Guruji_nov2012Walking toward RIMYI just after noon, I saw a crowd blocking the street. Just outside the gate, an ambulance was parked. Soon I heard chanting, and five or six men, draped in white cloth, came carrying the body of BKS Iyengar, adorned with flowers, high on a stretcher.

I went alone, not knowing what to expect. Suddenly I, along with seven Brits, found a ride to the cremation ground in an Iyengar family friend’s spacious, air-conditioned SUV. I’m still amazed at this man’s generosity: inviting eight strangers to squeeze into his VIP vehicle. (We had to catch rickshaws back; he had to transport Prashant.)

Hindu funeral rites are very unfamiliar to Western eyes. I couldn’t see much, standing behind dozens of others. Some were taking pictures, holding their camera above their heads. I, too, wanted to memorialize the day, but couldn’t bring myself to take pictures.

Besides, I won’t forget the informal gathering, so unlike the hushed, orderly funerals that I’ve attended. Within the family circle, rituals are sacred and specific, while the larger gathering is spontaneous and open to the public. Traditionally women aren’t permitted to attend the ceremony, but Geeta apparently modified this rule.

The cremation ground was simple and exemplified Pune: open air, cement and dirt, covered by a corrugated metal roof. Where I was standing, there were several pyre pits, some still ashy, in a row–and we had to be careful not to fall in.

It was witheringly humid, the air so damp that I was dripping just standing there. The crowd, comprising a mix of locals and visiting students, was large, but modest for a man of Mr Iyengar’s stature. That’s perhaps due to the immediacy of Hindu cremation; those from afar can’t make it on time.

When the pyre was lit, the smell of smoke filled the covered structure–another unforgettable experience that cannot be captured on film. Eventually Geeta, dressed in white, was helped out by teachers Raya and Uday and then her sisters, wearing colors. The fire burned bigger and brighter, by the time the crowd was dispersing.

I rode a rickshaw home with a familiar Italian classmate I’ll call Stefano. Before his first trip to RIMYI, his father, who had a wild white mane just like Mr Iyengar, passed away. When Stefano first arrived, he saw Mr Iyengar from the back. When he turned around, Stefano saw his father in Mr Iyengar.

He commented that I’m lucky: to have seen Mr Iyengar alive; to be here on his death. “It’s synchronicity,” he said. “It’s once in a lifetime, to see this celebration.” He repeatedly called the funeral a “celebration”; I wondered if he meant “ceremony.” But maybe it was intentional.

Maybe I am lucky. Of course, I still wish that I’d come to Pune sooner. Why wait? A day’s delay turns to weeks, months, and years. Time flies. Even 95 years.

bajrinarotlasq-0489-250x250In the past three weeks, I’ve eaten more Indian food than ever in my life. Truth be told, Indan was never among my favorite cuisines. Perhaps because I grew up eating Japanese food, I prefer lighter preparations, vegetables that resemble their original form, translucent sauces, and plain rice. Folks seem to gravitate toward unfamiliar cuisines just because they’re “different,” but to me that’s not enough.

Then, in Mumbai, I was fortunate to stay with my friend Phiroze, whose housekeeper, Abelin, is a fantastic cook. Suddenly I liked Indian food–or, perhaps, homemade Indian food.

tiffinPerhaps this conclusion would apply to any cuisine. Whether Chinese, Greek, Italian, Japanese, or Indian, native diners always say of standard restaurant fare, “We never cook like that at home.” One discriminating source tells me that Indian food is good only if made in small batches at home (or at very good restaurants); otherwise, I quote, “it’s just slop.”

Well, Abelin made chapati like I’d never seen before: With millet or ragi flour and water, she’d form a ball of dough and then pound it into a circle. After cooking each side on a flat pan, she’d toss it on the gas flame. I never grew tired of watching it puff up like a balloon!  Brushed with a bit of ghee, it was chewy and satisfying on its own, a far cry from soft, store-bought, tortilla-like chapati.

Home preparations are less likely to be doused in sauce or to contain too much garlic or spices, sugar or salt. Her dal, her vegetables, her rice–agreed with my palate and my stomach.

IMG_0699In Pune, I ended up occasionally buying tiffin lunches (which I’d spread over lunch and dinner) from Mrs Thuse, who lives directly across the street from RIMYI and a standby for visiting students. Leave your tiffin and chapati containers on her front-porch swing in the morning; return at noon for your 75-rupee takeout/takeaway meal.

While not at Abelin’s level, her meals were nice: plain rice, soupy dal (occasionally spicy), cooked vegetable (my favorite was okra), and four whole-wheat chapati.

IMG_0683When I ate at restaurants with my Kelowna friends, I got to try a variety of dishes. Not everything agreed with me, but I discovered that I like South Indian “snacks,” like idli: a steamed cake made from a batter of lentils and rice, on which I add chutney and sambar to my liking. Can’t go wrong with that!

An edible highlight: the local tropical fruit–papaya, mango, guava, pomegranate, banana–that I buy from street vendors. The smaller carts congregate near the Toyota traffic circle, while the larger operations set up shop between just north of the More “supermarket.”

IMG_0521I usually buy my papayas from the familiar couple who park their cart just outside RIMYI. This fruit reminds me of Hilo, my hometown; they are larger than Hawaii papayas, unpredictably yellow- or red-fleshed, and often seemingly seedless.

My fellow Canadians and I all experienced some degree of GI upset. I had one minor bout mid-month, and my prime suspect is a large papaya with poppy-colored flesh (although I’d consumed several others without trouble). I’d made up my own cleaning system, washing fruit two or three times with dishwashing liquid and then rinsing them with a diluted Dettol solution.

IMG_0716Some colleagues recommended grapefruit-seed extract (GSE) but its efficacy is not scientifically proven; also, most commercially sold GSE is adulterated with synthetic antimicrobials anyway. So I might as well go for the big guns. Anyway, my recovery was quick and I immediately bought a couple more papayas.

IMG_0519Drinking options are limited to bottled beverages. India’s water supply system is a disaster. With no potable tap water anywhere (plus water rationing for municipal users), the bottled water industry is essential. After going through three 5L bottles, I was loathe to accumulate more non-recyclable plastic  (and tired of lugging heavy bottles to my apartment). So I set up water delivery: get a 20L bottle for 60 rupees (the same price of a 5L bottle!), delivered to your apartment. Having a good stock of water was a huge relief!

Food and drink can make or break a trip. Especially in India.

Image: Millet chapati, Indiaphile

IMG_0703In August 2012, I was chatting with a few friends about travel. Where are we going? Where do we want to go? I mentioned that I hope to go to India while BKS Iyengar is still alive.

“How old is he?” Doug asked.

“Ninety-four in December,” I said.

When I explained the application process, which entails a waiting time of up to two years, Doug said, “Shouldn’t you be applying now?”

His mom is elderly, and he knew I had no time to spare.

IMG_0739Two years later, I finally made it here. And I might be unlucky in my timing. Mr Iyengar recently took ill, and he hasn’t been well enough to practice in the hall. In today’s Times of India, I read that he was hospitalized this week. See here for another article.

Earlier in August, I was lucky enough to see Mr Iyengar a couple times. Exiting the institute around noon, we’d immediately notice him sitting on his front porch, directly facing the institute. Abhijata Sridhar, his granddaughter, would sit beside him. Some students approached with a bow and namaste; a few prostrated themselves and touched the ground below him. Most politely gave him space and privacy.

IMG_0700Yesterday Abhijata taught the Wednesday women’s class, which is packed to the rafters since men are allowed to attend. With great energy and clarity, she led the class through basic poses–Tadasana, Sirsasana, Trikonasana, Ardha Chandrasana–that suddenly demanded full attention. I found her remarkably poised and articulate; nothing fazes her. She is commanding without arrogance. Her teachings combine precise asana instructions with straightforward yoga philosophy, and they are peppered with anecdotes of her grandfather.

She initially asked, “Did you come here to learn, or did you come here to do?” It’s an excellent question to ask yourself before any class.

Later, before Sirsasana, she talked about doing asana with sensitivity. About eight years ago, she set a timer for her headstand, aiming to hold the pose for 20+ minutes. The first few minutes were easy, and then one thing or another began hurting. As the minutes ticked by, she felt sweaty, itchy, and distracted, but forced herself to continue. At 20 minutes she came down and proudly announced her feat to her grandfather.

IMG_0702He asked, “What did you do in the pose?”

She had no answer. “I was just doing the pose. I was doing… nothing in the pose.”

“Then you wasted your time,” he said.

We then rose into our own Sirsasana, which we held for almost 11 minutes!

With neither Mr Iyengar nor Geeta around, I can’t help wishing I’d applied sooner. But some of the other teachers, such as Gulnaaz Dashti, are excellent. And if Abhijata is the next generation, Iyengar yoga has a promising future.

IMG_0710One day, walking home from shopping, I saw an ox in the middle of a busy road. He stood still and calm, engulfed by endless cars, auto-rickshaws, and motorbikes. He was unperturbed by the loud honking, directed less at him than at other drivers. I was amazed that he wasn’t hit.

A couple of shopkeepers were watching with amusement. I joined them, waiting for an owner to appear. A man, braving the traffic, handed the ox something to eat, but he was only crossing the street. The cow chewed the food.

Eventually I left, walking away with a backward glance. I wanted closure; I wanted a happy ending. (I didn’t have my iPhone that day, but here’s a trio of the same species, sharing the street from a safer spot.)

IMG_0524In Pune I see a lot of stray dogs. They hang out in empty lots, busy streets, near shops and produce vendors, even in garbage-ridden gutters. They’re everywhere. (Dog poop is also everywhere. Watch your step!) They appear lean but not starving. They are calm and never bark or act agitated. They resemble short-haired mutts you might adopt from the pound. This one hangs out directly in front of the Toyota dealer.


One night in my apartment, I heard a cat fight; the low guttural growling went on forever. I rarely see cats around in daylight. One rainy day, however, I saw a skinny cat creeping around outside Pune Central mall. I was walking toward the entrance and the cat suddenly noticed me, cowered, and skittered away. It broke my heart. I love animals and can hardly stand to see them so fearful and miserable.

IMG_0726In a country such as India, where poverty is pervasive and millions are living in squalid conditions, there’s no way that animal welfare can be first priority. But I can’t help my Western point of view. I can’t help feeling sorry for them. What is the point of being born to a life of struggle? What is the definition of a decent life? Do these creatures derive any pleasure from life? (Actually the dogs look fairly content.)

The day I arrived in Pune, I made two trips by auto-rickshaw. That night, my throat hurt.

I didn’t notice the bad air in Mumbai. For one thing, rickshaws aren’t permitted in South Mumbai, city center. For another, I was staying with a friend who has a driver on retainer. As his guest, I myself suddenly had a driver, who deftly transport me in a comfortable, air-conditioned car.

IMG_0511Here, three-wheeled, diesel-burning rickshaws are the primary mode of transport if car-less. So, getting around means breathing a strong brew of exhaust from these three-wheelers. (See the video above for an informative primer on Pune’s rickshaw culture.)

I chose to come here in August partly because air quality is significantly better during monsoon season. (Other major factors were my work schedule, high season at RIMYI, and weather.) When I found the Maharashtra Pollution Control website, I saw hard evidence of the atrocious RSPM (respirable suspended particulate matter) levels from November to April/May, with the worst numbers from December to February.

The World Health Organization’s prescribed limit for RSPM is 60 micrograms per cubic meter. In winter, levels in Pune average 150 to 200, sometimes spiking to 250 or 300. From July to September, levels drop to 40-60 on average–levels that would make front-page news in the US or Canada!

IMG_0669People assume that the cleaner air in monsoon season is due to the rain. That’s one reason, but another factor is the divergence between day and night temperatures in winter. Cool night temperatures create an inversion layer that traps pollutants.

Of course, we cannot base our adventures on air quality (and we’re all going to die anyway), but I like getting my facts straight.

Those who regularly come to Pune in winter advised me to wear a mask. My I Can Breath mask arrived the day I departed. Perfect timing. It’s quite effective (and almost stylish, don’t you think?) I highly recommend bringing a reusable mask or disposable 3M ones.

Mental map of Pune

In an unfamiliar city, I enjoy studying a map–to IMG_0556get my bearings, to create a mental map. In Pune, this has proven impossible beyond a few streets near RIMYI. On my handful of times in a rickshaw, the driver takes a seemingly haphazard route, going this way, going that way, with a bunch of near misses along the way. There are few street signs and I cannot trace our path on a map.

It was easier to orient myself in Mumbai, where two railroad lines run north-south across the city, where I could name neighborhoods and landmarks along those paths. From my friend’s high-rise in Mahalaxmi, looking either east or west, I could see trains and, farther away, the sea. Here, there’s a river snaking through the city, but its circuitous route is no help.

My favorite way to orient myself is by walking (and by public transit to cover more ground). Once, when I visited New York, I walked all the way from my Upper West Side hotel to Ground Zero and Lower Manhattan. I rode the subway to a bunch of yoga studios around town. Since streets are numbered and set on a grid, I quickly formed a mental map.

Pune is too spread out and too polluted  to walk beyond one neighborhood. Around RIMYI, I walk only to buy food and household necessities. I might sound critical, but I don’t really mind: My life is centered around RIMYI. I avoid too much going out, too much socializing, too many rickshaw rides. There’s only so much time in a day.

IMG_0617Every morning I take Florastor, a probiotic, and Malarone, an anti-malaria drug, with my breakfast. I don’t know anyone else taking an anti-malarial. In fact, I debated about filling the prescription for Malarone, which cost more than CA$200 for a 40-day supply. But I decided to err on the safe side.

Three or four months before I left, I visited Vancouver Coastal Heath Travel Clinic. I opted to get boosters for all recommended vaccines: diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, typhoid. My prior vaccinations for hepatitis A and B, polio, measles, mumps, and rubella didn’t need boosters. In addition, to counter gastrointestinal trouble, I took Dukoral, a two-dose treatment for cholera-related illnesses. I also filled a prescription for Azithromycin, an antibiotic to take if necessary.

IMG_0616As for dengue fever, there’s no vaccine. This year, since monsoon rains finally arrived in late July, cases of dengue fever have dramatically increased in Pune. My apartment has no mosquitos, as the owner had assured me. So I need not sleep with a net, but I do run my ceiling fan on low all night.

The first day I practiced at RIMYI, I was wearing bike shorts and a tee shirt. Suddenly I noticed mosquitos in the room. No surprise: Windows are not screened. Fans, which are an effective way to disable mosquitoes from flying properly, are not always turned on. So I have no choice but to use mosquito repellent, Watkins, an American brand with DEET, and Odomos, an Indian brand with a chemical related to DEET. (The shirtless men and the multitudes in “Pune shorts” seem unconcerned.)

What about jet lag? I flew first from Vancouver to London (direct, about 9.5 hours), where I stayed with a friend in Oxford for two nights. Then I flew from London to Mumbai (direct, about 9 hours). Jet lag is never a major problem for me, but I decided to try a homeopathic preventive remedy called No Jet Lag (despite my skepticism about homeopathy).

IMG_0618The staffers at Travel Bug, my neighborhood travel store, said that numerous customers swear by it. My sister, who had recently traveled from California to South Africa without jet lag, tried a successful combination of No Jet Lag plus Benadryl and melatonin on her family’s back-t0-back 5- and 15-hour flights. She’s a physician who doesn’t typically use such remedies–and who conjectured that it might be a placebo effect. Either way, we agreed, “If it works, why not?”

I had little or no jet lag, possibly because I immediately adopt local time. On the plane, I set my time to that of my destination. I go to bed at a normal time, no napping.

Three weeks into my trip, I’ve avoided any health woes. And that makes a big difference.

Students seem either to be enthralled by Prashant Iyengar‘s manner of teaching–or not to relate to it. Either way, his classes are memorable because they are unique.

IMG_0508After four classes with Prashant in one week, I’ve found them both compelling and frustrating. I’m compelled by his attempt to go beyond asana: Prashant is trying to teach us why we do yoga, not how to do asana. A charismatic speaker, he has an impressive facility with the English language. To make a point, he uses imagery, analogy, simile, or metaphor. He can speak intelligently, off the top of his head, for hours (literally).

He often wraps up his points with a rapid-fire, “Do you follow?” But it’s a rhetorical question–and no one dares interrupt his flow of ideas. He does has a sense of humor, lightening the mood with a funny example (often involving his local students) or an amused expression.

That said, it can be frustrating to be crammed into a space with 150 or more students. If you’re not in front, Prashant’s low voice is hard to hear, especially when he names poses. He’ll call out two to four poses, and students pick one to do. Then we switch. If we’re the least bit slow in setting up, he booms, “Quick!” but otherwise external asana form is unimportant to him. It’s a madhouse as students scramble to find a spot. There’s no such thing as “my spot” or “my mat” (or my American-sized zone of personal space!)

prashantiji_prayersIn the first two or three classes, he focused on “what is taught” versus “what is learned.” What a student learns might not be what the teacher intends to teach. Further, even if a student learns what is intended, that learning is superficial, only a first step. In-class learning is to learn what we should be learning.

Once, he discussed why people do asana. Often it’s done for display or performance, to improve health or to cure medical conditions. These are not the right reasons. It is not done in front of a mirror; it is not a gym sport.

Regarding physical benefits, asana will improve your health regardless of whether you focus on it–so why make this the main goal? Medical reasons are also suspect; as soon as you solve one issue, another will crop up.

You can do asana for 10, 20, or 50 years (for the above reasons) and never go beyond. In asana you must go toward “becoming in being.”

Before the first 9am-12pm open practice, which follows his 7-9am class, he commented on what people do: Some start doing one pose (for example, twists) and then see another person doing (say, chair back arch). They then decide that they should do chair back arch. They’re like a child with a toy basket: all of the toys are outside the basket, and the child is playing with none of them.

During the practice that immediately followed, I noticed six or seven students adjacent to me–since they had formed a circle and were doing group practice. Everyone in Baddhakonasana, everyone in Upavistha Konasana, everyone in Vamadevasana prep. The next day, same thing. Picture the whole group in Eka Pada Sirsasana, their legs splayed like those of synchronized swimmers. I was surprised; Prashant’s ideas can be complex, but one thread–to do asana from within–was clear. (Maybe there was a language barrier since the students, with whom I later chatted, are from Italy. Or perhaps they cannot override their Italian sociability!)

Maybe Prashant’s ideas would sink in better in smaller groups, where there could be more interaction. Or maybe what he’s trying to teach ultimately can’t be taught.

Recommended reading: Interview with Prashant Iyengar, 2010, by Bobby Clennell and Richard Jonas

Image: Prashant Iyengar, IYNAUS