What a Month in India Taught Me About Yoga

What a Month in India Taught me About Yoga
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Before I begin I want to make clear that the views expressed here are purely objective and that I’m only going on what I experienced, not an in-depth study or survey.

‘What are the differences between practicing yoga in the West and practicing in India?’

This is a question I’ve been asked quite regularly in recent weeks, having embarked on a solo trip with no definitive end on the basis of exploring the ancient practice and contrasting attitudes towards the study of yoga around the world (well in Asia, anyway).
To be honest, I came to India expecting (or maybe hoping) to experience some sort of revelation when it came to my yoga practice, the stories I’ve heard having inspired me to explore the places most attributed with the origins of yoga and somehow find or realise something I haven’t before by immersing myself completely in a strange country and alternative habits, values, and climates. I wanted to really push my boundaries and experience yoga as a lifestyle properly for a little while, embracing new aspects and styles with unfamiliar surroundings and people – places you don’t see on Instagram or enticing Google adverts boasting a luxury yoga retreat and 5-star accommodation. In a way, that’s kind of what happened.
In another way, it’s not. At all.

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It sounds obvious to me now, but the biggest thing I’ve realised since coming to India is that it really doesn’t matter where, when, why, or how you practice – yoga is both universal and intensely personal. Yoga is as unique to each practitioner as their individual height, weight, hair colour, daily nutritional requirements and sleeping patterns. Each person’s practice is their own, no matter where you do it, for how long, or at what intensity.

Or at least it should be.
Strangely, one of the things that brought me to this realisation was attending classes that seemed very impersonal, and I was surprised to find that some of the guided classes I attended in McLeodGanj (Dharamsala, North Indian province of Himachal Pradesh) in particular lacked in creativity. Disappointingly they felt like going through the motions of a standard fitness class in the gym back home. At the same time, I understood the reasons behind these elements of the practice.
After speaking with several yoga-instructor friends and enthusiasts alike, I came to understand that some of the more established Indian yogis (I won’t name names for obvious reasons) have been doing the same ‘routine’ sequence and practice every day for over 40 years. Because of this, it has become almost mechanical in its routine progression, and one could almost argue that anyone who’s attended enough of the classes to learn the routine by heart could in theory also ‘teach’ a class themselves.
I want to be careful how I vocalise this, but the truth is I found that this sameness has both positive & negative aspects.

On the positive side, the benefits of 40 years of consistent Ashtanga practice are blatantly apparent in the physique and steady, controlled way these yogis speak.
It’s also inspiring to see that the practice itself has become a sort of constant for them, in the way that prayer or religious devotion has for the many Buddhist monks and nuns inhabiting the Northern Himachal Pradesh Himalayas. It’s ritualistic, which can be a valuable thing in a modern world that otherwise lacks rituals.

On the negative side, the lack of creative exploration & facilitation for the fluctuations of the body from day to day during these routines flies in the face of one of my own beliefs about the practice of yoga – that it is a way of accepting and appreciating change with ease and grace, being open to and moving with it, instead of resisting.

I cannot help but marvel at the depth, widespread popularity, and general understanding and acceptance of the entire practice of yoga in India. I have already learned to open up and trust myself and those around me more thoroughly than I thought possible.
For me, this is what yoga is all about – opening up (both physically and mentally) and accepting what is. Trusting what you have and that which is constantly in flux around you, instead of creating unnecessary anxiety worrying about things outside of your control. A feeling of harmony in body and mind. Harmony within your place in the world.
This includes change.

Change and evolution are part of who we are, the only two constant reliable elements of life that we can depend on outside of our own minds. Being able to tolerate and adapt to natural and environmental changes is crucial for so many reasons, and it confused me to see some of the yogis upholding a practice that seemed quite stagnant and repetitive, unbending even. Maybe I’m just too used to attending creative classes that adapt and cater for the elements and our bodies – a rainy day class at home in Yogahub Dublin once focused on shoulder and chest-opening poses in response to the week of horrible weather we’d just experienced, hunched over and hurried pacing a necessity with disregard to posture or discomfort.
But it seemed to me that the whole ‘oh she’s gone to do yoga in India’ myth and expectation of self-understanding and epiphany-gaining experience is exactly that – a myth.

This is what I mean by having an evolving practice. India as a country is still evolving; it is a land of extremes. Colours, tastes, wealth, poverty, heat, rain…you name it, India has an extreme to meet it.

Avoiding extremes and finding balance has been part of my own yogic journey, and I found the almost extreme lifestyle and all-or-nothing vibe of several of the yoga studios and gurus I attended to be somewhat overwhelming and contradictory in their message. That being said, there were several teachers that were more supple in their ideologies and achieved a more rational balance between the unchanging ritual & the realities of a living daily practise, so I can’t be too generalistic here either.

My point in writing this was to express what I’ve learnt, and to disprove the theory that yoga can only be learned correctly or experienced fully by travelling to India. I’m guilty of harbouring beliefs such as this, although deep down I sort of knew the truth for what it is – that yoga is accessible anywhere, to anyone, and in whatever capacity you have to experience it and your own body. Even on a balcony in a tiny hostel in Sri Lanka where the cleaning lady tries to sweep crumbs and dust from within an inch of the mat around you. I’m still practicing. I’m still moving. Evolving, changing. And that’s ok too.

 

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The Importance of Establishing Trust Whilst Travelling

The Importance of Establishing Trust Whilst Travelling

 

 ‘If fear is holding you back just remember that in general, places are safer and people are kinder than you may expect. Discovering this is one of the beautiful benefits of travelling’ – Justin Alexander

“Be careful. Mind yourself. Take care. Be safe.”
Anyone who’s embarked on a journey further than the corner shop or into town for the day has heard the warnings.
What if you get robbed? Knocked down? Attacked? What if you don’t understand what they’re saying?

Travelling places you directly in the firing line to be stifled and stagnated by these often irrational fears – yet also to conquer them. To experience humanity in all it’s confusing and miscommunicative glory, and for once, to let go and trust it.

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Finding and attending sunrise yoga sessions overlooking the Himalayas, meditating on the mountaintop at Tushita, jamming with local and Israeli musicians at Jolly’s and in tiny cafés and bars hidden away down windy paths in the mountains, and some of the best and cheapest monk-made vegetarian food at Tibetan and Indian restaurants where nobody actually speaks any English….2 years ago these things would have seemed impossible and terrifying for me.

I’ve experienced the anxieties, and I’ve now learned to surrender to the language barriers and embrace my fellow humans as the kindred souls they are. As a solo female traveller in particular, the warnings I received about India were enough to make me doubt my decision the entire flight over here. While an element of common sense is required in navigating unfamiliar soil and encountering cultures and people unaccustomed to communicating with pale-skinned, ginger women, in general, my experience here has been altogether more comfortable than the warnings had led me to expect – something which has left me ashamed of my paranoid actions (or lack thereof) on more than one occasion.

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Building bridges

Having become so used to this typically Irish paranoia, self-consciousness, and disinclination to trust ourselves or others we have come to adopt as the norm, I only realise now how much I was limiting myself in denying the natural inclination and need all humans possess to communicate and be open with one another. Given that communication leads to understanding, and understanding lies at the root of any harmonious relationship – be it mind and body, our relationship with ourselves, with friends, family, food – every aspect of our lives, it follows that the initial first step to reach out and interact with another human is often the most daunting, yet rewarding action we can take.
In the travelling/backpacking scene (in Asia, anyway) it may seem easier to speak to and make new acquaintances as everyone seems in the same boat – all secretly sipping beers or coffees in the underlying hope that the attractive guy across the bar will make the first move and ask you to accompany him to see the temple tomorrow (*swoon*).
We need to stop assuming.
We need to take action for ourselves, be more assertive and attentive to our own needs in the moment, and trust whatever natural direction we receive, be it from the kind stranger who just returned a 10 rupee note you dropped by accident, or the vague gestures of locals towards a forest path with not a word of English to accompany their directions. 9 times out of ten you will find their intentions to be genuine and heartfelt, even if their initial scowls or frowny faces may suggest otherwise. Some cultural differences will never change. It’s a shame that I still sometimes feel the apprehension before trusting the directions or unprovoked aid of a local on the street, but I’ve learned finally to open up and trust their lack of agenda for what it is – honesty.

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New friends and good food…

Travelling has helped me see that people aren’t so bad, really.
Discovering the kindness and hospitality of the Indian and Tibetan people I’ve encountered during my short time here has been fulfilling and heartwarming, and part of the reason I’m so reluctant to leave. While I have been careful not to walk too far alone at night or to concern myself with any ‘dodgy’ looking characters, I’ve found it’s the times when I’ve opened my mouth and made the first greeting, comment, or question to a fellow traveller or local that I have been rewarded with a flicker or flame or warmth and friendship – sometimes lasting no longer than a cup of chai, sometimes a whole week of meeting up for yoga classes, activities, or meals. Climbing mountains with new acquaintances and not being afraid to show your true self or embrace your lack of umbrella in a downpour at the Taj Mahal during monsoon season is about as freeing and grounding an experience as any I can hope to ever have again.

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An Irish & an Indian climb a mountain…

After all, aren’t we all just doing our best to keep going? Keep meeting, discovering, and moving onwards to the next destination, even if it’s just down the road? In my experience you are 10 times more likely to encounter kindness than nasty or dangerous behaviour whilst on the road, and discovering the importance of trust and my capacity to remain calm in these situations has already led me to several places and friendships with people and places I never would have experienced had I remained in my ‘safe’ bubble of a hostel room. While an element of self-awareness and common sense is also necessary, the key is to find a balance between overly-analysing the outcome of potential interactions and ultimately ruining them for yourself before they ever happen, and just going with them without thinking. I’ve come to a peaceful middleground where both sides are now available to me, and now just appreciate that I have the opportunity to experience it all.

 

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Bhagsu Waterfall, Dharamsala

 

 

 

The Home of Yoga – An Adventure in the Himalayas

It’s currently raining in Dharamkot, Himachal Pradesh, one of the Northernmost populated towns in the Indian Himalayas.

Meanwhile, I hear that it’s been 26 degrees in Ireland. Typical!
Monsoon season here is in full swing, and as irritating as a downpour can be in the midst of exploring new towns and places, the people that you meet when huddled together with a street of strangers under a bright blue tarpaulin to shelter from the rain often make it seem worthwhile.
Another plus is that the more strenuous yoga classes have not proven too overwhelming. My practice in Bali and Cambodia last year showed me just how exhausting naturally heated yoga can be – there is no escaping the heat when you’re already outside!

Attending classes at both Universal Yoga in McLeodGanj and now a rigorous 5-day intensive at Himalayan Iyengar Yoga school in Dharamkot has been a fascinating, self-exploratory and humbling experience so far. Although I had reservations about exploring Iyengar Yoga further – even during the first day or two I doubted my decision and considered seeking guidance elsewhere – I cannot help but marvel at the depth and intricacy of the practice over here, and have already learned to open up and trust myself and those around me more thoroughly than I thought possible. This for me is what yoga is all about – opening up (both physically and mentally) and accepting what is – trusting what you have and that which surrounds you instead of creating unnecessary anxiety worrying about things outside of your control. Harmony in body and mind. Harmony within your place in the world.

My place right now just happens to be India in the middle of monsoon season.

India as a country is as dense as it is beautiful – there are so many layers just waiting to be peeled back. So many aspects, so many different sides and underlying elements to this ever-changing and evolving landscape. This kinetic energy in itself is a perfect emulation of human nature as a whole. We too are consistently changing. We hide beneath layers, personas, images and complete strangers that we for whatever reason so often strive to emulate – the list goes on. Yoga helps us peel back those layers comfortably, to open up and purely exist in acceptance of what’s around us, learning to enjoy the process instead of thinking about what will or may come to be.

Practicing yoga here has been challenging both mentally and physically, and especially difficult on realisation that the warm and cosy bed usually awaiting my arrival after a tough practice is in fact a flat, hard slightly damp resting space of a room costing less than €2 a night! Not exactly my idea of luxury but then again, I shouldn’t complain, right? I’m pushing boundaries. It’s not supposed to be comfortable.

My mental stamina, moreso than the physical has been tested to the point of breaking, and it may sound extreme that I have now experienced first hand what it’s like to be positioned upsidedown with tears streaming out of my eyes and down my forehead – not out of pain, but out of sheer exposure and lack of familiarity to..anything! Succumbing to the unknown? I can’t quite describe it.
It’s a new perspective, anyway. It’s been freeing.

The sheer amount of yoga schools and meditation classes around Dharamsala, McLeodGanj, and Dharamkot is testament to the deeply moving and widespread popularity of the practices in India, and it has even been predicted by the Dalai Lama himself that ‘if every 8-year-old is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation’. I’m not sure how accurate I believe this statement to be, but I must admit that my own sense of peace has been heightened purely by being present in this beautiful part of the wild animal that is India. There’s definitely something in the air over here, whether it’s because every second Westerner you meet is a hippie-pants wearing yogi with feathers in their hair and mandala tattoos on their arms, or simply the proximity to the birthplace of Buddhism – it doesn’t really matter. Peace of mind is peace of mind, and for every way there is to find it here, whether it’s attending morning Puja or Vipassana practices or simply attending a yoga class a day, you’re guaranteed to find likeminded souls who share your search for space, calmness, and self-acceptance.

For now I’m happy just being here, uphill walks, bugs and language barriers aside…

Until next time…Namasté!