Monkey business

After the melodic tones of the harmonium have disappeared and our teacher Siddhart Ji* brings us back from our meditative state, he asks, “what is yoga?” This is the first philosophy class of my 28-day, 200-hour yoga teacher training course in Rishikesh, India, and it has been quite the journey to get here. “Balance,” “connection,” “asanas,” are some of the responses that come from the small group of 8 students. All are correct, but more specifically it is the union of mind, body and breath as Siddhart Ji explains to us. He continues to explain that to achieve this union, or balance, we must first learn to quiet the “monkeys in our mind.” Having always been a visual person, this immediately brings the playful image of a toy monkey banging away on its symbols in the space in my skull where my brain lives. As I smile at this thought, I also think about the truth behind these words and consider the benefits of having the ability to clear all our competing priorities in order to focus and find clarity in everyday life and in business. Easier said than done of course, especially on this particular journey as my first week in India has been anything but quiet.

India is the first country I am visiting on a nearly 6-month journey of what is quickly changing from self-discovery to self-torture. To get to Rishikesh, my first destination in India, it took 37 hours and 3 flights – during which I focused on indulging in wine before reaching this holy city where alcohol, as well as any animal food products, is unavailable and in some cases illegal. After retrieving my bag at the Dehradun airport, I notice that the straps of my backpack have all been adjusted, evidence that my bag has been tampered with. I think to myself, “oh well, can’t do anything about it right now,” and proceed to meet my driver to begin the ride to my home in Rishikesh for the month. The drive is as one would expect in a developing country, my driver Summit is speeding on a winding, unfinished road while motorbikes and cars all race to get to their destination first with only a honk of the horn to warn oncoming traffic to stay out of their way. Can you feel the zen? About 35 mins later (half of the time it should have taken, well done, Summit), I am home but have discovered that a few items have in fact been stolen from my bag and the accommodations are a bit more basic than the photos led me to believe – but hey, the fist-sized beetles don’t seem to mind. With that thought, I take a shower and go to bed, thankful to have both.

Jet lag, being the trusted travellers’ companion it is, promptly wakes me at 3am – thank you jet lag, I would have hated to miss my alarm that was set for 7:45am. I tell myself that, like the backpack, this is something I just have to deal with and amuse myself reading before breakfast and classes begin. Besides, the yogic lifestyle is about understanding and not trying to control everything.

Our course begins with a fire ceremony to cleanse our energy and help us focus on our intentions for becoming a practicing yogi while ridding us of our egos and negative thoughts. The ceremony is rejuvenating and renews my confidence in why I started this journey. The unforgiving heat that makes me constantly look like a melting candle of sweat does leave some lingering doubt. I attempt to snuff the doubt and ask the hotel manager, Anup, a hopeful, “we will get used to the heat, right?” To which he replies an honest, “no,” followed by a deep-bellied laugh.

Our daily schedule begins around 6am when we warm-up before our first two hours of asana practice, then breakfast followed by one hour each of alignment and anatomy classes. We break for lunch and some free time to study before we return to class for an hour and a half of hatha asana practice and one hour of philosophy. Finally, the day ends with dinner after which I rush to pass out before my friend jet lag wakes me in the middle of the night. A holiday everyone dreams of, right? Well, at least this girl does. A vacation for me is not a vacation unless I have challenged myself physically and mentally, preferably to breaking point. You are all welcome to join me, though there have yet to be any takers on that offer. 

Since it is a holy city, Rishikesh is quite peaceful with little crime making it safe to walk around even at night (though I would still caution that solo female travelers avoid walking alone at night as a best practice). It is located in northern India at the base of the Himalayas on the Ganga/Ganges river. The people are friendly and there are many temples and ashrams to visit; though at this point my excursions have been limited to getting my bearings and desperately searching for clothing that will give me some relief from this heat while still maintaining modesty out of respect for local culture.

It is also important to consider that monsoon season here is in August. Though I did know this before I ventured all the way here from Canada, I had a real taste of what monsoon rains were while out exploring the city with a new friend and fellow yogi, Rhianna. Within minutes the sky turned dark and erupted in thunder and raindrops the size of dimes in rapid succession. Although home was only 500m away, we were forced to take, and overpay for, a taxi as the roads were already following like the Ganga.

The two species of monkeys that reside here are also something to note if considering visiting Rishikesh, grey lamurs and macaques. The lamurs are large but peaceful and intelligent monkeys that are spotted almost daily watching us practice our asanas as though we are humans in a cage at the zoo. The macaques are thieving mischief-makers and should be avoided at all times. In just a few days there have been several incidents with them. The first was when they tried to steal Jacek’s (another fellow yogi) clothes that were drying on his balcony. The second, was when I was quietly observing one that was eating a popsicle (no doubt that it stole) on the Lakshman Jhula bridge. I made the mistake of giggling ever so slightly which caught its attention and it turned its sights on my grocery bag instead. Thankfully I was able to dodge the lunatic primate and hurried off the bridge but an hour later I would learn that Rhianna was not so lucky. This leads to the third incident (one I sincerely wish I had witnessed and captured for YouTube and all the world to see) when she was crossing same bridge trying to capture the sunset on her phone. A macaque came out of nowhere and tried unsuccessfully to steal her phone relentlessly continuing its efforts by jumping on her back as she squealed and ran off the bridge. Fortunately, some locals were close by to help her or observe and laugh.

Though I don’t yet have any definitive wisdom on how to quiet the inner or outer monkeys, I can say that in travels as in daily life it is important to accept that we are not always in control and learn to adapt by understanding and making the best of every situation. I look forward to sharing insights and adventures along this journey and others through @communicatebydesign – until then, namaste.

*Ji is a suffix used to denote respect, in this case for Siddhart as my teacher.