After a week in Mumbai, Justin and I thought it would be fun to spend the weekend seeing a new city in India on our way to Rishikesh. Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world, with a rich and intense culture. I didn’t know much about it before coming, since most of my planning and focus was on my residency. If I only knew what I was in for…
Varanasi is the WILDEST place in India. That is the only way I know how to describe it in one sentence. It is known in India as the place for salvation. People come to Varanasi to die, and to bathe in the holy river water of the Ganges. The pollution was worse than Delhi, and the streets were packed with people like I have never seen. The homeless population here is very large, and I was frequently hassled and grabbed at. We stayed in Old Varanasi, which is where all the action takes place. This area is a huge network of tight alleyways with only foot traffic and some motor bikes. The high volume of people with no sanitation measures makes for an interesting scene. All of the sewage runs straight into the river, which you can see as it forms thick plumes in the water surrounding those who are bathing. The alleys are about half concrete, half feces. Sometimes, the ground cannot even be seen because of the amount of trash and feces. One of the nights we were there it rained… I’m not even going to get into the description of that.
The cremation ceremonies are famous in Varanasi and take place around the clock at the ghats on the river edge. Bodies are piled up with firewood and set aflame. There is a constant haze in the air. Watching the cremations was fascinating, and it was easy to get caught up staring at such a culturally shocking sight. Until you realize you are breathing in burning human flesh, the sight becomes less appealing. I never watched the cremations for long enough to see where all of the ash goes, but I was told it is usually dumped into the Ganges.
Along the river there were also groups of Naga people. They are known as extreme Hindu devotees, and will paint their faces, dread their hair, dress in elaborate attire, and sit along the river to pray from dawn to dusk.
The food in Varanasi was crazy delicious, and crazy unsanitary! Thankfully meat is banned from the city for holy reasons, which reduced our risk of pathogens. Justin and I dove right in (not recommended) and had our best street food experiences up the road from the Munshi ghat. Our favorite dishes were at this little stand making various chaat. Three men stood over a large griddle mixing dahl, puri, vegetables, masala samosas, and a bunch of other things I will never know. They continually used their hands to scrape sauce over the food and toss in herbs and spices. Dishes were washed in a large hole in the ground with standing water. Every night we said a little food poisoning prayer and hoped we would wake up healthy. I’d be lying if we said we made it without getting sick, but both of our incidents were short-lived.
I’m happy we got to experience the untamed side of India in Varanasi. But, one and done. Not sure if I will return there, but never say never.
I wrote in a previous post that I hadn’t experienced the crowds or chaos while in New Delhi. Sure, there were lots of people, nauseating smog, and heavy traffic. But it wasn’t overwhelming… it was India, and it was expected. Traveling to Pune for the yoga conference was far away from any congestion so I continued to feel content in my bubble.
The final day of the conference, Justin and I boarded a bus with other attendees traveling to Mumbai. The bus system in India is nothing like that of the United States. The cost of the bus is fixed, and all riders split the total price. The bus was a beat-up school bus with a shoddy engine and no AC, which is generally the norm in many countries. After roasting on the lawn for two hours waiting for the bus to leave, we were finally on our way to Mumbai. I was sure the bus would break down on every hill we crested, but it miraculously persevered. There is an unwritten rule on the buses in India that everyone takes care of one another. One of our friends on the bus explained that everyone on the bus is family. Snacks were regularly passed around and jovial conversation pursued. One member on the bus was sure that I had a urinary tract infection because we stopped twice in the 6-hour journey for the bathroom. He even called his gynecologist to try and make an appointment for me in Mumbai. Twice in six hours! Are the people of India just dehydrated?
The traffic in Mumbai was absolutely horrendous. Not surprising, but what should have been a 3 hour journey was more than twice as long because of the bumper to bumper insanity. I could slowly feel the meditative effects of the yoga conference being reversed.
I booked an Airbnb in Bandra West, directly across the street from the YogaCara Healing Arts Center. I put Mumbai on the list because I wanted to visit this reputable school. Ridhika, the owner, is a brilliant teacher who was trained by BKS Iyengar. She released her new book in October called “Just Breathe.” She is traditional in her teaching, and focuses on the true root of yoga. I attended her meditation class and was fortunate to sit down with her one afternoon for a private lecture. Her ideas were powerful in their simplicity. She explained to me how every experience we have is a chemical reaction. The connectedness of our mind and body is affected by that chemical reaction, and we have the power to control the way we react by anchoring on our breath. She went on in detail about the external world being disorderly and constantly changing, but the one thing we each have that will always be constant is our breath. For this reason, the observation and awareness of our breath can help regulate our reactions. On a practitioner level, this can help with pain management and coping skills during the healing process by quieting the nervous system and activating the parasympathetic pathways in the body. The most prominent point I was drawn to that she spoke about is how breath can withdrawal our senses. Think about a time you were in pain – or maybe you are now – and how your natural instinct is to react to the sense of pain. Your mind can’t shut off the fact that you are in pain because you are continually thinking about, feeling, and reacting to the pain. The myriad benefits of breath can be found in the literature, and the study of breath is growing. The learning doesn’t stop here, and I am exciting to continue peeling back the layers of yoga.
Surrounding my school day of yoga, self-study, and working toward my certifications, there was much to explore around the city. Mumbai is very much a melting pot of cultures, where old meets new. Pish posh cafes were juxtaposed with slums and run-down alleyways. Dharavi is the biggest slum in the world, which exists in central Mumbai. 1 million people live within a 1 mile radius. Wrap your head around that for a minute.
For how busy and bustling this crazy city was, it was also very pleasant. I never felt unsafe at any time, including during the night. There are a few sights you should not miss if you come to Mumbai, including the India Gateway Monument and tea time at the Taj Palace Hotel. I’m sure there are a million more things one should do while in Mumbai, but I was mostly focused on school and yoga. I will surely be back to this lively city.
The food at the Taj Palace Hotel is obviously not Indian, there was a strong British influence here. It was a total treat to spend an afternoon here!
Snacks in India. Our daily stop at The Regal Grocery in Bandra was full of spicy finger food. The ingredients were all very simple with few preservatives, which I was surprised about. The base is usually chickpea besan or graham flour, and everything is loaded with spices. The salad on the right was a splurge... I can only go so long without a fresh salad.
Last spring when I was planning my residency, I stumbled across a small conference online in the town of Pune, India. From the website I couldn’t quite figure out what was offered, but I got the sense that it was genuine to the roots of yoga without a western influence. Pune is the home to the world-famous BKS Iyengar Institute, and known to be ‘The Oxford of India’ from its affluent universities. The festival featured a handful of medical professionals with workshops related to rehabilitation and management of disease. There were also some notable Swamis on the website, which I learned is a spiritual leader of the highest achievable level in yoga practice.
I emailed the site to ask for the 2018 dates, and was thrilled to get a reply that the next conference would be in January during my semester. I was also told the conference was almost entirely Indian. It drew me in further that there would not be any commercialized yoga at this conference. This is the real deal, I thought. Or at least I hoped for that, since there was no real schedule or concrete information on the site. The next step was convincing my inner gut that it would be a good idea to wire money to India, venture off the beaten tourist path, and post up for four days without creature comforts in the hills beyond Pune. The director of the program regularly communicated with me and was very welcoming, thus persuading me to attend. I would soon learn I was one of three westerners attending the conference, and the other 400 participants were of Indian origin.
It all felt like a shot in the dark, and I left my expectations behind when I boarded my flight from Delhi to Pune. We were lucky to find a driver willing to take us two hours into the hills from the Pune airport. The sun had already set and we swerved through the tiny backroads north of Pune, dodging cattle and stray dogs, to reach the holy Ashram of Chinmaya Vibhooti. In India, an Ashram is a holy center for practices related to spirituality. Ethical guidelines are followed, such as prohibition of wearing revealing clothing like tank tops and shorts, cooking or ingestion of meat is banned, no use of wifi, and the area is kept very clean and pure. All of the water, including the shower and drinking fountains, were filtered (hallelujah!). Not the traditional Indian experience, which made it the perfect way to ease into our month of travel through this country.
We arrived at the premise around 10pm, and luckily there was a flurry of participants at the check-in area. Everyone was speaking a mix of Hindi, Marati, and English. Generally, English is spoken around India, but there are 30 states within the country that all speak their own local languages. Can you imagine the complexity if the United States had separate languages for each state?
After surrendering all our personal information on our passports and bank accounts, we got a set of keys and settled in our room. The four-day festival was a full-speed event. Workshops started at 5am and ended around 10pm. Justin and I missed the first morning workshop (hello, jetlag), and learned that this was not an option during the conference. All attendees were strongly encouraged to be at all workshops, because after all, yoga in its definition means to ‘yoke’ or come together. We tried not to feel guilty for missing one hour of the 15-hour day.
The Pune Yoga Festival was far beyond my expectations. The information presented was deeply thought-provoking and stirred new ideas in my personal meaning of rehabilitation. It would be impossible to brief every detail, but my biggest takeaways surrounded the dramatic difference between yoga in India versus the USA. How obvious, I know, but my perception of the difference diverted down a new path. In the United States, yoga is almost entirely asana-based. This means the focus is virtually only yoga poses. If you think about this from a rehabilitation standpoint, how is an individual recovering from stroke supposed to perform a sequence of poses when one side of their body is paralyzed? I struggled with this in the beginning of my journey with yoga, but it became clear in Pune that the asana is one of eight limbs of yoga. The other 85% is being left out! This dilemma left me floundering a bit while I was in Arizona, because I was aware of the eight limbs, but no one was teaching them in classes I attended. The Pune Yoga Conference slaked my thirst for a deeper knowledge of the limbs. But four days of study barely scratches the surface, and the study of yoga is a lifelong journey.
A normal day at the festival entailed the following: Attend 5am chanting session, followed by one hour of meditation and adaptable asana practice. 8am breakfast. 9am workshops begin and last until 10pm with a lunch break between. The workshops most relevant to my studies included yoga for stress and anxiety, yoga for prevention of disease, yoga for obesity, and the science of chanting and the nervous system. The designated speakers came from variable backgrounds. Some were swamis, many were medical professionals, and others were yoga therapists.
The comradery at the conference was incredibly warm and welcoming. Justin and I felt immediately taken in by the community. Other attendees regularly approached us to introduce themselves and shared meals with us. We felt connected through many relationships formed at the conference. I cannot stress enough the friendliness exuded by Indian people. Some of our friendships made in Pune I know will last a lifetime. Many of the attendees were from Mumbai, our next destination, and we were given loads of travel advice, and even invited to some of their homes.
If you are a foreigner thinking about making the journey to Pune, trust your intuition and take the leap. Don’t hesitate to contact me with questions. I might just see you there in 2019…
Find more information about the festival at PuneYogaFestival.com
Above: Swamis and event organizers at the plenary introduction.
Below: Vishwas and Vidula - the creators of the Pune Yoga Festival and the couple who convinced me to come to Pune.
Basic Indian breakfast at Chinmaya Vibhooti Ashram. Minimal oil and spices are used as a part of the ethical guidelines followed on site.
Evening ceremony: A bowl of cow dung is lit as a way of honoring yogic ancestors. We then stare at the flame for one hour in meditation.
Rice is offered to the flame as a gesture of spiritual praise.
Evening sitar music combined with the speaker's message. More of this in the United States please!
Swanuhooti Vatika: The garden on the Ashram premise was beautifully designed, with the notion of 'honeying' your life. There were positive messages through the garden with elaborate tributes to spiritual leaders.
I am an outdoor and travel junkie who is currently completing my doctorate in occupational therapy overseas in rural Fiji. On Sweet World Travels you will find stories of my life with my husband, the communities we serve, and the many adventures we take.