Pregnancy Notes

The Best Pregnancy Advice I’ve Been Given

February 15, 2024
Looking forward to dancing with my teacher again.

With my beautiful (and wise) Mohiniyattam teacher, Dr. Honey Unnikrishnan. Looking forward to dancing again, I didn’t think I would miss it so much.

 

The pregnancies of social media are vastly different from the pregnancies of real life.  Pregnancies are about hormonal imbalance, lack of sleep, dark circles, the ‘pregnancy mask’, vomit, illness, crippling back pain….the list is endless.  When a woman goes through this, she just wants to feel better.  In my first trimester I leaned into my friends’ sympathising looks, my husband’s proactiveness in taking over the running of the house, and my students’ understanding when I’d be a few minutes late to class.  The best pregnancy advice I’ve received also came to me during my first trimester.

My Mohiniyattam teacher, Dr. Honey Unnikrishnan, has been a pillar of support for me.  In this video I speak about how Honey was the first person who noticed a change in my body.  During one of our online dance sessions, she asked me why my feet were so heavy, was I tired?  I said perhaps I was about to get my period in a few days.  In a few days I was in Honey’s house cum dance school, and as many of you know, I feel implantation happened during those few days.

When I gave Honey the news she was ecstatic.  From then on she made a point coming home every time she was in Bangalore to spend some time with me.  She became an invaluable source of information, advice and wisdom.  She’s the one who gave me the best pregnancy advice I’ve received so far.

“Remember that this phase is just a part of you, and not 100% you,” she said one evening as we sipped cups of chamomile tea.

“You’ve done so much in life, remember your accomplishments, your achievements.  This is not the only thing that’s going to define you.  This is an important part, and certainly one of the priorities, but not the only priority.  So stay balanced and don’t forget yourself.  This is only a beautiful addition to you, not the complete you.”

The Worst Thing I’ve Heard During Pregnancy

I feel the worst thing a woman hears during pregnancy is, “think about your baby.”

I don’t think anyone can stop thinking about the baby (after all that’s what’s wreaking this havoc on our systems).  While pregnancy is a time of growth, newness, discovery, it is also a time of uncertainty.  Nothing you read or watch (certainly nothing you watch) can prepare you for the actual experience.  You’re hungry but too sick to eat.  Even drinking water is a challenge.  The fatigue is indescribable.  To tell a woman to focus on the baby is denying her experience and reality.

Some women are told to eat more than they ever have, because ‘you’re eating for two.’  Some are told not to exercise because of ‘their condition.’  Many are told not to go out or meet too many people because ‘nazar lag jayegi.’  As a culture we are focused on the unborn baby.  Once they are born babies naturally become the centre of everyone’s attention, most of all the mother’s.  But before that mothers deserve all our attention.

Like one of my friends said the other day, “Happy mothers, happy babies.”

 

Some happy mothers trying to get some fake candids.

Some genuinely happy mothers trying to get some fake candids.

 

Amita and I excited for our coffee date at Araku Coffee.

Amita and I excited for our coffee date. Coffee is so a pregnancy controversy. For a long time everyone has been cautioned against it. As for me, I couldn’t stand coffee in the first trimester, but that got better in the second and third trimester. You can certainly drink your coffee (in moderation) during pregnancy, could also be the best pregnancy advice I received.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Books Pregnancy Notes

My Pregnancy Reading Collection

February 5, 2024

In a talk I gave the other day on my pregnancy journey, I was asked to recommend trusted sources of information.  My sources will always be books written by qualified experts.  In the last few months (my pre-pregnancy and pregnancy phase) I read a lot of academic and research articles, blogs and books.  I’ve complied a list of books that form my pregnancy reading collection (so far).

1. Yoga Sadhana For Mothers by Sharmila Desai and Anna Wise

Because yoga practitioners use their bodies every day, they are conscious of subtle changes that others may not notice.  This can make pregnancy overwhelming or wondrous depending on the practitioner.  Some practitioners end up focusing even more on their daily asana practice to feel a sense of ‘balance’ and ‘rootedness’ in the face of the major changes happening inside them.

My first trimester was marked by constant nausea and fatigue.  I was able to muster just enough energy to do the bare minimum required.  Most days this was just teaching classes between which I ate and slept so that tomorrow would come faster.  The quality and state of my personal practice was the furthest thing on my mind.  So reading about women who are obsessed with ‘losing’ their practice is unnerving for me.  Many readers may marvel at the ‘commitment’ these women have towards their practice (so much so that some of them were back on their mats 6-9 days postpartum), but I simply found it irksome.  After all, your life isn’t about your yoga practice, your yoga practice is about your life.  I will say that this book has about two pages on PGP which were helpful.

The personal stories in this volume were full of anxiety about the pregnancy-related changes in a woman’s yoga practice, and I wish it had a more wholesome approach.  What I learned from this book was how not to approach a yoga practice during pregnancy and how relaxing your hold on it can be more rewarding than straining your body to align with imaginary ideals.

2. What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff

This tome is the bestselling pregnancy book of all time, and it has answers to pretty much any query you may have about conception, pregnancy and even postpartum.  I recommend reading only the parts which apply to you and skip/skim through the rest.  Too much information can bog you down.  Even though the book is intended for an American audience, it’s still wonderfully relevant to the rest of us.

The book and our baby's first onesie 💗.

Our friend Susanne lugged this copy all the way from Germany for me. This version isn’t available in India, but I’m sure the other versions are equally good. Also in the picture is the first onesie for our baby 💗.

 

3. Expecting Better by Emily Oster

This book’s tagline of the book put me off –  “Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong – and What You Really Need to Know.”  I don’t think the conventional wisdom is necessarily wrong.

Oster structures this book around the most common advice women receive during their pregnancies.  She then investigates the scientific soundness of this advice.  The book has separate parts for trimesters, conception and labor.  Each part consists of chapters about the myths associated with each phase, such as women over 35 being of ‘advanced maternal age’ (a chapter I found interesting and relevant).  She also writes about date for consumption of caffeine, alcohol and tobacco.

I’ve tried to keep my pregnancy as simple and uncomplicated as possible.  This isn’t easy considering we’re bombarded with unsolicited advice pretty much from all quarters.  I feel the book does a good job of presenting research to lay readers.  But at the same time, I feel there’s a lot of confirmation bias in her approach.

 

4. What’s a Lemon Squeezer Doing in My Vagina by Rohini Rajagopal

Throughout my journey I looked for books about Indian women, and after extensive search I came across this one written by Bangalore-based Rohini Rajagopal.  Her honesty and rawness are touching.  Rajagopal chronicles her five year long experience with infertility and (eventual) successful IVF.  Whenever a doctors recommends any line of treatment, my first instinct is to speak to someone who has been through it and get real insight about the experience.  This book is an intimate and honest look at the entire process with the human aspect intact.

I feel many of us read a lot of non-fiction during our pregnancies.  But the faceless humans behind the statistics are important.  This book bridges that gap.

I would recommend it for everyone’s pregnancy reading collection.

5. Yoga for Pregnancy by Rosalind Widdowson

A friend of mine gave me this book.  It has great pictures but I’d say the book is more about stretching and mobility than yoga.  But because it’s easy to follow, even non-yoga practitioners can follow the guidelines.  I ended up skimming the book to see if I could find anything relevant for me.

 

I’d love your recommendations for other pregnancy-related books that I can add to my pregnancy reading collection.  Books that moved you during your pregnancy.  A book that you believe all pregnant or women on the conception journey should read.  Leave the titles in the comments.

 

 

 

 

Pregnancy Notes

The Two Pregnancy Symptoms No One Tells You About

January 30, 2024
Photos from our Sakleshpur baby moon.

I’ve tried to document this pregnancy as much as possible. This is from a collection of photos we took on our baby moon to Sakleshpur.

Before I fell pregnant myself, pregnancy seemed pretty straight forward.  You get big, sometimes cranky and start to waddle around.  Some women glow, and some can’t stop eating.

While all the above is true, it is also only a superficial insight into pregnancy.  Pregnancy encompasses a whole gamut of experiences that no one really talks about.  For instance no one tells you ‘morning sickness’ is a misnomer, that it should actually be called ‘all day sickness’.  That you might not throw up, but you’ll feel like throwing up all the time.  Also that your digestion goes for a toss, regardless of what you eat/don’t eat.  Also that sometimes your skin might break out.  And also no one tells you about the constant fatigue, which in itself is fatiguing.  But there are two pregnancy symptoms that no one seems to be talking about…

Two Pregnancy Symptoms No One Tells You About

1. Gingivitis

One night I did a double take and blanched at what I saw in the sink – I had just spit out dark pink toothpaste froth.  I looked at my gums and couldn’t believe that blood could ooze out of your gums like that.  Painless yet frightening.  I recalled reading a little about this in ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting‘, but couldn’t remember what it said I should do.  I sent a frantic message to my friend and dentist Teena, whose calm response did nothing to alleviate my panic.  “It’s a normal pregnancy symptom Pragya.  Use your water flosser regularly and come in for a cleaning.”

Gingivitis can happen during any trimester and usually peaks during the third.  While the exact cause isn’t known, doctors speculate there could be several reasons for this.

  • Changes in hormones during pregnancy, specifically the increase in estrogen and progesterone.  While these hormones are important for the growth of the baby, they also cause gum inflammation.
  • Increased volume of blood in a woman’s body, leading to more blood flow to the gum.
  • In addition to this, eating more frequently leaves your mouth exposed to more bacteria than usual.

 

What To Do
  • Brush twice a day and floss daily.
  • Salt water rinses – this actually helps to keep oral bacteria in check.

I remember an entire week where I’d wonder when the bleeding would stop, and eventually it did stop.  So if you’re in the same boat, don’t worry too much about this, but make sure you’re maintaining as much oral hygiene as possible.  And schedule an appointment with your dentist asap.

2. Nose bleeds

Sneezing blood is not what great pregnancy stories are made of.  But many women, including me, have that unfortunate experience.

Nosebleeds happen because of the same reason that your gums bleed – there is so much more blood circulating through your system and hormones.  In addition to this:

  • Blood vessels in the nose are delicate and can rupture easily – leading to nosebleeds.
  • Hormonal changes can leave pregnant women susceptible to allergies and colds – and these increase changes of nose bleeds.
  • Dehydration can also cause nosebleeds.  During my first trimester drinking water made me nauseous and consequently my water intake reduced.

 

What To Do
  • Jal Neti to the rescue.  I found that jal neti also helped calm the dry, raw skin inside my nostrils that can happen because of the dry weather or allergies.
  • Use pregnancy-safe balms around your nose to relax constricted blood vessels.  This also lubricates the nostrils and eases the pain and discomfort.

 

Although nosebleeds are nothing to worry about, if it doesn’t stop then it’s a good idea to consult a doctor. Also if you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure, or feel dizzy and have problems breathing, then consult a doctor asap.

Besides these two pregnancy symptoms, there are so many others that women encounter.  No two pregnancies are the same, so the symptoms vary from person to person.  That said, there are so many things, such as PGP, which are just a game of hormones (as my yoga teacher likes to say), and you have to work on management rather than prevention.  Thus far I’ve relied on my intuition and a fair amount of research to make decisions for myself, which has worked for me.

As always reaching out to friends and family can give you the support you need for a healthy and rewarding pregnancy.  In case you have any questions about your experience, please leave a comment or email me on pragya.bhatt@gmail.com

 

 

Pregnancy Notes

Why Practicing Yoga Isn’t the Same as Working Out for Fertility

January 18, 2024

In the last couple of months I’ve had conversations with many women who want to improve their hormonal health, and ask me about yoga for fertility and other tools that can help with that.  Amongst other things I’ve noticed that many women equate yoga to a ‘workout’ when it comes to their health.  Not only is this understanding incorrect, but it’s also misleading.  It makes women think they are doing all they can by way of physical movement, but it might be harming you more than helping you.

Don’t get me wrong, I love working out – I love running and barre class.  I’ve been working out consistently throughout my pregnancy, and making sure I get 10000 footsteps as often as I can.  But during my journey to conception I noticed a very different message coming through from my teachers and alternative healers.

They asked me to slow down and relax.  Calm down your system.  And to be honest, for me that conjured visions of a bunch of old people slouching on their meditation pillows and chanting.  I am more into mindfulness through movement – which is how I’ve carefully crafted my yoga practice over the years.

So when even my yoga teachers started putting me in lots of supine asanas, I started to wonder why the alternative healing community focused on slowing down, while the allopaths all wanted us to exercise and sweat it out.  How is yoga different from working out (and working out can be anything from swimming, to running to going to the gym, or a sport)?

Yoga vs Working Out

Practicing yoga for fertility was a journey of trial and error.

When I first started practicing yoga to boost my fertility, my teacher put me on an intense regime of 20-25 backbends a day.  And then one day she suddenly changed her approach – she kept me in supine asanas for almost half an hour.  This was a whole new world of yoga practice, and it was unsettling.

Soon I observed that I felt good post this slowed down (allegedly boring) slow yoga (sloga?).  It was palpable.  It was tangible.  I felt calm and balanced instead of stimulated and excited.

Which bring me to the first difference between yoga and exercise.

The change is internal, and you can feel it.

The parameters for a ‘good’ exercise session are usually external – that heady feeling post a quick run, bench pressing x amount, x footsteps in a day, and even the reduction of weight over a sustained period of time.  Yoga sessions designed with your internal chemistry in mind will initially not give you a heady rush.  The sense of well-being creeps up on you slowly, and sooner or later you’re bound to notice it.  The point is that this change originates from within you, but we keep looking for an outward confirmation.

But patience goes a long way – when this transformation finally happens (as it undoubtedly will), you will start to move and even glow differently.  Your connection with yourself will be stronger than ever.  This is what held me in good stead when I repeatedly denied ART methods of conception.

Works on your (fertility) hormones.

Everything we do has an impact on our hormonal health, either enhancing or harming it.  Even the face cream you use.

At unbalanced levels the cumulative stress on the body (physical, emotional etc) causes cortisol to be secreted.  The presence of cortisol for long periods of time makes our bodies think we are constantly in flight or fight mode.  This impacts your growth, digestion and reproductive system.

When we are not wired to see the benefit of stillness, we don’t know how much is too much exercise.  This pregnancy journey has taught me an appreciation for the balance that stillness and contemplation that only yoga can give.

Yoga changes your internal landscape.

A well-crafted yoga sequence is like an exquisitely baked cake – made by mixing together the perfect quantities of the finest ingredients, whipped and baked by the most talented culinary expert who artfully contours the icing with the most delicate strokes.

It cajoles and gently remonstrates your wayward glands effecting a change in your hormonal composition.  This is when and where the transformation begins.  The aftermath of my pregnancy yoga routine has been feelings of contentment, wholesomeness and even happiness.

Reduces stress.

Many of us have an erroneous understanding of how stress inhabits our system.  We believe stress to be temporary – often coming in the wake of tight deadlines or stifling family drama.  Stress is actually the physiological impact that results from such events, and its impact outlasts the event that caused it.  Much like pressure that builds up in a closed valve – the valve (your body) can take only a certain amount before it bursts.

Yoga slows down your body by first slowing down your mind.  Yoga for fertility encourages practitioners to spend a lot of time moving mindfully (and slowly) from one asana to another.  The movements become more intentional and mindful.  Soon this movement becomes the norm for the practitioner.

Instead of time being reduced to 30 second sprint intervals on a treadmill, a yogi’s body starts to expand to fill time and space.

Our approach to exercise is lop-sided.  The owner of a gym I used to teach in a few years ago advised me to design yoga routines that would have students crawling out of class in exhaustion.  According to him that was the key to a successful class.  Many of us believe that the more we sweat it out, the better it is for our body.  This mentality needs to change.  Slowing down enables us to explore bits and pieces of ourselves that require time and patience.  Once we shine a light on these ignored aspects of our Self – our entire being glows with a new understanding.  Going by what people have been telling me, this glow characterises my pregnancy.

That said, not all yoga classes focus on therapy – some are designed just to be a good sweat sesh (nothing wrong with that).  But if you are looking to amplify your fertility through yoga, then you need to look for an experienced teacher who can help you customise a routine that works for you.

I talk more about this in this video on YouTube.  Have a look.

A not so candid moment during our baby moon.

A not so candid moment during our baby moon.

 

 

Pregnancy Notes

The Doctor Who Ghosted Me

January 7, 2024

As many of you know, I’ve been largely disappointed by the medical fraternity (the allopathic one, that is) for my pregnancy.  I speak about my experiences in this video.  During my search for a compassionate and credible doctor, I tried “famous” doctors.  The strangest doctor was The Doctor Who Ghosted Me.

I feel women should be vocal about their fertility issues because during my journey I found friends, friends of friends and even people on Instagram were more than happy to volunteer information and contacts.   Instagram is where I heard about The Doctor Who Ghosted Me  – a friend’s friend had shared a ‘he saved my life’ kind of posts and I quickly got in touch to find out more.  Feeling a renewed sense of hope, I booked an appointment.  It was gratifying to see the crowded waiting room at the hospital.  It meant the doctor was in high demand.

The Doctor Who Ghosted Me

He came across as open, friendly and even compassionate, a welcome change from the other doctors I’d met.  He was uncharacteristically laid-back about IVF, saying he believes it to be physically, emotionally and financially draining.  It was refreshing to meet a doctor who wasn’t aggressively selling IVF, and I appreciated this fresh approach.  But when I told him my history of yoga practice, he said he’d heard that yoga helps but since he’s never met anyone it has actually helped, he can’t comment on it.  When I told him I’d done a few acupuncture sessions he said acupuncture didn’t work for his debilitating backache.

Before he took out his prescription pad he seemed to think, and looked up once again.  “You’re sure you don’t want to try IVF, correct?” he asked.  I nodded and said, “Yes.”

He wrote prescription detailing the steps we can take for more clarity on what is happening.  “And this is it,” he said.  “You don’t have to come in to see me again. Scan your reports and email them to me.  I will respond within an hour.”  It seemed to good to be true.

The next month I mailed him my report and got prompt replies from him.  Things looked good and we would monitor another cycle.  Month 2 came around and I emailed him my reports as usual.

“Attached is my scan from today.  Apparently there’s a new submucosal fibroid that hadn’t been detected before,” I wrote to him. “Is it something to worry about?  What are my next steps?”

“We had planned three cycles right?” he wrote back.

“Yes, I meant does this new finding change how we will proceed.  In terms of medication etc.,” I wrote back.

I never heard back from him.

Takeaways

  1. Someone else’s personal experience doesn’t foreshadow yours.  This doctor worked well for the girl who recommended him to me.  Since he’s known for hysterectomies, I wasn’t his usual patient profile and therefore not lucrative enough for him.  This is a sad but real fact.
  2. A doctor who makes you feel bad about asking questions, or doesn’t answer your questions is not a good doctor.  Not all doctors are created equal and you owe it to yourself to find the best you can.
  3. From the numerous women I’ve met, I know that most women aren’t doing their research (because of overwhelm, anxiety, feelings of inadequacy and incompetence etc), and this needs to change.  As women we need to do our research.  Much of what we hear is opinion or myth and the more you research the more you’ll be able to separate myth from fact.  I read books and research papers and listened to podcasts about many of the queries I had.  This helped to ask the right questions.    This also empowered me to gauge whether a doctor would actually work with me or was only interested his/her bottom line.

In retrospect I feel that this doctor was probably uncomfortable with a woman who was was forthright, informed, confident about her decisions and had ownership of her body and mind.  Maybe it’s easier for men to ghost such women, than to hold a conversation as equals with them.

Pregnancy Notes

Pelvic Girdle Pain (PGP) – A (Literal) Pain in the Ass

January 2, 2024

Prior to actually falling pregnant I never really understood pregnancy back pain.  About three months into my pregnancy I started feeling an unfamiliar pain whenever I turned over in bed, or slid off the bolsters after cross-bolster setubandha sarvangasana.  Basically, whenever my weight was unevenly supported by my pelvis.  This kind of pain is common and is referred to as Pelvic Girdle Pain (PGP) and also Pubic Symphysis Dysfunction (PSD).

About 2 in 5 women experience this pain, so it’s more common than we think.

This pain occurs in different areas of the pelvis, such as the groin, the buttocks (similar to sciatica), the thighs, the lower back, or the hips.  I sometimes even feel a clicking in my pelvic joints (even now, 6 months into the pregnancy).  But thankfully, I’ve been able to successfully manage the pain through regular yoga and conscious movement.

Source: https://thebackbone.co.uk/pelvic-girdle-pain-pgp/

Source: https://thebackbone.co.uk/pelvic-girdle-pain-pgp/

Causes

There are many causes for Pelvic Girdle Pain.  It can be related to previous injuries or even the natural structural build of a woman.  The weight of the growing baby also puts added strain on a woman’s pelvis, which can be a contributing factor.  Other factors are:

  1. The most common reason is the hormone relaxin which is released during pregnancy by the ovaries and the placenta.  This hormone loosens the muscles and ligaments and enable your pelvis to enlarge to let the baby to descend down and out of the vagina.  In short, relaxin makes labor and delivery easier.  The downside is that relaxin also affects other joints in the body, which are responsible for postural changes during pregnancy.  These can also lead to back pain, but can be managed with yoga therapy or the help of a good physiotherapist.
  2. An unstable pelvis.  This causes body weight to load one side of the body which puts repeated uneven stress on one side of the body.  This is why this pain can sometimes be felt after an active day.  If you’ve been able to identify what aggravates this pain, you should avoid it.  Ignoring the pain won’t help – the pain only gets worse.
  3. In some cases the position of the baby in-utero can also cause PGP.
  4. Weak core muscles.
  5. Tight muscles.
  6. Inflammation of the muscles and ligaments.

 

Yoga for PGP

Viparita Karani helps to relax and align the lower back. Make sure to use a bolster for extra comfort and width on the pelvis.

Viparita Karani helps to relax and align the lower back. Make sure to use a bolster for extra comfort and width for the pelvis.

 

Make sure to keep your legs wide to accommodate the growing belly.

Make sure to keep your legs wide to accommodate the growing belly.

 

You can give more support to your lower back using another bolster.

In the prenatal yoga classes I attended, my teacher taught me this variation – where you can give more support to your lower back using another bolster. It seems like a small and insignificant change – but on many days this variation felt extra soothing.

 

Widen your legs.

Widen your legs.

 

Supta padangushtasana B is wonderful to stabilise the pelvis.

Supta padangushtasana B is wonderful to stabilise the pelvis. Do it on both sides for about 2 minutes each, and don’t forget the bolster under the extended leg.  The height of the leg isn’t important – in fact, you might feel better if you reduce the angle between the legs.

 

Remedies/Precautions

  1. Early on I realised that demonstrating asanas in yoga class aggravated the pain because we often only demonstrate on one side.  Since then I’ve been very cautious about the kinds of asanas I demonstrate and often opt not to demonstrate at all, relying on oral instructions.
  2. I’ve moved two bolsters to my bedroom and now sleep with them between my knees.  (Also, it’s recommended to sleep on the left side, and I usually do this.)
  3. Although many women continue to lift heavy weights in the gym, or even lift and carry their toddlers or groceries – this puts uneven strain on your back.  Even for women who are used to heavy lifting – the added hormones and growing belly makes your back vulnerable.  For this reason I eliminated the tree pose and natrajasana from my practice.
  4. I also found that crossing my legs when sitting at my desk causes the pain, probably because of the uneven weight distribution.  So I consciously changed the way I sit.
  5. As much as possible sit in baddhakonasana, sukhasana or upavishta konasana with your back supported.
  6. During the prenatal yoga classes I attended, my teacher would remind me to not rush and move slowly, more consciously.  This really helps as it reduces the chances of something getting inadvertently tweaked.
  7. Icing reduces inflammation.
  8. Water based activities – like aqua yoga, aqua zumba, swimming or even just walking back and forth in the pool help a lot because it strengthens your muscles while supporting about 70% of your body weight.
  9. Rest it out.

Because there is no one reason for why this pain occurs, prevention is better than cure.  But, because pregnancy is also a game of hormones, it’s not always possible to prevent pelvic girdle pain, and you might need to just manage the symptoms.

Hope this helps!

Travels

Dev Deepawali – A Well Kept Secret

December 15, 2023

The bridges across the Ganges are also decked up for Dev Deepawali.

I wrote quite a few blogs about my trip to Varanasi last year.  I mention sailing the Ganges to look at the ghats, the Yogini temple, the magnificent Ganga aarti etc.  Last year I heard about Dev Deepawali – a local festival celebrated on a grand scale fifteen days after Diwali is celebrated across the country.  At the time I remember thinking I’d love to see that, and hopefully next year.

I forgot all about that until my sister in law asked me about my plans over dinner one night.  Within two days I had roped in another friend who roped in another … and soon the four of us were off to the oldest city in the world.

The Celebrations

Dev Deepawali can literally be translated as the ‘Diwali of the Gods’.  Although now Dev Deepawali has started gaining traction -it’s basically a local festival, celebrated only in Varanasi.  Women dress up in beautiful saris, apply henna on their hands and wear the prettiest jewellery.  The high point of the event is the lighting of the ghats with a million (not an exaggeration) diyas.  In addition to this, there is a magnificent sound and light show depicting the story of Dev Deepawali, that you can watch.  This year diplomats from 70 countries attended the celebrations.

The best way to experience Dev Deepawali is from a boat on the Ganges.  The Government of UP organises special cruises on the Ganges and tickets for these are exorbitant.  So exorbitant in fact that we didn’t bother checking the prices and decided to get a smaller row boat and split the cost between us.  We were 10 people and we split the Rs. 20000/- between us.  It’s a good idea to work out a deal with a boatman in advance because the boats sell out fast.

The Boat Ride

Once you’re on the boat you’re required to wear a lifejacket.  Police petrol the waters to make sure everyone is safe and that there are no accidents.  The ride is basically sailing from the first ghat to the last and observing the different decorations.  The entire Ganges had a festive vibe, and it’s truly unique – you won’t see the Ganges like that any other time of the year.  We spent about two hours on the boat, and there was never a dull moment.  It’s worth planning a trip tp Varanasi just to experience this festival.  Also, don’t miss the fireworks.

The Man Singh Observatory

Another place that had a superb sound and light show is the Man Singh Observatory on the Man Singh Ghat.  The observatory was constructed by Raja Man Singh of Rajasthan and contains various types of compasses to measure the position of the planets and stars.  These measurements were used to tell time and to make the lunar and solar calendars.  Today these compasses make for interesting photo ops.

The Observatory was also a palace, and its first floor is now a museum cum exhibition space.  There are interactive exhibits about different aspects of Varanasi, such as the art, the folk dances, the weaving and the architecture.  Certainly makes for an interesting afternoon.

The main hall on the first floor (which is humongous), has been converted into the sound and light show theatre.  The show is only about 15 minutes long and shows how the Ganges came to Varanasi.  However, it’s only in Hindi, so difficult to understand for non-Hindi speakers.  But I would still recommend it for it’s amazing picture quality.

The Kashi Vishwanath Temple

No trip to Varanasi is complete without a darshan of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.  This historic (and controversial) temple draws thousands of pilgrims every year and it’s particularly crowded on the Dev Deepawali weekend.  The temple is significant because it’s one of the twelve jyotirlingas, places where it is believed Shiva appeared as a long fiery pillar of light.  This legend makes the jyotirlingas special, and contributes to the energy that is palpable here.  There are long lines for the darshan, but a ticket can be booked online, and this might reduce the wait time.  If you go early morning, you’re less likely to run into the surging crowds.

A Walking Tour

The ghats of Varanasi can be explored on foot and lately many people have started offering walking tours.  This is a fabulous way to explore the ghat area, and if you find a good and knowledgeable guide, you can learn a lot about the history and legends associated with the oldest city in the world.  Our tour took us through the ghats, on a boat to the Alamgiri Mosque to the bylanes of Varanasi and finally to a great lassi and malayyo stall.

Alamgiri Mosque

Travels

A Fortuitous Meeting with the Hugging Amma

October 28, 2023

 

Amritapuri Ashram

A view of Amritapuri Ashram from the 9th floor of the residential building. You can see the Kali temple on the left and the ocean in the horizon.

Over a long brunch last Sunday my friend Sowmya told me she was heading to Trivandrum to meet her guru.  “Who’s your guru?” I asked her.  “Amritanandi Maa,” she said, as though to have the world famous Hugging Amma as your guru is the most natural thing possible.

Decades ago I read a fun and entertaining book called Holy Cow, where I first came across the Hugging Amma.  I didn’t think then that one day I’d actually get a chance to meet the saint.  I rescheduled/cancelled a bunch of classes and on a sunny Wednesday afternoon Sowmya and I were on our way to Amritapuri.  The countryside was lush and the glimpses of the ocean made the journey enjoyable.

Amritapuri Ashram – What to Expect

The Amritapuri Ashram is built at the birthplace of Amritanandi Maa.  When she had the means she decided that her ashram should be near the backwaters where she spent her childhood.  She also wanted to use her increasing popularity to uplift the people of her hometown.

The Ashram has several gates – all very easy to miss when you’re driving.  The best way to find the ashram is to ask a local – almost every local knows where it is.  Once you find parking head over to the reception.  You’ll be given detailed forms to fill.  As with all other ashrams in India, these forms are shared with the police for security reasons.  As an Indian I didn’t need any passport and visa details, but foreigners have to list out all their previous trips to India along with a bunch of other details.

Once you submit your form you’ll be allotted a room.  We went back and forth a few times until we found ourselves in a clean room with a much needed and appreciated AC.  There are two or three canteens on the premises as well, but they run on specific timings.  Sowmya and I drove to a small local joint next to the ashram for some dosas, appams and Malabar parottas.

We were there only for a night, but during that time we saw:

  1. The Kali temple – a huge temple in the centre of the ashram.  We could can see the spires of this temple rising up and out of the trees from our room on the 15th floor of the residential building.
  2. The gowshala.
  3. The beach – the ashram has it’s own stretch of the beach.  However, the entire beach is a rocky beach and you’re not allowed to go into the water.
  4. The daily evening program.

No photography is allowed in the ashram.

The Daily Evening Program

We were lucky that Amritanandi Maa was in the ashram the day we visited.  Because of her various philanthropic activities she spends a lot of time in different states in India and considerable time abroad.  Luckily because of her close association with Amritanandi Maa, Sowmya knew she would be in residence.

I had done a bit of research prior to the trip.  Amritanandi Maa believes in selfless love and compassion towards all and gives hugs to spread this love.  It’s believed she has hugged more than 32 million people around the world, and that’s why she’s known as the Hugging Amma.

Every evening the ashram has the same routine – a sermon by a devotee, followed by bhajans and kirtans.  This can go on for half an hour or into the wee hours of the morning, depending on Amma’s mood.  After this all the attendees eligible for a hug get in line for a hugging token.  If you live in the ashram you’re eligible only once a month or so.  Visitors are eligible only once during their entire stay.  We were lucky to get one of the first few tokens and were pushed ahead in the line.  It took us less than twenty minutes to meet Amma.

Meeting the Hugging Amma

There is a quality of peace around Amritanandi Maa.  Although she’s constantly surrounded by devotees and helpers she is unruffled as she focuses on the person who has come for darshan.  We were told that she doesn’t speak English or Hindi very well, so if there was something we wanted to convey one of the helpers would do so.  “Amma doesn’t like pregnant women kneeling down on the floor,” one of the helpers told me, “So you’ll be sitting on a stool.”

As we got closer to Amma I observed the deep reverence everyone has for her.  People had come from far and wide and were looking up at her with expressions of pure love, trust and belief.  With so many devotees waiting for their turn on stage and so many more in the audience, there was no frenzy in the whole process.  I felt a strange sense of blankness.

What do you say to a saint revered for her powers and healing abilities?  If you’re only meeting her once in your lifetime – what do you ask or say to her?

I didn’t have to be so worried.  The moment I sat in front of her and said ‘Namaste’, she wrapped me in her arms and started rocking me back and forth, saying something three times in Malayalam in my ear.  Unlike the brief, fleeting, barely-there hugs I had read about, mine was long and I remember gradually relaxing into her embrace.  When she let me go she looked at me with her open and friendly smile and passed her hand over my belly.

I have come to the conclusion that when you meet a saint of this stature it’s important to live the moment, instead of becoming anxious about what to ask for.  When she released me from the embrace I had a strange sense of peace and stillness.

The prasad consisted of a packet of chocolate chip biscuits, a small 5-star chocolate and a candy.

 

At the Lalith Kala Akademi of Art in Trivandrum.

While in Trivandrum we had the opportunity of looking at some art work by the renowned artists Suresh K Nair. His latest work deals with his interpretation of the yoginis. The exhibition was at the Lalith Kala Akademi of Art.

A few years ago I visited the Isha Yoga Ashram.  You can read my experience here.

Books

7 Books to Read if You’re Headed to Vietnam

October 4, 2023
Book Street Hanoi

One of my favorite pictures from Vietnam. Not only for its colors and huge red heart – but also because it’s at the Book Street in Hanoi – a surprise discovery we made while walking around the city.

1. Faith of my Fathers by John McCain

Growing up the only thing I knew about Vietnam was the Vietnam War.  ‘Faith of my Fathers’, is about a soldier’s first hand experience as a PoW.  The book is an autobiography and the first half is about John McCain’s father and grandfather – both highly decorated officers in the US armed forces.  The book is well-written, but I’m not particularly interested in the US army and how it functions so the first half of the book was a bit dull for me.  It gets more interesting when McCain writes about the 6 long years as a PoW in the Hanoi Hilton.  The horrors he recounts make me recoil – and I feel the larger message of the book is about the strength of the human spirit and the value of courage and dignity.  McCain spends a lot of time making fun of his Vietnamese jailers and Ho Chi Minh, and a lot of time glorifying America – I think it’s justified and it in no way detracts from the book.

“…For I have learned the truth: there are greater pursuits than self-seeking.  Glory is not a conceit.  It is not a decoration for valor.  It is not a prize for being the most clever, the strongest, or the boldest.  Glory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself, to a cause, to your principles, to the people on whom you rely, and who rely on you in return.  No misfortune, no injury, no humiliation can destroy it.”

 

2. The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh

“If a cluster of napalm bombs were dropped, the jungle would turn into a sea of fire. Can you imagine a sea of fire?”

Bao Ninh joined the Vietnamese army at the age of 17.  He served in the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade.  In 1969 he joined the Vietnamese war against the Americans, and of the five hundred soldiers who went to war, Bao Ninh was one of the ten who survived.  ‘The Sorrow of War‘ is based on his experience of the war and was initially banned in Vietnam.  It contextualised history that was until now only facts and figures for me.  More than that, this book is about what happens when people are denied basic rights, and the cost of freedom.  The book is hard hitting, honest, brutal, depressing and frightening.  And I can’t recommend it enough.

 

3. Hanoi, adieu by Mandaley Perkins

It’s easy to find books about the Vietnam War (or the American War as it’s called in Vietnam), but it’s hard to come across books about the French colonial part of Vietnamese history.  This book bridges that gap.  It follows the coming of age of Michel L’Herpiniere (the writer’s grandfather) in French Indo-China.  Michel grows up in the rich and privileged French community of Vietnam and lived through the downfall of the French Empire.  He enlists in the army as a young man and fights in the various skirmishes and uprisings that occur during the last few year of the French rule in Vietnam.  The story is alive with descriptions of Hanoi in the 40s, such as the markets and bazaars, daily life for the French and the Vietnamese, Michel’s deep friendship with the Vietnamese and French alike, along with his deep understanding of both cultures.  There are several themes that I found fascinating, the main one being that of identity and how the places we grow up in and call home form our identity, sometimes even more than our nationalities do.  The book covers the period between September 1940 to May 1954, which is when the French finally withdrew from Vietnam.  Because we hardly study Vietnamese history in school, what really helped me put the history in context was thinking in terms of what was happening in India during this time.

If you’re traveling to Hanoi you should definitely read this book for it’s vivid descriptions of the Old Quarter – which is where we stayed while in Hanoi.  When I look through photos my photos of Hanoi now, I don’t think only of what I saw and experienced, but also the rich, varied and decidedly bloody history of this quaint country.

I often go to local bookshops when I’m traveling to a new place to hunt for books by local authors.  Vietnam has a vibrant culture of literature (Hanoi even has a Temple of Literature!) and a Book Street (a serendipitous find).  While looking for a stall selling books in English we ran into a young book lover who told us he’s attended a lecture by Bao Ninh and then told us to head over to the Bookworm where we would have better luck finding books in English.  Sure enough, I found ‘Hanoi, adieu’ in their well-stocked racks.

Always happy exploring bookstores.

 

Temple of Literature Hanoi

At the temple of Literature in Hanoi, also known as the Confucius Temple.

4. In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason

‘In Country’ looks at what happened to American soldiers after their return from Vietnam.  It’s an honest look from the point of a view of a young girl called Samantha Hughes, whose father dies in the Vietnam War.  She’s trying to piece together what happened to him in Vietnam – and she’s just not satisfied with what she hears from others.  Her uncle Emmett has also been in the war and its changed him and all his friends.  The depiction of veterans and their struggle is raw and visceral.  In Ho Chi Minh City we spent some time at the War Remnants Museum and saw the destruction from the Vietnamese point of view.  Through ‘In Country’ we see that no one is spared the horrors of war.

This is another book I bought at the Book Worm bookstore in Hanoi.  I’m looking forward to watching the movie – unfortunately I haven’t found it on any of the streaming platforms in India.

 

 

5. She is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran

Horror is my favorite genre and this book didn’t disappoint.  This is Tran’s debut novel, and I think the reason it’s so well written is because the author herself enjoys the horror genre.  The main character is a Vietnamese American girl and Tran undoubtedly uses her personal experiences to bring the character to life.

I will say though that it helps to be familiar with the landscape of Vietnam and a little of its history to really connect to the book.  A little familiarity with the Vietnamese culture would also help.  That said, I really liked the writing.  This is one living, breathing, pulsating book.  It has all the elements of the classic gothic novel and the rich, florid descriptions of man vs nature gives it a Guillermo Del Toro-ish feel.  I also appreciated that this book referred to the French colonial history of Vietnam, which is relatively lesser known but also very interesting.

 

6. The House on Dream Street by Dana Sachs

This book is set in 1992 and is a sort of travelogue.  Dana Sachs lived in Vietnam on Dream Street in 1992 for six months.  This book chronicles her time trying to learn the language, make friends, eke out a living, fall recklessly in love and realise just how crazy that was and quickly fall out of love.  Although the book is well written and interesting, I found it  superficial at times.  I felt that for someone claiming to be in love and deeply interested in a country and its culture – the author seemed to at times look down on the culture and even come across as ignorant.  I think direct comparisons between her life in the US and life in Vietnam, or comparisons between the American thought process and the Vietnamese thought process happened a bit too much – maybe she was trying to contextualise her experience for American readers, but explaining the same thing without using comparison would have made her sound more well informed.  Also – the part where she visualises herself marrying the motorcycle mechanic she is in love with and actually living in his makeshift hut with the rest of his family was exasperating.  I think readers from South East Asian countries would understand why I was rolling my eyes during that bit.

 

7. Prison Diary by Ho Chi Minh

I bought this book at the gift shop in the Hỏa Lò Prison (the Hanoi Hilton).  It’s  published by The GIOI Publishers (of Hanoi) and is a collection of poetry by Ho Chi Minh.  The poetry was originally written in Chinese and has been translated into Vietnamese and English (all the translations are in the book).  It’s said that history is written by the victors.  But with access to information like never before, we have the luxury of exploring different sides of an issue.  Was Ho Chi Minh a despot who would use any and all means at his disposal to get what he wanted?  Or was he a patriot who sacrificed everything he had for a free and independent Vietnam?  This book gives an intimate insight into a man considered one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century.  This collection contains poetry on his observation about the human condition, his beliefs about freedom and nationhood and also his experiences as a prisoner in various Chinese jails.

Thinking of a Friend

That day you went with me to the edge of the river.

“When will you be back?” – “When you see the rice ripen.”

But now that the fields have been ploughed for the next season,

In a foreign land I still remain a prisoner.

Hoa Lo - The Hanoi Hilton

Animesh claims I spent 5 hours here with the audio guide. I’d have to disagree (at least it didn’t feel that long).

 

It’s great to research travel blogs and forums whenever you’re about to travel to a new country.  But I find reading books about the place gives you a deeper understanding and contextualises the country a lot more for travellers.

Travels

Goa, Off the Beaten Track

September 23, 2023
Koti Tirth Tali

Koti Tirth Tali. There are supposed to be 108 niches carved in the walls.

I’ve been to Goa so many times I feel I should be awarded a honorary PhD on it. Goa exists in our collective psyche as the ultimate vacation destination – a coming of age for young people, an exciting place to have your bachelorette or long awaited girls’ trip and an opportunity to gaze at the vast blue sea for those of us landlocked.

Things changed a bit during the pandemic when everyone decided to work from Goa. In fact, we contemplated it too and found ourselves in Goa scouting for viable villas to move into. That’s a story for another blog. Suffice it to say that because tourism to Goa is an unprecedented high, travellers now look for activities off the beaten track. My last trip to Goa was certainly that.

We formed an assorted mix of four – my mother in law, her sister, a dear friend of her’s, and me. We were game for an adventure.

Divar & Chorão Island

The first day we decided to go to Divar Island. The Mandovi River around Goa is home to many islands, all of which have and mangrove forests, churches, temples and grand old Portuguese villas. The night before I’d looked up how to get to the island and found that we had to take the ferry to Ribandar port. Unfortunately Google directed us to a port slightly before Ribandar, and not knowing any better, we took the wrong ferry and ended up in Chorão Island. We decided to make the most of it and drove around the island for a while. The island is lush, green and largely uninhabited. However, there are several churches and chapels dotting the greenery. The most significant one I spotted was the chapel for St. Teresa of Kolkata (Mother Teresa). A surprise find was The Yoga Institute, a swanky residential yoga centre. (Something to keep in mind for my next yoga retreat.)

Divar island proved to be a bit more eventful. We spent some time at Our Lady of Piety Church (Nossa Senhora de Piedade). The church and it’s adjacent graveyard lie atop a hill. The church was under renovation, so we spent some time walking around and taking in the panoramic view of the island from that vantage point. You can see the Mandovi river and the mangrove forests around it. You can also see a Hindu temple, with its distinct Goan architecture, close to the church.

Hindu temple from the hillock of Our Lady of Piety Church. you can see the Mandovi in the distance. Note the unique temple design.

Hindu temple from the hillock of Our Lady of Piety Church. you can see the Mandovi in the distance. Note the unique temple design.

After a sumptuous lunch at the Rock Inn Restaurant, we decided to head to the Koti Tirth Tali – an ancient site that used to be a significant pilgrimage point once upon a time. It is said that this used to be the Saptakoteshwara Temple, the kul devta of the Kadamba kings. It is now protected by the ASI. It was a peaceful place and we found the ancient architecture very beautiful. Just a little further down the road from the Koti Tirth Tali is a beautiful Shiva temple. When we visited it was calm and clean, and right on the banks of the Mandovi. We spent some time gazing at the beautiful lake surrounded by mangroves, and even spotted a snake swimming in the water!

All the islands in Goa are connected by ferries and I think it would be interesting to spend a day island hopping on a future trip.

CIPA – Center for Indo Portuguese Arts

We stumbled upon CIPA during a three-week stay in Goa during the second lockdown. The place had just opened up and we spent some time browsing through the 200-year old heritage building, looking at the books, the hand painted tiles and other art. We also spoke to Orlando, the owner who told us about the Portuguese connection and his work to keep the Portuguese heritage alive in Goa. Incidentally, he has learned the traditional art of tile painting in Portugal and can customise tiles on order.

Panjim.

On the way to CIPA.

We met Orlando again and just as we were about to leave he told us about the Serenate concert they were having in the evening. We ended up returning to CIPA that evening for an eventful night of music and homemade Portuguese snacks. Serenading was very common in Fontainhas, where a boy would attempt to woo a girl by singing outside her balcony in the night. If she appreciated the gesture him and his entourage might be invited inside for some snacks. The night was full of revelry as the musicians asked the audience to join in the music and even asked for requests from the crowd. This was the cultural aspect of Goa, and I feel this should be on everyone’s itinerary.

Mario de'Miranda

An illustration of serenading in Fontainhas by celebrated Goan artist Mario de’Miranda.

Below are a few images from our wonderful vacation.

Ferry to Chorao.

On the ferry to Chorao island – turned out to be the wrong ferry!

Ice cream therapy.

After a hot day of walking around – ice cream was indeed therapy.

Koti Tirth Tali

The ancient site of Koti Tirth Tali was too beautiful not to take a few yoga shots.

 

I realise I’ve written another ‘Off the Beaten Track’ blog before.  It’s about Coonoor and you can find it here.