A Sober take on Love, Life and London
By Janna Fox
Time for a catch up.
I am a 34 year old actress slash writer who lives alone. I am sober, clean and a non-smoker. Although I no longer belong to any of my old clubs or haunts it turns out I still fit into my social circles and have found a few new ones. I am single in the traditional sense of the word but I have started a very serious relationship with something else.
An ancient tradition traced back to the Stone Age in various cultures internationally although India has the monopoly as the home of Tantra. Yoga has fast become a bit of a new wave fad. Scores of yoga teachers have popped up all over selling the perfect yoga bod, vegan shake and open hips that most people at some point in their lives wish to attain. We’ve all seen the constant flood of perfectly tanned contorted bodies following one another on Instagram often in what seem like quite inconvenient locations for practising yoga. But what these posts don’t generally tell us is that Yoga is not just about holding an incredibly difficult pose, it can be a very valuable aid to life especially in this heightened modern world and offers relief from the one thing the human condition can’t seem to control; the mind.
I was introduced to Yin Yoga at drama school, thoroughly enjoyed it and over the years irregularly played with the sheets our diligent movement teacher had printed out for us containing sequences we could do at home.
That was as far as I got.
After getting sober in May 2016 my stress levels were most definitely high and one night when I thought my head was about to pop I googled ‘yoga retreat’. The first one that came up was a retreat in Norway near Bergen complete with sauna, Sea and walks in the woods. I was in and off I trotted for five days of classical yoga and meditation on the Island of Askoy.
I had no idea what to expect.
The website talked about Yin Yoga poses/asana (which I vaguely recognised) cleansing/Hatha Yoga (like Neti the practice of flushing your nose with salt water on a daily basis and after the abuse my nose had suffered over the years particularly interested me) breathing exercises/Pranayama (I had no clue this had anything to do with yoga) deep relaxation/Yoga Nidra (I definitely needed some of that) two days of silence/mauna and various meditation techniques/Pratyahara.
Well. This was a whole lot more than I had bargained for but I liked the sound of it all so I went to Norway and was introduced to genuine Classical Yoga. It was the most challenging yet invigorating ‘holiday’ I’ve ever had. I remember walking into the yoga room on day one and people were lying down with their eyes closed. I thought we were here to learn yoga what are you lying down for? I was convinced I had the monopoly on the breathing techniques being an actor although was a little concerned I might pass out during the alternate nostril breathing. I kept falling asleep in Yoga Nidra, cried my way through two testing days of silence and was never really sure if I was doing the meditation right.
My mind was utterly clogged with expectation of what was to come and what I was to learn and how I was going to be so much better at my life when I got back that I very nearly missed the point. But when I got back to London and found that practising these new things helped me stay clean and sober, address my underlying darkness and be a happier person I decided it was definitely for me.
Almost a year in I was starting to waver however, I mean I’m only human. Although I was going to regular hot yoga classes, I had practically stopped meditating and doing my breathing exercises allowing the lure of Netflix to drag me away from my mat. I was still doing a bit of Yoga Nidra but inactivity was sinking in and my mind was starting to run wild again; telling me I wasn’t good enough, distracting me, the negative thoughts were becoming the loudest again.
I decided I needed a refresher course. I had been sober for a year Goddammit and I deserved a bloody medal. Or at the very least a second yoga retreat; it was an investment at the end of the day, in myself.
I had been looking into a ten day course at Haa in Southern Sweden, the home of the Scandinavian Yoga and Meditation School, it’s been there since the seventies and is where my previous teachers in Norway had trained. I was a bit hesitant about doing a longer course of ten days in a stricter environment with a full on intestinal cleanse, silence during all meals and in the yoga room plus three full days of complete silence, more Karma Yoga (essentially work) and no mobile phone….
I decided to go for it. I love a challenge.
So four weeks ago at 4:45am my alarm woke me from a shorter sleep than planned as I’d been up late frantically finishing www.jannafox.com. Leaving my single studio in Stoke Newington with my larger and heavier than it should be ‘hand luggage’ the sun was rising. Surprised by how many other people were on the bus and tube, I reflected that I rarely see this time of the morning anymore and when I did the experience was often clouded by a high, a hangover or both. The train wasn’t especially busy but Gatwick had the regular humdrum of any international airport after 6 when everything is on and working. I arrived in Copenhagen at around 12 and waited on the platform of the shiny Danish train station for my train to Ahlmult, Sweden where I joined a carriage of jolly British Vicars off on some sort of spiritual jaunt.
Maybe Smaland was where everyone went to re-boot? It certainly felt relaxing, flat lands passed by seemingly empty compared to Stokey. The occasional red wooden house, fields of crops growing healthily in the lush landscape and lots of horses looking on in their guarded curiosity.
On arriving at the Ashram (I had no idea it was an Ashram and it’s possible I still don’t know what one is) after dropping off my bags I kissed goodbye to my Iphone 5 and waited for the immersion to take place.
It was intense.
Twenty five people from all over the world were woken every morning at ten past five by a Yogi ringing a bell. We dutifully congregated in the Yoga room, participated in tratak, asana, ate Dahlia for breakfast (a very ‘nutritious’ drink of grains in hot water-think porridge without the taste or the gloop), completed various Karma Yoga tasks sometimes farming or cooking, gardening or collecting branches. We breathed, we chanted, we danced in silence, meditated, went for walks, ate vegetarian fayre, cleansed our intestines with a minimum of sixteen glasses of salt water at the weirdest cocktail party I’ve ever been to and endured three days of not speaking, singing, humming and minimal miming.
Why I hear you cry? I don’t really know. Everyone is different and every individual on that retreat had a different story and reasons for being there. It was too much for some and two people dropped out during the silence, leaving without a word.
I wanted to develop my discipline and practice of yoga, clean out my gut and spend some time with some animals. Some things I found easier than before like sitting in a meditation pose for long periods of time, my feet didn’t go numb anymore, yay! Some things I found harder like tolerating other peoples’ behaviour and allowing others to discover things for themselves. In such a heightened environment I found that I was able to recognise traits of my own personality I didn’t even know I had and come to terms with elements of my sobriety I hadn’t resolved.
Days felt like weeks but I wasn’t tired. Some days I could play the entertainer and joke around, others I couldn’t meet peoples’ eyes. I swam in a muddy lake, rode the horses, met some pigs, played with dogs, planted some corn, learned the mala and experienced instant karma. I made some new friends, re-discovered an old one and went off-piste in the bushes with an ex-Headmaster.
As we cleaned out our rooms on the last day I couldn’t help feel sad. It was over and I might never see my yogic family of the last ten days again. But we shared a magnificent experience and saw things that will connect us forever, not as a post on Facebook or a picture on Instagram but as a genuine human experience that sometimes feels hard to find. What resonates the most with me is that each and every person I met in those ten days taught me something; I may not have wanted to hear it or even been looking for it but they all did and they helped me through my time there in their own ways.
When you start to pay attention to the minds constant ramblings in day to day life it can feel like it isn’t always on your side. Without alcohol or drugs to muffle the madness I sometimes wonder where to turn. Yoga helps me with that. It offers an extraordinary opportunity to spend some time on my self whether its my body, spirit, mind or all three. You don’t have to spend all day meditating or be able to put your leg behind your neck (but if you can great!) or live in an Ashram to practice Yoga. It’s personal and can be tailored to whatever way suits the individuals need. I believe it is the perfect accompaniment to an active and happy life, for me, anyway.