Mysore Diary, 2004
No Sleep Til Mysore
A Return to India, Part I
A Return to Kerala--the Land of Coconuts, Cashews, Catholics, Communists ...and the Highest Literacy Rate in India
By Kali Om
For my return to India I planned to retrace the steps of my first trip, spending two days in Bangalore and then doing a two-week ashtanga vinyasa yoga intensive with senior teachers Lino Miele and Gwendoline Hunt in Kovalam, which is on the Arabian Sea in the state of Kerala in far southwest India. After that I planned to head north to Mysore to study for two months with their teacher (and the living source of ashtanga vinyasa yoga), 89-year-old Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. These are my stories.
Friday, 9 January 2004--CHICAGO
When I was leaving for my first trip to India two years ago, it was shortly after 9/11 and India and Pakistan were amassing troops at the border and poised for war. Now, just as I'm about to leave, I'm reading the London Daily Telegraph online which carries this headline: "India, Pakistan Agree to Resume Their Dialogue." It will be their first in five years. "In 2002 both countries almost went to war and were pulled back from the brink by intensive American diplomacy." I'm not sure about that last bit, but times seem to have changed.
Monday, 12 January--BANGALORE
I really am duplicating my last trip. Once again I made it to Bangalore and my luggage did not. This time, however, I knew what to do: I pushed up in front of the queue and made a fuss; I also had the foresight to bring as carry-on my mat, alarm clock, outfits and toiletries. So I already had a smile on my face when my friend Devdutt (who's from Bombay but now lives in San Francisco) greeted me with cookies, a hug and bottled water. After a good night's sleep (thanks, Tylenol PM) and some yoga, we took an auto rickshaw to his aunt's house. We saw her last time around; she is a great painter (minimalist Japanese style) and brilliant/funny. After lunch we also saw his granny, who is very sweet and joked about Devdutt and I putting her into sirsasana (headstand) to help her blood flow. It's strange how familiar everything is. The minute I got off the plane I smelled that humid, burnt-incense smell and felt welcome.
Wednesday, 14 January--KOVALAM
I am at Lighthouse Beach in Kovalam, remembering very clearly why I had reservations about repeating this leg of the journey. It's hot, the touristy beach is a freak-show--nearly naked Western man walking in waves reading a book, fully dressed Indian family gingerly sticking toes in the water, silent homeless dogs lying in the sand, lounging topless European women, poor local people in yo' face selling everything you can imagine. Everything here is marked up five times what it's worth. Bindi, who's been here for six weeks, is in town, "making a movie." Miss Y, who arrived this morning, is sleeping, and I want attention. I'm having a relatively mild "Why am I here?" moment, probably the first of many...
Thursday, 15 January
I did a 180° mood shift after doing some yoga and meeting up with my girls (good friends and fellow yoga teachers from home). We rarely get a chance to hang out in Chicago because we're all busy teaching, etc., so it's nice to catch up. And the sun and sea aren't so bad if you wear long sleeves and take it slow. Today I woke up at 5 a.m. with one of my famous headaches and wasn't even sure I should practice. At 6 Miss Y knocked on my door and we chatted and drank some Emer'gen-C and I decided to go. At practice I seemed to sweat out whatever had been ailing me. I can't say how much I love the yoga. The new (as of last year) shala (studio) is bigger and has a flame-colored opaque roof that gives everything a special glow. The floors are green clay tile and there are wicker "walls." It's like being outside, but you're protected from the elements. It's very loud, as the birds are screaming like crazy, especially the hawks. There are lots of people coming and going--Lino and Gwendoline teach here for two months (sometimes joined by Tina Pizzamente, Lino's wife), after which some of Lino's top teachers are here teaching for another month. There are a lot of people, but our schedules are staggered, so there's no waiting (Bindi goes at 5 a.m. , we go at 7).
And Lino, well--suffice it to say I took my first workshop with him in Chicago after my dad got sick in '99. I was out of my mind then, but during his classes my mind was still. He's an intuitive teacher--compassionate without playing favorites or being sickeningly sweet--and somehow knows what each student needs the most. After class Miss Y and I sat down for tender coconuts (they hack off the top and stick a [used] straw in it). Then we went to breakfast at the German Bakery, where you can watch the sea while you eat--front row seats, the wind in your hair--but watch out for the crows because they'll steal your food if you're not paying attention.
Saturday, 17 January
Today I woke up for the first time without nausea and/or a headache. There's no yoga today, but I was up at 6:30 sharp--slept very well, thanks to earplugs. So I went for a walk along the beach. The fishermen were there, pulling in their nets. It looks like a tug of war, with a row of men in colorful lungis (billowy sarong-cum-diaper) and oxford shirts and white mini-turban. They face the sea and chant a beautiful song and yank on a rope for what seems like an eternity; the guy at the very end coils it into a perfect circle. Also seen on the beach: a Western woman in bikini with her small daughter, walking into the surf (much less rough today); a woman in tights and jogbra lying on her back in savasana (corpse pose), nothing between her and the sand; next to her a thin, way-too-tan Western man with a mohawk and ponytail, sitting in paschimottanasana (seated forward bend).
Two others from Chicago are also here--W, who's been coming for years, and his friend The Firecracker, who also studies ashtanga and is quite the card. They are doing a full ayurvedic panchakarma (cleansing) treatment that includes massages, steams and oil-honey-herb enemas. Some days they don't look so good, but they are losing weight and toxins. We had a long, laugh-filled breakfast with the Firecracker today--at the German Bakery, of course.
Monday, 19 January
No posting to my online "ramblings" yesterday due to fever and "loose motions," as they call it here. I stayed near the bed/bathroom, resting most of the day, and Bindi and Y brought me tender coconuts. I had racing thoughts, but they never did get to the "what in the hell am I doing here/every decision I've made has been wrong" stage. It really helps to have girlfriends here. This morning the fever was gone (I check my temperature obsessively, to make sure I don't have malaria/giardia/ amoeba) and after some Emer'gen-C, I decided that if I felt OK at the top of the many stairs we climb to get to the shala, I'd practice. All seemed well, so I did my primary series and some intermediate poses. (There are six series in the ashtanga vinyasa practice; primary, second [aka intermediate] and advanced A, B, C & D. You can't do second till you've done first, and your teacher gives you only one pose at a time.) I like the few poses I do in second because it's all about backbends--opening the heart, moving the spine the other way. When you first arrive you do primary until Lino thinks you've adjusted to the climate and are ready to move on. Everything was fine until I did my last pose, laghuvajrasana (intense backbend with hands behind knees). I thought I was going to faint or vomit, but it eventually went away. After breakfast the loose motions returned so I spent more time in bed, reading VS Naipaul's Half a Life and watching the ceiling fan go 'round.
Sunday, 18 January
I went into the water all the way yesterday--awesome. 'Twas refreshing and I did not get dragged out by the undertow (a few tourists die that way each year). We also saw a too-too funny action/war Hindi movie, Zameen, about Kasmiri terrorists versus two swaggering hot guys in the Indian army (one with a moustache, one without).
Most of today was spent inside my room, sleeping and figuring out the CD player. This is because this morning Lino looked at Y and me and said, "After class, you sleep. You don't see the way you look at me. You are jetlagged. Sleep." I was, like, "Can we eat first?" (it's all about the food), and he said OK. You don't argue with a teacher like him; he knows -- and you do . I was exhausted/dizzy and Y was sick last night anyway after we had dinner at Beatles (yes, that's what it's called and that's what they play, ad nauseum).
Wednesday, 21 January
Today I slept through practice. Last night was rough--as it got darker the fever returned and worsened and each time after eating the stomach would churn, churn, churn and then it'd be time to hit the toilet. And drink water. This makes one tired as the body is not getting any nourishment--although I did finally keep down a pudgy, rose-colored Kerala banana. Today was a moon day anyway, so practice was optional (primary series only). After Y knocked on my door around 9 a.m. , I met up with her at the German Bakery (where else?), where I tried to consume my usual pot of chai (made it through half) and a local grain dish called uppama (ate about a third, despite thinking, "There are starving children in the US!"). I was invited to (A) go to Kanyakumari (the southernmost tip of India) with W, Miss Y and the Firecracker or (B) hit a movie--a controversial one in the local language--with Bindi and her rickshaw-driver friend. I tentatively chose B and said, "Let me go back to my room and see what happens," and sho 'nuff about 10 minutes later the washing machine effect began. Then it was back to my most lovely Western toilet. BTW, the hot topic of meal conversations here is bowel movements--how often, the consistency, color, etc.
Suffice it to say I had all the symptoms of giardiasis. After emptying myself, I went to the "English doctor" I visited last time around (for a sinus infection), walking past our old hotel, down a most delightful winding cement path through a green, green palm-filled paddy and up a huge hill--and he was right where I left him. The "sisters" in pale blue saris welcomed me, and a minute later I was sitting next to the doctor himself. He checked my pulse and tongue and had me describe in detail my symptoms (always a treat for me). He agreed it was most likely a parasite, probably giardia. Only a stool sample would tell for sure, and I was not in the mood. He fixed me up with two days of meds, hydration salts, etc. for 300 rupees (about $6) and said to come back in two days; in one day if I hadn't improved.
Thursday, 22 January
I consumed the German breakfast today--coffee and bread--and so far so good (the French breakfast consists of cafe au lait, croissant and cigarette; the American one is a whole list of foods including corn flakes, eggs, bacon, and so forth. The German Bakery also has Indian, Fisherman's, Farmer's, Italian and English [ick!] breakfasts.) Today we were there for two hours--nothing like a day off from each other to make the heart grow fonder.
In addition to the parasite, I think I have prickly heat. The itching kept me up most of the night with racing thoughts, and none of my tricks--including doing the primary series in my head (and using ujjayi breath)--could slow it down. I awakened with an amazing headache and thought I'd skip practice. But after a four-course pre-breakfast of orange/ ayurvedic banana/electrolytes/ Advil, I tried some sun salutations in my room and felt OK. I went, thinking I'd stop after navasana (boat pose and primary series halfway point, sort of). That felt OK, so I kept going. Apparently some of my pot belly was lost during my recent "cleansing" because for the first time ever I held my wrist in supta kurmasana (sleeping tortoise pose), in which you are face down with your feet behind your head and clasping your wrist at your back. I continued to feel good after setu bandasana (neck-killing final pose in the primary series--a backbend in which the feet are like Charlie Chaplin's and your forehead is on the floor), so I proceeded to intermediate and surprise! I held my wrist for the first time ever in pasasana (noose pose), in which you squat low and encircle your fat bum/legs with your long arms. A few poses later Lino gave me kapotasana (intense backbend in which the forehead is on the mat moving towards the butt and the hands are on the feet, forearms on the floor). Before that I had to come up twice from laghuvajrasana (to prove I could do it) and it was not very pretty. I do know that when I have these (physical) breakthroughs they usually disappear for some time.
Friday, 23 January
Yesterday I went back to the doctor to tell him the meds were working. On the way up the HUGE hill to the hospital in awful heat I felt incredibly lightheaded. After sitting down in the waiting room I couldn't stop sweating and fought the urge to faint. "At least I'm in the right place," I thought. "But will they try to keep me overnight? How will my friends know where I am?" To keep from losing it, I focused on the others in the room--a cute-but-annoying little boy who looked like a miniature man with red kumkum paste on his palms and his baby sister in a ruffled pale yellow dress, bracelets, heavy makeup, giant fake mole (so evil spirits are distracted from her beauty, I think) and shaved head. She saw me and cried harder. Scary white sweaty ghost!
It was definitely an India-what-am-I-doing-here? moment. I looked outside at the red dust and dilapidated wood hut and old bicycle and greenery and thought, "I'm so far from my own safe bed, why in the hell did I decide to come here?"
Saturday, 24 January
Yesterday there was a handstand workshop with Lino at the shala, in which he explained (again!) how the breath controls the movement for jump-throughs and arm balances. He was in fine form: "You don't think about it, you do it." Miss Y and I helped each other into handstand from several poses--including prasarita padottanasana (standing legs-apart forward bend) and upavista konasana (sitting wide-angle forward bend). It was then I realized how weak I was from the diarrhea/parasite/drugs.
Sunday, 25 January
Today was about humidity and sleeping and Miss Y's kirtan (devotional call-and-response chanting--like being a kid again--with Miss Y leading and playing harmonium). All the workshoppers from different parts of the world (Europe, US, South Africa, Down Under) seemed to relish it, and even Lino and Gwendoline came. Today was also about waiting an hour for the folks at Webby World to get us back online (their modem is from Motorola!). So after awhile I went next door for a coconut.
Monday, 26 January
I woke up with ANOTHER headache this morning. It vexed me throughout my practice--which often cures it--and it made me so nauseous that more than once I thought I was going to toss it. Somehow I didn't lose it though (what would I throw up into? My rug?) and during my protein-bomb breakfast, the thing somehow went into remission. I have decided it's due to one or all of the following: (1) side effects from parasite meds, (2) dehydration, (3) kapotasana, the backbend I'm working on, in which my head moves in a way it never has or (4) the intense heat and near 100% humidity. Pick one....
Tuesday, 27 January
I did kapotasana twice this morning. The first time was with Gwendoline, who is very methodical. It seemed like I was there for a week, trying to first inch my head back (with the inhale) and then crawl my hands towards the feet (with the exhale), and then repeating many, many times. After awhile she let me move my hands back a few inches for part B of the pose and then said, "Come up with a big inhale," and I did--slowly, and not without smacking the thigh of the person next to me. (Yesterday she said the same thing and I started to come up and faltered. "You were doing it until you started thinking about it," she said. "You got scared." She is seventysomething and she was right). I count it as a breakthrough--and Lino says it will help my body learn to come up from backbend.
I was panting in triumph when I noticed Lino standing in front of me. "Why did you not touch the toes?" Because it's my fourth time (officially) doing the pose. "Fourth time, you touch the toes." He said my hands were about an inch from my feet, and I asked if I should do it again. "How does your back feel?" Fine. "Then you do it." So I got on my knees and did it. Lino gets right to the point with this adjustment (which is easier to do the second time around) and next thing I knew my right fingertips were touching what felt like a half-cooked lima bean--the back of one of my toes. While crawling my fingers I lost sensation in the left arm, but not before I felt my fingers touching the other toe-pads. Lino helped me up, and after doing a vinyasa (half sun salutation) he gave me the next pose--supta vajrasana or sleeping thunderbolt pose. (You sit in bound lotus and rock back to the ground.) That was also very exciting, as Lino adjusted me so that my hands stayed bound to my feet the whole time. My muscles felt like putty afterwards, and then it was time for backbending (I still haven't come up), which seemed easier to do after the new poses. Once I caught my breath, that is.
Later we were getting ready to leave for the flower show and art museum in Trivandrum when T and U from Chicago arrived (I think there are more people here now from the Windy City--seven--than there are from Helsinki [home of the world's largest yoga studio] or Rome, Lino's hometown). The ladies are here for three days, then going up to Mysore. We got them coconuts, showed them the important places (tailor, German Bakery, beach, coconut lady, Webby World) and then took off.
Wednesday, 25 January
They show bootleg movies on video up and down the beach here at dinner time-- The Guru is a favorite--so the other day Bindi, Miss Y and I set out for some repast and Pirates of the Caribbean. I thought the whole thing was about India. For example, Bindi's rickshaw driver friend is the son of a fisherman and every night they go out in their boats and ring the horizon like a row of Xmas lights. "How cool it would be to go out with them and see what they do," I said. Bindi explained it'd be impossible--women are invited out once a year for some special ritual but otherwise are banned because they're bad luck (just as women are banned from the yoga shala during ladies holiday--Shiva forbid, we defile it). So there we are at the movie when some character in the movie protests bringing the pretty girl onboard. "It's frightful bad luck to bring a woman on the ship, sir." And when the cute boy wanted to go after the bad pirates, he wasn't allowed to sail with the Royal Navy. "You're a blacksmith," he was told more than once. In other words, wrong caste.
Thursday, 26 January
I took a rickshaw to town today to buy some deities made by sandalwood-carving artists near the temple, where I'd bought some cool Ganeshas (elephant-headed god) in 2002. But all they had were ugly overpriced pieces. I chatted for a half hour with the main artist and left without buying a thing. Maybe I've finally gotten past shop-asana.
Speaking of asana--Lino was handing out poses like candy this morning (to me anyway). I had a relatively strong practice due to much sleeping yesterday. My new yoga poses are: bakasana (crane pose) A and B, bharadvajasana (a twist), ardha matsyendrasana (seated half spinal twist) pose), and eka pada sirsasana (which involves putting your foot behind your head and going into a sitting forward bend).
Tomorrow we will do a full vinyasa practice, meaning many more sun salutations than usual. Then we travel to Bangalore via plane and then on to Mysore via hired car. Lino is going (via train), and so are many other students (Gwendoline will come in February). If all goes as planned (ha), at this time tomorrow I'll be at my home away from home, the Kaveri Lodge, where I stayed for four months in 2002.
Read Part II here.