Yoga: Pocket Teacher by Russell Atkinson, book of a lifetime


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The Independent Culture

As a child I read, voraciously and indiscriminately, anything I could lay my eyes on. When I was about 10, a new book arrived in the house – probably via my mother – a pocket-sized paperback, with an orange square on the front. In the square sat a solemn lady with bouffant hair and a purple leotard. She sat cross-legged with her hands arranged in a roof effect over her head. The title of the book was: Yoga, the subtitle: Pocket Teacher.

Hard to believe now, but yoga was a new and exotic word back then – and I was greedy for new words. Inside the book there was no further sign of the lady but instead monochrome, fuzzy (Sebold style) photographs of a dark-haired man in minute trunks performing the most amazing contortions – and wearing a string of beads. He was striking his positions on a beach – in some pictures you could just make out the sea and a distant headland or island. There seemed something romantic and mysterious about this: Where was he? Where had the lady gone? Was she teaching him? Were they married? I was riveted. And I sort of fell in love with the contorting man, fascinated particularly by the different directions in which his necklace dangled, depending on the pose.

Or Asana. Oh, there were some lovely words, Savasana, Prana-yama, Pavamuktasana – this last posture is also called the Gas Ejector, terribly rude and thrilling when you're 10. Of course, I got down to it right away and being childishly pliable was able to bend myself into more or less any shape, though my arms weren't strong enough for the impressive Kavasana or Bird Pose, which the man did, with variations, a noble expression on his face.

The instructions in the book were stern: for instance, fast for 24 hours once a week; eat many apples well masticated, and perform regular nostril washes. I haven't lived up to the standards my Pocket Teacher demanded, and am very far from being the yogini I planned to grow up into – but that little book did set me off in a habit of practice that I have followed, to varying degrees, ever since. And while I have shed many other treasured books in my journey through life, somehow that little Pocket Teacher still finds a place on my bookshelf.

Lesley Glaister's latest novel, 'Little Egypt' is published by Salt