I travel to India to do yoga. I do yoga to travel in India. Every journey is a practice in patience, breath control, and the ability to hold postures for extended periods of time. Awkward positions while crammed into tuk-tuks, bent into buses, and smashed into luggage racks on train cars. As in any proper asana practice, one must be mindful of alignment. It’s easy to bruise skin and strain muscles if you don’t engage your core and square your shoulders, mindful of external rotation every time sleeping Auntie next to you leans more heavily upon your already fatigued frame. Or, you might just fall out the open bus door each time it careens around another terrifying mountain switchback.
Breath is key. Switching between deep alternate nostril breathing to keep calm and shallow nostril breathing with extended holds to avoid car exhaust fumes, burning garbage, or latrines. Praying for patience results in the universe testing one’s patience regularly. Practicing non-attachment becomes a reality when one forgets their bag on a local bus. One must not forget that they asked for this. But, why like this?
Surrender is the crux. As in savasana, relax your body, gentle your face, clear your mind. Be present, but passive. Resigned to let the journey unfold organically.
By Indian travel standards, the journey from Rishikesh in Uttarakhand to Amritsar in Punjab was a relatively easy one. Pramod, the owner of my guest house, took me by scooty to the local bus stand, where I hopped onto one to Haridwar just as it was pulling out. I threw my yoga mat bag into the upper compartment, stashed my 40 L backpack in the front by the driver, and smashed into the last remaining seat with my hip belt and day pack. I eventually secured a seat by the window after a passenger reshuffle at Muni ki Reti, the entry to the historic district of Haridwar. Feeling competent and confident as we arrived at the bus stand, I promptly forgot my yoga bag stashed in the upper compartment and proceeded directly to the train station, only to backtrack moments later in a panic. And whereas, once, buses used to wait until full before embarking, the one I’d come on turned around immediately to make its return journey to Rishikesh. A poignant lesson in non-attachment. The loss of my yoga bag and mat also meant I was then without blanket, towel, shawl, dupatta, chador, kefiye, and shmata. Not off to a great start, for fabric is key for survival in India, particularly as a woman. And more importantly, how now was I to do yoga?!?
I slept fitfully in my upper berth in 2nd class sleeper, ironically, though, as I was freezing on the train. I arrived on time the next day at Amritsar Junction, took a requisite sugary chai, and popped onto the wifi at the train station to check in with family and business.
I took a cycle rickshaw into town. I like an old fashioned pedal-powered rickshaw. It’s a slower way to experience a place, employs the lower castes, and cuts down on exhaust fumes that choke the air in most Indian cities. This one happened to be motor-assisted, with an ancient lawnmower motor attached just under the seat.
The driver plunked me down at the entrance to Heritage Street and pointed me in a vague direction thronged with humans. The street is a Disney World-like recreation of ancient Amritsar, like something out of It’s A Small World, replete with McDonald’s, Domino’s, and endless touts yelling “WAGAH BORDER WAGAH BORDER WAGAH BORDER” – the nearby India/Pakistan border in the town Wagah. This tourist attraction is beyond my comprehension. While I can appreciate that it might have significance for those whose lives were inexorably altered by the partition of India and Pakistan (and Bangladesh), it seems like a giant pissing contest to me.
I eventually found my way to a kind woman who walked me around the back of the Golden Temple complex and showed me to the entrance for the niwas – free accommodations for travelers. There’s a separate cell block for haole(a word used to refer to foreigners, editor’s note), where one can stay for 3 days for free. It’s really basic (a plank bed, a questionable sheet, and a cubby hole), but is literally across the street from the langar, the 24-hour free communal kitchen in Punjabi.
I shoved my bag into the locker, left my shoes under the bed, covered my head, and headed across the street. Passing the clatter of thousands of metal plates being washed, I proceeded directly towards the central tank with the temple majestically moored in the middle. I stepped through the footbath through and walked into the grandiose white marble marvel.
Circling clockwise, I made my way around the square tank, taking it all in. The sounds of sweet kirtan over the loudspeakers. The sea of multicolored Punjabi turbans. The intricacies of sacred geometry set into the floor in white and black tiles. And the shimmery, glittery golden temple itself.
The line to get in was too long (oh hawk, still lacking patience?!?), so I completed the loop and noticed a private women’s bathing area. A friend from Rishikesh, a Punjabi by birth, had told me of miracles that had occurred after a dip into the holy tank. Putting any sense of hygiene aside, I stepped inside. I carefully took off my traveling kurta, hung it on a peg, and stripped down to my inner-wear. I cautiously stepped over several giant koi fish as I made my way down the steps into the murky water, and ceremoniously plunged my whole body and head three times. Wahe guru wahe guru wahe guru! Feeling remarkably refreshed, I backtracked to the niwas and changed into something more suitable for the langar.
I found myself propelled through a line, remarkably organized, with volunteers passing out plates, bowls, and spoons. I took one of each and floated to the dining hall doors in a sea of humans. A kind American Sikh took notice of me, and then took me under his wing for my first experience of the famed eatery.
The langar at the Golden Temple is entirely volunteer-run. And it serves 1 lakh (10,000) meals daily. Sitting on the floor, on a strip of burlap, I put my thali in front of me and waited for the Sevites (volunteers) to come by with their offerings. First comes prasad – a holy gift- in the form of a chapatti still warm, dropped into my two outstretched palms. Then buckets of dal and sabzi (veggies), followed by kheer, sweetened rice pudding cooked in milk. The food was simple but delicious, made all the more special by the enormous devotional effort put into its preparation.
Sated and inspired, I decided to immediately do seva. There’s no requirement to do service while staying in the niwas, but it feels right to me to help out where I can. I enjoy the structure of daily volunteerism while in the ashram. It gives me a sense of purpose, organizes the day, and helps me in feeling like I am contributing to the betterment of my immediate community.
My seva consisted of pushing the drinking water machine —an ingenious design of a 40 L metal tank, attached to wheels (without casters), and a small protruding spigot on an extended metal arm. It has a bicycle handlebar for steering and a brake mechanism in the right hand for releasing water. It took approximately 15 minutes for me to fill as many bowls as possible in the first seating. The contraption, challenging to steer, made the task all the more difficult by the fact that not all the bowls were in one line, and I had to shimmy the rig continuously. But I loved providing the sacred elixir. I beamed every time someone looked up at me with a look of genuine gratitude, a loving smile, a look of bewilderment as to what this white woman was doing, or a knowing nod between a woman and her child as if to say, “Arree lazy bones. This didi does seva. So can you, beti. Here and at home.” I calculated that in the time it took to turn the room four times, approximately 2,000 people were served.
The following day I returned again for a meal and seva. This time I was given the honor of passing out the chapattis. Woven wooden basket under my left arm, I handed out easily 5,000 chapattis to eagerly outstretched hands. Hands calloused and leathery from a lifetime of hard labor, or pale and supple from lives lived in luxury. In the langar, everyone is equally welcome.
The Sikh faith is generally inclusive of people of different backgrounds. Inside the Golden Temple, divisions —gender, religion, and caste— melt away in a flood of incredible faith. The temple itself is an architectural marvel in hammered gold sheets and white marble with inlaid stones. The parchin kari (inlaid stonework) —animals, plants, and designs in lapiz, onyx, and quartz— rivals the Taj Mahal.
But the true beauty of the sacred space lies in the devotion of the people. Driven by unwavering faith, they donate generously and bow subserviently to the altar. Sit and sing their beloved kirtans with such exuberance and spirit. And such love.
This is yoga in India. Faith. Service. Devotion. The physical practice happens on the daily, as floors are swept and meals prepared. As enormous loads are carried. As fields are tilled and planted. Cows milked. Concrete poured. Every movement a linking of body, mind, and soul. Every action an exercise in alignment, breath, and belief. In personal betterment. In community improvement. In the overall uplifting of humanity.
I do yoga to travel in India. I travel in India to do yoga…