Thursday, January 20, 2011


I had something else in mind for today, something dreamy and lyrical that spoke of dead trees and the full moon, of long lakes and the last loon, but alas it wasn’t to be…for I ran into an old favourite - Professor Kaku (uncle), at a dinner hosted by him last night. Now PK is not your everyday professor. He has been a popular, much loved and decorated academic who has been teaching economics and philosophy at various universities for decades now. When he speaks, people listen. So, when he spoke to some of us last evening over steaming plates of luchi (flatbread) and aloor dom (Bong potato preparation), I choked back a silent protest and heard him out. In begining, he was speaking on the rather interesting subject of paranormal phenomenon with a fair bit of authority, borrowed undoubtedly from his many studies of the subject and his proven method of reading and ruminating. All was well while we delved into instances of near death experiences, ghosts and ghouls and the sort. The professor dismissed some and deliberated upon others and then the conversation veered towards miracle cures, hypnosis and past life accounts which were duly shredded and shot down. Personally, I was open to the idea and the possibility but had no evidence to counter or confirm the professor’s perspective and so I divided my focus between the man’s fascinating dissections and our hostess’ equally fascinating ability to transform the modest aloo into a delicious work of art on a platter.

And then, without warning, the topic slid into what threatened to be a conversational quicksand – yoga! I had just stuff ed my mouth with more aloo than I could chew as I looked around, open-mouthed, at the round table pulling down and dismissing the great art, the great path as a mere set of calisthenics. I felt I had to do something. It was like watching Draupadi being disrobed in court and having to choose between being a silent and helpless Yudhishtir or the valiant saviour in Krishna. For the sake of posterity, let it be said that since the occasion demanded a miracle, I tried hard to levitate in the presence of the gathering and put to rest all doubts about the powers of a true yogi, but perhaps I was weighed down by the not inconsiderable helpings of aloor dom and I confess I didn’t try too hard in light of possible impolite accidents in mixed company.

However, let it also be said that I was not content to remain an impotent Pandava under the circumstances either, and therefore mustered a mild protest. Mild, because the professor is, like I said, an ‘old’ favourite, and I didn’t want to come on too strong. And there was also the small matter of the professor’s reputation of not suffering fools with a smile and coming down with a heavy argumentative hand on opinions that poked him without much apparent merit. Aft er all, the professor was the veritable mountain in his circle from which would flow all knowledge, sustaining those who lived on its banks even as it emptied into the ocean of our lives. So, as you can imagine, going against the flow wasn’t easy. I tried sharing my own perspective a few times but PK was blowing like a raging tornado and my arguments were flung aside like dry leaves in the wind. I gave up, but yoga, as the odd faithful might have noticed, is a dear subject, and even if posthumously so, as far as last night’s conversation is concerned, for whatever it’s worth, here’s my defence of the great art, the great path.

Now, I was used to defending against people pooh-poohing yoga as a ‘fi tness activity’ for the old and the infirm but what the professor said just knocked me out of my socks, for PK insisted that practicing yoga would lead to errr… ‘a smaller brain!!’ Now, I’m assuming the good professor meant that as a metaphor because though I had read about excessive exercise leading to atrophy of other almost as vital bits, but this one was a doosra from nowhere. Professor was trying to say that yoga, perhaps by virtue of being a physical activity to begin with and secondly because of its said goal of moksha and liberation through detachment was about withdrawing from the world and therefore using one’s faculties as little as possible as one progressed on the path, thus losing one’s cognitive abilities through disuse.

Now let’s look at the evidence. Modern research in the area of neuroscience suggests that not only does yoga (which incidentally means not just asana but the complete practice of breath, postures and movement, combined with meditation) improve and direct the flow of blood to the brain, especially the frontal lobe that deals with awareness, concentration and focus but scans can show how the practice of yoga can enhance brain functions within weeks of starting a practice. In fact, yoga has been used successfully to reverse some of the effects of Alzheimer disease and memory loss in patients and has been shown to be a more than reliable preventive tool.

And what of the assumption that yoga, ideally, is about dissociating from those around us, withdrawing from life and living alone on a mountain in search of salvation? Well, to that I would say, to each his own, Kaku. The yogic ideal of moksha is not a life of nothingness but a life of freedom – freedom from disease, from ego and so on. A freedom that can only be attained when one is at peace with oneself and that is possible only if one is healthy and has cultivated relationships that bring peace, given as much as one received, not in mere material terms but emotionally and spiritually and has become great enough to accept one’s smallness; free from the laws of disease and death as much as from the pressures of commerce; to love and serve and to know – without ego or prejudice, that is the goal of yoga.

And detachment as an ideal does not mean to love less, but to love more, not selfishly or in isolation; to not let success go to one’s head nor failure to one’s heart, nor rejection to one’s ego but to look at all three as mere signposts that help us evolve. And who is to say that it is only those that go up a mountain are ‘withdrawn and detached’. All one has to do is knock a few doors away to find a husband too attached to a TV set, a mother too attached to a career, or a son too attached to another city to care for anything else. Most luminous yogis of yore, from Vishwamitra to Agastya, and even the mythological yogic ideal of Lord Shiva have all known love and family and joys that come with it.

Lastly, one only needs to look at some of the greatest minds to have shaped our lives – Edison, Mozart and the great Leonardo of Vinci who have spoken of the ‘meditative state’ as being their most inspirational and creative state to clinch the argument from PK. In fact, da Vinci’s greatness is attributed by experts, amongst his other virtues, to his adherence to Corporalita – his focus on the balance between mind and body, for the key to mental acuity hides in the contours of the body.

Now if only I could find a way to make Kaku read all this. Actually, on second thought, it’s better if he doesn’t, for Kaku always makes a strong comeback. But I have a sinking feeling he will read this… Kaku reads everything.


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