I'm going to let you in on a secret. All of the things I advise you to do in class, I have ignored myself at one time, or another:
- "Try not to struggle"
- "Resist the need to overachieve"
- "Don't worry about reaching your toes for the sake of reaching your toes"
- "Give yourself a break"
- "Try not to predict your next move"
- "Go to the edge of that point where your breath remains steady"
When I teach, my instructions give voice to all of the things I have found difficult, and will continue to find difficult in my practice (and my life – because increasingly, the two aren’t separate for me).
On rare days, this voice applies to my practice unbidden; I am at ease.
On most days, this voice is a whisper. I can hear it, but only just; the place where I am, is not the opposite of ease, but it is not 'at ease’ either. On these days, the role of my practice is to nurture that whisper and keep it safe.
Then there are the days when I can’t hear that voice at all; I am stuck, my practice is stuck too.
Last are the hardest, most painful (and dangerous) of days – the days when I hear that voice and tell it, quite plainly, to fuck off. My practice becomes outcast, I throw it outside of myself.
The day my friend asked me ‘Isn’t yoga supposed to make you a calm person?’ was one of those ‘fuck off’ days, but their question was one I had been quietly anticipating.
The day before, I had watched a video of a female cyclist ripping the wing mirror from a van. It was being driven by a man who, moments before, had repeatedly subjected her to harassment (you might have seen this too). Notwithstanding speculation that the video was staged, comments were made about the woman’s choice of reaction. “Yes, she was the victim of abuse. But does that condone criminal damage?” My response, to the contrary, went something like this: "It's a shame she didn't shove that wing mirror up his arse. I'd condone that." Two thoughts followed:
- “You’re a yoga teacher, should you be so angry?”
- “I’m a yoga teacher, should I be so angry?”
As a teacher, if I see someone fight their way through a posture, I will encourage them to be gentle. If I see someone hyper-extend their elbow, I will ask them to bend that elbow slightly. To some extent, yoga (for me anyway), is like an exercise in playing devil's advocate. What are you doing, thinking, feeling, saying, and giving value to, now? Notice it. Change something. Notice that.
Now that I've told you this – especially if you are a student of mine – you may find yourself in a bit of a tight spot. “If I can never get it 'right', I can’t win.” Precisely. As a teacher, my role is not to reward or punish, tick or cross. I can't rate your answer, because I never had it to begin with.
This is not a get-out-of-free jail card by the way. I’m not saying, “Well, I never promised you anything in the first place, so sue me”. Equally, I can't pretend that I don't experience great joy and satisfaction when a student of mine works out how not to struggle for themself. I might flatter myself and think 'Oh, how lovely, I played a part in that', but I also have to admit that my part may have been a help, or a hindrance to their discovery. We can only ever make use of what is available to us at the time.
I'm fond of saying "you can't be bad at yoga". Being 'good’ isn't based on perfecting a particular shape, conversing effortlessly in Sanskrit, or never being angry. Really, the only inadvisable way to practise yoga, is to approach your forward bends, yourself (because only an 8th of yoga is concerned about your forward bends) and that outside of yourself, in the same way every day, day in, day out.
Going back to the woman on the bicycle. We can see that her response is not ideal, and we can judge that her response is not ‘good’ or ‘right’, but it is valid. It is a perfectly normal stress response. For me, the video provoked such anger because it mirrors, almost exactly, an experience I had on Oxford’s High Street, barely a week earlier. I didn’t damage anyone’s property, but I did meet anger with more anger, I did fight back. In that moment, what I needed was a way to express my agency, to act in a way that said: “Hey you! My feelings matter. I’m here!”
In a nutshell, this is the reason I practise. (It is also the reason why I decided to call this blog ‘Room’.) Yoga enables me to create a space in which my feelings at any given moment are valid, whilst reminding me that the way I feel now is not my only option. I may be ‘here now’, but I can also be ‘there now’ too. Even if I go right back to the time when I first started practising - 15 years old and only interested in being able to do the splits - this still holds true.
Yoga is all those practices that enable us to discover health – which is not the absence of the symptoms of sickness, but which is wholeness and holiness, an inner state of being in which there is no division at all.
Swami Venkatesananda, quoted in ‘What is yoga? You asked Google – here’s the answer’
Experiencing anger doesn't invalidate your yoga practice, and continuing to experience anger doesn't invalidate yoga as a means of cultivating less anger.
Is yoga supposed to make you a calm person?
Is growing supposed to make you a tall person?
In the end, yoga can never ‘make you’ anything, it’s just a wide-open space for you to be as you are, and see what else is possible.