By Lydia Odegard
Wherever I have practiced yoga in the U.S., it is unspoken etiquette to leave your phones outside, to whisper if you absolutely have to speak to others in class and to fully dedicate yourself to what is happening in the room—more specifically in your body and mind—and nowhere else. People seem to let a giant breath out as they enter the yoga studio, knowing that they can escape from the other wise in-their-face emails, texts, kids, conversations, work, noise and other potential stressors.
One of my favorite parts about my study abroad program in Varanasi, India was the opportunity to study and practice yoga and meditation with an amazing teacher, Smriti ji. Not surprisingly, however, I found that the lack of noise etiquette in Indian culture transferred also to my yoga practice. I knew that in Varanasi I would not find the almost silent atmosphere I found in the U.S., considering the unceasing chorus of bells, horns, bhajans, voices, engines, pressure cooker whistles, etc. that hums in the background virtually every hour of the day. I was a bit surprised, though, when Smriti ji would submit to her generic Nokia ringtone in the middle of teaching. Her behavior initially struck me as unprofessional—why would she interrupt class just to answer a casual call, let alone not bother to switch her phone on silent? As my classes progressed, so did Smriti ji’s patterns of answering phone calls and opening the door to knocks. She would frequently leave the door ajar, inviting in the loud echoes of bicycle rickshaw bells and the drone of a postcard vendor’s voice.
After my first few classes and an understanding that Smirit ji’s behavior was not due to her being impolite but rather a result of cultural differences, I learned to chuckle when she would pick up her phone and announce into the receiver, “Haan, ham class le rahe hain! I am teaching a class right now!” One day while meditating during a class, the chiming of Smriti ji’s phone passed through one ear and the chorus of street traffic through the other. I was in a stable enough mental state that they were not bothering me. The sounds just felt like part of my practice, noises that were happening around me but didn’t seem distracting. I was immediately reminded of a meditation session I attended in Madison, during which a group of people got together on a Saturday morning and quietly sipped tea together. To preface the meditation, our leader encouraged us to think of the potential people entering and joining as not a distraction, but rather as an interaction. I have carried that phrase with me ever since.
Previously I had always believed that I needed to be in a “distraction-free” spot in order to be in a meditative state. While it may be easiest to meditate in a quiet space, ultimately a state of equanimity is possible anywhere. Though I still often felt frustrated by and wanted to escape the perpetual sound waves infiltrating my eardrums every place I went in Varanasi, practicing meditation within it allowed me practice finding serenity within the hodgepodge of stimulation. I gradually began to think of these distractions not so much as “noise” but rather “sound,” understanding that the goal is to embody a state of peace not just in a yoga studio or on top of a mountain in a silent abyss, but also to gracefully embrace the potential chaos of your daily life.
To see more photography by Hailey Kieltyka, click here.