Time To Take Flight

Abha Iyengar

© Copyright 2003 by Abha Iyengar


Photo of a woman doing yoga.

Forty five years old and jumping.

I was overweight, and my bones were protesting. Sometimes my knees ached, sometimes my calves, sometimes the soles of my feet, and most times they all echoed the song of pain altogether.

I was jumping more out of pain than happiness. I was jumping because the aerobics class that I had joined required that I do so. As I threw my arms and legs in all directions and jumped to the hip-hop music being played at the Aerobics Centre which I had paid through my nose to join, I suddenly felt the blood rushing to my face, and collapsed in a helpless heap on the floor.

Lose weight? I’d most probably lose a limb first. This was definitely not for me. Teeny boppers with an image to maintain could benefit from these workouts, I needed something less jarring.

On my doctor’s advice, I switched over to walking. It was good for a while, but a sense of boredom began assailing me. I did not care for the mindless chatter of the other women in the mornings who insisted on joining me. I could not be rude and inform them that I preferred a solitary walk, alone with my thoughts. After a while, my legs began to ache, and my knees to buckle. Walking was also turning out to be too strenuous with the kind of weight I was carrying around. My doctor had urged me to change my diet, but I was finding it difficult to do so. I had tried to reduce my food intake, but not drastically, and it would take ages for me to shed the extra 20 pounds. I loved my chocolate chip cookies, my fresh baked croissants, and my black-currant ice cream. I ate these things whenever I felt lonely, angry, morose, helpless, and sometimes for no reason at all. Music was food for my thoughts, and food was, well, it was food for my body!

I was at my wit’s end. Nothing seemed to be suiting me, and I was finding it more and more depressing to move around-a body in constant pain. Very soon I’d need crutches, I thought, and sighed.

One such morning, when I forced myself to walk despite the admonitions of a totally demotivated self, my knees started hurting so much that tears came to my eyes and I sat down in the middle of the park. Some fellow walkers lifted me up and placed me on a bench, making me lie down. They gave me a few sips of water, and fanned my face. I felt a complete fool. I sat on the bench, nursing my knee and doleful thoughts, when my eyes fell on a group of people in the garden. They looked like plastic-elastic humans, bending and squeezing their bodies into awkward shapes.

The teacher, a slim man of forty, came up to me. The look on his face was one of calmness; of serenity. The weather was warm with the morning sun making its presence felt, but he looked cool in his white muslin kurta pajama. His age was close to mine, but he looked years younger. Life was unfair, I thought, even more upset than before.

His voice was gentle but his gaze penetrating. “What ails you?” he asked quietly, his words a whisper in the air. 

 Being a writer, I noticed his old-fashioned words first. I pointed ruefully at my knee. As if he could do something about it. My pointed chin jutted out at him, challenging him to take my case.
He was unmoved. I guess I did not look intimidating enough because of the pain in my eyes.

“Why don’t you join our class?” he offered. ”It’s free.” 

That of course was a bonus, but how would contortions help my body? 

“What do you teach?” I asked warily. 

“This is Yoga,” he said,” I’ll lead you gently through the exercises. You won’t do anything which will exaggerate your knee problem, I’ll ensure that. Come when you feel better. Classes are held at 5 a.m. everyday.”

He was definite that I would join.

After resting my knee for a couple of days, and the use of ointments and hot water bottles, I was able to move around once again. The pain persisted. Surgery seemed to be the only answer. As a last ditch effort, I decided to join the yoga class.

Totally apprehensive, I arrived early next morning at the park. Other yoga enthusiasts there assured me that it had done a world of good to them. Yoga not only helped one lose weight, it cured high blood pressure, asthma, backache, migraines, and …the list was endless. It was not a magic drug, however, and needed time and patience. I said I could exercise that, as long as I did not have to lie on an operating table soon. They gave me reassuring pats on my back, but I was not convinced.

My teacher arrived and asked me to sit in any comfortable position and watch. I had brought along a cotton mat, and I sat on that with my legs stretched out in front of me since bending them was painful. Silently, I observed what was going on. The group was small, and he paid attention to each individual. At the beginning of each exercise, he stated how the exercise was contraindicated in the case of people suffering from certain ailments, and they should not do it. He also said how the exercise helped certain problems. For example, forward bending exercises of any sort were ruled out for people with cervical problems. The group did the exercises, or ’asanas’, as I later found they were called, and each individual‘s progress was different. The idea was to progress slowly and surely, and not strain oneself in any way. The classes began with warm-ups, then the ‘asanas’ and ended with meditations and prayer. They lasted for exactly an hour.

The next day, assured that I would not break a joint here, I joined the class. I began by doing the warm -ups, and some special exercises for the knee. Everything was slow and gently paced. It was difficult, and I felt that I would never be able to get anywhere, but I persisted. At least I did not have to walk, or jump. Everything was to do with breathing, stretching, relaxing.

After a week of unsuccessful attempts at trying to do at least part of some of the ‘asanas’, I was ready to give up. 

My teacher saw the look on my face. He came and sat down next to me, his legs crossed in the lotus pose effortlessly. It seemed to highlight my ineptitude more. I would never be able to do this.

“Please don’t lose heart,” he said. “Do you remember how you used to sit the way I’m sitting (he pointed at his lotus position) when you were ten years old, without giving it a thought?” 

I nodded.  

“Now even thinking about it is agony.” 

I nodded again. 

“Your legs and arms have forgotten how to move. There is a lot of garbage collecting in your joints, which has not been cleared for years. The flow of movement has been blocked. Only through regular effort, in infinitesimal doses, can you clear the debris. Now, it’s up to you. There is only one thing you must always keep in mind, ’you are your own creator’. Start afresh.”

He placed his hand on my arm reassuringly. I felt his energy transferring itself to me.
Tears came to my eyes. 

“I’ll try,’ I said, shamefacedly. I wasn’t so sure though of how much debris I would clear.

I felt my body was a cranky old machine, which with any extra effort would lose whatever few nuts and bolts kept it together. These nuts and bolts literally flew in all directions when I tried to do any kind of exercise, and I had a tough time collecting them and fixing them back in place. If I lost them all through more attempts at exercise, then I would lie like junk in one corner, unattended and ignored. This was a fear I lived with, day in and day out.

The next day I missed class. I was trying to come to terms with the effort I was required to put in. When I attended class the following morning, my Guru met me with a smile. He did not chide me for missing a class. My appearance there told him, not in so many words, that I had come to stay. The day was bright and clear, and the air smelt of fresh flowers and the dew of yesterday.

For the first few months, I found it difficult to keep my hands raised and touching the sides of my head. I could not sit with my bottom touching my ankles. Every time I turned slowly from the waist to one side and then the other, I felt my bones pain and protest. If I tried touching my toes, I just managed to touch my knees. I would break out in sweat, even though I was not going beyond a certain point. Anyone who has a body which has only enjoyed the comforts of a car ride to work, a chair and table at work, and a lounging sofa at home, with no form of excessive exertion for twenty years, will know what I am talking about. We seem to forget the joys of running, moving, and jumping as we grow older. The mind stagnates as well, limiting itself to the work grind and home affairs.

So I was a typical case of creaking bones, disused muscles, and a static mind-state.

Yoga is not pure exercise as we know it in the contemporary world. It is a union of the mind and body, based on the fact that the body and mind are not two different entities but have to be considered in tandem. Though I began yoga only with relief from pain in mind, I found that it slowly brought about a complete change in my lifestyle. My job involves long hours before a computer. At home, I stand for hours in the kitchen, cooking, cleaning, cutting, baking. Then I flop down in front of the television with a remote in hand, mindlessly hogging chips and flipping channels for entertainment. I lead a modern, contemporary life, complete with gadgets and machines and the junk food of the technological age.

Yoga slowly weaned me away from all this. Since I had to keep my stomach empty for a couple of hours before and after yoga, I had to restrain the mindless chomping that I did as I sat in front of the computer. I gave up on endless cups of tea, and had milk instead to strengthen my bones. Fresh fruits became a part of my diet. I reduced my standing for long hours in the kitchen, and brought a stool to sit on. If you wonder how this relates to yoga, it was just that I began answering my problems in a more detached fashion, looking for answers and not cursing the status quo. I was meditating too, and I found this part of the session very relaxing. A powerful change was taking place within me. By concentrating on a “bindu” (point), and meditating, by deep breathing, by getting rid of toxins in the body through drinking lots of water, I found my insides feeling cleaner. It seems strange to try and define it, but I actually felt the freshness in the breath which I took in deep, going right down to my navel, and then exhaled out.

I began loving my body after a long time, and it began to symbolize a temple instead of a waste bin.

There have been periods when I have wanted to go to a kitty party instead of my yoga class. Or continue with my writing instead of getting up to take my yoga mat and move. It is easy to let things slide. But then I think of the excruciating pain that made it difficult for me to walk some time back, and I leave my mouse and the rat race to become ‘the cat’. Yes, I am almost feline in my suppleness now and move with renewed grace. No more hobbling like a grey haired maid.

The other day, two teenagers were walking behind me in the housing complex where I stay. I was walking out of the gate to fetch some groceries. 

“Have you seen this Auntie, Anita? She has really changed,” I heard one of them whispering. 

 “Yes, she looks so smart now, doesn’t she?” the other one said. 

I purred with pleasure, and shook my new punk haircut into place. It went with my new found felinity, sorry, femininity! The grocery man did not know why I told him to keep the change, but thanked me in the traditional way, his hand on his heart to show his respect. Life was good.

It took me two years to lose my weight. I still have a long way to go. However, the aches and pains have almost disappeared, and I feel more energized and active. The yoga classes have been a godsend for me.

I’m forty seven now and still jumping with the joy in my soul and the freedom of my spirit, the fluid suppleness of my limbs and the pain free life which I have begun to lead. These are not the jumps of a young kangaroo, mind you, but the gentle flights of a mature body.

Remember this, all you jaded creatures of the 21st century, “You are your own creator!” and join me in my next yoga class. Or do your own thing, but don’t lose heart.

May the Sun God lead you from darkness to light, as he did me. Om, shanti!

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