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