Thursday, October 30, 2008
Bikram will come later. I decided to Rent-a-Relic, skip town and hit the hot springs. They have, uh, hot springs of course, but Yoga as well.
Harbin is close, has Yoga twice a day, and a bit of a reputation. It’s a ‘clothes-optional’ resort, and often hosts polygamous conferences and sensuality workshops. My friend Jay describes it rather diplomatically.
“You may want to check the schedule. They sometimes have theme weekends where people aren’t always conscious of……….boundaries.”
I’m puzzled by this ambiguous statement, so I check, and it isn’t the Tantric Intimacy Workshop or Group Sex Weekend or anything, so I figure I should be safe.
I arrive in the late afternoon. I’m a little later than expected, and so I ask the check-in guy, a grey-ponytailed hippie about when the Yoga class is.
“5 o’clock. Now just sign here.”
I sign there.
He briefs me on the camping rules, and sends me off with a hearty
“Now go have fun!”, with a sly wink.
I’m a little creeped-out, speculating on what kind of ‘fun’ he means, when he calls me back, and I realized I have forgotten to pay the man.
“You probably need the actual money, huh?”, I joke.
“Ah well, it’s not as if you just ran off, I sent you off, you know?”
I smile and nod, wanting to acknowledge that he realizes that I wasn’t just trying to skip out. I present my debit card, square up, and make gestures to depart.
“I mean, it’s not like you just ran off you know. I did send you off, yea?”, he says.
“Uh, yea. I, uh, know what you mean.” I reply.
“I mean, I did tell you to go have fun you know. When you left. I mean, it’s not like you just went away, yea?”, says he.
“Yes……..uh, you sure did.”, reply I.
I don’t really understand if he is aware that he is repeating himself. He’s of the old school, a real 60’s hippie, and not the first time during this weekend that I become perplexed listening to someone.
Yoga Class 1.
It must be noted that I was later than I anticipated. One reason being that I had stopped to eat a Philly-cheese steak on the way up. It was always an odd point of contention, this notion of the Sacred Cow. At age eight, visiting Calcutta, I was astounded to see the seemingly enormous Brahmin Bulls roaming freely throughout the city. For one thing, they didn’t jive with my notion of what a cow was, being familiar only with the chubby, rather benign looking dairy cows of the Midwest. These things looked hump-backed and dangerous. Another issue arose when my English mother- my only source of the cultural heritage of India, as dad was typical of Indian fathers insomuch as he left all that sort of thing to The Wife- explained that cows were holy. This also did not square with the fact that we- as a family- relished a fine cut of prime rib more than your average American nuclear unit. I still eat beef, but I try and mentally acknowledge that the cow has died for Our Sins. I like to conflate my religions.
So I’m running late, and I scramble to set up my tent and get to the Temple on time.
It is a beautiful building, structured like a yurt on the steppes of Mongolia, but all wood and stucco plaster, symmetrical yet askew in some indefinable sense. It is circular, Feng Shui running clockwise, and it seems a most comfortable place for reflection.
It is heavy on the chanting. As previously stated, I don’t like chanting, but I’ll usually murmur along, just audible enough to fill the letter of the law. Here, though, we are seated in a more egalitarian circle, rather than the typical loose checkerboard with the teacher at the head of the class. She is, in fact, sitting right next to me. She busts out some instrument that looks to combine the less desirable aspects of a sitar and a banjo. It’s kind of janky looking, only two strings, but passably ethnic looking. It sounds, however, like a banjo. With two strings. And no frets. The brown plastic recorder pressed into your hands in third grade music class was a more versatile instrument. She begins plucking the only two notes available to her, the interval a Twinkle Twinkle non-committal fifth, over and over and over again.
We begin the chanting.
Much to my horror, she begins to sing Hare Krishna. If you have forgotten the lyrics, perhaps blocked out the musical Hair from your memory out of a sort of collective cultural shame, they are as such:
The next two verses, as they are sung with a slightly different melodic structure, are thus:
There are two problems for me in this situation.
The first is that my opinions of Hare Krishnas- the dudes with the pastel orange robes and the braided…….rat-tail….. miniature Mohawk?- are molded only through mass media. I was first exposed to them at my uncle’s house, as he had a VCR and the movie Airplane! recorded from cable television. I watched the movie seven times the weekend we were visiting, scoring the dialogue forever on my brain. I am also reminded of the early Bloom County comic strips, where a Hare Krishna is trying to explain who he is- Opus confuses “Hare Krishna” with “Hairy Fishnuts”, and the devotee becomes aggravated, freaking out and finally demanding Opus to “just cough up some dough.” In short, I view them as hapless clowns. Unfair, to be sure, but probably typically American, such is our reliance on the Tee-Vee and comic books to propagate our prejudices.
The second problem is that I am sitting next to the teacher, which means that everyone looking at her is, by default, looking at me. This is a shy group, as no one knows anyone else- we are all on vacation after all- and I feel compelled to make a good showing, to support the teacher as she plucks away on her janky ethnic banjo. I AM MORTIFIED, but I plug on nonetheless. We sing the whole sequence- all four verses- a total of five times. I know for a fact it is five times. I am counting, waiting, and finally actually PRAYING that it ends soon. It is a sensation akin to counting how many times the teacher says “uh” during a lecture, but...really……………………..slowly.
We don’t begin the asanas. We lay on the mat for a good long time and actualize our prana, which essentially means we are borderline napping. When we do start, we cycle through all the poses, and things move at a fair clip, at least until we get to pigeon pose.
Pigeon pose involves a mid torso twist. They say you shouldn’t eat before class, and I suppose you certainly shouldn’t eat a Holy Cow, particularly if you are in such a hurry that you forget to acknowledge the cow’s Christ-like sacrifice. We hit the pose, and I twist the cookie tube the wrong way. The cow has the last laugh- his remains get squeezed in the wrong direction, and suddenly, almost violently, I become ill. I have to get up and leave the class, to go deal with this bovine Montezuma’s Revenge.
There is a notion in Hindi scriptures- and I certainly can’t substantiate this, or reference it ( I looked)- that a soul will spend a million years in purgatory (or the Hindu equivalent) for every hair on a cows hide that you ate. An FDA study came out shortly after I read this, stating that each McDonald’s hamburger was composed of an average of 200 different cows, due to the processing procedures. We learned of this in high school, at about the same time we learned how to properly use scientific notation, a method that lets you quantify enormous sums. We spent much of our after-school hours at fast food establishments, calculating precisely how long I’d spend in Hell, given I was raised almost exclusively on McDonalds from the ages of 6 to 17. This cow, though, this singular cheese-steak entity- takes his toll in a way that numbers cannot describe. It is severe enough to keep me out of the rest of class. I’m quite sure you really don’t want me to share the details.
After I take care of my internal problems, I wash up and head to the mineral baths. It is night, everyone is naked, and lined around the perimeter of the pool, in various stages of repose. It is a small pool, budget-motel sized, and all the prime spots around the edge are taken. There are various couples, clearly engaged in, um, intimate relations. I expected this to some degree, figuring that as long as they weren’t OBVIOUSLY having intercourse, I would deal, but I am forced into the middle of the pool, along with a group in the middle in some sort of football huddle of …..sex.
There are gobs of white stuff floating in the water. Now, there is a reason for this- it’s a mineral hot springs, and we are in the moderately warm bath. As the water cools, the minerals precipitate out, and as it is largely calcium, the congealing crystals float around the tub, like amorphous globs of…well, you know. But I know they are just minerals. I read the sign before I got in.
It does not however- when you are in the middle of the pool, awkwardly averting your gaze from the sex mob, track lighting focused on your nether regions like they were the guest on The Tonight Show- make you feel any better. I decide to hit the sauna instead. On my way out, I step on some soft sticky something or other that sticks to my foot- my bare foot, as I am naked- and I calmly flick it off, the same type of ‘let’s get down to business’ calm that overcomes you during times of crisis, like having a mouse crawl into your trousers. Only after I flick it off do I even allow myself to think it may be a used condom. I start bending down to check, but I realize with a titanium certainty that I don’t want to know, I DON’T WANT TO KNOW. Rather than sleep in my tent that night, I sleep in the reclined passenger seat of the rental car, fearing that in the tent I’ll be subject to the sounds of the Tantric Sensuality Workshop after-party.
It is the intermediate class, requiring me to get up early, but this is not a problem. I haven’t really slept all that well, dreaming of rolled up yoga mats stacked upon each other in dark underground bunkers, like anonymous femurs in the catacombs of Paris. I crawl out of Ford Escort Fetal Position as soon as the sky is light grey, hoping to end the edgy half-slumber I have spent a half-rotation of the earth in. I get to the Temple early and warm up with a strap, trying to stretch out my hamstrings, which are now winched up as tightly as jib ropes on a sailboat.
We start with stretching out our hamstrings, employing the aid of a strap. I will refrain from commenting on where the teacher- whose 'Indian' name, coincidently, is the same as my brand of ayurvedic soap- got the idea, but I’m suspicious, to say the least. We do this for 45 MINUTES. Half the class is dedicated to this, shoving our femurs into our hip sockets, which sounds like a terrible idea.
It sounds- to me at least- like a terrible idea, because if I recall my “Yoga Anatomy” diagrams correctly, the sciatic nerve is couched in the hip joint. It runs directly through the ‘hole’ in the back of the pelvis, one for each leg, and if you compress it, it will affect your whole leg, as this is the nervous system’s sympathetic super highway.
Halfway through this exercise in repetition, the soles of my feet go numb. I relate this information to the teacher, but she just tosses the Asana version of a platitude my way.
“Oh, just do ShaNaNasana, it’s good for reawakening your vitreous humors.”
My feet feel all wrong. It is difficult to ‘ground yourself’ when your interface feels like you’ve been standing on a frozen cut of pork for upwards of an hour. I have to duck out of many poses, and I feel completely out of whack, like I’ve done damage rather than good.
I’m rolling up my mat after class, spying in on a conversation between a German tourist and the teacher.
“Oh yes,” says the German tourist “we have been to some classes in the San Francisco .”
“Oh you should go where I take classes, at blahblahblah studio”
Now, should I be worried? I had entertained the idea of faking the role of Teacher one day, taking the helm, but I don’t think I’d ever do that now- I feel like I could do too much damage, not knowing what I‘m doing. Shouldn’t she know what she is doing? I feel ALL WRONG, like I’ve induced a mild scoliosis by force, and I can’t help but note that she might not have the wherewithal to run a class correctly.
I elect, afterwards, to go for a soak, hoping that these healing waters will undo the scoliosis. The front pool, the moderately warm one, is calm enough, but the back pool- the really hot one, encased in a squat, open-air edifice- is Bumping. By Bumping I mean that the people in the building are either collectively moving giant granite slabs or are engaged in some extremely athletic sex, such are their violent exhortations. We- the mellow early morning ponderers, are trying our best to ignore this.
*smack of flesh on concrete*
I find myself scanning the waters for incongruous-looking globs of white precipitate. I leave, SHOWER, and secure a picnic table on the outskirts of the retreat, hoping only to be out of the semen crossfire.
I’m quietly working on my Yoga mat for the rest of the morning, taking in sounds and, uh, naked people, and the general atmosphere. It is a pleasant morning, and a half-naked man is playing cello down the hill. I actually meet him a little later, in a little hovel off to the side of the Chapel, later in the day. He is the final straw that sends me packing.
“Hey man, I liked your playing” I tell him, when I see him later in the smoking hovel.
“Aw, great man.” says he.
We banter a bit, I tell him I play as well.
“What kind of stuff do you listen to?” I ask.
What comes next, I can’t explain or even transcribe without getting carpel tunnel, such was his need to talk copiously and unabashedly. He starts. I’m guessing about 20 minutes later, he wanes, a little, just for a moment, and I grab my chance.
“Well, dude, I gotta keep working on my mat, see you in a bit” I say, before I run, run, RUN.
What happened was this: He scrambled my brain.
I don’t know anyone here at the Hot Springs, but the place attracts a certain clientele. It is of the fully integrated organic divine light delivered by sacred oxygen to bring illumination to your beautiful, enlightened soul, and I’m all ears. I’m all ears because I’m trying to be more open minded about this shit, to perhaps listen without judging, and so I’m trying to follow the whole monologue. It is a plan of sorts that he has for Life, and as far as I can discern, it involves the following elements: an organic farm, a restaurant, a cello, a solar-powered generator bike trailer/rickshaw, outfitted to cross the whole of India and able to power one-man concerts on the street corners of New Delhi, a suit, a realization of all of corporate America that they must invest in this man’s organic-fueled restaurant/farm/collective/socialist and yet capitalist network of organic-cello-farm collectives, and someone who will give him money for all of this, because he’s a genius.
He’ll be wearing a suit in place of an actual resumé, I suppose. I should have shut him off at “Aw”, but I’m trying to be more open.
Allowing this- allowing myself to be cornered, to smile and nod, makes me feel as if he has psychologically pushed open a door in the front of my skull, found little resistance, and began to use me as a conduit to talk to everyone else in the smoking hovel. And this is the culture here at Harbin- you don’t say anything negative, because, man, everyone has something to say and that should be respected, and if you interrupt, that might not be cool.
It’s ethic of non-criticism, even the constructive sort, that is driving me a little loony. It is conflated with all the posi-speak, the repitition of “divinity” and “enlightened self” and the unavoidable “spirituality” that gets me. It’s the wanton overexposure of these concepts, the idea that putting a tin of your spare tobacco on the table counts as “universal giving without expectation” and that when said tobacco is subsequently stolen allows one to give a diatribe about one’s beautiful non-expectation of an act of open communal action, without suspicion that someone had ill intention or could be converted to better intention if we ALL gave without suspicion AGAIN- that makes me suspicious. Not of the stealer- that should have been predicted- but of the giveé, the person who uses a loss of a fairly available product to leverage an image of themselves as ‘giving’, and subsequently positions themselves as able to ask for shit later on, as they are so communal. Because everyone should be communal. Got a cigarette, Bro?
Listening to this man- a man who sports the very same Good Vibes For YOU sticker that I posted just a few days back on the bottom of his cello- makes me feel odd and ill-fitted to the groovy hippie vibes of Harbin. It doesn’t help that I’m critical of his playing- while he extols the virtue of Bach- and can play his passages passably well, as long as he is at least an hour away from his last joint- he suffers from a lack of proper intonation, coupled with a drug-addled set of synapses fused together long ago. 13 is too tender an age to start dropping acid, and I hate watching the fallout, years later. I have to wonder if my time is coming.
As I watched the sun decline over the mountains, I’m arguing with myself. To stay? To go? It’s over two hours’ drive back to Oakland, a mountain in-between, and I don’t do so well with the winding roads. Still, I find that my time here is through. I’m not a hippie, wasn’t raised to it. My friends here on the west coast were born to it- they make light of the Overly-Groovy as well, but afterwards, after they poke fun, they let it roll off their backs. Me, I’m too new here to have the proper filters. I take the situation seriously, compounded by the fact that I don’t have a lot of friends here yet, and I’m willing to listen to just about anybody. But I can’t listen to just anybody. These aren’t my people. I’m too couched in the blunt practicality of the Midwest, be it for better or for Palin/McCain. I pack up my unused tent, and retreat from the Retreat.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Yea. I'm a little back-logged. The hippy naked yoga weekend took it's toll on me, and to render it is a little daunting, especially as It is far too easy to just pimp my mat. So, as mindless filler, here is a picture of me in my Yoga Costume of Awesomeness. Note that I am giving the Holy Om/YesOKBoss symbol. A ShoutOut/Namaste to all my peeps, yo. I mean, 'om.'
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
I'm avoiding Bikram Yoga like the avain flu. So much that I spent the weekend at a hippy hot springs, replete with Yoga classes, mineral springs, a sauna, and 300 other naked people. More on that to come, but suffice to say, it was.........an education.
The best thing to come out of it was the Mandala I started on my Yoga mat- it's looking pretty cool if I do say so myself. I have yet to finish it, but it occurs to me- mr. unemployed- that maybe I could shop out my talents, a sort of Pimp My Mat. See? only a month into this, and I'm already planning my Sellout!
Saturday, October 25, 2008
You know Bikram Yoga. It’s a form of Hatha Yoga. It’s the Hot Yoga.
And I am cynical.
Who’d of thunk Bikram was named after an actual individual? I always took the title as nomenclature for the hot ‘n’ sweaty variety, the type that my friends rave about, claiming it sucks for the first 18 times, but after that, you love it. It turns out it is named after one Bikram Choudhury, and it turns out, he is 100% PIMP.
Reading about him, I am at first heartened by our similarities. He is of Bengali descent; I am of Bengali descent. He trashed his knee* and fixed it; I trashed my knee** and need to fix it. Judging by photographs of him, he addresses his thinning hair by with an elaborate comb-over; I address my thinning hair by adorning the nouveau-adultolescent metrosexual method of shaving my head and pretending for the rest of my life that I actually want to look like Mr. Clean, without the muscles.
Here, though, similarities end. I’m given to understand that he traffics in Rolls Royces- has a garage full of them, in fact- and has catered to the Rich and Famous in Beverly Hills for the last 26 years. He is wealthy, has all types of ‘endorsement photos’ on his office wall, that of Shirley McLain, President Clinton, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and is, in fact, the only teacher in possession of a patent on his yoga positions. If I accidentally strike the “reclining feline” position while napping, do I need to pay royalties? I’m skeptical, full of the indignant, inflated self-righteousness of a man not even within reasonable driving distance of the Almost Famous.
I know. I’m critical, and much of the slashing I do involves the American Corporate Model of spiritual sellout. I paint Americans as the guilty party, but you can’t sell out Ancient Indian Spirituality without Indians canning it and moving it out the door for $19.99 a case, $17.99 for you, baba, since we like you so much.
Case in point #1: Ayurveda.
Ayurveda is the ostensibly Mystic Ancient Medicinal Practice of Deepest Darkest India. Slap ‘ayurvedic’ on any Whole Foods product and you can up the price 4-fold. But rather than indicting New Age on this, let us look at some authentic Ayurvedic imports.
I have two personal hygiene products- direct from India- that purport to be Ayurvedic, namely toothpaste and soap. Now, perhaps they use a specific combination of herbs to reduce your Vetta, I don’t know for sure. What I can tell you is that the toothpaste has the color of used hospital gauze soaked in watered-down iodine and cements to the sink if you don’t wash it away immediately. The soap- while smelling mystic- also comes with a folded informational sheet which guarantees that the soap will, “…ensure your personal charm”, which doesn’t sound too ayurvedic to me.
Case in point #2: Shakti
Shakti is the divine feminine force of the universe, embodied by the Tridevi, the goddesses Lakshmi, Paravati and Saraswati. It can also, it seems, be added to the Indian version of Corn Flakes, as in “Now with Added Shakti!” And to think, we just fortify our cereal with vitamins.
And so I feel this man is complicit in The Sellout. It occurs to me that his patent is not on the asanas themselves- all of Hatha, Vinyasa, Bikram, and Anusara utilize the same positions. He has a patent on the sequence.
I once- before I started going to classes- had a deck of cards, each with a different asana. It occurs to me that Bikram may have just shuffled the deck, turned up the thermostat, and called it good.
I’m hoping there is more to it than that. I’m trying ( and clearly failing) to be more open minded, but there is too much here to be worried about. My friends have already gotten over their worries about this man- it is generally agreed that he is an asshat, but they seem to believe that this sequence has merit. Me, I’m not so sure.
Still, I have a job to do, and so I select Funky Door Studio in Berkeley, CA, because nothing says “Americanized” like 8 ft high, 1950’s-greaser-era-muscle-car flames painted on the windows. I’m assuming that the name refers to their unorthodox storefront, but I have to wonder, given the fact that the business revolves around hermetically sealing a group of exercising hairless monkeys with copious sweat glands in a room upwards of 105 degrees for over an hour, if the word “funky” might not have been the wisest choice to advertise the business. Frankly, I’m worried about touching the storied ‘funky door.’
* In a competitive Yoga tournament, which seems odd. “I’m the MOST enlightened Yogi in tha muthafuckin’ House, BITCHES!”
** By running into a tree while snowboarding, on the bunny-hill, surrounded by 6-year-olds who could out-snowboard me before they were potty-trained. Perhaps I’m being generous, albeit to myself, by claiming we have so much in common.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
The thing about Subramanya, né Larry is this: I have built him up in my head. I have put him on a mental pedestal. My friend Em speaks so highly of him, and this is a girl who can commiserate with some of the disingenuity found in Yoga class. She thinks white people adopting Indian names is weird, too, and she is an authentic white person.
The thing about my name, my normal and yet still Indian name is that it is MY name. I like my name, but, like most people who attended school, I was teased about it. Shumit can so easily be converted into rhyming cadence with unmentioned four letter words, not to mention a fine template for racial epithets. I’m not complaining- well, in fact I am certainly complaining, but to an end- but I feel like if you want an Indian name, you have to earn it. By living with it. It seems one-dimensional as some sort of spiritual honorific.
But I hear such good things about the Subramanya, even that he can rationalize why he goes by Subramanya, as well as Larry, and can negotiate my perceived gulf of cultural insensitivity.
And this belies a larger issue: all I’ve written so far is this measure of self-deprecating/cynical commentary. Just the wacky diaries of a goofy little man, and I want to go further than this. A measure of criticism of Yoga is healthy, sure, but how long can I keep harping on it? I want, to some degree, to get over this, and I want Subramanya to help. And help he does- but for reasons I do not at all expect. He’s a great teacher, but in fact, it is what I disagree with him about that gives me a greater insight.
It is the Advanced level class- for 2’s, 3’s, and 4’s, that I attend. I know I’m in for it physically, not prepared, but I figure I can tell him this, and if he’s as good as Em says, he’ll be OK with this. And he is, and he does keep an eye on me.
He rolls through the chants and gets down to business immediately, although not without a short diatribe on Dharma. He gives us a brief recap of relevant sections of the Bhagavad-Gita, and interlaces this with tragic Greek characters. He also says he is “sweating like a hooker in church” which is the precise moment I decide that he’s all right by me.
I am immediately pouring sweat from my forehead and greasing up my mat with perspiration. This stuff is really challenging. I have no time to make any sort of mental notes about anyone or anything- I am way too consumed with just trying to keep up.
Now, Subramanya is a skilled teacher, and it is obvious, notably by when and how he chooses to speak. It is only during pauses of the various vinyasas that he chooses to delve into the spiritual aspect of this session, starting each time with
“The thing about Dharma is…”
If you really want a class to hang on your every word, definitely speak during times of repose. We will ALL LISTEN, if only in hopes that the teacher goes on long enough for us to catch our prana.
Again, I couldn’t think about this during class. I was far too wrapped up in his instruction, which I must say again, was excellent.
Still, the thing about Dharma is…..I don’t really agree with him about how he is explaining it.
Dharma, as far as I understand it, could be loosely equivocated to duty, religious or otherwise. The classical text explaining Dharma is an excerpt from the Bhagavad-Gita, where the warrior Arjuna is headed into battle.
Now, if you have never read the Bhagavad-Gita, don’t feel alone. I doubt most people have, as it long and somewhat arduous. I never have, which might be……..obvious, but thanks to the comic books* handed out at the Mithali’s of my youth, I have a passing familiarity with the story. It sort of runs along the lines of an HBO series, like The Sopranos or The Wire, where the characters have noble enough aspirations- well, some of them anyway- but screw up a lot, just like real people.
In the Bhagavad-Gita, it is much of the same- the Pandava Bros Inc. continually try and keep the empire they are charged with going, but there is division and strife, mostly over gambling debts. One of the brothers has a Habit. Negotiations happen, and they- the powerbrokers- end up passing around poor Draupadi like an IOU chitty, exile each other into the woods, and basically make a mess of things, just like real people.
Arjuna, a central dude in this drama, is whom and where we finally see this realization of Dharma. He is on his way to battle, in a war for the Kingdom. The people he has to fight are people he KNOWS- cousins, teachers, aunt and uncles. Krishna- now in ethereal form, as he has long ago shed his earthly divine bright-blue mystic porn-star vessel- is acting as his charioteer and moral consultant. As the mithali comic books focused more on illustrating the action, we are bereft in terms of actual text, but the conversation must have moved along these lines:
Arjuna: Krishna, I know these folks. They’re my peeps.
Arjuna: I mean, I really DON’T want to go in there and hack them to pieces.
Krishna: Of course you don’t. Who would?
Arjuna: So do I have to?
Krishna: Dharma. You got to do what you got to do, man.
Clearly, some liberties were taken in terms of simplifying this, but what it amounts to is just what it says: if you have to do something, if that’s the way the chips fall, it’s your duty to play out that hand. No fighting it.
“The thing about Dharma”, begins the Subramanya, “ is that you need clear space to figure it out. Think back to maybe when you graduated college. What were you most keen on, what inspired you?”
This runs counter to my understanding. At that age, I was doing what interested me. I was playing music, as "full time" as you can get. But I was never going to make enough money to do that as a living, and I realized this. I started working in education, a profession that chose me, rather than the other way around. Point being- you don’t always get to choose. But you do have to deal with the results.
It isn’t until the next morning until I think about this. I never got to ask the Subramanya about his Indian name- he was too swamped with admirers after class to get a word in, and no matter.
What does matter is that I had to think on it again. In some other yoga writing- not yet on the blog- I mention how incomprehensibly pluralistic India seems to me. And the fact that it is incomprehensible betrays my western upbringing. I think that most Indians- my relatives at least- when examining what seems to be an apparent contradiction, would shrug it off.
"Yes, of course!", they would say.
"Welcome to India!", they would add.
And so, if this pluralism exists, why not apply it? Why can’t there be two Dharmas?
For the Subramanya, his Dharma- the capitalized one- is perhaps his job as a corporate lawyer, something he is wont to poke fun at. But his dharma, his passion- really is this yoga. I’m ….quite sure he makes some decent money as a yoga teacher, but as a corporate lawyer, I doubt he needs it. My gut also tells me that he’d still be here teaching even if he were doing it for free. He likes it that much. My Dharma is the unfortunate state of education- if I have any duty, it’s to go in a do a good job in a system that tries to make that difficult, if not impossible at times, and often rewards incompetence with greater responsibility and higher pay. But my dharma is music- I know it will never pay, labor of love sort of thing, but I am at least playing again, and without the pressure of becoming World Famous- and I believed I would be at age 23- I am enjoying myself more.
And so it can be with Yoga, I hope. Maybe I can use a critical eye…….and then put it away** and examine some of the benefits. Maybe the old blog can re-orientate a bit.
But I do have one task ahead of me. Bikram Yoga. A style named after the man who made it, Bikram Choudury. It is his authentic Indian Name, and from what I hear, he's a complete Asshat. So let's not put away that critical eye just yet......
* These are a bit like the Children's Illustrated Bible's advertised on TV during the 80's
** One woman in my writing group attended a yoga class wherein the teacher instructed the fledgling Yogis to ‘Envision themselves as eyeballs floating in.............CHOCOLATE”, which may say more about the teacher’s current state of mind, rather than the meditation instructions.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Free. The classes are free. Who can say no?
They are, however, in rather cramped quarters. The teacher seems nice enough. She’s just a little plump, somewhat unusual as yoga teachers go, although I’m willing to bet that she’s had a kid recently It seems a vast majority of yoga teachers are young mothers. Perhaps it’s the schedule, flexible hours or something, but it is an alarmingly consistent trend.
We start. We are meditating a bit, in the ‘let’s talk and find our spiritual connection” part of class. She asks us to think of an Intent, perhaps someone we can send Love to.
I panic. Who do I need to send love to? I first think of my Ex, whom I sort of freaked out on via email when I thought she was dating someone else. In Love, in fact. It wasn’t my business to begin with, but I also apologized already, so no go on that.
I’ve been talking to the Zeeb* about forgiveness, and particularly wondering how I was going to forgive the administrators of Meads Mill Middle School for not intervening when I was getting called Towelhead, Gandhi-Butt-rammer, and Camel Jockey. All before 9/11! These people could see the FUTURE!! I consider them briefly, then immediately think “Fuck ‘em, I hope someone has the sense to shove a grenade up their sphincters.” Forgiveness and Love-in this case- may be a lost cause.
The clock is ticking, and since I’ve already considered my Ex, I’m stuck a little on the romantic love template, although I doubt this was what intended. We are finishing the meditation and I still haven’t chosen a Love and Intent, and I remember that the cashiers at the Pharmacy are generally pretty attractive, and so I send my Love Beam towards the front of the store and immediately feel like a dirty pervert for doing so, as if I’ve somehow become A Karmic Peeping Tom, cosmically masturbating about Chakra Porn from the 4th Dimension.
We get on with the asanas. We start with a sequence of rolling our wrists and shoulders, and it is the very same sequence as 2nd grade gym class with Mr. Johnson, albeit we are sitting down. We later do sun salutations, which I recognize from drama class freshman year of college. One thing that I’m noticing about the ‘different’ styles of Yoga is how similar they all are.
One thing clicks though- I finally get what the Flow part of Hatha Flow means. Certainly it could be attributed to the Cosmic Banana, sure, but it also means that we don’t lock into poses, so to speak. A Flow is a sequence of asanas, done fluidly from one to the next, generally in line with your own breathing. It seems obvious enough on paper, but was something I never understood entirely.
We shavasana- the corpse pose**- wherein we lie down and try not to think about Things, although she does say something about refocusing on our intent, and each sale at the front registers-each register ring- is a reminder that I’m a pervert. I do not do well with not thinking about things.
And we sit up. The teacher asks us to.
“Gather all the love that we have shared today and all the good vibes…”
Someone’s cell phone starts spitting out it’s overly cheerful ring tone, and continues to do so as we attempt to collect the good vibes-which I think is kind of neat that they are supplied for you via the Verizon Wireless network. A free class is free for a reason.
* The Zeeb, for lack of a better expanation, is a counselor I talk to, although is that and many more things, which is why I just call him the Zeeb.
** Which is a rather gruesome name for a pose.
Monday, October 20, 2008
Never has one single word been so emblematic of a wholesale spirituality sell-out. Namasté is ALWAYS said at the end of every yoga class, and it irks me so, I don’t know why.
Probably because it is always delivered in this kind of overly earnest reverential cadence, the timber of the teacher’s voice indicating that we have collectively placed a spiritual button on the end of class, where as formerly, I associated the word with what the flight attendants say to you as you step out on the tarmac at Calcutta International. Kind of a verbal version of the Hawaiian Lei. Do they do this in Indian ashrams? They must.
Perhaps I should view it in the same roll as I view the spring rolls in any Asian restaurant- sort of a litmus test, a standard indicator for quality. If the teacher can say Namaste without a trace of irony, …..damn. Does that make them good or bad?
I haven’t managed to say it yet. I just burble “thankyou” hoping it sort of looks like I’m saying Namaste. Sure I’ll Om- I’ve even found a way to chant a little. This one’s going to be a hell of a hurdle, though, I can feel it.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
I’ve elected the Level 2 class. I might not be entirely ready for it, but Em tells me that the Level 2-3 class of the storied Subramanya is the class to go to, and I want to be prepared.
The teacher, who introduces herself with her Indian name, asks me mine.
I don’t remember ever consciously Americanizing the pronunciation of my name. I’m sure it must have happened in grade school. Whether you like it or not, at that age, your name is pronounced however the teacher pronounces it on the first day of class*. At age six, you just acquiesce, and so my name, ever since, has been “Shoe-Mitt”, as that is how it reads off the attendance list. Even that can get hard- a short dialogue with some of my new customers on my paper route, age 13, illustrates:
“So, what is your name young man?”
“Shuman? Very nice to meet you Shuman.”
“Nice to meet you too.”
And so I gave up long ago trying to get people to pronounce my name correctly. Still though, when she asks, for some unknown reason, I’m inclined to trust her, and so I lay it out.
“Welcome to class, Shü-meet(h).”
She gets it exactly right, and I am immediately endeared towards her. I feel as if I know her already.
It begins, as all Yoga Mandala classes do, with copious chanting. I’m a little embarrassed to have to request the laminated chant card, but I know from last time, we will sing praises to Sarasvati, which I so boldly will pronounce Sho-ro-shoti. Well, not boldly, exactly, but pronounced this way nonetheless.
I need not have worried about anyone hearing me. The man in front of me has got The Voice. It is deeply resonant, almost Barry White in its register, and I suspect he’s had an extra set of vocal cords surgically implanted. As we all Om and chant together, he is by far the LOUDEST. He sits directly in front of me, and yet I can hear his voice far more than any other. It is cool, it galvanizes the class, and we all hit his note, as it is useless to try and escape the gravity of his tone.
We begin the asanas. It’s the patented ‘something-or-other” series, the very same we did in the beginner class, and so it is familiar. Class goes on at a fair clip, the teacher making jokes, and encouraging a sense of camaraderie. She’s funny and personable, and I’m enjoying myself.
There is one slight downfall of having an extra set of vocal cords. The Voice has this habit of making unconscious sounds as his prana circulates. They aren’t really bothersome, but they end up sounding like “umm-hmmm” and “mmmm” and “uh-huh.”
This gives the impression that he is either emphatically agreeing with the teacher as she gives us instructions, or finding something much more sensual in the poses than the rest of the class.
“Raise your left leg-“
“Now turn it sideways and stack your hips.”
“Gently release into Downward Dog.”
I know it’s not intentional on his part, but I’m finding myself infected by this pseudo-enthusiasm, and have to check myself from adding an extra “You Go Girl!” after his exhortations. I manage to keep my mouth shut, but it is difficult.
We finish class, and the teacher approaches me.
“Where do I know you from?”
It turns out, she can say my name correctly because she has done it before. Not just my name as a name, but my name to ME- we ran with some of the same folk in the college days, me being a punk rocker, her being part of a bohemian troupe that ate fire at street corner performances. Still, it doesn’t diminish the fact that she said my name correctly, and it’s pretty neat to meet up with someone I know, as I don’t yet have a lot of friends here in the Bay. I make a note to attend another of her classes- again breaking my itinerant rule- but that was already broken, and so what of it? Still, I have to meet the Subramanya, and so my last lunch-punch on my 3-class card will go to him, at the level 2-3 class. Hope I can do it.
*While unfortunate when I was a kid, my name served me well when I began teaching. My first year was at a public high school, on the south side of Chicago. At an all black school, the students are rather suspicious of you if you aren’t black, at least in regard to how you pronounce their names, which is reasonable. Before I even tried to read their names off the roster, I wrote my name in full on the blackboard. When I got to LaQuisha, which I pronounced like ‘quiche’, she emphatically corrected me, saying “It’s La-Kwee-Sha!”, moving her head side to side in the way that indicates either Attitude or Indian Classical dancing. I corrected myself and said “Now pronounce my name.” We got along stellar after that.
** the (h) indicates a soft ‘t’, aspirated with your tongue aginst the back of your front teeth rather than the palette. I totally made up the “t(h)” nomenclature, and somehow doubt that I just used the word ‘aspirate’ correctly, but oh well, it’s my blog.
Friday, October 17, 2008
I am heartened by what I see, initially.
The class is full. More importantly, there are ACTUAL desis in the class. By my count, there are 2 for sure, and 2 unconfirmed, as I can’t see their faces. One woman is a straight up FOB*; she’s looking South Indian to my eyes, dark skinned, hair in a ponytail, and toe-rings. The other confirmed desi is ABCD, a petit young thing, a UC student I’m sure, molded by her parents to believe that she should aim for law school, or perhaps become a doctor or engineer.
I’m stereotyping, certainly, but I get to. Still, I realize I’ve just used the same method to evaluate the studio as I do Indian restaurants. There are real Indians here, so it must be OK, right?
I am paying attention to the teacher, trying to buck my preconceived notions. I think she pronounces the Hymns OK; I’m not sure, as they are in Sanskrit, which I suspect is the “steeped in the ancient traditions of India” way of saying Hindi. I don’t speak Hindi or Bangla, but I can tell the difference, mostly by their cadence. Bangla replaces “ah” sounds with “oh” sounds, and pronounces any “s” sounds with “sh” sounds, the like of which just made deposit a glob of drool on my lap while trying to type and mouth them out at the same time. She mentions Saraswati- the minor goddess of music and literature- and a word which sounds more like “Sho-ro-shoti” in Bangla, and I chant it as such.
That’s right- I chant. Perhaps I was hoping that the cute ABCD girl would hear me, maybe recognize that I was Bengali, and perhaps SHE was Bengali, and perhaps we would have something to talk about, especially as during the class, she was singled out for help more than anyone else. I wanted to shimmy her up with blankets myself. It is difficult for a single man to focus on his own prana during yoga class when there are so many other options.
We carry on. It’s a slightly different sort of method, more movement and what appear to be warm-ups. We insert our fingers in-betwixt our toes and rotate our ankles as if we are reeling in fish from a stream. We cross one leg over the other– still extended- and pump our knees into the ground like we were knicker-clad Mormon children of late 19th century Salt Lake City, vigorously working a lead handle, pumping water out of a well. It occurs to me that there might be a market for Yoga via Norman Rockwell analogy, and I think, for the first time, that it might actually be kind of cool to be a yoga teacher.
As this is a beginner’s class, the actual asanas are low impact, which is fine, but I’m feeling like I can bump it up a bit. I’m trying to prepare myself to meet the Subramanya, hoping to impress, as my friend speaks so highly of him. The teacher- the one who took some care to pronounce all the Sanskrit hymns correctly-asks if we have all signed in. I paid, bought the three-class pass**, but I don’t know if I’ve signed a list.
“What’s your last name?” she asks.
“DasGupta” I reply, taking pains to add the slight ‘sh’ sound to the “Das” portion, as both the FOB and ABCD are within ear-shot.
“Oh, yea you signed in, here you are right here- ShooMott, right?”
Who was I trying to fool, anyway?
*FOB= Fresh off the Boat. I didn’t make it up.
** This feels exactly like buying a middle-school weekly lunch ticket.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
I broke my ‘itinerant’ rule tonight and paid-in-full for a class, but I’m going to have to do it anyway if I want to meet Subramanya né Larry anyway. It the first class after the shingles, and since Yoga Kula is right down the street, I figure it’s a good way to get back on the horse.
When I get there, there is some sort of little conference going on in the studio- I’m thinking it’s teacher training or something, and gobs of people are listening to this grey haired man speak, with such undivided attention and deference that I think this might be Friend himself, preaching to his devoted disciples.
We, the lowly acolytes, are shuffled along into another studio, and the nice lady teaching is talking about….well, something about dissecting sadness, I’m not sure, as she is rattling her story off at a speed that I can’t follow, although several days under the influence of shingles and Vicodin may have gummed up the ole’ synapses. She is exuberantly cheerful, although this discourse on meditation feels forced, like she is required to Speak of Meditation, as per the teacher training instructions. She is dissecting her own sadness at having to return from vacation and having to go back to work, a sadness a bit incomprehensible to me, being unemployed.
Frankly, I’m distracted- we can hear the conference through the wall, and I can’t help but wonder if it really is John Friend, and that I, his snarky namesake, Good Friend, am just inches from him, the Yin to his Yang. I can’t help but wonder, though- am I the Skexie or the Mystic?
Class putters along. There are only 3 of us, two males, probably the only class I’ll attend where the men outnumber the women, as least student-wise. The woman to my right- probably in her late thirties, guessing by the crow’s feet barometer, has the body and lithe flexibility of a 19-year old, and for this reason, the teacher feels we can do some advanced poses. She pulls out one that she- the teacher- can’t quite do.
Now I’m not ready for this, but somehow- I have no idea how- I manage to come the closest. The teacher lauds me, and I am immediately endeared to her, so shallow am I to be so pliable by a few ego-stroking words. I push myself too far, pull some unnamed tendon in my bunk knee, but whatever, it’s worth it. At the end of class my knee is screeching and my heart is elated.
We finish with some ‘bolstering poses’- one to support the immune system, one to contact the Cosmic Banana, and one to literally squeeze the poop out of you.
“You always have to start this pose on the left side, due to how your intestines are set up,” she tells us.
“Umm…” I say, “Is this sort of like squeezing cookie dough out of those Toll-House packaging tubes?”
“Yes! Exactly! That’s exactly what we are doing!”
I’m always a better student when I like the teacher.
At the end of class, I ask her if what was transpiring next-door was indeed a teacher conference, if the man I saw was John Friend, Our Lord in Anusara. She says no, which is all I need her to say. She carries on, telling me and any others who cared to listen that it was a philosophical session, a discussion of the ancient Indian Anusara principles steeped in holistic tradition since 1997. She keeps going on, quite the commercial for all the pricey workshops on the calendar, and I get the impression that this is a rehearsed diatribe, Sacred Testaments directly from the mouth of Our Friend, trying to get me to buy in to the Anusara Pyramid Scheme. These speeches, coupled with the litany of John Friend DVD’s in the lobby are what irritate me most about this corporatization of Yoga, the pressing of the discipline into a Business Plan. I’m not entirely convinced that this is strictly an American impulse- I’d be willing to bet Indians do the same, as it seems the pinnacle of ‘teacher credibility’ is to have studied in an actual Ashram in India, under a Guru, or least a well known Powerbroker in the global market-floor of Yoga. I guess you have to outsource at some point.
All my criticism, though, belies a major benefit of the Anusara system. I’m fine taking potshots at John Friend, as he is nothing but a figurehead, raking in profits and looking pretty. What he has managed, though, is to make the Yoga accessible, provided a common language for the teachers and students alike. I find- much to my surprise- that I have internalized the concepts of the Inner and Outer Spirals. When called to use them, I find my body responding without needing to think about it, and it pleases me. I ‘m noticing, too, that after class I feel properly aligned, a respite from having all my muscles winched tight, plodding around town in a Neanderthal gait.
I feel good, and I’m finding myself attached to this studio, but I must press on to others, staying true to my plan. Fortunately this studio offers free classes at the Elephant Pharmacy on Wednesdays, and you know how much free appeals to an unemployed ex-public school teacher whose meager pension plan is currently funding sausages-on-stick for the $430K spa thrown for AIG with their economic bailout check. I will see the Anusara people again, albeit in the back of a swanky grocery store.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
A small note on the Shingles: They hurt like hell. Yes, I bought the DVD hoping to muscle through it, but lordy, the pain got greater and I was on my ass for a bit. And the blistering has to scab and crack- this dampens your motivation, but I managed to at least put it in once and give it a whirl. The experience can best be described in Haiku:
Rodney teaches class
I am in my underpants
He is at the beach
There really isn’t too much I could blather on about doing Yoga in my skivvies that makes for compelling reading, at least for any great length of time, so let’s skin the fat off the cat, pare down our wagons, mix our metaphors, and do a
PROS AND CONS OF YOGA IN YOUR LIVING ROOM
- As mentioned, you can do it in your skivvies, or the Altogether, should you be feeling it.
- If you gotta go, you can pause the whole class while you do.
- Bathroom is right there.
- Short. The actual yoga is only 20 minutes. I’m lazy and I still think that’s not worth it.
- Yee-Dog don’t invert his left and right, so words and the mirroring are just off. I kinda respect him for just refusing to do so, but for someone who must raise the old “L” hand trick at least 6 times every class, it is confusing.
- Bathroom is right there. It smells as such.
- There is only one other person in the room doing Yoga, and he is doing it perfectly.
- You will buy the DVD for $19.99, do it all of twice, and let it collect dust next to all the other movies you have watched all of twice.
I’d also just rather be in a room with other people, which is kind pathetic, really. I don’t ever say much to anyone when I do attend class, and class is generally silent save the teacher’s instructions and an Om or two. It has to be the least socially interactive activity you can do with other people as you are concentrating solely on yourself, but still, I kinda dig it. Other people are interesting, and I am easily distracted. So, back to it then. A night of Anusara for me, just to get back in the game, and then it’s onward to the next Tapas of Yoga: I’m going to meet a man named Subramanya, né Larry, and I’m fascinated by what he might say.
Monday, October 13, 2008
I have the shingles. Sisterfucking shingles.
I have a line of blistering skin around the right side of my torso, front to back, and it is the chicken pox virus that causes this. I can’t give shingles to anybody, but I can give chicken pox to someone that has never had it, and so I worry about whether or not I should go to class. Everybody I’ve talked to*, though, has had the chicken pox, the only exception being my German friend, and she just isn’t sure, due to the language barrier. I’m sure she’s had ‘em, and I figure, too , that I have my own trusty liver-pink mat, not a loaner from the studio, and it’s not like I can spread the virus to people by breathing on them- you have to touch the blisters, perhaps even lick my torso, and I’m doubting I will be so lucky for that to occur. I’d pretty much have to pick up a naked baby from a stroller and rub him on my ribcage for me to pass it along. I wear two shirts as a precaution anyway, and head to class.
I set up my mat, and while I’m doing so, the instructor immediately pegs me a newbie.
“Hey, how are you doing? What’s your name?”
I balk. I don’t want to say my name.
I don’t want to say my name for two reasons. The first is that I don’t want to tip my hand as an Indian. In a discipline- the California version, to be sure- so married to a sense of authenticity that it makes participants chant in a language they never spoke- I’m afraid of the exoticism tag. The second reason is because of the first- I can’t back it up. I’m from Michigan, remember? I’m not even an authentic Californian, for Friend’s sake.
“Do you want a sheet for the prayer we recite at the beginning of class?”
“Uhhh…I’ll just listen, thanks.”
I need the sheet. I have no idea of what the words are. They only Indian words I know are Bangla, and a few Hindi swear words.** But I don’t want to admit that. I just fold my hands in front of my chest and try to look as if I having deep thoughts. It is not the only time during this class that I have to defer from participating.
After chanting a bit, we finish up with a few holy Oms.
“Om” is the Cosmic Banana, God’s Voice, the Entirety of Everything, the All-Encompassing Truth, the Atman/Brahman interface, the sound for which there are no words. I know all this from an academic perspective, but all I can think of, as we all hum together, is the scene from The Dark Crystal where the wrinkly, potato-shaped Holy Good Guys- looking suspiciously like geriatric versions of the janitor from The Muppet Show- all Om to the cosmic call to go re-unite their Yang to their Yin, the Evil Skexies. And so my holy Om tradition is defined by Jim Henson- may he rest in peace- and I am just fine with that as a personal interface with The Everything. The man was a genius.
Still, because of this, I can’t quite bring my self to Om loud and proud, as if by opening up to the universe, everyone will suddenly know what I am thinking. My mouth is a letterbox slot, wide enough only to insert a grilled cheese sandwich, but at least sound is coming out, and so I progress with baby steps. I am, at least, in tune.
Deferment #2 comes at the end of class. Yes, I had my own mat and I was wearing two shirts, so I wasn’t worried about spreading the old chicken pox virus until the teacher tells us to go get a blanket and insert it under our right sides.
My shingles infected side.
Considering how many blankets I used last time, I could potentially be contaminating them seven-fold and irony of the fact that an Indian would literally be giving back a bunch of pox-infected blankets to the white folk is not lost on me. I defer from this asana, folding into child’s pose, thankful that I don’t need to wear an artificial expression of peaceful bliss, as my face is pressed my faithful liver-coloured mat. It occurs to me that I can’t really attend Yoga class in good conscience until the shingles pass, just in case. I go by the Elephant Pharmacy afterward, along with roughly half of the other students, and rather shamefully purchase a Rodney Yee Yoga DVD. It is mass media Yoga for the next few weeks.
*Having to tell people you have the shingles- as no one entirely understands it, I certainly didn’t- is akin to admitting you are a leper. You aren’t, it isn’t as if you can spread it except in the rarest of circumstances, but it sort of sounds like scabies or rickets or some other antiquated sailor disease, and people look at you funny for it.
** I also know the words sugar- because I dump so much of it in my tea when we visit Calcutta- right, left, the numbers 1-4, please, thank you, and any food terms used in a Madhur Jaffrey cookbook. You could certainly say I didn’t try.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
They are still in the sit-cross-legged-dim-lighting-
And so the hymns begin. All the students jump in immediately, and everyone knows the words, and even the harmonies, and I’m a little perplexed. I figure the teacher must have briefed them before I got there, other wise how could these folks seem so familiar with them in what is ostensibly a beginner class?
We get into the asanas, and I am struggling. They seem a lot more in-depth, complicated even, than what I had learned in the previous class, and it seems only I am unfamiliar with the teacher’s commands. At one point we strike some funky asana, I couldn’t tell you which one, that requires you to prop your booty upon a folded blanket. I’m failing and flailing a bit, and the teacher gloms on to this, doing her very best to help me out. She grabs a stack of blankets from the pile and is rather desperately shoving them underneath my ass, trying to shim me up like a dilapidated riverside porch-collapsing swamp shanty this is crumbling on it’s loose foundation. I’m sort of embarrassed to need so much help and later mortified to see all the blankets that have been put to service propping me up. Everyone else has used just one blanket. I have used seven.
It sucks to have your ineptness quantified so definitively.
It isn’t until I get home and double check the website that I find I have screwed up the days, that I just attended the advanced class. It’s a sisterfucking moment, but I am at least a little relieved to know there was a reason for my incompetence.
Saturday, October 11, 2008
They got one thing authentically Indian: class started late. The teacher had a child care issue or something equally excusable, and so I take it with a grain of sugar that she is working on Indian Standard Time (IST) * , that being things start at 'whenever you deem it appropriate to show up' o’clock. Thankfully, she uses the delay to sort of hurry on up through the introductory business, and we have only to do a little bit of Om-ing- no Sanskrit chanting today, and I, for one, am grateful. I’m still too self-conscious to “Om” properly; I hum along, as if I was in church and trying to follow a hymn that I didn’t know the words to.
It is the “Beginner” class and the teacher is pleasant enough, albeit a little heavy-handed with the Downward Dog. We extend our hips in rather ungodly ways, and I feel, after class, if someone has laced my synovial fluid with pulverized glass. I’m not sore the next day- I’m sore now.
Still, the most remarkable thing happens. As we relax at the end of the class, lights dimmed- I assume this is supposed to be the “deprivation of senses” that is one of the eight limbs of Hatha Yoga- I start to nod off, just a little. When she strikes what I’ve taken to call the ‘re-awakening’ gong- in the most literal way- I can feel the waves of sound in a synesthesic sense. They are translucent gold, syrupy viscous fluid, flattening along the floor like pancake batter, enveloping me . I could chalk the first wave up to being in half-sleepy land, but the second and the third time, I am awake, eyes open, and still the waves come. I’m not one prone to being mystical- if I can visualize someone’s aura, I usually go home and clean my contacts or call it a night at the bar- but these waves are tangible, as real and as present as the boom box in the corner churning out the “Peaceful Waterfall Spirit Ungulations” CD in the corner, and it is COOL AS FUCK.
* It’s interesting to note that India, as a country, is bisected by a time-zone line. It is either 10 or 11 hours off from Eastern Standard Time (EST), depending on where the chips fall. This is not interesting in itself. What IS interesting is that the country, as a whole, decided to say “fuck it, that’s too difficult” and so decided to split the difference and just call it 10 ½ hours off of EST for the whole of the sub-continent. To be of the only country one-half hour off the rest of the civilized world makes me proud to be half-Indian.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
I play the bass in a rock and roll band, and have for years.
This may seem an odd introduction, as we are talking about Yoga after all, but bear with me for a moment.
I also write music reviews for a webzine. I always feel it necessary, having an elevated level of music snobbery, to air my prejudices early, and so why not here? I have perused the website of the studio I intend to start with, chosen only for its proximity to my abode. It is Yoga of the Anusara tradition, if you can call something developed in 1997 a tradition. I have concerns about this. In fact, I have concerns about the whole endeavor, and so will rant for a moment. If you are an all-positivity-all-the-time sort of person, you may do well to skip this post. If you’ve ever been a little wierded-out singing Sanskrit hymns in a language you don’t understand in a class led by Mahatajaranarayanan- né Clarance Bean from Omaha, Nebraska- then join me as I express some concerns.
CONCERN #1: Anusara and John Friend
Anusara doesn't seem a real word, insomuch as a google search only turns up hits relating to the school of Yoga. I'm assured by the website that it is a bonafide Sanskrit word meaning "following your heart" or something, but I'm also assured that Yoga Kula has "..teachers who are steeped in the spiritual traditions of ancient India", a little like teabags, I suppose. Still, it seems a little empty and contrived, a word chosen to sound Indian, solely for the purpose of making this new American school of Yoga legitimate. It was conceived by a man named John Friend, a moniker which seems similarly contrived, a bit too welcoming and New-Agey to be real.
CONCERN #2: Organic Energy.
I’m promised, via the website, the fundamentals of Opening to Grace, both Inner and Outer Spirals, and Organic Energy.
Organic Energy. This is a cop-out, description-wise.
First of all, I have been so conditioned that I feel the phrase might only be appropriate on the label of a Bark’n’Berries rectangular energy biscuit, compressed by force into an easily packagable foil wrapped-nugget, the Scooby Snack for New Age Hippies. It’s terrible, I know, this prejudice of mine, but come on now- how more generic can you be than ‘Organic Energy’?
Secondly, taken in a purely scientific perspective, how is anything that goes on in your body not organic? We don’t use any other sort of energy, and as a culture we have a much more succinct term for it that has served well enough for centuries. It’s called 'food'.
Yes, an argument could be made against spaghettio’s and that fake orange cheese sauce,as well as various metal skull plates and synthetic drugs, but still, I hardly expect Yoga to be run on batteries and gasoline. This is just advertising, not a pillar of yogic tradition since 1997.
CONCERN #3: I don’t want to chant.
I just don’t. The website sports both Indian and English ‘lyrics’, so to speak, and I’m assured we will have to sings the praises and give a little Om before we start class, in order to align our meta-physical floating alpha-chakras or some such notion. This is integral to Anusara Yoga, or so I’m told. I hate doing this. I speak, on average, 37 less Sanskrit words than your typical Yoga practitioner, but mine are more useful. If some asshole cuts you off in traffic in Calcutta, are you going to shout “ Weeping Lotus!” at him? No, you’re not. I know how to shriek both sisterfucker, and even grandmotherfucker, if I have to.
Still, it makes me feel odd not to know what these people are talking about, like I should for the obvious reason. I’m afraid of the Look, that flicker of uncertainty that crosses the teacher’s face, the one that says
“Umm…..shouldn’t you know this?”
And perhaps I deserve it. Not for being who I am, but perhaps for all my bleating and reverse-condescension. As much as I’d like to question whether the name ‘John Friend’ is real, I know for a fact it is, at least in one sense: My name, a proper Bengali name, means “good friend.” I am the John Friend of ethnicity, a smiling icon of India whether I like it or not, and Karma is biting me in the ass for being so snarky about it.
So let me say that there it is- simply concerns laid out on the table. I’ve aired them, they are out, you know where I am coming from. Time to do some yoga.
Friday, October 3, 2008
I make a poor Indian. I’ll be the first to admit it.
There is a reason I tell you this. I’ll illuminate in a minute, but first the evidence.
The first strike is that I am a proper ABCD* - I was born and raised on Midwestern soil, a corn-fed, suburban Dee-troit Michigander who knows more about the cultural repercussions of buying a foreign ‘Toy-Oh-Tah’- rather than an apple-pie-flag-waving Ford- than how the actual sub-continental monsoons work. I know monsoons involve lots of rain. I also know that if you drive a Toyota anywhere south of 8 mile road- the very Slim Shady same- in southeastern Michigan you’d better get it stowed away in the garage before sun goes down, lest yoos lookin’ for a busted window and/or a fight. Motor City, baby.
The second strike is that I am only a half-blood; my mother is a proper Englishwoman, fair-skinned and snarky.
This leads to the third strike- I don’t speak the language. Most ABCD kids can rattle off at least a home-spun version of their mother tongue, Punjabi ,Gujarati, Bengali, - but my mom speaks English only, and consequently, so does her offspring. The major language issue in our home came when I got marked off on my third-grade spelling test for the word ‘colour’. My mother had a fit, entreating me to speak out, take a stand against the grammatical oppression of American English, to confront blameless Ms. Sabo with the fact that I had spelled the word more accurately than my depraved Yankee counterparts at Winchester Elementary. I declined. I was 8 years old at the time.
I tell you all this for this reason: It’s time to get back to my roots. And by roots, I mean Yoga.
The way I figure, I’ve been changed, being raised on good old American soil. The way I figure, Yoga probably has, too. So we will meet again, here in our adopted- perhaps surrogate- motherland. I’ve always struggled with the neither-here-nor-there existence of an Anglo-Indian-American; to Americans, I am Indian, to Indians I am steadfastly American, and to the British, I am a sort of icon for a nation’s bastard children.
What I can do, though, is act as a go-between; with a foot in all these worlds, I might just be able to explain one to the other. And so here I find my purpose. I am a translator, but only in one language.
I must first admit to some cynicism on my part- I was young enough, when the ‘New Age’ movement started taking root, to make light of it. It seemed absurd, the proliference of self-help books, Pilates videos, the personality cults of Dr. Andrew Weil and Rodney Yee, the idea that if you bought the correct herbal Whole Foods Rosemary Infused Shower Gel that you could cleanse your self of all that sticky, gross, toxin-laden karma congealed on your immortal soul. Since when did adding food to household cleaning products absolve you of your sins?
The mitigating factor to my cynicism is the fact that I am now officially ‘older’- all my scoffing at self-help culture has come to bite me in the ass. I’m in a position where I have to admit that one can only be a twenty-something so far into one’s thirties until it becomes tired and self-destructive. I have to change my life around, and New Age/Ayurvedic/Holistic/Vegan/Organic/Ikea/Spirituality is the most readily available outlet here in California. So be it. I’m going to Yoga class, with some measure of kicking and screaming involved.
I think it was the cultural shift of the 60’s- the sudden proliference of sitars in pop music, a sudden market for Ganesha figurines carved out of sandalwood, and the uncontested notion that something Indian is automatically and unquestionably accepted as ‘spiritual’- that inspired the idea for this blog. I have only limited experience with yoga class- despite that it was born of the sub-continent, the handful of Desi friends and relatives I know don’t practice, or at least don’t practice in a way that is obviously trendy, and if they do, it isn’t spoken of in the hushed, reverent tones of the yoga teacher or the new age practitioner, but more a “Dad’s got his mats spread out all over the garage again, DON’T go in there unless you want to see him sticking his grungy whitey-tighty covered ass in a far-too-revealing lesson in the anatomical progression of middle age, and no, I don’t want lunch anymore” sort of way.
So, in fact, my only exposure to the practice has been only American. In the classes I have attended- and I could count them on two hands- I always feel at a loss. I always seem to be the only ‘proper’ Indian in Yoga class, and you know me well enough by now to understand why I put the word ‘proper’ in quotes. Often enough at these functions, I get the impression that people are wondering if I am the instructor. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I don’t know where my chakras are, outside of understanding that they run down the front of your torso, much like an internal button-down shirt. The only contortion I’m familiar with was learned from the WWF and Rowdy Roddy Piper. When I was first instructed, at a class at a hot-springs retreat famous for its polyamorous conferences, to actualize my prana, I promptly confused it with Prada®, and was perplexed as to what ‘high-end leatherwear accessories’ had to do with ‘awareness’. I giggled when I learned that one of the central energy points used in yoga is your perenium, something I had always called the ‘Taint, as in “ ‘taint quite here, ‘taint quite there.”
I know I know, it’s a juvenile attitude. It’s a standoffish point of view coupled with the neither-here-nor-there existence of a half-breed that leads to this particular brand of sarcasm. I’m fine condemning commercial uses of Indian spirituality, voicing public disgust at skin-tight, tie-died Ganesha T-shirts with nipples outlined at the Ohm contacts of his third set of fingers, at least until I admit the fact that I’m a little woozy and enamored with the actual ‘nipple’ aspect. I like parsing through all the aspects of multi-cultural permutations of imagery in an increasingly heterogeneous society, but I also like sex, and immediate breasts will always trump abstract repercussions.
Being critical of something I know nothing about smacks of ignorance. I need to educate myself, before I can feel justified in commenting- or even condemning- an entire sub-culture. And so I came up with a plan.
What I’m proposing is a reunion of sorts. I intend to spend the next few months exploring and researching every aspect of Yoga- its origins, its relocation, and all the new permutations it now enjoys here in the good ole’ U.S. of A. While I look the part, I don’t speak the language, and it’s time to start learning it. I’m imagining it will be a surprise for us both, this re-uniting of far-flung cousins.
I intend be a ‘yoga itinerant’ of sorts- I’m allowing for my MTV-raised American mentality to come to the forefront, and so it is Yoga for the short attention span. As both a sample platter and a cost-effective technique, I’ll do the ‘1-week’$20 deal at as many studios I can find. Studios that embody a change in the discipline will get preference; I’m interested in the evolution of culture on other soil, after all, and so ‘cultural fusion’ shall be the watch-phrase of this project. I don’t know if my practice will ‘deepen’, as they say, if I will elect to commit to further exploration- we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, let us commence.