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My Life As an Ashtanga Student in Mysore: The Essence of Seeking Consciousness

In this essay series, advanced Ashtanga practitioner and writer Leslie Hendry explains why her many trips to India were never just a vacation.

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India is a land of temples, both active and ancient, and I sincerely hope that never changes. Not necessarily for religious reasons, but because the active temples are like nothing else: a swirl of spirituality, vibrant mythology, Indian folk art, practiced philosophy, and quotidian ritual, all of which reflects the continuation of an ancient culture within a mutable modern one.

In India, temples are ubiquitous odes to Hindu deities and can been found in front of homes, outside stores, at street intersections, on hilltops, circling roundabouts, embodied in a peepal tree, or just about anywhere; all contain a palpable pulse, and if I were God, I’d surely come a knocking here.

Never do I tire of this culture because parts have proven to be so much wiser than the comparatively young culture that I grew up in the U.S. India’s deep roots run like tunnels to the core of civilization and humanity. Over several trips, I’ve become an Indophile and the biggest take away from that is that there’s zero chance I’ll ever be bored on this earth again.

Over my adult life, having lost the appetite to identify with a particular religion, I oddly find myself in India in the early mornings or late afternoons kicking off my chappals, or sandals, parking them alongside a waist-high wall of fat, vertically painted stripes in alternating red and white, and entering a temple. My feet make contact with the dusty ground and, in high spirit, I ditch my Western suspicion that someone might be tempted to abscond with my $22 Havaianas. I bend down and respectfully touch the floor of the temple doorway to transcend, if only for mere moments, my normal, born into this world, self.

Perhaps that’s why we travel, or leave our fated life, to transcend. I certainly hope so, at least it’s a gateway. For if to transcend is to find a state of complete mental quietude, or silence, then we must plow through the chatter, or those elements which both attract and disturb our otherwise pure consciousness of the self, cosmic consciousness, the one that is the all, the atman, the internal principle which is also the mighty universal Brahman.

In the early aughts, I made a deal with my professional self that I may not ever make as much money as I made then as an expat lawyer working in a media company, but I promised to follow my interests and explore the corners of this life, near and far, internal and external.

Up to then, I’d steamrolled over aspects of who I was, or would have been, choosing a trade and a profession that would make me good money, if not great money, and along the way protect me from certain things that I feared, like being an abject failure. Money is not only quantitative and incontrovertible, but, today, money is a value set that supersedes almost everything: honesty, beauty, respect, dignity, for if you have a lot of it, there will always be someone willing to look the other way, complicit in fulfilling whatever desire that money was meant to fulfill or rationalize, muddying the path of discovering who we really are.

Related: Why Money (and Other Things) Can’t Buy Happiness

The one thing that money cannot supplant is consciousness. Consciousness is an elusive, wandering, element of existence that some humans, a fraction I’d say, have been toiling over, exploring its possibilities since time immemorial. In some respects, it’s a marker of humanity’s own peaks and valleys, our highs and lows.

Before I set over the cliff and left my job, along with the status, respect, money and position that it afforded me, I mostly promised to my deal-making self—the risk-taker, the explorer/adventurer, the seeker of liberation—that I wouldn’t pursue an interest unless I wholeheartedly believed it was my calling; that is if I could help it.

It hasn’t been easy, but by renouncing certain fundamental Western tenets, I’ve shed layers of errant desires and expectations. Yoga came to me as a solution to recovery following foot surgery, elective surgery to fix my feet, deformed from trying to physically reach a higher height in heels. (Funny that my shod of choice was my Achilles heel to being a professional.)

Once my physical body got the blast of what it was like to feel really good again, I couldn’t help but follow that interest in a most wholehearted fashion. Lucky for me, it came packaged in philosophical texts on how to be human.

Those of you reading, who have also sipped from this cup, know it’s pretty powerful. It’s what has drawn me to invest this tranche of my life in yoga. It’s what makes me return to my choice of India’s simple accommodations, in search for the mental luxuries of self-exploration. It’s what allows me to ogle at arched leafy treetops, tall bobble-headed palm trees, miracle-inspired sunsets, low-rising full moon encounters. It’s what gives me joy in sipping chai with friends, loafing around after lunch, digesting food, humor and talk. It’s what allows me to rise early to touch my toes or put my leg behind my head, because it stretches my limbs and oils the engine to the vehicle that I’m hermetically sealed in for my material life. Oh to feel good!

It took a long time to realize I had jettisoned much of what I’d constructed consciously and subconsciously, and to understand the force driving this deal. All I knew was that my future, my life, seemed to be the future, and life, of someone else’s, who I didn’t know and who I didn’t want to know. I was simply mimicking someone else’s steps.

Related: My Life as an Ashtanga Student in Mysore: Heard on “The Yoga Trail”

Looking back, I still don’t know how I found the courage to abandon a career in law, renounce the edifice that I had built. But I knew I had to deconstruct and cobble together what was right for me for this lifetime.

Consciousness, I’m guessing, can be found just about anywhere. I happen to feel closer to it in India’s temples, something that tickles my fancy, inspires my interests, helps me find that equanimity of being fully at home in my body and ego, with all its humanly characteristics, doing the best I can do. Trips to India help to fill in the blanks to numerous questions I have about consciousness, but not in the way I might’ve expected. I cannot, and will not, attest to sudden life changing moments or an epiphany, or a religious overtaking. I will admit to clearer thinking, more patience, fewer reactions, and attributing contentment to continuing to go beyond what I know as me.

Photography by Steve Lawrence



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