Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Anna Murphy: how my midlife yoga fix is transforming my body

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The subtitle: “After years of dismissing it as hippy-dippy nonsense, in her forties Times fashion director Anna Murphy has become a yoga devotee. And it might even be slowing the ageing process.”

It’s interesting that Anna Murphy describes herself as a complete asshole: refreshing candor, in a way. She writes, in the Times, about her judgmental and ignorant attitude and how she treasured it:

The story of yoga and me is the story of yoga and the west. Out and out scepticism for years. Now fully signed up to the programme. Why did I turn from someone who considered the whole shebang – its ostentatiously loud breathing, its ridiculous Om-ing, its sanctimonious smugness – to be hippy-dippy garbage, into someone who practises it most days, and who believes their body, more than that, their life to be better as a result?

For the same reason as all those other former sceptics. (There are now pushing 500,000 regular practitioners in the UK alone.) This stuff is good. Those preternaturally bendy little old Indian men – and it was always men – were on to something millennia ago. And now lots of us are, too.

I was born in Seventies West Country suburbia. People didn’t do yoga then. People didn’t even know what it was. It wasn’t like now, when you either knowingly compare notes on which vinyasa class you prefer, or knowingly cock a snook at yoga in its entirety. In Nailsea in 1978 it just wasn’t on the map. Heck, no one even went to the gym. When the first one opened at the leisure centre next to our school, in 1983, my class was taken on a tour of an entirely alien world. It’s easy to forget how recent the culture of fitness is.

I didn’t come across anyone who practised yoga until my first job in London in 1994. She was called Catherine, and there was obviously something suspect about her. Her erect posture seemed a deliberate challenge to my already slouchy one. Even now, 20 years on, I can remember how her eyes twinkled and her skin shone. And, gosh, she was serene. Always smiling. Which I somehow also took as a personal affront. And all this in an office ruled over by a tyrant, a boss who once sent me a poison-pen letter because she didn’t like my hair. Catherine somehow rose effortlessly above all the swirling bile.

On one occasion Catherine, with typical self-effacement, volunteered that she did yoga. Despite the obvious signs that she might be onto something, I immediately filed under “No, thank you very much”. There was something “other” about Catherine, something that wasn’t for me. Now, looking back, I can only laugh. That something was precisely what should have been “for me” then, as it is now: a way to tune out, to be calm; not to mention to stand straighter and – forgive me but it’s true – to glow. As it was, I had to wait another 12 years, until I was 34, before I even started to get going on any of the above.

I spent the next few years pounding away at the gym. Yoga sounded boring, and also creepy, a world of gurus, dodgy sexual practices and yonis, whatever the hell they were.

But people would keep banging on about it, and I had never met a zeitgeist I didn’t at least try to surf, so eventually I went to my first class. A male German teacher. In Canary Wharf. It was never going to go well. And it didn’t. The teacher was an egomaniac, telling off students one minute, hitting on them the next. (He had a thing – reciprocated – for a blonde in the front row.) I have no memory of the actual yoga. But it definitely wasn’t for me.

Cut to 2005. A week-long bikini bootcamp in Brazil. The twice-daily sessions of yoga were simply going to be one more thing to get through, along with the sea kayaking (hell) and the hiking up mountains (in theory, fine, but in practice deranged: it was boiling hot, and we weren’t allowed to stop to drink water, but had to sip from our requisite CamelBak rucksacks, the better to make like the maniac Californian guide who was leading us, and who peed while power-walking up a gradient).

The yoga teacher was called Kirtan, of course, and was also from LA, of course, and he spoke so S-L-O-W-L-Y that it drove me nuts. Until we actually started doing the yoga, that is, at which point I was too busy going bonkers about the lethargic non-pace to notice his diction any more. But what annoyed me even more was how bad I was at it. (If this account is making me sound short-fused, well, BY, Before Yoga, I was.) But something must have clicked. When I got back home I started doing yoga classes twice a week at a gym.

One was run by a woman channelling Olivia Newton-John in Physical. It was an aerobics class with twiddly bits, I now realise. She didn’t know what she was doing. But that didn’t matter, because neither did I. (Although, of course, it does matter. Yoga injuries are common, as detailed in William J Broad’s The Science of Yoga: the Risks and the Rewards, and a teacher who practises without expertise can enact serious harm.)

The second was led by an American. It was thanks to him that I really first started to get it. The joy of the so-called flow, of beginning to shift gracefully from one posture into another, and of feeling a new kind of strength developing, flexible and open. The joy, even – after a while – of the more static asanas or postures. How holding an asana for several breaths could also be a kind of movement – more minuscule but more profound – as your body gradually recalibrated itself. And how delicious it was when a precise physical arrangement that had initially eluded you slowly started to come within reach.

Yes, as you can probably tell, the head stuff still wasn’t really happening for me. Yoga is supposed to be about patience, about transcending ego. More than that, about transcending thought; having nothing in your head at all. The fact that I got impatient was indicative of my failure to subdue mental activity; the fact that I was pleased when I managed to do something I couldn’t do before, ditto, while also indicating that my ego – unlike my upper-body strength – remained very much present and correct.

It’s 12 years on now, and the number of to-do lists I have enumerated, the number of supermarket shops I have planned, the number of pieces I have sketched out – including this one – during hours spent supposedly blissfully empty-headed on the mat, doesn’t bear thinking about. But, of course, I do think about it. Often, again, on the mat. Because that’s what the mat does. It bears witness to what you do on it, and what you think on it, day after day. And, somehow, as a result – just occasionally if you are me – you actually stop thinking. And even if you don’t stop thinking, when you finish your practice you always feel more clear-headed than you did before you started.

Gradually, I began to shift away from the most physically demanding yoga that had originally appealed to me. It was what had first drawn me in because, of course, it was what was most similar to what I did at the gym. I had been pounding my mat doing the strenuous form known as ashtanga. My wrists hurt, and I felt all-over tired. Cue a perfectly timed encounter six years ago with a yoga teacher called Simon Low, one of the founder members of Triyoga, a key organisation in the initial dissemination of yoga in the UK.

I still remember one of the first things Low said to me: “What you do on the mat should be the opposite of what you do off the mat.” There I was, a driven, goal-focused personality, being driven and goal-focused on the mat. Ashtanga yoga was the last thing I needed.

I needed softness. Low introduced me to his own flow, a form of so-called yang or dynamic yoga, which draws on other disciplines such as chi gong. Strong but soft. Perfect. And – more importantly – he introduced me to yin yoga: even softer, in which poses are held for many minutes, not just for a few breaths, thereby allowing the body fully to recalibrate, to heal. Combine the two, the yin and the yang, and you have the full yogic package.

Low, now 60, is not only a brilliant yoga teacher, he also has his sense of humour and his intellect intact. For those of us who need to satisfy our rational mind before we can hope to move beyond it, Low’s peerless at pinning the yogic butterfly to the board.

“Classical yoga came about over 2,000 years ago as a way of man dealing with his psychology,” he says. “The Yoga Sutra, the most important text, is a kind of psychological guide. The human condition hasn’t changed. It’s still our thought patterns and attitudes that separate us from a peaceful state of contentment in life.”

The asanas are “not an end in themselves”, continues Low. “They are tools that help us develop self-discipline and healthier existence, and they stimulate neuroplasticity, too.” Developing certain qualities in your body – calmness, flexibility, an openness to change – prompts those same qualities to develop in your brain, believes Low. Certainly that has been my experience. Yoga has changed my head at least as much as my body.

Low’s own, ahem, journey with yoga – sorry, but that’s the way we yogis speak – was one I recognised, even though it had started much earlier, and gone far deeper. He, too, had initially practised it as a competitive sport. “I just wanted to do yoga stronger and faster, and it wasn’t long before I developed issues in my lower back, knees and neck. Then I explored and developed yin and yang yoga, and my body has really thanked me for it. I felt so much more energised and balanced. I haven’t had a yoga injury since.”

I cannot begin to describe the warm bath yin yoga represents for body and mind. Typically on a yoga retreat, by day three or four you feel physically tired, even sore. I know. I have done enough of them. On a Low retreat, even though you often do more yoga – as much as six hours a day, three of yang in the morning, three yin in the afternoon – you feel stronger, and yet softer, day by day. . .

Continue reading.

I can’t help but believe that she now is simply an asshole who practices yoga: those attitudes toward new information do not change readily.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 March 2018 at 7:20 pm

Posted in Daily life, Health

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