Finding Her Power Animal: Jessica Stone takes a trip to Thailand and discovers her inner turtle

For Soul & Spirit Magazine
October 3, 2008

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“Are you ready for something different?” beckons the brochure for The Sanctuary in Koh Phangan, Thailand.  Branded an “alternative island resort,” the place is on Haad Tien, a small beach accessible only by speedboat or a newly built dirt road.

The logistics in getting to The Sanctuary merely adds to the allure.  In between swimming, lounging in hammocks and hiking to nearby beaches, I spent a good part of my two-week stay in the resort’s hub: its outstanding vegetarian and seafood restaurant.  A chalkboard by the homemade cakes advertises the day’s holistic events: yoga, meditation, shamanic trances.  And this is how I found myself lying on my back above the rainforest, trying to find my power animal and trying harder still not to laugh.

I’d never done anything remotely shamanic – heavens no; the old Catholic schoolgirl in my head severely objected as I climbed the rocky path from the beach up to the yoga hall, a mosquito-tented haven within earshot of the sea.

It’s sunset and the room is already dark.  A few candles are alight.  The Sanctuary draws spiritual-seekers from all over; but there’s a real community feel here, and I recognise several faces in the dim glow.

We sit in a circle, all eyes cast on the shaman.  With long blonde hair and a covetable toffee tan, Vinod looks like he should be on the cover of a romance novel.  After a brief introduction, he tells us to lie down, feet pointing toward each other.  Within a few moments of silence, he begins chanting in a sound I’ve never heard from a human – dark, deep and a little disturbing.  He starts to pound his drum rhythmically and purposefully; and as he paces around us I hear it sweeping over me and returning, much like a wave.

He instructs us to imagine a location in nature, and I immediately find myself in a tropical beach not unlike the one nearby.  I’m told to walk around it for a while until I come to a hole big enough for me to fit into that leads to the underworld.  This sounds scary.  Nonetheless, I play along, watching my bare feet come to a halt upon spotting an opening in the pale sand.

I creep inside and start my descent, encouraged by Vinod’s incessant drumming and calls to go deeper.  I seem to be going down for ages.  Finally, we reach the underworld.  I picture an inhospitable cave crawling with spiders.  Hell.  I want to get out as soon as possible, so I plunge into the bottom of the ocean.  Blue.  Breathing without a care.  Dolphins circle me and smile.  I’m supposed to be looking for my power animal, but somehow I don’t think it’s the dolphins.  A turtle swims up close and plays a cheeky game of hide and seek.  “Don’t forget to find your power animal!” roars Vinod, so I open my arms wide to encircle the turtle.  He spins me around playfully.

Now we’re told to dance like our animal if we want to, and this is where that old schoolgirl resurfaces.  I can’t take this seriously; instead I want to giggle at the serpent-like wriggling I see out of the corner of my eye.

The drumming speeds up.  Vinod tells us to head back up the hole without letting go of our new (or is it old?) friend and come into the room.  I’m convinced I’ve concocted the turtle out of thin air, but I’m curious enough to look up what it could mean.  In shamanism, the turtle animal spirit represents self-reliance, tenacity and navigation skills.  I like to think it symbolises that wherever I go, I always carry my home.  When I tell Vinod days later that I keep having nightmares after his trance session, he says “fantastic!” and advises me to invite my turtle to come to bed with me.  Not exactly what I had in mind for a holiday fling, but hey.

If anything, the shamanic trance journey reminds me that I need to step out of that restrictive schoolyard once and for all. The great thing about being an adult is that you get to play however you want, and no-one’s going to make you stand in a corner for it.

where the mind goes, energy flows

The trance dance experience is certainly an eye opener, but days later I get to sample some manifestation meditation with which I feel more at ease; it truly puts a smile on my face, as over the past year I’ve been getting into the idea that we create our lives with our thoughts. The concept is anchored in the belief that we are at one with the universe, therefore we are already connected to that which we desire – we only need to draw it to ourselves.

So, after becoming completely relaxed, we were asked to verbalize self-affirmations.  Within a few hesitant seconds, the hall was filled with positive statements that grew louder and more confident.  We sent out healing energy to others before envisioning our deepest desire projected onto a giant cinema screen.  We then merged with it, allowing ourselves to truly feel it as part of ourselves and be grateful.

As an incurable daydreamer, this meditation gives me a couple of new tools for my imagination to play with. It is also uplifting and encouraging seeing so many people in the room working together to spread love and healing.

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If the symphonic birdcalls outside your bungalow don’t wake you, 8am Jungle Yoga certainly will.  Don’t expect animal-themed poses other than the usual downward dog and cobra.  Yogi Randall’s class takes all levels through the classic Hatha asanas and lasts almost two hours – enough to kick-start your day and work up an appetite for the generous bowls of banana porridge from the resort’s kitchen.

After practising yoga for over ten years in both New York and London, I’ve tried nearly every style, from Bikram to Iyengar.  But this was the first time I had incorporated yoga into my daily routine, and it has had a huge impact on my lifestyle.  Last year I let my yoga slip to make room for other sports, but now I knew how important a daily practice is to me.

So, although I no longer live in a bungalow within skipping distance of that peaceful yoga hall, since returning from my Thai paradise I’ve been practising regularly at home as well as attending classes at a dedicated yoga studio.  I’ve also decided to train as a teacher, thereby ensuring yoga remains a life-long pursuit – one that I can share with others.

As for my power animal, I’m not sure how much he likes it on these wintry shores. But as a Florida transplant myself, I understand where he’s coming from.

The Sanctuary Resort & Spa offers a wide range of accommodation, including dorms, bungalows and houses.  My bungalow with adjoining bath cost 650 Baht (about £10) per night.   All programmes and events are additional.  Discounted multi-class cards are available for yoga.  For more details visit thesanctuarythailand.com

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