Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Road to Mahabalipuram


On the first weekend after class, the manager of the Heart of Yoga program set up a trip to Mahabalipuram (also referred to as Mamallapuram), a UNESCO World Heritage Site just 60km south of Chennai.  About half the class met up for the trip at 7a.m. on Saturday morning, got on a tour bus and headed South for our first site-seeing trip in the city.  The moment we got out of Chennai, the landscape changed in character.  Chennai is a proper city, with man-made structures at every turn and most buildings built side by side so there is little open area except for the parks. 

Once we were out of the city there was plenty of open space, with a clear view of the Bay of Bengal for most of the drive.  The topography is flat, with distant hills here and there.  The open space was refreshing, as was the silence we enjoyed whenever we were the only ones on the road, which was the case most of the time on the way there (the way back was a different story).

As we drove, most of us were quiet, looking out the window at the scenery.  From afar, it looked feral with no signs of people.  But on closer inspection you could see trash littered across the field of grass.  It was mostly concentrated along the road and dispersed from there, likely with the help of the wind.  There was at least some disappointment on most faces.  We were used to the trash in Chennai and accepted that the population density and the lack of waste management infrastructure contributed to it.  But out in the open?  It seemed unnecessary.

And yet is still managed to be beautiful. 

Mahabalipuram was no different.  When we arrived the density of trash increased again.  We got off the bus and were met with hoards of street vendors and beggars of all ages.  It was a bit overwhelming.  There were areas that had all manner of rubbish accumulated right next to signs explaining the significance of these sites.

The city is centered on the various 9th century monuments built there, most of which resemble enormous temples, and all of which were carved out of single rocks.  They portray scenes from The Mahabarata, the Indian epic most famous in the West for its inclusion of the Bhagavad Gita.  The city, at its prime in the 7th century, was a major port and its temples built between the 7th and 9th centuries.  Most of them were concealed by the elements and then rediscovered, leading to its re-establishment in 1827 by the British.  Some of the monuments, we were told, were recently revealed in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The monuments are nothing short of spectacular.  It was easy to get lost in some of these areas, they were so expansive, and infact I did at one point.  I had a momentary rush of fear as I realized I’d lost my whole group when I lagged behind trying to get the best photos possible.  I went back to where our bus had dropped us off and it looked like there were people in it so I figured they’d all returned and were waiting for me.  But as I came up to the bus I realized it was a completely different group of people.  This was not the right bus.  Ours was nowhere to be found.  So I picked up my pace headed back to where I’d been, figuring the group would either be looking for me there or had headed in the one other possible direction, deeper into the exhibits.  It was the first time I felt like that here.  For the most part I’ve been comfortable getting lost in Chennai, but I wasn’t in Chennai and to say that English is broadly spoken here is a laughable overstatement. 

The dogs which I’d passed a couple of times on my way to the monuments the first time and then on the way to the bus were visibly agitated as I returned.  They sensed my unease and started to bark, clearly channeling the same agitation I was (this happens a lot here, by the way; it’s bizarre; everything feels more connected here).  I got to where I’d been and didn’t see anyone so I headed further in and finally saw some familiar faces. 

It had been easy to lose them.  You could walk through tunnels that had been carved out with pillars strategically left to support them and come out on a completely different part of the exhibit.  And with the crowds it was easy to disappear.  At one point a herd of school children stampeded into a display that everyone seemed to be curious about.  They suddenly came to a bottleneck and the pushing started, dragging a handful of us in what felt like an ocean swell of bodies.  The kids pushed and chattered, trying to squeeze into the exhibit.  They were so strong that I felt like I was carried up 15 steps to the mouth of the display.  These kids are little but with that kind of determination they are a force to be reckoned with.  I was almost thrown into the exhibit with a few other kids that stumbled over the doorway as the passage opened up.  There was a large cylindrical stone in the center of the room that I almost fell on top of in the process.

I met up there with two other KYM students whose wide eyes betrayed the fact that they’d just experienced the same thing I did.  We all stood around the stone trying to figure out what it was until one of the students, via her Kindle, mentioned it was the Shivalinga, the phallic form of Lord Shiva.  I’d read about this representation but had never seen it and it was interesting to have a bunch of 7 to 10 year old school children walking around and staring at a representation of Lord Shiva’s humongous penis.  It was also interesting to think that a few minutes back I had almost ended up on top of it.  Oh, the irony.

Despite the room being small and the exhibit brief, I was in no rush to leave.  Going upstairs at least had the benefit that I was going against gravity.  I could see myself tumbling down steps if I tried to leave anytime soon.  So we all waited until the kids left, which occurred more quickly than we suspected, literally giving the sensation of the ebb and flow of a powerful tide.

Some areas looked more finished than others but all of it had a mythical quality.  Among the more impressive statues is one of an elephant that was so carefully carved, the curves on its body are unbelievably smooth. 

The areas that contain the monuments are kept very clean and usually behind guarded gates.  It was here that I saw my first public trash can in India.  But anything outside of that doesn’t have the same level of attention.  The surrounding area is an amalgam of street vendors, goats, dogs, beggars and stores selling art, textiles and trinkets that would make any tourist happy.  And trash.  Lots and lots of trash.  Everywhere.  But it didn’t detract from the place and in some respects gave it a sense of authenticity.  This was a place past its prime.  It’s the same kind of beauty you find in the wrinkled, worn face of an elderly man or woman.  As the body ages, its fa├žade deteriorates and reveals what’s inside.  Something that has the wisdom of age and that is, if you believe in these things, close to or akin with the divine.

This is something I’ve come to appreciate here.  In the U.S. we’re used to beauty being manicured.  I remember the shock that Jessica Simpson’s Marie Claire cover caused a year ago, when she appeared with no makeup or retouching (http://photos.posh24.com/p/809390/z/jessica_simpson/jessica_simpson_marie_claire_c.jpg).  Plenty of celebrities followed suit.  Kim Kardashian being the one who received the most attention for her picture in Life & Style magazaine (http://images.eonline.com/eol_images/Entire_Site/2010411//467.kardashian.wilkinson.baskett.lands.lc.051110.jpg).  All the magazines and news shows loved talking about how brave these women were by doing this.  Really?  Brave?  That seem like a strong word, given that from the pictures it looks like they had some foundation on and that their hair had been styled and they probably had on some powder to reduce the shine from the strategically placed lights.  No.  Not brave.  Have them take a picture with a point-and-shoot camera using on-camera flash right after they’ve rolled out of bed and then we’re talking.  And even then it doesn’t come close to the challenge of seeing beauty in something that initially disgusts us.

Seeing the landscape as we drove South, analyzing my initial awe at the scenery, my repulsion to the trash and my realization that the latter ultimately did not take away from the former, it struck me that our concept of beauty in the States requires hours of cleaning, reorganizing, tidying up, proper lighting, preparation infront of a mirror, hours of work at a gym or editing via the forgiving tools of Photoshop.  We identify and accept beauty only in an idealized state, which by definition means that we see beauty as our imagination defines it, not as it is.  We find it difficult sometimes to see beauty in something that is unpolished, in something dirty, in something broken.  But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there to be seen in these things.  India is proof of that and most of the people I’ve talked to change their views when they’re here.  They begin to see beauty in the day to day, sometimes despite the dust and grime and sometimes because of it.

That is what India is to me: a place that forces me to look past what something looks like as compared to the ideal I have in mind for it… an ideal that falls grossly short of the actual beauty of its being.  If I am not able to appreciate the monuments in Mahabalipuram or the landscape that we drive past to get to them because of the trash, because of the congestion, because of the noise, then there is something wrong with how I see.  

A friend of mine was telling me that in his months here he hadn’t come across any women that had caught his eye, except for one who works at the house where he’s staying.  She’s younger, that much he knows, but her exact age is hard to tell, and she’s at least 6 months pregnant.  She isn’t exactly beautiful the way we normally would think of someone beautiful, he explained, but you can see that she knows herself, that she’s lived a tough life (the life of a Sudra, the second lowest tier in the caste system, is relegated to service jobs, which are hard on the body) and survived it and there’s beauty in that strength.  You see all those things in her face.  She makes no attempt to hide them.

“Nothing is hidden in India,” my friend told me.  This isn’t entirely true.  Some things are.  AIDS is not discussed at all and this is expected to be one of the places with the highest incidence of infection.  Gays and lesbians are practically invisible, a necessity of life for the safety of the individuals.  And attitudes towards women (and by default the incidence of abuse) are still lagging behind many other countries.  But there are plenty of things that India leaves out in the open for everyone to deal with, which other countries do their best to conceal: poverty, illness, hunger, homelessness, unhygienic conditions.  These are things that everyone has to deal with, not just the poor.  Every rich person in Chennai has to drive or walk past it.  The luxury to avoid it is not available to them.  Perhaps this is by design.  India is, after all, the birthplace of the Buddha, whose journey began precisely because he saw poverty, illness and death just outside the palace walls.  There is wisdom in having these truths available for everyone to ponder.

A friend mentioned to me that in my blog, I seem to be focusing on what is wrong with India, something that I received with a bit of shock.  I don’t mean for my descriptions to come across that way.  I am merely writing about what I see, from the reference point of what I’m used to.  There is nothing wrong with India.  At least nothing more wrong than there is in any other place I can think of.  It has areas that can be improved upon, certainly, and that, in doing so would benefit its people greatly.  But every country has these areas of improvement and India has the benefit of having gotten something right that many others have not:  it is a place that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is, that makes no excuses for its conditions and that offers you its shortcomings without shame.  What you do with it, what you think of it, is up to you and will, in the end, say much more about you than it ever will about India.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Yoga Therapy


I began practicing yoga sometime in 2000 as a way to address a lower back problem that was not severe enough for surgery and not light enough to ignore.  The only option I was offered was taking anti-inflammatory medication, sure to cause its own problems from overuse.  So when my then boyfriend mentioned he’d tried yoga and that he thought it might help my back, I jumped on the opportunity.  I was, without knowing it, walking into a fairly traditional Ashtanga-Vinyasa yoga studio.  Not that you would’ve known that from the name: “It’s Yoga!” was all that the sign read.  And with my complete ignorance on the topic and my mental image of people in lotus pose meditating I walked in and was shocked (and pleased) at how dynamic and athletic yoga practice can be. 

Within three weeks my back no longer hurt.  And though the practice did not eliminate the issue (if I go without practice for a few weeks the pain in the lower back inevitably returns) it offered me a pill (and side effect) free option for it.  I’ve been with it since. 

In 2006 I took my first teacher training (more focused on personal development than teaching mechanics, though the former without question aids the latter) and was immersed in the non-asana (posture) aspect of Yoga, which only intensified my curiosity and drive to learn.  In 2010 I did a second teacher training which focused more (than the first training at least) on the art of teaching.  Each training gave me a different dimension and purpose for yoga practice.  In my first training I was exposed to a breadth of knowledge and practice I didn’t even know was available.  It was my first time attempting pranayama (breath control) and meditation.  In my second training I learned how teaching can be a form of selfless service and, as such, an act of karma yoga.

And now I’m here.  I knew this trip would offer me a totally new dimension as well.  But, as before, I had no idea what that could be.  This last week I got a taste of that when I was called up to the front of the room to serve as a test subject in our Application of Yoga class.  In this class we cover some theory but mostly focus on how to learn to see another person so that the subtleties of posture, personality, habit, form and breath become clear as signals for what someone needs.  At KYM, Yoga is not something that is practiced in a class format.  It’s personal and most effective when personalized to meet the requirements of the individual’s current situation.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. 

Kausthub, the teacher for this class (and as I’ve mentioned before, son of T.K.V Desikachar, founder of the KYM, and grandson of Sri T. Krishnamacharya, to whom the center was dedicated) asked me to go into Uttanasana, a simple forward bend. 

“How awful!” he said when he saw it.

My mid back always folds in this pose.  I’ve always considered it an issue with my hamstrings, which are tight from years of jogging and weightlifting.  When I go into this posture I always engage my quads, which help release the hamstrings, and do my best to lengthen my spine as I go into it.  I can touch my toes, a huge improvement over where I was when I started asana practice in 2000, but for someone practicing as long as I have, my Uttanasana leaves much to be desired.  Kausthub asked the class what was wrong and, no surprise, everyone mentioned my hamstrings were probably tight.  What I’ve always heard. 

“Really?  Are you sure?” he responded.  He does this all the time.

We knew better than to assert that we did.  A couple of days before he had called a different person up and asked her to go into Utkattasana.  She did and his response was: “How awful!  Is that the best you can do?”

Class with Kausthub is nothing if not a humbling experience.  But in Yoga, that’s part of the point: reining in the ego, disassociating with it and, most important, understanding that you are not your ego… or rather than your ego isn’t you.

A girl in class seemed to be offended.  “That’s her anatomy!  Her ankle flexibility is limited.  There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“Is that so?” was Kausthub’s response.

So he proceeded to give the subject a sequence of breathing exercises paired with movement.  Deep, conscious breaths.  At first he placed his hand on her lower, then mid then upper back and asked her to breathe deeply, using the inhale to move his hand upward, lengthening her spine.  Then he gave her some vinyasa: sometimes moving with breath, then completing an exhale before moving into Ardha (half) Utkatasana with the spine straight, then into full Utkatasana.  A few minutes of this and when she went into Utkatasana, she was in a full squat, spine long, arms pointing straight up. 

Everyone was silent.  So Kausthub called on the girl who had protested moments before.  “So.  Did her anatomy change?”

The girl was clearly humbled.  “No.”

“Wrong answer!” Kausthub laughed.  “But it was not her medical anatomy.”

That was our introduction to the effects of energy in the body.  If any of us thought prana was only a concept before, this clarified that it was not.  This was not simply explained by her body warming up.  She’d one just a few minutes of breathing synchronized with movement.  But it was breathing in a very particular way.  When you know how to manipulate energy in your body, how to direct it, you can change how your body functions to an impressive degree.

He’d shown this once before but not so blatantly.  He’d called one of the other men in the class to the front and asked him to go into Uttanasana and everyone could see the rounded back.  A few minutes of conscious breathing, again with Kausthub’s hand on his back to bring attention to the area, and then modified asana.  Then the guy could do Uttanasana with no problem.  No curve of the spine.

So when it was my turn, the students were less enthusiastic about offering assessments and solutions.  Kausthub brought up the other guy who’d had problems with Uttanasana and asked both of us to sit in Dandasana (sit upright with legs extended infront of you) back to back.  Everyone could see that where he had a rounded back, I was able to sit with a flat back, an indicator that my hamstrings were actually looser than the other guy’s. 

“He may have tight hamstrings but they are not the cause of his rounded back.”

Kausthub asked if anyone wanted to come up to help me with my pathetic Uttanasana.  One student jumped up and immediately began doing what Kausthub had done to the other two.  Her hand on my back she asked me to breathe and try to move her hand upward along my back.  I could do it with the lower and upper back but not with the mid back.  She became a little frustrated and kept trying to get me to move it but it wouldn’t.  She then asked me to do Uttanasana and nothing had changed.  The technique didn’t work.

That was Kausthub’s point I think.

Personalizing Yoga begins and ends with observation.  It’s typical of our mentality to want to take a technique and use it with everyone, accommodate the person to it rather than accommodate it to the person.  There’s something comforting about using a tool that works for everyone.  But everyone is different and two people who exhibit poor form in Uttanasana may do so for very different reasons and if you don’t pay attention to those differences then applying the same solution will be ineffective at best and detrimental to the subject at worst.

So she sat back down and Kausthub called on the other guy again.  “What is different between these two guys?”

There were plenty.  He was shorter and stocky.  We stood differently.  We breathed differently.  Everyone noted these things.  And Kausthub suggested that these differences, subtle as they may seem, indicated that the way to address the problem had to be different for both of us.  So instead of the process we were all used to, he asked me to breathe deeply into my solar plexus, the area just below the front of the ribcage and above the abdomen. 

“Inhale into here and exhale from there.”

This was a very different breathing technique than I am used to.  With Uddiyana Bandha, I exclusively chest breathe and, correctly or not, keep that area still.  With regular breathing, I tend to breathe into the chest and abdomen simultaneously.

The moment I started to breathe in this new way, I knew something was different.  It was tight and hard to move.  The more I breathed into it the more the sensation radiated from the area, especially towards my back which aligned perfectly with my mid-back.

He then asked me to lie down on the floor and inhale into the area then let out all the air with a “Ha!”.  “Do it twelve times,” he urged.  So I would take a deep inhale then release.  Sometimes the sound was so loud it reverberated in the room.

“Goooood.”  Kausthub would say in those instances.

It’s hard to describe what I felt in those moments.  The emotional sensations were more pronounced than any physical ones.  I felt vulnerable, sad, scared, numb and at peace.  I kept rolling through those sensations, sometimes feeling them at the same time.

When he asked me to stand up and repeat Uttanasana I went deeper than I ever had before.  I’ve been able to place my hands flat on the floor with straight legs but always with my arms extended.  Now my elbows were bent, my legs weren’t shaking, and there was an ease to the pose that I’d never felt.

I stood back up again.

“Look at his profile,” Kausthub urged the class. 

“It’s completely changed,” one student said, and others nodded along.

I sat back down and a few students asked me then and after class how I felt.  This all seemed like magic to us and that is not an overstatement.

During our break I was still in a bit of a daze and suddenly felt this terribly grief well up and I began to cry quietly.  It was strange.  I had no sense of where the sadness was coming from.  It was just there, without purpose.  I’d experienced this before during meditation in my teacher training so I wasn’t scared of it.  But it doesn’t cease to surprise me and I am never totally at ease with it.  I just watched as the emotion rolled through me and then dissipated.  And then it felt like a weight had been lifted; I felt physically lighter. 

For the rest of the day I tried to continue breathing into this area that had been stuck before and felt a pain that ran like a spear from the solar plexus into the back.  Every inhale took work and brought pain.  But each time it was milder.  And I started to feel my back open up.

The next day I awoke late, didn’t do my own practice at 6a.m. as usual and skipped the asana class at 7:30a.m.  Instead I chose to shave my head, shower, eat breakfast at the hotel, have my coffee and overall take it easy.  I was void of stress.  When I walked back into class the folks that I spend the most time with raised their eyebrows a bit.  Clearly the shave head was a difference but something else had changed.

“You look like a different person,” said the other bad Uttanasana guy.  “You’re a changed man.”

My friend Andrea asked if I was okay.  I was.  I was, if anything, at ease in a way I hadn’t been for a long time.

A couple of days later my friend Bradley experienced an even more profound change.  He’d hurt his back a week before, severely enough that he was skipping the morning asana class which, by most standards is not difficult at all.  He’d tried private consultations, gone to the hospital, done ultrasound massage and taken anti-inflammatory meds to reduce his pain.  None of these things helped much.  Perhaps they offered momentary relief but the pain ultimately returned.

Kausthub called him up to the front of the class, asked him to do some conscious breathing then a simple pranayama: inhale freely, then exhale through a partly closed right nostril.  Twelve breaths and his body visibly warmed up, his forehead sweating a bit.  A student was asked to come up to check his back: the left side, which had no problem, was normal in temperature; the right side, which had the problem, had warmed up so much he had started to sweat there.

Bradley felt some relief immediately but the next day was the surprise.  His pain was completely gone.  He told us later that up to five hours after class he’d felt his back constantly relax and grow, the tension in it dissipating, until he didn’t feel any discomfort at all.  And this relief had carried on to the next day.  What meds and massage and other forms of therapy had not managed was cured with only three minutes of conscious, calculated breathing.  That is the control of prana.

Primary Series in Ashtanga-Vinyasa is also referred to as Yoga Chikitsa (Yoga Therapy).  The idea is that in preparation for the harder asanas and the much harder work of pranayama and meditation the body has to be tuned, healed, softened and strengthened.  Yoga is a method of steps in the path of progress and the first step is always to deal with ailments and conditions that may get in the way of your journey.  There is a power to it that is undeniable.  My asana practice was responsible for changes in my life that led me to the 140lb frame that I now sport, a much more comfortable weight, I should add, than before and more than 40lbs lighter than I was at my peak.  The body does much less work carrying less weight and can devote energy to other areas that need it: digestion, immunity, reducing inflammation and increasing concentration and focus.  This therapy is amazing when yoga is approached even in class formats, where everyone is exposed to the same postures, the same sequence, with perhaps some modifications to accommodate limitations.  When the process is individualized it becomes ten times as powerful, focusing our own energy specifically on our needs, and this can carry us farther on the journey than we could manage otherwise.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

"Wait! I Know That Cow!"


I do not like rollercoasters.  Never have.  I can’t say exactly why but I always have a bad feeling around them, either like you’re tempting fate getting on that thing or the thing itself has some bad juju about it.  This dislike was solidified the first time I agreed to get on the “Double Looper” at what used to be the Dade County Youth Fair in Miami and ended up watching a man get crushed by our train. 

That rollercoaster started with a very high peak and a steep decline that provided the momentum for the two loops that gave it its name.  I was with Elena, then girlfriend and now something akin to twin sister, since “friendship” alone understates our relationship.  She was very excited and had insisted that I must (1) keep my eyes open and (2) not hold on to the security bars that held us in our seat.  I obliged and when the full weight of the coaster succumbed to gravity in that steep decline I realized that when moving that fast you really can’t change your position: my eyes were locked open and my arms out.  Elena, meanwhile, was contorted into something that loosely resembled the fetal position, knotted over the security bars, face hidden between her boobs.  I’m fairly certain her eyes were closed.  Bitch.

In any case, the shock of that drop and the two loops was sudden but momentary.  But as the train pulled in to the waiting area, the first man in line, drunk and holding his beer in hand, fell into the track.  I started to scream for someone to get him out but by the time the next guy in line had grabbed his arm to pull him up, the train had pulled in and, though I couldn’t actually see much from my point of view, based on the bump I can assume we’d run over part of one of his legs and from his position when he was laid down alongside us, that we’d pinned his thigh against the wall.  When we came to a stop, he was lying right next to Elena.  For the first few moments, his eyes and his mouth were wide open but he wasn’t saying a word, clearly in shock.  I wrapped my arm around Elena and told her to keep her eyes closed.  A young parademic appeared within moments of the accident but the moment he was able to clearly view what had happened, he turned around, crouched and vomited towards the crowd.

It is never a good sign when a paramedic vomits.

I realize this isn’t the kind of entry you expect to see on this type of blog but I had to relay it because this moment, with all its detail, was precisely what went through my head when I got into an auto rickshaw for the first time last Friday. 

Auto rickshaws are the transportation of choice for those who do not have cars.  They are small, 3-wheeled motorized vehicles that have zero structural protection against impact, no seat belts, no doors, and though designed for one driver and two passengers, often carry four or five people.  They are fast, agile in the hands of an aggressive and creative driver, and able (and more often than not manage) to squeeze in the inter-lane space between larger vehicles.  In one word: dangerous.

I’d been warned by one of Kevin’s friends about these things.  We were at a company party, chatting about my upcoming trip, when she decided to explain how, during her work visits to hospitals in India, she noticed that at least two thirds of the broken bones, dismembered limbs and other forms of trauma induced physical deformity had resulted from rickshaw accidents.  “Don’t you dare get on one of those things!.”  

I remembered those words and my experience on the rollercoaster as I stood at the side of the rickshaw, driver staring at me with a perplexed look on his face, not sure of why I was hesitating.  But there are moments when you really have no choice.  Or rather, the only other options aren’t good or reasonable ones.  And this was one of those instances:  A classmate (Elyssa) and I had gotten lost trying to find a restaurant, Sangheeta, that we frequent for lunch in order to meet a couple of classmates and head to a shopping mall to check out the stores.

We were standing at a corner neither of us recognized.  Andrea, one of the people we were meeting, called. 

“Where are you?” 

“I have no idea,” I told her, “All I know is we’re right across the street from a Fresh O’Fresh.” 

“What is a Fresh O’ Fresh?”

This was not going to be resolved easily. This was the first time I’d attempted to head out somewhere I was not familiar with in the middle of the night.  In Chennai the streets manage to get even busier as the night progresses.  Rush hour doesn’t exist here.  Activity begins before sunrise with handfuls of people an cars on the streets as early as 5:30a.m. and this activity intensifies throughout the day, culminating at around 8 or 9p.m. when it’s virtually impossible to walk the street without bumping into people, motor cycles and cars on your way.  The only saving grace is that nobody, people or cars, can move too fast.

Elyssa and I knew that we were close to Sangeetha’s but we also knew that we had no clue where we were and that in the process of trying to find the place we might simply get further away.  So when the rickshaw stopped infront of us and the driver asked if we needed a ride, Elyssa and I both looked at each other and considered that we might get to where we needed to faster if we got on and let the guy take us there.

“Sangeetha?”  we asked him.

He nodded and said something in Tamil.  We had no clue what it was.  We asked him how much it would be.  “15 rupees.”  This is essentially 33 cents and we figured he knew exactly where he was going because it was so cheap (usually you pay 10 rupees per kilometer).  We got in, my heart racing, but my mind trying to quiet it.

It’s only a few blocks away, it said.  How bad can it possible be?

Famous last words.

The moment that rickshaw took off, I knew I was in for something stupendously frightening.  First of all you can feel every bump in the road and with the more severe ones which make your butt rise out of the seat you get the sensation that you’re about to be thrown out of the vehicle.

This man had no need to drive that fast or that crazy but it felt like I was back on that rollercoaster in Miami as he swerved from one side of the road to the other, driving around people who were walking along the street, cyclists and cows. 

Chennai’s smaller streets are not well lit and at night you count on the car headlights to offer lighting as much as any street light so we’d see nothing for a moment and then suddenly a car would turn the corner towards us, we’d see its lights and within moments it would whiz by, missing us by just a few inches.  Our driver did not seem disturbed by this.

I gripped the bar between the driver and passenger seats a little harder.

Within moments we knew that we were off course.  We didn’t recognize where we were going and it had been a few minutes, which meant we should’ve already come to a neighborhood we knew, if not gotten to the restaurant.  I tapped the guy on the shoulder “Sangeetha?” and he nodded and said something else in Tamil.

This was not going to end well.

Elyssa had a nervous smile on her face. 

I looked at her.  “This is just getting worse by the moment.”

“Yup,” she said.

And then it really got bad. 

The driver made a quick turn and we were thrust into a multilane road.  There are few of these in Chennai and they constitute major arteries in the system of roadways which get you far across town faster than any other way.  They are the busiest roads where the autos move fastest and they are generally avoided unless you have to drive long distances in the city.  Let me say here that there was absolutely no need for us to get on such a road based on the fact that we were only a few blocks from our desired restaurant.  So we were clearly headed somewhere much further from where we needed to be.

The opportunity for close calls increased exponentially here.  Every few moments someone would cut us off and our driver would honk at them and swerve, trying his best to get ahead of them anyway.  In the process he’d throw our vehicle against the car next to us, which would honk in return.  At any moment we would be within inches of the vehicle next to us, with one car coming up behind us, honking so we’d make enough room so they could get by.  If we didn’t move, they’d simply try to squeeze in.

From my point of view, it is laughable that this city requires driving lessons for you to get a license because there really seem to be no rules on the road.  Cars don’t abide by stop signs or lights (when they manage to be there… most intersections don’t have them at all), they switch lanes at will and often ride the divider lines (if they’re painted at all), right AND left turns can occur at an intersection at any moment, there are no speed limit signs anywhere so speed seems to be ruled by how busy the road is, and all manner of vehicles can use any lane on the road, be they motorcycles, trucks, buses, rickshaws, bicycles, or horse and carriage.  And that doesn’t speak to the pedestrians.  Anyone at any moment can dart across a road (or meander, which many prefer to do) and cows often wander out with little concern for the traffic.  Sometimes it’s just a cow, sometimes the bull or cow is pulling a cart.  Today I even saw a man pushing a large wheelbarrow with a woman in it.

This craziness on the roads is enhanced by the fact that sidewalks here are not used for walking.  People look at me funny when I walk along on them, which I did initially because I thought it was safer than walking alongside the cars.  Everyone walks on the street.  The sidewalk is instead a multifunction entity.  It can be used by street vendors, who can park their carts there or who sit on a blanket on the sidewalk with their merchandise organized around them to facilitate a sale, or store owners whose merchandise often spills into them (some stores even use the sidewalk as storage space).  Or they can be used for napping in the middle of the day (and I’ve determined it’s not just the homeless who do this).  There are even instances where the sidewalk is the public toilet.  I walked into one of these areas by mistake and was bitchslapped by a stench that made the Balboa Park public men’s bathroom (easily the nastiest bathroom in the city, where the guys with the worst aim choose to piss) seem like a botanical garden.  Once I was walking behind an old man wearing a dhoti, a traditional wrap that (usually older) men wear, on the sidewalk when he came to an abrupt stop, raised his dhoti up his leg, squatted down and began to shit.  Right there.  Infront of everybody.  I turned and started walking along the street.  Since then I’ve noticed that some of the feces on the road is too large to be a dog’s and too small to be a cow’s so I suspect the old guy was not an exception.

Maneuvering through the city then is an exercise in risk evaluation: brave the cars, which are constantly swerving to avoid hitting or being hit, or risk stepping on shit or tripping over carts, dogs, people or merchandise laid out in blankets.  I’ve done my best to avoid using objectionable language in this blog, but there are times when colorful words are due and this is one of them: Chennai’s streets are a clusterfuck. 

The only rule here seems to be the horn.  Cars honk all the time.  Bikes all have horns, in some cases added later.  The horns vary from funny, to muffled to piercingly loud.  And they are going all the time.  When I first got here it felt like the horns were just going in an uncoordinated cacophony but since then I’ve learned that they can mean a variety of things, among them:
  1. I’m coming up behind you
  2. You’re getting too close to me
  3. I need you to move
  4. I’m about to pass
  5. You can pass me
  6. You’re in the wrong lane
  7. I’m in the wrong lane

Always contextual, thankfully most of the time the horn is quite brief.  On the rare occasion where the horn is sustained, it simply means the driver thinks you’re an asshole for doing whatever you did which clearly got in his (I say “his” because aside from private vehicles, women don’t drive here; there are no women taxi or rickshaw drivers) way. 

But when careening towards disaster in a rickshaw, the subtleties of the horn are not very comforting.

At intersections it was especially bad.  I got very good at saying my Hail Mary’s quickly as we’d approach an intersection.  In this city there are few stop signs and almost no stop lights, so that vehicles negotiate who gets into the intersection when.  This is all well and good in the small streets where nobody can speed, but in these multilane roads everything turns into a video game.  We’d be on the right lane and as we’d cross a vehicle would almost t-bone us as it tried to get into our lane.  Our driver would swerve and move quickly onto the next lane over, which naturally would have another vehicle in it so we’d get a honk and they’d swerve and the chain would progress across the street.

It’s only a few blocks awayHow bad can it possible be?

Sigh.

Elyssa and I just shook our heads.  This was going to be a long night. 

I used one hand to dig through my bag for the cell phone.  There was no way I felt safe enough to let go of the bar completely.  I even had my foot pressed up against the back of the driver’s chair so I’d have enough tension between that and the back of my seat so I wouldn’t slip on the cheap vinyl seat whenever we’d turn or change lanes.  I called Andrea back.  “Bad news.  Our rickshaw driver doesn’t know where we are going so we’ll try to fix this and get to the restaurant as soon as we can.”

Our driver finally came to a stop.  I peaked out of the rickshaw.  “Sangheeta” read the sign above me.  I looked around.  Nothing rang a bell.  Not the right Sangheeta.  So we both told the guy that this was not the place.  He had driven us across town, far enough away that there was actually another Sangheeta vegetarian restaurant.  If this was Starucks, I wouldn’t feel so bad.  But it’s not.  There isn’t one in every corner.

Finally the driver looked concerned. 

He stepped out, talked to a few people and got back in.

“He’s asking for direction,” Elyssa said.  I’d heard that this happened sometimes.

He got back in the car, drove out into the middle of the large road and without signaling or giving even the slightest indication of his intention, he immediately did a U turn, stopping every car behind us and on the other two lanes on our side of the road as he tried to get onto the other side.  The screeching of cars was deafening.  If I’d reached out my hand I could've touched some of them they stopped so close.

I dropped my head.  I couldn’t look. 

He finally got onto the other side of the road and we were off.  His driving was even more frantic this time, something I didn’t think possible. 

He kept looking out of his vehicle, scanning the store names.

“He has no clue where he’s going,” I told Elyssa. 

“Nope.”

He stopped his car again where there were a group of people, peaked his head out and asked something with the word “Sangheeta” in it.  They pointed in the direction he’d come.  He shook his head.  Then they started to argue with each other. 

Chennai is full of complications, not the least of which is the fact that nobody knows where anything is here.  The city itself, along with many other Indian cities, has changed names, in an attempt to erase the influence of British rule in the country.  Chennai itself used to be called Madras.  But that wasn’t enough.  Street names have all been changed as well to accommodate names that reflect local culture rather than imperial rule.  Add to this the fact that this city has not experience urban sprawl the way that many California cities have but rather has remained the same size and simply increased in density, with houses and businesses popping up in between existing houses and businesses, and you begin to understand that it is impossible for them to have a chronological system for addresses.  When house #29 on that street has popped up between houses #1 and #2, you have a problem.  The fix for this, if you can call it that, has been to renumber some of the districts; but because it would confuse everyone to have a business or house suddenly change numbers (and as a consequence, an address change location) the answer has been to associate every house with two numbers (so that addresses look something like this: Old Number 21/New Number 5).  This makes it especially frustrating when there’s just one number on the house and you don’t know if it’s new or old or what.

So everyone, including cab and rickshaw drivers, need to ask directions from locals.  And when you complicate matters with a culture that values giving any help, even when it hinders, rather than admitting that you can’t help at all, you’ve got the perfect setting for a comedy of errors.  What I have been told is the way to get anywhere is to ask multiple times along the way.  You’ll get some good directions and some bad directions and you just hope each time you’re a little closer.  The best scenario is asking a big group of people because they will argue with each other about the right directions and, more often than not, the actual correct directions will prevail.

The men finally came to consensus and the driver repeated a couple of times the directions they’d given.  Then he brought his head back into the rickshaw, started up the car and pulled out into the middle of the road with the same wild abandon that had been the theme of the first part of this ride.  He kept looking to his right at a road that he clearly wanted to get to but couldn’t because of the median which separated the lanes going in opposite directions.  When he came to the intersection he pulled the sharpest U-turn yet and I swear at least one wheel lost contact with the ground.  He was gunning for the street he wanted. 

I saw some headlights pointing at us, spanning the entire width of the street that we were in the middle of.

“Are some of those cars coming right at us?”

Elyssa was a little more flustered now: “It’s ALL oncoming traffic!”

He sped up, intent on getting to his street, but it didn’t happen before the traffic got to us and we had to swerve around a few cars that were coming at us.  I was glad I had not eaten or drank anything anytime recently because it would not have stayed in my system.

He came to another sudden stop.  I peaked out.  The sign above me read “Sangheeta Hotel.” 

“It’s not even the restaurant!” I told Elyssa.  “Let’s get out and find someone else.”

When we stepped out I gave him his 15 rupees.  He was upset because the ride had taken longer than he’d bargained for.  I was livid.

“You got us lost!  This isn’t even where we wanted to go.”

He said he’d used a lot of gas.

“That’s your damn fault for not knowing where you’re going!  We have to now pay another rickshaw to get us back to where we were!”

Mind you, he had no clue what I was saying.  The gesture and tone of my voice was really what was doing the communicating.  But in these situations I’ve learned that’s all that’s needed.

Elyssa was right infront of him and he tried to argue back, handing the money to her.  I started to walk away and told Elyssa that I was going to check the hotel to see if there was anyone there who could help us find our way back.  The guy tried to reason with her and she just handed him the money.  “This isn’t where we wanted to go.”

She caught up to me and asked me “Are we going to get arrested?” 

“No,” I said with a smile.  “He got us lost.  Some people wouldn’t have paid him anything.”

We went to the hotel, spoke to the guy at the front desk about our situation and he laughed with us and said he’d get us a “car.”  Elyssa happened to have the address of the KYM, which is near Sangheeta (the right Sangheeta) and he said he knew where that was and he’d make sure the driver knew.  Within moments another rickshaw pulls up to the door.  I was mortified.  The driver came in, spoke to the front desk guy and it seemed he knew where to go. 

So it was back on the rollercoaster.  At least at this point, the entire experience was beginning to be funny.  We got back into the rickshaw, showed the guy the address one more time and we were off.  This driver hit the road with less speed but more gusto.  The swerving was even more pronounced and he seemed to make more turns than could ever be necessary.  He then pulled into a gas station.  Elyssa and I followed him with our gaze, hoping to God he wasn’t asking for directions. 

“Is he pumping gas?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Shit!”

He stopped a couple more times and then seemed to catch an old man whose eyes lit up the moment the driver mentioned the KYM.  The old guy gave him some involved directions (at least it seemed that way from the many hand gestures he made) and the driver took off again.

Elyssa and I were a little more relaxed now.  I called Andrea again.  She and Julianna were having dinner in Sangheeta.  “We’ll be here until you get here, honey.”

That’s one of the many reasons I love that girl.

The driver drove for a bit and then stopped at the side of a dark road.

“Oh no,” I told Elyssa.  “He still doesn’t know where he’s going.”  But then I realized there was no one around.

He turned to us and said “One minute.”

We watched him walk away, step up to a wall about 50 feet away and take a piss.

Elyssa shrugged and relayed that it was a good sign that this was the only reason we were stopping, odd as it was to be in this situation.  She then mentioned that she was happy I had such a good attitude about being in this situation.  I told her I was happy that she was taking it well, too.  As bad as being lost and driven to a far away area of town we didn’t recognize was, the situation would be infinitely worse if you were sharing it with somebody who couldn’t laugh about it. 

The driver got back in and we were off again.  At this point we were an hour and a half late so we became a little more involved in the process, looking around for anything we recognized.  Unfortunately the streets of Chennai seem to change character depending on how they’re lit so that an area that is incredibly familiar during the day can become completely alien at night. 

The driver started to drive more slowly, looked around more often and we got the sense that he thought he was near the right place.  So we started to look more intensely as well.

“I don’t recognize any of this,” Elyssa said.

Neither did I.  None of the buildings looked familiar.  Then, as we turned a corner I saw something that caught my eye.

“Wait!  I know that cow!”

I would pass this cashew colored cow every morning.  I know it because it stares at me anytime I get near and I have to watch it as I pass to make sure it doesn’t charge.  I was elated. 

“These things don’t wander much in this city,” I told Elyssa.  “We’re close!”

She giggled at the thought that we'd used a cow to determine where we were.

The driver saw a group of people and stopped to ask directions and then we saw the ever familiar front wall of the KYM.  “There!”  The driver pulled up, we paid, and then started to walk to Sangheeta. 

When we got there, Julianna and Andrea were there.  We sat down, I ordered a sweet lassi, my drink of choice in this city (a lovely sweetened yogurt mixed with water that is both comforting and functional, as it helps reduce the heat of the spicy food more effectively than water can).  We apologized for being so late, then laughed about the adventure Elyssa and I had been on and decided we still had enough time to make it to the mall.  So when the bill was paid, Elyssa and I had to face the reality that we were not done being on a rickshaw that night.  But since Julianna and Andrea were the ones who knew where the mall was, Elyssa and I split up.  Andrea and I got on our rickshaw, a bit distracted by conversation as we chatted about how crazy the night had been.  I honestly believe she was just trying to ease my mind a bit with conversation so I didn’t focus on the fat that I was getting back on a death-mobile.  But as soon as our rickshaw pulled out into the road, wheels squealing, we realized this driver was nothing short of psychotic.

If the first drivers had been bold on the road, this one had a death wish.  I have never seen a driving video game or a movie car chase that has come close to how this maniac drove.  I moved in closer to Andrea and from the nervous look on her face I realized we were in trouble.  Andrea lives in China and is not unfamiliar with crazy-ass rickshaw drivers.  So if she was nervous, there was reason to be. 

We shrieked a few times as we were presented by one near miss after another.  Here a motorcycle that came to close.  Here a car that we were trying to speed past.  Once a truck bullied us onto oncoming traffic as it tried to get into the turning lane.  Now and again this guy would pull into the wrong side of a momentary median, headlights coming at us, as he tried to pass traffic.  We would be lucky if we made it to the mall in one piece.

“It’s amazing to me that there aren’t more accidents on these roads,” I marveled.

“Yeah, I haven’t seen any yet,” said Andrea.

Not moments after this comment our driver tried to squeeze between a car and a motorcycle.  He made a fast move and didn’t count on another car trying to pull in behind him.  He lost his focus for a moment and a motorcycle seemed to come out of nowhere.  He pulled away, and BAM hit a car that came up behind us, bounced off of him and hit the motorcycle afterall.  All cars came to a stop.  Our driver scolded the motorcyclist and the car driver scolded our driver.  It seems that the status of the vehicle and not the driver’s maneuver is what establishes fault in these cases.  The motorbike took off with no damage and so did the car.  And our rickshaw driver just cranked up (yes, there is a crank on these vehicles) the car and kept going.

We finally got to the mall and when we met up with Elyssa and Julianna we told them what had happened.  Julianna gets this great look on her face when she’s told things that seem this surreal.  “Crap!  You’re not having luck with these things tonight.” 

Nope.  I wasn’t.  And during the entire 30 minutes that we shopped (the mall was close to closing afterall) I couldn’t get my mind off the fact that we still had a rickshaw ride back to the hotel ahead.

I’ve since, of course, been on a rickshaw plenty of times.  It is no less crazy and no less scary than the first time around.  Whenever I think I’ve gained some level of comfort with these things, some new and more belligerent driver manages to surprise me.  I’ve been on rickshaws that have run children off the road, almost sideswiped cows (remember these things are holy in this country so it’s not insignificant) and bullied other rickshaws and motorcycles into a median.  Mid street U-turns and driving into oncoming traffic have become a regular event for me.  But there is no option in this city if you want to get anywhere so it’s just as well that I get used to it, or as used to it as possible.  There is always that “Oh hell” moment when I get on one of these things, but it’s become part of the experience itself rather than something that would deter from it.  As is the fact that anytime I give a driver an address and he says he knows where it is, there’s no guarantee that he does.  He just wants the money.  If it takes longer than he suspected then whatever fee you agreed to at the beginning of the ride (there’s no fixed price and no meter, you have to bargain each time) will be too small and he’ll try to get more.  I’ve learned to not give in.  All I need to do is get ethnic.  When I start pointing and raising my voice they just drive away.  I thought this was because it was such an unfamiliar response to them but since then I’ve seen a few old Indian ladies go apeshit on rickshaw drivers and that’s pretty much what they look like.  The old ladies always win with that technique.

This place is all about learning to deal with life.  What is proper in other places doesn’t so much matter.  What gets you through your day here may require a very different approach.  That may be walking along the road to avoid the sidewalks-turned-toilets, using livestock as landmarks when you’re trying to find your way back to a familiar path, or learning to sit back in a rickshaw and let go of the fear.  I haven’t managed the latter yet.  Not completely anyway.  But I hope to before I leave.

Life as a Train


India does not lend itself to sentimentality.  It is instead a place of blunt reality that is at its best inspiring and at its worst… well… nothing short of horrible.  My new friend Linda, who just got on a plane to head back to the U.S., told me about an experience she had during this trip.  She was walking down the street when she came across a grossly emaciated horse that stood in the middle of the road.  It had wandered there and the cars and motorcycles simply drove around and past it.

“I hated India at that moment,” she said.  “I thought: this country, these people, they don’t care about the beggars, the trash or the condition of the animals.”  She essentially questioned what was wrong with this place that it could allow these things to happen.  “I wanted to feed the horse or guide it away from the street… something.  Then I realized there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.”

You can feed one beggar… today… perhaps.  But you can’t feed them all.  I had the same sensation when I visited Mahabalipuram last weekend.  As soon as I got off the bus our group had chartered, the beggars and street vendors were on us.  The only difference between them was that the street vendors were offering trinkets for sale.  But they were both begging, both offering their hunger and the many mouths they had to feed as a reason for you to give them money.  Among them were children, some easily less then three years old, most about four or five, all of them covered in dust, hair matted, uncombed, clothes torn, patched and filthy with stains from countless sources.  Their eyes were wide, beautiful and longing.  It was difficult to look at them.  In fact some of my friends had to turn their gaze away.

I looked around and noticed that the Indian tourists didn’t get as much attention from the beggars and street vendors.  I would later hear from Linda that they don’t get much, if anything, from Indian tourists.  It’s the Westerners that succumb to pity.

“Indian seem to think that giving money to beggars makes them lazy,” Linda told me.  That and the concepts of Karmic Law and transmigration of the soul, which are embedded in Hindu thought, suggest that the state of these beggars is both necessary and temporary.  What comes across as indifference is maybe best described as acceptance in some, if not most cases.

And then there’s the other side of this.

After the incident with the horse, Linda went about her way, upset about the horse, the beggars, the city, the indifference.  India.  She realized she didn’t know where she was going and asked a man on the street for directions… always a tricky thing here because Indians, in their aim to please, will offer bad directions before they admit they don’t know how to get somewhere.  They see the gesture of helping you get where you’re going, even if it makes the situation worse and sends you in the opposite direction, as a much better option than not getting involved at all.

He gave her directions and she was off.  She was a half a block away when she heard hurried steps behind her getting closer.  She became very aware of them and got the sense that she was being followed.  She picked up her pace and the steps behind her came faster.  She sped up again, becoming fearful and so did the steps, then she heard a voice: “Madam!  Madam!”  She turned.  It was the man she’d asked for directions.  He had remembered the correct way to get where she was going.  “That man chased me for almost a block to tell me this.  Not 15 minutes before I’d seen that horse and hated this place and then this man had gone out of his way to make sure I went the right way.”

This, too, is India.

It offers you its best and its worse and it’s up to you how you receive it.  It isn’t so simple as to say there there are good and bad people.  The same man who chased Linda down to make sure she didn’t get lost had likely done nothing about the horse, the beggars or the trash.  But he had more than a simple sense of decency… an outright sense of responsibility in making sure Linda got to where she needed to be.

The morning after Linda left I was in my Application of Yoga class and a related topic came up.  Our teacher, Kausthub Desikachar, grandson of Sri T. Krishnamacharya, in whose honor the KYM was established, was asked about the Law of Karma and the concept of reincarnation.  He dismissed both ideas as “rubbish” and stated, to everyone’s surprise that he was neither Hindu nor a believer in those concepts.

The Law of Karma suggests that for every action there has to be a reaction, good or bad.  The easiest way to describe is “what goes around comes around.”  We may do good things or bad but both leave a mark in the universe and the impressions we create with those actions accumulate within us.  We do something bad and we carry that debt until we pay for that action in one way or another.  It may take a day, a week, an entire lifetime, or many lifetimes.  This is where reincarnation plays a part.  If you die and leave this world with an accumulation of this karmic debt, you will inevitably return to life in a different form to pay them off.  It is a strong motivator for right behavior.

“If there is no such thing,” a student asked, “then why bother trying to lead a good life at all?”

Kausthub threw the question back at the class: “You tell me.”  And when there was no answer he relayed his answer with this analogy:

Imagine you are in city A and want to get to city B.  You’re taking a train.  You know where you are and you know where you want to end up.  The train is only a temporary place.  When you get on the train, you know your seat and if someone was sitting in your seat you’d tell them to move.  But once you leave the train you don’t care who takes that seat and the train doesn’t care about you.  So why do you bother managing your behavior on the train?  Why not throw trash on the floor or piss or shit in a corner?  Why bother being decent to the other people on the train?

The answer was clear: because you have to be on that train during the journey and you want to make the journey as comfortable as possible for you and those around you.

We are in this life for a given amount of time and, whether or not we believe we might return, our time here will be more enjoyable if we take the time to be thoughtful, if we commit to behavior that makes our life and the lives of others easier, if we mitigate the amount of suffering we cause and do our best to rectify any harm we do.  We cannot change everything and in fact we may not be able to change much.  But we are masters of how we act and react.

In a strange way, this is India’s philosophy.  In an overcrowded country, it is difficult to not feel suffocated and even more difficult to see people as anything more than an inconvenience that slows your rickshaw drive or walk to where you’re going.  I felt this way, I have to admit, in my first couple of days here.  It was hard to step outside.  The place was so overwhelming; there was so much activity in the street that it was hard to pay attention to it all.  And yet a doorman who saw I was in need put down his doorman hat, took my hand and walked around our neighborhood for almost an hour trying to help me get a phone.  Despite the craziness and inconvenience of this city, much of which is caused by the people themselves (especially their habits), there are few arguments here and when tensions rise people generally remain civil.  Most people will smile at me when they see me and all will smile when I smile at them, and everyone I’ve seen asked for directions will offer their advice, right or wrong.  And some will care enough to leave their task to chase you down a city block and make sure you get to where you’re going.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Heart of Yoga



The KYM is an oasis in the midst of Chennai’s craziness.  The four story white building is surrounded by a modest but nonetheless beautiful garden, and this in turn is protected from the noise and rush of the city by a tall wall.  The garden has a variety of plants: some, like the bougainvillea, I recognize, but others are completely unknown to me.  A small black statue of Patanjali sits on a brick pedestal that is surrounded by plants, and there’s a beautiful gazebo tucked as far back from the street as possible which is a perfect place to sit for pranayama and meditation.
  


The first floor has the registration area, bookstore and living quarters for the maintenance staff.  The subsequent two floors seem to have offices, though I haven’t explored those much.  The fourth floor (3rd floor button on the elevator) is where we have our classes.  There’s a small sitting area right as you come out of the elevator where students leave their shoes, but most of the floor is taken up by the classroom: a bright, airy room with a skylight that is starting to be covered with ivy.  The walls, ceiling and tile floor are all white and there are three large portraits hanging on the wall: two of T.K.V. Desikachar (one with him in the midst of mantra practice and the other of him placing his guru’s sandals on his head, an act of devotion and humility) and one of Sri T. Krishnamacharya (Desikachar’s father and guru).  The latter hangs, along with a string of white or yellow flowers that are changed daily, at the focal point of the room from which teachers lecture. 


There’s a room next door which has no clear purpose to me.  There’s a few oddly placed desks, some of them with computers.  It looks like it could be a classroom but the layout doesn’t seem conducive to lecturing.  Next to that is the bathroom. 


The rooftop is flat and has a covered sitting area where our class enjoys breakfast and tea daily.  Most of the rooftop is uncovered, though, and offers views of the city in all directions.  This is also where a few of us practice every morning on our own before our first class.

Our day is very structured: everyday we have the same classes and each lasts 50 minutes.  At 7:30a.m. we meet for asana practice.  Pink and purple mats are laid out for us by the time we get in, all of them facing the front of the class, where there’s a white mat reserved for the teacher’s assistant who demonstrates all of the asanas and vinyasas. 

After class we head to the rooftop for breakfast, which changes slightly everyday but always vegetarian and pretty reliable involves something made out of rice with a delicious, spicy sauce, a fruit bowl, a banana, toasted white bread with butter, and chai.  I have developed an appreciation for chai, so much so that I have not had coffee for a week, which anyone who knows me will tell you is an amazing undertaking for me.

By the time we get back in the room at 9a.m., the mats have been removed and the floor has been covered with large colorful blankets.  There’s cushions and tiny stools along the wall that most of us grab to use for sitting and as desks, respectively.  Many of the classes involve intense lecturing and thus note-taking so the desks come in handy. 

The Principles of Yoga class at 9a.m. is no exception.  Here we cover the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (whose statue is in the garden) and the foundational philosophy of yoga in general.  Intellectually this is probably one of the most challenging classes.  We’re talking about the nature of existence here so the stuff is not light at all.  Yoga Philosophy is closely linked to Samkhya philosophy; both are dualist and divide everything in existence into two fundamental sources: Consciousness (or the soul) and Matter (everything else).  On Thursday we had an especially involved class because the teacher presented the notion that the mind falls into the category of Matter.  The longest and most intense discussion I’ve seen yet here ensued and its resolution was more truce than agreement, I think.

At 10a.m. we have Principles of Asana, a great class where we essentially talk about why we do things in a certain way in our practice.  Lots of focus on the purpose of yoga, the mechanism and effects of asana and pranayama practice in the body and mind, and how yoga can be used to create the effects that we want. 

Then at 11a.m. we have our Vedic Chanting class.  This is the most painful of all the classes because Sanskrit pronunciation is tough and in a room of 22 people with different accents, you are bound to get variations in pronunciation and pacing.  Of all the teachers, this is the one who laughs the most.  She has a beautiful voice that she controls so precisely; most of us can’t even begin to understand how she crates certain sounds.  She does her best to remain poised during class, looking very much like an opera diva who takes her trade very seriously.  But we are so outstandingly awful at times that it drives this woman to smile a lot and laugh at least twice each class. In the last few we’ve managed to make her cover her face because she has to laugh so hard.  She tries to laugh silently but we can see her head and shoulders bobbing slightly behind her notes, though, so we know she can hardly contain herself.  This class leaves me exhausted, more so than asana, pranayama or meditation combined.

We break for lunch for 2 hours after this, which is just as well because we’re usually so spent that our brains can’t function.

There’s a few places nearby but I’ve been frequenting the same one for lunch.  A group of five of us gets together everyday and we set out for the 15 minute walk to this place.  You’d think we’d be tired of it but their food is spectacular and their menu varied enough for us to be able to try something new each time we go.  The one thing I always order is sweet lassi, a yogurt-like drink that goes a long way towards making very spicy food bearable and which is supposed to be good for the digestive system.  We usually use up every bit of those two hours eating here.  There’s no shortage of things to talk about with these folks.  Most of us come from completely different countries and many have traveled extensively.  BelgiumFranceChinaMexicoSpainTaiwanGreeceFinlandItalyRussiaGermanyAustriaSwedenCanadaSouth AfricaTrinidad and TobagoCubaEnglandIndonesia and the U.S. are all represented in this group.  And most are expats or immigrants.  The South African girl is actually Chinese.  The one from Trinidad and Tobago is Indian.  Of the Americans, one lives in Indonesia, one in Spain and one is homeless (by choice) and traveling the world.  One Mexican girl is China and the other is in Spain

When we return from lunch at 2p.m. it’s time for Introduction to Pranayama.  Half the class is devoted to lecture and the other half to putting the concepts that were lectured on to practice.  We always do some light asana in preparation for the pranayama practice.  The postures are mostly dynamic, which means that we inhale and exhale out of them multiple times, rarely staying in the posture more than a breath or two (this is in contrast to the static postures that we practice in Ashtanga, where we move into a pose and hold it for five to 25 breaths).  Unfortunately, without mats, the layout is always a bit of a mess and many of us, especially in the center of the room, end up getting in each other’s way and having to shuffle as we change postures.  Today I smacked Andrea on the head by mistake and she spent the next few rounds trying to coordinate with my movement so she didn’t get whacked again.  She eventually moved to the front of the class.

At 3p.m. we have Applications of Yoga with Kausthub Desikachar.  We’ve actually only had one session with him since he was traveling the first few days.  We were instead having Principles of Yoga repeated at this time slot.  The only lecture we’ve had with Kausthub left most of us slightly intimidated but everyone loved his style and sense of humor so we’ll see how this progresses.

At 3:50p.m. we break for tea and biscuits and head back up to the rooftop.  What is referred to here as “biscuits” is really cookies.  Some vanilla wafers and chocolate chip cookies but there’s also some weirder ones.  We had one cream filled cookie that has faces on either side: one happy and one looking completely messed up and rabid.  On Friday we had a bubblegum flavored cookie.  The moment I bit into it, I knew exactly what it was.  Unmistakable flavor of strawberry bubblegum.  It didn’t taste bad but there was something distinctly wrong about swallowing something that tasted like gum.  I had to share it with others.  I took a cookie over to Andrea, the Mexican living in China.  She works in market research and I thought she’d appreciate it.  She recognized it as well.  “I feel very strange swallowing it,” she told me.  “You’re not supposed to swallow gum.  Why would they do this?”  And then she followed it up with “Que barbaridad!” [How barbaric!]

We are always late to class from break because we get caught up in conversation.  But at 4:10 we’re supposed to be back in the classroom for Introduction to Other Yoga Texts, where we cover the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and The Bhagavad Gita (so far we haven’t touched the latter).  Another heavy note taking class but not as intense since we’re talking fairly straight forward ideas… at least so far.

We end the day with Introduction to Meditative Practices.  The class is specifically NOT referred to as Introduction to Meditation because in this school, meditation is not seen as something you can just DO.  It has to occur spontaneously (an idea I remember my teacher expressing a few times in class).  So what they focus on is facilitating the spontaneous occurrence of meditation via asana, pranayama and chanting practices.  The desks are moved out of the way, along with anything else that takes too much space so that we can do our asanas.  We’re still on the blankets, which are laid out to cover the room and barely overlap one another.  Those of us who happen to have our hands and feet on different blankets usually start to slip because the two blankets will start to slide in different directions so the first few minutes of practice are usually devoted to rearranging ourselves.  Then we sit for a few rounds of pranayama and always end with a few minutes of silence, to let the meditation occur if it’s going to.

By the time I’m headed back to my room, I’m pooped.  The temperatures have usually cooled quite a bit so that the 85 degrees the city withstands at the height of the day even in winter are only a memory.  In the evening I usually have just enough time to shower (which is seriously needed more from how much grime you pick up just walking around than from any practice we do at school), brush, study my notes and chat with family.  I don’t bother to eat since the starchy meals earlier in the day are usually still sitting in my stomach.

These are full days and, for better or worse, they feel like they’re flying by.