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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”)
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!’”
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.