An introduction to yoga
05.06.2011 - 07.06.2011 39 °C
Strolling around downtown Rishikesh, you would never know that places like Yoga Peeth existed. Rishikesh, although home to only 60,000 people (quite modest by Indian standards), will probably be the most chaotic place I will ever call home. There are a handful of main roads running parallel to the Ganges, each packed with shops that all sell the same thing: cotton clothing, toilet paper, and knock-off bottles of soda. Most of the tourists here are Indians on summer holiday with their families visiting the region for its well-known Hindu pilgrimages. There are, however, a healthy number of backpackers and aspiring yogis, making it more or less acceptable to walk around in a tank top and shorts. I never thought I'd be satisfied surrounded by westerners in India, but with the heat it's a relief to dress the way I want and not feel like I'm getting too much unwanted attention. Yesterday it was easily over 100 degrees. Long sleeves were just not an option.
Yoga Peeth, the ashram I'll be living in for the next six weeks, is an alternate universe. It's a four-story green and white building slightly offset from the center town with views of the Himalayas. There's a giant courtyard in the center of the ashram adorned with palm trees. All the students in my teacher training course have private bedrooms arranged symmetrically around the balconies on each floor, with windows overlooking the mayhem of Rishikesh and doors opening to the serenity of the courtyard. The gem of Yoga Peeth, however, is the cedar meditation room on the top floor. We spend the majority of our day up there, legs cross in lotus position on our brand new multicolored yoga mats. Mine is bubblegum pink.
In line with my recent mode of travel, I didn't have a clue what I was getting myself into until yesterday, Day 1 of the course. Knowing, dear reader, that you have no reason to know any more than I did prior to arrival, I'll give a sketch of what a typical day looks like at the ashram.
4:45 - An anonymous fist knocks on my door. I have no watch or alarm clock, a conscious decision not to worry about time while in India. This in-person wake-up-call was the proposed solution to get me out of bed and downstairs for tea on time.
5:00 - We meet in the eating area for a glass of herbal tea, and to gently ease ourselves out of dreamland. As soon as we finish our tea, we start migrating upstairs to the meditation room with our netti pots. If you're not familiar with the netti pot, it's basically a recipient with a sort of nasal funnel. You fill the pot with a salt water solution, crouch down, open your mouth to breath, insert the funnel in your favorite nostril and let a steady stream flow through your nose. The water filters through your sinuses and drips back out the other nostril. You repeat the process on the other side. It's a weird sensation at first, lukewarm and confusing since most people don't usually explore their nasal passages that way. Afterwards though, you feel like it's the first time in your life you've breathed through your nose.
5:45 - The whole group convenes in the meditation room (there are 30 of us) with Sanjay, our morning teacher. He leads us through a series of mantras in Hindi. We sing from a sheet with all the words written out phonetically in English. The words are really long, and I'm still trying to figure out how to pronounce them. I'll admit that sometimes I hum along to the tune instead of annunciating properly. Apparently in a few weeks we'll all know them by heart. I hope Sanjay is right, but I'll believe it when it happens.
After the mantras we do Asanas, a series of deliberate movements that correspond to the rhythm of the breath to loosen up all the joints in the body one by one. During the second half of the class we work on well-known yoga poses starting from square one. It's slow moving, but nice to know that I'm actually learning the poses properly instead of just repeating what I watch someone else do without really knowing whether I'm reproducing them correctly or not.
7:45 - Breakfast!
8:45 - Yoga Philosophy class with Roshan the Philosopher. "Each class," he claims, "we will start with a new definition of what is yoga. So what is yoga? In a few words please." Various voices in the class chime in: awareness, understanding, peace, harmony, union, etc. "Yoga," says Roshan, "is not just any union. It is the union between you and you." Confused faces stare back at him from every color mat. "There is Roshan. My parents called me Roshan when I was born. Roshan is a philosopher. Roshan is married. Roshan has a four-year-old daughter. But then there is the true 'me', the one inside. We are talking about appearances versus actual being, who we are in reality." What the hell is he talking about?, I thought to myself recalling having had the same feeling while reading Kierkagaard my junior year at Wesleyan. The majority of the first course went on in this way: defining yoga, qualifying and revising definitions, confusing and clarifying concepts. Unlike courses at university, though, this class supposedly directly applies to what we practice during our morning and evening yoga classes. I don't yet know who the external "me" is versus the internal "me", but according to Roshan this will all come clear during my six weeks at Yoga Peeth.
10:30 - Anatomy class again with Roshan. What are the components of the human body? What are the types of tissues? What is the lifespan of different types of cells? What are the scientific explanations for the practices in yoga?
13:00 - Lunch! (I'm using exclamation points after the meals because I've never been so excited for meals in my life. There's something about how much we are sweating due to the heat, how much pointed physical activity we are doing, and how healthy the meals are that results in a serious appetite. I imagine this will fade after a few days, but for now meals are definitely a highlight of the day. Especially because it's all family-style Indian food. Yum.)
We have free time for the majority of the afternoon, from 13:30 to 18:00. Yesterday I went for a walk around Rishikesh and dipped my feet in the Ganges. I also slept for 2 hours and missed the first half hour of the evening yoga class. Another consequence of not having a watch, and of the combined exhaustion from the heat and the jet-lag. Today I think I will wash some of my clothes, read my book, and buy some mangoes. Or maybe just take a shower and sit under my fan on my bed and call that meditation instead of laziness.
18:00 - More yoga, this time with Manaj, a teacher with the most soothing vibes of anyone I have ever met. His message yesterday: love your body. With that love will come relaxation, and with relaxation, meditation. In his class we repeat our Asanas from the morning. The second half of the class is all meditation. Yesterday I fell asleep for about 30 minutes, only woken up because Manaj unclasped my hands from across my chest (I don't even remember having put them there) and moved them gently to the sides of my body. "Let's move to shavasana, corpse pose," he said to me softly to remind me I was still in class. When we finished our three 'ohms' to signal the end of class, I crawled up from my mat, rolled it up slowly and ambled out the sliding glass doors in a trance.
20:15 - Dinner. I think I was too tired to be hungry. I would have passed out right then and there if the smell of curry and naan hadn't wafted up to the door of my bedroom. By the time I made it downstairs, the wind had picked up, forecasting a storm. Monsoon season officially began June 1st in northern India. Through all of dinner and most of the night, heavy rain flooded the courtyard, the power went out a few times and the wind violently slammed doors and windows all around the ashram. Regardless, after dinner I passed out in a food coma on my bed, despite the red curtains flapping uncontrollably and the door creaking against the strength of the monsoon.