“As long as we feel the separation from our true identity, we will always suffer spiritually.” (Muktibodhananda, Swami. Hatha Yoga Pradipika . Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India. Kindle Edition.)
I was sitting pondering this quote having my coffee waiting to go to yoga class the other day in Oxford and it struck me that connection and the lack thereof has been coming up a lot for me lately in one form or another. This was essentially the key theme of a recent podcast, which I dip into quite a lot, from Tara Brach, Spiritual Reparenting (tarabrach.com). She’s a wonderful teacher and speaker whose lectures have often reminded me not to worry quite so much whilst reconnecting me to some essential truth and putting me back on track when I’ve been feeling slightly lost, or disconnected, either from life in general, or from myself.
That listlessness is not uncommon for me during the dark days of winter and coupled with the amount of change I've had recently (even though it's all really good stuff!) and the feeling of not being in my routines, I have had that sense of drifting that comes to us all from time to time. It’s an illusion, I’m as rooted as I ever was, and certainly nothing is really wrong, but if left unchecked, it can quickly become a negative downward spiral.
It’s really important for me to remember to stay connected and not sink down into it. That connection takes various forms for me including staying present in my body, true to myself through my thoughts and actions (true identity), connecting with other people and connecting with the universe. It always brings me back to gratitude and the knowledge that I am a very, very lucky person with a wonderful existence on this planet, which I absolutely must not take for granted or forget to make the most of.
Spring has arrived and with it a great uplifting energy as the sap rises and the sun shines. It’s such a relief. To me, it feels like coming out from under a cloud of free-floating anxiety and the slightly oppressive darkness of winter, which I recognise only in hindsight really, into a lighter, more gentle and upbeat mood. Letting go of several things that were no longer serving me, a spiritual decluttering if you will, removing blocks and barriers to happiness, and returning to my season, the season of Wood and of Kapha, help too.
Whatever tradition you look at becoming united with a greater purpose or higher consciousness is usually a central tenet together with finding love and gratitude in everyday life. I’ve also found that finding connection to the physical world helps me to stay rooted in myself and sense of who I am. Yoga , of course, serves this purpose for me perfectly. It’s physical, mental and emotional nourishment on every level, getting me into my body, connecting my mind and feelings to my body and connecting me to others as I share my practice through teaching. It just generally makes me a nicer person to be around as well.
I’m a big fan of everyday spirituality, and so doing the washing up, making my bed and starting with the small domestic stuff can also be spiritually uplifting and connect me to this otherness. I find the idea of these simple, mundane acts being transformed from chores into acts of self-care very appealing. I love finding spirituality in the everyday, otherwise mundane stuff that’s essential to healthy living. I was recently watching Marie Kondo on TV and she takes this approach in her tidying up philosophy. Getting the whole family involved, thanking the house in gratitude for its shelter and protection, finding joy in what you have. Connecting in love and gratitude. Being mindful. Fabulous.
I’ll be co-teaching a workshop this month at Billesley Manor Hotel near Stratford-upon-Avon with a colleague, John Earls, who is the founder of The Mindfulness Movement here in the Midlands. We will be bringing Yin Yoga and Mindfulness Meditation practices together in a two-hour workshop on Sunday 24th March at 10am. I’m really looking forward to teaching a seasonally focused Yin practice for Spring that encourages looking within and connecting to self as a foundation for opening up and connecting to the big wide world in a positive way. The flyer for the workshop can be found here. For more about Yin Yoga check out yinyoga.com, Bernie Clerk’s fantastic website for all things Yin. I hope you can come along to that or to any of my classes soon. In the meantime, happy connecting. Peace and Namaste.
I went to hot yoga tonight. It was full 90 minute Bikram-style practice. Tough and intense. And utterly what I needed after the cold, dreary day lying in bed and feeling under par with the tail end of a stubborn ear infection that has refused to let up since Christmas. I feel like I have been steam cleaned.
I have to admit I was a bit unsure, but I’d made a commitment to help out with cleaning up after (Karma Yoga – service to others) and it was important to me to keep that. Partly my fear to do it came from past experience. I had a very consistent Bikram practice back in Shanghai before my thyroid issues took over and I had to stop because it was contributing to the crazy endocrine imbalances I was experiencing. I loved it, but my body did not. But today is not the same as then. I’ve learnt that sometimes I have to override my brain and listen to my body. I was feeling cold, achy and stuck. Hot yoga was just the thing.
I’ll never go back to an exclusively hot yoga practice. I’ve learned a lot since then and it can be summed up in three words – balance is key. Finding balance (for me, which may be different to someone else) and learning to trust intuition has taken time and experimentation. Not to mention getting to know my limits and what my body likes. Today it was 90 minutes of Hot 26 and thank goodness for having that option. Other days it is sitting still and finding a space just to get very quiet and calm. I've come to learn what is needed when.
What does that mean for you? Well, I’d say it means try things and find what you like whether it’s hot yoga, hatha, ashtanga, vinyasa, pranayama, yin, pilates, a walk, a run, weights, or just some simple meditation…and learn the basics well to build a strong foundation for whatever variations you then try. It’s like trying to write a good detective novel. You have to know and understand the form before you can play around with it safely. This, I find, is also true in most of life. Mix it up. Rest when you're tired, move when you're not, but always be honest with yourself and tune in to your body - sometimes a walk or a stronger yoga practice brings energy to a mind that feels tired and tells the body it is too, even when it is not.
As I’ve mentioned before, all yoga comes from the same place and is a variation on a theme. Start with learning the basics first. Why not try a Yoga Fundamentals or Yoga Basics course with a teacher near you? If you are in my area, I’m running one again in February following a highly successful workshop series in January! Learn to listen to your body…. it really is smarter than you. Getting on the mat is a great way to do that. Peace and Namaste.
In the Western world, we have come to know yoga largely as a physical practice, through the asanas. "Asana" is the Sanskrit word for “posture” or “pose”. Traditionally, the physical side of yoga is known as Hatha yoga. All modern physical practices of yoga, from the Ashtanga Vinyasa styled by Pattabhi Jois as a form of athletic conditioning for soldiers, to the Bikram yoga (hot yoga) devised by Bikram Chowdry, to Yin Yoga from Paul Grilley and Bernie Clarke, to Jivamukti from Sharon Gannon and David Life, and many, many others, they are all rooted in Hatha yoga asana.
But yoga does go beyond the physical practice. No summary of yoga is complete without referencing the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. (https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/who-was-patanjali). They are a series of instructions framed as verses written in Sanskrit that date back at least 2000 years. It is said to be the first real attempt to classify and define yoga, which had traditionally been simply passed on from individual guru to student.
The first mentions of Yoga crop up millennia even before Patanjali’s Sutras, in the Vedas, ancient, mystical, religious texts from India that pre-date Hinduism. Yoga was a gift from the gods to the rishis and sadhus (wise men).
Then we have the Hatha Pradipika, which is essentially a treatise on yoga and its purpose(s) written during the fifteenth century by Svāmi Svātmārāma, and it is one of, if not the most, influential of texts on Yoga around today, although there are of course others too such as the Bhagavad Gita (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhagavad_Gita).
The word Hatha itself is made up of two parts, ha (sun) and tha (moon). The word Yoga derives from the Sanskrit for yoke. Joining together. Creating connection, most obviously connecting movement and breath, but also conceptually, energetically and physically connecting the mind and body, the masculine (Shiva) and feminine (Shakti) energy we all carry, the right and left sides of the brain, higher and baser self or instincts.
In the Hatha Pradipika, as I’d hope every teacher can tell you, Ashtanga (meaning eight limbs) Yoga, which must be distinguished from Jois’s Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, is found to be not just postures, which are only one of the eight limbs, but also a complete system for living a good life (https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/the-eight-limbs).
In context, it is worth remembering that this is a tradition that is effectively a design for life and heavily influenced by the idea of karma and achieving release from the cycle of reincarnation by living in a good and pure way. Raja yoga. This may be practiced in many ways through how you treat yourself, others and how you live your life, even how you think, and goes beyond what your downward dog looks like or whether you can get your leg behind your head.
The Pradipika makes this clear quite early on,:
Hatha yoga systematically prepares the body, mind and emotions, so there will be no difficulties when the aspirant is undergoing higher states of consciousness.. ……. Hatha yoga is the means and raja yoga is the goal. Hatha yoga is the stairway leading to raja yoga. Once the sadhaka (aspirant) reaches the stage of raja yoga, hatha yoga ceases to be necessary for him.
(Muktibodhananda, Swami. Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Kindle Locations 659-661 and 664-666). Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India. Kindle Edition.)
But don’t worry, you don’t have to embrace all aspects of Yoga to get on the mat and find some benefit. It is not a religion after all and it is surprisingly undogmatic. It embraces all faiths and all students. Where ever you are at today is just fine.
Through hatha yoga you regulate the body secretions, hormones, breath, brain waves and prana; then the mind automatically becomes harmonious. (as above)
This itself happens slowly over time and if that is all you ever want or need from it that’s just fine too. The immense physical and mental benefits a yoga practice brings about are an added bonus even if they’re not the ultimate goal set down by the sages. We are not all suited to the more esoteric, spiritual path. The idea is though that eventually you get there anyway (even if it is not in this lifetime!), that it just happens as your practice deepens and grows.
My jury is still out on reincarnation and the cycle of samsara. I have no way of knowing for sure really. But I have certainly found it to be true that:
Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah (Yoga quiets the chatter of the mind).
And in this day and age, is there anyone of us who does not need a little bit more of that?
Merry Christmas if you celebrate it and happy holidays to everyone whatever your purpose, faith or philosophy. I hope to see you on the mat soon.
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.
You know, when I first decided to give up the (very fun and interesting, but) hectic Shanghai life I was leading and come back home, I was not quite prepared for how quickly things would progress with my plans here - in a very good way - and was quite sure I would have plenty of time to go for long walks and take a little time to rest. I have been doing that, don't get me wrong, but.... truth is, I'm a bit of a do-er, always have been, and today I had to have a chat with myself to just take a pause, a moment, to stop and to reflect. I realised I was in full on "doing" mode (my to-do list both keeps me sane and drives me crazy), so I just stopped and took stock. I find this a pretty useful exercise for quelling anxiety and regaining perspective when I feel myself tipping over into what I call "chunnering" (that jangly overwhelmed feeling that comes from time to time - the "oh my goodness, HOW am I going to get EVERYTHING DONE?!" feeling - plenty of deep breaths required).
Since I arrived back in the UK, I have been visiting friends and family, and it has been wonderful to see them of course, as well as making the most of the last of the summer by actually getting out there and walking both in the Cotswolds and in Spain (tick, tick). I have been checking out venues for yoga and that has been great too. I have been teaching yoga as well, which is always awesome. I have been sorting out life admin and insurance and cars and bank accounts and paperwork and etc etc etc (tick another few items off the list - add a few more). I have been to a midwifery and women's health conference in Cardiff, a yoga show in London, a thyroid health and nutrition conference in Bristol and a massage with essential oils workshop and training in Milton Keynes with an addiction research and therapy conference in Newcastle coming up soon. I've also joined and taken on a club leader role with the Women's Business Club (womensbusiness.club/woodstock) because starting up on your own can be quite isolating and they're such an inspiring, supportive bunch. So much for sabbatical! Although I am studying for a masters exam in December and I have booked up training for an Ayurvedic Apprenticeship with Annie McIntyre starting early next year and an advanced TTC for teaching Yoga and Mindfulness to Children in February 2019. Wah! These were all on my list and I am so very excited by all of this, but today I have to admit I hit a wall and it was a great reminder to just stop and smell the coffee in amidst it all. So much opportunity, so important to pace myself or really risk really over-doing it.
I find that so much of self-care, (the latest buzzword, I know, forgive me, but the concept has been around forever and is terribly important) for me is actually about taking a step back and not over-"doing", involves letting go of the to-do list just for a little bit and recognising that nothing terrible will happen when I do: IT WILL ALL GET DONE and mostly without me trying too hard to force it. I have to remember to have fun, bring a smile to whatever I am doing and relax, reset, restore - to put that on the list too - and today I just gave myself permission to do that. If we can't do that and simply enjoy the progress and the journey without continually striving for the next thing, then what's it all for? Anyway, that's where I am at for today. Next time I think I'll write a bit about my yoga and health journey. I really hope you'll keep reading. Love and namaste.