Ok let’s totally forget about the real meaning of zen (you can watch this short video for an explanation of what zen meditation or zazen means) and talk about this. This is a remark that no doubt is said to those who teach and those who practice yoga all around the world every time they lose their shit in any way.
Firstly, if I were all ‘zen’ all the time, I wouldn’t be sitting in work or at a family function with you – I’d be in a monastery meditating having lost all concern for anything other than the ‘Big Mind’ or, I’d have dropped off, having left this human life to join the “isness”.
I'm here with you because I’m human and I'm ok with being human. That means that sometimes, all the practice in the world cannot stop me from feeling overwhelmed by anger, anxiety, despair, doubt, or just general panic.
Us yoga folks practice yoga and meditation because these things do crush us at times (just like you), and because in the past it has been so bad that we decided to try something, anything, everything to find a way to ease it. Those of us who practice most days have found more peace of mind by learning how to be still and how to create enough space to breathe before we “go ballistic” (as my sister described me one time I told her I was annoyed).
But not always.
On the day that I wrote this, there was no reason for me to have anything other than a nice, chilled Sunday. Except I had just decided to quit my job with the NHS and become a full time yoga teacher, so quite regularly (and quite rightly) I was having fits of panic.
One of my biggest challenges in life has been how much I expect of myself. I do a lot but I often feel like I haven’t done enough. For the past few years my weekends have been spent planning yoga classes, advertising, writing, studying and practising yoga and meditating. On this day, I felt, as I have done many times, that I just couldn’t seem to slow down – that life was slipping through my fingers and I could just never get my to-do list done. I don’t really know now what my to do list was that particular day, but when all of a sudden it was time to go and teach my yoga class, I felt like I hadn’t achieved enough and I walked into the yoga studio two hours before my class feeling anxiety creeping in (I need a lot of time to prepare myself to be calm enough to teach yoga).
I only realised a couple of years ago what anxiety was – until then, I just went through these periods where I was convinced that I had some terrible disease or that I had done something that meant everyone was going to suddenly decide they no longer loved me or that I would do something so embarrassing I would never be able to face anyone again. I just thought that these things might be possible and when it passed, that I had managed to dodge it this time. I later learned that this is what anxiety is – a panicked feeling that something terrible is imminent.
Today it wasn’t a terrible disease or anything I had done (although I was mad at myself for forgetting about an appointment until the person turned up at my door that morning) but the feeling that actually, I’m no good at either teaching or practising yoga at all. That I just can’t find the time to practice enough, or to know enough to try and teach others. I felt overwhelmed by all of the things I am expected to know - anatomy, interception, Sanskrit names of poses; and all the things I am supposed to be as a yoga teacher – peaceful, virtuous, kind, confident, and always able to sense what my students are feeling. Of course, now that the feeling has passed, I know that I don’t need to be or know everything. I am never going to be perfect and it’s healthy that I am always striving to know more and teach better. At the time however, logic was not winning out.
So crazy- haired, with cycling shorts and a vest on (we were having one of those rare, roasting Scottish days), I threw down my mat and prepared to work out my feelings on my yoga mat.
I began moving and breathing, opening my chest and spreading my arms, filling up my lungs and feeling strength in my body. I had the music on loud, feeling my movements as I felt the songs. Fully-feeling, whole-hearted human that I am – I keep all this from spilling out onto the people around me by throwing it all into my yoga practice and then letting it all settle and be still during meditation.
At times I get so wrapped up in the business of being a yoga teacher that I forget what I am really doing and why. Until I step onto the mat or in front of other people on that mat, it may just seem like any other form of physical activity. To those looking at it from the outside, it may just appear to be just like any other fitness class. But it’s not.
Recently I attended an adaptive yoga teacher training with Mind Body Solutions. By teaching us what someone who has limited ability to move or feel their own physical body experiences when they practice yoga, it really brought it home to me what it is that makes it so different.
I’ve known for years that yoga has changed me, but I am not sure I always knew how. You could say that it is in the subtle energetic body. Yet saying that can make it sound imaginary. You’ll hear teachers and yogis talk all the time about finding alignment. In the physical sense, alignment is elongating the spine – but to me, it’s not about making it look straight or simply sitting or standing taller. Rather, we talk about stacking the spine as though someone were pulling the tip of your head at one end and your tailbone at the other with a string. We talk about lining up the centre midline of your body, about feeling all of the places your body is grounding and therefore lengthening, and that when you do this, it feels like you have been away before and now you have come home. You feel immediately that you are at home with your body, with your breath, with your mind and therefore with this world. For me it has been a way to feel comfortable with being here and being me. And for so long, I felt like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time – born in the wrong century and in the wrong life.
Maybe you have to really feel that alienation first to really know the opposite feeling – which would explain why so many yoga teachers have spent much of their youth as lost souls – wandering around lonely, hurt, aware of so much emotion in themselves and the people around them and wondering why everyone is pretending it’s not there. Yoga gives us somewhere to feel it and channel it and use it for good. Teaching yoga allows us to create a space for you to do the same. That is what being a yoga teacher means to me – I am not doing anything except leading you through the postures – the rest is all the yoga and all you.
I often fall into the bad habit of trying to fix things and fix people, but that’s not what why I am here – I am here to give people the idea that they can heal themselves by example and with just a little guidance.
“According to yoga, the cure for disease lies in awakening the innate wisdom of the body and letting it heal us from the inside.” The Secret of the Yoga Sutra by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait PhD
As yoga teachers, I believe we are showing you a way to take your own action, so that you can awaken your own inner wisdom and heal yourself (whatever that means for you), as we have done.
The adaptive yoga course I just completed was founded by Mathew Sanford, a man who was in a car crash aged 13 and had a spinal cord injury that paralysed him from the chest down. After doing this course and reading his book, Waking, I had a moment of understanding. I now know that I can’t fix people, but if I can learn to stay with them without any expectations, I can be there while they heal themselves.
So on that day, I worked out all my angst as I moved and breathed with my body and then I talked a group of people through breathing, yoga postures and relaxation. And like every time I teach yoga, when I am with those people, leading them in their practice, I forget about everything else completely. For that hour and a half, I am there 100%, the whole time with them, all I am concerned about is how they are experiencing their yoga, whether they are grimacing or smiling, whether they have found alignment or not and therefore every other thing that is happening in my life disappears and I leave feeling like I had a cloud over me before and now it has lifted. The reason I can be there and hold a safe, peaceful space for people is because I know how it feels to live in the opposite place - all too well. Sometimes I still go there. So, if you know someone who practices or teaches yoga and they have a little meltdown every now and then, of if you think that they have all of their shit together and you don't, remember that we are all simply humans who just want to be happy. For some people and for yoga teachers, yoga is their way of healing - but remember it's a lifetime's work - on and off the mat.
If you like watching people work their shit out on the yoga mat to nice music, click here (I do ;) .
For yoga classes online and in Ayrshire - go to www.vhairislavenyoga.com/book.