Fifty of us, all clad in white and with red dots on our foreheads, sit in a circle chanting. Our hands are in prayer position. In the centre sits a priest, who periodically sprinkles leaves and pours ghee into a small fire while he leads the chant. Our eyes are closed, but we feel wide-eyed and tentative, as we trip over the unfamiliar Sanskrit words.
Suddenly, from the back of the room a voice exclaims: “The fire needs to be bigger!”
That’s Sudhir Ponugupati, director of Sampoorna Yoga School in Goa, India. It is the first day of our 3 week yoga teacher training course and we are at a traditional Indian fire ceremony.
I’ve travelled from Melbourne to Delhi to Mumbai to Goa, ignoring protests from those at home: “Do you really have to go all that way to study yoga?” and “haven’t you ever heard of YouTube?”.
Of course I didn’t, and of course I had, but I wanted to do my yoga training in the country where it all began.
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So here I am in Agonda – a sleepy fishing village in South Goa, nestled between the beach and the jungle. I arrived late at night, slightly spooked by my taxi driver’s comment that he sometimes sees tigers in this part of the world, and crawled, exhausted, into my giant bed. I’ve opted for a private room with air-conditioning. If I’m going to do something this hardcore, I’m going to need a little luxury.
My fellow students have travelled from all over the world – a United Nations of yoga freaks. We’re a colourful bunch: musicians who can’t make it to class on time, extreme vegans, recovering addicts, mothers, travellers, type-A high achievers, those who have quit their jobs and sold everything to follow a different path. Ages range from 19 to 60 and only two in the group are men.
Over the next 24 days we will become like a family – a big, flexible, vegetarian clan. We’ll see each other at our best and worst, and we won’t all make it to the end.
Each day starts at 6.30am sharp (latecomers have to make up the class at lunchtime) with a two-hour Ashtanga yoga class. The rest of the day is filled with classes on everything from re-incarnation to why the psoas muscle is important, to breathing like a yogi. We finish at 6 or 7pm, our mostly Western hips aching from hours of sitting on the floor.
An ode to yoga: where to start? Yoga is a million things and a million things to me, but at its most basic, I think yoga is about being comfortable in your own body and mind. It’s about feeling strong and flexible and as if you own your body – something that is even more powerful and profound if you are a woman. Yoga gives me the feeling that I am connected to myself from my head to my toes. I think this ability to inhabit your own body is where it all starts. I heard someone say once that we must fully possess our bodies in order to transcend them, and this is my favourite way to look at yoga #iloveyouyoga #getonthemat #internationalyogaday
Each mealtime, there’s a mountain of delicious vegetarian food to keep us going. Sometimes, for a change, we head into town to our favourite joint, Zest, a Melbourne-style vegan cafe that serves chia puddings and smoothie bowls, or Blue Planet, a family-run place among the treetops that makes a mean papaya salad. Or we flock to the beachfront cafes, which let us use their sun lounges for free.
Agonda Beach has been voted one of the best beaches in Asia, and although the water doesn’t feel much cooler than the 35-degree air temperature, we never pass up an opportunity for a lunchtime swim.
The cows also love hanging out at the beach.
Sure, there are tears during the course, as we battle with the long days and the unfamiliar routine, but there’s also plenty of laughter. One day, instead of our usual meditation, Sudhir decides we’ll spend an hour freestyle dancing to Indian party music.
I don’t see any tigers, but once, while in downward-facing dog pose, I spy a snake slithering across the roof of the hut next door. Monkeys watch while we practise, probably wondering what the hell we’re doing. Wild dogs wander through the yoga room looking for pats, and there are giant ants we can’t kill due to the yogic principle of Ahimsa (non-violence).
Finally, after 200 hours of classes and some nerve-wracking exams, we finish as we began: with a fire ceremony. Only now, our eyes are less wide and more beaming, our hips sit comfortably on the floor and we are now bona fide Ashtanga-Vinyasa yoga teachers.
Sampoorna Yoga Shala
- 398/E, Vall-Tambdem, Agonda, Canacona, South Goa
- Prices for yoga teaching training course start at 1800 Euro ($A2716), course only, up to 2700 Euro for a deluxe air-conditioned cottage and three meals a day