My week in Varanasi

Picture of Yoga Mandir
Yoga Mandir

by Yvonne Kennedy

Yoga is both an evolutionary path (outward journey) and involutionary path (inward journey), in the quest of the soul. [1]

Yoga is already part of my life, so the opportunity to extend my practice, meet like-minded people and venture into a culture with those who knew it was too good to pass up … especially with Yoga Mandir in Canberra involved.

The week in Varanasi was the three-year brain-child of Katrina Robertson, with the backing of Alan Goode, who started Yoga Mandir in 2005. Both have a love and knowledge of India developed over many years. The combination of Katrina’s remarkable organisation and people skills and Alan’s professionalism and standing in the national and international yoga community ensured its success.

For months prior to travel, Katrina answered queries on the Whatsapp feed she created and Alan provided excellent notes on yoga practice. I was as prepared as I could be and had no expectations about how the week would be run, I just knew I was in good hands.

Nothing could have prepared me for Varanasi traffic, which I found out later was considerably worse than normal due to the Ganges flooding two weeks before we arrived. I regularly write about road safety in my work, so for most of the 20-minute ride from the airport I held my breath and closed my eyes. The cacophony of beeping horns and the intricate, but to my mind dangerous way people, animals, rickshaws, tuk tuks, cars trucks and buses moved through alleyways and on the highways astounded me.

At the end of the week, I saw India’s traffic as a metaphor for negotiating life. In other words, no matter who is travelling life’s path, we all have a right to be there. We just need to get around each other in the best way we know how without diminishing or impacting ourselves or others.

Coming with anticipation only, I found our accommodation simple but adequate, and the daily breakfast of fruit, curd, porridge and chai tea sensational. The three level Ashram housed around 30 people in double and single rooms. The middle level, where our yoga practice took place from 6.30am to 9am and 3.30pm to 5.30pm, overlooked the Ganges.

Yoga was the centerpiece of the week, and the Ganges flowed through every session. Alan asked us to look at it, in it and across it, and in doing so to watch our thoughts. What did we see – a river/ the far bank/ the foreground of trees and birds? Did our thoughts arise and pass in an unbroken stream or did they stop and focus on what we saw?

The term ‘looking out – looking in’ resonated strongly. Who am I? Am I my thoughts? Do I see the world as it is? Or do I see it through the prism of what I want to see? Alan spoke of the practice of observing, non-reaction; an ability to adjust, to sit with what is – to feel and honestly observe our sensations rather than react to external stimuli.

‘I-ness’ was another thought-provoking part of the narrative. Defining myself by what I love or hate, what I can or can’t do, what hurts here or there, places limitations not only on yoga but also on life. We delved far deeper into the technique of pranayama than I had ever been, and to be honest I have a long way to go.

None of the concepts and techniques Alan mentioned were new, I had heard them many times in Canberra, but looking out on the haze of the mighty river heightened their meaning.

The range of yoga experience in the class – from beginners to full practitioners – was extremely well managed. Each pose was called, and/or demonstrated, often by someone in the class, and the variations taken up by whoever needed them.

Over the course of the week I noticed a change in my yoga practice. The limited number of available yoga props required more of me. I had become more resourceful in working out how to modify a position. I was able to let go of achievement, and mentally connect with my body, allowing yoga to develop in me.

A highpoint came in the middle of the week. After a silent early morning trip down the river we arrived at a temple to be led in Surya Namaskar (Salute to the Sun). Overlooking the mighty Ganga, we greeted the new day. It was incredibly moving, almost ethereal.

The cultural opportunities Katrina organised complemented the yoga. Yes, we shopped and ate fabulous Indian food, but we also visited the Burning Ghats, as well as flower markets and temples, and tried to come to terms with the complex relationships of the Hindu gods. Our guides were excellent, always wanting to go that bit further so we could grasp more of India and her past, present and future.  An evening performance of music and dance, in a venue Katrina found at the drop of a hat was a highlight, not only because of the outstanding quality of the performers but also because some of our group joined in.

In Varanasi I felt that confluence of inward and outward journey in my yoga practice and in my life. No doubt work will be required for it to remain and grow, which I am prepared to put in. India’s colour and culture is still with me as I write this a month after returning. This will definitely remain.

On the back of October 2019 success, Katrina and Alan are planning another week in Varanasi in January 2021. See you there.  

Yvonne Kennedy. Varanasi 2019

[1] Yoga DRSTI* (With yogic eyes) Astadala Yogamala Volume 2 BKS Iyengar. * A message sent to various centres in the world to be played during Guruji’s 70th birthday celebrations on 14 December 1988. Material provided by Alan Goode.

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