4:45 in the morning. This is nighttime to me. This is deep R.E.M., dreaming of bloody, Bleu Cheeseburgers with spiced curly fries and butt kicking Resurrection Ale at the Brewers Art in Baltimore time. It’s that space of night when I’m more epicurean than vegetarian.
When none of these people I’m in teacher training class with, eight hours a day, six days a week, exist. Yet here we all are waiting in the night outside of the shala for “luxury” mini-vans to take us on an all-day class trip. Bharath, our teacher for teachers, has arranged a mid-course excursion to relieve stress by shoving us all in a van together.
Actually it’s quite pleasant once we figure out that the back seats recline. Swerving around roadblocks, bouncing over speed bumps, we watch the morning reach over the palm fronds and misty ponds. Mysterious dark men jog in Nikes and lingies down the half paved road beside us. Where are they headed so early in the a.m.?
It is mornings like this one, when a man is so far removed from life back home, that ancient India seems new and everything infinitely possible.
In an hour I’m hungry, I would like some Chapattis, but we stop for chai and potties instead.
Chai breaks are a staple regrouping for folks here. It’s a great idea. Whatever you’re doing, wherever you’re going, you have time for a shot glass of chai Masala. It’s everywhere; It’s sold road side in tin buckets, the shopkeeper offers me a glass as I shop, It’s handed expediently to me through moving train windows; five Rupees for an earthen cupful. Chai stands are the substitute for the local pub where every one stops every day to chat, shake off the dust from ones clothes and mind. Just stop for a moment. It’s a great lesson. One I’ll rehearse repeatedly this day, stopping all the business of my busy bee routine to enjoy the magnificence of the sunshine and sacred architecture.
Another hour and we’re having idli’s and dosas for breakfast. The mood turns celebratory, like we’re all alumni seeing each other again after years, not sweating through Surya Namaskara twelve hours ago. Everyone is taking pictures and appreciating each other. We spend so much time together, practicing, studying, eating together, but the different atmosphere shines a new light on personalities. People start to blossom like flowers after a couple cups of chickaree coffee. Faces are brighter, relieved for a day, from the terror of impromtuously being asked to teach a yoga class of asanas we can’t yet pronounce.
Ten minutes from breakfast, our tour guide introduces the Chennakesava or “Handsome Prince” temple like a long lost lover, melting into his ode to the sandstone mortise and pinion union. It was put up in just over 103 years back in 1117 in commemoration of some ancient slaughter. Some listen intently, some walk around, too eager or too distracted by the Vedic visuals. I go off and take pictures of others doing their best yoga postures on a stage of four thousand year old stone pillars. The guided history and significance are lost on me. I’m a photographer. I remember moments of imagery, the shadows enveloping the flower-laden Ganesha Statue, the quiet reverence of a lone woman prostrating on the steps and the silent sun slipping through the threads of the monk’s lingie as he carries water across the careening cobblestone. It’s a beautiful temple complex, enough shadowy doorways and intricate statuary and plenty of nooks and crannies to be alone in the crowd. We posed for a Yoga India group shot for the yearbook. Now all we need are a cap, gown and diploma. We should all be wearing Yoga India t-shirts to top off the image. Actually, I am working on them. I developed a design from some old photographs of our teacher and well, I digress.
Next stop, an hour a way is the Hoysaleswara and Kedareshwara temples. These masterpieces dating from 1121 are a plethora of intricate stone carvings, but the first thing I do now is scout more yoga photo locations. This complex is a tad more complex though. They have posted signs for us climbers of cobble. We are duly warned of our pending prosecution, so no yoga photos here.
We are free to wander the grounds, temple, lake and lawns. I wander through the main hall to find Bharath in silent meditation and Charles, who found him before me, sitting in repose; I join. Caroline joins me. Bin joins us. We sit, four smooth stones in the stream of tourists cascading around us.
This is the experience I long for. But if so, why travel at all. I can meditate, touring the featureless perfection of universal spirit in Baltimore. Sometimes it seems we have to go so far away to simply come back home. We find it easier to remove ourselves from daily friction than accept it, using the friction to polish the diamond within. Without the friction of outside influences we have nothing to transcend; we do not grow. You are nowhere farther than yourself however far you go. I find removing myself from my comfort zone of Starbucks, placing myself in the midst of foreign religious rituals and steaming cow pies, a conscious shock to the system. It wakes me up from the sleep walking of routine. I’m able to blink open my eyes from the long winters nap and have a brand new thought. Hmmm, Chai?
We wander the lawns, we dip our toes in the lake, relaxing, enjoying the sunshine; each finding silence in their own way, Pier laying at the mouth of the lake, Caveta reading poetry, Bin videotaping himself for you-tube. I lie alone in the grass just as I would at home, feet crossed, arms crossed behind my head, one hand on my bag (I’m still a traveler).
Like bees drawn to the scent of the queen, we eventually all gather at the feet of our teacher as he talks about what yoga is to him, being a student, being a householder, being a teacher. Bharath maintains the same peaceful reflection here in the grass as he does in the shala, radiant in the same youthful charm of one infinitely young, yet infinitely matured. I know most of us look to him as the mirror, mirror on the wall. Will we as teachers stand as tall? For me, he is the gauge by which I measure myself. I am not that, so I have work to do; A lot of work.
The giant naked man, the 58 foot Sri Gomatheswar, sits atop the Jain Sravanabelagola temple; the last for the day. It’s 614 and a half steps, carved into the rock face, from the shoe corral, where we all deposit our sacrilegious flip-flops for a small deposit, to the top of the world. The steps, really nothing; a hop and skip and 614 jumps at an easy forty-five degree angle. You can be toted up by locals on a paladin for three hundred Rupees ($6.00). But, once at the top you can clearly see the New Jersey Turnpike.
The Brahmins give Puja blessings to everyone in line, toss in your coin, rake the right hand though the flame, dip you finger into the ketchup and stick a dot on your head, hands in Atmanjali Mudra, Bob the Brahmin sprinkles flowers on your hair and blesses you with the strength to get back down the stairs. I know the ritual, I know the chants, I understand; I feel it. I actually feel I am part of this place, I am India.