Maximum CityIn late February, I got the green light to go to Pune in August. (Among Iyengar yogis, “going to Pune” means going to study at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute.) Five months to prepare. To me, this meant buying Lonely Planet India, finding an apartment in Pune, booking flights, getting vaccinations, avoiding injury, and reading up on India.

Five months is enough time to do it all–except the reading.

While I’m going to Pune primarily for yoga, I have a hunch that the Pune experience encompasses more than classes at the institute. I’ve never traveled to India, and I suspect that my yogic challenges will go beyond 10-minute headstands–and test my adaptability to a society starkly different from what I know.

Perhaps because I’m a travel writer, my instincts tell me to be independent, to avoid tourist stereotypes, to know something about my destination. I can’t help recalling my first job, waitressing one summer in my Hilo hometown, when a tourist complained, “Why are there so many Asians here? I didn’t expect this.” Surely he appreciated Hawaii’s beaches and sunshine; but he was clueless about Hawaii’s plantation history and culture. That type of tourist sees only the obvious, overlooking the reality of a place. I don’t want to be that type of tourist.

Since February, here’s what I’ve read:

Beyond the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity Katherine Boo This New Yorker writer follows the lives of several residents in Annawadi, a slum near the airport. Published in 2012, this is a consummate piece of journalism, written in a gripping, novelistic style. Couldn’t put it down!

The Age of Kali, William Dalrymple Researched throughout the 1990s, published in 1998, this set of essays introduced me to the caste struggles, political posturing, and irreversible changes of post-Partition India. Dalrymple, a British historian and writer, takes the reader around the subcontinent, presenting glimpses of its wildly varied regions. The best type of travel writing.

Ladies Coupe, Anita Nair I borrowed this 2004 paperback novel a friend who bought it in India. It’s well-done pop fiction, some might call it chick lit. Initially skeptical, I enjoyed this portrait of five women, strangers to one another, who share a train compartment and their life stories. A contemporary look at the social conventions expected of women–in India and everywhere.

Tales from Firozsha BaagTales of Firozsha Baag, Rohinton Mistry I read this 1987 collection of related short stories about 10 years ago. Rereading it, I was  even more impressed. Set in a middle-class Parsi neighborhood in Mumbai, the stories trace the lives of several characters, including a boy who, like Mistry, fulfills the ultimate dream of moving abroad, to London, to New York, or, in his case, to Toronto. A great read.

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, Suketu Mehta Mehta lived in Bombay until 1977, when he was about 14, left for two decades, and then returned for two years in the late 1990s. His 2004 account of that return combines memoir, investigative journalism, travel writing, and history. Through his eyes and ears, we go behind the scenes in Mumbai, glimpsing the world of gangsters, cops, dancing bar girls, Bollywood, and a Jain family that renounces their worldly lives. Very memorable to me are his mini essays, “Country of the No” and “Adjust,” both which seize on Indian personality quirks from an insider’s point of view. A must if traveling to Bombay/Mumbai.

The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri Set in 1960s Calcutta and in Rhode Island, this 2013 novel of two brothers and their intertwined lives is a page turner. Based on her first two books, I’ve considered Lahiri a better short-story writer than novelist, but here I found the characters emotionally convincing. As in the prior two books listed, this novel deals with Indian protagonists who leave the country–and must somehow negotiate between worlds old and new.

An Area of DarknessI’m now reading An Area of Darkness, VS Naipaul, published in 1964 and masterfully written. I’ve had to stop and reread sentences and paragraphs: they are perfect. As an Indian who grew up in Trinidad, he is neither an insider nor an outsider; perhaps this gave him an ideal perspective for sharp, objective, heartfelt observations.

These books span some fifty years, covering different eras and giving me context. No one book can apply to all of India (or all of Mumbai or all of any group).

On my reading list:

  • A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
  • Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
  • Calcutta, Amit Chaudhuri
  • Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure, Sarah Macdonald
  • Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts

Acknowledgment: Thanks to K Yarker for excellent advice on books and India. A true adventurer, she traveled solo around India for one year.

1Prepare to be impressed. Can Phyllis Sues really be 90 years old? Go to her website and see her in action: tango dancing, jumping rope, playing tennis, doing yoga, swinging on a trapeze, hiking.

From her 20s to her 40s, she was a professional dancer and entertainer. She then became a fashion designer, running a women’s apparel company for two decades. In the early 2000s, in her 80s, she took up the piano and tango dancing. At 85 she began practicing yoga.

9Now, five years hence, she is doing a bunch of challenging poses, as illustrated in her video and photos: Baddha Parsvakonasana (Bound Side Angle), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), Salamba Sirsasana I and II (Headstand), Pincha Mayurasana (Peacock), Ustrasana (Camel), Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow). You’ve got to admire her gameness to try new things, her physical fitness, and her fearlessness.

8Looking through Iyengar yoga eyes, however, I must comment on her Salamba Sirsasana I. If she were in my class, I would immediately say, “Stop, come down!” Her elbows are too wide for adequate support, and her head is tilted backward too much, hyperextending her neck.

Now, some might dislike my criticism of her pose. After all, she’s 90. But isn’t it more important for a senior to be careful about safe form? Besides, look at her: This woman is as able-bodied as folks a fraction of her age. I would hold her to the highest standards. She could go beyond merely doing the pose–to doing an excellent pose.

MG23_520x400A few months ago, one of my original yoga teachers, Donald Moyer, observed my Tadasana. Under his scrutiny, I tried extra hard to perfect my pose. To my surprise, he said, “You’re tucking your pelvis.”

What? If left to its own devices, my body is overly mobile in the lumbar spine. I am a natural pelvic “tilter.” I typically get corrected for too much anterior tilt. Was I overcorrecting?

Donald observed that I was clenching the gluteus maximus, i.e., buttocks, and the external hip rotators. He advised me to soften and spread instead–to correct excess tilt by lifting through the anterior vertebrae. (An aside: “buttocks” must be among the top 10 most frequently used words in any given Iyengar yoga class, don’t you think?)

Since then I’ve changed the way I align my pelvis–by lifting through the core, not by contracting the large, strong hip muscles. Here are a few actions that work for me:

  • Scoop the navel in and up
  • Slide the anterior face of the sacrum up
  • Raise the front hip bones (ASIS)
  • Pull the crown of the head up, as if hanging from it
  • Draw the shield of L5 in and up (Caveat: don’t try this unless you’re in a class with Donald Moyer)

While I’m correcting my pelvic tilt with a lighter touch now, body workers (such as massage therapists) sometimes still advise me to let my sacrum tilt more. Hmm…

A few thoughts: In poses that instigate lumbar overarching (such as Bhujangasana), I must continue to elongate the lumbar spine and, yes, firmly roll the buttocks down. But in neutral poses such as Tadasana, I should relax the glutes, lift through the core, and be less wary of my natural pelvic tilt.

Image: Kikkerland

41-300x277Recently a physiotherapist asked me to stand, feet apart, facing a mirror. When I did, she said, “Your feet are slightly turned inward.”

In the mirror I saw my feet aligned in Tadasana. I then repositioned them to show my natural alignment, a bit more outwardly turned (yet still more or less parallel).

That made me reconsider my Tadasana feet: To avoid excess turnout (a common misalignment), have I been overdoing it the opposite way?

Determining whether feet are parallel requires observation of the “midline” of the foot–a line between the second and third toes to the mid heel. If your feet are narrow and oblong, both inner and outer edges will be parallel, along with the midlines. If your feet are wedge shaped like mine, the outer edges will angle outward even when the midlines are parallel.

In classic Tadasana, the feet stand side by side and thus cannot turn inward beyond the body’s midline or sagittal plane.  Likewise, standing with a block between the feet parallels their inner edges. So, why do many yoga practitioners toe in farther? In some poses, such as Prasarita Padottanasana, we’re often taught to parallel the outer feet, causing a pigeon-toed stance. While it’s wrong to point the toes outward, isn’t the opposite also detrimental?

For more food for thought, read Palo Alto-based posture expert Esther Gokhale‘s highly informative (and visually compelling) book 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back. She recommends standing with feet and legs a bit externally rotated (to ground the outer soles; to lift the inner arches), based on years of comparative anatomy/kinesiology research.

Sometimes an opinion from outside the yoga world can be thought-provoking. Whether right or wrong, it forces us to rethink our assumptions and habits.

foot-placement

Image: foot cross-section, Delta Orthodics; foot patterns, Leslie McNabb

“I couldn’t stop crying in Savasana,” my friend Elaine once told me. She was struggling through a bad time and finally, in yoga class, she felt at ease. It was such a relief that she broke down.

Yoga can catalyze emotions in people. I’ve witnessed spontaneous crying, during or after asana, most likely at all-day workshops. The hours and hours of yoga, the divergence from routine, somehow trigger emotional release.

ambika-bed-roomI myself can’t recall ever crying in class. For me, yoga has the opposite benefit. Asana (even a strenuous session) calms my mood swings. If I’m on the verge of losing it, yoga steers me to a normal, neutral state.

About two years ago, however, I took a weekend workshop with Aadil Palkhivala in Kealakekua on my home island of Hawaii. I was curious about this well-known teacher, about whom students seem to have strong feelings, either way.

That weekend I drove from Hilo (where I was visiting my parents) to Kona, on the opposite side of the island. (There’s nothing like a solitary drive or solo trip to shift your mindset. From Vancouver to Hilo to Kona, I was distancing myself from home and habits.) The place I’d booked through VRBO unexpectedly fell through (it was double booked) (are you &%$#@ kidding me?!). But the proprietor found a backup for me with his friend Ambika, and I landed in a decent, if makeshift, in-law studio, with a mattress flat on the floor and a gecko on the loose.

I found Aadil’s teachings quite compelling. He discussed philosophy in an approachable way, connecting it to the asana and to daily life–and he had a sense of humor (I didn’t expect him to be so cheerful, even occasionally comical). The asana practice included novel (to me) ways of working with poses, a memorable shoulder/elbow/wrist/finger sequence inspired by his mother, and lots of partner assists.

All that you want is downstream

ambika-gecko-2The night after the workshop ended, I woke from a dream in which I was crying. My dream was fuzzy, but in it I was cognizant of Aadil’s words, “All that you want is downstream.” While happy enough with my life, I was lamenting mistakes made, roads not taken, words left unsaid. I was feeling the weight of grief and loss, of time, of opportunities. In my dream I was distraught and yet consoled by those words. Maybe a life better than I could ever imagine is downstream, if I let myself go with the flow.

When I woke, I found myself crying in real life. To my surprise I suddenly noticed that–get this–it was pouring rain after a dry spell. The bed was in a nook under a plexiglass roof; the raindrops drummed a loud, melodic beat. Now, I’m super rational and absolutely not the New Agey type who sees symbols and synchronicity in ordinary circumstances. But, in the dark, by myself, I felt as if the sky were crying with me.

Later, I contemplated how I felt no strong emotion during the workshop. I absorbed the teachings with a reasoning, even skeptical, mind. I scrutinized my copious notes to find the context for that sentence, and I couldn’t find it. I didn’t record it; it had stuck to my unconscious.

Aadil Palkhivala in Vancouver

Aadil Palkhivala will teach a three-day workshop in Vancouver on May 30, 31, and June 1, 2014, at Creekside Community Centre, Olympic Village.

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Last month, I stumbled upon a yoga presentation by Patricia Walden on her 60th birthday. Wow. Her backbends are awesome and need no comment. But it got me thinking about yoga videos, performances, and “demonstrations.”

Bear in mind, I’m talking not about instructional videos. I’m focusing on displays done silently or, more likely, accompanied by music. Some are professionally shot, such as the Briohny Smyth video for Equinox that went viral. Most are self-shot videos posted on websites, on Facebook, on YouTube–followed by lots of likes and “you go, girl!” type comments.

DSC_0315What is the point of yoga displays? To inspire? To share? To instruct without instructions? To advertise? To embrace the new media age? To claim a few Warholian minutes of fame?

I’m not against such videos as a rule, but I wonder if and how they sync with yoga philosophy. How is showcasing oneself congruent with loss of ego? Instructional videos are one thing, but pure performance?

That said, I was unbothered by Patricia Walden’s backbend show (and the ensuing video), perhaps because it was done for a reason, her birthday celebration. Or perhaps because the grainy video was obviously not uploaded for fame or an ego boost. (As a senior-level teacher, among BKS Iyengar’s foremost students, already world famous through her Gaiam videos and long career, she doesn’t need to promote herself.)

Generally, yoga videos are uncommon among Iyengar yogis, who tend to be less “out there” in the way they practice. Once, I complimented Yves, an Iyengar yoga teacher based in Austin, on the elegantly shot portraits on his website. He thanked me almost apologetically, mentioning the need to do some Internet publicity nowadays. I could relate to his dilemma. Creating an Internet presence is expected, but it can feel awkward and showy.

DSC_0317_2Actually, BKS Iyengar himself was a big proponent of the yoga “demonstration.” In his day, yoga was esoteric and he performed in Europe and elsewhere to introduce the practice to non-yogis. Then and now, people are generally first drawn to yoga by its physical feats.

Maybe, simply by seeing a pose, people learn. After all, a good visual can be more effective than words to guide one into a pose. Watching BKS Iyengar practicing (at any age) and Patricia Walden dropping back (and standing up) changes us, doesn’t it?

DSC_0304Perhaps my reaction to yoga performances depends on the practitioner’s attitude (or my perception of their attitude). A few years ago, I taught at a general studio (mostly power/flow yoga); I was the only Iyengar yoga teacher there. When leaving, I’d sometimes see the next teacher doing handstands in the middle of the room before starting his class. It was a large drop-in class of casual students not ready for handstand balance. Why demonstrate a pose you’re not teaching? What was the point of that pre-class performance?

It is a tricky subject. I know serious, deep practitioners who have also performed yoga in a dance troupe. I also know professional dancers who prefer to keep their dance (public/outward) separate from their yoga (private/inward). What about yoga competitions? While much criticized as antithetical to the crux of yoga philosophy, proponents say that being judged onstage motivates them to dig deeper and to develop courage, poise, and other positive traits

I have one general conclusion: We cannot let ourselves get too fixated on asana, the bodily aspect of yoga.  Asana was my introduction to yoga and I love it! But a video or photo or demo cannot quite capture the invisible aspects of yoga.

IMG_2014Flying into Hilo, my hometown, two weeks ago, I gazed out the airplane window. An endless, supersaturated palette of green, along the Hamakua Coast. While much of the world, including California (my subsequent stomping ground) is suffering from drought, Hilo has had over 12 inches of rain in the month of April alone.

The aerial view was striking. What a vast bountiful island. So much undeveloped land. Still a chance not to ruin it. I thought to myself: I’m lucky to have grown up here.

I didn’t always appreciate Hawai‘i, not enough anyway. One of my worst habits is not appreciating what I have–in the moment. Only afterward does it hit me. Maybe I can see clearly only with distance, in time, in space…

What I like about Hilo:

I like the sound of pounding rain. Not clammy drizzle or all-day grey, but deafening downpours, especially at night. I like Hilo’s dramatic tropical weather.

I like how people always wave or give the shaka sign if you’re driving and let them turn, pass, or enter your lane.

IMG_2009I like that change is slow. Yes, Hilo now has Target, Home Depot, Walmart, and every big-box chain. Yes, Starbucks is the most popular coffee stop in town. Yes, there’s numbing commuter traffic into Hilo from Puna during rush hour. But the population is still less than 45,000, and the small-town vibe remains.

I like to hear birdsong in the morning. Cardinals, doves, mynah birds, plus an occasional gecko clicking or coqui frog chirping, still in night mode.

I like the black night sky. Only in Hilo can I clearly see the North Star. I like that I unexpectedly glimpsed the April 14-15 lunar eclipse on my first night home.

I like walking around Lili‘uokalani Park with my parents. I like how my dad found a coconut, brought it home, dehusked it with his all-purpose pickaxe, and cracked the shell with a hammer. I like fresh coconut, including the water, which tastes nothing like the stuff they sell in cans.

I like waking, automatically, at 6am. I like feeling sleepy by 10pm.

IMG_2047I didn’t always like that my parents bump into friends or acquaintances whenever they go out. In my own life, I prefer more anonymity and fewer blasts from the past. But, visiting Hilo, there’s something nice about the frequent meet-and-greet. It’s a real community, and I like it.

I like the way KTA (locally owned supermarket) is a gathering place on weekends. Families, couples, seniors: stocking up for the week, talking story. Nobody’s in a mad rush.

I like to my mom’s hibiscus collection, blooming in ruffly colorways of pink, orange, yellow, purple, red.

I like starting my breakfast with fresh papaya, plus my dad’s homegrown banana, mountain apple, poha (gooseberry), pomelo, orange, or whatever’s in season.

I like having done a daily morning yoga practice. When staying with family or friends, it can be hard to fit in yoga time; I feel guilty about it, as if I’m selfish or set in my ways. My parents are super cooperative, however, and we synched our morning routines among Dad’s golf, Mom’s exercise, my yoga, breakfast together.

Here’s an outline of my practice, 60-75 minutes:

  • Supta Sukhasana, supine backbend on rolled mat, with arm variations
  • Gomukhasana
  • Fire Log Pose
  • Adho Mukha Virasana
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana
  • Chatushpadasana, three times, alternating with Elbow Plank and Side Elbow Plank
  • Supta Virasana
  • Salamba Sirsasana
  • Salamba Sarvangasana
  • Savasana

Images: Taro, dendrobium orchids, and hibiscus, in my parents’ backyard, Hilo, Hawaii, April 2014