Yoga had floated around the periphery of my life for a while. I can remember taking classes at Australian music festivals after nights of partying. For post-session recovery, there’s nothing better. My first regular practice came when I moved back home in 2016, when I would go to the suburban studio with mum. Travelling later to India brought me to the home of the ancient tradition. Practising on the beaches of Kerala, in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, and at the mouth of the River Ganges in Rishikesh, I came to appreciate a little more of the spirit that underpinned the practice.
But, despite these steps, I had never taken it up seriously. For most of my life, I had maintained something of an aloof relationship with my body, preferring to spend my time in the intellectual and imaginative realms of the mind. Reading and playing video-games as a child and, later, writing, were not pursuits that encouraged peak physical fitness. On the contrary, they facilitated postural problems and general muscular tension that eventually led to an injury at the start of 2018. Chronic pain and stiffness had me feeling like an old man at the ripe old age of twenty-four, and mysterious tingling in my shoulder had me wondering just what exactly was happening to my body.
Sleeping in buses and hauling my overstuffed pack in and out of a new city every few days hardly helped matters. It was only after an ayahuasca ceremony in Samaipata, Bolivia, that I finally decided to sign up to the three-week intensive course that I had seen advertised the last time I was in Peru, months before.
The Nidra Wasi Holistic Retreat Centre is located just outside the town of Pisac, a hub of hippies old and new from all over the globe. The course was run by Daya Nimai Das, a Lima-native who had spent his twenties travelling South America, staying in Krishna temples, before settling in the valley. In total, thirteen other people had signed up to the course. Thirteen seekers from near and far. Thirteen stories, tragic, inspiring, and filled with lessons I would come to learn over the course of the next month.
Struggling through the first week, I came to appreciate what it would take to restore my body to balance and alignment. Only disciplined practise would straighten the bend in my lower back, lengthen my hamstrings or open my hips. I was proud of having already come to touch my toes comfortably, even stand on the palms of my hands. At the same time, it was remarkable how much anger seemed to be stored in those ligaments and tendons. How much shame was buried in those bones. Both feelings flooded my body every time I performed a Janu Sirsana or a Paschimottanasa. Upavista Konasana, too, made me sweat and heave, even with the most gentle inclination. Sitting with legs barely spread, I found myself back in my body of a decade ago, slumped with feet up in front of a computer screen for hours at stretch.
The course’s second week seemed to last a month but, by its end, I had become stronger and more flexible than I had been in recent memory and had settled into living with the new family of my classmates. Having become familiar with the practice, the final week of the course became much more restorative. I had been speaking of my pain more often. In particular to Jeanne, a Swiss doctor. After examining my shoulder, she suspected that I might have damaged the nerve running from the base of my skull through my shoulder blade, leading to the atrophy of the musculature in my left shoulder. She recommended I see a neurologist for scans.
Everyone was cramming desperately in the course’s final days. Daya had invited Nicole, a teacher based in Lima, to lecture us on correct asana alignment, adjustments, and teaching methodology. Her lectures were filled with information – a contrast to Daya’s more esoteric group therapy sessions, beautiful experiences though they were.
\Guided by powerful speakers sitting cross-legged on the floor beneath a giant, wall-mounted mandala, I began to understand yogis as functioning similarly to shamans. Their rituals were not so dramatic as a plant medicine ceremony, or even, perhaps, a humble despacho offering to Wiracocha – Incan creator-god of the sky. But, I decided, they were just as complex and subtle to officiate. They are the gateway rites of the body to the soul. The meditative maintenance of energy, subtle and gross. The breathful architecture of peace.
Our graduation ceremony was held in the same shala in which we had been practising, studying and discussing for three weeks. At the end of the ceremony, Daya broke into song, chanting a mantra to Krishna and his consort Radha. He loved to sing, taking the opportunity at every Savasana. On the first night of the course, we had sat around a fire and, with his guitar, he had invited us all to join him. Then, almost all of us had been too shy. But after almost a month together – and weekly cacao-fuelled kirtans – we had found our voices and bellowed the mantras as though if only we kept singing the course might not end.
Three mornings later, I headed up to the roof of my hostel in town to practise the full routine we had learned. Outside of infrequent classes, my personal yoga practice had always been haphazard. Twenty-minute sessions at the most, throwing together the few poses I could remember. Now, though, I had an hour and a half routine burned into my brain from three weeks of daily repetition. Beginning each of the three stages – called in Quechua ‘Uku Pacha,’ ‘Kai Pacha’ and ‘Hanan Pacha,’ and referring to the lower, middle and upper worlds of the Andean Cosmovision respectively – I felt habit pulling me through the poses without hesitation.
There is a big difference in the effect on your day of twenty minutes of yoga compared to an hour and a half. I spent the rest of the morning organizing the next few weeks at a quiet cafe overlooking the town’s botanical garden, then met some of my fellow alumni at the jewellery shop where one of them had started working. In the afternoon, I returned to the cafe to write. A day full of sitting, as usual. Yet, thanks to the yoga, every part of my body felt activated. I couldn’t sit still for ten minutes without some internal muscular signal forcing me into an elaborate stretch.
Chatting about music in the jewellery shop, my classmates didn’t bat an eye as I doubled over my stool, working my lower back into the most exquisite inversion. And, later, I was lucky enough to have the whole cafe to myself, which meant the waitress was the only witness to the ingenious manner in which I turned the table and chair into a prop for my spinal twists and shoulder openers.
The original Sanskrit meaning of the word yoga is ‘to yoke’ or ‘to bind.’ The intent of the ancient masters was nothing less than to unite mind, body and soul and, through disciplined self-mastery, rediscover the experience of Satccitananda – the eternal wisdom of inner bliss. Certainly a lofty aim for one only starting out on the path. Yet it was not only my wilful mind and estranged body that I had begun to yoke. The spirits of the Andes – the Apus – had been woven into the tapestry of my own faith. And I had been bound, too, like a rope in a fisherman’s net, to the lives of my classmates and teachers – all now good friends after weeks of intensive work and searching self-examination.
Farewelling the valley, it was the tug of that final yoke that I felt most of all.