As of this month, I've officially spent half my life practising yoga. It sounds like a fact to pat myself on the back with. Do I get a badge now? Can I cash in some kind of intermediate level yogi chip?
When somebody asks me how long I've been practising, the reaction is usually a genuine "Wow, that's amazing", or a sarcastic "Great, good for you". The first response tends to come from a person who is new to yoga and has fallen in love with it a bit. Someone for who 15 years seems long enough to master whatever it is they're finding difficult, or a huge amount of time to continue enjoying whatever it is they're enjoying.
The second response tends to come from someone who knows I'm a yoga teacher, and wants to make it clear to me (and anyone else in earshot) that they think yoga is load of rubbish and that I'm a deeply flawed individual.
Silent disinterest is the third response of course, but in these situations the question never comes up.
For me, when I think about yoga in terms of how long I've been practising, I'd class my reaction as 10% wow, 60% sarcasm and 30% disinterest: I never set out to practice yoga, especially for this long, so the yoga part of my life feels more like an accident than an achievement. I clearly don't think yoga is rubbish, but I do think the practice can only ever reflect the individual taking part in it, and I don't mind telling you that I am deeply flawed (yeah, who knew right?!). Lastly, despite writing about it (!), I'm just not that interested. Time spent doing anything, is not really a measure of anything but the time spent doing it.
What I am interested in is how I have spent that time, what I have learned (and still have to learn) and why I continue to practice - because continuing to do something purely out of habit is not a practice in my view - it's just a thing that is repeatedly done.
When thinking about my relationship with yoga over the past 15 years, I also have to ask myself what is just the coming of age. My life didn't magically become easy when I discovered yoga. I did not suddenly become wise, or at peace with myself. I do feel more at ease, more wise and more at peace with myself than I did at 15, but I expect that most people do - with or without yoga, we grow up.
So really, all I can do is consider how my practice has changed as a symptom of how I have changed, not the other way around. Perhaps, at 60, I will change my mind about this, but 60 is a long way off and I hope I'm right in thinking that this blog post won't matter much then.
Books in the library. It was actually a Pilates book that set me off. Hours spent trying breathing exercises dangling my legs off the edge of the bed. A yoga book with an old lady standing on her head. I wanted to do that.
I practised every single day in the quiet of the evening, my sister spying on me through the net curtain of my bedroom door. It was the occasional giggle that gave her away.
I didn't know what I was doing, or why, I just did it. It made me feel good. I didn't have the best childhood, or the worst, but it definitely could have been better. Although I wouldn't have recognised this at the time, with hindsight, I think yoga helped carve a protective space for myself where I was the one in control.
University. I discover Ashtanga. It was disgusting. I loved it.
My first Ashtanga class saw me barely make it through the standing sequence. I was weak, wobbly and sweating all over, but then came the seated sequence and my natural flexibility made me feel like I was pretty good at it. This is what kept me coming back. I wanted to get better.
Inside and outside of that yoga class, I was regimented, unforgiving of any mistakes I made, and trying harder and harder to be perfect at whatever it was I considered worth being perfect at (or, whoever it was I considered worth being perfect for). I lived in my head. My body was for looking at and for making me feel bad.
I think the routine and demanding physicality is why I was so attracted to Ashtanga, but this was the bind, and it's a bind I continue to see in my own students: on one hand, Ashtanga made my body useful, it made me feel stronger (both physically and mentally) and gave me confidence. On the other hand, I made my Ashtanga practice a punishment, an exercise in self-discipline that ascended any self-discipline that is helpful. I used it to reinforce the extremes of what I considered good and bad about myself.
It seems ironic to me now that the flexibility I praised within my body was so absent from the mental picture I had of myself and of others.
Back to university. Life was very different and very difficult and, after trying to do everything and succeeding for a short time, I realised it was ok to do nothing and fail for a short time. I stopped beating myself up with yoga (asana specifically) because I didn't have the time, energy, or the money - I was not regularly practising at home at this point.
I practised when I could, sometimes I enjoyed it, sometimes I didn't.
10 years down the line and yoga was still a part of my life. My practice was not as punishing as it once was, but I still got a kick from looking at other practitioners and seeing that I could do a particular posture 'better' than them, or that I couldn't, and withstanding the insecurity that followed.
I got talking to my long-standing teacher about teacher training. It's not something I'd ever thought about, but the seed was now planted.
Teacher training. Yoga philosophy and discovering that I'm no longer allergic to the stuff. My view of what yoga 'is' is challenged and changed. My view of who I am and how I want to live is challenged and changed. Is ever-changing.
I start engaging with the yoga world and find out that it's just as fucked up as the real world. Because we're in it. Because we're human.
Find out that I love teaching. Find out that the way I teach, and consider my role as a teacher, is ever-changing too. Teaching forces me to interrogate my own assumptions, be more open, experiment, become more comfortable with failure and not knowing.
Navigate the the business of teaching yoga and question how to maintain integrity in a shiny, magpie, yoga world. Start by rejecting and mentally lambasting 'bad' teachers and 'bad' teaching decisions. Quickly realise everyone's just trying to find their own way and doing what they think is right. Decide just to go by what feels right for me and allow myself to make mistakes. Be honest about those mistakes. Don't assume my mistakes are the mistakes of other people. Commit to my own standards. Let those standards evolve.
All of this can only ever be a work-in-progress.
15 years since dangling my legs off the edge of the bed, reading books. My practice is not without humour and a healthy dose of self-derision, but it is earnest and becoming increasingly so. The way I practise and the way I live is one and the same. It seems like a cliché, but everything is yoga to me. Yoga is just another word for living; for trying to live, for trying to stay alive, for trying to be alive.
I used to be very solitary, and the way I viewed my practice was very solitary too. In some ways, being on your own and inhabiting your own view of the world is easier. I used to joke about running away to live in the forest on my own. This had once seemed like the only way to get by.
How I relate to others, and the way I interact with other people is now far more important to me and my practice, than touching my forehead to my shins ever was. If I can have any insight into the future, it seems to me that this is where my practice is going. Has been going.
What do I know now that I didn't at 15? Everything and nothing.
Everything is valid. Nothing is fixed.
If I had any advice I thought worthy of giving, it would be this:
Change your mind all the time. Don't hold on to being in the right. Move. Be moved.