Innnnncoming. DTWJFKCDGBLR, exhale. There’s a new billboard as you leave Bangalore airport. A man in a stiff pinstripe suit sits under palm trees next to a lake. Pure nature around him, and a miserable little macbook open on a knee. It’s another ad for an elite housing enclave. English text: “Your own quarter acre on the golf course. Where work, style, life and leisure meet.” The message is big in the technoburbs, where fine-grained social stratification and American consumer values meet.
It’s important to see what’s happening here sociologically, and that I’m a part of it. I make this drive every year. Each January, the highway stretches further from the airport, three stories above the ground. It’s a different story up there allright, replacing the lights and grit and quiet thrill of the 3am streets with something like Gotham – a 70MPH executive view over what appears to be industrial waste.
I’ve just read the storybooks The Peripheral and Aghori: At the Left Hand of God, so my mind’s mood lighting is dystopian (from Gibson), tempered with a happy thrill to the darkside (from Svoboda). I roll with it. Soon we’ll have a hundred mile welcome mat, and it won’t feel much different from summer night drives overtop LA or Detroit. In this an other ways, it will get easier and easier for the crowds coming to Camp Mysore (Joseph Dunham’s affectionate term) not to know much of India.
The highway ends, letting us down in a pile of gravel, where we sniff around until we pick up a trail going our way. We speed south in the dark, south, south, south. Next morning, switchbacks through tiger preserve that borders Tamil Nadu state. There are promising warning sides for leopards (my favorite), including a picture a big cat jumping into an open car window with the caption: DO NOT FEED THE MONKIES. We pass peacocks and deer and an enormous wild boar stalking the roadside. Then a far more enormous transport truck tipped over in the eddy of a hairpin turn. Two men sit on their haunches, guarding their pounding hearts, and stare out over a many thousand foot drop. Monkeys chew their knuckles on the ledge.
I have driven the mindbending roads to Ali Shan, the Hellroaring Plateau, and the El Salvador-Honduras borderlands. What’s different about this crazy mountain pass is… it is also a full-on truck route. At every turn, there’s a face-off between the upward and downward moving energy; we sometimes wait for up to 30 trucks to head up before we can sneak around a corner heading down. (Now as I write this, we’re northbound nearing the mountain again, and I ask that Madhu the driver be bold enough get me to the church – KPJ registration – on time.)
Back on the way south to the Ayurveda institute, we get good and lost south of Coimbatore. Finally we see a tiny, faded sign, and follow it past some family farms to the end of a barely passable road. Signs of life: piles of refuse outside a long, low terracotta wall. I try an opening in the wall and find abandoned bicycles, more junk, and a long walkway heading east. Around a corner, the walkway turns from mud to granite, then becomes covered, then slopes down through lush gardens. Hibiscus are in bloom and there’s no ambient wifi, no sound but birds and breeze. A tall man with bright black eyes appears, says my name and his—Hakeem. “We are waiting for you.”
There’s the lingering matter of my suitcase, which went missing in Paris when the moon turned new. Air France Bangalore has found it impossible to locate the receiver of their own ringing phone for the past day, so I speculate they will have an even harder time finding this place should the bag resurface. The only thing to do is put the matter in a friend’s hands and not think about it until Mysore. Meantime here I arrive as they would prefer: without baggage.
It is easy to drop in. There is a routine, and minimal stimulation, and an omnipresent but strictly unexpressed feel of loving support. For the first 8 days, I see only the doctors and only leave my room to watch the kittens who play in the hibiscus around the corner. The doctors tell me they need at least a month to go deep with this method; two weeks is nothing but a little experiment, and I’m not really going to get it.
There is not a formal meditation instruction to keep my mind on task. I could revert to a technique but instead just feel things out, doing as I’m instructed and not more. The discursive center goes dim, making the image center ultra bright. For days my life streams before my eyes. Whole-body memories of meaningless flashes from the post: some grocery store parking lot in Missoula, an intersection in Madrid, the Amnesty International storage closet in DC, a store window in Anchorage, the silverware-rolling station at a waitressing job. Around the third day, the content turns to faces and situations that aren’t from this life, huge steams of content that pass too quickly to put in to words.
It feels like part of the cleansing process, watching the first things the mind does upon entering a virtual dark cave, when the projections are still running at top speed.
Like if you had a TV set that you unplugged, but instead of going dark it took a life of its own and streamed mashups of the last 10 or 100 seasons of comedy and drama. That input-free projection would reveal everything about the TV’s own limited understanding of what those shows were about. It would be helpful to see the mashup the TV recycled objectively, as a kind of abstract art; to not believe the stories it threw on the screen; and to appreciate the total absurdity of the play.
I love that every day the doctors ask about my dreams.
Ayurvedic massage, abhyanga, is a vinyasa practice. Rhythmic strokes put together in themes and sub-themes, repetitions and cycles. Every visitor at the institute is oiled for an hour daily by one or two therapists, then washed in bean or nut paste. This is unbelievably pleasant for the receivers. Some say it takes the edge off compulsions that come up when the only thing you eat for days is ghee and overcooked rice in water.
I was prescribed a further daily treatment, elakkizhi. After the oiling, two women – Bindu and Radhika – heat herb poultices over a fire and lightly pound my body for an hour. I lie on a tall table made of a single piece of cherry colored wood, with strips of cotton to cushion the joints as they put my body in different postures. The poultices smell of grass, leaves, tulsi, chamomile and a little jasmine. They’re bound in cotton, dipped in sesame oil, and left to sizzle over the fire.
Bindu and Radhika work constantly keeping the poultices hot and my body in their vinyasa rhythm. Not unlike a super-advanced but gentle game of whac-a-mole. Their speech, in Malayalam, is incoherent music, full of tongue-widening consonants and high notes that sound like a wind instrument. Eventually, Bindu warms up a bucket of water and washes my body in a paste that smells (and tastes; oops) like freshly cut grass, coarse jaggery, and pounded chickpeas. (That’s the closest I get to soap for two weeks.) When I’m dressed, she takes my Ayurvedic vitals (sense-based indicators of health like pulse, eye quality, skin texture), applies a tilak, and accepts my eye and body gestures of thanks.
In the self-conscious moments on the table, I am a happy chapatti. It’s then that I can’t help but feel a little bit sorry for the previous selves who did not know elakkizhi.
But mostly, the learning involves a very deep release of doership. Let the muscles, and the connective tissues, and the bones reverberate with this. Go beneath the pleasure to the emptiness on the other side of it. Allow the body to be tenderized and herb-massaged like the meat that it is.
See about letting go not just of doership but of narrow self-ownership: let the body belong to the process.
I know nothing of Ayurveda, and am guessing that many people in the west who claim to teach it know nothing too. The Doctors here are educated far beyond a conventional MD, serve years of apprenticeships, and often grew up in households and lineages of Ayurvedic physicians.
That said, there are big clues here about the Ashtanga practice. Healing practice includes: vinyasa; stoking of the internal fire; tenderizing of the tissues; untangling of the nadis; nyasa of the marmas. And cultivating, on many levels, a capacity to be moved.
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