Sometimes you meet a person; you've never met them before, but have an instant familiarity with them. You share some sort of history, but you can’t quite credit the connection to this lifetime. Movies, novels and articles have tried to explain the unexplainable feeling of 'love at first sight'; the sudden gathering of your past, present and future, held within the spirit of another human being. Sometimes...it's contained in a place.
When I stepped off of the plane in India, I immediately felt a sense of remembering. Even though I was in Delhi, one of the most populated cities on our planet, it was as if a missing wire had been re-attached. I was suddenly returned to a place I had never been.
It was 3 am and I was supposed to meet a cab driver to take me 7 hours North, to an ancient city nestled at the foothill of the Himalayan mountains.
I exited the airport sliding doors and there were about 500 people; some with signs, waiting to pick up their friends/family at the airport...500 people. At 3.am.
"Pagal". I thought. “India is as populated as they say”, but more importantly…"How am I going to find Mr. Taal?"
As I walked out with my bags, I could feel people staring at me. I knew what they were thinking; probably the same thing Indians anywhere think when they see me.
"Why does she look...sort of...kind of......like maybe half…in the eyes…from that angle…not entirely…but certainly some part...Desi!?" (Desi means a person of Indian descent who lives abroad.)
Another source of the optical attention was the travel guitar slung on my back. Always a point of conversation, the children in the crowd (again, at 3.am), would point at it and whisper to one another.
After being solicited for taxi services from several people, I finally found Mr.Taal and got into the car.
As we drove out of the airport, I began to notice a new world around me. Delhi at night; a city that doesn’t sleep. There were many food stands open, with people gathered and drinking chai. There were also many people sleeping on the sidewalks. Driving along the road and out of the city as the sun rose, I began to see palm trees. Coming from Canada in the winter, the palm trees were a sign of thermal hope.
Mr Taal was very friendly and with his limited English and my Hindi vocabulary I could count on my fingers, we somehow managed to communicate pretty well during the seven hours it took to drive to Rishikesh. I knew we were getting close as the mountains began to emerge from the land. I saw the Ganga river, temples and statues of Krishna.
I was in Rishikesh; one of India’s most holy cities. The energy I felt was massive. You know when you meet one person who you can tell is quite meditative; who emits a positive energy and you can viscerally feel it? Well…imagine for a second an entire city, populated by people devoting themselves daily to good karma and positivity. The energy I felt was incredibly peaceful. Driving up into Rishi, through the jungle, I kept my sites locked in between the thick bush, hoping to spot an elephant. My heart was tingling.
We arrived at the ashram I was going to be doing a yoga teacher training at. The endearingly simple three story building was concrete and tile; optimal for the summer, but evidently quite cold with no heating system during Northern India’s winter. (Something I later learned and responded to by sleeping every night in a full track suit, double socked, with 4 blankets and a touque.) Here is where I’d be staying and spending the next month and a half studying the ancient Indian lifestyle of yoga.
Now some people might look at me and think “but...you’re a musician; you have a song called ‘Two Shots’ and you wear makeup and high heels on stage. Why are you studying yoga?”
According to yoga philosophy, we all practice it when we are children. Children naturally play around with their bodies; do cartwheels, backbends, sit funny, laugh, ask questions about life, think about a creator etc. My intentional connection to yoga came about when I was 19.
I was living above a noisy bar in Toronto, working at a grocery store and feeling, well, depressed. I walked down Queen Street one day and happened upon a “yoga studio”. I knew what it was…I thought. Some trendy fitness method appropriated by the West. As I entered, I was greeted by a very friendly Swedish woman to whom I admitted I’d never tried “yoga”. She proceeded to generously spend the next hour with me; giving me a tour of the studio, telling me her story and most importantly, offering me a free first class. “Sold!” said my at-the-time-broke-ass. I was excited and nervous. Nervous and excited. We arranged that I would take the class the following day. I went to bed that night wondering what I had gotten myself into. The next morning, I put on some comfortable clothing and walked to the studio. I was shown the practice space. It had exposed brick walls, high ceilings, big windows and…a beautiful, calm energy. I sat on my mat, looking around at the other people. Some people looked so…secure. Some looked insecure, like me. All I really remember of the actual class is that I looked around a lot and didn’t know the names of the poses, I was behind on the cuing and felt occasionally very frustrated. That said, at the end, when we entered Savasana and were guided through a brief meditation, I felt a sense of calm and…happiness that I hadn’t felt in a while. I was grateful.
I still had no money (and yoga classes in Canada are generally very expensive), so I bought myself a DVD of a yoga class by Vancouver yogi Eon Finn. I proceeded to do the DVD every morning and before I knew it, yoga was ‘my thing’. It balanced me. It made me feel connected. It made me feel whole. From thereon, yoga and meditation was a place I could go to escape the stressors of trying to ‘make it’ in the music industry; the constant ups and downs. I finally had something that brought me to equilibrium. I knew how effective it was for me, how it could be done in any space, at any time, and I wanted to share that feeling with the world.
Flash forward seven years and I am in Rishikesh getting my teacher training.
I entered the ashram and was shown my room. After hanging up photos of my family and personalizing my room with some rainbow scarves here and there, I decided to adventure into the town. I didn’t know where I was going, but I have a good sense of direction, so I knew I’d be ok getting back. Passing shops, food stalls and cows, about 5 minutes into my peruse, I was solicited by a Sadhu. “What is a Sadhu?”,you ask. A person who dresses in an orange cloth, renounces all material attachment, wanders around India, is fed and accommodated at temples and spends most of their day meditating and drinking chai with other Sadhus and the langur monkeys.
“Hello!”, he said. “Hello!” I replied.
“Come, drink chai?” he asked. Lots of things ran through my head, fast. Like…is this safe? Is the street Chai going to make me sick? What does he really want?
But I am Alysha Brilla. Ask my family. I am adventurous…sometimes to a fault.
So the Sadhu bought me Chai and we sat, drinking it. A doobie (marijuana ciggy) was being passed along the Sadhu and Langur monkey-lined bench. I gratefully declined. I was already tripping out (in a good way).
We talked about where I was from and I asked him questions about himself as well. We then took a walk through the market. We spent two hours walking and talking about life. He showed me the Ganga. He expressed his happiness and love for the universe. His name, he said, was “Krishna”.
Six days of a week were spent doing 4 hours of asana, learning yogic philosophy, physical anatomy and studying the techniques and benefits of yoga. We ate Sattvic food; free of ginger/garlic and not too spicy- a style of food that is said to be balancing to all three doshas (physical dispositions according to Ayurvedic science). That didn’t stop me, though, from trying out some restaurants in town. The food was amazing and my favourite thing about India are the Tali’s; a meal consisting of several small metal bowls filled with various curries, spiced vegetables, rice, salad, chutneys and raita.
Rishikesh is a vegetarian city. Cows are sacred and they roam freely, having respects paid to them by being touched and prayed to by the occasional Hindu. While I’m not Hindu, I’ve always loved/had an affinity for cows, so I was in heaven. (When I say I have always ‘loved’ cows, I mean that I collected well over 50 cow ‘stuffed animals’ and paraphenelia as an adolescent and every time we passed a cow in Canada I would get so excited and sometimes start crying. I was strange in Canada, but in Rishikesh (and other parts of India), expressing love for cows is a sacred act.
Another interesting resident of Rishikesh are the monkeys. There are two types; the terrifying, shit-disturbing, ADHD brown monkeys who will steal your things, hiss at you, jump on your head (yeah, I saw it happen) and spend all day causing trouble. Watch out for these guys. They stole my cookies on numerous occasions.
The second type of monkey you’ll see in Rishikesh is the Langur monkey. These are highly evolved, beautiful and peaceful creatures. They meditate. Literally. They sit with the Sadhu’s and share food. From simply observing the two types of monkeys, it dawned on me that similarly, humans come in a wide range of psychological/emotional/spiritual evolutions.
Clothes in Rishikesh are hand-washed. So, that’s what I did. It made me wear the same things more frequently and really appreciate a clean piece of clothing. It was nice to hang the clothes to dry in the sun, to look out at the cascading rooftops and see the colourful fabrics blowing in the valley’s breeze.
The Ganga is a beautiful river which runs through and feeds the bodies, hearts and souls of the Indian people. Its mouth is just a few hours North of Rishikesh and its waters flow from an ancient iceberg. It is a holy river; thought to represent a feminine, goddess energy. Some Hindus will bathe in it to purify themselves. The ashes of their loved ones are released into it. Within it is held the spirit of India and its water is used in many ceremonies and rituals. One of those being Pooja. Along its sandy shores in Rishikesh, children will sell cups containing flowers, incense and a flame for one to perform Pooja. For ten rupees, one can make an offering to the river, and in turn, to the overall creator of their life. It’s a sign of respect and gratitude. I performed Pooja several times on the Ganga. It’s a beautiful, personal and cathartic ritual, letting go of attachment and truly acknowledging ones good fortune to have a beating heart.
When I was packing for India and leaving freezing-cold Canada, I debated whether or not to bring my ‘hardcore’ Canadian winter boots. I knew it would be cooler in the North of India, but I also knew that the boots might look ridiculous. I brought them, thankfully. While I did receive curious and admiring stares from the town residents, they served to keep my feet warm and aided the mountain climbing my group did one afternoon. We climbed up to see an Ashram being built. It had an incredible view and I was literally and emotionally on top of the world.
If you’ve ever dated me, you’ll know that while I am afraid of very few things, the Kitchen is one of them. You’ve probably cooked for me…daily. You’ve even probably said to me “Look, Alysha…cooking is easy; you just have to know the basic principals” while my eyes glazed over and I ran to my guitar and started playing it.
Well…I’ve broken the 26 year spell of entering the Kitchen only to bake chocolate chip cookies (which, I’m pretty awesome at. We’re all good at ONE thing, right?). Admittedly, Indian food is my favourite. I can likely credit that to growing up eating curry and also being half Indian. Not to mention, it’s delicious. I like spicy food, also. So while in Rishikesh, with cooking lessons advertised frequently outside of shops, I decided to give it a go. I ended up in one family’s flat; learning how to make Aloo Mutter (Potato and Pea curry), Shahi Paneer (Cashew cream curry with paneer), Butter-Paneer (think butter-chicken, but vegetarian), chapatti, roti, naan and aloo parantha. Yes, you may salivate and yes, the reaction elicited by a Kitchen is now…excitement.
The Beatles. You know them. You may love them. They meditated and wrote their “White Album” in Rishikesh, at a beautiful Ashram that is now closed, but accessible with ahem bribes. So…to the Ashram I went. I’m a musician. A sensitive one. As I entered the premises, I started crying. I was very emotional. The thing that gets me is my deep belief in spirit/energy. Its cultivation and lifespan is infinite. So though the Beatles were there over 50 years ago, I could feel the energy of the space strongly. I imagined, as I walked through its pastel-painted cottages, an evening with the fire lit when Lennon and McCartney were jamming and came up with “Blackbird”. I reflected on the times I’ve been songwriting and how I personally feel that at a moment of inception, I’m not the one writing the song. It’s a combination of atomic memory from every experience I’ve had in my life, as well as (I think), divine intervention. Because for me, songwriting feels like I’m jamming with spirit.
There was beautiful artwork and graffiti lining the walls of the main building; done by the thousands of people who had come to see the Ashram after it closed. The group I was with and I painted a little mountain and put our names around it followed by the Beatles quote “All you need is love”.
Studying yogic philosophy is interesting and all the while, familiar. The principal ideas are now being affirmed scientifically. The breathe, for instance, is a consistent metric of the physiological state of a human. Yoga includes breathing practices to manipulate the breathe and in turn, positively affect the mental and physical state.
On a more esoteric level, I’ve always believed in reincarnation, and that’s a huge theme in Hinduism and for most Indian yogi’s. Being immersed in a dialogue about the wonders of the universe was so affirming and enriching for me. I felt like I was finally having substantial conversations with other human beings…I believe that we all ask ourselves the same things. “What am I doing here?” “What are humans doing here?” “What can we do to improve our being on this planet for ourselves and the planet?”
I’ve wondered these things throughout my life, even and especially as an adolescent. Had I had yoga then, I think I would have coped much better with the circumstantial tali I had in front of me. That said, I believe all the pain I’ve experienced in my life has helped me grow, become more compassionate, and lead me to this beautiful point I am at right now. One of my teachers said “None of us are perfect. If you were perfect, you’d be dead, because god would say ‘ok, they’re done!’. We are on this earth to learn.”
I really believe that, from the deepest part of my heart. India has affirmed for and taught me so many things; amongst them the most important being that no matter what happens, to have faith that things will improve, because the belief in possibilities is what actually makes them happen. First we must believe, then we can act upon that. Believe it fully. Wholeheartedly. With every ounce of precious imagination you have.
Now I’m equipped with yoga teacher certification, it’s the beginning of my opportunity to share yoga with all of the people I love, and with people I don’t yet know I love. I, of course, will continue to study holistic healing modalities throughout my life. It’s in my nature.
This is a reflection of my first trip to India; a land full of beautiful colours, people and beliefs. India; a good half of my genetic lineage and a country that has impressed itself into me forever.
Questions from you about my trip!
Angela Schreiner: What eastern wisdom would you most hope you can share with your western friends?
Angela! Eastern wisdom is so rich and so ancient. I think that’s why it holds so much power. One of the largest themes overlying yogic philosophy is the theme of karma. Karma in the sense that for every action there is a reaction. One thought leads to another, and when we can learn to control our thoughts, we can learn to control our actions. Karma in the sense that the way we treat others comes back to us, not only through them doing good deeds for us in return, but that positivity is put into the world and we all share the world.
Jared Kenshin Cumberlander: I can imagine it must have been an overall enlightening experience that you had/are having. I do have a question: In what ways would you say your time in India changed you as a person and maybe even as an artist? Was there a specific moment when you felt that change or was it reflecting on the totality of your odyssey in India that you've noticed an evolution within yourself?
Jared, my time in India has certainly changed me both as an artist and person. As an artist, I’ve been opened more to classical Indian music; which is so interesting to me. I actually took a couple of music lessons while there, and realized how much improvisation there is. It’s actually pretty…jazzy. I was writing songs almost every day. This is after having not written for 5 months. So; it was very inspiring for me. Though I wasn’t necessarily writing about what I was seeing around me, the experience was stirring enough to bring emotions and questions to the surface. To bring me…lyrics…things I wanted to say.
There was a specific moment when I felt a change. I think it was 4 weeks in…I noticed how different my thoughts had become. I was thinking much more about life, the universe, love…things on a broader scale than I had previously. Before I’d go to bed, instead of thinking about things I needed to do, I’d be composing songs in my head and imagining recording and performing them. I felt like I was where I was supposed to be and how I knew was that songs were coming to me. I felt open. Also, I began to felt and still feel very loving and fearless. I have nothing to lose, so I can say anything. I can sing about what’s really going on in this heart and head. That, to me, is the best feeling.
Garrett Phillips: It must be bizarre to basically look like everyone else around you for a change!
Garrett! Yes, it is quite awesome! Actually…most people here think I am of Indian descent, but that I was born outside of India (likely because of the way I dress and gesture). It is so cool, though, to feel a strong sense of being welcomed. Some speak Hindi to me right off the bat, some don’t. The looks are really funny, though, from a lot of people. Curious, curious looks. It's interesting, also, trying to explain to people there that my dad and his parents were born in Tanzania, but he is Gujurati. Some know about the British colonization affecting Indian migration and some don't.
Kathryn Brillinger: What are your cultural surprises and delights?
My cultural surprises are…how quickly Hindi is spoken! It’s a fast language. I was surprised by how much food people like to offer you. People are very hospitable in their homes. I have been delighted by the adorable children…and of course, the vegetarianism. It is so cool.
Ali Baba: Did you hire a guide for your trip?
Hi Ali, no I didn’t. I was at a school, so pretty stationary the whole time, but I’d recommend it if you were going to a bigger city like Delhi!
Marianne Peters: Did you visit any Ashrams?
Hello Marianne. J….I visited “Devi’s Music Ashram”, which is an amazing space that conducts music lessons, yoga, cooking, group meditations…it’s incredible. If you get the chance to go to Rishikesh, visit it!
Ralph Spoltore: I need to hear about the food. Any great creative meals you can tell us about?
The food is incredible, Ralph. My favourite are the tali…and aloo parantha, which is a flatbread with spiced potato inside. Here is a good recipe: