Monday, January 30, 2012

Ashram Vikerkaar

For me, a yogi will always be a bear. Or a malapropist baseball player (“When you come to a fork in the road, take it”).

But to Liina, and to much of the rest of the world, a yogi is a yoga practitioner. And some of them are operating an ashram in my house.

The other day I came home to find a half dozen of them wrapped in brown blankets, sitting straight-backed on the second floor of my house, staring out the window at the rare winter sun. WTF? I might have tweeted, if I were the tweeting kind. Instead, I greeted them. Met by silence and assuming they did not hear me, I greeted them again. Then one whispered: “We’re meditating.”

I found Liina down in the kitchen brewing one of those Chinese teas with a name nobody can pronounce. “Who are those people?” I asked her.

“They’re meditating,” she replied.

My first encounter with the East came in the 1980s. One sunny weekend I was walking in Central Park enjoying a cold beer, when I saw a dozen Asians in Mao jackets and pajama pants making synchronized, slow motion movements as if filming a scene for a kung fu movie. I stopped and observed a while, wondering if I might be able to push one of them over, or if they’d re-set their speed and chop me before I could reach them.

It was a while before I encountered the East again, since the Estonia of the 1990s was more engaged in aping someone’s idea of the west: track suits, brick-sized mobile phones conspicuously displayed, and robot-like dancing to German techno music. About the only hint of the East I could find was shaving cream made in India. But just when I started to worry that Estonia had become little more than a vacuum to be filled by the West’s detritus, I met Liina.

If the rest of the country was looking West, Liina had somehow turned East, and she had a small army of friends who had done the same. Some traveled to India, hung out in ashrams, and returned wearing friendship bracelets and spouting phrases – “Dreams are whispers from the soul” – which I could have sworn I’d seen on American corporate motivational posters.

Many of these people started to hang out at our house, though the sincerity of their commitment to all things Eastern, I felt, was sometimes dubious. (A refrigerator full of beer is a powerful magnet and pulls from all directions of the compass. Somebody should put that on a poster.)

The East was a fad for most of them, and the majority soon disappeared into the woodwork, some re-materializing in the early 2000s as bank managers and lawyers. Liina remained committed, however. She did Tai Chi, yoga, worked with pendulums, ayurveda, and read copious amounts about Chinese medicine. I admired her commitment and even tried a few things myself, like fire walking, yoga, and vegetarianism – though the latter lasted only three days.

Liina would be uncomfortable if I described her as a guru – which I understand to mean “teacher” — but she cannot dispute that her commitment to spirituality has attracted some followers.

I have followed her into yoga classes which we attended together while living in Toronto, and I was immediately attracted by the idea that yoga could stop aging. The best yogis appeared to be decades younger than they actually were, and I was told this was the result of a chemical released when the spine is bent.

My interest was piqued by this, since my writer friends in North America had adopted the western solution to slow aging: they used fifteen-year-old photographs of themselves on the jackets of their newest books. I began in earnest my quest to slow the signs of aging through yoga, eventually becoming serious enough to purchase my own mat.

When Liina and I returned to Estonia I joined Jocke Salokorpi’s Ashtanga yoga studio. I liked Jocke, not only because he was friendly and easy-going, but because he didn’t make too big a deal out of Sanskrit. In my previous experience, instructors took sick pleasure in barking the command, Adho Mukha Svanasana, as if everyone in the room had grown up with a Sanskrit-speaking nanny and knew it as practically a mother tongue.

Jocke also made yoga fun, once playing a bit of music from The Last Samurai and having us all holler ninja war cries as if we were about to carve up Tom Cruise with a straight-blade ninjatō.

I have no idea of Jocke’s personal philosophy, but I liked his approach to the East, which seemed to recognize that I wasn’t about to give up everything Western for an orange robe and sandals. Yoga for me was just the one hour a day which equipped me to deal with the bullshit present in the other 23. I am a yoga dilettante, I admit.

Because of this, some of Liina’s peers, including those in the Brotherhood of the Brown Blanket, have not adjusted well to my presence in the Vikerkaar Ashram, as I somehow disrupt the higher vibrations of their more elevated universe. They have suggested to Liina that I might come home a little later in the evening, or enter the house a bit more quietly than I do.

To assert my claim to my own home, I have taken to carefully stocking the refrigerator. Imagine the ashram student who opens the door in expectation of finding his kohlrabi, amaranth, or yerba mate, instead to be greeted by multiple bags of frozen pelmeeni, a three-day old cheeseburger in a greasy McDonald’s sack, and the tongue of a cow boiled until it is the gray of Estonian winter.

And I have acquired a collection of the finest direct-to-video work of actor Steven Seagal, including Exit Wounds, Half Past Dead, and Out for a Kill. There’s really nothing like the sound of the bad guy’s femur snapping to add spark to a session of meditation.

I’ve also taken to greeting ashramites at the door with questions like “Do you have a tattoo of any winged creature on the part of your ass visible just above your belt?” (the women think I’m omniscient), or “Does the scent of grilling animal flesh help or hinder your meditation?”

They still come around sometimes, but those who stay are beginning to understand that I run a different kind of ashram. Chant all you want, but when the Toronto Maple Leafs come on the satellite TV then our house changes from ashram to hockey arena. And then you can pop open a cold beer and sit next to me on the couch, or you can head out to the doghouse for meditation. The dog won’t mind. He’s inside, watching the game with me.


Vello's seminal work on meditation available here.