January 16, 2011

The yoga of friendship

When I got married I realized, as we were deciding the guest list, that most of my closest friends were people I’d met through yoga.

Hens and a Karma Kab

Together we’ve been through all that life that can throw at you – the red letter days – promotions, engagements, weddings and births, and the hard stuff – career burnout, serious illness and toxic men. It struck me that making friends with these women had been as easy as opening the ‘après yoga’ bottle of Pinot Grigio and it set me to thinking…Why is making friends off the mat so effortless?

Is it because in the eyes of yoga we are all created equal? Sure, we have all found ourselves envying the pretty girl on the next mat, wondering if we’d look as good in that cute top as she does, but yoga does what it can to create an equal playing field. In my mind the yoga studio is a ‘matocracy’, a ‘Peoples’ Republic of Yoga’; we occupy mats of a uniform size and shape, we leave our designer shoes at the door, we walk with bare feet, and by the end of the class we’re all having a bad hair day.

Watching our bodies fail to conform to the demands of our ego is another great leveler – it’s hard to maintain your distance from people when you’re red in the face, wobbling or falling over. I went on my first yoga holiday feeling pretty sure of myself – ‘I’ve been going to the gym for years’ I told myself, ‘How hard can this be?’ By the end of the week, having spent most of it in a quivering heap on the floor of the yoga shala, I had to concede that the gym was for wimps.

Sharing a class means sharing laughs. As a yoga student you soon learn to handle the embarrassment of finding out that you were snoring in final relaxation and of realizing that the class has moved on to a new posture whilst you were figuring out what to make for supper or what to wear to that party tomorrow night. Not least is the embarrassment of spontaneous body emissions. A friend of mine, certainly not me, emitted one such noise in shoulder stand – to which the whole class burst out laughing. The teacher responded with a sanguine ‘Ah well, better out than in’. Afterwards the friend (definitely not me) was told by a classmate that a Tampax would save her further embarrassment. She ignored the advice in favour of learning how to pull up on her Mula Bandha – the so called ‘master key’ at the base of the trunk. This has had other useful consequences, I’m told.

Annie Gurton, founder of the Purple Valley Ashtanga Yoga Retreat in Goa, thinks there is another reason why yoga students become great friends. She says ‘“How was your practice?” is a great conversation opener. All yogis want to talk about the good or the bad of that morning on the mat and after that friendship blossoms.’ For us chronically shy and socially awkward English people, discussing our experience of locating Uddiyana Bandha makes a useful alternative to talking about the weather.

And then there is the deeper, more emotional stuff. I wonder if perhaps we yogis make friends so easily because yoga slowly peels back the layers of self protection – we gradually drop our notions of who we ought to be, or who we want to be, and we stop worrying about others’ notions of who we ought to be or want to be. Sooner or later it begins to transform our relationship with ourselves, and in so doing it transforms our relationships with other people.

I am a case in point. When I first started practicing eleven years ago I thought I was an advertising hot shot. In support of this delusion I worked long hours debating what song sunflowers should sing and whether the Jolly Green Giant could say anything other than ‘ho ho ho’. Amazingly trying to answer these questions took up around eighty hours a week, leaving me with no time to nourish my own soul let alone my friends – in fact I had barely enough energy to microwave a ready meal for one and collapse in front of some late-night telly.

I was running on empty and it was only a matter of time before it all caught up with me. The turning point came on a yoga holiday. I cried for three days solid and yet it was one of the best holidays of my life – not just because

Hit Me Baby One More Time

I learnt a Britney Spears dance routine from a Hollywood star but because it was on that holiday that I finally acknowledged that the job might be paying for all the yoga holidays but it was making me miserable. When I got back to London I handed in my notice and headed off to India on a yoga school pilgrimage, in search of a guru, a boyfriend, and life’s deeper meaning.

After six months in India I had to admit that I wasn’t going to find a guru, or return a Yoga Goddess – a magnetic babe attracting a retinue of male followers, be photographed for an article on Yoga Babes, or be invited to holiday with Madonna in return for personal tuition. But I did make progress in an unanticipated direction – transforming my relationship with myself and my relationship with other people.

I returned from India knowing what was important in life – I’d given up on pleasing the demands of my ego, I was content with who I was and what I had, I was ready to downsize and start a new career as a writer. I understood that life is a delicate balancing act – one part mugs of green tea and standing on one leg in tree pose and one part bottles of Pinot Grigio and falling over. Perhaps most importantly I was able to see the positives in any situation, in myself and in everyone else – a state of mind that goes a long way towards building affinity, empathy and connectedness towards others.

Ultimately I think that yoga brings you back to yourself and awakens you to all that you can be, the best of you. This transformational path seems to be one followed by all my classmates – as Mandy Brinkley, my Norfolk based yoga teacher put it, ‘we yogis are united by a common thread – the desire to be a better person.’

I know that when I get up off the mat I have more of myself to give – my energy levels are restored, my heart is open, my mind is quiet and I can truly listen, be present to others and what they need from me, look them in the eye, and quite possibly summon up the courage to say, using my freshly opened throat chakra, ‘do you fancy a glass of Pinot Grigio?’

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