I was always the un-sportiest of children. A bookish little girl, fond of sitting still and thinking, and deeply fearful, I now realise, of trying something I might not be good at and humiliating myself. Team sports have always been pretty much my worst nightmare. High school P.E. lessons only strengthened my belief that I was not one of those girls; I wasn’t netball skirts and football trips. The bleep test was something you endured, sweaty and red-faced and miserable, until a sufficient amount of time had passed so you could fake a stitch and go and sit on the benches with the rest of my awkward teenage ilk who had not come into their bodies yet, who had never discovered a form of exercise that made them feel good. I thought this was my fate. My body and my brain seemed to be pitted against each other. I thought it would always be that way.
As a young adult, this trend looked set to continue. It was partly laziness, but the biggest thing that held me back from taking any kind of control of my body through exercise was fear. I’ve always liked dancing, but adult dance classes left me ashamed that my limbs didn’t work the way I wanted them to, that I didn’t have the strength or the stamina to actually enjoy myself, that even five minutes of vigorous exercise would leave me maroon and out of breath, and desperately hoping that nobody else in the room would notice.
It doesn’t matter, I would reassure myself. I am not one of those people – the ones who talk about exercise as if it doesn’t constantly hurt. I am a writer, I am an intellectual. What does my body matter?
It sounds hopelessly pretentious to talk as if discovering Ashtanga Yoga was a great life changing epiphany for me… but it was. I was twenty-four, and I’d just started a new job, in a lovely creative office full of people who did interesting things. One of those people was Marie Harris, who was then running a small donation-only Ashtanga class for all abilities in one of the rooms at the top of our building, once a week after work.
These classes transformed me. They were harder and more dynamic than I’d expected (being a total yoga novice), but, with Marie, they were also more grounded, more easy-going, more respectful of everybody’s individual ability and comfort zone than I could have hoped for. I never felt stupid or fat or awkward in Marie’s classes (all the things I was afraid of); she has a knack for teaching in a way that never makes a beginner feel like a beginner. For the first time ever, I started to see that my body could do things I wanted it to. I felt powerful. I felt in control. I couldn’t get enough of it.
And even better, I started to understand that the health of my mind and body were one and the same thing. The better my body feels, the clearer my head. I started to do half an hour of yoga before I sat down to write, at evenings and weekends. The peaceful place I get to (usually about halfway through the Primary Series, when I’ve warmed up and the tendons in my legs have finished screaming) in yoga, that space in which I am absolutely myself, is the same space I have always needed to write in.
I’ve been practising Ashtanga for about three years now. I go to a range of classes (usually two a week) and I do it on my own at home as well. I have taken up running; something I would never have done while I still believed that people like me can’t do that. The confidence that yoga has given me in my body has had an impact on every part of my life. I’m the sort of writer who needs to be alone quite a lot in order to think clearly enough for creative ideas to form. Yoga has helped me to make that space for myself: a difficult thing for artists of any kind. I feel healthier, and happier, and strong, for the first time ever.
And there’s a remarkable crossover between the kind of discipline that yoga requires of you and that needed to say, write a novel, or a poem, or a play. You can’t force a story out, any more than you can force yourself into a pose that your body isn’t ready for. But you can do the ground work. You can keep your focus, you can acknowledge your wobbles, you can keep chipping away at the things that aren’t working yet. And then, suddenly, just like that, it will fall into place.
It feels like we’re starting to talk a lot more about how yoga can be beneficial to people who play other sports, and for improving ongoing health conditions like asthma. What no one ever told me is that it can also make you a better artist, a better thinker. It can feed your brain. And for me, it unlocked a world I didn’t know that I already had access to: my own body. I know I am a better writer for it.
by Abi Hynes