Wednesday, March 12, 2014

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.

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