So here I am in Rishikesh, the heart of yoga, at the foot of the Himalayas and the mouth of the Ganges. I am here to learn to be a yoga teacher.
Having announced my plans to travel to India, just about every Indian person I know personally contacted me to offer their help in case I needed anything, and contacts of their friends in India who I could meet.
I gratefully took advantage of these kind offers, and asked many naïve questions to some of these, and other friends of mine who had already been to India, of whom I must especially thank the lovely Liss Holborn. Because of this, I have experienced more of a sense of culture surprise than culture shock. In any case, Rishikesh is not such a shocking place compared to other parts of India. It is comparatively clean, peaceful, and safe. Nevertheless, it is nothing like anywhere I have been before.
But the 7 hour drive from Delhi to Rishikesh was crazy, as expected. Firstly, 4 people and an excessive amount of luggage poured into a hatchback without air con, in over 30 degree heat, was uncomfortable. But the unbelievable part was the road. Our driver had to navigate through a jungle of rickshaws, trucks, buses, tractors, bicycles, dogs, pigs, motorbikes saddled with a man, his wife in full sari riding side saddle and their child pinned between them, all without helmets or protective gear; utility vans with 20 people standing on the back holding on, eating, talking on their mobile phones, wiping sweat off of their face, smoking, and vomiting occasionally; and, above all, cows, which float peacefully and aimlessly wherever they feel.
It is an unusual day if I use my car horn once during an entire hour commute in Australia. Our driver used his about every ten seconds. It seems that the more often you beep here, the better and more conscientious a driver that makes you. Instead of having clear road rules, they just beep and hope that other traffic moves out of the way. The braver driver usually wins and overtakes the other vehicles.
Our driver overtook so many other vehicles that our car was actually on the wrong side of the road more often than the right side of the road (which is the left here, like in Australia).
The drive almost had me feeling a little nostalgic about driving along Punt Road in Melbourne.
The passengers were, however, not the only nervous ones. Even though our driver does this commute regularly and clearly has karma on his side, I’m pretty sure I caught him praying a few times after close calls.
When I was not busy watching my 23 comfortable, air conditioned years flash before my eyes, I noticed that much of life here seems to occur right along the highway. We passed various street stalls, most of which are oddly decorated with Pepsi billboards, which sell everything from beach umbrellas to home loans; children knocking on our windows to sell us roses; kids playing cricket in neighbouring fields; and people camped out in huts and makeshift tents; right next to the smoggy, stinky highway.
After all of this insanity, we eventually reached a higher altitude with fields, trees, rocks, and streams, and knew we were nearing Rishikesh.
About 30 kilometres away from Rishikesh, traffic had stopped while an elephant dragged its enormous wrinkly booty along the highway to drink from the Ganges. Apparently, an elephant wandering around by itself is bound to be a frustrated testosterone-pumped male which has not found a mate. Opting for not being crushed, we waited patiently for it to pass.
We eventually reached Rishikesh Yog Peeth, the ashram where I am doing the yoga teacher training course, just in time to drop our bags and attend our welcome ceremony. The ceremony consisted of our teachers chanting for a long time, before our third eyes were painted to protect our souls from invading spirits, and red string was tied around our wrists as a reminder of our commitment and our dedication to the course.
The day after, the course proper began. The itinerary is:
5:30 Wake up
6:00 Herbal tea
6:15 Nasal cleansing with neti pots
6:30 Asana and Pranayama class
10:30 Anatomy and philosophy class
1:00 Lunch, then free time
5:00- 7:00 Asana and Pranayama class
This routine is repeated Monday to Saturday. Sunday is our day off.
During our free time, we are encouraged to study and do our own yoga practice. It is also a great time for an afternoon nap. The other day, I lay down in my second floor room to have a nap. I noticed a figure move quickly across my balcony, which was very odd because it would be almost impossible to reach my balcony without a tall ladder. I opened my curtain to find a monkey half the size of me sitting on my balcony staring at me.
But this was nothing compared to an experience of another girl here, who walked into her room to find a monkey sitting on her bed tucking into her cookies! It hissed at her – they can be belligerent – but she was able to scare it off. I imagine Roshan, our philosophy teacher, would explain this as one of the messages that nature is constantly trying to send us. The message probably being that eating cookies is naughty…
At the ashram, for some reason, quite a few people have been calling me Elizabeth, and though I corrected them, they decided that I really look more like an Elizabeth than a Nikki. So I have been renamed.
This seems fitting, because I feel like I am set to become a different person here. But before becoming this Elizabeth character, who I hope is rather enlightened and wise, I need to be me, many times over, reliving feelings and experiences that I thought I’d forgotten about, in order to really work through them.
I feel that there are two opposing forces at work within my mind: one of peace, and the other of emotional chaos. During the practical classes the former mostly seems to reign, but once I have some time alone, my mind is much more rebellious and turbulent than it usually is at home. This is funny, because I’ve felt quite mentally healthy and well-adjusted for a long time now.
I noticed a sense of inadequacy that I thought had disappeared with my teenage years, guilt regarding others I have hurt in the past, and one day I even had an intense craving for macaroni and cheese… But I’m sure this is all a process that needs to be experienced in order to achieve improved self-realisation.
I will leave you with my understanding of a few of the many aphorisms that have been mentioned in my classes:
“A straight spine is the key to health.”
“When you point a finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing towards you.”
“Our world is raining important information all the time. But you are like an upside down glass, which cannot catch the rain because it doesn’t even know it is there. What you need to do is a headstand – turn your way of thinking, and moving, around, in order to receive the wisdom that is being transmitted to you.”
“The body is the mirror of the mind. We need it so that we have a way of seeing and understanding the problems of the mind.”
“We do not need to attempt to save the whole planet. The planet is already operating according to its nature. It can save itself. This is clear; if humans destroy the planet, it will expel what threatens it (us). What we need to do instead of trying to save the whole planet is to learn to act according to our true nature, rather than working against it, which will in turn restore equilibrium to all organisms.”