Updated: Feb 9
The story of how the Ashtanga geek yoga teacher turned yogi nomad stumbled upon the challenge of meditation in Spain.
I was never supposed to come here! this wasn’t in my plans! I wasn’t even supposed to be travelling! But after just two days in Spain my unrealistic plans failed... as I knew they would. I had already travelled and fallen in love with Asturias in the north of Spain the year before, so I knew just travelling around wasn’t an option, and so this time I had to find another purpose, and that purpose was to start teaching Yoga! I scoured the Workaway website ( www.workaway.info is a web platform for travelling/ skill sharing/ working in exchange food and board) and got accepted to teach at a remote detox yoga retreat in Granada. Little did I know I was to get way more out of this than the opportunity to teach a few yoga classes!
I got on a plane to fly south.
The lonely yoga retreat sat among arid soil and infinite rows of olive trees. In the far distance on all sides were mountains, and above us a huge unpredictable sky. I had my doubts coming here as it seemed so bleak and lonely, considering that my original plan was to teach and connect with people!
Although concerned, I was relaxed within, thankfully. I remained open and without expectation. I decided to settle in and really arrive here, to do so I had to let go of the plans that I had made previously and stop looking into future plans. I had to truly be here, now, do nothing. These were words i would hear everyday for the next two months.
My first day. I am informed by the previous volunteer that I am 'invited to Meditation', she raised her eyebrows, I took the hint and scurried to the yoga room and took a seat. I sat in Lotus position, my ego told me I should. Afterwards when I saw her, she smirked as she told me "yea, I should've warned you it was Vipassana".
First thoughts.... Meditation is not for me, how can it be? I like to be active, I find it boring, I am easily distracted, I am uncomfortable, I must sit in lotus, I am scared to move.
My knee ligaments are screaming in a way that is definitely concerning, could they snap?!
( As an Ashtanga practitioner with slight hypermobility and 'special' knees, I am all too aware of their vulnerability, and am concerned at how much time I ask them to be in lotus or cross legged positions). My hips hurt, my back too. And what is that dreadful gargling goat sound that he startles me with at the end of each practise????!
Moving on...I take responsibility for my knees, I start using a block to sit on. I realise quickly that what is difficult is what we need the most! For example, in asana practise I need poses that are uncomfortable like Purvottonasana to open the tight part of my body. I begin a daily practise, one hour per day. I am still uncomfortable but now move if it really gets ridiculously painful. I start to have glimpses of ‘the calm’.
I move on from observing the nostril and lip to the whole body. What joy! I feel I must have passed some sort of test. It is a relief to have something more to maintain my focus, or shall we say entertain my mind?!
Thoughts still come and distract me. My legs are totally dead.
I figure that it must be because at 7am I am going straight to meditation from a horizontal position in bed means that no blood is flowing there? I shall have to wake up early, walk a little first... I begin to set my alarm for 6.15 am each day, my roommate is not happy about this, but she continues to get up before me and return with our tea.
25.4.28, A hostal, Malaga.
Five days away from the retreat centre and I really miss the meditation! I actually long for it! For the silence, for the calm, for the break from the world. I feel sad and lost, the weather is terrible, I sit and work on my website surrounded by 'awful' people. I must not judge them. I have a date with a handsome Italian called Simone... the lovely day included Picasso, Acroyoga on the beach, a swim in the ocean, fried aubergines.
Back at the retreat
I overhear a conversation in the kitchen between a guest and our teacher, he has asked why we meditate...? The reply...
“Meditation makes the mind more focused... more sharp... we notice the details... we react quicker”
– lightbulb moment! This is what I need!!!! I must really try to incorporate this into my life! For I am forever doing things quickly! However efficient I am, I can’t say that I pay full attention to tasks, although I believe my standards are high. When carrying out a task I am already thinking about, if not doing the next one! Also I am a terrible listener, my mind is so busy, I have so many ideas, so many things to act upon...
Meditation is no longer a chore! I’m getting hooked! Who would have ever thought it!? I must remain equanimous!
There was a weird experience in meditation this morning that freaked me out! We had a guest on the retreat who actually had an established meditation practise, and unlike the other guests, and to our envy, would arrive early and sit motionless and serene for each session. Well, this morning a strange sort of noise drifted to my ears from his direction, a sort of quiet but high pitch intermittent whistle, I couldn’t help but tune in and wonder what on earth it was.... as the sound ‘developed’ it seemed to choose a note and remain there and the intermittent sound lengthened and became constant... now I was more alarmed than curious... was this another form of the Tibetan song? Was it a meditation frequency that could be heard? Was it only me that could hear it? I resisted the urge to open my eyes and sat there listening to the high pitch tone as it got louder and louder and LOUDER. I was too scared to open my eyes and look in case I saw him there levitating as this sound passed through him. Was he possessed? Was he enlightened? Did he not need to pause for breath? After practise I rushed to my roommate and woke her up telling her about this 'weird thing that happened in meditation'!!!! She woke up startled and then then grumbled that it was just the radiator overheating, it happens all the time!!!!!!!!!! Oh dear!
Meditation is becoming more natural. It feels like i’m checking in with every part of my body, noticing every part of my body. I am sick after my time in the city, and there is much more to observe, oh so many sensations!!!! Especially in my ears and nose and throat and temples. Damp, cold, tickling, numbness, pulsing, soooo much pulsing. I even finally detect sensations in my chin! I still catch my mind wondering... how do I help a student in Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimattonasana? mmmmmmm I still taste the homegrown olives that were in my lunch.... how much I appreciate the value of a good sleep...
Other students say they think of beautiful or sad events that happened on their childhoods, things they haven't thought or felt for years come back to them, but here I am just tasting olives and thinking about a good night's sleep?!!!
I bring the mind back to the scan to find that the scanning has continued on it’s own, it’s moved down to the right hip! I say to myself ‘right hip, right hip, right hip’ I move on. I wonder, if the brain, my subconscious, will memorise the order of the body parts to scan, much like we memorise the order of the poses in the Ashtanga Series? Would that be good or bad? Surely I wouldn't be ‘paying attention’ but I would be meditating no? I observe tension, pulsing, stretching, clothing, coolness, warmth....I can’t find my right heel anywhere! I realise I never pay any attention whatsoever to the ball of my foot, like ever!
The soles of my feet tingle every time I pass my imaginary spotlight over them.
I count the tips of my toes and soar back up to the crown of my head. To begin again, ‘starrrrrrrrrt again’. Each time I scan there are more sensations, I notice greater detail. I no longer jump when out of nowhere he pierces the air with ‘Alert. Attentive. Vigilant’... ‘Just observe. Do nothing’... ‘You are bound to be successful’. Today for the first time I no longer wished for the end of the hour to be over. In fact, I felt I could remain for a whole other hour. I feel great, happy.
Horrendous. Like practise, when I enter meditation I need to be there in mind, body and spirit. Any thoughts need to be dealt with before or after. Today I was thinking about how ill I felt and how I would manage to teach my class immediately afterwards. I had sweated the whole night and hardly slept, my head throbbed and squeezed my brain, my eyes and ears and throat were all blocked, yet I had to step into the teacher role regardless. I was consumed by anxiety and dread, and there was no way around it as I was against the clock. I had to pull myself together, man up.
I may not have revelations or memories that impact on me during meditation, but afterwards I run immediately to my notebook to scribble down these reflections before they dissipate... I must catch them whilst they feel alive! I reflect about the phases I have passed through in my Ashtanga journey... from the excitement of the discovery, to relentless asana and alignment study, fixing my knees, slowing it down and making it personal. In this current stage I seek other elements in my yoga practise...
I crave more detail, more depth, more intelligence and intuition.
I naturally gravitate to Meditation, Pranayama and Mantras. I reopen my Yoga Mala to re read those words that I failed to understand a few years ago. With long days on the retreat I struggle to maintain a personal practise, yet I am surprised to observe that my Primary Series practise feels wonderful when I practise it less! It’s ok to do less! as long as I do something with awareness and a full heart. On the other days I don’t have to beat myself up for being too tired or push myself through it like a chore, I can practise yoga in another way...
My Yoga practise is swelling, enveloping other angles and methods and techniques... Meditation, Sivananda, Tibetan, Kirtan, Restorative, Bhakti and Karma Yoga are all on the scene. In fact, I practise yoga in every small task, being mindful washing dishes, meditating over weeding, noticing the flavour of every bite of food....
...everything is the same, yet somehow every experience is richer. I am paying attention.
David Garrigues, my favourite teacher at the moment always says 'yoga is skill in action', now I understand.
Once, as I fell asleep after Kirtan, I noticed something odd with my body. More accurately, the size of my body... I felt that it was huge, swollen, fuzzy, light. Like the genie in Aladdin! I knew that it was silly, that my body under the sheets and blankets was perfectly normal, but the sensations I felt told me otherwise! I didn’t open my eyes. I just smiled, amused and fell asleep. Was it tiredness? Happiness? The sense of unity and happiness that singing mantras provokes? This happened once more in my time here.
I'm stepping it up a level. A new roommate has inspired me to attend meditation twice a day every day, without fail.
Oh gosh! I feel as though I just had an outer body experience! Is this why people get hooked on meditation? I was struggling to flip my attention from the lower to upper body, or front to back of the body, and so I decided to scan through the back and front at the same time from top to bottom, and WOW! I was utterly and completely still, without any movement or discomfort, and as soon as I summoned my awareness to the crown of my head it was like all of this energy came with me!
I saw yellow and orange and experienced intense feelings of warmth and buzzing! My heart started to beat faster....
I travelled down the body with my awareness, and not only did I feel sensations at the front and back of the body, but all of the way through as well! It was like I was passing a rainbow through my entire being! In fact, I wasn't passing it through, I WAS the rainbow and my awareness was quietly moving through it! I have only felt this sensation before. When deeply in love. I kept thinking to myself ‘don't panic, don't react, remain equanimous’, but I found I was utterly calm and in the zone, in complete control. Thoughts came and went, but I continued passing the sensation through the whole depth of me, up and down, and each time I came to the top of my head the feelings increased and I felt indescribably good! When our teacher began the closing chant (which I had come to greatly enjoy by now) the feelings increased, and I felt as though I would explode with light and joy!
I felt like my body had blurred into the world, like there were no edges... I was just made of energy, light, space. And ‘I’ was just sitting in the middle of it.
Is this why our teacher is always so happy after meditation? Why he always has so much energy? Why he bounces around the kitchen slicing and chopping and singing? He seems pleased that we stepped up the practise to twice a day. He never mentioned these sensations before? Is this normal?????
Afterwards, as I slice organic kiwis for the breakfast table I tell my teacher that something happened in meditation, that it felt delicious. All I get in response is a ‘hmmmmmmmmmm’ and a glint in his eye, and instructions for the next step of the scanning technique.
I tap into google ‘What happens to the body in Vipassana’... I read a bloggers tale of her Vipassana retreat and she concludes with saying that at the end there ‘ was a lot of talk about bodies’ dissolving, and one participant said he felt he was made of atoms..... That is exactly how i felt. This made me feel relieved and grateful.
This place has cultivated a meditation practise in me!!! I don’t know what I would do without it. It’s so portable, I have no excuse not to be able to do it, and that reassures me.
I am at a new volunteer place whilst the retreat owners take holidays, unfortunately it is not going well, and I seek peace through this practise. Today I took a walk and my curiosity pulled me into a small footpath full of wildflowers and early morning sun. I couldn’t resist, I took a seat, the Andalucian National Park rolling away below me, the birds and bees surround me, the sun is warm on my face. I need Guenka to guide me. It is hard alone sometimes, and I need his song to culminate the hour. Here I have no help, no aid, no guide, no voice, no companions, no internet, no Guenka, no ‘Alert. Attentive. Vigilant’. I am on my own. Is this a test run before I leave the teacher for good? When I get stuck I recite his words to myself, I hum the Tibetan sounds and feel their effect, or at least my mind connects the sound with the memory of the effect.
Tarifa, Costa de la Luz.
I’ve escaped for a day. Three buses to get here. Meditation is my sanity. My time here is a test of my will. I am trying constantly to keep the inner peace. Practise is hard with heat, exhaustion and feeling unappreciated, yet meditation can happen always. It feels great to escape, to go inside, say hello to my body, more so with springtime and nature all around me. The warm breeze to detect on my skin, the warmth of the sun enhancing the beautiful sensation which I am trying hard not to chase. ...
"Do not create cravings, There are no good sensations, no bad sensations, only sensations. Alert. Attentive. Vigilant". His voice echoes in me head, guiding me.
June already. Time flies. Today meditation soothed me when even resting on the dirty sticky bed in my shed at the stables could not. I was surprised to find I was able to sit still and comfortably even though in real life my body ached so much. It was heartfelt. I knew it would make me feel better, calmer. I surrendered myself to the process. I felt no hurry or desire to chase the cravings. Having a still posture without pain enabled me to enter the 'trance' quickly and remain there as I sat quietly among the sensations of my body. It is here, when I feel like this, that it really 'happens'.... the magic. That quiet place where nothing moves...
...my body is like a motionless forest, and even my breath hushes, not daring to stir up movements.
I had so many sensations due to sunburn on my back from the beach yesterday and the sweat and dirt itching and prickling my skin. I could hear the owners in the ‘background’, (My teacher had explained to me once when I asked how he blocks out sounds ‘ we are still here, it is not like we go anywhere’) I calmly accepted the noise and continued. Meditating on the floor of my shed, with a bed, in the stables, with the flies. One fly bothered me so much I just had to open my eyes just to make sure it wasn’t a more deadly beast. It was a huge ant crawling up my thigh, I flicked it away, and on closing my eyes, slipped straight back into the trance, to the 'other side'.
I really miss the closing chant and have got into the habit of humming it to myself. Instantly my body vibrates and I scan my body with the vibrations. I have gone back to scanning individual body parts for the most part, and finishing with a few top to bottom scans. I need to practise more actual yoga, my Ashtanga practise is calling desperately, but I am too exhausted. I only manage restorative, but this is a lesson too...
I am learning to adapt and seek new knowledge and my practise is wiser, more intelligent, more appropriate.
I long for the retreat, i have another home there. Home is family, home is friends, and homes are Workaways.
I lost my way in meditation. As much as I tried to keep it close, it has wandered. I am totally incapable of doing it at 7am when i wake up as i have no brain to concentrate with, and if i have a class straight after, I end up pondering pranayama, nadis, mudras and Rectus Femoris! This afternoon my dead left leg tormented me again. I know that once I can sit comfortably again, (from practising asana) I will return to be peaceful and still in my seat to observe, still, calm. Most times I battle with mantras stuck in my head, my mind fights the song demons but they always seem to be rumbling along, to the rhythm of the breath, and so I make the breath small in the hope that they will fade. It is always super simple catchy stuff like Shiva Shambo, Jaya Radha, today it was Hare Krishna. At least it wasn’t the dreaded Jaya Ganesha! (Today was a good day, I finally played the harmonium!)
I would have meditated in the airport but I had to be ‘Alert’ for seven hours, waiting to see my flight reappear on the information screen. I am brimming with ideas and desires to pass on the knowledge, to share breath and movement, the 'medicine'. I am off to meet my hero David Garrigues next week in London, and then i’ll be putting all of this learning into action through classes. Meditation is still here, i just have to find the space and calm that filled me when I tapped through into that realm.
I will return there.
Thank you for reading,
Written by Ashtanga_geek