So I’m standing on one leg at my sink in the Village Guesthouse, Palolem. I have one foot in the basin, washing off the day’s cocktail of sand, mud and India off my feet and I have a toothbrush (loaded) in my mouth, meanwhile I’m attempting to brush my hair. It’s in these, frankly insane, moments I sometimes wish I was an octopus. Where are my eight-suckered arms when I need ‘em, eh? Also, why am I rushing? I’m in India; I’m not late for my sister’s wedding, or to go onstage and give an important talk on… well I don’t know what on, but that’s not the point.
The pace of life at Palolem beach
In the world of yoga, one of the things us ashtangis get accused of is being a little too frantic. The nature of the ashtanga yoga sequence is to flow from posture to posture using what’s known as ‘vinyasas’ - breath and movement combined. So for example, on the inhale breath you raise your arms; on the exhalation you fold forward. The speed of your practice therefore depends on the depth of your breath. Sometimes you see people practicing ashtanga and it’s like they’re competing for Australia in the 2012 Olympics’100m yoga sprintathon. What’s the rush? (By the way the subject of yoga at the Olympics is a bit of a controversial one, though rest assured they’re yet to introduce a yoga sprint!)
I remember having a discussion with one of my teachers, Nik, about the need to practice the sun salutations with awareness. She likened them to a hairpin. I don’t recall if she used an actual hairpin but she certainly did some sort of up-and-down double wristy action, with the implication that eventually, like the hairpin, we might snap. As you can imagine, that stayed with me… so from then on I decided to slow my yoga down.
Being an ex-swimmer I’ve got quite a big set of windbags (at least that’s what Mum told me) so I tend to breathe quite deeply anyway. Of course when I was ploughing the lengths of the pool I wasn’t really aware of that; yoga has really taught me to get in touch with my breath. Recently I have been revisiting Donna Fahri’s excellent book, Bringing Yoga to Life, as there were two bits in that book which I remembered distinctly. In one of the early chapters she talks of how she always gets people on her workshops to do this little exercise where they just observe their breath in their daily life – when you breathe in and out, when you hold it, when you’re breathing normally etc. Well, what an eye opener that was. I noticed I was holding my breath at the strangest times: opening the fridge, reaching for a towel, sitting on the toilet. Quite bizarre. What it means, I am not entirely sure, but it certainly reminds me to slow things down because when I'm holding my breath I feel a subtle whiff of panic, I'm ever so slightly stressed. If you’re doing that all day, well, it can’t be good.
In another chapter Donna talks of the space we can create in our lives when we do manage to slow it down, using the example of this older chap she knows called Ernie, who looks after the gardens near her house.
“A day with Ernie is a day spent with a master: he doesn’t say much but when he does it’s always an incisive observation… You notice an air of stillness around him – he’s just so happy to be alive taking in the day, listening to the birds, enjoying the fresh clean air.”
As you can probably guess, Ernie is not a fast mover; he likes to chat with the neighbours, believing “never any time wasted making friends for yourself.” But, Donna observes, at the age of 70 he's no couch potato, and when he gets to work on the garden he accomplishes “more than most of us do in a week.”
It’s interesting. How often do I find myself gazing down in the lift to avoid the eyes of my neighbours because I simply don’t have time to... to what... have a two minute conversation? To be friendly? Yes, I'm afraid, quite often.
It's mostly when I am not feeling very present, rushing like a headless chook between errands, getting nothing done. I wonder if it’s because we were taught from a young age to multi task because, speaks the deep, booming voice of dogma, “multi tasking equals efficiency”. Well, booming voice, I am not sure it does. When I’ve got 15 windows on my computer open at once, and I’m half way through doing 10 tasks, half of which don’t get finished very well, I don’t feel like the finely tuned sports car of human engineering. Quite the contrary, I feel like a frantic, faffing rust bucket, with a bumper falling off. Today's lesson - a little more Ernie, a little less octopus.