There and Back Again: A Yogi’s Tale

Our journey back home began for us early on Tuesday morning, within the backdrop of a light rainy mist and the manic and frenzied cackling of the now familiar bird cries. Neena was up to give us our last send off, giving us extra hugs and a to-go container of Poha that she had made for us. Poha is one of our favorite Indian dishes, made of a flattened rice (which makes it super light and fluffy), peas, nuts, and delicious spices. You can expect to be in the car anywhere between 2.5-4 hours, depending on the traffic and who is driving, so it was a welcome surprise! As we drive out of town, we say our goodbyes to the places that has been home the last month. Our apartment, the park, the Institute. The feral dogs are trotting briskly with purpose as they roam for scraps of food. We see a handful of the dogs that we have come to know over the month, and a lot more that we don’t know. I finally let myself feel all the emotions I have about the animals of India, now that I don’t have to be surrounded by it constantly.

 

We begin the now familiar journey from Pune to Mumbai. There are billboards everywhere you look. We see a baby painted blue and dressed up like Lord Krishna, with Marathi writing on it. Some look like political adds. And some are in English, promoting luxury dream homes and beach vacations. They stand in front of the skeletons of half finished, vacant, high rises. Other completed high rises line the highways, completely covered in rainbows of laundry hung and drying. All are nestled within tropical trees and rolling hills. More expansive hills are dotted with smaller homes and herds of goats and cows. As we approach Mumbai, we see the number of dogs, people, and vehicles increase. It is the morning hours, so you see people cooking rice over fires under makeshift tents. There are people in their underwear brushing their teeth beside a dumpster. There are always people relieving themselves of every sort of bodily waste imaginable on the side of the road. It starts to rain, so the motor bikers pull over to pull their slickers on over their work clothes. On the road in the city there are many serenely-faced woman dressed in beautiful, vibrant saris, effortlessly sitting side saddle on the backs of motor cycles, no easy feet We stare out at all of this, and people stare right back at us, the only two westerns we see for 4 hours. We are used to this by now, of course. We make it to the airport, and through all of the security stations. We encounter one last sensory assault, as the flight attendants spray down the airplanes with bug spray. I am ready for it this time, keeping my face dutifully covered with my now well worn scarf. As the plane lifts off, I look down in wonder. Did all that really just happen?

 

Angie was saying how the last month almost feels like it was a dream. And now that I am back home, I guess it does in some ways. This morning, I went about my normal routine as if I had never been gone. Wake up, coffee, shower, walk the dogs. All the things I am used to. But it feels different now. I am hyper aware of the unlimited, clean water supply I have. Never in my life has a shower felt more luxurious to me than it has the last few days. I have all sorts of stores, all minutes away, where I can get anything I want. I have completely reliable electricity, no black outs or restrictions. I have a fresh and diverse food supply at my fingertips. I can chose to make as much trash as I want, and then put it in a bag and tie it and forget it forever. I thought I was living consciously before, but I am realizing just how decadent my life here is.

 

I already miss some of the people I have come to know so well. I miss my daily breakfast (and sometimes dinner) of fresh chopped ginger, papaya, pineapple, and pomegranate. I miss the yoga, and the deep spiritual fabric that IS India. The in-your-face reminder of everyone and everything going on around you. It made a gratitude practice effortless. Now it is my job to keep that spark alive. 

 

I already have my next India trip scheduled for August 2015. I will be doing much more traveling outside of Pune on that trip, now that I know how to be in India and what to expect from the rigorous class and practice schedule at the Institute! I have so enjoyed chronicling both my travel experiences, and my yoga experiences, through this blog. I am (finally) doing my first Iyengar assessment in November, involving philosophy knowledge and teaching. After going to India, I see how deeply the yoga philosophy and India are intertwined. That said, I am going to continue to write about yoga philosophy through this blog. If that isn’t your thing, I will also include yoga sequences, so stay tuned for that, as well!

 

Thanks for indulging me, and joining me on this journey. Until next time!

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Getting Ready

The other night, I made a call to a supermarket to order water. When I say supermarket, I don’t necessarily mean what we in the States are accustomed to, which is a building with doors and aisles and refrigerators that is a one stop shopping center. Although you do find those sorts of stores around, minus the one stop shopping part. Actually, I guess I shouldn’t say that. We did get to go to a store, Darabjee’s, where you can get everything from Coffee, to Nutella, to toliet paper. Three top necessities on this trip. But the fruits and vegetables are much better if you go to a cart, or to OM Supermarket… Which is a very long, open stand with an awning, that is piled up higher than I can reach with fruits and vegetables. Again, supermarket doesn’t necessarily mean what we in the States are accustomed to.

 

Our first week here, we found someone who comes on a motorbike to bring bottled water to us. We have to buy bottled water here to drink, cook with, etc. There are all sorts of interesting critters in the water that our guts are not used to, coming from such a sanitized environment. Our friend and rickshaw driver Nana calls it “jumping water”. I am not sure why he called it jumping water, as I am sure I would NOT be doing much jumping the day after drinking it. 

 

Anyway, whenever I call the supermarket, I never really know that the person on the other end of the phone has understood what I asked for. I used to just get grunted at and then hung up on. And then 2 out of 3 times, someone would come with water. I learned to begin asking, what time? Not that the delivery person comes at that time. But, if they say a time back to me, I can be pretty sure that they understood that they are to deliver something to the house. That day, the guy said back, 7:00. I said okay, and at 7:00 I went downstairs to wait. I was covered pretty much head to toe to ward off the mosquitos, so I didn’t mind hanging out for a little while. It was dusk, and the birds were flying back to the park that backs the apartment we are living in. Every morning and evening, there is a loud chorus of birds that even overtakes the street noise. That tells you how loud it is! Well, I was hanging out on a bench, and looking up at the sky and the birds were flying overhead. The sky was absolutely packed with birds whizzing by each other. It was a mirror image of what was happening below them on the street, an intricate dance and communication between a wide variety of birds, and a handful of moths and butterflies, as well. Time stood still, and I began picking out some of the birds, large and small, I have become accustomed to seeing here. There are ravens at least twice the size of ravens in the States with huge wing spans. As it turned towards dusk, I realized that some of these enormous ravens were NOT ravens, but were actually huge bats. All of these living creatures were flying in a very crowded sky, all aware of and in coordination with each other. Very much like the streets of India themselves.

 

I watched this spectacle for about 40 minutes. Angie actually made her way downstairs to find me at that point. I realized It had been a while, and that no one was coming with water, so I figured I better call again. My sense of time clicked back on again. In response, our water delivery got to the house in 5 minutes. I actually hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that I have been in this strange time warp the last month, where time is moving incredibly fast and incredibly slow at the same time. But, as this trip is winding down and we are preparing to head out, time is beginning to synch up again.

 

I can’t help but reflect back on some of the amazing people we have met over the course of this month. Yesterday, we had the pleasure of seeing our local friend, Geeta Bhojwani, who owns a cute little shop that she runs out of her house. She fed us lunch, told us stories, gave us hugs, and sent us off packing… with some of the gorgeous items in her sweet store. We had a delicious meal with Neena and Manu, who we have been staying with and have become our friends, as well. Neena encouraged us to spread our wings from the first few days of arriving here, and has has been essential to our ability to enjoy our visit here! We have met all sorts of friends from all over the globe. There have been times that we have been in jammed past capacity cars where there have been 3 or 4 languages going throughout the entire car ride, all of us managing to communicate and having an absolute blast. Suman, the maid who works at the house, actually just came up to say goodbye to us. She is maybe 4’11”, speaks no English, and I just love her. She made us lunch a few days. Nashta is the Marathi word for breakfast. That is the only word we all understood with each other, but we always managed to get some sort of communication across. 

 

I have had so many amazing experiences here, and I have had the yoga to help integrate it all. We have one more yoga class tonight, then we are off tomorrow morning to begin our trek back to our side of the planet. But as our departure time is approaching, I am feeling ready. Ready to get back and continue to integrate it all!

Inhale Love, Exhale Gratitude

I awoke this morning with a great energy and excitement to meet the day. It is really sinking in that we only have a few more days here in Pune. Friday’s are our day to attend the evening Pranayama (breath-work) class. That means we have a long individual practice time in the morning. So, after our walk, coffee and breakfast, we headed down to the Institute for individual practice time. I decided on a back bending and inversion practice, in part because my hamstrings were still sore from Wednesday, and in part to prep for the upcoming Pranayama class. Mr. Iyengar was involved in a photo shoot in the main hall during practice time, which was amazing to watch for a bit. We had the option to go to the upstairs studio, which would allow us to practice easier. It is a bright and airy space that looks out at the tops of the tropical trees. Since there were only 12 or 14 or us up there it was quiet and spacious, which was a welcome treat.

 

As I began to practice, I reflected back to Prashant’s class from the day before. We did seated twisting and inversions in that class, all long holds. 

 

A rhetorical question he has been asking this month has been, what is the breath doing for you? Breath in sanskrit is translated as prana. Prana can be translated as many things, including life, vitality, wind, energy, strength, and even the soul. So, by working with the breath, it is helpful to think of working on all of these levels.

 

I have been asking myself many questions during my personal practice time as a result of Prashant’s teachings. Is my breath restricted? If so, where? How does that translate in my body, mind and spirit? What can I do to change the situation for the better? Going a step further, how does the breath effect me in different yoga postures? If you do yoga, I am sure you have felt that different poses provide different physical, mental, emotional and spiritual benefits. That means the breath will provide something different in relation to each pose. Every practice session since arriving here has brought new growth and discoveries to me as a result of his questioning. 

 

Yesterday, he added another piece to this puzzle for me. He asked us, not only do you ask what the breath does for you, but what are YOU doing for your breath? I quickly realized that I don’t necessarily practice in service to the breath, prana, per se. By thinking about practicing in service of the breath… I found myself shift into a place of service, gratitude, and love that has stuck with me ever since that class. I practiced my back bending FOR the breath today, rather than breathing to serve the back bending. 

 

We can’t avoid breathing, which makes it such a powerful tool for transformation.To quote my friend Eileen, a great mindfulness exercise is to observe the breath, and to inhale love, exhale gratitude. Prashant has been talking about experiencing transformation and transcendence through the yoga this month. Mr. Iyengar has been teaching us to love through yoga over the years, as well. And being in India, where there are so many people and so much going, you really have a clear mirror held up to yourself. The rest of this trip I am looking forward to applying these concepts. I am looking even more forward to the reflection I will continue to receive back.

The Ghosts of Pizzas Past

There had been excitement buzzing in the air since our practice yesterday. There was an announcement made that the men would be allowed into the women’s class regularly taught by Geeta. We all had the same question on our minds. Who would be teaching? Geeta? Or would it be Mr. Iyengar teaching through Abi and Raya, like he did last week?

 

The morning started off in such a positive and upbeat mood. I got to talk to my honey, Ricky. He was out with our friend Margie for pizza. Mmmm… pizza… Angie and I got out for a nice walk, bought our daily rations of papaya, pears, bananas, and pomegranate off the fruit carts (one of the things I will really miss about India!), and had a nice beginning to our morning. We were laughing and chatting all the way to the Institute, waving at friends and familiar faces. I even forgot where I was for a moment, and let out a loud laugh that echoed throughout the front entrance at the Institute. Whoops… Those of you who know me may be impressed that I have managed to keep my laughter under control while at the Institute up until today!

 

We arrived early, as we knew it would be more crowded. We walked to the prop closet in back corner. This is where Mr. Iyengar would normally be set up, but he was not there. We also saw the setup on the stage at the front of class that Geeta uses. We just assumed she was teaching at that point, and decided to stay put and set up right there. But we are told right before class starts to move aside and make a pathway for Mr. Iyengar. He comes through and sets up at the tressler. And I of course am right smack in front of him again. Oy vey.

 

We get started, and right away, it is jumping. Jumping. Jumping. I have felt so privileged to be near him enough times to hear his instructions during the big group class. He is so clear, and not a word wasted. 

 

A profound moment for me was when he brought our awareness to our mind. As we are jumping, jumping, jumping, he asks us if we are jumping with our mind. Well… no! He asked us to put our mind to the place that we were jumping to, and then allow the body to go that place. So, if my feet were at the front of the mat in Uttanasana (Intense Forward Stretch Pose, or a standing forward bend) , I would put my mind to the back of the mat for Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose) first, and then jump to that place. By doing this, I had this amazing experience of experiencing the journey from the beginning point to the end point, thus pulling me fully into the present moment. In doing the yoga poses, or in doing any activity in daily life, isn’t it easy to just flip on the autopilot switch and coast through the motions? But that is not yoga. I think about the time I spend driving in the car, or washing dishes, or walking my dogs. So often my body is doing that activity, but my mind is on something else. By giving the mind a container to work with, in the form of a body, a pose, or an activity, we have more of a chance of being in the present moment. 

 

As class goes on, he continues to teach with a passion and intensity I love and respect immensely. Abi was all over me throughout, asking me to move my ribs, move my ribs. And I did, out of that same love and respect as much as anything else. We finally get to Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) and get up. And of course Mr. Iyengar is still instructing. He says… there are ghosts in your buttocks! I thought, ghosts of what? Are you talking about the ghosts of pizzas past that have manifested in the form of fat stores on my buttocks? Mmmm… pizza… Abi starts instructing. She says, haven’t you seen The Exorcist? Move those ghosts forward and through the front of your pelvis! I just couldn’t help it, I burst out laughing. And I continued to laugh as I realized that the instruction TOTALLY worked! That is one that will stick with me for a long time to come.

The One With The 10 Year Old Boys

Something I have come to notice is how people half tell you things here. For example, we have been told from the beginning, repeatedly, that the best time to go walk in the park or on the college campus is early in the morning. In those early mornings, you will mainly see people chatting and walking. There are silver haired groups of men, talking emphatically and swinging their arms vigorously. They will wear everything from more traditional Indian clothing to shiny jogging suits with their hair slicked back and beat up sneakers on. There are groups of women in saris chatting and taking their time. There are runners and speed walkers. And there are people simply cutting through the parks to get from point A to point B. In the last couple of weeks, we have also been for walks at other times of day. Those are the times we have run into the pack of feral dogs that live at the college, young men holding each other up as they stumble out of the ‘canteen’, motor bikes rolling through the campus, and men at the park working on construction type projects, among a multitude of other strange situations.

 

So, at this point we really should know better than to expect a leisurely walk through a relatively quiet park at 4:30 in the afternoon. But some days we are left without a choice, with our yoga schedule. We start on our walk and make around one lap. We hear a man at work yelling into his cell phone, which sounds much more dramatic in Marathi, as a bunch of other men stand around. We come around for a second lap, and the workers have now begun doing something. The proof is in the noxious fumes and dust clouds (let’s just call them that… although we have seen on more than one occasion workers vomiting from said dust clouds) that fill the entire park. We debate just going home, but we are determined to go on this walk and decide to back track in order to let the air clear. 

 

We end up passing a group of about five 10 year old boys hanging out on a bench in the park. They come running after us, saying, “time, time”. I knew better. Why didn’t I just keep walking? I suppose it was because it sounded more appealing than the calls of “money, money” and “you, you, you” that I normally hear. But, I turn to them and I tell them, 5:00. I quickly learned they did not know what time even meant, as after I told them the time, they continued to say “time, time”. So, they look like they are going to follow us. I look at them, and say, “Goodbye!” They laugh, say “Goodbye!” and they start to follow us. Tapping on my hand and chattering. I keep walking. Tugging on my wrist. I say no and keep walking. Shaking my upper arm. I say no no and brush them away from me… and I keep walking. Tapping dangerously close to my girls, if you know what I mean. I say no and brush them off a bit more forcefully, and I keep walking. And then. One of the boys grabs my breast! WHAT? I brushed him off and said no. And then a second boy grabs my other breast!

 

Okay people. It takes a lot to piss me off. But once I am there. Watch. Out. I looked at them with fire in my eyes, my arm high up in the air and ready for anything, and barked out a loud “NO!” at the top of my lungs. If I hadn’t been so pissed off, I would have been thoroughly amused by the scene that followed. They looked at me in shock, eyes as wide as saucers and jaws hanging open. I admit, it was a pretty loud “NO”… They collected themselves, and turned on their heels with their proverbial tail tucked between their legs as they scampered away. 

 

What is the lesson I learned from all of this? When in a sketchy situation, I will remember to fall back on my training. What training, you might ask. Martial arts? No. Self defense training? Nope. It’s dog training. That’s right. If I have learned anything over the years, it is that I can be the pack leader to a jack russell terrier. And if I can be a pack leader to a jack russell terrier, I can certainly be the pack leader to a small band of naughty boys. Case in point.

Digging for Gold: The Excavation of a Yogi

I have a little secret I have to let you in on… I am not the most relaxed person by nature. It is why I need the yoga so much! As the month goes on, I continue to observe myself in this setting, away from my normal routine. I am ever more aware of my anxious, busy body nature. When I first arrived here, I was in such a hurry to get into my yoga practice and start working on poses, and to get out and do sightseeing. But somewhere along the way I have lost that hurried feeling. As a result, I am still doing my practice and getting out to see things and make new friends without the accompanied anxiety I am accustomed to. This is something I am bringing back home with me!

 

Often times, the yoga classes we take happen to be exactly what I need on a given day. We have had a number of great classes. On Friday, we had a pranayama class with Rajalaxmi, which was full of gems I will carry home with me. Saturday was a practice of back bends, standing poses, inversions, and forward bends led by Raya. And Monday and Tuesday were classes with Prashant. I really appreciate Prashant. I have a philosophy and religious studies background, and he hooks me with some of his diatribes. 

 

I had actually been feeling quite sick since Sunday. Some sort of a stomach bug (to be expected here) and a lot of head and sinus congestion. This week they are focusing on teaching back bends at the Institute. I was SO out of it for our Monday 7:00 a.m. class. But I went, trusting that I would feel better for it. He took us through a very intense back bending sequence. We started with a couple of supported back bends, and then we were hanging upside down on the ropes. I seriously thought I was going to be sick at first, between everything going on. But he asked us to use the breath as a sanitizer. At first, I scoffed. The air isn’t exactly sanitary, people. But by using this image, it did start to work. Some of the tensions in my abdomen, chest, head, and pelvis began to break up. Enough to start some serious work in the back bending. Even in the midst of the work, I felt space and ease coming throughout mind, body and spirit. After that class, in the group practice I did some congestion specific supported back bends, which helped immensely! I still had some congestion this morning, but whatever was left of it is gone after class and practice.  

 

The first week, Prashant had talked about yoga as medicine. He said, if you observe a headache that you had at the beginning of class is gone after the yoga, your job is to find out WHY! It was ironic that day, because that class was rough for me and my breath was short. As a result, I ended up WITH a headache instead of without the headache! But the last two days have been a completely different story. I have been able to work within this environment and deepen my yoga practice to new levels, and have experienced the yoga as the healing medicine it is. 

 

Today, Prashant analogized the breath to gold. He said, gold is gold! Even in the hands of a monkey. Basically, it is our own choice what we do with our breath. Are we going to be like monkeys, holding onto gold and staying ignorant of its value? Or will we use it for its value. I am finding that the more I relax and stay in the present moment, the better the results in my body, mind, and breath. This applies on and off the yoga mat. On this trip, I have finally found the relaxed state of mind, the alignment of body, and the deepness of breath required to hold a 10 minutes headstand with ease, comfort, and a sense of relaxation. My body is opening in places that have been always stuck. My mind and heart are opening in places that have been stuck! And it is all because I have been able to let go, make space for the breath, and be in the moment.

Satsang Anyone?

I actually thought we were just going for a little meditation get together at a friend’s house. Of course, getting to the point of walking through the door was a journey in itself. At first we were going to go with our yoga friends from the Institute. But then we found out through a passing conversation that the people we were renting from were going, as well. We found out there was another person that needed a ride, and had to coordinate on that. But typical Indian style, it all came together in the end and we hit the road. We kind of had directions to get to the apartment flat. If you don’t have precise directions, good luck to you as sometimes the streets are not marked. And a slight correction, we actually were given precise directions, they just didn’t match up with the way we came from. Anyway, we drove up and down the narrow roads for a bit, weaving around cars, trucks, sleeping dogs, and people. There was a big moving truck in the middle of a road, where a wedding party was being broken down. Of course there were about 12 men hanging out around the truck, and 1 man sort of loading the truck up. And I should say that I assume it was a wedding, as there were chairs covered in white cloth and blue ribbon. But if I have learned anything it is that you can’t count on the assumptions you make here. Speaking of, August 15 is actually Independence Day. Ever since i have arrived, I have heard fireworks going off at night. Being from the U.S., I initially assumed the fireworks were the precursor to Independence Day. I thought to ask someone about it, and he said that would actually be for weddings. Weddings can be a grand affair here, lasting anywhere from 1 day to 1 week, depending on how much money you want to spend.

 

Anyway, we eventually get to the building. There is an elevator lift in the building. Now, I am not typically freaked out by small spaces. But there were five of us packed like sardines into this little tin can of an elevator. It is one of those elevators where you have to manually open and close the doors. We get to the top and open the doors onto a stunning, pristine white, incense scented flat with people to greet us. We say our hellos, and my jaw hits the ground looking around this beautiful apartment and unexpected sanctuary. Contrasting the beautiful stark white of the flat are collections of firey orange and yellow marigolds throughout the house, in combination with the beautiful perfume coming from these small white flowers I don’t know the name of yet. You see this combination a lot here being sold on the street and in the street markets. I can tell this is one of those scents that will stick with me for the rest of my life and transport me directly to India. We are being whisked into the back room where we see some familiar faces, and new ones as well. There is a beautiful white marble altar with statues and beautiful photos and paintings adorned with more of my new favorite color combination. I notice that everyone is dressed in beautiful clothing, mostly white in color. I am wishing I had something beautiful to wear in lieu of my baggy pants and hoodie. I see a big keyboard and someone with an iPad. Sheet music. And beautiful tapestries are spread out on the floor for us to sit on. 

 

Devki doesn’t waste another second now that we have arrived, she starts us off with a meditation. I am instantly transported to a state of bliss in the midst of friends old and new, the rich smell of the flowers, the gorgeous white marble, and the wind blowing through the coconut trees outside the window. Someone is playing the keyboards, someone uses the iPad to put a beat on some of the songs, someone plays the hand cymbals. Different people take turns choosing the next song. At one point someone was a little hesitant and Devki says, “Look at Lord Krishna’s face! Look at his eyes! Sing for him!” Some of the voices in that room were simply magical. Smooth as silk, sweet as honey, and as rich as the flowers we were smelling. My heart was filled up with love, devotion, and gratitude in response. 

 

These things take time and energy, so we took a break for an already prepared meal. Beetroot cake, rice and dal patty, coriander chutney, a sweet thing, another sweet thing, and chai. It isn’t an Indian meal without a healthy dose of sugar. We are new guests, so they don’t let us lift a finger. These darling young women keep telling me to eat more, eat more, and try to feed me at least 6 different times. They settle on giving me two plates of food and 4 cups of chai. They are just 1 or 2 oz cups, but I am still up most of the night. We chit chat as we eat, and then the music starts up again. A new friend’s daughter is there, maybe 10 years old. She walks up to me proudly, her hands on display, to show me the henna tattoos painted on her hands. We join in a while longer before it is time to say farewell. I have to tear myself away from this beautiful place as my ride has already walked out the door. Until next time!