As our eagerness is piqued by the ‘Yoga world’ preparing to participate in the Lamu Yoga Festival from the 2nd to the 6th of March 2016, I cannot help but bemuse myself by reminiscing about my early beginnings in this beauteous practice. I dedicate this memory to all those actors I have trained or worked with and complain or simply pout whenever I enthuse about yoga…they know themselves!
My new friend Mapaint and I trekked through the lush green Westlands area. We made a mutual decision to ask a man selling piles of madafu loaded in a thin wooden and dusty cart if the junction before a rusty bridge was in deed the beginning of Thigiri Ridge? Having walked for about twenty minutes under the scolding sun, we did not want to risk missing directions–again – even though we were well prepared with long caps and easy rubber shoes, which actually made my toes bake inside. My armpits were damp and I hated feeling my own sweat in this intense heat.
However Mapaint and I were not alarmed when we arrived late. Our theatre director had insisted we take a yoga class with a lady who he claimed, “Was just amazing”.
I didn’t quite believe him, as we artists are notorious for hyperbolic descriptions. However the reasons for stalling were more intrinsic and based on individual convictions. We had both done yoga before. I had been introduced to it the last year and enjoyed mostly the end of it. The Savasana , where one lay on his back with hands to the side and zoomed into a deep power nap. In fact we enjoyed this last bit so much that my late friend, Small Ogutu would tap me on the shoulder from the back. When I turned to look at his cheeky grinning face, he would wave and say, “good night”. The stretches were liberating and I enjoyed my own discovery of how supple or rigid some of my muscles were. But I hated staying in those poses for too long. Our director would leave us at a tense position like Adho Mukha-svanasana , the downward-facing dog and spend forever correcting other people’s postures as our arms and legs trembled.
This time we were informed that the instructor was a Malaysian lady whose studio looked like a temple. Mapaint confided in me that he was “born again” and he was not sure about doing this spiritual kind of yoga. I was also a bit edgy on who I would give my divine allegiance to, if in deed this was some kind of cult that we were being forced to attend. We mulled over our predicaments as we knocked on the gate and were ushered in by the security guard. He pointed to a room – a stone throw away – on the right hand side of the main house. The wooden studio was under a huge indigenous tree, which made the space cool and calming. For a minute I forgot about Mapaint as I climbed the stairs and went through the door. I noticed that my fellow cast members were in a Sukhasana pose and I deduced that the session had just begun. So good for lugging behind! I quickly removed my hot rubber shoes, pushed out my sweaty cap and piled them in a corner. I then sat behind a short row of fellow actors, crossed my legs and placed my right foot on top of my left thigh then used my impulse to pull it back and touch the floor.
“Be comfortable with the stage you are in at this point of your practice …take a deep breath in and rest your hands on your thighs, palms facing up,” spoke the new instructor in a clear, melodious and soothing voice.
I was shocked. How did she know that I was struggling to get into the pose? I followed her instruction as I looked up quickly to see if she might have been stealing a glance. Her face was radiant and steady and from her position it looked like she was looking at me and everyone else in the room at the same time. I noticed that she was in padmanasana , meaning that both her legs were laying on the opposite thighs and her knees were flat on the ground. Juju!
I think I might have stared for a longer period as she returned a sedate but lively smile. I have played games about guessing people’s personalities at first site for such a long time that many times I’m usually right. I assessed that she was a talkative and passionate woman. From the way she gave instructions I could tell she was not one of those expatriates who were extremely chummy to the locals that it felt patronizing, neither was she condescending. I concluded that she was a well-trained yoga teacher giving a class to well-trained actors. Why can’t all human relationships be this simple?
My reservation on spirituality had however not disappeared. The studio, though serene, had a diagram on the wall of a man in sukhasana and the Chakras (energy points of a human body) illustrated. I found myself thinking, that’s not what I was taught in biology. I watched Mapaint from the sides of my eyes and was a little bemused as he struggled with the Trikonasana .
“Stretch your arms up as if you are embracing Mother Nature then roll forward from your waist and bend over reaching for the earth’s face,” she instructed softly as she walked from row to row.
‘Shit!’ I wondered as I pulled my arms and waist so that my fingers could touch the well-treated sepia-like floor. ‘Did I just bow down to worship an imaginary idol?’ But the stretch that I felt on my hamstrings and back was just too sweet and beckoned for attention.
“Do not fight the thoughts that come into your mind, allow them to come but also allow them to leave as they wish. Imagine your mind as a bridge in which your thoughts cross. But not as the actual thoughts,” she instructed.
So I allowed my mind to think of all unmentionable theories and fantasies that appeared at that time. Soon I could not remember having any staying thoughts within the present moment. After braving through the initial poses it was time for the warrior position. I hated warrior 2. As soon as I had stretched my hands side to side, facing my right, she came to my side and raised my arms higher to shoulder level. I could not hold the posture and we both chuckled as I wiggled my hands to release the strain. I thought she would go to the next pose but she only said that she also used to dislike this pose but now it was one of her favorites. There was just something about her energy that was encouraging and re-assuring. Oh and maybe my cultured ego that men should be physically stronger than women also checked in. So I stretched my arms and followed her signature simile-rich instructions. I imagined that I was pulling a tight bow, aiming and ready to release an arrow.
By the time we reached Savasana, my whole body was warm and all my muscles were pulsating with life. It was as if parts of me were waking up after a long sleep and other parts of me were being born into the physical world. I could hear her speak clearly to me. At some point it felt like she was by my side, so I opened one eye, but she was nowhere nearby. Still her voice was with my being as though we were on a journey. Then her voice left me and I moved on. I could still hear her but only from a distance. Thoughts came back but this class of thoughts was neoteric. They did not fear questioning the divine. They did not fear the science of spirituality and the input of an ancient scientific Sanskrit-technique. These thoughts felt it was all right to wonder. To wonder why we have used religion to divide and destroy. Wonder why every religion in the world feels it is more authentic than the rest. And wonder if there is a difference between religion and spirituality. The thoughts meditated on premonitions and predestinations, individualism and integration. And they finally settled on love. Romantic love, blood –line love, patriotic love, global love, inhibited love and just love. They got lost exploring the idea of pure love – ‘just love’.
I listened to her voice again and realized that everyone was back in Sukhasana except me. She smiled warmly as I came back to my senses and recorded new play concepts at the back of my mind. Just in time to chant out the creative mantra in unison, “OM.”.