Life after a yoga teacher training course: that mixture of relief and fear as the gruelling early morning schedule is abandoned and the work of maintaining it one’s self begins.
Of course, this is not the first time I have experienced this feeling of aloneness – singleness and independence. Only a month ago I was in precisely the same position: four weeks of 5:30am wake up calls over, with the intention of rising every day at 6/6:30 to meditate and practice asana by myself very much in mind. In mind, that is, and body until I arrived in Hong Kong, jet lagged and exhausted and thankful for every bit of sleep I could get. And then? Well, then the next course started and I went back to the alarm clock, grateful for every day in seven when I did not have to set it.
As I have mentioned previously, however, there is a big difference between waking up in India at 5:30 and strolling five minutes down a quiet dusty street to the shala with only the occasional cow hanging out, munching leftover watermelon rind, and waking up at 5:30 in Hong Kong to walk 30 minutes through dirty, litter and vomit strewn streets, the taxis already circling like sharks and the buses picking up the first bleary-eyed children to take to school. There is quite a difference between happily dreaming your way into meditation, still warm from your bed, and having to down coffee just to wake-up enough to make it in one piece (i.e. without tripping all the way down the escalators!) to meditation.
But, now? No more. Not for five long weeks. And whatever (lazy?) part of me was looking forward to this, is now suddenly scared into staying firmly hidden under the covers, ignoring the 7 o’clock alarm, the 7:10 snooze and finally awaking, slightly annoyed at oneself at 7:50am. But while this is an accurate reflection of what happened this morning – DAY TWO - the feelings are not. I was not scared but tired, and not annoyed but grateful. I needed sleep – present tense: need!!
Yesterday – DAY THE FIRST – I woke briefly at 7am, went to the bathroom and prayed that when I got back in bed I would be able to go back to sleep, and thankfully I did, until just before my alarm at 8:30am, and boy did I feel better for those 10 hours of sleep. A quick shower and a dreamy breakfast before going upstairs to teach the little twin three-year-old boys, I really wished for more time: more time to dream, more time to eat. But c’est la vie. I am living here rent free, the least I can do is go and spend an hour helping the boys with their English!
Yet the moment I sat down with the boys, Tat – the fractionally older and smarter (and hence generally ‘naughtier’) one – started pointing to the veins standing out on my too-skinny arms, saying “ugly, ugly, ugly.” I looked down to see what he was looking at and could feel myself flushing with embarrassment, but I didn’t tell him off or even tell him to stop. After all, is it his fault? He’s only a child. Clearly no one’s told him that Victoria Beckham skin-and-bones is beautiful, that you will only be successful and admired if you weigh less than the sticks of celery you live off, if you never even look at a bread roll for fear of the guilt that will ensue. But he’s only young, he’ll learn. And growing up with their mother, who already worries that the youngest daughter will grow up to be as “fat” as the eldest, while the middle daughter (competitive as ever she was when I used to teach them four or five years ago in Shanghai) consciously exercises and calorie counts more than I ever have (or any 13 year old, to my mind, ever should!), he’ll learn that lesson quite quickly and come to have much more respect for his ugly duckling/beautiful swan of a teacher.
I jest, of course. Part of me is very grateful to the child for his honesty, sad though it made me, and hence why I did not tell him off but instead redirected his attention to the work of the day. Because children are like that: they say it as they see it. Sometimes, yes, they know – as Tat did – that it is cruel and hurtful; they are purposefully winding you up, exercising their power over you, and then…? I would say it is the adult’s role to step in and socialise them, not let them get away with teasing and hurting other people. But as teachers it is also important to stand apart and not allow them to hurt you – perhaps not allow anyone, young or old, to hurt you with words. As our yoga and mindfulness teacher has been telling us, they are just concepts and one person’s concept can be very different from your own, but it does not make it either right or wrong. Tat is simply telling it how he sees it. You might say his concept are limited – he does not understand why I look like this – but essentially, I would agree with him: it is “ugly”, but more than that – for me, it is sad, a sign that I am overworked and underfed, still under-loving myself. But I will not let his comments or anyone else’s hurt me and bring me down. I will only allow his words to inspire me towards better health, not drag me down into a circle of self-criticism and self-hatred. For I know only too well where that will keep me: in unhappiness, in “ugliness.”
You might say, however, that this is easier said than done, and I would agree. I know only too well what it is to have negative personal comments and looks directed your way each and every day. When I returned from India last year, a shadow of my former self, I had to put up with people every day saying something about my weight, even one bizarre time congratulating me on my diet and wanting to know how I did it!? “Are you crazy?!” I wanted to scream. “Do you think I want to be like this? Do you think it’s fun to be collapsing in the middle of the night with diarrhea? To be stuck in the middle of nowhere in a monsoon that is killing hundreds of people and infecting our drinking water? To be cut off from all contact with friends and family? To be so weak with hunger you fear you are going to die?” Well, I didn’t say this either. I just shrugged, smiled and walked away, keeping my tears, my sadness for myself to learn from, to deal with. That time I knew better; I knew it was not my fault. But with anorexia it is harder, and it is lonelier, partly because you feel it is your fault, that you have no one else but yourself to blame. All by yourself, with yourself, killing yourself each and every day. But I don’t want to think like this. I know I have to rise above playing the victim and rise above playing the bully or judge. The first rule of being alone, all by myself – in one’s yoga practice as in life – is about cultivating compassion. It’s about love.
And this is what transpired yesterday. For after teaching the boys and leaving the Peak, I went to Central, tired though I was, for a gentle hour of yoga. Sometimes, for me, it is as much about taking yourself to a clean, neutral space and being around familiar and un-familiar people. But as it was, the bus was running late and by the time I arrived the only person in the changing room was Carol. Carol, aiya! How can I describe Carol? She’s the Cruella Devil, Devil Wears Prada, Know It All of Hong Kong high society who happens to patronise the same gym and yoga classes as I and who, over the years, has taken great delight in prying into my affairs – health, wealth, relationships, career, soul – causing possibly more hurt than any three-year-old could and yet with a sort of blindness and insensitivity that suggests she does not intend it and would be mortified if she knew she’d offended you, as I one time had to suggest to her that she had. So it was only Carol, finishing up and getting ready for her usual Sunday brunch at the yacht club with her mother, asking me - as I hurried in and hurriedly undressed – how I was and where I was living, and basically (so it felt) trying get a few more scraps of information to add to her file on me. But bleary-headed and late as I was I answered everything wrong – not at all to her satisfaction – and before I knew it I was stressed, trying to explain how the estate I lived on (next door to hers as it happens) was “far away” when she affirmed it was not. Aiya!
So, by the time I arrived in Arno’s class of only three other people I was grateful for the silence and simplicity of yoga: a few gentle sun salutations, a couple of standing poses, a headstand or three, and some floor stretches… I wanted to cry. Sometimes the sadness and emotion that’s been raising up in us through the weeks – sparked by little or big things – comes out in a deep seated forward bend, hip opener or groin stretch. (Or, at least in my experience. For others, I appreciate, it could just be more physical pain that is being felt.) A number of things, not least my run in with Carol and Tat that morning, was coming out: the dream I had had the previous night involving my ex, the exercises we had done on the yoga course the couple of days before…
The exercise on Friday had been to look deeply into the eyes of the person opposite you for two whole minutes, just observing their features, your thoughts, their breath and whatever else came up. The partner I had was someone I had spoken to a few times, someone shy on the outside but as I knew quite sociable and friendly, warm and caring on the inside; someone, perhaps, seeking greater confidence, greater love, greater acceptance from the world. But, as I looked into her eyes and saw all this – the sadness, the plea “Don’t judge me” – I suddenly wondered how much of what I was seeing was a reflection of myself. Was she looking so sad and earnest because she was seeing the same things in me? Was I only reading in her expression my own feelings of low self-worth, fear of judgement, desire for love, friendship and acceptance? It was powerful stuff, and the next exercise was no less so.
This time we had to sit in groups of four or five, looking at one group at a time as they went to stand at the front of the class. Again, we did this in complete silence, observing the people standing up, observing our thoughts, feelings, breathing. And as the second group stood up to take their turn, I caught myself thinking “Oh yes, I like all these people,” as if I hadn’t liked everyone in the previous group, had been able to find some fault with each of them, but luckily this group would be spared that. “How awful!” the next thought came. “You are judging everyone, trying to find something to say or think about each one – this one’s pretty, that one’s good at yoga, I like her clothes, I don’t know her so much, she’s shortest in the group, etc etc etc. How exhausting! Can’t you just stop thinking for a bit? Can’t you just stop judging?” And that’s when I started to cry, when I realised how much time I spent, how much of my life was being wasted, judging – not really others, but myself.
Then there was the dream: I was back with my boyfriend, though I am not sure I wanted to be or that we were properly together, not like before. (Dreams are annoying like that: kind of vague – but then, some relationships are like that too.) And I remember I wanted to catch a train; I was going to see Alan, the yoga guy in India. But we were sitting in the waiting room and just kept missing the train, or the bus, or anything that came by, and finally I was getting so frustrated that I just went out of the waiting room into the snowy street platform and hailed a passing taxi. There were already quite a few people in it, so my ex and I had to squeeze in, when I suddenly realised that it was going in completely the wrong direction and I just wanted to get out. We paid our share of the fare and as I got out of the car I turned to my ex and said something to the effect that I didn’t want to be with him anymore, that I wasn’t going anywhere the whole time I was with him, that it felt as if he didn’t really want to be going anywhere and was cursing – jinxing – every plan for foreign travel I made, every plan for us, our future. It would be better, I said, to go on alone, by myself. I’d get there quicker, I said, without him. And I think we left each other, or at least, the dream ended there, the scene – the relationship – dissolved. But as with all those heavy, involved dreams, it had lingered – through my shower, through breakfast and into teaching the twins, finally to come out in all its sadness during that yoga class, so that by the time I left the gym to meet my friends, I really did not feel good company at all, just sad and introspective. I just felt I wanted and would be better off being alone.
Added to this, the weather that we’d been counting on to stay dry for our walk up to the Peak to take photos had failed us, starting to rain (again) just at the crucial moment. IFC mall and all its coffee shops were crowded and when I met them I could tell we were all a bit fed up. Talk of the weather – English and Hong Kong – was dragging us down, barely disguising our ennui and disappointment: what were we going to do with ourselves now that all our best laid, most looked forward to plans had failed?
Yet, arriving at Agnes B – pregnant friend, Jacky, was starving – we were lucky to take the last vacant table and were able to hover in front of the menu board for a good ten minutes trying to decide between designer cafe lattes, before finally enjoying a rambling, lighthearted and reviving conversation about photography-art-literature-film-children-writing-etc-etc-etc. Within minutes of sitting still, slurping some warm gingery soya coffee, and relaxing while Lloyd took the pressure of “how does your new camera work” off me and went to work finding out himself, I felt better. All that melancholy, bluesy stuff of wanting to be alone was behind me. I realised I was alone. Of course I was. I was meeting up with my married, happily expectant friends for “coffee” (Jacky is off caffeine and Lloyd seemed to be keeping her company with an iced tea and a shared panini) alone, by myself, no boyfriend in tow. But that was how I wanted it, that was my choice. Because in terms of A relationship, it was not going to make me happy – not right now. The dream was all too symbolic of how I felt, of my conceptions about the relationship – whether he would agree or not, whether objectively valid or not, it was how I felt, how I saw it, and I wanted more than anything to be free, to come and go, to be myself, to choose my own role rather than feel it was dictated by someone else, their needs, their expectations. So I was alone, but for now not sad, not lonely. I had myself and I had these, my friends and their best intentions to help me while I was here – not only take photos without the lens cap still on, my finger over the lens etc etc – but to get better, to help myself get better.
And so I did leave them to have cake, but with the intention of going home, making a vegetable green curry, chatting to my mum on Skype and catching up with some reading. The sun now annoying shining and the weather was perfect for a walk, so I stopped on my way through the park to take some terrible photos of the carp in the lake, thinking of my friends and grateful to them for their company that had lifted me out of my blues and brought me back to the present moment.