A yogini in San Sebastián

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I meet my friend Carla on a rainy Thursday evening in a cafe on Plaza de la Constitución, the closest thing to European-style square in San Sebastián. Though we both have colds we keep our plastic macs on and sit in the sheltered terrace with everyone else.  People around us are drinking and smoking and at 9:15, the night is so young it could be a foetus. On Friday the sun will rise late, as it does in this part of the world and those with hangovers even later.

Carla and I have come to discuss a topic that seems a million miles from where we are: yoga. Carla is a yoga-instructor from Mexico City and one of the most fascinating and insightful people I have met in San Sebastián.  As she sips her tinto de verano, a mix of red wine and soda water, she tells me that she doesn’t see this party-loving seaside town as an unlikely place for yoga. First of all, she’s not of the school of yoga that prescribes a restrictive lifestyle and has accepted that while some yogis get up to meditate at 4:30 am, here in Spain it is fine to begin her morning routine of tea, yoga and breakfast at the more civilised hour of 8:30 am. Moreover, the key element of yoga is respiration and here, in San Sebastián, she can breathe in clean air and enjoy the experience of nature in the city.

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Carla recharges by spending ample amounts of time in her room.

The first time Carla visited San Sebastián  was eight years ago, on a European tour with some friends from home. She said that she was enraptured by the city’s perfect beauty and even had the sensation that she was on tierra santa, or holy land. When some of her friends got bored and wanted to move on to flashy bull-fighting hub, Pamplona, she seriously considered changing her social circle; if they couldn’t appreciate the beauty of this place, what on earth could she have in common with them?  Being someone who is anxious every time I leave San Sebastián, just in case something happens to prevent me from coming back, I can relate to Carla’s extreme sense of connection with the place. And we’re not the only two people, who without having a drop of Basque blood, feel this way; it’s like the city bewitches certain travellers and makes them want to stay.

Carla got the chance for a longer spell in San Sebastián in January, when she secured a teaching placement in two studios along the Cantabrian coast. One studio is in Irun, an arid town on the border with France, which has a strong immigrant population. There, the space is modern and clean-looking and though the classes are adequately attended,  the locals’ main obstacle in coming to yoga, is economic. In San Sebastián, on the other hand, she teaches at the Centro Sherab, a cosy, richly coloured space, complete with Buddhas and wallhangings. The room strikes her as oddly wintry for Donosti’s beachy climate, but she says it feels very secure and protected from the noise of the city.

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Carla came to yoga very young, as a little girl in Mexico City, who followed in her yogini mother’s footsteps. Doing the poses felt natural to her and yoga became a staple that she could rely on, when later in life, she hit upon troubled times. Whereas she found that talking therapies such as psychoanalysis caused her to regurgitate the same stories, a yoga practice, which Carla sees as the ultimate union of body and mind, held space for her true being to manifest.

And what is our true being? I ask her.

We are all part of the divine and our body is a temple that acts as host, she replies.

Having felt the benefits of yoga for herself, Carla decided to become an instructor. In October 2018, she trained in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, where she gained a more complete understanding of yoga and met masters whose teaching guided her when she set up in San Sebastián three months later.  In addition to her acquired wisdom, Carla brought several prized possessions with her, including an album of memories. In its pages, are photographs of her family and of Carla when she was small. She tells me that it’s important to her to have the possibility of connecting both with people from her life in Mexico and ‘la Carla de antes’ (old Carla). However, nearly six months into her stay, Carla has not felt the need to open the memoria. Perhaps that’s because she feels so grounded here.

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When I took a class with Carla, I found the practice a nourishing slow-flow vinyasa ( a style of yoga that involves the rhythmic transition between poses). Holding the poses for longer than I was used to, was both physically and mentally challenging, but I left the class transformed – both energised and more relaxed.  As a friend, I know Carla as a warm and open person and while this comes across in her teaching, as she adjusts students’ alignment and practices the poses alongside them, you also sense that there is a part of her that is sealed off from the class and in communication with the divine. She tells me that it’s important to have boundaries with students, so that the relationship between her and them does not become an overly egotistical or even sexually charged one. She is there to guide students to access the divinity within them, rather than be a pinnacle for their desires.

Sadly, Carla won’t be in Donosti for long. Her next stop will be Belgium, where she’ll accompany her longterm boyfriend who is doing a Master’s there. Carla intends to learn French and teach some classes, but she’ll also take up other work to ensure she has enough to live well on. She says that it’s important for her to have recursos (resources) as well as her dream job.

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Carla loves to paint in her spare time. Since moving to Donosti, she’s been experimenting with new colour combinations.

 

This post forms part of a series about my first year in San Sebastián. I fancied a change from writing about myself the whole time 😛 Feel free to like, comment or share! Click here for the Spanish version of this post and here for a wildcard I picked out at random.  

 

 

 

 

 

Accidents happen

Accidents happen when things or people collide. If accidents didn’t happen, some of us wouldn’t be here (on this planet), and almost all of us wouldn’t be here (in this situation, relationship or place). Though I liked the idea of entering the world as a little bombshell, completely unexpected, I actually wasn’t an accident. When my parents got married and bought a cat, their parents complained that this four-legged creature was no replacement grandchild, so they dutifully supplied them with me. My grandmothers began knitting as soon as the pregnancy was announced, so an entire army of immaculate tiny clothes preceded me.

I stumbled upon this intriguing magnet in the dirtiest Air bnb flat in New York. It reminds me of my childhood
I stumbled upon this intriguing magnet in the filthiest Air bnb flat in New York. I was this sort of girl, up in the clouds like a bird, but often stumbling into the dirt!

But despite this cushioned beginning, my young parents just weren’t ready for me, and I grew up a sensitive, accident-prone child, susceptible to viruses, collisions with sharp objects and overwhelming impressions. My feeling that I was always on the precipice of disaster, made me retreat into a world of my own making. It wasn’t all bad, though, the surprising people and situations I encountered daily, helped me become creative, empathetic and always ready to laugh.  Interestingly, a friend who was almost aborted, because he was initially deemed superfluous, grew up so much more stable and resilient. I’m in awe of his expert handling of risk – he works hard, has antennae for good opportunities, and a knack for minimising misfortune.  Both optimistic and pragmatic, this child who almost didn’t make it into the world, sees it as a place brimming with possibility.

Life’s randomness can be unfair, but it is also beautifully invigorating. At their best, accidents can save us from a sleepwalking through a lifestyle that no longer serves us. When I asked my friends about accidents that had transformed their lives, they overwhelmingly spoke about encounters with new people. Polly* had been working part-time in a cafe to fund her career as a musician, when a customer told her that she would get a better wage in another nearby cafe. Following this stranger’s advice, Polly changed jobs, and soon realised that she and the owner,  Luke were attracted to one another, despite her engagement to another man, Adam. This inconvenient attraction was the catalyst for making her realise not only, the gaping holes in her relationship with Adam, but that she no longer needed to remain in a city that she hated, to pursue a now out-of-date dream of becoming a musician. Fully awake to her revelation, Polly broke off her engagement with Adam, gave up her teenage vocation, and moved back to the countryside, where she resumed her old job in an antique shop, and now talks about opening up her own vintage tea-house. Some months later, Polly wonders whether without these two encounters- first with the stranger who suggested she change jobs, and then with Luke- she might have married the wrong man and remained in the wrong city. While she’s still unsure of the future, Polly has more confidence in the present, and maintains that you grow by being open and trying things out.

Cinderella couldn't tell whether this surprise odd shoe was benign...
Cinderella couldn’t tell whether this surprise odd slipper was benign… But she thought, she’d try it on anyway

Another friend, Pedro once saw a beautiful girl on his commuter train, but was too shy to approach her. Taking the train everyday, he expected she would be there at some point, and kept rehearsing what he would say in case she showed up. Some months later, when the girl finally made an appearance in his carriage, he mustered up the courage to talk to her. He later learned that the girl almost never took that train, and had only done so on that occasion because she had taken a day off work.  Had this been a Hollywood rom-com, Pedro’s chance meeting with the girl would have culminated in a relationship that fulfilled his initial infatuation. In real life however, the girl wasn’t interested in him romantically, but introduced him to a friend, who introduced him to a friend, whose friend, Roberta, (the fourth in the chain), would become his girlfriend for eleven years. Roberta, a highly motivated graphic designer, brought a much-needed sense of stability into his life, which in turn, gave him the determination he previously lacked. Pedro had worked several jobs, but failed to make any headway in any because he felt adrift.  When Roberta began to take him seriously, Pedro began to take himself, and  his interest in literature and languages seriously. He became a a translator, got a Masters in literature, and then eventually moved from Brazil to the United States to start a PhD. Although they are no longer together, Pedro describes his relationship with Roberta as the defining feature of his adult life, and marvels that he would never have met her, had he not taken a chance with a stranger on a train.

My one and only train photo. It might have been taken by accident, or it might have been of the little white dog.
My one and only train photo. It might have been taken by accident, or I might have liked the little white dog.

Commuter trains, with their sliding doors, subterranean trajectories and hordes of passengers are picture-perfect locations for prophetic encounters (Just think of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or the films Sliding Doors and Brief Encounter).  Hearing Pedro’s story reminded me of my own frenzied train   meeting a few months ago. Suffering from flu, balancing four deadlines and realising that I had no time to apply for what I thought was a unique job, I was sitting on the tube feeling helpless, and the tears just streamed down. Two people approached me- first an older lady, who told me that sickness and death were the only true disasters, and that I was too young to suffer so, and second, a man with brilliant green eyes, a Northern Irish accent, and an odd smell, who tried to comfort me, and then just before my stop, get my number, because I seemed like an interesting person.  Part of me wanted to, because he seemed kind and sort of attractive, but in my pitiful state, I also worried that he was an opportunist with a damsel-in-distress fetish. I was also bothered by the smell. So, I thanked him sincerely for his kindness, and got off the train. When I got home, I wondered for a while if I’d done the right thing-  but let it go, because with accidental train meetings, only certain Pedros in this world get a second chance! However, my next chance meeting was strangely wonderful, but that’s another story…

An accident waiting to happen...
Twilight, cherry blossom and a bicycle. An accident waiting to happen…

* Names and places in this article have been changed for privacy reasons, but the essence of the stories are true. Thanks to my anonymous sources!