My friends heard me utter that phrase so many times over the years that, when I announced that one of my favorite yoga teachers, Yoganand Michael Carroll, was leading a Swami Kripalu Lineage Tour to India, they quickly replied “do it!”
I hesitated. It was halfway around the world, and even though I’d been saving frequent flier miles for years in anticipation of someday going to India, dreaming of going to India and actually going to India were somewhat different. Later that evening driving home from dinner, I noticed an Indian restaurant in town I’d never seen before. “Hmm,” I thought. A sign? And when one of my companions said he’d give me an early Christmas gift to help defray the cost, the decision was made. For the next several months, my friends heard the repeated phrase “I’m going to India!” as trip organizers from Pranakriya School of Yoga Healing Arts expertly guided me through the process of getting a travel visa, receiving necessary vaccinations, and sent a detailed packing list along with how to prepare for, and what to expect in, this foreign land.
I’d repeatedly heard that India changes a person. Every yoga student/teacher I knew who had traveled there—some more than once—loved their experience. I’d also heard India described as noisy, overcrowded, filthy and smelly; a place where cows roam freely in the streets, poverty is rampant, especially in rural areas, and sensory overload for visitors is common. Yet nearly everyone I spoke with said spirituality is everywhere and that they fell in love with the people. As I would soon find out, I, too, fell in love with both the people and the place.
Our 12-day tour began in Delhi in Northern India where I arrived at 3 am along with two other trip participants I’d gratefully met up with at the Tokyo airport. The décor of Indira Gandhi International Airport greeted us with large golden hand mudras adorning the stairwell—the first of many indications that spirituality is indeed interwoven into India’s culture. The warning from our trip leaders that traffic and roads in India are frenzied, to say the least, and to trust that drivers have been safely doing this for years was the only thing that helped me through the insane taxicab ride to our hotel. One description our trip leaders shared with us before the trip likened experiencing traffic in India to an exhilarating roller coaster ride, uncontrollable like skydiving. The incessant sound of honking horns to announce each vehicle’s presence to other drivers, along with a continual flow of trucks, taxis, cyclists, auto rickshaws (also known as tuk tuks), pedestrians, and cows shared the four lane highway where the white dotted lines apparently meant nothing. The real kicker for me was when our driver flew past our hotel and as I pointed that out, and he finally believed me, he kicked the taxi into reverse and drove several hundred yards backwards through the chaos. My companions and I didn’t mind when our driver pulled up to the wrong entrance to the hotel. We insisted on getting out there, simply grateful that the first part of our journey was behind us.
Later that day in our opening sharing circle, I met my 29 trip companions gathered from throughout the United States and Canada, including trip leaders Jacci and William and three assistants I later learned would expertly watch over us, making sure our luggage, and each one of us, made it safely on and off planes and buses and into and out of hotels, restaurants, villages, and sacred sites. Yoganand, whom I knew from my Kripalu Yoga Teacher Training in the mid-2000s, sat with legs crossed in easy pose looking as I remembered him: fit, flexible, focused, calm, and present.
After spending some personal time in Delhi getting acclimated, sightseeing on our own, shopping for silk scarves, local attire, and knick knacks, participating in a water aerobics class led by a 20-something-year-old who appeared clueless of the fact that all her students were middle aged, and practicing yoga with Yoganand, on day three we boarded a plane to Bhubaneswar, a town in the state of Odisha (formerly Orissa). It is believed that Odisha developed around the Lingaraj temple, which was erected to commemorate Lord Shiva, known for his untamed passion and as the transformer and the destroyer of evil.
Upon our arrival, we were greeted with marigold leis–neither the first nor last time on our tour that I would see these brightly colored flowers that in India often hold an important place in celebrations, including welcoming guests and in prayer rituals known as pujas which we would later participate in.
At the local Trident Hotel, which I learned from the front desk staff rarely sees tourists from the United States, I noticed other signs that spirituality is interwoven into India’s culture. The staff all greeted us with the familiar hands in front of the heart in Anjali mudra and the words “Namaste,” roughly translated as the light in me honors the light within you. Each morning a staff member artfully created an intricate design of flower petals floating on water known as Rangoli art. This Indian tradition, which has different names in different regions, is done reverently with a focus on the beauty and intricate details and is thought to bring good luck.
With the Trident as base camp, we visited the Kapilesvara temple precinct, home to 33 structures including the Parashurameshvara Temple, considered one of the oldest existing and the best preserved examples of an early Orissan Hindu temple, dating back to the 7th and 8th Century CE. The temple, like many others, is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.
The next day we boarded another air-conditioned bus. We first stopped to visit a rural village where we had a glimpse into the simple yet, I imagine, harsh life of the countryside. I felt like I’d stepped right into a National Geographic article. With no running water or electricity, the village did have a hand water pump where women adorned in rich, brightly colored silk saris collected water and carried it in metal urns on their heads; school children dressed in light blue uniforms lit up and giggled at the chance to meet us; and a very thin, dark-skinned man labored to gather the hairs from coconut shells that would later be turned into welcome mats. Other villagers watched us from the doorsteps of their thatched roof homes, bathed in the local river, or asked to see their image in the pictures we took of them with our cameras and smartphones. As with many places we visited, standing over a hole to pee was the only way to relieve ourselves in private.
Following the privilege of enjoying a delicious buffet lunch at a more upscale modern hotel back in civilization, some of us dipped our toes in the Bay of Bengal (discouraged by Yoganand due to the sewer pipe that runs to the sea near there) and were delighted to see a camel walking along the beach in the distance. Next we headed to the Konark Sun Temple, believed to be built by King Narasimhadeva I in 1255. The temple, now partially in ruins, was built in the shape of a gigantic chariot with elaborately carved stone wheels, pillars, and walls. What struck me at this UNESCO World Heritage Site, besides the intricate carvings and sheer size of this manmade structure, was that I found my gaze fixated on the colorfully dressed locals who stared uninhibitedly at us for long periods of time. This turned out to be common among the places we visited, perhaps because we traveled in areas less frequented by American tourists and thus Caucasians were less frequently seen, although I have heard of this happening in other parts of India.
On our sixth day we boarded a bus and later wound our way along a long, dusty, dirt road through rural India in a procession of tuk tuks to our day’s destination, the Chausathi Yogini Temple (64 Yogini Temple), where we participated in a private puja ceremony. Being a Tantric temple, our sacred ritual included honoring the five elements of nature—fire, water, earth, sky, and ether. As part of the puja, a Kalava of thick red and yellow thread was tied around each of our wrists to remind us to curb the natural human tendency towards mood swings and restlessness and remind us to come back to the Satvic state of equanimity, serenity, and objectivity, detached from worldly involvement and excitement. Five months later, this gentle reminder brings me back to the present and helps me remember this sacred, serene experience where I connected to the world beyond the veil of illusion.
The next day, two flights brought us to Vadodara in Gujarat State for our trip to Malav and the burial site of Swami Kripalu where the Kripalu Samadhi Mandir temple resides. Eighteen years after being drawn to the Kripalu lineage by a desire to cultivate the love and compassion I felt when I happened (or was divinely guided) to meet several former Kripalu residents, I was finally going to visit the temple built in honor of this local saint. While walking through this peaceful village, we were often greeted with smiles and the familiar “Jai Bhagwan” of our lineage, loosely translated as “may the divine (bhagwan) and prosperous in you be victorious.” Construction of this magnificent temple which houses a life-like statue of Swami Kripalu seated in Sukhasana (easy pose) began shortly after his burial in January 1982 and was completed in 2017, though the temple was dedicated in 2008.
Our final temple visit was in Kayavarohan, the birthplace of Lakulisha who is considered to be the 28th birth of Shiva and Swami Kripalu’s teacher. After practicing yoga led by a monk at the local ashram, we ate a surprisingly delicious, simple meal of rice and dal with chai and witnessed a late afternoon Arti (light) ceremony at the Lakulish Shiv Temple.
Another flight brought us back to Delhi, just in time for the city’s worst air pollution on record, due in part to farmers burning their crop fields and the over-population of India’s largest city. On the airport runway two days later, I was simply praying that my flight would make it out safely and relatively on time—which it did—and I was soon on my way to Kolkata, where I had the honor of meeting Sapna, a child I’ve sponsored through Children International for seven years. Some of my travel companions took off for more experiences of their own or returned home to spread tales of their adventures to their communities.
When participating in Yoganand’s several classes throughout our tour, I immediately slipped back into the heart-centered cocoon of my days in the 2000s, living and then working at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. I let Yoganand’s words bring me deep inside to that peaceful state of Pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses. Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, Allow. During the stillness of Shavasana after a deeply led Pranakriya Yoga practice, I actually noticed Kundalini energy spiraling its way up the Nadis (energy channels) along my spine to my heart center—something in all my years of practice and teaching I’d never before experienced.
As wonderful as visiting India and some of its off the beaten path sacred places was, as scrumptious as indulging in the local flavors and basking in the brightly colored saris and silks could be, as deeply touching as visiting the practice and resting place of Swami Kripalu felt, what I gratefully brought home with me was Yoganand’s scholarly knowledge and infectious enthusiasm for the Kripalu Lineage we share. His stories, before, during, and/or after visiting sacred sites, the way he lit up like a little kid when he noticed a particular carving or shared a yoga story was contagious.
Yes, India changed me. It gave me a whole new appreciation for my home country, for fresh air, clean water and litter-free roads and highways. It reignited my love of the Kripalu traditions and I brought that home to my yoga students in Boulder, CO, where some commented on a shift in my teaching and others shared about having visions and of awakening to parts of themselves they had shut off.
As it turns out, my friend’s good intentions in helping me get to India, in part to turn off my repetitive mantra, may not have worked out entirely the way he planned. I sometimes find myself repeatedly saying, “I want to go back to India!”
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Lori Batcheller, CYT, MPT, LMT, is a certified 500-hour Kripalu Yoga teacher, physical and massage therapist, and writer who teachers yoga through the City of Boulder, Colorado.