Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mysore Moments

Every trip to Mysore is very memorable.  Even though I do similar things (eat , sleep, practice, veg), each trip is different ... because my practice is at a different stage every time and the people I interact with are never the same -even the same people are different every year.

Each time I leave Mysore, I make a list of my top 3 Mysore Highlights and Lowlights.  It’s a great way to remember each trip.  The Highlights are usually centred around Practice, Food (for example, discovery of the best dosa place) and Friends.  The Food highlights always makes me smile.  The Lowlights give me something to reflect on and perhaps an area to work on.

I don’t share my highlights and lowlights because some points are personal  ... but I can proudly share my top highlight for this 2010 trip ... I can almost confirm that I spent more time on this activity than practicing in the shala.  As my nephews would say .... TA-DAH!!!! :o)

Mission Accomplished - 3 Christmas Stockings!

I can also share 1 lowlight ... that I actually got tired of Indian breakfast at some points during my trip   This has never happened before, even during my 5 months stay in 2008! I was horrified and extremely disappointed that even when I was eating the most delicious, crispy Rava Dosa one morning, I couldn’t finish it! Absolutely shocking right?! Yah ... I also say

I'm back in Singapore now, completely drowned in all the Christmas decorations.  It was so weird seeing the first Christmas tree when I went through Bangalore airport, but after that, there was no stopping it ... tree after tree after tree!

Merry Christmas from India! :o)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mum and Dad in Mysore - A Dummies Guide

Mysore is actually quite a family environment.  Students come here with their kids all the time and I even know of couple who practiced in their shala with their 2 sons as well as Grandma (and she had a beautiful practice as well!).  Sharath loves children and his kids come into the shala all the time.  His daughter went around once, asking people what their names were when they were upsidedown in headstand :o)

I have never thought that any of my family would come visit me in Mysore so I was pleasantly surprised when a few weeks into my stay here, Dad emails me to say that he and mum were coming for 10 days.  My initial reaction was ’Yeay’, now they may finally understand why coming here, for long stretches of time, is so important to me.  Then, when it hit me that they were actually coming, I panicked ... what was I going to do with them?
Mum’s very cool with doing nothing (which is what I spend most of my time doing here) but Dad likes to see and do new things and I stay away from touristy things here ... plus I sleep at 730pm, which is before dinnertime at home!

Anyway, their trip was a great success and this is because I did the following:
  1. Rented my landlord’s backhouse (versus a service apartment / hotel).  This gave them more of a local experience (complete with powercuts and coldish water if the heater wasn’t working properly).
  2. Gave them access to a kitchen and stocked up the refrigerator so they could make tea or dinner (if one goes to sleep at 730pm and they have to fend for themselves).  Dad made himself a 5-egg omelette and had lots of pineapple
  3. Brought them out to local breakfast places, especially my favourite SBP (secret breakfast place ... named as such so we can go without running into every other yoga student in the shala!) which is a stand by the side of the road where you sit on benches under a plastic tarp and wash your hands with water from a plastic drum.  This place makes the BEST iddly and parotta ... yummy!
  4. Introduced them to the locals.  Mum and dad loved meeting my landlord, rickshaw driver, tailor, coconut man etc.  And it was mutual.  Maney, my rickshaw driver, insisted on cooking them a meal and he cooked 2 types of chicken, even though he’s completely vegetarian
  5. Introduced them to my yoga friends.  Dad, as curious as ever, grilled everyone on where they came from, what they did for a living, how long they were here for etc.  They obliged graciously and were so warm that mum and dad felt very much at home.
  6. Brought them to the shala to watch a Mysore class, as well as a Led Intermediate class.  Dumbfounded is an appropriate word to describe their reaction.  They were confused by the seemingly chaos of a Mysore class ... lots of sweaty people packed into the room, all doing rather random things, with Sharath walking around making people grab their ankles or knees (in some cases) in backbends.  The Led class made better sense because everyone was doing the same thing at the same time.  Dad couldn’t stop talking about how amazingly strong and flexible everyone was ... and some of the poses he couldn’t grasp as even possible to think of, let alone execute with such grace and ease.
    NB. They weren't watching me of course
  7. Got them up early and tired them out ... so they didn’t mind sleeping early.  Dad sleeps around 11pm at home, Mum never before midnight ... but they were in bed by 10pm every night here and up around 8am (except for days when they had to come to the shala early).
  8. Spread out the shopping (a little bit every day).  Mum loves to window shop; Dad only shops out of necessity; shopping for pleasure doesn’t exist in his world.  So a bit of shopping every day satisfied both sides.
  9. Let Dad experience the local barber ... he loved that it only cost him S$1 :o)
  10. Took them out on a day trip.  We rented a car to visit 2 temples a few hours drive out of Mysore.  This was great for them to see the surrounding landscape as well as to get out of the city.
  11. Got them to bring lots of goodies from home to share with my friends (eg. tau sar piah, pineapple tarts, dark chocolate digestives) and maximised their luggage allowance to bring stuff back to Singapore for me!

Here are some things to take note of though:
  1. Too much Indian breakfast is no good.  To his credit, Dad lasted 5 days before he asked for toast and jam).
  2. Remember to give them meat! That only hit me when Dad asked if we could have curry for lunch .. as in fish curry, mutton curry or chicken curry.  I realised he wasn’t asking for curry .. he was asking for Meat!
Overall, their trip was an overwhelming success, both for me as well as for them.  They got to see and experience how I live here (what I eat, what I do, where I practice, who I spend my time with) and also managed to do some touristy things and buy souvenirs for people back home.

Mum is already planning her next trip here.  She saw my queen-sized bed and said, ‘Wow, such a big bed .. I can sleep here with you when I come next year’.  She also dropped comments like, ‘No need to do that .. have to save some things for next year’ and ‘Since you come for 3 months, I can come stay with you for a few weeks’.

Here are a few pictures from their trip 

Mum in front of the Shala

Our day trip to Belur

I love this cow shot

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Stocktake - 2 months gone, 1 to go

I’ve just paid for my last month in the shala - too fast!   Even though I don’t usually do much in Mysore ... I thought I’d try and quantify some milestones, accomplishments (or lack of).
  • I have survived  2 months of No Cheating (ok, much less cheating) practice in the shala.  Some days were tough  (you feel tired, sore, heavy etc but you have to practice anyway) but as Sharath says, Mind is stiff (not the body) and you come out of every practice feeling good.
  • It’s always interesting to compare how your practice has changed each time you come.  The gauge is always the quality of your breath.  I’m finding my breath is stronger and deeper which translates into an ‘easier’ practice.  Poses which I dreaded last time are less intimidating, my backbends are deeper and there is a little more flow to the practice (mostly).
  • Led Intermediate class isn’t as scary as it used to be; I have been enjoying it actually ... lots of space because most people do Led Primary.  The only bummer is that you have to wait till everyone else completes the full sequence before joining them for backbends.  This means 3 backbends (standing up from the last) and then 3 dropbacks when you’re cold ... yucks! 
    NB. There are 2 days in the week where we do a Led class (versus Mysore ie self-practice style).  Friday (the last day of the week), everyone practices the Primary series.  Sunday (the 1st day of the week) is Led Intermediate for people who practice only the Intermediate series (or more) the other days of the week.  The objective of the Led class is to reinforce the correct vinyasa (breath-movement count).  You can forget / lose the proper vinyasa very easily in a Mysore class, ending up taking extra breaths, breathing too fast in poses you don’t like etc ... ie Cheating :o)
  • It’s different for everyone but I usually get a new pose every 3 weeks or so.  This trip though, I got a new pose the 2nd week I was here ... but nothing since then.  People have been known to be held at this pose for a while (some people up to 2 years!).  Once you put away any expectations of moving on however, you find that you can really get to know a pose very well (figuring it out in your head, trying out different things every day etc).  I am enjoying that process too plus, it’s great from a teaching perspective.
  • I’ve nursed a nagging right shoulder injury for the last year (got it adjusting in class).  Good news is - that’s gone.  Bad news is - I’ve got the same pain in my left shoulder.  This feels more like something’s shifting versus an injury but it’s now at a stage where I have no strength on my left side so jumping through & back is really difficult.  Sharath said that when there’s an opening, you lose strength – hopefully that’s true for me too.
  • I’ve done a 45-60 minute Pranayama session every morning before going to the Shala.  The Pranayama has been very good because I get enough sleep so I don’t spend most of my time dozing off!  The deep breathing practices result in a calmer mind and a more relaxed body; perfect prep before getting on my mat.  I love it.
  • I have taken Zero naps!  Still not sure if that's an achievement or a failure ...
  • I have watched 4 seasons of Mad Men (13 episodes per season), 28 episodes of The Good Wife and some live Tennis (US Open, Cincinnati and Toronto Masters).  For someone who doesn’t watch TV at home (except for tennis and American Idol 2010), I’d say I’ve achieved Champion status!
  • I have completed 2 Christmas stockings and am now embarking on the last.  This project has definitely taken a lot more time than I expected but the stockings are beautiful.  I hope my nephews, Daniel, Christian and Michael are informed (on a regular basis) of the effort I have put into this!
  • Sewing and watching TV go very well together
  • I have drunk so much chai that my name has been changed to Denise Chai.  I will not even begin to quantify the number of cups I have had.  Let’s just say .. pots would be a better unit of measurement ... enough said! :o)
  • Sewing, watching TV and drinking chai is an even better combination!
  • I have drunk about 100 coconuts so far ... and aim to drink another 50 before I leave
  • Mum and dad came to visit me here for a week.  Their stay here deserves its own post but suffice to say they had a great time.
  • Sharath has given me his blessing to teach. My objective in coming here is not to get authorisation to teach.  l come because Sharath is my teacher and here, I learn firsthand from the source of Ashtanga yoga.  However, authorisation is meaningful because it is a recognition of my dedication to the practice and its lineage (I started coming here 2004 and have practice with him every year since then, either in Mysore or around Asia).  It was funny though because when we were talking about authorisation, the 1st thing he said to me was, “You’re not authorised?” haha

Monday, November 1, 2010

Musical Chairs & Musical Statues

Shala gates open at 430am (shala time).  Prakash, the gatekeeper, errand guy (and also babysitter to Sharath’s kids) will only open the gates when Sharath comes downstairs (the family live above the shala), going straight to his laptop in his office.  People waiting at the gates get in, pick their spots and start practice.  Others in the 1st timeslot will drift in until the shala is almost full.  Sharath comes out just before 5am and stands in the centre of the elevated platform in the front of the room.  He calls everyone to attention with a ‘’Samasthithi” (meaning standing firm and still) and we say the Opening Chant together before continuing where we left off.  The next timeslot is 530am but some people start arriving 515ish, hoping to get the last remaining spots so they don’t have to wait.  As people from the 1st batch leave, they eventually get the “You ... you come early ... tomorrow, 430am” call.

People in the 1st timeslot have the luxury of picking their spot in the shala, if they care enough to come early.  Some people are creatures of habit, picking the same spot every day (ie. musical statues), others move all over the place (ie. musical chairs).  Where people’s favourite spot in the shala is depends on a couple of factors:
  • I get hot easily so I want to be near the door / window to get some cool air.
  • I hate being near the door because I’ll be under the scrutiny of people waiting in the foyer.
  • I hate being in the front row, especially in the middle because it’s right in front of the stage which means you have limited space in front of you.
  • I like being in the front row because there’s nothing to see so I can focus better.
  • I can’t practice in the 2 front corners because the beam obstructs me when I raise my hands up above my head (NB.  this doesn’t apply to me as I am too short!)
  • I don’t want to practice on the crease of the carpet.
    (The shala floor is carpeted by made up of 3 rows of large carpets laid next to each other.   This results in a crease where the carpets overlap each other.  If you imagine the lines forming  a tic tac toe grid, that’s where the creases will lie).
  • I don’t want to be near the mens’ and ladies’ changing room because the door is always being opened and closed and there is a draft because some people always forget to close the door.
  • I don’t want to be near the main door or changing room doors because people are constantly walking past my mat and it’s distracting.
  • I want to be on the carpet, plus it’s too cold at the back (there are about 6 spots right in the back which is on the bare marble floor, versus the carpet.  It’s also right next to the windows which are usually open to allow circulation of air).

Being next to a crease is usually okay but there is a danger of ending up on the crease if people in the centre take too much space.  The other day I was on the edge of a crease and it was a bit tricky when I did poses where I had to kneel down because I had a crease under each knee, and also under each hand when I was in downward dog.

Personally, I am a backbencher, but the last row of the carpet.  I don’t like to be on the marble floor because of the draft on a cold day and it’s just nice to have an extra layer of cushioning under your mat.  I try and stay away from the main door because I get nervous if I see eyes looking at me (although they may not necessarily be watching me).  

Just as people gravitate to certain spots in the room, they also get used to (and like) practicing next the same people all the time.  You inevitably find people you like to practice next to and people you avoid.  Some people have great energy, steady deep breaths and are a calming presence to have beside you.  In contrast, some people take short, choppy breaths.  Personally this agitates me and unconsciously causes me to quicken my breath.  I find that I come out of practice feeling flustered and unsettled.

Since space is limited (you have about 15cm on either side of you), people need to be very aware of what they are doing and to stay within the boundaries of their ‘mat space’ ie an unspoken mat etiquette.  This is especially in poses where you’re sticking a leg, knee or arm out.  It sometimes involves making minor adjustments and movements so you don’t inconvenience the people around you.  This is primarily on both sides, but sometimes to the front and back.
I’ve had the unpleasant experience of someone dripping sweat on the back of my mat or doing a backward roll into my face because they land on the front of my mat.  It’s a pain to practice beside an inconsiderate person who is oblivious to what’s going on around him/her.  This is 1 reason why some people like to position themselves on the sides or next to a wall.

If you are in a later timeslot, where you end up practicing is just like Russian roulette – you go where you’re assigned and you make do with the space you’ve been given and the people you have around you.

Who would have thought that the physical spot you practice on would be so complicated.  But this is how the human mind works; sometimes dwelling far too much on things that are unimportant in the bigger scheme of things.  This is precisely what Yoga tries to teach us … to put aside the distractions of the mind and focus on living fully in the present.  With Ashtanga yoga, the breath controls the mind and the mind controls the body. So slow, deep breaths results in a calm, still mind and a strong body.

PS.  Here is a pix of my 1st Christmas stocking (took me almost a month, a couple of hours each day) and a pin cushion I made for my friend using remaining scraps of felt.  Am close to completing the 2nd stocking too.

Xmas Stocking #1

Xmas stocking #2 (almost there ...)

Pin cushion

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Chinese in India

India’s national language is Hindi but most people speak the dialect of the state.  In Mysore, which is in the state of Karnataka, they speak Kanada.  The Muslims here also speak Urdu.  Strangely, if an Indian meets another from a different state, they speak English to each other first, rather than Hindi.

So, what have I been speaking in Mysore, other than English?  Ironically, it is ... Chinese!

This isn’t a one-off situation.  It’s my 3rd year now.  The 1st 2 times, I was hanging around with a couple from Taiwan, Axl and Gladys.  They are more comfortable with Mandarin versus English, so I ended up speaking (or trying to speak) Mandarin to them.  This also happened when we met up the subsequent year (with the addition of another Singaporean who also spoke fluent Mandarin).  To top it off, a Taiwananese lady, daughter and niece were my housemates for a month.  That gave me a gauge of the level of my Mandarin – worse than a 5 year old’s!
They were all amused by my bad Mandarin; I was embarrassed; but needless to say it did improve whilst I was here.

Although Axl and Gladys are not here this year, the shala has been invaded by the ‘Orientals’ (for lack of a better collective name) this year.  There are lot of Taiwanese here, some Japanese and a few others whom I can’t identify.  I used to be a minority race ... but not this year and it’s nice to see the increase in Asians coming here.  I think our Chanting teacher can’t tell us apart because he picked on mostly Asian females when checking our registration dates.
This year I’m speaking ... Cantonese, which is worse than my Mandarin.  One of my girlfriends here has lived in Hong Kong for years so she’s always speaking to me in Cantonese.  The only Cantonese I’m fluent in is from Mum scolding us when we were young; so things like ‘you’re so clumsy, silly, etc’ – not quite the vocab for polite social conversation.  No surprise that my friend is always remarking about how bad my Cantonese is, what a weird accent I have etc ... and this coming from a Filipino whose accent isn’t that authentic herself is even more ironic.

This week, another lady from Hong Kong arrived .. Oh no .. more Cantonese! Thankfully (I think) she can speak Mandarin  and probably prefers my bad Mandarin to my even worse Cantonese ... so here we go again ... Mandarin in India!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

So what do you do every day after practice?

That’s what most people ask me after they get over the fact that I’m up at 230am and done with pranayama + ashtanga practice by 7am.

Coming to Mysore is luxurious because I can get away from everything and just focus on my practice.  It’s my break away from teaching and the hectic life in Singapore.  At home, I get up as late as possible to fit in practice before I have to leave for my 1st class of the day.  I teach both morning and night classes so most days I’m still tired when I get up.  That especially affects pranayama practice – which you can’t really do properly if you’re falling asleep half the time ;o)

Teaching Ashtanga, especially Mysore-style classes, can be physically tiring and that affects the energy I have for my own practice.  Adjusting people also tightens up the body and is asymmetrical as I inevitably favour 1 side over another.  A lot of my aches and pains have come from adjusting, versus practicing.  So, just practicing without having to teach is what I appreciate most being here. 

The practice itself here is also very intense:
  • I can’t cheat  :o)
  • Led classes are full-on, requiring strength as well as stamina ... especially when Sharath counts  S  L  O  W  L  Y!
  • Mysore classes where I have to grab my ankles in the last backbend (and now up to mid-calfs) can be tough, especially on days when the body  feels tired or stiff.

I digress ... back to the question, “What do people do after practice?”
My answer – Nothing much!

My 1st year here, I stressed about how to fill my time.  That lasted about a week after which I could calmly and happily say ‘’Nothing’’ when asked, “What are you doing today?”.  The unspoken rule is ... just set yourself 1 thing to do each day.

Laundry can take up more time than you think (especially when I was handwashing the 1st few years).  It’s still monsoon season so hanging out and then taking in clothes when it rains can be tedious.  Sometimes, it takes days for the clothes to dry.

Everyone has little projects to occupy their time when they come to Mysore:
  • My 1st year I read like crazy, sometimes up to 3 books in a week
  • Another trip I got hooked onto Sudoku, hiding away in room for hours until I was accused of being anti-social
  • This year I am sewing! I have 3 Christmas stockings to complete for my nephews.  It’s a lot more ‘leche’ (ie tedious) than I anticipated and I estimate it’ll take 4 weeks for each stocking (with a few hours of work each day).  I’m entering into my 4th week and here is what I’ve done for stocking #1.
Before (OMG, this is going to take me ages!)
Now (almost there, but not quite)

 People also take classes (Chanting, Sanskrit, Meditation, Massage, Anatomy etc).  They do touristy things like day trips to temples (there’s also a Tibetan settlement 2 hours from Mysore) on weekends or moondays.  Gokulam is about 10 minutes from Mysore town where there is Mysore palace, the main Market, lots of shops and eateries.

Getting clothes tailored can also take up a lot of time, just running to the tailor every day to pick up your clothes, only to be told, “You come back tomorrow”.  Then once you get the clothes, the whole cycle repeats itself getting alternations done!

The Yoga Shala runs a trust which supports a number of charities and organisations.  Some students volunteer to help teach kids English (we took the orphanage kids to the zoo 2 years ago).  I also know of people who make some pocket money giving massages and other bodywork (osteopathy or chiropractic therapies).

Daily life here also presents many opportunities for amazing photographs.  My Australian friend spends hours in town with her camera.  This year, another friend is working on an art exhibition which will open 2 weeks after he gets home to Sydney.  Here is a sample of his initial work which he kindly showed us.

Still WIP, like my Stocking!

He's been drawing from Photos he's taken in town
Not everyone fills their time running around though.  One friend is very happy sitting at home knitting (she also brought a weaving handloom with her).  Some watch movies and tv shows on their laptops (I’m doing that too this year) and others just sleep, after practice to recover and after lunch when food coma hits them.

Basically, being here gives you the understated value of Time ... to
  • Think (or not)
  • Rest
  • Do things we wouldn't and couldn’t do at home and
  • Time to appreciate what we have been blessed with.  And for this I am truely grateful because I have been blessed with much.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

When Night is Day and Day is still Day

When you stay in Mysore long enough, you inevitably get pushed to the 1st batch of students ie start time of 445am.
So, even though the start time indicated on your card says 5am, Sharath will say “You come, 445am’’ when he moves you to the 1st slot.

NB.  The clock in the shala is 15 mins ahead of regular time (do not ask me why this is so as it creates a lot of confusion .. some students end up setting their watches to Shala Time.  Some, like me, don’t ... so even more confusion when you arrange to meet people for lunch or tea etc
When I registered this year, Sharath wrote 530am as my start time.  I was quite happy with that.  That only lasted 2 days though.  On my 3rd day, I walk into the shala and he looks at me ... ‘’Tomorrow you come early ... 430am is your time”.  2 things flashed into my head:
  1. 1st batch already? So soon!
  2.  430am? What happened to 445am?
I am still in ‘rebellion mode’ because I come at 445am (shala time).  Things are definitely starting earlier now because the shala is already almost full by then.  Shala gates open at 430am and some people are there as early as 415am (and they aren’t even kia su Singaporeans cos I’m the only Singaporean here at the moment).  

You must be wondering ... what time do I get up? The answer is – TOO EARLY!!  I used to get up at 345am last time I was here.  There’s a slight problem this year though.  Since I started a regular pranayama practice, I do 45-60min of pranayama every morning before my ashtanga practice.  I leave my house at 415am so I have to get up at 230am! And no, I can’t do pranayama after because I have no discipline to NOT have my 2 coconuts with Guru and/or go for chai with my friends.  Besides, pranayama is great to warm up the body and helps deepen my breath before my ashtanga practice.

So, I try to get to bed at 730pm ... which I realise is even earlier than the time my youngest nephew (Mikey is 1 ½) goes to bed.

To make matters worse, the US Tennis Open was on when I arrived in Mysore.  If you didn’t  know, I am a big tennis fan and especially a Roger Federer fan (although that does not influence my conclusion that Sharath looks like Roger Federer).

I am very fortunate to have cable TV in my house in Mysore plus finding an Indian channel which was telecasting the US Open live.  Hence I was presented with a dilemma ... do I get up to watch the tennis live if I have to get up at 1am to do my pranayama before sneaking in some tennis between 2 and 4.15am?  The answer-  YES .. just do it! I wasn’t rewarded too well by that decision:
  • 1st night - a Federer loss.
  • 2nd night- match postponement due to rain
  • 3rd night - rain delay.
I was so tired that I had to go to bed at 6pm one of those nights.
It’s very strange going to bed when it’s light outside, lots of traffic noise, neighbours clanging around and get up to complete silence and pitch darkness.  Street lighting is quite sparse so you can't see much that early in the morning.  I was walking to the shala at 415am the other morning when a policeman on his motorbike (at least I think he was a policeman) stopped by my side.  “Madam, where are you going so early in the morning?”.  Yoga, I replied.  OK, he said with a shake of his head before driving off.   This morning, I almost walked straight into a little pony who was standing quietly in the middle of the road! Gave me a fright!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Back in the Land of Chai, Cows and Children asking “Do you have your country coin”

After 2 years, I'm back in Mysore! I am slowly settling in to life here and can sum up my 1st week in a few words ... Same same, but  Different.  For example:
  • I still have ants ... but now, they are the small brown ones and confined to my bathroom.  I have already located their nest but we are co-existing quite peacefully ... for now.
  • Indian officials still have the ability to amaze it.  When my hand luggage went through the X-ray machine after clearing immigration at Bangalore airport, the customs official beckoned me over ... “Madam”, he said, “You have gold chains in your bag?”  I was like ... Huh? Gold chains? No!  He then pointed to the Xray screen, showing my bag with thick coils at the bottom.  I stifled a giggle .. Sir, that’s the wire for my laptop!
  • My coconut man, Guru, is still under his tree.  My muruku boy (now a young man) still remembers what I like best.  I still have internet access via a long LAN cable running from my landlord’s house on the ground floor, up and over the roof, then down into my living room.  So, although he has yet to go wireless, at least it is now High Speed :o)  Sadly, my favourite local breakfast place has closed down – must find another! And last but not least, the washing machine is still up and running ... Hurray!!
  • Practicewise, it is beautiful.  Sharath is now restricting the number of applicants to 100 at any one time.  And if people drop out, they are not replaced.  There are about 70 people in the shala at the moment and the energy in the room is lovely ... quiet and cool versus previous times when it was a lot more agitated and noisy.  The weather is still a little rainy as the drought from previous years is now gone but this makes the weather cool which is a perfect contrast to humid Singapore.  This also means less power cuts as the dams generating hydroelectric power are full.
It's great being back here ... ,although I miss the kick that Teh Halia gives which is lacking in the chai here :o)

Monday, September 6, 2010

11 May 09: India 2008 – the Final Chapter

I was in India for 5 months last year.  I’ve been back in S’pore for 5 months now.  It’s about time I closed off my India experience with a final update.  I’ve always known that I had one more left to write.  It’s taken this long because the pace of my life here is so fast that I don’t have time to think.  Already my 5 months in India have become almost surreal.  My life there was so different, it’s almost as if it never happened.  Some salient points that stand out are:

I lived for myself
I didn’t have to teach, babysit or worry about anyone other than myself.  I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.  Whilst this is definitely a disillusionary escape from reality, I treasured my freedom, the immense amounts of time I just ‘lepak-ed’ (ie relaxed) and did nothing.  Plus the fact that I could focus all my energies towards my yoga practice.

Doing nothing is actually doing a lot
Before I left for Mysore last year, my concern was that my body would breakdown from the intense practice or I’d die of boredom.
On my first trip to Mysore, I was so agitated the first few days because I didn’t have anything to do.  Now I embrace that fact.  It’s a common understanding that you only plan one thing to do a day …  because you can.  It’s worth noting that in India, one thing may actually take the whole day eg buying a train ticket!

Doing a lot is actually not a lot
Life in S’pore moves so quickly that we don’t have time to ‘smell the flowers’ and appreciate what we’ve been blessed with.  I can now say, from experience, that it is actually very unhealthy – no wonder people get heart attacks and other stress-related problems.

I have travelled widely and always adjusted very well everywhere.  But for the first time, I suffered massive culture shock when I got back to Singapore last December - too many things happening at the same time plus sensory overload.  Also, after surviving on 1 pair of slippers and the same 5 sets of clothes for 5 months, I realised that I have too much stuff.  It was stressful trying to decide which of my 5 watches I was going to wear.

Bringing my ashtanga practice to a ‘higher’ level
As I’ve explained before, the energy level in the Shala every single day enables you to do things that you would not normally do.  My breath got stronger, mind more focused and my body opened up in ways I could not imagine.  Practicing with Sharath for 4 whole months was the biggest highlight of my trip.

Discovering Pranayama
Studying with Tiwariji for 4 weeks has opened my eyes to a whole other path in Yoga.  It made me realise that I’ve been standing on one leg all this time and now I’m just learning to put the other foot down.  I did not expect to gain anything earth-shattering from learning Pranayama.  But it’s completely turned my world upside down.  Being a naturally stiffer person, I have always had to work at my flexibility and I’ve come a long way since I first start ashtanga 8 years ago.  However in the 4 weeks that I started Pranayama, my back and shoulders opened up in ways that I still can’t believe.  On a ‘stiff’ day now (and there are still many of them), the hardest backbend is sometimes better than the toughest forward bend.  And anyone who knows my practice also knows that I am not a backbender!

I am proud to say that I have maintained my pranayama practice, in addition to my ashtanga practice.  They complement each other and I’m looking forward to studying with Tiwariji again, hopefully end of this year.

I love Indian food!
I’m very thankful for Little India and I have discovered the most amazing dosa opposite Mustafa (thank you Elena!) – too bad their chai and coffee suck bigtime!  However, nothing beats food in India, especially the homecooked meals. Mmmmm

Looking back, quitting all my classes to go to India for 5 months was one of the best things I have done in my life.  Change (positive or negative) always creates opportunity for growth.  You learn more about yourself, what you believe in and what is important to you.  If you remain stagnant, you don’t experience life’s richness.  I was feeling a bit ‘stuck’ and that change was exactly what I needed.  I’ve now adjusted back to life in S’pore.  I still have problems deciding which watch to wear so I pretty much wear the same one :o)
There are also other subtle positive changes and I will treasure my experiences every day, with thanks.

And last but not least, thank you to all of you for being part of this amazing journey with me!

13 Dec 08: Good-bye Mysore, Hello Lonavla

My trip from Mysore to Lonavla was smooth.  The sacrifice was a good night’s sleep because I left Mysore just after midnight.  3 hours by car to Bangalore airport, 1¼ hour by plane to Pune, followed by an hour on the local train to Lonavla.

There was the usual confusion at the train station.  After meeting my friend Don, we lined up at the reservations counter, with a sleeping man lying smack across the middle of the queue.  He was all wrapped up in a blanket, with his face covered.  At one point, he woke up, looked around at all of us then promptly went back to sleep.  In typical Indian fashion, the guy at the counter told us, ‘No reservations possible’.  Of course we found out later that other people managed to get reserved seats.

After beating away blatant queue-cutters (Don told one guy off but was completely ignored), we got normal tickets without reservations.  The next task was to find out what time and which platform the train would be leaving from.  Pune station did not have boards showing arrival and departure information.  And even if it did, the information would probably be incorrect.  Since Indian trains are invariably late and you always get a different answer every time you ask, we asked several people before confirming we had the right platform and train.  Not surprisingly, the platform was different from what the guy at the counter told us.  And the train was fifteen minutes late.

Getting a seat on the train was another challenge.  It was an over-nighter from Hyderbad, so it was packed with people.  Plus we were both laden with backpacks, yoga mats and smaller daypacks.  So, giving a little leeway to the elderly, we pushed our way onto the train.  It turned out ok in the end as enough people got off at Pune to leave the train comfortably packed.

Despite the chaos and having to ignore the many beggars, I love Indian trains.  You see all sorts of people on it and vendors sell everything from chai to veg omelettes to key-chains and those sticky spiderman toys being sold outside Orchard MRT.

After getting off at Lonavla, we followed the locals taking the shortcut to awaiting rickshaws (If you look in the middle of the attached picture, you can see people walking where we did).  We climbed down from the platform to cut across the train tracks, rather than using the overhead bridge.  The Singaporean in me naturally balked at ‘breaking the rules’, expecting someone to stop me.  I have to revert when I go home, if not sure ‘kenna’ fined, or caned.

Lonavla auto drivers are evil compared to those in Mysore.  Use of the meter is non-existent and they charge exorbitant prices.  Even if you walk away, they don’t care.  The amount of money is nominal, it’s their attitude that annoys me.

Lonavla is a small Indian town.  It reminds me of what Mysore would have been like years ago.  It’s supposed to be a weekend getaway for people living in Mumbai.  From what I’ve seen of the noisy, ugly town, I have no idea why.  One attraction could be the ‘chikki’, the local sweet that Lonavla seems to be famous for.  Every other shop is a chikki shop.  Chikki can be soft or hard and it comes in all sorts of flavours – chocolate, coconut, mango etc.  The traditional one is with groundnuts.  The common denominating factor is that it’s usually way too sweet.  The only thing I will eat is fudge from Cooper’s, especially their chocolate almond fudge.  People (mainly from out of town) line up even before the shop opens – reminds me of the doughnut queues in Singapore.

The only thing I have seen catering to Westerners is a Coffee Day which has opened up in the past year.  It remains very empty compared to the local restaurants which are packed with people.  There are no supermarkets or ice-cream parlours … yet.  I only go into town to get fruit and other incidentals.  As soon as I get in, I want to escape back to the relative quiet of the yoga institute.

One positive thing about town is my fruit man.  His fruit is very fresh (a rarity here) and he doesn’t offload over-ripe fruit onto us.  He inspects each fruit first and is very specific in asking when we are going to eat it (today or tomorrow?) and whether we want small, medium or large oranges.  The other day he didn’t have any Fuji apples so he got them off his neighbour.  He was not pleased because the apples were sub-standard; he actually rejected almost half of them.  The guy may be my only favourite man in Lonavla town.  I miss my Mysore men.

The institute itself has a Yogic hospital with a Naturopathy and Ayurvedic centre.  My coursemates are going crazy getting treatments, from massages to facial mud packs to getting herbal oils dripped onto their foreheads and into their ears.  The other day at least five people came to class with their ears stuffed up with cotton wool.  Today, one wore sunglasses until it got too dark for her to see anything.

There are forty-one of us on the course and like Mysore, it’s truly international.
We’ve got Americans, Canadians, Australians, Ukrainians, Israelis, French, Indians, English, Portuguese, a German, a Korean, an Austrian, a mainland Chinese, a Filipino, a Scot. 

United Colours of Benetton
The only thing that Mysore had a lot of which is lacking here are Hispanics.  Quite a few of my coursemates are older too which is a nice change to the youngsters in Mysore.  Mr Uppal, an Indian man in his 70s, has been Tiwariji’s student since 1970.

The Scot asked a wee question the other day.  The lecturer’s response … blank face followed by, ‘I do not understand’.  The reverse is true.  Blank foreign faces when the lecturers speak super-fast with thick Indian accents.  It’s hilarious for me because I understand both sides most of the time.  Interesting how a Ukrainian had to ‘translate’ a question from an Aussie for my Indian teacher.  All were speaking English mind you.

Three of my coursemates attracted a lot of attention on the train to Pune.  They were a blonde Canadian lady, a Filipino guy with long hair and whiskers (looking very Mexican) and a black British lady with her hair in braids.  If I had been there, we could have posed for a United Colours of Benetton poster.

One thing I’ve loved about my time in India is meeting such diverse people.  It’s been educational to see what other kind of people that exist in this world.  Just when you think you’ve seen them all, someone different pops up.  There are many offbeat weirdos but I stay away from them.  The people I’ve gravitated towards have a few things in common – a largely sensible outlook towards life and a passion for food.  Coincidentally, they all seem to own cameras.  Perfect!  You wouldn’t see any of these pictures otherwise.
Pranayama will give you pimples on your nose ;o)
Mr Uppal in the pranayama hall

No seatbelt required

Old Buddhist temple in hillside caves

Our field trip guide - Rohit, the kitchen supervisor

Tiwariji in his workout kit

8 Dec 08: Sacred Breath

I’m spending my last month in Lonavla, a little town inbetween Mumbai and Pune, attending a Pranayama course.  Pranayama is basically a variety of breathing techniques to expand / extend the breath or at a deeper level, to re-channel the body’s vital energy (prana or chi).  The yoga institute, Kaivalyadhama (it took me a few weeks to pronounce it properly), is supposedly the oldest in the world.  It prides itself on the research, study, teaching and application of yoga according to the traditional texts, but with an underlying scientific outlook.

Our main teacher, Tiwari-ji, is reputedly one of the best and has been teaching for more than forty years.  With white hair and a kind, humble demeanour, he is the quintessential favourite grandfather.  I love the way he dresses – long-sleeved white / cream shirt & loose pants under a dark blue / gold-brown Mao-collared vest.  Very smart.

With Pranayama, one can control the body’s vital energy through control of the breath.  Normal breathing is a semi-voluntary action.  In Pranayama however, every breath is conscious and controlled.  The mind controls the breath and amongst other things, our emotions.  When our emotions are under control, we are more aware.  This foundation of inner consciousness is a preparation for meditation.   Over time, with regular Pranayama practice, bodily processes and their natural rhythm are also maintained, preventing disease and keeping us in good health.

Before the body’s vital energy can be re-channelled, the body has to be appropriately cleansed to remove blockages.  Diet is important, basically lacto-vegetarian.  Fruits, vegetables, no fried food, chilli (ouch!), onions or garlic.  They serve ‘herbal tea’ which is essentially milk boiled with spices.  It’s a perfect masala chai substitute if you throw in a teabag.  Milk and ghee are recommended as this lubricates the body.  The nutritionist polices us at dinnertime if we’re only supposed to eat kichory (semi-stodgy rice cooked with dhal and spices) instead of regular food.  I’m definitely not telling her that I have my chocolate in my room.

Kriyas (cleansing practices) are encouraged.  A simpler kriya, Jal Neti, involves using a neti pot (tiny teapot with a long spout) to pour warm, salty water through one nostril and allowing it to come out from the other.  The Neti kriyas help clear blocked nasal passages.

Other kriyas can be a bit more extreme.  In order to do these, you have to have an ‘accepting’ mind as some can go against what you think your body should be doing.  The first time I performed Sutra Neti, I had to thread a rubber tube (linguine-width) through my nostril and down my throat.  Then I had to stick my fingers to the back of my mouth (trying not to gag in the process), catch hold of the tube and pull it out through my mouth.  The last step is to pull the tube back and forth a few times to clear any blockages.  Removal is pulling it out from the mouth.  I was successful on my second attempt.  The first try failed because I put the tube too far down my throat.  It sounds pretty grim but it’s not as bad as it sounds.

If you think that’s bad, the kriyas which are meant to cleanse the respiratory track and stomach passages are little more ‘invasive’.  Swallowing about 1.4 litres of warm salty water and then expelling it right back out?  I have major problems with voluntary throwing-up so most of the water remained inside.  Good thing I could manage the next kriya which is sticking a thicker rubber tube (more like penne) down your throat until it reaches your stomach.  This will help to clear out the stomach.  This kriya was not that difficult once I got it past the back of your throat.  Then I just had to resist gagging from the smell of rubber.

The most daunting kriya is swallowing twenty-one feet of thin muslin cloth, churn the abdominal muscles and then pulling it out? I could only manage 2 feet before I got sick of the feel and taste of cloth in my mouth.
21 ft to go!

The cloth has to be swallowed and pulled out within fifteen minutes because that’s when the body will start digestion.  Tiwari-ji shared his experience of swallowing the cloth.  He tried for 6 months before he could do it.  His teacher even tried soaking the cloth in milk as well as honey first.

Some of these kriyas are very advanced and no one is obliged to attempt them.  Most of my coursemates are very keen though.  So there’s lots of gagging and retching going on every morning.  Our stomachs must be stronger now because we can handle all the kriya talk during meals.

The digestive system is cleansed through Shankh Prakshalan.  You drink 2 glasses of warm salty water then perform postures to stimulate the peristalsis process.  Keep drinking water and doing postures until you need to go to the bathroom. It’s good for people with constipation or digestive problems.
We started with twelve people and towards the end, there were only 2 people left in the room.  Everyone else was in the toilet.

Pranayama practices also include strengthening the pelvic and abdominal muscles.  This is very important to build a strong foundation in order to send the pranic energy up the main energy channel.

The practices involve varying the rate and depth of the breath, breathing through one or both nostrils, breathing in through the mouth or breathing with sound (like a bee or Darth Vader).  Exhales are always twice as long as inhales so that is automatically more relaxing.  Each practice has its own effects and purposes, for example - cooling, energising, cleansing and balancing.

Pranayama is a very powerful practice and a step from the physical yoga towards the higher, more internal practices.  Because it involves breath retention, it has to be taught from a knowledgeable teacher.  And we have the best in Tiwariji who is patient and nurturing.

My pranayama practice has only just started but I definitely feel good – calmer, fresher and stronger.  The test will be maintaining this practice when I get back to real life.  So, don’t be shocked if I’m humming like a bee when you next see me ;o)