The Laughing Yogi in the Fetid River of Life

One of the amazing things about being in India is that people are actively seeking enlightenment all around you, all the time. And it’s (usually) not in an annoying, “I know more than you do about the meaning of life” kind of way. It’s just that people’s daily routine involves a lot of thinking about rituals and the kind of behavior that leads to enlightenment. This saddhu, who appeared on the steps to the Ganges as we sailed up it one afternoon in Benares, is dressed like a holy man in saffron robes. But it’s the beatific smile on his face that makes him look like he’s pretty darn close to nirvana.

All of which reminds me of one of my favorite Ganges stories, which I’ll repeat here in the spirit of the Magh Mela. So, in January 2009, despite the recent terrorist attacks in Bombay, I led my mother and sister on a two week trip through India. The impetus was my college roommate’s unbelievably awesome wedding in Jodhpur, but after that we spun out on our own, and, since I’d been to India twice before, I was the guide.

But we almost didn’t set off at all. I lost my passport (with Indian visa glued in it) the week before our departure. That, coupled with the Bombay bombings, got me fairly nervous about taking this precious cargo–my mom, Joanie, and sister, Marina–to India. It seemed like I was getting signs from the universe not to bring them. Then there was a snowstorm that cancelled the first leg of our flight out of Boston, another sign.

But this time I ignored the signs and went with my gut–I felt the universe really wanted us to go to India. Plus, there was no way I could miss the wedding; I’d even learned a Bollywood dance to perform (with a group) the night before. On the flight over, however, I started having misgivings. What if Joanie and Marina got sick, as most people do on their first trips to India? What if the hotels and car services I had booked online turned out not to exist? What if Joanie and Marina only saw the filth in India and not the fabulousness? (That would be their fault, not India’s, but I still didn’t want to run that risk.)

When Marina arrived in Jodhpur after what amounted to three days flight from L.A. she was not in the best of spirits. There was no place to sleep in the Delhi airport, so she and another female tourist took turns watching each other’s stuff and dozing off as they waited for their next flight. There was a mix-up at the airport in Jodhpur so we weren’t there to pick her up. When we finally found her at the hotel, her first, sleep-deprived comment was, “There’s a lot of litter in India. And why are there cows just hanging out in the street?”

But the trip was amazing, with the wedding, which consisted of three days of celebration and a parade that stopped traffic on the highway; a camel safari; an island idyll in Goa; and then Benares, three days in a converted nobelman’s house along the Ganges, visiting temples teeming with sacred monkeys and riding up and down the holy river. On our last night, at the chi-chi Indigo restaurant in Bombay (Brangelina had JUST been there, sans kids) as we dined under the stars on a frangipani-filled rooftop terrace, I asked the ladies what their favorite parts of the trip were.

Joanie said the wedding. But Marina said Benares, specifically our last morning there when we took a dawn boat ride upriver. As we sailed along, we saw some loincloth-clad gents practicing yoga on the banks of the river. We heard them first, because they would laugh “Hah! Hah! Hah!” in between poses. I had heard about laughing yoga but never seen it. All of a sudden, one of the yogis dove into the gray river, swam out a few yards, and jumped up triumphant, arms in the air, yelling “Hah, hah, hah!” at his colleagues on the shore.

“I just want to feel that joyous every day!” Marina said. I mocked her by asking, “Marina, do you sometimes feel like YOU’RE the laughing yogi in the fetid river of life?”

But I think it’s a noble ambition, that we should all try to be the laughing yogi. If we all made it a point to start each day with laughter (and friends, and, possibly, exercise, but that I could give or take) I bet we’d be much more likely to notice the fabulousness, and not the filth, of wherever we find ourselves throughout the day.

Praying in the Ganges

It's not all prayers and yoga; sometimes you just want to wash up.

Or go for a ride.

Whatever your Ganges activity, it's more fun with your friends. Or mom and sister.

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