6 frequently asked questions before starting your journey in yoga 🌸

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It’s been over 2 years since I’ve gotten utterly smitten by the yoga bug. From the first time I rolled out a mat, till today where the universe has gifted me with the skills to guide others with their firsts, this roller-coaster journey has been nothing short of spectacular. However, over the course of myriad classes(as a student), there were a lot of junctures where I was brimming with questions, most of which I should have asked but didn’t. Interestingly, as my class experiences progressed to a level where I could view sessions from the other end of the spectrum(as a teacher), answers for a majority of the erstwhile confounding questions effortlessly materialized.

So yes, what better way to celebrate this day than to shed some clarity into this magical world. As the title goes, this piece will be a compilation of a few of these NFAQs (Not-so-Frequently-Asked-Questions) which might pop inside a novice yoga practitioner.

1.What items do I need to start yoga?

If you are planning to start a steady practice, investing in a good quality mat is essential. Many poses require good gripping and many others require cushioning for your joints. These criteria can be satisfied only by a proper yoga mat and not a makeshift one with blankets or sheets. Other basic necessities are – a bottle of water (will be used ‘just-in-case’), and a sweat-absorbent towel (will definitely be of use). Forget fancy props like ropes, stretch bands and blocks for the moment. Lets first get your body groovin’!

Of course, this goes without saying -The absolute must-haves for starting yoga is an effervescent attitude, an open mind, and limitless courage to dive deeper into your internal spheres.

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2. What should I eat before a class? Or should I eat at all?

It is highly recommended to do yoga on an empty stomach, i.e after major portion of your digestive cycle is complete. Average time to digest a meal ranges from 3-5 hours. So, it would be ideal to start your session with a minimum gap of 3-4 hours from your last meal. To avoid this confusion of timing your sessions, it would be better if you can squeeze some time in the wee-hours of the morning. Your stomach will be empty, you’ll take in the fresh morning air and the best part is that you’ll be fully-charged and running around like that Energizer bunny, whizzing past your routine activities with a new-found gusto!

All said and done, if you still feel the need to grab a bite before a session, take a light snack, such as fruits or nuts (but that too with a minimum gap of 10-15 minutes before starting). Your poor tummy will cry out loud during the contorted postures if you don’t pay heed to this advice.

3. Can I keep my phone nearby? What if I get important calls?

Despite popular belief, our smartphones are not our third-limb, so they need not accompany us to the session. This time is exclusively for you and you only. So what if you miss some important calls? Is it more important than the time specifically reserved to enhance your mental and physical health? Wailing phones during sessions completely defeats the whole point of doing yoga. This time is meant to tune out all external distractions so as to aid you to establish that subtle communication with your body which is very sensitive to mental and physical disturbances. Keep your phones away, or in silent mode (or both!) and keep them electronic cries from ruining your super special ‘me’-time.

4. What kind of clothes should I wear?

Don’t let Instagram fool you into mandatory trapping yourself into branded sportswear to perform a session. If your clothes are ill-fitting, restrict your movement, or if they make you conscious throughout of whether they are going to stay put, then its time to head to the changing room. When choosing the right kind of yoga-wear, comfort should take precedence above all. Opt for moderately fitting clothes made of breathable fabric which is neither too tight (else your breathing could get restricted), nor too loose(else your clothes might not do the job they are meant to do!). Yoga is all about accepting, embracing and ultimately celebrating your self, and this applies to your physical self as well. So pay heed to what your body feels most comfortable in, for it to express itself unobstructed.

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5. Is it okay to frequently run out of breaths during sequences? Is it okay to not be able to hold inhale-exhale counts as per instructions?

Of course yes. It is completely alright to feel out-of-breath while performing asanas. But instead of worrying about whether you have reduced lung capacity, just focus on taking deep and slow fuller breaths through your nose (unless otherwise specifically instructed) while doing the asanas. It is but natural to want to hold your breath while doing few balancing or strengthening poses, but it is best if you fight off this urge and breathe steadily, for conscious and aligned breathing is the foundation of all yogic practices. In sequences (such as Suryanamaskar), if you feel that you aren’t able to keep up with the instructor’s counts, don’t fret. Take your time and try doing the postures to the best of your abilities. Proper alignment, technique and breath-work is way more crucial than rushing through the sequence merely to keep up with the class.

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6. Is there risk of injury?

Let me give it to you straight. Yes. There is as much risk of injury with yoga as with any other physical activity. But it is dependent upon a host of factors, few of them being:

  • the style of yoga,
  • the complexity of the pose,
  • your instructor’s experience and expertise,
  • whether you have an instructor at all (i.e – you practice on your own),
  • your personal health, fitness and strength levels,
  • your weak areas (due to overuse or prior injury),
  • whether you have warmed-up adequately.

If you are a beginner, I cannot stress enough on developing your practice under the guidance of an experienced teacher. The scope for potential injury shoots up if you decide to tackle tricky poses on your own or from a YT video. Trust me, many an easy-looking pose could actually be pretty intricate. And the nuances to help you get it right can only be offered by a person who has done that very pose a gazillion times. I often joke to my students that if you are not feeling challenged in a particular pose, chances are you aren’t doing it right;)

 

[About the Author]
Prathi Balasubramanian
Prathi Balasubramanian is a yoga instructor from Chennai. She’s a budding vegan chef, depth-of-field shots aficionado, arbitrary doodlist, macrocosm freak and basically just a human who prefers peace over pandemonium. She is a certified instructor from International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center. She also completed her fellowship in Sustainable Living from Bhoomi College and currently resides in Bangalore.

Check out her blog site here: https://prathibalasubramanian.wordpress.com/

From EcoChimp:

Prathiba was my class mate in Bhoomi College from 2018-19. I have had the wonderful privilege of attending her yoga sessions in the morning. It helped me kick start my confidence to go ahead and try doing it on my own. I probably wasn’t the best student but she was a wonderful teacher – calm and patient!

I hope you enjoyed the article and please do share with those who are looking to start or have started doing yoga. Of course all views and tips expressed here are not mine so if you have anything to share, comment below.

Happy Yoga-ing!

Purpose in Paradise – Understanding existence on top of the world (Zangla)

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What is travel?
Travel is quite fad at the moment. We are in the midst of the FOMO generation where experiencing everything the world has to offer is a norm (without thinking of the consequences of it).  Along with that documenting it of course. I am doing it right now by writing this. So in some sense I am a part of this as well.

Social media has accentuated the need to flaunt the list of countries, places along with the out of the world experiences (some are pretty cool btw) but mostly inundated with pictures of food, drinks, castles, completing bucket lists and the usual touristy schbang.

I’m not against it but in fact recommend everyone to travel by all means. It’s the purpose I want to highlight. Travel in the modern age has become meaningless, an escape (from one’s own reality or maybe situation). A fad to follow. This is my perspective and of course who am I to decide how you spend your down time. But I want to try and show the other side too!

Travel can also be filled with real purpose. A real need to understand a culture from its essence. For me personally, I like all the beautiful, artistic, cool, hip and the ‘in’ things of places, but what I always seek is the ground realities, the struggles, the real life behind the facades. That goes for locals and the travelers I meet. It is my travel philosophy.

I’ve always maintained that travel has been my greatest teacher and still continues to be. It gives me renewed purpose every single time.

This is finding my purpose in paradise. This is my journey to Zangla

Leh Lo!

In case you aren’t up to speed, I had started on a journey in the middle of 2017. If you want to know more about it, read my previous blog article. It will help you understand this article better.

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Leh Bazaar (Image: Edina Kovacs)

So after two exciting days acclimatizing to Leh, it was time to move on and head towards our real purpose- reaching Zangla. So far Tilli (the Italian girl), Edina (the Hungarian girl) and I were travelling from Delhi. We were joined by Lea (an Austrian girl) along with a German dude whose name I just can’t remember.

So we had figured a way to go by car, 5 of us pooled in for a taxi which would take us from Leh to Padum.

India in general is pretty affordable in terms of travelling locally but mountainous areas are always more expensive so be prepared always. If you can hitch hike, then that’s the best of course. I met this crazy Argentinian dude (who is a friend now) who hitch hiked to Ladakh in  just his shorts and a jhola of belongings! He is a friend that I will tell you about in the future.

So off we went, the five of us (Tilli, Edina, Dawa, Janos and me) deeply engaged in conversations and immersing ourselves in the marvelous sights to see. Music and sights of the mountain. these are the moments you immerse in the others around. You get to know them just a little better, their likes, wants, pet peeves and more!

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Tilli, Janos and I (Image: Edina)

Once we crossed Ladakh into Kargil district, things changed a bit. At least from my perception. I have never felt like an outsider in my country but Kargil was a very alien experience for me. As an Indian that is aware of the Kargil war with Pakistan, it evokes strange feelings into the mind and heart. A sense of unease and discomfort for me. Remnants of a turbulent past leaves scars on people’s faces and their minds. You felt it in their looks towards you.

Kargil district seemed like another place altogether. Magical scenery of course, but just something so different about the people. I wish I had the chance to stay and experience more about the culture but alas as long as divisions exists this will not be possible. I wrote this article at a time when the problems were at an okay level. The things that have happened in the last month has made me think even more now. Media bias, political machinery and jingoistic sentiments will never let it be the land of peace. Somehow though I feel these situations have maintained the pristine beauty which otherwise could havemade it like another Himachal (but now things have turned, let’s see what happens). Sadly I have no pictures from Kargil town as it was a really brief stop.

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Image: Brigitta Kovacs

So as the norm in these parts, the checkposts became more frequent. More armed soldiers at every point.  Although we did break through one taxi check post cause they wanted to stop our driver (local taxi politics!)

The night was spent in an obscure village which was not used to seeing travelers from other lands. All the children in the village gathered around the homestay. It was amazing just to interact and play with them. We were the attraction of the village for that evening. So beautiful!

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Welcome to Zanskar!

The next day’s travel seemed the longest and the roughest. Roads had mostly stopped once we left the Ladakh region and now we were getting our backsides accustomed to the ups and downs of stony, ricky roads.

Finally we reached Padum in the evening. We were greeted by a bunch of warm Hungarians and Ladakhis. This is where I met one of the warmest persons ever. His name is Raju and he is from Baltistan (that exists across the border). He has been associated with Csomas Room Foundation for almost 10 years. He is a professional trek guide, so if you want to have the best trekking experience in Zanskar Valley, he is the man!

We were ferried in the backs of trucks to Zangla in the absolute darkness of night. In a hurry and scurry, we were allotted our homes. We were staying with various families in the village

Zangla Babey!

I was sharing a room with two other Hungarians. I barely got the chance to speak the first night. All I did was sleep after lights out.

Weary, I slowly open my eyes the next day. Have you ever imagined waking up in heaven? Well this was the closest. I looked out the window and could see a mountain right outside my room. I felt on top of the world, finally months of eager anticipation brought me here. I was still pinching myself.

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View from my room in Zangla

It is difficult to convey the emotion of a soundless existence. For city folks like us, we are so habituated to be around sound, we forget the immense joy silence has. The air is crisp and still, life is still here in Zangla.

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Zangla Village (Image: Brigitta Kovacs)

I spent the first day recovering from the travels at my hosts home. Slowly immersing myself in the set up. Traditional Ladakhi homes made of mud with rooms with low doors. The outside is stark with simple lime based white paints and red/brown paint around the windows and roof lining. The inside is on the other end of the spectrum, brightly coloured walls, and curtains of every shade imaginable.

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Image: Brigitta Kovacs

If there was ever a representation of Ladakhi culture, this was a simple enough metaphor. Simple and elegant from the outside, rich and full of colour on the inside!

I was part of a second batch of volunteers that had arrived. There was already an initial batch that were together for the previous 2 weeks. Bonds are formed really quick on travels, especially in remote places and if you’re someone new, it can be equally difficult to become a part of this existing bond.

So in a sense, it took me sometime to integrate. Firstly cause I was not Hungarian (so language barrier with the volunteers)- them Hungarians just love speaking in their own language and are immensely proud of it. Secondly with the Ladakhis as well, of course language isn’t a barrier since they speak Hindi. I felt like I neither fit here nor there.

Despite that I did not let it be a barrier. I tried my hardest to get to know everyone, their language, their cultures, their ways and slowly but surely I was integrating myself into the daily life of Zangla.

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Image: Brigitta Kovacs

The initial first week was spent in getting to know the village, the palace and the surroundings better. There was a quick huddle every morning to understand the work for the day. About twice a week there were community meetings to discuss issues/thoughts at length.

These were my favorite part of the volunteering. This is where you actually got to understand the feelings of the volunteers and probably my first experience of community living.

I was baffled by it initially. Thinking that do we really need to discuss our inner thoughts and feelings in such detail. Little did I know, this was the stepping stone to where I am now. It laid the foundation for the future, where I would gain the ability to open up and sincerely talk about how I really felt.

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Yoga in the high Himalayas (Image: Edina)

Initially of course, you try and show only positives and showcase the best things around. I’ve moved far ahead from that now, where I can understand and embrace negatives as well. It gives a great balance!

Moving on, I was excited to learn that I was going to be a part of the volunteers working on the solar school building project in a nearby village called Tanpo.

Tanpo

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Walk from Tanpo to Zangla (Image: Edina)

The village was a 45 minute walk through the rock and dirt of the valley. As a volunteer, you’re expected to participate in all kinds of construction work. Different kinds of work included:

– Mud brick making
– Brick stacking
– Wood transportation
– Wood working (shaving, polishing)
– Mortar making
– Gathering Hay
– Basic plastering

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Getting plastered (Image: Brigitta)

The tasks look simple but cannot be underestimated. At that altitude any kind of heavy work becomes heavier. I dove head first into every kind of work. Of course all the higher skill based work was done by the master mason and carpenters.

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Adobe Brick Making (Image: Brigitta)

The solar school works on a simple yet effective technique. Complete south facing glass wall buildings that are painted black to catch and absorb as much of the sunlight as possible. Air pockets allow for air entry. Through the day, the air inside is heated, the air pockets are closed. Voila! Hot air keeps circulating inside. I’ve been told that this system can keep temperatures above zero degrees in months where temperatures drop way below zero.

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Tea Break (Image: Brigitta)

Simple yet effective, right? The entire project was completed in a space of 3 months with everyone from villagers, volunteers, foundation members working together.

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Tanpo passive Solar School (Image: Brigitta)

For those interested in the technicalities, check this out. The building was featured in Arch Daily
Watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4JJP7ZFjXo

The school will now allow children to stay in the village in the harsh cold winter months for education. The valley closes in the winter months. The villages collectively hire private teachers for the children. Earlier the children would walk through knee deep snow to Zangla village. They had classes in the village granaries but now they stay warm in the solar school. It doubles up as a community space too!


Csomas connection to Zangla

Despite being situated in one of the most remote parts of India, I always wondered why this foundation had such close links to this specific village. My answer was in the name itself. Csoma (pronounced as CH-oma) is the name of Alexander Csoma De Koros, a Hungarian philosophist travelling through India in 1823. He had reached Ladakh, specifically the Zanskar Valley where he befriended the King of Zangla who gave him a room in his palace.

Kőrösi_Csoma_SándorIt is in this palace that he began working on Tibetan-English/Hungarian dictionary. After a period of a year, he left for further travels in India ultimately passing away in Darjeeling in 1842.

He’s a revered personality in Hungary and that is what drew so many of them to visit these places of historic importance.

In late 2007, his room in Zangla Palace, identified by Ervin Baktay – a Hungarian orientalist following Csoma`s route a hundred years later – and the neighbouring shrine full of valuable relics, were in disrepair, on the verge of collapse.

In the summer of 2008, a group of architects decided to do some emergency interventions on Zangla Palace [source: Csoma’s Room official website]

 

Village Life in the high Himalayas

It’s been more than 2 years since I was in this village and to this date it is very hard for me to express what I feel for it. This trip came at a very important juncture in my life, a time where I was beginning to explore the possibilities of the world.

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Children of Zangla (Image: Brigitta)

To exercise self-development and experience evolution of the mind and heart. These are intangibles that are difficult to quantify but I can proudly say that the change in the last two years have been fairly significant and probably immense compared to the 10-15 years before that.

All that began with the village life. Immersing myself in the simplicity of living, attempting to live in harmony with so many different beings who are essentially strangers, dedicating myself to work that has no monetary remuneration and coming to terms with the harsh realities of my surroundings.

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(Image: Brigitta)

These are the greatest teachers, these teach you humility, making do with little, friendships, and humanity. These are the lessons no book, presentation, or video will give you. One has to experience it.

For me, I understood the value of the simple things even more. Running water, electricity, connectivity and believe me given a choice I find life in the mountains far more superior to our lives in cities. The richness of the village is not by the brands worn, or malls seen. It is through the genuine smiles, the hardships faced and the camaraderie’s formed.

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Ladies of Ladakh (Image:Brigitta)

Women of Ladakh are the toughest by far I’ve met. They are the essential bonds that keep it altogether. And mind you the toughness has no age limit.

I had the privilege of staying in the royal palace of the king of Padum and the granny of the family was the toughest woman I’ve met. 80 something years old with the sharpness of an 8 year old. Despite not understanding a word I spoke, we had long conversations through gestures. Such a vibrant lady!

She wakes up at 1:30 in the morning to water the fields. All the women do that. They work on the fields, cook food, look after the children, and are capable of construction work. WOW!

22140990_1653647557981372_7056436626149373277_nAn example to demonstrate their strength, for the brick making process we were required to make mortar which is mainly strained mud and water. It has to be kneaded like dough with a long shovel. There were two of us volunteers who tried doing this, we were tired and knackered in no time. In steps two small ladies, frail to look at. They started after us and continued this job for the entirety of the day. Phew! I was amazed by their strength of will. (To be fair I have discovered far better techniques of making mortar later in Himachal). Another example is that I could carry one brick at a time during transfer (now mind you Ladakhi Adobe is gigantic), these ladies could carry three at a time on their backs. If there is a Wonder Woman movie to be made in the future, it should be played by a Ladakhi woman!!

The next thing about village life was the pace of it. There was no phone network, no internet, and no visible distractions. This is what I imagine life to have been in the pre-phone era.

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Sunset Splendour

Every evening I had to see the sunset. Every evening it was even more beautiful. It drew my breath away every single time! Vibrant with touches of pink and orange. The transition period from day to night is my most favourite time of the day. I had the chance to sit down and soak it in. Reflecting on the day, week, month, year that had gone by.

At night, it was something else. On full moon nights, it’s as if someone turned on a bright light in the sky. It gave the village a Japanese manga feel at night in the silhouette of the mountains.

On moonless nights, the stars were out in their full glory. Now that’s a sight to behold. A black ceiling with a million shimmering diamonds. Shooting starts were the norm. I saw 15 in one night!! I even saw a start burst which is one of the most jaw dropping moments of my life. I was speechless and stunned for 10 minutes straight.

Adventures in Paradise

While the village life may seem idyllic (and it’s no easy life by any stretch of the imagination), there is plenty of adventurous things I got a chance to do. I live to do stuff like this.

First and foremost, there is a stupa that’s about two thousand years old on the edge of a mountain. Now getting to that is a thrill of a lifetime, crossing icy cold rivers, scaling vertical cliffs, walking along the edge of the mountain on canals built for water passage.

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Trekking over a canal on the edge of the mountain

Trekking through the landscape to impossible places. Being in dangerous situations and battling the elements. It is impossible to talk about every experience but I will save those stories for a future time maybe.

While I write this I realize that there is so much I experienced and I could not possibly do justice to the experience through just two blog articles.

Bonds and Beyond

Zangla gave me my first set of traveler friends and I know that even though we may never meet, they are never forgotten. In fact I remember them always. I miss them immensely and I hope I see them again someday.

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Jullay!Jullay!Jullay! (Image: Csongor)

Bonds forged through travel, through hard work and sometimes through silence. It’s priceless! I have had the fortune of meeting such wonderful people who gave me an opportunity to be a part of something bigger.

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The first family of Padum

The ladakhi family (royal family of Padum btw) I stayed with was nothing short of extraordinary. They looked after me so well, like one of their own. They treated me like family and never made me feel that I was someone from outside. I really miss them and think about them ever so often especially abe ley (that’s ladakhi for grandmom). For those who may want to experience this without maybe without getting into the volunteering bit can do so. Just write to me.

Zangla

It was a life changing experience for me. And not just me, for the many who go there. It is a place I experienced so much physically, mentally and emotionally. No matter how much time passes, I look at it as my first love with extreme fondness and hope of seeing it again someday.

Of course, I travel with purpose. Ladakh has become the epicentre for tourists. The garbage has started piling up. An example is the village, earlier you wouldn’t find soft drinks, sodas, biscuits etc. Now it is everywhere!

Few tips on mindful travel:

> Carry your own bottle (Stop buying bottled water
> Avoid buying plastic coated edibles (Local tea and biscuits are pretty awesome)
> Be mindful of what trash you bring with you. Take it with you when you go.
> Be respectful of the local culture and traditions.
> Try using the traditional compost toilets (they are a major water saver)

Of course it isn’t easy to be perfect but at least try your best! I failed on plenty of occasions too.

It is not necessary that you will have the same experience as mine but go out and find your Zangla. Maybe go within and find it. Zangla is not a place, it is an emotion that will forever be in my heart.

The picture on the left is before leaving for Zangla and the picture on the right is when I came back. As you can see the therapeutic effects of my travels.

If you liked this article, then please do leave a comment below. I would love to hear your thoughts or feedback.

Links to my previous blog articles

 

The Road to Zangla (Ladakh) – In search of adventure and meaningful experiences!

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“Every New Adventure requires that first step !”

This was mine that I took in 2017. I was beginning a process of inner and outer transformation and this was the very first step. I was quite well settled with a job, a home, a relationship in Bangalore till early 2017. However things changed and I was without any of those things. So I decided, it’s time to do! 


The Beginning

In an age where everything is getting more and more digitized, mechanized and life is becoming sort of auto pilot. Everything is at a push of a button, a touch of screens. Our lives and work revolve around screens.

Don’t you sometimes wish that you could just do something with your hands? Create something tangible, not on a software, on a screen but something you can touch and feel?

This quote by Madalyn Murray O’Hair speaks to me “Two hands working can do more than a thousand prayers”.

This is my story of how I moved away from working 10-12 hours (maybe all of it wasn’t work, you know the internet is a distraction) in front of screen to travelling to a remote village in Jammu & Kashmir to volunteer on a passive solar school building project. This was my first experience of travelling with a purpose.

Signs of the Universe

Every journey has an unlikely start and mine was about two years back. I had just quit my digital marketing job in Bangalore, sold/gave away most of what I had and moved back to Calcutta without a clue as to what I will be doing next.

Going forward- A line that takes me back every time! I was travelling to Mumbai in May of 2017 on some personal work. It was then that I was getting in touch with old friends. Long story short, I was supposed to meet my friend Kiki who was also travelling to Mumbai. We didn’t get a chance to meet, so we said screw it, some other time. The universe had other plans, on my return journey by the powers of fate we were placed on the same train, in the same compartment, in seats opposite to each other!! I am mostly a skeptic but this opened my eyes.

We start catching up on life, of course we did cause we hadn’t seen each other in 10 years!! In the course of the conversation I tell her my plans “I want to work with my hands, build something, work with tools, anything”. She sensed my genuine interest in doing it and she looks at me and tells me with steely eyes “I am about share something with you. It’s close to my heart but I know I can give it to you. I did this volunteering gig as a teacher in the Himalayas. It was extraordinary and you must promise to give it to someone who would do justice to it”.

I wasn’t sure if I should be excited or nervous. But that’s me, at that time negativity reigned on top of my senses and looked at everything with deep skepticism. However, I was so happy that she shared details, and the more I learnt the more excited I became.

It was a Hungarian organization called Csoma’s Room Foundation. The foundation works on restoration of ancient relics, sustainable architecture and community building projects in a remote village in Zanskar Valley called Zangla. She put me in touch with them and after a few exchanges (along with cross questioning), I was accepted to volunteer for the summer program for construction.


The Journey

Kolkata to Zangla

Now that everything was confirmed, I needed to ready myself for the journey. The village is called Zangla and is located deep in Kargil district (J&K). Looking back at this, the geography is completely different now. There was a lot of reluctance from my family to go there cause you know Kargil. In everyone’s head its the place of war which did deter my thoughts for a while but I thought to myself and I quote “Naaaah, fuck it!”. The journey was a long one (nearly 5 days from Calcutta to Zangla) and comprises of different modes of transportation. I took 7 cause I took the train from Calcutta!!

Like every good Bengali boy, I over prepare cause you know, one could encounter almost anything from frost biting cold conditions to a yeti!! Some things of course are mandatory if you’re travelling to the mountains especially upper Himalayas, like a good sleeping bag, tough trekking shoes and a self-filtering water bottle. 

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Ready for the Himalayas (Maybe a bit too well prepared)

The circumstances under which I left was tragic. One of our street dogs was diagnosed with what we thought (we being my mum and I) was rabies but actually turned out to be distemper. So the day before I left, we had to put down one of our beloved dogs. No matter how prepared one is, death always has a powerful grip on life.

Anyway, moving on ahead, I left for Delhi by train. In the last month leading to my trip, I was in touch with an Italian girl (Tilli) who was volunteering as well. She had already met up with another Hungarian volunteer (Edina) who was going for the second time to Zangla.

We met up in Majnu ka Tilla which is a place in Delhi that deserves a blog article on its own. I still know very little about it but I would definitely like to learn more. So with a cheery heart and big smiles on our faces we head for Manali by bus.

The entire journey was filled with rambunctious Punjabi boys and even more rambunctious Punjabi music!! Happy days!! I have never understood the concept of Indian men trying to impress girls (irrespective of nationality) with loud music and cat calls. Anyway, the beauty of ear phones and sleep provide respite from the all night cacophony.

Once at the Manali bus stop, we are immediately pounced on by a hoard of taxi drivers. After some negotiation, he decides to take us to a place in Old Manali. 3 of us in a room for Rs. 900 , a little higher than usual but we didn’t care. We just wanted some R&R.

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Tilli and I pondering about life in Old Manali (Image: Edina Kovacs)


We decided to leave the same night for Leh. One can go by private mini vans or by a government bus that passes through Rohtang Pass. We decided on the mini vans after a quick chat. Anyway, the tempo leaves in the middle of the night. We met a bunch of people in the evening (2 boys from Canada, a German and a couple of Spanish travellers). Our mini van departed at 1:30 am so we figured lets get together and leave after.

I’ve always been pretty secure with the hills in terms of women safety. So after a couple of beers, all of us in a cheery mood headed for the mini van pick up. Everything was fine, till out of nowhere a car screeches in with a license plate bearing the HR tag. For the others it was just another car, for me it was infinite trouble. 4 burly guys step out swaying from side to side. Buoyant spirits mixed with enthusiasm, slurry and incoherent made me think the situation was a recipe for disaster. After a few several hundred selfies with every woman tourist, the mini van arrived to rescue us from this awkward situation. The inebriated men were emboldened by the allowance of proximity and tried touching one of the girls inappropriately. 

It is when I had to request the driver to head out. I breathed a sigh of relief. I have great trust in India generally, but for foreign tourists especially women reading this. Be a little wary, you might have the best intentions and not want to offend people. But people may try and take advantage of the situation. Anyway I have not experienced anything like this since (thankfully).


Manali to Leh

Now that we were off, I found out all buses leave at night as the visibility at Rohtang pass if better then (apparently). After a change of drivers, we set off for the pass. It was cold and wet, absolutely horrible conditions for driving. Somehow there is a level of excitement amidst danger.

The visibility was poor, everyone else was asleep in the tempo van (in my head it was like, people are chill, why am I not?). I proceeded to stay awake and watch what was happening. I watched the driver (a think Ladakhi man with glasses) combat the situation slowly but surely. But then I heard him say “Arre, kuch nahi dikh raha hai” (I can’t see anything).

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Mini Van views (Image: Brigitta Kovacs)


Any inkling of sleep just vanished. I asked the Japanese gentleman in the front seat to take my place at the back. Rolled down the windows, cleaned the windshields and onto tackling this bitch of a fog. Slowly and surely, I played the role of a navigator, while the pilot precariously drove on. I felt pretty Indiana Jones at the moment (at which I chuckle now).

Daybreak approached. It was silent. Beautiful. The air clean, the touch of sharp cold morning air on the skin like a million needles. I had the widest smile on my face. This is what I was waiting for. This is how I expected my journey to begin.

As the sun crept out from behind the mountains, all my optimism and happiness flew straight out. The road ahead was blocked, it was overflowing with water. What I thought would be a short wait turned out to be a 6 hour wait!!

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Road Block for 6 hours! A very usual thing in the mountains.


That’s the beauty of the mountains, even the simplest things take the longest time. In an age of instant gratification, travel has taught me immense patience and each day I still learn more and more.

One finds odd things to kill time in such situations. I sat down and started throwing stones down into the valley, trying to hit larger stones. There were two Canadian boys we had met earlier in Manali who were on this journey too. One of them joins in, followed by Tilli. Out of nowhere it becomes an international stone throwing competition.

These are moments that I remember. Not the larger than life stuff (of course some are tough to forget) but the little stuff that we tend to overlook. We do the same in our day to day lives in search of the great big perfection but overlook the little joys.

Stones thrown = hundreds! Stones hit = none! Happiness in the middle of nowhere = Sky high!

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Stone Throwing in Rohtang (Image: Edina Kovacs)

Road fixed, we begin trudging along the mountainous road. The landscape starts resembling out of world scenes from alien movies. This could be a planet in the Star Wars films with its own extraordinary beings. My imagination runs wild!

Stark of any greenery, stones of all shapes, formations of alien nature by gravel and other sights galore. We stopped for the night at some obscure checkpoint. The tea shops have beds and blankets. It seems that this is the way of life.

With a belly full of Maggi (which I have stopped eating now unless it is an emergency), everyone settles in for the night.

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Image: Brigitta Kovacs


In the morning we start early. Poor Edina is not accustomed to anything spicy, she’s pretty sick (probably altitude sickness mixed in). Not phased, she troops on. Here begins day two of assault on my spine. My ass is mostly numb through this journey. At some point one forgets the luxury of tarred roads. Bouncy up, bouncy down, stop for chai and maggi. That seemed the norm for the day, until we reached closer to Leh.

A stretch of road (not sure of the name) which is maintained by the Indian Army greets us with open arms. My body and especially my ass felt relief. Even sickly Edina was in wonderful spirits. She is generally quite a happy soul but the turn of health had sort of made her feel down.

The road was magnificent, nothing on each side. Full pelt down, one couldn’t help but think of movies again. The landscape was alien to me. Filled with fascinating naturally formed red mountains that looked straight out of Star Wars, iced glaciers, blue cloud kissed skies and sparse greenery. Animals of all kinds scurry about like the cute little marmot ( I saw one for the first time)

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Mini Van in the middle of of nowhere! Image: Brigitta Kovacs

As we approached Leh, the number of Stupas started to increase, more mantras on the rocks. The fabled white buildings with the colourful prayer flags of ‘Om mani padme hum’. My heart flutters, these are the sights my eyes were yearning for. It was coming, Leh was almost here! Once Leh city arrived, we were so knackered. Grabbing our stuff, we walked to our hotel. I still was getting used to my rucksack.



Leh was a pit stop for 2-3 days. This is to acclimatize. We met up with Janos, he’s one of the chief architects who will also be volunteering for the build project. We start our search for a taxi to Padum (closest big town to Zangla in Zanskar Valley) Through our journey we met people on the minivan. There was a German guy who looked straight out of every hipster magazine. Sadly I forgot his name but he had a wicked sense of humour (who says Germans aren’t funny). Along with him was an 18 year old Austrian girl (Lea) travelling the world on her own.

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Leh Old City with monastery (Image: Edina Kovacs)

 

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Cafe with the backdrop of the Old City

When I meet such people I am always amazed. For me as an Indian, yes my currency doesn’t translate to economic freedom but the thought of travelling the world at 18 was marvelous. I’m happy to see many young people do that now, to explore the world on their own. For many of us, we remain trapped in our fears. At 18, I couldn’t think of leaving my home without explaining where I was going, let alone the world.

I know that I’ve barely travelled, and I don’t look at it as a competition. Some people I meet are on a mission to experience everything possible. The FOMO peeps also teach me a lot as well. There is no harm in being still sometimes and embracing what we have and deriving immense enjoyment from whatever we have.

Existence is a privilege. If you have a roof, food, clothes and some more for frivolities. Consider yourself fortunate and in the privileged. I always now practice deep gratitude for whatever I have in my life.

We eat, drink and explore Leh. Sharing conversations, insights, exchanging cultural idiosyncrasies. The old city of Leh comprises of some spectacular pieces of architecture. The buildings are made completely from natural materials (mud, wood, stones, limestone) – my first introduction to sustainable techniques of building. I was slowly getting interested in such aspects and Janos was a wonderful guide through the city.

 

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All of us at Leh Main Market (Image: Edina Kovacs)


I had the opportunity to go to the old palace. Above it was the monastery (they love putting those in the highest and toughest places to reach. Pretty symbolic for life if you ask me). I had a beautiful moment there and it means a lot in my life. It was the birth of something new in me. The past few years before that moment there was plenty happening in my life. This was the ultimate let out. The view was just so overwhelming for me. 

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Old City made of mud, wood and stones

Tilli joined me later. She and I were enjoying our conversations. I was learning so much about life in Italy. She was teaching me some Italian as well. For her, this journey meant a lot and I found an amazing friend in her. Maybe even family.

We now prepare for the next leg of the journey to Zangla. This will be the next upcoming blog. 
If this is your first time here, check out my previous blog article to get a better idea about what is going one here.

 Did you connect with anything in particular? Please do share, this is an open space and I always love hearing stories from others about their journeys.

 

If you’re interested in donating to Csoma’s Room, you can do it here: http://csomasroom.org/en/support-us/

They’re doing some amazing work and need all the support they can get! More on this in the next blog article. Hope you enjoyed this one!

Every long journey starts with a small step!

 

Photo from Sidharth Seal

How to save the planet? Start with yourself first.

It might not be high on everyone’s agenda but I’m sure at some point we have thought about the plight of our planet. Okay, maybe you might have never thought about but you just did now?

I mean I am also one of you’ll, looking at mountains of trash and exclaiming “There is no hope for this country”, feel a bit sad for a moment. Then just look on ahead, adjusting my shades and moving on to my next thoughts.

Let’s admit it, our thoughts are fleeting as much as our actions. We are willing to act only if the danger comes to our steps, till then out of sight and out of mind.

I’ll be honest, back in 2014, while working in hip, young digital advertising/marketing companies in Bombay I felt that sense of exuberance to save the planet!! How can I stop this world from destroying itself? Over thinking about the level of consumption of plastic in my office and making intense efforts to stop my own consumption. How much it did it help?  God knows (actually even he/she might not).

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Bombay Times – The agency life

So how do I save the planet? The optimist in me says go gung ho and start a full powered effort to meet everyone and anyone and bombard them with the reality of our current situation in hopes of scaring them to make changes.

On the other hand, the pessimist in me says “what’s the point”, one person will make no difference. I’m sure we’ve all thought like that about something that we are passionate about.

So I call to the realist in me, and he answers saying “How about not changing the world immediately, instead let’s start with my world”. And I said “HELL YEAH”, I can do that because after all I cannot control anything in this Universe but myself.

After all one person can make a difference. You ask for whom? I say for myself.

So how did this journey pan out since 2014? Let’s see, I probably did the following things (some successfully and some not):


*Reduce consumption
*Reduce plastic usage
*Reduce waste; lower consumption
*Stop consuming corporatized food (especially palm oil based)
*Stop meat, milk and dairy products (in lieu of compassion to living beings)
*No more fast fashion

To be honest and fair, a lot of the above is in flux (realities of existence) but I do not give up. I still keep trying!

This is an ongoing process and many of these have finally happened after years of trying. It took me nearly 5 years to quit smoking and that was an elaborate journey (probably something I will speak in detail later- you know quitting bad habits, let me know if you want to know).

I’m not sure if what I say next will connect with you, but have you always had an itch that just can’t be scratched? I am like that with relation to everything in the universe. Those la dee da metaphysical/existential-esque questions (why I am here and what am I doing?). I questioned myself towards the end of 2014 (quite a bit!).

At that point my mind told me that I am unhappy because of where and how I live (I was living in Bombay today 10-10 lifestyle, not even 9-5). You know the Bombay rat race that is visibly observant the second you land in that city. My mental and physical health would have probably been at its lowest. So I moved to Bangalore (thinking a slower lifestyle will have better answers).

I moved in mid-2015, I was happy for a short while, living closer to my workplace with what I thought was a relatively decent lifestyle (compared to the hurry and scurry of Bombay). Well, it barely lasted for two and half years, the same problems began creeping up and I felt I was back in that vicious cycle. Oh did I mention I tore ligaments twice (once in 2014 and then in 2015) while playing football.

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Tore my ligament in 2014. Did it again in 2015 *facepalm*

My body was not recovering at all, in fact it kept on deteriorating. On January 1st, 2017 I decided that it’s now or never! Why? Cause I read two quotes that really inspired me. It said “Do it now, later becomes never” and the other one was “When you die, your life flashes before your eyes, so make it a good one”.

The second one really hit me hard. I thought hard and tried to envision that film in my head, I couldn’t see anything but being seated behind a desk surrounded by a cloud of sadness and regret.

I said “No way!!! If I’m going down, I’ll go all guns blazing”. And with that war cry, 2017 became the year of travel and finding myself.

Sounds clichéd eh? I did quit my job, I moved back home to Calcutta. Somehow the universe conspired and my five and a half years relationship ended around the same time and I entered a zone of zero.
I literally had to restart life (physically, mentally, lifestyle, means of traditional earning). For the first time, I was willing to give myself time rather than jump into the next thing. I wanted my life to grow organically with my mind and heart as the catalyst.

So what did I want to do first? Work with my hands. I was tired of looking at screens and staring into an artificial man made world and solving man made problems. So I volunteered on a sustainable passive solar school building project in Zanskar Valley, Kargil by Csoma’s Room The project was to be completed only using natural available materials.


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Scrub Life in Ladakh

I immersed in understanding in new cultures, people, thoughts and experiences that no words will do justice. I travelled for the remaining part of the year through India (from Kashmir to Kanyakumari).

I returned to Calcutta late October, brimming with enthusiasm only to realize that all I had done was escaped my problems rather than facing and solving them.

2018 started out in a tough fashion. I was battling the elements to take care of one of my street dogs that was run over. Life had been sucked out of me to keep the poor fellow alive and in this phase met with the darkest thoughts in life.

I was not about to give up so easily. There was a flicker of light in the darkness and I was in process to bring the positivity back into my life. My dream was to wake up in the morning happy! This meant finding happiness no matter where I was and what I did.

I always wanted to start something of my own and this idea came to me then. I have always had a monkey mind and I’ve been slowly becoming eco-conscious not just in the way I live but also how I think. My ‘daak naam’ (Bengali for pet name) is Chimpu, so I decided to lend that name (as it is the basis of personality, for those who know me) into the name of whatever I did and thus ECOCHIMP was born.

Photo from Sidharth Seal(1)
The Ecochimp

My vision for ECOCHIMP has been ever evolving but I have conceptualized it as a space (physical and digital) to share knowledge for all things sustainable, my personal learnings and experiences and a collaborative space for like-minded people. It might start out as a simple blog now but I hope that similar to a seed, this grows out and spreads its branches to create a micro culture that eventually becomes an eco-system.
The basic foundation of ECOCHIMP is on earth care, people care and fair share! So if you want to be a part, if you’d like to contribute ideas, thoughts, and stories or if you just want to talk then please write to me: sidharth.seal@gmail.com

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this! I really appreciate the fact that you could hold on till reading this line. I believe that this is going to be a community effort so I am open to collaborating on anything connected to sustainability, physical and mental well-being and travel of course! I wish you have the best day wherever you. 

Lots of love from The EcoChimp