I'm often asked what it was like to study in India and just as often I'm left with a sense of indecisiveness as to how to answer that question. It's usually the case that I admit it's a difficult thing to explain or, perhaps, one that I can't quite put into words. But saying that isn't saying much. It only takes an experience being so novel and unique that there is no reference point from which to begin to describe it. Words, after all, are just the way we use experiences and things we have been exposed to in the past to describe experiences and things that we wish to understand, explain or categorize.
In the U.S., rightly or wrongly, a big deal is typically made of people studying in India. When a particular teacher or student is introduced, you can bet that, if they have, you will hear in that introduction some mention of how they have studied in India and perhaps even how recently or how often. It is a badge of honor. You could say even a status symbol. Some of this is warranted. It isn't easy or cheap to get to India from the U.S., so only people with sincere interest and means do so.
There is also the obvious sense that India is the source of much of the knowledge encompassed in what we understand to be Yoga today. This knowledge has made it across time and oceans to get to us and, in the process, has been translated, modified, adapted, and re-interpreted to fit the needs and understanding of the individuals receiving it and passing it on. So it isn't insignificant to be among the few that have traveled to the source of the knowledge to see it for yourself. The same lessons, the same words even, take on a different meaning when you are sitting in the place that served as womb to the teachings.
Some travel there for their teacher. Some for the teachings. Some for the experience itself. All take away something more than they came for.
My own trip was deeply personal in ways that preceded my experience with Yoga, which began 12 years ago. I was born in Matanzas, Cuba and, when my family left, fleeing the oppressive regime, lived in San Jose, Costa Rica. Both these places, different as they were, offered in similar ways a life completely different than what I enjoy now in the U.S. Some of it was age, of course. The way you see the world as a child is so different than how you see it as an adult. The world was also a different place then. No internet. No cell phones. If you wanted to contact someone, you had to consider when was the most likely time you could find them at home and then wait. Should you want to get from point A to point B, you had to think about how to get there, plan it out, and many a time spend the whole day in the process. And so, because aspirations came with the requirement of much more time and effort, you had to determine just how important it was to achieve something before you ever took on the task. This process of evaluating what we decide to commit our time to has all but disappeared in a world where your friends are a text message away and travel requires little more than a GoogleMap search.
When I interviewed teachers who had visited India in preparation for my trip, many said something along the lines "Oh, you've lived in Cuba and Costa Rica, you'll be fine there." When I arrived Chennai amidst the crowds, pollution and rubbish, I wondered to myself what kind of places my teachers thought Cuba and Costa Rica were that they would compare it to this. Cuba, with its dilapidated buildings and its 1950s autos still manages to be clean. Costa Rica, with the jungle always a glance away, maintains its sense of safety. India does neither.
But they aren't completely off the mark. In many ways, walking through the streets in Chennai takes me back to life in both these places: the buildings falling apart just enough so that they are clearly not appealing but still completely livable; the cars and bikes that had been retuned and retrofitted over time to maintain functionality; the streets full of trees and animals that reminded you that the wilderness isn't too far away. Everything in these places is either in the process of construction or decay. Nothing is static. The city thrives with the vibrancy of life itself.
And then there are the ways in which India is unique. The presence of rich and poor, sick and healthy, young and old... all in once place, wading past each other; the stray dogs and wandering cows meandering in much the same way the people seem to, clearly not pets to anyone but more like individuals; the cacophony of car horns alongside the ritual music and kaw of the crows.
With its sensory overload, India demands your attention. Stepping out into the street you literally take your life in your hands. There are no usable sidewalks. They're often littered with bricks soon to be used in the remodel of a house or wall or the street vendors have claimed it for their own purposes. In any case, there is no room for walking, leaving only the edges of the street for pedestrians to use. But this comes with the hazard of the weaving traffic, especially the motorcycles, which are harder to discern by sound and can come seemingly out of nowhere. In most cities in the U.S. you can wander the streets lost in thought, your feet doing one thing as your mind contemplates another. That isn't an option in Chennai. Within seconds you'll be ontop of another person or be sideswipped by a rushing rickshaw or bike.
I realized this within my first few days here and am reminded of it within a day or two of each subsequent trip. I had to cross one major road to get to the KYM from the Raj Palace Sundar Hotel where I was staying during my first trip to Chennai. Depending on the time of day it could take a few seconds or 15 minutes for me to find an opening in traffic. If I was out the door before the sun was up, the street was mine. If I was heading out after, I had, to be patient. And patience here is equivalent to safety. One day I forgot this rule in the rush to get to school on time after I'd overslept. The truck that cut me off came within inches of me. The entire street stopped to make sure I hadn't been hit. I even heard a collective gasp from both sides of the street. Usually people go about their business here without paying much attention to what doesn't concern them so I knew it had been a very close call to have warranted this attention. I slowed my pace for the remainder of the walk. I'd been reminded of my priorities. The street is a place that requires a certain level of alertness and my concern about being tardy was a feeling best left to when I actually arrived at my destination.
I had a less dramatic version of this moment today as I tried crossing a side street too close to the intersection. I’ve written before that in Chennai I always cross the street as far from intersections as possible. It seems counterintuitive because in the U.S. we only every cross at the intersections. Anything else is jaywalking. But in Chennai, with the constant flow of traffic and the myriad of sounds and distractions, it is best to minimize the directions from which a car can come. In the middle of the block you only have to look left and right. At an intersection there are four directions from which a car can come. Today I thought I had an opening and braved crossing near the intersection. A motorcycle with two men on it came out of nowhere and tried to make a turn. I saw the look of horror on the driver’s face as he realized that, were I to continue walking at the current pace, we would collide. He honked, yelped a bit and came to a near stop. I’d seen him in time, though, and slowed down so he could pass infront of me but I realized at that moment that I hadn’t looked in the other direction to make sure no one was coming. Luckily no one was. But I made a mental note not to try that again and to stick to what I know works.
Whether by design or because of their novelty, activities in India require a certain commitment from you. You have to be constantly mindful of where you choose to eat, what kind of food you are taking in (being especially mindful to avoid anything uncooked), the water you drink (the people of Chennai are used to the water; your stomach, on the other hand, is not), the time that you shower (some times of day there is no hot water available) and exactly how to get to your destination (you don't want to leave directions up to the rickshaw driver), among other things.
It becomes obvious soon enough that you are no less effective in India because you are committing your full attention to what you are doing at this very moment. You are more so, in fact, than if you multi-task. What you see, hear, taste and learn stays with you precisely because you give it full attention. There is nothing unique about this approach. It can happen anywhere you choose.
It's just not an approach that is valued in many parts of the U.S., where we have agendas and to-do lists, goals and itineraries that take precedence over everything that leads up to them or which occurs in between. If we were to consider how much time we actually lose in our lives by not paying attention to the moments that comprise the in-between, it might give us pause.
In India, however, it is not an option.
To study Yoga in a place like this is to amplify its teachings. Here is a practice and philosophy that states unequivocally that there is no virtue or meaningful growth in thoughtlessness. It puts you, more or less, in control of your own development and makes you accountable for your level of effort, dedication and attitude.