About six years ago, I collapsed in an exhausted heap on the floor next to a photocopier in an anonymous corridor at the BBC. It had jammed on me one too many times that morning, and instead of shrugging it off for what it was — a minor irritation — it felt personal, like all the cards of the universe were stacked against me. A kind friend, passing by, picked me up, half-carried me into a spare meeting room and sat with me while I cried and cried and cried.
I was less than a year out of a divorce, growing into a big promotion at work — which meant I had suddenly stepped into a toxic torrent of endlessly self-serving corporate politics — and my father had been diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer. Everything seemed to churn, whipping me relentlessly in all directions at once. Nothing about my life felt certain, under control, in balance.
But the next morning, I got up, rolled out a yoga mat and practiced a flow, something that I had only recently started doing every day. There was no conscious decision to become a yogi, no conversation with another person who urged me to take it up more regularly; it just happened. Not feeling brave enough to join a studio, I went online, found videos of flows and started doing them in my living room. I had practised on and off over the years, since my early twenties, trying out the many — and at times bewildering — different styles of yoga. But as my marriage collapsed, I had felt increasingly drawn to the mat.
Because yoga made me feel calmer, granted me some control — even if it was only within those few square feet of PVC. It helped me loosen around the edges of the anxiety that sat like set concrete in my chest and gave me an hour, or even 10 minutes, of refuge. Glimpses of clear sky beneath the crashing clouds of emotions I seemed to struggle through each day. Moments of peace. Moments that began to stretch — and then seeped off the mat to punctuate other parts of my days.
Within less than a year of my complete defeat at the hands of a Xerox machine, I travelled to India to do my initial 200 hours yoga teacher training because I wanted to be able to share that gift of peace with others, whatever their circumstances. Soon after qualifying, I did something I could never have imagined doing just a few weeks earlier: I took a deep breath and resigned from the guaranteed salary of the corporate crush to be a freelance producer, releasing more time to develop my yoga teaching.
You might wonder why I credit arranging myself into a series of shapes developed centuries ago halfway across the world with unlocking this future to me.
I’m not going to dip into the yoga scriptures, although it’s all there. This is what I know from my lived experience, my yoga practice, in my words.
It all starts with the breath.
As soon as I step onto my mat — before I’ve moved my body beyond that first step — I turn my attention inward, to my breath. I deepen it. I elongate both the inhale and exhale, pulling my in-breath deeper down into my lungs than I do when hurrying through my day. I consciously push that breath out into my side and back ribcage, not just the front. Watch a baby or toddler breathing and you’ll see that they use their whole bodies to breathe. Everything expands in all directions on their little frames, their bellies bulging without any self-consciousness. We lose that as adults, as we edit ourselves, strap waistlines into tight clothes and even tighter ideals of perfection; as we are twisted, folded and clenched by stress. We gasp shallowly into the very tops of our lungs, taking in a fraction of the oxygen we could. But when I’m on the mat, I go back to that child-like breathing state and my nervous system calms; my body works more efficiently, energised by deep lungfuls of air.
But more than that, it is an anchor in a storm. I can’t breathe in the past and I can’t breathe in the future; I can only breathe now. So covering each breath with my conscious awareness, from the moment it arises until the moment it dissolves, stops thoughts reeling across the screen of my mind. No reminiscing about or regretting what has been, nor planning and worrying about what might (or might never) be.
Now add the ‘shapes’.
‘Asana’ as they’re called in Sanskrit are what most people in the West associate with yoga. Placing my body carefully and precisely into yoga postures that strengthen my tissues, open up my joints and help release energetic blockages, concentrating on finding stability so that I can hold myself there and keep breathing steadily, pulls my awareness further down into the landscape of my body, down into muscles, bones, fascia. Rather than turning away from uncomfortable sensations — perhaps mentally listing things to pick up for dinner later — I look even closer, use them to hold my awareness as with the breath. When I think I can’t hold any longer, and do, well, that etches a new neural pathway in my brain, one that reinforces ‘I can’ and weakens the hold of ‘I can’t.’ And in those moments of stillness, I’ve become a spectator, noticing sadness, irritation, anger or thoughts as they arise. And noticing as each drifts away again.
In this way, over time, I — this body and mind breathing right here in this moment — have come to feel separate to the feelings or habitual thought patterns that are reactions to all that happens to me. And, in fact, to things that haven’t happened to me, my mind able to play out all kinds of worst-case scenarios, cortisol bursting through my bloodstream because of something that may happen, something that someone may think or say in one possible future. (I’m not sure I have ever proved myself right). This was a breakthrough. Understanding — not just intellectually but experientially — that I don’t have to be swept along by those tides, or become trapped within them, thinking there’s no way out, no end to it, hopeless. I have agency. I can choose. Doesn’t mean I don’t cry or get angry; I absolutely do, and sometimes I need that release. But it means I know it will pass, because I am not my emotions. I stay, they go.
I also realised, somewhere along the line, that uncertainty will always be there; change being our only given. And to my surprise, I found I could bed down with it, get cosy, willingly surrender to not knowing.
This, I learned, is resilience. And it freed up a lot of mental energy to step back and really think about the kind of life I wanted. It emboldened me to go out and try to get it; and gave me the strength to push on through setbacks, letting go of what was not meant to be.
And this is just the preparation for what is tuly yoga.
Arriving at stillness.
Asana and breathing practices were developed to prepare the body and calm the mind for long periods of sitting in meditation, quieting the chatter of our uniquely busy, bossy human minds. ‘Asana’ in fact can be translated as ‘a steady, easeful seat’. The ultimate aim being — once our mind is calmed — a release from our attachments to worries, desires, material things. And, so unencumbered, to reach a state of uninterrupted peace, bliss, equanimity and conscious union with the greater interconnectedness of which we are all a part. In yoga philosophy, this is considered our natural state, in fact, before the rigours of day-to-day survival get to work on us as we grow up in the material world, wrapping us in our armour. It’s not so much an arrival as a home-coming, a reunion with our true selves. The word yoga can be translated as ‘union’ or ‘to yoke’ — to re-join with what has been there all along.
In the West, we’ve come to focus on the preparation rather than the destination, sweating our way through complex flows and hitting ‘like’ in our millions on Instagram when someone knots themselves into something gravity-defying against a convenient sunset. And I hold my hand up to revelling in the occasional triumph of contorting myself into a posture I haven’t previously been able to do, because it looks beautiful and makes me feel strong. I haven’t yet achieved enlightenment and shed all ego…
But if it gets you onto the mat and releases you from the bind of your mind — even for just a few moments — then you’ve embarked on the first stages of that journey towards the destination of yoga so clearly mapped out and passed down to us by the ancient Indian sages.
And who’s in a hurry? There’s no ticking clock, it’s not a race.
I’m in it for the long haul. Maybe see you on the road?