The last few months haven’t been very kind to humanity in general. Death has reared its ugly face one too many times in the last quarter of 2020. The passing of certain people has affected us more than others for reasons we alone know. But ‘death’ isn’t something that we like focusing on, talking about, or imagining. We tread lightly around this subject, tip-toeing and whispering because mostly we all fear death.
Of late, however, I have stopped fearing the inevitable. Death will come, one day or the other, and there is nothing that we can do about it. I had this mild epiphany very recently when, amidst all the COVID-19 horror and the passing of some beloved celebrities, my mother and my puppy had to go in for surgeries. Two consecutive weeks, as I made my rounds of the hospitals, breathing in the dull energies of confused and scared people, I realised, that I was not afraid.
Don’t get me wrong, for I love my mother and I love my dog like my own child. But as I sat and held my mother’s hand and looked into her fearful eyes, I felt pain at her fear but I did not feel fear. My dad began panicking because we heard nothing from the doctor even 3 hours after she was taken to surgery. All I could say to him was that whatever happens will happen and we simply needed to keep our heads on until we hear something. (The surgery went well and mom has made a full recovery since).
The same happened when Wolf was drugged and he dolefully looked at me, droopy eyes sliding into sleep. I felt very sad that my baby couldn’t tell me in so many words, what he was feeling, but I didn’t fear anything. This is all very new to me. I remember a younger version of me bursting into tears when our family physician suggested to my dad that he should get scanned for some pain that he had. I was petrified that it would turn out to be some monstrous illness that would devour him. The thought of losing someone troubled me so much that I would even imagine situations where someone dear died, and the pain that the imagination caused would start off my waterworks.
I spent a good month in May 2019 at SVYASA university for Yoga to get certified as a yoga teacher. While all the subjects were interesting, what really intrigued me were the teachings from the Vedas, Upanishads, and the Bhagavad-Gita. These scriptures were pure gold because of the way they explained life, needs, wants, expectations, desires, and even death. The simplicity of their teachings helped me overcome a lot of demons that I was struggling with. One key aspect was- attachment. I learned to separate love from attachment, I learned to plan without expectation towards outcomes, and I learned that death, is inevitable. Clinging will only increase suffering. When the time comes we need to have the grace to allow death to take over with true dignity.
Another thing that brought about this change in me was the fact that I have started deeply believing that we are all energy bodies encased in human flesh. Since energy cannot be created or destroyed, death comes only to that perishable and finite body that we are living in. Even Lord Krishna, in the Bhagavd-Gita, chapter 2: verse 20, says the following:
न जायते म्रियते वा कदाचि
नायं भूत्वा भविता वा न भूय: |
अजो नित्य: शाश्वतोऽयं पुराणो
न हन्यते हन्यमाने शरीरे || 20||na jāyate mriyate vā kadāchin
nāyaṁ bhūtvā bhavitā vā na bhūyaḥ
ajo nityaḥ śhāśhvato ’yaṁ purāṇo
na hanyate hanyamāne śharīre
The soul is neither born nor does it die; nor having once existed does it ever cease to be. The soul is without birth, eternal, immortal, and ageless. It is not destroyed when the body is destroyed.
Let it flow
In the end, as much as the death of a loved one is painful, we shouldn’t let fear prevent us from enjoying the present. We can cherish each other, be generous, kind, and compassionate, while savouring the time we get with each other. We can forgive more, fight less, and let the positivity take over. Death will come, expected, or by surprise, but until it does, we can be the energy and we can let it flow.
She walked through the forested area filled with lean eucalyptus trees. The grass was moist with dew and her flip-flops were becoming soggy. She gingerly avoided pieces of broken glass, empty alcohol cartons, wet waste, used toiletries, and discarded clothing. What should have been a soul awakening walk at this early hour was turning out to be more of an attempt at a very poorly arranged obstacle course, thought Smriti. Even the pristine forests adjoining the beaches of Gokarna were not impervious to human impact and garbage seemed to have spread like the silken webs of a hairy spider in a desolate house. She had set out on this walk to clear her head and navigating this minefield of garbage seemed to take her mind off the issue at hand in a very depressing way.
How had her life come to this, she pondered, as she avoided a broken beer bottle and walked on. A year ago she was the star of her own life. With a designated promotion and a new house under her belt, she felt like she was checking all the right boxes on her list for a well-lived life. And then, out of the blue, her husband returned. From the dead! After 4 and ½ years!! She felt a shiver travel up the length of her spine as her thoughts settled on the picture of him standing at the door, looking older, haggard, but resilient as ever. It had happened a week ago, on a Sunday afternoon when her whole family was over at her place for lunch. Smriti’s amma and appa were back after a month-long holiday in Australia and they had dropped in to check on Smriti and Samhita, their 7-year-old granddaughter. Even Smriti’s high flying, IT geek brother, Sanjay, was in town with his wife Geetha. So they had decided to make a day of it. Amma and appa were just pulling Smriti’s leg about her new fiancé Vedanta, having skipped the luncheon, when the bell rang. Amma even chuckled and said, “Maybe Vedu is missing you and has decided to drop by after all”.
Her mother had almost fainted at the sight of Pranav walking in. The rest of the family simply stood speechless for a long time until Pranav smiled and said, “Hey, I’m not a ghost, you know’. Smriti had burst into tears that afternoon. She had become uncontrollable in her sobbing that she had to be taken away to her bedroom and made to lie down. She had a severe case of stress-induced bronchitis. Geetha stayed with her as did Samhita, while the rest of the family had sat down and listened to Pranav as he recounted everything that happened to him. By the time Smriti felt better and made her way down, Pranav had left, promising to return the next day and take things forward with Smriti.
That didn’t happen. The very same evening, Smriti packed up her bags and made excuses about a work-related conference and made her way to Gokarna. Paradise beach, with limited cell connectivity, was her only out, for now. Sanjay, who had long been Smriti’s closest companion, comrade, and friend, had sensed her unease as she had packed. He promised that Samhita would be taken care of until Smriti’s return, and he begged Smriti to be careful and not do anything rash. Smriti had mutely nodded and walked away, her head was a haze of thoughts. She messaged Vedanta that she would be away for a few days and that she loved him!
She had finally reached the top of the small hill and she sat herself down on the precipice of a rock that was jutting out, creating a sort of platform. Smriti looked down at the sea. Below her, the coastline was rocky, and straight ahead, she could see the rocks had formed a semi-circular tide pool. The water collected in this crevice should have been clear, but the waves were crashing in, slapping the still waters up and disturbing the surface, only to recede and leaving it rippled and troubled. It seemed like the water was a reflection of her life right now. Turbulent and unsettled!
Smriti shuddered and pulled her knees close to her chest and held it there. The last 11 years of her life came rushing back to her like torrential rain, tearing trees from roots and gathering sludge as it ran its course on the ground. Pranav and Smriti had had a typical arranged marriage. They met under the watchful eyes of their parents, grandparents, and several other sundry relatives when he came to see her the first time. He had been polite, courteous, and open-minded. Smriti had been 24 years old and had been quite starry-eyed about getting married and living a fruitful and happy life, just like her parents. What started out as a normal marriage turned into nightmares of the waking hours within a year. Pranav was controlling, manipulative at best. So imagine his worst! He gas-lighted Smriti, made her feel stupid and worthless. He blamed her for all the smallest things. He hit her on more than one occasion. Smriti, who had been a strong and independent girl, was reduced to a lifeless, wisp of a woman. Pranav forced her physically too. He was a monster as anyone could have imagined. One time he had grabbed her by the throat from behind, pushed her against the window grills, and pressed her into it as he ravaged her from behind. She had tried to protest but he pressed her face further into the window grills, all the while chocking her neck. By the end of it she remembered that her lips were bleeding and her cheek was bruised, while her voice had become a raspy whisper. All this, while the window was wide open. Smriti had cried for weeks after that.
Smriti initially avoided sharing her woes with her family because she believed that she could change and please Pranav. She deluded herself for almost 3 years, believing that she was the flawed one. Every time something went wrong, Pranav would make it a point to tell Smriti how she could have done better. Smriti believed all of it. She even accepted that she was miserable due to her own shortcomings. Then one day she got pregnant. Suddenly Pranav became softer, kinder, and more tolerant. Smriti couldn’t believe it but was a happy girl once again. When Samhita was born, there was a change in Pranav’s behaviour again. He wasn’t as hurtful with his words but it was clear that he wasn’t elated about having a girl child. He started trying to have sex with Smriti as soon as the doctors permitted it. He wanted her to conceive again. Smriti didn’t protest because she felt Pranav had become more tolerable after the baby. But the next 3 years went by in trying and she never conceived. Things started to go back to the way they were before with Pranav being physically and mentally abusive. He began to blame Smriti for them not being able to have another child. All the while he refused to even get himself tested, though.
Finally, after 6 years of her sham marriage, Smriti broke down to her parents and brother after another physically abusive evening where Pranav had almost hurt Samhita too. Sanjay had boiled over with rage. He wanted to kill Pranav. He shouted at Smriti for having tolerated all of it in silence. Her parents, however, were calm and kind. They told Smriti to pack her things and come home. They said they would file for a divorce.
Pranav became a saint overnight. He pleaded with the lawyers that he would change and that all he wanted were for his wife and child to be with him. Smriti had been adamant about the separation. She had finally had enough. The family courts, because of Pranav’s pleading, directed the two of them to have a six month live together period, after which a divorce would be granted if Smriti still felt the same way.
Tragically, just before the 6 months were up, Pranav disappeared. The families hunted for him, filed missing complaints, and looked high and low. After months of no news, his car had been found crashed at a riverside up in north Karnataka. The case was closed and Pranav was presumed dead, his body never having been recovered. Smriti took it as a sign from God to begin her life anew and she slowly picked up the pieces of her life and put it together. She was finally happy now, with her job, her sweet daughter, and even the amazing Vedanta, who she had been dating for a year before the recent engagement.
Smriti closed her eyes and forced herself back to the present. What was she going to do now, she wondered. She could not give up her peace, happiness, and sanity to go back to Pranav. Why and how had he returned? Her head began to ache from thinking about how Pranav was alive, and if he had been alive all this while, why had he returned now? Where had he been for so long? What had brought him back to her doorstep after 4 long years? Also, what was she to do now? Give up her plans with Vedu? Legally she was still Pranav’s wife. But she didn’t feel like that. She hadn’t felt that way for a long time now. Slowly, Smriti got up, dusted her back, and began making her way back towards her cottage. There were a lot of things she had to do now. Her head was reeling from having thought so much, in such short time. But, she needed to get a move on if she had to bring back the order into her life. She had made up her mind. In a very resolute and remorseless manner, she thought, “I’ll have to kill him again! And this time, I’ve got to make sure that he is really and for sure, dead”!
The other day I went out to hand garbage to the person who collects waste in the apartment. As she took the packet from my hand, her hand grazed mine and she pulled her hand back in fear and said ‘sorry Ma’am’. I instinctively smiled and said it’s no problem and went back in. But I registered the relief on her face before I closed the door. What could possibly have made her feel that she has done something wrong? I began to imagine all the scenarios where people have treated this woman with less respect than she deserved. I could visualize her being yelled at for mistakenly touching some respectable resident before. It got me to wonder why we do not treat people and animals with the compassion and kindness that we think we deserve? I see people mistreating people, animals, and even plants. There is a sense of entitlement that tricks us into thinking that some lives matter less than ours. Kindness and compassion should take precedence in everybody’s life. These are traits that should be instinctive and inbuilt in one and all. That said, these virtues are lacking in most people.
Why we fail each other as living beings
We see different kinds of people around us. Mostly they are on either extreme of the emotional spectrum. Either there are aggressive go-getters who don’t mind knocking a few down on their way up, or there are the ones that are too gentle to hurt a fly. The former come off as successful and full of achievements but at the cost of peace and harmony. The latter seem content to stay where they are as long as they have earned love, respect and good company along the way. We have all seen it all too often in the corporate world, in our social circles, and even among our family members. (Now, I am not saying that these are the only two kind of people. There are those who are kind, loving, respectful and yet are achievers too, but I believe they are few and far between). Wouldn’t it be fabulous to combine the two kinds and have people who could be kind yet be socially and financially successful?
Yoga and equanimity
You don’t need to be a yogi to practice compassion. But I see yoga as a very holistic way to tune ourselves towards kindness, empathy, and love. In fact, the Ashtavakra Gita names kindness as one of the five elixirs that enable attainment of nirvana. Even the 8 limbs of ashtanga advocates ahimsa towards all as a Yama or social practice. Yoga also advocate equanimity in life and that is something that will probably help all human beings become more humble, kind and accepting of others. In chapter 2, verse 48 of the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna the following-
“Yogasthah kuru karmaani sangam tyaktwaa dhananjaya;
Siddhyasiddhyoh samo bhootwaa samatwam yoga uchyate.”
Perform actions while fixed in Yoga and abandoning attachment, O Arjuna! And be equal in success or failure for an equanimity that is Yoga.
My interpretation of this particular verse is that, no matter what the situation is, we should not allow extreme emotions get the better of us. All our actions should be guided less by expectation towards the end result and more towards the process of doing. Sans expectation, our emotions are not swayed so badly that they affect our outward actions and behaviors. As such, stress in life, is the largest cause for people lacking compassion and grace. When we are so hung up about how things are not happening for us, it is easy to lash out at others, right?
Equanimity, Compassion and Me
As far as I can look back into my past, I have always tried to be kind. I remember my cousin who is 10 years younger than me ask me once- “Akka, why are you thanking the auto driver? He is just doing what he is being paid to do”. I said to her that my thanks was an appreciation for job done, regardless of whether he was getting paid to do it or not. Now, I’m not bragging, but she began doing the same thing, and thanking people around her and she told me that it helped her strengthen many relationships over the years.
The equanimity, I am still striving for. I still fly off the handle when my boy drives me up the wall, I cry when I watch movies or read books, and I disappear when I need to conserve my energy. But I have also learned to let go more gracefully, I try really hard not to judge anyone for any of their choices, I help where I can, I forgive faster, and I most certainly try my best to treat people around me with the respect that they deserve. I extend this common courtesy to all living beings as I am a known earth-hugger and animal lover, but I wish that we would all try to be more pleasant and accepting of each other. The earth would heal faster and we would need less social distancing and only physical distancing if we could all be a little more compassionate, kind and loving to one another.
Stories that i wrote in the late 90’s and early 2K when every young adult goes through a roller-coaster of emotions….
Butterfly! In its deepest shade of blue wings, with the powdery streaks of silver and black running the span of its wings, it sets off the artistry in every little fluttery creation of our world. It brings to mind what a marvelous conversion of chemistry and biology brings about the making of our winged friend. That repulsive caterpillar which makes the hair on your neck stand when it crawls, stuffing its face all the goddamn time and growing squelchy and fat each moment, which converts to that wormed pupa in its not so pretty cocoon, they don’t really give one the perception of what is yet to come. But come it does in its entire splendor, surprising an unassuming bystander into awakening.
Ranjini loved butterflies. They made her smile. She walked into the crowded backyard with the Chemmanu and the Mallipoo Chedi, the overfull clothesline sagging and groaning with the morning’s load of washed clothes that smelled of an acrid and limey detergent, and the washing stone, wet with years of collected moss, caked with remnants of soap water and a grey alkaline mass of dirt. The saving grace in this over accumulated junkyard, it seems was the serene, tall and overtly green mango tree which in all its greenness and woody branches gave Ranjini an unexpressed feeling of strength and solace that nothing living or otherwise had given her. Every day she climbed the massive trunk of her Manga Maram with the agility that rightfully belonged to a 12-year-old and sat on the lowest branch which came out at an angle of 75 degrees to the trunk. She wedged herself comfortably into the gap it created, just as if it wanted to fit her lower torso in. Here she sat thinking deeply about the wounds that had been inflicted upon her untarnished mind and body. Ranjini was unable to confront the naked fears that her unripe age had asked of her. What was it that made someone so normal as her feel so tarnished and stripped? Entwined in her thoughts of darkness and fear she tried to flee the conscious world around her. This was the only time she got to reflect upon why she had been sold to the Zamindar at the age of 10, to waive of debts her father owed to the master.
How dark her life had become? Dark shadows like ‘black death’ crept up behind her neck each day and breathed down her puny body as if it had a score to settle with her. How the Zamindar, Kandavelu Swamy who had seemed like a second father to her had all of a sudden taken to bringing sick men home and entertaining them. Swamy Ayah, who called her Little Ranju, let these men hurt her. They beat her and tore her clothes off and made her do things she had never dreamed off. Ranju wanted to die but for her puny age, her wisdom was vast and she knew death wouldn’t come. She knew she would not just end up dead even if no one missed her. Her pathetic family was nothing to return to. Ranju wanted to run away, but where would she go? Her father did not want her back. He still had to educate Ranga, her brother, who would earn money for them. If he took Ranju back then Swamy Ayah would flog him for the rest of his life and make him pay his debts back along with insurmountable interests that her father could not afford. So, she had been suffering this ghastly life for 1-½ years now. She wanted to escape. What if she could fly away into the blue sky far up above, into the distant horizon with the orange tinge and the silvery lining? She would not have to put up anymore with drunken men and sweaty bodies pressed forcibly against her and go through the agony of being hurt over and over again.
Ranju shuddered and drew herself into a tight mass as a cold breeze caressed her skin on its journey nowhere. Her eyes settled on a drying, leafy, somewhat warty brownish green cocoon thingy that was struggling and wriggling, writhing from within for some unknown reason. All troubles forgotten her eyes stayed glued to this thingy. What was it? It was ugly, dark and sickening to watch. It was like her life was replaying in front of her, only much worse. How could anything survive such a choked existence? Didn’t it want to perish right there, inside its prison? She had just heard from the bloke on discovery channel that a butterfly came out of a cocoon but here she was watching it now and she hated it with every ounce of life that was contained in her petite body. Yet she stayed and watched the form fighting against itself. Slowly it emerged, a little gooey, icky and unsure of what it was doing. As it emerged completely and tried to take flight, Ranju suddenly realized what it meant. She saw light through the powder blue wings of the tiny butterfly and she knew that it did not perish inside because it had a will to live. Through the darkness it knew the silvery arc of day would eventually come through and rescue the limp form that was to be a butterfly. The spiritual transformation hit Ranju with an intensity that she could not comprehend. She jumped off the branch and ran behind the butterfly, over the washing stone, around the Mallipoo Chedi. She kept following it in hope that it would help her understand better how she could transform into a butterfly too, how she could channel the beauty inside her and regain her life. She jumped over the wall, eyes glued to the fluttering form above her, the entire world and its noise shut out by the effort and concentration.
It happened so suddenly then, she got blown over into the air and fell with a sickening sound of something heavy hitting soft earth. There she was lying in a pool of her own blood as the menacing truck sped past. The soft sand below her absorbed her blood like a thirsty dog, parched and lonely. She tried to smile but nothing escaped her weak lips. She tried to cry but her eyes were too dry from months of crying. Life was leaving her like the same slippery sand leaving the tight grip of the human palm. She had after all attained liberation! Her last view of the world was that butterfly, the blue wings with the powdery streaks of silver and black. It had indeed freed her like it freed itself from the sinful corner, the irksome life she was enduring. Death was not the bat like shadow of fear anymore, but salvation through the flight of the winged fairy.
Have you ever had days when you just couldn’t get out of bed? That feeling like you weight ten tons and do not want to move at all? I have felt like that for one third of my existence up to now. But it wasn’t until recently that began associating the feeling of lethargy and fatigue with my food intake. Yes, you read it right. What we eat, is who we are! It took me a long time to understand this fact even though my father tried instilling better eating habits in us from when we were young. But, I’ll come back to that in a bit.
The Modern Food Lifestyle
Most of us are barely aware of what goes into our bodies these days. And I am not just talking about food as the end product. I am talking about understanding the source of all ingredients that go into making the final meal. Generations before ours had to work hard for their meals. They tilled the land, sowed the seeds, harvested crop, milled and de-husked grains before they could use it in their meals. The same went for meats, fruits and vegetables. There was a lot of honest hard work that went into putting food on the table (not that we don’t work hard today). But with exponential growth in technology and the world becoming a smaller place, we can get our hands on just about anything we dream of today. This means several things in terms of our final meal but I am mentioning the top few that make a huge difference:
We are eating more processed food
We have stopped valuing local produce
We are consuming genetically modified products
We are eating nonseasonal items
Yoga and food consumption
So why is there such a hullabaloo about eating ready meals, exotic fruits or foreign vegetables? Let us understand it from a yogic perspective. The yoga shastras are very clear on what foods should be consumed to keep the body and mind healthy. Foods are classified based on their nature or gunas into sattvic, rajasic and tamasic foods. Here I have attempted to explain these terms without going into microscopic details:
Sattvic foods- Food that is freshly prepared, lightly seasoned and has the right proportions of vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Is known to be sattvic food. Ayurveda further suggests that all the 6 tastes i.e. sweet/ madhura, salt/ lavana, sour/ amla, pungent/ katu, bitter/ tikta, and astringent/ Kashaya, should be balanced well in a sattvic diet. Foods like whole wheat, rice, local millet, corn, beans, locally grown vegetables, milk, clarified butter/ghee, and seasonal fruits are all considered sattvic foods.
Rajasic foods- Excess of flavoring in any food is considered rajasic. Foods that over-stimulate brain activity are also classified as rajasic foods. So any food that you are tempted to eat due to addition of taste enhances would fall into this category too. These tend to upset the delicate balance of doshas (vatta, pitta, and kapha) in our body. Examples of rajasic foods are tomato, coffee, bottled juices, chocolates, onion, garlic, and sugar.
Tamasic foods- Foods that are over-processed, take time to digest, and stale food fall into the category of tamasic foods. Food prepared while in an angry mood or while distracted are also considered tamasic. Ayurveda and yoga advice that food should be prepared consciously to allow it to assimilate properly in the body. Alcohol, pickles, fried foods, highly fermented foods, and foods with high quantities of preservatives are considered tamasic for the body.
The mind-body-emotion connect
Yoga shastra speaks about the human body being made up of 5 layers or sheaths. These layers are the annamaya kosha, pranamaya kosha, manomaya kosha, vignyanamaya kosha, and anandamaya kosha. Translated loosely, it means, food body, aural body, emotional body, intellectual body, and bliss body. Of these, the food body or sheath consisting of our physical body is made up of the five elements, mainly earth, water, fire, air and space. All forms of food that enter our body are a combination of these elements too.
Now good quality food nourishes the annamaya kosha because the five elements work well with each other and assimilate very organically. The impact of organic assimilation transcends the annamaya kosha and is reflected in the breath, mental state and our intellectual capabilities. The converse is true as well here. Genetically modified foods, non-local produce and over-processed food do not have the purity of the five elements and can disrupt the absorption and digestion of food, leading to several other problems in the body. This spirals through to affect our prana/ aura, emotions and intellect.
Sattvic foods are supposed to keep the mind alert, keep emotions in control and provide rest to the body. Rajasic foods allow for emotional freewheeling, stress and dullness to creep into the mind and body. Tamasic foods on the other hand, lead to us feeling physically fatigued, emotionally drained and intellectually under capable most of the time.
Balancing our food intake to maintain good health
In conclusion I want to say that in moderation, even rajasic and tamasic foods bring in passion, stability and grounding. It isn’t that we should completely begin avoiding all of the easy options that technology has gifted to us. What we need to do, however, is to strike a balance to make sure that our daily meals are made with fresh and easily available ingredients that are locally sourced. We could try avoiding nonseasonal fruits and vegetables, genetically enhanced produce, and internationally sourced ingredients. Finally, coming back to what my father tried real hard to teach us- savor your food, chew well, eat small portions, avoid snacking (especially processed foods), and always eat on time.
“A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.”
George A. Moore
This is a story from my files. I had written this in 2004 but it holds good infinitely.
Ever so often in my sober life, I had wondered what I have gained from being normal! What came of following the crowds, of joining the classless mob? A pretentious life, an unfulfilling satisfaction, and unfinished sense of completion? Where was I going with all this? It was like trying so hard to fit in.
Then one night I sat up in bed and decided to be different. I packed my bags and waited for dawn. For the first time in my life I appreciated how the soft light crept through the curtains of night and slowly seeped all over the sky, lighting up an inky atmosphere to look golden and bejewelled. How my lifeless routine had conditioned me to ignore all this beauty, to see it as just another normal way of life!
I walked out on my overly secure presence, into an adventure that I was excited about. I disconnected my phone and handed over the reins of my shop to my niece and left. My senses were tingling with anticipation. I caught the only bus that had tickets, heading towards Davangere. By 1pm I got there. I made notes of all things that caught my eye on the journey. I wanted to make a travelogue. I noted just about everything that touched me from the green paddy fields, the vineyards, sunflower fields, tomato and chili farms, tiny goat kids with skin like black velvet, old crones drying chili on a tarred road, dark men selling cucumber to passing cars, dead dogs, crows, just everything. I had lunch at a dusty dhaba called Doodh Sagar dhaba. I decided to stay at Davangere for the night. For a little district it was noisy during the day, bustling with little buses, cattle and men fighting for space on the narrow roads, that were half cobbled and half tarred. At night, though, it was like a dream, quaint and faraway. It was a sleepy town under a silky, star-studded sky.
I had booked a ticket to Ooty for the next day. The bus ride was bumpy and rickety. I had to change buses at Mysore and caught the connecting bus with minutes to spare. I’ll say that the journey to Ooty was a learning experience in the ways of nature. The serpentine, winding roads up the ghats, crawling lazily to the top, seemed like they were challenging the downward slope on one side and the steep uphill on the other, to try and encroach upon its space there. The setting sun looked like the king of the sky, shying away from his bride, by hiding behind wisps of cloud. The dull orange that graced the sky look like the sun was indeed blushing. As he cast his evening, orange blush on the deciduous trees, the entire mountainside looked a pinkish red and all set to sleep away. We reached Ooty around late dusk. The town had changed drastically since my last visit. It had grown crowded. It seemed like the mountain was weeping with the weight of all the commercial hustle that had become of the quiet little town. I didn’t feel like adding to its burden and so I took a cab to the nearby Conoor. Immediately I took to the greenery and the little muddy roads and friendly people. A family was kind enough to give me accommodation. It was a refreshing to be alone in the melancholy of the hills rather than be alone in a crowd of people. I stayed here for 3 weeks. I grew very fond of the family I put up with. Mr. Maruda Nayakar was an auditor. Meera his wife was a primary school teacher and Pavan was their daughter studying in 2nd grade. They soon let me into their life and told me all about themselves. I learned, also, that Pavan had a hole in her heart that could not be corrected and that she was counting her days. I wondered how this family then put up a brave face and smiled each day, and entertained me like there was no tomorrow! Meera once told me that she loved calling her child’s name as often as possible just to hear her resounding reply and the wind in her voice, which reassured them for the time being that their child was still with them. So much pain in the world, I thought. And yet so much joy bursting from it, to overpower pain and give us a sense of warmth. At 40 I was beginning to appreciate life. I left my address and contact details with the Nayakars when I left them. I was positive that wasn’t the only thing I was leaving behind. I knew I was leaving my heart behind too.
From Ooty, I took the train to Coimbatore. In Coimbatore I had some relatives to meet. I stayed at their home. My nephews took me out for a drink. I enjoyed the evening and bonded with them for the first time without the baggage that you carry while visiting relatives in obligation. Madurai was my next stop. I paid my respects at the magnificent Madurai Meenakshi temple. I stayed in a lodge with wet walls and a lumpy bed that night. I was reminded of what comfort and security I had left behind in Bangalore. But I couldn’t complain. So far it had been a good learning experience at my age.
At the Madurai bus station the next morning, I saw something that affected my life forever. A young beggar lady was requesting for alms, holding an infant in her hands. The child was wailing incessantly. I gave her some money and she passed on. I boarded my bus and sat down to look outside the window. I noticed the child had stopped crying and felt quite glad about it. For 10 minutes my eyes followed the hawkers and pedestrians on the road. Suddenly there was an uproar, noise and confusion. The lady I gave alms to, stood howling in tears. Then I heard a hawker saying in Tamil that the infant had passed away. In a second the woman’s life had crumbled. Her young one was lying lifeless in her embrace, she shaking it, willing it to come back to life. In a split second, life had knocked the wind out of her. My heart was heavy as I left Madurai that morning.
I landed at Dhanushkoti, late evening. As I crossed the Rameshwaram bridge I watched the waves in the surrounding, whispering the secrets of the world to the winds. They were conversing in a mysterious language that my narrow mind could not comprehend. I yearned to listen in on this conversation between wind and water. What kept them so happy and carefree? Their lack of emotions seemed to say so much more than the deepest of our emotions or expressions! How I wanted to be a part of them. Merge with the sand below the sea, the particles filling molecular spaces between the winds, yet here I was on a bus, more solid than my desires, wishing for a moment that I wasn’t. Dhanushkoti is the tip of Rameshwaram, with the Bay of Bengal on 3 sides of its triangular tip. This was the pious land that had aided Lord Rama in his rescue of Sita, which in later years would go on to become inaccessible due to LTTE movement. What respect did we humans have for things beyond our knowledge, shedding blood on God’s lands!
But for now I was content with this peace-loving town. There were no hotels here and stayed at a temple dharamshala. It was the epitome of simplicity. A straw mattress, pillow and simple blankets were all I had, to fight the winter nights. There was an earthen pot with water and this summed up the contents of my cement walled room, with a small square opening for light.
I spent my time sitting on the rocks in the seaside and pondering the mysteries of life! As I watched the waves, it seemed like they were constantly challenging the rocks to a game of touch and go. I didn’t know who had more patience: the rocks who stood tall and took the incessant lashing of the waves without a change, or the waves who persistently whipped over the rocks and came crashing down with all their strength, trying to erode the rocks! Who was mightier, I asked, and both I admitted to myself. The waves rolling back and forth during low tide was like miles of foam gushing and gurgling between porous holes of coral, tickling and teasing them for their mighty silence. The green shelled crabs scuttling in and out, weaving through the rocks, getting slapped by the water was like seeing naughty kids playing hide and seek. Who was the creator of all this glory? How did his creativity transcend into breath-taking beauty upon this earth? Was he the same God who created disease, sorrow and death on the one hand and so much of love, birth and beauty on the other? Is it his way of balancing the world? He is so poetic, I must say!
In this little Dhanushkoti I met a magic man! He brought a smile to my face. He saw all of nature’s beauty in a way that I loved. He made my eyes twinkle. He could move me to tears with his touching tales of travel. He was an addict of the free life and mindless travel just like I had become. Patrick Hennessey was the kind of traveller who at 45 was the mirror reflection of my inner self. He changed my life in a few moments. I telegraphed my sons, telling them of my plans to get married again, here in Dhanushkoti. My boys caught the next flight to Madurai and drove down to the end of the world to meet mama and the crazy man who had charmed her! Quiet surprisingly neither of them was distressed. On the contrary they were very excited about the idea. They took to Pat like they had known him forever. My one-month at this place ended with me married. My sons went back to their respective businesses and I left to Nainital as Mrs. Nisha Patrick Hennessey!!
Nainital was all hills and apple orchards! A year passed with us traveling to Leh, Srinagar, Manali, and then to Shillong, Meghalaya, Bengal etc. They were all made more enjoyable with us recounting our stories to each other. The snow, the mountains, the frozen lakes, left us with no words to describe their beauty. They gave us a peace of mind and sense of contentment that compares to nothing else. The morning due, the evening hues, the rain, the sun, the sky, enormous heights with no limits to life!
After a year and half of self-actualization and travel, Pat and I came back to Bangalore. Home at last! I sifted through my mail on returning and found one from the Nayakars. I knew before I opened it, that the contents carried the burdens of life. Pavan had passed away a few months ago. My eyes were wet and my heart heavy. I made a trip to their home and paid my respects.
I had learned so much from life in the last 18 months. I had gained a new family in the Nayakars, who became an important part of the rest of my days. I had gained a soul mate, who grew old with me and grew better with me as we aged. A few years prior, I would have never dreamed this possible! I had acquired normalcy from the abnormal events that I had witnessed in the world and had grown to respect the subtleties and satisfaction that come with a quiet and ordinary life.
I had a sudden and severe onset of sciatica pain on Wednesday night and it hasn’t subsided. As I tried every method on earth to fight the pain, my annoying phone kept buzzing with messages, all from one particular group- my teachers training batch from SVYASA Yoga university. We were batch 201 and our month long journey of learning started on this day, last year. Naturally all my fellow students and batch mates had become nostalgic and emotional. Everyone was exchanging messages about how it didn’t seem like a whole year had passed and how they all missed each other.
Now I am not easily pulled into anniversary celebrations and trips down memory lane, but despite the searing pain in my right thigh, I got to thinking about May 2019! I remember how, being a complete introvert, I was very apprehensive about chatting with people. I tried my best to avoid the seemingly noisy and raucous bunch in my dorm room, but gave in to their friendly smiles and chatter and joined them for a bit. My big plans to mind my own business and remain invisible seemed to bite the dust and I was in for a long journey of bonding, learning, and even some fun.
A month of sweeping halls, washing my own clothes, eating in a huge common hall, using public bathrooms and bearing the scorching summer sounds like hell as I look back at my month as a YIC ( Yoga Instructors Course) student. But there were many fun parts too. The group bhajan sessions twice a day, asana practice, teeny breaks where we rushed off to the canteen for some non-satvic food, cracking jokes mid-lecture, the happy assembly skits, and the games during Krida Yoga, all came rushing back to my mind in one long sweep and I managed to break into a smile.
After the course was done, I got back into my regular life very easily. I confess that I didn’t miss anybody or anything and began teaching yoga the very next month. I have been learning as much as I have been teaching and it has been a wonderful year. I even managed to make some amazing friends from YIC batch 201 that I didn’t interact with during my month long stay at Prashanti Kuteeram. Yet somehow, today as everyone on the group was getting nostalgic, I too gave in and journeyed back to that month I spent rediscovering myself and forging a new me. I admit that it was a beautiful month and I will cherish it forever, as I will cherish the handful of friends that I have made. Yoga will always be in my heart, soul and breathe as will the memories of the summer of 2019!
When the lock-down in India began on 25th March, good friend and fellow yogi, @zeus_gaurav suggested that we start a yoga challenge. I have been practicing yoga every day and so I didn’t think it was too much extra trouble and agreed. We posted three simple asanas for each day and tagged friends on WhatsApp and Instagram. Several friends participated. Some went all the way to day 21 while others dropped off midway. Many people who claim to love yoga but never actually practice also attempted this #21daysofyoga challenge. It was delightful to see friends and strangers alike, sharing pictures of their postures on social media.
But what really got me excited about this exercise was that we motivated people to get onto their mats. People who have never been interested in yoga, too, started to ping me with queries about the theory and the practice of asanas. I realized that knowledge of yoga and asana practice was very tip-of-the-iceberg among people. Too many of my acquaintances said ‘we are not as flexible as you to practice yoga”. This got me pondering over why people associate yogic postures with flexibility of the body alone. That’s when I decide to write a post about the meaning of asana and how it relates to posture practice in yoga.
What Asana Means
Asana literally means Seat. Why then is it a suffix for all Sanskrit posture names in yoga? In the days of yore (oh yeah, I just used that phrase), when sages and true yogis practiced asceticism, practicing different postures was simply a means to improve flexibility of muscles, lengthen the spine and elongate the breathe in order to be able to sit indefinitely in a single position. This was the only way they could focus and concentrate on their inward journey. That is why any posture that was practiced was suffixed with asana because it was tool or a catalyst to the end goal of being able to sit still. Sitting cross-legged was enabled by opening up the hips, concentration and focus was improved by lengthening the spine and holding the back muscles erect and calming the breath slowed the mind down.
Asana for flexibility and not flexibility for asana
Today, we are plagued by illnesses and the need for instant gratification so much so that we are unable to sit still for a mere 5 minutes. Our lives have become comparable to that of 5 years olds whose attention monkeys from place to place in under one minute. So we are lead to believe that yoga is for people with flexible bodies. I cannot stress how important it is to break through this thought pattern. Every ‘body’ can practice asanas. With each day of practice our bodies will open up a little bit more. The body will respond a little more with every attempt and that is how we will become flexible. We all may not attain the same level of flexibility or the same mastery of advanced postures, but we will certainly open up new dimensions to our mind-body relationship. We will embark on a journey towards flexibility of our minds. We will be more successful in quietening the mind and bringing a certain stillness to our lives. After all, in a world full of smart technology and instant deliverable, isn’t stillness and quiet what we are all after?
For a lot of people, yoga is limited to the practice of ‘asana’. Twisting and bending into impossible knots excites everyone and it is often the ultimate goal. But yoga is not limited to and is certainly not defined only as the performance of complex postures. The vastness of what can be described as yoga is beautifully detailed in the ‘Yoga Sutra’ by Maharishi Patanjali. The book consists of 4 chapters and 196 verses, the first of which is exponentially meaningful and intriguing. The very first of these sutras is Atha Yoga Anushasanam- Now the discipline of Yoga! Understanding this particularly brief sutra has changed my life in more than one ways.
Atha= Now; Yoga= Union; Anushasanam= Discipline
I delve into the meaning of the very first verse here because of its significance to all yoga practitioners. At first glance it simply comes across as meaning- Let’s start practicing yoga. But if we look deeper, there is significance to each of the three words.
Atha, meaning now, seems like the least important word in the sutra. In our eagerness to get to ‘Yoga’ we often forget about the ‘now’. A very important aspect of yoga is being mindful of the present. One of the hardest aspects and deepest arms of spiritual practice is staying focused on the here and now. You can only practice yoga now. Even the practice of asanas or postures is designed to keep us mindful of the present. Concentrating on our muscular movement, our breathing pattern or the energy change in our body keeps us tied to the present in a very real way. Atha is, therefore, very meaningful here. It encourages us to be focused on our present at all times. Yoga is not in our past and neither is it in our future but is at the moment that we practice it. Atha transforms yoga into a living and current teaching that is just as valuable today as it was in our scriptures.
Yoga by definition comes from the root word Yuj or Yoke. It means to join together various aspect of human existence (mind and body, prana and jiva, atma and paramatma). So yoga isn’t just asana practice. In fact, Patanjali lists 8 branches or Ashta-anga to the practice of yoga. Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi (social restraint, personal behaviour, posture practice, control of breath, withdrawal of senses, concentration, meditation, absorption) make up the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga. Different schools of yoga propagate varying ideas about whether these limbs should be followed in a particular order or be done in combination with each other. Personally I believe that the sum total of these limbs is certainly better that any individual limb alone. That brings me to my understanding of the last word in the sutra.
Discipline or Anushasanam is not isolated to the practice of asanas alone. Discipline should be the mantra of all aspects of life. Yoga itself, through advocacy of the eight limbs helps us understand that the inward journey begins when we are disciplined in all walks of life. Our body is the totality of everything that we consume and our mind is a summary of thought we absorb and retain. It takes discipline to control what goes into our body and mind. Even Lord Krishna states in the Bhagavad Gita-
“Yuktahara Viharasya, Yukta cheshtasya Karmasu |
Yukta svapnavabhodasya, Yogo Bhavati Dukha-ha||”
Regulated eating, sleeping, working and recreation as performance of yoga will diminish pain in life.
As a person who never understood the need for moderation as a youngster, I ended up becoming diabetic at a very young age. My yoga journey unlike most people’s began with meditation, went on to kriya and then I very recently took up asana practice. This gave me time to understand the importance of waking up early, eating in moderation, and never indulging in excesses. Although it took a while coming, I now understand that the practice of yoga is applicable in every walk of life by applying moderation, discipline and mindfulness to everything that we do. This is how we truly become practitioners of yoga.
As children, we were always taught to begin any writing by drawing, at the top of the page, an Om symbol. All my letters and postal correspondence with family, (Yes, I am old enough to have written letters to family and friends), thus, began with an Omkara. It is not surprising, the, that my first blog post after so much procrastination, should be about Omkara.
Significance in Spirituality and Yoga
As per Yogic studies, Om or more precisely, AUM, is the primordial sound from the beginning of the universe and from which the entire universe was created. It is one of the most common, yet powerful ‘Beeja’ mantras and has been chanted by ascetics and sages across the Indian sub-continent for millenia. Mystics are said to have mentioned this as the background hum they hear from the universe and everything in existence. This is the reason that it is also referred to as Pranavakshara or cosmic sound.
The Mandukya Upanishad states that the Ekakshara (the single syllable) is the source of all that is known, visible, and comes within the purview of sensory perception and inferences. It is mentioned as the imperishable and unchanging.
(The Imperishable is OM, it is “all this”. Everything else, whatever it be, of the past, present, or future, is like an elucidation, description or commentary on the meaning of this Eternal Truth – the Imperishable Om. Everything is Om)
My Experience With the Omniscient Sound
It is said that when the sound is produced with great attention and full consciousness, it originates at the Manipura Chakra (above the navel) and travels all the way up to the throat. It covers the entire spectrum of sounds that the larynx is capable of making. The prana or energy that flows within the nadis in our body is cleansed by these vibrations and allows for energy to rise from lower chakras to higher chakras.
My first encounter with chanting Om happened in 2014 when I attended a Yoga workshop. There were about a 100 participants and when we were asked to chant Om, the vibration inside the hall peaked in a way that I had never expected. Following this encounter, I began chanting 21-Aums and have been doing it ever since. I have personally felt the positive effects of meditating on the Pranavakshara. The internal vibration caused by chanting A_U_M have helped me clear my mind on several occasions. I have felt more energy, less stressed, and more physically able after chanting Om. As a yoga instructor, I introduced this to my batch of students too. I didn’t expect anything to come of it but I was surprised when they began asking to include Om meditation in every session. The feedback was that they felt lighthearted and more energetic. They mentioned that they have also never felt so much at peace with themselves and their surroundings, as when they were chanting Om.
The universe is nothing without action. If all actions were vibrations, but only certain frequencies were discernible by the human ear, then everything that exists within and outside us, is Om. Understanding this can give us an understanding of our consciousness, which is eternally trying to become one with the divine Consciousness.