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.
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.
It's cold in Dharamshala, and waking up to silence is startling. The unassuming rolling hills give way to a backdrop of mountains that sit heavy, their peaks masked by clouds. After a month in the bustling and sometimes confronting city of Chennai, this small town in the foothills of the Himalayas is a welcome change of pace.
Chennai was not high on my list of places to see in India. But just as my teacher in Mysore is from the Krishnamacharya lineage, so is the center in Chennai that is dedicated to passing on his teachings. The Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram was founded by its namesake's son, Desikachar, and it operates mostly as a healthcare center. Students are typically seen one-on-one after being referred to yoga therapy by a medical provider. In Krishnamacharya's later years he emphasized that this direct approach was the most effective way to teach all aspects of yoga: physical, breath work, chanting, and meditation.
The guesthouse rooftop in Hampi overlooked boulders and ruins. A slightly muffled speaker plays well-known songs in unexpected remixes. The last one was a reggae rendition of "Hello" by Adele. Everyone is seated on the floor on large cushions arranged around tables supported by red plastic Coca-Cola crates. Some people play chess; others read books or type away on their phones. Some nab spaces near the walls to nap.
This is my first experience with backpackers. Mysore was full of yogis. Hampi is full of backpackers. Despite the weeks I've now had with my pack, including the night on a train sleeping on it that it took to get here, I still feel like an outsider. As though it might be treasonous to admit that as happy as I am with the budget accommodations here, I'd also be happy to stay somewhere with western toilets and hot water.
Of course, this time in India is intended to be more about experience rather than comfort. And everything is relative. Roughing it to me could be downright luxurious to someone else.