By Kelli Harrington, Ed.D
As an avid yoga practitioner and teacher I decided it was time to make the epic pilgrimage to India and find out what the mystery was all about. In my experience, Westerners (many, like me, who practice yoga but have not yet make the trek to the East), seem to have the perception that India is a place where everyone is in an endless state of Nirvana — meditative, peaceful and whole. Knowing the emphasis on physical asana practice in yoga is clearly more of a Western adaptation as per South Asian Studies scholars, I was ready to experience the “authentic” Yoga of India.
I’m not sure I was prepared for the extent of what I found: both chaos & serenity coexisting in every fiber of my experience.
Diwali (the festival of lights, an Indian holiday) seemed the perfect time to travel the Golden Triangle in Rajasthan. Among the trash in the streets, the chaotic markets, the animals, the vehicles (buses, cars, and tuktuks to name a few), the fireworks, the lights, the incessant honking of horns, the yelling, the public urination, the pollution, and millions of people (literally) all trying to get to the same place, there is a flow and ease of life that allows places like Delhi, Agra and Jaipur to move with an efficiency that the average Westerner, in many ways, could not imagine.
Having lived both in the U.S. and abroad in Asia, much of my India experience was not foreign to me in my mind’s eye. However, the reality of daily life in India was a surreal experience of chaos theory that offered a sense of order and serenity within the whirling dervish of pandemonium. Witnessing this in the most visceral sense gave new definition to the term ‘yoga’ for me; I now saw yoga as a union between chaos and serenity as much as a union between mind, body, and spirit.
As if to illustrate this union, a woman sat sidesaddle on the back of a motorbike in the middle of Delhi. My husband and I were focused, on our way to the Taj Mahal in Agra, Uttar Pradesh. However, we couldn’t help but take pause and admire her. Despite the fact that she was not holding onto the driver, that the roads had no infrastructure, that animals, cars and people were in her path and Diwali fireworks were exploding all around her, she sat peacefully perched — no fear, no distress, nothing; in complete connection with her breath.
Throughout our travels we saw some amazing sites, treasures, and pieces of Indian history that were not only breathtaking, but life changing on levels beyond explanation. We were blessed to celebrate Diwali in the homes of two Indian families that invited us to break bread with them. We practiced yoga everywhere — at community centers with fellow yogis, in temples with guides, on rooftops and in hotel rooms. We visited the famous Monkey Temple, a tribute to the great Hindu deity Hanuman, and participated in a puja with Hindu families. But there were no magic carpets, sun salutations or advanced posture sequences and workshops. There were no fancy yoga clothes or the latest sticky mats. Rather, yoga was happening in the world around us. Throughout our travels, the true yoga we experienced was the surrender to chaos and serenity.
Ultimately, the yoga of India is cannot be defined by an asana practice. It’s a clear lifestyle, which for the yogi traveler who is receptive, has crazy-beautiful residual effects that will last a lifetime.