A Yogi’s Tale (an Ashram story in 3 parts). Part 1: ”Body”

The decision

“No, seriously, I think I might do the Teacher Training Course – for a laugh.”

It was Boxing Day. I had been doing Yoga for six days. The idea of becoming a Yoga Teacher was preposterous really, and I uttered these words more as a provocation to the world than anything else.

On the other hand… granted there were many more accomplished Yogis than me on the “Christmas Yoga Vacation”, but hell, I was enjoying the challenge, the physical exercise was doing me good, and the Sivananda Yoga website clearly started no experience required for Teacher Training. So why not, I thought? What a laugh!

But as the sun rose on 2009 a week later, and I found myself by the beach in Varkala having left the Ashram for a few days, I was definitely having second thoughts.

The attractions of the sun, sea and sand determinedly gnawed away at my cocky “Why not?” A timid little voice crept inside my head – “Errrrmmm… hold on… why?” I was genuinely flummoxed. I canvassed opinion from other vacationers on the beach. Their reactions, which varied from incredulity (for obvious reasons) to downright disgust (that I could think such a thing would be funny) didn’t particularly help. What to do?

Left to my own devices as the other vacationers slipped away leaving me alone with my (in)decision, I tried to listen to myself. Heart said yes, head said not sure. If this journey’s about anything I told myself, it’s about following your heart. No contest. It was on.

Part 1 – Body

The prospect of four weeks of intensive Yoga Asanas (the physical bit which we did for 3-4 hours a day) filled me with both excitement and trepidation. The excitement came from the thought that I might at last convert my weary body from a creaking liability to a semi-useful tool for life; the trepidation stemmed from a concern that it all might prove to be a bit beyond me. Both proved to be true.

It was clear from the first class that our teacher was going to be popular. Mani Chaitanya, already in charge of the Delhi Centre in his mid-30s, had a strong presence and marshaled his team of assistant teachers with remarkable control.

During the initial classes, the two weeks of credit from the Yoga Vacation I had just completed stood me in good stead. I was just about able to hide away my inability to touch my toes as Mani expertly drilled 175 students in the clearly defined Sivananda Yoga format, developed around the belief that Asanas should balance relaxation, breathing control, and exercise in equal measure.

The problems started towards the end of the first week with the introduction of Sirshasana, the headstand. I became a little concerned. How would I ever be able to complete such a ridiculous posture? Still, I was consoled in the knowledge that I was not alone, as fully 25% of the class struggled to complete this “King of Asanas” at first attempt. “Practice, practice, practice” we were told. “But how? But how? But how?” said my stubborn mind.

As if to compound the pressure, Mani gently started introducing what he mischievously termed “Variations” in Week 2. The headstand was nothing on some of these moves. As feet started disappearing behind necks, arms were linked around ankles, and legs started protruding at awkward angles into mid-air, I became seriously conspicuous. My muscles and joints started to protest more loudly.

The queue for questions at the end of each class started to grow. I joined it. “Errm… my neck’s hurting a bit and my knees playing up – any ideas?” I asked tentatively. The response was brutally simple. “Good. Your body is opening up. Next please.”

This brutal disregard for personal discomfort, while slightly concerning for a hypochondriac Westerner used to (at least on the surface) sympathetic NHS doctors, was strangely motivational. I was reminded of something I had heard a drill sergeant in the French Foreign Legion say on TV once – “Pain is God’s way of telling you that you need to try harder”.

And the truth was, my body was opening up. I attended daily the additional coaching classes, and set myself goals for getting the headstand right. I decided to at least try everything once, even if it was plainly light years beyond me. And most important of all, I concentrated on my own development, doing my best to ignore the incredibly contortions of lithe young girls in their 20s who had been doing this for years. Comparisons, as they say, are deeply odious.

By the beginning of the third week, the energy highs and energy lows were coming thick and fast. Mani called us on it. “You look tired. What you want to do?”

“Swim in the lake!” came the unanimous response. Our leader looked slightly disappointed. When he had asked the same question of the previous Teacher Training Course, they had responded “108 Sun Salutations!” – the heart-pumping series of dynamic movements used as a warm up, normally in no more than groups of 10.

During the final week we were yet again taken into new territory. We completed the cleansing Kriyas (see previous post), and survived Mani’s version of the “BBC” (Back-Breaking Classes). We did our class of 108 Sun Salutations. We were introduced to Advanced breathing techniques (including the “Anal Lock” the details of which I will spare you of), and taught to teach Pregnant Mothers, Children and Golden Oldies. We were even given a show from the 8-year old Under-10 Yoga Champion of All India demonstrating some mind-boggling poses.

It was all far more enjoyable than I expected, and a lesson in how the mind can overcome most obstacles. In the final “meditative yoga” class (see previous post), I even managed to hold the headstand for over three minutes, unthinkable only 10 days previously.

And then suddenly it was over. I had survived – more than that, I had benefited enormously.

At the end of the course I was left to reflect on what I had achieved. Six months previously I had been worrying over results of an MRI scan on my neck in Harley Street consultation rooms. Now, over the past six weeks, I had done 3-4 hours of yoga on all but 7 days, and gained a Yoga Teaching Qualification (even if that is somewhat theoretical without better personal practice). Not many people get the opportunity to do that.

Physically, I couldn’t really have asked for more. But the physical bit was only half the story.

[Click here for Part 2”]

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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, India '08-'09, South India

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