The Maṅgala Mantra is a peace mantra from the Ṛg Veda. Shanti mantras, peace mantras, are usually distinguishable by the call for peace (śāntiḥ), three times at the end. Maṅgala means auspicious, and this mantra is a wonderful one for sending the fruits of our practice out to the world for the greater good. It is a form of loving kindness, the practice of non-attachment in action.
May the rulers of the earth protect the well-being of the people,
through justice, and through righteousness.
May there always be good fortune for the sake of cows, Brahmins [and all living beings],
May all the inhabitants of the world be full of happiness.
Oṃ Peace, Peace, Peace
This mantra is parts of two different mantras combined, and today is traditionally chanted at the beginning of the Ashtanga yoga practice. The first part is from a medieval text on yoga called the Yogataravali attributed to Adi Shankara. It thanks the gurus, or teachers, that have come before us. The first line “I bow to the lotus feet” of all gurus uses imagery of lotus feet to indicate the special nature of the guru. This is an image often used in Indian and Hindu temples. Feet in that culture are considered unclean – in fact it is considered rude to point one’s bare feet towards others, especially in a temple. The gods and spiritual gurus, however, are said to have lotus feet: pure feet (the lotus flower is a symbol of purity and clarity because of its ability to grow in muddy waters). The gurus are said to be heavy with knowledge, and therefore their guidance allows us to know our true selves. The mantra goes on to say that teachers act as “jungle doctors” – like witch doctors or shamans, removing the poison of the cycles of suffering and delusion just as one might suck snake poison out of a bite. As students today we might question ultimate devotion to a teacher, and rather take this part of the mantra to be one of gratitude for any and all teachers that help us on our path, including the Self, the teacher within.
The second part of the chant is the first part of a classical chant to Patañjali, the ancient sage credited with codifying the Yoga Sutra. In thanking Patañjali we’re thanking a teacher who made it possible for us to study our minds, spirits and selves: all eight limbs of yoga. Patañjali is described to have: the torso of a human, a thousand bright or white snake heads, holding a conch shell (this symbolizes state of alertness and readiness to face obstacles, which are inevitable on the path of yoga), a discus (which signifies the destruction of ignorance and is a symbol of protection), and a sword (to literally cut the ego, pride, or sense of “I” which is an obstacle covering our pure Self).
For me, the opening mantra is a moment to give thanks for the practice of yoga: to all the wisdom contained in its teachings, to the teachers that have come before me and passed down knowledge and shared their experiences, and to the circumstances that allow me to continue to practice, study, and share yoga daily.
As long as I’ve been practicing yoga and as much as I
believe in the power of a well-trained mind, I remain overly sensitive. Now, I
don’t necessarily mean I’m overly emotional or prone to get my feelings hurt at
the smallest probing (although I do have
my moments!) but rather that certain senses are particularly heightened,
specifically my hearing. I hear everything.
I’m hyper attuned to any audio-stimuli: the slightest creaking of a radiator,
or even the dull electric buzz of a speaker turned on but not emitting sound
catch my attention and hold on.
One day last year I realized we must have a new downstairs neighbor. There I was on my mat: breathing and moving, when I heard the resounding blasts of exceptionally loud music vibrating up through the floor. Suddenly all of my attention was ripped out of my practice and focused on this noise! “How unfair,” I whined to myself, “how horrible!” I sulked around, complained to my husband, and stopped my practice early. When it happened the next week I felt my heart drop. After a few minutes of self-pity I thought about how I could help myself carry on. My solution? Earplugs.
All that noise got me thinking about distraction, which got my thinking about Pratyahara.
Our senses are the means through which we experience the
world. How something looks, tastes, smells or feels gives us a multitude of
information about the object and can definitely contribute to experiences of
great and simple joys in this life: the honeyed taste of a ripe peach, the
comforting smell of fresh brewed coffee, or the sudden, unexpected glimpse of
the face of a loved-one.
I know I love it when my eyes fall upon a particularly
beautiful display of fresh flowers, but like I mentioned, I’m hopelessly
distracted by sounds, and I’m sure some of you can relate: perhaps you’re extra
sensitive to bright lights, or, like my husband, hyper aware of smells.
The pull of the senses on our mind is undeniable: they show
us the good, the bad, and the ugly, often with little warning. And naturally,
whether we like it or not, our mind follows. This can lead not only to feelings
of spontaneous joy and delight, but also to distraction, anxiety, a lack of
focus, and an overall feeling of being out of control of things.
The fifth of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s classical path
of Ashtanga Yoga is Pratyahara,
commonly translated as “withdrawal of the senses.” While this translation is accurate,
for me, a more precise description might be restraint
of the senses, or conscious control,
connection to, or mastery over the
Now, there’s no doubt that the information we get from our senses is not limited to being either enjoyable or depressing, it can be downright vital! If you’re out in the world, you need your senses about you.
So what are we trying to accomplish when practicing Pratyahara?
My understanding of the fifth limb is that it’s placed specifically between what we might consider the external limbs of the eightfold path: yama, moral restrains and niyama, ethical observances – you can read my blog about them here; asana, posture, and pranayama, breath control, and the internal limbs that follow it: dharana, concentration, dhyana, meditation, and Samadhi, enlightenment. Using the yama and niyama as moral guidelines and practicing yoga postures and breathing exercises are things we can do. We can interact with them. It’s pretty clear if we’re engaged with them or not, and often, pretty easy to measure their effects on our life. Whereas concentration, meditation and enlightenment are often more ephemeral…sure we can sit down with the intention to meditate or to focus in on self-study, but without the limb in between, pratyahara, control of the senses, our success might not be guaranteed, and no amount of “doing” is going to help us gain enlightenment.
Throughout my years exploring yoga I’ve found that some of the best tools to practice reigning in the pull of the senses in order to more fully focus our conscious attention on the meditative and contemplative aspects of the practice are those of the Ashtanga Tristhana, or the or three pronged approach to focus. I use these guidelines during my own practice on the mat, when leading others in Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, and even when I teach other styles of yoga asana classes. By constantly trying to fixate our attention on the breath, the gaze, or direction of the eyes, and a connection to the internal locks or bandhas (and sometimes therefore on the external form of the body or its alignment), we systematically train ourselves to reign in the senses. Instead of looking all over the place we look at one place. Instead of fidgeting or fixing our clothing we learn to stand still and simply feel in order to connect. This practice allows the possibility of a more internal study of the self, without the constant pull of external stimuli. How many times have you found yourself looking at someone else’s pose during a yoga class and being instantly taken out of yourself? Just a glimpse of another practitioner can induce a flood of internal dialogue: How is he doing that with his leg? Where did she learn that? How long have they been practicing?
One important thing I’ve begun to ask myself when thinking
about reining in the senses is: is this information serving me? As a beginner
to physical asana yoga practice, it’s often extremely useful to actually look at
the shape of our bodies in order to understand where they are in space. For
some it might even be useful, on occasion, to look at someone else do a posture
to gain a glimpse of understanding. And similarly, listening to a teacher
demonstrate the sound of the ujjayi
breathing technique could clue us in to how we might create the sound. Visual
and audio input is extremely useful tools in this stage!
But once we establish a steady practice, and more importantly, if we want that practice to lay the foundation of a deeper connection to the greater path of yoga, we must ask ourselves if these external stimuli are still serving us. Do we really need to visually double check the alignment of every single posture every single time? To fix our t-shirt before each pose? To watch others do more complicated postures on the mats next to us? Usually the answer is no; these things simply aren’t serving us anymore. And in the subtlety of that self-inquiry comes the opportunity to choose sensory withdrawal. The point is not that reacting to the pull of external stimuli is always wrong – but rather that we might learn something from practicing connecting to our senses without unconsciously reacting to them. The circumstances are never going to be perfect; your mat could always be a little straighter, your house could always be a little quieter, so how can we practice staking a step back from those pulls? Can we steady the eyes and practice the discipline of not glancing around the yoga room, or hone in deeply on the internal resonance of the sound each breath makes? Great lessons can be learned once the mind can be more directed around the pull of the senses…opportunities for meditative experiences, concentration, and the possibility of a full realization: we are not our thoughts, we are not our bodies, we are not our senses.
And perhaps in a similar way we can start to direct our
attention more accurately and effectively outside the yoga studio and off of
the mat, and maybe we won’t find our minds pulled by every single small
And when all else fails…there are always earplugs!
Summer is in full swing, and chances are if you haven’t already been on a boat, train, plane or in a car, you will be in the coming weeks. Vacations are a wonderful privilege; a great time to unwind from the ordinary, spend time with loved ones or even explore far-away places. But what about your yoga practice? Carefully cultivated throughout the year only to be lost while you’re out of town for a few weeks?
I’ve just returned to my regular NYC routine after five wonderful weeks out of town in Israel (for the Israeli version of our wedding and a family trip), Greece and Italy (for our honeymoon). Taking my practice on the road isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it. I find the benefits of peace of mind and a healthy body far outweigh the hassle of finding time to unroll my mat while on vacation.
Here are my top tips for keeping the prana flowing while out of town.
Keep the tradition (yet stay flexible!)
Mysore-style Ashtanga Yoga is a wonderful tradition ready-made for travel. Since we spend time in class slowly learning, internalizing and memorizing the sequence, we’re not dependent on a teacher’s counts or instructions. This means that with a little dedication, you can keep practicing almost exactly as you would while at home. If you’re new to the method and have any questions or uncertainties, talk to your teacher before you leave for advice on what exactly to do. Similarly, if you’ve recently started learning a more complex or intense posture, ask your teacher how you should approach it while away.
Traditionally Ashtanga yoga is practiced in the early morning, under the guidance of a teacher, six days a week, taking one rest day (usually Saturday or Sunday) and the new and full moon off. This is an ideal guideline, however, I advise that when you’re out of your regular routine on vacation, that you remain flexible! Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day (or a few days!) or shorten your practice* to fit the available time between beach trips, or even switch around your rest day to fit activities or outings better. The important thing is that you keep some kind of consistency, even if it’s slightly different than you might keep at home.
On my recent trip, I practiced six days a week, but it wasn’t always at the same time of day, nor did I push myself to make it through my entire practice each day. Instead, I flowed with the plans of the people I was visiting; fitting in my sadhana before breakfast or while everyone else was taking an afternoon nap. On those days I found it hard to stay motivated, I turned my thoughts back to my teacher, Sharath, in Mysore, and to my students at home in New York. Re-focusing on my teacher’s encouraging voice and my community always helps me keep my dristi.
Make practice a priority (but be realistic!)
Plan ahead. Take a look at what you have on your travel itinerary and make sure you carve out some time for practice. But be realistic…If you have an early morning trans-Atlantic flight which requires you to be at the airport two hours ahead of time, plus a layover and possible jet-lag, seriously consider if it’s realistic to be up extra early for practice! Maybe it is – but my point is not to set up unrealistic expectations for yourself and feel like you’re letting yourself down when you fail to meet them.
Tell the friends and family you are vacationing with about your dedication to your yoga practice. If others know, they’ll be more supportive of helping you fit it into the routine, and more likely to understand when you turn in an hour early, maybe skipping that extra helping of gelato. Consider inviting loved ones to join in with your practice if they’ve done yoga before (or even inviting them to do a different physical activity or meditation while you’re on your mat). Sharing your healthy habits might be the inspiration someone else needs to make a positive change. I was lucky enough to practice with both my mom one morning and my dad another while on our family trip around Israel after our wedding. Both have done yoga before and were happy to practice alongside me for a short time while I completed my longer practice. My husband also has an Ashtanga practice, and we made it a priority to practice together on our second wedding morning in Israel, and several other times throughout our honeymoon in Greece and Italy.
Visit Yoga Shalas and Studios (make it a part of the vacation!)
One of my favorite things about visiting a new city is dropping into a local Yoga Shala. Visitkpjayi.orgfor a list of authorized and certified teachers around the world, and do a quick google search of the area you’ll be visiting to see if there are any studios offering Ashtanga classes. It’s always a good idea to email the studio in advance to ask if they allow Mysore drop-ins for visiting students and to inquire about any special policies. At Land Yoga, we’ve had traveling students from Japan, Brazil, Denmark, England and all over the U.S. just to name a few!
Taking a class at a studio is a great way to meet locals and get off the beaten tourist path, plus it offers a chance to reconnect with the group dynamic.
During my recent trip, I took a class at Ashtanga Yoga Tel Aviv where I’ve practiced and taught before. It already feels like a yoga home away from home in Israel! I even took a class at a small, new outdoor yoga studio on Milos, the Greek island we were vacationing on. Yoga Journey Milos offered a great outdoor yoga experience on a secluded beach overlooking the sunset. Back in Athens, we dropped into Mysore class at Ashtanga Yoga Athens 2002. I loved waking up early before a day of sightseeing in Athens and navigating through the sleepy streets to practice. My hotel’s front desk was happy to offer advice about the best route to walk and where to grab a coffee. I’d emailed the studio in advance, and the teacher was happy to welcome me in, where – although thousands of miles from New York – I felt right at home among the ujjayi breathing and the smells of Mysore Sandalwood incense.
One last word of advice: get a good travel yoga mat. At Land Yoga we sell the Manduka eKO SuperLite mat which folds flat like a thin towel, making it perfect to pack in a suitcase. I use my thicker Manduka Pro mat, even for travel, and have invested in a backpack with buckles that allow it to be strapped and carried right on the plane! Happy travels, yogis!
* A note on shortening your practice: I advise asking your teacher personally about this, but in general, if you’re short on time don’t rush or skip postures. Instead begin your practice as normal, taking the correct number of sun salutations and breaths in each posture. Do the series you’ve learned in order, and when you only have 10 – 15 minutes left begin the finishing series. Depending on the time you may choose to complete the entire finishing sequence or move directly to the final three finishing poses. Always make time for rest at the end.
Michael and I were deeply thankful to open our wedding day with an Ashtanga Yoga practice.
I knew yoga would be a part of our wedding weekend since we began planning the celebrations almost a year before, but it wasn’t clear how exactly it would fit in – would I teach? Would I do my own solitary practice? Or offer a guided yoga class for guests taught by someone else? Eventually we decided that, like everything else in our wedding, we wanted the yoga practice to be about relaxing and joining together.
I asked my dear friend and colleague Shanna White to teach an open level class for anyone who wanted to practice together with us. So, next to family and friends, we rolled out our mats just after sunrise on the deck to move, breathe, chant and sweat along with the sounds of crashing waves.
Shanna’s guidance set the perfect tone for a day of love, union, reflection and relaxation. The class is such a special memory from an absolutely fabulous wedding! I highly recommend taking the time for your yoga practice on any big day, a wedding, holiday or special event – those days when you might think you’re too busy with planning or too excited from the anticipation to stop and breathe for a second are the days you need it most.
Photos by the immensely talentedChristine Hewitt. (I met both Shanna and Christine in Mysore, India, and having them there to teach and take photos was a special and wonderful treat!)
Thanks again to all the students who joined Lara, Michael and I for our first series of “Chai Talks” at Land Yoga!
Parampara, Lineage and Non-Attachment in Practice
Presented July 9, 2016
“First I want to give an overview of the lineage this yoga practice comes from, what that means and who our teachers are. And then I want to touch on the concept of non-attachment in practice and how that can be of practical and beneficial use for the long-term yoga practitioner.
I think the most interesting way to link these two is through the opening and closing chants.
The opening chant is actually a combination of parts of two different mantras, combined together and used to give thanks to all the gurus that have come before us and taught this practice, our guide to the removal of ignorance and the path towards happiness, peace and control of the mind.
The opening chant first bows to all gurus and then specifically hails Patanjali, the ancient sage who codified the Ashtanga yoga method.
As we “bow to the lotus feet of the gurus,” in the opening mantra we acknowledge that Ashtanga Yoga is taught in a paramapara lineage system. This term is an Indian concept that comes from the idea of a guru-shishya relationship which is very common in Vedic, Hindu or Buddhist studies.
Paramapara is a Sanskrit word that means a direct succession of knowledge passed from teacher to student. Literally an uninterrupted row or series, order, succession, continuation, mediation, tradition.
It’s as undiluted as possible, it’s in a pure form and therefore is most valuable because it’s based on direct and practical experience and knowledge.
Patanjali says that there are two core principles upon which all of yoga is built – we know one – practice! The other non-negotible is vairagya – non-attachment.
Vairagya literally means – “not getting stirred up” and is the willingness to let something arise without reacting to it.
“Practice leads you in the right direction, while non-attachment allows you to continue the inner journey without getting sidetracked into the pains and pleasures along the way.”
When we talk about dis-attaching in a yogic sense, we are really letting go of reactions towards pleasure or away from pain. So positive or negative – reacting connects us to the “me-ness” that separates us away from the universal.
“Every time we soften to an experience that would otherwise cause us to react we break or habit of setting our personal consciousness apart from nature.”
This does not mean we “don’t care” about yoga or practice or the physical poses. Instead we care deeply and practice with devotion and connection but are learning to not be devastated or too excited about any of the outcomes.
The closing mantra which is a shanti mantra – a peace chant – that literally asks us to give up the fruits of our efforts and send peace to all beings.
By making this not about “me” or the “success” or “failures” physically or mentally at the end of my practice, we’re more able to connect with the true transformation yoga offers.
In order to get it we have to let it go. By dedicating to the good of all – we’re practicing non-attachment.”
Two days ago I arrived in India for my fifth trip to study yoga at the KPJAYI in Mysore. So many things have changed since I made my first trip five seasons ago. I’m much more relaxed and strong now than I was then, so much more comfortable in the practice and in teaching, and more secure being a traveler in a foreign country.
But in many other ways, nothing much has changed. Again I’m here in November and just like my first trip, after I leave India, I’ll travel to Israel to spend time with my boyfriend’s family.
Again, I find that I brought way too many clothes.
And, just like my first trip, on my very first morning of practice, I found myself locked inside my apartment complex; unsure if I’d make it out to class.
Let me take you back a few hours…
Unlike most people, I kind of enjoy the strange effects of jet lag, especially here in Mysore, when I need to wake up so unnaturally early. Yesterday I let jet lag lull me to sleep around 4pm, woke up at midnight, and spent a relaxing few hours enjoying the silence of pre-dawn south India, reading and preparing for Led Primary at 4:30am. By 3:25 I was showered and ready. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m chronically early, but after five seasons of waiting on those steps, I’d already decided not to try to get to the shala too early. So I left at a reasonable time, assuming a good number of students would already be there.
I locked my front door, grateful for such a comfortable apartment so close to the school, and made my way down to the front gate. I was surprised to see it still locked from the night, since I could have sworn I heard several students leave the complex before me. Nevertheless I dug my keys out. The landlord told me that whoever leaves first for the morning can unlock the gate, so I’d been prepared for this.
I blinked through the pitch black, fumbled my key into the padlock, and turned. Nothing. I pulled it out and tried again. Stuck. I managed it take it out and tried three or four more times with no success. By then another student had come downstairs and she tried with her key as well…no luck. Our keys seemed to fit, but we couldn’t make any of them turn. Two more students joined us, all equally unsuccessful. (Now, I’ve had my fair share of drama with keys including managing to break a key inside a lock in Florida, and fighting with not one but two different apartment locks in Paris, one ending in tears and hours sitting in the stairwell, so it was actually reassuring to see that it wasn’t just me and my inability to use a key!)
But, let me take you back even further to November 2011: my very first practice morning of my very first season in Mysore. That year I was staying a solid 20-25 minute walk away from the shala with an Indian family who had never hosted a yoga student before. I had a tiny room on the family’s roof with a private entrance via an outdoor stairway. As I tried to leave quietly that similarly pitch-dark morning, I crept down the stairway and found it’s exit gate locked. I was totally alone: the only yoga student in the building. They hadn’t given me a key, most likely because they hadn’t anticipated I would be leaving in those pre-dawn hours.
What could I do? I had no way to climb out, and desperately wanted to attend my first practice. So, I knocked on their door. The family was fast asleep and didn’t stir, but the daughter, a girl around my age, was walking through the living room on her way to the bathroom. She squinted out the window, saw me, shrieked at the top of her lungs and ran, terrified that all her worst nightmares were coming true and a strange white woman was indeed trying to break in! Thankfully the father, realizing it must be me, his new yogi tenant, woke up and let me out. After quite a few embarrassed apologies, I made it to practice that very first day.
Back to this morning, years later, surrounded by fellow students, locked in again on my first day, I couldn’t help but laugh.
What could we do?
We threw our mats over the gate and climbed out, and again, I made it to practice today.
So, what I’m trying to say is that getting there isn’t always easy. We get locked in, sometimes literally, but more often metaphorically. We might have to ask for help, to climb fences, or make sacrifices, but it’s almost always worth it to get to practice. To meditate. To go to a yoga class. To do anything that makes us better. Usually, it’s us locking ourselves in because of stories we’ve told ourselves or ones others have told us and we’ve decided to believe.
It’s not often an actual gate locking us in, but rather it’s us actively creating obstacles that leave us locked inside our own excuses.
But if we can get past them,
if we dare to climb over,
if we can ask others for help,
if we attempt to start to undo the stories we’ve told ourselves,
Summer is here! I’m daydreaming of lying down with one of these book on a steamy summer afternoon and losing myself in the stories of yoga’s fascinating journey from India to America. History has always captivated me and this reading list is a collection of books that all seek, in one way or another, to trace the transmission of yoga practice from its roots in the east to its modern incarnation, the yoga we know today. I’ve included only books that I’ve read, although there are a number of others that definitely belong on this list…let me know what you think!
Quite a controversial book, but an important one nonetheless, Yoga Body theorizes that the asanas we practice today are not as ancient as we might imagine. An important and interesting look at yoga’s history and the evolution and influence various cultural and spiritual traditions have on one another.
This wonderfully written book focuses specifically on Yoga’s journey in America from Swami Vivekananda’s lecture at the Parliament of World’s Religions in 1893 to the works of philosophers like Henry David Thoreau in New England, to the science/health-focused teachings of Indra Devi in Hollywood in the 1950’s, and eventually to the practice we know today.
A short but information-packed read on the “Father of Modern Yoga” written by a devoted student and respected yoga therapist. Although Krishnamacharya never taught in the west, his influence is widely felt thought the work of his students: BKS Iyengar, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and Indra Devi. Krishnamacharya taught yoga at the Mysore Palace (and later in Madras), and it was there that Iyengar, Jois and Devi studied with him. A fierce and powerful teacher, it is through his sincere devotion to the yogic arts and sciences that we have this practice today.
An absolute must read book (it made it into my last Yogi’s Summer Reading list too!) packed with interviews that help tell the life story of this great man and teacher. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, lovingly called Guruji, was absolutely instrumental to spreading yoga to the western world. After living and teaching quietly in Mysore, India for most of his life, European, American and Australian students began flocking to him in the 1970’s to learn his authentic and challenging asana practice. Jois became the face of Ashtanga Yoga and eventually traveled to the west to share his teachings. Students still travel in droves to Mysore today to study with his daughter and grandson.
***The Newest Release on the List! Long and detailed, this biography does a wonderful job of tracing the often chaotic and never conventional life of Indra Devi. Born a Russian aristocrat, Indra Devi lived a spectacular life traveling around the globe re-inventing herself. From Berlin cabaret performer to diplomat’s wife in India, to yoga teacher in China and Hollywood, to Sai Baba devotee again in India, Devi was never shy about sharing her passion for yoga with all she met. She taught yoga to Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson and other Hollywood starlets in the 1950’s and helped make yoga practice part of a fashionable, wellness-centered lifestyle in the U.S.
Before yoga, before India, before New York City, I was a dancing, singing, show-tune-loving student and although it seems like a lifetime ago (actual time, about 10 years), I did actually used to be a performer. The first time I brought my boyfriend home to Florida I showed him my theatre photo albums. He’s an international stage performer and musician and we’d always bonded over our mutual love for the arts. He took a few minutes to calculate up and decided that I’d performed in over 400 performances in my “day.”
This is photo was taken in front of that beautiful historic theatrewhere I became who I am. This is the stage where I sang my first solo, performed my first leading lady role, learned to dance, and really, learned to live. I spent nights and weekends here. I worked my first real paying job in the box office. It was just down the street in a small studio where I took my very first yoga class. (And in fact, I taught some of my first yoga classes in the dance studio annex during my first teacher training!) I sweat, I studied and I grew up in this place.
Twelve years ago I performed the role of Chava, one of the sisters, in Fiddler on the Roof for 31 sold out performances (performing for over 15,000 people) and last week I was in Florida to see the magnificent revival of that show. I feel more like an alumna of this theatre than my high school or even my college and know that my experiences there paved the way for my path of yoga to begin and evolve.
I recently spent 10 days in Wuhan, China (an average Chinese city of 10 million people that none of my American friends had ever heard of). I went to see my boyfriend, to celebrate Christmas and Chanukah, and for the premiere of The Han Show, a new Franco Dragone spectacle he has been working on since June.
“Moo!” he wails, imitating a cow as he holds two fingers up to his temples miming horns. “No Moo-ooo! No cow! Meyo niyo!”
I point frantically to pictures of vegetables on the grease-stained paper menu they’ve dug up for us, the only menu with photos of the food served in their modest restaurant, and smile at the giggling staff.
“Cock-a-doodle-doo!” he screeches flapping his elbows as wings for the now nodding waitresses, “No chicken!” Their cheeks turn red, but we think they understand!
I’m smack dab in the midst of the fantastic whirlwind that is China. Past the grueling 15.5-hour flight and dealing with the comforting fog of jetlag from the 13-hour time difference, I’ve ventured into a noodle shop with my boyfriend and the hopes of an at least vegetarian-looking lunch. We comb the menu and end up with two warm noodle soups, steam rising away from their bowls triumphant in the icy December air.
China is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been, and since I haven’t traveled in Asia (save my 6 months spent over 4 yearly visits in south India, some of which you can read about here and here) landing in there is a special first for me.
I’m in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province. As a city, Wuhan is distinct mostly because it’s MASSIVE. Walking along the many lakes, riding in busses through freeways and dodging traffic in taxis for ten days, I get the sense that it never really ends. Once on a bus, I’m crossing a river and see a skyline, but an hour later on the same bus I suddenly notice that we were crossing another immense river looking out over multiple skylines and city centers in every direction!
It spills out over itself, new construction sites clamoring against existing developments and bridges standing proud over the brown Yangtze River, each one worthy of being a city’s centerpiece. (Case in point: there’s one that looks exactly like the Golden Gate Bridge. Exactly.) Mall after mall after department store seem to overtake every neighborhood and in that way, that commercial way, it gives me the same urban feeling as any western city, and despite its incomprehensible size I settle easily into its rhythm.
Embracing jet lag’s calming murkiness, I spend most early mornings in our living room on my yoga mat. I do my practice between tight-from-sitting-on-a-plane-hamstrings and before sunrise, watching the sky gradually illuminate: high-rise buildings with neon signs and construction sites cluttered with cranes slowly visible through the haze, out the windows of our modern, fifteenth floor apartment. Some days I accompany my boyfriend to rehearsals or performances, and others I am on my own, left to discover the city for myself through museums and parks.
We have the chance to do some real sightseeing on the show’s dark days so we wander through The Yellow Crane Tower and its gorgeous, winding park full of monuments to both the ancient, idyllic China of legend and the modern Chinese cultural and communist revolutions. We laugh and almost give up as we loose our way searching for a Buddhist temple, only to find it by following the smell of burning incense. We emerge, tumbling happily through markets and smile at vendors selling hot breads cooked by slapping dough straight onto the coal oven’s inner wall. We make it a mission to decipher the symbols on the myriad of moon cake flavors; landing on red bean as our favorite and memorizing it’s markings. We pretend not to notice that our lungs ache slightly from the pollution. We dress up for the premiere of The Han Show and listen to terrible American music in a fancy nightclub (with squat toilets) at the after party.
Unlike many places I’ve traveled (India, Europe and even Israel) where English is learned in school, China is content imagining it is the center of the universe (just as we imagine in the States) and so Chinese people speak Chinese (Mandarin, in Wuhan, to be exact). Luckily, I have something of a language-wizard for a partner (and one who is not afraid, when language fails, to use his pantomime abilities!), so when we are together I cling to his skills and learn the fundamentals: “Hello,” sounds like nee-how, “Thank You” sounds like shey-shey, and “One coffee!” Sounds like E-Bay cafe.
Armed with the ability to say hello and caffeinate myself, I become more and more confident.
Despite his knack for language and being well aware of my visit and my vegetarianism, we just never learn the word for ‘vegetarian’ (and even if we had, we’re still not sure they would have understood!) So it is the same full on game of charades at most restaurants.
The food is delicious: we down rice and veggies on paper plates at a street-side joint, soaking the meal in thick black Chinese vinegar and soy sauce. We have an expertly seasoned side dish of bright green seaweed and peas at an upscale restaurant, which manages to be crispy and perfectly slimy at the same time. I eat warm, salty noodles in what I’m sure is chicken broth but hope is vegetable (and cry a little for the chickens just in case). And we finish off the week with one of my favorites: coconut-fried rice with pine nuts and golden raisins along-side a rich, saucy eggplant dish we are assured has “no pig,” sprinkled with, yep – pork (I ate around it).
I know I want to visit a teahouse but its hard to tell, when signs are written in Chinese and you’re staying in a sprawling 3,280 square mile city, where exactly to look for a tea shop. My boyfriend thought he had seen one or two just a few blocks from the apartment and thought that might be a good place to start. Sure enough, while flipping through the welcome pack provided by his company I find it; casually listed among the hundreds of malls and shopping centers: The Hankou Tea Market. Allegedly the largest in southern China and just a five-minute walk!
We set out one chilly, clear morning clutching coffees to roam amongst the tea. It’s early and still quite cold so we follow the fog of our exhales and as main city streets filled with pharmacies and post offices start to give way to smaller alleys and shops packed with barrels of loose tea leaves and vendors hawking exclusively things to add into your tea (like dried plums and bitter limes) we know we are getting close. We round a corner and turn down an alley that expands into the actual market to find dozens more stores and stalls selling everything from tealeaves to tea strainers to tea sets. I have my heart set on a traditional tea set of our very own, but how in the world will we be able to pick?!
We breeze through several shops selling perfect kettles and tiny cups, my heart adopting each one: delicate white porcelain with painted flowers, brown and red clay pots alive with their earthiness, sharp contours on a loud yellow set aflame with embossed red dragons, and one powder blue so light it’s almost transparent with a kettle whose rounded curves beg to be held, all nestled into individual boxes, shrouded in fuzzy fabric packaging.
We do finally find it: a 10-piece tea set which is both rough and polished: earthy with a clay foundation but alive and shiny with azure glaze dripping over the edges of its light, delicate cups.
After a successful Chinese haggle (every price is negotiable in China and success is when both parties feel a little as if they’ve taken advantage of the other) we decide to make the purchase and are ushered into folding chairs clustered by the register.
The owners serve us tea in a set not unlike our own: first pouring hot water over the tea and discarding it, opting only to serve us the second or third strain in cups so small they hold just a sip.
The store has a few customers already and they watch us closely, explaining in careful detail how to use our set. Explaining perfectly the secrets of Chinese tea culture. Explaining their love of this drink and of their country.