Tag Archives: writing

Yoga at Mysore, or how to stretch your way to heaven

mysore palaceThe last two months I’ve spent studying yoga asana, pranayama, philosophy and sanskrit at Mandala Yoga Shala in Lakshmipuram, Mysore. Mysore is a proud heritage city dominated by the Maharaja’s palace where Krishnamacharya, the ‘father of modern yoga’, used to teach. Lakshmipuram is a leafy neighbourhood full of mansions from the Maharaja’s time. Walking the quiet streets, here and there you’ll spot little yoga shalas started by (students of) students of Krishnamacharya. They mostly teach non-Indians who are keen to sample the traditional Mysore style of Ashtanga yoga.

Lakshmipuram street viewSo among the kurtas, cows and coconuts, you’ll spot one or two foreigners carrying yoga mats. They come from Europe, America, Asia and they live across the neighbourhood in rooms and apartments rented out by Indian families. They hang out in a couple of places and talk about adjustments, anatomy, pranayama, healthy food, ayurveda. Some live here, many come back every year.

PadmasanaThere’s also the K. Patthabi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Gokulam, the Beverly Hills of Mysore where Patthabi Jois moved his shala after the one in Lakshmipuram became too small. The ‘main shala’ is considered something of a fad by the cool Lakshmipuram crowd. Why spend so much money for maybe one adjustment a day if you’re lucky? Those in the early slot have to get up in the middle of the night to secure a space; if you don’t, you can practice in the changing rooms. I’ve heard nothing beats the energy at the main shala, but not everyone appreciates the business empire that Sharath has built. He is the grandson of Pattabhi Jois, founder of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and together with B.K.S. Iyengar the most famous of Krishnamacharya’s pupils.

So we’re good here in Lakshmipuram. The classes are small, the teachers genuine and the people dedicated to this intense physical style of yoga. My Taiwanese classmate moans and groans as my teacher lifts up his leg to almost 180 degrees in a standing balance pose (utthita hasta padangustasana, see picture). The corrections are pretty severe so you have to listen to your body and tell your teacher when to stop, else you risk straining a muscle. Everyone seems to get injured at some point and there’s a lot of talk about the yama principle of ahimsa, non-violence, against yourself as well as others. Ashtanga practitioners can be fiery people with a competitive edge so it’s important to stay with your own body’s pace and not want to advance too quickly.

TrikonasanaI’ve been very careful not to injure myself because to me this is the opposite of why we do yoga – for spiritual growth, for meditation in movement, for being present in your body, breathing and purifying it for 2 hours every day. And yet, it also happened to me. I was working very hard on extending my hamstrings, which in London had seemed impossible. I had become used to bending my knees a little in all forward bends and focusing on opening the hips. Instead, on the very first day here my teacher told me after a few asanas that he’d seen enough. We were going to start from scratch. We were going to lengthen my hamstrings and I wasn’t to bend my legs in any posture. As long as my hamstrings stretched no further, we wouldn’t go beyond sun salutations and standing postures, only a quarter of my normal practice. Ouch. That hurt my ego, but at the same time – wasn’t this a unique opportunity to allow my body to really open up, now that I finally had all the time in the world? Why rush ahead when the whole point is to take life as it comes? If my body has stored up years of office work and stress and cycling and running, then why not now take the time to purify it?

UpavishtakonasanaSo I did, and it hurt massively. My teacher told me to persevere, not to mind others who were going ahead much faster through the sequence, and to breathe through the pain – after all this is what is called ‘good pain’ in Mysore. ‘Bad pain’ is when knees or other ligaments hurt; ‘good pain’ is when muscles scream ‘stop torturing me’. I didn’t stop, I kept breathing and discovered another benefit of the practice. You learn to stay calm and keep breathing under tough circumstances. It makes a difference.

So after a month of painful practice, I suddenly felt a lengthening. When I walked my strides seemed longer, my feet more extended and my hips were turning backwards more. I could now hold my leg straight in most poses and even clasp my hand around my wrist and put my chin on my knee in seated forward bends. Well, for a couple of days, until my teacher pushed me forward a little more, and I didn’t tell him to stop and my right hamstring was stretched just a little too much. Ouch.

Eka pada sirsasana‘Don’t worry, this is normal, just take some pain killers and keep practicing.’ I decided not to be upset with myself, for after all, I’d taken all the care in the world to avoid an injury, and yet, there it was, it seemed inevitable. And I know how much I learnt from previous injuries about how to heal the body and the effect of asanas on different parts of your body. So I went practicing again the next day, testing which poses I could and couldn’t do. I just kept breathing and maintained a gentle practice. Until I hit Janusirsasana A, when my body suddenly remembered that this was the pose in which it all happened, and wham, I couldn’t stop crying. My muscles screamed, ‘How could you have done this to us??’ But the led class went on, and amazingly, in Janusirsana B and C, I was all fine again. It was as if my body had retained the memory of the injury and then had let go. Of course it was still painful, but bearable and not emotional.

I think this is one of the most beautiful things about the daily Ashtanga practice – the continuous cleansing makes one not only very sensitised to the needs of all parts of your body, but also able to flow through life much easier. After a meditation in movement, things don’t stick so much and we rest in the more stable rhythm of the universe. Every day we feel different in our body, but whether we’re ecstatic or sad, the breathing and focus wash out any extremes. Fewer emotions hook themselves in your body. We get a glimpse of the peacefulness and bliss beyond Maya, our perceived reality of form. This is Brahman, the land of Samadhi, where the ego is dissolved in flames and objective truth shines its formless glory.

All yoga pictures are by Christine Love-Hewitt. Check out her site http://www.yogicphotos.com so you can book your own photo shoot at Mysore!

Take off

So the adventure has started. I’m on a 7-month sabbatical in India to do yoga, to write another novel, to do nothing, to see where life takes me and to enjoy. Not sure about the order.

On last year’s trip to Thailand, I discovered the benefits of yoga almost as a side effect to writing my first novel. I had told friends, family and colleagues that I’d write that book, and so I would. Meanwhile on lush tropical islands I learnt much more than I anticipated about letting go, love and life. So much so that the ending of my book was changing real time.

Now I feel quite different and one of the main reasons for taking more time off is to explore what happens when you let things happen to you. Instead of organising life, why not flow with what the moment offers? If you like it, you go, if it doesn’t feel right, you stay. You can go in the general direction of your intentions and wishes, but be mindful of alternative suggestions that come your way. It would be a shame to miss out.

Since it’s my wish to study the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga, I decided to start this adventure in Mysore, Karnataka, India. This is the city where Pattabhi Jois, who brought Ashtanga yoga to the West, used to teach before his death in 2009. For the past nine months, I’ve been doing self practice ashtanga (Mysore style) at Stillpoint Yoga London (a wonderful family of lovely people). I love starting the day with a 90-minute mind-body-soul purification. In my experience, a regular practice cultivates awareness, stillness and a profound sense of ease, grace if you like.

It means that it becomes easier to be present, kind and loving in the moment, and be attuned to what your heart, or intuition, tells you about what is happening. Life becomes lighter because unnecessary worries about the future drop away. Should I stay or should I go, is a question that you can trust yourself to answer more truthfully. If you stay, new opportunities materialise, others close down. And if you go? Same thing, just different!

To ‘follow the flow’, or to use another yoga favourite, to ‘open your heart’, you’ve got to know it first. That’s not that easy, especially when educated in a system that favours rational thinking. Yoga – asana, pranayama, meditation etc – helps you unpeel the layers covering the heart so you can give more freely without expecting one-on-one returns. The beauty is that you’ll receive returns in spades, or other unexpected shapes that you may have never noticed before.

So let’s see what happens over the coming months now that I’ve created the opportunity to flow and learn. I don’t plan to practice at Patthabi Jois’ studio because ashtanga yoga can get a little competitive, and its birth place is likely to attract the alpha male variety of the yogi bear. I do want to write about these crazy yoga cities full of Westerners seeking enlightenment while creating new social hierarchies based on how long one can stand on one leg. I intend to blog and do research for the new book. And to enjoy myself. Inshallah!

P.s. needless to say, I don’t think that yoga will magically turn all the world’s problems into pink bunnies. I do think it’s one of the ways that can make people feel more comfortable in their own skin.

My novella ‘Love turns’ now is available on Blurb.com!

Hello people

I’m very excited to let you know that my novella ‘Love turns’ now is available for everyone to read!

Go to http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/3362813 to buy the print version or download the e-book if you have an i-pad or i-phone. You can leave comments, like, recommend etc on there. I won’t be actively marketing the book, but I’d be thrilled if you like it and tell your friends about it.

The novella is about:

A granddaughter, liberated and working in modern-day London. Her grandmothers, constrained by a lack of choices in mid-twentieth-century Holland. Three women, three stories. Three journeys in dreams, independence, roots.

I’ve decided to self-publish it on Blurb because it is a fantastic website which allows you to design your own book and publish it in print and e-book version. It’s super easy and the result looks very pretty (I think!).

Writing this novella in Thailand earlier this year has been an unforgettable journey. It was the first time in my life that I had the opportunity to spend dedicated time creating a longer piece of fiction. And sometimes I stopped writing for days on end to just live and experience. Since then countless rounds of edits have taught me the process of preparing for publication. Many people have helped me along the way – thank you!

I see this novella very much as my first attempt. It has certain flaws, but I’m happy with it in its current form. So I’m very keen for you all to read it and let me know what you think.

I’m already writing the next book which will be a yoga detective story set in South East Asia. Watch this space!

Love turns: a preview

After spending two marvellous and transformative months writing on Thai islands, I’ve been preparing my novella for publication. I’ve decided to go for self-publication because traditional publishing houses are unlikely to be interested in a ‘women’s novella by a first time author’. And even if they were, it would take a long time before you could actually read it. Instead, self-publishing  is a fast and easy way to get a book on Amazon in e- and print copy. My aim is not to reach a mass audience but to share with you the journey of growth and insight that this book has been for me. And, guys, trust me, there’s plenty of things for you to like in a women’s book too.

So, I’m proud to present an excerpt from ‘Love turns’, my novella about:

‘A granddaughter, liberated and searching in modern-day London; her grandmothers, constrained by a lack of choice in mid-twentieth century Holland. Three women, three stories. Three journeys in love, dreams, independence, roots.’

The launch date for my book will be in May. I’ll keep you posted and in the mean time, I’d love to hear your thoughts about this preview!


Carnival night (1956)

Snow fell in the deep night, covering the little pond at the end of the street, the ducks hiding from the cold. Every now and again they huddled together as people shuffled by. The revellers were so drunk that they didn’t feel the cold through their colourful costumes. The ducks made soft squeaky sounds, fearing another may be taken away.

Earlier, one of the revellers on his way to the prince’s ball thought a duck was a useful addition to his outfit, firmly positioning it between the grapes in the fruit basket on his head. On these three days prior to Ash Wednesday, life south of the rivers Rhine, Maas, and Waal was turned upside down while the elected princes of carnival societies ruled the towns and cities. Marching bands roamed from café to café, their drums accompanying chants of love.

The ducks, however, had nothing to fear from the revellers returning from the ball. Inebriated with wine, intoxicated with food and dance, they were saturated with pleasure. For every post-war year, the display of abundance surpassed that of previous years. This year it reached its peak, golden as the shimmer from Sophia’s dress, as she ordered Henri’s Pontiac Firebird to a halt.

‘Henri, mein Liebster, you will understand that I will serenade these poor ducklings. Nothing less will do for them on a night like tonight.’ She was certain that this was the right thing to do and left small marks in the snow as she carefully placed one high-heeled foot after another. Still a little too heavy-set, she gingerly stopped at the side of the pond, giggling to herself that she may fall, the state that she was in. She cooed the ducks to come closer. They shyly approached, nonplussed by this woman in fur who sang the drinking song of Verdi’s La Traviata to them in the moonlight.

While she sang, Henri watched her appreciatively. He was smoking a cigarette and leant back against the side of the car in his white smoking jacket, hair parted immaculately. Although he had forbidden her to sing in public when they married after the war, he adored her voice and was flattered when people call her the nightingale of the South. Ten years after their marriage she was still known for the distinct timbre to her voice.

Sophia, especially when tipsy, also shared with Maria Callas her diva attitude to life. Her walk was as gracious as Maria’s and her presence as striking. Yet, unlike Maria, she had never been able to lose those 100 pounds. Perhaps this was partly Henri’s fault for keeping her in the house. After there were some stories of a local housewife losing her mind, a woman much less like a bird of paradise than Sophia, he’d asked her whether she was happy. ‘I’m happy when you make love to me, darling. What else do you expect?’ she had said with raised eyebrows and a mischievous smile. She had refused to take him seriously and started to seduce him instead.

Angry with himself, and emotional when drunk, he muttered, ‘What else could I have done? What would people have said when she had been performing on stage, night after night, dressed in these costumes and in the arms of another man? It would have meant bankruptcy to my business, and no one to look after the children.’ Even now, the thought made him mad with jealousy.

Schätzchen, get in the car now, will you?’ he strained his voice to break through the waves of hers, echoing down the snowed-in street.

She shrugged, determined not to have her mood spoiled. She ignored the string of memories she had of earlier occasions when he had stolen moments of glory, albeit from audiences more appreciative than these ducklings. Besides, her neighbours, woken up by her song, must be expecting another of their loud rows. But things turned quiet as Henri and Sophia drove up the hill to their house.

Stumbling through the front door, she was swearing at every object she bumped into. She reached the living room and realised the room was awfully cold. She inspected the lifeless fireplace, thinking that she was damn well not waiting for Henri to fix things, ‘that good for nothing man, a good salesman that’s all he is.’

She found the maid’s white spirit and amply covered the wood in the fireplace. As she lit the fire the heat and the bang were so strong she was thrown back onto the sofa, grinning contently at the wild open fire that she has caused.

Henri, still lingering outside, slammed the door of the car shut and lit a cigarette as he closed the door of the garage. The snowfall was slowing down, and he could vaguely smell the pines. He walked towards the house, remembering to avoid the pool, and taking in the quiet night. The revellers were now sleeping. He looked up at the stars. A moment later something shot through the sky, waking the neighbourhood dogs, then landing in his neighbour’s garden. In slow motion he traced the sound back to his house, noticing a hole in the roof and fire breaking through. He started running towards the fire, praying to god almighty that his wife and children were not hurt.

Koh Yao Noi – my paradise island

There is a small island in the Andaman Sea where life is peaceful, the birds chatter and occasionally a fisherman’s long tail boat ploughs the sea. Limestone cliff islands are dotted across the bay. The beaches are long and sandy though the tide reveals rocky surfaces – this is Koh Yao Noi’s ‘asshole barrier’. People looking for full moon raves on pristine beaches usually take the next ferry out to any of the surrounding islands, such as Phuket which has overcrowded beaches and plenty of seedy nightlife. On the ferry to the island I met a bunch of elderly French men who advised me not to go there because there would be more competition. I had to reiterate that really, I was here to write a book, not to find a man. They were headed back to Phuket the next day.

This type of merry-go-round tourism dominates most of the other Thai beach destinations but is (still) completely lacking on Koh Yao Noi. The only beat here is the beat of the tide, the sun rising and setting over the limestone cliffs. The slow magic of the island gradually took hold of me over the two weeks that I’ve been here. Little by little I learnt to read the signs of this long stretch of land of fishermen and rubber plantations. I shook off my big city girl pace and tuned into the local rhythm. So much so that when I took a day trip to Phuket town, I quickly became saturated with the city’s history and shops. I felt relieved to take the boat back to my peaceful haven a couple of hours earlier than I’d planned.

On my first days on the island, I found a sturdy bungalow with a wide view of the bay, and sorted out my yoga classes and bicycle. I was ready to start my new life as a temporary writer, cyclist, yogi, sea swimmer, and beach bum. First I had to let go of my urban suspicion of insects and loose animals. I’m still convinced that one day I’ll have to face a big hairy spider or a cobra, but by now I’m quite chilled that there are about twenty soft shell crabs shuttling about me while I’m writing this on the beach. When I go swimming, I’m fine with minute jellyfish biting me. I make peace with water buffaloes and stray dogs when I encounter them on my jungle shortcut to town. After all, I remind myself, they’re not out to get me. Yesterday evening I felt very much the local girl when I cycled to a party with a headlamp, turning it quickly to the back of my head when battling up a steep hill so that a lonely motorbike overtaking me would not knock me off the road.

Enjoying life on Koh Yao Noi is like a membership of an exclusive club. It’s a pact of loving the low life, with a touch of inverse cosmopolitan pretension. Many people return here year after year, like the Finnish adviser to the Chinese government who lives in Bangkok with his large family of seven, or the Muslim Londoner who comes to recover from Thai boxing fights in Phuket. My neighbours are a wonderfully unconventional Californian lady and her son who’s a bit of a local hero and famous all over the island. She’s a master storyteller at 72 – you’d barely give her 50 – while he’s a rock climbing survival expert who’s a conscious objector to his mother’s real life embroidering. Then there’s the yoga teacher warrior girl from Buffalo, NY; the Russian ship broker who’s built a massive villa; and the flirty Italian bartender who started the local pizza place.

My landlord, a policeman, and his Japanese wife, run eight bungalows. Sometimes he asks me to help him out a bit, like when he couldn’t work out the accent of the Swiss fisherman reporting a sailing incident over the phone. So I took down the report of how a large yacht had hit his little long tail boat and had taken off straight after. The guy was still recovering from the shock of being thrown into the sea when he saw the yacht owners on the back of the boat while there was no one in the cabin.

Most businesses on the island are run by farang (Westeners), or Chinese, while most local Muslim people stick to fishing or working on the rubber plantations. Many women work as cooks or waitresses in the islands’ restaurants and bungalow resorts. Yet times are changing. Burmese immigrants have come to work on the rubber plantations while the local kids hang out playing video games in internet cafes. They’ll probably leave the island to join the burgeoning tourism industry in Phuket and around. Or perhaps, with over seven million people passing through Phuket airport every year, it is difficult to imagine that they won’t bring mass tourism to Koh Yao Noi.

As it is now, their island is the perfect place to write. Life is so easy that writing comes naturally at many points in the day. I usually wake up by 6.30 to see the sunrise from my bed, go to a yoga class, have breakfast, stroll to the local coffee place and start writing. Then I’ll have lunch, go for a bike ride or a swim, write some more till it gets dark. By that time I usually have already run into a few people I know and last minute plans have been made for dinner. Or I write some more. What a wonderful life.

Ayn Rand twists

Why the novels of Russian American author Ayn Rand give so many insights and are yet so annoying in style and lack of humour

I’ve spent the last month reading ‘Atlas Shrugged’ by Ayn Rand. After emigrating from the Soviet Union to the United States in 1926, she has sold millions of novels about her philosophy of Objectivism, claiming: “I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows.”

After working through ‘The Fountainhead’, her first major novel, in April, I finally picked up the courage to again get hammered home a message of pure individualism in over a thousand pages. And again I’m amazed at her quick and easy-read writing and almost gutter-style romantics, interspersed with endless monologues about how the world belongs to larger-than-life Ubermensch caricatures. And I get fed up with the lack of homour and sentences like: “I started my life with a single absolute: that the world was mind to shape in the image of my highest values and never given up to a lesser standard, no matter how long or hard the struggle.”

Yet I keep reading, and every page I turn I get more influenced by her story and thinking. When reading ‘The Fountainhead’ I found myself imaging to be Dominique Francon, as vividly as I’d last done when reading ‘Gone with the wind’ and pretending to be Scarlet O’Hara as a 12-year old. And now, with ‘Atlas Shrugged’, I actually for the first time understand the attraction of technology. It’s technology that is the proof that in our shifty uncertain world, reason ultimately triumphs and creates an objective truth. Because every time I ignite the motor of a car, it functions according to the same principles. I’m suddenly very impressed that we have minds endowed with the ability to not only build a logical edifice, but also translate this into a tangible and functioning machine.

 I’m now very curious as to what kind of woman Mrs Rand was like – wondering how a reader can be both grateful for many insights, and yet still predominantly annoyed with a book. Wikipedia tells me that she was a self-thought philosopher who was never taken seriously by academia but gathered around her a cult of like-minded people. They worshipped everything Ayn Rand did or said, to the point where her ‘followers’ would wear the exact same clothes as she did. Not quite the Galt’s valley in ‘Atlas Shrugged’ where a group of supermen are loving each other endlessly because of their boundless virtuosity and individuality…

One of these like-minded people apparently was Alan Greenspan, the later Chairman of the Federal Reserve. I wonder how objectivist the world seems to him now that he has seen the laws of finance crumble in front of his eyes during the credit crunch?

The image I now have of her as a slightly absurd yet mollifying object in a curiosity shop is confirmed by this television interview she gave in 1959. She’s like a little bird of reason trapped in a nonsensical television box, asked to ‘capsulise’ her philosophy. It’s a joy to watch also because of the late 1950s style – the clumsily fading show titles, the perfectly accented American, and best of all, Mike Wallace’s brylcreem-ed hair!