Thursday, October 30, 2008
Harbin Hot Springs Retreat
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.