Friday, February 15, 2008

from old rajpur

Yoga is about moving from the outside to the inside.
A saint is someone who lives inside;
the closer we are to the Universal inside of us
the more peaceful and grounded we are.

9 feb 08, Rajpur, Dehradun

I am very fickle, I know, but I have now found my favorite place in India, maybe on the planet––Rajpur. We are some kilometers outside of Dehradun, in a district known as Rajpur. It is very wooded and hilly, in the foothills of the Himalayas, higher north than I have been thus far. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting––a guesthouse with a private bath, was all I was told¬¬––but this place where I am staying is the nicest house I have seen in India thus far. I’m almost a little embarrassed by it. I have a big bedroom with an equally big sitting room and private bath, and a separate entrance from the garden. I am sharing the house with at least one other person, as yet unmet, and the grounds with a few others, one of whom, a woman from France named Florence, I have met. I was the first to arrive, early this morning, so after a luxurious hot bath (the pouring water over oneself kind, not the tub) drawn from the “geezer” and a large cup of milk tea I headed out to explore the neighborhood and buy some provisions. I thought we were totally isolated here miles form anything, but just about a mile up the road is the very cool little village of Rajpur, in the midst of which sits Yoganga Center where I will be doing this course in Iyengar. (I only re-realized that they consider this a “course” in yoga, not a retreat, when I got here and re-read the literature.) There seem to be many Tibetans here as well, many prayer flags flying, some Tibetan restaurants and one school. It is also one of the cleanest places I have seen in India. By the name placards on the gates of the properties, there seem to be a handful of wealthy Indians around as well, not just European money.

I still don’t regret haven taken the train, but the last 12 hours were a little uncomfortable. The meals had been pretty good, though small, up to that point. Last night they were cold and tasted old. And then it got cold cold on the train. I was in the upper berth and the air couldn’t be shut off. It was only re-circulating but it was re-circulating cold, and I kept wrapping myself tighter and tighter. I finally got up at 3:30 and opened my backpack as quietly as possible to get out my sweatshirt and cap and wool socks. Veejay and Radha took their cue and added another layer of clothing as well, and then went back to sleep. I was up for the night, expecting that we were to arrive by 5 AM, it seemed a waste of time to go back to sleep. We didn’t get in until 7. So I half dozed and half meditated for a few hours. As planned Yoganga had a taxi waiting for me. The driver never said a word to me (He held up a piece of paper with my name on it.) We picked up someone along the way, a Sikh gentleman who owned the taxi company and told me to call him “for all my driving needs,” and they dropped me here, at Four Seasons, where I was greeted warmly by Umed Singh, the caretaker, who spoke only a few words of English, but made a heck of a cup of tea, and told me there would be lunch at 12. His wife Govindi came a little later and talked to me in non-stop Hindi, out of which I ascertained that lunch would be at noon. (There are two complimentary meals offered upon arrival; I’m not sure what happens from there.) The lunch, ready after I got back from my scouting mission, was delicious, not too spicy, lots of fresh vegetables and whole-wheat chapatis. I have felt just a tinge of hesitation about such a luxurious situation, but have decided to stay with the plan. I have got study and writing and retreating to do, and this is my big treat for the year.

* * *

10 feb 08, first Sunday of lent

We had our orientation session last night up at Yoganga. I must say Rajiv and Swati Chachani, who run the place, run a class act. The facility itself is beautiful, deceptively large on the inside as opposed to when seen from the street. The crowd gathered is amazingly international––Switzerland, Scotland, England Ireland, Canada, Norway, France, Venezuela, Italy, Poland, Germany by way of Croatia, and three Americans. We are 22 so far (some have not arrived yet), about a quarter males, which is pretty good. I was afraid I would be a) the only male and b) the only one not to be able to stand on my head. We shall see about the latter. Rajiv and Swati seem to be good cop-bad cop. After they had lit incense and offered flowers to the enshrined deities at the front and back of the yoga hall, we began by Rajiv saying in a very stern voice, “Sit up straight!” and then Swati leading us in chants to Ganesh, Hanuman, Patanjali and the living teacher. Rajiv goes back and forth between being austere and scolding, then cracking a silly play on words (that most people don’t get) and laughing at himself, and then, when he got past the practicalities––“Our orientation sheet is now rivaling Lonely Planet! We have become tour guides!” he said with just a hint of rancor––and launched into his introduction to yoga, he was mesmerizing. He stressed over and over again that yoga is not about the postures; it is about transformation of your life, like fire transforms wood. “Can I make you a yoga master in three weeks when it is something that takes lifetimes to achieve?” I was happy to hear that analogy about fire in wood, which had come up for me a number of times in the past weeks.

My favorite sentence in the guide book will give you an idea of the homespun nature of the whole set-up: under places to eat it says “Hookan Singh’s chai shop cum STD stand near the school by the big mango tree makes nice rice and dal at midday. Opposite Hookan Singh’s is Sunil’s chai shop. He will make chai for 4 rupees a glass. If you arrange it you can get the daily paper from him.”

Rajiv then gave us a little more history about Rajpur––raj-king, pur-city. We are, I was surprised to learn, only 40 miles from Tibet as the crow flies. Of course, not being crows or very advanced flying yogis, most human beings have to cross the Himalayas to get there, and Rajpur sits on the main donkey trail trading route that made it a bustling little city. The beginning of its decline happened when the highway went in below and trading started happening by way of trucks. Then at the partition of India, which almost everyone describes in horrific terms, the many Muslims who lived here were forced to emigrate to Pakistan. Then when Tibet was taken over by China, the Dalai Lama’s first place of exile was just up the road in Mussorie. That brought a lot of Tibetans to the area. They liked the “clime,” as Indians say, and stayed in the area, moving into all the houses that the Muslims had vacated. Now it has become a bit gentrified and many wealthy Indians have bought land up here. As a matter of fact the houses that we students are staying in are second homes of wealthy Indians. Rajiv says they lend them to that purpose out of their generosity to him and his students, and no one makes too much money on it. That may be a bit of an exaggeration but I was consoled to find out that we are all staying in similar situations. In other words, I am not the only one with comfortable accommodations.

I am living with three others, Florence from France, Espen from Norway and young Jessica from USA. I was hesitant about the bonding thing that Rajiv and Swati expect to happen, but we already grouped up and walked home together last night down the long road through Rajpur and did our shopping and planned our shared meals, etc. When we got back Umed and Govindi already had supper cooking. Jessica surprised us all by breaking into a little Hindi with Govindi––she had studied a year of Hindi and two years of Bengali in college––but it didn’t get too far. That doesn’t stop Govindi, who seems to thoroughly enjoy her role as housemother, from speaking to us all in non-stop Hindi, describing to us who-knows-what and recommending who knows-what-else.

Class starts in 45 minutes. I don’t think “local charm” will be the description I will have of it later. Rajiv has a reputation, as do many Iyengar masters, for being very strict about the asanas, and he seems to find countless opportunities to point out the deficiencies of Westerner yoga practitioners.

* * *

11 feb 08

Ready for the second day of class. I was kind of exhilarated after the two hour morning session yesterday. The asanas themselves, though I have been told they will get more challenging, were not too far out of my range. I was quite shaken by Rajiv’s style, very demanding and stern. Then in the afternoon was the two hour pranayama session. Apparently he is most famous for these pranayama sessions, and I must say I learned some marvelous new things, but it was very difficult. The session involved not just sitting on the ground and doing bandhas and breathing techniques, but very some strenuous asanas, which I was totally unprepared for. And again, I was totally caught off guard by Rajiv’s style, so fierce.

When he teaches the philosophy he is just brilliant, and sometimes there is a depth in him that echoes forth, you can even see it in his eyes. He keeps telling us that once we know how to do we need to learn the deeper lessons: first you do and then you know. A couple of things I jotted down:

• Putting the personality in the background, and breath in the foreground.
• Every breath is grace; when we die the grace goes.
• Grace comes in from the cosmos; breath is our connection to the whole cosmos.
• Every molecule of breath is like a grain in a silo; and every grain has consciousness––mahat, buddhi, ahamkara...
• Yoga is about moving from the outside to the inside. A saint is someone who lives inside; the closer we are to the Universal inside of us the more peaceful and grounded we are.

I walked down Old Rajpur Road by myself after class yesterday morning, stopped for a few more supplies, and then had two of Singh’s famous samosas and a cup of tea. Someone had told me that the Tibetan monastery was just down the road so instead of turning up to return to our house I headed that way. I walked about a quarter of a mile and only found the Tibetan women’s center, which was closed, so I turned around. But just as I did two little monks walked up. I mean like 10-year old little, all in the scarlet robes, t-shirt and fleeces. (I noticed that the t-shirts were actually commercial t-shirts with logos and designs on them.) I asked if they spoke English, and they stammered something not-in-English; so I asked, “Where is you monastery?” The one recognized the word “monastery” and said, “Monastery!” pointing ahead. I nodded and said thank you and started to turn away and he said again, “Monastery!” and pointed at me and then in the direction again, indicating that I should follow him, I guessed. So I did, about a half a mile down the road, feeling just a wee bit awkward me in my khavi yoga clothes trailing two little monks in scarlet robes at various points with their arms around each other. After about five minutes the one who had spoken to me turned around and offered me some grapes out of a bag he was carrying. I took a few and thanked him and he held out the bag still and waved it a bit. He wanted me to have the rest of them. Then the two of them laughed at each other and headed down again. As we got closer my guide pointed out “Monastery” to me a few more times until we finally entered the compound and he pointed me in the direction of the reception office and the two of them headed off to the dormitory. I didn’t feel like going into the reception hall and asking to speak to a monk who spoke English, so I walked around amidst the many other lay visitors until one more caught my eye and stopped. But he didn’t speak English either. So I walked around a bit and left, not exactly sure what else I wanted to do except hope for a fortuitous meeting with someone at some point.

Off to class.