I’ve recently returned from a three-day silent retreat at Gaia House in Devon.
I was last there in 2015 for five days – a long time ago! Whenever I go there, I leave with some insight and intentions.
We have the answers inside us. We just have to spend time looking within and connecting to the breath and bodily sensations.
Surrounded by silence and 57 other retreatants, it’s possible to feel totally supported and loved.
When we speak, we craft how we come across. We perform, we construct our persona. When words are taken away from us, we are ourselves in our purest form. Our true nature shines through.
Spiritual practice nourishes and grounds me in a way that no other activity can.
My mind will seek written stimulation wherever possible – intently reading the small print on teabag boxes in the absence of phones, books or the ability to write notes.
So many of my thoughts are linked to words. Conversations had and imagined, paragraphs of text drafted before pen even hits the paper. These thoughts and plans take me away from the present.
Stillness allows me to notice the small things. During a standing meditation practice in the gardens, I had the honour of simply watching two mice going about their business collecting grass, ducking in and out through the grass paths and tunnels they’d created.
I could speak less. The rule of 50/50 in conversations: spend 50% of the time listening, 50% speaking.
Intense practice opens me up in such a strong way. Lots of emotional vulnerability and increased sensitivity on leaving the retreat.
Feelings of loving kindness or ‘metta’ towards strangers – compassion towards the farmer who shouted at me when I accidentally trespassed on her land. An opportunity to witness the impact of the exchange on my mind in subsequent meditation practices.
Create silence where possible. Turn the radio off, enjoy silence in the car when I’m in it on my own
Awareness of the daily trance – put my phone down
Sitting or walking practice
More asana practice
Get back into the habit of listening to podcasts by Buddhist teachers
Be kinder to myself. We all make mistakes. Lessen the self criticisms and perceived shortcomings
I’ve written this in preparation for an advanced yin teacher training I’m doing with Norman Blair in June…
‘Practice’ is an interesting word. For me, it means:
moving in this body
being in this body
living with this mind.
That’s how I’ve structured this piece of writing.
Moving in this body
Yin has undoubtedly had an impact on how I practice ashtanga yoga. Although I pretty much discovered both simultaneously, it’s been more recently that I have considered how one affects your attitude towards the other.
I’ve seen people so focused in their ashtanga practice. They throw absolutely everything at it. It’s an attack or an assault and there’s no ease. I used to be a bit like that but now I try and bring the yin to the yang. I try not the force the asana.
Michel Besnard taught me on my 500 hour training and his favourite phrase is “who cares”. Who cares if you don’t get your head to your shin in paschimotanasana. Who cares if you don’t jump through. A good mantra if ever I heard one.
So I think about how I can create space. I listen inwardly and there’s less striving.
As a result, there’s more connection to breath. It really feels like a moving meditation and I feel more. I certainly notice more. How does my lumbar and glute medius feel in supta kurmasana? Am I really engaging my adductors in navasana? What’s going on with the bandhas?
Moving slowly suits me. Given half the chance, I’d happily lie in bed all morning. I’m a naturally tamasic person. I find it more challenging to gee myself up to practice ashtanga at home. But yin? I’m there in a flash – sprawled out across the living room carpet – I need to be peeled off with a spatula.
Being in this body
I remember being at university one day and walking across campus only to be brought to a standstill by the sight of a huge flock of Canadian geese flying overhead in formation, above the spires of the neo-gothic buildings. The sky was bright blue and they stood out against the grey Yorkshire stone.
I looked at all the other students scurrying around me, anxious to get to their morning lectures on time. No-one else saw this natural beauty. The geese were so peaceful and elegant, quietly making their way to wherever they were heading. The encounter inspired me to create scribbles in my sketchbook.
At that point in my life I’d never even been to a yoga class, didn’t know what yin meant but that act of noticing the little things has always been in me. I was brought up with a father who made me look at the tiny flowers growing on dry stone walls on country walks and I’m pretty good at spotting a typo. I’m all about the details.
But at the same time, I’d say that I’ve lived my life quite detached from noticing the subtleties of this body and what’s going on inside.
In my twenties, I got terrible anxiety. I couldn’t eat in some social situations and I got really stressed about it. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I remember going to see a lady for some cognitive behavioural therapy. She said, “You’re going to do a yoga teacher training? Oh that’ll sort you out!” She was right. It was through yoga that I realised it was tension-related – where do I hold my tension? In my stomach. It made sense why I struggled to eat.
While the process of looking inward can be scary at times, I’ve learnt that it’s so beneficial. Being still in a yin practice facilitates this. You notice the sensations. It’s a practice you can take off the mat and into your everyday life.
I had a run-in with someone not too long ago and there were a few very tense phone conversations where I had to make it clear that I wasn’t a happy bunny. Every time I came off the phone I spent a few breaths noticing the impact on body – the tightening, the holding, the shortening of breath. I wouldn’t have thought to do that before I’d discovered yin or Martin Alyward.
Living with this mind
Yin has allowed me to reconnect with a meditation practice.
Having done my initial teacher training with Sivananda, I was given a mantra and for about six months after coming home from India, I’d religiously get up early, silently chant my mantra for 20 minutes and then get on with my day. And then winter crept in, I got busy at work and the Sanskrit went out of the window.
Ryan Spielman introduced me to the teachings of meditation teacher Martin Alyward and I began doing my yin practice at home listening to his podcasts. So much of his teachings resonated. They applied to a yin practice and to life in general.
I began a sitting practice again and went on a five-day silent retreat to Gaia House with Martin last October. Since then, I’ve made time to sit during the week. For me, it feels right to spend this time noticing my breath – its nuances – and noticing sensations. I notice how distracted my mind is – and that’s ok. An insight meditation practice does exactly that: it provides insight. I notice what is instead of filling my mind with something else like a mantra.
My mind now appreciates the quiet. My boyfriend Rob likes listening to BBC Radio 5 Live and it’s a lot of talking. I struggle to have a conversation with him if it’s on in the background. I like eating in silence and enjoying the taste of food. I like listening to birdsong and watching the squirrels.
Yin has taught me about acceptance – again, the softening around the striving – accepting situations and people as they are, not willing them to be different. Of course, it’s a work in progress.
Martin talks about how we’re so fixated on ‘letting go’ and that it’s an overused phrase in today’s yoga and spiritual industry. He says we should focus instead on ‘unclinging’. I like this. There’s the unclinging and softening in yin poses and then how this translates into the everyday.
I’ve been a cling-on. In the past I think I’ve verged on the control freak end of the spectrum. My organisational skills have been praised in past jobs and I’ve taken pride in being on-the-ball. I’ve tried to find the ideal man that ticked all the boxes. But since practicing yin and finding this softening, I’ve been able to open up – physically and mentally.
I’ve relaxed my tick box exercise and now I’m engaged to be married. Would I have dismissed Rob in the past due to his love of football and for having never stepped foot on a yoga mat? Probably. But now I’m able to see deeper and recognise his wonderful goodness.
Recently I met with a friend of a friend who was considering resigning from her safe, well-paid but boring job to try freelancing. She was full of ‘what ifs’: What if I don’t get any work? What if I’m no good at it? I was talking to a mirror. I was looking at me from a few years’ ago.
I talked to her about fear. I told her that she had good skills and experience. If freelancing doesn’t work for her, she can get a job doing something, anything. Fear can paralyse us. I wouldn’t know this stuff if I hadn’t practiced yin and worked on unclinging.
I could go on talking about the way yin has had an impact on my life, but I’ll stop now. Suffice to say, it’s all about the noticing. I’m much happier as a result. And for this I’m truly grateful.
I’ll leave you with Roger Keyes’ poem about the wonderful Japanese artist, Hokusai:
Hokusai says look carefully.
He says pay attention, notice.
He says keep looking, stay curious.
He says there is no end to seeing…
He says everything is alive –
Shells, buildings, people, fish
Mountains, trees. Wood is alive.
Water is alive.
Everything has its own life.
Everything lives inside us.
He says live with the world inside you…
It matters that you care.
It matters that you feel.
It matters that you notice.
It matters that life lives through you…
Look, feel, let life take you by the hand.
Let life live through you.
How has yin yoga influenced your practice? I’d love to know. Feel free to leave your thoughts below.
I’ve heard it said that selling and buying a house is one of the most stressful things you can do. I’m selling two and buying one.
There’s calls to estate agents, followed by follow-up calls. You’re not sure if they haven’t responded because they didn’t get the message or if they just haven’t called you back yet.
There’s emails to and from solicitors and the estate agent for my flat in London. And don’t get me started on trying to sort a mortgage when one of you is self-employed. My accountant has the patience of a saint.
I’ve had a love affair with a house in Kimpton village. It was brief. We met online on the Friday, I fell head over heels but he wasn’t sure. I lay awake a night thinking of nothing else. By Monday when I phoned wanting to take it a step further, I learnt that it was too late. Decisions had already been made.
But it’s funny how you move on so quickly. The mind is fickle. You obsess, but immediately we move onto the next infatuation (aka a semi in Sandridge).
The result is feeling very ungrounded. Everything feels urgent. My self practices are shoe-horned into my days, they’re much shorter, and I’ve noticed my mind flitting all over the place. Very short concentration spans. Very short sentences.
Today has been no different: a mental list of all the calls, chasing, appointments and things to do. After lunch, I made time to sit for 15 minutes and watch my breath. It was noticeable how much tension was in my hips, my thighs, my jaw and shoulders. I watched my exhalations. I softened. And now I feel like I’ve reset my body.
Try it some time.
PS. There’s a very nice one-bed flat for sale in Chiswell Green, St Albans, if you’re interested. Have a look at it on Rightmove – start your own love affair today…
I’ve recently come back from a silent meditation retreat in Devon at Gaia House with Martin and Gail Aylward. We spent lots of time sitting, and the meditation practice was quite unlike anything I’ve done before – no need to chant my Sanskrit mantra until I’ve obliterated all other thoughts. This was far more gentle and offered the chance of actual insight linked to body.
Over the five days, all 50 of us met with Martin in small groups of eight or so people in what was called a ‘group interview’. Having never done anything like it before, I didn’t really know what would happen.
I was in a room with comfy armchairs in a circle, and oak panelling on the walls. Martin sat cross-legged on an armchair in front of a grand fireplace. I’m slightly in awe of him. He’s wise, incredibly knowledgeable, yet approachable. He’s spent time living with monks in Thailand, yet he’s very at home talking about the realities of Western living.* But he’s got these eyes that make you feel like he’s looking into your being.
“What’s come up for you?” he asked me in the group interview.
I didn’t want everyone looking at me. I hadn’t spoken in three days and now I was confronted with having to talk about my inner thoughts and feelings in front of a group of people who I’d been living around – maybe we’d helped ourselves to the breakfast porridge at the same time, or walked into the meditation hall behind each other. But that was it.
I casually answered, “Oh just mundane stuff really, and thoughts around planning for the future.”
“What else?” I felt those eyes on me.
“Er, songs. I’ve got songs going round in my head. That’s all.” Florence and her machine had been plaguing me for days. I was squirming. I wanted him to move onto the next person.
“What else?” His eyes. I shrugged and squirmed more.
“What about all this embodiment stuff we’ve been talking about?” He pressed further.
My response was short: “I don’t know.” In my head I was wanting him just to gloss over it and not look any deeper. But he wasn’t having any of it.
He sighed. “Ok, how do you feel right now in your body?”
I paid attention to the sensations. I was sitting in an armchair, one sole of foot pressed into the seat and my hands tightly gripped the bent knee. I noticed an incredible heat in my body and I was actually sweating. All my muscles everywhere felt engaged. I could not move.
I told him all this, and as I told him, my body physically released and relaxed.
“How do you feel now?” he asked. I replied that I felt calm.
“THAT’s what you need to work on!” he exclaimed, pointing his index finger at me. And he moved onto the next person.
Some people cried as they talked about their fears and anxieties and people slid a box of tissues across the floor to the next person. And you know what? It was all ok.
But after that point, for the rest of the retreat, I was able to go deeper in my meditation. I was more attuned to sensations in my body.
It’s weird because when I’m on my mat practicing, I’m able to notice more. I find it easier (‘easier’ not ‘easy’) to observe the tension and soften.
But when we’re under pressure, when we get caught up in our thoughts, it can all go out of the window. And that’s when we need it the most! I was transported back to school and being scared to speak in class in case I said the ‘wrong’ thing. It’s fear and it manifests as anxiety. We contract around our experience.
Since returning home a week ago, I’ve found it challenging. I’ve felt overwhelmed by all the communication – emails, voicemails, whatsapp messages, texts, TV, radio, speaking and listening… but I’m trying to notice how that contraction manifests in my physical body and seeking to soften.
I would recommend everyone looks up Martin Aylward and I’d love to spend time again next year with him and Gail at Gaia House. There I go again – planning for the future…
*My favourite retreat moment was when, during a talk with Martin in the main hall, a phone sounded the arrival of a text. Phones aren’t encouraged at Gaia House. Martin stopped mid-sentence, reached inside his pocket, pulled out his iPhone and looked at the screen. “It’s a text from my son,” he announced to us all, smiling. His wife Gail, sitting to one side, looked down at her lap and stifled a giggle.
I went for a walk last week. I was making my way along a country lane and I took my phone out of my pocket. I turned it on and started typing a reply to a text. I wrote a couple of words and realised I’d taken a handful of steps without noticing. I put my phone back in my pocket and carried on walking.
Where was I? I was on a five-day silent meditation retreat at Gaia House in Devon. I had gone to spend time sitting, moving and learning with Martin and Gail Aylward.
This ‘noticing’ is really what Gaia House is all about. Everything you do there is set up to cultivate awareness.
Every day we practiced walking meditation. There’s a large room with creaky wooden floorboards and a huge bay window containing houseplants that were just as huge. In a marble fireplace sat a skeleton reminding us of our immortality. I slowly walked back and forth noticing what arose in the space between bones and leaves – the dead and the living.
But it was the outside walking practice that I enjoyed the most. You chose a space in the beautiful grounds and you paid attention to your every step:
the way my feet made contact with the ground
the golden hues of early autumn leaves
the restriction in my left big toe joint due to an old sprain
a plane soaring overhead
a softening of shoulders
the occasional weed sprouting for victory
exhaling breath on top lip
the heat in hands from clasping a mug of peppermint tea
the cacophony of cawing crows
sash windows with wobbly panes of glass catching the light unevenly
the warm sun on face
the subtle smell of peppermint
the inhaling expansion of rib cage.
It’s often said – I believe – that women are brilliant multi-taskers. I’m sure many men would disagree. But is multi-tasking such a great thing? Trying to do ten things at once?
Traditionally on 14 February we focus our attention on someone that we’re ‘in love’ with. But this year you may like to widen your remit. We all could do with some love – on this day and throughout the year – and so I’m going to share a meditation with you.
This meditation cultivates ‘loving-kindness’ or as Buddhists say, ‘metta’. It’s based on a series of phrases that open your heart and develop love towards everyone, including yourself.
With a loving heart, all that we attempt and encounter will open and flow more easily and we’ll be happier and more loving.
You might like to repeat each step for a few minutes whilst sitting comfortably, or even just focus on a step for a week or so if you have a regular practice.
You could also repeat the phrases as you go about your day – queuing in the supermarket, waiting at traffic lights, on the way to work – or in long held yoga poses.
Start by bringing attention to yourself and breathe gently. Mentally repeat the following:
May I be filled with love.
May I be free from harm.
May I walk the earth in peace.
This particular wording works for me. You can adjust the phrases in any way so they resonate with you. Repeat these phrases over and over again, allowing the feelings to flood your body and mind.
Now bring into your mind someone who is close to you – someone who has perhaps cared for you. Imagine them going about their day, doing their thing. And repeat:
May they be filled with love.
May they be free from harm.
May they walk the earth in peace.
For the third step, focus on a friend. Perhaps someone who you know is having a hard time and could benefit from some loving-kindness. Repeat the wording for five to ten minutes.
And now for the last step, bring your attention to someone who you’ve found harder to love. You may know them well, or perhaps you’ve only met them briefly and exchanged terse words. For me right now, a traffic warden springs to mind. I’m sure they’re a very nice person… Again, repeat the wording for five to ten minutes.
During the meditation you may notice a range of emotions rising. These emotions may be very contrary to loving-kindness. Whatever comes up, it’s ok, and just breathe, repeating the phrases.
It might not feel right for you to start with the focus on yourself. Again, that’s fine. You may prefer to bring your attention to yourself at the end. No problem.
I find this a really nice practice. It cultivates love and compassion for everyone on earth and banishes negative emotions.
I’ll be using this practice in a yin/yang yoga workshop I’m teaching tomorrow in Harpenden, Herts. If you’d like to come along, have a look at the workshops page for full details.
I’m keen to hear your thoughts on this practice. Feel free to comment below.
“We have to learn how to be non-violent towards ourselves. If we were able to play back the often unkind, unhelpful and destructive comments and judgements silently made toward our self in any given day, this may give us some idea of the enormity of the challenge of self acceptance. If we were to speak these thoughts out loud to another person, we would realize how truly devastating violence to the self can be. In truth, few of us would dare to be as unkind to others as we are to ourselves.”
As part of my Teacher Interview series on the blog, I bring you Dr April Nunes Tucker.
April and I teach workshops together and her main practice is Ashtanga yoga. Originally from California, she’s been teaching for almost 20 years and her classes are challenging yet fun. I talk to her about the interesting journey that’s brought her to Hertfordshire.
CW: Hello April. There aren’t many people in this neck of the woods that can say they’ve spent four years living in a yoga community. How come you made that decision?
ANT: It was 1994 and at that time I’d just finished my first degree in dance. I was working as a waitress in Southern California and a lovely lady at work suggested that I go visit the Mount Madonna Center (MMC) in the mountains in Northern California.
I arrived late afternoon, walked around, had dinner and pitched my little tent surrounded by 355 acres of beautiful redwoods. I felt so fearful of the place that when the sun rose the next morning I packed up and drove away.
That week I was bothered by how I couldn’t quite put my finger on what had frightened me about the place. In an effort to face my fear, I went back.
I was only there a few minutes when a woman stopped me and asked, “would you like to meet with Babaji? He’s just had a cancellation.”
‘Babaji’ is what devotees call Baba Hari Dass. That was my first meeting with the very important man who gave me the tools to better my life through yoga.
Our meeting was surreal. He’s a silent monk who hasn’t spoken for almost 60 years but I felt as though he could read my thoughts. He asked what I did, what I planned to do, and when I told him that I wasn’t sure, he wrote on his chalkboard, “you could live here.”
It took me less than a month to pack up and move to MMC and I didn’t leave for four years.
CW: How would you describe the Mount Madonna Center?
ANT: Baba Hari Dass is the guru and he teaches classical Ashtanga yoga with an emphasis on meditation. This is different to how we practice Ashtanga vinyasa yoga in the West.
The ultimate purpose of practicing yoga is to develop concentration in order to achieve peace. The classical Ashtanga yoga system consists of eight parts:
The first of these is the ‘yamas’ – a Sanskrit word meaning ‘restraints’ – living your life in a non-violent way, being truthful, not stealing, continence and non-hoarding.
There’s also the ‘niyamas’ or observances – having a sense of purity, being satisfied with what you have, undertaking spiritual study and recognising our limited ego-self.
Doing the physical postures or ‘asanas’. These traditionally belong to the system of Hatha Yoga.
Practicing pranayama exercises – breath control.
Observing what’s going on inside, instead of outside (pratyahara)
Developing concentration (dharana)
CW: What was daily life like there?
ANT: Busy! Wake up early, attempt to meditate, walk from my tent or cabin to the kitchen (my first year there I spent in a tent – cabins were at a premium!), help cook breakfast for anywhere between 100-500 people, take a break walking through the woods or practicing asana.
On certain days, attend a class with Babaji, work the rest of the afternoon on a building site or in the garden or scrubbing toilets, eat dinner, wash dishes, sit around chatting, drink herbal tea and then go to bed.
… And then do it all again the next day. It’s based on the idea of ‘karma yoga’ – doing things selflessly.
CW: Tell me about Baba Hari Dass
ANT: Babaji is an incredible human being and a wonderful teacher. He taught me how to be less afraid, concentrate and accept myself more.
One of his well known quotes is: “Work honestly, meditate everyday, meet people without fear and play” and this is what he teaches. I feel his vow of silence allows his teachings to come through with great clarity.
He has a lovely sense of humour, is compassionate and the most remarkable person I have ever met.
CW: Did you learn lessons that you carry with you in daily life?
ANT: I carry the sadhana practice that was given to me by Babaji. It includes chanting, hand mudras, pranayama, kriyas (methods for calming the mind) and meditation. I try and get up an hour before my kids every morning in order to do the practice. Sometimes it gets cut short when they start clambering over me but the intention’s there.
CW: You taught yoga classes there. Was this your first experience of yoga? What were the classes like?
ANT: I taught asana (the physical postures) and pranayama (breathing techniques). MMC hosts very big retreats – often with around 500 people – so my first teaching experiences were a baptism of fire!
I was on a stage with a sea of people in front of me and a two other ‘demonstrators’ on smaller platforms either side of the stage doing the same asana as I taught it. Scary!
My only previous experience of ‘yoga’ was doing a little class in the staff room of the restaurant where I worked in California with my waitress buddy who followed Babaji.
CW: What were the other people like who lived there with you?
ANT: There were all sorts of different people there. Some were only staying a month just checking out the scene, others were original devotees of Hari Dass since the 1970s. The people there were as varied as people are anywhere.
I will say that I believe living in a community setting magnifies personalities. It is very good training for looking at yourself when you are irritated with others.
CW: There are lots of spiritual/yoga communities in California. Why do you think that is?
ANT: Everyone is searching everywhere. Maybe I’m being generous but California has a lot of natural beauty and people are open to alternative ways of thinking or being. So Eastern philosophies such as yoga flourish.
Also I think many people who live in California are quite privileged and can ‘afford’ to take time out to work on personal development.
CW: You now teach Ashtanga vinyasa yoga – as popularised in the West by Sri K Pattabhi Jois. What do you think is the best thing about teaching yoga?
ANT: For me, teaching a class has three parts: before, during and after. Before the class I enjoy the discipline of attempting to put the reins on my ego. I try to come into class as open and humble as possible.
During class I try to keep my ego in check – demonstrating humbly, allowing for humour and executing compassionate adjustments as much as possible. I really like that sensation of ‘being in the zone’ where I can intuitively flow through a class.
Sometimes after classes I get a real hit of emotion – love or sadness or joy. I like this because it makes me feel very alive. It’s a direct reflection of our human connection.
CW: If you weren’t teaching yoga or looking after two small children what job would you be doing?
ANT: I would probably be lecturing in a university on contemporary dance. That’s always been my field of interest – particularly human movement and the way that it connects people and communicates meaning. I have a PhD in dance and have researched movement repetition.
I like how Ashtanga vinyasa yoga and my daily sadhana practice rely on repeating certain movements and this links nicely with my specialism in dance.
When I go back to the academic world I hope to continue finding ways for dancers and dance academics to become interested in yoga through my research.
CW: How does the Ashtanga vinyasa practice challenge you?
ANT: I feel that the key to the Ashtanga practice is the repetition. To offer an image, the repetition of the practice is like an anchor – the anchor for a boat out at sea.
Imagine a boat floating on the surface of the water with a big heavy chain with an anchor at the end. The anchor’s chain goes down… down through the water until the anchor embeds itself in the sand on the bottom of the ocean floor. That deep ocean floor is like that part of self that knows it’s all ok – the part of the self that knows peace. It is the repetitive yoga practice (the anchor) that can tap into that peaceful part of the self.
The boat represents the part of ourselves that we identify with most readily – the self that’s pulled this way and that by things we desire. It’s the part of the self which is affected by the weather, the currents of the water and the part that gets angry or sad as seagulls shit on it as they fly overhead.
CW: Complete the sentence: A life without yoga would be….
CW: Thank you for your time April.
April can be found in Harpenden teaching a Sunday morning class at Roundwood School and private classes in people’s homes. She can also be found on Facebook and email. April and I teach yin/ashtanga workshops at Breathing Space in Harpenden and the next one is planned for Saturday 21 September from 3pm – 6.30pm. Visit the workshops page for more details and to book.
If you’re interested in learning more about yoga communities/ashrams, I’ve frequented some in India:
“When you’re doing Gibberish, make sure you really are talking gibberish. I was next to someone the other evening and they were making animal noises! I’m naming no names but they really should have known better.”
That’s a taster of the wisdom that was imparted to us 20 or so Osho newbies on our first morning. By this point we’d paid our £12 registration fee which included a compulsory HIV test, bought our maroon and white ankle-length robes and paid a further £12 for a day pass. We’re talking thousands of Rupees here.
“Why Wener?!” I hear you ask. Because I first heard about the Osho International Meditation Resort on a visit to the Sivananda ashram in Kerala four years ago. Some people rave about the place whilst others such as Lucy Edge in her book ‘The Yoga School Dropout’ have been less enthusiastic. One friend of mine – who shall remain nameless – said that she isn’t brave enough to visit the place. I was intrigued and wanted to experience it for myself.
The man behind the myth
The Lonely Planet states that Osho (1931-90) was one of India’s most flamboyant and controversial exports to the West. Having spent years studying philosophy, his ‘methods’ are a way to break down our habits and social conditioning. He enraged many by making outrageous comments about pretty much every world religion. In 1981 he set up an ashram in Oregon, US, but got deported and sought a home for himself and his followers overseas. He found his base in Pune after being denied entry or being deported from 21 countries. He amassed a collection of Rolls Royces and one sits in his former home. You take your shoes off next to it as you enter his house to meditate.
Why ‘sex guru’?
According to Osho, sex is a way to enlightenment. Unsurprisingly, this theory has made him very popular in the West. Apparently in the olden days of the place (1990’s), everyone would be sweaty after the morning meditation, jump in the mixed showers and you’d be having sex with someone before breakfast. Times have changed and the place is very different now. It felt all very organised and sedate. Although I think it’s still there if you want it. I didn’t see much of that going on… or perhaps it was because I was so focused in my meditations. Ha! Fat chance!
Breaking the rules
The Welcome Morning allows you to become familiar with the place, its activities and ensures you don’t make any major faux pas. Within five minutes of arriving, our bubbly Korean host Su Yee had us jumping about and forgetting ourselves. She’s lived there for eight years.
Despite the morning, I still slipped up in the canteen on day two. I put rice straight onto my plate instead of in a bowl. Outrage!! The serving staff were quick to reprimand me and an Indian man was onto me, gesticulating and speaking in Hindi. Svargo, an English guy who’s been visiting since 1988, fortunately came to my rescue (“Yeah, yeah, she gets it. She won’t do it again…”).
As for other rules, if you coughed, sneezed, burped, farted or made any other seemingly involuntary noise during a silent part of a meditation, you had to leave the room. The booklet says: “If the cough or sneeze happens too quickly, then at least leave immediately afterwards. Please don’t wait for someone to have to ask you to leave.” Oooer.
I heard one woman try so hard to stifle a coughing fit that she made twice as much noise as if she’d just coughed. She ran out of the room disgraced. She never returned.
Any noises were amplified by the black marble floor in the main Auditorium. It was so highly polished you could see people’s reflections. It was stunning and so peaceful. In fact, the whole place was beautiful.
(The Auditorium inside and out)
The resort was very Zen with small black pebbles, pools of water, white marble Buddhas sitting amongst carpets of green. Bamboo gracefully creaked in the wind and the buildings were black and shiny. Water fell down walls of slate and people swam in the dark pool (in maroon swimwear). The fact we all wore maroon added to the aesthetics of the place. If we’d been wearing our own clothes, it would have jarred with the surroundings and not been so peaceful.
I spent the first day walking around with my mouth hanging open.
Evening Meeting of the White Robe Brotherhood
The highlight of each day was the evening meeting in the Auditorium. People changed out of their maroon robes and into crisp white ones.
The meeting had various stages:
1. Celebrate through dance: I’d say there were about 500 people in the evening meetings and this is the low season. Standing in the Auditorium, the live band would start up. The music slowly gained momentum and became hypnotic. People really went for it. Guys were Sufi whirling, spinning at speed with their arms outstretched. I’ve never seen men dancing so intently. People were all over the place, arms flailing and totally lost in the music. It was really good fun. I danced so hard that I couldn’t see straight. At times the music stopped and everyone had to stick their arms up in the air and shout “Osho!”.
2. Osho speaks: On a projector appeared the man himself. There aren’t pictures of him around the place so this was the first time I saw him. Behold a man with a woolly hat, a beard down to his chest and an outfit that strangely reminded me of Ming the Merciless. We’d been told by Su Yee that we might not understand much of what he says. This was correct. He stretched words out so much and it was all meant to be a method to keep you alert. Examples: “consussneeeeece” “relijeeeen” and “lotussss”.
(If only Ming wore a woolly hat…)
He’s fond of a joke. Some are funny, some aren’t. I liked this one:
A wife says to her husband: “You remind me of the sea.”
Husband: “Is that because I’m so magnificent, strong and wild?”
Wife: “No. It’s because you make me feel sick.”
I think he wove them into his discourses in order to keep you awake. One guy stopped snoring when we all started laughing.
3. Gibberish: In the booklet we were given, Osho says:
“Shouting, laughing, crying, making noise… making gestures. Simply allow whatever comes into your mind without bothering about its rationality, reasonability, meaning, significance. Do it totally with great enthusiasm… make it a reality… just go crazy. Don’t be partial, don’t be middle-class. Just be a first rate crazy man!” “If you don’t know Chinese, say it in Chinese!”
My English sensibilities kicked in and I felt a bit uncomfortable.
4. Sitting silently: I can do that.
5. Fall down ‘like a bag of rice’: Su Yee imparted a handy tip to allow us to fully submit to this stage. We had to move forward on our mat/rug during Gibberish so when the drumbeat came, we could collapse backwards safe in the knowledge that we weren’t going to knock ourselves out on the marble floor. Invaluable.
6. Celebration through dance: Thumping music. Then the music finishes and everyone gets up, walks out, puts shoes on and leaves silently.
Every afternoon is the OSHO Kundalini Meditation. It starts with shaking. “Be loose and let your whole body shake. Become the shaking,” says Osho. On day two, the shaking definitely became me. It’s like you’re doing an impression of someone having an epileptic fit. You then do dancing, sitting and a nice 15 minutes of savasana.
The Dynamic morning meditation had so many stages. The most memorable was standing with your arms held straight up, you jumped up and down with flat feet (killer on the calf muscles on a marble floor) whilst shouting “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!” We did a test run as part of the Welcome Morning and people had to attempt it standing in front of everyone whilst Su Yee corrected the shape of our mouths when ‘hoo-ing’. It’s a precise art form for sure. She’s had eight years to perfect it.
I liked the OSHO vipassana meditation because it felt familiar. Osho would probably say that it isn’t the best one for me because of this. We sat in silence for 45 minutes observing flow of breath and then 15 minutes of walking meditation. When sitting, I loved how a woman came around and donked you on the head with ‘the vipassana stick’ to keep you alert.
These activities were all designed by Osho to break down our conditioning. We need to remain fully alert. We mustn’t live in our body or mind, but instead, just witness our thoughts. If we feel uncomfortable, it’s probably because it fights against our habits and deep rooted behaviours.
The opulence of the place didn’t sit well with me. Why did Osho need Rolls Royces? Why was it so expensive? Who needs Osho-branded sugar sachets? Surely it’s just a playground for the rich? There was a 50:50 split between Indians and Westerners but if it was more affordable, I would have thought that more people could benefit. It was an oasis totally at odds with the mad India going on outside.
I felt guilty walking past the Indian women sitting on the street trying to sell me pashminas and t-shirts costing a fraction of the daily entrance fee. They saw me walking out of a place where I’d spent a small fortune to jump about like a loon. How could I say that I didn’t need their things?
I guess I felt I could connect with the experience by the end of the second day. I’ve done expressive dance before and the more you do it, the easier it gets. Jumping up and down with flat feet shouting ‘hoo’ is very unfamiliar and therefore scary. But as the old adage goes, you shouldn’t knock something until you’ve tried it. I tried it for two days and it was alright. The people were friendly and, if it was cheaper, I may have stayed longer.
I was delighted to see Yoga Dork publicising Rob Osborne’s posters of characters from Star Wars doing yoga asanas. They are unbelievably cool and I think that every yogi – or indeed Star Wars fan – should have one.
This fusion is very exciting and the similarities between George Lucas’ cult films and the ancient Indian practice are endless.
“Use the Force Luke.” In yoga, the breath is our life force or ‘prana’. By breathing deeply we re-energise our bodies and increase the level of prana. Like the Force, you can’t see prana but you know it’s there – it’s everywhere. It’s your aura or presence and people who you may naturally gravitate towards – like celebrities or world leaders – have high levels of prana.
Also, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali talk about people having ‘siddhis’ or supernatural powers resulting from practising yoga. I reckon Luke definitely had a few siddhis tucked up his sleeve.
Yoda: the pint-size prophet And you would be a fool to think that the word ‘yoga’ is only one letter away from ‘Yoda’ by mere coincidence! He came out with some yogic gems. Take this one for example:
“Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealously. The shadow of greed, that is.”
In yoga, we talk about detachment. Swami Sivananda liked a chant that went along the lines of “I am not this body, I am not this mind, I am not these senses… I am that I am” meaning that you’re really just the ‘atman’ or soul. Your physical body gets left behind when you die so what’s the point in being so attached to it? It’s your soul that lives on.
There’s also the idea that we are all students. You might teach yoga, but you’ll always remain a student. Yoda echoes this sentiment:
“But when the day comes that even old Yoda does not learn something from his students, then truly, he shall be a teacher no more.”
When you think about Disney films such as Dumbo and Beauty and the Beast, they’re all about looking within, connecting with the inner being and not getting caught up with superficial things like appearance. And that brings us onto one of my favourites, Kung Fu Panda. The turtle Master Oogway is rather Yoda-esque in appearance and has some great lines:
“The mind is like dishwater, my friend. When it is agitated, it becomes difficult to see. But if you allow it to settle, the answer becomes clear.”
In yoga we talk about the mind being like a lake and being able to see to the bottom when it’s undisturbed. Also, the Tibetan Lama and author of the ‘Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’, Sogyal Rinpoche, says similar in his teachings. Between you and me, I think Yoda could have been based on him…
So I think there’s lots that can be learnt from popular culture – not all of it, just some select bits – and likewise the thinking behind yoga has relevance to all of our lives. And Mr Vader could definitely benefit from doing some pranayama. Might calm his breathing down a bit.