When I began yoga around 15 years ago, I was not a kid and already felt in some ways like I had left it quite late. Not too late, but later than most. I did, however recognise from my first yoga class that I had almost been doing this weird stuff on some level, all my life. All the bendy, flexible parts seemed to be absorbed by my ultra, hyper-extendable, joints and I could easily fall and slip into many postures effortlessly. I was on a fast track to falling in love with yoga - so much of it seemed easy to me. So many other physical activities left me cold: the bouncy, smiley aerobics classes where we were told us to ‘step it up’; the puce in the face circuit training, the ankle-crushing, foot-pounding ‘nopainnogain’ break through the wall running activities. None of this could entice me further than the first try. All this stuff felt sweaty, uncomfortable, painful and deeply unpleasant to me. And then yoga. Ah what a comfort and joy. What pleasure it was to ease my body into stretches and slowly move into interesting shapes and defy all western world logic, but damn they felt good. How exhilarating it was to finally understand I could use my muscles effectively possibly for the first time since trying to skip all those PE classes in school. And the bonus was that it did not feel stressful or harmful in order to get a result. Instead there came a great satisfaction in directing my attention to muscles I never realised I had and knowing they were being worked in ways I had never known before.
It’s a sly animal this yoga. It catches us, people like me, or people like you. It opens a door so just a sliver of light is let in, just enough to make you curious to want to know what’s on the other side. It presents itself as a mystery, a puzzle, a game of the simplest kind that anyone can play, by introducing us to a set of physical activities that we can relate to almost from childhood. Smilingly yoga says “yes, you can play with me” and shows us more and more what we are able to do. Of course what you are able to do increases the more you do it. So it feels like a gift that keeps on giving and that you are the gift, the giver and the recipient all wrapped up in a great package with a bow on top. But of course those of us who have been playing this game for a while know that this is a very simplistic view of yoga. It’s hilarious how it catches us and then continually moves the boundaries to present yet more goals to reach. As we understand a little every day, a little bit more of the mystery is uncovered and, like the longest ever game of cluedo, we continue on understanding more and yet, not understanding anything as there is always more to know and digest. Genius!
One of the simpler ways yoga catches our attention is through this movement of the body. As humans we are far more likely to understand something on a physical level and this is how we begin to learn. Yet after a while for most of us it’s clear that this is just the introduction. Surprisingly and gradually we realise it starts to deal with our mind, breath, emotions, energy, senses and layers and layers of past life and current life experiences. Sneaky yoga. As we become more and more aware of our outer forms, our physicality, yoga insists we keep penetrating layers and go deeper. Often not a comfortable journey, going inwards, but such a necessary one and really the only true adventure left that is available to everyone. The eternal internal voyage.
So whilst my body initially understood this practice with my periphery, through time and effort I was delighted and surprised to know more depth. Which was just as well, as what I discovered on a physical level, over time changed and continues to change. Of course, everything does. My earlier bendy, I can do anything practice has altered into something different. My body has been through some stuff. One or two minor but game altering injuries down partly to my over-flexibility – I was warned by several good yoga teachers that this might happen. My teachers of course also warned that I needed to work on my strength and stamina and not rely solely on my flexibility. Over the years this is exactly what happened, as we know yoga works on whatever aspect we are lacking and reigns in all elements of the self into a more balanced being. So, thankfully I did listen and become a stronger yogi and in the process actually lost some of my flexibility. This meant that I was able to move into postures that required suppleness with more control and the stamina I gained meant I could hold my place in space.
Sometimes an injury or two can teach us incredible things. Certainly as a teacher one is able to have more empathy and understanding of people coming to class who are not as able as others (or indeed yourself) and learn new ways to be a little more creative in getting across knowledge than simple show and tell. But in my own personal practice perhaps the lessons learnt are about gaining something whilst something else is lost. Through being less able in some ways on a physical level, a new awareness and mindfulness has entered into each practice. A slower consideration of what and how to get somewhere – a pose, a thought, a breath – has deepened my yoga immeasurably. Stillness and reflection now play larger parts in my practice and meditation is as important, if not more than, asana. Attentive consideration and knowing when and where to push, but more significantly understanding when not to, have considerably kept my ego in check. What began as an easy, fun and challenging practice, is now one with more awareness and attention. This doesn’t mean I don’t still have fun and pop out a few arm balances or attempt that allusive handstand from time to time. What it means is that now I am aware of how far to go without it adding to another problem to deal with. I am also well aware that as I age, there is still a necessity to keep it all moving, despite added stiffness and sometimes a reluctance to get out of bed. But a few days of no asana brings back the phrase “use it or lose it” and too much rest only leads to less comfort in my body. So the several hours of physical practice I once undertook with glee and sometimes gritted teeth determination, have made way for a balance between action and inaction. My body has changed because of this, but then so has my mind and the glimpses of pure presence found in both movement and stillness will hopefully nourish me into a ripe old age, with grace and gratitude.