On a quest for self-discovery in India last summer, Andy Chen '09 fended off a transvestite with his Princeton umbrella, learned to transfer water from one nostril to the other, had burning-hot medicated oil poured across his forehead, joined in a mass water-vomiting session and met a caveman.
Describing his subcontinental experiences at a talk titled "Om Shantih: Yogic Spirituality in India," Chen discussed the theory of yoga as art and the cultural anomalies he came across in India.
He presented selections from a photo blog he created during his travels, which were funded by the Martin A. Dale '53 Summer Award, a stipend given to select students who plan to pursue special projects the summer after their sophomore year.
Chen studied yoga in Nasik, a center for Hindu pilgrims and a place largely untouched by Western consumerism.
One of only four boys attending the ashram Yoga Vidya Gurukul — constructed five years ago in Trimbak, India — Chen was the youngest student in an intense program he called a "boot camp."
Every morning at 5 a.m. he was awoken by the sound of a bell, after which he participated in mantra (chanting); meditation; a two-hour asana (physical postures) session in the morning; two lectures on yogic and anatomical theory divided by a 30-minute yoga nidra (yogic sleep); karma yoga (service for the ashram and the nearby village) and then another two-hour asana class followed by bhajans (songs) before going to bed.
Yoga is an art that requires flexing the body in various positions named after the animals they resemble, Chen said. The key aims of practicing yoga are to understand how different people think and experience new circulations, and to eliminate distractions in order to understand oneself.
"It's not about the posture. It's using the body to access the mind and using the mind to access the soul," he added.
Before participating in the yoga program, Chen spent time visiting holy sites in India. Despite the peaceful nature of his journey, he was confronted by sometimes shocking encounters.
On his way to Nasik on a sleeping-car train, a transvestite solicited him for sex.
"He was licking my hand and rubbing me. I was yelling at him in English and fighting him off with my Princeton umbrella," Chen said.
In Mumbai, he was shocked by the pervasive poverty and inequality.
"I've seen a lot of inequality in China, but you don't really understand urban inequality until you go to Mumbai," said Chen while he showed slides depicting beggars, crowding and poverty in India.
Shortly after his encounter with the transvestite, he met in the dingy sleeper cabin an 18-year-old boy, Shaihendra, with whom he initially had difficulty communicating.
"I couldn't understand the English he was speaking, and he couldn't understand the English I was speaking, so we decided to have a conversation via post-it notes. It gave me hope," Chen described.
Chen's transition back to Princeton involved bringing what he learned in India to campus. He graduated from the yoga program at the top of his class with a teacher's certificate recognized by the Indian government. He now teaches a free yoga class on Saturdays in Whitman.
Elizabeth Cooper '11, who recently submitted a proposal to make the class a club, described him as dedicated to the art.
"He's really passionate about teaching," Cooper said. "He said, 'I really want this class to be for you.' He's excited about sharing what he's learned in India."
Chen said his experience at the yoga program helped him to realize that he did not want to become an investment banker or go to law school, and that he didn't need to aspire to accumulate a lot of money to be successful.
"I spent my entire life longing for material success and living up to my parents expectations ... That's why we're at Princeton. We're intensely competitive people," he explained. "We fail to recognize what we're doing every day. [Yoga] helped me take a step back."
"It's not about forsaking the material world. It's about coexisting with the material world."
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