Outstretching the full reach of my arms as a child imitates an airplane, I ran. I ran to the limits of my ability, heart beating, nose flaring, eyes streaming, sprinting until I struggled for air.
Gasping and gulping with eyes fixed to the sky I made my silent prayer, "Help me change my life. Please. I need change in my life."
Mornings pounding a trail in London's Victoria Park had been a refuge during arduous days working under an increasingly difficult boss. Eight quick years had passed since I'd left Ireland, culminating in a role producing fashion shows for a fashion PR agency. The job was intense, requiring long hours, meticulous planning and a small cutlet of my soul. I buzzed off the fast pace, quick project turnarounds and pulling off fashion shows in wild venues, but a change in management created a hostile culture that would become the catalyst for profound change.
It also happened that at the same time my schoolfriend Jennifer, a seasoned backpacker was heading to India. I had just turned 30, had never backpacked or been to Asia. It felt like divine timing and my heart said, "Jump! If not now, when?"
In the days that followed an indulgent Irish Christmas, I landed in Delhi to a dense winter fog which had devoured northern India.
An immediate onward flight to Varanasi was ill-advised for the 5,000-year-old holy city is not billed as entry-level India. Arriving into Varanasi in the dark of night is disorientating in itself, but negotiating the narrow streets through a pea-soup fog was nothing short of post apocalyptic. The fog had entirely enveloped the ancient city, which holds firmly to the basin of the sacred Ganges. Human figures on the roadside were barely distinguishable save for the little hearths they crouched beside.
Motorbikes and tuk-tuks hurtled past, beeping incessantly as they dissolved into the fog just as quickly as they had appeared. The eyes of beasts glowed in the headlights and I wondered were they donkeys, cows or something larger? Exhausted after two flights and overwhelmed by the visions before me, I was well out of my comfort zone, miles from home and far beyond anything I'd ever seen. I questioned if it all had been a terrible mistake.
Day three in India and 48 hours shivering in a pool of my own sweat, deep in the throws of the 'Welcome to India purge' was not how I anticipated celebrating New Year's in an exotic land. I would later learn that plans almost always change in India and it isn't a question of if 'Delhi belly' will strike, it's when.
Holed up in a hostel in Varanasi, Jennifer and I found amusement in our dismal celebration, joking that I was surely having a cathartic release, cleansing years of pent-up London life that 'no longer served me'. "Sure at least you'll lose the Christmas weight," she laughed. She enjoyed my frantic race to strip off my socks while hopping to the waterlogged roofless balcony toilet each time I felt a calling. I watched the bats swoop for the moths attracted to the single bulb overhead. Exploding fire crackers rang out on the street below, which felt extremely loud and incredibly close. I affirmed that things could only get better from here.
We spent two wonderful months travelling Rajasthan and eventually made our way down to Goa.
Staying in affordable hostels and taking the cheapest mode of transport, we squeezed into local buses and were often the only Westerners on-board. We didn't let our lack of Hindi hold us back from connecting with the local people, finding ways to communicate through an unspoken language. On the long bus rides, Jennifer wove colourful threads into macrame and gifted bracelets to the curious watching eyes.
We were continuously humbled by the cheerful nature of the Indian people, ever pleasant and gregarious. One night settling into our nightbus, we sang Hindi songs with a group of school girls who were giddy bedding down along the full gangway of the bus, unfazed and finding fun in their sleepover.
Transport always carried a sense of adventure. We projected confidence, appearing more assertive with tuk-tuk drivers who tried to hustle their price. We had no unfortunate scenarios aside from a night train to Mumbai where the uncomfortable acoustics of a man watching Western pornography murmured from a bunk beneath us.
Then after nearly three months it was time to say goodbye to my full -time companion and begin my next adventure solo. An emotional goodbye, we embraced and she grinned, "You're just like Reese Witherspoon in Wild, with a bag you can't carry with all your gadgets'. It was time to relieve the weight of Sapiens and Shantaram and find my yoga centre.
Draped rainbow fabric hanging above an ocean shala first lured me into Kranti Yoga. I wandered in through the palm trees from Patnem beach and was greeted with a refreshing coconut and immediate welcome.
I attended a drop-in class and spoke with the students while they were having breakfast on long tables. The vibe was palpably warm with so much colour, cosy nooks and lush plants throughout. It was clear that the founder Kranti, an authentic and down-to-earth Indian yogi, cared a great deal about creating a welcome and safe space, rebuilding each season following the monsoon and continually adding details over his 12-year tenure. I knew immediately that I had found the right school for me.
By week three I was especially grateful that my little ocean hut was mere feet from the yoga platform, where we practiced the Ashtanga Primary series for two hours each morning.
Rising to jungle birdsong punctuated by the graceless sounds of yoga mats slapping on a hard floor, the early starts became increasingly difficult as muscles grew fatigued from the continuous training. The 200-hour training is an introductory course, suitable for beginners but is better attempted with some foundation in yoga and a level of fitness. Flexibility of the body is not a requirement but that of the mind should be. It's important to be humble, accepting, in the moment and willing to learn.
Morning practice was followed by pranayama and meditation to the sounds of the sea, often taking place on the beach. After these breath work exercises, I made time for a quick dip in the Arabian Sea before everyone's favourite part of the day - the hearty breakfast. I'll admit that the food was an important factor in my choosing Kranti Yoga and it didn't disappoint.
While curry and rice is the staple of most yoga centres, Kranti also offered healthy salads, soup, non-Indian alternatives and catered to vegan and gluten-free guests. The breakfast was so exceptional that many of us skipped lunch as we had gorged ourselves so intently on the morning pancakes, masala dosa, cinnamon porridge and caramelised nuts. If an army marches on its stomach we ensured we were ready for battle.
Although the busy schedule required focus for classes in yoga philosophy, anatomy and alignment, we had some free time which allowed for swims and relaxing on the beach. Ice breaker activities and long table meal set ups made conversations easy and the group jelled quickly. Remarkably international and interesting people, it was so special to meet a tribe of like-minded souls with a shared passion for yoga. Too exhausted in the evenings for beach bar wandering we would share a few drinks as a group on the weekend before our Sunday day off. Plans would filter round the breakfast table regarding Sunday trips to Agonda and Palolem and of course the local masseuse, whose specialisation in Ayurvedic oil massage was highly regarded as the only cure for aching muscles. Snug in my little hut at night, decorated with fairy lights, I fell asleep beneath a mesh veil to the sweet sounds of jazz and dull base coming from the beach.
Before the course I did not doubt that I would make positive friendships over the three weeks but I never anticipated the level of bonding which occurred in such a short time. I can say with certainty that many will be friends for life. On the final night to celebrate our liberation, we skinny dipped in the sea and experienced an unexpected encounter with a natural phenomenon.
Neck deep in moody dark water, we swam among wondrous bioluminescent plankton, each stroke trailed 1,000 sparkles beneath the surface. My heart was elated with reverence for the magic of nature around us, ever present but not always seen. In a quest of endurance to 'find myself' in India, here was the luminous moment that my heart was most full of pride and wonder.
The spark of magic in life had returned.
The Daily Dish
Thali (meaning ‘plate’) is the essential Indian daily platter, varying in style by region. This selection box of veg, dal, kurd, chutney, pickle and a sweet dish, is mopped up with rice. A gem.
Markets of India
Delhi’s Chandni Chowk is an assault on the senses, with its abundance of colourful cloth, trinkets and traders hastily pushing carts. If you want a taste of India, look no further.
NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.
Sunday Indo Living