Stretching patience

Yoga’s de-stressing qualities are fully tested by a journey to its birthplace in Northern India. 
Words Nick Gibbs

This article appeared in SALIFE March 2017.

It’s a situation that would terrify anybody under 50. Dinner with 30 strangers, and no booze or technology to facilitate conversation. No reflex action to browse your Facebook feed in a lull, no discussing the wine list until inhibitions have been suitably lowered. To survive, you only have your brain to rely on, as well as the unknown content of the brains surrounding you.
The location is equally foreign. Sitting on the floor, cross legged, in an ashram beside one of the less polluted sections of the Ganges as it snakes its way through the foothills of the Himalayas in Northern India. The city of Rishikesh, as well as neighbouring Haridwar, are both alcohol-free and entirely vegetarian.
My first trip to the subcontinent coincides with the Indian government’s decision to cancel more than 80 per cent of its currency as legal tender. It’s hoped the demonetisation of 500 and 1000 rupee banknotes will place a large hurdle in front of the country’s counterfeiters and black market operators, but the flow of new currency into one of the largest economies in the world is barely a trickle when I arrive.
My journey begins in Delhi, where a four-hour queue at the airport’s foreign exchange nets a total of 5000 rupee (approximately AU$100). It’s the maximum allowed in one transaction, and I’m told to expect similar lines at the few ATMs that have any money. 
Friends who had been before cautioned me that India runs to its own schedule, and I allowed five-and-a-half hours between flight arrival and train departure. One spot further back in the queue, and it would have been insufficient.
When the first rupee enters my pocket, I have half an hour to find a cab and travel across some of the most congested roads on the planet. “I’ll get you there, no problem.” It’s one of a chorus of voices from drivers grouped around the airport exit, experienced in spotting the wide eyes of a first-timer. “850 rupee.” I know I’m being ripped off and make a half-hearted attempt to negotiate, met by a quick shake of the head and turn of the back. Almost one fifth of the only money I have ’til who knows when, and I have little choice. 
I was lucky, my driver tells me, its Sunday – traffic is light. The weekday commute must be one of the nine circles of hell. With a casual disposition and a hand heavy on the horn, he dodges women riding side-saddle on the back of scooters, trucks decorated with bright colours to appear less menacing as they bear down on you, and three-wheel auto rickshaws punching gaps in traffic that open up one second and disappear the next. I arrive with five minutes to find my platform and take a seat on the correct carriage. 
Close to the equivalent of Australia’s entire population travel on Indian railways on any given day, and I’m departing from one of the busiest stations in one of the biggest cities. To find my tiny spot among a web that stretches across the country, I have to rely on outside help. This is the first occasion a young Indian comes to my aid with no intention of collecting a reward, and it will be an ongoing trend. There seems to be a communal interest in how their country is viewed by visitors, one that stretches beyond taxi-driver scams and pushy hawkers. Although that is very much part of the experience. A young, well-dressed man of about 25 tells me to run for what must be the only on-time train in India as it pulls away from the station. Prayers are my only option to ensure it’s heading in the right direction.
They’re answered by another young man who has been on board for three days. He’s also in his 20s, speaks five languages including fluent English, and has been unemployed for the past three years due to a work shortage in his native city of Bangalore. Over the next five hours we fall into an easy system of sharing with the procession of porters that get on and off at subsequent stations. You get the chai, I’ll get the peanuts. It’s like getting rounds at the pub, except we’re both sober and have just met. A curry that arrives wrapped in flat roti bread costs me AU$4, and is the best Indian food I’ve tasted. Spicy and light and not smothered in coconut cream as is often the case back home. At the end of the journey we say a short goodbye, knowing we’ll never see each other again. 
I booked an ashram stay with the aim of learning how to focus on the present, but India begins the lesson early. I can’t remember feeling stress that compares to standing in that airport, wishing the line would hurry but the clock would slow, as my train edged closer to leaving without me. But the ashram’s daily program that begins at 5am with 40 minutes of meditation followed by two hours of yoga works almost immediately. If we dedicated the first few hours of every day to detaching from technology, instead of measuring efficiency by time spent in front of a screen, the world would probably be a much happier and more productive place.
The anxiety that accompanies the nightly meal with a bunch of strangers is replaced by mutual friendliness and genuine attention. I’m left feeling there must be a base level of compassion innate to humans, something that’s chipped away by expectations and stresses of modern life. Or maybe the world’s psychopaths aren’t attracted to a week in an ashram.

To read part two of this story, click here

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