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)

2 Dec 08: Mysore – it’s a wrap

It was with mixed feelings that I said good-bye to Mysore on Saturday November 15th. I was sad to go because 4 months of practicing in the shala with Sharath was a complete luxury. Plus, I knew that I would suffer shala withdrawal symptoms i.e. daily tendencies to cheat leading to a rapid plummet of my practice. Would I have stayed longer? An extra month would have been nice but my last week at practice was great and it’s always nice to end on a high note. Plus, since I had to leave, I was looking forward to my last month further north. Then home to see especially my twin nephews and my sister’s growing belly.

To wrap-up my time in Mysore, I’d like to summarise developments from my earlier updates. I will begin with the biggest stress of my Mysore stay:

Ants Part 8+++
Looks like taping up the hole and poking a hole to spray into is the way to go. We got a lot of ants behind the kitchen cabinets. Then I found 2 more nests in my room before I waved the white flag. ‘You win Ants, you can have the room!’. I moved to James’ room after he left. They must have missed me because I saw ants moving out through the window and the door before Elena moved in my old room. So, she got an ant-less room and I still had to deal with them. I unexpectedly found at least another hundred in a bag of dried snacks in the kitchen! Quite a shock. The good news is that was the last batch although there was a HUGE spider which moved into my new room. Thankfully only for a night.

Green leafy vegetables
I found street vendors around the corner from where I live that sell palak (spinach). At 4 little bundles for 10 rupees, it’s a steal. I am rather sick of sautéed spinach now though.

Guru, my coconut man
About a month ago, he got a haircut (no big deal) and dyed his hair & moustache jet-black. He looked about 20 years younger. I almost couldn’t recognise him. My friend didn’t. She went up to him, ‘Are you covering for Guru today?’, getting a sheepish grin in return. He does this every six months it seems. Now, a month later, he looks a little speckled when he doesn’t shave. White stubble whilst everything else is black.

Beck – the other coconut man sadly died very suddenly of a heart attack. Ironically, a day after I sent out my Guru email. He was only 45. It was big news as he was a favourite with a lot of the students. His son has since taken over his job outside the shala. Very pleasant. Always smiles in greeting and you can see the resemblance to his father. I smile back but sorry Beck Jr, my loyalties lie with my main man, Guru.

I’ve found a new favourite local eatery for breakfast – Hotel Gokul. Clean, cheap and good. The owner is now used to our weird order. Plain dosa, 1 chorta (half) normal tea, 1 full sugarless tea which we will mix to get the perfect level of sweetness. Best place to ‘dao bao’ (take-away) too – they happily fill up flasks for us.

The young guy at the local bakery still calls me ‘Jimmy’. Maney’s wife still calls me ‘Dosa’. My Mysore friends now call me ‘Jimmy Dosa’.

Maney, my rickshaw man
He called me on my last day sounding really awful. He was sick with flu but still offered to come over to say good-bye. His wife wanted to speak to me so we had our usual 3-4 word conversation. Then she impressed an expanded vocabulary of, ‘Husband very sick’. True to form, Maney, never ceasing to amaze me with his thoughtfulness, sent his friend to deliver a rose to me as a farewell gift. I was very sad not to have said good-bye to him in person but very happy that he will not be able to reject the Ang Bao I left for him with my landlord.

The important people in my Mysore life
I made it a point on my last morning to say good-bye to the important people – no coincidence how so many are related to eating. My coconut man, my milk & curd man, my Hotel Gokul man, my rickshaw men. It was quite embarrassing going back to Hotel Gokul in the afternoon for more chai though. My man there politely said as I left, “Now you going?”.

Now as a test to determine my most diligent reader, here’s a pop quiz for you:
- What was my first mysore ‘pet’?
Correct entries eligible for a lucky draw. Grand prize is a value pack of 4 Indian toilet rolls. These can also be traded at a local Mysore eatery for not one, but two thalis, with enough change for 2 large chais!

PS. I close my Mysore 2008 chapter with this photo taken after stealth attack, Operation Masking Tape, was carried out. Here are some samples of the results.

In case you can't see the black specks are ants .. lots of them!

24 Nov 08: Sharath English

It’s one thing to understand India English. Surviving in the shala is completely different, requiring specific terminology which I refer to as ‘Sharath English’.

Sharath actually speaks pretty good English. On Sundays, he conducts Conference, speaking for up to twenty minutes on his chosen topic for the day and then answering questions from students. He is confident and fluent, plus he jokes. And his jokes are good too.

During practice, Sharath uses just enough words to get his point across. Forget about all the extra fluff eg. prepositions, articles and correct tenses. Sharath and his mum, Saraswati, use the bare minimum. And I don’t blame them since they have to police sixty people a session, doing different things on their mats, with ten or more people waiting their turn in the foyer. They definitely need to conserve their energy.

The shala’s actually very quiet. Students rarely speak, although I’ve heard moans of pain, squeals of fear and once in a blue moon, a shrieked vulgarity. During Mysore classes, Sharath and Saraswati mainly speak when they’re calling someone into the room to start practice. Sharath will sometimes give individual instructions for poses. During Led class, they just call out the poses and count the vinyasa (ie movements connecting the poses). If Sharath is in a good or mean mood, he’ll crack some jokes or give us grief.

I’ve compiled a collection of commonly used phrases that Sharath uses. It’s quite important to understand the shala vocabulary because the last thing you want to do is to piss him off by not doing what he wants you to.

Entry into the Shala language:
• “One more” – probably what you hear most in the shala. Used to call someone in.
• “You come” – normally comes after “One more’ is repeated with no movement from the foyer. Then, he’ll point at someone and say, “You come!”
• “Don’t fear” – used when people hesitate at the door, either because they’re not sure if “You come” is referring to them or because the pecking order is disturbed when Sharath calls specific people in out of turn.
• Amidst the sea of sweaty bodies in the room, it’s sometimes quite hard to tell where the empty spot in the room is. People will stand in the middle of the room, looking around blindly. That’s when Sharath / Saraswati will give you instructions:
“You come front”.
“You come straight” - which doesn’t mean straight towards them. It means straight into the middle of the room or
“You go back” - to the back of the room, not back out to the foyer.
• If Sharath senses someone has come earlier than the time he has stipulated (and trust me, he actually remembers!), you’ll get a stern,
“You! What is your time?”.
• If you’re not kosher, that may be followed with “You wait” or “You don’t come early. You come 8 o’clock”.
• As people in the earlier batches leave, Sharath will move people up with,
“Tomorrow you come early. 6 o’clock”.

Pose-related language:
• If you’re doing a pose wrongly or out of the ordinary, Sharath will say,
“You! What you do?!”
• That is also used if he is checking on the last pose in the sequence you’ve done,
“What you do? Bhujapidasana you do?”.
If the student nods and he’s happy with how you’re done it, you may get the next pose, “Tomorrow, Kurmasana you do”.
• In backbends, you start by lying on your back, put your palms by your ears, then push yourself up, lifting your back and butt off the ground. With arms and legs as straight as possible, the aim then is to deepen the backbend by walking in your hands towards your feet. This is pretty intense. Sharath’s ‘encouragement’ here will be,
“Straight arms. Walk … walk … walk!”
• At this point, elbows will usually bend as students tire. Once as a student’s forearms collapsed onto the ground, instead of saying “Walk”, I heard him say with a smile, “Crawl!”
• The next stage in backbending is to drop back into a backbend from a standing position. It can be quite scary because you don’t know if your hands will reach the ground before your head does. Inevitably, someone will hit their head on the ground with a loud thump. Sharath’s usual response will be,
“Don’t break the floor. Next time wear helmet”
• In Conference today he was talking about why his family doesn’t eat garlic – it has medicinal purposes so should only be taken in times of illness. Plus he said, it makes you smell. In the old shala which would fit only 12-15 students at a time, this was more cause for concern. So, when he was helping students drop back into backbends, he’d tell them,
“If you eat garlic, I drop you in backbending”.

Led Class language:
• In a Led class, you have to follow Sharath’s count. If people go too quickly, he’ll scold you with,
“Why you hurry? Don’t hurry”.
• In a one-legged standing pose, people who lose their balance and start hopping around will hear,
”No dancing”.
• There’s a pose where you’re practically up in a little ball rolling around in a full circle. Since people are packed so closely together, they will inevitably bump into each other and Sharath’s regular word of caution is,
“No head-butting”.
• At the end of the sequence, there’s a killer-pose where you sit cross-legged in lotus position and press down onto your hands, lifting your butt and legs off the ground. He’ll count from 1 to 10, VERY slowly. It’s tiring and not everyone can hold themselves up for the full ten counts. Sharath loves to tease us in this pose,
“Lift up. No cheating. Lift up! Not enough chapati (or sometimes, Too much chapati”.
• If people are moaning / groaning in a pose, you’ll get a not very sympathetic,
“No crying”.
• At the end of the class, he’ll always send us off with,
“Thank you very much. You go home, take rest”.

I think if anyone wrote a comprehensive guide on ‘How to Mysore’, they should include a section on Sharath English. It’d make life a lot smoother for everyone.

17 Nov 08: My favourite Mysore man – Maney, the rickshaw driver

There is a rickshaw stand just around the corner from the yoga shala.  The drivers based here are the ones service the yoga students.  It’s nice that I know a few of them because if they see me, they’ll stop and give me a lift.  I give thanks for Raju who’s given me a ride back after practice when I’m tired, hungry and wishing my yoga mat was much lighter.  Now, if he’d only catch me near the shala and not a mere 100 metres from my house!

Everyone has their special driver whose telephone number is on their speed-dial.  Mine is Maney.
Maney enjoying a quiet moment with his paper inbetween jobs
He was introduced to me in 2004 by a friend who used him on a regular basis.  I still remember him taking me for a tour around the city, showing me the best view of the palace etc.  He was an excellent tour guide, rattling off information about the city.  It’s just a shame that I couldn’t understand a lot of it because his accent is strong and he speaks quite quickly.  Plus sitting behind him means I can’t even try to lip-read.

I like Maney because he’s honest, reliable and more importantly, is an amazing cook.  In the beginning, he would never tell me how much I owed him for the ride.  ‘As you wish’ was his standard reply.  We had many awkward moments because I didn’t want to end up under-paying him.  He’s a quick learner though.  These days, he has it all worked out, even breaking it down to how each person owes him, depending on who got picked up when and where.

Maney is also very organised.  He has his own ‘gang’ of drivers and acts as point man.  All I need to do is call him.  If he isn’t able to take me, he’ll get someone else instead.  He also tells us how much to pay and informs the driver accordingly.  This is especially after we gave him feedback that some drivers were overcharging us.

Life as a rickshaw driver is tough.  Maney has to pay 2000rup each month to the leasing company for his rickshaw.  He also has a wife and son to support.  His regular income is taking the kids to and from school.  The kids don’t come from wealthy families so even though fuel costs have gone up, he takes what the parents can afford to give him.

The problem with committing to the school kids is that he isn’t always free to service the yoga students which is more lucrative but also less stable.  His sense of obligation is also very strong as he has been taking many of the kids since they started school.  He is also recognised as a ‘senior’ auto driver as he gets to park his auto closest to the school gate.

Maney’s rickshaw is very old and this year, I have seen the stress on his face when it fails to start or noises are heard from the engine.  He cannot afford to not run his auto.  In addition, the autos ferrying the school kids are also facing stiff competition from new mini-vans who are faster and more friendly in monsoon conditions.

Even then, Maney remains very principled.  He still protests when we pay him a little extra, insisting that we don’t need to.  He has even offered his commission to me when he brought me to a shop which gives him a little something for bringing in customers.

Maney was trained as an engineer and used to have a white-collar job.  However, he got involved with the company union and ended up getting fired.  In return, he sued the company.  In order not to give the courts any reason to file against him, he became an auto driver instead of going for another white-collar job.  The lawsuit has dragged on since I first met him 4 years ago.  He will probably win but the amount that his compensation will be very minimal.  His latest update is that a law may soon be passed which will make it hard for him to win.

One of my Mysore highlights is a meal cooked by Maney.  Not only is it simple, fresh and extremely tasty.  More importantly, it is cooked with pride and love.  We used to organise a group and go to his house for lunch because he always cooks too much.  This year however he’s taken to bringing the food over so that we don’t have to pay for an auto to bring us to his place.  He plans the menu with enthusiasm and I have to stop him from cooking too many dishes.  Today, he called me twice before lunch.  The first time was to ask if we wanted more or less spice in the vegetable curry (for some reason he thinks foreigners can’t eat chilli) and the second was to confirm how many chapatis each of us would eat.
Maney - “Four per person, Denise?”
Me - “Oh no Maney, three is fine.  So twenty-four for eight of us”
Maney - “Ok, I’ll make twenty-eight, or thirty”.

Maney’s wife doesn’t speak a word of English.  All she does is beam constantly.  It’s a joke when she insists on speaking to me on the phone.  Plus, she can’t pronounce my name.  To make things easier for us both, she calls me ‘Dosa’ because I raved about the special dosas Maney made last year.

When Maney cooks for us, we all chip in money which we give him at the end of the meal.  It’s a small sum to us but definitely something he can use for his family.  He has never liked it.  He insists that he is cooking for us because he wants to and not to make money off us.  I have yet to solve this problem.  When I leave this year, I am going to give him an Ang Bao and tell him that it’s a Chinese tradition for good luck, especially for his son.  Wish me luck!

9 Nov 08: Auto Rickshaw Strategies 101

Many yoga students rent scootors to get around.  A few rent bicycles.  Others, like me, walk or get auto rickshaws (known here as Autos).  They’re readily available.  Everytime I walk anywhere, I have to constantly signal ‘No thank you’ to rickshaws who honk their horn, slow down and peer at me hopefully.

Autos are basically 3-wheel motorcycles with a black and yellow shell around it.  There are no doors.  They have a super-small turning radius, which helps because drivers u-turn randomly everywhere.  There is no reverse gear so the driver has to physically push it backwards.

Passengers sit in the backseat.  3 can fit snugly.  4 is a squash (especially with my 6ft5 friend, Steve) so sometimes one of us will sit upfront with the driver.  You’ll be charged 50% more for 4 passengers.  It’s not very comfortable sitting with the driver because the meter presses into my back.  I also have to keep my left foot braced against the front of the rickshaw to keep myself from falling out the side when we’re turning.  Needless to say I only sit upfront with drivers I know because the front seat isn’t designed for two.

What never ceases to amaze me is watching the autos carrying the school children too and from school.  They cram in up to 14 children.  All you see as they approach are bags hanging out the sides, then lots of little smiling faces.  Then many waving hands with shouts of ‘Hello hello!’.

Kids piling into the rickshaw

The rickshaws are all decorated differently, just like taxis back home.  Some have pictures of Hindu Goddesses, Jesus or Mary.  Some have telephone numbers written all over.  Some are completely bare.  One driver has a sticker ‘Tom Rocks’ on the back of his rickshaw.  His name is Raju (not Tom – go figure).  Raju’s even got a CD player under his seat with speakers conveniently located at the back so we can hear, although he can’t.  He plays 80s music – Rick Springfield, the Police, Michael Jackson.  I love it!
My friend Steve always recognises how the rickshaw has been decorated.  I usually look at the driver’s face.  Yes, contrary to popular belief, one Indian man doesn’t look exactly like every other Indian man.  This is very useful if we want to avoid rickshaw drivers who have tried to rip us off before.

The best rickshaws have rain-shields (sheets of plastic) which prevent the rain from coming in from the side.  Some have cloth ‘curtains’ which aren’t very useful because you get the wet cloth sticks to your skin.  Lots have nothing at all.  This means that you end up pretty wet during the monsoon rains.

Rickshaw horns also vary.  They either go ‘beep-beep’  (like a motorcycle) or ‘bop-bop’ (like a circus clown’s honker).  Everyone on the road is constantly honking their horn and I much prefer the latter; less shrill and thus less annoying.  They say in India, the two most important things are a good horn and good brakes.

There are certain tactics you have to employ in order not to get cheated by rickshaw drivers.
Firstly, you have to check if they know where you want to go.  It helps if you put on an Indian accent.  Even then, watch their body language.  They tend to say ‘Yes’ even if they have no idea where you’re headed.

Secondly, make sure they switch on the meter.  By law they have to but they always try their luck, ‘Meter not working madam.  50 rupees (when it only costs 30)’.  If that happens, get out and walk.  They will call you back, either turning on the meter or you can bargain the price down.  It’s a lot better these days, especially with the drivers who are used to ferrying foreigners around.  They usually turn on the meter without any fuss.

Thirdly, watch that they don’t take a roundabout way, which is what they may do if the meter is on.

It is important that you roughly know how to get to where you want to go and how much the trip should cost.  The meter starts at 14 rupees and usually stays there for quite a while before starting to move.  The other day I got a meter which started ticking way too soon and way too quickly.  I didn’t want to make a fuss so I paid what the meter read.  I did however tell him, ‘Your meter very fast’.  Of course the reply was ‘Oh no madam’.  What to do?

The great thing here is that meters don’t move when the rickshaw stops.  And even if it was connected to the engine, drivers tend to switch off the engine at red lights anyway.

Meters used to start at 12 rupees.  Older autos may not have switched to the new starting fare.  These drivers will show you a tariff card which matches the old fare to the new fare.  Others will tell you that for every 10 rupees, you have to pay 2 more.  This brought about a bit of confusion when I first arrived because I thought they were pulling a fast one on me.

What I do these days, especially if there are a few of us getting picked up and going to multiple locations, is to call a auto driver I know and trust.  This way he knows where I want to go (or he will find out) and will wait for me as well.  It saves a lot of hassle and confrontational moments where you throw some money at the driver and just walk off with him shouting after you.

Yesterday, my auto from town back home kept stalling.  I got a little suspicious that the ultimate would happen.  True enough, after the fourth stall, the driver turned back and looked at me with a little smile and casual shake of his head.  So, I got out, gave him some money and walked home.  Good thing I was only ten minutes away.  Another reason to get a reliable driver.

I have worked out that the auto drivers operate like the mafia.  They have their own ‘gang’ and each gang has its turf.  Within the gang, they work on a FIFO (first in first out) basis.  This means whoever shows up earliest at their rickshaw stand will get the first customer.

Autos are a great form of transportation.  They’re cheap, easily available but like in Forrest Gump, you never know what experience you’re going to get.

Here are photos of Raju’s auto decked out for India’s Independence Day