India – the yogi pilgrimage. As a yoga teacher it seemed only right that I should travel to India, to go where those before me had gone before and to experience the practice in the place in which many people believe to be the home of yoga.
I had read so many books written by Indian yogis and philosophers, my shelves adorned with trinkets, boxes and beads from this illusive place but I had never actually been. I have a recollection of hearing somewhere that when India is calling you, you must listen, and it was. It really was. Previously it was just a place that I dreamed about visiting one day but it had started to grow into an overwhelming need to be there. Maybe this was because I could no longer bear how many times our boiler was breaking leaving us with cold, winter day showers and an avocado shortage in the UK or maybe it was something more. Who knows. There were no longer any excuses not to go and I booked my plane ticket.
Is there a particular place in India a yogi should travel? Many would say yes. As an Ashtanga practitioner, maybe the place to be is Mysore to practice in line with a particular lineage. To develop my spiritual practice, perhaps it should be Rishikesh, at the foot of the Himalayas, surrounded by mysticism. I chose neither of these places (although, trust me I will be returning). Instead I chose Goa. The beach. Maybe the tourist yoga. Could I still have a yogic experience in a place where I could also eat french fries and easily track down iced coffee? Some might say no but I really beg to differ.
On arrival into Mumbai I was immediately ripped off for my taxi, my Indian Rupees and even a banana. People were everywhere, noise was inescapable and I actually felt quite unsettled. Every Indian person I spoke to about my trip either did not really know what yoga was or told me that they had heard that this form of exercise was very popular in the West for fitness. Was I even in the right country?
Despite this, Mumbai showed me some amazing sights, smells and a feeling of complete acceptance and calmness even within the absolute chaos of it’s traffic system. After a couple of days for unsuccessfully searching for my soul and somewhere to drink an unyogic beer, I took a twelve hour train to Goa. This was exactly how I expected it to be. Hot, dirty and wonderful. I really feel that to experience a country you must immerse yourself and from my cramped, top bunk which was more like a shelf, I watched as the Indian landscape flew by, chatting to the three ladies in my berth on their way to a violence against women convention (go team women) who sipped on chai tea brought through the carriage by men carrying flasks and paper cups and who desperately tried to feed me some of their homemade train snacks.
Amazed by how quickly twelve hours could fly by with only sixty eight songs downloaded on my phone, I arrived at my destination – a colourful and peaceful shala in Patnem Beach. One good nights sleep and a yoga class as soon as I rolled out of bed the next morning and I was reset, a little more grounded and ready to go.
For the next month I spent my days here. Waking up at six to start the morning with meditation and yoga and finishing at six in the evening; brain tired, body tired and sweaty but glowing from immersing myself in a full day of doing what I love as, eating in accordance to what my body actually needed and going to bed early. The time I spent was invaluable, not only for my own practice but for my teaching also, studying hours of philosophy, anatomy of the body and lots of new structures and teaching insights for my classes back home.
But why was I in India for this? Could I not have just done this in England? Where was this enlightening experience that was supposed to happen in India? Maybe the real magic was right in front of my eyes.
Every morning, practice started in the dark and finished in the light as the sun slowly began to rise at the same time as our bodies began to awaken. We motioned through Surya Namaskara with the sound of the ocean in the background, inhaling and exhaling as the waves crashed down onto the sand. After finishing each evening, I would take a walk on the beach, feeling the sand in my toes and the cool water splashing onto my legs. I watched as people on their own, families, dogs, cows and crabs all came out to watch the sun turn bright orange and set beneath the horizon. There was no hierarchy, no dogs on leads or cows in sheds. Every night, right before the sun disappeared, a V shape of birds flew from one side of the beach to the other, without a watch there they all were, at the same time every night. I would look at the spiraling pattern the waves made on the wet sand and at breakfast the next morning I noticed how the exact same pattern made up the skin of my almonds. I observed that despite living at the beach with no distractions of regular, daily life, my emotions still followed a sequence of ups and downs, not influenced by anything other than the fluctuations of nature.
On the night of the full moon, we celebrated with drumming and fire, looking up at the sky and I wished so hard that these were the things we honoured back home instead of buying overpriced cards from the supermarket. The morning after this, as I got up to practice, the moon was giant, taking up the whole sky and setting over the sea. I have never seen a moon set before and it was truly one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
A month can pass by very quickly when you are busy doing yoga and before I knew it, the final class had passed. I was sitting on the sand, watching that orange ball and the crabs as they instinctively knew when to run and when to hide from the incoming waves. The stillness and the silence that I had allowed in gave me some time for self-reflection; the journey I had made, the strength I had built and the people who had supported me in my decision to travel so far and for so long. As I looked out at the sunset, the glow of light mirrored on the waves, suddenly in the distance I saw dolphins jumping and dancing through the water. Life was so unbelievably beautiful at that moment in time that I actually cried.
So yes to India. Yes to it’s chai tea on every corner, cows deciding on the rules of the road and always paying more than you should for everything. Yes to India stopping me and slowing me down and making me see. But really, the yoga is everywhere, sometimes we just have to look a little harder.