It’s 5:40am and my alarm is screaming. The rooster chimes in. It’s still dark outside and all I want to do is go back to sleep.
But, driven by a desire to make the most of my yoga teacher training course, I leap out of bed, dazed, still smelling slightly of the Deep Heat I applied to my sore muscles the night before. I wash my face, pull on a skimpy outfit (knowing deep down that no amount of uncovered flesh will stop the flow of the sweat) and take a few sips of coffee before embarking on the long march up to the shala for morning practice.
Two hours later and it’s finally time for a tea break (where the biscuits and bananas are devoured within minutes) followed by a one-hour meditation and pranayama session (pranayama meaning breath work). Pranayama is tougher than you’d think, calling for alertness, concentration and energy. I have to be careful not to fall asleep in meditation. On the days when we chant, I begin as if I’m a member of the Hallé and end like a post-concert Steve Tyler.
Breakfast is upon us at 10am and I’m suddenly torn between the me that wants to eat all the bread and the me that doesn’t want to gain weight while I’m here. I try to practice tantra (which our teacher told us means observation and moderation of desires - little to do with sex as the western world would have us believe) after which I usually manage to take a seat with an extra large bowl of coconut-smothered fruit and unsweetened porridge. (Sometimes I swap porridge for bread).
Then it’s time for a two-hour anatomy or yoga philosophy class, where we sit on the floor in the sweltering heat with only a handful of slow-moving ceiling fans to cool us. Lunch follows, and then its alignment, student teaching or more practice and maybe a posture clinic before dinner at 7. Tuesdays and Thursdays go on even later. We also get homework.
This is a typical day at yoga teacher training in Goa, India. There is no time for lie-ins, no sympathy for slackers and no space for late comers. Every day is long and intense, with an overwhelming amount of information to take in and nearly as much work for the body. I feel like I’m living in a perpetual state of exhaustion, with barely enough time to wash my clothes let alone write a blog post! But, of course, this is what I signed up for. A challenge, an opportunity to learn and be still, and (hopefully) a whole new set of adventures waiting for me the other side.
The first week stood out as a whirlwind of new experiences. Among other things, it was the first time I’d poured salt water into my nostrils, the first time I’d attended “Satsang”, definitely the first time I have ever shouted ‘Om’ from the top of my lungs in a room full of people and I think the only occasion I’d properly tried partner yoga (miraculously coming away in one piece).
Pouring the water into my nose reminded me of a surf lesson I’d had a few years ago. The coughing and spluttering, the taste of the sea, the feeling that you’re drowning but somehow, you’re still alive. Otherwise known as "Jala Neti", this is actually a cleansing technique. Apart from slightly blocking my ears - and a moment of panic later when an uninvited stream of water came gushing out of my nose - I’d say I handled the whole thing rather well. I might even try it again.
It occurred to me then that everyone could benefit from doing a yoga teacher training course. Yes on a TTC we are pushing and challenging our bodies, but we are also soothing them, not simply with yoga and meditation but also with early, alcohol-free nights, weekly massages, spicy herbal tea and a healthy mix of fruit and vegetables (not to mention the salt water nose bath). Too many of us neglect ourselves in the name of work, children or wine. (Mental note to motivate family upon return).
Satsang, essentially a group meeting or discussion with a guru, made me think of church, but without the religious bit. In reality it was a chance for us to get some clarity on karma and tantra. Karma, our guru explained, literally means action. The law of karma implies not so much that our every move will come back to haunt us, but rather, that every action we take has a result. He suggested that we simply try to make sure our actions don’t cause disturbances for ourselves or others.
Unlike Satsang, shouting ‘Om’ was not on our original agenda, but after the playful partner yoga session - in which we mounted each other and made hearts with our hands - our teacher decided we were too giddy for alternate nose breathing. The shouting was nothing short of hilarious, with around 60 of us screaming all at once, (which I’m certain was much to nature’s annoyance). But, like pretty much everything else on this course, it felt amazing once you got into it. We really should shout more often.
At the beginning of week two, our guru warned us that the second week would be the toughest. I took his comments with a pinch of salt, figuring I hadn’t cried so far, despite lots of tears from the other girls, and couldn’t see any reason why I would suddenly start.
Exactly 24-hours later, I broke. I’d just finished a tough Ashtanga practice, during which I took some deep backbends AND stubbed my toe so hard it bled all over my mat, when – in meditation - a wave of negative thoughts began swirling around my mind like a race car around a track. I tried to stop myself from crying but the tears forced their way out, and once the flood gates opened, they just kept coming.
It was then I realised that this was a test of my mental stamina as much as my physical. Spending nearly all day every day with a group of people who only two weeks ago were total strangers, thrown together in what I can only describe as a school-type setting, it’s not always easy to keep a cool head. Everyone is feeling the burn, with many viewing the course as a spiritual journey or catalyst for change, and emotions are running high. A friend from England dubbed it ‘the perfect storm’ when you factor in our physical exhaustion. Mum joked that it sounded like Bear Grylls’ survival show The Island. Both were not far off.
I came around of course, and before long was back to prancing around on my mat, joking around with the girls and hitting up the local shops on my lunch break to buy (much-needed) clothes and jewellery. And, despite some ongoing trauma to my big toe, I did finally master a “jump through” from downward dog to seated with legs out infront (using blocks) - hurray!
We are now in the third and final week, which means exam time is looming. Despite being extremely nervous, I have decided to try and make the most this last chapter here in Agonda, taking in as much of the beautiful surroundings as I can while enjoying the delicious vegetarian meals, the yoga (obviously) and using my precious free time to consolidate everything I have learned so far.
Even with all its challenges, I don’t think any of us would deny that this whole experience has been a wonderful mental break from our fast-paced, all-consuming lives in the countries we call home. The exotic sounds and rich colours of nature are reassuring and calming. Noone has to think about driving to work, cooking dinner or cleaning the house. The opportunity to sit down every morning and reflect/set an intention for the day is almost unheard of for some of us. It’s also the first chance we’ve had to gain a deeper understanding about yoga, its history and principles.
Or even to kill ourselves in Ashtanga.
Needless to say, I am also very much looking forward to that large glass of wine on the plane!