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Center on Wheels

Yoga and Other Pursuits

INDONESIA | Friday, 9 November 2007 | Views [1582]

Every time I sit down in an internet café, I get a little tense. So many emails to read, thoughtful replies I wish to craft, research, logistics, and plans to figure out for my Thailand trip, finances to track, photos to download, select, and upload. And of course, journal entries to write. There is so much to write, and I want to do justice to it all, but it’s difficult when I feel the pressure of the minutes ticking by quickly. They charge for internet by the minute here – 200 rupiah a minute – and this perhaps is the source of my tension. And it’s quite warm in here.

Now that I’ve given my excuses for not posting for a week, I’ll get down to the post. Please note that I’ve posted more photos, which you can access through the Photo Gallery link on the right-hand side. I also have another post in the works, which I promise will be more about Bali and less about me! And I’ve finally fixed the typos in the last story, which were paining me.

My friend Kiki came from Cairo last week to join me for two weeks of a Balinese-style post-dissertation healing program. We both filed our dissertations within a month of each other, and as she puts it, still carry the residues of tension and stress in our bodies. We discovered that each of us has lingering pain in our shoulders from days and years hunched over laptops, hers on her right side, mine on my left. She immediately went on a massage binge for her Shoulder Pain Elimination Project, and inspired by her indulgence, I cast aside my quasi-puritanical attitudes and followed suit. It is ridiculously cheap here, and the sort of thing I cannot afford in the US, at least until I find gainful employment. I try not to think about the political economy of the whole set up – smiling Balinese women paid low wages rubbing Western bodies – that’s worthy of a whole other post, or dissertation for that matter.

Before you start to feel envious, let me report that it is possible to experience massage fatigue. It also seemed that the massages, while they felt good at the time, just made me feel more conscious of the pain, which would ignite afterwards, making me feel as though I was right back sitting in my advisor’s office. Not a flashback I care to re-live. And besides, my shoulder needs more than mere massaging out, as the most skilled of the masseuses told me – I need to do regular stretches to improve my posture and push my shoulders back to relieve my over-stretched muscles and tendons.

In the stretching department, we’ve been taking yoga classes daily at a place called Balispirit. I found it on the internet when I started researching the trip, and planned to stay two weeks in Ubud and do as much yoga as possible. Now, I’m staying three weeks, and will have done roughly 20 classes in 21 days, about the same number of classes I’d take over months in California.

I’ve done yoga on and off for years, but rarely more frequently than twice a week, just enough for stress relief but not enough to truly go deep into the postures. There are certain poses, like headstand and arm balances, that I consistently avoid, although I go through the motions of trying to get into them. But doing yoga every day here has given me a chance to glimpse the transformative potential of yoga.

It’s a true luxury to have the time to spend 2 hours a day at a yoga studio. The Balispirit yoga studio is on the second floor, constructed like a barn with floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides offering views of gorgeous green mango, banana, palm, and frangipani trees and the lovely red tile roofs that are common here. The second story is constructed to be smaller than the first, and the space that is the difference between the two is planted with green grasses and flowers. So, when you’re seated on your yoga mat and look out the floor level windows, you see green plants and flowers all around, in the mornings touched with dew. Looking through the windows above, big puffy white clouds often distract me in balancing poses.

It’s been an interesting journey. The first class I took in Ubud was strong and challenging, and I felt fabulous immediately afterwards. The next day was another story, my muscles screaming out for my attention with every step. I attended a few more classes, and felt myself filled with resistance. My body felt heavy, thick, creaky, and unwieldy among the lithe yogis who frequent the class, and I found myself thinking that I’d been ridiculous to think I could devote myself to this and become a yogi. I felt so far from it, groaning inwardly with every difficult pose, sweating like a pig, and trying to glimpse the clock out of the corner of my eye.

Then somewhere between the 5th and the 8th class, I felt myself relaxing, feeling stronger, lighter, more flexible. I found myself doing poses that I always struggled with – ardha chandrasana, for instance – with relative ease. I discovered that if one part of my body was straining and shaky, I could tighten another part of my body and often find stability. It is the sort of thing that yoga teachers always tell you, but I never really believed them since I was neither patient nor strong enough to actually put into practice.

I started to go further in seated forward bends – another hated posture – and my tight and creaky hips started to stretch millimeter by millimeter. I even found that I’d resist a pose on one side – like standing splits – only to find that I’d be able to do it with ease with the other leg. Who would have thought? It just goes to show that my mind might be resisting far more than my body. I was back to feeling fabulous, stronger and more flexible each day, leaving class feeling calm, centered, and filled with luscious energy. But even so, it’s not so simple. This morning, in a particularly challenging and sweaty vinyasa class, I found myself resisting again, just wanting the class to be over so I could rest and go eat breakfast.

The classes are filled with a core of expat yogis and a revolving parade of yoga vacationers like us and other passers-by. The expat yogis are an interesting mix. There is Tattoo Guy, a tall, lanky, pale man with tight hamstrings who is covered in brightly colored tattoos, and the Bronzed Yoga Goddess, a tall, tanned, flexible, super-yogi woman from California. The Drama Queen is a Japanese woman who must be a dancer – she’s incredibly flexible and adds extra flourishes and dramatic sweeping arm movements to every posture, bending herself backwards nearly in half, and prostrating herself in prayer position with great flair. And then there is Sweaty Silent Spanish Guy and his sidekick, Tousled Hair (and also Sweaty) Guy.

The teachers are also a global mix of sorts. One of my favorite reminds me of a British version of Phoebe’s (from “Friends”) older sister, with blonde braids, a serene presence and a dry sense of humor. We’ll be up in shoulder stand and she’ll say things like, “now don’t turn your neck, because as you know there’s no insurance on the island and you don’t want to have to go to Singapore on a medical emergency flight,” or when we’re in a particularly challenging pose, “we’ll hold that for the next 20 minutes,” said with a deadpan expression. And my favorite, as we prepare for a seated pose: “take the flesh away from your buttocks…forever.” Another teacher is a young American, and standing in the back of the class – not doing a single pose herself  – puts us through a rigorous workout, copious sweat pouring from our bodies. I can’t help feeling like a workhorse being put through my paces, and it reminds me of some of the fitness yoga classes I experienced in California. But I do feel good every time I manage to survive the class, each time a bit more gracefully.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is an extraordinary teacher who has become our favorite. He’s Canadian, but speaks with an accent we were convinced was Swedish. It’s impossible to describe his class, and it’s like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. I’ve started calling it joyful yoga, as it integrates chanting, playful postures, and imagination. Every time I sit in his class, I am seized with the desire to go to India, to spend days chanting in Sanskrit, to become truly, deeply, soulfully integrated with this yoga practice. I'm not sure where that comes from, but the class is quite powerful.

We chant as we do sun salutations, and other poses. He has us chant “it’s not mine, take it back,” in Sanskrit as we throw things – our material possessions that aren’t really ours, our painful emotions – into the cooking fires we visualize in front of us. We stretch our arms imagining we are seaweed in the ocean, and visualize that we’re floating through the air, parting clouds. In warrior pose, we pump our arms like macho warriors before the battle (me feeling like Mel Gibson), and then we take aim, drawing our bows and arrows. We pause, bows drawn and the sound of the whole class exhaling in unison sounds just like arrows whistling through the air. We leave class feeling light, our hearts filled with joy and our bodies with energy.

We’ve also been exploring other classes. Last night was a Tibetan Bowl Meditation. We laid in a semi circle, heads facing inward, as our dread-locked conductor unpacked different sized Tibetan singing bowls and bells. He came around and rubbed herbal essential oils on our Third Eye chakra spot. Then he turned out the lights and started playing the bowls. I felt deep waves of sound moving through my body, different parts resonating with different tones. He came around to each of us and played the bowls in our ears, and my body vibrated with the deep, resonant sound.

As always with meditation, the thoughts streamed through my head, but at one point I felt myself drop down, as though through a trap door to another level underneath this plane of existence. In this place, I felt deeply relaxed, in a deep meditative state that seemed to be on the same plane of vibration as the music. The thoughts still came, but they seemed easier to push aside, to leave in my wake as I drifted down the river of sound. I may have fallen asleep at one point because remember the thoughts getting quite weird, hazy and dream-like.  When the sound stopped, I felt the need to rub my head, and then realized that once the sound was gone, I was left with a splitting headache, feeling weak and faint. It was as though I had over-vibrated, like the vibrations had been too intense for my little head.  Or it may also have had something to do with not having eaten dinner and it being 9.30 at night.

Tonight’s class is a movement meditation, where we meditate as we move our bodies to different sounds. The idea is that it makes it easier to meditate for those of us who have difficulty sitting still, as traditional meditation demands. It’s really cool – like a disco club for the yogi set – and someday I will invite you all over for a movement meditation party. Last week, we shook our bodies to Arabic trance-like music, danced to electronic music, did a sitting meditation to Tibetan singing bowls and a laying-down meditation to ocean waves. The best part is that everyone is supposed to close their eyes, so we are free to move, shake and twist our bodies in whatever embarrassing ways we wish to. Considering that I haven’t gone dancing in like a decade and tend to be way overly self-conscous, this is really freeing.

OK, I must run to class. More soon!

Tags: bali, balispirit, meditation, ubud, yoga

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