Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sense and sensei!

One of the nicest people I know is a tiny little Bengali who makes a living from pushing people around. I’ve seen this mighty atom, a barely five feet tall featherweight, literally wipe the floor with huge occidental giants who can’t help but bow in respect and submission to this man who, having made his point, smiles as he offers his hand or a gentle pat to the still quavering object of his administrations.

Paritosh Kar is the highest ranked Aikidoka (practitioner of the gentle yet ‘persuasive’ martial art of Aikido ) in India with formidable prowess in the art, yet his dojo (studio), where he teaches a small but dedicated group of students, hardly has enough members to sustain the establishment. It’s a pity that this powerful yet beautiful art, a capital builder of courage, compassion and character isn’t as popular as it ought to be.

Sensei Kar, or his potential students might not have access to nearly a century deep treasure trove of inspirational lives and events from the brightest and darkest corners of the world but the editors at TIME surely do. And more is the pity when a media beacon such as the TIME above fails to find a place for a life as heroic and a story as stirring as that of Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969), the founder of Aikido, and acknowledged by many as the greatest martial artist of all time, in its list of Asian heroes from the last 60 years (13 Nov issue).

Morihei Ueshiba, or O Sensei – great teacher, as he came to be known was born into a Samurai family and began life as a sickly, premature child. Encouraged by legacy and relatives to take up the martial arts, his meetings with two conflicting yet equally charismatic teachers, Sokaku Takeda, who initiated him into the fierce martial system of Daito-ryu Aikijutsu and Deguchi Onisaburo, the mesmeric leader of the Omotokyo Sect, a religious group dedicated to world peace and disarmament, shaped his unique philosophy. A soldier himself, Morihei was devastated by the ravages of WWII. By then in his 60s, Ueshiba’s martial techniques had evolved from the merely physical to an invincible spiritual force, guided by visions and divine communions.

At this stage, realisation dawned on Morihei, whose name incidentally means abundant peace, that the purpose of Budo – the martial path of courage and enlightenment – was not to defeat or destroy the enemy but to seek universal harmony, even in the face of aggression by blending with and then guiding and controlling any destructive force, whether it surges from within or attacks from without. Thus was born Ai-ki-do (Ai – harmony, Ki – universal, do – path or way), the path of harmonising with the universal energy. Almost Gandhian, but instead of the apparent passivity of turning the other cheek, an Aikidoka is more likely to turn his opponent inside out, albeit without damaging his body and hopefully having transformed his soul. It is not for Morihei Ueshiba’s legendary, superhuman feats nor for his unconquerable martial spirit and skill or the sheer artistic brilliance of his art with brush, sword and soul but for his legacy of Aikido, techniques that not only develop the body but a philosophy that one can practice and reinforce everyday in the dojo and in life, thus building both fortitude and forbearance, crucial for surviving a world that still hasn’t figured out how not to burn the candle at both ends, that I feel that he is as much of a hero as Seiji Ozawa, Bruce Lee and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Michael Gelb, author of How to think like Leonardo da Vinci, ranks Ueshiba amongst some of the greatest creative geniuses of all time, alongside names like William Shakespeare and the great Leonardo. On his deathbed, Ueshiba had said “Aikido is for the entire world”, and at a time when that world is celebrating proof of an elephant’s self awareness, there isn’t a better mirror for mankind than the practice of Aikido, or a more opportune time to hold it up .

Warriors in harmony

Two of the greatest classics to have emerged from the orient are Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings. Well, times are as violent as ever and the war zones have spread from battle grounds to boardrooms and bedrooms. These books are as popular as ever but the deceitful, confrontational ruthlessness recommended in most of the pages might be good enough to win a battle but never a war. We are more equal than we have ever been, both as nations and as individuals and both survival and success can’t help but be a function of winning friends, not wars.

Aikido is a unique martial art that, even at its reactive best, refuses to regress into a fight and holds tremendous appeal for those who believe in looking at every situation with a win-win perspective for all concerned. Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, had different students who were associated with him at different stages of his development, each playing a role in the rise of a unique school of the art. Beyond the martial arena, each school has virtues that find application in life, love and litigation. Go ahead, try ‘em on for size!

Shin shin toitsu Aikido: Harnesses physical, spiritual and intellectual energy. Popular with stress ravaged corporate groups.

Hombudojo: A traditional cultural experience, a creative legacy of the master

Tomiki: Encourages competition, sport and the spirit that fuels both.

Yoshinkan: Physically, the most challenging of Aikido forms, it embodies the warrior’s philosophy and perspective.


Monday, November 20, 2006

Muscle-bound levitations

Columnists, I’ve realised, have a lot in common with insects. One of my favourites, Bill Bryson, has the perspective of a common housefly. He takes a disgustingly close look from the oddest of angles but with his self-deprecating world view, he gives you an unforgettable buzz. Fareed Zakaria, on the other hand, would inject you with potent thoughts that could develop feverish intensity, much like the friendly neighbourhood anopheles. Then there are others who might remind you of the Tsetse fly.

Speaking of insects, my friends call me the locust and it has nothing to do agricultural or intellectual depravation and everything to do with a stunt I pull on a yoga mat that never fails to draw gasps of awe from an adoring group of fellow yogis (sigh!). Apologies for blowing my own trumpet, dear reader, but hey, what are columns for. To be honest, I’m quite a slob on the mat, but an inveterate urban yogi nevertheless, and by some quirk of fate and genes, manage to do justice to a rather advanced version of an asana that looks spectacular when done right – the salabhasana or locust. All this preening has got be followed by some preaching, so here I am, taking a stand for the headstand.

Recently, I overheard a debate between colleagues over a magazine story. It was a story about the relative benefits of yoga versus the gym. As magazine stories go, this was as non-committal as ever – lot of facts and very little opinion. The women, many of whom could wear their knees around their necks for a lark, debated that yoga was a wonderful workout for body and soul while the gym was only good for muscle-bound monsters who’ll only have luck wooing a she-gorilla. The men, with bulging egos, bellies and the odd biceps, countered that yoga was for sissies and those on the wrong side of 50 or a shrink. Now, I really enjoy my ‘mat-time, and I assure you I’m no sissy ( I’m contract bound against countering the rest). And that is not because I also go to the gym, lift hundreds of Kgs (admittedly, only about as often as Mahmoud Ahmedinejad might cry over Anne Frank’s diary) or because I enjoy being thrown around by benign grandmoms in during Aikido practice.

I would recommend yoga to all who’d care to listen because yoga, as Diamond Dallas Page, three-time world champion wrestler and avid yogi, and a very big man, who you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley says, is “the best damn workout on the planet!” The world might agree that yoga is great for health, spiritual and otherwise, but few believe that yoga is also perhaps a sculptor of shape and symmetry. And why would you believe me when iron temple gods like ‘The Governator’ and John Cena display dimensions previously found in comic books while yoga ideals like B.K.S. Iyengar and Aadil Palkhivala, no matter how fit or supple, haven’t really exhibited action figure physiques. The truth, however, going by the lean athletic and long-lived examples of Sri T. Krishnamacharya and Swami Ramamohan Brahmachari, is that when done at the right intensity, yoga promises the strength of an elephant and the grace of a peacock as the Patanjali sutras would testify. Working from the inside out, organs and glands benefit as much as muscle and bone, thus building an everlasting foundation for health and beauty (for what is beauty but radiant physical, intellectual and spiritual health). Just take a look at Rodney Yee and Baron Baptiste and you’ll know. More importantly, yoga promises mankind a blue print that will help him influence if not control his destiny.

As for the debate, it ended in a wager. I’ve accepted a challenge from my key board-crushing, dumbbell-toting colleagues that after three months of ‘real’ yoga, yours truly will emerge stronger and fitter than anything their gym busting could’ve managed. Will keep you posted and once that happens you too could exchange your gym membership for a yoga course.

Proof of the pudding...

Yoga means union, and subject to your school of thought, the union could be between a range of partners – mind and body, soul and the divine or lover and the beloved. The basic objective of the practice is to establish a bridge between the cosmic energy that shapes the universe and the energy that courses through our bodies.

Yoga, therefore is a path that allows the human form access to these vast, inexhaustible reserves of universal energy and channelise it through the human body and perform deeds that’ve hitherto only been described as superhuman. There have been demonstrations by yogis who’ve performed seemingly impossible feats like stopping their heart, an involuntary muscle, from beating and others who’ve spent days inside airtight sealed containers and emerged unharmed from the ordeal.

Yogi Bhim, a yogi based in New Zealand, has performed some astonishing feats of strength like tearing steel trays into pieces and bursting hot water bottles by blowing into them – a feat matched only by champion strongmen like Bill Pearl. The Guinness Book of World Records is replete with names of innumerable yogis and their near impossible feats.

Yoga, however, has far more to offer than just an assortment of the above but these events do offer a glimpse of our own super human potential. Science will do what it can but the real key to unlocking human potential lies in the energy sciences like yoga, qigong, tai chi chuan, aikido, reiki and pranic healing.


Monday, November 13, 2006

Dead sure?

Do I really have to die? It seems an impossible, almost insignificant thought, sitting as I do now, ruminating over the impossible challenge of surviving the invincible axis of an empty sheet allied with an empty head, surrounded by a busy crew forging the future with passion and words, a mildly suicidal ex. Editor shedding threats, tears, hair and more and the prospect of going back to a family I love – seems like a life balanced between two worlds I love. Seems like a life that would go on forever.

Truth is, it wouldn’t and no matter how hard one tries to drown that nagging thought in more important things like the war in Iraq, the movie at the theatre or the neighbour next door, it keeps bobbing up like a Portuguese man-of-war that no one wants to touch, but is there, always in the corner of your eye-line nevertheless. And sometimes it drifts close – too close, too often. Of course, the sheer inevitability and the sense of impending doom that accompanies the word – ‘deadlines’ as it is bandied around by those executioners in business suits called editorial coordinators and the shared etymology does not help either.

Be that as it may, and call it an escapist’s fantasy if you will, but I’ve really begun to believe that there’s more to life than just death and I’ve sincerely begun to question the supposed inevitability of the phenomenon. In other, more pompous words, I really am not dead sure about death any more. Which is not to say that I don’t fear it. I fear bodily harm as much as most, I guess, as I do death, both my own and perhaps more so that, of those I’ve grown to love. The point I’m trying to make, dear fellow explorers into the beyond, is that I truly believe that the resilience and imagination of the human soul is tempered and strengthened with each challenge it undertakes and surmounts and death too is one such challenge, perhaps a final frontier of a kind that we’ll one day understand and perhaps even transcend.

Would we discover the fountain of youth and the elixir of life that will make us all immortal or at least empower us with the wherewithal to accept death only when we deign so and exert control over our own destiny? I don’t know but I would not consider it as much of an impossibility as perhaps generations of medieval folk considered the idea of the earth being round, having an axis, rotating and revolving at an incomprehensible speed and having a moon all its own, that would one day be stepped on by human feet.

Almost as comforting and far more tangible is the possibility of understanding what happens as we and after we die. For centuries, there have been peripheral concepts suggesting the possibility of communion with divine entities and reincarnation. Today, these fringe philosophers have assumed the shape of celebrated spiritual and psychic healers, and authors who’ve shared their experiences with millions of readers. Their books make compelling reading and the cases, if true, offer compelling evidence that death is not ‘the end’ of life but a mere phase the timing apparently of which is of our own choosing. Even more heartening is the thought offered that we choose those we share our lives with and stay connected with them across and beyond the planes of life, in every life. Life apparently is like a school room for the soul and we choose the circumstances and challenges that we would be up against, much before we decide to ‘take’ birth as we do those who we would transact with in life, much like a student choosing a course, university and faculty, with death being no more than graduation day, before it is time for the next lesson in life.

I do not know if it is all true but I’ve got to find out before I give up on the idea. I’ll share this journey with you in these pages and who knows, maybe we chose to share this journey together, long before either of us was born.

Morpheus & Orpheus

Relax, take a deep breath and think about yesterday. With each breath, relax your mind and sink gently into the past. If you keep this up long enough, there would come a point where your mind would transcend the barrier of conscious memory and drift into a world apparently unfamiliar, and yet entirely your own – the world from a life lived long ago, by you.

Past life regression (PLR) has become a very real, tangible experience that has stepped out of books by parapsychologists and spiritual healers like Dr. Brian Weiss and become accessible to people all over the world as both the concept and its practitioners have grown exponentially. While reincarnation as a concept has been popular in certain religions, other faiths have rejected the idea. It might be interesting to note however that the more a religion has been institutionalised, the more it has rejected the possibility of life existing beyond its realm and control.

There have been legends aplenty in every geographical corner of individuals recollecting past life events and found varying degrees of acceptance but today, with PLR workshops available round the corner, both sceptics and the faithful can test their beliefs on any given weekend. PLR sessions seem to convert even their staunchest critics and I can’t wait to try one as soon as possible. It promises to be a thought provoking session at the very least, if not a death defying one.


Monday, November 6, 2006

Bloody motifs

Idiots, knaves and bloody lucky thieves! There are appellations aplenty that the fawning masses dedicate to their beloved leaders who are either corrupt gluttons or muddled morons, and often both. And not only do they display prodigious levels of daftness but have the audacity to assume that their constituents wouldn’t know any better, attempting to manipulate social consciousness with nothing but shallow and empty rhetoric.
Mehbooba Mufti, my friends in Kashmir tell me, is quite a committed politician – apparently an all out welfare worker. But her recent call to lift the ban on Shahtoosh makes one question her powers of comprehension and discernment if not her intelligence and integrity. Maybe the problem lies with the fact that our politicians have only learnt how to win elections, not how to govern a country.

The unbearable beauty of the Shahtoosh shawl is woven with a fabric of unbearable pain. ‘Down’ hair plucked from the bloodied body of a chiru, a rare antelope found above the snow-line, along the Tibetan plateau was, until deemed illegal, the ‘golden fleece’ of fashion street, worth more than its weight in gold. Each shawl draped across an elegant shoulder was a testament to the grisly residue of at least three chiru carcasses strewn across the frozen plains, making the harsh, bleak landscape bleaker still. Now, since just a handful of them remain, both the Chinese and the Indian governments banned the hunting and trade in Shahtoosh. With the ban, most Kashmiri weavers, exquisite craftsmen all, now practised their craft on the equally exquisite Pashmina wool, sheared off or shed by a species of Himalayan goat. Even with protection, poaching for the illegal Shahtoosh trade is rampant and numbers on the Indian side stand at a dismal hundred odd antelopes.

Admittedly, a few of the Shahtoosh weavers are still looking for options, but Mehbooba Mufti’s half baked rhetoric would take the weavers no further than disaster. Mehbooba’s call for lifting the ban comes in light of the fact that there aren’t enough chiru left to weave even a hundred shawls. There’ve been other voices in support of Ms. Mufti’s, voices whose combined IQ scores, based on whatever they tried to pass of as logic, would definitely be less than the number of chiru left in India. If the chiru becomes extinct, not only would the state and its people lose a part of their heritage and future tourism opportunities but also the possibility of weaving Shahtoosh from shed down hair as used to be the custom in the early days, once the population has stabilised.

Every politician who tries to win popular support and votes through quick fix rhetoric or policy, by painting hapless environmental lobbies as the villains who’ve locked away a region’s resources in the name of conservation (thus keeping its people, the rightful beneficiaries of the said resources from prosperity) needs to be pulled up by the ear and given a basic lesson in comparative economics.

If availability and exploitation of natural resources was to be the all important one way cheque to the health, wealth and prosperity bank, then pray why aren’t Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo many times richer than Singapore, Formosa and Japan, and how could Punjab or Haryana enjoy such prosperity while Orissa and Jharkhand languish far behind. Collective prosperity has very little to do with available natural resources and a whole lot more to do with collective innovation and industry, and most states unfortunately falter at the very first hurdle – that of developing a collective consciousness. So, would any of the beautiful people from the beautiful valley please tap Ms. Mufti (who, I maintain, has been a conscientious leader thus far) on the shoulder and urge her to get on with real developmental issues instead of pottering around with idea of lopping off the few remaining loping ‘lopes.

The devil wears fur

At least De Vil in 101 Dalmatians preferred to wear only that. She’d look at a litter of adorable Dalmatian pups and exclaim, ““Such perfectly beautiful coats!” There must have hardly been a heart that didn’t warm as the little bundles of joy walked free from the clutches of the cruel couturier to be restored to the dappled doggies, Pongo and Perdita.

Amazingly, and ironically, many a high-society fashionista comes across as a less-animated Cruella De Vil with a lot-less feverish fetish, but far from disgusting anyone, it hardly ever warrants anything more than curious second glance.

For one’s skin to become another’s second skin, the practice of the use of fur and scents derived from animals to accessorise the ensemble of, particularly, the female finery has been one of inane insensitivity. After all, for the mink and chiru to be bestowed with the coat of soft hair must imply that nature must have considered them more needful of the same, than us! Imagine hunting down the numbered musk deer for the kind of ‘sensual gratification’ as ephemeral as smell?! There are enough alternatives available; besides it’s dirty to denude the other to clothe oneself...