Knowing yoga helped me feel at home in India
When you visit or move to any new country, there are so many things to get used to. This is especially true if the new culture is extremely different from what you’re used to. And India is about as far from orderly, efficient, sparsely populated, wealthy and cold Canada as you can get. However, one of India’s most popular cultural exports, yoga, was readily available in my hometown (Toronto) and I practiced and studied it for well over 10 years before I set foot in India for the first time.
India hits most foreign visitors with sensorial overload, especially during the first few weeks after arrival. It takes time to become acclimatized to the crowds, noise, pollution, language, culture, religious practises and the way people relate to each other, and to foreigners. On my first trip to India, I was lucky enough to stay with family friends in Delhi and was somewhat shielded from the inevitable culture shock first time-visitors to the subcontinent experience. But I will never forget the first time I traveled by car.
My friend drove me to one of his favourite restaurants, and I felt like I was on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. A simple drive to a restaurant a few kilometres away left me feeling lucky to be alive! As we careened in and out of traffic, cars and trucks honked noisily around us, motorcycles carrying entire families zipped by, cows strolled lazily along and no one was paying any attention to their lane … it was madness.
Yoga helped me feel more at home
Knowing yoga seemed to pave the way for me to gain a quicker understanding of India’s culture. It made my adaptation easier and my stay (12 months in total) much more satisfying. As I traveled throughout the country, I visited several yoga ashrams and studied with several teachers. I felt calm and confident in these environments and the experience gave me a deeper insight into the country’s spiritual life than I might have had.
Yoga is one of the six schools of Hinduism, and India is a predominantly Hindu country (85% of the population is Hindu). Through yoga, I was introduced to the spiritual philosophy of Hinduism, which is very different from the Judeo-Christian worldview I was brought up with.
Through my yoga studies, I arrived in India already familiar with many spiritual and religious practices. I was very familiar with the om symbol, which is both the symbol for Hinduism and yoga; and I knew the Gayatri Mantra, which is one of the primary prayers in Hinduism. I also knew some common chants, and was familiar with Hindu imagery, some of the more popular gods, such as Shiva, and the “bible” of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita – which is also one of the most important books in yoga.
Yoga also gave me some familiarity with the language. Many of the terms used are in Sanskrit, the language Hindi derives from. For example, surya namaskar (sun salutation) is a common yoga practice, which taught me the words for sun (surya) and hello (namaskar).
Without my yoga studies, I would have had a much harder time understanding the behaviour of people who are not as achievement-oriented as we are in the west. Many people who go to India cannot understand why a shopkeeper would rather go home and have tea with his family than sell you something. India’s systems often seem archaic, inefficient and slow to us – but it is because they run on different values.
There is a big difference in the mindset and culture of a people who believe that you only live once, as compared to people who believe that you live again and again. Such an expansive view of time and opportunity seems to make people much more relaxed about things!
Yoga gave me a window into India’s culture. But I believe that studying dance, a musical instrument, history or some other aspect of the culture could have provided a similar window.
Finding something specific in a new culture and studying it before you arrive is a bit like creating your own welcome committee. And it can work with any culture.
Where to go for yoga in India
Yoga students from the west are extremely well received in India and there are lots of programs developed specifically for them. Sincerity is the only requirement; experience is not necessary. There are an unaccountable number of yoga ashrams in India, but many of them cater to Indians and would therefore be unsuitable to most foreigners. Listed below are some of the best ashrams and organizations for foreign students.
Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram, Risikesh
Rishikesh is the yoga capital of the world and foreign students flock there all year ‘round. There are many, many ashrams, courses and programs available – some are more suitable for foreigners than others. I stay at Anand Prakash, which was founded by an Indian yogi and his Canadian wife. Best of both worlds!
Aurovalley Ashram, Rishidwar
This is my “home” ashram. Situated between Rishikesh and Haridwar, the ashram is a garden, surrounded by meadows and ringed by a national park. Founder Swami Brahmdev teaches the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother: all life is yoga. There are no programs or courses here, and it is in a somewhat isolated location: it is an ashram best suited to people who do not need structure.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is one of the leading spiritual figures in India and his Art of Living courses are highly regarded. Headquarters is in Bengaluru (Bangalore), but there are courses in many places.
Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, Mysore
K. Pattabhi Jois developed Ashtanga Yoga, which became a world-wide phenomenon. The highly venerated teacher passed away recently, but his yoga shala is still going strong. It is situated in beautiful Mysore, which is also a yoga centre. You will have to sign up in advance for courses as they fill up.
Sri Aurobindo and his spiritual partner, The Mother, are considered leading spiritual figures of the 20th century in India. The Mother established Auroville as an experimental, world community. Set among lush palm groves and white sand beaches north of Pondicherry, there are many accommodation options and courses available.
Bihar School of Yoga, Bihar
One of the leading schools of yoga in India for locals and foreigners alike. It is a very well-regarded school, but it is in a remote and poor region of the country. Students tend to go for extended courses.
BKS Iyengar is probably one of the world’s most famous yoga teachers. His centre in Pune, near Mumbai, attracts students from all over the world.
Sivananda is world-wide organization that specializes in yoga teacher training. Their ashram in Kerala is very popular, and is situated in a lovely, lush area of beautiful Kerala.
Krishnamacharya was considered to be the teacher of teachers (Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois were among his students). This teaching centre is highly regarded and is perhaps the best place to learn therapeutic yoga. It is located in a very urban area of Chennai, India’s fourth largest city (formerly called Madras).
IMPORTANT NOTE: In the wake of the conviction of yet another so-called “Godman” in India — Ram Rahim to 20 years in prison for raping two of his followers — I feel it’s important to warn women seeking spiritual guidance in India to be very careful. Unfortunately, these incidents are more common than we would like to believe. Spiritual teachings are powerful, worthwhile, and rewarding. However, spiritual teachers are just people. In the end, I believe we each have to be our own Guru.
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