I hadn't been working long at Chillisoft before I received an email, addressed to everyone at the company, asking who would be interested in reviving the yoga sessions that had been regular at the company long before I had joined, before they had moved to the location they were at when I started there.
Coincidentally, I had just watched an inspiring video of how a former paratrooper with mobility issues had been able to change the course of his life with yoga.
At the time, I weighed 104kg. I was definitely not in great shape. Circumstances had made it challenging to do anything about it and the good food at the company I was working at before didn't help 😋
I was in. It was going to cost me nothing, the sessions would be held on company time -- I finally had no excuse not to. I was in for a journey.
But first off:
Yoga is an ancient physical, mental, and (to some at least) spiritual experience that has been practised by thousands of people over thousands of years. It has been moulded and rebranded as a lot of different activities and comes in a variety of forms, but most of the ones you may ever seen are grounded in the physical Hatha yoga. There are various branches within Hatha which are popular with different people for different reasons, from the more mental Kundalini to Iyengar, Ashtanga, Bikram and slower forms like Yin yoga.
Yoga is not "just stretching".
I literally had a friend, after seeing that I had lost nearly 20kg, exclaim "but isn't yoga just stretching?".
No. And if you don't believe me, if you think it's just an "easy workout for girls" -- first off: a lot of those girls will kick your ass and secondly: come join a couple of sessions and see if you can keep up. I dare you. I've seen "manly" gymrats broken by a yoga session whilst a petite lady nearby gracefully flows through all of it.
Obviously a lot of yoga can be observed as physical. I joined up because I wanted the physical benefits -- primarily, I wanted to lose weight. But there are other physical benefits:
- fine motor-control
I'll return to these at some point. I'm hoping to make at least another 10 posts in this series, focusing on individual elements that I've learned on the mat, and I'm sure these will come up again.
This is where I've learned the most. There have been some real learning moments, some times of crystal clarity, that I've enjoyed on the mat, both in group yoga and in my own practice. That's where the bulk of my discussion will lie, because I think there's a lot to unpack there. I hope you read the articles I have planned. I hope I write them! These articles are spawned from ideas I've had kicking around for about 7 years now -- enough ideas that I actually thought I could write a book from them. I've not been able to pull that off (seriously, writing a book is hard), but I don't want these learnings to be kept to myself. I'd like to share them, and, who knows, perhaps once I have them all down, I could actually write that book.
The first lesson I had on the mat is this: we only have two resources at our disposal:
- our physical bodies
Our bodies are the housing for our brains and our minds, an abstraction on top of a bunch of chemical and electrical signals which provide a better identifier for who we actually are than any other attribute we could name. Our thought patterns are uniquely ours, but our brains are kinda devious: our brains and senses lie to us every day, from small things like editing out the visual disturbance of blinking, to larger ones like hearing things which aren't there.
I am neuro-atypical and additionally I experience tinnitus 24/7. I experience low-level visual snow too. I think of them as electrical noise in my brain and have to use mechanisms like music or focus techniques to move past them. My brain is continually lying to me about what I see and hear -- but I'm not alone. Your brain is too, including lying about what color things are based on the perceived light of a visual situation or what someone is saying based on our own expectations.
Remember "blue dress" vs "gold dress"? Remember "yanni" vs "laurel"?
Our brains make a bunch of assumptions, practically all the time, and whilst the assumptions are often "good enough", we have to be aware that we don't actually know for sure that everything we experience is real. I can tell you quite assuredly that things you remember didn't happen exactly how you remember them, and, in addition, that every time you recall those memories, you're subtley changing them.
If a machine could fake all of the electrical signals coming into our brains, would we know the difference? I don't think we would.
I think our bodies are fairly complex machines that need to be looked after to get the most out of them. They're not perfect machines, but they are what we have -- and we can make them stronger and more capable with practice. That capability is not restricted to the physical -- we learn, we create, we fail. And hopefully we learn more, and move onward.
In addition, no matter how fantastic your mind, you are going to need your body to translate your thoughts into tangible artifacts that others can experience. Even the most extreme example of this, Stephen Hawking, had to have some motor control to be able to communicate. And with his incredibly limited motor control, he needed some truly astounding, ground-breaking technologies to maintain his lines of communication. Even in the face of his amazing work, imagine how much more he could have accomplished if his body hadn't betrayed him? If he could have written even at the pace of the slowest of us instead of ten words per minute.
My mind boggles at the idea of Stephen Hawking with full physical capability.
Ah, that cruel mistress. Mathematicians hypothesise that time has at least three dimensions, but most of us will have a very limited experience of those dimensions. Indeed, we'll be constrained to just one of those dimensions, and further constrained to just one direction along that dimension: what we experience as the passing of time, or moving forward through the time stream.
We should all accept that we have a limited amount of the stuff. We can't make more. We can't buy more -- though we can make complicated trades such that we achieve the feeling of having more time, or at least of having time to be able to accomplish and experience what we desire to.
For example, we can trade time working for monetary gain. We can trade that money for food and homes and things that make the time we're not working more enjoyable -- or to make us more efficient at trading the time we have for more money. We can trade that money for medicines and treatments to prolong our available time. We can trade that money to buy the services of another person so that they do some tedious work we had to do and we can do something more enjoyable. This may feel like buying time, but it's not, really.
We can trade time for happiness.
But whatever we do with the time that we have -- this very second -- we can never get it back. There's no undo. There's no way to generate more beyond that which is alotted to us, for lack of a better term.
Even more poignant, we are, for the overwhelming majority of that time, completely incapable of measuring out how much we have left.
Each one of us could live to be old, or die tomorrow. There may or may not be something "after this", but I can be 100% sure that the moment I have right now is mine to do with what I want, and that my actions and choices right now affect my options in the moments to come, both nearer and further away.
The best plan I can come up with is to make the most of what time I have because, whilst I know that this resource will definitely run out, I have no way of telling when.
The Stoics have a mantra: Memento Mori, literally meaning "remember that you will die". It's not a call to be morbid or to adopt an hedonistic life. It's a call to make the most of the time we have, whilst we can.
One of the choices I need to make is how much time to spend in pursuit of keeping my other only asset running smoothly: that faulty, analogue machine housing my faulty, analogue brain and the construct that I refer to as my mind.
I could live a junkfood, no-sleep, party-like-tomorrow-is-doomsday lifestyle. I could live the lifestyle of the triathlete, pouring hours into ultimate fitness and ability.
I'm not going to say that either of those extremes is necessarily the best practice, but I can say this: healthy bodies generally live longer than unhealthy ones, and most of us have a lot of personal agency over our physical fitness.
The thresholds for the amount of physical activity required to reap time benefits are not that high. As part of a community that spends an inordinate amount of time seated, staring at a screen, I know that the bare minimum isn't going to cut it.
There's more to this than just fitness -- have you ever noticed the number of elderly people who have difficulty moving, who need walkers or canes, or just spend their days in a comfy chair? And yet there are seniors who are still practising yoga, running marathons, performing amazing physical feats at incredible ages like 90 or older.
I don't know about you, but when I'm old, I want to be strong and spry, not weak and just waiting to die. We spend the first half (or more) of our lives preparing for the time when we won't have to work, when we can enjoy the riches we've stashed away, only to find that most of us won't be able to do so. We just won't be mobile enough, because we spent so much of our life sedentiary. You can change that.
I've been incredibily fortunate to have been introduced to yoga in the workplace, on work time. I've been just as fortunate to have my request for the same at my current company not only accepted, but heartily so. There are benefits for the individual and the participating group which far outweigh the time away from your desk (typically one or two hours per week). It may seem counter-intuitive, but the money "lost" on facilitating employee well-being, especially through activities like yoga, reap multiplier benefits for the company.
I hope that the coming articles will convince you of this, perhaps even embolden you to request work-time yoga at your place of work. I also hope to hear some of the learnings other yogis can share from the mat.
I'd like to leave you with a video to watch, if you have the time. I periodically re-watch this, not only to inspire myself to physical abilities that I can't yet achieve, but also to remind myself of some of the core principles behind yoga.