Saturday, January 03, 2015

Ten Years : Five : From Body to Mind

The changes and new habits that come with a decade’s sobriety are interrelated in indirect but observable ways. I can’t say that drying out led immediately to my embracing yoga, but the chain of events is unavoidable upon even cursory inspection.
Having seized on running with the fervour of the reborn, yet also with the considerable body weight of a carbohydrate lover, the sudden cumulative impact on my lower joints was traumatic. In the late Spring of 2005, I started to develop a limp, and one Sunday morning, found that I couldn’t put any weight at all on my left leg without feeling so much pain that I fell over. After improvising a crutch from a broom, descending the stairs on my bum, and being borne to A&E by spouse, a houseman told me I should probably not run again, and referred me for physiotherapy.
The physiotherapist was more measured. I was prescribed orthotic insoles, and given exercises to return myself to full mobility. I would, after all, run again.
“You might want to consider trying yoga”, she offered, as a parting piece of advice.
Yoga. Blimey. I felt a simultaneous attraction and aversion to the idea. Attraction, because it sounded a bit counter-cultural, hippyish and un-blokey. Like me. Aversion, because it would involve turning up somewhere new without a drink in my hand and attempting something that I might not necessarily be any good at. Eek.
I checked. The gym which spouse had signed me up to when we moved in together did run yoga classes. A vague resolution thus became a firm plan.
What I found when I did turn up was that not being any good at it isn’t really a problem. Yoga is about intent rather than striving; about finding out what you can do, and what it feels like, rather than competitively whipping improvement out of oneself. And for the most part, it is practiced by far more women than men. For me, this means it’s a beautiful respite from the competitive male world. I’ve been practicing regularly ever since.
Superficially, yoga answered my physiotherapist’s call by providing a regular chance to stretch seldom-moved joints and muscles, and to increase my upper body and core strength, as an antidote to both sitting at a desk all day and repetitively running in a straight line for recreation.
I soon learned that beneath the surface, yoga offers even more. Having stopped drinking, and thus withdrawn my daily self-prescribed anaesthetic, I felt at times anxious, hyperactive and troubled. Yoga has reminded me to do one thing at a time, to focus my attention on the here and now. At the risk of sounding faintly ludicrous, I will claim that before practicing yoga, I had not learned how to breathe properly. On the phone, people would ask if I had just run upstairs to pick up the call, and I used to actually hold my breath when lifting or pushing. Now, having taken the time to notice what my thoughts, breath and body were actually doing, I could learn to calm them and bring them together harmoniously.
I don’t have any religious faith. However, I do acknowledge the human hunger for observance, for ritual. I admit that I feel better, somehow, after having repeatedly followed a yoga sequence such as sun salutation, or when thinking about concepts such as prana (life force) or chakras (energy centres in the body) when practicing yoga. These ideas act as a focus for the practice and even if I don’t literally believe that they correspond to anything in nature, they contribute to the stillness and calm I come away with.
You can pick from all sorts of flavours of yoga to practice – some firmly grounded in physiotherapy, others more informed by the ancient, or the holistic. My own practice has introduced me to stillness, and focusing on the present moment, rather than frantically multi-tasking and striving for new attainments.
After nearly ten years of yoga practice I can now touch my forehead with my knees (this came in a hallelujah moment around year eight). Although of little practical application, this bodes well for my mobility when I reach my dotage.
Far more significantly, I have been learning to achieve peace without getting it out of a bottle. And this bodes well even more generally.
And yoga isn’t the end of this causal chain that began with sobriety, recreational running, and an injured ankle. It’s in turn led me to be curious about peace, stillness and the present moment.
I have embraced what is called Mindfulness. It deserves a blog post of its own.

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