Meditation, yoga and mindfulness in the mountains of Thailand
Exactly one month left until graduation and the graduation dinner for secondyears is already over (blogpost about it is coming up soon)! Iam taking a very deep breath while writing this sentence. It is almost unbeliavable how fast time goes by! Secondyears have officially finished all their classes and will be swimming in books and notes during study break which starts on Monday. And before we know it is time for the final exams... I will be getting throughh the next weeks with a massive pile of notebooks and subject guides on my table and my favorite cup of tea. Oh, and I will be continuing my meditation habit that I finally restarted during Project Week. :) Without a doubt this years Project Week was one of the most unforgettable memories I made during my time at Li Po Chun United World College. Together with a group of students and Kalpana, our university guidance counselor, we went to a small organic farm named “Mindful Farm” 75 km in the north-west of Chiang Mai to live and work there together with the owners Pinan, a former Thai monk and his Japanese wife Noriko and their little baby girl, Nobara. Waking up in the lush green mountains of Thailand and doing daily farm work brought us closer with nature and also ourselves.
I will be writing about this unforgettable week in a different format compared to how I previously wrote my blogposts. That is not because I am attempting to try out something new or revolutionaize my writing style (though that does sound like a very appealing idea to me), but it is because there are so many moments about which I want to write that I believe it would only be fair to you to do so using headlines, otherwise this post would seem like an endless flow of text :D
Our journey started with an unforgettable three hour ride on the back of trucks that were following the snake-like roads through the mountains. Bangkok airport had already given us a warm welcome, but the friendliness of Pinan, the former monk whom we would live with and his friends could not have been surprassed. We were grreeted with heartfelt smiles and "Sawadeekaah"s before hopping on the trucks that would take us to his farm. It was a week filled with serenity: being in a peaceful environment, free from distractions, technology, social networks, comfortable beds, western toilets, non-vegetarian diets, junk and processed foods and outside contact, yoga and mindfulness. Mindfulness, a word used both in connection with Buddhism, as well as in a secular sense, means to be in the present moment. In that regard, Mindful Farm was not only a place where we planted vegetables and fruits to nourish the body, but also where we had the chance to plant seeds of mindfulness to tend for our hearts and spirits. Pinan always told us how mindfulness can help us see what parts of our mind may need to be “weeded”, and "which seeds need to be watered so that they can grow into peaceful flowers for us."
Living with Pinan, we learnt how mindfulness can be put into every day practice and help us cultivate positive thoughts and attitudes, just like we helped him cultivate plants. The the pace of our days was much slower but far more fulfilling. The sparse but yet clean environment made us put our material life into a totally different perspective. As a method for cultivating mindfulness, meditation and yoga were vital parts of our daily life at Mindful Farm, which emphasized work in harmony with others, for others and with respect for others and the environment around us. The days went by with an absolutely wonderful (and quite different!) schedule: We started our days at 6.30 am with a kidney cleansing herbal tea by the fireplace which we set up. Following that we warmed our sleepy bodies up with morning yoga, instructed by Nonhlanhla, a certified professional yogi and now friend.
During this Project Week we were expected to rise above all the insignificant (and material) things in our lies and move to a more philosophical and intellectual plane where nothing more matters than learning some of the most essential lessons of life by living it. And we did! However, this journey of insight did not come without a challenge.
I had been reading about mindfulness before coming to Hong Kong and Thailand as well. One of my goals before LPC had always been to establish a daily meditation and yoga routine (which I did manage to keep up for a little while, but unfortunately lost track off in the midst of the daily LPC busy-ness) Having been entirely out of this routine for a while and having spent the last years in a highly stressful environment where a lack of access to technology and internet is treated like an apocalyptic event and where our minds are never given a rest, meditating was my biggest challenge during this week. Whenever both Pinan and Nonhlanhla instructed us to relax and just “watch our thoughts pass by”, to “let them go and not chase after them” during meditation my mind would always do the opposite, it would not stop thinking. In Buddhism and Mindfulness, mastering control over one’s breath and thoughts is the path to relaxation and happiness. The breath is regarded as the direct connection between body and mind, and meditation is the way to strengthen this connection and make us more aware of it. Sitting silently for 30 minutes and not focusing on anything but one’s breath is doubtless a challenge, especially after having done exhausting physical labor for most of the day! My mind had no idea how to be still. Going from not meditating for a very long time to suddenly having to meditate for 30 minutes felt like hiking up the Himalayas without previous exercise and going from sea level directly to the top – we were hit by altitude sickness! It was the same for meditating. Our thoughts completely hit us – I know for sure that mine did. I would have all the thoughts I had been attempting to suppress for the past weeks rise up like a lava fountain. Trying to stop my mind from thinking was like trying to stop the wind – it seemed almost impossible – at first! In the Eastern teaching the mind is described as being like a drunken monkey bitten by a scorpion because, just as a monkey leaps from branch to branch, so the mind leaps from one thing to another, constantly distracted and busy. So, when you come to sit still and try to quiet your mind, you find all this manic activity going on and it seems insanely noisy. It is actually nothing new, just that now you are becoming aware of it, whereas before you were immersed in it, unaware that such chatter was so constant. At the beginning of the week there was lots of twisting around and changing sitting positions but ultimately all members of the group were proud to have made improvements in their control of the breath and sitting position. I cannot describe how happy I was to have had managed to meditate, to relax, to let my thoughs pass by until my mind would clear and to immerse myself in the sounds of nature up to the point where I would not notice time passing by and Pinan’s bell sounded like a surprise when it rang and brought us back to reality. Pinan made the experience of meditation particularly interesting for us. After each session he taught us about the value of meditation and explained different aspects of Buddhism to us. His knowledge on the matter was impressive – he was a monk for over 20 years – and his candid and personal style of lecturing was captivating.
Saluting the sun with yoga
Each morning, at the crack of dawn we settled in the mediation area for Yoga. We welcomed a spiritual calmness into our body, minds and souls whilst simultaneously welcoming the sun, its warmth and its light into our days while it rised up as we offered Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskara) during our Yoga routine. It was a moment to be in peace with nature and our environment. Not so much of any religious practice but rather learning to be in symbiosis with the nature and respecting Earth for what it has to offer us. It was essentially learning to be "mindful" of nature, our environment and people around us.
Each session began with a focus on breathing, a straight spine, and comfortable cross-legged sitting in the lotus pose. We began by chanting three “ohms,” as well as another opening yoga chant.
Omkaaram Bindu Samyuktam Nityam Dhyaayanti Yoginaha Kaamadam Mokshadam Chaiva Omkaaraaya Namo Namaha
Om Namah Sivaaya Gurave Satchidananda Moortaye Nishprapanchaaya Shanthaya Niraalambaaya Tejase
Because of Yoga's ancient roots, chants (or mantras) are offered in Sanskrit (the ancient language of India), however their meaning is said to be universal as Sanskrit is the language of the heart. Chanting acts to shift the consciousness of the individual practicing the chant to a higher level of vibration. This in turn brings us closer to our Source or Higher Self – the aspect of ourselves that remains eternal – and leaves the practitioner filled with peace and feeling calm and centred. Upon “checking in” with ourselves, and relaxing our shoulders, we began eye exercises. Envisioning a clock, we moved our eyes to focus on each number in both a clockwise and anti-clockwise direction. It is believed that consistent practice of this exercise can improve vision.
Next, we began by relaxing our necks in preparation for our sun salutation, and following poses. Our poses focused on upper, lower, and complete back stretches, forward bends, and inversions. Although challenging for some, we stimulated our cores, increased our flexibility, and eased our minds. Our exercises warmed our bodies, and in preparation for our ten minutes of deep relaxation we tensed our entire body, from the tips of our toes to the muscles in our face. This prepared us for the relaxation that followed, allowing us to focus on every part of our body, and the relaxation of those parts as we lay mindfully. The purpose of the exercise was to focus on every part of our body and appreciate laying on our backs without doing anything. Yoga also turned out much easier than I expected, particularly as I had not practiced it in about a year. There were only very few poses which I found difficult and which took my even breathing away. I had retained most of my flexibility and with each passing day during this week, the repeated yoga poses became easier and easier, until I was able to breath in and out of them with confidence and without having to focus my attention only on my breathing: I was finally able to truly focus on the feeling in each part of my body, how it twisted, how it felt, how it stretched, how I truly felt like I was connecting with nature when we did our “suns salutations” to the – fittingly – beautifully rising morning sun, how my mind kept quiet during our chants and only let itself immerse in the calming sounds of our voices and “ohhhms.” We finished our morning session with a short and beautiful closing chant that sounded like the wind was softly carrying the vibrations of our voices away: Lokaa Samastaah... Sukhino Bhavantu... (May the entire universe be filled with Peace and Joy)
Vegan for a week!
One of the goals of this project was to explore the benefits of organic farming, and as learners in the Mindful Farm we did not only study the necessary income and process behind it, but we also had the opportunity to taste and evaluate the outcome, which was absolutely mindblowing. There was more than just an evident contrast between the canteen diet which our bodies were used to and the Thai vegan cuisine that we discovered that week: a drop in consumption of saturated fat, prejudicial cholesterol and animal protein combined with higher intakes of fibre, vitamins and antioxidants (as well as coriander, to most-of-us’ consternation). Processed bread, transparent milk and fake shiny apples were substituted by fruits, cereals and vegetables that had been picked from the surrounding fields that very same morning by one of us; the very proof of the aliveness of an environment surrounding us.
The magic of our meals in Thailand did not only come from the great quality of the ingredients. Pinan and Noriko showed us how to appreciate the food in our dishes and how to take time eating them... and making them: Creating compost, cleaning the gardens, preparing the soil, planting seeds, collecting crops, cooking…We headed from the fields, where we had been picking fruits, vegetables and herbs to cook with, straight to the kitchen which was a cozy hut made out of wood and mud. The smell of fresh herbs mixed with the crips flavor of burning wood was in the air. All over the kitchen floor were students sitting the ground: One group was shaving the papaya into shreds and dicing the eggplants and carrots for the papaya salad, while another one was mixing the dough for pumpkin and cinnamon bred. On the big wooden table covered in banana leaves another group was squeezing tightly packed cloth-balls of crushed soya bean as they made soy milk. The sticky rice was already on the stove waiting to get fully cooked.A great sense of jubilation was in the air, everyobdy was working in perfect harmony, preparing the dinner that would later be shared and enjoyed by us at sunset. We all were busy in our own ways, with smiles on our faces and a peaceful glow in oureyes but a concentrated control in their hands. It was a beautiful moment: People from all around the world, sitting in a handmade wooden hut in the mountains of Chiang Mai on the farm of a former Thai Monk and his Japanese wife, connecting with each other as they cooked vegan Thai food. Much hard work was needed to bring the aliments to our stomachs and it was wonderful lesson that tought us not to take for granted the privilege of having a warm dish three times a day.
We spent two of our afternoons harvesting garlic – a first for all of us! After hopping on the back of the pick-up trucks and arriving at a wonderfully green hill covered with little umbrellas that almost resembled an art piece, with people resembling colorful little dots. The garlic fields were extensive – greenish brown leaves of the same height covering the area as wide as the eye could see, framed with mountains and lush forests in the background. The farmers were incredibly welcoming and each greeted us with a big smile and a “Sawadeekaah!” After the introduction, Pinan told us about the importance of garlic – a vegetable this region is known for. Growing garlic is – to some extent - an act of faith, since we don’t know how big the bulb is until the moment of truth when it is taken out of the soil and it is only ready to harvest when the lower leaves start to turn brown. The process of picking garlic is very easy, but at the same time much trickier than expected. The garlic has to be pulled from as close to the bulb as possible. If not, the leaves rip but the bulb stays underground and needs to be dug out with a bamboo stick. Even though the clove may be small, the bulb is now several inches deep with a strong root system that attempts to resist the pulling. After pulling out the bulb from the soil with a lovel “plop”, we shake free the bulbs from the remaining soil and neatly pile them up beside us so that the piles can be tied with a rope and loaded onto the truck. The language “barrier” did not pose any obstacle to our communication and we all communicated using our hands and feet, pointing to things in order to learn their Thai name and share the English one. After a few hours of picking garlic in the sun we received a very sweet surprise: Thai tea ice-cream, and sticky rice with banana, wrapped up in a leaf. The kindness of the farmers was wonderfully overwhelming and we left the fields with a bag full of fresh bananas and big smiles on our faces. On another garlic harvesting day we were even invited to have lunch with the local villagers who kindly and happily shared their meal with us.
Well, this paragraph is not dedicated to Patrick Swayze and his dancing skills, but rather to an unforgettable moment we encountered while helping Pinan build houses made from mud. It was a very hot afternoon and all of us were tied up with our work until we all notes that piles of freshly made mud were flying in the air as feet stomped through the mushy layers of soil sprayed with the sporadic drips of water. An obscure scenery, some might say. And, well, it kind of was. Somewhat hesitating, the group (consisting of Venus, Joanne, Anton, Obinna and Magnus) had begun tentatively dipping their feet in the brown, dirty, muddy mud. The dipping had soon turned into actual stomps and before they knew it, they were chanting in uniform harmony to the rhythm of the feet (the chant was a Norwegian pirate song from the in Norway well-known children series “Kaptein Sabeltann,” which translated to “Captain Sabertooth”). The site almost lit up as joyous faces joined the chant with groans and cheerful cries that broke the silence of the dry hot air. All around the rest of the people present turned their faces to the sporadic performance, gave a smile of recognition and then proceeded with their respective tasks. The hot sun shone on their sweating faces, while the cool and wet mud soothed their feet. A feeling of unity with the world around and the universe filled them all - the muddancers as well as the spectators. In accordance with the Buddhist teachings from the night before they were ever so present. For a moment the world stopped spinning. Through the rest of the day, we all repeatedly re-lived that sense of freedom. What could be more wonderful than dancing in the mud with your friends?
We also learned how to make compost out of the raw leftovers of our meals to provide fertile soil for the plants - a wonderful hands-on lesson about the importance of respecting the nature and the circulatory system through which Pinan barely generates any trash on his farm. Everything that is not eaten is reused as compost and hence provides nutrient rich soil to farm and harvest new plants and vegetables.
Babies and giggles everywhere
After our arrival at Mindful Farms we quickly made friendships with the already present volunteers, out of which Pavla and Rita are probably the ones who melted our heart the most. Pavla, originally from the Czech Republic is married to a German and actually lives rather close to my hommetown. She became a friend and her cute little daughter Rita managed to make us laugh and smile everyday. No matter what we would be doing, her loud giggles and unsatisfiable curiosity touched all of us and having this little sunshine around felt just as normal as harvesting the fresh fruits for the next meal.
Nobara, Pinan's daughter was just as cute as Rita, however both were entire opposites of each other, not only in appearance but also in character. While Rita would be jumping up and down with loud laughter and giggles, running around the fields and sit on the floor, completely carefree, and covering her face with food in an attempt to pick out the vegetables she likes on her plate, Nobara would be quietly sitting and observing, picking little plants and barely spoke. Though we were usually not very close to young children and babies, Agus (Argentina), Karen (Colombia) and me developed a particularly weaknesses for the two, leading us to end up playing with them all day, carrying the two on our shoulders while they were happily bouncing up and down and even accompanying them to the river and other little adventures. Nobara particularly fell in love with our suitcases and sleeping bags on the day we were packing our suitcases, and upon asking us about their purpose and learning that we used them to sleep and store our belongings, promptly declared them as "home." She was absolutely lovely and the perfect little farm girl, despite her 4-years of age, she was fluent in Japanese, Thai and English and even knew how to pick garlic and wash her clothes in the river by herself!
Cupping and Thai Massage
On the afternoon of our last full day at Mindful Farms, we learned Thai relaxation techniques including cupping, wooden tap massage (Tok Sen) and traditional face masks.
The wooden/tap massage acts as a stress reliever. It is said that the origin of this style of bodywork is originally credited to the farmers of Thailand. After a hard day's work in the paddy fields, their tired bodies often needed some serious therapy. Not having access to all the stretching and compression techniques of Traditional Thai massage, the farmers evolved a more simple technique. A wooden hammer and mallet is tapped along the Sen with a steady staccato rhythm creating a vibrational feel, helping to open the channels and free any myofascial adhesions or other chronic pain disorders. Legend says that the best Tok Sen mallet and hammer comes from the wood of a tamarind tree struck by lighting. Once carved, a Buddhist monk blesses it, giving it special healing powers.
Cupping therapy was one of the most interesting practices Pinan let us try. It is a form of alternative medicine in which cups are placed on the skin to create suction using a vacuum. The cups can be made of a variety of materials, including glass, bamboo, earthenware. The suction of the cups increases the blood flow of the area below the cup. This is said to promote the healing of a broad range of medical ailments and to help push toxins out of the body. It dates back to ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern cultures! One of the oldest medical textbooks in the world, the Ebers Papyrus, describes how the ancient Egyptians were using cupping therapy in 1,550 B.C.
The trip concluded with a wonderful day spent in Chiang Mai, visiting the city's major attractions, emerging ourselves in Thai culture and trying local delicacies. One of the most breathtaking places we visited was Wat Phra That Doi Sithep, one of the most sacred temples of the city. The temple was established in 1383 under King Keu Naone and enjoys a mystical birth story. According to the myth visiting Sukhothai monk instructed the Lanna king to establish a temple with the twin of a miraculous Buddha relic (enshrined at Wat Suan Dok). The relic was then mounted on a white elephant, which wandered the mountain until it died at this spot, interpreted as the 'chosen' location. The temple is reached by a strenuous, 306-step staircase, intended as an act of meditation. (For the less fit, there's a tram for 20B. The one we took - now that does not imply anything! We simply did not know about the existence of the stairs until our arrival at the top) The 1st-floor terrace documents this history of the temple with a shrine to Sudeva, the hermit who lived on the mountain, and a statue of the white elephant who carried the Buddha relic up the mountain. On the 2nd-floor terrace is the picturesque golden chedi that enshrines the relic; it is topped by a five-tiered umbrella in honour of the city's independence from Burma and its union with Thailand. We walked around the temple, watching the monks perform their prayers and let the calm and peaceful atmosphere sink in.
Withoud a doubt my absolute favorite place in the entire city, however, was the Royal Ratchaphruek Garden, nestled in a lush mountain landscape. It felt lik walking through one of Monet's flower paintings with a tropical twist to it. Beautiful and delicate artwork and architecture placed inbetween thousands of beds of flowers... simply heaven for me. The area was the site for the Royal Flora Expo 2006, the world most beautiful international horticultural exposition. This exhibition commemorated the auspicious occasion of the 60th anniversary of the crowning of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. TThe garden has been carefully maintained and developed, and is a splendid resource for agrotourism, as well as being a learning and research centre for the public. But enough words, see for yourself: