Feature Stories Campus Events

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

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.

More about Bella:

Hometown: Akron, Ohio

Major: Business Administration

Minor: Studio Art (Photography)

Extracurricular Involvement: 

  • Development Intern
  • WLUR
  • SEAL
  • Mock Trial
  • LAUNCH
  • Campus Activities
  • Alpha Delta Pi

Off-Campus Experiences:

  • Study Abroad Spring 2015 – Photography in Paris
  • Semester Abroad in Madrid Fall 2015

Why did you apply for the Johnson Opportunity Grant?

The ability to create my own project was amazing. I was able to combine three of my favorite things: yoga, photography and travel.

How did your work under the grant apply to your studies at W&L?

My experience has applied to my studies in a multitude of unexpected ways. Academically, it most closely related to my photography minor. I took photographs and have created a self-published book with 140 images. The knowledge I gained at Vinyasa Yoga School also contributed to creating balance in my work, study and social lives, increased my mental flexibility and ability to look at things from new perspectives, and to deal with stress management more effectively. I have been given a new perspective on life, which has changed my goals and direction of my work, studies and post-graduation plans.

What was the most unexpected aspect of your grant experience?

I pictured a relaxing, Zen, trouble-free month for myself, but it was anything but. It vacillated between extremely high highs and low lows. My friends joked about how lucky I was (and I am!) to have received a grant to “go do yoga in India.” That is what I did, but it was in the context of three grueling physical classes a day, along with philosophy, anatomy and physiology, six days a week, beginning at 6 a.m. It was in conjunction with having a hostel room infested with termites that grew dimensionally out of the wall, and one night having hundreds and hundreds of swarming bugs in my room, horror-movie style. I was the absolute sickest I have ever been for 10 days without access to a doctor, and pulled my hamstring. I learned a lot about problem-solving and remaining positive.

Post-Graduation Plans: I’ll be working as a wildlife photographer at Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary on Kangaroo Island, teaching yoga in Melbourne, scuba diving in Malaysia, and volunteering in Thailand and Indonesia.  After traveling, I will come back and get a real job (I promise, Mom)!

Favorite W&L Memory: I loved studying abroad during Spring Team with Professor Christa Bowden for our Photography in Paris class. We went to markets, museums and river tours on the Siene, re-created Atget photos, and explored. My group of two photo students and two history students did a project on Parisian street art, and it was amazing to learn about the modern artists and how the street art movement developed.

Favorite Class: Professor Bill Oliver’s short-story fiction class. We study examples of short stories and then write our own. The class meets at LexCo to critique each other’s work. I absolutely loved it, and recommend everyone take it. It provided me with a foundation to write a novel with Professor Oliver’s guidance, which has been an awesome experience.

Favorite Campus or Lexington Landmark: Rockbridge Regional Library — no one goes there, and it is my secret gem for studying. It’s a great way to feel integrated with the town.

What’s your personal motto? Everything happens for a reason. Be nice. Love everyone. Work hard. Live your truth (be yourself).

What’s your favorite song right now? I really struggle with the concept of a favorite, I can’t pick just one thing. I’m currently listening to a lot of ZHU, Russ, Alex Aioni and Glass Animals.

Best place to eat in Lexington? What do you order? Napa Thai. Panang Curry or Drunken Noodles with tofu. James Dick has never been there, so everyone should peer-pressure him into experiencing their amazing food.

What’s your passion?
Life.