I took up yoga in the year 2000.
I’d moved thousands of kilometres from home to a place where I didn’t know anyone. I wasn’t sure what I was doing there. I was still in shock from the colours and the smells: mangoes and frangipani trees everywhere, palms and ferns and flying foxes and black cockatoos and rainbow bee-eaters. I remember thunder in the afternoon and rain that resembled having a bucket of water poured over me, like a cheap special effect. Everything smelt so alive. But a lot of the time, at first at least, I felt like I was walking around behind an invisible barrier that kept everyone at a distance. I remember locking the toilet door in the library, and sitting down on the loo and crying, because I had hardly spoken to anyone in days.
The yoga classes were held in an upstairs gym at the uni where I was studying, a room that had a permanent odor of stale sweat. Big louvered windows opened out onto the tops of broad-leafed trees. The teacher, Amanda, was everything you would want in a yoga instructor, or so I thought: bendy, wafty, kind, beautiful, with a soothing voice. And she remembered my name. That was the reason I kept going, to start with. For I don’t know how long, she was the only person, other than my partner who I’d moved there for, and my honours supervisor who I was still scared of, who knew my name.
I’ve never been good at physical stuff. I was always third last or so in races at school. The idea of having to jump or hurl myself over some obstacle seems frankly stupid and dangerous. I flinch whenever anyone throws a ball at me. I liked the idea of gymnastics for a while when I was about ten, but my hours and hours of concerted effort didn’t yield much more than a barely satisfactory cartwheel. Walkovers and flips – all those things that I longed for, that looked fluid and defied gravity – were beyond me.
Mostly, I think, I was scared. I could never commit to the movement. I was worried I’d break my neck (and probably not unreasonably, given my general lack of coordination and grace).
So I remember, early on in yoga classes, watching people doing things that looked truly amazing: backbends, forward bends, standing on their heads, standing on their hands.
I remember the first time I kicked up into a handstand under Amanda’s gentle instruction – the pure joy of doing something I hadn’t done since I was a kid. I remember the shock of my first headstand, when the world turned completely upside down, and I thought, wow, I like this, and then when I came down I didn’t feel quite the same as I had before.
And I went to more classes and more classes, and I practised at home a lot and I bought books and a mat and blocks and bolsters and eventually I was doing those things I thought I’d never do – I could drop down into crocodile and push back up into upward dog. I could spring up into a full back bend, arching from hands to feet.
One day, another teacher (by then I was attending at least four different classes a week) had me demonstrate a forearm balance, kicking up with the wall nearby in case I needed it, though I knew I didn’t, and he said something like ‘Oh but Rachel makes it look easy, because she’s strong.’ And I almost fell over!
Me? Strong? I honestly don’t think those words had ever been combined in a sentence before.
It’s been a long time since I’ve practised yoga with that level of intensity, but the thing I miss the most is the feeling of giving myself over to something, letting it shape the rhythm of my life and change who I know myself to be. I miss getting up before dawn and riding my bike through empty streets to the studio. I miss feeling the burn in my muscles, feeling the breath and the blood moving, being right there, as the sun comes up.
I’ve started again though, recently.
Yoga plus toddler means cuddles on the mat, the occasional nappy change in between sides, tooth marks on my block, and the fear that my brief attempt at relaxation might be abruptly ended by someone throwing a sippy cup at my head.
I dream of being strong and fluid, of being focused and grounded. I dream of being alone. But this is me now. I’m almost forty. I regularly wake up feeling like I’ve been in a car crash. I’m lopsided from always carrying a baby over the same shoulder. My neck and shoulders and forearms ache from working on the computer. I’m almost always tired.
My body remembers the movements but my muscles and joints protest them.
This is me now. I take a breath, and move.