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Joe Knightly spat the word at his father feeling both anger and incredulity. “But you promised…”
“I promised nothing” replied Martin Knightly, the multi-millionaire investment banker. “You’re 29 now. I’ve provided you with a living allowance for 11 years. Now it’s time you faced up to life.”
Joe looked aghast: “Twenty-five thousand a year is not exactly a generous amount to live in London, given the hundreds of millions in your bank account.”
Martin Knightly rolled his eyes at his son’s failure to grasp the bare basics of finance. He thought momentarily of the many and complex investment vehicles that held his fortune, which was in the tens of millions, not hundreds. It certainly wasn’t sitting in a bank account!
“Listen, Joe” his father continued,“this isn’t what you think. I’m not disinheriting you. I’m establishing a trust fund. The money will remain there for two years. You will decide what happens after that.”
“What do you mean?” Joe was confused now. It had been odd for his father to summon him to his office in the City of London at 2pm on a Thursday and not tell him what he wanted to talk about. Now he’d dropped the bombshell that he planned to give away his entire fortune –money that Joe expected would one day be his.
Martin Knightly was a man who enjoyed the drama of life. As his son squirmed and protested, like a child who had just had a favorite toy snatched away, he couldn’t help savouring– to some extent – this moment of discomfort.
“You’ve been drifting Joe. Your life has lost direction. Think of this as a quest to establish yourself. I’m giving you two years and then I want you to come back and tell me.”
“Tell you what?” asked Joe, exasperated.
“Tell me what you think yoga is really about. If I’m satisfied by your answer, the money’s yours.”
Joe felt his jaw drop, like he was the character in a film given some terrible news. It just fell open, his arms went limp and his eyes widened. He paused, not believing what he had just heard. Martin Knightly had been practicing yoga for 26 years. Joe had often seen his father take himself off to his yoga practice room. But Joe had shown little interest in the yoga that had become such a compelling pastime for his father.
“You must be f**king kidding me” he said at last.
“Watch your language please” Martin Knightly scolded.
“Those are my terms. Two years. Find out what yoga is really about and the money will be yours.”There was a trace of a smile on his face as he observed his son, staring speechless out of the window of the plush 9th floor office. Martin Knightly knew he had just caused a small earthquake in his son’s life, and he was fascinated to see what would happen next.
Joe Knightly continued to stare into space. “F**k, f**k, f**k” he thought. “Yoga? I’m f**ked.”
It was nearly 4 by the time Joe Knightly stumbled out of the offices of Knightly Investments and into the streets below. Immersed in his thoughts, he hardly noticed the bright June sunshine and walked quickly the short distance to Bank Underground station, joining the northern line. He knew where he was heading; home. Or at least to the family home where his mother would be pottering. “Mum will stop this madness” he thought.
Lyn Knightly had always loved Belsize Park. Less than four miles from Central London, and so close to Hampstead Heath with its wide open spaces and weedy swimming ponds. In five minutes she could be walking past the boutique shops and restaurants that line Haverstock Hill, getting more and more chic as the road rises up to Hampstead Village. No wonder they named it Belsize Park, she mused, from the French bel assis meaning “well situated”.
Here, among mature tree-lined roads, were some truly beautiful properties. Brickwork lovingly patterned, tiles in rich shades of red and orange creatively arranged to adorn window sills and eves. A property for sale in NW3 would send an estate agent’s heart aflutter. Most houses had long ago been divided into flats, now commanding prices of well over a million pounds. A few remained as family homes, and Lyn Knightly was lucky enough to live in one of the best.
She was pruning her roses in the spacious walled garden and keeping one ear open for the oven timer when Joe marched through the open French windows.
“Have you heard what Dad’s done?” he blurted, while striding towards her.
“How lovely to see you darling”, Lyn replied somewhat sarcastically. She’d become used to Joe’s tendency to be wrapped up in himself. As an only-child it had been easy for her to get on with her own interests because Joe was so self-contained and could amuse himself for hours. He didn’t lack friends, just close ones. He was social at school and then at Cambridge where he read Art History. But friendships seemed to come and go with Joe, and few were a permanent fixture. Now he lived in his one bedroom Barbican flat – paid for by his parents – and seemed content to do very little. There had been jobs here and there with auction houses and art dealers, but Joe showed no sign of making a career for himself. She had to admit, it was a constant source of worry.
“I’ve no idea what your father has done. Did you see him today?”
“Yes” said Joe, frowning. “He’s only gone and put all his cash into a trust fund and plans to give it all away. And he’s got this mad idea that he’ll only hand over my money if I tell him what yoga is really about….. in two year’s time!”
“His money, darling, I think you’ll find. I did know about that actually. Doesn’t sound too difficult. I go to my yoga class every Thursday. It’s pretty much breathe, breathe, breathe. Tell that to your father” said Lyn, with a smile on her face.
“I think he might be after a bit more than that don’t you? So you knew? And you approve?” This wasn’t going how Joe had expected. His mother was behaving more like an accomplice than the ally he’d hoped for.
“I don’t really know what to think, darling, but I’ve been married to your father long enough to know that he always has his reasons. Now, are you staying for supper?”
A short walk from the Knightly residence is Primrose Hill, which was home to one of the first yoga centres to be set up when the wave of interest in yoga rose up and broke over London 15-20 years ago. Triyoga was the vision of Jonathan Sattin and when it opened its doors on the 19th February 2000 there was a queue of people stretching down the street eager to try the free classes on offer. Ever since, Triyoga has been a go-to place for globe-trotting yogis from America, Canada, Europe and, of course, India.
In 2013 Triyoga Primrose Hill was forced to move to new premises in Camden. But by then it already had successful London centres in Covent Garden, Soho and Chelsea. All four centres offer wall-to-wall yoga, workshops and therapies – reflecting the latest trends in classes and top teaching talent.
Joe Knightly knew nothing about Triyoga, except that his father was a member and regular visitor. He also knew where the new Camden studio was, having met his father several times outside before going on to a gig to satisfy their shared passion for live music.
He hesitated. Should he go in? Could he do one class and confront his father tomorrow about this ridiculous quest? He decided, tonight was different. He wasn’t the outsider. Tonight Joe Knightly was going in.
“I’d like to take a yoga class please” he told the young receptionist at Triyoga Camden. She looked doubtful. Joe had no kit bag with him and was wearing jeans, a t-shirt and leather jacket.
“In those?” she asked, only faintly disguising her disapproval and nodding at his attire.
“Er, well, yes” Joe stammered, suddenly feeling out of his depth. “It’s a spur of the moment thing. I wasn’t really planning on coming to class and I’ve never done it before….”
“You’ve never done any yoga? Ever? The receptionist looked shocked, then frowned, and looked down at her computer screen. “Well there aren’t any beginner classes this evening. I can book you in for tomorrow morning at 11.”
Joe groaned. “Surely there’s something. It’s only yoga.”
“All we have is ashtanga intermediate. It starts in 15 minutes. It’s isn’t really suitable but if you ask Pete over there who’s teaching the class he might let you in.”
Joe turned to see where the receptionist was looking and saw a six foot man wearing figure-hugging black lycra shorts and a vest top. He was sitting cross-legged in the café area and scribbling some notes.
Before he could say anything or decide what to do, the receptionist called out loudly. “Pete. There’s a complete beginner here wearing jeans who wants to do your ashtanga class. What do you reckon?” A large number of heads turned in Joe’s direction and a few sniggers were clearly audible.
Pete shot back in a strong Australian accent. “No problem, Gillian. Let him in. Maybe you can find him some shorts in the lost property box.”
Fifteen minutes later Joe Knightly was sitting ill at ease on a purple yoga mat in a crowded studio. It seemed to him that the ill-fitting lycra shorts he’d been given must be at least one size too small, as they drew attention to all the wrong areas of his body. Joe was of average build. Five foot ten with wavy dark hair he liked to wear messy in a surfer style. He had brown eyes, good teeth and an unremarkable body. He wasn’t fat, but neither was he toned or muscly. He saw with alarm the slight muffin-top over the waistband of the lycra shorts. “That must go” he thought.
All around him were healthy and strong-looking yoga students, smiling sweetly with a sparkle in their eye. Although he was out of his comfort zone, was beginning to sweat heavily and had rapid breathing with a tight chest, he noticed that around 70% of those present were women. He knew yoga was much more popular with women, but he hadn’t realized that so many would be so attractive. “Dad didn’t mention that” he thought.
A moment later there was a loud shout of “Samasthitihi” and everyone sprang up to the front of their mat. Moving as quickly as he could, Joe scrambled to his feet and copied the rest of the class who were all standing with eyes closed and their palms together in front of their chest.
“Inhale” commanded Pete. “Ommmmmm”.The chant rang out, filling the studio with sound.
“Oh shit” thought Joe.
Ashtanga yoga emerged in India during the 1930s and began spreading to America and Europe in the 1960s and early 70s when the first Westerners travelled to the southern city of Mysore. From the 1980s, after celebrities like Madonna, Sting and Paul Simon adopted the practice, ashtanga spread like wildfire to almost every major city worldwide.
Ashtanga is the original dynamic yoga, where postures are linked together by the breath to form a continuous flow of movement, known as vinyasa. All the subsequent systems of “Power Yoga”and “Vinyasa Flow” that have been developed have their roots and inspiration in ashtanga. The system is divided into six series of increasing difficulty. However, around 80-90 per cent of ashtanga yoga practiced and taught is based on the Primary Series known as Yoga Chikitsa or yoga therapy. This series of primarily forward bending poses is highly suitable for chair-sitting Westerners. Adept students move on to the back-bending challenge of Second Series, and a few to the handstands and arm balances of Third Series. A DVD of the Advanced Series exists, but is so difficult that it begins with a warning that the viewer should not attempt any of the poses!
Joe Knightly was unaware that he was on the first rung of the ashtanga yoga ladder as the sweat began to drip from his brow.
“Surya Namaska A. Nine Vinyasa”,proclaimed Pete in a calm authoritative voice. Everyone but Joe Knightly understood that this meant a sun salutation with nine positions.
“Ekam, one, inhale, arms up, said Pete.
“Dwe, two, exale, fold forwards.
“Trini, three, inhale, lift the heart.
“Chatwari, four, exhale, jump or step to chaturanga.
“Panca, five, inhale, upward-facing dog.
“Shat, six, exhale, downward-facing dog.
“Supta, seven, inhale, jump or step forwards.
“Ashtau, eight, exhale, fold forwards.
“Nava, nine, inhale, arms up”.
All around the room, students were moving with grace, precision and poise. One breath, one movement. It was to the observer a beautiful, effortless moving meditation led by the gentle sighing sound of the ujjayi breath.
Everywhere, that is, except on Joe’s mat. His sun salute was a mixture of gasping for air, staccato movements and a tangle of misaligned arms and legs.
“Strewth mate. You look like a fish that just jumped out of the water and into a frying pan. Relax your body and find your breath.” Pete stood next to Joe and proceeded to teach the class from there, guiding and gently pulling or pressing Joe into more recognizable yoga positions.
“Bend your knees and make your legs strong” Pete commanded in the downward-facing dog. He then leaned into Joe’s Pelvis with one hand while using the other to release his shoulders. Joe felt his spine lengthening. Instead of feeling tight and locked, it began to feel spacious. His shoulders softened slightly from hard to firm. Then the five breaths were over, too soon! “Inhale, jump forwards” said Pete, who grabbed Joe’s hips and lifted them up and forwards. For a split second Joe was weightless and then landed softly on his feet. “Not bad” said Pete. “That’s how it should be every time. Float on the breath mate, float on the breath.”
Then Pete moved on to the next student. For the next hour or so, Joe breathed and moved as best he could. At times his heart pounded and he felt a little nauseous. “How did I get so unfit?” he thought. His mat became drenched and slippy with sweat until at last it was time to lie down for relaxation.
“Savasana, everybody” said Pete.“Savasana is the Sanskrit word for corpse, so lie still and relax as if you’ve just died. Some of you feel like you have!” he said, casting a glance and a smile at Joe. There was a chuckle around the room as the students settled.
“Wakey, wakey, mate.” The next thing Joe remembered was having his feet squeezed and legs shaken by a large Australian crouching over him. “Usually we try to stay awake during relaxation.” Joe sat up to see the rest of the class sitting and waiting for him in cross-legged or lotus pose. Pete ended the class with the ashtanga closing mantra.
As he sat on the tube heading back to his flat in the Barbican, Joe reflected on what had just transpired. He felt knackered, he ached all over. But he also felt extraordinarily happy, almost as if he was on a drug-induced high. He would learn later about the big release of endorphins that can occur as a result of yoga practice. As he looked around the tube train everything seemed vivid, the passengers, the train, even the adverts. He felt so completely in the moment that he almost missed his stop.
“So, this yoga malarkey is all about getting high and happy” he thought. It crossed his mind to call his father and pass on this revelation, but he already knew he would need more than one class on which to base the conclusions of his inquiry into what yoga was really about. “Maybe this quest won’t be as bad as I feared” he thought.
At home he fell into bed and was soon enjoying his best night’s sleep in months.
“Kirsten. You’ve got to come to ashtanga yoga with me.” Joe was talking fast on the phone to one of his friends Kirsten Elliot.“It does hurt a lot” he added, remembering how he’d jumped out of bed that morning and felt his legs buckle. Was it his thighs or hamstrings that hurt the most? He couldn’t decide.
Joe had known Kirsten since their university days at Cambridge, where they’d spent many an hour poring over the stunning collection of masterpieces in the Fitzwilliam Museum as part of their art history studies. A Matisse was invariably followed by a cappuccino in one of Cambridge’s many cafes, although they always aimed for Savino’s for a genuine Italian family-run establishment.
Joe had listened to Kirsten talk repeatedly about the Camyoga studios where she indulged in as many yoga classes as she could cram in around her studies, while trying not to spend a small fortune on the delicious cakes made by Camyoga’s vegan cooks. Since moving to London six months ago for work, Kirsten had been trying to find a yoga studio she felt equally at home in.
Joe thought that if he was going to have to do loads of yoga classes to satisfy his father’s insane demands, then he might as well have some company.
“Hold on, hold on” said Kirsten.“YOU’RE doing yoga? Since when?”
“Since yesterday. And only one class. But it was kind of awesome. So I thought I could help you try to find the best yoga in London. What do you reckon?”
Kirsten was slightly dumbfounded by Joe’s Damascus-like conversion to yoga. She’d always enjoyed his company, and there had never been any romantic spark between them to make things complicated. So she readily agreed.
“So what’s the plan of attack?” said Joe.
“Well I’ve already been thinking about that for my own practice” said Kirsten. “All the studios charge a fortune for membership and for one-off classes.” Joe silently concurred, remembering how little change he’d got from a twenty pound note at Triyoga the previous evening. “But virtually all the studios also have try-out offers where you can go to as many classes as you like for a few weeks or a month for about thirty quid. Why don’t we do that? And we could start at Triyoga as you are so keen on it.”
“Right” said Joe. “You’re on.”
As soon as he had hung up on Kirsten, Joe was on his laptop and browsing the yoga wares atyogamatters.co.uk. It wasn’t just that Kirsten had recommended the website because of its huge range of yoga products, but Joe had been impressed that the staff at the company were yoga enthusiasts. Being impatient by nature, he was even more pleased to learn that he could browse online and then immediately go up to the Yoga Matters shop at Hornsey in north London and collect the goods in person.
There was such a large range of men’s yoga shorts and trousers that Joe had some difficulty in choosing what to buy. He eventually settled on some lightweight cotton trousers, after shunning the tight lycra that had proved to be so embarrassing to wear from the Triyoga lost property box. He also selected some yoga vest tops and a mat and headed off to Yoga Matters.
“Are you sure you want THAT mat?” Joe was puzzled by the question being asked by Lisa, one of the Yoga Matters staff.“It isn’t as environmentally friendly as the Manduka eco mats” she continued.“That one’s made from PVC. It’ll last longer, but it’s still man-made. They’ve taken the pthlates out of them now, which were screwing the environment, but, well, it’s up to you.”
Joe pondered for a moment, visualizing Kirsten – a keen environmentalist – turning her nose up at his new purchase. “Ok. I suppose I should do my bit for the planet.” “Great” said Lisa” that will be 60 pounds for the eco mat”. “What! The other one was only 17!”complained Joe. “No one said having a conscience was cheap” she replied smiling.
Relieved of the best part of 150 pounds, Joe headed for Triyoga where he was meeting Kirsten for another dose of ashtanga.
Joe had already paid 20 pounds for two weeks of unlimited classes when Kirsten arrived at the studio. Her face creased into a smile when she saw Joe. “You’re doing ashtanga in those?” she exclaimed. “Not again” thought Joe. “What’s wrong with these?”he shot back. “I only bought them this morning.” “You’ll see” said Kirsten.
Fifteen minutes into the class, this time with a teacher called Marcello, Joe was sweating profusely. His new vest top was already sodden so he whipped it off. After all, quite a few other men in the class were practicing bare chested.
“Have you got a towel?” Joe heard Marcello asking. “Who, me? Er, no” he replied. “Well I can’t adjust you in the postures if you’re dripping with sweat and there’s no towel.” No lovely spine lengthening for me in this class, Joe thought. Kirsten glanced over from the next mat and winked at him from downward dog.
Twenty-five minutes into the class, Joe noticed his trousers beginning to change colour. The sweat was running off his torso and had completely soaked the elasticated waistband.
A line of moisture was moving inexorably down towards his groin. “Bloody hell” he thought.
Thirty-five minutes into the class the sweat had reached his kneecaps. The whole top half of his trousers were a different shade to the bottom half. They clung alarmingly to his groin and flapped in a squelchy way each time he jumped forwards or backwards in the ashtanga half vinyasas.
“I told you you’d see” sniggered Kirsten.
Then Marcello passed by Joe’s mat once more, looked at the sopping garment and stated what was now perfectly obvious to Joe. “I think you’ll find you’ve got the wrong trousers there, my friend.”
The first thing next morning, Joe was back at Yoga Matters purchasing two pairs of small black lycra shorts and some slightly baggier shorts to wear over the top of them. He conceded that the lycra shorts were the most suitable garment for ashtanga, but he was not about to show perfect strangers the outline of his genitalia.