For the last year, I’ve been the head resident yoga teacher at Hariharalaya Retreat Center in the Cambodian countryside. As our week-long retreats come to an end, and we bid farewell to our guests, it’s not uncommon to hear them say, “well, back to the real world”. Sometimes I’ll give them a smile back as if to say, “are you suggesting my little bamboo hut in the jungle is some sort of false reality?” But of course, I know what they mean. During the first 6 months I spent traveling around Southeast Asia, I too have been guilty of referring to life back home in Chicago as “the real world”. When you find yourself in these situations – whether it’s practicing yoga out in the jungle, trekking the Himalayas in Nepal, or washed up on white sand beaches of Thailand – it does often feel like you’re living in a dream.
The funny thing about all of this, and the reason I can only laugh when I hear these statements, is that there is nothing more natural, more real than walking around barefoot with your feet connected to the earth, eating fresh fruits and vegetables grown by your neighbors, living in community, looking after one other, moving your body, breathing… To live in this state of oneness is to experience the true essence of Yoga, which, in Sanskrit means “to yolk” or “to unite”.
Earlier this year, Johann Hari published an article for the Huffington Post that went viral arguing that the real cause of addiction is disconnection. Hari states, “The rise of addiction is a symptom of a deeper sickness in the way we live — constantly directing our gaze towards the next shiny object we should buy, rather than the human beings all around us.” I would extend this statement further to include all life around us, and it serves as a perfect explanation for why yoga has had such a profound impact on my life as with so many others.
For two years, in my previous career as a Media Planner, I found myself traveling from apartment building to train to plastic cubicle (and reverse). Rather than seeking out balance, I found temporary gratification in the many “work perks” of the media industry – skybox tickets to Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake, $10 cupcakes dropped off at my desk, designer sunglass shopping, 10 course dinners with wine pairings at the top restaurants in Chicago. As it turns out, you can be insanely full and still feel unfulfilled.
Fast-forward a few years, and a feeling of contentment finally starts to set in as I trade it all in for a grass hut in the jungle. As I cycle around the village and see kids entertaining themselves for hours jumping rope on the side of the road, or multiple generations of the same family gathered to cook meals together from food grown in their own yard, it almost feels like traveling back to a time before iPhone screens, video games and fast-food stepped into the picture. Interestingly, the first reaction from our guests at the retreat is usually, “what can we do to help these people?” There is a certain irony in the fact that many of us, myself included, find ourselves traveling far from home because we are dissatisfied with the disconnection that results from becoming overly reliant on technology, overstressed, and overworked – yet we still try and inflict our idea of the “real world” on others. The real question we should be asking is “what can we learn from these people?”
What I’ve learned during this past year living in the Cambodian countryside, experiencing over 50 consecutive yoga retreats and living in community with hundreds of people from all over the world is the power of connection. It’s human nature to make judgments about people when you first meet them – our brains are designed to help us make sense of things by comparing them to past memories. And despite my best efforts, I still find myself making judgments on Day 1 of a retreat before really getting to know someone. But the beauty of being in an environment where you don’t have the choice to pick up your phone instead of talking to the person who happens to sit next to you, is they will always surprise you. Seeking out this sense of oneness is part of the path of yoga. There is great wisdom in the Eternal Truth as presented by Swami Rama Tirtha;
“If you truly love everyone with all of your heart, you will find happiness everywhere”.
I am certain that this jungle life I have chosen is not for everyone, and I’m not suggesting that the answer for all of life’s problems is to quit your job and move to a third world country. The real training with Yoga is to learn to integrate these principles into our lives in order to experience a sense of oneness despite all that we’re up against with modern technology. As I often remind people on the first day of a retreat, there is no quick-fix, “get enlightened in 5-days” solution presented by yoga. Rather, by coming into tune with our own mind, body & breath, and opening ourselves up to the world around us, we are able to cultivate a deep sense of joy and lasting fulfillment in whatever real world we choose to live in.
Mary has been the head yoga teacher of Hariharalaya Retreat Center in Cambodia for over a year. After exploring a number of styles of teaching, she has found her true passion with yoga therapy – making the tools of yoga accessible to everyone.