Yoga Life

Who Do You Think You Are?

Labels. Sticky in more ways than one.

Labels. Sticky in more ways than one.

In my adolescence, I suffered from all kinds of addictions. When I finally decided to get help, the counsellor interviewing me asked me what I wanted to get from the experience.

"I want to go back to being my old self," I told her, buoyed by the certainty of youth and what was almost certainly a lot of class A drugs. 

"The 'old you' took drugs," she replied without missing a beat, giving me my first inkling that recovery wasn't going to be all tea and sympathy. 

We humans love to have a fixed idea about who we are. I'm a father. I'm a CEO. I'm a loudmouth. I'm a depressive. I'm spiritual. I'm an anarchist. It's as if we aren't happy-and I use that word flippantly- unless we have a peg on which to hang the very hats of our existence. And once we've found that peg, we don't really like to move away from it, even when it causes us pain. That day in the therapists office I had created a fictitious former 'me', as though there had only ever been two versions of Liz; the one that took drugs, and the happy and carefree version that came before. And the counsellor was right; she never really existed.

You see these identity fixations all the time. I recently met up with an acquaintance for lunch who managed to hurt my feelings a couple of times over the course of the meal. When I challenged him, he laughed and said "you know me! I don't have a filter!" As if this 'filter' he was talking about was something you were either born with or not, like an appendix or a Psoas minor muscle. He seemed proud of his filterless identity, as if it was something tangible that he could hang on to. 

It's not surprising that we do this. At the end of the day, we're all trying to solve the great mystery of existence in our own ways. Indeed, svadhyaya, or self-study, is a cornerstone of the yogic life. So we're on the right track, and it's only natural that labels are appealing-even negative ones- if they help us to fit together a piece of the puzzle.

The issue, however, is one of attachment (they don't lie, those zen masters!). The reality is that we are never exactly the same person even from one day to the next; we're a swirling mass of dying and regenerating cells that are affected by everything from the weather to what we ate for dinner last night. Of course we're still the same in essence, but there are so many things that we say, think and do on autopilot that if we just took a step back, we'd probably realise that that's not really what we feel anymore, or who we are. Even serious mental illness is now being reviewed, with researchers questioning whether it's chronic, life-long and only possible to manage through medication after all.

For many years, I clung to the identity of recovering addict. I felt that it sufficiently explained my entire existence and gave me a role to fulfil. "I'm such an addict!"I would exclaim in situations ranging from waking up grumpy to knocking something over by accident. A few years after starting a yoga practice, I had a revelation: I wasn't the permanently fragile, damaged and sick person that I had been led to believe I was, albeit with good intentions. I was someone who had made some bad choices in my youth, when I didn't know any better. That moment marked a giant shift in my way of thinking about myself and about life.

Even as a yoga teacher I find myself resisting the urge sometimes to be a 'yoga teacher'. I worry that my sense of humour is too naughty, that I am too negative sometimes or quick to judge. That perhaps I should wear more hemp and draw more hearts on things and talk more about vibrations. It can make for some uncomfortable thoughts, but at the end of the day, I can only feel how I feel. I'm a work in progress, after all.

My all-time favourite yoga saying is 'never try to have yesterday's practice'. It's on the mat that we can really see this idea take effect. We bring so many of our own 'mantras' into class with us. I'm too stiff, we might think. I know for a fact I can't do that pose. And of course, body awareness is important, but without the spirit of curiosity, we will never move beyond those fixed ideas. And in life, without the spirit of curiosity and the willingness to be in the moment, we may never see ourselves, see others, as we really are, and not who we think we are.


We Are All So Much More Than Our Hip flexors

Get this pose on camera before I fall out of it!

Get this pose on camera before I fall out of it!

There are few things more divisive in the yoga world (outside Bikram, at least) than an Instagram photo of a beautiful person in a perfectly executed forearm balance, very likely clad in an upmarket brand of yoga gear. "That's not yoga!" cry the classicists. "Where is the pranayama? Where is the meditation? Anyway, most people aren't even built for that", whilst others will point out that such pictures inspire people to get to classes so that they too can do that pose, one day. And maybe it will inspire them to go further. Maybe even in that outfit.  

I seem to spend a lot of time ruminating on this subject, more than is probably a healthy amount, because in truth, I feel a little torn. On the one hand- full disclosure- I do at times find these pictures irritating. In fact, these days, if I check out someone's Instagram account and it's mostly them in difficult poses in exotic locations, it tends to put me off. 

And yet there are many teachers that I admire and respect hugely that do it. Men and women who live authentic lives, who have chosen yoga as a path both on and off the mat, some of whom I am lucky enough to call friends. And when I see them in postures that seem to require a spine that rotates 360 degrees, my normal reaction is less of an eye-roll, more of an 'ooooohhh, that looks amazing'.

So why, exactly, do I find some of these pictures so irksome and some more inspirational? Well, as yoga requires self-study, I will put my hand up here and say that some of this is good ole' fashioned jealousy. If I put a picture of myself doing compass pose on Facebook I would look like a dog trying to remove an unusually large tick. I would only inspire sympathy, not an excited Google search for a person's nearest studio. As a yoga teacher, whenever I see a lithe, beautiful body twisted elegantly into an asymmetrical knot, there's an anxious little person inside me that goes 'who'd want to come to your classes when you can't teach them how to do that?'

But that's not just it. The truth is, there are one or two 'fancy' poses that I could do well enough for a cute sunset shot and a #yogaeverydamnday hashtag. But that's not really what I stand for. My journey as a yogi has always been more about what it gave me off the mat, how it allows me to release long-held trauma and slowly live more in a state of self-acceptance (when I'm not condemning my compass pose, anyway). And that's why I wanted to teach- to be able to introduce this possibility to other people. I'm not sure I would convey the concept of making peace with one's past on Pinterest through the medium of Koundinyasana I.

No. For me, it comes down to authenticity, and what a person is really trying to tell you with an image. You can see, for example, that some yoga practitioners are very anatomical in their approach to asana, and therefore naturally more focused on the physical. For others, a challenging pose may represent something personal to them; an obstacle overcome, a symbol of where they're at in their life right now, a symbol even of something taking place in the world around them. And this tends to come through- you can tell that whatever that person's reason for documenting a feat of physical prowess, it came from a place of integrity.

But I do get the sense that some people's social media feeds are driven by insecurity; a fear that they aren't a 'proper' yogi without an Instagram account full of King Pigeons and Peacocks. As if their worth is derived in part from the abilities of their shoulder girdle. I'm certainly not the only one that wanted to teach to transmit more of the gifts of yoga; it's what most people seem to say when you ask them why they wanted to teach. And everyone has such unique stories, such an individual energy to share with their students and future students. Surely a bendy back isn't the sum total of this.

There's no doubt that social media has been a boon for yoga teachers. And there's no doubt that Improved physical condition is, of course, another of yoga's gifts. But as yoga becomes more disseminated through media images, wouldn't it be great to see something other than a fallen angel pose in an edgy urban building, unless a fallen angel in an urban building was truly the purest expression of what you actually wanted to say (is it. Is it?). I'm not suggesting that we never put up pictures of our physical practice. But I am saying that maybe, just maybe, we have a little bit more to offer the world, that our journey with yoga could sometimes be represented with images that say more than that. As it is, one of the richest forms of spiritual development is being reduced to a shorthand symbol of a body beautiful with their leg behind their head.

We're all so much more than just our hip flexors, people. Maybe next time we want to put up that #yogilife post, we could think for a second about what we'd like to say to a struggling person who has yet to find a yoga class what #yogilife can really offer.  

Now, excuse me while I go practice my compass pose.

Coming to Life in the City of the Dead

Varanasi, India. Population, approximately 1.5 million living and 1 gazillion* dead. For death is big business in this holiest of cities. Hindus bring their dead to burn along the huge ghats (steps) that run into the river Ganges, often with tourists looking on as they try to take sneaky pictures with their phones. Wood merchants make a fortune providing tinder for the funeral pyres. Sandalwood is the most luxurious. Poor people have to fling their unfortunate relatives into the river having burnt only as much of them as they can afford. People come here to die, for a Varanasi death is an auspicious one. Who wouldn't want to liberate themselves from the possibility of becoming a dung beetle in the next life by dint of where they breathed their last?

Other things that were dead when I arrived there in August 2009. 1) my relationship of two and a half years, though we had decided to honour the trip to India together on account of the split being amicable and 2) my job at a film magazine (I was about to hand in my notice) and life as I generally knew it. In a few months time, I was headed off to live in a community in central California and spend some time Figuring S**t Out™.

I had been in recovery from drink, drugs and an eating disorder for over a decade. I was tired of talking about my problems, tired of the solipsistic, onanistic quality of my existence. They say that the unexamined life is not worth living, but I had been reflecting on my life too intensely, and for too long. I had started to feel like both magnifying glass and ant. If one more person asked me how I was really feeling about something, I was just going to ask them to pull my finger.

I wanted to be free. I wanted to learn to trust myself. I wanted to be creative and happy and spontaneous without having to keep a record of that and talk it through with a trained professional. 

It wasn't surprising that I fell ill with flu as soon as we arrived in the city formerly known as Benares. I spent the first night shivering in my sleeping bag as the sounds of chanting and bells wafted up from the streets below and the orange glow of the funeral pyres on Manikarnika ghat rose beyond the building that obscured it.

When I had recovered sufficiently, our hostel arranged a boat tour of the stretch of the Ganges immediately beyond our hostel. Our tour guide, Sanjay, had grown up next to the river. To prove it, he scooped up a handful of water, thrusting aside a flip-flop floating sole-up in the brown water, and drank it. Tourists can get vomiting and diarrhoea bugs just from ingesting a single drop. The fact that he had just willingly consumed water that was 3000 times above the safe WHO guidelines made me wonder if he himself was actually dead.

But zombie or not, Sanjay knew the vicinity like the back of his hand, and he suggested that for a small fee (natch) we went to the unpopulated east bank, where the river regularly returned some of the death paraphernalia-humans included- that was so enthusiastically given to it. Burial shrouds billowed across the sand like lost wraiths. Tea light offerings still burned amongst discarded flowers and various human skeletal parts.

"Look," said Sanjay. "A skull."

He picked it up and held it aloft. "Take it home, if you like," he waved it nonchalantly at our little group of horrified Europeans like Hamlet would have if he could just have been born in the age of Prozac. I pictured getting the skull through customs. I pictured the it sitting somewhere on display in my flat in Thames Ditton. It occurred to me that it was the kind of thing that my eccentric father would have done. I declined, and settled for a couple of tea-light holders instead. They were less likely to haunt me.

The next day, my ex and I set out to walk the length of the ghats. The streets around our hostel were coated in a grey, sludgy filth. Some of this, of course, was the ubiquitous filth of India; discarded rubbish, rotting vegetation and dung of both human and animal variety. But Varanasi has its own particular brand of dirt; grimy, oily, filth-infused ash, a by-product of the 24/7 body-burning. I grimaced as some of it oozed between my toes.

After we'd been walking for a minute or so, we passed an old man with gnarled, arthritic hands laying on the pavement in a white loincloth as two younger men washed him. We passed quietly, and when we were out of earshot I turned to my companion.

"That man was dead," I said. It only occurred to me as I said it.

His face was pale. "I know".

I had never seen a dead human before, but that sure was about to change. Over the next few days, I became as acquainted with the dead as I was with the malaria tablets poking out of my washbag that made me feel nauseous just looking at them. We saw the dead as we pressed ourselves up against the walls of the narrow streets to avoid funeral processions of stretchered bodies held aloft by men chanting "Ram ram". We saw dead people burned on countless pyres, their inhabitants clearly visible in various stages of immolation. We saw bodies being bathed, bodies floating in the river, the bones of the long-dead and the recently dead.

That kid in the Sixth Sense had nothing on us.

I sometimes wonder if at the heart of the West's problems is an inability to face death. We're obsessed with youth, of slowing the passage of time. We remove our elderly from public sight, treat them as an embarrassment. We consume obsessively, distract ourselves with whatever we can get our hands on-the internet, food, fake news- not just to get away from the 'selves' we are told we fear, but also to escape that most terrifying of truths; that, in the words of Beckett, we are 'born astride a grave'. Even our funeral rites are performed with maximum discretion, behind closed doors and shrouded in mystery. We act as if it will never happen to us. We think this will meant that it won't.

In Varanasi, it didn't take long for the dead to become like silent companions. Where at first I felt a need to bow my head or make some sort of gesture of reverence as a stretcher went past, after the second day there I barely batted an eyelid. The dead were present as I bought ice cream and bickered with my companion, as I photographed cows and joked about getting ripped off.  

Death's constant presence afforded a new layer of richness to the process of being alive. I started yoga on that trip and quickly became hooked. Its practice was a kind of remembrance of something deeper, something vast- even if that 'something' lasted a few seconds.

A few days after we left, I found out that my paternal grandmother had died. I can't pretend that my new take on death helped with the grieving process in any way, but I can say that I had the sense, somehow, of life and death being cyclical, of my grandmother still being around in some sense- hopefully without the inherent racism. 

My ex went back to France, became a dad, looks happy on Facebook.

I carried on with yoga.

I drove across America.

I took some risks.

I no longer have to timetable fun activities.

I refuse to analyse any of the above.

I guess we can call that progress.

New Ageism

I’ve never much liked the word ‘spiritual’. I confess that I use it myself- it’s convenient shorthand, after all, for anything that nourishes the soul (another vast philosophical debate that I won’t go into). It’s more its pejorative use that bothers me. You say the word ‘spiritual’ to someone who doesn’t operate in certain circles and you run the risk of being seen as someone who weeps over flowers in parks and avoids parties because they can be ‘energetically damaging’. Not that there is anything wrong with either of those things- it just doesn’t fit anyone I know who describes themselves as spiritual. Most of my friends into ‘this’ way of life are the ones throwing the parties.

But 'spiritual' has its place. Spiritual is understood and accepted by most to mean-in a roundabout way- ‘concerned with the evolution of humankind’.

‘New Age’, on the other hand…

I just cannot stand this term. If spirituality can have negative connotations, the term New Age can just about clear a room in five seconds flat. But that’s not what gets my proverbial goat. What bugs me about the term New Age is that it’s completely misleading. It’s a concept that essentially claims that we in the West have worked out a way to make the world a better place by doing yoga, meditating and dedicating our lives to peaceful living. Never mind that these are ways of living espoused in other cultures for thousands of years. We just make them our own by wearing a lot of velvet and drinking water from wells in Glastonbury. That’s the ‘new’ bit.

Yoga and meditation were around before Jesus, the Buddha or the prophet Muhammad. Calling these practices New Age is like calling a Pirelli tire the first wheel, or One Direction the first ever boy band. They’ve impacted on millions of lives down through the centuries and even the scientific community is starting to take note of their benefits. When we write them off as some kind of new fad for people who think they’re tree sprites, we throw the baby out with the bath water.