It was my first ever yoga and meditation retreat.
No doubt I could have picked from any number of luxurious, poolside havens with on-site spa treatments and a Michelin star chef, but somehow my teacher had talked me into going to spend 10 days in a monastery.
With no central heating.
“Silence? You mean during the meditations?” I asked.
No, no. The whole 10 days.
I approached the monastery gates, trying to mask my rookie credentials by accentuating a John Wayne swagger (which was actually the result of having suddenly gotten embarrassed about how amateurish I look when cross-legged, and then spending the entire previous evening putting myself through a crash course in hip-openers that left me worse off than I had started).
I whispered to myself, no expectations, and then returned to panicking.
Would I like the teachers? Would they like me? Would my practice be strong enough? Would there be any chocolate? Would I meet my future ex-wife? Would I still get half-enlightened if I walked out halfway through?
Things began to settle once I got in, though. The peaceful, mindful atmosphere was infectious, and as I curled up on my paper-thin mattress I was surprisingly content, eager to see where this journey would take me.
Next morning I was one of the first up, and made my way to the morning yoga practice. I had carefully selected my spot, as we had been informed that our spot would remain our spot for the full 10 days.
Second row on the far right is the best spot in the shala (room).
Too far forward and I’ll feel that everyone is watching me, too far back and I’ll spend my time watching everyone else. And being on the right means that if there’re any Ashtanga classes…everyone will be facing away from me when we’re in Parvritta Trikonasana.
I put my mat down, selected a veritable plethora of cushions and props, and began to build my little yogic nest.
It was a good spot.
I had done well.
This was going to be okay.
The teacher entered the shala and a focused stillness fell upon us. He made his way to his raised platform and began to light incense. As he did so, I noticed that the mat in front of me was empty and I heard the rat-like scurrying feet of a late-comer entering the shala behind me. I heard the person weave their way through the seated yogis, and as he came past me, he stepped on my mat to get to his. Fair enough, I thought. He must be a little flustered and embarrassed at being the last one in, and had no doubt suffered a momentary lapse in the “mindfulness” we had all been encouraged to cultivate in the previous evening’s opening talk.
I closed my eyes and began pretending to meditate along with everyone else.
The morning practice was simple but well-taught, and breakfast was hearty and plentiful. I was feeling a little more at ease as I returned to my mat for the morning pranayama session.
My fellow yogis were committed.
I had gone to the shala five minutes early, and it was already almost full. I quickly sat down and rested my hand on my belly so that if anyone looked in my direction, they would see that I was doing preparatory breathwork and know that I was definitely as committed as them. Just as the class was about to begin, my comrade from the front row came past—and as he did, he stepped on my mat again. I had a little inward scowl and brushed the spot he’d stepped on with the back of my hand. I wanted to glare at him, but he was busying himself with blocks and cushions and lent me no attention whatsoever. I took a moment to study him. He had short hair, a medium build and was in his early 20s—amongst the youngest in the group. Maybe that would explain the grubby hoodie and garish earrings. There could be no valid excuse, however, for his ludicrously multicoloured, overly-baggy yoga trousers.
I felt a pang of guilt as I realised I was being a mean yogi and brought my focus back onto the mat.
Time to breathe.
The afternoon sessions took place outside, so I thought no more about it, and after a dreadful night’s sleep I forgot about the boy from the front row. I was struggling with this silence thingie. It was my third day, and I didn’t feel particularly enlightened yet. Where were these realisations and breakthroughs I was supposed to be making? It was 5:30 a.m. and I was shivering in a freezing shala, hips and knees aching, listening to people sniff and sneeze. I was starting to seriously question if I’d made the right choice.
All of a sudden—silent as a yogic ninja—a leg floated past my shoulder and, once again, he placed his foot squarely on the top corner of my mat as he made his way to his.
And blinked again.
There was definitely sufficient foot space, both alongside my mat and in front of my mat. Why hadn’t he just stepped there?
A gentle flutter of psychopathic rage tickled the base of my spine.
I took a deep breath.
My initial impulse was to tap him on the shoulder and give him a good, British, “Now, look here, young fellow…” But of course I couldn’t break the silence. I could only sit, simmering with impotent rage.
I tried to be objective about it. So what? I could tell from looking at him that he wasn’t doing it intentionally. He had stepped on my mat; I stepped on my mat all the time. It’s no big deal.
Maybe he didn’t realise? Maybe he was having a hard time on this retreat? Maybe he was short-sighted? Maybe he had mental health issues? Maybe next time we were in crow pose he’d fall forward and break his beak?
I berated myself and recalled that I was supposed to be all generous and selfless and humble and yogic. But throughout the practice I simply could not think about anything else. Something had to be done.
It was war.
I wanted to be absolutely sure that I was seated before him in the next session, so I wolfed down my breakfast and barely washed my plate and cutlery. I ran back to the shala and took my place. I made sure that I exposed a nice, juicy corner of my mat for him step on and I sat quietly with my hands on my knees, looking over my shoulder every few seconds, waiting for Steppy Stepperson to arrive.
My heart was thumping.
A tiny trickle of sweat ran down my chest.
The hall began to fill, and pretty much every other yogi was seated. And then. Last minute as usual. There he was. The insufferable glare from his colour-clash clown pants—unmistakeable.
I turned to face the front and sensed his approach. When he was just three mats away from me, I feigned a yawn and stretched my arms into the air. He came up behind me and with immaculate timing, I dropped my arms and casually rested my hand over the corner of my mat.
His leg came past my shoulder and he must have seen my hand because there was a fraction of a pause in the movement, as he made a tiny course correction and redirected his foot to land on the floor where it belonged.
I had done it. My heart soared! All my doubts and complaints about the retreat disappeared as I reveled in sweet success. If anyone was looking I must have seemed rather odd, beaming like an idiot at nothing at all, but I didn’t care.
My practice benefited from a newfound energy and commitment, but as the session drew to a close I began to focus on my next move. It was important to realise that I had won the battle—but not the war.
From now on, I was always the first in the shala.
I prepared my mat for stage two. I wouldn’t do the yawn trick again, as I didn’t want to rouse his suspicions.
This was an undercover op, and discretion was everything.
It was now my secret mission to—silently—understand the psychology behind his chronic mat-stepping. This time, I took one of my hair-ties and placed it nonchalantly on his favoured piece of mat. Again, I lay in wait for the arrival of The Treadinator. He came in, and I pretended to have my eyes shut…but allowed just enough space between my eyelids to carry out the surveillance. Every cell of my being was focused on the hair-tie.
I had never been so alert, so present.
He came closer and closer.
I stayed statue still.
And there it was.
As he scurried past, his foot landed squarely on the hair-tie.
I raised an eyebrow in keen interest. So, my hand was sufficient to deter him, but not a hair-tie.
I took the briefest of glances at him. I could see that he had no clue about my tactics and strategies. It was clear that his stepping was a subconscious action, and I was completely fascinated.
That night I couldn’t sleep again, but for entirely different reasons. I was planning and plotting and couldn’t wait to execute the next part of my plan.
Stage Three. This time I placed a pocket-pack of tissues on the corner of my mat, and again came close to bursting with anticipation as Joseph and the Technicolour MC-Hammer Pants drew near.
I watched in what felt like Matrix bullet-time as he faltered momentarily and avoided the tissues, stepping again on the floor. I wanted to punch the air with joy but didn’t move a muscle. I knew better than to celebrate so soon.
There was work to be done.
In The Art Of War, Sun Tzu teaches, “know your enemy,” and I was getting to know mine.
Over the next few sessions, I used a variety of different deterrents and traps…. Mosquito repellent, mala beads, a used tissue, a sock….
I had initially longed for the break periods, but now, the minutes seemed to drag on. All I could think about was getting back into the shala for the next stage.
On day six, I stepped up my game. This time, he was going to deal with an unwrapped cough sweet. I removed the packaging and placed the sweet in the centre of the exposed area. I was nervous. If he did step on it, would it stick to his sock? What would he do then?
My hands trembled, so I folded them in my lap and waited.
Everyone came in and settled down, and then our teacher came in too. I sniggered to myself. Feets McGee was even later than usual!
The teacher sat down, and she began the opening chant.
My man was nowhere to be seen. I looked over my shoulder and then looked again.
I removed the sweet.
What had happened?
Maybe he had fallen back to sleep? Maybe he was sick? Maybe he couldn’t handle the silence and had walked out of the retreat?
My blood ran cold.
If he had walked out, then that was. The end of the mission. What would I do now? It was the highlight of my day!
And then it dawned on me.
And then I had my revelation.
And then I had my breakthrough.
“It was the highlight of my day.”
A short while ago, every time he had stepped on my mat, my reaction had been fury and righteous indignation. But now, the very same action was giving me joy and delight.
I stared at his empty spot.
I felt a rush of blood to my brain—and I understood.
Perception is everything.
I began to see that my natural impulse had, for the longest time, been to judge, find fault, be a victim…Not just with this mat incident, but with pretty much any situation I encountered. A negative state of mind was my default setting. And I had been completely unaware.
I felt shell-shocked.
I had spent hours, even days, getting angry about something that I was equally capable of enjoying. And the only product of that anger was to further my own suffering! He had changed nothing about his behavior—but I had changed the way I responded to it.
My anger was a choice.
And if I could shine the light of awareness on it, just a little, it was a choice I didn’t have to make.
I spent the next few hours in a bit of a daze, and after that my relationship to the retreat took on a whole new quality. I started to quietly watch myself.
And sometimes, if I was lucky, I would catch one of those negative reflex actions, and ask myself if that was the only reaction available to me.
Now, of course it takes time and practice to change a lifetime of habit, and I’m not saying I transformed into Mahatma Gandhi overnight. No, no, I still catch myself wanting to guillotine little old ladies when they push in front of me at the post office. But, more and more often, I do catch myself. And I think back to the retreat, and I think back to the affair of the mat, and I’m able to take a breath, smile, and let it slide. That Buddha bloke was onto something when he said, “holding onto anger is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die.”
As it turned out, my friend from the front row had not left at all. He wasn’t even sick; he was just a little bit later than usual. And as he scuttled past me (treading on my mat) I gave him a smile. He didn’t see it. Actually, I’m not sure he ever saw me at all. And on the final day, he disappeared before I had the chance to ask him his name.
So, to my Twinkle-Toed Teacher, if by any sort of serendipity you happen to read this story—you taught me more than you will ever know. I thank you, and I raise a cup of masala chai in your honour.
Author: James French
Images: Author’s Own
Editor: Toby Israel