It happened early on a Sunday morning. The first rays of sunlight were filtering into a small yoga studio, bathing a dozen pairs of pert yogi buttocks rising to greet the day. Eight women and three men twisted their arms and legs into a string of pretzel shapes, and I pretended to follow along.
Until, thanks to a combination of overconfidence and clumsiness, I turned the most graceful form of human movement into a bad slapstick comedy. Not many people can say they got a bloody nose in yoga, but I guess I’m lucky.
The bow pose, of all the poses, was my undoing. It’s not complicated: you lie on your stomach and raise your torso and legs towards the ceiling until you make a ‘bow’ shape. I bent further and further, inching towards the perfect shape, but suddenly my hands slipped clean off my legs, and my face ricocheted towards the mat, smacking into it. Hard. The sharp pain in my nose was quickly followed by the trickle of blood down my right nostril.
Quietly, I slunk out of the studio, praying no one had seen. In that moment, I felt like a loser. I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to avoid that feeling, and here I was, repeatedly paying to go to a class for the privilege.
The truth, I realised, is that I don’t really like yoga – and I had a bloody nose to prove that yoga doesn’t like me.
A lot of people sometimes feel like this, and I was reassured when Nadine Fawell, founder of Melbourne studio mm… Yoga!, confessed to being one of them.
“I couldn’t do any of the moves, but I got so much mental ease that I kept going back,” she says.
While I’m sure yoga provides mental ease for some, for me it’s really just an added stressor. I’d often be too busy pining over someone else’s more shapely behind, or focusing so intently on not making a fool of myself that I often left the studio more anxious than when I walked in.
But according to Nadine, being bendy is just a secondary part of yoga. It turns out yoga isn’t really about mastering postures at all. She says it’s primarily about being present and cultivating an inner stillness.
“The reason yoga is so helpful is mostly just neurological,” says Nadine. “Deliberate breathing and concentration positively affect your nervous system. People get these benefits from all sorts of activities – running, walking, tai chi. And the concentration or flow aspect can come from reading to crafting to taking photos.”
Rodney Sen, owner of Sydney’s Dharma Shala yoga studio, agrees that the real benefits are in your head. He says rather than trying to force ourselves into a particular type of practice, we need to integrate the parts we like about yoga into our lives.
This might mean downloading a meditation app or joining a touch football team – the act of getting amongst a fast-paced game will anchor you firmly in the present moment (because, think about it – if your eyes aren’t squarely on that ball at all times, you could find yourself amid a bloody-nose incident of your own).
So what about the other benefits? Sure, that Zen feeling is wonderful but I also pine after flexibility, core strength and ridiculously toned arms. Well, those needs can be met through other forms of exercise, like jogging, dancing in your living room or surfing.
As for flexibility, this is all about improving your range of motion. If you sit behind a screen, chances are you have lost some of this. Dynamic stretching, such as slow walking lunges, improves flexibility.
In terms of increasing core strength and muscle tone, it’s hard to go past simple bodyweight exercises. Using exercise balls or balancing on one leg are also excellent for strength.
And, it turns out, you can be a yogi without doing yoga poses at all. As Rodney puts it, “A good yogi isn’t tested on the mat, a good yogi is tested when there is a crisis in your life, and a good yogi will respond well. Those challenges are much harder than the physical challenges we face.”
Attending yoga class is just one way of being a yogi. For those who never want to don a pair of stretchy pants again, the most important thing is to learn how to integrate the serenity of yoga into your everyday life, minus the pretzel-shape-related anxiety. I might eventually return to the mat, but right now a morning surf and some push-ups on the sand sound pretty good – to both my nose, and my inner yogi.
Find the full story in Issue 29 of Collective Hub, on stands now.