Spirituality, Excitement and Self-Discovery: Why Yogis Are Drawn to India8 min read
During her journey and training to become a yoga instructor, Erin Larsen’s teacher for three years told her that she must go to India.
“I was devoted to the practice, therefore I must go to the birthplace of yoga,” she says. Larsen saved money for two years to fund the five months she would spend in India and the month she spent trekking in Nepal.
“I went to find my teacher there. The universe led me and protected me along the way,” she says.
But, before she discovered her need and urge to travel to India, she first discovered yoga.
In 2001, Larsen returned to Blacksburg, VA from studying abroad in Australia for a year. She was feeling alone and out of shape. She was also still trying to recover from an accident that occurred right before leaving for Australia – she collided with a truck on her bike. Although she miraculously hadn’t broken anything, she was severely bruised and immobile.
“My body and mind had some major healing to do,” she says.
At the urging of her brother, Larsen took her first yoga class.
“I fell in love with it instantly. It felt like my calling.”
Over the next several years, Larsen practiced with a series of teachers, eventually teaching some of her own classes. One of her teachers told her that she needed to go to India. It’s a journey that many like Larsen have made.
Yoga has become popular in the western world over the last couple decades as a form of exercise. However, its origins in India approximately 2,500 years ago are of a far more spiritual nature. Yoga practitioners travel to India to become better at the physical aspects of yoga, and also to deepen their understanding of the ancient practice. Along the way, they often encounter a world that seems quite foreign from what they’re used to at home; truly, it can be a life-changing trip.
A journey to yoga’s birthplace
Calli De La Haye, a yoga instructor and co-founder of the online yoga platform Kalimukti Yoga, had no particular desire to visit India before becoming an instructor.
“I enjoy travelling to different countries and have visited many places, but once I studied yoga during my first yoga teacher training in Devon, England, I became curious about the roots and birthplace of yoga, and I wanted to learn yoga teachings and philosophy from the source,” De La Haye says.
After not one, but two trips to India, De La Haye understood why she was drawn there in the first place.
“If you want to deepen your practice and your understanding of the tradition of yoga – India is the place to go,” she says.
Practicing yoga no matter where you are can be a spiritual experience. But that spirituality is simply intensified in India.
“The biggest difference is that yoga is a spiritual practice in India and less about the physical asanas than you see in the Western world,” explains Michelle Eshleman, who traveled to India last year with her fiancé. “I built a new appreciation for less physical practices like Hatha yoga, especially after completing a Vipassana meditation retreat –a 10-day silent retreat to learn the Vipassana technique of meditation.”
For Eshleman, the journey to India was more about seeing the world with her fiancé than immersing themselves in the world of yoga.
“We didn’t go to India specifically for yoga, but we both love yoga and were so excited to practice in the birthplace of yoga,” she says. “I was able to practice yoga all over the country – from a farm in the mountains of Tamil Nadu, to an ashram in the birthplace of yoga, Rishikesh. It was a fascinating experience for many reasons and really expanded my practice.”
However, for Larsen, traveling to India is a pilgrimage.
“Many people in this life run away from things that are uncomfortable and have a hard time paying attention and sitting still. Yoga allows you the tools to sit still and be observant of how we can tap into the universal light and peace that is our true nature. So going to India will allow you a closer look, a deeper perspective, a way to completely immerse yourself in the practice, the food, the chanting, the ancient language of Sanskrit, mostly used in texts and chanting only, that resonates with our highest self,” she explains.
Expect the Unexpected
When the time finally came for Larsen to make the trip to India, she had some expectations based on what her teachers had told her.
“I was prepped intellectually with how to prepare my body and mind, but nothing can prepare you for India,” Larsen says. “It is culture shock to the nth degree.”
She knew practicing yoga in India would be a highly spiritual experience, but the actual experience far exceeded all of her expectations.
“You are eating food that is clean and uplifting. You practice every day – Asana, breath, philosophy, chanting. You absorb yourself in the practice,” she says, noting that she spent six hours a day practicing.
It’s not just the yoga – all the research and recommendations you can do before arriving in India can’t necessarily prepare you for the real thing.
“I will say that some of my preconceived notions were true. There really are cows wandering around as well as street dogs, goats, wild pigs… we even had some newly purchased fruit stolen from us on the street by a monkey, which the locals thought was hilarious!” Eshleman recalls. “India is overwhelming to the senses. There’s a saying that some Indians use: ‘full power.’ Certain towns we’d arrive in, [my fiancé] Scott and I would laugh to each other ‘This town is really India on full power!’”
De La Haye also experienced the “full power” of India.
“I travelled with my husband to Bangalore, when we first arrived it was the heat that hit me first, sweltering heat that made you immediately crave an air conditioned car, but no such luck, we were picked up by the retreat’s taxi service, a mini van that took us on a noisy, bumpy 8 hour journey to the heart of the jungle in Kerala where we would stay for a week of yoga, meditation and ayurvedic massage. It was a hell of a journey.”
Excitement came with challenges
De La Haye knew that the intense daily yoga practice would challenge her both physically and mentally, but she was excited.
“I knew from reading about it that practicing and studying yoga at an Ashram in India would not be a luxury experience, I understood from friends and fellow yoga teachers that many people suffered from stomach problems whilst in India due to the extreme change in diet and the heat, the infamous ‘Delhi-belly,’” she says.
What De La Haye was warned about is what Eshleman says she saw firsthand.
“The bathrooms may not meet your expectations, especially if you’re staying in more rural places. There are the smells that come along with many people and animals living together in close quarters. And the traffic…it needs to be seen to be believed. Driving laws exist, but I’ve noticed they’re more of a suggestion than a rule,” Eshleman jokes.
But it’s not just the traffic, the animals and the high population that can make India a challenging destination. So is the extreme poverty.
“It is difficult to see people living in such conditions…to see babies malnourished and dirty, families living on the streets, or even a bloated sick cow suffering on the road,” she says. “India tested my compassion and challenged me. It was difficult for me not to feel angry or sad, or even helpless. It’s hard to go back to seeing life in the same way.”
Although traveling in and around India may challenge you, Larsen says it’s actually good for you in the long run.
“India will make you uncomfortable. The poverty, the smells, the overpopulation in the cities, the water will make you sick, it is terribly dirty. And this will create a tolerance in you like no other,” she says. “The food, the spices, the color, the culture awakes your senses. You have to be on your toes there, you have to stay aware. You will wake up.”
The impact extended beyond yoga
Larsen’s trip to India and Nepal didn’t just have an impact on her yoga practice and role as a teacher, but on all aspects of her life.
“It made me respect my family more, what they have done for me in support of my dreams and passions – seeing how India respects their elders and takes care of them instilled that in me,” she says.
Her teacher, Vinay, showed this to her – he supported and provided for his family by teaching yoga. His father had a stroke and couldn’t work anymore, so Vinay spent time with him every day working with him on his speech and massaging him to help him regain some control of his body.
“Part of our training entailed visiting the home for the elderly and massaging them, doing some exercises and just talking with them,” Larsen explains. “Respecting and learning from our elders, and taking care of them develops compassion, which expands your heart chakra energy. So often we do not see this in the U.S., but in India the parents live with their children until they die.”
Though India will most certainly put you out of your comfort zone, Larsen argues stepping outside of your comfort zone and into India leads to personal growth.
“We are very comfortable here in the U.S. I came back with a stronger sense of gratitude for what we have here. And an appreciation for how little we really need in life to be happy,” she explains. “I think the experience will lead to happiness, I really do. Even if you go there and hate it, as some do, they come home and are happy to be home.”
India was the first place Eshleman visited that wasn’t a majority Christian country.
“It was so fascinating to me to learn about and experience the different religions practiced there and to see the people of various religions coexisting. Indians were very open and excited to share their beliefs and practices,” she says, adding that her experiences in India inspired her to explore her own spirituality.
Her trip to India didn’t just impact her spirituality, but also on the way she views the world
“First, I think any time you travel out of your comfort zone and within a new culture, you learn more about yourself and improve your view about the world and those around you,” she says.
“It gives you a new lens through which to view the world.”