You have rekindled this fire inside me
And now I am burning, BURNING!So much so
That if I stepped into a stream,
The waters would carry this fire.
And all the oceans in the world
Would be set
With this mad passion.
You have rekindled this fire inside me
And now I am burning, BURNING!So much so
That if I stepped into a stream,
The waters would carry this fire.
And all the oceans in the world
Would be set
With this mad passion.
The slow passage of time
as I wait for you to appear to me. Deeper into the night I go
For your face o my Beloved.
Then slowly, too slowly for time
Your shadow emerges.
First, a glimpse,
Then clearer and clearer in the darkness.
Oh all this waiting was worth it,
For your flawed perfection.
For the knowledge,
That you were with me all along.
Though it took complete darkness
To know that you were there
According to statistics, one in four children in the US have been sexually molested. I don’t know what the statistics are in other parts of the country, but that is a big number. It means that every fourth person you meet has been in some way or other, sexually taken advantage of. I don’t know what the statistics are in Malaysia or in the UK where it happened to me but it could be similar. And yes, it did happen to me.
This was 29 years ago, when parents thought that the world was a safe place and that you could allow children to play securely and innocently. He was an acquaintance of my mother’s, someone she was taking a course with in Manchester, UK. It was already a rough time, as my father had sent me to my mother along with a letter that he was leaving her for a younger woman. She was devastated and I was confused.
How does a six year old even begin to describe the situation? It was a public place, and there was no pain involved but something about the situation didn’t feel right. I couldn’t even find the words to say what had happened and my mother was already upset, so I kept it quiet. Keeping it quiet however, did not mean that nothing manifested of it.
I’ve lived my life panicking every time a man stands too close behind me, and when a man assists me in child’s pose, my initial reaction is to stop breathing and freeze up until the message gets to my brain that I know the person and that it is OK to relax. It took me years to get used to the assist in downward facing dog where someone grabs you from the hips and pulls you back. Even now, there are only a few men I can relax into the assist with and I am extremely sensitive to the intention behind the touch.
It was never spoken of, but it has always been somewhere in the shadows.
And it wasn’t until two years ago that I had a vivid memory of the experience. My abuser had come from behind and he wasn’t rough, but he did touch me in an inappropriate way. A child might not know it in their mind, but children are sensitive receptors of touch. It was a lucky thing that there were other people around on the other side of the room or it could have been worse. I wanted to look out the window and he carried me until I could see. It was subtle but I did feel violated.
The event has been playing in the back of my mind for all this time.
‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears,’ old Buddhist proverb.
And so I must have been ready as the right teacher appeared. She had been through a worse experience than I had, relived the memory and come out the other side. I remember being in her class over a year ago, and the feelings surrounding the situation for me came up. Even from the first class, she noticed that I had trouble connecting to my sacrum and was coaxing me to bring breath into the area. It has been a slow process and part of the thing that made is so was my fear to face the assault.
It takes a lot to face these things but last Wednesday, something clicked. Ana Forrest, my beautiful teacher coaxed us to go on a quest towards identifying the blockages that keep us from being whole. In case of a traumatic event, a part of you remains in that time until you go back and free them. Ana said the magic words, telling us that the worst was over. We had survived and we were alive.
That, I think was what did it for me. I decided at the beginning of class that I would chase this fucker down so he could have less power over me. That intention must have been potent because even from the beginning as I was bringing breath down to my sacrum and pelvic area, the tremors began. They continued through core work and most of the class. Finally, when we got into Shavasana, they took over, wrecking my entire body and causing me to panic to the point of not being able to breathe. Luckily Claire, Ana’s assistant, lovingly stayed with me, gently touching my head and cueing me to keep breathing. As soon as we were out of Shavasana, I was a sobbing wreck.
It did not finish there.
Through the day, when I got home, I would sit down, start breathing into my sacrum and the shaking would start followed by sobs. Emotionally, I had to revisit that time of being confused, scared and betrayed. That feeling of being left alone overtook me, and most of all were the very strong feelings that as this was happening to me, my father, the one who was meant to flex his muscles (he was an ex footie player) and protect me was busy starting a new romance. He had let me down, and that’s where my belief that men leave you when you’re weak started.
There were some positives to it though. I was finally able to speak to my mother about it and gave the six year old a voice. She has been a rock through these times. She continues to be amazing, caring, calling me and supportive in my determination to get through this. She’s stuck through me in my crazy quest and called every day since.
We women are so much stronger in our compassion than we give ourselves credit for.
On Thursday I went back. The tremors started early, and towards the end, we were in a compromising Frog pose with a big roll under our bellies. That’s when they fully took over my body. A big part of me wanted to leave the pose and run out of the room. Another part of me was absolutely adamant to chase this fucker out of my body. Ana stayed with me through almost all five minutes of the tormenting ordeal where there were moments when I truly believed that I might die.
But I didn’t and here I am.
I’ve been a gaping wound all week. The memories, and the feelings surrounding them rise and fall like waves. They take over me and I am a shaking mess all over again. Sleep has been sometimes easy but most of the time not. I’ve had nightmares and gone to some really dark places in my mind, but as much as it scares me, I don’t want to put a temporary salve on this.
This will be a tough ride but I want to live my life fully so I am choosing to go through this. The other option is to live my life behind a safe wall where ‘fine’ and ‘comfortable’ are good enough. They are really not so I am living the days occasionally getting thrown into my past knowing that only by facing the nightmares will I be able to shine light on them.
The first 200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training I did, I was recovering from a breakup. This time, I will be so much more vulnerable as I head into another time of big change. Sometimes though, it is in times of darkness like these that you learn to find your own light. I could bury it and stick a positive affirmation on it, but that’s not where the work is done. There is greatness and magic in the world however, as what you need always gets provided to you. In my case, I have a strong and loving bond with my family even though they are far away, a generous and solid community that holds me in their arms, wonderful friends and a nuturing yoga practice.
I am also taking steps to protect myself now. Where I would spread my love without fear of backlash before, right now, I am a bit more cautious. Where I see threat of unnecessary hurt, I step back. Some friends will taper away. This is when you know the ones who are leeching on your life force, the ones who only want you when you are light and easy. If you have a partner, this is when you know a weak person from a strong one.
In 2012, a few months before I went into my first 200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training, I made a radical decision. I decided that for a year, I would observe Brahmacharya. Named for the state of searching for the ‘Great One, Supreme Reality, or Self,’ Brahmacharya is one of the five Yamas according to Yogic texts. In Vedic traditions in refers to the state of celibacy one chooses during the life stage of being an unmarried student and fidelity when married. In modern times, it is better known as a state of being sexually responsible. In Hindu and Buddhist traditions, Monks practice Brahmacharya their whole lives as it is considered necessary for their spiritual practice.
It wasn’t a decision that required a lot of consideration on my end. I loved the sound of the word, ‘Bharmacharya,’ and something about doing it felt completely right. I chose the more strict sense of the word, not only refraining from the sexual act, but also anything that could lead to it including kissing, extreme alcohol consumption and situations where I am alone with a man I am attracted to in a private setting.
As soon as I had decided on it, it was like I had donned a veil that made me sexually invisible. There was a sense of liberation in being able to let it go and practice my Yoga, learn my texts and most of all, learn more about myself. Once I had taken the whole dynamic out of the picture, I found a lot of freedom. I learned to walk in my own skin without trying to gather the attention or to please a dominant male figure.
A lot came up in that time but once the year was up, and as I was ready to lift the veil, my beloved father passed away. Now that opened up a whole other can of worms and Brahmacharya was extended. The relationship between a daughter and a father is always something pretty amazing. My father, no matter what he did was my hero. Whenever he was in a room, his was the only presence that mattered to me. We had our ups and downs of course. When we disagreed there were so many strong emotions running around that the charge was palpable. It was the love that was also the double-edged sword. When he hurt me, I would lash out as strongly but the love was so deep that when I hurt him, it was akin to taking a knife to my own heart.
My father was a bit of a narcissist in that he never saw how his actions hurt the people who loved him. Growing up I was used to him getting distracted either with a new relationship, a new love interest or a new work venture and he would disappear during those times. Those were the days when he didn’t return my calls, or was simply not available. Then when the thing that had his interest for the moment went to shits or he got bored of it, he would be back and I would welcome him. It hurt like hell but I was young not to see the cruelty and selfishness in it so it became the norm.
When he passed, the patterns that I had carried on from my relationship with him to my relationship with other men came to light. Of course, I never loved anyone quite as strongly. How could you love an employer, friend or lover as much as you love your own father? Not even close. But I did notice that in my relationships with men, I had been willing to accept a degree of cruelty. I’m not saying that the men in my life have been cruel, not all of them anyway, but there have been acts of cruelty that I had previously quickly forgiven and even sometimes apologised for. In doing so, I had been cruel to myself and reaffirming the belief that I was not worthy and therefore it was my responsibility to hold things together. That was a pretty big one to see and a bigger one to disprove. Thanks goodness for the friends who see your light even when you can’t.
There is something to be said for not being in a romantic relationship and seeing these patterns. I haven’t been a monk where emotions are concerned. Of course, I’ve had crushes and emotional interests but the commitment to my practice has held me from getting into going forward with a relationship. I had nothing to lose. I’d spent my entire twenties almost continuously in long-term relationships. The thing is, when you are in one, you’re so caught up in the highs and lows of it that you can’t step back and say, ‘wait a minute, here’s that behaviour that I am repeating.’ I’m not saying the change is immediate but like with everything else, you have to notice the pattern to change how you act to it. That has been my greatest lesson.
I have many lessons to learn, I’m sure, but it has been three years and eight months since I committed to a state of learning these lessons on my own. This has in a way become a crutch to save myself from complications and the possibility of pain, but what is life without some complication. It might be time to opening myself to lessons that involve another dynamic now.
In about two weeks, I enter into my second 200 Yoga Teacher Training. The main teacher, the amazing Shiva Rea is a true Tantrist. This time instead of slow assimilation to practice, it will be a month away in an insulated situation, but once the month is done, I think it is time I consciously lift the veil of Brahmacharya that I’ve been wearing all this time.
To victory in facing fears, taking risks and standing in the discomfort of the fire until change is ready to happen. Jai!
Thirteen years ago I stumbled into my very first yoga practice. It was at my local gym in Malaysia where the room was air-conditioned to be almost freezing and the teacher was jumping from one pose to another. In my second class with her, she got us to do drop-backs with a wall. The next day, my lower back felt really tweaky and uncomfortable. Needless to say, I never went back to her and resigned myself to the gym.
I am of the hyper mobile, super flexible variety of human being, whose primary physical activity in my youth started with dancing and cheerleading. I have sprained my left ankle about four times, my right one three times and have a dodgy right knee. Anyone who performs or does competitive sports would know that the nature is, if it’s in season and you get injured, you keep going. As a result my left leg is still prone to injury and my right knee has days of protest. It didn’t get easier as I got older. By my late twenties, I had a pretty back lower back and my right shoulder was pretty mangled.
Then someone suggested I try yoga. Due to my fear of chiropractors, physiotherapists and doctors in general, I gave it a go. It was a bit of a shop around to find something I could stick with. I tried Bikram, and although I loved the heat, hyper-extending legs did not work with my ankles and knee. Not only that, my fiery personality seemed to get even more so, which really doesn’t bode well when work requires you to interact with people a lot.
It was only by chance that I looked on Google and found a different studio near where I worked. It started with an Introductory Pass, which at the time was $25 for two weeks. It blew my mind! There was still the element of heat but being told not to hyper-extend anything made everything about a hundred times harder. I would go into this place with carpet that smelled horrible and big classes, and by the end of the classes I wouldn’t know which way was up and which was down. Shavasana came as a relief. By the end of two weeks, I was hooked.
This was Vinyasa.
It was in no way easy and every time I got one move down there was something else to learn. Then there were these teachers who would give me the shits by asking me to get out of ‘my spot,’ and on occasion move me to the front. Sometimes I would even cry in class. For the first time in ages though, my body felt good. I loved that no two classes and no two teachers were the same. There was personality in the practice. There was heart.
At first I practiced like a mad woman. The harder and hotter the class, the more chaturangas, the more I would push myself through it. What happens however, is when you get tired you lose form. I was tired in every way possible and one of the teachers sat me down and told me to take a break.
So I did, and went to do a week of Iyengar.
It was hellish! Sitting still was not my forte and I got really impatient with all the props involved. I would get into a pose and fidget like someone coming off hard drugs, but the precision of Iyengar is amazing! After a week my back felt fabulous and I went back to Vinyasa with all the new alignment points I’d learned.
Then three years ago something called me to do my first 200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training. All I wanted to do was know more about this practice but the seven months of training were priceless and surprisingly, I came out wanting to teach. In December 2012 I finished Teacher Training, in January 2013 my father passed away and by February I had boxed my high heels and left the corporate world.
On the 12th of April 2013 (my 33rd birthday), I taught my first Community Class in BodyMindLife. Two years later, I am still there.
It was in no way the ending of a journey, but a beginning. In a world of blond, 6’ handstanding vegan yoginis who like kale smoothies I am most definitely different. Being more mobile than strong means that arm balances come very slow and one moment of not being aware means an injury. Flexibility is a great thing, but needs to be balanced with strength. My continuous work is in not going all the way into bendy poses just because I can and not to practice injured as it brings about other injuries. It is a lesson I seem to have to keep learning again and again. As I type this, I am recovering from two displaced ribs, and a hamstring and a wrist injury. Note, trying to lift a scooter is probably a bad idea on any day. After all my resistance, I am working a physio and have magically found the most amazing CrossFit coaches at CrossFit Black to help my strength conditioning.
Yet yoga continues to be my first love and as I teach and learn, I’ve discovered that yoga is not just asana. My practice has changed through the years. I still love those hot sweaty classes with 50 students breathing together, but I also love waking up in the morning and losing myself in an hour of ground based, deep Yin. Just about a year ago, I started meditating and even within that it keeps changing.
This practice has taught me compassion and love, and being peaceful in joy and sorrow. It has taught me acceptance and that it is OK to not be strong all the time. It has taught me that drama is just a distraction and a good life can be lead without the fluff. It has taught me that the tendencies I have on the mat are often the same ones I have in my daily life. It has taught me that things end but that doesn’t mean you discount what happened, and that new beginnings happen. We are ever changing beings and more than learning poses or how to sit still, we are constantly learning about ourselves. Within this practice I have found family, community and connection, and the realisation that between the blacks and whites of wrong and right, there are they greys of the in between.
I’ve realised now that it doesn’t need to be any one way. Some days you need that practice that challenges you physically and other days you just need to do the simple stuff and reconnect with your breath. Some days practice is easy and without resistance, and other days you go in with all this stuff and practice is a nightmare. Some days you go into practice and you’re laughing all the way and other days, you are a ball of sweat and tears at the end of the practice. But you don’t have to be any one way to practice, not a certain body type, or weight or age. You come as yourself on that day, in that moment and whatever you do is perfect.
More than the teacher, my practice is based on how I am on that given day.
And this in itself has been a journey. It is discovering that yoga is not one thing. I’ve had the privilege of learning and practicing with some of the best teachers in Australia and Internationally, and at the end of it, yoga is a journey of self-discovery. You learn from the different teachers but the magic is in finding your yoga. As a teacher I have learned that what I do and what I offer might vary. It is not my place to tell students about their practices, bodies or beliefs but to share what I know so they can explore. All we can do is try as much as we can to meet students where they are and move with them to wherever we can go together.
I still believe that there is magic in the practice and it is still my first love, but the journey continues and is ever evolving. As I teach, I am also learning and as students are learning in my classes, they are also teaching me. I am ever grateful to my teachers and to the students who light up my classes, and most of all my community for being there. I’m hoping that my learning never ends.
Next stop, Prana Flow in Greece, June 2015.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of ‘home’. Now my understanding of this concept is about the same as my understanding of motherhood. It is a mental understanding, but emotionally, there is so much mystery and ambiguity. My mother is so certain of her home. She is certain of where she comes from, where she belongs and where she will end up. Growing up, she used to tell me that I should feel such and such a way towards a place, a country etc., and yet, at 34 although I know my history, culture, where I came from, I am still unsure of what home is.
I’m certain I that I am not the only one who feels this way.
Perhaps this is the plight of children whose homes were broken early on in life or whose parents moved around through the early years. You are barely able to land before being uprooted again, a new adventure, a new journey and new people coming in and out of your life. Comfort zones get shifted so much that when you grow up, you don’t quite know where it is. Connections are built and then shortly thereafter they are lost in the ether. It gets a bit easier but you wonder if it is because you have grown quite desensitised or if it because you just don’t have the courage to let your connections get as deep as they used to.
Perhaps, there is a fear that if you let yourself land, the earth will again be ripped out from under you and you are free falling through nothingness.
But does that mean that you never want to stay?
Does that mean that you have not the desire to ground down and know that you are safe, that you never have to go anywhere else again?
Perhaps to stay is what you want, but you have become so used to not having that comfort zone that it somehow has become your comfort zone. To stay, to trust, to come up against barriers but to wait it out and keep moving in one direction instead of changing course has somehow for you become the uncomfortable.
At some point if you’re lucky, reality hits. Something prompts you to sit down with yourself and look, really look at where you are and what you want in your life. The decision needs to be made to stay or go.
Starting over is always an option but to what end?
But to stay?
To let people into your life again?
To open your home to friends and allow them to become family?
To open your heart to another person and in extension their family, friends, culture, history? Trying to navigate two lives, two personalities.
Oh how terrifying!
In the end though, it comes down to a decision.
You, the rootless wanderer, do you dare put your roots down and let them grow?
Can you commit to your practice knowing that in time your views, your body, your limitations will change and truths will be uncovered that might not be so easy to digest. Could you jump into the ether of meditation knowing that it gets deeper and deeper. Are you brave enough to say ‘yes’ to something two months, six months or a year in advance as a way of saying to someone, ‘I want you to still be in my life in that time.’ Can you stay with a job as the responsibilities increase and you become more of who you were meant to be. Could you possibly be with a person, going forward, hitting a barrier, waiting it out and then going forward a bit more, to hit another barrier again, your patience tested to the limit but your heart given the chance to slowly expand.
Perhaps this is your version of transformation to fire. A situation so scary you just want to close your eyes, your soul, your life again, but you know who you are. The reason it was so hard to commit was because you knew that once you did, you would give it everything that you had.
Through fear, so you committed.
So here you are.
Giving it everything you have, everything you are, risking your heart, your soul and the only life you have ever known.
Open and vulnerable, you just put your feet down finally and let yourself land in the unknown.
And perhaps, that is the only way to know ‘home’.
There is always a time of year when it is a bit introspective, when you pull back a little bit and spend some time inside yourself. Yes, those who know me might argue that that’s how I spend most of my time out of work, teaching and the occasional socialising but this month for me it takes on a different level altogether. It is currently day 18 of the Muslim fasting month, Ramadan and although it might come as a surprise to a lot of people, I do observe it. In fact, there is something about this act of abstaining that fills me up.
I wouldn’t usually write about this as I think my personal beliefs are my own, but I do realise that I belong to a community and within this community, for a lot of people, I might be the only Muslim person they get to connect with like this. Of course, some people might question how good a Muslim I really am, but that is not for a human to judge. I am just sharing an experience that a lot of people find completely foreign and unknown.
Ramadan for those who don’t know, is a month according to the Hijra or Islamic calendar when Muslims all around the world take to abstaining from food, water, sex or anything that includes putting things into the body, from the crack of dawn until the sun sets for a duration of 30 days. It is not a cleanse or a diet, and in fact, because no water is allowed during the day, some might argue that it isn’t really healthy for the physical body. One can also argue that constantly being on one cleanse or another through the year isn’t really a sign of a sound mind, so to each their own. Ramadan is more a mental, emotional and spiritual practice.
During the evenings, there is a strong focus on community where people often gather for Iftar (breaking of fast) and big prayer gatherings, either at home or at the mosque. A lot of people have the view that once the sun goes down we gorge ourselves until we can’t move anymore and although this isn’t necessarily true, I do believe that we perpetuate this belief.
There is so much more to this month.
Different cultures around the world ‘teach’ Ramadan in different ways. It is only compulsory to Muslims once they have reached puberty, and only then if they are sound of mind and healthy. In my culture, the Malay culture (my name is Azra and it’s not because I had some hippy parents who decided to give me a unique name), we start ‘playing’ with fasting at about the age of 9. We might go a few hours from 9:00am – 12:00noon and then with time extend it. By the age of 12, most of us are comfortable doing it all day.
My own understanding of this month has taken on it’s own form of yoga and has changed with the years. When I was a child, I fasted out of the fear that if I didn’t fast, then I wouldn’t get to celebrate Eid, the celebration at the end of Ramadan. After my grandmother passed, I didn’t care about Eid anymore but I fasted out of the fear of getting roasted in hell if I didn’t and I pretended that Eid mattered because it was supposed to. While I was in Malaysia, it was the family thing to do, then my first couple of years here, I had friends from Pakistan and Indonesia who did it with me. Then there were a couple of years when I didn’t participate at all.
In the last couple of years however as my yoga practice deepened, it has taken on a different meaning to me. Ramadan for me is a part of my life, a part of practice. It is this month in the year that I pull myself back and spend more time than usual in quiet contemplation. As it is winter, the crack of dawn here is at around 5:30am, so I am awake at around 4:00am. In this silence, I have my morning meal, write in my journal, meditate and at around 5:30am, start a slow yoga practice.
My practice in this month changes. It is more sensitive and compassionate, and I go into poses in degrees instead of just jumping in. I modify where I wouldn’t usually and take rests when I feel they are needed. It is true that when you have less fuel, you have less energy, but I’ve also learned, that the less you move, the ‘heavier’ you will feel and in winter, it is this movement that keeps you warm. I remember when I was in university in Malaysia and most of the boys would disappear during the daytime in Ramadan (sleeping) only to emerge when the sun was about to come down. It’s great on paper, but really it makes you more lethargic than just going about your business.
And you are meant to go on like you are not fasting anyway.
The whole purpose of this month is to understand suffering. In places where people are without, they don’t get to sleep all day or sit in air-conditioned rooms or take a break. Without food or water, life goes on, as it should for people observing Ramadan. It is a time when you get to see how you react to things when your blood sugar levels are low and what you reach for first when the prayer calls sound time to break fast. It is also a time when you consider what you put into your body. Honestly, since I don’t eat meat, this has become way easier for me. Plant based proteins are way easier for my resting digestive system to process and I don’t have to do a whole lot of planning. A good stew, soup or broth often does enough.
Ramadan, done consciously and it is a whole lesson in getting to know yourself.
It is also an act of community.
I don’t participate in the evening prayers because I like my solitude at the end of the day, but if I didn’t work most nights, and if I had more space, this would most definitely be the month when I would invite friends over to break bread with me. The act of sharing is very much part of this ritual, no matter how little you have. In my way, I suppose I am sharing by bringing little bits of things to people at work and deriving great satisfaction when they enjoy the treats.
Like in yoga, the essence of Ramadan is in self exploration but wrapped around it is this whole idea of building community.
It is so much more that just starving for the sake of gorging when the sun goes down.
This year, Ramadan decided to teach me another lesson. Right after the halfway mark, a massage kicked my body into a whole other level of detox. As I write this, I am recovering from a cold, but am still suffering from a painful chesty cough. The heaviness in my chest reminds me of how it felt when I had childhood asthma right after my parents split up. If you believe in the correlation of the body and the emotions like I do, illness to the respiratory system or chest area is a sign of the body releasing some trauma to the heart. It could be some unexpressed grief, or hurt or heartbreak. This is my body letting go of something that it has probably held on to for a while in a way that only she knows how.
Why now? Why not now? The body does things when it is ready. Letting my digestion rest and allowing myself to step back probably allowed my body to go into this exhale, this release of what it didn’t need anymore. It is by no means easy, but the body has it’s own wisdom in coping with things and for me this is the perfect month for it.