Tuesday, November 3, 2015

My Daily Walk

As it turns out, the walk to the Krishnamacharya Healing and Yoga Foundation is mostly pleasant and not very crowded.  It takes a little less than 10 minutes if you walk briskly and traffic cooperates.  Class starts at 7:30 a.m. and so I'm usually walking by 7 or 7:15 and I can take my time, phone in hand so I can take photos of anything interesting that I see.

The first two blocks are a bit of a bear.  Leaving my apartment, what passes for sidewalk is a combination of soft dirt mounds, which you don't want to step on because it can collapse under you, and trash mounds, which you don't want to step on because only God knows what the hell is in there.  Car tires, bicycle parts, wiring, pipes, pulverized asphalt and shards of cement mostly.

So the only option is to walk on the street.  I always keep my head slightly turned back so my right ear can catch any coming rickshaw or motorcyle.  The larger cars make themselves known or steer clear of me altogether.  The others seem to want to see how close they can get to me without a collision.  When they whiz by I feel the sudden current of air shifting in space.

The worst part is this enormous intersection (Chamiers Rd. and Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Devar Rd.) about whose traffic rules I'm still a bit uncertain.  Sometimes the drivers seem to abide by the logic of the traffic lights and road lanes, sometimes they seem to alter them slightly and what is normally a two way street suddenly becomes one way (or mostly one way), and sometimes the rules seem to be ignored altogether.  Crossing the street at the intersection, in my opinion, is taking your life into your hands.  So I typically turn left and walk in a bit, waiting until traffic dies down so I can cross in the middle of the street.  Yes it's jaywalking but there seems to be no problem in this country with crossing this way.  I think most agree it's a bit safer as there's only two directions from which a pedestrian can be hit.

I have on a couple of occasions noticed older women in colorful saris crossing the intersection nonchalantly, as if they know there isn't a chance that someone will run them down.  To see the way these ladies keep traffic at bay is to witness the parting of the Red Sea.  I walked close behind them, alternating my suspicious eyes from one side of the road to the next.  I figured proximity would keep me safe and I could enjoy a direct route.  This seemed like a good strategy for me to get directly across the intersection; there are, afterall, plenty of older ladies in saris walking around so I could wait for one to cross and follow closely.

But a couple of days into my training that changed.  I was rushing to reach the intersection while an old woman in a gorgeous earthy red sari crossed.  She was halfway through the street, meandering in her lazy gate and apparently she tested the drivers' patience a bit too much because suddenly the whole intersection exploded with honking and movement.  The rickshaws and motorcycles began to aggressively move in.  The ran her off the road.  I don't think she ended up where she meant to.

So I reverted to my plan to always cross Chamiers Rd a few yards away from the intersection.

Once I pass it and continue walking on Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Devar (PMD) Rd the experience is alot less stressful.  For one, there's actually a side walk you can use.  In many other areas of Chennai the sidewalk might be there but you would not want to use it because it's used for storage, parking carts, sleeping, selling trinkets or as a toilet.  But PMD Rd has none of that.  The biggest inconvenience is the large trees growing out of the sidewalk that now and again make it impossible to get by unless you jump onto the street.

Cracked in some places and uneven in others, the sidewalk is nonetheless perfect for strolling: free of obstacles most of the time and elevated just enough from the road that the motorcycles and rickshaws can come as close as they want but can't jump onto it.  You barely see the sky as the road is shrouded on either side by tall tropical trees that reach up and over, letting their branches meet and intertwine high above the road.

There's some areas that are nothing short of beautiful.  During my walk this morning I came across a blue cart that had been parked on the sidewalk under a tree that had shed hundreds of beautiful and aromatic white flowers.  I had to turn into the side street to get a picture.  It was so quiet at that moment.  There was no one on the street and I felt blessed to have this simple but beautiful scene bathed in soft light to myself.

Turning off of PMD Rd offers a very different experience.  Since many streets aren't clearly marked with names, if I were to give someone directions from my apartment to the KHYF, I would say:

1. Head South from the apartment entry and cross Chamiers Rd.
2. Continue heading South and pass a few left turns until you get to one that makes you pray from the depths of your soul "Please, God, don't let it be this one" and then turn left.

This is Canal Rd.  Unmarked and feeling more like a seedy alley way than a proper street, Canal Rd is so called because it runs parallel to a canal that you cannot see but which you absolutely can smell.  In Chennai, canals are often the place where junk and sewage end up and the smell leaves very little question of that.  The street itself is lined with shacks that might be homes or might be store fronts.  It's not certain.  Here and there you get glimpses of confusing elements, like crushed plastic bottles that are tied together to create something that resembles a giant flower garland.  They hang from wooden poles that hold up straw or tin roofs and seem to have no purpose other than decoration.  The street looks like it was paved at one point but the earth has reclaimed it.  It is clay colored, rugged and typically has a couple of puddles that look like they could be a foot deep in places.  Stray dogs that clearly live on the street wander here and there and mostly leave the chickens and roosters alone.  There's always chatter from the shacks, either from conversation or a television or radio playing.  Turning into this street feels like entering a completely different world from the clean and (somewhat) orderly feel of PMD Rd.

Were you to walk further down you would see cows on either side of the wall that separates Canal Rd from its namesake, sometimes wandering the wet clay path, resting on the side of the road, or eating the vibrant green leaves from one of the trees that border the canal.

Whenever I walk down the street I get more wary looks than I do anywhere else in Chennai.  It's a community all its own.

Luckily, to get to KHYF, you would make an immediately left off Canal Rd, which takes you down a less dilapidated street which ends at the center itself.

It's a two story building painted white and orange, mirroring the rich clay colored street.  Its border is lined with potted plants and a white gate that is always open.  As you enter you are welcomed with a modest altar to Sri Krishnamacharya, the Yoga master whose teachings inspired the likes of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (of Ashtanga-Vinyasa Yoga), B.K.S. Iyengar (likely the most prolific yogi in modern time), A.G. Mohan, Srivatsa Ramaswami, Indra Devi, and of course T.K.V. Desikachar (best known in the U.S. for his emphasis on customizing yoga to individuals and for the use of yoga in a therapeutic context).  It is Desikachar's family who runs this center.

Photographed and reproduced with permission from KHYF
The first floor of the center is reserved for administrative and therapy work.  There's a small bookshelf with books that have been authored by Desikachar and his son Kausthub, my mentor for this training.

I met Kausthub in 2011 during the Heart of Yoga training and have since then studied with him whenever he travels to the U.S. or holds Skype lectures.  It's perplexing for many of us in the U.S. to imagine how you could learn yoga via Skype, but in the last two years I've attended five nearly year-long classes (on pranayama, mudras and bandhas, cakras, mantra and on yoga's perspective on trauma), all of which have broadened my knowledge of Yoga immensely.

As an aside: Kausthub also happens to be a photography enthusiast, which gives us something else in common.  He is doing some very interesting work with digital cameras and analog lenses.  He recently created a site for his photography where he will be talking about his equipment and its capabilities.

The second floor is where we hold class.  Shoes come off at the base of an exterior staircase painted orange and nestled amidst palms and large leafed trees.  At the top is a room with industrial looking walls and a ceiling covered in wicker with multiple ceiling fans hanging from it (a feature that is highly appreciated in the midst of India's heat and humidity).  There's windows on every side, letting in ample amounts of natural light and offering views of the surrounding flora.  It is a humble space but it feels appropriate for the work being done here.  The Yoga of the Krishnamacharya tradition is a no frills type of Yoga.  There's no need to dress it up or polish its presentation.  The teachings speak for themselves and the practice itself is what is understood to ultimately relay them.

Photographed and reproduced with permission from KHYF

Photographed and reproduced with permission from KHYF

At the far end of the room there is a portrait of Krishnamacharya as a young man.  Lean, strong and severe, he looks into the room standing in the pose of attention, a portrait that I am familiar with from my many years embedded in the Ashtanga-Vinyasa community.  The framed portrait is dressed in flower garlands daily, a constant offering in appreciation for what he enabled.

This will be home for three weeks and every six months for two years.

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