There has been so much written about yoga in recent years, about how yoga improves one's physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing, that I thought it best to explain what yoga means to me on a personal level.
The word ‘journey’ has come to be such a cliché in yoga, but really that is exactly what it is.
A thoroughly unexpected one, and so ridiculously far from one’s initial perceptions when one first encounters and begins a yoga practice. Hell, it's not even ‘a yoga practice’ when you begin, it’s just ‘doing yoga’. Yoga is a road movie. It’s an inward journey, similar to, but totally distinct from Charles Marlow’s journey in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Except this is a journey to the Heart of Lightness.
Or Kerouac’s On The Road, looking for the buzz. Except the buzz in this case is the journey, and the journey is the buzz, the continual manifestation of growth and knowledge. It’s an examination of the self. Like Dean Moriarty, the carefree spirit for adventure, tremendously excited with life.
Well sometimes, absolutely. The intrinsic curiosity, the search for inspiration. All coming from within.
It begins purely as the examination of the physical self, and as the practice draws you in, other aspects of your very being slowly begin to reveal themselves, steadily and carefully. The onion syndrome. Peeling off the layers, as what is opaque becomes ever more translucent, and what is translucent becomes transparent, too bright, too overwhelming at times, the realisation of where you are and how you feel and think about yourself.
The most remarkable thing, in fact, is not only do you become more aware of your actions, your attitudes, your thoughts, but you begin to see them from outside of yourself. The higher Self, looking down at your regular self. The awareness of thought patterns. So you can catch yourself earlier when things, events affect you in a certain way, adjust your thinking, and work out why these things are happening. Which can be very uncomfortable. Scary. Fleeting instances become raw as you attune yourself to renewed awareness. Sharp and clear like crystal. The point at the end of your fork. Which becomes simultaneously easier and more difficult to act upon. Because you can’t push them away.
So you act. Take an action. Always take an action.
And so, I’ve already got this far without mentioning what yoga means to me physically. The very reason, like most people, I found this in the first place. Which is amazing in itself. Just another attempt to get fitter and lose weight. Well actually, not even that. It was just possibly a way of not having to use steroid inhalers for asthma anymore, or at least reduce the intake. I had no idea that initial consultation with that Ayurvedic doctor in Varkala would lead me to where I am now.
That first practice was... well, even thinking about it now, it’s still a bit difficult how to describe it, as I don’t think I ever felt something like that before. Never mind the aloof wanker who came in and set up immediately in front of me, stripped off down to his brief briefs, perfectly toned, and embarking on his pre-yoga warm up. I didn’t have a clue at the time what he was doing, except I was getting irritated by his admittedly very toned and muscular legs shooting over towards me. How to make a newcomer feel instantly inadequate before any practice had even begun.
But by the end, my mind was elsewhere, completely lost in what we were doing, even though it was bloody hard. Something had changed. I had ended up levitating in savasana, as I heard the Arabian Sea rollers crashing onto the beach below. ‘Man, what is this yoga shit?’. And at that point the journey had begun.
This release of endorphins. This sense of enormous well being, this incredible rush, induced by the vinyasa flow. From one asana to another, inducing the ultimate brain food. This chemical reaction. The lengthening of the external obliques in trikonasana. The glorious stretch in the iliopsoas in verabhadrasana. The sheer lucidity in vrkshasana. This wonderful core lengthening in a padahastana.
Sinking into an asana, and hitting that sweet spot, day after day and week after week, incrementally getting deeper into the pose, then plateauing out, but then this almost unexpected shift as suddenly the feet touch down in halasana, or the transition from shoulder stand to chakrasana is mastered. There is nothing like it.
And then there is the pranayama. The full yogic breath. The expansion of the lungs. The fire in the belly. How great is that? Breathing I mean. Properly. Not the deskbound round-backed version. Smoother, greater, fuller.
All of this contributes to that immense feeling of lightness and joy at the end of a practice, in the physical self, but also in the mind and the spirit. Sensing that every last muscle, from the superficial to the deep, from the major to the minor, have been thoroughly worked. The practice of staying in the present, which manifests itself through your core. And when staying in the present is difficult, yoga provides the tools to deal with it. It becomes somewhat addictive; you end up taking this sense of joy into the rest of your day, your week, your month.
An authenticity, being true to yourself, emerges and becomes paramount. It burns your curiosity. It answers situations for you. It provides the tools by which you can live. It kits you out for the journey. It presents you with a positive critical mind. From here lies the key to opening yourself up to the deeper practice, as you become aware that the asanas are just a small part of a greater, more complete yoga practice. The meaning of yoga, as union, presents itself.
Through yoga I feel fitter and stronger than at any point in the past; with a sense of wellbeing greater than I have ever felt in my entire life before. I feel opened up, I can breathe. Learnt about staying in the present. Sometimes it’s hard to put into words the enormous changes that have occurred in the last three years without descending into clichéd superlatives. So I won’t even try.