I’VE NEVER BEEN the sporty type – built for comfort rather than speed, more shot-putter than marathon runner. I was the pudgy girl put in far outfield in a game of cricket, who somehow still managed to get hit by the ball, right on the nose. The five-year-old kid who, already trailing the pack in a running race, fell over and grazed my knees, cheered on as I struggled to my feet and tearfully stumbled to the finish line, long after the winners had received their ribbons.
In the early ’70s, when I was in my first few years at the local convent school, ball games and marching were compulsory, along with the milk left to sour in crates in the sub-tropical sun. Every lunch hour was spent on the sweltering parade ground marching in circles and missing balls thrown at me. Marching practice was agony. I was hopelessly out of time; my natural rhythm was syncopated – more interpretive dance than regimental – so I was punished every lunch hour. We marched around and around on melting summer days.
Until one day as we marched, I started feeling as if I was going to throw up. I must have looked pale because the nun in charge took pity and let me rest in the shade of the building. But once other kids caught on and pleaded sick so they could sit out too, the nun called a halt to the nonsense and forced us all back into line. I made it a few more times around the ground, legs heavy as mud, until I started seeing stars and staggered over to the nun. She was about to dig her fingers into my shoulders and whack me around the legs with her ruler, when I spewed on her shoes. I almost felt happy then, except I was sure that vomiting on a nun was a very bad sin.
I got to go home early though. Sunstroke.
My mother, a bewildered athletic type, put me into tennis lessons because it was ‘such fun!’. It was hell. As other kids confidently whacked the ball backwards and forwards across the net, I threw mine into the air, swinging blindly over and over and over again, red-faced and ashamed. I pleaded with my mother to let me quit. After chatting with the teacher who shook his head, muttering something like ‘hopeless’, she finally relented. I could do ballet instead. I quite liked to dance, but again the teachers whispered to my mother that my body type wasn’t really suited to dancing. Butterballs weren’t really suited to much in the way of sport.
The worst were compulsory team sports. I didn’t learn to be a team player or how to co-operate or about team spirit. I learnt about rejection and being an outcast, and that hurt. Standing beside the kids with patches over one side of their glasses, kids as wide as they were tall, those with gammy legs in callipers, knock-knees or broken arms, waiting to be called up, I prayed I wouldn’t be the absolute last. But I usually was, my team groaning as I approached. I can’t remember what sport I’d been playing the day the most popular girl in my class came over to me after the game. I thought that maybe I hadn’t done too badly, I’d certainly tried my best, so I smiled. Maybe we’d be friends.
‘We lost because of you,’ she said.
I knew enough not to cry in front of her, but I couldn’t stop my smile from sinking into my chin and quivering there.
IN MY MID-TWENTIES, I discovered yoga. I was travelling in Cambodia when I was given a sheet of paper outlining the ashtanga yoga primary series of postures. A fellow who’d done a few classes led me through the practice, and I was hooked. Every day I got up and went through the series, stretching my body, strengthening my muscles, breathing deeply. Each movement connected to a breath. No teams, no competition, lots of rolling on the floor. Just me and my body. Moving. Connecting. Coming home to a still place inside me. A moving meditation. Calming and invigorating all at once.
At last, a sport I could embrace.
No one said, ‘We lost because of you’. When I fell, it was just so I could learn how to do a pose better the next time. Yoga gave me regular exercise, but its greatest benefit has been non-physical. I wonder if all sportspeople get it – a sense of calm, a release from anxiety. While even thinking about playing tennis still creates a panic attack, my yoga practice – done alone or with others – gives me hope that my body is actually good for something. I’m not useless, a burden on others. I can be in my body and like it. It doesn’t matter how far I go into a posture as long as my breathing is steady.
The friend who taught me those first few poses travelled on, but I stayed in Cambodia, through tourist kidnappings and murders and opening an English school, getting up every morning and doing the practice. That’s the motto of ashtanga yoga’s guru Sri K Pattabhi Jois: ‘Do the practice and all is coming.’ I wasn’t sure what was coming, but I liked the way it made me feel. I’d always had an addictive personality – at last I’d found a positive focus for my obsessions, transforming addiction into discipline. I didn’t have a mat. No fancy yoga clothes with slogans. No teacher except that piece of paper, for over three years.
I fell in love with another traveller and got pregnant, returned to Australia and got married. I practised yoga every day through all of it. I went to a few pregnancy yoga classes but it felt slow and dull after the challenges of ashtanga’s vigorous flowing routine. So I kept on with my piece of paper. Me and Madonna, both practising ashtanga and having our babies at the same time. Women’s magazines at the time raised their arms in horror as Madonna continued practising right up until the ninth month. I was glad I wasn’t under such scrutiny as I huffed and puffed and did postures, even during the birth.
When my daughter was about one, my younger sister babysat while I went to yoga classes back in Brisbane. A teacher at last. I discovered there was a lot I didn’t know. Important things, like using your core – or bandhas, as we yogis say. I enjoyed practising with others, but not as much as practising by myself. Alone I could go deeper into the meditative state that comes from focusing deeply within your body, melding movement with breath. My teacher warned me that yoga worked on you emotionally and spiritually, not just physically. That happened too. Poses would suddenly spark flashbacks of great grief or fear, tears would erupt. In classes I’d try to stifle them, but at home I could bawl out loud. I’d spent most of my life trying to suppress my emotions, so this strange uncontrollable crying was terrifying – but freeing too.
My second baby came along and I continued to practise yoga with teachers and at home. I worked through my practice every day with both children underfoot, jumping on my back, crawling under my downward dog, drawing pictures of angry Mummy on the end of my mat. I began teaching yoga, filling in for a friend once in a while, then more and more often. I found a teacher I resonated with and went to his classes as often as I could. He took us into deeper practices and allowed us more freedom than the restrictions of the ashtanga series. I delved into pranayama (yogic breathing techniques), meditation and mindfulness, and incorporated elements of Chi Gong and energy medicine into my practice. I laughed on my mat, I cried there. Old trauma washed from me, new possibilities opened up.
I had a third child who died. My mat became my refuge. Every day it held my grief and helped me find a way to continue living.
YOGA HAS FOUND its way to the West through the quest for fitness and the body beautiful. I suppose it found me that way too. I’d hoped that maybe yoga would work magic on my butterball body and turn me into a long-limbed beauty like Elle McPherson, but it didn’t. My muscles are strong, but they’re round and solid. More meatball than butter now.
I’ve just turned fifty and am stronger than I’ve ever been. I can do handstands and backbends and the splits. But that’s not what is important. I’m strong on the inside. I know that whatever happens I’ll be okay. That every morning I’ll get up, roll out my mat, and do my practice. Because wherever I am in the world, whatever is happening in my life, I can come home to myself. I wonder if that’s what good old Pattabhi meant? Do your practice and all is coming?
I’ve taught yoga at a number of different yoga studios, in schools, and for a while I even had a studio of my own. These days I teach yoga to professional dance students at a local university, and through the dancers I’m learning to dance again, to love moving my body even more. Through teaching yoga I’m learning more about the benefits of the practice, going with the flow, holding other people’s tears as they come.
For twenty-three years now I’ve done yoga almost every day. My mats have absorbed sweat and tears in equal measure. But never tears of frustration or fear of not getting it right, of letting the team down, of everyone losing because of me. Best of all, as I look around yoga classes full of skinny guys and stocky girls, people with glasses and scoliosis and bung knees, I know that at last I’ve found my people. No winners, no losers. Each doing our own thing, together. Lifting each other up, not tearing each other down. A team. Each coming home to ourselves, the same home in each of us.