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Remember the Benefit

I have signed up for daily 6:00 am yoga. Really, I have signed up for 5:45 yoga, because it takes some time to bike to the university yoga center, and when you break it down I have mostly committed to 5:30 am yoga because leggings present certain coordination and balance obstacles when you are attempting to put them on int a state not unlike a blind baby mouse, and I can say with confidence that I’m certainly signed on for 5:15 yoga, because the incubuses of my morning motivation need some time to bicker amongst themselves as the best way to get my body out of sweet, sweet repose so early.

I should mention that I hate yoga. I have tried it multiple times in multiple locations, all the while fuming slowly like the positions I am supposed to be mastering because I am failing at stretching. My whole life I have participated in sports involving quick spurts of activity that let you convince yourself that you aren’t really exercising: gymnastic, softball, racquetball. By nature I am not a very still or calculated person. These are traits I have always been determined to change about myself but easily forfeit to defeat. My dedication to yoga probably generates from some deep, vain desire to edify this self-loathing, to wallow in my own umlimber soul. Clearly a straight path to nirvana.

The yoga center is a large but unassuming building a mile away from our hostel. The mint green walls and yellow window frames distract it from considering itself a warehouse. Bright woven wool blankets and crayon-colored yoga mats enliven the metal roof and the concrete floor. Every morning when I retrieve mine from the dark room where they are kept, I am reminded of the musty, wooden smell of then nearly abandoned treehouse at my grandparent’s house in Michigan.

Our regular instructor is just as you might imagine – a short, compact bald man of indistinguishable age. He even speaks in compact sentences. No excessive words. A short, “You…hello, you!” to correct someone’s pose, usually mine. Then, “Get back” to indicate the end of a pose. Without fail every time, I time my breaths to the rhythm of the Beatles song by the same name.

When he learns my name, he pronounces it “Kather-reen.” I think he prefers using “Hello…You.”

The first week he asked me where all my other friends were, the ones who signed up eagerly the first day during our campus tour. Knowing that no one else in the group has any intention of getting up this early or coming to yoga, I make light of our lack of commitment. “We are doing a graded exposure system,” I quip. “Bringing one per day!” Okay, he just nods his head. I haven’t made the joke again. I leave the sarcasm with my shoes at the door, and attempt to get into the meditative state, but mostly swat at flies secretly.

One day a new instructor took over the exercise. I was relaxing in meditation already and was starting to feel as I always do – like I had truncated my sleep in bed just to come sleep in more uncomfortable position among strangers – when I heard a booming voice echo throughout the hall. In my enlightened state, I honestly thought the voice of God had descended to tell me, “Stretch! Higher! Yes! Lift your buttocks!”

When I opened my eyes, I saw the voice belonged to a rotund thick man white white hair pacing through the still bodies, his eyes closed too. We go through the opening ommmms and prayer. I know none of the words I repeat, but I have adopted them to mean “Please for the love of whatever God do not let me pull muscles I don’t know I have.”

The man continued to speak in stern yet encouraging phrases. “Very good!” he says genuinely when I somehow managed to reach my head to my feet while arching my back. “Dream on!” Right when we bigan holding the maximum stretchs in excruciating pain, he launches into long, detailed narratives about what part of the body should be hurting, what physical ailment it will alleviate, and what the medical etiology of its good name means.

“Remember the benefit!” he says when he can tell we are failing at a pose, which is most. So I try. I think about Thanatopsis. I think of the particles of my body dispering up and outwards, becoming a part of the world around it. I think of my mortality, my stiff bones popping as I move, my calves shaking just from standing on my tip-toes, the small energy capsule that is my body. Then, I know the benefit is for the person next to me, who is surely laughing internally at my red, grimacing, inverted face.

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Peac(e)ock

Since the train station, Anne and I come to expect a certain level difficulty when getting from place to place. Today we depart our Kanpur haven for Hyderabad, a sort of benchmark because it is our longest stop. “When we get to Hyderabad…” or “We just need to get to Hyderabad…” we have prefaced our sentences. You would think this place springs chocolate rivers the way we talk.

On our last day here we woke to see the peacocks. Our walk started at 5:30 am, but it was as if the sun never set; the heat was in its crescendo already. They are the national bird and they infiltrate the campus. They symbolize peace, I learned from a Delhi shop keeper during my rebuffs in buying his marble carvings of the creature.

Rahna, Dr. Harish’s wife, told us the birds shed their reticence in the morning. If you rise early enough, she said, you can catch the shy creatures with their guards down and their fans up.

“Why do they congregate here?” I asked.

“I think it must be spiritual.”

They forget their piety when they call to each other, however. As we were sitting in Dr. Harish’s backyard the first night in Kanpur, we heard a sound like a crow-themed car alarm. This one memo activated the rest of the peacocks in the neighborhood and soon we had a serenade of passionate whoops.

“And they eat everything, anything,” Dr. Harish said. The ornithological version of a goat, I added. Whoever consecrated the peacock must have only seen one from afar.

On our walk we saw plenty in their usual state. Their feathers constricted as they cautiously and tiptoed, for they do really tiptoe, in fear at every foreign movement. We started home a bit disappointed, but we had only walked a block and a nap sounded too promising.

I turned my head right for no real purpose. On the roof of the nearest building, a peacock turned in circles with his alluvial wings outspread.

“Oh, look,” I stated to Anne, as if we were always expecting it there. A good blessing for the long, long coming hours.

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Taj Tourism

Agra feels like a tourist town. The first thing anyone asks you is, “Have you seen the Taj Mahal yet?” Marble shops selling miniature Tajs (usually fake alabaster, be warned) are a dime-a-dozen, and everything Taj as a prefix. Taj Inn. Taj Restaurant. Taj Oil. Taj Tailors. Taj Taj.

The city has shut down all of the factories around the Taj because the pollution is tarnishing the marble. How much this contributes to the poverty in and around the city, I cannot tell. Factories would provide jobs for more thousands, but preserving the pride of the city takes precedence, even as its foundation crumbles. Piece by piece, the marble is replaced in the Taj every year. From the platform of the Taj, you can see the river and field below as they must have existed for thousands of years, until the Taj imposed, and later the Agra Fort beyond. A farmer herds his cattle along the banks. Men bath and wash their clothing. It’s a toss-up between survival and spirit. People must live and eat, but the Taj glows on the outskirts of the city and in the glint of every shopkeeper’s eye.

One way they have revived employment is through the “Save the Taj” project. We visited a carpet-making factory involved with this system. Artists in the city sketch and color the designs, and then send them to women in surrounding villages, the “weaker sector” as our tour guide called it, for creation. Every string is tied and cut by hand on a loom by these women. Months of work day in day out.

We also toured a marble shop. When the Taj was being built, marble carvers from all over the country migrated to Agra to contract out their skills. They stayed in Agra after the fact, and descendants from these families continue in the same fashion. We watched as a carver shaved down stones of alabaster, ruby, and turquoise to millimeters. He formed them into intricate shapes. Afterwards, he will apply a clear film of tape to fuse together all the parts of the peacock, the flower, or whatever shape he was creating. Another carver was chiseling out the spaces for these pieces in the marble slab. “It takes 10 years to become a master of this,” our guide said.

“What happens if the hole is made too shallow and the pieces stick up roughly from the surface?” I asked.

He didn’t seem to get the logic of my question. “It never happens,” he stated.

He led us through a gallery of table tops and boxes and I wanted it all. But, I knew knowledge of process and the group of all the designs made them more beautiful than they would be in my living room. He divined our birth stones. Mine was the black star stone – a symbol of love, peace of mind, and success. A fine progression, the last one especially good for his business.

In true tourism form, we scurried out after taking pictures, giving our insincere apologies for not buying a single thing.

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