review

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Women in Ochre Robes:
Gendering Hindu Renunciation

Meena Khandelwal
SUNY Press 2004

Women in Ochre Robes, an ethnography of sanyasinis in Haridwar, north India, gives us a glimpse into the lives of women who have renounced their ordinary lives in order to pursue spiritual liberation full-time. Author and anthropologist Meena Khandelwal undertook the research as part of her doctoral thesis, but the book is not overly academic or dry to read. What makes Women in Ochre Robes so interesting is that Khandelwal includes her personal reflections as she studies the sanyasinis.

In a society where the ordinary goals for women are marriage, children, family, prosperity and sensual pleasure, there is a lot of tension between worldly responsibilities and otherworldly pursuits. Sanyasinis are always striking a balance between spiritual life and pragmatic goals, between being women and transcending gender. For example, Khandelwal explains how female renunciates often discourage other women from taking sanyas. ?While they themselves may be exceptions, it is important for ordinary people to first experience marriage and family life before they can succeed on the difficult path of celibacy and detachment. To take sanyas without being fully prepared or ?ripe? can be downright dangerous.?

Khandelwal focuses on two sanyasinis, both of whom have determined their lives in fairly radical ways. Anand Mata left her husband and a successful career as a school principal to follow the path of meditative solitude, choosing to live alone in a small, quiet ashram. Before meeting her, Khandelwal expected ?a fiercely independent, rigidly disciplined woman with fearsome and dramatic matted locks living as a recluse on the fringes of society,? but what she found was a short, ordinary-looking woman with a sweet face. Closeness develops between the two and the interviews turn into personal talks for Khandelwal?s own growth. Anand Mata tells her, ?This is not for your thesis, but so you will understand.? After a few visits, Anand Mata invites Khandelwal to stay with her in her rooms so she can understand more about sanyasinis by living with them. As Khandelwal serves and cleans, she sees how Anand Mata follows the path of devotion, accepting all who come to her with love.

The second woman Khandelwal focuses on is Baiji, a guru with two busy ashrams who had to resist her family?s wishes to marry in order to pursue her spiritual interests. ?Soft-spoken and quick to smile,? Baiji also has to be strict as she organizes all the details of the ashrams? activities, as well as looking after her devotees. Khandelwal was transformed from guest to integrated member of the community when she volunteered to work at the ashram. Her first task was sewing burlap bags into mattresses. Everyone works in the ashram, especially Baiji. As one of her devotees observes, ?Other mahatmas will have their disciples worship and serve them, but Baiji serves her disciples and does more work than anyone at the ashram.? Once when she was very tired, Baiji said to Khandelwal:?You must write in your thesis that sanyasins also get sleepy.?

Women in Ochre Robes shows how, in sanyas, a woman?s strength is her moral, spiritual and maternal nature. My own spiritual teacher always told me, ?Be a mother to all.? The women interviewed in the book give nourishment in many forms ? advice, especially for women who feel safer with a female guru, physical and spiritual food (prasad), even scolding as an act of motherly love. There is also a consensus that women are flexible ? they have less ego or pride to deal with than men. Anand Mata explains: ?Women are icons of surrender. It is easy for them to bow down to a younger man; but a young male will be reluctant to bow down even to an elderly sanyasini because his ego will come in the way. Eventually men will have to surrender like women do.?

In reading this book, I was reminded that the tensions of the worldly and otherworldly are present wherever you go and whatever spiritual commitment you make. Also, the intention and the goal are one and the same. I recommend this book to anyone interested in finding out more about sanyas ? it is full of helpful stories, information and advice. ? Swami Radhananda

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A Woman’s Path:
Women’s Best Spiritual Travel Writing

Lucy McCauley, Amy G. Carlson & Jennifer Leo, eds.
Travelers’ Tales 2003

A Woman?s Path is a gem of a little book. Before reading it, I had experienced many times the transformative potential of travel. However, I had never registered the act of travel as a potential catalyst for spiritual growth. As editor Lucy McCauley suggests, ?In the act of moving from one place to another, somehow a space is created where, if we?re lucky, a moment of clarity alights on us and offers a window into our natures and the nature of everything around us."

The book is filled with short, personal tales that capture these precious ?moments of clarity.? The stories themselves range from small, even habitual trips to life-changing odysseys. Anne Lamott shares a ?miracle moment? on a turbulent plane ride home from St. Louis where she is trapped between a stern Latvian woman and a seemingly fanatical right-wing Christian, both of whom by the end of the flight become her ?cousins.? Abigail Seymour tells us about a young, newly divorced woman who has run away from her life in New York to the unknown in Spain where she walks on the pilgrimage of Camino de Santiago not once but twice, undergoing an awesome self-realization. Maya Angelou describes her magical sojourn in Ghana, where her terror at crossing a shabby bridge connects her to the spirits of the past.

These stories are beautifully diverse and yet unified by the common thread of some kind of awakening. This is the ideal collection of little narrative jewels (the longest story is eleven pages) to accompany you on your own journey. The magical ingredients of hope, faith, trust, compassion and that special alchemy of Light woven into this collection of spiritual travel writing might form the talisman that could transform your dreary daily commute on the train into an opportunity for inspiration and connection. It did mine. ? Sikeena Karmali

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Breathing Space:
A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx

Heidi B. Neumark
Beacon Press 2003

Heidi Neumark?s Breathing Space thrums with energy. I came to the book seeking inspiration about what it means to live an active, engaged spiritual life, and that?s just what it gave me.

The book is a memoir of Neumark?s nineteen years as pastor of Transfiguration Lutheran Church in one of New York City?s poorest neighbourhoods. As she began describing life in the South Bronx, I felt like I was entering another world. It?s a place where city officials spare no expense building a state-of-the-art juvenile prison, but consistently underfund the high school just one block away. A place where, due to the environment of urban poverty, more children die of asthma than almost anywhere else in the U.S. A place where Neumark?s prayers are often interrupted by gunshots, where death is an almost daily occurrence. I wondered how people survive in those circumstances, not just physically, but how they keep hope alive.

Neumark sees the church as a sanctuary, where residents can find space to breathe in the midst of their difficulties. She also sees it as a centre of action, where people can come together to revitalize their lives and the whole neighbourhood. During the 1980s and ?90s, residents of the South Bronx created a veritable social movement, taking matters into their own hands where politicians seemed to turn a blind eye. Neumark and a coalition of other churches and one mosque supported community members as they started new schools, built low-cost housing, ran programs to prevent AIDS and domestic violence, and took on many smaller projects.

While community activism forms the background to the book, Neumark?s focus is the intimate, daily stories of the people in her congregation. Visitors from a suburban Lutheran church once remarked at how ?political? Neumark?s sermons were, but she and her congregation didn?t see it that way. The personal stories demonstrate just how intertwined social activism and spiritual life can be. The quest for self-determination, justice and peace have both an inner and an outer dimension.

Neumark reflects frankly about wealthy or middle-class churches using the poor ?as a backdrop for our miraculous charity.? She doesn?t have clear intellectual answers about how to be a white spiritual leader in a neighbourhood of mostly black and Hispanic families. But she engages in the journey as best as she can, raising her kids in the South Bronx, questioning herself, listening to others, being practical, and most importantly connecting with others through the heart. She concludes: ?I have learned from my sisters and brothers how to keep on when it seems impossible. Their refrains have reframed my view of life: ?God will make a way out of no way? and ?Se hace camino al andar? (You make the way by walking).?

Neumark?s writing style is in keeping with her ideal of ?breathing space,? combining lightness with depth. There is a lovely momentum to her words. I felt swept along as I read, inhaling the spirit and feeling of the stories so that by the end I was energized. Neumark passes on her passion for life, for God, for practising seeing the Divine spark in each person. ? Juniper Glass

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Princess Nicotine:
Folk and Pop Sounds of Myanmar
Folk and Pop Sounds of Sumatra, vol. 1

Sublime Frequencies 2004

Sublime Frequencies, a new label run and curated by Alan Bishop of the Sun City Girls, is cause for celebration among "world" music heads. Devoted to Bishop's own vision of "world," "ethnic" and "fusion" music, the first CDs in the series actually do what most recordings of non-Western music try for and rarely achieve: they document living, breathing art created within the context of its own everyday culture. The usual tropes of "folk," "pop" or "classical" music are blurred, ignored or put where they rightfully belong: within the time and place where the music was experienced, created and recorded.

Sun City Girls, the group Bishop formed with his brother Richard in the early 1980s, remains one of the most original, deep and freaky enigmas that has ever emerged out of the American underground. Over the course of hundreds of recordings, they have documented a truly ritualistic blend of psychedelic rock that has encompassed everything from free improv covers of pop and jazz standards, to an uncanny ability to play any form of "ethnic" music they take a stab at.

So far the CDs in this new series seem to fall into one of two types: collages (Radio Java, Radio Palestine, Radio Maroc and I Remember Syria) and musical anthology (Princess Nicotine: Folk and Pop Sounds of Myanmar, Folk and Pop Sounds of Sumatra, vol. 1), with the sole exception being an album of fairly straight-up field recordings (Night Recordings from Bali).

One of the immediately striking things about these recordings is the lack of "serious analysis" involved. The usual framing through the lens of ethnomusicology is pretty well absent. The sparse liner notes, mostly written by Bishop, are personal, impressionistic and rarely deal with the technical aspects of the music. None of these CDs come with a 64-page booklet of modes, maps or italicized instruments. In fact, by regular world music standards, all of them are poorly recorded, the bulk being transfers from beaten-up cassette tape or 45s.

The remarkable and refreshing thing about this approach is that, while Bishop's stamp is everywhere (they all sort of look and sound like Sun City Girls albums), the power and presence of a real and beautiful otherness shines through. Instead of the supposed "purity" and "authenticity" of most "traditional" and "timeless" world music, you get the living breathing fire of people dreaming and creating out of the glory, horror and complexity in which they exist.

The two music anthology CDs are mind-blowing, jaw-dropping revelations. Each one documents the folk and pop sounds of a specific region (Myanmar and Sumatra) and features indescribable fusions of indigenous music and Western pop, rock, funk and jazz.

Fusion is a word and genre that should make most people (myself included) run for the hills. It is usually a kind of mainstream, codified version of how Western music is fused with a sanitized version of non-Western music, and is more about maintaining a musical status quo than any real exploration of identity or difference. In a sense, you end up getting the worst of both worlds.

Not so with these two CDs. The levels of innovation, intensity, musical complexity and ease with which it is all executed make most Western attempts at fusion seem (at best) laughable or (at worst) like some form of well-intentioned hucksterism.

This is fusion as a form of magic and ritual. It opens up a space where something "other" actually happens and all timid preconceptions about style and authenticity are mutated or simply done away with. It is this otherness that revitalizes that tired genre and also goes way beyond it.

And so, Sublime Frequencies is now (right now!) realizing some of the most incredible music ever committed to tape, aural documents that actually reveal something about the foreign cultures in which they were recorded.

What else would you possibly ask for from "world music," from music? Highly, highly recommended stuff. - Sam Shalabi

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The Lost Teachings of Yoga:
Yoga’s Ancient Philosophy Revealed

Georg Feuerstein
Sounds True 2003

click here to listen


Georg Feuerstein?s new audio compilation of yogic teachings begs for a road trip.

In the six-CD set The Lost Teachings of Yoga, Feuerstein takes the listener on an illuminating trip to the little-known origins of yoga 5000 years ago in the Indus-Saraswati civilization. Yoga likely began with stone-age shamans and was later practised during the Neolithic era in northern India, confirmed by archeologists who have recently found items such as clay tablets depicting yogic postures.

As a leading yoga scholar and historian, Feuerstein fears that neglect and disinterest are threatening the loss of treasured yogic teachings contained in the Vedas, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and other ancient texts. He proffers an invitation to look beyond the current popularity of physical yoga to many other forms of this ancient science, such as Raja, Karma and Bhakti yogas. He states that yoga is the art and science of disciplining the body-mind. Its practice is a great experiment not to be undertaken by the faint of heart.

In addition to historical information on the origins of asanas, chanting, mantra, meditation and other practices, Feuerstein encapsulates major moral principles of yoga such as nonharming, truthfulness and nonstealing.

?The Seven Stages of Psychospiritual Growth? stands out as an excellent discussion of the role of self-acceptance and self-understanding as precursors to self-discipline and further spiritual growth, defined as self-transcendence and self-transformation.

The tone of The Lost Teachings of Yoga is reminiscent of a university lecture ? a relief from some of the motivational CDs on the market. On a personal note, Feuerstein asserts, ?Spirituality is always radical.? He offers insights into his own yogic practices and reveals his cynicism about topics such as the sorry state of truthfulness in our modern society.

Feuerstein successfully collapses 5000 years of yoga into seven hours ? perfect to listen to during a long road trip. This compilation is comprehensive and thorough. It will be helpful for seasoned yogis or anyone who asks the questions: What is yoga? Where did it come from? Who am I? What is my purpose?

The Lost Teachings of Yoga begs for an open road, wide vistas and a curious mind wishing to undertake the greatest experiment of all ? a mindful, nonharming life. ? Hardeep Dhaliwal

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Cicadidae
Kammerflimmer Kollektief
Staubgold 2003

click here to listen


I first heard this album when I was living in Barcelona. My time in Spain was not the holiday fun that you or I might imagine. I was broke, sad, and working for a few bucks an hour at a restaurant full of crazy people. My musical creativity had come to a grinding halt with no money to fix broken equipment and no time to make music after the long hours at work. Luckily, my roommate ran a record label so my apartment was piled high with new and interesting music. Kammerflimmer Kollektief?s album Cicadidae bubbled to the surface in the sea of CDs and somehow captured the harsh beauty that my life was at that point.

Shimmering and elusive, each track is a brilliantly orchestrated little story of brass, strings and percussion with grinding, crackly, computer-programmed noise and beats all melded together to form a seamless organic entity. Electronic elements woven together with instrumental improvisation, or is it the other way around? It?s the kind of music that makes my heart feel tangy ? beauty and longing captured in pristine simplicity, yet it has the noise and imperfections of the real world. Meditative music for our harsh world. A soundtrack of inspiration for a society gone mad.

No matter how crazy life seemed to get, I could listen to this album and things somehow seemed, I don?t know, not better, but it was okay that things weren?t okay. Like the natural ebb and flow of confusion and inspiration made sense.

Based in southern Germany, the six-person Kollektief describes itself as ?a collective expression by musicians communicating with each other in the spaces between control and loss of control, intuition and reflection, density and transparency.? Cicadidae is their third release on the brilliant Berlin-based label Staubgold (www.staubgold.de).

Now that I am back in Canada with a life that is a little more stable, I listen to this very same album and it is different. I hear new stories, sounds I didn?t hear before. Is it possible to be objective? Is it possible to separate our senses from the mental / emotional / spiritual space that we are in? Is this a music review, or my personal experience of someone else?s personal expression? ? Andrew Wedman

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Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life