Last week, I discovered there is a yoga and fitness centre just a couple of minutes from where I live. Well, I thought, if this is not a sign from the gods I don’t know what is. I looked at the schedule and decided to ease myself back into my imagined future life of fitness with a ‘meditative yoga’ class. I know this is really more like fitness for the mind than the body but they’re all connected, right?
As I made my way to the studio, I felt a pang of guilt as I passed a high-tempo fitness class that was taking place next door, complete with pumping music and a motivational instructor. I’ve done this sort of class plenty of times in the past. I once even took part in a strict fitness regime where the instructor used to give participants the odd kick to encourage them to finish their push-ups (talk about kicking someone while they’re down), and a fellow classmate’s motivational self-talk consisted of shouting ‘come on Frances you f***ing c***!’ as sweat and tears dripped from his face. Not exactly a shining example of self-compassion. But those were the heady days of Celtic Tiger Ireland. Nowadays, if I get to watch an episode of Bling Empire while walking on the treadmill I consider it a win. In other words, my fitness goals these days are more headspace- than muscle-mass-oriented. Hence the meditative yoga class.
As I sat down on my yoga mat and crossed my legs in an effort to look like I knew what I was doing, I watched the neighbouring fitness class running back and forth across the grassy space in front of the studio. Two of the women seemed to have cracked the secret to enjoying it. They had broken away from the main pack and were clearly having great chats whilst making the minimum effort to jog very slowly about ten feet behind everyone else. I bet they were going for scones and coffee after the class too, I thought enviously.
As my own class began, the instructor asked us to set our intention for the meditation. I panicked and set something vague and peace-oriented, in the same way I do when faced with a birthday cake full of blazing candles and the pressure to ‘make a wish’. I realised that I’m not very intentional in my day to day life, not very connected to my mind or my heart or even my body as I cycle through my daily tasks before going to sleep then repeating the whole process again the next day. I made a note to figure out a decent intention for the next class, and maybe even for my daily life.
We went through a few sun salutes, then some deep, noisy breathing, which felt more intimate than holding hands, before moving on to the ‘compassion practise’ part of the class. I was intrigued. I hadn’t really heard of compassion practise before but when I got home I looked it up and found it was ‘the practise of connecting with suffering – our own and others – and of awakening the compassion that is inherent in us all.’ It brought to mind a recent comment on the radio about ‘compassion fatigue’, and how, from the homelessness crisis to the war in Ukraine, we are all suffering from this emotional disconnectedness that reduces our empathy for others. The compassion practise exercise involved visualising kindness in our hearts and in our minds, which was both easier and harder to do than it sounds.
As I left the class, I felt relaxed and balanced and more open to the world and to people than I usually do. On my walk home I passed a woman sitting in the sunshine at the end of my street. Ordinarily I would have said hello and kept walking but today, with the notion of compassion still glowing evangelically in my heart and my mind, I stopped to talk for a couple of minutes before heading on my way again.
My mind was calm and quiet and I was pleased to discover that the answers to two niggling problems with my next novel had magically presented themselves. This is one of the great bonuses of meditation in my experience. If you have an unsolved issue, instead of the stressful process of wrestling it into submission, you just let your brain off to do its own thing and when it returns it lays the answers at your feet, like a cat returning from a hunting trip with its prize. You don’t even have to go through the whole fretting, worrying, waking-up-at-2am step of problem-solving.
I realise I’m not the first person to do an hour-long meditation class and be embarrassingly converted. I have heard of that little mindfulness movement that took over the world a while back and I am duly mortified by my own proselytising here, but still, if practising compassion and awareness takes such little effort but can bring such huge benefits to our lives, it seems like a no-brainer. It sure beats flogging myself up and down a soggy field three times a week.