Zen and the art of roly-poly

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Tired of having a ‘monkey mind’, and inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, Rebecca Barry sets out to find inner peace on a meditation course and talks to a woman who turned on, tuned in and dropped out in Bali.

Flinging yourselves into curtains roly-polying may not be as much of a favourite as Yoga Nidra. Photo / Thinkstock
Flinging yourselves into curtains roly-polying may not be as much of a favourite as Yoga Nidra. Photo / Thinkstock

This wasn't what I had in mind when I pictured myself on a meditation course. After 15 minutes of shaking on the spot, I've progressed to flapping unbounded on my yoga mat like a sheet on a Wellington washing line. Self-consciousness hasn't entirely gone despite the blindfold and dimmed lights. Part of me is convinced there are cameras capturing this tribal dance spectacle, and the producers of a humiliating reality show are lurking in the corners attempting not to wee their pants.

But then the teacher's voice replays in my head - "don't move your body, let your body move you".

I fling myself on the floor and start roly-polying into the curtains. Now there's nothing wrong with roly-polying into the curtains, if you're 2 years old and discovering the joys of inertia and shagpile carpets. But I'm pretty sure Elizabeth Gilbert never impersonated a mental patient on her quest for happiness and spiritual enlightenment. Then again, she did take off around the world for a year to, ahem, find herself.

The author did impressionable women everywhere a disservice when she wrote Eat Pray Love, the best-selling travelogue in which she took off to find pleasure in Italy, enlightenment in India and balance in Bali. Now a movie starring Julia Roberts, anyone who attempts to recreate her journey is likely to find themselves fat, broke and sore of tailbone. Not to mention mocked relentlessly. It's the film men love to hate without even watching it. Drink, Smoke, Nap a workmate reckons would be more appealing idea than witnessing Pretty Woman on a bout of self-discovery.

Women seem to be in two minds about the concept. Self-help in New Zealand can involve rolling around on the floor but it's usually preceded by a couple of bottles of wine. But going so far as to escape for a year to eat pasta, meet God and maybe a man along the way seems indulgent, contrived and unrealistic - and, therefore, extremely covetable. But as the author discovered when she embarked on her soul-searching journey, DIY therapy doesn't need a passport. You just need to sit. And meditate.

The ancient practice is said to ease stress and anxiety, improve brain function, enhance the immune system, heal the body, boost mood, improve discipline and give you something to do on the bus. So I enrolled in a six-week course to try it out.

It started simply enough. A group of strangers gathered in a Ponsonby yoga studio on a Tuesday night. Candles threw off a soft, golden light. Our teacher is Susan Allen, who has practised meditation for 20 years, including a stint in an Indian ashram, a la Gilbert. As if to confirm there is nothing hippie-dippie about her, she later confides she couldn't stand the book because Gilbert was "bloody self-indulgent".

Meditating, on the other hand, brings about a state of mind that helps explain why children are so entranced by life. With no responsibility to burden them, they live in constant, joyful connection with the present moment, the goal of the practice.

Then there's us. An English girl, an Irish girl and a Scotsman, a businessman, two friends and a student - all of us lumped with some kind of neurosis, stressful lifestyle or noisy mind. An older woman dissolves into tears when asked to introduce herself. Her family life has been rough lately and she's come in search of respite.

If only I could remember their names. "The main reason people can't put names to faces," says Allen, "is that they're not consciously listening when the name is spoken."

I'm pretty sure I'm conscious when someone is introduced but in this context, she means being fully, actively present. Rather than attempting to clear the mind, which I'd always thought was the point of meditation, it's a way of being mindful of our thoughts, not a means to turn them off. The antithesis is what most of us are used to: the see-sawing of the "monkey-mind" or the constant chatter of unconscious thought - maybe I'll have steak for dinner, I still haven't re-soled my shoes, where's my bag? - when we're going about something completely unrelated.

We start with 20 minutes of breath-counting, attempting to keep the attention on the breath and let thoughts drift away. It's not easy but after a bit of practice, I feel my mind settling. So this is the bliss they go on about, I think. Bang. Back to reality. I also have a dead leg. Not ideal considering we are about to do a walking meditation.

This involves gazing at the floor half a metre in front of us as we slowly pace the room, keeping the attention on the sensations at the soles of the feet. Being winter, most of us are wrapped in blankets. This goes well until I happen to look up and lose focus because we must look like we're in the throes of cult worship, a room full of zombies in uniform, shuffling in slow circles as weird music plays.

It's not until week four that we get to the kundalini meditation, an active form of the practice created by Indian "guru" Osho. The idea behind it is that the quality of the modern mind has shifted. Meditating cross-legged with our eyes closed, when our minds are so used to jumping between bite-sized bits of information, is tedious and difficult. But moving your booty in a chaotic way, (15 minutes of shaking, followed by 15 minutes of "dancing"), will supposedly release tension and move attention away from the mind.

Once I get over the fact I look like a loon on a Vibra-Train, it starts to work. All that shaking and spasming about to a throbbing sort of ethnic trance, and I get a similar feeling to what you get after a good long run - my body feels relaxed and my mind relaxed too.

I'm not in a hurry to repeat this at home though as my neighbours would probably call an ambulance.

The final meditation is my favourite. Yoga Nidra, also known as "yoga sleep" is a guided visualisation where we lie on the floor (my favourite yoga pose) and shift our attention to different parts of the body. Allen says the specific order is important as it creates a pre-mapped, beneficial pathway in the brain. Whether or not that's true, the practice is so profoundly relaxing I feel as though I've become "at one" with the carpet.

A few weeks on and the sense of calm during meditation comes more easily now - it's all about daily practice, says Allen - but never has something seemed so simple and natural on one hand, yet so difficult and frustrating on the other. However, I am starting to notice the difference. A subtle agitation, one I didn't realise I'd always experienced, resumes if I don't practise.

Whereas when it's going well, there's the peculiar sensation that I'm training my mind much like I train my body at the gym, rewiring it away from a stressed, tense response towards something more dignified and accepting.

Until I go to see Eat Pray Love, in which Julia Roberts is a self-obsessed whiner. I'm not sure if it's considered a meditative state of mind to want to slap someone across the face.

Susan Allen runs drop-in meditation classes Tuesday nights at the Yoga Ground, Ponsonby. The next six- week course starts February 15. See yogaground.co.nz for information.

- NZ Herald

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