Without doubt, when I mention I'm a yoga teacher running my own classes, the most common response is "I'd love to try yoga, but I'm not flexible enough". This always gives me a bit of a chuckle really. Don't get me wrong - I am not laughing at people themselves when they say this - but it makes me reflect that so much of life is left unlived for some fear we hold. It may seem odd too that I find that funny. But it is. Because the best things I have in my life have come from being required to take a bit of a step into the unknown and overcoming fear of failing at something new. So I laugh in recognition and because I identify with the instinctive fear. This is a deeply rooted, limbic (fight or flight) brain response that has for thousands of years kept us safe in the face of very real danger. But in the context of yoga it seems a bit redundant to be afraid of not being good enough at it to give it a go. Flexibility is the outcome of practice not the beginning of it. Applying this principle to life more generally would also lead us to suppose we would never start anything until we'd mastered it I think, which is clearly not the case.
I came to yoga late in life by yogi standards. I had just moved to Australia to practice law in Sydney with a large, corporate firm in the city and was incredibly excited to be starting a new adventure in a country I had always dreamed of living in one day. I was lucky enough to get a house in Paddington, one of the beautifully restored terraces with wrought iron balconies that the area was known for, and there was a lovely old church with a hall round the corner. Walking to work one day I saw a clapboard sign advertising yoga early in the mornings. My only previous experience of yoga had been one class in a London gym six years before which I thought was a bit boring, was too much like hard work because I was stiff as a board and pretty weak in my big joints, and frankly, it just didn't really float my boat.
But for some reason I decided to go along to that church hall and that's when it all began. My then teacher, Sam Karolyi, made it accessible. She had such enthusiasm as well as knowledge and it was fun! After one of her classes I felt inexplicably happy and like I had really done something great. I was also at quite a different place in my life and ready to learn from her that looking after myself and my health meant more than going to the doctor for a pill. I'd had a terrible pseudomonas ear infection (highly resistant to most antibiotics) from diving the Great Barrier Reef and been on major antibiotics and this was swiftly followed by Rhubella (German Measles), all in the first month or so of being in Sydney. Work had suffered and I had not made a great impression in my new job. I was really not in good shape in any sense and I knew I needed some help. My doctor was the first doctor I had ever been to who used blood tests to find out what was going on with my endocrine (hormone) system. It was like all of these things came together and shoved me onto the path I am still on today in understanding and managing my health.
I continued to get sick and to keep going to the doctor. I felt like I could not get out of bed in the morning some days, and would need 14 hours sleep, which looking back had been something I had struggled with for a long time. I had skin rashes and awful water retention and it felt like I was depressed. He eventually referred me to a wonderful gynecologist, a fertility specialist, who identified my hormonal imbalance as PCOS. This led to my first ever nutritionist appointment. To be honest I had always thought these sorts of things were a bit of a waste of time or was entirely ignorant of the link between how I lived and how I felt - I just assumed the food I ate and the way I lived was fine. It was the same as what everyone else did, wasn't it? But at the same time food and diet had always been an issue. I had always had that sense of seeing friends eat and knowing that if I did in the same way I'd be a balloon and feeling like there was something going on with me that I just couldn't quite put my finger on. It had always been a real struggle to control my weight even when, as a teenager and in my twenties, I had done some crazy calorie restricting and deliberately drastically deprived myself of food to try to do so. But because I had been told you're just fat, eat less, I didn't know what else to do, that there was anything else you could do. It seems like a very different era when I consider the absolute wealth of knowledge there is today on this subject and associated conditions.
So I was ready and yoga had found me and the universe had put people I needed to help me at that time in my life. I began to educate myself on everything PCOS and food related. Around this time I was also beginning to realise that the long hours and the corporate law firm I had been hired by were not the right fit for me. So I went in-house as a legal consultant with a property fund and then the financial crisis happened and that was my Australian odyssey over. But only the beginning of my holistic health journey. I was more gutted to leave the yoga and the sailing behind than anything as well as friends of course. Overcoming that "failure" was tough, I went home with pretty much nothing and was looking at the prospect of trying to start again at the worst possible time job market wise. I have to acknowledge I am blessed with a couple of amazing friends who supported me through this tough time. But rather than kick back without a job for too long in the UK, I went to China after about six months. I had already lived in China and I had grown up in Singapore, so it wasn't such a stretch of the imagination. I went for a year to teach English just for something to do ...... and stayed for nine.
Shanghai is a fabulous city and there is never a dull moment. Great friends, wonderful experiences, but it's challenging to live there. The pollution of all varieties (air, water, sound) and environmental stress alone is enough to make it so. Coupled with some pretty dodgy food quality and a lack of decent health services in English, I must have been a bit ignorant of my own needs when I moved there or I would probably never have done it. However, I do believe in "everything for a reason" and I may never have been in a position to embark up on what I am doing now, had it not been for that decision to go there. After making progress in Australia, on the health front at least, I have to admit I backslid in Shanghai the first two years I was there from 2010-12. I ate whatever I liked and binged on pizza and really unhealthy food and I had put down my yoga practice too. Until my hair started to fall out, I was covered in an eczema-like rash on my body, my weight was out of control and most days I did not want to get up and leave my apartment. Something was really badly wrong and I knew it was to do with my endocrine system again and I was terrified because I had no idea where to go for help. So this time I really had to get serious and took matters into my own hands - there wasn't really anyone to go to about it anyway and the nice (extortionately expensive) dermatologist I saw simply said I was allergic to the sun, which made absolutely no sense at all - it was winter and I was never in the sun.
In the meantime, I had also found yoga in Shanghai with a great teacher from India who had set up his own studio there. I began to seriously practice again and in step with my food journey. I practiced, studied, went to workshops, read everything on food and nutrition, started investigating Ayurveda and TCM modalities, as well as many, many others, for health and wellbeing. I realised no pill was going to fix this. No pill had been invented and besides it was much more deeply rooted than that. I was pretty sure I had candida and did a full elimination diet and got off of all of the crap I had been eating. This was not easy, but it started the process and arrested my worse symptoms almost immediately. 60 days of full detox and what happened next was nothing short of miraculous for me. Not only did I get better physically, my head cleared and I began to feel better mentally. My hair regrew. The depression lifted. My periods went back to normal. I realised that there was a gluten issue. I cut grains as I seemed to be really sugar sensitive, I even cut fruit. Of course, it was not easy and required some major lifestyle adjustments. But it gave me my life back (and it has not been that strict forever since). I got really into the yoga having learnt that it balanced not only my endocrine system, but also my mind and body together.
Fast forward four years, having taken up running and completed the Shanghai half marathon, being in great health, I got promoted at work and it was a big job again. Stress. And I was having some personal upsets which were affecting me mentally - after all of my experiences I will never ever doubt the power of the body over the state of the mind and the absolute connection between the two. After about a year, things started to feel like they had before. Hair loss increased, weight came on, depression, I realised I had slipped back again, but also something had changed and there was something new.
Listening to a podcast one day I heard a Hong Kong based doctor talking about the thyroid and so I hopped on a plane and went to see her. Re-test and diagnosis, as suspected, indicated many of the old issues had resurfaced and it was likely due to stress (which spikes cortisol and upsets hormone balance) and increased toxic load from environmental factors like plastic (which all of my drinking water came in in Shanghai) and air pollution. I learnt that it's all connected and that my PCOS was but a symptom of an underlying lazy thyroid and other metabolic issues. A parasite, the candida back, chemicals in cosmetics and detergents I was using, gluten intolerance. Time for another overhaul. But she wanted to put me on a load of pills and that for me was not the answer. I wanted to get to the root of it. I knew it was food and lifestyle related because my gut was a mess and it had worked for me before. And it did again together with the help of some amazing essential oils I was introduced to. But it also played a major part in leading me to make the difficult decision of leaving Shanghai and returning home. It was the right time for many reasons, but maintaining my health was certainly key.
Sometimes this seems like a never-ending journey and an uphill struggle. Some days I just want to do nothing, eat a slice of pizza and an ice cream. But that really is the least of it and I have an amazing life full of good stuff that includes peace of mind and physical wellbeing the majority of the time (as well as delicious food!). When it dips it is nothing like as awful as it was before and I have the tools I need to control and maintain it. The first thing for me that had to happen was for my mind to open up a bit. A change of perspective - mental flexibility - with a willingness to try. Physical flexibility came much later and I'm still working on that as well as working on living in a more holistic way. But had it not been for a moment of, "I'll just try it and see what happens", when I walked past that church, I never would have found something that now sits at the heart of my wellbeing. I never would have looked at alternatives to pills and putting up with it.
I certainly haven't mastered this yet. Just like I haven't mastered yoga. I am still learning. What I do know though is that it is not a race, this is just life and most of the actual living is done along the way on the journey, not once you find yourself at your destination. Besides, show me one person who actually gets where they think they're supposed to be going in the end anyway and I'll show you nine who don't - fixed plans and ideas often come undone and that's often for the best too (despite our best efforts) as my Australia experience taught me.
"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" (Lao Tzu). So embrace it. Start. Take a step. Try a yoga class, flex your mind - I dare you :)
Thanks for reading if you've made it this far! It turned into a bit of an essay. Next month more on the origins of yoga and what it actually is (and it goes way beyond your downward dog and warrior series vinyasa). Love and namaste.