Last year I ran away to Asia. All I knew for certain was that I couldn’t be in the UK anymore, but I had no idea where I was meant to be. So I jumped on a plane to India, not because it was calling me, but because I knew it as a place so recklessly disorientatingly haphazard, the antithesis of the UK, that it would give me shock enough to the system to propel me along on some kind of path. That path quickly manifest itself to be Yoga.
At this point in time Yoga and I had fallen out. It was yet another thing that worked for EVERYBODY else but not for me – I was that exception to the rule. Beat down by life, I had been forced to wave goodbye to fiery vinyasa based practises, and time on the mat mainly consisted of lolling over bolsters. What I needed, but not what I wanted. So amidst dog bites, rabies jabs, lost credit cards (India was not treating me well) I ended up in the one place that felt safe in its familiarity: my mat. And began practising the gentler hatha classes that were predominantly available. Some unexpected twists and turns brought me to Goa (the beauty of travelling without an itinerary is that you can follow whims and fancies but most importantly your gut). And to the most magical of Yoga teacher trainings: an experience so surreally blissful, it feels like a dream now. I found a home in the family run organic spice farm in the Goan jungle with an amazing hotch-potch international family of my fellow teacher training companions, our teachers and the wonderful Indian family who own the spice farm. Although, its worth mentioning, I did manage to tear a hamstring tendon; a horrible, yet horribly common, injury that will leave you barely walking let alone vinyasa-ing for a while. But within every injury lies a lesson, mine spelled out that I was still trying too hard and wanting too much.
But every dream inevitably ends, and spewed back out into the somewhat more raucous side of India I became restless and rootless with a feeling I wasn’t where I was supposed to be, as adventure and beach filled as it was proving to be… Myanmar had been a maybe on my travel agenda, so when the opportunity arose to go with a dear friend from my TTC it seemed logical. Our gateway to Myanmar was Thailand, a country I had been to – and had no desire to revisit, but had to for the Myanmar visa. And even in that week spent in Bangkok undergoing visa admin, I felt relatively soothed and reassured by its navigable cleanliness, and the ability to walk down a street without being harangued for a sale, photograph or money. I was surprised, this hadn’t been what I wanted, but possibly what I needed.
After Myanmar I returned to the north of Thailand to stay in a hill tribe village and learn Thai massage. My biggest learning curve was that although I really really wanted to do that, it really really REALLY wasn’t what I needed. So my companion and I – exhausted, ungrounded, and in her case broke – decided we would head down to the South for some island time. Something I had definitely black listed, after a previous experience of corrupted Thai culture displaced with a huge party culture. But everyone kept telling us that we must go to Koh Phangan, and we would love it as it brimmed with yoga and wellbeing. This was not how I recalled it from my Full Moon party hazed experience of yesteryear. But as monsoon season closed in on the Andaman ocean island we had wanted to visit, we took the path of least resistance and headed to Koh Phangan.
And in rolled the days of lounging on post-card perfect white sand beaches with crystal oceans. With multiple yoga schools on our doorstep we tried out a few before settling on a place with a daily Mysore style Ashtanga class. Ashtanga, the original vinyasa style, my first real yoga love – who I had felt horribly betrayed by as its demand for fire and discipline had rendered me eventually unable to practise it, and in its way contributed to my energetic demise – had very welcomely come back into my life. Since my hamstring injury practise had become frustrating as I could never gauge what pose would irritate it. Needless to say it wasn’t healing. But Ashtanga is a set sequence, which loves to deal out lessons in acceptance and humility, and by doing the same routine everyday I became aware of what was appropriate in what asana. And eventually I began to heal. The lesson of letting go, to stop trying, was sinking in, replaced by being able to trust in just letting it be.
My intention had been to leave the island and move on to somewhere else, with an abundance of yoga – as it was proving to be the thing that felt most right about my trip, once my friend left. But, somehow I stayed. For one more week, and then one more month… and eventually four and a half in total. This island has a reputation for catching people and making them stay, for whatever reason. All the long stayers have their own tale of island magic to tell. I know that for me they were the most transformative and significant months of my life. It gave me the much needed healing, through yoga and friends and family, that my trip was always intended to be about. It taught me how to relax and let go, something I had no concept of how to do before – although everyone kept telling me that its what I needed to begin to feel better.
Returning to England, and to academia in particular, was a shock to the system. But I had learnt so many amazing lessons (most importantly about honouring needs over wants) on my trip that at least I was armed with some tools. But come Christmas vacation I was rather downtrodden, and watching my international friends whizz off back home, I became acutely aware of a need to go home. Although I grew up in Oxford, it definitely wasn’t there I felt like being. It was somewhere decidedly warmer with a soundtrack of cicadas and birdsong and actual FRESH air… So as a happy compromise to see me through the rest of the year in Oxford, I on impulse booked my flight back to the island for a few weeks at Easter.
Now life here is good… I was definitely designed for reading on beaches, whizzing around on scooters, playing in waterfalls, drinking coconuts and eating tropical fruits all day! My essay that had been writing itself painfully and disastrously slowly in England just jumped out of my fingers and on to the screen here… Although life here is not always easy, it is a place of great healing so its hard to hide from your problems – not a day goes by without partaking in some form of salt water therapy (sea, sweat and tears). But most of all I missed my morning Ashtanga Mysore practises; the teachers, the shala, the sweaty intensity, the soundtrack of deep ujjayi breathing, and the post-practise coconut confabs. But for me a practise which has been unduly challenging, and inappropriate to maintain fully, in the UK – many mornings I was back to bolster flopping. But what being back in that shala has really taught me (as well as being able to bind my hands and feet in Supta Kurmasana) is that it really is just being on the mat that matters – and what it represents (because asana practise is really just a way into Yoga in many cultures outside of India, but it is much much much much more).
So I always thought last years travels had been about the journey to get me to this island, but reflecting on them being out here again – I realise it was about getting me to the routine and rhythms where yoga was at the forefront of my life. I fear I am destined, at least for the next few years, to be rootless again. I feel this because my travels before were governed by the feeling of something missing/misplaced that I was looking for. And then I found it – not in the tropical paradise, but on the mat at the heart of it. That all too familiar feeling of itchy feet is being made itself felt again (in fact as soon as I touched back down in the UK back in September I felt my toes tingle), so I wonder where it will take me next time… but for someone, and for anyone else who feels a sense of not belonging, I encourage to try carving out a space for yourself on the mat: in classes, or at home. And of course, if timing and pocket permits, throwing it all to the wind and jumping on a plane to who knows where with the openness of finding who knows what!