Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Things I learned in Thailand - Part one

This post is long overdue given that I came back from Thailand a month ago today....but that's mostly because it's been sitting as a half-written but still way too long draft for the past few weeks - oh and the fact that I have started a new job, turned my world upside down, been to Denmark - so that's lots of reasons! But I have new things I am dying to blog about, so I have to post this first - that's the rules!! So what did I learn in Thailand? I feel a Claudia style list coming on... 
  • Going on a workshop or retreat and expecting to come away with a transformed practice is just not realistic. I decided it was a bit like when you see those weight loss shows, and people have to lose vast amounts of weight – they might lose 9 pounds the first week, 6 the second, but before too long it plateaus at 1 or 2 a week and they start to get disappointed. If you are starting from nothing (as I did on my first retreat) then of course you will see obvious progress. If you are returning to practice after a break (as I was on my second retreat!) then maybe what you’ll see is what you lost (that you could do before you took the break), but probably by the end you’ll be making clear progress. But going on a retreat when you already have a practice means, fundamentally, you have a lovely setting for your daily practice, a different voice counting the led class, and maybe some pointers that differ from the information you are usually given. I don’t mean this to be unnecessarily downplayed, of course there were things I learned, but I didn’t experience a 360 degree about turn in my practice – because ashtanga just doesn’t work like that. What does Kino say, there’s no pixie dust! It’s all about doing it every day.
  •  Sometimes the things you need to learn are not all on your mat. I found the behaviour of some people I met on my trip really challenged me, and I don’t think I dealt with it in the best way (i.e. I let it really wind me up). I won’t say much else other than that as this is a public blog after all :)
  • Being taught the primary series with mostly beginners is a huge benefit – the fundamental asanas are clearly called that for a reason. Having a chance to go back and re-learn the early asanas in the series was a great help as when I first learnt them there is so much to take in that refining the poses has to come later. In a strict mysore environment you often get very little verbal guidance for these postures, even if (like me in trikonasana) you’re clearly not quite understanding something to the extent that every teacher I ever practiced with adjusted me in the pose. Finally with Clayton something clicked, the extra verbal explanation on a daily basis went in and now I am a lot closer to understanding trikonasana than I ever was before, and the same applies to a lot of the standing sequence.
  •  Breathwork and chanting are hugely powerful – I’ve got more to say on this in part 2 of this post, but every day we spent half an hour before practice doing a breathwork sequence including some chanting, and this had some quite strong effects on me. Those of us on the course universally loved it and I would really love to adopt some of it into my daily practice – the only problem is how! I already get up not long after 5am, I just don’t see how I can fit any more into my morning schedule – but maybe I can keep trying to work this one out. Clayton loves music so he also incorporated a lot of guitar-playing and chanting into our afternoon sessions which was really really wonderful. We’re trying to talk him into recording a CD!! It’s funny to be around people for a week who all have “shiva shiva shiva shambho-oh-oh, shiva shiva shiva shambho..” as their earworm.  
  •  The first few days of a retreat are always tough. In the run-up to it I imagine that I will be transported to paradise and everything will be perfect. Then I arrive, exhausted from a long trip, and spend a couple of days making comparisons to trips I’ve made before and worrying that the people aren’t going to be very nice/that they don’t like me. It happened on my second trip to Goa (and probably my first, but I didn’t document it that time), and it happened in Thailand, so I should learn from this that it will probably always happen.
  • Thailand and Goa aren’t in competition. So after the inevitable comparisons on arrival, I decided that (for me at least) Purple Valley is personal, and Yoga Thailand is commercial. For what it’s worth here’s what I thought. Although YT is undoubtedly more comfortable, it feels somehow less authentic, and several factors give it less of a friendly vibe than PV. One is that not everybody who is staying there is taking the same course, which inevitably means that you don’t mix with the full group, and that sometimes people will talk LOUDLY outside the shala while your whole group is in savasana (see point 1!). Sorry did I say sometimes? What I meant was Every.Freaking.Day.  Also not everybody there is an ashtangi, which of course is completely cool, but does mean that you can end up having those “What? You practice EVERY DAY? The same thing??” conversations (or worse the “well in MY yoga....” which often veils the “my yoga’s better than your yoga” sentiment) which make you feel like a freak. And the one place you really want to let yourself feel you’re not a freak is on an ashtanga retreat. Beautiful as the setup is at YT, I also found that the layout was less than ideal for this mixed group setting: the shala, pool and eating area are all on top of one another (adding to the gripes about noise!) whereas at PV there are all very separate. But then YT is right on the beach, and the location is stunning and perfect, the rooms are comfortable and air conditioned, the beds are fabulous, and my room even had an outdoor shower! After spending half the trip running through these thoughts I came to an important realisation: You don’t have to choose. One doesn’t have to be better or worse than the other, they are both wonderful in their own right. Coming out of the sea immediately after my morning practice on the penultimate day I found myself thinking “next time I’ll know to do this from day 1” (“this” being taking a swim right after practice) and it surprised me, as up until that point I hadn’t realised that I planned to go back again.
  • Having trust in a teacher and the system doesn’t come naturally to everybody – and maybe it’s the hardest thing for complete beginners. This was something I found myself discussing with my teacher since I’ve been home too, on the subject of who will cover while she is on maternity leave. I’ve always understood that if as cover teacher or retreat teacher differs from your daily teacher then you follow whatever instruction you are given – you respect the teacher you are practicing with on that given occasion. When I first started ashtanga I was so clueless that I didn’t think to question what my first teachers were telling me (and nor should I have done, they are wonderful traditional teachers), I just went along with what I was taught and accepted the system as explained to me. I was of course very fortunate to have such a great introduction to ashtanga (you can read about it here in one of my first posts). Coming back to London I first went to a teacher who I didn’t get along with at all, and who I really disagreed with in terms of her methods, but I did as she said, I tried to find a way to make it work, and then after a few months I switched to a different teacher. What I found interesting was that amongst my retreat group in Thailand, there was quite a lot of dissent in terms of the teaching methods which left me feeling rather uncomfortable. Having said this, the same thing happened amongst the complete beginners on my last trip to Goa. The general complaint was that it was too hard for the beginners. Funnily enough everybody who expressed concern said the same thing “It’s not me I’m worried about, but for some of the complete beginners I think it’s too much.” Those few of us with an established practice took to the programme (which was 50/50 mysore practices and half led primary on alternate days) with differing approaches. Whilst I missed my normal daily mysore practice a bit, and had a vague concern that it might be hard to get back to the later asanas after not doing them every day, I was mostly happy to take the teaching that was on offer.  The other established practitioners had differing views at times, but one realised that asking to be allowed to finish the series after the beginners had finished the led class was indicative of striving for more progress and what was needed was a lighter attitude to the practice. 
All of this comes down to one thing: you just have to suck it up. Listen to your teacher, do as they say, don’t question it too much. Now this may sounds like I’m brain-washed, and I want to write all sorts of disclaimers to go with it, (one of which is that of course, our teachers are only human and they can make mistakes - and sometimes we just won't click with a teacher) but the basic lesson is just as I said: suck it up. According to Cary learning to respect your teacher doesn’t come easily to a lot of people, it takes time for them to develop that trust, but from what I can see it is absolutely one of the most important points to reach if you are going to continue with a dedicated practice. Maybe this is why I look at other people on retreats happily having dinner with the teacher and speaking to them like they are just another of the guests, whereas I stumble over my words and don’t know what to say in normal conversation when my teacher is around...instead of this meaning I’m a loser maybe I can see it as a good thing!

I’ve got more but in the interests of not writing an encylopedia let’s call this part one – to be continued....and I’ll leave you with a video (clearly not Clayton!!) of one of the songs we managed to crowbar into a kirtan...not in Sanskrit. I tried to find a good version of one of my favourite chants from the week but nobody does them quite like Clayton..sigh.


  1. Hi, I really loved this post, you are very honest and sincere in how you are dealing with it and it is refreshing to hear truth. For me sometimes it is a struggle and the only thing I will say is that at least for me, what worked was to replace the wording of "suck it up" by "surrendering"... but I do hear you

  2. Lovely post Mel. Great that you had such an amazing experience. I am so happy to see you grow in both your practice and life. What a wonderful time! Do you know who will be replacing C? I hope it all goes well for you and your practice. Ashtanga is all about growth, isn't it? Inside and out! :)

  3. I always enjoy reading your posts, especially recaps from retreats and workshops, and this is no exception. I like what you said about applying yoga off the mat - it is the 'real' yoga and the hardest to achieve! I like how you summarized everything into 3 words (suck it up), because it cuts out all the faffing and excuses we make to ourselves. It's been my mantra since moving to the US 3 years ago and has helped me preserve my sanity immensely! :) Can't wait for part 2!

  4. Hi Mel!
    Sorry I never comment. Enjoyed your post! So much packed into it!

    I agree with you on the teacher thing, you just have to surrender and do as the teacher says. If it's truly a bad match, I think a student knows. Surrender is so hard for so many people. I've had my own issues with doing things in a way that I thought wasn't right (only to eat crow later when it turned out to be exactly what I needed!). Taught me to suck it up! ha ha!

  5. Thanks Claudia, actually I stole the phrase "suck it up" from our lovely friend Evelyn (and didn't even credit her!), semantically-speaking (to me) it implies having to fight your resistance to something a bit more than surrender, but I hear you... :) Oh & this is hardly a list in your style, I am way too bad at brevity...

    And hi Laura, glad you enjoyed it :) (this is LV, right?). Well, there is talk of getting our friend NW over for at least half of the maternity cover,but he is being a little vague! Whoever it is though I am excited about the possibilities, I think having another teacher for a period of the year is a great learning expereience - and it seems like we will have two, so surely that's double the fun (I hope so anyway!).

    Danielle & Evelyn, yeah sucking it up is the way forward (and thanks again E for providing me with this lesson....)! Combining this with the lessons I have learnt from some of my teachers, both Jeff's "yoga is forgetting your story" and Kino's thing about "your special unique problem" it REALLY tells us to shut up moaning and just get on with whatever's thrown at us...easier said than done of course, we reserve the right to moan and be proved wrong later!
    Part two is coming I promise...

  6. I had to laugh at your description of the new Yga Thailand retreat/wellness center. I have never been there myself, but a very good friend of mine has - and reading your words was just like listening to her. The wording, the examples, the description of the atmosphere ...

  7. Wow Roselil, really? That is so funny! Actually it's good to know that I'm not alone in my observations, other friends of mine who have been to YT perceived it differently from me, I think it could be a lot to do with the teacher, maybe going for the big names (Kino, Richard Freeman) brings a different crowd....

  8. Yes LV! :) Ooo NW would be great. I hope he gives an answer. Heard he's back with Tim now. What a nice life that would be to go around and sub for people around the world! I think it will be a great experience. I know it can be stressful to change teachers, but I hope it is a good experience for you!

  9. I will let you know if he is coming LV (!), just out of interest! He wrote me a lovely email and told me he's having a wonderful time with Tim - actually Tim is high on my wishlist these days....
    When Cary went to Mysore in the summer I actually had a really interesting and positive experience in having a cover teacher (loads of resistance to begin with, but I stuck with it and completely loved her by the end) so in a funny way I'm looking forward to it. By my reckoning you get something new and different from every teacher, there's so much to learn...so hopefully it will be a good experience again, whoever we end up having :)

  10. Oh yes, do share when you know. I would love to know who ends up covering. I look at it as having a holiday teacher without having to travel. :) Hope you get a good one.

  11. wow, just read this and it's so timely and helpful. You voice the things that we have always been concerned with about retreats. I think Dena is going to be here in California this summer so will probably wait and see her then. I love how honest you are, because it is always a mixed bag even when you have a great time! Now I must read Part Two!