Western Mind • 1 March 2015

A cow walks into a Xerox shop on the Gokulam high road. Storm wind drops down from the honey locusts, she flicks her tail so hard her udders sway, and I gun the blender-engine in my Scooty Streak. Rain, two months ahead of season. There is no defensive driving here: street safety is in merging. You only exceed traffic speed if you’re a 19-year-old boy on a crotch rocket and a cell phone. But this threatening wind makes me weave through V.V. Mohalla like an Angeleno, and by the time I hit JLB Road the rain is sputtering. A branch snaps overhead and cuts my arm as it falls. Dust flies in my face and for some reason it’s hard to hear. It’s safer to get to the Sisters before the streets get wet. I tuck down their alley between kids running home and park right on Ratna’s rangoli to keep the bike out of the downpour.

When it comes, I’m already face down on the visqueen in the back room with the other two sisters kneading smoky castor oil into my back with their toes. The holes in the concrete walls let the wind in, and the zinc roof drums over our chatter about the way Guruji taught them ashtanga in Kaanada, before these waves of westerners grew large.

All this, and the rainbow over Ramakrishna Ashram on the drive home, come in through sense gates re-callibrated to the one human consciousness that excites me most. My brother arrives in three days. What will he hear and see here?

We almost lost him the year he was thirteen and I was sixteen. They opened his skull, and part of the grey matter – and the person there – went away. Who came back to this world a year later, when they let him off the drugs that flat-lined his mind, was someone different. Not a regular person. Now good at everything, including the understanding of humans. A perceiver, a peacemaker, a creative, a tastemaker; and the first person to correctly call me on my shit and demonstrate a higher way of being in the world. So for 20 years I have been admirer and protector of a life I value more than my own. There is nothing more inspiring than a mind made subtle because of hang-ups it doesn’t have. I wonder dow much more there is to learn in letting ideas go than in collecting them.

Sensorially, it will be enough for him to suggest he sit on the bench across from the shala and drink coconuts under this week’s 4am full moon, while I put my feet behind my head. That much is a lot, experience-wise. My mind adds to this string of future stimuli the taste of chai, the sound of Muslim prayers at sunrise, the personalities of the dogs who live in the street. Plus maybe also there will be scooter lessons, secret breakfast, Loyal World, lessons in cross-cultural English, rice paddy obstacle courses with oxen and white herons looking on, morning puja at Srirangapatna, his ability to intuit on contact a city it took me 12 months to learn, work sessions at the Green Hotel, drives through Muslim town to Saint Philomena’s (with its diorama of Jesus arriving on the coast of India, greeted by a man in a loin-cloth holding a magic potion), his discomfort with this dissolute post-colonial scene, shopping for antiques, Indian toilets, and… (that which may leave the strongest memory) masala dosa.

This question of how he will perceive mundane Mysore resaturates experience I’d started to take for granted. Love is a drug. I’ve been on this one all February, while working to rebalance my body from the last year (and really four years) of teaching. It has also been a month of sisterhood with others who know what it is to build a grassroots program – with women who know the personal costs, and the healing capacity, of creating safe space.

Safe space is not something pop-culture yoga cares for. Colleagues who get it and can articulate how they hold it are rare. But for a small number of people here who have actually healed their own minds through years of practice, and who teach specifically so that others might do the same, safe space is a main concern. One of these women pointed out that serious Mysore teachers with serious rooms work about half the year. The rest of the time the students do dinacharya – same time, same place, same practice, just going inside. I won’t step back that much, but am coming to understand that the 11/1 ratio is not sustainable. It may be necessary during the first five years of farming from seeds, but I see the shala may do better in its adolescence if I learn to work a little less.

* * * * *

The other thing that happened this month was that an Ayurveda teacher decided to teach me. A random blessing I do not take lightly. What happened is that I went to visit a professor on behalf of a friend, with the idea that meeting experts can help me point in the right direction when students back home ask questions. The professor runs her own clinic, and is a lineage-holder from the guru Raghavendra Malladahalli. I got lost and annoyed in search of her, especially because I didn’t know what I’d say when we met and expected little more than 5 awkward minutes on her threshold. But it would have been a shame to turn back from a student related mission, so I didn’t give up.

I arrived late and dusty. I badly wanted to go home, until she sat down across from me and beamed. We talked for a long time that first afternoon, alternating questions and disclosures. We made each other laugh. I thought her pacing and idea-structures were exactly my style… though now I wonder if there is a more esoteric reason she holds my attention so fully. On the first drive home I felt the joints in my skull relax apart. Some sort of exhaust escaped through the fissures, and maybe a little light leaked in.

She invited me to keep coming back to sit together in the afternoons. The time feels significant and I’m living in an unfamiliar state of inspiration. That’s more than enough to keep me from asking what’s in this for me.

Oral transmission is dying. But where you can find it, it’s a hundred times more alive than anything else. A buzzing wire of life experience passed in present moments between two humans who are awake to each other. Look me in the eye, say the words with me, share my mind, answer the questions I craft to test you. It would be nice to have charts and workbooks to take home, but that would be too easy and too dead. Still there is homework: mantras, impossible questions, passages in Sanskrit. I asked if the point here is to reshape my western mindspace, and she just smiled. The person who does not meditate daily can not understand Ayurveda. Then she asked for the definition of a word whose meaning I could only piece together by remembering all the different ways she’s used it that day. Her faith that I am learning fast makes me learn fast.

I’d prefer not to talk about any of this this, but eventually what I will owe is to speak freely about how little I know. How little we know.

Ayurveda, we agree, will explode in the west the way yoga did. We will have teacher trainings and book learning and people attempting to teach for money without having gone to the heart of the science. Without having a teacher who has a teacher, or a blessing that has some power.

Westerners want to engage learning with our motor organs – arms, legs, mouth, anus, genitalia – without fully exploring the receptive capacity of the sensory organs. We know how to claim ownership and to turn knowledge into things, because for us having things is power. Some good comes of this. But we don’t get why sometimes learning is its own reward. In the situation of Ayurveda moving west, she says one positive thing she can do is to find individual westerners who are receptive, and send them home with a little bit of appreciation.

Part of the yoga is learning how to be a student. The western mind wants what it wants, and it wants it when, and how, it wants. What does it matter how we learn the postures? What does it matter how we become teachers? We look for the things. Poses and positions. So for us it is possible to collect a bunch of technique without ever understanding the traditional mode of transmission.

But what if the how is more important as the what? What if the point is to learn how to learn? Can we in the west have the flexibility of mind and fluidity of selfhood to work with these traditions on their own terms? In-person transmission is not staged or dramatic the way we make things in the west. It is not actually about celebrity. It is about mutual openness and vulnerability.

* * * * *

Wednesday we talked for less than three hours about the three hundred years the colonialists spent repressing Indian healers. Working systematically to kill their culture. They were brutal because Ayurveda was powerful. To dominate the culture, they decided, you must erase its history. You must turn its ways of making meaning into a joke.

The vaidyas were strong in the villages. People trusted them with their bodies and considered them parts of their families. (My mind goes to the Marxist priests in the Latin American campo – during the repression program of the Reagan years, the CIA saw to the massacres of the sacerdotes.) So the British had the vaidyas kidnapped. Eliminated. Their healing knowledge was sometimes repackaged in western terms so that some portion of it could survive, but more often it went underground.

Let’s remember this when the white junior scholars from England tell us yoga asana has no history. When they tell us Krishnamacharya got ashtanga from gymnastics. When they say the yoga we practice can trace its roots to twentieth century Los Angeles.

In India, a junior Ayurveda practitioner has been at the top of her school classes her whole life. She has undergone the equivalent of medical school and two practicums. Chance is she has a guru. In the west, are we going to ignore Ayurveda’s context and history well enough that 200-hour TTs will succeed?

I imagine an Indian who takes a single night-school course in American law or allopathic medicine, and then sets up shop as a lawyer or doctor. She might take a western name. Maybe she’ll get some raven tattoos and cultivate a love of artisan cocktails. But this is hard to see happening, because it would require generations of skill in erasing occupational history and asserting cultural ownership.

So, Ashtanga yoga. Questions of power and ownership will always be with us. Every few years, we will re-remember the economic and cultural inequalities that make it possible for westerners to claim Ashtanga as our own and keep it moving forward in a positive way. Periodically we will catch ourselves turning postures into commodities, or mistaking paper for knowledge.

Incidentally, did you read The Case for Reparations? Best thing that happened on the internet last year. I keep returning to Ta-Nehisi Coates, because he helps me see that privileged Americans can’t even cope with the last 70 years of local history. How much more evolving do I have to do as I attempt to expand my empathy in time and space in order to appreciate modern yoga?

Again, does authorization matter? Well, are you using it to erase history, or using it to keep history from being erased? Are you using it to pretend you own stuff, or opposing it because you want to pretend you own stuff? One person’s accountability mantra is the next person’s superstition.

Credibility gets built with one-on-one with the people who know who we are when the chips are down. It gets built when others observe over time our habits of thinking and talking. It comes from how honest we can be with our bodies. Some people have a blessing to teach from a teacher who has a real teacher of his own. Grounding like that comes from someone who knows your heart, and your training, and who will have your back.

Meantime, lineages are dying everywhere. If you do the research you can find a few live wires. The rest is chaos or trails of tears. It’s good to expect a teacher to establish his own credibility with you, person to person, and to take the time to see if he is more action than advertising.

The other day a friend here told me this story. One of SKPJ’s oldest students showed up in a major city for workshop. The room was packed. He began like this: “How many of you teach yoga?” Many hands went up.

Then: “Who told you to teach?” Silence.

I hope that this question, also, will keep coming back.