At the still point, there the dance is.
“Have you joined some kind of cult?” This is a question I get asked a lot at home right now, as I yawn my way out of bed at dawn, shuffle into the spare room, and clamber sleepily onto my yoga mat.
Over the past three years, I have sold a large proportion of my jazzy sequinned club-wear to make room for all the leggings and sports bras. I go to bed early on a Friday night. I’ve got a Nutribullet. And more recently I have even made peace with the imagination-free zone that is “the ponytail”.
But this isn’t part of some green juice Instagram crusade, no deliberate journey to join the 100% Organic, nut-butter-fuelled social media armies out on the front line. Yoga has been an inward change, gradual and silent, but profound and lasting.
What started as a duty-filled, slightly resentful Sunday morning yoga class (because I was guiltily and painfully aware that dancing badly to house music is not a balanced form of exercise, and because the studio was on my road, and because hopefully it wasn’t going to be as sterile as going to a gym) has grown into a daily physical, mental, and spiritual way of living. It has fascinated and amazed me, that something I viewed as being just ‘a type of physical activity’ has such intense and far-reaching power. I have watched, at once involved protagonist and detached bystander, as the calm joyfulness this practice has brought me has slowly but steadily flowed into every single area of my life.
I do realise I am not the only one banging on about this right now. There are so many yoga studios in London that there is barely leftover space to set up an organic coffee shop. But such feverish popularity is fascinating, that an ancient Eastern devotional system, or practice, has become a multi-million-pound industry in the time-starved stress-ridden West.
Much of the time though, the articles I come across, the social media accounts I follow, seem to be yoga-doers speaking to other yoga-doers. They use language that would make anybody on the outside looking in, simply look away again and carry on scrolling. A photograph of a hyper-mobile twenty-something gymnast doing a handstand on the beach above a paragraph about trusting the power of friendship and the alignment of your chakras is not necessarily “yoga”. I promise.
So I thought I’d try and write about my own fresh new beginner’s experience, hopefully using plain and ordinary words. I wasn’t an Om-ing, meditating, Namaste-ing yogi when I first went to a class; I was a caffeine-fuelled, adrenaline-filled party seeker and borderline workaholic.
I’m not suggesting that yoga should iron out our loveable kinks. I am happy now; I was also happy three years ago, and I had a brilliant life. But there was a blank acceptance of stress, it was just ‘normal’ to be tired most of the time, and I could hear the constant low level hum of distraction , a sense of fragmentation, beneath everything I did. Yoga keeps me centred. Grounded. Whole.
Formless Silence, and the Passing of Time
The first few weekends that I managed to leave the flat at 9.30am, my mild hangover-free smugness would usually evaporate to be replaced by panic as soon as the class began. I called it ‘Hostage Syndrome’: I was locked in. For the next 90 minutes, I would have to relinquish control. I could see an hour and a half stretching out in front of me, stuck in one room, stuck with my own body, stuck doing poses I found difficult and tiring, discovering that there were so many things I couldn’t do, so many secret hidden places where I was physically weak and out of condition.
It so happened that I was incredibly lucky. The local studio where I first dipped my toe into yoga, is an incredible, nourishing oasis. Yoga on the Lane in Hackney, is run by the compassionate, kind, and lovely Naomi Annand. Naomi has managed to assemble a talented, knowledgeable, and nurturing group of teachers, and I have always felt pushed to learn and to discover, while never feeling pushed to injury.
Over those first few months of clumsy practice, I noticed something strange begin to happen. Time bent. The minutes shifted. The clock stopped ticking at the same regimented, relentless pace. I was being let go by something I hadn’t even realised was holding on to me. In those fluid, elastic hours, I was reminded of Dali’s melting clocks dripping from trees, of the shifting chemical states of liquid, ice, and gas. Of things we view as solid and hard-edged being anything but.
At work, when the day felt as though it was moving too fast, when the seconds stacked up one after the other with no gaps in between, the space I had found in yoga became incredibly precious. I realised how squashed in things can become, bombarded by big heavy chunks of information and constant chatter. And I held onto my time-bending discovery, the knowledge that the minutes could pass in healing slow-motion, that I could stretch things out with my breath. I paused, and noticed the day glide along around me, instead of feeling it being ripped out from under my feet. This simple thought, that there is always more space than we first fear, transformed my life. And bizarrely, by finding room to breathe, to think clearly and calmly through problems, and ultimately by slowing down a bit, I found I was actually able to attend to things in more detail and oddly, to get more done.
A few years on and things have gone almost full circle: time dissolves for me in a yoga class, or at home on my mat. I stand at the start of my practice, and it is both an age and a moment later when it is over, at once a long stretch of time and the blink of an eye.
The time-bending power of yoga reminds me of the book The Subtle Knife, from Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy. The Subtle Knife is a magical blade with a point so sharp and delicate, that it can find tiny chinks in the fabric of our reality and open up a square, a window or a portal into a parallel world that you can step into. Yoga feels a little bit like that – a way of peeling back the layers, stretching time and finding a spacious landscape hidden calmly amongst the chaos.
Many people practise yoga to music, but my heart sinks like a stone if I walk into a class and see a teacher fiddling with an iPhone dock. Music damages yoga’s ability to change my relationship with time; for me, silence is vital. With a soundtrack, the minutes travel by at the same measurable pace I am used to: one track, two tracks, three tracks and so on and so on. It provides a way to match the speed and passing of time with our existing understanding of it. It gives my mind something to latch onto, a form that it recognises. It is the formlessness of the silence that is so challenging, because it forces us to spend time with ourself. Once I understood that time could be amorphous, liquid even, I no longer felt bound by it. Slavery to schedules, to being in a rush, to always knowing the time, is at the heart of a lot of modern-day stress and fatigue.
The Poses Within a Pose
So, what of the physical demands of yoga? Of course it depends hugely on the type of yoga you’re practising; ‘yoga’ is really a term as broad as ‘sport’ when you get down to the geeky nitty-gritty of it. For me, Ashtanga has helped me to become strong, to improve my cardiovascular fitness, and perhaps most importantly to stabilise my wayward joints! But I always balance this more rigorous physical practice with therapeutic flow; for me, the two complement each other wonderfully. Simply put, unless you are already dancing or climbing or doing gymnastics, yoga will introduce you to areas of tightness, weakness, or physical misalignment within your body.
The first few months of holding downward facing dog sort of astonished me. The limit of my physical practice was crushing. Why was this so hard? Were everybody else’s arms screaming at them? It was more strength than I was ready for, more focus, and a challenge not to get completely frustrated by how impossible such a seemingly basic shape felt. The most I used my upper body for was opening doors and carrying bags (often with difficulty). My hamstrings were so tight that being able to touch my toes (or even my knees!) was a distant pipe-dream. All I could do for those first few classes, was put my body in the general shape of the pose, and hold it there while I tried to breathe.
Perseverance brought huge progress. As I gained the strength and flexibility to enjoy the pose, even to relax into it, an entire landscape opened up to me inside it within my own body. Instead of arranging my skeleton and holding it there, I noticed internal movements, muscular relationships within my anatomy that I had never sensed before. I found ways of articulating places I had never been aware of, let alone worked out how to instruct. I gazed through my arms to watch my own heels sink down towards the floor, thinking ‘are those my hamstrings!? Has somebody lent me theirs for the day!?’
Downward facing dog is an incredibly complex pose. Mastery (of anything, of course) will always be elusive, and everything will feel different from one day to the next, but it has become a delicious unwinding instead of the endurance test it once was. There is an internal pose within every outward ‘shape’ you make with your body, and you can completely alter how it feels by working with and activating different muscles.
This all probably sounds entirely physical, but for me, it had a profound emotional impact. In developing a detailed anatomical relationship with the bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, organs, nerves, and fascia, that we are made of, we can attune ourselves more sensitively to who we are emotionally.
As I found myself moving through intensity and difficulty on my yoga mat, I learnt more about how I react to problems, overcome challenges, and celebrate progress. I suddenly heard the tone of voice I was using to speak to myself, and realised that it could be kinder. The process of learning and understanding my body, improved my understanding of myself psychologically; I simply feel that I know myself better now.
And the Monster was just a Puff of Smoke
I don’t want to delve into or attempt to dissect the truly vast philosophy of yoga here. Accepted simply at a physical level, yoga still has something medicinal to offer anybody who practises with integrity and awareness. And getting evangelical about the spiritual promise of the practice before somebody has even gone to a class can be too much for someone who might just want to alleviate some shoulder tension.
If yoga is any one thing, it is noticing. It is being aware. That’s all. It really is that simple. (Unfortunately ‘simple’ is not the same thing as ‘easy’!)
A lot of the time, without realising it, we spend huge amounts of energy avoiding, or not looking at certain parts of ourselves, of who we think we are. We go to extreme lengths, sometimes developing elaborate evasion tactics, to cultivate little pockets of self-ignorance. It’s like the monster in the cupboard – we lie in bed with the covers pulled up to our chin, eyes squeezed shut, making sure the door to our demons stays firmly closed. But the longer we don’t open it up and look inside, the more cluttered that space seems to get, shadowy shapes piling up in the back of our mind.
It’s the same grammar as a horror film: fear lies in tension, in the unknown, in not actually seeing the thing, in fearing the worst – our imagination is best at scaremongering when it only has half the information. In life, like in a horror film, there’s often a huge rushing moment of relief, the tension dissipating when you finally stare the monster in the face. You might even find out that the cupboard was empty all along.
Similarly, when you first get used to removing your reassuring daily distractions, slight discomfort crowding the edges of your vision, it’s quite amazing how often that discomfort evaporates the moment you focus on it. It’s like a sunspot, melting away when you look directly at it.
This all probably sounds like yoga is a ‘personal journey of discovery’, an ‘internal development of the self’. I think there is certainly a danger that this is true for many people. But it’s sad and unfortunate, and lacking somehow, if that is as far as it goes for you, if that’s where it ends. Our own life is a miniature landscape, and an incredibly limited area to work things out in, trapped inside the walls of one body and mind. If yoga remains an inward method for improving yourself, then it’s just the same as everything else we are locked into in life – healthy eating, trying to sleep more, working harder, trying to be patient with people, striving to better ourselves. It’s often termed ‘spiritual materialism’, using spiritual methods or practices to achieve worldly goals.
The transcendent beauty of an earnest and dedicated yoga practice, is that it takes you far beyond who we are as individuals. By understanding ourselves, we hope, we can then go beyond that, and engage more directly and more fully with the world around us. If we can accept where we are, and who we are, then that whole conversation stops being a priority, it stops mattering so much in our day-to-day life. It frees us to start thinking about more important stuff: the rest of reality!
It’s a little bit like realising we don’t matter all that much. And I mean that in the loveliest of ways. It’s not a cycnical detachment; it’s just perspective. Relax, appreciate the reality of what we each mean to the world, and be comfortable with the small but beautiful part we play. We are like specks of glitter. Bright and sparkling, but tiny.
What a relief: I’m not really that important after all.