Wednesday, September 19, 2012

My Yoga Adventure: Dharamsala

As you know by now, India has proven to be a bit harder on my spirit than I'd expected. Somewhere on this emotional roller coaster, between loops of Visa frustrations, unavoidable culture shock and unexpected bouts of homesickness,  I stopped feeling like "me".  Despite Tal's best efforts to make me comfortable and keep me chipper, I've been a bit of a negative er… Nora.

A few weeks ago, as I watched Tal book his flights for yet another international adventure sans moi, I decide to take matters into my own hands. So I can't get out of India? So what. I'm living in the frickin CAPITAL of inner peace. It was time for me to get my Yoga on.

And so, at the recommendation of a friend, I booked myself a plane ticket to Dharamsala (in the Indian Himalayan foothills) and reserved myself a spot in a 5 day yoga course. 

Day One:
The trip started out beautifully. My cab picked me up right on time at 6:45am, and we had an uneventful, traffic free ride to the airport. I breezed through check-in and security. With plenty of time until boarding, I decided to grab a coffee at the food court before heading to my gate. While I was stirring in my milk and sugar, a middle aged Indian man approached me, pointed to my nose and said, "this is beautiful".  Now… I'm pretty content with the way I look, but I was DAMN sure this gentleman had not given my various features a once-over and decided on my slightly crooked shnoz as his favorite. "Sorry?" I asked. "The piercing" he replied, pointing to my nose again, " it suits you very well".   My nose ring. That made infinitely more sense. "It brings added grace to a woman's beauty" he concluded, and with that, he walked away.

Nothing like an eloquent, genuine compliment from a stranger to make a girl feel a little brighter.

I had to change planes in Delhi, but my journey continued without a hitch. Five hours after leaving Bangalore's crowded city streets, I landed in a completely majestic, natural wonderland. 

It took just over an hour for the cab driver to wind his way up the single lane, unpaved mountain road to the village of Dharamkot. But the scenery was spectacular,  and before I knew it I was grabbing my backpack from the trunk and walking down the short trail to the Himalayan Inyengar Yoga Centre.

The teachers asked that we not take pictures inside the centre, so this is borrowed from their website.

I was greeted warmly by the office manager, and taken to my room. I was excited to walk around so I simply threw down my things, locked the door and returned to the office to sign in and pay. Four other travelers, all Israeli,  were in the office when I returned. After learning that they were also signing up for the course I was taking, and chatting a bit I asked if I could join for the small hike into town.

I spent my first evening with my new friends, Hadar & Ravit, wandering around Bhagsu, a town east of Dharamkot, chatting, eating and shopping. They'd been traveling around India for over a month already, and everywhere we went they found friends from previous adventures. 

I knew that Dharamshala was a popular destination for Israeli tourists, but what I discovered BLEW MY MIND.  Menus and signs are in Hebrew but not Hindi, Indian shop and restaurant owners conduct their transactions in perfect Hebrew but are surprised if you respond in English, and grocery stores have as many jars of Tahini as Chutney.

Can you spot my Nikes among the bajillion pairs of Tevas?

I really wish I'd spent more than 30 seconds inspecting my room at the Yoga center. If I had, I would have discovered the mold, spiders and leaking roof in the light of day, rather than at 10pm when I finally returned from exploring. But since there was nothing I could do about it, I burrowed deep into my sleeping bag and fell asleep dreaming about the fabulous day of yoga to come.

Day Two:
Yoga started at 10, but I woke up with the roosters around 6:30. 

Seriously. Roosters.

I spent the early morning sitting outside, breathing the pure mountain air, enjoying the remarkable view and reading my book (Zadie Smith's White Teeth, in case you were curious). The first day of yoga was wonderful. It's a practice I wasn't especially familiar with called Inyengar. I'd taken a few classes in Brooklyn some years ago, but I've done primarily Vinyasa classes. The course is intended to start you from scratch, and break down every asana (pose) in detail. There are about 30 people in the class, one teacher and one assistant. Between the two of them they make sure that each student is in perfect form at all times. It's incredible what a big difference a little correction makes. The class was three and half hours and they request that you practice on an empty stomach. I was REALLY nervous about both the length of the class, and the no food bit,  but before I knew it - it was 1:30 and we were sent on our way for the day. I felt wonderful, and couldn't wait for day two.

After class I walked back to Bhagsu with Hadar, where we joined Ravit (who, like my dear husband is not-so-into yoga)  for lunch in an open air Thai restaurant. Most restaurants in the area seat you on the floor with pillows and low tables. We sat chatting for several hours and were eventually joined by another friend from their travels, Ilana. After some time I dragged myself away from the lovely conversation, to go in search of a new place to sleep. As luck would have it, their guest house, Sky Pie, had one room left for rent. After I retrieved my bag from my room at the Yoga centre, I rejoined my new friends for the rest of the evening.

I feel compelled to tell you about the dessert they MADE me eat. (Right. Like anyone has EVER had to force me to eat dessert...) The first part is a sweet that is unique to this area called Bhagsu cake. It's basically a biscuit bottom, then a layer of caramel, then a layer of chocolate.  Trust me when I tell you that this description does NOT do it justice. Out of this treat, they created a dessert called Hello to the Queen/King. A bowl is filled with sliced bananas, then topped with a ground version of the biscuit, then topped with warm, creamy chocolate sauce, next a scoop or three of vanilla ice cream, and finally if it is Hello to the King... they add ENTIRE PIECES OF BHAGSU CAKE. 

So much for my yoga detox…

Day Three:
Thanks to my new room, some Tulsi incense, and my noise canceling headphones - I had a great night's sleep and woke up refreshed and excited for my second day of yoga. I was up early again, so I had a cup of ginger lemon tea at the cafe next to my room and continued my tradition from the previous morning. At 9:30 Hadar met me outside, and we took our scenic 15 minute hike to the yoga centre. 

Day two was even better than day one. We flowed through everything we'd learned on day one, and added several new asanas. It  stormed during most of the class, and the sound of the thunder in the distance and the rain hitting the roof was a perfect sound track.  I left the class feeling more centered than I have in months. And despite the three hours of yoga, and total absence of calories in my system - I was also  incredibly energized.

After a quick shower, we grabbed lunch at the local..what else..falafel joint. I was very excited to learn that Dudu, the owner, also has a restaurant in Hampi, one of the next places on our travel list. He's this cool young Indian guy who made friends with an Israeli traveler and learned to make falafel, tahini, hummus & sabich.

The afternoon  and evening were completely uneventful, and completely wonderful. Everything in Dharamsala is wonderful.

Day Four:
I need to tell you something about myself, lest you get the wrong idea. I'm not some great yogi. On a good day I can barely touch my toes, much less contort myself into some of the more complicated yoga poses. And let's not even talk about my meditation skills. If I'm only thinking about 3 things at one time, I feel a sense of inner peace.

But on day four, I had a yoga break through. Towards the end of the class, our teacher introduced bridges.

This is a bridge. This is not me.  I do not look anything like Ms. Gumby here.

After we were taught how to properly, and safely do a bridge - we were instructed to do TWENTY. We all laughed, because we were sure that Pedro, our teacher, was joking. He was not. 

But sure enough, despite the fact that I've never successfully done a bridge (including in gymnastics classes when I was 8) I did 20. And when Pedro announced that we'd be doing the final three all together, I did three more.

And then, I commenced with the crying.

It wasn't hysterical hiccup crying, and I didn't feel sad. I felt overwhelmingly proud, strong and beautiful.

But really Nora, crying? Just as I was having that exact thought, Pedro explained to the class that many people experience an emotional release after a series of backbends.  

So not only am I completely normal, but I finally achieved Yoga success!

I spent the rest of the day on an emotional high. I felt AWESOME.

In the afternoon I took a jewelry making class. Taking classes is a very popular activity in Dharamsala. Courses range from flute lessons to Aruveydic healing. If I could have stayed on my vacation for longer, there were at least 5 other subjects I would have happily studied.

But since I only had a small amount of free time, jewelry making was just fine with me!  My teacher, Tapas, and I sat on the floor of his studio and his wife brought us chai!

Whenever he wanted me to use the blow torch he said enthusiastically,  "Fire. FULL POWER!!"

The final product. Not bad right??

Day Five & Six:
My finals days in Dharamsala passed much like the days before. Incredible yoga classes in the morning, spectacular mini-treks and peaceful afternoons spent with new friends and a good book. (I moved on to How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran...gosh you're nosy!)

Here are some pictures I took on my daily walks:
A view of McLeodganj - the town that is home to the Dalai Lama's temple

The evening of day five was the first night of the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah. Because of the large presence of Israelis in the area, there is a Chabad House (a Jewish center & kosher restaurant run by a Hassidic family from Israel) . And while I wouldn't normally attended services at a house of worship that was QUITE this religious, it was an amazing experience to be in such an innately spiritual setting, celebrating one of our holiest days.

The Chabad Center in Dharamkot. Not. Too. Shabby.

Day Seven:
While I was completely ready to return to Tal, I was very sad to be concluding my yoga course and leaving such a magical place and wonderful new friends. The good news is that the Yoga centre moves south for the winter to Goa, a popular beach destination that is a quick overnight train ride from Bangalore.  I'm planning to head there in November to continue my studies. Yoga in the morning and a sun and sand in the afternoon? YES PLEASE!

But before it was time to say goodbye, there was time for one last Hello... to the Queen.

So am I feeling better?

Ladies and Gents, from here on out you can call me Stella, 'cause I've got my grooooove back!


  1. Did you take Kingfisher Air? They have great planes and a very charismatic boss.
    And how was White Teeth. Is it worth the time?
    Nice photos, particularly the one taken on the porch of the coffee estate. Reminded me of a scene from the film Out of Africa.

    1. Hi Andy! Thanks for reading my blog :) I did take Kingfisher, and yes I had a lovely experience with them. White Teeth was very good. I liked it a lot, I can't believe how long it took me to finally get around to reading Zadie Smith. The photos from Coorg are Tal's. He's a great photographer and takes really beautiful shots. Send me an email if you'd like the link to his photo website - he posts the artsy stuff there.

  2. Wow, now THAT's a yoga retreat. Sounds like you're having some incredible adventures.

  3. Ok, so I finally read this and OMG I am SO jealous!! I would so love to do something like this (although maybe the old 30-year-old back might not allow it). Totally inspiring though - maybe one day. And how do I get my hands on that Queen dessert?!

    Miss you!!