30 Apr 2016

Yoga; More than just stretching and sweating

Photo courtesy of I Love Limerick and Dolf Patijn, part of Yoga for Palestine
In one of my last posts I talked about my recent weight loss, I got an overwhelming reaction from people, thank you for all of your kind words and for sharing your stories too. I said in that post that I would talk more about my journey with yoga. Paths are best explained when you wander up the dirt track that leads to the main road; I can't explain my revelations without telling you where I came from first. I am, or maybe the word 'was' is more appropriate, one of those cliche nerds, I pride myself in what I'm good at, I wrap myself up in words, my ability to make stuff, and buffer myself from the world with pursuits of the mind. This was my comfort zone for a long time, I'd hide my sadness underneath a mountain of work, and filter out my anxiety into jars of buttons. It worked for the most part, but it involved me emotionally hiding from myself, it also meant that I had no relationship with my physical body. All of my work and social pursuits were to do with my mind, and I felt awkward in my own skin. I was the kid who was laughed at in P.E(gym class), but rather than figure out how to get better, I embraced my failures and wore them like armour, 'I'm crap at this, and it will never change' was my mantra. This meant that I turned into an adult that sneered at physical exercise, wrongfully thought that people who were into fitness were vain, and avoided any instances that might show up my own short comings in this area. I know now it was all defensive rubbish, I was afraid of being that kid who was laughed at.

I let this go on until my 30's, at which point I became friends with Chrstine McNally a yoga teacher who had just moved back to Limerick. Over the years lots of friends had encouraged me to join classes with them, or go running/swimming/climbing, but I skirted their offers, fearing failure and mockery. Yoga on the other hand intrigued me, it wasn't competitive, it was something I could do alone, and people of all ages and fitness levels seemed to enjoy it. After much gentle and pursuasive conversations Christine convinced me to join her beginners class. 

I was terrified before going. Heart beating fast, nervous tightness in my tummy, and the hamster wheel inner dialogue of self sabotage telling me not to turn up to class. I sat at the back, wanting to be invisible, feeling awkward and enormous in a tracksuit and vest. I told myself it was only an hour, no matter how bad it got, it would be over soon. As with all fears, it really wasn't as bad as I though, no way near in fact. Yes I was sore and out of breath, yes I got lost in half of the poses, and yes I was a sweaty mess. I learned that there's nothing wrong with all of those things, the worst thing happened, and it was totally grand. If you fall over nobody is going to point and laugh, in fact they'll probably pick you up and tell you after class an embarrassing story when they fell/toppled/farted/cried. In that first class, and in many since, I learned that not all bodies are created equal, the fittest person is not going to be the best, that in fact being the best has no place in a yoga room, everyone has their own practice and moves in the way that is suitable to their own physique. In saying that it was comforting to see that the gym bunny guy couldn't get his heels to the floor and I could, it destroyed all of my illusions about some size based fitness hierarchy. By the end of that first class I was exhausted but exhilarated, happy that I hadn't wimped out,and that I kept going when my muscles were tired and my brain was totally confused. In the days that followed my body ached in placed that I didn't know were possible, but I was in my body, feeling it hurt, but knowing it was because I made it do what it was meant to; move. If I'm very honest I know it was the fact that myself and Chirstine are good friends that I turned up to that second class, I couldn't face the text asking me where was I if I didn't go. It was the old habits of self sabotage telling me that yoga wasn't for me, running from the thing I wasn't immediately good at. Determined to take control of these insidious voices I walked into the second class and sat at the front, it didn't matter if people saw me make a mess of things, my best chance of learning was to be near the teacher and not miss and instructions by hiding in the rear. After that I was hooked.

Each week that went by the days of aching afterwards got less, and I felt my body grow stronger, as the terms passed by I could feel my body slipping into poses that had baffled me months previously. Yoga isn't about getting into funny positions and posting pictures of yourself on Instagram, although it's hard to remember that sometimes given how it is portrayed. For me anyhow, it's about the things I learn on that small foam mat. I learn about my preconceptions of myself, about breaking those notions, I learn to be kind to myself, patient, forgiving, but to also push myself where I'm afraid to go. It's not about getting the crown of your head to the floor in Prasarita Padottanasana  but about trying each time, and being ok with not being able to do it. These were huge lessons for me to learn as a perfectionist, to embrace 'failire', to stop looking at things as an end point, but to revel in the process, to celebrate the freedom in futility. These ideas are so counter-intuitive to how we behave in our every day lives that it's possible to never learn these important lessons. Yoga has helped me to slow down and see the bigger picture, to fear the unknown less, to believe in my own strength more, and to breath calmly through the little niggly shit in life. The type of yoga that I do is Ashtanga, it's a set sequence that never changes, people dedicate their lives to perfecting this one sequence, embracing the banality of repetition, and growing with the practice over years. There is something incredibly freeing in following the same set, knowing what's coming, including the impossible posses as well as the seemingly 'easy' ones, smiling into both of them with equal acceptance. Knowing I can step off the mat at any moment, but knowing that I choose not to reminds me that my own life is not a cage, that my circumstances are the 'mat' that I have chosen for myself, so I smile into the bad days and take them with the good.

I have fallen over, I've toppled out of headstand, I've sweated and cursed over failing to do Urdhva Dhanurasana(the wheel) for a year and a half, I've laughed out loud surprised at what my body was able to do, I've sobbed uncontrollably because of some deep emotion that was brought up by meditation, and I've spent hours on end in a daze in the happy glow that a hard practice can give you. I have also met the most wonderful friends through the class that Christine runs. Back when I lived in Limerick we would go for breakfast after class, sharing the weird hyper energy that yoga gives back to you. It's only been a short amount of time, but I can't believe the changes that trickled down from that first class. As I said in my last post, it's not the weight that I lost, the most significant changes were inside me. 

Note: Christine did not pay me for this!!! But if you are interested in her classes head over to her Facebook page.
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