Indian tales: The highs and lows of Goa yoga

Earlier today I had my last yoga practice in Goa. I was on the roof of a one-storey building – the kitchen for the beach huts where we’re staying. As I went through my standing postures, an old bloke was shimmying up the surrounding coconut palms, sending ripe coconuts crashing to the earth below. I faced the ocean and breathed with the waves.

Tomorrow we leave Goa and head to Mumbai for two nights before flying home to London. I’ve been thinking about the yoga I’ve practiced over the last two weeks. Here are some things I’ve learnt and perhaps you’ll find them useful too.

Drop-in classes: a mixed bag

You just really don’t know what you’re in for. On Christmas Day morning I went to a led Ashtanga class with an Indian guy called Deepak. His adjustments were a little unconventional (verging on dangerous) and I felt my body tense whenever he moved near me. He was as bendy as the bendiest bendy thing and didn’t seem to show much empathy for Westerners in their first ever yoga class.

Other classes were lovely but just going to one class then trying a different class the next day doesn’t allow a student/teacher relationship to develop. Consistency is key.

Immersion is good

Katharine and I stumbled upon the Indian Shanti Yoga Festival and it became one of the highlights. At a plush beach resort in Ashwem, we spent three days surrounded by yoga addicts and a schedule that ran from 8am to 10pm… all for £25.

I reconnected with Sivananda yoga through classes with Nataraj, the Director of the ashram in Kerala where I’ve spent time previously. Witnessing him in his baggy Sivananda yellow t-shirt and white trousers just made me feel so happy. He looked a bit at odds with girls wearing tiny lycra shorts but the atmosphere was very welcoming and inclusive.

There was a lot of bhakti (devotional practices). The festival opened with a homa (fire ceremony) to Lord Ganesha. We all offered something to the fire – something we wanted to cast aside for 2014. Swamis from various Indian ashrams taught classes and led the chanting of Sanskrit bhajans.

(Anand led the Ganesha homa.)

(Swami Sugoshananda: “Everything happens as planned and it is for our own good.”)

I also went to a Bhagavad Gita talk, taught by an elderly New Yorker with a huge white beard, long hair and piercing blue eyes. He reeled off the slokas (verses) in Sanskrit. Hearing the words of Krishna to Arjuna with his accent: “Hey Arjuna, so you gotta fight people you care about. But you just gotta do your duty!”



Acroyoga is awesome

Acroyoga founder, Jason Nemer, taught at the festival.

With one person being the base, another the flyer, and another the spotter, we did some therapeutic flying. We practiced giving each other massages in ‘folded leaf’ and worked on backbends suspended in the air in ‘high flying whale’. We did handstands holding onto the backs of your partner’s ankles while they were in a high plank.

(Me being a high flying whale.)

I like the philosophy behind the practice. It’s about building trust and confidence through letting go. The flyer has to resist any urge to control and you are totally in the hands (and feet) of your base. It’s playful, fosters closeness and you learn a lot about your partner. The sessions open and close with kirtan – chanting in a circle, developing togetherness.

Jason will be teaching five days of acroyoga at Triyoga in London later this year.

The final day included four hours of Thai Yoga Massage run by the acroyogis. Thai massage is seen to be a complementary practice to the more acrobatic side. I like this. It’s the yin and yang idea. The massage is the yin (calming, cooling, slow, soft) and the acroyoga is more dynamic, energising and fast-paced.

Summing up

Some of my most enjoyable yoga moments have been my self practices but I’m also looking forward to going home and getting back to classes – both teaching and being a student.

I know this trip has been about relaxing, spending time with my sister and also doing some yoga, but if I were to return to India for yoga, I’d do a period of study with someone who can help develop my practice. I’ve got my eye on David Garrigues’ intensive in Kerala in 2015, a trip to Mysore or even a retreat with David Keil at Purple Valley in Anjuna.

That’s the joy of yoga. There’s always more to learn and India is always calling.

Classes start back in London and Hertfordshire from 12 January and the first yin/yang workshop at Breathing Space in Harpenden will be on 18 January. My first BAYoga Studio yin workshop is on 1 February.

Happy new year everyone.

Om shanti.

Indian tales: At home with the Dabholkars

For anyone who read my blog while I was away last year, you may remember talk of my adopted Indian family – a local family whom I had the honour of befriending via daily harmonium lessons with the grandad – ‘Babaji’. Over three weeks, my daily visits lengthened and became the highlight of my stay in Arambol. Read last year’s blog post.

In the house, the sons (Chandrahas and Srinivas) live with their parents (Maji and Babaji), their respective wives and an assortment of children. I am yet to totally work out whose children are whose.

Maji, though wizened and hunched, definitely rules the roost. She’s always been painfully shy around me though I have gathered that she likes my clothes and thinks I’m respectful. I bring my hands in prayer and bow slightly when saying hello and goodbye to her. Points to The Wener.

When I knew I would be returning to Goa, one of the first things I did was send them an email.

Yesterday we popped by for tea and a spot of Indian TV. Here are some of the highlights:

Chandrahas provided a TV commentary: “This is comedy programme. You can tell by the size of his moustache.”

I asked why so many Indian men had moustaches. He said it’s a sign of manliness. I asked why he didn’t have one. “It would be grey in colour” came his reply. The children laughed. They understood more English than they felt comfortable speaking.

We also watched a short programme where actors played parts of Hindu gods and goddesses. Ganesha looked fetching with a trunk down over his stomach and Shiva was very stern with his hair piled up on top of his head.

Then Chandrahas told us we were watching a drama about some families. It sounded like Eastenders but with more exaggerated expressions and dramatic music. It seemed to be a family favourite.

Tejas stayed very quiet but opened up talking in English about his favourite subjects: WWF wrestling and cricket. He informed us that England is losing in the Ashes. “It is a total whitewash.” He is about 10.

Sweda, Chandrahas’ wife, was not allowed into the living room as she had her period. She sat on a chair in the doorway and craned her neck round, eager to be included. She wasn’t allowed to touch us. Srinivas’ wife affectionately held Katharine’s hand as we sat. There was a lot of love in the room.

A neighbour popped by and looked taken aback to see the two of us sitting there. Sweda said, “She is asking how we know you. She is very surprised that you are our friends.”

Siddesh asked Katharine if someone coloured her hair. She was told it looked like Lady Di’s.

20140103-165137.jpg (Lady Di and the Dabholkars)

Maji brought us chai and Indian sweets in what looked like the family’s finest crockery. We drank the tea and politely ate the sweets – homemade laddus. For anyone unfamiliar with laddhus, these are balls of what Katharine described as compressed sand. I’d say they’re a bit like sawdust. You need to drink tea at the same time otherwise they coat the inside of your mouth in a claggy paste.

We ate them very slowly, nodding, making the right noises and smiling our appreciation. “You like them?” asked Chandrahas. We nodded and smiled lots. Out came two more. We ran out of tea.

After two hours Srinivas took us home on the back of his motorbike. The family waved us off.

On Monday, we’re going back for dinner and then we’ll all go to their temple for a puja (ceremony). Sweda told us that her period will be finished by then. I said that I look forward to being able to hug her.

It was so lovely to see them all again. Babaji held my hand as we said goodbye and said little. The family seemed much more relaxed than when I spent time with them last year. It felt like they were just seeing old friends and were less ‘on show’.

They made us feel so welcome and I can’t wait to go back on Monday. We’re not entirely sure what we’re in for but we know it’ll be memorable.

We’ve been lucky to get a glimpse into everyday Indian family life. They’re kind hearted and a truly wonderful family.

20140103-165246.jpg (from left: Srinivas, Siddesh, Priya, me, Shardha, Pradnya, Tejas, Sadanad, Chandrahas)

Arambol living

I’ve now been in Arambol for almost two weeks and I must say I’m really enjoying it. Friends at home said that I should avoid Arambol (“rat infested” was how one buddy described it but I’m yet to see the evidence). They suggested I head further south to quieter Palolem and Patnem but I came here specifically to do the Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Course.

Local faces
People here are friendly. It probably helps that loads of us doing the course are staying at the same place. We’re always bumping into each other – on the beach, in restaurants – and it’s nice. I’m beginning to recognise many familiar faces and a lot of the long-stayers are living at this end of the beach as it’s more relaxed than up near the cliff.

Having my breakfast in a hastily thrown together bamboo beach restaurant this morning, I bumped into Zuzu. I first met him a few days ago at a bonfire night party. He’s in his fifties, Dutch and this is his ninth winter here. He’s an interesting character. With ginger Afro hair and a beaming smile, he told me that he works in ‘musical theatre’. This means he invents crazy acts to take to music festivals. He proudly told me about his latest act in which a small carriage is made to look like a UFO. It plays Japanese electro music whilst he and a couple of friends are painted green and “dance like aliens”. His words, not mine.

He organises a carnival event on the beach every February and last year it didn’t go according to plan. Some girls were dancing topless and a photo somehow made it onto the front page of a Goan newspaper with a headline suggesting debauchery. I bet that edition sold a lot of copies. Zuzu told me how the police tried to prosecute him for organising a pornographic event. Not unsurprisingly he had to lay low for a while after that.

There’s also Radasi, a Bolton lass who I met at an ashtanga class when I first arrived. She talks about “letting the universe decide” and calls people “love” with a husky voice that perhaps can only be found in Bolton. She teaches yoga at a centre on Koh Phang An in Thailand and we know some of the same people from The Sanctuary. She’s preparing to go on a pilgrimage with her Indian guru and is a good giggle.

“Mamma Mia” it’s Leo the Iyengar teacher
Our five-day course for ‘continuing students’ started today. Whilst I was disappointed that we haven’t got Sharat, the guy that set up the centre, Italian/Argentine Leo who is one of his students, is doing a fine job. Putting us down at every opportunity, attempting to break our ego and make us more humble, it’s an authentic Iyengar experience.

Every class he’s exclaiming “Mamma Mia!” – shocked at our inability to remember a detail or stretch adequately. I’d heard that Sharat was the same. A friend of mine said that he’d once told a woman in class that she was too fat to do a pose.

I’m learning lots about alignment and that every small adjustment in the body counts. He’s making me focus on my turned-out feet and had us doing urdva dhanurasana with a belt around our thighs. That was two days ago and I’m still aching.

20121110-154634.jpg Urdva dhanurasana (from Yoga Journal)

My harmonium efforts
And my lessons are continuing (read a previous post about my lessons). After accidentally showing the entire family a photo of some naked bottoms from my yoga training course in Thailand, I thought I’d blown it – living up to the stereotype from the front of that Goan newspaper. But either they didn’t realise what they were seeing on my iPad before I rapidly flicked to the next picture whilst inwardly dying a thousand deaths, or they were willing to forgive me.

This is a family who approvingly said that I dress well because I cover my shoulders and I always wear knee-length trousers. And then I give them naked bottoms. Shock. Horror. And no, I am not sharing the picture on here.

I’ll share a clip of Babaji playing when the connection’s good enough to upload it.

In less than a week’s time my parents land in Kerala. I can’t wait!

My adopted Indian family (aka I learn the harmonium)

A few days ago, I’d anticipated that my next blog post was going to be about how I’m learning to play the harmonium. You know, covering the trials and tribulations and that sort of thing, but actually the story must be about how I’ve been adopted by an Indian family. And it’s wonderful.

I’m in Arambol – a proper old-school hippy hangout in Goa. There are a surprisingly large number of Europeans in their fifties and sixties with long hair, tattoos and substantial moustaches. And that’s just the women…

Arambol’s just starting up for the winter season so it’s really quiet. There’s vast swathes of empty beach and it’s beautiful. Many of the beach huts and restaurants are still in construction and there’s a new yoga class starting up every day. I’ve come here for the five-day course at the Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Centre. Today I had my first class and I’ll tell you more about that some other time.

In the meantime: the harmonium and my adoption. I have been wanting to learn the harmonium for a while. It’s an Indian instrument used to accompany the chanting of bhajans (Sanskrit chants). I like chanting so I thought would be nice to be able to play. I asked a guy who worked on a musical instrument stall if he knew of anywhere I could learn. Later that day I was walking with him to Arambol Market where locals live, slightly inland of the main tourist area. Here there’s guys sitting in chai shops, old women squatting at the side of the road selling piles of fresh fish in washing up bowls. Men sell bananas and cows rummage in grassy verges.

Sharma led me into a tiny shop with a glass counter. The counter contained a haphazard collection of shirts wrapped in plastic. They must have been from the 1970’s. Sharma started speaking in Hindi to an elderly man standing behind the counter. He was shorter than me with grey hair sprouting from his head. He wore a white threadbare grandad shirt that had a hole in one shoulder. He looked grumpy and shuffled about in pyjama trousers that threatened to fall down at any moment. Yes, this was to be my teacher.


Sharma was deep in conversation and referred to him as ‘Baba’ meaning ‘father’ as a sign of respect. I decided to add ‘ji’ on the end as a further sign of respect (Babaji). I got the impression that Babaji wasn’t interested in teaching me. His face remained stern, his brow furrowed. He barely looked at me. I was therefore surprised to hear that he was happy to have me as a student.

We agreed on 5pm everyday and Sharma reiterated how Babaji was a great harmonium/tabla/sitar teacher.

The next day I learnt that the only words Babaji knows in English are “good”, “again” and “more fast”. He’s taught me the Indian version of the do re mi scales (sa, re, ga, ma, pa, de, ni, sa) and we’ve even started on some bhajans. He began with a simple Hare Krishna, Hare Rama and then last night with the help of a piano keyboard app on my iPad, I worked out the tune for Krishna Govinda – one of my favourites. Perhaps I shouldn’t have shown him my findings as today he had me on Raghupati Ragava Raja Ram which was tough.

This video off YouTube gives you an idea of what I’m talking about. I might even get a clip of Babaji before I leave.

We sit on a bench in the living room. The room is quite bare with a ceiling fan and a cabinet containing metal plates and cups and a staggering array of plastic fruit. Next door we hear his daughter and daughter-in-law teaching about 40 children in the small room. The children giggle and peer round the door and get told off. It must be funny to hear this Western girl singing Sanskrit mantras during their after-school club.

Sharma popped by yesterday to see how I was getting on. I will have to say thank you to him in some way.

While I huff and puff working the squeezebox, Babaji’s grandchildren watch TV on the set in the corner and absentmindedly sing along to the bhajans, swinging their feet under the seat. Pradnya is 13 and translates for us, smiling and encouraging me when I hit a wrong note. She smiles a lot.

I am wary of outstaying my welcome but today Babaji’s son and son-in-law came home to find me sitting having a cup of chai and a rich tea biscuit with their children, wives and mother/mother-in-law. They asked me questions about my life in England. What age did I move out of the family home? How far do I live from there? How old are my parents? They were shocked to discover that my Mum is older than my Dad. The women thought this was wonderful as it’s more likely to be the other way round in India. Their son wanted to know what hobbies I had. He’s good at chess. Babaji’s wife was keen to know if I spoke any Hindi or Marathi. I was sad to say no.

They love my iPad and I have been instructed to bring some family photos to show them tomorrow. Babaji showed little interest in all these discussions and instead lit candles at their garlanded altar depicting Ganesha, Shiva and Parvati in the corner of the living room.

I told them that I’ll be around until 15 November and Pradnya excitedly started chatting to her father in Hindi. “You must come for dinner,” he said. “And you will be here for Divali, the festival of lights. Please join us.” I said I would love to. He then gave me a lift back to my guesthouse on the family scooter.

It’s so lovely to get an insight into how Indian people live. I’d much rather do that than hang out in cafes in Arambol eating ommmmlettes (hahahaha), listening to old hippies playing acoustic guitar.