I’m sitting on the veranda of an ashram at the base of the Himilayas. It’s green. And it demands attention. There must be a dozen-plus varieties of birds gossiping, monkeys jumping around living their best lives, and cows roaming and grazing with diplomatic immunity. Hard to believe it’s been over a week since I arrived in New Delhi at midnight sans my bag, made a terrible, zombie-induced decision to get into a shady taxi, and finally got out and begged two different rickshaw drivers to take me to a train station only to find out that all the trains and buses were booked for a week on account of peak vacation season. Classic. And possibly/probably false, but I had zero leverage at 3am in a foreign city. So I did what any privileged white guy would do and hired a private taxi for the 7 hour ride to Rishikesh.
Monday through Saturday I wake up at 5:30am. Twenty-five minutes later I walk out of my room and up the stairs to the yoga room for meditation and pranayama with Sachin. We sit and do different types of breathing exercises for 45 minutes, then meditate for 15 minutes. It really is a lovely way to gently introduce oneself to the day. Immediately following, we practice Hatha yoga for an hour and a half. Our teacher, Rajesh, starts class by playfully asking us if we’re ready for turture time. We laughed nervously the first day. Now we laugh resolutely, but with full admission that our asses are about to be cosmically handed to us. Especially in the beginning poses, there’s nothing fancy about Hatha yoga- no crazy balances or twists, just basic stretching. But picture less pre-game warm-ups and more William Wallace being ‘basically stretched’ by the British (Speaking of the British, kudos to the older generations there- instead of colonizing people of color, they’re now closing their borders to isolate themselves from the effects of said colonization. It really is great to see xenophobic racists voting on behalf of elite neoliberal puppeteers, both working hard to Make Britain Great Again! Time to fire up the Guy Fawkes bat signal).
Our daily prize for making it through Rajeth’s class is breakfast. Fresh fruit, ginger tea, and porridge make us feel human again. I keep using the first person plural without introducing my comrades in spiritual enlightenment. Merrianne, a literature professor from Montreal, was an immediate kindred spirit. We are having a blast exploring this experience together. Sanjana Sood, a mother of two from the central Indian city of Nagpur, has helped navigate us through the foods, customs, and language which are so foreign to us. She’s both our Google and our Dear Abby. Breakfast is followed by anatomy class with Kushal- a charming, strapping young man whose knowledge of anatomy and physiology is expansive. We have a little break, then are served some divine Indian cuisine that constantly makes me wonder why I don’t eat this stuff everyday. The chef’s name is Alander, and he’s a happy, smiley, good man, and one hell of a chef. Lunch is followed by philosophy with Mahesh who teaches us to think positively and doesn’t mind me questioning every other thing that comes out of his mouth. This is followed by singing and chanting with Mandeep, a musical prodigy who patiently helps us climb out of the deep, ear-shattering hole that is us trying to sing in Sanskrit. We get to see Rajesh again for our even ending torture, followed by another 5-star meal, and an immediate coma.
I can’t help but reflect on the incredible parallels between India and Sierra Leone. Sierra Leonean and Indian people share a profound generosity of spirit that is like a constant, warm embrace. Their cities are boiling over with people, their vehicles are screaming at each other at borderline harmful decibels, their streets are lined with a depressing layer of trash acting as a constant reminder of how much work there is to do in establishing infrastructure, and the oppressive heat simply does not allow one to wear sleeves (win/lose category). But these similarities allow me to find home in the beauty of this chaos.
My goal was to come here as an open, empty box, without expectation. It requires constant vigilance, and I struggled a bit in the beginning, but as I fill the box with unexpected treasures I am reminded of the benefits. Studying Hindu culture and yoga in its birthplace is an almost overwhelming experience that is easily lost in the daily work. Thankfully, the work we do demands presence, so I am here, doing my best to be patient, and to surrender.