The yoga poses that healed my pain

Her unbearable sadness after the death of her father first drew Genevieve Roberts to the yoga mat. It turned out to be the start of a life-changing journey

Last autumn, as the leaves turned, I felt a cloak drape over my shoulders, a leaden, winter cloak weighing me down. And rather than being able to shrug it off, it came with me everywhere. I was able to feel the threads lighten when I was laughing, or crying, but was unable to cast it off completely.

It was almost a year since my father's death aged 60 after a long illness. In that year I'd gone from numb shock – nothing had prepared me for this expected departure – to deep, dizzying sadness, where I understood what other people who had experienced grief meant when they wrote of the sky turning from blue to black.

Slowly, I was able to enjoy the memories of the time we had spent together while my dad was sick: the hundreds of games of chess we'd played (I always lost, even when he was very ill indeed with cancer, his slim frame so undernourished that his bones jutted out, he would trounce me into checkmate) and his obsession and delight with food as eating became increasingly painful.

His requests for ice-cream combinations that may be for sale in the best gelaterias in Italy but aren't readily available in Nottingham; his rhapsodies over toffee pavlova and his theory that McDonald's had very deliberately set out to corner the market of people who want to eat but have lost their teeth. The trip to the country fair at Abergavenny, his childhood home in Wales, where there was still an annual garden-on-a-plate competition, and the most beautiful memory of his pride and delight at meeting my nephew, then a tiny baby, who shared his name, William.

I didn't know that grief commonly returns, that this was my body marking the anniversary of the death of my dad the year before. It was with this sadness that I arrived one day in October at a yoga studio, neither strong nor flexible, surrounded by people whose bodies seemed as lithe as dancers' (I've found out since that some of them are dancers).

I'd love to be able to say it was some kind of personal peace-finding mission that brought me to the yoga mat, but I wasn't nearly conscious enough to realise that. All I knew was that my mind – always full of idle chatter – was whirring at great speed, screaming so loudly I'm almost surprised other people couldn't hear it. Far from yoga magically stilling my mind, it continued apace through my practice. But at least when I was on the yoga mat I was aware of the constant humming: much of the rest of the time I was so sucked up in my thoughts I couldn't even see them repeating themselves in my head time and time again, hundreds of thousands of times. I would hide in the corner, wishing myself invisible – I didn't want anyone to notice me and my not-touching-toe ways. I had no idea how to make the postures, known by their Sanskrit term, asanas, look graceful: it was the most I could do to complete a class. I would take the child's pose, with my chest and forehead resting on the ground and my heels together, often, yet by the end of each practice my clothes would be drenched with sweat.

But something kept drawing me to my mat. Somehow, doing something where I didn't expect myself to achieve or be excellent gave me a sense of freedom. I had no expectations; this was just for me. And slowly I started to see small changes in my body: I felt lighter, more free, and it wasn't simply just a case of surviving class, I could actually feel my body, check whether I was stacking my joints, have some awareness of whether I was locking in my core.

I started going to workshops run by the studio, Hot Power Yoga in Clapham, south west London. First a beginners' workshop, where I was so full of questions about how yoga has effects on the emotional side that I signed up for a teaching foundation workshop. Still, I wanted more, and at the beginning of this year I signed up for HPY's teacher training course. I had no plan to teach yoga. I was adamant that it was simply to deepen my own practice, and remember telling the studio founder Dylan Ayaloo, and his co-facilitator Craig Norris that I was no yogi. "There are things I'm very good at. Yoga is not one of them," I told them.

This is not the story of a graceful transition from duckling to swan. The training was intense, and at times I found myself frustrated with my body. In all yoga postures there is a sense of tadasana, meaning shoulders being low and back. I spent a lot of time hunting for tadasana in my downwards-facing dog, a fundamental posture where the body forms an upside down V shape, but it kept eluding me. My posture, from many years hunched over a computer, leaned more towards "desk-asana" and I remember feeling emotional when I looked in the mirror and saw that my shoulders were so close to my ears when I was standing upright, the chances of them suddenly lowering when I was half-inverted were slim. We learnt about anatomy and the asanas; the effects they have on strengthening and flexibility. But this was the very surface of the course. More importantly, I learnt about me: to watch the whirring that goes around in my head, gain some distance from it and see the patterns that play out and affect my life, to recognise that this is not who I am.

I saw that I give myself a really hard time by spending so much time trying not to make mistakes. And I recognised that the biggest mistakes I have made haven't turned out as badly as I imagined, they've been the things I've learnt the most from – something I can't regret. I'm a real striver, and experienced deeper freedom learning that I'll never be perfect: sometimes it's good simply to congratulate myself on where I'm going right.

Dylan, founder of Hot Power Yoga and lead facilitator of the training, says: "The physical practice of yoga – although the most well known – is simply a tool to facilitate transformational change. Focusing on the body provides a break from the mind. In showing students how to gain some separation from their thoughts comes a greater level of self-awareness and clarity on the patterns that influence and run their lives. It's an ongoing journey but one which brings a greater sense of freedom and empowerment." It is a journey I welcome, though the very first step was bumpy.

My fellow teacher trainees were intimidating. Three were professional dancers; some could casually flick their legs behind their heads, others would balance on their forearms or throw themselves up into handstands. I was in awe, felt very shy – and out of my depth. Over the two months of training, they became good friends.

I'd still be delusional if I thought I would be a contender for yoga if it is introduced to the Olympics, but I can now touch my toes; balance on my arms in crow pose; my core is strong and my shoulders are dropping away from my ears and slowly freeing up as I no longer feel I should carry the weight of the world on them. One day I will have a pleasing upside down V in my downwards-facing dog – sometimes I already catch glimpses of it.

And I've surprised myself: I'd expected to use the teacher training to learn more about yoga, to deepen my practice. I hadn't expected that six months after wishing myself invisible in class, I'd be at the front, teaching other students at regular classes.

While I'm at the very beginning of my journey, I have learnt that yoga helps me cope with grief. It gives me a sense of grounding, the sandbags to shore up the watery wash of my emotions. A distance that means I can sometimes get a sense of a bird's eye view, rather than a bug's eye view, and a way to feel my body. The chattering of my mind certainly hasn't stopped, and I don't believe grief – or any strong feelings – just disappear.But with a little distance from the emotions that flooded so forcefully through me, I feel that I've got the tools to start to help others who may come to the yoga mat for more than just a bikini body.

Genevieve Roberts teaches yoga classes in London: see her blog: FindingSunshine.me

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £13676.46 - £15864.28 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Re...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

    Day In a Page

    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
    Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

    They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

    A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
    David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

    Hanging with the Hoff

    Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
    Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

    Hipsters of Arabia

    Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
    The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

    The cult of Roger Federer

    What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
    Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

    Malaysian munchies

    With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
    10 best festival beauty

    Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

    Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

    A Different League

    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

    Steve Bunce on Boxing

    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf