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McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh, India

Yoga: Observe what the body is doing and feeling. Observe without making value judgements.

I observed my thighs hurting. I tried to observe the pain without it bothering me, but that’s not so easy. I remember trying to do the same thing when I was cycling.

Keep the feet parallel. Stretch out your toes. Lift them and stretch them forwards. Push the centres of your heels down into the ground. Feel your leg muscles tighten. Feel your stomach go down. Feel your chest expand, your back straighten.

Jump so that your feet are four feet apart. Each foot is the length of your foot. Measure it out to be sure. It has to be exact. And your feet must be parallel. The outer edges. Since the outer edges off my feet aren’t straight I’m not sure which bits should be parallel. The assistant comes round and puts my feet in the right position. Stretch out your arms, palms forward, keeping your back straight and buttocks tight. Lean over to the right and when it’s no longer comfortable to hold your arms out, hold onto your leg with your right hand above or below the right knee, but not on the knee, and put your left hand on your hip with your thumb on your back.

The teacher is 53 but looks 10 years younger. Apparently (according to someone who’s done his course before) he went grey a few years ago through the stress of building the yoga centre we were in this morning, but he then cured his greyness by doing shoulder stands, his favourite yoga pose (asana). It’s good for the women who want to stay looking young. What about the men? a woman asks. Aren’t men vain as well? No.

In this kind of yoga, Iyengar yoga, they use props a lot: bricks, cushions, straps and blankets. They’re used to get you in the right position, but they can also be used as crutches for those who need them, which I did, particularly on the one where we had to kneel down, sitting on our heels, then lean over backwards touching the ground – or cushion, or two cushions, or cushion plus bolster, or chair – with your shoulders.

I wasn’t quite the oldest and stiffest one there, but I was definitely well towards the stiff oldie end of the spectrum. Most were supple young women, making it a bit difficult for some people to concentrate all of their attention on whichever part of their own body they were supposed to be concentrating on, which the teacher kept saying was what yoga was all about. It’s not about being supple, it’s about observation of your own body. Advanced yoga students are people who can observe their own bodies. (Beginners are people who observe other students’ bodies.)

I’m now sitting in a restaurant listening in to the conversation of two guys at another table talking about Swami Dharmananda, the guy who did the lectures on Hatha yoga philosophy that I went to while I was in Rishikesh. Sounds like the one doing most of the talking, a New Yorker, is a big fan. Before they were talking about the Big Bang and how the expansion of the universe was described in the Vedas (ancient Hindu scriptures). This is the kind of place where everyone (at least everyone who speaks in English) is talking about these kinds of things. I’ve not heard anyone talking about football.

The New Yorker is now talking about Swami Dharmananda’s hands. Soft as a baby’s apparently. A friend of his went up to the Swami and touched his hands. The reason they do this (the hands together prayer gesture) is because they don’t like touching people. In one of the lectures I remember the Swami talking about a very good friend of his, an Australian businessman, who always insisted on bear hugging him whenever they met, which he said he didn’t like because he didn’t want the business energy to rub off on him.

The word energy is used way too much here, often prefixed by good or bad. How can energy be good or bad? My understanding of energy comes from physics, but here it seems energy can mean almost anything. They should make up new words for what they’re talking about instead of stealing words from science.

In the yoga class, after we’d had our hands above our heads for about five minutes and then lowered them, he asked what we felt. Someone said she felt the energy flowing back into her arms. What do you mean by the energy? The life force energy, she said. Don’t be so up here, he said, pointing above her head (she was quite a bit taller than him). Come down to earth.

The other day someone said McCloud Ganj has a good energy. Every place has an energy and this place has a good one, but I’d just say I like it here. I like the restaurants, the choice of food (Tibetan, Indian, Israeli, Italian, Canadian – a traditional Canadian breakfast: steak and hash browns and eggs and toast, but with tofu instead of steak, fried potatoes instead of hash browns and Tibetan bread instead of toast), there are cafes where you can get real coffee, a bar serving Kingfisher beer for about £1 a pint, the air is clean, we’re surrounded by mountains, I’m paying just over £2 a night for a room with a private bathroom with a hot shower in a quiet location in the woods (no roads nearby so no sound of traffic), it seems pretty safe and the people don’t hassle you nearly as much as in other placce I’ve been in India, you can walk everywhere, there are four cinemas showing some good films (on DVD), there are plenty of courses and lectures to go to, the Tibetans look cool (the monks in their red dresses) and the ones I’ve met (not monks) have been friendly and interesting, the climate is cool, etc.. But other people might not like it here. (There’s no beach.) They might say it has a bad energy. (But if they’re people who use the word energy in that way they probably would like it here.) Saying a place has a good or bad energy implies that the goodness or badness of the place is inherent in the place and not in your own mind, not down to your own personal taste, making something that is really subjective, objective. This kind of energy is an illusion. This I think is what the Buddhists mean when they say reality is an illusion. They don’t mean it doesn’t exist, they mean it doesn’t exist in the way we think it does because we create our own concepts and project them onto the world without realizing we’re doing it, and so we believe that those concepts are coming from the world, that they are the world. But they’re not. They’re just our projections. Like a cinema projectionist getting so into the film he’s showing that he forgets it’s a film and starts to think it’s reality up there on the screen – not something that would happen in any of the cinemas here where they show DVDs, probably pirated, full of glitches, that have a tendency to stop halfway though and so the projectionist has to fast forward to the place where it froze and then press play.

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