The True Yoga: an Indian train ride

March 1, 2014
Katherine Austin Wooley


It was pre-dawn when we wound through donkey-driven carts and the early morning traffic of Amritsar to the train station. This was what I had dreaded most about this India yoga retreat - an 8-hour train ride from Amritsar to Rishikesh.

Even though Katherine insisted that the experience would be transformative, even though she had taken this very train ride a year ago herself, even though we had all sailed through our early Indian experiences with (mostly) flying colors, the train ride was a big question mark.

And it turns out, the train ride was the most real yoga any of us have ever experienced.

The train looks like something out of a mid-20th century movie, with tinted windows and heavy curtains beside the red leather seats. We were in the first class car, which has air conditioning and seat assignments, but just as we boarded a beggar from the platform boarded alongside us and tried to get us to give him money.

He didn't approach Katherine. He approached me. As he reached out for my bag, I barked a loud NO at him and pulled back. Our travel guide spoke in quick Hindi to him and the man eventually shuffled off.

"Breath of fire every morning," Katherine said. "You have to command your space. Predators can sense weakness. We have to tune up and charge up so we can hold our space."

So true.

I'm going to reassure you now, before I tell the rest of my story, that the train ride was fine. We slept soundly. We listened to iPods and talked for hours. We snacked and laughed and shared stories. We all squatted in the very rustic bathroom (don't look into the toilet - you'll see the tracks below!!) and lived to tell about it.

The train ride was harmless. What in the world was I afraid of?

Fear of the unknown, plain and simple. And fear of being uncomfortable.

Riding an Indian train is a huge experience, Katherine says, more than just transportation to get us where we want to go. Truly, the only way between Amritsar and Rishikesh is either car or train - there is no flight directly; we'd have to fly all the way to Delhi in between. There is no easy way to get around this immense country.

So you ride the train because the journey is always the destination.

We are so American, down to our bones. Every one of us, with our bathroom phobias and our Purell and our wipes and trying to hold it until the end of the journey. I mean, really - I've hiked in the mountains and camped and bushed it all over the world. What's the big deal about a bare bones bathroom?

Yoga takes us from our fears and elevates us to higher ground. Yoga helps ground us in the moment, and in our power, to stand strong and face whatever comes our way. A rustic bathroom. An aggressive beggar. A mishap at work. A fight with a friend or a disappointing spouse.

As we passed banana trees and men directing a cockfight and women hanging the day's wash on a line outside their straw huts, how could we complain or roll eyes or turn up our noses at the way other people live?

Are we so much better?

Perhaps we have cleaner houses and bathroom routines, and maybe we keep more distance between strangers. But we live in a country with rising obesity where so many medicate to escape real life. We, too, have insurmountable mountains of garbage - we just don't see them. In America, we hide our waste. In India, it's out in front, honest, raw. No hiding.

India is real life.

India is hard and it's dirty and yes, some situations will make you uncomfortable and wanting to run.

But so will life at home. It's how you face tough situations that is the true yoga. And how you let every moment, good and bad, change you for the better.

As much as it is poor and dirty and tough, India is rich in culture and in love and in color and in experience. The rituals reach deep into the senses, massaging the soul.

In India, the people are connected to the earth and the lifecycle and the seasons and the storms of life. And they ride them with ease.

Until we recognize how well we can learn from each other, we are missing the point entirely. We all came on this retreat with Katherine for different reasons.

In the end, I think the benefit of this type of trip - whether to India or elsewhere, giving us a chance to leave life-as-we-know-it and go deep, eliminate blocks and rise to our highest self - is that we evolve to a better place.

It's funny - we sat backwards the whole way to Haridwar. The train goes from Haridwar to Amritsar facing forward and it does not turn around. You just sit in the seats and ride facing backwards the other direction. You have no choice but to face the direction you're given.

Toward the end of the trip, a boy came through the car on his knees scrubbing the floor of the train. He is in a very low caste but at least he has a job. Young men walked up and down the aisle selling snacks and sing-songing chai, chai, chai.

Everyone has their purpose. And in India, you learn, everything is possible.

Read More

Forgetting the Calendar

March 4, 2014
I think it was Sunday when I couldn't remember what day it was. That is the definition of vacation. Letting go of time, losing track of days, not being...

Blow Your Mind: the point of yoga

March 3, 2014
In Gurmukh's Kundalini yoga class on Monday, she said the point of this practice is to blow your mind. Literally. Blow it up, blow it out, silence it....

Kundalini with Gurmukh on the Ganges

March 2, 2014
Perhaps the best yoga class ever. Kundalini at Karma is already fantastic. But picture it amped up like this: The waters of the holy Ganges River rush...