Saturday, November 21, 2015

Book Review: Dancing in the Bamboo Forest

Dancing in the Bamboo Forest ~ a travel memoir by Djahariah Mitra

Dancing in the Bamboo Forest cover pic
I was excited to receive this book with a request to review it. I seek out memoirs and especially memoirs written by women about their travels and personal journeys. And certainly this book falls into exactly these categories, with the added bonus that the travel and journey are yoga specific.

We start out with the author in an emotionally dark place in her life. She decides to go to India to study, travel and find herself. I think many of us who study yoga have that same urge; the urge to go to the birthplace of yoga, to immerse ourselves in the culture and philosophy. Mitra does this with a teacher training followed by travel, yoga teaching, dance training, and building relationships with fellow travelers and native Indians alike.

She shares her inner thoughts, her attempts to find happiness, her everyday ups and downs with living in uncertainty. She doesn't know how long she will stay in India, she doesn't know if she will be able to get a job that will support her to stay in India, she doesn't know if her health will hold out.

She struggles with finding contentment in the uncertainty. This is what I recognized the most in my own life journey: the practice of finding contentment in my discontentment. Quite the kōan. I learned more about this in my teacher training too. There it was defined as “limbic space” by one of my professors. It's the idea that we need to become comfortable in our discomfort, comfortable with not knowing, comfortable in the waiting. In the book, Mitra has a very hard time with this and I think, so do we all. It was hard for me to read, hard to stick with her discomfort, but I thank her for being so candid and for sharing her struggle.

Interspersed with her personal journey, she shared some of her yoga understanding. I enjoyed her discussion of yoga philosophy, especially the part about being called to a spiritual life while still being a “regular” person, or as I've sometimes heard it called, a householder. Again, this is a struggle I understand. The essential question is, how do we give up everything and remain in this life? There's no right answer but I wonder if part of the struggle is in the phrasing “give up everything”? Perhaps if we thought we were gaining, not giving up, there wouldn't be a question.

And finally, as in other books I've read where an American woman goes to India, there is the culture shock to contend with. Women are 2nd class citizens, do not have rights the way men do, are not allowed to go out by themselves, travel by themselves, or wear less than 3 layers of clothing on all parts of their body. The author did find places where India is more modern, places where she could go out to coffee and even meet with male friends but it was not encouraged by society. She got questioned and shamed by her landlords for doing things like having male guests for dinner. It just seems so archaic and unfair to me. It's so hard to reconcile this part of Indian culture with the mindful practices of yoga that also came out of this culture.

The dichotomy of Indian culture, the blow-by-blow account of daily ups and downs, and the topic driven writing style (vs. linear) sometimes made this book difficult for me to read. When I could let go of my desire to know exactly where and when the author was, and when I could let go of wanting India to be as holy as I imagine it, the book was much more enjoyable to me. This book is worth reading if you want to know more about yoga, Indian culture, and if you want your own beliefs challenged as you read about someone else's personal growth.