This week I have been discussing with my students our preoccupation with the physical side of yoga in the West. That many people, and some that I meet, are apprehensive of trying yoga because they believe it’s for the young, beautiful, supple, strong and flexible. And to be fair if you look at social media for its interpretation of yoga that’s what you will see, mostly.
There is plenty of yoga around to sample and it will include types of yoga that focus purely on developing your physical strength and flexibility and often demonstrate fancy flows and circus act level asanas. Don’t get me wrong – it is impressive that people can move their bodies, hold their bodies in such postures, and I have been enthralled by the artistic dance that some instructors bring into their practice. And also envious. But there are side effects to this focus – that it intimidates people for sure but it also skews the focus of your practice and potentially misinforms us all about what yoga really is.
After saying all that you may be surprised to learn that this week I encouraged my students to focus on their physical experience in class! That I pushed their boundaries with a warrior flow and half moon balance pose which challenges me especially when trying to teach it at the same time! But what I hope my students took from my teaching this week is how their bodies felt in the asanas, whether they were challenging themselves from a place of compassion or frustration. Whether they were working for themselves or forcing their bodies in an attempt to be as good as their neighbour, their teacher or as good as their ego would prefer.
In my book and on my yoga mat, part of an advanced yoga practice is developing your awareness of your physical body and your connection to your own body – to what it needs on a daily basis. Yoga develops your core strength and flexibility over time, but perhaps more importantly it develops your strength of mind and mental flexibility to adapt to change and challenges on the mat but also in day to day life.
Body connection, body love, and body image continue to be the most sensitive and damaging areas of our lives. I have written before about the disdain I had for my body for many years (Psychic Sabotage), how I wanted to be thinner like my friends, sexier, taller and more confident so boys would value me and queue round the block. I attached my value as an individual, my beauty and my identity to my physical form and I fought against the natural way my body developed from a girl to a teenager, to a young woman and to an older young woman. I used exercise to change my body shape, to balance out the calorie intake of my day and to feel that I was in control of my body and to some extent my life.
Yesterday, I was taking a break from the joy that is admin (the bane of any small self-employed business person) and I watched a couple of TED talks. I stumbled across a talk by Eve Ensler (https://www.ted.com/talks/eve_ensler) from December 2010. (I appreciate I am seriously behind the times – I only just finished watching The West Wing which aired from 1999-2006!) Eve Ensler is a fierce activist, a poet and famous playwright (The Vagina Monologues for one) but this short talk is about her lifelong fight against her body, how she connected to her body following the invasion and violence of cancer and the power with which she now feels that connection to her self. I do not have the linguistic talent she has to express how she tore through my heart with her words, how she left me sobbing with the pain of her experience and of those other women she spoke of, and how she reminded me of my own recent experience of truly connecting with my body as a woman. She inspired me to write this blog and to share my experience of how, at the age of 32, I finally began to accept and connect to my beautiful body.
It won’t surprise you to hear that it comes from yoga. It came in part from the discipline of working with my body every day for 6 weeks in India. Forcing myself to get up at 5AM, to sit and meditate on a stone floor, to feel the aches, and fight against the frustration and my defences as they manifested themselves in my knee joints and as tension in my jaw. To then encourage myself to work through a yoga class, becoming aware of the anger that arose frequently in my heart when I held camel pose and allowing the tears to flow during kundalini yoga sessions. To have my fellow students whisper to me that I was beautiful as I stood sweating, hair scraped back without a scrap of makeup on and with my little Buddha belly relaxed and free. It came from a willingness to give in to the experience, to realise that the old way I was living was not helping me and that I wanted to step forward into the new, unknown and unsettling because that offered hope.
It came from the strength and the power in my thighs as I climbed the Great Wall of China for 9 days. Scrambling up inclines, crawling up disintegrated turrets at a dizzying height above ground, and marching relentlessly for hours up and down never ending steps. Up and down. Up. And down. To be fair that shouldn’t have come as much of surprise but oh! did it ache and it challenged my will to keep stepping on, stepping up and down.
It then came in a death meditation up in the glorious snowy capped mountains in Dharamsala, India in which I was guided to let go of this life, my family and friends, and finally to let go of my lovely little body. To finally sit and acknowledge the strength and wonder of my thighs, to marvel at how my body has enabled me to explore, to climb mountains, to swim in oceans with sea turtles, to dance in nightclubs (and in slightly weird ecstatic yoga dance events), to jump on trampolines with my little nephew, to hug my family and friends and share intimate moments with lovers. The simple fact that my body with its irregular beauty and individuality enables me to access my life for which I am truly grateful for.
It came from watching my body heal itself slowly and imperfectly perfectly after a scooter accident in Java. I slid off the bike across a tarmacked road and burned through the skin across the length of my right leg and most of my right arm. It weeped and seeped as I schlepped across Java to Bali batting off flies and avoiding infection. It took weeks to then crisp up to form an armadillo-esque scab which locals recognised as a ‘Bali tattoo’ and finally, months later, it left a faint scar as a reminder to me of how my body heals itself naturally, with patience and time, and how my body has that power to rebuild, and restore and renew.
There are plenty of yoga postures I cannot do at the moment just like there are plenty of physical activities I choose not to do. There are my love handles and other parts of my body that if I buy into the airbrushed photos of celebrity, of yoga teachers even, and of the TV, magazines and newspapers I should be ashamed of, that I should spend money, time and effort seeking to change. And why? Why do we not celebrate our individuality? Why do we not have the confidence to embrace ourselves as we naturally are? Why do we expect our bodies to do more for us than they already do?
Finding that connection to your body, male or female, young or old, is a key part of yoga. Accepting your body for what it is on this day, in this moment, is one way in which we learn to stay present and use less judgement against ourselves and others. So yes, be physical. Use your body, move your body, challenge your body mindfully and feed your body well. Support it for it is the only one each of us has to access this short experience of life.
If you’d like to know more about yoga and my classes in Southport then just click here.