Yoga is big business in India, wander around the tourist hubs of Goa and Kerala early morning and you will see many committed souls in designer yoga pants, clutching their rolled-up mates under their arms, faces full of serenity, smugness yet definitely a little self-regret as they file to ashrams and yoga centres for a few hours of uplifting uncomfortableness.
Invited by a fellow road-trip enthusiast to stay at his family’s Ayurveda resort, I was presented with the opportunity to attend a dawn yoga class. So many people do this weird spiritual stretching that I was intrigued to see what all the fuss was about. I was reassured by staff and fellow guests at the resort that “yoga was about your own personal abilities, with no competition or stress” and that the teacher was “not aggressive” and the class “suitable for beginners and all abilities… just do things at your own pace”. These people, I would like to point out, were not at the 5.45am class and based on their advice had never attended one.
The teacher, a young, slim Indian man, was sat crossed-legged at the front of the class, egotistically in front of a large portrait of Buddha in the same position. The room was lit only by a small candle at the front. I sat in the far corner at the back, alongside three perfectly-toned European women. Everyone lay down and the three women covered themselves with floaty, ethnic-patterned scarves (should have done my research, thought lycra and mat was the total checklist)… surely not a scarf for warmth, this is South India? Mosquito’s maybe, I was struggling to hold my hands in the gyan mudra position without the odd swipe at my bare ankles to deter the blood-thirsty buggers. Until now, the lycra leggings in my clothing box served only the purpose of an extra layer under trousers in sub-zero temperatures so at least they were getting extra wear.
We all sat up, crossed-legged and the teacher began humming and chanting. The three women joined in, chanting and humming in unison. I closed my eyes and cringed, hoping they would soon stop this kind of trendy Hindu humming.
One of the reasons for choosing at 5.45am class was that it was dark, therefore surely reducing the humiliation factor. Once the spiritual singing was over, the teacher turned on a small light in the far, back corner of the room. My far, back corner. Now in my own personal spotlight he made a beeline for me and asked if I knew “something something Samsara” I managed to whisper to the instructor that it was my first time trying Yoga, clearly giving him an “I’m inexperienced, not crap” look. And that will be a definite no to the ‘something something samsara’.
The other women launched expertly into some kind of routine under softly, sung instructions from the teacher; standing with hands ‘praying’, stretching arms above head and bending backwards (slightly unnerved by the fact the women in front of me was now looking at me, despite her body still facing the opposite direction). There was leg lunging, back-arching, arm-stretching and head twisting. Each position I successfully managed to achieve was pushed expertly into the pain threshold by the teacher; knee a little bit further over (ouch), leg a bit higher (ouch), chest closer to the floor (ouch). Even my ‘relaxed’ lying on my back was changed to widen my legs (seriously even I wouldn’t have touched my feet after 2 months wearing only flip-flops adventuring round India).
Every time I closed my eyes I would hear his feet echoing on the wooden floor coming towards me to contort my body into more pain. How could I inhale and exhale deeply when I literally held my breath whenever he walked past for fear he would actually try and tie me in a knot. It is not easy to attain the perfect position in line with the universe when your head is twisting in line with the person next to you so you can copy them.
Even before sunrise, the Keralan backwaters are stiflingly hot and humid so now with hair stuck to my face with sweat I was hoping he didn’t move any clammy, sticky part of me for both our sakes.
We lay on our backs and lifted alternate legs into the air, momentarily impressed with my straight (yet shaking) leg I noticed the woman in front of me had managed to hook her foot to the back of her head. Lying stretched out with back arched unnaturally our Indian instructor encouraged us to “try and look at the ceiling” I admit I was stretching more to try and look at the clock on the wall (only half way, another 45 minutes to go).
I have never been able to ‘clear my mind of thoughts’, especially difficult when the yoga hall is above the kitchen and you can smell the mornings Sambah cooking and I’m more focused on what’s for breakfast rather than aligning my Chakras.
Inhale downwards dog… exhale upwards dog. What?!? When I was up, they were down, when I was stretched out in a leg lunge, they were already in a tight ball. I found myself crumpling in a heap when he wasn’t looking, then straining to obtain physical, contorted perfection when his gaze turned to my direction. This is supposed to be relaxing?
This actually hurt, I was relieved when the dogs of all directions slowed down and the session seemed to be winding down. Back in our lotus-like sitting positions we were instructed to cover our right nostril with our right thumb, then breathe out rhythmically and forcefully through the opposite nostril. Repeated several times with each nostril, then both nostrils together, until you resemble something of an asthmatic pig trying to free a stone wedged up its nostril. Or maybe that was just me.
It was difficult to know if the people around me were actually enjoying what they were doing. I certainly felt good at the end of the class, but mainly because it was over. As the sun rose over the misty backwaters, my attention veered to try and identify the bird I could see wandering across the grass from the window… birdwatching, now that’s actually a relaxing hobby that I can get up at unearthly hours for. Keep your mat, I’ll stick to my binoculars.