Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion Jack Kerouac
Yoga became a popular trend in the 80’s in the West as a form of physical exercise. However, the bigger picture tells us yoga is anything but a trend. It is much more than that. It has been and is a way of life for many long before the 80’s, for 5000 years in fact. From it’s origin in India it had a much more meditative and spiritual core than the physical aspect that was adopted in the West. It was cool and instantly appealed to me more so than any of that step exercise ‘fad’ mainly because of the spiritual element. The ‘no pain no gain’ brigade never rang true with me. It makes me recoil and I always believed it to be inherently wrong somehow. Always trust your gut I say.
I came late to yoga, relatively speaking. I was in my late twenties which means I have been ‘practicing’ yoga for over 15 years now. You would expect a mega flexible yogi bod then but alas no I cannot put my legs around my head, not for long anyhow! I was born with a sheer inability to focus on one thing at a time, which makes me a slow learner.
I’ve been a bad yoga student up until now, taking way too much for granted and letting too much go over my head (and not my legs) without even trying to understand, basically uncommitted and generally pre-occupied. For example, my current yoga studio is called ‘Santosha’. I knew it was sanskrit for something to do with yoga…peace or relaxation or oneness or the like. But it took 3 years before I actually looked it up. The word means ‘contentment’ and not just contentment but the actual practice of seeking contentment which is a whole other deeper level of experiencing contentment. Like the journey is the destination kind of vibe. Which is essentially what yoga is all about. What about that! Also I faced for many years in class a symbol of Sanskrit writing on the wall which I fantasied as a tattoo. I assumed it meant ‘Santosha’ but in fact it was ‘OM’. Doh! If ever I was to get a tattoo this is top of my list though (OM in sanskrit not doh!). But again shame on my ignorance and how slow doth my penny dropeth before I actually get it? But the slowest learning for me was how I had underestimated my yoga classes.
How did I manage to do that? Well I recently left yoga for the gym. Yes, the gym. It was coming into winter and more difficult to get out and about on foot or on bike (my two cardio staples). The gym, a place you are made to feel you should go, are totally lazy if you don’t, and somehow admire those who do ‘often’. ‘5 times a week?’ ‘Wow! Go you!’ I always felt slightly lacking because I avoided the gym and rarely felt pain that bad after one of my own ‘work outs’. To add to my guilt I did it in un-committal bouts throughout the years, caught in a bind of an obligatory pull followed soon after by a reactive sense of failure in that I couldn’t keep it up. Yoga was always warm and welcoming no matter how many times I had strayed. It always felt right. If I missed classes I didn’t feel guilty I just didn’t feel right in myself. I questioned myself though, was I taking the path of least resistance (as we as humans are hardwired to do)? ‘Yoga is soft, yoga is lightweight, you don’t burn fat and as for challenging? As if! Sure you don’t suffer at all plus you don’t get abs. Great place to chill though yea?’ my gym bunny friends would repeat in conversation through their condescending laughs. Forgive them Buddha for they do not know what they laugh at. But it did hit a nerve.
I’ll only do one subscription at a time so feeling that obligatory pull, I decided the gym is what I needed and abandoned my regular yoga classes. The affect was quite the awakening I needed. It was like leaving a comfortable relationship for a more heady one. I may enter this hyped- up-machine-dominated, grey space all geed up and pumped but I’d more often come away tired, sweating, frustrated and angry and have on occasion (this last) burned myself out, after just one month. It did get my heart racing though and I shaped my ass nicely with multitude squatting with weights.
It’s taken until now for it to really dawn on me that I rarely come out of the gym happy. Well not so much that I realize it doesn’t rock my world but that I don’t need to do things that don’t make me happy in order to get certain results, espoused by the populace. Tired? Yes, but I’ve worked hard. Sweating? Yes but not a bad thing either. Frustrated and angry? Affirmative. Something was not quite right with this dalliance. The music is on a loop , usually some horrific over -produced unnameable techno. Why so loud? Why so tasteless? Is that the cheapest subscription to music this gym can afford? Then there are the gym instructors shouting through their attached microphones ‘YOU-CAN-DO-THIS’ ‘WHAT DID YOU COME HERE FOR?’ ‘LET’S MAKE IT WORTH YOUR WHILE’ ‘PUSSSHHH ITTTT’. And that’s me listening to a spinning or bodypump class from my car, parked all the way up the street. I don’t remember signing up for the military? (exasperated face). My final crib is that it’s not a particularly warm or friendly place either. People keep to themselves mostly (in my gym), dourly and intently looking straight ahead or at themselves in the mirror, ploughing through their plan for the day. So yeah add all that up and you get an industrialized unwelcoming cold pump house that plays woeful music and doesn’t appear to care less about you, just plays to your inner perfectionist. It was the music that was the last straw! That’s my experience. Horses for Courses.
Frankly, I never feel I’ve done enough in the gym no matter how much time or effort I put in. And that my dear friends is where I figured it out that it’s not right for me. Like a relationship where you never feel good enough and you have run out of ways to impress or try to make it fit, it was time to walk, despite the allure of the bodyfit pictures on the walls. With that I took my run-down, over-exerted body and cold-sored lip and returned gratefully back to my yoga. Since then, my love, appreciation and gratitude for yoga just exploded. I knew right then that we were made for each other. Yoga loves me from the inside out. And I was going to make greater efforts with my practice. It may have taken 15 years for me to acknowledge this or at least bring it into my consciousness but better late than never.
On reflection I have never had a bad yoga experience. My worst experience had nothing to do with the practice of it, it was the push and shove attitude of an over eager bunch of attendees vying for their spot on the floor in a London, alpha-driven, gym franchise (gyms and yoga studios do not mix). Not a very ‘yoga ‘attitude one would say. Be a type A all you want but don’t shove your A-ness on me girl (pun not intended)! I’m a yinger not a yanger! I always come out of yoga class on a high and in love with myself and life! Ultimately, I would love to end all my days in this blissful state (Samadhi).
I remember finding it a tad boring at first, my first hatha yoga class, and swiftly moved onto ashtanga, kundalini and bikram seeking more thrills from their fast pace. It was probably a symptom of our aerobic wired generation and the belief faster equals better. But I quickly found that hatha had more to offer someone like me, someone who needed to calm down and get grounded. I learned slowly from there. Getting to class, having the right mat, bag and clothes, class etiquette and finding a good teacher were all a bit of a preoccupation at first, much like starting school. I found teachers ranged as much as the poses. The ‘pretend you are a tree’ type, the ‘let’s get as many salutation rounds in as possible’ type and the more meditative one who focused on breathing, getting grounded and in touch with our bodies through more slow focused movements. I’ve been to so many, from the yogi guru who spends all their spare time in various foreign locations, mainly India, forever deepening their knowledge about yoga (and their tan) from renowned gurus to the house wife up the road who provides the once a week class for retirees and stay at home moms (while the children are at school and while I was off work with the retirees!).
I’ve gained something from all of them but am happy to say I found my yogi master and he is luckily my current teacher . As I no longer get pre-occupied about the externals of yoga practice I can just get down to it. What he has is a mix of all the great qualities of all my past teachers. He is seriously knowledgeable about yoga, the names of the poses effortlessly roll off his tongue; from tadasana (mountain pose) to adho mukhasvanasana (downward dog) virabhadrasana 1 (warrior pose 1) to vrksasana (tree pose) to vasisthasana (sideplank pose) through to gomukhasana (cow face pose) and to countless more while remaining uncannily down to earth and Buddha like cheery. My personal favourites? Baby pose and corpse pose, the rest poses, naturally!
It’s not how far you go it’s how you go Paddy Hamill, Santosha.
He says such beautiful meditative things at the beginning of class to get us in the frame of mind (lie down into savasana …swoon!) and at the end while we are winding down, encourages us to focus on the minutiae, from each physical part of our bodies, to the great expanse of the universe, acknowledging our connection to all. He roots me to the earth and stretches me up to the stars. One particular enlightening thing I learned from him recently was something he says almost every class but which finally resonated with me over time, another slow penny drop . ‘It’s not how far you go it’s how you go.’ This thinking was a huge moment of divine clarity for me. He says it every class at some point and it eventually found its way deep into my subconscious. It’s how I go. It’s how I approach my pose , how I approach every single thing in my life from the moment I wake up until the moment I lay down to sleep that matters, that can change the quality of my life. If I keep being obsessed with how much, how far, quantity not quality then I will be forever chasing my tail and never learn to just be and be in the best way I can, transforming every minute resulting in less agitation and frustration at not accomplishing all that I set out to. It was a Eureka moment for me! I try to bring this into my daily attitude. He lives it and makes me want to live it. He inspires me to want to know yoga deeper so that I can get more from it, not just a once a week thrill or clap on the back for attending but so that I can incorporate into my life. No two classes of his have ever been the same and I’ve been to dozens. He is in the moment and in the flow of where each class takes us. That’s yoga. He perfectly blends the yin and yang, allowing us to challenge ourselves, facilitating in our own growth and personal strength. He also teaches me how to take my life into my pose and my pose into my life. Genius. My yogi hero.
Yoga is a dance between control and surrender – between pushing and letting go – and when to push and when to let go becomes part of the creative process, part of the open-ended exploration of your being. Joel Kramer
So you can bodypump, spin, burpee, TRX, CX , T-Rex and HIIT all you like my dear friends, yoga is the one for me. It’s old school, new school, always relevant and in vogue school. It will always be NOW. Mindfulness, meditation…eh that all stems from yoga. Somehow I can’t see there being burpees in 5000 years, can you? They will be a forgotten fad by the time the word even hits the dictionary. But pardon me that remark was rather non yoga. I am only in competition with myself. OM.
So what are we doing when we bend, stretch, twist and breathe? Well the ancient yogis had big ideas about union. They believed that yoga could unite individuals with the universe, bring about the understanding that all beings are one, and enable us to experience total bliss. Modern yoga may not have such lofty goals, it simply wants us to live more comfortably in our bodies and to feel better and more alive. You focus on your breath. You arrange your body like a cobra or a tree. You balance the best you can. It can strengthen your muscles, increase flexibility and circulation, boost your immunity and calm your nervous system. And it can also strengthen your spirit. You learn to quiet your mind and stay present . These benefits follow you off the mat and weave themselves into your daily life.
I tumble into class and throw out my mat with no guilt, no pressure, no ‘shoulds’. I just allow my body do what it can that day as I immerse myself in the loving, compassionate, yin infused studio surrounded by Sanskrit, Buddha statues, candles, sweet chanting music and sometimes incense. It’s non aggressive. They are no loud booming voices. There is no pain but we take ourselves to our ‘edge’. There is an aura of self -care, of natural attention to ones body and of holistic well being. The yoga mat is a safe place to take a break from your perfectionist self. What’s not to love?
There is always more to be learned about this mind-body practice. It’s called a yoga ‘practice’ because it’s never quite finished. The wise yogi knows that the process itself is the destination. That life itself is the ultimate reward. Another most beautiful belief that yoga has is that every person is compassionate, loving, and peaceful. Yoga helps us uncover the basic goodness in ourselves and in others, which can so easily become buried beneath anger, resentment, self-criticism and doubt. If only yoga were compulsory for all politicians and leaders of the world. Then what a wonderful world this would be.