A note on my three blogs

A note on my blogs

(1) vio; in love with india - this one is the main blog about my Indian adventures, which started in 2005. I don't write much on this blog these days because I prefer to write privately in the confidential blog. But check out the categories and the index to figure out your way. I have kept some older posts not about India but which I still find interesting or relevant in Old words. Also check out my new, fun category Only in India in which I post photos of funny, unique, Indian situations...

(2) vio; sounds of india - this is my blog of sounds, because India wouldn't be as incredible if it was not so vibrant and just so full of incredible sounds!

(3) vio; confidential - this an extension of my main blog in which I post entries I do not want to reveal to the entire webspace for privacy or sensitivity reasons. You must receive an invitation from me and then accept the invitation to be able to read it. You may email me if you are interested in receiving an invitation.


Thursday, 25 November 2010

Yoga in India

I have been doing Iyengar Yoga for almost ten years now. As much as I love this type of yoga for all the benefits it has brought to my life, something displeases me mostly about Iyengar Yoga in India: It seems very inaccessible to Indian nationals, as though attached to some kind of elitism. In the three years that I have been living in India now I only once found a satisfying Iyengar Yoga teacher in the very non-Indian city Auroville in Tamil Nadu, and she was Russian. Of course there was Iyengar Yoga in Rishikesh, and even away from the touristic, yoga-machine area I found an Iyengar Yoga school, which attracted mostly Indians. But there the junior teacher who taught for the month I attended was a very ego-centred person, who gave half the instructions, didn't correct the students' postures, and shouted at his students ordering them to contort in postures their bodies would not allow them to perform. One of the most important lessons Iyengar Yoga had taught me in Europe was one of self-kindness, not torture!

I did do a pretty good ten-day yoga retreat in Rishikesh after that, back in May 2008. However, there apart from a couple of rich Indians, only westerners attended, because it costed Rs 8000 for ten days (with food and accommodation). Here in Varanasi, I have tried three yoga teachers. All of them taught only westerners, and they took at least Rs150 for group classes, which means they would take at least Rs1000/hour for a group of seven students! This is an enormous amount for Indian standards. (Many hotel assistants earn a (meagre) salary of Rs3000 per month.) Now of course, Rs150 are only £2, that's “nothing” for a westerner. I am arguing because of the segregation which is systematically placed onto non-Indians when it comes to anything relating to money. A friend recently told me that he had found a daily yoga (group) class in Delhi, which mostly Indian attended, and for one hour of yoga every day he had paid Rs 200 per month!

Beyond the price, I have refused to go to classes that taught only non-Indian students, because, beyond the fact that I found them unsatisfactorily vague after nine years of precise Iyengar asanas, I refuse to feed into this dichotomy between Indians and non-Indians. Yoga is about union, about being All One. Yoga transcends all dichotomy, but most “touristic” yoga instructors make it a business. Iyengar Yoga seems even more elitist than that. I was given only the name of one teacher who could allegedly teach me according to the Iyengar school, and I refused to try him out after he gave me his ridiculous price for a 1-1 class: Rs 500. I know of no other “Iyengar Yoga teacher” in Varanasi.

And then of course there is the, official, Iyengar Institute in Pune, but one may be placed on a two-year waiting list before being allowed to enrol on a one-month retreat, which involves two classes a day I believe, and for which one has to have a certificate saying one has practised Iyengar Yoga for at least eight years. If I remember rightly, the candidate also has to be able to perform the headstand for at least eight minutes! The cost of the retreat is pretty high (and so is accommodation in Pune). I visited the Iyengar Yoga Institute three years ago and in the practice room I saw mostly non-Indians. Of course, BKS Iyengar is an extraordinary man. I cried in shock and emotion when I saw him in the hall. I saw him perform a strong back-bend for half-an-hour on top of his 90 years. Iyengar is wonderful type of Yoga, and it has indeed changed my body and my life. The visit of the Iyengar Institute was very moving and inspiring for me, but by no means do I wish to put myself on a two-year waiting list for a yoga training course. And why is Iyengar so unpopular and unavailable to Indian nationals? I did consider another centre for Iyengar Yoga in the Himalayas, in Dehradun. The cost of the retreat seemed even more elistic. Again, I can afford this price; however nowhere on the website did it say it had a more reasonable fee for Indian nationals, and the student was requested to stay in selected accommodation (and nowhere of his/her own choice if s/he found elsewhere) which was very expensive compared to Indian standard. If I had looked at it from Europe four years ago I would probably have jumped on the occasion, thinking it was pretty cheap. However, now that I have lived in India for that long, and I have learnt about the cost of things, I am revolted by this price. This is completely unaffordable for most Indians.

How can this dichotomy not be justified? It makes me sort of “angry at Iyengar”. And so I have been confined to my room, doing my yoga practice on my own since I have been in India. Recently it has been difficult to motivate myself, to say the least. The practice has been coming and going. There are periods when I'll practise assiduously, then I'll stop in rebellion, to finally take on again. My mood has changed. For a while a practised only as I felt, and I was satisfied with that. But lately again I've not been able to bother because I don't know where I'm going. I usually just practise those specific postures which I feel help my body (back, hips, legs) and then stop. My practice has become only exercise, although I know Yoga goes a long way beyond the body. And all that time, part of me knows that I must be missing on extraordinary opportunities to practise yoga, because Yoga comes from India from God's sake! There must be good teachers out there, but how do you find genuine teachers when your skin is white? I stopped thinking about finding a yoga teacher, but the latent thought that I have to detach myself from Iyengar and move on always remained at the back of my mind.

Two days ago a friend introduced me to a very inspiring young French woman. With a sitar teacher she has been learning Indian classical music on her clarinet for a few years. She lives on the other side of the main ghat, after the cremation ghat “Manikarnika”and away from all tourists, and clearly she felt very genuine and humble. She spoke of learning yoga so I asked her more about it, and for the first time in ages I felt inspired. Her teacher is 75 and looks healthy and has brilliance in his eyes. He puts great focus on pranayama (breathing exercises) and teaches Indians too. His price is reasonable. Learning yoga with him has changed her life. The problem was, though, that the daily classes start at 7:30 and he lives that far away from my area of town, after Manikarnika Ghat, after Chowk and even after Maidagin. Not to mention that I am already very busy! Still I took his phone number, and as soon as I got home couldn't help but phoned him. “After Chowk” had always sounded dauntingly far away for my poor orientation and cycling skills. The truth is though, it is not all that far; it is thick, maddening Indian traffic that makes the task of cycling far away so unimaginable. And I have improved a lot at cycling in this craze in a year, I have to admit – and modify my self-perception accordingly! I have even come to enjoy it. So, following day I got on my bicycle and went to meet the teacher for nine o'clock; at this time the roads were still uncongested. If I cycle to and fro before eleven I shall be able to avoid the traffic, hurray! What had seemed an impossible trek by auto-rickshaw at three o'clock when I went to collect my visa three months ago was now a pleasant 30-minute bicycle ride on a fine morning. Now the task that remains will be to manage to get up early enough for class twice a week...

The yoga teacher was indeed inspiring. He came to meet me on the main road and recognised me straight away (though that was easy I guess). Tall, beautiful Indian man, well-poised, healthy and friendly-looking. He clearly didn't look his 75 years although his voice may have given him away. He took me along the narrow lanes towards the Ganges, when suddenly I heard a clarinet. I looked around and there she was, the young French woman, sitting crossed-legged on the stone outside a small temple, closed-eyes, playing an aalaap on her clarinet. A few Indians women were listening. She fitted the local, picturesque d├ęcor completely. She looked beautiful, humble, honest. I felt like I was in the heart of Banaras, the Banaras that once was free of tourism, free and real. Once we reached the yoga teacher's home he took me upstairs on to the rooftop. For a second I thought I was in Chitrakut on the rooftop of Vijay's sister; it looked so similar except for the holy river on the other side. The teacher asked me to stop there. He went to fetch a big wooden stick on one side, and after he had chased the monkeys away, we walked on the free terrace and into a small room, facing the river. It was a small light room with a table bed on which the teacher sat. And then my introduction started. He spoke a clear, beautiful Hindi, telling a bit about yogi philosophy and the things I have to understand when considering yoga. The importance of breath. I knew (and loved) most of it but it was very refreshing to hear it again, and very interesting to hear it all in Hindi! I felt as though I was out of time. He showed me a few pranayama techniques. I asked him how he had learnt yoga, to which he replied that he had learnt it from his father, who had learnt it from his father, who had learnt it from his mother, and on and on and on... A real, traditional family of yogis!? Anyhow, I liked him straight away. Tomorrow I shall get up early and try out a 7:30 class. I like the prospect of the adventure, discovering more of Banaras, being grateful for my bicycle, and of course seeing what there is to learn from this humble man.. We shall see how that goes...

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Playing music in the boys' jail

I went to Khajuraho for Dashara festival and I came back. Then again I went to Khajuraho for Diwali festival with my housemate Nahoko and I came back. The loveliest (besides spending time with Vijay) was probably to see her teach Kathak dance to his sisters. And the family accepting my best Varanasi friend in with open arms.

Back in Varanasi life has been exciting on the social and the violin front. My violin teacher asked me to play violin with him and another "Guru-bhai" (fellow student of my teacher) next month. So I am learning a new raag (a south Indian one) and a new composition, and I am practising a lot with the tabla machine to be able to follow the 16-beat on my big day. I am very scared but very excited also. It feels different somehow, I am not sure about expressing how, like something is changing, progressing. I may dare to say that I feel more confident about playing in front of people. I focus and I try to transcend the fear. But I will be OK. My teacher wouldn't ask me to play in concert if he didn't have faith in me.

My Guru-bhai is a 50-something violin teacher from southern France, Jerome. He arrived in Varanasi beginning of November for two month with his wife; I met them last February when I went to Rishikesh/Haridwar with Guruji for two concerts and to see Shivananda and the children again. Jerome will play with us in the concert next month, which makes me feel I'm not alone. There should also be a tabla player (obviously), a flute player and a sitar player. Jerome and I will support each other. It will be my first real concert, and probably the most scary (although reality is always a lot different than imagination...) We have started having classes together and we will also practise together. I've seen a lot of them recently, and met many people. Varanasi is invaded with interesting people lately, mostly French.

I had wanted to write before and as always time has flown away. But today it is impossible not to write. Today was too exciting and noteworthy. The young volunteer from my friend's NGO Jimy Library contacted Jerome and I a couple of weeks ago, because she wanted us to play music in the "governmental centre for boys", which they are striving to improve in the frame of their NGO. We practised our impromptu concert two days ago with another French woman who rented a djembe for the occasion. The rehearsal was fun and exciting. We practised a couple of songs from Shivananda, and Fred improvised on the djembe. Jerome played one of his songs from his children in France, and some Irish music. I followed him, improvising. I was excited because it would help me transcend the "fear of playing in front of people" although I knew whatever we played we wouldn't get it wrong because the boys would be thrilled to just listen to some music, whatever we play. (And there was no fear actually, only the strange feeling in my tummy due to my experiencing this dilapidated place.)

The centre is located a few kilometres away from Varanasi across the Ganges. The boys may have lost their families, lived in the streets for a while and be caught by the police before they were sent to the centre, or they may have been taken there by their families if they could no longer support them for financial reasons, or they may be deaf or mentally handicapped. Whatever their stories, they are all society rejects and have been locked away in this centre which, practically, is more a jail than a centre. On the entrance gate it says "Home for Boys", but when our rickshaw-driver was asking his way to the locals, they all referred to it as a "jail".

The children welcomed us with bright smiles and respectful "namastes", but my tummy went all funny when I entered the gloomy place. The main corridor was so dark and grubby, with unpainted dirty walls. We walked along and saw the two bedrooms. The children's beds were basically two rows of wooden tables on top of each other, with no mattresses. Only two rooms where well-lit and friendly-looking, equipped with mats and tables and rudimentary school or craft equipment, but they've been so only since the two NGOs started working in the centre, less than a year ago. Before that the conditions of the centre were even worse. When my friend visited the centre for the first time before starting the work, there was no cleaner and the children were very dirty. There was no electricity after 4pm and no fans in the rooms, the children lived in the dark and the heat most of the time. And I don't even want to imagine winter time.

Today at least there are fans hanging from the rooms' ceilings, and an inverter for powercuts. There is a television in one room. My friend comes to distribute fruits every week to improve the children's nutrition,as they probably just eat rice and potato all the time. The NGO provides a psychologist/teacher and a sports teacher. At the moment a volunteer from France also offers painting and embroidery classes three times a week. And there is a cupboard full of school material but it's locked when the intervening staff leaves, otherwise the guards steal it for themselves. They stay outside most of the time, as though they don't want to mix with those untouchable, unworthy creatures. Evening and weekend they lock the children inside, who are then left to their own devices, without even one adult to look after them.

And so we were greeted with warm, bright smiles and "namastes" in this dark, gloomy place. Quickly we put all the table-beds to one side and laid down the dirty blankets on the floor of the "tv room", which landed on the floor with a thick cloud of dust. The children sat in front of us naturally without our needing to tell them to. Some were shy and quiet, others were excited, but all were curious and interested. We started with a simple melody, after which Jerome taught them one of his simple songs. They started singing, mostly very out of tune but very eagerly, "oh la la qu'il fait beau" (o-la-la-ki-fe-bo). We could hardly hear ourselves play when they started clapping hands. Then Jerome started playing the melody of a famous kirtan (devotional song) and they provided us with the Hindi "lyrics". I ended up with a quiet tune. Some of the children wanted to touch our violin bows. I told them it was made of horse hairs and they kept repeating "ghore ka bal, ghore ka bal" (horse hairs). After our little concert, another French girl (we were all French!) and her Indian teacher offered a short bolas show, while Jerome played tzigane music. The children watched with full attention. Finally the others volunteers who had come with us brought sodas, sweets and biscuits, which the children ran to from as much excitement as genuine hunger. Then they danced, sang and many tried the djembe and the violin. We spent about 2 1/2 hours there. When we left they asked us to "come back tomorrow!"...

We went back to our rickshaws. We needed cigarettes (not me!) and chai. I think we were all a bit emotionally stoned. I was very tired mentally, but happy to have been there and given a bit of joy to those lovely, rejected boys.