by guest blogger Jane Connors, volunteer for Yoga Gives Back
My trip to India began with much fear inside of me. It didn’t begin this way, as few things do when you are planning the biggest trip of your life and that includes plan to travel with fellow yoga friends. But we all know how yogis can be, and as life would have it (and as it was meant to be), I ended up on a plane to Bangalore, India, alone.
What struck me the most was the surreal realization that the sun had set and risen twice prior to arriving at my new Indian home. I arrived at 4 am only to find Lufthansa had lost my luggage. I was devastated. Maybe it was jetlag, or maybe it was the fact that there was no blow dryer for the yoga princess from Charlotte, North Carolina. The airline graciously gave me compensation in rupee – the equivalent of – I don’t know – maybe $300 US dollars approx. I was to replace two months of packed items with that seemingly measly amount. I was completely apprehensive that could even happen because heck, one pair of yoga pants at Lululemon with tax is just shy of $100, right?
Anyway, I was too tired to worry about such small things and instead slowly crawled into a car for the three hour drive to Mysore in darkness. When I arrived at the guest house, I slept nicely on the common area sofa. Yes, I was that tired. Just hours later, several yogis from different parts of the world came in and out with their various organic breakfasts and Ayurvedic smoothies – all conversing about “the shala”.
I was tired but in complete awe of what lies in store for me on my adventure to the yoga capital of the world! Mysore is the home of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the godfather of the revered Astanga yoga, and “the shala” is where devotees of the practice worldwide take their pilgrimage to study with Saraswati, his daughter and her son, Sharat.
An exceptional individual whom I had connected with via social media came over to the guest house where I was staying and personally introduced himself to me. Within days, he threw me on the back of a scooter for the grand tour of Mysore. Scooters in Mysore, wow, that’s living on the edge!
Another practitioner, a girl from California to the disheveled and disoriented North Carolingian without her lulu pants and hair dryer took me for a walk and showed me the shala. After that, she guided me to the grocery and took me to purchase my new Indian blow dryer. I pulled out my rupee from the lost luggage and took to shopping for some practical sandals and clothing and guess what? I still had money left over! I had no comprehension just how inexpensive daily life in India would be!
I also had no idea what to expect daily life in India to be. I arrived with no possessions, in a land where the cows roamed the streets with the scooters, cars, buses, goats, people. Oh, and the horns, the horns and more and more horns, and more cows: this is a country of infinite diversity as it continues to develop as a world power economy and yet keep its cultural flair. Coming from a relatively quiet and reserved suburban Charlotte, I was struck with how much noise and clambering there was in my midst, the voluminous but steady movement on the sidewalks and streets. Want to practice your pratyahara? Eventually, I got to a point where I learned what that term truly meant. Pratyahara, selective withdrawing of the senses. Within a week, I did not hear anything at all.
As time went on and I started practicing at the shala, my days were filled with meeting wonderful yogis from around the world and the most powerful moments in my practice that verged on the sublime. There was the art of sharing our daily lives as traveling yogis: the routine of waking, walking with mats rolled up and cantilevered on our shoulders, navigating through dirt, street vendors, honking horns and lazy rogue cattle, two hour long practices transcendent in their depth, and afterwards, mango lassi, chai tea, papadams and melt in your mouth naan (now that was the start of a bad eating habit!). I will forever cherish unifying my intention and devotion to the practice with the transient humanity that greeted and befriended me at every turn. However, most memorable were the fabulous people I met in Mysore.
One of my favorites was my regular rickshaw driver, Apu. He was a man of little means, but rich in faith and grand in heart. He was authentic, constantly smiling, even indulged me in my favorite ‘back home’ music and smiled as if he actually liked it. Every Hindu palace we passed, he stopped the rickshaw to bow and say a prayer. Everywhere we went, he followed me at a comforting distance, to make sure I was not harassed as the bold face of poverty lining the streets with sad faces and dirty hands reached out, begging.
He took me to a very small village far outside of Mysore to Shankranti Fesitval which is cows are lavishly decorated in true Indian style; there is no subtlety in how this culture parties!
They set bails of hay on fire through a patchwork of closed highway then proceeded to drive the sacred cows through the fire! There must have been a thousand plus happy Indian Shankranti festival goers there and only two of us Westerners.
Apu knew this was something I would embrace and he was right. He jumped over the burning embers with joy after the flames and excitement died down and it warmed my heart to spend time with this happy man and his community.
Later, he invited several of us to his humble home of two rooms where two families live. The living room consisted of a futon bed and a TV. This is the room where everyone sleeps and there is an adjoining closet where clothing and everything else is kept. He knelt on the floor to prepare for us delicious chai tea and I was so proud to be there with his family. This is the Indian way! They are full of authenticity. They are full of love for all beings without attachment or expectation of anything in return. They are the happiest and most serene people even admist all of the noise and chaos of blooming India.
They are the yoga without the asana. It is simply their nature. It is where yoga was born and it is very apparent that it’s entrenched in that society.
Even as a westerner’s eyes looking in, it was unmistakable and made a big impact on my heart. I fell in love with these people and their simple and gracious way of life. From that moment, although I love my life, friends and family here, I knew that India had captured my imagination.
Then there was the orphanage. That’s how India captured my soul. A friend in Mysore was very involved with an orphanage and had several yogis helping out with the kids. I decided to join in. We met late in the afternoon and took rickshaws one day, scooters another, into a very small neighborhood of tiny little shanties – a far cry from the nice homes in the Gokulum area where I was living and where the $700 a month shala is located. I was now seeing another India, probably the more real one.
For political reasons I do not quite understand, the children were ineligible for adoption as the State of Karnataka had somehow not sanctioned this place. I am not quite sure. All I know is that this Indian family cared enough to make their lives about helping children that were in the most desperate need in a society that placed them at the ultimate disadvantage. I do not know what trajectory their lives would have taken them without the loving and tender guidance of this family, but what I do know was what I saw with my own eyes: that it was a very happy environment. We would take the kids to the park just so they could play. I am a mother and it was a joy to be with them on the swing sets, pitch cricket, do cartwheels and put on my lip gloss. Just like an American kid, they also loved playing with everyone’s cameras and/or iphones. They could not get enough of the simple things. They just wanted attention and love and they were more than generous to return it in kind.
One day, several of the yogis had taken art paper to the orphanage to trace all of the children’s feet (33 in total) so they could purchase new shoes for them later that afternoon. However, nnly thirty of them got their new shoes. The three that did not get shoes never showed a hint of animosity. They never frowned, never got angry, they only smiled and showed their excitement for the others who all sat together in a circle laughing, playing and trying on their new shoes. If that had been in the US, there would have been a major meltdown. Those three children joined in the joy of the others with no attachment to an outcome for themselves. All ended well as they were treated to a rickshaw ride to the shoe store personally and sang beautiful chants the whole way there.
These are just a couple of the things that touched my heart in a rather small town in India that happens to be where the world of Ashtanga Yogis come to practice with the lineage holders. This is where I got a taste of how beautiful and giving this culture is here in India – and not just the yoga culture I am speaking of, but it is also very beautiful and special in this small town of Mysore, too.
One day, I was waiting with a friend in a rickshaw while another friend was on the phone. She was standing there chatting about seeing someone’s progress with a microfinance loan that they had been given. My western brain reverted back to my hometown of Charlotte, which is large in banking industry, which was the last thing I wanted to have happen in Mysore.
But the habits of home are always lingering, and later in my journey, I was on Facebook and saw a few posts about the organization to whom my friend was referring, Yoga Gives Back (YGB). I started looking at YGB’s website, and was immediately inspired by what I was learning. I then noticed that the person that was chatting about the “microfinance” was their legal advisor.
I was impressed by the humbleness of this organization coupled with the natural innate spiritual side of yoga in the people of India.
Through my research, I realized that yoga is a billion dollar industry in the United States. It is also an industry that has taken an ancient science which is predominantly male and made it a fast growing area of business for American women.
Big business back home is booming, but not at the orphanage or on the streets around me where the incipience of the science grew. We have lovely studios, fabulous yoga gear, but I quickly learned, we have nowhere near the ‘yoga’ that these people exhibit in their everyday living.
Also, India is a culture where women and children are in the minority by way of opportunity for sustainable livelihoods. The history of their culture never really gives the poorest women and children a chance to advance in society, or to even survive, especially those in the most remote and underserved villages. I knew then I wanted to show my appreciation and thanks to the place and people that brought the gift of yoga to the world, to my world. I am just so humbled and thankful.
I wish we could all go and experience the real yoga of India. You can see in the eyes of its people; there need not be any asana involved.
This is what I was able to witness during my stay in India. They are the happiest and they want you to be happy. They will give you whatever they can or whatever they have, even if it is almost nothing.
The owners of the guest house, Apu, the children at the orphanage: they are all love. The captivated my heart and led me to devote my time to this wonderful cause of inclusion and opportunity.
I am looking forward to returning to India, both in service to Yoga Gives Back, traveling to Kolkata, Mysore and other places, as well as getting a month or two of practice in at the shala. I find my life is perfect balance and harmony there. For that, Mother India, I am eternally grateful.