A changed life


  • Travel
  • Saturday, 05 Dec 2009

Blessings I have aplenty but luck is not a regular visitor in my life. It constantly loses its way before reaching my doorstep.

As a yoga practitioner, I had always wanted to continue my yogic studies in the birthplace of yoga. Not that I’m a sucker for punishment, but all the yoga courses I had attended were conducted in comfort, and I yearned for the authentic experience in a remote ashram in India.

My only criteria was that the toilets had to be clean. So, when my friend Swee agreed to join me on my journey to become a certified teacher, I was ecstatic.

Bookings were done one year ahead, and our flight tickets had been purchased when news broke that Mumbai, our destination, was the epicentre of H1N1. The ashram promptly informed us to keep ourselves flu-free or we would be turned away.

“Things only happen to you!” a cousin giggled. “How can anyone guarantee you won’t catch a virus?”

There was not much we could do but to go with the flow. Armed with bottles of hand sanitisers, a dozen face masks, anti-viral tablets, vitamins and a host of other preventive medication, we boarded the plane to begin our one-month stint.

The ashram, Yoga Vidya Dham in Trimbakeshwar, is situated in the mountain range of Sahyadri, a five-hour-plus bumpy drive from Mumbai. The beautiful landscape of green undulating hills, grazing cows and buffaloes, and lack of modern amenities (No TV, cellphones, Internet or shops) provide the perfect backdrop for yoga practice and meditation.

“Hari Ohm!” greeted two bald heads as our rickety van pulled up at the ashram. Our fellow students, Hugo Abecassis from Portugal and Abbas Afsharian from Iran had arrived a day earlier to acclimatise themselves to the surroundings.

“You can remove your masks now. No one is sick here,” teased Abbas.

Once formalities were completed, our weight and height were recorded before coordinator Kate Woodworth, an Australian, handed us the room keys.

“The rooms are a little dusty because we’re in the middle of fixing the roof which started to leak from the heavy rains. We have all the cleaning supplies so feel free to use them. And there are a lot of snakes so make sure you don’t keep any food in the room. Also, try to keep your doors closed at all times as precaution,” she rattled off without batting an eyelid.

A lump formed in my throat and my stomach immediately felt queasy.

“Poisonous snakes?” I enquired, trying not to appear fearful.

“Yeah, both types,” she continued while helping cart our luggage. “But don’t worry, no one has been bitten in the last four years. When you see them, just scream or call out for one of the boys — they’ll come and catch it.”

Apparently, snakes are known to slither freely in the vicinity of Shiva temples. Since the ashram is near the Lord Trimbakeshwara temple, one of the 12 most auspicious Shiva temples in India, the reptiles can be found everywhere. However, once the snake is caught, the village boys keep it in a canister for a day for students to view (yes, some Caucasians have never seen snakes before) before releasing it into the jungles. Killing it is forbidden.

I silently prayed I wouldn’t encounter them in the toilet or in the room — their two favourite places. (One student found a snake in her locker!)

Oh, what a sight our four-bed room was. Filthy was an understatement. Walls covered with cobwebs, damp pillows, dusty nettings and mattresses, moss-filled curtains, insects, bugs . . . you get the picture, right?

Our toilet, outside the room, was, thankfully, reasonably clean.

“I’ll get the plumber to fix the hot water later,” chirped Woodworth, leaving us to stare at the mess. “Oh, and a lot of times the city cuts off electricity supply but our generator runs from 7.30pm to 10pm.”

“What about laundry service?” I called out, in all seriousness.

Woodworth replied, “There’s none. Our only washing machine is spoilt so I’d advise you to hand-wash everything. We’ve already washed the sheets and blankets but if you want to do it again, you can.”

OK, I’m hardly a spoilt brat but honestly, the last time I hand- washed clothes was almost a decade ago. It takes me 15 minutes to wash a pair of socks and the thought of spending hours washing bedding was unimaginable.

“Let’s get to work!” Swee said, dropping her bags as I stood there dumbstruck. Our other roommate, Mei, was already on her knees scrubbing the floors.

“It’s OK, we’ll go to town to get new sheets and other necessities later,” Swee added.

We got a day off a week but what we didn’t know was that our first day off was not till 10 days later, and the town was 30km away.

Later that night, our fourth roommate, Mila Markova from Bulgaria, arrived, dead tired and longing for a good night’s sleep. But alas, she was jolted awake by raindrops on her face. The roof was leaking again.

Every day, the bell would go off at 5am. Hot java? Dream on. No caffeine was served and all you got was a protein-rich soya drink before the mantra sessions. At other times, we were served herbal drinks.

A number in our group (of 35) counted the days and dreamt of sipping espresso in town. Or if you were athletic enough, you could sneak out and run 30 minutes to the nearest chai kiosk, have your fill and sprint back. Most of us observed the rules though.

Then it was two hours of yoga asanas (postures). We stretched, twisted, bent, rolled and learnt the art of doing Hatha yoga correctly. Those who had joint pains and muscle strains were sent for massages or told to lay off for a while. In a month, it was amazing to note the physical and mental transformations — students became slimmer, fitter, more patient and experienced alleviation in headaches and sinuses.

After morning yoga, everyone had to do karma yoga (discipline of action or service to others).

However, karma yoga here meant you cleaned up the premises — weeding, watering plants, painting, sweeping, mopping, cutting vegetables, etc. Yes, the students were expected to maintain the premises under the supervision of teachers who had graduated from the same course.

Breakfast was something we all looked forward to after the hard labour. Food was organic, vegetarian, ayurvedic, non-spicy and rich in raw vegetables. No garlic or onions were allowed while fruits were only offered in the mornings.

Many theoretical lessons followed before another two hours of more difficult asanas in the evening. We also learnt how to cleanse our stomachs by vomiting (salt water) and clearing our nasal passageways by doing jalneti (water in one nostril and out the other). Animals looked at us strangely as we stood in line outside the ashram practising these “skills”.

When we didn’t have evening discussions, we’d socialise. All of us, from various corners of the globe, got along like a house on fire. So much so that our favourite pastime was to sit in groups after meals, laugh about the dreary ashram conditions, poke fun at each other or take long walks (some simply had to smoke).

And of course, we would mark the calendar daily to count down the end of the course.

The ashram management called an emergency meeting. Since we were having “too much fun”, they decided to impose a full day of silent meditation for our group members — on the day of the first exam.

“If you can’t keep quiet, you have no control over your mind,” challenged Gandhar Mandlik, one of the ashram staffers.

“Silent meditation!” wailed a student. “If I wanted to be silent. I don’t need people to tell me how to do it!”

It was carried out and since most of us failed and were caught whispering, another silent day was declared, much to the chagrin of everyone. A month passed by painfully and we all got through our exams. Swee couldn’t wait to down a chicken burger while I longed for a comfy bed.

Although a Muslim, Abbas, 37, enrolled in the course to get a total yoga experience.

The former professional boxer cum hairdresser said, “As yoga is a science, I have to be open-minded. A lot of Muslims don’t realise that yoga has nothing to do with religion. It was a challenge to discipline myself to study more but I enjoyed learning about the different aspects of yoga.”

Despite the intensive course, Abbas admitted he was not ready to become a full-fledged guru and would start by teaching friends first.

John McNamara, 36, from Ireland was initially resistant to yoga practices but was dragged in by his partner, Angela Sanchez.

“I’m quite restless and had to work hard at focusing. It was frustrating at times but I’m learning to relax more. It’s amazing how when you open your mind, your body becomes more receptive as well,” said McNamara, who hoped to continue his meditation at a monastery in Thailand.

Me? I’ve had enough of ashram living for a while but will continue to practise yoga in comfort.

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