Monday, August 23, 2004

I have a pet theory about ashtanga yoga. I’m not sure if it holds water, but I’ll lay it out anyway: the older the ashtangi and the longer they’ve been practicing, the less dogmatic they tend to be.

People begin the practice, perhaps casually, and then they have an epiphany. They begin to practice in earnest. After a few years they develop relative competency in the first two series. It’s at this point they come to believe that there’s only one way to practice ashtanga, and that way is to be followed faithfully, perhaps unquestioningly. Deviation from the series, and from any of the myriad “rules” and tradition that surround it, is not tolerated or even understood. As you would expect, self-righteousness comes hand-in-hand with this transformation of tradition into dogma.

Perhaps this phase in unavoidable, and even necessary. Perhaps one has to cling to the structure and rules before letting go.

I haven’t done any empirical research on my theory. Maybe it’s more wishful thinking than anything else. But any of the “senior” teachers I’ve met, the people who’ve been practicing upwards of 20 or 25 years, seem to have a light touch and a sense of playfulness when it comes to the practice, as though the practice of ashtanga is the punchline to a profound cosmic joke.

People bring a lot of baggage to Gokulam, not just self-righteousness. Most of it is tucked away in their heads. They have expectations about the practice and about Guruji and Sharath. “Why does Guruji always help me with backbends? Why not Sharath?” Or, “Why has Sharath given pasasana to Frankie Forwardbend and not to me? I’m grabbing my ankles in backbends!” Or, “Why has Sharath left me on shalabasana for two months?”

In the middle of my third month here, on a Sunday morning, something shifted for me. Sharath was counting, the room was crammed, all I was aware of the two guys on either side of me was their ragged, tortured breathing. A simple thought floated up from my subconscious, overwhelming in its simplicity and in the strength of its truth: You show up, you do the practice, and you don’t think about it. Leave the thought-baggage at home.

I agree: it seems so innocuous and incidental when written down. How to describe the visceral sense with which this realization permeated me, from skin to marrow?

This thought was followed by a second, some minutes later. I realized I could now leave Mysore.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Bug Story
The bug was as long and as thick as my thumb. Its hairy black body perched on Deb's throat, just under her right ear, its thin black legs in sharp relief against her pale white skin. The Two Debs and I were on top of Chamundi Hill just after sunset, walking back from the main temple. Canadian Deb was telling a story, gesticulating and waving her arms in her inimitable style. I noticed Deb's insect passenger and snatched at her neck. The bug, her throat: It was more of a muscle spasm than a conscious gesture. The bug had surprising density and heft, my stomach flip-flopped, a shudder passed through me.

"What was that?" Deb asked. "A bug?"

"Yeah, it was nothing."

She looked at my face. "Was it big?"

"No, just a mosquito," I lied.

Who knew the bastards could move so quickly? A 3:30 AM duel in the shower starts the day properly.

Yoga Crush
One-hundred-plus people and counting in the shala. Assembly-line yoga? Two other people and I finished in the entrance hall the other day.

Your teacher monitors your progress and gives you asanas based on several criteria. At the very least, this requires a relationship between teacher and student. Is such a relationship still possible with Guruji and Sharath at the main shala?

Jain Temple, Part I
At Sravanabelagola last weekend we climbed 604 stairs carved into a stone hill. An 18-meter-high statue of Jain saint Gomatshevara awaited us at the top; it had been built in the tenth century. The view from the temple of the surrounding countryside was absolutely devastating.

Jain Temple, Part II
I huddled in front of the main temple, munching biscuits. The woman's four-year-old son had to pee. She shouted at him and gestured. He walked to the edge of the entranceway, pulled down his red shorts, and pissed onto the temple ground.

Culture Shock
The ubiquitous and unending staring. The question "Where from?" The disregard for life on the roadways.

Vladimir Nabokov versus Tom Clancy
One a palate cleanser for the other.

Day One: drink 50 millileters of ghee. Day Two: drink 75 millileters of ghee. Day Three: drink 100 millileters of ghee. Two questions: One, detoxification or religious zealotry? Two, when the process is finished, do you feel better because you're detoxified or because the ghee is no longer making you sick?

Homeward Bound
Straight to San Francisco on September 8.

Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Tripping the Guru

Guruji is a strong, barrel-chested man. When you lean into him you feel a tremendous core of strength. For all that, though, he's 89 years old. And he's not exactly spritely on his feet. This morning, as he padded about the room, he stumbled over my outstretched leg. I imagined the worst-case scenario: Guruji goes down, and I'm the guy who broke the guru's hip. He recoverd nicely, and then had his revenge during backbends . He hovered over me and shouted at me the whole time, as I stood up and dropped back. And despite the shouting, I was quite flattered at the attention.

Monday, August 2, 2004

Yesterday: more rib pain.

Today: no rib pain.

Sharath says my chest and back are opening. I don't know if that's true, but it's a comforting thought. I'm waiting to see if the pain returns.

The other day there were a few monkeys lounging on our roof. I fed them dates to try lure one in close enough to pet. They're very skittish, and at first the monkeys scampered at the slightest sound or gesture, so I lobbed the dates onto the ground.

Word spread on the monkey grapevine that there were dates to be had, and soon there were 15 or 20 monkeys ringing our rooftop. I had a few of them taking the dates from my hand.

As with everything in India, where there's beauty there's horror. When the monkeys get close, you can see that many of them are mutilated, malnourished, and sick. In the horde on our roof, many had burned or disfigured faces, were missing eyes, had giant, swollen neck goiters, and were missing hands---people chop off their arms to make good luck talismans.

I abandoned my quaint notion of petting a monkey.

They began fighting each other for the food, and I had a half-second vision of my flatmates and I getting swarmed. Rabies shots for days! Before anything got out of hand, my landlord came up on the roof and started swinging a stick. Thankfully he wasn't beating any of the little buggers, only making noise to scare them off. Doubtless he was thinking, "Idiot Westerners! Feeding the monkeys!"