Gentle India:Yoga

P1050869“This is your wakeup call Ma’am. It is six o’clock. Have a nice day,” the quiet voice on the phone tells me. With a quick hot shower and a cup of tea in the still, dark, morning our day begins. Sunlight is beginning to break its way through the tall trees surrounding our cabin in the woods as we walk a couple hundred feet along a rock path that leads to a large open pavilion. A few yoga mats are laid out. One is for me. A small candle with a ring of marigold and rose petals around it burns in the corner.

I silently sit down on my mat, cross my legs, and breathe in the smell of burning incense. A small thin man wearing a turban strides around the pavilion swinging a vessel of smoking eucalyptus leaves to keep the mosquitoes away. The only sound is the sweet song of birds––singing in dozens of different voices. Am I awake? I feel I as though I’m in a mystical dream world.

“Please sit comfortably. Make sure you are comfortable. Keep your back and neck straight. Close your eyes gently. Be aware of your surroundings,” the slow quiet lilt of Doctor P., the young woman who is the in-house physician of Ayruvedic medicine and our yoga master this morning, intones. How can I not be aware of the beauty of early morning all around me?

“Be aware of your body,” she says next. Aware I am. My thighs are burning and the rest of my body trembles with awareness of muscles I didn’t know I had before I came to this place a few days ago. Now I’ve been here long enough to know that soon I’ll forget my initial discomfort of sitting with my legs crossed in front of me.

My 1½-hour practice, that was long and difficult when we first arrived, comes to a close too soon. “With a little smile on your face, open your eyes with a few blinks,” Doctor P. says.

It’s not hard to smile. I open my eyes and the pavilion is flooded with sunlight, the early morning mist is disappearing into the forest and my day unfolds.

After a breakfast of fresh fruit, porridge and yoghurt Ross and I take a long walk through the farm past the greenhouses and some other sheds where the cows sleep at night.P1050874
Farther on there is a little Hindu shrine to Ganesh, a god of good luck that some of the workers decorate with chrysanthemums and pray in every morning.IMG_0491P1050878

My favourite spot is a small raised pavilion in the middle of the vegetable garden. It’s surrounded by bougainvillea and has a big mat on the floor with colourful handcrafted quilt and pillows to lean back on. Gentle breezes rustle the leaves in exotic trees at the edge of the garden and dozens of colourful birds call out to one another and  perform their little dances near the pavilion. It’s and ideal place for writing and sketching.P1050882

Ayruvedic principles, (arus=life; veda= science) including a vegetarian diet, herbal treatments (for me a message,) yoga and a no-alcohol-on-the-premises policy, in Shreyas retreat, near Bangalore, are a big healthy change, from my usual life style.

“This place is as good as it gets. Anywhere,” whispers Ross.

Gentle India is waiting for me to discover . P1050890

The Dance of the Red Necked Ostriches

P1040520 The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is full of wonder, especially at Christmas time. But some say the dance of the ostrich is the most beautiful dance of all in the animal kingdom.

We are in Kidepo National Park, Uganda,  a small area bordering South Sudan and Kenya. P1040509It is early morning and we have driven a long gravel road around zebras, a few elephants and through grim tsetse-fly-infested country to find the red-necked ostriches.  P1040548

Look. Finally. There they are.P1040520

Sixteen ostriches are behaving as though as though they are sugar plum fairies. Small heads and graceful long necks turn as they sense the danger we bring simply by being here. Soft, generously plumed bodies flutter and whirl. A few ballerina-like pointe steps are taken before their strong two-toed feet propel them into ten-foot strides.

And then they run. P1040514Who knows where we will find them next?

They live in nomadic groups in the Sahel, the area between the desert in northern Africa and the grassland in the south. They are the fastest birds on earth and they do not (as some popular stories suggest) stand and bury their heads in the sand when they are afraid. They run when they are in danger. Because the population of ostriches has been decreasing dramatically for the past two hundred years, we need to be concerned about them and work to protect existing populations.

I’ll think about the beautiful word we live in and the dance of the wild ostrich when we watch the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy this Christmas.

Best wishes to all for a happy holiday season.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hush Now. The Tree Lions Are Waking Up

If these lions could talk would they be able to tell me why they like to climb trees?No one else seems to know why.

This is one of two places on earth where lions climb trees and I’m here to ask questions. We are in the Ishasha Wilderness in the southwest section of the 2000 square kilometre Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda, bordering on the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Hush now.

See that thing with a black tip switching in the tall grasses?  That is a tail. The lions are waking up. It is five o’clock. The sun, a giant red ball in the mist, is sinking into the horizon. There are 20,000 African kob in Queen Elizabeth Park and it looks like they’ve all come to this spot. A few warthog families skitter around, thousands of savannah buffalo are on the perimeter, and the elephants are down by the river with the hippos.

Switch, switch, now two lions tails wave around in the tall grass.

One lion head pops up and looks around. In a few minutes the animal moves into a long slow stretch (you know it – the yoga Marjariasana pose or Cat pose.) Eventually she steels her way through the tall grasses to where another large head appears. This is the male. A beautiful, thick, dark mane outlines his face. He yawns and roars. The lion couple preen and socialize while their cub plays, and eventually they all get up and pad, with a purpose, to a gigantic Ficus tree. They climb it and settle down on its long, strong branches.

If the lions could talk would they tell me that they climb trees because they need to lie in the cool air above the hot grassland? (After all they have been sleeping and resting for twenty hours in the grass as the day gets hotter and hotter.) Or would they say they can no longer stand being bitten by the miserable tsetse flies that live in the grasses?

Maybe they would simply say they need to get a better view of their dinner.

The lion family we see is especially small – a large male, a female and their cub. Life has been difficult for them. Originally there were two cubs. The female lion, like other lionesses, in human terms is known to be a poor, indifferent mother, who leaves her cubs alone and prey to danger for long periods.

The big male, from his branch, scours the grassland to target kills, usually a weakling, in the hundreds of animals below the tree. The female, who is faster and more agile than the male, takes hunting orders from her man and sneaks down into the grassland. The male and his cub watch. When the kill is made, the male will take over and eat first. Then the female and other large animals will move in, and, at last, the young cub will have dinner. If he is lucky.

But it is not easy to take down a kob or buffalo. Yesterday we saw a young lion dragging his hind legs behind him as he crawled through the grass. Would he survive? Was his back broken by a buffalo? Would the park rangers and veterinarian be able to help him?

The lion, the world’s largest cat after the tiger, is in danger. In the past twenty years, hunting wild game and wars have added to precarious nature of life on the savannah and the lion population in Uganda has decreased by thirty to fifty per cent.

Tonight it is peaceful in Ishasha, Queen Elizabeth National Park. The wildlife in is protected; there is no hunting; the wars are finished. I’m thrilled to be here, to let nature be my guide, and to think about how we can live and work sustainably to protect nature.

“Look deep into nature then you will better understand everything.”  Albert Einstein