West Meets East - thoughts on yoga in India and Australia
A trip to India seemed like a good idea at the time. Go to the place where yoga began, where yoga is an integral part of life and where I would feel the essence of yoga. Yoga has a long history in India, where many famous sages taught and contributed to the wealth of yoga literature. Yoga knowledge is by it’s nature constantly growing and evolving. Whilst in India I had hoped to encounter many different yoga teachers and styles to expand and evolve my own practices & teaching techniques.
My first glimpse of India was walking across the border from Nepal, into the bustle, noise, and dirt of a million people all moving, shouting, honking horns, eating and haggling. The ground was littered with garbage of every kind - plastic bags, paper, manure, human excrement and urine, splintered wood, straw, ash from numerous fires, tin cans, plastic bottles - it was filthy. The noise and smell assaulted your senses. Vendors and tuk-tuk drivers eyed you keenly to see if you were a likely customer. Children in small groups, in filthy rags or dressed impeccably, followed you with constant chatter in broken English, begging for money, hand moving constantly from palm to mouth to demonstrate how they needed food. The young girls had a smaller child in tow or perched on their hips, wide eyed and mute. As I was trying to find my bus and tour guide in the chaos, an emaciated women shoved a tiny lifeless infant in front of my face, her eyes imploring me to help. I was unable to respond, no words, no actions would have sufficed. In shock I stood there, until a friend grabbed my armed and dragged me to our bus.
A few times we saw the evidence of poor timing, as the wreckage of a head on collision between a truck and a bus littered the road, creating more chaos as everyone went around it. No tow trucks here. No ambulance either. I stopped looking out the front window of the bus, because my adrenals were on the verge of collapse.
India is a very confronting country. It has so much beauty and splendor it takes your breath away. The people are generous, warm and creative, producing astoundingly beautiful works of art and culture. Weavings, paintings, sculptures, buildings such as the Taj Mahal and music and dancing abounded. But there was so much poverty and chaos it leaves you feeling emotionally bruised and mentally shattered. Keeping an open heart to so much misery and pain was difficult. Life in rural India is lived largely on the streets, in front of small poorly built homes, where the cooking, cleaning, washing (of clothes and bodies), working and playing happens. As I looked out my bus window at the intimate lives of many Indian families, I realised that most people were totally pre-occupied with day to day survival. Yoga was a luxury they couldn’t afford.
On arriving at Rishikesh, the crowds thinned, and the beggars were easier to smile at and wish them well. In a few short days we experienced many yoga classes. Here yoga was plentiful, but the only students were white westerners. There was the yoga teacher who was actually the guy in the office at the hotel, who made it all up as he went along. There was the yoga teacher dressed completely in white from head to toe, who addressed us as "Australia number 1" and "Australia number 2". We didn't do much yoga, he just told us to smile and be happy all through the class, and told us lots of stories. There was the class in an ashram that was incredibly difficult with a CD for sale at the end. There was the class that focused on intricate breathing techniques and hand movements.
In a New Delhi newspaper, the cover story was on the resurgence of yoga in India. Apparently the middle classes are rediscovering yoga after ignoring it for many years, and finding it extremely helpful for dealing with the stresses of modern life!
We are very privileged in Australia to have access to many styles of yoga, as well as the money and the time to do it. Yoga is evolving in Australia to support our lifestyle needs. As we become busier and more stressed, holding tension in our bodies and minds, yoga gives us a tool for releasing it.
Yoga is a method that supports all spiritual practices, and is a journey inwards to support your health. Traditionally yoga aimed at achieving a state of enlightenment. Today, yoga is seen more as a way of achieving equanimity, to balance out our busyness, negative emotions, and preoccupation with the outside world, to the detriment of our inner world.
It took many months to integrate my experience of India, and in the end I came to realise that looking to another place outside of myself for direction in my yoga practice, had brought me back to myself.
“After long searches here and there,
in temples and in churches,
in earths and in heavens,
at last you come back,
completing the circle from where you started,
to your own soul
and find that He,
for whom you have been seeking all over the world,
for whom you have been weeping and praying in churches and temples,
on whom you were looking as the mystery of all mysteries shrouded in the clouds,
is nearest of the near,
is your own Self,
the reality of your life, body and soul.”