Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Sound of Silence

Week 5 of Yoga Teacher Training Course in Rishikesh, India. Six days to be spent in self-imposes silence. Here is my what happened.

Day 1

A small card declaring "I am observing a one week silence. Om shanti" lies ready and waiting. It will be my interlocutor for the next week whenever I find myself in situations which would usually require the exchange of words.
Already my inner monologue is whirring and at times even breaks into an inner dialogue: the imagined conversations I won't be able to actually have with people.

The morning yoga class is no problem (the mantra chanting and Om-ing at the start and end of class will not disqualify me). However, after presenting my flash card to my yoga teacher, he pockets it… not realising I was expecting it back. I laugh inwardly before an observant friend informs him of the cruciality of that small piece of paper and he returns it. I squeeze her shoulder to so thank you. 

At breakfast, one half of the dining area has been designated chat-free, for the group of us who are observing the week's silence. There is something respectful about the quiet and a sense of bonding arises just from being together and eating together, despite no audible communication. Eating in silence opens up a whole new world of experiences for enjoying and tasting one's food. I highly recommend you give yourself time to take a few meals a week in silence, if not every day.

Just by missing out on the breakfast banter, I already feel calm and can register the energy surplus from not expending it on chit-chat, however pleasant it usually is. I make a mental note to write some cards bearing the words "Chai masala" or "ginger lemon honey" so that I can place my tea order with the kitchen boys without having to play charades. My order might not otherwise make it across the cultural barrier.

In a shop, I enjoy the experience of having to write out that I want body lotion, and then pointing to the menu to give my order. The only minor problem came when I changed my mind about the tea. Instead of trying to mime this, I just left the tea shop!

I have allowed myself to communicate by writing - both on paper or over the internet. My tweets have gone through the roof. Having to write out everything you want or need to say to those around you really makes you choose your words wisely: separating the conversational chaff from the wheat. 

I made it through day 1 without any slip-ups.. save for singing along to a few lines of Adele in my room.

Day 2

This morning was the hardest yoga practice so far. My mind is distracted and runs away with thoughts more easily than usual. 

People's voices are beginning to annoy and I find myself wishing that a certain few were also observing the silence. Irritable and apathetic today. Body exhausted from a boot camp level of back bends. Trying to write more than two words on an iPhone in lieu of talking is too frustrating to bear, so hand writing on a napkin takes its place.

The Indian people I interact with are all very respectful and reverent when I show them my little card. I need to make a conscious effort to look people in the eye and smile - where one might just normally get away with a "hello" - making the exchange more heartfelt.

I miss not being able to speak the most during lectures, where I usually ask a question or two each class. I now have a growing list of questions to ask when the week is over.

The evening's yoga class was one of my best in the course so far and I had the urge to share this with Sanjay, my teacher. I wrote a note telling him it had been a great class. He was very touched and now will have the note as a permanent reminder. Imagine if we had every compliment ever given us on a piece of paper….

Day 3

Maintaining silence is becoming easier as the people I interact with on a daily basis become used to my not being able to speak. It dawned on me that this is not a very big challenge at all. I am in Rishikesh, where "fasting" and other acts of abstinence are commonplace, compared to your average municipality. I am living in a bubble at the moment, albeit a very fruitful and rewarding one. I don't have any of the responsibilities and obligations - social or otherwise - that I would at home. Contrast this to the Vipasana silence retreats where for 10 days nothing but introspection is allowed. No reading, writing, eye contact, touching, computer use. Even eating is kept to a bare minimum.

I concluded evening yoga with a very enjoyable cry, thus inventing Sobbing Child's Pose. Chai and lashings of rice pudding were on hand at dinner to console.

Day 4

Things are getting interesting. Last night I had a turbulent night's sleep. I awoke with what felt like the onset of a panic attack. I felt sick and unsettled and didn't go back to sleep properly. The half-sleep I had was filled with dreams which took on the form and content they tend to during "nightmares": viscera, gore, death, illness. I woke up grumpy and groggy. The knock on effect was a sore, stiff body and wanting to give up yoga forever. Well, not quite. Morning yoga turned out magically, proving that the greater the psychological barrier, the greater the benefits and outcome, indeed. Whether the previous night's experience be down to connecting with my subconscious, on account of greater introversion, or from yoga's cathartic properties… something has been dislodged inside and it is bliss.

My hastily scribbled (trying to keep apace with the speed at which it would be spoken) notes to people are used only when I feel it is necessary ("I am having problems with my internet again!") or when I feel as if what I want to say is valuable.
For example, this morning when I passed a note to my teacher, with a grin, saying "what is time anyway?!" after he had apologised emphatically for running 15 minutes over time. This made me realise that much of what we say on a daily basis is pure background noise, utterly pointless… yet apparently still gratifying. 

I am comparing my own perceptions of myself: now (during silence) and before (when I had the power of speech). There is a difference. Looking back at memories of myself in conversations, it is like watching a video of myself: is that really me? I feel, look and sound different. How will this perception change when I resume speaking? Incidentally, does the voice in YOUR head "sound" the same as it does out loud? Mine doesn't. It doesn't really have a timbre…

The inner me (made up of the thoughts and dialogue in my head) and the outer me (conversations I have and the way I behave) seem and feel very different to me. As if they are two separate entities. Is this the usual state of affairs for everyone or does this reflect something about me and how I perceive myself? And I think just fell down the rabbit hole.

Inspiration has exploded. The floodgates have been opened and I have to keep writing them down, lest my head turned into a mass of wriggling worms. It may be the creativity or the unexpectedly delicious Kombacha tea (the slightly fermented taste allowing me to pretend it's the hard stuff), but I am in excellent spirits: I don't even want seconds of chapati at lunch!

Day 5

I'm starting to get bored and frustrated and looking forward to breaking the silence. The insular, group environment of Rishikesh Yog Peeth is also starting to become slightly stifling: same routine every day, nowhere to escape to, limited variety of people to socialise with. Think boarding school with fewer distractions, no alcohol and no weekends out in the real world. 

Dying to speak, talk, converse, prattle, chew the fat. Social depravation beginning to be felt. This week of silence and the colonic purge tomorrow (part of our syllabus!) morning will make for a cathartic and cleansing week. 

Day 6

The last day of silence and I wake up feeling it is my birthday. Instead of the usual asana class this morning we are doing Shanka-prakshalan. In a nutshell: we are to drink 16 glasses of luke warm salt water interspersed with a specific series of asana and mad dashes to the toilet. The hardest part is overcoming the nausea from drinking so much salt water. I make it to 13 glasses of water and 4 rounds of the asanas and successfully manage to make the river run clear, as it were. A special meal of ghee, rice and lentils is prepared for us. The rest of the day is to be spent resting and not drinking any sort of caffeinated drinks. Tomorrow will be a day of celebrating with chai and chat. Today is for rest and rejuvenation.

Indulging in chai and sweets (I just couldn't wait!) was not a good idea in the long run after what was the expulsion of the entire lining of my digestive tract this morning. I should have realised the bad omen when the samosa man could not understand the message I wrote him. I had to shove my exercise book under the eyes of another tourist who happened to be in eye-shot to make sure i got my Nutella and banana samosa and chai (no sugar).

Day 7: the first day of the rest of my life

The first few conversations back were slightly anti-climactic. But then again, what was I expecting? Having a break from babbling has made me appreciate being able to  converse and, more importantly, connect with people all the more. Ordering tea is now a cinch, although I will miss the playful interactions I had with the tea boys, miming my order to them at each meal. I have to keep remembering I can talk again. I can ask questions in class.When I pass someone in the alley I can say hello as well as smile. 

Most interesting are the comments of my peers. They said I looked peaceful, that I emitted a positive and calming energy and that I also looked strong and focused. 

I feel like I have woken up from a sleep. The break from talking has been palpable. Like the Shanka-prakshalan, this was definitely a deep clean for something - my soul, my voicebox, my personality.

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