Posted by: Sandy | October 15, 2009

Tricked by Touch—the Body Swap Illusion

Established in every limb and organ, the inner purusha has entered the heart of all living beings.  Katha Upanishad

The nature of self-identity is the subject of much of yoga. Recent neurological research on illusory body-swapping sheds interesting light on yoga’s ancient and seemingly esoteric revelations about the nature of identification with the body.


A couple of Swedish researchers reported an experiment in which volunteers experienced what the researchers call a “body-swap illusion.” Here’s how it works.

You wear a headset that covers your eyes and beams video feed from a small camera positioned on the head of another person or mannequin sitting across from you. If you look down you see the body of the mannequin. If you look forward, you see an image of your own body. Now you shake hands. The visual feedback is that you are shaking your own hand, and the touch sensation is of shaking hands with another person. Within a few seconds, you experience yourself as looking out from the body of the other person shaking hands with yourself. You literally feel as if you have embodied the other person. If a knife is passed over the arm of the mannequin, you feel it’s your arm and respond with measurable physiological signs of emotional arousal.

Yoga tells us the seat of the Self is the heart; and that the sense of touch, one of the five jnana indriyams, is associated with the heart chakra. Touch receptors in our joints and deep in the organs and tissues of the body, as well as the skin, tell us where we are in space, and keep us “in touch” with the body; that is keep us actively and consciously identified with the body. Stabilizing that input is the first step in deep relaxation and meditation—it frees us from the constant reminder of body experiences.

I think we also use this capacity as yoga teachers—it’s a kind of kinesthetic empathy—the ability to feel how a student feels in a posture. You look at someone in say, trikonasana, and right away you can feel in your own body the pinch on the underside of the rib cage, the rigidity of the locked knee, the tension in the neck…. Obviously there is a kinesthetic memory involved, and vision, and projecting yourself into the experience of the student’s body—a bit like the body-swap illusion experiment.

And finally, another intriguing thing about this experiment is that the volunteers experienced the illusion as “exciting” and “wanted to come back and try it again.” The urge to transcend all our limitations!

Posted by: Sandy | March 14, 2009

Farewell to Allahabad

Sri Vidya philosophy and practice tells us the world is permeated with the sacred. Water is sacred, the birds are sacred, the trees and herbs and flowers are sacred, the soil itself is sacred. Although that must be true everywhere, here at our campus at Allahabad, it is much more obvious, and it is always hard to leave our Garden of Illahabad.


Posted by: Sandy | March 14, 2009

A Lesson From Dogs


Our dirty plates lay in a barrel outside the dining hall, and the remnants of lunch scraped into a garbage pail have drawn the ever resourceful, but uninvited and unwelcome village dogs.


We hear a “whack!” and then yelps and cries, and no more dogs.


For a while. As the annoying polite Hindi-accented phone recording patiently suggests, the dogs are willing to “try again after some time.”


They are out front now, with grins and wagging tails, ever hopeful, keeping a respectful distance from stick man, but bearing no grudge, and in spite of multiple beatings, they maintain a certain dignity.


We have been warned not to feed them, pet them, or encourage them in any way; and fear the stick may fall on us for disobeying!


But perhaps there is a lesson here. When Life, that Maha Lathi-Walla (big stick man), gives us a beating, we would do so well to sit back on our haunches with a cheerful but watchful eye and then “try again after some time.”



A favorite spot for many of us, Parashurama’s Kunda and the cave where he did practice are down hill from the main shrines at Kamakhya, and face the Brahmaputra. As in many of the caves, a small spring and pool of water offer a locus, as well as water for ritual practice.


Koti Lingam and Parashurama's Kunda, overlooking the Brahmaputra

Koti Lingam and Parashurama's Kunda, overlooking the Brahmaputra


Parashurama, one of the immortal sages, was sent here for sadhana by the Sage Dattatreya. A famed warrior and master of the martial arts, Parashurama returned from gathering sticks for havan (a fire ritual) to find his father beheaded as he sat in meditation. His mother Renuka, an incarnation of Bhadra Kali, said he had struck the ground 21 times after he was killed. In rage, Parashurama vowed to destroy 21 times the family of the king responsible for the murder.


He rounded up thousands of feudal lords and filled ponds with their blood. Each time he retired to the forest and did tapas, but when he heard of another such family rising up, he again left his practice and went to kill them. Finally, after 21 times, he asked his teacher Kashyapa for guidance. Kashyapa sent him to Dattatreya.


Here in Kamakhya, Parashurama put down his weapons and absorbed the grace of the goddesses of Kamakhya, transforming himself.


At his kunda (a stone-lined water tank for bathing), were 10 crore (1 crore = 10 million) of lingams. He consolidated them into the one in the cave we visited, now known as the Koti Lingam, to help pilgrims who wouldn’t be able to do puja of so many lingams. By worshipping the Koti Lingam, they (that’s us!) gain the merit of all 10 crore.


So we climb among the cabin-sized boulders, squeeze in beside the priest who is tending the lingam, and offer our garlands and flowers, recite our mantras, and again feel the pull to meditation.

In line for Koti Lingam Cave

In line for Koti Lingam Cave

Posted by: Sandy | March 13, 2009

Ten Tantric Goddesses

All ten of the Das Mahavidyas (ten great wisdom goddesses) are here at Kamakhya. They are based on different forms of mantras which embody aspects of the Divine Mother. Sri Vidya, (aka Tripura-sundari) encompasses all of them—Tara, Kali, Chinnamasta, Matangi, Bagalamukhi, Dhumavati, Bhairavi, Bhuvaneshvari, and Kamala.


Tara Temple, Kamakhya

Tara Temple, Kamakhya


Matangi and Kamala accompany Shri (Tripura-sundari) next to her pool in the main shrine. They are the tantric aspects of Sarasvati and Lakshmi, and always accompany her—beauty, grace, prosperity, wisdom and knowledge, and the arts and sciences.


The other goddesses are located in or near the temple complex, and we visit most of them. Each has its own unique feel and energy. Many of these goddesses are fierce in aspect, and as at Kali Ghat in Kolkata, animal sacrifices and Kaula tantric practices are common.


Your Blogger at Kali Mandir, Kamakhya

Your Blogger at Kali Mandir, Kamakhya



Bagalamukhi sits where a spring emerges from between two boulders high up on the ridge, away from the other shrines and vendors lining the path into the complex. It’s a secret magical spot, and Panditji mentions forbidden tantric practices here, and says the place has a way of protecting itself from the unprepared aspirant.


Bhuvaneshvari’s temple is more peaceful and pleasant. The story is that five yogis took mahasamadhi here with the intention to help aspirants who do their sadhana here. The trees at this site are recognized as living aspects of their shaktis.


We can’t help but wish to stay longer and do practice, but must be content to realize that just making this pilgrimage has far reaching effects, many of which have yet to come into fruition. We have tasted the spice of this meal, but it takes longer to assimilate the nutrition at a deeper more subtle level. And for that we need the practices we all know—living a balanced life and continuing with yoga and meditation.

Posted by: Sandy | March 11, 2009

A Visit to the Divine Mother

We begin our concluding ritual at Kamakhya with a sprinkle and sip of water from Saubhagya Kunda, a recitation to Ganesh who sits on the bank of the kunda, and the recitation of the Shat Rudriya.



Enjoying Saubhagya Kunda

Enjoying Saubhagya Kunda

Saubhagya Kunda is another story about Parashurama who figures so prominently at Kamakhya. The Divine Mother appeared in response to Parashurama’s tapas (practice), and from the mind of Brahma sprang a lake for her to bath in. Her appearance inspired Parashurama to spontaneously recite what is now known as the Saubhagya Strotam. This is the same prayer that we have learned in preparation for this trip, and we are pleased to be able to recite it together here.


Tantric practices (Kamakhya is a tantric shrine) come in three styles: kaula, which is external ritual oriented, mishra, a mixture of external practices and the inner meditative practices of samaya.


The human body is the best locus for the divine. So with yogic practices, instead of invoking the divinity in an outer form with external rituals, we invoke the divine in ourselves, as an example of samaya-type practices. A Kumari Puja is typically done at Kamakhya. In the Kumari Puja, the divine is ritually invoked in the body of a young girl, and this is an example of mishra, or mixed type practice.



We gather around as Panditji, Meera, and a young pandit associated with Kamakhya conduct the ritual. The young girl, a carefully selected child who lives in the area, sits quietly while her feet are washed and painted, mantras are uttered, various foods, flowers, water, and money are offered, and mudras performed. At the end, she gives each of us prasad as we file past; in this case, a sweet.


Ishan Tigunait, Brian Schultz, Meera and Richa Tigunait at Kamakhya

Ishan Tigunait, Brian Schultz, Meera and Richa Tigunait at Kamakhya


After the Kumari Puja we wait in line for the opening of the main shrine which closes for a few hours in the middle of the day. It takes a while for the whole group to descend into the cave, wind past the guardian icon, and drop into the inner sanctum but we all have our opportunity to touch the feet of the Divine Mother, and sip from the pool which manifests from Her.


It’s a full day; and the sun is low in the sky as we depart Kamakhya for the final time, lingering to pick up sweets and mementos, but knowing her grace goes with us.

Posted by: Sandy | March 11, 2009

No Chicken!

On our first visit to Kamakhya, we window shop—visiting the secondary Das Mahavidya shrines (more about them later) and Parashurama’s Kunda. But some of us are eager to have darshan of Tripura, the main attraction. Her murti (form) lies in a pool in a cave, and it isn’t clear to us how we might gain entrance, so when a Hindi speaking member of our group offers to send us with a priest (panda) who had taken him, Aradhana and I jump at the chance.


Now two no-Hindi pilgrims and the no-English panda hired to escort us are on a mission. Just outside the back door exit to the main shrine, our panda stops and says, “Chicken.”


“A chicken?” we say incredulously.

He nods, “chicken.”


Aradhana and I exchange horrified glances. We have already seen that like the Kali Ghat in Kolkata, goats and pigeons are not unusual offerings to the goddesses here, but we are wanting a different kind of participation.


“No, no, no! No chicken! Veg offering only. Sacrifice of ego and negative mind and the inner beast.”

But he insists. “Chicken?”  

“No, no chicken. No non-veg. Offer flowers. No chicken.”


Finally he gives up with a sigh, and disappears for a while. Then comes back and leads us down the stairs that everyone else is using for an exit, brings us to have darshan of Tripurasundari.


Later we realize that we were standing beside a stand labeled “ticket” and no doubt the panda was asking us to purchase a “chicket” to secure our entry. Or maybe he went and did up a chicken on our behalf unknown to us!


At any rate, we emerge with full hearts, and profound gratitude for the teachings we have received that allow us to understand all this. Chickens, pigeons, goats, or any other rituals, or even doing only japa (mantra meditation) without “paying attention to that crummy person inside,” in Panditji’s words, yields little, and isn’t the real Sri Vidya practice.


The real practice requires sacrifice of the inner buffalo-person and the goat-person—an offering of the sub-human, and then, as prasad, the assimilation and transformation of those energies which are not to be killed, but rather, held in your hand and used skillfully.


Aligning yourself with the energy of a shrine like this helps to make that transformation possible, and I feel lifted out of old grievances; simple of mind; light-hearted, and profoundly grateful for everything in my life.

Posted by: Sandy | March 11, 2009

Kamakhya—A Sacred Space

Kamakhya sits on a small mountain high above the city of Guwahati (or Gauhati) on the banks of the Brahmaputra River in Assam, India’s northeast corner. The whole hill is shot full of shrines dedicated to various aspects of the Divine Mother.

Kamakhya and the Brahmaputra River

Kamakhya and the Brahmaputra River


Tripura-Sundari, variously known as Shri, Shodashi, or Sri Vidya is the main and most important, and the object of our visit, the ishta devata of our tradition, the object of Sri Vidya and Sri Chakra practice. This is her main shrine—her home—and I pinch myself to make sure I am really here, and not just dreaming.


Kamakhya Temples

Kamakhya Temples

The simplicity of the shrine is appealing; and Panditji tells us that many of the buildings are recent constructions. There is now a statute outside the entrance to the main cave, instead of a flame that used to mark the spot, and various buildings provide shelter to pilgrims. But buildings are unable to obscure the natural sacredness of the place, the configuration of natural elements of stone and water and sky, and the special subtle energy that accompanies those sacred “power” sites.

 Earlier, Panditji had explained a bit about sacred space to us. At the subtle level, some unique configuration of energies manifests in the physical world in a place with distinctive characteristics; and then there is a concentration, consolidation, and containment of those energies; often by the practices of sages.


This is exactly the case here in Kamakhya, as the beauty magic of the mountain with its rounded boulders of granite, the Brahmaputra at its feet, and riddled with springs and pools of fresh water draws the mind and heart regardless of whether you know anything about its history or the significance of practices done here for thousands of years.


Magnificent, multi-million dollar temples which are not build in a spiritually vibrant space have nothing to offer other than fulfilling social needs and reinforcing religious and ethnic identities.


On the other hand, the shrines we have been visiting, in and of themselves are spiritually uplifting, quite independently of the cultural or religious activities that may or may not be taking place in them.

Posted by: Sandy | March 7, 2009

A Boat Ride on the Ganga

A fisherman gives us a ride up the river from the Himalayan Institute campus to the confluence (sangam) of the Yamuna and Ganga Rivers at Allahabad, affording a glimpse of life in rural India along the banks of Ganga.

We are in Guwahati on Shiva Ratri–the night of Shiva. The Lord of Yogis aspect of Shiva is celebrated on this night; traditionally, all night in a raucous manner, as Shiva is among many other things, the Lord of ganas–a ragtag assortment of odd-ball beings, ascetics, lovers of ganja (marijuana), and ghouls.

 Hoping to avoid the temple-bound crowds, we charter a large boat and chug upstream to make a parikrama (circumambulation) of Umananda Nath–a Shiva temple on a small island that figured prominently in Panditji’s stay at Kamakhya years ago. We pay our respects from the boat, and take darshan from our cameras, noting the line of devotees strung around the island like a mala.



An even smaller island nearby intrigues us; Panditji refers to it as Patanjali’s Place. (Patanjali is the compiler of the Yoga Sutra).  But the island is off-limits according to the authority of the Antiquities Board, though no one seems to know why.  Again the camera captures the untold story, and we lumber back to the dock.

Patanjali's Island

Patanjali's Island

Interestingly, this is the night of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro and the Caribbean, and of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. We have residents of both these festive cities and the Caribbean islands in our group, so the unity of the world’s traditions is well represented on our pilgrimage.

The talk turns from King’s Cakes to parades when from our bus windows we spot a flock of the ubiquitous tube lights strung together and marching down the street behind floats featuring Lord Shiva, Kali, and other deities in the local variety of Mardi Gras and Carnival parade.



How is it that this particular night as defined by the phase of the moon, is celebrated by Hindus in a small city in Assam in the same way as Christians all over the Americas on the other side of the planet?  We may speak a different language and understand the Divine from a different angle, but the same sun shines on us all, and the same moon moves our minds and hearts and compels us to dance in the streets.

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