Exactly one month ago today I moved into a small house in the rice fields outside Hoi An in central Vietnam. While strangers sleep in my bed back home in Australia, I rise at the crack of dawn to the chorus of roosters and fall asleep to the grunting of pigs who live in a richly fragranced pig paradise of churned mud and fresh manure right behind my bedroom window.
What’s the appeal my mother wants to know? She’s struggled to understand my lifestyle choices ever since I left home several decades ago with only a backpack, never to return. “It makes me feel grounded,” wasn’t a satisfactory answer. It’s as if I’d said listening to my drunken Vietnamese neighbours sing really bad karaoke at full volume is better than going to a concert at the Sydney Opera House.
And yet, that’s precisely what it boils down to. Of course I love going to the Sydney Opera House, who doesn’t. But deep down, trying to communicate with my neighbors, many of whom haven’t gone to high school, let alone university, and none of whom speak English, makes me feel more alive and grounded than doing small talk with Sydney’s social set. I know, I am simplifying, but I am trying to make a point.
I feel grounded when I hear my neighbors stir into action at the crack of dawn. I feel grounded smelling the fragrance of incense when Han next door tends to the altar in her living room to worship her ancestors. Even the fact that I have a direct view into her living room, and she into mine, through the breeze wall that separates our houses at the front, is strangely grounding.
When I lived as a single working girl with a big career in Sydney, in a beautiful suburb with harbour views, I never exchanged more than a quick hello with my neighbors. In three years, I didn’t learn the names of those whose toilet habits I became intimately familiar with as I listened to the water pipes at night through the thin walls of my apartment. My friends back in Germany were green with envy. To them I was living the dream. And yet, I’ve never felt more lonely than when I was married to my career in one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
For some, living the dream means surfing the waves at Bondi Beach, for others it means restoring a derelict farmhouse in the south of France. For me, living the dream means becoming grounded in the natural rhythm of life of rural Vietnam.
A Vietnamese person is never alone. The extended family, alive or deceased, is ever present. The Vietnamese believe that their ancestors continue to live in another realm. It is the duty of the living to meet their needs by lighting incense and decorating an altar.
Every full moon, old mate at the corner of our street, last year near old town, would shut his shop, move a table out onto the footpath of busy Hai Ba Trung road. He’d decorate it with a plate of offerings: a mango, a couple of cigarettes, a can of La Rue beer, a jar of incense, some orange and gold paper.
For the Vietnamese the past and the present exist simultaneously. Life is a small part of an infinitely greater whole. Existence is considered a continuum extending from birth, to our tangible lives spend on Earth, to death and the spirit existence in another realm that continues for another two or three generations.
The highlight of my day here is my evening stroll through the narrow lanes of my little village district in the rice fields. As the sun looses its heat and the farmers water their crop, I too attend to the online fields I have plied all day. I back up my computer, grab my Vietnamese notebook and start throwing the five words of Vietnamese that I have memorised around like confetti.
It never takes longer than 2 minutes for the women and children of my neighbourhood to mobilise. Magically they appear, hand me their babies to hold, patiently repeat words for me. I sound like an out-of-tune Chinese opera singer trying to emulate the sing-song sounds of the Vietnamese language. I think it’ll be a while before I’ll make sense to anybody.
Occasionally we manage to transmit tangible bits of information. I know, at least in theory, all the names of the kids in my immediate vicinity. There must be at least 20 of them. I also know that the woman diagonally opposite me is 34 years old. She knows I practice yoga and have my home in Australia.
I’ve become part of the local flow in the village. We chat and then we take leave and retire. Come 9:30 pm, we’re all in bed. We rise again at dawn to begin another cycle of work. I feel a deep sense of connection here.
Feeling grounded was the focus of my first week of teaching gentle yoga at Nomad Yoga. For the secular Westerner, cast adrift in a world where 1 out of 3 marriages collapse and single households are on the rise, yoga and Asian forms of spirituality and their rituals has become our new anchor. Feeling grounded in the present moment, being connected to our breath, practicing an austere routine, has become our new spirituality.
“Breath is the bridge that connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.” Thich Nhat Hahn
4 PRACTICES TO MAKE YOU FEEL GROUNDED
1. Morning routine
The important part about a morning routine is to remember that it is just that. A routine. An act that you repeat every morning at the same time in the same way. It could be a string of little actions. You surrender to the flow of it, like in a Vinyasa. Maybe you notice the flow of water as you fill the kettle for your morning cup of green tea. You sit with your cup of tea, your legs folded in easy cross legs on your favourite cushion. You pick up your journal and freewrite for 15 minutes.
Any sequence of activities that will ground you is good. Lighting incense, setting up a little altar somewhere cosy and private in your home. A short meditation, 15 minutes of Morning Pages, 30 minutes of yoga. You can make it whatever you want. The important thing is to do it. All. The. Time.
Do a sequence of poses that stimulate the first and second chakra. Tree Pose is a great one. Vriksasana is both grounding and balancing. Grow roots through your feet, grow tall through the branches of your tree. Being focused on your breath is what allows you to balance in this pose. Use this pose as a barometer to gauge your spirit levels. Are you scattered and wobbly? Then you might want to move straight on to the next item and meditate. How well we can balance our body in this asana will tell us how calm we are on the inside. If we’re wobbly, we’ll need to sit in cross legs for a bit to become grounded.
Sit in easy cross legs. If your hips are tight, place a pillow underneath your sit bones so that your hips can be higher than your knees. Start with 10 minutes. Set a timer. Have a spot that feels comfortable and private so that you can feel unobserved and secure in the journey inward. Focus on your breath. Simply count the breath.
The Vietnamese Buddhist zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh advises beginners to start in a lying down position. Count your breath in your mind. After a few inhalations and exhalations you will know the length of your breath. Now try to lengthen it by one or two more counts. For more detailed instruction see his wonderful book The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation.
Do Morning Pages. 20 minutes of free write in your journal. Every day. For more detailed instructions read this post.