Friday, October 3, 2008

To begin with

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.

* American-Born-Confused-Desi

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