Having had four yoga lessons a few years ago I thought it was about time I became a qualified yoga teacher. It was with this in mind that I headed to the home of yoga in India — Rishikesh, to take the 200 hour teacher training course. Rishikesh nestles in the foothills of the Himalayas, the Ganges flows through the centre splitting the town in two. Cows rule the streets and monkeys are the main nuisance (and entertainment).
I was collected from the airport by a very small man in what felt like a toy car, the front seat was so far forward that I couldn’t even get my legs in to sit down. As the tiny car trundled through the mountain roads we dodged the monkeys that seemed to own the roads and finally arrived in Rishikesh — my home for the next month. India is an assault on the senses and Rishikesh is no exception. The alleys are full of cows, monkeys and wild dogs. All competing with the locals for space, and food.
I was staying in something between an ashram and a bad hotel. My room was... basic. I'd like to say at least it was clean but it wasn't. The ants made a line from one doorway, across the wall, over the wardrobe, across another wall, onto my bed where they traversed the headboard, across the curtain, then the final wall and into the other doorframe. The bathroom I shared with an albino lizard, he mainly lived behind the water heater but scuttled out at times only to freeze when he saw me. In the morning I woke to damp sheets (sweat — I didn't wet myself — well I don’t think I did anyway) and a handful of squashed ants that had strayed from their path in the night. There is no meat, eggs, smoking or alcohol allowed. And much like prison, lights are out at 10pm.
Setting my alarm for 5:30am every day was not something I was looking forward to and sure enough it wasn’t much fun, it didn't get any easier either. I’ve never experienced such long days, or rather days that felt so long. By the time it came to breakfast you’d been awake for 4 hours and so it felt like lunch time. Lunch time felt like dinner time. And dinner felt like a relief just to know you could crawl into bed afterwards. A typical day would be Ashtanga yoga, pranayama, breakfast, philosophy, alignment, lunch, anatomy, Hatha yoga, meditation, dinner and bed. We also managed to squeeze some lesson planning and mantra classes in their somehow. Any spare time was needed for homework, preparing your lesson and revising for the exam.
I was given a toilet roll when I arrived — nothing out of the ordinary you might think. When I asked for a second one later I was told I had to pay. That's how they get you — give you the first one free to get you hooked. Then it's 25 rupees every time you need a fix. I’m not sure I could have rationed one to last me the whole month and I refuse to use the hose.
The course was allegedly five days a week but our rest days were anything but rest. My first day off was after just a few days, pouring salt water into my nostrils at 7am is what counts as a day off around here apparently. It’s okay as a few days later I had another rest day, I just had to get up at 3:45am to watch the sunrise. That’s not a day off either — in fact it’s a punishment day. My focus became on the short term, just trying to last a couple more days before I could have some rest. The lack of sleep was not helping with the early starts, long days with physical and mental attention required. The clacking of my fan, dripping of my sweat, persistent mosquitos, hoards of ants and lack of bed sheet all adding to the challenge. I felt like I was having out of body experiences at night, viewing my sweaty foetal body from the ceiling — perhaps I was detaching from myself, well on my way to achieving enlightenment. Or perhaps I was just delirious from lack of sleep.
Reading back my notes they were starting to sound like a prisoner’s diary, something written on toilet paper and hidden in the cell for the next tortured soul to read, to help them get through the struggle. The only sign of my existence those thirty little scratches on the wall counting down the days until my release. I hope whoever finds them has better luck than I did.
One of the positives to the ashram was that it had an ayurvedic therapy centre. Which meant massage for me — it was a little uncomfortable at first due to the man-on-man action but I soon relaxed. There was perhaps a little too much testicular contact as well but I like to think he was just being thorough and they were collateral damage. Did I mention he also took his shirt off and straddled me at one point… anyway I think it was just enthusiasm...
Splashing the holy water of the Ganges on my face, my mind turned to what we were told in the upstream ashram. Not to flush things down the toilet as they go straight out into the river. I didn’t go in fully like the locals. They hold onto ropes to stop them being dragged to their death by the current. The risks (lest we not forget the unpleasantries floating in the water as well) are taken as the holy water washes away their sins. I figure my light splashing must have washed away at least one — there are plenty to choose from.
It took a few days but eventually I had my first monkey in my room. The balcony door was open and he just wandered in, regarding me as the least relevant thing in the room. He was looking for food, which fortunately I did not have. I was thankful he didn't steal anything — I had visions of searching through the forest, hunting him down, seeking his lair and recovering my stolen phone. I later had a family of three enter at the same time, one after the other, daddy, mummy and baby. Again, each checking for food before they moved on in disgust — it could have been the lack of food or the state of my room.
As joyful as the monkeys were to me, they did cause some issues. Meditation is challenging in itself but the true test is to have a few monkeys banging around on the corrugated roof above your head. They caused a big issue for those that kept food in their rooms and seemed to attack some of the girls — harmless monkey flirting I’m sure. When it was raining outside they even tried to bite through the windows after we slid them shut in the yoga hall — they seemed pretty pissed off about not being able to watch (or more likely shelter from the rain).
It wasn’t the most yogic of things but one of my favourite pastimes was watching the monkeys steal food from the locals — a family outing enjoying some popcorn, the women stashing theirs under saris, the men retaining a sense of calm and confidence. This was a mistake, a large male monkey leapt in front of one of the men and snatched the popcorn from his hand. A shower of popcorn falling like heavy snow from the tree as he made his escape.
The food was ayurvedic so basically vegan with light spicing. It was actually pretty good and was surprised to find myself without the desire to kill something and eat its flesh. Before we were allowed to eat each meal (which had to be done in silence to make sure we were not having any fun) we would chant a mantra together, apparently this would cleanse our food. I’m hoping they don't rely on this alone as I’d take a bit of basic hygiene and antibacterial cleaner over a prayer any day. One morning as everyone was chanting along with their eyes closed there was a massive thud followed by a few screams. One of the Russians had fainted, unfortunately the thud was the sound of his head disagreeing with the floor. He was dragged off presumably to be given some sort of ayurvedic herbal enema — I’m pretty sure all he needed was a steak.
I have very mixed feelings about the diet, I did feel lighter and there was notably less effort required for digestion which felt nice. The compromise however was nearly passing out every time I stood up. But that's a small price to pay. A few weeks on from the course I have been eating far less meat than before, whether that's the influence of the course or simply the logistics of travelling in India only time will tell.
Yoga is not what most people think it is. In a traditional view the physical postures are just one branch, the third in fact with discipline and conduct coming first. These are then followed by expansion of energy, withdrawal of senses, concentration, meditation and the ultimate of samadhi which is absorption. We lead more complex lives everyday and whilst this may bring many benefits, it brings with it complexities that we've not had to deal with before. Finding balance in our lives and learning to seek the now are even more important in this world of distractions and consumerism.
The mosquitos here seem to love me, and the ants, and the spiders, each feasting on my flesh or biting me just for the sheer pleasure. It was not a mutual love though. I was trying to do no harm and decided murder was probably harmful so the only option available locally seemed to be ayurvedic repellent — this proved as useful as asking them nicely to stop biting me. Or perhaps it just gave me a delightful citrusy marinade.
I’m not really sure why I chose to do the yoga course in the first place, it's an odd thing for someone with negligible yoga experience to do but I guess I’ve always liked the idea of practicing yoga and an immersive approach seemed more likely to give me a permanent habit. Another reason however was for the rehabilitation of my shoulder. I tore a tendon about 4 months before and had been unable to use my arm at all. As the mobility returned I thought the yoga asanas would be a good way to build up strength and flexibility. It turns out I was wrong, all was well for two weeks but I got carried away and re-tore the tendon. This would be the end of my physical yoga journey for some time. Feeling deflated, I headed to the tea urn to drown my sorrows in chai. As I was heading back I was called over and told to follow a man so I did, cup of tea in hand. The next minute I'm on the back of his moped holding on for dear life and trying to avoid cows at speed through alleys only a metre wide. It turns out I was heading for the hospital, at least I’d be nearer when we crashed...
The hospital itself was... old. I was seen very quickly and sent for an X-ray. The X-ray room was certainly not a new addition to the hospital. I think the only lead in there was in the crumbling paint on the walls. The table was a wood veneer, the edges peeling away. It was surprisingly efficient though. India is the place to come for cheap medical treatment it would seem. My consultation and X-ray were 400 rupees and a half hour treatment involving lasers, electrocution and ice was only 300 rupees. Bargain.
You’re probably thinking the electrocution I mentioned was a typo — laying there, my body convulsing rapidly whilst the old lady sat in the corner coughing up phlegm I wished it had been. I was a little anxious, mainly as to how the electrodes would feel and how they could go horribly wrong. The old lady left and I was alone, I missed her and her coarse lungs but mainly the reassurance of having someone to scream at if it all went wrong.
After my mixed feedback the ashram wanted to take me to a different hospital, to a miracle worker apparently. I thought I was well prepared for my trip his time. Nothing could be further from the truth — this hospital was 45 minutes away and at first all was as expected, we then crossed the footbridge avoiding the people, cows and other bikes. It was possibly even fun at this point. We then moved onto the main road — this was not fun. Bikes, cars, rickshaws, cows, people, lorries, dogs, potholes and the odd goat, all jostling for space seemingly in random directions. My knees clipped more than one moving vehicle along the way. After a few treatments and two different hospitals I gave up on the Indian healthcare system — opting instead for rest rather than violent treatments.
There were moments during the course of seemingly profound understanding. In philosophy I came to the realisation that we are all and everything is the same, that we are liquid, solid and gaseous. That I am one with that tree on the mountain — we will eventually merge — our particles combined. And we will again separate. If you zoom out far enough in time and space we become insignificant random elements of something much larger. I also thought in the sober light of day that perhaps this is not the way to view the world, maybe the tiredness and hunger were setting in... maybe this is how vegans view the world…
Clean towels and bedsheets became the most prized items to me, I was told on arrival I could have new sheets every three days — pretty good I was thinking, however after 10 days of asking they still had not arrived. The excuses ranging from the laundry man was coming tonight to just a simple 'no sheets'. When I was finally given a new set, still crisp in their sealed pack, I was told I was very special and made to feel like a king although I did have to change them myself like a pauper. The replacement towel was even more elusive. I never did get a clean one, although I did get it changed thanks to the monkeys. I’d left my towel on the balcony to dry and had a quick shower, the monkeys decided they would rather they were dry than me. So, I headed downstairs pretty annoyed and very wet where they eventually managed to find a torn rag for me to dry myself with for the rest of my stay. I kept this rag much closer to me as I daren’t imagine what I’d get if the monkeys took this…
About three weeks in people started dropping like flies, ten people were ill and a few of those were lording it up with their clean new sheets and fluffy towels in hospital. The lessons were thinning. It could have been food poisoning or a virus perhaps — the staff telling us it’s normal as people aren’t used to the diet…. this may perhaps have made some sense if it weren’t for the fact that worst hit were the clean eating vegans. I was generally okay although had developed a nasty habit of nearly fainting when I stood up. I did however develop a rare case of sub tropical continental Indian man flu, or possibly Ebola but I fought it off bravely. I tried to get some paracetamol but couldn’t find it anywhere — their only suggestion was antibiotics — dispensed here like candy. In the UK you can’t get them for love nor money, I didn’t even get them when I had pneumonia. But here, they are given over the counter for a cold… I mean Ebola.
Back to the point — yoga, teacher training in fact. Each subject had a very different feel, in part due to the personalities of the teachers, ranging from manic to depressive. It certainly kept thing interesting. One teacher would use his marker to draw on us like a butcher marking out cuts of meat, his enthusiasm boundless until we failed to grasp his lesson — then we were dead to him. Another would show no expression whatsoever, showing us what to do, explaining it was the most dangerous position in yoga and then telling us to 'go practice'. The teachers were great though, each having their unique style which some people loved and others hated, whilst I could see this I went with it and tried to appreciate it for what it was — unique and authentic teaching from people who really know their stuff. There were moments that let this down such as the video we watched on mediation — I think the teacher was off and just like primary school they put a video on to pacify the children. Unfortunately this video was made by some nut job on LSD back in the 90s. It suggested we should meditate in a pyramid — a literal full size pyramid like the Egyptians used as tombs for the Pharaohs. Apparently the cosmic energy is better absorbed due to the angles… I'm sure there were even better highlights but I switched off and did my lesson plan. I was expecting someone to try and get me to join a cult afterwards. Where we could meditate for eternity in the marble pyramid. Ensuring our eternal salvation and attainment of nirvana. Finally becoming one with the universe — all for only a one time fee. I might start my own cult actually, I am looking for a sense of purpose.
I do love the massage here. Still not sure if he's inappropriately touching me though.
One of the things I was hoping to get the most from was the philosophy. The approach to teaching was unusual though. There are 195 yoga sutras, each a little philosophical amuse bouche. We spent a month studying four of these in a depth that I believe to be unprecedented in the history of humanity. Nowhere has anyone before or since studied the etymology of syllables and verb routes, the literal and the figurative, words that have no meaning — mere echoes of the creation of the universe. Each word taking us on a seemingly circular journey, arguably negating the entire purpose. Or perhaps that’s the point. Or I’m missing the point.
What I did get from the philosophy was some reassurance I suppose. Reassurance that the world is shit and makes no sense — but that’s okay. It’s what we have to work with and you choose to make of that what you will. It’s also full of beauty and wonder but sometimes we don’t see that, we get lost in our own minds.
At the risk of sounding profound, I think there are two selves — the thinking self and the observing self. Both are important but we rely too heavily on the thinking self which can lead to harm. It's a simple way to look at the yoga philosophy and seems to be a common thread in Eastern philosophies. For some reason in the West we flip the priorities. Sartre said I think therefore I am. At the risk of criticising a greater thinker than I — I believe I am therefore I think. If you're questioning why we would be geared to behave like this — that is to punish ourselves by over-thinking — I think it's simple. It gave us an evolutionary advantage, to look for the negatives — seeing danger everywhere. But to be honest I can’t remember the last time I saw a sabre tooth tiger. It’s not fun but it aided our survival. We are warier and statistically have a greater chance of survival. In the modern world where our survival ability is simply no longer needed in any developed country, it works against us.
I was a little anxious about having to teach an actual yoga class, mainly as I didn’t really know anything about yoga. But, I’ve never let a little thing like knowledge stop me before and once I got started I actually enjoyed it. Perhaps it was the raised platform from which I gave my commands or seeing the people obey my every command or knowing I had the power to administer pleasure or pain with a few simple words.
The written exam was a little harder than I expected, with a few questions receiving a very blank stare wondering what they meant let alone the answer but overall it was straightforward. I thought I’d try and provide some practical advice for anyone interested in undertaking the 200 hour TTC and consider my duty done. If you’re looking for useful information I’m afraid you’re in the wrong place. In fact I can’t believe you got this far.
I might sound a bit negative about the course at times but that’s not a true reflection of my experience — or perhaps that’s just the way I am. I’m glad I did the course, I enjoyed sharing the experience with the people I met. It was perhaps a bit ambitious to expect the experience to be life changing as I heard others comment but perhaps it's changed me more than I know. I leave with a healthy respect for the personal space of monkeys and a developing fondness for bananas.
Being awarded my laminated certificate and silky sash at the closing ceremony, I was to be honest more excited about the cake they gave me. It was good cake but more due to the fact that I didn’t feel like a qualified yoga teacher nor had I been able to get what I came for, I had certainly learnt a lot but this is hopefully the start of my yoga journey, not some milestone along the way.
I'm not proud but at the airport on my way to Varkala I went straight for KFC — perhaps expecting some magical experience, for my body to rejuvenate from the succulent elixir of crispy poultry. Gaining the life force of another animal. Sadly I felt nothing. Well, I felt a little concern as the meat was pink. I told myself it was just thigh meat and ate it. I felt sad to leave though. Or rather I had very conflicting feelings. I was glad to be leaving Rishikesh and the ashram but sad to be walking away from some of the people. People I would have liked to get the chance to know. On the whole I imagine it to feel like a prison sentence for a white collar crime. You were sentenced to 30 days, arriving with a sense of trepidation, shown to your cell, your heart sinking as the door opens — the stains of previous offenders displayed on the walls. But familiarity brings attachment. I no longer know where my next meal is coming from or even where I am sleeping tonight. I feel like the easy part is done, the challenge of my yoga journey is just starting.