Words and Pictures By: Isabel Leeds
I recently found myself in a tiny holy city called Rishikesh, in the state of Uttarakhand in Northern India. Not as in “found myself”, rather, like many things in my rather haphazard life, somehow just ended up there.
Considering myself a keen yogini for many years I decided I needed to “deepen my practice,” ergo lighten my wallet by signing up for a four-week intensive teacher-training course.
Retrospect tells me I was clearly in the middle of a nervous breakdown and somehow the idea of sitting cross legged, loosening my limbs and attitude, imagining myself as a glowing green vegan, was the only thing that remotely inspired me to catapult myself out of the deeply depressed funk I was in.
I was not expecting to be enlightened, I’m far too cynical for that, but rather I just wanted to re-emerge. Re-emerge as my best self ever with a spring in my step and my spirit bouncing with joie de vivre. Or even just re-emerge from my bedroom.
At that point I was desperate for any change of scenery and India was as good as any, if not a little impractical. I was also secretly hoping I’d lose 5kgs, become incredibly lithe and blog about how great yoga and cold pressed green juices are for the skin (my pimples would also disappear obviously).
I arrived with the best intentions of, frankly, an idiotic Western woman who had no idea about anything in India let alone the ancient spiritual practice of yoga, despite having paid thousands to various yoga studios over the years.
I knew the state of Uttarakhand was alcohol and meat free; indeed it was half the pull factor to go there. I wanted to go somewhere where my subsistence of sauvignon blanc and burgers were completely unavailable. Illegal in fact.
Sadly, at that point in my life, my self pitying and lack of self control was such that only the illegality of alcohol and junk food would force me to rip off the band aid it had become in recent months and no longer rely on a liquid lullaby every night.
Not that I had a problem per se, alcohol was the least of my worries actually. It’s just that 2014 was so not my year. Sparing the self involved details, nothing had gone as planned. And I was someone who thought I had it all together. I had projected everything so far into the future that I was in fact procrastinating and planning the present away. At the time I would have screamed, sobbed, slurred, snapped, sniped and snivelled at my mother that “the world was ending, my life was over, I simply could not go on” (every writer has a penchant for dramatic prose in everyday life).
Few cared to know my house of cards had so unceremoniously fallen down while MH370 fell into the abyss of the South China Sea and the Russians shot down MH17. It seemed to be the year for things to fall down.
Thankfully, my unbreakable mother put up with me during a period of my life when I was completely and utterly broken. She watched and poured wine for my whine as I drowned in an overwhelming sea of anxiety, engulfed in my own internal chaos. She also lovingly helped me pack a backpack and drove me to get on a Malaysia Airlines flight to New Delhi in a last bid of support for me to regain peace or piece of mind.
I’m not sure which but we both knew I had neither when I boarded that flight.
The first few days of my “spiritual journey” were really rather boring. I use inverted commas as an indicator of both cynicism and my Western attitude remaining intact and unenlightened, so read on, this isn’t an article about “meditating to the bliss”, which takes years by the way. I did sit cross-legged on the floor listening eagerly to some nice Indian fellows charading about Eastern philosophy in broken English, learnt from a mix of Western movies (Titanic seemed to be playing on all televisions) and the Oxford Dictionary / thesaurus. I sat and got the gist of it before becoming so stiff and bored that I would skulk off to a vegan café for a wholly unsatisfying treat incapable of filling the pit in my stomach. Though the high fibre auyrvedic diet was bloating me like a malnourished child in a Oxfam ad, and wreaking havoc on my precarious digestive system, I was essentially starving from a lack of protein on this “spiritually balancing” fodder.
The daily “philosophy,” aka mumbo jumbo, seemed like nothing I had not already read about in Thich Nhat Hanh and Dalai Lama books (notably neither hail from India, but I already considered myself an expert).
I was far too educated and arrogant to possibly learn much from this component of the course so I simply stopped going to the classes. My spiritual journey was limited by the inflexible parameters of both my ego and physique.
I’d never skived off at anything, I thought, so perhaps I needed to be more daring in my approach to life. Weren’t they all waxing lyrical about being more flexible anyway? The concepts articulated in Indian-thesaurus-learnt-English seemed to attempt to convey broad ideologies simply by using every word listed in a thesaurus, along with scribbles on a whiteboard.
The universe is bliss is flexible, is intangible, is bliss, is spiritual, is existential, is bliss, is bendy, is open, is euphoric, is bliss, is happy, is peace, is perineum, is energy. Is. Bliss. Just. Is. Bliss. Et cetera.
That was the gist I absorbed, discovered, learnt, consumed after being immersed in bliss babble for a few days. I realised my entire existence was void of flexibility of mind, body and spirit, and skipping a few classes was one way to bend the rules. The universe would just have to forgive my spiritual truancy.
I really just wanted to do asana (that’s yoga speak for what Westerners think is yoga – the twisted bendy exercises) and that’s what I did.
My self directed “spiritual schedule” began at 6am with two hours of Hatha yoga, a day spent wandering, and two hours of Vinyasa yoga at night, with copious amounts of chai tea in between. Anyone who does yoga will know it is bloody hard work. Four hours yoga a day is physically exhausting, needless to day after a week I completely forgot about being self-absorbed in my spiritually. My mental and emotional state had been snapped so violently back into the present that I felt every moment of exquisite pain in my joints and limbs with calm reassurance that I this was living through a metaphor. I was walking out of the shitty time and into the present on those freezing cold October mornings of dawn yoga. I was as present in my daily yogic contortions as I was in my joint pains. I had the universe figured.
So pleased with my painful progress after a mere two weeks I hobbled my way for a massage and to my true journey of self-discovery.
The universe was about to deliver me a lesson, a moment of clarity, my “aha moment”.
I however was blissfully unaware of the ominous “aha” lurking in the universe and simply came to find myself totally naked except for the slick smelly oil which an Indian man had rubbed over my entire body.
I say rubbed because he rubbed oil on my bum while breathing heavily into my left ear. Compare this to my experiences at home with a physio massaging my gluteus maximus and I now realise the inherent danger of using a thesaurus to explain massage and rub.
They are two very different things and should not be synonyms.
Once the rubbing subsided he gesticulated that I should follow him into a further back room. And so I did. Totally naked, still covered in oil. Leaving my passport, money, clothes and shoes all unaccompanied and out of sight, free to be snatched by any hungry hand who believed in the universe delivering divine opportunities and dumb Westerners.
Into the back room I went, directed into a retro steam box a la 1973. There I was, stark naked and sweating like a cooked chook with only my head popped out the top and an expression of amazement, wondering how I got there. Really? How did you get here?
Vulnerable. Stupid. Ridiculous. Words that were all racing through my mental thesaurus as the Indian incessantly stared at my breasts through the steam box. Did I mention it had glass display windows for my roasting chicken fillets to be salivated over? As luck would have it, nothing bad happened. Feeling more moronic than molested, I survived the “marinated in smelly oils and steamed like a juicy chicken massage.”
As I paid for said services the Indian man started laughing with a fellow “male massage therapist,” something that I’m sure resembled “I can’t believe I got another one in the box!”
I continued on my path of self-discovery unharmed, limberly gliding back to the Ashram for another evening of yoga.
The very next day, stiffened by another night sleeping on a wooden board, my idiocy proven but clearly not learnt from, I found myself signing up for yet another massage albeit in a different spa with a female therapist.
Here I found myself having my juicy breasts ferociously marinated and motor boated again, but this time by a tiny Indian woman.
I thought she might accidentally slap her face in them it was so violent and oily and slippery. I think this is as close as I’ll get to the meditative state, rising out of ones body and seeing myself naked being titty tickled by a complete stranger.
I started to laugh but I didn’t stop it. I merely laughed to try and convey my uncomfortableness.
“Oh you have no boyfriend?” was her response to my laughter.
And no girlfriend either, but being a lesbian wouldn’t make this titty tickling any less weird. Still nothing bad happened.
It may have been the “thank you please come again” head bobble, or perhaps it was my sore bent out of shape body that needed some TLC, regardless a few days later I stupidly signed up for more. The definition of insanity goes along the lines of repeating the same action but expecting a different result. Go figure.
But this spa was highly recommended by the Ashram I was “studying” at. How much more weird could it get, I thought, as I stripped naked for another friendly fondling. Another day in India, another invasive boob and bum rubbing, no big deal. Suffice to say. Shit got weird.
With her skinny poky fingers she rubbed and tickled me and eventually just casually slipped her skinny finger down my butt crack and proceeded to massage my perineum.
The split second of thinking “what the fuck” and screaming “WHAT THE FUCK” out loud, and sliding off that greasy massage bed, was perhaps one of the defining moments of my life. I sound like an arsehole but it’s true.
With a swift skinny fingering up my arse that woman managed to freak me out so much I am now well and truly off my proverbial perineum forever.
AS SHE TRIED AGAIN….I finally shouted “WHAT THE FUCK” for all the times I should have in the past, but was too afraid to do so. I was off my arse and right back into the now. And I decided right then that never again was I going to allow my reality to get so fucked up that I find myself in such ridiculous situations.
No more would I allow myself to “end up” in situations like I had in the past with dumbfounded indifference and wonder stupidly “how did I end up here?”
In the instant I screamed “WHAT THE FUCK” I regained complete control of the situation and got myself the fuck out of it. With as much greasy haste as possible. All the yoga mumbo jumbo in the bliss bloody universe couldn’t have more poetically gotten me off my arse and forced me to regain control of my life, my reality, my now, my strength.
Did I find myself in the tiny holy city of Rishikesh? No I don’t think I found myself there, I just went there for a month, did some yoga, had a few massages and I came home. I returned to myself and to My Life ready to live again. I did learn a beautiful proverb translated from ancient Sanskrit though –
“If you don’t want a stranger sticking a finger up your arse you better get off it and take responsibility for your own life”
Now all it takes is a wag of my finger in the mirror and I snap out of it. It’s bliss.
NOTE: The perineum is considered the root chakra, the energy centre of life in many yogic philosophies. I should have listened more attentively about the bloody chakras.