Yoga asana

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.