In the Ashram there is nowhere to hide

I’ve been holding this yoga position for some time now… legs shake, sweat drips from my brow…

…Excitement shows as it grows in the close faces amongst the crowd as the band we’ve all come to see strides onto the pyramid stage, a 100,000 hands wave, clap, cheer. Adrenaline rushes in the veins; feelings soar and swim in the cocktail of drugs, alcohol, anticipation. The base kicks in. People jump, beer splashes my face, it drips…

…The bus is full and I am pressed in with people going to unknown places. Their faces are close, eyes dark but full of light. Sarees of jade and amethyst, sarees of blue and gold, noses and foreheads are studded with jewels or dots of paint. There are bags of apples and dates, packs of wheat and spices, a goat. The bus smells of saffron and stinks of sweat. Boys hang out the doorway and windows by bars as the ground rushes past; wattle and palm houses whirl past with it … a man with one leg on crutches, a woman with an impossibly huge bag on her head, children in a ditch knee-deep in black water. Bison forage in waist high rubbish piles. A motorbike with a todler perched on her father’s knee overtakes the bus at speed, his wife looking bored sits sidesaddle behind, she cradles a baby in one arm, and the family dog in the other. The bus driver leans on his horn, never on the break as the sheer size and speed and noise of our passage are enough to move bikes, dogs, cars and all but passing cows from our speeding path. One of which forces us to swerve aside, horns glaring back at us, we nearly flatten a man with a cart, the cow is safe, the man I no longer can see. My arms ache with the effort of holding onto the rail above me. Hot air blasts through open windows, cooling my skin, blowing the sweat from my face which falls…

… Sweat drips from my nose to the black, polished stone flagged floor of the Ashram Satang hall and my face held within. Beyond me is the reflection of the bamboo roof which is held up by two rows of white columns that split the room like a mirror. Reaching, stretching, back bending… 90 feet by 30 wide, the room is wide and on the top floor, so that the treetops form a balcony of green leaves, interspersed with views of blue edged mountains and the deeper dark of the dawn sky. Jagged and fiery orange, the rising sun reflects across the stone flagged floor like a dragons tongue reaching towards me. It is 5.40am and I have been holding this position for some time now, legs apart, right knee bent, hand touching right ankle. Sweat drips to the black stone floor and hits my refection..

…in a black puddle. I am 16, holding a press-up, my nose is a few inches from foul smelling river mud. My arms are shaking with the strain and exhaustion and effort. Around me men grunt, breath hard, some cry, others sob muffled in the muck. The voice of the Royal Navy PT instructor racks out, “One day you may have to die for your country, you may have to kill for your country. If you can’t hold your fucking self up, what good are you… to me… to your family? To your…”  The list goes on, the voice is riddled with contempt and disgust: not at the words but at the people not worthy to bother with, people like me, people like you, but I’ll show them. I’ll keep holding, keep shaking arms straight, keep my face from the filthy water and my reflection trapped within, wondering what I am doing here, what am I becoming?… sweat drips…

…drops on the Temple floor in Mandouri, Tamil Nadu. It is a marvel. It is a riot of colour and carved-Pratchitt like gnomes on the outside. Inside, it is a living, breathing place full of people selling, working, praying and hoping for 2,500 years and counting. I walk its passages, past stall-sellers, beggars and holy men who crowd in its shadowy chambers. I walk into an empty, long and narrow chamber, with high circular walls which leads into utter darkness – it’s like looking down a well. Cut from black rock, pillars of beasts both real and imaginary climb up to the ceiling. Flickering light from candles of devotion catch and cast jagged shadows through incense clouds, rose petals fall in my path as from somewhere other. A drum is playing, it misses the beat of the slip slap of my feet, as I pass gods with multiple arms, daggers and tongues dripping blood, elephant heads with open eyes and palms out. I walk past pillars of unicorns, wyverns, lions and deformed monstrous birds, twisting snakes and smiling demon faces. The sound of chanting pulls me on. In the shadows, eyes follow me. Lit by candle light and hope the poor wait for the next life at the feet of black stone carved rocks. Only the ceiling has colour, 3 dimensional patterns of aluminous-trance forming-enticing spirals, the message is clear, up here is the where you want to be, out of the shadows…

Why am I moved to tears? So that I sit inside an alcove with a faceless deity, eyes closed in pretend meditation to hide the feelings that are falling from my eyes. This place could not be anymore alien to my past. It’s like an Ayahuasca vision, it holds an otherworldliness to it.. Is that why I feel my Father so close? I haven’t shared tears with another since he passed away six years since. Now, under the prism of light from a temple window, I am 13 again, you are collecting me early from school. Was it a bully, a thoughtless teacher, a broken heart? What must you have thought as I cried out my young misery? That this pain in the long story of my life wouldn’t mean much at all, yet you were kind enough to know it would feel so real to me then and not make light of it. I don’t remember what you said, I know I cried into your shoulder and then you drove me home. Did I ever tell you how grateful I was, am?

Music calls from other walls and realisations hit like chisels and hammers in the darkness. On the wall, tears drip in stone from a statue…

… why does sweating whilst lying still seems so wasteful? The fan above the bed is running so fast I can see faces in the blurring circles of air. The blue of the Mosquito net shimmers, patens of light; blue, purple fly fast in a wheel clockwise, spinning and twisting, a peacocks face with friendly, knowing eyes emerges in front of me, green and blue feathers of patterned beauty. It’s head moves closer, pierces a clear watery layer between me and it. What does it mean when you dream with your eyes open? 

The alarm is rang at 5.30 each morning. The dawn light casts a shimmer of blue through the mosquito net which is fastened squarely around my bed, so tight that it reminds me of a glass case in a museum. In this moment, before the world wakes me fully at the second bell, the light grows from grey to white and dreams slip away like sand in a squeezing hand. I am the exhibited creature, on display to the viewing public of Pete. This is the Ashram and there is no hiding here, not even from yourself.

My feet flip flap across the dorm room, my long legged yoga trousers swishing dust. Outside the world is waking. A peacock cries, a monkey throws an acorn at no-one in particular. A tunnel of green hedges and branches line a red stone path to the Satsam Hall. Flowers with petals of orange, yellow, purple and bright white with the most wonderful smells like jasmine and apricot entice me on. Butterflies bob past, orange and black-white spotted. Above the sky is clear and a blue.

Yet amongst this seemingly paradise retreat, with its charming staff and supportive guests, I have become aware of something sinister, another… something is closeby and does not wish to be seen or noticed. It’s not the green pyramid-patterned cobra which sleeps beneath the bush outside the washroom. Not the rats and mice that roam the dorm room at night, investigating bags and snacks. Nor the Scorpion that scuttles in the shower room avoiding the light. Not even the monkeys who delight in trashing the beds of those who don’t show enough respect to them in the gardens. Yet they are a clue, as are we, it is the in-between of them and me.

It is more dangerous and ugly, which does not want to be seen. Ironic then that I first became aware of it when I was looking in the mirror. I caught a glimpse of it after the tenth time I found myself looking at my new flat, yoga created stomach. I later felt it when it lost its temper with an old French-Canadian who refused to close the dorm door. Denied food at times of it’s choosing it is ever hungry, denied activities to suit its mood it is fidgety and prevented from choosing its company or time to sleep, it becomes demanding. Ladies and Gentlemen, the ego has been identified.

And being so held it wriggles like an eel in many pairs of hands, its jelly’ness slipping all the more tightly I hold it. It would run if it could, slither and slip away under the cover of dramas or news pages… but for the Ashram.

The everyday routine of waking, mediation and chanting is the program to flush out our Egos. Morning yoga, brunch of lentils and rice, lectures about nutrition and relaxation. The selfless devotional work and cleaning, (enter here sinister and lazy laughter from a hiding place) evening yoga (groaning, grunting, sweat filled stretching), super of Dhal and chapatti, more chanting, bell ringing, tambourine clapping and solo singing of hymns in Sanskrit. No alcohol, no sugar, in fact no drugs of any kind to hide behind, no T.V, no internet, no porn, no clothed identity, just you and me in our self-volunteered prison and our ego’s for company.

I will stretch it, love it, and show it that it has a place and purpose and nothing to fear. That it needs not take control of all. Rather it can be part of the team that makes up me.

It resists.

The maze of Memory has many entrances and the ego is as patient and subtle as a green pyramid-patterned cobra…

I’ve been holding this position for some time now… legs shake, sweat drips from my brow…

 

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