I am so tired. My body aches in strange new places. Under my shoulder blades. Inside my thighs. There is a seam of muscle I have never seen before along my right forearm, taught as I grip a pen in my right hand.
I am trying to remember the names of three labelled muscles in a medical diagram of the hamstrings. Across the table from me, a girl my exact mirror – down to our unplanned matching outfit of grey marl leggings and an oversized hoody (more on that another time) – is trying to name three quadricep muscles.
The exam invigilator announces that there’s 20 minutes to go, just as I decide that it’s not so much a case of not being able to name the hamstrings as it is a case of never having known them in the first place. I stop thinking about the hamstrings. I start wondering, is this yoga?
It is halfway through our yoga teacher training course. We are sitting our mid-term exam. We have just ticked off week five of the 10 week course – with lectures all day every Saturday and Sunday, plus an intensive week of classes for weeks one and 10. We take class every day. Combine all this with two part-time jobs and, at this point, I have not taken a day off in five weeks. I am so tired. And I am one of the lucky ones, with no kids or elderly parents to care for after class and no washing, cooking or emotional outbursts to deal with but my own. We are all, all 18 of us on the course, so tired. We have bonded over how tired we are. We compete to consume coffee and clock up our required number of classes.
In every class, every workshop, every posture and dialogue clinic recently I’ve been unable but to wonder, is this yoga?
In last weekend’s handstand workshop taught by a world-champion gymnast, as I concentrated on wrapping my shoulders, activating my serratus anterior, placing my hands at the right angle, activating my latissimus dorsi, and kicking up – over, and over, and over again, thwarted by some deep part of my brain which has convinced my hips that handstands are not safe, I wondered – is this yoga? We’ve been in the room three hours and the sweat is pouring down my face, but I haven’t thought about a single breath I’ve taken. Sure, I’m focused on my alignment but I was also thinking about my alignment during my driving test eight years ago and that was definitely not yoga.
My question gets more complicated when I consider that actually, we’ve spent lots of time definitely doing yoga. Every day we practice the Bikram series or a complementary hot yoga practice at our studio. That’s definitely yoga. I can tell because of the special, glowing kind of exhausting it is.
We spent two weekends studying with Forrest yoga guardians, specialists in Ana Forrest’s physically and spiritually intense practice. That was breath and movement, energy fields and a lot of time spent in goddess pose. Definitely yoga.
We’ve practiced with two ex-Bikram yoga champions who have rebelled with their own, unique brand of beautiful, flowing vinyasa. Breath heavy, with strong movements and an almost tai-chi influence, that was definitely yoga.
So when it’s definitely yoga, the question I’m asking is more complicated. Is this my kind of yoga? Should I have a ‘type’? Is it the same as when you visit a bar with somebody new and you tell them that no, you absolutely never drink cocktails with rum in them. And then maybe throw in that you never practice jivamukti or ashtanga or yin or rocket or hot or vinyasa or…?
Does my kind of yoga have to have handstands? I hope not. Does it need to work with the breath, or with the energy or with the physicality, or with the heat? Am I the kind of practitioner who only takes classes, or who never takes classes?
I still don’t know the answer, but I think there’s only one way to find out and that is to keep going. Each weekend is another chance to try something new, or do something old with more awareness. To think about breathing or just being. Or being upside down. The more we do, the more tired we become, but the closer we are to working out what we want. Maybe I’ll never know the names of the hamstring muscles, maybe I’ll never do a handstand and maybe I’ll never need to.