I sipped a strong, steaming cup of “ground beans” coffee, looked out over the beautiful Arabian Sea and … tried to ignore the couple writhing in passion on the white sandy beach, about 40 feet to my right.
The young man in tie-dye and the young woman with dreadlocks probably had been there since the night before. They were waking up with the rising sun, getting to know each other all over again.
Welcome to Arambol Beach, Goa. It’s a picturesque spot at Latitude 15 degrees in southwestern India—a place that, at times, didn’t seem like India to me at all.
What brought me here, by myself, completely alone without friend, husband or child, was Iyengar yoga, named after world-renowned guru BKS Iyengar. The writhing couple was extra.
I’ve been fantasizing about taking an honest-to-goodness real Iyengar yoga class since learning last April that we’d live in Pune, India for a year thanks to hubby Brian’s Fulbright sabbatical. Pune is home to Iyengar, who popularized hatha yoga in the West with his authoritative book, “Light on Yoga.” He’s still active at 94 years old, still teaches classes, still travels across the globe and is still considered a yoga authority.
I hadn’t been in Pune long before I found myself at the doorstep of Iyengar’s school. Naively, I simply walked in and asked someone about signing up for yoga classes. A thin woman—I think she was French—stared at me, incredulous, and said, “You can’t just walk in and take a class here—it takes months on the waiting list, and you need a recommendation! You must go to the website.”
I left feeling sheepish and haven’t been back since.
I found a yoga home soon after that at Param Yoga near where we live. “Bosky’s batch,” the Tuesday/Thursday/Friday 10 a.m. batch (except that Fridays we actually meet at 8:45) has become my home-away-from-home-away-from-home. My fellow yogis there are a happy group of mostly women who love to laugh and do suryanamaskars, or sun salutations. Bosky is a good teacher who doesn’t let us slack off too much.
However, this hankering for authentic Iyengar didn’t go away. A friend of a friend recommended the Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Centre, which offers five-day yoga retreats in Goa, an Indian state much closer to Pune than the centre’s main location in up in Dharamsala, in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains in Himachal Pradesh.
The centre first opened in 1985 by long-term Iyengar disciple Sharat Arora, a guru himself these days with many followers. Sharat teaches the more advanced students, and I was in the mandatory beginner course for all newcomers. I did get to meet him briefly. He was struck me as an intense, caring person.
Goa, on the southwest coast of India, is known for its multitude of beaches that cater to many different types of desires and tourists. There’s a beach for the “trance” scene; beaches popular with foreign tourists; beaches more popular with Indian tourists; beaches that are remote and quiet; beaches that are crowded and offer a variety of water sports. There’s even a beach known as the place where Italians vacation. I was curious to check it out.
Apparently, Arambol used to be quiet little fishing village and one of the more remote beaches. It’s now known as a “haven for hippies,” according to some recent web searches. I’ve not seen so many white people collected all in one place the entire time that I’ve been in India. Most of the accents I heard were French, German, Russian, but I also met people from Canada, England and Israel.
Most people were much younger than me, and most people were in groups or were couples. I instantly felt frumpy.
For four hours each day I was there, I experienced a new kind of disciplined yoga underneath the shade of luscious green palm trees. I learned things about my feet and toes that I never knew, and I stretched my body beyond my imagination.
The rest of the time, I had to stretch my mind. Clearly, I was out of my comfort zone. I couldn’t relate to many of the people I met, even at my yoga retreat. Most of the people, it felt like, were not only much younger than me but also single and with no children. If they were older, like myself, they were recently divorced or had just come through some type of personal crisis. I had lunch a couple times with some women I met in yoga, but didn’t really make any friends.
There were very few Indian people on the beach. After living in the modest Indian culture for the last eight months, I suddenly saw more bare (white) skin than I had in a long time. And let’s face it; Alaskans don’t run around scantily clad much either, as we have to bundle up nine months out of every year. If it gets warm enough for a T-shirt and shorts, we’re pretty happy.
My practical one-piece LL Bean bathing suit and REI hiking shorts may not have blended in with the sea of string and thong bikinis in Arambol but nobody else cared, so why should I? After yoga in the mornings I spent each afternoon on the beach, sunbathing and taking periodic dips in the Arabian Sea. I felt a little lonely, but I didn’t want to miss out on the perfect weather or opportunity to work on my tan. I found myself quite content to sit in the sun for a couple of hours, not thinking much and doing absolutely nothing.
There’s also a beautiful Catholic church that was nearby the room I rented. I went to Sunday Mass, which was in Konkani, the local language. The priest uttered one sentence in English: “Our children are not listening to us!” I took his homily to be a condemnation, but I still enjoyed being there.
The restaurants served cheap and tasty food, and I liked the local people. I felt sad the town and beach were filled with so much trash. I had to pick my beach spots carefully, as cigarette butts were everywhere.
I spent a good deal of time alone. In the past, even a short time alone has been enough to drive me crazy. Not this time. Perhaps it’s all the meditation and yoga I’ve done these last eight months in India. “Be there,” my yoga teachers always say, as we settle into a pose. I kept that in mind each time I felt awkward or lonely.
So many harried American moms and dads would be so happy to have such time alone. Five days, completely by myself. It’s something that most Indians cannot even comprehend. Many Indians, living in traditional “joint family” homes, have never spent a single night alone. I missed my family, too, but I tried hard to enjoy the present.
I woke up early. I took walks by myself on the beach. I shopped a bit, I did yoga, I took healthy meals alone. I bypassed the hopping night scene and went back to my rented room by 9 or so each night. I’d light some of my favorite incense that reminds me of Alaska (a mosquito pic) and read or knit.
It might seem boring to others and, to be completely honest, it was a little bit boring for me also. But it was peaceful, and I slept well.
The Yoga Centre itself is a collection of huts and open-air yoga halls wrapped in mosquito netting. Here I met Nama and Caterine, my teachers, and two dozen other yogis with a wide range of abilities and experience.
The yoga was like nothing I’ve ever done before. In Alaska, I’ve been practicing yoga off and on (more off than on) since son Robin was born, so nearly 15 years. The type of yoga has run the gamut, but it’s included some Iyengar. What makes Iyengar yoga somewhat different is that it uses a variety of props—wood bricks, bolsters, belts, chairs, blankets etc. for support—and poses are held for a long period of time compared to other yoga styles (particularly vinyasa, or “flow yoga” as we say in the West).
What I learned most from Nama and Caterine is that everything from yoga radiates upwards from the feet, a strongly held belief of Sharat’s. Some of my teachers over the years have noted this, but none have spent so such time and care on meticulous foot and toe placement. I’ve often heard teachers say something like “balance your weight equally on both feet, and be in the center—not too far forward on your toes and not too far back on your heels.” At HIYC, we spent painstaking time on each toe, on the heel, experimenting with shifting weight, with stretching toes, with pressing down each mount of the toe. My feet have never been under such a workout before!
I also learned the art of hanging upside down from a big, wide belt. This feels absolutely great on the spine, stretching and elongating it so that I could actually envision space in between each vertebra.
The teachers took us through two routines to do on alternate days that consist of standing poses, forward bends and twists, backward bends and deep relaxation poses that are difficult to maintain while still keeping the mind quiet, the body still and the face relaxed. We held the poses for a minimum of 8-10 minutes each and the relaxation poses for up to 20 minutes! I’ve never had such demanding teachers.
The backbends were the most surprising, specifically how I felt afterwards–energized and calm at the same time.
In the last 20 years, I’ve done maybe a half dozen, mostly to show off for the boys when they were toddlers. I’ve done a few in yoga classes, but not many. I liked gymnastics when I was young, and backbends were no big deal as a teenager or in my 20s. I’m 47 now, and things have naturally stiffened up.
But in Arambol, I did 30 backbends–Urdhva Dhanurasana–over two different days. Nobody helped except with verbal encouragement—“Butts up!” Nama said in her thick, Israeli accent. It was hard, but felt wonderful. I almost felt like I was getting stronger with each one.
“Be there,” the yoga teachers always say. It wasn’t always easy “being there” in Arambol, but it wasn’t bad either.