The recent death of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi- perhaps better known to the western world as the bringer of Transcendental Meditation to The Beatles- reminds us of a philosophy whose benefit extends beyond ‘hippy’ peace-and-love idealism often associated with it. Perhaps contrary to popular western belief, Yoga is not just about contorting the body into elaborate poses named after obscure bending animals. This I learned in detail, amongst other pieces of wisdom, whilst studying Yoga with devoted Swamis, Yogis and fellow travellers at an Ashram in southern India for 2 weeks of a 2-month trip across the subcontinent.
Far from typical objectives of the classic holiday getaway, I willingly submitted to a fortnight’s programme of 5am wakeup calls, a strict caffeine-free vegetarian diet, dubious-at-first bodily cleansing regimes, philosophy lectures and 5-6 hours daily of Yoga practice and meditation. Alone in the first week of arrival in a country that can be as overwhelming as exciting, the traveller might expect such a regime to intensify any culture shock already taking hold. But it was the perfect introduction. The Sivananda Ashram is set amongst the lush green Cardamon Hills of Kerala, whose serene location is as conducive to peace and meditation as the spiritual practice itself. Temples, shrines and villagers’ huts lie scattered across the hills, through which silent meditation walks would take us to a still open lake (exploited dramatically for metaphorical analogies to the mind, of course).
The Ashram has no expectations of religion, race or even yoga ability; beginners are welcome and anyone can stay for a very small donation (approx. £4/ day) which includes balanced, vegetarian meals, lectures, basic accommodation and expert yoga and meditation teaching from the Gurus. All that is asked is a willingness to adopt Ashram life; to leave mobile phones and Facebook, to eat cross-legged with your hand and to engage the usually stiff British upper lip in chanting Sanskrit verse.
Whilst meditation can take a long time to master, the very stillness of Ashram life is a welcome peaceful interjection to life in the west; offering in addition to pure relaxation, vital new perspective. Its teachings are central to concerns of university life; pressures to conform, unspoken feelings of inadequacy, academic competition and stress. It reminds us of the transience of the things we deem worthy of occupying our time and shaping our mindset on a daily basis: the bus home, the contents of the fridge, looming deadlines and, perhaps more worryingly, Isis. Yoga, indeed Indian philosophy in general, teaches us not only to realise the potential for happiness and inherent beauty in the everyday (Isis example aside), but the value of maintaining an inner peaceful self despite these daily distractions. Common feelings of pressure are often more self-imposed than we realise; happiness is a state of mind and ‘Yoga shows the way’.
My 21st birthday fell into my stay. Certainly a lot more sober in all senses of the word than in previous years, I couldn’t have spent it in a more meaningful place. A card from an Indian girl wished me “a life full of peace and happy as an apple”. Quaint as it is, this sentiment to me says as much about the philosophy of Yoga as any definition.
The rest of the trip took me up the coast of Kerala and on to Bangalore to meet my friend and travelling partner to be. The contrast of cosmopolitan Bangalore (a bewildering first night spent in a karaoke bar, breaking any assumption that Indians enjoy Bangra more than Bon Jovi) exemplified the series of contrasts that was set to continue. After flying to Delhi, we went on to explore the heat and colour-infused deserts of Rajasthan before heading north to hear the teachings of the Dalai Lama and stay in Tibetan communities in the foothills of the snow-capped Himalayas.
India can seem like a land of paradox. Honking rickshaws trapped in Delhi traffic gridlock, hectic spice markets and cows meandering city streets all peacefully co-exist with rows of fresh flower sellers, delicate fabrics and an all-pervasive spirituality and attitude of “Shanti, Shanti” (peace). But for me, the contrasts encompass not so much a paradox as a balance. ‘Mother India’, as it is affectionately dubbed, is vibrant, frantic, loud and hectic. And yet, underpinning it and somehow holding it all together is a natural harmony. It is utterly chaotic- and happy as an apple.