Bending Over Backwards

By Kaisera Kanwar

Renouncer or householder? Ancient yogic traditions and tensions travel into the COVID19 induced domestic bubbles of many bored, well to do Indians.

Alamy stock photo; lady in a yoga pose multitasking

As the Coronavirus crisis threatens abstinence from physical traversal for an undetermined period of time and a complete collapse of the ‘family-package’ travel economy, Reena and Rohit of Fair Woods Apartment Complex find their domestic bubble becoming increasingly uneventful and restrictive. The body and mind after lockdown day 6 or 13 itches for stimulus that does not necessarily originate from a pixelated screen or a heated family discussion over government policies (Rohit’s father insists on advocating for PM Modi like he was paid a salary for it).

When Reena renounced a certain working and land traversing portion of her daily life due to dire circumstances such as these, she never expected to dive so deeply into the role of the householder. The physical space of the house gained prime importance over Janta curfew night and all efforts were redirected towards the creation of comfort within its four walls.

Reena and Rohit has always been responsible for their household but for the first time after marriage they found themselves demanding more than – “Please get the groceries on your way back home” or “The maid needs to be paid”. The household was now not their groceries, their maid or the beds being made, but rather two individuals creating a comfortable routine around each other. Truly, holding the house together.

They may or may not have known how to independently function their complicated washing machine, make rice or even put together a neat little shopping list, but now the responsibility of the house and its upkeep lies on their shoulders. The usual suspects– the maid, the mother, the part time help are no longer around to bear the burden. Lo behold, they now hold a broom or a ladle in their hand. Their involvement was maybe not voluntary but it soon became necessary.

The first few days of lockdown excited Rohit, so many choices and possibilities! To shave or not to shave, to sweep in the morning or in the evening, to watch Netflix in bed or on the couch, to drink tea on their balcony or in bed, makhani dal or dum aloo for dinner? These choices provided stimulus that lasted (quite sadly) for only a week or so.

Reena on the other hand felt stifled from day one. How could a travel loving creature like her find solace within a two bedroom apartment. How many more times could she sweep and sanitise the house as the death count rose, before anxiety and panic would overwhelm her fragile, in-door emotions? Boredom was also slowly getting to her.

Also, how do the average Rohit or Reena of India mould their domestic routines? First, they respond to external stimulus (here the formidably contagious COVID19) and second, they learn from their respective families. Be it over a phone call, video meeting or in person, a human often reaches out to relatives and moulds their routines in accordance to past family practices. We mimic (or aspire to reinvent) certain disciplined practices that have travelled over generations into our own personal domestic routines. The time we wake up, what we use as make up or how we plate up!

unsplash.com; man bending backwards

Another strain of sociology that makes appearances during such distressful times is the tendency to renounce. Reena had always found comfort in her close knit family, where several crucial roles like the nurturer, the bread earner etc. were normatively assigned to particular members due to their gender or age. This social structuring allowed Reena to renounce certain household responsibilities and invest time and effort into other matters that interested her, like work and travel. But would a situation like this alter Reena’s renouncer tendencies?

Having given up physical travel, Reena could now opt to travel either within the confines of the house (hello, monotony!), through digital space (the incessant scrolling, clicking and tapping) or through time.

Photo albums were dusted and fondly perused, old recipes rediscovered, forgotten playlists of music looped, old friends reached out to and most interestingly, old traditions or physical knowledge was dug out from either the recesses of Reena and Rohit’s own memories or their close relatives (leisurely calls to cousins, mothers, fathers and others were made). One such physical tradition that found increased mention and eventual embodiment within their domestic COVID19 bubble was yoga! Popularly propagated as an ancient practice that emphasises meditation, exercise and inner peace, Rohit found that several of his colleagues, relatives and friends were now initiating conversations about the practice of yoga. He wondered why?

The answer lies in the human need for gratifying sensory stimulus and physical movement. Sensations that one often experiences during a trip to a foreign land can closely be mimicked at home by simply stretching out both muscles and memory, and here lies the affinity towards yoga especially for adults like Reena and Rohit trapped within their homes.

The ancient yogic traditions once preached not only meditation, flexibility and inner peace, but also, alchemy, miracles and painful practices. But when yoga entered the postmodern period it found itself increasingly interpreted as a ‘physical culture’ with added elements of gymnastics and calisthenics. The asanas became less extreme, the purpose more docile and the practice increasingly westernised. But, “an asana after an asana after an asana is power”, regardless of which time period we are in.

Reena, a renouncer by nature first engaged with yoga when she felt unenthusiastic and uninterested about her days in lockdown. She remembered twisting and bending a little during school yoga sessions, but never after. Here she was now during the COVID19 lockdown seeking an escape in the physical practice of yoga, but what she found was the ability to not only bend backwards but also back in time.

Thus, I propose that yoga is a form of travel, namely a journey that not only physically transports the individual to bend, twist and stretch on a mat, but also to trace the recreation of the mystic, often painful yogic traditions associated with spies, ascetics, sages and warriors to a contained postmodern ‘physical culture’ which emphasises fitness and calmness.

When Reena chose yoga amidst the COVID19 tensions and anxiety, she chose to engage with a practice that transported her back several centuries and introduced the complex yogic tussle between renouncer and householder into her domestic bubble. So when today, the average Reena or Rohit of this country turn to their respective mats to bend backwards, they are effectively travelling into the spiritual and physical universe of the yogis. The ‘decline of the supernatural yogic powers in favour of theism’ may have muted certain aspects of the tradition but yoga still incorporates elements of spiritual travel in one’s stationary lifestyle. The Nath yogi may have gained enlightenment and yogic perception from their wild, vagabond-ish ways and travels (yogic traditions are often linked to ‘cultural outsiders/travellers recognized by their matted hair, ashes, rags and iron implements’), but the very stripped down physical culture also reinvents the possibility of (a) travelling through time and (b) moving towards a spiritual goal.

The path charted by a yogi was often scrutinised in order to determine how powerful his practice was. Similarly, today Reena wonders whether an hour long class would benefit her more than the measly 20 minutes she has been practising for the past week. Rohit insists that 20 minutes for yoga are enough as she can then spend more time helping him out with the preparation of breakfast, but Reena is conflicted. Something within her practice of yoga demands more detachment from her than she has been able to provide during this time. She understands that she cannot sit and practice breathing techniques with no end in sight but the need to immerse herself completely in the meditativeness of yoga appeals greatly to her.

Rohit on the other hand has difficulty understanding how Reena is able to completely zone out during such a crisis. He understands that they both need the relaxation and physical exercise, but he sees her drifting away from her household responsibilities. “Has the yoga gotten to her?”, he wonders.

As Reena or even you, sit cross legged and attempt to practice breathing technique, there are two goals in mind – physical exercise and stilling the mind. In doing so, one wonders whether you are renouncing certain worldly responsibilities or helping yourself become a better, more calm and efficient householder?

Several Hindu texts narrate stories of the miracle-working, unpredictable Nath yogis who would often swing between the roles of the worldly renouncer who detaches himself to immerse completely into the yogi’s practice or finds himself anchored to a household where ‘real word demands’ force him to settle into the normative societal routine.

This struggle to pinpoint the ideal path or philosophy behind yogic traditions holds relevant even today. As a young working professional juggling between household chores, sanitising, valuable ‘me time’ and work from home through digital mediums, one wonders whether those moments you choose to practice yoga are means of momentary renunciation of your daily troubles or a mere distraction. Can the shravasana for example, momentarily detach you from the troubles of not finding groceries, empty bottles of dettol, frequent hand-washing, anxiety surrounding COVID19 deaths etc. and allow a moment of escape. Is the practice of yoga closer to physical travel in terms of exposure and stimulation than we ever imagined? Is it possible that the sensory stimulus and cognitive gains that one receives practicing yoga is now, during the COVID19, the most accessible form of ‘travel’?

It has been argued through Nath yogic legends and tales, that ‘there is greater value in the renunciate’s path than in the householder’s family life’, but one could argue that fulfilment is imagined and felt differently by different individuals. Therefore, both the Reena and Rohit may choose to travel from within their COVID19 bubble, but their means of travel may differ. Rohit may choose to traverse virtual journeys that challenge notions about the physical feel of a distant land while consistently playing the role of the dedicated householder, while Reena could renounce certain responsibilities and engage with a physical tradition that allows for travel across centuries and spiritual movement. Both these COVID19 reinterpretations of ‘travel’ deconstruct certain preconceived notions about physical movements and their joys.

Rohit has now by lockdown day 22 come to terms with Reena’s fondness for yoga. He understands that the tug of war between the renouncer and the householder will persist during this lockdown period, but in remaining constrained inside the four (very well sanitised) walls of their home they may choose to ‘travel’ on paths that don’t necessarily put them at risk.

So for now, Reena is bending back to the future of sensory and spiritual travel, and hopes that even after the COVID19 crisis subsides she will have gained new skills of movement and travel that don’t require a plane ticket, physical destination or backpack. And Rohit is puzzling over whether to make potato curry, potato fry or potato dry (you see, the vegetables have run out!).

References

Gold, Daniel, and Ann Grodzins Gold. “The Fate of the Householder Nath.” History of Religions, vol. 24, no. 2, 1984, pp. 113–132. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1062478. Accessed 21 Apr. 2020.

Reviewed Work: Sinister Yogis by David Gordon White; Review by: June McDaniel

Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 79, No. 2 (JUNE 2011), pp. 538-540 (3 pages). Published by: Oxford University Press

Gold, Ann Grodzins. “The Once and Future Yogi: Sentiments and Signs in the Tale of a Renouncer-King.” The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 48, no. 4, 1989, pp. 770–786. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2058114. Accessed 21 Apr. 2020.

Gerbarg, Patricia & Brown, R.P.. (2005). Yoga: A breath of relief for Hurricane Katrina refugees. Current Psychiatry. 4. 55-67.

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