Feathered Aspen


A Labor Story

On Sunday, Lily, Joshua, and I drove down to Chatfield Reservoir and went swimming.  Or rather, we sat in the sand and the sun and stuck our toes in the water.  Lily seemed to enjoy herself, but the water was chilly, and there was less swimming than there was people watching (one of Lily’s favorite things).

I was, of course, quite pregnant at 40 weeks and two days.  I refused to buy a swimsuit just for my pregnant belly, and as a result, I was a bit of a show-stopper in my bikini with my enormous tattoos and watermelon-sized belly.

We headed home, and while Lily napped, Joshua went on ten mile run in the blistering heat, and I made matching outfits for Lu, Lily, and myself.  I was feeling pretty proud of my clothes making skills, especially without patterns, and when Lily woke up, she put on her new little dress right away.

At one point when I was sewing or when I stood up to shower after sewing, I noted a crampy feeling in my lower abdomen.  And, like with most noted feelings in the past three weeks, I thought to myself, “this could be it.”

After two or three contractions within five to six minutes of each other and a continued feeling of crampiness, and I told Joshua that I thought I might be in early labor.

I drew a bath for Lily and me, dumped in a packet of lavender salts I had purposely bought for early labor, and we got in.

(As a testament to my frugality, this is the sign that I knew this was the real deal.  I would never have used a $3 packet of special bath salts if I hadn’t suspected something was brewing.)

Lily and I soaped up and played in the lukewarm bathwater, and I shaved my legs.  Sure, I might be pooping myself in front of room full of people within 24 hours, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be well-groomed.

Weston came over just as we were getting into the bath, and he and Joshua watched soccer and got a picnic ready for City Park Jazz.  Joshua timed my contractions, and both of them looked at me skeptically when I said I still wanted to go.

After my 36 hour labor last time, I thought a relaxing picnic in the park, listening to jazz and talking to my friends sounded like a great way to pass the first few hours of labor.

So we went.  Nana, my mom, my friend Zena, Stacy, Gaylynn, and Margot joined Joshua, Lily, Weston, and me on blankets for babaganoush, greek salad, honeydew, and a little bit of red wine (I had a small glass, because somewhere I had read that that was the first thing you should do when you go into early labor.  It sounded like a perfect way to relax to me.)

The contractions continued, speeding up and gaining intensity when I would walk or stand and then slowing down when I sat.  I sat with my legs crossed and my back straight, rocking from side to side like we do in prenatal yoga.  I kept smiling and telling myself to relax.

At one point, Nana, Grandma, Lily, Joshua, and I walked up to the stage and listened to Gumbo le Funque.  Lily danced and clapped, and I watched my beautiful daughter.

Back at the blanket, we chatted and ate some more, and around 8:30, we drove back home.

Once we were home, Lily and I spent some time together.  The contractions were a bit more intense now, and Lily sat with me, alternately squatting and sitting in butterfly position, rocking back and forth.  Lily was so sweet, copying me and looking very serious.  Joshua cleaned and packed bags, getting ready for the hospital.

At about 10:30, we all laid down together to try and sleep.  I would doze off and then wake up for a contraction, concentrating on breathing out through my mouth.  At 1:30, the contractions were too uncomfortable to go through laying down, and I thought it would be a good time for Lily to leave so that I could focus on the contractions without scaring her.

We called Nana, and she came and got her within 45 minutes.  In the meantime, I set up the living room with candles, tealights, and music.  My playlist was mostly comprised of Sun Kil Moon, Alexi Murdoch and a series of yoga ragas.

I tried laboring for a while on my knees with pillows propping me up and my forehead on the couch, but as soon as a contraction would hit, I wanted to stand up and move my hips, breathing deeply.

In the incense burner, I had jasmine, clary sage, and lavender, and I found the smell of jasmine and the fan blowing on me very calming. At 3:30 I was feeling pretty tired, so I tried laying on my side to labor through the contractions.  That allowed me to rest more effectively for the next couple of hours.

At 5:30, I could no longer labor lying down, so I got up and told Joshua that I wanted to call the midwife.  While I was handling the contractions significantly better than I had handled my contractions with Lily just before going into the hospital, I wanted to go in now, because the contractions were intense enough that the prospect of going through them in the car was very unappealing.

When I called, the midwife encouraged me to eat something, shower, and then come in.  Joshua gave me some yogurt and berries, and I did eat, but when I considered the shower, I just couldn’t get in.  My legs were starting to tremble, and I was feeling a little less in control of each contraction.

Thankfully, the car ride was only 12 minutes long, and I had only two contractions, bent over the back seat.

In triage, the nurse wanted to put me on the monitors, but when she saw me bend over, sway, and breathe loudly through my next contraction, she decided to check me first instead.

7 cm.  I cannot tell you the relief I felt when she told me this.  What I did say was, “Halle-fuckin’-lujah,” and then I held both of her hands and thanked her and told her I loved her.

When I checked in with Lily, I was 4 cm and screaming.  Getting to 7 cm took forever, and I stalled there.  Now, I was ready for transition, and the nurse moved me up to labor and delivery.

Once I’d arrived in my room, the labor and delivery nurse strapped the monitor to my belly, and I had to labor through the next 20 minutes of contractions standing relatively still, hunched over the bed.  This was probably the worst part of the whole labor.  I felt extremely hot, the contractions were very, very uncomfortable,  and I had little relief.

Finally, the 20 minutes were up.  I needed to use the bathroom, but when I sat down, another contraction hit, and I practically crawled into the already drawn tub.

Initially, I wasn’t interested in getting in the water, but as soon as I stepped in, I felt my entire body collapse.  The water seemed to take some of the pressure off, and at this point, the contractions were sending thoughts through my head like I don’t know how much longer I can do this.  

Joshua sat with me for a couple of very intense contractions, and then he had to go to the bathroom.  I was feeling pretty desperate, but I had read that it is important that husbands aren’t holding anything in while your trying to push something out, so I let him go.  When the next contractions hit, I held onto the bathrail with all my might.

I had vocalized very little the entire labor, but at this point, something else took over and before I really understood what was happening, I was screaming and pushing.  When Joshua got back, he heard me yelling for the first time, and I confessed after the contraction passed that I thought I was pushing.

Joshua ran out to tell the nurses, because your not allowed to push or deliver in the tub, and then he carried me to the bed.  Another contraction hit while I was still squatting on the floor, and that’s when the midwife and the nurses somewhat frantically transferred me onto the bed.

In child’s pose, screaming, and pushing, I still wasn’t quite sure what was going on.  I vaguely remember the midwife calmly telling the nurse that we were about to have a baby and the nurse seeming very flustered that her patient was crouching on the bed.  “Shouldn’t we move her onto her back?” The nurse said, and I  found myself thinking, “make me.”

I asked the midwife what was happening, and that’s when I realized that this was as bad as the pain was going to get, because she said, “you’re going to have a baby in two or three contractions.”  “What should I do?” I asked, and she said, “you’re losing energy through your mouth (aka you’re screaming).  Curl in and push through the sting.”

So that’s what that was.  The so called “ring of fire” had already arrived, and in some ways, all the things that had scared me the most didn’t hurt as much as I had feared.  I pushed without screaming and then they told me her head was  out and then I pushed again.  They rolled me onto my back and handed her to me.

Lu was crying and it felt a little chaotic as nurses wiped her off and cleaned up the refuse of labor (this is probably why labor scares so many people; it’s very messy).  The midwife asked me to push again and the placenta came out.  As I lay with Lu, she checked me for tears, and then she said, “you’re intact.”

After an episiotomy and third degree tear last time, I was shocked and I nearly started crying as I thanked her.  She laughed and told me that she hadn’t done anything.

And then they all left.  Apparently, there were 6 deliveries before 10 AM that morning, and the ward was a very busy place.  Joshua and I just kind of looked at each other in amazement at how quickly it had all happened.  We were checked into the hospital at 7:11 AM.  Lu was born at 8:40 AM.

For the next two hours, we looked at Lu and talked about a middle name. We had been planning on Everdeen (the last name of Katniss in the Hunger Games), but I still wasn’t sure.  Empire and June were candidates, but ultimately, Lupine won out.  Lupine has so much significance for us:  a Colorado flower, a flower middle name like Lily, and most importantly, the role it plays in my favorite children’s book, Miss Rumphius.

Pediatricians came in to examine Lu, and eventually, she was weighed and measured.  7 lbs 3 oz and 19 3/4 inches.

As we looked at Lu, Joshua pulled up pictures of Lily from the blog.  We decided that they look pretty different.  Lu’s nose for one and the shape of her face.  She also has more hair.

Lu nursed for a bit in the first hour, but not for long, and we were trying again when Stacy, K, Margot, and Gaylynn came to visit.

I ate an amazing meal from Hi Rise that the Ps brought, and then we waited to be transferred to the Mom and Baby unit.

In the meantime, I was up on my feet within an hour, going to the bathroom.  In general, I was amazed by how good I felt.  The cramping in my uterus was pretty painful, but otherwise, I could walk and move easily on my own.

When we finally did leave and go to the Mom and Baby unit, I walked there, and when we arrived, I decided to take a shower.  I was pretty much in awe of how much better I felt compared to my first labor.

Once I was out of the shower, we tried nursing again without much luck and my mom came.  She declared that Lu looks like a Kuhne, and thinking of a beautiful photo of my grandma Marlene, I decided I was more than ok with that.

Soon after, Nana and Lily arrived, and Lily got to give Lu a kiss and hold her for the first time.  Lily seemed happy to meet baby sister, but she wears her heart on her sleeve, and it was obvious that she felt a little off-kilter.  We gave lots and hugs and kisses all around, trying to send the message that all is love.

Eventually, my mom, Nana, and Lily left, and then Weston came.  He held Lu for a bit, and then we had the room to ourselves for a couple of hours before Sarah came with a little dinner for Joshua.

That night, I nursed Lu every two to three hours, but in the first 24 hours, she wasn’t particularly interested.

The next morning, the nurses changed shifts, and I was so happy to see a familiar face. The postpartum nurse that we had had with Lily had a lasting impression on me, and I was lucky enough to have her again.  She’s funny and warm and a little crass, and she even remembered us from two years ago.

After spitting up quite a bit of amniotic fluid, Lu finally seemed interested in nursing, and right away, her latch was great.  Nursing felt a little pinchy and uncomfortable, but now four days in, there is none of the excruciating bleeding or soreness I felt with Lily.

Thankfully, Lu passed all of her tests, including jaundice, and we were ready to be discharged by 2 PM.  We drove home and were greeted by Nana and Lily, who was excited to see her sister but feeling very sensitive.  After nursing Lu, I took Lily for a little walk to the park to spend some time together.  Lily seemed to relax a little, and I was so thankful that my body was allowing me to reassure my first little girl.

So that’s the story of labor and the first 36 hours or so of life with Lu.  I feel like there’s a lot that I missed, but I wanted to get it all down here so I won’t forget.

Recap on Labor and Delivery:

– Contractions started around 4:30 PM on June 29.

– Contractions intensified around 1:30 AM on June 30 (I’m guessing I was at about 4 cm somewhere between 10:30 and 1:30).

– Called the midwife at 6:00 AM.

– Checked into the hospital at 7:11 AM.  7 cm.

– Delivered at 8:40 AM.

I did a bit of preparation in hopes of an unmedicated labor (I say unmedicated purposely, because I don’t like the terminology “natural” – as if some labors aren’t natural – psh.)  So here are the things that really, really helped:

– I read Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth.  It was really interesting, and I actually almost didn’t even read it, but for some reason, I picked it up about a week before Lu was born and read the whole thing.  There were a number of helpful tips that I used:

– – – Stop thinking about labor and delivery as improbable or incredibly painful.  For some reason, people are always talking about the improbability of passing a baby through a small opening, religious texts are cursing women with pain during childbirth, etc.  In reality, your ligaments loosen, your body pushes out the baby, and there is enough room.  Gaskin recommends the mantra, “open,” and I thought that to myself constantly.  I also tried to describe the contractions as intense or productive, rather than painful.  I’m a words girl, so this kind of stuff matters to me.

– – – Obey the “Spincter Rule.”  It sounds silly, but this is why I let Joshua go use the bathroom when the contractions were the worst.  Ina May tells this story of an explicably long labor and chalks it up to the husband “holding it in” for too long.  That may sound a little far fetched, but the other piece is a body rule that feels pretty sensical.  Ina May says that it is impossible for your cervix to open if your jaw and face are not relaxed.  She even goes so far as to say that you should blow your lips (horse lips) while pushing to prevent tearing, and by god, that’s what I did.  Given the extent of my tearing from last time and the likelihood of me tearing this time, I was willing to do about anything.  So I did horse lips, and guess what?  I didn’t tear.  So pretty much her word is gospel.

– – – Let your monkey do it.  This one makes me squirm a little bit, because the more primal parts of living make me a little uncomfortable, but again.  I was willing to try anything.  Basically, this meant that if squatting feels natural and good, do it.  If getting down on all fours and pushing feels natural, do it.  Have no filter; don’t let your brain get in the way.  Nuff said.

– – – Move.  Do not try and take those contractions sitting still.  Just thinking about trying to do that makes me shudder.

– The other thing that I did was take prenatal yoga.  Again, I was skeptical, but I decided to go in with an open mind, and I ended up really loving it.  Two things in particular that helped in labor where:

– – – Positions.  There’s a lot of squatting and moving your hips in prenatal yoga, and it helped a lot to practice the movements that I used to get through contractions.

– – – “Keep ups.”  This is where you hold a pose for a long time (5 mn) and experience muscle fatigue but use your breath and movement to persevere.  This is where I learned to concentrate on breathing out loudly and adjust my movement to provide my muscles with relief.

– One of the most helpful things I did was watch labor videos.  Brittaney (thanks!) sent me a prenatal yoga DVD and recommended the videos, so the week before Lu was born, Joshua and I watched them together.  It was helpful to see how the women worked through their contractions, and in labor, I copied their moves.  It put all those pieces – breathing, moving, relaxing, and letting your monkey out – together.

– Finally, there were a bunch of other little things that I did that may or may not have helped:

– – – I drank copious amounts of raspberry leaf tea.

– – – I bought and used clary sage, jasmine, and lavender essential oils.

– – – I ran all the way up to the day before labor.

– – – I tried to sit crosslegged or in butterfly with my pelvis tilted as much as possible.

In the end, labor and delivery were easier than I had hoped.  The transition stage from 7 cm to 10 cm were definitely the most intense and yes, I would say painful, but the actually delivery wasn’t as painful as I had anticipated.  It was a pretty amazing experience, and given how much better my body has faired and how much easier these first few days have been, it was very, very worth it for me.

Finally, I want to end this post with the wellspring of gifts and love that are all around us.  I’m so thankful for:

– a relatively short and easy labor

– a healthy and beautiful little girl

– knowing how to nurse

– my first little girl who is sensitive but still brave enough to love

– being able to lie down to rest, nurse and cuddle with Lu

– an incredibly helpful and compassionate husband who is also a fantastic father

– friends and family for their companionship

– friends and family for their overwhelming generosity, including:

– – – cleaning our house, doing laundry, dishes, cooking, you name it

– – – giving us delicious food, including cheesecake, champagne, enchiladas, Hi Rise bagels, paninis, pasta salad, salad, yum, yum, yum

– – – giving Lily little gifts to make her feel special and loved and spending time with her

A while ago, during prenatal yoga, the teacher said, “babies are born with a sandwich in their hands,” and it’s true.  They are.  Lu arrived with more to spare, and these first few days has been the work of ambassadors, spreading her love and receiving love.  At night, I whisper into Lily’s ear, “all is love,” and when she falls asleep, I gaze into my newborn Lu’s face and feel it all well up within me.  I am so, so very lucky to have these two little girls by my side.

Pictures to come 🙂


More Yoga

September 26, 2010

We slept in. Last night, I gave Rajjis our laundry, and with nothing to run in, we let ourselves sleep. When we woke up, we talked about our options. Initially, we had thought we might take another week’s worth of yoga classes, but now that we had seen so many other classes, we weren’t sure. In the end, we decided to look around. We’re hoping for some cooking classes, and maybe we’ll try a different kind of yoga, too.

In the courtyard of HIYC, I braided Hadas‘ hair, and we waited for someone to tell us to come into the hall. Sharat came out and told us to be quiet: the advanced students were coming out of a long relaxation/ meditation pose, and they were on a different plain than us.

Inside, we set up and ran through the poses as usual. I found myself even more rebellious than usual. When Sharat told me to be calm, to relax, to empty my mind, I found myself asking, Why? I know everyone says it’s important to be present, to calm your thoughts, to empty your mind. But I just don’t know if I agree. I don’t feel beset by an active mind or too many thoughts. I don’t feel exhausted. I like my daydreams. I like my thoughts. I don’t want to be an empty vessel, and even though people say this means I might not be present, I’m here. I’m enjoying myself.

Perhaps I’m not as enlightened.

For lunch, Joshua and I packed a little bag with the computer and our books, and we walked into Bhagsu. Right now, we’re eating lunch on a garden terrace overlooking McLeod’s valley, and the wonderful waiter has given us Aloo Palak and Shahi Paneer with Paranath (a soft chapati with onions baked in). Behind us, the autorickshaws are beeping their horns and motoring over the potholes. I’m not sure what we’ll do for the rest of the day.

September 25, 2010

We woke up early again to run. This time, we took the road to Triund. The hill was a bit more gradual this time, but we’re beginning to expect that a thirty minute run here will inevitably include 15 minutes up hill and 15 minutes down hill. They don’t really do flat here.

On our run, we watched little Indian children walk to school. Tiny little boys were wearing pants with belts and button-up shirts with ties. They were adorable 🙂 Back at the guest house, we changed and headed up the stairs to yoga.

With each progressive day, we move a little bit faster, and we’re able to do a few more asanas. Even so, Iyengar yoga – or, at least, Sharat – believes in hold each pose for at least a few minutes. It may be slow, but that doesn’t mean there’s no strain; my shoulders are so weak, I can barely hold them out for more than three minutes at a time.

Today, we did the usual poses, but instead of bending forward and touching our toes (ha!), we did a succession of backward bends. At first, we lay on our back, next we used a chair to bend over, and after that, we were ready to put our hands up by our necks, flex our butts and lift up. Move your butts! Sharat says. We had to do backwards bridge 20 times. The woman next to me was serene the whole time; I grunted and grimaced and tried not to complain.

Once we had bent our backs into submission, we tried a new upside-down asana. This one is called the plough because you stand on your shoulders and then bend your legs over a bench over your head like an ‘L.’ Theoretically, someone could grab hold of your feet and use your head to plow the ground. This one didn’t hurt quite as much as the plain shoulder stand because there’s not quite as much pressure on the neck, but my feet fell asleep. Right around the time Sharat was telling us to ‘feel the peace,’ I was praying for him to tell us we could come out of the pose.

Yoga ended in Namaste, and we went back to the guest house for another lunch by Rajjis. Before we headed to the rooftop, I took a shower and we gathered our postcards. As we watched the heavy mist play peek-a-boo with the mountains, we wrote. Although I enjoy the process of selecting, buying, assigning, and sending postcards, I haven’t quite found the right informative yet quippy style. There’s so little space! A couple of times, I began to write something and then I read over it. It made no sense, but it was in pen, so it’ll have to do.

Eshai and Hadas came up to join us again for lunch. Eshai wasn’t feeling well, and Sharat had made him take some spices to settle his stomach. Nevertheless, he was still smiley and chatty, and after lunch, we played Takki (which is a lot like UNO) for an hour or so.

That morning, I had woken up fretting about my Tibetan-Kimono thingy. When I had tried it on again to show Joshua, I had noticed it was a little tight in the shoulders. I’m skinnier now than I usually am in the US, and I don’t want it to be too small to wear back at home. Joshua – the patient and kind husband that he is – agreed to walk back to McLeod to exchange it for a slightly bigger size.

Back in McLeod, all the stalls were still open. I exchanged the wrap without any fuss, and after, we walked the streets just browsing. We finally found something we thought Sarah might like, and I also found a lovely bracelet: it’s gold, and it has a hindi mantra for mothers written on it. The man told me he would sell it to me for 100 rupees. I didn’t say anything, and he dropped it to 80. Joshua looked at him and said, I have 60. So I got the bracelet for a little more than a dollar.

At another stall, we found a pair of brass rings, and now Joshua and I are staining the middle finger of our right hands slightly green. We bought a couple more postcards, and Joshua found an inexpensive and incredibly soft Tibetan shawl. We walked back to Dharamkot before we could spend any more.

As we climbed the hill, a few school children were making their way home. A couple girls were walking right behind us, and when I heard them breathing hard, I told them that made me feel much better: if they live here and climbing this hill is still hard, I’m not so pathetic. They laughed and told me it’s always hard. We exchanged names and talked about how cute small monkeys are.

In Dharamkot, we selected one of the only remaining restaurants. We’ve eaten at most of the others. At The Friendly Planet, we discovered a limited Indian menu, and although I ordered a Palak spinach dish, there was nothing green on my plate. We weren’t too impressed.

Afterwards, we went in search of an Internet Cafe so Joshua could call his dad, and on the way, we ran into one of our yoga-mates buying a coconut, tearing off the hair, and trying to figure out how to get the coconut milk out. I was so enchanted with the idea of a real, fresh coconut, I bought one too.

While Joshua called, I read, and when he had finished, we headed back to the guest house. In the kitchen, Eshai and Hadas were eating dinner, and went to find Rajjis to see if he had any pointers on cracking open my coconut. Using an allen-wrench, he punctured the top, and we drained the coconut water into a couple of cups. I gave him and his friends a couple of the cups, and we lifted them, opa! Lechaim! Cheers! Once we had drank it all, Rajjis cracked the coconut on a stone. I gave them some of the flesh in thanks, and then I headed back to the kitchen to talk with Eshai and Hadas and pick apart my coconut. We drank some tea, and when it got late, we headed off to bed.

September 24, 2010

We woke up a little earlier to run before yoga. Heading uphill, we met the main road and headed in the direction we had never been. Running downhill, we met a village and a couple of monkeys, and after 15 minutes, we arrived in McLeod Ganj. We didn’t realize where we were until we arrived in the city center; the road loops around a steep hill, and on one side, McLeod Ganj over looks a cloud-filled valley. On the other side, Dharamkot and Bhagsu work their way up a mountain side. I’m still not sure where Dharamkot ends and Bhagsu begins… Either way, you arrive in one of them whether you turn West or East in McLeod Ganj.

Running back up the hill towards our guest house, we huffed and puffed. It’s quite a climb when you’re just walking, so we were exhausted by the time we had reached the top. At one point, we ran by a large monkey, and Joshua said hello. The monkey bared its teeth and slapped the rock next to him, and Joshua received an extra burst of energy to sprint up ahead.

Back at the guest house, we change for yoga and walked over to the HIYC. The courtyard is lovely; with a temple, green gardens, and freshly painted dorms, halls, and bathrooms, the place is a little oasis of calm. People walk about in their Aladdin pants and hemp bracelets, wishing each other Namaste, and inside, you can hear Sharat telling the advanced class that their breath is centered, their faces are relaxed, and they have achieved relaxation by letting go.

We sat and chatted with Eshai and Hadas while we waited, and after a few minutes, one of Sharat’s helpers told us to come in and set up our mats very quietly. It wasn’t until I was sitting cross-legged on my green mat that I noticed Sharat lying with his feet casually crossed on the wall above him, resting on his shoulders, and sleeping deeply. One by one, each of us settled onto our mats, and the helpers nervously twittered around Sharat. I think they must have had to pull straws to decide who would be the one to wake him.

The lovely helper with a curly mop of hair and smart glasses drew the short straw, but when Sharat awoke, he didn’t seem perturbed. He fell out of his pose with an agile somersault and looked out at the ready class, surprised. He told us good morning.

We began by bending at the butt and resting our wrists on bars. I’m no good at this; I have zero flexibility in my hamstrings. Next, we moved to standing poses. I’m fine at these unless there’s bending required (again, my hamstrings) or we have to hold out our arms for long, extended periods of time. I take back my words from yesterday: it’s not that yogis don’t hold any stock in ‘pain is gain,’ it’s that they choose to subdue the pain and pretend it’s not there. No gritting teeth aloud. As you might predict, I’m REALLY no good at this.

Next, we moved to poses where we tuck our feet under our butts and arch backwards. With hips that are as happy in socket as out, I’m fine at these. We did a couple of twisty poses with bands to make us twist more, and I discovered a little lower back rigidity; Joshua discovered that he was a model of perfection. I think he may have even got a thumbs-up from Sharat.

We moved into the shoulder wall stand pose. Although Sharat and his little helpers say this is the most important pose, it’s also the pose that hurts the most. You’re supposed to situate yourself so that all of your body weight is centered on your shoulders and your back is straight. This means that you have to have pads and blankets under your head and shoulders, but even then, it feels like my neck is about to snap. We lay there, propped up like that for 10 excruciating minutes. Relax your face, says Sharat, breath deeply. No wrinkled foreheads. Yeah, right.

It’s all down hill after the shoulder stand. Honestly, I don’t even really remember what else we do. We lay contorted in some position and listen to Sharat telling us how calm we are. I fantasize about lunch. Finally, he tells us to sit up, Namaste, pick everything up and put it away.

Back at the guest house, we arrange for a lunch of Thali made by Rajjis. Up on the rooftop, we sit and admire the view of the enormous, tree-filled mountains, and we chat with Eshai and Hadas. I ask them how they think it changes their culture to have a mandatory three year draft. Does it make Israelis militant? Is that why I’ve sometimes found them abrupt?

Eshai has lots to say about this. Yes, he says. Chutspah, Hadas says. Israelis are direct, because in the military, you learn to say exactly what you mean. There is no fuss, no pretension. There are lives at stake. When you are 18, you are made to stand guard. You are given a weapon, taught how to fire it, and then told that you hold the lives of your friends in your hands as you keep guard. It’s a great amount of responsibility, and it changes you. It changes everyone. Eshai says that the military is that one common experience that draws Israelis together. It teaches them morals and an ethic, and even now, he is a part of the reserves and he will be until he is forty.

I found this all fascinating. It’s so strange to think of a country that is so young and so small. They are able to speak about their history in terms of three generations: how their grandfathers behaved, how their fathers changed, and how they’ve reacted.

Lunch was delicious: Rajjis even made the stir-fried vegetables to order, without cauliflower in them for me. Afterwards, we parted ways again, and Joshua and I walked to McLeod Ganj.

At Peace House Coffee, Joshua ordered a piece of brownie cake, a grilled cheese and vegetable sandwich, and a lassi. I shared his cake and ordered a hot lemon honey and ginger tea. The cake was warm and moist and incredible. While I read The Waterless Flood (I love this book by Margaret Atwood. It’s both apocolyptic and funny.), Joshua wrote e-mails and surfed the web.

Once we had finished, we went in search of a birthday gift for Sarah. The temporary stalls were starting to close for the evening, but we still had a couple of hours before everything was locked up. While nothing screamed ‘Sarah!’ we found quite a bit that screamed ‘buy me instead,’ and we spent our time trying on inexpensive, handmade clothing. I fell in love with a Tibetan kimono-like wrap with bell buttons, and it took me three different shops to find the right size and price. Joshua bought a pair of soft pants for yoga and laundry days, and he also found a couple of great t-shirts. My favorite is pale, bright blue with an orange graphic of Ganesh, the elephant god.

A few hundred rupees poorer and still no gift for Sarah, we racked up on postcards for a mass send-out, and located a Tibetan restaurant for dinner. I ordered Thukpa and tea, and Joshua ordered a fried noodle dish. The Thukpa looked and tasted a lot like Pho, but it wasn’t nearly as good as the Thukpa we had had in Leh. When we’d finished, laid out all of the postcards and began our selection. This is one of my favorite parts; we try and figure out who would like what best, or which one reminds us most of someone.

We walked back to our guest house in the dark. Joshua has regained his appetite in full, so before we left the shops of McLeod, he bought a Snickers, and I looked curiously at the cigarette selection. I had heard of the clove cigarettes that were so popular, and I wanted to know which ones popped and fizzled as the cloves burned. The shop keeper told me, and then he asked us if it was true that Americans needed to pay the government in order to grow vegetables in their own back yard. We laughed and told him no, but as I walked away, I thought: you know what? I bet the big agro-businesses would love that. What a scary thought.

Back at the guest house, we read for a little bit more and then fell asleep with our books resting on our chests. I have to say: this is the life 🙂

1 Comment

Yoga Time in Dharamkot

September 23, 2010

I am a yoga ignoramus. Seriously. What I know about yoga might fill a thimble, but don’t hold your breath. Before this morning, here is what I could tell you about yoga:

1) There is something called ‘Sun Salutations.’ I did them with Caitlin on the beach in Oregon. It involved lifting your hands up to the sky, some kind of lunge action, twisting your body, and then maybe arching your back?

2) When I did the ‘Sun Salutations,’ my body was really irritated with me for trying to roll my shoulders back and stand upright. After a couple of decades of some serious slouching, ‘opening up my lungs’ actually makes me feel short of breath. Ironic, I know.

3) Yoga is a series of postures that are supposed to do… Something. I’m not really sure what. I’ve heard some New-Agey gibberish about aligning chakras and securing purity of mind, body, and soul, but what the hell does that mean? Will somebody please speak plain English?

4) Yoga falls in this no-man’s land between exercise and ‘relaxation.’ I’m not sure if you’re following me, but I was always pretty sure that exercise and relaxation sat on opposite sides of the spectrum. I’m especially confused because I don’t think yoga is particularly rigorous or invigorating, and yet people who do yoga have these incredibly toned bodies. Will someone please explain?

5) Lots of yuppies like yoga; I’m not sure why. Women wearing natural fibers particularly enjoy carrying their yoga mats from Whole Foods to yoga class.

6) Yoga comes from India, and it’s part of a whole philosophy/lifestyle. I don’t know what the philosophy is, and I don’t know about the lifestyle either.

7) Yup. That’s about it.

Here are some of the reasons (assumptions) why I’ve always been pretty sure yoga and I won’t mix:

1) It’s not strenuous. As I may have mentioned (over and over again), I prefer things to be strenuous.

2) Most people who do yoga seem pretty in-tune with their bodies. The ‘pain is gain’ philosophy doesn’t really seem to apply here.

3) Most people who do yoga are either not very goal oriented, or if they are, consider ‘relaxation’ a goal.

4) It requires a degree of flexibility.

After my first yoga class ever, here is what I have learned:

1) I’m square (as in, “she’s square.”).

2) Iyengar Yoga and Hatha Yoga are on one side of the spectrum; while these two concentrate on slow, precise movements, Ashtanga Yoga tends to be faster and less precise. And on that note, there are a ton of different kinds of yoga. They all have different philosophies and movements, but I’m not sure what they are.

3) Yoga postures are called ‘asanas.’

4) It is very important to make miniscule movements such as ‘stretching out your toes,’ ‘pushing through your heels,’ and ’tilting your pelvis.’

5) Iyengar Yoga uses props like blocks of wood, stacked blankets and pillows, bands, and ropes.

6) Most yoga follows a certain structure: you begin with standing asanas, move to kneeling or sitting asanas, somewhere in there you try to stand on your head, and then you move to relaxation poses where you try (unsuccessfully, if you’re me) to relax every muscle in your body.

7) Sharat Arora, our teacher, learned from Iyengar himself. I think he might sort of be a big deal.

8) You shouldn’t eat or drink anything before you do yoga in the morning; you should go to the bathroom first; you should wear warm enough clothes.

Here is what I’d like to know:

1) Why am I doing this? No. Seriously. I’m not trying to be snarky; obviously, I’m here, and I’m curious, but I’d really like to know why people do this. I’d like a better explanation than ‘purification’ or ‘alignment.’ What am I purifying? Why? What am I aligning? Why?

2) What are all the different kinds of yoga? Why are they different? What’s different about them?

3) what is the purpose of different asanas?

4) How does yoga fit into Indian cultural and religious history? What are yogis?


We woke up just before 9 AM, and headed over to the Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Center (HIYC). In the courtyard, we waited with the other beginning students, and the Center’s dogs came around, sniffing for food and begging for pets. We introduced ourselves to a couple who sat next to us and discovered that they’re living in the room right behind us. Eshai and Hadas are Israeli and recently married. We talked a little about what we planned to do in India, and then Sharat came out.

Sitting in a circle, we all patiently waited while Sharat shuffled through our registration papers, pausing to read excerpts here and there. After a bit, he began to call out our names and ask us about any medical conditions we had listed. Going around the circle, we heard about our new classmate’s sore backs, knees, and necks. A few of the students had been in serious car accidents; there were slipped discs, fused ankles, torn ligaments, and knee surgeries. One woman had stepped off the bus on her way here to pee off the side of the road, and in the dark with her pants down, she had fallen down the hill. ‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘I had a heckuva time gettin‘ here.’

About two-thirds of the class are Israeli. When one of them doesn’t understand Sharat’s English, a few of them look over and offer alternate translations in Hebrew. Sharat commented on a couple of names saying, ‘that’s an Israeli name I’ve not heard before.’ There is one Indian man, maybe a couple of Europeans, and the rest of us are American. I think there might be about 30 in the class.

When we finished publicly airing our various ailments, Sharat ordered us into the hall. Taking off our shoes, we went inside. The room is lovely; with concrete yellow floors and walls, a wooden ceiling and lots of paper-globe lights, and plenty of windows, the place is airy and welcoming. We all picked a green mat lying on the floor.

Standing on an elevated stage, Sharat instructed us how to stand correctly. We stretched our toes and pushed our heels. We measured the distance between our feet. We practiced maybe 4 or 5 different standing asanas, and as we moved, his assistant teachers came around to correct our postures. I still felt strangely out of breath when I rolled my shoulders back and stood up straight.

A thin, small European woman demonstrated a couple of the sitting, laying, and upside down asanas, and we watched as she easily contorted her body into the various positions. When we tried, I was not nearly so flexible. Apparently, the most important asana was the one where we built up a pad with blankets next to the wall, lifted our legs above our heads, and used a band to keep our elbows together. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, and my neck hurt the whole time.

During the final asana, a relaxation pose, a couple people fell asleep and started snoring. I just lay there, listening to Sharat tell me to relax my eye-sockets thinking, ‘well how the fuck do you do that?’ Finally, Sharat told us to sit up, Namaste, we should go away a feel more relaxed and energized; see you tomorrow at 9:30 AM.

We put away all the props, put on our shoes, and walked out of the hall. No one really talked. I tried to figure out if I felt both relaxed and energized. I think that might be a nice feeling, but I’m pretty sure I have no idea how to identify it. The class had been 3 hours long, and I didn’t have strong feelings either way: I wasn’t in love, and I didn’t hate it. I just didn’t really know what to think.

Back at our guest house, we changed clothes and headed back outside to find some food. We ran into Eshai and Hadas on our way out and decided to all eat together at a local restaurant just a little bit down the road. Once we got there, Hadas gave us some pointers on Indian food: ‘paneer‘ is cheese, ‘aloo‘ is potato, ‘gobi‘ is cauliflower (and therefore, satan), ‘palak‘ is spinach, ‘dal‘ is lentils, ‘korma’ is coconut-y, and chapati is like naan but thinner and dryer. I copied Hadas and ordered thali, a plate of rice with a side of dal, mixed curry vegetables, and curd (yogurt), and Joshua and Eshai ordered mali kofta, potato in a savory red sauce. The food was delicious, and while we ate, we talked about our weddings and religion.

Eshai and Hadas got married a couple of months ago. They met two years ago at ‘a spiritual retreat at the Dead Sea’ and ‘fell in love at first sight.’ Eshai proposed in Rome, but Hadas thinks that he waited too long. At their wedding, they had 300 people, and all they were all in some way related. After their reception, they had the ceremony, and after that, they jumped in a pool with all of their wedding finery on. The rest of the celebration was a pool party.

While Eshai is an atheist, Hadas ate a relatively kosher meal, foregoing any dairy. Eshai believes religion is a tool of manipulation, but Hadas didn’t look so sure. While Eshai and Joshua chatted about their jobs, I asked Hadas a little more about her family. Her mother moved to Israel from Iraq when she was only 1, but both her mother and father spoke in Arabic as their secret language. At Shabbat, they sang the prayers in both Arabic and Hebrew. Of course this was normal for Hadas, but as she told me, all sorts of assumptions were crumbling in my head. I had always considered ‘Arab’ and ‘Jew’ two opposing identities, but apparently, that’s untrue.

After chatting for a while, we paid the bill and went our separate ways. Joshua and I decided to explore a bit, and we headed in the direction of Bhagsu. So far, we’ve discovered that Indian villages don’t really have centers or squares. Shops and restaurants might gather on the same street, but otherwise, it’s hard to tell if you’re really in the ‘heart’ of the village. Bhagsu seemed a bit bigger than Dharamkot, but everything else seemed pretty similar. There were signs up everywhere for every kind of class imaginable: silversmithing, intuitive painting, tantric meditation, ashtanga yoga, power yoga, hatha yoga, intensive yoga, casual yoga, aryuvedic medicine, aryuvedic massage, hindi tattoos, mendhi painting, Indian classical music, Indian cooking… A lot of the signs were written in Hebrew, and as we walked by the restaurants, we saw ‘Israeli Salad’ and ‘Israeli Cuisine’ advertised nearly everywhere. The streets smelled vaguely of weed, and the handicraft and souvenir shops sold bongs and clothing made from natural fibers dipped in tie-dye. Dread locks, Tevas, and Aladin-pants abound.

Past a temple with a pool out front, we followed the signs for the waterfall. Around the corner, an impossibly tall and long waterfall fell between two very green mountains. We followed the stone steps up. At the top, the ‘very, very chill Shiva Cafe where you can eat or drink or just smoke all day’ sat in a foggy oasis of green, draping plants, hindi murals, and monkeys. We paused a bit to admire the foggy, jungle view, and then we decided to follow the path that cut straight across the mountain, hoping it might lead back to Dharamkot and our guest house.

Passing a couple of small temples and few more hippie cafes, we found our way to upper Bhagsu and then Lower Dharamkot. Eventually, we spied our guest house and picked our way over a stream. Along the way, we picked a few canine followers, and they safely guided us back to our home. Changing into running clothes, we went on a short 30 minute jog up the steep hill past our guesthouse, down and around to McLeod Ganj, and then back up the steep hill to our guest house. At one point, Joshua said hello to a monkey on the side of the road, and not impressed, the monkey bared his teeth and beat the stone next to him with his hands. Joshua shied like a horse and sped a little faster up the hill. Running by monks, I decided I wouldn’t wear shorts again. I felt like a hussy baring my legs 🙂

Back at the guest house, we showered. We each had about 3 minutes of hot water each, so we tried to keep them short. By the time we got dressed, it was already dark, so we headed out the door for Dharamkot. At the Moonlight Cafe, we sat on the balcony and watched the nearly full moon rise over the steep mountains of Bhagsu. Joshua ordered Paneer Palak (cheese spinach for those of you who are keeping track), and I ordered Vegetable Biryani (which is kind of like a vegetarian Indian Jambalayah). The food was gorgeous, and to drink, Joshua ordered another Lhassi (he’s pretty much disregarded recommendations to not eat unpasteurized dairy products in India). While we ate and tried to remember all the asanas we had learned that morning (we tried to draw pictures and list directions in our notebook), a group of Israelis sat cross-legged on the floor, eating Indian food, smoking pot, playing cards, and laughing a lot.

When we had finished eating, we walked back to the guest house. Along the way, Joshua picked up a couple of candy bars. ‘Bounty’ is kind of like Almond Joy, and ‘Yummy’ is, as Joshua says, a poor second to a Snickers. I’m starting to like a little something sweet before I sleep 🙂

September 22, 2010

Yesterday morning, we woke up a little before 9 AM, and I quickly got dressed to meet the monk. Joshua went ahead of me to eat breakfast and load pictures at the Green Hotel Cafe, while I waited on the steps in front of our guest house. At about 9:10, the monk came down, brushing his teeth. He said, ’10?’ I nodded my head and told him that I would be waiting at the Green Hotel Cafe.

Finding Joshua, we ordered breakfast, and then I went off in search of a notebook and pens for my English lesson. Back at the Cafe, Joshua ate his Tibetan Porridge with Bananas (Tsampa) and I had my lemon and honey pancake. We shared a slice of walnut cake, which was absolutely delicious. Waiting for the monk, we browsed through the pictures, and I put together a little English diagnostic – I had no idea how much English the monk might know.

By 10:30, I was pretty sure that the monk wasn’t coming. I was a little disappointed, but the night before, Joshua and I had seen a sign for an ‘English Conversation Hour’ held at the Hope Education Center. Apparently, they always need English volunteers. I’ll just bring my pen and paper there 🙂 We read and surfed the web for a little bit longer, sipping our honey, lemon, and ginger tea, and a little bit before noon, we paid and headed back to our guest house to pack up.

Just before we left the guest house, we went into the office to pay. The man at the desk was the monk. He gave me his huge smile, and I figured that there had been some sort of language misunderstanding. Oh well; Namaste. Joo-lay.

The hike out of McLeod Ganj is pretty steep, and although we’re only at 5,000 – 6,000 ft, I could still feel the altitude. We slowly made our way up the hill, passing monkeys as we went. It began to rain. On the other side of the hill, we passed the Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Center (HIYC) and just a few meters a way, we came across the Kamal Guest House. Although I had wanted to shop around a bit before we settled on our next guest house, when the kind, smiling guest house keeper poked his head out of the detached kitchen and asked us if we’d like to see a room, we agreed. Rajjis led us up a staircase to a balcony and into a small room with plenty of windows and an attached bathroom with a hot-water geyser. For 250 rupees a night, the room was ours. I tested the bed, and like usual, it was hard as a rock. We took it.

Shedding our packs, we decided to try and make this room as homey and clean as possible. We put everything in a proper place, and afterwards, we sat on the bed and surveyed our surroundings. From our window, we can see the HIYC; otherwise, everything is green. It was also raining, and the fog made the trees appear rootless. It was damp, but lovely.

Happy to have a space where we planned to live for more than a couple of days, we decided to stay put for a bit. While I caught up on my writing, Joshua sat outside on the balcony and chatted to our neighbors, two young Italians. They told him, ‘in India, we have found the world’s second best food.’ Naturally, Joshua didn’t even have to ask them about the world’s first best food: their Italians.

After a while, Joshua came back in and took a nap while I continued to write. Outside the window, I spied a couple of people wandering into the HIYC, and desperate to sign up for the yoga class, I followed suit. In the courtyard of the HIYC, five or so women were grilling one of the yoga assistants: ‘why are the classes so expensive?’ ‘will I have individual attention?’ ‘how long are the classes?’ ‘which asanas do you use?’ The man patiently answered each of their questions and then looked up at me, ‘how can I help you?’

When I told the man that I’d like to sign up, please, and yes, I have the payment in full right here, the women started to get flustered. They all decided to sign up too, and as the man handed me the registration form, one of them took it right out of his fingers. He assured them that the hall can fit up to 50 students, and so far, there were only a dozen signed up.

While I waited for an extra pen, I walked down to the edge of the HIYC’s gardens and called up to our window, telling Josh to come on over and bring a couple pens with him. We filled out the forms together which didn’t take very long at all; for all the questions that asked, ‘have you done yoga before?’ ‘if so, what kind?’ ‘have you meditated before?’ ‘if so, what kind?’ our answers were a simple ‘no, n/a.’

We paid the yoga assistant and headed back to the guest house. Now that we had signed up, I felt a huge relief. The main reason that we had left Leh a couple of days earlier and done the whole 36 hour bus ride in one blow was so that we could take this yoga class. I wrote for a little longer, and then Joshua finally demanded that we go and eat.

Taking a footpath, it took us about 10 minutes to find our way to Dharamkot. Walking by the restaurants and shops we were struck by how much Hebrew we saw and heard. Nearly everyone we encountered was Israeli. Apparently, Dharamkot and Bhagsu are Little Israel, and most of the Israelis here are also hippies: we could smell weed in the air, Bob Marley was playing, and most of the cafes had names like ‘Friendly,’ ‘Moonlight,’ and ‘The Happy Oven’ with big, psychedelic murals emblazoned on the walls.

We picked a cafe that smelled vaguely of cat piss and ordered Korma Navratti and Eggplant Masala. While we waited for our order, we looked up at the tack-board above us and wondered what ‘Couples Only Tantric Yoga,’ ‘Real Chill Indian Classical Music Concert,’ and ‘Intuitive Painting’ might be. At the other tables, people spoke in Hebrew.

The food was delicious, and when we had finished, we walked over to the Internet Cafe to post my writing. The keyboard had Hebrew letters taped to the keys, and when we tried to load my blog, everything was in Hebrew and listed right to left. By the time we figured out how to change the default language, the connection was lost, and we ended up just giving up. We walked home in the foggy dark, watching the lights of Dharamkot and Bhagsu glimmer through the tall pine trees.