Tuesday, January 8, 2008

India: Day Six (Delhi)

Day six was the last day of the conference, and our last day in Delhi; we therefore had so many activities to pack in that by the end of it, I was so sick and tired that I crashed into bed as soon as we got back to our hotel (around ten), and have woken up early this morning (six) to write about it. We'll leave Delhi today at nine, when Matkhan, our driver, will hand us over to his friend (another Punjabi Sikh), who will drive us to Jaipur (where we'll stay for two days), to Varanasi (where we'll stay another two days), to Agra (where we'll stay one day, to see the Taj Mahal), and then back to the airport for our flight to London. Writing that all out, it becomes clear that we'll be here practically another entire week, but when I woke up yesterday morning, the morning of Day Six, I felt sick and exhausted; I had the same pounding headache I've had every morning (probably due to sinus pressure from the pollution here, and the back and neck ache from sitting all day, and not practicing vigorous yoga. I also had pervasive nausea all day, probably also from the pollution, since the food has been so nice. Anyway, I woke up and wished, for the first time so far, that I was going home. Mom, on the other hand, who didn't feel at all comfortable here the first few days, is now meshing with the environment, and quite loving the Indian people. I certainly don't want to go home to the extent that I would cut the trip short, but India is an emotionally and physically exhausting place, and I will have to look for a second wind if I'm to make it.

That said, yesterday was really delightful. We started the morning as early as we have been, with breakfast as soon as the hotel club opens at 6:30, newspapers, and a quick cup of tea before going to the Habitat Center for yoga. I have become increasingly frustrated with CNN, which plays here in the club room (where I'm writing now, as breakfast is again prepared) on two plasma televisions, since it has a tendency to flash phrases of quite disturbing breaking news ("Five bombs in five hours in Bagdhad;" and "Iranian ships announced "we will blow you up,") while playing some nonsense—an expose on digital cameras, for instance—instead of telling me what the hell is going on. Plus, the only non-local newspaper we get here is the International Herald Tribune, and the copies are always a few days late. That said, I have the internet, and it seems as if no actual disasters are occurring. So anyway, we went to yoga, where Swami-gi at long last taught us some standing poses (although did them in a very unpleasantly unorthodox (dare I say lazy?) manner). We did no forward bends, and my body still felt like a wreck afterward, when I walked into a panel session on Holotropic Therapy.

I didn't (still don't?) know what holotropic breathwork actually is, but it was designed by Stan and Christina Grof, founders of Transpersonal Psychology (one of the cornerstones of this conference). The presenters actually assumed that we already knew what the therapy consists of (indeed, most of the people there did, being holotropic therapists themselves), and so rather than explaining in too much detail what happens in a session (which might last three or four hours, and in which clients are paired with other clients. One client breathing while the other client "sits"—is available for that breather in any necessary way. Stan Grof developed this breathwork after having an epiphanic LSD experience in the 1960s, and I can't help but think of the sitter as the guide who might sit with someone tripping, to take care of them and talk them out of a bad trip, if necessary. In fact, holotropic breathwork has been tainted by it's connection with LSD, although drugs are not used in the process, which instead uses more intensive breath to generate energy and access more powerful states of consciousness, along with music and advanced bodywork to support the process. The underlying premise here is that the breath is the manifestation of consciousness, and that when there are troubles in the consciousness, they manifest themselves in the breath; we therefore can work with our energy by working with our breath. One speaker discussed her work, which combines the breathwork with water's healing powers, which she calls Aquanima (aqua for water, anima for spirit). The breathwork is here performed in a hot pool, rather than a mattress, for an increased sense of security, connection to the source, and boundary-less-ness (the water and air are the same temperature as the human body). The best quote that came out of this session was this: "symptoms are not things that you try to eliminate, but are essential parts of our energy—they are a storage of knowledge." I've recently come to this conclusion myself in dealing with chronic pain in my shoulder; I spent five years having massages, going to doctors, and trying physical therapy until I realized that the pain was trying to direct my attention to the lack of support and breath I give to the right side of my body (have you seen me sitting lately? I'm rather lopsided.) I just hope it doesn't take me another five years to find space inside, but the pain, the symptom, is with me as a constant reminder, every time I slouch into old physical habits.

After the first panel and tea break, mom and I had decided to take a break from the conference and do a bit of shopping and sightseeing with Matkhan. She had a long list of friends for whom she needed to shop (she always expresses her love by bringing carefully chosen gifts back to her co-workers, and puts much more intention into any purchase than I ever had), and I refused to leave Delhi without seeing at least the Red Fort and Old Delhi. First, we went to Old Delhi, where our driver told us he couldn't drive there, and we would have to get out of the car and take a free tricycle rickshaw to see the fort. We were a bit confused, but piled into a tiny rickshaw (not meant, I imagine, for two passengers), and the scrawny but surprisingly strong driver pedaled us at a fast clip through the crumbling streets of Old Delhi. I used my left hand to grip the side of the rickshaw while all of the explosive colors and teeming poverty of India swirled around me; I used my right hand to hold my camera, and take shot after shot, literally "on the fly," getting whatever pictures I could; this trip, for me, has been a series of pictures that I've missed, but I think I've managed to get some that still evoke the place quite well. I will try to post some of Old Delhi here tonight.

The Red Fort was the least interesting part of the ride; the rickshaw stopped and I got out to take one picture, and was ready to get back in, when a tiny waif with bare feet and a baby in her arms (her sibling, I imagine; the girl couldn't have been older than ten), dust covering her body and worn, draping clothes, came up to me saying "Ma'am, ma'am," and gesturing first to her mouth with a hand, and then holding the hand out for money. This is the gesture that we have seen throughout our trip from begging children. At the conference the day prior, my mom had asked an Indian woman, who lives in Pondicherry, why children were begging in the streets. She explained that these children come from a tribe in Rajasthan, where their way of life is to live in groups on the streets. A number of families will be controlled by one man, she called him a "gang leader," who sends the women and children into the streets to beg. The men don't work, but sleep all day in the sun, and also drink alcohol. The women and children have to bring all of the money they collect back to the gang leader. Another Indian confirmed this in a later conversation. I have had some comments from you, dedicated readers, about my unwillingness to hand out money, but it is precisely for a reason such as this that I have refused to do so. In discussion later, mom and I had decided that we would fill our bags with the fruit given to us at the hotel, and hand that out in the streets if any more hungry children came to our car. At least then, they could actually eat, and not have to turn their earnings over to their pimp, if you will. And so, when this girl approached me, I pulled a big red apple from my bag, and handed it to her. Her eyes flashed with malice, and she pointed to the baby, and gestured for money again. Then she called for her mother, who came up with another baby, and asked me for money. Meanwhile, my mom was ten paces away, bargaining with a hard-driving man for a tiny wooden backgammon set. I was running away from the relentless begging women, filled with frustration and sadness and anger that my gift hadn't been accepted more graciously, and fear and disgust and rage were welling up inside me as I insisted that we get back into the rickshaw, buy nothing, and return to Matkhan. My mom wanted rupees to buy the backgammon set and I kept shouting "No!" to her, as if I had that authority (although I was in sole possession of our rupees). We got into the rickshaw, while she continued to ask me why I wouldn't give her the money, and while I kept shouting "No!" to her and to the salesman and to the women and children and babies, all of whom were crowded around us. I told our driver to go, and we all kept shouting; the salesman running alongside us dropping his price instantaneously from $20 to $15 to $10 to $5, the girls shouting "Ma'am, ma'am!" and running, barefoot, the baby bouncing, mom demanding that I give her 20 rupees, and me shouting "No no no no no!" continuously to everyone, rather out of control. This all went on for quite some time, since our driver couldn't pedal very fast with two passengers, and the people continued to run alongside us tirelessly. After we had gotten away from the bowls of Old Delhi and closer to Matkhan and his car, I finally relented and gave my mom INR 200 in small bills, because my adrenaline levels had receded to normal and I was no longer afraid to open my bag and take out my wallet (I had imagined before, just seeing the swarm the apple had generated, even the swarm my picture-taking generated the day before, when I walked on foot through streets full of men who looked at me like they'd never before seen a white lady, the swarm that would be generated if my mom began giving rupees to one salesman; our rickshaw, hardly a protective mode of transport, would be penned in by tens of pressing bodies, shouting to sell something. I was afraid.

Once in the safety of the car, I was able to relax; Matkhan took us back to the store where we had bought paintings the day prior, and on the way we asked him to stop when we saw a dinky store on the corner that said "Jewellery and Silk" in peeling paint on the wall. I used to love Indian jewelry, but I don't wear any jewelry anymore at all. My mom still does though, and loves the local style; she had promised to bring earrings to a number of her girlfriends, but we had been astonished at the prices in the clean, well-lit, hard-bargaining tourist shops our driver had been taking us, despite our complaints. He didn't seem to want to stop here, but did anyway. At last, we saw the metal cuff bracelets, danging earrings, and huge necklaces that we had been looking for, at 1/10th the prices we'd seen previously (mind you, the tourist shops were selling silver, while these items were in white metal, but we prefer the look and feel of white metal anyway; we buy jewelry for aesthetic reasons, not investment). This shop, of course, only took cash, so Matkhan and I went on a walk, looking for an ATM, while mom stayed on to make her choices. These were the same streets where I had taken pictures the day before, so I concentrated on finding money instead of photographs. I did see one ancient man wearing orange robes, bald, brown, and with a matted white beard to his waist, but when I raised my camera to take his picture, he covered his face with his garment, and waved me away. He is the first person who hasn't wanted his photo taken, and I respectfully turned away.

I went to three different ATMs to find one that would give me money, and when the 10,000 requested rupees (about $250—what I take out every week or two in New York) came out of the machine, everyone around, Matkhan included, stared, aghast. We went back to the shop, finalized our purchases (six bracelets, a necklace, a statuette, three pendants, and a bronze ganesh head to hang on the wall, all for INR 5,250, around $140), and went back to the art shop, where we chose five painted miniatures to bring back to friends; our salesman welcomed us with tea for mom and a diet coke for me (something I loathe, but I hadn't eaten since six-thirty, and it was nearly two, and after all of the hormone rushes of the day, I was feeling rather faint, and though the sugar would do me well; I requested a coke, but diet was brought, and I wasn't about to complain). We picked out our paintings, which were INR 1,000 a piece (already discounted from INR 12,000). I didn't have the energy to spend another hour haggling, so was thrilled when, after I told the salesman that he should give us all five for a hundred bucks, or INR 4,000, he said, "OK" with a secret smile, and wrote up the receipt. Whew.

Now, Matkhan took us back to the conference, because the video presentation from BKS Iyengar, which was originally scheduled for the first day, when we ran out of time, was scheduled to play at four o'clock. On the way there, a boy, maybe ten years old, came up to our car's window in the traffic, asking for money. My mom rolled down the window and handed him an apple. He took in both hands and held it tightly, 1000 watts of smile spreading across his face. He waved it in the air to show his friends, grinning, and then the car drove away.

Iyengar is probably the most important yogi alive—sort of a yoga celebrity, if there can be such a thing; I've read one of his books and I love his imagery and insight. I had been looking forward to meeting him (he was originally supposed to present at the conference in person), and now had to make do with this video presentation. We walked into the auditorium and caught the tail-end of a session on Education, and heard some people make rather "out there" comments about what a travesty it is that spirituality is scorned by the public school system in the US, and that there out to be, in every classroom, images of all different deities from the worlds' religions, so that children can find something to grasp onto, and verify their spiritual impulses. My response is that children's minds are controlled enough in schools as it is, without adding the excesses of religion, and that furthermore, they are creative enough that, if they have spiritual tendencies, they will find their own original mode of expression (far superior, I believe, than latching onto someone else's). Of course, I am an anti-religionist, but I doubt that the answer to the problem of faith and school is "all" rather than "none," because "all" is a logistical nightmare; since pictures of Kali and Buddha and so on offend the monotheistic traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, it is, ultimately, not possible for these images to coexist in a public space. In a classroom, they would all be reduced to mythology anyway (which is what I personally consider them to be).

After this discussion, we had a quick tea break (a few cookies, I hoped would kill the gnawing twin pains in my stomach and head), and then reconvened to watch BKS Iyengar. His beautiful, strange old face, like a carved block of wood, came onto the screen, and he immediately jumped into his thesis—that there is a gap between psychology and spirituality (quite the opposite of the remarks made on day one, which proposed that the two are the same, or at least intertwined). He reminded us that people cannot jump into spiritual life immediately, that we have to start from the things that we can perceive though the senses. For example, we can see the fronts of our bodies, but not the backs. Here comes yoga, which allows us to practice recognition of our back bodies, and integrate them with our front bodies, and integrate the "five sheets of the body" until there is no difference between the skin and the self. Once this happens, all actions can start from the "causal body." Psychology, too, is a tool, but it can only work on the outer mind, whereas yoga then unites the psychological mind to the spiritual mind. Iyengar then quoted a section of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, in which the brain is described as having four hemispheres ( analytical, synthetic, blissful, and "I" seat), and the heart as four chambers (friendliness, compassion, gladness, and indifference to good or bad outcomes). Yoga helps us to blend the hemispheres of the brain and heart; it helps us to conquer physical health, so that we can reach the more imperceptible spiritual health. Certainly, I am probably butchering everything that he's said into a poorly-summarized, nuance-free paragraph, but these are the notes I was able to type into my laptop. I would much rather have received an mpeg of the speech for my records, but Iyengar is a writer of many books, and all of this can probably be found in much greater detail in Light on Yoga, which I'll have to add to my ever-mounting reading list.

Speaking of which, I brought two thick books with me to read on the various planes, trains, and quiet nights of this trip, and I've not read more than three pages, before falling asleep my first night in London. Writing here has kept me quite busy.

After Iyengar spoke, a wrap-conversation began, in which first, an hour was spent in gracious closing statements by the chairs, and extensive thank-yous to all of the volunteers and staff that had made the conference possible. There were also quite a lot of apologies, since the conference was not without its logistical flaws. There's a bit more to say here, but I'm running out of time and I have to pack before our car comes (eight am now, and it's still dark!) I'll finish up tonight, when I post pictures.†

†Clearly, this never happened. Please find pictures from Delhi here.

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