A Place Of Comfort Amidst The Chaos
Part of "Shit and Sugar all in One Breath"
It was March 22, 2001. I had now been in India for about 10 days. The first week was a rapid tour of Mumbai, Benaras, and Agra. Mr. Shriya funded everything as I traveled with Jane. It was a safe way to enter India but not my style. I was happy to carry on solo from Delhi. They dropped me at the bus to Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama. I thought I wanted to stay with them, to be in the comfort and safety of their plan, but I had traveled enough to know I didn’t really want that. It was time to forge my own path on my limited budget. I no longer had Mr. Shriya to protect and guide me. I was free. Despite my financial struggles, that was where I liked to be.
I arrived in Dharmsala only to find millions of visitors there for the Dalai Lama's teachings. I came to see Dr. Yeshi Dhonden, the Dalai Lama's former Tibetan physician. I read about him in the book, "In Exile from the Land of Snows." He had magical abilities to sense someone's life story and health limitations just from feeling the pulse.
With all of the foreigners visiting to see the Dalai Lama, rooms were unavailable. I would need to venture out beyond Dharamsala to find accomodations. I had heard that Dharamkot, a small town 20 minutes uphill closer to the foothills of the Himalayas, had rooms. After the short journey up a path through the woods, I arrived in Dharamkot where I ran into Brendon. We were neighbors on the bus to Dharamsala from Delhi. After the 8 hour ride together we felt comfortable sharing a room and a king sized bed.
The next day, I ventured down to Dharmsala to see Dr. Yeshi Dhonden. I encountered a long line of local Indians waiting for his services. When I reached the front of the line, Dr. Yeshi Dhonden stood beside me in his maroon gown, the dress of a Tibetan monk, something he had been since the age of 5. I felt his warmth as he cradled my hand in his own. He reached his fingers to feel the pounding in my wrist while mumbling some Tibetan words to his assistant. She asked me to open my mouth and stick out my tongue. From my readings, I knew he was inspecting it for divets, ridges, spots, and discoloration. I was then requested to urinate into a cup. Holding it up to the sunlight, he investigated its appearance for bubbles which floated or sank. I was handed a bag of small, hard, brown pellets that looked like goat poop, typical Tibetan herbs gathered from the mountains and compacted into a ball. They quickly nudged me out the door. My problems were minuscule relative to others waiting in line. I had hoped to apprentice with him yet he was far too busy and inaccessible. After my appointment, I returned up the hill to my abode.
Each morning I gathered at the local restaurant with Israeli's, Brits, and others from various parts of the world but rarely another American. My morning breakfast consisted of ginger pancakes or eggs scrambled with vegetables and hot water with fresh chunks of ginger. I rarely spent more than a dollar.
While sitting at breakfast with my British friend Mark, we gazed across the dusty road to the gates of the Vipassana meditation center and wondered what it was like, how folks were doing in there, what sort of chaos they were experiencing if any. It was as if they were doing some mind altering drugs during the 10 day retreat. I wondered with fascination, wanting to experience it myself but also terrified having never meditated a day in my life.
This one day we observed a group of foreigners, mostly Israeli’s, exiting from the center. They joined us at our table. Israeli’s were often traveling the world after their year or 2 of military duty. Inquisitive as I was, I asked about their amazing enlightening experiences during this silent meditation. I continued to hear how transformative it had been for each of them.
With three months and no plan, I contemplated doing Vipassana now but I did not want to be in the cold of Dharamsala silently freezing for 10 days. I opted to find a warmer locale to dive into my inner psyche.
Rumors traveled about a beautiful hike to the snowline of the foothills of the Himalayas. I decided to check it out. After ascending 30 minutes from Dharamkot, I encountered a small guest house. Four single rooms were nestled between two small mountains facing white speckled jagged peaks. Each room contained a simple cot and a window that opened to the Himalayas. The owner was a thin tall attractive Indian man with a moustache. I watched him sweep the common area as a few foreigners sat at the dining table under the open sky and read or wrote in a journal. I was drawn to the tranquility being up here away from everything.
Continuing on my journey, I passed 3 chai stops selling crackers, tea, rice, dahl, omelettes, and chapati. It no longer surprised me to see such huts. They were only reachable via paths barely 2 feet wide situated along jagged cliffs that dropped into an abyss. The last one I visited sat across from a hidden waterfall and was called the Magic View Café. It was open half of the year. All day long, the locals watched travelers pass by as the clouds rolled in and out of the sky. It was a peaceful and simple existence, one Westerners would struggle to maintain.
Back in Dharamkot the next morning, I discovered Sharat Arora. He was an Indian man who had trained in Iyengar yoga by BKS himself. He lived down a small hill in a wooden cabin in Dharamkot with his German wife and children. He offered Iyengar yoga intensives for visitors lasting 5 days. Each day involved 3 hours of yoga boot camp. Since I had no plans other than seeing Dr. Yeshi Dhonden, I signed up with Sharat.
At the same time, I sadly bid Brendan and my other new friends goodbye and moved up to the house facing the foothills. I was reluctant to leave the comfort of my new friends, but I would only stay in fear of facing my own solitude.
To deal with the cold up there, I bought a red blanket and a heater which looked like a toaster oven. I cozied up in my bed, turned on the heat, and opened my window to the open air facing the mountains. I painted with watercolors and jotted down stories about my experience in India.
The one commitment I had for the next 5 days included yoga with Sharat so I hiked 30 minutes down to Dharamkot each day. Sometimes I’d visit with my friends before attending the 3 hour yoga workshop. However rigorous the training, it became the foundation of my future yoga practice.
Our yoga room was more like a tent on a hard wooden surface with canvas hanging above and beside you. He was loathed by many students. It was his goal to destroy the ego.
Style is mostly about the language people use to describe one’s actions. He taught by relaying the need to pound the tripod of the foot, including the heel and ball mounds, into the ground. I resonated with his style.
He ordered us to do a specific yoga posture then sauntered around the room yelling, “Squeeze your buttocks like you have a pencil between your butt cheeks! Tighten your quadriceps! Keeps your hips parallel! Ground your heels and ball mounds into the ground!”
Other times he showed us how to invert into a shoulder stand then would demand, “Hold it 10 minutes...uh that person came out of the position! The clock starts over!” Ten minutes would progress to twelve then fifteen then twenty minutes. We often were in shoulder stand well over 20 minutes waiting for everyone to hold it long enough. I gave up and started counting to 600 declaring that I had been in the position for a full 10 minutes. I refused to invert my body any longer.
We stood in warrior one while he screamed, “Tighten your quadriceps!” He proceeded to punch us in the quads. If you were contracting your muscles it did not hurt. If your muscles were flaccid, it hurt like hell. Despite the pain from his yoga boot camp, everyone felt stronger and more balanced after his sessions.
Part way through he said, “You can go and do all of those fancy yoga postures but you don’t need them. These basic poses are all you need for health and wellness! Do these for an hour and a half every day and you will be healthy!” I found what he said to be true, although one could do his postures for 20 minutes and still find great health benefits.
One participant asked Sharat what other modalities he recommended. He replied, “You have to find what works for you! I had my days of trying everything. I did tai chi and weight lifting, but then I chose yoga. If you are looking to make a well and you dig many holes, you may never find water but if you dig one big hole, you will eventually find water.” Yoga was the hole he chose to dig. We each had to choose our own.
My current home in the hills of Dharamkot was peaceful Buddhist territory. It was unlike the rest of India which was dirty and chaotic. I contemplated what next. “If I spend all of my time here, I’m not seeing what I came for. I need to see the real India. It is too comfortable here.” I was ready to be challenged. I decided to head back to the chaos.
The parts of India that I hated most ran through my thoughts. I visualized beggars with missing body parts or soiled homeless/ghetto parents using their dirty and purposely damaged children to ask for a rupee. The worst part was feeling like I had to ignore them to get away from them. Otherwise, I was coerced into giving money out of guilt which propagated the problem. The billions of beggars were legitimately hungry needing amenities to survive, not drugs to feed their addiction which was often the case at home. This was harder to walk away from, but I couldn’t help the billion folks who needed it. I was at a loss but I was also choosing to go back to this.
I dreaded my return but was also excited to experience something different. I felt like I was living in the comfort of Mr. Shriya again. It was comfortable and safe but I wanted to learn from the challenges.