Things I Never Expected from Yoga – No.6…

That the Heat would teach me about Accepting the Things you Can’t Control…

Early in my Bikram practice I was obsessed with the heat.  Constantly.

“OH MY GOD!  How hot is it?!” 

“Is the teacher going to open the door and let some air in???  Why aren’t they opening the door yet?!”

“@*#!  Is the teacher trying to kill us?!”

Generally, there would be a lot of internal Tourettes going on.  If my brain was one of those TV shows where the expletives all get blanked out, it would have been broadcasting one big, long, continuous ‘bleep’.  Even Chris Rock would be blushing.

And all this would usually be geared towards blaming the teacher for how hot the room was. Because surely it was their fault, right?  I never took into account that the heat in the studio could vary for all sorts of reasons, from the number of bodies in the room, to the weather outside, to how I was feeling on any given day, to yes, maybe even the heating system genuinely being temperamental once in a while.  Then, there was the rather obvious question – if I had a problem with the heat then why practice in it? I always came back, so I realised that my problem wasn’t the heat but my attitude towards it.

Fast forward a few years and I do feel very differently about the heat.  Hot Yoga at my yoga home is the basis of my practice, mixed with Astanga and Jivamukti when I can, so on average I tend to do about 5 hot classes a week at the moment and every day is different.

Now, if I’m in a particularly hot class, yes I do acknowledge it.  If someone comments on how hot it was, I’ll say, “Yeah, it was hot today”.  But I don’t have that internal Tourettes anymore.  Instead, I see the heat as a bit of a metaphor for accepting things I can’t change on and, especially off the mat.  That doesn’t mean I always manage it, but I try. In a particularly hot, humid class, I naturally sweat even more (if that were possible!), my ability to balance is usually off,  I might need to take child’s pose more often, be even more conscious of my breath…  A particularly hot, humid class certainly does present more challenges.  But it’s a reminder to me to be kinder to myself as I move through those challenges.  How apt that I would have a particularly challenging class last week to remind me of this, just as I’d been berating myself earlier that day over something that ultimately, I could not change or control.

It was one of those really tough classes, physically and emotionally.  (Ever had one of those classes where stuff comes up and you feel like you don’t really want to speak to anyone afterwards for fear that they’ll ask if you’re okay and you’ll burst into tears on the spot? Yep, one of those.)  But instead of trying to push those feelings down I decided to accept where I was and just sit with those feelings until they passed.  I’m so glad I did that.  Because my natural disposition is pretty positive I have a tendency to expect that I should be cheerful all of the time and feel guilty if I’m not, but that’s ridiculous.  It’s not real. 

There is nothing wrong with accepting how you feel.  That doesn’t mean wallowing in sadness if I feel sad, but I’ve finally learned that it’s healthier to acknowledge how you feel rather than fight against it, just as it is healthier to find a way to accept those things in your life that you truly cannot change than to resist and push and struggle.   I look back and realise that health issues I’ve had in the past were probably linked to me doing just that.  If you push those things down, I think they find a way to come out somehow in the end.  In my case, it’s been physically.

Yes, that sounds obvious but it’s taken me a long while to get this lesson.  And what a great lesson.  Better late than never.

 

Things I Never Expected from Yoga – No.5…

That attempting to practise selflessly would lead me towards forgiveness…

 

In the classes at my yoga home our teachers often talk about Selfless Practice. 

I always set an intention for each class and practising for someone else can feel like the best thing to do in situations where you want to help but don’t know how.  I’ve practised for people close to me, for people I’ve never met but who I know are going through a challenging time… One thing I never imagined I’d be doing is practising for people who have hurt me. 

But I have.  And I do.

That might sound strange or suggest I’m a bit of a Pollyanna (not that I think there’s anything wrong with Pollyanna, actually). While I’ll admit that I’d rather be optimistic and I do want to see the best in people I am most certainly not perfect or ‘Yogier than Thou’. 

Here’s how attempting to practise selflessly unexpectedly led me towards forgiveness…

I’ve been told I am too nice on numerous occasions, (particularly in my career where I was told I would never get ahead if I didn’t change, yet I feel I’ve done okay so far). I don’t know that this is true at all because I don’t feel that I’m any more or less ‘nice’ than the average person.   But, whatever the truth may be, I’ve learned that I can’t be anything but myself.

Anyhow, my alleged ‘niceness’ led to a particular experience with someone last year which felt like such a betrayal that I found it baffling and deeply upsetting at the time.  It was one of those experiences where everyone else witnessing the situation got very angry on my behalf, with one person exclaiming that it was,”…like watching Bambi get run over by a tank!” And I was angry, which is about as rare as a rain-free Wimbledon tournament.  As it became apparent that this person’s actions were borne out of insecurity, that made me even more furious. “SO WHAT if he’s insecure?!” I ranted. “What’s he got to be insecure about exactly?!  I haven’t even done anything to him so why is that my problem?!  What the hell gives him the right to….”

Blah. Blah. Blah.

I don’t like drama, but boy did I get caught up in the whole thing.  I carried on with all the ‘woe is me’ stuff until I got all the ranting and swearing out of my system. 

Then I realised I hadn’t got it all out of my system, so I swore some more. 

All that was left afterwards was a dull, sad feeling.  I was completely bemused by the idea that someone I’d held in such high regard could possibly feel threatened by me.  By that point, this person wouldn’t speak to me directly either, so there seemed to be no way to resolve things.  I didn’t know what else to do.

Shortly after, I was rolling out my mat for class one day, trying not to think about what had been happening when a surprising thought popped into my head:

I could offer this practice – the next ninety minutes up to this person. 

I have no idea where that thought came from, but in that moment it felt like the right thing to do.  So, that’s exactly what I did.   The unexpected consequence of this is that I started to feel differently about the situation.  It’s not that I suddenly thought what had happened was okay – it absolutely wasn’t.  It was more that I couldn’t be angry at this person anymore.  I found myself hoping that in time they’d recognise there was no need for them to lash out at others with their insecurity (I subsequently learned that I wasn’t the first to be on the receiving end of this kind of behaviour…).   If only they could see just what they have.  How brilliant they are. 

I think… I forgave him. 

Where on earth did that come from?  For the girl who held a grudge for five years against the kid who chucked her favourite Kinder Surprise toy down the drain at school, this was something of a development. 

I hadn’t expected that in attempting to practise for someone else – someone who had upset me so much – it would help me in this way.  I have no idea if this kind of thing is a common experience to come out of one’s yoga practice or if it’s pretty random.  Either way it really surprised me because I hadn’t been doing it in order to get something back. 

Once again, yoga has shown me something new.  Another thing I am grateful for.

Things I Never Expected from Yoga – No. 4…

That it would teach me about Listening…

I recently went to see a friend’s Mum in hospital who has been very poorly.  I have known her practically all my life and despite numerous health troubles over the years she has remained one of the most kind-hearted, positive and brilliantly witty people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.  I view her as a being a bit like a second Mum.   Having found out she’d been admitted to hospital I knew I wanted to pop in and see her.  I had in mind that I would probably only be there for about half an hour or so (and it was a weekend and I had stuff to do etc etc…).  As it turned out I didn’t leave until nearly two hours later, just as my friend (her daughter) arrived.

To explain, on top of her other health issues my friend’s Mum has been hard of hearing for a number of years so conversations can be less than straightforward not to mention, at times, amusing in the nicest possible way.  Anyhow, I was sitting by her bed and she was having more difficulty hearing me than usual.  So in the end I stopped talking and just listened. 

Then I really Listened.

And the more she talked, I noticed something which I think is pretty significant.  The way that she was communicating changed.   And she went from sounding incredibly down to laughing and joking and being more like the person I’ve always known.  Even her facial expressions completely changed.  And in that couple of hours I had barely said a word.  In fact, I hadn’t even noticed the time passing.

When I got home I thought about this.  What had happened?  What had changed way the she was communicating so dramatically?  I think it might be because she could feel that she was actually being Listened to.  It reminded me of something I heard from an interviewee via The Dialogue Project.  This interviewee had expressed that he wasn’t very articulate but when the interviewer commented that ‘articulate’ was exactly what he was being, the interviewee paused for while then responded:

“I’m being articulate in a way that I couldn’t be if I wasn’t really being listened to.”

What does all this have to do with yoga?  Well, for me this is about Being Present. This experience with my friend’s Mum showed me that Being Present is the difference between listening and Listening.

Not fully Being Present when someone is talking to me – looking over their shoulder, my mind racing ahead to something I need to later – is something that I know I am all too often guilty of.  I also know that I am not alone in this because when someone gives me their full attention and is truly Listening to me I really notice this generous act.  I’m a pretty quiet person and I’ve always tended to think of myself as not being much of a talker, not that articulate – but that’s not entirely true.  Like my friend’s Mum and the man from The Dialogue Project, the way I communicate seems to change when I can feel that I am being Listened to.  It seems so obvious yet it’s something that has only just dawned on me and I feel this is something that has come to me via my yoga practice.

This theme of Listening seems to be coming up in front of me a lot lately.  Just today I read article in OM Yoga Magazine where Sheila Steptoe writes that truly Listening is:

“…one of the most beautiful gifts you can give to others and to your self.” 

Sheila also writes:

“Children need to be heard especially if they have worries, but too often the moment passes us by.  Are you really always too busy doing other things?  What other things are really that important?

Adults too are often affected when no one will truly listen to them.  It can take a huge amount of courage sometimes for people to share something important if they want your advice or even just to pass comment on something that may have happened to them.”

That all makes sense to me because on some level, isn’t that what we all want?  To be Listened to.  To be acknowledged. To be Heard. 

At the next available opportunity I went back to the hospital and I Listened some more.  I’m so very glad that I did.

Things I Never Expected from Yoga – No. 3…

That it would bring up ‘stuff’ when I least expect it…

I had been fine all day. Chirpy, even.  The news hadn’t come as a surprise and it felt like such a relief that it was finally out in the open….

Buoyant, I bounce along in the early evening sunshine as I head to my regular class at my yoga home.  I think about the events of the day and the exciting possibilities ahead.

Happily on the mat in class, all is good.  And I feel strong.  Centred.  Then, after the first set of balancing something happens.  I feel very dizzy.  I come into child’s pose before I fall over.  Resting there for a few breaths I think I must just be having a bad day with the heat. I try to join back in with the class but almost instantly I feel overwhelmed, then nauseous, then… very emotional.  I never have the urge to leave the room during a class, but in that moment it’s all I want to do.  A mental battle ensues… I stay.

In half-pigeon with my forehead on the mat tears race to my eyes.  I fight them back.  Where have these tears come from…?!  We reach tree posture and I can’t even raise my foot to my ankle, never mind my calf or inner thigh.  Once more, I feel as though I am going to topple over, so I take child’s pose again, if only to avoid falling sideways and ‘taking out’ my poor unsuspecting neighbour.  It’s almost as though some invisible force is pushing me over every time I try to get up.  I don’t understand why I feel like this…

My teacher looks concerned, asks if I am alright and very kindly offers me some coconut water.  I tell her I am fine.  Just a bit dizzy. I think. 

Then, during the first Savasana of the class I am swamped by a strange mix of emotions.  Once more tears race to my eyes and this time I can’t stop them.  Again, I want to run out of the room but instead I lie there and try to focus on my breath as best I can.  My mind is racing…  I seem to make it through the rest of the class but it’s all a bit hazy.

After class I speak to my teacher who asks again if I am okay.  I start explaining that I felt really dizzy, then overwhelmed and then… I start sobbing uncontrollably.    Right there.  In the changing rooms.  In front of my teacher, I go into the ‘Ugly Cry’ (as Oprah calls it).  I am mortified and confused and unable to speak.  We go to the loos and when I get my breath back all I can do is apologise to my teacher for bursting into tears.  Through the sobs I eventually manage to explain I’ve had a bit of a weird day and that I was told that morning I am being made redundant.  But I don’t understand why I am crying – I’d already known it was coming, reconciled it in my head and ultimately know this is one of the best things that could happen for me right now. 

I am stunned because this has never happened to me in a yoga class before.  My teacher is very kind and reassures me that this is more common than I might think.  Emotions are a funny thing.  I’d had no idea that this ‘stuff’ was there.  I realise it was good to come and practice that day – what’s happened has helped me release some of the tension that’s been building up inside over the past several months.   And with some significant changes on the horizon – some exciting, some scary – I sense that practicing will help me in the coming months too.  It makes me feel even more grateful for the gift of yoga in my life.

Things I Never Expected from Yoga – No.2…

Sweat Neurosis

There was an ad I saw on London Underground years ago for a women’s anti-perspirant with the caption:

”Women don’t sweat, they glow…  I glow buckets”. 

For anyone who may have seen the spoof disaster movie, ‘Airplane’ the easiest way I can describe it is that it’s like Ted Striker – the ex-pilot with a fear of flying who has to land the plane.  While at the controls, the beads of sweat formed on Ted’s brow rapidly escalate to the point where we see him literally dripping with sweat, as though he’s had several buckets of it thrown over him…

That pretty much sums me up during a Hot Yoga class. 

I sweat in Astanga and Jivamukti too, but in any given hot class, the sweat is of epic proportions.  And as much as I hate to admit it, some days this really distresses me.

Now, of course with any form of hot yoga sweat is a given.  How can it not be when you’re practicing in 40 degree heat?  But I assumed that the more I practiced the less profusely I’d sweat during class.  However, it turns out the opposite is true. Why?!

Most days I don’t even need to have started doing any postures for the sweat to appear.  I find that if I’m doing a hot class, no sooner have I’ve stepped into the room to get a mat than I catch my face in the mirror and find it staring back at me, all brown and shiny like a Werther’s Original.  I’m no Halle Berry, but I’ve looked better.

Oddly, I don’t bat an eyelid at other people’s sweat.  I won’t remotely freak if a bit of sweat from the person on the next mat flicks onto me (which reminds me of a story a Bikram teacher once told in class about hearing that after teaching Lady Gaga, her teacher was such a fan that he rolled around in her sweat after she’d gone.  I wouldn’t exactly go that far…).  Yet, I am horrified by my own sweat.  I worry about a teacher touching me to adjust any of my postures – what must they think?!  I just don’t want to inflict my sweat on anyone else.

I don’t understand where this severe case of sweat neurosis comes from.  Is this a common condition, or is it just me?

I’ve got to the stage where I sort of accept it, but on bad days it gets me extremely paranoid.  I get incredibly wound up that no-one else in the room could possibly be sweating as much as I am (and the puddle I find under my non-slip towel at the end of any particularly challenging hot class does little to persuade me otherwise…). 

I know wouldn’t judge anyone else about something like this, yet I judge myself so harshly.   I wonder if this is part of a wider issue I have with acceptance – accepting where I am at the moment.  Or it could just be that I’m a slightly strange woman.

Maybe one day I will learn to truly embrace the sweat…

Or at least, start sweating a bit less.

Things I Never Expected from Yoga – No. 1…

That It Would Show Me I Have ‘Issues’…

I’ve realised that I have a bit of an issue with accepting my limitations.  While I am gradually learning and experiencing the benefits of the internal practice, at times I have a real struggle with the external, focusing on the physical aspects – namely what I ‘cannot’ do – and, wrongly, feeling a sense of frustration at my body.  I forget to be grateful for the body that I have.

I try to do things the right way and if I see how a posture is supposed to look, then that’s how I want to be able to do it. The trouble with this (for my ego, at least) is that my body won’t always let me get there.  I expect to be at ‘Level 5’, not taking into account that I need to move through ‘Levels 1-4’ first.

I’ve been really surprised to see where my physical practice has developed within just a few months of regular classes at my current yoga home.  For instance, being in Downward Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) has gone from feeling like mild punishment to an unexpectedly blissful place.  But my progress has stalled in certain areas, like the balancing sequence, for instance:

“If it’s available to you, you can take the full expression and kick out.”

It’s not available to me though. In my years of Bikram practice I was never able to kick out then either (or do toe stand, or… I could go on).  I find myself wondering if I ever will.  I know it shouldn’t frustrate me, but sometimes it does.  Surely, I should be able to do it by now, shouldn’t I…?

The penny recently dropped that this is part of a wider issue I have with perfectionism (as well as a bit of impatience).  And in the past I’ve learnt the hard way that perfectionism isn’t necessarily a good thing.   So, I’m not going to bring perfectionism into my yoga.  As one of my teachers often reminds us, it is called ‘yoga practice, not yoga perfect’.  Of course from time to time my ego still rears its head, disappointed that I am still not kicking out, but instead I just focus on doing the best I can.  And I try to do this with every posture that isn’t yet available to me.  I feel that as long as I know I am doing the best I can, in that moment, then my best is always good enough.

Here’s to imperfection.