The first day of our studies in Peru this past summer our group visited the workplace and healing center (Casa de los Apus) of our primary teacher Adolfo near his home in Cusco. Cusco is situated at a little over 11,000 feet and some in our group were having a challenging time acclimatizing. Me, I kinda felt like I was subtly rolling on MDMA those first couple days. A not so unpleasant pulsation of lightheadedness that was also pretty euphoric. Cusco is a very hilly city. On a flat map your hotel might only be a kilometer from a nearby attraction you wanna visit. But the process of getting there might require quite a breathless trek up and down a steep grade.
When we showed up to Casa de los Apus on the outskirts of town, it was an epic climb up several hundred stairs. No railing. And then we all had to pee. That was another couple hundred feet up to a lean-to structure with a hole cut in the middle for a squat. The views of Cusco were breathtaking and so I wasn’t bothered to much by our bathroom situation. (Though that breathless gasp for air upon enetring this lean-to after the climb was one I’ll never forget.) Cusco is a city that was built by the Incas in the shape of a jaguar. Seriously. The teeth of that jaguar are a cool zig-zagging fortress of Incan construction you can still visit called Sacsayhuaman. The name Cusco means navel, and it was the belly button of the Inca Empire. Today it is the main center of tourism in Peru.
On that first day of study we learned so many fundamental teachings that would carry us through our week together. We learned a ceremony called HALPAI, sharing coca leaves for harmony and connection with others. Our teachers told us that the thing we all came to Peru looking for was the one thing we could not buy because it wasn’t ever for sale : Love. Love, they said, opens all doors in the Peruvian Cosmology. Never easy to find, love they said, must be cultivated and learned.
In our ritual coca leaf exchange we literally got a demonstration from our teachers in the art of the hug. Most of us I think learn affection by example from our families as we grow up and I had certainly never had a “hug demo” before. My own family was pretty affectionate and I always thought I knew how to give and receive an excellent embrace. Two of our teachers, Climaco and Adolfo, showed us the art of the brotherly (or sisterly) embrace. It was profoundly moving. As one who teaches a yoga style that’s particularly touchy-feely – where hugs are passed as freely as handshakes are in some business circles – I realized that most of those embraces barely skim the surface of connection. In the Peruvian Cosmology, among ones clan, the hug is never superficial. Its purpose is to transmit and create power. Hug your fellow journeyers, the told us, with the intention to connect to all of your heart’s desires as well as all of the elemental forces of nature. That’s a tall order, but one our group practiced and became more comfortable with as our studies progressed.
“Sincerity,” Adolfo told us, “is the 1st principle of the Andean Cosmology.” To speak what you genuinely feel or believe, without shame, is the first step to opening “fountains of power and light” within you. Since coming home from Peru I’ve been training for a 10K open water swim down the Hudson River. There have been moments along the way when I’ve thought I was crazy to try such a thing. Though I was a swimmer in high school and probably swam 10 times that distance every week I could barely complete 20 laps when I first started up again. I went to the river several times and shared my doubts. I meditated next to the Hudson and expressed my fears. Out loud. Every time I did this I leaped forward exponentially in my progress on the next swim. Even the elite guards at my fave summer spot, High Bridge Pool (apparently only the best city guards get placed there because it’s the deepest pool in Manhattan) were impressed. And I was proud of my advancement. Speaking my doubt to a source of power as profound as the Hudson River, empowered me to complete my qualifying swim last week. 3 miles without stopping in a pool. That was 98 laps in a 50 meter pool. Maybe not for Michael Phelps but for me, EPIC. Took me an hour and a half.
Speaking my fear, confronting it rather than ignoring it, was huge. I also got big juice for that qualifying swim from the heart of my Indian tradition. During Hurricane Irene I happened upon a mythical creature I had always assumed was a crocodile. The Makara. Makarasana usually has been translated to me as “crocodile pose.” I never questioned it or explored further. I don’t know how I chanced upon the Makara during the hurricane, but I was thrilled to learn that this mythical creature replaces my own astrological sign of Capricorn in the Indian calendar. I always thought I was the earthiest of earth signs as a Cap. But no. The Makara is a sea monster! Often with the body of a croc, the nose of an elephant, the tail of a peacock and the feet of a tiger or jaguar. Wo. What a sammelena. Sammelena is a word that describes combinatory mixing, often of deities in the realm of mantra meditation practice. Sammelena is a visionary way of describing a world that’s all mixed up, where different pieces comingle to create something more than the sum of their parts.
The makara combines the animistic elements of all of my most favorite deities. Akhiandeshwari’s crocodile, Ganapati’s elephant, Subrahmanya’s peacock, Vyagarapada’s tiger feet – and a little Peruvian jaguar from Cusco flavor thrown in to the mix. In addition to sincerity, a foundational belief in the Andean Cosmology is that in order to plug in to the power or healing you crave, all you have to do is believe that you are worthy, and that you CAN plug in. The morning of my qualifying swim I asked the makara to embody as me, to give me the strength and forbearance through an epic swim. It worked. I swam that day whirling a potent combination of mantras dedicated to my favorite deities and that 90 minute straight swim passed in a flash. Well, maybe not a flash. But it as a great swim. I am so excited – and scared – for the September 24 swim I’ll make on the Hudson. But I will ask the Hudson River to embrace me lovingly like I pacticed in Peru. And I will also call upon the great Makara to give me strength.
I’m completing this swim to benefit Million Trees NYC. They plant trees on the streets of New York, particuarly in places where there aren’t many or where there are high rates of childhood asthma. If love is something we must cultivate and learn to do better, then this is one way I’m expressing my love for the City. I always considered myself a tree-hugger. But like a lot of my previous hugs, I think I was a pretty superficial one. It takes time and patience to cultivate a city, to cultivate a tree. On Sept 24 I’ll swim for a profound connection to the waters near NYC which flow with subtle wisdom drawn down from the great northern forests. And I’ll swim for the trees. And I’ll swim for all of the monsters of the Sea. We are a combination of everything we’ve already been, and all that we long to become. I’d love for you to support me here.