What I talk about when I am asked about yoga

Out here in the wintery cold, the air is fresh and feels sharp on the breath. The trees have shed their leaves, creating piles of multi-coloured and multi-shaped leaves beneath them. I am sitting under those trees, in an ancient woodland that I came across on one of my walks. My walking companion is asking me about yoga. She wants to know more because her instagram account has been flooded with images of friends and folks who are all doing headstands. She is intrigued, and irritated in equal measure, but she doesn’t know why. It seems that yoga has become a big feature of many peoples’ lives.

She knows I have been practicing yoga for over 30 years and teaching it for the last decade or so. She came to one of my early classes in a moment of moral support, and as an act of friendship when I was starting out as a teacher. I’ve always appreciated this. Although she likes movement and exercise, such as swimming and walking, she hasn’t been intrigued enough to try the yoga postures out.

We stare out through the trees to the fields beyond. In the far distance, our local landmark, Pendle Hill looms – fluffed up clouds around her peak, and a dusting of snow on her crest. I open the thermosk flask that I brought with me, and pour out the rich, dark coffee into a mug. Steam rising into air, creates plumes like a smoker’s exhalation. It’s cold and we draw ourselves inwards, wrapping our coats around us tighter. She has the first gulp of coffee and I watch the mid winter sun’s rays gleaming like a smear across the horizon.

Becky passes the mug to me and I pour the remaining coffee into it. I take a sip, and we sit in silence, savouring the deep, heavy moment that the silence offers us. The cold envelopes us. I take a couple more sips of the coffee, and Becky holds herself still, gazing outwards. We are leaning against a sold grey slab of rock, with pine trees creating a screen, looming behind and above us. In the silence, we allow the moment to enlarge further, and through our silence we hold this moment like a precious piece of glassware, or a fledgling that has fallen from its nest, cradling it to a place of safety.

Becky paints. I ask her what she is painting at the moment. She stares silently outwards, as she finds the words to reply. She is measured and thoughtful.

She started painting when she began to feel the smothering, heavy, dark blanket of depression. Someone suggested that this might help her. Resistant at first, and held back by the dull loss of energy that depression can bring she gradually explored the idea. She started with still life painting: a fruit bowl, was one of her first paintings. The rich yellow, orange, green of the fruit in the fruit bowl she painted has always been with me since then. To me, she was seeing herself and the world afresh, and had begun to find a route out of the swamp that she been stuck in. The painting enlarged and opened up to her a sense of who she really was. I was relieved and hopeful for her.

It led her to take walks, to explore nature and be further inspired. On one of her walks she found a lake and then she found another. She was inspired to paint some lake scenes, and then one winter, she saw a swimmer in the lake. She was awestruck. There was ice in the water, and she shivered as she followed the swimmer weaving a tentative, bobbing route through the cold water. The swimmer seemed happy, ecstatic even. Becky was tempted to join the swimmer, but held off, until she joined an outdoor swimming club. She had company and felt safer.

Gradually, she realised, that the smothering blanket was slowly being lifted, replaced by a sense that she could open the door and walk, reach for an easel and paint. Now she is happier than she has ever been. She’s painting a landscape at the moment, she says.

I tell her that if she wishes to know more about yoga, she probably needs to get back to the landscape she’s painting. I reflect that this is yoga too. I don’t talk much about yoga these days. I am like some kind of soul archeologist unearthing all the ways that people find themselves in yoga. I say to Becky that she can learn some postures, and these might help her body particularly if she’s hunched over an easel or before she dips into a lake or when she finds that she has been seated for too long, but the bigger yoga is something she is already in and experiencing.

 

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