My teacher says, that if you’re a yogi in this life, in one of your previous incarnations you lived in Rishikesh. I didn’t really believe her, considering how I felt the last time I was in India. I remember the wave of relief as I boarded the plane, and we took off, my shoulders gently releasing from their pinched position, close to my ears. Even so, I couldn’t get the idea of returning to India out of my head. It became a trip that resembled a conquering of myself, a tangible marker of how I’d grown up in eight years. I wanted to prove to myself that I had grown up, that something of my prejudices and ignorance had shifted, in between all the other flights I’d taken; the other times I’d judged and been proved wrong. If you'd asked me to describe myself, I’d say that I’m an optimist first, and would rather stay that way, no matter how many times I’m proved wrong. What I don't admit, is that in the last years, I’ve wondered if everyone starts out that before melting into middle age conservatism and complacency.
I hadn’t traveled solo in more than a year. I worried that I might be becoming scared of myself, or of being on the road. India loomed as a chance to prove that I hadn’t lost what I once valued above all else: a sense of spontaneity and a penchant for risk-taking. When I bought the flights, and signed up for a yoga intensive in Rishikesh, I was giddy with that familiar thrill that comes with clicking confirm, against better judgment or the responsibilities we’re made to feel like we should uphold. There's a unique swelling of the heart, a need to tell someone, an involuntary grin, that comes with booking flights; oh how I hope I never lose that feeling.
It was only on the third day of my intensive that I noticed the vast, untouched mountain range rising up behind the ashram like a staircase. In class we did a 62 minute meditation. Even though it sounds intimidating, it’s something everyone can do. Because it’s by definition a ‘practice’ - something that you spend 62 minutes trying your best to do. Every time I meditate and feel the urge to brush a piece of hair away, or neurotically zero in on one thought, I can try to let it go, and remind myself that the itch will subside, and only ever cropped up to distract me. Sometimes I’m able to quell the cascade of thoughts, or beat the itch until it comes up somewhere else, a persistent yearning. Other times I give in, and imagine dish by dish all the delicious vegetarian food I could serve at my wedding. In this moments, I don't admonish myself for my mistakes. All I can do is smile and focus on this moment, on trying to stay still this second. Every second brings with it another opportunity. The beauty of meditation? That even the practice is rewarding, and calming. In 62 minutes many different parts of my body go numb at different moments, and sometimes there's no option but to shift my legs. Sometimes great ideas come to me in the quiet, and I repeat them over and over in my head, so I won’t forget them before I can reach for a pen and write them down. Sometimes the 62 minutes feels like several days, while during others, the time passes as though it were only 5 minutes. It’s in this way that I’ve come to agree that time and space are fluid. I keep practising so that one day I might be able to rise above their pettiness for good.
Every day during the course we work from 4 in the morning until 5 at night. A friend exclaimed that they’re treating us like high school kids. But I am a highschool kid in the yoga world. The tricky thing about yogic philosophy at least, is that many believe it can’t be taught like I wished it could be, and in a physical sense changes happen slowly, after years of daily practice. My friend says that all any of us need to do is sit by the Ganga, and the answers will come. But I crave books, reading, and being told. I want to believe a course can give me what I need, or at least, set me on the right path. Perhaps I’m not ready yet, to receive the answers, I tell my friend. If you’re not sure if you’re ready, then you’re certainly not ready, he said. I don’t even know what answers I’m looking for, I say. It’s not about the answers, he says, and don’t forget about the Ganga.
Our asana practice is demanding and my legs burn every time I trudge up the stairs to our yoga room. After the first few days I stopped bringing bananas with me, because I became a target for the monkeys. Every meditation seems to scratch at my core. “Another day of rich, rich meditations,” one of my peers gushes after class. I feel wrung out and hollow. I like a crunch jar of local peanut butter jar licked clean, and feel slightly repulsed the lingering oily residue. I relive some memories that haven’t surfaced before; and all that must lie dormant within scares me, as I begin to get a sense of how easily the dam walls within can shift. We shake everything out afterwards and I hope that remembering and blessing what you really want to forget, is enough, because I don’t want to live with these skeletons dancing around inside me. All meditation is, is clearing out your subconscious, my teacher says. And even though you might not know what’s in there, it affects your whole life. So many people are stuck in their first seven years, living it over and over again, she says. Very Freudian. Seven years seems young, I think, but I can believe that lots of people are stuck.
Some parts of the course seem dogmatic, while others ring true in my soul long after they’ve been said. I’m too nervous to ask our teachers, who’ve been practising for forty years, about the things I don’t understand. And I’m too devoted, too awe inspired, to question them. You don’t need to challenge your teachers, but you do need to listen to the questions as they form within you, my friend says. I see my favourite Rilke quote in front of me, and feel as though one day, I might even understand what he means: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
If you'd ask me why I do yoga, I’d tell you that it’s because I always feel so blissed out afterwards. But, why? Because of the innocent seconds I snatch without warning, when all is quiet and I’m not convincing anyone of anything. Little by little, class by class, I see an expansive space in front of me when I close my eyes. I imagine it as the rooms that lie behind my locked doors. It isn’t an end, it’s a beginning. When I’m tired in class I look around the room and see various degrees distraction, deep meditation and desperation. What’s incredible to me about yoga is that just looking for the locked doors brings a slice of peace and calm. As soon as you start searching, something reassures you that you will find what you’re looking for, even if it takes a while. Finding any kind of peace is a lifelong journey, and even if you get there somewhere in the middle you’ll have to get there again, under different circumstances, because everything is always running, jumping, skipping away from you. This life isn’t meant to be easy, my mum used to tell me. But my teachers reassure me, that it’s our birthright to be happy. I find myself beginning to believe that even if things aren’t easy, we’re not condemned to live in pain.
India is the whole world in one country. She shines her mirror right up to you - whether you’re glad of it or not - and challenges you in all the ways you’ll never be challenged while you’re absorbed in work and bills and the complicated niceties that come with providing for others and yourself; the foggy malaise of having more than enough and fighting to make sure you don’t lose it. When I first went to India eight years ago, I was mostly frightened. Frightened by the mess, all the people and the way they stared at me. Young and naive, and feeling like I’d rather stay ignorant than see all that poverty, and all those people, desperate. Unable to see anything else. It took a few months until I could appreciated the experience, and years until I realised that I missed something entirely. I was too caught up in how guilty the country made me feel, and too self absorbed to bother examining that feeling of guilt.
So what about this time? I’m older and more traveled and my journey had a purpose: a yoga course, and a destination: the birthplace of yoga. It’s obvious that Rishikesh is special, but also that India is special. The Ganga river feels as Holy as it’s said to be. People smile, laugh, and care, regardless of their circumstances. They want to help you, no matter how many times they’ve asked and no one has helped them. If you request that someone to stops taking photos of you, they will. If you pose, they might courteously shake your hand. Be careful, friends back home had said to me. In India, you can’t help but be careful, self examine, question. Sometimes, people seem to revere you just for being a tourist. You think to yourself, why does everyone want to touch me, talk to me; why are they smiling so much? What have I done? I asked myself the same questions both in India and now that I have come home: with the freedom to travel, enough money to pursue my passions, of able body and under no threat; what have I done with my life, and the luxury of having the time to consider its meaning beyond my survival?