The Columns

Creating Balance: Isabella Sparhawk ’17 Isabella Sparhawk used her Johnson Opportunity Grant to spend five weeks in India, studying vinyasa yoga and photojournalism.

— by on May 17th, 2017

As the sun rose over the Himalayan Mountains, I rose from the thin mattress of my bed in Hostel Plaza Gangotri. A typical day in Rishikesh, Uttarkhand, India, began at 5:15 a.m. I dressed conservatively, with my knees and shoulders covered and my hair pulled back. I walked down the four flights of stairs of my hostel, past the sleeping security staff boys, and made my way down the narrow dirt path sandwiched between two buildings. Sleepy cows decorated the street, dozing against the walls, sometimes accompanied by wild monkeys and wild dogs. I joined the 11 other students in my small group at 5:30 a.m. for tea and fruit (bananas, mangoes or lychees) before we made our way down the one main road to our yoga hall. This was my favorite time of the day. The usually loud and bustling main street was quiet, with shop owners dusting off their carts and children running barefoot down the street, selling us pictures they had drawn on notebook paper.

Our first class began at 6 a.m. with Helen, our Vinyasa Theory teacher from the Philippines. Vinyasa is a style of yoga that has a constant flow connecting the postures. In this class we learned about the proper positioning, adjustments and assists for different asanas (postures), how to structure a class, and how to modify poses to fit all skill levels. At 7 a.m. we had what we affectionately called “Death by Vikas,” our strenuous Vinyasa class led by our instructor Vikas, who we were convinced was also a male model. He took us through rigorous exercises and poses — many of which I had never encountered after three years of yoga practice. He pushed our flexibility, strength, confidence and resolve, and taught us many difficult poses while laughing at our pain, telling us we had it easy compared to his teachers, who would whip him with sticks if he did something incorrectly.

Our next class was Pranayama (breath therapy) with Mahesh, one of my favorite teachers, who was youthfully hilarious and grandfatherly wise. He also taught Yoga Therapy, during which we learned about acupressure, oil applications, stress-relief massages and emotional-release therapy. Some of the practices we did brought me and the entire class to tears — either from releasing emotional pain or from uncontrollable laughter.

Who knew so much could be accomplished before breakfast? At 9:30 a.m., my group and I sat down to our usual meal of porridge and toast, provided to us by the kind staff members who worked in the hostel. Sometimes we were surprised with potato sandwiches (think grilled cheese but with mashed potatoes instead of cheese) or lo mien noodles.

After breakfast, we had Philosophy class, where we learned about Yogic principles such as chakras, the origin of Sanskrit language, the yogic diet, reincarnation, prana, gunas, the eight limbs of yoga and much more. Next was Anatomy and Physiology with Kushal, an instructor from the Indian National Army. We learned about the skeletal, endocrine, digestive, muscular and nervous systems, and how all of these relate to and affect the yogic practice.

“There were so many colors, people, landscapes and animals it was a photographer’s dream. My camera acted as a tool to understand and bridge the newness around me.”

When morning classes were completed, we had lunch, which was always rice with a curry of some sort, chapatti (a whole wheat flat bread) and vegetables. We then had a two-hour break. I would typically spend my breaks walking around the city, going into crystal or fabric shops, getting Reiki, writing in my journal, reading from our textbook, studying, sitting by the river with friends, and taking photographs wherever I went. There were so many colors, people, landscapes and animals, it was a photographer’s dream. My camera acted as a tool to understand and bridge the newness around me. As a blonde, I stood out, and countless people stared at me and approached me to take pictures with them, whipping out selfie sticks and pressing their faces against mine. At first it was overwhelming and strange: Once someone handed me their baby, speaking in a different language, smiling and pointing at their camera phone. However, these interactions became a great way to start a conversation and ask if in return I could take a photograph of them or their children.

After exploring during break, we had our third yoga class of the day, Hatha, a slower form of yoga that focuses heavily on the breath and returning to a base pose, with Sarita. Sarita was our “Rishikesh mom” and is a fabulous woman who told us many stories about growing up in Delhi. She survived tuberculosis, sexist bosses, a bad marriage and having a child at 17, and now works and lives on her own — rare for women in India. She also taught us Shatkarma, cleansing techniques. During Shatkarma we used a neti pot to cleanse our nose, threaded a rubber tube from our nose to our throat, and had to drink and vomit salt water to cleanse our stomachs.

Our next class was Meditation with Sanjeev, a gentle old man who rode a motorcycle and was always dressed in pristine, head-to-toe white. We could never figure out how he kept his white shoes spotless after walking on the dirt paths that stained our own sandals. We did different forms of meditation: prayer, group, chant, laughing and movement. Our final class was a dancing meditation. I learned to waltz from my Austrian friend, and Sanjeev stood from his usual quiet seated position and broke into our dance circle, wildly swaying his arms and shaking his hips. Sanjeev also taught creative meditation. He said that when we express ourselves creatively through something we love, we are freeing our mind and living in the present moment, such as in dance, painting, singing or photography. Each Saturday class, we had a creative circle where every person had to share one of their gifts with the class. Students shared detailed drawings, told stories about legends from their home country, sang songs in their native tongue, and gave classmates origami. It was fabulous to illuminate how every person has so many talents. I also appreciated our simple meditations, when we quietly sat on the rooftop of our building where we could see the sun set over the Ganges River, and be enveloped by the calming brush of the breeze.

Following meditation, we had dinner, a meal similar to lunch. I loved sitting around at dinner and listening to everyone tell stories about where they came from and where they had traveled. We were an interesting group: John the Aussie with two cute kids, who grew avocado and apricot trees; Gudi from Vienna, who spent the past year living in France; Bri, who sold her life in Wisconsin to travel the world solo; Daniella from Puerto Rico, who spent the past six months traveling Southeast Asia; and Topaz, the professional ballerina, who had the kindest smile. It was inspiring to see how people lived their lives and made me realize the potential that life offers if you go outside and reach it.

This was a typical day in my life for the five weeks I was in India. I was able to learn and experience so much, and meet and love so many beautiful people. I am exceedingly grateful for the Johnson Opportunity Grant, and can confidently say this experience will benefit me in many aspects of my life. I am excited to share what I have learned through teaching yoga classes at Center of Gravity Studio in Lexington, and by sharing the photography book I created.