My Yoga, Your Yoga

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.

IMG_5165

Advertisements

Marks on the Wall – Reflections on Taking 40 Days

A few weeks ago, my mother came to visit.  In an effort to organise my kitchen in a way that makes sense to her, she used wall hooks to hang up my cooking utensils.  Unfortunately however, the wall hooks were hung with tape and since she left, they have been falling off the wall one at a time leaving no marks. It made me think of how we do a lot of things in life.  To save on initial time/money/effort, we tend to just stick things in place using methods that are cheapest/quickest/most efficient, but as we learn in management 101, the most efficient might not be the most effective.

This comes as a reflection as I have committed to a 40 Day Yoga Revolution.  This journey includes five days of studio practice, one day of home practice, a day of rest and meditations twice a day along with some journaling.  I am learning very quickly that it is one thing to just put your name on the board, but quite another thing to allow for the practice to really affect you.  Putting your name down without any real fire is akin to using sticky tape to hang a photo frame on the wall. It is the continuing practice that is a challenge, especially when you somehow end up teaching four classes a day.

In our world of quick solutions and instant changes 40 days does seem like a long time. However as the first week of the revolution ends, I am reflecting on all aspects of my life. By nature, I am highly impatient.  My right shoulder is a work in progress so side planks, arm balances, inversions and even crow pose sometimes makes it feel uncomfortable.  In my early days of practice, I would get extremely frustrated with the shoulder, and I would push through.  Then of course, I would hurt it, and not be able to do anything for a while.  Through the years, I have become more patient and careful with my shoulder and apart from every once in a while, it is progressing for the better.

Ah time… That thing that we all think we don’t have.  When I worked in the corporate world, nobody had enough time, or money, or anything.  Everything had to be done yesterday, and of course, tomorrow, everything falls apart.  In relationships, we are constantly rushing to get ‘there’, wherever there is – marriage, kids, etc.  Two of the biggest relationships of my life started within two months of knowing my previous partners.  Sure they lasted for four and three years respectively, but when times got challenging, we didn’t have the underlying friendship to allow for healthy communication.

Time is relative.

In our world, 40 days is a long time, but in the grand scheme of things, what is 40 days after all?

We can implement personal change in a day, but it is time that will tell us if this change sticks.  We can overhaul an organisation or a country just by writing a piece of policy but it is time that will let the change settle through the people involved.  We can look at someone and be attracted in an instant, but it is time that will allow us to see if the two lives can fit together.

Why am I doing this?

Like a lot of people, my life is pretty set.  I have done things the same way for long enough that it has become a safe cocoon.

As scary as it is for me, I am doing this to allow for the possibility of things coming into my life that will change it.   It could be a change in my meditation, a change in my practice, growth with work, the courage to lower my defenses when I do feel attraction to someone, a relationship that affects me more than just physically, a new idea or a new way of waking up in the morning.  I am here to let time do what it may.  Instead of using sticky tape, I am allowing for a mark to be left on the wall.

Change

Always at the Beginning

When my yoga instructors first introduced me to the concept of ‘the beginner’s mind,’ I thought it was a load of crap.  I mean, if you have to start from the beginning every time, how are you supposed to get anywhere? Most importantly, how was I supposed to know as much as I wanted to know if I had to start from the beginning of the book every time.  We only have so many hours in a day after all. It’s like walking from Sydney to London, and having to start from Sydney every time you make a stop.  When would you ever get there?

Then last week, I was attacked by a case of food poisoning.  That, coupled with 12 hour working days, seriously did me in.  And then of course, a couple of days after I got back to Sydney, thinking that I had made up for my sleep deprivation and dehydration, and that my internals were healed, I went into a progressive yoga class.  In my mind, I had spent reasonable hours in yoga classes and would be fine.

My body however, was saying something else.

But there I was anyway, jumping into class with a mind that thought that I could do everything.  The result, was sweaty and dire.  I found out that over a week, my muscles had weakened.  You see, my body was taking a beginner’s stance but my mind, with the aid of my ego (or in Sufi terms, nafs) was not having it.  At first I was in a state of physical struggle because my mind was saying, “you know this pose, you can go deeper. You did it last week!” while my body was going, “shut up, this is not working for me today!”  In this struggle I was not paying attention to my breath, therefore putting myself into the ever amazing ‘fight or flight’ mode.  The more annoyed I got, the faster my breath, and the more wobbly my poses got.  Once I took note of what I was doing and concentrated on my breath my poses lessened in depth. And then it was the two voices in my head arguing about what my body was going to do – Muz was probably right when he said that to some degree we are all schizophrenic.

People wonder how I have been practicing yoga for three years and I fall more in love with it every year.  In a power vinyasa flow, yes the sequence of the practice changes but in Bikram it is the same 26 poses in every class, and you see people doing the same thing four or five times a week for tens of years without getting bored.  Part of this awesome-ness, I think is attributed to the cultivation of the beginner’s mind.  We are taught to see every breath as a starting point, and every pose like it is new to us.  We are trained to not make assumptions about our bodies based on yesterday or even five minutes ago, instead focusing on right now.

If you watch a truly experienced yogi, they know what their bodies need in that instance. You might see them break it out in full jump-backs and upward facing dogs and just like that switch to modifications, and almost just as quickly switch back to crazy poses.  They can preserve energy and maintain a generally steady heart-rate throughout an entire 90 minute class.  The beginner’s mind for them, works in every instance.  They have learned to discipline their egos, and have a wonderful ongoing dialogue with their bodies.  When they fall out of poses they start from their beginning, ensuring that their foundation is strong before they move on.  When they get into strong poses, it is with compassion and communication instead of pushing, struggling and panting.

A few months ago, I read Keith Richard’s biography, Life.  In it there was an account of how Keith relates to his instrument.  He would be playing and sometimes he would stop, hold his guitar up and look at it in wonder, like he had never seen it before.  It was through this beginner’s mindset that he keeps seeing new possibilities, and that has made him one of the best guitarists, in my book at least.

We have a lot of stimulation nowadays, and somewhere in our minds we have the assumption that new is good, and we just want to move away from the beginning.  People don’t say it but some relationships fail because people get bored.  They expect their partners to keep things interesting, but can you imagine what it would be like if you looked at your partner with beginner’s eyes every day?  Can you imagine what it would be like if every time you made love it was not based on the assumption of “oh he/she liked this yesterday and therefore they would like it today?” Can you imagine if every kiss and every touch was like the first?

What if every project you were meant to do, you came at it like it was the first time you were doing a project?  What if you looked at the tree in your backyard like you’d never seen it before?  What if every time you stepped on grass or sand, you savoured how it felt on your feet like it was completely new to you?  Have you ever watch a child play with its own foot like it was the most amazing thing ever?  Isn’t it fascinating?

At the Disaster Management conference I ran late last month, they said one of our failings it that we plan all upcoming disasters on the last one. The thing is, that’s how our brains work on everything.  We have all these assumptions and past experiences that we rely on and before you know it, based on one experience, you’re saying things like, “this always happens to me,” and, “you always do this!” Well, once is not always. Once was just once.

We have become a society where think that new equals exciting, and old equals boring so we buy new toys, get new cars, and jump in and out of relationships – just another way of how we look for validation externally.  At the end of it, the new get old and we look for other new things, never knowing contentedness.  We assume we know all there is to know about things and off we go looking for something new.

And what’s this fascination with reaching the end?  We start new relationships where the old ones left off, and we start a job like we already know all there is to know about it.  We hire people who sound like they know everything, when what they know is based on their past organisation and might not work with ours. When you read fairy tales, the big white wedding is “the end,” but what would happen if we started seeing everything as the beginning?

The end of your single life is the beginning of your life together. Likewise the ending of a relationship is the beginning of your journey towards finding yourself. In a yoga pose, every instance is the beginning of getting to know where your breath is, how your body is feeling, where your thoughts are going.

Yes life moves, as it will, and every day we are getting older.  Our fear of the end makes us cling to our mortality and live in fear of death, but what if death is the beginning of something else? It’s only how we look at things, and when I look at death as another beginning, it seems to me that every instance, no matter what stage in life we are at, we are always at the beginning…. and at the beginning is where there is possibility, and magic.  So for the sake of possibility maybe, just maybe, it’s time to start celebrating the things we don’t know instead of the things we do know.