North! Haridwar, Rishikesh, Dharamsala

I’ve made it north. Chennai to Delhi, Delhi to Haridwar, Haridwar to Rishikesh, Rishikesh to Dharamsala. I’m acquiring stories to tell faster than I can tell them. Similarly, I’m getting inspired faster than I can act. Plans for businesses to start when I’m back home, places all around the world to travel, classes to take, ideas to share. But very little time to make any of it happen. I’m realizing this is the nature of traveling. It fills your cup with novelty and experience, but doesn’t leave a lot of room to put energy back into the system. So, I’ll have a busy summer and fall.


Train rides!

From Delhi, I caught an overnight sleeper bus to Haridwar, on which I got to share a twin-sized birth with a very nice man. Fate smiled on me and he was pretty thin, and had the idea to sleep head-to-toe. Turned out to be quite comfortable. In town, I met up with my friend Kelly from Seattle, who I’ve been traveling with since. For more in-depth impressions on Haridwar and Rishikesh, check out her latest blog post here.

Very briefly, Haridwar is a holy city for Hindus, and is packed with tourists and pilgrims from around the country. It’s nearly absent, however, of westerners. We stayed for two nights, checked out some cool temples and watched a fire ceremony that happens every night on the Ganges, the holiest river in the county. We ate some really good dal (lentils) and poori (fried dough – this is breakfast here). It was nice to be in a place without many white faces, just the opposite of what we found in Rishikesh.

Rishikesh is a holy city for Hindus as well, but it’s also popular for westerners because of the yoga scene and the fact that the Beatles spent some time there. More or less, the Ganges separates the hectic, crowded, Indian side of town from the chilled-out western side. A lot of people come to Rishikesh to stay in yoga ashrams and basically seclude themselves to do internal work. I’ve been to a couple ashrams, and at this point in my trip I’m not feeling any need to isolate myself. So we stayed in town on the chill side of the river.


Laxman Jula, the chill side of Rishikesh

There are definitely some cool things happening in Rishikesh, but largely it’s the same scene as all the other popular traveler towns. Lots of cafes with peace signs painted on the walls serving western food and muesli very slowly while you sit on the floor with other westerners, play guitars and drink coffee. Normally, these are some of my favorite things to do, but it feels inauthentic here. It’s our idea of what India is supposed to be like, so we’ve manifested it here. Also, a bit too much pot-smoking and dreadlocks for my taste (fashion note: apparently the new way to have dreadlocks is to shave half your head and keep the rest).

But we had a good time. We did some yoga, checked out some far-out meditation workshops, and went rafting down the Ganges with a group of 19 year-old boys from Agra. It was great to catch up with Kelly and throw around some ideas about Seattle and the future. After a few days we caught another overnight bus, this time to Dharamsala, the home-base for the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile.

This was almost a week ago, and I’m loving it here. Most people don’t stay in Dharamsala itself, which is a relatively large and bustling city. We’re up the hills in Mcleod Ganj, which is where the Dalai Lama’s temple is (he’s not in town right now unfortunately). Farther up there are a couple smaller towns which are great for walking around, but which have the same muesli-vibe we caught in Rishikesh. The Tibetan community is really strong in Mcleod Ganj, which gives the place a wonderful feel. There are all sorts of organizations around to support the refugees, and I’ve just started helping a bit with English conversation classes. The air is clean here; the mountains are beautiful. We’re just in the foothills of the Himalayas (6,000 ft), which I’m planning to explore more deeply in the next few weeks.


Mcleod Ganj

I’ve also met back up with Samyak Yoga, the group I did my yoga teacher training with. It’s great to see them again, drop into a few classes, and feel immediately like I’m part of a community here. Today I started a 5-day intensive Iyengar Yoga course, which will be a whole different way of looking at the practice, focusing entirely on alignment of the body. There is strong coffee here (without the pot-smoking and peace signs to go with it), and the desserts are the best I’ve had in the country. Indians love sweets, which tends to make their treats one-dimensional along the sugar axis. The Tibetans have it better figured out, with a good balance of sweet, salt, and chocolate.

Seeing the Tibetan community in exile first-hand has also opened my eyes to the insanity of the struggle going on across the border. It’s a desperate situation. All those “Free Tibet” stickers and t-shirts have been changing over to “Save Tibet,” which is much more accurate at this point. This is a story for another time.

Basically, you are probably getting the idea that there is a huge amount going on over here. My days are full and the energy around is powerful. There is so much good stuff to do, and now I’m down to my last month in India. The trip is simultaneously flying by and endless: one of the mysteries of time. I’m excited to get back to the States to pursue some of these ideas, but still savoring the experiences of the trip.

Comfortability/This Trip is Awesome

I just passed my two-month anniversary in India, and at about the same time had a major breakthrough. I realized a week ago that I am totally comfortable here now. This trip is awesome. Somehow all the difficulties and obstacles that I was facing before have vanished. Jaya Ganesha! (He removes obstacles, and I sing to him a lot). I’m completely comfortable with no toilet paper, no hot water (had my first hot shower for two months this morning. So good.), last-minute bus tickets, long train rides, and most importantly, major uncertainty.

That’s really the biggest thing, and it’s the part that troubled me the most at the beginning of my trip. It only took a couple wild rickshaw rides to get used to the driving here, but the uncertainty has taken longer. I would stress out about not having a place to stay, not knowing when I’d eat next, find water, or have a toilet. Here’s the thing about India: there are people EVERYWHERE. Everywhere. So there is always a place to eat, and someone to help you if you’re desperate. I’ve got a good sense now of what food is safe to eat (almost all of it), who to trust (almost everybody), and when to keep walking. I’ve realized that the only difference between doing a lot of research to find a cheap and good hotel a week in advance desperately searching for one at the last minute is probably only about $2. There is usually space to do yoga. Having travel companions has been hugely important. A couple friends (or soon-to-be-friends) can make a stressful day of squeezing onto local buses without really knowing where you’re going into a noteworthy adventure. 

With this comfort has come a great sense of freedom. My plans are entirely flexible, which has been great. I have a general goal to be in the north in about 10 days, which I think I’ll almost be able to make. It’s okay if I’m late – it looks like I’ll have a 60 hour train ride first, and I’d love to stop by Varanasi. In the past week I’ve been in Tamil Nadu, which I had no plans to visit before I arrived in India. With a couple travel companions, I checked out temples in Madurai, went to a Sivananda yoga ashram for a few days, and now am in Kodaikanal getting ready to head to a permaculture/yoga farm in the mountains. It’s dreamy here. The landscape is a bit like northern California, but with more jagged cliffs. Kind of like southern Italy or Greece.

I feel like I’ve seen so much, but I’ve barely left the bottom 10% of the country. There is so much here, it’s unbelievable. My ideas of what India is all about are constantly shattered. Most of the places I’ve visited I would love to come back to for even longer (and I have a feeling I’ll never want to leave this farm). There is a zen meditation center right near where I’m staying now, which I’d love to visit but might not have time/they might be booked. This is the norm – there is more to see and do than I possibly have time for, and almost all of it I had no idea about before I got here. This sense of endlessness is wonderful, and it makes me want to travel so much more. The world feels enormous, but more and more approachable. The more I discover about myself, the more natural I feel where ever I am.

Open eyes, open heart.

This trip is awesome.

Yoga Teacher Training Complete!

As of two days ago I am officially a certified yoga teacher! The last two weeks of the training flew by. Week three was the most physically demanding, with at least four hours of practice a day, plus prep and teaching everyday. I had a few “yoga firsts,” which is fun. First drop-back to wheel pose from standing, first jump-through to dandasana from downward dog, deepest twists and binds I’ve had in ardha matsyendrasana. By the end of the week my body was feeling the strain, but still happy.

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India: Yoga Teacher Training Week 2

Week two of my yoga teacher training is over, the course half-way done. It’s going great, in mind, body, and spirit. I’ve heard the hardest parts are still to come. We’ve continued to practice between 3 and 4 hours a day, but the classes this week felt a little bit easier than the first. We didn’t do quite as much core work, and we’re all stronger. A few people have had some back and joint issues, but I’m feeling great.

Today is our day off, and a few of us decided to start the day with 108 sun salutations (an auspicious number). It got to be difficult by the end, but I felt totally energized afterwards. It took about an hour, a little more with our rest in savasana. One of our teachers told us about a time he did 108 sun salutations every day for 108 days, in addition to teaching and the rest of his practice. This guy is awesome: totally humble, authentic, and kind.

Which is to say that the yoga at this training is really honest. We spend a lot of time chanting and meditating and resting and sweating. It’s all with the goal of knowledge, purification, mindfulness, and compassion. It feels different from most of the yoga in the west. In my experience, most of the classes in the states are exercise-focused, and somehow the ones with a more spiritual perspective seem a bit wishy-washy. The Om-Shanti Express. Maybe it’s due to the fact that yoga tends to be isolated from the rest of our lives, while here it is all we do and think about. If you only have one hour to focus on your spirit, you can’t get very far in before you need to run off to the next appointment or obligation. A lot of that seeking takes a big chunk of quiet time and space. I’ve had enough space to explore that I’ve been getting back to painting, using the watercolors I brought with me. It has been flowing easily and naturally, and feels wonderful.

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Our teachers have been guiding us in meditation after each of our classes. In the past I’ve done unguided breath awareness meditation, but here it’s nice to have a bit more direction. Mostly because the teachers really know what they’re doing. Each time it sounds like they’re reading from a script that’s been labored over for clarity and flow, but actually they’re just speaking from the heart, improvising, taking us to places they care about and know we can learn something from. I really enjoyed our last session, which I’d summarize with:

Don’t let your successes go to your head, don’t let your failures go to your heart.

This resounded with me, especially with the creative work I’ve done. We are all going to fail a lot in anything we do seriously, and it’s wonderful be able to find the lessons in that without being discouraged. It’s so easy to overthink things that go wrong, to use them as excuses not to try again. I don’t mean to say that we should be hard-hearted, but instead maybe that we be clear-hearted enough for the negativity to pass through without causing damage

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One other big point that we’ve been working on is the fact that everything we’re doing here is a lifetime (or more) of work. Yoga is for the entire life, and we should keep that in mind with our bodies. It doesn’t matter how flexible we are right now, but it does matter that we keep our bodies and minds healthy for years to come. This is hard for me. I like to push myself and explore my limits, but I think there’s a place for that without going to the point of damage. I’m excited for this coming week, and curious to see how it affects my state of being. More intense practice along with a deeper look inside. Sounds perfect.

Be well!

India: Yoga Teacher Training Week 1

I’ve just completed the first week of my month-long hatha yoga teacher training in Kovalam, India. Taking a very much appreciated rest day today. The training has been fantastic so far, but it’s already starting to fly by. Days blend together, as they tend to when following a strict routine.

We wake up at 6 AM for our 6:30 practice. It’s a hatha (pose-focused, rather than flow-focused) practice for about an hour and a half, then a half hour of breathing and meditation. We have breakfast at a local restaurant, then take a few minutes break before class starts at 10. There is an hour and a half of theory (philosophy, anatomy, etc), an hour of in-depth study of the poses, then an hour of practical teaching in small groups. We have a three-hour break in the afternoon, which I usually fill with lunch, swimming, and playing ukulele on the beach. At 4:30 we have a faster vinyasa practice, which is more cardio and muscle focused than the morning. At 6 we chant for a half hour in a big group, have some dinner, relax and study until bedtime. I’ve been falling asleep around 9:30 PM, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for either.

My body has been pretty tired the whole time, but once we get into a practice I’m always ready for it. I feel stronger already, especially throughout my core. Beyond the soreness I’m pretty sure my flexibility is increasing. My tendons and ligaments feel a bit softer than usual, and especially by the end of the day I’m able to get into some pretty extreme positions (for me). It’s kind of hard to explain how the flexibility feels, but it’s as if every part of my body is a little bit closer. My toes aren’t so far away, it’s a little bit easier to reach an itch in the middle of my back. There’s less restriction in all my movements, even just walking or sitting. It’s pretty cool.

The core strength also feels great. I’m pretty sure having a strong core makes everything better. This is something I really want to keep up when the training is over – I think it will help me stay healthy and stable in all the activities I do, from running and climbing to washing dishes and grocery shopping. Eventually, in getting old.

The changes I’ve been feeling in my body make me think of this: just as the eyes adjust to the dark, the body adjusts to an exercise routine, and the brain adjusts to just about everything. I’m exercising 4 hours a day and it’s totally doable. After a bit more of this, I could probably do 6 hours and be fine, as long as there was nothing wearing on the body in an unhealthy way. My brain is getting used to some of the harder parts of being in India: the beggars, the trash (It’s everywhere. This is depressing in lots of ways and apparently has become a much bigger problem in the last 10-15 years as more western corporations have started taking advantage of the emerging market), the constant bombarding from street vendors, the stares and requests for photos. But we get used to everything. An unfulfilling office job, an overly long commute to work, inadequate communication in our most important relationships. Also the positive experiences: sunsets, the way the wind plays with a tree, sex with a long-term partner.

A major part of my yoga and meditation practice is focused on keeping these experiences fresh and staying present in all situations, no matter how routine. When we sink into the routine, we are blinded to the beauty around us, and to the negativity which is slowly creeping into our bodies. Ignorance is not bliss, it just postpones and repackages difficult emotions to lash out later on in unexpected ways.

Aside from the physical experiences, I’m loving the theory and teaching practice as well. A lot of the core practices of yoga are totally lost in the American-style studios, which tend to be 90-100% about the exercise. If I have my own studio some day, I’d love to incorporate Karma Yoga (basically community service) and some of the philosophies on mindfulness and morality. Nothing preachy or weird, mostly just basic community center-type events that bring people together and encourage everyone to live well. Kind of like church without the blind faith. So far we’ve only been teaching a couple poses at a time for a few minutes, but it has reminded me how much I like to teach and share. It brings me all the way back to my public speaking class in high school. That’s probably one of the most valuable and widely applicable skills I’ve learned.

I’m excited to see how all this will change as the course continues. I’ve heard that the second and third weeks tend to draw powerful experiences out of the body. I’m not sure what that means, or if it will happen to me, but I’ll definitely let you know if it does.