Yoga Teaching

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.


Why I Teach Teen Yoga

I've never met a teen that doesn't love relaxation...

I've never met a teen that doesn't love relaxation...

There are those who tell you that your school years are the best of your life. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE? Even as a teenager, I had a strong sense of that my childhood was something that needed to be weathered until the age of legal independence. If I hadn't, I'm not sure I'd be here to write this.

Of course, there were lovely bits. The long school holidays. The lack of responsibility. The pool parties (I spent much of my adolescence in the US) and the late night gossiping about boys. But what I remember most about my teens was a constant sense of powerlessness. I was powerless over my unhappy home life, powerless over my changing body and over the eating disorder that had been gaining momentum since I was thirteen. I felt powerless over what I wanted to do (be creative) versus what I kept being told to do (be sensible). 

Of course, not all teens have eating disorders or are unhappy at home or at school. That's as much of a stereotype as saying that all teenagers like to eat at McDonalds. But any teen navigating the choppy waters between childhood and adulthood will know it to be an exhausting and confusing journey at times.

As it was, I didn't discover yoga until my early thirties. I had tried all sorts by then; therapy, support groups, shouting at empty chairs pretending that they were people from my past. I jogged in public spaces and drank two litres of water per day. I was living the 'well' life.

But the thing that struck me most about yoga was the sense of refuge that it provided me with. There was something about getting on the mat that allowed me to feel like somehow I was coming home. I was by no means flexible, or even especially coordinated, but I often found that after I practiced, I just felt a little more, well... Me.

When I look at my teens, I can't help wishing that I had just discovered yoga sooner. My story is my story, and made me the person I am today (yadda yadda), but I can't help but wonder how differently things would have turned out had I just found that place of refuge at a time when I needed it the most. Movement in school always came in the form of sports, and sports always seemed to be the terrain of happy, uncomplicated people. Besides, by its nature, sports are competitive, and whilst that's not always a bad thing, isn't it nice to do something just because it feels good and not because you might win a trophy?

Teaching yoga to teens isn't always easy. Sometimes it feels like crowd control and sometimes I have moments when I swear I have gone back to being that sad, confused young person myself. For there's nothing like being in school, surrounded by teens, for bringing up anything unresolved from that time in your life- and I don't just mean New Kids on the Block and crimped hair. But mostly, it's a great chance to discover the wonderful people behind the confused and often heavily stressed facades, and best of all, a chance to help them discover that for themselves. 

If you'd like to know more about how we work with teenagers at Teen Yoga, please get in touch!

The hands on approach

The one thing that strikes dread into the heart of most new teachers is adjusting students. You may have your lingo down pat and you may have practiced that forearm balance or warrior to within an inch of its life so that you can demonstrate with ease, but when it comes to adjusting another person's body, there's a whole new skill set involved. Even for experienced teachers, the practice of adjustment constantly calls for ethical judgement and an ability to read into a person's space on any given day, not to mention a deep knowledge of-and respect for- anatomy.

In this podcast, which I made with fellow teachers Ryan Spielman and Genny Wilkinson Priest, we speak to respected teachers Mimi Kuo Deemer, Sarai Harvey Smith and Kate Ellis on when to adjust, when not to adjust and how the tradition of adjustment varies between styles of yoga. Enjoy!

Listen here