“Get up off the mat,” the saying goes. “I get knocked down, but I get up again,” goes the song. Well, for what it’s worth, here’s my advice: get up when you’re ready, get up when it suits you, and get up slowly. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, particularly in relation to yoga but also in relation to life in general, and it seems to me that there are three significant elements to getting up off the mat or achieving anything worthwhile: patience, focus and repetition. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you can probably get along fine for quite a while without the focus part, because patience and repetition by themselves can work wonders.
Almost two years ago I started studying yoga. My stress levels were so high that I was worried about becoming a heart attack/stroke candidate and I realised SOMETHING had to be done, fast. It turns out I was wrong about the fast bit. I signed up for a yoga teacher training course thinking I could knock it over in a couple of months. I conveniently forgot that I hadn’t done yoga seriously for ages and that I’d spent way too many years sitting down in front of a computer. I very soon found out that I’d lost a fair bit of flexibility and, more to the point, a huge amount of confidence.
I fell over in standing poses. My body hurt everywhere. I cried whenever I did any kind of open-hearted pose. My back was so sore that I had to hold on to a chair to get down to the floor and then I wondered if I’d be able to get up again. I got really frustrated and angry with myself. I compared myself to other people and despaired of ever being good enough or any good at all. Eventually I had to make a choice: quit or surrender and accept that I could only do certain things. I chose to be patient.
A friend bought me a book called Serenity Yin Yoga, by Magdalena Mecweld. The book itself is a thing of beauty but the type of yoga in it—yin yoga—changed everything. Magdalena describes yin yoga as “unbearably nice or nicely unbearable” and she’s spot on. You do all the poses on the floor, you hold them for three to five minutes and you don’t have to get up off the mat. At first, in some poses, you think you’ll never be able to make it to one minute, let alone three or five, but you can and you do. It involves cushions and bolsters and just learning to relax.
I bought the app. That might seem like no big deal to you, but until then I wasn’t an app person and this app made me see the point of apps! It was the best 10 bucks I ever spent. When I was working away from home, sleeping in the office and in hotels, I always took the time to do some yin yoga, with Magdalena’s lilting Swedish voice laughingly reminding me: “You’re going to be in this position for just a few minutes, not your whole life,” and “Is there any tension left? Can you let go of it?”
I did mainly yin yoga for a year and a half. It was pretty much all I could do. I just couldn’t get up off the mat. I repeated the poses over and over. I gave up any idea of teaching traditional yoga but I learned what yoga really was: a discipline with so many more benefits than I could ever have imagined. It’s not about being super-flexible and wearing lycra and wowing people with your backbends. It’s not about other people at all. It’s about you, about observing yourself, about getting to know your mind and your body and accepting them, whatever state they’re in.
The patience and repetition paid off. Just recently I started doing yoga standing up and found I had muscle strength and flexibility and confidence. I tried advanced arm balances and almost achieved some of them. I laughed when I fell over. I seek out open-hearted poses now because I love them. I’ve always hated salute to the sodding sun but now I do it regularly and have a grudging respect for it. I’ll probably never look graceful doing it, but I admit that it’s a complete exercise for all parts of the body and I’m willing to keep doing it just to see what happens.
And here’s where the focus part comes in. It seems to me that, if you’re patient and keep practising over and over and over again, eventually your focus turns to what you’re doing and you let go of all the other distractions. You give it your full attention. You become fascinated by the possibilities. You enjoy what used to be a chore. You delight in small things and see them for the huge achievements that they really are.
I’ve been talking about yoga here, but obviously this applies to anything, to everything. Practise a little patience. Follow it up with truckloads of repetition and smile to yourself when focus turns up. Because that’s when things get really interesting.