THE READING LIFE
Today’s Vocabulary Words:
Hello! = excuse me
Tank = lake
Specs = glasses
Tariff = rate
It seems the only time I get to do much reading is when I come to Mysore, where I average about a book a week (so now you know why my fake Indian name is not Evelyn-anda Wood-eyar*). On previous trips I’ve focused on Indian authors, starting with the oeuvre of Mysore-based author RK Narayan; this time around I’m focusing on memoirs by western authors who’ve lived in India. I've also brought the current darling of the yoga community, Shantaram, but can't seem to get past the first few pages -- which recall a firangi Million Little Pieces. Unfortunately I somehow forgot the one book that straddles both camps: Suketu Mehta’s brilliant Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, in which the author grows up in Bombay, leaves at 15, and returns as an adult to uncover why it’s changed. Oops… Maybe they have it at Geetha Bookhouse.
First off the shelf was Rumer Godden’s “A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep.” (Godden is the author of “The River,” a novella about growing up in India that was made into an utterly engaging film by Jean Renoir). This book is about growing up in India and returning later as a young adult. It’s a bit disappointing – she gives very little of herself – until the end, where she spends a large chunk of World War II, including winter, living in a house in rural Kashmir with three children and no electricity or other amenities. In a section about her reading material, she discusses “The Secret of India,” which, she writes,
“’…leaves me cold, and I have come to the conclusion that, if you want to do Yoga properly – not dabble in it, how I hate dabblers – you would have no time left in which to live and, more and more, it seems to me the most important thing is to live.”
Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent “Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia,” is quite popular among Chicago yoginis, and follows Ms. Gilbert’s year off after a messy divorce. I at first found the blonde Ms. Gilbert annoyingly unctuous – she tends to go for the easy joke; plus the first thing she did upon arrival in Rome was ditch her “serious” and “long-time” yoga practice. Dabbler! But she started to grow on me during her extended stay at an ashram outside of Bombay. Early in the book she picks up where Godden left off:
“What was more important? The part of me that wanted to eat veal in Venice? Or the part of me that wanted to be waking up long before dawn in the austerity of an Ashram to begin a long day of meditation and prayer? The great Sufi poet and philosopher Rumi once advised his students to write down three things they most wanted in life. If any item on the list clashes with any other item, Rumi warned, you are destined for unhappiness. Better to live a life of single-pointed focus, he taught. But what about the benefits of living harmoniously between extremes? What if you could somehow create an expansive enough life that you could synchronize seemingly incongruous opposites into a worldview that excludes nothing? My truth was exactly what I’d said to the medicine man in Bali – I wanted to experience BOTH. I wanted worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence – the dual glories of a human life. I wanted what the Greeks called Kalos Kai Agathos, the singular balance of the good and the beautiful. I’d been missing both during these last hard years [ie; her divorce and breakup of the rebound relationship], because both pleasure and devotion require a stress-free place in which to flourish and I’d been living in a giant trash compactor of nonstop anxiety. As for how to balance the urge for pleasure against the longing for devotion…well, surely there was a way to learn that trick.”
I didn’t realize how annoyingly American her thinking is – wanting it all, at any cost, as if it’s all somehow deserved because of a couple of rough years – nor how refreshing her humor could be until I got to Elizabeth Kadetksy’s “First There is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance.” It’s a rather dry but comprehensive account of her two trips to India to study with BKS Iyengar in Pune. In it, Kadetsky alludes to a research trip to the Asthanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore (where I’m currently studying). There she ran into a fellow Iyengar student taking classes; apparently the student panicked and begged Kadetsky not to tell Iyengar that she was mixing styles. Dabbler!
[Note: In Iyengar yoga the focuses is on alignment and poses are held for a long period of time. The use of props – blocks, bolsters, straps, furniture and hanging harnesses – is encouraged. In ashtanga yoga poses are held for short periods of time and linked together with sun salutations to create heat; there’s a very specific type of breathing, and the use of props is discouraged].
The anorexic Kadetsky uncovers a financial link between Iyengar and the very scary Hindu fundamentalist politicians that Mehta investigates in Maximum City. But more relevant here is Iyengar’s relationship to Pattabhi Jois (both were students of the legendary Mysore-based teacher T. Krisnamacharya; from what I understand Jois was with him for over 20 years while the sickly Iyengar, a relative, stayed for just a few).
[WARNING: If you’re not into yoga, you may want to stop right here and go back to work].
At one point the author and her guru are discussing a book; from the context it seems to be “The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace,” edited by Norman Sjoman. Suddenly Iyengar becomes agitated and begins ranting:
“’This book. Full of lies….
“‘Why would he lie? He says I am his student when I am not his student at all. Now what can I do? Tell me.’
“I blinked. ‘I don’t know, Guruji. What man? Teaching what?’
“‘Pattabhi, that man!’
“Pattabhi. Of course. Iyengar was referring to a brief reference in thebook to Pattabhi Jois. Jois was a contemporary of Iyengar’s who, like Iyengar, had studied with Krishnamacharya in the Mysore Palace. He now taught what he called ‘Astanga Yoga’ to a fashionable [ha!] and primarily American [not true] clientele at a school not far from the one-time yoga headquarters in Mysore. Along with Desikachar in Madras and Iyengar in Pune, Jois had been responsible for bringing Krishnamacharya’s teachings to America. The embrace of Jois by such celebrities as Madonna and Gwynneth Paltrow had recently thrust Jois into an international spotlight that Iyengar was once accustomed to occupying alone. Jois was quoted in the book as saying that he and Iyengar studied with Krishnamacharya at the same time. Jois, being Iyengars senior by three years, had been Iyengar’s guru, the interloper held.
“I believed Iyengar’s protest that Jois’s statement was false – I eventually spoke with several people who hung around Krishnamacharya’s studio in those same years who all remembered Jois studying with the master only briefly and primarily for Sanskrit, not yoga [Huh? Who?]. And Jois’s memory was famously unreliable [Huh?]. He once claimed that he and Krisnamacharya traveled to Calcutta together in 1934 and retrieved a lost yoga text written on palm fronds called The Yoga Korunta. In that document, he said, they discovered a lost ancient form – the sun salutation. The Korunta, however, was still lost, and many cast doubts on this story. In any case, sun salutations appeared in the Aundh mahajara’s treatise, Surya Namaskars, which predated this supposed excavation by six years.
“But Iyengar’s disgruntlement seemed out of proportion to the misrepresentation, and I wondered if it didn’t have something to do with other, deeper-seated rivalries with Jois. “
Here she goes into a description of their differing Brahmin lineage; according to her Pattabhi Jois is a Tamil Brahamin of the Shiva/ Shakara tree and Iyengar a tamil Brahmin of Vishnu/Ramanuja lineage.
“Even that explanation failed to satisfy me, however. Both teachings expoused ‘embodied’ yoga, after all. And in the following weeks, Iyengar’s concern for the matter of Pattabhi’s falsehoods reached a pitch of obsession. Iyengar stopped me regularly after class to complain about the book. In practice one day, he was demonstrating on a student in sirsasana [headstand] but drifted to the topic of Pattabhi. ‘He says he went to Calcutta for this, this Yoga Korunta,’ Iyengar said, his hand sweeping the air emphatically so he nearly toppled the student. The others seemed mystified by his non sequitur. ‘Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi never went to Calcutta. First of all, that you should know….You mean I did not know where my Guruji went? I am a student of my Guruji since 1934 [NOTE: Iyengar opened his Pune shala in 1938. You do the math, since Kadetsky did not]. Guruji went somewhere in 1934 and I did not know? I don’t want to say the name of Pattabhi even. He is copying my book. Even. Let him at least be honest.’
“Pattabhi, Pattabhi, Pattabhi. The word became a mantra, uttered in practice, snorted from the back of the room, groused about with Geeta and Pandu and Gloria….
“I couldn’t help thinking that somehow at the root of Iyengar’s irritation lay the history of his painful rupture with that patriarch. In this world where loyalty was as central a marker of spiritual character as one’s daily performance of ritual, Krisnamacharya had gone to his death in 1989 believing that Iyengar had been a guru drohi – a guru betrayer….
“…Although Krisnamacharya eventually submitted to appear at the dedication of the institute in Pune and wrote a prologue to Iyengar’s Light on Pranayama, what was memorable about their relationship today was that Krishnamacharya nursed a lifelong grudge against Iyengar for what he did.
”What Iyengar did was grow increasingly estranged from his guru while simultaneously winning fame, connections, and intimacy with others – new patrons, a wider foundation of clients and, ultimately, the West.”
Despite all that, Mr. Iyengar put aside is differences and came down to Mysore last July to wish Pattabhi Jois a happy 90th birthday. It was a momentous occasion and many photos were taken; one of them appears on the cover of Namarupa magazine. I found Guruji looking at the magazine after class the other day, when I went into his office to pay my respects. I pointed to his picture on the cover and said, “Nice picture of you! Tumba Santosha!” (Much happiness). He laughed and said, “Yes, Yes! Thank you!”
In the photo, Pattabhi Jois is smiling -- and BKS Iyengar, standing next to him, is scowling.
Near the end of the book, Kadetsky goes off to “a small community by the ocean near Sril. Aurobindo’s ashram” to write and winds up taking classes with senior ashtanga teacher Karen Haberman – with whom I did a week-long Mysore-style intensive (my first) back in 1998.
She writes, “Karen had been with Jois in India for several years and then left his school in Mysore because she didn’t trust him any longer….She’d felt betrayed when she understood that her guru was not infallible, not immune from cultural chauvinisms, not a role model or a stand-in for father or family – and in this way she was like me too.
“Karen still revered the practice if not the messenger, though, and she taught it to me…Sometimes when I couldn’t do a pose, I’d assume I still couldn’t do it the next day, and then I’d surprise myself when I found I could…..I learned new poses, ones I’d lonely read about in sequences that I’d never reached in “Light on Yoga.”
Which of course she got in trouble for from Iyengar when she told him; as a form of public shaming he made her demonstrate Pattabhi Jois’s “jumpings” in front of the whole class.
One can’t help but wonder what style of yoga she’s doing nowadays.
*Evelyn Wood is the name of a speed-reading course that advertised heavily on American television in the 1970’s. Wodeyar is the surname of the Mysore royal family. Ananda means bliss.