I love India! I love its beautiful people, their big open smiles and their can-do attitude. The place is filled with vibrancy, strong smells fi ll your being, some good and some not so much. The spices, fresh produce and cow dung; the people packed single file alleyways – the immense density. I never imagined so many people in one place. Animals everywhere, some poking their heads into restaurants and meandering across a six lane highway while cows and dogs are happily snuggling up to one another in the evening, just to keep warm.
There is such varied landscape. Miles and miles of red desert in some regions, sub-tropic vegetation on the other side and then, up north, all the mountainous areas leading to the epic Himalayas. Then there’s the colours. Beautiful young women, children and big mummas, gracefully wearing their bright saris to contrast the dry sandy desert.
It’s an amazing place and I have had my eye on it for quite some time. So late in 2014, Madi and I decided to get over there. Being an artist, Madi was especially keen for handcraft, clothing and painting, architecture and visual beauty. For me, I was keen to explore some yoga and spiritual practice and maybe take a few treks. We did it all and a lot more too.
In earlier years I’d spoken to some experienced yogis and I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of practicing yoga at its birthplace, INDIA! I’ve heard tales of hardcore “boot camp” ashrams, where you sleep on a stone floor and eat nothing but curd and tea for ten days. I’ve also heard stories of rich realisation with meditation at the foothills of the Himalayas and dips in the holy water of the Ganges, with no car horn or tuk-tuk to be heard for miles, no work to engage in afterwards, no discussion or argument to reflect on. Just being at the source and, as taught by so many, “living in the moment”.
After first touching down in New Delhi we spent a week or so travelling in the deserts of Rajasthan. I was so surprised to see and hear that not many people at all are remotely interested in yoga. Indian children have yoga in their curriculum at primary school but it seems that maybe our western influence has got stuck right in to their culture or perhaps the pure pace of the cities has filled the gap that was in the past reserved for yoga practice. Happily, I did meet a few really cool people in this first week who still maintain the practice that they learnt in their early years.
I was told if we went either south to sub-tropical Kerala or further north to the Himalayas, we would find a tonne of yoga classes and spiritual teachers.
It was during our second week of travel that we arrived in a small city called Udaipor. Indians call this beautiful place the “lake city” and it reminded us more of a town in Europe with its small car-less streets, lakeside cafes and rooftop restaurants. Here we noticed that the town had caught onto the expectations of the tourists and you could find a yoga centre on each street corner.
This trend continued for the rest of our travels as we headed though cities and villages towards our final destination, Rishikesh in the foothills of the Himalayas.
The very first teacher we met was a classic. Prakesh was his name, a beautiful man, a vital dude in his 50s or 60s I’d guess. A complete picture of health. Strong, lean, grounded, with a smile and laugh that was so contagious we hardly needed our words of broken English and sign language to fill the gaps. So we felt we were in pretty safe hands and decided to give his class a go.
His studio itself was a thing of beauty – Hindu shrines and mini waterfalls in the room and on the walls, an immaculate Mandala made from flowers on the entrance with another lining the inside of the room. Some beautiful Hindi art was painted on the walls and some modest yoga mats splayed out in a connecting fashion throughout the room.
After we made ourselves comfortable, Prakesh finished playing sweet prayer music on his magical flute, removed his white robe and clapped his hands to signify that we should get our butts off the ground and stand tall. This man had something in his eyes that both scared the crap out of me and made me reeaaally want to try hard to impress him.
Over the course of the next hour we discovered that he had transcended from this gentle elderly yogi into a sadistic militant!! His vocabulary consisted of twelve or so English words (much better than my Hindi) and the rest was communicated by shouts, claps, big whacks on the back, prodding and bending our poor white limbs into pretzels and positions we wouldn’t dare try at home. It seems that in this ancient teaching that has become so popular in the Western world something somewhere in the script has been left behind, maybe embellished or forgotten.
At any class in Australia or anything that I impart on my students, the key message is usually something along the lines of “listen to your body”, “don’t push past a comfortable point of resistance”, No way, man. But this guy was barking orders like “Full power! Push! Lock!” “Yes!! YESSSSS!!”, he would cry as he manipulated poor Madi into a perfect yoga pose only ever imagined or seen on in a photo on a wall . As he turned away, happy with his handiwork, I could see Madi shaking like a leaf in the wind, then falling into complete collapse.
At one point in the class I thought for sure he was going to kick us out. We both caught one of those incredibly painful and untimely cases of the giggles. It’s like when you are being tickled as a child – you can’t help but laugh and at the same time it’s incredibly painful and you want it to end. I have to move mats and completely shut my eyes for the rest of the class to remain contained.
To this man’s credit, at the end of the class after a beautiful meditation he got us all into fits of laughter together, and his laugh, like I said earlier, is just epic. He orders very seriously a “big lung full” and after a good hold he yells out: “And now big big laughing.” It was hysterical. In some areas they hold classes for an entire hour of laughing yoga. What a treat. What an experience this whole introduction is.
Afterwards he tells me: “Sometimes we feel crazy and can’t stop laughing like you two.” “It’s good, it’s good,” he assures me. “Not too much thinking,” he says, “just laughing.” And with a beautiful big hug we leave with our hearts open and full and smiles for miles. What a dude.
It was secretly the yoga that I was hoping to find over here. A paper thin yoga mat on cold stone floor; strict, deep, tough, ordered and original. “If there is pain in your body there is also pain inside,” he tells me. “You need to push past. Further.” And I can totally dig what he is saying, definitely not for everyone but there is a lot of truth in his words.
A few weeks later we finally arrived in Rishikesh, after a 14 hour train ride and a taxi ride with a mad driver who I was convinced was trying to run us off the sheer cliff face winding down to our Ashram. This modest white building was right on the river and, man, what a sight. Everything I have heard about and more. Beauty, life, colours, stillness. So clean and clear! Sights that I would have never imagined in India, especially after a few weeks in the big dusty cities.
So it is here where we park out butts and remain for ten days. Living simply doing yoga practice and meditations, enjoying beautiful food, and braving freezing swims in the Holy river that they call the Ganga, where all of your bad karma is washed away and Shiva, one of their most famous Gods, gives you good luck. It was magical. We were introduced to a number of different styles of yoga and meditation and during this time one theme was consistent. The teachers who we had were all so devoted, so passionate and so engrossed in their spiritual practice that they simply inspired our attention and learning just by being themselves. The yoga was simple yet on point, very strict (much more forgiving than our first experience) and no messing around. Once you walk into the room, nothing else exists or even matters besides what you are there to do.
This really got me thinking. None of what we do in life really matters, besides what we are doing right in this moment. And if you have found that thing to do which inspires you to be a greater or better version of yourself, like our teachers and a lot of people we met on our journey, then I think we are doing pretty well. In my experience, I see a lot of people who work themselves to the bone, and not just in their occupation, but in the way they live and the expectations they lay on themselves. Myself included. We can be so hard on ourselves with either our thoughts or actions that I believe we can really miss the whole point.
So do yourself a huge favour. Either get over to India right now to feel what I have been rambling on about, or begin to slow down just a little… and enjoy what we have. Almost everyone I met in my travels had one thing in common and that was gratitude. Even if they didn’t have much, they were just chuffed to be alive and meeting silly Aussie tourists and sharing a laugh. Let’s look more closely at ourselves. We are so darn lucky to be here in Australia, let’s go jump in the ocean!
￼￼￼First published in North Journal