It’s very easy for life to get in the way of exercise. Its December and of-course illness strikes; recovery is followed by busy Christmas festivities. Then I’m in January, spending every second weekend away with children in tow, then it’s back to work for the year. One week of no exercise becomes two, becomes four, becomes eight, and suddenly it’s mid-year. I feel lethargic and restless, and as my exercise patterns lose form, so too does my sleep.
I decide to see a masseuse, who immediately advises me to book in for next week and the week after that… ‘You have years of tension built up here’, he says whilst prodding and kneading around my shoulders, throbbing from all the sudden attention. I tell him, ‘sometimes I even see the tension manifest visibly in the mirror’. What used to be a smooth skateboard ramp emerging from either side of my neck now has a large growth emerging from it. I tell the masseuse that he is my last resort before starting yoga which, I explain to him, I am reluctant to begin for reasons I can’t presently articulate. I don’t tell him what I’m thinking, that yoga seems a bit cult-like and that’s just not me.
As we make our way back out to pay at reception, he tells me he sees this kind of tension all the time. The waiting room is full of Matts and Sams and Sarahs waiting patiently for their turn. I run my eyes over them all sitting still and silent, recognising that many appear to be sitting in a significant degree of discomfort. Significant enough, at least, to bring them here today.
How my aversion to yoga quickly turned into a love affair
Sitting at my desk back at work, the tension becomes so profound I desperately type ‘yoga near me’ into a search engine. I call up a friend and beg them to accompany me. At the start of class, the teacher makes a fuss over our newness. I tell her I am terrible but eager. At first, the heat of the yoga room slaps me in the face. There are little lines, upside down L’s, to indicate where your mat should be. Though, when I look closer, I see they are not lines but small L-shaped sentences that read, You are Enough!
‘This is a mental exercise as much as it is exercise for the body’, our instructor Kahlani says, ‘if thoughts arise, see if you can let the thoughts float by like clouds’. I see the contents of the last week, and my plans for the next, move by in violent gusts. The more I try to think of nothing the harder the task becomes. I open my eyes to look around while trying to keep my head still, not wanting Kahlani to notice my failing to comply with her every request. Everyone has their eyes very shut and, as far as I can tell, is achieving ‘relaxation’. I reluctantly return my gaze inwards, feeling the collective rise and fall of the many chests in the room.
At the conclusion of class one, I am wobbly when guiding my feet into my shoes. ‘Should we do it?’, my friend asks pointing to the 4×4 challenge poster suspended on the wall opposite. I hesitate, and moan, but already she is committing our names on the sheet. It ended up taking me approximately 7 days -four classes- to get over myself and let go of all the stereotypes, which then created room for what came next: a deep engagement and appreciation of yoga
Yoga is about letting go of our stereotypes, to-do lists, and every-day issues, for a moment of connection to the present moment
The underlying theme of yoga is connection, whereby the word ‘yoga’ is derived from ‘yuj’, meaning to yoke or bind. I possessed two yoga-stereotypes prior to commencing classes: the ‘Namaste’ and the ‘Namaslay’. Both stereotypes were cultivated by images I had been exposed to through advertising, mass media and popular culture. The first, the ‘Namaste’, is the free-loving, incense burning, tribal tattoo yogi who also happens to be vegan. The second, the ‘Namaslay’, is the expensive (matching) exercise ensemble kind of woman that has an exceptionally toned body. While these stereotypes certainly exist, yoga helped me realise – who am I to judge? The ‘Namaste’s and ‘Namaslay’s are people too, and amongst them practice many generic omnivores who are not particularly flexible, fit or invested in athleisure. This was a welcome shock to me after having rolled into class wearing my sometimes walking/sometimes sleeping T-shirt and old high school bike shorts, asking how much it is to loan a mat.
I also quickly learned that yoga is as much about the poses on the mat as it is breathing, meditation and mindfulness. Often the most challenging, and consequently rewarding aspects of class is trying to keep my mind in the room, on the mat and my breath. That is, not letting trivial to-dos and the weight of the world’s problems flood the moment as they so often and easily tend to.
Yoga is associated with a natural high because it stimulates the release of endocannabinoids
The technical -chemical- explanation behind yoga largely comes down to its low impact nature. It works to lower our stress hormones while as the same time helps produce positive chemicals like endorphins and GABA . These chemicals are known for reducing anxiety and increasing positive affect states -aka good moods! Preliminary research has revealed that those who practice yoga regularly even have higher levels of these ‘good chemicals’ than those who engage in reading or walking relaxation practices instead.
There is also an ultra-relaxed feeling I’ve noticed after each class, which is apparently due to endocannabinoids (naturally occurring biochemical substances that are chemically similar, and can have similar calming effects to, medical marijuana). I read that other forms of exercise including swimming and dancing also have some anti-depressant effects, and I entertain the notion of incorporating these practices into my routine, in addition to yoga, wondering if this would allow me to experience a truly euphoric life!
Contrary to popular belief, yoga isn’t about progress or perfect shapes
The benefits are subtle to begin with. There is a general feeling of being more relaxed and comfortable sitting, standing, or moving in my body, while at the same time calmer and more consistent in my mood. And the more I attend, the more explicit and consistent this sensation becomes. This is likely because the practice of yoga combats the rigidity associated with natural aging, as well as reducing inflammation and improving immunity via its engagement with our parasympathetic nervous system.
As a non-competitive and non-confrontational being, the other thing I enjoy is it’s emphasis on the present, rather than requiring progress per se. Every class I have attended is mutually exclusive from the others. There is no yesterday, tomorrow or tonight, the only thing that matters is the hour you are moving through, in the body that has shown up today. It’s mindfulness embodied, a re-grounding antidote to the mindlessness and fast pace of the modern world. For example, at a dawn Tuesday class coming off a truly horrible night’s sleep, I sat out of a lot of poses and focused on my breathing and posture. Ironically, this mostly still, mostly sedentary practice was one of the most rewarding I’ve had so far, in that it managed to not just alleviate but eliminate the anxieties that had kept me awake half of the night. In this way, it is a practice you can do every day as well as one you can take all the way into old age. This is when I started to recognise it as a true investment in my well-being.
Yoga doesn’t discriminate, it genuinely is for everyone
I recognise I must sound like a broken record and believe me; I know, I am not the first white woman to have discovered yoga. I suppose the reason why I backspaced an entire draft about the general power of endorphins and why I felt compelled to dedicate a blog solely to yoga instead of my other favourite pastime of swimming laps, is because yoga genuinely is for everyone. Also, I may or may not feel remorseful about the fact that I denounced it for so many years as a gross waste of time, rather than jumping on the yoga-bandwagon and enjoying it’s benefits earlier. To think I could have been feeling this enlightened all along!
Now it is the second last day of the 4×4 challenge, and I am sitting at the coffee shop next to the studio with my friend Daisy. My body feels strong, limber and buzzing inside from the hour we just spent moving our bodies in 35-degree heat. I imagine the alternative, had I pressed snooze like I did during those past months, and the sluggish feeling I would subsequently have had to battle through at my desk. I am somewhat addicted to these exercise highs, I think. ‘It’s your turn to pay’, Daisy says as she slurps up the last of her drink. I rise from the chair, grateful, buoyant and light, and pleased to be alive.
If you’re looking for a place to start, there are thousands of free beginner’s yoga classes on Youtube which you can access anytime. Yoga with Adriene and Yoga with Kassandra are good channels to try if you’re wanting some direction. Otherwise, we recommend typing ‘yoga near me’ into Google just like I did, and giving it a go!