Why being a woman is my biggest barrier to exploring the world

Trigger warning: This post acknowledges the existence of sexual assault.

Traveling is an incredible privilege and adventure, but it’s not always easy. Especially as a woman. 

When I was preparing for my first trip to India, many people expressed concern for my safety, and some even urged me to reconsider. At the time, there were a number of high-profile, terrible cases of sexual assault in the news, and I’ll admit that they did make me feel a bit uneasy. Fortunately, I was also aware of a psychological phenomenon called accessibility bias—the fact that recent events are easier to recall and therefore seem more common (and more scary) than they actually are—so I tried to put these horrible events into perspective. I also knew (and know) that, unfortunately, sexual assault happens everywhere, and in a country with over a billion people there are going to be more assaults, and likely more high-profile assaults. 

While this logic helped me reason my way into greater confidence, I knew very well that the risk was real. I wasn’t naive to the fact that India in general has different views on women than I’m used to in Canada, and that a number of cultural practices continue to objectify women and define the boundaries of their lives very narrowly. 

Fortunately, the vast majority of this trip and my last were great, without major incidents. However, I’ve experienced ogling, despite my conservative dress (though, unfortunately, that happens everywhere), and had a few incidents of being grabbed or touched in busy crowds or traffic. There were only two times on my last trip when I was properly scared about what might happen, both in Mumbai. 

In 2013, on one of my last days in India, I was eating lunch in a small restaurant and having a conversation with the guy who was serving me. It was an awkward time of day (around 2 or 3pm), and I was the only one in the restaurant. After having what I would call a normal conversation, he randomly leaned down and kissed me on the cheek. I was very, very freaked out. I was suddenly extremely aware of the fact that he and I were alone in this restaurant and I had to get out immediately. In exactly the way I was socialized to do, I tried to act like a stranger kissing me uninvited wasn’t a big deal. With my body language I tried to communicate a balance of « that wasn’t ok » with « don’t get mad that I don’t want you », and asked for the bill. He seemed to suddenly realize that what he’d done wasn’t ok and apologized. « No, no, it’s ok, » I said, hoping not to anger or offend him in any way. I paid, didn’t wait for my change, and quickly exited. 

Generally, I think western women (usually thought of as white women in India) are viewed as loose and available. Early on in my first trip to India, I was sitting in a tuk tuk (a small taxi) with the guy I was seeing at the time. The driver asked if we were married, and we said no. He then made some inappropriate remark about me being a loose woman.

Just two days ago in Kathmandu I was sitting in my hostel’s rooftop lounge where a bunch of fellow travelers were hanging out. Two Indian guys (not to pick on India), walked across the room and asked if they could sit with me. Glancing around I noticed that there were a couple other tables they could’ve chosen. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions, and I wanted to be a somewhat friendly fellow traveler. Since I was busy working on something anyway, I said that they could join me at my table but that I didn’t want to talk. They sat down and didn’t bother me for a few minutes. Then one of them looked over and offered me some of his beer, to which I said, no thanks. He asked again, and I repeated my answer. He reluctantly turned and started talking to the group of western guys sitting in the corner, and quickly directed the conversation to his current perdicament: he needed a girlfriend. More specifically, he wanted to lose his virginity to a white girl. Presumably out of amusement, curiosity and insensitivity, the western guys played along. The Indian guy insisted that the western guys could get him a girlfriend, and started asking for tips on how to get a white girl. Soon, two white girls from England sat down nearby. He noticed them, and as he called to them across the room I tried to give a signal that they might want to avoid him. But it was dark, and they were nice, and so they started talking. 

I wondered to myself if I was overreacting—what’s the big deal if he wants to talk to them? But after a few minutes it was clear they wanted out of the conversation. Again, in a way that was typical to the way women are socialized to behave, they said they were going to bed, opting to remove themselves from a situation that could’ve otherwise been enjoyable in an attempt to protect this guy’s ego. He, rather unbelievably, suggested that he go with them. To bed. They responded with nervous laughter, acting like what he’d said had been a joke, and left. 

He immediately turned to the western guys in the corner and started complaining that the white girls had left. They suggested he be more subtle. So he turned, again, to me and asked where I was from. I told him Canada, and he asked another question. At this, I looked at him directly and said, « you should probably give up on me. I’ve heard your whole conversation. I know you just want to sleep with someone, and I’m not interested. Also, I have a boyfriend. » (Having a boyfriend is not a necessary excuse for not being interested, but often helps to give weight to my « no »). He asked me if I could find him a girlfriend, and I said I didn’t have any extras. He insisted that if I wanted to give him one I could, making it clear that my earlier « no » had been rejected. At this point I just stopped responding to his questions, choosing to potentially come off as rude in front of this room full of travelers rather than let this guy think that this conversation was acceptable.

He eventually gave up on me, and started a conversation with the western guys about how much a woman would « cost ». Again, they humoured him, talking about the challenges of finding women in Nepal as compared to a place like Thailand. I found myself hoping that this guy was not in my mixed gender dorm room. Thankfully, he wasn’t.

Obviously, there are a lot of problems with this scenario. Of course, most guys aren’t like this. And it might be easy to dismiss what he was doing as part of a harmless pursuit of sex. There’s nothing wrong with trying to hook up with someone, but the approach he took clearly demonstrated that he saw (white) women as interchangeable objects of desire, rather than humans with lives and preferences, worthy of being treating with dignity. Worse than that, his aggressiveness and inability or unwillingness to pick up on social cues and listen to an outright « no » was scary. And I bet you any money that he had no idea he was scaring anyone. 

The second problem with this scenario is that the western guys, a group of five or six, decided to humour him in his actions. This is not ok. In an age where « locker room talk » by Donald Trump had no obvious effect on his eligibility for president, it’s more important than ever to stand up to inappropriate behaviour, especially if you’re the guy the creepy dude turns to for validation (ya, Billy Bush, that’s why you got fired). The parts of our culture that make sexual assault possible and permissible are more often subtle than they are overt. You may think you’d never take part in a sexual assault, but we’d all do better (as men and women) to consider how we might be enabling rape culture through our permissive bystander behaviour. 

The above examples are exactly why I’ve said that being a woman is my biggest barrier to really experiencing the world. But while safety is a major concern, cultural differences between myself and well-intentioned, nice guys can also be a challenge. This is where I struggle to balance my feminism (and self-worth) with my desire to experience and enjoy other cultures.

For example, I just got back from an eight-day trek. It was supposed to be me, three others and our trekking guide. Instead, it was just two of us and our guide when we set out, and the the other trekker went back to Kathmandu on the morning of day four because he was sick. Spending more than a week straight with another person can be really frustrating if you’re not well-matched, and indeed, by a few days in, I was starting to feel irritated. The thing is, my guide was objectively incredibly nice. He offered to do things for me like get me water or carry my bag. Like most Nepali people, he prided himself on « treating his guests like gods ». Sounds nice, right? 

Problem is, I’ve never wanted to be treated like a princess. If you know me, you know that I insist on carrying my own bag, opening my own door, and generally being treated with the assumption that I can do whatever a man can do. More importantly, I expect you to listen to me when I tell you that I can do something myself. In fact, listen to me in general. Yes, I’m sure. I’ve said no three times. No means no, every time. Here are some things I said and thought over the course of eight days:

  • No, I don’t want to stop for a break. No, really. Really. 
  • Yes, I want my own room rather than sharing a private room with a man I barely know. Don’t look disappointed.  
  • If you wouldn’t mind, stop coddling and micromanaging me. 
  • Oh, I get it, you’re manipulating me.
  • Look at me with respect, goddammit. 
  • I’d like to understand what’s going on rather than just being told what to do. 
  • Stop looking at me like you’re waiting for me to just give in and make this easy for you. 
  • No, I don’t want you to tell me I’m beautiful. 

Now, I’m used to shit like men taking up more space, and making myself small on public transit, and, let’s face it, in general. But the small aggressions that make me feel less valuable, capable and respected because I’m a woman can be crazy-making. Especially because most of these feel invisible, particularly to men, and it gets even more complicated when the intention is very likely hospitality and respect.

Typical. This happened on the bus ride to and from the trek with two different men.
To be clear, I don’t want to discourage any woman from taking on the world like the badass and/or debutante she is. You can absolutely do it, and you deserve that adventure just as much as any man. But unfortunately, it can be difficult out there, so my intention with this post is to tell you that, more than likely, you’re not crazy. If you feel unsure about a situation, there’s probably good reason. The morning after the incident with the creepy Indian dude and the western guys in my hostel, one of those western guys commended my spidey senses on responding to the Indian guy when he first asked to sit with me. « Thanks, » I said, « It’s a skill I’ve been working on my entire life. » 

But as many before me have argued, this is not just a women’s issue. (And of course, safety is a huge issue for transgender women and men, POCs, and other minorities, which I haven’t written about here specifically but definitely want to acknowledge.) This is also a call to action to those western dudes in my hostel and all other men to be more attentive to, and put an end to, conversations that belittle and objectify women. This is your problem too.

What do you think? Do you agree, or does this come off to you as being overly sensitive? Do you think it’s a traveler’s job to adapt to the culture they’re in, absorbing what feels like disrespect in an effort to be easygoing? 


That vipassana course was a breeze, said no one ever

It’s difficult to explain what it’s like to do a ten-day vipassana course. At its most concise, I think I can say that a vipassana course is like a self-imposed minimum security prison with mental solitary confinement. It’s a test of mental discipline; a roller coaster of emotional baggage repeatedly kicking you in the face; it’s experiential proof that meditation can be a really powerful tool; and maybe, just maybe, it’s the first step on your path to enlightenment.

Surprise! You’re here to meditate.

Going into this course, I thought that the hard parts would be not talking, writing, or using technology. These were hard, though not talking was actually the easiest of all of the rules to follow. No, the hardest part was contending with the TEN AND A HALF HOURS of meditation scheduled every single day. That is a long effing time my friends. A long effing time.

I must have read the schedule at some point months ago and thought something like, « I’ll get used to it. It’ll be hard, but I’m tough, and it’ll just kind of work out because that’s what everyone will be doing. » NO. It does not work that way. To give you the full picture, here’s the daily schedule for ten full days:

  • 4:00 Wake up
  • 4:30 Meditate in the Dhamma (meditation) hall or in your room
  • 6:30 Breakfast
  • 7:00 Rest
  • 8:00 Group meditation in the Dhamma hall (required)
  • 9:00 Meditate in the Dhamma hall or in your room (according to the teacher’s instructions)
  • 11:00 Lunch
  • 11:30 Rest
  • 13:00 Meditate in the Dhamma hall or in your room
  • 14:30 Group meditation in the Dhamma hall (required)
  • 15:30 Meditate in the Dhamma hall or in your room (according to the teacher’s instructions)
  • 17:00 Tea break (you get tea, a bit of fruit, and puffed rice instead of dinner)
  • 17:30 Rest
  • 18:00 Group meditation in the Dhamma hall (required)
  • 19:00 Discourse (watching a recorded Dhamma talk by S. N. Goenka)
  • 20:30 Group meditation in the Dhamma hall (required)
  • 21:00 Bed

I’ll say again, that’s 10.5 hours of scheduled meditation either in the Dhamma/meditation hall, or in your room. Oh, and every meditation period is opened and closed by 5 – 20 minutes of god-awful recorded chanting blared at volume over speakers in the Dhamma hall. The first moment I heard this chanting I had to actively stifle my laughter. You see, while the teacher who’d recorded this chanting (this guy named Goenka) could definitely sing well if he wanted to, he, for some unfathomable reason, chose to gurgle his chanting instead. Have you ever seen the movie The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Early in the movie an alien species called Vogon captures the main characters. These aliens are all bureaucrats by nature and love paperwork and boring policies and regulations. They also use their unique Vogon poetry to torture humans and individuals of other species. Although it’s not quite the same, this is what I pictured every time the chanting was played. Later on, some new chanting was added, which sounded very similar to Dori when she’s speaking whale.

I was not a very good vipassana student. 

Despite the, ahem, unique chanting, I really did try for the first 4.5 days or so. I even thought I was getting the hang of it on the fourth day when we started doing actual vipassana meditation rather than the preparatory annapanna meditation. Unfortunately, this feeling did not last, and I soon was finding ways to reduce the number of hours of meditation I was doing each day. 

One way to do this was by escaping to my room at every opportunity (leaving anywhere from 4 – 6 hours of unavoidable daily meditation). Fortunately, no one’s monitoring whether you’re actually meditating when you’re in your room, but you pretty much have to stay in there (in a 5 x 8 ft room in my case, which I was lucky enough to have all to myself). And, of course, you’re not allowed to write, read, use technology, or even do yoga while you’re in there. So, essentially, either meditate or have a timeout. To be clear, here are all the rules:

  • Don’t kill (not people, bugs, or animals for food)
  • Don’t steal
  • Don’t lie
  • Avoid « sexual misconduct » (abstain from sexual desires)
  • Don’t take intoxicants
  • Keep « noble silence », meaning don’t talk, gesture, pass notes, make eye contact, or even walk with another meditator (though you can talk to the teacher during specific times to ask practical meditation questions) 
  • Don’t read or write
  • Don’t use technology
  • Don’t jog, do yoga, or do any exercise other than walking
  • Don’t meditate outside (apparently, nature is distracting. WHAT?)
  • Don’t mix with the opposite gender (basically impossible to do anyway because men and women are kept almost entirely separate)

The first thing to go was the 4:30 – 6:30 am meditation. Not because I didn’t want to wake up early–I actually don’t mind as I’ve gotten quite used to waking up at 5:30 during my yoga teacher training course. This was the first to go for two reasons: 1) because it was the time slot that was most in my control to cut out; and 2) I could try to sleep instead of being stuck having a timeout in my room. The day could just get a little bit shorter.

Escaping to my room at greater and greater frequency helped, but I had a lot of time on my hands and very little to do with it. Very quickly, the simplest tasks became focal points of any breaks or timeouts in my room. 

Napping became a genuine passtime. There was a day (when I was still attending 4:30 – 6:30 meditation) when I napped three times before 1pm. THREE TIMES. And it’s not like I was doing lots of physical activity to tucker myself out. That morning looked like this: I woke up, sat in a room for two hours, ate breakfast, napped; woke up, sat in a room for 1.5 hours, napped; woke up, ate lunch, napped. How is that even possible?? 

Other very, very simple activities became centrepoints of any free time I had. For example, needing to use the bathroom could be stretched into a solid 10-minute break if you walk slowly to your room, get your toilet paper, walk slowly to the bathroom, take your time, wash your hands slowly, and walk back to your room to return your toilet paper.

There were two exciting incidents in which I got to handwash my undergarments. I genuinely looked forward to this because I could take 30 – 45 minutes to do this if I tried. 

One time when I was « meditating » in the Dhamma hall I instead counted the number of bricks I could see in the section of wall in front of me (working around the curtains and the girl blocking my view, of course). There were 314. I remember because Pi. I later found out that I was not the only person to count bricks in the Dhamma hall.

Here are the rest of my key pastimes (that didn’t break any rules…):

  • Stitching up holes in everything I owned. (I managed to stitch up 8 small holes in some very worn-in pants, one hole in the crotch of another, and reinforce some stitching coming apart in my backpack. Thank god for my little sewing kit.)
  • Watching monkey parents teach their monkey children to climb things
  • Flossing and brushing my teeth
  • Plucking my eyebrows
  • Staring into the forest
  • Staring out my bedroom window
  • Staring at the ceiling
  • Organizing my tampon stash in its ziploc bag. Yep, did that.

Alas, even with all of these new pastimes, I still had a lot of time on my hands. So I broke a rule. Two rules actually. Or maybe I broke one and bent the other, you be the judge. The first, I started doing yoga in my room. After shifting my night table around, I managed to just barely fit my yoga mat in the space immediately adjacent to my bed, the door, the wall, and my night table. I even had to duck my head under my bed to do a wide-legged forward fold, but it was so, so worth it. I ended up doing yoga every other day or so and it made me feel normal again for a few hours.

The second rule I broke/bent/whatever was that I started doodling. I say bent because technically it wasn’t a rule that you couldn’t draw. Though I was supposed to lock up my notebook and pens along with my tech, valuables and book, so I admit that it was kind of implied. But this doodling was marvellous! Never have I truly appreciated the magic of how time passes when one draws. 

You start to lose it a little.

Despite this rule breaking, you start to go a little crazy. Once when I was trying to jailbreak from my timeout, I did my best to look meditative as I paced thoughtfully back and forth down a 100m path at the back of the property. (I tried to stand back here once staring into the forest and a teaching assistant kindly told me that it was meditation time and I should be in the Dhamma hall or in my room. So I learned to make myself look busy and meditative). I paced that path 20 times. It took me about 40 minutes. I wondered to myself whether it would take the same number of steps walking one direction as it did the other. Turns out it took 137 steps in one direction but 145 going the other. Fascinating. I theorized that it takes more steps to go downhill than it takes to go uphill. Around lap 8 I was thinking about how grateful I was for this little path, how it was keeping me sane. I started calling it the Path of Salvation, because it saved me. My neighbour entered onto the path and I welcomed her with open arms–come child, you are welcome on the Path of Salvation. I had to stifle the huge smile that burst out when I thought this to myself until she passed me so as not to look like a total weirdo. Around lap 12 I found that same neighbour next to the Path of Salvation picking something out of a pile of dirt. By lap 14 she was arranging small white pebbles into the symbol for Pi on a small concrete slab. The second time Pi had come up. Curious. I again stifled a hysterical smile and kept walking. 

Another time, I saw a woman sitting very close to a tree, meticulously examining the ivy growing on it. Someone else told me that she started counting the number of shades of green she could see, because she had literally. Nothing. Else. To. Do. 

So what? 

Going into this course I’d heard mixed reviews, though mostly positive. Many people say that vipassana has changed their lives. They start to break down their ego and experience the reality of the law of impermanence. Fantastic. I’d also heard of an experience in which someone desperately wanted to leave every single day. My experience was more like the latter, though I think many people experience both. 

But I think I’m glad I did it. Ya. Yep, I’m glad I did it. For one, because it was on my bucket list. If I hadn’t done it, I would’ve always wondered about it. Second, doing this has helped me discover other options for learning about and practising meditation and Bhuddism that aren’t so intense, which maybe I’ll try another time. And third, although I didn’t practise vipassana « properly » as Goenka would say, I did try to apply vipassana’s key elements: awareness and equanimity (neutral observation). Yes, I let my mind wander pretty freely during meditation, but when I ran into painful baggage that I’m carrying around, I tried to catch myself and observe my reactions with equanimity. Despite this not being quite the intent of vipassana, I found it very useful. I started to chip away at some of the negative stories I’m carrying around. It’s certainly going to take a lot more work, and I’m nowhere close to enlightened, but it’s a start, and that’s good too.

I do have one clear takeaway: with a kind of Bhuddist foundation, vipassana teaches that we should observe the law of nature that is impermanence. This law of constant change is called anicca (pronounced a-NEE-cha). When something happens, remember that it is impermanent. Instead of reacting, just observe the sensations that arise in your body. See how long they last. Watch them as they pass away. If there were a motto for vipassana it might be, this too shall pass. In day-to-day life and while traveling, I’ve learned that whether this moment is the absolute best or absolute worst you’ve ever had, remember, this too shall pass. So don’t get attached to this moment. Don’t crave it or avoid it. Just enjoy it while it’s here or take solace in the fact that the storm won’t last forever. 

Anicca. Anicca. Anicca.

Learning to enjoy my own company with 10 days of silence

Starting tomorrow I won’t talk, read, write, use technology, do yoga, or be in touch with my friends or family for ten days. Sounds a little crazy, but that’s how you learn vipassana meditation, apparently. 

Vipassana is a style of meditation that I actually know very little about. And yet I’ve signed up to learn it for ten days at a centre in Dharamkot, in upper Dharamsala, India. I’m a bit terrified about how this will go. I’m pretty new and unpracticed at meditation in general, and I don’t think I’ve ever gone a whole day without at least talking to myself. But it’s the extremeness of this course that I hope will give me new perspective on things. 

Vipassana is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques. Long lost to humanity, it was rediscovered by Gotama the Buddha more than 2500 years ago. The word Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self-purification by self-observation. One begins by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. With sharpened awareness one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind and experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness. This truth-realization by direct experience is the process of purification. The entire path (Dhamma) is a universal remedy for universal problems and has nothing to do with any organized religion or sectarianism. For this reason, it can be freely practiced by everyone, at any time, in any place, without conflict due to race, community or religion, and will prove equally beneficial to one and all. 

– from dhamma.org 

Many people find it unthinkable to spend ten days in silence without any form of distraction. I also find it a bit insane. But should this be so unimaginable? Why does the idea of ten days with nothing but my own thoughts scare me and others in this way? Shouldn’t we be able to sit with ourselves and enjoy our own company? Not in this modern world, where spending 20 minutes alone in a cafe is nearly impossible to do without turning to one’s phone or book. 

A couple years ago a friend reminded me that the only person you’ll spend your whole life with is yourself–what a scary thought. Another wise friend of mine occasionally points out that in general, we’re terribly mean to ourselves; if we were our own best friend, we wouldn’t say 90% of the things we tell ourselves every day. You may not think this is the case for you, but it’s certainly true of my own self-talk. I’m much more supportive and understanding of my friends and family than I am of myself. Judging by my behaviour and addiction to distractions of every kind, it seems like I don’t enjoy my own company much at all. 

This is why I’ve opted into these terrifying ten days. Perhaps with some externally enforced discipline I might just get to know myself a bit, and hopefully learn to like what I find. I’ve talked with and heard about a number of people who’ve done a vipassana retreat like this, and most of them say that these ten days break you down completely and then, just in time, build you back up again. I hear that the breaking down part isn’t too comfortable–in fact, it’s very likely that most days I’ll desperately want to leave. But for those who stick it out the experience is often life changing. And I could use some of that. 

If this torturous experience sounds attractive to you, you can likely find a vipassana centre near you (or you can build it into your next adventure). There are hundreds of centres around the world, which you can find at www.dhamma.org. Generally, you have to do a ten-day retreat if you’re a beginner in order to learn vipassana, and then you can do three day retreats (if you ever want to do it again). Incredibly, retreats are residential, providing accommodations and food, and students just give a donation at the end of their stay. This way, students only ever pay for future students rather than themselves. I hear that you usually have to register two or three months in advance to get a spot so plan ahead! 

If vipassana sounds a little bit too intense for your liking (fair enough), then you can also do a tushita meditation retreat. My understanding is that tushita retreats are ten days and introduce you to Buddhism and meditation. These courses are still a serious commitment, but you’re allowed to read, write and talk (not sure about using technology), and silence is observed only some of the time. Sounds pretty luxurious to me right about now. There’s a tushita mediation centre right next to the vipassana centre in Dharamkot, and tushita centres can also be found around the world. I’ve gone to one drop-in meditation class there and it was lovely. Perhaps I’ll try one of their retreats later on. If you’re interested you can find information and register for a course at www.tushita.info (it’s a good idea to register a couple months in advance). 

Wish me luck! I’ll be off the grid until May 26. Hopefully I’ll be just a little more enlightened the next time we chat.

What makes someone a yogi?

Before coming to India for a yoga teacher training course, I hadn’t thought too much about what it means to be a « yogi ». I figured that if you like yoga and do yoga pretty regularly then feel free to call yourself a yogi (if you want). It doesn’t give you superpowers, nor the right to teach yoga or be superior; but if it helps you enjoy your practice and find other yogis to hang out with, then great! 

As you might expect, it turns out that being a « yogi » in India is a lot more intense, and the title is a lot more meaningful. To begin with, the study and practice of yoga is both more commonplace and far more spiritually significant in India. It seems to me that the title of yogi is a meaningful sign of expertise and dedication to one’s yoga practice. I should point out that, traditionally, yoga is much more than a physical practice. It’s a spiritual practice that gives guidelines about how to live, the goal of which is to control the mind so that one can reach enlightenment. (This is according to the practice of Ashtanga, or eight-limbed, yoga, which outlines eight elements of yoga, only one of which is the physical practice). So while there are many levels of yogi-hood, the great yogis are those who have reached what’s called samadhi, or enlightenment. 

I struggle with the concept of samadhi. One of our teachers (who considers himself a middle-of-the-pack yogi) describes the path to samadhi as one of detachment. (I’m about to get into some granola here so bare with me). Supposedly, most people spend their entire lives living in their first, second, third and, if they’re lucky, their fourth chakras. Chakras aren’t really my thing, but I’ll give a quick overview in case you aren’t familiar (feel free to skip the next paragraph if you already know this stuff). 

There are seven main chakras or energy centres, (though there are a bunch of smaller ones throughout your body). These chakras start at your tailbone and follow your spine up to the crown of your head. The first chakra, muladhara, is also called the root chakra because it’s located at your tailbone and relates to safety, survival, stability, food and other basic needs. The second, svadhishthana, is at your sacrum and relates to intellectual interests, emotions, relationships, pleasure and creativity. Manipura, the third chakra, is at your navel and relates to things like ego, power, respect and fear. The fourth chakra, anahata, is also called the heart chakra because it’s located at your heart and relates to compassion, unconditional love, passion and devotion. Vishuddhi, the fifth chakra, is located at the throat and governs communication, expression and relates to teaching. The sixth chakra, ajna, is also called the third-eye chakra because of its location just above and between the eyebrows. It relates to intuition (and even the ability to see the future), visualization, and balancing the inner and outer worlds. Last, sahasrara is located at the crown of the head and relates to samadhi (enlightenment), inner wisdom, a sense of oneness with the « universal consciousness », and detachment from the body. 

My understanding is that one should generally aim to balance energy across all of the seven chakras, but that for just about everyone, their first, second, third and, if they’re lucky, fourth chakras are most active. Supposedly, most people want to expand their heart chakra (without knowing it), because they want to be happy, and value compassion, love, service, and helping others–all elements of an open or active heart chakra. 

Getting back to my point about yogis: apparently, a « true yogi » aims to move up into their fifth, sixth and seventh chakras, as they work toward enlightenment. A « true yogi » works to detach themselves from this world, which is why many people on this path become monks, giving up their belongings and families, perhaps eating the same simple food for the rest of their lives, and relying on the generosity of others to sustain them. This is because one can’t move into the upper chakras if one is distracted by the worldly desires and attachments of the lower chakras. « True yogis » even release their attachments to the heart chakra. They can show some compassion for others but, supposedly, they can’t busy themselves with helping others or changing the world if they’re ever going to reach enlightenment. 

The intention of moving into the upper chakras isn’t to deprive oneself of the things and people you’re attached to or enjoy, but rather that through one’s practice of pranayama (breathing exercises), meditation, and living in alignment with the yamas and niyamas (codes of social and personal conduct), one releases any attachment to worldly things like food, ego, family, and service. Eventually, a « true yogi » just becomes disinterested in the world, coming to reject their life as it was, and becoming a recluse. If they’re lucky, they release their attachment to their individuality and spend their time in samadhi, or oneness with the universal consciousness; coming to truly know that every single creature and thing in the universe is an individual drop of the same ocean. 

Now, I know I’m living it up in my first three or four chakras, but I’m having trouble with the idea that the goal of a yoga practice (according to Patanjali’s Ashtanga, or eight-limbed, yoga), is to detach completely from the world. In fact, I can’t help but think that the process of becoming disinterested in all of the pleasures and people that one used to enjoy, and becoming indifferent to life sounds an awful lot like depression. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for someone who’s reached samadhi to decide when they will leave this world, and kill themselves. 

When I asked about this, our teacher tried to distinguish depression from samadhi, saying that someone with depression is sad and feels stuck, whereas someone in samadhi is happy and free. I understand this for the most part, but I still don’t like the idea of becoming so disinterested in life that it would feel natural to leave this world rather than enjoy it. I suppose it makes sense that I feel this way–for now, I’m perfectly content to stick around in my first four chakras. Maybe one day, when I’m much older, it will feel perfectly natural to prepare myself for leaving this world by detaching in this way. 

Perhaps then I’ll be a « true yogi ». But in my opinion, being a yogi is like being a good person who does their best to live with intention and be happy. That’s certainly hard enough as it is, and it’s good enough for me. 

So, what am I doing?

I’m three weeks into a 200-hour yoga teacher training (YTT) course in Rishikesh, India.

I’ve wanted to do YTT for probably five years. I woud’ve loved to do it at my home studio, Fearless Heart Yoga, but the timing never quite worked out. My biggest obstacle was, of course, myself, as I was almost always preparing to leave Waterloo and didn’t feel able to commit to an eight-month program. It’s a shame because I know it would’ve been fantastic. But the upside of not doing YTT at Fearless Heart was the opportunity it opened up for me to do YTT abroad to kick off an adventure. 

When it occurred to me to do YTT in India I nearly booked a course that same night. But in the end it took me another four months or so to think it through and agonize over which yoga school to choose. When I finally booked it, I hit send on my PayPal deposit, looked up at my boyfriend Patrick, said, « I did it, » and immediately burst into tears. That was the moment I committed to leaving Waterloo and the life I’d somewhat begrudgingly settled into there. Although I was extremely excited in theory, I never felt excited in my gut; not even when I got on the plane. Of course I now realize that it’s when you decide to leave a place that you feel most like you belong there. I was fortunate enough to have great friends who celebrated my upcoming adventures with me, and opportunities to do all of my favourite things in Waterloo before I left. 

As expected, it was really hard to leave (big surprise). But it’s been almost four weeks now and I distinctly happier already. I feel a newfound sense of lightness, opportunity and freedom–the kind that comes naturally with a one-way ticket. I’m already feeling more balanced as I build up elements of my identity and confidence that have nothing to do with the traditional career path I was on. Now I get to spend my days thinking about and doing yoga, building up my confidence and knowledge around a huge passion of mine!

It’s been an interesting, challenging, and inspiring time so far at YTT, and I’m feeling more and more like a yoga teacher as the days go by. I feel really good in this role, and I’m super excited about what this skill set allows me to do, especially while travelling. (I’ll write soon about my YTT in India, and generally the differences in style between my experience of Indian yoga teaching and teaching styles in « the West »). 

YTT finishes this coming Monday (already!), and then I’m headed to Dharamsala, in the northwest of India, which is also where the Dalai Lama lives! I’ll spend a week there with no plans, and then do a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat (where you don’t talk, read, write, use technology, or even make eye contact as far as I know. Eek!). After that I hope to find a volunteer or internship opportunity for two or three months, though that’s totally un-figured out. And I hope to travel until Christmas, making my way through Nepal, Indonesia, Morocco, France and England, though I’m ready to go just about wherever the wind takes me.