My first granddaughter was born in Naples, Italy, in August, 2011. I stayed on with the family for a couple of weeks and then boarded a flight to London, with my yoga mat slung over my shoulder. I was about to begin a TTC: teacher training course, at the International Sivananda Vedanta Center. I was 60 years old.
A hired driver met me at Heathrow. This was a good plan because I had a lot of baggage, too much to drag on buses or the underground across London. It was dark when the driver deposited me in front of a yellow row house in Putney. A swami from Germany greeted me and led me to my room on the top floor.
The room was in a newly renovated part of the Center. It had two single beds, two rolling closets, and a shared dresser. I dumped my belongings and followed the swami back through the entry/reception, through a courtyard and into the kitchen/dining area where she gave me a plate of food she’d set aside. It was a delicious Indian meal. I was surprised to be fed, and grateful for the swami’s thoughtfulness.
Back in my room, I made up the bed and took in the view from the window. Roofs with chimney pots in varying shades of gray and terracotta totally charmed me. I found my way to the bathroom on the floor below, and met my roommate on coming back. Catherine was young, about 24, very focused on her path, and also very pretty. She was a sevite (volunteer) at the Center, working in exchange for classes. She rose later than I and came to bed later, too.
I soon discovered that one had to get up very early to beat the rush on the showers. One student in particular, a guy from Liverpool, was my chief competition at 5:00 a.m. We were expected to show up, dressed in our white yoga pants and yellow TTC t-shirts, for morning satsang at 6:00. At that first meeting, I studied my fellow teachers-in-training with curiosity. I was by far the oldest, save for an exotic-looking man, Omar, in his late fifties. The rest were mostly women, some men, and all around thirty years old. They came from all over: Ireland, Senegal, Spain, Greece.
Satsang included meditation, chanting, a talk, and announcements. There was a short break. Our first yoga class began at 8:00 a.m. At 10:00 we had our first meal of the day. Then it was karma yoga (chore) time. I was assigned to the laundry room, where I ironed whatever was needed. Sometimes I pressed the swami’s shalwar kameez (tunics and loose pants). Sometimes I ironed the brocade garments that the statues wore, sometimes the more elaborate altar cloths.
I liked it down in the laundry room. The washing machines and dryers kept the space warm. People came down to do their laundry, so I got to chat. I studied my vocabulary and practiced the chants we had to learn.
At noon we were back in class for kirtan or the Bhagavad Gita. From 2:00 to 4:00, we had the main lecture in philosophy or anatomy. At 4:00 we were back for more hatha yoga, asanas and pranayama. Dinner was at 6:00. We washed our metal dishes and utensils in cold water in the courtyard. By the satsang at 8:00, I was craving sleep. But no, it was meditation, chanting, and another lecture. Students vied for a place against the wall. At 10:00 they finally let us go to bed.
I cried for the first two weeks. My particular nemesis, other than the rigorous schedule, was the headstand. In retrospect, the main problem was that I lacked the core strength to hold the pose, or even to get into it. We were not allowed to practice near a wall. Falling out of headstand was scary for me and resulted in a neck injury. It felt like my cervical vertebrae were compressed like an accordion.
Another pose that literally caused me grief was shoulder stand. Every time I pushed up into that asana, I’d start to cry. My tears leaked down into my ears. Perhaps it had something to do with the compression of the lungs, because they are “the seat of sorrow.” I contemplated quitting the course and going home.
One morning, my favorite swami stopped me as I rushed to get to class on time. He was an extremely tall Midwesterner who had somehow slid into monkhood via music. When he played the harmonium for chanting, his eyes rolled upward in bliss.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
“I cry all the time,” I answered, tears welling up.
“It’s a common experience,” he said mildly.
For some mysterious reason, that short acknowledgment strengthened me.
We were blessed with a half-day of freedom once a week. I wasn’t interested in touring London, or even visiting a museum. My joy was to wander the high street of Putney, poke around in Sainsbury’s, and eat something interesting at the noodle restaurant. The swami teachers kept the yoga studio fairly cold, so I went into Marks and Spencers and bought leggings to wear under my cotton yoga pants.
The first two weeks passed by in a sort of fascinating, exhausted agony. But, when day fourteen arrived, I was still there.