LESSONS FROM INDIA
One Millennial Yogini’s Journey into Yoga
Four years ago, I took the trip of a lifetime.
It was the start of Spring 2015, and I was a Senior at Northwestern University who, having surpassed the quota for credits required to earn a bachelor’s degree, was looking at four months of freedom until I had to return to campus for Commencement in June. Like most of my peers, I was counting down the days—and exams remaining—until Senior Spring Break. It was not uncommon to graduate early so many of my friends were similarly looking forward to a Senior Spring Quarter defined by travel, freedom & partying in tropical destinations with bikini-clad girlfriends. While my travel destination promised tropical heat, my suitcase was full of long-sleeved shirts and scarves sprayed with my favorite scent, and I had swapped out the scantily-clad friends for my number one girlfriend: My Mom.
We were India bound.
The trip was a two-week immersion with Yogi Charu—an incredible human, guru of all NYC gurus, the Yogi all teachers sought out for his vast knowledge of Hatha Yoga, Pranayama (breathwork), tantric meditation practices & kriyas (cleansing techniques) accumulated over the 10 years he spent in the Himalayas, and friend who had previously led my parents on a trek through Nepal—a week-long Heart of India Tour through New Delhi, Udaipur, Vrindavan and Agra, before settling in Rishikesh for a week of YC’s Lifestyle of a Yogi Teacher Training. Despite the fact that this was essentially a Yoga Teacher Training (culminating in Certification), and neither my mother nor I had any real desire to teach yoga, we both attributed much of our personal health & well-being to a daily yoga practice, trusted Yogi Charu, and had always talked of one day travelling to India together.
And India was everything I ever could have hoped for and so much more.
If I were to write about all of the lessons learned and personal breakthroughs had during this trip it would honestly require a book deal. But I can tell you this much, our time in India didn’t just alter the trajectory of my life (I have been teaching yoga ever since), it had a profound impact on my perception of the world and the way I relate to myself and others. Regardless of the passing of time, there are a handful of life lessons from India that I will carry with me always.
Let’s start with the basics…
1. Yoga = Union
“Yoga” is a Sanskrit word that, when translated into English, means “Union.”
Going to yoga is a Western concept. In India (the birthplace of yoga) yoga is always occurring, yoga is a way of life – rather than a 60-minute class you attend twice a week (on a good week). You have undoubtedly heard Western Yoga Teachers urge you to “carry your practice off the mat” to apply the fundamental teachings of yoga to your everyday life. Without any context or knowledge of the origins of yoga, this sentiment can easily be dismissed as another thing you would do if you had more hours in a day. You roll up your mat and get a text from your boss or family member with some sort of minor emergency, and you are immediately thrown back into the “real world” – a world where you don’t put any attention on when or how or where you are breathing, your mind and body are two separate (usually disconnected) operating systems, and when the teachers offer the sentiment of incorporating yoga into your everyday life upon departing the studio you google “yoga at a desk …on the couch… in bed.” There is a common misconception that yoga is an overarching term for the many physical postures done in class when actually Asana (postures) is only one of the 8 Yoga Sutras (threads) of Patanjali. These major threads of knowledge guide the exploration into the essential meaning of yoga & provide insight into as well as a framework for how yoga is a way of life:
ONE: Yamas (ethics)
TWO: Niyamas (virtuous behaviors)
THREE: Asana (postures)
FOUR: Pranayama (breath)
FIVE: Pratyahara (awareness)
SIX: Dhahran (concentration)
SEVEN: Dhyana (reflection)
EIGHT: Samadhi (union, or “enlightenment”)
Joy is a superpower. On my first day of the immersion, walking through Vrindavan, something below my line of sight caught my eye … speedily zigzagging across the dirt road with bright eyes and a broad toothless grin was a man who had lost both of his legs. With his body perched upon a 2x2ft platform with four wheels, he was enthusiastically propelling himself forward with his arms, and he exuded pure joy. That was the first time I truly understood the difference between being happy and having joy. Joy is a conscious choice fueled by gratitude that does not waiver in the face of adversity, while happiness is situational and often governed by external forces. Over the course of my time in India crossed paths with countless individuals whose gratitude for what they had – be it the power to see, hear, taste, speak, breathe, walk, touch, feel, love – far overpowered the desire to dwell on what they may be missing. One of my first lasting impressions of India was that of a culture that valued a joyful existence.
2. Everything is Connected
Within our internal landscape as well as our external landscape. Sometimes it is easier to think of the mind and body being separate – this way of thinking allows us to compartmentalize our ailments – which gives us the option of a ‘quick fix.’ One example of this is Western medicine: Diagnosing skin issues as surface-level irritations enable them to be treated topically and deny that they are tied to a larger issue rooted inside the body. When I arrived in India my skin was breaking out – having just come off of finals week I was sleep-deprived, I lacked essential nutrients and toxins lay dormant in my body from prioritizing studying over basic self-care of exercise and healthy eating. A local Ayurvedic practitioner took one look at my skin and said, “What shows up on your skin is a sign of what is happening inside you.” I needed more Vitamin B, not a special topical cream. Furthermore, at the culmination of cleansing and fasting, my skin had not only completely cleared up, but it also looked and felt healthier than ever before.
3. Power Down
During our Lifestyle of a Yogi training in Rishikesh the most intense, powerful and transformative days were those towards the end of the training defined by cleansing, fasting, and ultimately Vipassana (complete silence). I was awakened to the reality that what I had previously considered resting did not, in any shape or form, remotely resemble relaxation for any aspect of my internal system. Pre-India, as a professional-ballerina-turned-restless-creature who innately found solace in being always in motion, my idea of relaxing (aka ‘doing nothing’) consisted of either cleaning the entire apartment while talking to my mom on the phone or laying on the couch reading/watching/listening to something, with intermittent snacking and hydration sprinkled in. At the start of the training, when presenting the framework of the week and the techniques that would be covered, Yoga Charu—with his infinite understanding of the complex inner-workings of the human psyche (our fickle “monkey minds”)—intentionally left out any information regarding the cleansing + fasting practices that would be our final exams of sorts before graduation & certification. He knew the knowledge of what was to come: Rising before the sun to initiate “Elephant Cleansing” a full-colonic designed to literally flush out the entire digestive system and cleanse each of the digestive organs by clearing any lingering waste or bacteria accumulated over time, followed by three days without food, culminating in ultimate 24-hour diet of air & silence…would subconsciously undermine our ability to absorb the information taught during the first half of the training. The five days spent cleansing and fasting, in mediation and in silence, were architected to achieve one ultimate goal: Internal Peace. A taste of Samadhi. This experience came with an invaluable lesson that shed light on how we expend energy – and how to better preserve our energy by bringing awareness and attention to what we cannot see: the taxing internal work our bodies are forced to do whenever we ingest anything. The importance of intermittent fasting (fasting between meals) to allow our systems to truly rest. Absolute rest for a body that had been cleared of toxins, combined with absolute rest of the senses—that requires abstaining from the output of energy through speaking as well as the intake of information through our eyes and ears (processing the energy of others)—makes for a profound experience of peace and internal stillness that allows for moments of absolute clarity. I will never forget the way I felt on that fifth day of Vipassana – 24-hours spent in complete silence – with my mother by my side. It can only be described as yoga in its purest form: I felt as one with my spirit, one with the universe, and one the spirit who gave me life. I can say without hesitation it was the best day of my life.
4. Silence is Golden
Yogi Charu teaches, when you speak without mindfulness, you are expending your prana, your valuable life force that rides on the cycles of your breath. Silence is power. Choosing silence over meaningless small talk is self-care. Save your energy and speak with intention. True connection in its purest form does not require words. When my mother and I spent 24 hours co-existing in our small hotel room in silence, we were the most connected we had ever been. We fell into a rhythm that was organic to our sacred bond. There was no animosity caused by misspoken words or misinterpreted language. When one of us has a need, the other knew immediately what it was.
Love is unspoken.