The first and only time I was in India I promised myself that I would come back and celebrate my thirtieth birthday in the country. It seemed far enough in the future and I had faith that it would be enough time to gather the necessary resources to return. Little did I expect to be freshly transplanted from Hong Kong to Singapore and moving into a new old house with my husband the day after my birthday. So with practicality in mind and a slight shift in plans, I will turn thirty years and two weeks old in India. Close enough! I will fly from Singapore to Delhi and then on to Pune for ten days to study with Geeta Iyengar, daughter of BKS Iyengar. I am looking forward to seeing friends and teachers from the Iyengar Centre of Hong Kong and attempting to prepare myself for the grand presence of someone like Geetaji. One week after I leave Eric will come to Delhi for a few days of work and from there we will travel on to Varanasi, Agra, and Vrindavin. Of all the places we have traveled in Asia nothing makes my heart flutter as much as India. I sit at my desk writing this vibrating with excitement, anticipation, and a few butterflies over the prospect of traveling alone in India for the first ten days. With all of this considered, I think it’s about time I finish this blog post about my last trip to India five years ago which has been germinating in my mind for over a year now.
The urge to find my way to the East has been strong in me for quite some time. In high school I timidly pulled books on Yoga, meditation, and Buddhist philosophy off library shelves and read them in secret in my bedroom. I was fascinated by the kriyas where austere looking Indians swallowed long gauzy strips of cotton and then pulled them back out in the same way my brothers and I played with our spaghetti at the kitchen table (gross, I know). I gave myself rug burns trying to reproduce the yoga postures alone in my room. One book in particular that conjured a vision of traveling distant lands on some sort of seekers quest was Surfing to Nirvana by Frederick Lenz. A relatively unknown book, it tells the story of a thrill-seeking snowboarder who treks to Katmandu in search of new heights and his eventual introduction to Buddhism from an unexpected monk on a mountain top. The sources of inspiration at this point were a bit fragmented but I liked the feel of it all. It felt like hidden truths that I once knew.
When I became serious in my yoga practice — so much so that I jumped at the chance to do teacher training straight out of college and make a career out of it — I knew that I had to start figuring out how to get to India. I was practically ready to get on any randomly selected standby flight that would drop me somewhere in the country and figure it out from there but that’s not exactly my nature. I was also new to New York City at the time and on a less-than-shoestring budget so I didn’t exactly feel free to traipse about the world. At this point I also didn’t love Indian food (crazy!) so you could say there was some work to be done before the adventure could commence. I spent the next few years in New York establishing myself as a Yoga Teacher and evolving my practice. Thanks to the big professional dancer / yoga teacher crossover I managed to get work easily and quit my restaurant job a few months after beginning teaching. I moved from my first New York apartment in Washington Heights to Astoria, Queens and in 2009 finally moved back to Manhattan, this time to the Upper East Side. On the UES, my friend Cindee invited me to try out a Mysore Ashtanga class just up the street at Pure Yoga with a teacher that was recommended to her.
We woke very early and got there a little before 6:30 in the morning because that’s when it said the three hour class started. Little did we know that the practice was self-led once you learned the sequence and students can come and go at any point within the three hours. We met David, the energetic yoga teacher who was leading the class. He had us do many rounds of sun salutations which were not too different from the vinyasa style I had been practicing and then he led us through the foundational standing postures of the Ashtanga sequence. When we were done we repeated the entire thing one more time. We left covered in sweat and sure that our arms were going to quiver in soreness the next day from the all the chaturungas we had done. What struck me most was the intensity of the practice which seemed to come from the self-led style that allowed one to go deeper into the breath, the postures, and the practice. The approach and David represented a fire that I didn’t know I was looking for in my yoga practice. From there Cindee and I both signed up for a year of yoga and committed ourselves to Mysore Ashtanga as our daily yoga practice with David as our teacher. Later that day at a gathering with friends we received word through Facebook that Pattabhis Jois, founder of the Ashtanga Vinyasa method, passed out of his body on the very day we committed ourselves to his teachings. May 18th 2009. I say it jokingly a lot but… How auspicious?
Cindee was feeling the same drive to get to India as I was. It took us only about a month of Ashtanga to start thinking about Mysore as an appropriate place to anchor a journey. Still not having a surplus income to work with (this is New York after all) Cindee was gracious and kind enough to loan me the funds to make the trip possible which I would pay back over time when we returned. In October we began to plan. We would study with the teachers David was most connected to in Mysore: Sheshadri and his son, Harish for Asana and Pranayama and we would go to BNS Iyengar (note: different than BKS Iyengar) for a Yoga Philosophy course. Ancient travelers preferred traveling by the full moon so as to light the way at night and for us this journey felt as epic as any other holy pilgrimage made by man so we decided to arrive in India during the Full Moon of early December. This also represented the potential that India seemed to hold for us both.
In an attempt to cut costs as much as possible we decided to fly standby with the help of my brother who works for the airlines. On the 28th of November we got on the first standby flight of the day from New York to Chicago. We then waited in Chicago hoping to get seats on the next direct flight to Delhi at 7:15pm that night. My brother watched the web stats as the flight filled up quickly when another canceled flight unloaded its rerouted passengers onto “ours” and it looked as if we would be spending another day in Chicago. We lurked around the desk, looking hopeful, looking desperate. At the very last moment they called our names and we were given the last two barely-reclinable seats in the back row of the coach section directly next to the bathroom. These were also apparently alternative flight attendants seats for long journeys like Chicago to India. We receive side glances from them as they move their matching handbags off the seats after we slid in just before the aircraft door was closed. We were happy to be on our way.
We arrived at about 10pm local time (after a ten and half hour timezone adjustment and time spent in the air) to Indra Ghandi International Airport, New Delhi on November 30th. Technically two and a half days after we left New York. A long journey for sure but shouldn’t it take that long to get somewhere as foreign to us as India? We had pre-booked a car through the hotel to pick us up from the airport and for the next day or so we hung close to the hotel and caught up with jet-lag through long stretches of sleep and watching MTV India at very odd hours of the night. Once recovered, we were eager to explore Delhi.
My first couple emails home to family went a little like this:
12.2.2009 delhi, india
mama n papa: hired a driver yesterday to bring us around town. saw tombs, temples, elephants, and lots of other amazing things. squatted and pee’ed in a hole style toilet once. now packing up, eating breakfast, and headed to the airport once again for the final journey to the journey. kingfisher airlines- delhi to banglore then a four hour drive to mysore. pics attached. love you. lisa.
12.3.2009 Alive and Well in India
Kazmer Family: After two nights in Delhi we flew into Bangalore and then travelled four hours by car to the city of Mysore, India. We stayed in a very cute hotel last night and tonight we move into our apartment in the Gokula area of Mysore where we will stay for the next six weeks. We walked around town today and have started to get familiar with our surroundings. This area is very westerner and yogi friendly. A man named Ganesh is our source for a lot of information. He runs an internet cafe restaurant, hires out drivers, and got us our apartment.
Met a guy who runs a restaurant that serves as a yogi hang out who used to teach at a studio I work at in New York City. Met a man from Jordan who is studying accounting here. Met a woman from Sweden at a dress shop. Drank coconut water from a freshly chopped open coconut. Have squatted a few times to pee! Have experienced prejudice or maybe just cultural differences. Have been the minority like never before. Drank Masala Chai. A few kids have come up just to get a better look. Saw goats, pigs, cows, dogs, and elephants walking around on the street. It’s fantastic. pic’s attached. xoxo.
Sending love from the East,
These emails only hint at the immense culture shock I was experiencing at the time. India is an unadulterated shock to all the senses of the body. Hot and smoggy, loud and crowded, “fragrant”, and intense! Simply put, different than America in every imaginable way. Having only traveled internationally to Jamaica and Puerto Rico before this, the poverty witnessed in India shook me to the core — particularly the begging children and slums along busy roads. I also remember feeling such a strong sense of my gender and my whiteness and how that left me feeling more vulnerable then ever before. That being said, I felt like I had the capacity to handle it, to make my way through the awkwardness and maybe even the danger. Of course, this is not anything parents needs to hear when their little girl is off in a foreign land. Plus it really was pretty fantastic to use my first squat toilet and drink the juice of a freshly chopped coconut — not particularly in that order.
Upon arrival to Mysore and for the next six week we settled upon a fairly steady schedule of yogic studies. At about 4:35am we would wake to shower and dress for the day. The water heater took 10 minutes to warm up so I think I would actually wake, hit the snooze button, get out of bed to turn the water heater on, and then fall back asleep as it heated up. Everyday at 5:15am Raju, our ever-so-dedicated rickshaw driver, would be waiting for us downstairs. “Hello Madam” he would greet us with a wide smile and endearing head-bobble. Bundled up in leg warmers, a knitted winter cap, and hoodie we would ride on quiet, wide, empty city streets for thirty minutes and arrive at the Yoga Shala on a backstreet of the city center.
At 6am our teacher Sheshadri would begin guiding us in Sun Salutation A and B while him and his son gave deep hands-on adjustments to the postures; picking up our ankles and letting us develop our back bend in upward-facing dog, strong sacrum presses in dog-down, and assisting those who added in some handstand work to the standard Surya Namaskar. From there students would continue on self-guided through the remainder of the Ashtanga Primary, Second or Third Series depending on the individual practicing. There were students just starting out in yoga, those who were through the Primary Series, and those whose asana practice was very established, deep, and honestly quite inspiring. Sheshadri is known in Mysore for his intense adjustments. Acrobatic at times, he would stand upright on your hip bones while in a full wheel and tell you not to drop him! He would sculpt students in deeply bound twists and jokingly tease you when you stopped breathing. He would offer every person in the room attention and assistance so that you felt seen and cared for yet his seriousness inspired you to come to your practice with effort and discipline.
Most students would practice every day till about 8am. I began to stretch my practice, which had only started a few months before arriving, to include the entire Primary Series and a little of the back-bending of the Second Series. At the end of each practice I would take a luxurious 40-minute rest in Savasana with the sounds of a burgeoning Indian morning outside the windows as my soundscape; fruit sellers melodically announcing their products in the local Kannada language, singing birds in the coconut palms that surrounded the Shala, and the ever present sound throughout Asia in the mornings, the clearing of phlegm. After a bit of a break a small group of us would stay for an additional class to learn and practice Pranayama (breath work) from Sheshadri. Afterwards we would often join other yogis at a local restaurant for a South Indian breakfast of crisp masala dosa, fluffy idly, parathas, or my favorite; a blend of semolina, vegetables and spices called Khara Bath. All of this would be paired with sweet and strong South Indian style coffee or a hot cup of spicy Masala Chai. To this day and many countries visited later, South Indian breakfast is still one of my all time favorite foods in the world.
From here we would walk about a kilometer to Mysore Mandala Shala where we would take an hour long philosophy course with BNS Iyengar. Now in his eighties, BNS studied alongside BKS Iyengar and Pattabhis Jois from Krishnamacharya at the Mysore Palace during the dawning of this modern golden age of Yoga that we are currently in. In his discourses, BNS walked us through the definition of yoga and the philosophy of the eight limbs as well as a brief history of yoga as he knew it. He broke down the chakras, vayus, koshas, and kleshas and how they relate to the elements in the physical body. In the afternoon, I would rewrite the notes I took in an attempt to understand as fully as possible the knowledge that he was imparting on us.
In our free time in the afternoon and our weekly day off on Sunday, we explored Mysore. We took a trip up to Chamundi Hill where a grand temple is adorned with beautiful sculptures and feisty monkeys fighting over bananas. I went to a local Hindu temple on Buddha’s enlightenment day and pinned a jasmine mala in my hair. We wandered through the bustling downtown marketplace and bought hand rolled incense and shiny bangles. We had a few pieces of clothing custom made at a tailor. As time passed, we slowly became more comfortable with life in India. In Indian heat, the winter solstice came and left, the power went out in the apartment on Christmas day, the full moon shined brightly on New Years Eve night, and friends gathered on our roof/patio for Cindee’s birthday a few days later. Our time in Mysore was drawing to a close. We said goodbyes to our teachers we had learned so much from and farewell to new friends we had met along the way.
On the way back to the US, I chose to spend a day in London and was very happy when a friend from my yoga teacher training allowed me to crash on her couch because at this point my bank account had a whopping $60 remaining in it. Delirious from jet-lag, I wandered on foot through the streets of London. It was a surreal transition between India and New York City. A modern fast-paced city like New York with a glittering theater district but the light switches worked as they did in India. Where am I? I attended the Evensong at Westminster Abbey but wanted to slide my shoes off as I entered the church. I walked by the Parliament Building, Tower of London, and London Eye at night. I made a collect call to my parents from an iconic red telephone booth. In the morning I thanked my gracious hosts, threw my huge hiking backpack on, walked along the canals of South East London, and hopped on the tube. I went to the Tate Modern Museum (donation priced and they make you check your bag!) and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre before returning to the airport thirty hours after arriving in the UK. At Heathrow I scrounged up the last of my British coins, Indian rupees, and US currency and literally bargained for a toasted bagel with what I had. No problems getting my standby seat on the way back to New York. From JFK, I joyfully rode the subway back to the Upper East Side happy to be home in NYC but ever so grateful to the journey. My two roommates greeted me with a room full of flowers and a delicious Brooklyn Blackout cupcake from Two Little Red Hens Bakery waiting for me on my bed. In the morning, I woke super early and… went to Yoga.
As Pattabhis Jois would say, “Do your practice. All is coming.”