I noticed something new yesterday. I was lying in an undignified knot on a sky-blue crash mat, my nostrils full of the smell of sweat and loose-fitting cotton. And the thing I noticed was that my yoga teacher’s joints make audible popping sounds when she walks.
How can this be? She is the most yoga of all people. Her bones are thoroughly cleaned and given a light coat of fresh skin each morning. She is as svelte as a pumiced greyhound in a wind-tunnel. And yet her joints pop quite loudly when she walks. The noise brings to mind Mexican bandits celebrating on a distant hillside.
Though I was lying down, this thought overbalanced me. I collapsed through the knot of my own limbs even deeper into the sky-blue crash mat. The efforts of several people were required before I could stand again.
My own joints, though unruly, are more dignified in the noises they make – more proportionate. They pop discreetly only when I call upon them to do something unwarranted, such as the “downward-facing dog” pose or the position in which I have to turn my body backward around my knee.
But that’s just me. There is only one other man in the class. He goes out with the teacher. At least, I assume he does, as they arrive in the same car and sometimes smile at each other. His limbs pop with a ferocity that dwarfs both mine and the teacher’s. His pop on a heroic, almost Romantic scale. His joints pop like I imagine Byron’s did. Grey would have given up churchyards for them. They are like the icebergs in Coleridge’s Rhyme Of The Ancient Mariner that “cracked and growled and roared and howled, like voices in a swound.” I always used to wonder what a swound was. Now I believe it to be a kind of grey yoga-vest with legs.
The man in the swound and I grunted and sweated and wobbled and toppled our way through the class. All the other class members were elegant, organic women with long hair like Nigella Lawson’s or short hair like Jean Seburg’s. They glowed healthily, rather than rolling about in pools of black sweat. Their every move was executed with a kind of clean, flowing precision, as though they were a collection of animated Japanese rivers.
I have mentioned the man and myself in the same sentence, but that’s unfair to him. In fact it may do him a disservice even to use the same language. Granted, he grunted and strained and often only vaguely approximated the desired poses. But he at least achieved that vague approximation. Given photographs of us all, an impartial observer would sometimes be able to tell that he and the women were engaged in a similar activity.
I, on the other hand, seemed even to myself to be doing something almost entirely dissimilar. If, to use a calligraphy metaphor, the women were writing an elegant cursive hand in deep azure ink, he was scratching out capitals with a blunt pencil. I was outside, pissing on a stick.
I go to yoga because I know it’s supposed to be good for you. But part of me yearns for the old days, when a certain stiffness was considered dignified and becoming. In the 19th century, army officers were discouraged from doing gymnastics for this very reason. Nevertheless, I’m determined to move with the times and I have abandoned my dream of joining a 19th-century army.
My class is in Stoke Newington, part of North London’s Guardian belt that somehow cuts through the deprivation of Hackney and Finsbury Park. It is a place of contrasts, where lightly tanned women in raw-silk sarongs buy up all the guavas and pomegranates, but you can’t leave your bike chained up for five minutes without having the mudguards stolen.
Often the teacher would pop over to me (literally – it sounded like she was walking on bubble wrap) and gently try to guide my limbs into one of the recognised configurations. My mind was perfectly willing to go along with what she was saying but my body – like a heavily unionised seventies car plant – resisted the new practices to the last degree.
She was overcome by giggles several times as she tried to drag my uncomprehending limbs into order. But do what she would, my arms and legs and spine instantly sprang back into their former sprawl like hair that you just can’t do anything with, while my mind and mouth stood meekly by, embarrassed at the company they kept. In many of the poses she had to prop me up on foam pads and wooden blocks, so that I looked like a car left out overnight in Merseyside.
“Move your toes back,” she helpfully suggested at one point. I found that my toes have got used to doing their own thing. Although the big ones move backwards and forwards almost whenever I suggest it, the middle ones are wilful to an almost incredible degree and the two smallest ones have only two settings – “curled” and “very curled” – which they switch between seemingly at random.
“No, like this,” said the teacher, and tried to push them into position. The toes, which had bitterly resented my intrusion into their private affairs, bridled all the more at this foreign intervention. They splayed and curled mutinously, rather than bending back in unison as the teacher seemed to expect. “Why are you resisting me?” asked the teacher, laughing in exasperation. “It’s not me,” I told her earnestly. “It’s my toes.”
I’ve also tried Pilates in my time, and in many ways it is the ideal exercise, since it makes you stronger and more supple, and I’ve always enjoyed the exercises. However, in Pilates I have always been the only man in the class – apart from the teacher. In my experience, Pilates teachers are exclusively young, slim men with good bone structure and gratingly camp manners.
If I were a stronger character I’d still do Pilates, but the fact is that the all-women classes and camp, chiselled instructors sets off a quiet voice in the back of my mind. “This is all terribly wrong,” it says, “you should be boxing or lifting weights.” I try to reply, “but those things are bad for you – boxing makes you stupid and lifting weights is bad for your joints and turns you into a wanker.” But the voice just raises its eyebrows in an insinuating way, and I know it has made its point.