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.
I have been feeling a lot more anxious than usual lately. It’s a combination of ‘stuff’, but I’m pretty certain this is mostly down to one specific thing:
In less than a week I leave the place I have worked for almost ten years.
Yep. Hello Freelancing and Goodbye Regular Salary. I know this is absolutely the right thing for me. The timing could not be better. It is something that I know I want. I feel so much clearer about things than I ever have. And yet…
I am Terrified.
From day to day the pendulum swings as to which of these two emotions I feel the most. There are moments of euphoria then usually, at the least convenient of times, including during class, there are tears. But one bonus of crying in a Hot Yoga class is I sweat so much that I guess no-one’s going to notice apart from me 🙂
I’m also at that certain point in my life when people wonder why I haven’t settled down with a husband and kids yet. But strangely, I feel far younger and far happier now than I did ten or so years ago when I was always the first in and last out at the office and striving so, so hard to progress. To be perfect. I put so much of my identity and self-worth into what I did for a living to the point where I lost myself for a while, then couldn’t work out why I felt so miserable all the time. I became disillusioned and deeply cynical. Not my natural state.
I am really grateful that I get to practise yoga. For me it is a huge gift that I do not take for granted in the slightest. I truly believe that this has helped to give me a better perspective. At least now I notice if any old negative anxiety patterns are beginning to creep in (like mindless eating – “Where did that whole bag of almonds just go??”) instead of blindly going into self-destruct mode. I feel that through my practice I have gained awareness, enabling me to observe my behaviour, change it accordingly and be kinder to myself, even when I do slip up from time to time.
I know this is a life-defining phase for me. Not because of leaving my job or the age I happen to be when this set of circumstances has arisen, but because of how I feel about it. It’s a gut-feeling and, to date, my gut has never been wrong. At every significant point in my life so far I have felt like this. I’ve never known how to describe it without sounding all ‘woo-woo’ but I came across a post on zen habits (via @samdavidson) about ‘Joyfear’. For me this sums up what I’ve been feeling so well. Here Leo Babauta writes that every single defining moment of his life has been filled with Joyfear:
“Having only joy is great. Having only fear sucks. But having both … that’s life-defining.
Do not shy away from Joyfear. Seek it out. Recognize it when you happen upon it. Joyfear will change your life, and you’ll never forget the moment you find it.”
I know this is big change. I am pretty sure it will delight me and test me and frighten the hell out of me. I know I am probably going to have to ‘Woman Up’ in order to find the courage I feel I will need at times. But somehow, I think it will be okay.
Bring on the Joyfear.
(Thanks to @zen_habits and @samdavidson for highlighting Leo Babauta’s ‘Joyfear’ post)
I was recently chatting to someone I don’t know very well. Through our conversation they found out I practise yoga. Their response:
“Really? But you don’t have a ‘yoga body’. I mean, people who are into yoga are usually kind of… thin.”
Some people really don’t think about the impact their words can have.
I think my response was something along the lines of a sarcastic, “Thanks for that!” but I don’t really remember. Frankly, I was too shocked and I’ve never been one for on-the-spot witty comebacks, sadly. (Why is it that you always seem to think of just the right thing to say about ten minutes after the event…?)
Just to clarify, I wasn’t upset here at the implication of being called fat – I was just as, if not more, upset when an old friend not long ago told me she thought I’d lost too much weight and looked ill, “… and is doing all this yoga really a good thing??” (Though that was coming from someone who has only ever known me as being larger so maybe that was more about them not being used to seeing me any other way…? I don’t know.) Ultimately, what upsets me is that someone thinks it is okay to make what is clearly a derogatory comment about another person’s body. But also, this phrase – ‘yoga body’ – got me thinking. What is a yoga body exactly? What does that mean?
Like many people I’ve had issues with body image over the years. Yoga is one place I try to keep that at bay. But my view of myself is one of the reasons I used to be reluctant to practise in the front row of a mirrored Hot Yoga room. For a while when I did Bikram yoga I’d go in the front row, but only because I’d sussed it was the cool spot in the corner of the room and I always managed to position myself in such a way that I didn’t have to ‘look’ at myself. But even then I felt self-conscious. So after that I avoided being too near the mirrors. I am short-sighted so without my glasses or contacts I struggle to recognise even close family members from a certain distance. (Apologies again to my Aunty, who I unintentionally blanked in the street the other day!) Not being in the front row meant that I didn’t need to look at myself because I literally could not see myself properly.
So, mainly for those reasons I’d not contemplated going in the front row until one day, Allie gently suggested that maybe I’d like to. Also, I’d always thought of the front row as being for far more accomplished practitioners and other teachers, but with that little nudge I questioned whether I was able to let go of my ‘comfortable’, if somewhat blurry space – in the second row, near enough to the teacher to just about make out the posture they’re demonstrating and not directly under the air vent…
In my next class I lay my mat in the front row. There was no escape – I could see myself. I could actually see into my eyes. At first I struggled to look at myself – to ‘stay’ with myself. But I realised that I needed to. So, after that class I kept going back to the front row. And gradually it became easier to be more accepting of what I saw in front of me. It has changed my practice. I have, and continue to develop a deeper sense of gratitude for the body that I have and all that it does every day. As my mind shifted the irony is I didn’t see my body changing. I knew I felt different inside. I didn’t notice that I was starting to look different too. No, I am not thin but as I type I am fitter, healthier and stronger than I have ever been in my adult life – side-effects of a regular practice accompanying the internal benefits I have been experiencing.
I suspect there will always be certain days when I lament the size of my thighs. (For you it may not be your thighs, so fill in the appropriate body part here….) But when I do have those days I increasingly realise that it really isn’t anything to do with my thighs at all. It’s always about something else that’s bothering me at the time, but for whatever reason I project those feelings towards the way I look. Fortunately though, it’s something that is happening less and it’s another thing I credit my practice for.
Thanks to Allie for that gentle nudge towards the front row.
So, what is a ‘yoga body’? I guess the general perception, and most widely accepted image is that it is slim, lithe, toned… And it is. But it’s also tall, short, male, female, black, white, curvy, muscular, young, old, has tight hamstrings, concrete hips, a dodgy back, cellulite…. the list is endless.
In my view, a yoga body is any body that practises yoga.
If I could re-wind to that conversation, that’s what my response would be.
‘Leela’ means ‘play’ in Sanskrit. I learned this at my yoga home because that’s the name of the style of Hot Yoga which is taught there. ‘Leela’ is something that Stewart Gilchrist also touched on during his workshop with us last month.
At the weekend, we had some spontaneous ‘Leela Time’ when one of my fave teachers, Allie led us through some yoga-freestyling in the park.
It was so great to have a play at mixing in some moves we don’t usually do in class with the added bonus of being outside on a sunny afternoon.
When we moved onto headstand practice I found myself feeling a bit scared without the safety of a wall. But I needn’t have been so worried – Allie guided us through step-by-step.
After having a go with the help of Allie and my partner, I have a few attempts on my own, trying to get to that mid-way point where I can balance with my legs bent. I manage it for a few seconds and then… I fall out, landing on my back and staring up at the sky. And actually, it’s kind of… fun (?!) I then remember being in a Jivamukti class where our teacher, Emma told us that sometimes the most fun bit is falling out. At the time I was seriously doubtful about that, but now I’d done it I ate my words. I couldn’t believe it – all this time I’d been holding on to this fear over what would happen if I fell out of a headstand. It felt like a bit of a breakthrough. I hold my hands up – Emma was right.
In the park there’s a bit of chatter about what we should do next, then I’m not sure who says it but I hear:
“Let’s do handstands!”
I’m fairly quiet most of the time but now I go stone cold silent. I instantly feel tense and I’m thinking, “Handstands?! Now?! I really don’t think I feel ready. I mean a few bunny hops in class is one thing but -“
That thought is broken by Allie telling us that Leon (Handstand Guru) is on his way over give us some coaching.
Pants. We’re really going to do this.
We split into pairs to practice and it’s my turn to have a go.
Leon: “When you kick up, just really go for it!”
Me: “Erm, okay… Are you going to watch?” (TRANSLATION: “I really, really, hope you’re not going to watch.”)
Then as I take a deep breath, it dawns on me that we’re standing in the middle of a bustling park on a Sunday afternoon, so it suddenly feels like a lot more sets of eyes are possibly watching and about to see me land on my head…
Except I didn’t.
It took several attempts, but to my complete shock I got there. Twice! My partner spotting me and supporting my feet meant I didn’t instantly collapse into a heap. For a few moments I saw the world upside down. And I liked it!
This doesn’t mean I am now instantly ‘cured’ of feeling any trepidation the next time I try a headstand or handstand – even though the fear is gradually diminishing I know myself enough to realise it will take a lot more practice to get anywhere near that stage. But there is something quite powerful in knowing that you’ve done something once. It clarifies that it’s not impossible whatever your cynical side might say. When you’ve done something once it means it is possible to do it again. Big thanks to Allie and Leon for their guidance!
Afternoon yoga in the park was so much fun – it made me want to play more. Here’s to more ‘Leela Time’!
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.