“What are we doing here?” I asked Chris. We had only been married 6 months and already were on the other side of the world, going on a late honeymoon to pursue an obsession I have had for seven years of Hobbits and The Misty Mountains.
For the first month of our trip we were able to dodge the rainstorms of a New Zealand winter, but right now, we were not so lucky. We sat on a log outside of the local thermal lodge, drenched from the early afternoon rain. The town of Rotorua, a geothermal wonderland, had a constant sulfuric waft that tickled my pores as a reminder of being far from home. Hot pots hissed in the background as its steam haunted the air. We had been there for about two hours. No car. No phone. Just our life on our backs and each other’s company.
“I don’t know. Because we told him in the e-mail we would be,” my husband replied as he wiped the rain from his eyes. His tall stature caused his knees to be awkwardly at his chest as he hunched over the log. As the rain poured, his dirty blond hair appeared dirtier and his piercing blue eyes reminded me why I loved him.
“Should we try calling him again?” I asked Chris. “It’s your turn.”
We did have a cheap phone card and a telephone at a nursing home across the street. We took turns running across the street, schmoozing the receptionist, and leaving voicemails for Paul, our Yoga Master that by e-mail had confirmed he would pick us up at this spot to take us home with him. We got his contact information from a pamphlet while hitchhiking around the South Island. The plan was to work for him at his retreat in return for room, board, and yoga classes.
“Fine. But this is the last time.” Chris groaned as he bolted across the street.
Sitting there alone, I wondered what, in fact, I was doing there. I emailed to inform him that we were arriving a day later than expected due to the weather and the uncertainty of hitchhiking for transportation. His words of, “Yes, um, let’s see how we go with the discipline and the yoga mind,” in the emailed response kept echoing through my mind. The phrase confused me and I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant but I felt this disappointed energy surge through the computer screen as I read it. It created this familiar urge to please him and prove to him that he can trust me.
It reminded me of many times in my past where I let someone down. It’s hard to think of one specifically because they all bleed together into a raging sea of disappointment. It’s like riding a wave. I paddle my way to the top only to crash down into the troubled waters below. But this time there would be no crash. I would stand up on my board and ease myself onto dry land.
“No luck,” Chris said as he came trudging back from the nursing home and plopped down next to me. “Let’s wait a little and give it one more try.”
Chris has an uncanny ability to understand me. When necessary, he can get himself into my world and take on my troubles as if they were his. And so we both sat there, determined ride this wave out.
After one more frantic attempt on the nursing home phone, I finally got a hold of Paul. A bit surprised and perhaps annoyed to hear from us, he instructed us to find the hospital and ask for a woman named Lynda. She lived with Paul and would take us home with her after her shift’s end. Finally, sweet Lynda would save us! As we dragged ourselves to the hospital, I imagined our savoir from the storm as Mother Earth in the form of a yogi. Her comely countenance embracing us as we sailed to our destined retreat in the serene New Zealand countryside.
“Are you Randi and Chris? Ok. Let’s go,” Lynda said as she wrapped herself in a rain jacket. Not only was there no warm embrace or sweet smile, but her eyes dodged us as she barely recognized our existence. Instantly intimidated by her short word answers and lack of people skills, we loaded our packs into her cramped Isuzu. As she hoisted her petite body into the car, I could tell her strength was one you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of. Her short dark hair and dark eyes stared forward as we began our journey home, bouncing in the car as if driving through the choppy sea.
“So, do you like to travel?” I asked her, trying to make small talk as we puttered along.
“No. Travel is pointless. Why travel when you can meditate?” I couldn’t tell if she was annoyed at the thought of travel or if her native French accent, tainted with years of living in New Zealand, made her sound stern.
“How long have you been practicing Iyengar yoga?” Paul asked as he stared at his computer screen, tending to his emails, Lynda at his side with her hand on his shoulder as she peered over his shoulder.
“Um, well, we have an Iyengar yoga book at home we practice with sometimes,” I sheepishly replied. Chris and I felt isolated on the other side of the room, awkwardly trying to make ourselves at home.
“Wait, that’s it? So you have no experience with Iyengar?” He swiveled in his chair to give us a shocked glance.
“Well, just from the book I have.”
“So, no experience.”
“Well, that is some experience.”
“No, experience is maybe 2-3 years minimum. You have no experience. I bet you don’t even own yoga mats.”
I did own a yoga mat and had been practicing from books and DVDs on and off for over 2-3 years, so had Chris, but neither of us couldn’t muster the words to defend ourselves. He was right. We were wrong.
“Well, you’re here now and there is nothing we can do change that so I guess there is something for us to learn from each other,” Paul sighed, breaking the awkward silence, perhaps thinking that this might brighten the mood.
“Let’s get to work,” Paul exclaimed as he finally stood from the desk chair. As a smirk appeared on his face was when I first noticed his resemblance to James Taylor. I was hoping he would break out into “Fire and Rain” but instead moved us along by saying, “Since you guys have never experienced a real practice of yoga, this is where you should start.”
It turns out that Iyengar Yoga is a whole lot more than just looking at a book. It is the most intense yoga out there. It strictly focuses on breath and the body’s alignment with the use of props like bolsters, blocks, and straps. The instructor quickly corrects any misalignment or error. To become just a beginning instructor, you have to go in front of a board with a minimum of two years experience and pass a test. And then if that wasn’t enough, you are then supposed to forget about the position your body is in and lose yourself in some spiritual journey. So, maybe we didn’t have any experience.
We grabbed yoga mats, bolsters, blocks, and straps, and moved around his tattered old furniture to make room. We set up in the main room of Paul’s home in which he built with his own two hands. He claimed it was necessary for the inner work that needs to be done in a person. I wondered why we were cramming into the main room when a spacious studio space lay just a few feet away, towards the front of the house.
The main room contained a section for the kitchen with a cooking area, a cleaning area, and a space for a table and chairs. All of which flooded together, making it hard to tell where one ended and the other began. The countertop bar created for the eye a small separation into the next section of the main area. Moving the random pot or pan on the bar would reveal the tiny cockroaches hibernating within. Paul didn’t seem to mind them though, as they cohabitated in perfect harmony.
Looking from the kitchen to the left sat the desk. There sat the computer surrounded by a mess of letters and bills, misplaced DVD’s and old books that are destined to cure the soul. Later, I would find Lynda there sneaking in a chick flick while Paul was out of town for a class.
Straight ahead was the couch covered with blankets of odd patterns to cover up its age. Below the left arm of the couch sat a small iron fireplace and a basket of wood scraps from the yard. The couch faced a wall of shelves filled with books and books that would later consume my consciousness. Between the couch and the wall laid an open space that it often filled up with yoga mats and meditation pillows, but on the off times remained open and bare, exposing the nakedness of the trees. To the right was a glass sliding door that led to the deck that led to the acres of breathtaking New Zealand countryside. Later, Lynda would put on her child sized, purple gum boots, go out on to the deck with her rifle and giggle as she killed an innocent rabbit to bring in, boil, and feed to the chickens. Large windows interrupted the wooden walls, letting the natural light shine in and create a portal to the world outside. In the mornings, mist would creep in along the rows of fruit trees and tickle the toes of the rolling hills.
“Just practice a sequence from this book. Let’s see where you guys are at. I’ll help if you need it.”
A book landed at our feet as we finished setting up our props. Choosing a sequence similar to one we knew in a book from home, we start, not sure how we will hold up.
As I carefully lean forward and down into downward dog, I make sure my heels are firmly stuck to the floor, displaying the flexibility of my calves.
“Are your quads engaged? How about your wrists? Engage your wrists!” he calls from across the room. I glance over assuming he could read my thoughts as he stood on his hands and crossed his legs over his head.
Engage my wrists? My quads? How do I-? What are you-?
“All muscles are engaged in every pose. You have to constantly be checking in with yourself. Ok, now hold it longer…..longer….longer…”
Collapsing on the ground I search his eyes for further instruction. By this time he had made his way over to me.
“Try one on this page. Both of you. Grab chairs.”
He points out a pose where you put your weight on your upper back and neck as you flip your legs over your head and rest them on the chair behind you.
“You can do it, come on.” He recognized the baffled look on our faces.
As I start to awkwardly maneuver myself into the position on the page, Paul interjects.
“No, no, get there from just lying on your back. Use yourself to get your legs on that chair. No cheating.”
What are we doing here? I wondered as I lay flat on my back, not able on conceive the idea of my body moving like that.
“Just try.” Paul said as he walked back to his mat and stuck his leg behind in neck.
From the second I had contact with Paul, I felt like I was being tested. Every word I said was somehow being interpreted as a reflection of my life. Every move I made told him something about the workings of my soul. I had somehow challenged him in the game of life and I was losing. I resented him for how closely he watched me.
How he thought he knew me.
“But- I can’t- arrggghh!!” I grunted as my legs flailed in the air above me, kicking the air as if the ground would be there and propel me to the chair.
Chris and I exchanged the doubts we were having in ourselves and about the hole we dug ourselves in.
After 10 minutes of listening to us moan, Paul finally chimed, “Quit thinking. Just do it.”
And just like that my legs were on the chair as if his words grabbed my toes in an effortless pull.
“See. Now hold it. Longer…longer…longer….”
“Is there anything we can do to help?” Chris and I were eager to earn our keep.
“Do you know how to prune trees?”
I didn’t even know what pruning meant, but Chris was up for the challenge.
“Yeah, I have done it once or twice.” Chris replied, pleased to be of service.
“Well, then, come with me. Randi, you can restock the woodpile. Just take the pile of wood outside and stack it in the pile in the bathroom.”
Stacking wood. Seemed easy enough.
“And it looks like it’s going to rain today, so if you don’t have work clothes you can borrow some. They’re in the dresser in your room.”
There was only one other bedroom in the house besides his. It was a spacious room in the corner of the house that was full of old mattresses and foam pads stacked on each other. This room was screaming commune living. There were two closets filled with worn out pillows and blankets for the taking. And, as promised, two dresser drawers were full of wholly t-shirts, and plain splattered scrubs. We grabbed the closest clothes to our size and our raincoats and we were off to work.
Paul chuckled at our blue gortex layers, protecting our bodies from the rain as if it would some how burn our skin. He didn’t believe in waterproof layers. Wool from New Zealand’s own Merino sheep was more than enough to do the job. I guess a country that has more sheep than people has got to have some pride in what they have to offer.
“Yeah, so, you get a little wet, but this wool absorbs the moisture and it keeps you real warm,” was his reasoning.
There was a little nook under the window of the bathroom for wood storage. My job was to take piles of chopped wood under the plastic covering in the yard and move it into the nook. I lost my self in the work. The rhythm of moving from one pile to the other caused a hypnotic trance in the constant mist of Rotorua. Being proud of my progress, I removed the plastic covering from descending pile to expose the pieces cowering from the showers.
The wood nook was complete. Its supply carefully stacked as a result of a seasoned Tetris player. Ready to move on, I approach Paul for my next task like I had moved to the next level of a game.
"Good on ya. You can go help Chris pick of the branches in the yard." Good on ya was a phrase we adopted while in New Zealand. It represented a job well done and a casual congratulations; a pat on the head for a good girl.
"Ok, great!" I moved on to help Chris with the fruit trees with a new confidence that this week was going to work out after all.
The morning carries on. I lose myself again in the rhythmic movements of moving discarded branches into a messy pile to be used later as fire starters. Connecting with the unwanted branches, I thank them for their service in the trees and a job well done. Good on ya, branch.
"Randi!" Paul yells from the top of the hill and down onto the patch of trees I have found myself in.
I have heard that tone before. What did I do?
"Randi, what did you do? Are you totally oblivious?"
"I don't really know what you mean? I did I stack the pile wrong?" How could I have stacked the pile wrong? I did exactly what he told me to do.
"You are obviously not living in the Yoga Mind, Randi. You left the plastic covering off of the wood in the rain! You have to finish what you start. Now all of the wood is drenched and who knows how long it will take to dry."
Paul was not one to raise his voice but the intensity of how he speaks when angry was enough to make you feel the size of a kitten.
"I'm so sorry, " was all that came out. It took every fiber of my being to not burst into tears. "I didn't even think to do that. I guess it slipped my mind. "
"I guess it did." Silently he walked back to the shed where he was working. The silence drenched with frustration.
As I awkwardly placed the plastic cover over the newly ruined woodpile, my mind, fighting with my tear ducts, went blank. Now, I just remember standing there in the rain, as it washed away any trace of my self-esteem.
Wake up, do morning practice, eat some breakfast, read, go to afternoon yoga class with Paul, lunch, yoga class, explore Rotorua, more yoga, dinner, read, evening meditation, bed.
That was a typical day, mixed in with the occasional walk, documentary, or deep conversation.
As much as tried to soak in all of the knowledge that came oozing out of Paul and notice how blessed I was to be living in the most gorgeous place in the world where my only responsibility is to practice yoga, I found myself frustrated. Not only did I realize how weak my body actually was, I realized how week my mind was. And for the first time, I was jealous of Chris. I was jealous of how easy it was for him to wake up in the morning. How quickly he progressed with the yoga positions. How him and Paul would laugh and go for hunts in the backyard. How he wasn’t allergic to the cat. How he didn’t ache for home.
Eventually, the time had come to say goodbye to Paul and Lynda. We were to go to class one more time with them at the Thermal Lodge and leave from there. My mind and body found relief in the fact that it was a beginner class. I had already pushed myself through two advanced classes earlier in the day.
We begin. As I brought myself to do a move, I wait for Paul to make the rounds, rambling off something about the mind being more powerful than the body and how one must tune out the resistance within and just let go. He passes me as I tried to sit and wrap my arms around my legs and lengthen my neck down. I had grown accustomed to his touch and found comfort in correction.
“You have all the flexibility in the WORLD,” pressing my forehead to the mat as he punched the word “world.” I was in shock at the position I was in. Excitement over comes me as I morphed into a position I had never experienced, and that Paul acknowledged my potential.
As the class came to a close, we lay on our backs and focused on our breathing. My mind wandered, reflecting on the week. I think back to when we thought we were going to work for our room and board. I think of how relieved I am that we chose to just pay him money instead of work for our room and board. I chuckled to myself at Paul’s infatuation with Austin Powers movies. I cherished the time Lynda and I shared exchanging trials of our past. My mind moves to the girlfriend who came to class with one of the other students. I baffled at how she had never practiced yoga in her life, but Paul kept praising her and saying how much of a natural she was. I wondered why I never got that praise. I wondered why I was so anxious to leave Paul’s but knew I would miss it when I was gone. I thought about how closely I watched Paul. How everything he said was a reflection of his life and every move he made reflected the workings of his soul. How I thought I knew him.
And for a moment the focus of my breath is gone, the focus of myself is gone, and I lay there longer…longer….longer….
“And come back. Stand up when you are ready,” gently spoken to bring us back to reality.
We pack up our things, gave Paul our money for the week, and said our goodbyes. Since there was no “good job” or “great progress” coming from Paul, I couldn’t help but ask.
“So…. How did I do?”
“You were ok,” was his response as he was packing up his bags, not even making eye contact.
You were ok? Ok? I worked my butt of all week for just an Ok?
“I was like you in the beginning. It took me a few years to really get in to yoga. You’ll get there. Oh, and good job, Chris.”
We were in New Zealand for three more weeks after we left Rotorua. Both of us attempted to keep our yoga practice afloat. Chris, of course, held out longer than me. I found myself frustrated without Paul’s all-knowing eye. Paranoia followed every move I attempted to make. How did I know if the point from the top of my head to my tailbone was perfectly in line? I didn’t know, and if I couldn’t practice yoga Paul’s way, I didn’t want to practice at all.
A year has past since New Zealand. And a year has past since I have practiced yoga. Well, physically. My “yoga mind” has been stretching ever since I left Paul’s. Close to everyday I ponder something I read in his library. Frequently, a demanding task will come up and the phrase, “Quit thinking, just do it,” enters my brain. I, also, find myself falling into rhythmic patterns often as I go throughout my day. I am even stretching my mind to bring me to practicing the yoga poses again. In a month I’m starting a Yoga Teacher Certification class. It will be a bit daunting for me, but I am ready. I am sailing through to my destination and I am at peace.