Locals and historians alike say that Varanasi (formerly Banaras, under the British Raj) is India’s oldest city. Though not as densely populated as other thriving Indian locales, Varanasi nevertheless remains one of its most affecting destinations. For, it is not only India’s oldest city, but also one of the nation’s holiest. Situated in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, en route to Kolkata from Delhi, Varanasi rests at the mouth of the holy Ganges River—the Ganga (G-On-ga), a Hindu goddess whose very essence is the river itself. Furthermore, Varanasi is the site whereupon generations of Hindus have gathered to immolate their dead, sending them upon the river’s potent waters perched on a burning raft at daybreak and dusk; the river has absorbed the ashes, and the mystique, of the deceased.
During my journey throughout the vast Indian Subcontinent, the ancient city of Varanasi was where I found a gentle Yogi amidst curving alleyways and sludge lined broken stone streets. The morning after my arrival in Varanasi, I set out upon the city groggy eyed and not a little confused by the narrow network of pathways that pulsated with people in the city’s old quarter. Often, my favorite way to get acquainted with a new place is to set out upon its avenues without my travel guide—armed only with my feet and curiosity.
Though I stray only as far as I can find my way back from, as on this particular occasion, meandering aimlessly rendered a beautiful encounter with this vibrant place. Amidst cows chewing on carnation wreaths, a small neighborhood temple pungent with incense fumes and a chirping caged bird, and countless merchants hawking their wares, I found (just adjacent to my hotel, no less) a small blue multi-storied building with a crimson painted sign that read “Yoga,” with a master’s name, and an arrow pointing up a black iron staircase. Instinctively, I hesitated and then decided to venture up the stairs.
Seeking out guru-esque experiences is not often my custom; I’ve seen far too many westerners mired in drugs and sucked into a relationship of patronage with “gurus” that appeared to do nothing more than shallowly pontificate on India and supply more hashish. Yet, as I climbed the steps, past a rising maze of hanging clothes, running children, and the discriminating looks of Indian women, I felt very assured.
When I reached the top floor and the door to the supposed studio, a slim mustachioed young man received me. Though he wore a skeptical look, when I explained the sign and my curiosity he stated simply, “I do personal lessons, but the group class is at 4 o’ clock. You may come then.” His stature was undeniably intriguing, and his demeanor insinuated a challenge—would I return for the class? I had not done yoga in years, and I feared embarrassment in the company of more experienced practitioners—not the least of which was himself.