Culture shock is a funny term. In my case, I’m not sure it’s accurate.
OK; maybe that’s a lie.
December 9 and 10, my first two days in India, I spent basically hiding inside a bewilderingly abandoned hotel complex, waiting for Fenwick to arrive, too nervous to enter the chaos of the city of Aurangabad without her.
When I say the hotel was abandoned, I mean it was abandoned in terms of guests. After emerging from an interrupted night’s sleep in which the front desk called me three times to confirm the spelling of Fenwick’s name for her airport pickup the next day, I crossed the lawn to the dining area for breakfast to be attended by about 15 waiters.
I could barely get a bite of food into my mouth before they were clearing dishes away and asking if I needed anything else.
I asked if there were other guests.
“Oh yes; many,” they said.
But there were no other guests. I know because I was there continuously for a day and a half and no one but staff members appeared anywhere. If they had, I probably would have sprinted over, scaring the daylights out of them.
I asked about the swimming pool and the concierge pointed the way. I approached it eagerly. It was lovely and big. But there was no water in it. I returned to the front desk to ask about WiFi. “Go to your room,” they told me.
So I went to my room and stayed there for a day and a half, experiencing culture shock.
From there, Fenwick and I learned together that no matter how much money you spend to protect yourself from India, you cannot spend enough. Even though we rode in private taxis, took flights when we could, booked rooms in impossibly fancy hotels, we still breathed the black air, still stepped in puddles of excrement and garbage, still were harassed by men and street children, trying to take advantage of us in different ways.
Money didn’t solve the problem of culture shock in India.
For me, time did. After a while, the shock wore off. I became (sort of) used to breathing toxic fumes throughout my yoga practice. This trip has been about challenging some of my most fundamental expectations of life.
1. Air – In New Zealand, I breathed in mold and cat dander. I felt poisoned and couldn’t wait to fill my lungs with air in India. Ha – have I mentioned? The air in India is poisonous. I am angry about it because now there are friends all over the country, breathing that air, becoming sick. Breathing, so vital and key, is a gift we ignore.
2. Food – In India, you can’t eat raw food. In the north, sometimes your only options are sugary or fried, or both. Feeling nourished by nutritious food went out the window for a while. Now, in Thailand, I think I scared some fellow travelers because after one bite of intoxicating, crunchy, sweet, spicy green salad, I couldn’t fill my mouth with more of it fast enough.
3. Movement – I couldn’t hike or run and the yoga I knew then was pretty gentle. My body wasn’t getting its daily sweaty exertion-dose of endorphins. Poor Fenwick had to deal with the fall out. Throughout the three months, I learned to listen to my body in new ways. Instead of forcing it up a mountain first thing in the morning, I gave it time to tell me what it needed. Which, it turns out, is powerful Ashtanga asana first thing in the morning. The difference? Ashtanga Primary Series is a specially formulated process to develop strength and flexibility in the body AND mind, while focusing the thoughts on the Divine more than on the firmness of one’s ass or the time you are beating in summiting the peak.
4. Men – None. Enough said.
I lied again. There was a pudgy gentleman on the flight down from Delhi to Aurangabad back in December who was escorting his sister down for a visit with him, his wife and their two children. He asked me about my life and I told him I was unmarried and a yoga teacher and wanted to learn to cook the saag paneer we were served on the flight. I was feeling quite contemptuous of everyone’s advice to lie and always say I was married. I didn’t want to lie.
To make a long story short, my gentleman friend visited me at the strange abandoned hotel complex the next day to “learn meditation” which I learned means something culturally different to at least one Indian man.
That dose of culture shock was healthy. I misplaced my shock and sadness about a real live Indian person (the first I had met in India!) not knowing the secrets of yoga and meditation, his own cultural treasures! In this case, my desire to share yogic knowledge led to questions about whether my boyfriend needs Viagra (because present company finds it unnecessary) and persistent suggestions to move the session from the patio to my hotel room.
My desire to help got me into trouble many times in India. Culturally, I needed to learn boundaries and respect. When the Ayurvedic Doctor’s neighbors had an unhappy and unruly yellow lab puppy that was locked in a cage all day and night, I offered to train it to give it more freedom. Instead of the joyful wagging I expected, I got a nasty cut and trail of bruises across my arm from its vicious attack. Culture shock, big time.
These lessons out of the way, halfway through the trip I began to embrace India. And India truly embraced me back. I paid tiny bits of money for thin mattresses, freezing showers, all night bus journeys. I gave up my agenda of fitness and salads even though it was scary to think of what my body would become.
By now (this was early January), I began to prefer India. At Santosh Puri ashram, I chanted and prayed and blessed my food before consuming everything (even buttermilk) with my hands. I roamed by the Ganga with cows.
Listening to Mataji daily speak about devotion to God, how everything is God – even suffering because it purifies and burns away what keeps us from God, I was beginning to change. I was feeling peaceful and content. I was afraid, though. I was afraid to go back into the world and lose what I had gained. What I had gained was a glimpse of what truly matters in life – getting close to God. What I was afraid of – being pulled back into the pursuit of all the things that don’t matter in life – how I look, what people think about me, whether I can do handstand.
The next day I met the cool yogis for a course in Ayurveda. We lay on Lighthouse Beach in Kovalam, after a beautiful early morning swim, listening to the bass beats of some American song from 15 years ago, baking in our bikinis as Indian men in business suits walked past and pretended (or didn’t) not to stare. Suddenly, I was crying. A lot, and loudly, on that bright beach.
I couldn’t stop. I missed the ashram – Pushti, its tiny puppy, its quiet order and respect for what matters. How could I give that to myself? I didn’t know how. I had said goodbye to Mataji; now I just wanted to be near my mother. But also, I didn’t. I wasn’t ready to go home.
I spent the afternoon crying and wandering around the hotel room, glugging bottled water. I felt at a crossroads. I didn’t want to spend my life in an ashram but I didn’t know where else to go. Re-entering “normal” life was too much of a shock.
Happily, I adjusted and began the last segment of the journey, which we shall call “Boot Camp.” My new friends Liza and Merrin decided to school me in the ways of Kali, since I had been adopted by that destroying, fiery Deity that same week in Kovalam. Both Liza and Merrin tend to live-by-Kali already. We decided they needed the grounding, sleepy, sweet-eating Ganesh for their journey.
Anyway, my Kali-boot-camp entailed overhauling my eating habits – taking away sweets and adding fiery spice to pretty much all food; drinking coffee black; drinking vodka for dinner on occasion; I speak as if in jest. But truly, the “diet plan” gave me freedom from this idea I’d picked up somewhere along the way that a hungry, empty feeling is one that should elicit panic. That anxiety can be soothed, always, by sweets. Really, what I was doing by eating in excess of three times a day, by satiating myself with sugar regularly, was keeping me from what I truly wanted – strength.
Other Kali bootcamp lessons – wear shorts, and purple eyeliner. Lie in the sun. Don’t take things so personally – be a bit tougher. Stop doubting yourself- be confident.
These are not the lessons I came to India to learn, per se. My Liza and Merrin gurus, cute yoga teachers from San Diego, were the opposite of ash-smeared holy men inhabiting caves in the Himalayas. The biggest lesson I gained, upon reflection after graduating Kali bootcamp, was not to be so shallow.
I was judging my San Diego gurus and their gin-drinking, sun-tanning ways. I wanted a real guru, chanting mantra 20 hours a day. I wanted to escape my desires, transcend the need to inhabit my body and the challenges I face with it.
Instead, I inhabited my body by doing stronger asana. I learned how to dress more flatteringly (you need a waist – Merrin). I even learned to stand up straighter and walk more gracefully – Kali bootcamp style.
My desire to have a strong body and accomplish challenging poses is not wrong, I learned. In fact, as Liza said, my desire to be above that desire is shallower than anything else.
We are all given a body. We’re not just floating ethereal shapes wasping around the firmament.
And in embracing this desire to be strong and accomplish poses with my body, I actually feel more free. To think about what counts – which is loving God, and serving others.
Hmmm, so dear Kali, put me through culture shock any day, and send me gurus in any form that might be humorous to you. I know I don’t need to be in India to learn these lessons, but I’m sure grateful I got to learn so much in your shocking homeland.