Tuesday, 18 October 2011

You are what you eat; you are what you think

Checking into Sadhana Yoga for a 10 day “Yoga Holiday” offered the chance to purge my system of all the UK summer excess of red wine and fancy food.  Within a day of arriving at Sadhana, you relax into the warm family environment, the gentle daily routine and the wonderful food which magically appears at various points throughout the day.  The hardest part is making it up the hill to the house on day one.  However, if you can manage that, you can achieve anything that Sadhana then throws at you!

The routine starts each morning at 5.30am with the ringing of the gong.  This is the signal to get out of bed in order to be ready for meditation at 5.45am.  This may not sound gentle but, when 9pm becomes a “late” bedtime, it really is not so bad.  It is perfectly acceptable to enter the meditation room and lie down on your mat and cover yourself with a blanket for a few minutes.  Or you can be over-keen and do some stretches…maybe not.

After 15 minutes of instructor-led exercises to prepare the body for stillness, you take your cross legged position (there are a variety to chose from, some harder than others), ready for 30-40 minutes of meditation.  I very quickly realised that “mantra” meditation was not for me.  The purpose of meditation is to clear the brain of all thoughts and focus on the here and now.  With mantra meditation you repeat an expression (“mantra”) continually for the period of the session, sometimes aloud, sometimes in your head.  Sadhana’s chosen mantra is “so-ham”.  I found this to be too associated to the town of a terrible crime in England.  Despite trying my own mantra instead, I generally couldn’t clear my brain and stop it from racing.  Its natural state is at least two threads of thought at a time. 

On two occasions I did manage to remain in my cross-legged position for the entire session.  Afterwards, it took my legs a good ten minutes to forgive me.  Throughout my stay, I continued to attend morning meditation and after completing the exercises, would lie down and look at the trees and the sky.  After a while, I even managed to stay awake in this position!  I would sit at the back of the room to avoid disturbing others.  For afternoon meditation, I would lie and contemplate the paragliders – their graceful movements in the sky were very relaxing to watch.  Eventually I abandoned afternoon meditation for some quiet time on the upstairs balcony with a book.  I realised that what I was really looking for is a way to relax the brain and that cross legged, closed-eye meditation is not necessarily the way for me to achieve that.

After meditation, you enjoy a cup of herbal tea and then go down into the garden for ”nasal cleansing” with your neti pot.  This sounds as funny as it is in practice.  However, if you can get past the fact of feeling ever so slightly silly, then this exercise is very effective at cleaning the nasal passages.  You tilt your head and pour water into one nostril to flow out of the other, switching nostril half way through.  You then force out the water using a number of funny exercises, culminating in a bizarre chicken-style jump.  This was considered essential for our morning yoga practice which focussed heavily on breathing exercises.  Hatha yoga is gentle rather than being a workout.  Gloriously, all of our yoga took place in the courtyard outside and you could gaze at the view over the lake or up to the Peace Pagoda while holding your position.

The morning is the busiest part of the day at Sadhana.  A mountain walk is offered before breakfast and then either a steam or mud bath.  After lunch you are free to chill out, pop next door for slow internet, debate meditation failures with fellow naughty back-rowers or bask in sunshine and breeze on the 5th floor balcony.

Things gear up again at 3.30pm when the gong chimes for Karma Yoga.  Karma Yoga is a half hour slot devoted to a selfless task.  We would all be asked to do something to help with the upkeep of Sadhana.  Generally this would be some kind of non-strenuous task – watering plants, weeding in the garden, hoovering the meditation room or setting up the cushions for chanting.  The best part of Karma Yoga (apart from being helpful obviously) is that afterwards you go upstairs for Masala tea and big bowls of popcorn!  It was one of our favourite parts of the day.  From here we moved onto chanting with Durga and then to the final yoga practice of the day with Asanga.

After four days, I decided that it was time for fasting (there is no requirement to fast at Sadhana – it was purely choice).  The gastric cleansing took four days in total.  On day one, you are given two apples per meal plus a honey/lemon drink.  In between meals, you can consume as much water and herbal tea as you want (how generous!).  On day two, you are only given one apple per meal and on day three, none!  I’m proud to say that the packet of sour cream and chive crisps on the shelf in my room remained untouched for the entire exercise.  In fact, they didn’t really ever appeal.  I would however eat my apples out on the balcony looking out towards the lake with my back to the dining room, trying to ignore all the lovely food smells from inside!

On day four, you begin to “cleanse”.  This involves drinking a large quantity of a salt water mixture combined with a series of exercises which encourages your body to flush out all the rubbish.  I wasn’t very good at this bit as I struggled to drink the required quantity of water.  Nevertheless, the process ended up being generally successful.  You are gradually brought back onto food with a rice/lentil soup for lunch and dinner (tasty and filling, if bland) and then a delicious porridge the next morning for breakfast.

As an exercise, I’m not sure if it made any lasting physical difference but fasting is an interesting experience.  Many people in the world exist on very little food – in quantity as well as in flavour and variety.  It does no harm to remember that.  I was surprised that I didn’t really ever feel hunger pangs during the day.  I had expected to feel quite sleepy during the day but although I was low on energy on days 2&3, my brain felt sharp.  Admittedly, I was living a low-key life style at Sadhana.  I managed all the activities on the first two days but did take things easy on day three.  When I did feel hunger was during the night – on both nights two and three, I woke up hungry and struggled to get back to sleep.  Gulps of water were not enough to satisfy the body.  I was happy to enjoy another couple of days of normal food again before I left Sadhana to return to the relative metropolis of Pokhara.

During my time at Sadhana Yoga, there were anywhere between 10 and 19 people staying.  Every day, people come and go.  Some stay a couple of days, others 6 or 10.  Many people extend their stay each morning until they have no choice but to get back to the real world.  On occasion, people stay for months!  I was particularly fortunate with the great company I enjoyed while I was there – American, Swiss, South Korean, Israeli, Australian, French and Nepali.  Asanga (yoga guru) and his wife Durga and their children welcome you into their home and take care of you.  Bipin and Surrenda run around making sure that everything runs smoothly and Sunita controls the delicious food coming out of the kitchen – fresh banana lassi and fruit-laden muesli for breakfast, tasty dal bhat for lunch and generally a soup with chapattis for dinner.

You shouldn’t go to Sadhana if you are feeling cynical. You need to be in the mood to embrace what is on offer.  What I liked was that everything was so chilled out – no-one was taking anything too seriously.  Definitely lots of people there were looking to make a breakthrough with meditation but everyone was respectful of anyone’s reason for being there.  Some people came to relax in a calm environment, others with the purpose of practicing yoga.  I was thrilled to meet so many interesting people my own age, also taking some time out.  Throughout my time at the top of the hill, there was lots of humour but no obligations and this resulted in plenty of time to think and relax whilst enjoying great company and food.  Stop by next time you are in Nepal – there’s no need for a reservation!

Sadhana daily routine
5.30am: wake-up gong
5.45am: pre-meditation practice
6am: meditation
7am: tea
7.15am: nasal cleansing
7.30am: morning yoga
9am: mountain walk
9.45am: breakfast
10am: mud bath, steam bath or simply relax
Midday: pre-meditation exercises
12.15pm: afternoon meditation
1pm: lunch
3.30pm: karma yoga
4pm: masala tea and popcorn
4.30pm: chanting
5.30pm: evening yoga
6.45pm: dinner
8pm: bed?!?

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