Celebrities are often asked how they turn to yoga to improve the shape of their arms, their abs, their bums, their everything. Somehow yoga - an ancient spiritual practice that was originally to help us sit comfortably for long periods in meditation - has become synonymous with the body beautiful. And yes, a tight bum, long lean limbs and toned arms are a happy side effect, but somehow things seem to have turned upside down.
The yoga body is an elusive thing and as I know only too well, an ability to do certain postures has a lot to do with genes. We are taught that with practice, the poses are achievable but the fact is that some are just way easier for the long-limbed - ‘binds’, for example (where you bind your arms around your legs such as in baddha parsvakonasana, the bound side angle) and likewise lunges with the hands on the floor. Nobody talks about the massive difference that body proportions make. I remember nearly 20 years ago, in a class in India, being told by the teacher that I’d be “very good at yoga”. As a relative newbie, I thought it a little odd; one of the only things I knew about yoga, or thought I did, was that it was non-competitive. So surely there could be no, 'good at yoga'.
loved how yoga made me feel; but I won’t lie, I was very attached to how yoga made me look.
But because he had planted the seed in my mind that, finally, this might be something I could be ‘good’ at (I’d been terrible at all team sports as a child) off I went, determined to get really ‘good’! By my mid-twenties working as a trainee lawyer, I was practising yoga for two hours every day. I would become way more stressed at the prospect of missing a lunchtime or evening practice than about my fledgling career. I was buoyed by the knowledge that my genes had given me long limbs and that without much effort, I could perform some of the more advanced postures without much flexibility or effort.
I loved how yoga made me feel; but I won’t lie, I was very attached to how yoga made me look. I enjoyed being the one at the front of the class slipping into the 'advanced' postures to everyone’s envy. Turning up for class, I’d place my mat at the front - all the better for everyone to notice me, my practice and my yoga body. Of course, the 25-year-old me would have certainly denied it, but yoga was a vehicle for my ego. I’m lucky that back in the day there was no Instagram and yoga wasn’t very well known, or my ego really would have grown to dizzy heights.
That was, until the day eight years ago when I was driving down the motorway in the early hours of the morning with my husband and was involved in a huge crash; the car rolled eight times and landed on the crash barrier. I suffered impact fractures - broken ribs, fractured vertebrae and a punctured lung. I was immobile for months and suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Over weeks and months of healing, of tears, of pain, I tentatively started to move. My every breath hurt. Lying still hurt. Breathing hurt. My back could no longer bend. So of course, I couldn’t ‘do’ yoga; I was broken. Funny that in all those years of practising - and even doing my yoga teacher training - I never got the memo that yoga was a healing practice for every body.
A year or so later, my husband left me very suddenly. I was left homeless and jobless and I had nothing of my former life. When the chips were down, I had no place else to go and eventually I returned to the yoga mat.
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Only then did I discover the real power of yoga. I was so deeply wounded, both physically from the crash and emotionally from the sudden break-up of my marriage, that almost all I could manage was to move very slowly and breathe deeply. But by slowing down, I could start to breathe deeply into my physical and emotional scars. When nothing else had worked, yoga was helping my body to repair gently, lovingly and my spirit very slowly started to revive.
This yoga felt like a brand new practice, a healing practice, a miraculous cure for getting through the trauma. My breath deepened in my scarred lungs. I practised diligently, slowly, daily, on my own. When I did finally return to class, I quietly and sheepishly stepped in, with trepidation placing my mat at the back of the room. Now, eight years after the crash, my body is stronger and more mobile but my relationship to it and to yoga is completely new. I don’t see yoga as a search for advanced ‘shapes’. Instead, it is an invaluable tool for dealing with the challenges that life throws at me. It is my friend, a way of quietening my mind through my body and gives me a feeling of returning home to my breath.
When teachers say to me, in time you’ll reach this or that pose, I get a little offended by their assumptions. Maybe I don’t get on the mat to achieve poses. Maybe I won’t ever achieve that pose, because I know that anything can happen. Maybe this day is the last day my body will achieve any yoga posture. For me, yoga is being here and now, not about a future attainment.
I have survived and thrived through near-death experiences, massive heartbreak. I have no need to show others what I’m capable of
I am very happy keeping to the more basic poses, but it's about breathing more deeply than ever in them, being more present than ever before and using yoga as a tool to still my mind. I no longer feel the urge to master any yoga poses at all. Yoga is now a refuge, a place where I don’t need to struggle or to master anything; it’s a quiet space of deep healing and self-care.
More than ever, I see that as we are in life, so we are on our mats. Now I approach all of life with much less of a struggle, I am more able to relax into how things are in the knowledge that some things I will never change. The things that I can change, I will change in my own way, in my own time.
I don’t necessarily want to have the same body that I had a decade ago. I have survived and thrived through near-death experiences, massive heartbreak and I have no need to show others what I’m capable of.
All I need is breath and so long as I am breathing , I am able to yoga. Yoga is, after all, a breath-led practice, every movement is initiated by the breath - a fact that went over the head of my younger self. I was so enchanted by poses, I didn’t really see the point of the deep yogic breaths. But it’s the breath, not just the shapes, that has the power to transform us. When we’re scared we hold our breath, then we sigh with relief. The breath is so intricately linked to our emotions that we can use it to heal our emotions and access a deeper experience.
Now, with my deep breath, I feel so much stronger than the gorgeous youngsters at the front of the class who are popping up into their scorpion handstands. I now know that ‘advanced’ yoga is not a shape, but a deep connection to breath and spirit.
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My deep respect for the healing and transformative power of yoga made me want to make everyone realise how good it can feel. Although I was a qualified yoga teacher and had taught classes, I knew that my work was in making these beautiful practices accessible to everybody. I started Movement for Modern Life , the UK’s first online yoga streaming company, in 2013. I am convinced that a home practice is where the real yoga starts, because at home you can move without any eyes on you and you can just focus on your own practice. So many people are unfortunately put off yoga by the young and slender yogi types, by the hipsters and the cool ones; so many people think it’s not for them. Many larger people, many men, or less exhibitionist types find classes intimidating because they don’t believe that they have a yoga body.
Living in the countryside, I know that the best teachers aren’t always readily accessible. Online yoga can bring the top teachers to everybody, whether you are recovering from illness, injury, emotional pain, or you just don't feel confident or able to go to classes.
We have classes on movementformodernlife.com which are searchable by the physical, but also by the emotional benefit you might be looking for. We have classes for recovering from heartbreak, dealing with grief, to help confidence, increase happiness, as well as classes to help you to sleep well or help with your stress. If you’re brand new, you could start with our 14-day Beginners' Challenge.
I now realise that the older, less mobile folks were never looking admiringly at 25-year-old me. They were maybe feeling slightly sorry for me, knowing that one day I might actually start to feel the yoga not just do the postures. I have regained my mobility thanks to yoga, but my practice is now a quieter, softer version of what it was; it is a loving hug to body and soul. But most of all, my slightly older and slightly broken body is finally a yoga body.
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