The last time I did Yoga I struggled to concentrate. This was probably because I was naked, and surrounded by naturists sipping coffee with their morning papers. I decided that this time round I would do it properly. I would become a bona fide, clothed, Yogi.
I arrived at Surya Yoga Camp, an off grid eco-community in Cornwall, during a rainstorm. After a damp, sleepless night in my tent I managed to drag myself out of bed for the 7am meditation. The group gathered in silence in a tent overlooking the farm, wrapped in blankets in the early morning mist. We focussed on our breathing for an hour, our ears filled with birdsong and our noses with incense. It was heavenly.
When the gong sounded to mark the end of meditation I decided to remain in the tent for some ‘Bachti Yoga’ (devotional Yoga) in the form of chanting; singing along to repeated verses of praise for the Hindu Gods Shiva and Ganesh. The chanting was accompanied by a wooden flute and a Shruti box played by a lady called Gayatri.
Gayatri’s birth name is Lindsey Jane Robertson. She was brought up to ‘keep-up-with-the-Jones’ in a traditional white British middle class family. She became a Consultant in a global bank,which eventually lead to stress induced mental health problems, bringing an end to this chapter in her life. In 2011 she met her Swami (guru) and spent some time in India studying with Sri Sharavana Baba who blessed her with a new name.
Gayatri explained this to me over a vegan lunch and some ginger tea, after which it was time for my first Hatha (physical) Yoga class.
‘When you are doing Yoga you are drawing the energy up from the ground, through your body’, our teacher explains. ‘You have to help the energy flow through your chakras and release any blockages’. She pauses, scanning the room to gauge her audience. ‘If that is too ethereal for you’, she continues, ‘you can think about energy in terms of circulation’.
The class is gruelling – we perform a series of balancing poses, including headstands, handstands and windmills. I manage a few, but cannot hold them for long. The girl in front of me is able to do everything. She is perfectly toned, with long blond hair and flawless bronzed skin. I am in awe.
‘Have you had to make sacrifices in your life to devote yourself to this?’ I ask, curious about what I would have to give up to look like her.
‘Oh yes’, she says, smiling, ‘I don’t really drink any more. I go to bed early so I am able to get up at 5am to fit my two-hour practice in before work. I switched to a vegan diet too. I want to put the best things I can into my body’.
The following morning brings a class we have all been waiting for; Ashtanga with the famous John Scott. John has been practicing for 28 years, he has a long twisted beard and sharp Dionysian eyes, dark and brimming with mischief. His charisma silences the room as he enters.
He begins by teaching us how to count in Sanskrit and leaps into an extended sun salutation, floating from one position to another like a ballet dancer. ‘Some of you may just want to learn to do a handstand’ he says whilst perfectly balancing his entire body weight on one hand,’but Yoga isn’t just exercise. First and foremost it is spiritual practice. Get this right, and the body will follow’.
On or final afternoon I head up to the meditation tent for a Tantra class.
‘First we have to wake up our bodies’, our teacher says. ‘Gayatri – I think you look like the right person to lead this’.
Gayatri leaps into action, shaking her whole body and making a loud shivering noise ‘brrrrrr’ – we all copy. She jumps up and down and makes a guttural growling noise that crescendo’s into a shrill scream. We look around at each other and attempt to copy, but with a little less enthusiasm this time.
‘Come on guys!’ she yells, leaping, hopping and making tribal noises as she girates her body, as if possessed.
‘Let’s be animals’, she says, going onto all fours and stalking around the room. She gets to me, roars and pretends to scratch me, hissing. I drop down to all fours – ‘just let yourself go’ I try and tell myself – stalking my way around the tent as a tiger. A few others join us as we turn into snakes and drag ourselves across the floor on our bellies.
It is incredible how inhibited we all are. Battling with crippling discomfort, trying desperately to pretend that this is normal, not awkward. For Gayatri it comes so easily, she doesn’t care what people think. She is liberated.
After five minutes, the torture ends. We go back to our places and are directed to squat down, rotate our hips back and forth in a huge circle, and make caveman grunting noises – ‘urgh, urgh’ we all say, humping the air, eyes jammed shut in humiliation. What we are doing here is connecting our masculine base energies, with our higher feminine energies to resolve the conflict of our dualistic nature. Of course.
Finally, we are taught the Ashwini Mudra technique (‘horse gesture’ in Sandskrit).We kneel down, fill our lungs, and are told to tense and release our anal sphincter muscles rhythmically. We repeat the process for ten minutes, adding in other breathing techniques and visualisations to draw the energy up our spines, from our root chakra to our crown.
I leave the tent feeling a little violated, and not much wiser about what Tantra actually is. What I have learnt is that there isn’t a lot I won’t just go along with in an effort to fit in. I just hope I never find my way into a human sacrificing circle.