Hello family and friends!
I’m writing from the Sparrow Café, where we are all tucked into a tiny back room on floor cushions. Everyone’s bag is open in front of them, with our notebooks turned to summary sheets and art projects ready to share. It’s our ISP presentations! After weeks of hard work, it is finally time to teach each other what we’ve learned.
Julia and Isabel studied ayurveda, an ancient medicine system in India. They told us about how in ayurveda, each patient receives an individualized treatment based not only on their medical symptoms but on their spirit and temperament as well. Every living thing is composed of the five elements (ether, wind, fire, water, and earth), and they helped determine which of these was predominant in us — I learned that I am vata, of ether and wind. Each person’s prakarti, or predominant element, impacts which ayurvedic treatments will be most effective. Isabel and Julia both said they had a lot of respect for their guru Dr. Mukhta, an incredibly smart and caring woman in a male dominated field, and learned a lot from her.
Katie also studied with Dr. Mukhta, who is both an ayurvedic doctor and a doctor of Western medicine. Katie’s course was in the public health system in India, and she learned about medicine throughout time and how historically different societies have regarded public health in different ways. She told us about the sanitary awakening and the birth of preventative medicine. In 1948, the World Health Organization released a definition of health as including complete wellbeing, not just the absence of disease, which prompted Katie and her guru ji to discuss the different components and metrics of health, including physical, mental, social, spiritual, emotional, and many more. Katie also learned about how the healthcare systems and hospitals in India operate relative to the rest of the world. Although her ISP was less hands-on, she got to spend time with an inspiring woman she built a lot of trust with and her class with Dr. Mukhta challenged a lot of her assumptions and taught her a lot.
Lancelot took our Hindi classes (with extra sessions) for credit, and in Hindi told us about his favorite people and places in Varanasi. He also gave us a historical overview of khari boli, or spoken Hindi-Urdu. From religious and upper caste origins as pure Sanskrit, khari boli today is a common language between castes and religious groups in India and South Asia. Within spoken Hindi, there are many thousands of local dialects and incredible diversity within the language. He also wrote some jokes with punchlines in Hindi and English — “What did one sweet say to the other sweet who was struggling with his suit?” “Mithai!” (pronounced: mee-tye). Hindi class wasn’t Lance’s official ISP, but he will present on cremation in Varanasi while we are on our X-Phase next week!
Hayden and Sophie did a mixed ISP in yoga, philosophy of yoga, and meditation. We are all looking forward to having a quiet morning in the next few weeks when they have promised to lead us in a morning session! Hayden talked about the objective of yoga: to master their body through the poses and master their emotions through breathing. Once those are complete, true meditation is possible and one can detach from ego. Sophie told us a bit about the beliefs of different yoga practices, and about the meditation they would end every session with. When one meditates while chanting “Om,” it activates many brain regions — but only if the Om is loud enough to vibrate in your throat and face. They enjoyed getting to discuss their personal ailments and questions with their guru ji, and be physically active each day, and told us they were overfed chai and cookies with him (as is all too common in India!).
Aidan set out to study death rituals in Varanasi, but “every time I asked my ISP guru ji a question, I got an interesting answer that wasn’t really about what I asked.” He said he learned a lot about perceptions of the soul, especially in Hinduism, which he shared with us today. We, and everything around us, has energy, as if we are tributaries of a central energy source in the world. Aidan told us that one way to experience this is to listen to a sound coming from within ourselves, and we were instructed to cover every orifice of our face to hear it: thumbs over the ears, index fingers over the eyes, middle fingers almost completely closing the nose, and ring fingers closing the mouth. Some people, who are truly disciplined in their practice, will meditate in this position for ninety minutes a day! It connected well to our yoga presentation too, as command over one’s physical existence and meditation are also subjects Aidan discussed with his guru ji.
Marka learned about textiles. I made a tie and dye portfolio, with fifteen small samples demonstrating different patterns, colors, and techniques. I also made two batik samples, one depicting two boats on a river and one with a flying bird. I really liked making batik. It is a wax relief method, so I used a small brush to paint hot wax onto fabric, then dipped it all into dye which only colored the un-waxed areas. The method takes a lot of planning at the start, when I drew out my design and charted out when I would wax and dye each region, and then slow, meticulous work putting small strokes of wax over a huge area of fabric. I took my class at Banaras Hindu University, and I enjoyed doing my batik work while I chatted with my guru ji, Dr. Jasminder Kaur, and with the students and research assistants at the school. I was really excited at the end to be able to unfold all my tie and dye pieces and boil the wax off my batik and finally see the designs, which I was really proud of!
Esme’s ISP was silk weaving, which she did with a man named Saleem ji in his one small room, which was mostly filled with a loom. You use your legs to alternate the threads while you alternate hands throwing a shuttle across the loom. Esme’s end result is a 64 inch long silk fabric, on which we could see her progress — the first few inches are single colored and have knots from dropping the shuttle, but by the end of her sample she was creating beautiful flower designs and multicolored stripes! One unexpected thing she noticed was how her emotions came through in her work: on a day she felt more frustrated or stressed, she would drop the shuttle more often or encounter weaving issues. Esme told us about the really great relationship she was able to build with her mentor Saleem ji: despite a language barrier, she felt her ISP became a really calm and good environment to practice a new craft and she felt a good connection with him. Her finished piece is absolutely beautiful and so colorful!
Darci went next and showed us her martial arts skills! The space we were in was a bit small but we all stood up in the café and practiced throwing a few punches in the air. Darci learned the basics of tae kwon doe, boxing, and kickboxing. Tae kwon doe is based only on kicking with the arms down, and boxing is about punching and defending your face, while kickboxing is a combination of both. She got to do some sessions with a larger group and warm up with kids, but had a great relationship with her instructor where they would joke around a lot during pretty intense workouts. Darci said there could sometimes be a language barrier, but her instructor would just use his padded hands to bop her arms into place. Doing kickboxing moves with her guru ji built a lot of trust — she said “he would throw me, but always caught me before I fell!”
Caroline did her ISP in Indian stick fighting. It is the oldest martial art in the world, and originated through the melding of many different forms of fighting from different regions of what is now India. Caroline practiced ben eti, which means twisting body, because the body and stick both twist as they move. It was once purely a martial art, but now become more like a combination of sparring and dance. The stick is lit on fire at both ends, which Caroline got to do during her last week of ISP after she had gained a lot of muscle memory. One interesting thing she learned about was the amount of muscle memory some practitioners develop: they do ben eti as a form of meditation! While Caroline got a number of bruises on her ankles, she said really started to enjoy it at the end — overcoming her fear and doing the movements with her stick on fire gave her “a new confidence” and she feels really lucky to have gotten to study with her instructor.
Sam ended our afternoon with an amazing sitar performance! Sam put far and away the most time into his ISP, practicing every night outside of his lesson. Every lesson started with the Rama Warmup, which is a number of scales up and down that took nearly a week to learn. Today he played that warmup, then a song from memory that was really intricate and clearly showed his hard work. On a sitar, there is one main melody string which can be impacted by fret changes or pulling it to the side, then side strings which can be strummed as an accent to the main string, and a second set of strings underneath those which reverberate to give the sitar its distinctive sound. A scale on a sitar is different than most Western instruments, so it allows for smaller fractions of notes to be heard more easily. Sam’s playing was so beautiful and he hopes he can find a way to continue to practice at home!
And that’s a wrap! Sorry we didn’t post for a while! As you can tell from this, there’s been a lot going on for us in our last few days in Varanasi. But we have all been busy wrapping up ISPs, as well as enjoying our hectic exploration of the city and lots of laughter with our host families.