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.

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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.’

 

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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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How to be an Alcoholic

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One day, not so long ago, I drank so much alcohol that I bled into the toilet. After 5 silent, appalled seconds, I numbly flushed, got on a trans-atlantic plane and ordered a double gin and tonic. And another one. Don’t think I don’t know how strange that behaviour is. To intentionally hurt yourself like that. How does one get to that stage, you might ask. Easy. SO EASY. Let me tell you.

First, be born into a well-off family on a small island reeking of the stench of ale, beer, vodka, whiskey, sambuca, and if you’re really fancy, wine. You may know this strange island as the ‘UK’.

Then, at the age of 11 or so, accept a goblet of some hellish-smelling, amber liquid from your Dad. Take a sip of the apple brandy, then run full-speed to the nearest tap as the fire of hell itself explodes in your mouth, in your throat, in your very soul. Extinguish the fire. Give your Dad a ‘how could you?’ look. Cry a bit. Try to ignore the one cell in your body that cries out for more.

Hold off on the booze until the age of 15, then make up for those lost years with a collection of alcoholic lemonades (you may know of ‘Hooch’. If you don’t, you may know ‘Mike’s Hard Lemonade’), Coke mixed with anything, and if you’re a real hard man – whiskey.

Then, in your adolescent years, quickly build an association between alcohol and sexual success, or at least the prospect of sexual success (I rarely hit the bullseye in my teens and I rarely hit it now – it’s all about potential).

Now, having established this connection, use it to get you through 4 years of excessive drinking at the ale-stained University of Edinburgh. Suitably ill, graduate to the epicentre of world alcohol abuse – the London advertising industry.

Try so hard to break into this world that you never turn down a free drink. Not at lunch, not during work, not after work. Laugh them down, one after the other, praying that someone will give you a job or make your idea into something more real than scribbles on a page. Discover that the more you drink, the more people laugh. Choose to believe that they’re laughing with, not at, you. Choose to ignore the rotting feeling coming from inside.
Get the shots in.

Eventually break into the tequila-soaked world of advertising, then climb high enough on the ladder that you can buy as much alcohol as you want, but drink it in your own flat so no-one really notices except you, and your girlfriend until she’s not there anymore.

As your wallet grows, so mysteriously, does your appetite for alcohol. Employ a new strategy – that of the ‘connoisseur’. Espouse the superiority of this or that drink, this or that liquor. Insist that your friends try it (after you, of course). Create wonderful, crisp vodka martinis with friends until the bottle is empty (they weren’t wonderful, they were just strong). Buy another bottle.

Insist on going to only the finest cocktail bars because there is something that your friend ‘just has to try’. Finish your drink before your friend is halfway through theirs and order another one – after all, there’s a queue building and we don’t want to wait, do we? Comment on the masterful herbal infusions in the cocktail, the ‘echoes of marshmallow’, the delicate fizz on your tongue and the elderflower aftertaste.

Keep drinking.

Then one day, see your own blood in the toilet. Marvel at this crimson offering from your insides. Wonder how it got there, from what part of your insides it bled from. Was it your stomach lining or an organ? Wonder if it will stop.

Then flush the toilet, wash your hands, look at your blood-shot eyes in the mirror, and exhale. Nothing is wrong. Just another step on the journey. No pain, no gain. Collateral damage. War is hell but who wants to be in heaven anyway? All the interesting people are in hell, plus heaven is too close to the sun for Scottish skin.

Such is the ‘nurture’ side of this coin, but what of ‘nature’?

I never knew my biological Dad. My only memory of him is of a bearded man not being allowed to come into the flat when I was about 5. A flash of bristles, a hint of desperation in the eyes and he was gone. As far as I know, I’ve never seen him since. It’s possible that I have of course, but how would I know? Over the years, I have tried to mentally subtract my mother’s face from mine, like a mathematical equation, to get his, but all I see is a beard. Though logically sound, this is a shitty way to figure out how someone looks. Faces aren’t numbers.

Yet I feel like I know him intimately. Just as I have an affinity with all left-handers, or all people who know for certain that mangoes are the best fruit or that Ryan Gosling is now over-exposed, I feel an affinity with alcoholics. Just to be clear – I am not, and never have been, a full-blown alcoholic. But I have glimpsed the depths. I have felt the magnetic pull of hand to bottle too many times for it just to be boredom. I don’t reach for cigarettes in the same way, or the bums of attractive women I don’t know, and I don’t trip up strangers unprovoked, though all these things would bring me great pleasure. No – alcohol’s whisperings are unique. Or were.

6 months after the ‘Crimsonbowlgate’, my eyes are bloodshot once more. Bright red lightning forks jaggedly from the rim to the centre. If I could see the back of my eyes, I’m sure they’d be bloodshot too. I am so congested that I can’t breathe through my nose, and my muscles ache to a depth I can’t fully contemplate. No matter how much water I drink, I piss orange. It’s been like this for 13 days now. Sobriety hurts.

But with the passing of alcohol comes the arrival of this strange new thing – the whole rest of life. See, when you’re not crawling around your flat/hostel, with a headache as powerful as the big bang itself, you can actually do things. Things other than facebooking or watching masterchef (obviously, I still do those things too – I’m not an asshole).

When you stop drinking, there’s nowhere to hide from yourself. You’re always there, soberly considering yourself. And there’s only so many coffees you can drink and inane cat videos you can lobotomise yourself with before you have to actually do something.

In the 13 days since I broke from the pied-piper’s intoxicating melodies, I’ve managed to, almost without thinking, half-write 4 or 5 pieces, and started teaching yoga, which has yielded the first income I’ve been genuinely proud of since I washed cars as a baby-livered teen. Heck, I think I’ve even started being slightly less of an asshole to my friends and family. That could be an overclaim though. You’d have to ask them.

I still hear her whispers of course. After 15 years of marinating in her starry-eyed liquor, who wouldn’t? Then there’s the fear. The sickening hit of daily panic that perhaps I won’t be able to connect with people without it, that maybe the friendships I’ve made over the years are really only a shared adoration of beer. Then there’s girls. How could I ever sleep with one without being drunk? A terrifying prospect, I’m sure you’ll agree, and an almost intolerable risk. Though I’ve been informed by the internet that this is biologically possible, I remain deeply cycnical. Time will tell, I suppose. In the meantime, I have to find a new drug to become addicted to. Any thoughts? I’m told crack is fun but might get in the way of my yoga.

Shelve your inner bastard

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Whilst I enjoy ripping to shreds the ridiculous spectacle of the white man/woman out of their element, it does tend to take the edge off my own personal enrichment process. It’s hard to truly savour the miracle of a butterfly the colour of God herself fluttering innocently around your head when you’re simultaneously pointing and laughing at it, and everyone else, with your mind. Simply put, it’s easy to be a cock. Harder perhaps, is to actually open up to the flood of new images, characters and smells that batter your senses from dusk till dawn and, for a moment at least, try to shelve the inner bastard. So, in an attempt to get this rainbow-shaped ball rolling, and more as a form of personal therapy than an entertaining piece for anyone else (see, still a bastard), I’m going to pour out whatever comes to mind from my travels thus far, stripped of cynicism, comment or critique. Well, maybe. Let’s see how it goes.

Seeing an electrocuted holwer monkey being unceremoniously squashed into a top-loading freezer in Nicaragua.

In Guatemala, having a mayan sauna with a woman and being unsure of dress code. I went for naked. She didn’t. That was slightly awkward.

A tall, slippery, smiling, serpentine hostel-owner offering me a massage while kneading my arm without permission, in the kitchen of his hostel. Utterly unsold, I declined (he was gay and was looking at me funny). A few days later he told me there was no more room at the inn, which I subsequently discovered to be false.

Arriving to a surf hostel after a disgusting 9 hour solo trip through dust and crotchal humidity to be told that there were stingrays in the water and did I want some complimentary iced tea.

Laughing like a madman in a Costa-Rican shower when the water turned from cold, to warm, to hot. Staying in the shower making strange noises for quite a long time.

Psychologically unstable macaws screeching louder than a space shuttle take-off a few feet from my face every time I entered the ‘relaxing’ last third of my yoga routine. Wanting to break open their cage and wring their necks and maybe bite their beaks off too. Understanding that this wasn’t very ‘yoga’ of me.

Spending midnight at New Year alone, on a small platform on a tree overlooking the magical Lake Atitlan, whilst fireworks bloomed above every village on the lakeside. Trying to capture it with my iphone and failing epically.

Watching a tiny cut on my foot become infected and bore downwards with unstoppable fury, as I popped antibiotic after antibiotic, and continually bathed it in hot, stinging salt water. Thinking that the ants and geckos were nibbling into it as I slept.

The soft-as-putty rolls of Guatemelan chocolate that I couldn’t stop buying from giggling little salesgirls who scurried through the jungle paths of San Marcos.

Finding the precious first few hexagons of a bee hive in the watch-tower of what used to be a Nicaraguan torture prison. Thinking that human evil always yields to the forces of nature in time.

Retreating below deck on the rocky ferry crossing to Omotepe, to discover a soothing movie about a dog-turned zombie dog terrorising a mother and child stuck in their car. Every time she opened the car door to get to safety, there he was, all slobber and bloody, matted coat. Even when she was mauling her, I couldn’t be scared because it was a St.Bernard and they’re just cuddly oafs of dogs.

A mid-fifties American woman who limpeted onto me for too many days. Every few seconds, she would clear her throat like a Chinese man, but didn’t spit. Absolutely vile, that was.

Getting stuck in a pattern of eating cold snickers cut into small chunks every day at the Spanish School. Devising a plan for a ‘yoga and snickers’ school in the vicinity. The snickers would be placed in a clear refrigerator in clear sight of the practicing yogis, in a modern-day carrot-and-stick tactic to spur them onto yoga greatness. Deciding to come back to that idea another time.

Getting over my aversion to ‘poor-people’ food. In a little village outside of Antigua, I dove into a bargain-basement ceviche of snail, crab stick and tiny prawn and didn’t get Cholera, just a smile and an un-gurgly tummy.

Another American, this time a 60-something man who had spent half of his life walking alone in the Canadian Rockies, telling me that one time, he had a clear choice to pass through a portal in the roof of his treehouse to another dimension. After I sampled the delights of his ‘volcano’ vaporiser, I understood better his convictions.

Sitting very still in Leon, Nicaragua, and focussing every ounce of my non-existent reiki power over a convulsing, wretched, antibiotic-tortured tummy. After 6 days of it, giving serious thought to flying home to soft sheets, warm showers and sympathy. And doctors.

Trying to browse expensive North Face gear whilst a boy with a shotgun eyed me suspiciously. Knowing that he was the ‘security guard’ not making me feel secure, and scurrying out thinking that Central America was mental.

Watching a stout young chap with lightning quick hands creating a hammock while his boss told us that these hammocks were the best in the world, but the employees suffered from arthritis at a very young age.

Weaving through a dusty ‘pavement’ carpeted with fallen mangoes on an extremely rickety mountain bike in the shadows of 2 volcanoes on Ometepe.

Eating a life-changing crepe filled with molten, sweet banana on Omotepe, then stealing a book from their bookswap to use as a cushion on the following day’s hot and sticky bus-rides to the Costa Rican border. It’s all about creating a gap between your bum and the seat; some room for the air to circulate. Fail to do this at your peril.

Not wanting to leave Panama City after consuming perfect steak in an ice-cold, city-sized mall, a cup of prawn ceviche in the sweltering, stinking fish port and a thor-strength Cuba libre in the old town. But knowing that’s exactly when to leave.

Gazing out at wide-winged, gliding seabirds skimming the Guatemalan waves and thinking that they were from another dimension. Realising that this realisation was probably due to heat exhaustion from my disgusting 9 hour trip.