Archive for the ‘Culture Shock’ Category

It has been quite the season of transition.

I am getting my feet nestled in the earth here in Austin, lining up my most important sources of nourishment for the winter ahead. It has been unsettling –  to be expected while establishing a new home base. Add in a few unexpected curve balls life has thrown my way, and suffice it to say, it’s been a wind-tossed Autumn.

The best advice I’ve gotten from one of my teachers about weathering this transition is, “Stabilize. Stabilize everything you can stabilize.” So I am working on fixing my routines and my practices. The irony I am finding is that, at this time when my life is unfettered by many of the external commitments that have in the past limited my ability to create a healthy routine, my current flexibility does not lend itself easily to internally-enforced structure. Again, not surprising, as any self-employed person can attest. It’s part of the life-long effort to pacify vata dosha amidst the turmoil of our information age. It requires tapas, the internal fire of self-discipline, to establish and stick to the routines I know serve my own sanity and joy. This trial by fire is working – it burns away illusions and makes me appreciate even more deeply the tools I have been taught.

My new (physical, literal) home continues its evolution alongside my own. With beautiful cedar siding now in place, it’s beginning to look a lot more like home. I shall not tempt fate by estimating a move-in date, but it is definitely moving closer.

A few weeks ago, the monarch butterflies were migrating through Texas on their 2,500 mile journey. I looked out my window one morning and saw a colorful scattering of them passing by. Their improbable, tenacious journey south on such papery wings gave me encouragement.

On this Veterans Day, as so many of our country’s soldiers, present and past, struggle with their own journey home, I hope for the day when we adequately honor their sacrifices by not creating more opportunities for more sacrifice. May there be peace in our time.

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Sunrise over Vaidyagrama

This morning as I watched the sun rise over New Mexico, I marveled anew at the wonder of this globe. We spin on our little axis through space, pulled in endless scheduled circles around a ball of fire amongst countless other rotating spheres passing in their own exact orbits. The celestial bodies that I gazed up at from Vaidyagrama are visible to me now, in their turn, from here on the other side of the planet. Watching them keeps me aware of the true scale of things.

Door to door, my trip home from India took a total of 44 hours: an hour-long tear-stained taxi ride, followed by four flights interspersed with 14 land-bound hours of layovers, capped off by a beautiful sunset drive through the deserts of New Mexico. I am already missing my dear friends at Vaidyagrama – AND it is a joy to be home.

My typical pancha karma attire - oily hair in a towel and at least three patterns below the neck.

My last week of pancha karma was dedicated to recuperation. All of the intensive treatments were over so now my body just got to soak in the strengthening herbal medicines, fresh foods, natural surroundings, and daily oil massages while it got strong again. My focus shifted from my body’s cleansing and re-balancing to that of my mind. There was almost no explicit guidance from the doctors on that aspect of pancha karma, but the very structure of Vaidyagrama itself points you towards reflection and increasing mental quiet. With all of my physical needs taken care of, I took it as a rare opportunity to reduce as much mental input as possible. Just as eating more food before the previous meal is digested results in a backlog and poor digestion, I realized I am constantly putting in more information before the previous installment is processed. My mental digestion would benefit from some fasting.

So for my last week at Vaidyagrama, I gave up the internet entirely, and – even more challenging for me – I abandoned all reading. No studying the ancient texts, no yoga books, no poetry, not even a “just for fun” novel. No input. Honestly, the prospect was more than a little unnerving.

When you sit with yourself for so long in this intense practice of stripping away, you can discover what you’re leaning on, what’s keeping you comfortable but not really vibrant. My brain is always working; even my mental “neutral” is pretty active. Those shifting gears create a certain amount of background noise that is somehow reassuring, the white noise of my brain. It was a shock to have nothing to take in, nothing new to process – no white noise. Suddenly other “noises” could be heard. It felt odd, but never boring, to go out to the porch with nothing in my hands to read. I watched the rain or the birds, or closed my eyes and watched my thoughts go by, wandering through the stacks of my memories and dreams.

At first, I expected that this would provoke an internal revolution. I kept watching for the revelations, a breakthrough to rock my perspective. Before long I realized that even that baited-breath watchfulness revealed a drive to accomplish something, to have some proof of time well spent. It is an insidious pressure. What I longed for, I realized, was to have NO expectations, nothing to defend or prove. Just to sit, and have that be enough. So I sat. And I have nothing to report. No analysis, no tidy landing place…. Just a quiet, humble relief.

How do you say good-bye to a community of teachers, caregivers and friends who have come to feel like family? The best solution I have come up with is not to – to start planning your reunion as soon as possible. As the taxi pulled away down the dirt drive, I waved to Dr. Ramdas, Lima, Rtu, Dr. Om, Dr. Aruna and the rest of the crowd until the bend in the road hid them from sight, and I began picturing my return.

I’ve now been here in my parents’ home in Santa Fe for one week, with several unscheduled weeks still in front of me. As my body continues to get stronger, the wealth of experiences of the last six months are percolating in the periphery of my awareness. It is said that the true effect of pancha karma is not felt until three months later, as the cells turn over in the course of their natural life cycles and the body is literally renewed. I am certain the same could be said about the effect of living  in a foreign land for six months. The seeds sown in this season will bear fruit in their own time.

At the Ooty Botanical Garden

In the meantime, I fully recognize the great luxury I am experiencing right now – no job to report to, no family to take care of, few bills to pay – and I am relishing my diminished interactions with the world for a bit longer. I know it will soon take effort and intention to gracefully navigate the demands that will resume. I have faith that my experience of life at Vaidyagrama will give me discrimination in choosing which strands I weave back into the fabric of my daily life.

What happens next for me? I will stay in Santa Fe for the rest of July and then make my way to my new home: Austin, Texas. Some of you may know my brother Ian and his wife Jeri Lynn, two of the most inspiring artists (and blog writers, incidentally) that I know. Their roots are deep in Austin, and I get more and more excited about joining them in creating our own village, right there up the road from Barton Springs.

My niece, Koruna, whose brother is due in August

I will set up shop as an Ayurveda consultant and yoga instructor, offering workshops and individual consultations to help clients find their unique sources of health and contentment in life. And I will remain open to the guiding spirit that led me so effortlessly through India, watching for my right path to emerge, the path with the true sense of calling and a sense of ease.

One unexpected joy I found in India was connecting with all of you here. I plan to continue writing here and sharing inspirations rooted in the rich earth of Ayurveda – ideas about community, nature, delicious food, healing, the gifts of yoga, the importance of beauty, and other roadside attractions. I hope you will continue to keep me company on this path. Good company, I have seen, is often the very best medicine.

The full moon over Vaidyagrama

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Every last Sunday of the month, Vaidyagrama hosts a “medical camp” in one of the nearby villages, offering free herbal medications and medical advice. This past weekend, we got to come along to help and to pick up what we could by observing since we certainly wouldn’t understand what was being said.

We arrived around 10:00 am to set up at the village administrator’s building, which was next door to the school and the bus stop on the main road. Dr. Vasant, one of the junior doctors, was the only staff person, plus four of us students. As Dr. Vasant innocently put it, “You all have white skin, while the villagers are mostly brownish in color, so you will attract some attention.” Indeed. We began to wonder if the entertainment of seeing us may have been a bigger draw than the medical help.

The first thing Dr. Vasant did when we arrived was to set up a sri Dhanvantari figure (the god of healing) on the table outside along with a small ghee lamp, and the village administrator lit two sticks of incense. Even here, spirit comes first. Dr. Vasant then asked us to alphabetize the bags of herbs and to familiarize ourselves with their names. He started seeing patients in the office, sending them out to us with a “prescription” for one or more herbs. The villagers tend to be manual laborers in the surrounding area, so the most common complaints were muscle and joint pain, along with some respiratory issues, colds and coughs, and a variety of bodily discharges. We took turns serving at the herb table and observing in the consult room, standing behind Dr. Vasant to try to read his patient notes, which were in English. Unfortunately, the illegibility of physician’s handwriting appears to be consistent across cultures.

There was no concept of privacy. People crowded in the room while patients told the doctor their concerns, and children roamed in and out playing games. Family members sat down one after the other, with the mother collecting all the herbs at the end. I felt intrusive at first being in the office observing, but after awhile, I felt like part of the crowd just listening in. It seemed no one was concerned about sharing the details of their ailments.

Ayurveda teaches that there are three main methods of assessment: observation, palpation and questioning. Questioning is certainly easiest for us novices, while observation and palpation require more training and experience. Not understanding a lick of what was being spoken provided a great opportunity to use my eyes and ears more intently. I tried to guess what the complaint was just from watching how the patients moved or their expressions. Occasionally Dr. Vasant would ask a patient to stick out his tongue, and the color or marks there would give useful information. I found myself trying to guess how old the patients were, and they were often as much as ten years younger than I thought – striking evidence of the toll their hard lives were taking on their bodies.

Around lunch time, a woman came into the office whom I recognized from Vaidyagrama. She smiled at me and came over and took my hand and started to lead me wordlessly out of the room. Dr. Vasant stopped talking to a patient and explained, “She lives in this village and she is going to make us some tea and snacks – you will accompany her to her house.” If you aren’t good at going with the flow around here, you’ll get more proficient pretty quickly! Emily and Lynn came along leaving Ras at the herb table, and off we went.

The woman kept hold of my hand as she led us down the street, attracting a trail of children as we went. Her name was Vali, and the few words of English she knew were, “Work Vaidyagrama – garden and kitchen.” Somehow, that was enough. She led us down a small side street to her one-room house with a cement floor and corrugated metal roof. There was a boy sleeping on the bare floor when we arrived, who rolled over to the side but remained prone the entire time we were there. Vali unfurled a mat for us to sit on and then brought us three orange sodas each in a different brand bottle and some sweet snacks that appeared to be store-bought. None of us really wanted orange soda, and I remembered all the warnings about drinking from a bottle you haven’t opened yourself, but it felt too rude not to take a few sips.

The children seemed to multiply around us, all smiles. Kavia was Vali’s daughter and appeared to be about 8. Emily had brought her camera, which provided unlimited entertainment. They all wanted to be in pictures with us, and then to see the picture in the digital display of the camera. Then they wanted to take the pictures. There was a lot of laughing. At one point, they turned on a TV (a remarkable thing to see in these surroundings), which we think was for our benefit, but when we ignored it to watch Vali cook, someone eventually turned it off.

Lunch was amazing, all cooked on one burner with a propane tank from a squatting position on the floor. We feasted on uttapam (savory spongy pancakes) with cooked cabbage, dal curry and coconut chutney. The one word of Tamil I’ve learned came in handy – “Nandri,” which means, “Thank you.” We repeated it several times.

At one point, a relation of Vali’s came by who spoke a bit more English and he helped translate a few more basic facts. Vali got out four prized photographs from a weathered envelope and showed us her family – twin boys, now about 15, Rohan and Lakshman, one of whom was the sleeping boy on the floor – her relative explained that he had been working all night (in addition to going to school), thus his sleepiness. She has another boy a bit younger than the twins who we don’t think was there at that time, and then Kavia, the youngest. There was also a father evident in the photo, and the relative explained he had left when Kavia was a baby and now had a wife in another town. Vali teared up as he explained that she was the sole provider now, and then she went back to cooking.

After we finished eating, Vali packed up food for Dr. Vasant and Ras and we headed back to the camp. There were no patients at that moment, so she served them both, including pouring water from a cup to rinse their hands when they were done. Then, with hugs all around, she headed back to her life – and I marveled again at how I ended up with mine. Dr. Vasant later commented, “She doesn’t own her house. Her rent is 750 rupees a month” (about $17 US). We could only guess what her income is. “Amazing hospitality, isn’t it?” Dr. Vasant said. We are still pondering what to do to thank her adequately.

Dr. Vasant and Kavia

For the last hour of the day, it was quiet, so we got to learn more about Dr. Vasant himself.  Thirty-one years old, he got married two years ago to a woman he met in school. She is a naturopath. Her parents were not enthusiastic about their marriage, because he is from a lower caste than her family. They decided to get married in secret, and then once her family warmed up to him, they had another wedding last year. He gives a very serious first impression, but his sharp sense of humor and joking streak catches you by surprise. I think he looks like a 1930’s Hollywood star.

At about 3 pm, we loaded the supplies into the jeep along with the four of us and the driver, and Dr. Vasant got on his motorcycle. However, instead of heading back to Vaidyagrama, Dr. Vasant led the way into the woods. Our driver didn’t speak English, so we couldn’t ask where we were headed. After ten minutes of winding down a rocky and increasingly impassable road, the vista opened up in front of us revealing a lake and the string of mountains we can see far in the distance from Vaidyagrama. Dr. Vasant flashed his winning smile and said, “I thought we should have a picnic,” and waved a bag of fried snacks in the air. It’s hard to know what to do with all the impressions made in just one day here….

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The day before classes began, Lynn, Ras and I reviewed some of the material we learned at the Institute, just to refresh our memories. We got into a discussion of how stressful the western academic system can be, based as it is on grades and competition and finding the right answer. In fact, pressure and stress seem to be part of the design of our educational system – tests are given in order to create pressure so students will study. When this strategy works, it’s because most people raised in the U.S. are conditioned to compete, to prove their knowledge and even their value through what they accomplish.

While I have “succeeded” in that system – which is to say, I’ve always enjoyed school and done well academically – it has ingrained in me a certain way of seeing the world. It encourages the belief that there is one right way to do things, a correct and an incorrect answer or version of reality. It has also encouraged in me a habit of striving and mental effort, which follows from the belief that brain work is necessary to gain knowledge.

One of the primary reasons I wanted to be in India to deepen my experience of Ayurveda was to drink from the source; I suspected that there are certain nuances of perception and understanding that just cannot be conveyed within our western educational system. Many of us were troubled by the fact that the Institute in Albuquerque seems to be moving towards a more western academic style, implementing weekly quizzes in every subject. There is even talk of posting exam grades so the distribution will be known among the students. This feels like a step away from the spirit of Ayurveda to which Dr. Lad is so committed, and it saddens many of us.

While Dr. Ramdas is our main teacher here, he is not our only teacher. Last weekend, before classes began, we met Dr. Ramkumar, one of the other founders of Vaidyagrama. He spends more of his time off-site, fundraising and supporting some of Punarnava’s other projects, but his connection to Vaidyagrama is deep. He spoke with us at one of the Pongal ceremonies (as we were waiting for the pot to boil over), and it was evident that he is quite familiar with the western mindset and which learning challenges may lie ahead of us.

“To learn Ayurveda requires the three P’s,” he said, “patience, persistence, and perseverance. It requires patience because you have to be willing to wait for things to emerge, for things to express their true nature. If you persist in looking for it, you can learn Ayurveda from everything that is happening here, not only in the classroom. Look at the fire over there, and the rice they are cooking. What transformation is taking place? What gunas (qualities) are present? If you are willing to learn from everything here, you will learn a lot. You must persevere, because there will come a time when you will ask, ‘Am I wasting my time here? Could I be learning quicker somewhere else?’

“Ayurveda is not organized,” he went on. “This can be difficult for the western mind, where you’re used to things being presented in a logical fashion, building from one concept to the next. You won’t find that here. Look at this land,” he gestured to the untended yard by the front entrance.  “To some, it looks messy. They say, ‘You should clean this up, get rid of these dead leaves on the ground and such. It doesn’t make a good first impression.’ We don’t believe in that. Ayurveda is not about first impressions. It is about lasting impressions. Those dead leaves serve a purpose; they put nutrients and nitrogen back into the earth. They think it’s ugly because it is not manicured, but there is beauty and order at play here. If you are patient, and you look, you will come to see that.”

As I’ve walked the grounds here in the past week, I’ve been turning his words over in my mind. In the U.S., there is an emphasis on beauty and order on the surface of things. We are impressed by well-organized cities, orderly traffic, cleanliness and politeness (and unimpressed, if not offended, by their opposites). In my limited exposure thus far, it seems that in India people are less focused on a superficial expression of order and beauty (although there is certainly tremendous beauty here on that level too), and more focused on the purpose or spirit beneath. When that kind of attention has been paid to the core, to what matters, it can be felt. It’s more than a simple utilitarianism in which the dead leaves are valued for their nutrients – rather it is a recognition of meaning at the deeper layers.

In the States, there is an “on stage” and an “off stage” in most places… and “off stage” is where you put the ugly. Here, it’s all on stage – you live with it all. There is a makeshift pathway we travel many times a day between our rooms and the cluster of buildings where our classroom is located – it is not traveled by patients, just by staff and students while construction is completed. That path is littered with trash – an old sandal, pieces of electrical wire, broken tiles.  I’ve been vacillating between different reactions to this little stretch of neglected land. On the one hand, it looks dirty and forgotten, and I think, “How much effort would it take to just clean this stuff up? Why hasn’t anyone done that?” I started to clean it up myself a few days ago, and then something stopped me. I decided to just watch it a little longer. For some reason, I kind of like it.

Dr. Ramkumar stopped by again near the end of last week and asked how class is going. We all said how much we are enjoying it. “We are reviewing material we covered last year,” I said, “and we are already learning so much that is different.” He smiled, “Remember, there is not just one right answer. Watch out for the tendency to say, ‘That’s right,’ and, ‘That’s wrong.’ There are many perspectives, and when you add them up, you begin to get the whole picture.”

So…. Be persistent. Look everywhere for Ayurveda. Don’t reduce things to “right” and “wrong.” Keep watching. Nothing is tidy in nature. But there is beauty and order just underneath the surface. Be patient….

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Farewell Mumbai

One thing that makes Mumbai so challenging, I find, is the juxtaposition of order and chaos, glamour and poverty, development and rubble. It prevents you from making easy judgments or putting things in tidy boxes – or from averting your eyes.  There is luxury and excess to be found here on par with any western city, but also there is an inability (or perhaps a lack of desire) to hide the underbelly of the city. It’s all mixed together. There are begging children with babies in their arms sitting right next to fine restaurants, and shiny new high rise apartments climbing nearly on top of decaying houses.  In the United States, we take great pains to remove beggars from the main thoroughfares, to keep downtown areas “clean” and appealing to visitors, to segregate the downtrodden from the affluent. In Mumbai, there is no such pretense.

It is jarring and painful to walk by dirty malnourished children who don’t have an adult with them, even though I knew to expect it. I guess I don’t really want it NOT to be painful, and certainly that’s a risk too – becoming numb to the sight. Rather, it feels like somehow it’s appropriate that tourist attractions and visible impoverishment are mixed together, that I can readily see the poor children whom I know are here. It just feels honest; brutal, but unapologetic. You’re walking through real lives. There is no artifice.

On Tuesday, two of my classmates arrived in Mumbai and we met at the SiddhiVinayaka Mandir, a renowned temple of Ganesha located smack in the middle of a busy city block. We felt it would be auspicious to start our India experience with a visit to this holy site to make offerings of laddus (the sweet confection that is Ganesha’s favorite) to ask him to clear our path of obstacles.  Lynn and Ras had also each been told by a jyotishi (a vedic astrologer) that they should make an offering of radishes to Ganesha at this particular temple to appease a certain planetary arrangement in their birth charts.

Miraculously, we found each other immediately among the crowds outside, which I took as a remarkable sign considering I was rather late due to my search for radishes at an outdoor market for them. Lynn and Ras had landed only hours before and were feeling rather ragged. After only five minutes or so in the queue, we found ourselves at the doors of the inner sanctum which held a surprisingly small orange-red murti of Ganesha, maybe three feet tall, seated on an altar and surrounded by flowers. There were four or five bare-chested priests who received the offerings from the crowd, placed the gifts briefly on the altar before Ganesha, and then moved them to the side, one after another – all day long, all year long.

It was at this point that it became a full-contact event. As we approached the altar, people began pushing from behind and we ended up pressed against the low wall of the priests’ area with people thrusting their offerings over our heads. Someone’s flower garland was dangling over my face and suddenly I found my ear nestled against Ras’s radishes as I listed sideways. I was leaning heavily against Ras’s shoulder, trying to raise my arms to lift my laddus onto the counter. When I finally did, I said a quick prayer and then ducked my head and started slinking backwards until I popped out of the crowd like a smushed grape relieved of its skin.

After leaving Lynn and Ras with plans to meet at the domestic airport the next morning, I took one more walk around Daniel’s neighborhood. It was my last day in Mumbai and I wanted to photograph some of the buildings I had seen around his apartment. Their flowery and bucolic names might have seemed ironic had there not been an entirely unselfconscious quality to their idyllic reach. Instead, they seemed somehow naively optimistic.

For more photos on an ongoing basis, you can check the home page of this blog at http://www.AyurvedaInTranslation.wordpress.com and look in the right column for “My Photos.” Clicking there will take you to my photostream on Flickr.com, which I will update throughout my time in India.

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