For I have had too much of apple-picking (aka “please no more, yoga!”)

Apple-picking?!

Let me explain – okay, admit: I really didn’t want to get up this morning. Like really. 

We’re into week three of the yoga course now, which is about 74 hours done and another 126 to go. And just so you know, it’s pretty much not stopped raining since we started.

Not that it’s outdoor yoga. This is Hong Kong after all. No open-sided shalas here, just your regular, bog-standard Hong Kong studio: tiny, arms almost reaching the ceiling and certainly touching my neighbours, heavily air-conditioned… So what am I complaining about? Oh I don’t know, only that to get to this wonderfully serene yoga sanctuary in the heart of Sheung Wan, opposite the towering Cooked Food Market, I have to abseil down from the Peak, navigating white-water torrents of gushing rain water, dodging umbrellas and slip sliding my way through the-morning-after-the-night-before Soho streets (eugh!) to finally arrive, ass-wet through, at morning meditation on my poor water-logged travel yoga mat. Sigh.

No wonder I didn’t want to get up this morning and that, even having gotten up at 5:38am and had a quick shower and sat slumped over a sad and sorry cup of chicory coffee, I still didn’t want to go but very nearly climbed straight back in bed (but woefully didn’t). And no wonder that, hiking the 2.7 kilometers back up the hill in the still-pouring rain, I was wishing that I had.

But it’s not just the rain. The rain I think I could live with. It’s worse than that: it’s the yoga.

“But I thought you loved yoga,” I hear you cry.

Yes, I do. I did. I thought I did. I think – no, I know – I still do. But everything has it’s limit and I think I am finally reaching mine with yoga. Not only am I practising the physical asanas for anything from 90 minutes to three, three and a half hours a day – which, to be honest, sometimes, when I have been really bored and had nothing else to do, have been known to relish – but I am now dreaming about it at night.

Again, to be honest, I have dreamt about yoga before too, but not like this, not sequencing, sequencing, sequencing, and not every single night!

You might think I am working too hard – an accusation I am used to accepting and often level against myself – and it is true we do have a 90-odd minute (depending how quick or slow you are, how many postures you leave out or how many vinyasas you throw in) routine to learn, a sequence devised by our teacher which we have to learn off my heart and be able to teach to the rest of the class at a moment’s notice. So you might think I am spending every waking moment memorising the warm-up, sun salutations, standing series, core section, balances, backbends, hip openers and closing segments. But I am not. Really. I have enough confidence (yes, both arrogance and faith) to know that the sequence will come naturally, with time; that I know most of it already from having gone through it the past two weeks and that, anyway, if you forget a bit or miss something out it doesn’t matter too much. So, no. For a change I am not being a complete control freak or grade-A geek and swotting up on my sequence night and day, but whether I like it or not it is working its way around me – body and mind – and I am practising it even in my sleep. Aiya.

What do they say about ‘no rest for the wicked’?!

So, I am seriously having to consider taking some time out from yoga – even from the yoga course itself. Maybe I should have stayed in bed this morning, shouldn’t have bothered spending an hour and a half hiking through the rain to get to and back from meditation and asana class. Maybe there is more to life than yoga. Maybe there is more to yoga than asana! Because while the arm balancing was fun (side crow into koundinyasana), hiking all the way back up here, with groceries (because even when there is not a single free taxi to be found a girl still needs her grapefruit and pineapple), was exhausting. Truly. And suddenly throwing ourselves around into strange half-upside positions, spending so much energy trying to get our legs a few inches off the floor, our asses higher than our heads etc etc, seems… Well, stupid. A big expense of spirit. A waste. A shame. (As Shakespeare might say.)

Okay, maybe that is taking it a bit far. I don’t really believe all this. It is merely an indication of how I am feeling about my energy – high, low, insufficient, surplus (I wish!)… And where I am coming to in terms of what I want to give that energy to. As I was saying to some good old friends over dumpling lunch yesterday, I am eating more now (as compared with five months ago), I am able to be less restrictive and I am careful to eat a fuller, more varied diet, but I am – thanks to the amount of exercise I am doing – still only the same weight I was five (and even nine – after a week’s enforced starvation in India!) months ago: drastically underweight for my height; and my periods are still only on prescription, courtesy of the contraceptive pill. I may be getting better in some ways, but I know it will still take time and self-care before I able to reach my ideal, healthy weight and be happy with and in myself, not suffering energy lows or blood sugar spikes; not having to worry, for example, about eating too much white rice or too many fried dumplings, cream cakes etc as even the nicest meal or most well-intentioned treat from a friend sends my system into freak out for several hours. And it’s hard making people believe that you’re avoiding cakes not because your crazy scared they’ll make you fat but because they actually make you crazy scary ill!

So I am having to make a decision: to continue pushing myself through the physical yoga training or not, to continue my aspirations to be a yoga teacher or not. Or perhaps I do not have to decide anything. Perhaps I let my body speak for itself, my heart, my soul.

Because I made a commitment – and it was the memory of this that got me walking through the rain to class this morning (I look up and through the window outside to see that, yup, it’s still raining) – I made a commitment to the course, to myself, to yoga… But yoga, what does that really mean?

I have had many conversations with many people over the past few weeks since arriving in Hong Kong, and even in the months in England prior to leaving for Goa, with people – dear friends and family members – who claim simply, or rather apologetically or nervously or defiantly, not to be able to do yoga.

“I’m like Iron Lady,” one friend said to me, “I don’t bend.”

Another: “I don’t believe in any form of exercise that has a name. Gardening, cooking, walking the dog…that is my idea of exercise,” she explained.

As I listened to my friends I did not think how wrong they were or to try to explain to them the importance of stretching their muscles or toning their body, or learning how to deepen their breath to Darth Veda levels so the people across the street can hear. I thought instead how perhaps for them they do not need to go to class to learn how to bend backwards or twist themselves into weird shapes to get at the deepest, most inaccessible layers of fascia known to man. Perhaps these people – the wonderful friends and family around me – are already bending over backwards in their daily lives, helping other people, helping themselves, walking their dogs, cooking for their friends, going shopping for baby clothes with their expectant wives, picking up the pieces whenever a colleague lets them down, being there to listen to the woes of others and only talking about their own with a smile that says “I’m coping.” Perhaps these people already live their days so mindfully, counting each breath, each moment and not wasting a single second, so that for them a yoga class would be “an expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” Perhaps for them the joy of handstand does not come after weeks and months clinging to and then trying to un-cling from a wall in a studio, but from the spontaneity of finding yourself alone on the beach at sunset with the energy and heart to leap up on to your hands and feel the grains of sand beneath you. Perhaps there are such people who are yogis already, without having matching pants and vest from Lulelemon. And perhaps I would like to be such a yogi, giving my time and energy to helping and healing others first, or even to helping and healing myself, rather than to getting up into an arm balance or headstand before breakfast. Perhaps…perhaps…perhaps….

But for now, I can’t give up. I did make a commitment and that includes to all the other people on the course, the people who do want to learn to be a teacher and do have the physical, mental and emotional energy to endure. Whatever feelings I am experiencing now, whatever thoughts or realisations I am coming to, can wait. To quit or back out would be selfish and would, I know, later be felt as a missed opportunity to learn about something  more than just asana. So for now my yoga is to keep going, even when part of me – for good and less good reasons – would like to give in, sleep in and dream about something else. I know I have other dreams, and if one of these dreams is to be a yoga therapist, then good: keep at the yoga! But if there are other dreams yet undiscovered or unfulfilled then let’s give more of our waking energy to them and save perfecting koundyasana for another day, another week, another lifetime. There will always be another of those, but there is only one of this.

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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.