There is something special about taking part in a 5000 year-old way of practicing well-being. And it is a powerful experience to do yoga in India. Often, as we did yoga in India, people would gather to watch us. People would happily join in without hesitation when invited. If they didn’t have a mat, they’d grab a towel. It didn’t matter what they were wearing. Whatever they wore would make do. The yoga practice is a huge unifying factor. Yoga is a way of life in India. Yoga is about connecting to universal consciousness and to the peaceful being residing within each of us. In other words, yoga connects each of us to our truest nature.
We spent two nights in Ranthambore in hopes of seeing a tiger. Two people in our group saw a tiger (they were in another vehicle), but the majority of us did not. It was hard to return from the tiger reserve grounds without having seen a tiger, only to be met with the most exuberant German man, who had just seen a mother tiger and her three cubs! With alacrity, he showed us photo after photo of the cubs playing and wrestling one another. Truth be told, I felt so envious that my stomach hurt. However, I did not want to appear jealous, so I stood there looking at his photos with feigned excitement. Soon after, my group and I did a long yoga session and we all immediately felt better. Somehow, the practice soothed our hearts and minds and we were able to put the situation into perspective. After all, had we not just seen owlets, spotted deer, blue bull antelopes, sambar ( of the deer family), monkeys, gazelles, wild boars, crocodiles, spectacularly colored kingfishers, herons, the endangered painted storks, egrets, and a crested serpent eagle? The tiger reserve in itself is gorgeous, with or without the tigers (I am still trying to convince myself fully of this last sentence!).
The next day, we went out on our third tiger safari outing. We came back to the tiger den without a story to dazzle our friends back home. We met for yoga at the poolside this time, where we had an audience of women from Mumbai. They sat in their poolside chairs smiling and watching us with great interest! At one point, the class and I did Camel Pose (Ustrasana). Just as we got into the pose, there was a loud animal braying sound beyond the hotel wall! The ladies from Mumbai started howling with laughter and so did we! I said, “What on earth was that?” and the Mumbai ladies said loudly, “IT IS CAMEL!” I had never heard a camel bray before and it was ever so funny that the camel brayed just as we went into the pose. I don’t think I will ever get into Camel Pose again without thinking of India and that camel sound!
I invited the Mumbai ladies to join us. And they did! They simply grabbed some pool towels and joined us. Lynn led us in a dreamy, deeply relaxing Yoga Nidra meditation. Afterwards, the women, one of whom was a yoga instructor in Mumbai, wanted to play some games with us. We had so much fun playing with them. After the games, the instructor’s husband, who joined in the fun later, kept asking me in a child-like manner, “Can you do Halasana (Plough)? Can you touch your toes? Can you do Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand)? Can you stand on your head?” Each time he asked a question, he’d pop into the suggested pose to show off. It was adorable. His wife said proudly, “He is my BEST student!”
Yoga in Varanasi, India: Varanasi is the spiritual heart of India. Every time I go there, my heart cracks open. Varanasi is an energetic vortex, vicariously held aloft by Shiva’s trident staff. While there, I always manage to get entangled by Varanasi’s spinning wheel of life. I love Varanasi and I dislike it, my two opposing reactions to the city all bundled into one big messy package. One second we yogis are smelling heavenly jasmine and seeing the most beautiful child with light in her eyes coddled in the loving arms of her daddy. The next second we yogis see a dog with protruding ribs next to a man, a fellow human-being, crawling on his belly, using his frog-like hands to propel himself forward along the disgustingly filthy ground. Horns honk until our ears go deaf and we realize there are tears in our eyes and, yet, we break into a smile because the child with the most beautiful eyes we have ever seen is smiling at us and waving.
Of course, yoga is intense in India! The practice feels great and seemingly makes your heart ache, all at the same time. As an instructor, I sometimes want to not come out of my room in the morning and, at the exact same moment, I have a strong desire to lead a 5-hour class. How crazy is this? India is the place where opposites merge. This is yoga in India.
And the truest yoga for me was at the evening Aarti along the Ganges, a ceremony where we honor Mother Ganga (the Ganges River is the “Mother” of all life ). Mother Ganges is honored nightly in an elaborate ancient ceremony. During the ceremony, I carried the memory of my friend, Elizabeth Lawrence, into the river. Her life was cut short that very day when she lost her battle with cancer. She had dreamed of coming to India, but never made it due to health issues. I floated a candle for her. I felt the river embrace and accept her spirit. She was finally free! And I, too, suddenly felt free.
I had been carrying some anger in my heart that evening that had nothing to do with Elizabeth’s death. I felt myself let go of this anger as I watched her candle float down the river. I became one with the river, with the Aarti ceremony, with the bells, and the chanting. I merged with 100,000 people gathered at the ceremony. I was fully a part of the Aarti, this 5000 year old ritual honoring Mother Ganga, the river of life.