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One midwinter evening a few years ago my wife and I attended a tent show just off Chandni Chowk, the teeming main street of Old Delhi. Even by Indian standards it was not much of a show. There was an appallingly inept magician, there were some fairly good Chinese jugglers and the usual quota of dispirited musicians and bovine-gaited dancing girls. There was a plump Punjabi girl who came out between acts and belted out ribald songs which had the Sikh taxi drivers in the audience in a back-pounding uproar. After an hour or so of this a tall and pitifully emaciated Indian, who appeared to be in his late 30s, emerged from the wings and strolled to the center of the stage. He was not in costume but wore what in India passes for Western dress, a cheap cotton shirt with the long tails flapping over a pair of baggy cotton trousers. He had a wad of pan (a betel leaf mixture) tucked in one cheek, and he was obviously a habitual user of the stuff, because pan juice had dyed his lips a deep crimson. He stood listlessly in the center of the stage, giving his cud a lazy chew now and then while the master of ceremonies introduced him as a famous yogi who would give a demonstration of his powers.
The master of ceremonies then turned to the small cluster of Westerners in the front row of the audience and pointed to me and a young doctor attached to the Canadian High Commissioner's office in New Delhi. He asked if we would come to the stage and act as witnesses to the performance. We agreed.
An armchair was brought to the center of the stage, and the tall Indian sat down, stretched his thin arms along the armrests and asked us to take positions on opposite sides of him. He then asked each of us to locate the pulse in the nearer wrist and to keep our fingers on it. The doctor, who was on the Indian's left, did this quickly and expertly. I had a bit more difficulty. The doctor and I were then instructed to place our free hands close together over the man's heart. When he was satisfied that we felt both his pulse and the steady beat of his heart, the Indian settled back, closed his eyes and took a deep breath. After a few seconds his body gave a convulsive jerk, he made a small hiccoughing sound, and he slumped into what seemed to be some sort of trance.
THE SILENT HEART
Almost immediately I felt his pulse beat grow erratic under my fingers. It jumped and stopped, jumped and stopped, and then stopped altogether. I looked up to see if the doctor had observed this, and his face was as startled as mine must have been. But this was only the beginning. Suddenly the Indian's heart missed a beat...another...then just stopped beating.
In my bewilderment I thought something had gone wrong. I wondered if we had a corpse on our hands. As the seconds ticked off the doctor and I exchanged uneasy glances. Somehow, probably from our faces, the audience sensed what had happened. It was deadly quiet in the tent. I have no way of knowing how long we stood there. Later I estimated it was at least 30 seconds. My wife said it was a minute, perhaps more.
Suddenly, as quickly as it had stopped, the man's heart gave a tremendous thump under our hands, then another and another, until it settled down to a steady beat. The man took a deep heaving breath and his pulse jumped a couple of times and began to throb steadily. He came out of his trance and made a feeble attempt to sit up. He was deathly pale and his face was a mask of fatigue. Two men appeared and half carried, half dragged him off the stage. He was past caring about applause.
After the show I had time for only a few words with the Canadian doctor. He had no more of an explanation for what we witnessed than I did. All he could do was reassure me, as a doctor, that the man's heart and pulse had indeed seemed to come to a full and complete stop.
I was not so easily reassured, and to this day I am not sure whether what I saw—and felt—that night was a demonstration of genuine advanced yoga powers or an extremely clever bit of sideshow fakery. But I am grateful for that encounter in Old Delhi because it led me into a study of yoga, and for an American this can be a remarkably stimulating—and sometimes humbling—experience.
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