It’s 5:00 in the morning and I’ve snuck out of our yoga bunkers, ran up a hill in the dark, and am hiding in the shadows outside our carbs-only restaurant, trying to check my emails before our morning chanting session starts. This is the only spot to get wi-fi, and my only chance to get a fix before they turn it off for the rest of the day. There are others like me; I can spot their white uniforms in the dark.
We exchange silent, sympathetic glances. We’re not allowed to speak until after lunch, which is 7 hours away.
We must be careful, so that none of our yoga guards or their informants catch us in the act and take away our only connection to the outside world. What we are doing is strictly verboden. Many things are strictly verboden here. (FYI, that means forbidden.)
THIS is yoga camp, and we willingly checked ourselves in for one month. We paid a lot of money to be here, to learn how to teach Ashtanga yoga. The best part is that we are being taught in the classical Indian tradition. The hardest part is that we are being taught in the classical Indian tradition. This entails rigid self discipline, and here’s what a what a “normal” day looks like.
Wake up at 5:00 a.m., shower, get dressed in my HOT couture (get it?) white uniform which I will wear all day.
Pro: it’s baggy and has no shape, so it hides my new carb belly. Con: I look like a plastic grocery bag.
On an empty stomach (we can’t sneak food into our rooms because the bugs will find it – we tried and got attacked by ants), we walk to the shala, where for the next 1.5 to 2 hours, I will sit in the same position, chant, do pranayama breathing techniques, and meditate.
This part of the day is my personal hell. I feel like I’m being put in the corner for time-out.
We sit on the same cushion, in the exact same spot every morning. We are not allowed to change places, move our legs or slouch once we begin. The chanting teacher then does and says the same thing every day: tells us to sit in a comfortable sitting position (yeah, right), then she chants things in Sanskrit, and we have to sing along after her.
Aside from the fact that the melodies are irritating and I find it ridiculous that I’m chanting in a language I don’t understand (to dieties or concepts that I don’t believe will really bring me to a higher spiritual plane), I can’t even pronounce the freaking words!
Oh yeah, and I’m completely tonedeaf.
Not to mention that, having grown up under an Eastern European dictatorship (which entailed having to sing daily songs of reverence to our great and fearless leader while wearing my communist school uniform), I am having a severe internal allergic reaction to this whole chanting business.
But it’s probably just another issue I have to work through here in yoga camp.
Once chanting-time is finished and lord Shiva has bestowed his blessings upon us for being good little yoga sheep, we go through pranayama (special breathing techniques) for about half an hour (again, same ones every day). These are meant to stimulate different energy channels in the body and to calm the mind, activate your chakras, and so on.
This part I don’t hate so much, since at least I feel like I’m DOING something useful with my time, and can actually feel some kind of physical and mental benefits once it’s over. Plus, I’m getting extra oxygen, which hopefully will help counteract my now ex-smoking habit.
Have I mentioned how many fellow trainees either smoke, have just quit, or are in the process of quitting? I found this very surprising, yet oddly comforting.
It’s good to know Stacy and I are not the only degenerates.
Now back to prison. Following chanting and breathing, we are led by another teacher into meditation. It always starts the same way: we are permitted to slightly adjust our comfortable (insert eye roll here) sitting positions, but not too much.
We then contemplate our breath for an eternity. In reality it’s only about 30 minutes, but if you’re me, it feels like forever.
First off, if my ass, hips and lower back were hurting before, by this point I feel like I’ve been donkey-kicked in the kidneys…
This usually ends up being the focus of my meditation: how to keep micro adjusting my posture without being observed and reprimanded by our yoga guards. They have eyes everywhere.
I haven’t felt so monitored since middle school detention. But on the bright side, the pain and discomfort keep me in the present moment. So I guess meditation IS working after all.
After meditation we chant AGAIN (yaaaay!) for another half an hour, still seated in the same “comfortable” position. By the time we’re released, the sun is coming up, the insects, birds and monkeys are having their early morning conversations (the sounds are AMAZING), and we must make our way silently up a steep hill if we want our reward: half a banana and herbal tea.
Our bodies are so sore all the time from our asana (position) classes, that walking up that hill seems masochistic.
But what choice do we have? We NEED that half a banana if we’re gonna survive the upcoming 2-hour asana class.
We have a two hour class where we go through the Ashtanga primary series with Lalit, our master teacher, assisted by two senior teachers who work us, bend us, push us and twist us into positions we never thought possible, all the while focusing on alignment, breathing, and posture modifications.
These classes are intense, but a-maaa-zing. By the end we’re dirty, sweaty, exhausted, sometimes extremely energized, and sometimes extremely paralyzed with physical pain. Still, it’s so worth it.
After this class, the sun is at peak, and we crawl once again up the steep hill to eat breakfast at the à la carb restaurant, which serves the same thing EVERY SINGLE MORNING: fruit, oats, bread and another carb-something-or-other.
Then we slink back down to the shala oven where we have a two hour lecture on one of the following subjects: anatomy, philosophy, history, ayurveda, yoga business and classroom management by different experts in these fields.
The classes are fascinating, but we are bombarded with so much information (in English and in Sanskrit), and have so many readings and homework assignments to do in our “spare time” (which we usually spend sleepwalking), it can get very overwhelming, very quickly. Compounded with the insane heat and exhaustion is the torture of having to sit upright for hours on end.
The teachers stand around the shala, and if they catch anyone slouching or leaning on anything they poke you in the back and make you sit correctly. Even extending your legs towards the front of the class is a crime.
The end of the lectures also signals the end of our 7 hour morning session, and we crawl once again up the hill for our carb lunch. Our saving grace has been the discovery of a little hole in the wall restaurant a 5 minute walk away from the yoga compound, and we’ve started sneaking off there for lunch and dinner, to eat protein and use their wi-fi.
After lunch we go back to camp, have another 2-hour theory class, followed by another 2-hour asana class or teaching practicum, where we are beginning to teach small groups and structure our classes. This is super fun! Also, there’s no chanting;)
At sunset we are free to die. Except we don’t, because the thought of showers, food and wi-fi keeps us going.
There!!! We’ve gotten through our 13-hour yoga routine! Time for dinner.
Most often we sacrifice our jelly legs, boycott the yoga restaurant, and make the trek back to our protein spot, where groups usually sit in silent comradery, glued to their iPhones, trying to get enough wifi time to connect with their loved ones.
We have to be back by 10:00, which is the time at which the guards have been instructed to lock all deserters out.
Then we go back to our hot rooms, handwash our uniforms, do some homework or reading, go to bed and mentally prepare for the upcoming day.
We were warned that this is a very trying and challenging process, that is extremely demanding both mentally and physically.
Because we are learning the traditional Indian Yoga path to teaching, the discipline is much more intense than in western-based teaching methods, and the entire process of learning and structure of the program is geared towards making us break apart from our egos and our habits.
A bit like prison actually, but I DO have to give them credit for not replacing our names with numbers. Not yet, anyways.
Every day is unpredictable in terms of our emotional, physical and mental reactions. We fluctuate constantly between peaks and valleys, and have learned to recognize when our peers are having a breakdown, and leave them alone or support them, accordingly.
Tears often come when you least expect them, and fatigue sometimes just hits you like a ton of elephants and paralyzes you.
Every day, at least one person starts crying out of nowhere; it’s become so normal, hardly anyone even notices anymore.
On the other hand, you could be hit by a bout of laughter during the most sombre moments, or have intense, irrational anger in the most benign situation. Many have threatened to quit, only to change their minds and be all about the positives a few hours later.
We tend to aim our frustration (quietly, of course) at our teachers, since in they are the easy and logical targets of our yoga-induced wrath.
I must say that the yogi inmates are incredible, and this situation has helped form very special bonds, between people from very different places and backgrounds.
And so, as we crawl on through this very “special” yoga adventure, we can take comfort in knowing that some prisons are worth doing time in.