We all know that expectations are the root of most disappointments in our life. I personally don’t feel this to be a pessimistic outlook, but a simple truth, and any wise man would likely agree that an existence free of expectations is often a more fulfilling one. Free yourself by simply enjoying all the beautiful moments as they are and not as you think they should or could be.
Try as I may to live this way, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t occasionally place extra special importance on certain things in hopes that they would provide me with a desirable feeling or outcome down the road. Such is true for my 300 hour Yoga Teacher Training in Rishikesh, India. If you had asked me beforehand, I would have told you with certainty that I was going to leave this four-week training course a different woman. I predicted that I would become a more educated, creative, and skillful yoga instructor and channel my inner spiritual gangster to rapidly progress on my path towards enlightenment. I suppose these strong feelings stemmed from a seed that had been planted in September of last year, when I met my gurus at my first teacher training program in Nepal. Their profound teachings (and especially their shining examples) had introduced me to the real joy of yoga, and it forever changed my life. So there’s no doubt that before I had even landed on Indian soil, I was already setting the bar high. I mean, I was training with the same special masters in the birthplace of yoga itself, how could I not be prepared for another life-altering metamorphosis?
And it’s that statement right there that demonstrates what’s both funny and nasty about expectations; everything you think you’ll receive, you get none. And, on the other hand, all the things you least expect bare their ugly teeth. Before you know it’s happening, you begin to learn and experience everything you hadn’t even thought to plan for.
This isn’t to say that I failed to have a drastic transformation as a result of the program, or that I won’t be a more evolved yoga instructor going forward. Yet, in all the ways I had expected myself to grow and blossom, I simply did not. Instead, I learned a plethora of life lessons that can’t be taught in any classroom or yoga shala; even by the most pure and magical of beings (and, believe me, they really are every bit as enchanted as I remember).
India is without question the most vibrant and stimulating place I have ever travelled. When one is healthy and wide-eyed to this cultural world, it proves to provide an experience like no other. Beautiful woman in colourful saris line the crowded streets; over-the-top gems and jewellery dangle from their every limb.
Men stand on ledges shouting into the hoards of people to sell their goods; trolleys of fresh fruit, vegetables, chai tea, and samosas.
Cows saunter freely in the middle of the road without any concern for the wild drivers as they weave past.
Loud horns honk continuously from vehicles crammed to the brim with bodies. Woman wash clothing, children bath, and animals drink from the same public water taps.
Red-bummed monkeys behave worse than toddlers and mischievously get themselves into all kinds of trouble.
Millions, if not billions, of flies swarm just about everything in sight (but especially the mounds of cow dung and garbage that litter the virtually unrecognizable pavement below). The air is thick and an aroma, that I can only describe as spicy sweat, rarely escapes your nostrils.
In the past few months of living here, I have come to the conclusion that nothing makes a lick of logical sense in India; and yet somehow it all seems to work. Patience has quickly became my most practiced virtue as nothing or nobody EVER runs on time for anything. Even Indians themselves will joke about it, praising our western culture for its’ incredible punctuality. Equally as funny as their tardiness is the plethora of locals that graciously stop to offer helpful directions, telling you that your desired landmark is ‘just up ahead’ or ‘right around the corner’, only for you to discover hours later (after walking in the 40 degree heat) that that where you’re trying to go is still another 20km away.
Being fare skinned and blonde in parts of this country commands such powerful attention that I doubt I’ll ever get used to it (giving me a small glimpse of what I can only imagine Madonna and Angelina receive on the daily). I’ve never felt quite so much like a tourist attraction as I do when I walk outside to have hundreds of pairs of eyes looking me up and down. Indians will stare, blatantly obviously video tape me in public, and then ask for my photo so it can become their new Facebook profile picture. It’s a concept that is completely foreign to me and, although I know they don’t mean it in any malicious way, feels slightly violating. It has really made me think twice about the content of the pictures I capture for my own personal enjoyment; just because it’s unique and beautiful to me, doesn’t make it comfortable for the person in the shot.
Love it or hate it, India is just so full of life. And one thing that I will always admire, and desperately miss when I’m gone, is this culture’s ability to throw a party. There’s always a reason to celebrate with huge gatherings of people dancing, chanting and feasting upon the most delicious homemade food. Whether they’ve known you for a lifetime or a minute, you’re always invited into their home or place of worship to participate in the festivities.
Which brings me to what I consider to be my most favourite thing about this country; the food! Wow! I think there is not an Indian dish that I don’t salivate over; creamy palak paneer, channa masala, samosas, pakora and the most flavorful dal soups that bring me right back to my nostalgic days of overeating in Nepal. There’s something about the intense spices, the deep colours of the dishes, the way every meal is prepared with love and made in abundance as you order. Even with the 15-hour days of intense yoga training, I was somehow eating enough calories to gain weight… and when the food tasted this good, there was nothing about that last statement that made me want to stop. Twenty-five cent cups of sugary, creamy, coconut-milk chai tea quickly replaced coffee as my morning staple. Vegan peanut-butter chocolate balls from the dozens of “German” bakeries within walking distance of the school always brought a mid-day smile to my face. And depending on how you look at it, my impeccable timing to arrive in India in the heat of summer meant mango season was in full effect; producing sweet lassi after lassi to satisfy any craving. Although I’m used to it now, my diet during training remained strictly vegan (which only confirmed my desperate longing for eggs and cheese). In Rishikesh where my course was held, consumption of eggs is in fact illegal. And even when you can find a restaurant to supply them, they are rarely written on the menu and can’t be taken out to enjoy in the public eye. Aside from the odd craving for what I wasn’t allowed, I was very satisfied with the buffet of food the school provided; and in the first weeks I did not even come close feeling hunger thanks to an abundance of veggie dal, roasted chickpeas, peanut butter banana porridge and the combination of about every curry you could ever think to create with potatoes, peas, onions and cauliflower.
I believe it was at the beginning of week three that things began to migrate slightly downhill. To this day, I still have no idea whether it was the food, the intense yogic cleansing practices I was performing, a virus, or a parasite. . . but whatever it was, it was the most awful thing I’ve ever experienced. Other tourists had warned me about the all dreaded ‘Delhi belly’ and ‘Indian Diet’ before traveling to this area of the world, and I can now confirm it is not only a real thing, but worse than you could ever think possible. Imagine the worst hangover you’ve ever had and multiply it by a hundred thousand. I (half) joked with my mom that the guesthouse I was living could have been burning down and I would have just kept laying in a physical coma on my bed; empty of everything inside me, feverish but unable to sweat because of severe dehydration, and with every single cell of my being screaming in pain. Like most accommodations in India, there was no air con and the ceiling fan did very little in cooling my body from the intense 44 degree heat outside (even at night, the temperature rarely crept below 30 degrees).
I suppose even in my weariest of moments, I could always appreciate my incredible fortune in having the yoga family I did in my company to provide support; if not only for the cool compresses and rehydration salts, but for the compassion and love that most everyone craves when they are unwell and alone in a foreign country (especially my roommate Carla who endured all of my ‘stomach adventures’ and provided hugs at exactly the moments they were so desperately needed). After days of not eating, yet somehow continuing to violently purge my body of everything inside it, I had to be taken to an ashram hospital for IV fluids; an experience I refuse to comment about for the sheer reason that I’ve permanently blocked it from my mind so I need not recall it ever again.
It wasn’t until days later when I began to slowly recover that I was able to recognize the gift I was granted in this whole (terrifying) situation. Like most people, I never really appreciated my strong and healthy body until it became compromised. I never thanked my beautiful heart for pumping all the time without ever taking a day off, my lungs for keeping me alive and full of positive energy, my muscles and bones for allowing me to physically practice yoga for hours every day, and my brain for it’s infinite capacity to learn new things. Instead, I squeezed at extra bits of tummy fat, judged myself for my tight shoulder muscles and cursed my knees as they knocked together in mountain pose. When my hamstrings got sore, I stretched them harder. When I ate chocolate cake, I practiced for an extra hour. And I rarely took the time at the end of the day to honor my body with stillness and compassion. As I look at myself in the mirror now, a completely different reflection stares back at me (and believe me when I say that it has nothing to do with the almost 15 pounds I lost as a result of getting sick that I’m desperately trying to regain). Instead, I see temple; a powerhouse that deserves nothing but honor and respect.
So, the expectation that this 300 hour training would make me a better yoga teacher through intense asana practices and anatomy classes didn’t prove true. In the end, I missed so many classroom days and hours of physical yoga that it just about killed me. Every morning I would wake up praying that I felt healthier and, in a moment of sheer frustration and stubbornness, forced my body to partake in a two-hour Ashtanga class before it was ready. I created so much unnecessary fire inside my belly that I ended up on bed rest, taking heaps of medication I couldn’t pronounce, and essentially right back where I started. In hindsight it’s all so obvious; THIS was the teaching, THIS was the practice. THIS was the training. And regardless of whichever way I thought it would help me to grow, this experience will in fact transform my teaching beyond what I ever imagined.
For starters, I now feel more sensitive to my own self and vow to place my body’s needs above all else. After all, how can I possibly expect to take care of others if I can’t take care of myself? As a yoga practitioner, I’ve added passive, restorative postures and calm, deep breathing into my daily personal practice; trading the heat of powerful asanas for the rejuvenating health benefits of gentle postures. As a yoga instructor, I’m beginning to teach with more empathy for my students than ever before. I am directing my energy into the development of lesson plans which use yoga as therapy; sharing information on how each posture and pranayama technique can facilitate in mind, body and spiritual well-being.
For me, being a ‘better’ yogi doesn’t just mean on the mat. India has given me a perspective that’s allowed me to assess what’s really important. I have even more appreciation and love for the family that surrounds me both physically and in spirit on the other side of the world. Irreplaceable souls who sent outpourings of love and prayers in my direction when I was under the weather, called (even when it was well after midnight on a work night) just to check-in, and those who held my hand while I laid fearfully on the hospital bed hooked up to noisy machines. I am so blessed and won’t soon forget it; endless gratitude to you, my angels.
And finally, in what can be a somewhat fast-paced game of life, I’ve learned to give myself permission to slow down and occasionally sit on the sidelines. Above all else it’s my utmost responsibility to take care of this incredible, miraculous, precious body that I’ve been gifted. It’s my most priceless possession, the home to my vibrant spirt and my sturdy platform from which I dream to make a positive impact on this world.
So thank you, body. Thank you for always accepting the challenges of my adventurous mind and wild heart. For being the beautiful vessel to Who I Am on the inside. For getting me to exactly where I need to be. This is my ode to you, body . . . as you are right now. Not as I wish you were, or think you could be one day. Not as I want you to be or tell you that you should be. But to you as you are in this very moment. You’re exactly right.
**some of these photographs have been graciously captured by my classmate and friend, Joanna Dabkowska