September 12, 2011

A Meditation on Africa*

A slightly built Indian man in a white kurta appears at my door. He says his name. But I can’t understand him. His accent is too thick.

He leads me to electric cart for a brief ride up to the top of the mountain overlooking the Indian Ocean on the African island of Mahe.

When we arrive, the sun is shimmering off the surface of the aquamarine water below. I thank the man I presume is my driver and walk off.

An elephant just a week old weighs more than 200 pounds. Her mother eats grass using her trunk to rip clumps from the ground. The baby pretends to do the same thing, moving his trunk as if he is eating too. But all he pulls up is air. Once he bounces a clump of dirt on his head.

Finally, the baby walks under his mother. She stops protectively. He reaches his mouth up to her belly drinks.


My driver finds me sitting on a bench. He leads me to an open-air perch with a commanding view of beach, ocean and islands in the distance. On the wooden floor are two yoga matts. He waves for me to sit down opposite him.

He begins to chant. I close my eyes.

A clan of Hyenas rolls in dirt warmed by the morning sun. The largest female chases off an intruder. Two young sisters playfully nip at each other. As they grow one will prove stronger than the other and their play will turn lethal. There is only room for one female in line for the thrown of the clan.


I open my eyes long enough to watch the yogi demonstrate some a handful of postures. I have done them thousands of times before but never really seen them before. Then he asks me to close my eyes for good. I lay on my back with my head towards where he is sitting.

All I hear is the crashing of the waves hundreds of feet below.

A pride of lions bask in the sun of the Mara. A male wakes from his slumber. He drags himself up to a standing position, his mouth open breathing heavily. He walks slowly but deliberately over to a female. He squats behind her awkwardly.

She turns her head and roars at him. But she doesn’t move. He stands up a moment later. He walks back over to where he came from to lay down. A minute after he got up he is back asleep.

“One male is dominant,” my Kenyan guide tells me. “He will mate with all the females. His brother has to wait until he is tired to get his chance.”


The yogi asks me to tighten every muscle in my body from my toes to my head, one muscle at a time, then to tighten my whole body three times. Finally he instructs me to let it all go. “Let your muscles let go of your bones. When they hold onto your bones they also hold onto your soul. Let them all go.”

I hear the sound of big raindrops falling all around me.

A pair of cheetahs hungrily wanders through the tall grass keeping a close eye on a herd of Thomson’s Gazelles. Their small heads bob up and down as they walk, eyes marked by black tears, ears back. When they get close enough to strike they will get down low and crawl forward on their bellies.  But this time the Gazelles see them coming and run off. The cheetahs lay down on a rock to wait.


I stand with my eyes still closed. The yogi whispers for me to lean forward and then back, to the left and then to the right, in order to find my center.

The lions are eating. The females hunt but the male eats first. All their faces are red with the blood of a wildebeest, part of the Great Migration that has not made it. Each cat will gorge up to a quarter of his or her body weight.


My forehead is on the ground between my arms. I am on my knees in child’s pose, stretching forward feeling the earth below me.

A female leopard’s head is resting on a large branch. All four limbs hang down. Her paws are the size of my hands.A half-eaten antelope is wedged between two branches in a tree nearby. The leopard has killed the animal and dragged it up into the tree with its teeth to keep it from scavengers.She wakes up and makes her way down the trunk of the tree headfirst, holding on with her claws like a house cat. Her spots aren’t round like the Cheetah’s but a complex pattern of interlocking markings that look like paw prints on her back.She drinks from a stream below and then makes her way up to her kill to continue feeding.


On my back, the yogi asks me to relax each body part in order from toes to my head.

When we read my naval region we chant “ooooom” together. When we get to my throat we chant “ruuuuu” and my mouth fibrates. When we get to my head we chant “emmmm” with our mouth closed and my forehead vibrates.

On the high plateau, the grass becomes the light yellow verging almost on white. It blows gently in the wind.

A herd of elephants move through the grass silently, led by their matriarch. The male adults live alone. In this group there are several adult females and young of all ages. They move steadily, deliberately, almost as if they are gliding through mid-air.

This is grace, I think.


“Just focus on the your breath coming in and the gentle rise of your stomach and the breath leaving and the slight fall of your stomach,” the yogi says.

My toes are pointed out and my fingers are slightly curled.

I don’t know anything. I am finally still. I am far away in a distant land where nothing is the same. I am at peace. I don’t want to leave.

He is chanting again. I am sitting facing this Indian stranger. I hear the sound of waves breaking somewhere beyond him.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti,” he says when he is done.

When I finally open my eyes, he is smiling.

The sun is out.

“Is it your birthday?” he asks. Three times I ask him to repeat himself and three times he says the same thing. My birthday is in December. This is August. So I am confused.

As he drives me back down the hill, I recall the last thing he said when my eyes were closed, translating his chanted prayer, “may this feeling of relaxation stay with you the rest of your day. May this feeling stay with you the rest of your life.”

About Tom Matlack

Tom Matlack is the co-founder of The Good Men Project. He has a 17-year-old daughter and 15- and 6-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life.

* This essay originally appeared on The Good Men Project on 8/7/11.

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