Friday 7 August 2015

The perils of self-practice

As a yoga teacher, I expect myself to set a good example to my students - both on and off the mat. So when I set off for a two-month trip around Asia, I intended to keep up a regular practice, even in areas with no studio. I had visions of myself looking serene in lotus pose on sandy beaches, catching a beautiful sunrise as I finished a morning meditation, and holding tree pose as I looked out over glittering seas.

None of that happened.

I suppose I should have known that my plan was doomed from the outset, when I tossed aside my yoga mat to make more space in my backpack for bikinis and flip-flops.

But I had good intentions - in Thailand I had booked myself in for a retreat at Island Yoga on Koh Yao Noi, whose seclusion promised to be conducive to deepening my practice. And wouldn't the hot weather in Thailand be perfect for doing the Bikram sequence outdoors, followed by a dip in the pool to cool off?

The retreat fulfilled expectations: every morning was spent in a powerful two-hour class, afternoons were spent swimming in the sea, before a relaxing yin practice in the evening to unwind. It was bliss. I didn't want to leave.

But after our four days were up and we moved on to Koh Lanta, I was left to my own devices - and dependent on my own willpower. We checked in at a gorgeous resort on the beach, where we stayed in a little bungalow hut with an outdoor terrace just large enough to roll out a yoga mat (if I had brought one). Each morning I hauled myself out of bed and attempted to re-create the magic of our Island Yoga classes, but to no avail. I wasn't patient enough to hold poses for a decent amount of time, skipped the ones I found the most challenging, and found myself thinking more about the breakfast buffet that awaited me than which pose I should do next.

Still, I was practising, and that's something, right? We even noticed that our resort had its very own yoga shala which wasn't being used in low season, and we were welcome to practise in it. So for two days I tried to lead my travel partner through a morning flow sequence, trying to ignore the smells of bacon and croissants wafting from the kitchen directly below and focus on finding that independent inner yoga goddess who IS within me, somewhere.

We did it - but at times it felt more of an effort than a natural pleasure. What was holding me back? I decided - if you'll pardon the expression - to go with the flow, and only practise as and when I felt I wanted to. Freed from the obligation to do an hour's worth of stretching each day, after a few days I actually began to want to settle back into a routine practice. I even - and this is a first for me - felt able to meditate for some time afterwards, placing absolutely no pressure on myself to do so. For someone whose mind never switches off and is almost constantly active, this was quite a momentous change.

It was during this time that I realised how attached I am to committing to organised yoga classes so that I know I won't back out of practising. My type A personality needs to know exactly when, where and what I will be doing: I had booked the retreat well in advance; and before I'd even left Thailand for Bali, our next destination, I was googling the schedules of the various studios there.

The thing is, here in Asia the concept of organisation doesn't quite work the way I'm used to back home. Time is a flexible entity, classes can be cancelled at the last minute, or an opportunity can arise out of nowhere which forces you to re-arrange your schedule. All of the above scenarios have arisen while I've been here, and I've been forced to adapt my plans accordingly. At first I got frustrated: why didn't our driver show up on time, so I could make the class I'd been looking forward to all morning? Soon, however, I realised the futility of letting this get to me, and instead tried to embrace the opportunities it afforded.

For instance, having missed my planned class, I attended a later one in a different style of yoga, and my mind was opened to a multitude of approaches I had never encountered before. On another day, I was invited to a masterclass that clashed with when we were due to leave the city we'd been staying in. I was able to shift a few bookings around and stay for it, and had such an incredible experience that I'm now considering undertaking another teacher training with the instructor. Had I bound myself to my original schedule, none of these things would have happened.

When I get home, I'm going to start work full-time at a yoga studio. My working hours won't allow me the same flexibility I had as a student to attend classes pretty much as and when I pleased. But rather than let that frustrate me, I'll try to seek out the opportunities in the changes I need to make. Who knows, I might even find myself unrolling my mat at home after all, where the only thing that could possibly get in the way of my practice will be myself. Wish me luck...

Wednesday 15 July 2015

A dose of dosha

The weeks before I arrive in Kerala are a whirlwind. Sitting finals, graduating from university, moving out, leaving friends, signing job contracts, starting work - I've hardly had the chance to come up for air and take stock of all the changes. Emotions are running high, while I am increasingly running low.

So I embark upon my Ayurvedic retreat in a similar state to the burnouts and detoxers who have also made the pilgrimage to the beach resorts of this part of India, seeking serenity and rejuvenation.

I arrive in the middle of the night and check in to Manaltheeram, the sister resort of the famous Somatheeram (where the Ayurveda trend started among Westerners), flop into bed in my wooden cottage hut, and am lulled to sleep by the sound of waves crashing into the shore metres away from my door.

The next morning the treatments start. I have a consultation with the doctor to determine my 'dosha' (body type): of the three, Vatha, Pitta and Kapha, I sit between Vatha and Pitta. I fill out a questionnaire and talk to the doctor about my health before a quick physical examination of blood pressure, pulse, tongue, and eyes. The doctor then prescribes me a 'Panchakarma' therapy to detox and rebalance my body.

Each day will involve two hours of treatments to that effect, and I am to eat only the Vatha and Pitta labelled foods from the extensive vegetarian buffets at mealtimes - albeit as much as I want. The afternoon promises a two hour massage treatment to begin the process, and I can spend the rest of my time at the pool, on the beach, or in a hammock. I could get used to this.

Let's have no illusions about the therapies, though. These are hardcore, stripped-back spa treatments. There are no fluffy robes and lulling melodies in the background; here you lie on solid wooden tables while litres of ghee are poured over your body and pounded in with mesh pouches. This is preceded by having to drink a cup of the stuff.

Other days include blowing smoke from burning coals into your ears, having turmeric rubbed into your scalp, and sniffing nose drops that turn your snot bright orange. I feel and smell more and more like a greasy curry. I've never felt more attractive in my life...

A few days in I must endure the purgation treatment - or, as my roommate endearingly nicknamed it, purgatory. At bedtime I drink another ghee concoction and a few hours later I make my first of many trips to the bathroom. Suffice to say that my faith in Indian plumbing systems is now - thank goodness - resolute. The next day I can eat only rice gruel for breakfast and lunch, and rice for dinner. I am allowed fresh coconut water as a token gesture. The name 'purgatory' is apt.

Nevertheless, I must admit that I feel terrific the next day. I attend the morning meditation and yoga class with an incredible lightness of mind and body, as if restrictions that had been holding back my concentration and depth in postures have suddenly been lifted. (I begin to think of the many, many packets of emergency revision Oreos that I was no doubt still carrying in my gut...)

Even though I'm struggling to sleep and having vivid dreams (all part of the release of toxins, I'm assured) the bags under my eyes have disappeared, my skin is glowing and I feel more relaxed than I can remember for a long time indeed.

Honestly, I was quite happy to leave it at that. Physically, I felt amazing. But the next day it went a stage further. I had gone ahead of my roommate to meditation, and she arrived late, somewhat flustered. As class ended, she apologised for being late on account of having been locked in the room by me. I was so ashamed at my thoughtlessness that I burst into tears.

I had expected to get rid of the rubbish within my body this week, but I had never anticipated an emotional release as well. Had I been at home, I would have sucked it up, but every time our inspirational yoga teacher took me by the hand, a fresh gush of tears was let loose and I gave up trying to hold them back. That afternoon my roommate and I reflect on and laugh at how we both reacted, and practically float our way to dinner in the evening.

I'm not going to claim that my Panchakarma was a miracle cure, nor that the kind of 'transformative experience' I had will be shared by everyone. But just a week here has made a world of difference to how I feel, inside and out, emotionally and physically.

This is no detox for the faint-hearted. But for those brave enough to give it a go, I would wholeheartedly recommend that you do. You'll come back glowing (and that's not just the glistening of the ghee). Just don't plan any dates until you've got all the turmeric out of your hair - you'll thank me later.

Saturday 2 August 2014

The Wurst year of my life

I have just returned from a year spent in Germany – a year during which I consumed unparalleled amounts of sausage, dressed in some ridiculous outfits, raved all night to techno music, learned to enjoy beer, and fell in love with a nation. Here are some of the most memorable moments.

The majority of my time in Deutschland was spent working full-time in the Private Wealth Management division of a well-known bank – whose decision to employ me proved all the more remarkable when I discovered that my name in both its forms (Rosanna, or Rosie for short) are the names of notorious prostitutes in Germany, who have been immortalised in conveniently catchy songs to ensure that the stigma attached to these names shall never fade. Considering that I was expected to email high-profile clients on a daily basis, the firm’s decision to employ me was my first, somewhat fortuitous, example of the accepting, forward-thinking nature of contemporary German society.

Having settled into the job, it was time to find a place to live. When I came across a house shared with sixteen lovely people, the small matter of having a rather eccentric landlady who insisted I paid my rent in cash in the shisha bar down the road didn’t bother me all that much. However, she did have a slightly bothersome habit of practising her ‘street English’ in email exchanges with me, in which she would begin messages with phrases such as ‘Hey bitch!’ and ‘Yo slut!’, something which was, regrettably, alerted to the attention of the Compliance division of my brand new job. Fortunately, the open attitude of my peers and superiors salvaged me again – in fact, their patience proved inexhaustible in my case, only mildly chastising me when I attempted to send bags of gummy bears to colleagues in the London office via internal mail. Following my first visit to the staff gym, during which I had the misfortune of entering the sauna to be greeted by a senior colleague sat there completely naked, I considered myself fully integrated in the German working world.

Outside of work, I embarked on cultural activities with gusto. I donned a Dirndl and went to Oktoberfest, and discovered it is possible to drink vast quantities of beer from dawn to dusk (just try to ignore the constant, chronic urge to go to the toilet). During the Christmas markets, I resigned myself to the necessity of consuming mulled wine at regular intervals in order to keep warm – the steadily increasing levels of drunkenness that accompany this obligation being only a minor side effect. And in Cologne, as I sat on a bus wedged in between a middle-aged man dressed as a bumble bee and an older woman in a unicorn costume on their way to the Karneval parades, I cherished the thought that fancy dress parties needn’t be confined to childhood memories.

I even began to assume a number of German habits: at work I weaned myself off the procrastination pleasures of the Daily Mail news feed; subsequently, my efficiency surged at a quite remarkable rate. I soon adapted to the Sunday closure of shops, only encountering a few initial teething difficulties when I forgot to purchase toilet roll on a Saturday and, through desperation rather than intention, immediately befriended my neighbours who took a kind of bemused pleasure in providing me with emergency supplies. I even came to master the ‘Pfand’ system of returning bottles for cash, hitting the jackpot each time my house hosted a party – one time I even collected enough to pay for my weekly shop! (This was, of course, no reflection on the quantity of Bitburger and Riesling consumed in our household.)

Aside from alcohol, food is undoubtedly one of Germany’s finest features. The staff canteen churned out a dependable supply of stodgy delights such as pizza meatloaf and (a personal favourite) cornflake-crust Schnitzel, and my sweet tooth reached levels of euphoria when rice pudding, pancakes and giant dumplings with custard were served up as main courses. I did, of course, return from Germany looking wonderfully svelte and radiant.

As time went on, the Germans seem to warm more and more to this inappropriately-named expat, and I found myself in the unforeseen situation of embarking on an alternative modelling career. I was asked to participate in a modern art exhibit involving young women dressed in white headdresses, silver corsets and floaty skirts wandering around a room in an alternative interpretation of ‘The Divine Comedy’, which was filmed and can still be seen in Frankfurt’s Modern Art Museum. A few weeks later, fresh from my modelling debut, my personal trainer asked if I would mind posing for some photographs to advertise their EMS (Electrical Muscle Stimulation) service, which involves being covered in straps which are plugged in so that electric currents can be used to exercise your muscles. The diversity of my modelling portfolio is, in my humble opinion, already quite commendable.

Before I knew it, my time in Germany had flown by quicker than you could say ‘Prost!’. As my experiences confirm, it was a time of varied degrees of hilarity, humility and, most of all, happiness, feelings which culminated in the euphoric 7-1 World Cup semi-final victory that coincided with my final evening in the country. I left filled with amazing memories of the friendships I had made, the places I had visited, and the lifestyle I had experienced – a sense of admiration for a country whose brilliance was confirmed when the national team emerged victorious a few nights later.

Friday 25 April 2014

Handy no more

Last weekend I hit what felt like the lowest point yet of my Year Abroad. Thanks to a bizarre idiosyncrasy of (usually highly dependable) German design which places bicycle baskets on the back of one’s cycle, allowing one’s belongings to fall out along the road unbeknownst to the cyclist in front, my mobile phone fell to its peril as I negotiated the cobblestones of my street during my journey home from the supermarket. I rushed to the Apple Store, tears streaming down my face, clutching to the hope that the divine intervention of a hallowed ‘genius’ there might be able to resurrect it. My hopes were dashed, and alas, my beloved iPhone is no more. And so is my permanently-connected, eternally-online existence. How would I cope?

In the short term, by bawling on the shoulders of my unsuspecting flatmates, who were kind enough first of all to supply vast quantities of Milka and Haribo to ease the pain, and then a provisional device to stave me over in the interim before I sorted out a replacement.

The following couple of days were torturous. Stripped of my usual What’s App chats, Facebook feeds, Instragram images and Snapchat selfies, I felt completely cut off from the rest of the world. While I used to rush out of work to meet friends for drinks (usually arranged during the course of the day through lengthy text exchanges), I now found myself jumping on my laptop to check, via Facebook, Twitter and email accounts, that nothing drastic had occurred during my day’s hiatus from social networks. Being wrenched apart from my online presence was almost unbearable; it felt discomforting, distressing even, to think that my friends were carrying on their digital exchanges whilst I no longer had access to them.

Then, after a few days, I developed a heightened sensitivity to the extent to which mobiles seem to dominate the society I live in. During my lunch break, I realised that the colleagues I had previously felt I was engaging in conversation were at the same time carrying on digital discussions with other friends elsewhere. During the interval of a theatre production where I was seated on the end of a row of teenage schoolchildren, their only verbal exchanges related to a particular video shared on Facebook, and they were otherwise totally absorbed by catching up on the activity they had missed during the first half of the show. As I walked past a well-known tourist attraction, I couldn’t help but laugh at people pulling ridiculous faces as they attempted to frame the perfect selfie with the sight in the background. Perhaps most shocking of all was a visit to a cathedral, where a huge banner outside instructed worshippers to ‘check in’ on Facebook. Would God look favourably upon all those who ‘like’ churchgoers’ status updates? Might one’s mere virtual presence one day suffice to fulfil our religious duty, rather than turning up in the flesh (as it were) to Mass? As ridiculous as it sounds, I fear that we might be heading this way.

As I approach the end of my second week without what Germans aptly call a ‘Handy’, I’m beginning to wonder if having a smartphone really is so useful after all. Granted, I have to invest more effort to keep in touch with my friends. But a thoughtfully composed message means far more than thoughtless streams of conversation in which phrases such as ‘lol guess what’ and ‘hahaha’ tend to predominate. I’ve been forced to phone people to whom I would normally send an impersonal text, and my relationships are feeling so much better for it. Oddly enough, it feels like being digitally cut off has brought me closer than ever before to my friends.

Will I get a new phone? Hypocritical as it sounds I no doubt will, for the benefits that being easily reached brings. Although being phoneless has been somewhat liberating, in our hyper-connected world it is becoming more and more difficult to get by without being able to tap into this connectivity. But I’ll try not to forget what my experience of living without a phone has taught me, and above all remember that no matter how developed the digital world becomes, no digital experience can surpass that of real human contact. As I sat crying at the kitchen table, lamenting the loss of my mobile, my flatmate’s loving hug went so much further than an emoticon ever could have done. It might be more convenient to send a smiley at times, but never, ever should it replace the real thing.

Monday 24 February 2014

Die Qual der Wahl

Die Qual der Wahl: that’s the German way of saying ‘spoilt for choice’. It’s different to our maxim, though – ‘Qual’ means ‘agony’, ‘torture’, as if having too much choice can actually be a source of torment for some. And it’s that aspect of the phrase which reflects the situation I currently find myself in, as someone who has the benefit of so many possibilities and opportunities that it sometimes feels dizzying, overwhelming – indeed, tormenting.

I have been lucky enough to grow up with a wide range of potential professions and prospects within my grasp. Beyond the prescribed subjects at school I could choose from several other topics and activities to expand my knowledge and skills. When it came to choosing what to study at university I could take my pick from a dazzling array of courses, all of which promised superb prospects for employment in diverse fields. And now, as I approach my final year of study, so many career paths are within reach – be it teaching, journalism, consultancy, law, politics… The world really is my oyster.

It wasn’t always this way. When my parents were my age, they studied with a view to working in a closely-related field – economics was for those aspiring to work in the City, a law degree was a prerequisite to be considered in the legal profession, and so on. Now, however, with the possibilities of conversion courses, of joint degrees, of training programmes and grad schemes, almost anything is possible. We are a blessed bunch.

But sometimes so much choice can be too much. If you know that your options are flexible and there are so many possibilities to hand, there’s no need to worry all that much about making definite plans for the future, right? And anyway, university should be a place for experiencing as much as possible, both academically and socially. Surely one of those experiences will point us in the right direction, will captivate us and leave us eager to pursue it as a career?

I’ve tried my hand at leisure pursuits as wide-ranging as wakeboarding and lindy-hopping. As well as making interesting choices within my course, I’ve undertaken internships in journalism, banking and arts management. I’ve listened to a fascinating variety of speakers in lectures and at my Union, each of whom has shown me a different way of thinking or approaching life’s big questions. All of these experiences have taught me a huge amount, have helped me develop a range of skills and in the most part have given me a great deal of satisfaction. But not a single one of them has really brought me any closer to deciding what I actually want to do with my life.

In my opinion, it’s no failing of the education system, nor the many services provided to help us make these decisions. I’ve had numerous talks with careers advisors, been put in touch with extensive alumni networks, attended countless careers fairs. After each meeting, each email exchange, each discussion, I momentarily feel more resolved to pursue a certain path, until I stumble across something else that sparks my interest. And then it’s back to those feelings of uncertainty once again. A part of me envies people who have a clear idea what they want to become, as well as those who are quite happy to enjoy student life with no real idea of what will follow (I have friends who fall into both categories).

I’m young, I’m fickle, I know that. I should probably stop worrying and join my plucky student pals in their NekNominations and put off thinking about the grown-up stuff until later. But part of me feels deeply indebted to a society that has provided me with so many opportunities, and wants to give the best possible service in my professional life in return.

Suggestions as to how that might be achieved on a postcard please…

Sunday 19 January 2014

Not so hip in the Hauptstadt

Coming from Frankfurt, a city affectionately named ‘Bankfurt’ by many Germans, Berlin always feels intimidatingly hip. While I normally rub shoulders with the sharp suits of bankers on the U-Bahn, in Berlin it’s frayed denim waistcoats and high-waisted skinny jeans on nonchalant students. And while I’d like to think myself part of that effortlessly cool group, I fear I am far too mainstream to fit in.

Nevertheless, even though I might stick out like a sore thumb in their presence, I sometimes frequent the various hangouts of these hipster types, ordering a matcha latte or tofu burger in an attempt to fit in. I normally go unnoticed and they carry on their talk of their friend’s latest art exhibition or continue reading the current issue of whichever magazine happens to be ‘in’, while I lap up their immensely cool vibes and envy their exceedingly hip lifestyles.

On one visit, I happened to be staying in a hostel close to what is reputedly the hippest of hip establishments among this community: a nightclub called Berghain. At the time I was on an interrailing trip with a friend of mine; we were two naïve, nerdy types fresh out of school, ready to traipse across Europe in comfortable sandals, pac-a-macs and knee-length shorts. We figured we had nothing to lose in attempting to gain entry to the club, whose door policy is notoriously sporadic and impassable. As the heavily tattooed, leather-clad doorman looked us up and down with a somewhat bemused expression on his face, he must have thought that our socks and sandals and polo shirt attire was the tongue-in-cheek ensemble of two fashionable types (he could not have been more deeply mistaken), because – to our utmost astonishment – he let us in.

What followed was an eye-opening evening (and day – the last DJ set is scheduled for 8pm the following day…) of impossibly cool electro music in the company of ridiculously hip types drinking dubious concoctions and taking drags of goodness knows what. We, on the other hand, were thrilled to discover a secret ice cream stand in part of the club, and were perfectly content sitting on a swing whilst savouring our Stracciatella and taking in a multi-sensory experience like no other. We could not have been more out of place, though everyone was too absorbed in their own hip spheres to seem bothered.

That was four years ago. Now, as a more cosmopolitan, worldly individual, I figured I might as well fancy my chances again. So on a trip to Berlin with four English girlfriends, we donned our hippest outfits (bejewelled collars, plaid skirts, and a leather dress no less) and made for East Berlin, all secretly confident that we stood a chance of gaining access to Berlin’s infinitely cool community. It was a wet, dreary January night, and as we approached the warehouse building and noticed no queue for the club, our hearts skipped a beat: forget those stories of groups gaining no access, of the doormen being infamously unflappable – this was our moment, and the coveted entry would surely be ours for the taking.

With a well-rehearsed casual walk up to the door, I gazed at the doorman with my best poker face. And he gazed back with a look of equally well-practised amusement before shaking his head unambiguously. My heart sank. Off we plodded in our unappreciated Doc Martins and loafers, and despondently joined the queue for the club next door, which must do a roaring trade with the Berghain rejects still looking for a decent night out.

And so we swung from one extreme to another: the implausibly hip to the exceedingly mainstream. While the cool kids were rocking to electro beats, we entered to the soundtrack of ‘Cotton Eyed Joe’ and spent our night partying away to Cascada and the Vengaboys. Much as it pains me to say it, we fitted right in.

As we left the club in the early hours of the morning, it turned out that our quest to hang out with Berlin’s hipsters was not a complete disaster. There’s one area in which both the cool and the uncool share common ground, and that’s the midnight munchies. Standing in the queue for a much-needed greasy Currywurst, slightly worse-for-wear individuals of all sorts showed a mutual need for a sobering, stodgy portion of Pommes and ketchup. Standing on the platform of Berlin’s Ostbahnhof clutching a hefty Döner kebab whilst resisting the urge to fall asleep on a friend’s shoulder, I’d finally found a similarity with the cool types waiting for the same S-Bahn to take them back home. As I offered a chip to a hallowed hipster type who looked even more in need of sustenance than myself, my heart skipped a beat: I’d made it at last. It’s true – I never will be cool enough to party with the hipsters, but there are certain things that unite us all. And even if it was a mere French fry, I was happy with that.

I never will be cool. But at least I have fun.

Thursday 9 January 2014

What's in a name?

Before I embarked on my Year Abroad in Germany, I’d always wondered why I’d never met – or even heard of – a single German who shared my name, Rosie. I presumed the name was simply ‘not German’, just like British parents don’t tend to call their children Jörn or Silke.

I was wrong. It turns out that ‘Rosie’ is actually a rather loaded name in Germany. In 1981 the rock group ‘Spider Murphy Gang’ released a song about the ‘Skandal um Rosie’ (scandal about Rosie), an infamous prostitute in Munich. My flatmates told me this with great delight during our very first evening together, and proceeded to play the said song on repeat on YouTube. It has since resurfaced on numerous social occasions, during which my housemates gladly point out to our guests that this is ‘Rosies Lied!’ (Rosie’s song). Excellent.

However, there was a possible escape route from my ongoing embarrassment – using my full name, Rosanna. Curiously, I hadn’t heard this name an awful lot either, but I attributed it to the aforementioned reasons – it doesn’t sound particularly German, after all.

Once again, big mistake. Rosanna has also been sung about, this time by a group called ‘Wax’. This song does grant its namesake a few concessions – this “chick is one out of a million, she a grand prize” and she sports a “pretty face”. But beyond that, Rosanna is also a “freaky lil' mama” who “be trying to f*** all day”. As I weighed up the possible options, even Rosie’s undertakings sounded preferable to Rosanna’s jaunts.

But what could I do? Short of adopting a new name, I was in a pretty inescapable situation. I didn’t think that reflecting the personality of my new-found German alter ego would go down particularly well with my colleagues, so I’ve tried to take it with a pinch of salt and prove to them that not all Rosies share the murky connotations of their pop counterparts.

It seems it might be working – last week I even stumbled across a gingerbread iced nameplate at the Christmas markets here: a sign of my acceptance in the German community? I’d like to think so.