If you think yoga’s about becoming flexible, you’re wrong. It’s not about meditation either. Or about breathing. No.
It’s all about you. The mastery of your body and all the control of all the shit that goes on in your head.
Yup, that sounds exactly the sort of hippy crap that people who shop at Whole Foods Market, wear tie-die and, er, do yoga would say. But you know what? Maybe they’re right, because I’ve certainly found that the more of it I do, the more I’ve realised that it’s not about being able to get my forehead to my knees, what the girl on the mat next to me can do (“OMFG she’s got her ankle behind her head!”) or how she looks in that Lululemon outfit she just sank £150 on. It’s just about you, working with the limits of your own body and the boundaries, where ever they may be, of your own mind.
Most people who see others doing yoga – in magazines, movies or by sneaking a glimpse through the studio window at the gym – wrongly assume at least one of the following: that it’s easy, that it’s for women, that it’s about being flexible, or that it’s not for them. At various points in life I’ve certainly made all those assumptions. But it’s about far, far more than that…
I’m currently part way through a fairly gruelling month of daily yoga. 90 minutes of hot, usually 40 degrees, yoga to be precise. So far it’s been a great experience, and something which I’m benefitting from in ways that I didn’t expect. I signed up to it having broken myself by running (a 30km trail race with over 1500 metres of elevation, followed by a marathon the next weekend), and a screaming ITB, creaking hips and feet that felt like they’d seen the solid cylindrical stamp of a steam roller signalled the time had come to give my trainers a break and fill that time with something a bit more restorative. This daily practise has given me the chance to revisit all the assumptions I’ve had about yoga and my place within it, and very much affirmed why it’s such a good thing for me, and why I believe it’s a good thing for everyone.
The first time I went to a yoga class was with my Mum in the local health centre, about 15 years ago. We were far and away the least flexible people there and I found the whole experience deeply traumatic. I’ve always identified as being strong and capable, and suddenly here was this thing that looked so simple, that all these old women were doing with ease but that had kicked my ass into the middle of next week.
The process of overcoming my utter ashamed-ness in my own inabilities has been long, but very much goes hand-in-hand with (these days, they skip merrily down the road together) learning the value of pursuing things for which you have no natural (or learnt) aptitude.
It’s natural for people to want to do things that they’re good at: you pick them up quickly, move forwards and build upon a solid foundation of confidence. Trying to do things that you find difficult is the opposite: it’s really hard on your ego, you frequently feel discouraged and progress is painfully slow. However, there is the obvious advantage that you are building skills and knowledge that you don’t already have, but less obvious though more valuable is the process of going through these emotions – the frustration, embarrassment, anger, despair and so on. In my experience they can go straight to the core of who you think you are and your identity within that part of life, and being forced to examine these issues is hugely beneficial.
What I didn’t know then, after that first class with Mum, nor after at least a decade of sporadic yoga practise, but feel I do know now is that the only way you can be “crap at yoga” is by not trying: by not committing to your practise, not listening to the teacher or being arrogant enough to think that you know everything.
The process of going through thinking I was crap at yoga was very humbling, though. I had put all that effort into creating a badass of a body, but the years of strength training were just compounding a lack of mobility. I still find yoga incredibly difficult – both physically and mentally. The postures can be hard to stay in and deeply uncomfortable, but the bigger battle has been with myself: not to look around and compare myself with others, not to get disheartened with my slow progress, and not to beat myself up about a perceived lack of ability. But actually now I realise I’m actually quite good, because I show up, concentrate, listen and try my best.
Related to this, it’s also a battle with your own ego about how “hard” you go. For me – a seasoned strength trainer and self-certified beast (and anyone else who considers themselves firmly in the same camp), this adds another dimension to how you respond to that pesky little voice in your head. Yoga is about finding your limit – let’s say the depth you can go to in a standing splits – and working around that. Some days you might want to push a little harder, some days ease off, but never should you let your ego tell you to do things that you shouldn’t do, risking injury or, at the very least, falling over and making a dick of yourself. It’s about knowing where you are and being true to yourself, working with your limits to further your own self. Yes you can cheat – bend the standing leg to get more depth – but you’re only cheating yourself.
“Repetition is the mother of skill” is something my very first karate teacher told me, a guy who inspired me to go on to achieve what have turned out to be some pretty great things. It’s the best advice I’ve ever been given, and whilst for things like knocking out pull ups it will fulfill its prophesy (thankfully not literally) quite quickly, for yoga this mantra will need to stick with you for years. Or decades. And I think that’s a great view to have on a part of your life: if you invest in a pension every month yet don’t take that attitude with your own health and well being, you’re seriously missing out.
I often suggest to people to do yoga, touting the benefits for injuries and blah blah blah, but quite often it’s the “bigger” reasons that I’ve touched on here that I’m thinking in my head when I mention it. Some people could do with working with their ego a bit more – not because they’re arrogant or egotistical, but because there is a lot to be gained by being challenged with it. Others could benefit from the long-term view it gives – there’s no Six Weeks To Ripped Abs plans with yoga. And some people just need to spend some time getting to know themselves and working with the challenges that come with that.
Of course, those flexibility gains sure are great. I no longer feel like my body’s a collection of bones attached with rubber bands, pulled taught to almost their maximum, but instead a collection of parts that is on the way to moving cohesively again. My goal with the daily practise was not to make some insane progress (absolutely impossible for me in such a short time span!) but to see enough progress and to engrain it in my head just enough to spur me on to take it seriously, and bring it on as a part of my training. And you know what? So far things are looking good.
Check out the Fierce Grace yoga studios across London, including in Primrose Hill, Brixton, Finchley and the City. They do an introductory offer of £39 for your first month, which is such good value that I actually feel kind of guilty for going every day. (Thank you, Fierce Grace!). (Oh, and thank you for the photo above, which I stole from your website!).