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Linda Sama Karl: yoga, India and being a woman traveller “of a certain age”


When we shared our story about inspirational women travellers over the age of 60 on Facebook, someone called Linda piped up with “Guess they forgot to interview me.” So what’s your story, we asked?

So here it is, Linda’s story, and goodness me it’s a belter!

Tell us a bit about you.

I'll be 65 in May but people never guess my age, especially in India for whatever reason! I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago and I grew up in the '60s so I'm an Ageless Hippie Chick who was a rabble rouser for different causes back in the day – Viet Nam war protester, women's rights, ecology, the Chicano farmworkers, things like that. 1968 radicalized me politically because that was the year Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King were murdered. But now I live in the far western suburbs of Chicago about 40 miles straight west of the city, a 15 minute drive and I'm in cornfields.  I'm married – second time – and I'm a yoga teacher now for 18 years and also a garden designer (am a Certified Horticulturist) and I was a legal assistant for 20 years. My hobby is garden garden garden!     

You blog is called Ma India, My India. India is clearly important to you…

I first visited India, Chennai specifically, in 2005 when I went to study yoga at the school for my yoga tradition. I returned to India every year since then except last year, I decided to take a break after 13 trips. Most of my trips were connected to my yoga because I studied at my school for 10 years. I would study then go off to travel the rest of India. I usually go to places more than once, I don't go places just to check them off a bucket list. As part of my yoga business I started doing personalized small group tours for people and I teach yoga retreats in Varkala, Kerala (with side trips). I plan to teach a yoga retreat in Varkala in November, however, if that does not go, I plan to go anyway in November and travel for about three to four months, maybe more, who knows? I'll go to places I haven't visited before like Amritsar and Gujarat, maybe head up to Kashmir. I plan to rent a place in Goa for about six weeks.

What was it about India that had such an effect on you?

Probably the people first and foremost. It is hard to explain to those who have never been to India – I think one either loves or hates India, there's no middle ground. Before my first trip in 2005 I had never been overseas in my life and I was 51 and I traveled solo. Of course, I had been to Canada and Mexico and all over the US but never across an ocean. I had read up as much as one can but no matter how much you read, you can never be prepared for India.

I remember this like it was yesterday: got to Chennai, it was about 3AM, got through Immigration, got my bags, and stepped outside the airport. I was greeted by a sea of people who were outside the fencing looking for their people. It was noisy, chaotic, and the humid air hit my face like a wet towel, and I could smell green and diesel fuel. I stopped and looked at everyone and my feelings were primal. I could feel them as soon as my feet hit the ground in Chennai, I knew I had come home. The feeling was instantaneous and electric. I compare it to an animal you've finally let out of its cage and it steps out tentatively as it sniffs the outside air and the hair on the back of its neck stands up and its nose twitches and it finally runs off into the night. That was me. I had no fear of anything.

My first trip was only a month and before I left I decided to return only six months later for another training at my school. When my husband picked me up from the airport I told him I was going back in six months and he said, "you haven't even been back here for 20 minutes."  And by the way, my husband has no interest in going to India with me and I'm just fine with that.       

“I could feel them as soon as my feet hit the ground in Chennai, I knew I had come home.”

Where else have you travelled to that affected you deeply?

In 2010 I was gone for three months because one thing I did was attend the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, India and then I flew to Tanzania to teach a weekend yoga retreat for a friend, another yoga teacher. I was off the grid in Zanzibar for five days before I got to Arusha. Wherever I am I always have serendipitous experiences and in Zanzibar I met the filmmaker who made the movie 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama.  He was staying at the same place I was and we met at dinner by chance. He had just come back from Rwanda making a film about the genocide and he told me about talking with the survivors, it was both chilling and fascinating. 

“I wondered how people could see such an event, one that has gone on for thousands of years, and not know in their bones that everything in this world is connected”

After I taught my retreat in Arusha my friend and I went on a three-day safari where we went to the bottom of the Ngorongoro Crater and I saw three of the Big Five: elephants, lions, and rhinos, among other animals. Being at the bottom of the crater, no other tourists around our jeep, and watching a migrating herd of wildebeasts with zebras, affected me very deeply. All you could hear were the grunts and the wind and time stopped for me, it was like an out of body experience – I wondered how people could see such an event, one that has gone on for thousands of years, and not know in their bones that everything in this world is connected. It gives me chills now just to remember that. It is something I will never forget and I would return to Africa in a heartbeat.

To be honest, nothing in my travels either in the US or India has ever affected me negatively. That's not to say problematic things don't happen to me – I had to go to the hospital for IVs when I had salmonella food poisoning on my third India trip, my Chennai friend saved my life – I just don't let things like that affect me. That's my yoga and Buddhist training. What affects me positively is meeting the people that I meet.

“What affects me positively is meeting the people that I meet.”

Where does yoga come into it for you? Was it something you started in India, or did you travel to India because of its yogic reputation? 

I got back into yoga in the mid-90s having done some when I was in college in the '70s. Of course back then yoga was not as commercialized as it is now, not even in the 1990s. I went to the school in Chennai because of an Indian yoga master I met at the Chicago studio where I trained – he was one of the original trustees of the Chennai school in the 1970s. After I did a weekend with him I said, that's it, I have to go study deeper in his tradition.
Your blog is subtitled, ‘adventures of a solo woman of a certain age’. How significant do you feel your age is to your travels? 

I've never let my age stop me with anything, especially since I started going to India when I was 51. I certainly don't plan to slow down now that I'm 65 so I don't think my age is significant, but that's me. Other elders may feel differently. As long as I am fit enough I will travel.

“I think people are more shocked that I travel without my husband for months at a time than about my age.”

People really have trouble wrapping their heads around that. Like a woman is supposed to be tied to her husband's hip even in the 21st century! People always ask me "what about your husband?" and I say "what about him?" My husband and I travel in the USA, especially to New Mexico where we plan to move in a few years. We've been to New Mexico at least 20 times. But he has no desire to travel outside the US and I'm fine with that, that is not going to stop me from going where I want to go. Frankly, I could never be with a man who is going to whine about my traveling solo, that would be a major deal breaker. As for locals in India, depending on where I go, I guess people just see me as an independent woman. There are plenty of men who travel solo in India so why should it be any different for me? I've been called a "strong woman" in India. To be honest, I've never had any trouble in India because I am a solo woman traveler. I hear so much about how some women are afraid to go to India because of eve-teasing, etc. but it must be the way I carry myself and my Chicago street smarts that has saved me from any type of trouble like that. Let's just say I am not demure.

“My favourite thing to say is "if not now, when?" To ask, "What are you waiting for?"”

What tips do you have for women “of a certain age” planning a trip to India? 

To just go! My favorite thing to say is "if not now, when?" To ask, "What are you waiting for?" As for practical tips I would say read blogs of solo women travelers of a certain age and get advice from someone like me. What advice is good for a 20-something backpacker might be different for a woman in her 60s. Also, most importantly, don't listen to what I call "fear talk." There is a lot of fear talk about India regarding treatment of women, poverty, crime, etc. I actually had people ask me if there was dental floss in India before my first trip!

Many people have told me that they think I am "brave" to go to India by myself. I tell them it's not brave, it's just living. I don't live my life in fear and unfortunately many people do, the fear of "what might happen."

“Unfortunately women are still conditioned to put themselves last behind a husband or partner and children.”

A good friend of mine died last year from complications of brain cancer surgery and she always wanted to go to India with me. But she kept putting it off because of husband, children, something. When she was in hospice and was paralyzed on one side and could not talk I went to see her and told her she had to get better so we can go to India. I asked her if she wanted to do that – she could not talk but she could hear and understand, and she squeezed my hand so hard to answer yes. It breaks my heart now to think about that, how she could have gone but there was always something and her some day never came.   
And what tips do you have for women of a certain age considering a yoga trip, or trying yoga for the first time? 

Those are two different questions with lengthy answers! As for a yoga trip, I'd say find out what type of yoga because there are so many styles now – it wasn't like that back in the '90s. Also find out the experience of the teacher. Do they come from a certain lineage of teachers? Does a woman in her 60s who is trying yoga for the first time want a 20-something teacher who teaches a very vigorous style of yoga? Or does someone want a more mindful, breath-centered practice? Or one that will be therapeutic? Yoga is not one size fits all, that's a huge misconception because of the way it's marketed.
Unfortunately, the way it's currently marketed one would think only young, skinny, white women do yoga and put a leg behind their necks every day. There is much more to yoga than the physical part of it.