It began, as is common with self-improvement attempts, as a result of my being unceremoniously dumped, by text message of all things. He had been a whirlwind romance, a blur of sweetness and promises and perfection, of talk about our future, of grand beautiful gestures and all-enveloping hugs, and I had believed it all. He had swept me off my feet completely, utterly and fully. I had even flown to the other side of the world to be with him. It was going to be wonderful. And then in a blink of an eye he texted me - yes, a text message - to end things. ‘I’m just not in the right place for anything serious right now’, he said. ‘I don’t feel things on a romantic level ’. This from the guy who just hours earlier had been telling me I made him breathless, that I was everything he had been looking for, that he couldn’t believe he had finally found me. The same guy who later joked to a friend that I had meant nothing to him.
What a douchebag, I thought for the umpteenth time as I threw out all the chocolate in the cupboard and tossed last night’s leftovers in the trash. What an utter, utter douchebag. I’ll show him, I thought, throwing my ice-cream-stained onesie in the laundry and digging out my workout clothes.
I had made it through the initial post-break-up grief - the tears, the self-loathing, the replaying every moment and blaming myself, the social media stalking for answers, the compulsive checking of phone and door in case he changed his mind and showed up on a white stallion to beg for forgiveness… I had processed it all. I had accepted it. I had heard the chants from my friends, and my disappointed mother, that He Was Not Worth It. And so, I was once again left with that familiar hollow feeling, a return to deep-set depression and loneliness. Back to Square One.
But this time I’d had enough, and as I poured the last of the sugary drinks into the sink, I resolved to take this latest sadness and channel it into change.
During our brief romance, we had attended a yoga class together (I know, I became totally LA Hipster for him). He had revelled in it. He was flexible, and centered, and the teacher had complimented his Bakasana. He spoke of finding mental clarity in his asanas. I was in awe of him. At the time I was so enamoured that I didn’t see his smugness, and only felt inadequate - willing myself to be able to one day meet his standards.
And so, in defiance, a few weeks after The Text, I signed up to my local yoga studio. They were just around the corner from me, they had a promotion online and, drunk on determination to show him What He Was Missing and to prove that I was Definitely Moving On, I signed up for an entire month of classes. I’ll go every day, I told myself. I’ll go every damn day and I’ll drink nettle tea and eat vegan food and get really freaking good at yoga and That Will Teach Him. I’ll show him Bakasana, I thought.
Day 1 - Stretching my Vinyasa
My first class was a Beginners Level Vinyasa Flow class, on a Sunday morning. It was packed. The room was cold and alien, and as I struggled to squeeze my yoga mat into the back row, I felt completely out of place amongst all these women, with their toned thighs and perky ponytails. They were stretching, breathing, warming up...I stood awkwardly as the silence of the room filled with all the things The Douchebag had told me just weeks earlier. I had flashbacks of the last class - him in front of me, smiling over his shoulder at me. For a crowded room I felt astonishingly lonely. I’m not ready, I thought.
The instructor (teacher? yogi?) was friendly, authoritative and instructive. She demonstrated the moves, and I tried to keep up. Within minutes I was overwhelmed with emotion - sadness over being rejected, lack of confidence over my body, fear and shame of being unable to hold even the first position. I felt hot tears running down my cheeks as I tried desperately to stay in Downward Facing Dog for more than five seconds before collapsing back to the mat. Maybe this was a bad idea. I wobbled, I coughed, I became red in the face, all the while feeling the growing weight of this personal challenge....a month of feeling inadequate? No thanks.
For the remaining hour I wrestled between these feelings and my stubbornness to never quit. By the end of the class I had managed a couple of the moves, and did not once fall flat on my face, so that was an achievement at least. But I was exhausted, physically and emotionally, and I never wanted to do another Downward Facing Dog again.
Back at home, I drank water, ate tasteless lentil paste, and held back the tears.
Day 2 - Hell Hatha no fury like a woman scorned
Determined not to be put off by a rocky start, I returned for a Hatha class the following evening. This time the teacher (yogi?) had an entirely different energy - soft, gentle, and patient. The moves seemed more simple. I could actually do most of the class. The transitions were slower and easier. There weren’t nearly as many Downward Facing Dogs.
And I only cried for the first ten minutes. So there’s that.
In the relaxation session after the class, I tried to think about a work project that has been worrying me for weeks - it’s jumbled, messy and confusing, and I am filled with doubt over how it will ever come to fruition. Lying on the mat, I felt a general sense of purpose and positivity about it, much moreso than ever before, but I still could not think where to begin.
On my way out I checked the timetable to see when the same teacher (yogi?) had other classes, and that’s when I noticed that the class I had done the day before hadn’t been a Beginners class, or even Intermediate. It was the Advanced class. I let out a gasp of relief. In fact, I was quite proud of myself for having been able to do any of it at all. I made a mental note to double check the timetable, and sign up for only beginners classes for the rest of the week.
Day 3 - Restore, revive, rethink
After another tearful, sleepless night and some unproductive soul-searching (hey, let’s remember everything you’ve ever done wrong in your life!), I definitely felt like the word ‘Restorative’ in the title of today’s class would be a good thing. I was right. The teacher (seriously, is yogi the right word?) was covered from head to toe in billowing white kaftan, headdress and legwarmers, and she rang a teeny tiny bell to signal the start of the class. I liked her immediately. She spoke of releasing emotional tension, of aligning chakras, and breathing new energy into the muscles. In normal circumstances I would have found it a little too much, but she was so friendly and well-meaning, and I am always as open-minded as possible, so I thought, what the hell, maybe I need to align some chakras.
The class was a deeply relaxing one, which consisted of essentially lying down with cushions and blankets in different positions, listening to nice music and the occasional bell. This was not what I considered yoga to be. But I embraced it, and by god I needed it. Within a few minutes, I felt a swell of emotions once again, but this time the tears that flowed were gentler, and their release felt like letting go. At one point she came over to show me a special position to help with release of emotional baggage from the heart (pfft, the scientist in me scoffed), but within seconds of being pushed and shifted just so, I felt my whole body melting into the floor and all the noise and worry and stress in my brain just...stopped. It was gone. My logical brain panicked and tried to think of something negative, but I couldn’t. I felt only calm and secure, and I eventually gave in to it.
The class repeated a mantra - ‘Everything I need is taken care of. I am safe. I am safe. I am safe.’ I felt the words vibrating through me as my breathing became deeper, and my quiet mind clicked back into place.
That night, I tried to recall the last time I felt so calm, or had such a quiet mind. I couldn’t.
As much as I know it’s all very much physical biology, I can’t help but feel drawn into the practice of yoga as a mental and spiritual journey. And that is certainly unexpected.
Day 4 - Go with the Flow
It didn’t help that I had a barrage of doctor’s appointments during the day today - although I was pleased to discover I had lost half a stone since giving up sugar and eating vegan - and by the time I arrived for tonight’s class, I was fairly drained. I was, however, looking forward to the class, and to a more active session. As wonderful as the restorative yoga had been, I felt like I wanted to tackle some core muscles and breathing again. I’d signed up for the Intermediate Class as it was the only one available, but told myself I wouldn’t push myself and wouldn’t feel ashamed if I couldn’t do much. As someone who is naturally a perfectionist and over-achiever, this was a personal challenge for me and I was looking forward to trying to take it slow. The instructor (seriously, what are they called?!) had a different idea, however, and seemed determined to make me feel unsuccessful. She enjoyed showing the class how far she could bend over, telling us proudly ‘you won’t ever be as good as me unless you do it 50 times a day’. This seemed at odds with the ethos of the studio, which so far had been inclusive, supportive, and celebrated individual progress and achievement, not competition to be the best. Perhaps it was the tension this created, or my tiredness, but I felt frustrated by the class, by my body, my inflexibility, and once again my mind began to fill with criticism and self-doubt.
I am beginning to realise how vulnerable you become when you open yourself up to such a personal, physical and emotional practice as yoga. The person guiding you takes on a pivotal role, and can have a big influence on your performance. A negative comment or glance at the start of the class can throw you off for the entire session. However, the blame for my failures in this session do not lie with an arrogant instructor. That influence pales in comparison to our own power over ourselves - the voice in our own head telling us we are not capable, we are not strong, we are not built for this. Today that voice was a little louder, and it threw my game. After a seemingly endless barrage of Downward Facing Dogs - quickly becoming my nemesis - I gave up and spent most of the session on the mat in Child’s Pose, feeling inadequate and berating my tight hamstrings.
So far it’s been such a rollercoaster that I’m wondering if I’m doing myself more harm than good. But I find myself sitting in a full body stretch while I eat my vegan dinner, and my housemates tell me I look healthy and more ‘normal’ - whatever that’s supposed to mean.
When I go to bed I clamber into a restorative pose and fall into a deep and restful sleep. Maybe some of this is rubbing off on me.
Day 5 - Vinyasa Voices
Another morning class, and I am beginning to get into the routine. Leave my shoes at the door, find my usual spot at the back of the class, help myself to blocks and bolsters. I have yet to see the same people at any class, but I guess that is to be expected considering I’m trying all the different sessions and at varying times. Each class seems to have a few regulars but lots of newbies - not new to yoga, but new to the class. Nobody speaks to each other, but it’s a friendly environment. At the beginning of each class, they ask us if we have any injuries. At least one person in every class has an issue with their back, hip, shoulder, knee… some attendees are recovering from cancer. Another has just had a baby. Another still is a recovering addict. I wonder what has led everyone to be here today - how many of them began their yoga journey due to trauma, whether emotional or physical? It strikes me that everyone in the class is going through something intensely personal in those moments between breaths, in the quiet of balances. Maybe they are focusing on the pose, or their fingers, or their breathing, but maybe their minds are a torrent of confusion, persuasion and determination, like mine. More than any other sports class, yoga has such immense power. It provides comfort. It releases demons. It taps into our strengths and weaknesses alike. And if, like me, you are not prepared for it, it can knock you for six.
Before I know it, the class is over, but not without my noticing with glee that I managed to hold all but one of the Downward Facing Dogs. I even think my heels are a little lower to the ground. I am out of breath at the end of the class, and melt into the relaxation phase feeling proud of having pushed myself this session. And suddenly, I see my work project, clear as anything, in my mind’s eye. I can visualise it like crystal, and it’s not even hard. It’s easy. I only have to make it happen. It’s like an epiphany, and I sit upright in disbelief, feeling more positive and confident about it than ever before.
My goodness this yoga stuff is some kind of sorcery.
Day 6 Kundilini? Kundilino.
I’m excited to try a new class today, having never even heard of Kundalini. I discover it is a much more spiritual form of yoga, and the yogini (yes, I looked it up) is a much more spiritual human being. She talks about the 10 bodies - 1 physical, 3 mental, 6 energies. She talks about manifestations of light and enlightenment. She talks about invigorating chakras with heart fire, about auric space, about our souls and the universe. She speaks in sanskrit for most of the session. And she chants.
Once again I try to be open-minded, but there is very little that makes any sense. She is verbose and poetic, and at the very least her voice is soothing, even if the overstuffed vocabulary and pseudoscience fails to deliver any great confidence to me. I focus on my breathing (‘Awaken your third eye with the fire from your sacred heart’s flame’), and my posture (‘Invite the spirals of light to rotate around your spine and release your intentions’). The class itself involves repeated pulsing movements with short, sharp breathing. The movements themselves are reasonable, but I’m so stiff and tired from the past week that my body is having none of it. My hamstrings feel like steel wires. The class also involves group chanting, and the girl next to me joins in so loudly and proudly that it’s distracting. In fact, she is so distracting that I consider leaving - she is showing off by doing every move bigger or faster or longer than demonstrated, and breathing real forcefully. She draws attention to herself at every opportunity. In the quiet phases she moans loudly. In the mantras she talks over the yogini. In the stretches she feigns surprise that she is better than everyone else and loudly asks for something more challenging. I wonder what her story is - what must she be compensating for that this is her therapy?
I just about manage to stick the class out to the end, although the lengthy guitar solo nearly finished me. As we pack up, the Show Off pushes past everyone and does some impromptu vinyasa in the doorway, like a cat climbing on the keyboard desperate for attention. The rest of the class shuffles past her, clearly annoyed that she ruined their single hour of peace in the day. I wonder why women have to constantly compete, and fuel their insecurities by tearing each other down. We are all going through such complex lives, the least we can do is allow each other the space and support to align our goddamn chakras when we need to.
Day 7 - Hakuna MaHatha
It’s Saturday morning and I’ve once again stayed up too late watching Netflix and thinking about everything I’ve ever done wrong in my life. As I climb out of bed I am hit with the familiar feeling of guilt and self-loathing, although today it is lessened by the knowledge that were it not for my yoga class, I would likely stay in bed all morning. So I pride myself in my smallest of accomplishments - getting up. And then something curious happens. I feel an energy creep in. A sense of power and strength. I stand taller at the sink brushing my teeth. I move with more pace. My breathing is controlled. I am aware of my body awakening. Gone is the sluggish, unsteady stumble to the bathroom, and haphazard struggling into baggy old clothes, rubbing my eyes and desperate for a tea. Instead I glide on light, strong feet, pulling on my bamboo yoga pants like I am donning a superhero cape. I stand strong, balanced, composed, and look at myself in the mirror. I hardly recognise the woman staring back at me. Her stance is purposeful. She is fit, glowing, radiant. Her limbs are lean and proportional. Her figure is the kind of body I would gaze at in envy on the street. Her hair falls just so - heavy, rich curls cascading over toned shoulders. She is the picture of health. She is beautiful.
Whilst I can definitely feel the effects of this first week, there is no way that 7 hours of what is essentially advanced stretching has had this effect. Followers of yoga may wax lyrical of its power, but it has not sculpted this woman overnight. I may be a little slimmer, a little brighter and marginally more toned, yes, but I realise that the most powerful effect has been on my eyes. Where I used to see only my flaws, I now see what is positive. I wonder if this is how other people see me - that would explain the constant compliments and assertions that I am ‘so slim and beautiful’, that I simply ignore as nonsense. I wonder if this is what I actually look like, or whether yoga has given me some kind of green-tea version of beer-goggles. Either way, the effect is transformative. And it is not superficial - this is not about looks - this woman I see in the mirror has the most beguiling strength. And it is that image that guides me out of my house and down the street to Hatha.
The next hour is my best yet. I am alive in every sense of the word. I know the moves well enough to allow my body to relax into them. I feel the length in my back and limbs that I could not achieve just yesterday. My breathing becomes more vivid, more encompassing, and I feel more rhythmic. Gone is my self-consciousness. Gone are the distractions and comparisons with the rest of the class. I do not know who else was there. I do not think about my limitations, my bulges or bumps.
It takes me just a few minutes to focus inwards, and to feel connected to myself throughout. The asanas energise me instead of tiring me. I am now calling them asanas. I seem to grow stronger the longer I hold each pose. With each breath my posture lengthens, and strengthens. I feel like I have somehow tapped into a reservoir of positive energy within. And with every fluid posture I feel a jolt of positive reinforcement. I can do this. I am valuable. I am capable. I am alive. It is the most affirming experience.
When, eventually, I am brought back into the room, I am comforted by my surroundings. The room is no longer cold and clinical; instead I am enveloped by the now-familiar scent of wood and teatree oil, and I am warmed by my own body.
Once again, the post-class relaxation works, and my mind is its purest and clearest. I visualise only future events, and only positively. No creeping doubts, or fears. No reminders of past failure and regret. No anxiety or stress. Only clarity, determination and possibility. In that space, I see a clear plan for the next few weeks; a detailed timetable of achievable tasks, and I know I will stick to it.
I float out of the class and through a crowded Saturday. The world is sunnier, the possibilities are endless. I feel overwhelmingly lucky to be me, here, today.
I think I am beginning to see the attraction of this yoga nonsense. I know millions of people round the world have known this for years, but I am enjoying my own personal revelation.
Day 8 - Yin Yang Thank You Mam
Week 2 already, and I’m keen to continue my journey into the world of yogic practice. Today I try Yin Yoga, which turns out to be very basic stretching. It involves sitting in a back, shoulder or hamstring stretch for a few minutes, then switching to another. In the hour we hold maybe five stretches. It is not particularly yogic, but functional. At first I feel a bit scammed - I am here on a promotional trial so the class cost peanuts, but I would be annoyed if I’d spent £17 for this. I could sit and do these stretches at home for free. But then I realise that I would honestly never do that - not even once - and perhaps that’s what this is all about. We are paying for the privilege of having discipline forced upon us. Of not being able to cancel, because we’ve paid for the class. Of not being able to give up and a cup of tea after ten minutes, because we are stuck in the studio until the end. Essentially it’s like a spiritual bootcamp. We force ourselves to do it. I wonder how this clashes with the ethos of yoga - self-motivation, discipline, individual awareness... that we need to be forced into a crowded room and watched over by a gaoler while we release tension from our glutes. I wonder how long it takes before the addiction to yoga becomes sufficient to change our behaviour outside of the studio. How long before people start doing it at home? And radically change their daily routines, permanently, to incorporate meditation and sun salutations? Are people so easily converted? Or is everyone here still ticking a box of attendance, dragging themselves on a rainy Tuesday evening from their busy lives to a weekly class, to satisfy their need to feel healthy and productive?
I wonder how many people in the room have purchased yoga mats, and belts, and blocks, that are now gathering dust in the corner of their dining rooms.
At home, I cross Yin Yoga off my list, whilst vowing to do more stretching at home. I know for a fact that I won’t do this. But I don’t beat myself up. My vegan soup tastes really good tonight.
Over the next two weeks I fall into a pleasant, invigorating and rhythmic routine of healthy breakfasts, spicy hot teas, yoga flow and self-care. I alternate classes between Vinyasa, Hatha, Restorative and Yin, and each class only invigorates me more.
Now that I am beginning to get the hang of it, I am able to focus entirely within the yoga mat - I no longer need to look up to watch the yogini, instead simply using her voice as a guide but staying very much within my own physical and mental space. I feel more grounded on the mat, and more connected to my muscles, bones and joints. My limbs begin to build a muscle memory, and slide more easily into each asana. I feel my body relaxing more than ever into each stretch, and lifting high with each hold. My breathing becomes more rhythmic, and controlled. I look forward to the feeling of my body becoming warm, and a gentle sweat beginning - it feels like a cleansing process rather than an exhausting one.
More important is the improvement to my mental health. Day by day I feel stronger, more centered, calmer and more at ease with myself. I do not blame myself as much for the way people have treated me. I do not obsess over unhelpful thoughts. I am able to brush away images of The Douchebag more easily when they creep in.
And something astonishing has happened. For the first time in a decade, I am sleeping more than two or three hours in a row. Gone are the restless, endless nights of negative thoughts and anxiety - instead I slide into a deep, quiet sleep within minutes of my head hitting the pillow. I am waking early, with the sun, and feeling full on energy. I do not crash in the afternoon, nor do I crave sugar or caffeine anymore. My body is toned, healthy, and strong. I walk with my head higher, my shoulders back, my hips aligned. I am more aware of my physicality than ever before.
I am also more connected to my femininity - to my sexuality and womanliness. By this, I do not mean I feel sexier, or that I have perkier breasts (though I do). Instead the classic image of sexuality is less important, and it is more the overall curves and shape of my body that seems more feminine. I feel more connected to women throughout history - to what it means to be a woman, in every sense of the word - strength, fertility, sensuality, resilience, heat, and power. I feel more womanly in my core - my womb, I suppose. This sense of femininity comes not from short skirts and long legs and cleavage, but from a deep evolutionary existence within. And I am surrounded by so many unique and special examples of womanhood in every class. I am honoured to be part of the female warrior clan.
Moreover, the entire experience is so remarkably...easy. I am utterly stunned that after years of self-loathing and being at the lowest point in a decade, I have been able to transition from exhausted, sugar-fuelled caffeine junkie with depression and crippling anxiety, to peaceful, grounded, vegan goddess in just a matter of weeks. Yes, it was tearful at first, but the benefits now are easily worth it. Friends notice the difference. Coworkers notice. My digestive system notices. My skin definitely notices.
I even try a pilates class, and love it. I am bending like a pretzel with a stretchy rubber band around my feet, panting heavily and more aware of my belly button than I’ve ever been in my life. The instructor is encouraging, and demanding, and full of praise and positivity. My muscles are alive, my focus and determination strong. She tells me at the end of the class that she does not believe I have never done pilates, nor that I only began yoga a month ago.
When I look back to the first few days of this experiment, I am surprised I followed through, considered how broken and emotionally exhausted I had been. I have no idea where the willpower came from to keep me in that studio, day after day, class after class, but I’m so glad I stuck with it. In the past three months I have become so much more connected to my body and my mind than I expected, and the knock-on effect on my daily life, my friendships, outlook and approach to challenges is remarkable. I cannot imagine a world where I didn’t continue my newfound practise of yoga, and I am so, so excited to discover where else it will take me.
Before I began this journey, when I was still in the tear-filled throes of break-up despair, a friend asked me what I would say to the guy who had dumped me if I had the chance (part of the problem was never hearing from him again, thus lacking any kind of closure, which was stalling my ability to move on). At the time, my answer fluctuated between a string of expletives, or a long and rambling outpouring of questions and confusion.
Now, as I grab my yoga mat and spring out of the door to my next class, I realise with a calm smile that I would have only one word to say to him:
Ellie attended a daily class at Evolve Wellness Centre in South Kensington.
Introductory offer for new students: 20 days for £40, then One month unlimited classes for £140.
Find out more at www.evolvewellnesscentre.com
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