Yoga wakes me up

I’d started doing yoga back when I was still a cynical graphic designer with a drinking problem and poor social skills. If you’d have asked me about yoga before then I would have dismissed it as ‘hippy crap’, most probably said while holding a beer in one hand and waving a cigarette around in the other.

What actually made me go was my work colleague Milly. She wanted to check out a yoga studio she’d heard about and she asked me did I want to come? Milly was the easily the nicest person I worked with, and I had no social life to speak of, so I thought why not? Suddenly all that ‘hippy crap’ looked much more appealing.

A few nights later I found myself entering a yoga studio for the very first time. It wasn’t one of those slick studios full of chrome and tiles and micro-waterfalls either, it was an old building surrounded by warehouses and car mechanics. I guessed that their rent would have been cheap and there were no neighbours to complain about our cars parked outside.

Once inside, however, it was quite different. It was full of carpets and blankets and yoga mats on polished wooden floors, with rows of shoes neatly piled against the wall.

There was a large portrait of an Indian man dressed in orange, with an impressive beard, and the picture frame was draped with flowers, and incense sticks smouldered beneath his beaming smile. The people who greeted us were dressed like Hari Krishnas.

This yoga studio was, in fact, a little community of faithful yoga devotees, spreading the good word here on the mean streets of Brisbane. Their guru was the Indian man with the bright orange robes in the picture. His image was also to be found in small frames all over the building, as well as on the back of the many books available for sale in the shop.

The community seemed to house quite a few devotees in a very small area. They had dormitories upstairs, complete with a communal kitchen. On class nights some of the faithful would be out the front greeting people and collecting the money. Others would be in the studio either being a student or being a teacher, depending on their level of experience. Some had dinner upstairs in the kitchen while we stretched and sweated downstairs, with the occasional smell of delicious food interrupting my concentration.

A few of them were a bit too blissed out by all the yoga and seemed to be in a perpetual state of smugness.

Milly and I both agreed after the first night that it was definitely a cult. We both went back, though, because we also agreed it was a great place to learn yoga in. I figured a yoga cult would be fairly thorough when it came to teaching yoga, and indeed they were. Their cheap classes also had a lot of people attending which gave me a crowd I could melt into and stay anonymous.

The devotional side of things was low-key, which was wise given the average Australian’s distrust of anything spiritual. The deal seemed to be that we newbies received cheap yoga classes and every now and then we’d listen to some quasi-religious waffle.

After a few weeks of attendance I began to really look forward to my weekly yoga class. It slowed me down in a good way. That calm feeling persisted for a day or two, sometimes long enough to get me through to the weekend.

I also enjoyed the solitary nature of attending a yoga class; I only had to be social to people at the beginning and end of the class. Back then I dreaded almost any interaction with humans, including those at work and members of my family. I was deeply and unconsciously wary of every person I met, and I anticipated that every encounter would end in disaster for me. My main focus was on appearing confident and relaxed so people would leave me alone and never find out how scared I was.

Yoga classes, however, were different. I had a reason to be there. There were clear guidelines on what I was supposed to be doing so I could be sure I was doing ‘the right thing’. The chances of being ridiculed or ostracised were pretty minimal. I started to feel comfortable on a yoga mat even though I was still completely lost when it came to my body actually doing yoga.

Over the weeks I slowly got used to all the bizarre postures we were supposed to do.

Being mindful of body sensations was a challenge for me because I had, from a young age, despised things like sport and fitness. I had much preferred the predictable and sedentary pursuit of reading books. Now in my yoga classes I worked up a sweat, felt the muscles strain and struggled not to be overwhelmed by the sheer novelty of physical exertion. It took me a long time to figure out the difference between ‘ouch, that hurts in a muscle-growth kind of way’ and ‘ouch, I think may I have damaged a vital part of my body’.

My fear of my own body had become a hyper-vigilance about any physical pain, however slight; a panic at the slightest suggestion of injury. It took me a long time to come out of that fear and realise that my body could work hard without hurting itself.

Over time, I started to become more aware of my body.

I had lived all my life in this meat suit and yet I was oblivious to some pretty obvious aspects. For instance, as I went through my yoga routines, I noticed that I could raise my left arm higher than my right arm. Decades of graphic designing had meant years of constant, angry clutching at a mouse with my right hand and so my right shoulder was quite locked up. It was strange to notice for the first time and realise that a huge chunk of my body was permanently stiff and sore and partially paralysed.

As I went through the asanas in class I breathed into my frozen shoulder, and my tight hamstrings and any other places I could feel. At home, in my morning yoga, I started to focus on asanas that worked on my locked shoulder and, muscle fibre by muscle fibre, it began to unlock. It felt like I was working around the edges of a big slab of concrete that my right shoulder was trapped beneath.

There were months of stretching and breathing, months of doing downward dog, cobra, eagle arms and all the other weird-arse names. Then one night in class I was just going through the usual routines and out of nowhere I felt that huge chunk of tightness in my right shoulder just unlock. It was like that piece of concrete just cracked in two, and that shoulder was suddenly moving more freely than it had in years. As I did some shoulder rolls I could feel lots of crunching in there, could feel those large bits of concrete starting to break up some more, and there was so much more increased movement and sensation. I was stunned.

My body had healed itself!

Yoga had made a tangible, physical improvement to my life. I could feel it every time I picked up a mouse. For someone so used to being mired in the ineffectiveness of anxiety and depression it was a big deal. Yoga did indeed work. My enthusiasm grew.

I was discovering the power of persistence by sticking to the process of yoga, faithfully following the sequence and doing a bit each day. I built a momentum and the small changes accumulated. One night I broke through an old belief that ‘I couldn’t touch my toes’. It was a belief from my childhood where I dreaded the idea of any form of exercise, particularly all that garbage at school. I hated sports, hated PE teachers and hated all that sweating; yuck! I left all that ‘toe touching’ to the cool kids and disappeared into a book.

In hindsight it wasn’t surprising I hated exercise. It put me ‘back in my body’, back into the feelings of isolation and anxiety I’d desensitised myself to during my childhood.

I had a mountain of unacknowledged trauma in my body that I was avoiding so of course I lacked enthusiasm for physical excercise.

So when I ended up in a yoga studio and the teacher said ‘touch your toes’, I rolled my eyes and snorted derisively, dangling my fingers lazily. Why bother? It was just like a flashback to those miserable PE classes in primary school.

I found other things to focus on. Very soon in my yoga adventure I became a bit obsessed about my tight hamstrings, and sought to lengthen and stretch them. I breathed into them thousands of times, visualising the muscle fibres stretching as I spent minutes with burning thighs. Pose after pose, class after class, I breathed into the tight backs of my thighs. Then at the beginning of a class, during the warm up when I bent down to stretch my hamstrings my finger tips brushed those things at the end of my feet.

I had just touched my toes!

I felt a little jolt of shock through my whole body. A feeling of surprise at a little part of my world being turned upside down. It was a little detail but inside it felt like a big deal. All that yoga I had done had changed me! I was no longer Someone Who Couldn’t Touch their Toes. It was another little step forward.

There is no substitute for that feeling of over-riding old boundaries to inspire someone trying to make sense of their life. That feeling that it is possible to change the conditions of my existence really inspired me. Touching my toes after all these years was proof that I could change. If I could change that, what else could I change? Thinking like that felt powerful. It felt like hope.

As my hope grew so did my curiosity and I eventually discovered Buddhist meditation, which I talk about in the next extract.

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