The sun had just set over the south Indian sky when I was given my orders. For the next ten days, I would be required to live in silence as I learned a meditation practice with a group of 50 or so fellow students. I looked around and it sank in that I was alone in this group: the only foreigner, and the only one who did not understand Hindi, so cheating was out of the question.
As I walked from the dining hall to my room to prepare for my first 4 a.m. wake-up call, fear mixed with elation in my bones. My mind drifted to the ways that the experience might come home with me, and particularly how it could change and inform my behavior as a yoga teacher. After all, one of yoga's most useful applications in my life has been the way it helps me face fear and dip into the unknown. The adventure of traveling across India while studying yoga and meditation has brought those lessons home more deeply.
There have been many moments like this during my travels when I have felt my journey's teachings fill me with a sense of growth and renewal. I've practiced with different yoga teachers, visited holy sites, and tasted the different ways people live day to day in this place where yoga began. Along the way, I've learned that time spent wandering in this country can be an amazing tool for expansion for a yoga teacher in need of a little reinvigoration.
The Power of Silence
For me, finding places to be in silence has been particularly powerful. One morning I woke up early to take the three-hour trek up into the mountains around McLeod Ganj, the hill town where the Dalai Lama lives, and where yoga thrives. Along the way, I passed small Hindu temples and clusters of stone shacks, many draped with Tibetan prayer flags. Some of the occupants, mainly Tibetan monks, have taken long vows of silence and spend their days in study and meditation, interrupted perhaps only by the calls of the cowherds who pass along the road.
I strolled alone along a narrow stone path and, by linking my breath to each step, the walking became yoga for me that day. When I wasn't focused on breath, I reflected on the past year, since I completed my yoga teacher-training course last fall. At the beginning there were many moments, in the sometimes-hollow silence of a classroom of listening students, when I second-guessed my teaching style: was I speaking too much or too little? It took time to gauge how much language is helpful for students, and to learn when to keep my mouth shut and just let the yoga do its work.
I've often seen this with new teachers: it takes time to develop confidence and find our voices. But sometimes the way to find your voice is to stop using it for a while. Spending time in silence—in the meditation course and in the mountains—has helped me grow more comfortable with the spaces between words. I'll bring that comfort with me when I return to the yoga studio this fall.
Of course, I've also been investigating my personal yoga practice, experimenting with several different teaching styles and observing my teachers closely. In McLeod Ganj, I took mellow, sweet Sivananda-style classes that tested my patience with their long sets of slow Sun Salutations. Other days I studied in a massive hall underneath a Tibetan elementary school, where an Astangi firmly adjusted me into deeper poses. If I sound ambivalent about these classes, the truth is, I am—but they taught me a tremendous amount about what I like in a classroom, and how it feels to be on the receiving end of different kinds of instruction.
But even when I didn't like a particular class, I felt there was just something innately different about how I felt when I stepped out of my practice into the Indian streets. I saw the world—and thus my yoga practice in a new light. These were among the many moments when I learned to let go and be present with the newness or strangeness of life. It's the kind of thing I have heard myself tell new students to do in unfamiliar asanas; now I've had a taste of it myself.
There are, or course, many practical ways a teacher could benefit through a pilgrimage through India. If you want to learn a specific skill, such as reading Sanskrit or chanting ancient mantras, there are highly respected places to study here. And while you could pick up the same technical knowledge in the U.S., placing yourself in a new environment—with all the challenges travel brings—often makes the lessons deeper and sweeter.
Plus, there's just something about traveling that helps people rediscover their desires and motivations in life. There's no question that a major piece of the India experience is to witness poverty and suffering on an extreme level. It's hard to imagine seeing the pain here without feeling motivated to heal someone, somewhere. With all of this, after meeting yogis from many different countries, each with unique stories about the power of yoga in their lives. I'm returning with renewed motivation to teach in a way that can be healing.
Why travel all the way to India to hike and to sample yoga's variety? Taking myself out of my comfort zone forced me to look at yoga with fresh eyes. What concepts about bodies and movement had I been clinging to? What ideas about classroom comforts were worth holding on to, and which could be shed?
Answering these questions is an ongoing project for all of us: Different approaches work with different students, and people continue to change over time. This summer I found the way to broaden my sense of how to address these issues — and how to become a better teacher with more experiential knowledge to share — was to wander the country from which yoga came. These are the lessons I'll take home to share with my students.
Rachel Brahinsky is a San Francisco-based writer and yoga teacher who is traveling through India this summer.