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India

The one lesson India can teach us all again and again is about the limiting power of our own expectations. Will my chai be sweet? (yes) Will my chicken be spicy? (yes) Will my cheap hotel have hot water? (no) Will my expensive resort not have hot water? (no) Will the train be on time? (no) Will the person across from me ask me where I am from? (yes) Will the taxi driver rip us off? (not this time) Will I pay too much? (always) Will I be able to keep my temper? (yes) Will my Ashtanga yoga class be hard? (yes) Will my Hatha yoga class be easy? (yes)

The most beautiful thing about being in the country where everything is true, while simultaneously so is the opposite, is that at some point all of your expectations will be wrong. Each of the above questions, I have gotten wrong at some point in this journey, and every time, even after months in India, it was a surprise.

After my 3 months here, I have begun to genuinely enjoy the humor that comes from when something I am so sure of, happens so differently from how I expected. I am learning to let the world and the people around me, surprise me. From that is coming a new kind of joy. A joy that comes from seeing the world or a person for what it/he/she is instead of what I want it/him/she to be.

One of my favorite yoga instructors in NY used to always start class by challenging us to dig back up that joy we used to have while playing as children. I see now that his challenge was 2 fold – not just to play physically, but to also play mentally with power of dropping our expectations and taking the moment for what it was, limitations and all. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that this is why children can be so innately happy, even in midst of hardship — because they have not yet had the chance to create the expectations that limit us as we get older.

How much more could we accomplish, how much happier could we be if we just went forward, dropped our expectations, and asked the world for nothing? Nothing, but to surprise us.

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Considering I ate here 5 times in 3 days, it’s a pretty solid favorite find. Hidden in a little alley in the old part of Fort Cochin, this café offers the best salads and soups I’ve had in India and a pleasant dose of local art. The tables, many made of old sewing machine stands and each with their own fan, meander through a series of open sided rooms and courtyards. The feeling is magical and the butter oatmeal will convince you to come back again for breakfast tomorrow.

As we began our trek north from the southern tip of Kerala, we were planning to take a train up the coast to the backwaters at Alleppy. Fate, however, had a different plan. The night before our departure the train tickets didn’t come through, and we made a last minute decision to take the eight-hour ferryboat ride instead.

To break up the long boat journey, one of our now four-member group suggested that we stop half way and overnight at a well renowned ashram along the route. The Matha Amrithanandamayi Mission ashram is one of the few female run ashrams in India, has 2000 permanent residents, and is known for its international disaster relief work. Up to this point, I had never visited an ashram in India. If I wanted to mark that experience off my list, this was going to be a great place to do it. I decided to go along and try it out.

My first impression of the place – huge pinkish apartment buildings jutting out of the otherwise flat and palm tree lined landscape. Hmm.. This slowly manifested into a small pinkish city fully enclosed within its own crumbling walls. Walking through the grounds, the whole place seemed somewhat surreal and I was not quite as enchanted as I had hoped. But here we were, so onward we go. Within a few hours, rooms were assigned, an orientation was attended, clothing was changed, and that was it. We were part of the group.

The early evening was spent in the ashram’s “western café” listening to other religious seekers share stories about their time here. Apparently Amma, the Hugging Mother and  ashram’s guru, became famous for selflessly giving away hugs to the distraught and inconsolable. I heard the two girls next to me discussing their own hug experiences with Amma. It went something like this: “How was it?” one asked. “It was… um… weird” the other responded. Even if I was lacking in enchantment before, I was definitely now at the least intrigued. Weird? How could something so natural and loving as a simple hug be weird?

We quickly learned that we were fortunate enough not only to be at the ashram at the same time as Amma, but to also be there on a day when hugging priority is given to those that just arrived or are just leaving the ashram. What does this all mean you might ask? It means that we were VIP’ed through the ticket line and quickly found ourselves waiting patiently on a packed stage in a line of squeaky plastic chairs for our own chance to receive a hug.

Slowly we scooted from one chair to the next, only stopping to read the plastic covered sheet listing rules and regulations and to wipe our face on the handkerchief provided. As I inched my way towards the front of the line, I watched follower after follower kneel before Amma and wait for her to embrace them. If my lack of enchantment had previously turned to intrigue, it now became an intense desire to flee. Unfortunately I was in the middle of a stage covered with what must have been 200 or so faithful followers and only one, now blocked by five new followers trying to fight their way onto the stage, exit.

Everyone but me seemed to be mesmerized by Amma’s presence. Was I the only person on that stage hyperventilating at my lack of a spiritual experience?  I played out every scenario in my head and decided that escape was not an option. I resolved that I would take a few deep breaths and open myself to the experience. I knelt before Amma and leaned in for the embrace. Before I could process what exactly was going on, the woman to my right took my head and, with the confidence of someone who has done this thousands of times before, placed my left cheek square on Amma’s right bosom. Amma reached around, put her arm on my back, and leaned down to whisper into my ear. I stayed there for what felt like eternity but was in actuality only about 20 seconds.

As I walked off the stage, my husband came over and asked, “So. How was it?” All I could respond with was, “It was… umm… weird.”

I am usually a proponent of sunsets, enjoying the last lingering light on the horizon that fades away into a blanket of stars and the promise of dinner conversations and new beginnings to come after the night. Sunrises don’t have the same effect for me, however in Kodaikanal (standing on the balcony at the Greenlands Youth Hostel), I have found the exception.

On a day with few clouds