Sometimes it feels like everyone in Berlin is young and stylish and beautiful. That’s not the case, of course- but it’s a world city, notoriously hip and relatively wealthy, and I hang out in some of its wealthiest environs. In Mitte and Prenzlauerberg it seems the prevailing look is tall and lean and blonde, with uncongested, tanned complexions. Sometimes I walk past tramtracks and Bubble tea shops and watch another wholesome- looking woman in her early thirties wearing a Cos dress and Birkenstocks glide erectly down the pavement, her hair held away from her face by sunglasses and pulled into a messy bun, looking like she’s never farted or told a lie in her life, and I think: I live here now. I live among these people. It doesn’t feel real and I don’t know how it happened.
Not everyone in Berlin is stereotypically beautiful. Everyone in this yoga studio is though- lithe and limber, long of limb and tight of buttock, and seemingly kale- fed. Not like me, the little round- y Earth Mother hiding at the back, with the constellation of field- worker sun damage moles speckling my neck, the small, frugal Irish mouth and bushy dark hair falling out of its Kirby grips and into my face as I rock back and forth in cat/ cow pose. I am often the only chubby person in the room, and almost always the only woman over 40- or at least, the only one who even vaguely looks it. I’m getting used to the teacher making an announcement at the beginning which gives the Beginner in the room permission to take things slowly, to rest for a while when poses get tough, to ‘Child Out’ as I call it. I am paranoid that, because I am chubby and not especially flexible, this speech is aimed at me.
If I’m right then it’s mildly annoying, because I’m not a beginner. On and off- admittedly more off than on- I’ve been doing this shit for a decade. I know to pile a second mat on top of the first to protect my knees, to adjust my Child’s Pose to accommodate my tits and belly, so that the flesh of my stomach presses into my thighs as I reach forward and feel the stretch in my shoulders. I can balance on one foot, hands in prayer gesture as I try not to wobble, always ready to grab at the dark wooden barre when I need to, trying not to flail- and increasingly, succeeding. I definitely flail less, after all these years, and although I laughingly duck out of side plank after a few seconds, my downward dog is strong, my palms planted soberly on the mat. When I lift my hips into the pose I know that I know what I know.
That is to say, I know what my body can do and what it can’t, what it feels like to have spent an entire life assuming you couldn’t do something because of physical limitations- tight hamstrings, rigid shoulder muscles, parlous lack of core strength- and then one day, to try to do the things you thought you couldn’t do and to succeed. The only problem is that after decades of walking around in a traumatised survivor’s body I have never become used to feeling physically strong. As soon as I feel the effects of repeated yoga practise- as soon as I even think the words ‘I’m getting stronger’- I will be struck down with a cold, or need to take a holiday and get out of the habit of going to class, and soon after this wholly effective attack of self- sabotage I am back where I started again. Or nearly, because when I started I hated my body and had spent thirty- odd years intermittently inhabiting it solely from the neck up, or wandering around bumping into things, covered in bruises from crashing into walls and pieces of furniture that seemed much further away than they turned out to be.
Yoga has taught me how to breathe with my belly and lungs, where my sacrum is, which parts of my body need protection and care. When I lie on my back with my knees pulled in towards my chest and roll back and forth to massage the small of my back after Bridge pose I have made it a ritual to touch my mouth to each kneecap in a gentle, whimsical kiss. I love my knees. I love my stupid, inflamed and complaining knees, and I don’t care if the skinny blonde kale- junkies see me doing it and think I’m mental. I don’t think about them at all when I’m practising- I forget that I’m older, and fatter, and ignore the part of my brain that says I don’t belong amongst them. This is a yoga class. I do yoga. I belong here.
But I do think about them really, if I’m honest with myself. When I’m in a room like this, surrounded by willowy, athletic yoga women like these, with their flat tummies and ballerina arms and hair pulled up into messy buns, I often find myself thinking aggressively self- accepting thoughts. I may be 15 years older than them, and a couple of stone heavier, and vastly less soignee even before a 90 minute class in 80 degree heat in a converted warehouse in Kreuzberg air- conditioned by nothing more efficient than an whirring electric fan, but I know who I am. I have worked on myself (I haven’t had much choice in the matter, but there you go).
I know that I know what I know. I know who I am, and I know that I have value; I’ve been through a lot and I’ve done a lot of work on myself. But then, I mean, I don’t know- maybe they have too. And it makes me laugh, really, how desperate I am to build a hierarchy, a shifting scale where they are better than me because they are thinner and younger and more beautiful and I in turn am better than them because I hate my thighs less all- consumingly and have done years of therapy. I can’t be that much saner if my only way to relate to other humans is by carving a Totem Pole of Self- Realisation, and if my overriding impulse is to find some metric by which I can take my place at the top.