Joining Dalgona coffee and banana bread on the list of lockdown trends is a debilitating mental health crisis. For me, panic season has come with a side of anxiety, my furiously pacing thoughts piling up like lockdown calories.
The uncertainty of when we can move forward coupled with an inability to imagine anything long-term has made conversations more tiresome than regressive attitudes in Indian Matchmaking. Seeing friends via video call also comes with the unshakeable urge to huddle them in a hug, only to realise I’m banging my fingers against a fibreglass phone screen.
Ordinarily, I would tell myself that when the going gets tough, escaping reality for a bit is a great quickfire solution. But since that isn’t an option, I decided to settle for scrolling through Airbnb, quenching my thirst for the great outdoors by lusting after lavish villas with heat-controlled pools. That’s when I stumbled upon a host of virtual experiences designed to let your laptop screen be your window to the world. These glorified Zoom calls are meant to serve as a substitute for tourists to engage in unique experiences, while giving hosts a platform to earn some extra bucks.
While I was tempted to get my fortune predicted through Turkish coffee beans or stir up a sangria with sassy drag queens, what caught my attention was that this short-term rental platform has some seriously whacked out wellness experiences.
I probably should have opted for online therapy. Instead, I chose three of the weirdest virtual experiences in the hope that it would slow down my brain’s conveyor belt of anxious thoughts.
Meh-ditating with sheep
I’d heard of people doing yoga with goats, but the idea of doing deep inhalations while a bunch of barnyard animals peed and pooped on my yoga mat didn’t seem too appealing. So, I decided to try meditation with sleepy sheep ($17 / INR 1,311), hosted by a Scottish woman named Beccy, with a flock of sheep.
So, at sharp 8 PM India time, I hopped onto a Zoom call with two other participants from the U.S., politely navigating the awkwardness for some sheep thrills on our screens. Beccy, who is a mental health coach and teaches musicians how to deal with anxiety, gave us a tour of her home turf. Even as her crisp voice walked me through the stunning highlands of Scotland, the fresh air she described felt flat when I remembered I had to keep my windows shut so mosquito bites wouldn’t contribute to my nightly insomnia. I have to admit though that despite her farm view feeling like a Windows wallpaper, the warmth of her voice was a ray of soothing sunshine.
I didn’t quite know what to expect from this experience. How would the sheep sense my presence via video call? How could we meditate together if our eyes were shut? How would this be different from a YouTube tutorial telling me to “breathe in, breathe out”?
Even as my heart melted with the happiness of seeing an adorable animal from afar, the actual experience felt more like an FAQ vlog for fleece lovers, stuffed with 15 minutes of guided meditation that, for me, may or may not have been a quick nap. Still, the tenderness of Beccy’s tone and her childlike fervour for sheep made for a fairly relaxing experience. I’m definitely not eating lamb chops anytime soon.
Another wellness-oriented experience that caught my eye was Zen rock stacking therapy ($15 / INR 1,159), not because I was curious about how getting this version of “stoned” would feel but because I genuinely wanted to know how making a tower of rocks could be calming. So I signed up for a session with rock aficionado and author Travis Ruskus.
Unlike Ruskus, who had a specifically-sized sandbox of crystal rocks to mess around with, all I had were some browning apples. So while Ruskus tripped out on how many varieties of crystals he had collected, and how the miniature rake in his Zen garden could carve pristine pathways, I was constantly worried that my tapering tower of rotten apples would crash into a mashy meal plan for the resident ants.
Travis taught us that stacking rocks was all about finding the tiniest crevice on the stone’s surface, a cavity that allowed us to adjust the rocks. I’m not quite sure if this was calming, but at least it taught us the art of compromise.
However, my constant unease about my swaying tower made me feel more anxious, which was kind of counterproductive.
Still, at least I learnt that stacking random objects is a great activity to keep fidgety hands busy, maybe even channel those tendencies to find a cathartic release. I also learnt that Zen garden rakes are apparently so amazing, they deserve to take up time in conversations with paying strangers.
The laughing stock
As a self-admitted lover of lame jokes, I assumed laughter therapy would be a breeze, despite there being nothing to laugh about. So, I signed up for a session to activate my laughter muscles ($9 / INR 728) with Thomas Coock, a Lisbon-based comedian who seemed to share an easy-going joke with life.
Though this practice of laughing for absolutely no reason, and then calling it yoga, originated in India in 1995, I was interested to learn whether its interpretation abroad would be any different.
One of the minor inconveniences of all these virtual experiences was the vast time difference. So while most of the other participants were letting sunshine stream in through their windows or curling up with a midnight coffee, I was smack in the middle of a hectic WFH afternoon. Ironically, I ended up doing a laughter therapy workshop while working in parallel on a story on comedians getting trolled. The sheer absurdity of this situation was enough to let a smile escape.
Through his training and expertise, Coock has come up with a marvellous method to make people laugh: by compelling them to make complete fools of themselves, yet somehow enjoy every moment of it. Despite my nerves being frazzled from a hectic day that wasn’t done yet, the sight of 10 adults, my fellow participants, mimicking the laughter of chickens and monkeys, turned my feeble forced giggles into genuine chuckles. Coock’s effervescent energy and self-deprecatory jokes on his own surname, made for invigorating entertainment, alternated with pressure points to stimulate a smile. The workshop made us jump from cackle to chortle, and is probably the most exercise my lazy ass has gotten in the lockdown.
Ultimately, while the experiences were quite out there, even incomprehensible at times, I have to admit I left each of them feeling calmer and more connected to the outside world. The comforting presence of absolute strangers allowed me to let down my guard and immerse myself in these experiences without the fear of being judged. I don’t know if I can conclude that these dialled down my anxiety, but they were a welcome distraction from doomsday scrolling. Weirdly, only women participated in these experiences, which made me wonder whether men were too busy playing games on Discord, or simply didn’t believe that sheep, rocks and fake laughter could alleviate their stress.
Shut in for the foreseeable future without an oasis of optimism in sight, it was nice to know that human connection is thriving, even amidst glitchy screens and fluctuating WiFi.
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