Friday, 5 August 2016

A Year in Norwich: Yoga at the Buddhist Centre

As I now realise, six months after deciding to write a year's worth of posts about Norwich and for many personal reasons (genuinely a bit more than laziness) not actually writing them, I now officially only have a year left in Norwich... as an Undergraduate, at least. As all the adults in my life are currently proselytising, "who knows where you'll be a year from now?"

I am uneasy about this. At school, I couldn't wait to leave from about five years before the event and had decided my university plans about three years before they happened. Now, however, I don't quite want to leave. I like my life in Norwich. I like being a student. I adore learning about history. For the next year, my last in this current state, there will no doubt be overwhelming pressure to decide, or discover, who or what I want to be. What sort of person am I, and how will my future employment prospects reflect this? Who do I want to be on a daily basis: a continuation, development, or total re-invention of what I am now? Even though a new academic term beckons, something which may only happen once more in my life, I feel at twenty I am too old and decrepit for a back-to-school reinvention. Not that this should or will stop me.

One thing that keeps coming back with alarming clarity, however, is to enjoy Norwich, the place I am currently fortunate enough to live. "Enjoy where you are" was in fact the theme of a yoga class I recently attended at the local Buddhist Centre. Perhaps availing of such resources - which are harder to come by in the Irish midlands, for sure - should be part of me enjoying where I am, geographically speaking, for the next year.

Yoga came about when a friend I was staying with suggested it. It was to take place at the ungodly hour of ten in the morning. At 9.50, because at the time we were living at a ridiculously convenient location, we made our way there in our "exercise gear" (maybe) pretty half awake.

The bright and airy room with a high ceiling, fresh wooden beams and light streaming through the Velux windows was certainly a pleasant enough place to lie on a yoga mat. When we arrived people were already lying down with their eyes closed, in what I would later learn to be called corpse pose (maybe). We joined them with minimal fuss - there were only about six of us in the class in total, and when the instructor entered we would learn the purpose of the mysterious "blocks" which accompanied the laid-out yoga mats. Did you know there were blocks?

The instructor, whose patience with my total lack of knowledge let alone suppleness was second to none, began by getting us to breathe a lot - which I had expected - and while we were all breathing away – quite often, sometimes in, sometimes out - he spoke to us about a book on Buddhism he'd been reading before the lesson. It had featured the key phrase: "enjoy where you are." I hadn't expected yoga to cover mental or emotional well-being as much, but this was like getting a workout and a sermon at once – in the best possible sense. Of course, yoga is about not only physical stretching and movement but the harnessing of energy to bring positivity, vitality or relaxation to life. It’s very complicated; you wouldn’t understand.

So instead of focussing on where we’d like to be after lesson one, and feeling put out that others were ahead of us, our instructor advised us to enjoy what our body could currently do before we worked on making it better. He must have been reading my mind as I glanced jealously at the woman on my right who not only seemed to have harnessed more than her fair share of positive energy, but could more than likely put both legs behind her head. But for the rest of the ninety minutes, I looked to her only for guidance and not out of jealousy.

As it turned out, “where I was” proved not only enjoyable but useful. I was concentrating so hard on what my body was doing at the time that I didn’t get a chance to think of much else.  I experienced each stretch and ache of my muscles and had to concentrate on the basic instinct of breathing. I was giving my body attention it hadn’t seen in a while (for want of a more appropriate phrase), and as such the rest of my life didn’t really factor in for that hour and a half.

Lying flat on my back at the end of the session, relaxing my breathing, feeling my muscles nicely stretched as strains of Killing Me Softly floated in through the window, it would be incorrect to say that I totally forgot my worries. For me, the phrase “forget your worries” will inevitably bring a dozen or so of them to mind. It was more that in that moment, focused on what was happening now and, yes, enjoying where I was, those worries didn’t seem to have as much significance. I had better things to think about: an awareness and appreciation of my physical self.  

Having undergone major surgery in 2012 and another minor procedure in 2014, I have sometimes felt connected to my body on a slightly higher level –often whilst on a lot of painkillers, but still. It’s happened. I’ve often remarked that one thing my surgery taught me is that our bodies know best – they know what they need to do to heal, and how much rest will be necessary, as well as using pain to warn us when we mightn’t realise we’ve gone too far. Yoga gave me a sense of my body, too – what it could and couldn’t do, its comforts and limits. I discovered weak points I could work on and, surprisingly, there things my body could do that others found difficult. Such awareness is important, and deserves more focus. This awareness also led to an appreciation we often omit.

My body really is a tremendous thing – as is yours. Mine underwent spinal surgery and has recovered with the help of all kinds of surgical steel it carries around every day. It can dance – all be it poorly and mostly in the shower. It can give the most amazing hugs. It is admired - maybe, once or twice. And potentially, at-some-point-fingers-crossed-not-at-the-moment, it could grow a human being inside it and give birth to that person. Or people – but let’s not get too ambitious.

I’ve been very unappreciative of my body in the past. I’ve wished it was slimmer, had less spots, grew less hair – a lot less hair – and hadn’t required screws and rods to work properly. I’ve also wished it would be more co-ordinated and fit, although fitness is certainly not something you could wish for. I’ve been so unappreciative, that I’ve forgotten all the things it could do.

Appreciating your body is so important – especially at a time when for reasons unbeknown to me, women like myself are still being judged every day for what we do or don’t do with our bodies. The human body might be leered at, taken ownership of, assaulted and abused by our fellow humans, and any time we decide to do as we please with it, we run the risk of being labelled or shamed. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been made to feel as though every single decision I’ve taken about my own body has been the wrong one.

Bodies are a hassle: they cause a lot of undue stress. But they are also a source of wonder, and I’d strongly advise anyone with low body confidence or otherwise to take some time to regularly think about their body. Enjoy where you are with it. What can it do – what are its strengths? What does it need? Should we be feeding it or watering it? Giving it an airing? Allowing it room to stretch and breathe? Sheltering it or letting it out to enjoy the world?

I’m not going to turn this into a pledge to do lots and lots of exercise, as that will inevitably fall through much like my pledge to update this blog more frequently, but I think a change in mind set and more attention and focus on my body can lead to many improvements and accomplishments. Once I love where I am, then I can start setting goals. I always see the phrase “don’t exercise because you hate your body: exercise because you love it.”  Maybe I won’t be running any marathons quite yet, but perhaps more yoga sessions will remind me of the importance of my body and that it needs to be appreciated and looked after.

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