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Two women practice yoga at Om Yoga Centre in McLeod Ganj. (Photograph by Jill Schneider)

Letting Go in India

India isn’t for everyone. Control freaks and those lacking a sense of humor may want to sit this country out.

In order to have a good go of it, you need to embrace the madness as soon as you arrive. If you can find a way to laugh at every frustration, annoyance, and stomach churn you will soon realize it’s experiences like this that make for the best travel stories.

I’ve traveled in India several times, and each time I thought I’d hit my limit and was ready to pack it in and go home, something would happen that would make me change my mind.

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Looking up at McLeod Ganj. (Photograph by Jill Schneider)

On one such trip, I had already been traveling around the Himalayas for months while working on my photojournalism thesis project. My plan was to stay in McLeod Ganj for two weeks. I ended up staying for six.

McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamshala in northern India, is the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile and the bulk of its population is comprised of Tibetan refugees. In time, I began to learn the ins and outs of this special town in the clouds where Indians and Tibetans live side by side.

Being the only American in a café filled with monks and nuns began to feel normal. Each day I would chat with the same people; I learned which coffeehouses had reliable WiFi, where to find the neighborhood puppies, and how to feel safe walking to my hotel alone at night.

A group of monks befriended me and asked me to be their English tutor. I would go to their monastery with books and help them practice; in return they cooked me heaping helpings of traditional Tibetan food. Each day I would leave stuffed full of momo (Tibetan dumplings), noodles, fried rice, and other treats.

After spending two weeks in this peaceful town, I knew I needed to start planning my next move. I had an itch to head south, drink out of coconuts, stay in a beach hut, work on my tan, take cooking classes, explore markets, eat seafood, and just relax. That’s when I saw the sign for “yoga teacher training” at Om Yoga Centre.

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Two monks preparing me a traditional Tibetan lunch. (Photograph by Jill Schneider)

When I arrived, the instructor informed me that I would be the only student because it was the off season. I had a brief urge to revert to my original plan, but as soon as I heard how quickly I could earn my certificate (in one month) and how inexpensive it would be (a fifth of what it would cost in the U.S.), I decided to stay.

The thought of bending my body in unthinkable ways in the bleakest part of the winter was a hard sell, but I soon realized that I would be trading a sun-kissed body for a strong one — and a clear mind.

The training regimen was physically and mentally exhausting. My guru, Arashpal, repeated the same phrases every day to get me into a routine: “Mind control, mind control, all poses easy, regular practice, all poses easy, you no concern.” He would say this and I would think, “What are you talking about? This isn’t easy!”

As Arashpal prodded me into impossible pose after impossible pose, I had my own mantra (that I repeated to myself): “This is easy, this is easy, this is easy. Oh, crap, I’m going to fall! I hate this pose and want to go home!”

But after a few days, I found I was able to complete the poses. Sometimes I felt so excited about my my progress (learning to do a split at 27 felt like a major accomplishment!) that I would dance around the room. Arashpal would just laugh. “Why is this crazy girl so excited she can do something so easy.”

One day, sensing my discomfort with om-ing, Arashpal made me repeat it for 20 minutes. The tough love helped me get over my issues, but the challenge of meditating remained. As soon as he told me to stop moving, all I wanted to do was move. I wiggled my toes, opened my eyes, adjusted my neck, and picked at my fingers. When I was told to clear my mind, inane thoughts started swimming around my head.

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An eagle soaring over the Dhauladhar range in the Outer Himalayas. (Photograph by Jill Schneider)

By the end of the month I was standing on my head, holding myself up by my hands, meditating with ease, and my om had become a bellow. I left class feeling energized, capable, and strong. My favorite part of the day was watching the sun set over the Himalayas, turning the snow-capped mountains pink, and watching the eagles fly overhead.

Another surprising thing happened. I didn’t realize how attached I was to technology until it was all taken away. During my final week of training my camera decided to malfunction, my computer charger died, and I accidentally threw my iPod in the trash.

Being a photographer, I suddenly found myself unable to take — or download — photos. And with no music to distract me during my down time, I was alone with my thoughts. It seemed like a weird cosmic coincidence that all of these things, things I cherished so deeply, failed me. Arashpal had once told me that a true yogi has no need of material possessions. Was this a test?

All I know is that McLeod Ganj rewarded me with a sense of peace I’ve never experienced before. Maybe it was the crisp mountain air, all the meditation and intense backbends, or even boredom. Whatever the cause, it worked for me. Small town living gave me a chance to observe things I usually would not have slowed down to notice, and I took a lesson from that.

When it was finally time to leave McLeod Ganj, all the people I knew gathered at the bus stop to say goodbye. I took a deep breath and boarded an overnight bus — without my iPod — to my next adventure.

Jill Schneider teaches travel photography to high school students — a gig that has taken her to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Ecuador, Iceland, and her home base, San Francisco – as a National Geographic Student Expeditions trip leader.