Monday, December 28, 2009

Watch the Magic Breath


Nothing is as important as our breath and the way we breathe. It is magical and that is why Yoga stresses on Pranayama and integrates breathing with movement. Yet many of us pay scant attention to our breath.There are three types of breathing, according to Yoga Vasistha by Patanjali Maharshi, the authentic text that all Yoga practitioners swear by.

The first one is the “upper” or “shallow” or the Clavicular breathing in which we use the shoulder blades and collar bone to inhale the shallowest breath. Though maximum effort is taken, minimum air is obtained. So it hardly sends in the required oxygen to the circulatory system and thus we are in permanent oxygen debt. The result is stress, strain and the resulting fatigue. It makes us feel breathless like when we climb up a flight of steps.

The “middle” or “chest” or the Intercostal breathing, the second kind, is mostly the everyday kind of breathing we do. In this kind of breathing we expand the Intercostal muscles which in turn move the rib cage. Though better than the first kind, this too is not enough to give us ample supply of vital oxygen. However, it keeps us alive and functioning. Each time our blood oxygen levels are low, we take in an extra breath to compensate.

The “lower” or “abdominal” or the Diaphragmatic breathing, the third kind is the most desirable, cleansing breath of all. Deep abdominal breathing is the most ideal because it brings air into the lower parts of the lungs. It helps us breathe deeply and slowly, pushing down the diaphragm. A breeze is not able to blow away the accumulated dust in the nooks and corners of a room. However a strong gush of wind can accomplish this. Similarly, through abdominal breathing all the dust, bacteria and carbon dioxide that remains in the lower part of the lungs are pushed out – hence the cleansing effect. When you breathe this way your belly will expand and contract like a balloon. When you blow air in, the balloon expands and when you release the air, it contracts.

We need to consciously breathe deeply so that our energy barometer shows the vibrancy and vitality of our life. And as we deepen the quality of our breath, we deepen the quality of our life as well.  Exhalation is much more important than inhalation as it enables proper elimination of carbon dioxide from the blood into the lungs and from the lungs into the atmosphere. Let’s start observing our breath. How is it – strained, shallow, short, sluggish, rhythmic, gentle or slow? Let’s learn the difference between it all – for each has its place! 

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Be our own Alchemists: Six steps


We are at the threshold of a brand new year. It is time to do some stock-taking and soul-searching. Did the dying year treat us well? If yes, good!! If the answer is no, looking inside us and behind the path we have traversed is imperative. Otherwise, we are going to make the same slip-ups and have a miserable year again. And NOW is the moment to introspect.

1. Ask, ask, and ask! Did the year bring about changes? Were you able to cope with or manage those changes? Ask ourselves a lot of questions. Invest time in finding out what worked and what did not. Why did we do what did? How did it affect us? What could have been done so that the outcome would have been different? Spend some quality time by ourselves so that answers come to us without too much effort.

2. Be Aware! Asking questions – both comfortable & uncomfortable ones – will invariably give answers. Write them down. This input is essential to move on to the next stage, which is being aware. Many a time it is the total lack of awareness and sometimes complete unconsciousness about issues that made us act the way we did.

3. Acknowledge! Once we are aware of how we act, how we react and how we respond, we need to acknowledge. This is very difficult for it is a slap to our ego and inner critic. Resistance is sure to occur as the mind will protest against its loss of power. Persist and move on. Accepting our failings and imperfections is a great shift to reach the next level of awareness.

4. Forgive! Forgiveness is a great thing. First, forgive ourselves, for, it is our birthright!! In fact, there is no substitute for forgiveness. There is a certain magic that happens when we truly forgive ourselves. It is the safety valve that helps us release the pain of negative emotions, past grudges, emotional baggage and mental stress. Once you forgive yourself, others automatically are forgiven!!

5. Commitment and willingness! Both play a huge role when we are making the choice to change our lives. It doesn't just happen, and it certainly doesn't happen while we're waiting around feeling sorry for ourselves and waiting for our ship to come in. Eliminate negative thoughts, self doubts and begin to move forward. When we remove mental clutter, we have more space in our hearts for new things, worthwhile things. Change needs work; daily work and daily strength.

6. Gratitude! We all face adversity in life. However, it's not the misfortune, but how we respond to it that will determine the joy and happiness in our lives. During tough times, do we spend too much time feeling sorry for ourselves, or can we, with gratitude learn how to dance in the rain? When we choose not to focus on what's missing from our lives but are grateful for the abundance that's present, we experience heaven on earth.

Thus we become our own alchemists, transmuting ourselves from base metal into precious gold, transforming our suffering into conscious awareness, and misery and disaster into enlightenment. Signing off toasting to our success in the new year - Each day and in everyway may we become better and better! :)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Parachute Paradigm

Parachutes have always fascinated me. Not because I love high adrenalin activities; far from that, I am acrophobic - I do have an inordinate fear of heights! What fascinates me is the fact that it works only when it is open. A closed parachute is a dysfunctional one. No wonder Anthony J. D΄Angelo says in The College Blue Book, “Minds are like parachutes; they only function when open.” What a brilliantly drawn analogy!

I read about a parachute story that is doing the rounds in the internet - of Charles Plumb, a US Naval Academy graduate, who was a jet fighter pilot in Vietnam. After 75 combat missions, his plane was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile. Plumb ejected and parachuted into enemy hands. Captured, he spent 6 years in a communist Vietnamese prison. On surviving the ordeal he lectured on lessons learned from that experience.

One day, when Plumb and his wife were at a restaurant, a man came up and said, "You're Plumb! You flew jet fighters in Vietnam from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. You were shot down!"

"How in the world did you know that?" asked Plumb. "I packed your parachute," the man replied. Plumb gasped in surprise and gratitude.

The man shook his hand and said, "I guess it worked!" Plumb assured him, "It sure did. If your chute hadn't worked, I wouldn't be here today."

Plumb couldn't sleep that night, thinking about that man. He kept pondering what his saviour might have looked like in a Navy uniform - a Dixie cup hat, a bib in the back, and bell bottom trousers. "I wonder how many times I might have seen him and not even said good morning, how are you or anything else because, you see, I was a fighter pilot and he was just a sailor."

Plumb thought of the many hours the sailor had spent on a long wooden table in the bowels of the ship, carefully weaving the shrouds and folding the silks of each chute, holding in his hands each time the fate of someone he didn't know.

Now, Plumb asks his audience, "Who's packing your parachute?" Everyone has someone who provides what they need to make it through the day. Plumb also points out that he needed many kinds of parachutes when his plane was shot down over enemy territory- he needed his physical parachute, his mental parachute, his emotional parachute, and his spiritual parachute. He called on all these supports before reaching safety.

Now, the analogy between the parachute & the mind as well as the anecdote from Charles Plumb's life brings to fore three prime questions:

Are our minds like the functional parachutes? Are we keeping them open, so that we can absorb new information and think / respond differently? Experience has taught me that we need to keep our minds open and let in change, like a whiff of fresh air. The moment we stop resisting change, we get into the flow and groove of things. And things do fall into place, beautifully.

Are we acknowledging the little cogs in our wheel, those who pack our parachutes? It is not only the people, but each and every event, circumstance and tribulation is worth thanking. For, the more gratefully thoughtful and thoughtfully grateful we are, the more we make room for better things in life.

Are our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual parachutes in top gear? Do we exercise and take care of this temple of our body? Do we find time to relax and unwind and keep out mental faculties  sharp? Do we communicate effectively? Or do we bottle up our emotions? Do we do things that nurture our spirit? Do we get in touch with our higher consciousness?

We need to do all the three... to be wholesome people who can make a world of difference - whatever, wherever, whenever, however we can! :)

Go Wild, Go Green

It has always been a dream to write and see it published. Imagine my surprise when I could just do that and that too in Asian Traveller, October 2009 edition. I owe my profound thanks to Praveen and Suraj who made this dream come true… And of course, to Aathira, my daughter, through whom these contacts came to be…

It is truly a deliriously happy moment! :) and am so very grateful for the wonderful doors of opportunities being opened for me….

Photo credit: Praveen Muraleedharan Pillai

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Glory Of Pallavur

My first memory of Pallavur, my maternal village dates back to the late 60s when we moved in from Valparai, in the Anamallais. Those were times when the naxalite movement was gathering steam and a few landlords received letters of threat. As a child, it amused me to hear adults talk in hushed tones about those letters written in 'blood'. Pallavur, a tiny village southeast of Palakkad, was then a non-descript hamlet with dusty, pot-holed roads. Though located at an almost mid-point on the Kollengode - Alathur road, there were hardly any buses plying down the road. Life was quiet, the place serene. Truly time stood still.

Occasional hustles and bustles lent quaint allure to this charming rustic life. These were when the traditional festivals were celebrated with caparisoned elephants, pomp and splendour at the Tripallavurappan temple - the Aarattu in March - April & the Seventh Day Navaratri festival. These are held to propitiate Lord Shiva, the presiding deity. Mentioned in history as one of the 108 Shiva temples of Kerala, it is believed that Khara (of Ramayana fame) installed the idol by his teeth. Hence, the name Pallavur. No toddy or liquor shops are seen within two kilometres of this temple. Something uniquely divine indeed.

The precincts of this temple saw the Pallavur Trio of Appu Marar, Manian Marar & Kunjukutta Marar begin their journey of acclaim, catapulting Pallavur into limelight with their temple tala ensembles of Chendamelam, Thayambaka & Panchavadyam. These are highly developed forms of art with Panchavadyam leading the rest by virtue of synchronization of different instruments in different pitches into a thrilling crescendo of percussion music. It is only in Kerala that we find such a wide array of percussion instruments in use.

The Kanniyar Kali was another great draw. Coinciding with the holiday season in May it invited the migrants to get back home for the festivities. This thorough rustic folk art form is performed only in certain pockets, to the east of Palakkad district. With its fast moving steps, lively music, lyrics laced with humour & satire and accompanying drum beats, it was wholesome entertainment for people before the advent of the electronic media.

The seventies & eighties found Pallavur taking a giant stride in the path of progress. The CBSE School run by Chinmaya Mission made its presence felt in the educational scenario, easing the travails of many students who had to travel 8-10 kilometres struggling against inadequate transport facilities. The visits of Swami Chinmayanda, his impressive entourage and his brilliant lectures left lasting impressions in the minds of people.

The shortest route from Palakkad to the lush Nelliampathy hills via Pallavur opened in the nineties. This expanded Pallavur's horizons further. With asphalted roads, came more transport facilities. The Pallavur Trio standing head and shoulders above the others, were keenly sought after for festivals. Awards and accolades came in search of them. And every time their names were printed in the vernacular and English media, Pallavur lapped it all up with immense pride.

We waited eagerly for our local festivals to hear and relish the magic of the fingers of our favourite Trio. Appu Marar, the eldest, was a genius of his own kind. While performing Panchavadyam, he managed with ease, the Thimila or Edakka. At the Elanji Thara Melam, during the Thrissur Pooram festival, he revelled at the Chenda. Well-versed in Karnatic music, he displayed fine musical sense and rhythm. Crowds went into rapture while hearing him play the 1960s evergreen Malayalam hit 'Thechi Mandaram Tulasi' in Edakka. Keenly interested in Sopana Sangeetham, he played the Edakka mellifluously as accompaniment. A perfect guru to his younger brothers, he watched with joy and pride their immense success.

Manian Marar was also quite adept at many of the temple percussion instruments like his elder brother, but made a mark with his expertise in the Thimila. Kunju Kutta Marar, who had a wonderful sense of humour, on the other hand was unsurpassed at the Chenda. Chenda is considered to be an 'asura vadyam' but the Pallavur brothers, gracefully infused music into it.

Today, Pallavur is teeming with life. Every three minutes, a bus plies up or down the road. The verdant paddy fields, once a sight to behold, are a rarity. Houses have sprung up, blotting the landscape. Agricultural produce has dwindled and coconut produce halved. Cable television has entered homes but pay channels are yet to make inroads. Agraharams, around the temple are without the Brahmin populace; many have gone in search of greener pastures.

And the Trio, on whose glory Pallavur basked, is there no more. Death snatched all the three within a span of 18 months, the last being Appu Marar, who passed away on 9th December, 2002. By then, this Mela Acharya had regaled his audiences for 47 Thrissur Poorams and 60 Nemmara Velas. Their void can never be filled up. But Pallavur will continue to savour the glory of these stalwarts - for they have lent our village's name for the style they created - the Pallavur style - and left it for posterity. Pallavur and the lovers of these temple arts are sure of it to stand the test of time.

(This piece was written in December 2002 when a sense of loss overpowered me – as a tribute to the Pallavur Brothers, on Appu Marar's death.)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Obamu, Obamu!!!

The Japanese have coined a new word which means persevere with optimism, ignoring all obstacles. And guess what the word is? OBAMU! The Japanese Teachers’ Network in Kitakyushu has been credited with coining the word and its definition, a great hit with the youth especially.

Obamu: (v.) To ignore inexpedient and inconvenient facts or realities, think “Yes we can, Yes we can,” and proceed with optimism using those facts as an inspiration    (literally, as fuel). It is used to elicit success in a personal endeavour. One explanation holds that it is the opposite of the Japanese word kobamu. (which means to refuse, reject, or oppose).

In a complex world ridden with  issues and the media reports (truthful reporting!) sensationalising happenings all over the world, it is natural for people to feel negative and pessimistic. This has always affected people especially youngsters. How can one counter this and move from pessimism to optimism?

One needs to identify adversity. What thoughts or ideas come to mind like recordings played in your head? Be aware of these thoughts. Are they realistic or are they imaginary? What are the consequences of irrational thoughts and fears? Challenge their usefulness.

Thoughts make things. So the key is to entertain positive thoughts. After all we don’t lose anything by entertaining them; and in fact we have everything to gain! So thanks to Obama let’s move on chanting this magical word! :)

:) …. OBAMU! OBAMU!! Yes, we can! Yes, we can!!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

This Works For Me

One of the basic premises that we as human beings must nurture in us is that each day we grow and evolve into better people. That is why I simply love this affirmation - “Each day and in every way I am becoming better and better.”

It said that growth happens in spirals, working its way gradually into the deepest core of our beings until it finally becomes part of who we are. So very true. Now I am working at making this a part of me. Of late, the thought that comes to my mind when I really don't know what to do or what not to do, is this:

"If this is what God wants, then this is what I want.
Whatever God sends my way is for my ultimate good.
He has my interests at heart much more profoundly than I ever can.
Therefore I joyously accept everything that You send my way,
for all of it is an instrument of Your grace to help me void of my karma,
and move me into eternal health and happiness."

When I let go and let God, I also enjoy a huge sense of expansion and relief. I also feel good that I am aware of my thoughts and focus and there is absolutely no tension / stress etc. I feel there is a shift in my consciousness and it is doing me a world of good.

I am learning the art of living... by living in the Now, the Present!! No wonder, present means gift ... Somebody said, yesterday is history and tomorrow is a mystery. Let us therefore focus on today, the present, a gift ... Better late, than never, right? :)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

To Read or not to Read!

I hate news papers! What a transformation!!

As a young child, hooked to reading I used to wait eagerly for the newspaper man to deliver it. Thankfully we used to get both The Hindu and The Mathrubhumi newspapers and so we would share it - my grandfather and I. And I remember how I pored over newspapers and read each and every column in every page.

Today too much of it remains same – we get both the newspapers. All of us at home clamour to read it. I, however, don’t chew and digest newspapers like before! The panache with which news items are sensationalized has disgusted me. The Hindu appeals to me even today, thanks to its ethics and ethos. And I sincerely hope they will retain this individuality even in the changing times.

Today’s newspaper was particularly upsetting. The Mathrubhumi carried out a horrific picture of a Palestine girl’s head in the midst of rubbles due to an Israeli attack on a school. Don’t miss the placing of the picture – the left hand top corner of the front page! How can one ever read the newspaper with out glancing at the photograph? It is shameful for a newspaper of the stature of Mathrubhumi to have done this. And for a newspaper that evolved in the crucible of the freedom movement, and conceived as its mouthpiece, what a fall! K. P Kesava Menon, the editor of the newspaper for over 55 years would have been a sad man, had he been alive today.

Yes, we need to highlight the brutality of the Israeli attack.
Yes, we need to highlight how man has debased himself.
Yes, we need to highlight how we have forgotten ethics and fight with unequals.
Yes, we need to drive home our angst & helplessness when innocent children become victims.
And yes, it is also true that a single picture can convey what even a thousand words cant.

But is this picture needed? Why do we have to sup on horrors? What did we gain by such gory details? Do we ever think about what the picture can do to the psyche of adults and more importantly children? Through these graphic details what are we teaching them? Even during the Mumbai attack, the “live” coverage that the media indulged in came for scathing attacks from too many quarters that they had to think about a kind of code of conduct while reporting.

Even otherwise as an educator I have noticed how “violent” our young generation is in their thoughts, words and deeds. Why shouldn’t they be when our media – both print and visual – brings it all into their sitting rooms in all its ghastly depictions? Truly the time has come to teach these impressionable minds NVC – non violence in communication. That can happen only if the minds are free from violence in thoughts, from violence they see around them, thanks to such explicit pictures.

When will we awake to this reality and allow our children to metamorphose into adults naturally? Let us not inject the creed of violence into their blood streams, for God’s sake! This we owe it to them as they are going to be tomorrow’s generation and the nation’s promise!!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Welcome the New Year!

“But all endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time.” – Mitch Albom in his novel, The Five People you Meet in Heaven.

The winged chariot of time has taken us to the threshold of yet another year. And we do know that this ending is a beginning - the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009. So, Adieu 2008 and Welcome 2009!

According to Roman mythology, January gets its name from Janus, the God of gates and doors, guardian of Exits and Entrances. ‘Janus’ is of Latin origin and means gateway. Romans worshipped Janus at every event that marked a beginning for them, like birthday, marriage, harvesting and any other kind of ending. Janus was revered so much that his dual faced image adorned the city gates and Roman coins. It is due to this unenviable position that he also got the remarkable privilege of being named as the first month of the year!

Depicted with a two-faced head, each looking in the opposite directions – one looking at what lies ahead and one looking at what lies behind, Janus is truly symbolic of the introspection one has to do when at the threshold of a beginning and an ending. Contemplate on the happenings of the year gone by and assimilate the wisdom gleaned from them while looking forward to an exciting new one. How can you make the year a truly exciting one?

Eight Gifts That Don't Cost anything - am sure these, practised diligently, will ensure a fabulous 2009 for us...

But, we must REALLY listen. No interrupting, no daydreaming, no planning our response. Just listen.

Be generous with appropriate hugs, kisses, pats on the back and handholds. Let these small actions demonstrate the love we have for family and friends

Clip cartoons. Share articles and funny stories. Our gift will say, "I love to laugh with you."

It can be a simple "Thanks for the help" note or a full sonnet. A brief, handwritten note may be remembered for a lifetime, and may even change a life.

A simple and sincere, "You look great in red," "You did a super job", or "That was a wonderful meal" can make someone's day.

Every day, go out of our way to do something kind.

There are times when we want nothing better than to be left alone. Be sensitive to those times and give the gift of solitude to others.

The easiest way to feel good is to extend a kind word to someone, really it's not that hard, to say, "Hello" or "Thank You".

We give and receive gifts each and every day. Gifts do not have to be monetary in value. How many gifts can we give this year?

Let us enrich ourselves by giving abundantly, sincerely and selflessly…
Wish you a great 2009, the best you have ever had! May you have abundant joy, wholesome health, magnetic and fulfilling relationships, serene tranquility, burgeoning wealth and boundless enthusiasm!! HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!