Sunday, June 20, 2004

I was going to remark that it's easy to fall behind here, but then I thought, "'Fall behind' what?" It's not like any yoga student in Mysore has a schedule or time constraints.

Two Thoughts From the Train Ride to Bangalore:
---The Indian-style toilets on the train are essentially a stainless steel hole in the car floor. You can actually look through the hole while you're peeing and see the ground speeding past! It was one of the greatest guilty pleasures I have known.

---Dogs are onto something: it's a hypnotic and appealing danger to hang out of the open doors between cars, the wind blasting your face and verdant green countryside shuttling past.

More Random Yoga
I may have already posted this: About practicing yoga in Mysore, a Chilean woman remarked: "Guruji says, 'First month---tired. Second month---pain. Third month---flying!'"

Friday morning class headcount: 51.

In the end of May, when I first arrived, a student would finish backbending and leave the main room for one of two smaller "finishing" rooms. Guruji would shout "One more!" to indicate to the students waiting in the hall that they could enter and begin their practice. Only there weren't any students waiting. We're almost at that point again.

This morning, I looked at the guy a few spaces over from me and noticed two huge, red mosquito bites on his back. Itching the fresh ones I'd picked up over the night, I thought, "We're exhausted, dirty, some of us are wan and sickly, and all of us are covered in all manner of bites---mosquito, spider, ant, fly, and more. We must look a sorry sight!"

Sharath is Guruji's grandson, and is carrying on the heritage of his grandfather's teachings. He leads Sunday morning class while Guruji sits on his chair and watches and/or naps. The final pose before "taking rest" is uth pluthi, wherein you fold your legs in lotus and push yourself---including your butt---off the floor. You thereby hang suspended in the air.

It is at this point that Sharath's even, measured counting takes on the unbearable precision of the metronome as arms quake and butts hit the floor all over the room. "Up! Up! Pick it up!" Sharath will command. Fatigued students will struggle to obey.

My advice to those coming to Mysore: spend more time in uth pluthi. My trick for maintaining: I pick a number and start counting backward, timing my breath to my own count. If you start listening to Sharath's count---and anticipating it---you're lost.

As a footnote, today I got to hear Sharath say, "Hm! Big man, no strength!" to someone behind me.

Last week in conference, a slight modification of the usual formula: "Ninety-nine-and-a-half percent practice, half-percent theory!" says Guruji. There was much laughter.

Every conference I've attended thus far has included the following phrase from Guruji, often repeated many times during his talks: "Practice, practice, practice. One year, two year, three year? No. Five year, ten year? No. Lifetime! Practice, practice, practice."

Yet another reiteration of why I think this particular system is so effective: it's all about doing. Not speaking, thinking, philosophizing, or theorizing---although there is all that, too. But at the heart of ashtanga vinyasa lies practice itself.

Friday, June 18, 2004

The beggars will be the cause of my Mysore meltdown. For my friend Sherrie, it'll be the rickshaw drivers. For another girl, it'll be the 10-millionth Indian in a day who will ask "What is your name and where are you from?" at precisely the wrong moment.

The "Mysore meltdown" can be one of several things: a temper tantrum, an anxiety attack, a slow descent into depression; or all three, at the same time.

The end result of the meltdown is the overwelming feeling that it's time to get out of India. As sequestered in Gokulam as yoga students are, it's still India, and everything here conspires to push you to your edge.

I've not had the meltdown---yet---but on certain days when nothing goes right, I can see where it comes from. And after a month here, I can see people who are more susceptible to it than others.

If you come here, you will get bit by mosquitos. You will get sick. You will get diarrhea. You will get ripped off. You will get lost. You will get stared at. Any one of these things will happen, or all of them. Unfortunately, the more you try to control things, the more you're destined to fail. You can't make Mysore like Milwaukee. You'll only break yourself into pieces in the attempt.

The long-timers, the ones who have made Mysore their home, seem to have a few common traits. They have significant others here with them. They create a hermetic environment for themselves, and then retreat into that space, emerging to deal with India only on their own terms. And they all seem to be well aware of their limits---they know when to leave in order to recharge and return.

The few times I've spotted hints of my meltdown have been when dealing with beggars. A generic example: It's hot, it's dirty, I'm exhausted from negotiating with a rickshaw driver, and our group is still lost somewhere in the warren of Lakshmipuram. We settle on a likely direction and set off.

It's at this point a dirty 7-year-old detachs herself from a nearby wall, baby in arms, and suctions herself onto me with an unexpected physicality.

It's unnerving, not least because she won't hesitate to wrap her hands around my arm or leg. She'll motion with closed fingers to mouth in the universal gesture for hunger.

I'll say "No!" in a firm voice. But she doesn't leave, and continues to follow our group.

Unsettling fact number one: we'll continue to talk over her head---literally---as though she wasn't there, as though she's ceased to register as a human being on our radar screens.

Unsettling fact number two: Last week I got angry at one of them---angry at this little beggar child for begging, for daring to starve, for shoving her poverty into my consciousness and forcing me to deal with it.

The beggars and the questions they raise are too big for me, too big for my intellectual and emotional depth. It's easier to shut it out, say no, and refuse to see them as people. As always, though, the hard shell will crack. I'm working so that it's not anger that emerges.

Friday, June 11, 2004

The typical Indian house is made of concrete, and the electrical wiring seems to be based on mid-century schematics. As a result, the only sockets are located high up on the wall, near the ceiling lights. This means it is very difficult to plug in reading lamps. So people read by candlelight? Do they only read during the day?

There are cows, pigs, dogs, horses, and occasionally monkeys running everywhere. But where are the cats? I've only seen one.

The other day, someone was saying, "I was in a scooter accident, then I came down with a fever, then I was hospitalized for a stomach infection, and now I have a cyst growing on my face. As soon as one thing gets better, something else happens. I've gotten over the idea that I'll ever be 100-percent."

A common Mysore yoga belief: deep backbends cause fevers. I've never heard of anything like this happening to yoga students in the States, at least where I practice---too many of us go to work afterwards; who can get sick?---so I'm wondering if the statement shouldn't be amended to read "the Indian environment causes fevers." Because my god, living here is war on your immune system.

I'm going to put myself out on a limb here and say that I don't particularly care for thali meals. But I do love idli.

You Will Never See This in the US
From a sign on a shop near the shala: "100% More Butterfat! The Milk With The Most Fat!"

The above sign has become a landmark: "I live around the corner from 100% More Butterfat," or "You know 100% More Butterfat? Go down that street and make a left ... "

Gas is phenomenally expensive here, even by Western standards. Yesterday I paid around $6 US to fill up a scooter tank, which is only six liters. As a result, there is strange silence at all intersections, as people shut off their engines to conserve fuel while they wait for the light to change. You will see people run and jump on their scooters and motorcycles and then start them as they roll away. It's to spare the fuel needed to take the engine from a standstill. Sometimes, as you go downhill, a scooter will appear from nowhere and coast by, the driver having shut off his engine.

It is startling when beggars grab and latch onto your arm. A ragged child, holding her equally ragged two-year-old sister in her arms, will interrupt a conversation to ask for money. You tell them no, and they do not leave---the girl stands there at your elbow, making the universal gesture for hunger. You continue your conversation over her. She hovers, a ghost in the corner of your vision. What will it mean when I no longer notice her?

The average age seems to be late 20s/early 30s; I expected much younger people. After all, who else has the luxury of time? Instead, the people here tend to be either in transitional stages of life---after school, between jobs---or have constructed lives where they can make three-month pilgrimages to Mysore.

I drank half a screwdriver at dinner last night, but had to back off part way through the meal because I was getting smashed---I stood up to use the restroom and swayed like a drunken comic-strip cliche. Half a screwdriver?

On Friday morning, everyone practices first series, and Guruji leads the class. Prior to class, Sharath played Indian music over the loudspeakers, forcing conversation volume up a few notches. Sharath's voice came over the loudspeaker: "Please maintain silence!" We all looked back to the office to see him laughing. In many ways he has the lightness of a child.

Today's agenda is to go the movies to see a dreadful American blockbuster. It occurs to me I haven't seen TV in a month! Yet I still live. How can this be?

Tuesday, June 8, 2004

There's a lot of body-work floating around Mysore---chiropractic work and massage of all types. That's part of the reason I ended up buck-naked and face-down on a vinyl mat in a spare room at the Three Sisters.

Harini, one of the Three Sisters, provides Ayurvedic massage, for "women only," as the Three Sisters' card says. Her guru, Vijay, is in town, however, and they're both tag-teaming yoga students, male and female.

I'd heard rave reviews about Vijay and his foot from another long-time ashtangi, so I had to check it out, if only for the novelty. It's a whole-body massage administered with the foot, and I was told that Vijay's is incredibly dextrous, and can even put yoga students into lotus.

When I showed up at the Three Sisters' house, Vijay handed me a length of string and a cheese-cloth napkin. "Yogi clothes!" he joked. Vijay is always joking. The string goes around the waist, the cheese-cloth is tucked into the front, encapsulates the fundamentals, flosses the ischial tuberosities, and is tucked in the back.

Vijay and Harini poured oil onto my body and then got to work. A rope stretched across the ceiling, and both used it for balance as their feet kneaded my back.

It was more than a massage, however. It had to be among the most profound bodywork I've ever had---part massage, part chiropractic adjustment, part physical therapy.

They worked my back, my sides, and my front; my legs, my arms, my torso, my neck, my feet, my hands. There was movement and adjustment. My spine popped, and I swear those gifts from an office job, the almond-sized lumps behind my shoulder blades, dissipitated with a crunching noise.

The whole thing lasted an hour-and-a-half. Vijay sang slokas, made jokes, and harassed Harini. The two went back and forth like an old married couple.

The "India moment"? Moments before Vijay and Harini got to business, I was alone in the room. My head was cocked to the side, and I stared at the wall. It was dirty. The floor was dirty. I was covered in oil and spread-eagled, bait and tackle folded in the barest of materials. All of the above---the dirt, the oil, my nudity, and the fact that India is an overwelming assault on the senses---flashed throuh my mind. What in the hell was I doing?

Those are the "India moments." It's when you ask yourself, "What in the hell am I doing here?" And it happens quite a bit.

Wednesday, June 2, 2004

The pulp version goes like this: Monday morning, moments before walking out the door to practice, the stomach bug ripped through my intestines with the velocity of a .45 slug.

I gutted out practice---literally---and returned home to convalesce in bed. No diarrhea, no vomit, just one very upset stomach and lots of burping.

Horror of horrors, I took Tuesday off. I hadn't eaten a thing all day on Monday, and awoke that morning achey and weak.

I climbed back on the horse on Wednesday, however, and seemed to be back at 100-percent.

My low back has been sore for the past two days. It's not a "wrong" pain, but is instead the soreness of muscle development. Since I've arrived in India, I've spent most of my time sitting cross-legged on the floor, which has forced my low back and abdominal muscles to support the weight of my spine. Hopefully the muscles will strengthen, and the pain will subside in a few days or weeks.

The yoga routine here is as follows: you practice six days a week, taking Saturday as your day of rest.

(Although Guruji's grandson Sharath runs his own school out of a red brick house, a few blocks from the main school. His students practice on Saturday and take Sunday as their day of rest.)

When you arrive, you must register to practice. You may register during office hours, held Monday through Friday from 4:30 to 5:30. Generally, Guruji is sitting in the small office located off the main practice room.

When you register, they give you a time slot for practice. This time slot depends on how many people are practicing; the more people, the later your time. When I arrived, I started immediately at the earliest time slot, 5 AM.

Guruji holds "conference" on Sunday afternoons at 4:30. The main practice room, a large hall that can accommodate maybe 50 yoga students, has a low stage. Guruji will sit on a chair on the stage, and Sharath will sit at his right hand.

The last few conferences I've been to, either someone sparked his lecture by asking a question ("Guruji, I have great faith in the practice. But when will the pain stop?"), or else Guruji just began speaking.

Last Sunday's conference was a real struggle to understand. Guruji has a minimal grasp of English, and on that day had to compete against Sharath's two-year-old daughter, who was busy with a noisy performance of her own.

Afterwards a few of us spoke with Sharath. I find him to be one of the most unprepossessing people I've ever met. Someone said they find no ego in Sharath, and I must say I agree. He's very lighthearted.

As everyone's starting at 5 AM, Sharath begins his own practice at 2:30, and if Guruji is awake, he'll assist. When he said this last bit, Sharath made a quick, pushing motion, and laughed---not even Guruji's own grandson is spared.

The wide variety of practice levels at the shala is staggering, too. There are many beginners. There are many people working through intermediate. And there even several people working beyond those. I'd be hard pressed to locate where the center of the Bell curve would fall, though.

I pity and envy the beginners. I pity them, because they've traveled such a long way to get the harshest of crash courses in yoga.

Verbal instruction is minimal, and often shouted across the room. I can imagine how it would feel to have them shout instructions at you, and you have no idea what they're saying. It's very bewildering.

The shouting is one thing; it must be quite another ego check to actually be stopped at a pose, too.

Sharath will gauge a person's practice, lead them to a pose where they're having phsyical difficulty, and then tell them to "Take shoulderstand." He'll effectively tell them they're finished.

These people have come all this way, and paid a tremendous sum of money, only to be told they can't complete an entire series! While people right next to them are zipping along!

I envy them, though. They're getting the whole program, piece by piece, straight from the source. What better way to learn something than direct from one of the pioneers?