From the UK to Australia and everywhere in between, yoga has accompanied me for the good part of the last twenty years. And yet, in many ways, I’m only just beginning to understand how important it is to both my health and happiness, and also the health and happiness of everyone around me. This is part of the reason why I set out to become a yoga teacher. This is part of the reason why I started Mindful Moo.
This will likely be the most personal post I ever write on Mindful Moo. Most other stuff will be evidence-based, validated or other people’s stories. But stay with me.
This may well be your story too.
Accidentally finding yoga
I first attended a yoga class when I was 19. My yoga teacher was also my Muay Thai teacher. I’d go on to do private yoga classes with him to improve my fitness and flexibility, but there wasn’t really any deeper connection to the practice.
This was a time in my life where I was trying super hard to not care about what anyone thought. Still experiencing the hangover of some childhood bullying, I chose this time to be tough and brash. I also chose to be completely uncaring of my body. I may have looked healthy and toned, but that was thanks to good genes and dangerous dieting. In reality, I was an insecure mess who put too much emphasis on the wrong things and desperately wanted to be loved.
Sound pretty familiar? I don’t think it’s an unusual place to be in at that stage of life, unfortunately.
What I didn’t realise back then, though, is the impact those early yoga sessions had on me. There was something unassuming and consistent and otherly about my teacher, and the sessions gave me some positive focus. Whether I was aware of it or not, I was inspired.
As the great yoga teacher, BKS Iyengar said, ‘yoga is a light, which once lit, will never dim’.
Something had been lit.
Yoga to let go
I next came to yoga at 23. This time I dissolved into a puddle of tears during the closing savasana, the relaxation practice. I was going through a complete shock of a wake-up in my personal life, and the tender space offered by savasana felt both sweet and raw.
Have you ever felt too raw, too exposed? I think that may have been what happened. I wasn’t ready to look inside myself.
So despite feeling like I was coming home, despite the respite it offered, I didn’t go back to that class. It was too much.
Yoga did, however, weave its way into my life, bit by bit. At this stage, yoga mostly meant practicing postures in the safety of my own home. Maybe, unconsciously, I was worried about melting into that puddle again if I practised in public.
Yoga for lost times
In my mid-20s I was working in a lecturing and management role, spending my day with teenagers and technology and my nights with piles of marking.
Although I loved what I did, there were increasingly parts that were less lovable. Anyone who’s worked in education will know what I’m talking about: red tape and administration gone crazy. Before long I felt disillusioned and rudderless.
I also felt lost in my relationship, which didn’t seem to be nurturing me or my partner anymore. Maybe this was my quarter life crisis. I’ve heard people talk about that, and it seems a good fit.
But it got darker than that too.
It was during this time that joy took a break from my life, and I reached a point where I truly, deeply understood the meaning of feeling hopeless. It’s a desperately lonely and confusing place.
Luckily I had some mentors and guides to show me the way back.
It was also during this time that I started attending classes run by a yoga teacher who exuded the warmth I felt was missing from my life.
It was a proper community class, held in a little village hall. It’s possibly the busiest class I’ve ever attended. Each session I’d hope that I might be one of the lucky ones to get a mini massage from the teacher during the final relaxation.
I craved care and warmth.
Dreaming of an escape
Warmth became a theme. I would dream about balmy climates and a less stressful job. My mind would drift to ideas of becoming a yoga teacher instead of a media and technology teacher, travelling the world and exchanging yoga classes for accommodation.
If yoga could make me feel so good, then it could also make other people feel so good. I could stay healthy and happy while also helping others to be healthy and happy. It seemed like a no-brainer of a lifestyle choice.
But I didn’t pursue any yoga teacher training. I wasn’t yet ready for that leap.
Travel, yoga and intentions gone awry
When my relationship finally broke up in my late 20s, a daily morning yoga routine kept me level, focused and grateful. I’d set up the box room as my yoga space and each morning I’d go in there and do a set routine. I remember feeling at times like I was melting into the mat. I was deeply sad, but I was okay.
Around the same time, I applied for voluntary redundancy from my teaching role. It was granted. The payout afforded a round-the-world ticket, with Ecuador my first stop.
Finally! Here was the world.
I wasn’t yet a yoga teacher, but my mat made the packing list. So did a copy of Light on Yoga.
In my mind I’d go stay at lots of ashrams and volunteer my time, and be the healthiest and happiest I’ve ever been.
In reality I did visit some ashrams and do some volunteering, and I did keep up something of a yoga practice for a while.
But I also I took to throwing caution to the wind, to jumping into unknown waters (actually and metaphorically), to smoking cheap menthol cigarettes and shisha with new friends, to exploring just about anything and everything as I bussed about South America and sailed across the Pacific and finally arrived into Australasia.
I ended up leaving my mat with a friend along the way. Yoga practice – specifically yoga asana practice – faded into the background that year.
But I got sick. Of course I got sick. I got sick with parasites, with tropical sores, with tightly wound muscles from carrying heavy backpacks and unacknowledged emotional stuff.
I had a blast of a time, but I got sick.
Discovering true yoga
And then when I stopped traveling and settled in Australia I went back to regular classes.
During the first few classes I dissolved into a puddle of tears during the closing savasana. Just like way back. And as the tears flowed, all the stresses and pains and regrets of my life started to untangle. Who knew there was so much to untangle? Who knew the power of savasana?
I started to physically untangle too, started to feel my way back into my body. It felt so good, like I was somehow arriving home.
But ever the skeptic, there were some parts of yoga I didn’t feel at home with.
The chanting, for example, that happened at the start and the end of that particular class. It makes me laugh now, but at the time I was very clear that I didn’t want to be brainwashed, and so I questioned my teacher on the meaning behind the mantras before I’d willingly join in.
I also hated on the breathing exercises, but did them nonetheless. I’d wish time away during those breathing exercises, even consider turning up late so I could skip them altogether.
But one thing I’ve learnt about myself is this: if I’m hating on something or if I’m scared of something, that something is worth facing.
So I did those damned breathing exercises. And I could feel that they were doing good to calm me, to balance me.
More than just the postures
This is the point, I guess, where yoga became about more than just the asanas, the postures.
I stayed behind after class to enjoy tea and chats and daal evenings at the yoga centre. I started to consider my stance on diet and eating meat. I started to understand a bit more about why people become evangelical about yoga. I signed up to meditation and positive thinking courses.
I remember at one point during the positive thinking course how everyone was being so bloody positive. Funny, right? I remember thinking ‘stop faking it, life is hard, just be real about it’.
But maybe they were being real and had already cracked this healthy, happy thing.
Maybe it was me that had some catching up to do.
Burn out and developing a yoga practice for resilience
At some point yoga became less about untangling.
My asana practice became stronger and I started to really inhabit and enjoy experiencing the strength of my body. You know that feeling when you feel strong? That. It feels good.
At the same time I turned increasingly towards focusing my mind, to positive thought and meditation. I went back to reading texts from my teenage years that topped me up with ancient wisdom. Books by great yoga and meditation teachers. Books by philosophers. Pop psychology and anything in between.
I felt myself growing resourceful and more tolerant – of myself and everyone else.
And so when in my mid-30s I found myself in a place of stress and sadness and frustration, yoga was once again my respite. It was my obvious go-to. It was probably the thing that stopped me short of total burn out.
Meditation aspects of the practice helped me accept the is-ness of my reality and feel connected to others. Asana (posture) practice helped me to stay as healthy as I possibly could. Pranayama – the breathing aspect of yoga – helped to calm my nerves.
Wanting to share the secrets
It was around this time that I thought about applying to do my yoga teacher training. I’d found a senior yoga and meditation teacher who focused on science and excellence and paying close attention to the human experience. (What I didn’t know at the time was that she’d help me connect back a bit with the feeling side of myself too, but that’s a story for another day).
Having completed a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course (an evidence-based mindfulness program created by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School) I was also keen to explore training in this.
By this stage in my life I’d been working with digital technologies for best part of 20 years. What happened there? For an ex-Waldorf/Steiner kid, this still makes me laugh.
I was ready to start shifting my focus. My education, media and technology background could potentially blend with something in the yoga meditation space, something I felt had potential to be beneficial not just for me, but for the whole world.
So fast forward a few years and with my initial yoga teacher training under my belt, I’ve started my journey towards my new, integrated future, and together with my husband, I’m developing some business ideas within the wellbeing space.
And, we’ve also started this blog. Mindful Moo.
Yoga then and now
I guess the main difference between now and when I started my yoga journey is that yoga is constantly on for me. It’s not anymore something that I only go to when I’m in need; it’s a way of life that I recognise is essential for general wellbeing, and has seeped into my daily existence.
This doesn’t mean I go to a class every day, or even practice asanas every day. I don’t enjoy chanting, and so don’t do it (unless I’m at a class where it’s happening in any case, and then I secretly enjoy it). I often catch myself shallow breathing and have to remind myself to let those deep belly breaths in. I still eat and drink far too much of the wrong stuff. More often than I’d like, I speak before I think. And I’m totally not immune from being emotionally triggered by others.
But it’s the awareness that yoga has given me, and the acceptance of the balance of sukha – softness – and the stirah – strength – in myself, in others, in life in general. Yoga has integrated into my life in subtle ways: counting breaths in stalled traffic, feeling into tadasana while waiting in queues, stretches at my desk, compassionate responses.
And it’s rippling outwards: my husband has also discovered the benefits of yoga and is immersed in his own yoga journey. He’s also discovered the many benefits of meditation and has an established practice. He’s even been with me to a number of silent meditation retreats, and then some solo too. I think he’s a convert.
I’m also excited that my sister recently went to her first yoga class and dissolved into her own puddle of tears during the closing savasana, the relaxation practice. I’m excited because I know how it started for me.
As with so much in life – I realise just how much more there is to learn – particularly at the level of embodying the wisdom of this ancient tradition. But I’m excited to start sharing what I’ve learnt so far, from science, from books and insights from great teachers, from lived experience.
I’m excited to see where this leads.
This is your story too
This will likely be the most personal post I ever write on Mindful Moo. Most stuff going forward will be evidence-based, validated or other people’s stories. But stay with me.
I’ve shared my story because it could just as well be your story.
Past hurt and trauma, childhood bullying, eating disorders, career dissatisfaction, overuse of technology, depression, relationship uncertainty, break-ups, burn-out, vulnerability; none of these are exclusive to me.
And while we can’t pretend that yoga is going to cure all pains and ills and save the world, together with mindfulness practices I believe it can go some way to making our journey through life a whole lot more enjoyable.
So one day at a time.
One step closer to health and happiness.
The biggest of thanks go out to my teachers over the years, including Glyn, Nicola, Madhava and Shyamala at Yoga White Lotus (Sivananda tradition), Jamie Denham at West End Yoga Centre (Iyengar tradition) and Celia Roberts at YIMI/BIYOME.