Preparing myself for India, I anticipated change. Particularly, I imagined a life-changing, entirely radical moment of clarity. One that snaps you back down to Earth exactly where you need to be at that very moment. A transformational moment. Samyag drsti.*
But, of course, what we get is rarely what we want, and what we want is rarely what we really need. For me, India was an amazing experience. I learned so much about the world, Jainism and Indian culture, and even more about myself – my strengths and limitations. I learned that compassion can and should be inclusive toward all living things, even and especially Nature. I learned that I do well with heat and humidity, but am considerably bad at managing bugs and dirty streets (not entirely new knowledge). I learned a lot about my privilege as a caucasian American, not from a workshop or a round table discussion, but first-hand gazing out the car window into the desperate, withered faces of starving women and children in the streets. I learned that in the midst of chaos and hell (whatever that may be for you), it is still possible to smile, to shed light, to lend kindness, and to have faith. I learned that despite my studies and efforts in yoga and meditation, I still struggle to maintain peace in the chaos. In fact, I still have a long way to go.
India was stealthy in her approach, overwhelming my senses with new sights, scents, and sounds while my mind was consumed by an intensive course itinerary of lectures, temple visits and reading, reading, reading (six books in three weeks warrants the repetition). We spent our first two weeks at an ashram in New Delhi where we were greeted with warm smiles, tea & biscuits, and an impressive schedule of lectures and puja ceremonies for our full immersion in Jainist tradition. In contrast, our third week was marked by long, bumpy bus rides, too much Limica soda (for my unending “Delhi belly”) and countless hours gazing out at the expanse of Indian countryside in sleepless, silent reflection. There was so much to process, to take in, to debrief that I allowed my mind to wander. I found, and often still find, that my mind is consumed by incessant questions into the “why” for all of this – past, present and future: How did I get here? What are my goals? How can people live in these dire conditions and still embody such contentment and happiness? What can I learn from them? Is yoga the answer? What can I do to help? Am I doing enough? What is that man smiling about? Does he have a family he loves? Does he bear the responsibility to support them? What does he do? Where are they? I hope they’re smiling, too…**
I came back from India with many more questions than answers. Yet I’ve noticed (and am grateful) that, over the past year and particularly since my return, I’ve become more mindful and free to ask questions, to consider difference, and to explore new places with equanimity. The more open I allow my mind to become, questioning the basic ideas and norms I have always taken for granted, the more questions and freedom arise. So a year after I began this endeavor to chronicle my year in yoga, I feel in many ways that I know much less now than when I started. However discouraging it may sometimes feel, any Indian guru will tell you: Admitting you know nothing is the first step to true wisdom.
What I found in India was not samyag drsti, but instead was as much an experience of internalization, as it was an outward excursion. It was a passive process; my mind like a camera capturing each moment as it came with mindful awareness, acknowledging each moment’s value and relentless brevity. Practicing yoga for me in India wasn’t predominantly physical asana, but was a conscious effort in self-compassion and non-judgment as I sought balance between pushing beyond my limits and caring for myself. As I like to see it, India was the perfect culmination to a long and taxing process of change, accompanied and instigated by a newly emerging, intensive year in yoga studies. Learning, living and practicing yoga from and among dedicated yogis has undoubtedly changed me for the better by opening my eyes to all I still have left to learn: about myself, my connection to others, to the Earth and to the world around me.
In 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics & Practice (a recommended, easy read!), Chelsea Roff shares a short essay on her nearly lethal battle with anorexia and her experience with yoga. She says with beautiful concision:
“For so long, I’d come to my mat to run away from myself. Now I came to connect. I had to reconnect in order to thrive.”
For over six years, while indulging in and learning from yoga communities across two cities and three continents, yoga is my constant. Its purpose and form in my life is ever evolving, and yet it remains unconditional and devotedly focused on revealing my best self to the world, even and especially when I’ve given up on myself.
Sometimes my mat is my hideaway, and other times it’s my own slice of heaven, a sun-soaked temple on my bedroom floor. At times it’s a complicated relationship (when I find myself avoiding my mat, afraid of what I might face there), but it is always consistent, welcoming and one of deep, penetrating compassion. From this place, I’ve grown and continue on knowing that whatever I face in the future I can withstand with contentment and kindness in my heart. India reminded me of this fact, and of the importance of remaining humble and eternally eager to learn. To care for ourselves, others and the world around us, to live each day and each moment purposefully in seeking love and connection, this is living in yoga.
May you find a few moments of solitude today and everyday.
*Translated literally from Sanskrit as “right insight.”
**Unfortunately, with a busy schedule in India I fell away from my regular meditation practice. ‘Sitting,’ though, is just the practice of observing your own incessant (and often disjoint) thoughts as they arise non-judgmentally and, over a period of time and daily practice, learning that you can control and quiet your own mind (and thereby reduce anxiety, stress, and signs of depression at their onset). I wonder how my trip to India might have been different if I had prioritized my practice…I won’t waste any valuable time or brain space mulling that over (it’s in the past!), but I know that I’m a brighter, better person when I sit for 10 min a day. (It has to be consistent/daily for your brain to catch on – Check out more on neuroplasticity here.) The free app Headspace is a great resource.