gay Abandon

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Before this India trip a neighbour informed me that he’d never get on to a bus in India where the driver believes in reincarnation. I recalled this statement less than one hour in.

The day had started with a tad of tension which as the day and night went by descended further.
We’d taken a taxi from McLeod Ganj down to Dharmasala bus station where we were to pick up the 14 hour overnight deluxe coach to Rishikesh. 
Leaving McLeod was slightly throat aching, reminiscent of those past holidays where you say goodbye to a place where a great time was had.

We had an hour to spare at the station and the first thing I did was to go to the ticket office and pointlessly ask what platform our coach was to depart from. They never tell you unless waving their hand in a dismissive manner is a signal.

The small station shop was selling pop and water and so I went to get some refreshments and it was then that I made the mistake I never thought I’d make. As I removed my wallet a small kid of about 4 years old ran over with his hand outstretched. He found me in a moment of compassion, having just been surrounded by Buddhist monks for 4 days, and as the note was out, I gave it to him – 50 rupees (50p). Before I’d had time to put my wallet away an army of very small children surrounded me, hung to my legs, gripped my shirt and made me the amusement of the whole station and so I took them to meet my family and we all started repeating the word ‘No’ verbatim with accompanying head shakes, that, on reflection, may have made us look like an odd cult.

The families they were with were camped out on the station floor and only admonished their child beggars when they went back empty handed it seemed. Amongst all this, a beautiful puppy was looking for safety from the kids who were doing their very best to terrorise it. It chose well in picking under our chairs to take refuge and he was loved and cuddled and how I wished we could take him with us.

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I was taken away from this puppy reverie by an elderly member of staff telling me that our bus was in. I turned to follow his pointing finger and then turned back to explain that we actually have a deluxe coach and this isn’t our bus. He assured me in a rather vengeful manner that it was our bus, so I showed him our ticket and he brushed it off and said ‘your bus’.  As the bus to Rishikesh was to leave in less than 10 minutes I went back to the ticket office ‘allowing’ three people to barge in front, before spreading myself across the ticket window. I carefully explained that we have a deluxe coach. He replied, whilst pointing at the same vehicle the other guy had and said ‘your bus, deluxe’. I had to assume that this wasn’t his first day and he’d know what a deluxe bus looked like but on this occasion he was mistaken. He replied to this suggestion, and rather too gleefully for my liking, ‘deluxe, deluxe, only bus to Rishikesh until tomorrow’. I had to accept that as the bus route and the destination and the time of departure all matched that on the ticket that I’d booked 3 months previously, that this was indeed our 14 hour overnight bus. I informed the other two members of my family of this and I think the exact words my son used were ‘you fucked up this time dad’ – and he was right.

This was the sort of bus that was running, woefully, in Manchester in the fifties.  Air con was supplied by the windows that had an automatic slide mechanism which worked by them sliding forwards only to slam shut on every brake of the bus and to slide backwards and slam open on every acceleration, which essentially means 20 times a minute.  The seats were very, very shiny, and they weren’t leather or plastic, and as the bus began to move it shook as if it had square wheels. It shook as if every nut and bolt was hanging on by a thread. I felt my first measure of total discomfort before it had even left the bus station and had resigned myself to the fact that sleep would not be something that would occur.

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The actual ‘deluxe coach’

We were then told that the beggar children had got hold of the puppy and had thrown it violently down a set of stairs. The sadness this filled me with made me angry as it must have surely died and the thought that went through my mind was that the beggars had virtually guaranteed their rebirth as a dog in India.

My mood was jolted sideways when the driver, a maniac even by Indian standards, having dared to do 007 manoeuvres on very winding mountain roads, with infinite drops, hit the brakes, and skidded across the highway narrowly missing wiping out an ambulance on an emergency call. Once we’d all removed our heads from the very, very shiny headrests in front we consoled ourselves that had he hit it, we would have at least got instant medical attention, had the crew survived themselves. This was 15 minutes into the 14 hour journey. We were later joined on the bus as dusk fell by several large families of mosquitos taking advantage of the automatic windows.

But there’s only one thing you can do in a situation like this.
Switch off your mind, relax and float down stream.

At the halfway stage the driver stopped at a roadside ‘restaurant’ where we got talking to our fellow passengers all of whom were Indian. One guy said he does this journey, 10 hours from Dharmasala to his drop off point,  twice a week to commute to work -a return journey I might add! After staring at him speechless for a long unbelieving while I asked if all the drivers are as bad as this one and I was reliably informed that they are not and ‘this one is crazy, the worst driver I’ve known’.

Lucky us.

 

all posts from this trip – ‘North India in 23 Days’ can be found at
http://kevollier.com/category/north-india-in-23-days/

see also

‘I am not a Buddhist….’ - http://kevollier.com/2014/06/14/i-am-not-a-buddhist/

‘In Search of Gandhi’ - http://kevollier.com/2014/04/14/north-india-in-23-days-day-2-in-search-of-gandhi-part-1/

I am not a Buddhist – McLeod Ganj

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following on from http://kevollier.com/2014/05/10/delhi-to-mcleod-ganj/

‘I am not a Buddhist’ were words I heard myself uttering at the end of our three day stay in the home of the Dalai Lama – the town of Mcleod Ganj not the big man’s house itself of course.

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We dropped our backpacks into the Pink House Hotel, had a hearty breakfast of Mango Lassi, Chocolate and Banana pancakes and a Tulsi Tea and then went off to discover the town. After just 100 yards I was approached by a woman with a baby who told me that she didn’t want money, just food, for her starving child. How could one possibly refuse? -  so I was led back the way I’d come, to a shop. It was at this time I realised that I’d become part of a scam I hadn’t come across before. The shopkeeper was well prepared for me as I assume the woman must do this as many times a day as she can get away with. The choice offered was rice or/and milk and I decided to pay my dumb dues and pick rice – at 400 rupees a bag which I later found was about 350 rupees too much. I guess that she gets a small commission and the shop owner, Mr Robin Bastard, gets the rest. I left muttering inner ffs’s and started back up the road only to met by another woman and a baby. I couldn’t tell if it was the same woman and baby and I entertained the prospect that today might actually be groundhog day. This time I said No. I learn fast.

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Apart from gangs of babies clutched by women, McLeod is brimming with purple robed Buddhist monks and nuns and a hefty mix of dreadlocked Ohm wearers who fill the many groovy cafes and funky restaurants.

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Most of the population are Tibetan non-monk refugees fleeing the on-going Obama and Cameron ignored  atrocities of the Chinese which has been on-going since 1960 when the first refugees came and still do to this day.

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Tibetans outnumber the Indians by at least 5 to 1

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All of the buildings are built in Tibetan style which include the residence of the Dalai, the Tibetan Childrens Village, the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute and hundreds more. I wasn’t sure about the Astrological one as I’m a Virgo and it’s a known Virgo trait not to believe in Astrology. There is the Library of Tibetan Works and countless yoga and meditation centres. It was in Mcleod Ganj that I discovered what I assume must be a Tibetan delicacy – French Toast. Everywhere does it and they all compete for taste. This is not Eggy bread, this is French Toast – the names don’t even sound similar.

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What surprised me here was being in a restaurant and monks ordering chicken. I was always under the impression that sentient beings weren’t supposed to be eaten and apparently the Buddha himself died choking on pork which might have been his very last lesson on the pitfalls of eating a fellow sentient. But more than that, from what I understand, a monk dons his robes to renounce the world, but I didn’t encounter one who wasn’t holding a smartphone or an ipad where, rather than renounce the world, you can access all of it, 24/7 which makes becoming a monk bloody easy in my opinion.

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I always wonder what Christ would think, if he came back, and allegedly he’s supposed to, of all the churches built in his name, each one with his murder hanging from every arch and alter and I do wonder what Buddha would think of all the golden statues of him, some small with holes in his head to hold joss sticks, some so big to rival a cathedral.
At least the Buddhists don’t have his everlasting image as a guy trying to cough up some bacon, so he got a better deal than Jesus.
And where does it say that to understand the teachings of the big B one has to shave one’s heads or don robes or prostate?
It doesn’t.
The philosophy and teachings of a tuned in being, once again, have been lost or side stepped into a religion of ritual – yet another case of fingers pointing at the moon.

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The Dalai Lama was in residence when we were there, though I think he was having a lie-in and indeed the temples are certainly very  impressive – as buildings and as symbols of devotion, and all of it with the majestic and mystical snowy peaks of the Himalayas as a back drop. It is a magical town.

Delhi to McLeod Ganj

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Of all the things to excite you in Delhi there is one ‘must do’. At around 5pm take a taxi across the breadth of the city, a journey of about an hour and then get a tuk tuk back and in that 2 hours, apart from having what may well be the most thrilling journey you will ever take and, if you survive, you will know Delhi.

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Our crazy ride let us off at the ISBT (Inter State Bus Terminal) at Kashmiri Gate and our coach to McLeod Ganj, a trip of 12 hours, was due to depart at 8.06pm. You simply have to trust that your bus will come in at the stand that it is supposed to come in on and that you will board it at the time printed on the ticket, but for all the world, until two minutes before it arrives, you are convinced, along with the other westerners that have gathered with faces of stark confusion that there is no bus for you. The chaos and noise and organised insanity teaches one to either lie on the floor kicking and screaming or to let go. It was a toss up for a while which one I’d end up doing.

The overnight Deluxe Volvo AC coach had seats that virtually recline horizontally, but on the downside there is no toilet on board so you’re in trouble if you’ve been keeping up your water levels and not thought to wear a diaper. They do stop though approximately every 3 hours at a remote chai stand with a loo. And these loos are the stuff of museums as you likely have never seen loos like these before. And it befuddled me that the dirtiest, most grotesque toilets have a guy outside demanding a payment for using it. I’m not sure what it is he does but evidence suggested that after every so many customers have relieved themselves, he goes in with a brush and spreads shit everywhere.

Another downside is that these deluxe coaches are so air conditioned that Eskimos refuse to use them as they are not used to such low temperatures. At one stop, the driver was forced to open the luggage hold so that passengers could don all of the clothing they’d brought for their whole trip, including bobble hats.

On top of this, when getting on the bus, all the seats have been thoughtfully reclined ready and all the lights are off or dimmed to encourage sleep and relaxation on the dark 12 hour sojourn, but then, once moving and as drowsiness sets in the driver puts a film onto the one blurry TV and at full volume to the point that it distorted, and as it was a coach full of westerners the film he chose was in very loud Hindi – which had enough machine gun firing and door bells ringing and shrieking and sirens that thoughts of hijacking the bus rumbled down the aisle.

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As dawn broke, we saw the first enticing glimpses of the snowy peaks of the Himalayas and the coach began it’s ascent on roads, the like of those that Ice Road Truckers would refuse to navigate. The coach made a quick stop at Dharamsala bus station to drop off people who thought Dharmasala was where the Dalai Lama lived, before continuing higher into the mountains, another 10km, to the town where the Dalai Lama actually lives – McLeod Ganj (which we instantly re-named Heaven)

all posts from this trip – ‘North India in 23 Days’ can be found at
http://kevollier.com/category/north-india-in-23-days/

Holi !

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following on from In Search of Gandhi (Part 2)
http://kevollier.com/2014/04/23/north-india-in-search-of-gandhi-part-2/

Sitting down for breakfast we were joined by a Swiss couple who looked like they’d been in a road accident – and indeed they had. The night before, the tuk tuk they’d been riding in had been hit, side on by a car throwing both of them from the rickshaw and subsequently being ambulanced to hospital. They checked themselves out though because the amount of ‘carnage’ that was coming in to the A&E from road accidents made their injuries seem trivial (gashed forehead on him, possible dislocated shoulder on her). Despite what the taxi, coach and tuk drivers tell you, India has the highest road death rates in the world. In fact it is safer to base jump.

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It was then that Ashwari, the hotel owner, came in to the dining room brandishing pink paint powder and so it was that we were all facially colored before even leaving the breakfast table so my holi festival avoidance tactics had hiccuped at not even the sight of a first hurdle.

Holi is a spring festival also known as the festival of colours or the festival of love. It is an ancient Hindu religious festival that has become popular with non-Hindus as well. It is primarily observed in India, Nepal, and other regions of the world with significant populations with people of Indian origin. Recently, the fesitval spread to parts of Europe and North America as a spring celebration of love and colors.

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We left the hotel to walk to the one open shop that sold water and was immediately in a movie scene from Black Hawk Down. In that film the US soldiers had to run a guantlet of bullets through the streets of the Somali capital of Mogadishu whilst we, it very quickly transpired had to walk a gauntlet of paint bombs through the streets of a quiet neighbourhood suburb of Delhi. They were coming at us from all angles from rooftops, from the windows of every floor on every house, from passing motorbikes where one bike with three people on it all managed a synchronized bombing whilst moving.

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All the time random people from age 2 to 90 were running up to us, smearing, pouring and covering us with the rainbow of paints – all the time and without exception smiling and laughing and saying ‘HAPPY HOLI!’

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By the time we had reached the end of this one, quiet mind, street we looked like we’d survived an explosion at a Dulux factory. My Holi avoidance tactics had clearly failed. The next street and the one after that was no different. It had obviously gone along the wires that they’re were westerners coming and we were met at every nook and crannie.

We happened upon a park where the locals of Saket were having a community Holi party – big buffet, DJ’s and bollywood dancing and we were invited in and it was insisted that we ate and danced. Indians definitely dance differently. They make all westerners who dance, regardless of any past Ibiza credentiials, look like your father in law after five pints at a bad disco.

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Then there was a sort of undercover finale where lots of little plastic bottles, full of vodka were handed out and we were also encouraged to take part. It was a lovely time and after the vodka, it felt like we lived in this suburb of Delhi as we’d got to know so many of the residents and them us.  One Love.

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One set of kids had earlier covered James in a bucket of water which inadvertently soaked his smartphone which later on returning to the hotel he decided to dry – on the 3rd floor balcony rail of his room. I had truly forgotten he’d told us that he had done t this and when going on to the balcony to watch the clean up below, I only slightly felt my finger brush something before hearing the smashing sound that is a smartphone hitting solid concrete three floors below.  :0

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all posts from this trip – ‘North India in 23 Days’ can be found at
http://kevollier.com/category/north-india-in-23-days/

In Search of Gandhi (Part 2)

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following on from – http://kevollier.com/2014/04/14/north-india-in-23-days-day-2-in-search-of-gandhi-part-1/

It was hot and we all needed water. So after a whole hour of walking the 10 minute walk from the Metro we fueled up from a garage shop and decided to ask two policemen where Gandhi Smriti was. They responded with their best nonplussed expressions so rather than repeating the words ‘G a n d h i  S m r i t i’  slowly a fourth time, I instead showed them the map, where it was clearly marked.
They then surpassed themselves in the nonplussed expression stakes and I realised that I was lucky that I had studied non verbal communication and so I put my finger on the marked, reasonably well emblazoned spot – and then, in mild frustration, I did a silly thing. I said in an octave or two higher, ‘Mahatma, Mahatma Gandhi, shot dead and did a hand gesture of a gun being fired and added ‘bang bang’. Fortunately for me, these policeman had evidently been off school the day they’d taught the class about Mr Gandhi and subsequently I didn’t go to prison.

Suffice to say a tuk tuk rolled up and then took us the 100 metres to a celebratory and very obvious entrance the same 100 metres from the permanent police post.

Now if you ever find yourself in Delhi, be sure to visit, what nearly is, it seems, the city’s best kept secret.

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The house, where he spent his last 144 days, and a museum is tranquil and set in beautifully manicured gardens. From the house are cement footsteps placed where Gandhi took his last, all the way to the spot where he was shot and died.

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Putting one’s feet on the last two of these, one within the shrine and one outside, made me tingle, even as I write it now, and there was a ‘moment’, a very tiny one but a moment all the same.
Each of us, unplanned, walked into this area alone as if the very air demands it.
This was the lighting of the flame for the rest of the trip, it was indeed a ‘welcome to India’.

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On a relaxed high we decided to get a tuk tuk from the gate back to the station as we couldn’t face another 3 mile walk for what was, to those that have maps to scale (maps to scale is an oxymoron in India), a quarter of a mile stroll. On to the Metro and off again at Rajiv Chowk which is the station for Connaught Place, which, if you like your hassle delivered in good English by smart and friendly chaps on a huge roundabout circumnavigated by all the big shop names in hot sunshine then this is the place for you. We stayed long enough to have a caffeine hit at the Indian coffee chain, ‘Cafe Coffee Day’, a toiletless one I might add. It befuddles me in the UK that cafes, like Costa and Starbucks, who are dealing in, which are, lets’s face it, strong diuretics, only ever have one toilet for all. Well in this Cafe Day they trumped that, so to speak.

Escaping Connaught and back on to the Metro to the trendy and most affluent part of Delhi, the village of Hauz Khas and it’s neighbouring parks.
And what a difference, it could have been a thousand miles from Connaught. Craft and arty shops, lots of restaurants and organic outlets, eco boutiques -

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lots of western backpackers and some wonderful cafes – one called ‘Kunzum Travel Cafe’ where you decide what you pay. The sign reads, ‘Decide the price for yourself and drop it in the box provided – no will be looking when you so. You are free to pay what you like’

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There is a water tank, a lake and domed tombs of Muslim royalty from the 14th to 16th centuries in Hauz Khas which today was thronged with lots of young courting couples amongst its ruins and lawns – something that the area is apparently known for ..

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The village is beside a lovely park, a huge one, though of that we can’t be entirely certain as it may well be quite small and we just traversed it in a close zig zag walking pattern, at least once we’d got lost in it. We had to ask directions back to the main path especially as we kept coming across suitably embarrassed courting couples amongst the trees and bushes. (At this point I still hadn’t yet figured that you might as well ask a tree for directions in India and definitely not come upon courting couples)

all posts from this trip – ‘North India in 23 Days’ can be found at
http://kevollier.com/category/north-india-in-23-days/

and ‘How to Avoid Delhi Belly’
http://kevollier.com/2012/12/29/delhi-belly/

 

 

In Search of Gandhi (Part 1)

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The alarm was set for 8.30am to try and force adjust any potential jet lagging and so it was that we fell asleep around 6am. The breakfast room was just outside the bedroom and the smells and laughter crept under our door and a guy pushing a cart in the street outside, a very colourful cart of fruit, hailed his wares to the neighbourhood. I even found myself sing the line, ‘who will buy my wonderful roses’.

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Breakfast was a veggie omelette, mango’s and bananas (the bananas actually tasted of bananas unlike the hint of banana found in picked unripened, UK supermarket bananas), orange juice and coffee.

The owner, Ashwari, came and introduced himself and led me to the lounge to give me the Delhi lowdown and to indulge me in one of my favourite pastimes which is sitting bent over maps and pointing. His English, as it would turn out, would be the best we heard on the whole trip and was only matched by the hotelier in Jaipur on our last day, still over 3 weeks away. I quickly learned that essentially Delhi is closed for two days, this being a Sunday and tomorrow there being a big festival called ‘Holi’ which is where everyone throws and rubs paint powder over you. Some do it daintily from beside you, others throw paint bombs from roofs and passing motorbikes or just run up to you in the street. I immediately decided we’d avoid this festival. I asked Ashwari as to which part of Dehli this takes place in exactly and he said, ‘the whole of India, everywhere’.

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He left me with some very useful maps and information and it was decided that for the first day in India we would head to ‘Gandhi Smriti’ – Smriti literally meaning ‘that which is remembered- and in Delhi it is the house where Mahatma Gandhi spent the last 144 days on Earth, with a beautiful garden where the saint was shot and killed.
It felt fitting to pay homage to the man that saved India, and in many ways, its spiritual heart at the onset of our tour. But first one had to get the Metro.

The Tree of Life was in the beautiful southern Delhi suburb of Saket and Saket has its own metro station situated on Line 2. With directions for the 5 minute stroll to the nearby Metro in my head, we set off. 45 minutes and suffering several completely and utterly incorrect directions later, we arrived. We were 50 yards away at one point, we later discovered, when we asked a policeman ‘Metro?’ and he sent us scurrying ’10 minutes’ in the totally opposite direction. We passed him three times, the latter two I wore my best scowl!

The Metro is very easy to use and has a three day tourist card to go anywhere and everywhere as often as you can tolerate for just Rs3oo (£3). It is indeed very much like London’s only much, much, much busier.

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The doors here even close on the throngs as they are still attempting to get off or on – something that is done at the same time. Being English polite here and saying ‘after you’ simply doesn’t work as the doors will close on your politeness leaving you with it on the platform for what could be days, so the result of all this is a sort of stoic, free for all where train pulls in, doors open, throngs rush forward to get on as throngs rush forward to get off, the doors close leaving most people where they started except for a lone westerner who had no intention of getting off but he accidentally caught the wave, leaving his now lone, aghast faced partner accelerating away to another part of Delhi.

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I was weighing our options and knew the only way was to crowd surf but the other members of our party of three were not amused so we thronged instead and once on we were stood so tight, so sardined, that when I put my hand into my pocket to check for my wallet I thought I’d lost the feeling in my right leg until the look on the face of the guy next to me told me that I had inadvertently put my hand into his pocket.
He nodded a look of regular experience and I had nowhere to turn – literally.
The train pulled into the Racecourse station leaving just a 5 minute walk to Gandhi Smriti…..

all posts from this trip – ‘North India in 23 Days’ can be found at
http://kevollier.com/category/north-india-in-23-days/

Glastonbury to Delhi

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After our last trip to India in 2012 we decided not to ever again sleep overnight on chairs at Gatwick or any other airport and so we booked in at a nearby Gatwick Hotel which is a 10 minute shuttle from the hotel door to the North Terminal.
The staff here were lovely but for all its neon promise of decadence the room was, in a word, shit. The bed, when one sat up straight in it with one’s back against the wall (there was no headboard besides it being London in the 21st century), rolled away towards the door. The one pillow seemed to be stuffed with itching powder and, as the walls were no thicker than white washed kleenex, it wasn’t at all difficult to hear the thoughts of our young neighbours – neighbours, it turned out, that were on a school trip from Brookside, just 2 miles from Glastonbury.

All flights were on time and once again Emirates proved to be real value for money. Their economy class would match business class on many other airlines. The seats are spaced so that in the event of a crash you would actually be able to get your head on to your knees rather than up against the head rest of the seat in front of you and as I practice Yoga I knew I’d have no trouble in going as far to be able to kiss my arse goodbye if the moment called for it.  This leg of the journey took 6 hours which the three of us whiled away watching movies. There was an hour to kill at Dubai airport which we did in a Costa before getting the connection to Delhi, a trip of 3 hours.

Arriving in Delhi at 2am to the amazing Mudra walled arrivals building everything was going swimmingly until we met the queue for passport control

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We stood in line watching the queue we’d thought about joining diminish at least, I had time to work out, five times faster than ours. After a whole hour and having only 5 people in front of us, we swapped queues. This was a silent protest at the imbecilic official that had converted mild mannered travellers in front of us into potential terrorists. I was particularly anxious as I’d mislaid (turns out, lost) the phone number and address of the small hotel down a side-street that we’d booked and there was supposed to be a driver waiting. Had he gone home, all I knew was the small hotel down a side-street’s name and in the biggest city in India, I knew we could be in trouble and at 3am. We were in 20th position in our new queue but still we went through passport stamping before one other person had moved in the other.

Suffice to say our backpacks were just being loaded onto the Delhi lost persons presumed dead trolley when we arrived and thankfully the wonderful driver from our booked hotel had waited all this time who by now was nonchalantly waving a board with ‘OLLIER’ across it to anyone who would listen. I’d use the word ‘relieved’ to describe his reaction but I might have been mistaken as I think he also had given us up for or wishing we were dead.

At 4am he delivered us to ‘The Tree of Life’ and our second India adventure had begun, this one with our adult son along for the ride – and what a time was about to be had………

all posts from this trip – ‘North India in 23 Days’ can be found at
http://kevollier.com/category/north-india-in-23-days/

Five Lads on the Isle of Arran

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The day before ‘the lads’ went over to the Buddhist car free Holy Isle for a few days of reflection – (as previously blogged at http://kevollier.com/2012/10/06/buddhists-peace-and-yoga-turrets/ ) we partook in our annual get together hike – something we’ve been doing now for twenty years and this year and on that day we all hiked through the mountains of Arran and it was on a day that was the hottest Scotland had witnessed since the days of William Wallace.  Something that should have taken reasonable preparation but unfortunately the only preparation had been arriving off the Ardrossan to Brodick ferry the day earlier and hiking off the jetty the full 100 metres to The Douglas beer garden.

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just off the ferry, Goat Fell ahead – the Douglas left

The sun had literally come out, (for the first time in 83 years on Arran if a later hired taxi driver was to be believed), as soon as the ferry docked.
And there is no better combination than four men (free of all the shackles of modern life for five days) the sun and amazing scenery for one to be drawn to a nearby, and quite frankly, begging, beer garden.

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It was some pints and a couple of ferry arrivals later that we were joined for a few hours by an old friend from Glastonbury who had since moved back to his native Glasgow.  So we now had a Scotsman and his bagpipes.  At some point we remembered that the next day we were supposed to climb Goat Fell, Arran’s highest peak, and we vaguely agreed on a route that we might take.  We drank up, eventually, and wandered over to the beach to be treated to some bagpiping.  This I remember.  We all felt very Scottish watching a piper pipe away the ferry back to Ardrossan and we all agreed that Mel Gibson was indeed correct to sack Carlisle and we then all imagined what it must have been like to have marched with Wallace that amazing distance from the Highlands to Carlisle and with no shops on the way and all the time wearing an itchy skirt and no underpants, walking through waist-high thistles in the most midge infested landscape on Earth.  No wonder they were annoyed.

Craig McFarlane Bagpipes Arran

And then someone went to the off licence and introduced us to a Scottish delicacy that ironically is brewed in Devon known as Buckfast Tonic Wine (Toxic more like)  and that is approximately where I lost my memory until the next morning.

Bagpiper Craig got the last ferry to the mainland, I wore a hat for the rest of the evening and then went missing at midnight but where to I have no recollection but I did find the hotel – the Ormidale, in a copse and managed to awake hotel staff at 4am enquiring where my room might be and was subsequently helped into bed.

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Me – apparently – totally hatted

I was enlightened with this information at the breakfast table by staff who were so nonchalant about it, that it seemed as if someone does this sort of thing quite regularly and possibly on a nightly basis.

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The Ormidale

I managed to eat a full Scottish breakfast and get 200 metres into the hike before the hangover kicked in. It was 80 plus degrees and not even a whimsy of a breeze was to be had as we started the slow climb through the beauty that is Glen Rosa. We all had a bottle of water each which we sipped at, as it quickly became evident that one small bottle of water wouldn’t be enough. It is here that you have to understand that we are not advisors to Ray Mears or Bear Grylls though I’m sure we have a much better time and don’t have to wear make up  (It’s still a choice). It was quite a busy path as we mingled with day trippers from the ferry as well as local teenage lads, who were heading for a natural rock plunge pool. Something I imagine that only happens on very hot sunny days – so that would be once in a lifetime.

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into Glen Rosa

One of our party is terrified of heights and another was already out of water. A debate ensued, considering the temperature, about whether to go up Goat Fell, turn back or take another route. The one terrified of heights wasn’t intending to ever go up it, ‘if it looked steep’ and the one without the water was determined to.  Neil and I were not bothered either way but certainly wouldn’t be turning back so we strolled onwards and upwards towards’ The Saddle’ where we would decide a definite plan of action.

The going did get a bit tough as it was so hot and I’d perspired the last drop of Buckfast and was now seriously in need of water. We’d followed a stream all the way up the Glen and we decided we were now high enough to drink straight from the stream. Refreshed by Gaia we continued on and the path veered away from the stream for the first time that day and we suddenly realised that we now had this amazing valley to ourselves. Soon though Robin fell ill with what we expected was heat exhaustion and I was asked to get water for him but as the path had now veered about 100 metres from the river it meant I had to traipse through waist-high thistles in shorts disturbing plagues of sleeping, dusk awaiting midges and then scramble down a gorse cliff, over rocks and hang on by one arm whilst plunging the other into a mini waterfall and then having to make the return journey whereupon I disturbed more midges or maybe the same ones only now  more aggravated at a double intrusion. On my bedraggled and sweaty reunion with the lads Robin said he would have to go back to which I said something on the lines of, ‘I don’t bloody think so’. We had no mobile reception so we couldn’t call a helicopter rescue and we were alone but only a couple of hundred metres from the Saddle which was the half way point and for all we know there might actually be a tree over the other side that could afford us some shade as there were none the way we’d come.

We were climbing the last steep bit when some walkers appeared coming our way from over the Saddle. I smiled at this. There were two couples who on traversing the peak came upon us, me topless, legs torn by thistles with my shirt over my head (think Lawrence of Arabia), with a guy who looked as if he’d barely survived a Cessna plane crash in a desert with only mirages for comfort to be confronted by Phil concerned at how steep the other side was. One of the women didn’t help one iota when she said, ‘that’s so dangerous, be careful, you might die’ which was rubber stamped by her friend. I actually saw Phil turn grey.

The Saddle however was worth it. The views were immense and the wind that hit over the top was so cooling.

Robin Whitlock The Saddle to Glen Rosa Arran

Looking past Robin back to Glen Rosa from The Saddle

Kev Ollier The Saddle to Glen Sannox

and looking down into the future, Glen Sannox

We took rest and convinced Phil to keep going. I volunteered to go first so if he fell I’d break his fall.
And it was steep. It wasn’t even a footpath but a scramble. It says so on the map apparently and it’s one of the most notorious on Arran but it actually did get the adrenalin going as we had no ropes and it was indeed touch and go dangerous – the one slip and you’re dead dangerous – not even a halfway house of an injury – just dead, ex-parrot death.

Kev Ollier Scramble Glen Sannox

The scramble…

Glen Sannox

…and breathe

Suffice to say we got down, we walked the few more miles to Sannox and stopped at the hotel on the beach for an Arran single malt - to celebrate being alive and a large glass of iced sparkling water – bliss. We caught the next packed bus (they’re not often) back the 7 miles or so to Brodick to discover that I’d left my phone on the Sannox hotel lawn and there are no more buses today. Hence where the taxi driver came in….

Tuk Tuks – avoiding death and scam

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“Stop this tuk tuk right now or I’ll grab your keys” was one comment I screamed at a driver. There were many others. I estimate that we took more than a hundred tuk tuks in the few weeks travelling through South India and were treated to a plethora of scams and dishonest practices - but there is no better way to experience the towns and cities than to put you life into the hands of a tuk tuk driver.

Especially this driver - as it’s yours truly

tuk tuk

A tuk tuk which is known by the less colourful name of ‘auto rickshaw’ is basically a dirty two-stroke motorbike with three wheels with a hard plastic hood over to seat, well you’d think to seat two people but I did count seven in quite a few of them. Some are the driver’s pride and joy which is evident in its adornments and cleanliness and some are simply a means to an end aka death traps. There are millions of them on the roads in India.

They are without doubt the cheapest and most exciting way to get about the urban areas and you can pretty much be getting into one, only ten seconds after thinking you might need one because in India a western tourist is simply a very sweet and sticky jam and the tuk tuks are extremely hungry wasps. However jumping into one and saying ‘home James and don’t spare the horses’ might leave you disappointed because there are so many pitfalls and stresses once you step over the threshold to taking a ride, that it’s worth knowing some of the latest dupes and scams that you can find yourself involved in and/or the victim of.  It can be a great game to play of psychology and wits as long as it’s not hot and you’re not slightly tired or distracted otherwise you may fall folly to their little games – which seem to vary from city to city. We stayed in three cities and each one had its own unique scam amongst the universal ones.

loaded-tuk-tuks-agra

In Mysore, it wasn’t too bad. One day you could pay 100 rupees and the next 50 for the exact same journey of 3 miles but as it was 85 rupees to the £1, one at first feels no pressure to grumble but that will inevitably wear off.  ALWAYS ask how much it will be to wherever you’re going and when they tell you a price that you think is ok, repeat it back to them and get confirmation at least three times. Two times isn’t enough. Tuk tuks have meters yet we only saw them in use on two occasion in all the tuk tuk journeys undertaken.

Once in a tuk tuk, most drivers will ask you where you are from. This is not asked to discuss your life or cricket but to know what language they need to scam you in. They are of course very low paid, work very hard and have enormous competition and they will try to sell a journey to every tourist spot in the area – which can be much cheaper and very useful if you actually want to see the places they are offering and in Mysore there are some wonderful places (watch this space for an upcoming Mysore guide blog) but most tuk tuk drivers haven’t yet learned the English for ‘no’. It is good to talk in a slow east European accent naming exactly where you want to go and then answering every question they broach at you with ‘capotski’ and a big smile.  You’ll get to your destination quicker. Always know where your destination is as they don’t.  Whilst in Mysore we were staying near the Pattabhi Jois yoga centre yet it was surprising to us how many drivers asked us where it was and when I explained to them that they in fact were the driver and we the western tourists they would pull over and ask locals who always checked us out and then had a chuckle with the driver in Tamil or Hindi or maybe it was east european but nonetheless it’s a wonderful endeavour for anyone who has or  is recovering from paranoid tendencies .

The driver stopped to run an errand

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In Cochin, they have a  different approach. On the whole they are friendlier here and speak much better English but will offer you a free trip or a very cheap one, at say 20 rupees, if you would only do them a favour and visit this shop or that shop as they get a petrol token from ‘the rich Kashmiri owner’ and all you have to do is look around whilst they wait outside. We did this the first time and the idea is that you are pressured into buying something to which the driver gets a percentage that adds up to much more than any fare he would have received. I assume he gets a little something for just taking you there. We were in Cochin nearly a week and virtually every single driver tried to get you into some shop which are always full of westerners trying their very best to say no as they delve for their purses and wallets.

In Bangalore, and I have to assume all bigger cities, it’s a whole different ball game. They don’t even hide behind friendliness. But above all they tell bare-faced lies and even go close to what could be construed as kidnapping in some countries.

One morning we decided, from our city centre hotel, to go to the huge Hare Krishna temple of ISKCON seven miles away but still in the centre of the city – Bangalore is huge and sprawling. I asked a tuk tuk driver how much it would be to go to the ISKCON place and he looked at me as if I was a talking cat. I said it slowly several times and added other words like K R I S H N A   T E M P L E  but to no avail. We were then ambushed by an astute, silk shirted, much younger driver who spoke perfect English and knew Mick Jagger who pulled us from this ride to his own tuk tuk admonishing the older guy in Hindi. He then explained that ISKCON is closed until 2pm. I said that the lonely planet guide says it’s open all day, he assured us it was not but offered us a tour for only 100 rupees to see various temples. This he did – at first – but then it became a pressured set of stops to various emporiums. I had to demand quite strongly that he returned us. The ISKCON temple, of course, had been open.

HKH

The next day we decided to walk for a while before asking a kerb-crawling tuk tuk how much it would be to the botanical gardens, he said 20 rupees, we got in and off we went. Whilst driving, he told us that the gardens was closed until 2pm and he’d take us on a tour. I told him that it’s OK, just take us to the gardens anyway at which point he stopped the tuk tuk on what can only be described as a six lane inner city motorway with cows and turned to me and said, ‘no it is closed’, I assured him that it was open to which he got a tad annoyed and so we exited the tuk tuk to his fury.

We were then immediately picked up by another one at 20 rupees. I explained that I don’t want to go any shops, we just want to go to the gardens, he agreed then took a turn at speed and in totally the opposite direction before explaining to me that he was just taking us to his friend’s shop. This was the point where the calmness my yoga training has brought me left the tuk tuk and was replaced by my training from the streets of Northern England. It could have got hairy but I didn’t fancy a Bangalore prison so we left him still with his keys to his auto, shouting apologies back at us. I genuinely think it was the first time that he’d been challenged like this.

lal-bagh_opt

But now we were in the middle of nowhere and so we flagged another tuk tuk down as we were determined to see some bloody flowers before the day was out. He told us it would be 100 rupees. And here’s a tip – a tuk tuk is cheap for a reason. This 100 rupee tuk tuk was intending to take us to our destination without us having to look first at wooden elephants and brass Buddhas. I did however, ten minutes later, utter, under my breath, ‘for fuck’s sake’, when he flew past the entrance to the botanical gardens. I told him but he assured me he hadn’t. Two miles further on and for the third time in an hour I forced a driver to stop. This one however was not, it turned out, scamming us, he was just completely clueless and realising his mistake and the time he’d now lost randomly pulled over and said, ‘we’re here’ pointing to what was simply a front lawn in front of an average sized government building.  This time I refused to leave the tuk tuk to which he hailed over a policeman and we both explained our disagreement with me having an ace card commonly known as a city map. The policeman gave him short thrift and 15 minutes later (the time it takes to do 2 miles in Bangalore) we were at the gates.

The gatekeeper mistakenly short-changed us, I say mistakenly in that he had deliberately short-changed us and that was his mistake.

I promised myself there and then that I will never return to Bangalore on purpose – though the gardens were lovely.  They even had spit bins dotted about to stop the paths getting too gooey.
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No Gadgets, No Cry

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gadgetsOn the return flight from Bangalore to London via Dubai, a stewardess, whilst pouring out yet another coffee, asked where we’d been. She nodded expectantly and with reasonable un-interest as we said, ‘a mini tour of South India’ but her whole demeanour changed when we added, ‘without phones, without watches and without computers’, which she then repeated back to us incredulously as it seemed she thought she’d misheard.

I guess she was about 25 and she made my head tilt to the side with a smile when she said, ‘wow, I’ve never known anyone to do that, that must be totally amazing’ and ran off to inform the rest of the Emirates staff who then gave us respectful nods and glances each time they passed our seats because we were the people who had spent three weeks in India-without phones, without watches and without  computers and that obviously put us right up there with the explorers of old.  I mean even Bear Grylls has GPS, phones,  a film crew and a 5 star hotel.

It seems that under a certain age ( I estimate about 25 to 30) to travel without the crutches and aids of the modern world is seen as an extreme sport – much more dangerous than bungee jumping because we were also without the umbilical elastic rope attached.
We did use internet cafes a few times when we were settled  just to check on the kids. The hardest thing, though not that hard at all really, was not having a watch and having to resort to saying ‘excuse me, have you the time’ on a rare occasion- the pay off with this is that you will not only be given the time but also one of those Indian smiles - but when travelling, railway and bus stations still tend to have clocks.

In addition, it was the longest time since I passed my driving test that I hadn’t driven, not that you’d want to drive in India, unless of course your psychiatrist insisted. None of this  you understand was done as any sort of challenge nor for charity.  We just wanted to be free of the shackles that we all have imposed on ourselves – and now having done it, all I can say to everyone, and I have been doing so for the last week, is that if you want a true holiday, a vacation free of pointless distractions, leave behind – in a drawer at home – your hand helds, your net books and tablets, your watches and your driving licence and experience what some of the over 30′s might still remember – a new freedom. And for added comfort, leave all jewellery and tight clothes as well. You will be so much better for it, you’ll do it every time.

Right – the next blog will be my very first impressions of the baptism of fire that is India.
I’m just waiting at the baggage carousel for the rucksack to come through……….still blissfully unaware of the psychopath that is waiting in arrivals holding a smile, his taxi keys and a board that says KEV AND ALI OLLIER.

The British Buddhist Holy Isle.

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On the 18th April 1992 Buddhist Lama Yeshe Rinpoche bought a whole island off the coast from the Island of Arran which in turn is off the coast of Scotland. It is called Holy Isle and must not be visited, indeed given the widest possible birth, if you can’t cope with peace, beauty, tranquility and serenity.
The island came into Buddhist hands via a devout catholic no less, Mrs Kay Morris, who owned Holy Isle and had been ‘instructed by Mother Mary in a dream’ to pass Holy Isle to Lama Yeshe to be used for peace and meditation. See -  http://www.holyisland.org/

We went there this year as the second part of the annual ‘lads walk’.  We’d spent the first part, a couple of days, walking the wilds of Arran getting sunburned and heat stroke as we’d managed to marry our trip with the hottest weather Scotland has had since Dodo’s were a menace to outdoor chip eaters.

Arrival on Arran


There was only four of us this year and one of us, a freelance writer, was writing an article on our visit for Kindred Spirit magazine. It was the third day of our trip that we caught the small ferry over to this car free paradise. The plus with Holy Isle is that nobody is playing at being Buddhist. There was some disappointment by one of our group as he’d genuinely expected that our boat, on landing, would be met by a line of purple cloaked, bald blokes ringing bells and welcoming us on to their island. I wondered if he also thought they would be saying Aloha and passing garlands of thistles around our necks.
The resident Buddhists are simply average people of all ages who are trying to follow a peaceful existence via the teachings of Buddha. This, in other words, is not a pretentious new age centre.

The main building

The island consists of a main building which houses the dormitories, library, kitchen and dining room. There is no TV room, no amusement arcade or gym because like the world over they’re not really necessary. Behind this there is another building where the courses are held and at the far end of the island, about half a mile away, was a not for visitors retreat centre where twelve women are currently on a three year, three month, three day retreat. They were 18 months in to it at the time of our visit in May 2012.  The disappointed friend drew looks, accompanied by frowning eyebrows, when he inquired if this was voluntary on their part, obviously having decided to himself that we were on some sort of unwelcoming Zen Alcatraz.
In the hillside above the retreat centre there was a couple of eco-lodges for people on a lifetime retreat and once the resident has passed on the lodge also gets passed on to the next person on the waiting list.

The retreat building

The lifetime retreat lodges and the home of Lama Yeshe when he visits.

There is a also a wonderful cafe/shop on the grass beach which caters for visitors and helps fund the island and sells lots of mediation bowls which everyone seemed to try out and I imagine were there as some special meditative training test for the shop assistant.
Above the cafe was a meditation room which I visited at several ungodly hours to spend time, cross legged, cutting off the blood flow to my feet. I didn’t take my reading glasses into these meditations and was put on the spot when given a 2 inch thick set of cards to be able to recite the Chenrezig prayer, which was written in writing so small that I had no choice but to mumble along in a low Buddhisty sounding, throaty tone so as not to be exposed and glared at.

The Holy Isle passenger terminal looking towards Arran


Before meditation one morning as the sun was just up, around 5am as it happens, I decided to practice some yoga outdoors. There was a time when 5am was when I’d think of getting off home from a party and not heading for seclusion to do a yoga practice. I found a lovely spot by the sea edge looking across to Arran. I stripped down to my underpants because 1/ it was already hot and more importantly, 2/ I was alone – and so I began Surya Namaskara A (Sun Salutation A) and by the time I’d reached my first downward facing dog I realised I was not at all alone. I was joined by an ever expanding cloud of wee midges and these midges were not at all Buddhist and brought on what I can only describe as yoga turrets and a quick desertion of my practice as I ran back to the meditation hall with my new friends in hot, biting pursuit.

In the main building one could help oneself to free teas and coffees 24/7 and the food, three meals a day that are included in your £28 a night stay, was gorgeous vegan fayre. We all occasionally chipped in washing and wiping dishes and very quickly became part of the community  and after only three days it was as if we’d never lived anywhere else.

On Holy Isle, you are not expected to go to meditation or to do anything particularly. You are simply free to be. It is relaxation personified and still quite a secret.

Peaced out. Last night on the island. Arran in the background

On returning to Arran the next day with it’s one bus every two hours, seemed akin to being dropped into Manhattan on Christmas Eve. It took a while for the peace to dissolve back into distraction which suffice to say most of it eventually did – except for a small part that now sits there still – I guess, waiting for me.

There are currently plans to put a power plant on Arran which the Buddhist community fear will spoil the tranquility of Holy Isle causing noise, pollution and smoke.
see – http://tinyurl.com/9a387jd

Kino MacGregor, London.

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I’m writing this with the only things on my body that are currently not stiff and that’s the tips of my fingers (and ok yes the other one). This weekends Kino MacGregor yoga workshops in London are responsible and what workshops they were.!


Mrs Ollier and I left home on Friday morning walking to the bus stop and catching a bus into Wells, and then another from Wells to Bristol Temple Meads and on to a train to London Paddington and several tubes before eventually alighting at Covent Garden in torrential rain to then find the hotel on foot.
Covent Garden Underground is the one tube station in the capital that you wouldn’t want to alight from, as 193 steps up a pre war curly staircase are the method of alightenment, which includes, from most people, a one word exhalation on reaching the final step, that’s if you’re fit enough to be able to still utter anything but gasping air, as 193 steps is the equivalent of climbing to the top of a 15-storey building. It was later that we discovered that there were also lifts in place and we’d managed to miss the signs saying so, no doubt obscured by the constant throngs of travellers. Obviously.


We found our hotel and dropped our bags and yoga mats into the room, freshened up and wandered off out again to find the triyoga studio where we were later to attend the first of the three workshops, titled Burn Baby Burn.

The studio was right in the hub of Carnaby Street, the very same Carnaby Street of Beatles and Twiggy fame, which is in Soho and only a 1 mile – 20 minute walk away so rather than spend that 20 minutes descending those steps again, we decided to walk and four miles and two hours later arrived at the triyoga studio. (We had no idea where we went wrong but we managed to repeat that incorrectness twice more in the next 24 hours).

The people at triyoga studio (https://www.triyoga.co.uk/) were, as you’d expect for anything yogic, lovely and friendly. On peeping into a studio room I observed many yoga mats being laid out by a member of staff which prompted a question from me, ‘so you don’t need to bring your own yoga mat then?’. ‘No’, the lovely, smiley lady replied. My yoga mat is, of course, of the eco variety and made of 100% natural rubber and therefore a tad heavy and it had spent the day, unnecessarily it now turns out, with me on two buses, a train, lots of tubes and their attending stairs and lengthy walking tunnels including the 193 steps. ‘Oh’, I said.
We left, only to return a few hours and two Chai Latte’s later, quite knackered, for the intense first class from Kino.

Kino MacGregor is a funny yoga teacher as in she is very comical – at least to anyone on a yoga trip. She is also extremely knowledgable, confident and true to the practice. When she was just 29 she became the youngest woman, and one of only a select group of people, to receive the Certification to teach Ashtanga Yoga by its founder Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India.

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois


Suffice to say this class did certainly burn, developed to awaken the inner fire by using the Mulabandha, the root lock, and within an hour I was pulling up my anus, lifting my perineum and testicles, squeezing in my lower belly and drawing in the space between my pubic bone and sacrum, all at the same time, and what a heat that created and I felt amazing, we both did. (Please note Mrs Ollier didn’t have to raise her testicles, using instead the cervix – just in case you were wondering).
We later left the studio to be enveloped in the crazy, hedonistic, Friday night shenanigans of London as we drifted hazily through Soho, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and Covent Garden. Wall to wall people all the way. Every single pub and bar crammed inside and 30 foot outside. London has seemingly not had a recession.

Another Chai Latte stop and then to bed and up early for yet another Chai Latte before a full primary series talk through in the morning. The Chai, on top of the bottle of water I had for breakfast turned out to be an oversight as I had to pee three times in the half hour before the class and I wanted to go again just as Kino entered the room, but it was clear that nobody was leaving this class until it was over and done and so I began Surya Namaskara A (Sun Salutation A) trying desperately not to think of waterfalls or running taps and when it all finished two hours later I didn’t even need to go as I think my urine had evaporated through my head.

        This photo, taken by Kino, is the only picture ever taken of me in a yoga class. I am the right foot, ankle and lower leg in the bottom right hand corner.

After a lunch break (we had a Chai Latte) there was a brilliant three-hour afternoon workshop on arm balancing and near the end Kino suggested that when back at home we all do one full minute each day in Bakasana, the crow posture, before she had us all do a full minute right there and then. Well, that worked!

Sadly we had to leave after the class to get the 7pm train back to Bristol and therefore missing a Mysore session in the morning and a back bends workshop in the afternoon which I was a bit done about as I do a weekly Mysore session with my wonderful Glastonbury teacher and it’s always my favourite class so to do one with Kino adjusting would have been a great extra dimensional experience – but on waking this morning I was having more than a jot of trouble reaching for my socks – and they were on a shelf!

Kino teaches classes worldwide and particularly at her home in Miami where she is co founder of the Miami Life Center – and if you ever get the chance or opportunity, I would seriously recommend treating yourself.

In the meantime check out http://www.kinoyoga.com/

Dog plays Rugby

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Our adorable sabre border collie dog, Reggie, loves all people including angry ones, he loves all dogs initially but runs away if they so much as scowl, he’s  terrified of sheep which is not a good trait for a sheepdog and to him cows are simply Velociraptors and he will run home leaving you stranded amongst a bovine Armageddon to fend for yourself and if we were ever broken into, and as long as the burglars had a ball, he would go home with them as he absolutely loves anything ball-shaped.

Yesterday morning was a very wet and stormy Sunday and I was not looking forward to taking him out as I had to don my sowesters and wellies which make me feel as maneuverable as an astronaut with the look of a guy off a Cornish fishing trawler – but it was seriously raining. I wandered down the lane, across the busy road and once safe released him from his lead where he runs into the playing field alongside the river. It was then that I heard shouts and what sounded very much like a whistle, the sort of whistle a referee would blow during a rugby match to stop the game when a sabre border collie called Reggie enters play. It was then I remembered that it was Sunday and rugby has just started up again for the winter so I exhaled the word bastard and ran around the gate into the field to face a lot of big men smiling brightly though on closer inspection realised that they weren’t smiling but showing their teeth guards in a grimace. A few of them were trying to catch Reggie who thought this the best game ever.

I entered the affray, straight on to the pitch, shouting ‘really, really sorry’ and joined the rugby players in their pursuit. No way was he coming back and I was, within 30 seconds, wetter than I’d be if I’d simply come out naked in the rain as the sweat build up wearing sowesters, wellies and with my hood up chasing after a very fast dog was like being in a mobile sauna. This went on for a few minutes before Reggie spotted, on the far side of the field, but at least away from the pitch, the youngsters section who were training for their game and as the main match resumed I once again took chase accompanied by the manic swishing of fast moving sowesters praying that nobody watching was having youtube ideas.

The kids were doing some sort of slalom training around some nice flourescent marker discs and Reggie has never done either slaloming or seen such colorful and easy to run off with toys before but thankfully, after he’d demonstrated to the young lads how to do it properly, he went and sat next to one of the laughing ones. I gasped, ‘grab him’ and that, thank God, was that.
I heard and ignored distant cheers, I mumbled a few apologies and bid my farewells. I’ve not seen anything on youtube yet but for those who have still not seen the dog Reggie was emulating, you must watch the famous and hilarious Fenton youtube clip at http://youtu.be/3GRSbr0EYYU

Drugs on the West Highland Way

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Continuing on from blog ‘Ben Nevis’ which is at
http://kevollier.com/2012/09/13/bennevis/

Leaving the youth hostel the next morning, four things struck me. One was how there was a definite lack of youth at the hostel and having visited quite a few over the years I do wonder why the Youth Hosteling Associations don’t simply leave off the word youth in their name as youth is in the minority at every hostel that I’ve ever been to, unless of course everyone really was aged between 11 and 19 (which I assume is the age range of youth) and all the hiking and panting combined with rising pubescent, testosterone levels has prematurely triggered the onset of grey face hair, bony knees and bad shorts. The second thing that struck me was how very seriously hung over I was finding myself and the third thing was the awareness that I now had to walk 16 miles today to our next stop (with no cafes or pubs or even a hot dog stand en route) which brought me to the fourth, which was I’d never in my life actually walked more than 8 miles in one day before and then I wasn’t carrying a weighty rucksack and walking through changeable weather in the Scottish mountains and all this on stiff legs from the record-breaking Ben Nevis ascent and descent only a day earlier.

As we wandered to the path the other lads insisted that I toke on the budbomb as, I think they said, I’d feel better and despite my rebuttals I succumbed and no more than ten minutes later I could no longer feel the rucksack and I was smiling the sort of smile that rather quickly makes one’s face hurt especially as we reached the beginning of The West Highland Way only to be met with this sign

This was the moment we learned that we were doing this most famed of British hikes the wrong way. This however, if you want to experience the trail and its surrounding grandeur of mountains in peace, we discovered, is the only way. Kinclochlevan is the next stop, 16 miles away – nothing between us and there except wilderness, and thankfully a nice path so we didn’t once have to resort to machetes, so all the other walkers that would be coming the correct way wouldn’t get to us for hours and indeed we had the mountains to ourselves for a good four hours. To ourselves, that is, except for a convention of sheep. Gazillions of them and all welcoming us into and out of their view, which was 100% of the time, with their melodic bleating.

The path, for what seemed a very long time, followed the bottom of a valley bereft of trees and it reminded me of a time when in a Geography lesson at school I’d nearly convinced Dave Black, who fancied himself as ‘half Scottish’, that there were no trees in Scotland and as luck would have it that very lesson had a slide show about the geology of the highlands and every slide that graced the overhead projector was devoid of trees. Shaking my head and gesturing to the proof of my argument Dave got so enraged he raised his hand to interrupt the one teacher you never interrupted and asked, ‘Sir, are there any trees in Scotland?’ which was so random to the lesson that Mr Statham sent him immediately to stand outside the headmasters office for being a buffoon.

But by now, four of the five of us were, what we referred to, as off our trolleys, and I was walking alongside Phil who ‘doesn’t do drugs’ when we both became aware that if you stood still, you could, if you paid close focused attention – and this is a great thing to do with your kids – pick out one bleat from the cacophony of baas and mews and marry it, eventually, to one sheep. You must remember, we are probably looking at a thousand sheep on the  slopes on each side of the valley constantly bleating and we knew we’d picked out one bleat to one particular young sheep (I think they’re commonly known as lambs) that was moving slowly down the slope. Now, if this wasn’t amazing enough we did the same to a sheep on the other slope which was also making its way down and we observed this for what seemed like hours, but was likely about ten minutes, and as if Walt Disney himself was directing proceedings these two sheep both walked on to the path about 100 yards in front of us, touched noses and then walked off back into the melee. Pure gold.

But the weirdest part of this day wasn’t known until 10 years later when photos were finally browsed over. Duncan and I had been captured on camera in a ‘look at the majesty and how off our faces are we?’ moment and we never did see anything in the sky, none of us did. But the photo wasn’t messed with and there are several replica prints showing the exact same thing even though there is nothing on any photos taken before or after.

                                                                                                                             Dunc telling me how wonderful it all is and note the lack of trees but what are those things in the sky?

It was after this that the first walkers appeared and for a good hour it was a constant stream of them, all with their ski sticks marching away saying hello with a look on their face as if to say, ‘are you mad, you’re going the wrong way man and you have no ski sticks, what are you, townies’? – though I except this could be paranoia given the amount of plant life we’d set alight inside that budbomb – before they dwindled down to a few every ten minutes then a straddler or two after another 20 and we mused on how their experience, going in the right direction, was so much different from ours as they’d all be near together all day and there would be no time or space whatsoever to get involved in bleat focusing whereas we only saw people for that two-hour window and then we had it all to ourselves once more – and on we went for a good nights rest at Kinlochlevan before another jaunt the next day, through Glencoe to our posh overnight stop at the Kings House Hotel where we basically, but unwittingly caused total chaos ….