Sweat, Pray, Write.

Via Susanna Harwood Rubin
on Jul 20, 2011
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Nataraja, Shivakamasundari & Subramanya Rathas, Chidambaram, July 2011, photo-Jagannath Babu

I am sitting in the 100º heat of the lobby of the Hotel Saradharam typing. No AC but Wi-Fi, so I try to perch on the edge of the inappropriately plush cushions of the couch beneath two whirling fans that busily attempt to dry out my contact lenses. I’ve soaked through layers of my sari and my computer rests on my thighs like a portable oven. There are a couple of tiny ineffectual mosquitoes flirting with my neck and arms – so sluggish in their movements that I easily swat them away before they manage to settle. I’m fantasizing about what it will feel like to peel off the layers of my sari to take yet another cold shower, about consuming a cool lime soda and a dosa. Yet, I’m determined to write.

I have come to Chidambaram in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu with my teacher, Dr. Douglas Brooks, and some friends for the annual Ani Festival, which marks the seasonal transition. This is one of the only times that the temple’s presiding deity, Nataraja, is removed from the Cit Saba, the heart of the temple, and brought through the streets in the most spectacular way imaginable: towering and elaborately carved carts hosting Nataraja and several other deities are draped with thousands of flowers strung into garlands, while surrounding the carts are burning ghee-torches, music, fireworks, and innumerable pilgrims. Hundreds of us pull the carts’ giant ropes to move them through the streets around the temple complex. We have come to honor our friend Kirubakaran, one of the temple’s Dikshitar priests. Kirubakaran was chosen to lead the festival this year – a once in a lifetime opportunity for him, for his family, and for us.

Selvaganesan, Greg, Susanna, Kirubakaran, Pushpa, Vishali, Harrison, Vasu, & the kids at the temple entrance, photo-Jagannath Babu

Take a profound religious ceremony, cross it with the ultimate street fair, add the 4th of July, and you’ll have a sense of what it is like.  The way in which I’ve described this 10-day opulent visual extravaganza to my friends is “Fellini on acid” because I don’t know how else to evoke the wild sensation of it all. The truth is that it is deeply sweet and ecstatically beautiful. It makes you want to bow down. And you do so again and again.

Inside the Temple-Kirubakaran after the Homa, July 2011, photo-Doug Neal

So it is in this context that I find myself wondering about the urge to write, to record. I’ve actually written less this trip than I have in any of my previous trips to India. I wanted to just be in the experience instead of continually engaging in the meta-cognitive process of thinking about what I’m doing while I’m doing it, evaluating what I’m seeing and experiencing, processing what I’m receiving through my senses so that instead of just sweating, I am thinking about writing about sweating, and then revisiting my wording and revising it in my head until I think, “Yes – that is perfectly evoking this moment of sweating.”

A few years ago, my parents decided to stop taking photos when they traveled for this very reason. They didn’t want their trip to be a step removed from the actual experience by having every view mediated through the camera lens. I understood and admired this decision, yet I can’t seem to utterly commit to it. I am proud of myself when I put down the camera for a couple of days and let my friends document the experience. But I happen to be a profoundly visual person, who learns and recalls through my own process of documentation. My art history notes from college were outrageous – outline form with thumbnail sketches. I retained amazing amounts of information.

Ideally I would be able to do the trip twice – once just sinking into the tough lushness of it all, into the realm of the heightened sensory experience that South India has to offer – and then a second time with my camera, my notebooks, my pens, my computer and its satisfying clicks and taps. This is my fantasy. But, of course, it is the fleeting quality of the experience that makes it so precious, that intensifies it and makes me yearn for what has already occurred yesterday or an hour ago, even as I sit here typing these thoughts. The visceral feeling of the experience slips away, leaving an evocative residue captured by my words, my images, my overflowing notations on my life.

Ani Festival, Chidambaram, July 2011, photo-Jagannath Babu


About Susanna Harwood Rubin

Susanna is passionately committed to finding beauty in everyday life. She is a yoga teacher-writer-visual artist, which means that she rarely stops moving except to meditate. She is ERYT-500, has been teaching for over 12 years, and travels regularly to South India to delve into the traditions of Rajanaka Yoga that inspire her work. Her spiritual home is the great Nataraja Temple of Chidambaram. She teaches internationally, but is based in New York. Find her weekly classes at Twisted Trunk Yoga and Abhaya Yoga . Susanna's artwork is represented in collections such as the UCLA Hammer Museum, the Berkeley Museum, and the Addison Gallery of American Art. She lectured and wrote for MoMA for years, including co-writing the book "Looking at Matisse and Picasso," and she will still happily talk about Picasso for hours if you ask her. Susanna currently writes on yoga, writing, art, and life for a number of publications, including The Huffington Post , Mantra Yoga+Health , Rebelle Society , and YOGANONYMOUS . She gives talks on yoga, Hindu myth, and philosophy, and created the popular Writing Your Practice workshops and telecourses for yogis, applying yoga philosophy and myth to the practice of writing. Overall, she is amazed at the richness of her life. Find her on Twitter , Facebook , & Instagram


18 Responses to “Sweat, Pray, Write.”

  1. Wonderful, Susanna.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W. Yoga Editor
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  2. Thank you Bob. This one is really from my heart.

  3. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  4. Emily Perry says:

    Thank you for sharing… such a lovely piece!

  5. Thanks for your comment, Emily!

  6. Well done, Susanna! Your description of the experience and struggle to be part of it vs. recording it is something I'm sure many can relate to. I have a similar feeling when witnessing a cool moment (and there are many) with my son. Should I run to get the camera or savor the moment before it passes? Usually I pick the latter but wish I had more photos. I try to put these experiences to words whenever possible. Look forward to reading more of your posts! Cheers 🙂

  7. […] love writing. And I’m grateful to you who read my words. Even more grateful to those who provide feedback. […]

  8. Thanks Lynn – I'm posting your recent piece on writing here too, since we're both offering our musings on the practice of recording our lives this week: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/07/why-i-open… – beautiful!

  9. Shig Ogyu says:

    Vibrating energy from Chidambaram is transmitted through your words. Bravo! I wish I were there for “Fellini on acid”. I love the giant architectural machines on which the dieties move through the city. They are strikingly similar to the Caro in Parelmo, Sicily.

  10. It is actually very similar, but on a MUCH grander scale (which the photos couldn't convey, since photos are not permitted of most of the parts of the event) to the Italian Street fairs that I grew up going to in the North End of Boston – St Anthony's & the Fisherman's Feast, etc. religion meets culture meets street fair & more. The Virgin Mary carried through the streets, being given offerings in exchange for blessings is a vivid memory for me. We would pin dollars to her until she was covered except for her face, then we would eat like crazy and dance. I loved it. Since most of the North End was Neapolitan & Sicilian, it makes perfect sense!

    The difference with this is really the scale of it all & the fact that it goes on continuously for 10 days – events happening at 1:30 in the morning till dawn or during the afternoon – you don't really know what day it is or where you are – pilgrims are camped out in the temple & at the entryway. It is not about the neighborhood – it is epic – about the cosmos – more universal than local. But people are sweet & passionate about it…

    I am so glad you liked the post – thank you, Shig!

  11. tanya lee markul says:

    Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage. 🙂

  12. Thanks, Tanya! 🙂

  13. Shig Ogyu says:

    How wonderful.. experiencing the cosmos! Thank you for the post.

  14. […] eye-rolling, the daily process of cramming history into outline form heightened my awareness of writing’s organizational structure. Overriding ideas were the Roman Numerals, big ideas were the A-B-Cs, […]

  15. […] of my feet red with the spilled kumkum at Tillai Kali Amman Temple. I had craned my neck toward the Cit Saba in Chidambaram, my body sweat-soaked and immobilized by so many other bodies, all of us yearning […]

  16. […] there. It is an entirely separate thing, although it accesses a similar part of me. I am back in Chidambaram for the fourth time because being in the heart of the temple feels like falling in love. I feel […]