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Changing Gear

Malaysia Yoga has done wonders for its practitioners. Give it a try. A friend of mine notorious for his stress puppy temper recently swapped booze for yoga. Since then, he has blossomed into a model of karmic serenity. Well, he is less grumpy anyway. Hence my curiosity about yoga, especially the circulation-boosting, muscle-toning brand known as “power yoga”, which I am exploring while stationed on the Thai tropical island of Lanta, pronounced “Lantaaah” by the laid-back locals. Here, a course with a good reputation and a dream location, Relax Bay, is run. The scene: a shaded wooden platform, a stroll away from the ocean, at the back of one of the countless semi-luxurious resorts set off the main drag. Meet Mona Haymaker, 55, the Oklahoman power yoga instructor equipped with an accent reminiscent of Hillary Clinton, a steely gaze and a ready smile.

Mona’s students seem a cheery bunch aside from the sole inevitable guru wearing nothing but a ponytail and a pair of spandex shorts, whose party trick is to raise both legs over his head then wrap them around his elbows in a triple helix formation without breaking sweat. While the guru limbers up, I find a space on the corner of the deck and try to get to grips with the atmosphere. On one hand, calm comes across, conveyed by Mona saying: “Sink into yourself, discover yourself” and the whisper of the sprinkler anointing the set-piece lawn. On the other hand, the air is sticky. This could almost be Bikram: the 99-per-cent-perspiration-1-per-cent-inspiration style of yoga conducted in sauna conditions and popular with fit women and middle-aged men. While the spandex-clad guru performs with the grace of a tai chi master, another student doing the crow or something falls off her haunches. The crew-cut caveman in front of me maintains equilibrium but is sweating profusely. Before my shirt becomes drenched like his, I rip it off and try not to dwell on the anal ravine exposed by his sagging shorts or the massive welts on his legs, which suggest that a sea-eagle-sized mosquito has mauled him. “Inhale and exhale,” Mona chants, inviting us to focus on respiration and relax. Easier said than done when you are upside down in the crab position. Anyway I hope that my contortions will help release the tension packed into my shoulders by decades of hunt-and-peck typing, and ease my mind agitated by “Thai time” travel misunderstandings. I am already raising my heart rate so much that this session now feels like a cardio class without the pounding techno music. Inhale and exhale, Mona says. Still, I struggle to focus on breathing, besieged by minor misgivings.

One stems from the knowledge that my mat is right at the edge of the abyss, which means that, when enacting some balletic pose, I might tumble over and trigger a ripple of gently humiliating mind-body laughter. When we flip onto our backs to cycle our legs, I fret that the steamy gap between my back and the mat will generate suction resulting in that taboo sound that makes children laugh and mortifies adults. Sure enough, the sound, a kind of deafening squelch — occurs, spurring me to shift my stance and do the rest of the exercise perched on my tailbone. Meanwhile, another worry that floats into my head concerns my cell phone. Tucked into a tight pocket of my backpack, poised to belt out an entire mp3 song if someone rings, it could erupt any moment. Happily, nobody calls for the moment. Instead, in true surreal Thailand style, a grasshopper sails into the arena, lands on the mat beside a student and holds its ground, apparently preparing to stretch the limits of what it means to be an insect. Repeatedly, we go into the “cobra” position, which involves performing a kind of slow, belly-to-the-ground push-up. After busting about a hundred cobra moves and taking a shot at a swathe of others named after a menagerie of animals, the stress in my muscles builds to breaking point. Soon, I have “sewing machine legs” and trickles of sweat running down my temples, staining my mat. “Don’t forget to relax. Any time you need to rest, put your knees on the floor,” says Mona, maintaining the pace, which makes regular yoga seem like meditation with a bit of stretching thrown in. Beside me, a lily-skinned student whose performance until now has been immaculate, is forced to keep slapping marauders with an especial taste for her flesh. Unsure if it is right to kill any creature during yoga, I do not blame her. Nor does Mona. Dryly, she says: “OK, I think we better wrap up now, before the mosquitoes eat us alive.” We rise to our feet, lighter, fitter and, doubtless, in the case of students who know what they are doing, calmer too… Om!

If you are looking for someone and something that truly touch your life…..then give this a go. Mona truly walks the path she talks…..without the bullshit. I’m a 37 year old woman travelling in Thailand and I recently had the fortune of spending some time with this lady – I watch in amazement at her ability to give to everybody she meets. And you couldn’t ask for a more beautiful location – sun, sand, sea, Yoga and Mona. What more can you possibly want!

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