I needed an escape, a vacation that would shake me out of my routine, and leave me with more than souvenirs and digital photos. So when the yoga center in New York where I'm learning to meditate organized a two-week yoga trip to India, I decided to go.
We flew to New Delhi and the next day traveled several hours by bus to Rajasthan, in northern India. The dilapidated cobblestone roads along the way led to still-narrower streets crowded with stores and one-room houses. Men, women and children squatted along the roadside, draped in vividly colored garments.
On a hill overlooking the village of Samode, we stayed in a former maharaja's palace that has been turned into a luxury hotel. Here at the Samode Palace, guests are made to feel like royalty, with staff offering help at every turn, beautiful courtyards, a pool with a view of the mountains, and regally decorated rooms. For yoga, we met in a grand hall adorned with arches, balconies and chandeliers. The walls were decorated with intricate colored tilework, and sunlight poured through the windows.
Some villagers work at the Samode Palace, while others, local artists and craftspeople, depend on tourists to buy their bangles, colorful fabrics, art and gems. Not far from the elegant hotel, I agreed to buy a dress from a seamstress who lives in a single room with more than two dozen children. There were no chairs or tables; a baby lay on the floor next to her sewing machine amid the clutter of fabric and cooking pots.
Each morning, our group spent four hours practicing yoga, meditating and listening to lectures on philosophy. I was surprised to discover that these practices, unlike those back in many New York City gyms, were not physically difficult, but they were mentally and emotionally intense.
The goal of such practice, if there is a goal, is to become centered, to experience a level of consciousness called Samadhi or stillness, and to know yourself. I got to love these meditation mornings in the palace, when I could go deep into a heavenly state of inner quiet. No emotions, needs, fears and what-ifs. Just peace, which kept my mind clear and focused all day.
In the afternoons, Gagu, a local artist in Samode, volunteered to be our tour guide. He set me on the back of his scooter, while another guide took someone else from our group, and we sped by children, pigs and goats. Smiling children crowded around us on the street. I tossed them some tiny wrapped chocolates and we stopped at a store, where for $6, we bought 200 notebooks, pens and more candy. Gagu took me to a school and we handed out the supplies, enough for every child there.
Alan Finger, the founder of the Ishta Yoga center that organized the trip, describes yoga as a science that balances the energy of the body. He said regular practice would enable us to be at rest, not haunted by thoughts and worries that keep us from knowing our true nature. Yoga teacher Mona Anand posed questions that resonated with me, such as: "Can you be a human being and not a human doing?"
This mindset was tested when we spent some time in big cities. Jaipur and Delhi were teeming with people, scooters, livestock, cars, rickshaws, lorries and bicycles. Traffic splayed out in all directions. I worried our bus would be in an accident as I watched cars break every traffic rule.
As a foreigner, I was followed in the streets and hassled until the moment I got back on our bus. I felt helpless as I tried to get away from women begging with their babies, from the never-ending crush of people that included the old, the sick, and innumerable children. It was heartbreaking, but it also made me frightened and even angry at times when peddlers wouldn't take no for an answer. Extreme contrasts of wealth and poverty have existed for centuries here, but they are still startling — even mind-boggling — to visitors.
In Delhi, with some others from the yoga group, I walked into a store and met a Sikh, Fateh Birdi, who described himself as a healer. A round, bearded man with a perpetual smile, Fateh uses hammered-metal bowls and a mallet to determine where his patients' chakras — centers of energy — are blocked.
Back home I would have deemed him crazy. But something kept me from walking out. I spent hours that day in Fateh's little shop, drinking tea and talking with him. He offered astonishingly accurate analyses of my past and current relationships, and did the same for my companions. He then placed one of his metal bowls on my head, my solar plexus just below the sternum, and on my stomach. He used the mallet to make the bowl sing and vibrate. It was like being tickled. When I stood up, I felt like I'd had a two-hour massage. He never asked for money; at one point he told me he already feels rich.
On my last day in India, I went to see Mahatma Gandhi's memorial. Others advised me against it; they thought it was unsafe to go alone and warned me that "there was nothing to see." But the simplicity of the place turned out to be the very point.
I found a rickshaw driver who brought me to Raj Ghat, where Gandhi was cremated in 1948 on a river bank in Delhi. I wandered across the flat grassy field that led me to the plain black stone.
I sat down and a breeze picked up. I felt myself internalizing everything I'd seen and felt in India. Until this trip, I had always thought of yoga as exercise and its philosophy as tangential to my busy city life. Now I was beginning to see it as the foundation for a simple, compassionate and joyful existence.
I vowed to maintain my yoga and meditation practice after returning home. I could see what a difference it made in keeping me calm, present, and paying attention to the world around me. There is no better souvenir than that.