One morning in Dharamasala, I came to eat breakfast at one of Dharamkot’s popular traveller hangouts, Trek and Dine, with two new friends: Idan, an Israeli guy travelling in India, and Manoj, an Indian man who had been giving Idan, some other friends, and I, private yoga classes on our hotel porch in the morning. (He even led a practice in the forest for us: see picture above.)
Idan met Manoj in Rishikesh, where he was teaching at the School of Yoga in Laxmandula. We have since discovered that this just happens to be right opposite the hostel I was staying at while I was in Rishikesh, and I even attended his class one evening while I was there. In some mad twist of fate however, the Sunday afternoon I went was the one day that Manoj wasn’t teaching, and his replacement was awful. (I actually left the class halfway through, I hated it so much.) If only Manoj had been teaching that day I would have gone every evening, not least as he taught in the most beautiful setting – on a rooftop looking over the Ganga…
Sitting in Trek and Dine, the three of us chat over breakfast, when a storm breaks and the rain starts chucking it down outside. As we realise we’ll be there for a while (not that it was a particularly unusual an activity to sit for hours in cafes there, to be honest), I decide that I could make use of this time and get a blog post out of it. As Manoj and I start to talk, I begin to type furiously, as his story has me captivated from the beginning.
Here is just a bit of that conversation, on one cold, rainy day in Dharamkot…
HB: How old are you?
HB: Oh, me too! 1984? When’s your birthday?
M: I don’t know…
HB: You don’t know?
M: My birth certificate says February 1985, but I know I was born in 1984, so it’s not right. I know I’m a Leo and I was born during the monsoon.
I’m terribly confused… Manoj then explains that when he transitioned from primary to secondary school he was one year older than he should have been (six instead of five). The headmaster didn’t like this and so told his parents they needed to reduce his age so he could be accepted into the first school year. His parents agreed (#OnlyinIndia). According to his passport and government records, therefore, Manoj was born in February 1985. But in fact he was born (at home) at least six months before during the monsoon season. (His mother remembers because she’d had an argument with his father about leaving the firewood outside and it getting wet.) Neither of his parents can remember exactly when he was born though. I cannot comprehend this – aren’t there any official records? “Not really”, he explains. “Nowadays, yes, but not at that time.” There was a record made by a man in their local village responsible for such things, he explains, but he died. And the record went with him. So, all he knows is that he was born in the summer sometime, during the monsoon, and he’s a Leo. I suppose that’s all one needs to know?! (He celebrates his birthday in February, in case you were wondering.)
HB: So, tell me, does everyone do yoga in India?
M: No, it’s not common. One time I was on a train and some Indians asked me what I did for a living. I told them I was a yoga instructor and one asked: ‘what is yoga?’ [And there was me thinking all the kids do it in school.] In the private schools they teach it but not in the government schools. Now it’s getting more common.
Do you know Baba Ramdev?
HB: No… [I’m guessing I should]
M: Baba Ramdev is very famous in the yoga world. He travelled all over India, to small cities and villages, and taught yoga to Indian people, including in Rishikesh. Now they know yoga. He travelled for almost five years. This is what made yoga famous in India.
HB: But yoga has been around for thousands of years in India? [I’m confused.]
M: Indians used to follow Bhakti yoga [devotion] – going to the Temple and praying… but not the physical side. We were not used to that before – getting up in the morning, exercising… [he laughs]
HB: So the perception has changed?
M: Yes. Now, people know that yoga is good, for back pain and things like that. [Indian] people are interested in doing it. So now I go to different villages and teach local people in India yoga [out of tourist season in Kerala, where he has his shala.] In June I’ll go back to Kerala, to Kadekal, and I’ll start there.
HB: So you’re from Kerala?
M: No, actually, I’m from Odisha, in the East of India. But I left home when I was 14. There was a huge cyclone – “Super Cyclone” – it was the biggest ever in India. 15,000 people died. We were flying. Everything was destroyed. So I went to New Delhi to find work. In the beginning I was working in a restaurant. I did not know Hindi, only Oriya. It took some time to learn. In two weeks I knew it. [That doesn’t sound like long to me?!]
I had to sleep in a slum in Delhi. I had to learn [English] to survive. So I learnt it. And then I got a job in a restaurant, cleaning the place. I stayed three months. I had to leave because my hands were hurting from the cleaning. I lost two nails. The skin was coming off my hands, from reaction with the chemicals, you know? It was very painful.
So then I worked in a guesthouse. Many Japanese came to stay there and I learnt some English. ‘Excuse me’ took me two weeks to learn to pronounce. [He laughs]. I could not get it! ‘Ex-cuse-me!’ My work was night duty – 20 hours. 4 hours sleeping.
[At this point we get distracted and go off topic for about twenty minutes. It’s hurricane-ing outside so there’s no chance we’re leaving any time soon. I try and get the conversation back on track…]
HB: OK, so we have 14 more years of life story here! What happened next?
So, I got night work in a hotel – getting people to come into the hotel from the road. And in the morning I worked in a shop. I slept like four hours. In summertime they gave me a room in the roof [which was] made of iron. In summertime it’s 47 degrees – it’s like oven. You cannot breathe. Cooked! I slept under the shower with the water on. Winter is nice. Summer… no.
I was getting just 900 rupees a month and I had to save so I was eating only once a day. I had to send money home to rebuild our house after the damage. My stomach was small, you know [wraps hands around his waist to demonstrate]. I was very hungry. I had to go collect food – chapatti – this is all I ate.
One day I decided to come to Kerala. I met this couple from there. We met in the hotel [where he was working]. They saw me eating the food that they had left outside their room [the remains of their room service]. They were doctors and they saw that I was sick. They give me their address and asked if I am interested in coming to Kerala to work for them. For me it was like ‘how can I go to Kerala? It’s not the same language… I don’t know it there.’
I didn’t go for five or six months. I stayed working in the hotel. Why I left… my boss – he was hitting man. Crazy man…
HB: Your boss hit you?
M: Yes. It’s quite normal. We are slaves. We have no education. It’s like that.
I was staying up in my room and one day a British guy, but he was Indian British… One day he killed himself – hung himself in the room next to mine. One day I was sent up to find him as he didn’t pay his rent. I went up and saw him there, hanging. I could not breathe.
I had to go and recognise his dead body and speak to the police every day. Nobody came from England in the end to take his dead body. So it continued for ten days like this as I was the first one to see him dead. I had to go everyday to the police. In the end it was too much for me and I decided to go to Kerala.
HB: Wow. So tell me about Kerala
M: I worked in this place, Eden Garden. It’s the second best Aryuveda resort in India [as stated in the Lonely Planet]. I was working as housekeeping, cleaning the rooms. I had a nice time. Twelve years I worked there.
I worked in the kitchen after my housekeeping shift finished. I love cooking. I was like the girl in my family as we had no sister, so I was cooking all the time. After learning some cooking I went into the kitchen for four years.
HB: So, how did you get to be a yoga teacher?
M: This place [Eden Garden] was a kind of school – there were people learning massage. Every day two girls used my body to practice massage [he laughs cheekily]… It’s a nice life!
After getting myself three hundred massages, I can do. So I ask my boss: ‘can I give you a massage?’ And he was impressed. I started to work there doing treatments – all Pancha Karma / Ayurveda treatments. It was easy to learn.
After a year I worked on reception. At the time I was a with a girl from Germany, and we were in love, and I thought: ‘reception looks better, no?’ [We both laugh.] I was thinking I could go and settle in Germany at that time. But what could I do there? I thought maybe I could do yoga. She did yoga and I thought I could possibly find a job teaching yoga in Germany. But I’d never done yoga in my life.
One day there was some trouble at the hotel. Some Israeli guys were staying and there was some confusion with a tshirt. They had given their laundry and there were seven tshirts back instead of eight. So when they checked out, they said they were not paying the 5,000 rupees for their room because of the missing tshirt. There was some argument and I called my boss. In the end my boss didn’t care – he said he would take it out of my salary. My salary was 5,000 rupees and all I had so I was very upset. I cried in front of everyone [he shakes his head]. In the end they paid the money. But the next day I decided to do a Yoga TTC [teacher training course] – at the Sivananda ashram in Kerala.
HB: So you went to do the TTC?
M: Hmmmm [he smiles]. 2009. November.
HB: And then?
M: After I finished the TTC I came back to the same resort where I was a receptionist. The yoga teacher there left so I had to teach. Two years I taught there. They were not paying me very much. I was doing everything – cleaning, cooking, yoga – everything. Then I moved to Kovalam. One of my friends from Eden Garden was there – he taught me how to do massage and everything – so I decided to go to his place. They gave me accommodation and food and a yoga space.
I was taking donation class. I still take donation class!
You know, in Kovalam, they were very angry that I was taking donation class. I could not even go outside, they were so angry. I got paranoid. But I don’t believe in taking money. I believe it will come…
So then I decided to come back to Varkala. I have a shala there, in Black Sand beach. Now I’m travelling, working, enjoying everything.
I think about my boss who used to hit me sometimes now. And I think if I would see him I would kiss his feet. Because if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have gone to Varkala, I wouldn’t have travelled in Europe… [through people who stayed in the hotel Manoj met friends who since invited him to Europe, including his German ex-girlfriend.]
When I see angry people I think: ‘why are they getting angry?’ There is no point. There’s a saying by Buddha: ‘you will not be punished for your anger; you’ll be punished by your anger’. It’s very hard for the body and mind and soul, getting angry.
HB: What has yoga done for your life?
M: I feel like it was with me before. I feel like this is my life. I am for this.
No matter how sick I am, I do yoga and I feel ok. And I cook [he smiles]. I love to cook. I give Sunday cooking class and give the money to charity – to orphans.
If everything in life was donations it would be a very nice life.
HB: I agree. I hate money. It’s very destructive…
M: I’m the only one who takes donation. Everyone is asking: ‘why you don’t charge money?’ I don’t want. I would love for everything to be donation – exchange, you know? And you know, in the end you would get more money! It’s the crazy thing.
We are lost… People are. It’s a beautiful thing when you don’t ask anything from anyone. And they give it. Some people say I’m crazy but I’m not. I know what I’m doing.
I start telling him about Burning Man, a festival in the Nevada desert I’m going to this summer. I explain about the system of exchange they employ and the fact that no money changes hands, only ‘gifts’.
M: This is how it should be. It’s like with love – love should be about giving and not expecting back. If you find a partner like that then it’s a beautiful exchange. She’s not expecting; she’s getting. He’s not expecting; he’s getting.
HB: So what about the future?
M: I want to learn more. Not about yoga. I want to know more about the inside world. Become a Sadhu maybe… I want to learn more about the kundalinis, the chakras, enlightenment, you know? We humans are always missing something, no matter how happy we are.
Manoj, full name Manoranjan Chand, is a qualified pancha karma therapist and yoga instructor. His shala, if you’re planning a trip to India, is in Black Sand Beach in Varkala, Kerala, at Sea Breeze Patanjali Resort for Yoga and Ayurveda.
A special thanks to Manoj for his openness, honesty, and passion, which inspired and helped me very much on my journey.
Namaste my friend x