Thursday, January 26, 2012


When I was a little boy, not too long ago, and the runt of the pack that roamed the playgrounds that dot this nice leafy corner of south Delhi I call home, I used to spend a lot of time reading comic-books from DC. Some of these were very yellow, dog-eared old imported editions that my uncle used to read when he was a young boy. These comic books transported me into Metropolis and Gotham City where the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight did heroic things to save lives and entertain readers. But then I could separate fantasy from reality and once I was done with the story I didn’t think about it too much. But I did spend a lot of time thinking about the back pages in some of those comic books which had a lot of advertisements – toys, and flavoured gum and radio sets and the like but what caught my attention was none of these. It was the picture of a man smiling at the reader with his arms folded in front of his chest. His arms and chest rippled with sculpted muscles that rivaled that of the superheroes in the comic-book and his name was Charles Atlas.

Atlas had a little tale to tell, in comic-book style, of how a skinny young boy who had been bullied at the beach and insulted in front of the girls for being a sissy, sends for a Charles Atlas workout programme and is transformed within weeks into a hunky and powerful young man. This sculpted to perfection Greek-God then goes back to the beach and beats up his former tormentor, while onlookers marvel at his might and his muscles.

Charles Atlas died long before I was born, and so I couldn’t have asked him for a programme booklet and even if someone else was running it in his wake, I was too young to figure out the complicated international telephone and order codes etc. And neither did I have the money nor the courage to ask my parents for it.

So I was doomed to remain skinny and puny, and all I could do was read that advertisement every now and then and wait for a miracle to transform me into that beefy boy in the ad. But it did not happen. Gymnasiums weren’t as popular then as they are now and I eked out my days at the low end of the self esteem scale.

Then one day, I spotted one of the bigger boys in the playground walking around with a tube like apparatus with cables attached to it. He called it a bull-worker and said that the manufacturers say that if working out with it does not transform your body within weeks, they would return the money. So, does it work? Well, he had only begun, he said. I was fascinated. This sounded like something out of the legendary Charles Atlas programme (for the record, it wasn’t). I wanted to try it. But this guy said that I shouldn’t try these exercises before I was eighteen. He said it would stunt my growth if I strained my muscles at my age and not grow any taller. I didn’t want to be skinny, but I didn’t want to stay short either. I decided to wait till I had become as tall as I could get (Today I know that isometrics, unlike weights, under normal circumstances, should do nothing to impede skeletal growth, but in those pre-internet days, rumours would fly thick and fast and one was always better off safe than sorry. I later learnt that bull-workers were used for a form of training that had become rather popular in those days – it was called isometrics.

Isometrics involve a maximal contraction of the muscle while pulling or pushing against an immovable force that was said to generate immense strength and add size and shape to a muscle in double quick time. As the years went by, I waited for the day when I could get my hands on a bullworker without having to worry about staying short, but somehow by the time I got there, both bullworkers and isometric had gone out of fashion.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, barbells and dumbbells, gymnasiums and nautilus machines were the done things of the day and soon, bull workers and Charles Atlas comics (the Charles Atlas method, by the way, has little to do with isometrics, but more of that later) had to be content with gathering dust in the corner. I had gotten into martial arts training by then and had started collecting Bruce Lee’s training manuals. In one such training manual, I found references to isometric training and memories of my introduction to isometrics came rushing back. Bruce Lee had designed his own isometric apparatus. I didn’t have access to a similar apparatus but I modified them so that I could do them with a bullworker, and thus, many years after I first heard of them, began my first isometric workout…

Since then I have discovered many other variations of isometric workouts which don’t require any apparatus. Both Bronze Bow publishing and Animal Kingdom workouts have some excellent and fairly comprehensive books on the subject. But why am I telling you about this? And should you be trying out for yourself? Well, the answer to that is a rather irritating ‘it depends...’ And it depends on what you want from your workout.

Proponents of isometrics like fitness author John Little and fitness expert John Peterson will tell you that isometrics are the most effective and quickest route to developing immense muscular strength. Not only that, but isometrics are also apparently excellent for packing size and sculpting the muscles and creating an aesthetically pleasing physique sooner than most other forms of exercise. Is that true?

Well, I have been training my body isometrically for a while now and I can assure you that few exercise systems can match isometrics in terms of radically reshaping the body’s contours. Isometrics won’t burn fat or create the kind of muscle separation that a combination of high intensity weight training and cardio would give you but it will very quickly transform a soft flabby body into something that would resemble a scaled down version of the Farnese Hercules. And even though isometrics are not what Charles Atlas had in mind when he came up with his comic book advertisement, isometrics are perhaps the quickest route to a visible physical transformation.

These workouts can be done without apparatus, anytime and anywhere. Moreover, it has been said that isometric workouts are healthier and safer than weight workouts because there’s little chance of injury, since literally, not a muscle moves during an isometric workout and the spine stays healthy. Also, muscle mastery and mental concentration improve rapidly and “nerve impulses to muscles and tissues and glands” are enhanced, which help the body stay young and healthy.

So what’s the catch? Why hasn’t it taken the world by storm? Why don’t we hear of strength athletes like Manny Pacquiao or Hollywood strongmen like Jason Statham or Vin Diesel talking about how isometrics changed their bodies? Is it a complete system of health and fitness?

And here are the answers. If you want to dramatically change the shape of your body with minimal investments of time and money, nothing beats good old isometrics. But if we are talking about enhancing athletic potential or even pure strength, then there’s a snag to contend with. Isometrics do build strength but only in the zone in which the muscle is being trained. For instance, if you try and push against a wall with your hands and put your whole body into it for about 10 seconds of maximal effort, then will build a great deal of strength in that position and the muscles in your arms and shoulders and chest will grow strong and beautiful, but this strength will not necessarily allow you to bench press more weight than you could in the past or punch a heavy bag really hard. These activities require you to build strength through a range of motion and not just at one point of complete muscle contraction. (I have seen my body transform with isometrics but I’ve got to admit that during that same period, though my strength levels did not recede, they did not improve that much either.)

So if what you want is a good looking physique with muscles that are strong but your lifestyle does not necessarily demand that they be very coordinated, then isometrics is the best possible value for your time and effort. But if you are looking for something that will help you not just look good but hit a tennis ball better at the club or manage an impromptu bed press, then you’ve also got to incorporate some conventional training tools like body-weight calisthenics or weight workouts.

And it is a complete workout in itself for general health and fitness. Well nothing beats yoga or a hard and soft qigong workout (which would incidentally include a fair number of isometric moves) if you ask me, but if isometrics are your thing, add about twenty minutes of running or better still, shadow boxing, thrice a week to give your cardiovascular and nervous systems as good a workout as the isometrics would give your muscles and bones and tendons and ligaments.

A word of caution: always remember to breathe correctly; inhale while you build up tension in the muscles, exhale while you hold the contraction and then inhale again as you relax the muscle. At no point should you hold your breath for it could trigger sudden changes in blood pressure and even damage the heart.

If you think isometrics suit your lifestyle, pick up a good book by one of the authors mentioned above, read it carefully, check out a few video demonstrations on the internet and then ideally start your programme under an expert’s supervision and with your doctor’s blessings.

Isometrics are a potent tool and need to be handled with care.

As for me, I’m going looking for the next great workout while you try and push that wall over…

So long, and like I said, don’t hold your breath while I’m gone…


Thursday, January 19, 2012


Not too far from Delhi, less than half a day’s drive away, there breathes a sleepy little town with a few secrets to share. It has been four years to the day since I last travelled to Shekhawati and stumbled upon its myriad charms. If you don’t have an attic to clean or a lunch to host this weekend, I recommend you to go and pay this sweet little town a visit. And just to help you make up your mind, here’s a story from the vault about...

“Can’t go further. I want to go home. Mamma waiting, Monsieur… Arrivederci! Adios! Adios!” My guide was adamant. He threw a fervent glance at the wicker gate, the thornbush fence, and the lengthening shadows crawling across the stepwell. He looked at me, piteously. “Arre, kya hua? Scared?” I asked. “No monsieur, no… it is late, manne jaave dejo!” and with that our guide, all of eight years and 28 inches, jumped off the car and scampered away into the dusty haze. This was a strange place. . .

I had chased the clouds across a clear blue sky, over bumpy roads, past brown fields and blue bulls; and groves of burnt trees that looked like tall, gaunt lepers to reach Shekhawati, a Marwari cultural outpost in western Rajasthan. And why here? Well, to get even. A friend of mine recently returned from Khajuraho and couldn’t stop raving about the ‘sheer’ beauty of its temples and the unashamed cultural self-awareness that they exude. But with Khajuraho overbooked, I left for what a little bird insisted was the next best thing – the frescoes of Shekhawati.

If perchance, one such bird happens to whisper the same in your ears, give it a warm smile, and then wring its neck and pluck its feathers till it squeals and confesses that it hasn’t got the foggiest idea because the truth is that Shekhawati has all the beauty and erotic charm of a decomposing corpse. Yes, there are some old havelis, and some beautifully restored ones too, with frescoes on their walls that are typical of the region – warriors, camels, queens and kings – but there is nothing breathtaking or awe inspiring about them. So if you’re going there for its frescoes, don’t bother, and yet go there you must for the little wonders that roam its streets.

Driving into Mandawa, central Shekhawati, I was hailed down by a pint sized waif. “Bonjour Monsieur! You want guide. I guide. I show Shekhawati… in Italian, French, German, Spanish and English… you want?” I couldn’t believe my ears. This little urchin would’ve struggled to dunk a basketball if I had a hoop around my waist; his snotty-nose seemed to have been running for so long that there were moraines etched under his nostrils; (Why didn’t he use a handkerchief? “bizhee, no time have”) and he rattled off the same sales pitch in the remaining languages (yes, yes I do understand a fair smattering of all four). I was stunned, as were a busload of German tourists who’d reached the same spot. This was Laloo, and he was in business straightaway. With all the confidence of a school teacher herding a bunch of kids, that little mite of a boy led the bunch of awestruck Germans into the narrow lanes of Mandawa. I tagged along...

Only to be shunted out – by the scruff of the neck. I had followed the Germans into an old haveli which Laloo promised had some spectacular “golden paintings”. But the caretakers – fair imitations of Hagar and Hilda ‘Horrible!’ – refused to unlock the hidden treasures till I moved out. ‘Hilda’ pointed at me and kept on a diatribe. Laloo, sympathy writ large on his face, urged me to leave. “Only for foreign peoples... she saying...” I should’ve felt what Gandhi felt that fateful day at the train station in South Africa, but then the only ‘revolution’ I’m good at is orbitingaround my wife. Miserable, I sat down on a parapet and waited for the group. After sometime, the Germans, trooped out and Laloo came up, and with a sympathetic pat, rattled off some of north India’s choicest expletives in honour of the lady of the house. “No worrying, I show you Kamasutra...” The Kamasutra? Ho-hum, not that I was particularly keen, but now that I’d come all the way... But did he know the Kamasutra? “Eroteek! I know!!” and with that he gestured, and revealed that the world of birds and the bees held no mysteries for this little devil. Ah, the end of innocence, but whose loss is it anyway? Cutting through the musing, Laloo dragged me by the hand, and took the Germans and me to a haveli, whose walls displayed amorous couples engaged in improbable congresses. Not bad, but no match for Khajuraho. Laloo sensed my disappointment. “No like? I show more... in Mukundgarh.” Oh well, but since I’d come all the way... So leaving the Germans behind, we drove towards Mukundgarh. En route, next to the highway, I saw a stepwell,and a wicker gate. It was dusk, and in the failing light, I could make out the contours of some old ruins... I stopped the car. This place almost called out to me, but Laloo looked nervous...

“Mamma..! Mamma waiting, Monsieur. I want to go home...” But hey, that’s another story...


Thursday, January 12, 2012


In a dark and savage world where nothing rules but raw nature, I came across a story of surprising tenderness and togetherness. It made me wonder if it takes the fear of death to always remind us of what it is to be truly alive, to always remind us that we need each other to become what we are to be and to remain who we are... So here’s an extract from the vault... An account from my journey into the heart of darkness and light, into the blood-red horizon where land and sea meet, where death can strike from the shadows or the shallows, into the last forests where man still fears to tread – into the forests of Sunderban

The faithless faithful Keshab Giri is a pious man. Every evening, the bearded priest of Kultuli village would go to a banyan tree by the river and pray at its feet, light a clay lamp, then walk back to his hut by the paddy fields. This evening wasn’t supposed to be any different.

But as Giri walked, the village seemed unusually quiet. Even the village curs had fallen silent. All Giri could hear tonight was the sound of his bare feet rustling the dry grass. At the foot of the great banyan, Giri began his prayers. The air around the tree was heavy with a pungent, unfamiliar odour. Maybe it’s from the bank, he thought. Dead cattle, rotting flowers and once even a dead man, swollen and yellow had drift ed past these shores. But this smell was different – overpowering, but alive.

Giri tried to return to his prayers. He couldn’t. He opened his eyes to light the lamp… there, inches away from his forehead, hanging from the branches was a striped tail, its tip flicking. “I fell over backward, chanting Maa’s name. My eyes met the tiger’s. It glowered and snarled, but didn’t attack,” Giri said. “Quivering with fear, I screamed ‘bagh ayese... tiger’s here!’ Within minutes, the whole village had gathered, flaming torches in hand. We surrounded the tree and started chanting Maa’s name… the tiger seeing the crowd, climbed higher up, and then jumped off the tree, past the crowd and into the village.” Giri pointed at a hut behind a duck pond, “…ran straight into it, past an old woman lying by the courtyard, tore through the wall and into the paddy fields. Astonishingly, no one was hurt. Maayer kripa… grace of the Mother.”

As we spoke, a sea eagle called and a streak of bright orange lit up the horizon. Dawn was breaking over the Sunderbans. Word had spread that a tiger had swum across the river from an island forest and entered the village, and we’d given chase. But we’d reached a little too late. The tiger had been captured by the forest officials and taken away before we could reach. But the journey hadn’t been in vain, because I got to meet ‘Maa’.

In most parts of the country, ‘Maa’ would mean any of the many forms of Durga, but in the Sunderbans, it does not refer to a Hindu deity but a Muslim one – and one both pious Hindus and devoted Muslims pray to together – ‘Maa Bonbibi’. Legend has it that Bonbibi, born to poor Muslim parents, was abandoned, and then brought up by a deer in these forests. Blessed by Nature, she became the protector of these forests and all who enter it in good faith. Bonbibi shrines, with the idol of a goddess sitting on a tiger, dot the Sunderbans. And today, Kultuli was going to thank Maa for keeping them safe.

The villagers had organised a jatra – a musical play celebrating Bonbibi. As the gaudily painted actors got into the act, on a makeshift stage, Giri Baba’s friend, a dark eyed man with a shock of white hair and a wispy beard, Muttalib Mollah, whispered, “Sunderban’s villages have both Hindus and Muslims, but in truth they are just children of the forest. The Musholmans pray five times in a mosque and the Hindus do their temple aarothi, but when it is time to go to the forest, we are together in our prayers to Maa Bonbibi. The Muslims tuck their beards and sit arm in arm in front of an idol with the Hindus who have no qualms about praying to a Muslim deity. Even when riots have spread across the Bengals, the Hindus and Muslims of the Sunderbans have lived as brothers… because the forest forces us to remain human, remain humane and stay in touch with what religion was meant to be… a source of strength, a divine bond, with our Khuda, our soul and our neighbour. A night in the forest is enough to teach you that. Theek bolchhi dada?” Muttalib turned to Giri. Though engrossed in the jatra, Giri turned, put an arm around Muttalib, nodded and smiled “theek… aekdom theek”. The play was long, the actors terrible and the music off -key, but the Kultuli crowd cheered, enraptured and entranced. The stage was empty now. The crowd was dispersing. Giri asked Muttalib to sing. “Aekhon kayno… why now?”. He was reluctant. “Gao na, aamra nachbo… sing, we’ll dance” Some people around him also insisted and a reluctant Muttalib went up on stage. Giri told me that Muttalib sang Hari kirtans really well.

Muttalib started, tentatively first, and then with gusto… The musicians returned, the dhols erupted, and the crowd stopped and turned. Muttalib was singing and ‘shaking’, and Kultuli, Hindus, Muslims alike, were ‘shaking’ with him…

This was my last day in these magical forests. It was a good day…


Thursday, January 5, 2012


It’s a New Year again and this year, let me begin by recounting an encounter with a miracle. We could all do with a miracle or more in our lives, and a miracle sculpted with human will, that shapes many other lives in need of a miracle is one worth celebrating the start of a new year with. BKS Iyengar turned 93 on the 14th of December. This is the story of the day I met the man and his miracles...

The Dutch often claim that God lies in the details. Well, no one can accuse an Indian of looking for Him there so I’ll spare you the same, but honestly, if you’re ever in need of a dash of divinity, look up the details about the man in my story and go pay him a visit. You won’t be disappointed. I had seen his pictures and read his books, but he seemed different when I met him in the flesh. He seemed to have been hewn out of the rugged rocks of Vetal hill, now casting its lengthening shadow over the city of Pune. It was late afternoon, and since I seemed to have disrupted the man’s siesta, I sat across him with some trepidation. He wasn’t a big man, but his diminutive 90-year-old frame seemed hard pressed to contain the colossus that breathed within; his voice rumbled deep inside him and hit me with the heat and force of a freshly ejected cannon ball. I’d been warned that he did not suffer fools – especially fools with press cards – gladly.

And why was I here? Well dear reader, like any self respecting gadfly with a pen, I was out risking life and limb to bring you the truth – the truth about miracles. And since yoga boasts of more miracles per century than any other art or science, I thought of meeting the man who the BBC described as the Michelangelo of yoga – Shri B.K.S. Iyengar. In the beginning, I was a little disappointed. When I asked the great yogi if he had acquired any siddhis, he responded with what a rather egotistic rant, “I have conquered the world,” he boomed, as the windows rattled “…but do you know how I was as a child?” he asked with a boyish smile that made his bushy eyebrows dance. I was beginning to like the man… “I was sickly and weak, I had tuberculosis and couldn’t attend school... the doctors said I didn’t have long to live…” and it was then that yoga found him and breathed health and strength into his dying body. Th us resuscitated, Iyengar surrendered himself to yoga and was perhaps single-handedly responsible for the yoga revolution that is sweeping the world today. “From a dying child, I became a man who taught yoga to the world, isn’t that a miracle?” he asked. Yes, yes I wasn’t convinced either, and ‘Guruji’, as his disciples call him, must’ve noted my disappointment.

While the interview was in progress, he called out to young lady who walked past us. “You wanted a miracle? Well, here is one. Nivedita, tell them your story.” Nivedita, a little bashful to begin with, began her story: “I was bed-ridden for 15 years of my life. Th e doctors couldn’t tell me what was wrong with me, the tests couldn’t… I was told I’ll never walk again. My life was as good as over, until I met Guruji. After one look, he prescribed a set of asanas and soon enough I was able to sit, walk and run on my own. Today I’m in the best of health, and teaching yoga – a life that my doctors and I believed was impossible for me.” Just then, a blonde woman walked in to ask ‘Guruji’ something about a class that was in progress at the time.

“Ah, here’s another ‘miracle’!” exclaimed Guruji. “Shai, tell them your story.” Sure enough, Shai, from Israel, revealed how she had an obstinate brain tumour that simply refused to respond to medication or surgery and how her life had become intolerable with constant nausea and headaches, but once she started yoga with Iyengar, the pain and the nausea went away, she stopped taking her medication and even her doctors say that she should “keep doing yoga because nothing seems to work the way this does.”And so it went on… there was Raya, a reformed Indian delinquent, there was this charming Danish breast cancer patient, Ingellsen, an ever so sweet woman in her 60s who said: “I’ve surrendered myself to Guruji, I owe my life to him… there is something divine about him.”

B.K.S. Iyengar may not have resurrected the dead (yet!), but he sure comes close. As I walked away, I was filled with a deep sense of regret, for not too long ago I had lost a relative who might have lived a longer, fuller life if I had had the sense to bring him here. If you share your life with a Nivedita or a Raya, go tothat miracle worker on Hare Krishna Mandir street, because for you or yours, God might actually lie in that detail.