Published Oct 24, 10 AM
By Sarah Marie Lowe
When I first told people I was going to India, everyone assumed I was going for yoga. Recommendations for ashrams and retreats started pouring in—advice on where to stay in Mysore, what not to eat, what to see in Dharamsala. I teach yoga, and co-own a yoga studio, so it’s natural that people would assume I’m going to India to study. I’d never gone before, and was starting to feel pressure to get to the source, to check the box. So I was as surprised as everyone else when, as friends emailed me detailed itineraries of trips they’d taken, I stored them away and said, next time.
I’ve been lucky enough recently to do a lot of travel: a motorcycle trip to northern Vietnam, a weekend in Beijing, a road trip to the bamboo forests outside Shanghai. I considered at length going to Mysore, or Pune, or spending a week in Dharamsala at an ashram. But my heart wasn’t there; the heart of my yoga practice is beating wildly for something other than time on a mat. I joked, with only a little anxiety in my laugh, that I might be the first yoga teacher to come to India and not do any actual yoga. A weird sense of guilt, an imposing should made me consider an ashram, but I also considered the Himalayas, the untroubled blue skies and the smell of sun on my skin. And so here I am, driving up the dusty border roads that keep India from Pakistan and China, not worrying about how well I’m maintaining my practice.
As my life changes, so does my yoga: after so many years, relationships shift and reshape in unexpected ways. This last year in particular seemed to step inside me, and rearrange everything about my life. I’ve been with the same person for five years, and practicing yoga for almost ten. Any kind of long-term relationship, whether it is with a person, job or practice, teaches you a certain kind of vocabulary; you learn to say the same words in different voices. My relationship, while loving and supportive, is a story with a predictable ending, and my physical practice was becoming a tired phrase. I thought for a long time that if I could just keep everything the same, I would be a better, stronger person. I was afraid of being uncomfortable; afraid if I didn’t practice I would be weak, or a bad teacher; afraid if I leave my relationship I will be a bad woman. I only changed because the effort of not changing was too great. So I do less asana these days, but I run in the evenings, the day’s restless thoughts sifting with each stride. I lay on the floor with my dog and listen to music. I care less and less about my muscle tone, and more and more about the quality of my actions. There was a time not so long ago when I couldn’t imagine this, when push-ups and handstands were all I cared about; and while that hasn’t totally disappeared, it’s cleared the way for something softer, something wilder, something less known.
Travel is not usually comfortable.
Air travel alone can take up a whole day, and the work of organizing hotels, cars and itineraries is exhausting. Travel in remote parts of Asia is even less comfortable—bathrooms are often just holes in the ground with flies buzzing about where they shouldn’t, and while the food is delicious, it will send you running to that very hole. (Although here’s another first: I came to India and couldn’t poop.) The roads are dangerous at worst and unreliable at best, to say nothing of the way people drive. The coffee is instant and the shower is a bucket and a hose. Routines are disrupted and patterns broken. Things feel weird. But travel is a practice like anything else: the more you do it, the easier it becomes.
We drove five and a half hours, my three friends and I, so that we could camp by a high altitude saltwater lake that separates India from Tibet. Getting there was hard work, on the kind of roads hardly living up to the word. The landscape was otherworldly: sheer cliffs covered in ice; peaks capped with blinding white snow; barren, rocky mountains suddenly turning lush and green with grazing sheep and wild horses; and around another turn in the road, a huge, turquoise river snaking through a valley with trees blazing red in the sun. By the time we arrived at the lake, it was dark and the air was freezing. There were a handful of canvas tents along the shore of the lake, managed by a farmer and his family, where we slept for the night. They cooked us egg curry and roti, and we shared our small bottle of whiskey. The farmer, a tall man with bloodshot eyes and a schoolgirl’s giggle, drank from the bottle, tilted his head back and poured the whiskey delicately but determinedly into his mouth. I don’t drink much, he said in Hindi, but when I have the chance I like to. I never use my own salary to buy booze, but I say yes if I have the chance. Later, he fell asleep in his chair by the fire, slumped over and snoring, while my friends sang Bollywood love songs.
I came to the lake hoping maybe I would feel inspired to do more than a few sun salutations. I really should practice in the morning, I said, sipping my whiskey. I really should. But the sunrise over the lake slayed me, sliced the shoulds straight off my tongue.
I let my practice be the travel, hitting the road, trying new things in the same filthy clothes, skirting the borders of places and purposes. I’m getting good at being uncomfortable, allowing life to be strange. There is a kind of dizzy brightness between being and becoming, and the routine, the comfort of my life and practice, is spinning around me. When people ask me about all the yoga I must have done in India, I’ll tell them I slept outside under the Milky Way an
d saw the Big Dipper so close I didn’t even have to lift my gaze, ate ramen noodles with soldiers and sat in remote monasteries under the gaze of an ever-accepting Maitreya. I did my practice; I said yes when I had the chance.
About Sarah Marie Lowe
Sarah Marie Lowe is a writer and yoga teacher. She is co-owner of Yoga Garden, a small boutique studio in Shanghai, China. Visit her here or here. She lives in Shanghai with a dog named Dog.