Inner White Girl
“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