Monday, December 27, 2010

Merry Christmas

Christmas for me is all about remembering and loving people and, hopefully, when the cup bubbleth over, extending this concern to all creatures- greater, smaller or the same as us.  In the past, Christmas was mostly about gazing at enticing shop windows, bedecked trees, carols on the radio and wintry movies on television.  But with Bangalore's changing demography, we are now invited to one or two Christmas parties each year and we now celebrate with friends and family in a uniquely Indo-western way.

The trend began when my brother and his Japanes wife moved here and the large Christmas parties began.  It changed course along the way when a college friend of my husband's shifted to Bangalore along with his family.  The Vaz's, a Christian family from Mangalore, have been inviting us each year for Christmas - and each time it's a different experience.  Sometimes we celebrate with just the family, sometimes (as this year) we are part of a large gathering of friends in their house, with a billowing snowman (no real snow here), lots of food and drink and Christmas carols.  We get to taste all the coastal Christmas specials - the crisp kalkals, the dainty rose cookies, the spiced roasted chicken and the delicious pork curry with sannas (steamed rice cakes).

This year, in addition to these invitations, we had our very own Christmas eve party.  Some students in the lab were leaving and their farewell party coincided with Christmas eve.  So... we had invited twenty two hungry students, of different ages, coming from different parts of the country, who were linked together by science and research.  Much as I wanted to have a proper Christmas dinner, I decided against it.  It's really not cold enough to have the full British fare, I really don't relish turkey (which seems to be the bird of choice for Christmas here) and more than half the students were vegetarian, some not even eating onions, garlic or potato.  So- we began with Blue Hawaii's (which my husband does a neat job of), then went out to the terrace where there was a table piled with chaat ingredients (boiled potatoes, chickpeas, fried papries, golgappas, sweet and spicy chutneys, spiced jaljeera drinks, curd) and asked the students to assemble their own bowls of chaat.  Not surprisisingly, they had a lot of fun doing this. 

For dinner we served mutton biryani, vegetable pulao, a home made creamy hill dal, a variety of lightly cooked vegetables and rotis hot from the oven.  For dessert there was some smoky, milky kheer and I had also made chocolate cake.  Not the sweet fudgy kind that is generally served with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce, but a moist, dark chocolatey affair, which I served with coffee ice cream.  I was afraid this might not satisfy the sweet tooths, but I just wanted to serve something that I imagined would be worth eating.  (I had a bitter argument a little while ago,with a renowned Bangalore chef about one of his chocolate creations; I claimed it would be much improved if it were less sweet and he said I didn't know what I was talking about- this was his best selling dessert and so on...)

Anyway, to my surprise, many people enjoyed the cake.  They asked me where I had bought it from and were amazed (sigh! this young generation...) to know that I had baked it.  Many of them said that the cakes they got outside were too sweet and so on.  Anyway, the main thing was that the food went down rather swiftly and smoothly.

And then there were the farewell speeches and so on.  Finally we went outside to our Christmas tree, which normally grows sedately in a pot on the terrace.  For the occasion, it looked suitably perky - with cotton wool snow, some ribbons dangling here and there and a few of my favourite animals nestling comfortably on it.  My most favourite animal, the Woozle (which gave Pooh and Piglet a few anxious moments) was woozling on a fluffy bit of snow.  My next favourite animal (I haven't given it a name yet- it's a sort of monkey with spikes on its back, a tribal root carving) was leaping into one of the cosier spots. 

 A benign Biblical lion stood and gazed wistfully at the presents - and there were twenty two of them, cheerfully wrapped, filled with Christmas cake and chocolates, for the students to take back.

And so ended our party, but not our Christmas.  The next day found us liberally handing out remains of the biryani and pulao to friends, maids, neighbours in what one would term a very Christmassy way.  I hope this burst of festive, good cheer and sunny spirits help us all sail happily through the coming year.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Two Experiments In Movement

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.  And a little bit of knowledge is...  Be that as it may, I shall plunge headlong into aspects of movement that fill my head from time to time, drawing upon my little knowledge of Yoga (obtained while attending classes these past few years) and even more meagre knowledge of T'ai Chi (based on the books I have read and my observation of my husband's practice).

The deeper I move into understanding asanas (postures) and movement in Ashtanga Yoga, the more I am reminded of the principles I read about in T'ai Chi Ch'uan- the traditional Chinese form of exercise and martial art.  The stress on relaxation, mental focus, steadiness of breath, movement of weight and tapping into the internal energy, though described differently, are emphasized in both forms (and I'm sure they would be in other movement-related schools also).  A more compact form of practice designed a few decades ago, both for Ashtanga Yoga and T'ai Chi Ch'uan, led to their tremendous acceptance and popularity in the West.  Shri Pattabhi Jois selected and linked together sets of asanas, resulting in the primary, intermediate and advanced series that most Ashtanga aschools adhere to even today; Professor Cheng Man Ch'ing developed a shortened version of the T'ai Chi form that made it easier to incorporate it into one's daily routine.

But through all the threads of similarity that I noted regarding principles of movement, until recently I was puzzled by the apparent lack of conformity on how one feels as one's practice gets "deeper".  Teachers of Yoga say that the body feels lighter, movements are easier.  T'ai Chi texts emphasize the increase in heaviness and rootedness.  But I feel now that these are different aspects and different qualities being discussed, hence a simple comparison is not possible.  The lightness seen in Yoga is quite apparent in the movements that lift the body, making it almost hover in the air or remain balanced with very little weight on the ground.  The heaviness is never more apparent than in shavasana (corpse pose), a little understood pose, where one is almost sucked into the ground.  Similarly, the slowness of the T'ai Chi form is deceptive to a novice as anyone who has seen T'ai Chi masters dealing with opponents will confirm.  At times, the eye cannot even see the movement, just the outcome, and the T'ai Chi master is long gone from the spot when the opponent tumbles.

There are two simple experiments I tried today, in my attempt to understand some of these principles.  You could try them too (if you are so inclined), they are interesting and simple.

The first was a classic Yoga upward stretch - you stand with your feet together and stretch your arms up towards the sky, forearms close to the ears.  Most likely while doing this, you feel the stretch in your arms and shoulders.  Books say that if you are more flexible, you feel the stretch emerging from your lower back.  But now if you alter the movement a little - relax your ankles and if possible, make sure that all the parts of the foot that are in touch with the ground have a uniform distribution of weight (your arches will of course be off the ground).  Stretch your hips up and then stretch the arms towards the sky.  Do you feel a different stretch?  Somehow it seems to begin right from your feet and continue all the way up.  It probably is always like that, it's just that we aren't focussing on the complete movement in a relaxed manner much of the time.

Another nice movement from T'ai Chi is to stand straight and slowly lift your arms till they are stretched out at shoulder level, parallel to the ground and away from you.  This is a lift, not a stretch.  Not difficult is it?  But now, if you put your hands back by your sides, focus on releasing all the tension from your arms (your wrists will go limp, your arms just drop by your sides) and repeat the movement, lifting your arms as slowly as possible, feeling the air as a medium through which you are moving, you will see just how difficult it can be, just how heavy your arms can feel.

The conclusion?  There isn't any one conclusion- this is just something meant to initiate thought about how your body moves under different conditions and how your perceptions can change with varying circumstances.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sound and Force or Silence and Stillness?

These days I am coming across several people who mention that they have got small setbacks after attending a yoga class.  This is generally because they have been pushed too hard and some muscle or nerve has given way.  This is often temporary, lasting a few days to a few weeks, but the feeling is uncomfortable especially as the students have been attending short courses.

Ashtanga yoga (modified now into Power yoga) lends itself easily to such forceful adjustments as it is a deceptively vigorous form of yoga.  The original style, as taught by Shri Krishnamacharya  (subsequently popularized and transformed by some of his students including Shri Pattabhi Jois and Shri B.K.S. Iyengar) was a dynamic and fluid one, but dynamism should not be equated to sheer muscular strength or 'adrenalin pumping'.  Like all classical yoga, the method is steeped in silence, the ultimate goal stillness.  The process requires very fine physical control and the use of precise muscular locks and breathing patterns.  This involves a lot of time, practice and understanding of one's body (and mind).

Classes which try and popularize these styles by pushing people to the edge of their physical limits (creating a temporary high) or by drawing attention away from the churning of the mind by constant conversation, yelling (yes! it is not uncommon) or music create only a temporary 'feel good' situation, if at all.  Sometimes, instructors are driven by the simple desire to achieve a certain outcome - at times to prove themselves, sometimes just driven by excessive enthusiasm to help their students learn or do something new.  In these cases, sometimes things click and sometimes they just snap.

Having learnt and practiced the same movements in the same class for years on end (yes! people find it hard to believe that I have not 'moved on'), I feel that it takes time for the student and teacher to understand and be comfortable with each other.  Repeating old movements is not a sign of stagnation and getting small injuries while exploring new movements is not a disaster.  But the process must be approached with caution and with enough time at hand.  In my experience, being pushed into postures rarely helps except when one needs to understand the origin and direction of the movement.  One must be ready for the movement, both physically and mentally, and then it comes of its own and in its own way.  It is often not a question of brute strength at all.  Similarly, the way to silence the mind is not through more noise, but through focusing inward, on the breath and internal energy, and enjoying those short moments of stillness when they come.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Truth About A Tooth

Something strange has been happening to my teeth over the last few years.  That's what I like to believe.  But my dentist in Delhi put it more pragmatically and somewhat bluntly.  "You're brushing too hard," he said, while filling the upteenth little cavity.  "Too much wrist pressure."  Made me feel like a pugilist.  I explained that I used the softest possible brush in the gentlest way, but he brushed it aside.  "Maybe your teeth are just softer than usual.  Buy an electric toothbrush.  And I'll wait for the remaining surfaces to erode further before I do anything more."

And that was that.  Except that electric toothbrushes are not so easy to come by.  Anyway, I returned to Bangalore and was getting back to my routine when I began to experience an occasional twinge. I felt I could do nothing about it except wait for those holes to enlarge or heal- I decided to begin with positive visualization (yes!  I am convinced that if I love my teeth enough, they may get well...) and chewing a clove or two.

This morning the pain was more than a twinge, in fact it filled my mental horizon and began to interfere with my yoga practice.  "I release all past problems and pains," I told myself and immediately a swarm of horrible images flooded my mind, which I tried to release immediately.  The pain continued.  Then it hit me- an idea I mean.  We only retain a selective fraction of the past that incorporates itself into our present.  I have never been able to (nor have I seen anyone else) go  into the past and release all the pain that is associated with memories.  But if I focus on removing negativity in the present, that includes the past I'm carrying forward, and that might be more effective.  I tried this and, almost immediately, the pain receded.

This (being real life) is of course, not the end of the story.  After a hearty breakfast (doing a full set of yoga after a long time) with yoga-friends, I continued to feel fine.  As soon as I reached home however, while rinsing, I felt something hard in my mouth and looked to see one of my fillings nestling in my gums, far away from the tooth it had originally covered.  Hmmm.  The good news was there was still no pain.  The bad news was- my dentist was 2000 km away.  I recalled that we had once visited an elderly, avuncular dentist whose clinic was not too far away and decided I may as well return to see him.  Fortunately an appointment slot was available immediately and I set off.

The office looked as it had some years ago but it was completely empty.  A lady emerged from one of the rooms, looked at me and yelled something.  A young man immediately entered the reception area.  I presumed he was the receptionist as he had evidently answered my phone call.

"Come this way, " he led me to the dreaded chair with its usual paraphernalia.  I sat down.  No sign of the dentist.  The woman appeared with an anticipatory gleam of excitement in her eyes.  The man approached, gleaming tools in hand.  A dreadful thought filled my mind.
"Where is Dr. Ray?"
"Oh, he's away for ten days.  Gone to attend his niece's wedding in Kolkata," said the young man breezily.  "Ill attend to you."
I sank back apprehensively.
"Where's the cavity?" he asked and I indicated the general area. However he seemed to be looking behind my teeth for some unknown reason.  "The front, the front," I mumbled.
"This?" he tapped a tooth and I almost leapt out of the chair but was held down by the paraphernalia.  I didn't feel the need to reply.
"Just relax, this will be a little sensitive."
When dentists say, "Just relax," they actually mean, "This will be unpleasant but it will be worse if you squirm and yell."
When they say, "This will be a little sensitive," they mean, "It's going to be awful but there's nothing you can do about it."
Having years of experience in interpreting dentist-lingo, I resigned myself to just twitching my feet when the sensitivity was overwhelming.  The lady looked a bit pale but the dentist continued to be chatty.  I hoped he was competent and tried to imagine positive things about him.

After bits of things had been put in, scraped off, pushed firmly and so on, he asked me to rinse and check my teeth.  "You won't even be able to make out which tooth I filled," he said with obvious pride in his handiwork.  I looked.  It was true I couldn't see the filling.  It was just that blood was gently oozing out from the side of one of my teeth.  He made a quick dabbing movement.  "Just a little bleeding because of the polishing," he muttered.
I nodded.  "It's fine."
"You brush too hard," he said.  Back to square one, I thought.  "Buy a power toothbrush.  It' available at any Health and Glow outlet."  My spirits rose.  At last!  The answer to my dreams and prayers!
"Tomorrow," I said firmly and then asked, "Any food restrictions?"
"No, no" his high spirits were uncontainable.   They seemed to rise and fill the entire clinic.  "In fact, it's lunch time.  Pizza Hut is just above us.  You can go there.  And after that you must try Sweet Chariot."
I was momentarily taken aback.  "You shouldn't be saying all this being a dentist!"
He shrugged.  "You gotto eat.  And anyway, you must try Sweet Chariot.  You'll see the cavity isn't sensitive to sugar anymore."
I nodded.  This was as good a way as any of testing my new filling, I thought.  But, I'm afraid my positive resolutions didn't let me.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Lorax

Yesterday, at a book sale I happened to choose
A book called 'The Lorax', by Dr. Seuss
Written in super-fantabulous style
It brought a small tear, a hint of a smile
Seeing the Lorax's world, uncannily true
And so I quote a few of the lines to you...

"But those trees!  Those trees!
Those Truffula Trees!
All my life I'd been searching
for trees such as these.
The touch of their tufts
was much softer than silk.
And they had the sweet smell
of fresh butterfly milk

I felt a great leaping
of joy in my heart.
I knew just what I'd do!
I unloaded my cart.
In no time at all, I had built a small shop.
Then I chopped down a Truffula Tree with one chop.
And with great skillful skill and with great speedy speed,
I took the soft tuft.  And I knitted a Thneed!

The instant I'd finished, I heard a ga-Zump!
I looked.
I saw something pop out of the stump
of the tree I'd chopped down.  It was sort of a man.
Describe him?... That's hard.  I don't know if I can.

He was shortish.  And oldish.
And brownish.  And mossy.
And he spoke with a voice
that was sharpish and bossy.

"Mister!" he said with a sawdusty sneeze,
"I am the Lorax.  I speak for the trees.
I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.
And I'm asking you, sir, at the top of my lungs"-
he was very upset as he shouted and puffed-
"What's that THING you've made out of my Truffula tuft?"

"I repeat," cried the Lorax,
"I speak for the trees!"
"I'm busy," I told him.
"Shut up, if you please."....

But the next week
he knocked
on my new office door.

He snapped,"I'm the Lorax who speaks for the trees
which you seem to be chopping as fast as you please.
But I'm also in charge of the Brown Bar-ba-loots
who played in the shade in their Bar-ba-loot suits
and happily lived, eating Truffula Fruits.

"NOW...thanks to your hacking my trees to the ground,
There's not enough Truffula fruit to go 'round.
And my poor Bar-ba-loots are all getting the crummies
because they have gas, and no food, in their tummies!

"They loved living here.  But I can't let them stay.
They'll have to find food.  And I hope that they may.
Good luck, boys," he cried.  And he sent them away...."

What happens next to the Truffula fruit?
And the brown Bar-ba-loots
in their Bar-ba-loot suits?
Ah! I'm afraid
That I can't say
You must ask the Lorax
When he comes your way.
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