The experience of Yoga, Rishikesh and Beyond

The experience of Yoga, Rishikesh and Beyond
Interview by Smt Swetha Raghunathan. Swetha is the author of 15 books. She has studied storytelling at Kathalaya. She has completed her MA in Writing from the University of Warwick. She has been a recipient of the Charles Wallace India Trust Award and The Times and Scottish Book Trust Jura New Writer Award. She currently writes as a guest author for the Center for Soft Power. 

The experience of yoga can help with both the mundane (getting good school grades) and the transcendental, discovers Vanessa Bolton, an Italian living in the UK who lived in India, having had an extended stay in Rishikesh. An experienced yoga teacher, she has used yoga therapy for Breast Cancer Care with post-operative women, she has taught yoga for change management courses in corporates, she teaches yoga to children, and has taught yoga to blind and autistic children in a special needs school. Indica Soft Power caught up with her as she shared her experience of yoga, Rishikesh and beyond.

Can you tell us about your first encounters with Indian culture?

I read the Bhagavad Gita when I was 15. It was so different from anything I had read before – the thought that people have a dharma and a duty was familiar, but when Krishna says, “Arise, brave Arjuna and do your duty” even if it meant killing his family, gave me pause for thought. It seemed the antithesis of Western thought. Yet, I was fascinated by the thought of reincarnation and cycles of life; of a soul that kept purifying itself until it escaped the cycle. I started looking at things a little differently.  Much to my mother’s chagrin, I became vegetarian and begged her not to wear fur.

I had a rather eccentric uncle who did extreme forms of yoga: he would hang out of windows by his knees to confront his fear of heights and contort himself into impossible shapes. He told me if I meditated every day and cleared my mind, I would have to study less. I started immediately!  Who knows if it was that, but my grades steadily started improving and by the time I sat my IBs I managed to set a school record for grades, never having even managed a B honor roll before. Who knows what I could have done if I had dangled myself out of a window?!

Can you tell us about  your visit to India?

After university, I finally got to go to India. I was amazed at this land of contrasts and superlatives.  I couldn’t believe the traffic and chaos, the colours and noise; sumptuous palaces but thousands of people living on the street in shocking conditions.  I went to a Taj buffet. Armed bodyguards at a kid’s party strode past a bent little man outside, begging for baksheesh. I was astonished at this land of vibrant life. “I drink Limca because I like it” declared hand-painted billboards stuck to buildings older than most European nations. I remember taking a rickshaw, assuming I was hiring it for myself. A family with a toddler and a baby got in, two businessmen boarded and just as we took off, a sadhu with a trident hopped it. Already a squash and a squeeze, we disgorged passengers and picked more up along the way. The baby ended up on my lap, the sadhu’s trident bounced about perilously every bump, swerve and curve in the road. No one tutted when a man got in with a massive sack of potatoes and, later, a woman with a chicken.

My first trip to India was overwhelming and crazy and I ended up in hospital in Goa. I didn’t know families brought in food, bedding and utensils for their loved ones.  I was there almost a week and I was bowled over by the kindness of strangers, who fed me, brought in sheets someone gave a fork and someone else a spoon. Everyone gave me kindness.

You spent some time in Rishikesh, can you tell us about that experience?

It was a subsequent trip that I discovered Rishikesh.  I was in Manali and met someone heading to Rishikesh. We travelled there together.  Laxman Jhula was a crazy jam of people, cattle, donkey, monkeys, mopeds all jostling to get across the bridge.  It looked more like a melee than a spiritual oasis. And then we got to the other side. Just a minute’s distance from the bridge there was an amazing calm. Shanti. I can’t pin it down, but something spoke to my very soul.

I found a yoga class and an amazing teacher. I had planned to stay just a few days, but spent three months there, vowing to come back.  In total, I ended up spent 28 months in Rishikesh over four years.

Under whom did you learn yoga in Rishkesh? What were some of the key aspects that made an impact on you?

I studied under a guy called Pankash Sharma who now runs a studio in Frankfurt. There was an Iyengar teacher called Usha who also taught in Rishikesh.

I think learning yoga in Rishikesh was a privilege as there were lots of styles and high quality teaching. Mostly, though, I was happy that I also learned about kriyas and pranayama and to watch the mind through observing the breath both in asana and in daily life. The biggest impacts was learning that this was a whole lifestyle, not something to practice in a gym as an alternative to Pilates, for example. There is an integrated system that results in both health and happiness, if practiced correctly and regularly. It also taught me to transcend the pain body. Pain is an illusion. Sure, the nerves shriek and jangle, but you don't need to engage in that. As I said, all of yoga's teachings culminated for me in a drug free, gentle two hour births for both my kids. Resilience, not identifying with pain, trusting in the best outcome were the psychological effects of yoga, which had profound impact on my life.

What attracted you to Yoga?

What I discovered and what kept me coming back was how integrated everything was.  I was aware of Ayurveda, yoga philosophy, I knew about meditation. But it wasn’t until I went to Rishikesh that I realised how integrated and holistic a system this was.  It was a recipe for life. A blueprint for joy. These were practices that stretched back into the mists of time. The yogis were aware of gut health, mental health, purification thousands of years ago. But also of the importance of eating right for your type; of balancing your diet and your physical body.  I think it makes sense that disease first starts in your thoughts; so your aura needs to be healthy if your body is to stay healthy. I love the idea that there is no duality between body and mind, as though the body were a cloak the mind wears. Instead, our body reflects our state of being and we can grow healthier in mind, body and soul. I love the whole cosmology – Shiva Natraj or garudasana in yoga.  It is a whole integrated system with Hindu thought and yet you do not need to be a Hindu or know anything about it, for what yoga teaches you is to transcend the pain body to get to the essence. Breath is life. Breathing will teach you everything you need to know.

When I gave birth, it seemed to me that this was the culmination of a learning journey.  I wanted to see whether I really could transcend the pain barrier and breathe my baby into being. Two hours of breathing and a drug free birth proved that it all works.  Breath is everything.

I used to practice yoga for hours every day.  I ended up leaving the film industry to teach yoga. I would do between five to seven hours a day.  Now, I simply do not have the time. However, I have taught my sons to breathe through pain and practice gratitude. Yoga teaches us to want what we have and be grateful for what we have, starting with being grateful for the breath of life. This is an essential lesson. There will always be someone richer, better looking, with a better job etc etc. It is easy to be disgruntled. However, to practice gratitude and to want what you have is to remove the stress of greed, of keeping up with the Jones’. When the kids were little, we used to do a “gratitude circle” most nights.  We would sit in a circle and hold hands. Whoever had the Tibetan chimes would ring them and would be the only person to speak. They would start with “Today I am grateful for…” . Even today, as teenagers, when something is bothering them, we sit down and think about what we are grateful for. We always close our circle with a round of Om.

Can you comment on the Yoga scenario in Italy? Do you have friends or relatives who practice Yoga on a daily basis?

Yoga in Italy sort of exploded in the early 2000s. Most of my female friends practice yoga in Italy and many have gone to India to practice: two with Pattabhi Jois himself; another in an Iyengar school in Pune, another actually spent a lot of time in Macleodganj in a monastery learning meditation with the Dalai Lama. She came back and designed and built a meditation centre in Italy.

What is your method of teaching Yoga? When you teach, do you go beyond the asanas

When I taught, I taught mostly private classes, so I was free to design a class I wanted to teach. Anyone can teach a sun salute - inhale, exhale, left foot right foot etc. I like to break it down. It we are in tadasana or mountain pose and close our eyes, we should be steady and firm. No one should be able to push us over or make us stumble. I like the idea of growing roots and being grounded. And raising our arms straight but not rigid, being aware of how we move between time and space and breathe through each pose and its transition. I always started with a chant and ended with a few minutes of meditation and chanting. I liked yoga nidra in the evening classes. For private classes, it was mainly whatever the client wanted to focus on. I did a lot of work with Breast Cancer Care with post operative ladies and even helped write their post op exercises with the help of a cancer nurse. I worked with a guy who had had a stroke and had given himself five months to recover fully. We worked with his balance. I told him to imagine two poles - positive and negative - sky positive; earth negative Right hand positive, left negative and to keep in balance. The tracking in the brain is all skewed after a stroke, but instead of working hard on the side that still works and hoping the weaker side catches up, we looked at what we might learn from the weaker side. He was very alpha and had always thought vulnerability was for sissies. Over three months we worked on being kind to the parts that had been affected. Within three months he was 90% back to normal, which was amazing. I also used yoga for change management courses at corporate level. Often mergers lead to toxic workplaces as people find different bosses, sacked but worthy work colleagues replaced with people they don't respect. We did a lot of meditation and coming into your body to figure out how you feel. Men are often so incredibly out of touch with how they feel. "Where are you feeling this?" often engenders a "yes". Yes, they feel something somewhere but cannot articulate where. I worked on the premise that muscle memory will tell you where you are holding emotion. There are asanas that work on certain chakras; music that works with your chakras, chanting. If you are angry on a visceral level at some deep unfairness, all the meditation in the world is not going to solve it.

But releasing it consciously, allowing it a safe expression and allowing yourself to feel it and then come to terms with it will certainly help. I remember one guy - who seemed quite a decent chap said to me- "If I can't win at meditation, I have no interest in doing it". I wondered to myself what level of fear this man must have to not be able to sit with his eyes shut for seven minutes. It turned out, when he did finally just settle down to breathe, after some heart opening back bends, that he was carrying an incredible amount of trauma. He had been caught in the 2004 tsunami - he was at the beach with his wife and kids when his wife screamed "Run!" he picked up his two little kids and ran and ran. He and his family made it out alive but the people running next to him were dragged into the sea. He said later, he always thought that allowing himself to think about it would be overwhelming.

I also taught kids yoga - yoga has wonderful poses - lion's pose, insect pose. Kids loved inventing their own poses and learning to empty themselves of thoughts to balance longer, or doing yoga nidra as a flying carpet where they get increasingly more relaxed. I taught kids in all sorts of settings and I also taught in a special needs school both autistic kids and blind kids.

Can you give us your favourite verse of the Gita and why it is your favourite?

Man is made by his belief. As he believes, so he is

What do you think is the biggest lesson learnt from yoga?

I believe this is a fundamental truth. I believe that if we believe ourselves to be happy, by being grateful and kind to one another, this becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Our minds can enslave us or set us free. Yoga teaches us that the mind is a limb like an arm. You can control it and access the truth that lies beyond the mind, And that, is where we set ourselves free.

I also think yoga teaches us to be responsible for our own health. That mother nature has provided everything we need and if there is an ailment there is a natural cure, which flies in the face of golden bullet allopathy.

Can you talk about the global future of yoga?

It is so easy to be stuck on tech – pre-pandemic, we had a handle on tech.  Now it is a life sapping addiction. I understand there is a place for it. But we must not forget that we are living, sentient beings. Yoga teaches us about cycles of lives and enhances intuition.  In-tuition – learning to go inwards. We all have innate intuition, but life gets in the way. And that is where having a practice that teaches discipline, compassion, joy, that pain is an illusion, the essence  of life is being with your breath, here and now, calming the mind. Our kids are so mired in the realm of illusion that even their illusions are virtual illusory versions of illusion. Maya upon maya. However, I think this new tech generation might be screen addicts, but they are also much more awakened little souls to their connection to the earth and their roles as custodians. I find this incredibly hopeful.  When I became a vegetarian, it was seen as a bit radical hippie. I remember at university I was amongst a handful of people who recycled. I had a herbalist who made immune strengthening teas. Now these things are mainstream. Our kids are more tolerant. They do yoga at school, in gyms. I hope the idea of interconnectivity of life will keep growing. At a time when we look poised for years of war in Ukraine, we would do well to remember that positivity is just as strong as negativity and if we can imagine a world at peace, we can manifest it in a joyful, healthful manner.