When we arrived at the meditation centre up in the mountains, far away from anything, our closest neighbours a monastery – I took a deep breath, eyes blinking as I emerged out into the sunlight.  This was it.  No going back.

Men and women were separated almost immediately.  Signs saying “Female Area Ends Here” strategically placed around the compound.  We had a 4 page registration form to complete, new students on one side of the room, old students on the other.  There was a section on mental health, on drug and alcohol addiction, on previous meditation experience or alternative practices, on any recent tragedies or events that might have left emotional scars, and finally a blank space to write our signatures…sign our commitment to the 5 precepts and to hand over anything to management that might be perceived as a distraction.  This included books, writing materials, laptops, mobile phones, any religious relics or i-pods…basically everything.

When we handed in our forms we were each given a square piece of paper.  Mine read C13.  I opened the mosquito net door, backpack strapped to my back, and made my way down the steps, towards a collection of cottages.  It was made clear to us, in the terms and conditions that we were not to partake in any physical activity during our stay.  That meant yoga, running, or anything we might do in our daily routine.  I felt frustrated by the thought of giving up my yoga practice for ten whole days.  It had taken so much self-discipline to keep it up every morning, that I didn’t want to risk taking a break.  Not now.  What if I couldn’t get back into it again?’

I opened the door to my cottage, and was amazed by what I saw.  A vacuum packed, neatly arranged bedroom and en-suite.  Slightly lacking in character, but was nicer than most places I’d stayed since I started travelling and had everything I needed.  Bed clothes, a bath mat, cleaning materials, a sky-blue bucket, dust-pan and brush, even an umbrella hanging off the wall!

I hung my clothes up on the clothes line at the foot of the bed, and began to stack my things that needed to be taken to management in a neat pile.  All my books, my diary and pens….what was I going to do all day if I couldn’t write?  My yoga mat, rolled up in its coulourful bag, and Mathew’s Ashtanga As It Is tucked discreetly behind my clothes.  Surely I can get away with a couple of hours of yoga at some point during the retreat…and looking behind me, I placed the mat under my bed, next to the plastic sheeting.  There.  Sitting back on my heels, looking behind me once more…no-one will ever know!

I rushed back up to the cafeteria, and handed everything in, “is this everything?” The course manager asked.  “Yes” I said, focusing my gaze on the cluster of keys on the desk, and hurried away.  I was late for the induction.

The group was split once again.  The Thai girls stayed in the cafeteria, and us foreigners went back outside, climbed some stairs, ducked under the “no female zone” sign and entered into a mini-hall through a side door.  Blue cushions were laid out on the floor, and strict instructions printed on the wall.  We were not to, at any moment, point our feet towards the teacher at the front of the room, even if our teacher was an image on the television screen, or voice coming from a stereo.  The foreign men entered through a door on the other side the room.  A screen had been put up between us, with large pieces of fabric draped across to cover any gaps.  I couldn’t help but be intrigued, peering across, watching various pairs of ankles and feet move about and cross themselves as they perched on their cushions…a lighter blue than ours.

The induction was short and sweet, informing us of what our daily routine would be like, re-iterating the precepts, and then it closed with a bit of a warning…we were to surrender to his teachings, to give it every opportunity to embed itself in us, so we can see its value in its purity…we were not to practice yoga or distract ourselves, the purpose of this  experience is to perform an operation on ourselves, to dig deeper than we’ve ever gone.

We had a ten minute break before the course officially began, and I went back to my room and paced the small square in ever-tightening circles.  If I was to surrender completely then I’d need to take my yoga mat and Ashtanga As It is to the office, otherwise my dishonesty would just taunt me…but if I take it to them, then they’d know I lied when I said “yes” to “everything?”

To abstain from wrong speech, to abstain from wrong speech….

I fell to the floor, pushed the plastic sheeting to one side, and groaned, as I stretched my arm to the far corner and hooked the strap of the bag around my wrist and grabbed the corner of the book between my fingers…tugging it towards me I swore to myself.  “What the fuck am I doing?”

When I handed it in, they didn’t judge me.  When she asked me, “is this everything?”  I looked straight into her eyes, “yes, this is everything.”

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