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Shakespeare’s Secret Sauce

November 12, 2019

I love Shakespeare in all his unabridged glory.  I’ve never touched Cliffs’ Notes and won’t deign to read the summaries.  I like his uncut sentences reverberating in my head in all their iambic pentameter glory.

So at literature festivals I try to catch all the Shakespeare-related talks I can.  At the Bangalore Literature Festival this weekend, I did the same.  A session called ‘Masala Shakespeare’  was on the roster. The presenter, Jonathan Gil Harris is the author of 6 books and his latest project is called ‘Masala Shakespeare’.  I’d never heard of Jonathan Gil Harris, but the name of the session piqued my interest.  And boy was I in for a treat.

Over the years I’ve seen Shakespeare adapted beautifully for Bollywood blockbusters and even stage.  The ability to understand the nuances of a Shakespearean play and transplant it to an Indian setting, without losing the essence of the play and keeping it incredibly relevant to India today requires a unique talent.  So whether it’s Roysten Abel’s ‘Othello: A Play in Black and White’ or Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Ram-Leela’, I have appreciated every scene and lapped up every line.

So it was nothing but pure delight when Jonathan started waxing eloquent about how Indian movies have always been doing Shakespeare.  As an example:

I’ve watched and appreciated most of these…and would even go so far as to day these are some of the best of Bollywood.

 

But what I liked most was Jonathan’s main point.  His assertion was that Shakespeare wrote his plays for the masses to enjoy.  His characters make puns and inside jokes, people from all walks of life populate and interact with each other in his plays and there are the ubiquitous star-crossed lovers.  Jonathan asserted that in England, Shakespeare has evolved to be more for the elite than for the masses, that to go watch a Shakespeare play was akin to going to the dentist.  However, in India everyone goes to the theater to watch essentially Shakespearean movies made by Rajnikant or Salman Khan’s Eid releases.  We understand the puns, we understand the drama, we hope for the best for the star-crossed lovers – and we do it en masse in the movie theatre.  Just as Shakespeare wanted his audience to do.  Watching Jonathan’s presentation was like watching a Bollywood movie – there was pathos, there was passion, there was a social message.

The only thing missing was the obligatory Bollywood song and dance sequence, and we got that too when Jonathan broke into a jig to ‘Jhalla Wallah’ from ‘Ishaqzaade’.  I wish I had a recording of that, but I was too busy enjoying myself to whip out my phone.  Perhaps the lit fest organizers will put it up on YouTube.

Meanwhile, if you get a chance to catch Jonathan live anywhere, I would highly recommend it.

Lifestyle

20 years ago….

November 1, 2019

Over the Diwali break my little sister sorted out her clothes. She made piles of clothes to discard and those to give away. I chose a few things I thought I could use. Afterwards we went to the Ambience mall and she donated the clothes to the H&M recycling drive.

I’m in the midst of sorting out my clothes too. Memories arise unbidden into my mind, as I sift through them. The skirt my sister said was perfect for a yoga instructor, that unbelievable bargain at a sale. The cozy sweat pants I reach for when Bangalore is cold and rainy, the sequined rose-gold skirt I look forward to wearing during the festive season.

Our evolution as individuals can be marked by changes in our sartorial choices.

Twenty years ago, in 1999, I was a senior at the American International School Dhaka. We had moved to Dhaka from the US and my clothes comprised of the usual teenager fare of jeans and tees bought at Nordstrom, Contempo Casuals, even Sears and Macys. In Bangladesh my mother bought yards and yards of handwoven jamdani saris. As my friends got ballgowns stitched for the senior prom, my mother and I scoured the markets looking for that perfect off-white chikankari fabric which the darzi transformed into a beautiful shalwar. Years later and many kgs lesser, that shalwar started to look like a bag on me, and I reluctantly decided to gave it away to a maid. But as I wistfully fingered the border of the dupatta – I had the tailor line the edges with the same chikankari fabric – I resolutely tucked it back into the depths of my trunk, where it remains to this day.

At an Infosys event in one of the first saris I bought for myself. I got it at Deepams on MG Road, and loved the colors and the golden apostrophes peppering the entire sari.

The years 2000-2004 were spent in a tiny hamlet in northern India. My college years were defined predominantly with a sense of displacement and a visceral rejection of surroundings I couldn’t/wouldn’t adapt to. I would not obey, I didn’t care about assimilation. I admired only the art. And so I drank in the colors of patiala salwars and got many stitched for myself. For graduation and other formal events, I, like the other girls, dived into my mother’s collection of beautiful saris. If there was a gene for being a clotheshorse, my mother would be its original carrier. She has trunks full of the most exquisite silks, the purest french chiffons, diaphanous cottons. I was allowed to borrow only certain saris – but to me those were the most beautiful threads to ever adorn my body.

Once I finished college and entered the corporate world, Company Policy started influencing my wardrobe. Highly forgetful formal shirts and pants. Unimaginative cuts, fits to shroud you in conformity. I felt trapped, and creatively stunted and my wardrobe was a reflection of that. When I decided that this life was no longer for me, I remember letting my younger sister have her pick of the clothes, while the remaining went to charity. It was as though by banishing those clothes from my armoire, I was emphasizing my decision to never return to the world of countless excel sheets.

The gap left by my work wear soon started filling with workout wear. I wore a lot of track pants before I realized that I like black tights the most. Not the moisture wicking, dri-fit variety, but of the more unpretentious cotton kind. During my daily practice/teaching, I don’t want to be distracted by flashes of colors or eye catching designs.

Wearing a sari from my mother’s collection. A yellow and green jamdani, handwoven in Bangladesh.

As I continue to go through my cupboards, I realize my wardrobe is now an amalgamation of all the influences in my life. Long basic dresses that my sister no longer feels she identifies with, a beautiful hand-stitched tie-dyed skirt picked up at a garage sale, a salwar-kameez stitched by the tailor my friend discovered when she was 17. Bargains found in the racks of Forever21 sales. Fabrics sourced from artisans at craft fairs, material from Pune’s vibrant Lakshmi Road, whatever catches my fancy at Malkha. My kurtas are long, flowing and light. My collection of 100-odd saris, enviable.

Clothes are perhaps our first form of expression. Even those of us who aren’t interested in what we wear make a decision about what to wear – and that decision is an expression in and of itself. Our cultures define the tone of festive clothing, clothes for mourning, clothes for the bourgeoisie and those of modest means, those in a penitentiary and for heads of state. Clothes you’d wear to a wedding and those you would wear to the Seychelles. Clothes to wear to the cinema, to the opera and for the weekly Netflix and chill.

Perhaps the only statement more powerful than choosing what to wear is choosing not to wear anything at all.

Happy girls are the prettiest.

A handkerchief dress I wore on a birthday. My sister was visiting and we spent the day at Nrityagram.

Not a very good rider, but my riding gear is on point. I picked up the boots at a thrift store in the Netherlands, the helmet and breeches in Coonoor.

[WORDS DO MATTER! This post is written for the 3rd edition of #WordsMatter linkup hosted by Corinne, Parul and Shalini. The prompt for this edition of #WordsMatter linkup is ‘20 years ago’]

I received this tag from Reema from The Write World (https://reemadsouza.com/). It’s my pleasure to pass on this tag to Anamika Agnihotri at https://thebespectacledmother.com/. There are 29 of us on this Blog Hop and it is spread over 3 days – 1, 2, 3 November 2019. Do follow the #WordsMatter Blog Hop, you’ll love our musings!

Lifestyle

A Good Life – Diwali Musings

October 26, 2019

As many of you know, a friend of mine from my Infy days (2005-2007) visited me last weekend.  We were sitting at The Thirteenth Floor, gazing out at the Bangalore skyline when she asked me, “Do you have a good life here?  Are you happy?”  Ever the optimist, I promptly said yes.

And later, I thought about my ‘good life’.

I live in a country where poverty, lack of basic human rights, illiteracy, unemployment, lack of healthcare and proper hygiene and much more is a reality for many.  I have to only look out of the window of my air-conditioned car to see that reality plainly and starkly.

Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up here, or because as an empath I can feel deeply, but this reality always tinges my gratitude.  Being a ‘have’ or a ‘have-not’ is simply an accident of birth.  And our lives will be shaped by what we do with the cards we’ve been dealt.

The holidays are when I get a breather.  Maybe that’s why my mind starts to automatically take stock.  Below are a few things I’ve been thinking of lately.

In a country where making ends meet can be a constant source of worry for most, I’ve been able to create a niche for myself in a place of my choosing because I’ve had the luxury of not having to worry about rent, utilities, organic veggies and well-fitted yoga pants.

At 37 and single, I rent an apartment in a nice neighborhood with no problems.  I don’t have to contend with nosy neighbors interested in why I’m single or when I’m going to get married.  No one cocks an eyebrow when I come home late and I don’t get long ‘settle down now’ lectures from aunties in my building.  In a space dominated by the 9-5-vers, my largely bohemian lifestyle is accepted.  A decade ago this would’ve been impossible.

I’m living  in a country in which people are fueling the growth.  We are demanding more from our leaders and our bosses, from our parents and our friends.  We are choosing to get married later or not at all, and it is being accepted.  We are choosing to use are expensive technical degrees to start  small entrepreneurial ventures which we hope will make big impacts, and we are finding support.  We are trading in the old definition of stability and finding purpose in new definitions.

These are pretty much the thoughts in my mind during this Diwali.

For those of you living in India, do you also find yourself thinking along these lines?  Or am I an over thinker?

Lifestyle Travel Yoga

Of Old Friends and Pleasant Surprises

October 21, 2019

My line of work brings many pleasant surprises.  I’ll often meet people who follow me on social media, or who have heard about me, or have read my blog.  Now I meet people who read my book, and they send me photos with the book to prove it!  Just this morning I met someone who looked at me for a tad bit longer than is considered polite and then told me he’s following ‘yogawithpragya’ on Twitter.

A month ago I received a mail from a friend I used to work with in Infosys.  Ayumi and I were both recruited to the July 25th, 2005 batch of Infocions.  We got to know each other pretty well during our month long training in Mysore.  Eventually she moved back to Japan and Orkut shut down.  With that went all her connections.

Teaching colleagues makes me feel that life has come a full circle. In today’s class we learned the nuances of the tree pose, something I’ve written about in this blog.

Fifteen years later Ayumi had switched jobs and was living and working in Japan.  She had attended a few yoga classes and wanted to attend more.   A month ago she ran a search on google and came across ‘Pragya Bhatt – yoga teacher’.  Could it be the same Pragya, she wondered, and lo and behold! it was.  She promptly shot a mail to the email ID listed.  Fifteen years!!! I thought as I responded to her email.

A week ago she email me again to say she was coming to India and could we catch up?  I said of course!  As I hugged her I thought she looked just the same.  She asked me if yoga made my hair grow so long.  I told her about how MG Road no longer had the walkway, but the Metro.  We spoke of how the Forum is no longer the only mall in Bangalore.  We took her out to Arbor Brewing Company and she had locally brewed beer.  We’ve been pigging out on idlis and filter coffee daily.  She reminded me of the time we went to Ooty for New Year’s.  How we rented an auto for two days and went sight seeing around Mangalore.  How we escaped a bomb blast during Diwali season in Sarojini Nagar Market in Delhi.  How we booked a one day tour to visit Agra and Mathura in a rickety old bus.

We did a private yoga session together and she came to my group class.  It was surreal.  From the swanky, state of the art Infosys Mysore campus we were meeting 15 years later, so much changed in mind and body.  Thanks to the beauty of technology.

 

Fresh-faced, optimistic and ready to take on the world. Ayumi is in the front row, second from the right. Can you spot me?

Lifestyle Travel Yoga

The 2019 Pune Visit

October 2, 2019
Taking stock.

Taken on the way to Panchgani. Nature has a way of giving you perspective.

It’s my first ‘day at work’ after my annual Pune visit.  A student asked me this morning about whether I gained new insights.  During my first few years of yoga teaching and practice, I could easily quantify what I had learned.  Stuff like “headstand”, “an arm balance” and “did some intense core work”.  Now it’s more difficult to describe.  Maybe because now my focus is not so much on the number of asanas in my kitty.   Now I like to work with what I have and refine it further.  I like to simmer in known asanas so that I can teach them better – or rather, learn more from the asana.

So if I had to recap my month in Pune I like to think about sum total of all the experiences I had.  I remember the rush to finish last minute assignments before leaving.  I tried (unsuccessfully) to look for a substitute.  My students had to contend with no teacher for a month.  But it was an auspicious start.

I arrived in the days leading up to Ganesh Chaturthi, things were as bright and festive as always.  Once I registered for my month I created a list of things to remember for all prospective students of RIMYI.

The teachers who have had the most impact on me are those who have encouraged me to trust my thought process.  My Yoga Therapy professor did just that.  I also wrote about how my practice changed during my Pune visit when a teacher told us to ignore the stretch.

In September I discovered an app called YourQuote and started dabbling in writing again.  I also attended the Pune International Literature Festival as a writer for the first time.  I checked for my book in the bookstalls, I signed books for many readers.  Meet other writers was a dream.  My friends came out to watch my session.

In September I hit an all-time high in my blog views.  Titled “Why Am I Not Losing Weight?”, this blog resonated with many readers.

We’re getting ready for the festive season here as well.  Diwali cleaning, de-cluttering, decorating…all this and much more in October.

 

A Pune visit is never complete without an Irani chai and wada pav. Go to FC Road for the best.

Lifestyle Yoga

Why Am I Not Losing Weight?

September 25, 2019

After we were done with our session at the Pune international Literature Festival, Joel and I were inundated with questions. I wish we’d had enough time to answer everyone’s questions, but we had time for only a few. During our chat I mentioned that while I was a desk-bound software engineer I had steadily put on weight. I recounted the singularly frustrating experience of trying ‘pretty much everything’ and still not being able to lose weight. Until yoga happened, and the rest of my journey is pretty well documented.

This story strikes a chord with many people, as it did that day. A lady in the audience had spotted our book in the bookstalls, bought it, noted that our session was on and made a point to attend. She told us that she’s had a problem losing weight with yoga. Whenever she watches what she eats, she finds the weight coming off. But when she loses track of her diet, the weight comes back.

I’ve heard this many times over the years. It stems from the idea that you can push garbage into your body and ‘work it out’. This idea is superficial at best and downright dangerous at worse. It presupposes the idea that the only reason to practice yoga or any other form of movement is to get to a particular number on the scale. However, we don’t move to sweat. We move to touch our toes, to slam dunk, to sprint up mountains, to swim in the ocean.

If your sweat sessions are fueled by bags of potato chips and zero-calorie colas, then you are setting yourself up for a lifetime of weak and brittle bones, thinning hair, dimming eye sight, abysmally low levels of energy, foul temper, anemia, thyroid issues…..

In retrospect, it was only when I started a serious yoga practice that I started to eat better. Poha for breakfast, dal-chawal for lunch, roti sabji for dinner. I shared a flat with four other girls and our cook made simple food. I didn’t snack, drank no dairy, and never stuffed myself with food.

Whether or not you’re a yoga practitioner you should remember this adage (which comes to us from yoga/ayurveda texts): “Yukta aahaar, vihaar, nidra.” Balanced nutrition, adequate exercise and restful sleep are imperative for good health.

Health and fitness are about balance than anything else. It’s an irony that I’m in a balancing asana on the far right. The more balanced you are, the fitter you get.

Books Lifestyle Travel Uncategorized Yoga

The Pune International Lit Fest

September 23, 2019

A free flowing conversation about the process and experience of putting the book together.

I’ve been attending literature and art festivals forever. The Jaipur Lit Fest many years ago, the Kochi Muziris Biennale, the Bangalore Lit Fest, the Venice Biennale and finally the Pune International Lit Fest. For years I’ve always been an attendee, always wondering if I would ever be on the other side. The writer’s side.

And this weekend, at the Pune International Lit Fest, it happened.  I was officially on the writer’s side.

Always good to see your work next to those you admire.

 

It was amazing.  I registered as a speaker and was shown into the author’s lounge where I met other speakers and writers. I checked for my book at the bookstalls, signed books, took photos, hobnobbed with other writers.

 

 

 

Our session was scheduled for the last day, to ensure that my RIMYI schedule didn’t clash.  Joel Koechlin (the man behind the beautiful photos in the book) and I were speaking about Beyond Asanas with our editor Gurveen Chadha of Penguin Random House.  The three of us had interacted with each other extensively during the making of this book, and the comfort level was evident on stage. We had a free wheeling chat about the process of creating the book, the challenges we faced, the importance of yoga, why it is worthwhile to read the history and mythology of asanas, inspiration….the hour went by pretty quickly. We fielded as many questions from the audience as time would allow.

 

 

 

The fest was well-organized, the sessions were varied and interesting, the goodie bag was great and the bookstalls were well stocked.  A heartfelt thank you to the organizers for this amazing event.

 

With poetess and friend, Tanushi Singh. Check out her latest collection of poetry called, In Pursuit of Sunshine in Rain.

Always thankful for those who can share my little joys with me.

 

Came with a great goodie bag too!

Lifestyle Yoga

Happiness Is Not in the Gulab Jamun

September 15, 2019

Missing my Sunday runs around the Ulsoor Lake.

I’ve been working on completing assignments for my MSc. The one I’m working on now is about happiness and man’s quest for it.

Lately more and more people reach out to me to discuss how to feel better rather than look better. They are interested in the mental and emotional benefits, rather than the physical benefits of yoga.

According to the Upanishads all beings (humans and animals) are instinctively attuned to sukha prapti (to gain happiness) and dukha niviritti (to overcome the misery). It’s this instinct that drives us. A penthouse, a limited edition car and an exclusive gym membership are the stuff dreams are made of, yet happiness still eludes us. Retail therapy isn’t getting us any closer to sukha prapti.

Psychosomatic conditions are rising at an alarming rate. We’re buying more than ever before but we’re also more sad. If only it was possible to buy away depression. We pin our hopes for happiness on objects of enjoyment and come away disheartened.

The Upanishads dealt with this question centuries ago. They state that man is in search of Reality and Happiness. This search yields answers to question such as the meaning of life, the goal of life and truth. It can drive away existential angst.

So whether it is eating gulab jamuns, getting the latest mobile phone or going on an expensive vacation, we want these because we feel these fulfill a deep seated need within us.

As my Vedas professor lectured: Whether it is eating gulab jamuns, getting the latest mobile phone or going on an expensive vacation, we want these because we feel these fulfill a deep seated need within us. We also want promotions, awards and praise. But the 50th gulab jamun doesn’t taste as good as the first one. The mobile phone loses it’s charm when the next version comes out. A vacation ends. And the desire for awards and promotions is never ending. Happiness is not in the gulab jamun or the mobile phone. Happiness shouldn’t be ephemeral like a vacation.

If only we could prolong the feeling of gastronomic delight of that first gulab jamun, of the excitement of the penthouse and car. Meditation is nothing but the prolonging of that state of bliss. Our happiness is always in response to an external event or object, and so it disappears in the absence of that stimulant. The Upanishads liken bliss to the musk of the musk deer. The deer searches the entire forest for the source of the glorious scent, and ultimately finds that he is the origin. Similarly, our happiness may be stimulated by something external, but the origin of the bliss is within us and therefore always accessible. To connect with this bliss you need to silence the citta vritti (the fluctuations of the thoughts in the mind).

The Upanishads have stated that yoga (beyond just the asanas) is the solution. The Gita states: yoga citta vritti nirodah. Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the thoughts in the mind. When the fluctuations cease, silence pervades. And through this silence you can discover your bliss.

Happiness according to Vedic texts

Taittiriya Upanishad: When speech recedes and the mind reaches not there, one realizes Ananda, the Brahman; there he fears not.

Bhagvad Gita: Mind calmed down, sinless, all passions subdued, the Yogi establishes himself in the state of Brahman, the Supreme happiness.

Brahma Sutra: Brahman is Ananda, as repeatedly emphasized in the Upanishad.

Lifestyle Travel Yoga

Practicing Together

September 12, 2019

I don’t remember when I came across the word ‘jugalbandi’ for the first time.  Until now I thought the word meant a collaboration.  Before writing this blog I thought I should  probably check the meaning and found that it literally means ‘entwined twins’.  The word is used to refer to a collaboration between two artists, usually a duet between two solo artists.

I’ve attended a few jugalbandis in the past and enjoyed them immensely.  There is magic when great artists come together.  They bring their art and ‘entwine’ it with the art of another artist.  And it creates magic.  It’s not only a mingling of art, craft, technical excellence but also a mingling of hearts, souls and great minds.

If you go to yoga class and take a look around you will see many things.  Lithe bendy bodies and also not so lithe bendy bodies.  People straining to touch their toes, and people balancing on their fingertips.  But there is a common purpose that brings us together: to keep our bodies and minds healthy.

Which is why every once in a while I love to train and practice with different people.  I came across Dayananthan on Instagram one day and was blown away by his asana practice.  So I ‘followed’ him.  And to my surprise he followed me back and said he finds my practice inspiring.  I was thrilled.  More thrilled when he invited me over to his studio Nrityog to practice together.

Teaching yoga (or maybe teaching anything) can get lonely.  You’re either attending class, teaching class or practicing.  You have few ‘work friends’, don’t go out for drinks after work and have no team-building retreats.  So it’s always refreshing to find teachers who reach out.

I arrived at Nrityog early on a Saturday.  Dayananthan was finishing a class.  He is really as awesome as his Instagram profile makes it out to be.  We chatted a bit during which I showed him the postures that were my ‘goal asanas’ such as this one and this one.  We started stretching and decided to work towards the ek pada sirsasana.  I’ve been working on the pose for years and was hoping he could give me new insight into it.

As we stretched I got to know him a bit better.  He started Nrityog with his wife who is also a dancer. The studio is open, airy, full of plants.  The vibe is calm, much like Dayananthan himself.  He freelances at other studios too, which he loves because he gets to meet more people that way.  So you can catch him around in different part of Bangalore.

In about 35-45 minutes he was ready to tackle the leg behind head category of asanas.  My muscles were screaming, but I was game.

 

I look forward to practicing more with him once I’m back in Bangalore.  The Yoga Jugalbandi.

Meanwhile, if you’re in Bangalore do attend class at Nrityog!!!

 

Beyond Asanas: The Asanas Books Lifestyle Yoga

Ardha Chadrasana: The Half Moon Pose

September 11, 2019

When I started writing Beyond Asanas, it was going to contain about 100 asanas.  After all, I was writing my magnum opus.  As the book took shape this number dwindled down to 30.

I chose asanas that I had been practicing for a few years.  Ones which I knew and understood.  There were, of course, the mundanities to consider.  Visual appeal, my ability to execute the posture well, would my research yield interesting information about it?

The Ardha Chandrasana made the cut.  I found a connection between this asana and the story of the near-destruction of the universe.  When Shiva swallowed the halahala to save the Universe, the poison turned his body blue.  Chandra stepped in to help.

Then there’s the story of why the moon waxes and wanes.  Lord Ganesha and his temper are responsible for the moon manifesting in its ‘ardha‘ or half stage.

The Ardha Chandrasana is Chapter 5 of my book.  To read the stories and the significance in more detail get your copy of the book.

Below are the step-by-step instructions, with images.

1. Start on the right with Trikonasana.

For more on Trikonasana see Chapter 4 in Beyond Asanas.

2.  Bend your right knee and reach forward with your right hand.  Place it on the floor diagonally opposite the right foot.

 

Note the extension on the right side of the torso as the outer edge of the left foot stays firmly on the ground.

 

The right arm and right foot must be diagonal to each other, else balancing is hard.

 

3.  Engage your right arm and leg, so that you can balance and support yourself on them.  Slowly lift the leg up until it is parallel to the floor or slightly above hip level.

 

The key to balance is your gaze. The steadier and more focused your gaze, the better your balance.

 

Behold! The final posture. The gaze swivels up to the left thumb.

4.  To come down, bring your left leg back to the floor in the same way you took it up.  You should end in the Trikonasana again.

5.  Repeat on the left side.

 

These beautiful images are done by Farhan Khan of @khan.clicks and David of @deavalin_david_dsouza.  The makeup is by Henna of @makeupbyhennaanbaree.

If you have any questions or queries, do leave a comment.

Get your own copy of ‘Beyond Asanas: The Myths and Legends Behind Yogic Postures’ here.