A Gen Z Indian Yogi’s Journey From Fitness to Finding Purpose

Getting dressed in loose white cotton pants and a semi-sheer off-shoulder white top. I couldn’t decide between silver drop-down earrings or diamond studs. Should I put on highlighter and blush, or is that too much? Did I wing my eyeliner right? I wanted to look perfect. It was my special day, after all. My birthday? Nope. It was my graduation ceremony from yoga teacher training.

But before I continue, let’s go back for a minute.

Hi, I am Riya Davda, an aspiring 21st century Indian Yogi. I recently turned into a legal adult, the big 21. I was born and raised in Bangalore, India, where I currently live. When I was 19, I made the most impromptu decision of my life: earn a 200-hour yoga teacher training certificate from Rishikesh, the land of yoga, meditation, and everything in between.

Rishikesh boasts a vibe like no other, bringing out every person’s zen, calling out to anyone looking to connect with people from all walks of life, and gain a connection with oneself. It is a town that promises to call you back because no number of days spent there is enough. Nothing is better than being able to experience the world while being present in a single place.

As I arrived in Rishikesh, I was met with a beautiful ashram by the holy Ganges River, the aroma of spirituality emanating from every corner. This was a good opportunity to travel and live by myself for a month.

When I try to think back to what called me to Rishikesh on that misty morning, it’s hard to pinpoint one reason in particular. One of the more practical reasons was to get in shape. No, it was not for the spirituality or yogic sciences. It may seem like a shallow reason, yet I can’t discount it because it really took me deep into yoga.

But let me back up. In order to tell you how I came to love yoga, I need to tell you about who I was before I arrived.

An aspiring Indian yogi

Some people may think that because I am Indian with Indian roots, my love for yoga would be ingrained in me since childhood. While it’s true that yoga runs deep in my family—going back to all the wise old ones around me (parents, grandparents, aunts, cousins)—I never practiced it. I always viewed it as slow, boring, and unbeneficial.

Growing up, I was into fine arts to such an extent that it was pretty much assumed that it would be my career. I was an introvert who liked to watch YouTube videos and practice nail art. But in the sixth grade, I found out about a small scale yoga competition in school. I got so excited to finally be a part of something and maybe… win?! The asana given to us was Paschimottanasana, seated forward bend. I could not get myself to go past holding my toes. I assumed that was enough to win or get a decent rank, but little did I know I had only achieved half of the marks. I thoroughly remember this day, mainly because I went from being excited to being completely discouraged in about an hour.

Just like a child who found out Santa isn’t real, I kept the same feeling close to me for years. I believed yoga was nothing but a “sport,” that only super flexible or strong people who can do handstands are capable or worthy of doing. No one explained to me that this can be built upon.

For years I avoided yoga. Any physical activity felt like a burden and only used to lose weight. But by the time I was a teenager, my insecurities around my body settled in and I began striving to be in the best shape possible. I was ready to do anything to achieve “the perfect body.” I dug deep into the internet to find effective weight loss tips because the slightest amount of weight gain irked me. My body was just fine, the problem was in the way I perceived it. I remember being called “shallow” by my best friend because of the way I saw myself physically.

balancing pose yoga girl
I believed yoga was nothing but a “sport,” that only super flexible or strong people who can do handstands are capable or worthy of doing. / Photo by Alex Shaw on Unsplash

My online search led to an Australian yoga teacher: Sjana Elise. Her elegant ways of practicing yoga and pleasing vibe got me wondering what her story was. I found myself spending hours reading her blogs to know more about yoga and how it helped her. One article in particular mentioned a 200-hour teacher training. I was intrigued by the number. 200 HOURS OF YOGA? How could one possibly do that? I started getting more curious about the practice. This curiosity to know more was the seed to what I am today and what is to be tomorrow.

Within the span of two weeks, I booked my spot in a 200-hour course in the month of May (my summer break from university). But I still felt shy about my journey into yoga. I decided to keep mum about pursuing it at such length, because over here, it seemed like a very “aunty” activity. My social circle didn’t understand. My friends would ask, “Why are you going to aunty yoga classes? Why don’t you just hit the gym? You’ll never lose weight with yoga.”

I didn’t have the energy to explain myself before I ventured into it, partly because I didn’t really understand why I felt the pull toward yoga myself. I was still figuring it—and myself—out. So I kept shushing, with just a handful of family and three close friends in the loop.

And so, with two overloaded bags, zero expectations, and only an openness to whatever came my way, I left for Rishikesh.

200 Hours of Yoga in Rishikesh

I’m glad I didn’t carry any expectations. Soon after entering Rishikesh, I was welcomed into a narrow lane with cows and goats. After trying to find my way to the ashram, there it was, my home for the next 28 days.

The ashram was a corner building amongst other ashrams in that area,  called Swarg Ashram. Every wall was hand painted, “Yoga Village, ‘the best place to learn yoga in the world’.” The motto gave me some reassurance that I was in the right place. I entered my room, a private accommodation with a shared balcony. . Standing on that balcony, looking out as farmland and a backdrop of mountains welcomed me, my senses came alive. I felt so close to nature, closer than I had in years. A sense of comfort washed over me. It was as if nature was embracing me with its warmth and light.

My first day of teacher training got me talking to people from Asia, France, Australia, Chile, the U.S., Canada, and Kenya. To meet all these beautifully diverse individuals (and soon-to-be-friends) was a blessing; everyone served a purpose on my journey. I met one of my closest friends here. He came all the way from Paris, a city I dream to visit one day, and shared with me elaborate stories of his country. I felt like I visited Paris, Monaco, and Nice just by listening to him. Our friendship started when we made small talk on our shared balcony. From then on, we started hanging out for post class “studies” which, if I’m honest, mostly led to us talking about our lives instead of studying. In just 28 days, this person was home. We exchanged bracelets that symbolize our fast friendship and our joyful trip.

Having lived in India all my life, I have always had house help with cleaning, organising, and tidying but the tables were turned in Rishikesh. I was expected to clean and wash my room and bathroom each day. Surprisingly, I enjoyed the process of being one with my surroundings and being responsible for my environment. Like the saying goes, your room is the reflection of your mindset.

sunset over the ganges, Rishikesh, India
Sunset over the Ganges in Rishikesh, India / Photo by Parth Singhal on Unsplash

Each day started at 5:45 am. Morning tea was given just before our first Hatha yoga class of the day. Then came pranayama class. This morning routine took three hours of our day. We then had breakfast together and got a short break for self-study and rest. Theory classes were conducted around lunch time. These classes were thought-provoking, and considered as important as university classes. I treated them with that same level of seriousness. Indiscipline was not accepted; the instructors called out students who did not put in the effort to sit with their backs straight. This was backed up with facts to explain how a straight back can promote active listening and better recollection of what you are learning.

Theory class was followed by mantra class. The meanings and sounds of the mantras brought us closer to understanding divine energy, and we all felt the vibrations all 20 of us created in the room. People might believe that divine energy is out there, but by turning inwards, we realised that the divine exists within all of us. We also had philosophy, yoga anatomy, and yoga alignment classes. A typical day ended with another set of yoga practice and meditation.

Days where we headed to the Ganga beach for meditation were my favorite. We sat down to meditate and pray together, hearing the sounds of sunset prayers in the distance.

It wasn’t until this point that I realized why I wanted to become a teacher and not just a practitioner. When I signed up I was mostly just following a gut instinct, something I didn’t fully understand, but knew that I was being called to do it for one reason or another. In Rishikesh, on my mat each day, I discovered the importance of physical strength. I can say with certainty that the Ashtanga “jump backs” and “jump throughs” were very fruitful here; they taught me to love my body for its strength and all it is capable of doing. More importantly, I experienced being loved back, from a deeper source that is all around us and in us. Suddenly, the prayers I always chanted since I was a child had meaning. It was like my eyes had finally opened.

Here I Am

As an introvert, I have always pondered the ways I can let loose and “belong” somewhere. Some people feel at home in the city, some feel at home with their families or in their hometown, some feel at home in their workplace. For me, I think I belong in nature and when I am being true with myself – in other words, not ignoring the way I feel.

I often see how people turn a blind eye to their true feelings and this later manifests itself in various forms. Yoga has helped me slow down and observe my thoughts. Instead of being ashamed or angry at some of my thoughts, I acknowledge them. It’s like giving yourself closure from yourself. The teacher training programme gave me the opportunity to consciously choose yoga. I could have stopped practicing right after the programme, I could have not continued it in university, I could have not fully embraced it. But, here I am. I chose it not only because  I do want to stay connected with myself, but I want to go deeper and share this passion with other young people.

Everyone out there deserves to experience the same inner peace and divine energy. My classmates in the teacher training course—the majority of whom were working adults—often expressed a shared regret of, “I wish I had started this earlier.”  That’s why I am pulled to teach young people, who, in my view, can benefit the most.

To quote Chuck Miller, “It is true for most of us if we really look deep into ourselves, that we started to get feelings for yoga even though we didn’t know what yoga was. Even from a really young age, and eventually, when you finally meet yoga, you recognize this thing that you felt when you were younger.”

To others, this yoga teacher training might look like an opportunity to build my resume for better employment opportunities, but none of these materialistic benefits mattered to me. Rather, it was an inner urge to dive into it without the monetary returns or options in mind. When one starts to discover themselves, no matter what onlookers believe, it should be heard and reciprocated when there is a calling. Thankfully, the support and encouragement I received after I pursued yoga were immense.

Yoga has taught me so much about myself—from loving my body the way it is to observing my thoughts without judgment. It has helped me overcome my anxiety to a great extent, made me more sociable, active, mentally and physically healthy, and much much more. It started as an amateur belief that the practice is only meant for the physical body, and in a matter of months, I’ve discovered that I will forever be a student to yoga: learning the intensity with which it can change someone’s life, both internally and externally.

To be able to pass on the knowledge to others, I have to understand the reasons why I choose to prioritize it. The expectations from people around you, your personal journey, and finally, leading a group of people seeking the same calls for responsibility. I believe this has helped me push myself to lead a disciplined life, or at least try to get there. It is a lifelong process of growth and transformation.

On a final note, yoga is welcome in all our lives. But, after getting so involved with it, I have a new understanding of  the difference between having interest and being passionate. Anyone can show interest, but when the passion bloomed, that’s when it got real. Being a part of the GEN Z, it is evident that young people need to experience yoga’s power firsthand instead of an old person narrating stories from the past. Let the youth discover for themselves how yoga can help them right now. I hope my story brings inspiration to other young people who are curious about opening themselves up to yoga. If there is anything to take away from reading this, it is to listen to your heart’s calling and just go for it. It’s as simple as that.

I chose the silver drop-down earrings in the end. I left for the ceremony to collect the certificate I had earned with love, hard work, and memories that I will cherish forever.

Edited by Jordan Reed

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