Tag Archives: Yoga

of downward dogs and life lessons

The Lion

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.

Anulom Vilom

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.

Crow Pose

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.

Tree Pose

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.

Frog Pose

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)

Click for part 1

Picture credit


Lamu: Tortoise Coitus and Farting Yogis

It has been six years since I was last in Lamu and as I squeeze through the narrow alleys towards the house where I am being hosted, memories pop out at me from each corner. I had forgotten how specific Lamu town smells. The humidity in the area teases out an almost aromatic fragrance from the donkey dung scattered on uneven pathways. Surprisingly it isn’t unpleasant. The house I am staying in has a lush central garden that has become my view as I write. Every now and then the branches succumb to the flirtation of the breeze, and the garden sways littering delicate white frangipanis on to the deep brown soil.

Periodically the air is punctuated with the heavy grunts and alarming hisses of the randy tortoises who seem to spend every few hours copulating. Tortoise coitus is alarming. He mounts her and visibly thrusts, his neck getting longer and straining, and his face contorting in an expression that is very disturbing in how human like it is. Animals mate, they don’t make love. You expect it to be perfunctory, almost business like. These two tortoises are at it a lot, but I think she has finally had enough. This morning as I scoop up the hot bahazi with the still warm mahamri, he mounts her and she tries to get away. She crawls towards the garden. Still mounted he follows. It looks like he is steering her. She keeps walking. He keeps following. I feel a wave of inexplicable anguish wash over me. She must feel so helpless trying to get away from him, and he won’t get off her, his weight on her body reminding her that she is trapped to his will. I get an unwanted peek at his jewels. It is much bigger than I thought it would be and waves around like a palm tree branch in the wind. I suddenly lose my appetite for breakfast.

Lamu is a noisy place. There is a gujurati phrase, which when translated loses its lightness, everyone lives in each other’s armpits. The houses are built in a way in which everything is amplified, and you have to get used to the forced intimacy of sounds creeping into your space. This morning at 2:00am a baby coughed and I awoke. I lay in bed listening to the comforting of a mother’s cooing and wondering if I will ever wake up at 2:00am to the sound of my own baby coughing. Yesterday the loud taarab music that seemed to be playing from a loudspeaker within the neighbourhood suddenly switched to 70s Bollywood music, and just like that I was snatched from a balmy Lamu afternoon and spat into my dad’s car somewhere in Voi on a road trip to Mombasa. But without a doubt the most striking sound of all is the loud Adhan that pierces the air every couple of hours. I have never lived in a place where Islam is so interwoven into the day, and the call to prayer fills me with an inexplicable peace that my body had lost the memory of.

Yesterday evening after a full day of writing, needing to stretch out my spine, we wandered down to a little cafeteria behind which a yoga class was taking place. The average age of the mostly mzungu students at the class was 75, and that was after you had accounted for myself and two Swahili women in their late thirties. The teacher, a taut man named Kelly, tapped at his ipad to play the pre-loaded tracks of indian chanting whilst he led a gentle class that comprised mostly of stretches. The end of the class saw us in happy baby pose, where you lie down on your back, legs up in the air, knees bent, hands clutching your feet as you roll around. As we lay on our backs and spread our legs up to the air, it started. Loud ones, staccato ones, shrill ones, squeaky ones, hissing ones. One by one, the orchestra of farts sputtered out into the air from the tired bowels of the elderly yogis. And the most astounding thing of all, is that not a single person laughed. There was nary a giggle. We all acted as if we had just experienced an onset of temporary deafness, and continued wiggling around in happy baby pose.

As I lay awake waiting to hear the Adhan at dawn, I thought about the farting yogis, and why the rest of us innately understood how important it was to preserve their dignity and pretend we hadn’t heard the litany of flatulence. A memory popped into my head of my grandma a few weeks ago when I lay in bed next to her. Her brain had gone back into a familiar loop, and as she does every Sunday, she commented on how beautiful my teeth were, and asked how I had managed to transform them considering how dreadful they were before. My teeth are not great, but they have never been dreadful. Her brain has constructed some story about them which she has fixated upon for the last several years, which every time we are together forces its way to the front of her brain comes out in the exact same way, every time.

This time she went to touch her own teeth for emphasis, but when her fingers met only gum, her eyes filled with alarm. When I asked her what was wrong, she wailed, ‘they are gone, they are gone, they are gone’. I am not proud to say this, but a giggle popped out of my mouth.

‘What would you do if you woke up one morning to find you had no teeth?’

She looked at me aghast.

My laughter had poked her already tenuous sense of dignity, at an age where the structural integrity of your dignity is entirely reliant on the people around you playing along.

And I had broken the rules.


Every now and then I find myself slipping down a dark hole.

Having been fed a steady diet of English fairy tales growing up, it is only reasonable to expect that at the bottom of any dark hole, one will eventually encounter a shisha smoking, vowelly correct caterpillar and then get whisked away to a celebration of your un-birthday at a delightfully absurd tea party presided over by a (hopefully) Johnny Depp lookalike Mad Hatter.

It is never like that. It feels morose and melancholic and raw. And there are never any Johnny Depp lookalikes feeding me scones and clotted cream over half a cup of tea.

Recently I have felt myself slipping, and I don’t want to write about something deep and meaningful. I want to write about whimsy and joy. I want to think about all the things that give me pleasure;  whether silly, or frivolous, or intense, or deep, or whatever. Because sometimes writing about something gives it shape, colours in the lines, fluffs it up, makes it technicolour and tricks your brain into feeling as if you are experiencing it afresh.

So here goes. ‘A few of my favourite things’

The feeling after yoga where your whole body is a tangled weave of hypersensitive nerves, and you feel every whisper of the wind on your skin, when the leaves look a dazzling green, and you can distinguish every note from every bird in the orchestra of chirping in the trees, when your body craves suspect looking green vegetable juice that you would normally find disgusting, when you want to passionately kiss someone you really love, and feel lightheaded and dizzy and just not care who is watching.

Walking into the house after a shitty day, putting my hand on my granny’s ethereal silver hair, and her looking up at me with a smile that dissolves whatever nonsense is in my head.

Being infected with giggles by my brother and sister, and for no good reason laughing and laughing, roaring and snorting, guffawing and hiccupping, till your body is shaking and tears are streaming down your face; and just when you think that’s it, your body has been squeezed dry of any more laughs, and everybody is calm, you make eye contact with one of them, and a giggle worms its way out of your nose, and you all collapse on the floor in a cacophony of chuckling.

The feeling of dewey grass as you squelch barefoot in the garden. The feeling of soft sand as the ocean licks your toes. The feeling of woven mkeka as you tip toe into the mosque. The feeling of wet mud sploshing around the sides of your feet.

Sitting outside, listening to the crickets chirping, as old Indian Ghazals play in the background, whiskey tinkles over ice and my dad talks nostalgically about his wild days.

Early Sunday mornings, when the world is asleep, and the sun peeps through the curtains, and the bed is warm, and you have hours to lose yourself in a great book before the world wakes up.

Long walks in the forest, with butterflies sashaying by, and mushrooms poking out from the grass.

Bright red lipstick. Polka dotted everything. Fuschia nailpolish. Molesine notebooks. Very good pens. Jasmine perfume. Silver jangley bangles.  Kitenge. Bandani. Beautiful fabric.

The smell of aftershave snaking through the house after my father or brother have left the house. The smell of onions frying on the morning of Idd. The smell of Udh wafting through the house every evening. The smell of jasmine in my hair.

Road trips with friends, windows down, singing loudly to Michael Jackson tunes on the stereo as the wind tears through my hair.

The purple explosion of Jacaranda trees.

That moment in a Squash game, when you fake a short swing, and instead thwack it really hard against the front wall, so it bounces right into the back corner, slithering down the wall, stealing any possibility of your opponent being able to get it.

Old romantic Bollywood songs. Shammi Kapoor’s dance moves. Salman Khan’s dance moves. NOT Hrithilk Roshan’s dance moves!

That fluttery, buttery, swirly feeling that starts in the bottom of your stomach and travels up to the tip of your eyelashes when you realise the person you are talking to that you quite fancy, is sending the signals that they kinda dig you too.

The drive home after a Safari Rally, window down, feet up on the dashboard, watching the trees zoom by, everyone silent, sleepy, sunburned and sublimely satisfied.

Spending time with women I love; soaking in a sisterhood that nurtures and nourishes and replenishes my soul.

Witty repartee. With a dashing man

That momentary feeling of invincibility after having written something I like; the sense of having conquered something, that feeling which lasts only a few seconds before I am struck with the familiar terror that maybe I will never write anything I like ever again, and this was just a fluke…and I blew my one stroke of halfway decent writing potential on a silly, frivolous blog post that nobody will read. Wait. Remember. The things that give me pleasure – being delighted by something I wrote, and not caring if anyone else thinks so, because it delighted me to read it.

There. I feel much better. And it didn’t even take Johnny Depp to sweep me into his arms.

(As I finished this post, my sister just came in with a scarlet and yellow kitenge for me; a gift from her coast trip; two of the things that give me pleasure – my siblings, and gorgeous fabric. Thanks Tiffs)

What are the things that give you pleasure?

Photo from Flickr. Credit:  Lmfna (copyright)

Of Swimming Elephants & Downward Dogs – Part 1

First my body broke.

The trip had started off magically with elephants swimming in the lake. Not waddling or doing that thing us girls do, politely bobbing, heads afloat to keep our hair dry. No. These elephants were submerged, frolicking, clambering on top of one another and then sploshing back into the water. Hell, they were practically doing breast stroke. I could hear Richard Attenborough’s commentary skipping the surface of the lake. A whimsical, cheeky scene in the way only Mother Nature can get away with. Something I have always wanted to see.

‘Now I can die a happy woman’, I tossed my head in abandon and declared with sufficient drama for the moment.

Famous last words.

Do not utter words like this so recklessly, my friends. As I learned, the Universe has its ears constantly pricked.

Things proceeded swiftly downhill from there.

Fast forward through African book cover worthy sunset to the night game drive. That is when things started going terribly wrong. The 1940’s Land Rover we were in started smoking; not innocuous wimpy wisps of light smoke. No. Thick, black ominous clouds of smoke, followed by sparks and flames…I swear!

The driver yelled that the car was about to catch fire.

Images of 90’s action movies with cars bursting spontaneously into a bright orange blaze rushed through my mind, and I did what any normal human being would do.

I jumped! Out of the window.

I hear you ask, but Aleya, why didn’t you calmly open the door and step out?

I DON’T KNOW! At the time, it seemed to be most sensible thing to do. Suffice to say, I am not the chick you want making decisions when shit hits the fan.

As I jumped out the window, my trousers got caught on the door handle, and my body was suspended upside down, hanging by my trousers, before I slithered to the ground.

Remember. The car is still catching fire!

So I crawled on the ground as far as I could, before realising my knee cap had done a disappearing act. It was no longer where it used to be. It was now poking out several inches to the left of where it normally sits.

Lying on the ground, covered in Masaai blankets, I stared up at the stars twinkling over a Laikipia night and tried not to cry as I waited for the ranger to come back from the camp with two things; a doctor and whiskey. Not necessarily in order. If ever one needs amber fortification, a wayward kneecap and an orchestra of beasts roaring a few hundred metres away will be that time.

Having dislocated my knee, and torn both ligaments on either side, I spent the next month hobbling around, with a full leg cast, which when I finally removed had left my left leg shrivelled up, half the size of my right. Attractive eh?

I then spent the next several months teaching my knee how to bend again. Nestled in that sweaty plaster of paris cocoon, it had clean forgotten. At first I cajoled it, gently, lovingly, sympathetically, after all 30 odd years of bending to the whims of me and my nonsense, it was bound to crack. It deserved a rest. Then I got irritated. The purpose of a knee is to bend. Did it not understand that? The simplest of things were the most awkward. Sitting at a table, having to stretch my leg out in front, wondering if I should explain to my dining partner that really I was not playing footsie with them, promise. Or not being able to sit on the ground at mosque, experiencing the withering looks of the ‘senior citizens’ at taking up a valuable chair – the ‘senior citizens’ are fiercely possessive over their chairs, and nasty feuds arise out of chair stealing.

I am not a patient person. I got fed up of all the coaxing, and left my knee alone. It would come around. When it was ready to bend it would. Like a child who makes a fuss about eating. They will eat when they are hungry. Terrible analogy. You can guess how that turned out for me?  The pain never really went away, and but eventually my knee was able to bend to a functional level.

Then my heart broke.

Our ‘I do’ turned into an ‘I don’t think so anymore’.

I had always found the best way to take care of an aching heart is to distract it with an aching body. The best way to silence a brain that won’t shut up, is to overpower it by pushing your body till its screams drown out your inner monologue. Even if that lasts just a few hours.

So I hit the gym. But my body wouldn’t do the things it used to do. My knee had reared its ugly un-cooperative head, and I left feeling utterly betrayed by my own body.

Then I met a woman. Dreadlocked Irene, with a smile full of white teeth. She came around to our house early morning, literally bounding into the house, with more cheer and energy than is sensible at that time of day. I am generally suspicious of anyone who is in that good of a mood at 6:00am. And as the sun rose, and the birds made a ruckus, I did my very first Downward Dog.

To be continued…

A hint of what is to come:  ‘Because before a man takes up yoga, something has to break.’ http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/comment/articles/2013-03/08/tony-parsons-recommends-yoga-for-men