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.
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.
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.’
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.