I lived in Delhi at the turn of the century with my recently widowed mother and my grandmother who was widowed at 25. Three women in that apartment, weighed down by shades of guilt and loss. My brother had left for Europe. To add to my father's death, my boyfriend -- who had been my rebellion -- had also just died.
I worked in publishing then, as the editor of a men's lifestyle magazine. To live with myself, I partied more than I worked; I was a party girl; I took a lot of drugs, half to escape and half to feel. But I still had to come home every night. My only relief then was searching for jobs online, in Japan of all places, engaged in the fantasy of a start-again future in an alien land.
I took steps to find peace in Delhi too though. I joined a meditation group first, headed by an up-and-coming guru who promised all kinds of benefits, financial and spiritual, in exchange for unswerving devotion and the vow to never speak of the activities of the group to outsiders. As is often the case, he had a proclivity for beautiful, single women whose auras he proclaimed dirty and in need of purification, so the odds were in my favor. But for better or worse (better), I was not worthy of his attentions. I discovered, from one other member, that he declared me "loose," and the owner of "narcotic eyes" (he got something right, I guess).
On my mother's urging, I then agreed to meet a psychiatrist, one of the better-known ones in the city, with degrees from England, no less. He listened as I opened up and shared my pain, talked about the few, unhappy one night stands I'd had. With eyes fixed on me he said, "Now, tell me about the orgies." Gobsmacked, I left and never returned.
Yoga eventually saved me from myself (along with the Englishman who became my husband). But even that wasn't clear at first. I tried Sivananda classes in the city, slow yoga in a big hall with lots of different people. Inclusive, general stuff. It was fine, but it made me feel like sleeping. I was unsatisfied; I wanted to be awake and to like myself.
I discovered Ashtanga yoga in Mumbai a year or two later, editing another magazine. I was clear of the rawness of grief but struggling with new, shapeless forms: depression, anxiety, anger, dread. But from the first class with my teacher, Maya, I knew I'd found what I'd been looking for.
Ashtanga is a tough, unsentimental practice. At its core it is mercifully free from mystical trappings. It does not talk about Kundalini energy, chakras or esoteric powers. It does not pander to your whims, to your boredom, to your status as a consumer, it doesn't play music to keep you entertained: you do what it says or you get out. At the same time, it's perfectly packaged, marvelous in its simplicity and astounding in its complexity, easy to enter yet impossible to master. One can complete the primary series in a month, but perfecting it will take a lifetime.
When taught "Mysore Style," after the city of Ashtanga's founder, Pattabhi Jois, one is not led by the teacher either. There are no barked instructions to follow. One has to study and memorize the sequences and carry them out oneself. The teacher only observes and corrects. It teaches self-sufficiency, but it also creates a unique and powerful group atmosphere: a hundred students in a hall, all at different levels and stages, all practicing in near silence, the sound of the breath the only sound as the teacher walks among you.
I soon left journalism. I retreated from the city, from self-destruction, from social networks, from burning the candle at both ends. While my (by now) husband went to England to look for work, I travelled to Mysore and devoted myself with the zeal of the convert to its rhythmic repetitive nature, which became trance-like when practiced long enough, and to its rigor and physical hardship, which began to harden my Delhi weakened body. In a few months I felt transformed, with newfound energy and strength.
We had to decide on a future though. With the global recession in full swing, and work in England impossible to find, my husband returned to India, and we settled in Goa where it was easy and cheap to live, and where I found a new teacher, Rolf, a German who had studied with the Jois family for decades.
We took the top floor of a house that sat on the mouth of a river flowing into the Arabian Sea. The jungle was behind us, full of snakes and crows and langur monkeys. I woke at four am, practiced in the shala in the middle of a coconut grove from five until eight, mosquitoes feasting on my blood as the sun came up, Rolf picking his way through the bodies, coaxing them further into poses, quietly challenging when you felt you couldn't go on.
Here I confronted myself. Moving into a certain asana -- baddhakonasana, my hips tearing open for the first time; in a backbend, my chestplate popping, causing panic -- I'd receive flashes of memory. As my hips and chest opened, so my inner senses did too. Things I'd buried would rise up, trauma, grief, fleeting joy. My past came back to challenge me. It was terrifying and liberating in equal measure, and I went home after practice every day in a beautiful combination of vitality and exhaustion. I cooked (or more accurately learned to cook for the first time in my life), devoured books and movies, watched the river. And I began to write.
It had been in the back of my mind for as long as I could remember. I lived through my father's death, my boyfriend's death, my reckless years, the chaos afterwards, always with the thought in the back of my mind: remember this feeling, record it, it will be useful. Part of this was a coping mechanism, I realize now, similar to the way in which being behind the camera can help a photographer stay immune to the horror that is happening in front. But part of it was also desire: like the photographer who goes to war, I put myself in those reckless situations in the first place, pursued them to their end, recorded them. Now, with so many things coming back to me, I wanted to make use of them all, to have that experience reborn and mastered.
So the writing flowed. And in the same way that I changed my body I changed my style, I changed my ideas. I discarded the manner of writing to which I'd clung, the one I'd learnt in school, from the old novels I knew, from the way I thought I had to write. I explored new fiction, obscure or experimental writers like Anna Kavan, Isabelle Eberhardt, Duras; I found new heroes and heroines in Paul and Jane Bowles. Cut off from any scene, I began to write my novel. It would not have happened without yoga.
Yoga and writing can make strange bedfellows. Ego is integral to both, yet while in yoga one is supposed to keep ego in check, be mindful of its rise, eventually try to eliminate it, in writing, ego is essential. Not the kind of ego that says: "I am the greatest" (although that can sometimes help), but the kind that says I exist, I create, I want to exist, I want to mark my presence on the world. I need my daily practice to be able to write, one thing feeds the other. And it can sometimes seem strange, as if I am abusing my power, falling prey to the "dark side" as it were, cultivating this inner force in order to strengthen my grip on the world. And yet I think back to where I was at the start, mired in darkness and pain and fear, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
Deepti Kapoor is the author of A Bad Character.
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