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Better Than The Average Bear
On Monday morning I had a yoga lesson.
Yoga and me have a complicated relationship. Over decades of being mad north-north west I have been prescribed it more times than I care to mention. Usually by people who have never known a day’s madness in their life. After a time, I got extraordinarily tired of being told what was good for me by people who didn’t know bad from a bite on the bottom. As Marian Keyes would say, I strongly took agin yoga.
In the Nineties it became achingly fashionable. Spice Girls were papped bouncing into coffee shops, Bill Amberg yoga mats rolled casually under twig like arms, announcing that aligning their breathing was responsible for their dramatic weight loss and new found wellness in body and soul. I felt wise for having eschewed this nonsense with a firm hand.
When Tilly was born and I felt like someone had run over my body and then come back for another go, I decided to try fitness. At that point it felt very binary, fitness or death. After one yoga class which took place in a packed basement with too many mirrors and the twitchy eyed strobe of malfunctioning strip lighting, I chose death as the less stressful option. I am still haunted by the screams of a woman I accidentally kicked attempting to master downward dog.
Spooling forward many decades, I came back to yoga when I had an idea for a book I didn’t write. It was to be about the realisation that I hated my body and would have preferred to have been born as a brain in a jar. As that wasn’t possible and it seemed crazy to harbour hatred for the body that was still making valiant efforts on my behalf I decided to explore all the ways I had discovered to learn to be in my body and love it. It was a great idea. It still is a great idea. It turned out to be an extremely upsetting experience in which I failed at almost everything I tried. I felt far too vulnerable to write about what I was experiencing. Writing made me feel naked and I didn’t like it at all.
Of course yoga was at the top of my list of things to do to explore my relationship with my body, if only to exorcise the echoes of the screaming woman. Because I was agin it, I knew it would make good material for the book whatever happened. What happened was that I met a wonderful yoga teacher called Pascale who turned out to be compassionate, wise and accepting. Her belief in what my body could do changed my belief. She held space for my self-loathing, my clumsiness, my dyspraxia and my fear of exercising in public and accepted all of it. She showed me what might be possible for me and what, for a few seconds every week, being in my body without ignoring or fighting it felt like.
Complicated life stuff meant that I stopped going to her classes after a few months, which made me very sad indeed. During lockdown I was bored of going for walks and so stir crazy, I started thinking about yoga again. I, along with the rest of the universe, discovered Yoga With Adriene. I didn’t want to like her. She looked like she had a Bill Amberg yoga mat. She had shiny hair and perfect teeth. She looked like she would be relentlessly upbeat and optimistic. I hated that for various unflattering and largely envy based reasons.
In the end I tried her because the kids told me she had the best dog, Benji. I discovered that I will do yoga for pets. Once I had been lured in by Benji, it turned out that Adriene was terrific. Which yet again, showed me in a distinctly unflattering light. Something, something, books and covers. Will I ever learn? Almost certainly not.
The most important thing I learned from Adriene was to start being unapologetic about taking up space in the world. Between her and Pascale, sporadic though my attendance was, I was starting to become a slightly better person. I liked that about myself, despite the fact that I still couldn’t stick my toe in my ear to save my life.
More complicated life stuff saw yoga fall by the wayside. There will be those who roll their eyes and sigh at this. Surely, Katy, you know by now that had you carved out the time for self care, you probably wouldn’t have ended up quite so hat stand etc? The answer to which is, yes. I did and do know, but I was also exhausted and stressed. I had too many plates spinning. Something had to give. Yoga, nutrition and sleep in that order.
One of the things I find very hard is starting. Starting things I know I am going to find challenging or boring, or sometimes even enjoyable things if I’m particularly mad. Starting feels like a massive, concrete lip that I have to drag myself over. Even the sheer thought of it makes me want to lie down in the road and die. Sometimes I can force myself over that step. Other times I have to bide my time and take myself by surprise.
Moving to London has given me many things already, but the most valuable things of all have been time and space. I have had time to start taking up space again. The last two years had seen me shrinking and shrinking into a corner of my life, making room for others in need of shelter. Now it’s my turn.
The walks have been instrumental in giving me thinking time. They have allowed me to unpack the precious things that I had wrapped up in case of breakages. They have given me stamina in both body and mind. What I began to notice though was that I was stiff. My joints were locked in a way that was making it hard to move forward in every way. I don’t like being fixed in a particular way of being. It’s not good for me. The ability to bend in body and mind has been critical to my survival. Walking made me realise how inflexible I had become. I knew I wanted to do yoga again. I didn’t know how to start again. The fact that I hadn’t returned to Yoga with Adriene meant that wasn’t the answer. I’ve long given up trying to force myself to do things that seem logical. If I’m not doing them, it means that they’re not logical to me.
Sometimes, when I can’t heave myself over the lip of beginning I know I need a bunk up from someone else. That bunk up turned out to be my neighbour and all round fitness guru, Dutch Martin. I talked to him about my situation and he recommended an Iyengar yoga teacher he knew called Nicky Lowe. After weeks of procrastination I finally booked a one to one class with her. I figured that if I was the only person in the class I would have to turn up for it.
All the evidence pointed to it being a car crash on the day. It was early in the morning, which I hate. Nicky got lost on the way to the marina and then her bike got a flat tyre. She arrived half an hour late. She, poor thing, was so stressed we had a consolatory hug. We were doing the class in the resident’s lounge, and what should have been a quiet, largely uninterrupted class, became one in which many people wandered through. On paper I should have found all of this the perfect reason to quit before I even began. I once walked out of a Tai Chi class Jason booked us into because we did it in someone’s hallway.
It turned out that the disasters actually did the opposite. It was so disastrous that it was funny. I warmed to Nicky because she arrived dishevelled and stressed. She was not a perfect, flicky haired goddess of unattainable goals. I relaxed immediately and felt that as she had worked so hard to get to me, it was only fair that I worked equally hard for her. There was also something about the way she began the class that gave me immediate trust in her.
The fact that people wandered in and out as we were working didn’t bother me at all, which surprised me. I think it was mostly that they were just getting on with their day and seemed entirely uninterested in what we were doing. Also, I was concentrating so hard on making my sternum go up while my pelvis went down, I didn’t have time to get stressed about other people.
One of the things that is so good for me about yoga, when I find the right teacher, is that it is so hard. Like learning to drive, there is that need for utter concentration that allows for no distraction. This is because the thing I am doing, whether it’s navigating a box junction or flinging into a downward dog is actually made up of lots of tiny things that have to happen simultaneously. Not only that, but they all ask for my mind to focus on things that I usually don’t think about at all. I can feel my mind pushing down surprising paths as I think about what a lengthened spine feels like. By the time I’ve figured out how to lock my wrists but keep my knees soft, push down into my fingers but splay my toes, keep my neck long but my pelvis tucked, there is no room for anything else in my mind. That’s before I even get to the breath. It’s surprising how often I have to be reminded to breathe.
In the past I have been a woman who would do anything to get out of any awareness of my body. So many times in my life, I have felt that my body has betrayed me. I can’t tell left from right. I can’t see. I am dyspraxic. My body is covered in scars from babies, those who made it and those who didn’t. My hormones have left the building, twice. At times of crisis, I have wilfully dissociated from my body as people have invaded it for all kinds of reasons. Reasons that hurt then and now, both physically and mentally. I have learned through time that the best way that I can survive is to pull the shutters up and hide under the bed and pretend this isn’t happening to me.
Yoga pulls me back into myself. It shows me a different way of thinking about my body. It’s so technical, I am able to experience it in a way that looks at my pain through a very different lens. It’s a process that allows me to find a way back into myself.
During the class with Nicky, there were still so many things that I couldn’t do, but I was surprised at what I could. I was far stronger than I thought. The most wonderful thing was how much my body remembered. As you stretch, you direct your breath into the parts of you that are finding it hard to do what is asked of them. You sort of breathe into the painful bits. I never think it’s going to help. It always does.
It’s a bit of every day magic that as I did that, I could feel my body welcoming in the breath and accepting help. It surprised me how much my body was willing to try for me and how welcome it felt to stretch it. It felt genuinely good to be in my body. I don’t remember the last time I felt that. I want to do it again. That was the biggest surprise of all.