I got home from India four days ago and am grateful for a quiet week in which to recover from my jet lag, slowly unpack my bags, and reflect on my experience. Re-adjusting to my daily life back here in Pemberton feels strange, not only because there is a thirteen hour time difference to reconcile, but primarily because of the fact that to visit India is to quite literally visit another world. It changes you, and it changes the way you look at the world you regularly inhabit.
This was my second visit to India, and I loved it even more than the first time I went. India is such a sensory extravaganza that it is virtually impossible to take it all in and process all that you have seen and felt the very first time. It was on this second visit that I began to sense I was more truly seeing what was going on and to feel more at home in the chaos of it all, allowing me to have a much fuller experience. It was on this second visit that I knew India would be a place I will continually return to so that I may come to know it more completely.
I have been studying yoga seriously since the late 90’s and have long wanted to visit the land out of which this practice that has so meaningfully impacted my life arose. For many years this was an impossible dream as I was a young mother who was working hard to make ends meet. Taking off to India by myself was simply not an option, and I knew that it was not a place that my young son would enjoy visiting as he was a quiet boy that became easily overstimulated in busy environments- and India is a busy place. So I put India on my bucket list and wondered if I would ever truly make it there. Then one day I went to my friend Crystal’s house and she showed me her photo album from her visit to Rishikesh in 2010. When I saw the images of those colorful streets, the faces of the people- and the cows!- my desire to make my pilgrimage to that sacred land was re-ignited. A couple years later Crystal and I decided to co-host a retreat to India. As soon as we began to speak about it we were both overcome with excitement. It felt incredibly right. Our first retreat sold out and we were blown away by the fact that so many of our friends and colleagues wanted to experience India with us.
My first visit to India blew my mind. Honestly, the whole experience felt somewhat surreal, like I couldn’t quite believe I was there. Watching the Ganga Aarti in Rishikesh, wandering the ancient streets of Varanasi, seeing monkeys swinging from the trees and building tops, drinking lassis in colorful cafes, witnessing the great cremation ground of Manikarnaka Ghat, and falling asleep to the sound of the Breath of Shiva coming down from the mountains and scouring the streets of Tapovan- all of this felt like a dream. A bright and fabulous dream.
However, when I came home from India last November I arrived back in Canada with a head cold, a pretty good case of Delhi belly, only three days in which to pack up my house and move to our new home in Pemberton. There was no time to reflect on all that I had experienced in India. Instead, it was on to the next big adventure. That feeling of rapidly shifting from one big event to the next would actually characterize my next year. Up until the moment I got onto the plane to visit India again this November I felt as if I had been in a fast moving river of activity, only barely keeping my head above the water. Knowing that I was deeply in need of a greater expanse of space and time in which to reflect on what I would receive from my second visit to India (and the intensity of 2017 up until that point), I worked hard to get as much of my backend work done as possible so that I could sign off for the two weeks I would be away and not feel too much pressure to get back to work quickly when I got back home. I am so glad that I did this as there is much to reflect on.
What I’ve Learned While Visiting India
There are many things I learned while visiting India this year, and most of them were very personal to me and my own spiritual journey at this point in my life. This type of learning does not always occur and I am grateful for it when it does, however, on a less personal level I have a few takeaways that I think would be helpful to anyone who was considering a trip to India. These takeaways are based on my two visits to India both as an individual and as a retreat leader. Obviously, I am not an expert on India or Indian culture, but I offer these tips by way of supporting you in getting the most out of your own visit to that amazing country.
- Learn as much as you can about Indian culture before you land on Indian soil. Without a doubt, many western yoga students who have fallen in love with the practices of yoga as they learned them in Canada, the US, Australia, Europe or the UK have found themselves deeply confronted by Indian culture once they arrive in the motherland. Most modern yoga schools teach very little about Hindu culture and customs, the history of India as a country, or the diversity of its spiritual beliefs, leading yoga students to unconsciously believe that the experience they have of yoga in the west will be mirrored in India. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I strongly encourage you to learn as much as you can about the culture and customs of India before you visit so that you can get the most out of your trip. Otherwise you may find yourself confused by the strangeness of it all and as a result, will likely miss out on the beauty and significance of much that you see. In the west, we tend to compartmentalize between the sacred and the mundane. We like our churches and temple spaces to be quiet, clean and rarified. Whereas in India some of the most sacred sites you can imagine are noisy, messy and chaotic (by our definition). If you are used to practicing yoga in spaces that are pristine, with an abundance of props and creature comforts at your disposal (such as filtered water and towel service), or if you are used to doing a practice that focuses on physical alignment, stripped bare of any spiritual or ritual elements, you may find yourself catapulted way beyond your comfort zone while practicing yoga in India. All of this is, of course, a good thing, why go to India if you don’t want to open your mind? However, if you can learn a little bit about what to expect before you go I guarantee you will enjoy yourself much more. (see below for a short list of books I recommend)
- Be a wise traveler, but relax- and trust people! While it is important to be smart when traveling in a foreign country such as India, especially as a woman, I think it is also important to relax and meet people in a trusting and kind way. I saw many examples of western tourists meeting Indians with suspicion and mistrust and this does not allow for any type of true relationship to develop. I think much of this comes from the fact that many of the interactions that tourists have with Indian people are transactional (renting a hotel room, buying stuff in a shop, ordering a cab etc), and if you are new to the way that these things are often done it can be off-putting simply because it is so different then what we are used to. It is a fact that if you are buying something in a shop you will be given an inflated price at first, this does not mean that they are trying to rip you off, it is simply the way things are done there. You are expected to engage in a bargaining process. Most Indian shops do not have fixed prices, the price is fluid depending on what you are buying, how much you are buying, and when you are buying it (the first customer of the day is auspicious and gets a better deal!). Please understand that as a westerner and a tourist you are going to be asked to pay a higher price right off the bat simply because you have more money, or rather because your money has more value. One Canadian dollar is worth 50 rupees, that’s 65 rupees to each US dollar and 85 rupees to one British pound or Euro. They know that and so, of course, the price they ask you at first will be higher than the price they might start off with for a customer who is on pilgrimage from Rajasthan or who is visiting from Mumbai. Relax into this and have fun with it. Be clear about your boundaries when you are being invited to look at someone’s wares or are telling a tuk – tuk driver what you think is a fair price, but resist creating judgment around the experience and you will find you can much more quickly meet people on common ground.
- Dress appropriately. Tight western yoga clothes are not appropriate on the streets of India- or in yoga class. It is considered respectful to ensure that your knees and upper arms are covered and that your clothing is not revealing. Covering your head when entering temple spaces is also a show of respect. Dressing appropriately will ensure that you get less negative attention, and in truth, this way of dressing is very comfortable. I love the loose and light layers that I wear in India and think that the kurta (and of course the sari) is incredibly flattering while also being modest.
- Receive hospitality graciously. Indian people are outrageously generous once they know and trust you, and show their generosity through hospitality. When you are offered a cup of chai by a shopkeeper, are invited to share a meal with someone, or asked to come to a special event as a guest know that you are being honored. While you might not always feel it is wise to accept these gifts when they are offered to you, if you are willing too you might just find yourself dancing at an Indian wedding, eating gulab jamun while being shown the family photo album or sitting on the floor with some new friends sipping tea and making meaningful connections. Please understand that I am not encouraging anyone (especially young women travelers) to go out drinking with men they don’t know or to go somewhere they have never been alone, but I am encouraging you to be gracious when you are offered the gift of hospitality, and when you must refuse to do it with as politely as possible.
- Loosen up about time. As our friend Amit of Cooking Masala says- “you are on time in India if you arrive on the same day”. Westerners often have to adapt to IST (Indian Stretchable Time), and get used to the fact that appointment times and commitments have a fluid quality to them. Again, this can be powerful medicine for those of us who are rather uptight about time and like to control everything. But it takes some getting used to. The sooner you can surrender to it and adopt an easygoing attitude (insert Indian head wobble and a Hare Om here), the sooner you will begin to enjoy yourself in India. Slow down, don’t rush, be open to your plans changing, and allow yourself to relax into this and you will find it is actually very freeing. Now in saying this, I want to make it clear that each time we ordered a cab for the airport or a day trip the driver showed up a few minutes early and was ready to depart at the scheduled time- so don’t worry about that- but everything else is on an “it depends” basis!
- Be curious. If your visit to India does not make you deeply curious about its people and it’s customs you have missed out on an opportunity to learn. Observe everything with an open mind, be willing to try new things, and when you get back home do some more learning so that you can have a greater understanding of some of the things you saw. If you were raised in the western world and were not exposed to South Asian culture growing up then expect that you won’t “get” India right away. It will take time. Be willing to keep learning and allow your perspectives to shift. A visit to India will absolutely change your life- if you let it!
Even though I have been a passionate student of yoga, Hindu culture, Indian history, and philosophy for many years, I still feel I know next to nothing about the country and its people. I have so much more to learn and I am excited about that. I will be returning, again and again, and I know that with each visit my understanding will deepen. You can see a photo album of my last visit here on my Facebook page, and if you want to join us for our 2018 adventure you will find more info here.
This is a short list of books I enjoyed that helped me to understand more about India, and it’s diversity, while also learning more about its history and some of the ways of Hindu spiritual practice. It is also important to remember that while Hinduism is the major religion of India at 79% of the population, India is also home to Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians. This reading list is far from exhaustive, but I think represents a good starting place.
Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion
Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India
The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity
An Introduction to Hinduism