My yoga mat is part of the family’s furniture. It lives propped up in a corner of the living room, rolled like an enormous black liquorish allsort, a sweet part of any day. It’s there for yoga, for hubby’s Pilates, for sunbathing teenagers and train driving toddlers; I long ago lost the need to classify anything as sacred or mine, anymore than trying to take ownership of the sofa when lanky youths lounge on it of an evening. There is the faint smell of Nag Champa still in the curtain fabric, but if you were to try and identify the essential perfume of our home, I think that soggy spaniel and ground coffee would be the pertinent notes. I know my bookcases are stuffed with random esoteric texts, but the real truth is, few are read from cover to cover, but most are dipped into regularly or snoozed over late at night under the refuge of the duvet.
Yoga is very simply just part of the upholstery of my home and family. Not a badge of identity. I look silly in harem pants and the kids used to hang off my mala beads until we were playing 108 bead pick up. Yoga is just part of my everyday in the same way that I find the time to clean my teeth. Do I talk about it incessantly? Do you talk about the quality of your daily washing up experience? Nope, I simply find the time to unroll my mat, to bring my attention to my body and the quality of my breath most days, and each time something magical happens; I walk away from my practice a little nicer inside than I did when I started.
I used to imagine that I was a fraud. Real yogis study in India, steep in its ancient juices, bathe naked in the Ganges, dissolve their minds and catch a really bad tummy bug at least once. I’d listen to my yoga friends, and spiritual jealousy would gnaw inside. Cool, chilled buddies would return, rucksacks full, souls unburdened, dreadlock wild and burnished brown. I meanwhile would have been juggling the humdrum karma yoga of domesticity: rugby practice, the school run and the battle of the homework. So, this spring it was with a soaring sense of having finally arrived, I decided to go on a three week retreat with my teacher to India.
‘Don’t come back weird,’ was the only real prerequisite to travel. I waved, I grinned and danced my way off to Goa, the trusty black mat strapped to my rucksack.
In the Ghat foothills of Goa, a couple of hours inland from the Russian invasion of the coast, there is a large wildlife reserve in the shrinking jungle, with a handful of shabby huts for the rustic traveller. The few electric lights are bare and too bright, geckos patrol peeling walls and frogs squat next to the toilet. This isn’t shabby chic, it’s just plain shabby. I didn’t care; I had come to retreat, to practice my yoga, to learn from my teacher and to be silent for huge chunks of each day.
We woke early, still in the dark as the grating chimes of an iPhone alarm blended into the chorus of the cicadas and we would rise from our mothballed mattresses to clad ourselves in numberless layers of cotton clothing. Swaddled in blankets, we tiptoed carefully into the black jungle night, our naked feet feeling carefully in the darkness, balance sharpened as we sought a path to the mediation circle without stubbing our toes. There, nesting on the earth, we began to settle ourselves into the silence of the pre-dawn. Illuminated by a single candle, his crazy white hair a halo against the inky vast universe, my guru’s quiet instructions punctured the night.
‘Watch each inhalation arising out of the stillness and each exhalation returning back into the stillness.’ He would pause, and we would swell with silence.
‘A sense of each thought arising out of the stillness and,’ pausing, ‘each thought dissolving back into that stillness.’ We sat emptying ourselves of ourselves and around us the jungle slowly woke. One of the jasmine trees seemed to serve as a monkey nursery. Half an hour before the sun rose, a faint breath of wind would herald the twilight, like a lovers moist breath on the cheek. The clinker dry, heart shaped leaves of these woods began to clank against each other loudly, waking the troop of young monkey novices. Their sleepy bickering reminded me of my clan at home and my heart would leap like Hanuman across the oceans as I felt real gratitude for my tribe, for this time, and for the insights such space gives those who enquire into matters of the heart and mind. Love, such love was nurtured in the silence. When the time came to step off the mat and onto the dewy grass, the satsuma dawn would be glowing through the canopy. Then slowly, my eyes seek my teacher. His gaze turned heavenwards, his tanned hands together in front of his heart, he sat loosely knotted in his lotus on a crimson lungi, wearing crystal beads that sparkled like his smile. He bowed to us, to our monkey observers and to his Goddess Kali. Spanda vibrated in his eyes, his energy was tangible and he connected us all as he shimmered in the lap of Mother Nature. Yet here in all this bliss, I found myself wondering, who irons his lungi? In what ways does this angelic individual touch the humdrum of everyday? What bursts his bubble?
For three weeks, I was rocked and nurtured by the daily routine of meditation, the ebb and flow of pranayama and asana. I grew stronger physically and lighter emotionally. Issues of blame and shame were fed to the crocodile that I swam with one night, the denial of dusky bad light fuelling my bravery. The wafted scent of jasmine replaced the synthetic smells of incense. My feet were dyed red by the earth of this place, each toenail coloured with the cochineal dust. Body fat was melted away by the heat of the practice and my muscles became defined by the diet of fresh vegetables and fruit ripened by the sun, the papayas, huge, sweet and sari orange. Yet, there was a veil that dimmed my inner brilliance, the realisation that this was retreating from my life not embracing it. My real practice was back on the Isle of Wight, with my family and friends, with the everyday business of living. These were tools to let me taste the delights in each day and I became eager to use them at home.
My beloved met me at the airport. I felt like a teenager again, desperate to see his face in the peering banks of people who line the exit of arrivals. He’d grown a beard in my absence and looked straightforwardly familiar after the strangeness of India. Undemonstrative by nature, his sweet whiskery kiss told me how much I’d been missed.
‘Have you gone weird?’ my boys asked, and they hugged me so tightly I was left in no doubt of my preciousness.
So now, when the alarm goes off I am to be found cupped into the back of my lover, nest warm and snug. To practice in the predawn chill of our home is a challenge and the volume of clothes necessary to sit upon our drafty pine floorboards seem weighty. My candle illuminates the hearth and the snuffling spaniel almost wags it out as he thumps down beside my still form.
‘Sitting for the delight of sitting, without expectation,’ is the call of my teacher from across continents and here in the quiet I connect with the vitality of his teachings. Sometimes when I’ve finished, I forget to roll up my mat. I potter into the grey of the kitchen’s early light and the abrasive sound of the coffee grinder begins to stir the consciousness of the sleeping family above. Upstairs the real teachers in my life start to move as our daily routines get underway.
‘Mum, have you seen my blazer?’ They shuffle like the undead, easily distracted, minds pulled to their iPhones or the TV, whilst snuffling through the cupboards seeking the sugar coated processed breakfast cereals that everyone else’s mother buys for them.
‘I’m not eating this wholemeal crap,’ I hear someone mutter and there’s a harrumph from his brother in agreement. And so it is, that each decision I make, each path of integrity I try to choose, is questioned and debated. It is the hurly burly of the everyday and here that I flex the muscles of my yoga. Not in a physical way, but with the mental conscious awareness of the witness. Despite the hormonal grumpiness, I notice how unconsciously they sweetly step round the yoga mat, the unspoken rule of no shoes is honoured. In contrast, the spaniel having been outside to check his patch, now returns to leave the evidence of dusty paw prints diagonally across it.
The paw marks were still visible last Saturday when I taught Ashtanga yoga to the early morning group. My studio is lovely at the edges of the day; the glass wall overlooks farmland and the gaze is drawn south to the chalky downs in the distance. My husband and my youngest son joined the class. The strong athletic traditions of our hobbies mean that they are instinctively drawn to this flavour of yoga, acknowledging the union of strength and openness it cultivates. I moved around the class adjusting all the participants, careful to treat my family with the same respect and care as the other practitioners. My son asked a few pertinent questions and my husband seemed to flow with a comfortably ease I hadn’t appreciated before. Has yoga has been seeping by osmosis into their cells like a juicy transformational virus? Towards the end of the class, as people lowered themselves gratefully into Savasana, my gangly lad came and lay on our black mat with his head in my lap. His white blond hair swept over his forehead, the edge of his fringe falling over his shut eyelids, their lashes long. The low sunlight highlighted the whole spectrum of gold in his hair and I imagined that he too wore a halo. He smelt of sugary child sweat and yet his frame was filling my mat. When we came to chanting Om, I heard his voice beside me. The post practice bliss was broken by his request to, ‘have a MacDonald’s breakfast,’ on the way home.
There is a traditional yoga meditation enquiry when we ask,
‘Who am I?’ Well, I teach and practice yoga on a big black mat, but I am not that person. Hippy chic is not really my style, there is free-range chicken in the fridge, aromatherapy oils make my nose itch and I don’t sneeze rainbows. No, I am part of this wonderful dysfunctional household and I practice yoga in the same way I walk the dog, daily. I am not spiritually profound, but I love this life, and I am, I am grateful.