I like being good at things. More accurately, I hate being bad at things. It’s a quality that looks like a virtue, but really is not. Because while it means I enjoy the things I have an affinity or natural talent for, and work very hard to be even better at them—I tend to cut myself off from everything that doesn’t feel at once easy and pleasurable. Driving, doing my taxes, writing a novel, maintaining a good CTM routine, these are just a few on the growing scale of things I ended before I even really began, for the same reason. But the pattern has never been more manifest than when it came to fitness.
Last year, I turned 30 and that thing everybody always told me would happen (which I consistently ignored), happened: My body said enough. It was as if the years of eating and sleeping badly and always picking every available option over exercising, fused into this bulldozer of badness and levelled me completely. I oozed unhealthily out of clothes that fit me just months ago, my skin looked sallow, my body felt leaden and my immune system was like a dandelion in the wind. Being around people who seemed healthy and happy made me angry and depressed, and I experienced, first hand, that our times of round-the-clock productivity and high frequency happiness can be cruel to those who stumble.
So I decided to fix it. I did a full-body blood test, plugged the resulting vitamin D deficiency with supplements, and cajoled down my triglycerides by halving my meat intake and doubling my greens. It was the unanimous opinion of doctors, friends, family and meddlesome strangers that I needed to lose weight and thus began my search for a workout I could learn to love.
I didn’t have a good track record with exercise. I had previously enjoyed belly dancing but left when the instructor insisted on making me perform at the front. I never went back to the aggressive Zumba class that required us to—I want to say yodel?—encouragement at ourselves in the mirror. My short tryst with Pilates made me feel good only for moments after the sessions, but the extreme exertion of wobbling and collapsing from stressing my watery core during, eventually leached that feeling.
Then three months ago, I enrolled myself for Iyengar yoga at Mumbai’s Yogacara studio (Yogacara.in) led by Radhika Vachani. By this time, I was merely amusing myself with all the forms of exercise I could try and strike off the list. Iyengar Yoga emphasises precision and alignment over speed and intensity, and employs props like belts, bolsters and blocks so that nobody—not the stiff, not the old, nor the disabled—feels excluded from its many benefits. We were encouraged to be true to our bodies: pain, we were told, was not kosher, nor was fatigue. “If you’ve had a late night and feel tired, rest, don’t drag yourself to class,” Vachani said. What I heard was, don’t be scared or intimidated, take all the support and time you need and oh, your worries are not dumb.
I used ropes to lengthen my legs when they wouldn’t arch any further on their own. Soft blankets cushioned my shoulders as I lowered my feet over my head into the plow pose. Suspended from wall-hanging ropes, I was allowed to enjoy the rush of being fully inverted alongside the more experienced who performed headstands on their own two arms. It was as if I’d cheated my way to success, but respectably. Vachani simultaneously eased us into equal breathing (inhaling and exhaling for equal counts), a centering exercise I have slowly clawed my way into, one mindful second at a time.
Not being awful at it and managing to keep step as we gradually revved up the complexity, felt invigorating. My body had begun to respond too. I was steadier, more focused, and started to stretch deeper into the poses. For long, feeling the effort had been my biggest Achilles’ heel when it came to working out. But each week, I noticed that it took longer for me to feel strained and for fatigue to set in. In scientific terms, my AT or anaerobic threshold had improved—my muscles were getting better at clearing away the build up of lactic acid. Now falling off a pose didn’t frustrate me; I was able to give it its due attention i.e. only enough to fix it.
Then one day, in the middle of a tranquil wall-suspended inversion, I suddenly felt a groundswell of panic. I was convinced I was going to crash into the floor, my neck was going to break, I’d be forever paralysed, I had been foolish to think I was getting better, this had all been a big mistake; my body began to feel dangerously heavy and I wanted to come down at once. I shut my eyes tight and began equal breathing, but eventually cried out for Vachani to come help me out of there. I don’t think my terror was visible, but I was sweating ice. That was two weeks ago—two weeks of fielding dread, of finding reasons (all valid, all made up) to skip class, of talking myself into facing the ropes again. Tomorrow I go back. We’ll see.
How to equal-breathe
Vachani prescribes the daily meditative practice to help you get out of your own head.
Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position, lift your chest and draw your shoulders down.
Close your eyes and start to notice your natural breath for a few moments. Now, inhale slowly to the count of four, hold your breath, then slowly exhale for four counts. Increase counts (equally) as you develop concentration.
Practise equal breathing daily, especially before going to bed (“The quality of your sleep will improve almost immediately,” Vachani guarantees.)
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