This will be my last home in Italy for the summer, and I am here for over a month, strung in limbo between the yoga retreat I’ve just completed teaching on - in Verbier, Switzerland - and the two to come in September - Villa Lena in Tuscany, and at Borgo di Carpiano in Umbria. As I teach on more yoga retreats, more often, I am slowly discovering how my energy levels rise and fall, dip and peak along with the calendar. I find teaching and leading a yoga retreat the most rewarding and wonderful experience, especially because I get to travel with these retreats, feeding my wanderlust and passion for nature. However, it is an emotionally, mentally and physically draining job, with bursts of time (on retreat) when huge amounts of energy is required of me, and bursts of time (off retreat) when things mellow.
To travel through Italy is to traverse through time concretised in the walls, arches and domed ceilings of ancient buildings. Even the most random little hamlet in some neglected corner of the countryside, with potholed roads, three-wheeler Piaggio vans, and a temperamental electricity supply, will present you with stunning architecture. There is likely to be a church, or town hall, built in the thirteenth century over Roman ruins, with gorgeous frescos and the ever present Madonna and Child adorning the altar. Or, in the middle of nowhere, you’ll stumble upon a series of houses, nestled atop a hill and overlooking a sweep of ancient vines, plump and pregnant with the juice of the gods. Casually, over a sugar encrusted cream tart and bitter espresso, the ‘nona’ will reveal that her family has in fact lived in the stone clusters since Etruscan times (around 500 B.C).
We hear it spoken of often, in an off-hand way, unexplained and hardly ever fully apprehended and made our own - listen to your intuition. Be more present. When I’m teaching yoga and leading yoga retreats, it is one of the most commonly expressed intentions from guests at the outset of a retreat - I want to live more intuitively. Most of us have a few moments in life where intuition makes a resounding intervention, a clear call from within us. We choose to follow its direction or not; the point is that it is experienced as an irregular impulse. On most days, in most cases, we’re uncertain of this strange voice. We dither and reason and let our rationality, or other’s opinions, or the rules of society lead us.
There is a train that speeds past the front end of the Villa de Zoysa property in south western Sri Lanka several times over the day and night. Over the three occasions that I have stayed at Villa de Zoysa, each time for a two-week retreat, I have not ever worked out what the exact timetable of this train is. Of course there is one, but I must say that I have noted anything from a 10minute interval in the morning, to long stretches for hours and hours of silence over another morning.
I started this year with the decision to end an important chapter in my life. It has been obvious to me for some months now that the online business I founded in early 2017, whilst living on a farm in rural KwaZulu Natal, was loosing momentum and getting pushed further and further from my priority list. The less energy and time I had to give to nurturing and growing YOGICOMM, the less it fulfilled its purpose, and the less important it became in my clients’ lives. And so, I’ve decided to close shop. As I do this, I’m taking stock and having a good look at the (online) space I created and why I created it. I would like to share with you some of things that have struck me as valuable and worth carrying forward with me as I embark on a new chapter.
Nandi felt the dry chaffing of hemp over her fingers. The tattered rope slipped from her hands and she was flung into space. The humid afternoon clustered in her nostrils, the air a cloying contrary measure to her temporary detachment. She half closed her lids in naked enjoyment. The multiple shades of light green, terracotta and sunburnt yellow on the dam shoreline meshed. She revelled in the sense of freedom before gravity would inevitably intervene and pull her downward. Drunken by flight Nandi considered whether a journey far from home would also propel one into such satisfaction. Does distance liberate? How far does one have to travel for your past to become a hazed teal horizon, a meaningless flicker in time and space, and what is lost along the way?
Over the past four months I have been fortunate enough to complete two epic multi-day hikes. The first was the Tour du Mont Blanc, a 170km circumnavigation of the Mont Blanc massive that traverses the Alps of France, Switzerland and Italy. In a close-knit team of two, Chris and I carried everything with us, from tents, to cooking pots, espresso cups, wooly jumpers, swimsuits, red wine and cheese. We wild camped (illegally so in Italy - don’t tell!) all nights but one, and got an immensely privileged insight into Alpine communities, culinary delights and livelihood. The second hike spanned all of October during which I joined my brothers, sister-in-law, and aunt for a journey across the eastern corner of the Nepalese Himalayas. We took the approach trial to Makalu Peak, the 5th highest mountain in the world (soaring above 8400m), and reached 5300m to see Makalu base camp, before descending to warmer and more oxygenated mountains. We had an immensely over-qualified and talented team of Nepalese porters, sherpas and cooks. In both instances I was out of connectivity throughout and luxuriated in a feeling of freedom, of the heady awareness of how time takes on an alternate beat without app notifications. I read avidly in the evenings and thought a lot. I thought in particular about walking.
It is becoming increasingly hard to reconcile the 2,500 year old ‘origins’ of yoga with its modern expressions. Many modern styles arise from what can be understood as the second wave of exportation of yoga from the Indian subcontinent to the ‘West’. The first wave occurred in the 1800’s. This early wave was consumed by a minority sub-culture of extremely experimental artists and thinkers in the West. It in no way lead to a mainstream movement. The way yoga was understood then was in line with the highly spiritual and religious origins of the practice - yoga being a manifold system of living that leads to union with god/the divine and a notion of ‘enlightenment’. This system prescribed a lifestyle of which movement/exercise (what we now recognise as the sum-total of ‘yoga’) was only a minute part. It prescribed ideas most people now would be highly suspicious of, including celibacy and patriarchy.
The choices we make shape the colour and texture of our days, they make up our lives and they form who we are. Choices that you make - micro and macro - are shaping your present, your future, and your past all the time. When you place an intention, you steer the ship, and the vista - behind you, around you, and before, changes. This point about the present and future may be obvious, but the past? The past looks different to different versions of yourself, from different vantage points. You make decisions that lead to those vantage points, and so the past its not dead to us, its very much alive and malleable, like any story transmutes with telling. This is the power of decision making. This is a mundane, and yet mind-blowing consideration. It is the gravitas of all time frames, of our whole life, moment to moment.
The neat and ordered black lines on the page of the novel I am reading bleed into one another. Fatigue draws my eyelids to shudder and then close, like a banged up 90’s Ford Escort attempting a hill start before silently rolling downhill. I am warm, comfortable and relaxed. The day has been full and my muscles feel that satisfying light ache of excursion. The room is quiet and uncluttered. It is a reasonable hour in the evening - perhaps 10pm. All the ingredients for a good night sleep are here with me. I switch off a bedside lamp and snuggle into my duvet. I pop in the earplugs I have come to trust for their utility and comfort.
Blue is the colour of distance. Blue is the colour that dissolves into the molecules of the atmosphere at the reaches of horizon. If I close my eyes and conjure blue, I am transported to a state in which I drift, at peace, through endlessness. Writer, traveller, luminary, Rebecca Solnit has written a meditation on the art of getting lost. A Field guide to Getting Lost is part memoir, part scientific discussion, part poetic flowering. It is an essential companion for an intrepid traveller, or day-dreamer, or misfit.
I’ve been sitting on the floor in my apartment, bathed in heavenly soft European sun, with paints in hand. I’m becoming familiar once again with old friends. I was struck afresh by the magnetism of Ultramarine blue. Its the first paint I picked up, and its the one I continuously return to. I have used this, or a slightly darker and more dramatic hue, Prussian Blue, in almost all paintings I’ve done. As my work has become more abstract over time, I’ve relied on the depth, the richness and, critically, the complex moods of ultramarine more. Yet, its not just the hue that draws me, its the history of the pigment too.
When deciding on how to best spend my time, I often ask myself to isolate what my purpose is, with the intention to then set out tasks that are in line with this. Seemingly such a clear and obvious path, and yet, this often leads me to want to spend more time writing, reading, training in line with copy writing and editing. But then also yoga! Everything to do with sharing yoga. And painting! And artistic expression in general. But, then I think, wait, I studied my ass off for years for a PhD in History, so shouldn’t I be working on post-doc fellowships and research proposals …
On a flight back to Amsterdam from a recent trip to Kenya, I stumbled upon a short story by JM Coetzee, titled The Dog. The story focuses on an unnamed female who makes a daily journey on foot to work. En route, she passes a private property guarded by a vicious dog. The story has no particular location, although the language spoken between the characters is French. Work and homeward bound, She is harassed by this dog. It is a terrifying and beastly hound, with sharp teeth, a stinking breath (no doubt) and a keen smell for female blood:
Some books appear in my life precisely when I’m meant to read them. Usually, these books shake me to the core. I discover them, or they discover me, in a moment when I’m avoiding a ‘serious work to-do list’ in a cafe-cum-workspace and I spend an unreasonably long time surveying their dogeared library collection. One book will jump out at me and say ‘hello’. Or, it may be when I’m travelling and a fellow voyager makes a recommendation - or drops a paperback (admittedly, I am one type of thief - a book thief) out of a handbag.
It is a constant challenge to find time to dedicate to a project that is abstracted from your ‘job’ commitments, relationships and civil responsibilities. A first novel is a scary and illusive thing to pursue. There is nothing to show for it whilst it is being created and no one (including you) really knows whether its total crap or not. Its just a document on my Macbook. A blip on the ether. And yet it represents hours and hours of iteration, reiteration, drafts and redrafts. It represents energy, emotion, tears and sweat.
In February 2016 I visited Sri Lanka for 4 weeks or so with my Mother. It was a high point in a period of roughly four months in which I travelled, read novels and soaked up the sun. I had little motivation for each day other than simply not thinking too hard. I handed in my PhD in late November 2015 and needed that chunk of time to drift and let my brain and body recuperate. I see it as an enormously fortunate occurrence that 2 of the 4 weeks we spent in Sri Lanka were anchored at Villa de Zoysa on the south-western coast. There are two layers to this providence
It is with happiness and gratitude that I announce my new partnership with Exotic Yoga Retreats! I was invited by owner and founder, Gayle Olson, be a EYR yoga teacher.
The first retreat on the cards for me is in April 2018. It will take place between Cape Town and a private game reserve in Botswana from 7 - 17 April, 2018.
The past two or so months has been a time of flux, new experiences and varied challenges. I moved continent and uprooted my comfortable cottage on scenic farmlands, swopping it for a dinky apartment in a frenzied European city. In many way ways I still yearn for the wildly flung blue skies of African wilderness, and something tells me I will never be rid of this yearning as long as I am absent from my homeland. In spite of this I have tried to immerse myself in the present, taking deep gulps of car-fumed-full air and elbowing my way through crowds of gawking American tourists with jolly gusto.
Just because yoga is commonly perceived to represent universal and transcendent values of peace, non-violence and unity does not mean that it is above or can be consumed in isolation of politics