My first encounter with yoga was in India, but we weren’t performing postures on a mat. I was sitting round a fire smoking dope with dreadlocked sadhus.
The essence of their practice passed me by, although I found a transcendence of sorts in getting high. There were also some basic parallels to classes: people tried to sit up straight. I found this a challenge. It was all I could do to avoid curling up for a snooze.
It didn’t take me long to build my stamina. I soon thought nothing of smoking a quarter ounce a day. Thinking nothing was a part of the appeal. I’d been plagued by attacks of anxiety for years, after freaking out on acid. At the time, I’d tried learning to meditate, and got nowhere. But now I’d found a practice I could work with.
There was only one drawback: it depended on caning premium hashish, and preferably from sunrise until blackout. To start with, I only did this on vacation, or at weekends. That slowly changed to daily after work. Back then, I was a foreign correspondent, which got stressful. It wasn’t a job I fancied doing stoned.
Everything changed when I joined The New York Times, on assignment to cover the former Yugoslavia. It was early 2002, and the Balkans appeared to have fallen off the news map. This was unfortunate. America’s war plans were carbon copies from the Serbs: attack in the name of defense, with manufactured enemies and evidence.
My editors showed no interest in exploring this. I gave up trying. Instead, I went back to smoking hash all day. This inspired me to quit my job and run a music festival. On reflection, it wasn’t the wisest course of action. I wound up getting robbed by Balkan gangsters. My book on the subject is due to be published this year.
In the meantime, I’ve returned to studying yoga, with a focus on different aspects to before. It’s been years since I last smoked a joint, but I’ve now acquired a daily taste for asana. Some might call this substitution therapy. A sadhu I met last month was blunter still.
“Hatha yoga is for babies,” he said. In other words, people get hooked on doing poses. “When you give a baby food, it doesn’t cry. Take away the food, what happens then?”
I resisted the urge to remark that something similar might be said about hashish, as well as his regular intake of sugar and caffeine (in the form of endless chai). He had far more experience than me in yogic discipline, and breaking through his habits.
Besides, I thought he had a point. Iyengar yoga sometimes feels too physical, at least the way it’s often taught. It can also appeal to those who need it least: obsessive, self-critical types who crave control. Like anything, it depends on how you do it. And most of the time, I’m convinced it does me good.
What follows was written in 2010 for Dipika, the journal of London’s Iyengar Yoga Institute.
Finding Myself, The Iyengar Way
My first ever yoga class was disappointing. I didn’t spontaneously levitate; nor were we asked to try, let alone fail, to wrap our knees behind our heads and lie down flat.
Instead, we lined up on strips of what felt like carpet underlay, in a room that resembled the assembly hall of my junior school. The only hints of The East were wafts of incense, and a couple of magical realist statues of deities.
Shiva and Ganesh I recognised from India, along with some photos on the walls. These showcased dozens of poses of varying implausibility, performed by a semi-naked man with slicked-back hair. I’d seen them in a book I bought off a street-seller in Delhi years before. It remained in my rucksack throughout my travels, and had since stood unread on my shelves. Though it promised to shed “Light on Yoga”, I’d have to decipher it first. And since the text was disarmingly dense, I’d filed it away for a time when I had sufficient patience, and got on with enjoying my holiday.
By 2004, I had more time than I knew what to do with. I was unemployed and depressed, achieving little more most days than smoking cannabis, which kept me happily unemployed, and depressed. Then someone suggested joining his yoga class. That it was Iyengar yoga meant nothing to me, until the photographic déjà vu. Had I found Mr Iyengar’s teachings at last, I wondered, or had he found me despite myself?
At first, it appeared to be neither. After sitting cross-legged, then standing for bracing arm lifts, we were invited to bend down and touch our toes. I couldn’t recall an age at which this was possible. Certainly not as a rugby-playing teenager, and far less as the couch cabbage I’d become. After five years abroad as a journalist, I’d given up on all but feeling sorry for myself, and ranting about media corruption. When my employers helped to sell the Iraq war, I’d resigned to run a music festival in Belgrade. Though 150,000 people came, the takings vanished, apparently stolen by the armed men we’d hired as security. I’d retreated to Britain feeling cheated, nursing a bruised ego, and planning to blow all my savings. Beyond that, I had few ambitions.
But suddenly my competitiveness was piqued. Could I maybe reach my feet before I died? The question wasn’t entirely overblown. I felt like I was dying inside, and my hamstrings threatened to snap if my hands passed my knees, never mind trying to rest my chin below them. In fact, if we didn’t stand up soon, I’d vomit on the mat. Yet all around me, middle-aged women flipped forward, apparently contented. How could they be better at this than me, a young man straining and sweating, fighting himself? There could only be one answer: yoga sucked.
So why didn’t I just walk out the room? For all my self-consciousness, I felt welcome. I’d arrived full of worry that I smelled of smoke. And now I was fretting I didn’t look suitably yogic, which could only reveal how angst-ridden I was. But the class slowly silenced this chatter. There wasn’t a moment of clarity as much as a dawning sense of different possibilities. “No gripping”, we were told; “let go”, and “breathe”, and the hard work of stretching felt more feasible. The knot in my stomach loosened slightly, and my spine grew straighter and strong. By the end, I felt warmed from within. The teacher’s firm instructions softened as we laid our legs up the wall and reclined, eyes closed. “Relax but stay alert,” he said. “Feel yourself sink into the floor.”
It was all so paradoxically confusing that I had to come back. And because the classes were at night, they stopped me smoking all day. Turning up stoned was unthinkable. The teacher seemed able to see through me, referring as he did to such unfamiliar anatomy as the dorsal spine, armpit chest and floating ribs. Besides, yoga was making me face my limits. Accepting what I couldn’t do was part of doing what I could, and as both changed from class to class, from moment to moment, I felt awakened.
That was illusory too, as the teacher explained while I drifted. “Yoga is awareness,” he said, “not falling asleep.” Having so much to learn was unexpectedly appealing. Yoga could teach me commitment, and surrender to something bigger than me, which promised transformation if I fused with it. Within a year, I’d stopped smoking, and felt my horizons expanding. Perhaps Mr Iyengar’s message had reached me, even though I hadn’t read his book. “Stretching of the body is not yoga,” he once said. “The self has to penetrate outside, just as the body has to look within.”
Six years later, I’m still learning.