The Hell of Wellness

It was 7am on no particular day. Time had melted along with everything else. Outside, a gentle old man with a dot of red on his forehead sold loops of yellow and pink flowers to housewives with porridgy, unwrapped midriffs. Aloof, pedigree dogs pranced around palm trees as their owners slumped into half-hearted lunges. Cows looked on derisively. Inside our cool-floored studio, two red bubbles grew silently from my nostrils and popped, misting my yoga mat with blood. I looked up to my teacher for mercy but he merely floated past, gaze averted. Mysore is no place for quitters.

 

No, apparently Mysore is a place to get some top-grade wellness; to slough off the spiritual and bodily malaise of modern life amongst the endless cowpats, coconut-cutters and straight-up nutters of the spirit world. Every day, westerners flood into this southern Indian city wedged between touristy Kerala and touristy Goa, seeking someone, anyone, to make them whole again. Whatever you think your problem is, you’ll find someone in Mysore who thinks they can fix it. Or give you a new problem that makes you forget about the first one.

garlands crop small

The scented facade of Wellness

The ‘healing’ began immediately, with the most diabolically difficult of all the yoga styles – Ashtanga. If you were put into an Ashtanga class with a blindfold on, you’d think you had been put into a medieval torture chamber, but instead of constant demands for information, the torturer would demand that you breathe more deeply and calmly. If you managed to get the blindfold off, everyone would be smiling like a maniac. Five classes of this were more than enough to make the quadriceps above both knees numb. Not totally numb, but numb enough so I could hammer them with my fists while laughing until bystanders clutched protectively at their kids.

The ‘healing’ continued at a roaring pace after I took my leave from Ashtanga boot camp and signed up for a 4-week intensive at a mysterious school, home to a hidden master wise beyond his years, who could survive on one breath a day. Rumour had it he could fly if he needed to. It was only because he hadn’t needed to yet that he hadn’t. I totally got that and respected his restraint. When I spoke to one of his many disciples, she told me ‘He will give you something.’ If only she’d been more specific, I could have jumped off a building myself and saved myself 600 quid.

‘Any injuries?’ my new Guru purred over his shoulder as he lit candles on the brass God statues in his studio. ‘Just a very sore neck and numb quads. I’m a bit worried about the numbness to be honest.’ He continued lighting his candles for a while, as if I hadn’t said anything. Then without an ounce of pity, and more than a hint of amusement, he whispered over his shoulder: ‘This is the way of the body’, and returned to his candles. Such brazen vagueness. I ate it all up. Now I had a numb little mind to go with my numb little legs.

 

tuk-tuk guy tweaked and aligned

Even tuk-tuk drivers have Gandalf-levels of wisdom in their eyes

 

Even for someone so accustomed to shame, day one was a spectacularly shameful ordeal; not unlike a freshly born giraffe trying to walk after being spun on a roundabout. Day two was the same, as were all of the days after it. My ego petulantly stuck out it’s lower lip as my body failed time and time again to achieve the postures and breathing patterns made to look so easy by the little yoga-yoda. After two weeks of no progress, I approached him for advice. Smiling, as he always seemed to be even when his mouth wasn’t, he pointed to an image of several cobras exploding from the sea, with a black-skinned goddess dancing on their heads. ‘No ego,’ he smirked, and returned to his candle-lighting. What kind of mind-fuckery was this?! I took a photo of the black-skinned goddess and hobbled out of the studio. The mental and physical dismantling was well underway.

I’ve always been surprised at how sick and broken people in yoga classes seem to be, given that yoga is supposed to make you healthy and whole. In Mysore, almost everyone was ‘working through something’ that they may or may not have picked up by doing yoga. See, when you get injured in yoga, it’s not acknowledged as such – you write it off as a niggle, or a kink, or an energy blockage. After all, ‘This is the way of the body.’

 

one-hand man

Looks like he’d gotten an energy blockage on his right hand

 

This slippery double-talk starts with the teachers. When I tweaked (totally buggered) my lower back trying to touch the ground the wrong way (backwards), my teacher casually wrote it off as ‘resistance, coming from fear,’ and floated off to someone less fearful. I think it’s natural and healthy to be fearful of breaking your back. As did an idolising Japanese girl who’s spirit thankfully broke before her back did, sobbing face-down into her mat as we all pretended that was fine. She ended up leaving Mysore with a disc problem. Another young Israeli man arrived from military service with a knee problem and left with a disc problem to go with it. Another faithful male disciple came expecting miracles and left unable to walk. The last time I saw him he was crawling in grotesque loops around a café floor, numb on over-the-counter valium.

Outside the yoga studio, the bewitching continued. Though not everyone was under the spell. At a lunch one day, an otherwise pristine little girl pointed tearfully at the brown stains on her eyes, picked up from an established Ayurvedic doctor a year earlier. The room visibly frosted at the suggestion that it might be his fault. Late one night, another earnest young woman admitted to letting a healer put his hand inside her vagina to correct some urinary tract issues. It wasn’t for long, she said. Most memorably, a group of ‘Spirit Reiki’ students spoke, without a flicker of incredulity, of how they recruited the energy of disembodied spirits to help with their healings. They couldn’t quite explain how this cross-dimensional cajoling worked.

Back inside the studio, I watched in horror as someone merrily inserted a rubber tube up their nose until it popped out the back of their throat, pulled it forwards out their mouth and start yanking it back and forth, effectively ‘flossing’ their sinuses. As they gagged, I got my first adult nosebleed. Please, someone, anyone, let the healing stop. Wellness is terrifying.

My saviour came in the form of the most reviled animal in the kingdom – a mosquito, carrying the dengue virus. I felt the nip in class, just after I had received my first and only word of encouragement in three weeks. Fever gripped me like I was nine again. I moaned like I was giving birth in slow-motion. I slept-talked to empty rooms even when awake. Ferocious boils gestated then exploded inside my nostrils and ear canals. The Ayurvedic pills I took for the fever gave my hands a stinging, red rash. The Doberman next door would simply not shut the fuck up, no matter how many disembodied spirits I roped in. For five days, I disintegrated. On the sixth day, when I could walk again, I went to the Arabian Sea and tried to piece Humpty back together again. Thankfully, it didn’t work. The black-skinned goddess got her way after all.

‘Paper-thin’ was how a friend described the shadow-self that returned from Mysore. ‘And a shit beard!’, was the chorus from other so-called friends. The beard was shit, granted. At best, I looked like a confused scarecrow. At worst, the Scottish ambassador for ISIS. But behind that beard, in my brain, I was experiencing an unsettling level of serenity. Not the kind of serenity that those gormless, shawl-draped, frantically smiling people pretend to have but rather an overwhelming sense of nothingness – an absence of bad stuff rather than the miraculous appearance of good stuff. It’s not like I’d become a good person or anything, just less of an awful one.

I can’t pretend to understand it. All I know is that after busting my balls on a yoga mat twice a day for about 8 weeks, I began to feel like less of a cock. No longer did I tell the automatic check-out machines at Tesco to fuck off when they asked me to put my bag in the bagging area even though I already had. No more did I wince with jealousy every time a facebook friend posted an achievement, or crumple in on myself when an ex-love interest became married or pregnant or just plain happy. I started holding doors open for people unironically, and even stopped laughing outwardly at very small dogs and their owners.

The veil separating me from the world had become rice-paper-thin. If someone got angry near me, I would start shaking and have to lie face-down in an another room. It felt like I could read people’s sadnesses and despairs just by walking past them in the street. Visits to my recently widowed Granny became more of a head-fuck than watching Blair Witch Project alone at a pop-up cinema in a forest. My empathy engines were close to blowing. But just as I could sense all the sadness around me, I was starting to sense this strange new thing called happiness. Or at least I think it was happiness. It didn’t look like the happiness they have in the movies – you know, with the reconciled couple and the dog and the lessons learned and all that nonsence. No, it just felt like relief. Like I’d been holding my breath for 34 years and now I could let it go.

 

 

epic banana man

Happiness is walking through heaps of bananas forever

 

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The 3 unwise men of Christmas

imageWithout Christmas, I don’t think I would have made it to the age of 14. For those first glorious 14 years before Santa was crucified in my mind with as much core-shaking brutality as you-know-who, every December shimmered with the promise of the supernatural. Santa, if anyone or thing has ever been, is pure magic. Not pretend magic like adults have when they read Harry Potter books, or stoned people have when they watch Lord of the Rings but real, actual magic that gave me shivers during the day and kept me up at night. Before Gandalf rocked my world, and to a lesser extent, Derren Brown, there was Santa.

It didn’t matter that he broke all the maths, seemingly able to visit nigh on a billion kids over the course of a single night, most living in houses without chimneys, and let’s be honest, without the requisite offerings of mince pie and carrot (I won’t name names, but I’m looking at you, the 3rd world). It didn’t matter that he wrote in exactly the same style as my Mum, and against all the odds, managed to build and distribute Super Nintendos with such a primitive production line (elfs). Honestly, it didn’t even matter that he once royally fucked up and got me cassette video games for my Amstrad instead of the requested cartridges. No, I was too loyal a servant of santa to let that
break the spell. All that mattered for those perfect 25 days of every year was that I believed, despite knowing that it wasn’t true. It was my own secret with myself, and there was no way I was telling. That was someone else’s job.

So, 18 harsh, grey years since Santa’s death, I find myself further away from the magic of Christmas than ever before. No stockings stuffed with surprises, no Granny and Papa beaming from a sofa as the room fills with the sound of ripping paper, no half-eaten mince-pies. No magic. Perhaps subconsciously I was looking for it, like fatherless daughters look for father-figure boyfriends. Or the religious look for the face of Jesus in blooms of mould on walls. The magic of Santa had left a vacuum that needed filled. Maybe that’s what happened. Or maybe I just met some interesting people at Christmas. Or as I’m calling them, my ‘Three Unwise Men’.

The first unwise man to enter from stage-left was the self-titled ‘Hat-man’. Looking like a cross between a scarecrow and an acid-riddled circus M.C., Hatman wore a top-hat chequered with all the colours of the rainbow. The soles of his shoes were coming off (a tell-tale sign of self-neglect bordering on madness, or straight-up trampery), his leathery skin hadn’t seen suncream for too long for it to matter any more, and he had those glassy eyes and easy smile that just screams ‘crazy’. He looked….unwise. Yet as he spoke, I could feel myself ignoring all of that real stuff, and just listening. He had been eating some food in Guatemala City – a notoriously shitty, unfriendly place, where the Lonely Planet guide more or less guarantees that you’ll be mugged at gun-point. However, seeing him sat on his own, a nearby family invited him to eat with them. Ten minutes later, they had invited him to stay at their family home for Christmas. As he spoke, tears welled in his eyes and trickled down his face. He was 66, with a white beard, and by his own admission, the kind of otherworldy strength that enabled him to haul his heavy rucksack 28km down a dusty road one day. Not Santa then, but perhaps his less-task oriented brother…

Then, from behind a puff of incense smoke emerged the second Unwise man, who wasn’t actually a man, but a Shaman. A squat Italian woman with several feathers hanging from her head, a backpack full of peyote and God knows what else, she immediately struck me as a loon. A lot of Rum later though, and suddenly I was all ears. Hers were stories I had not heard before, with a turn of phrase, and language-trancending clarity that made a believer of me once more. She spoke of a conversation she once had with ‘Lucifer’. She said he was an old man in a cave, wearied by his centuries of toil. She said that she asked him to come out of his cave and let go of his burdens, to release himself and the souls he had turned to his ways. He wouldn’t though. That’s so Lucifer. All me, me, me. So she entered his cave and hugged him, and after a few moments he started to cry. Moments or hours later, he had dissolved into thin air, released from whatever world they were in by his guilt. And so for her, there is no Lucifer. Talk about magic. (She also scoffed at me when I mentioned ‘that she might exorcise my demons’, and merely stated that were no more demons. Not any more.)

I had my frankinsense, I had my myrrh, now all I needed was my gold.
This man was just a man. A man who, when I sat down opposite him before the massage I had booked him for, had a tiny spider yo-yo-ing from his ear. Kinda like you would imagine a witch might have, but from her nose. I made a very conscious decision not to tell him about it.

‘How experienced are you with spirituality?’ he asked. ‘Well, I do yoga’, I replied, looking anxiously at the pack of tarot cards in his hands. I had 90 minutes with this guy and I didn’t want to waste any of it blabbering on it about ambiguous messages from the other side. ‘You know what crop circles are?’ he pushed. ‘Only that they look too complex for most farmers to do, and that we naturally (I meant to say ‘lazily’) look to the skies for answers.’ ‘Yes, they are beautiful, but it doesn’t really matter who did them’, he parried with the kind of deft vagueness I expect from these types. ‘My friends made a book of graphic visualisations of the crop circles.’ He didn’t go on to explain why, or what the link was with the cards in his hands, but merely handed them to me and told me to ask myself a question. I won’t tell you what it was, but I will tell you that the answer in the book that corresponded to the card I picked made as much sense as Santa. So, no sense but also total sense, depending on what you want to believe.

Thankfully, he sensed that I wasn’t 100% on his wave-length here, and perhaps because of that, gave me the closest thing to a beating in massage-form that I think it’s legal to give. Felt pretty amazing afterwards though, like I’d been knocked out and instead of the cartoon tweety-birds circling my head, I had real butterflies. The phrase ‘walking on air’ feels appropriate. A bit like the reindeer used to do back in the days of real magic.

How to be a traveller

imageRight, ok, I admit it, I was never going to be a traveller, not really. My eyes aren’t sparkly enough, my backpack way too packed, and my self-protective instincts far too strong for me to ever be considered one of the unwashed. Where a traveller sees a sparkling, sacred Mayan lake, I see possible infection. Where a traveller sees a mystical Mayan elder presenting an offering to a sacred fire on the first day of a new era, I see a short man with a great tan throwing seeds into a small fire for a photo. You can see it in my face, and you can see it in theirs. We are different animals, and try as I might to be like them, I can’t.

Or so I thought….Turns out, being a traveller is a piece of piss. You just need to know the rules. So after a mere 10 days of casual observation, here are the definitive and until now, unwritten rules of how to pass as a traveller:

Rule#1: Lower that crotch

The lower the crotch, the more of a traveller you are. When I waddled into my first Guatemalan night, the crotch on my trousers was so high I looked like a gay cowboy with a man camel-toe. It was very uncomfortable, both to endure but also to witness. They were not friend-making trousers. At least, not the kind of friends I wanted to make. Ten dollars later and not only does that special area have the kind of air flow it needs and deserves, but I’m already halfway to passing as one of ‘them’.

Rule#2: Get some dirt

Good, solid, indeterminate, caked-on, could-be-dog-shit dirt. Get it on your clothes, in your hair (as far as I can tell, the only redeeming quality of dreadlocks is their ability to accumulate dirt faster than real hair), get it on your hands like a farmer, and of course, get it on your feet. Barefoot is the only option if you want to be taken seriously out here. Seriously, why do you want to put something between you and mother earth? Do you hate her or something? Do you hate this beautiful, abundant, living, breathing earth that has given you so much? No, of course you don’t, so get em off, traveller. Get connected, yeah?

Rule#3: Pretend that all belief systems have credibility

Ok, deep breath. Some people out here genuinely believe in reincarnation. And, at least for the time being, most of them seem to be buying into this Mayan stuff too. To be clear, that means they believe that throwing some seeds into a small fire has a causal effect on the world. Ok, let me be even clearer – they think throwing seeds in a fire stops earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Seeds. Into a small fire. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. You’d think after 5000-odd years (not an exact figure) of being shat upon by the most quake, eruption and hurricane-prone area of the world, they’d re-evaluate the whole seed-throwing stuff, but no. Love is blind, especially divine love. And THAT IS THEIR RIGHT. Why? Because you are a traveller. Now keep your judgement to yourself and pass the foot-long Mayan ceremonial cigar.

Rule#4: Go everywhere else before being here

What? You haven’t been to Bali? India? Pakistan? Afghanistan? Timbuk-fucking-too? Oh don’t tell me you’ve honestly never spent a month meditating in an igloo with no food, water or wifi?! Pccchst, you little baby, you. So much to see and do. So much to learn. Not like us, though, no. Because we are the travellers, and we have already been there and done that. We have more ‘given’ indigenous names than fingers on our hands, which for those who’ve lived in landmine areas, isn’t saying much. With pretty much all of it already done, it’s a wonder we keep going. Are we running from something? Or are we trying to find something? Mmmmm, I feel some self-analysis coming on. Which brings us neatly to….

Rule#5: Share YOUR STORY

Oh Christ. Oh Jesus Mary mother of Christ. Today, I was all set for a writing session – I had my cup of coffee, my hips cracked wide open from morning yoga (laptops rest better on open hips), and most sacred of sacred, I had peace. Peace for about 5 seconds, before those pesky Mayan Gods, in flagrant defiance of the seeds-into-fire tactic, whipped a gale into the bar, forcing the loudest Australian I have ever met onto the seat beside me. But it wasn’t the volume that was so irksome. With my very un-traveller-y earplugs, volume is a problem of the past (WHAT?! you don’t want to hear mother earth’s marvelous chorus?! after all she’s done for you?!). No, it was her persistent, overwhelming need TO TELL EVERYONE HER STORY. Of course she had been everywhere, of course she had, single-handedly, with no training, written a book on past lives and the ‘ancestry of the soul’. Of course she had wept for several hours when she saw a piece of rock in a desert and took this as evidence of her being reincarnated. And of course, after her weeping had abated, her guide had turned to her and said, with the tenderness and innocence only an indigenous could muster: ‘I love you’. And of course, we all had to listen. Which of course, as a traveller, I was more than happy to do.

Rule#6: There are no rules

Rules are for the ones back home, you fascist. Didn’t anyone send you the email? Um, sorry, no – the wi-fi is shit around here, ‘brother’. Let’s go and light a candle on a hill for the gods and maybe it will be better tomorrow, ey? The first one’s on me. Catch you up there – I just need to have a wee word with my chakras – they’ve been playing up all day.