homework.

There’s been something funny in the air in Mysore this time round. I’d thought it was just me, but after conference today I got a sense this was something collective.

Though its not as though I can really compare. This is my second visit to Mysore. The last time I came was three years ago. It is more a sense that people seem to believe there’s something markedly different about practicing in the shala now. Nostalgic attachments to the way things were are nothing new. Even I who was blissfully naive to the Ashtanga world on my first trip – I had no idea what Kino McGregor was – was never too far from a complaint on the changing atmosphere of practicing in Mysore.

And now Sharath is reflecting these themes back to us. After all he has the best vantage point of us all. That’s why he’s sat talking about the ones who just ‘pass through’, the ones who want the photo moment and the instagrammed asana (Sleepless I searched #kpjayi on instagram last night, it was a waking nightmare).

If last weeks conference didn’t make us cringe enough when the first hand to go up asks how he gets authorised; this week a question – that seemed to come from a place of genuine confusion – asked should we still come here if we don’t want to become teachers, i.e. leaving space for those on the authorisation ladder. When Sharath just looked and said ‘I don’t know what you are talking about’, didn’t we all feel small then realising it was just our own stuff after all. That we have to all take responsibility for our own elbows when we’re at the gates before led practice. That we are creating this, not Sharath or anyone else. And that this is a collective responsibility. There’s no point abdicating responsibility elsewhere.

Personally it’s my instinct when people get aggressive to retreat, so much so I got told off by my fellow 6.30 waiting group, who literally pushed me into the shala the other morning, “You’re always so slow!”. What’s the the happy medium on the passive/aggressive scale??

I suppose that here (this is a presumption from my own limited means of tuning into the collective energy) there’s lots of people who are wanting to be seen, by Sharath, to be validated, recognised, authorised. It’s not that I don’t get the desire to be seen by one’s teacher but Mysore for me is a place to come to disappear. In the shala I’m a zero. This lesson disturbs me as much as anyone else. It shows itself up in a fat complex, repulsive skin rashes, compulsive shopping, blocked sinuses.

On the conscious level I’ve been spending a lot of time asking myself the reason why I wanted to come here. I’ve been getting caught up in the idea that I needed a purpose to be here other than the practice. After all in order to get here I had to sell Mysore to my PhD supervisors: I’ll have so much time to write! Think how productive I will be! And persuade an unconvinced Director of Post Grad studies in my faculty: “This is what we’ll call an informal arrangement”. I had to move out of my rented room and become homeless again. I put my belongings into an airing cupboard and said goodbyes to friends, lover, cat. Sometimes the act of leaving becomes such a big deal you feel you need to return with something to show for it. But what can I tell people but to say actually Mysore is an incubator for madness. It’s not going to make me productive in any productive sense. I might evolve but only sideways. I won’t get a shiny teaching certificate, or ‘find myself’. I won’t be instagramming asana porn from a beach, I probably won’t be getting any new postures and might just be plodding through primary for the duration. I will get lots of itchy insect bites though and inconvenient tanlines. I’ll return with dodgy intestines and dirty feet, sunburnt nose and clothes destroyed from bucket washing.

It’s hard to explain why the practice is an end in itself. Because its not something that can be explained in language, only direct experience. It too can feel hard to keep concentrating on that even here where desires are strong and confused and often ambivalent. Where we’re all a bit confused about where we stand in relation to one another, to Sharath, to the practice, to the lineage, to India. Because you can come to Mysore and not change at all. You can surf on the bubble and never get taken over by it all. You can come and get what you want and a vegan pancake and pass on through.

*

Before I read the Yoga Sutras I was reading Sociology. It was Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault and Gayatri Spivak that taught me that ‘I’ was only a composite of networks of power, dispositions and that before I could speak I had to unlearn my privilege as loss.

In my brief forays into the Ashtanga/yoga blogosphere, in between the lines I read a lot concerning positionality; confusion and criticism about unexamined western romanticism and privilege. There’s plenty of violence to be done, and is done, and that’s evident in the trivial: from not covering our female flesh in India and Om tattoos, to cultural appropriation and ignorance. We are all ignorant so long as we’re trying to speak in a language we haven’t taken the time to learn.

And then last night I was reminded how violence is universal, and that although in one schema I may hold privilege, in another I’m just a body upon which violence (specifically gendered) can be enacted.

I was walking home, it was 9pm and I was mere moments away from where I live in Gokulam. Before I understood what was happening a hand grabbed my breast. The sensation was so unexpected I gasped. A strange noise passed my lips as I looked up to see a young boy on a bicycle peddling away muttering something.

I am certainly not naive to the gross gender inequalities that exist in India. Nor am I naive of its complex and perplexing views on sexuality and masculinity. Further still I am highly aware as a (white) woman in India objectification happens on a daily basis. I’ve been grabbed in all the usual places, followed by groups of men, harassed by rickshaw drivers, touched inappropriately by a security guard, mistaken for a prostitute. And if I need to clarify: I’m always covered from neck to ankle in India (I wasn’t asking for it).

Yet there was something about the mundanity of last nights encounter that it took everything to carry the sadness round the corner to my house so I could just get behind a door and sink. Such invasion of space and one’s body is never acceptable but I felt I was pretty wise to it, be sensible, cover yourself, that’s just how things are. Perhaps it was the youth of my perpetrator, perhaps because I was so close to home, perhaps because I’d spent too long looking at Gokulam with a rose-tint it came and grabbed me back to reality.

In between the tears I wondered how to account for the situation, with violence going both sides, where education is lacking and ignorance is growing. A situation where even when you cover those shoulders you’re still on object. How did I become an object? And what are ‘they’ (male, other, Indian) to me? How can we get to a situation where we can see each other clearly?

*

Being a student of Ashtanga in Mysore is a practice as good as any for a bodily understanding of what it means to unlearn your privilege as loss. Being here is where you do your homework.

I will have in an undergraduate class, let’s say, a young, white, male student, politically-correct, who will say: “I am only a bourgeois white male, I can’t speak.” In that situation – it’s peculiar, because I am in the position of power and their teacher and, on the other hand, I am not a bourgeois white male – I say to them: “Why not develop a certain degree of rage against the history that has written such an abject script for you that you are silenced?” Then you begin to investigate what it is that silences you, rather than take this very deterministic position – since my skin colour is this, since my sex is this, I cannot speak. I call these things, as you know, somewhat derisively, chromatism: basing everything on skin colour – “I am white, I can’t speak” – and genitalism: depending on what genitals you have, you can or cannot speak in certain situations.
From this position, then, I say you will of course not speak in the same way about the Third World material, but if you make it your task not only to learn what is going on there through language, through specific programmes of study, but also at the same time through a historical critique of your position as the investigating person, then you will see that you have earned the right to criticize, and you will be heard. When you take the position of not doing your homework – “I will not criticize because of my accident of birth, the historical accident” – that is a much more pernicious position.
In one way you take a risk to criticize, of criticizing something which is Other – something which you used to dominate. I say that you have to take a certain risk: to say “I won’t criticize” is salving your conscience, and allowing you not to do any homework. On the other hand, if you criticize having earned the right to do so, then you are indeed taking a risk and you will probably be made welcome, and can hope to be judged with respect.

Gayatri Spivak (1990) The Postcolonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Routledge: London, p62-3.

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Belonging

As someone who is relatively well-acquainted with Indian culture and customs, during my time in India I have never felt obligated to take photos of cows walking in the road, or of myself with sindoor on my head, nor have I been bewildered about what daal or parathas are or find Hindi films exotic and fascinating. All the stuff that enamours people to India merely frustrates me and I have always scoffed and rolled my eyes at those who go to India and come back all spiritual, talking about Buddhism and chakras, wearing bindis, and talking about their life changing experiences helping poor people and going to the toilet squatting over a hole.

India – or at least the idea of India  – feels like second nature to me, an identity bestowed to me when fate stole away the life that was intended. The fit between the two identities however certainly hasn’t been an easy one. My ambivalent relationship with India – and my Indian sense of self – has only been confirmed in my time here. This feeling of ambivalence will never change. Even before coming to India, adopting an Indian identity has brought a myriad of challenges. It taught me to accept new cultural norms that were often disagreeable; it taught me to eat more saturated fats; it forced my introverted self to express my emotions and open myself up to others.

I also learnt about the importance of family and how to care and depend on others; I learnt (some) Punjabi; I learnt how great and awful Hindi dramas can be; I learnt how rajma and chawal is the best dish ever (as well as saag); I went to many, many weddings and danced to bhangra until my kameez was soaked with sweat; I did seva in the Gurdwara on many occasions, working alongside the suspicious glances of the elder women in the kitchen who finally accepted a gori as one of their own. I realised how easy it was to win over the hearts of people by simply showing respect – and a white girl understanding Punjabi never fails to amaze – and I learnt to make the best chah (chai) ever.

So the point of this little sentimental babble? (stimulated no doubt from reading Shantaram and relating with the lead character and how he finds his spiritual/emotional home in India). I suppose I have realized how I have been clinging on to discovering a family that doesn’t really exist. I thought I needed the reassurance of biological ties, to look at people who resembled me in order to feel at home. But I have been thinking about belonging all wrong.

Though I know that I do not belong here in India. Perhaps I don’t even belong to the Indian family I know back in England. In some way I will always be the white girl – never quite part of – I will always be expected to leave. I am not their daughter, I will never be fussed over in quite the same way, I will never incur the same protective feelings. And so the price of this freedom – of not being tied – is the absence of phone calls from a worried parent back home; of someone being concerned for me, happy for me, proud of me. The childish desire to fill this absence will always be there. Maybe past life regression (or knitting) could help me overcome my recurring hamster dreams and stop my continual return to a phantom home. Yet my gaze has been too fixated on eradicating this desire (this weakness). And then the other day, in one of those moments that seems like an epiphany in retrospect but at the time was in fact very commonplace, the thought appeared clear in my mind, as clear as the image of my grandmother’s tombstone: ‘I have to let go’. Now letting go is a problematic concept for me (as discussed here) but in this instance it finally made sense. It wasn’t so much letting go of my past – and the ghosts that shape that past – but letting go of the belief in answers, in a timeless essential truth (about my self, about life) from this past.

The search for origins – it all goes back there (and Michel Foucault it seems). This is where the journey all began, the stimulus for escape. And now I look to returning back to the place I fled from a number of months before. Returning in what form? To return, to find one’s home, to belong – these do not have to be definite (or definitive) states, they are not things one accomplishes once and for all. As I change, as others around me change, and as the world changes, so does my sense of belonging, where my home lies, and what the act of returning means. My own life is evidence that home is open to transformation. I have found home in places that society (or the boundaries of my skin colour, nationality, ethnicity, religion) didn’t agree I belonged.

And then today in another retrospective epiphany/in reality commonplace moment I was sat in conference listening to Sharath’s stories and feeling as I do every Sunday, with the very exceptional feeling of knowing that I am in precisely the right place at this particular point in time. And afterwards I sat outside on a bench opposite the front of the shala enjoying how the elevated height of the bench easily allows my legs to swing haphazardly in the air, and in my immature delight at this activity I knew, that eventhough my departure was pending and that everything will change tomorrow, I knew for this moment at least, that I was home. And that was good enough.

Coming Undone

As I climb the steps to the yoga shala each morning I find my legs and feet become shaky and I struggle to find my balance, to feel grounded. For a ‘yogi’ (if I can call myself that now??) one would think I would have more balance, and not topple into the woman next to me, another of my many Mysore faux pas I have achieved so far!

This sensation of instability I feel in my feet gives away the lack of certainty I feel in my sense of self. The suffocating greyness of home provided a false security blanket – or is a shroud a more apt description? – that hid away my fears from view, kept them at a safe distance.

But here I am exposed – no one to depend on or hide behind. At 26 I still wish for someone to take over the responsibilty of running my own life. But when others have opinions on my decisions, I rebel, feel trapped. After all there is a reason I had freedom tattooed on my wrist. That is my fetish, my talisman. And I ended up here in my quest. But what have I found?

I have found only an insecure sense of self that stripped of all sense of ontological security is floundering in waves of emotion.

I cannot deny the loneliness I expressed in my last post – or maybe I can, maybe I can put that loneliness back on its shelf and distract myself with idle chatter.

Yet loneliness is created only through the sense of obligation to be sociable, to act a certain way, to say the right things. For I still cannot rid myself of the sense of inadequacy I experience when I undertake everyday activities alone or if I go out to eat lunch alone and see every table filled with people in pairs, trios or groups.

It is not only what solitude says about you in terms of social identity, but also how that solitude works its way into how you see your self. As a woman, the sense of self is further conflicted.

For is not true that experiences only become so when shared? But to what extent is an experience shared anyway? Do I need a witness to validate my life?

And what of those moments experienced with others when I feel like I’m dying inside? The trivial chatter, the ignorant views, the ill informed opinion, tires and wears the mind, and each time a part of my self is destroyed.

It does not help that I appear to spend most of my life listening to other people talk about themselves. I am used to being described as the quiet, distant, aloof, stand-offish – whatever adjective you like – but I have often thought, do other people not realise the utter rubbish they spout? Why are they not aware (or bothered by) their immense self-absorption?

To develop a sense of stability in ones self is key to living without fear. I had begun I felt to achieve that, but environment has worked to undo that – perhaps it was not so stable after all.

Stability is an illusion, or so I thought, but is stability what I am after not freedom – or are they the same? and thus both an illusion?

Either way, the mind is blurry – India is making me come undone – my recent antics back home initiating the coming undone process. To come undone, is to mourn, and to lose something – what am I shedding? Aside from buckets of sweat and tears?

And as each day closes I list the mundane activities I need to undertake, and in my head remain the desires I have yet to fulfill. Tomorrow I tell myself is a new day, a day in which all can be accomplished and I can become the better version of myself. Tomorrow I could climb a mountain, fall in love, write a novel; tomorrow I could figure it all out; tomorrow I won’t screw up anymore, or cry on the bathroom floor.

But tomorrow always takes too long…

The Misfit Ashtangi

Scattered thoughts from a particularly scattered mind…

So India: just as I imagined – heat, dust, cows, pervy men. Oh there is much more I know, but I cannot see how visitors get so easily enamoured with the place. You need a tough skin – and I thought London was bad.

The first yoga practice today was at 4.30am (which requires being there at 4.15am thus waking up at 3.30am, and then rolling out of bed around 3.45am cursing and panicking…)and after a hiatus of drinking too much, eating too much and generally involving myself in all bad habits, it was intense. I was (fortunately) stopped in my usual stopping place in the primary series which is Marichyasana D, and was overwhelmed with gratitude as the heat was intense and the sweat was pouring like water from my softened limbs – the copious cocktails consumed on my leaving night on Wednesday emerging through my skin.

The practice just highlighted to me what an outsider I feel here. As I came without a rug (necessary with all the sweating), without a towel (which is just stupid, and due to my own poor packing abilities) and without the ability to do headstand, I wondered if this really was the right choice for me.

And yet I feel the purpose is to learn, to take time with one’s practice and body. Yoga is not just being the most accomplished, but to rid oneself of ego, of the competitive spirit.

And so far I have met people that do share these ideals. But I have also encountered a number who I feel desire only to fit in with this limited vision of yoga, that is to say, a very western concept. I am saying this because 1) This is my blog and not many people read it anyway, so little chance of offending! but 2) because I am yet to be proved wrong.

I don’t want to stay in a little ashtanga clique. I came to do my practice, to learn, to explore and that is it. Perhaps I will change my mind, perhaps I will look back in a month and feel very differently. But I am not sure.

I should have learnt by now that though you can escape a place you cannot escape the predictability of people. I feel much the same as I did when I was ‘part of’ academia. All the potential to change, to be new people, but resulting in a disappointing fate.

Perhaps that is just how it is. Perhaps I am just homesick. Perhaps I just want a real conversation with someone. Perhaps I just want something true, honest. Perhaps it is just me.

And so I wait to witness the human side of India. But I must confess a hideous truth: I feel alone. The misfit ashtangi.

I Don’t Live Here Anymore

So on the precipice of leaving my current life I find I am more unprepared than ever: feeling restless, being careless, and distanced from myself.

Why India? Why Mysore? Why Ashtanga yoga? Why indeed. I cannot quite explain to myself why and how, but a time comes in ones life when we can choose to listen to the heart, or continue to be dictated by the rationalizing of the brain. If you are lucky – and I feel lucky – you will choose to finally respectfully disregard the latter. And find yourself entering the unexplored territory of (your)self.

The journey is boundless. Here I will attempt to record some of the scattered thoughts I experience and through this perhaps form my own blueprint. The attempt to document the intangible, express the transitory ever changing movements of life will never quite succeed of course.

And so to get there – here – you must burn the bridges that structure your life. My vocation (academia), my job (in a bookshop), my identity (composite of the former two), my safety net (my loved ones).

What is the saying? – to reach the island you must first lose sight of the shore. And just in case you want to know how the feeling of being adrift is, I will tell you. It is akin to a permanent nausea, a nausea that somehow numbs sensations, so that in this non-place, you as a self are also non. A malleable, shapeless, faceless form, expectant and waiting, and waiting…

Those close to me exclaim their sadness at my impending farewell and I remain unresponsive and unmoved. But I just can’t get tearful about my leaving, because I already said goodbye many months ago. And since then I have been in this nauseuated shapeless space. Something has gone from inside me and I just can’t get it back.

And in coming back to zero, coming full circle once again, after screwing up another year; I am distanced from my yoga practice, falling into bad habits, lacking vitality.

The final bridge (The Past) has to undergo its necessary erosion, and it is a messy, scary process. Wading through memories, the losses pile up; the burning sensation inside the chest won’t fade; the eyes sticky with hesitant tears.

The Past is the last battle, but victory only leaves you with an ambiguous future and the haphazard, unpredictable now.

What on earth will occur – living in the hap – and no longer just writing about it?