I just came back to Shanghai from two days in the wilderness – wait, well, not EXACTLY the wilderness, more like… Chongming Island. Chongming does feel like the wilderness though – people rise and sleep with the sun AND I had to walk 5km to the next supermarket, which fulfills two of the four attributes of the wilderness (the other two being an absence of any sort of network and angry dogs attacking you as soon as you set a foot out the door). I guess, two out of four is enough to make a tame Shanghai resident feel reminded of the very place that their ancestors roamed in prehistoric times, when they struggled through dense forests and fought saber-toothed tigers.

Anyways, apart from a few growling dogs, Chongming Island does not have any bloodthirsty animals, and once you cross the bridge over to the island, the network on your phone might switch from 4G to 3G, which will still suffice to facetime your friends on the other side and tell them about how ordinary yet astonishingly relaxing this place is.


On Chongming Island, I whiled away two days by taking morning walks through the village and rummaging my friends book shelfs without really reading any of her books. I smoked cigarettes on the balcony, and in the afternoon, I walked to the supermarket to buy beer and chocolate. My friend and I cooked every night (which in our case means throwing random vegetables in the wok and add oyster sauce) and watched the full moon from the kitchen window. It was simple, intuitive, and unexciting. It was great.

I tried very hard to take some of the tranquility of the wilderness back to the city when I returned. It lasted for about 20 min after I woke up the next morning, and then I grabbed my phone and scrolled through the conversations of my flat mates bitching at each other, an open payment and two event invitations for Friday. Then, a notification popped onto the screen, reminding me of the Yoga Class that was about to start in 30 minutes. The Yoga Class, that I had signed up for the evening I came back, fantasizing about how I would rise and shine the next morning and continue surfing the mindfulness wave that my stay in Chongming had sent me on.

I prepped my breakfast – cause, that’s what you do, I guess, as a mindful big city resident -, got into Yoga pants and off I went. Outside, the morning traffic was already in full swing: A stream of motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, cars ran down the road, all going somewhere, to get something done. And me right in the middle, going to the Yoga studio, to get my mindfulness done. I thought about how people in the wilderness – Chongming farmers, Australian cowboys, Amazonian tribes – probably don’t have to force themselves to Yoga classes at 7AM in order to unwind – their life is unexciting enough. Apart from the neighbors gossip maybe, nothing stirs up their minds, their nature is simple and calm, and a Tuesday evening is the same to them as a Saturday evening.
What bliss.

I sat down on my mat on the balcony of the studio and watched the teacher – a girl with sunglasses and long, slim legs – walk carefully from one side of her mat to the other, slowly lowering her toes, then her heels to the ground, her lips forming a benign smile.
Wow, I thought. Totally Zen.
I’m sure she did not make a single sound. For sure I cannot tell, because a speaker jingling mystic flute sounds blended in with the roaring of the garbage truck downstairs. Phones aside guys, we can get started. Any injuries I should know of?

Slowly lower to the ground, breathe in, Updog, Breathe out, Downdog. Stretch out in your first Downdog, hmm, breathe.. walk the dog, but make sure to keep your back long…

The garbage truck was still chugging along downstairs, or it might as well be the street cleaners now. The music had changed to something you’d probably find under “Healing Meditation Sounds LONG PLAY” on YouTube. I started wondering whether later I would find my bike still in place, or if a 保安 (Security), 特安 (special Security), 交通警察  (traffic police) or another subcategory of street supervisors would have – for mysterious reasons yet to be examined – moved it to another corner of the street, so that the lock got all tangled up in the spokes and, at best, made the chain fall off once again.

Slowly raise your arms, breathe in, and bring your hands to your heart, breathe out…

Sigh.

Everything was so much easier in the wilderness. Nobody cared about the placement of my bike. I heard a storm thundering, I saw stars twinkling in the night, I had about three choices on what I would do next: read a book, take a walk, prepare dinner. I automatically slipped into a state of inner peace. I realized that all the efforts that we big city residents make to become more grounded – decluttering, intermittent fasting, gratitudediaries, cold showers, weekend retreats – become unnecessary once we leave our natural environment.
And honestly, Yoga classes cannot compensate for the annoyances and frustrations that come with living in a big city. I can tell you, being grateful when I find my bike again smashed to the side by a careless by passer is not easy (if not to say, ridiculous).

Arms up by the ears, yeah, just like that, and watch out for your toes…

Of course, the grass is always greener on the other side. And there is a beauty in the blemish of a big city: the view of high rise buildings in the morning sun, the car lights flickering at night in the window reflections, a cheap beer in the hands on a Friday night. There is serenity in examining the shelfs of a foreign import store and there is true delight in sprawling out in a pool, surrounded by skycrapers. Still, I’d say (to be very radical), it is impossible to live downtown in a big city (and by big, I mean roughly 10 Billion people +), and be a sane person at the same time.
 Impossible. Cannot.
There are – as maybe a Yoga teacher would say – too many egos, or chakras, or whatever, colliding, crashing, conflicting. And if you’re honest with yourself, you know it as well:
we’re all a little insane in here.

Raise your rip cage a little. Yeah, just like that, great. Ok guys, don’t think about how hard it is, just breathe. Hold for another 10 seconds, 10, 9, 8, …

The class ends with disillusion on my part, and a much too short Savasana, because, in Shanghai you always rest a little less than you actually need to. When I stretch out my arms to “feel my body awaken”, they run against the fence of the balcony. Ooooom, namaste, Thank you everyone. Have a nice day. Friday’s close, don’t forget! And off we go, back to business.

Us tame city residents, we are a curious species. We are driven by the very aspirations and materialism that we try to fight as their ghosts come back to haunt us. Why else would we be here, if not for the good salaries, the vibrant mix of people, the innumerable chances that this city seems to offer? Add to this a ladle full of competitiveness and a pinch of big city loneliness, and not to forget the mandatory urge for individualism. This spicy mix does produce some very worthy byproducts: uninterrupted entertainment, art and music scenes, coffee shops, freedom to be whoever we want to.
Being restless, insecure or overworked is the price we pay for these amenities.

So shouldn’t we just embrace the noise, the hustle and the distractions the city throws at us? The next shopping mall or wine bar is just around the corner to make you forget about whatever bothers you.
And when the city becomes too much, retreat back to the wilderness, or go on vacation, or go insane for a bit.

Just don’t go to the Yoga Class.

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