My first yoga class was at a gym when I was 15. I’ll be honest, I came out thinking ‘well, that wasn’t really exercise and that lady was a bit too hippy-dippy for my liking. Maybe I’ll try pilates. Or Kickboxing.’
When I was at university a friend invited me along to another class – it was only £3 so I thought hey, why not? I’ll give this yoga thing another shot. This time I found the teaching much more down to earth for my ‘I’m a scientist thank you very much’ brain. The practice helped release my body and clear my head after a long days hunched in the library. I would enter the room with a zillion to-do lists racing around my busy brain. After class I would float home, feeling like I could take on anything with calm, steadiness and ease. The seeds of a lifetime love were sown.
At first, yoga was just stretching to help my other forms of ‘real’ exercise: to keep my hamstrings open for a longer reach in the rowing boat and to try and emulate my kickboxing coach who could still bust out a box split well into his 50s. When I moved to Glasgow I found an Iyengar yoga teacher who introduced me to headstands and arm balances and destroyed any ideas I had about being bendy and strong. Maybe this yoga business really was exercise after all? There was so much to learn.
After 5 years of practising yoga, I tried Ashtanga for the first time. For those unfamiliar with these words, let me explain. If they were characters from Friends, Iyengar would be Monica, hands down. Everything needs to be perfectly aligned and under control, blankets must be immaculately folded and there is a bizarre fascination with home furnishings. A chair and chest of drawers are sure to feature in your yoga practice. It sounds crazy, but once you’ve done variations on a pose in a zillion different ways you can actually feel things you never imagined were possible, like the way the head of your femur rotates. You become an expert in your own subtle inner world of anatomy and sensation. And if you are a really dedicated practitioner you can earn yourself a 10% discount at IKEA.
Ashtanga, on the other hand, would be a love child of Phoebe and Ross; full of boundless energy and enthusiasm in a structure of boring monotony. In Ashtanga, you practice the same sequence day in, day out, preferably whilst wearing teeny tiny shorts in a room packed elbow to knee with sweaty strangers breathing very loudly. It’s hard, fast and raw. No space or time for props; faff is the ashtangi’s ultimate nemesis.
Then there’s my favourite, yin yoga. Or, lying around on the floor doing nothing yoga. It sounds easy but it’s actually surprisingly difficult. Staying still for 5 whole minutes at a time? I had a lady in my class once who twitched the entire time, wouldn’t close her eyes and between each posture would spring up and do push-ups. I could have been her 10 years ago, except you never would have caught me in that kind of class. In one of those experiments that you’re probably not allowed to do anymore, they found most people would rather give themselves a mild electric shock than sit in still silence for 12 minutes. In a world of perpetual motion, what happens when you stop? In yin, you meet the edge of this discomfort and try to breathe with it.
With yin, it was love at first sight, but I hated my first ashtanga class. ‘Do I really have to downward-facing dog? Again? You want me to put my heel where?! Why are we moving so quickly?! This isn’t relaxing! Slowdown!! Lots of people quit at this point, but I had just signed up to do a teacher training programme based on the Ashtanga sequence… So, I persevered.
And what a delight it was. Once you get past the initial feeling of ‘omg why does everyone know what they’re doing and I don’t omg I bet they’re looking at me and thinking I’m stupid omg I am stupid omg why are they all breathing so loud omg omg’. Gradually, you get familiar with the sequence. You realise everybody is so focused on their own movement that they don’t really care what you’re up to. You can get settled into your own little envelope of experimentation. You learn to make your own waves in the sea of breath and let the sound drown out your repetitive thoughts. You float away on this beautiful meditation of movement.
Okay so maybe not every day is like this. On those mid-winter mornings when it’s still several hours until sunrise and frankly, I’d rather be in bed pulling the wool firmly over my eyes. Maybe some days all I do is get on my mat, curl up in a ball and have a little cry. But what I started to learn in my teacher training is that this still counts. In fact, this is the essence of the practice. Yes, yoga is exercise, but it’s also so much more.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga and The Yoga Sutras
You could describe yoga as a big, cuddly octopus. It’s probably holding a stick so it can break you open and beat all the bad habits out of you, whilst simultaneously giving you a big hug. The physical postures that most of us think of as yoga – asanas, as they’re called, or ‘arsanas’ if you speak Sanskrit and/or live in the south of England – are only one of the 8 limbs on our yogic sea monster. Only one teeny tiny part of the cosmic puzzle.
In the yoga sutras – the ancient edition of ‘yoga in 196 seemingly impossible steps’ – it only mentions asana once. A fleeting reference to this huge industry with its multitude of styles and innumerable ways to conceptualise tucking your tailbone. But in the good ol’ days before YouTube yoga and sticky rubber mats, it wasn’t about putting your leg behind your head or anything crazy like that. The purpose of asana was simply to be steady and comfortable in your seat. Your seat is probably on the floor of a cave, somewhere in the Himalayas with no underfloor heating. If this vessel for the mind is agitated and restless it makes it aw’fy difficult meditate on the transcendental nature of our existence.
So in only feasting on one limb some might say you are leaving the rest of the octopus to go to waste. They might even point fingers at you uttering words like commercialisation, consumerism and cultural misappropriation. But the thing is, the other parts may be a little difficult for our western minds to swallow. My thinking is, take a bite, and chew on it long enough to sense whether or not it will nourish you.
The first two limbs are really a lifetimes work, but the basic premise is this: don’t be an asshole. Often translations of these principles get all ‘Ten Commandments’ on you, making atheists like me a little twitchy. The essence of it though is honest curiosity. I love the way James Boag boils it down to this question: how can we foster greater harmony in our lives? No one is going to force fermented soybeans down your throat or make you chant om for three hours a day. But if you feel so inclined to do those things, then do it with awareness. Maybe ask yourself, ‘is this the best possible use of my precious time on this planet?’
Next, it’s time to stop breathing like we’re about to be hit by a bus. It’s crazy to think that we need to re-learn how to do something so essential to living, something we did quite naturally as babies and all by ourselves. But it’s true, most people do not breath to their full potential. Before I was taught how to breathe, I only used about a third of my lung capacity and would often unconsciously hold my breath: whilst opening emails, opening the fridge, opening exam papers. This mode of breathing is caused by stress and perpetuates stress. Stress, tighten, stress, tighten.
When I took my first full yogic breath it was like parts of my body were meeting each other for the first time; ‘Hey guys, I had no idea you had so much space down here?! Why have I been living in this dark, cramped corner my whole life?!’ There is so much to say about the breath that it really deserves its own blog, so, for now, we’ll move on because we still haven’t got to the main question at hand.
All of these limbs are really just a warm-up. The aperitif before we get to the main meaty purpose of it all. And what is it, the point of all this yoga? Great abs. I mean, really great handstand pics for Instagram. Actually, probably the best thing is the excuse to wear ridiculously jazzy leggings all the time (a.k.a daytime pyjamas).
I mean, you do yoga for whatever reason you like. I won’t pretend that I’ve never taken a handstand picture or don’t occasionally look in the mirror to see how my wee biceps are doing. But traditionally, it is all about stilling the mind. It’s about turning off radio not-stop-thinking and tuning into something a little more classic FM, or a little smooth radio perhaps? Eventually, it all settles into white noise. It’s that little taste of something I had floating out of the yoga studio back in my student days. The thing that always keeps me coming back to the mat. A sense of letting go and coming home to the wholeness of who you really are. And after all, does it really make you a better person if you can put your leg behind your head?
So this brings us to the 4 meditative aspects of yoga: sense withdrawal, focused concentration, absorption and samadhi – eternal bliss. Eternal bliss you say? Doesn’t that sound rather splendid? This one is like a phantom limb; sometimes you get a hint, a tingling of faint surreal sensations. Then you come back to reality again and it’s gone. For me, the other three limbs are still like conjoined triplets, covered in a thick scaly skin that makes them hard to fathom. But hey, when the student is ready, the… octopus will appear?
The essence of yoga?
I think my journey and understanding of yoga is perhaps best summarised by this excerpt from my diary when I was studying the yoga sutras for the first time:
“Woke up feeling tired and grumpy at the world. Sat and stewed for a bit and then decided to try and do some asana. I knew it would help but I didn’t really want to do it. I tried to pick a sutra to focus the practice on. I couldn’t think of a relevant sutra, they all seemed too unattainable and annoying. I wanted to sleep and they wanted me to ‘purify sleep’, whatever that means. Then I opened the book and saw the first sutra and thought YES! Now yoga is being made. Every moment counts. You are on the journey simply by being here, by being aware and showing up.
And that is enough. I am enough’.
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