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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 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?

Travel

What We Don’t Think About When We Think About Responsible Tourism

October 14, 2019

The summit covered by clouds at the beginning of the trek.

Last Sunday a bunch of us decided to trek up the Savandurga hill.  My friends reached my house at 4 am.  We were to reach the base camp by 6 am and start climbing.  Later than this and it would get too hot.  We had registered for the trek on https://myecotrip.com/.  This is an initiative to encourage eco-sensitive tourism by the government of Karnataka.  They offer eco-friendly tour packages that showcase the natural beauty of Karnataka.  These include day-long treks, visits to bird sanctuaries and wildlife safaris.  Navigating through their website is easy and they are quick to respond to queries on telephone.

Savandurga is a hill 60 km from Bangalore, and is considered to be one of the largest monoliths in Asia.  There are two famous temples at the foothills which many pilgrims revere and visit year round, the Savandi Veerabhadreshwara Swamy and Narasimha Swamy temple.  The hills are centuries old.  It is believed that these hills served as the capital for Magadi rulers such as Kempegowda.  It was later taken over by those in power in Mysore.  In 1791, during the Third Anglo-Mysore War, Lord Corwallis captured it from Tipu Sultan.  At one point in time it was also known as Savinadurga or the fort of death!

It is a difficult trek – mostly uphill and on rocks.  When the rocks are wet they are super-slippery.

Our guide showed us an ancient Hanuman temple a little away from the trail. Hanuman faces left, which is unusual.

The ancient Nandi at the summit.

For the most part the trek was great.  I would wish that there was less litter and plastic strewn around, but I think the monkeys may be responsible for that.  On the whole I saw that the trekkers were responsible, helpful and considerate towards others on the trail.   But I must mention the exception.

A couple planted themselves right in front of the bull, with no regard for the multitudes of others who had huffed and puffed their way up to the top to get a glimpse of the ancient Nandi.  This is disrespectful on so many levels.  Not only is this a place of tourist interest, but also a place of worship.  All the visitors waited patiently for their turn to whisper their wishes in Nandi’s ear (a custom) while this particular couple refused to move an inch.  Finally my friend went up to them and pointedly asked them to move, which they did…for 10 minutes.

When we think about responsible tourism, perhaps we need to think of this aspect as well.  Just because this temple/place of interest isn’t manned by temple/government officials doesn’t give you permission to be rude, insensitive and inconsiderate.  Some of us trekked up for a darshan of the Nandi, some of us to look at an ancient historical monument, either way we deserve to look at it without two inconsiderate lovebirds crowding our frame.

When we talk about responsible tourism we need to factor in responsible tourist behavior too.  Lest civic sense become as uncommon as common sense.

 

 

 

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.

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 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!!!

 

Travel Yoga

Don’t Go After the Stretch

September 10, 2019

pc: @khan.clicks @deavalin_david_dsouza makeup: makeupbyhennaanbaree location: Cubbon Park

I had a late class yesterday.  It started at 7.10 pm and went up to 8.40 pm.  The teacher was new to me.  After the usual queries (“Where are you from?  Who’s your teacher?”) I spread my mat and got ready for a class.

All the teachers at RIMYI have a distinct style of teaching.  The strong teacher-student tradition of yoga ensures that your attitude, approach and philosophy towards the practice reflects that of your teacher.  Your students will be able to see the ‘Iyengar’ or ‘Ashtanga’ shades in your classes.  If you go to multiple teachers/don’t go to any teacher – that is pretty evident too.

There isn’t much of a crowd at RIMYI this year.  Last night’s class had about 15 students.  We had enough space to spread out.  The class was quiet.  It wasn’t action-packed or fast paced.  We did very few asanas.  We held each asana for a very very long time.

As you continue to hold, you’re able to go deeper into the pose.  You can intensify the stretch.  You can observe which limbs are working, which are sleeping.  I worked on lengthening and opening my torso in Trikonasana – I noticed that I could actually activate the hamstrings more.  Similarly in Parsvakonasana.

“You may be feeling a stretch in your hamstrings and on your groin,” said the teacher.  “But feel the quietness in your abdomen.”

I blinked a couple of times. It’s a mannerism Ive noticed recently.  It’s an automatic response if I’m surprised or intrigued.

“Most of us go after the stretch.  We think asana works only if we feel the stretch.  But all asanas bring quietness in the abdomen too.  Find this quiet.”

And with these few sentences, he changed my asana practice forever.

 

Lifestyle Travel Yoga

Faith, Questionable

September 6, 2019

Faith is abstract.  Its manifestation is concrete.  Ganesh Chaturthi is a good time to witness faith.

 

In my friend’s house the festive season has already started.  It starts with Ganesh Chaturthi.  For the entire 5 days that the Ganesh idol sits in their house, they celebrate.  People visit, good food is cooked, everyone laughs.

 

The house gets a face lift

enthusiastic dusting for every surface

the twinkle of the silver pooja-thali

bright new cushion-covers,

fresh flowers every day

the smell of incense wafting through the rooms.

aarti together in the evenings

 

From L-R : Parvati & Gauri. These statues have been in the family for generations. These statues along with their saris and jewels are carefully taken out of storage every year. They are dressed in all their finery in an elaborate ceremony. The oil lamps are lit. For the next three days the lamps are kept lit and morning & evening aartis are done without fail.

Ganesh departs to go back to Mount Kailash after 5 days (or 3 or 7).  His mother and sister stay on as guests in your house.  For three days.  They are the harbingers of health, wealth and good luck.  People believe it to be a great privilege to host Gauri and Parvati in their house for they bring with them the power to fulfill your innermost desires.

 

Can we soften and allow powers beyond us to manifest our innermost desires?

 

Here’s a blog from 2016 when I visited all the famous Ganesh pandals in Pune.

Travel Yoga

Who’s the Teacher?

September 5, 2019

“When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

I’ve heard this phrase countless times, and even uttered this platitude a few times myself.  But a conversation with a friend of mine (another yoga teacher and owner of a yoga studio) made me take a fresh look at the teacher-student relationship.

When we say this phrase our emphasis is always on the teacher appearing.  That the teacher should know when the student is ready and then magically appear.  But what a student does/is doing while they are waiting for the teacher to be conjured is also important.

I’ve noticed two kinds of students-in-waiting:

  1. Those who have searched for a yoga class or a teacher and haven’t found one.  This is usually because there are no classes in the neighborhood or because they didn’t like any of the teachers available to them.  These students usually throw up their hands and deem that ‘it’s not time yet’.  In such scenarios your teacher may never appear, because a student who sees distance as an impediment isn’t really a student.  Also a student who looks at a teacher as mere commodities are searching for a bar of soap and not a human being who will guide them on possibly the most difficult journey in life.
  2. Then there are students who demand the teaching from the teacher.  They may ask to work on advanced asanas or work towards a specific asana.  These students demonstrate little regard and zero respect for the teachings being imparted.  The desire to learn advanced postures is only justified if it is accompanied by hours and hours of relentless self-practice.

The most important aspect of any practice is the practice itself.  Your yoga practice is your teacher.  If you aren’t visiting your teacher daily then you’re not a student nor a seeker.  Your desire to practice advanced asanas isn’t an indicator of your interest or your passion – it’s actually a measure of how tamasic you are.  You are looking at an external force to help you achieve your goal, instead of putting in your own sweat, blood and tears.

Finally, the teacher-student (guru-shishya) relationship is very much driven by the student.  The student must offer himself up first.  The surrender happens, and then the learning commences.  Until the student is able to turn off his ‘I-ness’, he will forever flail, grasping blindly for knowledge and wisdom which will always elude him.

Pictured below is my 11-12th grade English teacher.  Those of you who know me know that I went to different schools around the world until I landed in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  At the American International School/Dhaka I had the double privilege of not only studying literature but also writing innumerable essays under the guidance of Ms. Spisso.  Here she is with books written by her alumni.  I like to think this is my guru dakshina to her.

 

Lifestyle Travel Yoga

The First Class

September 4, 2019

How many times have you quickly gone up into sarvangasana? Do you remember to pull the shoulders back, open the chest, activate the thighs and lift the tailbone up? Seemingly small modifications can change the entire posture.

Perhaps it was nervous excitement or maybe anticipation, but my first class was amazing.  By the end of the class my blood was singing and my body felt like it was thrumming (to the beat of my blood?).

I am a sucker for simple classes.  I believe if you focus on the simple stuff everything else falls into place.  This class focused on the tailbone and sacrum region.  We started the class with adhomukha virasana.  Rajalakshmi asked us to continue to extend the arms.  “This extension isn’t because you are lengthening your bones!!!” she boomed into the mike.

“The bones never extend!!!  It’s impossible for you to extend any of your bones!!!” she continued.  “Pay close attention to the parts of your body that make the extension possible!” she said.

She encouraged us to pay close attention to the tailbone-sacrum region and observe how it participates in forward bends and twists.

The most interesting part of the class was dissecting the parivritta trikonasana or the revolved triangle posture.  There are three movements that make this asana possible: the extension of the side, the bending forward keeping that extension intact and finally, the opening of the chest.  And once we were in the final posture we were asked to pull the tailbone and sacrum in to the body.

At one point Rajalakshmi caught me looking at my hip.  I realize I do this unconsciously every time I practice this asana.  I use my eyes to ensure that my hip is pushed back, which detracts from the overall experience of the asana.  “Your side is compressing and you’re becoming a ball,” Rajalakshmi explained patiently.  “Extend your chin forward and away from the sacrum.  Open the sacrum and lengthen the side!” she boomed again.

This is the magic of the annual pilgrimage to RIMYI.