She used to eat Upma. My first yoga teacher. And she used to eat it in class. With this really passive, resigned expression as though it had no salt in it but what the hell, that was the state of her life anyway. I think her name was Janini but the truth is that all I remember is the Upma. I was eight years old at the time.
An eight year old, face full of sulk, walking down Promenade road at 7:45 every morning, alongside an Amma who god-knows-how managed to deal with it.
When my friends ask, I say I do yoga because of my asthma. The mention of asthma usually makes non-asthmatics very uncomfortable because they’re never sure how serious it is. Their expressions flit back and forth from Hahaha you breathless goldfish to Oh shit does this mean you could die tomorrow. Of course, the real reason I do yoga is because I was homeschooled, taught to play the veena, do vedic math and grow my own food.
When we used to practise yoga at home, the Om chanting always coincided with my neighbours leaving for school and my biggest fear was that they’d hear us and know I was doing weird things with my life like yoga. Because let’s be real, whether Bipasha Basu is majorly into yoga or not, the coolness level of yoga really isn’t easy to figure out. On one hand we have slender, flat ab-ed, fit white women on bright green mats in big glass houses by the sea doing graceful, mesmerising movements in YouTube videos and on the other, we have hairy Baba Ramdev.
For example. There’s this girl in Amma and Acha’s yoga class who they call Dragon Tattoo. She has short hair with a single, thin plait left long and running down her neck, and she comes wearing tights and this fluorescent sports bra beneath a loose transparent white top thing. Incredibly flexible, dead serious, dropped and picked up by a gym guy in a black Audi, Dragon Tattoo looks like she eats just fruits for breakfast, lunch and dinner with maybe a few nuts and dates in between.
Then there’s this other girl. The one who comes in dark blue tracks and a red t-shirt, the kind of clothes you see women wearing on water rides at WonderLa. Again dead serious, holy threads around her wrists and neck, a red smear of kumkum on her broad forehead. A little older than me, she is taller, has confident shoulders like Sonakshi Sinha and looks like she eats a spoonful of ghee every morning before sunrise. One day I didn’t have my mat with me. So Sir gave me this ghee-loving girl’s mat and said “Take this, my wife isn’t coming today”.
(But she’s like 5! How could he? OhMYGOD CHILD MARRIAGE IS REAL. But he seems so nice! What about her education?! Amma do something! Aargh what if she get pregnant! That’s like, that’s like, me as a MOM. God save us all!)
It took some time, but once I was able to look at her without thinking OMG child marriage, I noticed that there was something different about her way of doing yoga. And the only word I could think of to describe it, was Indian.
While Dragon Tattoo and the white women in videos may move in slow, graceful stretches, dipping and rising from one asana to the next, arms flowing and fingers forever making lotus mudras, Sir’s wife moves like she knows exactly where on the mat her hands and feet belong. Her yoga is firm. While Dragon Tattoo can bend over backwards and fold herself up into a box, Sir’s wife can support her entire weight on just her wrists and balance like a scorpion on her elbows. Dragon Tattoo is all about being at peace, she’s totally in the zone, finding her mental space surrounded by soft, flickering candles that smell good. Sir’s wife does yoga like she’s washing the dishes and it’s just something that has to be done no matter what space you’re in.
I admire her, and she scares the goddamn daylights out of me.
Between upma eater and Prasad Sir, I was taught for nearly seven years by Raaj Sir. His school of yoga did not require any kind of eyebrow centre awareness or focused breath sound. Instead it was peppered with little distractions. We’d celebrate one another’s birthdays, bringing cake and singing away while also discussing calories.
We’d be in the middle of Tibetan Rites and all of sudden Raaj Sir would see a squirrel on the tree outside and call all of us to come come fast and look, after which of course we’d spot the raw mangos and end up watching Sir animatedly throw stones at it, overcome by nostalgia for his childhood. Everyone talked in Raaj Sir’s class, talked and laughed at each other’s inflexibility.
Crunches were a group project, with everyone groaning and cheering and we-can-do-it-ing together. Each asana was a circus trick and I, his star student. It was like being homeschooled and coming first in class.
You know what they say about doctors and handwriting? It’s the same with yoga teachers and English. Now place your paws behind your head, mentalintualize (not mentally visualize) the unflickering golden light, in breath innn, out breath outt! Yes yes, inhile and exile, very good. Turn the other side of your face, relax your eyebrows, relax your abdomen and relaaaax your kidneys. And there I am lying in Shavasana on the mat, thinking frantically, oh shit now where the hell are those?
It’s damn hard to take yoga seriously.
If you hang out with my family, they’ll sooner or later tell you the story of how even as a child I was too fat to play ball and would sit on my bum in the middle of the room and call the ball to me, nodding my head at it and making encouraging sounds like come on, here here, ammede aduthu va kunje. I was never one for exercise and thought of my body (the way it’s described in this article) as just an inconvenient container for my head.
Because honestly, what does your body do? It demands a lot of food, tears to pieces the little self esteem you have and wrecks havoc to your world no less than once every month.
Sometime last year I went for a contemporary dance performance by Attakkalari’s diploma students. I’d been to Attakkalari performances before, and honestly when people start rolling on the floor or swaying in a corner while staring off into the distance, I just feel like man, what are you even doing? But this time… it was something else.
To watch those dancers on stage (whether it was the ballet or the kuchipudi or the piece about telephone wires in urban India) made me feel so jealous of their dedication. They were so aware of what their bodies were capable of, not self conscious but simply able to say, hey look, this is my body and I believe in it.
When Prasad Sir does yoga in front of the class (as a gentle reminder of how far we all are from any sort of halfway decent practice in case we were feeling proud of ourselves), I get the same feeling. You can’t ask him man, what are you even doing, because he’ll simply look you in eye and say, Yoga.
Like duh, you dimwit.
So it’s not because of the asthma. It’s because no matter how long I sat there in the middle of the room, the ball never came to me. Because I’d hate for everything to do with yoga to be associated with white women and Modi. Because till death do them apart, my mind and body are stuck with each other and it’s about time they learnt to deal with it. So here’s to upma eater and Dragon Tattoo and Raaj Sir and Prasad Sir and the ghee-loving girl.
Now bring it Baba Ramdev.