Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport on a quiet morning.

Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, wonderfully quiet on my last day in India.

Before my nearly seven-week trip to Pune, Bombay, and London, I debated about luggage. Initially I planned to travel light: rolling carry-on, plus computer backpack and messenger bag. In chatting with colleagues, however, I decided to bring a 26-inch check-in suitcase.

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Dorabjee’s is Pune’s superstore, with three floors of groceries, household supplies, and small appliances.

One friend always packs important items in her carry-on bag, but checks in a suitcase stocked with favorite foods, such as Brazil nuts, which she can’t find in India. Others want luggage space to bring home yoga props, books, textiles, cookware, or souvenirs.

I asked people, “Can I find rolled oats in Pune?” since oatmeal is my standard breakfast. They said that I probably can, but that the quality of Canadian oats might be better. The consensus: I can find almost anything in Pune nowadays, but it might be inferior to what I get at home.

With 20/20 hindsight, I can now advise other oatmeal eaters: Forget the oats. They are easily available in India.

What I should have brought was more hair product. My hair was a wreck, an absolute wreck. The Indian monsoon season is devastating to my particular brand of Japanese long curly hair. (Actually, I did bring enough hair product, but it was no match for the humidity anyway.)

If you need extra clothes, go to Laxmi Road and choose from countless fabrics and then find a tailor.

If you need extra clothes, go to Laxmi Road and choose from countless fabrics and then find a tailor.

At the beginning of my trip, my suitcase weighed about 17kg (37.5lb). Returning home, it dropped a kilo. While I found a large suitcase cumbersome, I had no problem filling it up, both ways. If I’d done more traveling in India, I would’ve opted for a carry-on. But since I stayed put in Pune, in Mumbai, and in Oxford/London, a suitcase was probably the better option.

Here’s a list of things I’m glad I took:

  • sharp paring knife for peeling fruit (my Kuhn Rikon Colori was perfect)
  • flashlight (my keychain light was a lifesaver during power outages (a given in India), but my Mini Maglite would have been better)
  • portable cutting mat (Coghlan’s, meant for camping, is as light as paper)
  • mosquito repellent (JR Watkins has almost no fragrance; the main Indian brand, Odomos, smells very flowery perfumy)
  • Chacos, Crocs, or other footwear that you can scrub with soap and water
  • Adidas Sambas or other sneakers (I rarely wore them in India, but occasionally wanted full coverage from street muck)
  • three sets of yoga outfits, minimum (I ended up repeatedly wearing my mid-calf-length yoga tights for mosquito protection, but you can buy “Pune shorts” and get into the spirit of things)
  • cell phone (my iPhone was invaluable, both as phone and as camera)
  • mask for air pollution (I recommend the I Can Breathe mask, available in Canada by mail order from Modern Alchemy)
  • currency (it was handy to have cash (British pounds, Indian rupees) from day one, having exchanged money pre-trip at Vancouver Bullion and Currency Exchange, which supplies crisp, clean bills)
  • small mirror (my apartment mirrors were tiny and out of the way, so I relied on a palm-sized travel mirror)
  • nail clippers, mini scissors (high-quality tools are probably available, but hard to find)
  • computer (my MacBook Air was essential for working and blogging; otherwise an iPad would be ideal)
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India Today costs 40 rupees; The Times of India, 5 to 8 rupees, depending on page count.

Here are things I didn’t need to bring:

  • oats, cashews, walnuts (available at the Maharashtra store, Dorabjee’s, etc; bring if you need organic or the finest quality)
  • nylon rain jacket (nylon is too hot during monsoon season; I preferred using the apartment umbrellas)
  • money belt, neck wallet (probably unnecessary unless you are traveling overnight on trains)

Here are things I found optional:

  • Evolution neck pillow (this memory-foam version effectively holds the neck upright and probably helped me to sleep but, for 10-hour flights, it’s a toss-up)
  • Light on Pranayama (I had little time for books and preferred reading local newspapers and magazines in Pune; you can also buy books very inexpensively there)

Here are things I might take next time:

  • lightweight yoga mat (I lucked out with an excellent Manduka eKO Lite mat in the apartment, but that’s probably rare)

I love London! On my first day, I was in fantasy land. How can streets and sidewalks be this clean? Where’s the garbage, poop, and unidentifiable muck? Why are cars stopping for pedestrians? Tap water is drinkable and power outages rare?

An apartment somewhere south of the Dadar bus stop, where I arrived from Pune.

In India I spent my final week in Mumbai. This city is incomparably larger than Pune–and urban life is amplified and multiplied. The noise, the air, the population, the traffic, the rain and wind and humidity! Since I stay with a friend, however, I was generally shielded from the struggles of daily life.

Take food. I’ve raved about the cooking of Abelin, my friend’s wonderful housekeeper. She’s among my favorite memories of India. Not only did I glean cooking tips from her, but by example she demonstrated the power of strong spiritual faith (she is Catholic), of self-awareness (she knows exactly who she is), and of joyfulness (she is always smiling, always positive). I initially overlooked how, step by step, her delicious dishes came to be–until I went shopping with her.

Home-cooked mackerel, beetroot, green beans, millet roti.

It was drizzly that day, and we had to cross a few tricky roads to reach the vendors. Once there, dozens of sellers were squatting under makeshift tarps, on soggy ground, deep in mud, with the odor of rotting produce and who knows what from days past. Holding her little umbrella over both of us, I walked very gingerly, as falling would’ve been a nightmare.

The sidewalks were clogged with vendors, so pedestrians had to navigate through whatever space remained. Shopping in Pune was child’s play in comparison. I could hardly imagine lugging a heavy bag of produce, gripping an umbrella, dealing with multiple cash transactions, traversing slippery muck, trekking a considerable distance for staple ingredients. In this mega city, produce is still sold in village-scale format.

When we arrived home, I felt as if I deserved a medal or something. I was exhausted and needed to shower and shampoo; even my top was speckled with brown spots. It gave a whole new meaning to home cooking.

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Too many books, too little time.

Would any foodie in the West cook at home if they had to shop the Mumbai streets for themselves? I doubt it. Of course, anyone with enough money avoids such chores by hiring a housekeeper/cook–and visitors who stay at five-star hotels and eat out never experience or even see how most people live. (I saw no other foreigners on the street that day.)

So, here in London, I feel a sense of relief, of freedom, of autonomy. Near my hotel in Bloomsbury, there are countless food options, including lots of grocery stores and healthy takeout; a Waterstone’s bookstore (a chain, but more literary than Barnes & Noble or Chapters); two tube stations; the British Museum. Beyond, I can get anywhere, by foot or public transport.

Yes, life is fast-paced, ambitious, and expensive in London. But, life is also easy here, likewise in Vancouver, San Francisco, and everywhere I’ve lived and known. In India, you must have a different set of survival skills.

More London moments:

Having grown up in Hawaii, I had to see the volcanoes exhibit at the Natural History Museum. An impressive specimen of Pele's hair.

Having grown up in Hawaii, I had to see the volcanoes exhibit at the Natural History Museum. An impressive specimen of Pele’s hair.

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Chalk art in front of the National Gallery.

Most of us need an art history refresher to appreciate van Gogh and the other European masters.

The black one caught my eye. It's a Dior. (I didn't check the price.)

How about me in the black number? It’s a Dior. (I didn’t check the price.)

Attended a class by senior-level teacher Penny Chaplin at Maida Vale

Attended a class by senior-level teacher Penny Chaplin at Maida Vale.

IMG_1106India has long intrigued the Western imagination. Ancient, colorful, and intense, it is a beacon to those seeking a place unlike anywhere else. People often rave about the country’s “exotic” culture and downplay its negatives, such as rampant corruption and abysmal infrastructure.

But even the culture, as practiced today, is thorny. Here are two examples. First, on Ganesh Chaturthi, I was treated to a wonderful impromptu Odissi dance done for me. In Mumbai, Hemali Talsania, the Bravo Bombay tour guide I met in July, invited me to her home south of Crawford Market. Amid narrow, bustling lanes that confused even my cab driver, her house is an old, fifth-floor walkup, above weathered, retro storefronts selling medical/surgical supplies. Her husband’s family has lived there for five generations now.

IMG_1094I met her pretty 16-year-old daughter, a lively conversationalist without the reticence I expect from most teens. They both study Odissi, the oldest surviving Indian dance form, which Hemali compared to Iyengar yoga: both are traditional, precise, strict, and untrendy. They danced for me in everyday clothes, but in performances they were specially designed costumes and hundreds of bells on their ankles.

Later that afternoon, we walked next door to see their neighbor’s shrine for Ganesh Chaturthi: an elaborate flower backdrop, a vividly painted Ganesh, special foodstuff for offerings. I copied the others in doing a mini puja.

1504082_10152269411145956_815607489_nGanesh Chaturthi has become a huge festival in Mumbai, with blaring music from morning to night on loudspeakers, random firecrackers, and traffic-snarling processions lasting for days, even weeks. While Hemali’s neighbor’s family seemed sincere in their celebration of Ganesh, the festival is probably mainly party time for the masses (the way Christmas has become all about shopping in today’s secular world).

Initially I didn’t understand that to “immerse” the statues meant leaving them in the ocean. I smiled as they explained the meaning of immersion: to symbolize creation and dissolution; to purify the water with a sanctified Ganesh.

IMG_1122Sadly, today’s statues are made in China of non-biodegradable plaster of Paris and toxic paints, unlike the original mud-clay versions–and they’re adorned with synthetic decorations. Objectively this is trash that destroys oceans and rivers and kills wildlife. I was incredulous that tens of thousands of households would purposely decimate their water bodies this way.

I suppose that the Indian mindset is decades behind that of Westerners regarding environmental issues. But even Lonely Planet India is blithe about the festival, calling the mass immersions at Girgaum Chowpatty “joyful mayhem.” Me? I couldn’t witness the festivities without thinking of the Arabian Sea facing another unnecessary assault in the name of Ganesh.

IMG_0758In Pune, few RIMYI students live alone, as I chose to do. Most share apartments with other students, either friends or strangers, while a few stay at hotels like the Chetak or Ambience. Every option has its risks, especially for first timers, but I decided that after a day among 150+ classmates, it would be a relief to go home, shut the door, and enjoy my solitude.

I wouldn’t recommend this to everyone, but only to those who, like me, are not prone to loneliness. Although I can chat nonstop for hours, I’m a natural-born introvert. I can occupy myself for hours and days in my own mind. I’m immune to boredom.

IMG_0736For me it is enough to know that I have people, including a pair of four-legged furry ones (see my drawing), at home who love me. It is enough to sustain me. I don’t need company day in, day out, or someone to ask, “How was your day?” In fact, I considered my monthlong solitude a great luxury.

To me, there are two types of travel. One type of trip is companionable, for bonding with family, a spouse or a friend. While the trip might include a novel destination, it remains firmly grounded in home and familiarity. The trip is always partly about the relationship.

The other type of trip is solo, geared more for change–of scene and, perhaps, of self. By separating from your familiar identity, you have more freedom to cultivate new ideas, new habits, a new mindset.

For me, this trip is the latter type.

IMG_0691Around the institute, I’d see large groups of students walking around together, typically by nationality And I’d see others, like Fidel from Spain, often on his own. When I walk alone, I’m more likely to interact with the world around me; I wave good morning to the guy walking his unruly dog, to the smiling ladies in my building, to the newsstand seller curious about where I’m from.

I never felt alone largely thanks to the Internet, my lifeline. With wifi in my apartment, I felt connected and could keep up with my work, email family and friends, write my blog, read the news. (Today’s travel “experience” must be watered down. Before the Internet era, going abroad or cross country meant letters and occasional phone calls to those back home. Nowadays people remain in constant contact, emailing, texting, calling, Facebooking, Instagramming. I keep in touch only minimally and I’m a social-media-phobe, but never travel unplugged.)

IMG_0692Of course, living alone has its downside. Who would find me if I fell  and hit my head on the floor? Fortunately I had contacts, not only friends, but also friends of friends. “It’s your first trip to India? I’ll put you in touch with my cousin in Pune.” Or, “Here’s the contact info for my friend in Mumbai. Call him any time.”

In my building, Mrs Menon, my landlord’s longtime neighbor, rescued me early on. I saw a spider on my sliding glass door. It remained overnight, so, somewhat desperately, I knocked on her door the next day. After welcoming me inside and hearing my story, she immediately got her bug spray. In her sari, she strode into my apartment as if she does such favors all the time. (We discovered that it wasn’t a spider at all, but merely plant matter that had stuck to the door. Trust me, it looked exactly like a spider.)

IMG_0622I was also lucky to have four Canadian compatriots: Tracy Forsyth, Laurie DeBray, Phofi McCullough, and Terry Tustain. With them, I shared rickshaws to shop, to indulge in a spa massage, to go places I wouldn’t go alone. Thanks, Kelowna girls!

Finally, I didn’t exist in a vacuum at RIMYI, where I met dozens of students from around the world; where I recognized John from San Francisco; where I met Deni from Maui who knows Eve in Vancouver. The Iyengar community is large, yet small.

Going to Pune is about more than getting into RIMYI. You’re living there for a month, and you choose your own living arrangements. Know yourself; choose wisely.

IMG_0960During the first three weeks of August, I rarely ventured beyond the neighborhood around RIMYI. In the past week, I’ve gone shopping and sightseeing with Nana, a favored rickshaw driver who became my informal tour guide, insider source, and translator. Going around Pune, I noticed a few things (including this orange billboard featuring Mr Iyengar).

1. Large chain stores come with a price

Large-scale retailers, such as The Bombay Company, are spacious, clean, and luxuriously air conditioned. Bear in mind, however, that you might pay higher prices and you cannot return or exchange purchases. (At Fabindia I was surprised that I couldn’t exchange a stole purchased the day before. Nana, after hearing my story, led us back inside and made a case for me in his gentlemanly way. The manager finally allowed an exchange: same item, different color.)

2. Shop around

IMG_0861In India, makeshift buildings might contain great little shops. In Koregaon Park, we stopped at a trio of hole-in-the-wall shops with a vast selection of silver jewelry (Happy Heart), genuine pashmina shawls (Kashmir Dowry), and handmade silk clothing (I don’t know the name). The pashmina proprietor, Soba, from Kashmir, carries an endless selection of handwoven 100% pashmina shawls and also collectible pieces like kani shawls, which take several months to weave.

IMG_0882As a shopper, I’m picky and indecisive–a vexing combination. I also prefer shopping anonymously, without too much help from salespeople. So the attention given by small-scale proprietors is somewhat stressful. But these three proprietors, at least, were not blatantly high pressure and I ended up buying a few things because I really liked them.

3. Chai is stronger than I thought

On my outings with Nana, he’d stop for chai–not only for himself, but for both of us. I typically take my tea plain (no milk, no sugar), but enjoyed the sweet-spicy-milky-gingery shot. Unfortunately I found out the hard way that drinking it past noon leads to insomnia that night.

 

4. There’s a Japanese garden in town

IMG_0948Who knew? The Pune Okayama Friendship Garden is a tranquil green space, visited by exercisers and young couples walking hand in hand. In Pune, you can buy peace and quiet at the Marriott spa, but here’s a mini oasis that’s outside and free of charge.

5. RIMYI has a polar opposite, the Osho retreat

In Koregaon Park, we took a spin through the sprawling Osho retreat, which could pass as a high-end resort. Westerners come, buy monkish robes to wear, enjoy tropical gardens and creature comforts. “This is the opposite of the Iyengar institute!” Nana said, and I had to agree.

 

 

6. Parvati Hill is great scenic lookout

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Going up (and down) Parvati Hill‘s 103 stone steps is worth the effort, with a collection of temples and a fort overlooking the city. My favorite spot is the Peshwa Museum (10 rupees), a quiet space filled with antiquities. (The stray dogs here and everywhere are remarkably well-tempered. This sweet little one guarded the museum entrance.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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7. Festivals can happen any time, any place

IMG_0918One night, I was bombarded with loud music from a neighboring community celebrating Krishna’s birthday. One day, Nana and I had to pause for

a procession in honor of Shiva.

 

 

 

 

8. The Toyota traffic circle is a familiar landmark

IMG_0765Rickshaw drivers might be unfamiliar with RIMYI or Hari Krishna Mandir Road or even Model Colony, but most know where the Toyota traffic circle is.

 

 

 

 

 

9. Don’t be afraid of color!

IMG_0823I was never bored riding around. I was mesmerized by the freewheeling use of color by women. Sometimes their outfits were perfectly matched; other times, in casual ensembles, they have no qualms about combining colors and prints that should clash, but instead look striking!

Inspired to venture beyond my black and grey palette, I found myself at a loss: what are “my colors”? Maybe I need color analysis before my next trip to India.

 

 

 

 

10. Make every day a great day

IMG_0856Nana commented that Westerners think big with far-reaching goals, a year or 10 years ahead. But all we really have is today.

“I try to make every day a great day,” Nana said as he drove. “If every day is great, you’ll have a great week. With many great weeks, you’ll have a great month. And then a great year.”

And then, yes, a great life.

IMG_0930RIMYI is closed until September. No more classes for us August students. Suddenly, the purpose of my trip, yoga, was gone–at least in the way I’d expected.

At first I agreed to join my Canadian colleagues on a three-night trip to Ellora and Ajanta. That wasn’t my first inclination. I wanted still to practice daily, to be solitary, to go inward. I didn’t feel like embarking on a five-hour road trip twice in three days. I also wanted to head to Mumbai sooner, definitely before Ganesh Chaturthi. Still, I figured that I “should” go and see the caves.

On second thought, however, I forfeited my share of the vehicle fee–to do what I initially intended. I regretted not following my gut instincts.

Practicing, Prashant style

I was reminded of Prashant’s teachings of yoga practice. For him, yoga is all about going inward: body to breath, breath to mind. If your yoga is always in class, following a teacher, that is not “yog,” but just superficial physical exercise. “After class,” he says, “forget what the teacher says. In class, you don’t learn; you’re only taught what you must learn on your own.”

IMG_0933This was a good opportunity to practice in solitary confinement–to try to apply Prasant’s ideas. But did I really want to spend a few days in Pune? Back home in Kitsilano, home confinement would be a joy. Space, light, clean air and water, leafy sidewalks, crosswalks and cars that stop! Here, there are power outages for hours at a time. (Without lights, fans, and wifi, life in my cavernous apartment is rather grim.) And don’t get me started on the noise.

But it felt right to stay. In my mind, Prashant’s admonition to cultivate our own understanding of yoga applies to life in general. Don’t do what seems normal and sensible, but rather what’s right for me.

Readjusting to practice

During the first half of August, I’d established an early routine: wake by 5am, sleep by 9:30pm (10pm was late!). When RIMYI closed, my schedule was thrown off. I tried to practice for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. But without a set schedule, it’s been hit or miss.

IMG_0923I miss the open practice time. Yes, it was mat-to-mat crowded, but I almost always got my favorite spot, at the first or second pillar from the props. (If Mr Iyengar had been practicing by the trestle, I would have opted for the farther second pillar, of course!) I’d practice for two or more hours, covering a variety of poses and always including Supta Padangusthasana variations and Pincha Mayurasana balance.

It was clear that serious Iyengar yogis do independent practice, for everyone was focused on his/her work. Poses were wide ranging, but they all somehow rang out “Iyengar yoga,” if you know what I mean.

At home I’m still practicing, but due to my shopping and sightseeing outings with Nana, the gallant English-speaking rickshaw driver loved by Canadians and Americans, my schedule has been erratic. Again, India is forcing me to accept change, to catch time and space when I can, and to “adjust.”

A flame burns at RIMYI

There are no classes, but the office and bookstore are open. In the morning, I stopped by, chatted with Raya’s father in the bookstore, and then walked upstairs into the hall. It was still and silent, the scent of incense in the air. On the stage, a small shrine featured a large photo of Mr Iyengar, along with flowers, incense, traditional objects unfamiliar to me, and a glowing lantern.

IMG_0932Foam mats were laid out for visitors. Usha Devi was sitting by a pillar; a few students came to pay respects and left. I sat on a mat for a while. The hall felt familiar, although I’d never seen it so empty, so serene.

Late in the day, I stopped by again to see the basement library, site of legendary encounters with Mr Iyengar. Until today I hadn’t ventured there, somewhat deterred by puddles of water from leakage on the stairway. Today I forged ahead. It was closed, but the librarian let me look around.

Hundreds, even thousands, of books and reams of printed matter. It’s a small, simple space, with a long table for visitors, plus a desk and chair, which I assume was where Mr Iyengar spent hours.

Upstairs in the hall, Usha Devi was again there–or still there–tending the shrine. Again I sat in the empty hall, breathing the incense, taking it in.

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.