OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith each new country, city, and soil that I land on, I unpack my bags, scribble a journal entry, and then turn to my one constant—yoga.
I’ve been instructed in yoga in Italian while studying in Florence, felt the soft sand under my palms in Brazil, fought off ants in the grass when I balanced in vrkshasana(tree pose) in Ahmedabad, and done head stands in Guatemala.
Even before I moved to Washington D.C. in January, I had googled the closest three yoga studios to my workplace and chosen the sunniest room to practice during my lunch hour.
My practice is not daily, or intense. I don’t wake up at 5 a.m. to meditate and I sometimes play hip-hop when I stretch out. But after five years of instruction and fourteen years of practice, I’ve come to regard my pink yoga mat as my most faithful companion.
I grew up watching my dad finishing his sun salutations every morning, no matter how late he stayed awake the night before or which hotel my family was staying in for vacation.
When I was 12, my mom opened a yoga studio, Yoga Shakti, close to our home and I learned asana through a flux of teachers, from a Himalayan yogi to gentle ex-hippies.
The more yoga we practiced, the more it pervaded in different parts of our lives—the food we ate, the books we read, and later, my career path. Other than my sister, who swore off what she called the “Y-Word,” yoga had started to steep.
In the United States I was also exposed to a new culture—the so-called New Age trend that combined anything and everything under the headline of spirituality. I heard the words “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual” become a mantra, as everyone borrowed from Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism.
And while the roots of this practice, Kundalini or Ashtanga, were traced back to Indian yogis and long lineages, I hardly ever saw Indians in my yoga classes, let alone giving instruction.
This insight into the new East-West blend deepened in college at the University of Florida, where I stepped into a jam-packed power yoga class taught by a Jewish guy with a mass of red curls.
Without realizing it, I had also stepped into a community—the same fluid group of people that I would see riding road bikes, shopping at the farmer’s market, and frequenting Indie Night at a local club.
It was still surprising to me each time fifty people in a gym room bowed their heads and said Namaste, or inhaled deeply and exhaled Om. But when I lay in final relaxation, savasana, after an hour and a half of twisting, engaging and lengthening, it made complete sense why each person in the room had sought out this practice and the energy that would keep them going through the rest of the day and week.
In the summer of my freshman year I committed to a month of yoga teacher’s training in the hills of upstate New York. I traded in my dorm-and-pizza schedule for waking up at 5 a.m. and filling the day with more than four hours of asana, intensive hours of Bhagavad-Gita reading, philosophy lectures, chanting, and service work to help sustain the ashram.
For the first time, I could sing full songs while in a headstand, and bring my mind to some degree of stillness in the morning. My shoulders were stronger, my breathing deeper, and I felt inspired in a way that school couldn’t instill.
Once again I was the only Indian on the grounds, except for the cook. This time I was also the youngest person, although only by a year.
Every morning and evening I listened to the chants and prayers from the temples and pujas of my childhood—the pronunciation twisted and forced off of unaccustomed tongues.
Part of me cringed when it was time to say the gajananam (opening prayer), knowing soft “th’s” would become “t’s” and the entire tune would change to a Western melody.
But by the end of the month, my ethnocentric judgment was replaced by gratitude, and my ears only heard the harmony of 30 voices that had grown together through hours of pushing our minds and bodies to a different kind of edge.
Back at UF, I continued to teach yoga at our gyms. Suddenly, I was in front of classes of 50 students, feeling taller and stronger than my 5 feet and 2 inches.
When I was teaching, there was no nervousness or self-consciousness. There was a room full of people who came seeking stronger arms, a looser hamstring, or just a reprieve from their desk lives.
Later, I created my own class at the Indian Cultural Center. The meditation room became a place for my friends and I to laugh and stretch and test out unconventional music. My style was no style. I would change my sequences in the middle, wear old sweatpants, and tailor the poses to how much energy the class had that day.
What started out as three consistent students soon grew to fill the room past capacity, and I had found the kind of yoga that I wanted to teach—free, fun, and full of laughter.
When I moved to Italy for a semester-long study abroad program, my dad sent me on the airplane with the following advice: “When in doubt, breathe.”
I remember holding on to those words as I sat on the flight without knowing anybody in the country I would be living in for six months.
The words have served me since—in the back seat of a jeep that seemed to fly off the road in India, or when I was walking home alone at night and dark figures seemed to be everywhere.
When my friends ask me, “How are you not freaking out right now?” during exams or adventures gone wrong, I have nothing to credit but the practice that has helped me return to the most natural action I can do.
As I start my new life beyond the house where I grew up and beyond college in Florida, I run into uncertainties every second. I think about career, friends, boyfriends, and finances. I send out applications and story ideas and wonder where I will be in a year, or even in six months.
Then I roll out my pink yoga mat and tuck my legs underneath me. I extend my legs and lower my heels to the ground. I breathe so I can hear and feel it expand at my core.
And for a second I have nothing to think about, and nothing to know. It’s just my most faithful companion and me.
Ankita Rao is a recent journalism graduate working in Washington D.C.