This post is going to be a little different from the others. I’m taking you to another part of my life, one where food isn’t always a priority.
Around this time last year I decided to make a trip to a small town on the outskirts of Mysore in South India to practice yoga at this school. It was a personal journey, borne out of my curiosity and passion for the type of yoga that I currently do. After about 10 years of an off-and-on yoga hobby I stumbled into this genre in 2009, and it quickly sparked off a fierce, dormant interest in all things yoga. There was something about the simplicity of instruction that intrigued me. A typical Ashtanga class is a self-practice class, which means that you follow the sequence of postures as prescribed right up to the last posture you’re given, and you do it at your own pace, with help and advice from your teacher where needed. There’s not a lot of talking and no music, it’s just you and your breath, going through the same postures at the same time, everyday.
Compared with the typical yoga classes I was used to, I wasn’t comfortable with this paucity of verbal instruction. I was looking for stimulation, for answers and pats on the back. I started to feel more comfortable in my body, more energetic and alert, and this prompted a host of questions around the whats and whys of this “system” I was subjecting myself to. I wanted to get to the bottom of things.
So last November I packed up my bags and yoga mat, said goodbye to M and spent six weeks in Mysore. I thought, naïvely, that this gave me ample time to settle in and get into the ‘groove’ of things, and that by the end of it I’d be so ready to go home. India quickly showed me that she occupies a slightly different spot on the time-space continuum compared to the rest of the world. It is not a myth that time moves differently in that country, much to the indignation of the newly-arrived Singaporean-Californian used to a life of efficiency, lightning-fast wifi and ‘instant’ everything. It takes time to adjust to the heat, the noise, the sights and smells, the food, the people, the stares, the head wobble, the traffic, the street animals, the trash and to the harmonious chaos of all of these combined.
It takes time, and it takes a lot longer than you’d expect. For the first two weeks, it felt like I’d been thrown into a washing machine with the rest of humanity with the dial permanently set on “spin”.
Unlike Elizabeth Gilbert, I wasn’t staying in an ashram, a residential compound where you’d follow a strict schedule, diet and code of dress. The focus of the trip was to spend 1.5 to 2 hours at the crack of dawn every morning contorting myself in a hot and humid room along with 300 or so practitioners who had flown in from all over the world to do just the same thing.
Before I left I had these grand ideas for photo projects: Markets! Children! Food! Yoga! Asia! Life! But reality turned out rather differently. Energy conservation rather than expenditure was the name of the game. In other words, learning when and how to let go of a first-timer’s impulse to want to do everything. Every practice was an intense physical and mental experience, and as a result, my days were structured around getting enough rest and nutrition so that I could fully give 100 percent (or something like it) each morning without burning myself out. I didn’t tote my (heavy, attention-grabbing) camera around as much as I thought I would, and honestly, I was so busy soaking it all in I had no interest (or energy) in starting any new projects while I was there. Just being there was a project in itself.
And what a project it was. For the first time in, possibly, ever, food wasn’t the first thing on my mind. I know it sounds a little ironic considering the delights of Indian cuisine, but that’s not where my interest lay for those six weeks. As such, my relationship to food moved from one of pleasure and entertainment, to one that was purely functional. Because I adopted a predominantly vegetarian diet during my time there, my focus was on ensuring I got enough nutrients to replenish and sustain my body’s needs, instead of experimenting with textures and flavors in the kitchen.
This shift showed me how much I was really eating back home – way too much. My lifestyle is typically sedentary: computer work, walks to/from the car, driving everywhere. In this context, having even a daily dose of animal protein is still way more than what my body needs. Add to that the ridiculous food portions in this country and you’ve got a simple recipe for weight gain. Since returning home, it’s taken me about a month or so to get back into the groove of home cooking and start experimenting with recipes again. Only this time, I’m trying to strike a balance between adequate, good-quality nutrition and variety across meals.
It took a couple of weeks but once I realized that I wasn’t going to figure out Indian logic on this trip, life got a lot easier. Any non-practice energy went to getting my fill of Masala Dosas, coconut chutney, chai and the freshest coconuts, and just absorbing the experience of being in a place steeped in such a wealth of history, ritual and culture. It broadened my perspective of what yoga really means, and how it’s really just a tool to help us function better in our relationships.
In many ways, I guess you could say the real yoga lessons I learnt came from outside the school, through the kindness of strangers and the greed of merchants, in the bright-eyed enthusiasm of rescued child workers about to start their own food business. I became more comfortable with letting go of any expectations and going with the flow, and in the process, developing the courage to have faith that everything will work itself out in the end.
And you know what? It always does. ALWAYS.