Ahimsa

I didn’t expect to not hike when I booked this holiday in the Svaneti region of Georgia. I am with my hiking group and they have gone off ahead of me, booted and rucksacked, as I take in the view you see at the top of this blog post outside our guest house for one of the four nights along the route.

I managed to get a severe blister on my heel at the very start – a combination of not having hiked for a couple of months while I was in Goa, hot weather and boots that are slightly too big for me. I have been unable to walk uphill without the various compeed plasters and tape coming off so I’ve given up.

Instead of feeling devastated and down about this turn of events I have felt calm and peaceful – joyful even – at this new opportunity. An opportunity to have the restorative holiday my body was craving after two months of intensive yoga training. I feel broken physically, but very healed on the inside.

One of the values we learned on our course was that of ‘ahimsa’ – non-violence. This is one of Sage Patanjali’s ‘yamas’ – values attached to emotions in his ‘eight limbs’ (‘Ashtanga’) of yoga and I have thought about it a lot this week.

This non-violence applies to thought, word and action as they are applied to other humans, animals and plants. But perhaps the most important of these is non-violence towards oneself.

I began to apply this philosophy whilst yoga training because I had a shoulder injury that had come about by throwing myself punishingly into yoga classes during my first month in Goa. I tried to be kind to my body and allow the shoulder to rest. I could almost hear it thanking me.

In Goa and here in Georgia I have been struck by our need to punish our bodies in order to feel happiness. We have to do exercise in order to ‘deserve’ the food we’re eating or the drinks we have afterwards. Yet the yoga philosophy says that happiness is our true nature and that we don’t need to deserve any of it. It is our birthright and we just need to access it by stripping away the obstructions to it that our minds put in its way. This is the entire goal of yoga and it has worked its magic on me.

In Kyrgyzstan last year I had a terribly painful hip but was determined to hike up mountains until my body told me otherwise. The moment I allowed a horse to take my weight was one of the happiest of my life. Why did I have to climb every mountain pass to feel worthy?

Here in Georgia I was once again given access to a horse and this time took it gladly. I stopped thinking of this week as a hiking marathon with its rewards of cake and khachapuri (cheese bread) and started to allow myself to have the holiday I needed – a restorative one.

Good things happen when you give yourself permission to stop. You spend time with local people and that time slows down. You find that you enjoy riding a horse and are not so scared of them next time round. You learn to trust them when they take you through rivers and up steep hills. My horse this week was called Tornado – a name that filled with me with fear when I first heard it but it turned out the family he belongs to named him ironically.

Gegi, his owner, guided me around the paths the hiking group were taking and I got small insights into his world as we clip-clipped along. He knew every Georgian on the route and they greeted him like family, warming us and drying Gegi’s clothes when it poured down and giving me a seat by the stove, pressing hot coffee into our hands.

And now I have practised a little yoga in front of this glorious view while one of the young guys who lives here plays trance music that seems to match the mountain view. I am waiting for a car to pick me up to transport me to Ushguli but while I’m waiting I have created my first new vinyasa yoga class after getting my first call as a cover teacher.

I like this flexibility of thinking: turning what could be seen as a disaster into an opportunity. How great if you could apply this philosophy to your whole life.

I remember two things from the yoga training that really have become useful in my life. One, that we have the freedom to choose how we respond to any situation -I choose to reshape this holiday for myself into a restorative one. Two, that to avoid stress and anxiety we should simply do what needs to be done and get on with it. The simplicity of this last statement blows my mind. Just do what needs to be done: in my case, stop walking, take care of my open wound, hire a horse and enjoy the moment in this incredible landscape.

Ahimsa. Try it.

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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.

White Horse

Maybe some women aren’t meant to be tamed. Maybe they just need to run free until they find someone just as wild to run with them.

Sex and the City

Every day in Agonda village, south Goa, a white horse walks slowly from her home through the streets. She heads down to the beach where she will walk slowly from back and forth along the shoreline until sundown. Throughout the day, she stops off at a beach hut or two for a slurp of water, then at sunset, she stops serenely to allow people to take a photo of her. Then she makes her way back, stopping off at a bar or two, to poke her head over the counter. It marks a passing of the day, a ritual, like the morning yoga class or the feeding of the cows on beach before the sun goes down. I asked if she had a name. “White Horse,” they said.

I witnessed all of this from my Simrose beach hut and got caught up in its rhythm. It seemed to form part of a constant thrum of activity, which was underpinned by the sound of the waves crashing on the shore. I arrived at 2am and couldn’t believe how loud they were at high tide. I was woken by them several times during the course of my stay and had to wear earplugs. “Oh yeah – always get a hut further back from the beach,” people said, who had been there before. The waves are the soundtrack to everything and even the yoga teacher used their rhythm to breathe against – a technique I learned called ujjayi or ‘ocean breath’.

If I sound like I’ve gone all spiritual, I sort of have. People said, “Oh Goa isn’t the real India”, thinking of the trance scene the litter-strewn beaches of the north. Well it was real enough to me, and I loved it. I did yoga class every morning I could with Lucia, who was from Italy and filled with hypnotic phrases about the various chakra and how I could focus on them. I had had a stressful time at work before Christmas and was coming back to a promotion that promised an extremely busy time ahead so I made the most of the chance to connect with myself and the sea (which I love to be beside and float in a boat upon but I can’t swim in).

The biggest surprise was finding that I knew most of the vinyasa poses already from my time training in contemporary dance. I didn’t know that Martha Graham had nicked them all to become ‘the mother of modern dance’. Even in the two weeks I was there I started to feel my old dance body coming back – strong back, strong core, a stretched feeling in my hips and legs – a feeling I never thought I would recreate.

I developed my own White Horse routine. It involved walking on the beach, yoga, then breakfast, reading on my hut deck, lunch, more reading, another walk, cocktails, dinner then drinks at a bar. As with my very first solo trip abroad, it took me three days to leave the resort. I was a little bit scared of what would be there (so much scaremongering about India, especially for women). But as it was Christmas, I just spent the first few days in the resort, enjoying the efforts the staff made to make it fun and festive. I spent Christmas Eve with a brother and sister from Manchester – the brother lives down the road from me in London. Small world…

On Boxing Day I decided I needed to venture out. I found a single strand of shops and stalls selling clothes, jewellery, spices, and copious sarongs. I found friendly shop-owning women, all telling me I was their ‘first customer of the day’ and therefore they were giving me ‘the best deal’. Even though I knew it was all sales talk it was fun and I bought beach dresses and loose trousers. I didn’t get hassled once by men other than to ask if I wanted a taxi. I felt safe. I spotted a bar on my way back with my spoils and liked its vibe, and promised myself I’d venture out later. It’s always tough that first time. It always requires a bit of Dutch Courage to make that first step so I made mine a Caipirowska.

I pulled up a stool at Kopi Desa and immediately a guy from Birmingham slid into the seat next to me and asked if I’d mind chatting to him. As he rambled on, I could see a couple, obviously British, trying to catch my eye to see if I needed help. I can’t remember how I made it over to them but I did and they said the guy had been hitting on lone women all day. It’s always a British guy, never a local. They introduced the barman as ‘the best-looking man in Goa’. I couldn’t disagree.

Over the next few nights I met more Brits there, plus Indians, Scandinavians and Coca-Cola the cow who popped in for a drink every evening. The bar is open to the street so you’re surrounded by everything, from the bell-ringing bread boy on his bike in the early evening, to the beach dogs scouring for scraps. I spent New Year’s Eve with friends I met in this bar, watching fireworks on the beach at H2O. I had the best New Year’s Day ever.

I’d started dating someone before Christmas and whilst I’d enjoyed the time we spent together I wasn’t truly sure I was ready to commit to them. At first I thought my trip to Goa was getting in the way of progress, but in truth it gave me time to reflect and think about what I really wanted. I watched the White Horse, a symbol of freedom without restraint in many cultures, completing her daily ritual with no one to stop her. I remembered one of my favourite Sex and the City quotes, cited at the top of this post, and knew it applied to me. I thought about returning to Agonda, a place I already knew I loved, with a partner and I felt sad. I knew I wanted to come back on my own, with no one reining me in or saddling me with their needs and wants.

I knew I didn’t want to be one of the many women with families I’d witnessed, anxious and hovering over their brood (and injured animals), unable to just relax by themselves and watch the ocean. I’d sat next to a woman on the plane out, who was separated by the aisle from her family and spent 10 hours slightly angled towards them, watching them, whilst they completely ignored her and vegged out with dad. I didn’t want to be a woman in an unhappy coupling, waiting until she’s in a group to make sly digs at her partner. I’ve done that and it sucks.

I did want to be the free woman on New Year’s Eve who whooped at fireworks with the happiest couple on earth, Lucy and Jason, who were on their honeymoon mega-trip. A couple who are happy to spend time with a single woman are rare indeed – and you know they are the strong ones who will last. And I did want to be the woman who shared a bottle of prosecco with the best-looking man in Goa when the fireworks were over.

If the New Year is about making choices and stepping forward with the right ones, then here I stand: unfettered, mane blowing in the breeze, stamping my hooves with joy.