India: yoga, monks, fitness and world peace

The first time I ever wrote myself a list of life goals, around age 16, my most unusual goal was to meditate with monks. I envisioned myself gathering knowledge from multiple university degrees in various subjects and then going somewhere like Tibet to spend a month or so meditating in a bare bones monastery. During that time of silence, peacefulness and focus I would be able to apply my knowledge to solve one of humankind’s great problems like world hunger. After I outlined the basic details of this to my parents, they pointed out that girls aren’t allowed to live with monks and that perhaps I could go to a nunnery. Yikes. The thought of living in a nunnery for any period of time still scares me and definitely brought into question my understanding of what a monastery is in the first place. My plans were put on hold.

This life goal sat at the back of my mind for years. As time passed and yoga continued to grow in popularity in the Western world, I started to hear about ashrams in India where anyone could go to practice yoga and meditation. This sounded like just what I needed – and with a bonus of yoga! Yoga vacations are now so much in demand that they are really quite simple to arrange.


Yoga pose statues at the ashram in India

When deciding to quit my steady job to travel around the world, it was obvious to me that this was the optimal time to achieve this goal. Never mind the fact that my one university degree in actuarial science was not the right subject matter for solving the world’s problems. I figured that a few weeks of meditation should provide me with some sort of clarity even if it were only a new personal insight.

It’s important to note that prior to this trip, I’d only briefly toyed with the idea of meditation. I admired those who meditated daily and imagined that they started every day at peace with themselves and with what the day ahead would bring. I hoped that this yoga vacation I’d planned for myself would help me figure out meditation and bring me more inner strength. Well, it was a great idea, but on this trip at least, I utterly failed at meditation. My biggest hurdles were physical injuries: one sustained prior to the start of my trip and a new one as a result of my Himalayan trekking. Both these injuries made sitting on the ground uncomfortable and at times painful. Despite my best efforts, I just couldn’t hold a comfortable position long enough to meditate.


Holding my best meditation pose

Now for my silver lining: the good news was that all the yoga I was doing, combined with my previously assigned physiotherapy exercises and my knowledge of what yoga exercises would hinder vs help, was accelerating the recovery path for my injuries. On my physiotherapy path, I’d already vowed to reform my approach to physical fitness to be more holistic and it was my time in the ashram that helped me develop a daily habit toward this goal.


Remnants of the ashram fire ceremony

Instead of coming out of my yoga vacation with a daily practice of meditation and insight into solving the world’s problems, I came out with a daily yoga practice and a renewed focus on recovery and keeping by body healthy and fit. If you don’t have your health, what do you have? My time in an ashram may have resulted in more of a physical than spiritual experience, but it was exactly what I needed at the time.

Pakistan: bravado and contempt at the Wagah border ceremony

Before starting my round-the-world (RTW) trip, I happened upon Anthony Bourdain’s show Places Unknown. The show explores the unique culture and foods of countries that still contain mystique for North Americans. The first episode I saw was about the North-West of India and I loved the show immediately. The highlight of that episode was the Wagah border ceremony (border between Pakistan and India) but I knew that with my limited time planned for India, I would not be able to see it.

Although I knew my Pakistan trip would take me to Lahore, I didn’t realize until arrival that it was so close to the border crossing. I was so happy to find out that my local friend had already planned to take me! Seeing this event in person was one of the highlights of my RTW trip so far.


Wagah Pakistani border guard

The Wagah border ceremony is a daily ritual where both militaries lower their flags at night to close the border and put on a great show of contempt toward the other in the process. Wagah is the only land border crossing between India and Pakistan and though few people use it to actually cross over, every day large crowds gather on each side to chant and cheer for their respective country. The military guards dress in ceremonial garb and they put on a great show of contempt trying to outdo the other country with a strong march, solid high kicks and chest puffing bravado. Every motion is exaggerated and the crowds love it.


Wagah border flag lowering

The ceremony includes intimidating drumming and a shouting competition between the two groups. There are even cheerleaders to rile up the crowd. The Pakistanis are particularly proud of the fact that their guards tower above the Indians guards in height. Pakistan is known for having some of the tallest men in the world!


Wagah border ceremony cheerleaders

The border line between the two countries was drawn in 1947 amid much controversy and violence and the hour-long ceremony has happened daily since 1959. The ceremonial tradition was recently marred by a suicide bomb attack in November of this year on the Pakistani side. Around 60 attendees died in the blast and over 100 more were injured. A few different terrorist organizations have claimed responsibility for the blast which only served to confuse the issue and public opinion holds that the reason is still unknown. Security has been heavily increased since which gave me peace of mind when I attended. Considering the recency of the blast and the extra hoops security puts the attendees through, its sad but understandable that attendance on the Pakistani side is lower than it used to be. From what I could see, the India side was packed and the Pakistani side was half empty, but I’m told the Pakistani side used to overflow regularly and have consistently greater numbers than the India side.


Wagah border ceremony: Pakistan side

I loved attending this one-of-a-kind ceremony and seeing the crowd riled up with national pride. I would recommend it to all visitors to Lahore.

Would you attend the Wagah border ceremony given the recent attack and heightened security?