Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pattabhi Jois: A last look

When I first read the news in the papers, I was very surprised. Agreed the man was nearly 94 years old but I still hadn’t expected him to die anytime soon…

When I met him last year, the enduring image I had come back with were those twinkling eyes that lit up whenever he flashed that child-like smile. Dressed in a white vest and tight black shorts, his muscled limbs surprisingly well toned for his years, Yogacharya Pattabhi Jois had looked the very picture of good health. Even his skin had none of the hang-loose wrinkles or shriveled appearance that one might associate with nonagenarians. He did walk a little gingerly and on occasions, between sentences, his mind seemed to be drifting into different faraway worlds, but otherwise, he’d seemed like a man good enough to last a few more decades at the very least. Looking at him that day, I was pretty sure that he would surely go on to live at least as long as his guru, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya who even in his 80s had been photographed performing the most challenging asanas and had gone on to live to be a healthy happy 101.

Pattabhi Jois was part of a yogic tradition that goes back more than hundreds of years to a yogi called Ramamohan Brahmachari who roamed the cold-to-the-bone lands at the foot of Mount Kailash in little more than a loin-cloth. During the course of my interview, I learnt of the legend which told of Pattabhi Jois’ guru, Yogi Krishnamacharya walking for 22 days to reach the Ramamohan Ashram in search of the yogic path. Ramamohan at the time was a tall strong man with a flowing beard and, as the story goes, more than 150 years old. Krishnamacharya returned after completing his training and started teaching yoga to the Maharaja at the Mysore Palace during the end years of the British Raj. In the year 1927, while Krishnamacharya was engaged in a lecture demonstration in the district of Hassan in Karnataka, a little boy walked up to him and asked him if he too could learn to do those asanas with as much grace and beauty… Krishnamacharya was surprised, but after testing that boy’s resolve, who was barely 12 years old, agreed to teach him all he knew. And since that day till the day he died, Pattabhi Jois had dedicated his waking hours to the study and practice of what he called ‘Ashtanga (the eight fold path) Yoga’.

It must have been about nine in the morning. I was sitting with Guru Pattabhi Jois on the first floor of his yogshala in Mysore. Though the day had just begun for me, Guru Jois had already run through half his day after having taken two hour long classes, the first of which always starts well before the break of dawn. Next to him sat a lean young man with a stubble. He must have been in his late twenties. Whenever guru Jois’ Anglo-Kannada became a little too difficult to decipher, this young man often chipped in as translator. I remembered having seen the same young man assist Guru Jois in class… often taking the lead from the ageing yogi. “Sharath!” he’d said, while introducing himself. “I’m his grandson.” I later learnt that Sharath was supposed to be the most advanced practitioner of Ashtanga yoga in the world at the time and was also expected to be Guru Jois’ spiritual successor. The two seemed to share a deep bond. Guru Jois, I was told, was a hard task-master. “Verrry strict… strictest with me,” Sharath had said. And yet I saw Guru Jois giving in to his grandson’s suggestions during the interview like a fawning younger brother might to an indulgent elder brother… The mantle now passes to young Sharath but it would be a fair climb before he can reach the towering pedestal on which the yoga community had seated Guru Jois…

Though Guru Jois was amongst the senior-most of Krishnamacharya’s students, there have been others who are as celebrated and are as respected as Jois. Notable amongst them are Krishnamacharya’s brother-in-law, BKS Iyengar, and son, TKV Desikachar. But amongst them all, Guru Jois’ yogic signature was the most distinct of all. More dynamic and with greater gymnastic elements than any other form of yoga, Pattabhi’s brand of yoga was perhaps amongst the first to capture the fancy of the West. At his Mysore yogashala, I had met tattooed ex-convicts, hulking Australian Rugby players, dainty East-European ballet dancers and Japanese martial artists, all drawn towards Ashtanga Yoga and its addictive endorphin rush. “I can bench press 400 lbs and do a 100 yard dash with a rugby ball in about 10 seconds, and yet Ashtanga Yoga gives me the best workout and is way harder than tackling 250 lb monsters on a Rugby field,” claimed the Rugby player from down under. “If I’d known about yoga in prison I would’ve gotten through with greater peace and fewer scars… heck, if I’d known about yoga, I mightn’t even have gone to jail,” claimed the ex-convict. “…And practicing yoga with Guruji has made me into a far better dancer,” so said a shy Romanian girl when I coaxed her for her reasons for traveling all the way from Bucharest for a yoga lesson.

But there are voices that disagree. One of his contemporaries, a yoga legend I met sometime later and happened to ask about Jois’ Ashtanga Yoga said “Jois’ yoga isn’t real yoga… it’s just gymnastics. Krishnamacharya used those routines to train the wrestlers of the Mysore palace, but it isn’t real yoga… Jois might look healthy to you on the surface but he is nowhere near as healthy as his guru was at that age… he can’t do some of the most basic asanas today. That is not how a yogi’s body should be… Some of his contemporaries are much healthier… stronger…”

That was more than a year ago. On the 18th of May, Pattabhi Jois breathed his last. An ulcer in the throat is said to have weakened him in his last days. I was surprised to hear of his passing because all that I had read, heard and seen about his teachers, his yogic lineage and his own prowess had convinced me that there was indeed something special in his heritage. Health and longevity seemed to be the very essence of this tradition and like all his students I met that day, I too had expected him to live to be a super-centenarian. Alas, that wasn’t to be… but that doesn’t in any way diminish the stature of Guru Jois. After all, isn’t it our inability to control our life span that stills keeps us human?

In the foreword of Guru Jois’ book – Yoga Mala, of which I have a fondly signed copy in my book rack – Eddie Stern writes of an incident where when asked if his teacher ever gave him a teaching certificate, Jois replied yes he did, in the form of a patient who was brought before him and with instructions from his guru that said “fix him”. Now, just as then, Guru Jois’ legacy needs no certification, for it lives and breathes in yoga studios around the world, improving bodies and lives for all its adherents.

Sri K Pattabhi Jois’ spirit has flown, but leaves behind in its wake a large community of people who are far happier and healthier than they were when they had first met him… Can any legacy be any better? In the high heavens, Guru Jois, may your soul rest in peace…


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Haven’t we met before?

“Those huge black feet… hadn’t seen them before, but somehow, I knew they were mine… digging into the white sand all around me. Curiously, though bare-feet, I was wearing a blue suit, a white shirt and a black tie… you know I wouldn’t dress like that… but there I was…. And my face wasn’t mine either… big nose, thick lips and distinctly negroid features… and much older … perhaps in the early 40s… and yet I knew this was me…

I was running on a sandy beach with a briefcase in my hand. Sweat was streaming down my face, my lungs were about to burst… but I kept running… the sand gave way to grassland and on the horizon I saw thatched huts shining in the sun… both the grass and the huts seemed to have been painted with a brush dipped in molten gold. I’m not too sure but I think it looked like one of those islands in the Pacific… could just as well have been coastal Africa.

As I got closer to the huts, I saw people… men and women dressed in straw skirts, their bronzed skin glistening in the afternoon sun. I seemed to know them. I ran towards them. They were shouting animatedly… I wondered if they recognised me. The ‘straw people’ started stamping the earth with their feet in concerted rhythm, like scores of drumsticks beating a mighty drum… the infrasonic tremors crashed into me like rolling waves. Fear gripped my heart. I stopped, but that straw skirted horde did not… they were running towards me now brandishing crude spears and clubs. I stood rooted. I didn’t know which way to go? ‘Zzzuck!!’, a spear thudded into the ground, inches from my feet. I raised my arms and opened my mouth to say something, but no words came out. I just coughed and burbled as phlegm and a thick stream of blood shot out of my mouth. I looked down and saw the long end of a spear sticking out of my chest… There was no pain, not even a lot of blood. But I fell down… I couldn’t believe it but I knew… I was dying...”

Sahil (name changed) and I work together. While researching a story about past life regression, he spoke to a few psychotherapists who claimed they’d taken people back into lives they’d lived before their present life. Now, because he always carries this ‘incredulous look’ about him, one of them must’ve felt that Sahil perhaps wasn’t really convinced and offered him a free session. With some trepidation, Sahil accepted the offer and showed up for the session with his fiancĂ© at a south Delhi studio. They were ushered into a lounge and asked to remove their footwear and ease into a pair of recliners… The therapist dimmed the lights. The speakers came alive with gentle strains of a flutist’s notes. Sahil and Ridhi drifted with the music. The therapist gave verbal cues and they saw themselves reaching towards a bright light at the end of a tunnel. Once in the presence of the light, the therapist asked them to look around them and that’s how Sahil found himself on the sands…. “And the way he died explains that look on his face too, doesn’t it…,” said Ridhi as she looked into his eyes and pulled his cheek. I had to interrupt before matters took their natural course and so I asked “Ahem, Ridhi… Ridhi? What did you see…?” Ridhi must’ve moved into the future because I had to ask her again before she’d come back to the present… and when she did… “Oh, me?… don’t know whether to believe what I saw or just forget about it like I would any other dream… I was on a stage in a darkened auditorium, wearing an evening gown. The audience was clapping… I’m not sure if they were clapping for me because there were others with me. I was happy but something was gnawing away at my tether… I was feeling rather irritable...” “Hmmm… lifetimes change but little else does…” chimed Sahil… Ridhi shot him a look that would’ve burnt a hole through a lesser man “…where was I… yes, the auditorium… so I rushed out and there was a car waiting… I got inside and it drove off…” Sahil interrupted “Do you remember the make of the car? Maybe that’ll give us a clue about the time…” Ridhi shook her head… “It’s a car sweety, not a pair of shoes… we girls wouldn’t know a Dodge Viper from a Russell’s Viper even if our husbands owned one, or the other… it was just a long red car with a lot of chrome… It stopped in front of a stack of stairs leading into a mansion… I entered the hallway. I seemed to know my way around… I entered a room to my right. It was an office room… my office room… furnished in wood and leather… I drew the curtains, crossed my arms and stood in front of the window… I seemed upset. At that moment, a woman entered … she seemed familiar… she apologised for something that had apparently gone wrong. I rebuked her… saying I’d never tolerate such incompetence… she protested which aggravated me further… I hollered some more and stomped off… As I walked past her, I got a closer look… of course she seemed familiar… she was my elder sister from this life… I shuddered and opened my eyes…”

Ridhi might’ve dismissed what she saw as a mere dream but I wondered if I’d ever had a dream wherein my relationship with a person I knew had ever changed… I mean people who weren’t nice to me in real life might’ve fawned over me in my dreams but my parents remained my parents, friends remained friends and my dog remained my dog…

But in past life accounts though, I’ve heard of relationship equations changing on their head in different lives. Fathers become daughters, brothers become wives and so on… Apparently it has to do with karmic debt.

Abe, the lady I mentioned in the previous issue told me about some cases from her soon to be published book, “Pegasus…” And she mentioned an incident about a lady who was really upset about her relationship with her mother. Apparently, her mother always treated her like stepmothers from fairy tales treat their stepchildren – cold, harsh and cruel. And yet this was her natural mother, someone who’d carried her in her womb and given birth to her. She couldn’t figure out why and so she went to Abe with her questions. Abe, through auto writing, found out that in their previous lives, her mother had been her husband’s mistress and someone she had been heartlessly cruel to… and the husband was the father in this life and all three were together in this life trying to work off their karmic debts to each other…

Lastly, as I kept looking for evidence of past life experiences amongst ordinary lives, I met Revathi, an old student of mine… Revathi’s brother had a strange experience as a child. They lived in Lajpat Nagar, in Kanpur. One day, when merely three-years-old, he was accompanying his mother to another part of the city when their cycle-rickshaw crossed a bridge called. On their right was a residential area called Kidwai Nagar. Just as the rickshaw pulled past the area, the little kid pulled away from his mother and tried to jump off the rickshaw… “There’s my house, there’s my house. I live there… I live there. My parents live there too… let me go… I want to go. I used to drive a car… a white Maruti… I had an accident…. Mummy… that mummy isn’t as pretty but she’s waiting… let me go…” Shocked and upset, the mother held on to the struggling child and asked the rickshaw-puller to hurry. Back home, having regained her composure, she asked her son why he had behaved in that manner… “I was born in a house in Kidwai Nagar,” he said and gave the whole address including the pin-code. “My father is a transporter and has trucks. I was young but I knew how to drive. I died in a road accident. My school…” And he gave the exact location of the school. And this boy is still three… he’s never been to school. But he always carried any set of keys he could find and would use any plate available like the steering wheel of an imaginary car, though the family didn’t have a car at the time. Spooked, the family decided to never bring up the subject or venture near Kidwai Nagar again.

Couple of years later, the family went to Hapur where the boy’s youngest aunt used to stay and met one of her friends. She was in her early twenties. He ran to her and said “… I used to give you flowers in school… we were in the same class” and he clung to her. The girls seemed amused and didn’t remember anything. Dismayed, his mother said “Nahi beta, she stays in Hapur. Why have you started saying these things again?”. That’s when the girl said “Didi, actually till class Xth, I had been living in Kanpur… but I don’t remember anything…”

Today that boy is 30 and is a successful doctor. He does not remember these incidents but his family members do… When asked, he just laughed and said, “I wish my family would let me meet them. I would’ve inherited properties from both sides… But seriously, I’m happy with my life... I don’t want complications… and no, I don’t want to find out.”

Having met these everyday people and heard of their experiences, I’m inclined to believe that there is a lot about our lives… and deaths, that remains to be understood. I’ll keep searching… and will keep you posted.


Thursday, May 14, 2009


The funeral procession had started out from the house. There were some quiet tears and stifled sobs that accompanied the procession but otherwise the throng was wrapped in an air of serene peace. Just when the deceased was being placed in the van, one of the pall bearers, a grandson, remembered Abe’s words… “He says he is ready to go now but you must not forget what I’m about to tell you… He says that when you are taking him away to be cremated, you must remember to take a picture of his wife’s that he keeps under his bed and burn it with his body. This is important for him… And he wants you all, especially his youngest daughter, to let him go and be at peace for he’ll always be with you, love you and protect you… but he has to go… wants to go, because someone’s been waiting for him for long… almost too long.” The grandson went up to the bedstead and lift ed the mattress, where smiling back at him was the photograph of his grandmother… Could this really be true? Did his comatose grandfather actually tell Abe about this photograph? Maybe he did… after all, no one knew he kept this photograph here… least of all Abe.. And is his long-dead grandmother actually waiting for nanaji? Is all this for real…? His thoughts were cut short… he was being called… he took the photograph and ran outside…

Elegant and well spoken, Abe, when I first met her, looked like your regular upper class soccer mom. Disarmingly friendly and candid, she’s nothing like what I’d pictured a spiritual medium to be, and yet, when she starts recounting her experiences, I could feel goose bumps popping like corn at the theatres. Abe’s story is a strange one… her aunt, Nan Umrigar, is the author of a book called “Sounds of Silence – A Bridge Across Two Worlds”. It is an account of the author’s conversations with her dead son Karl. Karl died years ago in a tragic horse riding accident on the Bombay race course. After the accident, Nan and her husband were devastated. Karl, their younger son and a champion jockey had been the darling of the household and his death had snuff ed out all joy from the Umrigar household. Six years after Karl’s death, Nan read in the newspaper about a mother who would speak to her dead sons through a method she calls ‘automatic writing’. She met this lady, and through her, established ‘contact’ with Karl. Since then, Karl has ‘communicated’ to her through automatic writing and those conversations are the foundation of her book which I’m told is a best seller of sorts. Abe was introduced to the idea of automatic writing through her aunt.

Now if you’re wondering what automatic writing exactly might be, I’m afraid the little I know isn’t enough to fully understand the concept, but here goes… Apparently, Nan Umrigar was encouraged by the lady who communicated with her dead sons to try automatic writing because “…that is what Karl had asked for”. So one day Nan sat down with a pen and paper and tried to reach out to him in the spirit world. Desperately, she pleaded with Karl, asking him if he was present and that he should speak through her pen. Suddenly the pen moved, apparently of its own volition… first in sweeping arcs, then illegible scribbles and finally, after a whole month, whole words… From there started Nan’s journey into the spirit world, led by the spirit of her dead son. “Sounds of Silence” is an account of that journey.

When Abe visited her aunt, Karl communicated with her too and told her that she too was meant to be a spiritual medium and that her guide was going to be her great-grandfather… Abe didn’t know what to believe but being a pranic healer she’d always had a spiritual leaning and therefore didn’t take long to start communicating with a long dead ancestor whom she’d never met. And through her great-grandfather she has gotten in touch with other spirits… to heal gaping emotional wounds of those who’ve lost their loved ones. And if you’re thinking it’s a scam to fleece grieving relatives who’d clutch at straws, well she, and her ilk, never charge a penny. So, is she for real, or is she just plain nutty? Well I wish I knew, but here’s how I first got to know of her… Recently, I bumped into a friend of mine – someone I played cricket with in college. He had lost his father and the whole family had struggled through the loss and later moved to Delhi, seeking greener pastures. Incidentally, they took up residence in Abe’s neighbourhood. There, his brother heard about Abe from the neighbours and went to meet her. Abe agreed to try and connect with his father and did… At the end of the session, she handed the message she had written down. Amongst a host of things, at the bottom of the page, the message from his father said “Why don’t you wear your hair short like you used to? It’s grown too long. You’ll look better, beta.” His brother was stunned, for just before he was leaving, his mother had said the same thing to him. No one else knew about this. He went back and recounted his experience and so my friend too went to visit Abe. And his letter began with “Kitni der hogayi hai, beta… ghar kab jayenge, hai na?” So… I asked… My friend told me that his father would always pick him up from school and take him to his clinic, and there, whenever he’d get a little late with work, my friend would say, “Kitni der hogayi hai papa… ghar kab jayenge?” Nothing very dramatic, and yet, significant if true, wouldn’t you think? Abe had no way of knowing this. She says, “It is the spirit’s way of letting us know that it is here… it is for real… there’s always a sign.”

After meeting Abe, I picked up “Sounds of Silence”. It’s a riveting read, but is it convincing? Honestly, I would love to believe what it says… Death, in many ways is an unconquered fi nal frontier for the human mind. It is the inevitable, inexplicable truth that still holds our civilisation to ransom. But just look at us evolve… every human fantasy, whether it be to soar like a bird or dive like a whale, whether it be to communicate across continents or touch the moon, today we have lived it. So it is natural to believe that death too is a fortress that shall one day fall. We might understand it tomorrow and conquer it day after but this too is as inevitable as death is today.

Many witches have been burnt on the stakes of time. Some were misunderstood soothsayers like Galileo (who escaped by a hair’s breadth) who saw the truth before we did, but there have been real witches too, like the smallpox virus. Eventually, our curiosity has always overcome our fears. People like Nan and Abe too are oft en ridiculed for their claims but they are not alone. Best selling authors like Dr. Brian Weiss and Dr. Bruce Goldberg foretold the same in their books. And while it might be tempting buy into their belief because it comforts and cushions us, or take the opposite extreme and shun it because we fear it, here’s what I suggest… The world of automatic writing and communing with the spirit world has remained an ‘underground’ practice, bobbing up every now and then like a new island on the horizon. So let’s give in to the spirit that has fashioned our civilisation… let’s give in to our innate human curiosity and our spirit of exploration without judgment. In the next few weeks, I’ll try and visit and revisit these pioneers who claim to have established contact with the spirit world and experience the secrets it promises to unravel, and I’ll take you along with me… Perhaps we’ll finally know what we’ve always believed… or not…



Thursday, May 7, 2009


He looked like he had been trapped under an elevator in an elevator shaft. I know it sounds rude and insensitive, perhaps even cruel, but it is important for you to know how he looked… and there’s no other way to describe it…his arms and legs had withered and twisted out of shape, like dead dry branches and his torso seemed to have been squeezed into an oblong shape by a pair of huge hands… almost like nature changed her mind and tried to make a dwarf out of a regular kid… And yet, it wasn’t his body that I noticed first…

I was driving up a lane in Faridabad, where a bunch of boys were playing cricket and as my car approached, the kids stopped playing and stepped aside to let the car pass. I slowed to a stop next to them and asked them if they knew about a certain martial arts studio in the area (I was looking for a friend who ran the studio). The boys seemed a little confused… and then I heard a tiny voice. “Take a u turn and go straight down and take the second right”, it said. I peered over their heads and saw a happy smiling face that beamed with confidence and poise. But as he walked towards me, I couldn’t help notice the rest of him…

He was a pitiful sight with that handsome face sitting atop that cruelly deformed body. The precision in his answer surprised me, especially since the boys around him seemed so unsure. So I asked him how he could be so sure… “I used to train with him,” came the calm reply. I thanked him, reversed and saw the kids go back to their game. I was impressed by the quiet dignity with which this deformed boy carried himself. He was tiny, no taller than my waist, and yet he spoke with such poise, seemed so self assured… it was impossible not respect this fellow. I called out to him as he marked out his run-up… “what’s your name?” He looked up, seemed a little surprised, and then he smiled, “Manav!” he replied, waved, and went back to his game.

I felt embarrassed for pitying him. Not only did this boy feel no self pity but he also seemed to have ensured that all his friends treated him as an equal too… no quarters given, none asked.

All the while I spoke to my friend, my thoughts kept running back to Manav and then finally I asked him if it was true that this little boy with that severe handicap actually trained with my friend in the kick-boxing gym that he’d set up in his basement.. “Oh Manav… yes he does come in every now and then … his mum’s not too keen on him training with us actually. You know how he is, and she’s worried that he might come in and maybe get hurt… but that gutsy little fellow sneaks away and drops by whenever he can.”

I drove back to that street. It was dark now and the street lights were blinking back to life. A group of mothers were standing together, discussing the treasures and travails of motherhood while their toddlers huffed and puffed around them on their tricycles. I asked them if they knew where Manav stayed… they seemed confused… then I described him to them and their furrowed brow eased into a smile… “Ah, our black belt… that’s his house.” I walked up towards the house where a bespectacled woman, having heard our conversation, turned towards the house. “Manu, tumhare liye aaye hain…” Manu sauntered out, that radiant smile still there… “Hi! What are you guys doing here?” I felt a little awkward… these days if I told a kid I admired him for being the way he was, one might get taken for a paedophile, so I just told him I’d come to meet my friend who really praised him and I wanted to find out if he really was that good… “Well, I’m fourteen years old and I beat a guy who was 19 in the Taekwondo finals in school…” he replied with a smug smile. Honestly, I didn’t believe him. He was tiny, shorter than my eight-year old nephew by a handful of inches. I couldn’t believe this tiny thing could beat people half his age, let alone trained taekwondo artistes. “Are you serious?” I asked. He must have seen I found it hard to believe him. “I could show you”. I nodded and braced myself… little Manav began bouncing on his toes and then whipped out a series of roundhouse kicks that slapped my upper thigh… and though there wasn’t a lot of weight behind the kicks, boy did it sting… it almost made me wince. Now to put things in perspective, though I’m no Vin Diesel, I’m no wimp either… I mean I stand 1.8 metres tall and weigh about 170 lbs… and if he made me wince, it’s likely, he’ll make you wince too. He knew I was convinced but he finished off with a series of light punches and hooks for good measure… “I could go harder you know…” he said with a naughty gleam in his eye.

I smiled… “How do you stay so upbeat Manav? I really admire your spirit…” His mother had joined us by now… “He’s got Marquio syndrome. It’s a form of dwarfism, but since the dwarfism’s only partial and the limbs get affected, it ends up making a caricature of my son. But he’s a brave boy…” and she gently ran her hand through his hair and looked at him… “…he wants to join the army he says. He is very ambitious… with big dreams…”

“I have three dreams,” said Manav. “One, I want to get into the army, two, become a software engineer and three, play cricket professionally… and getting into the army isn’t as difficult as mum likes to believe… I’d love to be able to become a soldier but if I can’t, I could join the army as a software guy, right?” I smiled, “yes, you could…” This boy’s spirit was indomitable… invincible… “I’ve got to go… saxophone class…” and with that he drummed out a beat on his mother’s arm and went inside.

“Ma’am, I truly admire your son and his spirit… I wish all his dreams come true…”

“I hope so too” she said quietly. “I’m sure they will,” I insisted… she nodded quietly… I turned to go… “Do you know that most people with this disease don’t live beyond twenty… thirty if they’re lucky…” I was stunned… “Does he know…?” I asked. “You saw him… he’s a smart kid…” she sighed… “…he knows!” Gosh, he knew… and yet, “…and yet..?” I said it out loud. Her face broke into a smile, “…yes, and yet he doesn’t let it stop him, overcome him… he refuses to stop dreaming, and he refuses to stop chasing those dreams… and his dreams help us dream too…”