I arrived yesterday to the Lau village for the Sunshine Network massage course and am still getting accustomed to the life here. The village feels like worlds away from the hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai. Even sleepy Pai feels like a booming metropolis compared to this village. The village rests on a hill and the pathways that wind through its simple huts and small wooden buildings are mostly raw red earth and mud. There is one road that runs through the village but every other pathway is earthen with perhaps some cement steps here and there. Over these paths and under every building, the village animals roam free. Pigs of all sizes, multitudes of chickens, dogs, and children all scurry this way and that through the scattered huts. The huts are all bamboo with thatch or corrugated aluminum sheeting for roofs. The villagers, who appear more Burmese than Thai and who speak a language that is nothing like Thai, wear simple clothes often decorated with bright fluorescent patterns. They regard us with a mix of distrust, curiosity and kindness. I certainly don’t feel like I am in Thailand anymore.
Each morning I wake up at 5:30 and prepare to head out to meditation and yoga. The sunlight is just starting to peak above the hilltops and illuminate the swirling pre-dawn clouds in misty blue light. Walking through the village up to the platform where the meditation and yoga takes place, I come across mama chickens with their baby chicks scurrying around their feet. I come across little piglets with their tiny tails wagging back and forth. I come across dogs and ducks and sometimes a large adult pig comes lumbering into my path and shares my walk with me for a short while. The animals have been up for some time now (the first roosters begin to crow at around 3:30) but with the heavy determination of a tired body I’ve managed to fall back asleep until my alarm wakes me up. Every now and then though, a rooster manages to meander his way into my dreams and no amount of tut-tutting him or putting him out a window in my dream world stops his intrusion into my happy sleep.
The platform is a beautiful wooden structure that looks out onto an expansive view of the surrounding hillsides. As we sit for meditation, the early morning sun light just pierces through the clouds and radiates from behind the hillsides opposite the platform. My meditation practice is still, thus far, quite fruitless but I sit just the same and attempt, with all my will, to stay still, not swat at the mosquitoes, and focus on my breathing. We have been instructed, in the Vipanassa manner, to simply sit and breathe, and, when they occur, to just watch our thoughts and how they wander. So this is what I do. I watch as I think about hula hooping, potential career pathways, home. I watch as my legs go to sleep, dense and heavy and burning like I’ve just shoved them in a red-anthill. I watch my frustration that I can’t meditate worth a damn and my posture keeps slinking down into a mush of lazy bones and weak muscle tissue. I watch my determination to sit there anyways, straighten my back for the umpteenth time, quell my judgmental mind, and breathe. Just breathe. It is so simple, you think it would be easier, but 30 minutes of meditation stretch for seemingly endless hours.
Yoga has been wonderfully challenging and always leaves me feeling thoroughly wrung out and desperately hungry for breakfast. I keep wishing it would be possible to somehow record each sequence our teacher, Helen, employs because they are perfectly suited to my level; just challenging enough to make it interesting and fun but not so hard that I cannot complete them. Helen, a previous student of the course, has a wonderfully playful method of teaching and often employs partner stretching and even group supported stretching, which I just love. It really spices up the normal yoga routine. I fear that I when I begin practicing again on my own I will be dreadfully bored by my solo, rudimentary practice. For now I am just soaking up the yoga knowledge she is bestowing upon us and loving every breath of it.
The massage course itself, the reason for which I’ve come to this foreign Lau land within the Thailand Kingdom, is absolutely fantastic. Before we begin each day’s instruction we sit and chant a Sanskrit prayer of world healing, sit in meditative silent for 5-10 minutes, and then chant another prayer of protection. The opening prayer is simple and short and is repeated over and over, gaining in volume gradually until we are singing with full heart and gusto. Then, just as gradually, the singing reduces in volume to a whisper, then a hum, then silence. This silence falls around us like a vibrating curtain, humming with energy, glittering with the golden light of our intention. Throughout the course of week and a half we learned two opening prayers for healing, both of which sound hauntingly beautiful when we harmonize together and sing them with heartfelt spirit.
The sequences of techniques we are taught feels more like a dance than a massage. They flow together so much better than the ones previously taught to me at the first Thai Massage school I attended in Chiang Mai. In addition, we are learning far more active stretches and whole body manipulations, which is what I hoped to learn in coming to Thailand to study massage. We are instructed to take a few minutes to center ourselves and focus our intention before beginning each massage session. Thus before beginning each segment of our practice, we all sit in silence again, close our eyes and rest our minds.
The last most fortunate detail about my time here in the village, the kiss on the top of it all, is that I am here, sharing this unique experience with a crowd of the nicest, most fun and genial people I could have ever asked for. We are from all corners of the globe: Australia, Italy, Germany, Austria, Ukraine, England, France, Canada, USA, Spain, Switzerland, and Israel, and yet we set aside all our different identities and languages and come together each day to learn, to drop in and give each other healing touch. We spend our breaks eating and chatting on the meal platform, going for walks through the village and in the surrounding hills, or taking coffee or tea at one of the two family compounds where they serve coffee or tea. Life is simple and the rhythm of our days is easy and relaxing.
One night Natalia, the lovely and unusual Ukrainian woman, decides we are to throw a surprise birthday party for Sumi, the equally lovely and good humored (and quite pretty) Australian woman of Indian descent. So we spread the word for everyone to meet at this particular platform at this particular time, when Sandra, a wonderful Austrian woman and talented masseuse in the course, will be keeping Sumi occupied down at the meditation platform. In the mean time, Natalia, Adrian, a very funny and amiable Austrialian man and my best friend in the course, Adrian’s friend Mint and I race off to the neighboring village find fruit and other tasty treats to compile a birthday “cake” of sorts for Sumi. In the end we compile 7 different kinds of fruits into a wonderful flower mandala of a fruit platter, stick a candle in the middle and call it cake. Natalia had also bought balloons which we blew up and used to decorate the platform. We sit in the darkness of the platform for some time waiting for Sumi and Sandra but at last they climb the stairs and our happy birthday song just about gave poor Sumi the shock of her life! We then happily dug our hands into the beautiful fruit platter and ate it up like hungry baboons. Natalia’s present for Sumi was a presentation of some of her fabulous phography (Natalia is a photographer by trade and has taken some really breathtaking photos on her world travels), I gave Sumi a hula hoop dance, and Chris, another man on the course gave Sumi (with some severe encouragement and rib jabbing by Natalia) a song played on his ukulele. We danced some, dodged the bugs swarming around the one light fixture on the platform, played a few games and then, in time, sleepily bid Sumi and the rest good night. Getting to bed past nine is getting to bed quite late when you are waking up at 5:30 so we all took an early night’s leave and went to sleep before long.
Sure there are some small inconveniences and discomforts about living in the village. The toilets are all squat toilets which despite many adjustments and trials, are still just as difficult to use as ever. It rained for a good part of the course and as many of the paths are earthen, and thus veritable mudslides in the rain, this meant that getting anywhere was a treacherous task indeed. This was especially true considering that the footwear of choice in the village are flip flops, as you are so often slipping your shoes on and off when entering and exiting the huts. The rain also has an unfortunate way of raising all the smells of scattered dung and filth from beneath the houses and along the paths and alleys between the huts. That said, the rain was beautiful, as jungle rain tends to be.
The food was also nothing to sneeze at. Sticky rice and pumpkin, plus some excellent fruit, for breakfast, everyday, sticky rice and over cooked veggies for lunch, everyday, and more sticky rice and over cooked veggies for dinner, yes, everyday. You really start day dreaming about sausage and cheese in times like these. Or pancakes, or noodles, or anything different. 12 days of the same food every day can be rather testing. But again, these were minor discomforts in the scheme of the entire experience.
By the end of my time there I felt I could confidently give a 2 hour flowing Thai Massage. I knew it was possible, if quite uncomfortable, for me to sit still for a whole half hour in attempted meditation. I felt stronger and more fluid in my yoga practice. And most wonderfully, I felt like I had connected with some really beautiful people who I hope to meet again on this crazy beautiful journey called life.
A fiery fairy who has set off to explore Asia and discover new things about the world and herself. The journey is one to fully realize her strength and an unwaivering faith in her personal power.