I did my first yoga class when I was 20 years old. I was at university, and took a class at my local gym. I could barely touch my toes and was not what you’d call a limber person; I felt great solidarity with fence posts and other stationary, solid objects. I found the class incredibly hard, and when the teacher called Downward Facing Dog asana a ‘resting’ position I think I snorted out loud. I found no rest in any of it – my arms and legs shook with the effort of holding myself in such alien postures and I felt enormous exasperation at my ineptitude.
I looked at some of the other students, half pretzel half human, and felt almost disbelief that their body parts went where they did. I had always thought of myself as a relatively strong, fit person and considered strength training as going to the gym to thrash about on the treadmill, lift weights and do sit ups. Yoga seemed kinda boring, hard and also kind of pointless. I liked to feel like I got bang for my buck when I worked out. I was diagnosed with mild scoliosis when I was a teenager, and my back pain sometimes would wake me up in the middle of the night. It was when I moved to France that I started practising yoga regularly.
I was working in a chalet in Les Trois Vallées, living in a tiny village for five months. My friend and I discovered an American yoga teacher who lived locally, who ran weekly yoga classes in a small bar. For the next five months I went religiously, and things started opening up for me. As my body adapted to daily skiing I grew stronger, and found I was slowly breaking down the barriers in yoga. I looked forward to each class, and began to surprise myself with what I was able to do. More than anything, I found a peace in that hour which was addictive. Something happens when you start to consciously link breath to movement, flowing from posture to posture on each inhale and exhale. It’s meditative. There is an ancient Indian text called the Yoga Sutras, written by Sage Patanjali. Within the text is the phrase Yoga chitta vritti nirodha – often translated as ‘yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind’. What a gorgeous, luxurious idea. Your mind like a furred moth, trapped inside a bell jar and beating against the glass walls, slowly growing still and gentle.
Like millions of people before me and many to come, I loved the calming nature of yoga, the unity I found within the flow, the joyful empowerment which came from feeling a strength I’d never known, my spirit re-settling into my bones and muscles. My physical body also changed, a core and arm strength that my noodle arms never possessed, no matter how many gym sessions I smashed out. And one day, several years into my practise, I realised my back no longer woke me up in the middle of the night. I fluctuated with yoga, committing for months as a time to a regular practise, then easing off when other things took up my time. But I always noticed my body stiffen and become uncomfortable in my daily life when I wasn’t getting on to my yoga mat.
Living regionally means there aren’t always the same resources available in the big smoke – now we are lucky to boast dedicated yoga studios and classes in the bush. When there were no local classes, I would turn to YouTube – I love ‘Yoga with Adriene’, and ‘Leslie Fightmaster Yoga’. And wherever I traveled I would try to take a class - an opportunity to grow and learn from others. But I really decided to take my yoga further when I signed up for a 200-hour Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga teacher training in India in January this year. I thought I would eventually like to teach, but more so I really wanted to deepen my knowledge. I wanted to know more, the anatomy, the philosophy and the history. My month is India was extraordinary. We practised every morning for two hours, starting our class at 6.30am. Our open aired shala, a large yoga building, was 85 steps up a hill, overlooking the ocean. As we moved through the practise the pre-dawn dark was sucked back, the day breaking yolk-yellow and the sea spread before us.
The month was extremely challenging, emotionally and physically. We were very busy, with lessons from 6.30 in the morning till 7 in the evening. There was so much to know, and the more I learnt, the less I realised I knew. With 85 students from all over the world, mealtimes were a sensual feast beyond the smorgasbord of gorgeous vegetarian food – so many stories, backgrounds and tragedies, their experiences the full spectrum of human experience.
Our philosophy teacher, Sudhir, was the most peaceful person I had ever had the pleasure to meet. Previously a mechanical engineer, he left his job to become a monk, searching for his purpose. He dedicated his life to the philosophy of yoga and sharing his knowledge, choosing to leave his monastery life after seeing too much, and felt he could continue his spiritual journey outside "in his jeans"! He would stand before us, wearing faded Levis rolled at the ankles, and gently offer profound and life changing advice. His signature saying was "Smile, it's your birthright!" and the man rarely stopped smiling. I believe you meet mentors and teachers at vital crossroads in your life - individuals who show up with a lantern, and help you step out from the shade. What a gift it is for those who have met Sudhir, a man following his path and shedding light to those fortunate enough to stumble upon him. Exquisitely laying bare the rambling treasures of the heart.
One of the most challenging days for many of the students was 24-hours spent in total silence, with no technology, music or reading. Just writing and thoughts. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a digital detox – it’s amazing how much distraction we are constantly surrounded by, the white noise we’re enveloped with that is social media and news. The opportunity to turn inwards and reflect, to turn away from polite chatter and social adherence, is not one we often grant ourselves. Many struggled with their own brains, growing bored of their thoughts, past memories and feelings bubbling unbidden to the surface. And it isn't easy to sit with only yourself; I certainly felt anxieties begin to nibble at the edges. But Sudhir gently reminded us, it didn't have to be a gruelling exercise. Choose to sit joyfully, and watch what happens. Food tasted differently, without buzzing of chat - I notice I ate slower, saw more. I listened to the waves with a new intentness and could slip into my meditations with more ease.
The physicality of the month was gruelling, and while I had trained for it, I was sore in places I didn’t know existed. But as I grew stronger I revelled in the opportunity to really know myself and what I was capable of, the endless potential of the wonderful human body. Upon graduating I realised that I had really opened the door for a lifetime of learning, and this was exciting. There is so much to discover, so many revelations and truths sitting inside your own brain, and my yoga teacher training was just the tip of the iceberg. Only another 70 or so years to go (here’s hoping!) For anyone thinking about taking up yoga, I can’t encourage you enough. You are never too old, too stiff or too unfit to start. You just need the right teacher to set you on your path, and to choose to take that first step.
As Brene Brown said, 'You can choose courage, or you can choose comfort. You cannot choose both.'