My problem was that I needed to exercise but that, for as long as I can remember, I have loathed all organised sports. At school I was the shortest goalkeeper in the netball team, which explains why we always lost so heavily to the Convent of the Sacred Heart down the road who were all tall. I was no good at batting in rounders – my hand/eye co-ordination was pathetic – so I was always a fielder and, if you’ve ever played rounders you will know THAT BALL REALLY HURTS when you catch it. So I didn’t bother. In winter we played lacrosse and I was always a defender. Defenders get their noses broken if they get in the way of the ball, and their thumbs broken if they get in the way of the stick. Then at some stage it was decreed that one-handed cradling was allowed (that’s how you carry the ball in the lacrosse stick – you sort of wiggle the stick from side to side with the ball ‘cradled’ in the little net). That meant that short people like me would have needed a pogo stick to be any use at challenging. I never thought challenging was a great idea anyway so that didn’t matter. I didn’t even like playing Chinese Chequers with my mother, and I hate Monopoly. I have never really cared much about winning.
By the time I was about 26, I had a fairly stressful job in London organising conferences and special events. I needed to do something to unwind, but what? Not far from my office, I saw a yoga class advertised on Monday evenings and I decided to try it. My teacher had trained at the Iyengar Institute and the classes were very rigorous. Iyengar yoga teaches you to pay great attention to how you place your body, the position of the feet etc, in order to do the postures correctly. I have always been grateful for this start on my yoga path. Even though my yoga has changed a great deal since then, this good grounding has always helped me.
I can remember very well the whole class holding the boat pose for what seemed an eternity and our teacher saying, ‘And smile ….. it’s got nothing to do with your face muscles…’.
This class attracted a number of students from the contemporary dance studio around the corner. I soon had to learn ‘Santosha’ – self-acceptance. I was never going to be as bendy as those professional dancers. I know now that such flexibility is a mixed blessing in yoga. Being a bit stiff can be a better guide to how far to take a posture. Hyper-flexible people can’t always tell when to stop.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? Yoga is for everyone.
I found myself going back week after week, term after term. Yoga makes you feel well. It isn’t just a set of physical exercises. It isn’t religious either. But it is a path to a peaceful heart. It’s not complicated – it’s all about breathing really. Being aware that you do breathe for a start, because you do it 24/7 until you stop. Learning to use the breath when you move. Observing where it goes. Learning to direct it. I might ask you to breathe out through the soles of your feet, for example. Obviously you don’t – but you can visualise it. Becoming aware that when you breathe, you are breathing in the breath of every living creature that went before you, of all the living creatures that surround you now. And they are also breathing in YOU. We are all connected – every living thing – when we perform the simple act of breathing in and out.
Most importantly, yoga teaches us to be kind to ourselves. We are all so lacking in self esteem these days – who knows why? But you and I are as valuable to this life and this planet as everybody else, even if we don’t have perfect shaped bodies or drive expensive cars. Yoga tells us that we already have the right stuff inside us. We don’t need to look outside. Just follow your breath, and you will find your marvellous, beautiful, peaceful self and that is the best gift you can bring to this life. Just imagine, if everybody did that.