Saturday, 30 August 2014

Reciprocity

She booked herself a one to one with me out of the blue and arrived on my doorstep perfectly on time one cold winter's morning.  She sat on my sofa before we practised and I asked her about her health and why she had come to yoga; like many people that I have taught, she had been thinking about trying yoga for a number of years, but beyond a couple of classes here and there, had never found the right teacher.  She had suffered, a couple of years before our meeting, a catastrophic car accident that had nearly killed her and left her handicapped, although you would not know it on meeting her, such is her indomitable spirit.  She is Amazonian, intelligent, self-determining and through hard work, dedication and bloody-minded will power she had saved her body from the story that the doctors had written for her (you won't walk again, you will need a wheelchair and you will never have a child).  When she arrived at my door, she didn't even have crutches with her.

She gave a great show of being in control; I think she might even have thought for a time that she was; but when I acknowledged what she had told me, when I said to her, 'You are in pain' her face crumpled like a child's and she wept and couldn't stop.

I think that my doorstep was the end of one particular road for this woman and she knew it.  For many years she had battled against the femininity of her body, she had trained it to be strong and tough and had rejected the soft lines of herself, scraping her long hair back into the severest of ponytails; I'll hazard a guess that she liked to think that she could take on any man at any task and whip his butt at it (in fact, I'll bet that this was more than often true).  But in living this way, she had been in denial of an essential part of herself - her femininity, her mothering spirit, her emotional self - and it is impossible to be whole and healthy if you are at war with any part of yourself; if there is something of yourself that you refuse to accept and love.

I well remember the day I asked her, as she lay on her back on her mat, How do you feel about the word acceptance?  She snorted with laughter, instinctively rejecting it, her habit was to change through willpower that which she did not want or like, not learn how to accept it.

Yoga transforms everyone who approaches it, but teaching this woman was like watching a plant emerge in seconds from seed to flower in one of those time-lapse photography clips from a nature show, it was so quick and so clear that she was growing, changing, blooming.  She did all this herself, as all yoga students do, my teaching was just the water she used to tend the germ of a better life that was already within her.  So I showed her how to move, how to bend and stretch, how to strengthen and protect, and I recommended books, Sanskrit chants and meditations and she took them away with her and made them into something of her own.

It was hard for her to lose her habit of going for everything at full throttle, she would move too far forward too quickly and her body would hurt for a while, or she'd have a set-back and would have to stop for a time.  She had always lived this tough way, it was the story of her life, only now, through yoga and her commitment to it, she began to learn how to listen, how to notice the messages her body was sending her and how to acknowledge them and take pause, rather than ploughing on regardless, or worse, forcing her way through them and hurting herself even more.

One time she came to practise here and I was astounded to watch her; she had become graceful, tender, almost balletic in the way she moved her body; it takes great strength to move in such a fluid and gentle way and I told her so; she smiled at me, because I believe she had already felt this in herself, I was simply voicing something that she already knew.

She practised regularly, both with me and at home; she meditated - can you imagine?  This woman who had battled through life armed with her intellect and her determination, sitting still for long periods of time in compliant silence.  It was on her meditation mat that she truly met herself in kindness; it was here that she found the wisdom to choose differently, to cease habitual, harmful patterns and replace them with a new way of living which was true to her authentic self; it was here that she discovered her vulnerability and learnt not to be afraid of it.  Over and over again I watched her renew her commitment to this simple method that worked. 

And, as is so often the case, things started to change for her in life as on her mat: she met a man good enough to deserve her, she found a way to leave the job that had robbed her of so much of her vitality and freedom, she fulfilled her dream of moving away from the city to live in the countryside; and she has time now for the simple things that she hadn't realised were so very important to her well-being.

I have seen such transformations too often now to doubt that yoga plays a huge part in it, as my teacher says, 'These things might well happen without yoga, but they take longer.'  This beautiful woman had reached the furthest point of living in a way that broke her body, tortured her mind and rejected a significant part of her natural self.  She simply could not continue that way any longer, because it would have killed her; and in the face of that knowledge, she was brave enough to find her way to yoga and then to do the hard work that yoga demanded of her if she was to stay true to it, the hardest of which is the silent inner work that must occur if we are to progress.

Hers is a story of extremes; not all of us must reach the pain in which she was living before we find a new way to move through the world, yet all of us will inevitably meet those moments when we realise that we have been living in a way that doesn't serve us, that there is another way of being, one which encompasses more of who we really are and allows us to express not only our strength and knowledge, but also our vulnerability and kindness.  Sometimes we turn away from those transitions and sometimes we run towards them, sometimes we are patient and can wait for life to unfold, and others we feel we simply cannot go on this way for another second and things have to change immediately.

It sounds trite to say that every student teaches me more than I could ever hope to teach them, but it is true.  Teaching this woman lead me to understand more about pain and how the brain processes it, more about the structure of the body, the nerves of the spine, the human form.  She taught me about accepting unacceptable things, that we might move forward with sensitivity to our own limitations, not wage war on ourselves by fighting them.  She taught me about how much we can grow from being broken.  She showed me how it is possible to understand and accept one's whole self and in so doing find an authentic way of life, full of vitality and enthusiasm and become the human that we are meant to be, doing the things that we love.  In this era where the concept of self-determination and individual will predominates, she demonstrated to me that none of this is possible if we do not learn how to reach out to others and allow them to see our vulnerability; none of this possible if we don't know how to ask people for help and let them love us.  And she taught me that fear will keep you small and stuck; that if we are to embrace our whole self and live a full life, we have to let go of fear of loss, fear of change, fear of pain, fear of being different: her life now is so unlike the one she had before and she herself is a renewed person, the things she wants and needs now are so simple and so few; she left behind a fast-paced, high-pressure, well-paid environment for somewhere entirely new and unexpected, and she has never, not once, regretted it; her only wonder is that it took her so long to get there.

Namaste

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Kintsukuroi - Yoga Sutra II, 37

My friend is about to set sail on her boat.  She is planning on a visit to the Channel Islands, then on to France and down to Italy.  She has a plan; she has her qualifications; she knows how to sail and where she hopes to go, but it is not she who will decide where she actually ends up: That will depend on things she cannot control: the wind, the tides, the weather. 

I am watching my grandmother come to terms with the end of her life; seeing her struggle with the difference between the life she actually had and the one she'd hoped for; I think that the difference between the two makes her quite angry.

I am sent a blog from someone who writes with candour and humility about her depression: She has had to learn the difference between her dream of a perfect self and the reality of a human life, which is sculpted into beauty from the mess and scrappiness of the everyday, not surgically cut from the cloth of our plans and our will to see them become reality.

Patanjali tells us in Yoga Sutra II, 37:

"By abiding in freedom from desire of other people's possessions that which is precious is revealed and all that is beneficial is freely given."

Translated by Mukunda Stiles

I am struck by my teacher's translation of this sutra: "that which is precious is revealed and all that is beneficial is freely given." 

We often read or hear someone posit that although they would not have chosen to have a certain event happen to them, in retrospect neither would they alter a single thing; it is a kind of accommodation, an acceptance that we don't always know what is in our best interests, what is going to break open our hearts that we might live forever with more wisdom and compassion.

We don't get what we want in life, we get what is beneficial to us and this is what helps us to uncover the rich tapestry of our own life stories.  We set off like my friend in her boat, with a plan of action and an idea of what we are going to achieve.  Things naturally beyond our control throw us off course and take us to places we did not want to visit: the uncharted waters of bereavement, disappointment, sadness, disagreement and uncertainty.  What are we to do?  Often we ask ourselves, Why me?  Or even, What is wrong with me that this should happen (and sometimes, keep on happening).

Why me? is the right question, but we need to ask it in a different tone: We need to ask with curiosity, so that it becomes, Why me?  What do I have to learn?  Why me?  Which of my weaknesses and blind spots are being revealed?  Why me?  How am I going to grow where I need to grow?  What do I need to move towards?  What do I need to let go of? 

When we ask this way, we avoid victimhood and anger and fill our lives with meaning and purpose.  When we ask this way, we make something beautiful and full of love out of difficulty and strife.

You have probably heard the Japanese word kintsukuroi: it is the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken. 

Knowing that we have the capacity to become more beautiful from the cracks in our veneer, stronger from the things that might have shattered us, we cannot sit for long in the kind of self-pity that bleats, Why me?  Poor me.  Knowing this to be the case leads us to embrace the light and the dark in our day and to know that we are complete.