A Journey to India, body & mind

From October until December 2016, Jacqueline Pullan, will be living and working in Fort Cochi India. In this series, she discusses her personal and professional reasons for embarking on a journey that will further her understanding of the practical use of yoga in psychotherapy.

Beginning my journey

Why would a 55 year old woman who gets lost and has not travelled outside of Europe go to India by herself for a month and train to be a yoga teacher?

September 2014
Pam, a yoga teacher and physiotherapist, helps me prepare to go to India. I met her in the Nuffield gym where she instructs and I was impressed by the clarity of her approach, with teaching points that were simple and safe. Pam arrives at the Garden Therapy Space and takes me through one to one sessions for 8 weeks before I depart.

Pam knows I am a novice, yet I have decided to join in a 200 hour Yoga Alliance certified teacher training programme on the other side of the world. She leaves me able to stand on my head and I am ready to stand on my own two feet and travel solo outside of Europe for the first time. I am aged 55.

My teenage daughter enjoys the novelty of telling her friends that her mother is doing something most unexpected.

I achieve kudos in packing the bag of independence.

1st November
At Bangalore airport, I selected the easy option of having the ashram send a car for international students. I see the placard and a man with a smiling face and missing teeth ushers me out. I am conspicuous in being white, fair haired and a single female.

The driver wastes no time in attacking the job at hand. Without air-con, all windows are down and I feel the heat. My body is jostled with the swerving and stop start acceleration accompanied by the cacophony of hooting and tooting.

I am starting my yoga journey with a tiredness headache caused by the immensity of all this new input. My driver is a man of few words and I am unsure of what to say after offering namaste in greeting. I feel unsure of myself and slightly giddy with adrenaline. I hope we do not crash. Every manoeuvre at jerk fast speed brings this to mind. A stop at a roadside stall for a large coconut milk drink, served within its shell, has me wondering: is this the best way to hydrate or a potential cause of dodgy guts?

Off the highway and onto smaller city roads there are cows reclined on the pavement or in the dust of the road. Pedestrians cluster in disconcerting swarms that morph all over the road and whatever the highway code is, I cannot yet decipher who has right of way. It seems like a colourful game of chance and dare. Unintentionally, I am relieved to be wearing the ‘wrong’ sunglasses. I recommend shaded prescription reading lenses, they blur the scenes of chaos and impending calamity.

Onto unmade roads and dirt tracks with enormous grooves, we cross country and the scenery is lush, verdant and spreading. We bounce from crevasse to boulder evasion and I fear for the driver’s life if the suspension finally cracks.

At my chosen destination, I practically fall out of the tin can that had heated up beyond comfort and almost lurch in relief towards the next man who welcomes me. I want to have a drink. It will be water from now on. Totally vegan food, too.

Miles of foliage and pale brown earth slopes down to a green coloured river with crocodiles cruising by. I had arrived. I knew no-one.

AyurYoga Eco

AyurYoga Eco – Ashram is a non- profit, 18 acres of riverside organic farm in countryside with an hour long drive to Mysore, famous for all things yoga in its rich history. This is a place of immersion and I am so pleased that I paid a bit more to have my own small and perfectly adequate ‘hut’ as home for the next 30 days. I look around to see which other strangers have landed.

At the welcoming ceremony of initiation, we are invited to wear white and stand before the yogis and the assembled students to declare our intention.

I say that I am here with a beginner’s mind. I have come to learn about Yoga as a union of the mind, body and spirit. I have ‘butterflies’ in my tummy and my voice sounds thin as I try to speak with conviction. Why am I here? Surely I could just do evening classes in Sheffield!

I can see I am likely the oldest in the group, although three others are also in middle age wrinkle formation. The conversations begin over herb tea and the forming, storming, norming process of human grouping is in action. When the yoga gear comes out, the atmosphere is charged with expectations.

I have spent the last twenty years sitting very still (on a chair) working as a psychotherapist. Now I am sitting on a woven mat, in a hall with glass sided walls, on a concrete floor. A man with authority is standing up in front of me on the front row, addressing all 16 of us. I’m reminded of being in primary school and the parents have gone and suddenly everyone and everything is out of the comfort zone.

And that’s when a mouse ran right past my left hip and everyone behind me laughed!

Every day was a learning experience. Overall it was 117 hours of technique training and practice which was delivered by Krish, who Heads up the ashram and moves with grace and upright dignity, and his selected team of Indian teachers, all male. There was one exception, as Krish’s partner, an American woman, would demonstrate for him with the body of someone highly trained in gymnastics or dance since toddlerhood.

I was certainly in the right place, and I would highly recommend to anyone wanting to begin or deepen their experience of yoga that this is a special and interesting ashram. The hours were long but this was known to me before I made my commitment. Living it was a bit different to reading about it.

The Daily Grind

We woke to the bell. Pavlovian conditioning and discipline requires repetition. We took turns to ring the bell at 5.30am. Meditation started at 6am for 40 minutes. In silence we glided out of our private or shared huts and walked across the land and dew soaked grass to the yoga hall with the concrete floor and floor to ceiling glass walls. Wrapped in white clothing and often shrouded in the mist rolling off the river, it was a beautifully peaceful beginning.

Meditation and mindfulness are big business in the West. In the pre sunrise darkness, rummaging around the mat and cushion pile from where the mice create their sitting place, I was a reluctant participant. I wanted to be there, I wanted to learn, I wanted to do it. Being present was indeed challenging.

The reflection in silence continued with our dispersal up the hill to undertake the practise of Neti. Standing on the grass, we crouched or stood in bent and side leaning choreography to swill our nostrils and sinus passages with warm saline water poured from our hand held plastic Neti pot. The water artfully went up the nostril and streamed out of the other. Some discreet or not so self conscious snorting could follow up the emptying of the passage.

A hot lemon and ginger drink in silence provided an opportunity to warm up and psychologically prepare for class. At 7am until 9.15am we were privileged to be studying practically the art and science of yoga with masters. I wasn’t a gym bunny before I came and I knew I wouldn’t be turning my body into any pretzel moves or being captured in photographic yoga bends of bliss. It was hard physically and mentally to be active in class for 4 hours a day, but I genuinely loved it.

I was receiving emails from my friends who were envious that I was on some kind of spa holiday, as if I would be floating on a cloud of virtuous indulgence all day, before sipping a gin and tonic and overlooking the countryside. By week 2, I understood that the one and only day off (Sunday) was not going to include any sightseeing for me.

Postcards home would have read; I am having a magnificent time, but you would not wish to be here! The daily schedule was rigorous because we were all willing participants who wanted to be there. So why was I here, if it is not a holiday, with spa bliss and some gentle yoga before cocktails?

Applying yoga in psychotherapy

I have been working with individuals who have in their distress and disturbance suffered in their body and mind and become so anguished in psychological (and sometimes physical pain) that they wanted to die. Yoga is something I believe in and it is free, accessible to all, can be done alone or in a collective, in any space and at any time. There are no restrictions on participation, involvement and commitment. The returns are incalculable and without limit. Passionately, I want for people in my professional care to be aware of their own capacity and resources so they can live life adaptively and creatively. Yoga takes people from hopelessness and helplessness and opens a type of awareness that I am dedicated to within psychotherapy. It helps people gain the hope and personal empowerment to live life differently and more positively.

So, in reading the section on who can come to the ashram, I chose to attend (Hatha Yoga Teacher Training in India). I saw myself as a receiver of care and expertise and I wanted to embody the tradition of masters who hold precious the philosophy of yoga as union, to join and bind together. I chose Hatha; Ha = moon, symbolising the parasympathetic nervous system, tha = sun, symbolising the sympathetic branch of the nervous system.

In yoga, there is no one definition. In the western world, yoga may be emphasised in the physicality and the action-based doing and participation of improvement as can be seen. In psychotherapy and Hatha yoga, experiential knowledge is essentially intuitive and non-conceptual.

My quest was to question how can yoga be integrated into my practice of psychotherapy. In my ongoing professional development, reading contemporary researched-based therapy leads to the body being indivisible from a brain on legs that arrives at the therapist’s office. Yoga is the science of finding meaning for one’s life. This is the cognitive component of psychotherapy that is achieved after the body, mind and brain are in awareness of stability, ebb, flow, change and how to regain equilibrium when the going gets tough and tougher.

Lessons learnt

Whenever I work with a client in a psychotherapy collaboration, I am changed by the encounter and experience. I take it seriously that I am also responsible for my own health, psychologically, physically and emotionally, spiritually and relationally. In my imperfection and failings, poor habits and blind spots, unconscious drives and stored associations in the brain, I was coming not only to develop my professional contribution, but also my own self.

So, here on the ashram with a group of people with their own stories and history, from Europe, New Zealand, Australia, America and India, we gather to find our union, to bind and yoke together and to connect to those parts of ourselves dormant or undiscovered, forgotten about or in hiding, all while discovering how to know something of that which may never be proven, yet cannot be disproved.

I include the daily schedule as the video clips are a poor representation of the richness of information and an experience that was not ‘life changing’ in a dramatic revelatory way, but most certainly has and is changing my life as I consciously choose to pay attention to it. I continue to introduce yoga or develop the exploration of it within my psychotherapy sessions and in 2016 I will be embarking on another adventure in India with a yoga guru (teacher) I met on the Hatha teacher training programme two years ago.

Daily Schedule

6.00–6.40am Meditation

6.40-7.00am Neti/Kriyas

7.00–9.15am Yoga and pranayamas

9.15-10.30am Brunch

10.30-12.30pm Yoga in Big Picture (context) Yoga Therapy

12.30-2.00pm Personal free time and private coaching/Ayurveda consultation

1.30-2.30pm Fruit snack

2.30-4.00pm Yoga sutras/Ayurveda

4.30–7.00pm Yoga anatomy workshops/teaching practice

7.00pm-8.00pm Dinner vegan food

8.00-9.00pm Informational dvd learning on matters relevant to yoga teaching or group chanting

10.00pm-10.00am Silence

This schedule is for 6 days per week x4. On the first Sunday I went into Mysore with others to look around the palace and shop for yoga cotton trousers as lycra or nylon mix is not comfortable in this beautiful warm and humid climate.

On the three remaining Sundays I went with a dear new friend from Denmark, Camilla, to a spa an hour’s drive away for a specific purpose. We enjoyed four hours of authentic Ayurvedic massage with herbs, steam, oil and secret ingredients for repair and restoration of the body and mind.

The sublime experience of one particular treatment was of being massaged by four hands for over an hour, whilst naked (except for a paper modesty bikini brief) whilst anointed in oil on a tray-like table that could be saturated in the oil and drain down the gully perimeter surrounding the four sides. First impressions were less than comforting as it looked like a black marble pathology dissection plinth.

This tenderness of touch, with deep muscle tissue manipulation and Indian head massage, and the four hands, was the highlight of my week and I could not have survived the long hours and demands of the training without this to look forward to. On the third Sunday, I literally cried in relief during a massage whilst I was in the torso and leg body chamber of steam. It seemed to be a release of all sorts of inner tensions that I was becoming connected to during the period of time of chosen removal and segregation from the usual environment and demands etc. Those women were skilled and caring, and I will always be grateful.

As I am also trained in holistic massage therapy, it is not unfamiliar for me to experience a client crying during or after the therapy. This can be immensely therapeutic and healing when processed together in the psychotherapy and can powerfully and gently enable the client to be relieved of some aspects of discontent or trauma that they had not found words for previously.

In my learning from October 24th to December 16th 2016 I will also study Indian head massage and I will ensure that I receive once more Ayurveda consultation and massage.

My psychotherapy clients have been prepared for working with me in anticipation of this planned professional sabbatical and for those that elect, my clinical supervisor is contactable as their temporary surrogate therapist. I look forward to our reconnection and the union of psychotherapy integrating the body, mind and brain in therapy sessions in 2017.

I welcome new clients and making assessment and introductory sessions from December 19th 2017, with sessions commencing January. Reach out today to see how I can help you.

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