Homage to homah

“You are about to go on a journey. It is a journey through the layers of your own self. It is a journey through your life, through the worlds within and around you. It begins here, in your own body. It begins now, wherever you are. It is your own personal quest. Make yourself comfortable, for the journey is not short. It could take months, years, or lifetimes, but you have already chosen to go. You began long, long ago.” – Opening Meditation

7am this morning found me sitting cross-legged (as I would be for most of the day when not in downward-facing dog, or the shower!) in somewhat of a daze as our new teachers went about the strange and strangely beautiful rites of homah, or fire ceremony.

We’ve always said in our house that there is nothing like a good fire and this was a good fire, one intended to cleanse us of our impurities and align us with the divine powers. Our teachers presided over it, chanting and feeding the dancing flames with what looked like confetti, while all 29 or 30-odd of us new young yogis (some newer and some younger than others, most of us still jet lagged and I for one feeling incredibly in need of coffee and breakfast!) sat in a large semi-circle dressed all in white but for the yellow and red ash on our foreheads – our “third eye”.

But it was magical: the sun slowly coming up at our backs and batheing the shala in golden light, the rhythm Sanskrit incantations, the sense of possibility, of new beginnings. Anything can be offered up to that fire – any impurities, any baggage, any pain, fear, regret – it can all be sacrificed , risked. We do not need it where we’re going.

And as the day went on more and more was offered up, individually and collectively, to that fire –  beginning with our physical selves in anatomy. Going around the circle one by one (a bit like a Yogis Anonymous meeting!), we made our introductions to our teachers and the group: our names, country of origins, injuries, yoga history and current practise, hopes for the future… Everyone of course has their story to tell: from six months doing yoga to nine or ten years; from broken this, fractured that, dodgy something or other to bad, bad, bad…. But there were inspiring stories too of recovery, discover, an easing of or an end to pain, all thanks to yoga; each person realising as the fire grew that they were not alone, that they could also unburden themselves – share – and perhaps, one day, that their current pains, fears, inhibitions, limitations would just be another chapter in their yoga history, a faint scar to a wound they had given themselves permission to heal. For isn’t that after all why we are here? To heal?

So when it was time for me to take centre stage I did what I have been practising in this blog: I got up (and, well, sat down again, cross-legged again of course) in front of everyone and said as honestly and simply as I could “hello, I’m Becky. I’m a yogi and I’m (sometimes) anorexic.” And you know what? It felt good. Good to be able to say it and good to let it go, especially in front of all of these wonderful, beautiful smiling people who, without knowing it, have already just by their health, vitality and openness given me so much new life.

So it’s there in the fire now. It’s gone and I’m free of it. It cannot cause me (nearly so much) pain anymore … at least, not for now, because I know I have these amazing people – this strong, positive collective (and I must say, very female!) energy – with me, on my side, and we are facing our pains together, learning to live with them and (we hope, one day)  without them. The journey starts here, with acceptance and love and forgiveness. Of oneself and each other.  A journey to self discovery in which I could not be in better company.

Nameste

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Committed

I began this blog with commitment in mind. Going the distance: in my studies, my relationship, my health…. Well, it seems I am not much good at that. Having lost my health – body and mind to anorexia again, pretty much resigned from the PhD after not even six months and from my long-distance relationship, I could feel something of a failure, a drop-out, a quitter. But forgive me if I do not feel like this.

Commitment: a big word, and one I used to be scared of – especially with another person. The idea that you could or would swear to be together for ever and ever amen used to terrify me, then I meet J and for a while it seemed right. For quite a long time I thought it was what I wanted. Then suddenly – or is it slowly? a slow awakening, a dawning realisation, a waking up to the smell, sound and taste of your relationship as it is now boiling on the stove? Either way, I found I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure – no, I knew – I could not give him what he wanted, and he wasn’t able to give me what I needed. Commitment, security, troops on the ground.

Yet he said he wanted this too, and perhaps he does – did. But when I pointed out that people say all the things he was saying over the phone to me – all those wonderfully romantic declarations of love and fidelity – but in a church, in front of other people and then live together, start a family and live (more or less) happily ever after. Silence. He did not respond. Was I pushing him too hard? Was I expecting and demanding too much? Possibly. Was it even marriage I wanted? No. I wanted us to live together, to be at least in the same country, to be there for each other at the end of a long day and for brunch at the start of a leisurely Sunday. Not to be calling each other from opposite ends of the day, writing letters or sending texts from opposite sides of the globe, because when the chips are down, when family crises come knocking or deadlines are looming, a bunch of flowers isn’t going to resolve what to have for dinner. They are not going to be a shoulder to cry on.

Seeing my mother’s health deteriorating, feeling her helpless and anxious, feeling inadequate, powerless to help her myself, I turned to my father for help. “I wish I could be there for you right now.” Thanks Dad, but wishes only get you so far. Along with my sisters, I wish that my mother had always had someone there to support her, someone that would care for her instead of visa versa, or someone at least who, when she is feeling lost and frightened, could do more than call her up drunk, blaring at her down the phone, demanding attention, taking her energy, draining her self-worth. I wish she’d always known she was worth more than that.

So I had to make a decision: who or what was I committed to? To the hope that, while we are miserable now, we will some day be happy together again? Or to my health and happiness now? I made a decision and – as with the PhD – I chose myself, here and now, or in India, as it maybe, but to myself in India, alone but not alone because with other like-minded people who are all hoping for and seeking the same strength of body and mind, the same ability to stand on your own two feet and shine.

And yes, i grieved for a day for the loss of what was, of what we had. But, having done that six months ago too when I left Hong Kong, I realised that I was done crying and the next day could find myself smiling, freer to look after myself rather than looking to or blaming another for not being there for me, and get on with being here. With being. It’s a cliche, a line from a song, but it’s true: Alone again, naturally. And it’s never felt more natural or more freeing.

Repatriation revisited

Going the distance

As I prepare to head back off out of England, once again, it seems more than appropriate to take stock and reevaluate the title, purpose and success of this blog. I say, blog, but I mean of course the period of my life captured in this blog: repatriation, reeducation and relationships.

Let’s take Repatriation first.

It’s not the first time I’ve come back home to England from living abroad, nor I hope will it be the last. I still harbour dreams of living and working in France, Italy, Greece or Spain. The latest fantasy oscillates between me on a bicycle riding through Paris on my way to see my editor/agent/publisher and teaching yoga on some olive grove hillstop surrounded by views of the glistening blue sea. Either way, Audrey (the cat)’s nearby and she’s pretty damn happy too. But for now I’m home, and in my experience that’s about as…

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Repatriation revisited

As I prepare to head back off out of England, once again, it seems more than appropriate to take stock and reevaluate the title, purpose and success of this blog. I say, blog, but I mean of course the period of my life captured in this blog: repatriation, reeducation and relationships.

Let’s take Repatriation first.

It’s not the first time I’ve come back home to England from living abroad, nor I hope will it be the last. I still harbour dreams of living and working in France, Italy, Greece or Spain. The latest fantasy oscillates between me on a bicycle riding through Paris on my way to see my editor/agent/publisher and teaching yoga on some olive grove hillstop surrounded by views of the glistening blue sea. Either way, Audrey (the cat)’s nearby and she’s pretty damn happy too. But for now I’m home, and in my experience that’s about as “for good” as it gets, because the last time I came home was for good, as was the time before that…

That time It’d been a long, lonely year in Hong Kong and (just like the first time I was there) I vowed never to do it again. My family were all of the same opinion and even splashed out on a Welcome Home party for me. This was very sweet, but even with their best efforts the only guests they could recruit were their friends and I was left feeling a bit of a lemon, straining like an alien visiting from another planet to follow the conversations and not wishing to bore them with the only subject I had to talk about: the place I had just left. And, if that was not enough, to make the whole situation incongruously worse/better, my older sister had just ‘announced’ she was pregnant but that we weren’t allowed to tell anyone. If we had been allowed, we could’ve turned this failed Welcome Home into a Well Done You’re Preggers party, but instead we had to hide our joy while Anna, very undiplomatically we thought, refused to drink, pretty much giving the game away to all Mum’s wise and suspicious friends. Aiya! It was hard work, and I noticed they did not try to repeat it when i came home this time, even though this time it really is for good. Unless, that is, my fantasies of Paris or Greece come true. And moving to Jersey or a remote Hebridean island wouldn’t count, right?

Okay, so unless that happens, this time it’s for good, and here’s why.

Last time I came back to England, to take up a Master’s at Cambridge, I was in shock: where were the Chinese people? Where was the good Thai food? This milk… it’s fresh? As in, from a cow? Ah, that’s way it tastes so…. real. And this weather? Oh, that’s real too. I see. Interesting…

Culture shock, or rather reverse culture shock. For anyone who doesn’t know, RCS is that thing people who’ve been away living in other countries get where they can’t stop complaining about how bad English weather is, how terrible the transportation system, the price of things extortionate…how nothing ever changes in Englan, no one ever goes anywhere or does anything. How the whole country is f*cked, the culture so close-minded, the food so bland and boring. If you only knew what real Thai food was like, they say, or how the trains run in Japan, or how hard-working and respectful children are in China. Boy, if you’d seen the poverty of India, or the monsoons in the Philippines, then you’d know how lucky you are! England, they say, may be shit but we don’t know we’re born.

Umm, right. Reverse culture shock. Annoying isn’t it? Yeah, well, let’s just say it’s not much fun for the sufferer either. But RCS doesn’t just mean that you pine nostalgically for everything you’ve just left and loathe everything you’ve come home to, nor does it simply mean you don’t have the foggist clue or care for what’s going on in Eastenders. That may be true, but five minutes will probably suffice to get you up to speed. (Look, there’s Stacey Slater, and she’s shouting. Yeah, now you’ve got it.) No, RCS means that the very worries and cares of your nearest and dearest can feel… well, worlds away. For, unlike the characters on Eastenders, real people’s lives really do move on. They change jobs, get new boyfriends, get married to old ones, have kids… Or even if on the outside nothing seems to have changed, how they feel about things (their jobs, their boyfriends, their kids…) does.

Each and every time I’ve come home – even just for a brief visit – I’ve been astounded by how easy it is to pick up with these lovely people I call my family. It’s like slipping on an old pair of gloves: it still fits perfectly! But, wait. Within minutes you realise these aren’t your old gloves at all. Something has happened to them. Someone must’ve borrowed them. There’s a hole here, and look, someone patched that finger back together there. Sure they look good as new, but clearly there’s been a lot of use, wear and tear, good times and bad had with these gloves while you’ve been away, and you missed it all. And just like when I was a kid and one of my sisters borrowed my perfume, scarf, sweater etc, I could even feel jealous that in my absence these gloves had looked better on them… which, if you’re about as lost with that metaphor now as i am, means: I was jealous that they had each other through all those times and I had not. I’d not been there.

But that’s not going to happen this time. The next time one of them splits up with their boyfriend, quits their job or collapses on the kitchen floor at Christmas and has to be airlifted to hospital, I intend to be there. And if nice things happen? Sure, I’ll be there too. Because all the sunshine and mango in Asia can’t make up for the warmth and comfort of home. Sure, the winters here are long, the transport cripplingly expensive and the …. Wait, look, I can’t even think of a third item for my list! Because really, as I was about to argue anyway, there are pros and cons the world over and, creatures of habit, we adapt easily to whatever new environment. Believe me, give it a year – give it six months – and anywhere from the Antarctic to Auschwitz, Guantanamo to Grenada will come to feel like home. Don’t believe me? Think you could never find yourself spending three or four years ex-patria?

Just think about how comfy you make yourself in a hotel room after 24 hours and what a state you end up leaving it in! With the key to the door, your pyjamas laid out on the bed and your toothbrush by the sink, you’ve made yourself at home, and when you leave your bag is always strangely heavier, after all you’ve worn those slippers so you might as well take them, and that soap, well, you’ve unwrapped it too so it’ll only go to waste, and the rest of that packet of biscuits you were saving til later…

Expatriation is just like that: when you first arrive you get to work, unpacking and making yourself at home, opening cupboards, looking into wardrobes, rooting through the goodies in the minibar and surfing the TV channels. Relishing the freshness and newness of everything, you fight any sense of austerity, insecurity and impermanence – the idea of foreignness presented by those whiter than white sheets – by putting your mark on the place, your feet on the bed. For the next however long, this room is yours, this territory your home. Like a cat, you rub your scent on it, take a piss. Ah, Bisto! You’re at home.

Then after a few days, the sense of freshness starts to wear off. No one’s emptied the bins today and that banana peel you put there last night is starting to rot. In fact, your whole wardrobe is soiled and stinky and you start to look forward to emptying it all into the wash, catching up with  friends and family, making tea with fresh milk instead of those annoying little pots of UHT, washing your hair with a conditioner than actually softens it and drying it with a hairdryer that’s not kept in a desk drawer. That’s when it’s time to call the concierge, get them to run up your bill and order you a cab. You’re going back home. Repatriation.

You know that that first pleasurable flush of feeling at coming back home won’t last forever: your own carpet as you run up the stairs won’t always feel like this – at once so new and yet so familiar, that the novelty of running up stairs in a mad dash for the bathroom won’t always feel so good. But for now there is something inexplicably comforting in filling the kettle from your own kitchen tap, opening the door of your own cupboards for that dusty old box of teabags and drinking tea out of your own favourite oversized novelty mug: Number One Teacher/Daughter/Mug. Even giving the cat the stinky scrapings from the tin in the fridge has a satisfaction to it. Because you’re home and there are no words for that.

If I only had three wishes…

“You probably know this already,” my very clever younger sister recently said to me, “but if you want good mental and emotional well being, there are just three things you need.”

I was immediately all ears. I did not already know, but knowing my sister works for a community arts project working with people with social and disability issues (incredibly capable and intelligent, her modesty is always amazing, as is her ability to undervalue herself, like most women I know), I was very keen to find out. What could these wonder drugs be? What three things could I not afford to live without? Money, a good job, and a fast car? No. My laptop, yoga mat and my cat?

As lay back on the floor thinking, she takes a pen and paper and starts drawing. Intrigued, I stop second guessing and sit up to watch. A lesson is about to be given and I better sit up and pay attention.

She draws a circle, then divides it roughly in three, turning the page around for me to see. “This,” she says, pointing to the first segment (it looks like cheese to me, but you can imagine pie or pizza) is love; I nod in agreement. I probably could’ve guessed that. She writes it in the segment. “This,” pointing to the next, “is freedom.” Okay, yes, good, that too…maybe. “And this,” she pauses, knowing I think myself a clever clogs, but I’m drawing a blank. “This is security. When you are young, if you have all of these in equal measure you can pretty much guarantee growing up to be a well-balanced, happy and healthy adult. The love of your parents and friends, the freedom to make mistakes, go your own way, make your own choices…and the security of knowing you are safe, that you will be clothed, fed, provided for.”

So far so very good.

“But,” she continues, “if anyone of these are missing…” She starts drawing again, taking nibbles out of the edge of the segments, “then negative emotions arise. Not enough love you feel loss or rejection, low self-esteem. Not enough freedom, you feel anger and resentment. Not enough security… you feel anxiety.”

Oh, now this was really getting interesting. This could explain a lot, I thought, thinking not only of myself but the friends I knew – my boyfriend…

“Throughout your life,” my sister went on, drawing now a big wobbly line around the circle, turning the wheel into something more resembling an amoeba: one of those wiggly cells we used to draw in biology – “the circle will morph. You won’t necessarily always have these in exact proportion. Sometimes you might be without the love of family or a partner, then you might feel grief or loneliness; or out of work, then you might feel anxiety…”

I was listening to her, for sure; but I was also looking hard at the circle, trying to figure out which of these was me: what was I needing more of, what might I be lacking? What had I always valued above the others? What did I have enough of?

Well, this was a no brainer. It was like looking at one of those tests for colourblindness in which the green dotted number 11 is supposed to stand out from the red dots in the background. Well, I am not colourblind and the numbers were looming all too large to me.

They say that we learn from the best and I guess this is true, because looking at that pizza pie I knew my favourite, biggest slice was Freedom, Choice. Exactly the same as it had been for my mother, escaping the demands of her mother all those years ago; and my father, escaping his. It was the thing I had always craved the most, the thing I valued the most and the thing fortunately I had always had in abundance. From deciding what A-Levels to take, what universities to apply to, what country to live in, what boyfriends to date: the choice was always mine. No anger, no resentment issues for me…. or, okay, only when our dear, overbearing babysitter turned life-long friend and uncle-type figure, offered to kayak to Hong Kong to rescue me. But we all know he’d be late, pack enough to sink the canoe and then probably get lost along the way. Or, if he did make it to HK, be so overwhelmed by the noise, I’d have to rescue him! So, no, few anger issues over lack of freedom for me. Thank you.

But what about love? Ah, that word. It’d been haunting me all week. What was it? What did it mean? I was not sure I knew any longer. I’d always thought love could be as selfish and as selfless as the ocean, or that perhaps it just comes in waves too: an eternally shifting shore. So long as it was, more or less, in balance, it’d be okay. But what if love became too much, asked too much, demanded too much? Was it then still love? I suspected not. But equally, what if love was restrained, distant, cold, uncommunicated? Was that love? Well, from my mother, sisters, friends, I’d never been in short supply. There may be others in my life who could not express it quite so easily, or rein it in when necessary or who simply did not believe in keeping it under wraps, within bounds. For them love was there to be felt, expressed and acted upon in all its big, overflowing romantic gestures. (Including fifty pounds on a bouquet of flowers for the lady at the council, Mr Brady.) But what about myself? Where was my love for myself? When did that go so far astray? It was, certainly the smallest slice of my pie. Maybe I needed to pay more attention to Love?

Then, finally, what about Security? Well, anxiety was certainly something that had been looming large in my life the past six months, something I was starting to feel I knew all about – though, more modestly, I can say I know I have had only a glimpse at its terrifying depths. I’d given up my job of two years, the cherished flat I’d so enjoyed coming home to, the freedom of money in my pocket to spend on whatever I chose, of friends I could spend time with at the drop of a hat and the knowledge that at the end of a busy day my cat would be still there, crying her head off for food, waiting for me to snuggle up in bed with her. So, security, yes. This was the thing I most lacked – the thing I’d given up to move back to England – and the thing that I most craved. It was this, after all, that had had me working all hours in first term, scrimping on my shopping bills, limiting portion sizes and then, of course, becoming severely underweight – a shadow of myself in the ‘hope’ that this shadow would be small enough to survive, to get through life without causing anyone too much trouble, without being too much noticed, cared for or loved by anyone. Not even herself. Or no, only herself. For if she didn’t provide – if she didn’t somehow come up with a plan to save herself who would? Wasn’t she used to being independent and looking after herself by herself? Well, these were the voices, this was the strong, controlling, defiant voice, and it crowded all the more loving ones out.

Well, as my sister said, if you are without anyone of these three things at any time you can fall into ill mental health. My sisters and I – our mother too – were brought up without some of the necessary securities. Unlike our mother, we could not doubt for a moment that ours would always be there for us; but other people…. other men? They did not always seem so dependable, and there were times when we knew we’d have to just make do without them. In fact, things were usually a heck of a lot better when they weren’t around. But little by little, we have learned to let some in. They are a select and gentlemanly bunch; our knights of the long wooden table. Sir Gareth, Sir Andy, Sir Paulus… others have come and gone, some are still on the waiting list, about to be knighted if we think it will not go to or make them lose their heads.

But financial security…? Insecurity, more like. It’s something we know all about and still fear being without. We keep the wolves from our doors as best we can, are generous to a fault when we have it (though not quite as faulty/Fawlty as Good Sir Paul) and generous with each other when they have not. Because, as our mother always said, it’s only money and you can’t take it with you.

So while I may be, for now, without all the security of job and home  I desire, I have the love and freedom of those who give me more safety and comfort than money ever could, and for that I am entirely grateful.

Transformation here I come

The 1st of March, St. David’s Day, how quickly that came around! Only two weeks until India. Only one week since I turned 29, which as anyone new age and hip(py) enough will know is a big year: my Saturn Return. An exciting time. The sun is shining with ever increasingly radiance and warmth, the flowers are coming up in ever more abundant colours and my energy and positivity is picking up too. 

But it has been a busy and tiring time, a battle to stay focused and calm. Last week saw me frantically writing applications and travelling down to London and back for a job interview, running back and forth to the doctors for check-ups and vaccinations, and trying to fit in a bit of much needed yoga practice somewhere in between.

But when I finally got back my application through the online Kryptonfactor-style assault course of “computer says no” late last night, I slumped elated but exhausted in front of Jonathan Creek with a celebratory pot of yogurt and breathed a sigh of relief: February – one of my favourite months – was over, and from now on it’s all eyes on yoga.

For as my flatmate Julia, who is a certified yoga teacher herself, assures me: transformation awaits, and I can start to feel it happening already. The past few months I could’ve chopped a whole mountain of onions with the amount of tears I’ve shed, but now it’s time to go deeper and – now like the onion myself – shed a few of last year’s outer rings. Perhaps it’s the spring and that feeling of wanting to bare your skin to the sun, to feel yourself walking through the parks and gardens a bit lighter, without that duffle coat done up to your ears and your hat pulled down over your eyes.

For it’s been a long, hard winter – not as cruel as previously known: hardly a spot of snow fell from the sky – but a time of stealing oneself nonetheless, of waking up in darkness and coming home in darkness, and I for one am ready to walk with my eyes wide open into the sun and feel it reflecting back out from within.

This is, apparently, the effect of Saturn’s Return: shaking one’s foundations, facing one’s fears, letting go of whatever is not really you. Another chance, a fresh start. I believe in this for I believe in transformation.