Beware! India may cause you to laugh louder, give more and practice peace.
“Namaste divine spirit Emily,” read the greeting of my email from Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, India. “This is going to be so great!” I told my husband as we packed our disinfectant wipes and matching saris into the Osprey backpacks we received as a gift from our un-traditional wedding registry. Our plan was to fly into Delhi together and then embark on separate journeys. My husband would take a multi-day train trip to Varanasi and I would spend the next couple of weeks in a silent meditation at an Ashram at the base of the Himalayas. He would photograph the fires, cremations and ceremonies on the banks of the Ganges River and I would learn how to stand on my head in the peaceful garden that is my own mind. We planned to meet “On the steps of the Ashram on Christmas Eve.”
“There are no rooms overlooking the garden, we will put you in the family dorm.” The man at reception was wearing a Fanta soda t-shirt and an expression that was closer to a night watchman at a motel 6 than the key holder to my spiritual awakening. As I walked out of reception and across the dark courtyard, a courtyard I would only ever see in the dark hours of early morning, I caught a glimpse of the daily schedule:
4:45 Universal Prayer
6:00 Morning Yoga
16:00 Evening Yoga
19:00 Evening Ganga Aarti
I had no idea what most of the things in the schedule meant and I had less of an idea what I could possibly pray for at 4:45 in the morning, but that is why I was in Rishikesh, to re-focus my energy on a balanced lifestyle, one that did not include checking my Facebook on the subway and staying up late to watch the bizarre sex lives of corrupt government officials rise to the top on Netflix.
My room was on the second floor, with a bare bulb outside that was covered in a nest of moths making it sway back and forth, dimmed beyond use. When I stepped in to my room I sloshed through a puddle of water from the toilet that had run out into the hallway. “There’s no water, someone might fix it later,” the housekeeping manager told me. “Oh that’s ok, I was planning to bathe in the Ganga.” I got a pitied look, like when you tell your parents your plan to take a Gap-Year after you finish your liberal arts degree. Despite not showering, the minor flood in my room, the moths and the thought of waking up in a few hours to pray, I felt happy. I wiped the headboard and mattress with disinfectant wipes, covered my bed in the sari I had packed, took out my headlamp and opened up a book of Hindu prayers I had bought at the store that sold crystals and incense back in Singapore’s Little India.
I was coming from my life as a teacher in Singapore where the only days I ate lunch were usually while running across the field blowing a whistle and the only time I didn’t have a cup of coffee in my hand was when I was on the subway, because it was illegal to eat or drink on the subway. The coffee issue would become a big deal in India, something that I thought might even break me.
“Maaaaaaamaaaaaaaa!” The first scream woke me up. The second got me out of bed and the third had me sloshing back through toilet water into the hallway. A young Indian girl and her brother were fighting over a Nokia phone outside my room. Their mother came out and I waited for her to scold her children breaking the peaceful silence of this holy place. “Give me that.” I stood, shocked as I watched the mother confiscate the phone, open it and begin having a loud conversation on it with the person waiting on the other end. The kids went back to screaming and this time fighting over a hand-mirror. “Umm excuse me…excuse me, I think this is a silent place….excuse me, you are supposed to stay silent, you know like meditation?” The screams went on most of the night, and when they had subsided the large groups, families and young people clambered down the halls from what sounded like a trip back from the bar, although I know the unlikelihood of that in Rishikesh. What I had done was essentially check myself into the India equivalent of a YMCA.
By 4:45am I had never been so happy to get out of bed to pray. The Ashram has attracted wayward spiritualists, yoga enthusiasts and Beatles fans since the 1968 release of the “White Album.” But this area has been important for much longer than the Beatles. As the debated birthplace of Yoga, Rishikesh has held a vital seat at the foot of the Himalayas, along the mouth of the Ganges, and the spiritual power of this place is undeniable. Early on that first morning, I breathed in a different cold, calm breath and left my room, open to happiness, peace and ready to quiet my mind.
“Get ready to meet your mind” was the first thing the Ashram’s yoga teacher said to our class. She was a short, heavy-set woman with a butch haircut that spoke in an American accent. She shared her journey to yoga by telling us that she had made a military career and then after years of back pain, she sought out yoga. And here she was, living permanently at the ashram, leading yoga and meditation, rising early, eating rice and dhal served communally in silence three times per day. I wondered if this life was that far from her life in the military and if she felt more fulfilled now than before. We were a mixed bunch of backpackers, Indians on pilgrimage and yoga teachers coming to receive additional training. The yoga hallway was dark and cold early in the morning and we wrapped the heavy wool blankets that smelled of mildew and curried dhal tightly around our shoulders as we waited for an imaginary warmth to subside the shiver and allow a meditative breath to take hold.
My days at the ashram all started like this. Early mornings, wrestling with my mind and breath, fighting an urge to use the time to plan the next year and fighting the need to fight. I stared so long at the place between my brows that the deep sockets of my eyes ached. I learned that if I sat high on a yoga block like a regal throne while meditating my back wouldn’t hurt as much. I bought a new blanket in town that replaced my need for the damp, smelly blankets from the ashram. After yoga I would walk to a fruit stand on the street and buy two bags of oranges and bananas. I would carry them with me as I walked along the dirt path to the Laksman Julla Bridge and hand them to students on their way to school or the Babas in their orange robes and colorful personalities. I started to feel happy. Not in a fleeting moment of happiness I felt and still feel after a single yoga class, but a sustained happiness day after day.
Like most teachers I started working in education because I believed in its power to radically change lives, and somewhere along the way I stayed in for-profit education because I was offered more money, money that I thought I could use to change the world, and change myself. At the time I went to India I was so far from changing lives, far from using my salary to help even myself and I was too tired for yoga, too tired to listen and too tired to give.
One day I exited the ashram and took a left instead of my normal route to the bridge. There were temples, yoga centers and ashrams along this route as well. I stopped at an ashram with a large crowd that was serving masala chai. Immediately three women, each holding a cup of tea and a biscuit with outstretched arms took me into their circle. They asked me where I was from, why I was here, what I thought of India, and then, if I knew the Gayatri Mantra. It dawned on me that these women were the Indian equivalent to evangelizing Christians, and they were convincing! I took the biscuits and tea and followed them into a large hall. I was ushered to the very front of the room and given a pillow to sit on. No one else had a pillow and I tried to offer it to a few people who all declined. The event played out much like any religious service I had been to with music, an offering and a keynote speaker. This service however included chanting of the Gayatri Mantra, which I had never in my life performed or heard of…and I was seated in the front row, on the pillow. The speaker tried in all earnest to help me by mouthing the words as I peered through one, half opened eye. As an always model student, not knowing was a battle, my pride suffered and I sat in silence as a room of more than one hundred devotees chanted again and again. After a while I let the chant pick me up and swallow me, it came in through my ears, my nose on each inhale and up through my pillow on the floor. I don’t know how long I sat there, if everyone stopped at one point and I chanted alone or if I never chanted aloud but I left the hall and the church ladies that day carrying the mantra with me and even now I catch myself repeating it to myself on the subway heading home from working in the city.
“OM BUHR, BHUVA, SWAHA
OM TAT SAVITUR VARENYAM
BHARGO DEVASYA DHEEMAHI
DHIYO YONAHA PRACHODAYAT”
Each day, I carried my yoga mat with me and enjoyed the flexibility I felt being able to join classes as I found them in back alleys and on hill-tops, sometimes I would join 4-5 per day. I practiced Hatha yoga, I took ayurvedic cooking classes, meditation and chanting courses and one special day, I entered Laughing Yoga. In our class was a woman from Israel, her Spanish boyfriend, a backpacker from Japan and a Russian guy who was at least 6’5” tall and who I would later learn had a laugh like a little boy being pushed on a swing. We spent an hour in poses like animals, growling, smiling and laughing. Sometimes as the laughter in the room would become contagious and hysterical, I couldn’t decipher if I was laughing or crying. This release of emotion and noise came from a deeper place in me and as I threw my head back to laugh I was out of control. This was much of India for me, a complete loss of control. I had no control over the spiritual journey I was on, the poverty I saw or the monkeys who stalked my fruit basket each day. We all have a choice to make each day and my choices in India were pretty simple. I could choose to hide in my room and feel in control or to let this wave of vibrant chaos carry me to a place way outside my comfort zone. Life without control was easy in India and looking like a fool, trying to stand on my head or breath into my “pelvic floor” was a small token to pay for the sweet satisfaction of living control free. I saw the other people in the laughter yoga class a few more times outside the studio over the next week and just seeing each other made us laugh.
As Christmas Eve drew closer, I thought that I might not be able to find my husband. There were over a dozen ashrams in this small town alone and we hadn’t even specified which one we would meet on the steps of. I was thinking about how we would probably just see each other in the airport after New Years when someone was making a lot of noise in the dining hall at breakfast. “Oh boy, cold mush for breakfast again, THANK YOU INDIA!” He was about my age, a very flamboyant American guy, talking to himself, but loud enough where it seemed like he may have been in silent meditation too long and just needed someone to talk to. I made eye contact with him and that was it, he was seated by me asking if the free meal we received was gluten free. “I don’t think we are supposed to talk in here” I said to him and moved mush around my metal tray. He completely ignored me and started with the laundry list of questions all backpackers ask each other: Where is the Wi-Fi? Have you been to Nepal yet? How many months do you have on your Visa? Have you heard of Woofing? Do you think this water is safe to drink? I told him I didn’t know the answer to any of his questions only that we were supposed to be quiet in the dining hall and that I was leaving Rishikesh the next day to find my husband who was somewhere between here and Varanasi. “Oh my god, are you Emily?” Now I was really confused. “Um, yes. How did you know that?” Peter was his name and he went on to tell me that he had been hanging out with my husband in Varanasi the last few weeks “trying not to get killed” as he put it. He said that he had totally run out of money and that my husband was the “Greatest guy on the planet and spotted him some cash…” oh great. He then told me that my husband had decided to take the multi-day train to come and find me, but Peter had obviously taken the cash and bought a plane ticket, smart guy. “He’s pretty crazy taking the train all the way here like that, I wonder if he will make it?”
It was Christmas Eve. I made my rounds with my basket of fruit. I cleaned up my humble room, packed my backpack, walked down to the steps leading to the Ganga River, and waited. The church ladies walked by and gave me a blessing. I read my prayer book and laughed at the ridiculous outfit I was wearing, a compilation of the only clean clothes I had and the wool socks I had turned into leg warmers. Happiness warmed the rest of me and I waited all morning for my brave, “crazy” husband to come and see how happy I was. And he did. He showed up on the steps of the ashram on Christmas Eve and we left Rishikesh together. It felt like a Christmas miracle.
The rest of India was a blur. Our plane had an emergency landing outside the Chennai airport and we had to escape a riot to board another flight. We were stuck in the airport almost two days with Indian families and children trying to get back to their loved ones. So, we took out our yoga mats and did yoga. Some others joined in and others just enjoyed the peace it brought to an otherwise frenzied scene.
I know that India did not help me make sense of my life, or kick my caffeine addiction and I am still a teacher in a for-profit school in Singapore. No amount of travel could have prepared me for the raw truth India presents, but more importantly, I was not prepared for the lasting effect a happy outlook, a regular yoga practice and a spirit of giving would have on me now, over a year later. I try to pay these forward by being involved in SpiceYoga and by teaching middle school students how to use yoga to self-manage and de-stress. And sometimes I think about the really tall Russian man and I throw my head back and laugh.