from sadhus to zebras, part 2

After spending five nights on Zanzibar — no internet, no phones, just lots of sun and beach and alone time and daily power cuts and one day of the Zanzibar version of Delhi Belly — I flew to Arusha via Dar es Salaam to lead my yin-yang yoga retreat.

Years ago an akashic record reader told me that something so potent would occur during one of my trips to India (this was before the Kumbh Mela was even a thought in my mind) that I would have to go a “green place with palm trees” in order to recoup. Yep, that happened. Everything that spiritual adepts told me would happen, did happen on this trip.

I have to say that if I hear anyone whine about how terrible airport security and the TSA are in American airports, they are getting one tight slap (and if you know old Bollywood movies you know what that is.) AMERICANS HAVE NOTHING TO COMPLAIN ABOUT REGARDING AIRPORT SECURITY, so get over it, keep your mouths shut, and get on the planes. Until you’ve flown through African airports, you have nothing to say. For one thing, you are x-rayed twice, once going into the airport and again before your gate. If you are lucky, you won’t get your carry-on searched. In detail. So shut up.

I spent two days chillaxin’ at my friend Pat’s house before we left for her friend’s property where I was to teach. The retreat started on a Friday night, but Pat asked me to guest teach her class the night before. I taught the class by candlelight and flashlight because the electricity AND the lodge’s generator went out. I just went with the flow and it was a great experience! During savasana I chased inch-long black ants away from one student who had baggy shorts on — didn’t want one of those humongous ants crawling up his shorts and biting his asana or worse!

I was blessed that the weekend was a screaming success. I did two dharma talks and four yoga sessions and each one was filled with 17-20 people each. Not too shabby for my first global teaching experience.

Of course the energy was very different — different students, different cultures, a different country. There were a few Americans, but most were British and Dutch ex-pats with varying degrees of yoga experience, however, many did not have a consistent meditation practice. That’s where I tweaked them.

My first talk on Friday night was “Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation” and I felt like crap. After all my traveling I had finally hit the wall and my stomach had started bothering me again. All I wanted to do was sleep and this was only 7 at night. It was also obvious to me that these yoga students were not accustomed to sitting and listening. One woman was trouble — if you teach long enough you can figure out in a heartbeat who’s going to be a challenge as soon as they open their mouth. Pat even got upset about how rude this woman was and how fidgety the students were. I let it all wash over me. Everything is temporary.

I wouldn’t exactly call this woman rude but I could tell she had some type of anger and control issues. She asked questions not to learn more but to challenge me and then she eventually walked out on the Friday night talk. Her husband came with her for the yoga sessions and the funny thing was, he was the exact opposite of her — he was funny, kind, and self-deprecating. As it turned out, by the end of the weekend she had softened up a bit. I had directed some of my dharma talks on JUDGMENT to her during the yin sessions. She ended up thanking me for the weekend and wrote down the name of the book I had read from. Everything is a teaching, even for the teacher.

The morning sessions were yin yoga plus vinyasa and the afternoons were all yin yoga. All sessions included mindfulness meditation. During the first session on Saturday a most wondrous and serendipitous thing happened: zebras walked through the retreat. I was teaching the vinyasa portion and I saw the zebras and stopped everything. I pulled out my camera and said that I had to take a picture because no one back home would believe it. Teaching here just isn’t the same, believe me!

I could tell that few had experience with mindfulness meditation, so I thought I would take them out of their comfort zone. After the first session on the first day, I told them that since the weekend started out with a talk on mindfulness, I wanted them to keep mauna between the sessions and if they could not do that, then at least practice mindfulness as much as they could. I gave them examples such as keeping their voices low, deeply listening to someone, not interrupting when someone was talking to them, and mindfully chewing their lunch.

Some looked shocked but they tried it. Most were into it, but I saw a few reading books and texting at the same time. I tried the mindfulness experiment on the second day between sessions, but many blew it off. The funny thing was that on the second day those who weren’t into the meditation part did not even try to hide it.

I would have them sit for about 20 minutes at the end of each session. Eventually I would open my eyes a bit and I saw people with their eyes wide open big as day, looking around, adjusting their clothes, scratching an itch, or picking their feet. It’s always the feet-pickers who get me (and you know who you are.) Hey, if you’re not even going to try to sit in stillness, then sit quietly with your eyes closed and stop squirming around like some two year old kid with ADHD.

At one point I also had them do a 30 minute walking meditation which had profound impacts on some people. The majority had never done walking meditation before and they liked it. Probably because they weren’t sitting still!

I loved teaching to a totally different group of people. Even though they were westerners, they were still different compared to American yoga students, at least my students back home (mine are much more mindful!)

I must say that after being in Arusha I can see why people there are fidgety and easily distracted. While the area outside the city is a wonderland of indescribable beauty, the energy I felt in Nairobi and Arusha was one of underlying violence waiting to happen. I couldn’t shake it. Some people told me that they felt Kenya will be the next country with a genocide, it’s just a matter of time.

The fact of the matter is that all these westerners, even if they have lived in Tanzania for 20 years, could be kicked out if the government decides they no longer want non-Tanzanians in the country. I saw buildings with huge red Xs on them. Pat told me if the Arusha city government decides it wants to widen a street, your building will be Xed and knocked down at a moment’s notice with everything inside. You can come home from work one day and no longer have a home. One of the students ran a restaurant and his building was knocked down just a few weeks before. Poof, gone.

Pat will soon move to a town outside of Durban, South Africa. Her and her husband have lived in Arusha for 15 years, but she told me that it has never felt like home. Pat will build her own yoga shala somewhere on their land so she can teach and she has asked me to come back and do another retreat. Who knows? Maybe next year. I know there is at least one yogi in Durban because someone from there did a search for “Mark Whitwell” and found this blog!

We went on a 48 hour safari after the retreat. On the second day we went to Ngorongoro Crater, the place where humankind took its first steps. When you are witnessing the beginnings of the wildebeast migration, an event that has been going on for thousands of years, and all you can hear are the animals, the wind, and your breath, it does something to you on a primal level. I was told I would die in India and be reborn in Africa. I now know what that meant.

I don’t think Africa will ever be my India, but with an open heart I look forward to returning. I am very grateful for having this opportunity that was set in motion five years ago. Hari om.

“We are stardust, we are golden,
We are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Well, then can I roam beside you?
I have come to lose the smog,
And I feel myself a cog in somethin’ turning.
And maybe it’s the time of year,
Yes and maybe it’s the time of man.
And I don’t know who I am,
But life is for learning…”

5 thoughts on “from sadhus to zebras, part 2

  1. What a riveting post. I must comment not only on the sheer difference between one place and another (zebras caged in a zoo versus strolling outside your window, for example) but on the quirks of people. The fidgeting anecdote just killed me! What goes on under cover of [teacher's] closed eyes…

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  2. You know, that story of the woman with all of her resistance is quite typical in dharmic settings. Sometimes when people are confronted by reality as it is, stripped bare of distractions, it's all too much. And they either surrender or fight it. Sounds like she took the route of fighting! But to me it shows she's at least on the path, and hopefully at some point she'll learn surrender 🙂

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