Joanne Bell is a writer and English teacher based in Edinburgh. She is a member of an all female writing group who meet weekly to discuss ideas and keep each other sane. Her first short story was published in literary magazine Northwords Now in 2016. She is currently working on her first novel.
My first yoga class was a fiasco. A friend of mine had suggested it, booking a block of classes at a beautiful studio. At the time I was up for it: I pictured stretching gracefully, moving with a dancer’s rhythm, becoming a cross legged Buddha, being zen. Instead I pelted there from work, plonked my sweaty self down and became quickly overwhelmed by the intense impression that I was doing it wrong. Around me focused faces moved seamlessly into sequences, breathing loudly, limbs extending effortlessly back and forth. I on the other hand cranked my long arms and legs into awkward, squint shapes that twinged my back. Instead of clearing my mind I found it full of things I hadn’t finished at the office. It felt like wasting time. I regretted not going to a cardio class instead: burning real calories, working up a perceptible sweat.
On that day, in that room, I couldn’t imagine how things would change. I couldn’t imagine that yoga would give me power.
When I turned thirty I went through the biggest depression of my life. There were many triggers. I had quit my job in PR to become an English Teacher and was in the middle of a miserable probationary year. I felt as though everything I didn’t wasn’t good enough, the kids didn’t get it, I was boring. I spent most of my time at a drafty makeshift desk rewriting lesson plans, or scouring the school for a computer I could use. As the year wore on I became drained. I spent less and less time with friends – when I was in groups I was withdrawn and quiet – and more and more time crying. Crying in the toilet, in the shower, in bed, on the street when I was walking home. I was cloaked in sadness. Whenever I confronted it I only felt ungrateful. Why wasn’t I happy? What was wrong with me? Was I essentially broken? I had negotiated with these feelings all my life, but I had always connected them with my own ugliness, having suffered from an eating disorder for nearly a decade. Now it wasn’t about being fat or thin. It was something bigger. I was terrified.
That year I couldn’t fit the gym into my life – or my finances – but I knew that exercise would stabilise me, give me back some control. I looked for something cheap and close to home, landing on a Bikram Yoga studio round the corner from my flat. The 90 minute classes, conducted in 40 degree heat, were a promising antidote to a dark Scottish winter. I was willing to try anything. I remember being cheery with the receptionist: these were, after all, people who didn’t know me. When I pulled the studio’s sliding door open an intense fog of heat and sweat hit. People in skimpy clothing lay on their mats, twisting this way and that or lying still in the low light. Heaters in the corners buzzed. When the instructor came in we all rose, beginning a mass breathing exercise that felt alien – and a little bit insane.
Still I was relieved to have survived my first class. Something in me had been shaken. I instantly took out a thirty day trial and returned, day after day. Sometimes I felt like I’d been hit by a sledgehammer, knees shaking as I bent down to clean my mat, other days it would feel easier, softer, like moving through warm rain. The owner’s classes were the most vitriolic. She’d shout when I didn’t know I could take someone shouting: ‘Suck your stomach in’, ‘Relax your shoulders’, ‘Everyone go down one more inch’. Her corrections pushed my limits and forced me to pay attention. I remember having a debate about whether or not my feet were relaxed in a pose, before I finally accepted that she was right, my toes were curled tight for no reason. I quickly grew in confidence, taking up residence in the front row, where a line of mirrors projected my own image back at me. My own image was not one I relished. Mirrors were for scrutinising faults, but in Bikram you could correct them. I grew leaner and longer just by looking, twisting and breathing.
Where my physical practice grew my mind followed. On my first yoga retreat I learnt more about mindfulness, which I previously approached skeptically. I accepted that my mind would always think think think, but instead of getting angry I could try to turn those thoughts into something pretty (for me it was butterflies) and tell them to come back later. On my second retreat the formidable, flat-stomached instructor forced me to try a headstand. And you know what? It worked. My body stayed up and my feet started to tingle. I felt like I could, rather than I automatically couldn’t. What I learnt, and the reason yoga stuck, became the cornerstone for how I now live my life. First, push yourself and see what happens. Especially when the last thing you want to do is push yourself. Second, you don’t actually know what you are capable of. Be brave.
Yoga teachers say what happens on the mat is taken off the mat and for me it’s true. It gave me the courage to do what I’d always wanted to do: write. I had skirted around it all my life, writing press releases in my old PR job, reviewing bands for a magazine, starting a blog but never showing anyone my prose. I wrote stories and never finished them because I knew they weren’t up to scratch. I didn’t realise how much of writing is simply about hard work and determination, how many drafts you end up reworking. I began to understand it was learning a craft, rather than just a natural ability you either do or don’t possess. And just like yoga, I’ve learned to embrace the journey.
Part of it has been home practice. The internet has hundreds of free yoga channels to help and support you, my favourite being Adriene Mishler’s. Adriene – a teeny Texas lady who cracks jokes, sings and tells herself to shut up – helped cement my change in mindset. Her videos are full of energy yet they invite you to slow down. They offer challenges but highlight the importance of not berating yourself when you don’t reach your goal, something I used to do over and over again.
Now I try to move with consciousness, to accept myself and embrace body. To take up space. As a tall woman who spent years trying to shrink smaller and smaller this liberation is more than physical. And all those pictures of svelte women in crop tops holding beautiful poses on mountains or in front of sunsets on the beach? Don’t get me wrong they’re there. But they aren’t my yoga. My yoga has been sticking out my tongue, rolling my hips up in the air or standing quietly at the front of my mat, arms up-stretched into a huge V and the only thing that matters is how it all feels.
There have, of course, been frustrations. There have been times where my mind just wouldn’t stick to it and there have been classes I’ve wanted to walk out of because the teacher just didn’t get me. I’ve often felt like I’ve been going backwards, finding myself falling out of a pose I could do the week before, or not keeping up with the rhythm. The thing is that life is frustrating. Through yoga I’ve learnt to challenge what I think I know, to observe, to be patient, to listen and to try and try again.
Yoga – and particularly the women of yoga – have shown me that to live dangerously is to be vulnerable, to open yourself up to exploring, to take risks and push your the limits but know that you can accept whatever comes. They have also helped me to understand the unique power of my own self expression. All of my teachers have called upon a need to be present, to be fully aware, to live life consciously. Deciding that whatever the world does we can set our own pace, taking back our bodies, setting our own intentions, creating space. What could be more dangerous than that?