I am five years old. My mum has gone mad. Sitting on her heels, fingers splayed out on each knee, her eyes bulge out, pupils rolling back into her head. Her mouth is wide open, so wide I am worried her skin may start to rip at the corners. Her tongue sticks out as if she is trying to catch raindrops. She breathes in. When she breathes out, a long aggressive ‘haaaaaaa’ comes out of her mouth. I am terrified. This is my first introduction to yoga.
My grandfather spends several minutes everyday sitting cross-legged on the floor doing a series of breathing exercises. He forcefully thrusts his stomach out and extends it as if he is mimicking being pregnant. And then all of a sudden it snaps all the way back in disappearing into his spine. His tummy undulates like a rippling fleshy wave, in and out at a speed that makes my eyes water. Hundreds of times. A loud puff sound is forced out of his nostrils on every exhale. When I get home, after everyone else has gone to sleep, I sit on my pink bed and try it myself. I get to 7 times and I feel exhausted barely making even a tenth of the speed of my granddad. This is my second encounter with yoga.
In a hall in Westlands, hundreds of women in awe watch the man on stage. They sit on yoga mats in leggings and big baggy t-shirts or pastel coloured Punjabi suits. The man on stage is the famous yogi Ramdev, swathed in his signature flowing orange robes, which yawn at his chest to reveal an arrow of hair that emerges from a tuft in the middle of his chest and descends all the way down to his belly button. He is demonstrating the Anulom Vilom or alternate nose breathing technique which allegedly helps treat insomnia, headaches, depression, eye, hair, ear problems, sinus, high blood pressure, heart diseases etc. His face and head are covered in a cloud of shiny black hair and I am intensely frustrated at the fact that I can’t tell how old the man is. If I could just see through the hair. He finishes his demonstration and starts giving us lifestyle advice. I tune back in just in time to hear ‘Coca Cola atle Toilet Cleaner!’ The hall vibrates in giggles. This is my third meeting with yoga.
We sit across from a Muslim scholar. A few days ago, after a long battle with cancer, my Grandfather slipped through the curtain into the afterlife. The women of my family huddle under the warm quilt of comfort we have woven around ourselves. We emerge to look for answers. We don’t know yet what our questions are. Recognizing eyelids that flutter too fast trying to shoo away tears, the scholar talks about life, about death. He shares theories with us. Your days are not numbered. It is your breaths that are finite. Stress speeds up your breath and so you use them quicker and die faster. Yoga slows down your breath, which is why it is said to elongate your life. This is my fourth tango with Yoga.
Yoga finds me many years later. A shattered body and dislocated heart. Or was it the other way? In that time yoga has become mainstream and jarringly sexy, all Lulu Lemon and designer mats. And overwhelmingly skinny and white. For the first time I feel excluded from something that is at the core of my cultural heritage. Ironically, it takes someone from a very different culture to gently welcome me back. Bubbling with far more energy than is ever warranted at 6:00am, a beautiful woman with the warmest heart and generous soul teaches me how to do my first downward dog. This is a relaxing pose she tells me. My arms quiver. I decide right there and then, there is nothing relaxing about downward dogs.
But in the safety of my garden, with the chirping encouragement of the dawn birds, Irene from Africa Yoga Project starts nurturing my body back into vitality. And without realizing it, my heart starts slowly putting its pieces back together. What emerges is a beautiful new incarnation of its former self, a glittering mosaic where the former cracks sparkle in the light casting playful shadows into the darkness.
Along the four years I have been practicing I learn things. Surprising things. Non-yoga related life things.
The way you are on the mat is the way you are in life. I am a little skeptical of this new-agey soundbite from Irene. I try to get into crow pose but I keep falling on my face. Frustration rises and splashes my face with an expression that is decidedly not placid. You expect to be perfect immediately. This hits me with the force of primal lust entering your adolescent belly. This is true. It is true of how I live my life. It is what keeps me from writing regularly.
I start paying attention to life.
I stand on one leg. Focus. On one place. I look at the door of my neighbour’s house and wonder why they would paint it such a hideous shade of blue. My mind wanders. It is a storm. My work threatens to overtake my world. I can’t find balance in my life. Balancing poses require a strong foundation Irene reminds me. My values. They are my foundation. If I ignore them, I will never find focus, and balance will remain a perpetual game of hide and seek. Epiphanies come, and for once they remain stored in the memory of my body.
Headstand vs Straddle bend
My sister looks very comfortable upside down and the last time I was this jealous of her, we were 6 years old and she had won an art competition in school. I had just been told by my art teacher that I should never draw again. I can’t seem to order my brain to lift my legs over my body. I issue the instructions but somewhere along their journey, they get lost and wander over to tell me I have an itch on my lower back. I feel forlorn. Later we are in a straddle bend pose, my forehead is resting lightly on my heels. I look over at my sister. She strains to push her head down to her. She looks at me. Forlorn is familiar. We are all good at different things I tell her in our secret sister code language that is transmitted via hugs.
First Wheel Pose
My body goes into a panic before every wheel pose. My mind whispers a litany of ‘I cant’s’. As if eavesdropping on my inner voice, Irene, ever the sage says, Remove I can’t from your dictionary. My eyes roll backwards and with it, they pull up the rest of my body. I am in wheel. I am in wheel. I am in wheel. In that euphoria, I coin my own saying. Be open to surprise, and don’t be attached to the outcome. Be in the process. I begin to feel rather pleased with myself.
Gazillionth Wheel Pose
I want to introduce myself as Aleya, the wheel accomplisher. The day before yesterday I do ten wheels and I feel invincible. I think, like anything in life, if you do the work, the results will definitely come. Then yesterday I placed my hands near my head, grounded my feet and breathed in. I couldn’t lift myself into even one wheel. And just like that my complacency deflated. Never get cocky, nothing is ever guaranteed in life.
I am not entirely certain why it is so important to open one’s hips. But Irene seems convinced. So faithfully, I do as she says. Frog pose throws me so violently out of my comfort zone, I am afraid I will never find my way back again. I hold the pose for five minutes. I am truly terrified I will get stuck. That I will remain in this pose for the rest of my life, at the mercy of the goodwill of people to bring me cocktails and read me poetry. They will write about me in the Daily Mail. Breathe into the pain and exhale out the discomfort. This sounds sufficiently abstract, but I figure I am here and I am not going anywhere. So I try it. The discomfort doesn’t ease, but against the odds, on the next inhale I haven’t cracked in two.
Crescent twist with a bind
I adore twists. Irene calls me Mama Twist. I imagine the toxicity being wrung out of my blood and fresh, bright red vitality swooshing back in. If only life was like this. I peep over at my sister. She is in a bind. She looks a pretzel. Or a Japanese Ham Sandwich. The scarlet envy rushes into my blood filling my body with the same toxicity that I am trying to flush out. And just like that I realize I can see the back corner of the balcony. This has never happened before. The envy gets squeezed out and I am filled with wonder. If you don’t stop looking over your shoulder at other people you will miss the magic that’s happening in your own body. In your own life. And then another thought pops into my head. This pose. This isn’t the end game. It is actually irrelevant if I can worm my arm under my knee and clasp my hands together. This where I am right now, is exactly where my body needs to be, where I need to be.
My second favourite pose. I lie in corpse pose. My body tingles. I can hear the individual tunes in the harmony of the bird opera, the background score of leaves rustling. I can feel every bead of sweat being sucked up into the air. My skim thrums. I think how wondrous that we have within ourselves the gift to restore our bodies and our minds.
I don’t give a rats arse whether bridge pose will tighten my arse. It truly doesn’t matter. I think of how much I love my body for flying me through life. I think of how much my body loves me.
We aren’t used to being in love, my body and I. It is generally frowned upon for ladies with love handles. This affair is an act of subversion. But I can’t help it. We are deliciously, deeply, divinely in love!
(This post is dedicated to my Yoga guide. Shukraan Irene)