Reflections of India: Inside Out by Hilary Buckwalter Kesti
I decided to go to India on a whim. My Dad had recently died, the yoga studio I had been working for had closed, and I was more than ready for a fresh start and an adventure. One of my yoga teachers traveled to India on a yearly basis and was always waxing poetic about how deeply inspiring and beautiful it was. I thought it might be good for me to immerse myself in another culture, and to learn more about yoga and it's origins. Honestly, I think I expected some kind of "Eat, Pray, Love," experience, but as I found out, India sometimes gives what you need, not what you want.
I arrived with my traveling companion at Santosh Puri Ashram in the Northern part of India around 4:30 am, after a laborious 6 hour drive from New Dehli in the back of a car with a plastic seat. The bells were ringing, cow pies were burning in the duni fire, and chanting from various ashrams could be heard for miles, as participants, seekers, saints, and sages gathered together for morning aarti, or prayer ritual. I was exhausted and spellbound. I had signed up to spend 5 weeks at this place, and in that moment in the early hours of the morning with burning cow poop wafting in my face, I realized I was also a little afraid.
At that time in my life, I had a penchant for running, as in running away from things. I had difficulty sitting still. I was easily distracted, not to mention grieving and disoriented. It's no wonder that during that difficult time, I ran straight into the arms of the motherland of yoga. My practice had always sustained me, grounded me, and held through all of the joys and pains of life. And yet, nothing could have prepared me for getting turned inside out.
It was the height of summer in India when I arrived at Santosh Puri Ashram. During the day, the temperature could peak at 115 degrees. In retrospect, it makes me laugh that during a chaotic time of upheaval in my life, I went to India at the hottest time of year. This meant that during a large portion of the day, the only "cool" place to be was either sitting in the Ganges, which was a crisp 40 degrees, or lying on the concrete floor of my little room. In any case, in between rituals, chanting, and the morning practice where I stood drenched in sweat in a concrete box while tiny flies buzzed in my eyes, there was a lot, A LOT, of very hot stillness. There was literally no where to run.
I had so desperately wanted relief, or peace, or shade from the suffering I endured after my father's death. Instead, I ended up puking, shitting, and sweating my way through the first week. There was even a moment, when the electricity was out (this happened every day) during the hottest part of the afternoon, while I was lying on the floor of my room staring at the still ceiling fan, that I prayed to die. I was empty. I felt like a dried up banana peel lying on the ground in the unrelenting sun. And in that emptiness and heat, grief came forward, as did many of the other things I had been trying to avoid.
I'd love to say that after the deep cleansing experience of that week that I settled into ashram life, but that wouldn't be the whole truth. I enjoyed chatting with Mataji, the resident sage, and I enjoyed delving deeper into the chakras, and learning new meditation techniques, but the unrelenting heat and stillness coupled with the ever present smell of burning cow dung and plastic (no garbage service), nearly drove me to madness.
Like with many things, I can now look back on that difficult time with a mixture of humor and nostalgia. I long to return, to have a re-do, to experience India from the present place I now find myself in. There is great value in knowing more about yoga and it's origins, as well as spending time in the culture that it comes from. I also know in my bones, that the old adage, "wherever you go, there you are," is true. We bring our full selves with us wherever we go, even the parts that are hidden from view. Perhaps, that was the lesson I needed to learn.