THE 6-WEEK YOGI

Greg Bruce‘ s wife is a yoga teacher. She thinks him tak­ing it up will change his life. Is she right?

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Greg Bruce’s wife is a yoga teacher. She thinks him tak­ing it up will change his life. Is she right?

The first thing I no­ticed was the qual­ity of the in­struc­tions: I was told to soften my fore­head, chin and eye­balls, to al­low my teeth and lips to part slightly, and to al­low my tongue to curl up and soften at the root. I had to lengthen my pu­bis. I didn’t know how to lengthen my pu­bis. I didn’t re­ally know what my pu­bis was and I still don’t.

The teach­ers’ in­volve­ment was high and of­ten phys­i­cal. They would come around and ad­just the po­si­tion of my back or legs or the sides of my but­tocks. I didn’t re­alise that there would be so much per­sonal work, so at my early classes, I still had my win­ter toe­nails. “That’s dis­gust­ing,” my wife said when she saw them.

The in­struc­tions, the ad­vice and the ad­just­ments were some­times clar­i­fy­ing, some­times con­fus­ing, of­ten over­whelm­ing. At their best, and this is prob­a­bly the point, they of­fered me a new level of ac­cess to, and un­der­stand­ing of, my body. Th­ese were things I had never ex­pe­ri­enced in re­gard to my body.

One of the teach­ers, Jude, who with hus­band Peter owns Auck­land Yoga Academy, where I prac­tised, once gave the in­cred­i­ble in­struc­tion, “Push down through the fleshy mound be­tween your thumb and your wrist.” It was an in­struc­tion that could be en­joyed not just as guid­ance, but as po­etry.

I un­der­stood some things about yoga, or I thought I did. My wife is a yoga teacher. For most of the six years since we met she has wanted me to do yoga and, for at least that long, I have been am­biva­lent. It’s not that I’ve been re­sis­tant to the idea but I have long thought that if a form of ex­er­cise wasn’t go­ing to make my chest look like a cou­ple of half burger buns on a chop­ping board, there wasn’t much point.

But as we get older and start to think dif­fer­ently about life, it is only right and good that we start look­ing for dif­fer­ent things from our ex­er­cise regimes.

I WAS ner­vous, ex­ces­sively ner­vous, un­healthily ner­vous. I would ar­rive at work in the morn­ing and think too much about yoga, watch­ing the clock edge ever closer to­wards 12.05pm.

The nerves were about fear and the fear was about judge­ment. “Will I do it right?” I thought too much. I didn’t want teach­ers to feel like they al­ways had to be putting their hands on the side of my but­tocks, I didn’t want them to be cor­rect­ing my shabby poses in front of the class all the time.

The guy who usu­ally sat op­po­site me was buff as hell and could do full hand­stands. I hated how he re­flected back at me an in­fe­rior ver­sion of my­self.

Af­ter one of my early classes, I told Jude I was con­scious of try­ing to be right all the time. She told me that so­ci­ety, from the time we first start school, er­ro­neously teaches us the im­por­tance of try­ing to be right.

Of course, this was some­thing I knew al­ready. Yoga is about the process, the do­ing, the be­ing. It’s called a prac­tice for a rea­son: phrases like th­ese feel well-worn and fa­mil­iar to me be­cause, I as­sume, my wife has spouted them at me for years, the back­ground mu­sic of my life.

The the­ory was fa­mil­iar, then, but the­ory doesn’t count for much in yoga, where the body and its mus­cles are the pri­mary seats of learn­ing.

Jude said some­thing like: “The body tells the mind, then the mind learns.”

This felt true. Rather than al­ways think­ing our way to so­lu­tions, maybe we should be act­ing our way to­ward them.

IN THE men’s chang­ing room at Auck­land Yoga Academy, af­ter my fifth yoga class, I looked at my­self in the full-length mir­ror, with my shirt off, and saw a dif­fer­ent ver­sion of my­self than the one I was ac­cus­tomed to.

Maybe it was a trick of the light or it maybe it was a yoga-in­duced boost in my self-re­gard. “I’ve got the V,” I told my wife that night. “You don’t have the V, honey,” she replied. As time went on, I be­came in­creas­ingly aware that my aware­ness of my own body was deeply mis­in­formed in more ways than one.

In class, we were of­ten given in­struc­tions as sim­ple as mak­ing sure that our feet were hip­width apart or that our shoul­ders were stacked over hands and our hips stacked over heels.

“Do you know that your head tilts to one side?” a teacher asked me af­ter one class. I didn’t.

I wres­tled with this sort of stuff, and raged

‘I’ve got the V,’ I told my wife that night.’ You don’t have the V, honey,’ she replied. As time went on, I be­came in­creas­ingly aware that my aware­ness of my own body was deeply mis­in­formed in more ways than one.

against my in­abil­ity to un­der­stand my body, where it sits in space and how it moves. There was some­times great vi­o­lence in my mind to­wards my teach­ers’ in­struc­tions.

A COU­PLE of weeks af­ter start­ing yoga, I had a par­tic­u­larly busy morn­ing at work. I had de­cided not to go to yoga, but an hour be­fore my class, I thought, “I have to go. To not go would ac­tu­ally be a big­ger waste of my time.”

I fig­ured this was an im­por­tant thought, maybe even a break­through. It was about re­fus­ing to be buf­feted by the never-end­ing crises of life and in­stead stand­ing back to look at what’s re­ally im­por­tant.

Later, at my desk, I looked at the clock and saw it was 12.04pm. I had just al­lowed time to drift by while I sat at my desk, un­til it was in­evitable I would stay there all day. It wasn’t that dif­fi­cult. It was ac­tu­ally quite de­light­ful.

On Satur­day, my chil­dren both went to sleep in the early af­ter­noon, which is some­thing that doesn’t of­ten hap­pen, and I asked my wife to put on a video yoga class for me from the web­site she sub­scribes to.

The class she chose was called some­thing like “Feel good in your body”. It was quite dif­fer­ent from the yoga I had been do­ing at Yoga Academy. It was phys­i­cally quite chal­leng­ing and de­manded a near-in­fi­nite num­ber of down­ward dogs.

Still, I found it quite en­joy­able how I could see and judge them all but they couldn’t do the same to me. Ide­ally, this is the way I would live my life.

“WHY DO you never re­ply when I ask how yoga was?” Zanna wrote in a text mes­sage to me af­ter my ses­sion one day.

“I guess I don’t want to dis­ap­point you with the news that it hasn’t changed my life,” I replied. “Not yet,” she wrote. “Not yet.” Three weeks in, I went to a class that re­quired a pose of rel­a­tive sim­plic­ity but un­speak­able dif­fi­culty.

Do­ing it is the thing. Spend­ing time with your­self and your body and learn­ing how your body works. ZANNA GILLE­SPIE

I sat on the floor, back straight, legs spread wide and held a block be­tween my hands, over my head, then had to turn to the side and lean over slightly. My arms shook; I sweated pro­fusely, ev­ery part of my body fought against the main­te­nance of the pose.

When I came out of the class and turned my phone on, there was the usual mes­sage from Zanna. It never var­ied. Did she just cut and paste? I couldn’t be sure. “How was yoga?” she wrote. “Hard!” I replied. “Too hard! I quit!” “And what was your mind do­ing?” she wrote back. “Could you si­lence the chit­ter-chat­ter and fo­cus on the chal­lenge at hand?”

To ad­mit that I couldn’t would have been to in­vite a re­sponse like: “Yoga is not about achieve­ment; it’s about un­der­stand­ing and learn­ing how to be” so I ig­nored her.

I was just days away from turn­ing 40.

FOR MY birth­day, Zanna took me to Wai­heke, where we stayed in a lovely cot­tage with a view across the Hau­raki Gulf to Marae­tai. We left our two chil­dren with their grand­par­ents, much to ev­ery­body’s ter­ror.

On the first night, Zanna and I talked about yoga and I told her I had dif­fi­culty get­ting into a fairly ba­sic re­lax­ation pose, where you lie on your back with your legs up the wall.

She helped me into the po­si­tion against the wall of the cot­tage’s lounge and said, “Can you feel that in your quads?” “I can feel it in my calves,” I said. “Your calves?” she asked, doubt­fully. “Yes, my calves,” I said, tetchily. “Are they stretch­ing or are they work­ing?” An­noyed by the ques­tion. I said, “I don’t know! What’s the dif­fer­ence? They’re sore!”

“Do you know what mus­cles do?” she said, in a very pa­tro­n­is­ing tone. “We’re go­ing to have to go right back to ba­sics.”

I told her I was go­ing to put this ex­change in this ar­ti­cle. “You can’t put that in the ar­ti­cle, honey,” she said. “Peo­ple will think you’re a com­plete id­iot.” MY WIFE

is the most cen­tred, grounded, con­tent per­son I have ever met. Th­ese are qual­i­ties I have long been in search of for my­self.

On our sec­ond day on Wai­heke, we did a yoga class to­gether from the web­site she sub­scribes to. It was called “Here Comes the Sun”, which was also the name of the song to which we did our wed­ding dance.

We set up mats along­side each other and were only sec­onds into the class when Zanna turned to me and said, “It makes me so happy that we’re do­ing yoga to­gether.”

It was eas­ily the hard­est yoga class I’d ever done. In my reg­u­lar yoga classes, time felt com­pressed — 50 min­utes felt like five. I would en­ter the clas­sic flow state: chal­lenged, my fac­ul­ties fully en­gaged, my ca­pa­bil­i­ties not ex­ceeded. By con­trast, this class felt eter­nal. It

was phys­i­cal and vig­or­ous in a way I had not been pre­pared for.

“Why did you choose the world’s hard­est yoga class?” I asked Zanna half­way through. “Sorry,” she said. I was sore when we fin­ished, re­ally sore, but I thought I dealt with it well, keep­ing my re­sis­tance in check, re­main­ing fo­cused, liv­ing with the dis­com­fort, do­ing my best to si­lence the chit­ter-chat­ter in my mind.

“Do­ing it is the thing,” she said, “spend­ing time with your­self and your body and learn­ing how your body works.” “So it’s about al­ways im­prov­ing?” I asked. “Yep,” she said. “It’s about al­ways striv­ing but never ar­riv­ing,” I said.

“Or, like the other old cliche,” she said, “yoga is about the jour­ney.” “My one wasn’t a cliche,” I said. “No, it wasn’t,” she said. Two nights later, at my birth­day party, we were telling a friend about the yoga we did to­gether on Wai­heke. “How did it go?” she asked. “He was quite an­gry,” Zanna said.

ONE MORN­ING, be­fore class — not at all re­lated to yoga, although of course ev­ery­thing is re­lated to yoga — I wrote the line: “Chil­dren de­stroy you. They break you down so you can build back up.”

Af­ter our first daugh­ter was born, I used to rage in­ter­nally against the im­po­si­tion on my life. I could no longer find enough time to read, to sleep, to lis­ten to the ra­dio, to read the pa­per on Satur­day morn­ings, to watch ma­jor sport­ing events.

Slowly, over the three and a half years of her life, and the 18 months of her younger sis­ter’s life, that re­sis­tance has been bro­ken down and life has be­come a new thing, with a new shape. How far along I am in that process, I don’t know, but I do know it’s a process.

At the end of my 14th yoga class, dur­ing the five min­utes of savasana, or re­lax­ation, while I was ly­ing flat on my back in that lovely room, a bol­ster un­der my knees and a blan­ket pil­low un­der my head, feeling my sore mus­cles con­geal and jel­lify, I thought: “Yoga is all about get­ting things wrong. Teach­ers are for­ever com­ing around and fix­ing you. You get fixed, you get fixed, you get fixed. You never stop get­ting fixed; you are never fixed.”

A yoga ses­sion, re­duced to its ba­sic el­e­ments, is just pe­ri­ods of great ef­fort, punc­tu­ated by pe­ri­ods of rest: strain, rest, strain, then fi­nally savasana, the long, fi­nal rest.

Dur­ing savasana that day, He­len said, “Breathe out all the strain: emo­tional, phys­i­cal …”

As Zanna likes to say, “Yoga is life.”

MY LAST yoga class was on the day of my work Christ­mas party. I didn’t re­ally want to go to the party be­cause I knew there would be loud mu­sic and lots of peo­ple yelling things I wouldn’t be able to hear.

I liked this kind of thing once, but I think that was mostly just as a way of de­lay­ing, even if just for the even­ing, the on­set of ex­is­ten­tial dread.

I had a cou­ple of drinks, half-en­gaged in a cou­ple of yelled con­ver­sa­tions, wan­dered through the mass of peo­ple, then found my­self by the exit, think­ing, “It’s still day­light, I could get on the train and be home, semi-sober, to my fam­ily, by din­ner­time.”

Then I thought about all the yoga I had done over the pre­vi­ous cou­ple of months, and about the op­por­tu­nity that had been pre­sented to me to put into prac­tice what I had learned about be­ing com­fort­able with dis­com­fort.

I walked back in­side, into the puls­ing boom of the mu­sic, went once around the room, among the steadily ine­bri­at­ing bod­ies, then I walked back out the door and went home.

PIC­TURES / DEAN PUR­CELL

In­struc­tor Jude Hynes puts Greg Bruce through his paces at the Auck­land Yoga Academy.

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