I woke quite early this morning—4:30 a.m. I had been pulled from slumber by a large crash of metal hitting pavement and shattering glass; it seems 4 a.m. is the perfect time in India to drop a streetlight.
While felled from a large tree, it sounded more like a car crash. In order to let my roommate sleep undisturbed, I headed to the rooftop of the clinic where I was receiving medical treatment. With my tea in hand, I wanted to watch the sun rise over New Delhi.
It was still dark and relatively cool; servants from the surrounding apartments were asleep on the rooftops covered in worn cotton blankets.
Sipping my tea, I listened to the packs of feral dogs battle for the street below, so dark and quiet in comparison with the riot of the day.
The horizon started to glow and as the light and air warmed, the sky came alive with murmurations of bright green parrots all headed from their beds to the parks and gardens of the city, squawking and cheeping their way in streaks. The servants awoke and stretched, having their moment of silence before folding their sheets and stowing their cots of wood and woven rope.
I returned to my room and quietly packed up my backpack with dog bones and kibble.
With my rolled yoga mat in one arm, I walked the pre-Chai wallah streets to Deerpark in Haus Khaus Village. I had been invited by a elderly gentleman named Sardin to join his yoga class on one of the lawns. It started at 5:45 a.m every morning, except this morning evidently.
I had been in India for about two weeks when we met at the coconut water stand; homesick for my three dogs back home in Maine, I had started walking around Deerpark and feeding all the stray dogs I came across.
There was a mom and two pups I was quite fond of. After feeding them their breakfast, I went to sit on a park bench that wrapped around a massive banyan tree. It had a good view of the patch of grass where Sardin and his group would do their yoga practice each morning. I was having some heavy effects from my treatment of embryonic stem cells—I was drenched in a cold sweat, waves of nausea and a headache on top of some chronic Lyme symptoms, which added up and left me feeling rather rough.
I must have looked quite pale and ill as I was approached by an elderly gentleman. He said to me, “You should do yoga.”
“Yes, I will,” I replied.
Adding, “I am waiting for Sardin,” thinking all elderly Indian men in the park must know each other.
He countered, “No-no. You need to do the class over on the next lawn.” He picked up my mat and started walking so I would be forced to follow him.
He led me to a fenced in area, with lovely tall trees and grass mowed tight like a bright green carpet. Class had already begun. About 15 people were chanting their opening meditation with eyes closed.
I hesitated and he insisted, “Go, go.”
Pushing my back until I was through the opening of the fence. I snuck silently to the back of the group, unrolling my mat and settling into a cross legged position I joined in on the last “Om.”
The two teachers, facing the group of students opened their eyes, and I saw the look of surprise on their faces that seemed to say, “Look what the Om dragged in.”
They pressed hands in Namaste, and a with light bow greeted me, which in turn made the entire class turn around.
A side note here:
I do not like being late.
I do not like sliding into something that has already started.
I do not like stopping the flow of a class, church, movie…etc.
I think you get the picture.
It comes from years of being late to primary school (it was a half hour drive) and being (what I considered) tormented by my teachers for my chronic lateness. If it was during the Wednesday morning assembly, then you could be sure the headmaster would not let my tardiness slip soundlessly into a seat. There would be some sarcastic comment from the podium on my behalf.
I readily admit, I am scarred.
That said, I raise my hands in an awkward, ‘first-time-Namaste-right-back-at-you.’ I greeted my fellow students while imagining them twisting their heads back towards their fronts like Indian Barbie dolls. Introductions were made and the class got down to business.
Yoga. Calm, peaceful, centering. Yoga.
I lay on my back and gazed up through the branches watching parrots overhead and listening to a call to prayer from a group in the next yard; I started to let down my uptight American guard.
We did some warm up poses, all very gentle. Then stood up and clasped our hands over our heads and leaned to the right. It is in this side stretch, I first caught the quick movement. You notice quick movements in the park because of the heat. Nobody moves quickly in India unless there is an issue.
One of my trusty canine sidekicks and self-imposed mayor of the park, Sheru, was running full steam down the center promenade towards the gate of our yoga sanctuary. Sheru, means ‘lion-like’ in Hindi, a name given to him by one of the guards who sits as a fixture on the bench by the front gate.
Evidently my scent, or more likely the scent of association to the doggie kibble in my backpack, had reached this dog’s perch at the head gate.
Inwardly, I urged him on. “Keep going, keep going.”
No such luck; he rounded the metal gate like a barrel pony at a rodeo. He was building speed, each bound easily covering eight feet when he hit me full steam. He launched himself at me in a joyful bear hug, dancing on his hind legs gleefully while digging his dewclaws into my side.
We had only known each other about two weeks, but I have been in enough of these Sheru-holds to know your only way out of it is to play dead, in other words, ignore him. My balance had improved—that has been proven by my ability to stay in the pose while Sheru tried to take me down. He changed strategies and moved to snaking himself through my legs and kicking my shins with all the strength his back legs could muster.
Again, I stayed strong and in the pose.
I was inwardly chanting the mantra, “Not my dog…not my dog.”
When I noticed Sheru’s two sidekicks in a full run across the lawn towards the class—this is not going to work in my defense that I am not the crazy-dog-lady of Deer Park. They were excited about the promise of food. Kibble. Crunchy, yummy chicken and milk flavored puppy chow that I sprinkle out for them. Not day old chapattis, not cookies laid out on scraps of newspaper or veggie curried rice. Carnivorous to the hilt, puppy chow.
These street dogs are not small. They are for the most part between 40-60 lbs., and strong. Sheru’s pack-mates are not as sure of my kindness. They are wary and stay their distance. Dancing excitedly around in place, waiting for their daily ration. Warp-speed thinking ensues, playing out the scenarios and thinking what would Cezar Milan, The Dog Whisperer, be doing right now? Who was I kidding?
He would be so busy with all the stray dogs in India he would not have time for yoga.
So, I decided to stay strong. Hold the pose. Ignore the now full court dog-wrestling match that was taking place behind me. They were so loud. Mock growling, snarling, yipping letting it be known who was top dog. All trying to get my attention so I would feed them.
I was ignoring them out of mortification but it wasn’t going so well for the rest of the class. I came to love the Indian people for their compassionate “what will be, will be” attitude toward the street dogs and all animals in general.
But they had their limit. About half had stopped and turned around to watch the match—the others strained to hear the teacher over the growing ruckus. That is when the wrestle turned into a game of tag. Across mats, around legs, over bags and still I held the pose and the mantra, “Not my dogs.”
I tried to remain an innocent bystander; my inner school kid was mortified.
My dog food laden backpack and I were disrupting the class and the center of the street dogs’ attention. There was a frozen kind of awkwardness—the kind that exists in a group when something is going wrong, yet no one steps up and takes action—when someone in the group finally does take charge everyone is relieved that the ‘elephant in the room’ had been addressed,al though probably not how you would have dealt with it.
It was a middle-aged man who finally left his mat, picked up a stick and ran at them to drive them off. Though, this was not what saved the day. It was a dog fight that broke out near the front gate which sent Sheru, the chief of police, off to save the day—his lackeys behind him at full speed.
Everyone gave a collective exhale, though none deeper than I.
The class continued without interruption and Sheru left me to my practice until the final cross legged pose. During our closing meditation, he returned to lay quietly beside me in the grass and chew gently on my fingers. I remained in the pose, my hands facing upwards, resting on my knees with my thumb (representing God) over the pointer finger (signaling Ego) during the chant of Om.
Sheru gently licked at God and gnawed at Ego and I let him, as it pacified us both.
C. Hazel Raby makes her home on the rocky coast of Maine with her husband and a menagerie of dogs, goats and chickens. A self proclaimed lover of all things “fardening” (that’s gardening+farming), a hunter of wild edibles of fungi and fruit, she can be found in the woods most days. Winters are a hibernation in the ceramics studio and under the covers writing in a growing mound of journals that will be fed to the goats upon her demise. Hazel finds herself a reluctant expert on Lyme Disease and an enthusiastic advocate of improving the intimacy in a relationship with frequent tick checks.
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Assistant Ed: Evan Livesay
Ed: Bryonie Wise