India takes everything you’ve ever known, turns it upside down, shakes it a few times, and throws it back at you.
It’s in your face. It’s loud. It’s chaotic. It’s unforgiving and unyielding, yet beautiful all at the same time. It’s an assault on all senses. The vivid colors of saris and turbans are a feast for the eyes. The din of people shouting, horns honking, dogs barking, and music blaring is almost deafening.
You are caught in a current of movement as traffic swings by at a breakneck speed and people push past you in a rush, all the while a cow leisurely struts down the street. It’s smelly, so pungent you can practically taste chai and manure as their distinctive scents waft through the air. More than anything else; it’s alive. It’s teeming, seething, breathing, sweating, pulsing. The country is a creature; it’s streets are its veins, it’s people are it’s blood, it’s culture is its heart.
For a Westerner, it’s overwhelming and intriguing, energizing and exhausting. Your first day in India, you leap out of the way when rickshaws honk aggressively and give cows a wide berth. If you continue navigating India like this, she will eat you alive, chew you up, and spit you back out on the dirt street for a cow to step on.
If you want to survive you must surrender, yet stand strong and walk straight. If you let India teach you, within a week you will walk steadily down a street, ignoring the blaring traffic and swatting cows’ behinds to make way for your own path.
India teaches you how to simply “be.” She teaches you how to bend, so that you cannot be broken.
I went to India with a one way ticket, a backpack and a yoga matt.
I had no plans, but a few intentions for my trip. I wanted to study yoga in it’s birth place and become a Certified Yoga Instructor. I wanted to learn to sit still in silent meditation, quit eating so much sugar (I have an atrocious sweet tooth), stop thinking about my ex-boyfriend, and master scorpion pose. I had fantasies of myself atop a Himalayan mountain, sitting Shiva-like in deep, silent, unperturbed, transcendental meditation.
I would return home from India enlightened, worldly, and impervious to the chocolate aisle in health food stores. I would be so enlightened I would never again obsess over a text from a guy again. Whats up, Nirvana.
As it turned out, India had other plans for me.
First of all: silence, in India? Seriously? I went to the noisiest country on earth to find silence? Ha. Even at the ashram where I studied yoga, nestled high in the Himalayan mountains, I was was frequently serenaded to sleep by the sound track of a nearby techno rave. Little did I know that the Himalayas are to Israeli backpackers what Cancun is to American college kids. I didn’t find silence in India, but I did learn to sleep through anything.
The ashram where I completed my yoga teacher training was run by a kind Indian man and his lovely German wife who made the best banana chocolate cake I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. It tasted even better after a day of asana practice or hiking in the Himalayas. I never stopped eating sugar—so silly of me to even attempt such a thing in a country where sugary chai is the national drink! I did however learn to savor every bite and every sip of chai.
I spent many hours, when I should have been listening to a Brahmin Yoga Guru lecture on about Vedic philosophy, staring out the window thinking about my recent break-up. Silent mediation was torture for me.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Why do I still miss him? Breathe in. We’re so incompatible! Thank God it’s over. Breathe out. But I still love him. Breathe in. Is that cake baking I smell? Breathe out. Chocolate cake perhaps? Breathe in. Okay focus! Everyone else looks so serene, what’s wrong with me? Breathe out. I’m never going to be a good yoga teacher if I can’t meditate. Breathe in. I wonder…Oh f*** this! Shut up brain!
I didn’t stop thinking about my last relationship, but I did give myself space to be completely present in my sadness and anger about it ending. I allowed those emotions to consume me and then slowly fade away. When I was ready I crossed paths with a handsome fellow backpacker who made me forget about my ex completely. Funny how that works.
I still struggle to to sit still and meditate. However I realized that when I am immersed in an intense yoga practice, hiking to the top of a mountain, surfing, dancing, or listening to the sound of children’s laughter, my mind finds peace. When I stand in awe of Mother Nature’s splendor, whether it’s the Himalayan mountains, the Pacific Ocean or a small flower blossoming from a crack in the side walk, I feel connected to something greater than myself.
I never found silence or stillness.
Instead I found tears, laughter, dance, music, movement, clumsiness, grace, friendship, love, heartache, bliss, sadness and most importantly acceptance. Far more important than the things I set out to do, were the lessons I never expected to learn.
India taught me to be patient. Trust me, nothing teaches you patience quite like navigating public transportation in India. Imagine sitting in a rattling wooden train car packed to the brim with humans, animals and cargo. You’re watching the country side fly by outside an open window, when suddenly the train comes to a screeching halt and doesn’t move for six hours! Of course you have two options: get frustrated and spend the next few hours feeling vexed, or accept it. Enjoy a chai, a chat with your neighbor, and perhaps take a leisurely stroll along the garbage strewn tracks.
India taught me the power of a smile. No matter where you were born, what color your skin is, what age you are, what God you believe in, or what language you speak, we all smile the same. I’ve met people living in shanty houses surrounded by mounds of garbage whose smiles light up their entire face. From beggars to Sultans, smiling is a language we all speak.
India taught me peace. Ironically in the noisiest country on Earth I did manage to find silence. Not literal silence, but internal silence. After a few months in India I was able to walk down a street feeling calm and centered, not oblivious but simply unperturbed, by the honking horns, barking dogs, crowing roosters, mooing cows, blaring music, vendors shouting their wares, and children bawling. I learned to find peace in the midst of chaos.
India taught me acceptance. This was a big one for me. It was the single greatest lesson India taught me. India is f***ing crazy. If you fight her, she will win. You cannot change India. You accept her exactly as she is or you will be miserable in her presence.
I realized the same thing was true about myself. Why was I fighting myself? Repressing myself? Altering myself? Just like India, I am too powerful a force to be reckoned with. Just like India I am simultaneously beautiful and ugly. Just like India, I am perfectly imperfect. Just like India, I am too wild to be contained.
I accepted India and she opened her doors to me. I accepted myself and I was home.
Author: Severn Jones
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Used with permission from Kailea Fredrick