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That Feeling:

Waking up from the quiet of dream sleep, that space where you thought there was sound but realize now that this, this new awake place, this sound is so loud that what you had before must have been very nearly silence.

That feeling was riding in the backseat of our taxi as we honked our way through the late afternoon traffic of Bangalore.

We had chanted the Gayatri mantra 108 times in a row just hours before, which surely must have been noise, but this. We had asana’d through a final group practice in the quiet of the ashram, then I had eaten too much smashed sweet rice and papaya, as if I were a choiceless being, one side of a magnet in a sugar bomb equation, before saying goodbyes. The taxi picked us up at 12:30, three of us headed for Bangalore, me for an extra day before my flight to Chiang Mai.

Despite their customary Indian noise, the streets of Bangalore are confusingly, uncomfortably clean. A tenuous balancing act between the influx of Western tech startups and the city’s grit of history, of being India, Bangalore’s often referred to as the Silicon Valley of India and it made me uneasy.

The main drag’s got more than one Bespoke Suits shop, lit up bright neon in the night, and hostels boast co-working spaces. I can’t speak to what was, but I could feel its ghost, and it was eerie to sense how bleached the streets must be as the money has transformed things.

I spent the next day on my own. I took the metro to other parts of town, wandered in The General Direction of a park or a cafe, followed the printed “walking tour” instructions and hand drawn map the hostel host had given me, and let myself be swept along by the Sunday bustling.

By 1 p.m. I was hungry, so when a smiling bald man invited me into his restaurant for “best biryani” I took him up on it.

The floor was concrete, the vinyl booths bursting like old, overstuffed maroon teddy bears at the places where many butts had been. Mutton biryani—I let him choose for me, said “give me your favorite, your best.” After asking what I was doing in India and chatting me up about California, he brought me a giant silver metal bowl stuffed with packed-down fried rice, a plastic plate, and a dish of red sauce that I figured (correctly) was burn-tongue spicy.

New to this, I did not know to dump the metal bowl’s contents onto my plate so I could get to the pork at the bottom without making a rice mess—I made a rice mess all over the table. I did know enough to eat with my right hand, so I got rice mess all over my hand, too. The cashier, a frowny, round man in a stained button-up, watched me from across the room without changing his expression. Eventually he came over, unamused, to dump the rice onto my pink plate for me.

“This is your first biryani?” Everyone in the restaurant was watching me, most of them alone, most of them old men eating skillfully, but the man in the booth beside mine was younger, spoke practiced English. I told him it was, and he assured me I didn’t have to pick up the rice chunks from the table, which I was awkwardly trying to do as he asked where I was from.

Less than a US dollar later, I was full of delicious rice, pork, spice, and the bald waiter’s contagious joy. I thanked everyone I passed on the way out and got a few blank stares, a few head wobbles, shook the waiter’s hand.

The next morning at 6 a.m. I tried to catch a bus to the airport like I knew what I was doing. At 6:10 a man pulled his taxi over and told me (I think) that the bus wasn’t coming. He had insider knowledge, supposedly, and agreed to take less than what a taxi would usually cost. I was already time-crunched for my flight to Chiang Mai, so I let him haul my backpack over to his little white hatchback and stuff it in. We picked up a few more on the way—he’d roll down his window at every bus stop and holler in Hindi what was probably “The bus isn’t coming!”

I arrived in Chiang Mai after dark and immediately felt the ache of a brand new place. New-to-me everything. New abundance of mysterious street food, new ways to say hello and thank you (palms together and slight bow works for both). New so much white skin, the massive tourist faction apparent even from the taxi window. New feelings of moving through space and culture not mine.

The next day I would start what would turn out to be a challenging process of feeling my way into the city where I’d spent a month studying Thai massage. But that first night I didn’t brave the streets—I changed into pajamas, curled up, and slept hard behind my bunkbed curtain.

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I didn’t think I would cry at the graduation ceremony, but alas. One of my classmates stood up, got sentimental, and the tears bubbled right on up.

I am containing more than I know, I know this, all held in a body that Swamiji reminds me is nothing but a rental in this life. (“Relax!” he said often. “You’re on vacation in this body!”) More than a conclusion, finishing this program feels like a big new beginning, a big new window looking out to a view I haven’t seen before.

This was the first night at the ashram--we took a group walk to the bridge I'd come to know well on my almost-daily walks down the same path.

On the last night we join forces with the kitchen staff for a volleyball game on the dirt court they rigged up some time last week. The Finnish athlete, a tender soul of fierce muscle who used to powerlift and now trains other people to do it, is MVP by a long shot. My rib is healing, but I’ve learned in cycles of slight reinjury over these weeks how to truly take it easy, so I enjoy spectator status. I try not to be bummed that I cannot get in there and pass set spike smash.

Here, now, complete. Here now complete. Nowhere to get to, already enough, body okay, just renting, no mine. Are the mantras of the week.

The sunset was best witnessed from the roof of the building next to my room. This sweeping view made any sense of disconnect from the world outside a little less pressing.

A friend came to my room in tears a couple nights back. I was in the shower but hollered from the other side of the cracked bathroom door to come in, to hang out while I soaped up. She leaned against the tile wall of the shower-toilet-sink combo while I rinsed, explained her feelings, they echoed. I wrapped myself in a towel and sat on the closed-lid toilet while we did friendship right.

On the last full day of meditation and classes I wake up at 3:12 a.m. mind racing, ready to reach for my phone and plan my life. I look through old notes and photos to reorient myself.

There are a lot of things I realize it was important not to realize when I got myself into this. Like how thoroughly and for what duration I was about to almost completely cut myself off from what amounted to my life.

A woman sorting crops in the field--she loads her harvest in a basket and carries it up to the road on her head.

In morning meditation I get distracted by the sounds outside. Peacocks sound like kittens. Even though now I know they are peacocks, I can’t not think of a wild herd of kittens out there in the morning mist somewhere as we sit in silence.

Here with these sprinklers, these morning birds, this warm ginger tea. I had some morning meditation epiphanies but sometimes magic evades words, must be talked around.

Future version of self: remember these mornings? The mist, the promise of cool calm, a promise broken by the break of the 8 a.m. sun? Then morning yoga, then a breakfast I still haven’t figured out how to eat without bloat and belly ache. To rice or not to rice? To curry or not to curry? (Verdict, usually: not to.)

Then I walk, out of the gate and down the dirt road, as this sliver of world heats up. Passing fields, cows, people sorting ginger in plastic baskets. Is it inevitable that a people export their finest crops, the fruits of their most loving labor, to richer communities not theirs?

Swamiji and me on graduation day

There were one hundred and eight beautiful things about this place, this experience, and one hundred and eight bitter tastes for balance, too. Maybe I’m older now, less eager to favor the light over the shadows, or maybe there really is something not quite feel-right here. Maybe it is me, maybe it is you, maybe we can’t ever really locate the boundary between us.

Depends on who you ask, I guess. The swami or the crocodile in the river. The teenager who cleans my room once a week or the kid down the street who wants chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. I trust it will take a while for reflection to shift from blur to focus, and to make sense of what this month has been, how it has moved me.

In any case, I’m leaving in the morning. Not for home yet, but moving on. What will I bring back? I am already rolling in the future. Ease? Will I soon sleep soundly through the night?

The centerpiece of our ceremony was a giant om symbol made of puja flowers. Here I am with my hard-earned certificate, post tears.

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On posing with strangers, feasting from banana leaves, and who's got claim to yoga

In early November, I bought a ticket to southern India. I was headed for the next in a sequence of yoga teacher trainings, a month long 300hr course amounting to 500 total hours of certification and (hopefully) the sowing of some new seeds of a practice that first found me when I took my 200hr TT in Rishikesh in 2012. This post is part of a series documenting my journey to and through Mysore, India and AyurYoga Eco Ashram's teacher training program.

The market in Mysore is filled inside and out with bright fruits, veggies, and piles of colorful powders. I took a walk through its narrow halls and outer paths while I was in Mysore on our first Saturday off from yoga studies at the ashram.

Yesterday I graduated from my 300hr advanced yoga teacher training program.

This month was a challenge, a deep-inside parsing of things that still don’t feel quite ripe. Some have burst out of me as tears or joy or laughter or shouting, but most are still self-contained, quiet processes working away behind the curtains of me.

But before I indulge reflection on the course I’ve just finished (I'll get to that in the next post), I want to take you back to Mysore.

My favorite coconut stop. Despite his serious photoshoot face, this guy was the friendliest, smiliest man. For 20 rupees (about 30 cents) he'd chop a perfect drinking hole in the top of a coconut. When I finished guzzling the post-yoga delight, he'd machete a sliver from the coconut's side, cut the coconut in half, then use the husk sliver as a spoon to carve out the meat for me. YUM.

Two weeks ago, on our day off, the second free-time Saturday, I ventured back to the nearest big town. I spent the day eating unlimited delights by (right!) hand from banana leaves, smelling all the incense in the giant Mysore market, and trying not to fall down as I surfed a corner-whipping bus.

I joined three others--an American student, a Swedish volunteer and an Indian teacher--for the rickshaw-to-bus adventure from the ashram to Mysore. After a breakfast of pounded rice mixed with bananas and jaggery, we walked down the dirt path that leads left out of the ashram to the main asphalt road where we hailed a shared rickshaw to the nearest village of Hullahalli.

The dirt road that leads to the asphalt route to Hullahalli. I walked this road pretty much every day, sometimes more than once, for a brief reprieve from the confines of the ashram.

I rode in the backward-facing back seat, watching the asphalt as it spun out from under us and half listening to the conversation behind me about meditation and gender in India.

At Hullahalli’s small bus station we stopped at the public squat toilets, then boarded the unmarked red and white bus to Mysore, lucky/early enough to snag our own seats. Everyone, unsurprisingly, was either sneaking less-than-inconspicuous glances or flat out staring-not-blinking at our group, 75% white as we were, and 100% blabbering in English.

The backward-facing ride in the back of our rickshaw to Hullahalli, where we caught a bus to Mysore on our day off.

While I have moved through most days of my life without any awareness of what it means to stand out, in India I am a spectacle. I appreciate this, reflect on it. One friend, an Indian man I met at a restaurant, reminded me that I represent a gateway to what for many is a far-away shining Better Life. This is a weighty thing I hold as I travel through spaces that aren't mine.

Sometimes locals and Indian tourists put me to work: if I stand still for more than 30 seconds in a public place, at least one person (or an entire family) will approach me for a “selfie.” One selfie prompts others to join in—I’ve ended up in one place for 10+ selfies more than a few times. (“Me too!?” “Me too please.” “Please thanks.”)

These folks had a friend take the pic, though they still called it a "selfie."

They’ll either take the photo of us smiling together with their own extended hand or ask someone else to take it, then thank me and walk away to carry on with their day. I asked my Indian friend what she thinks they do with the photos. “Probably show it off to people,” she said. “Probably put it on Facebook and say ‘Look at my American friend, I have so many friends in California!’”

Quick shot from my seat on the bus from Hullahalli to Mysore

On the bus, continuing our conversation from the rickshaw ride, we talked about what yoga has become in the West. The three of us were eager for the perspective and insight of my teacher, an Indian feminist and Vipassana meditator and one of only two female teachers at the Ashram. I, in particular, wanted her take on two things. One was white Western people in the tradition. The other was the intersections and divergences of Buddhism, in which Vipassana meditation is rooted, and Vedic philosophy, the soil from which Hinduism and yoga have grown.

She talked about Buddhism and Hinduism as deeply interwoven with each other, responses in their own rights to specific class and cultural issues of the South Asian times.

We parsed out a few key differences between the two: Hinduism, even with its first steps of karma yoga, touts full renunciation as the end game (to the mountains with you!), while Buddhism centralizes engagement and action (liberation, when you’ve got it, is no good if not shared, yo!). The latter was for The People—the Buddha himself spoke Pali, the language of the “common folk” (read: the poor, the lower class)—while Hinduism was driven by class divides (enter Hindi, an upper class tongue).

The Mysore bus station was characteristically hectic, and full of stands like this one selling all kinds of packaged and fried snacks. Not pictured: the 50 buses rumbling and honking by tetris-style.

Meanwhile, or also, yoga at its core was born from the need to prepare the body for meditation; when it comes down to it, yoga isn’t beholden to a language, a people, a land. Nonetheless, just like Buddhism and Hinduism and every way we try to understand and communicate about and make sense of our world, yoga has taken its many forms in just as many specific, historical contexts. I, as someone who’s rarely required to practice any historical or cultural awareness as I move through the world, can do a lot to hold all of this as I take on the important task of teaching yoga in the west.

This helps me come to some sort of clarity about what I’m doing here—how a white kid from the US can lay any claim to the tools and practices of yoga. It helps me clarify what makes me so uncomfortable and salty about a Core Power Sculpt class (namely, that it claims to be but absolutely is not “yoga” in its traditional sense) and what I might help shape in the name of yoga (the eight-limbed kind, not just body-focused asana practice) instead.

I grabbed some 10 rupee street food from a busy stand when breakfast was feeling thin. The metal cups are full of spicy water and warm curry. You spoon 'em into the puffed, veggie-filled balls and put the whole thang in your mouth one bite! So. Good.

From the bus we parted ways, our teacher to a family’s for lunch and the other student and I off wandering in search of healthy kid luxuries like spirulina and coconut oil. We made our way to Gokulam, the hippie yoga hood of Mysore where, unsurprisingly, every corner’s got an organics shop. We stopped into a restaurant I’d been to once already per the recommendation of the owner of my pre-ashram hostel: a sit-on-the-floor spot blasting chanting tracks and dishing up unlimited delights on a banana leaf.

We sat cross legged on thin green cushions at a long, low wooden table while a man in a folded-up DUTI (SP) lay giant green banana leaves in front of us and gestured for us to use the water from the metal cups on the table to hand wash our “plates.” This felt like more of a gesture toward the idea of cleanliness than anything, but it seemed important nonetheless. He returned with an assortment of silver buckets and, no questions asked, scooped little piles from each bucket onto our banana leaves.

My unlimited banana leaf thali, a feast dished up by my server from an assortment of metal buckets. No forks in this restaurant, kids.

We used rice and chapati to sop up the curries, lentil delights, and greenish vegetable piles. Everything was so delicious I had no room for speech. My two favorite things about eating with my fingers is 1. Feeling my food and 2. Being forced by circumstance (small hands and lack of practice) into taking smaller bites. I still ate quickly, and the server was just as quick to bring new dishes and refills. It took me a few rounds to realize I’d need to tell him to stop. Ah, the practice of self control.

The aftermath: when I finally told the server I couldn't fit any more daal in me.

I try to watch and learn. People manage to use rice as a vessel with such grace, like the skill of chopsticks, using instead what the goddess gave ‘em, nothing but fingers. They don’t even need to tilt their head back like I do to get the pinch of wet food into mouth before it falls into palm or lap.

On the ride back to the ashram, this one much wilder and also standing (we’d had to sprint to catch the bus, jumping on just as it was pulling away, so all the seats were full), we carried on about how to effect real change in the struggling world. My teacher, a woman whose peacefulness is contagious by mere proximity, kept circling back to education and health care. Only through learning and through tending to our bodies and minds, she said, can we begin to come out of these harmful systems and find our way to justice.

That it comes down to learning together, engaging each other, and tending to the health and healing of our bodies and minds is something I can truly get behind.

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