It usually takes thirty seconds in the pose for people to start to fidget. Sooner if it's toe squat, sitting on lifted heels to open the neglected soles of the feet. I watch it happen. Wind blows through the shala, leaves rustle along the sand-dusted cement floor, and students start to move. Some glance at me with pained faces; their eyes ask how much longer we're here. Nerves fire, sensation arises, the brain reacts, and the body wants an out. Our instinct is to fix the sensation, to lean forward or move our toes. We first attend to what appears to be happening on the outside. Yoga practice, be it asana, meditation, pranayama, or even mindfulness in daily tasks, instead asks us to change our perception of the sensation by changing our minds. Hardwired instincts must be viewed through a new lens.
There's a Sanskrit word for turning away from your senses: pratyahara. Ahara means food, signals from the outside world that feed our senses. It's easy to explain these senses as matter, something measurable that occupies space. The vibrations in the air that move your ear drums to produce sound or the molecules of heated food that pass through your nostrils to produce scent. All of this matter, however big or small, allows you to experience sensation.
"Hallo? Boat ride?"
Most mornings start like this. He is lanky and wears sunglasses and a floppy plaid hat. He approaches me with the same enthusiasm every time. I used to anticipate the day when he'd recognize me and stop asking. But after three weeks I instead meet him with a smile and nod my head no.
The sun is barely visible behind the palm trees. It backlights the beach in a way that makes everything appear as shadows, figures in the water and boats being pushed out to the shiny sea. I walk with my feet in the water. The air is just cool enough that the water feels warm. Each wave peels back and pulls at the grains of sand, revealing tiny crabs that quickly burrow and leave behind pin-sized holes until the next wave picks them up again.
It's 4am, and I'm on a boat. This is one of the few things in India that has happened on time, and I'm grateful that I didn't sleep through my alarm. The boat moves quickly, and the paddles cut through the still water of the Ganga. The driver rows from the front, leaning forward and back with more effort than I can imagine using at this hour. There are only four of us on the boat, and we make small talk as our eyes adjust to the lights along the river that are bright against the dark sky.
It's surreal enough given how early it is, but also because this is what I dreamt of a year ago: sunrise at the Ganga. I played a song of the same name in my classes and Google-d photos of this place in anticipation of being here. It may be the only place in India that held large expectations in my mind.
I was doubtful from the moment the travel agent handed me the bus ticket. It was hand written. He made a phone call in Hindi, told me there was one more sleeper berth available, and confirmed that I wanted that seat. He wrote the location of the bus pickup, a local cinema parking lot, on the back.
I looked at the paper ticket quizzically.
"Now you pay me 1100 rupees," he says.
"This is my ticket?" I ask.
"But it's not printed. Don't you need my name and my age or something?"
"No. It's in my name. Any trouble you call me."
The few crooked blocks from my hotel to the Golden Temple are lined with shops and bike taxis. Every step is met with:
"Shoes! Good price!"
"Come in! Just looking!"
The temperature on its own is stuffy, and the mess of words and traffic and people moving in every direction adds to the heat. I arrived on a bus from McLeod Ganj. When it departed at 5am I was wearing a sweatshirt and two jackets and could see my breath in the dark, biting air. Six hours and another climate away I now walk the streets of Amritsar and mentally curse the long pants, t-shirt, and scarf that I have to wear to be modest.
It was day 8 when I sat across from the monk with a juice box. He looked western, but in silence I couldn't rely on his accent to place where he was actually from. His head was shaved, and he wore layered maroon robes with his right arm uncovered. He looked up and smiled, as though to say hello.
I noticed his juice box because no one else in the dining hall had one. I still don't know where it came from. We were seated near the buffet that held comically large pots of rice, lentils, and vegetables, as well as bowls of oranges and a large tray of lasagna. Food for 120 people. Another table nearby held large dispensers of fresh ginger lemon tea, chai tea, hot water, and cold water. In the 40-degree weather most of us opted for hot beverages. The stainless steel cup doubled as a hand warmer.