In my twenties, and desperately searching for a ‘cure’ for my eating disorder that would involve a St Paul on the road to Damascus type of enlightenment without requiring any actual work on my behalf, I became very interested in alternative medicine.
Reiki, past-life regression, homeopathy, Chinese herbs, Ayurveda massage, shamanism, angel healing, bio-energy therapy, reflexology, hypnotherapy — the list continues but I won’t bore you with all of the details.
In my experience, the only therapies I tried that made a discernible difference were mindfulness meditation, acupuncture, and yoga.
When I moved back to Clonakilty in 2011, it was my mother who suggested that I start attending yoga classes, telling me about this local teacher, Jessica Hatchett, who everyone raved about.
I was interested but my interest was akin to my desire to take up surfing after watching Blue Crush; I pictured myself lean, toned, and weirdly tanned because apparently in this alternative universe my skin doesn’t reject sunlight like a bargain-basement vampire.
I do yoga, I would tell people. (Subtext: I’m better than you and supernaturally flexible.)
Despite this, I was reluctant to actually go to a class. Everyone else would be Olympic-standard gymnasts, I imagined, doing headstands and handstands, basically levitating by the end of the class.
I, who was unable to do a simple head over heels without being afraid I was going to break my neck, would be left standing at the edge of the room, feeling stupid.
Of course, my first class wasn’t at all like that. It was challenging but doable, until Jess asked us to move into pigeon pose, a deep (ie agonising) hip-opening exercise.
Afterwards, she asked what we had done when the intensity felt like it might be overwhelming. Did we give up? Did we adjust the pose to make it more manageable? Did we sit with the pain? Or did we busy our minds so that we couldn’t think about the present moment?
Whatever we did, she explained, was likely to be the technique we used to deal with emotional difficulties in our everyday lives. As on the yoga mat, as it is in real life.
I had this startling moment of realisation. When the pigeon pose became too difficult, I drifted off, conjuring up fantasies in my mind to distract myself from what was happening in the present moment.
And that was what I always did, ever since I was a child.
It was why I had become addicted to abusing food; it acted as a numbing device so I wouldn’t have to feel grief or loneliness or boredom or frustration.
I spent my life pretending I was fine when I wasn’t, pretending that I never needed help when I felt utterly hopeless.
I started to attend yoga classes once a week, and then twice, and then sometimes three times. I would get up early and practise outside, saluting the sun as it rose.
I began to feel stronger, a growing appreciation for my body — not for what it looked like but what it could do, the stability it could offer me.
Jess would urge us to listen to our bodies, to rest if we needed it rather than to power through discomfort.
Don’t look at what the person next to you is doing, she would say, focus on yourself.
For someone who had always wanted to be the best, who was frantically competitive, who had spent years comparing my weight to every other woman I met, it was a blessed release.
I felt calm for the first time in a decade.
Then my life became busy. Books were published and events were organised and plane tickets were purchased and I was back to selling myself, to trying to make myself more palatable to the outside world, to thinking about the impression I was making on those around me.
I struggled to find time for my yoga practice. I’m too tired, I said, but in reality I think I didn’t want to have to be still. I didn’t want to listen to my body because I was afraid of what it might tell me.
It might say that I needed to rest, that I needed a break. It might tell me that I should slow down. I didn’t want to hear that.
I wanted to keep going, to achieve more, to battle my way through the sense of tiredness and growing ennui, a creeping sense that I wasn’t sure if I could cope with the demands of this new life.
It is January 20. I find myself on the road to Dzogchen Beara for a weekend yoga retreat. I don’t know why I’m doing this. I have a deadline looming and I can’t afford to take three days off work.
I haven’t practiced yoga properly in ages, I’m so weak, I should have waited until I had built up some strength again before doing this.
At least the food will be amazing, I tell myself. Caitlin Ruth, the chef from my favourite restaurant, Deasy’s, is catering.
I can just sleep and eat and go for walks and avoid the other people on the retreat, like the delightfully anti-social recluse I’ve always dreamed of becoming. I’ll be fine.
The next day, I am trying to find my way through a simple sequence, one I could have done with my eyes closed two years ago.
You should have kept up, I seethe, too annoyed to even acknowledge the audacious beauty of the view from the practice room, the cliffs cutting into a vast expanse of sea. We are at the edge of the world here.
I feel a gentle hand on my shoulders.
“Just do the best you can today,” a voice says. “You’re good enough just as you are.”
I feel like something is cracking inside my chest. When was the last time I said that to myself? When was the last time I actually believed it?
Be present, the teacher tells us, and the room feels like it is expanding with one deep sigh, everyone there submitting to the moment.
That’s all you need to do.
And so I surrender. I breathe in. I breathe out.
And, strangely, that feels like it’s enough.