Growing up, physical activity and I were not friends. Memories of PE lessons consist of hot, sweltering afternoons in Calcutta being forced to play dodgeball or faking period pain to not have to play dodgeball. Athletic, fit and sporty are not words I’ve ever associated with myself; I still haven’t managed to block memories of sports day at age ten, failing miserably at a “sack race” with my family watching- cringing, praying, pitying. Add to that the seemingly inevitable self-esteem issues at puberty, an addiction to all things sweet and sugary and a desperate need to be skinny…my early twenties saw numerous stints at the gym which never lasted more than a couple of weeks when I didn’t lose a bazillion lbs in the bat of an eye. When I thought I had become a proper grown up, I hired a personal trainer for a bit. That didn’t last for too long either (to be fair what sustained it as long as it did were his blue eyes) because I almost went bankrupt. I signed up for Pilates but didn’t go back after about two weeks when buns of steel and washboard abs didn’t materialize. I didn’t like exercise, and exercise didn’t like me.
One fateful day I noticed an innocuous door I now know I walked past everyday on my way to work and back. Power yoga something or the other, promising a “hot body and a cool mind.” In true form of getting far too excited far too quickly, that was going to my next big thing. Who cared about the cool mind bit (not me!), I was on my way to looking like Beyoncé. I told everyone about it of course, and while some were encouraging most reactions were snorts of laughter and bets about how long that would last. I wasn’t even offended, I didn’t think I would hit the three lesson mark. I went in to my first class not knowing what to expect, and tried not to stare too obviously at the lithe and ethereal goddess (I mean teacher) gliding across the studio wondering how long it would take me to look like her. I’m still not entirely sure how I survived the hour. I just vaguely remember the screaming in my head “Why God why am I doing this to myself?!” and feeling like I’d been wrung out from head to toe as I hobbled to the tube station after.
Nearly a year later, bright and early (by my standards) on a Sunday morning, there I am on my mat ready to go. Friends know not to try and make plans with me when I have a yoga class, they will be rejected. Short of a life or death situation, there is very little that I will pick over a yoga class…hell I cancelled a date once and as soon as I was in my downward dog I knew well in my heart it was the right choice. As they say, you know when some things are meant to be? That’s yoga and me. The physical benefits are an afterthought now, and leaving aside my flair for the dramatic, yoga has changed my life.
“Yoga, according to the Yoga Sutras, is a cessation of the fluctuations of the mind…also known as ‘the monkey mind’, when the mind is continually jumping from one thought to the next.” This is especially poignant for someone whose mind at the best of times can be a monkey hopped up on ecstasy. What initially started out as a quest to become a size zero has become a way of life. Things I have learnt on the mat while trying to twist myself into a pretzel have seeped into everyday life, making it bigger and better each day.
Some things are impossible or insurmountable…in my head. The best example would be the first time I was able to lift myself up into the wheel (Urdhva Dhanurasana). For a long time I was terrified and refused to try, knowing just knowing that I’d fracture my spine and having visions of my family debating whether or not to turn off life support. Then I chose to try one day and was happily surprised, shocked even and now I lift myself up into it without a second thought and thoroughly enjoy it. I find myself using this analogy off the mat too with increasing frequency, less thinking (or overthinking), more action and I love surprising myself with all the things I can do if I just try!
Learning to be kind to myself and to others. While the competitive and overachieving Indian in me started out wanting to the #bestyogiever all day everyday (growing up in a land of a billion people can do that to you), I very quickly learnt there is no such thing. It’s okay if I wobble or fall out trying to balance myself as a graceful tree (Vrikshasana), I just pick myself back up and try again. Learning not to criticize or belittle myself was challenging, but I’m now more accepting and appreciative of myself and the very fact that I’m still there trying and not flouncing off in a huff. Every other person in the room is trying and persevering with me, there is something very humbling and empowering about that all at once. Isn’t that an incredible idea to live life by as well: what matters isn’t that you fall, it’s that you pick yourself back up?
Its important to breathe, it makes everything easier! Not going to lie, I find the seemingly simple act of holding my arms outstretched in Warrior II (Virabhadrasana) incredibly difficult. I soon start quivering in pain and long for sweet release until I’m reminded to breathe deeper. And somehow that makes it a little bit easier to hang in there, soon enough its over and I forget the discomfort instantaneously. Off the mat whether its a stressful meeting I’m worried about at work, a difficult situation I’m in or if the blessed monkey mind is going at it in full force, a few deep and purposeful breaths work miracles. I feel calmer instantly, and I have a growing sense of perspective that as long as I can still breathe, everything is and will be okay. Keep calm and carry on.
A helping hand is a wonderful thing. No I cannot stand on my head (I’m sure I will one day), I need a hand trying to get into a shoulder stand and sometimes I just want to lie there with a block supporting me and my legs in the air. And that’s okay, it doesn’t make me or my practice any less if anything it makes it better. Not easier, but better. And just like that asking for help when I’m struggling is okay, as I’m starting to accept. I can’t fix everything and I don’t have to, just the act of reaching out to someone starts to make whatever it is less scary and manageable. Whether it is stress at work, or I am in the throes of a quarter-life crisis related drama, I don’t let it overwhelm me anymore and ask for help. And very often even talking about it eases the burden, and I am able to get on with it. Yet again keeping calm and carrying on.
I sleep better, waking up in the middle of the night wracked with anxiety is slowly becoming a thing of the past. I smile more, I stress less, I’m more available to people who matter to me. I can hold a plank without my arms shaking, and am able to get into a full bind (Baddha Utthita Parsvakonasana) without crying. I don’t sweat the small stuff as much anymore, and the big stuff doesn’t seem as big. I light incense and wear beads but hey I did that before yoga found me. Most importantly, I am more aware of the stories I tell myself and that they’re just stories with no truth to them unless I act on them…physical activity and I, not friends? Excuse me, I need to go do a few sun salutations now.
This post is dedicated to the wonderful folks at Lumi Power Yoga (www.lumipoweryoga.com) you inspire me everyday!