From Paris with ‘Aum’ – an Indian discovering yoga in the West

After 3 years in Paris, one is generally expected to be dripping with the smugness that comes from being able to correctly pronounce ‘Champs Elysees’, to rattle off a dozen cheese names without a pause, to wear simple dark t-shirts costing a small fortune and if one has lived sincerely, to even smell of macarons or similar at all times.

So it was quite queer for me to return from my Parisian stint instead with a deep appreciation for yoga and spirituality, especially as I was returning to the motherland of these things — India. Leaving for France with a love of ‘haute couture’, escargot and Edit Piaf, I came back with a collection of yoga pants, a vegetarian lifestyle and vedic chants on my phone. This phenomenon should not be mistaken for someone ‘returning to their roots’ because my previous life in India incorporated none of these new-found interests nor even hinted at their future emergence.

I’m willing to consider the theory that having grown up in India, this culture was always in my sub-conscious and only took its own time to surface. However, even if I accept this, I’m not willing to let the modern day Indian culture off so easy. Scarcely anyone in my circle of family and friends in India practices yoga or meditation. For most of the young urban Indian elite, the good life appears to consist of eating good food, dressing up, going out and diligently making sure it is all recorded on social media. Of course this behaviour is in no way restricted to Indian youth, but one would hope that in the country that gave the world yoga, there would be a bit more appreciation of this great heritage (author’s note: I apologise for my ignorance if there is some type of social media ‘sadhana’ or spiritual practice, that has not made its way to my ears).

Being first generation Indian myself, I learned ‘third’ generation yoga in Paris — i.e. yoga gone from India to the US and then to Europe. You see, the first globally mobile modern Indian spiritual teachers taught yoga first to the Americans, noting of course the amazing power of America to inspire, if it so wanted, the whole world to wear torn blue trousers made from thick, coarse cloth and to drink carbonated water while feeling really chuffed about it. Sure enough, no sooner did they spot New Yorkers running to the gym with yoga mats slung over their shoulders, that Parisians and Berliners sprung into asanas themselves.

This spiritual enthusiasm has been so great that there are now new styles of yoga invented in America itself. When I asked my Jivamukti teacher in Paris where she studied the yoga form, I was hoping she would point me to some good school or teachers in India but her answer was — New York. Visiting the Whole Foods store in California recently, I was amazed to find an aisle-worth of fancy turmeric (a very basic and common spice in India) supplements and scented candles for the different ‘chakras’, with detailed descriptions of their spiritual significance. At times though, this spiritual enthusiasm does get a bit carried away on the back of pop culture, resulting in absurd things like shoes named after yoga asanas, body oil that claims to remind you of your yoga practice through the day and I kid you not, ‘kundalini’ gowns.

And so it was that I learned to chant my first mantras from a French teacher, my amusement at the incorrect pronunciation of familiar words marred by my slight embarrassment at listening to 20 French people confidently chant Sanskrit shlokas that I did not know. Laying in ‘shavasana’ at the end of the class, listening to the Ganesh and Shakti devotional songs played by the teacher, I silently thought how sad it was that this would not be easy to come across in India, a country struggling to revive its ancient traditions amid constant protests that it is foisting Hinduism on one and all or being just plain backward or unprogressive.

But perhaps it’s not that strange after all that I learnt my first asanas close to the Eiffel Tower despite living in India for over twenty years. And perhaps it’s not that sad that the book ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’, a treasure of the Indian yogic tradition, was recommended to me by a French jazz musician on a plane from San Francisco to Paris. Perhaps it’s also OK that it was at a dinner party in Paris that I first heard of Gandhi’s study of the bible. One feature of the globalised world is the ability of ancient traditions to carry on on foreign soils. And yoga may well be the one truly global philosophy/practice, serving to bind the world together not along potentially divisive ideological, political, economic or religious, but along basic existential lines.

So in the end, it doesn’t really bother me to learn it first as ‘chien tête en bas’ or ‘downward facing dog’; after all, an asana by any other name…

On poetry and capitalism

I love writing poetry as much as I hate reading it. Other people’s that is. I don’t understand it, it confuses me and I don’t have the patience. I can count on one hand, the poems of the great poets that I truly like. This got me wondering whether this was specific to me, to poetry or to the arts.

There are countless examples of music superstars that never went to music school and business leaders that never went to business school. Fits in well with what some spiritual traditions (and these days self-help gurus) say about knowledge being something that is ‘realised’ versus ‘acquired’. It would appear then, that excellence in and passion for something is more about unlocking your natural abilities rather than seeking to build a skill set. I.e. inspiration should be sought within, not outside.

That is not to say that outside factors can’t inspire or help build talent, for they certainly can. It is just to say that inner inspiration seems to be the key ingredient, whether it is ignited by outside factors or already there on its own.

In that sense, poetry and capitalism share something profound in common – the encouragement of individual systems of inspiration and imagination. Though the success of the direction the two have taken could be considered to be up for debate. Capitlism has led to social and economic advancements as disruptive thoughts and ideas take firm shape in new products, tehcnologies and processes.

Poetry, on the other hand has gone from rhyming and syllable-counting to free verse which can be a disappointing attempt at moving out of the ‘prose’ section. To avoid igniting the fury of the individual thought system of the free verse poet, I should clarify that this is a highly subjective (and rather tongue-in-cheek) opinion. I quite like my poems to rhyme here and there. But that’s just my personal, individual view.

From Paris to Peace

I should start this piece by clarifying that I am not by any stretch a historian, sociologist or political commentator. The only qualification I have to write on the topic of human conflict and terrorism is the fact that (like so many millions) I have lived in cities that have been the target of terror attacks – from Mumbai in 1993 to London in 2005 to Paris in 2015. I should also warn the reader that the title of the article is far more ambitious than its content.

What happened in Paris over a week ago has not fully sunk in. People are going about their daily business with admirable resilience and defiance but I can’t help think that it’s akin to throwing oneself into one’s work as a way to get over a personal tragedy. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, anger was quick to surface and heated debates were in full swing in a matter of days. This time round, we’re a bit numb even a week later, still trying to take in the full extent of the barbarity.

There also seems to be a realisation after these attacks that there is an even more serious issue at hand than previously recognised. What Parisians are fighting for this time is not merely that they should be free to do exactly as they please in their city, however controversial the activity may be, but that they should be allowed to simply live their lives in peace. It is not merely a matter of principle like the first time, this time it is the principle itself.

As someone trained academically and paid professionally to analytically break down problems and try to solve them, I’ve been wrestling, over the past few days, with trying to figure out what could be the solution to the global terrorism issue. What is the answer to this menace? Should Gandhi’s principles of non-violence (satyagraha) be applied? Is war the only option? A complex issue such as this surely needs to be tackled on multiple fronts with multiple strategies but I think for a start it is imperative to understand what the problem really is before thinking about how to deal with it.

Why do human beings engage in conflict with one another? Most of the time it is for control of resources, land or power. But every now and then the cause of conflict is something far more chilling – the unwillingness of one side to recognise the humanity of the other, plain and simple. It is the dangerous idea that some human lives are worth more than others, just because. This most base of all notions was in operation when white colonizers took African slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Nazis persecuted the Jews during World War II and when imperialist powers afflicted atrocities on local populations in countries from India to Jamaica. When it comes to problems like this, eruption of conflict is not merely a failure of political strategy or security, it is a moral and spiritual failure.

What were the ways out of these conflicts? Non-violence and civil diobedience finally won India its freedom and were adopted by Martin Luther King who won African-Americans their status as equal citizens of America and by Nelson Mandela in the fight against apartheid. But surely trying to appeal to the conscience of a Nazi officer would have been a laughable feat for a Jew to attempt during World War II. The way out of that one had to be through the use of military power. Can we follow one of these precedents to defeat terrorism? I think not. Because even though at the heart of these conflicts, there is the same disregard for humanity in another, the present problem of terrorism is different – it is far more amorphous. It is not directed at just one set of people but at anyone who follows a certain way of life, no matter who or where they are.

The attacks have made Parisians think hard about who they are and what they stand for. Crossing paths with people in the street, I find myself really looking at the people who are passing me by to see a reflection perhaps of who I am as an inhabitant of this city. And I find other people doing the same back at me. As we often know ourselves in contrast to someone or something else, the attacks have made us clearer about what we are not, which also helps to define who we are. Most of all, we are coming to the worrying realisation that the values and freedoms we take for granted are actually a big deal and need to be protected. French thought has often been known to scale the most treacherous heights of idealism and perhaps it is only fitting that it is being called upon now to defend the values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Terrorism, however, is a global problem which needs a global response. The world needs to unite in its efforts to defeat it. Unite in the name of humanity, human progress and peace. But we need more than that. The misguided youth that are joining in the terrorist activities are quite simply, lacking purpose and inspiration in life. We need to think of ways to inspire them and include them in our progress. These are youngsters sitting in delapidated apartments in the sordid suburbs of Paris but they may as well be living a million miles away from their Parisian neighbours with their stylish clothes and skiing holidays. IS has spun a story that makes the most maladjusted youth of our society feel like they will have a high and noble purpose in life should they join their ranks. What are we doing in terms of offering competing aspirations?

The Muslim community itself can play a pivotal role in this respect. The recent protests against IS by Indian Muslims are a stellar example of how we can create more unity in our society and ensure that all parts of it feel inspired and committed to the same cause. I believe that Indian Muslims can set a shining example for muslims in the rest of the world. Hindus and Muslims have not only co-existed generally peacefully for generations in India, but have been a source of inspiration for one another – whether it be through the Sufi movement beginning in the 10th century and continuing as a cultural tradition to this day or through modern mainstream cinema where the reigning actors are Muslims (often married to Hindu women).

What this requires is for us to be true to ourselves and shed any hidden prejudices that may be keeping us from being truly inclusive and united. This is a test for all of us and it is shining a light on the hidden recesses of our belief systems to see whether what lies there is truly what we profess.

Finally and more obviously, we need more security. That may mean sacrificing some privacy or personal freedoms from time to time but it would be a small price to pay. It is ironic that while from one angle, global terrorism seems to be a ghastly and powerful force that is attacking the very fundamentals of our value system, from another, it appears to be nothing more than a problem of crime on a large and complex scale.

Unite. Inspire. Secure.

Personally, I think a few listens to John Lenon’s ‘Imagine’ should be enough to convince someone about world peace, but that would be taking the popularity of the Beatles too much for granted…

 

Human connection in the age of the machine

Technology is silently transforming our relationships and how we connect with each other. We live in an age of intermittent intimacy and virtual vulnerability.

We all have friends we rarely see but who we exchange a few WhatsApp or Facebook messages with every few months or even years as if we’re still the friends we once were. We have acquantainces we know better by their emoticon usage style than their actual facial expressions. And we have exes that still check in with us from time to time by liking a post on Facebook.

Is this normal? To answer this question, it is important to draw a baseline for comparison. Let’s consider that normal was how relationships were 30 years ago i.e. about a generation ago. You would have only really had relationships with people who were physically around you most of the time. You’d see them often, share a large part of your life with them and would grow with them. That is not true today for the majority of us.

The majority of us have hundreds of ‘friends’ on Facebook, most of whom stray in and out of our lives. We meet strangers while travelling, from online dating sites and at random social events and maintain mostly tenuous relationships with these folks. We have à la carte relationships – add commitment to taste. Does this mean we’re slowly losing our ability to connect intimately and authentically? Are we losing our capacity for vulnerability?

The misanthropes are probably wondering if these are rhetorical questions. But I would hazard a more optimistic view. I think that we’re in the teething phase of a new paradigm of relationships. We are being pushed into a world that is challenging our vulnerability like never before. Our emotions are at play more than I think we’ve ever had to deal with before and often with people we don’t really even know that well, which makes it even harder. We anxiously wait for texts from someone exciting we’ve recently met, we’re elated if our photos get tons of ‘like’s on Facebook, we get butterflies if a conversation goes well on a dating site, we feel envious seeing a stranger’s professional success on Linkedin. And all of this may well happen in one day and even multiple times a day. What an assault on our emotions!

30 years ago, the person that hurt you was likely standing in your kitchen making some coffee and you would be quite likely to try to set things right or at least vent your emotions post haste. Today, you’d be more likely to ignore their messages, delete from Facebook and move on. It can be harsh. Add to that the many avenues that offer us an insight into the lives of those that we would not otherwise cross paths with. Cyberstalking is an addictive drug that offers an unpleasant emotional trip.

But despite all of this, I think that ultimately, technology is a positive tool and can lead us to deeper and more meaningful connections with others. Seeking advice on an anonymous online forum offers millions a chance to get out of toxic relationships. The knowledge, thanks to dating apps, that there are thousands of singles around you can keep you from settling in marriage or feeling lonely in being single. You can Google your favourite writer and find out much more about her life than you could have 30 years ago and get a deeper insight into the person and the life whose work you find interesting or inspiring. You can create a blog to express your personal thoughts to millions and are not restricted to seeking encouragement from family and friends who may never understand you or your skill. Your boss may never recognise your talent but that senior colleague abroad that you work a lot with, might. Sure, it’s much more likely today that your relationship ends because your partner decides to move abroad, but there are also so many many long-distance relationships started and maintained today thanks to technology. If we can still be inspired to action by reading the works of a writer that lived over 100 years ago, surely we can trust in real-time connections formed through email and text communication.

Ultimately I tend to believe in the ability of the human spirit to harness its creative power for its own growth. We’re just learning to deal with how technology connects us and that is causing some growing pains but eventually we will be able to harness the power of technology to have better and more meaningful realtionships. As Walt Whitman wrote, the powerful play goes on and we may contribute a verse.

Your anonymous blogger whom you will probably never see, leaves you with the lines of a dead poet from 115 years ago, whom you will definitely never see, both of whom have probably left some impression on you (to different degrees!) despite what technology has done to our lives; and because of it.

“…Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

Answer.

That you are here—that life exists and identity,…”
 — Walt Whitman