Agonda Diaries – week two

After the seismic activities of last week in Agonda, it’s been a fairly calm and restorative one. Partly because I’ve slipped back into doing morning yoga at Sampoorna Yoga School and using the office there a few mornings a week. It’s lovely to feel part of the yoga village again, and to catch up with a few yogi friends.

A dog that used to run in and out of class during my training has now been adopted by the school – it’s a bit sad to see him chained up in the morning, but I can see why he is. His unbridled joy when he’s let loose towards the end of breakfast time is a sight to behold – he sprints round and round the restaurant.

It’s taken a while for my beach dog pack to realise who I am again, but finally Sanjo and Zimbo (who live at Jardim do Mar on the beach) have resumed their customary massive run at me every morning and follow me down the beach. They caused a bit of doggy mayhem by following me all the way home this time, upsetting the dogs that patrol the main street outside Kopi Desa – Zimbo looks so upset when I don’t ‘save’ him from them as any good pack leader would.

Sanjo and Zimbo – the highlight of every morning on the beach

After last season’s dog bite, I’m not taking any chances, so I carry a bamboo stick in the morning on my beach walk. That’s the time when the dog population of Agonda is at its most lively and whilst they’re probably playing with me, sometimes that play turns into a biting match. They’re quite rough with each other, so you can see where it comes from. The stick works as a preventative measure – I don’t intend to start using it, but it seems to ward off unwanted attention just by having it. Even my pack are a bit wary of it.

One of the highlights of this week was walking past my two pig neighbours who were fast asleep and making cute snuffly noises. I heard that their piglet had died in a bike accident so I hope they managed some trouble-free sleep. Bless them…

Sleep well, Mr and Mrs Pig

This week I’ve witnessed the early morning catch a few times, when the fishermen of the village pair up to drag the nets in by man-hauling them ashore. I’ve only ever seen them when the nets are already in and on the beach so I didn’t know that this is what they did each morning. It’s like watching a silent tug-of-war as two teams of men haul each side of a net in to the beach.

One of two teams of men hauling in each side of a net, watched by dogs – 7am

The full moon earlier this week caused some really strange happenings on the beach. One on day, the tide seemed to be sucked right out all day only to be thrown back at the beach at sunset. Even Vasudev was worried about his boat – I saw it pitch violently as it came back to shore on the crest of a big wave. I knew it was a tidal thing, but it did an the eerie pre-tsunami feel to me.

The town has been very quiet in the wake of the cyclone and the demolitions that took place last week and I have spent some time fighting the scaremongering that’s going on about Agonda online. “It’s a war zone,” said one British guy, annoying me so much because it’s still the beautiful town and beach it always was, just minus his favourite bar. I can see people talking about not coming here because of what they’ve heard and it makes me so angry – Agonda needs the tourist business more than ever and people are so ready to desert it just because their favourite bar closed. I am pretty sure it will have recovered by Christmas.

Yet again I’ve met some interesting people this week. Peter the ex-teacher and psychologist who has a particular interest in left- and right-handedness, swam with me for a bit at ‘rock beach’. He talked to me about the ‘tyranny of the right’ and how we are all unconsciously persuaded to use our right hands to write. Being a leftie I am so glad my parents let me use my left hand after a short period of ambidexterity as a child. I think they did that because my uncle had been left with a stammer after being forced to use his right hand as a child.

At Sampoorna I’ve also met Meritxel and Adri from Spain who are running Yoga Sin Fronteras (Yoga Without Borders), a non-profit organisation bringing yoga to disadvantaged people around the world. I’m so impressed with their drive and optimism, I’ve been lending an editorial hand on their website. It’s one of those ideas that you think should have been done already. The best ideas are always like that.

And finally, I can reveal that I have found a Secret Swimming Location. I have found it difficult to swim in the sea so far (dolphins spotted right at the shore’s edge this week!) because of the huge full moon waves and general fear, but I have been granted access to a small pool where I can practise my new swimming skills in peace. I’m not sharing the location because technically I’m not supposed to be there, but boy, I’m glad I am. The water is freezing cold and when I float on my back I can see a circle of palm trees and eagles (they look like kites) soaring above them. Perfect after a hard day at the office…

Agonda Diaries – week one

I think we can safely say that this has been rather a dramatic week, and not only because I have uprooted myself from my London home to move to Goa for six months.  

When I got here, Cyclone Kyarr had just departed the shores of Agonda and has left the beach strewn with debris. I have read that it reached the intensity of a category 4 hurricane, and is the strongest storm recorded in Goa for twelve years. The winds reached 155 miles per hour.

I spoke to the boys at the local bar, Kopi Desa, and they said they hid from the storm at Love Bites, my new cafe find. Despite three earlier visits to Agonda, I never went in there because of the name. Now I find that it’s a perfect bohemian hang-out, complete with rooftop chill area, and the cheapest good Thali in the area at 200 rupees. Waiter Umesh saved a small puppy from the storm, Orson, giving me another reason to use Love Bites as a remote office.

Umesh and Orson

Little did I know that there would be another cyclone hitting the town in the form of 200 policemen and women with a number of JCBs, set to demolish twenty-two illegal shacks on the beach. For anyone who tells me that Goa isn’t the real India, well let’s just say I’ve seen the real India this week. I’m not going to discuss the whys and wherefores here, but the town is still in shock. The threat of this has hung over Agonda since I’ve been visiting but, as a local friend told me, no one expected it to happen. It’s the first time in twelve years of working here that they’ve seen anything like it.

If all of this devastation wasn’t enough, I arrived with my own mini-cyclone in my stomach, picked up at Oman airport in a suspicious frittata. It’s always bad eggs with me – I once thought I was going to die from one in Kenya. I spent my first night hunched over a toilet, moaning in agony. Still, I thought, at least I’ll be beach-body ready.

Having recovered from that, I’ve set about reconnecting with all my friends here – Vasudev who runs Tranquil River Tours; the boys at Kopi – Shubham, Ram, Kapil, Shiva and Manoj; Mr Happy at Agonda Villas; Dinesh, Binesh, Ajay, Malika, and Manish from Simrose; Sudhir and Veena from Sampoorna Yoga School, and Gita who has her own stall near Kopi.

One of the joys of staying here is how many conversations I get to have every day. I can be in London and know my friends are all around me but only properly connect with them on social media or at a pre-arranged time. Here, I physically see people every day and have a chat. It’s part of the ritual. I’m trying to wean myself off my phone so I tend to leave it charging in my room.

And then of course there are my animal friends. I found out from Mr Happy (aka Anandu, which means ‘bliss’), that White Horse, star of a previous blog post, has died. Thank goodness Sweetpea is still here at Simrose, but she is out of sorts. Another beach dog has moved in and taken her place as lead Simrose dog. She is lying sulking under benches every day, because he takes no notice of her barked warnings.

Sweetpea – Queen of Agonda

Zimbo and Sanjo, my pack, are still there on the beach, Zimbo sporting an anti-rabies green marker on his head – he must have been vaccinated as part of the Mission Rabies project here in Goa. Apparently they have vaccinated over 12,500 dogs so far. Having been bitten last year, I’m glad to hear that, but now that I’m running on the beach a few times a week, I have taken to carrying a big stick just in case. It’s usually one dog that goes feral and that’s all it takes.

Coca Cola the cow is still hanging out in bars and cafes in town (I heard another Brit call her ‘CC’ yesterday) and Papaya the grumpy dog is in residence at Kopi. I’ve also spotted ‘Gammy’ – Agonda Villas’ dog with a broken leg, and ‘Phantom’ – the black-and-white-faced dog that hangs out with him.

Coca Cola tries out the vegan food in Zest

I’m now trying to establish a routine that is panning out to be morning exercise – either yoga, running, walking or swimming – followed by late breakfast and then I start work around noon until 4pm. Then it’s time to walk in the evening sun and catch up with everyone on the beach. I work again in the evenings on my writing or editorial projects, depending on what’s going on and the wifi connection. Goa borrows its electricity from neighbouring state Karnataka so it can be an on-off affair, especially during the recent post-cyclone storms.

And of course those wonderful stranger conversations have already started happening. I met Peter at the swimming beach (south end) yesterday, a former teacher and child psychologist who told me about his work on left- and right-handedness, and how forcing a child to work with the other hand can lead to disharmony and abnormal behaviours. I spoke about the Ida and Pingala, the two sides of the body we learned about in yoga training – the left being passive, thoughtful, cool, guided by the moon, the right being active, physical, hot and guided by the sun. The goal of yoga (or one of its many goals) is to achieve balance between the two.

Then I met a wonderful young couple at Kopi who had met here – he, a German childcare professional and she, from Calcutta, a film producer. We had one of those conversations that I can only have here. We were talking about what makes Agonda so special and he said it was something about it’s reflective quality, a mirroring of yourself. I laughed and said I’d come to exactly the same conclusion and I’d talked a lot to my therapist about the reflective quality of the light here. There is something in it that shows you who you really are or who you could be and it makes you rethink everything. It’s hard to articulate but all who come here seem to know what it is.

I have twenty-five weeks here, and have completed one, and I intend to post a diary entry every week. I hope you’ll join me on this adventure. I’m not sure what will happen after the six months are up but I’m sure Agonda will show me the way.

The Quality of Mercy

It was my mum’s 91st birthday this week, or it would have been, if she’d still been alive. I’ve been thinking a lot about kindness recently, and it always brings to mind one of her favourite quotes, from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…

Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I

I always hear it in my head when I experience or witness an act of kindness and for a moment, I see the gentle rain, and realise why I quite like it falling on me from time to time. It’s beautiful.

It fell on me recently and unexpectedly when I was on a hiking weekend in the South Downs with friends. Uncharacteristically, I hadn’t brought a waterproof jacket with me because the weather forecast hadn’t predicted any rain at all. And here it was, going from gentle to persistent downfall in a matter of minutes. I spoke to Sue, the manager of the Eastbourne YHA we were staying in to see if she had a bin bag I could fashion into a poncho. “Just a minute,” she said, disappearing into the office. She came out holding her own waterproof jacket, “Just post it back to me when you’re done. Here’s a jiffy bag with the address on it.”

I was utterly amazed that someone would offer such a thing and thanked Sue for her kindness. “Well you’d do the same for someone, wouldn’t you?” she replied. No, I’m not sure that I would, actually. And a straw poll of my friends revealed they probably wouldn’t either. I wished I was more like Sue. We all did.

I felt a warm glow for the rest of that day, especially as the rain dissipated after an hour or so and the sun came out. I remembered the last time this had happened – the woman who bought me a coffee when I didn’t have any cash in my local coffee shop and their card reader was broken. “I’ll buy you one!” she’d said brightly, stunning me, the staff and everyone around her with this random act. I felt that warm glow all day.

Why are these moments so rare and so surprising? Maybe it’s because I live in London and everyone is surprised by someone even talking to a stranger. One of the many benefits of my recent yoga teacher training is that it introduces and reinforces the idea that we are all connected – human, animal, plant, elements – in one vast totality that is the universe. When you look in someone’s (or something’s) eyes you witness a ‘divine light’ that resides in all of us.

In our first week of training we took part in a partner yoga session that had us all moving slowly from one person to another, holding their hands and looking into each other’s eyes for a few seconds. That’s all it takes. You look, you see, you connect. Most of us cried our eyes out for a reason we couldn’t quite articulate. It seemed to me that we rarely look at each other in the eye, especially in London. Truly seeing someone or being seen is to be vulnerable. I know, because it took me a week to be able to look our course director, Sudhir, in the eye. Maybe I was worried about what he would see…

I turned up at the training desperate to impress. Surely, with my track record of professional presentations and ballet teaching I will shine at this. Then Sudhir started to talk about how we are all plugged in to a life-force (prana) in the totality and how we express its energy differently. If we imagine it as electricity, then we can express it as a lightbulb or a fan, even a fridge or a hairdryer. The important thing to know is that we are all unique expressions of the same thing and we are all connected by it.

I asked Sudhir why I was so desperate to shine, even to outshine others. I didn’t want to be a regular lightbulb, I wanted to be the biggest, best, shiniest Christmas light and I was exhausted by trying to achieve it. He looked down and smiled, “You have to realise that you are enough already. What are you trying to prove? And to whom? It is done.”

I didn’t have an answer to that. It was literally a lightbulb moment. I realised that I didn’t have anything left to prove, to others or myself. I could just be. I could just be a lightbulb who shares its energy with all the other bulbs around it, who could shine alongside them and be happy. There is no need to outshine anyone else or even my own achievements (I have always found my biggest competitor is myself and I’ve asked her to retire gracefully.)

I have found that the really good yoga teachers always have the ability to look into your soul. They don’t shy away from a direct gaze and there is an indefinable openness to their faces (I call it ‘yoga face’). While I was training I realised that one or two teachers I’d had back home were not kind or merciful and in fact, they were edging towards bullying. They didn’t seek any connection with their students either before or after class, and in fact, only bestowed their gaze on a few chosen ones. It felt like a cult. On my return I sought out the opposite and I have found two teachers, one in particular, who sees me. The lightbulb is shining clear and bright within her and now I see it, it’s obvious that it was there from the start, and very much missing in others.

Once you truly see people (and animals…and inside yourself) you can’t go back to averting your eyes from them. They’re there, connected to you, urging you to be a better person. Not better than them, but better because you share something with them. The Sues, the coffee-shop ladies and the good yoga teachers of the world remind you that they’re right there next to you the whole time – when you’re being jostled on a busy tube or in the supermarket checkout queue.

Or even in the gentle rain falling on you on the South Downs.

Photo credit: Mohammed Salik 2019

Silent Day

As part of our yoga teacher training at Sampoorna, my group was offered the chance to have a Silent Day as part of the course. Initially, led by an apparent lack of study time, the answer from the group was riddled with panicky ‘no’s. But a few of us were thinking, ‘I bet this is going to be one of the most profound experiences of the whole thing’ and backed the plan. In the end we agreed to go for it and I’m so, so glad we did.

One of the five ‘Niyamas’ or personal practices, in Sage Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga established 3,000 years ago (ashtanga means eight limbs) is Tapas. It refers to the practice of removing yourself from your comfort zone so you can understand and harness your desires. Fasting, silence, giving up your smart phone – these are all part of the same practice. We were to have a day where we could not speak to each other, we could not even look at each other, and were not allowed to read anything, listen to music or look at our phones. The wifi would be switched off. The only thing we would be allowed to do is journal the experience. We were free to absorb the nature around us and to reflect internally on ourselves.

I was intrigued to see where my mind would take me. It’s already pretty active so what would it do if it was given a whole day to run riot? I would write it all down in my little peacock-covered notebook. I’m looking back through the notes now and can remember the day panning out from breakfast, where I found it so difficult not to even look at my friends, through to dinner where I was bursting with things to tell them – discoveries I’d made that day – and could not.

The day began with a mysore practice of Ashtanga – self-conducted but all together in the same shala. I had been nursing a shoulder injury throughout the whole course and I needed to modify everything. I realised, in my silence, that I need to be kinder to my shoulder, to my body. It can do so much, so beautifully. I wanted to be grateful to it.

I got to savasana – corpse pose – at the end and I cried. I had a sudden overwhelming joyous memory of being at university in a contemporary dance class with my friends. I felt the joy then of moving as one unit, and I’d felt it return in this shala. Perhaps I don’t like being alone in the world as much as I think.

Whilst lying there, hearing my fellow yogis breathing and completing their last asanas, I thought of ‘Rock Beach’, the place in Agonda where I could swim in calmer waters with Karma Joy, and how she’d encouraged me over and over to come to Sampoorna. I thought of baptism and rebirth, and thought ‘this is the place I have done it.’

Later that day I forced myself into the midday sun. For many people this is their comfort zone, paradise even, when the sun is high and they are most likely to tan. For me, it is extremely stressful. I have to be slathered in Factor 50 because I burn so easily. I have to coat my hair in coconut oil before I get in the water to stop it drying out and I don’t like stickiness or sand on my body. Despite my recent swimming lessons I am still afraid of the waves (although less so) and I don’t like how you have to repeat the slathering every time you come out of the water. I had spent other middays until now in my ice-cold air-conditioned room, hiding and studying.

I wrote in my book: “why can’t I be one of those women who just strips off and gets in the water?” Why was I worrying about everything? I even started to think I’d gained weight, just to add to it all. But I just sat there, in my bikini in the blinding white light, forcing myself through these difficult thoughts.

And then Chris appeared. Chris is a woman on my course whom I grew to love over the three weeks. In the very first week, there was a connection between us. We’d done a very emotional introductory session where we had to go round the room and look into the eyes of every person and hold their hands. I still don’t know why that elicited so much emotion but it did. Who knew that just properly looking at someone was such a profound thing? When it was her turn, Chris stood silently before me with my hands in hers, squeezing them and nodding her head, as if to say, “it’s ok, I am here and you are calm.” It was really beautiful.

And now, in that blinding midday light, she came walking up the beach towards me. She gestured without looking at me to move over on my beach throw and stretched out beside me. We lay next to each other and I was smiling. What a connection. This woman – wise, funny, beautiful – was yet another spirit guide in my Agonda journey. Everywhere we went that day we crossed paths, as if we were dancing.

I got up to go into the water and later, Chris told me that she didn’t know I had gone – she could still feel my energy next to her. I had thought she might join me, but when I looked back she was gathering her things and walking back along the beach. I smiled.

The waves were strong that day due to pre-monsoon weather and standing in front of them I felt baptised and renewed. I remembered that I’d had a fantasy, brought on by my ex-husband’s Endless Summer surf movie poster, of being on a bright white beach with a surf boy. Now I began to wonder if the fantasy was only meant to have me in it. But then the image of a tall handsome Indian man joined me in the light, with his dark eyes that shine into my soul and a smile that lights up my heart.

I had stood in the waves holding hands with him a few weeks earlier and had tried to commit the image to my memory because I could not accept that this could actually be true. That I could be happy. I’ve got so much wrong in this life so far – especially spending years with the wrong man – that I could scarcely believe it could ever be right. But I couldn’t deny that every time I thought about him I felt happy and it made me cry with joy. He makes me want to be my natural self because that’s who he sees in front of him.

On that beach, in the blinding white light, I allowed myself to plan a future that includes him and makes me happy. “Everything seems so aligned here,” I wrote, “so right. Maybe it was always meant to be be like this. I am literally bursting with happiness. This is how you shine even brighter in your life – you come to a place you love, to people you love, doing a thing you love.”

Later that day I went up to my favourite shala, the one from which I could see Rock Beach in the distance, and lay on my mat, notebook beside me. This shala is surrounded by swaying palms with birds and monkeys all around. You can hear the waves crashing on the beach below.

I knew that Lucie would join me. As with Chris, I’d had a profound connection with her in the ‘circle of tears’ as I now refer to it. We had held each other’s hands right at the beginning and Lucie’s tears set me off. I felt moved to give her a hug. After that moment we were never very far apart. We would find ourselves sitting near each other in class or in the restaurant, so much so that it became a standing joke. I’d often have Chris and Lucie on either side of me, wherever I was. And here they were again, at my side on Silent Day.

Lucie padded into the shala as I lay there and assumed her position on her mat, journal in front of her. I lay there with my eyes closed, smiling, as I had done with Chris, glad that my two kindred spirits had managed to communicate with me on this day. At one point I considered getting up and going to give Lucie a hug because I could hear her softly crying. But I decided that it was enough to be with her there as she worked through her own stuff. I tried to broadcast love and support from where I lay.

And then I realised something. I realised that it didn’t matter how much we knew about the Sanskrit names for every asana or chakra – what was important as a yoga teacher was to know yourself. The practice of yoga is about discovering your true nature – unconditional joy – and physical practice is about 20% of the action required to get there. What Silent Day had done was give us all a chance to meditate, consider and better understand ourselves.

I had done mine under the blinding white light of the Agonda sun, and later I mused on how the state of enlightenment is often linked to seeing a white light during meditation. I don’t claim to be enlightened after Silent Day but I liked the symbolism of the light and I had managed to make some conclusions and decisions about my life in that time.

Before bed, we meditated with our course director and he asked us to consider the gentle moon. All I could think about was this gentle man in my life. He is working on a cruise ship and in my mind, I could see it sailing under the moon on the ocean wave. I couldn’t wait to get to bed so that I could wake up the next morning and tell him how I felt about him.

I woke at 5am and the wifi was still off.

It would have to wait.

You’re the Voice

I’ve been doing a three-week 200-hour yoga teacher training course in Goa and it’s coming to an end tomorrow. I can scarcely believe that this is my life but somehow I’ve been directed to Agonda, this beyond-special place, to study at Sampoorna Yoga School for Mind and Body. And it is a body- and mind-altering experience.

I can also scarcely believe that the one note I’ve been given from the start about my teaching is that my voice could be louder and more confident. What?? This is me!! The person who regularly chairs and appears on panels in the publishing world, who has presented to large, industry audiences, who loves to talk confidently in front of her teams, her colleagues and her peers. It’s my thing, if you will.

And yet here, in this jungle behind the beach, my voice was diminished. I knew when I was asking questions of the teachers that they couldn’t quite hear me and were screwing up their faces in that way that people do when they’re trying to hear someone. In my head, my voice sounded sonorous but clearly it wasn’t. On my first teaching assignment, I thought I was projecting loud and clear, but no – I’d done well but the one comment was that my voice needed to be louder. This came back in the feedback from my fellow students. Of all of the things I thought I’d need to think about, this was not it.

I thought about it during our breathing and mantra meditations. I heard my voice omming and repeating the Sanskrit mantras and I knew the feedback was right – there was something tentative and weak in my voice. My throat felt a little choked like there was something trying to get out. This was new. I always felt like I had a voice. It was the one thing I ‘did’ have.

Last night at dinner a group of us were talking about the way the world celebrates extroversion over introversion and how many of us loved our Silent Day because we love to be quiet, and with ourselves alone. I told them that I’d arrived in London as a quiet, introverted young woman and I’d had to work hard to adopt the extrovert practices of the people around me in publishing. Introversion appeared to be frowned on and only extroverts got promoted. I did two lots of training in one job where we did the Myers Briggs personality colour test twice. In the first year I did it, I was a quiet, calm, harmonious green. After working within an extroverted management team for a few years, the chart showed that I was now leading with my red leadership side. I was proud of that transition and of saying that I wasn’t the woman who arrived in London all those years ago. Who wanted to be green when you could be red?

The aim of yoga is to unite the mind, the body and the self, but more specifically, its goal is to unite the self with one’s true nature, which is unconditional joy. How beautiful is that? Over the last eighteen months where I’ve been practising it, I have found myself returning to a person I was years ago, when I was still in Wales and not working in London. In a previous blog post about giving up alcohol nearly five months ago, I refer to feeling like I’ve had a ‘factory reset’. I now realise that yoga (and a very good therapist) has led me to this place and giving up alcohol was just part of the journey.

Here, in Agonda, I have started to find a voice again, beyond the words I’ve written in my book and in this blog. I realised that my voice had been internalised over the past few years and I was swimming around in the noise I was making inside, some of it spilling out into this blog. It is a different thing, to stand in front of people and speak as your true self, no microphone to amplify you, no industry framework to prop you up. You are just you, standing there, trying to communicate with your students in the clearest, simplest way possible. I couldn’t believe, at first, that aside from my volume issues, the one thing I found most difficult about the teaching was finding the words to guide people into asanas (poses). I can talk very fluently about children’s illustrated books, but suddenly I found myself unable to find the words to guide someone who’d never done downward dog before into the pose. The simplicity was the problem.

Slowly, slowly, I have started to find the words, and the clarity and the volume needed to communicate effectively. I almost feel like I’ve had to learn to speak again. I’ve had to learn to look people in the eye again and talk to them from the heart. These have been the hardest things. I caught myself not being able to look our course director, Sudhir, in the eye when I first asked him a question in my weedy voice. I was horrified. This isn’t me! I thought. I wanted to sound strong and competent and clever and I just sounded like a woman trying to ask a question and not finding the right words or volume.

In the final week of training I noticed that my voice had changed in the chants and in the teaching. It felt easier to think of the words I needed and to find the voice to communicate them. Yoga practice is a humbling experience, especially the ashtanga we’ve been studying, and I’ve examined my need to be the strong, competent, clever one and realised that this needs to be laid aside (not least because Sudhir told me this ‘intense craving’ is one of the Bhagavad-Gita’s three gateways to hell).

I am simply a woman trying to ask a question and finding the right words and volume.