Tuesday, 26 January 2010

An Indian Birthday

It’s not writer’s block exactly. I just feel like I’m sort of running out of steam. One of the things I wanted to focus on during our time here was writing. And I put a lot of energy into that in the beginning. But as our time here progresses, I realize that there were many other things I wanted to ‘find’ in India. And I must acknowledge that when I’m exploring an idea or a goal intensely then there isn’t much room for anything else. I think I’m realizing that my documentation of this journey may need to dwindle a little for the time being. You see, we arrived here in Mysore almost a week ago and I’ve kind of dived in to the world of yoga (one of the other things I really wanted to learn more about while I was here). And yoga here in India is not just a way of keeping physically healthy (as it is to many in the West). It’s a philosophy, it’s a way of life – and I have a lot to explore here if I want to understand it properly so that I can apply it to myself, to my life and my world and to see if it fits. I think it just might – but while I continue to divide my attention into so many different places, at least to begin with I feel unable to do this exploration justice. I think as it starts to ‘fit in’ with day-to-day life, it will become more of a habit – part of a routine and then it will become easier to do it all, and more of ‘all of it’. But for now, I find my thoughts consumed by what I must learn, and experiment with. I think I might be on to something! But on top of it all – we are still here in this fascinating environment that is constantly turning my head and making me smile and wince in equal proportions. So, I’m just not sure how much energy I have right now to put towards recording my experiences - but since I started this one, I suppose I’ll finish it.

Like I said – we arrived here in Mysore about a week ago – thanks to a chance meeting in Hampi: As we took a dip in the refreshing pools of a reservoir just a few minutes drive by rusty moped from our guesthouse, we came across Ali and Rob, a lovely South African couple also taking a dip. Well it turned out that Ali was a bit of a yogi herself and so over dinner that evening she helped me understand the distinction between the many kinds of ‘yoga’ out there and explained what yoga in Mysore is all about. I had already heard from several friends and acquaintances that Mysore is a centre for yogic goings on – but I still didn’t really know much about the particular style of yoga associated with the place. Well – from what Ali told me, it seemed that it would be a type of yoga that would be right up my alley. So – we decided to put our return to the beach on hold a few more days and check it out.

On our first full day in the city we hunted out a couple of the main studios, approached strangers in cafes for the latest local scoop (other gringo’s that looked like they might be here for a bit of yoga) and eventually found ourselves taking part in our first Ashtanga yoga class in Mysore. I found to my delight that this kind of yoga is perfect for me. It is quite a mobile class and in the style in which they teach in Mysore each student follows their own pace, so there is no need to wait for the teacher’s instruction or the rest of the class to move on to the next posture – or in my case there was no need for the rest of the class to wait for me.

Just like Bikram’s yoga there is an element of heat involved in the practice, but unlike Bikram where heat is provided artificially, in Ashtanga the heat is generated from within through vigorous motion and breath. In this way, the heat generated from within assists in detoxifying and cleansing the body and allows greater flexibility and strength to be built within the muscles, without straining each individual body beyond its tolerance for heat. Again, there is a parallel with Bikram in that there is a set series of postures always performed in the same sequence (although many of the postures are quite different from those found in Bikram), but there is a much greater emphasis on synchronizing the breath with the movement and there is a much deeper sense of flow to the sequence. By my third class I had completed the entire primary sequence and was starting to become more familiar with each posture so at least I now have the basic elements of the practice down. Although I didn’t have nearly enough time to get it perfected at least I could leave Mysore with the basic idea of what it’s all about and I understand the flow of the sequence enough, so that I can work on it alone. The most incredible part of the class, for me, and the part I’ll miss the most though, was the level of involvement the instructors had in physically assisting the student. As the class progressed the teachers were constantly on the move, going from person to person adjusting the postures and pushing limbs in to position to reach a deeper level of stretch. Although it has to be said that there may not always be an understanding of the science behind the physical aspects of the practice and the level of safety and awareness of proper alignment may not always prevail (since the teaching is given more on instinct than based on a sound knowledge of physiology) – in most cases it seems the level of instruction is actually pretty good.

During our time in Mysore we did also manage to squeeze in some sightseeing and finally visited our first Indian palace.

While I’m sure that the gems in store for us in Rajastan will be far more breathtaking I have to say that Mysore Palace is quite something to see. For a few moments the filth and fumes seemed a million miles away and the majesty of India became apparent.

Although we were disappointed to find (as always) that as foreigners we were required to pay 10 times the entry fee of an Indian (Don’t get Darko started on that one!), we were delighted to discover upon entry that our admission fee also included a complimentary audio guide. Now I’ve never really been a particular fan of this kind of ‘museum experience’ but since it was apparently included in our entry ticket and in this country there is virtually NEVER something for nothing (sure – lots for cheap – but not for nothing) – we thought ‘why not?’ And boy were we glad we did – the tour was informative and interesting without going into too much depth or factual waffle and the soundtrack provided an extra level of ‘appropriate’ entertainment, not to mention the animated speech of our narrator. It was definitely a thumbs-up for the Palace.

Besides the palace though there isn’t much to keep a ‘tourist’ occupied here, besides a few minor ‘side show attractions’ and so we quite simply became inhabitants of this quaint Indian city for a few day, which wasn’t actually a bad thing! Mysore is much cleaner than most Indian cities and since it is not a huge ‘hit’ on the tourist circuit the prices are still remarkably reasonable. I managed to find us a room that actually sits quite close to #1 spot in our preferences for the last few months, if you disregard the minor infestation of cockroaches living in a hole in the corner of the door frame to the bathroom, and the noisy honking rickshaws that passed by on the busy road beneath from 6am until midnight. I mean, so far it is the cheapest we’ve found at 250rps and for that we had a proper toilet, a shower (in our own private bathroom), a mattress that actually had a tiny bit of bounce left in it, clean sheets and chairs with cushions. And to add some personality, we actually had a fabulous selection of incredibly chintzy and bizarre art on our walls ranging from a scene of lounging lions painted on velvet, a fluorescent scene of a house in a forest surrounded by tulips fields and for the ‘piece de resistance’ a couple of framed posters depicting various Shiva incarnations – my favorite being the one over the bed of a baby Shiva with a miniature Nandi bull tucked away in the corner……..hilarious! The absolute highlight of the room though was the glow in the dark stickers of stars, planets and spaceships on the ceiling that lit up when the lights went out at bed time! I mean what more could one hope for from a cheap hotel room in India?

In addition to our fabulous cheapie hotel room we were also delighted to notice that although the Indians here still love to honk, the regularity with which they do it is not quite so rapid and on most of the roads in Mysore there is almost an air of patience and dare I say it …… safety!

On a couple of the major roundabouts there are actually traffic police in attendance to ensure that the traffic lights are being obeyed and assisting the flow. There was one exception to this new level of road safety though: On our final day in Mysore when we decided to take a ride on the bus up to Chamundi Hill, known as a great lookout spot to view Mysore from an aerial perspective and visit the Temple.

As out driver left the city centre behind and hit full speed on the winding road that would lead us to the summit we began to wish that body armor and crash helmets had been provided for the ride. This particular bus ride would easily compete with the finest white-knuckle rides this side of Texas. Apparently our driver fancied himself as a bit of a Michael Schumaker, and as we took the final bends to the top and saw the end in sight I breathed a sigh of relief that the hairpin bends with alternate camber were coming to a close. The feeling of a speeding bus, dangling precariously over a deathly drop, leaning dangerously ‘outward’ is not one I care to repeat anytime soon. The moral of the story: if you ever find yourself in Mysore, planning the trip to Chamundi Hill, you may want to do as the pilgrims do – and walk!

We instead decided to walk down, calling in on the 15ft Nandi bull statue along the way, taking our time in the heat to tackle the 1000 or so steps back to base!

Incidentally, Mysore was also the town where I got to see in my 34th year on the planet. I decided to break my new year’s resolution ban on alcohol for the day and enjoy a bevy or 2, and fortunately, since we had got into the yoga scene and my birthday fell on a ‘moon day’ (a new moon/full moon – this one was a new moon) there was no yoga class (it’s an Ashtanga thing I think!) – so someone had organized a party and we were invited. Imagine – my very own birthday party in India – well – it was someone else’s party and no one knew it was my birthday – but still – it was a party – so that’s all that really mattered.

And I managed to make things even more festive and bizarre by getting all dressed up for the occasion in my very own sari (even though all the other party goers, Darko included were pretty much casual). Let me explain how this all came about: Darko was all in a panic about what to get me for my birthday a couple of days earlier so as we sat in a rooftop restaurant on Gandhi Square that looked out over one of the many sari stores in town we had decided it might be fun to get me one. The whole experience was actually quite entertaining, because as we entered the sari store we were accosted by a flock of young Indian ladies ready to assist and show us around. Now you may think that since one size fits all, the process of sari shopping would be easy. But let me tell you – it is no mean feat. I mean – there are lots and lots of pretty saris out there – but I’m picky and finding one that I really loved was tough – especially with 7 Indian girls breathing down my neck! Of course they thought it was all very funny, especially since Darko had accompanied me for the outing and they constantly giggled and tittered away to each other in Hindi as they showed their wares. Eventually, after sifting through all kinds of fabrics and patterns, I settled on ‘the one’ and after a brief lesson in sari wearing we were off to find a tailor, who for the price of about $4 would stitch me a shirt to go under my sari that would hopefully be a perfect fit – ready for pick up in 24 hours.

My sari wearing debut came just a couple of days later on my birthday and I have to confess that although I’d always thought white girls in saris look stupid and I’d vowed never to wear one, as I put the finishing touches of bangles and dangling hair jewelry in place I felt just like a little princess and was proud to be heading out on the town looking like a date fit for a maharaja. Our evening began with drinks at an old style heritage hotel in the garden café as the daylight faded. Then we progressed to the yogi/hippy party in a lovely house rented by so the resident western yogis of Mysore and finally after several stiff drinks had been consumed we jumped in a rickshaw to head to one of the five star hotels in town with a phenomenal tandoori restaurant for incredible chicken and prawns. Of course, while attending the party, my sari wearing antics did draw a little attention and so to those who asked I was happy to spill the beans that I did have a decent excuse: it was a special occasion –my birthday – which meant I even got a totally awesome hippy guitar strumming version of ‘happy birthday to you’ sung to me before we headed out for dinner.

I mean really – what more could a girl ask for on her 34th birthday in India? – but a bright colored sari, a party that wasn’t hers and tandoori chicken to die for. It’s one I won’t forget in a hurry!

I actually became quite fond of Mysore in the few short days we spent there and I certainly would have loved to spend more time, getting a deeper level of knowledge and proficiency in the practice of Ashtanga yoga, but unfortunately my 3 classes will have to do. The clock is ticking for us now. Our visa expires in just 2 weeks, so we will be flying to Sri Lanka, hopefully to obtain a new visa for India (we’ve been hearing reports of applications being denied left right and centre as the Indian govt. just decided to change the regulations – so we are hoping we don’t get stranded in Sri Lanka) and before that we still have a fair bit of ground to cover. So next we head to Kerala, where we intend to immerse ourselves in a little peaceful tranquility exploring the famous backwaters of Southern Indian. And hopefully along the way I’ll manage to discipline myself enough to continue with the odd bit of yoga here and there.

So, to conclude, my dearly beloved readers I will say this: While I’m sure I’ll still be drawn back to the keyboard from time to time, to help keep my thoughts coherent and to let you know at the least that we are still alive, I do feel that the time has come for my endeavors in India to become a tad more transcendental, and so – in keeping with this theme, my online presence may be diminishing in inverse proportion to the level of enlightenment I achieve……which probably means you’ll actually be hearing from me on a daily basis from now on…..lol! But what the heck – I have to give it a try…….like they say…..’when in Rome!!’ Or should I say ‘when in India!’?

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