Wisdom in a wipe

Zen of my toilet-paper-free ashram bridges distance between nature's food and poo cycle


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Neyyar Dam, India – I came to the Sivananda yoga ashram in the coastal mountain range of Kerala expecting a stretch for my mind, spine and hamstrings.

But my stereotypes about the otherworldly discipline of a yoga retreat left me unprepared for the this-worldly experience of the Real Thing. After a week here, I think I understand why “touchy-feely’ is such a pointed insult for Western hard-heads and why the putdown rattles our nature-phobic sensitivities.

Quieting the mind and ego doesn’t mean dulling the senses, especially in this fascinating south Indian state whose women’s rights and mass literacy campaigns and powerful Communist party are as internationally renowned as its yoga gurus.

The sensuous routine starts at 5 am, when the loudspeaker at the nearby village temple blasts music designed to put the local deities in a good mood for the day.

We walk to the temple, slip off our sandals and sit on mats for morning meditation surrounded by murals of gods bedecked in shining jewels and colourful clothing. We breathe deep to fill our lungs with prana as well as the fragrance of spices, floral displays and incense.

Most of the 150 ashram guests wear shawls that can be draped over shoulders and loose-fitting pants tied at the waist. Sewing and other means of styling clothes are regarded as artifices that impede direct connection to the rest of the universe inhabited by God.

The air fills with singing and chanting, and soon we head to the lake for a brisk and challenging 90 minutes of yoga. Then it’s back to the temple for brunch. Keeping in direct contact with the universe, we sit on the floor. Everyone else leans over their hips to reach down to the plate of food in front of them, a bend I can’t execute, so I lift the plate onto my crossed legs.

I’m still the messiest eater in the room, dropping crumbs all over my face, shirt and mat. We’re served rice topped with squash and beans in a mild coconut-based sauce, fermented cabbage, fruit and coconut salad, idli (fermented rice pancake) and sambar sauce, none of which seems particularly suited to being eaten with bare fingers.

But there are no utensils, for the same reason that there are no chairs or tables. Once again, it’s about reducing the distance and barriers between our bodies and the external God-inhabited world our food comes from.

Before our daily chores, we have a break for necessary out-of-body experiences. I head up to our room, sit down on the toilet – at last something like a chair – but look in vain for toilet paper. The only other object in the room is a six-cup beaker under a tap. They didn’t warn me about this in the tourism brochure, and nobody ever writes how-to articles on this in Yoga Journal (called “Vogue-a Journal’ by hardliners who resent its high-fashion look).

This is when I find out about the other hands-on, barrier-free relationship to God’s whole universe. Using high school physics, I figure it out. Not to provide too much information, crouching at a 45-degree angle creates a water slide for the water poured with the right hand, while the left hand catches the water midstream, splashing it over the butthole prior to letting the fingers do the wiping. Shake your bootie.

Until I actually tried out the Zen Of Bowel Cycle Mechanics, I hadn’t really confronted the deep reality of the meditation guideline at the front of the temple: “With practice, duality disappears.’ Yoga, like paper-free wiping, comes out of Eastern wisdom.

In the West’s dualistic world, heaven and earth, sacred and profane, body and soul, exercise and worship, exit and entrance, food and poo, are opposites best kept apart.

In a unitary mindframe, by contrast, the ins and outs can all be connected if we don’t block the path. The difference between shit and food is a few months growing time in the fertilized soil or a few hours digestion time in the stomach.

Few things are actually as yucky as toilet paper. On a planet growing from 6 to 9 billion people within the next 30 years, those white rolls will eat up a shitload of the world’s remaining forests. Once the toilet paper is flushed and forgotten, the carbon and chlorine in the paper will continue to stress water systems. There’s no way to save our sorry butts from the collapse of freshwater or forest ecosystems if we keep this up.

If we thought from a unitary perspective and worked to get our shit together, we might be able to do some neat things.

Here, for example, we do our workouts on a floor made with muck and cow manure. As long as it’s protected from the rain, it stands up to heavy foot traffic. The temple floors, which look like they’re made of marble, get their shine from a polished coating of egg whites and coconut husks over the manure muck.

In the West, using our hands to eat is almost as taboo as using our hands as wipers. That’s because we are caught up in a long-distance food system in all its meanings: from the thousands of kilometres food travels from field to kitchen, to the table manners that establish the separation between humans and the rest of nature.

“This is not a horses’ stable, get your elbows off the table,” my generation was always told. Kids are scolded for eating with their hands instead of utensils. As a result, food handling has become a required course for safety inspectors and commercial kitchen managers, not a way of eating.

This look-but-don’t-touch taboo against eating with our hands is what gave a monopoly to the junk food industry when it came to finger-lickin’- good treats and bar and snack foods.

“Sometimes when we touch, the honesty’s too much,” the old song goes, and it’s not so different with food and toilet habits.

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