Two weeks at a yoga retreat

G’day again, loyal readers who haven’t given up on me after the two-week hiatus and any new readers who met me recently in Goa. I’m writing this on Sunday afternoon from the train to Mumbai, which has been yet another fairly pleasant experience travelling second-class sleeper across India. This morning has seen a fairly abrupt change to my diet, from the healthy and fresh mostly-vegan food served at Purple Valley Yoga for the past two weeks to a masala dosai for breakfast, some kind of super-sweet nut and coconut snack and of samosas, sandwiches and chai bought on the train. I’m guessing it’ll be back to curry three times a day for me soon.

As usual, photos from the last couple of weeks are on Picasa, and a few highlights below.

When I arrive in Mumbai tonight, I’m hoping to meet up with Gabriela who I met at the yoga retreat. With any luck, we’ll find a nice bar where we can have a Bombay Sapphire in Bombay. (Yesterday was St Patrick’s Day and I completely forgot to drink any Guinness, or indeed any beer at all, so I’m clearly out of practice when it comes alcohol consumption.)

So for the last two weeks I’ve been doing an ashtanga yoga course at the Purple Valley Yoga Retreat in Goa. It’s been pretty intense and exhausting: most days we’ve had two three-hour sessions. Any notion of yoga being a nice, relaxing activity have been banished from my mind. As expected, I was more or less the closest to a complete beginner in the group, having only done a tiny bit of yoga before, and had never tried ashtanga, which has its own independent culture and customs. For example, when I went to Mysore near the start of my travels through India, I was aware that there was quite a lot of yoga going on there. But it’s the birthplace of ashtanga yoga, so for people who are immersed in ashtanga, Mysore is almost a holy city to make pilgrimages to.

Fortunately, there were a couple of others at a similar level; as Keryn put it, we were the yoga kindergarten group. There were quite a lot of intermediate students (who looked like they were really good to me but were far too modest to ever describe themselves like that) and also a lot of crazy-good yogis, including a few yoga teachers.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the retreat was the people there – and I’m not just saying that because it was about 90% female. There were a handful of us, mostly from Commonwealth countries (England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and of course me from Australia) who got along really well. Easily the people I’ve got along with best on my travels through India so far. It almost makes me sad to be heading to Melbourne rather than England at the end of my travels. Some of the others were already talking about meeting up again in a few months’ time, but it’s not really practical for me to just pop over to Edinburgh or Surrey or Dublin on a whim.

The food also deserves a mention, because it was fantastic and completely unlike what I’ve mostly been eating in India (usually Indian food, or in more touristy areas, expensive and low-quality Western food). Every meal was an eat-until-you-explode buffet, entirely vegetarian, mostly vegan, and with a substantial proportion of raw food. Lots of salads and fresh vegetables that I’d normally be a bit uncertain about eating in India. It was good enough that I picked up copies of the recipe books that the two cooks had written.

The yoga course ended up being a little bit too intense for me, but I enjoyed it, and feel like I’ve learned a lot. I certainly plan to keep up the ashtanga practice, maybe even doing a little bit on my own a few days a week while I’m travelling. But after the first week, it felt like I’d hit my physical limits and was just constant exhausted. I’m fairly certain that I’ve developed strength in muscles I didn’t even realise I had. The instructor, Chuck Miller, put an emphasis on going slowly and correctly (which involves a lot of things that I would never have picked up from just looking at other people doing the poses) rather than just doing something that looks a bit like what you’re supposed to do, not trying to push too hard, being careful to avoid injuries to the back and knees, and other such things. I also liked a lot of his talk about yoga philosophy.

On the other hand, it would have been nice if the morning classes had been separated into beginners and experienced groups. It was very difficult to follow the deconstructed-and-reconstructed-in-detail version of the ashtanga primary series when you didn’t know what it was supposed to be like normally, and on the days where we did Mysore practice (working through the series at your own pace with the instructor occasionally interrupting to correct or adjust you) I felt quite lost. I was also pretty much the least flexible person there, which was a little bit frustrating at times, but probably more of a problem in my own mind than in reality.

Reading back over all of this, I can’t help but think that the me of two months ago – or perhaps even two weeks ago – would be shocked at how I got so obsessively absorbed into yoga like this. Being constantly around other people who have been doing it regularly for a while, it just seemed completely normal. It’ll be interesting to see how long it lasts…

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