Jumping in the Ganges

I traveled to India on a yoga pilgrimage in January of 2012.  This journey changed me, just as close family and intuitive friends had predicted.  Although I was prepared for some subtle shift in perspective, I didn’t anticipate how intense a teacher India would be.

One of her greatest lessons: the art of letting go.

The ability to surrender — to the good, the bad and everything in between — really is an art best learned through experience.  Books don’t teach it.  Classes don’t teach it.  Letting go is not something that blossoms from intellect and years of careful study.  In fact, intellect has often held me back.  Intellect resists surrender.  It resists change without process.  It wants to register, analyze and dissect.  Intellect is what made me an A+ student.  It’s what propelled me as a journalist chasing stories.  It’s what drove me to over-analyze all of my relationships.  Still does.

When I landed in India, however, I didn’t have time for this sort of rational thinking.  At first, the sights, smells and disorganization of the place frustrated me — to the point of tears.  But with time, my perspective shifted.  It needed to.  The dizzying environment that once frustrated the hell out of me transformed into a beautiful ballet of humanity, and I could either resist or participate in the dance.  I chose to dance.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when the seismic shift in perspective happened — that mystical moment when I gave myself permission to “let go” and surrender to the life around me.  But no act personifies this transformation more than when I jumped in the Ganges.

Yes, I jumped in the Ganges.  And no, I’m not crazy.

I plunged into one of the most infamously polluted rivers in the world.  A river in which millions of Indians bathe, defecate, bury their dead, wash their clothes and dump their trash.  The color of the water is sewage-soaked brown in many cities lining its banks — not exactly an enticing invitation for a swim or eco-friendly laundry session.  Every single guide book I read before traveling to India warned me to avoid direct contact with it, unless I was in a boat or walking over it on a bridge.  Knowing all of this, and seeing the not-so-crystal-clear waters flowing downstream, I still chose to jump in.  It’s the exact opposite of what pre-India Erica would have done.

But here I was in India, doing my best to live in the present.  And the Ganges inspired a curiosity in which I chose to indulge.  I just couldn’t shake this question: How could a river so disgusting be so revered?  In Hindu mythology, the river is a goddess whose waters purify the soul.  Looking at its filthy color, you’d think no “purifying” could ever take place.  Yet each morning, devout Hindus come to her banks to pray and cleanse their souls.  I witnessed this while in Rishikesh, a peaceful town at the foot of the Himalayas where cows, monkeys and yogis rule its winding dirt roads.  After morning yoga practice, I would walk along the banks of Ganga Ma, as the locals called her, and watch with wonder and quiet reverence as women in rainbow-colored saris and men in dusty cottons would toss marigolds into the river.  Some of the faithful would then sit in silence, meditating.  Others would chant ancient Sanskrit mantras, the melodies intertwining with the rhythm of the wind.  A handful would jump into the river, immersing their bodies repeatedly, like a pogo stick, up and down, up and down, up and down.

I asked why the men did this, and learned that it’s a ceremonial cleansing of the body, mind and spirit.  A few fellow yoga pilgrims wanted to participate in this ritual and asked me to join.  I treated that question as a rhetorical one, answering with an eye roll.  Of course my answer was no.  Hell no.

Irony had an unexpected way of tapping me on the shoulder repeatedly while in India, however.  After a few days of sinking into the rhythm of Rishikesh, absorbing the spirit of its people and embracing the traditions of Hinduism, I changed my mind.

Or, perhaps it’s better said this way: Hushing the mind changed me.

There was a pull, an unexpected and irresistible pull.  It tugged from deep within and triggered an exhilarating mix of excitement and fear, about 100 times stronger than the butterflies I used to experience before a gymnastics competition.  I would gaze at the river on my way to the market or from the yoga studio, and wonder what it felt like to be enveloped by those waters.  As esoteric as this may sound, the river was calling me.  And I couldn’t fight it.  So I stopped being rational and relying on Western intellect.  I let go, and answered the call.

It was chilly the morning of the leap.  With a breakfast of bananas and chai warm in my belly, I walked down to the banks of the Ganges with six other yoga pilgrims.  All women, we were dressed conservatively — knees and shoulders covered, to respect the cultural norms of Hindu women.  We also wanted to avoid the stares and camera phone clicks of the local Indian men.

We found a remote part of the river away from curious onlookers, where the water was relatively clean.  Since Rishikesh is closer to the river’s source, the water here was nowhere near as polluted as it was further south — and thank goodness for this, otherwise I may have had second thoughts.

We were each carrying a handful of fresh marigolds to present as an “offering” to Ganga Ma.  I cradled mine in my hands, knowing that in a few minutes they would be floating downstream, and I would be in the water.  The butterflies in my stomach started fluttering.  Anxiety and doubt surfaced.  Should I do this?  Why am I doing this?  Do I want to do this?  Am I trying to prove something?  Can I sneak back to my room without anyone noticing?

While this swirling mental chatter has a history of creating hesitation, it failed to put me on pause this time.  I let go of the intellect, closed my eyes and let my heart guide.  I was taking the plunge.  Literally, and figuratively.  It was a sweet feeling of surrender.  This is what letting go felt like.  And it felt … right.

I opened my eyes and knelt before the Ganges, this holy river with an ugly reputation.  I tossed the marigolds as I offered up a silent intention to a river that, at that moment, was the most beautiful thing in the world.  Then I jumped.  An icy electric current shot through my body as I immersed myself completely, then resurfaced three times.  Up and down, up and down, up and down.  Holy crap, the water was cold.  It was also intensely invigorating.  It inspired a sensation unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.  Volts of energy shot through me.  I felt so alive.  So completely alive.  I’ve never felt that alive before.

I emerged from the water feeling victorious and full of life energy.  I shot my hands into the air, shouting praises of gratitude toward the sky.  This photo (see below) taken by a fellow yogi captures this moment.  It’s one of the happiest moments of my life.  It was a baptism into the same world, but with a new lens — one that would make life a little bit easier.

Tough times still creep up, so don’t let me lead you to believe I’m some above-everything yoga chick.  I’m not perfect.  Far from it.  But I recall this moment at the Ganges whenever I need the confidence to plunge into something that, at first, may frighten me or may be something I don’t understand.

I take a deep breath and just … let go.  There’s only so much you can control or rationalize.  If you don’t take the plunge, you’re not living.


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