On a dark October morning this year as I was milling around Manchester airport at 5am in search of coffee I came across one of those ‘Astronomy Now’ magazines. It was all about Saturn. In Indian astrology Saturn is represented by Shiva. The God of Yoga. How apt. I was lost in the story of Saturn and its moons until we got to Abu Dhabi. Saturn embodies the practice of Yoga in so many ways. For a planet so ancient it’s physically younger than it really should be. Its rings of ice are still visible because it somehow self-cleanses. For if the rings were covered in the darkness of space dust they would not be visible to the naked eye. It also gives out more energy than it takes in. And the centre of it remains a mystery.
After a minor drama where I nearly missed my connecting flight I made it to Delhi airport and the psychedelic 70’s vibe of its acres of orange carpets and inhaled India once more.. That warm dusty cardamom air hit me and I got that heart punch of being back in India as the sculptures of giant hands in various Mudras greeted me at immigration. As usual for the first few hours of being in India I couldn’t stop smiling even though it was 3am. The 240km journey to Rishikesh took nearly 8 hours. And I stared through the window drinking in all the beauty and rawness of this country which could be Heaven on earth with even some overall organization. India is often said to be the heart of the world. India is like a person- a visionary genius crippled with fear. Or Howard Hughes with all his riches dying of neglect. A country that has so much and yet resources and capital get spirited away through the culture of corruption which is changing- but slowly. Slowly. The politicians say Yes and the people that could implement change say No, and put things on hold. Anything to buy time. And so when you travel through India there are grandiose plans abandoned and half finished wherever you look. People nesting in it’s ruins like baby birds.
We got to Rishikesh at midday and headed straight to High Bank near Tapovan where I always stay. It’s beautiful. I immediately ordered fresh papaya juice. I was put in one of the highest rooms with a little courtyard and a lovely neighbour who like me was also on retreat so I had all the quiet I was craving. And a view over the hills and down towards the turquoise Ganges.
I came to practice Yoga but I was exhausted when I arrived. So I let the 5am Ashtanga starts go this time. I slept in every day till 7am and then would order a pot of coffee and sit in the garden restaurant with the best view. And just sit in silence. Sometimes the pot of coffee would last 2 hours. And I would watch the monkeys. The little birds. The wind in the trees. And dusing those mornings all kinds of things came to light in silence.
I have this set of Deva cards by Cilla Conway and would meditate on their images. And sometimes it really seemed there were secrets being shared with me just because I was quiet enough to receive. Like the tree I watched one day. The way it yielded to the breeze was beauty incarnate. Real grace. And you can set fire to a tree; you can chop bits off it. It still retains grace. And all we ever try to do is emulate beauty and try and cling on to it and keep it for ourselves. We try to trap it and preserve it even when it hurts us to do so. The Devas told me to never push anything away. To accept all and jump INTO the eye of the storm. Never run from it. To not be so obsessed with change and hunger for results but to learn from the patterns and whether they continue or do not continue to play out.. Well, thats not so important in the Great Scheme of Things… Things will be exactly as they are and our job is to accept it all.
So I would be on the mat for 9am. Rested and truly ready to practice. Self practice. Sometimes my practice would continue until midday. I like to, when I have the time, take 10-15 breaths in each posture of the Primary Series. Go deeper. Stay longer. And by the time I was in Savasana my whole body would be trembling and I would feel hyper-awake. Sometimes I add in extra Pranayama. Sometimes I practice naked. Having the space to just be alone with no one to answer to and no agenda meant that my room became this womb like space where my practice grew. And I remembered why I love it so. Ashtanga Yoga is the longest relationship I’ve had to date. And like a relationship, when it’s got stale, joyless, boring and sometimes painful taking it on holiday seems to do the trick. And I remember those days back in Brighton and then Mysore when I first fell in love and recapture that magic!!! And realized I needed to just give more of the time I have to the practice. Just some rejiggling and simplifying. Some compromise.
I practiced with Tatvaa incense burning- hand rolled in the Himalayas. The jasmine incense is the headiest and most comforting smell ever. Such an Indian smell.
In the afternoons I went to Upendra’s class at the New Bhandari Swiss Cottage Yoga Hall. Classical Indian Yoga. And I had forgotten the purity of the Bihar practice. Postures like Halasana- the Plough- are incredible when held for a long time. When you come out of it you feel that you are sinking so deeply into the earth and this feeling of being at one with the elements. Feeling that the collection of molecules that comprises you could just dissipate again, quite easily. These little tremors through the spine.
I also met a Dutch teacher called Pala who has devised a system called ‘Body Love Stretching’ which he was teaching. He was a pupil of the late Jonathon Shaw and has also been studied with people like John Stirk. I attended some amazing sessions with him. He acknowledges what we carry- and store- and hide- within our bodies and some very interesting release happened. Sometimes random memories and traumas would come up to be aired and then acknowledged. And this instant where I saw a particularly self defeating pattern so clearly that I can’t believe how I’ve been existing up until now. And there was one session where we did Baddha Konasana which is a posture I love. And have spent about 12 years getting deeply into it. And as someone was muttering about how ‘naturally bendy’ I was (Ha!) he just said “Don’t think she doesn’t feel it. She feels plenty. But she’s alright with the feelings.” Which felt like the biggest compliment ever. He talked about the writing of RD Laing. And how important it is to lose your head sometimes. “Like Chinnemasta!!” So that was a great practice alongside the Yoga. I had ordered a John Stirk book to take with me and read which didn’t turn up in time but how much better to get some real teaching.
Louise Ellis also came to Rishikesh just before I left and so I attended one of her magical Yin Yoga sessions which were amazing. Hanumanasana as a Yin posture. My body settled deeper and deeper and I was so energised by the end of it. And infused with stillness.
Week Three things got interesting.
When you change your habits for a while and observe Tapas things always get interesting. So my tapas for the month was two things. No alcohol and no TV. I’m not a big drinker- I can’t be with the classes I teach, a clear head is needed. But I drink a bottle of wine a week. 2 glasses twice a week. Not a problematic level but still a habit. And I watch Holby City and Casualty. That’s my escapism on a weekend. Wine, Casualty. And then sleep. And they’re distractions. Just distractions.
So without that all kinds of feelings came up. We all have our challenges. And I love the pragmatic Yoga approach of non attachment. Not to be confused with detachment. Look at your desires. Chase them to source. Does my desire for love and to have a partner again really go with what I’m supposed to do in this life? Am I realistic? Am I ever willing to compromise to the degree I would have to with a significant other? There are two ways you could look at it. One- to realise that the grass always seems greener and graciously accept what you already have and that love is all around and within us anyway, it’s just our thoughts and expectations that obscure it. And Yoga is how we get back to love. Two- that loving someone else and all the compromises that means you have to make is in itself an act of Yoga- of surrendering and letting your ego’s desires fall by the wayside in the process. And neither way is easy. And with those thoughts SO much came up. So much anger from the past. The men. I am so wary. But humans need to ask things from other humans sometimes. And that’s actually OK. Hmmm. Anyway there were a couple of days of all this churning around in my thoughts and heart when I felt so vile. I just walked for miles.
And India is not always the easiest place to be. There’s always someone asking for something. There’s always need, there’s always want. You can’t make up comforting excuses for the situations you see. It’s really no wonder Yoga evolved here in this harsh place. Theres nowhere to hide from others or from you. The ultimate act of Alchemy is to find sweet nectar within all this suffering. And I would watch the beggars chatting to each other because begging’s a profession. It’s organised. And I would watch the Westerners dressed all in white, full of self conscious humility following bearded ‘Gurus’. You catch their eye and they immediately look away while their Guru tries to catch your eye just in case you;re a potential punter too…And I wondered if any of those Gurus did actually have wisdom to impart if they were stripped of their ‘mystique’ but suspected most of them were just going through the motions too.
Although I did meet a student of Mooji. And I believe that man is someone I would like to listen to one day. She was in her 70’s but had not let any beliefs about ageing stop her travelling around India solo and doing pretty much just what I was.
The evenings were beautiful. Peaceful. I would shower off the day and drink a lot of lemon water then eat some good Indian food. Kadai Paneer. Homemade spinach soup. Pakoras. Chickpea curry and parathas. Samosas with tamarind chutney. Everything fresh. And good conversations with travellers. And I sent offerings with candles down the Ganges. For myself, for my family, my friends for those on both sides of the veil.
One evening there was a storm and the whole landscape turned into a painting. Teal skies and watercolour forest.
I bumped into a friend of mine from Mysore who I first met six years ago when we were practicing with Ajay. Beautiful Su. As I was walking down the street in Tapovan and had just resisted buying Indian sweets (the most fattening things known to Man, Woman or even God Himself) I heard my name being shouted and there was Su! So the last few days I had friends to hang out with. I went swimming in the Ganges. A trip to the Mansa Devi Temple in Haridwar. Sitting around tables in the Little Buddha Cafe looking out to the most beautiful view over the river. Amazing chats. One evening with my lovely neighbour there were three of us, and as my neighbour pointed out we were 3 generations of woman. 40’s, 50’s and 60’s.. And it was a great chat too..
And I read. I read so much. Svoboda on the life and times of a True Tantric. Which is about as far from some cheesy ‘couples workshop’ as you can imagine. A docter’s writings on Yoga for Cancer. The new William Dalrymple book about Afghanistan. Iyengar’s ‘Tree of Yoga’ again. ‘Buddha or Bust’ by Perry Garfinkel. Books about the holocaust. A new translation of the Shiva Sutras.
The 3 weeks stretched out to feel like months. I got a train back to Delhi which I booked in the internet cage with Sanni. “40?!!! Do not worry Victoriaji you are not looking it. I have put 30 on the form! Look!” (BIG smiles!).. And then at 11pm found my way to the Metro station and battled for a ticket with a 5 minute window until the place closed. Incidentally if you have ever wondered what it feels like to exist in a Hieronymus Bosch painting you could do worse than hang out in Old Delhi Metro station…
And so I’m back. And my practice is softer. Much deeper than before. I so appreciate my warm clean bed. My beautiful house. The forest near where I live. And I have Giardia. Though it’s a small price to pay.
All I feel is Gratitude. Thankyou India. Again. And the core of Saturn, of Shiva, and of Stillness is still a mystery to me. A mystery that may unravel in this life.
Though I’m not sure.