When we were kids, my cousin Melissa Chan and I were pen friends. Even though we lived in the same city, we exchanged letters until we were just about to finish high school. So when I saw her beautiful updates from India, where she's spent the last three months practicing yoga, I was curious to find out more. Today she shares why she made the move, along with everything she packed for her three months away:
Before we get started - where are you writing to us from today?
I'm writing this from my new apartment! For the last two months, I've been renting a studio, which has been absolutely perfect for me but as my boyfriend is coming to visit me soon, I've moved to a one bedroom place for the month. It's huge compared to what I was used to, I honestly don't know what to do with all the space - such a luxury!
You've been in Mysore for over two months - what were you doing before you left Australia and where did the idea to travel to India come from?
Before coming to Mysore, I was working in the Prime Minister’s Office. I have a background in strategy consulting so it was fun to apply my learnings to a completely new environment. Having the opportunity to also work on an election campaign and travel around Australia for two months was an intense but amazing experience. You learn so much and you form some great friendships. Contrary to what people might think about politics, I was surrounded by people who truly want to make a difference.
At the same time, I’ve been doing Ashtanga yoga for the past three years. Since I’ve gone ‘deeper’ into the practice, there’s definitely been an urge to come to the source and see what it’s all about. In fact, I’ve been wanting to come to Mysore for at least two years now but just hadn’t quite bit the bullet.
It wasn’t until after we wrapped up the election that I thought - you know, maybe this is the right time. It felt like a natural break point in my career and overall stage of life (pre-kids etc), so I thought I would just apply for kicks. Suddenly, I was accepted for three months.
Before you left, we were messaging and you were feeling a little uncertain. Was there a moment when that feeling disappeared and you felt really sure about what you'd decided to do?
I think wanting to come to Mysore was never in really in question. I’ve had the urge for so long! The thing is I've always been a ‘planned next steps’ kind of girl, so not having a plan post-Mysore was really new for me. Sometimes, I still mildly freak out thinking about it. Learning to sit with this discomfort though, and processing it through practice and writing, has really helped.
I really really love practising yoga here. You're in this steamy room, surrounded by all these super focused people - that kind of pulsating energy is so addictive. And of course, there is Sharath, our teacher, and just being in his presence is an amazing feeling. Feeling that and all the rest of it for the first time – I knew I had come to the right place…as corny as that sounds!
This is a bit embarrassing but I knew about Mysore yoga but not Mysore the place - can you tell us a bit about it?
Mysore is in the south west of India, about three hours drive from Bangalore. It's a beautiful city, relatively clean and known for its silk, sandalwood and of course, Ashtanga yoga!
When I first arrived, it was during Dasara, which is a Hindu festival that celebrates the victory of light over darkness, truth over evil and so on. During Dasara, the entire city is lit up – streets, buildings, and Mysore Palace. It actually caused a few power outages. I’ve never seen again quite so grand – it was simply stunning.
Is there a typical day? So far I've seen everything from temple visits to special sweets days, cooking lessons and the markets on Instagram
The beauty of being in Mysore is that the only thing we have to do each day is practice. After that, the day – and our experience here – is pretty much whatever we want to make of it.
In my first month, I feel like I was constantly doing something. During the week, I was studying Sanskrit and philosophy, as well as going to chanting classes. Once you throw in meals, the day gets eaten up pretty quickly! On the weekend, I would try to explore a little more.
One of my favourite excursions was going to Bylakuppe, which is the second largest Tibetan settlement outside of Dharamasala and home to about 4,000 monks. Seeing them all chant in one giant hall was a real goosebumps experience.
At any given time, there can be a few hundred students studying at the Shala so you really need to be mindful of finding the balance between being social and having time to yourself. Over the last few weeks, I’ve kept a fairly low profile – the practice is pretty intense, despite only being a couple of hours a day and I got pretty sore!
Lately, I’ve been taking rangoli classes, which is where you use coloured sand to draw mandalas outside your home, as a sign of good luck and hospitality. It’s my creative outlet! I’ve also been wanting to work on my own projects – writing, reading etc – so definitely been a bit more reclusive and really just enjoying the practice.
I have to ask about the food - what's new to you and what will you seek out or miss when you get home?
The food here is so amazing! I wish I could take all of it home. When I was in India last year, I had a lot of southern Indian food (ironically though up north), so a lot of it feels very familiar.
Breakfast is probably the most different to anything we’re used to. There’s so much variety! I would have to say my favourites are idli (white steamed lentil cakes served with coconut chutney) and vada (a fried lentil doughnut / fritter type thing). Dosas are also very popular here, which are like a pancake made out of rice flour and often filled with potatoes.
For lunch, I’ve been eating a lot of thalis, which is basically like the ultimate combo meal. You get a mix of curries, rice, breads, curd and depending on the restaurant, these can be served on banana leaves.
This isn't the first time you've lived overseas - do you have any tips for setting up a home in a new place and combatting doubt?
Yeah, I feel really lucky! I studied in Shanghai during my media degree and loved it so much, I did another exchange during my postgrad in Toronto.
I also lived in Cairo during my consulting days. At the time, my boyfriend happened to be working in Dubai, so I would commute back and forth. I ended up working at least one day a week in our Dubai office and then spending weekends there, or exploring the Middle East.
I love travelling and experiencing new things. Each overseas trip has had a really different set up - from being a foreign student where you don't speak the language, to the intensity (and partying!) of MBA life, to making hotels your home as a consultant.
What I've learnt from all these experiences, and now being in Mysore, is just being patient. Things take time to set up, things won’t always go your way, it might be hard to find your ‘tribe’ of people and so on…all of these things will come.
In fact, the hardest thing I’ve always found is reintegrating back home. It’s such a microcosm of an experience – it can be difficult to express what it was like to others, or to translate any of it back home. I’m always so grateful for the experience though, but of course, I still call Australia home.
Thank you Mel :) Melissa has been posting colourful updates of her days in India on Instagram and she's been writing about her trip on her blog The Open Letter.