We are a band of people from all over the world, sitting together in candlelight on an outdoor terrace. A few feet away, the dense, dark jungle is making noises: rustling leaves, chirping crickets, the gentle hoot of an owl. We start to sing Jaya Ganeshaa joyous, melodic chant.

This is the peaceful evening routine at the Sivananda Yoga Ashram near Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, India. The proper name for the chanting we are doing is kirtan, the reciting of mantras to express devotion to the Hindu gods. It is a part of the evening Satsang, the time when the people living in the ashram come together to sing and meditate.

Every year, Sivananda ashrams across the world accept thousands of people into their yoga program. Millions more travel to other areas of India, chasing dreams of transformation and change.

living in india
Photo by Karthik Chandran.

When I left for India several years ago, I was in a dark place. I had been diagnosed with clinical depression the year before. I was coping with a bereavement. Like many people before me, I bought a guidebook, packed a rucksack, and left it all behind. As I closed the door of my apartment, I realized I didn’t care if I ever saw it again.

The first part of my trip was a 12-week overland expedition through South India. There was barely time to draw breath as we trekked into the clouds in the Western Ghats, gawped at crazy 164-foot-high temple towers in Madurai, and swam in the water of the Alleppey lagoons.

When we stopped for the day in Mysore, I took a yoga class. It was held in an old house, where the ceilings were supported by huge, carved wooden beams. There were no trendy yoga clothes or energy balls. The class was long, physically demanding, and strict. The teacher obsessively corrected my alignment, literally yanking me in the correct position. It sounds awful, but by the end I was energized and smiling.

The overland trip ended and I took off on my own, riding the Alleppey Express almost 434 miles across India to Kochi. As someone who had nearly forgotten what it felt like to feel joy, I couldn’t have chosen a better place to be. The streets were lined with brightly-colored houses doubling as homestays with gardens full of mango and coconut trees. Throngs of school children played in the street. In the evening sun, exuberant kids kicked a football around the parched parade ground. I taught in a local school and wandered around the pretty streets, absorbing the happiness like a sponge.

After my two-month stint at the school, I had free time and no itinerary. I traveled around exploring small towns and villages. India flashed past me, a blur of psychedelic trucks, tie-dyed clothing, street festivals, and firecrackers. There was no time to think about being depressed. I was too busy figuring out whether I was on the right bus or deciding whether to order a thali. I was alone and lost in India, and I loved being alone and lost in India.

living in india
Photo by Mitchell ng Liang.

Sivananda was my final stop before my visa expired. The yoga class in Mysore had inspired me, so I booked myself into a six-week “yoga vacation” program–a course designed to introduce Westerners to the “Five Points of Yoga.” Days consisted of morning Satsang, two four-hour yoga sessions, a 6 pm curfew, evening Satsang, and lessons and talks on different aspects of yoga.

There was no space in the schedule for anything that wasn’t yoga-related. I was exhausted, but I was also in the best physical health I’d ever been in my life. I finally noticed a change: I’d managed to shift something in my mind, and not every thought I had was negative anymore.

Did India change my life? Yes, it did. I had what people now call a “transformational travel experience.” I regained my physical and mental health. I discovered that I had the power to change my harmful thoughts. I realized that I had been missing out on lifeallowing it to happen all around me while failing to live it. I learned that happiness is possible, even though at times it can feel very hard to achieve. I discovered that religion could be fascinating and beautiful, rather than crazy and dangerous.

“Transformational” is now a travel industry buzzword. Companies are creating trips–often costing thousands of dollars–which aim to bring about change in people. Time is scheduled for “meaningful encounters” and “self-reflection.” There is even an organization called the Transformational Travel Council which offers to coach you along “a truly life-altering adventure.”

living in india
Photo by Andreas Dress.

But as one New York Times journalist found out recently, transformation doesn’t happen just because you’ve decided it should. Charly Wilder booked a “life-changing travel experience” to Portugal with a United States-based transformational travel company. She did yoga on the beach, went on a food tour, and absorbed the travel essays she had been given to read, but ultimately found that it was “like being trapped inside a constantly updating Instagram feed.”

I relate to this. When asked, I’m reluctant to say that India changed my life. Of course, it did–it was where I rediscovered joy. But in order to do so, I put in a lot of hard work over a series of months and years. I followed a strict vegetarian diet and practiced yoga and meditation daily. Alcohol was hard to come by, so I went teetotal, more or less. I was in India for six months followed by another six-month stint the year after. Fundamentally, I changed my life–not India.

Should you pay a company thousands of dollars for a trip lasting a few weeks where you will be “transformed”? I don’t think so. Change can’t be put on a schedule. You need time to reflect, space to have real experiencesideally on your own, and unplanned. If you know what’s going to happen beforehand, doesn’t that defeat the object? 

Travel is the best way of changing your life for the better. Just pack a bag and go. But don’t expect change to happen on cue or because you’ve paid a hefty sum for it. It will come in a form you don’t expect and when you’re least expecting it.

How has travel fostered change in yourself? Would you have changed without traveling?

Header photo by Eneko Urunuela.