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.
Throughout a month-long course here many of the questions posed by myself and my fellow classmates regarding the effects of a posture or technique were met with the answer, "it depends on the student." A way of breathing could energize one student, but give anxiety to another. And bringing that same breath into a posture could alter the effect altogether.
The goal of the Mandiram is not fitness oriented, but rather to end and prevent suffering. In Sanskrit: heyam dukham anagatam. Naturally, fitness ends up being a by-product of this, but like other places I've practiced in India it is clear that the real work is on your mind. Being advanced has nothing to do with what your pose looks like and everything to do with how you're breathing in it and where your attention is drawn.
According to the ancient texts, the highest level of yogi is one who aligns their thoughts, words, and actions. The practice of stacking your joints to 90-degree angles and synchronizing your breath to your movement is the test tube, and the real work is letting that alignment spill off your mat.
I was first introduced to yoga therapy in Los Angeles following a back injury. The work was frustrating. I wanted my fast-paced practice back, and my yoga therapist wanted me to lie on the ground slowly lifting one leg and then the other. After many weeks of gradual progress, I showed up for our session defeated.
"I still can't do warrior 3," I complained.
He smiled, trying not to laugh at me, "Is it really going to ruin your life if you can't do warrior 3 anymore?"
Those words brought me face to face with my ego. I could get the function of warrior 3 from other postures, but I was grasping for the form. I wanted to look a certain way.
The same kind of ego returned during my last week at the Mandiram. Our morning starts with asana practice, followed by a full day of studying ancient texts and theory, as well as practicing breath work, chanting, and meditation. My mind wandered in every practice. My breath (and my patience) was short. The teacher's calming voice was met with my silent mantra of, "I suck at meditating."
My meditation teacher would have argued that meditating isn't something you can suck at because it isn't something you do; it's something that happens. What you can do is make each breath a little longer, and pay more attention to that breath and less attention to your self-berating thoughts. Through the effort of conscious breath and concentration, you might achieve a state of meditation. And if not? The real practice is just in trying.
On my last morning in Chennai I overslept and missed both my alarms. I woke up less than two hours before my flight to Dharamshala and panicked. I threw the final things into my backpack and kept one eye on my phone screen, which displayed an Uber driver on his way to pick me up. Until he disappeared. After four more accepted and subsequently cancelled rides, I woke my apartment manager. He speaks Tamil, so our conversations always relied heavily on gesturing. This time he immediately and compassionately understood my urgency and motioned me to walk down to the street with him.
I followed him out the gate, but he objected, telling me to wait. The usual liveliness of this street was absent, and I watched him walk until I couldn't see him anymore. The stillness was broken by a woman across the street who began cleaning the pavement in front of her home. I watched her draw a beautiful mala with chalk powder. The entrance to nearly every home has one, and way the powder moves from the hand to the ground always reminds me of the way frosting is piped onto a cake with fluidity and precision.
It was a welcome distraction until I heard the clunky sound of a rickshaw. My manager had returned with a driver.
"Airport?" He confirmed with me. I nodded, and he said, "100 rupees."
The driver, presumably noticing the desperation in my eyes, said something in Tamil, and the manager quickly changed to, "300!"
There was no use arguing. I was out of options, and I was fortunate that the principle is of greater consequence than the amount of money at that moment.
The a five mile stretch of highway to the airport initially felt promising, but the relief of moving toward the goal was short-lived. We came to a dead stop amongst dozens of other cars. Scooters took to the sidewalks, dodging the few morning pedestrians, as the cars and rickshaws sputtered along slowly in one giant mass that has no consideration for lanes.
I imagined we must be close to the airport, but the GPS on my phone made my heart sink. Still more than 4 miles away with no sign of traffic letting up.
I had begun to resign myself to the fact that I may actually miss my flight while I was still at my apartment. It felt unchangeable. So I did what any yoga teacher traveling in India would do: I meditated in the rickshaw. And not particularly well by any measurable standards. I fidgeted and struggled to keep my eyes closed, and my mind craved information. But I brought some attention to my breath, briefly pictured arriving at my home-stay in the Himalayas, and I tried.
I knew that my meditation wasn't going to change traffic or make my flight wait for me. The focus isn't on changing what happens; it's on changing how you perceive it.
Ultimately, your perception of the moment is the moment. How you feel colors what is actually happening. To me, this is the great gift of any yoga practice, whether it's moving through postures, applying breath techniques, or sitting for meditation. Yoga allows you to change over time, but also right now.
I arrived at the airport at 6:43am for my 6:45am flight. Instead of proceeding to the entrance, I stopped at the booking window outside. I handed the Spice Jet employee my ticket, explaining that I had arrived too late for me flight. Unfazed, he passed my ticket back and said I wasn't late at all. The flight was now leaving at 7:25am. When I froze in bewilderment, he gestured toward the door.
The flight I (miraculously) made to Dharmashala was booked weeks ago. In December I Google-d "meditation centers Himalayas," read up on the options, and applied to the program that sparked my interest. When I got the confirmation for a 10-day silent meditation at a Buddhist center, I was simultaneously thrilled and terrified.
On Monday my phone, computer, and other valuables will go into a safe, and my ego and I will have 10 days to breathe, be still, focus, read, learn, and maybe have some moments of meditation. Or at least try.