Goa with The Yoga People: A Journey Through The Elements
I have just got back from an adventure that I will never forget.
For the past two and a half weeks I've been in Goa with The Yoga People, studying Mandala Vinyasa, Shamanism and Yin yoga. And, in a word, it's been EPIC.
If you'd asked me a few weeks ago what I thought I'd get from this course, I'd have said the obvious: a greater understanding of how to teach and sequence a mandala vinyasa class, a better understanding of my body and its limitations, and hopefully a bit of a tan. But now, it would take me weeks to describe in detail everything that I have learned on this trip.
Even now, I'm not sure I can explain in words exactly what this course has taught me, and how I've changed as a person. I'm still taking it all in and I am sure I will still be getting my head around everything in 6 months time.
Yoga teacher trainings are just...so huge. How do I tease out the details of a day where everything I learned, practised and came to understand was unique to me and my own experience? How do I describe the feeling of being completely immersed in each moment, the strong community and friendships, the daily yoga practises that lifted me up, the wonderful ceremonies that brought us all together? Because there were so many of these moments.
So I can only begin to tell you about the things that have stayed with me, over the last week since arriving back home...with a few photos to help tell the story!
I barely remember arriving, I was so tired from two long plane journeys where I failed to sleep, arriving in the night at my accommodation, Ketan Guesthouse, in Goa. After lying awake under a fan that failed to cool me down for most of the night, struggling to sleep in the oppressive heat, I was a jet lagged mess the next morning when my 5.50am alarm clock woke me. Time for our first yoga class of the course.
Strolling along in the dark to our yoga shala at The Dunes, followed by a few inquisitive local dogs who felt it was their duty to guard the area, I took a seat on a bolster for our 6.30am silent meditation.
I don't really manage to meditate everyday back home as I lead such a busy life (I know, no excuse) and only manage to squeeze it in a few times a week. Who would have believed that I'd come to love and relish the daily meditation practises so much?! After half an hour, I felt totally blissed out and my mind quiet.
We learned that our daily structure would look something like this:
- 6.30am meditation
- 7am - 2 hours mandala practise based on the element of the day (based on the Mayan calendar)
- 8.30am - 30 minutes yin yoga and meditation to close the practise
- 9-10am - breakfast overlooking the beach
- 10-11am - Mandala methodology and sequencing practise
- 11-1pm - Shamanism dancing and chanting
- 1-3pm - Lunch
- 3-4pm - Shamanism lecture
- 4-5pm - Mandala practise
- 5-6pm - Yin
- 6-9pm - Dinner, exploring, free time, bed time.
So as you can see, the schedule was pretty full on, with just one day off on the second Saturday of the course. I loved the mandala practise in the early mornings. Post-meditation, with the coolness of the night still around us, being led through a creative, slow paced but strong Mandala flow by our graceful teacher Dulce, along to live music by our Shamanist teacher Carlos, was just incredible.
All our daily practises, from dancing to mandala to yin, were based on an element from the Shamanist Mayan calendar, and each day of the year is a different element: Earth, Fire, Water or Air. To simplify such a massive topic, Earth means a strong, grounded flow with a focus on the hamstrings, Fire is a strong flow with plenty of twists and inversions to heat the body, water is all about fluidity and opening up the groin, and finally Air is a lot of backbends and heart openers - my personal favourite alongside fire. This meant our practises were always intentional, and had a meaning and purpose, which is one of the most important things that I'll take away from the course.
I loved the yin part of the course, taught by Jamie, who talked all about the elements and different personality types and their shadows, which I found so interesting. After a strong mandala practise, the yin complemented the yang in the best way and I found my flexibility improving twofold day by day which I hadn't expected.
Every single person on the training was a gem, and we bonded pretty quickly over dinner, sharing everything from curries to yoga tips. It makes such a difference when you have a nice group as there are times when you don't think you can do another day of training, and it's the boost and laughs you get from your friends that helps you get through the long, intense days.
So by the end of day one, I was giddy from 5 hours of yoga, chanting, dancing, talking and getting used to the constant heat and humidity, and flung myself into bed, alarm set for 5.50am the next day. This trip was going to fly by, I knew it.
And sure enough, it was Friday, day 5. Our brains were full of everything we had learned, our bodies tired and aching. After a little party on the Friday evening, which ended in dancing, tequila, stumbling home in the early hours (Kat, if you're reading this, you are a legend), I managed to sleep right through the night and wake up at 10am the next day, just in time for my deep tissue massage.
Skip backwards a day, and you can imagine our delight when we were told that we would get a whole day off on Saturday. Morning boat trip up the river to see the crocodiles, sun bathing for a few hours, lazy lunch, a bit of shopping in Arambol, dinner and maybe an evening massage just to top things off? HELL YEAH. Well, let me tell you (as Jamie would say), I only managed three of these things, and none were energetic: lunch, sunbathing and a massage. I went for the deep tissue massage followed by Shirodhara, an Ayurvedic massage where hot, aromatic oil is dropped on your forehead to open the upper chakra.
My masseus, Seeta, was a friendly 23 year old woman from Goa, who knew exactly where I stored tension and definitely didn't hold back (this massage is not for the faint hearted - or for prudish types). At one point I had tears in my eyes as she worked on my hamstrings and calves, but it was just what I needed and I left positively floating out of the massage room, looking slightly mental with hair drenched in oil that took about ten washes to get out.
I don't think I moved all day from Mandrem beach unless it was to stock up on water and food. It was around 37 degrees and we were all so tired that the thought of an excursion and shopping was just not enticing. I definitely plan to go back and visit India again for a lot more travelling, but during this intense training it was just not going to happen! So beach it was, and a little bit of yoga on the beach at sunset - when in Goa and all that...
Back to it…
After a day's rest and barely any yoga (though one too many gin & tonics on the Friday) I was surprisingly energetic when my 5.50am alarm went off on the Sunday morning. Meditation time. I loved the quiet of the shala while we sat there meditating, before the rest of Goa had woken up. Just the sound of breath, and the birds outside. The birds. They are not like birds in England, making quiet little chirps. No, they go all out! My personal favourite (or should I say the bird I had a love hate relationship with) was the one that sounded like it was wolf whistling every minute - I am pretty sure it wasn't though, because we were all makeup free and drenched in sweat by 9am.
Dulce, our Mexican Mandala teacher and the creator of this course, has an elegance and mystery to her when she moves. It's so inspiring to watch, she really feels everything internally and is the epitome of someone that lives and breathe their practise rather than just talks about it. So I made it my goal when home to try and move more gracefully and with intention. Challenge accepted.
Time for Shamanism
One of my favourite parts of the whole course was when we gathered in a circle and chanted after an hour of Mexican dancing. It was so special - from the energy and love given off by Carlos and Maria to the smiles and happiness of the students around me, despite the fact that everyone was tired, sweaty and struggling to keep up with the fast-paced singing and dancing. Everyone brought it, 100%. If positive energy had a face, it would look like this: a huge circle of happy, sweaty faces, lifting each other up, making music, completely immersed in the moment. No inhibitions, no time to be embarrassed, no option to take a back seat. If I'd had known before I came that I would be dancing like a soaring eagle, chanting to Mother Air and shaking my maraca with a huge grin on my face, I would have laughed and probably thought this is way too hippy for me. But I actually loved the whole thing. It brought out the inner child in each of us and released any inhibitions that had developed since living in London, where eye contact on the tube rouses suspicion and maracas are reserved for Notting Hill Carnival once a year.
Then there was the shamanist lecture, exploring the various traditions of their culture, finding out about their beliefs and connection with nature, why they dance and sing and dress the way they do, each item having a symbolic meaning. It was fascinating, and we all felt so privileged to be let into their world and to have the opportunity to join in.
The sweat lodges were a personal favourite of mine.
Smoke curls toward the roof of the manmade teepee-like dome as Maria pours water on the sacred stones in the centre, throwing the medicine - sage, rosemary, eucalyptus - on the stones to burn. She's recognising the Creator, honouring Mother Earth, Mother Water, Mother Fire and Mother Air, and calling on spirits to lend support. They consider Air and Fire as masculine elements, and Earth and Water as feminine.
Ancient songs and drumbeats fill the simple dome-like structure. Constructed of willow branches and covered in cloths and canvas, it sits low to the ground on the sand, so that you have to crawl to get in. The flap over the entry we crawled through has been closed, ushering in darkness. Medicinal water infused with juniper and sage is poured over the red-hot rocks in a pit at the centre. Over 30 of us sit on the sand, sweating and purging our bodies of the toxins.
With each spiritual door that closes, representing one of the four elements, a new door opens, the temperature rises, and together we go back to the beginning. After an hour and a half sitting in this extreme heat, the urge to get out ASAP becomes really strong, and after we close the ceremony we crawl out and into the dark night on the beach. Refreshing lemon and ginger tea awaits us, as does the cool ocean, which we run into happily, washing the sand off our bodies. Lying back in the cool water, we watch the stars. I remember the feeling of immense gratitude and feeling very, very free. It was a little moment of magic – a tiny bit of fairytale, in a fairytale, happy-ever-after sort of day.
One of my favourite Shamanist songs that we chanted, and this is more so that I'll remember it than anything else, went like this:
"The river is flowing, it's flowing, it's flowing
The river is flowing, towards the sea
The river is flowing, it's flowing, it's flowing
The river is flowing, towards the sea
Mother Earth look at me
A child I will always be,
Mother Earth take me, towards the sea
Mother Earth look at me
A child I will always be,
Mother Earth take me, towards the sea"
And sure enough, we ran like children into the sea after each sweat lodge!
We make our way back for dinner, water and a much needed shower, some people absolutely shattered and others (me included) struggling to sleep due to the huge energy boost that the ceremony provided us. Sleep finally comes, and the dreams are vivid.
Exams and nearing the end
For our exams, we were told to prepare a one hour and 15 minutes long mandala class to teach to three people. I chose Air, mainly because I love backbends and I wanted to get a strong grasp on the sequencing of an Air flow. Nerves were a little high before the exams. All our hard work and learning would boil down to this one moment. I was worried I would forget the sequence, being so complicated and full of technical, elemental and intentional poses, so most of us spent the Wednesday evening practising in the Shala at various times during the day. While showering, I recited my sequence - it actually worked and on the day of the exam my class went surprisingly well, despite forgetting to do the sequence on the left side....
After our exams were finished, it was time to celebrate. A few of us headed to Arambol, the nearby lively beach town, for some cocktails while watching the sunset. Goa is very lively, with plenty of music everywhere and lots of bars and parties. As we sipped our cocktails, making a fuss of the little puppy that kept demanding attention, the sun started its quick descent, leaving a wash of pink, purple and orange in the sky.
A very special course
On my last day in Goa, I felt a wave of sadness. Sad to be leaving Goa and my new friends, sad to not be practising four hours of yoga a day anymore, sad to leave the sea and the palm trees and the cheap, delicious curries, sad to say goodbye to Maria, Carlos, Jamie and Dulce and the lovely dogs Tuna and Papaya that provided an endless source of entertainment.
But even greater than my sadness is the happy memories and inspiration that I gained from the course. I can't wait to put the tools that I have learned into practise, both in class and in my life!
I want to give the following huge, heartfelt thank you to the people who made my time in Goa extra special:
Dulce and Jamie - for teaching us the most amazing mandala and yin classes. For putting together such a wonderful, healing course and creating a very strong community of teachers. For inspiring me with your practises and re-igniting my passion for yoga on a much deeper, more meaningful level.
Maria and Carlos - for teaching us how to act like children again, to forget our inhibitions and let our hair down, even when we felt we had nothing more in us to give. For letting us in to your lives, your practises, your rituals and your beliefs, which I know mean everything to you both.
My friends on the course - for helping me with challenging poses, for uplifting me when I was struggling on very little sleep and a neck issue, for inspiring me and for opening up to me. Each one of you I connected with in some way, and I've met some great people that I know I'll see regularly back in London!
The people of Goa and at The Dunes - for making me feel safe, welcome and showing me that a sense of humour, friendliness and generosity is everything.
Until the next training, wherever that might be, I will keep learning, practising and forever taking myself out of my comfort zone - for that is where the magic happens.