View from my retreat - sunset dinners every evening.
Christmas came and went and before cabin fever launched it's suffocation campaign I packed my little rucksack and jumped on a flight to Kochin in India's south western state Kerala. My first stop wold be a week long Ayurvedic retreat where I would be stretched, kneaded, rolled and detoxed into some kind of shape along the "process" path. I remember sitting in Dublin airport at 9 am on the 28th of December drinking bucks fizz and eating smoked salmon and eggs - I felt cool, confident and sophisticated, a little win from a very big loss. I attended an event recently where the speaker talked about falling forward. Every day I was doing this, grappling, struggling, tripping and falling but ultimately moving forward, baby steps propelling me along a path to where I am today. I drank a vat of wine on the plane which sheltered me from my brain and I sniffled and sobbed through every film I watched. I also ate a super sized Toberlone for good measure.
India - Kerala
I chose Kerala, called "God's own Country", because of it's transcendent beauty. This felt fitting because I needed to consume something divine to nourish my bedraggled being. It's one of the wealthier areas of India with less devastating poverty. I don't mean to sound like a vacuous western tourist in the light of suffering but I was under a personal spotlight of suffering and didn't have the reserves to take on anything else. I was so raw at this point, laid bare, an emotional twister sucking up every pain in my path and all I could see was pain everywhere I turned, in the people around me and the world in general. I couldn't watch the news because all the reports were of death, destruction and injustice. I felt it all. I still do but I'm better equipped to guard myself and I have my boundaries in terms of what I consume visually, physically and emotionally.
I arrived in Kochin and grabbed a taxi which plunged me straight into the yellowed mid-afternoon hum of a busy Indian city. The culture shock was a distraction, the warmth of the lazy sun soothing my wintered limbs. The mellow air balmed into my lungs and my taxi driver was warmt and friendly. I arrived at my destination and was welcomed with flowers and coconut milk before being showed to my room which had a beautiful veranda with a grandiose wicker chair upon which I would lounge my days for the next week.
I don't know why in particular I chose an Ayurvedic retreat - you could say the Universe chose what was right for me or my higher self(that self didn't feel very high during this time) sent me on a path - but at a base level the idea of seven days of vegetarian food, zero booze and a whole menu of treatments seemed pretty enticing for my deflated soul. Ayurveda is one of the oldest forms of health care in the world. Dating back thousands of years it has it's roots in India and today it's thought that 90% of the Indian population use this form of treatment either exclusively or to top up western medicine. 1,252 billion people surely can't be too far wrong can they?
The retreat location was hosted by a lush green oasis, carpeted in soft grass on the sleepy banks of a gentle giant river. Coming from a country that is best known as the "emerald isle", I never expected India to be quite so green - I thoughtI Ireland had the copyright on that colour. I'd been to Mumbai and Delhi many times with work and the colours my mind conjured were sequinned brights of the clothing and dusty sands of roads and buildings. Kerala was magnificent, green like Ireland with the saturation levels turned up, sparrow sized butterflies and tropical birds photoshopped in for effect. I felt like I'd fallen into mid-summer night's dream and enjoyed sweeping around the grassy banks in my oversized floppy hat and floor swishing skirts - I'd been careful to bring clothes to cover up which at that point in my life was a very new look. I'd just left a business where I'd worn hotpants pretty much every day for 6 years.
The day consisted of a sunrise yoga practice at 8am. Our teacher was a wonderful person quite the opposite of the holier than thou, namaste, "check out my white aura" vibe that Western Yoga culture's embraced. Being totally honest had I seen a picture of him prior to the retreat I don't think I'd have booked because I'd built a career in the fashion industry where aesthetics and appearance are EVERYTHING and I was still conditioned in this way. If it looked so then it was so - what a false economy. This guy just did not fit my pop-culture "zen". So there we are Day 1 on my matt which has attracted a few curious ants to keep me company and bite me for extra grounding. In he walks in yoga whites his pot belly leading the way with a set of ice white hollywood teeth twinkling from the shade of majestic moustache. Thick black waxy hair swept across his head like the waves of a choppy sea, and his eyes sparkled with a cheeky warmth. I'm thinking "Ok....... Right......I'm not gonna be into this"........... He talks with a grand nave of a voice kind of like Hozier singing but with an Indian accent and his endearing head wobbles and smiles make everyone feel welcome and at ease. Looking back he was that cartoon character Indian guy, the funny guy in the Bollywood film, the silly guy, the "panchod" that Ish used to do impressions of and something about him made me feel at ease.
The class itself was challenging. I've never in my life been pushed so far and it was just what I needed - when you're in crab position with one leg in the air you have no option but to be in the moment. I'd done a lot of yoga classes in London and they've always felt overly pious, frosty, everyone in their own little protective bubble, nobody making eye contact and certainly no talking or laughing(I mean showing joy isn't cool anyway is it). This class was funny, painful, celebratory, ouchy, inclusive and to top it all off my waistline was shrinking which is always an added bonus.
Food at the retreat consisted of 3 small Ayurvedic meals per day, mostly curries(big surprise) with things like coconut rice and fruit to follow. Also on the menu was a daily Ayurvedic treatment. These were quite amazing. One involved lying on a big slab of rock with a brass pan suspended over my forehead out of which poured an endless stream of buttermilk. It felt like little bhangra fairies dancing on my head. Another involved being dabbed and smacked all over with hot herbs in a burning hot pattacake thingy that smelled like a bakery. This was unusual but also oddly relaxing and since cakes were off menu this went some way towards a sugar fix.
This all sounds very nice doesn't it. Well outwardly it was but in parallel to the hazy retro suns I was alternating between PTSD flashbacks and incessant worrying about EVERYTHING. I don't know if it's an Irish thing and I know I can act cool as a cucumber but I'm an obsessive worrier, a mental hand wringer, fretting over what might happen, what did happen, what could happen, what used to happen, what should happen - basically if it's happening in any way shape or form I'm worrying about it. I also worry about the worrying. The problem is that I felt like all my worrying had paid off because in this case, I had proof that it worked. All the "start thinking about what could go right" memes were wrong because let's face it - the worst did actually happen on a pretty major scale.
The whole situation had cascaded me into an endless orbit of everything that was wrong or could go wrong. From where I stood I'd only experienced 6 months of things going right in a three year period and I felt like everything I touched was turning to dust. I was the anti-fairy godmother dinging my devastation wand onto the world around me. I hated me, I hated my situation , I felt useless, lost worthless and really no amount of light could illuminate my cave. I was trying so so hard to enjoy this experience but my brain was the party asshole interrupting me constantly, cutting me off mid story.
One thing we had a lot of was idle time. We had all day every day to do nothing and nothing plunged me back into the darkness like a school bully dunking me till I gasped for breath. So I slept. I slept and I slept and I slept because when I was sleeping I wasn't here and even though here was paradise by most standards it was still pretty close to hell. I remember waking every day and feeling so so so angry, a tsunami of it that I couldn't climb to escape and I had nowhere to put the anger, it just sat there in my heart thronging away with resentment, frustration and sadness. I brought away a moleskin diary because I thought I would document what I was going through - I had so many thoughts swirling around my head and I thought they would flow down the pen onto paper. They didn't. Every time I started I dried up and no matter how hard I tried I just couldn't shake the words out of the pen onto the arid stretch of the paper. I recognise now that I was processing and I couldn't let go of those thoughts until they'd been dealt with. I wasn't really dealing with them either. Outwardly I was living the picture postcard but I didn't wish you were here. The was only one person I wished was here was gone and he was never ever coming back. Ever.
My week of sleeping, kneading, chanting, reading and thinking came to a gentle close and it was time to gather my skirts to the next place, Varkala on the South Western coast. I bid my farewells to my new friends and decided to travel by train to soak up a "real" experience. I booked first class(so real) visualising an orient express with napkins and table service. Silly. The reality was a top level cattle class bunk bed on a sticky train crowded with topless monks chanting something celebratory. I felt a bit intimidated and everyone was staring but I just rolled with it. I ventured down from my bunk about an hour into the journey and sat with an Indian family who kindly shared their food with me, asking me questions with what little english they could grapple together, pointing and gesticulating their stories. When I first announced I was off to India alone alone I was issued warnings "be careful now, a woman on her own....","robbery, rape, murder", "watch out for yourself" etc Nobody ever says to you be open, be willing to learn, be kind and trust. I don't mean this in a naive way, always have your wits about you, but I was nervous heading off and the one thing that made me feel at home was the warmth and friendliness of the people. I was in India and I felt very welcome and not just by people in tourism, just normal people were lovely. Although I was miles away the world seemed like a small place. I didn't feel like a stranger which is weird because with my 5'10' European stature, blue eyes and pale skin I'm sure I looked like a pretty obvious one.
* I'm so looking forward to finishing the 2016 story because the 2017 story is going really really well so far.