The bus clumsily tilts up into the hill country and crawls around the corners of military bases, its struggling engine beginning to cloud the surrounding rural villages. ‘BE GENTLE ON MY CURVES’ flashes past on a yellow signpost. ‘FAST DRIVE MIGHT BE YOUR LAST DRIVE’ and ‘AFTER WHISKY, DRIVING RISKY’ shortly follow; the first of many anti-speeding signs I notice on the journey from Delhi to Mcleodganj. I try to stifle a laugh while the rest of the bus stares out in contempt at the misty morning, barely raising an eyebrow. ‘DIVORCE SPEED, NOT YOUR WIFE’ has just made its first appearance.
Bhagsu, a half hour walk from Mcleodganj and in the state of Himachal Pradesh, is my home for the next month. It is a permanent festival of dreadlocks, tie-dye threads and music cafes. In this Shanti community, it is customary to greet your fellow hippie backpackers with “Namaste” and softly caress the arms or shoulders of those passing by. The nearby noticeboard is plastered with leaflets advertising Yoga, creative writing and cooking workshops. Later, I imagine, a stream of bare feet padding up and down these slopes, decorated with toe rings and anklets, searching for the nearest chai cafe or Reiki workshop. But as I arrive in a rickshaw at 7 am and begin the climb up to Oasis Guesthouse, there is barely a dreadlock in sight.
Twenty minutes later, I hear a male voice shout out from a nearby guesthouse “Yoga? Miss Yoga?” It is Manoj, the guesthouse manager.
“Yes!” I cry in relief, spotting the Sampoorna Yoga sign and setting my eyes upon the accommodation. My shoulders are at breaking point.
“I thought you looked like a Yogi” Manoj smiles, wiping the sweat off his brow, explaining that the previous group only left the night before, but luckily my room is ready. I was only 5 hours early. Treading upstairs, I try my best not to spread mucky footprints on the recently cleaned floor and gratefully take the keys from his slippery fingertips.
My bedroom for the next month is much more than I had hoped for. A bed which seems to go beyond all royal sizing, a sofa, balcony and en-suite bathroom with a novelty western-style toilet. Most impressive, is the view. Looking down from halfway up the foothills of the Himalayas, clusters of trees brush against the open, fresh sky.
Sleep is unavoidable. Waking at 16:55, in a sleepy panic I rush downstairs to meet the rest of the group. We gather in the Shala (the house of Yoga we would spend 10 hours a day in for the next month), sitting in a circle for the 5pm welcome meeting. With straight spines and crossed-legs in Sukasana, each eager Yogi nods enthusiastically. Staring down at a 400-paged handbook together with lists of mid-term and end-of-term exam questions, we try not to let our smiles falter. Afterwards, I rush upstairs and sift through the pages of questions:
‘Mention the chapters of the Yoga Sutras in Sanskrit and give their English meanings?’
‘Name all five Yamas and give their meanings?’
‘What is the linguistic meaning of OM?
I had no idea what to expect. Presumably the meaning of Yoga was about to turn into something far more spiritual, far more comprehensive…or at least far beyond the likes of downward-facing dog.