Week 58 – surviving the summer

Week 58 – surviving the summer

A woman & her mat

One woman’s journey on and off her yoga mat.

Can you believe I’ve been writing to you every week for sixty weeks?

This woman. This mat. This journey.

It has been a real journey for me, I don’t know if you’ve picked up a sense of that. Sixty weeks ago, I was pretty new to this whole yoga world. I have a little more confidence now, I guess, although as with most things, the further you get along the path, the more you realise you have to learn!

I wonder if when I was starting out, I would have been content to have made as little obvious progress as I seem to have done. I wonder if I wouldn’t have found the motivation to start at all. I had high aspirations of what I could achieve in a year if I put my mind to it. All entirely physical, of course. I knew no better back then. I thought poses were what yoga was all about. And reflecting on where I am today, it would be easy to feel more than a little disappointed. My body is not so very different.  Part of me is ready to demand a refund!

However, it’s not as simple as that. My thinking of what yoga actually is has completely changed. I have changed – possibly more inwardly than outwardly. I’ve had to face some pretty tough stuff. Anxiety has reared up and challenged me in ways I didn’t ever expect. Having spent years denying what my body was telling me, when I decided to listen, I really didn’t like what I was hearing. I’ve been confronted with loads of things about myself that I haven’t liked and have had to learn to accept. On one level, I feel weaker and more vulnerable, rather than stronger, but that’s because I’ve been more real and honest and relied less on heightened adrenaline levels that kept me going but couldn’t keep me going forever.

It’s been great being able to share with you some of the highs and lows of this personal journey, the revelations and questions and frustrations and affirmations. One thing I’ve been learning is to hold loosely, to enjoy an activity while it lasts, but recognise that there is a time for everything and everything has its season. Clinging onto something for the wrong reasons can make it all turn sour. Continuing something without opening your eyes to new paths can become a bit of a rut. And so this is the end of this chapter for A Woman & Her Mat at present. It’s time.

This woman will continue to step onto her mat.

This journey is far from over.

I’ll tell you all about it some time.

Here’s another of those questions: so what is yoga exactly?

It’s not one I get asked as openly and often as the ones we’ve looked at already. I guess that’s because everyone initially thinks they know what yoga is. They hear the word and an image pops into their head – maybe of some ancient Indian guru in Lotus position or of one of these Instagram yogis in Lycra pulling off a breathtaking pose on a beach in paradise.

And then they look at me. And the questions start to form in their mind.

I’m not like the image of someone who practises yoga. No one pictures me when they think of yoga. I’m short and overweight and inflexible and not particularly calm.

So if I say that I practise yoga, then what is yoga exactly?

Actually, it’s a pretty tough question to answer. Ask a hundred people who practise yoga what yoga is and you’ll probably get one hundred different answers. Yoga means different things to different people.

I’ve been reflecting on that in my daily morning practice (yes, I’m still hanging in there with that – are you impressed?). My husband practises alongside me, you see, and yet our practice is very, very different. I do my own thing. I arrive at the mat with no agenda, no idea of where I will go in the next half an hour. I try to listen to my body. I try not to perform and show off because there is someone on the mat next to me. I try to relax into moving very little some days. I prefer to practise in silence. This wouldn’t even look like yoga to anyone watching in, sometimes.

My husband is different. He’s following a thirty day programme on Youtube. He prefers to be told what to do. It’s a vigorous practice and sometimes I feel bad, lazy somehow, for not breaking a sweat like he does every day. I compare myself to him and worry that he is judging me. Which is not the spirit of yoga at all – and that letting go of ego is as much part of my yoga practice as any difficult pose I might pull off.

So what is yoga exactly? Is it what I am doing or what my husband is doing?

Both.

OK, here’s my answer.

Yoga is mind body connection. Anytime, anywhere.

The time I spend on the mat is the time I set aside to really focus on what that means for me, but actually, it takes place throughout the day off the mat too.

And so yoga will mean something different to each of us as we each work out what mind body connection looks like for us. Our minds are all different. Our bodies are all different. And so our connection will be different and our yoga will be different.

So don’t ever let anyone tell you definitively what yoga is.

What is yoga exactly?

That’s a question you need to work out your own unique individual response to.

Surviving the summer is not how I want to view this period, but it’s how I feel today.

I love the summer, you see. I can’t begin to tell you how much I love the sunshine. Having just spent a wonderfully relaxing week in sunny Menorca, I’m reminded of how much the warmth and light melts away my stresses and anxieties, revealing a great version of me. I love wearing as few clothes as possible and walking around in flip flops. I love leaving the to do list at home and rediscovering what it is to be carefree.

Summer is good for me. It’s partly medical. I have issues with Seasonally Affective Disorder and Vitamin D deficiency. I dread the cold and the dark. All these years into being me and I still haven’t found a way to successfully navigate my way through the winter months with my mental health intact. We’ll come to that soon enough. September is only just around the corner and it’s downhill from then on.

So the summer should be my best time. ‘Surviving the summer’ should not be a phrase in my vocabulary. The six week holidays have a different feel from any other time of the year. With teenagers in the house, my world is still ruled by school term dates.  The kids are different beings too, running on a different agenda, with nowhere to be and nothing to do. No nagging to get up or get homework done. There’s definitely a more relaxed vibe in my home. Even for those of you who are not directly affected by the school holidays, there’s a knock on effect. Routines change. The commute into work is easier without the school run traffic. More work colleagues are taking annual leave and there’s the disruption that causes.

A change of routine can be a good thing. You take a step back from your normal schedule and catch a breath. There’s the opportunity to slow down a little, enjoy long, lazy days and take on some adventures…

And then there’s work. That has to be fitted in too. It becomes a real juggling act, trying to maintain that relaxed vibe while still rushing to meet deadlines. And all the good habits that form part of your everyday routine – nutrition, exercise, a meditation practice – when the schedule changes, these things can become less disciplined too, in my experience.

And so surviving the summer becomes a balancing act, calling on the wisdom to allow myself to be kind to myself and relax a little, whilst still being good to myself. Knowing what being kind to myself looks like: allowing myself an ice cream a day without feeling guilty, but not slipping into a full on sugar blow out. For example. Some moments of some days, I find myself yearning for the beginning of September so I can return to normal and get back on track. But that makes me sad, because I know how much I look forward to this time all year round and how precious it is.

I actually need to relax and let go a little more. Stop ruining the moment by over-thinking it. Enjoy what each day brings. Do my best and know that that is all that I can do. Today, I am on the train down to London, tapping away on my laptop with the sun on my face, having left the kids at home well supervised and entertained. I don’t need to be concerned about them. They are in good hands. And tomorrow, I have a full day out with the kids planned. And  I won’t need to worry about work, because that can wait another day.

Each day brings new challenges and joys and adventures. I’m determined not to see this season as surviving the summer. Savouring the summer, that’s what I’m aiming for. Practising gratitude for all the small things. Not allowing the difficulties to become such big things that they overshadow the rest.

This is a season. This too will pass.

For that reason, I’m determined to make the most of it while it lasts.

Why do yoga at all?

Continuing on the theme of questions I get asked on a regular basis, there’s another gem for you.

Yes, you can point to people who get injured practising yoga. We talked about that last week. You can tell me that it’s not the best form of exercise for weight loss or cardio or whatever it is motivates you in your exercise. You may even tell me that sitting round on a mat or lying down for ten minutes can hardly count as exercise at all.

There are all sorts of reasons not to practise yoga. Classes are expensive. You’re expected to wear the right yoga wear and have the right mat. Carving out time for a home practice eats into the day. you have to travel quite a distance to get to class. You don’t know anyone else who likes yoga. It’s not very sociable. It challenges all my lifestyle choices. All sorts of excuses never to try to yoga class at all.

So why do yoga at all?

What draws me back to my mat again and again and again?

It’s as my friend said the other day –

I didn’t realise how much yoga mattered to me until I got out of the habit of going. Now my body and mind are telling me that they miss yoga. I need to find a way back.

Remember my new yoga space in my house and my commitment to practising every morning? I’ll let you into a secret. Most mornings, yoga is the last thing I feel like doing. It’s a total act of will to roll out of bed and get on that mat. But if I didn’t, I know I would miss it. I leave that room changed. I feel looser, lighter, more energised, more ready to face the day.

I don’t have very many tangible reasons for why I practise yoga. It connects me with the best version of myself, that’s all I can say.

I thought about this when I read this quote from Tim Feldmann –

My body is strong but I have many places that are very fragile. It has given me an opportunity to take a really good look at this yoga stuff and figure out if I really want it. Because it would be easy to walk away to some degree. I have so many excuses to walk away but I realise this is what I want to do….I love this now and it feels right for me and I like the person it brings out in me.

Tim Feldmann is the director of Miami Life Center, the yoga shala he founded with his wife Kino MacGregor. He’s a renowned international Ashtanga teacher. He’s had to face injuries over the years, the most recent being a wrist injury. He’s had every reason to give up. As he says, he could easily have walked away.

Why do yoga at all?

Because Tim loves yoga.

Why do yoga at all?

Because yoga feels right for him.

Why do yoga at all?

Because he likes the person yoga brings out in him.

I understand that.

That’s why I do yoga too.

Is yoga bad for you?

Is it just me, or do you get asked that question all the time too? It’s weird, because there’s so much out there about how good yoga is for you, but let’s face it, there’s also always someone creating niggling doubts by finding negative things to say about yoga.

Let me tell you now, nothing you can say is going to put me off yoga! Believe me, I’ve heard it all before.

I’ve battled with those voices inside my own head, those insidious voices telling me I’m too old, I’m not flexible enough, I’m not calm enough…I’m simply not the right kind of person to even consider having a yoga practice. I’m never going to look like those Instagram yogis, never in a million years, so what’s the point in even trying?

Then I moved on to battle with that constant self appraisal, telling me that I’m not making any progress. I’m not getting more flexible or stronger or calmer. Whats the point in putting in the effort if I can’t see any results?

The voices aren’t just in my head either. There’s the people telling me to be careful, that yoga can be bad for you, you know. They know someone who knows someone who got a really bad injury doing yoga. It’s not as good for you as everyone makes out.

There are others who make me feel inferior because I’m not a vegetarian or I can’t quote the sutras or I’ve never heard of their guru or I haven’t yet managed to cut the devil that is sugar completely out of my diet. Sometimes I feel inadequate because I’m not wearing the ‘in’ brand of yoga gear and even if I was, I would still be a sweaty, flabby mess.

And don’t even get me started on social media. Yoga has a really bad press. It’s like there’s a backlash out there in reaction to all the positive reports about the transformative power of yoga. It’s exhausting trying to keep up with this barrage of negativity and defend my position and not allow it to affect my motivation or intention.

I admit that yes, there are real issues that surface in the yoga world – the whole thing around body image, the pushing too hard and creating injury, the dangers of looked-up to teachers abusing their influence and reputation, the over-commercialisation and exploitation of the yoga industry, dubious teacher qualifications…we can’t turn a blind eye to all of this. This is real. There is some truth here and this truth should be brought out into the open and not buried or ignored. We need to be aware and wise and take appropriate care.

But like that age old saying goes, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Just because some things are wrong with yoga, doesn’t mean that it is all wrong. Is yoga bad for you? Sometimes, yes. Regrettably, yes. But oh my word, sometimes (and most times, I would say) yoga can be gloriously good for you.

Cynicism is seen as cool. Over-enthusiasm is seen as naive. It’s easy to be cynical, to find fault in everything, to see the negative. Jumping in with joy with both feet is frowned upon. Inspiration, energy, passion and purpose are scrutinised and criticised (and maybe secretly, envied).

But I want to be that person, whatever you may think. You can tell me all the reasons you think yoga is bad for me and I will listen, but be warned: my heart is telling me a different story. I’ve experienced what yoga has done for me, for my mind, body and spirit. You may not think it’s much, but I treasure this transformation, this ongoing journey.

I like the version of me that practises yoga regularly much better than the one that does not.

I will probably always be ‘bad’ at yoga, if by yoga, you mean feats of balance, flexibility and strength. I don’t think getting older is going to help with that.

But you know what? I don’t care.

Yoga gets me out of my head. It’s shown me the way to do that, a way that I had never encountered before. I need that in my life.

So is yoga bad for you? Only you can answer that question. My advice would be simple and twofold – ‘Don’t believe everything you read and secondly, find out for yourself.’

Yoga works for me. Maybe yoga can work for you too.

If you’re waiting to hear how my personal practice is taking shape, well so far, so good.

There was a lot of furniture shifting taking place in our house that day. One of those tasks that I’m so excited about starting and then after two hours, I’m tired and need a break and look around at the devastation and think ‘What have I done?’

We got there in the end though. My husband complimented me on my ability to recycle things around the home. My initial reaction is not to go out and buy new pictures and ornaments and cushions, you see. I know exactly what I have and how I can make it work in a different room to create an entirely new look. So that’s what we did. And everyone is happy.

And I am especially happy. I have my new yoga studio. Deliberately bare. Uncluttered is a better word. With floor space for three mats. It’s light and airy and spacious. And yes, for the last two days, I have rolled out of bed and onto my mat. My body is so stiff from all the furniture shifting, so I’m taking it easy at the moment, but I’m there. I’m turning up. I’m determined.

And you know what? My husband is turning up too! He arrives just as I am leaving. He’s following an online 30 days of yoga course. I though about joining him in that today. It has its advantages. You do as you’re told. You don’t play it safe and stick to what you find easy. But for me, this is all about learning to listen to my body, doing what is right for me, what my body needs. This is not an easy path for me. I like to be told what to do. I like the challenge of a 30 day programme. It would be fun to practice together. But no, not now. Not yet.

I need to do this part of my journey my way.

So yes. So far, so good. That’s all any of us can say in reality, isn’t it? We never know what challenges are waiting for us just around the corner.

I love my new space. I wish you all could see it and join me in it some time.

I would never have imagined that I would create a room like it, devoted to a yoga practice. How my life has changed!

And that’s a good ting, right? Change is a good thing.

I’m evolving. We’re all evolving.

Each one of us is on a journey, not sure of where the journey will take us.

So far, so good.

Creating space – that is my latest pressing need.

As you get older, your kids start to leave home and at first, that feels awful and you miss them terribly, but then if you’re anything like me, you get used to having your own space…

And then they come back.

Over the last couple of months, my people have all drifted back. My son is back from uni. For good. My daughter’s move back into the neighbourhood. Just around the corner. My husband has just this week started working from home. In the same space that I work in. And then it’s the school holidays shortly and the others will be around all day every day too.

Much as I love my people, I’m beginning to feel that my space is being invaded. And I love my space. It panics me a little to not have anywhere to escape to.

However, I have a plan. I’ve found a way of creating space. We’re going for a bedroom reshuffle. My kids are used to that. I’ve persuaded them all (with various incentives) to move around in such a way that it frees up a good-sized room with laminate floor and mirrors on one wall – to be my new yoga studio!

I’m so excited! You know I find it hard to get round to home practice. It never felt right rolling out my mat in my work space – too many distractions. I struggled to make the space – physically and mentally. But soon I will have no excuse. To have a decluttered space to shut myself away and stretch out on my mat where no one is watching and where the dogs cannot attempt to crawl under my downward dog feels like total bliss.

It’s been puzzling me as to why I’ve found getting into a habit of self-practice so difficult. I’m a very disciplined person. When I commit, I commit. But somehow that hasn’t worked for me here. But I can feel a determination building inside me, rising to the surface. When I do this, I’m doing this for me. Not because anyone is watching or I have anything to prove. I’ll do it because I want it and I will make it work. There will be no agenda, no training plan. No fixed goals, no attainment targets. If I’ve learnt anything on my yoga journey so far, that’s what I’ve learnt. That yoga is all about listening to my body and working with my body and discovering what my body can do in its own space and in its ow time.

I will show up in that room on my mat for half an hour a day. That’s my commitment. At a minimum. That will be the first thing I do when I roll out of bed. Sometimes there will be opportunities later in the day for a different kind of practice. But I want that morning slot to become non-negotiable, to be so important to me that it becomes an essential part of my day.

I’ll keep you posted about the progress with creating space. And my progress with my personal commitment.

I’ll be honest, I promise.

 

Wish me well.

 

Despondent. Disaffected. Unmotivated.

Those were last week’s words. You’ll have picked that up if you read the last piece I wrote.

This week’s words are altogether different.

This yoga journey is a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. Most of them taking place inside my head.

This week is all about inspiration. Vision. Confidence.

And why is that, you may be asking. What’s changed?

Well, I practised yoga. Yes, that’s it. I practised yoga on my own. Outside in the fresh air. For a good 30 minutes.

I was away with friends at a lodge in a forest. I’d taken my mat with me. Over breakfast, I sensed the inclination to practise yoga outside on the decking rising up within me.

And As I rolled out my mat, I came up with a thousand reasons why it wasn’t such a good idea.

  1. the decking area I was practising on was actually overlooked by the residents of two other lodges
  2. as I said, I was away with friends, and they were still sitting at the breakfast table – able to watch everything I was doing
  3. I could have stayed and chatted over a cup of tea with my friends
  4. one of my friends was already in the hot tub just along the decking from me
  5. I could have got in the hot tub with her
  6. some of the others were preparing to go for a walk and I didn’t want to be seen as anti-social and I didn’t want to miss out
  7. I was tired
  8. one of my friends was going out to the village in the car on her own and I felt bad for her
  9. the decking was a bit damp
  10. there was a breeze and rain in the air
  11. I didn’t want anyone to think I was showing off
  12. I didn’t want them to think I was rubbish at yoga

OK, well, there’s twelve of the main reasons.

But I stepped onto my mat and started with sun salutations. As many as I needed to lose myself in my practice. And actually, it didn’t take that long to forget where I was and enjoy the sun on my face every time it peeked from behind a cloud.

I soon lost interest in whether anyone was watching and what anyone else may have been thinking. This wasn’t about them; this was about me. And as I moved through forward bends and standing poses and balances and seated poses, I found my rhythm. I focused on my breath.

I began to feel strong and balanced and calm.

As I get older, I seem to becoming more and more introverted. Being around a lot of people drains my energy and fills my head with chatter. This practice calmed my mind and woke up my body.

I felt so much better for having done it. I know, isn’t that what we always say?

It’s just taken me one single practice to make me feel inspired.

I can do this. I did it the other day and I can do it today.

I have a renewed sense of vision.

A confidence in myself that this yoga journey is moving me in the right direction.

So I hope last week’s piece didn’t drag you down. Maybe you could identify with what I was saying. If so, maybe today, this piece gives you a glimmer of hope that it doesn’t have to be that way. It just takes one moment of effort (maybe a monumental effort, I’ll give you that) to roll out your mat and get back on track.

If I can, you can.

I have a confession to make: I think I am sometimes more in love with the idea of yoga than I am with the practice itself.

A random thought from nowhere (although how often does an idea pop into our heads really from nowhere?) found its way into my head and now it’s there, I can’t shift it: if I loved yoga as much as I say I do, then why don’t I actually do it more often?

It’s the same with lots of activities in my life: when I get round to doing it, I love it and think ‘I should do that more often.’ And I mean it at the time. But then I get distracted. I get obsessed with ‘Love Island’ on the TV (in reality, I don’t, but I’ve heard a lot of people out there do, and maybe that is less embarrassing than admitting to my obsession with ’13 Reasons Why’). I spend hours scrolling through Facebook posts on my phone and watching videos on subjects that don’t even particularly interest me. Oh come on, tell me you do that too. And then I tell myself I don’t have time to do yoga or read a book or spend quality time with my man or go for a run. But I do. I could make time if I really wanted to.

I love the idea of yoga. I love the feel of yoga wear against my skin. I love rolling out my mat. I love stepping onto my mat and the feel of the mat on the soles of my bare feet. I love the smells and the sounds. I love how my body feels nurtured and cherished and alive. I love thinking about yoga and talking about yoga and writing about yoga. I love the pictures of yogis in fabulous poses in fantastic locations on my Instagram feed. I love the whole scene.

And maybe some of those activities around the idea of yoga actually detract from the time I have available for my own practice. Talking about yoga is not the same as practising yoga. I’m challenged to shut up and just get on with it. I’m challenging you to stop reading this and actually engage in your own practice.

So yes, this is a short one, so that you and I both have more time for what really matters – join me on the mat, people!