“If I can just work hard enough…
If I can just make myself thin enough, rich enough, pretty enough, popular enough…
If I can just make all the right decisions, or at least cover my tracks when I make a wrong one…
If I can move through the world precisely as I should – then nothing bad will happen. I will stay young forever. Nobody I love will leave me, and maybe, just maybe, I won’t actually die. Now, what haven’t I tried yet? Perhaps if I went gluten-free…bought that £100 yoga mat…”
But even in a life cleansed of wheat, meat and pesticides, cushioned by reassuringly expensive equipment, everything ends. Every door is darkened, every heart bruised by loss. We do lose our loved ones, our youth, our strength, and ultimately our breath. No amount of bargaining can change that. It’s a bitter truth, and one that can send us spinning in the opposite direction, towards a nihilistic resignation that treats life as little more than a waiting room for death. If everything ends, what’s the point in getting tangled up in life, with all its mess and struggle? But that’s not the answer either.
If we can resist these two extremes of denial and defeat, maybe there’s a middle way. Maybe, even as we mourn our lost vitality and youthfulness, we can celebrate gains in self-knowledge, in compassion, in the complexity and subtlety of our understanding of the world and the people around us. If we can resist the two extremes, we have the opportunity to begin mending our relationship with time, making friends with the process of growing and aging.
In this search for balance, doing yoga can be both manna and poison. It can be part of the delusion, making us more and more self-centred – overly attached to our hard bodies, fragrant lifestyles and ‘clean’ diets. It can take us hurtling into the dark, towards self-punishment and isolationism. But it can also be part of the wisdom-winning – can lead us inwards, towards a place where we find ourselves truly at home.
When I practise yoga, I sometimes have the notion that I can make myself as simple and as irresistible as water: transparent, fluid, fundamental. It’s the place where the river of my individual will meets the ocean of simple existence. It reminds me of a line from a Swinburne poem: “…even the weariest river / Winds somewhere safe to sea.” Often I turn to the mat when I’m feeling weary, overwhelmed by all the things I think I have to do just to be a part of society. Yoga is my refuge, but it’s also my rebellion.
Simply sitting and being, in full knowledge of the impermanence of life and the impossibility of continuous ‘success’, is a radical act in a consumer culture that threatens to hollow us out with lack and longing; with its tsunami of products, unmissable experiences (that we’re missing out on right now!), and ’networking opportunities’. The moments of clarity that spring from my yoga practice are the briefest of respites, in between much longer stretches of glorious muddle-headed chaos. But they are moments of immense value: tiny, throwaway, everyday miracles that allow me to remain more grounded, more grateful and more optimistic than would otherwise be possible.
It’s a high-wire act, this living of ours. Poised between the bright, false heights of endless happiness and the depths of pitch-black nothing, we wobble out of the irrecoverable past and towards the unrelenting future. My guiding intention, throughout my study, practice and teaching of the techniques of yoga, is to find the means to walk the line: the means that feel simplest and most meaningful for me and my students in any given moment. We tumble, and we climb up again, time after time after time. Every step is falling, and every step is redemption.
February 3rd 2014