I went to India to Heal. Those were the words I kept saying before I flew to Kerala, India on a years visa. And the other story on loop was the plan was to have no plan. That was going to come back to bite me in India!
The word heal came to me a few months before I left. I needed to let go of London, of striving, of being successful, of being in my masculine far too often. By the way the masculine energy awareness was a recent realisation as I had just read The Heroines Journey which I would highly recommend!
So allow me to set the scene. I had been to India three years previous on a two week holiday. This involved staying at very nice hotels with pristine swimming pools and over the top service. I battled through Delhi, enjoyed the view of Mumbai’s India Gate from my Taj Hotel room and visited Shantaram’s Leopolds Cafe and had eaten at the “local” tourist beach shacks in Goa. (If you know about Shantaram then you just know). I went home loving India and vowed I would be back!
Back to the “the plan is to have no plan” strategy. I was clear on what it was not going to be. I was not going to travel extensively around the vast country of Incredible India as it is affectionately known. I had no interest in hoofing around India to tick off lists. I had done enough of ticking off lists in the workplace. It was also not going to be about lounging on Goa’s beaches either. This is not my vibe nor was it my desire.
The truth was I didn’t know what I wanted, I wanted to see what came up and give myself space.
Before I arrived in India I found the only woman yoga teacher I could in Kerala that ran her own yoga shala (studio). It is the one thing I booked, a one weeks yoga vacation. Let me clarify what this yoga vacation was before you have a luxurious image in your head. It was very basic accommodation, she reiterated this to me several times before I booked which was refreshing and a little worrying at the same time! We had a yoga class in the morning and evening with three yogic meals a day.
Let’s talk about basic accommodation without the rose tinted glasses. You know you read some stories and they say how it was all fine because the sun was shining and I was so happy. Well it was 88% humidity and there was no air conditioning. It was not fine! I had to leave the windows open during the day to try and let the air in. If I left them open at night, there would be more than air coming in. An Australia woman at the yoga shala suggested I leave the ceiling fan on all day so that it kept the air circling. I understood the hypothesis, but that is a serious waste of our resources if every tourist does that.
I asked for a net so at least the mosquitos did not nibble through to my bones. They have a tendency to like me. The bathroom was a depressing green colour, with low lighting and no hot water to wash your hair. I slept zero hours on the first night, a couple on the second and ended up averaging 3-5 for the rest of the week. I never napped during the day as it was too hot. I did hang out in one particular cafe though watching the ocean, reading, writing.
With zero sleep I would usually be seriously cranky, the sharp tongue would emerge, the eyes would be rolling and there would be at least one meaningless argument with my husband. None of that happened. I didn’t pick an argument or get angry once. I was practicing yoga twice a day which is physically and emotionally demanding and I was the most calm I could remember.
I cannot explain it to you. As I wrote in my journal at the time “this is strange I feel like I should be annoyed at the lack of sleep and instead I am feeling nothing”.
It was fascinating to note at the time that I thought I should be annoyed, the naughty chimp wanted me to be annoyed at the lack of air conditioning. I was annoyed the night before the first day of yoga and that night, and after that it faded away.
Practicing yoga in india encompasses meditation, breathing and the asanas (postures) practice. Until then I didn’t really understand the essence of yoga. This was the start of my learning. My sister Eileen who is a yoga teacher had shared with me that yoga is a way of life not just physical postures. I wasn’t really listening to big sis, not consciously anyway.
After leaving the yoga week in Kovalam I went in search of daily yoga classes. The morning yoga teacher Jinu had been amazing so I wanted to ideally package him up and bring him with us. And replicate the feeling I had doing the yoga every morning and evening. As I type this I now realise I was looking for this magic formula everywhere. Sound unrealistic? I was about to meet India full frontal for the next three months.
Yoga is a form of tourism. What now!? Yes it is. Why did I ever think that India would be immune to commercialising beloved yoga? Just because it is the birth and heart place of yoga why did I think it would be different. Why did I think this country would hold it sacred and only be provided by those that wish to share this gift with us Westerners. Of course there were genuine individuals, I had to actively seek these out. I stayed a month in Varkala. Some places were so dirty I was rolling around in dust and dirt, another teacher was so busy bending himself inside out he hardly noticed us. Another had an 8.30am class but would often start at 8am so when you arrived you had missed the first half hour. It was incredibly frustrating!
There is a small stretch of beach that at the tail end of monsoon which is when I was in Varkala was the only place you could venture in the water. The currents were strong and unsafe to swim, if you did want to put a bikini or any type of bathing suit on. One day on that beach there was an incident which I know is not uncommon in India and in many other parts of the world. It marked me though, in lots of ways.
A white woman walked passed us to the end of the beach, put her bag on the rocks and emerged herself up to her waist. The maximum any of us on the beach that day were doing. There was only myself, my husband and one other couple on the beach. And a group of seven to eight men larking about on the waters edge with bathers on. They had already asked us aggressively for a photo to which we politely declined. Two of the men began to walk towards us, past us and along the shore to where the woman was. They then stood and watched her in the water, standing between her bag on the rocks and the shore line. The message was clear. We are here to intimidate you.
I could feel my heart thumping loudly from both fear and anger. Fear for myself if I had been on my own and anger for her and all women that have to put up with this intimidation. I was mindful that if my husband stepped in that the testosterone levels and aggression from their friends may escalate. There was a “lifeguard” on duty, which was essentially a mature man with a whistle. He will not save you if you are drowning he is there to observe and blow his whistle. I looked up at the top of the rocks behind me and I saw he was also watching.
I started to gesture to him, pointing to her and mimed to him to whistle and wave them away from her. He did, they moved away from the waters edge and moved back towards her bag and sat down. I did more gesturing at him. He walked over above them on the rocks and whistled them away. They walked away. Annoyed at him. It took at least 15 minutes for my breathing to return to normal. We stayed long enough to see her come out of the water and men leave her alone. I regret I didn’t go over to her that day. I didn’t want to draw more attention to her.
As a very independent woman I struggled with how women are treated in India. I am not blind for one second to my own society. However women are at best second class citizens in India, potentially even third, fourth or fifth. They wear their shawls to cover their breasts, the women shared with me, to avoid men’s unwanted attention. This was evident for all ages and part of girl’s school uniform. When we were in Tamil Nadu the women had to finish work and get home before dark as it was safer for them.
The only time I went running in India was when a friend came and travelled with us. We would go running together in the morning in the beautiful countryside amongst the tea plantations of Munnar. Some may find this overly cautious. After that incident at the beach I decide to value myself over my independence and a run. That was hard, running is part of who I am as is having autonomy over my life. I recognise I take both for granted in my life.
Incredible India offered me as much as it demanded of me. We were a group of four for a brief spell travelling. Our reactions ranged from one feeling so privileged to be in India and enjoying all the experiences, to one intensely disliking it, one being pragmatic about it and for me, I fell between all those thoughts. I went and stayed in a Sivananda Ashram which was literally divine. It gave me my much sought after daily meditation practice. I will be forever grateful to India for this beautiful gift. It provided me another glimpse of finding peace and calm amongst chaos.
For a woman who thought yoga was just physical postures. And spirituality is linked to religion. India taught me it is much more than that. It is a way of life. And like Incredible India, you have to experience it. Did I need to go to India for that? No and I recognise I am privileged to have been able to afford the time and resources to go. Will I go back to India? Maybe. If I do I know I will have a plan and book yoga ashrams before I go. That I know for sure!