“So the schedule is: 7am pranayama and meditation, yoga until 10am. Lunch is 1.30pm, with afternoon yoga for an hour and a half at 4.30pm.”
There’s something deeply soothing in Hari’s tone and way of being, even though what he’s just described is effectively three and a half hours of yoga a day for which I am physically totally unprepared, on top of start times that don’t exactly radiate carefree vibes. He continues with the ground rules.
“No phones or computers used here. If you need to use your phone please go outside the gate.” There goes my plan to get ahead on typing up the blog in between classes. “This,” he purs, “is a place people come to relax”.
Yes folks, it’s happened. Rebecca has got me to a yoga retreat.
The afternoon session starts with the usual sitting and breathing, as well as chanting “om” which is the most striking difference I’ve seen so far between yoga in India and Britain. Teachers in Britain seem to avoid it; even the courteous “namaste” at the end of a session occasionally seems a touch hesitant. In India (even though all our teachers so far have been European) everyone goes all-out for a good “om” and often a few “shanti”s at the start and end of practice.
Hari is German, and previously lived in California where he studied meditation at the Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery for four years and lived for a year as an anagarika or forest monk, before moving to Varkala and opening the Sharanagati Yogahaus. This is reached off one of the main roads through the town, set back a few minutes walk from the teeming cliff, through an iron gate crawling with huge, neon-orange ants. Hari is in his mid-50s, of calm and kindly demeanour, T-shirt orange as the ants, white hair shaved short. His gnarled and furrowed face, along with his occasional stories of his previous lives in Europe and San Fran, hints at past existences less zen than his current state.
He’s the second male yoga instructor I’ve ever had, the other being a shaggy-haired ageing hippy who guided the only Hot Yoga class I’ve ever attempted, back in East London. That was comfortably the least pleasant session of exercise of my entire life (including the time I was concussed twice in the same rugby match); I spent more than half of the ninety minutes curled in a ball gasping for water. I don’t recommend Hot Yoga for anyone with a less than serious commitment to the discipline.
Both Hari and Hot Yoga dude share the distinction of not actually performing the poses as they go along. Hari doesn’t even really describe them; he just calls the names out, trusting us to know the shapes and our bodies to find their way into them, coming over to help individuals (i.e. me) into the correct positions when we (I) don’t have a scooby. It’s a good thing I’ve fit in a few sessions already, particularly those with Kirsten in Thekkady (who like Hari teaches Sivananda/Hatha Yoga), or I would basically spend the first few sessions sitting and waiting for Hari to show me what to do.
As it is, I like his laissez-faire approach to the physical side of yoga: his emphasis is entirely on breath and state of mind, unlike other teachers that tend to be militant about perfect positioning.
“Relax,” he whispers as we lie in shavasana near the end of the first afternoon session, “relaaaaaaaaaax… relax!”
In the evening we have dinner at a cost spot overlooking Black Beach with Leena and Laura who are also attending the retreat. Leena is a thirty-something Estonian whose temperament veers entertainingly between fiery and carefree, discussing various facets of her personal life with refreshing openness. Laura is a well-travelled Glaswegian Reiki master deeply knowledgeable about spirituality and alternative medicine who is training to become a life coach. She treats skin conditions out of a mainstream medical clinic where, she explains, she has gradually won round her initially sceptical colleagues to the potential of Reiki.
“Nothing to do, nowhere to be. Sitting… Breathing…” Hari’s intonation always goes up sharply on the first syllable of “breathing” and winds back down again on the second, as though the simplicity of the act of drawing breath is faintly amusing.
Pranayama – a sequence of breathing exercises with a complex array of purposes, including cleansing of the lungs and airways, and exercise of control over the breath – starts at 7am and lasts half an hour, followed by another half hour of meditation. During this, I struggle to maintain my focus as insects scuttle across my body, and I reflect on how much of my life – my hang-ups, my insecurities, my frustrations – are ultimately driven by fear. I’m irrationally scared that one of these insects might bite or sting me and inject me with venom; I’m unable to shake the knowledge that we haven’t yet booked train tickets out of Varkala and afraid that this will mean missing out on things I want to see and do later in the trip if we have to stay here longer than planned. I get a lot of FOMO.
I’ve not read as deeply as I’d like to around mental health. In fact, I’ve barely read into it at all in a structured sense. I am a fan of Matt Haig’s reputation and Twitter presence, but the only book I’ve ever read that touches in any focused way on (particularly men’s) mental health is Robert Webb’s sublime How Not To Be A Boy. I would recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone, male or female, who hasn’t read it, just by virtue of being one of those rare books (Catch 22 being another) that is both side-splittingly funny and heart-breakingly sad. Among the many astute observations Webb makes is that men as a rule aren’t very good at identifying or engaging with negative emotions. Society teaches us to ignore them and to express them as anger. (The same may well apply to women; Rob and I can only speak from our experience as men.) What I realise this morning is that much of the time I think I’m angry or frustrated, I’m actually just scared in a low-key, almost subconscious way about something tangential, irrelevant or even hypothetical.
But here’s the the the thing: I also thrive off fear. My love of rugby stems from the real risk of harm involved; what academic and professional success I’ve had has been driven by fear of the consequences of failure at least as much as by desire for those of success. Meditation is almost entirely about being able to identify and observe our thoughts without ascribing value judgements to them, much harder than it sounds.
Meditation is followed by a pleasant two hours of yoga, during which I nearly manage a head stand, as much to my own surprise as everyone else’s. Hari frequently prompts us to check in on our mental state and I eventually realise that mine is almost completely calm besides a slight nagging fear that this is the wrong answer.
“But you see, this is Bollywood. This is not real chanting,” Hari assures me, Laura and Leena in his lilting San-Fran tinged German accent. “If a Hindu saw us sitting around chanting like this – mein Got!” – he draws his finger sharply across his throat, eyes a-bulge.
“When Hindus chant they prepare fully; they are washed, they sit in proper, upright positions. This is not for us, you know. What we are doing is chanting for Westerners. Even still it is so powerful. If we chanted for ten minutes now we’d be in an elevated state. Come, let’s do it.”
So we do; Hari teaches us the words and melody to a one line mantra for world peace:
Om namo narayanaya
And we repeat it, over and over. In response to Hari’s subtle leads the chanting grows louder then gradually quieter, until he tells us to keep chanting silently and take a look around us. The garden, always beautiful, is now in sharp emerald technicolour; a crow takes off from atop a banana tree and flaps its wings langurously, almost in slow motion.
“This is the world as it always is,” says Hari, “but we are always too busy to see it. And this is from only five minutes of chanting”.
I’m glad I’ve come down after lunch to learn this and another, longer mantra. Ever since this morning’s session ended I’ve been in a foul mood, a carry-over from last night’s fruitless attempts to book a train out of Varkala using the patchy Wi-Fi of the cliff edge restaurants. I’d been fairly relaxed until an enormous spider ran up Rebecca’s vest while we practised head stands. It came to rest on a low wall, near my mat which I instantly moved away. In a hard-to-shake squeamishness from my childhood, insects and particularly spiders still creep me out, almost the sinister, scuttling embodiment of my terror. It completely ruptures the calm I felt after the morning’s meditation. When Rebecca and I return to train admin over lunch I’m riddled with fear: of missing out on parts of India and Varkala’s beaches, and that the pain across my shoulders is a sign I’m doing further damage to my back.
So, with great commitment as Hari might say, I make what feels at first like a controversial decision: I shall skip the afternoon session and lie on the beach instead, perhaps getting ahead on train booking at the same time. The afternoon sessions are described as optional but until now I’ve felt as though it’s against the spirit of the retreat not to attend them, at least without a better reason than my shoulders ache, I want to go to the beach and I need to book a train.
Attending the chanting session in the early afternoon reassures me that I’ve gained something in lieu and restores my calm. I tell Hari I’m thinking of skipping afternoon yoga and the casualness with which he acknowledges this confirms that it’s no biggie.
I go for a swim, I lie in the sun, I rest my shoulders, I browse trains and make plans. I do everything at my own pace, am my own boss. I realise that the Sharanagati schedule isn’t actually restrictive at all. I feel completely and utterly wonderful.
I’m determined to make the most of our final session. During yesterday morning’s I took up Hari’s invitation to smile during Happy Baby, and remember the very real sense of wellbeing it engendered. So today I smile all the way through pranayama, meditation and the final round of yoga. I let go, content to ease off stretches I find uncomfortable. Every time Hari reminds us to relax our faces I paste a wide grin across mine. I thoroughly enjoy the whole three hours.
We bid Hari our farewells afterwards and he congratulates Rebecca on her “shiny new boyfriend”. I’m taken aback, and more than a little impressed, that my internal shift is so outwardly obvious, but without wanting to sound clichéd I do feel very different now to how I did when we checked in. I’ve identified how big a driver my fear is and how little I was aware of it: through this, I’m finally satisfied that India isn’t going to kill me or steal my possessions or otherwise do me harm. The point of being here isn’t to worry every second about whether the food is safe or the water is clean, but to have fun, and to set our own schedule for a little while. I’ve relaxed.