I Hate Yoga: A Diary.

A version of this essay was originally published in Womankind Magazine (Issue 20, May 2019). The full essay is published here. Writers were invited by Womankind to complete five days of daily yoga practice and record a diary of their experience.

Day 1: I hate yoga.

Yoga conjures in me such a visceral reaction that Womankind’s challenge intrigued me: could I find out what lay behind this anger?

After some gnashing of teeth, petulance and prevarication, I haul myself onto the floor and follow a yoga flow practice sourced from the internet. My Labrador’s fur, until now seemingly irrevocably embedded in the carpet, suddenly coats every inch of me and is distracting my inner calm as it travels into my nose, eyes and mouth. I’m frustrated, annoyed, uncomfortable and bored. Every joint is crying. I hate yoga.

 

Day 2: “You should be doing yoga.”

In this phrase lies the probable cause for my yoga rage. For over ten years I have been managing an aggressive, incurable form of auto-immune arthritis. I have tried yoga a few times over the years (and yes, tried properly by practicing a few times per week for months at a time). I have tried everything you could possibly suggest to me. And I have found what management techniques work best for me – medication, reduced work hours, diet adjustments and running. But still, yoga is the ‘silver bullet’ most frequently, didactically and condescendingly pressed upon me as something I “should” be doing. And, because I’m stubborn and contrarian, this guarantees I won’t do yoga.

Except today, because I said I’d do this challenge. I roll around, begrudgingly. And I notice, begrudgingly, that my tight muscles and painful joints breathe a little easier afterwards.

 

Day 3: My arthritis pain is bad today and I’m nursing interior emotions that are jangled, broken and delicate. The last thing I want to do is be present in my body and risk feeling this pain more. I also can’t control my brain’s wanderings. Today’s yoga session leaves me disjointed and anxious, so much so that I go for a run to recalibrate myself.

The only time I find stillness is when I can drown my thoughts in music accompanied by the rhythm of my footfalls, when I exhaust my body so much that I can only focus on forward movement. Emotional and physical pain wait for me when I am invited to be present in my body so existing in a state of distraction and abstraction is my solution. I am scared by what yoga might ask me to find.

 

Day 4: Today, yoga continues to ask me to do things that I find almost impossible. Not physically, but intellectually. When my teacher gives an option for a stronger pose, I take it. I shouldn’t. I have to fight my own competitiveness, my own desire to be top of the class, and acknowledge that the softer, gentler option is what I need today (and maybe far more often than I allow).

I’m observing the women – for they are all women – who are apparently finding bliss here, while I can’t. We are all white. I am troubled by the appropriation of yoga into something very white and very privileged and very bound up in consumerism and exclusion. I am repelled by how some people portray yoga in social media: faux-spiritual, indulgent, costumed, performed. As a disabled person, I notice how inaccessible the spaces and practices of yoga can be. I see this yoga as very disconnected from its history, culture and intent and I want to see more white Western practitioners engage thoughtfully with this and differentiate themselves from a type of yoga that has become branded and exclusionary.

But I also know, truthfully, that my ego is bruised. I feel as though I’ve tried to part of a clique and I’ve been rejected. When people give themselves over to yoga, when it becomes such a core part of them, I find myself wondering what it is that they’re craving. Why do they get it and I don’t? Is it me that’s missing something? Or them? Or yoga?

 

Day 5: I don’t like to admit this, but today I find myself creating moments of yoga-esque movement and groundedness. I’m moving into my joints: slowly, gently, waking them up with tenderness. I’m noticing when my heart races and my chest is filled with fluttering birds and I drink in deep breaths and feel safety and lightness return. I clamber down onto the floor and end up lying still, able – for once – to hear my body’s call to move only as much as it takes for my steady breath to gently touch each swollen joint.

It is not for me to determine the nomenclature with which this should be labelled. It doesn’t need to be. It’s just intuitive rolling around; a time to find stillness and listen to – rather than escape from – myself. For me, there will be no #dailypractice, but I will try to keep treating my body and mind with the gentleness I’ve found in these past few days. Maybe then I can

My Super Mum and Her Super Foods

I am nearly 30 and my mother still cuts my fruit up for me. In this sentence is everything you need to know about our relationship. Indeed, it’s only twelve years since I discovered that mandarins came with pips in them. Mum used to carefully remove them before placing the fruit on the table. It wasn’t until I moved out of home that I discovered the horrible truth that I would have to extract my own mandarin seeds. That’s the first piece of background you’ll need today.

The second thing is that I am extremely petulant. When I’m told in hyperbolic extortions that I MUST watch [insert popular TV show here – yesterday it was The Wire] I instinctively reject the entire show (whilst simultaneously being so evangelical in my need to get everyone to watch Outlander that only my gender and lack of tie distinguishes me from Mormon proselytisers). My ego is so fragile that I want the discovery for myself, and the knowledge that my taste is a little outside the norm.

So combine extraordinary maternal devotion and a daughter’s petulance and you might go some way to understanding why I am nearly 30 and having regular arguments with my mother about not wanting to try new foods.

You see, my mother is on a quest to single-handedly cure my auto-immune disease. Growing up, our family debates demanded you brought peer-reviewed sources to accompany your statements. “I heard on morning television” would earn a red card straight away. Yet, when it comes to miracle foods, my mother – through a fog of love and hope – will take a punt on the word of everything from New Idea to New Scientist.

The foods I might have been happily eating one moment will become ruined the second I am told about their designation as a super food. That’s when I turn into a toddler.

Every couple of months, a whisper of incredible results! pain gone! cured! thanks to eating certain foods will reach my mother’s ears. From there, it is a very short trip to my fridge. It starts with carefully clipped columns earnestly pressed into my hands. Then starts the “you should eat…”, then little parcels mysteriously appear in my fridge.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of food that has elbowed its way into my fridge:

  • purple vegetables
  • apple cider vinegar
  • raw honey
  • kimchi
  • blueberries
  • kale
  • yoghurt
  • turmeric
  • ginger
  • fish oil (not capsules – which aren’t powerful enough, apparently – but oil that I was to drink which had lime flavouring that couldn’t possibly outstrip the horrible oily fish taste so just left the most vomit-inducing strong, acidic fish taste. And swallowing oil is awful)

Kimchi was my favourite.

Mum: I’ve just read about how wonderful kimchi is for inflammatory conditions

Naomi: yes, that’s because it’s a fermented vegetable and like sauerkraut (which I eat a lot of) it has pro-biotics that are good for gut health

Mum: (ignoring me) it’s fermented spiced vegetable dish…

Naomi: I know. I’ve had it often. In fact, I had it on my breakfast burrito last week.

Mum: … like a Korean sauerkraut.

Naomi: Dude. I know. This is not a mystery to me. I quite like kimchi.

Mum: SO I’VE PUT ONE KILO OF KIMCHI IN YOUR FRIDGE THAT YOU SHOULD ADD TO EVERY MEAL.

Naomi: I’m never eating kimchi again.

We are currently in the Age of Turmeric.

Mum’s efforts aren’t limited to food: every week I’m goaded to try meditation, try yoga, try mindfulness, try try try try. But every day I’m trying. Trying to get out of bed. Trying not to let pain and immobility and fatigue and sickness stop me from living. Trying to do all stretches/exercises/planning/resting that might mean I get through a day without collapse. Being told I should try harder, try more is soul-crushing.

My petulance is a protective mechanism against the fact that so far the only impact of a diet high in something has been mildly interesting wee. I need to not be disappointed every time something doesn’t work. If I were, I don’t know how I’d have survived nearly a decade of gradual declines, of failed trials. Not getting my hopes up is very different to giving up hope.

Mum knows this, but we continue to play our merry little game. Why? Because Mum is devoting to her cause – me – the energy, attention and positivity that I have lost. Because Mum is doing the hoping for two. Because I know her desperate attempts to do something are driven by the unbearable impotence of being unable to help. And, in return, to her I devote a grudging willingness to try. Even the bloody fish oil. Because I see her pain too, I see her efforts as the parcels of help and love that they are. Because I would do the same for her. Because one day they might decide that a nice shiraz and cured meat are the next cure for everything. Because I love her, and know she loves me.

And because I am nearly 30 and my mother still cuts up my fruit for me.

Breaking Up With My Past Self

To be given a diagnosis was a relief.

“Are you certain?” I asked.

There can be no doubt. The fusing of your sacroiliac joints is clear to see. She continued to discuss treatment but I was suspended in that moment of certainty, of being believed. For two years, as pain wracked my body, so severe that I would lie screaming silently to myself with hot tears leaking from clenched eyes, specialists had told me they couldn’t find anything wrong. I had taught myself to brace for further disappointment, yet here was an answer. An autoimmune disease, a form of arthritis. Connective tissue hardening and fusing my joints together. Ankylosing Spondylitis.  A word I’d always need to check the spelling of. But I was only 23. Now I had an answer I could resume living life.

**

Are you in pain now? My bikini waxer asked as she spread hot wax in my most intimate areas.

The answer was yes but the question wasn’t as daftly obvious as it appeared.

I am always in pain.

**

I could adopt a guise of normality at first: slamming back the pain killers at night to sleep, slamming back the double-shot espressos in the morning to rid myself of the druggy veil. But then the disease struck my most vulnerable spot. My body

Medications conspired with reduced activity to quickly dump thirty kilos onto my small frame. I was so enraged and humiliated by what my body had done to me: not only was it sabotaging me from within with fatigue and pain, now it was turning me into a grotesque joke.  It was a traitor and I hated it.

Women are taught that investing in your body with exercise and diet are signs of self-love. We are taught that our sexual appeal decreases as our size increases. Here I was, flabby, soft, bloated and married to an athlete. We chose each other when my fat was appropriately placed and thus considered ‘curves’. How could I believe his claim to find me attractive? Compounding this was the ever present duo: pain and fatigue. He wanted to help. He saw my agony and felt helpless. He wanted to hold me but the pain wouldn’t allow even a gentle touch. Our roles melted from lovers and partners to patient and carer.

**

Life is measured in numbers

Weight.

Income.

GPA.

Who am I now, if my identity cannot rest on the certainty of success that these numbers gave me?

**

The next blow was to my social life. A day at work left me too exhausted for midweek plans and weekends became closely protected and utterly necessary recovery periods where I yielded to the fatigue and sleep. If an invitation was accepted, odds were I’d need to cancel at the last minute – body winning over mind. If I went, I’d pay for it with days of pain and tiredness.

I became so guilty. I missed so many things. And so few friends understood. I could look so well. They didn’t see the collapse that followed. Many, many friends drifted away.  Those who didn’t, those who understood without being told, those who checked in with compassion, who never forgot me in my prison – those friends are my strength.

**

It feels like my spine is made of something rigid. Wood that I’m trying to coax – through stretches, through diet, through aggressive medications – into yielding and moving like the myriad bones in my back should. Around this wood I am tender, bruised, swollen. This is the pain that is my everyday – my normal – that makes me come across as though I’m always slightly pissed off about something.

Sometimes, the pain screams. A crescendo through my whole body, intensifying from dull ache to sickening shock. Pulse after pulse. A knife twists in my spine: cold, probing metal, finding bone, pushing further in, twisting.

I try to find reason when it’s like this. How did I bring this pain upon myself? Did I overdo it at work? Overdo it at play? Not exercise enough? Exercise too much? I won’t sleep. I won’t function. I sweep my diary clear as I brace myself for days of stubborn recuperation. I will pay for this ten times over.

**

My body is at war with itself. This is a truism of an auto-immune disease. But my body is also at war with my Self. I must resist starting each sentence with “I was”. I was a gymnast. I was a soccer player. I was thin. I was a pianist and a singer and a performer and a burst of energy and a friend and… I had ambition.

For three years I fought the reality that shoe-horning myself into the ‘normal’ professional environment was headed for disaster. I hated disappointing anyone – my colleagues, my bosses, my parents who were so proud of my academic and professional achievements. I was the type whose bedroom dripped with medals and trophies, whose life was propelled forwards by a singular drive to ‘do my very best’.

And here I was, starting each day with a plea that my body move (that’s step one) then begging the pain to recede. Then battling the constant fog of pain medication and heavy fatigue to do a job that relied on a quick and curious brain. I tried to keep going. Everyone tried to help me. But eventually, I just couldn’t be relied upon. With deep shame, I confronted my failure and my professional persona – so integral to my idea of who I was – collapsed.

**

I sit across from another version of myself. She looks cool and together, and her armour is cropped blazers and pearls and pencil skirts. This is it, she says. The dream, the pinnacle. And now you’re going to fuck it up because you can’t hack it? Do you know where I could go? Who I could be? What my life would be like? I am on the cusp of the world and you’re offering me a little life of brushing crumbs off my boobs.

Yup.

Who am I without this job though? Without the clothes? Without the comfortable descriptors? How do I explain my availability, my free time? What do I write in occupation when ‘inert t-shirt covered in food stains’ is how you propose I occupy my time?

I wave my hands vaguely. Alternate Naomi, with the vision and ambition and capability, slips through my fingers.

**

Over the years, because of the implications of my disease and medications, doctors asked when I might want children. I would pluck the number 28 from my arse – to defer the question as much as anything. It sounded suitably old: an age by which I would have established life on its awesome, adventurous trajectory and be ready to create monuments to my awesomeness in tiny human form.

It started well:

Career at 21.

Married at 23.

Owned a home at 24.

Then the wolf came and blew it all down.

Amidst wreckage, however, we have the opportunity to rebuild.

At 29, I am breaking up with who I was.

Like most relationship breakups, this one is drawn-out. I’ve been sitting in the wreckage for some time, trying patience and compassion and listening, instead of fighting. With tearing effort, I remind myself that Past Naomi wasn’t perfect: she hadn’t found her empathy or sensuality, her confidence or creativity. She was smart, but she didn’t have wisdom. I like these things about Now Naomi.

I have stopped fighting against the monstrous waves that have battered my body and mind for eight years. I have stopped thinking that mimicking an idealised, created version of myself is proof I am doing ok. It is the opposite. I have said, ok enough. I can’t do it anymore. I don’t want to do it anymore. I cannot fight against my disease – against my Self – anymore. I know what I can’t do. Now I just have to nurture what I can do. For the first time in a long time, I’m growing again.

This article was originally commissioned and published by Feminartsy