Only 10 days into a more than three month yoga teaching and therapy training program in Mumbai, India, and I’m already thinking of leaving early.
“The training isn’t what I want,” I resolved a few days ago. “I don’t even want to work in the yoga field anymore. I’ll just get back to North Carolina and get an office job.”
And the next day I decided, “The food isn’t working for me. It’s giving me heartburn.”
And the next, “I don’t sleep well here, sweating on this thin, hard mattress. I’ll get sick if I don’t get enough sleep. I should go home.”
How easy it is to convince oneself of, well, just about anything. Do you feel sick? Focus on feeling sick and, very quickly, you will. Thinking that your partner isn’t what you want anymore, that you’d be better with someone else… Focus on her negative traits and you’ll soon leave her. Feeling homesick? Keep thinking about it and you’ll soon find yourself on a plane.
What I love and loathe about being here is the rawness of things, from the filth on the street to the way people speak curtly and honestly.
“What’s that on your face?” a student asked me one day, referring to the unsightly blotches on my forehead and cheeks, evidence of sun damage I acquired after living in the desert for so long. I can’t imagine someone I just met in the U.S. asking the same question.
Further, the vast amount of suffering here still baffles more than upsets me. I have to keep reminding myself that we see suffering everywhere we go: it might be the well-dressed lawyer on the verge of a heart attack who hates his life but keeps making the same choices each day; it might be the dog I saw on the streets this morning, wandering aimlessly, his skin pink and hairless, his tail and ears singed, his body covered in burns. When I spied him by the train station, I quickly employed a trick I learned from a friend who has spent much time in India: to make my eyes unfocused, blur my vision, so I can’t see such sights clearly. Otherwise, I won’t be able to stay.
But somehow the harshness of daily life for so many is not even the hardest part about being here. Neither is the heat and humidity, or the feeling of never being clean or rested, or eating strange food that, some days, I don’t even like. These obstacles are manageable because I know that I can be back to my old life in 36 hours if I choose.
What is difficult is quite surprising. That one classmate that grates on my nerves; or not having the time to go shopping like the spoiled American princess that I am; or being required to be in class at certain times. In other words, it’s the same old silly stuff, what I like to call chronic dissatisfaction syndrome, that creates problems.
The absolute beauty of yoga, this science that teaches how to control the modifications of the mind, is that one can truly learn how to live. We are alive, but do we know how to live? How to eat and breathe and think and stretch and relax properly? Do we know how to find peace in each moment, regardless of how painful that moment might be? Do we know how to be quiet, to close our eyes and focus on our breath and be truly still, if only for a couple of minutes? I’m trying to learn this, but it certainly isn’t easy.
Chronic dissatisfaction syndrome flares up and I think of my aching back and my rumbling stomach and all the reasons I have to be unhappy with what is presented to me in the moment, not the mention my worry about the future. The mind has to focus on something, but the good news is that, although practicing it still feels impossible, I finally believe that I can choose how to focus my mind’s attention. As a teacher in this course said last week, “Instead of the mind as your boss, make the mind your slave.”
Unfortunately, the boss is here tonight and the image of that burnt dog is etched into my mind. I’m struggling to find something positive about his plight but I am unable. Is the answer to simply look away, to go home and stay tucked in my cushy middle class life in the U.S.? Or, just accept that this is his course in life, his karma, and that I can’t do anything to change it? I have no answer. At the very least, he makes me increasingly grateful for my own problems and happy to greet them with a smile. Perhaps that is a selfish reason to stay, but for now, I will.
Antoinette Villamil received a Master of Fine Arts in poetry in 2007 and is currently at work on her first book. She lives in North Carolina with her husband and a feisty cat.
Editor: Seychelles Pitton