In this blog I won't be telling you how to align your hips in Warrior or how to perfect your plank. Instead what I will share with you are some of the subtler lessons I have learnt during my yoga journey; some from the mat, some from off the mat…
I was first introduced to yoga as a chubby, rebellious teenager who hated exercise. My school introduced yoga classes for the older students, and I chose to take them, not because I was seeking a spiritual path or because I wanted to stand on my head, but because I’d rather do anything than play hockey in the rain. I'd like to say that I was completely taken by yoga from my first class, but that wasn't the case. I struggled my way through the simplest of poses, and only really remember enjoying Savasana, the final relaxation at the end.
Dealing With Stress
Years later I was a typical young graduate in London; stressed, overworked, underpaid. One New Year, after suffering from regular panic attacks, I knew I needed to make some serious changes to my lifestyle. I decided to quit smoking (a habit I’d never managed to kick) and start exercising - so I joined a beginner's yoga course.
After six weeks of Hatha at Triyoga London, I felt a strange sense of relaxation and positivity that I hadn't experienced before. I was surprised that not only did my body start to feel great, but my mind started to become clearer; my weekly yoga class offered me an escape from the 9 to 5 rat-race and gave me space to start questioning what was really important in my life. After the course ended, I was eager for more. I started going to an Iyengar class at my local gym and quickly realised that it was completely different to Hatha. Suddenly my mind was filled with questions: What were all these different types of yoga? Why was my teacher chanting Sanskrit? What did 'Namaste' mean and what did it have to do with touching my toes? My Iyengar teacher Craig encouraged me to use props; he gave me belts, bricks and blankets to help me into poses, and I was amazed when I started to see slow but steady progression week on week. In a world where nothing else in my life seemed to be progressing, yoga suddenly gave me a way to move forward. It showed me that there was a seed inside me that wanted to grow; all I had to do was water it.
My First Yoga Retreat
After a year of sporadic practice, I started to become more aware of things that needed to change in my personal life, particulaly in my relationship and my job. I realised that I was severely burnt out and in desperate need of a break to clear my head and make some good decisions. Whilst looking for an affordable holiday, I stumbled upon a ‘karma yoga’ retreat in the south of France, which involved helping out in the vegetable garden in exchange for accommodation, food and yoga classes. Unable to afford any of the other yoga retreats of offer, I signed up.
This was quite possibly one of the best decisions I ever made. I arrived at the yoga school near Toulouse close to tears, exhausted and needing help. Danuta, my teacher, took me in and gave me what I believe was my first taste of real yoga. Her gentle style of teaching incorporated Hatha with Kundalini and gave me much more than the practice I was used to. Over the course of the week, she taught me about the hidden language of yoga; she gave me tools to start to heal myself. She listened to me, and more importantly she taught me how to listen to myself. She showed me how my mind and body were connected and helped me to understand how taking control of my breath held the key to unlocking the answers I was searching for. After one week with Danuta, I returned to the UK with a new perspective. Outside, nothing much had changed, but inside everything had changed.
A Toolkit for Life
A year later my long-term relationship came to an end. But what should have been one of the most devastating moments in my life somehow didn't damage me as much as I thought it would. Yes, it was painful and difficult, but the work I'd done on myself over the past year meant that I had my own toolkit to help me deal with everything that was happening. I breathed my way through it and somehow managed to come out of the situation relatively unharmed. A few weeks after the break-up I took myself off to a yoga retreat in Spain where I gave myself time to process the huge changes that were happening in my life. Instead of blocking out the pain, I managed to face it head on and make some positive decisions about where I wanted to take my life.
Delving Deeper; Insight through Meditation
Over the following year I explored Hatha, Kundalini, Aerial, Iyengar, Vinyasa and Yin. I went on a number of yoga retreats in Spain, France and Portugal, and started practising meditation. I read as many yoga books as I could get my hands on, eager to learn everything I could about this mysterious practice that had such deep healing abilities.
Meditation had such a profound impact on me that I took part in a semi-silent retreat at The Barn Meditation Retreat Centre in Devon. I gained so much insight from this experience that the following year I signed up for Goenka's full ten day silent Vipassana meditation course. This was one of the most challenging experiences of my life, but also without doubt one of the most life-changing. After ten days of silence, delving deep into the myriads of my brain and cutting through layers of consciousness, I emerged with an incredible sense of clarity and an overwhelming feeling of peace and freedom. For the first time, I was quietly confident about the direction I wanted to take my life in. The following week I quit my job and booked a one way flight to India.
My first six months in India were some of the toughest of my life. I joined a yoga teacher training school and stayed there for four months. This involved following a 6-day a week rigorous routine for four months, with 4am starts followed by 16 hour days of Ashtanga practice, all in 40 degrees burning heat. My teacher pushed me to my absolute limits and taught me an unfathomable amount about all aspects of yoga; I learned the history, philosophy and anatomy of yoga and in turn started to understand the experiences I'd been having during my meditation practice.
I learned that yoga can be a moving meditation and I began to take a closer look at my own internal strengths and weaknesses. I started to question everything about myself and the conditioning that had been imposed on me by Western society, from the stressful jobs we're told are 'normal' to our debt-driven consumer society that keeps us living hand-to-mouth.
My physical practice improved tenfold and I lost five kilos within the first three weeks. Every day brought an onslaught of challenges that pushed me to my limits, but by the end I left a much stronger person; physically, emotionally and mentally.
Further Training in Rishikesh
The following year I enrolled in a second yoga teacher training course in Rishikesh, this time combining Ashtanga with Hatha. Here I further developed my knowledge of the Ashtanga Primary series and started to develop my teaching skills. I delved into Patanjali's yoga sutras and became engrossed in yoga philosophy and the power of meditation. I left Rishikesh with my 200 hours Yoga Teacher Training qualification and with a strong desire to share all that I had learned. I wanted to help others to integrate positive practises into their everyday lives, to help them realise their full potential and move closer towards happiness, the way I had done.
Happiness: The Art of Giving
Today I am honestly happier than I have ever been in my life. I am free of debt and travel the world, drawing, writing, teaching and practising 'yoga' – in all senses of the word. I strongly believe that yoga is much more than a physical practice and that the philosophy of yoga can be shared and communicated through many mediums, both on and off the mat. Yoga, according to Patanjali's first yoga sutra, is the “cessation of the movement of the mind.” My aim in all that I do is to continue learning and practising yoga, and to help others to develop their own tools to quiet the negative voices in their own minds. I believe that all of us has great potential within us to do a huge amount of good in the world and to find happiness. However, I believe that it is often our own fear and negativity that stand in our way.
By giving ourselves the love, attention and space that we need and deserve, we are able to start to shed the layers of negativity that have been imposed upon us and start to think for ourselves. I believe that by learning to breathe again, and by listening to what we want rather than what we're told we want, we can move closer to our 'real self'. And only when we start to be true to our real self can we find true happiness, and in turn give the gift of happiness to others.