Sunday, November 8, 2015

Here Comes the Rain Again

From what I'm told, this has been an unusually wet season and it has come late.  I arrived in the midst of a storm and so far we've had at least four more come through.  When it rains, it's unrelenting.  This isn't the starts and stops of Miami, nor the constant drizzle of Portland and Seattle but rather the angriest combination of both: it's a high water pressure shower that someone forgot to turn off and it covers the whole city.

This unfortunate circumstance is compounded with the very poor drainage system in Chennai.  Some streets, especially major ones, seem to suffer much less than the smaller side streets, but they can still flood so deep that cars will stall from the engines flooding.  The auto rickshaws are especially susceptible to this as they ride low to the ground.

On Sunday it rained all day and with the exception of an early morning venture out of the city I spent the whole day inside reading and writing.  It rained again on the two days that Diwali is celebrated, minimizing to some degree the amount of noise we had to sustain at night.  And last night it rained again.  Heavy and long.  I fell asleep to the sound of rain and woke up at 4a.m. to it.

I didn't think much of it but got my rain boots and my umbrella.  The moment I stepped out of the apartment I got a glimpse of the street and gasped.  It was completely inundated.  The cars driving by had half of their tires covered in some cases.  There was a very agitated stray dog standing on one of the mounds just outside my apartment looking at all the water, not sure where to turn to get out of that situation.

I got down and started to walk towards school, watching as the water got deeper and deeper.  My boots are 15" tall and the water first covered them halfway and then quickly left only 2" until the brim.  Everytime a car or motorcycle drove by the wake would push some water into my boots.

Water is one thing of course, but this water was dirty, murky brown and it hid anything that was any deeper than 2" from its surface.  With the street in constant disarray and construction, it was impossible to know exactly what you were stepping on or into.  Could be a pothole that would sink a foot and half or it could be a metal pipe or a branch.  I had to move so slowly to get through.

I've had two moments in India where I have gotten so agitated I could barely contain tears: once when I got lost in a temple city and today, wading through water that had all manner of things that I could not see.  Both times I found myself praying under my breath, letting God know that I needed help with this shit because I was about to lose it.  Both times also represented important realizations: that though I've tempered anxiety when I'm not in control, I certainly haven't mastered it.  When I got lost in the temple city, my agitation was so palpable that even the stray dogs could sense it.  Normally they keep to themselves but they were driven to anxious barking at that moment.  

Today I would've welcomed barking dogs because at a minimum they would've given me a sign of where I could walk without sinking deeper into the water.  Instead all I got was an empty street with an occasional car or motorcycle driving slowly but determinedly trying to get through the water as quickly as possible.

The desolate street with a river running through it was beautiful and horrid at the same time.  I hated walking in it.  I would see large branches tumbling past me on the road.  At one point one one hit my leg and I realized just how dense some of these branches were.  It had taken such strong wind and rain to knock them down.  A couple of times I stepped on uneven ground and took a deep breath hoping the next step didn't make me sink.  Once my foot got stuck on something that I couldn't discern.  I pulled it up gently, being mindful not to yank since I could rip my boot and make my situation all the worse.  I saw a dark leathery skin rise about the surface of the water and after a moment of horror, I realized it was another branch that had gotten stuck in the mud below.

Once I got past the small streets I realized I felt a sense of relief descend on me, clearing away the tension, giving me the freedom to feel and to see what I was feeling clearly.  I was pissed off and scared and also happy.  My pants, which I'd tucked into my boots to keep dry, were soaked from the knee down.  My feet and socks were wet with filthy water that had jumped the brim of my boot whenever I moved too fast, making it so that I heard a squishing sound, and felt a wet spongy sensation as I walked.  Every step I took reminded me of what I'd just gone through.  In moments when you'd rather forget I had a physical and audible reminder.  It just pissed me off more.  And to add insult to injury, wading through the water had made my walk three times as long, which meant I would be late for class.  But there was no way to run in these boots.  They have little traction and the last thing I needed was to slip on the street and end up face down in all the water.

As I walked wet and angry I suddenly remembered something my teacher had said a few days before.  He was talking about obstacles and how, though most of us understand them to be external, they are, more often than not, internal.

He offered the example of someone driving down a road trying to get somewhere and they come across a large tree that has fallen on the road.  The tree doesn't allow the car to get through.  So they turn around and go back, deciding there is no way they will get to their destination.

"What is the obstacle?" my teacher asked.  "The tree?  Or the attitude that lets the person give up so easily?"

Our determination is sometimes all that we have to get us through tough moments, whether they are physical or emotional.  It can seem obsessive from the outside, even reckless, to see someone push through obstacles, taking risks that are seemingly greater than the benefits they would grant you.  But what's going on inside the person is, if not transformative, then something curiously close to it.  Something happens to us when we face difficulty and place our fears and insecurity at its feet.  It's almost an offering we make to be so vulnerable.  In these cases it isn't altogether improper to see God as the obstacle and the remover of the obstacle once the proper offering has been made.  Lord Ganesha, the elephant headed god, represents this precise idea.  He is known as the remover of obstacles, but is also understood to place them in your path when needed.  In spirituality, it's nothing short of transformation that is required.

With this in mind, I mustered a brief smile, a little proud of myself that I'd made it through something terrifying because I was determined to not miss class.  I reached Canal Bank Road and noticed it had its usual deep puddles but there were noticeable areas where the water was not deep.  As I walked past the shuttered shacks I noticed a large dead rat lying on its back and swollen.  It wasn't crushed and its flesh was intact from what I could see, leading me to believe it had drowned.  Before I reached my turn on Stone Link Avenue I noticed a dead frog in a similar state.  I thought for a moment about my trek through the dirty water and how it was very likely there were plenty of vermin beneath the surface and I was thankful that I didn't encounter any then.

And then I realized the entirety of Stone Link Avenue, the dead end street that leads to my school, was flooded.  Flooded in the same way my own street was, with the murky brown water and the uneven terrain.  I could see the school all the way at the end of the street.  There wasn't a soul to be seen, just a single car that moved towards me slowly, water more than halfway up its tires, leaving a wake in its path.

I almost felt defeated and then another thought crossed my mind.  Nothing as poetic as the story my teacher had told, but something that in its own way was just as inspirational.

Fuck this shit.

I was done with this.  I looked to either side of the road and noticed there were decorative steps, flower banks and sand bags that bordered some of the houses along the street and I decided this was going to be my path.  It meant I was all up on people's property, using their cars and fences for leverage, but I didn't care.  I moved quickly looking for the fastest path to get to the school, regardless of what it required of me.  If I'd had to climb on a car I would've.  At one point I heard someone yelling from one of the houses.  I considered for a moment if they were objecting to what I was doing and immediately dismissed the concern.

Let them come wade through this shit if they want to scream at me.

I reached the driveway of the school and saw a few students washing their feet at the foot of the stairs that led to our classroom.  I was happy I'd made it on time... or at least before class had begun in earnest.  One of the students turned to me, smiled, and said that they'd been told to wash their legs because the water carried alot of stuff that would be harmful.  He clearly had not seen the dead rat and frog otherwise the second-hand testimonial wouldn't have been necessary.  

My pants were soaked, but I was able to change into shorts that I'd thankfully put in my backpack... something I had not done once the entire time I've been here but for some reason felt the compulsion to do today even before I knew the state of the street.

As I made my way up the stairs to class I thought of another similar moment I'd once read about.  Years ago when I was stranded in Islamorada, Florida when a yoga workshop with Pattabhi Jois I'd signed up for had been cancelled last minute due to his illness, I used my extra time to read "Eat, Pray, Love."  There's a moment during Liz Gilbert's time in India when she wakes up in the early morning with an intense desire to chant the Guru Gita that she typically despised.  And that precise day her roommate had locked her in her room by mistake.  But rather than give up, Gilbert escapes through a small window, gaining scratches and scrapes but managing to make it to the hall where the group has met to chant.  The experience changed her and her attitude towards the Guru Gita was never the same.

Sometimes it takes these moments testing our resolve to change us... to make us dig deep into ourselves so that we clearly see and then break down barriers and push through boundaries we've created to make room and create a path for where we need to go internally.  It doesn't feel good going through this.  It often feels terrible, like something in you has broken, withered, or died.  It isn't until you realize that the space the process has created has now made room for something else that you understand that perhaps what died was an inhibition or fear you would do better without.  

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.