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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Amritsar, Punjab – New Friends, New Headgear, and Very Serious Selfies!


Amritsar, Punjab New Friends, New Headgear, and Very Serious Selfies!

 

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My decision to leave Dharamkot and the mountainous hub of yoga, Tibetan culture, health food and chilled out cafés at first seemed very difficult. However after a few days of severe rain and downpours so heavy that ‘damp’ became my response to any generic question posed to me by either local or fellow-traveller, I decided that I owed it to India’s sheer size and to myself to see as much more of this vast and sensory-rich country as I can before departing for Sri Lanka. I’ll admit I was mistaken in thinking I would be satisfied with a month here. A month seems so miniscule when I think about how quickly the days have been passing, flying by in the squint of an eye against a haze of dust rising up from chaotic streets and overly potent onions.

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Peekaboo…The sun disappearing behind the entrance of the The Golden Temple

So I enlisted the help of Lakshmi Tours in Dharamkot, (the tour operators directly under Trek n’ Dine, probably the most recognisable landmark in the teeny town and some extremely yummy homemade muesli), and booked myself a one-way ticket to Amritsar, in the Western province of Punjab. A whim, a blessing, a sign, whatever you want to call it, I then proceeded to reserve a room at the first hostel that made it’s way to the head of my Google Search – Jugaardus Eco Hostel, and I have to say, for once, I did good. I’ve stayed at my fair share of dingy, anti-social, isolating and DAMP accommodation, but from the second I stepped in to Jugaardus I felt completely comfortable and welcomed, the graffitied walls of clichéd travel-quotes and creative-traveller-type masterpieces ‘just scribbled’ onto the walls reminding me of the Madpackers’ in Delhi in all it’s hipster and backpacking glory. The best thing about these hostels is definitely the social aspect, and the organisation of tours several times a day to places that would take a lot of wrong turns and mind-numbing sign language to find alone without a guide. The team at Jugaadus are also extremely friendly, open and welcoming to solo travellers and groups alike, and the included meals (donation based) were also a blessing!

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A well-timed group outing to The Golden Temple in Amritsar, home of the Sikh religion and one of the most stunningly beautiful areas of architecture and peaceful settings I’ve ever laid eyes on/stepped foot in, occupied the first evening. From being treated as tourist attractions ourselves and stared at, to being bundled into a foodhall and served chipattis in a clamour of splashing dahl and clashing metal plates as the next round of hungry mouths waited expectantly outside, only then to come out again to find the whole place suddenly lit by the reflection of real golden temples on the water where hundreds of Sikhs have just bathed and redressed the turbans and scarves of every colour imaginable…it really was an unforgettable experience, and one of my favourite outings in India so far. (That’s saying a LOT!) Beers in the local brewery (situated at the top of a shopping centre?) with new and familiar hostel friends ended the day nicely and the tourist in me was satisfied for another while.

 

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Foodhall in Amritsar’s Golden Temple
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So many colours!
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Bathing at the Golden Temple

 

Day two began with a fruitful breakfast and spontaneous jamming session in the hostel, before being whisked away on a food tour of the city, which lasted hours and brought us to some of the cheapest and most tucked away corners of Amritsar..I tasted the sweetest black chai of my life, and before even getting a chance to return to the hostel it was time to be picked up to continue the day of ‘touristing’ and go on the ‘Wagah Border Tour’. Another spontaneous decision, I only realised as we left the perimeters of Amritsar behind that we were actually headed towards the Pakistani border with India to witness a ceremony crossing flags and celebrating the two country’s heritage and peacefully maintained boundaries, as well as ironically symbolising their rivalry. unnamed-20Passports in hand and a kind of nervous expectancy hanging in the thick dusty air preceding sunset, we walked the long road-blocked entrance like that of a road headed into a music festival. Vendors painted Indian flags on our faces and sold bottles of water, fresh juices, mystery fried yellow things, and tables of other products outside.

When the stadium eventually filled to capacity and the sun had all but disappeared from the sky, Indian residents on one side of two iron-clad sets of gates and Pakistani on the other, thumping Bollywood music flooded the stadium and a troupe of dancers emerged in the road below.

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Indian supports at the Pakistani border

On spotting us taking pictures, we were pulled into the crowd by young students to join their dancing in front of the hundreds of spectators! Dancing to ‘Jai Ho’ in a mass of colourful saris and flowing black hair overlooked by a crowd of chanting Indians is something I won’t forget in a hurry!

Once the dancing ceased, drum rolls signalled Indian soldiers marching and high-kicking their way towards the Pakistani gate to a height Micheal Flatley would envy and with such conviction that it was difficult not to take it very seriously. Between the crowds chanting in Hindi, the drums rolling, the clip-clop of the uniformed officers and the opposing chants and singing coming from the Pakistani side, it felt like being a spectator at some kind of bizarre sporting event!

 

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2 sets of gates – India border vs Pakistan

After a lengthy marching routine, eventually the guards tired out high-kicking and opened the gates, where they swapped sides and lowered each country’s flag together, crossing them over in a sign of peace. And that was it. Back together the gates clanged, back down the stadium the guards skipped, and the Indian crowd’s chanting reached a peak to meet the final drum rolls end. Time to go home! It was back to Jugaardus for a shower to wash the dust away from tired feet.

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“Just one picture, Madame!”

My final day in Amritsar was spent catching up on sleep and online work, venturing into the madness of the city several times to explore local shops and market stalls! Back to Delhi now for a final night with the Madpackers and then onwards as my visa expires in a few days and I’ve yet to plan the next leg of my journey properly. Oops.

There is one thing I am sure of, however…

India, I’m not done with you yet!
I will most definitely be back. Onwards and upwards!

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Useful Links:

Trek n Dine Facebook / Trip Advisor
Lakshmi Tours India
Jugaardus Eco Hostel: Website / Facebook / Trip Advisor
Madpackers Hostel Delhi : Facebook / Trip Advisor
Gold Temple Amritsar Website

 

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