I’m writing this post lying in bed in my hotel room in Istanbul. I’m up later than I have been on any other night, as our retreat here has come to an end and most of the students have left on their return journeys home. As is typically the case, I’ve been very reflective as this experience winds down, and despite staying here for another few days, my reality in Istanbul as I have become accustomed to it is changing. The community we created over the past week was a very special one, insular and bonding, what with the coming together of and unifying like-minded people, as these retreats always end up doing. We ended up practicing yoga, obviously, and we did more sightseeing and touring than I previously thought possible in 7 days, but what proved to me most refreshing about this voyage to Turkey was the immediate connection we all felt to its people.
This city is older than almost any other I’ve ever traveled to, but unlike what I witnessed in Rome or Athens, there is a basic undercurrent of faith amongst its inhabitants who live their religion and faith in every step taken and with every gesture made. That faith doesn’t just manifest in the clothes worn here or the hauntingly seductive call to prayer booming from the minarets five times daily. The faith these people live their lives infused with is visible in how they touch each other, how they go out of their way for perfect strangers, how they have a smile waiting to break at the first opportunity, how they meet as a community to discuss spiritual matters before witnessing their devout enter the room to begin whirling in place with the intention of foresaking their egos and connecting with the oneness of existence. None of us were expecting to be consistently treated with kindness and generosity of spirit by every single person we came into contact with. None of us were expecting to be charmed by the warmth of the people here, in fact, I can honestly say that I expected to be treated curtly and dismissively as a western tourist here. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
After thousands of years, this city still emanates energy…an energy that runs deep in the streets, one that resounds through speakers and is visible in the eyes of the most heavily veiled women. What we were blessed to see this week was a people rich with rituals, rituals that take precedent over all else. Regardless of what any of us may think of the Muslim world, one thing I know I’m taking away with me from this city is that everything I’ve ever assumed about Muslims was wrong. There is a deep and ancient humility demonstrated by people here, a true Bhakti, or devotion, to a higher energy that is recognized as the source of all that is. These are a DEEPLY spiritual people, and after being here for only one week, I can say that I have a deep respect and affinity to them. Now before some of you jump at the chance to get all Western on me, let me say that I am aware that Istanbul is very progressive for a Muslim city, but nonetheless, the beauty I and the other 17 people that were here on retreat with me saw was unexpected and incredibly moving.
What I feel meant the most to us a yoga group was the fact that we came here to bring our ritual to a city already ritually rich. We weren’t expecting it to be so, but as the universe typically does, we were shown how little we know. We brought our faith in yoga and its powers to change, uplift and inspire to a city where faith is as common as kebab restaurants and traffic jams. We ended up not only meeting like-minded spirits in meeting each other as retreat participants, but we ended up realizing that we share more with this side of the world than we ever thought possible. This city has shown me just how deeply my own faith runs, and by doing so, it has touched me on a soul level, a heart level, as no other city ever has.
I will come back home in just under one week, more aware and sensitized to those whose culture differs greatly from the one I’m more familiar with. I will come home having attained greater depths of beauty and humanity, all because I was shown just how little I know, but how much I believe. As demonstrated to me by the whirling dervishes I was blessed to witness this evening as they expressed their devotion, I will not bow down to the city of Istanbul in reverence, but rather, I will leave with one hand uplifted to receive the blessings of the higher power that led me here, and I will place my other hand palm down to pass on those blessings to you all.
With only love, Bxx.