For I have had too much of apple-picking (aka “please no more, yoga!”)

Apple-picking?!

Let me explain – okay, admit: I really didn’t want to get up this morning. Like really. 

We’re into week three of the yoga course now, which is about 74 hours done and another 126 to go. And just so you know, it’s pretty much not stopped raining since we started.

Not that it’s outdoor yoga. This is Hong Kong after all. No open-sided shalas here, just your regular, bog-standard Hong Kong studio: tiny, arms almost reaching the ceiling and certainly touching my neighbours, heavily air-conditioned… So what am I complaining about? Oh I don’t know, only that to get to this wonderfully serene yoga sanctuary in the heart of Sheung Wan, opposite the towering Cooked Food Market, I have to abseil down from the Peak, navigating white-water torrents of gushing rain water, dodging umbrellas and slip sliding my way through the-morning-after-the-night-before Soho streets (eugh!) to finally arrive, ass-wet through, at morning meditation on my poor water-logged travel yoga mat. Sigh.

No wonder I didn’t want to get up this morning and that, even having gotten up at 5:38am and had a quick shower and sat slumped over a sad and sorry cup of chicory coffee, I still didn’t want to go but very nearly climbed straight back in bed (but woefully didn’t). And no wonder that, hiking the 2.7 kilometers back up the hill in the still-pouring rain, I was wishing that I had.

But it’s not just the rain. The rain I think I could live with. It’s worse than that: it’s the yoga.

“But I thought you loved yoga,” I hear you cry.

Yes, I do. I did. I thought I did. I think – no, I know – I still do. But everything has it’s limit and I think I am finally reaching mine with yoga. Not only am I practising the physical asanas for anything from 90 minutes to three, three and a half hours a day – which, to be honest, sometimes, when I have been really bored and had nothing else to do, have been known to relish – but I am now dreaming about it at night.

Again, to be honest, I have dreamt about yoga before too, but not like this, not sequencing, sequencing, sequencing, and not every single night!

You might think I am working too hard – an accusation I am used to accepting and often level against myself – and it is true we do have a 90-odd minute (depending how quick or slow you are, how many postures you leave out or how many vinyasas you throw in) routine to learn, a sequence devised by our teacher which we have to learn off my heart and be able to teach to the rest of the class at a moment’s notice. So you might think I am spending every waking moment memorising the warm-up, sun salutations, standing series, core section, balances, backbends, hip openers and closing segments. But I am not. Really. I have enough confidence (yes, both arrogance and faith) to know that the sequence will come naturally, with time; that I know most of it already from having gone through it the past two weeks and that, anyway, if you forget a bit or miss something out it doesn’t matter too much. So, no. For a change I am not being a complete control freak or grade-A geek and swotting up on my sequence night and day, but whether I like it or not it is working its way around me – body and mind – and I am practising it even in my sleep. Aiya.

What do they say about ‘no rest for the wicked’?!

So, I am seriously having to consider taking some time out from yoga – even from the yoga course itself. Maybe I should have stayed in bed this morning, shouldn’t have bothered spending an hour and a half hiking through the rain to get to and back from meditation and asana class. Maybe there is more to life than yoga. Maybe there is more to yoga than asana! Because while the arm balancing was fun (side crow into koundinyasana), hiking all the way back up here, with groceries (because even when there is not a single free taxi to be found a girl still needs her grapefruit and pineapple), was exhausting. Truly. And suddenly throwing ourselves around into strange half-upside positions, spending so much energy trying to get our legs a few inches off the floor, our asses higher than our heads etc etc, seems… Well, stupid. A big expense of spirit. A waste. A shame. (As Shakespeare might say.)

Okay, maybe that is taking it a bit far. I don’t really believe all this. It is merely an indication of how I am feeling about my energy – high, low, insufficient, surplus (I wish!)… And where I am coming to in terms of what I want to give that energy to. As I was saying to some good old friends over dumpling lunch yesterday, I am eating more now (as compared with five months ago), I am able to be less restrictive and I am careful to eat a fuller, more varied diet, but I am – thanks to the amount of exercise I am doing – still only the same weight I was five (and even nine – after a week’s enforced starvation in India!) months ago: drastically underweight for my height; and my periods are still only on prescription, courtesy of the contraceptive pill. I may be getting better in some ways, but I know it will still take time and self-care before I able to reach my ideal, healthy weight and be happy with and in myself, not suffering energy lows or blood sugar spikes; not having to worry, for example, about eating too much white rice or too many fried dumplings, cream cakes etc as even the nicest meal or most well-intentioned treat from a friend sends my system into freak out for several hours. And it’s hard making people believe that you’re avoiding cakes not because your crazy scared they’ll make you fat but because they actually make you crazy scary ill!

So I am having to make a decision: to continue pushing myself through the physical yoga training or not, to continue my aspirations to be a yoga teacher or not. Or perhaps I do not have to decide anything. Perhaps I let my body speak for itself, my heart, my soul.

Because I made a commitment – and it was the memory of this that got me walking through the rain to class this morning (I look up and through the window outside to see that, yup, it’s still raining) – I made a commitment to the course, to myself, to yoga… But yoga, what does that really mean?

I have had many conversations with many people over the past few weeks since arriving in Hong Kong, and even in the months in England prior to leaving for Goa, with people – dear friends and family members – who claim simply, or rather apologetically or nervously or defiantly, not to be able to do yoga.

“I’m like Iron Lady,” one friend said to me, “I don’t bend.”

Another: “I don’t believe in any form of exercise that has a name. Gardening, cooking, walking the dog…that is my idea of exercise,” she explained.

As I listened to my friends I did not think how wrong they were or to try to explain to them the importance of stretching their muscles or toning their body, or learning how to deepen their breath to Darth Veda levels so the people across the street can hear. I thought instead how perhaps for them they do not need to go to class to learn how to bend backwards or twist themselves into weird shapes to get at the deepest, most inaccessible layers of fascia known to man. Perhaps these people – the wonderful friends and family around me – are already bending over backwards in their daily lives, helping other people, helping themselves, walking their dogs, cooking for their friends, going shopping for baby clothes with their expectant wives, picking up the pieces whenever a colleague lets them down, being there to listen to the woes of others and only talking about their own with a smile that says “I’m coping.” Perhaps these people already live their days so mindfully, counting each breath, each moment and not wasting a single second, so that for them a yoga class would be “an expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” Perhaps for them the joy of handstand does not come after weeks and months clinging to and then trying to un-cling from a wall in a studio, but from the spontaneity of finding yourself alone on the beach at sunset with the energy and heart to leap up on to your hands and feel the grains of sand beneath you. Perhaps there are such people who are yogis already, without having matching pants and vest from Lulelemon. And perhaps I would like to be such a yogi, giving my time and energy to helping and healing others first, or even to helping and healing myself, rather than to getting up into an arm balance or headstand before breakfast. Perhaps…perhaps…perhaps….

But for now, I can’t give up. I did make a commitment and that includes to all the other people on the course, the people who do want to learn to be a teacher and do have the physical, mental and emotional energy to endure. Whatever feelings I am experiencing now, whatever thoughts or realisations I am coming to, can wait. To quit or back out would be selfish and would, I know, later be felt as a missed opportunity to learn about something  more than just asana. So for now my yoga is to keep going, even when part of me – for good and less good reasons – would like to give in, sleep in and dream about something else. I know I have other dreams, and if one of these dreams is to be a yoga therapist, then good: keep at the yoga! But if there are other dreams yet undiscovered or unfulfilled then let’s give more of our waking energy to them and save perfecting koundyasana for another day, another week, another lifetime. There will always be another of those, but there is only one of this.

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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.

Shall I stay or shall I Goa?

When I started this blog back in August last year with the heading ‘Going the Distance,’ commitment – something that once terrified me – presented an appealing challenge. Could I go the distance on three years of doctoral studies? Could I manage to maintain a relationship across time and space? Could I steer my recovery, mentally and physically? My confidence in myself and the choices I’d made made it all seem infinitely possible – all within my control, my reach. It was part of the adventure.

Well, as any regular reader of this blog will know, the answer to these questions has – unfortunately – since proven to be ‘no.’ As I related to a friend (or let’s say ‘frienemy’) over coffee last weekend, returning to Uni after Christmas I entered what could be called a dark night of the soul. Did I want to be here? What was I doing this for? Where was the life, the self, I once knew?

The thought of going to Goa for my yoga teacher training at Easter was about the only thing I felt I had to look forward to, and yet, drastically underweight, crying everyday and so anxious that I could barely put food in my mouth, how on earth was I going to be strong enough to get myself there? Wouldn’t illness strike once again? Wouldn’t I be exhausted by hours of Ashtanga every day? Unable to balance in my yoga practice – barely enough muscle on my hips and legs to move seamlessly between tree pose and warrior III without swaying like a elm in a storm – the only life-saver I had, my yoga practice, would in all likelihood finish me off for good. Or if it didn’t, then what? I would return to university after Easter? That was supposed to be the plan. But I no longer knew that I wanted the PhD. Wasn’t it that that had made me ill?

Then the post arrived bringing the article I wrote for Namaskar magazine about my last time in India.

Throughout the whole of the previous term, every time I found myself on my yoga mat I was brought back face to face with my experiences in India. Not painful memories, but poignant reminders, it was like being haunted by Casper the friendly ghost bringing me back to what was important, to the lessons I’d been shown. I say ‘shown’ for I cannot any longer lay claim to having learnt, absorbed or been miraculously transformed by these lessons. What can I say? I’m a bad student, a slow learner. All the promises I remember making to myself, such as never ever starving or denying myself food ever again, have been undone by the pressures of … well, work, loneliness, worry, of in short, being myself by myself.

So the article from India came at a crucial time, much as India had kept returning to me before, to insinuate itself between me and my unhappiness, to remind me truly of what was important: my health, my survival. For if India nearly killed me, anorexia was threatening to do the same. I would say that for anyone with mental illness they do not need tsunamis, monsoons, landslides or disease to bring them close to death… but then I would qualify that by saying the same for everyone. As the recent flooding in the UK has shown, a natural disaster can bring to the surface and make explicit our weakness, our dependence and fragility, but we do not even have to go to such extremes. As my recent blog on mindfulness suggests, we are only a panic button away from mental, emotional or physical ill health. Some are more prone to it than others, and some are better at acknowledging it, at seeing the signs. Hence my frienemy – a no nonsense academic for whom weakness is not an option, mental and emotional imbalance unconscionable – simply not on her radar. I am not sure whether to envy or feel sorry for her. But no, walking away from that coffee date, I knew that, crazy and incomprehensible as I and my life seemed to her, I was glad and actually proud to be me. For there are those who seem never to suffer, then there those who, having suffered themselves, are alive to can sympathise with it in others, and offer grace. For such people, it is precisely our weakness that makes us human and, possibly, divine.

In his sermon on Lent 1622, John Donne preached Jesus’ humanity, saying: “Jesus wept as a man doth weep, and Jesus wept as a man may weep.” But for Donne, Christ’s tears were also divine – divine because they were not inordinate, not bred of original sin – not, that is, for his own lost interest and power, but for mankind. Well, here, as a non-Christian, merely a humble Renaissance scholar, I can quibble with Donne. I do not believe in any original sin that we must repent for, but I do believe in an original sorrow, a feeling that many people experience of loss and lack, of unworthiness or insufficiency, of loneliness or anxiety – a feeling that brings many to look for love and reassurance in another, in a job, in a god…

Lucretius, my choice Latin philosopher, would explain it thus: we are born of chance – from the contingent collision of particles falling through the immense, immeasurable void – and from that moment begin our decline towards death, bombarded by our environment from without and shedding films of ourselves, emitting images and layers onto others as we go. We are part of nature and subject to it at the same time, and this vulnerability leaves us feeling that we not enough by ourselves. There remains the original chaos or emptiness in and outside of us, beyond our control, incomprehensible and infinitely fearful. A gap between our desire for stability, certainty, immortality and the ever-changing nature of the world, we would wish to bridge it and seek many ways to try – a lover, fame, wealth, family, god – but so often we find it breached, and ourselves – our vulnerability, contingency and ephemerality – betrayed.

It was in these difficult weeks spent living face to face with and in my own createdness that, having already made plans to be in Goa at Easter, I made a bigger decision: not to come back to Uni again afterwards. I announced this decision at the time by changing the title of my blog to the rather wordy ‘Going the Distance Finding the Balance.’ Unable to balance – to stand, not exactly on my own two feet (any fool can do that), but on one leg – in my yoga practice was due to my life being out of balance. As I tried to explain to my frienemy and as I endless bewail to my boyfriend, I want it all. I have had times in my life of intense study – three years at Oxford no less – and I have had years of putting work and money first; I have had periods spent with my family away from and without a boyfriend, and too many years away from my family living the life in Asia. I have, quite literally, lived my life piecemeal, putting up with just one bite at a time: try a bit of this, taste a bit of that…

“Yeah, that’s nice, but wouldn’t it be better with a bit more…?”

Ask my boyfriend and he will affirm, this is the cause of many of our arguments in the kitchen. “You can’t just add everything. Just stick to the recipe.”

But I wasn’t raised that way. Our mother never followed the recipe. Used to feeding not just her three girls, but their friends, her friends, her brother and sister and their partners, children…she always put in more than even we thought necessary (the old mayonnaise from the back of the fridge, really mum?), and the result? Delicious, of course. At the ripe old age of twenty-somethingunmentionable I am ready, if I wasn’t already ready before, to get cooking. No more living by half measures, no more shopping for one, cooking for one…

“So, if I could wave a magic wand and give you everything you wanted,” my frienemy asked (not, I thought, a little unpatronisingly) “what would you wish for?”

Well, I will tell you what I told her: there are any quick fixes or miracle cures; I don’t believe in fairy godmothers. But if there is magic – and I do kind of believe there is, for what if nothing else is anorexia than a black magical thinking of the mind – well, I have waved my magic wand myself. I am going to Goa and I am not coming back to uni afterwards – not right away at least. I will go on to Hong Kong for a few months, do some yoga and meditation practice with one of the most inspiring women I’ve ever met (the advertisement for whose course was on the page opposite my India article: surely a sign if you are ever desperate and need one?!), spend some time living with and teaching a wonderful family I used to work for, and actually date my boyfriend. Whether we will go the distance I still cannot say, but having just completed his first full marathon, he has been equally demonstrative in showing his commitment to us; and I’m willing to make a gesture in return: a chance for us to reconnect, to remember, to recognise….

It is all part of my therapy. RAIN – Lord knows the UK knows all about this! But not that kind of rain. RAIN:

Recognize

Accept

Investigate

Non-identification: resting in pure consciousness…

So I am working on turning my weeping into rain, to feeling it healing me from the inside out.