Sunday, November 27, 2011

These flowers say ignore me

This tree has strewn

Paper-thin crepe flowers.

Their pale petal’s crinkled edges

barley display that tinge of purple

tree-life gave them.

And their folds along delicate sides

float and land next to the mix of

trash. Crumpled

mini candy wrappers

also white from the sun’s bleach

and plastic bags bear

witness to water

bottle lids

My India-induced mind,

for one moment forgets,

which is beautiful.

And which is not.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Girl’s Guide to Mysore, Part Seven – My Indian Nose Bling

I got my nose pierced on a lovely fall day in NYC’s East Village. Accompanied by my good friend Jenna, I chose a simple gold stud and kept it in for over a year. My mother had strictly forbid me to even think about doing such a deed. “It’s gross,” she insisted. But after her initial repulsion, even mama conceded that it looked cute on me!

I’ve always been fond of and fascinated by body adornment, what girl isn’t? I played with henna in high school, contemplated (but thankfully never completed) dozens of tattoo options, and even rocked a bellybutton ring for a hot sixteen-year-old second.

In India, nose piercings are much more than common. I’d estimate that in the city of Mysore a good 70-85% of adult women have piercings in their nostril. What my fairly liberal and usually accepting American mother thought was “gross” is almost a required mark of femininity here on the subcontinent. Some of the piercings I’ve seen are on the left nostril, like mine. Apparently your region of origin determines which nostril you pierce, as I have also seen my fair share of right ones. I’ve even seen both nostrils pierced (yes, Brittany Lauren Groth, believe it).

I think the jewelry is just magnificent. There are no miniscule diamond studs bashfully hiding on these noses! The designs are larger than we’re used to seeing in the U.S., and extraordinarily ornate. My favorites are round shaped studs, almost like undersized coins, with details including balls, curves, flowers, and indentations. There are also hoops, complete with diamond embellishments and dangling ornaments.

I immediately knew India would be the place to update my sniffer’s style (sorry, couldn’t help the alliteration). I couldn’t find any suitable jewelry in the markets popular with tourists. Obviously the women in Mysore are getting their bling somewhere else. Deeper downtown, I guess I stumbled on the jewelry district. On Ashok Road there are tons of jewelers; it’s gold and silver galore! But I actually purchased my new ornament right in Gokulam at Ashwin Jewel Palace (right across the street form Nilgris Grocery). Problem number one: I couldn’t get my nose ring out! After days of gentle experimentation, and a little coconut oil (India’s cure all) I managed to slide it out last night. Success! Problem number two: I couldn’t get my new nose ring in.

Apparently the gauge my piercer used is totally common in the U.S., but a tad smaller than the Indian norm. Also, we’re used to using a simple one-piece nose ring. Imagine a tiny nail inserted through the piercing and then gently bent to keep it secure. Indians usually use a more complicated two-piece stud. One piece is a screw with the design on it…and the other piece is a larger tube with a stopper on it, into which the screw piece will twist. The tube-like piece is inserted into the nose from the inside, and then the screw piece is put into place and twister from the outside.

Confused? Yeah, me too. Try doing this alone, with your hands (which you now realize are, compared to your nostril, HUGE) and an unsuitably sized hole. Fail.

Luckily, I live next door to a beauty salon. They advertise full-scale bridal makeovers, and since jewelry is such an important part of the Indian bride’s look, I thought they might offer piercing services.

It took all eight hands belonging to four Indian women (all with nose piercings, by the way) about six minutes to insert my new jewelry, but here it is! They didn’t even charge me, I guess they don’t actually offer piercing services, but still insisted that they do it. I’ll be sure to see them again for a pedicure. The design is 22-karat gold. I liked the shape because it almost resembles a heart. It’s still super subtle compared to a lot of the fantastic jewelry I’ve seen here, but after all, I am going to mom’s house for the holiday’s…hope she approves!

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Girl’s Guide to Mysore, Part Six – Anonymity is Nonexistent in India, Even on the Sacred Hills.

I miss anonymity. It was one of the things that most attracted me to New York City. The sense of millions of people, each in their own world, not required to pay attention to even their neighbor, let alone someone of a different color. In India staring is not considered rude. New York is such a diverse city, and in my neighborhood of South Harlem, I’d hardly say I, as a white girl, am a common sight. But even as a minority in the predominately African neighborhood, I have a certain sense of privacy. Nobody really cares. New Yorkers are pretty happy to totally ignore each other unless someone’s in their way. If someone looks at me on the street it’s usually a man commenting on my pretty face or my ass. Even this is can deal with! I’ve even come to appreciate this unfair, but unavoidable form of street harassment. More likely though, nobody even bothers to give me a second glance.

But here in India I’m feeling the full effects of being a minority in a culture that doesn’t find anything wrong with staring at the unfamiliar. Thankfully, the neighborhood of Gokulam where our yoga shala is located is immune to this, due to the high number of white western students that visit the shala yearly to study at the KPJAYI. The residents of the community have pretty much embraced us (both the sight of us, and the power of our wallets), and I don’t ever feel uncomfortable here. But to leave the confines of the yoga community is to really become visible.

Children usually say hi to me. If it’s a small, curious, seemingly well-behaved group I usually say hi back, or at least smile. Women state at my hair and clothes. Men stare, but not in a sexually harassing way, in fact there is an overwhelming sense of asexuality in this entire city. I’ve never felt objectified; partly of course because of the modest clothes I’m careful to wear. But I’m sure to get stares from many people, wherever I go.

The most frustrating experience I had with this was certainly my trip to Chamundi Hill. The Chamundi Hills lie on the outskirts of Mysore and are one of eight sacred hills in south India. According to legend the goddess Chamundeswari killed a demon here and there is a temple dedicated to her on the summit of the hill. About half way down the just over 1000 steps is a statue of Shiva’s bull. This is a holy site. This is also a tourist attraction; it’s also a common field trip for youngsters in the area.

One the afternoon I visited with my friend Shanna, we took a rickshaw to the top of the hill and planned to walk down. We quickly realized it wouldn’t be the relaxing and spiritual afternoon we’d anticipated. Kids, mostly boys, from age 8 or 9 all the way to age 15 or 16, mobbed us. A few girls talked to us and wanted to know where we were from, but they were gentle and shy. The boys followed us down the entire hill. I’m sure they were the kind of kids that would create a ruckus no matter the situation, and it’s certainly not indicative of the entire Indian population of pre-teen boys. I certainly felt harassed by them. They threw bottles at us to get our attention. They wanted to touch us. A particularly mischievous bunch would even stop and taunt us each time we tried to pause to let them pass us. We’d motion for them to continue and they’d reply, “oh we take rest now,” only to get up and follow us. We turned to ignoring them, and even at a low point, to yelling and feigning an open palm, ready to slap! This trip down a holy hill quickly became a test of our emotional stability.

When I told my boyfriend, he smiled and responded, “suddenly not so east being white, huh?” I understand that it’s silly to feel a victim because of my white skin. Certainly I am not a “minority” in the larger sense of the word. People of my skin color have long made those of darker skins and different races to feel small and inferior and unimportant. I have no connection to these feelings of racism in any context. I just find the feeling of discomfort in my own skin here in India a new and interesting experience. Another interesting part of the equation is the prevalence of skin whitening creams and procedures. The darker south Indians actually want to have whiter, lighter skin! Do they know about the tanning craze we have in the west? That all we want is to have a healthy deep glow to our skin. Is this just a classic case of the grass is greener, or is a deeper cultural issue, a classic case of culture shock on both our sides?

Aside from the boys on Chamnudi Hill, I have really felt welcome here, despite the staring. The picture at the top of the post shows a window full of sweet, curious kids at a school I visited. The residents of Mysore seem to just be interested. Next time I’m in India, I’ll be more prepared for this experience. It’s unavoidable. Thankfully, every day I spend here I feel more comfortable, but still some days I have an urge to don a veil just to stop the stares!

A Girl’s Guide to Mysore, Part Five - Coconut Lessons

I don't know how I'll live without fresh coconuts back in the states... Here's a picture of Shanna and me with my tiny coconut and her HUGE coconut. There are coconut stands all over Mysore. You are almost certain to find a coconut in any neighborhood. They're a wonderful source of electrolytes and clean hydration in a city where the tap water is unsafe.

My local coconut stand in the heart of Gokulam is a daily stop. There are three types of coconuts available at the Guru Coconut Stand:

1. Just Water
2. Hard Meat
3. Jelly Meat

Somehow the coconut gurus know exactly which coconut will have what inside of it. In this picture Shanna has a coconut with hard meat in it. These coconuts are usually a little bigger and have much less water. When you're finished drinking the water, you give it back to the little coconut man and he hacks it open so you can eat the hard coconut meat. In the picture I have a water coconut, which is usually (but absolutely not always) a bit smaller than the others. This coconut just has water in it. The third type has coconut meat like jelly inside it. Once again, you drink the water and then give it back to the coconut man so he can hack it open and scoop out the jelly meat for you to eat with a mini spoon/scraper he creates from a piece of your coconut. I prefer just water, but sometimes I'm in the mood for one of the other varieties.

These coconut men have a stand just a minute's walk from our yoga shala and you can always see a gaggle of western yoga students and Indians alike gathered to get some hydration. Even though it's super close, the coconut guys are savvy businessmen and almost always have a mobile coconut cart outside the yoga shala in the morning for us students to buy after practice in the mornings. I'd say about 99% of us drink a coconut or more every single day! I've heard of one guy who drinks 10 every day!

The coconut guys are masters of their machetes and super efficient in whacking off the tops of these amazing coconuts. For some thrill-seeking reason, Shanna wants to learn to cut her own coconut open and one of the nice young coconut men said he'd teach her. I'll remain a camera person...stay tuned for the video.

Happy coconut drinking!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Girl's Guide to Mysore, Part Four - Thanksgiving: Mysore Style

This Thanksgiving I had the pleasure of accompanying my friend and fellow yogi Shanna to a school in the outskirts of Gokulam where she volunteers to teach weekly. The class of ten girls and ten boys (all about twelve years old) were thrilled to see her, and meet me, "Miss Dana." We taught in a small room with two benches (no desks or chairs) and a chalkboard.

The students are precious. They are smart. They are beautiful. They are blessed. They are so interested to learn, and so bright and hopeful for their futures. These kids could probably jump into any American class of their grade level and be ahead of their American peers, even though their English is still not perfect. They want to be doctors and software engineers and teachers and one lovely little girl, a dancer. Another darling girl says she writes poetry.

Shanna's lesson plan includes personal journaling and drawing in their special notebooks (which she donated to them). We then taught the basics of Yama and Niyama, the first two limbs of the path of Yoga. We helped the students write sentences describing daily actions that might fit into the categories of Yama and Niyama. For example "I help my mother clean the house," or "I wash my face and come to school to learn." The kids are sweet and social, and extremely polite, even though they're a little rowdy!

Then we took a rickshaw all the way downtown to a restaurant called RRR, where they serve food on banana leaves. After a mix of rice, chickpea curry, spinach lentils, and some other amazing and delicious concoctions we were really feeling the Thanksgiving spirit! We finished our feast with some traditional Indian desserts from the bakery nearby. Mysore Pak, made of pure ghee and chick peas, was delicious, as was the ball of sweet dates, raisins, and shaved coconut.

Later that night we stopped by a kirtan at Chakra House (a restuarnt in Gokulam, near the shala) and finished with a mini evening feast of papaya, dosa and chocolate chip cookies from the Chocolate Man.

Now, back in my room, on a new moon day, I'm meditating on gratitude...

I am thankful for:

The unusual and wonderful Thanksgiving I was blessed enough to experience this year.

The space I have from the commercialized American holiday craze.

Having a close and healthy bond with my family, and the confidence that time away does not mean less love.

Health all around.

My partner, and the unselfish and insightful support he has given me during the time we've known each other.

My job. And the ability to take time away from it.

All the wonderful and diverse teaches I have learned from.

My physical apartment, and the increasing realization that home is not always the same space; it can exist wherever I am.

om santih santih santih.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Girl’s Guide to Mysore, Part Three – The Shala

Walking towards the KPJAYI for practice at 5:40am I’m greeted by Sharath’s familiar and unwavering voice: “three…four…five. Sapta come through…” It is Sunday, and he is leading the 4:30am class through the Primary Series. We wait in still darkness on the terracotta steps. Our group will practice the Primary Series at 6:00am, and one more class will roll their mats out for Intermediate Series at 7:30am. Like living gargoyles, we’re perched on the steps in between shoes, potted plants and mat bags. Finally we hear the students inside begin their closing mantra and while they om, we reanimate, ready to take our places for practice.

Pattabhi Jois open his first yogashala in 1948 in the Mysore neighborhood of Lakshmipuram. There, at his Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, he taught Indians and westerners traditional asana and pranayama practice for many years. In 2002 this beautiful new shala was opened in Gokulum. It’s a slate grey colored, multi-level building, like many in the residential neighborhood. Something about it’s angular design permeates a stern yet welcoming energy. Inside, on the ground floor, the studio space is filled with pictures of Guruji and his wife Amma, Sharath and his family, Krishnamacharya and Ganesh. Striped Indian rugs cover the tile floor and a small stage in the front of the room still displays Guruji’s favorite chair.

This time of year (November) the shala is very busy. I believe it is filled to capacity! Students from all over the world study here: I’ve met people from the U.S. Canada, England, Sweden, France, Portugal, Australia, Japan, Korea, Mexico and other parts of India. Sharath also teaches a smaller group of locals in the afternoon. His mother, Saraswati, also continues to teach her students in the shala and at another location in Mysore. In order to reserve a place, you register with the Institute online several months in advance. Once in India, you register in person during an afternoon before your first practice. Sharath will give you an ID card, a Mysore-style (Monday-Thursday) start time, and assign you to one of the Friday/Sunday led classes. As a first time shala student during this busy time, I’ve secured a lovely Mysore practice time in the last batch of students at 8:15am. The more experienced students and Mysore regualars practice beginning around 4:30am.

Once in the building for our led class, we each place our mats and rugs at the ready, and then head to the locker rooms. There are small lockers on the upper level of the changing rooms, and I always secure my belongings. These led classes on Fridays and Sundays are a bit hectic because large groups of students are trying to move about at once…during the week, in Mysore-style practice, the flow of students in and out is a lot more fluid.

Back out at top of our mats, Sharath calls us to samastitih and we’re off and breathing! His family lives on one of the top floors of the shala, and often his wife or daughter will be around and in and out of the practice room. Currently they’re building a new home two doors down, so soon the entire shala will be a study space. But on this particular Sunday his irresistibly adorable son, Sambhav, stops by to see dad at work. As Sharath counts us through the vinyasas his son takes a go at it, mimicking his father.

Sharath: “One.”

Sambhav: “twwoooo…!”

Sharath: “Two”

Sambhav: “Treeeeee…!”

After an hour and a half of sweat, good quality family time, and what seems like an hour-long utpluthih, we’re back in samastitih chanting the closing. Fresh coconuts meet us outside; their water re-hydrates our drenched-in-sweat bodies, and we smile and go about our day. Some of us take rest. Some might choose to sightsee. A few students will work on their lap-tops for jobs “back home,” and some even have jobs here in Mysore at one of the cafĂ©’s in the area.

Most Sunday’s Sharath holds Conference at 4:00pm. He talks about the Yoga Sutras, practice, devotion and distractions. Lakshmi, a Sanskrit teacher, gives us our chanting lessons three times a week at 11:00am. This week, I’ll start in his Beginner Sanskrit class in the evening.

As I walk towards a fruit salad breakfast at Anoki Garden, I think how blessed I am to be able to study this lineage at the source, to witness its evolution and find stillness in its tradition. This really is an extraordinary place and an extraordinary practice…

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Girl’s Guide to Mysore, Part Two - Pleasant Insanity

I’m sitting alone in my little bedroom in V. V. Mohalla, a neighborhood just about 10 minutes from Gokulum. Outside my windows there’s a perfect South India breeze and the sounds of scooter horns mingle with mooing cows. I’ve been in India now for just over five days, and am finally settling into the rhythm here.

The first moments in India were shocking. Driving from Bangalore’s airport into Mysore was an interesting glimpse into India’s way of living. People walk along the highway, and the only traffic law is: “Please Honk.” Three hours later I arrived in Mysore, to the lovely Green Hotel. Situation right along a busy main road in Mysore, the hotel was at first not what I expected (horn honking, again!). But once I settled into the room and saw the beautiful garden and ate their exceptional food, I was sold!

The first days in a new country, even one as strange and wonderful as India can be extremely lonely. Yoga practice was really a welcome ritual to return to. Two days in, I met my friend from Florida, Shanna. We were both relieved and excited to see a semi-familiar face in this foreign land!

I’ve begun to describe India to myself as a sort of pleasant insanity. Nothing really surprises me here, because I’ve resigned myself to the idea that everything is at the same time unusual, and yet exactly what it seems! (Also known as a country of contradictions). Many of the buildings here seem to be in a purgatorial state of construction and disarray. Traffic lanes don’t exist, why would they? Cows block traffic, and dogs literally run right along with it! And at the same time, the peaceful nature of the place permeates my daily experiences. My apartment is right in between a beautiful park and an equally lovely ashram. Daily, as I walk to my morning asana practice, I hear lovely chants coming from the ashram…

I like this new universe of pleasant insanity. I like the pulse of this city. It’s about 9:52pm, on a moon day Thursday. Practice comes early here, so I’ll end this post for now. Next up: my first pleasantly calm, yet hectic experiences at the KPJAYI shala…

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Girl’s Guide to Mysore, Part 1 — Anticipation

It took almost three years of practicing the Ashtanga Primary Series for it to feel fluid. For me to actually even begin to understand appreciate and experience the Vinyasa system in all its brilliance. Before now, practice was hard. Now don’t get me wrong, it still is difficult. But the challenge feels fluid. I am suddenly able to still my mind (briefly) and settle into one pose at a time, rather than struggle through one pose at a time while simultaneously dreading the next. I feel as if I’m dancing through breaths. On a good day I can almost watch myself creating a mala of movement; threading the beads that are the asanas along this thread of breath.

I came to yoga, as many do, for the physical (nothing unique here). I remember though, something else always intrigued me about this particular type of eastern practice. I heard a quote once, and forgive me, I cannot remember who said it or in what context (perhaps it was Guruji, Sri K Patthabi Jois), but essentially the idea was that we are drawn to yoga in this life because we have practiced it in a past life. I really do believe this. In high school and college I played around with Classical Hatha, Bikram, Vinyasa Flow, and Ashtanga, eventually settling on an Ashtanga based teacher-training program at a small shala, or yoga school, in Orlando, Florida. At twenty years old, I think I may have been the youngest in the training program. I struggled and excelled, and after a summer of cramming Sanskrit names into my brain and learning effective and initially terrifying asana adjustments, I left Florida to return to New York with a 200-hour Yoga Alliance Certification.

Looking back almost four years later, I’m still one of the youngest yoga teachers I know. I have a lot to learn about teaching. And I cannot wait. I teach full time at a Pilates and movement studio (also picked up a Pilates teaching skill set along the way) in New York and consider every class I lead to be continuing education. In April 2011, I attended two weeks of workshops with Sharath R in New York on the Ashtanga Primary Series. And this November (right this second, actually...) I’m making my first journey to Mysore, India to study with Sharath R. the grandson of the late Sri K Pattabhi Jois, Guruji of Ashtanga Yoga.
I’m so excited I could explode. I’m also nervous. Most of all I’m trying to be open to the experience. I’m trying to be a witness to my yoga evolution. To be present to the changes and influences as they happen, rather than a passive passenger blind to the subtle changes over time.

If you’re not super familiar with Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, let me offer some basic information that may help. (Please note: I am not a yoga scholar, I am a practitioner like all of you, so my information may need editing, and I am happy to take comments or corrections!) Ashtanga means “eight limbs,” and is the yoga described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
Ashtanga Vinyasa is a particular type of asana yoga taught to Pattabhi Jois by his guru, Krishnamacharya in the 1930’s. It consists of a set of six specific series of movements all set to the ujyai breath. Thus, is a breath-centered, or vinyasa, practice. Some believe that the first series is enough to keep one occupied for one’s entire life. Once it is completed the second series is learned, and on and on. From what I’ve heard though, Sharath is the only living person practicing all six series. Traditionally the poses are taught to students Mysore-style, (named for the city in which this style was first taught to Guruji and where he established his shala). Mysore-style is what some of us call “guided self-practice.” Imagine a big group of people, all practicing the series from memory only to the point that their teacher has taught them so far. Mysore-style usually has a wide range of time, and practitioners can enter the room any time they want within that time. Since everyone is practicing at a personal pace, people are entering and leaving the room seamlessly for the entire time. New students practice right along with more experienced yogis, and one or two teachers and perhaps a few assistants guide and adjust practitioners. This style requires the same dedication as any led class, but with added personal responsibility and an added student-teacher connection. These days led classes are also common, where one teacher guides students (at the same time) through the primary series, or half of the primary series (this is more like a yoga class you might imagine).
So now I’m off to this city of self-practice. It’s not a luxurious yoga retreat (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) nor is it a live-in ashram (nobody will be ringing a gong to wake me up..) It’s a real city and a real practice. I’ve read a lot about Mysore “back in the day,” when the first western students were beginning to travel and learn from Guruji. I’ve heard it was intimate. I’ve heard it was intense. But I wasn’t around then. I can only experience Mysore now. I’ve heard the practice room is super crowded in the shala. I’ve heard that the five-breath per posture rule was created to expedite the practice time in order to accommodate the growing class sizes (can't remember where I read this thought...The Yoga Body? The Subtle Body? Either way, both books are a must read). I’ve heard that that the adjustments will be intense. I’ve heard the shala’s clock is set 15 minutes early. I’ve heard that everyone is warm and welcoming.

I’ve heard that India will change my practice, my life and my digestive tract (eek). But lets see what I find. My plane left JFK on November 1...I'm sitting in London's Heathrow airport waiting for my connecting flight as I type...