Bokaap Yoga
Bokaap Yoga
Image: Nomvelo Shinga

A year ago, around this very time, I felt a sudden overwhelming need to channel Julia Roberts. Not in her Pretty Woman phase, though the idea of a guy (albeit one rumoured to enjoy the attentions of small nocturnal rodents) laying out big cash and flying me to San Francisco for a night at the opera has its appeal.

I was seeking a different kind of blessing. I overwhelmingly wanted to give in to her Eat, Pray, Love escapist fever dream. It may well have been brought on by a late-night Netflix screening party: me, some red wine, and a bout of seriously unattractive crying.

It was a conflation of factors that took even me by surprise. I usually reserve the tears for aeroplane movies when I have a good excuse for my emotional incontinence — cabin pressure and altitude loosen even the most repressed of tear ducts.

It’s a known fact — proven by science. I even cry during the safety instruction videos. Tragic stuff. As it happened, a year ago I had precisely the right credentials for such an endeavour, as I was practically living Julia Robert’s life — just in Joburg, not Manhattan.

Recently and unexpectedly divorced — tick. Feeling uninspired by my work life — tick and tick. Anxiety-riddled and really desperate to meet a small gap-toothed guru in some tropical meditative hotspot who would tell me what’s what in a charming singsong voice, which could be very loosely interpreted — absolutely!

I had some constraints, primarily fiscal. I couldn’t really afford to stop working and take to the hills in a bid to “find myself” in this entirely new phase of life presenting itself to me.

I had to work with what I had, which was some flexibility on the work front to conduct my writing and editing affairs in another city. So I did what any self-respecting seeker of escape would do in this season of mass wellness: I retreated to the Bo-Kaap.

Why the Bo-Kaap, you may ask? Well, try booking into an Airbnb in De Waterkant for two months. I’d signed up for a 200-hour yoga-teacher-training course at YogaLife in De Waterkant.

The YogaLife - Yoga Studio in De Waterkant, Cape Town
The YogaLife - Yoga Studio in De Waterkant, Cape Town
Image: Supplied

I had a real affection for that studio, popping in whenever I travelled to Cape Town for work, and it seemed like a brilliant idea to set off on my quest to calm my neural pathways down to a steady panic by way of a really well-formulated plan that I swear had never crossed my mind before the above-mentioned screening. 

Also, the yoga teacher running the course, the magnificent Chantal Cohen-Kupritz, seemed completely bewildered when I said I intended to fly up and down every week for the duration of the course so I could keep living in Joburg while all of this was going on.

It was a crazy time, full of crazy magical thinking. Thankfully, reason (in the form of Chantal) prevailed, and I found myself creating an urban retreat of my own — with the emphasis on urban. The Bo-Kaap, particularly Rose Street, where I took up residence, is the exact opposite of a peaceful tropical beach in Bali or Costa Rica (the usual hot spots for this type of exercise). 

This is real life in pastel hues. It’s pretty, but not easy. Every time I stepped out of my front door, small children and a rotating cast of itinerant folk wanted stuff from me. “Buy us a Coke, auntie,” was the continual refrain.

On the left-hand side of my front door was a Pakistani-run establishment selling the various comestibles this cast of dependants desired, and to the right was a fantastic artisanal coffee hole in the wall supplying the caffeination I needed to run the gauntlet every day. Add a steady stream of tourists in selfie mode, the competing prayers from the multiple mosques, not to mention the daily shock and awe of the noon gun, and you can see I had to work especially hard for my inner peace. 

The yoga teacher training was like nothing you’d expect. I am a marathon runner and a boxer, and I train most days of the week. I tell you this not because I want you to say bravo, but because I want you to understand that my body was used to a little hard-core hardship, and yet nothing prepared me for what I was about to endure.

Creating a daily routine in an entirely new environment is good for you, primarily because you realise you’re not tethered to the idea of yourself that you may have generated up until now

I can see why those Blue Zone okies in Okinawa are going to live forever. They sit on the floor. Such proximity to the floor is not for the faint-hearted. After day three of listening to an edifying lecture about yogic philosophy or the anatomy of the shoulder, I was ready to pack it all in for the simple pleasures of a chair. Chantal and her fellow teachers would sit like champions for hours on end — erect, graceful, poised. I, on the other hand, was crumpled in the corner stoically writing notes to avoid the tears (not Netflix or aeroplane tears this time, but real ones). And that’s before getting to the actual yoga. 

I won’t bore you with my yoga teacher training stories, because they’re like running, swimming, cycling, pick your poison stories — interesting only to the people involved in these endeavours and deadly dull to their poor interlocutors. What I will say is this: something happened on the way to the ashram — wherever you’ve decided to establish that personal retreat. Creating a daily routine that’s completely other is heartening to the spirit. It’s a taming process. Your wild-eyed, crazy spirit begins to find equilibrium. How, you might well ask, does this happen?

Here are my conclusions a year down the line (they’ve now had time to marinate and settle):

1: Creating a daily routine in an entirely new environment is good for you, primarily because you realise you’re not tethered to the idea of yourself that you may have generated up until now — wife, mother, editrix, whatever. Everything changes. Of course it does, and that’s OK. You’re not the same person you were yesterday, and you’ll be different again tomorrow. More importantly, you’ll survive, and maybe even thrive, if you get a little more fluid with yourself and your environment. 

2: Be in the community in which you live. I suddenly worked out how to enter the community in which I had always been a tourist, and that helped make my life joyful and happy when it had felt threatening and triggering before.

A crucial part of the yoga teacher training is called siva, which is an injunction to give back to your society. They expect you to get involved in something and prove it too. Somebody who actually lives in Bo-Kaap full time told me that to stop the constant stream of requests I should go to the spice shop and explain to the guy at the door that I wanted to give back to the community. I did just that, and he hooked me up with Abedah Sookah from the Bo-Kaap Helpers Garden — and the best part of my yoga retreat unfolded before my eyes.

3: Find a way to be useful. Be humble and work in a garden. Abedah had started the garden with two other women involved in the Bo-Kaap community just before the lockdown. They grow food for the community and assist people to create their own vegetable patches.

The “helpers” are an assorted number of volunteers and a rotating group of “troopies”. “Troopies” are people from different organisations who aim to help mostly homeless people try to create order in their lives through regular work.

What was remarkable about the garden was that everyone was equal there — everyone was giving of themselves, and everyone felt the marvellous, unexpected effect of wellbeing that arises when you give freely of your time for some greater good. The “troopies” who came to the garden a few times a week to work under the generative leadership of Auntie Abedah told her that feeling useful and helping others made them feel whole and hopeful. That was the effect of the garden. Watering, weeding, planting — each act was a blessing.

4: Find a way to “calm your farm”. For me, it was the daily practice of yoga and meditation. As part of the yoga teacher training, we had to mindfully keep a diary for the duration of the course. Doing something peacefully every day resets your system and soon becomes a habit. Make it one that’s good for you and stick to it.

Finally, pay attention to your mind, your body and your spirit. Think about how they’re all in a constant dance with each other. Be kind to yourself.

It’s been a year now and I feel better. That’s all you can hope for.

This column originally appeared in the Sunday Times Lifestyle

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