TheraBandIn early September, I chanced upon the New York Times article, “Train Like a German Soccer Star,” by Gretchen Reynolds. After seven weeks abroad, I’d just returned to Vancouver, still gloriously sunny. Rather than resuming my pre-trip routine, I decided to try something new.

Check out the eight warm-up exercises developed by Mark Verstegen, team trainer for the German national football team, which won the 2014 World Cup, and founder of EXOS, a Phoenix-based athletic training company. I substituted this routine for my yoga practice two mornings a week. I ramped it up to a workout by increasing the number of repetitions and sets–and lengthening the distance covered when skipping and running.

FmRW_Quads-2__201110DD_122147The exercises were spot-on for me. For example, the first two use a six-inch-diameter foam roller, which I acquired a decade ago, but which has mostly collected dust. Finally, a reason to haul it out! The “Mini Band Walking” resembles a physiotherapy exercise once prescribed to me. Some remind me of yoga poses, such as “Inverted Hamstring,” which is essentially dynamic, repeated Virabhadrasana III. Up and down, up and down, up and down. Such repeated entries and exits (like kicking up to handstand five times fast) complement the long holds typical in Iyengar yoga.

The “Lateral Lunge to Drop Lunge” is trickier than it looks. Rising from the side lunge is akin to doing a one-legged, rotating squat. But the learning curve is quick (there are only eight exercises, after all), and body and mind benefit from unfamiliarity. Even the skipping and sprinting were mini revelations. While I’m comfortable with aerobic exercise (moderate, steady pace), I had to adjust to anaerobic exercise (heart-racing bursts rarely done if not a professional athlete or under 10 years old).

In Pune, doing more yoga seemed to further my practice. “More” can be effective. But, since September, has doing less yoga set me back? Not a lot. Variety and novelty can be just as rewarding.

Iyengar yogis who dabble in other methods

While mixing it up (with diverse activities) is good, what about mixing yoga methods?

DSC_0317_2I know dedicated Iyengar yoga students who also buy passes at non-Iyengar mega studios. One reason is what I’ll call forced practice. “I can’t seem to practice at home,” one practitioner told me. “This way, I do yoga several times a week. My body needs it.”

A related reason is cost. “A typical Iyengar class costs as much as an unlimited weekly pass,” said another. “So, I go to [Iyengar studio] once a week and to [mega studio] whenever I can. I don’t expect to be adjusted or corrected, but it’s better than nothing.”

“Why not just practice on your own?” I asked. “That would be free!” Again, the obstacle was discipline. “I don’t know why, but I’m resistant to practicing at home,” she sighed.

DSC_0304Other methods might strike Iyengar yoga students almost as “not yoga” and thus not be confusing or contradictory. One of my regular students revealed that she began attending Kundalini classes at her neighborhood studio to round out her running, Iyengar yoga, and mindfulness meditation. “It’s not yoga the way I understand it in Iyengar yoga,” she said, describing the music, dim lighting, and large group. “We might do something repeatedly, like wave our arms in a circle while humming. I don’t know why, but I get something else from it.”

There’s a limit to “multidisciplinary”

I don’t begrudge any yoga practitioner for exploring beyond their primary method. In my first few years of yoga practice, I was committed to Iyengar yoga (perhaps subconsciously) but I sampled Ashtanga, Yin, Jivamukti, and even a Bikram class or two! Firsthand knowledge about other methods provides context. How can you critique other methods if you haven’t tried them? To me, that is not fair, scientific, or open minded.

I do take issue with too much fusion teaching. In one of my first blog posts, Naming Names, I highlighted the trend among yoga teachers to name dozens of famous “mentors” and the gamut of yoga methods taught. Seriously? To me, there’s a limit to multidisciplinary expertise in any field. If a lawyer says, “I do corporate and M&A, plus estates and trusts, also class action litigation, with some pro bono appellate work for death-row convicts,” he’d be considered a joke. While there’s more overlap among methods of yoga than among areas of law, it’s similarly unrealistic to be a master at everything.

Related links:

Images: resistance bands, TheraBand; Quadriceps release, TheraBand Academy; blocks and ropes at The Yoga Space

You Are What You Eat, Serge BlochFor three weeks, my yoga student “Cathy” did a detoxifying dietary cleanse. She followed the bestseller Clean, by Alejandro Junger, and eliminated caffeine, sugar, gluten grains, dairy, soy, eggs, red meat, nightshades, alcohol, and specific fruits, including oranges, strawberries, and bananas.

For breakfast and dinner, Cathy drank liquid meals: soups, smoothies, and Vitamix juices. Lunch could include vegetables, legumes, fish, poultry, and, if necessary (for active people), gluten-free whole grains. She is now re-introducing foodstuff one at a time, to see if any have negative effects.

www.flickrAnother student, “Susan,” has stuck to a high-protein, no-sugar, no-carb diet for six months now. She was vegetarian for seven years prior, but adopted this meat-based diet as prescribed by her naturopathic doctor. Fruits are prohibited, except for coconut and avocado.

In drastically changing to a semi Paleo diet, Susan noticed increased energy and mental clarity. She hypothesizes that carbohydrates overtax her digestive system. On eating meat after years of vegetarianism, she says that it wasn’t off-putting: “My body was craving it.”

Why are they (or any of us) experimenting with various diets? Vegetarian. Vegan. Gluten free. Wheat free. Sugar free. Paleo. Atkins. Ornish. Macrobiotic. Mediterranean. Okinawan. (Fat free and high carb are passé.)

My students are already very healthy, fit, and active. Cathy is a runner; Susan cycles everywhere. They probably started with decent eating habits. But they wanted to feel better, to be healthier, to resolve nagging ailments, to add more variety (and vegetables) to their meals, to test their discipline, to determine whether specific foods affect their well-being. (Neither is trying to lose weight, but that’s probably the most common reason for trying a new diet.) Essentially, both women are trying to figure out, as adults, what foods agree with their constitutions.

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Papaya and guava, served after dinner.

I immediately thought of my friend Phiroze’s housekeeper/cook, Abelin, in Bombay. She’d always serve fruit at the end of a meal. One evening, there was extra papaya, cut into succulent chunks, left in the serving bowl. Abelin asked me if I wanted to finish it. “Why don’t you have it,” I said, knowing that she’d eat her own dinner later. She laughed and said, “I don’t eat papaya. For me it is too heating.”

“Heating?” I was puzzled.

“It’s too strong. It makes my emotions rise.”

What? Most people choose foods based on flavor, nutrition, convenience, or cost. Abelin was choosing to eat only foods that agree with her. Never mind their scrumptiousness.

“What about cantaloupe?” I asked, recalling another recently served fruit.

“No,” she smiled. “Cantaloupe make me cold. It’s too cooling.”

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Fried bombil, black lentil dal, vegetables, and millet roti.

I discovered that her favorite fruits include apples, bananas, and pomegranates. She likes fish, including fried bombil, a Mumbai specialty, and Goa-style curry pomfret, along with the staple repertoire of dal dishes. For breakfast, she eats roti with ghee, but not eggs, which, like papaya, she finds overly heating.

She clearly “senses” how different foods affect her–and without consulting books, nutritionists, or the latest trendy diet. Unlike Cathy (and me and most of us), she didn’t need to “detox” to determine, one by one, the effects of each food in her normal diet. She does it automatically.

Abelin is one of my fondest memories of India. Through our lengthy chats, I could tell that she is a woman who knows and accepts herself. For fun, I asked, “Abelin, what’s your favorite color?”

Without hesitation, she said, “Peach.” (Peach!)

“What’s your second favorite color?” I was compelled to press further.

“White,” she answered, immediately.

Images: You Are What You Eat, Serge Bloch; strawberry, banana, honeydew, found on Flicker

Note: This post continues my “self interview” about RIMYI. Read Part I first.

IMG_0603Was the student population diverse?

Based on my unscientific observations during August 2014, the biggest contingent was from Italy. I met dozens of Italians and many British and French. I met a handful each from the US, Canada, and Japan, and others from Germany, Australia, Spain, Russia, Hungary, Hong Kong, Israel, Mexico, Singapore, Chile, Colombia, and South Africa. The Indian students were local, i.e., Indian citizens, mostly Pune residents.

In terms of race/ethnicity, the majority of foreigners were Caucasian. There were some Asians and Hispanics; I saw no blacks or people of African descent.

The gender ratio was relatively balanced, with about a 60/40 ratio between women/men. There were students of all ages, from 20s to 70s or 80s.

Are all classes taught in English?

Yes (with a dash of loud Marathi thrown at the locals).

After meeting some non-English-speaking Italians, I wondered, “What can you gain from RIMYI and Iyengar yoga without language compatibility?” The teachings are highly verbal.

In one class, Raya repeatedly voiced instructions to “pink shirt,” a woman adjacent to me. She didn’t comply until he walked up to her. “Does she speak English?” he asked, and a fellow Italian translated. “What’s the point of coming here if you can’t speak English?” Raya muttered, rhetorically.

(Prashant’s class, which hinges on his words, must be an ordeal for non-English speakers!)

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Week by week, do asana classes follow a progressive order?

No. Perhaps because the women’s classes were taught by three different teachers, each class was a separate entity. One day Rajlaxmi did repeated backbends (Urdhva Dhanurasana and Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana, pushing up from the floor). The next class focused on deep, seated forward bends. Overall (and to my disappointment) we did more forward bends than backbends–at least in the first two-and-a-half weeks of August.

Can I modify poses on my own? What if I can’t hold rope Sirsasana for 10 minutes?

In Prashant’s classes, there are always two or three poses going on simultaneously. You can always opt to repeat a pose. Prashant will bark out, “Now switch. Ladies, go to the ropes for Sirsasana.” But he ultimately doesn’t care which pose you do–if you are going deeper and deeper, further and further. Once, he commented that we could very well repeat the same pose, but he gives options because we’ve grown accustomed to the “workout” of a varied sequence.

In other classes, I wouldn’t modify poses with alternate props unless necessary. Of course, take care of yourself; you’re more or less on your own. (Note: don’t worry about super advanced poses or complicated set-ups: with 150 students, teachers stick to the basics.)

IMG_0930Did the teachings make sense? Did they confirm your existing understanding of Iyengar yoga?

Regarding “nuts and bolts” asana, the teachings closely paralleled my prior learning, from teachers in the US and Canada.

Contrasting Prashant’s teachings with the others’, I did ask myself: Are they contradictory? Prashant cares little about excellence in asana form; he instead prods us to cultivate breath sensitivity (and, ultimately, mind sensitivity). Once, he directed us into dynamic Urdhva Prasarita Padasana, “with the breath, by the breath, for the breath, through the breath, to the breath, from the breath…” How is the breath assisting the pose? How is it being assisted by the pose?

Then he commented, “Some of you are still striving for physical perfection. You are used to teachers who care about how you look. I don’t care. I’m not even looking.” Pause. “There’s not much to look at anyway.” (I really appreciated Prashant’s sense of humor.)

Going from his teachings to another class, in which people were corrected/adjusted/scolded for mediocre form, I wondered about the seeming contradiction. Here’s one way that I made sense of it:

For beginners, form is critical. Beginners must learn, step by step, the mechanics of the poses. Most beginners need a teacher. (Ultimately we are all beginners to some degree.)

For experienced students, the focus must eventually shift away from the body–at least with poses familiar and done proficiently. Here I agree with Prashant: this stage is inherently independent study and cannot be learned from a teacher (although it can be taught by a teacher).

Most of us need both types of teachings.

IMG_0609Did a month at RIMYI improve your yoga practice?

Before my trip, I’d heard people rave about Pune (even in recent years, well beyond the days of direct contact with BKS Iyengar): how intense it was, how hard they worked, how their poses opened in amazing ways.

I took such stories with a grain of salt. Regarding yoga, I’m pretty levelheaded. My practice is steady–in that I don’t do markedly “better” or “worse” based on setting or teacher. I didn’t go with expectations of breakthroughs and that type of thing.

To my surprise I did find my asana practice to be extra solid–due probably to the long practice sessions. Strangely, I found that I could consistently clasp in Marichyasana III; kick up into balancing Pincha Mayurasa; and, best of all, do Supta Padangusthasana with more ease (my hamstring injury was healing!).

If my practice improved simply from quantity, I could replicate that anywhere–in more inviting conditions. Wide open spaces! Ample wall space! Fresh air! No mosquitos! But, at home, I’m not a captive audience of my yoga practice.

While the women’s classes are more user-friendly than Prashant’s (partly because the teachers wear microphones), I found Prashant’s teachings a memorable departure from the norm. His teachings will stick with me. While he does repeat his message over and over, it’s a message I need to hear over and over. Am I exploring the breath? The mind? Am I stuck in the realm of the body? (While his message was constant, his clever imagery varied day by day. Stay tuned for more Prashant-isms!)

IMG_0932 Since flying home two weeks ago, my temporary life in Pune already feels distant–long ago, far away, a parallel world that words cannot quite describe. Once back, my mind switched to the here and now, the immediate stuff of life. Sooner than I probably realize, my memories of RIMYI and India will grow fuzzy, however vivid they once were. People will stop asking me about my trip; I’ll stop thinking about it. Time marches on. So, before I forget, here’s a two-part post on “what it’s like” at RIMYI, dedicated to other first-timers. I’ll post the second half next week, so feel free to ask any burning questions before then. What was your schedule at RIMYI?

  • Monday: 7-9am Prashant class; 9am-12pm practice; 5-6pm pranayama class
  • Tuesday: 7-9am Prashant class; 9am-12pm practice
  • Wednesday: 9:30-11:30am Gulnaaz/Abhijata class; 4-5:45pm practice
  • Thursday: 7-9am Prashant class; 9am-12pm practice
  • Friday: 9am-12pm practice
  • Saturday: 7-9am Prashant class (optional); 9:30-11:30am Rajlaxmi class; 4-5:45pm practice

I developed a habit of waking at 5am, either to my iPhone alarm or to roosters cock-a-doodle-dooing. That gave me enough time for tea and breakfast. If you want a prime spot in any class, arrive at least 20 minutes early. (Half the time I just missed that window, but still found a spot.) I juggled my schedule to try a few intermediate classes (geared for local Indian students) because I was curious to see other teachers, such as Raya. IMG_0705Are classes doable if you have an injury? Yes, if you take care of yourself. Those with injuries or special practices gather in a designated area, use the trestle for standing poses, etc. I went to Pune with a lingering hamstring strain, too minor to report, but needing extra care. During my first class with Rajlaxmi, she taught standing poses, such as Trikonasana, without props. My block must’ve stood out. “Who’s block is that?” she demanded. (I took her silence after my one-sentence answer as permission to use it.) Are there any poses that should be second nature before you go? Strong inversions are essential. In Sirsasana poses, you’ll be surrounded (closer than usual) by others. And who knows how long you’ll hold headstands, so if you have any doubts, find a wall spot (quick!). Sarvangasana poses were not held too long, but in the teeming hall it’s like The Amazing Race to set up. Often the foam mats were gone by the time I elbowed my way to the front of the line. I actually preferred using my own blanket set-up, but at least one teacher (Rajlaxmi) disliked alternate set-ups. IMG_0704Poses are often taught with few or no props, e.g. standing poses without blocks, forward bends without straps. One day, we did dropovers from Salamba Savangasana to Setu Bandha Sarvangasana–on a bare mat. Finally, in Prashant’s classes, expect long holds in rope Sirsasana, either from ceiling ropes (about a dozen spots) or wall ropes (about half a dozen). If such holds are contraindicated, I would repeat the alternate pose(s) because it’s awkward to exit the pose before he calls time. Do classmates really “steal” your props? Yes. In a group numbering 120 to 150, it’s perhaps inevitable that props not obviously claimed are fair game. So, if you gather props for class or practice, place them within sight. Otherwise you might turn around and find nothing there! Did you get dressed down? No. (No one gets hit either, contrary to myths and legends about RIMYI.)  Prashant does yell if students dillydally (in his eyes). But it’s a momentary lashing, nothing personal. The next moment, he might make a wry joke. Early in the month, Prashant rattled off the options for our final pose. I heard “Setu Bandha” and set myself in the supported version using a block. Prashant, who was standing nearby, saw me. “No!” he said, loudly. “No Setu Bandha on a brick! I said Setu Bandha on a bench… or Janu Sirsasana, Viparita Karani, Chair Sarvangasana…” Another time, I joined a group at the rope wall for a standing chest opener. To accommodate more users, each ring has two ropes attached. I erroneously grabbed a rope set (from two rings), thus inadvertently taking an extra spot. Prashant walked over, handed me the right pair, and said quietly, almost gently, “Hold these two.” IMG_0498Any comments about the hall in general? The hall is semi-circular, which means that there are no right angles and perpendicular lines. I often felt crooked because I couldn’t align myself the way I do in a square or rectangular room. Very disconcerting! While most men wore shirts, some always went shirtless during practice. Considering the heat and/or humidity, I hated to imagine their blankets and bolsters soaking with sweat. How about if everyone wears shirts for hygiene and prop maintenance? Was the restroom clean? Believe it or not, not once did I set foot in the restroom. (Where is the restroom?) From 6:30am to noon, I didn’t leave the main hall. I managed my fluid intake and trained my body to need infrequent restroom breaks. Why? Well, it’s common knowledge that restrooms in India are less than immaculate, so I avoided public restrooms to the extent possible. At RIMYI, I could always walk to my apartment, a few minutes away, in a pinch.

Go to Part II

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.