I had high expectations of the yoga immersion I was embarking on – ‘Body Image, Identity and Yoga’ with Bex Tyrer – and at the same time, huge apprehension. How ‘transformative’ can something be in just 11 days? And also, disturbingly, I think I was actually kind of afraid. Because if this thing was actually going to convince me to accept myself, as I am, right now, then I would never achieve the mythical ‘me’ that I’ve been culturally programmed to aspire to – the one where I’m skinny enough, clever enough, cool enough, creative enough, funny enough, desirable enough… I guess it felt like I’d be giving up on myself in some way. And although I know, intellectually, that’s all bullshit (enough for who, huh?), there was this irrational fear that it might actually… work.
These mixed feelings made me quite emotional on Day 1, as Bex bathed my feet and thanked me for having the courage to join the immersion even though I was one of only two people she didn’t already know and that weren’t yoga teachers, which made it all the more daunting. Getting settled onto the floor of the studio in which we would spend a lot of time over the coming days, Bex introduced herself and the course. She was very honest about her history with eating disorders, and the journey she’d been on to get to this point over 20 years of study. We all shared what had brought us here (for me it was Kali, really) – and I found myself in yet another circle of women trying to make sense of all the nonsense the world has thrown at us about what it means to inhabit a woman’s body. This time, we were exploring it through the lens of Tantra, which treats the body as the key to liberation (rather than an obstacle to overcome, like other yogic philosophies).
And Kali was our guide for the immersion. We built a yantra dedicated to the Hindu goddess – meticulously following the geometric pattern that represents her using different coloured petals – adding candles and meditating on it. It was a beautiful opening ceremony, which ended with lifting the yantra to the sky three times together. On the third, invoking the destructive, changing nature of Kali, we threw it in the air and the petals rained down on us. In many representations, Kali dances on the chest of her husband Shiva, carrying weapons, with a necklace of skulls around her neck and her tongue sticking out. She means business. She’s intense. The literal meaning of her name is ‘time’, and what greater power is there than the passing of time? It’s unstoppable – there’s nothing to do but accept it. As Uma Dinsmore-Tuli states in her incredible book Yoni Shakti (the foundation text for the course): ‘Kali, in her closeness to death and darkness, shows us the necessity for self-acceptance and surrender. Her great power is the power that comes with acceptance of change, and the willingness to let go in order to grow. At its most profound level, Kali’s siddhi empowers us to drop the limitations of who we think we are in order to encounter the limitless potential of what we can become.’
On the second day, after a juicy morning practice that celebrated the femininity of our bodies (you know, with a uterus and its power to create life, casual), I was introduced to ecstatic dance. Now, I love dancing, but I’m usually drunk AF and with a crew of friends at my side. This was 200 people dancing like nobody’s watching, sober, at 11am on a Sunday. It was kind of intimidating, and I felt uptight and self-conscious. The DJ played everything from New Age hippie stuff to dirty dubstep, and people were just… moving. Some fast, some slow, some were just hugging, some were still. I bopped about a bit. I stuck to the side of Jess, my new Australian yoga immersion friend. And once I got into it, I thought less about how I looked and more about how I felt. Because no one really was watching, and certainly not judging. And even if they were… so fucking what?
Dance was a surprisingly big part of the immersion. We were treated to several sessions of Capoeira Angola with the lovely Charli, a friend of Bex and one of only two female Capoeiristas in the UK. Capoeira is a Brazilian fight-dance that was developed by the West African slaves that ended up there. It’s beautiful to watch and HARD to do – you have to stay low to the ground and make sure nothing but your feet, hands and head touch the floor. My favourite part was the hypnotic beat of the drums, and sitting around the roda singing in Portuguese. We learnt some of the moves and twists and kicks that happen when two players are ‘fighting’ each other, and it felt like a powerful new way to move our bodies.
We also spent an extraordinary morning with a woman called Malaika dancing the Five Elements. We began on the floor as ether, creating space, and moved through fire, air, earth and water. Each element had its own sound and feel, and we really had to give up all concern to what we looked like. That was irrelevant. There was a lot of pelvic thrusting as we embraced our ‘power centre’ and listened to the fire there. We stamped around, grounding ourselves to the earth, and we ended up floating like water into one giant spoon. I had a very physical reaction to the emotion of it, and ran off to throw up. It felt like my body was rejecting the heaviness of the crap (self-criticism?) it’s been carrying around all this time.
With all this movement, I was freaking exhausted. But I was suddenly feeling this whole new connection with my body. I was USING my body and it was doing wonderful things. It felt strong. It felt alive. ‘Just to have a body!’ Bex would often cry, and I was beginning to understand what she meant.