I am not at all one of those people who have always been dreaming of coming to India for as long as they can remember. For the first twenty years of my life I hardly knew that India existed, and it would never have crossed my mind to visit it. My worst subjects at school were History and Geography. My brain just didn’t seem to work for these subjects (it still doesn’t!) because I have always been useless at remembering facts I can’t connect with personally. So I could never remember past events or dates, and I am still terrible at remembering where places are in the world unless I have visited them! ‘Gandhi’ and ‘yoga’ were only very vague terms in my mind, hardly attached to any knowledge or meaning… This post is the new edition of a text I wrote in September 2012 about how I became aware of India.
Living in the UK & Indian classmates
I first went to an Indian restaurant while on a school exchange in London when I was seventeen. I had never had spicy food in my life before, and it was a pretty intense experience. I have no idea what I ate, but I still remember the hot lemony towel we were served at the end of the meal to wash our hands, because it felt really nice.
Five years later, in 1998-1999, I spent the fifth year of my Business Management degree at Leeds University in England. The Indo-Pakistani population is considerable in the UK, and there were many Indians on my Human Resources Management course. Perhaps some were Pakistani but I couldn’t tell the difference. I don’t remember a lot about them except that I didn’t have much in common and never knew what to talk about with them. Actually, I hardly ever spent time with my classmates, because I was a very passionate goth at the time and I preferred to spend all my time outside university with other goths, who were so much cooler! For ten years of my life and most of my twenties I wore only black clothing, and I really didn’t like the dress style of the Indian girls on my course AT ALL. It was like – all these colours, URGH!!! I know it’s incredible for people who know me now to imagine although I still love wearing dark colours! Well, can you even recognise me on these photos? And another thing that really used to get on my nerve then was the Indian English accent! I was madly in love with England at the time, and especially I loved the subtle round curls of British English, while the Indian English to me sounded harsh, ugly and irritating. I remember one of my classmates whose name was Farhat. Everyone used to call him ‘Fart’ and I used to think he was very unfortunate…
An English boyfriend of Indian descent
Another factor that made me aware India was my English boyfriend N., whom I met in 1999. His paternal grandmother, who was South Indian, had fallen in love with the British man who would later become his grandfather. She had left India to move to the UK with him after converting to Christianity. N.’s father had left India at age fifteen never to return, and N. had never been to India and hardly knew anything of its culture. But he would sometimes tell me that he would love to take me to India one day with his parents, and he absolutely loved going to Indian restaurants and cooking spicy food. I enjoyed the food, but it irritated me that his cooking was always far too spicy for my soft taste buds and I never seemed to get used to it! I know now that the ‘Indian’ food we used to eat together didn’t really have anything to do with the Indian food of India (at all). By the way, the word ‘curry’ in the UK is a generic term for ‘Indian’ food whereas in India (or at least in the northern part of India that I know) ‘curry’ – more precisely ‘kud̩i’ – is a very specific dish made of yoghurt, chickpea flour, spices and turmeric!
First approach to yoga
I started learning yoga in 2001 at the age of twenty-four. I decided to take classes after my friend Niko who had been learning it for a year told me I would really like it. It struck a chord because I had always wanted to find the form of exercising that would work for me but I had tried various disciplines and never managed to keep them up for a long time – dance, swimming, running, or doing gymnastic-type moves alone in my bedroom one day telling myself I would just do that every morning but then feeling stupid doing them again on my own the following day and giving up.
Before Niko told me about yoga, all I had in mind when thinking about this obscure discipline – I guess like many in the West – was just the typical image of a person sat in lotus position and a stupid mocking cliché telling me yoga was for weirdos. I kind of knew it came from India, but I didn’t really care because from what I knew about the country – uncool clothing, a terrible English accent and food far too spicy for me – I wasn’t interested! Really I had no idea what yoga was, and when Niko told me I would love it, I felt stupid for my conditioned value judgement.
I started taking yoga classes at the local gym, and at my very first class the teacher told us to stand straight and to feel our feet – to feel the contact of our feet with the floor. All I remember from this class today is that I absolutely loved it, and I felt silly for not having even thought of feeling my feet before! A few months later I joined the amazing Edinburgh Iyengar Yoga Centre, where I took weekly classes for the following seven years. For the first three years yoga was only physical exercise for me, but it made me feel good. It was a very new feeling: after each class I felt kind of light and more free in my body.
Getting deeper into Yoga
It was only after I split up with N. that I started digging into the depth of Yoga – Yoga with a capital Y. It was another friend who woke me up to yogic philosophy. I was working as a university secretary at the time, and every summer was a torture because I rarely had anything to do – I had to sit at my desk 9-5 everyday trying to pretend I was working. So during the summer of 2004 I spent all my time on the Internet quenching my thirst for yogic philosophy and Buddhism! I devoured the philosophy, psychology and practice of yoga by Swami Chidananda and many articles from yogajournal.com. I learnt so much and I really loved what I learnt. It resonated in my heart big time, putting into words many things I had always known deep inside but never been able to clearly express. I started practising yoga at home as well as breath awareness meditation and later Vipassana, and I also devoured tons of books on Buddhism, zen Buddhism and Ayurveda… Finally, in August 2005 I went on my first trip to India with Niko.
My very, very first ‘encounter’ with India, actually!
Actually, I had an even older ‘encounter’ with India. Amazingly, it came back to my memory in a flash only about a few years ago. It is but a very faint image in my mind. I must have been about ten years old and it was in the children’s magazine I was subscribed to, J’aime Lire (‘I love reading’). I think it was in one of their short stories at the end – in a small cartoon or perhaps a short cultural section. All I remember is that I learnt from that story that Indian women wrapped a very long piece of fabric round their bodies, the saree. I think I even remember the double ‘e’ in the word ‘saree’. And I very much liked the simple idea of it: wrapping fabric round the body for clothes. That very first hint must have lasted a few minutes before getting lost into a tiny drawer of my memory, and I was amazed to discover some twenty-years later that it had not completely vanished…