Take a deep breath when you reach the full stop at the end of this sentence. Now exhale. Again: deep inhale, feel the cool air as it moves through your nostrils, see your abdomen and chest expand; now exhale slowly through your nose, the same air coming back out warm, feel your face relax. Last time, and now don't read on, just breathe. And smile. Plug your ears with your fingers and listen to yourself breathe.
Nicely done. Feeling better? Just three deep breaths, a smile, some positiveness, that's all it takes to give yourself a mini holiday, reduce your stress, rest your mind and add tremendous quality to your life. Remember to give yourself this mini break as often as you can throughout your day, every day. And once in a while, take a long, relaxing holiday somewhere nice, like maybe an island in Thailand.
I came to the Gulf of Thailand to take a deep breath, and on Koh Samui, I heard breathing all around me. The leaves of the coconut trees rustle as a gentle wind breezes through them. The water buffalo heave long, deep guttural breaths. On the beach, the sea takes in shallow breaths, pulling the water out, and gently exhales waves onto shore.
If our ears were attuned enough and we were patient enough, we might also be able to hear the sound of the sea's longer, twice-daily breath: the deep inhale creating the low tide, the deep exhale bringing the tide in. But for this you'd need to sit on the beach for a whole day, just listening to the sea. In the meantime, it's enough to just sit on the beach and synchronize your breathing with the sea's long, deep inhales and steady, vocal exhales. Ocean breath. The Indian yoga masters had a word for it: ujayi.
And just a few meters away from Koh Samui's secluded Laem Sor beach, behind a row of tall coconut palms, and across a crystal-blue salt-water pool, some 30 people are breathing ujayi, long and deep, inside a large, airy, hardwood-floor room. Breathing and moving.
They are practicing their morning yoga, their limbs contorted, holding impossible positions, or in motion, in "downward facing dog" or "warrior pose." With sweat pouring off their bodies, the yoga students in the practice space by the sea are engaged in breath-synchronized movement, called Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga. Their breathing is controlled, guttural and deep.
The place: Yoga Thailand, a luxurious yoga and wellness resort at the southern tip of Samui Island in the Gulf of Thailand.
Ujayi breathing, at the heart of Ashtanga yoga, gives the usually silent act of breathing a perceptible resonance throughout its cycle. The yoga masters taught that first comes the breath, and only then the body moves. The inhalations and exhalations, through the nose, are equal in duration and are controlled, with the practitioner contracting the throat muscles on the inhale and releasing them on the exhale to make the distinctive sound. This breath enables the yoga practitioner to maintain a rhythm to his practice, take in enough oxygen, and help build energy while clearing toxins out of the body through sweat.
Ujayi is especially important during transition into and out of postures, as it helps you to stay present, self-aware and grounded. This system of breath and movement lends Ashtanga yoga a meditative quality. And it is this quality - this "inner work" - that lies at the core of the Yoga Thailand experience.
AN ESTABLISHED yoga institution for the past five years with thousands of visitors, the new resort and wellness center, completed in December 2008, is rapidly becoming a mecca for aspiring yoga teachers, as well as those who just want a holiday with plenty of yoga, health and relaxation. The resort offers month-long yoga training courses, shorter yoga retreats and health and wellness treatments at its Samahita wellness center. This eco-friendly beach resort (no smoking, lots of recycling and very little waste) is run by Paul and Jutima Dallaghan. Paul, originally from Ireland, is a world-renowned yoga teacher with certification from the Ashtanga Yoga Research Center in Mysore, India.
Dallaghan's Centered Yoga teachers' course is a big draw for aspiring yoga teachers from around the world. Regular vacationers who want a week or two of structured yoga classes benefit from Dallaghan's presence and attention, as well as the assistance of several highly trained instructors who have graduated Dallaghan's course. Lasting up to a month, the teacher training course includes rigorous physical and mental training, breathing practice, theory studies on Buddhist texts, meditation, philosophy, anatomy and nutrition. The students even undergo detoxification therapies to clean their systems. After the course, some students travel on to India and other places to deepen their yoga studies.
Yoga Thailand also offers yoga retreats and residential stays for those who want a different sort of holiday - one centered on relaxation, self-development and wellness. The retreat offers two Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga classes a day, an intensive morning class, including work on poses, breath and meditation, and a more relaxing restorative evening class. Newcomers are taught a series of postures, called the primary series, which when carried out with ujayi breathing produce intense internal heat and profuse sweating that detoxifies muscles and organs, awakening the body, improving circulation and centering the mind. As you master the sequence of postures, new ones are added to your practice, until you reach the end of the entire series.
But unless you have been doing this kind of yoga for a while, don't expect to get to the end in a hurry. Not that you'd want to, as the slower and more thorough you are with your yoga practice, the deeper your experience, and the greater your sense of well-being. At the end of your practice, you enter the final relaxation pose, the shivasena, lying for 10 minutes on your back, letting your muscles relax, the tension in them to dissipate.
The practitioner carries out the series of postures to the best of his/her ability, under the watchful eye of Dallaghan's assistants, who come to correct a position, extend a stretch, offer advice and encouragement. The 60- to 90-minute class is a great way to start the day, as the body and mind are primed and relaxed after a good workout.
DALLAGHAN'S INTENTION is to provide something practical, a taste of the benefits a regular yoga practice can have on their lives. Each class is started with an ancient Indian chant thanking the old masters for passing down their knowledge of yoga - a tool for healthy living. With two classes a day and a healthy environment, whether you stay a week, two weeks or a month, you undoubtedly begin to feel the effects of regular practice, and the possibilities of further improvements in your life begin to surface. If, at the end of your yoga holiday, you put aside 20 minutes in the morning for a bit of yoga and reflection, and you continue this, what Dallaghan calls "developing the art of non-procrastination," you will feel gradual, but meaningful, positive changes in your life.
All the yoga takes place in a large practice space called the shala. This beautiful room is the centerpiece and nerve center of Yoga Thailand. Surrounded on three sides by large windows, it exudes seriousness of intention, mind-body harmony and peace. The dark, hardwood floor covers the entire space, on which more than 30 people can comfortably lay down their mats and practice with plenty of room for their limbs. The room is adorned with Buddhist artifacts, portraits of Indian yoga masters, inspirational inscriptions and even a hamsa, brought to Dallaghan by one of his many Israeli students.
After morning practice, a buffet breakfast-brunch is served until 1 p.m. The food is laid out on a long table, and eaten at large adjacent tables facing the beach, adding a family/camp atmosphere to mealtimes. The food is an eclectic mix of vegetarian, Thai, and some Western, but always fresh, organic and healthy, with no processed food. The ingredients are bought fresh from the market every morning. While the meals are mostly vegetarian, fish and eggs are served a few times a week.
In between classes you can chill on low cushions in the lounge area, a large, airy space overlooking the sea. It has its own library with donated books left by dozens of travelers, and it has Internet wifi as do all the residential rooms. Alternatively, you can get a massage in the wellness center, staffed by experienced masseuses offering a range of massage. And you can follow this with a swim in the sea or salt-water pool, take a long walk on the secluded beach, take a nap, read a book - or just do nothing.
NATURALLY, THE people you meet at a place like Yoga Thailand are seekers, those probing inward, developing themselves, trying to create a healthy life. There are guests here from the Philippines, Pakistan, Mexico, America, Israel, England, Germany, France, Dubai, South Africa, New Zealand and other places. The atmosphere is international, quiet, contemplative, restorative, and it's easy to make friends.
The evening classes are a much more relaxed affair - long body stretches, lots of positions that get your muscles to relax and to let go of their tension. These classes, accompanied by some light music, leave you restored. This class is shorter and less intense than the morning practice, focusing more on centering your mind, calming your thoughts and giving you a relaxed energy for the rest of the evening. After those classes I liked jumping into the sea or the salt-water pool to cool down, and after that sit in the scented aromatherapy sauna (which feels like you're floating in a cup of herbal tea).
The dinner buffet is served at 6 p.m. and, like breakfast, is a plentiful and tasty array of fresh vegetables, brown rice, some fish, pasta and plenty of steamed vegetables. At any time you can order your own meal from the dining center, where you can even get a hamburger. The menu is rich with healthy options like steamed vegetables, tofu, bean sprout salad, organic beetroot and coconut salad, fresh herb soups, veggie stir-fry, Pad Thai and salmon.
The resort's ambience extends to the guest-house rooms, which are built in clean lines, with lots of wood and bamboo structures and set among palm trees; plenty of soft white colors in the rooms; energy-conserving lighting, and low, soft cushions. The sense of balance and moderation is in everything - the principles of yoga are in everything. The place closes down at 10 p.m., when everyone goes to sleep, to rise early for breathing lessons at 7 (if you're in teacher training), and yoga lessons at 8.
While you don't have to take both classes every day, it is encouraged. The more classes I took, the more the yoga started taking effect. During the first few days my muscles took some strain holding some of the positions, but gradually it became easier and I could focus more on breathing and deepening the stretches. My body remembered the sequence of postures and I learned more of them, getting further into the primary series.
If you come with an open mind, a mind willing to learn and be taught, you will gain a tremendous amount of well-being. The gradual transformation in people here is noticeable: Just a few days into their stay guests start loosening up, their faces relax, they let the place and the yoga do its thing. By the end of my third day I could feel my stress melting away, the layers of tension stored in my muscles and joints (especially my neck, shoulders, hips and lower back) starting to dissipate, my body loosening up, my face relaxing, the black bags under my eyes slowly receding and I'm smiling more. I look and feel different, lighter, more composed.
BUT THEN there was another side, something unexpected, something I observed obliquely for the first few days but that was now coming into clearer focus, creeping up into my awareness until I could no longer ignore its presence: I was becoming emotionally raw; thoughts and feelings were sprouting out of their hiding places at an increasing pace, and I felt more tense than before I got here. I was moody and felt burdened. I tossed and turned all night, for two nights.
What was happening here? Hadn't I traveled all this way to escape my stresses, to rejuvenate? Hadn't I flown thousands of miles to a remote island in the Gulf of Thailand, somewhere my life wouldn't find me? I thought I managed to lose my old self in all the connecting flights, darting in and out of airports, switching taxis, exploring the island on a motorbike with a helmet that covered my face. I was relaxing by the pool, doing yoga, reading a lot, resting a lot, going to sleep early and getting a massage every day. I thought I covered my tracks well, so how did "he" catch up to me, why was I in a state of disquiet?
Into my fourth day the inverse process was unmistakable: The more I relaxed, the more I rested, ate healthy food, the more massages I got, the more yoga I did - especially the more yoga I did - the more my "subconscious me," the one with the fears and worries, would materialize, slowly at first, as if appearing by sections on a Polaroid photograph. The further I got into the primary series, the deeper I stretched and the longer my yoga practice became, the more my muscles were giving up their tension, and what is tension if not stress, and what is stress if not suffering.
Much of our tension is stored in our muscles and joints, and that's why so many of us have tension pain, whether in our backs or other places. By my fourth day, the Polaroid picture had formed completely and the me I was hoping to leave behind, the non-holiday me, was fully present. He had brought with him worries about my near future, my mid-future and my distant future, regrets about things in my near past, mid-past and distant past. My chest contracted with bottled-up fears, I started losing sleep, and what little sleep I did get was punctuated with vivid, intense dreams that, after I awoke, left me wondering if the fresh mushrooms they were serving in the buffet were of the legal kind.
A quick survey of some of the teacher candidates and guests revealed that some of them were going through a similar experience. The teacher trainees were into the second week of their intense course, and each one was going through a serious internal process too, not just learning to put their legs around their heads. Neil Barker, the senior instructor, was pleased, saying the yoga was taking its effect on me, adding that more than a physical workout, yoga is a psychological and spiritual exercise. Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is just as much a meditation as a physical workout, and meditation is looking inward, and if you seek, you shall find.
What's more, in this setting of focused intention, there is nothing to distract the mind. There are no toys to play with, there isn't any TV and there are no video games, there is no disco dancing, no alcohol and no drugs. There is nothing here but you and your practice, you and your mind, you and your meditation. The place is designed to provide you with time and space for self-exploration.
Yoga Thailand fosters personal transformation in its guests, and provides a framework for its positive development. The intense physical and mental workout that is Ashtanga Yoga takes time to effect change, but once it starts, you notice it. "A candle needs to be sparked, maybe a couple of times before the flame takes hold. Make practice a part of your everyday life and you will see a transformation," Barker says.
It doesn't happen to everyone, and some people have different experiences, but it is known to happen that the yoga works to release the tension held in your muscles, and that tension is repressed emotion. We repress our emotions, bottle them up, because by and large, that is what we are taught to do from a very early age. Regular, sincere and consistent practice, even as little as 15 minutes a day, can cause a shift in our lives for the better. After six days at Yoga Thailand I felt a very real shift, a change I am hoping to explore further.
Yoga Thailand is a place I see myself returning to. My short but meaningful time here has opened a door to self-discovery, to a method of releasing some deep, stressful emotions, and to learn to live a less stressful life. "What goes on inside is what matters most," Dallaghan says. "We teach the practice, offer the environment, and a person's internal makeup, within this setting, will determine what happens next. If you keep at it, the transformation grows."
I left Yoga Thailand lighter, leaner, stronger and more relaxed, having learned something for myself, but also with a sense of purpose, an incentive to practice yoga more often and to see where it takes me.n
The writer was a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (Tourism Thailand, Amazing Thailand) and Yoga Thailand.
For more of Amir's articles and posts, visit his personal blog Forecast Highs.