3.27.2009

art of living


Hi everyone. If you’ve been checking the blog and you read my “sorry-I-am-so-behind-post” you know that’s just been really hard to put my experience in India into words. But at this point the trip is moving fast and I can’t exactly put this off any longer. It took all of us on the ship a while to process everything that we saw in India and I’m just going to do my best to tell you what I saw, smelt, heard and tasted and hopefully we’ll get somewhere by the end…

That being said, before we even got there India was definitely one of the ports that I was most excited about visiting. My dad went there for a medical conference when I was a freshman in high school and ever since I’ve wanted to see it. I’m fascinated by the culture and the people and the history. Last semester I took a modern Indian history course which only deepened my knowledge of the country and my desire to see it with my own eyes.  In our pre-port meetings before every country they pump us full of expectations, which I kind of love and kind of hate. The result is that we arrive in most ports expecting them to be simultaneously life-changing and violently threatening, and India was no exception.

India was also the first country in which I signed up for a big SAS trip. Usually I prefer to travel independently as it’s a little more spontaneous and involves a lot less time on tour busses. But, I had seen a photo slideshow about this trip last year on the SAS website and after talking to my friend Vinny who had done it last semester I decided that it would be a great experience. It was called the Art of Living, which is a program designed by the guru Sri Sri Raavi Shankar (although not the same Raavi Shankar who played sitar with The Beatles).  It’s a combination of yoga, breathing and meditation, as well as group and personal reflection. (You can learn more about it at www.artofliving.org if you’re into that).

We all assembled for the trip, got onto the bus with our boxed lunches and started the drive to Mamallapuram, which is a town outside of Chennai known for its temples. As we drove through Chennai we got our first glimpses of the city and the way that people lived. We drove along the coast and could see all of the boats out catching fish and then strips of markets where people tried to sell their catches. On the opposite side were all the houses where they fishermen and their families lived, and it was astounding to see. Their homes were made out of palm fronds all woven together into flat planks and then stacked on top of each other to make walls and a roof. There was garbage absolutely everywhere and people were just living on top of each other. No electricity, no running water and filth abounded. There were some homes that weren’t even palm fronds but were just tarps propped up with some poles like a makeshift tent. However, they weren’t makeshift and you could see women and children sitting in the doorways looking out. We had heard over and over that India was a country of contrast and juxtaposition and this was our first glimpse of how true that statement would be.

We arrived in Mamallapuram and Sushela, our guide brought us to this rock which had been carved originally to make a temple, but was then left unfinished. The outside of the rock was beautiful, with a whole pantheon of Hindu gods, cows, elephants and depictions of stories carved on the outside. On the inside they had carved out a cave with pillars and there were more gods and vignettes represented on the walls. We walked a little down the road into a park to see something called “Krishna’s Butter Ball”. There was a little stone slope and on it rested a giant boulder – the butter ball.  It looked like it could just fall and start rolling down the hill but somehow it stayed balanced on the ledge. A bunch of Indian schoolboys were sitting in the shade underneath it and would take turns sliding down the stone slope on their butts. My friend Molly and I saw and thought it looked really fun so we decided to try. The boys got a big kick out of us and it was really fun to slide. The hill was slippery and we ended up going pretty quick. After sliding we headed back to the bus.

The minute we had stepped off the bus when we arrived we were swarmed by people trying to sell carvings and charms and drums as well as women and children begging for food and money. It was hard to turn away from these women and children and get back on an air conditioned bus and I felt simultaneously guilty and helpless- knowing that giving them money wouldn’t really help and that I couldn’t give to everyone, but also knowing that not giving was just as bad.  We saw two other temple sites and the situation was pretty similar. The carvings and temples were beautiful and intricate and everywhere we were followed by a similar group of merchants and beggars.  Before leaving we got together all of the food from our boxed lunches and gave it to the kids outside the bus. It was good to be able to do something, but at the same time we knew that it was kind of like putting a band-aid on a broken bone.  That feeling was one that I would experience a lot during my time in India and after.

After leaving Mamallapuram we drove to Dakshinachitra, the heritage village where we would be staying while we did the Art of Living program. Dakshinachitra is kind of like a south Indian Sturbridge Village, in that it’s a recreation of the traditional south Indian way of living with period style homes and craftsmen. There’s a potter’s house, a weaver’s house where they made silk saris, and a glass blower. There are also craftsmen who live in the village with their families and sell their crafts in the market that they have daily in the middle of the village. They led us through the village to the guest houses where we would be staying. The accommodations were Spartan but nice; brick walls with thin cots, ceiling fans to help with the heat and a bathroom with a bucket and cup for a shower and a squatter toilet. We were welcomed and given the third eye on our foreheads made with a paste and red powder. We were given a coconut with the top open and a straw and had a chance to explore the village until snack time.
After some delicious vegetable samosas, it was time to go to our first Art of Living class. All the classes were held in this hexagon-shaped room w/ high ceilings, lots of natural light and mats on the floor with a pillow for each of us. We met Veda, our instructor, and she gave us a pen and paper and asked us 3 questions - What do you want in your life? What are you afraid of? and What are your expectations from this course? We wrote our answers and a few people shared their expectations. Veda informed us a little bit about the course and then we dove right in.

First, she showed us how to breathe. We sat on our knees w/ our feet under us and took deep breaths, inhaling and then exhaling from the back of the throat. We then learned a deep breathing technique called Jai breathing where you inhale for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, exhale for 6 counts and then hold for 2. The counts were very slow and it was a little hard to get the hang of. We also learned the three pranayama, or poses for jai breathing, which help to focus energy in different parts of the body, working from the bottom up. Then we learned how to do bhastrika, which is an exercise where we sit and hold our hands in loose fists in line with our shoulders. When Veda says “In” we throw our hands up and take a breath in and when she says “out” we bring them back like we’re closing a shade and then exhale through our noses.
The last thing we learned before ending class was how to chant Ohm. We took a deep breath in and started with the Oh held deep in the back of our throat and then moved to the Mmmm in the top. The “oh” vibrated through our chests and moved upward as the “mmm” vibrated in our throats and mouths. We exhaled on Ohm three times and after slowly opening our eyes we got up and headed to another part of the village for dinner.

The first night we were treated to a traditional south Indian dinner. All the food we ate at Dakshinachitra was vegetarian but this dinner was served on a banana leaf and we ate with our hands. There was chappati bread, thick tasty vegetable curries, rice, noodles, yoghurt, spicy pickles and sweets.  So spicy and so delicious. After dinner we had storytelling. A woman named Devika took us outside and told us stories under the stars. We learned about Shiva and the Ganges, how Ganesha got his elephant head, and a love story about Nala and his princess. The stories were definitely bedtime stories so after almost nodding off under the stars we headed back to the guest houses and fell asleep

We awoke bright and early at 6am for coco at 6:30. We arrived for our first class at 7am and began w/ stretches. Veda stretched us out and taught us a series of yoga poses. We lay down and did the yoga and it was so relaxing and fun. We did some jai breathing and a short meditation and then it was time for breakfast. Before we left Veda asked us to reflect on two questions – What do you need to be happy? and When will you  be happy? We headed off to eat with those questions in our minds, feeling refreshed and relaxed. After another delicious vegetarian meal and good conversation we headed back for our second class.
We lay down and listened to Veda talk and then split into pairs to talk about the questions. I was with my friend Kelly and I told her that what I need to be happy is to have people in my life who I can love and care for and who will love and care for me. I said that in order to be happy I want to find some way to positively impact the space that I live in and life a life that is purposeful. She agreed, especially on the loving and being loved.

When we talked about when we will be happy, I had to say that honestly, I am happy now.  I wake up every day and I have to marvel at how lucky I am to be where I am in my life. And even more than that, I am so thankful for the fact that I am so surrounded by love. We came back as a group and Veda said that so many people think, “when I do this, then I’ll be happy”. When I get this job, when I get a boyfriend, when I graduate, then I’ll be happy. But that’s not the case. Happiness is not conditional and it doesn’t follow a timeline. It’s our mind’s natural tendency to wander toward the future or the past, but the only moment that is real and that we have control over is the present.  Veda said, “This moment is inevitable” and all we can do is choose how we respond to it. The only time that you can be happy is right now.

As Veda was talking, I began to get tears in my eyes. I had traveled halfway around the world, by plane and by ship and by bus, and here I was being told that somehow, I had started to get it right. The thing that made me emotional though, was that if anything had taught me be grateful and happy in the present; it was losing my good friend Adam last year. Adam was one of those incredible people that you meet only rarely in your life -brilliantly smart, a great writer and the kind of person who embraced life with verve and excitement. He always made me feel loved and valued as his friend and losing him made me realize just how important that is. I have so much joy in my life right now and I need to make sure that I am thankful for it and enjoy it, instead of worrying about the past or the future.  His death taught me that events happen that you can’t change, but you can hold on to what is important. I am lucky enough to have such incredible friends and family, and the best thing I can do is be thankful for them, right now.

After our discussion Veda told us we were going to do an extended breathing exercise called a kriya. We would do the three stages of pranayama with jai breathing, three rounds of bhastrika, chant ohm three times and then we would follow along with a tape, inhaling when it said “so” and exhaling audibly through our noses when it said “hum”. Our eyes would be closed the whole time and at the end we would lie down. We did all the breathing and came to the “so-hum”. The breathing went through stages, starting slow and then speeding up to a point where you almost felt like you where hyperventilating and then it would slow and speed up again. At the end of all the breathing you lay down on your back and it’s such a surreal experience.

You don’t really know if you are asleep or awake and you lose complete track of time. During our first kriya and was able to dream but I was also completely aware of my surroundings.  After lying on our backs for I don’t really know how long, we rolled onto our right sides and lay there before slowly coming up and opening our eyes. When I opened my eyes I was struck by how the light in the room had changed as the noon sun moved across the sky and the glow had softened while we had been meditating.
To be honest in the beginning I was distracted by the jai breathing and my posture and couldn’t seem to keep my mind from wandering where it didn’t want it to. However, I still felt relaxed and Veda instructed us to perform 5 random acts of kindness before sending us on our way for another tasty meal.

After lunch we watched a video about Dakshinachitra and then got a tour of the village. It was an interesting but strange experience living there since it was also a destination for local Indian tourists and school field trip groups. As they wandered around taking pictures we were going to class or just wandering around, almost as if we were the insiders, despite the fact that we clearly looked like outsiders. After the tour we had the afternoon to wander around and check out the handicrafts before being served snacks.  We had another snack similar to the samosas along with this insanely delicious watermelon juice and once we were officially snack-ed out, we headed back to the pavilion for a four-hour class before dinner.

Upon arrival Veda had us split up to talk about two questions – What am I responsible for? What am I not responsible for? My friend Matt and I both agreed that we were responsible for our actions, the way we treat people and the decisions that we make, but that we are not responsible for the baggage that people often carry with them and the way that they perceive things. Veda brought us all back and told us an anecdote about a well-known guru who had been hired to help with a phone-a-thon to raise money. Upon getting on the air the first words he said were “Charity is a sin. You should never give charity”. This made the organizers of the drive pretty nervous but the guru continued; “When you give a gift to your brother, or you help your mother or your father, you don’t give them charity. When you take care of your house or feed your family, it’s not charity. You don’t think of it as charity because these things belong to you and are yours to care for. But the truth is that there is no charity. Everything is yours. Every man who is sick or child who is hungry is yours because you exist with them and your livelihoods depend on each other.” Veda impressed upon us that we need to think outside of our own personal realm of responsibility and realize that by caring for others, we are caring for ourselves. She also stressed that our inactions are just as important as our actions. After this talk we were told to take a walk around the village and then come back for the last part of the class.

The sun was just getting ready to set and the village was closed to the public for the day. We each walked on our own, thinking about the day and all that Veda had said. I sat on the porch of a few of the houses and then walked through the playground to pick up some litter. I walked through an unfinished renovation at the edge of the village and the sight and the smell reminded me of the years we had spent on construction sites while building out house in Woodbury. Finally, before returning to class my friend Rachael and I climbed 3/4 of the way up a tall water tower ladder in order to look over the village walls at the slums that lay not too far outside its borders. One thing that has struck us both about India was the sheer amount of garbage and litter that was literally everywhere. She commented that if this is the amount of garbage produced by people who live so minimally in the slums, imagine what it would look like if we saw all the garbage that we produced, even in one day.

After returning to class we settled in to do another kriya. This time I really didn’t want my posture or achy legs to get in the way and I was hoping to remain a little more lucid and not let my thoughts get clouded. I don’t know what was different but for some reason this time things just clicked. I was able to do the jai breathing without focusing too hard on the timing and move easily from stage to stage without getting distracted in between.

But what made the kriya so good, and probably so fluid, were my thoughts. The whole time we did the exercise I pictured with crystal clarity so many important people, places and moments in my life. I saw my family and friends, teachers, neighbors, people I went to school with, construction workers, family friends, pets – everyone. I saw all the homes I’ve ever lived in, my schools, the land, and places that were important to me. I saw moments from my childhood and adolescence that I hadn’t thought of in years or didn’t even realize I remembered. I saw my whole life and it was so beautiful and I was so able to be at peace because of it.
When people snuck into my thoughts who I didn’t want there, I just let them in and they’d pass in sequence as another would take their place. When we lay on our backs I wasn’t asleep but just so completely relaxed. I thought about food and holidays and meals that I’ve loved. As we were lying on our backs, all of a sudden fireworks began to go off right above our building and it sounded like small bombs going off. At first we were all shaken but I fell right back into it, imagining that the vibrations and sounds were a drum and allowing it to beat. We rolled onto our sides and I was curled up like a baby, floating. The last image I had was the one of me a few weeks ago, floating in the pool as the rain fell on my face and my favorite song played on loop in my head. When we finally sat up and opened our eyes I don’t think I’ve ever felt calmer or more at peace.

After class we were all starving and enjoyed another awesome vegetarian meal outside under the stars. India is not the hottest place I’ve ever been but I can say with certainty that it is the sweatiest. We were literally dripping all day, but once the sun set it was cool and beautiful out. We all ate and joked and made friends with one of the dogs who lived in the village who we named James. The busboys informed us his real name was Gobal and that he was actually a she. Gobal James tagged along as we walked back to the guest houses and after a long day, we retired to our rooms and fell quickly asleep.

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