Because this is a blog and because blogging lends itself to lists and roundups, I'm gonna try to avoid the how to dress in/do's and don'ts for/how to survive 40 days in/ what others won't tell you about traveling in--India. If you want to read that, it's out there. Instead, this is what my friends and teachers would call an instance collection: a series of vignettes, some short, some long, that will hopefully create a composite narrative, at the very least of my time there. Not imminently practical travel advice, per se; but hopefully deeply useful personal reflection, that will make you think about yourself, and how you move through the world around you.
when your fist opens
finally, the bird you've trapped
inside can fly home.
The first few hours and days were a struggle of contract and release, contract and release: something in me wanting to be sweet, soft, wanting to release and let go; and something else groping, unsure, certain that the only thing I can do to protect myself is clinch, grip, hold on. Fear is like sweat on me here, in the corners of my face, my thigh creases, the small of my back: anxiety about being the only black woman in this white yoga community in a country of brown people, anxiety about standing out, about "doing it wrong, about getting lost or harmed or hurt, and being so far away from what I know. I chose this, I know that. I wanted it, and I still do. but that choice doesn't make my time easier.
On the crowded, dark British Airways flight from London Heathrow to Delhi, a well-fed white man pokes at his smartphone in confusion, and mutters a few phrases to the bearded steward nearby perched in front of a row of chairs. I am already seated, in a seat that is bigger than some, but still feels small, and they are a few rows in front of me.
The flight attendant is wearing a royal blue suit with red accents. He says to the man with his phone out, "Sir there is no Wi-Fi here, we want you to connect to God."
I laugh. The man with the phone does not think this is funny. This makes me laugh even more.
The first four or five days were like moving through a world that was alternately fascinating and dilating, soothing and grating. I'd find myself feeling so excited to eat pona rice, flat and dry and gently spiced, with perfectly salted roasted peanuts. Then two hours later I'd suppress an urge to hurl my journal down and flip a table over, I was so irritated by... whatever. By everything and nothing. The jet lag is like a meat mallet: you can't avoid it, and it pounds you into surrender; I think it accounts for a large part of what Westerners describe as "the Magic of India." We arrive here sticky-mouthed, smelly, bleary-eyed, confused, ready to push the bar and get our miracle or enlightenment or supernatural experience, whatever cultural tourism checklist we've brought in our pocket. And then things go wrong, and we run out of energy or caffeine, we run out of the ability to resist or struggle, and the culture, the heat, the vibration descends on us.
It is strange to go to India and tell people that you teach yoga, when they (inevitably) ask what do you do? At least it was for me. I felt that on some level I'd co-opted a practice that was an integral part of the spiritual and cultural landscape of Indian culture for centuries, and added glow sticks and goats and wine and Lady Gaga and $98 (or more) translucent pants that are probably made in India and sold to the women who populate my classroom so I can scrape out some kind of living. Yep! I'm part of that wave!
(I want to resist a strong urge to write that the yoga that I teach is different, and to list all the ways I've constructed my teaching to consciously work against the capitalist consumerist culture of the west, even while being stuck--by choice and circumstance, I'll acknowledge--in the machine of our economy, blah, blah, blah. That's important. But the instinct to say so isn't important; it's just defensiveness; pride; asmita.)
The time (two weeks) I spent at the ashram was so clarifying, and so painful, and so moving, and so maddening. I've spoken to yogis at home, and they ask about it with a shine in their eyes, part mysticism, part skepticism, part intrigue, part envy--did your third eye open and did you have visions and did you hurt yourself because some teacher gave you a lousy adjustment, are you enlightened, have you been changed? And the answer to almost all these questions is Yes & No. So, because I am unable to put this part into a narrative that is interesting, and easy to follow, a list:
Lessons I Learned at the Ashram
- (part of) my work as a student and teacher of this life practice, yoga, is to talk to yogis of privilege about their privilege (generally speaking, I think this means, but is not limited to, white privilege) and how it manifests in their practice.
- Because, you know, that happens.
- Most (white) yogis do not know how to discuss their privilege, much less have much interest in doing so. At All.
- People who have chosen or discovered that this is their work must be UNCOMPROMISING in their self-care routine. At its best the work is challenging and full of discovery, and at its worst, it bleeds workers dry. Your nervous system cannot tolerate this sustained calling without deep, righteous, meaningful and sustainable nourishment.
- Yogis hurt each other, even super yogis (especially super yogis. With all of our resources and practices, we still have not perfected the work of maintaining our personal integrity when we are in positions of power. It is dangerous, insidious, and profoundly damaging.)
- Harm perpetrated in community doesn't just harm individuals, it harms the community. This harm must be processed for further integration. Anything less than this is not healing; it is repression, injury turned inward that will inevitably leak outward and continue to harm.
- A person's capacity to discuss the experience of their harm is in direct proportion to their capacity to process that harm: or, if we can't talk about it, then we haven't dealt with it, or haven't acknowledged it.
- people, even yogi people, will do whatever they can to avoid dealing with harm and pain they "can't" process.
- This practice of hiding from harm undermines and contradicts the practice of yoga.
- The practice of yoga is both individual and communal; the former without the latter is shallow and self-indulgent and the latter without the former is self-righteous and demanding. Neither leads to integration with the Divine.
I thought I went without expectations, but when I left the ashram without the information and resources I was missing, well, I learned that wasn't true. Still, I came out with an incredible and valuable learning experience, brought on by self-study and my willingness to engage with the teachings and the Divine in a forward-moving, unflinching way. Deep questions, asked by myself and others. Sometimes it really hurt. While I don't love the pain, I am grateful for the lessons.
I say that it's hard to be a woman in our world right now, and then I wonder, has it every been easy to be a woman in this world, and I consider that even with all the things that capitalism and patriarchy throws at us, that it's probably easier to be a woman in the company of other women. When we are secure, when we can appreciate others and understand how amazing each of us is, when we remember we are free of the fear that spawns competition for resources, then I bet it's easy to be a woman.
It was not easy for me to be a (black, American) woman in India. I was in the company of men a lot. So many men. Who seemed to feel affronted by my presence, and also pointedly interested in who I was and why I was there. In largely white, western contexts, it is hard to find ease because my blackness makes me different, unsafe, threatening; white people may indulge in racist hysteria, and perceive me as a threat, and then all hell could break loose. In this place, where being brown was normal, but not my kind of brown, I felt as conspicuous as ever, and also at times, as diminished and disposable as any woman ever has.
Still, I saw women Getting It Done wherever I went: women carrying bricks in bowls and stacks on top of their heads; women zipping through traffic in kurtas, jeans, and backpacks, their faces and heads swathed in scarves and sunglasses, on their way to work or university; women perched on the back of motorbikes already overfull with men and children speeding down highways, nursing infants without shame or apology, like breastfeeding in a sari while sitting on a seat the size of a shoebox speeding down the road at 50 kilometers an hour was just all in a day's work (which it is); women deep in devoted worship; women hard at the manual labor of keeping home; women lounging in grassy fields in dialogue with men; women artisans, women in conversation and community with other women. They blew me away.
I can understand why the yogis went (still go) up into the mountains or beside the banks of the rivers to practice being close to God in this portion of the planet. There is such a quiet here. The presence of the elements--of earth, water, fire, air, and space--feels pervasive, like all you have to do is open your eyes and there it is. It hasn't rained while I've been here, but it is hard for me to imagine the way this country changes when it rains.
I like the city. I miss the city. And I understand how my practice would grow, and how it would change me, were I to come to a place like this and dedicate my life to it.
India is like no place I've ever been to. When I returned, a family member said to me, "I bet you're more grateful to be an American now, huh?" It was confusing to me. As critical as I am of my country--of its deeply flawed history, of the profoundly dehumanizing policies and practices that shape its present relationships, both international and domestic, of its complicity and willingness to destroy our planet, of its (ha!) leadership--I have always considered myself grateful for my citizenship. I don't know that I would have an easier life were I a resident of any other country, were my life magically, analogously transferred, and I do know I would have a harder life in many other countries. Still, I saw a lot of people: men, so many men, staring at me with naked, aggressive curiosity (who are you, where are you from, why is your hair like that, what can I sell you?); children, afraid to touch me but still snatching a hand out to reach for a part of me, because to do so they have created some transgression, done something they know they aren't supposed to do; women, who were bored by me, or curious but hadn't the time, or who smiled at me with ridicule in their eyes about my clothes, my features, my clumsy accent; not once did I think to myself, am I glad I'm not you.
India felt very different. Strange and unfamiliar, difficult to digest at times. I learned more about myself on this trip than I thought I could, and I'm certain that those lessons will continue to echo and ripple through my heart, my body, my life for a long time to come. I know there are folks who go to India on an annual basis, and while I would like to go again, I don't have a relationship that would put me in India every year (nor do I have the financial capacity, at least not yet, to travel to India every year). That might change. For now, I can say I'm grateful to have gone. I know myself more deeply as a result of my time there. I hope to return, to continue to know this place, with its complex, brilliant, troubled, and remarkable place within the context of our world. May the path of my life return me to this place.