For a month every year, I find myself at my in-laws' apartment in the mega city of Bombay. My "home practice" space here is the 33rd floor of a massive apartment complex consisting of five towers, each one a forty-seven floor giant. It's an open refuge floor to be used in case of emergencies but even though it is unused and empty, it is far from serene.
Bombay is on a peninsula so from this height it should be easy to see both coastlines but the incessant smog makes them a faint blur. Skyscrapers stretch north and south as far as the eye can see. I often thought to myself, "no wonder monsters in those sci-fi movies would want to knock these buildings down." This is just so opposite to my cherished greenery of B.C. that I am used to which is where I draw my spiritual sustenance from.
In my yoga classes one of my main messages I teach people is how to use the breath and nervous system to control our reactions to things in yoga class. "Don't Dwell, Just Gel," is the mantra we use to be less reactive and more fluid with life's unpleasantness. When we are deep in a yoga stretch, we can breath through discomfort and this skill can be applied to almost any situation in life.
However, every other year practicing here I have been an utter failure in this "not-dwelling" department. Even more than the choking smog, I could never take that damned honking. If you have never experienced the honking of Bombay, imagine how much people honk in a wedding procession but instead of 20-30 cars there are tens of thousands in a city where two-thirds of the population of Canada live.
My father-in-law remembers a green and clean Bombay from his youth but now it has less greenery than any city on earth. Gandhi may be India's hero and on the back of every bill but Bombay in many ways is the opposite of Ghandi's vision. He envisioned an India with strong village culture and local economies but millions are pouring into Bombay streets and slums from the villages every year in hopes of a small piece of a city that provides 9 per cent of India's GDP.
My whole being met the incessant honking on the streets of Bombay with resistance. All of these cars and taxis honk at each other continuously. It's like you drive by brail here. The honking is to let other drivers know that you are less than an a few inches from their car as they weave continuously in and out of inconceivably congested traffic. There is no end to the competition for space here.
In years past, I couldn't help but dwell on my circumstances. I was in this city for love of my wife and her family and not by choice. When you marry someone from a certain place, you marry that place also. I've married Bombay and sometimes that finality like a relationship that has gone sour can make you feel trapped.
But this trip something miraculous happened. I journeyed to the 33rd floor to practice yoga on my first night back in Bombay and laid my mat down. I looked out at the smoggy coastline, at the endless procession of skyscrapers and listened to what was once the grating discordance of millions of madly honking drivers. I found myself actually smiling and saying, "ahh... Back in your arms now, Bombay!" talking to the city like two friends who hadn't seen each other in a long time.
It was amazing. I didn't even have to repeat my mantra, "don't dwell, just gel" to help me breathe through it, but I actually found it enjoyable. There was a distance to it like when someone did something to drive you crazy your whole life and after they die you end up lovingly talking about that trait in their Eulogy.
The honking actually relaxed me. I felt like this was just so part of Bombay and I could feel the city's pulse as an insider and wasn't from the outside looking in. When I stood on my yoga mat high above the city, warm smoggy breeze in my hair, I felt as at peace with the honking as I would practicing yoga to the sound of crickets in a field.
I was shocked but it was true. What switched? How did I go from victim to participant? From dwelling to gelling?
There was no "me vs. them." The questions in my head were simply not there like "How can these people live like this?" "Why do they have to keep honking?" or "How can they have temples everywhere and their gods painted on every taxi and truck but no quiet green space with clean air?" My first trip to India I commented that the most sacred thing I saw was a small sign on the entrance to my in-laws' parking garage that said "No Honking"
I understood Bombay somehow. In that act of understanding all resistance was taken away. Understanding, it was clear to me, means to "stand under" not standing rigidly over people imposing my ideals.
On every Indian Transport Truck besides all the gods painted on it there is a sign written. This too now seems sacred to me. It simply says: "Horn Ok, Please. "