Kerala, South India, December 2007
Just after dawn, I sat down on a cushion in the vast main hall, loosely wrapping my thin yellow “meditation shawl” around me. Suddenly I realised that this was week 4 of my ashram experience, week 5 of my first ever stay in India, and for the first time in my life, I could say that I had been able to step out at dawn every single day for five weeks, breathe deeply, and find that I needed neither socks nor a jacket to keep warm – I had never before gone without feeling cold for such a long time. It was also the first time I had ever spent four weeks in a place where windows are just openings towards a lush vegetation, and need no glass panes.
It was the fourth week of my life spent eating a simple vegetarian diet and practising asana, pranayama, meditation and chanting, twice a day. The sanskrit mantras no longer felt strange to repeat. My muscles and joints no longer hurt, and after numerous attempts, toppling over again and again, I could now hold a wobbly headstand on the marble floor.
After three weeks of moaning and cursing my decision to come here, I was at last feeling happy and peaceful.
Sunrise meditation on a mountaintop in the jungle
I guess that was the moment I got hooked on a different lifestyle, and the beginning of a path that eventually brought me to trade my office job for an uncertain future as a yoga teacher.
A desire to change was what had brought me to India in the first place. The decision was taken on an impulse, after feeling totally out of touch with my peers at my best friend’s wedding. I dimly understood then that I needed a major life change in my 35th year, lest I die of boredom.
I had no idea, at the time, that an American called Elizabeth Gilbert had recently written a successful book called “Eat Pray Love”. However, her story was quite different from mine. I had a vague notion that people sometimes go to India to “find themselves”. But it was totally out of character for me, and none of my friends had tried anything similar.
How would one go about planning such a trip?
I had only begun taking yoga classes about a year earlier, to alleviate my chronic neckpain. But after I decided India may be an option, I found a brochure at my local yoga studio, advertising a one month full-immersion teacher training in Kerala, apparently suitable even for inexperienced yogis. I had no intention of ever teaching yoga, which I’d only recently begun to practise regularly. But the safety of the structured programme, offered by an international school well-established in the West, sounded like a good way to get a first taste of India.
So I applied for my first five-week holiday from work, not realising that this, in itself, was a big step towards change.
With hindsight, I know that I would have benefitted a lot more from the yoga sessions, and the whole experience, if I hadn’t been a novice yogi - I struggled with some asanas, but more so with pranayama (I could not hold my breath) and meditation (I mostly just sat there silently talking to myself). Cleaning the dormitory toilets as part of our “karma yoga” was relatively easy to get used to, in comparison. As a church-goer and academic, I enjoyed the mantra singing and the philosophy lectures. For some more athletic participants, sitting cross-legged on the floor for hours listening to interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita was more challenging.
View of the main hall with a fellow trainee teaching pranayama to a small group
There were 160 of us in the programme, ranging from 18 to 70 years of age, originating from India, Australia, Europe and North America. People also came from various walks of life, which for me was one of the biggest revelations. Chatting over “ginger-lemon-honey-hot” in the “health hut” during breaks kept opening new doors in my mind. So did the philosophy classes, as the formidable swami (monastic yogi) confronted us with questions like: “you think you are free because you have the choice between 15 different types of coffee in the morning? Wouldn’t you be freer if you didn’t need to drink coffee at all?”.
Strong chai with milk to energise us before asana practice
By week 3, with all my pre-conceived notions about life challenged and the yoga working its magic on me, I had a melt-down and sat in the health hut wailing to my new buddies: “ What’s wrong with me? First time in my life I take a 5-week-holiday, and I’m sitting in an ashram chanting with a bunch of celibates! I should be living it up on a beach somewhere!”.
The lush jungle in Kerala
I found out later that some variation of the “third-week meltdown” is common, as is the feeling of elation at the end of week 4, when you leave the ashram with your diploma.
The author receiving her diploma from the swami
When my plane landed in rainy Paris in late December and I took the metro home amidst grumpy people bundled up in dark coats, I realised I had truly changed, as planned, but that I would now have to deal with the consequences.
Eight years later, that adventure is still unfolding.
Find out more about Susanne and her yoga journey at www.yoga-in-action.com.
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