All by my self (-practice)

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.DSC_0008

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.

 

 

 

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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.

Talking about a yogalution

So I arrive back in Hong Kong, as I’ve done so many times, to dismaying damp and drizzle. My friend Kate sympathises: “I’m sorry you have to come back to this,” she What’s Apps to say. I am already, within half a day, signed up at the gym and back on a Hong Kong number, pepped up on coffee my suddenly 11 year old student has made me. “Suddenly”, because the last time I looked she was 6 years old and adorable, not she isn’t still adorable but, like her then 11 year old sister, is now a trouble-maker, rummaging in the fridge for fish eggs to try and tempt me with (I’m strict vegetarian and having non of it) and getting me all caffeinated when I’d rather be sound asleep.

“It’s okay,” I tell my friend. “You don’t have to apologise for the HK weather.” But she does and we both know it.

We are sitting in the back of Le Petite Cafe on the second wet grey morning since my arrival. I’ve got my much-needed cappuccino while she is trumping me in the ethical, clean living stakes with her peppermint tea. It is good to see Kate. She is about the only person I can tell all this hippy stuff too without fear of being disowned, unfriended, betrayed.

“It’s just so inhumane,” I complain, “so isolating. In India I never felt lonely; you’d go into a cafe or bar and the guy would ask how you are, if you’ve had a nice morning; they know that you’ve been doing yoga or that your friend’s been by looking for you to go swimming. You ask them how they are and they actually look at you and smile as they reply. I mean, can you imagine having a conversation with the person serving you? There was this guy that had a shop where I’d buy some nice dresses and things, and he told me all about where he was from and what it was like. You’d love it, he said; they all said that, that you have to go visit their home because it’s the most beautiful place in India…with this look in their eyes, kind of faraway and dreamy that made you believe it. CAn you imagine doing that here? Going into Zara… Hallo,” I sing in my best Chinglish accent, “welcome to Zara, how are you, nice day. Where you from? I am from most beautiful place in China you must come and visit sometime.”

My friend laughs. I gesture around at the long queue for coffee, the bustling cafe full of smart suited types. “No one talks to anyone, and yet everyone expects and demands so much. We are just rude to each other. Treating people like commodities.”

I knew this would happen. I’d warned myself on the walk down here not to do it. What was the use of railing against it? I knew when I was back in India that it was going to be a shock. That day that we’d sat in philosophy talking about the importance of feeding the mind with purities – not only clean foods, but gentle sounds, pleasant smells, harmonious colours and images… I knew that Hong Kong was going to feel like an assault on the soul like never before. The pollution, the concrete, the noise, the crowds… Where even was the sky above my head, the earth beneath my feet? Where was the nearest fruit stall selling fresh bananas, mangos, coconuts? Waiting to cross the street I had seen a stall selling flowers – such things do at least still exist – but it was not until, finally 2 minutes later, I walked right past could I smell the intense fragrance of two dozen orchids, and then, just as quickly, it was gone. The intensity of colour and smell replaced by the grey of the pavements, buildings, smog and drizzle.

What was the point of complaining though? This was life. This was reality. This was Mrs Dalloway in the 21st Century – what a lark, what a plunge! what bullish*t. But where was the use in complaining? What could you expect – the erase it all? To turn back the clock, unpave all the roads, dig up the sidewalks and go back to bare feet shuffling along sandy paths, pulling rickshaws uphill, carrying sacks of rice on your head? People wanted taxis and roads, tramways and escalators. They wanted skyscrapers and high-rise; they wanted shopping malls and coffee shops and constant wifi. Even in India they want all this and you want them to be able to have it too – your Indian friends who slave away in front of pathetic fans, longing for air-conditioning and refrigeration. To be able to sleep comfortably at night and wake in the morning to an ice cold juice and a hot shower.

I had considered the problem deeply: if yoga heightened your sensitivity to your environment, made you hyper-aware of sounds, smells, tastes… gave caffeine and alcohol, tobacco and McDonalds an intolerable toxicity… then surely the yogi could not survive in the city? But then, on the other hand, if modern city living was so stressful that it drove people to seek the calming, mind-altering effects of yoga, wasn’t it inevitable that at some point – sooner or later – a revolution had to occur? Wouldn’t the city be forced to change in order to accommodate humanity again, in order to be humane again?

In my mind green spaces would spring up everywhere: people growing vegetables on their rooftops, letting the grass grow in the cracks between the pavements, flowers, shrubs and trees out of window boxes and guttering… Instead of red taxis lining the street, children would be running hand in hand to school, picnicking on the sidewalks; businessmen walking to work barefoot, not texting on their iPhones but talking to their neighbours on the earth. The sky would be blue and the air good to breath, scented with flowers and carrying, not the noise of the traffic, but the sound of birdsong.

Yes, it was a crazy dream, but that is what – for a moment – I imagined when I thought of Hong Kong. But then, as my friend Alan reminded me, most people do not do yoga for that reason. They do it because they want to look good, because it is fashionable, because they have bought all the Lululemon gear and look damn good wearing it over post-pilates coffee with their friends. Oh Alan, I wish your cynicism was not quite so justified, but I fear it is.

Still, if Kate is anything to go by, I have reason to believe yet. Kate started yoga with me back in… June, July (?) last year. Hers was the familiar story of being unsatisfied with her body and wanting to join a gym to do something about it. So I did what any evangelical yogi does and signed her up at my gym, selfishly pleased I would get to spend more time with her and eager to share the life-enhancing benefits of yoga. To begin with, I’ve got to admit, I was a little dismayed to find her bringing her iPhone along; I understand she has to work, but this was hardly going to help her to zone out and chill out. Still, she’s my friend so I said nothing, until now. (Sorry Kate).

But, patronising as this is going to sound, I am thrilled to report that Kate is still doing yoga – has been doing yoga the whole time I’ve been away and now has a regular, heartfelt practice. Heck, she’s even doing wheel pose on the top of freakin’ mountains! (Yes, a photo worthy of Facebooking, I quite agree!)

Talking to her about “Everything I Learnt in India” I have to acknowledge that she is already there – spiritually, ethically, intelligently trying to live the life of a yogi and without having to spend a couple of thousand dollars and several weeks on a teacher training course. Kate’s a natural born yogi. My big sister stand in for the past four or five years, she has always have been my go-to guru of choice in this crazy old town. My first gratitude and biggest pleasure, and I will certainly be taking a leaf out of her book and opting for the peppermint tea in future.

So Kate, I break my vow of silence for you, in honour of you. Yes, I have lots to lament about returning to HK, but you are not one of them, and in terms of starting a yoga revolution? If it has only two members (and perhaps we recruit your brother as a third?), nameste. “I bow to you.”

Grounding down and growing on up

I woke up this morning in something of a funk, the impression of last night’s Skype conversation with my mum still churning around inside my head.

It had been quite unintentional, quite unthinking that I’d mentioned that perhaps I’d get work and stick around in HK for the summer – more like wishful financial thinking than anything else.

“Err, hang on a minute,” my mother had replied, “can I just stop you there…” before going on to remind me that, not only had I left England at a time when she needed our practical and emotional support, but that I’d left my adorable but rather highly-strung, OCD cat with her, and my 1001 book collection which, even in my absence has been growing thanks to wifi on the beach and Amazon’s universal shipping service. Poor Mum!

“No, of course!” I reassured her, instantly filled with guilt and remorse, “of course I’m coming back and picking up Audrey, of course I’ll help you sell the house, and I’ll learn to drive and…”

And the conversation we had only the other day, and the conversations we’ve been having over the past few months came flooding back – conversations in which rather than planning a life of international jet-set travel, no worries, no responsibilities, no cares, I’ve actually been yearning for, fantasizing about and starting to logistically plan having a home, a space where I can take care of Audrey, myself and my mum if she needs it, where I can teach yoga, hold art and dance classes, a place with enough room for a garden to grow vegetables and a kitchen to cook them in. This has been the dream, growing slowly from a tiny wishful seed into a ‘why the blooming hell can’t I not?!’ flower, but a dream that, in my insecurity – my need for money in the bank, the illusion of deep, fixed, sustaining roots – I turned my back on, reverting to the old-habit-dies-hard of “Hong Kong is the answer, go where the money is.”

However, I know that is merely the ego talking and, after upsetting my mum last night – giving her the impression that I was thinking of abandoning her and my pussy cat, going abroad indefinitely once again – and thereby upsetting myself, I gave a good talking to.

Like most crazy people, I can often be found talking to myself, or rather writing to myself. She’s quite sensible is that other self, most rational, very reassuring and rather sweet and loving. So by the time we went to sleep, singing bowl reverberating on my abdomen in an attempt to open up my manipura and heart chakras, we’d made peace with ourselves, quietened our insecurities and reawakened our faith in my best, most earnest dreams for myself, Audrey and my mother.

Yet still I awoke this morning, around 6:30am as usual, with the stink of last night hanging over me, berating myself for being irresponsible, flightly, immature, selfish…. Wow, how unkind we can be to ourselves and no wonder that with such a rude awakening – no “good morning beautiful!” for me – I was tempted to roll straight back over and go to sleep! But I didn’t. Or okay, I think sleep claimed me for 10 minutes, then I was back awake and mindful of my intention to walk down the beach to the shala and get in some self-practice before breakfast. Because it has been many days since I’ve seriously given myself to meditation or yoga, and yesterday I found myself feeling most ungracious and increasingly hostile towards the half a dozen flies that kept landing on my breakfast; but I was sure that an hour and a half of Mysore-style practice would see me right, put me back in touch with the Oneness of the universe. And I was right.

Even by the time I reached the shala I was in a better mood. The mornings here are cool and walking down the beach, so quiet now that the season is at an end, just the cows having their early morning dip with the crows, and a few well-seasoned expats taking their final strolls along the shore before they head elsewhere. Walking down the beach is a meditation in itself, a recognition of the power and peace of the ocean, its essential unchanging emptinessness. It has nowhere to go, nothing to do but enact its ceaseless assault upon the shifting shore. “Everything could have been anything else and would still have had the same meaning,” as Tennessee Williams said.

The Sampoorna Yoga shala above Fatima’s guest house is quiet now, the guest house itself shut up, all the doors to the once-occupied rooms boarded and padlocked; only in the  centre of the courtyard are piled the heaps of blankets, tables, chairs and discarded apparel as evidence of a once bustling hostelry. It is like this all over Agonda. One by one the restaurants, guest houses and shops have been closing, the shopkeepers desperately trying to sell off the last of their goods before they head for the cool hills of home, the love and longing in their eyes as they speak of the beauty of Nepal, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. Almost everyone here hails from somewhere else, and given the distances and hours travelled in India, I am almost more of a local than they are, it being a mere 9 hours for me to get back home… Or 7 to my adoptive home of Hong Kong.

(Eating peanut butter and banana on toast – it is breakfast time now as I write – is very satisfying, especially after waking so early and fitting in over 90 minutes of relaxing, invigorating, restorative, calming yoga practice; and it puts me in mind of my father, the reason I am a life-long vegetarian but who himself, after dabbling with both yoga and vegetarianism in the mid-80s has undergone many chameleonesque transformations and has been heard to say that vegetarianism is quite unhealthy and, no, he has no idea what is fuelling my brain – a comment which led me, during my Finals, to consume PB and banana on toast as a daily necessity.)

The asana worked its magic, as ever. Starting with some gentle Sivananda-style sun salutations I worked my poor aching hips open (all that walking up and down and up and down the beach?) before coming up into some Primary Series sun salutation Bs, through the standing poses (good old favourites especially: utthita trikonsana and parivrtta trikonasanas), incorporating some spontaneous heart-opening and back bends, and down to seated forward folds and the finishing sequence.

By the time I was done I didn’t want to leave, but stayed for a few more deep backbends (bow and locust), understanding now in this heat how it is the Indian yogis can contort themselves into all kinds of impossible positions, the heat and humidity literally melting you like plasticine, softening away all tension and stiffness so that, even if unlike me you were schooled pre-Thatcher and had all the benefits of free milk, your hardened bones are no obstacle to even the most esoteric of poses. 

As I came down to rest in pidgeon and baddha konasana, resting my third eye on the ground, gratitude was flooding my body, heart and mind. I could forgive myself for my momentary flightly selfishness, come back to the greater point and purpose of my sojourn here in the lovely Agonda – a world away from the tensions and responsibilities of life in England – and for my continued exile while I go to Hong Kong next week for three months. I could feel myself wishing to make the most of this gift of time to heal and reconnect with myself in the knowledge that this will help me heal and reconnect with others. For as Swami Rama writes: “non-attachment properly understood means love… When yogis speak of non-attachment they are not teaching indifference, but are teaching how to genuinely and selflessly love others.” 

We often take non-attachment to mean to objects, material possessions; but for the yogi, this includes people. Surely there can be no harder practice than non-attachment to those we love? How can we care when we so easily take ourselves away, half way around the world when they need us most? It is still something I am trying to reconcile myself to – possibly a deep hurt I have inflicted and continue to inflict on myself and others. But sometimes one knows – one feels – the weakness, the futility of holding on, and the greater strength of letting go, if only for a short time in order that you both may have the room, the air and light to grow.

Before our teacher and monk Kasheva left last week for the hills of Dharmasala, he performed reiki on me. It was an incredible experience in which many things came up – the floods in Uttarkashi last summer among them.; many tears followed and the message “LET GO” reverberated clearly: Let go of pain, let go of possessions, let go of attachments, let go of old habits, let go of fear. Accept life and death. Choose vitality, choose creativity, choose transformation, and attain transcendence. These were the words that came to me – promises of what I could achieve if I could just practice letting go, if I changed my old thought and emotional patterns, my samskaras, and started living in the now, for today, for bliss. 

Why would we choose anything else? Why would we choose to live in unhappiness? Many would argue that we do not choose to, but that pain and suffering comes to find us. But who has not encountered troubles – a car crash, a divorce, bankruptcy, a tsunami, flood or famine? Who has not had a parent, sibling or child die, or if not yet, then will do – must do – one day?

There is a story of a woman who, grieving for the death of her child, went to Buddha entreating him to tell her why she should suffer in this way. He told her to take a bowl, fill it with rice, bring it back and he would tell her the answer; but, he said, she could not beg rice from any house that had been touched by grief. A week later the woman came back empty-handed. “I understand now,” she said. For every house had been touched with grief. The question then should not be ‘why do I suffer?’ but ‘why is there suffering?’ And if suffering is universal why can I not still be happy in spite of it? Or if happy is too trite a word, why can I not be accepting, peaceful, content?

Cultivating this state of santosha (contentment) is not easy. Like me with the flies at breakfast yesterday morning, we are all too easily irritated, too easily distracted, too easily angered. But yoga and meditation do help – for me, at least. They work to erase the ego, erase the sense of difference that separates me from the flies, from the restaurant owner, from the tuk tuk driver who is always trying to get an extra 50 rupees for his fare, and reveals to me the underlying sameness of ourselves, our existence. My true self is as kind of myself as it is to the tuk tuk driver, giving him the extra money he so desperately needs in this quiet end of the season and myself the extra slice of peanut butter and banana on toast my mind and body craves after a wonderful, energetic, life-enhancing asana practice.

I can’t claim – or even hope – to have reached Samadhi, but as I gaze at the henna tattoo making its way from the middle of my forearm to the tip of my middle finger, I am reminded of how far I have come and of where I hope to go. There may be many twists and turns, detours and diversions along the way, but these are all a part and parcel of the infinitely charming, mysteriously beautiful overall design – sometimes baffling, sometimes labyrinthine – but always always delightful. Forever a part of you.

How we are hungry

We are all thirsting, hankering, yearning for and craving one thing or another, whether it is time off from work and a holiday in the sun, or a new car to replace the one that keeps breaking down on us, that fabulous pair of shoes you saw in the shop window, or a lover to share our bed, breakfast and idle chatter with. We are all hungering for something. Me? I realise I am hungry simply for food.

This has been the persistent theme of morning meditation and yoga practise. Waking at 5:45 and under instructions not to eat or drink (too much) until breakfast time at 10am, my mind is already by 6:30am trying to figure out what to eat. Whether my tummy is ready for nourishment or not, my mind is moving in those old familiar circles, conjuring up enticing images of banana porridge drizzled with honey, omelettes with raita and roti, toast spread thick with homemade peanut butter and stacks of pancakes running with maple syrup, a pot of steaming hot coffee standing by. But I am meditating, I tell myself, and bring my myself back to the beam of clear white light emanating from the point between my eyebrows, my third eye or ‘ajna’ chakra. Sure enough, within minutes we are back there and with greater interest and attention: should I have the banana soya shake or the mango smoothie? The homemade muesli with nuts and coconut or the fruit salad and yogurt? If I had the muesli with curd then would I still want the shake? And so it goes on until I catch myself and bring my attention back, again and again and again to my third eye, a point of emptiness and peace, momentarily, from these cycles of samskara, the old familiar thought patterns that have become so enmeshed, so entrenched that I cannot distinguish them from myself – so loud and persistent are they that they seem to be all there is, all myself.

But I know this is not true. I am learning (relearning really) slowly that I can turn these thoughts off and when I do….? That is the scary thing, and my mind will try to frighten me that without these same old thoughts I will be lost, I will have nothing, life will be even worse. But, as I say, I know this is not true. I remind myself that without these thoughts I still have my breath, so I tune into this. Ah, that’s nice, a nice soothing sound, a peaceful wordless rhythm. Or is it? No, not much. It is short, choppy. It starts and ends in my chest, around my heart. The months and years of restricted eating and low-weight have put a strain on my internal organs, shrinking them, making them work harder – making my heart beat faster – to stay alive. I focus all my attention, engaging my well-trained stomach muscles and literally forcing the breath to move down deeper into my abdomen, then up into my chest and back down, rolling in and out in a wave-like motion to the sound of the waves on the beach just a hundred metres away. Imagining it massaging me, filling me, expanding me from the inside out, and focus here, inhaling and exhaling until the voices intrude and I am carried away again, bring myself back and start all over.

In the twenty minutes of meditation practise we do (after pranayama) I must gain only about five minutes of respite, of peace and ease. Tranquility. But what is better than that – at least for now – is that I am learning about myself, starting to feel and sense myself, my needs, listen to them, really wake up them in a way I have never had to do before, or at least, not for a long time – possibly the three years since I last dedicated a couple of weeks to just yoga and meditation. And what I am realising is how hungry I am and how long I have been hungry. How long I have been denying myself, ignoring these signals from my body and overriding them with the noisy chatter, the absolute controlling nonsense of my mind.

It came to a head two mornings ago when, after waking up moderately hungry, I finished meditation already totally ready for breakfast. Quick cup of tea? A banana? I don’t really like to eat or drink right before asana; even a cup of masala chai can leave me feeling sickly as we start to inhale rise up, exhale fold forward, jump back, through, up-dog, down-dog for half a dozen rounds of sun salutation. But, trying to be wise, I took the tea and watched hungrily as my friend tucked into her fruit, feeling the the pain and suffering of hunger growing as we began our class and with it the desire to leave.

But it was Joanna’s class, a modified Ashtanga – the idea being to go gentle and easy on yourself, so I made a deal with myself: I’d stay, take it easy and move through the first  half, just give my body a warming up, then I’d leave and do myself the greater kindness of having breakfast. And this is what I did, moving mindfully, feeling my body, feeling my energy low but pacing myself and actually managing to stay until the end, even through the Savasana (ironically, Corpse’s Pose – just about how I felt!) that I thought would be just torture to lie through, the ache of emptiness in the pit of my stomach, the desire for food clawing at my throat. I stayed. Albeit in tears as I realised that the suffering, the hunger I was feeling so acutely that morning, was a hunger I’ve been ignoring for a dozen years; the pain that I was suffering, a pain I’ve been inflicting on myself since I was 17.

As I say, we are all hungry for something. I was, then, at that age, hungry for life, for its opportunities; ambitious for knowledge, for credit, achievement, recognition. But in seeking to gain the world, I paid dearly – with my health, my heart, my soul. I put myself through slow starvation, an act I repeatedly keep coming back to – an old habit, a samskara so powerful and so hard to break.

But I am breaking it. I am literally breaking – breaking my heart, breaking down in meditation and asana, breaking the need to push, push, push myself… And so I am glad I stayed to the end of the practice, the hardest practice (ironically, given how slow and gentle it was) that I, perhaps, have ever done. Because with it this realisation came and promise, once again, never to put myself through such torture, but to start feeding myself body, mind and soul, working on building up the strength of my heart that I may live for and love myself – as well as all those around me. Because, as in meditation this morning when we were asked to look forward, backwards and sideways at all the people in our lives (past present and future), I know there are many people around me that I would wish to share my life with, give my time to and even be a mother to, but until I can sit and breathe easy for myself, I cannot hope to spare a breath – be it a kind word, a smile or a kiss – for all these others. So I am working on my heart, drawing life to it that it may shed life and light back out into the world. And if you wish to help me, join me, I ask you simply to repeat these words:

Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu

May all the beings in the world be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and freedom for all.

Namaste

To the One

Last weekend I was in Palolem, for my sins – well, actually to visit an old friend who is teaching yoga over there, and after a lovely relaxing brunch in Little World – a hot, sultry tiny garden cafe run by a beautiful and equally hot and sultry couple, I dragged him off around the shops, for his sins, and ended up having my fortune told my an old Indian shopkeeper who was selling me a beautiful embroidered bikini top while my friend, Alan, patiently examined the array of trinkets cluttering the shelves.

“What would I do with these?” he asked pointing to a line of tiny elephants, “bury them” he answered himself – cluttering the shelves. Alan, you see, is renouncing all worldly possessions, including buying new t-shirts to replace the pink sweat-stained ones he’s been living in since I knew him back in Hong Kong; but I was, until Palolem broke me, still somewhat caught up in the excitement of lots of cheap hippy shit, Everywhere! I have since been cured of this, thanks largely to Alan’s example but also to the frustration of having young Indian guys keep trying to sell me the same hideous bikinis to replace the one that keeps getting washed off in the uber-waves. “No offense,” I tell them, “but you really have no idea.” Why won’t they listen? Are they secretly sporting these under their shirts? Somehow I doubt it.

“You have not been in good health lately,” the old Indian man said, “but you are getting stronger.” Humm, not bad, but perhaps self-evident from my slender frame and pale skin -black circles beneath my sunglasses from where I’ve been sleep-deprived by our early morning meditation practice all week. But I listen on; I’m working on my heart chakra after all, trying to keep myself open to every and all experiences and people I encounter.

“How old you?” he asks. “29. You will be married by the time you are 31.” Okay, interesting… “Your boyfriend he is very good man.” I hesitate. “You have boyfriend?” I nod. “What his name?” I tell him. “He is good man. Good family. You will be very happy, healthy. You will have big house. Two children. One girl, one boy. Girl look image of you. Boy him. You will have a big house, and a car -”

I stop him here. I have to. I cannot go along with this. Lovely though it may sound, sweet as he may think he is being in a bid to get another 200 rupees out of me, I am about to have a panic attack! Well, okay, not quite, but this does not sit right. Not only is the person in question no longer my boyfriend after having broken it off with him some three weeks ago, but I cannot and will not give myself over to the fantasy of the ultimate happily-ever-after marriage-plot ending, not with anyone. I’m just not sure I believe in that, not for me. Perhaps I did once upon a time, perhaps there was a time when I longed for it, actively sought to make it a reality, but not anymore.

If I’m wrong and in two years time I find myself married, living in a big house and with two kids and a great car, I’ll happily come back and give him his 200 rupees, but for now I’m jumping in a tuktuk and getting as far away as fast as possible, back to the peace and tranquility of Agonda, back to the beating of the waves against the shoreline that sends shockwaves though my entire body, that unnerves me as much as it thrills me, that beats harder and louder than my heart, shaking my whole being.

Because relationships. What is there to say about relationships? Too much it seems, a subject we cannot stop talking, thinking, obsessing about. Even when we have made the decision to end it, to walk away, we keep looking back over our shoulder, emailing, messaging, regretting….

Me? No, not this time. But perhaps I am different, or my situation is different. Because for the last six months, all I’ve had is email, text message and Skype communication. Words, words, words, as Hamlet famously says. And it is exhausting. Hardly a relationship at all, more a meta-relationship, a conversation about a relationship you wish you were having or once had or hope you will one day have again. Not a relationship, but an attempt not to lose the relationship you had, like two swimmers clinging on to each other to save themselves from drowning. Sweet but sad. Tragic.

Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t wish to melodramatise. I would wish we could simply be friends. Friends is easy, friends is cool. Like: “How are you?”  “Good, thanks. I ran a marathon today.” “Wow, that’s great. I went the library. The sun was shining.” Easy huh?

But we can’t stop there. Or few of us can. We want more, we want the emotional accompaniment of “I missed you. I wished you were there.” My boyfriend always said “if wishes were fishes we’d all be casting nets.” I never understood what this meant and it infuriated me. I still don’t know that I know. Something about how we’d all like to try and get what we want but we can’t? Yeah, I guess that’s true. But I’m a try-hard. Perhaps that’s part of my problem. I don’t want to just wish for things I can’t have. I either have to try for them or let them go. And that’s what I feel I’ve done: let it go. Not because I don’t care, but because I cannot go on giving my energy to a fantasy.

It all comes back to the yoga, to the need to be present in one’s body and mind, united in time and place (more or less). Lord knows I can daydream and fantasise like the best of them, but for and with myself, and to be able to bring your thoughts back, rein in your daydreams and distinguish them from real life; that seems important, not to be a fish – a wish – on the end of someone else’s line, kept dangling, kept just barely beneath the surface, not free to swim away but not wholly caught or secured either. A half life, half breathing half dying.

It is, I realise, my “fault” for letting this happen. Fault in inverted commas, because that is not really a game we want or need to play. Things happen: we fall in love, we care, we don’t want to hurt anyone (ourselves or the other), we try for things, we hope, we hold on… But at some point we realise we are hurting ourselves more. We are, to put it in the language of yoga, leaking prana – allowing our energy to be misdirected, expending so much time and thought and…well, energy thinking about, worrying about, hoping for, getting angry or frustrated or upset about a situation or a person which/who is not what or how we would like it to be and this brings us pain and suffering. We are trying to change things we cannot change, rather than accepting the situation, the person for what is, who they are and letting it go, making peace with that.

Hence, I let it go and immediately felt the energy shift within me, stir within me, and the realisation – stupid as it may sound – that I was responsible for myself, for my health and for my happiness. Instead of looking to and blaming or lamenting that my relationship, my boyfriend was not supporting me – not there to make me dinner at night when I was sh*t tired, not there to go to the cinema with me when there was a movie I wanted to watch, not here to take a walk in the park with on a Sunday, share a coffee, read the paper and have brunch… Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I felt empowered to wake up and start doing all those things for myself, just as I should have been doing all along. My health and happiness was in my hands and just like that I started to take ownership of it and have been cooking for and feeding myself ever since, with love and kindness and care: true attention to how I feel, what I need right here and now.

I can only hope my partner is doing the same, fulfilling his needs, desires, wants himself, instead of looking to me who, so far away and distant in time and space, caught up in her own issues, cannot give him the love or support he wants. Perhaps, for me, I will never be  in a place to be that person for another, but somehow I hope that is not true and suspect that once I have learnt to love myself, manage my energies and train my mind, love for others – for another – will come, just as it did before when, after a period of yoga and meditation in Bali I met him.

Until then, I stay strong to the belief that “we are on this journey, home to the one” – a one who is not the One of Hollywood movies, but a greater life force, the creator or spirit of us all, and it is not until we find and make peace with that One inside ourselves that we can truly meet with and be happy in the company of another, our other One.

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

I gotta feeling about this…

Instinct: our innate inclination toward a particular behavior (as opposed to a learned response).

Gut feeling, or hunch: a sensation that appears quickly in consciousness (noticeable enough to be acted on if one chooses to) without us being fully aware of the underlying reasons for its occurrence.

Intuition: a process that gives us the ability to know something directly without analytic reasoning, bridging the gap between the conscious and nonconscious parts of our mind, and also between instinct and reason.

Whether you like to call it instinct or intuition, my gut has been responsible for some of the biggest decisions of my life: applying on a whim, a hope and a prayer to Oxford, moving to Hong Kong, quitting and rejecting more jobs (and money!) than I care to think about, asking out guys, and hiking over mountains to escape natural disaster in deepest India. So far, it’s got me out of trouble about as many times as it’s sent me rushing headlong for it. But is it time to stop listening to my gut, to quit while I’m ahead? Or could it be the best friend, counsellor and careers advisor I’ll ever have?

Me, my gut and I

My gut and I have always had a close relationship. Fear, panic, excitement, nerves: my tummy’s where I feel it. Don’t we all? Those butterflies in your stomach, that churning, lurching, wrenching feeling. Whether it’s love or loathing, our bodies can have a pretty violent reaction, telling us faster than our brains can what we think about something – or someone – and possibly what we should do about it. But do we always listen?

Preparing to go to India last summer in a bid to find the peace I craved, I was reading one of my favourite yoga books – by the aptly (and beautifully alliteratively) named Beryl Bender Birch. Her path to enlightenment was one I very much wanted to share with my boyfriend who, for better or worse was trying to conquer his terror and accompany me on my trip, apparently under the impression that he would worry less about me if he was there just to worry about everything. So wishing to spread the love and light I embarked on relating her tale of a near-drastic encounter in India when, having made friends with a few fellas and been taken for chai, she started to come over a bit funny, hallucinating like, and when Ganesh started to run down the walls she knew – in fact, a voice, very loud and very clear told her – to “Get the hell out!” Out on the street, where they’d been no taxis previously, one suddenly appeared from the darkness and she jumped in just in time, before the guys who had quickly followed her out could stop her.

Well, we’ve all heard horror stories of what can happen to women in India, but here was an inspirational tale about trusting yourself and trusting in something bigger, about being awake to your own inner guide – precisely the point I’d been trying to make to my dear, nervous-wreck of a boyfriend for weeks. The previous story I’d told him about a monk who every night was hit over the head by his master until finally he stayed alert enough to hear the master coming had had some effect. My boyfriend was starting to sit up, take notice and be mindful. But with this latest tale he was suddenly so wide-awake he was actually having a panic attack.

That’s what happens when a scientist and a English major yogi collide; he has to put up with my beliefs in astrology and the efficacy of homeopathy and I have to deal with his lack of faith in …. well, anything that’s not available over the counter or on prescription, i.e. faith and intuition. As a biologist he’s not about to deny me my instincts, and Lord knows I put up with his. His instinct to fear danger and protect me from it, is one that I not only suffer but actively try to allay in him: “Put them away,” I say, “your fears are not needed here.” But intuition…? “Ah, that’s different,” I say. Well, is it?

Magical, mumbo-jumbo or a bridge between our instincts – our gut – and our reason? I’m here to find out.

Thinking not feeling

The war between emotion and reason is age old. Think about it: how many times have you been accused of being “irrational” when you’re merely angry, of having your point of view disregarded because of the vehemency of your expression, your passion? It’s not simply that emotion and reason are considered antithetical, it’s that reason is typically seen as superior to emotion. But are they really that different?

The Stoics are famous for advocating the use of reason to control the passions, which – they argue – if left to their own devices lead us astray. Take Shakespeare’s Othello for example, led astray by his love for Desdemona into jealousy and murder, while in the Roman plays almost the opposite is true: Brutus’ love of Rome is abused. But here we see the Renaissance’s obsession with stoicism, with people nobly falling on their own sword to avoid a worse fate (less of honour and death at the hands of another). Take Portia (Julius Caesar again) as another example and one of my favourite heroines of all time. She is desperate to uncover the source of her husband’s introspection and malaise, trying every which way to persuade him to unburden himself to her. True to his nature as a Roman (and, possibly, a man) he is being stoical, keeping his problems wrapped up in himself, not giving way to emotion. But Portia, true to her nature as a Roman (and a woman – Cato’s daughter no least, as she proudly says), reveals at the end of the scene the stab wound she’s given herself in the thigh – the blood trickling down her leg and the pain she must have been suffering all this way only imaginable. “Can I,” she asks, in a final bid to move Brutus, “bear that with patience and not my husband’s secrets?”

Well, apart from having a lot to tell us about ancient attitudes towards women, the play reveals the high status given in classical times to patient suffering. It was noble, heroic. But not only then. For who, if not Christ – an icon of religious persecution and suffering, dominating art, literature, sacred and secular discourse over the past two thousand years – makes a virtue of turning the other cheek? So, what should we do? Master our emotions and put up with our pain and suffering quietly, like a man. There is certainly something to be said for the power of mind over matter in certain cases. I’d be the first to hold my hand up and testify to this: will power, positive thinking, eye of the tiger…Grr! But then there are times when… Take Christ’s appeal on the cross: “My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me?” While it may not have made him a man, did it not make him human? Christ’s “Passion” refers, after all, not to his love or emotion as we interpret the word, but to his suffering, and the question is: do you want to be a modern day martyr? Who, in the end, will thank you?

We’ve all seen it, probably even been it: the busy worker bee who never gives into illness but goes straight to the nearest Boots, Watsons or Mannings (depending where in the world you live) and pops pills – decongestants at night, bunger-ups by day, a Vit C for all occasions and a dab of tiger balm just in case – to get them through the long office day. It was a typical scene at my workplaces in Hong Kong: one person coming in red-eyed and coughing fitfully behind a white mask, and slowly as the week progresses that person is joined by their neighbour, then your neighbour, until finally you contract it too and what was once a research department of an international real estate agent now resembles a medical research laboratory for infectious diseases.

Surely much better to do like the Brits and pull a sickie at the first available? Or like the Americans and call upon your constitutional right to duvet days? Or could the West’s lack of stoicism be the reason Asia is leading the way?

Yet stoicism as we’ve been defining it here is only its Mickey Mouse version: a two-dimensional cardboard cut-out, a parody of what true Hellenistic and Roman Stoic philosophy advocated. For as Martha Nussbaum writes in The Therapy of Desirethe Stoics’ bold claim was for the emotions as judgements – complex forms of cognition – about whether an object in the world poses good or ill to ourselves. Think about and it makes perfect sense. Why do you feel fear? Because you value your life and something appears to be endangering or threatening that. Why do you feel pleasure or love? Because something or someone is enhancing the quality of your life. It can be experienced in animals, when they cower from a raised hand, wag their tails at the sign of walkies, purr or roll over when we pet them…

Their emotional responses are linked to thoughts – the recognition – of what will enhance or endanger their wellbeing. And we are little different. Though the signs may be harder to read and the good or ill signified may be less obvious, less direct and therefore harder to assess, our emotions are not the polar opposite of thinking, but intrinsically related to it. You could say they are an intuitive form of thinking.

Back to nature

Another criticism of Stoic philosophy – as with so much Hellenistic philosophy – is its claim on the one hand to be concerned with questions of the good life and on the other with its advocacy of detachment. How, one cries, can I be a good person – a loving, caring, tolerant and sympathetic member of society – and be detached at the same time? Hence Macbeth’s famously ambiguous response to the news of his wife’s death – “She should have died hereafter” – or Brutus’ complete poker face feeling at Portia’s death makes them cold hearted husbands in our eyes, while Othello’s murderous jealousy at least shows that he loved her. But Stoic detachment, as with the Epicureans’ goal of pleasure, meant only freedom from pain and suffering – that you might, as Rudyard Kipling wrote, “meet triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.”

For some this remains unacceptable, a half-lived life. As the transcendentalist Thoreau wrote in Walden; Or, Life in the Woods: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” For Thoreau, living deliberately meant living “deep and suck[ing] out all the marrow of life,” the desire expressed by so many for a full experience, complete immersion in all that life has to offer, both bitter and sweet. However, more immediately – in a cabin in the woods of New England – it meant living “sturdily and Spartan-like…driv[ing] life into a corner, and reduc[ing] it to its lowest terms.” It meant, in short, simplicity and even privation.

True living, drawing deep and sucking out the marrow does not then mean hedonistic pleasure – all night parties, lines of coke, penthouse hotel rooms. It might mean going a bit Bear Grylls, a bit Lord of the Flies and getting back to nature.

Why oh why do we bother?

To suffer and feel pain, while not everyone’s idea of the ideal summer vacation, can be entirely useful. I mean, there’s nothing like putting a staple through your thumb to teach you there’s a right and wrong way to load a stapler. It is, in evolutionary terms, in our best interests. The lessons we learn through failing painfully ourselves can have more power than the dire warnings and threats of our parents, teachers and bosses. However, we don’t always have to go through this pain or trauma to instinctively know that something is fatal to us.

The modern world of information sharing and second-life gaming would have us believe we can live and learn vicariously, and we know that athletes and musicians can practise just as effectively mentally as they can physically, going through the jumps or chords they will perform in their minds before a big gig. This is because through repetition certain movements and sequences become hard-wired into the body’s – more specifically, the muscles’ – memory, enabling it to execute these in perfect timing and synchronicity on demand, with a conscious thought barely passing through your brain. In fact, it’s only when we start to think about what we are doing – be it running on the treadmill, signing our name to a cheque or reading these words off the page – that we start to come unstuck.

As psychologists Dr John Baugh of New York University and Dr Tanya Chartrand, Ohio State University, explain it: “Our consciousness is biased to think that its own intentions and deliberate choices rule our lives. But consciousness overrates its own control.” Thus the phenomenon of Parkinson’s sufferers who, unable to stop their hands, arms and legs from shaking, can yet run up stairs without any trouble or remain perfectly still as soon as they pick up their golf clubs, because their body’s ability to remember and perform deeply ingrained complex tasks overrides their neurological condition. And if this is true of learnt behaviour, what about those you (or, okay, your ancestors) have been doing for millennia?

It’s a miracle! No, it’s instinct

I have always been awed by the seemingly miraculous survival stories and heroic feats of war veterans: the tales of soldiers who walked miles back to their home trenches on the stumps of their legs, their feet – blown off in a mine – hanging around their necks by their bootlaces. What these stories clearly demonstrate is that the mind’s ability in times of extreme danger (or excitement) to override (and subsequently forget! as famously with child-birth) pain is an incredible and life-saving mechanism. (Less inspiringly of course, there’s the friend who keeps on dating Misters Wrong and Wrong-Again.)

According to the Instinct Theory of Motivation, we all have innate tendencies that help us to survive: a baby is born with a reflex for seeking out the mother’s nipple and suckling, while birds have an ingrained, unlearnt need to build a nest and migrate. We all know that dogs emerging from a dirty pond or river are going to shake their wet coat all over us, or that if you turn your back for a minute a puppy will ravage your best shoes. Their behaviour is predictable because it is ingrained, a spontaneous reflex, an instinct. And humans are no exception.

The Moro reflex, also known as the startle reflex and which can be best observed in babies describes what happens when you hear a loud or frightening noise: they extend their arms and legs and brace their spine as if they are about to fall, even when they are not. Amazing huh? Well, my boyfriend does just about the same thing still, no doubt accounting for my increased rapid heart since I met him (or perhaps that’s just love for you). But most of us have learnt to temper and control our natural reflexes so that we can go about our day without exhibiting signs of Tourette’s. Or have we?

“Instinct theory proposes that organisms engage in certain behaviors because they lead to success in terms of natural selection,” writes Nancy Melucci in E-Z Psychology. She cites migration and mating as examples of instinctually motivated behaviour in animals – deep-seated drives that cannot be denied. This sounds all too familiar to me: I am motivated to flight, my partner to mate (and vice versa as soon as I mention that little word “marriage”). But what about all those other instincts? Freud proposed life and death as the two key forces driving us, while his predecessor in this field Professor Douglas McDougall outlined 18 different instincts, ranging from curiosity and laughter to hunger and sex. A

re all these instincts – complex unlearnt patterns of behaviour  – still going on beneath the surface, and should we be listening to them more, giving way to our most basic needs and drives?

When enough’s enough

To feel pain is human, to forgive – they say – divine. But do we forgive ourselves the pain we suffer, or do we not, in this age of 24 hour rapid-action off-the-shelf analgesics and painkillers, not simply try and mask it? Do we cope with it stoically or do we seek to be rid of it asap? What could our pain be telling us if we really stopped to listen? And could it be garnered to be actually useful – beneficial, life-enhancing – to ourselves?

Take that gut feeling again. Feeling nauseous, tension headaches, irritable bowel; not only do we feel unwell at the idea of going into work, we are afraid even of calling in sick. But what do you do? You know you’re not really ill, it’s just the nerves talking: you have an exam, a big case, a lunch meeting or presentation you’d really rather not go to. You have to suck it up and get on with it. Or do you?

When I was just a little girl, I was terrified of everything. Quite literally. From rehearsing for the school nativity play and competing in sports day to birthday parties and visiting my own cousins, I’d be found awake at night crying as if the world were about to end – or, rather, as if I wished it would. My poor, sympathetic mother covered for me for a time, excusing me from competitive sports and giving me her locket to wear as a talisman at Christmas, Easter, Harvest and any other time the school thought they try and have some festive fun with us. But in time even she grew tired of my anxious suffering and clinginess. Why couldn’t I just go out and play with the other children like my sisters did?

Well, this pattern of fearful avoidance didn’t really change until about the age of 15 when, taking a look around me – at the boy in the upper years I had a crush on going off to university, my best friend moving away to live up north – I realised that if I didn’t do something to get out of the safety zone I’d created for myself, I’d be stuck in my small town, stacking shelves and pushing pushchairs, forever and ever Amen. This gave me about the same heart-wrenching fear as sports day did, and I knew something had to change.

All in the mind?

You might think that my fear of being left behind while my friends all went on out into the world was a natural response to a rational judgement, and in part you would be right. But just as our thoughts, for example, of a loved one, of a nice holiday, a deadly animal or an old school bully conjure up emotions – joy, love, fear, loathing – so too do our emotions reveal our unconscious thoughts. “We’re finding that everything is evaluated as good or bad within a quarter of a second,” says Dr John Baugh. But it’s not just our conscious minds that do the cognitive processing required in everyday decision making and action taking; it’s our bodies too.

If it’s a question of which comes first the chicken or the egg – the reason or the emotion – we might say our instincts come first, but this is not to say they are irrational or against reason. According to Psychology Today magazine, “Hunches are formed using our past experience and knowledge.” But more than that, they can be clues to a deeper, possibly as yet undiscovered, rationale or judgement within us. As Aristotle noted in De Anima, perception – that is, feeling – involves discrimination. It involves judgement. Whether it is the right judgement is the work of our minds or brains to figure out, but if you are tuned into your body then you are already one step ahead of the game.

Start counting

It’s rumoured that adorning Albert Einstein’s office was the phrase: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” As rational beings we spend a lot of our day counting, measuring, evaluating, assessing. Consider the amount of time you spend calculating: how long it will take to get a task done or travel from A to B, your salary going in versus your expenses going out, whether you would rather have cheese and pickle for lunch or ham and mustard (or neither, eugh gross!). And from thinking we can all too often find ourselves over-thinking: “If I do this, say that, wear this… what will X think, say, do?”

Intuition or gut feeling works the opposite way: if questioned you may not always be able to come up with a coherent verbal explanation for why you acted in a certain way at the time, but it seemed right and nine times out of ten it probably was. This is because intuition works instantaneously, getting in there before you brain has a chance to get involved. “It’s automatic, fast and practically “thoughtless” since it doesn’t require analysis or deep thinking,” Daniel Kahneman explains in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. And you’d be amazed how many of our judgements and how much of our decision-making happens in a flash thanks to the power of intuition.

However, science remains sceptical of this ancient, magical form of thinking, and as Psychology Today writer Peg Streep writes in The Art (and Science) of “Trusting Your Gut”, it remains unclear whether the slow kind of thinking works in tandem with or interrupts fast thinking, or whether they work sequentially. As a rather slow, ruminative thinker myself (most of my best ideas coming to me while in the shower or while taking downward-facing dog), I am in favour of both, but experience has taught me to be wary of letting my brain get too much involved and interfere with my intuition. After all, there’s only so long you can stand in the cereal aisle trying to choose between Shreddies and Shredded Wheats (the mini raisin ones. Yeah, now you know my difficulty!) before someone’s likely to take pity on you and offer to return you to the home.

Einstein’s fellow physicist Richard Feynman is one who has cautioned against taking too much heed of one’s intuition: “The first principle,” he said, “is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Indeed, intuition’s airy-fairy, unscientific reputation  is not helped by the fact that it is hard to observe or/ and hard to measure. As John Donne acknowledged of his own emotional health, “of the diseases of the mind there is no criterion, no canon, no rule… if I know it not nobody can know it.” Emotional knowledge is, as the literary critic Brian Cummings writes, “self-reflexive in the deepest sense. The only test for how I feel is how I feel.”

Are women more intuitive?

As if this was not enough of a stumbling block, intuition’s reputation been further maligned by the West’s traditionally gendered approach to theories of knowledge and the mind, in which men have been considered the rational ones while women have been the guardians of feeling and intuition. “I know because I know,” we women cry, or more proudly, “it’s female intuition!”  And how many do you suppose were burnt at the stake or dunked in a well for saying that? But are women really more intuitive than men? Is intuition the preserve of witches and new-age hippies?

Well, there is a wealth of evidence that states quite categorically “No.” Dr William Ickes has been conducting research into empathic accuracy (aka everyday minding) for the past 20 years, and his findings reveal that in tests of men and women’s ability to read other people’s thoughts and feelings, there is no difference between the sexes. They both perform equally well – or badly. Where was that so-called women’s intuition?

Then they found it. In a series of tests where women were asked not only to read other people’s feelings but to rate how well they think they performed, the women outperformed the men. That is, when they knew that they were being tested for their empathic response – something that stereotypically they knew they should succeed in and were motivated to do so – they performed better. The women, that is, tried harder, while the men, not feeling the need (or perhaps the desire) to be more empathic, didn’t. What is even more interesting, however, is that when offered a financial incentive the men could perform better than the women, be more empathic, more intuitive, suggesting that we all have the ability to tap into our innate, empathic knowledge if and when we are motivated to do so.

But why should we? What – apart from being a more feeling, sympathetic human beings – are the benefits of nurturing our inner voice, listening to our gut feeling?

According to Toby Storie-Pugh, founder of Expedition Everest, listening to your gut could be the key to realising your deepest, most heartfelt, yearning, burning passions. We may not all have it in us to climb Everest, but the lessons that Storie-Pugh learnt along his ascent are ones that I would assent to.

Travelling in India last summer – making the trip of my spiritual lifetime, remember? – proved to be everything my boyfriend feared. Well, no, that’s not quite right: it was worse. I got caught up in Uttarakhand’s disastrous floods, falling ill and getting cut off from the nearest town and doctor, without electricity or mobile signal for a week until I decided – my gut told me – to get the hell out. So the experience, far from proving my boyfriend’s instinctive fears right and my intuition wrong, to me affirmed everything I already believed in. And he’d say the same. I am going back to India in a few weeks full of hope, love and faith, and he will not touch it with a barge pole.

In the end, I guess, we make a decision: to follow our instincts, our intuitions, our dreams out into the world and test them there – were they right or were they wrong? – or we let them keep us safe at home, never knowing, always doubting. As Elizabeth Bishop asks in her poem ‘Questions of Travel’: “should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” Well, I’ll let you decide, but my advice, for what it’s worth – as Tobie Storie-Pugh’s – would be, whether it’s setting up a business, starting a family or deciding whether to donate to a beggar on the street – to Trust Your Instinct.

1. There will never be a right time.

You might think that tomorrow the sun will shine and you can get out and hike, or that next year you will be in a better financial position to start a family, move house, take that round-the-world trip, but what are the chances it won’t rain then too? What’s that famous Latin phrase… carpe diem, seize the day? If you let obstacles get in your way, if you put it off for another day, you are always one step further from achieving your goal.

2. Be patient.

So you’ve just left the comfort and security of your old job/country/partner and are finding it tough going. If you are just starting out afresh, it can take time for things to fall into place, but remember your original gut instinct and all the rational judgements that supported that decision. If you’re acting in honesty with yourself, happiness is not far away.

3. Let your dreams be big, let your dreams be ethical.

Your gut should be telling you what is really important to yourself – moving to live closer to family, starting a landscape gardening enterprise, taking a course of study or embarking on a spiritual path. It should also be telling you what is the right thing by those around you, serving their better interests, long-term ‘survival’ and happiness as well as your own. This and their support will help keep you going even when the going gets tough.

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.

Ready, steady, yoga!

“He who practises the Headstand for three hours daily conquers time.” – Yoga Tattava Upanishad

another sun sets

another sun sets

Today I updated my ferry ticket for the last time, and not without a little pleasure and relief. Every month it comes around and every month I forget, see the long line of faithful ferry passengers queueing up to do theirs and think “f**k! I’ll do it tomorrow.” But not this time. This time I was on to it. First in line, smug and celebratory, my interior monologue singing “This is the last time I’ll be needing to renew you, ferry pass. Next month I’ll be on my way home!”

Over the next few weeks I can look forward to saying “farewell” and “screw you” to my less favourite facets of Hong Kong daily life – the idling pedestrians emailing and watching videos on their mobile phones, the heat and humidity that transforms my sleek locks into a Ronald McDonald do, and the small mortgage I have to take out just to buy a salad in town… But I have decided that it’s also time to embrace something new, which is how I found myself committing to 10 classes at The Yoga Room, a smallish studio that, get this, specialises in all kinds of yoga and pilates, all through the day with people who actually love yoga! And the reason for this (not financially insignificant) commitment? The rage I had on Monday night doing – or rather, not doing – ‘Dynamic Flow’ with Irene.

Ah, Irene. Anyone who’s heard me on this subject will know the problem I have with Irene. Not only does the girl seem to get hot, flustered and out of breath just thinking about teaching yoga, but she spends so much of the time talking that she has no breath left with which to do yoga. I would not mind this so much if she would just let us get on and do it, but she doesn’t. We stand around while she gas bags about how difficult the poses are that even she can’t do them, leaving me wondering whether she actually understands what the phrase ‘Dynamic Flow’ means or whether she’s not really a yoga instructor at all and I’m just appearing in one of her bad dreams. On Monday I found myself getting so mad I was tempted to raise my hand and ask, but in the end I opted for the slightly less rude option and just left – half way though. Which is when I told myself that enough was enough, that my few remaining weeks in HK were too precise to waste standing around waiting for yoga to happen, that I was going to go out there and make it happen.

Thank god I did because the following evening I had one of the best nights out I ever had in HK, and it all took place in a sweaty little studio in Sheung Wan with 8 people in nothing but their shorts and vests. But, before I go any further, perhaps I should explain a bit about yoga in HK.

As in so many cities in the West, yoga practice here is mainly confined to the gym, and so too has been my experience of it. Here, in highly air-conditioned studios older women (mainly tai tais) compete not only over who has the best Downward Dog and hamstring stretch, but as to who gets the best mat, the best position right in front of the mirrors, who has the best outfit, hairdo… The list goes on. I have travelled all over for yoga – to Bali, Thailand and India – so I know it does not have to be this way. There are places in the world where people go out of their way to make space for you because the more is the merrier, where hand-me-down hippy gear is all that’s desired because there are no mirrors to pose and preen in front of and, anyway, who’d want to sweat over actually nice clothing? But alas, in HK competition rules and it’s less gym bunny and more gym shark.

So on Tuesday night, when I entered a small studio lit with candles and fragranced with essential oil and met Nora, a radiant teacher with hair flowing down to her waist, and her class of 7 or 8 young men and women, all greeting each other and chatting like friends, I was love-struck, amazed. They smiled and welcomed me in and before I knew it I was one of them. It was incredible. And that was even before we got down to any yoga!

But what do I even mean by yoga? What was it about Irene’s class that made my skin crawl and Nora’s that sent peace and love coursing through my veins? Well, as I stormed out of Irene’s class on Monday, I realised that the thing that was missing, apart from the actual movement of the body (even the uninitiated would be familiar with Sun Salutations, right? Well, apparently not Irene) was – ironically – the breath. While she was gasping and straining, the rest of us were being given no instruction to ‘cap hai’ ‘fuh hai’ – to breathe in, breathe out. You might say that isn’t this obvious? You’ve got to breathe, you should be always breathing. But breathing that is co-ordinated with the movement – to breathe in as you raise your arms up, out as you bend forward, in as you look up, out as you jump back, in as you Cobra, out as you Downward Dog… This is yoga and this is the reason why we would want to flow. To keep moving is to keep breathing, create heat and raise the prana or energy up through your body and open up your mind. Then, when your body is warm and your mind is supple you can go for warriors, side-planks, half-moon, wheels, handstands or scorpions, whatever you like! Needless to say, there was none of that in Irene’s class and all of that in Nora’s.

Of course, when we want to build a splendid castle we must start from the foundations, and that is where Nora’s class began: with a five minute seated meditation on the yoga sutra sthira sukham asanam (2.46) in which the sage Patanjali states that the posture for yoga should be steady, stable, motionless as well as comfortable. This, Nora explained, means that any pose – from a simple crossed-legged position to a fierce warrior or an advanced headstand – should be strong and full of ease. We do not want to be using so much force and energy wrestling our bodies into a asana that we look like a constipated Hulk and sound like we are giving birth to something as hideous. A pose should be graceful, comfortable but not without consciousness and effort. It should be beautiful.

This, Nora went on, was the same in life; our practice on the mat should be the foundation for our practice off the mat. Whether in our work, our relationships or our hobbies, it is about finding that balance between giving the time and energy that we need to be strong, confident and successful, but not so much that we are overburdened, stressed out and suffering. And it was precisely with this in mind that we went about our headstand, wheel and scorpion practice, using the wall to give us a stronger foundation, build our confidence and our muscles while allowing us to remain focused on our breath. For it is this that distinguishes yoga from gymnastics: the mindful attention to breath and the hope that the peace, joy and love one finds in a yoga studio can be taken back out into the rest of the world, that they are the foundations for the rest of your life.

Which got me thinking… In the question of ‘going the distance’, do I have a strong enough foundation? However, this will have to wait. I’m running late for my ferry and in Hong Kong rush hour it’s every yogi for herself.