Starting to get it rightApril 11, 2016
Credit Neil Gaiman
Credit Neil Gaiman
Although a large part of my 200 hour YTT course is practical (covering asana, anatomy and the various realities of being a teacher), a significant part of it is based in yoga philosophy. It’s a part that I love, and that I’m determined to bring into my teaching – there’s so much for all of us to learn from the yoga that isn’t physical practice and I’m convinced that it can significantly better both our lives and those of the people around us.
Our current focus of study is Patanjali. Often referred to as the father of modern yoga, it is he who is responsible (perhaps 1,700-2,000 years ago – though this attracts much debate) for putting into written form what had previously only been passed on via an oral tradition, distilling the practice of yoga into 195 verses (or, literally, threads) known as the Yoga Sutras.
You’ll most likely hear talk of the ‘Sutras’ when you enter into a discussion about defining what yoga is, particularly Chapter 1 ,Verse 2: “Yogás Citta Vritti Nirodhah”. Translated by Sri Swami Satchidananda in my version of the book as “The restraint of the modification of the mind-stuff is Yoga”, this means to say that if you can still the activity of the mind and come to a realisation of the ‘Self’ you are in yoga, or ‘union’ (the literal translation of the word yoga).
Key to achieving this quietening or union, are Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga (Chapter 2, Verse 29). From the basic abstinences and observances (yamas and niyamas respectively) to be followed in daily life, to physical practice (asana) and breath practice (pranayama), to withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara) and concentration (dharana), to meditation (dhyana), and ultimately a spiritual state of consciousness sometimes known as enlightenment (samadhi).
Tasked with selecting an area of the Sutras to study and present back to the class next month I’ve decided on an experiment in actually living the very foundations of Patanjali’s yoga – the ten yamas and niyamas.
I have just about a month, so I’ll be working through one yama and niyama every five days, trying to ‘live’ them in every sense of the word for the whole of that time. At the end of it, I hope to not only have learnt something, but to have garnered a true understanding of their challenges and benefits along with their relevance in the world today, .
First up, starting today, ahimsa (non-harm or non-violence) and sauca (purity and cleanliness). Watch this space for updates…
I always knew that somewhere on this blogging journey I’d end up writing a post about body image. And then yesterday it got very naturally bumped up the priority list.
Wednesday is one of my teaching days and so I was up early yesterday morning, getting dressed in my leggings and (somewhat figure-hugging) vest in readiness for class. I remember catching sight of myself in the mirror and thinking how “I’d better remember to keep my belly tucked in today” but before I could really dwell on it I was out of the house, getting on with business.
So I get to the office, and I’m running around prepping mats and props and belts and the like, when I see someone who usually comes to class but who couldn’t make it this week. I was busy trying to persuade her to borrow my mat and come and join in when she gave me a bit of an ‘up and down’ look.
Instantly I remembered the earlier ‘belly’ thought and went to suck it in. A questioning look must have passed over my face though, as pretty much immediately she exclaimed “oooh, you’re so teeny!”. The exact opposite of what I’d assumed…
“Really?” I said, “But look at my belly!!”
“What are you talking about?!” she said
“Look at it” I insisted, “If you looked at me from the side you’d think I was pregnant!”
“Are you crazy?!” she responded
“I guess we’re all crazy” I said as I left to go and teach.
It was a funny exchange and we had a good laugh about it but it’s true, we are all crazy when it comes to body image, and we have a totally messed up way of looking at ourselves. But in spite of knowing it’s crazy, we all continue to do it – make these judgements about ourselves that really we ought to look like something, or someone else.
So how do we stop the crazy? How do we not pass it on? How do we help ourselves, and others, to think differently about it all?
We put all of this pressure on what we look like, but we don’t think about how we’re functioning. We don’t look to our bodies for example, and ask what they can tell us about what’s going on in our lives – even though the body is such a great indicator of how healthy, in the holistic sense of the word, our lives are.
It tells us pretty quickly if our lives aren’t in a good place, and can speak volumes about where our stress levels are at, how happy we are and how nourished we might be. For me, imbalance manifests itself in digestive issues, eczema, dizziness and exhaustion. It’s all symptomatic of other things going in my life, yet normally when I look at my body I’m not asking “How are you? What can I learn from you?”, but rather “Hmmm, how fat/thin are you looking today?”.
I know that since increasing the amount yoga I do, I’ve put on weight. I have a bigger bum (more junk in my trunk as a friend of mine would say!) and bigger legs and, all in all, I’m carrying around about 10lbs (4.5kg) of extra weight. Sometimes I get a bit miserable about it but the truth is I’m stronger, less prone to injury, less tired and less weak.
And as I’ve covered before, I’m also getting less crazy. Which means that, most of the time, I can recognise the extra ‘junk’ for what it is – muscle, not fat, and eminently healthy muscle at that.
Other times, I wake up in the morning thinking I’m the size of an elephant! Which I know is utterly ridiculous. Just as I know I can’t possibly be slim one day and overweight the next – whatever my mind might say! So if it’s not physical, if it’s in the mind, it has to be controllable or ‘let go-able’…
Which means it can be stopped. Stopped from being a measure of how capable, competent and successful we are. And stopped getting in the way of us doing things. We’ve got to put all of this to one side, and just get on with life!
I read an interview with Cameron Diaz earlier, about ageing and, though on a slightly different topic, she said one thing that I thought was really pertinent:
“We don’t have to do this to each other and we don’t have to do it to ourselves… We need to start honouring ourselves and honouring each other, instead of beating ourselves up and judging other women.”
And I have to say it’s been interesting to see how my own body image has evolved these last few months. Well these last couple of years really, but the shift has definitely sped up since I started YTT and began getting much more philosophical about everything in life. The old negativity and obsession about conforming to a certain ideal isn’t gone, definitely not (see the elephant thoughts above!), but I do have much more peace with it.
Again from Cameron Diaz:
“We, as individuals, are the only ones who can release ourselves from the burden of feeling like we need to be something that we can’t be.”
In ‘living’ yoga I find myself releasing from it all… But even in this community it can be a challenge. I use Instagram and as soon as I started tapping into the yoga community there, I saw all of these slim, beautiful people, in beautiful clothes, doing amazing yoga poses in amazing places. And because you follow these accounts, you get led to more… And before you know it you’re on a path where yoga has somehow become about aspiration, and desire. Which it is absolutely not.
There’s a whole host of talk and discussion about where this all stems from, and whether it’s teachers themselves that are driving it, with a level of irresponsibility in their teaching. But arguably it has as much to do with the people following this stuff as those who are being followed. Because there are actually inordinate numbers of people on Instagram posting about yoga (19,836,823 posts with the hashtag #yoga when I just checked) – not all of them skinny, in beautiful places, wearing beautiful clothes.
Perhaps then, if you’re already inclined to give yourself a hard time about your body, you somehow get led down this road of only seeing and engaging with the stuff that you think represents what you ‘should’ be. The stuff you (mistakenly -see this post from Rachel Brathen aka Yoga Girl) think represents happy, and successful.
I myself have added quite a lot of variety recently to my followers – from the (inspirational – read some of their posts) plus-sized @mynameisjessamyn and @glitterandlazers to a whole raft of ordinary people doing yoga at home in their PJs (@rudabagel_, @movewithjude, @aareeliitaa…)! I think once you understand (or more to the point are able to hold on to the understanding) that yoga isn’t about being beautiful, tall and toned but actually setting aside all that is not significant or not-‘Self’ (in the words of Patanjali, “the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff”) you become open to other images and role models in life.
Which in turn helps you to back off a little, from all this crazy body image stuff. But it’s a work in progress, of course, as is everything!
I can’t be the only one thinking all of this – I’d love to hear your own stories below…
I’m sat in the sunshine, in a park looking down over Bristol, at the end of the third day of my second stint of yoga teacher training (YTT). There’s been a lot to process already and I find myself taking a moment of reflection, on what a privilege it is to be on this journey.
I wrote already about the first weekend of training, back at the end of February. It was both hugely intense and exhausting – not just because of the sheer amount of information that needed to be learned, but because of the newness of the situation, people and environment too.
And this weekend is again proving to be intense, educational and illuminating…but in a completely different way.
There have been plenty of truths and the most honest of sharing (I’m not sure I’ve ever been surrounded by so many wonderful and open people) but, as we’ve worked each day through asana (physical postures), pranayama (breathing practice) and svadhyaya (study of the sacred yoga scriptures), there’s also been a shifting of prana (or energy) that’s resulted in outpourings of emotion from a number of the group. Myself included.
No-one else’s story is for me to tell of course; mine however is thus…
I travelled to Bristol as usual, but this time left behind my other half who has very recently lost his Mum. I was due to spend the three overnights here but, for the first evening, I travelled back to be with him. I could feel something brewing even as I drove home that evening – a rawness in my chest and throat that I could identify as emotion but that I was, as yet, unable to really define. As I arrived home and got into the flat it seemed to pass – only to resurface the next morning on the 45-minute drive back.
In our morning circle on day one, it turned out there’d been lots of ‘wobbles’ during our time apart – with doubts around capability and capacity creeping in. I however was feeling grounded, and shared with everyone how secure and firm I felt, and how certain I was about my choices and path.
By day two however, everyone seemed to have again found their feet. Apart from me who was apparently losing them! Even as I talked things through that morning, I sensed a stirring of the emotion I’d been carrying around – even though for now it still seemed rooted where it was. I explained the feelings to the group and warned of possible tears to come. Still, I had no idea of what it was.
Talking to Laura that morning I came to understand the feeling as a shifting of prana that had likely been ‘unlocked’ through practice (also known as a kriya, or physical manifestation of kundalini), something unresolved within me that was now releasing. It was ok, she told me, to be unable to identify its source – some of these locked-up energies are formed during very early experiences and might potentially never be named.
So with that I settled into the day…
That afternoon we began discussing Patanjali and the 8 limbs of yoga, in particular the ten yamas and niyamas (or restraints and observances) that should guide a yogis life. Splitting into pairs we each took a couple to discuss before feeding our thoughts back to the group. Then, as we worked around the group, each pair making their contribution, it came. A flood of tears that though not entirely unforeseen did still seem to erupt from nowhere -one minute I’d been absolutely fine, but then the next there were all these tears.
And as they came I slowly started to identify their source. We were discussing ten pieces of guidance about how to live (not at all dissimilar to the ten commandments): ten simple, basic principles of living that are core to yoga, and that I also identify with as core to my being.
[Very briefly – there’s a later series coming on these – we’re talking about things like not harming yourself or others, respect and self-respect, community, sharing, compassion…]
But not always, I realised, had these principles been applied to me. And, in particular, my marriage had been full of instances where they were rather flagrantly ignored. I was told by my husband that he simply didn’t like some parts of me. I was told that I was clumsy. Jokes were made at what I felt was the expense of others. And in other aspects of life I was judged too. My driving. My social life. My desire to spend time together…
It wasn’t like this to begin with I don’t think, but it’s definitely there in the latter years. And not just once in a blue moon either, but with a fair level of frequency. Enough that, as I look at it now, I know it was a large contribution to my leaving.
The not liking parts of me thing was repeated. And about more things than I care to remember or write down.
Then the clumsy thing – which at first was a bit of a joke. And if I’m honest I think that, as women, our periods can often be accompanied by a bit of general spaciness or loss of spatial awareness. So maybe in some instances it was true. But it became a ‘thing’. And I was just clumsy – always clumsy. I often thought (and objected) towards the end that this was a self-perpetuating statement – in telling me I was clumsy, he was making me clumsy – but by then the damage was done.
Any time we went somewhere and I drove, my driving would be scored out of 10 at the end (and I was criticised throughout for the slightest of errors). Unsurprisingly my driving became more nervous, and the errors more frequent. I asked for it to stop. Explained again that it was self-perpetuating, this repeated statement that I was a somehow lacking as a driver.
My social life wasn’t big enough. I didn’t pursue people for new friendships. I should go do things with this person, or that person. Be part of this club. Join that society…. I’ve written before about discovering I’m introverted but at this time in my life I simply had no idea – I just became accustomed to the idea that I was lacking again, albeit this time in social skills. And instead of being supported and assisted I was, in a way, told to sink or swim. Get on board or stay home alone. Which I often did.
I remember talking to my Mum about this, a number of times. About how I felt alone, and worried for our future. About how my husband didn’t understand my desire to spend time with him. He’s not an introvert of course and was out all the time, doing his thing while I languished at home living on a diet of TV.
The thing is though I knew nothing of this bigger picture at the time. Each instance of disregard for me was just a teeny tiny thing. But in time those teeny things become bigger noticeable things: a general lack of comprehension about who I was; a flagrant disregard for my wishes and feelings; an absolute offloading of responsibility onto me for the various ‘stuffs’ of life – washing, ironing, travel plans, groceries…
A number of situations I remember clearly:
His brother’s wedding. I was new to the family; he was the best man. I was hugely intimidated by the thought of a day meeting all these new people (there were so many guests, one of them collapsed and needed medical care!) without him by my side yet he couldn’t even bring himself to help me understand how (and with whom) I’d be travelling to get there. I protested; he said I was silly.
My brother. There’s been an ongoing issue between me and my brother for years (again, more on this another time!) and, to cut a very long story short, my then-husband simply never had my back once.
And sausages! This is a little silly, but strong relationships are built in the little things as well as the big ones. I was a most-time vegetarian, because I didn’t like the texture of meat, but I did have a penchant for the kinds of things that lots of proper carnivores scoff at – Big Macs, for example, and a particular brand of sausage. We’d go to stay with family members and he’d tell them I’d eat sausages but never explain the idiosyncrasies of it. I asked every time but nope. I’ve lost count of the number of occasions I’ve forced down a cooked breakfast that I couldn’t stand just so as not to appear rude. I couldn’t make a fuss – it’s an introvert’s worst nightmare being a figure of attention like that – and so I’d ask him to explain beforehand, to pave the way in advance of a visit. But he’d just brush it off. It was another thing he couldn’t understand and therefore just chose not to listen to my request.
So there it is – big things, and little things. But in the whole one massive thing that resulted in me leaving my relationship.
As I explained on Yoga Teacher Prep, I met someone else and hurt a lot of people, and of course I would go about things differently if I had the time again. I lost friends and family over it, I was called all kinds of names, and I was judged in all kinds of ways. But you know what I realised in that session yesterday? I was not being treated very well in that marriage and it had compromised me at my very core.
But I just didn’t understand any of this at the time. And it was the most confusing place.
I still don’t think I’m done understanding it if I’m honest, but for the first time in two years I feel a sense of peace, resolution and compassion towards myself in relation to it all. Carrying around guilt is exhausting – today I feel some of that lifting and I move forward with life cleansed of an awful lot of negativity.
There may be people reading this who know both me and him, and who perhaps question my telling of events (unfortunately, those who are no longer my friends will probably never read it!) . All I can say to that is imagine for a second that you are a building, remembering that buildings are only ever as strong as their foundations. Your foundations however have been chipped away at, piece by tiny piece, day after day. What do you think would happen in that situation?
I also ask that they take a minute to reflect on the person I am today – how peaceful and calm I am in comparison to what I was. Then perhaps they might see that something bigger than just my infidelity was going on.
Love is love is love. And you love all of someone or not at all. I know that now, I knew that then. But I’m stronger today – more self-aware, self-reflective and self-respecting.
Time to move onwards and upwards.
Exciting news on the blogging front – this week I’ve had a post featured on someone else’s site!
I first noticed Yoga Teacher Prep when I was setting up the social accounts for yogalustco and, as a “community for YTT preppers”, of course I was interested in what they had to say. Not least because I was just about to start this journey for myself.
In their own words, their mission is “to help you confidently move toward your training in the most rewarding way. [This community is] where information, love and support are generously shared. Whether you’re embarking on a new career, advancing your practice or anything in between, we’re all here to help you face the challenges ahead and beyond.”
On the site at the moment, you can find a series of 108 YTT Tips – short snippets of advice from qualified (and often renowned!) yoga teachers to prepare you for the teacher training journey (why 108?). But they’re about to start complementing this with another series of blog posts featuring people’s yoga journeys, of which mine is the first.
Titled ‘My yoga journey – from self-destruct to self-discovery‘, it’s the story of what happened in my life to bring me to where I am today. So hop over to the site, give it a read and let them (and me!) know what you think.
Oh, and thanks as ever for following :)
This Saturday, 26th March, I’m running what is probably the highest-profile race I’ve run yet – the 2016 World Half Marathon Championships.
[Not because I’m a super speedy athlete I might add, but because it happens to be taking place in my home town of Cardiff.]
It’s the first race I’ve run this year, and the first I’ve been involved in since the New York marathon, back in November of 2014. In fact I’ve only really been back running since January this year, having taken a year plus off due to complete and utter exhaustion after the madness that was throwing a marathon training schedule on top of the chaos that happened to be my life at that time. (Not yet read the rest of the blog? The ‘d’ word – divorce.)
Training to this point had been going fairly well – the mileage was creeping up, the long runs getting longer and the speed sessions easier. I was looking at at least a 2h10 which, when you consider my personal best of 1h54 was achieved over two years ago now, was something to be proud of.
Then two weeks ago I picked up a bug. First a spell of dizziness that had me off work for a couple of days and now a cold/cough that has landed on my chest and doesn’t really want to shift.
I ran yesterday for the first time in two weeks – just 2.3 miles, to test the water and stretch the legs – and it was ok but the thought of another 11 on top of that…not good.
And so I find myself sat here this morning faced with a familiar dilemma – with a week to go do I lay off the training and aim for the best possible health for the race or keep at it (albeit more gently) and run the risk of prolonging the illness and being less than well on the day.
The thing is I already know the solution is the former – trust in the training to date, safe in the knowledge that if I ran 13.1 miles a fortnight ago I can do it again in a week’s time. But those demons in my mind are at it again – you’ve let yourself down, you’re underperforming, you can do better, blah blah blah…
I should be long running today – the last one before the race – and instead I’m writing a blog post about not running! Ugh. I’ve learnt a lot since the last time around though – about listening to your body and not blindly sticking to the training schedule, and about letting these negative thoughts come, and then go.
So I’m choosing (trying to choose!) not to get caught up in the negativity today and instead I’m going to take it easy. I’ll be wandering to the farmer’s market (yum!), catching up on some TV (Grey’s, Scandal and Madam Secretary if you’re interested) and working out how I can create some space in this coming week to rest, fuel and mentally prepare for next Saturday. Because that’s the best I can do.
But it’s tough. And if you’re a runner (indeed any athlete) reading this I’m sure it’s a familiar story. Why don’t things ever run smoothly eh?!
Week two of teaching and wow was that an education and a half.
Feedback from my students tells me it was a great week – they understood the instructions, were comfortable with the pacing, enjoyed the challenge (and the relaxation!) and appreciated the one-on-one attention and adjustments.
I however had a bit of an internal meltdown – with one new student taking all of my attention I felt I neglected the rest of the class. I found myself getting flustered, losing my words, worrying what they might think of me…
I do remember thinking part the way through that if I at least appeared calm they might believe that I was calm and, though I’m not sure I totally believed it at the time, seemingly it worked.
The truth is though, I came away that night feeling thoroughly beaten.
Until, that is, I got home from my own class (currently on a Tuesday I teach for an hour, 6-7pm, and then practice for an hour and fifteen, 7:30-8:45pm!) and realised that it was probably the best experience I could have ever had.
Think about what I learnt:
Now just imagine how long it might have taken me to find out this stuff. Imagine if it had been as a professional teacher, in a paying class.
Yep it wasn’t perfect (by any means!) but getting to learn all of this in my third ever class? It’s actually kind of brilliant if you think about it. So test your teaching folks, and soak up all the learning along the way!
As I sit here today planning my next yoga classes I’m remembering what it was like to actually teach for the first time last week – nerve-wracking and exciting but also surprisingly calming.
It felt a lot like coming home I guess, which is exceptionally reassuring. And comforting too.
This is my path. I’m happy I’ve found it.
Some of the negative feelings I was having towards myself last week (see ‘Let it go’) hinged almost entirely on things that someone else had told me about myself. But the thing is, I know that path is a doomed one – I do know better than that.
In the past couple of years, I’ve come to understand who I am. Not who I’ve been told I am, nor who people might think that I am, but – deep down – who I really am.
I also know what I want to do and I know what makes me happy. (And sad, and calm, and angry of course. As well as everything in between.)
I know that the only one in control of how I feel, and how I behave, is me.
And I know that I’m now a more authentic, and better, me. Who has more authentic and better life.
But of course it’s not all quite that simple and rosy. Because even when we’ve identified that better and truer self, there are things we’ve been told about ourselves (as seen last week) that hang around and rear their ugly heads, often at the most inopportune of times. Not to forget insecurities we’ve grown attached to that come back to haunt us, unwanted and unbidden. All of which can trigger a host of negative thoughts and inauthentic behaviours that we end up pretty ashamed of.
Maybe these moments don’t quite veer us off our path (although sometimes this too) but they most definitely jar with us and create some uncomfortable discord.
It’s not just the scenario I talked about last week either, where some negativity from an old relationship came back to haunt me. It can also happen with more innocent, even well-meaning, things…
Just a couple of examples…
[Interlude: that sounds like a pile of of parental issues there but I assure you I had a very happy childhood, and I have very lovely parents! The point I’m making is that there’s all this life detritus, from everywhere, around us that we have to work through and process to uncover the true us inside.]
Self-observation and self-awareness
Self-observation and self-awareness of course is the key (and a lack of negative self-talk – that horrible, mean little voice in your head). Which, yes, requires work. But it’s work that’s essential if you’re to understand yourself and separate what is really, truly you from all the noise, finally finding fulfilment and living a life that you can be both proud of and at peace with.
It makes sense, no? In understanding yourself – your positive and negative traits, your strengths and weaknesses, your core values and desires – you know both what is you and what isn’t you plus you can recognise those triggers that set you off down an inauthentic path.
It’s one of the reasons I’ve come to love yoga so much: it’s helped me practise standing back – to simply observe, and come to understand. And of course, as T.K.S. Desikachar said, “Yoga is the practice of observing yourself without judgment.” so it helps with that too.
It’s also taught me how to find space, within which to pause and decide how to act.
But even if you’re not (yet!) sold on yoga, you can start to understand yourself better, and begin finding your own truth by asking a couple of simple questions:
What does the real you – the best you – look like? How do they behave?
What about the circumstances that allow this person to be?
Plus the flip side:
What does that ‘not you’ version of you look like? And how do they behave?
Then…what about the circumstances that allow this person to be?
Then with answers to these questions you can start to identify where you might make changes in your life – to better align with your truth, and allow your true, best self to thrive.
My own best self
My best self is a caring, creative and soulful person – intuitive and sensitive to those around her. She’s passionate, present, calm and positive. Driven to helping others and making a contribution to the world.
My not so good self is often short, snappy and impatient. Incredibly negative towards themselves. And too quick to judge others too.
For me to be my best self, I have to step back and live to what I today saw described as my natural rhythm – plan downtime, protect my boundaries, address conflict and avoid negativity. Be capable of saying no when it’s needed, of listening to my body always and of investing in me-time as required. Switching off from social media! Reading. Doing yoga. Getting out to run. Writing. And, importantly, spending time in the outdoors.
I have to eat well (and avoid gluten!). To surround myself with only those people who make me feel good. To not worry too hard about trying to please everyone. To celebrate imperfections – both mine and everyone else’s.
To check in with myself and decide my own response to a situation. And to be ok with whatever that is (no judgement or negative self-talk remember!).
There’s still a way to go of course, but what’s most important is that I’m working on it. And I know that I’m my best version now, far more than I was before. Plus, it’s a journey right – a lifelong goal. And a good one, I think too – after all, it’s all any of us can really hope for isn’t it, to be the best self we can be?
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