January 2, 2011

The yoga holiday that changed my life

To kickstart this blogspot about yogic adventures I thought I would recount the tale of my first ever yoga holiday; the one that stretched more than my hamstrings…

As a workaholic who paused only to light a cigarette or down a glass of Pinot Grigio, I was an unlikely yoga holiday candidate.

I was in my mid thirties, an ambitious board director of a top ten advertising agency, working eighty-hour weeks debating which song a sunflower should sing and working for a man whose notion of people management involved sitting me on his knee. Of course it was not without its compensations – the people were really bright, two days were never the same and the money was good. But no matter how hard I worked I never seemed to get on top of it all.

An M&S ready meal 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.

As another doomed-from-the-start relationship crashed and burnt, I decided to follow a friend’s advice and spend a recuperative week with her yoga teacher Simon Low at Huzur Vadisi, meaning ‘peaceful valley’, a retreat centre in south west Turkey.

A Huzur Vadisi yurt, built for stargazing

The Huzur Vadisi brochure promised yoga beneath a canopy of grapes, in a valley surrounding by pine forest. We’d swim in a stone swimming pool, eat couscous and olives and sleep in nomadic yurts, circular domed tents with a hole in the roof, the ‘eye of heaven’, built for stargazing.

What the brochure didn’t say was that my hamstrings would scream from the rooftops, that my hips would shut up shop and go fishing, and that far from standing on my head or my hands, by the end of the second day I wouldn’t be able to stand on my own two feet.

As my hamstrings screamed from the rooftops in ‘downward facing dog’, one of many tortuous yoga postures, I listened to Simon explain that yoga 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.’

As befits the peeling of an onion, I shed a lot of tears as I finally accepted that I needed to find a new way of living. There were also immediate results – by the end of the week my hamstrings were elongated and detoxified, I’d lost four pounds and every last drop of tension had evaporated.

Lucy with Simon Low, Huzur Vadisi June 1998

Unfortunately the ‘new way of being’ that I set my sights on proved to be a little misguided. So inspired was I by the sight of the pretzel-like Yoga Goddesses at the front of the class I decided to take a six month career break and head off to India. I would find a guru, someone to lead me from gu, darkness, to ru, light. Someone to help me peel away those layers. My new ambition was to return a Yoga Goddess, the embodiment of feminine perfection – peaceful, wise, endlessly compassionate towards a suffering world – and a magnetic babe attracting strong and sweaty, yet emotionally vulnerable men.

Not only would my purpose in life be revealed but also a pretzel-like body – light on fat, flexible yet strong. I would sit in the lotus position, or stand on my head, Vogue would photograph me in my favourite organic juice bar and designer friends would choose me to model their size eight scented knickers. The lack of money wouldn’t matter because I would be beyond materialism, and anyway I’d get free holidays when Sting invited me to his Italian villa to give him personal tuition.

There were certainly some precedents for this life-changing dream; friends went to India as lawyers and investment bankers and came back as yoga teachers and owners of yoga centres. Simon himself had been vice-president of A&R at RCA in New York before he discovered yoga. His teacher, Larry Payne, had swapped his career as a highflying advertising exec for a life of low lunges.

However, after five months of trying really hard to realise my Yoga Goddess ambitions, I had to admit defeat. The human pretzel gene remained stubbornly hidden and I found the methods of some of the gurus a bit suspect. It was time to ditch the goal – interesting that if we reverse the ‘o’ and the ‘a’ in ‘goal’, we get ‘gaol’ – and start with some small stuff.

I would give up on trying to make headlines – the big merger with cosmic bliss, the quest for bodily perfection, the recruiting of a retinue of male followers, and instead I would concentrate on the small print – using my yoga practice to increase the moments of seeing clearly and choosing wisely in everyday life, just like the real gurus of India – the so called ‘ordinary’ people – the waiters, tailors, railways workers and government officials – I’d met along the way.

As I write this, having just finished the third book in my yoga trilogy, I have just taken a part time job back in advertising – it seems that I feel more at home in the presence of singing sunflowers than Gucci’d Gurus and Hugging Mothers – but the big lesson, the thing that has turned around the way I live, is that what I do seems less important than how I do it. My new ambition is to become an ‘ordinary’ Indian in the corporate board room.

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