“Here’s a choice for you: We can put you on pills or you can learn to loosen up. You should try yoga.”
So says my British NHS GP when I go see her because anxiety has been giving me chest pains. My blood pressure is also going through the roof.
Panic, it seems, has become my default mode.
Back then, I’m full-time tour director, always on the go, and some tours are more stressful than others. I’m on call 24/7, a passenger gets robbed right outside the hotel in Brussels a few minutes after we arrive, someone else is taken ill in the middle of the night…
To top it all off, one of the travel operators I work for has just filed for bankruptcy. This means that I — along with all my colleagues, hotels and bus companies — will never get paid.
Still, I politely decline the GP’s offer of a prescription and promise her I’m going to try and chill out.
By the time I remember doctor’s orders, it’s eight years later, I’ve long gone back to journalism and I’m on the other side of the Atlantic, desperate for some relief from the depression that’s holding my mind under water.
Barely able to function, I’ve lost my writing voice and with it my ability to earn a living.
As I immigrated to America, the invisible illness somehow stowed away in my head and threw my whole life into disarray shortly after landing.
Because our household budget is stretched to breaking point as a result of making do on one single salary, classes are out of the question.
The only one way for me to practice yoga will have to be self-taught.
First, I read up on the science behind it to avoid injury.
Then I buy an app for a fiver and get myself a cheap mat to prevent carpet burn, plus some mismatched discount Lycra so I don’t accidentally moon the cat or have either boob give me a black eye.
Because 36Cs can be a liability when not strapped down.
The lot costs around $30. And yet, to me, it represents a substantial investment at a time when I can’t even afford new books: I borrowed the yoga tome from the library.
Alas, my knowledge of the human body is patchy. I hated biology classes at school and it still shows. I also lack the basic spatial awareness that allows most people to tell their right from their left. It’s a hereditary shortcoming, handed down from my dad.
In a flash of inspiration, I decide to label my hands and feet with a Sharpie, spell out left and right, and get on with it. I may not know instinctively where either are but I can read.
In fifteen minute increments, I attempt to twist this way and that.
It does not go well. I’m not even standing but I keep ending up flat on my face. Low lunges are impossible to hold and I keel over.
Time and again.
Even corpse pose feels stilted, forced, and tense: I hate every single minute of this. As a teen, I once took some modern jazz dance classes but had to drop out after a few weeks because I kept bumping into the studio walls and into other students.
Put it that way, I’m about as graceful as a cinder block in motion.
That’s why yoga doesn’t survive first contact.
I throw the mat in the closet and go back to feeling hopeless about everything for the next ten days, consumed by guilt for throwing money away.
But on the eleventh day, I’m so fed up with myself I get back on the mat.
Because I’m stubborn. Because I don’t give up easily. Because I’ve spent $30 which could have gone toward bills instead. And, above all, because I’m still desperate for a break from the mind parasite that is depression.
Also, I’ve realized that a steep learning curve doesn’t necessarily preclude learning. Instead, it just means learning could take some time.
Which is lucky, as time is about the only limitless resource I have.
During my first year of practice, most yoga sessions smell of cat poo.
We’ve just moved into the city so I set my mat down in the ‘kittydrome’, the small spare room we finally have but can’t afford to furnish. We let our pocket-sized tabby rescue cat have free run of it.
The room is bright and has a window sill wide enough to double up as an observation deck. Most importantly, it can accommodate a litter box, thus freeing up our bathroom.
In the beginning, Nuna the cat takes a keen interest in my practice. She stares as I impersonate felines big and small, a menagerie of feathered creatures, a fish gasping for air, and a windy forest. Soon, we fall into a routine whereby she ignores me for the first 55 minutes.
And then, just as I’m about to sink into corpse pose and indulge in a nap, she hops into the litter box and starts digging frantically.
Soon a little stripy head emerges from the opening, brow furrowed in concentration, tail ramrod straight. My corpse pose has no choice but to resurrect in a premature and Thrilleresque fashion as I stumble upright to go crack the window open.
And on it goes for months as the cat’s digestive functions and my yoga practice become locked into this bizarro tango.
When she doesn’t evacuate her bowels during practice, Nuna comes and lodges her purring head into my sweaty armpit at the end, nudging me awake.
If she wants pets, she stops the video on my tablet with her nose.
Yoga helps me figure out a few things about the body I call home and the mind that rules it.
At first, my entire skeleton rearranges itself with loud pops of surprise and so do my insides. A full body experience, yoga provides a massage to those internal organs not hidden away behind bones.
Although I had read about that, I wasn’t quite prepared for the experience.
My internal pipes aren’t short on praise. They express their appreciation by releasing superfluous air out of any available orifice, whenever the need arises.
Which is often and out of both ends so I belch and fart my way through practice. Thankfully, Nuna — who is fond of smelling bottoms and licking her own — doesn’t mind strong smells.
Although it’s liberating, it makes me wary of ever attending an in-person class. A salvo of human gases within a confined space isn’t something I’d want to spectate. Besides, I’m not sure holding it all in would be within my power.
To a clueless newbie like me, the relationship between air and yoga presents innumerable challenges.
I discover I do not know how to breathe.
Although I follow instructions to the letter, I’m frequently blue in the face because the app tells me when to inhale but not always when to exhale.
After scouring online forums for tips, I decide to ignore the breathing cues. I inhale and exhale when needed, which makes me sound like a steam train.
For weeks on end, I chug my way through practice as sweat dissolves the spatial reminders scribbled on my hands and feet. The ink transfers to my face whenever I wipe my brow.
I am a mess but I’m making progress, against all odds.
Still, no pose comes naturally to me.
My tree pose has all the stability of a woody perennial about to be uprooted by gale force winds. My mountain pose causes my heart rate to speed up in the unmistakable way that precedes a panic attack.
For a solid two years, standing on the mat looking like a volcano about to erupt is how I begin every yoga session.
Eventually, I understand what’s happening. My whole life until then has been extensively peripatetic, moving between countries and continents too often to put down roots anywhere.
In short, I don’t know how to be in one place, how to be still.
This epiphany crushes me. What have I done to myself?! I burst into tears and, eventually, the moment passes.
My mountain pose stabilizes right away.
As my body learns new ways of moving, my tight muscles loosen and relinquish their grip on stress. For a few minutes each day, my underwater mind bobs back up to the surface and into the light.
Because I must pay close attention to instructions lest I collapse into a heap, injure myself, or both, my inner chatter pipes down every time I get on the mat.
But willpower remains difficult to corral.
Depression continues to taunt me with self-defeating drivel and question my ability to stick with anything. This stops when I decide to make yoga an integral part of my personal hygiene routine.
Like a stuffy nose that needs blowing when you have a cold, my mind needs flushing out with yoga when it’s clogged up with depression.
Over time, my body becomes stronger, more flexible. So does my mind, but my struggle with balancing poses continues with nary an improvement.
Carpeting under my mat makes them dangerous to practice so I either drop them or substitute anything on one foot for something on two feet. For example, this means palm tree instead of tree pose, to stay within the theme.
My practice intensifies and, eventually, I start rebuilding a life, word by word.
After over four years of self-directed practice, yoga is the tool I use to push back against rock bottom whenever I hit it.
Practice provides respite from the storm no matter how wobbly, how imperfect, or how broke(n) I am; my mat is the life raft that keeps me afloat in uncertain times.
Which goes to show you needn’t buy into the yoga-industrial complex to get started.
At the time of writing, I still haven’t set a dorsiflexed foot in a studio.
Is it even necessary?
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.