So, I’ve been taking a yoga class.
*pauses for gales of laughter to subside*
I know, I know, me and exercise haven’t always been the most natural of bedfellows. I was once pulled in front of the class and used as a bad example in PE. I walk the 5k Race for Life every year. My idea of a hearty workout normally involves walking to the fridge to get another piece of cake.
I signed up sort of on a whim. My dad had wired me some pocket money and I wanted to spend it trying something new, something that I’d never normally spend it on. I’d read a post by one of my favourite bloggers not too long before about how she had discovered yoga and had fallen in love with it. So I googled “Dalston Yoga” and booked myself a block of six beginners classes at the first school that popped up. I am beyond, beyond thrilled that by sheer chance, I picked one of the best exercise classes I’ve ever been to. Dalston Yoga classes take place in a tiny loft studio, sunlight streaming through an open skylight, the air warm and spiced with soft incense. A black and white cat pads around the space, curiously observing. The teacher, Paulene, guides classes gently in a thick, soothing Aussie accent (this is probably where I find out that it’s not an Aussie accent and get in trouble), liberally peppered with swearwords.
I first walked through her door about six months ago and I honestly don’t know how I lived without it. It’s become a hard, occasionally weird, but always brilliant part of my life. It’s constantly teaching me things about myself, and I don’t just mean that in the typical “yoga has brought me to a moment of clarity and reflection” (although there are shades of that sometimes). It’s teaching me things about myself in the same way that trying anything that you’re not immediately good at does. Here’s a few of the things I’ve learned:
It’s a damn good thing that I’m smart.
I’ve always been a rather appalling goody two shoes. A teacher’s pet. A kiss ass of the highest order. So imagine my surprise on learning that when I’m not immediately good at something, I have an almost irrepressible instinct to play class clown. As soon as I start to struggle, when my legs start to shake or I can’t bend as far as I want to, I feel compelled to comically fall over or make a smart comment about my lack of fitness. Because at least then, people would be laughing with me, right? There it is, one of my biggest insecurities and defense mechanisms, laid utterly naked by nothing more and nothing less than a forward bend. There is nothing scarier than trying really hard and still not being very good. It has taken real strength to battle past that. To accept that actually, nobody is going to laugh at my poses quite simply because no one is looking at me. Which brings us neatly into surprise number two…
“Poses” is a grossly misleading word.
When I hear the word “yoga”, the image that comes to mind is pretty specific and also, as it turns out, utter bollocks. I imagine a thin, white, pretty woman pretzelled up on a sandy beach. The sun is probably rising. She’s probably drinking from a coconut. She has great hair. Her name is probably Tiffany. Regardless, her poses are just that: still, serene, beautiful. When I go to yoga, I am anything but. This took a long while for me to come to terms with. I had a very definite idea of what I should look like when I was doing yoga and for the first couple of classes, I verged on upset, face flushing bright red as my legs juddered and twitched beneath me, or my wrist cracked, or my breath became ragged. Then, as I got out of my own damn head for a second – helped infinitely by the incredible teacher, Paulene – I realised that yoga isn’t supposed to be pretty. It’s a process of discovery and discovery is almost never neat or Instagrammable.
Now, I set my mat up at the front of every single class. I have never ever done that in an exercise class before. My yoga isn’t any prettier but I don’t care, because I’m discovering my body, piece by tiny piece. Sometimes, it does super weird things. When they get tired, my limbs start to shudder. My movements aren’t smooth and practised. A lot of the time, I jerk stiffly from one position to the next. Sometimes, for no reason at all, one of my muscles will decide that it’s going no further and cling on for dear life. I grunt and groan and sweat my way through the classes. And it feels incredible.
It’s not about that.
We all tend to think of ourselves as big heads on sticks. Our mind does all of the living for us and our body runs after, trying to keep up. As somebody who has devastatingly physical symptoms whenever my mind gets out of balance, I can definitely attest to that. More than being about getting bendy or skinny or even fit, for me, yoga is about actually taking some time to hang out in my body. As touched on in point one, I’m a bit of an Overachiever. It has been really, really difficult for me not to get caught up going “Well, by this time next month, I want to be able to bend this far, or hold this pose for this long”. That works for some people but is really destructive and distracting for me. I spent my first couple of classes physically pulling myself into uncomfortable stretches and poses before being utterly called out on it by Paulene.
Once I got past that, it became less about nailing each pose and more about going Oh, so that’s how my body moves in that direction.
So that’s how far I can go this way.
That’s what it feels like when I twist like that.
Your body has no moral value. There is no right or wrong way to have a body (despite what some people adamantly insist). The class isn’t a place for me to criticise or improve my body. It’s a place for me to observe. Because how are you supposed to love something that you don’t even know? So I watch my body. I learn what it can do. I learn Oh, that feels good.
That feels weird.
I think I can go further.
My body is great.
I am great.
Just like she knew when my mind was pushing me too hard, Paulene knows when my mind is blocking me. She knows when it’s my mind saying no, when my body could actually go a little further. Bit by bit, I’m building up. I’m starting to notice which poses make me feel happy, which poses make me feel strong, which poses make me feel grounded. Because I started at the ugly, ungainly beginning.
Once, talking about another yoga class she had attended, Paulene snorted, “They’ve got all these poor people trying to stand on their heads and they haven’t even learned to stand on their f*cking feet”.
That’s what yoga is about for me. It’s not about the money shot, the headstand, the scorpion pose, the perfect, beachy Pinterest pin. It’s about spending time with me. It’s about not pretending to love my body when actually, I’m just ignoring it. It’s about being present. It’s about learning to stand on my f*cking feet.