A true story.
It’s coming towards the end of January, 2001—and the end of my one month yoga teacher’s training course in Kerala, India.
It’s been the longest month of my life—bar none. I’ve been ill for most of that time with bronchitis, tonsillitis, and flu (yes, simultaneously) and I never would have believed that it was possible to feel quite so useless. Having never been seriously ill in my life, and having come here with the idea that I would become God of Asana, it’s been a humbling experience. To say the least.
When I first arrived here a month ago, jet-lagged beyond belief, I shared a room with a 52-year-old French guy who, a few days into the course, accused me of stealing his money. I was evicted from the room, and since then the whole French contingent have been giving me the evil eye. Standing in line for morning chai and feeling 15 French faces burning a hole into my guilty-until-proven-innocent back didn’t make me feel better…
Next, I shared a room with a 52-year-old Serbian chap (Rade) who accused me of sitting on his pillow. I may well have done that by the way, as I admitted openly to him—I’ve been feverish to the point of hallucination, and some days didn’t know my own name, let alone my own pillow. However, this upset him so much that he wouldn’t speak to me (until recently)…needless to say the atmosphere in our little room hasn’t been all that amiable. That didn’t make me feel better either…nor did the fact that said Serbian snores frighteningly loudly, and gets up an hour early each morning for an extra hour of meditation. So his alarm goes off at 4.30, and then he does Neti (otherwise known, rather charmingly, as “nasal irrigation”) in the tiny toilet joining our room. Most days I am just drifting off to sleep when his alarm goes off, so I have an hour of sleep interspersed with the sounds of his snot hitting the toilet water. Nope, that hasn’t helped much.
One of those mornings, when Rade’s alarm went off, I started crying. I was really at the end of my tether, so to speak. I didn’t think I could handle any more of this relentless hardship. All I wanted was to go home and get a hug from my girlfriend. The thought of that hug…well, at that moment, I was closer to quitting than I’ve ever been in my life. I cried for a while while Rade cleaned his nose out very thoroughly nearby, feeling very, very sorry for myself…and decided to stick at it. I steeled myself for more days and nights of misery, but I wouldn’t quit. I decided.
That decision didn’t help me to feel better anytime soon, but I think it might have almost saved my life!
I really haven’t slept much. We work and study each day ‘til late, then have homework, and by the time we get to sleep it’s almost time to get up! Together with the jet-lag, the snoring, the early starts, and the mosquitoes.
Oh! I didn’t mention the mosquitoes. Well, let’s just say that they are big; ubiquitous; and hunt in savage packs, like rabid dogs.
So, all in all, I haven’t had much sleep lately.
The schedule itself is relentless! We have two asana classes a day (two hours each), meditation and chanting twice a day, endless lectures on the Bhagavad Gita, Kirtan (chanting), anatomy, yoga theory…an hour of Karma yoga, which for me entails filling a large barrel of water with buckets from the lake. That would be fine normally, but since I can barely raise my hand, carrying buckets of water is pretty difficult.
We only get two vegetarian meals a day. I’ve never heard of that before. Where I come from, everyone says that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” Well, here there is no breakfast. They also say that you can’t survive without meat because you won’t get enough protein. Well, we’ll see won’t we!
Speaking of which, I’ve just remembered a funny conversation I had with my Dad. I called home after about a week, and told him about the food situation. He told me that he’d read an article on cults. Apparently, cults brainwash people by starving them of protein—or so he read. ‘Watch out’, he said. ‘If you start feeling weak and susceptible, come right on home’.
Thanks Dad, very encouraging.
Recently though, I have been slowly feeling better.
I think that the massage helped a bit—the one where I lay naked on the hard stone floor while a fat, hairy Indian man walked up and down my arms, legs, and body, grinding my joints into the ground with his heels – he narrowly avoided breaking me in half by hanging on to a rope that hung from the ceiling. Perhaps when he massaged my genitals with his feet…yes I believe the sheer shock of that moment did me some good after a month of strict routine.
The chanting has definitely helped. When I first arrived, I was surprised to hear a chorus of strange, loud sounds coming from the building in the middle of the Ashram. Unlike any music I’d ever heard before, it was alien and uninviting. When I was sat in the middle of that hall the next day, and for the following weeks, and urged to join in the chanting, I couldn’t get past the fact that I didn’t understand what the words meant (what if Dad was right?!).
But slowly, the words of one of the teachers here began to sink in: “stop resisting.”
And one day, I found myself chanting with the best of them, lungs pumping like pistons, and tears streaming down my face as I somehow felt myself yearning for something that I didn’t understand. That yearning, that yearning…yes, that made me feel better.
I’m sure all the asana practice has helped too. When I arrived, I thought I was pretty damn good at the old asana. I figured I’d be one of the best here, and they’d probably be asking me to demonstrate stuff, and people would probably want to photograph me.
However, I was shocked to see that many of the people here can do things that I’ve never heard of and probably won’t ever be able to do. At first, I was pretty peeved about that. But soon I was too ill to think about it, and after a while the asana practice just started becoming, well, less competitive really. I stopped thinking about what I looked like, and what they looked like, and I just started breathing deeper. Deeper than I’d ever thought possible. It was like my whole body was one big lung! And each cell was breathing in harmony with every other cell, and the inhalation and exhalation were flowing into each other, and well, even though I could barely do much at all, what I did do felt great.
I’ve decided that I may not ever be able to do those asanas where you get your legs behind your head and then walk around on your fingertips, but I’m going to work hard at doing what I can do, and I’m going to master it. Setting myself that kind of goal without being attached to the result, felt good.
I know the meditation helped. Sitting still for 30 minutes, observing my breath, repeating the mantra until my mind becomes so focused that all other thoughts dissipate and there is only this vibration happening, which is my life, my breath, my self, now…doing that twice a day has definitely helped. I’m going to keep on doing that, because when I do, I feel great.
And now here I am, up a mountain. It’s 6 am, on a cool January morning, and the sun has just risen. We all walked up this mountain together, in silence, in the dark, and meditated while the sun came up and warmed our faces. Then we chanted to the sky, to the jungle, to the universe…
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