yoga

How Can I Serve?

Let me tell you a story. It’s a story my friend told me last April, in a New York cocktail bar. It’s the story of Hanuman, the monkey-headed God of Hinduism and Indian mythology. I’ll tell you the story the way my friend told it to me. It might not be a perfect retelling. And the version she told me was adapted and shortened a little for the scene and setting of sundown cocktails in a New York minute. But this is how it went, and how it goes.

Hanuman is the monkey-headed God, and devotee of the King Rama. He loves him like a brother, like literally, oh my I love you so much I would do anything for you please here have my heart. So one day, Rama’s wife is stolen by a demon from Sri Lanka. Hanuman tells Rama “dude, don’t worry, I’m going to get her back for you.” So he goes to the tip of India that’s closest to Sri Lanka and he jumps. He doesn't know if he's going to make it, but he jumps anyway. And he does makes it! So he’s there, and he finds Rama's wife and the demon and asks the demon for Rama’s wife, Sita, back. Then Hanuman basically loses it, there's a lot bloodshed, an ongoing saga of trying to get Sita back, and a battle. So towards the end of the battle, Rama's brother gets injured. Hanuman realises that if Rama's brother dies, Rama will probably give up himself. But there's this herb that can restore vitality and life, and it grows on a mountain in the Himalayas. So Hanuman is like, "ok, don't worry, I got this” and runs off to find the mountain, and find the herb on the mountain. The whole time his only thought rests in his heart: that he’s gotta get Sita back for Rama, and save Rama's brother, and basically he’s got to help Rama his best and most loved friend. I mean, Hanuman will literally do anything for Rama. So he’s searching and searching and he finally finds a whole bunch of herbs, but he doesn't know which herb it is that he needs!  So he goes back to the battlefield, and he's brought the whole frickin’ mountain him saying “look, I couldn’t find the  flower or herb you need so here: I brought you the mountain.”

I think the storytelling was diverted into excited chatter on India, Sri Lanka, and an upcoming wedding. But this story, and the way this story was told to me, really stuck. I went home and read more on it, discovering more intricacies (Hanuman is half-God as he’s the son of Vayu, the God of the wind; but he doesn't know he's the son of a God. And so when we jumps to Sri Lanka, he doesn't know if he'll be able to make it and so it's a leap of faith and love; but he does makes it as he has the power of the wind within him.)

Regardless of how the story is told, or even if some bits are missing or evolved, what pervades is this: Hanuman was so devoted to Rama that his love for him could literally move mountains.

For the last five years, I've had a yoga practice and journalling practice. Often, one informs the other. At their foundation, they are both a tool of self-reflection, development and growth. For three of these five years, I had largely been focussing on healing. An addiction to running, a hectic lifestyle, unresolved echoes of things gone wrong in the past had left me with some deep-rooted physical, emotional and mental wounds to heal. At that level of healing, a large amount of your attention is needed to focus on yourself.

After I heard the story of Hanuman, and whilst contemplating it in the days that followed, my thoughts went like this. No matter which way we spin it, human beings need love. A lot of our behaviour, activities and desires come down to this: the need to be loved, and to love. In the time of Tinder and the buffer of irony and sarcasm, romantic love is still seen as the main goal that we can either chase or laughingly reject. Hanuman is a figure that represents a fierce, pure kind of love, a love that isn't often considered: devotion and service. Not a self-seeking or full-circle "love me and I'll love you" love. Pure service, for the love of the other.  

For a long time, my thoughts had been on healing and loving myself (as I think everyone should spend some time doing.) But then I realised, I was caught in a cycle of self-help and self-service. My yoga practice was devoted to healing my overworked body and stressed mind. The time I'd manage to carve for myself each week out of a busy work and social schedule was dedicated preciously to me-time and alone-time. What was once a necessity was becoming a cycle that fed only itself and started to feel a little hollow. Apathy grew. The healing was done, but I hadn't thought to look where to go beyond it.

I realised then, that my focus had to shift. I had a new mantra, and a new metaphorical figure to guide me. Hanuman, the God of love and devotion, and these words: how can I serve?

The surge and popularity of yoga in the West as a largely asana-based practice, and the adoption and adaptation of Hindu deities, religious texts and spiritual doctrines has been something of a curiosity to me. As with all things in the West, if there's a money-making opportunity on something that is culturally popular, it will happen. And it has. There's endless discussion on this, and the sincerity of a yoga practice if it is steeped in, or contains, a large apparent focus on the image of the practice rather than the quiet, humble practice that can take place offline without the need to shout about it and Instagram it. That is not to say if you do promote or post about your practice it makes it insincere. But rather, we know that media leads the minds of many and if a largely visual-based practice is what is seen, on some subliminal or subconscious level the belief forms that our practice should be an external one done for the sake of the practice (improvement in asanas, nailing an arm balance, your new $70 leggings or cushy mat, a practice done on an idyllic beach or up a mountain).  Do we practice for the sake of the practice? Or do we practice with something beyond the one hour spent on the mat or in meditation? In my most extreme moments, I began to feel uncomfortably that spiritual seeking was portrayed and consumed as a luxury that only the middle-class West could afford. I continued my yoga practice, and continued to teach.

Now I am realising and understanding the value of a strong practice, if the focus of the practice is not wholly your own well-being and development. If you can practice, and iron out the mental kinks of anxiety and doubt, and build a strong foundation of good self-esteem and mental soundness, and a physically strong body that can carry a calm and focussed mind, it puts you in the best place to then turn your attention outwards to helping others. This process could take months or years. But we are past the stage, culturally and collectively, of needing to endlessly heal ourselves. Self-healing needs to take place. And it is an ongoing process. But we need to know what lies beyond it, to give us something to aim towards, and to know that we have purpose outside ourselves and our practice. And for some, that may be the need to help and heal others.

These are the colours of my mind both over the last year, and into the start of this one. All largely in reflection of my own past and present. Not in contemplation of any other one individual or even group, just the cultural trend I see at large. As I strengthen my voice and courage to speak my mind louder, and expand my knowledge and horizons of what there is in the world to be done, I hope to find my place in how I can serve and help and heal others.

I'm still wandering, and as I write this I'm in Bangkok. My writing has moved from what I've seen to what I'm thinking and feeling. Sometimes the external things I see intrigue me, and other times I seek a quiet corner to go inwards and make sense of the swirling impressions I've collected, to sort and sound them out before I can continue to wander with a clear mind.

"Wherever you go, there you are." And here I am.

India 4: You Won't Do Much Yoga In India

You may or may not come to India to do yoga. But let’s say, for argument’s sake, you do. If you come on a retreat or with the express intent of studying with a teacher for a month you will most likely do yoga every day, carefully packaged, planned or curated. If, however, you strap your yoga mat to your rucksack and lovingly carry it from street to street, hostel to hostel, train to train, nine times out of ten you won’t find the right space or time to roll out your mat for your practice. That one time that you try, your ujayi breath is cut short by the dust. And you might feel like you’re not doing yoga! In India!

Early feelings will arrive of guilt, frustration, even loneliness and wondering “what’s it all about, man, if it’s not about yoga?” You visit temples. You are cleansed with sweet holy water. You dodge goats and begging children in the street. You hear the call to morning prayer from the mosques. You hear the chanting to Shiva from the temple at dusk. You rise with the sun and drink chai on the street from paper cups with the locals, turning heads as you stand there clutching tea and a cigarette (you never smoked before you came to India, but the stress of the streets might make it inviting). And still you might feel like you’re not doing yoga!

After the hustle and heat and dust of the streets, you’ll find pockets of quiet where your mind is lulled into a state that you could call meditation without even trying; and isn’t that the golden egg of western seekers, to achieve that blissful state of non-thinking, without effort? You could be walking in the jungle on a safari trek, looking for tigers and monkeys and avoiding the spiders as big as your face, and watching your feet and following a steady pace, only thinking of the heat and the quiet when in a moment (you don’t know which moment it was) the humming of the crickets becomes louder and fills your ears and your mind and even your eyes, the buzzing becoming a vibration and you become so aware of every leaf and flower and bug and smell and the brightness and you know what it means to go wandering or walkabout, to commune with nature and find stillness and contemplation there, and then you think about how this might be yoga and come back to thinking of your mat and your backhanding practice, and you lose concentration and you stumble.

In a town that is holy but feels anything but amongst hoards of tourists (local and foreign), Blackpool-like beach fronts, bad food, bad restaurants, no place to rest, here is where the three seas meet and there is the holy rock that a holy man prayed on to the Goddess and so the rock became holy squared, blessed to the moon and back. The heat is heavy in your limbs and you plod down the road, till you find that point where the seas meet and the sun sets, and sliding in from a big rock to the water, clothes clinging to you, waves tossing you against sharp rocks, you stumble amongst waves back to the sand and laughing, dazed you watch the sun sink into the seas as it paints the sky a hundred layers of lava. And more than in the jungle, so much more, your mind simply switches to a state of deep relaxation and nothingness. The sky is orange and red and purple, the moon is a luminous blue behind you, and there is a buzzing, a vibration again in your lips and your teeth as you settle into the stoned-like feeling of emptiness, that lasts all evening. You’ve forgotten all about your yoga mat. And still you’re not doing yoga in India.

You begin to find gratitude easily. You don’t need to sit at the end of a long day that was filled with coffee meetings, sushi or tacos as standard for lunch, wine or cocktail as standard after work, the smiles and stories of friends filling your ears, wracking your brain for five things to be grateful for. You are filled with a rush of gratitude when a stranger speaks English with a smile, you buzz with contentment to sit down after walking for 5 hours in the sun, you eat gratitude with every bite of papaya after a week of rice and spices, you fall asleep with no mobile phone as there's no wifi, and fall heavy and deep, to wake 8 hours later at sunrise. You're grateful for silence, for a shower, a bucket of hot water, of cold water, of clean air, of sunlight that doesn't burn, of a clean toilet, of any toilet. And witnessing others, you realise how much you have to be grateful for at home. 

Gratitude will seek you out in India, mindfulness will follow your every step, and there is no other way to be but exist in the Now amidst the tuk tuk filled roads, watching your step ahead and under foot, navigating the dust and the heat and the beeping and shouting of "ma'am, good offer", steeling your face to avoid unwanted attention but opening your heart to take it all in. 

You won't do much yoga in India, if yoga is the one hour that you unroll your mat to move your physical body. Or if that one hour on the mat is the anchor you need to remind you how to practice off the mat for the other twenty three in a day. You won't do much asana on the road, amidst the dust and the heat. But you will find yoga in the momentary silence between each tuk tuk horn, in a bucket of hot clean water, in your walking and breathing and every moment you are mindful, which will be every moment, for there is no room for a wandering mind on the rushing, hustling, happy chaos of India. Amidst the horns and the shouting and the three songs blasted from megaphones competing for airspace and ears, amidst the coughing and dust you’ll find yoga. For the heavier an object that lands, the deeper an imprint it makes. The hotter water boils, the cleaner it will purify. The intensity of the pressure effects the totality of change. The louder the noise, the deeper the silence that follows. And India is all noise and then all silence.