Going Away and Coming Back
by Linda Karlsson

I am one of those skeptical yoga practitioners. Although I used to be one of those big-blue-eyed-wide-open-stars-in-their-eyes-smiling-mildly-constantly kind of yoga practitioners.

What happened in between the two states is a very long story, but let me tell you that it involved all the juicy ingredients of gurus, a yoga teacher husband old enough to be my father, ashrams, a near-death experience in India, Reiki certificates, vegan raw food frenzies, a degree in Sanskrit and Indian Philosophy, a cult, and a lot of self-proclaimed healers and teachers who kept saying the same phrase: "Don't worry. I will help you. Just follow me." Of course it was my fault that all of this happened. But I didn't realize to what extent I was sending out the helpless wide-open vibes of "Save me! Enlighten me! Help me!"

I was looking, looking for myself, as we all do, more or less. I was doing it more, and I was doing it in extremes. I wanted to go beyond whatever it was I wanted to go beyond, and the yoga world seemed like the right place to go into, to get to beyond. Yoga was like this tool that would transport me to myself and to the light.

But of course, as you may have guessed by now, I got lost in the mysterious lanes of Big Egos.

The final blowup came after I was catapulted out of the cult, broken down to pieces and in need of leaving behind all books, teachers, ashrams, schools and systems. I started listening to myself instead. I stopped reading monthly astrology forecasts and living by them as a slave, I threw away all the crystals that I had placed all over my life, and I stopped taking yoga/meditation/relaxation/whatever classes, I stopped seeing mediums and healers and I threw away most of my books about veganism, nutrition, Ayurveda, essential oils, etc etc, and just stripped my life of absolutely everything.

But I never stopped practicing yoga. Even when living with the cult, where I was not allowed to practice yoga (as it "took away my femininity"; the spiritual practice was to be cleaning the house, cooking, and cleaning the body), I did it in secret.

And I'm talking simple asana. I did let go of meditation, visualization, ritual, mantra.

My asana practice stayed with me and still stays with me. It's the only thing that remains. (Oh, okay, I admit, I do read Susan Miller's astrology forecast at the beginning of each month!)

If you had asked me 7-8 years ago if asana was yoga, I would have given you a long stiff lecture on how it isn't. On how yoga is so much more than asana and how it is so deeply misunderstood in the West. How I thought it was shallow to "just" practice asana and nothing else.

Today, I feel I have found my way. I have a daily asana practice, on my orange Jade mat, when I take between 30-90 minutes to myself, to breathe, to feel how my body is doing, to breathe, to stop, to observe which thoughts are running through my mind. It's my daily maintenance, my daily break, and my daily self-care. It makes me strong, flexible, healthy and it helps my bowel movements, my digestion, my complexion and my mental health. The benefits are endless, but in fact, I don't notice them, as this is my maintenance. I only notice if I don't practice, that all these little funny things come back.

It balances me. And it's still just asana. And it's my practice, and I'm proud of it.

I don't really talk about it. For me, talking about yoga these days is almost like discussing how and when I brush my teeth. It's just so obvious, and it's so part of my daily life, that I don't need to make it a big deal anymore.

But sometimes I find myself in situations where I am taking a yoga class, or I am surrounded by people who do yoga, talk about yoga, are amazed by yoga, are into the yoga-thing. I get really uncomfortable, especially when they talk proudly about their spiritual path, which they seem to feel is unique to them. I get the feeling most people who proclaim themselves to be on a spiritual path feel that they are a little bit above the rest of us. As if they were floating a few centimeters above ground, with their floaty clothes and incense-smelling Indian fabrics. I get uncomfortable, because it reminds me of myself. I used to be like that. I used to think I was floating above everyone else. In a way, I did. Being a vegan wasn't really suitable for my constitution. I lost all contact with the ground and was indeed touching the clouds.
Today I'm finally visiting my friend Andrea who lives in the north of the island. She has a B&B and she has a sort of "spiritual" idea for her place. She wants it to host retreats for yoga, meditation, etc. Right now, she has a yoga teacher staying with her, who is going to start classes somewhere nearby on the island. Classes in mantra-singing.
So tonight, at sunset, in Andrea's place, she is doing a practice-session for her classes that are about to begin. And since I'm coming to Andrea's place for dinner, and since I do yoga, and since I'm a yoga teacher on paper, I am invited to join.
I cringed at the thought, as memories of my ex-husband, sitting dressed in white in front of the altar I built for him, singing "Hari Om Shiva Om" while touching his heart and smiling to the skies, were flooding back into my head.
He used to sing mantras every morning, sometimes at 4 am, with a false voice and a fake smile. I used to join his mantra sessions, sitting next to him and looking at him with admiring big blue eyes. It was all like a joke, like a staged joke. A bunch of westerners dressed like Indians singing songs to Gods and using words of whose meaning they had no idea.

But why on earth am I being SO judgmental? By the way, that's what the cult leaders used to tell me, "You are so judgmental. Let go of your judgment, and trust. Just follow, open your heart, surrender and let go, and you will be happy."

But I am extremely judgmental. My whole being cringes and becomes a waffle. I can't stand these things. People with mild constant smiles and big open eyes, feeling the divine touching their soul. URGH.

But I want to see my friend Andrea, and her place, and I need to join this silly session, just for the adventure.

Next day…. I arrive at Andrea's beautiful place around sunset. The views are stunning.

She shows me around, and introduces me to some guests from Germany. The girl is a yoga teacher and the guy isn't. Then I meet the chanting girl. She is Dutch and Andrea introduces us as fellow yoga teachers. She’s fiddling with her papers and her guitar and seems a little unfriendly.

I notice that she eyes me. Up and down. Really eyeing me. She checks out my body. Is this how it is supposed to be between yoga teachers? That we check out each other's bodies? Well, I admit, I check her out, too, as she turns to Andrea and asks for a staple gun for her mantra sheets. I wonder what kind of asana practice she does. I notice everything. I take mental notes. Weak upper body, round belly, big ass…Verdict: really NOT that fit. How evil and shallow of me. I wonder what her verdict of me is. Probably: round belly, judgmental mind, closed heart. Very pitta.

We finally get to the nice chill out space where we were going to do the mantra session. I try to let go of my judgment. I try to stay open. I try to not make fun of this unfriendly mantra teacher. I try to have compassion. She’s probably just nervous. She is going to teach at the yoga festival in Es Canar starting the next day and she needs to practice.

So we start with a mantra, and she plays the guitar. We sit there, the four of us, four women, crosslegged on mattresses, surrounded by beautiful nature and views, and the mantra teacher starts singing, and we try to follow.

She has a beautiful voice. Absolutely beautiful voice.

I try to not notice my own voice, singing things like Saraswati jai and Hare Bolo Ram as I try to let go and just "open my voice" as she says we should try to do. I had thought the experience would be pure suffering, but I am surprised.

The sound of my voice singing these words opens up a huge Pandora's box of memories… a whole lifetime studying Indian philosophy, yoga, Sanskrit, and traveling in India flies by in my mind. Each mantra carries new memories and I am enjoying the movie I’m able to watch with my eyes closed, aware of the setting sun and the beauty of the fresh evening air. A smell of chamomile flowers surrounds us and the sound of sweet female voices is like a warm, comforting embrace of very healthy energy.

The Hare Krishna mantra affects me particularly. It reminds me of so many moments, so much fun. The Hare Krishnas used to come to my university and give us free food every day. I remember standing in line every day at lunchtime, starving. Waiting for the plate of curries and rice and sweets. Remembering friends from that time. We were all a bit weird, on some weird mission or path. I wore Indian ankle bells, long skirts, a bindi in my forehead and I wasn't shaving any of my body parts.

I remember going to the Hare Krishna Centre in Soho, London, to get the yummy free food. But to get the free food, you had to join the mantra session, and chant Hare Krishna over and over again, listen to the drums and the jingle bells, and to actually get carried away, swept up on your feet, and join the crazy devotional dancing. And I did. Full on.

Or the time when I was in the middle of my spiritual dramas, but still joined my dear gay friend Jimmi and his friends for a birthday party, and actually drank a lot of alcohol for a change. We then took the Tube to go out in Soho, and as we exited the Piccadilly Circus underground station we bumped into a huge group of orange-clad Hare Krishnas, chanting and singing and jumping ecstatically. They are quite a common sight around Soho and no one really reacts too much, especially not drunk gayboys on their way to Soho bars. But me, being so familiar with these chants and this kind of world, and less so with the drunken gayworld, joined the Hare Krishna party. As I was drunk, I got really into the singing and dancing, and stayed with them for a long time and lost myself in the ecstasy of the mantra, so familiar to me by then. I then woke up from my trance at one point and realized that Jimmi and his friends were not anywhere near me. I called him, and he was very embarrassed for me. He told me which bar they were in, and when I got there, I understood that they all thought I was weird. MEGA-weird.

The mantra teacher continues with chants from continents other than India. There’s a chant from Nigeria. Absolutely gorgeous, even though I hate the sound of my own voice. The experience is total, in the beauty of the moment, which I really had not expected.

And then she ends with playing a snippet form an audiobook written by a Jivamukti teacher called Ruth. Apparently Ruth has studied Sanskrit for many years in Mysore, and is a real scholar. She has translated and commented on each sutra from the Yoga Sutras and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. After chanting it in Sanskrit, she then translates word by word into English, and then she tells a story from her personal experience, to explain, in real-life-Western-understanding-mixed-with-India-experiences, what it really means. The story, the sutra, and the meaning of it, is fantastic. I’m amazed by her intelligence, her clarity, and her incredibly vivid way of explaining these normally so dry lines from age-old books.

We end the chant-session in the dark, surrounded by candles and the sound of crickets and dogs barking faraway down in the valley.

I am surprised, happy, and very connected to life and nature, love and other women.

And then Andrea cooks a very yummy dinner with stir-fried vegetables, tofu, and quinoa…

A complete evening of all the things I have rejected for too long.

Linda Karlsson now lives in the countryside on the beautiful Mediterranean island of Ibiza where she practices yoga, takes her dog for walks on the beach and does holiday rental stuff to pay the bills. Her website is www.yogalinda.com.