Byron Bay

Life's a Stretch and Then You Fly

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Back in the 80s when I was still a city slicker, when work was my raison d'etre, and stilettos, silk stockings and shoulder pads my daily dress code, I had more money in the bank, but I also had hunched shoulders, tight hamstrings and very shallow breathing.

Physically, I barely inhabited my body, and my body, directly reflecting my stressed yet sedentary lifestyle (driving in peak traffic, telephoning and keyboarding 12 hours a day), was tightly compacted, crunched up and brittle as cellophane. In particular, RSI (repetitive strain injury) was my regular companion during those years of compulsive over-achieving.

On a holiday escape to Byron way back then, I yearned, as do many visitors to this region, for some new adventure or experience, some fresh perception of life, some altered modus operandi to open up to me.

Just as intensely I longed for some skilful adept to tie me to a therapeutic rack and stretch my taut and aching torso. In lieu of this unlikely remedy (even among the oddball and esoteric health notices in The Echo I did not spot anyone offering this service), I took myself off to a series of yoga classes. My aims and expectations then did not range beyond the simple wish for physical wellbeing.

In those initial classes, I discovered my body to be flawed and full of old injuries, hidden hurts, unexpected twangs and general resistance, yet it also turned out to be surprisingly responsive to and grateful for the variety of the asanas, the consciousness of the breathing, the attentiveness I applied to the postures. Yoga, I discovered, was cheaper than therapy and it sure gave your mind a rest from its usual obsessions. After three or four classes, I was hooked and have been practising regularly ever since.

Since moving to Byron in the early 90s, I've done yoga on the beach, in the garden; in masonic, CWA and scout halls; in empty office space, a wooden church, in private homes and garages, on verandahs and even in a brick shed

And through all those years and places of practice, it has come to mean more to me than physical rigour, realignment and relaxation. Yes, yoga has toned me and increased my flexibility. It has helped me to breathe more deeply, stand taller and feel more strength and solidity, from the inside out.

But just as significantly it has lifted my self-esteem, cultivated in me more patience and compassion for myself and others. Its graceful movements, its challenging and sometimes reverential postures have taught me where my edge is, and how to honour but not exceed that level of effort, how to work with my fears and pains instead of denying them, how to acknowledge and accept my limitations on any given day and how to surrender when that is an appropriate response.

Like meditation, yoga has induced a higher quotient of mental calm. It has facilitated new mindsets, encouraged me to be less goal-oriented, to desist from competing with and castigating myself for my achievements. Yoga has led me to realise that life, like asana practice, is not necessarily about attainments, but rather about how consciously one can work with one's own limits and recognise one's habits... Etcetera. I could go on.

But the point is, as Joel Kramer wrote in the Yoga Journal: "In physical yoga, the process of confronting and nudging the body's limits, blocks and conditionings opens and transforms you. So, too, as you get to know your mind, how it works and where your psychological limits are, the process opens the mind and literally expands consciousness."

Yoga need not be confined by secularism. As one American teacher put it, yoga can, with the appropriate approach, also stretch and strengthen your "spiritual muscles." Some of the great Indian teachers have proclaimed the interrelationship between particular poses and states of mind. As the Indian yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar put it: "My body is my altar, and my postures are the prayers."

And all this can be experienced in increments, over time for as little as $10 a session. It's much cheaper than psychotherapy and, as I say, it gives the mind a much needed rest.

More than a decade ago, when I began practising yoga, it was still regarded as somewhat "fringe". Classes were small -- six to eight people, mostly aged late thirties and older. Nowadays, yoga has become so mainstream and trendy that classes feature students aged from their early twenties to early seventies. In the quiet months of the year in this tourist town, the more popular class sizes feature 20-25 locals, while during Christmas-New Year, you¹d better arrive at least 15 minutes early if you hope to find a good mat space on the floor, for a big room can pack in about 40 people.

Long-time Byron Shire resident and yoga teacher Jen Norman began practising yoga 30 years ago. She has studied with yoga masters in India, passionately explored different yoga styles over the decades and, in recent years, has developed her own intuitive approach to teaching.

She sees much of the West¹s current fascination with yoga as a manifestation of our ongoing obsession with fitness and bodily perfection.

"Yoga is often misconstrued as a method to gain control of one's life," Jen observes. "Rather than seeking integration and wisdom, people are often attracted to obsessive, self-punishing (and sporadic) asana practice. A lot like the binge and vomit syndrome... "

I concur. At a dinner recently, I heard a woman admiringly describe her female yoga teacher of the day as having "the perfect yoga body." I knew the teacher in question, an attractive, twenty-something, ultra-slim, flat-stomached, long-limbed woman. In short, someone shaped like a Cosmopolitan cover model. To my way of thinking, there is no such thing as "the perfect yoga body," and indeed, some of the Eastern yoga gurus have stocky bodies, bodies with protruding bellies and uneven proportions, bodies most unlike the shapes idealised by Western culture.

According to Jen, yoga serves us when, instead of imposing our mental expectations and projections on the body, we learn to listen and adapt to the body's and heart's needs. She says: "When the energies are flowing freely, the physical body, the mind and the senses become vibrant. A quality of relaxation and balance extends into every aspect and activity in our lives, enabling us to embrace experience directly."

Through her classes, Jen aims to assist students to develop the practice of inner listening (meditative awareness) and the trust and courage to live their heart's truth.

These days, Byron Shire offers a virtual physical pharmacopoeia of yoga classes -- for beginners, for pre-natal, post-natal, pregnant or menopausal women; partnered yoga, remedial yoga for those suffering specific body injuries, ailments or maladjustments; yoga inversions, relaxing yoga, restorative yoga, hot and sweaty yoga, yoga with pilates, aqua yoga, yoga for older people, yoga for surfers, L.A. power yoga, advanced yoga, three-week intensives and yoga getaway weekends.

Among the yoga styles on offer are Iyengar, Astanga, Vinyasa flow, Bikram, Oki Do. Class times range from 6am through to 6pm, seven days a week.

Local aficionados will give you the drum on who offers what. They know which are the "yin" classes that still work the body very profoundly and which are the "yang" classes. The latter can be highly competitive and tough as boot camp, with teachers issuing instructions such as "push!" "come on!" and "hold it, hold it, hold it!". It's worth checking with locals, too, on which teachers have the most insightful, informative and inspiring class talk and which practice venue is the most aesthetically pleasing.

So next time you¹re in Byron, do a little local sleuthing, then carefully choose your own yogic medicine.

In the meantime, as we say at the end of our yoga classes, Namaste (an Indian greeting which means: the divinity in me salutes the divinity in you).

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