Yoga Lessons

I’m jolted awake by the unforgiving Indian ringtone that pierces through my dreamy state.  Groaning, I crack open an eye.  It’s 5:30am.  Gentle hues of lavender and blue peek through the curtains at the head of my bed as the rooster crows over and over again.  I will myself to jump out of bed, get ready, and run out the door, down the steps of my hostel building, and one minute down the road.  At the crack of dawn, the dusty streets of Madurai are beginning to show signs of life, with street vendors setting up their stations and autorickshaws searching for passengers.  A long line of patients is already waiting at the gates of the Aravind outpatient hospital building for its opening time at 7:30am.  However, I’m not headed to the hospital at this sleepy hour; I’m preparing to salute the sun in my 6am beginners’ yoga class.

I arrive at the nearby yoga studio, discard my shoes inside the gate, and climb up the ladder to the upstairs loft.  Placing my hands in prayer position, I nod my head to greet the yogi and swiftly roll a straw mat out on the floor.  I lay down on the mat and close my eyes, questioning why I am not still in bed as I attempt to mentally prepare for the challenging yoga session ahead. “Relaaaaaaax,” the yogi croons in the background, the perfect soundtrack for drifting off to sleep…

Class begins.  Today, it’s just two of us, a middle-aged woman named Priya and myself.  After initial meditation and prayer, we start with breathing exercises.  I can handle the first exercise, but the alternating nostril breathing exercise reduces me into a fish out of water, gulping for air whenever the yogi’s instructions allow.  Next come the sun salutations.  After a week of class, I’ve grown familiar with the steps, but am always a little thrown off whenever the yogi stumbles over which leg to call out, which seems to happen every single day without fail.  A man from Kerala training at my studio for a few months while simultaneously working on his Ph.D. dissertation in Indian philosophy, my yogi has only been doing yoga for a year.  It’s comforting that he makes mistakes, so I know he’s not wasting his time teaching such a helplessly yoga-incompatible case as me.

The sun rises as we proceed through a series of movements and poses.  I feel so grossly misled by the “beginner” status of the course.  From full-body locusts to headstands, I’m forced to twist my body into positions I can’t even wrap my head around, let alone my unimaginably inflexible limbs.  In near-tears from the pain, I feel utterly hopeless with my complete lack of balance and inability to extend my hands more than a few inches past my knees, as Priya effortlessly hops into and out of her shoulder stand beside me.

Priya, the only other consistent student in the class of four, is a surprisingly pliable and agile woman in spite of the decades of age she has on me and her full figure that reveals she has borne and raised three children.  Her second daughter just hit puberty, and I was invited to her coming-of-age celebration on Monday evening.  Priya picked me up on her scooter to take me to her home, fearlessly weaving through the streets of Madurai in her stunning orange silk sari.  I spent the night observing and partaking in the beautiful thing that is tradition—a young girl fully adorned with hair extensions and bright gold jewelry, welcomed into society by all her family, neighbors, and friends.  However, I may have inadvertently been the only one grinning openly in those group photos; it’s interesting how vibrant the clothes and scenery may be, but everyone is expected to suppress their joy in a close-lipped, subtle smile to be documented for the years to come.  Towards the end of the evening, the power went out, and we enjoyed a dinner from a banana leaf while seated cross-legged on the rooftop.  While I thoroughly enjoyed the cultural experience and local color, I must admit that I felt out of place as I had no knowledge of the meaning behind any of the rituals going on and none of the attendees could really speak English to inform me.  Nevertheless, I could clearly sense their warmth from the moment I arrived at the house to a welcoming crowd to the full-bodied farewell I was given when I left.

From yoga class to Indian cultural traditions, I have definitely been hurled out of my comfort zone this summer.  Those who know me can attest to the nocturnal lifestyle I have been conditioned to live by since the sixth grade.  Waking up before sunrise each morning, suffocating from breathing exercises, and being physically forced into positions that make me want to cry from pain—all of these are major trials for me, and having to undergo them has often left me feeling demoralized.  The culture in India is so vastly different from what I’m used to, and I often feel crippled by my inability to speak Tamil and my ignorance of some cultural differences, particularly those surrounding being a woman.  Even my internship project at Aravind is in a field completely unfamiliar to me; Sam and I are working on an operations research project to optimize patient flow in the retina & vitreous clinic, which has the longest wait time in the hospital.  The flow charting process and data analysis are unlike anything I’ve ever done before, and the tasks become far more daunting given the high volume of patients the clinic treats—approximately 450 patients each day.

Yet I’m loving every moment of it.  I’m really taking this summer as an opportunity to make changes in my life and in myself that I’ve always wanted to make but haven’t had the commitment, time, or circumstances to do so.  Among this list are waking up and sleeping early, being punctual and accountable, and easily adapting to shifting plans.  There’s so much to learn from everyone around me, from both my fellow interns and the employees at Aravind.  From Sindhu, her high efficiency and her determined focus.  From Sam, his thirst for knowledge and his understanding of and commitment to his own interests and needs.  From Mondira, another intern with whom we spend much of our time, her initiative-taking attitude and considerate nature.  From all the Aravind employees, their unwavering dedication to their mission and the countless sacrifices they have made in order to help advance it.  From Dr. Srinivasan, the young retina specialist for whom Sam and I are working (stay tuned for a profile on him in an upcoming post!), his recognition of the flaws in the exalted Aravind system and his desire to innovate in order to improve upon them.  Indeed, there is much to be learned this summer, and I can think of no better place to do so than in hot and dusty Madurai among these incredible people.

All of these thoughts and reflections race through my mind as I’m supposed to be meditating during final relaxation.  Clearly, I’m nowhere close to closing out my thoughts and reaching the next level of consciousness.  Oops, guess I should add that to the list as well.   After an hour and a half of the difficult labor that is yoga, the class draws to a close.  I tell my yogi and Priya goodbye and that I’ll see them tomorrow morning. 

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About Christina Wu

Graduated in 2014 with a B.A. in Health & Societies at the University of Pennsylvania. Interned at Aravind Eye Care System in Madurai, Tamilnadu in summer of 2012. Awarded a 2014-15 Fulbright fellowship in China to conduct research on dementia care in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.