A trip to Pune– Oct 96
‘Bombay is a crowd’ writes Naipaul. At 01:30 the crowd is asleep, and we are greeted by the smell. At the airport it is like they washed it a few years ago and the wet rag smell never left it. In the warm night only stray dogs bother our taxi driver. The taxis, symbol of the do-it-alone development policies, are hardly suited to carry luggage, let alone tall people. Our driver is not only tall, he wears a turban and to fit he needs to sit at the front of the seat and severely arch his back, definitely a potential customer to a yoga studio. The empty streets are lined by thousands of the same taxis. People sleep on the pavement, at first alone and further on in large groups. After resting at the hotel, we have breakfast at the Taj, a last morsel of what we are leaving behind. The sun is beating and the smell is the city: the large bay, with the luxurious towers among the green past the haze smells of sea and sewer; the streets smell of diesel exhaust and the station, well it is a cocktail of smells. The train to Pune slowly leaves the station and in the shanty towns kids play with small kites. The countryside now looks luxuriant and rich, in puzzling contrast to the poverty and dirt of the big city. The track spectacularly climbs up the Ghat, following a deeply forested gorge. The sun is setting over painted cows, as we reach Pune. Ayala looks wonderfully at ease bargaining with the locals and I am happy following her smile. The ashram greets us with dinner and a little difficulty of gender is gracefully resolved.
The morning light bathes the yellow flowers around the circular pool as doves, parrots and multiple other birds awake. The sisters have finely interwoven Christian rites with Indian traditions. The arati for example begins with the lighting of oil lamps and a short reading of a religious text; then, after some chanting the candle light is brought around the room for people to transfer it onto their eyes. Mass takes place in a round chapel in the middle garden; the bread is passed around with the wine on a tray crowned by eight flowers. We all have a bit of shopping to do. Just outside the ashram a whole community lives in tiny straw huts on the roadside. How do they cope during the monsoons? Many roads don’t have pavements; walking is a constant game of dodge ’em; at one point a cement mixer is towed by a cow with bright purple legs. We take refuge from the noise and smog in the leafy side streets, where some nice properties can be seen. Our meals are taken in the veranda of the ashram, seated in a circle, the delicious vegetarian food being passed around, placed in large metal plates and eaten by hand. After a siesta we make our way to Iyengar’s studio for registration. Even here it isn’t bureaucracy-free, and we have to record visa numbers on ubiquitous large ledgers. Pandoo then reads a long list of do’s and don’ts. I go and rent a bicycle and join the mad race in the unlit streets. After dinner Sis Brigitta tells us the history of the ashram. The openness and clarity of her outlook is very refreshing.
The short cycle ride to the studio is through the peaceful grounds of the agricultural college. The studio is a large conical structure with a small temple on top. The reception area is full of mementoes. Then up the stairs into the studio, a semicircle with a platform at the focal point; on the walls hundreds of asana photographs. Geeta enters wearing a white robe. She takes it off, bows to a small shrine of Patanjali and sits on the platform. Aum, yogena chittasya, padena vachan. Her first instructions are stern but soon she reveals her warmth, as she introduces the theme of the intensive: a return to first principles, understanding and perceiving right posture in ourselves and in others. Attention is focused first on the skin of the soles of the feet, then ankles, shins, knees inside thighs, at each step a student is selected to show an imbalance and the way to restore balance. At first I feel blind, some of the observations escape me: the eye needs to be trained. Slowly, as watching is alternated to practising tadasana, some understanding emerges. Stuart is chosen: his unbalanced action in the knees shows up in the chest; Os right side imbalance is diagnosed as a possible source of anger; an older student is humiliated: his tadasana is lifeless, proof that 20 years of practice don’t necessarily lead to understanding. Geeta adjusts him so that the energy of his front body flow up and suddenly he looks 10 years younger. And so on. “The good marksman when asked what he sees, replies: “the eyes of the prey”. In the afternoon there is a practice session, where we look like Olympic gymnasts trying our routines before the competition. Pranayama: my left-handedness in the breathing is exposed. The instruction: keep the belly soft, relax the intercostal muscles as they spread sideways and lift the sternum. Cycling home, the chain snaps but is quickly fixed by a road-side mechanic. As I wait I watch the rush hour, an insane , selfish scramble. After dinner, lentils and papaya, we decide to check the celebrations that fill the night air. We find a festive sound system where tens of small children perform a simple dance with sticks. We are invited to join. The music is quite rhythmic and Amparo, Ayala and Os delight the young kids . The youths are more preoccupied in telling me of their hate for Pakistan.
Some of us may feel tired, but it is she, Geeta who expends most energy, three hours of instructions, demonstrations, illuminations, probing, spurring us to extend our awareness and effort to our limbs, always showing good humour. “Extend the inside of the shins, lengthen the femur, create space in the knees, extend the bottom of the fee”. We do only a handful of postures, Geeta points the way and then a quick “Now do it!”. But repeating what we have seen is not sufficient. Each of us has to understand and find one’s own weaknesses, the lazy parts that create imbalances throughout the body. Stuart move in the ashram and immediately ask for the room key. The two hours after lunch are blissful; sitting outside the library, reading and writing this diary, the legs exposed to the strong midday sun. After practice, I go to the University Campus, a haven of green and tranquillity. With her inferiority complex, India feels it need a nuclear and missile arsenal . So they have a super-computing lab and an astrophysics department, the latter befitting an American campus. I meet Sunil, who spends 10 hours a day preparing for the government offices exams, the key for a cushy job for life. Chances: 1/400. He hasn’t touched a girl for two years, to concentrate on his studying, and he will happily marry the girl who his parents will choose. Later at dinner, Saju gives me a less conservative picture, saying that half of marriages are now love-marriages, i.e. not arranged by the family. But many people still believe that they are now more likely to fail. And given the divorce rate in the West, who is to disagree? Os, who has a joyous, cheeky smile, that in these early days surfaces too seldom, tells us about the co-op where she works. This leads us to some dilemmas of the failing kibbutzims, as experienced by Michal.
Early morning class today: Urdha Mukkha as the foundation for Virhabhadrasanas and Parsvottanasana. Extending the inside heel, then pushing the two ‘eyes’ at the back of the knees and at the top of the femur; similarly a balanced extension of the arms. By controlling the breath, the effort is without strain, pure intelligence spreading so that the cells can remember. I stop by Ferguson College, again in beautiful green grounds. Eighteen year olds wait outside for the beginning of classes: boys with boys and girls with girls; I see only three cases of boy talking to girl, never mixed groups. Come on kids: your parents are not watching you! It looks an expensive school and yet the main office building has many broken windows. I walk up the steps of the Pune Stock Exchange; big red spit marks adorn the walls of the stairs. The trading is electronic with only a handful of stocks actively traded. On two floors below, in small cubicles, tens of independent traders and brokers watch the screens and work the phones, shoeless. Still an hour before lunch: time for my daily chore, sweeping the library. Lunch is based on rice, dinner on chappati. Vegetables such as peppers, aubergines, okras and pulses are lovingly prepared and rounded off with small pots of yoghurt. Pranayama: when exhaling avoid sinking the diaphragm. When the breath is uneven, one side goes to sleep: it happens to me and I miss the cunningly soft-spoken command to turn to one side. Monday will be a Hindu holiday and festivities have already begun. I go to a big fairground set up near a hill temple; a kid stamps my forehead; families have taken their kids and there are many trashy temptations. After dinner, at a roadside temple, we witness an arati; when it finishes we are offered bananas and told why they praise a god with the head of an elephant. We end our walk eating pineapple in front of the Wada, a fortress, symbol of Pune’s golden period, in the first half of the 18th century.
I am asked to read a passage from a letter of St. Paul. I find very little inspiration from most of these Christian readings; much more enlightening are the Indian quotations with which Sis. Brigitta begins the service. Later with Thomas we discuss confession: he claims that Catholic countries have low suicide rates, I counter that they also have high theft rates. At class we work further up the limbs: from Upavista we learn to turn the upper thighs in; in hand balance the emphasis is on balancing the two arms, before jumping. To open up the shoulders, we use a blanket in head balance. The main message is repeated: find your weak areas and make them work, because otherwise they will create imbalances throughout. We can invite guests for lunch and today William joins us for yam, rice and dahl. After practice, we go to the German Bakery, a hang-out for the ‘oranges’ (crimson really) from Osho Park. We all feel a total lack of warmth in these surroundings. They seem people seeking to satisfy their desires for ‘more’ without understanding the nature of these desires. Dusk found us in their park set among palatial villas. After dinner we follow the thread of co-operation in a stimulating satsang.
Today’s class centred on the correct thigh action to open the hips. Raising the legs on the horse, we transfer the movement to Trikonasana, Parsvakonasana and Virhabhadrasana 2. Revealing is the point that to align the bent knee, the conative action should be on the inside heel. I am puzzled: my imbalances are surely very noticeable, and yet Geeta has called me up only once: is it because she chooses more subtle imbalances, to train our eyes? I am really enjoying these invigorating classes. I have a bit more difficulty with pranayama; often attention wanders. Today it was better, with the emphasis on keeping the chest up in the exhalation. Indians have problems with maps: they can’t read them and don’t produce good ones. The A-z I carry is detailed but badly organised. As for maps of the countryside, forget it. After dinner we return to that hillside temple. The fairground is totally packed, there is an hour queue to climb the steps and donate flowers and coconuts. Some peculiar red Ku-Klux-Klaners do little jump to sound the bells at their ankles. We buy a wig for William who yesterday shaved his head. Earlier at lunchtime we went to his tailor: “God made man; we make gentlemen” said the sign on top of his 2m2 shop.
I invited many people but they all preferred to vegetate in the smog of Pune. So I set alone to Sinhagad, an old fort on top of a mountain. Leaving the chaotic suburbs of Pune behind, I reach this big artificial lake, the water supply for the city. The traffic disappears and it is a real pleasure to cycle on the lake’s edge. Then a double whammy: the chain breaks(again) and I lose my money. Nearby, the Institute of Armament Technology has a cycle shop, and I am soon on my way. The land is well farmed in tidy rectangular plots. I stop to take a photograph of an oxen drawn cart, but I slip and the cows, surprised, panic and make a dash through many fields, still tied to the plough, with the poor farmer frantically chasing them. Nine km from the end the road starts to wind up the mountains. The slopes are covered in eucalyptus and fig-like trees. The bike has no gears, so I continue on foot but the midday sun is beating hard. I find a scenic spot and I rest until the clouds gather and allow me to continue. I pass by a colony of frightened monkeys. The top at 1350m allows 360 degrees views over the lake and beautiful terraced valleys. The fort has only a few features left, a couple of towers, a few gates, a water tank, remains of the wall. It’s left to the imagination what it was: the only signs in English are regulations, properly ignored by graffiti writers. A violent shower makes the yogurt sellers scurry for cover, and the frogs come out. I walk back to the bike and enjoy an exhilarating descent. Retracing my way, I pass many women with large bundles of wood walking home, and couples spending a romantic late afternoon on the lakeside. At the dam I start riding on the towpath of the canal that leads me all the way to Pune. What pleasure to cycle in peace, past fields of corn and rice, backyards and pastures, away from the manic traffic!
Last night, Stuart used his chair at the satsang to tell us of the centring role of his meditation practice. Today Saju started his sermon: “I believe in God, because he gives meaning to my life”. (But why does life need to have meaning?). It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches the mouse. Daily attendance to the Eucharist makes me think that Buddhism is a lot more humane, more mature; but of course different things work for different people. And the tolerance and easygoing feeling of the ashram is a refreshing contrast to the formalism of Zen training: No ‘wake-up’ shouts here, if one falls asleep during arati. I arrive just as class begins: first posture is pashimottonasana. Then Geeta halts the instructions and I hear a new voice, soft and clear. I raise my head and on the platform sits Iyengar, with his silver hair, just wearing a pair of purple shorts and a white necklace. Now Geeta becomes student and her responsive feet and limbs gain life by the simple and precise instructions of her father. Connate and cognitive action. For one hour he alternates his own practice at the back of the room, with instructions: observe the imbalances, action and reaction, active and lazy parts of the body. The consciousness spreads through the body, effort becomes effortless and true meditation is achieved. No doubt the message will be repeated again and again, because the attention is frivolous, as soon as we raise one leg in dandasana, the intelligence flows away from the straight leg. Keep a beginner’s mind. The day is sultry and I am fighting a cold that has struck half the class. At the end of the class I feel great. In the afternoon the rain keeps us ashram-bound: we play party games, entertainingly silly; I lazily talk with Ayala, towards whom I feel a brother-sister affection; and I start reading about Hindi myths. At dinner Sis Brigitta fills me with the details of the unfortunate story of the cook, a graceful young girl: in spite of her parents’ strong protestations and eventual disowning she married a Christian for love. When the balance of the dowry was not sent, the husband threw her out; and now she has no family to turn to, very limited access to her son and little prospect to remarry. Indeed she is lucky to be a the ashram, from where she has a chance to rebuild her life. Women emancipation will be a long struggle in India, but some have made big strides, like Sujata, a charming girl, who works as medical officer for a resourceful charity run by women to aid children and women in the slums of Pune. She spoke non-stop for more than one hour showing intelligence, candour and energy. I can’t help feeling that India would be a much better place if women were running it.
Among fantastic stories of Hindu mythology, the book explains the concept of time. We are now in the last of four eras, the Kali Yuga, where order and virtue have degenerated into greed and lust. Only when the Kali Yuga is over, in 400,000 years, will the day be over for Brahma. During his sleep,the material world will be washed away and Vishnu will recreate it in perfect balance for a new day for Brahma. it is a scenario that strikes me for its fatalism and pessimism. However Sis Brigitta, ever enlightening, gives me another angle of interpretation: don’t look in material possessions and endeavours for happiness; it can be found only in a spiritual realm. However, she does acknowledge that material progress is giving us the opportunity and time for spiritual enquiry. It takes maturity to take and use the real benefits of the modern world. India in Kali Yuga was brilliantly portrayed in “Hindustani”, a 3 hour film packed with songs, action shots, historical clips and pretty women. The new liberation war that India needs to fight is against corruption, and the hero picks up his old dagger to strike deadly blows to this cancer. Ironically, Stuart, who hadn’t bought a ticket in advance, bribed his way into the sold-out cinema. It’s Dessalha today and everything is decked with saffron marigold flowers. The gardener puts his shovels on one corner and we add our tools for puja. I should have put my bicycle: the next day the pedal came off. After dinner we all give each other foot massages and drink lime hot water. As we switch off the lights, the night air is filled with cheers. No, it isn’t the dying echo of Dassalha; India has beaten Australia in cricket.
Jumping class: the Surya Namaskar sequence is of course easy to learn, but to have total awareness of the family of muscles, joints and bones (1000 members strong) requires more. Why? After all messages are transferred across nerves very quickly. Later, as we walk through the Agricultural College, Ayala teaches me the Yoga sutra we chant at the beginning of class. I make mnemonic associations to remember the strange words. This however slows down the recalling process. Why? Is it because it is a process that involves so many memory resources that the dendritic connections slow it down? If one learns instead by just repeating over and over again, although it takes longer, recalling is a lot faster. Obviously fewer dendrites are involved. How and where then is it all stored? Similarly when the nerves and muscles learn, mediation from the rational brain is no longer needed and responses become faster. Asanas as meditation: left leg talks to right leg, skin to flesh, inside heel to back groin; awareness spreads, the essence of the pose is understood. Some complain of Iyengar’s loose hand, triggered too happily. His manner of speaking is sometimes irksome, but it probably is the Eastern way to teach to humble the mind. In the afternoon we stay and watch a medical class. From high on the steps, it looks like an extraordinary piece of Pina Bausch theatre, a body remodelling workshop, each student doing a different posture, Iyengar moving around, adjusting an ankle here, forcefully straightening a trikonasana there, exchanging words with someone else, always observing.
India is very good in confounding generalisations. As I was thinking what a nation of unsporty people they are (after all they won just one medal, a bronze, at the Olympics), I pass by a pitch full of football players and wrestlers at 6:30 am. Forward bends: a well placed foot on Simon’s thigh in Addha Padha Padma Pascimottanasa turns on the light: gone are the blankets supporting the knee, and the bent leg is now relaxed, touching the floor. Why couldn’t I find the switch before? For how long would I have struggled forcing the legs in Padmasana? Why in so many instances, also outside yoga, I keep on repeating mistakes, unable to find the way out of plateaus of mediocrity? It’s this interplay between the analytical mind, which searches and discovers solutions to problems, and the body which learns acts and provides feedback, that leads to improvement. But what is also required is courage, generosity and determination; in other words, the six paramitas. Yoga and zen: the two merge. On the way to change some money, some bad road manners provoke me to kick a tuk-tuk; the enraged driver stops and fumbles under the handle bar. Oh no! Is he getting an iron bar, a knife, …? No, he steps out brandishing a flip-flop. A bit of eye contact (and some passers-by) stop him. The money-changer hands me two big wads of 50 rupee notes, stapled together. Last night, Saju was saying that he can hardly afford to pay 50 rupees to the rice pickers in his plot in Kerala. As I count the notes, I can feel the sweat and backache that each one represents. Similar inequality is witnessed as I cycle home: barely a block separates modern leafy condos from shantytowns with kids shitting on the street among pigs and goats. Gerry and Linda join us for dinner and then we listen to the adventurous life story of Sis Brigitta, always full of intelligence, charm, wit and clarity. An odyssey that ended as she survived the first monsoon in Pune: ever since the ashram has shone with her qualities. Ayala returns from dinner with flirting William. We spend hours talking in the silent night, the affection becoming deeper, a warm kiss that starts a dream.
The morning routine is well established now: 5:50 Arati, 6:00 Surya Namaskar, 6:20 Meditation; 6:50 Shaving, 7:00 Mass; 7:35 breakfast; and i am ready to face whatever the world throws at me, with an open heart. The initial rejection of Christian rites is gone, and now with no expectation, I readily welcome any inspiring thoughts. Today Thomas quotes: “God makes neighbours; we make friends and enemies”. Judge less, accept more. Similarly I shrug off Biksy’s idiosyncratic behaviour and I absorb his nuggets of understanding. The emphasis on the inside leg, so much ignored by me in the past, today is enriched by the advice to using it while kicking up in hand balance, and voila, the pose becomes lighter and more stable. The sessions of the last two weeks are videoed and photographed. I see the first pictures and I understand why my imperfections are not shown: they are so macroscopic!
A perfectly flowing day, fully tuned to what is being done, and then … magic. Back-bends, with the emphasis on the back thighs, starting from Urdvha Mukkha, always fill one with exuberance. In the afternoon, the pranayama instructions begin to make sense, air steadily filling the relaxed chest. I have to miss an interesting satsang on yoga and mind, because i had promised dinner with Gerry, Linda and Jan. My first meal out, sampling the bhaji, chopped tomatoes cooked on big hot plates, and the creamiest spinach, enjoying a yummie fig milkshake. The moon is shining strongly and on the roof, Ayala and I are transported to the land of dreams.
Day off and William, Michal, Susan, Ayala and I set off by local train. Inside a boisterous mixed group of students sing loudly as begging children dance and whistle for a rupee. Outside, along many kilometres of track, man attend to their ablutions, carrying a small water bucket. At Malavti, a short climb takes us to a set of Buddhist caves. One holds a dozen stupas, that mark out an intriguing meditational walk. High on top of the peaks, we make out the silhouette of old forts, our goal. Spurred by Susan, very English in her summery flower frock, leather handbag and sandals, we hike upward. We stop at a surprise chai stop and to compare the Big bang with Brahma’s version of the history of the Universe. The fort is beautifully preserved and through its towers and steep steps, we reach the top of the mountain. The view is wonderful, the ridge separating two beautiful valleys, one dominated by a tentacled lake. There are about ten water tanks, square, round and irregular, with many fish in it (hopefully no snakes). Quickly off come our clothes, and in we dive and splash. Bliss. The professor looks the other way to see some water buffaloes. Back at the station, the biggest moon rises, a pink spotlight sealing a wonderful outing. After dinner, Michal’s teacher gives an overview of Ayurvedic medicine. Amparo hadn’t joined us because she had gone to visit a slum with Sujata, to find a child to foster, helping him with food and education. On the roof she tells us how sad she felt witnessing all that poverty. This reminds me of a verse from the Bull pictures: “Up till now I wanted to save the world; Now, what surprise! There is no world to be saved.” And the words heard at Mass in the morning provide a clue: Find what you are good at, and do it at the best of your ability.
What a tearful day. At Mass the ethereal voice of Sister Elizabeth knots my tongue and my cheeks become wet, struck by the beauty of the singing and all of this ashram experience. In place of class, there is a Questions & Answers session. Geeta, clad in a beautiful white sari, gives advice on practice with back problems. Iyengar admonishes us to be humble and to observe, when helping people with difficulties. Geeta then selects my two questions, one on the relationship between the analytical mind and learning with the body, the other on whether awareness fluctuates with breathing. Iyengar takes the opportunity to expound on his crusades, and I feel that the essence of my questions is lost. I blame myself, I realize that so often when confronted with authority I unwillingly take an arrogant stance that just irritates. The Iyengars have laid out a sumptuous lunch and Gerry masks his nervousness and presents them with our gifts. I want to be with Ayala, but feel that what I touch I destroy, so retire to my room, depressed, asking myself, why. Why can’t I see that attachment leads to dukkha? Why do I want to ‘possess’ her? Enough! I get on the bicycle, and I start to ride in the streets. In the traffic perceptions yield action, no judgement and soon I am totally alive. I visit the old town, zig-zagging in the small streets, buying sweets for the ashram, watching a snake charmer, visiting a yacht club, and I get an idea. Paraphrasing Iyengar, the bike, the perfect cure for the blues. Back at the ashram, I am filled with joy when Ayala tells me that she was awarded a distinction in her exams.
Monday 28th-Friday 1st
I write the last week together, because I did not keep the diary at the time and this is written a month later. That bike ride on Sunday was pivotal. Peace descended on my mind, love in my heart and a deep appreciation of yoga in my body. The most beautiful moment was on Wednesday morning, when I took Ayala on a boat on the river. I now ask myself who is this diary for. Those two hours were so perfect, so rich, so etched in my memory, that I feel unable to describe them with words. Similarly, the three weeks have been so happy, so easy, so full that every time I think of them, tears streak my face, just as when I was listening to Sister Elizabeth singing.
Mo tosses a green disc long in the end zone. I dive; it is a spectacular leap, but as I catch the frisbee, I see the porcupine surfing on top. I am stung but I hold on, and by the time I land, the porcupine is smiling at me. Will the match be won? I don’t care; it was a great moment.