Talking about a yogalution

Going the distance

So I arrive back in Hong Kong, as I’ve done so many times, to dismaying damp and drizzle. My friend Kate sympathises: “I’m sorry you have to come back to this,” she What’s Apps to say. I am already, within half a day, signed up at the gym and back on a Hong Kong number, pepped up on coffee my suddenly 11 year old student has made me. “Suddenly”, because the last time I looked she was 6 years old and adorable, not she isn’t still adorable but, like her then 11 year old sister, is now a trouble-maker, rummaging in the fridge for fish eggs to try and tempt me with (I’m strict vegetarian and having non of it) and getting me all caffeinated when I’d rather be sound asleep.

“It’s okay,” I tell my friend. “You don’t have to apologise for the HK weather.” But she does and we both…

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Talking about a yogalution

So I arrive back in Hong Kong, as I’ve done so many times, to dismaying damp and drizzle. My friend Kate sympathises: “I’m sorry you have to come back to this,” she What’s Apps to say. I am already, within half a day, signed up at the gym and back on a Hong Kong number, pepped up on coffee my suddenly 11 year old student has made me. “Suddenly”, because the last time I looked she was 6 years old and adorable, not she isn’t still adorable but, like her then 11 year old sister, is now a trouble-maker, rummaging in the fridge for fish eggs to try and tempt me with (I’m strict vegetarian and having non of it) and getting me all caffeinated when I’d rather be sound asleep.

“It’s okay,” I tell my friend. “You don’t have to apologise for the HK weather.” But she does and we both know it.

We are sitting in the back of Le Petite Cafe on the second wet grey morning since my arrival. I’ve got my much-needed cappuccino while she is trumping me in the ethical, clean living stakes with her peppermint tea. It is good to see Kate. She is about the only person I can tell all this hippy stuff too without fear of being disowned, unfriended, betrayed.

“It’s just so inhumane,” I complain, “so isolating. In India I never felt lonely; you’d go into a cafe or bar and the guy would ask how you are, if you’ve had a nice morning; they know that you’ve been doing yoga or that your friend’s been by looking for you to go swimming. You ask them how they are and they actually look at you and smile as they reply. I mean, can you imagine having a conversation with the person serving you? There was this guy that had a shop where I’d buy some nice dresses and things, and he told me all about where he was from and what it was like. You’d love it, he said; they all said that, that you have to go visit their home because it’s the most beautiful place in India…with this look in their eyes, kind of faraway and dreamy that made you believe it. CAn you imagine doing that here? Going into Zara… Hallo,” I sing in my best Chinglish accent, “welcome to Zara, how are you, nice day. Where you from? I am from most beautiful place in China you must come and visit sometime.”

My friend laughs. I gesture around at the long queue for coffee, the bustling cafe full of smart suited types. “No one talks to anyone, and yet everyone expects and demands so much. We are just rude to each other. Treating people like commodities.”

I knew this would happen. I’d warned myself on the walk down here not to do it. What was the use of railing against it? I knew when I was back in India that it was going to be a shock. That day that we’d sat in philosophy talking about the importance of feeding the mind with purities – not only clean foods, but gentle sounds, pleasant smells, harmonious colours and images… I knew that Hong Kong was going to feel like an assault on the soul like never before. The pollution, the concrete, the noise, the crowds… Where even was the sky above my head, the earth beneath my feet? Where was the nearest fruit stall selling fresh bananas, mangos, coconuts? Waiting to cross the street I had seen a stall selling flowers – such things do at least still exist – but it was not until, finally 2 minutes later, I walked right past could I smell the intense fragrance of two dozen orchids, and then, just as quickly, it was gone. The intensity of colour and smell replaced by the grey of the pavements, buildings, smog and drizzle.

What was the point of complaining though? This was life. This was reality. This was Mrs Dalloway in the 21st Century – what a lark, what a plunge! what bullish*t. But where was the use in complaining? What could you expect – the erase it all? To turn back the clock, unpave all the roads, dig up the sidewalks and go back to bare feet shuffling along sandy paths, pulling rickshaws uphill, carrying sacks of rice on your head? People wanted taxis and roads, tramways and escalators. They wanted skyscrapers and high-rise; they wanted shopping malls and coffee shops and constant wifi. Even in India they want all this and you want them to be able to have it too – your Indian friends who slave away in front of pathetic fans, longing for air-conditioning and refrigeration. To be able to sleep comfortably at night and wake in the morning to an ice cold juice and a hot shower.

I had considered the problem deeply: if yoga heightened your sensitivity to your environment, made you hyper-aware of sounds, smells, tastes… gave caffeine and alcohol, tobacco and McDonalds an intolerable toxicity… then surely the yogi could not survive in the city? But then, on the other hand, if modern city living was so stressful that it drove people to seek the calming, mind-altering effects of yoga, wasn’t it inevitable that at some point – sooner or later – a revolution had to occur? Wouldn’t the city be forced to change in order to accommodate humanity again, in order to be humane again?

In my mind green spaces would spring up everywhere: people growing vegetables on their rooftops, letting the grass grow in the cracks between the pavements, flowers, shrubs and trees out of window boxes and guttering… Instead of red taxis lining the street, children would be running hand in hand to school, picnicking on the sidewalks; businessmen walking to work barefoot, not texting on their iPhones but talking to their neighbours on the earth. The sky would be blue and the air good to breath, scented with flowers and carrying, not the noise of the traffic, but the sound of birdsong.

Yes, it was a crazy dream, but that is what – for a moment – I imagined when I thought of Hong Kong. But then, as my friend Alan reminded me, most people do not do yoga for that reason. They do it because they want to look good, because it is fashionable, because they have bought all the Lululemon gear and look damn good wearing it over post-pilates coffee with their friends. Oh Alan, I wish your cynicism was not quite so justified, but I fear it is.

Still, if Kate is anything to go by, I have reason to believe yet. Kate started yoga with me back in… June, July (?) last year. Hers was the familiar story of being unsatisfied with her body and wanting to join a gym to do something about it. So I did what any evangelical yogi does and signed her up at my gym, selfishly pleased I would get to spend more time with her and eager to share the life-enhancing benefits of yoga. To begin with, I’ve got to admit, I was a little dismayed to find her bringing her iPhone along; I understand she has to work, but this was hardly going to help her to zone out and chill out. Still, she’s my friend so I said nothing, until now. (Sorry Kate).

But, patronising as this is going to sound, I am thrilled to report that Kate is still doing yoga – has been doing yoga the whole time I’ve been away and now has a regular, heartfelt practice. Heck, she’s even doing wheel pose on the top of freakin’ mountains! (Yes, a photo worthy of Facebooking, I quite agree!)

Talking to her about “Everything I Learnt in India” I have to acknowledge that she is already there – spiritually, ethically, intelligently trying to live the life of a yogi and without having to spend a couple of thousand dollars and several weeks on a teacher training course. Kate’s a natural born yogi. My big sister stand in for the past four or five years, she has always have been my go-to guru of choice in this crazy old town. My first gratitude and biggest pleasure, and I will certainly be taking a leaf out of her book and opting for the peppermint tea in future.

So Kate, I break my vow of silence for you, in honour of you. Yes, I have lots to lament about returning to HK, but you are not one of them, and in terms of starting a yoga revolution? If it has only two members (and perhaps we recruit your brother as a third?), nameste. “I bow to you.”

Going, going, Goaed

So, I’m just about packed and ready to go, relieved that my suitcase isn’t quite as bursting at the seams as I feared what with all the new dresses and Ali-baba-style yoga pants I’ve acquired since I came here. But, lightweight and effortless, they appear not to be weighing me down, which is a blessing, because if I came to India with a stock of emotional baggage, I am glad at least to be leaving feeling lighter brighter and breezier, certainly with a nice sun tan and even, possibly with a little bit more flesh on my bones – or at least the inner strength, energy and vitality to allow that to happen in due course.

But of course, I cannot claim to be a whole new or entirely different person. I know I have not exactly been reborn or remade afresh after just five weeks in India, this morning being a prime example of how easily we can be… discombobulated – to use a word my sister was once all too fond of.

For, awaking at 6:30 from dreams heavy with lovers past and imaginary, I rolled out of bed to walk down the road for my last asana practice in the shala just as I’d intended, but not unfortunately with the same anticipated joy and optimism. What had seemed such a nice idea last night suddenly, as I left my flip flops in the usual place and walked barefoot along the dusty corridor and up the stairs as I had done so many times before weary and hungry, didn’t seem so exciting. Weary and hungry indeed.

Perhaps my mind was too caught up in dreaming, perhaps I was too preoccupied with thoughts of leaving, of packing, of pedicures, taxis, flight times… I cannot blame my tamasic mood on last night’s chocolate and beer binge because I gave in to neither temptation but went to bed with some wholesome literature and fell sound asleep before 10:30pm. Perhaps then my lack-lustre mood was just an indication that, no matter how hard I try I am simply not a nice person in the morning – that a cup of hot tea (at least) is required before I can or should attempt any conversation with myself or God, or any physical exertion, be it going to work or going to my yoga mat. Well, c’est la vie!

I stayed for the short duration of half an hour, long enough to discover but not resolve a stiffness in my upper back and decide that today was not a day to push myself, but to go straight to Fatima’s Corner for iced tea and fruit salad, to meditate on the infinite goodness of lemon and mint, banana and papaya, and to reflect that I am more than ready to move on to Hong Kong, to studios and apartments with air-conditioning that will allow me to sleep in past sunrise and practise yoga before sunset; how good it will be to be back in Marvin, Charlotte and Sky’s classes, to – just occasionally – give over my will to that of a teacher, to once again have my practice dictated and determined by them rather than my own free choice and discretion. For while I agree with Iyengar that to do self-practice is empowering for allowing you to follow your own will rather than that of a teacher, sometimes – especially when you have awoken to your worst, most grumbling inner child – it is good to surrender yourself to someone else’s instruction, to tell yourself you’re here for the hour, like it or not, and find at the end of an hour that you like it very much and off you go. Thank you!

Iced tea over, the thought of packing returns to plague me, as does my commitment to be at Govini’s beauty parlour at 9:30am for a pedicure – to finally get the sand out of my toenails after four weeks and to replace the chipped and faded green nail polish with something more sophisticated and demur for Hong Kong. How easily we are stressed by time commitments: too many things to do, too many things on our minds, to go here and do this and that by a certain time. So I take off, only to find her just arriving herself – ten minutes late – I find myself feeling a little annoyed, at her and myself. Even after 5 weeks, I am still forgetting this is India and there is no need to hurry. I could have stayed and finished my drink!

But it turns out that we are both hot, perspiring and a little stressed this morning. Having struggled to get a ride and been saved by her friend just in the nick of time, her concern not to be late makes me feel guilty. I am glad I was not too late for her, but wish I’d given her the benefit of the doubt. Of course she would not choose to be late; even if this is India and there is no hurry, she is conscientious about her work. It is her yoga.

Switching on the fan, she waves me into a chair in front of it and gets busy with the water, towels and implements she needs and within minutes has my feet soaking in a steaming bowl of hot water – “hot, but relaxing, right?” she smiles up at me, encouragingly. I do not argue, but let it work as an auto-suggestion. Yes, hot but relaxing. Relax, relax, relax…

I open my book. Gideon too is coming to the end of his journey: another pilgrimage on foot, but this time around the 80-odd temples of Shikiko, one of the four main islands of Japan. And as I read, with Govini scrubbing satisfyingly at my feet, massaging cream and getting to work on trimming my cuticles, I start to melt away. No pressure, no worries, nothing to do but sit here and feel myself softening, the nerves and excitement – because as Govini looks up and asks me, it is exciting, to be moving on, going ‘home’, seeing old friends and embarking on another yoga course in a matter of days… But it can all fade away for now. I am still here, now. I settle in and feel myself becoming peaceful.

Gideon is contemplating doing it all again – his o-henro-san thingamee – but I am not tempted to do the month over again. As I felt this morning walking barefoot up to the empty shala, it is enough. The days and weeks of dragging myself, tired and hungry and hot, up there are over, done and finished, and me with it. My break from reality has run its course and I am ready to start getting on with the busy-ness of life again, start thinking more seriously of the future – of university or work, money, family, etc. It’s been necessary to take time out, but all things come to an end, and perhaps that is why I am finding it hard to relax this morning. Much as I try, and I do, and succeed for a short time, I am ready to be on the move, anxious to get going. I have things to do, people to see, decisions to make. And it’s bloody hot here, too hot to do a damn thing but shower and sit in the breeze drinking iced teas, and I have not reached that level of samadhi just yet. I cannot rest on my laurels completely, not just yet.

As I stand up to choose a new nail colour, I realise that it is simply being with Govini that I find so soothing and relaxing. She is the same age as me, but already married with a baby, she has been something of a mother to me, calling me “dear”, waxing my delicate bits and telling me how beautiful I am and how much more beautiful I would be if I had some more fat on me. She laughs as she tells me how she is always eating, making a little miming eating gesture with her mouth like a rabbit. She is soft and feminine, but by no means big – I guess a UK size 12 – but she would like be bigger. “Even my husband, he is telling me,” she says. In India to be big is beautiful; it is to be happy and healthy. Richly alive.

With her mild manners and gentle, characteristically Indian wobble of the head, she has become something a comforting presence – a friend – in my life here. Yesterday, after painting a new henna tattoo on the palm of my left hand, she gave me a gift of some silver bracelets, which I wear proudly. I have never really worn a lot of jewellry or taken much care over my appearance, but yesterday as I showered, dressed and put on my bracelets to go out for dinner, I felt pretty for the first time in a long while and was conscious of the looks of the men as I passed. Indian men are always looking, so perhaps this was nothing new; but I felt pretty, confident and strong inside and this was new. Even going off for dinner alone felt more of a treat because I’d made an effort: I was on a hot date, with myself.

This is thanks largely to Govini who, on the first visit I made, told me I was a beautiful person – inside and out – but that I needed to look after the outside more. I had a good heart, she said, but in this world that is not enough; people need to see your beauty on the outside too. “You do it for yourself but also to show everyone else you’re beautiful,” she said.

This was an interesting idea to me, as I’d always believed that true beauty shone from the inside out. I am still of this belief, but also appreciate that, like today, when I give Govini her gift (my Accessorize bag that she’d so much praised when I first entered her salon four weeks ago) and she grabbed me back, stopped me from leaving, hugged me twice and sat me back down in the chair so she could thread (that is, wax) my eyebrows, inner beauty deserves its outer compliment, and no one wants hairy eyebrows – not even my taxi driver who, he tells me, plucks his himself and is often complimented by the ladies. (Though I think this information was offered in an attempt to curry favour with his “beautiful” passenger.)

Oh, Govini! What have you done? Poor Mr Happy, who I’d been starting to think was not as happy as his name suggested, is, I now realise, love-sick. He is having to say goodbye to the woman who walked into his life for the first time only a week ago, had one brief ride on the back of his scooter, rejected his offer of a beer-and-beach date, and is now employing his services merely to fly out of his life again, with little or no guarantee of ever returning.

He plays romantic pop songs to her in the car, but she is distant and quiet, hardly talking, certainly not chatting away as has been her wont with most of the locals she meets. She watches the scenery out the window, takes the occasional sip of water and is reticent about accepting his proffered bananas. But, arriving at the airport, she gives him a sweaty hug, an extra 100 rupees for his trouble and leaves an apple on the passenger seat for him. Perhaps it’s a sign that she’ll come back after all, and marry him and live happily ever after: him feeding her bananas, getting her nicely fat around the edges and she fresh from the salon cooking him dinner every evening in the beautiful dresses he buys for her.

Or perhaps he underestimates her, takes her polite, friendly but quiet demeanour for willing subservience. She did not seem to like it when he asked her where she was going that time, seemed quite annoyed by his questions, his intrusions. He does not realise that all the men – the taxi and tuktuk drivers on the street – bombard her day and night with questions of ‘where you going? want taxi?’  preferring to dictate to her than let her decide where and when she’d like to go. He does not realise her independent streak, her hostility to those who try to tell her what to do, who suggest they know better, or how far she might run in order to escape such control. This is, after all, the first time she’s ever even taken a domestic flight – Goa to Mumbai, Mumbai to Delhi… It’s always been all international with her, and as she said about her Hong Kong boyfriend and he agreed, distance is hard.

So he walks away with a grin and a smile, the hope that maybe he’ll see her next year, for now happy in the knowledge that he lives in one of the most beautiful places on earth and that that by itself must be enough enticement. After all, who wouldn’t want to settle down  to domestic bliss in a tropical paradise? You’d have to be crazy, right?


Grounding down and growing on up

I woke up this morning in something of a funk, the impression of last night’s Skype conversation with my mum still churning around inside my head.

It had been quite unintentional, quite unthinking that I’d mentioned that perhaps I’d get work and stick around in HK for the summer – more like wishful financial thinking than anything else.

“Err, hang on a minute,” my mother had replied, “can I just stop you there…” before going on to remind me that, not only had I left England at a time when she needed our practical and emotional support, but that I’d left my adorable but rather highly-strung, OCD cat with her, and my 1001 book collection which, even in my absence has been growing thanks to wifi on the beach and Amazon’s universal shipping service. Poor Mum!

“No, of course!” I reassured her, instantly filled with guilt and remorse, “of course I’m coming back and picking up Audrey, of course I’ll help you sell the house, and I’ll learn to drive and…”

And the conversation we had only the other day, and the conversations we’ve been having over the past few months came flooding back – conversations in which rather than planning a life of international jet-set travel, no worries, no responsibilities, no cares, I’ve actually been yearning for, fantasizing about and starting to logistically plan having a home, a space where I can take care of Audrey, myself and my mum if she needs it, where I can teach yoga, hold art and dance classes, a place with enough room for a garden to grow vegetables and a kitchen to cook them in. This has been the dream, growing slowly from a tiny wishful seed into a ‘why the blooming hell can’t I not?!’ flower, but a dream that, in my insecurity – my need for money in the bank, the illusion of deep, fixed, sustaining roots – I turned my back on, reverting to the old-habit-dies-hard of “Hong Kong is the answer, go where the money is.”

However, I know that is merely the ego talking and, after upsetting my mum last night – giving her the impression that I was thinking of abandoning her and my pussy cat, going abroad indefinitely once again – and thereby upsetting myself, I gave a good talking to.

Like most crazy people, I can often be found talking to myself, or rather writing to myself. She’s quite sensible is that other self, most rational, very reassuring and rather sweet and loving. So by the time we went to sleep, singing bowl reverberating on my abdomen in an attempt to open up my manipura and heart chakras, we’d made peace with ourselves, quietened our insecurities and reawakened our faith in my best, most earnest dreams for myself, Audrey and my mother.

Yet still I awoke this morning, around 6:30am as usual, with the stink of last night hanging over me, berating myself for being irresponsible, flightly, immature, selfish…. Wow, how unkind we can be to ourselves and no wonder that with such a rude awakening – no “good morning beautiful!” for me – I was tempted to roll straight back over and go to sleep! But I didn’t. Or okay, I think sleep claimed me for 10 minutes, then I was back awake and mindful of my intention to walk down the beach to the shala and get in some self-practice before breakfast. Because it has been many days since I’ve seriously given myself to meditation or yoga, and yesterday I found myself feeling most ungracious and increasingly hostile towards the half a dozen flies that kept landing on my breakfast; but I was sure that an hour and a half of Mysore-style practice would see me right, put me back in touch with the Oneness of the universe. And I was right.

Even by the time I reached the shala I was in a better mood. The mornings here are cool and walking down the beach, so quiet now that the season is at an end, just the cows having their early morning dip with the crows, and a few well-seasoned expats taking their final strolls along the shore before they head elsewhere. Walking down the beach is a meditation in itself, a recognition of the power and peace of the ocean, its essential unchanging emptinessness. It has nowhere to go, nothing to do but enact its ceaseless assault upon the shifting shore. “Everything could have been anything else and would still have had the same meaning,” as Tennessee Williams said.

The Sampoorna Yoga shala above Fatima’s guest house is quiet now, the guest house itself shut up, all the doors to the once-occupied rooms boarded and padlocked; only in the  centre of the courtyard are piled the heaps of blankets, tables, chairs and discarded apparel as evidence of a once bustling hostelry. It is like this all over Agonda. One by one the restaurants, guest houses and shops have been closing, the shopkeepers desperately trying to sell off the last of their goods before they head for the cool hills of home, the love and longing in their eyes as they speak of the beauty of Nepal, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. Almost everyone here hails from somewhere else, and given the distances and hours travelled in India, I am almost more of a local than they are, it being a mere 9 hours for me to get back home… Or 7 to my adoptive home of Hong Kong.

(Eating peanut butter and banana on toast – it is breakfast time now as I write – is very satisfying, especially after waking so early and fitting in over 90 minutes of relaxing, invigorating, restorative, calming yoga practice; and it puts me in mind of my father, the reason I am a life-long vegetarian but who himself, after dabbling with both yoga and vegetarianism in the mid-80s has undergone many chameleonesque transformations and has been heard to say that vegetarianism is quite unhealthy and, no, he has no idea what is fuelling my brain – a comment which led me, during my Finals, to consume PB and banana on toast as a daily necessity.)

The asana worked its magic, as ever. Starting with some gentle Sivananda-style sun salutations I worked my poor aching hips open (all that walking up and down and up and down the beach?) before coming up into some Primary Series sun salutation Bs, through the standing poses (good old favourites especially: utthita trikonsana and parivrtta trikonasanas), incorporating some spontaneous heart-opening and back bends, and down to seated forward folds and the finishing sequence.

By the time I was done I didn’t want to leave, but stayed for a few more deep backbends (bow and locust), understanding now in this heat how it is the Indian yogis can contort themselves into all kinds of impossible positions, the heat and humidity literally melting you like plasticine, softening away all tension and stiffness so that, even if unlike me you were schooled pre-Thatcher and had all the benefits of free milk, your hardened bones are no obstacle to even the most esoteric of poses. 

As I came down to rest in pidgeon and baddha konasana, resting my third eye on the ground, gratitude was flooding my body, heart and mind. I could forgive myself for my momentary flightly selfishness, come back to the greater point and purpose of my sojourn here in the lovely Agonda – a world away from the tensions and responsibilities of life in England – and for my continued exile while I go to Hong Kong next week for three months. I could feel myself wishing to make the most of this gift of time to heal and reconnect with myself in the knowledge that this will help me heal and reconnect with others. For as Swami Rama writes: “non-attachment properly understood means love… When yogis speak of non-attachment they are not teaching indifference, but are teaching how to genuinely and selflessly love others.” 

We often take non-attachment to mean to objects, material possessions; but for the yogi, this includes people. Surely there can be no harder practice than non-attachment to those we love? How can we care when we so easily take ourselves away, half way around the world when they need us most? It is still something I am trying to reconcile myself to – possibly a deep hurt I have inflicted and continue to inflict on myself and others. But sometimes one knows – one feels – the weakness, the futility of holding on, and the greater strength of letting go, if only for a short time in order that you both may have the room, the air and light to grow.

Before our teacher and monk Kasheva left last week for the hills of Dharmasala, he performed reiki on me. It was an incredible experience in which many things came up – the floods in Uttarkashi last summer among them.; many tears followed and the message “LET GO” reverberated clearly: Let go of pain, let go of possessions, let go of attachments, let go of old habits, let go of fear. Accept life and death. Choose vitality, choose creativity, choose transformation, and attain transcendence. These were the words that came to me – promises of what I could achieve if I could just practice letting go, if I changed my old thought and emotional patterns, my samskaras, and started living in the now, for today, for bliss. 

Why would we choose anything else? Why would we choose to live in unhappiness? Many would argue that we do not choose to, but that pain and suffering comes to find us. But who has not encountered troubles – a car crash, a divorce, bankruptcy, a tsunami, flood or famine? Who has not had a parent, sibling or child die, or if not yet, then will do – must do – one day?

There is a story of a woman who, grieving for the death of her child, went to Buddha entreating him to tell her why she should suffer in this way. He told her to take a bowl, fill it with rice, bring it back and he would tell her the answer; but, he said, she could not beg rice from any house that had been touched by grief. A week later the woman came back empty-handed. “I understand now,” she said. For every house had been touched with grief. The question then should not be ‘why do I suffer?’ but ‘why is there suffering?’ And if suffering is universal why can I not still be happy in spite of it? Or if happy is too trite a word, why can I not be accepting, peaceful, content?

Cultivating this state of santosha (contentment) is not easy. Like me with the flies at breakfast yesterday morning, we are all too easily irritated, too easily distracted, too easily angered. But yoga and meditation do help – for me, at least. They work to erase the ego, erase the sense of difference that separates me from the flies, from the restaurant owner, from the tuk tuk driver who is always trying to get an extra 50 rupees for his fare, and reveals to me the underlying sameness of ourselves, our existence. My true self is as kind of myself as it is to the tuk tuk driver, giving him the extra money he so desperately needs in this quiet end of the season and myself the extra slice of peanut butter and banana on toast my mind and body craves after a wonderful, energetic, life-enhancing asana practice.

I can’t claim – or even hope – to have reached Samadhi, but as I gaze at the henna tattoo making its way from the middle of my forearm to the tip of my middle finger, I am reminded of how far I have come and of where I hope to go. There may be many twists and turns, detours and diversions along the way, but these are all a part and parcel of the infinitely charming, mysteriously beautiful overall design – sometimes baffling, sometimes labyrinthine – but always always delightful. Forever a part of you.

A yoga mala prayer

And just like that, it’s all over – 200 hours of yoga teacher training completed and we can all breathe a sigh of relief. It is over and we, who came together from all over the world – Australia, Canada, Hungry, Spain, Finland, UK… – will go our separate ways again, some travelling together, new friendships having been formed and to remain for a lifetime, others to return to their normal lives, touched by but not attached to those they met. For me it is like this. We came together as separate beings united by a single purpose – so many beads on a chain – and as that chain dissolves once more, returning to formlessness as yoga teaches us all things must, I make a prayer. A prayer of thanks to each and every bead in that chain. Some may have stood out for me more than others, but all were important – all unique – and I am grateful to each and every one.


At 5:30am yesterday morning, I got up and walked down the beach to the shala for the last time. The sun was rising behind the palm trees as I arrived at the shala for the practicum and fire ceremony, found as usual only one person other there. For some reason she has always been one of the first to arrive. I have often wondered why and have, over the weeks, been drawn to her, sensing her openness to the fearful process of stripping away that asana and meditation works and witnessing her appreciation, her transformation as she truly allowed herself to surrender – more perhaps than most – and as a result getting all the most out of the experience.

It is funny, but somehow, despite all the sun and tanning, her complexion has grown more transparent over the weeks – paler in a way, but not a bad way. Slightly vulnerable perhaps, but in a new-born baby way. Fresh, revitalised, renewed. The light when it shines shines bright, right from and through her. It is as if her outer-most layer has been erased away and there is only the prettiest, most delicate film of ‘self’ left. I feel honoured to have been a witness to this. Truly humble and in love – with the power of yoga, with the strength of this woman’s spirit, her honesty. She has truly been an outstanding jewel in the chain.

But perhaps what I see in this one person is true of us all when you look closely. I think we all feel it, even if it is not visible to others on the outside. Yoga has polished and refined us. Asana has stripped and sweated away toxins, baggage and left only what is most pure behind. Meditation too, chanting and pranayama has taken us closer to our true selves: our quietest breath and most sonorous inner voices, the loving OM that emanates from the heart, not the chitter chatter that waylays and distracts us, sending us sometimes to near panicked distraction. Yoga has touched us all, and I have been touched by all.

From Laura, I have seen how wonderful it would be to be a mum and share your life with a natural born yogi, a carefree and inhibited being who has brought more joy and insight to me than most of the very wonderful, experienced and adept teachers on our course. From Claire, to how to be direct and assertive with a big smile, a lot of grace, good humour and generosity towards others; to look outside of yourself and give support and constructive criticism to others, using the benefit of your intelligence to value and recognise the gifts of others.

From so many of the beautiful women – too many to mention by name – I have observed what it is to be graceful, feminine, soft and strong all at the same time. To be calm and quiet in spirit and still have endless joy and energy for life. To have a zest, a passion that is unsuppressible, insurpassible, boundless. To make friends with everyone you meet – man, elephant and child – and yet remain centred and true. Truly your own. How too to have hidden talents, hidden depths, and yet let them come to the surface and shine – to sing!

To burst free with laughter, yet speak slowly softly with forethought and intelligence. To measure each word and let nothing of violence be heard, though anger, frustration and pain may linger beneath the surface – a battle with yourself that you will not pass on to others. To have a compassion and care for those around you that is not self-interested, that has no thought of reward for the ego.

To be humble; to know and accept and walk with grace within the limitations and narrow constraints of one’s own body. To have humour, warmth and self-possession, even while you let the tears freely fall, the emotion freely pour out. Not to be a harsh critic of yourself or others, but to give everything a try and revel in your own success and others. “Wonderful!”

To smile quietly and patiently, giving to and caring for others; being tolerant with your own body and sensitive to the weaknesses of others. To truly listen, not to judge first and to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, because at the end of the day “it’s only yoga.”

To use just enough effort and force to stand up, and sit down again. To work slowly at balance – on the mat and in life – allowing yourself the freedom to take a step back so that you may take that step up. And so much more. From learning a love of Savasana to a goddess-like serenity with which to sail through the heat and hassle of the toughest of days, I thank each and every one.

And I could be here all day and still not do justice to all the people who have shared their time and energy, their joy and pain. They each have their own story to tell, and it is not for me to share. I can only tell mine, but I am infinitely grateful to each and every one of them for embarking on this journey and staying the course; for being there from sun up to sun down, from alignment and anatomy through meditation and mysore to yoga nidra and yoga acrobatics. I’m not sure we quite reached Samadhi (there is only so much you can do in 200 hours after all), but we got pretty close. It was certainly joyful and blissful in equal measure. Thank you one and all.


How we are hungry

We are all thirsting, hankering, yearning for and craving one thing or another, whether it is time off from work and a holiday in the sun, or a new car to replace the one that keeps breaking down on us, that fabulous pair of shoes you saw in the shop window, or a lover to share our bed, breakfast and idle chatter with. We are all hungering for something. Me? I realise I am hungry simply for food.

This has been the persistent theme of morning meditation and yoga practise. Waking at 5:45 and under instructions not to eat or drink (too much) until breakfast time at 10am, my mind is already by 6:30am trying to figure out what to eat. Whether my tummy is ready for nourishment or not, my mind is moving in those old familiar circles, conjuring up enticing images of banana porridge drizzled with honey, omelettes with raita and roti, toast spread thick with homemade peanut butter and stacks of pancakes running with maple syrup, a pot of steaming hot coffee standing by. But I am meditating, I tell myself, and bring my myself back to the beam of clear white light emanating from the point between my eyebrows, my third eye or ‘ajna’ chakra. Sure enough, within minutes we are back there and with greater interest and attention: should I have the banana soya shake or the mango smoothie? The homemade muesli with nuts and coconut or the fruit salad and yogurt? If I had the muesli with curd then would I still want the shake? And so it goes on until I catch myself and bring my attention back, again and again and again to my third eye, a point of emptiness and peace, momentarily, from these cycles of samskara, the old familiar thought patterns that have become so enmeshed, so entrenched that I cannot distinguish them from myself – so loud and persistent are they that they seem to be all there is, all myself.

But I know this is not true. I am learning (relearning really) slowly that I can turn these thoughts off and when I do….? That is the scary thing, and my mind will try to frighten me that without these same old thoughts I will be lost, I will have nothing, life will be even worse. But, as I say, I know this is not true. I remind myself that without these thoughts I still have my breath, so I tune into this. Ah, that’s nice, a nice soothing sound, a peaceful wordless rhythm. Or is it? No, not much. It is short, choppy. It starts and ends in my chest, around my heart. The months and years of restricted eating and low-weight have put a strain on my internal organs, shrinking them, making them work harder – making my heart beat faster – to stay alive. I focus all my attention, engaging my well-trained stomach muscles and literally forcing the breath to move down deeper into my abdomen, then up into my chest and back down, rolling in and out in a wave-like motion to the sound of the waves on the beach just a hundred metres away. Imagining it massaging me, filling me, expanding me from the inside out, and focus here, inhaling and exhaling until the voices intrude and I am carried away again, bring myself back and start all over.

In the twenty minutes of meditation practise we do (after pranayama) I must gain only about five minutes of respite, of peace and ease. Tranquility. But what is better than that – at least for now – is that I am learning about myself, starting to feel and sense myself, my needs, listen to them, really wake up them in a way I have never had to do before, or at least, not for a long time – possibly the three years since I last dedicated a couple of weeks to just yoga and meditation. And what I am realising is how hungry I am and how long I have been hungry. How long I have been denying myself, ignoring these signals from my body and overriding them with the noisy chatter, the absolute controlling nonsense of my mind.

It came to a head two mornings ago when, after waking up moderately hungry, I finished meditation already totally ready for breakfast. Quick cup of tea? A banana? I don’t really like to eat or drink right before asana; even a cup of masala chai can leave me feeling sickly as we start to inhale rise up, exhale fold forward, jump back, through, up-dog, down-dog for half a dozen rounds of sun salutation. But, trying to be wise, I took the tea and watched hungrily as my friend tucked into her fruit, feeling the the pain and suffering of hunger growing as we began our class and with it the desire to leave.

But it was Joanna’s class, a modified Ashtanga – the idea being to go gentle and easy on yourself, so I made a deal with myself: I’d stay, take it easy and move through the first  half, just give my body a warming up, then I’d leave and do myself the greater kindness of having breakfast. And this is what I did, moving mindfully, feeling my body, feeling my energy low but pacing myself and actually managing to stay until the end, even through the Savasana (ironically, Corpse’s Pose – just about how I felt!) that I thought would be just torture to lie through, the ache of emptiness in the pit of my stomach, the desire for food clawing at my throat. I stayed. Albeit in tears as I realised that the suffering, the hunger I was feeling so acutely that morning, was a hunger I’ve been ignoring for a dozen years; the pain that I was suffering, a pain I’ve been inflicting on myself since I was 17.

As I say, we are all hungry for something. I was, then, at that age, hungry for life, for its opportunities; ambitious for knowledge, for credit, achievement, recognition. But in seeking to gain the world, I paid dearly – with my health, my heart, my soul. I put myself through slow starvation, an act I repeatedly keep coming back to – an old habit, a samskara so powerful and so hard to break.

But I am breaking it. I am literally breaking – breaking my heart, breaking down in meditation and asana, breaking the need to push, push, push myself… And so I am glad I stayed to the end of the practice, the hardest practice (ironically, given how slow and gentle it was) that I, perhaps, have ever done. Because with it this realisation came and promise, once again, never to put myself through such torture, but to start feeding myself body, mind and soul, working on building up the strength of my heart that I may live for and love myself – as well as all those around me. Because, as in meditation this morning when we were asked to look forward, backwards and sideways at all the people in our lives (past present and future), I know there are many people around me that I would wish to share my life with, give my time to and even be a mother to, but until I can sit and breathe easy for myself, I cannot hope to spare a breath – be it a kind word, a smile or a kiss – for all these others. So I am working on my heart, drawing life to it that it may shed life and light back out into the world. And if you wish to help me, join me, I ask you simply to repeat these words:

Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu

May all the beings in the world be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and freedom for all.


To the One

Last weekend I was in Palolem, for my sins – well, actually to visit an old friend who is teaching yoga over there, and after a lovely relaxing brunch in Little World – a hot, sultry tiny garden cafe run by a beautiful and equally hot and sultry couple, I dragged him off around the shops, for his sins, and ended up having my fortune told my an old Indian shopkeeper who was selling me a beautiful embroidered bikini top while my friend, Alan, patiently examined the array of trinkets cluttering the shelves.

“What would I do with these?” he asked pointing to a line of tiny elephants, “bury them” he answered himself – cluttering the shelves. Alan, you see, is renouncing all worldly possessions, including buying new t-shirts to replace the pink sweat-stained ones he’s been living in since I knew him back in Hong Kong; but I was, until Palolem broke me, still somewhat caught up in the excitement of lots of cheap hippy shit, Everywhere! I have since been cured of this, thanks largely to Alan’s example but also to the frustration of having young Indian guys keep trying to sell me the same hideous bikinis to replace the one that keeps getting washed off in the uber-waves. “No offense,” I tell them, “but you really have no idea.” Why won’t they listen? Are they secretly sporting these under their shirts? Somehow I doubt it.

“You have not been in good health lately,” the old Indian man said, “but you are getting stronger.” Humm, not bad, but perhaps self-evident from my slender frame and pale skin -black circles beneath my sunglasses from where I’ve been sleep-deprived by our early morning meditation practice all week. But I listen on; I’m working on my heart chakra after all, trying to keep myself open to every and all experiences and people I encounter.

“How old you?” he asks. “29. You will be married by the time you are 31.” Okay, interesting… “Your boyfriend he is very good man.” I hesitate. “You have boyfriend?” I nod. “What his name?” I tell him. “He is good man. Good family. You will be very happy, healthy. You will have big house. Two children. One girl, one boy. Girl look image of you. Boy him. You will have a big house, and a car -”

I stop him here. I have to. I cannot go along with this. Lovely though it may sound, sweet as he may think he is being in a bid to get another 200 rupees out of me, I am about to have a panic attack! Well, okay, not quite, but this does not sit right. Not only is the person in question no longer my boyfriend after having broken it off with him some three weeks ago, but I cannot and will not give myself over to the fantasy of the ultimate happily-ever-after marriage-plot ending, not with anyone. I’m just not sure I believe in that, not for me. Perhaps I did once upon a time, perhaps there was a time when I longed for it, actively sought to make it a reality, but not anymore.

If I’m wrong and in two years time I find myself married, living in a big house and with two kids and a great car, I’ll happily come back and give him his 200 rupees, but for now I’m jumping in a tuktuk and getting as far away as fast as possible, back to the peace and tranquility of Agonda, back to the beating of the waves against the shoreline that sends shockwaves though my entire body, that unnerves me as much as it thrills me, that beats harder and louder than my heart, shaking my whole being.

Because relationships. What is there to say about relationships? Too much it seems, a subject we cannot stop talking, thinking, obsessing about. Even when we have made the decision to end it, to walk away, we keep looking back over our shoulder, emailing, messaging, regretting….

Me? No, not this time. But perhaps I am different, or my situation is different. Because for the last six months, all I’ve had is email, text message and Skype communication. Words, words, words, as Hamlet famously says. And it is exhausting. Hardly a relationship at all, more a meta-relationship, a conversation about a relationship you wish you were having or once had or hope you will one day have again. Not a relationship, but an attempt not to lose the relationship you had, like two swimmers clinging on to each other to save themselves from drowning. Sweet but sad. Tragic.

Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t wish to melodramatise. I would wish we could simply be friends. Friends is easy, friends is cool. Like: “How are you?”  “Good, thanks. I ran a marathon today.” “Wow, that’s great. I went the library. The sun was shining.” Easy huh?

But we can’t stop there. Or few of us can. We want more, we want the emotional accompaniment of “I missed you. I wished you were there.” My boyfriend always said “if wishes were fishes we’d all be casting nets.” I never understood what this meant and it infuriated me. I still don’t know that I know. Something about how we’d all like to try and get what we want but we can’t? Yeah, I guess that’s true. But I’m a try-hard. Perhaps that’s part of my problem. I don’t want to just wish for things I can’t have. I either have to try for them or let them go. And that’s what I feel I’ve done: let it go. Not because I don’t care, but because I cannot go on giving my energy to a fantasy.

It all comes back to the yoga, to the need to be present in one’s body and mind, united in time and place (more or less). Lord knows I can daydream and fantasise like the best of them, but for and with myself, and to be able to bring your thoughts back, rein in your daydreams and distinguish them from real life; that seems important, not to be a fish – a wish – on the end of someone else’s line, kept dangling, kept just barely beneath the surface, not free to swim away but not wholly caught or secured either. A half life, half breathing half dying.

It is, I realise, my “fault” for letting this happen. Fault in inverted commas, because that is not really a game we want or need to play. Things happen: we fall in love, we care, we don’t want to hurt anyone (ourselves or the other), we try for things, we hope, we hold on… But at some point we realise we are hurting ourselves more. We are, to put it in the language of yoga, leaking prana – allowing our energy to be misdirected, expending so much time and thought and…well, energy thinking about, worrying about, hoping for, getting angry or frustrated or upset about a situation or a person which/who is not what or how we would like it to be and this brings us pain and suffering. We are trying to change things we cannot change, rather than accepting the situation, the person for what is, who they are and letting it go, making peace with that.

Hence, I let it go and immediately felt the energy shift within me, stir within me, and the realisation – stupid as it may sound – that I was responsible for myself, for my health and for my happiness. Instead of looking to and blaming or lamenting that my relationship, my boyfriend was not supporting me – not there to make me dinner at night when I was sh*t tired, not there to go to the cinema with me when there was a movie I wanted to watch, not here to take a walk in the park with on a Sunday, share a coffee, read the paper and have brunch… Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I felt empowered to wake up and start doing all those things for myself, just as I should have been doing all along. My health and happiness was in my hands and just like that I started to take ownership of it and have been cooking for and feeding myself ever since, with love and kindness and care: true attention to how I feel, what I need right here and now.

I can only hope my partner is doing the same, fulfilling his needs, desires, wants himself, instead of looking to me who, so far away and distant in time and space, caught up in her own issues, cannot give him the love or support he wants. Perhaps, for me, I will never be  in a place to be that person for another, but somehow I hope that is not true and suspect that once I have learnt to love myself, manage my energies and train my mind, love for others – for another – will come, just as it did before when, after a period of yoga and meditation in Bali I met him.

Until then, I stay strong to the belief that “we are on this journey, home to the one” – a one who is not the One of Hollywood movies, but a greater life force, the creator or spirit of us all, and it is not until we find and make peace with that One inside ourselves that we can truly meet with and be happy in the company of another, our other One.