I’m on the move again.
In between places, in between spaces.
And, when you’ve been hanging out with non-smoking, vegetarian, teetotal, reasonably-polite-and-aware-of-local-culture yogis, there’s nothing designed to bring you back to reality with a bump than sharing a ferry, bus and overnight train (as well as the various waiting areas between travel) with the post-full-moon-party crowd for 24 hours. Especially given how much neon they’re wearing.
I slip between crowds of people, mainly European students on their holidays at this time of the year, trying to avoid the cigarette smoke, and listening to them skype their friends back home telling them about the party. And hearing new slang terms and feeling…a bit old. Despite having been on Koh Phagnan for about 4 months now overall, I still haven’t gone to a full moon party. I’ve been, in the day and a week or so out from the event, to the beach where it happens, which is a very beautiful part of the island. And I’ve heard the stories (you’ve seen/read The Beach right? The inspiration came in part from this island). And whilst I am a little tempted to go, for the experience, my intuition, which I listen to a lot more these days, tells me I wouldn’t enjoy it so much. What with the not really drinking anymore, for example. And liking sleep. But sometimes it feels like I’m on a totally different island from these alien visitors, who come for a few days, and then head off again.
However, I’m not the meditating, zen-like, peaceful, enlightened being I hope one day to be. Or even close… and I’ve started to realize that I’m the sort of person who can create stress even in the most tranquil and blissful situations. Not on purpose, certainly, it just sort of…happens.
This time, despite being in paradise, living on a tropical island, in a bungalow with a sweetly swinging hammock, within walking distance of white sands and an azure sea, I managed to end up doing two exams for different topics on the same day. With a crazy two week period leading up to them. And the exams were in?
Not the usual type of activities that you would associate with stress right? Me either. And yet…
As you’ll know if you’re a regular reader (!), I’ve been on Koh Phangan for a few months, attending a yoga school, Agama. Last month I was working on level 3, which culminates in an exam, the ‘Red Sash’, involving a written test and a practical. For those who don’t know, Yoga is an ancient discipline (pre-Christianity) which involves physical, mental and spiritual practices. So, my activities at the moment include meditation, various asanas, or postures, and breathing, concentration or focusing exercises.
The exam included a written part, holding a 10 minute pose (a choice of a few different poses allowed), correct performance of a pose picked by the examiners and holding your breath in pranayama (breathing meditation) for 30 seconds or more. Given my various frailties and ailments, I was a bit concerned about the exam, wondering whether I would manage an examination which was so physical in nature. But I was very keen to pass, as without achieving the ‘Red Sash’ I wouldn’t be able to move onto the next level and continue my studies here at Agama.
In contrast, the massage wasn’t something I was ever intending to do. Rather than coming on me slowly, like the yoga (the exam for which loomed ahead of me for months as soon as I realized I’d like to continue on), the massage just…appeared.
I’d been having treatment myself with a lovely Turkish masseur and healer here on the island. We’d had a lot of conversations , and one lesson, she suggested – strongly; I might even say she ‘prescribed’– that I take part in a Thai massage course that was starting…the next day. She felt that giving touch, as well as receiving touch and massage which as you know, I do love, would really benefit me as well as encouraging me to open myself up to others, and use my empathy skills in a more physical way. I’ve mentioned I’m not a big sharer of emotions, and whilst I enjoy connecting with others, this is usually intellectually, not physically. In fact I tend to keep a strong personal space boundary around me unless I know the person well and am comfortable with them.
Unsure and perhaps a bit sceptical as to whether giving massage would be something I would either enjoy, or be helpful for my development, I continued in my practice of being open to new opportunities, and after a brief (given the timing!) bit of wrestling with the idea, I said yes. But the few hours I thought the course would be turned out to be a formal, 60-hour course, which, if I passed the course and the practical and written exams at the end, would give me a certificate from one of the main Thai massage (sometimes called ‘lazy man’s yoga’, as it involves the masseur putting the receiver’s body into some interesting stretches) schools in Thailand. Huh!
There were only three of us on the course, and it was taught by a very experienced practitioner who is also a teacher at the yoga school, so he was able to link it back to some of the information we get there around the body. We had to bring models (to practise on) to the classes, which consisted (ish) of a one-hour lecture, and then a one-hour demonstration, and then two hours for us to practise ourselves and get feedback from the teacher.
It was an amazing course. I didn’t really have time to worry about it before it began, as it started the next day, but if I had any expectations based on my own fears, beliefs and worries, then they quickly disappeared. We had great fun between us, and our teacher was lovely. And I started to actually enjoy myself giving massage quite quickly!
One of the things that was the biggest learning for me was how different people’s bodies feel, and how different people are physically. And how sometimes bodies don’t feel like they look..! I was also surprised and touched at how new friends on the island were kind enough to volunteer to be my model – especially the ones at the early stages of the course!
A perfect storm
So the two weeks leading up to the exams were pretty busy, as I read through three months worth of course notes in yoga, attended my classes and did my personal practice, at the same time as going to the massage course, reading through the notes for that and practising on models outside the lessons. Oh, and doing a little work.
I also did a visa run right in the middle of this, which involved a 17 hour journey to the Malaysian border and back. I was going to write a post about it, but it was so boring I’m not going to bother!
The day arrived, and I was up at 6am in order to do some yoga practice even before the exam at 9am. My body is a ‘slow starter’ in the mornings, when I have more pain and am more stiff, so I needed to fool it into thinking the exam was later in the day. 9am dawned, and I, along with about 10 others, headed to the yoga hall. And – I did my best ever shoulder stand. Almost perfectly still, and almost perfectly straight, for 10 minutes. Huzzah! I also passed the written part, and the other parts of the practical, to gain my Red Sash qualification and be able to continue to the next level of Agama yoga.
The massage exam was at 2pm, and after some food post the yoga exam, I came home about 11.30 to revise. Instead…I fell asleep. Not ideal. But perhaps the best thing as my body and brain needed a break before the next. The massage exam started with the (short) written part. The others finished theirs quickly and handed them in well before time, but as always with an exam, I was reluctant to hand mine in before time was up. Peer pressure told though, and in mine went shortly after.
The massage practical, where we had to design and practise a 1.5 hour massage based on our training, went surprisingly well. I felt much more ‘in tune’ with my model than I ever had previously, and I tried to stay present and mindful and not let myself get caught up in worrying that this was an exam. And, to my amazement, I passed my second exam of the day.
Taking yourself with you
I think what the experience reminded me is that wherever you travel, you take yourself with you. Clearly a bit of a truism, but what it means is that however strange and different your environment, your personality stays the same wherever you go – so I tend to be someone who creates lists as you will know, but I’m also someone who seems to take on too much, wherever I am. And I would never have thought I would manage to find a stressful situation in the midst of yoga and massage. But knowing this is the case is half the battle for next time – it helps me to be alert to the kind of situations that might arise. Oh – and hooray for the hammock – revising in that was definitely a plus!
What aspects of your own personality have you been most surprised to see that you’ve ‘taken with you’ when you’ve travelled? Let me know in the comment below!