Lessons from the mat
Reflections of a 10-year-old yogi….at the age of 70. James de Albuquerque reflects on what he has learned from a decade on the mat
“The purpose of the spiritual path is to unmask, to take off our armour” Living Beautifully (with uncertainty and change) - Pema Chodron
I heard a wise man say that in life we have two mountains to climb. The first concerns building a life, a career and a family and is ego-and identity-based. The second is a bigger mountain and involves stripping away the ego and the protective layers that we have acquired to assist us in our climb up that first mountain. Life becomes more internal and less external. We seek a more meaningful aspect to life by surrendering our ego. We stop concentrating our energy on being who we are not and seek to rediscover our essence in a simpler form.
More than 10 years ago I had read lots of encouraging articles about yoga. What a relief it would be to shed some anxiety and let tangled emotions gently unravel. For me, back then, at the tender age of 60, something had to change.
“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river .We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in” - Desmond Tutu
Twenty years of running my own business and helping to raise a family had left my body and mind hopelessly out of kilter. They were never equally tired or still. A stressful life had left me with a very disorganised and disparate bunch of emotions that never rested. New people were arriving, and other people were leaving, slowly and often painfully. I was in desperate need of calm, peace, balance and alignment.I had taken up jogging years earlier to try and make my body as tired as my mind. This brought some comfort, but the constant chatter in my head, anxieties about the past, present and future went unresolved and needed to be hushed. I wondered again about yoga.
When an introvert lives the life of an extrovert a number of coping strategies have to be installed. I was gloriously unaware of just how many protective layers I had acquired to help me navigate through life. No wonder my essence, my purusha (true self), had become so submerged. Eventually, a series of timely coincidences, recommendations and chance meetings convinced me to get started and give yoga a try.
“Peace comes from within – do not seek it without” - Buddha
My first experience of yoga was not a success. I am not sure why and I was very disillusioned as a result. But I had been on a waiting list for another yoga class for a while, so when a vacancy arose, I decided to take it up rather than give it up. I joined Stable Yoga, near Newbury, in 2009. It happened just in time and I quickly became aware of yoga’s magic. I was a convert after one lesson and floated home. Thereafter, I became increasingly dedicated because this ancient practice made this ancient person (at the tender age of 60!) feel very much better in mind, body and spirit.
We started with 15 minutes of breathing (pranayama) to centre ourselves and followed this with 60 minutes of postures (asanas) with glorious names like sun salutations, warrior, eagle, downward facing dog, mountain, dolphin and cobra. We finished with a further 15 minutes of relaxation and meditation.
It was bliss.
Postures did not come easily to me but over time I learnt to drop my ego as often as I was asked to drop my shoulders. It helped that I was the only man in the class. I felt no need to compete as I so often did in business or in sport. And I was told not to try and impress anyone – there is no need, and no one is watching or judging.
And then I learnt the importance of breathing. If you are not linking your breath with your movement then it is not yoga, it is merely physical exercise.
The physical work releases tension that may have been stored for years. In the peace of a class, I discovered what I wanted to change and came to understand a need for compassion for oneself as well as for others. By reorganising priorities in favour of calmness, serenity and usefulness, yoga even helped me to start making peace with the past.
The ‘letting go ’of ‘stuff ’– be it ego, anxiety, resentments, grief, anger or whatever – is ongoing. The process could take forever but the feelings of wellbeing that follow each class are worth every breath, every twist, bend, stretch or attempted balance. Setting a positive intention before each class brings great results and helps develop a meaningful practice.
So, what have I learnt during these last 10 years of yoga?
- That those who encouraged me to try yoga were right.
- The importance of a good teacher.
- To breathe and, most especially, breathe out/exhale.
- That it helps reduce ego, builds humility.
- Don’t believe everything you think – thoughts are not facts.
- That it strips away unnecessary layers and allows your true self to re-emerge.
- To let go, drop your shoulders.
“The shoulders seem to carry what we feel are our emotional burdens, often imposed by outside authority figures or circumstances. So, stress gathers there, making our shoulders and neck stiffen like concrete. Opening the shoulders gives us a feeling of elation and freedom.” A life worth breathing – Max Strom
I was told years ago that the postures would become easier with practice and this is true to a certain extent. The problem in my case is that as my progress rises my decrepitude descends - but who cares? Teachers sometimes use a ‘mirroring ’method to demonstrate a pose and make it easier to understand. I look in this mirror in awe, but the reflection the teacher receives must have a comparable distortion to the images created by the bendy mirrors found on seaside piers.
In recent years I have gradually increased my dose of yoga to three classes per week with different teachers, all excellent. I may not be able to sustain this level of commitment for the next 10 years, but I do expect the gift of yoga to make the prospect quite realistic. One teacher has already introduced chair yoga ’and it is reasonable to expect walking stick and Zimmer yoga to follow. However, for now, what I have is enough..
“Yoga is not about self-improvement or making ourselves better. It is a process of deconstructing all the barriers we may have erected that prevent us from having an authentic connection with ourselves and with the world.” Yoga Mind Body and Spirit - Donna Farhi