In­ner White Girl

mailife - - Contents - Words and Photos by RA­JAN SAMI

“You’re such a white girl,” re­marked a friend some years ago when they saw the lit­tle snack-sized con­tain­ers of dried fruit and nuts that I car­ried in my bag. I laughed but couldn’t I just be a well-or­ga­nized brownie in­stead? Years ago, when I was first di­ag­nosed with gluten- and lac­tose-in­tol­er­ance by my doc­tor in Suva, worldly and wellmean­ing lo­cal friends joked: “Oh, you’ve got the white man’s dis­ease” as though Pa­cific peo­ple are some­how im­mune to food in­tol­er­ances and al­ler­gies. Again, I laughed. At my weekly Thurs­day yoga class at the YMCA in Suva, I’m an anom­aly. I’m of­ten one of a hand­ful of lo­cals, one of two or three men, and of­ten the only brown guy in a sea of white ex­pat women. I find it in­ter­est­ing that the as­pects of In­dian cul­ture that ap­peal the most to me – yoga and the an­cient whole-body heal­ing sys­tem Ayurveda (that I’ve made a con­certed ef­fort to learn more about as I get older) comes to me via the West where it’s gained a foothold. I first came across yoga while at­tend­ing art school in Tokyo in the 90s (ad­mit­tedly more East than West), where I oc­ca­sion­ally took a class led by a Japanese yoga in­struc­tor that was filled with white ex­pats. When I moved to Paris for work some years later, I found my­self in fa­mil­iar ter­rain as the lone brown man try­ing to nav­i­gate his left from right and in French no less. An­noy­ingly, be­ing of South­ern In­dian de­scent has made me no more flex­i­ble nor any bet­ter at yoga. Years later, my down­ward fac­ing dog is still, well, only so so. But per­fec­tion isn’t the point of yoga. Prac­tice is. As the only guy on a five-day yoga re­treat held over Easter on Ovalau in April, I fi­nally had to give in and em­brace my “in­ner white girl”. Be­sides my­self, our group of 12 yoga en­thu­si­asts is made up al­most en­tirely of women, and mostly white women at that.


Even though I’m ex­cited to do more yoga, I’m also not sure if I can heck five whole days of it – twice a day, with med­i­ta­tion and and 12 hours of si­lence from 9pm to 9am. The wor­ries turn out to be un­founded. It’s easy to fall into a gen­tle ry­thmn at Kauwai Home­s­tay with­out big city dis­trac­tions like cell­phones (I switch mine off when I dis­cover there’s no sig­nal and it stays in my bag un­touched). Lo­cated on the south­ern tip of Ovalau, the hill­side prop­erty over­looks a beau­ti­ful, shel­tered bay and nearby Mo­turiki Is­land – the back­drop for our sun­rise and sun­set yoga and med­i­ta­tion ses­sions. The re­treat is led by Fi­jian David Pat­ter­son and his Ger­man wife Cloud Voight, both qual­i­fied yoga in­struc­tors. The cou­ple met at an ashram in Rishikesh, In­dia. Over the next five days, they guide us through dif­fer­ent types of med­i­ta­tion (breath, vi­su­al­iza­tion, mantra) and yoga classes that are at times gen­tle, at oth­ers chal­leng­ing, ad­just­ing the ses­sions to our phys­i­cal, men­tal and emo­tional states. Cloud, a pro­fes­sional dancer by train­ing, in­cor­po­rates some dance and pi­lates move­ments into her largely Shivanand­abased ses­sions, which stretch and tone the whole body. David spe­cialises in Akhanda yoga, a newer branch de­rived from Shivananda. I en­joy the longer 90-minute yoga ses­sions but strug­gle to hold the poses for longer than I’m used to. Like­wise, the longer med­i­ta­tions prove to be a bit chal­leng­ing for me. At home, I’ve got­ten into the habit of do­ing 5 to 15 minute guided med­i­ta­tions on my phone but sit­ting on a mat for 30 to 45 min­utes re­ally pushes me to my outer lim­its. Si­lence is bro­ken at break­fast but peo­ple still chose to re­treat within them­selves af­ter­wards ly­ing on ham­mocks read­ing or nap­ping. There isn’t a lot of mind­less chatter. One of my long­stand­ing gripes with a lot of spir­i­tual prac­tice is the ab­sence or hu­mour and laugh­ter. Not so with David and Cloud. David is the more ob­vi­ously funny one, I call his style of in­struc­tion: “goof­ball yoga” af­ter he re­peat­edly cracks us up dur­ing class. Cloud has a gen­tler, more lov­ing style of de­liv­ery but with quirks that make you break into smiles as we strug­gle to hold the poses longer. On our fi­nal night, the yo­gi­nis and yo­gis gather around a bon­fire, hav­ing writ­ten things we’d like to let go of on lit­tle pieces of pa­per that we take turns toss­ing into the flames be­fore col­lec­tively chant­ing “om” as a group. By this point, it feels like the in­di­vid­ual walls we’d ar­rived with have come down, al­low­ing us to be more open and con­nect more eas­ily with each other. Hugs are doled out freely but we stop short of braid­ing each other’s hair. The five day yoga re­treat cost F$530 per per­son and in­cluded four nights ac­com­mo­da­tion, veg­e­tar­ian meals, seven yoga and med­i­ta­tion ses­sions and an ex­cur­sion to a nat­u­ral pool.


Back home in Suva, I go to my weekly Thurs­day morn­ing Alofa Yoga class at 9am at the YMCA. Led by Ta­ialofa Petrini, a Samoan-born Amer­i­can, this class al­lows me to gen­tly hit the re­set but­ton each week. The ac­cel­er­ated pace of city life, the mul­ti­ple and of­ten over­lap­ping de­mands on our time, and the ad­dic­tive na­ture of so­cial me­dia can make the san­est among us feel a lit­tle cray from time to time. Once a week for an hour, yoga al­lows me to go in­ward, to in­te­grate my breath and be­ing with my body while shut­ting down my of­ten rest­less mind. I might show up for class in a bun­dle of knots, but as I lie on the mat at the very end of each ses­sion, the ten­sion I’ve been car­ry­ing is gone. Con­fes­sion: I used to be a mas­sage junkie un­til I re­dis­cov­ered yoga through this ex­cel­lent group class about a year ago. Ta­ialofa’s in­for­ma­tive style of de­liv­ery is out­stand­ing and a huge part of the draw for me. Now, in­stead of ly­ing pas­sively on a mas­sage ta­ble, I’m tak­ing charge of my own body: mov­ing, stretch­ing and breath­ing deeply un­til all of the week’s worldly stresses have dis­solved away. The fol­low­ing day, I have a private one-on-one ses­sion with Ta­ialofa at home, who, af­ter scan­ning my body and the places I hold ten­sion and that need more work, helps me with spe­cific pos­tures and deep five-part breath­ing. The breath is key to work­ing with the mind: slow down the breath and you slow down the mind. Prac­tis­ing in group classes hasn’t al­lowed for this sort of in­di­vid­u­alised at­ten­tion and I come away with a sim­ple rou­tine cus­tomised to my needs that I can prac­tice at the start and end of each day to get me to a hap­pier, more grounded place. The weekly group yoga class costs $10 per ses­sion while the private ses­sions are $150 an hour re­gard­less of how many peo­ple there are: “1 or 100”, she says. Ta­ialofa also of­fers in­di­vid­u­alised Suva-based re­treats. Of all the ac­tive things I do weekly: gym, walk, run, swim, it’s yoga I look for­ward to the most. No other form of ex­er­cise al­lows me to con­nect as deeply with my­self or makes me feel as whole.

David and Cloud in med­i­ta­tion

Kauwai’s yoga and med­i­ta­tion space of­fers views of a se­cluded bay and nearby Mo­turiki Is­land

Ta­ialofa Petrini does yoga on a stand up pad­dle board

The veg­e­tar­ian break­fast spread at Kauwai

Cloud in war­rior pose

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