Yoga around the World – Part three: London and Phuket
There really needs to be little more said about a city that – after the shambolic darkness of Paris – leaves one feeling happy and secure and like everything is completely orderly (apart from the tube timetable). Being in London one can feel secure in the knowledge that one is in the heart of English civilisation – surely, native Londoners walk around with smug little expressions on their faces knowing they live in one of the greatest cities in the world (apart from when they are cursing the tube). Even though anything can – and does – happen in London, it does so in a civilised and polite manner (apart from shopping in Oxford Street on Saturdays, where the idea of leisurely window shopping is completely undermined by the crowds that hustle you along in shops, streets, and – you guessed it – the tube. But let’s face it, they are probably tourists, as locals would be far too well-mannered to hustle).
But seriously now, coming from New Zealand – one of Britain’s many ill-gotten colonies – we grow up with an overarching, shadowy legacy of England, and although I have been to England on one previous occasion, it was only during this visit that I began to understand the English-ness of our heritage. And so, under the guise of showing a childhood friend visiting from Germany the highlights of a city that partly explains my pedigree, I threw myself into tourist activities with undisguised vigour, including extensive planning of which of the numerous tourist attractions to visit – so many choices, so little time!
In the end, we simply picked a destination and then started walking. We walked the width and breadth of inner London, and stopped when we saw something of interest, or needed to eat. And so we walked past when the changing of the guards was happening at Buckingham palace, and chatted to a policeman about his very tall horse. We had lunch in a very swanky restaurant next to the Ritz, where copious silverware accompanied every course, and we ate in a Korean restaurant in China town, where entry into the cellar-like room was gained by rapping a secret code on the locked front door. We walked through Bloomsbury, Notting Hill, the West End, along the Tower bridge, and then we walked some more. We sat outside the British museum, and rather than watching the artefacts inside, we watched the microcosm of life unfolding in the courtyard.
And then my German friend left, and I had no further excuses for not immersing myself into the local yoga scene. As London is obviously a place where they value their yoga I did not need to travel by tube, bus and then taxi to the closest studio, but walked the five minutes it took me to get from our house in Parson’s Lane to the Power Yoga Company .
Housed on the second floor of an old brick building the studio was quaint and atmospheric, definitely the place you want to hang out after dropping the kids at day-care, which happened to be in the building next door. With a name like the Power Yoga Company it seemed important to pick a class that would not be involving too much (non-existent) power, and so I picked a restorative class, which I imagined would involve a lot of lying down, but was in fact a slow guided flow into deep poses. Which was wonderful – accompanied by the cacophony of children playing next door at the day care, and the train rumbling past the back of the building, I absolutely loved it, as I worked through the poses and planned on what I would have for breakfast from the conveniently located café inside the yoga studio.
And then, faster than you can say “it’s raining cats and dogs” (though, to be fair we experienced very little of the infamous English rain), we were back to stuffing our belongings into increasingly snugger suitcases to leave on our next leg of the journey: Phuket, Thailand.
Arriving in Phuket after three plane changes and close to twenty hours of flying I was comforted by the idea of sun, beautiful sandy beaches, great Thai food and relaxation around a tropical pool. Which was like asking it not to rain in London in winter.
Overrun with European and Russian tourists the beaches were littered with bodies and their accompanying debris, including empty beer bottles, food wrappers and other objectionable items. The food in restaurants was a watered-down version of traditional Thai food to please the farangs’ potentially limited palate, and the poolside of the hotel was an obvious choice for a dance party, with Justin Timberlake blaring out of strategically spaced speakers at every conceivable moment of the day. And night.
At the risk of really selling Phuket short to potential visitors, there was the fact of the copious green forest on the hills behind us, from which you could hear actual monkeys calling to each other at sun-rise. And the most amazing sun sets over the beach. And the local school sports day – complete with marching band – that was held in the old sports arena down the road from our hotel. And the lovely, generous old ladies with their cats, who offered massages from a small run-down shop at the bottom of the hill.
But the real comfort came from the rather gigantic statue of Big Buddha, which overlooks Chalong Bay, Phuket and the Andaman Sea – an ongoing, ambitious building project which is funded entirely by visitors buying tiles to be put at the base of the statue, or small bells to be hung in the wind around what is essentially still a building site.
And the comfort came from yoga. Although in some ways my plan to do yoga at every port we called in had not worked out exactly the way I had envisaged, every time I did do yoga during my travels I felt comforted, taken to a place that I would not have been at under other circumstances. Yoga in Phuket was no different.
Yoga Connections Phuket is a small, one-room studio on the top of the “Homepro Village Chalong” – one of Phuket’s mall-style shopping centres. Yet despite that the studio was quiet and peaceful with a warm breeze flowing through that – if you squinted your eyes hard enough – could have you convinced you are somewhere on a hilltop. Maybe next to the Big Buddha.
The class was taken by an extremely tanned and toned teacher whose accent may have been Spanish, and attended by two other non-Thai students, who seemed to be regulars; which then meant I spent a great deal of the class wondering whether they were visitors like myself, or were living out their dream of residing in Thailand for the very same sun and beautiful sandy beaches I had imagined. Or the pool parties.
Whatever the real story was about my yoga buddies, I left the class feeling happy and energised, and even the fact that at first I couldn’t find a tuk tuk to take me back to Phuket, and started walking home in the wrong direction, didn’t bother me.
Coming home – all the way home to New Zealand – was hard. Weeks of pursuing yoga (and so many other things) in new locations was quite simply an adventure that was worth every minute. The things I saw and heard, every sensation of those explorations has helped me with the everyday, where routine, stress, and “things that must be done” at a frenetic speed threaten to take away any sense of adventure.
And so, I remember to keep breathing and believing that “Yoga is not about touching your toes, it is what you learn on the way down.” (Jigar Gor)