I can still vividly remember standing in my gym on a Monday afternoon in late July last year, pen spinning between my fingers as I stared at the timetable for the gym’s upstairs studio. A new class had been added -‘Yoga with Hannah’ – something entirely different from the aerobics and cardio-centric classes they usually hosted, and while curious my mind was going through a very familiar pattern of list-making, of pros and cons as to why I should or shouldn’t write my name down on the attendance list.
Barring my hips, which seem to have been wide open for as long as I can remember (perhaps down to a lifelong habit of sitting like a monkey in chairs and on the floor), my flexibility was somewhere between average and terrible; too many hours in a seated position, shoulders rolled forward slumped in front of a screen had seen to that. This hindered my ability to get into certain positions in some of the movements I trained in the gym and I’d reached that point of frustration where I wanted to proactively do something about it. Yo-ga. Those two syllables conjured up various (and what predictably turned out to be very lazy) generalisations, some of which were why I was being so indecisive about just writing my name down.
“It’s just stretching, I could do that at home.” – True. I could, but I wasn’t. Perhaps turning up each week would hold me accountable? Also to get good at anything, spending time with people who are good at that particular thing is always a good idea and if I knew anything about yoga, it was that they were a flexible bunch.
“I know about mindfulness, present moment awareness, why do I need a class for that?” – I had a vague recollection yoga had roots in Eastern philosophy without entirely knowing how the two went together and although I’d read plenty of that kind of stuff, or at least works derived from it, I only understood the message intellectually. I’d never internalised it. Kind of like being able to read music but be incapable of playing an instrument or composing any myself. My mind was always a mess of thoughts and anxieties and I’d meandered through much of my life as a spectator or observer – particularly in any social situations where I’d feel self-conscious and retreat into my head – rather than a participant, hindering my ability to enjoy any given moment fully as I’d never be present in it, too busy thinking about how others were perceiving me and usually feeling detached from everyone around me. Perhaps I might learn something that could help me?
“It’s just for women, you’ll feel out of place, awkward.” – this was one of those instances where I had no issue brushing that thought aside. Having never been part of a crowd or followed a line of thought that I needed to conform to whatever was regarded as trendy/cool or fit a gender stereotype, regardless of ‘yoga’ conjuring up imagines of middle-age women balancing on one leg, I cared more about whether it’d be good for me.
“Bar the stretching, the rest will be easy. You’re a gym rat and you won’t get much out of it.” – This was a classic gym generalisation; the whole reason weighted movements are used in the gym is because the body doesn’t provide sufficient resistance once you reach a certain level of strength if the goal is to get stronger or bigger (as I came to find out, this strength was handy in some situations, but of no help in others). In any case, classes were included free with my gym membership, it was only an hour of my time and I didn’t have to go back if I didn’t enjoy it…
Really the only reason I could think of not to try it was a little shyness but that alone wasn’t nearly enough to tip the scales. I put pen to paper.
You can still find my childishly enthusiastic review of those first few classes on Hannah’s Facebook page (learning that nurturing this inner child and letting it come out to play is encouraged pleased me greatly, I make no apologies for being a big kid). Yes, stretching was one part of the movements we practiced and the movements themselves were only one aspect of yoga, but there was so much more to it; everything was done with intent, we were taught and guided, not just put through the motions. It wasn’t easy, I wasn’t the only male in attendance and the only awkward thing was trying to avoid sliding off the cheap gym mats due to their lack of grip and how much I was sweating.
Like most men, I imagine, while I knew yoga involved and improved mobility and flexibility, I was entirely ignorant about the strength and body control required for certain poses and positions. With resistance/strength training you can often get by with brute force and minimal concentration as to what your body’s doing during a movement, the movements themselves tended to have an eccentric and concentric phases and especially with machines, not require the use of small stabiliser muscles. This was far less forgiving; almost always active through the entire body, holding positions which was fatiguing in a different way, exposing how weak my core was, and requiring focus of body, mind and synchronisation of the breath. Exhausting!
Over time I saw that while my initial reasons for practicing were still valid, the primary motivation for had changed; flexibility for instance would come through practicing yoga but I wouldn’t be practicing yoga for flexibility and each class didn’t just serve as a reminder about mindfulness but was the active practice of it, practice that I hadn’t been doing up till that point.
It’s this sort of thing that I’m supposed to be talking about (I had to set the stage a bit, sorry!), that is, what it actually is I enjoy about yoga, how’s it benefited me and what I’d hope to get out of it moving forward.
So how is my posture? Better. My breathing? Less shallow. How it’s affected my gym work? Positively – having a stronger core for instance makes keeping a braced neutral spine much easier for things like squatting and deadlifting. My balance has improved and quite predictably, my flexibility although saying I have room for improvement would be a huge understatement.
Hannah has a quote she sometimes uses to remind us budding students of what’s important – “Yoga without mindfulness, and present moment internalisation, is just gymnastics” – and yes, the goal is to feel, to find space and breath, but it shouldn’t take anything away from how fun gymnastics can be. I’ve greatly enjoyed the raw external challenges and made strides in them, but more so (and like any art, skill or means of self-expression) it’s the pleasure and satisfaction that comes from being able to visualise something in the mind and then realise or execute it in the external world and the journey of bettering your craft, developing greater proficiency at something. There’s a whole discussion about not getting lost in the aesthetics of the asanas or massaging your ego via feats of strength, flexibility or balance, but I’m probably already pushing my luck with the word count here…
I appreciate the purity of how yoga can be practiced anywhere – you are all that’s required – my own body and mind create or present all these challenges and it’s through them that I also find the solutions. That it triggers that state of total immersion and absorption in what you’re doing – often referred to as flow or being in the zone – where your focus and attention are so utterly affixed and rapt on whatever task or activity it is that you’re doing that you lose track of time and space is something I love too. I’ve gotten moments of this with some of my other creative outlets but the practice of yoga, specifically alone or in a group with the silence punctuated only by the breath has been a powerful way of accessing it. It’s an innately positive experience. Paraphrasing a quote I remember reading once, being in flow states more easily allows you to experience personal development and growth, something essential to happiness and contentment. That it’s ‘me’ time where you’re disconnected from technology and the constant bombardment of notifications, emails, and messages is a welcome respite too.
All these things are great and obviously health, unrestricted movement and finding joy in what you’re doing are things that enable you to move through life more easily, but even though before I started yoga some of them were a priority, they’ve actually ended up further down the list.
Probably the most important, and also the most unexpected was that through yoga I’ve made the kind of friends I never had when I was younger; good people I can have interesting or deep conversations with, who haven’t lost their sense of fun or adventure and can find joy or wonder in the everyday or seemingly mundane, whilst also being generous, kind and happy. As an introvert, I often find being around or interacting with others quite draining and it’s not the case here, which is pleasing! We might not necessarily share the same interests outside of yoga, but we often have common ground on the actual reasons why we enjoy those interests.
Yoga’s reminded me that although I enjoy my alone time, I really do enjoy spending time with like-minded people – they do exist – and feeling like part of a real community or at least having a sense of camaraderie with others. There’s something deeply satisfying about being able to share and relate experiences with your fellow man or woman, especially physically rather than behind a screen (which was primary form of communication with other people through most of teens and early twenties). That quote, ‘no man is an island’ really hits home that much more now.
It seems to have come at just the right time for me too. Prior to that first practice the distractions from life or the very solitary hobbies I’d pursued were becoming less and less fulfilling, I often felt resigned to feeling like I couldn’t relate to anyone and made little effort to interact with people because of it. A lack of meaning or purpose is poison to the mind and while I’m still not really sure what to do with myself, this journey has at the very least taken me outside and given me opportunities to contribute things that are unique to me, to grow a bit. I also like how it reminds me to not be afraid of failure, to try things and not say no – it’s all learning and it’s not a big deal – access to a pose might only be limited by fear of falling forward for instance and it’s only when you’ve actually fallen forward a few times and laughed about it that the fear evaporates and you’re able to do it.
I’m grateful for the constant reminder (I still need it) to be kind to myself. Happiness might not be a skill in the same way something like being able to draw is, but it can be cultivated, developed and worked on, so that time on the mat is important. You can read books, watch lectures or listen to podcasts but for change to happen it has to come internally, and that self-examination in yoga, the connection with the breath, the detached observation of thoughts and feelings seems to be far more effective than anything I’d tried prior.