Thursday, January 29, 2009

Right Hand Rule and Middle-Aged Acts of Defiance.

Whatever you have heard about the right hand rule of India is probably true. As far as the private business with the left hand goes, I finally broke down and asked one of my trusted Chennai-born sources to explain how they manage without toilet paper. There is always a low spigot aimed at the tiled floor or into a bucket. There is one or two buckets, usually one has water in it and there is a small measuring 2 cup thing floating in one of them. I suppose each person develops their own water-splash-the-privates-with-the-left-hand technique. And I have never seen a sign that commands people to wash their hands with soap and hot water before returning to work. There would be no way to dry them, anyways. Some things I don't want to think too much about. And I didn't have the courage to inquire about what sorts of undergarments are beneath the elaborately wound saris. Perhaps the air drying applies to other things as well.

So, I comply. In public, eating, I use my hand. My right hand. Only. Sometimes I break cultural tradition and use a fork, but usually, I find clever contortions with my right hand fingers to tear pieces of the naan or chipoti for scooping up the vegetables and sauce. It's tricky, especially with the clawed up paw I have. But, I make it fun. My friend did let me know that if it tastes good, lick your fingers (folks don't use napkins...) And, it is perfectly fine to pick up your glassware with the left hand.

But tonight, I was cranky. After the third Sanskrit lesson with the Nazi Sanskrit teacher, who found her patience in the middle of a bed of nails and her handwriting in a can of silly string, I decided to buck tradition and have an omelet and buttered toast which I unceremoniously ate with BOTH hands, all 10 fingers, in plain view of anyone in that public place who wanted to notice and feel disgusted. If I wore t-shirts, I'd get one that says "I take my TP with me."

My acts of defiance certainly have changed over the years.... Tomorrow, I think I will fire my tutor. She definitely doesn't make learning fun. And for any student I ever remotely made feel frustrated in the same way, I extend whichever hand you want in apology. Om shantih shantih shantih....

PS I am waving the sign of peace everywhere I go and teaching the children I meet what it means. I think it means the same thing with either hand. -PEACE

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Chants in the key of life (and death...)

Now that the Pranayama course is over (I'm still breathing...) I am spending time at home during the day. My desk is situated beside the small balcony's double doors, which are open to to the street and its sounds below.

This place is rich in vibration. Life is teeming from every direction. Voices rise and fall, motor bikes start with a loud clatter and drive away, leaving quiet in their exhaust. Jets seem to fall from the sky, aiming for the airport nearby. Sounds seem to mirror how temporary and changing everything is, even life, which comes like breath across the vocal cords, vibrates through melody and tones before ending into at least a moment of silence.

There are men whose job is chanting, sort of. They have a mantra particular to their wares which they pull, push, or ride down the middle of this cozy residential street. So far, there has been a tailor who pushes a sewing machine (!) and has a particularly nasal call, in Tamil, the most common language spoken here. There is the coconut man whose cart sits upon a three wheeled bike. His call is more irregular, but louder. There is a vegetable man and another "salesman" with a cart baring what looks like sorted garbage. Possibly, this is the Chennai version of recycling. One man chants clearly, some word I do not know, a long call on every breath. You can count time to it and the sound is clear, piercing almost, and sounds like a spiritual practice. These voices come and go.

When I am not here studying or chanting myself, I go to the Mandiram for private chanting lessons. I have a new teacher, named Kala. My other teacher was sadly called away, as her brother fell while embarking on a train. He bumped his head on the metal step and died immediately, like a song abruptly ended.

I think about her every day. And I think about one particular chant, called the mahamrtyunjaya. It was a chant I left on the CD player in my sister's room while she lay in a coma for three weeks. It is about immortality. And how when the moment is perfect for wisdom, for leaving the body, for returning to the body, for is like the cucumber, perfectly ripe, that falls naturally off the vine without effort. Death can be like that. So can life. Just like a tune that spills off the tongue into song, or a call to a loved one, a curbside jingle or a final good-bye.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


I have been holding my breath
even while breathing
even while chanting

holding the breath inside anticipation
waiting for the swearing-in
for the new royalty to start

working for my America
for great saving of face
for peace from the inside out

the whole world was watching
holding its breath
and giving a collective sigh

I watched the promenade of the United States' great thinkers, movers and shakers on a small computer screen buffering digital history across the globe. A few things struck me... like the moments when figure heads for opposing teams, sort of, met in the hall before being announced to the people. When the Clintons shook hands with the senior Bush's, they were greeting one of the few other couples on the face of the planet that have shared the experience of running for office and living through the trials and tribulations of presidency. Despite conflicting political agenda, they must have insights into each other's lives that few of us can imagine.

Aging and physical degeneration do not seem to acknowledge the elite credential, President Bush (Sr.) stepped carefully, using his cane. I wondered how he felt.

And most of these people, the heads of state, former president, Obama's family, George W. and our new President, had a long walk through hallways and down sets of marble stairs, mostly in silence. This was a rite of passage. This was a changing of the guard. I wondered what thoughts were in their minds. Was each one of us taking our own quiet walk into a changing destiny? Were they thinking of themselves, the country, the world? Maybe they were thinking of a song, or breakfast or a joke they wanted to tell.

This country of ours... Aretha Franklin sang in a voice we all recognized. Yo Yo Ma rocked out on the cello in the freezing air, poetry inspired us just after President Obama's speech sobered us and left us with hope in the face of challenging times.

I have faith today. All is as it should be, unfolding us into times that may require us to dig deeply into the well of self-reflection. Change is guaranteed, how we negotiate it is overseen by our creative license to see new perspectives, fluff up old hardened notions with insight and daring. I am proud to be an American...

I had no idea this patriotism would spill into the Blog, but here it is...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sunday Field Trip

Can you say Mahabalipuram? Try it 5 times fast... grin!
A fellow student, Meissa, a Slovenian yogi living in Amsterdam, took me and Xenia for a Sunday exploration. We went to... Mahabalipuram, a small town on the coast known for its stone cutter artisans. Here are some of the sights we enjoyed:This is an India totem! It is rising from a temple carved from the granite of a hillside.
We stopped at the crocodile place on the way and met sharp toothed scaly guys from all over the world. The crocs were interesting, too. There were families enjoying the zoo and the kids all wanted to look at us and practice their English with us.

This is us. Meissa let the little girl nag her into buying four plastic beaded necklaces for 100 rupies. I think they look pretty good on us, don't you? That's Xenia on the right, she was my first room mate. The blue sky behind us was lit over...

The beach! We went to the Ideal Resort and sat under palm trees on the Bay of Bengal. These two herds were being shepherded home. The herders followed behind carrying baby goats in their arms. Too cute. And yes, cows hang out wherever they want around here. The whole country is free range.

I realize this is out of focus, but I was zooming in to frame the dancer with the stone panel backdrop. The stage was set up in town in front of this temple. All kinds of people came out for the performance. She danced with her eyes and her head going side to side. She wore these red finger extensions to accentuate the mudras when she danced. And she smiled the entire time.

Tomorrow is Pangal, the Tamil New Year... I am wondering what I will see, hear and smell in this land that stimulates the senses.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Chant Til Ya Shop

The sand man sprinkled twelve hours of dream dust through the mosquito net last Tuesday. Good timing, as I was deliriously sleep deprived - mind was spinning the gerbil wheel a million syllables a minute to keep up with life on the planet. Restored by five o’clock the next morning, I slipped into my yellow flip flops and had a cup of java with my first chant of the day, a chant to Narayana, the name given to the creator of the universe, according to the Vedas.

I am glad I don’t have to subscribe to a pantheon of beliefs to reap the calming and inspiring benefits of chanting! These days, I have a direct relationship with Essence, and that is enough for me. Lately, I can patiently listen to great pundits and amateurs expound on clever or profound explanations wanting neither to jump in with my own story nor strangle them for inflicting me with some logical (or not) improvable philosophy or scientific explanation.

I appreciate the practical these days. If something helps me be more forgiving or kind, more accepting of my humanity and less apt to cling to illusion, then I’ll look into it. I appreciate that the Buddha was repeatedly asked what he referred to as the 10 unanswerable questions. Like, “Where do you go when you die?” His take on the whole thing was that thinking about it contributes to suffering and since it can’t be answered, the practical approach is to stop asking. Glory Allelujah and Right On!

So, I started the day with Artharvasiropanisat. And after morning classes, I had my first chanting lesson. Akhila, my teacher, informed me that it was one of the most auspicious days in the year and those who chant to Narayana are assured the wide open doors to heaven. I don’t really know what heaven is, but since I don’t want to suffer over it, I don’t ask and figure it must be a good thing.

One good thing was the rickshaw ride I took with my housemate, Xenia. It started raining that afternoon and she coached me on haling and negotiating the little yellow vehicle. These “cars” start with a hand lever beside the driver’s seat, similar to the pull chain on a lawn mower. We covered our mouths from the fumes and got a lesson in horn honking. Slow down? Honk. Stop? Honk, honk. Someone coming? Honk. No one around? Honk. Someone honks? Honk. He serenaded us all the way to Mylapore, a part of Chennai. There were no traffic closecalls that tempted me to pray to God and we stayed dry enough to enjoy our destination, the teaspoon-sized bookstore.

This shop is down a small road across from the Madras Sanskrit College on the second floor of what appears to be a residential building. It is three closet sized rooms loaded with more books about more Gods that even God could shake all her fists at. Turning around in this place was a hazard resulting in a toppling tower of hardbacks. I only did it once before I found a stool to perch and search on. There was no room to share with other browsers. How could I have doubted the existence of heaven just hours before when it was one rainy rickshaw ride away? And they kept the doors open past closing for me!

Laden with full bags, we dodged beggars and raindrops back to the main drag, a busy avenue lined with appliance shops, trinket stores and household bazaars. Xenia let me handle the rickshaw for the ride home. Walking home from the rickshaw stand, we passed the coconut lady. She sits on the main road behind a mound (get it?) of coconuts and slices off the coconut top with her machete, puts a bendable straw in the open end for her customers. The milk inside is loaded with minerals and good things for the blood. I was drinking the nectar of the gods…

Rain tucked me in that night. I fitfully dashed through a dozen dreams. When I awoke, I was not inclined to chant to Narayana. Looking at the lake sized puddles in the road outside the gate, I was grateful this is not rainy season. I suited up in my LL Bean raincoat and water proof Tote boots for the morning haul. We were told that rain this time of year is unusual and considered a blessing.

The day before, the whole city was chanting, ringing bells and wearing flowers in honor of the special day. Intuition or something led me to chant the password to heaven. And the rains came from out of the blue. While I do not have an explanation and realize coincidence or serendipity, cold fronts and pressure gradients, prayers or pujas might have delicately balanced themselves in the clouds to become drops of rain, I do feel a renewed appreciation for something that I do believe in. Something I witness often and can rarely explain. Something that is the ingredient common to all religious, scientific and poetic explanations for how it all came to be. And that… is mystery.

Monday, January 5, 2009

My Polyester Taj Mahal

My personal Taj Mahal is the mosquito net hung above the bed. It sweeps around me in ivory folds which I carefully part to slip out of bed directly into my yellow flip flops. (I am taking the commitment to not go barefoot here somewhat seriously.) Last night each of the students of the Pranayama course were given a lei of flowers. The teacher draped mine across my shoulders and the lovely perfume inspired the first deep breath of the course. I have placed the flower strand on the apex of the net; my dreams last night were scented with its fragrance.

Does it make sense to love a place like this? Noises bombard the streets from low flying jumbo jet blasts and high pitched motor-ped squeals. In a fit of independence, I crossed the busy 3 Cross Road by myself for the first time tonight. This involved looking both ways about two dozen times, remembering they drive on not the wrong side of the road, exactly, but on all sides of the road, and saying a little chant to Ganesh before slipping across. I am either developing paranoia or safe water habits each time I wash anything, be it dish, hand or shirt. I have covered my nose from the fetid air on the walk to the yoga mandiram, successfully avoided insect bites, and seen a golden aura around my chanting teacher, Radha, who welcomed me with bright eyes and a hug. I have acquired the skill of looking anywhere but into the faces of the people, mostly men, as I stroll the few blocks to the school, but the smiles from a lovely teenage girl in pigtails today was worth a thousand lascivious stares. And, yet, I think I love this place. It feels old to me, like I've been gone from it a while, but it has been waiting, like the Taj Mahal for the beloved, like the net for the mosquito, like the orchid for honey bee.

Our classes are held in a room constructed on the roof of the building that houses the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram(KYM). The walls are partially concrete and mostly woven thatch that braids itself over us above the fans set to a constant whirl. The floor is covered with brightly striped carpets and the 17 of us sit on yoga mats and pillows in long rows facing the teachers.

As the first class began promptly at 7:30am, I felt a capital "YES" pervade my being when we took our first breaths together. Breathing together, inhaling and exhaling in time with others, is sacred to me. We honor both the fundamental and the vast potential of Who we are; we keep it simple while brushing against the profound. My body welcomed the asana practice, given in simple moves coordinated with the breath. Mind started to watch and to notice the fits and starts, the pauses and is-ness of itself.

We are to enjoy the most senior teachers from the KYM, as this is the first time the Pranayama Intensive is being offered. Mr. Desikachar presented our first philosophy class, threading Patanjali’s yoga sutras into an introduction to the practices we will experience. At the end of our time with him, he led us in a breath practice while chanting the first two yoga sutras. His voice was just like the breath, a fundamental brush with eternity.

I've made arrangements for private chanting and philosophy studies. I'll be engaged in my studies Monday through Saturday. Other goals this week include learning how to take a rickshaw and taking my clean laundry to the folks on the corner who do ironing. The colorful outfits I purchased upon arrival are comfortable and light cotton that keeps me cool in the heat and covered as per cultural dictate.

Tonight, I hope to sleep past 2am, the infamous hour that haunts the jet lagged. I have taken off the second watch and feel cozy under the protection of my net, where I stretch out naked with no shoes on, feeling quite the queen as I inhale the fragrant crown from atop my polyester Taj Mahal.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Time-Change; Change-Time

In all the years I taught, I never wore a watch. There were bells to end classes or punchlines in the material, there were timers to measure the meditations, there was my enthusiasm to get me there at the beginning. Time has been a handy structure for things like lesson plans, planting the garden and coordinating schedules, but wearing a watch seemed too much a statement of accepting an external structure as a mandate to my interior. I have watched a distinct resistance to that! So, in keeping with a philosophical guidepost of mine, I am exploring the resistance. Liberation for me often resides in the unpacking of my own resistance to things.

I have two watches on my right wrist this morning. The Swatch was a gift from my friend in Zurich. It is set to Chennai time. I grabbed the other watch from the pile of over a dozen watches my Mom left behind. (Each one of them required a new battery, time had run out….) It is set to Raleigh-time. There is a 10 and a half hour time change. I never heard of a half hour time difference until planning for the trip to India. While these watches ticked off seconds a half a day apart, the coffee maker ticked off another cup. I like that measure of time, although there was a distinct learning curve on using the travel “Quick CafĂ© II.” The first cup became a golden puddle on the table. The second cup was a bit weak. This one? Mmmmm, just right. All it took was time, time and patience.

There is another clock that marks the moments in my heart. It makes a particular sound, “Just now is enough, just now is enough, just now is enough…” but occasionally, it resounds with a burst of bells that heralds the end or the beginning of a thing. It witnesses the passages between worlds; it sings an anthem or cries a wake. And yesterday, hugging my sister good-bye on the airport curbside, I felt the race of my heart against hers and my tears gather and fall. The internal clock began its song. A big chapter ended, time rolled behind that moment and began wrapping itself into the arms of its story. A big chapter begun, time finally found the ribbon where it had patiently marked the page and turned its face to begin the new read. I felt deep gratitude for her. I felt sharp relief that this chapter of my Mother’s dying was over. I felt joy to be embarking once again on the path into the small wide world. Time was marked and clanging inside me.

I did not once look down at the watches on my wrist. I knew that everything was happening right on time.