On our recent visit to The Elephant Freedom Project, to my great delight (but less so to Rich’s!) we were invited to join a local yoga class.
In true Sri Lankan style, we arrived late, to find the rest of the class already trying to reach their toes and giggling tremendously. Sandals splashed with mud from the rains were piled outside. It was a small white room, with bare hanging bulbs that midges already buzzed greedily around in clusters. The room was open at the back, like one huge balcony, and the night outside seemed pitch black.
Despite the lack of space, about twenty of us managed to squeeze in, ranging in age from maybe 6 all the way up to 50. Mats ranging in colour and materials were passed around, some tiny, some large, some wide, some thin, depending on the users preferences. Some people choose to use just the bare tile floor, while other lounged on cuts of faded carpets or even padded themselves out with pillows. The air was full of excitement, especially at the addition of two strangers to the class, and there was lots of whispering, poking, and yelping going on, especially between the younger students.
And so the class began. With no warning, and before we could even register what was happening, we were thrown into a volley of squats, sit ups, push ups, press ups, and crunches, enough to make a lizard break into a sweat.
After this, came the breathing. We clambered into various asanas and breathed deeply, holding poses for what felt like up to ten minutes at a time, and all the while the master would give tips in Singalese and in English, occasionally walking around the class and pushing a back straighter or an elbow in, and all the time ‘Relax, relax…’. It was less about making that perfect asana shape, and always more about breathing and relaxing.
And we would breath. Noisily, gasping, and whistling, or in loud hums that would make your eyeballs vibrate.
After this, came the balancing. On our tail bones, on our sides, on our shoulders, and on our heads. Needless to say, by the time we got to head stands there was a lot of huffing and puffing and shrieking and falling on top of each other going on. And all the time ‘Relax, relax…’ says the master, calmly and quietly, with his eyes closed, but a smile is in his cheeks. He’s full aware of the chaos that’s unfolding in his class around him, while he himself remains casually upside down on the bare tile floor.
We laugh. We sit in a circle, all facing in and make big belly laughs, slapping our thighs, and the floor, and each other on the back. When the noise fades away into satisfied sighs, all it takes is a tiny giggle from the smallest child, or a booming guffaw from the oldest man, and suddenly we are all rolling around in tummy clenching, cheek squeezing, hysterics once more.
By now, two hours have passed and it is late. We lie in savasana, our eyes closed, relaxing our minds and bodies. The master turns off the lights, revealing the fireflies flashing orange in the trees over the balcony. But Rich and I cannot relax, cursed by our genes to attract the midges and mosquitos, we are doomed to spend the next fifteen minutes, rather than relaxing, desperately brushing and slapping off the bugs, and trying not to be eaten alive. And always, ‘Relax, relax…’.
Finally, the meditation comes to an end, and the white lights pierce through the gentle darkness once more, and we sit up. Giggles spread through us like wildfire once more as we quickly realise that the majority of the younger kids have fallen asleep during the final savasana, and are now flat out on their backs, with their mouths hanging open, or snoring gently. One by one, the sleepers are either shaken or stir of their own accord, gradually opening their eyes or sitting up in shock, and the laughter redoubles as they too realise what has happened.
And the class is over. The master presents Rich and I with a book on Hatha yoga to take away with us.
And what else to take away from it?
Sometimes I feel that yoga can be taken too seriously, and treated too preciously. Don’t get me wrong, I think the world of yoga, and everything it has done and will and can do for me too. And I will always hold it high and proud in my life and speak of it with utmost respect. But making mistakes and being able to laugh about yoga is also a huge part of what I enjoy most about doing it.
I always invite my friends to join me in my practise, wanting to share the enjoyment I get from it, but many of my friends shy away from classes, fearing an elitist environment and their embarrassment of not being good enough for it. ‘But this is yoga!’ I try to tell them, ‘Not being good enough- what does that even mean?!’
So, a class like this, that may not be in a fancy studio, and may not have air conditioning and mood lighting, and doesn’t play Tibetan bells in the background, or overlook stunning mountain scenery. But a class like this that really feels like you are being invited into a family that accept you entirely as you are. For me, this is a reminder of how open to everyone yoga really is. Whatever age, background, occupation, body shape, or language! And yes, of course a fancy studio and mountain scenery is always lovely, but even more so yoga is a place for laughter and silliness.
So accept your own mishaps with giggles, invite kind smiles from your teachers, and everyone have a belly laugh.
Hope you’re all well.
Stay breezey 🙈