It doesn’t take long, after passing through Delhi International Latrine Airport to realize that even while standing still, everything in the subcontinent arrives at a hundred miles per hour….including shreds of ubiquitous rubbish and dust, airborne with the slightest commotion.
The hustle and force of impinging, discordant, non-stop stimuli engulfs the senses and exacerbates the mind’s restlessness; I cursed myself straightaway for the simplistic mistake of thinking problems could be displaced by a long plane ride.
Overwhelmed, companionless and far from home, the only advice I had was from an Indian guru whose book was in my hands: when chaos surrounds, the only option is to choose love, respond to all with love.
A grandiose instruction, yet the notion of all-pervasive love is easier from the luxury of a comfortable milieu…cross the border into chaos and ideas of boundless love are usurped by a phalanx of pettier demands, especially clean food and water.
I failed miserably and had a growing lack of self-appreciation, too…and seemed to be making a deep foray into an abyss.
Life would be much more instructive if karma was instantaneous; the effects of one’s actions could be clearly related back to the cause.
The immediate understanding of one’s impact on the world would be known; insight would provide vibrant inspiration for transformation. Because karma is delayed, even by lifetimes, the link between and cause and effect is lost.
In truth, the impact of what is put out is just taking a slow moving arc back to the ultimate target: oneself.
In my case, a falling attitude was worsened by ‘traveler’s tummy’ progressing towards severe ‘Delhi Belly’ and a head that ached from dehydration and the relentless racket and fumes of northern India. Nothing ceased until the smog-shrouded sun faded each day and consciousness slipped into fitful slumber. My exhausted body was then banqueted upon by bedbugs and mosquitoes.
I decided to supplant Delhi’s frying pan for the crucible of Uttarkhanda Province to the north but getting there meant plopping onto a bus and adding a lurching, honking, weaving 40 mph to the world’s momentum, along with every conceivable hazard short of nuclear bombs between the bus and its terminus. Polyethylene bags were handed out for passengers induced to puking.
The final stop was Rishikesh, “Aum Sweet Aum“, a timeless city and destination of many international yoga devotees. This self-proclaimed Yoga Capital of the World entertains legions of global guests who unpack rucksacks for months at a time. The Milky Way’s cosmic trade winds might regard planet earth as home to a race of disaffected people—but the souls attracted to Rishikesh are a slightly higher caliber of mixed up…and their presence immediately had a constructive sway on my spirit.
Not far from Rishikesh’s Ram Jhula Bridge, every stripe and color of yoga practice is available for aspirants: daily kirtan (hymnal chanting with music and bhajan, devotional songs), lofty lectures and a shoreline aarti (fire ceremony with song). These devotional, heart-centered activities tasted like curry-flavored Christianity and I shied away.
In sharp contrast, many practitioners find solace in pounding the mats and sweating out sanskaras (character dispositions developed from past impressions, in other words, habitual conditioning) in the yoga salas.
Most people opt for a hearty mix of the two while some claim to pursue Raja yoga, the so-called King of Yoga, uniting all aspects together. Others opt for the more relaxed approach of panchakarma (Ayurvedic detox) and remain at the effect of forces rather than applying force. Many others, mostly young Israelis on an obligatory tour of India after two years of military conscription, lounge about by the wide Mother Ganga to indulge in lazy rejuvenation.
The river emerges from mountains to plains at Rishkesh and holy seekers have favored the location for eons. My personal study of yoga asanas (postures) followed Iyengar-style, a borderline militant variety depending on the particular instructor.
The guru, a Swiss transplant married to an Indian sage, offered classes of non-stop, semi-shouting instructions and few to no compliments and certainly no paeans to the divine within, so common during classes in the west. “What is this?” was the usual question when a classmate did something she didn’t approve of and other students were to take note. She lived her teaching impeccably, always with a twinkle in her eye and heart full of love for each and every student that dared pass through the sala doors.
Iyengar style is not for everyone but some students apply more effort in a demanding setting.
It focuses primarily on posture and alignment rather than flexibility. Each pose is examined methodically, covering the whole body from head to toe, inside and out. The effects can be dramatic as it turns ‘mind leads body’ on its head and allows the flesh and bones temporary control of the brainwaves. Believe it or not, using the body in this fashion not only helps to tame the discursive mind but might be an antidote to physical ailments, too.
Finding a decent teacher makes all the difference. Of course, most yoga halls are brimming with ego (despite absolution of self being the ultimate aim with asanas a mere prelude to proper meditation, not an end in themselves). I tried not to let the bark of ego be worse than the illusion of its bite and ignored the student who breathlessly wraps ankles behind ears (and is pleased at the attention).
Despite advantageous surroundings, a good practice and superb teacher, my mind’s obscurations and habitual tendencies did their best to derail the training. The foremost obstacle was lack of focus in the sala (not too distant second were eateries offering delights such as Banofee Pie or deep-fried apple samosas—and the royally debauched Hail to the Queen).
It became too easy to not examine a posture before coming out of it and thereby giving the body and mind a break over the effort of learning. Progress on this front was hard won and the intrinsic rewards of accomplishment, namely a decrease in mental cogitation, in other words—peace of mind—made up for the sting of exertion.
That said, the most challenging part of the reckoning was enduring the pervasive filth of north India, including excreta, suspect drinking water and noxious air from the widespread burning of rubbish, all to be in a place where I could afford a world-class instructor.
Accommodation was a modest cement room in a building of poured concrete seemingly inspired by Soviet-era architecture. Bare bulbs lit the room when rolling blackouts didn’t darken the hillside above the Ganga; the only source of heat was the all too brief, diminished arc of the winter sun that engendered bitterly cold nights. Even still, malnourished humans slept in the grimy streets with threadbare blankets (adding the variable of guilt to the already bleak Sisyphean outlook that dominated my perspective.)
Eventually the cold, dry season becomes the unbearably hot, dry season. The few fridges housing cool drinks are at dodgy restaurants that served semi-hygienic meals laden with monosodium glutamate and semi-hostile bacteria. The saving grace is Pappu Lassi, serving the thickest, creamiest and tastiest lassi sans planetary rival and yoga instruction on the cheap.
June brings the reprieve of monsoon rains to so-called Incredible India and thousands of pilgrims descend daily upon the ghats, bridges, restaurants and ashrams, overburdening byways and facilities…my calculations cynically figured that meant thousands of extra turds deposited on the topsoil each day because of the lack of lavatories and decidedly un-incredible practice of open defecation.
As a friend admonishes, the number one rule of the Animal Kingdom, ‘don’t sh*t where you eat’, is egregiously flouted. Additionally, a profane amount of plastic snack wrappings litter the ground and waterways, overburdening the environment.
It was reaching time to leave despite many blessings.
The fashionable Enfield “iron horse” beasts are heavy, unresponsive and require frequent care and fuel stops. Even second hand ones are more expensive than polished, factory-new alternate brands (with glitzy names such as Hunk, Glamour, Super Splendor, Achiever, Fazer, Gladiator, Adreno, Graptor, Slingshot, Karizma, Superduke and Intruder). In sum, Enfields and their signature model, the Bullet, are not user-friendly and although they might look good and sound powerful, I was trying to avoid attention rather than incite it in a country too eager to give it. Instead, I opted for the India-branded and assembled Unicorn, a 150cc motorcycle, for the 1100 kms (600-plus miles) journey to Kathmandu.
Only a plunker such as Sisyphus would appreciate the road to Nepal, a so-called national highway that is little more than an unmaintained country road, dusty with cavernous potholes and sloping shoulders. Death-defying and inducing fellow drivers claim as much bitumen as possible with whatever contraption they control. Some could have driven straight onto the set of Mad Max and the director wouldn’t have blinked an eye, the pilots layered in dust behind thumping gears of the machines.
These vehicles will prove battle ready when Armageddon arrives. The only rule to not ignore on the motorways is might makes right of way. If a vehicle is bigger—and most are to a motorbike—it can come straight at you, knowing you have no choice but to change trajectory to preserve life and limb.
The less perilous second rule, not driving at night, can be violated but doing so leads to suffering as other drivers blind you with high beams.
The serpentine blacktop follows along the foothills of the Garwhal and Kumaon Himal, once King Prithivi Narayan Shah’s dominion before the 1814-1816 skirmishes with the British East India Company. The route passes through a never-ending menagerie of ducks, snakes, goats, cows, crows, butterflies, water buffalo, chickens, dogs, cats and monkeys along with fellow human beings. All seem bent on unseating motorized roamers by slithering, waddling or darting across the road at the precise inopportune moment.
It was a relief to reach Mahendranagar and Nepal’s east-west highway, a comparatively serene driver’s paradise along the Mahendra Rajmarg.
I recouped in Lumbini (birth place of Siddhartha Gautam, later known as Buddha) but was disheartened at the desire to make it into a commercial mecca with the backing of millions of dollars from ‘aid’ agencies and wealthy donors intent on making merit via money. The east-west highway eventually connects to the Siddhartha and Prithvi highways—and my steel and aluminum steed led the way to legendary Kathmandu with unexpected ease and endless beauty along the way.
Since arriving in the fabled capital of the Himalaya, I haven’t found inspiration for a moment of yoga practice but am getting outfitted for the high hills.
While acquaintances back home are busy becoming more accomplished, life moves forward so quickly that it all becomes a blur and sometimes a pleasant blur. I have decided to quit while I am behind and let the end of the illusion of the world arrive when it will. The plan is to exchange the mythical boulder that has been on my shoulders for at least one lifetime—for a minimally packed rucksack with a few wedges of yak cheese and bars of chocolate—and head into the untouched highlands.
Perhaps the towering, sublime Himalaya will be indifferent to human imperfection and uninterested in expansive love without limits.
Alonzo Lyons was born and raised in the developing world named planet earth. He grew up in the northwest of North America, where potato fields extend as far as the imagination can dream. His work experience includes such non-lucrative positions as wildland firefighter, YMCA basketball referee, chemotherapeutics research technician and eventually a stint at an Idaho winery. Please visit his website.
Editor: Bryonie Wise
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