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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Yoga for Self-Esteem and Confidence – Calming ‘Wilder Minds’

“If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place” – Eckhart Tolle
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Yoga has so many health benefits that it only takes a glance at the nearest stand of ‘wellness’ magazines to list enough to fill a copybook – and all would be legitimate fact.
While ‘confidence’ is quite a broad term that differs in intensity and necessity from person to person and job sphere to job sphere, I think it’s widely agreed that it remains a fairly common trait of any ‘successful’ or content person who has been classed as ‘doing well’ in their lives or career pursuits.
Ew. I hate that phrase.
Really we’re all ‘doing well’ just by still being here and getting up to give things another shot when they go wrong, but unfortunately a lot of people still don’t see it that way.

A regular yoga practice is something that I have found to be of more benefit to my overall health and wellbeing than any diet, any crash-gym course or forced training-schedule, any well-established therapy or doctor, or intermittent variants of all of the above (and believe me, I’ve tried it all!). In coming to meet myself on the mat every day, for whatever length of time my mind and body is able to commit to it at a given time, (and not fretting too much if a few minutes is all I can manage!), I am greeting myself as a new acquaintance, and as such I am automatically polite and accepting.
Because here’s the deal;
I’m not a rude person. I like to think I’m not, anyway. I think we all strive for that in some deep-rooted, morally driven and sensible elder inside us. In greeting myself as I would any new stranger – a simple smile, nod of the head, and handshake (or air-kisses like the French do!) I am accepting fully the being that presents itself to me in that single moment. There is nothing I can change, and no power with which to do so – and that is perfectly ok.

In fact, it is amazing. It’s a freedom and liberation so strengthening that when you finally achieve it for yourself and accept your own reflection, limitations, talents, and situation for what they are, suddenly a whole space is opened up in your head that was previously filled with needless anxieties and personal limitations; unrealistic beliefs and ‘magical thinking’. There’s time to do things again you previously forgot you loved- there’s time to sing! To write! There’s energy and the belief with which to invest in these pleasures!
Hey there, confidence! Where’ve you been hiding?

 The result of this newfound self-awareness and acceptance is not merely ‘confidence’ in the traditional sense that is understood which allows you to be daring, take risks and be the first to do everything. It’s an internal strength – a sense that no matter where you go or what you encounter, you will be able to handle it. You will get through it. Life will go on. It’s not just the belief in this, but the knowledge of it as fact. The strong physical core resulting from a regular yoga practice forms as a manifestation of the strength in the mind; this confident, calm, and grounded version of a person who previously couldn’t decide what colour socks to wear without panicking. Guess what? Now she can hold a headstand for an entire minute and still feel great afterwards!
Take that, anxiety!
In sitting with physical stretches and challenges, the mental ones become easier to manage and recognise. To stretch out and observe patiently when they occur, instead of jumbling them all off in a ball and chasing them away on a treadmill.

 

Days 3 -5 in Cambodia and Why I’m Going to Stop Numbering Them

From Connemara to Cambodia

Days 3 -5 in Cambodia and Why I’m Going to Stop Numbering Them

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The Royal Palace of Cambodia

It’s funny that as soon as I finally have something and somewhere to write about regularly and keep people updated with that I find it difficult to get the right headspace and time to sit and actually write it. I think the main and most important difference is that I’ve been so busy, no longer having the time to spend thinking about travelling and being elsewhere and doing something different, seeing new things – I am now finally living those thoughts and wishes, and no longer stuck in the repetitive cycles and mindset of not being in the moment – because I am all here. I am doing the something different, I am seeing the new things.

I’ve never been so fully engrossed in a place or trip or country as I have been this past week, and it’s only starting to hit me that this is actually my new home until Christmas. As the ‘holiday’ mode wears off and we begin to settle in to our new surroundings, there’s a sense of identity and self-sufficiency that comes along with it unlike any I’ve experienced before.

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Floating lilypads outside the Royal Palace

The confusion over tuk-tuk prices, haggling at the markets, getting lost down unfamiliar streets and tasting all kinds of new and strange foods I swore I’d never even take a whiff of before is all part of the excitement of learning to live a new lifestyle, and accepting and appreciating things as they are in the moment. I’ve come so far out here – travelled over 16 hours, saved up the money and challenged myself so I have time to spend growing accustomed to and experiencing a new way of life, to shake up my own and prove to myself that there are other ways of being, thinking, and living than the stagnancy I had become so accustomed to. Even though it’s different, and I’m enjoying every second, I’m not going to limit myself to it either – we must always keep moving.

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New friends!

There are so many things to experience, so many places, people, and routes to take, that has made me realise that ultimately the only thing keeping my head clouded and in the darkness before was my own negativity and inability to appreciate the light in the world. That’s easy to say as I sit in the shade from a glorious 34 degree ray of sunshine in South East Asia, but I’m talking figuratively here aswell as literally!

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Spotless grounds of the Palace

Our visit to the Genocide Museum of Phnom Penh was eye-opening to say the least, and shed some light on the dreary history of Cambodia which we’d heard about, yet failed to understand in detail before. The rows of cells and torture mechanisms still in existence (some fully furnished) and barbed wire on the outside of the buildings to prevent suicide attempts as the innocent prisoners suffered under the Khmer Rouge really shook me to the core and reminded me that all is never what it seems.

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Block of Prison Cells in The Genocide Museum, many still containing the locks, chains, and torture instruments which bound prisoners

The “Land of Smiles” which we’d been introduced to the country as suddenly seemed all the more powerful as a title, as we considered the hardships the Cambodian people have been through in such a short space of time (it has been a mere 40 years since the prison was in use). To have the resilience and strength as a population and city to recover from such horrors and progress onwards after any growth of the sort being stunted for years is admirable, and even though they seem to struggle still with poverty and wellbeing, the general standard of living around here seems to be simple, yet sustainable.
In the end, isn’t that all we want? To be able to sustain ourselves, in an uncomplicated and easygoing way, without getting too caught up in trivialities and superficial worries that are ultimately damaging to our beings and make things harder on all around us?

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“Never will we forget the crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime”

The young monks we observed around the Royal Palace of Cambodia and Wat Phnom on our final day as ‘tourists’ before starting teaching placements embodied this peace of mind and simpicity of lifestyle, their brightly coloured orange robes informing the world of their devout nature.

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I found it interesting to discover that there are 3 main reasons a young Buddhist enters the monkhood, the first being an obvious devotion to the religion, and need to shorten the distance between himself an The Buddha in a personal vocation to search for Enlightenment. The second occurs only if a family is too poor to send the son to school, or to afford to keep providing for all children in the family. Any young boys who find themselves at an age suitable to entering the practice are morally required to do so, to lessen the strain upon the family and expand potential for their own futures. The third and probably most surprising reason a monk enters into the practice is as an element of the recovery process from addiction, mostly drug-related in Cambodia, but also involving alcohol and other ‘soul-damaging’ practices within the Buddhist community. While all young monks have the choice to enter into the practice, not all monastic undertakings are definitive, with a ‘temporary’ Bhikku (young monk) merely taking the robe for a few weeks, months or years of his life to dedicate some time to a monastic and detached life.

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Young Monks at the Royal Palace

I tried taking a picture of a small group of monks from a distance, and was taken aback as one laughed, raising his own iPhone in response to take a picture of me!

It really just proved in a very peaceful and lighthearted way that our cultures have so much to learn about one another, and that exposing ourselves to them can only lead to a further understanding and acception not only of ourselves, but of the world around us and our space within it.

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Buddha….

The traditional meals of Cambodian Banh Cheo, a sort of flour pancake served filled with broad beans and a peanut sauce, and another containing tofu and stir fried vegetables were interesting to experience, and really added to the shift in our mindsets from being mere backpackers and tourists to working ‘citizens’. It’s strange to think that from today onwards we will be contributing to society and sharing knowledge necessary for our young students to expand their own horizons in the future, and hopefully understand a bit more about Western culture.

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Sideview

While the main tourist attractions served as a great way to further our knowledge of the city we are about to take up a lengthy residence in, there is a certain reassurance in being on the way to a more settled environment and day-to-day structure, even if it will be interspersed with various national holidays and days off! We’re excited for the next stage of the journey and to meet the students and staff of our school.

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Interns on the steps of Wat Phnom!

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