Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Things I Learned in India

(with thanks to Mel, who listened to my "first draft" of this rapture quite some time ago. By PHONE. As in, I heard her VOICE. Not sure if anyone is out there any more, but what the hell ...)

A year ago, my yoga teacher, the only teacher I have ever stuck with for so long, sent an email to her mailing list. The subject line was "are you coming or what?"

To India, she meant. To a small town called Ganeshpuri, home to her teacher's guru, and his guru before him, and his guru before him: on retreat two hours outside of Mumbai for ten days.

My non-rational self said, "of course I'm coming." My rational self (too expensive, can't get away from work at that time, what about the kids, what if I get really sick or something happens to me there etc. etc.) didn't kick in until I'd asked my husband and my boss, both of whom shrugged as if it were nothing and said I should go. And by then it was too late.

Or not, because I dragged my feet making my final deposit, and dragged them again buying my plane ticket, and yet again applying for my visa. And on the night I arrived, sometime at around 1:30 in the morning India time, after being awake on and off for close to 36 hours, I found myself in tears in my room, wondering what the hell I could possibly have been thinking. I knew it would not be asana classes all day with spa food on the beach ... this was something completely different that what people tend to think of when they imagine "yoga retreat." But something had kept me from bailing.

Of course, it was an amazing trip. I wrote more (in a journal) than I've written in a long, long time. While India, especially rural India, was complicated for all of the reasons you might expect (pollution, poverty, etc.), it was also remarkably beautiful, and I felt my heart crack open. I wept at temples during arati, and during meditation and chanting, and while walking around the garden. I felt immense peace. I ate street food and drank street chai and sugarcane juice and didn't get sick. I mastered the art of using toilet paper the Indian way. I learned how to chant the alphabet in Sanskrit. I drank in the sounds of Bollywood music and mantra over the loudspeaker from the town far away; I ground dirt so deeply into my feet that I thought no amount of scrubbing would ever clean them; I breathed in the smell of earth mixed with fire and jasmine and spice; I made offerings to goddesses during a fire ceremony.

Each morning we woke at 4 am to go to the temple for the morning abishekam and arati. We stopped for chai and then walked back across the river to our retreat center for asana class, and breakfast, and two hours of spiritual studies (mantra, yoga philosophy, rituals, etc.), followed by lunch, and free time, and more spiritual studies. (Lori, I thought often of you.)

(Some) things I learned:
  • Chai is better with friends and biscuits. Chai is also better in India than anything you can get in the U.S. It's definitely the milk. Maybe I need a buffalo?
  • Namaste? That invocation of the divine in another human being? That's for real. When you pass people on the street, and you say "namaste" to everyone, you see the divine over and over again, and you see people in a way that we never bother to see each other in the U.S. It is a gift to see and to be seen like that; you feel ... connected. Like you are part of something even greater and more than you are.
  • On a related note, it is really good to get off my phone. And off social media. In person connection is more important to us than we realize.
  • First aid kits do you no good in your suitcase. You need to carry said kit with you at all times, because you'll inevitably get a blister. Fortunately, your fellow travelers together carry all of the elements of a first aid kit, and you are bandaged many times over (and in many ways) by your community.
  • I am capable of, and in fact really enjoy, being vegetarian. And though I used to pooh-pooh ayurveda, they are really on to something.
  • Kirtan makes me want to dance with abandon. I miss dancing, even though I tapdance.
  • Women carry everything. Everywhere. And usually all at once.
  • There is an inexplicable energy in the universe that buzzes through your fingertips if you sit still long enough to feel it.
  • The world is astonishingly beautiful at 4 a.m., and I am capable of rising at 4 a.m. on a regular basis to go to a temple and meditate.
  • I actually sort of like going to a temple to meditate.
  • On the flip side, I am very attached to my Self. And in the few moments I can escape it, and become expansive, I can't understand why we don't always make an effort to be this way.
  • I love to give. I find it very difficult to receive. In fact, I actively resist the gift.
  • I am capable of being where I am, instead of wanting to be somewhere else, looking ahead or behind. It is a feeling of immense contentment. I need to practice it more often.
The most wild thing I realized, as I flew home, was that it was February. And for the first time in many years, I didn't experience that inexplicable but also explicable sensation of not having enough air, or random panic in the grocery store, or the feeling of a large gorilla sitting on my chest.

I've been trying not to fall back into old routines and habits: obsessing over my phone, eating, living always somewhere else besides here and now. I am not proud to say that I haven't figured out how to keep a practice, though I have been doing asana every morning since I got back, and I did buy a mala after much deliberation about whether it was cultural appropriation or weird because it's a lot like a rosary and I left the Catholic church years ago because I felt so constrained by things like that.

Now, paradoxically, I have to decide: what next.

Yoga teacher training has been on my mind for nine years, since I found out I was pregnant with my daughter, and became cautiously optimistic. I can prove this: I found the post.

But there's also a spiritual studies community at my yoga studio that some of the fellow travelers have encouraged me to join.  And another trip to India next year (though that seems less likely, since it is at the same time of year again).

Votes welcome. I miss the bliss that I can see on my own face. I am a work in progress.

Om shanti.

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  1. I love seeing the pictures to go with the stories. What an amazing trip.

  2. Lovely. I've been trying to figure out how to squeeze some of this into my life as things keep spinning around me.

    Miss you, friend.

  3. Oh Justine, this is so beautiful, you look beautiful! What an amazing trip and experience. We all need some of this peacefulness in our lives.
    And, I am so glad you posted this. I have missed your voice.

  4. I am so filled up living this experience through you. And also hearing your voice in your space!

    Yes on the buffalo. And I have a glimmer of a thought of going with you next year. (But all the reasons why I can't rush in.)

    Namaste, my beautiful divine being of light.

  5. Hey hey!! I've thought of you many times over the silent months. It is SO good to see this. What an amazing experience. You know where to find me off blog; I'd love to catch up.

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