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.