We are fortunate that Lucy Edge has agreed to publish selected excerpts from Yoga School Dropout here on Elephant. Lucy’s book is already a best seller in the U.K., but it is brand new in the U.S. See my Elephant interview with Lucy, and the first hilarious excerpt, Lucy Arrives in India.
“Merging with the pool of cosmic bliss that is the universe”
The fact that I was struggling to feel at home in Mysore was hardly surprising. Only one week before I had added my shiny orange Birkies to the line up outside Ortario and Magdali’s café I had been striding down the ad agency corridors in high heels, on my way to a meeting about a tub of margarine. Spending more than a decade in advertising debating the meaning of such tubs hadn’t been ideal preparation for a yoga student in search of life’s deeper meaning:
‘Talk to me about polyunsaturated fat, Lucy,’ said the Creative Director as he pulled me onto his knee.
I was uncomfortable with this subtle shift in power but I couldn’t work out how to slide off without causing a scene. As my toes searched quietly but desperately for the ground, I explained the latest strategic problem facing our beleaguered margarine client.
‘Polyunsaturated fat has, until now, been seen by the consumer as good fat, but monounsaturated fat is even better – it’s the next big thing. Our client plans to launch one next month but it’s likely that Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s will follow. The client is worried because people think that a supermarket’s own brand is basically the same product as the more expensive brands and don’t want to pay the extra.’
I used the Creative Director’s momentary lapse in concentration to slide further off his knee. Aahh. Getting there slowly, one toe firmly on the floor. I continued steadily:
‘So we need to give our monounsaturated fat an emotional advantage – something that will differentiate it from own label. The client wants to use his existing advertising equity – the sunflowers – because research says they have happy and carefree values, particularly if they sing happy, carefree songs. The problem is that the sunflowers also say polyunsaturated. So the question is – do we use the sunflowers and risk consumer confusion? And if we do use them, then what the heck song are they going to sing?’
You can see the problem.
We worked seventy-hour weeks to answer these questions. This would have been understandable if we had been creating world peace, but deciding what sunflowers should sing shouldn’t have kept us in the office so long.
There were some odd moments of relief – wearing pink fluffy Agent Provocateur mules in imitation of a domestic goddess for a vacuum cleaner pitch, sporting a purple crushed-velvet Pussy Galore mini-skirt and thigh-length boots to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to my marge client, to name but two. But somehow these compensations were not enough. Eventually I reached the point of thinking it a good day if I got through it without wanting to run to the loo and scream. I was fed up with working at the centre of the periphery. Surely there was more to life?
All of this talk about marge left little time for a private life. An M&S Café Culture ready meal, especially the Aubergine Parmigiana, became an icon of domestic bliss. There was no time to go out and play, only time to stay in and recover before the next ludicrous deadline came flying across my desk like a cruise missile. Guaranteed to seek, find and destroy all chance of finding a man before I hit the retirement home.
I tried to look on my almost permanent single status positively – no need to have more than one set of good underwear, no beer taking up fridge space that would be better devoted to Diet Coke, M&S chocolate peanuts and Pinot Grigio, none of the pain of intimate waxing, no fights over the remote control, no left-up loo seats – but it was clear that I would rather have a man than these advantages.
The few relationships I did have were disasters.
A vintage art director in vintage black leather coat and vintage Porsche took me to the Notting Hill restaurant 192 and said: ‘Lucy, you are very special, an extraordinary woman.’ He was clearly so overwhelmed by my extraordinariness that he couldn’t pick up the phone to arrange another date.
A much-awarded copywriter kissed me in a jazz club at three a.m. We exchanged emails the next day:
From: Lucy Edge
To: A Much-Awarded Copywriter
Thanks for a great night. I’ve never been to Ronnie Scott’s before but now I’m going to go all the time. Your session on the sax was wonderful – I felt the room fall away, as if you were playing just for me. Can’t wait to see you again. I’d love to go out on your boat as discussed. How about Thursday next week? Think I can swing it – I can pretend I’m in Sheffield talking to ladies about marge. x
From: A Much-Awarded Copywriter
To: Lucy Edge
It was a great night – loved every minute of it. Babe, I meant everything I said then – you’re great, you really are – but today is another day and I think we should move on. Might be best to give the boat a miss just till things calm down, huh? Would you be a darling and bring me some more of those facts about sunflowers that you were telling me last night? Don’t seem to be able to recall the finer details and I know they would make for some great copy. Want to make sure I can add another Yellow Pencil to the awards shelf this year. Thanks Babe. x
Not to be deterred, I went to Paris with another copywriter, a divorcing Catholic who was so terrified of his soon-to-be ex-wife finding out that he had been away for the weekend with another woman that he stuffed £300 in my jacket pocket as we picked up our baggage at Charles de Gaulle, ‘to cover expenses’.
He announced on the plane home: ‘you know, Lucy, this weekend; it’s not been a cold thing. I like you more than I thought I would but I’m not ready for any commitment at the moment. You could be Cameron Diaz and I’d feel the same way.’
Six months later he was re-married, and her name wasn’t Cameron. I should have demanded more cash.
At best, I thought, I was a Canapé Girl, a bite-sized morsel that kept a man going before he met The One. At worst I was little more than a hooker working the baggage reclaim carousel.
I tried employing the analytical skills I used as an advertising planner to work out what had gone wrong each time, but I always ended up having to convene summit meetings with my girlfriends – the ‘Cappuccino Gurus’. We would run through the options over coffee and biscotti in Café Violette or Café Seventy-Nine. Perhaps he thought I wasn’t interested? Perhaps he just wasn’t interested enough? Perhaps he was a commitment phobe? Perhaps it was me that was the commitment phobe? Was I emotionally autistic or was it him? There were many theories but in the end there was only one inescapable conclusion: in all of these messed-up relationships there was one common denominator, and that was me.
Clearly I needed to make some changes, to find a different way of seeing the world and living in it, to discover a more balanced, less isolated way of life.
What were the options? With the exception of Café Culture ready meals and the Cappuccino Gurus, the only things that had really sustained me during The Advertising Years were Joseph, Pinot Grigio, yoga and my mum. I had found some answers to life’s biggest questions in the bottom of a bottle several times but, sadly, had woken up in the morning unable to recall exactly what they were. My mum always thought she had the answer but sometimes I disagreed. And even I, after years of trying, had to concede that lasting happiness probably didn’t lie in another pretty dress.
That left yoga.
I had always been impressed by my friend Maria’s party trick – picking up a pack of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes between her buttocks as she performed the splits. She attributed this feat to a strict regime of Iyengar yoga, which apparently involved blocks, bolsters and standing on your head for ten minutes. I wasn’t sure how this helped open your groin, and anyway I wasn’t tempted. It took the end of another relationship and a recuperative holiday in Tobago to get me to my first yoga class.
I met tiny, gorgeous Kate on that holiday in Tobago, in 1997. She was travelling alone, her only company a blue sticky mat and yoga practice tape recorded by her London teacher. She spent the afternoons basking by the pool in a yellow bikini and baseball hat, quietly reading the three-inch-thick Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi and the early evening on the hotel lawn making every single one of twenty different asana (yoga postures) look effortless, as if they had come floating down from heaven on the wings of angels. I noticed that her bendy pretzel-like body and graceful, soft yogic actions left her looking at peace with the world and cast an unearthly spell over the male guests – they ordered endless rum punches just to remain in her vicinity and sat mesmerized, unable to speak, or move. By the end of the holiday she had a boyfriend, and I had the name of her teacher: Simon Low.
I rang him the following week. Simon told me that he was taking a group to Huzur Vadisi in south-west Turkey in two weeks time. The group would be of mixed ability and it was fine that I was a complete beginner. I read the brochure over and over again. We would practise yoga under a canopy of grapes, in a valley surrounding by pine forest. Our afternoons would be spent sunbathing by the stone swimming pool or dozing in shady hammocks listening to cicadas. In the evenings we would play chess and read ancient Urdu poetry in the wooden kosk, an overgrown tree house. We would sleep in nomadic yurts, circular domed tents with a hole in the roof, the ‘eye of heaven’, built for stargazing.
I could hardly wait. In less than a month I would have a pretzel-like body, and all of its incumbent powers.
Needless to say, things didn’t work out exactly as planned.
While the rest of the class, many of whom had been doing yoga for ten years or more, focused on lengthening their muscles and dropping into the pose, ‘relaxing into it, like warm, gloopy custard’, I concentrated on not falling over. I wobbled my way through the week, shaking uncontrollably as my muscles released years of tension.
I was permanently out of sync with my fellow students. It reminded me of the early days of learning step aerobics in the gym – when my arms and legs stubbornly resisted any attempt to move in the same direction as everyone else. I always spoilt the beautiful symmetrical line that would otherwise have been created by twenty pink g-string leotards moving in perfect synchronicity. Just when I’d worked out what Simon was asking me to do, and attempted to do it, everyone else was onto the next thing.
I learned that asana can help us change old patterns established in the body and, when combined with regulated breathing practices, or pranayama, and some meditation, could start to unite the mind, body and breath. So much for the theory … Simon’s intonations were unusually buttery, his voice was soft and rich, like shortbread dipped in honey, but it was all in vain – when he asked me to inhale and open myself to new experiences, I exhaled. When he asked me to exhale and let go of the past, I held my breath, leaving my personal history locked firmly within.
The only time I did manage any degree of synchronicity was poolside. In the daily sunbathing line-up I found co-coordinating the laying down of my beach towel alongside those of others almost effortless.
Meanwhile, back on the yoga mat, my troubles continued. My hamstrings shouted from the rooftops, opening my hips was like trying to open a door whose hinges had been painted over twenty times in as many years and I couldn’t persuade my shoulders to end their life-long love affair with my ears. I couldn’t even stand up straight. If I held my tummy in I couldn’t breathe, if I pushed out my chest my bottom stuck out, if I pulled up my kneecaps my calf muscles tightened. Far from being able to stand on my head or my hands, by the end of class I couldn’t even stand on my own two feet.
Try as I might, I couldn’t create enough yogic fire to raise the kundalini serpent of energy from the bottom of my spine, every single one of my chakras remained resolutely closed for business, and I couldn’t count more than three breaths without thinking about what was for dinner. It seemed unlikely that I would be following Simon’s instruction to merge the energies of ha (the hot energy of the sun) and tha (the cool energy of the moon) into my sushumna (the energy channel running up the centre of the spine) in the near future.
Kate had told me that The Bhagavad Gita – ‘The Lord’s Song’, the ancient scripture – says people only come to practise yoga in this life if they have already practiced it in a previous life. If this was the case, my body had forgotten all about it. I could only be grateful that yoga wasn’t conducted in teams – I would never have been picked. It wasn’t just the lack of co-ordination and flexibility; there was also the complete absence of muscle definition and stamina. I had never been ‘good at games’.
I finished each class completely exhausted, shaking and not quite myself until I had sat by the pool in the afternoon sun for five hours. People tried not to look alarmed but I could tell they were exchanging worried looks and had agreed a covert mission of keeping a watchful eye on me at all times. They tried to comfort me with tales of how long it had taken them to be able to touch their toes but I could tell, even at this early stage, that my ticket to yoga heaven wasn’t stamped ‘Fast Track’.
Simon gently explained to the few beginners in the group, as we tried to relax our aching muscles amongst the cushions in the wooden kosk, that yoga is one of six strands of Hindu darshana or ‘ways of seeing’, that it can help us ‘peel back the layers, like the layers of an onion’, enabling us to see ourselves more clearly and ‘awakening us to new possibilities, new ways of being’. Yoga would help us find deep within our core, hidden away like buried treasure, nothing less than our true Self – a changeless, stable, quiet Self, sometimes called the ‘Eternal Self’ – quite distinct from the highly flammable, ever-changing emotions, mind and body with which we misidentify ourselves.
Yoga would reveal this Eternal Self by a process known as chitta vritti nirodhah – ‘the control of the activities of the mind’. This control wouldn’t be about repression of thoughts and closing down, but about being aware, observing these activities, developing the skills to remove the roadblock of mental chatter that stands in the way of inner stillness. If we practised regularly, Simon told us, ‘our mind would remain calm, peaceful and clear-sighted, whatever the situation’, ‘enabling us to meet life and all of its challenges head on’. Yes, even the mosquitoes that dive-bombed our mats would be met with equanimity.
It was a difficult week – as befits the peeling of an onion I shed quite a lot of tears – but miraculously, given my struggles on the mat, there were glimpses of a rare calm; my mind, breath and body seemed to be getting along and the mental whirlings – the chitta vritti – did occasionally stop for a second or two. I was so stiff I had to ask for help getting out of bed in the morning, but beneath the rigor mortis were some encouraging signs of muscle growth and every last drop of tension had been squeezed out of me, which must have been really weighing me down because I lost four pounds. I have a photograph of Simon and me at the end of the holiday – he is smiling, tanned and relaxed, strong and centred in his sarong and Prana vest. I look knackered and a bit wobbly, but I also look happy, and it wasn’t just the weight loss. Beyond the smile on my face I could feel my body beginning to smile – a big smile of relief – as it let go of all those tensions.
And there was something else – a feeling that somehow something fundamental had shifted, as Simon had said, an opening up to other possibilities. I told my yurtmate, Caroline, a ladylike reality TV producer with a swinging blonde bob, about this feeling – this awareness of something beyond my yoga mat – this something that I couldn’t quite name, as we lay beneath the stars sharing a spliff. She thought that this glimmer of awareness might be a glimpse of samadhi, of enlightenment itself.
Caroline told me that when we eventually found the Eternal Self we would go beyond the demands of our ego, beyond what we own and what we want. Our feelings of separateness, our sense of difference from others would disappear and we would rest in the Self-Realised state of samadhi – a state of sublime peace, of enlightenment. She assured me that ‘We won’t worry about men or our appearance or our job, or even the mosquitoes, because we will be merging with the pool of cosmic bliss that is the universe. In this cosmic consciousness we will be in touch with all of existence, with a world beyond thought, a liberated world of infinite love, free from all suffering, in perfect harmony with ourselves and each other.’
I did have a spot of bother getting to grips with this idea until we’d had a few more spliffs – at which point merging with the big pool of cosmic bliss that is the universe suddenly became as easy as lying by the pool.
(First published by in Great Britain in 2005 by Ebury Publishing, a division of the Random House Group Ltd / Text©Lucy Edge 2005 / Lucy Edge has asserted her right to be identified as the author of this work under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 /All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the copyright owners.)