Thursday, March 13, 2014

What i learned in India (part 3)

    It's no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. (Jiddu Krishnamurti)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What i learned in India (Part 2)

Kaivalyadhama Yoga Institute ( is located in Lonavla, about 2 hours drive from Pune. According to their website 'it is one of the oldest Yoga Institutes in the world.and its specific aim is to bring together traditional Yoga with modern science, as neither is thought to be complete without the other.
It sounds promising, i thought as i sifted through a long list of yoga centres recommended by friends and acquaintances. 

I had already come across the name of this institute in a couple of articles about yoga therapy and therefore i was under the impression that  it would be the right place to deepen my understanding and study of the therapeutic applications of yoga. About a year ago when i applied i explained that i was teaching yoga for the menopause and that i intended to do some research. I was put on a long waiting list and when i finally got my place a month before leaving for India i celebrated the news with friends. I never imagined what was in store for me.

KD is not the peaceful place i had envisioned. It is situated just 200 meters from one of the busiest highways in India, the Mumbai-Pune highway. Traffic noise can be heard at any time, but it's particularly annoying at night. I had to sleep with earplugs and could still hear very loud truck horns. Inevitably air pollution matched noise pollution, but after 2 months in India i was somewhat resigned to it.

The real problem with KD is that it suffers from an identity crisis. It tries to be too many things at once: Sanatorium/Spa, Ashram and Yoga Institute...and inevitably fails. The scientific claims are deeply at odds with the dogmatic approach to yoga i encountered there. 

On my induction day i had to see an allopathic doctor who measured my blood pressure, asked me if i had any health complaints and then recommended the advanced yoga class. When i expressed my concern about very low blood pressure and the weight loss i had experienced in India the doctor dismissed it  with a shrug. Apparently the majority of his patients need to lower their blood pressure, treat diabetes, learn stress management or lose weight. KD, as i found out later, caters for their needs, not mine.

At KD one can choose between three different packages: Yoga & Relaxation, Yoga & Naturopathy, Yoga and Ayurveda.  I had signed up for  the 'yoga & relaxation' package because yoga was the main reason why i had picked KD (unwisely, but the 'scientific approach to yoga therapy' description had fooled me) 

I didn't need to lose weight and had not chosen KD to detox (detoxifying in a place where the air is thick with diesel fumes and the acrid smoke of burning plastic, are you serious?!)
Nor did i intend to live the regimented life one normally associates with an ashram. 
But KD is an ashram, you just don't know until you check in. 
I have always thought of yoga as a life-affirming, uplifting practice. One that fosters balance, mental clarity and physical well being. But after one look at the 'campus' and my first meal in the canteen, i  realised that i was in the wrong place. Which is a real bummer when you have already paid for your stay and bought your return ticket.
They offer only three types of yoga classes, an introductory level class for those who have never practiced yoga, a yoga therapy class for those who suffer from various health issues, and an advanced yoga class for everybody else. The yoga therapy class is a 'size-fits-all' kind of class, and features poses that mainly target back muscles to strengthen them. It may benefit people who suffer from back pain, and that's it. A more personalized approach, a list of recommended poses to practice with the supervision of a few teachers would be more beneficial than having dozens of people doing the same sequence of poses.
I was placed in the ‘advanced’ class and soon realised that it didn't even allow me to maintain the level of flexibility and well being that i had reached in Varkala. The sequence seemed to be designed for men rather than women, which came as no surprise, after discovering that teachers stick to the original sequence devised by KD founder, Swami Kuvalyananda, before WW2, at a time when yoga was mainly practiced by men. 

The sequence features very few asanas and again the focus is on strengthening back and core muscles not on increasing flexibility. No attention is paid to correct breathing. In the advanced yoga class you only do one inversion, Shoulderstand, which, to my horror, was the opening asana of every class, done without any warm-up poses. When i asked why we didn't practice any Sun Salutations, especially at 7 am in winter when it's still bitterly cold, the answer was "Surya Namaskar should be done only at sunrise, the class meets after sunrise so we don't teach it". I guess practicing Surya Namaskar in the late morning or afternoon would be ground for excommunication. 

In the classes i had attended in Varkala Pranayama was an integral part of a longer yoga class, it helped you focus before asanas, and relax at the end. At KD  Pranayama is taught in a separate class, and for an hour you practice 6 or 7 different types of breathing exercises that have opposite effects on your body and mind. Some increase your heart rate, some slow it down, some warm up your body, others cool it down. Doing them all in one session probably neutralises their effect. Again, prescribing different types of Pranayama to different people, at different times of the day would be preferable and more effective.

Also, getting up at dawn for my yoga class in a place where there is nothing to do all day didn't make sense. In Varkala, in a much warmer climate, i would do yoga at 8:00 am and 4:30 pm. Why were classes here scheduled only at 7:00 am and 5:00 pm is a big mystery. Certainly a yoga institute could offer more classes during the day and let people choose which one to attend based on energy levels and individual preference. Or have teachers available to assist students who would like to develop a strong self-practice.

Personally i would prefer to have a light breakfast a couple of hours before  my morning yoga because otherwise i feel light-headed. At KD one had to wake up when it was still dark outside, couldn't even take a shower because it was bitterly cold, go to the rooftop to practice yoga, have breakfast at 8:30 (by then i was ravenous)  and yet one had absolutely nothing to do until 12 am, when lunch was served. 

In the afternoon the earliest scheduled activity was yoga between 5:00 and 6:00, followed at 6:30 by Pranayama. Dinner at 7:30-8:00 was also too late for me because by then i was starving and would stuff my face with too many chapatis. As a result of the laborious digestion necessary to process the mountain of chapati in my stomach i could never go to bed before 11:00. No matter how much i ate, i was still losing weight.

I am one of those people who need 8 hours of sleep to feel rested, so getting up at 5:30 am didn't square well with the 'Relaxation' part of my 'Yoga & Relaxation' package.  If anything, i was tired and listless for most of the day.

In the afternoon i would usually spend time in the library, unsuccessfully looking for books about yoga for menopausal symptoms. With the help of two librarians i could locate just one old article about yoga and the menopause. Apparently women's health isn't high on their list of priorities when it comes to research. This blog contains a lot more references on this topic than KD library!

While killing time in the library I came across a book by the founder, Swami Kuvalyananda, where he stated that women should not practice any yoga when they suffer from their 'monthly illness' (sic) and when they are pregnant. That was probably a common belief 50 years ago, but doesn't really make sense today when millions of women practice modified yoga poses in 'Yoga for Pregnancy' classes and do not regard menstruation as a debilitating illness either. One may refrain from doing inversions on days when the menstrual flow is heavy, but many restorative poses are taught precisely to ease PMS and menstrual discomfort. The research conducted at KD seems centered around men rather than women.

Another issue i had with KD is that it embodies India's ultra-orthodox, dogmatic approach to yoga and the cult of personality that surrounds any guru. Pictures, statues and paintings of the founder are disseminated everywhere, they function as shrines so flowers and other offerings are deposited in front of them. 

If the guru is venerated as a sort of demi-god, obviously his authority cannot be questioned.
The blind acceptance of his teachings means that generations of teachers are still teaching in his shadow, unable to experiment and challenge received notions  that may be an obstacle to discovery. How could this yoga institution describe itself as 'scientific' begs belief.
Krishnamurti's words "Tradition becomes our security, and when the mind is secure it is in decay" perfectly expresses my thoughts about KD.

Free thinkers  and inquisitive minds are usually at odds with institutions. And this was also my case at KD. Ashrams, like any other institution, survive on hierarchy and rules that cannot be questioned. They also attract people who are traumatised by life blows such as divorce, bereavement, serious illnesses, or people who have no self-discipline and therefore need to be told what to do with their lives and people who can't think for themselves.
I have a lot of sympathy for people who are coping with traumatic events in their lives, but i think they should be heard rather than told what to do by a drill sergeant in a quasi-military style.

The most disconcerting thing was coming across young people whose life experience is still limited and yet they passively submitted to these rules without questioning them. I guess the majority of people like to conform because thinking for yourself is hard work. As David, one of the nicest and most stimulating people i met at KD, put it 'conformism is a dominant trait, anti-conformism is a recessive one'. 

The depressing atmosphere is compounded by a similarly depressing diet.  An American lady who had spent a few months at KD and then started to feel unusually weak was eventually diagnosed as suffering from severe anemia, a condition she didn't suffer from prior to her arrival. So much for the sattvic diet trumpeted by KD as the ultimate cure for all modern diseases like diabetes, high cholesterol, cancer etc. The fact is this diet is totally unbalanced as it features no proteins and no iron. As a vegetarian i usually eat plenty of nuts, pulses, eggs, yogurt, cheese in addition to whole grains , fruit and vegetables. At KD you can forget about them. 

The canteen serves rice, chapati, watery dal, and overcooked, bland vegetables every day. Fruit (melon or papaya only) is served once a day at 3 pm. If you fancy fruit any other time of the day, good luck! The diet is so repetitive that eating becomes a chore rather than a pleasure. No onions, no garlic, no salt, very few, strictly sattvic spices. Apparently we are being punished for having taste buds. 

Anything that may act as a sexual stimulant (garlic? really?) or give pleasure is banned. I started to smuggle chopped garlic and onion into the canteen after coming down with a nasty flu in my last week. Known as immune system boosters, garlic and onion have amazing health benefits;  why should i renounce them and then be ill for a week?  

Thanks to this diet, people who stay at KD for longer than a couple of weeks develop an ascetic streak. Well, in my opinion they are just malnourished, hence the semi-transparent skin, the vacant eyes, the disembodied tone of their voice. You will never catch any of them laughing out loud. What's wrong with laughing? Even allopathic doctors recommend laughing these days. There are many health benefits associated with laughing. And yet  laughing is actively discouraged at KD: meals must be eaten in monastic silence. 

When I went for a walk in the hills that surround Lonavla i could tell that my emoglobine level was very low. I was finding it hard to walk uphill, very hard to breathe and my had spasms in my legs. I figured out that the lack of salt and protein in the diet was the main culprit: I suffer from very low blood pressure, no doctor would ever think of banning salt and protein from my diet! But the diet at KD is not based on scientific findings, just some religious beliefs. 

The repression of the sex instinct is the foundation of ashram life, that is contemplative life.
It’s all very well if you aspire to become a monk, but that’s not what I went to KD for. 

Mental and physical stimulation is what makes me feel alive. Why would anybody want to remove all stimulation from life? To achieve peace of mind is the usual answer. I want peace just as much as most people, but i want to achieve peace in my active and secular life. Removing all stimulation and temptations is not the answer. It's just a shortcut that doesn't lead anywhere.  More than anything else, i want to achieve balance in my life. Isn't eternal peace what awaits us all after death? What if I don’t aspire to vegetate or become pure spirit? I still have a body, thanks, i can be pure spirit when i die. We will all die, so why not live life to the best of our capacity while we are still breathing? 
I might be a middle-aged woman whose estrogen level is almost undetectable but i don't want to be sedated.  I feel better when all my neurons are firing, when i can savour all the amazing flavours of life, when i can laugh and jump on my chair with excitement. 

I have learned a lot in India, but most of what i learned will not entice me back to India any time soon.
I have discovered that practicing asanas, pranayama and meditation doesn't make me healthier, happier, or more balanced unless i have access to clean air and clean water, yes,  basic human needs that are so difficult to meet in our overcrowded and exploited planet, plenty of natural beauty, forests where to hike for hours or a clean sea where to swim, a balanced, varied and tasty vegetarian diet (vegans will probably disagree, but that's ok)  intellectual and sensorial stimulation, the company of free spirits, you know, easy-going, curious, intelligent, generous, non-dogmatic, non-judgmental people (my friends!)  some outlets for my creativity. 

I have returned home with a deeper sense of appreciation for what i had left. Yes, Hong Kong is polluted, and my health suffers because of it, but India is far more polluted and people's environmental awareness is still so much lower than in any of the countries i used to call home. 

One doesn't need to look for yoga in India. Yoga has been spread  to every corner of the world. You are more likely to find a teacher you can connect to in your own town, because that teacher would speak your language and ideally share your culture, values and sensibility. There are great Indian yoga teachers, but they tend to travel a lot and may offer a workshop in your city.

When i want to be alone, meditate, practice asanas, heal my body and mind, i can go to the nearest forest and rent a cabin for a week or two.  There is more yoga in a walk in the forest than in a yoga class, in India or elsewhere (that's what Georg Feuerstein famously replied when the interviewer asked him what kind of yoga he practiced!)

I am happy to be regarded as a yoga heretic, a rebel, because fundamentally i aspire to become my own guru. 

"All authority of any kind, especially in the field of thought and understanding, is the most destructive, evil thing. Leaders destroy the followers and followers destroy the leaders. You have to be your own teacher and your own disciple. You have to question everything that man has accepted as valuable, as necessary" (Jiddu Krishnamurti)

What i learned in India (Part 1)

After 3 months in India i am finally back in Hong Kong and trying to process the experience. 
I went to India with a flexible travel plan, a small budget, a light backpack and a yoga mat. I was advised by friends who had been  to India to leave my expectations at home and just keep an open-mind . India will find you, they said. They had also warned me that, believe it or not, finding a good yoga experience in India could be tricky. I know, you must be rolling your eyes: India, the cradle of yoga, should be teeming with excellent yoga schools and teachers. Well, yes and no.
Many yoga teachers in India do not have the same teaching style that Western yogis are accustomed to: a rather authoritarian and dogmatic teaching style is the norm rather than the exception.

If you are inquisitive and prefer a more relaxed and friendly teaching style you are probably in for a shock.
I often left a yoga class wondering why on earth i had come all the way to India to be told to listen to the teacher rather than to my body.

As a teacher i always remind my students to listen to their body, i demonstrate poses and possible variations,  elicit their feedback at the end of each class,  modify poses to ensure they are safe and suitable for my students' level.
If i simply called the names of poses in Sanskrit and English without any demonstration, without giving any alignment cues, nor anatomical pointers and, on top of that, tried to forcefully  push students into poses they are not ready for, most of them would never come back.

So, if you go to India in search of good yoga, you may spend most of your time trying classes only once.
Because in India yoga is regarded as a 'spiritual discipline', the body is often an afterthought. One shouldn't think about the body, we are reminded, nor should one show too much of it. Flesh is apparently sinful.
The dressing code in most yoga schools is very conservative. Students are told to dress modestly, almost as if they were visiting a temple or attending mass:  yoga pants, leggings, tank tops are the work of the devil. Baring your shoulders in 30 C?  what a nerve!
Long, baggy tunics and odalisque pants are de rigueur.  One day i nearly broke my neck when in Shoulder stand my sweaty hands got trapped in the loose tunic i was trying to shift away from my face. Blind-folded Shoulder stand with a bare midriff and exposed bra was the unintended result of my dressing modestly for class!
Faced with students in pajamas, tracksuits, salwar kameez, kurta, etc. it doesn't come as a surprise that teachers don't bother with adjustments: they simply can't see whether anyone pulls up her kneecaps and engages her quads, or if ribs are jutting out,  shoulders are relaxed, lower backs arching excessively etc. 'Remember - they will keep telling you- yoga is the union of body, mind, spirit.' The body for some reason gets a bad rep and loses out to the spirit, at least in India. Possibly the most sexually repressed country in the world. Whatever happened to Tantra? I know you are wondering. I did too. 

If you read William Reich in your heady days, you will probably remember what he said about sexual repression being at the root of authoritarian and conservative states, cultures, religions and any control system. India is a textbook case.

Reich postulated that the suppression of sexuality could have a crippling effect on both rebellious impulses and critical faculties, and could eventually lead to the development of a docile and obedient personality, one that is attracted to authoritarian order. Such a theory could provide a pointer as to the rise of Hindu fascism in India (Modi's BJP party is leading the polls at the time of writing).

After a long search for a friendly, no nonsense teacher, i finally met Haridas ( and Sunil ( in Varkala. Both trained in the Sivananda style, and though very different from any of my Western teachers,  i was happy to attend their classes every day. 

Varkala is a tourist place, so i suppose the dressing code had to be relaxed a bit to accommodate the foreign infidels that dare to wear swimsuits on the beach. 
I welcomed Varkala's  'anything goes',  non-judgmental, liberated vibe, so i decided to stay for a couple of months, at the cost of constantly brushing shoulders with other tourists in what often felt like a tourist ghetto. 
Here i could eat cheap, healthy vegetarian food, swap books in the many second-hand book stalls, listen to live music at night and...practice my broken Russian. The large majority of tourists were Russians escaping the rigours of a Russian winter.

However, even in a tourist destination like Varkala, you are reminded that life in a developing country is neither easy nor pleasant. You are constantly surrounded by rubbish and pollution.  Natural beauty is buried deep under heaps of discarded plastic bottles, plastic bags, wrappers, vinyl billboards, broken neon tubes, styrofoam lunch boxes and trays, untreated sewage, plastic sandals, construction waste etc.

After a while you  learn to edit out the most unsightly mounds of rubbish, but you still have to breathe. The problem is, every time you breathe you inhale toxic chemicals. Waste is not collected, treated or recycled. It's actually burnt on the side of the road, or in the backyard, every evening.  Burning plastic releases dioxin, that well-known carcinogenic substance. Well-known to me and you, perhaps, but not to those who set fire to rubbish heaps thinking that fire purifies everything.Well, maybe it did before man invented plastic and PVC, but Hindus hold on to this belief despite soaring cancer rates. Endemic corruption means that building or improving basic infrastructures such as sewers, waste sorting and recycling plants is always promised before elections but never delivered. 
Noise pollution is also something you have to live with in India.
Mosques, Hindu temples and Christian churches all  conspire to deprive you of sleep, rest and ultimately, sanity.
I have come to the conclusion they all worship the same god: the loudspeaker. You will find plenty of evidence of its adoration on the roofs of any type of religious buildings and even earplugs cannot protect you from its assault. Some religious festivals last for several days, and unfortunately on Varkala there are no caves to flee to and meditate.

A minority of foreigners are enchanted by such religious fervour, i personally question any religion that interferes with my sleep, mental sanity, introspection or study by broadcasting hoarse calls to prayer or deafening devotional music. 
Actually, i question all religions as ideological constructs  that deprive men and women of free will, common sense, intelligence, empathy and hinder their spiritual progress. I don't think that obscurantism, fanaticism, superstition are 'quaint' in other peoples, but ridiculous among my folks (an attitude very common among tourists). I am as annoyed by religious zealots in India as i am by those in the Vatican.

And this is a big problem in India. On paper it is a secular state. In fact it's held hostage to the madness of religious fanatics of all hues. Yoga in India is inextricably linked to Hinduism, and a secular approach to yoga practice is looked down as a sort of heresy.

I had to put up with long, unintelligible Sanskrit invocations before and after every yoga class. Most of the students didn't have a clue of what they meant, nor were they expected to join in. The purpose of these invocations is still a mystery to me (every teacher chanted a different mantra) but i ended up accepting them the way one accepts the sign of the cross made by a favelas-born Brazilian player before and after he scores a goal. 

Maybe Indian yoga teachers chant mantras because they have no insurance policy, unlike their Western counterparts. It gives them peace of mind.
Personally i would prefer to be taught by an experienced teacher with a good knowledge of anatomy than by someone who invokes the protection of half a dozen gods before launching into a mind-boggling sequence that starts with Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) followed by  Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel) and doesn't feature any warming up or stretching. And this is exactly what i encountered at Kaivalyadhama.