What an arrogant little sh*t I was.
I used to turn my nose up at the mention of yoga. The drowsy ambiance and miniscule movements used to make my toes curl. Cardio was what I thought was important, not hardly moving off a mat. Isotonic contractions was how I improved on muscle strength, not sitting cross-legged and ohm-ing to the fairies. Yoga as a form of legitimate exercise was about as alien to me as sitting down and getting a manicure, and as I cocked my wrists back and spread my fingers wide in front of me, I shuddered at the thought. My mom used to drag me to yoga and it really got my back up.
If I had been just a little more receptive and insightful, I would’ve realised that all this while I was performing a pretty decent upward-facing dog.
Sri Lanka was where we first thought about it. I fell into a certain romance with this island when I first traveled there years ago, and in a dream come true, I returned on a wondrous holiday to usher in the new year with S. There, the lilt of the tongue and the carefree wag of the head lent itself to arcane and ambrosial concepts with powerful, mystical names. A-yur-veda. Vipas-sana. YO. GA.
We went from one experience to another with the feeling of awe and inspiration, and with each encounter, we felt as if we nourished something inside of us that was hoping to be unfurled and untapped. In a garden hut dedicated to ayurveda, we were each anointed with hot oil dripping steadily onto our foreheads, awakening reticent thoughts and shy ideas from the recesses of our skulls. Our limbs were kneaded vigorously – I dared to imagine warriors being massaged this way, in preparation for battle. At a Buddhist center off the highway, we found a carefully tended bookstore, and delved into written teachings of vipassana. How lucky that the people who practised mindful meditation were excellent instructors on the ritual. We resolved to make it a new habit this year, now and then facing each other with our eyes closed. Still watching our breath, we climbed to Adam’s peak in a night, right foot left foot, in breath out breath. We resolved, also, to learn yoga – it was the first thing I researched when I got back home to KL.
Fortunately, there were several yoga practices in my vicinity, and I browsed the net to figure out which one to try. I was drawn to Aravind Yoga – their website instilled confidence in the prospective yogi without being too frou-frou, it was conveniently close to the house, and the logo was in the form of my favorite flower, holding within its form a human form in downward dog. Clear, unintrusive. I made the call and turned up to the class with my old exercise mat, which was probably so excited about being given a purpose it was updating its Facebook status as I was given an intro by Phil. I turned up as I had done to every single class or activity I had participated since I was a girl, eager to be the best, the fastest learner. Phil warned me against these egoistic goals. “This is a long journey,” he said knowingly.
Aravind was a place where I unlearned all the silly notions I used to have about yoga, and came to respect it as challenging – and rewarding – form of exercise. Where before I had not taken the time to learn about turning balance into strength along the lines and poses that a body can make, I endeavored to do so now. My asanas were fine-tuned to every last joint, and I was amazed at how much stability I could contribute by my distal interphalangeal joints alone. I found that I could get well and truly sore from a single session, and that a morning class provided me with enough adrenaline to spend on an entire day’s worth of productivity.
I also learned that life has a way of turning mistakes into happy coincidences, God willing. I turned up on a Friday for a humble second beginner’s session, to find the studio filled with students and teachers doing the sun salutation repeatedly. I nearly turned to go, but Chris insisted I join them for their Surya Namaskar – a special anniversary event where together they performed 108 sun salutations in a row. Every person who completed that series did so with a smile on their face, and the lasting knowledge that they were capable of a certain level of endurance.
My second happy mistake led me to meet two gorgeous girls and fabulous human beings, whom I now have the pleasure of calling my friends. We all turned up on for a weekend class, not knowing that Chris and Phil were still away in Cambodia. Sitting across the road from the studio, we made the choice of taking the lesson elsewhere, instead of ditching it altogether for a hearty breakfast. Tita, like a super-flexible seasoned guru, led us through an excellent work out, and 3 hours later, we were still on Luiza’s balcony, enjoying the view and brunch, talking about life. It was as if we had our sights on a similar kind of road, trying to tackle the same kind of curve, sharing stories about the different ways to manoeuvre it.
So yoga was now a place where friends met, though while we practised together, we still maintained the space on our respective mats. Going slow, unafraid to grow. “This is your journey,” Phil reiterates. And if we fancied, we would go out to eat together right after class and traded our stories across the table. Nevermind the calories, ca me nourrit! It was sad that I was soon leaving, before my passes were even used up.
My old mat, a skinny kind of love, came with me to Ahuriri, and together we found Bikram Yoga Napier. Bikram is a style of yoga performed in a hot house. I had heard about these oven-like conditions and the benefits that it purported, and decided: sure, I can try purposeful perspiration. Happily, I discovered that sweating simply made yoga shinier.
During my time there, I had the pleasure of being in Lisa’s and Tracy’s classes. We lay our towels on our mats and faced the smiling instructor at the head of the class. The drill was always the same. 26 poses, a myriad of health benefits. Working up the heat within our bodies with pranayama breathing and warm-up asanas, we then contorted ourselves into the awkward poses – a bit of pressure now on the kidneys, a little lean now on the pancreas. There was even a pose called: the awkward pose.
No matter the teacher nor time of day the sequence, and the instruction, varied very little. The studio staff had clearly settled upon the most uplifting and motivating phrases to use for each pose:
Bend to your right, beyond your flexibility! Arms falling back, immediately! Japanese ham sandwich, big smiling faces! Your leg is a telegraph pole, unbroken! Kick up further, you can balance here forever! Head must touch the knee! Lift your body off the floor, a 747! Everything has led to this moment! Twist your body like a pearl necklace! Savasana!
How we worked! Looking up in triangle pose, the beads of sweat tumbled into each other and rolled down like a river from my pointing fingertips to my planted heels. Before I knew it, we were leaning back for the infamous camel pose. I wonder how many yogis had come undone in these few seconds. Every cell in our being, now agitated by the heat, rose up into the funnel shaped by our ribs and tore its way out via that feeling pump in our chest. The world seems so big and so much. I’m gonna cry now. “Don’t worry if you feel funny,” Lisa assured us trembling souls. “This is your space. Cry if you need to. We’re gonna think it’s sweat anyway.”
After the session, the cool air outside felt like a kind of thrill.
Soon, the NZ gig was up. Though I was sad to leave yet another studio, my excitement was piqued by a brand new Jade saffron mat, a birthday present from S. Today, I found a studio here in Cleveland, and started my week of trial sessions.
New studio, new mat. I took a deep breath and threw it down. Watched it roll out and take hold of the floor. Adjusted and aligned. In this rectangular space, as usual, I prepared to take a journey.
It turned out I’m a stickler for familiarity. The hot studio didn’t bake me the way it did in Napier, and that left me perplexed. The flow of words seemed distant, like a running commentary, rather than an attentive instruction. The music, above all, threw me off. But hey, there was still good energy here, and by breathing and peeking, I got a hang of the sequence of poses.
Towards the end of the class, we rolled onto our backs and the instructor announced, “Happy baby pose.” I tucked my knees into my chest and grabbed the sides of my feet with my hands, as if my femur, tibia and fibula hadn’t yet grown to keep them out of easy reach. I pulled back and rocked with abandon, looking up like a happy baby.
In that moment, playing my part, I saw the faces of my mom and my dad looking down at me. Their eyes, already wide with the novelty of a firstborn, were wider still with a maddening kind of love. Because I was a happy baby, for now. It was possible that in the back of their minds, they were reminded of responsibilities, to-do lists, and milestones to come. It could be that they felt a medley of hope and worry, and pondered the different things they would teach me about being a good kid, growing up right. How to cross the street, how to string letters into words. How to share and how to fight. How to be kind to others, and most importantly, how to be kind to them; though it would be a lifetime yet before I would rock their expectations by exceeding or failing them. My vulnerabilities, my strengths, my poisons and my songs had not yet shown themselves fully. But in this moment, they looked down on me and could not think of a single lesson they wanted to teach me. Because I was a happy baby, and to them, I was just right.
So it was in the ensuing pigeon pose, instead of the usual camel, that I wanted to cry.
I’m glad that I started learning yoga, and that there is so much yoga around. I hope it always remains timeless, and that the rise and fall of the surya namaskar will always invoke in us the comforting echo of masters gone past. (A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …)
Photo credits: Surya Namaskar by Aravind Yoga
26 Asanas from http://www.missclinic.com