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Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States
Karen is a yogini, writer, student, teacher and meditator. She founded Garden Street School of Yoga in 2000. Karen lives with her husband Chris. They have two amazing sons, Eli and Leo (both of them young men).

Jan 30, 2009

The Mountain Told Me (To Eat Cheese Cake)

In the Yoga tradition, there's a Sanskrit word, Abhyasa, which means “steady practice, over a long period of time, with devotion”. I love the word and the idea but being here has seriously raised the bar of what I think is possible from a human being in terms of Abhyasa. I say “from a human being” instead of “from me” because I don't think that most of what I've seen here would be possible for me. I'll describe some of this X-Treme Abhyasa but first I need to set some context.

Once upon a time, Brahma the creator and Vishnu the maintainer, were having an argument about who was the greatest of the three gods. (Shiva the Destroyer was suspiciously absent). As Brahma and Vishnu argued, suddenly a pillar of fire appeared between them. Out of the pillar a voice told them that whichever of them could find the bottom or the top of this pillar would the greatest. So Brahma turned himself into a boar and dug deep down into the earth and Vishnu turned himself into a swan and flew straight up into the sky. After a LONG time had passed (like maybe a couple of million years) they returned. Neither had found the end of the pillar. Vishnu was honest about his failure but Brahma lied and said he had found the bottom. Well! As Brahma was finishing his fib, the pillar of fire turned into Shiva and he was Pissed! He was so angry at Brahma for lying that he cut off one of his five heads. (It is always so great to have a few spares). The story goes on from there, but for the purposes of this post let me wind it up and say that after all this, what was left of the Pillar of Fire (Shiva Lingam) was Mount Arunachala.

Many people for thousands of years have been involved in prayer, devotion – abhyasa – at Mount Arunachala. This happens at the base of mountain – on everything from marble temple floors to kneecaps. It happens IN the mountain – in caves. And it happens around the mountain – by circumambulating as a whole body prayer form.

That's the context. Now let me describe some Arunachala Abhyasa. I'll start BIG. In the late 1800's, Ramana Maharshi, at the age of 16 decided to enter into deep meditation in a run-down temple at the base of the mountain. He sat in front of a Shiva Lingam (a pillar representing Shiva– or, basically – God's potency). He sat for 17 years. He didn't move or care for his physical body. (No, I don't know how he kept his dhoti dry). He became so absorbed in God that he didn't even move when rats started eating at him. That's when friends decided to do an intervention. (Friends don't let friends get eaten by rats). They stepped in and relocated him to a rat-free cave on the mountain. He again sat for more than a decade. At this point his mother wanted to join him in Sadhana – and so they both relocated to another cave that was more of a duplex.....sort of a mother-in-law cave attached to the main cave. And there they both sat for more decades.

I'm having fun with the humorous side of this but really there's a sacred side to it. Ramana Maharshi became so united with God that people flocked to this great saint by the hundreds of thousands just to be in his presence. Really he was a spiritual giant.

Yesterday as Eli and I were walking along the road – not doing sadhana but going for Chai – we saw a man lying in the road and thought there must have been an accident. But then he started rolling. He was clad only in his dhoti (or is it lungi? One of them is like a diaper and the other is like a towel wrapped around. This man was in the diaper-thing). He was saying the mantra “Om Namah Shivaya” which is a way of saying the name of God. For every repetition of the Name he would roll. He was rolling clockwise (pradakshina) around his own central axis (spine) as well as around the mountain. He would be doing that continuously for a minimum of 48 hours. 48 hours would pretty much be speed-rolling as it usually takes much longer. He was doing all of this on the open road. That means his unprotected body would be rolling over dung and stones and burning hot surface, without a pause. Nobody was sweeping up the way in front of him. He did have one friend standing guard to make sure he didn't get smashed by traffic. Sounds crazy, right? Well maybe it is but I think it is intense devotion too. I admire it even though I couldn't begin to emulate it. The Indians can do this kind of practice because they know how to suffer. We don't. Not the way they do. So they take their devotional practice to their edge – just like a lot of westerners do. But the Indian edge is a lot sharper. Anyway, I don't think “crazy”---I think “holy”.

But I do have some opportunities to think “crazy”. There are some westerners here who seem to me to be either crazy or deeply deluded or just annoying. Here's one description and then I'll quit being so judgmental. I saw a man who had tons of Rudraksha Malas hanging around his neck. (A rudraksha mala is like a rosary and is used, like a rosary, to count prayers. It is also an emblem of dedication to practice. It is not supposed to be worn as jewelry but rather should be worn tucked inside your clothes). This guy had Rudraksha – Bling going on. I overheard him tell someone that he didn't know yet where he would go next – he was waiting for the mountain to tell him. Meanwhile he was enjoying multiple cups of chai, chatting with “hot” French spiritual seekers and watching the rolling saddhu.

Eli and I are continuing to love being here.....we were going to leave today but we are extending things a bit and probeably won't leave until the 4th. I still haven't circumambulated the mountain but I have meditated in both the Ramana Maharshi cave....that was amazing. And I visited the reconstructed Shiva temple here he first sat at the age of 16. That was amazing too. Happily Volker was our guide as otherwise there would be no way I could have understood even a smalll percentage of what I saw.

AND! I've discovered a German bakery here that makes German style cheesecake that takes me into a state of Bliss. So I maybe I don't have to practice X-Treme Abhyasa to attain Nirvana. Yeah...that's it....the Mountain told me.


  1. yeah....I'm glad you are staying and letting the mountain tell you to enjoy some German cheesecake!! Everything you describe of your journey is wonderful to me. Really, I'm enjoying the "cheesecake" of your blog with every bite, it is wonderful Karen. Hope you get to circumbobulate soon! heehee I love that word!

    Namaste' true teacher. I love you!

  2. A holy roller. I love it!

    Wonderful stories, Karen.

  3. I have been reading some of your blogs out loud during class on and heartwarming and we feel you more nearby.

    Remy is soon to deliver! Maybe in the next few days. Tonight will be her first time to miss class!