Sunday, July 25, 2010


“Don’t be so cocky-sure, young lady!” my father used to reprimand me as a rebellious teenager when I dismissed his concerns and tried to do things my way. I thought of him this week as I endured a short bout of digestive illness. Just when I thought I would get through my India trip without getting sick….

My first trip to Pune I got sick the final week when I accepted a meal of delicious wheat dishes at my landlady’s brunch. I had been off gluten for a year and thought I might be able to indulge this once. But alas, I spent 24 hours in bed and in the bathroom, and weakly made my way back to class for restorative and pranayama.

My second trip I succumbed to the winter “Pune cough.” You can hear the hack from the dust and pollution in the recordings of the classes, as students and teachers cough their way through the dry Januarys.

This time, I was feeling great, cooking delicious and healthy meals at home, doing 5 hours of asana and Pranayama each day. The only thing I missed were my fresh raw greens that I gorge on each summer. I saw some nice palak (spinach) on the vegetable lady’s cart for sale and bought 2 bunches. I knew enough not to eat it raw, but I cooked it very gently just until it wilted, dressed it Korean style in soy sauce, vinegar, a bit of oil, and hot sauce, tossed in some cashews, and ate it cold. Yum.

But the microorganisms here, that foreigners do not have the flora for, got the best of me. My mistake was not cooking the spinach to death. So I spent a day at home, reading, practicing Supta Baddha Konasana, listening to music, and purging. Just when I was feeling so smug! I’m better now, and humbled, once again, by India, and what this experience may bring.

One thing I had to do during this short bout of illness was tune into my body ever more sharply. My body told me what I could eat and what I could not. I would touch my fork to a brownie I bought as a special indulgence. Unh-unh, my stomach would say. How about some fresh fruit? No, my body said. Some plain rice and dollop of dahi (curds/yogurt)? My stomach did not turn at this suggestion, so I lived on this for a day.

BKS Iyengar addressed a similar aspect of listening to our bodies in class today. He invited us to turn instinctive knowledge into intuitive knowledge. He insisted that just applying action upon action to our bodies in asana is a beginner method. Instead, he chided us, how can we increase our intelligence and apply what we observe through instinctive behavior and make it intuitive?

For instance, in Prasarita Padottanasana (look it up in Light on Yoga if you need to), the back calves instinctively roll out. Try it a few times and notice that they almost automatically do this. But do our back thighs do the same? Due to hip and/or hamstring tightness, they do not. But can we apply the instinctive intelligence of the calves and make it intuitive intelligence in the thighs?

Guruji has been teaching largely through this Socratic method, continually asking us questions and making us probe deeper into our own bodies, observing the most minute details. This is not to make us “physiocrats,” (as Prashant Iyengar would say), but to draw us deeper into the organic (physiologic) body and into the mind.

Now when yoga practitioners talk about the mind, they’re really talking about the consciousness and all its components of brain, nervous system, ego, soul, spirit, and more. So as we probe these actions in asana, we are supposed to be probing the responses in our minds.

“Dual mind or single mind?” Guruji asks us, when we are deep in asana. Hopefully we can answer, calmly, silently, and humbly, as we merge our instinctive intelligence with our intuitive intelligence, “Single mind.”

[I’m heading into my final week of study, so this will be my final Pune blog. Thanks for reading, and accompanying me on this journey! See you in Milwaukee and in class soon.]

Monday, July 19, 2010


It’s taken me three trips to India to figure out the mosquitoes. I was getting most of my mosquito bites inside my little bungalow instead of outside where you think they would be, usually in my sleep. But recently in the morning I noticed several mosquitoes sleeping on the nets (screens, in the USA). I slid open the net and closed the glass windows, and sure enough they eventually flew off into the nice outdoors. You see, they were stuck inside because I was trying to keep the house snugly closed up and protected.

Instead, in India you’re supposed to keep the air flowing without screens during the day, then close up at dusk when the mosquitoes like to come inside. If you don’t air out, the bugs get stuck inside for days at a time, and they get ornery, and they bite you, because you’re their only source of food. You have to learn the rhythms and go with the flow.

Everything in India is this way. Tonight in class it was time to set up for Salamba Sarvangasana, which is quite an ordeal for 120 students. We go and get a stack of thick mats and line up in threes. But tonight I was at a mat with two other foreign women who insisted they already had a third person for their mat, a friend of theirs. Now, trying to protect your spot in a crowded yoga class just makes things unnecessarily complicated, IMHO. The Indians know this, and will take any spot willy-nilly, and expect us foreigners to do the same.

But the Euro-American ethic is quite different. We are acculturated with a strong sense of individuality and territoriality, thus the “mine” attitude, which makes living in India quite stressful. There’s one American woman here who has become quite attached to a particular yoga mat, and insists on using it, digging through the stacks at the Institute, or asking you for it if you happen to have it under your feet.

I find that I have more energy for asana and pranayama and study if I am willing to let go of my little quirks and preferences,, and especially if I consciously and joyfully relinquish my American privilege. Lucky for me in some respects, I am not recognized as an American. There are quite a few Korean university students here in Pune, and although we are treated as foreigners, we are free from the  baggage and stereotypes of white Americans—you know—big spenders, loud, demanding, etc. So, except for my sun hat, I sort of blend in, eating Indian food with my fingers, and moving from yoga mat to mat as the class requires.

Guruji also visits this theme over and over in his teachings. “This is not a health club!” he insists. “This is a health education center. You must all come here to learn, to be students,” not, he implies, come here to exercise privilege. He continues, “You come here to use my name, to get a certiicate. You make money from my name, and write books. But you must be humble to learn. Are you really here to listen, to learn?” he asks, evoking the old themes of colonialism and empire that still impact India.

Yesterday, a film crew came into the practice hall, with massive lights and cameras. Some Germans are making a documentary about BKS Iyengar. We lifted our heads from Adho Mukha Svanasana, as extension cords were being pulled across our hands, and a stream of people filied in. They wanted to film him practicing and coaching granddaughter Abhijata. At nearly 92, he is quite the presenter, so we all gathered round as he gave Abhi some jewels of instruction in Sirsasana, Trkonasana, Tadasana, and Urdhva Dhanurasana. At her young age (mid 20s), Abhi has accepted the circumstances of her public life. As long as her grandfather is in the spotlight, so is she, there at his side.

All the students at the Institute were invited to her engagement party and puja (religious blessing) this week. We skipped class and flooded the hall behind the post office in our nicest Indian clothes, along with the extended families and all the expected dignitaries. Then we were fed a feast of 10-12 traditional dishes, and this only the engagement.

“Stop thinking!” Guruji roared in class recently. “Receive the instruction in your body. You are all thinking about superficialities.” So now back to the simplicity of breathe in, breathe out, asana and pranayama, taking the learning into my body, making the most of my study here for the remaining 2 weeks.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


You know you’re turning Indian when:
-       You prefer the squatting toilets.
-       You walk into the middle of the street slowly and calmly to cross, knowing the motorcycles and rickshaws will go around you.
-       You start doing the head bobble.
-       You slooooow down. No rushing anywhere. Allot double to triple the time it would take to complete a task in the States.
-       You start bargaining at the fruit cart.

I’m settling into my routine here, and the simplicity is beautiful. Each morning I awake with the birds before dawn and do some Pranayama. Then boil some water and drink it hot with a quarter of a tiny lemon. I eat some fruit—today it was a salad of papaya, banana, pomegranate, and orange. Then off to either practice or class.

I come home around noon and eat a simple lunch of rice, dal, and vegetable subji (Indian stew/stir fry). Every 2-3 days I cook a little something from veggies I pick up at the green market. Eggplant, green beans, cabbage, cauliflower… Yesterday I bought 3 potatoes, 3 lemons, and 2 tomatoes for 12 rupees (about 25 cents). All the veggies are about half the size of what you see in the States. So if I take the time to cook, I can eat very inexpensively. Just some mustard and cumin seeds in oil, some garam masala and turmeric, toss in some vegetables and a hot meal is ready in 10 minutes.

After lunch I write some notes on class or practice, check email, maybe get dinner started, do a bit of reading or take a nap. At 3pm the library at the Iyengar Institute opens so I walk down the street and go on over.

The basement library is a happening place. Guruji, BKS Iyengar, is always at his desk there, going over manuscripts or answering letters. At a long table at the center of the library sit yoga students from all over the world, our noses buried in amazing archival material and books on every aspect of yoga, from therapeutics to anatomy to philosophy to spirituality. We sit quietly and read and study, and every once in a while Guruji pipes up with a comment or question or request.

A few days ago I went down to the library and everyone was gathered around a laptop playing a new educational film about Iyengar yoga for children. The project leaders came to consult with Guruji about it. He made no bones about it: it’s too serious he said, there is no humor. With children there needs to be lightness and quickness and humor. This film made yoga a serious subject when it should be fun for children. The filmmakers went back to Mumbai with some major feedback from the guru.

After an hour or so in the library, I go back upstairs to the yoga hall for the medical class. Here you find 30 or so students with every condition from heart disease to scoliosis to sore knees and hips.

Today I spotted a little girl I remembered from my last visit in 2008. She had traveled with her parents from Delhi with scoliosis so severe she couldn’t walk straight. Today she is performing her sequence on her own, tall, and healthy. Her scoliosis is still visible but so much less severe I hardly recognized her.

I decided to take the risk and begin assisting in the medical class. It’s a little scary because it’s a circus, with people running about with every manner of yoga prop, and Guruji overseeing it all, imperious and fierce. It’s easy to get tripped up and get a set-up wrong or misunderstand an instruction from one of the teachers. The other day I had an absolutely mortifying moment when I started to take apart someone’s setup because we were finishing up the class. What I learned is that you never touch a setup done by Guruji, who stormed up to me and demanded to know why I was moving things without asking him. It was like being in a hurricane with no shelter, and all I could do was be humble and apologize.

I was flooded with doubt. Maybe I shouldn’t be assisting. Maybe I’m being presumptuous. However I decided to sublimate my wounded ego and go back the next day. If everyone who has ever been yelled at gave up, we would have few students and teachers indeed. I decided I had to go back to the medical class for the sake of my students with aching backs and knees and necks and hips, to learn whatever I can to bring back. Never mind my little hurt feelings, that’s just asmita, ego.

After the medical class is evening class of asana or if it’s Thursdays, Pranayama. I get home around 8:15pm and eat leftovers, take a shower, more notes, and early to bed. It’s a beautiful life.

My first time in Pune I was fascinated by the marketplaces, beautiful clothing, textiles, housewares, and so much more. I spent many an afternoon shopping through various neighborhoods. My second time in Pune I brought my family and we traveled to southern India, and to caves of Maharastra. This time all I am doing is studying, practicing, learning. Absorbing all I can in the short time I have….

Here are a few more tidbits of wisdom from our classes during forward bends week:

Prashant: The nostrils are the gateway of the breath. How can we awaken different parts of the nostrils as we breathe? He defined the parts as the opening, the floor, the septum, the outer membrane, the roof, and the very center which doesn’t touch anywhere.

Raya: If Parsvottanasana is Uttanasana with the partner leg gone, don’t cheat on your partner. Apply all your knowledge of Uttanasana into the one-legged Parsvottanasana.

Abhi, Guruji: In Uttanasana, draw the lateral buttocks down and the tailbone down as you draw up through the backs of the legs. This creates a compactness to lengthen the spine forward and down.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Perhaps where I feel most at home is in international terminals of airports. Born in Korea and raised in Hawaii, I’ve never felt quite at home on “the mainland.” Ever the outsider, at the Air India gate at O’Hare I am nevertheless quite comfortable, sitting on the floor and eating my pesto and avocado and sliced mango with bamboo chopsticks (brought from home, not purchased in the terminal). I feel at ease with brown people speaking languages other than English, their clothes and shoes and behavior a bit out of the American mainstream.

Since the Mumbai bombing, India has been trying to impose order on its innate chaos. Before 2009 I rarely saw queues of Indian people, only mobs. The lack of queues bothered me until I realized the mob was a feminine use of time and space, a sort of resistance to the Protestant ethic. Instead of taking your turn and earning your right, the person most in need got her way, and the crowd allowed it. But now at the gate, the airport staff insists on lining us up single-file.

Our connecting flight is delayed out of uber-efficient Frankfort, and we arrive in the Mumbai rain near midnight. The airport, undergoing remodeling since at least my first trip to India in July 2005, is finally complete and unrecognizable. Gone are the Gandhi posters in baggage claim. But just as always, as soon as I step out, my glasses fog up from the heat and humidity. Ahhhh, India.

I’m determined to stay awake on the car ride to Pune so I can get a solid night’s sleep and get over the jet lag. This is no problem since my driver passes trucks from every which direction, including the shoulder, honking away. I arrive at my apartment and settle into bed around 3am, only to be awakened at dawn with the most raucous bird songs imaginable. I wish I could tell you all the parts comprising this celebratory, orchestral cacophony.

I arrive at the Iyengar Institute and learn that Geeta Iyengar, the grand matriarch of the Iyengar tradition (daughter of BKS) will not be teaching this month, for health reasons. This is quite troubling, but inevitable, as she has been threatening to retire for some time now. Send positive and healing thoughts and prayers to Geetaji! To compensate for her absence, we international students are invited to take all of Prashant Iyengar’s (son of BKS) classes in addition to Geetaji’s subbed classes.

So far I have taken 4 classes, asana with Prashant, Pranayama with Prashant, asana with Raya, and asana with Abhijata (BKS’s granddaughter). Here are a few tidbits from these very good classes:

Abhi, with Guruji (BKS Iyengar) practicing on the side and feeding her instructions: Tadasana is Adho Mukha Sirsasana (upside down head balance). Just as we take care of our necks in Sirsasana, we must be as mindful of our necks in Tadasana. Draw the cervical spine toward the throat without hardening the throat or thrusting the chin.

 Prashant: Viloma exhales can be from any part of the body. What happens when you take Viloma exhales all from the abdomen? What happens if you exhales from bottom to top instead of top to bottom? What about bottom, top, then middle, etc? We must be seekers and not simply repeaters of what is given to us.

Raya: Drop the trapezium down in Tadasana as if you’re throwing it off a cliff. In the beginning we must use effort to do this, but eventually it has to happen effortlessly, otherwise we simply harden. Same with releasing the head down in Uttanasana.

More next week.