Do’s and Don’ts of Yoga: Some Basic Etiquette in Class

Yoga is all about tuning into the breath and moving onto a higher level than just the ‘here and now’. In theory, this should mean the ability to rise above, or at the very least, not be overly bothered by, little things like people stepping on your mat – planting their big, sweaty foot exactly where you like to rest your forehead when you are resting in Balasana – but unfortunately, we are not all that far advanced in our practice yet, and these ‘little things’ do irk.

I have no doubt that many of these travesties come from an innocent place – one of inexperience, rather than the intent to offend, but as the saying goes: ‘Ignorantia juris non excusat’ ignorance of the law excuses no one.

So, I have put together a list of some basic do’s and don’ts regarding yoga, based on my experiences at my own yoga studio in Stellenbosch as well as others across the world. I hope that these tips help you to get the most out of the class you attend, and also that they help you to feel more comfortable and familiar if a yoga studio environment is a new one to you.  Some of these tips are basic common sense and, if you are already a considerate, aware kind of person, you probably do them without even thinking; others are less obvious and more specific to a yoga environment.

DO arrive early. Getting to class about 10 minutes early can help you settle in and align your attitude with the purpose of the class. While you’re waiting you can practice a pose, do a few stretches, or just sit or lie quietly, breathe, and get centred.

DON’T eat for two or three hours before class. If you practice yoga on a full stomach, you might experience cramps, nausea, or vomiting, especially in twists, deep forward bends, and inversions. Digesting food also takes energy that can make you lethargic.

DO let your teacher know – before the class starts – about injuries or conditions that might affect your practice. If you are injured or tired, feel free to skip poses you can’t or shouldn’t do, or try a modified version.

DO listen to your body. I must bore my students to tears with this one. It doesn’t matter how many times you have come to my class, or how well I have got to know you and your body – no one knows it better than you do, so please tune inwards and listen carefully to what it is saying to you. My cardinal rule is ‘NO PAIN’ so if you are getting close to that, rather back off and take a break.

DO create an intention before you start your practice. I often invite my students to do this, as I find that it can be helpful in giving one a point of focus. This might be to keep bringing your awareness to your breath, to practice ‘ahimsa’ (non-violence) or to focus on your alignment during the class. Or it could be more general – to become more aware and understanding, more loving and compassionate, or healthier, stronger, and more skillful. Or it might be for the benefit of a friend, a cause—or even yourself.

DO be quiet. It’s great to share a class with people you know, but it can be distracting to yourself and others to have an extended or loud conversation. And more often than not, people are coming to yoga specifically to tune out and experience some peace and quiet.  I feel this one is especially important after a class, when most students are feeling very peaceful and still after Savasana. It is respectful to give them the opportunity to carry this feeling away from the studio with them, rather than crashing back to earth by initiating a loud conversation directly after class.

DO bring a towel or your own mat if you sweat a lot, and arrive clean and free of scents that might distract or offend others.

DON’T push it. Instead of trying to go as deeply or completely into a pose as others might be able to do, do what you can without straining or injuring yourself. You’ll go farther faster if you take a loving attitude toward yourself and work from where you are, not from where you think you should be.

DO pick up and neatly put away any props you use, including rolling up and packing away your mat if you borrowed one.

DO take time afterwards to think about what you did in class, so you can retain what you learned. Review the poses you practiced, and note any instructions that particularly made sense. Even if you remember just one thing from each class, you’ll soon have a lot of information that can deepen your own personal practice.

DO take your shoes off outside the studio. Many yoga studios have a place for your shoes by the front door. Since people will be walking around the studio barefoot, it is most hygienic if everyone takes off their outdoor shoes first thing. And make sure you don’t walk over other people’s mats! And speaking of feet, it is considered polite to have clean ones.

DO turn off your phone.  Make a habit of doing this as soon as you get to the yoga studio. You will be quite embarrassed if your phone rings during class, or if an alarm sounds halfway through. If this happens (and it has happened to me), I advocate owning up and going to turn the thing off immediately, unless your teacher prefers that it just be ignored and let you know of their preference.

DO go to the loo during rest poses. It is fine to leave class for a few minutes to go to the bathroom: there is no need to ask the teacher’s permission. The best time to go is when there is a period of rest, either in Child’s Pose or Downward Dog. You will not earn your teacher’s respect if you routinely dodge out during difficult poses or skip part of Savasana.

DON’T skip Savasana!  Your final relaxation in Savasana is an important part of your practice. Don’t plan to leave class early – it can also be extremely disruptive to the other students.  If you must, tell the teacher in advance and take a short Savasana before you go. Don’t make a habit of this.

DO feel free to quietly ask your yoga teacher for help if you don’t have enough room to practice or if you are having trouble doing something. A quick mention to the teacher can be the difference between having a horrible time and being comfortable enough to focus on your practice.

DON’T compete! First and foremost yoga is non-competitive. This wonderful quality often attracts people from many levels to the same classroom. Nobody is watching or judging you. Progress is personal and more about being mindful than doing the best pose.

DO wear comfortable, form-fitting clothes—something that allows free movement of all joints without being too baggy.

DO remember to be present. Be patient. Keep your focus on your own mat and try not to be self-critical. Your body may feel different from day to day. That’s okay. You do not have to keep up with the class. Unlike aerobics and other exercise classes, nobody will blink an eye if you sit down on your mat and rest a bit. Again, yoga is non-competitive. Just listen to your body and respect that every step forward takes time.

DO smile! Yoga can simultaneously be serious and light-hearted. As you face small challenges, keep your energy in a positive place so the overall experience is fun and enriching.

DO keep yoga in your life, even when you’re not on the mat. It may soon become part of your daily philosophy of health and well-being. If you can’t make it to class, consider doing some asanas (yoga postures) at home or work to promote strength, flexibility and peace of mind. Hold good posture while sitting at your desk or driving the car. Focus on deep, conscious breathing to alleviate stress and refresh your brain.

Have I missed any? Let me know if you have any pet peeves or tips to add. It may just make me feel less intolerant!

Namaste.

A Weekend at Volmoed: Batteries recharged

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I have just returned from a blissful weekend break at a beautifully peaceful place called ‘Volmoed’ (meaning ‘Full of Courage’ in Afrikaans), and I can truly say I feel as if my batteries have been recharged!

Set in 130 hectares of fynbos in the Hemel-en Aarde Valley near Hermanus in the Western Cape, Volmoed is actually a Christian retreat, but it turns out that even yoga-freaks like me are welcome.  My sister (who accompanied me and is herself a Christian) found out about Volmoed when she went on a silent retreat there a while back, and when we discussed our burning desire to just take some time out after the madness of the festive season, she suggested that we go there.  My initial feeling was one of slight trepidation, thinking that perhaps it would be too ‘full on’ and that there would be a bunch of Bible-bashers waiting to pounce on me and beat me into submission until I burnt my yoga mat and conceded defeat.

As it turned out, it was nothing of the sort – just a truly peaceful venue for individuals from all walks of life, for retreats, for family holidays or even conferences.  It is silent, pristine, and has a very special energy about it, perhaps from all the people who go there to seek a bit of peace and downtime, and possibly to deepen their faith, whatever it may be. There is a lovely prayer hut up on a rocky buttress, there is a meditation grotto, and numerous other spots created specifically to invite one to take some time to just leave the hustle and bustle of daily life.

The thing that struck me most of all, upon reading some of the Christian meditations in the prayer hut in particular, was how clear it is that, whatever you call your faith, we are all looking for the same sort of thing – some sense of spiritual safety, belonging, meaning, protection, answers, explanations, acceptance, truth, a way forward.  My sister and I have had a long and interesting tug-of-war since she decided (whilst at University) to become a reborn Christian and I decided to rather (continue to) find my own way (our parents are deeply spiritual people who nevertheless are atheists, and felt strongly that they would not advocate any religion but rather leave us to make up our own minds when we were capable of doing so).  For a number of years, she was very sad for me that I didn’t see things the same way that she did (and I love her for that, because she has always just had my own best interests at heart) and I was deeply sceptical of the organised religion that she chose as her path. Perhaps it’s time that has mellowed us both, but we now are in a very comfortable place of mutual acceptance and respect – each to his own, with neither of us trying to proselytize to the other.

We were only there for two nights, but it felt like a week (and how I wish I could have stayed for at least two!). There were so many highlights: waking up early to do yoga on the lawn out the front of our cottage as the sun came up, and once again as the sun started to set and the sky was painted in beautiful shades of red, amber, orange, purple and blue; the peacock that came to visit us and eat our supply of muesli out of our hands; the huge troop of baboons that made their way past our cottage, scaring us half to death with their shrieking and squabbling; the 2 hour hike we did to the top of the mountain on the next door property, Camphill. The chance to catch up with my reading, to just spend time thinking, meditating in such a stunning environment, and of course catching up with my truly wonderful sister who has been around all my life and who I see regularly but now that children have come along, we somehow never seem to get more than a few snatched sentences between nappy changes and the inevitable chaos that surrounds small children. All in all, a magnificent and restorative weekend, hopefully to be repeated in the not-too-distant future.

About Volmoed (from the website www.volmoed.co.za): Tucked away in it’s own little valley within the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley lies a peaceful place called Volmoed. As the Onrust River makes it’s way from the heights of Babylon’s Toring through De Bos Dam it tumbles down into this little valley with a waterfall and lovely natural rock pool, setting the scene of tranquility and natural beauty that are the hallmarks of this Retreat and Conference Centre.

It all started in the early eighties when Bernhard and Jane Turkstra felt called to establish a place that would minister to people who felt shattered by their life’s experience. After sharing their vision and buoyed by the prayers of their supporters, they formed a Trust and moved onto the property in April 1986. The property has always been known as Volmoed (meaning full of courage and hope) and the previous owners asked that we please keep the name – and what more appropriate name for a place of healing and wholeness! The valley first came to prominence as a place of healing during the 18th century when a leper colony was established here, and more recently when Camphill (next door) opened its doors to the sufferers of Downes Syndrome.

Yoga being used in the Scottish Premier League?

I was fascinated to note that both the Glasgow Evening Times and the Belfast Telegraph have carried a story in the past 24 hours about yoga being the secret to the success of one of Celtic Football Club’s players in recent matches.

Celtic is a Scottish football club based in the Parkhead area of Glasgow, and currently plays in the Scottish Premier League. The club was established in 1887 and their home stadium, Celtic Park,  is the biggest football stadium in Scotland, with a capacity of 60,832.

How does a yoga teacher/infant massage instructor know all this stuff about footie, and Scottish football in particular? Because I have the dubious honour of being married to a Northern Irishman (The Band) who spent 10 years in Glasgow, and who has inherited his family’s passion for Celtic’s rival team, Rangers.

I have never been particularly interested in football, far preferring rugby (or watching paint dry) to the excrutiatingly bad acting that the players indulge in when they have an ankle tapped or a nudge in the ribs by an errant elbow. Okay, so it’s all about birthright, and I respect the fact that The Band is as passionate about his Rangers as I am about our Bokke. And over the years (and through The Band’s eyes), I have come to appreciate ‘The Beautiful Game’, especially after he took me to a few live matches while we lived in London. I have learnt to appreciate the skill, the history, the heritage, the rivalry, the incredibly sacred place that it holds in many people’s hearts. I still am dumbstruck by the mind-boggling amounts of money that change hands between clubs as players are bought and sold, and I simply loathe the thuggery, hooliganism, racism and (particularly in the Scottish Premier League) the sectarianism that is, sadly, so often associated with the game and its fans, but each to his own. I have learnt to bite my tongue.

‘The Old Firm’, as Celtic and Rangers are collectively known, is one of the most fierce and famous rivalries in sport, and the players are ‘lads’ lads’, to put it mildly. So imagine my surprise when I read that they are using yoga to help their game! I am loving the fact that I have a whole bunch of guys coming to my yoga classes at my studio in Stellenbosch – some real ‘manne’ – and that perhaps, slowly, it is coming to be more accepted and accessible to our hairy brothers, but to hear that it is being a) used and b) publicised at this high level of professional sport is really quite exciting to me.

According to one article, Celtic’s goalkeeper Fraser Forster has attributed his fine form in Celtic’s 11-match unbeaten run to yoga. Forster made a vital penalty save in December during a match against Hearts (another Scottish team), and he reckons it’s all thanks to yoga.  His goalkeeper coach, Steve Woods, has been punting the benefits of the practice, and Forster comments: “I think the lads who have done it have really felt the benefits from it. Yoga has really caught on in recent years, especially goalkeeping-wise. Brad Friedel does a lot of it and he’s still playing in his 40s. Shay Given does it quite a lot too and he’s in great shape at 35″.

Besides the fact that I feel disgruntled by his apparent surprise that someone aged 35 can be in great shape, I find it very interesting that even in this testosterone-fuelled, competitive environment, the benefits of this age-old practice are being felt. Forster goes on to say: “It’s just a case of improving your flexibility and it’s brilliant for a goalkeeper. Stretching that extra inch might make a big difference. It’s something I find beneficial and I enjoy it.”

I would be intrigued as to whether the ‘yoga’ that he refers to is classical yoga, incorporating not just the asanas (physical practice) but also pranayama (breathing) and meditation/relaxation – focusing on the whole mind-body connection rather than just the stretching/lengthening and strengthening (which is really just that – a stretching/strengthening practice, not yoga at all). Somehow I doubt it, but I would love to be proven wrong.

Whatever ‘yoga’ they are tapping into, I can safely say that I know The Band wishes that they had never heard of it, or anything else that improves their performance. For the sake of his happiness (and, as such, my own), I hope that Glasgow Rangers also cotton onto it sooner rather than later, and can start winning some matches again quick-smart!

Read the full article here: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/sport/football/scottish/yoga-is-secret-to-forsterrsquos-top-form-with-celtic-16105247.html

Topless Swimming: A truly uplifting experience

Being 38 years of age and having breastfed two children, suffice it to say that my previously perky and proud breasts are, sadly, no longer quite the upstanding citizens that they used to be. Don’t get me wrong: all is not lost and I can certainly hold my own in a plunging neckline, should this be required. But there have been changes. This in itself doesn’t particularly bother me, as I firmly (no pun intended) believe that paying for a good bra, one that is supportive whilst remaining pretty, sexy, lacy, feminine or all of the above, is one of those necessary evils and fortunately can hide a multitude of sins. I am aware, however, of time taking its toll and am observing with quizzical interest how my body has changed over time.

Many of my friends are in a similar boat, and one (who shall remain anonymous, for obvious reasons) morosely described her boobs as ‘’n lang haas wat langs my op die bed le**’ after a few glasses of Chardonnay with the girls one evening.  As such, it’s probably not such a surprise that the issue of boob lifts / enhancements has raised its head in recent times. A few of my friends have had work done already, some are toying with the idea, some are vehemently opposed to it and some are saving up for their second time on the slate, so thrilled have they been with the results the first time around.  I am somewhere in the middle: at this moment in time, I don’t feel any burning desire to get myself pumped up, tightened, lifted or otherwise enhanced, and in principle I embrace the concept of ‘growing older gracefully’ and learning to live with one’s body as it changes over time, rather than doing something as drastic as going under the knife. That said, I reserve the right to change my mind at any point (and certainly, as time marches on and my bra size keeps going down, I fiercely defend that right).

What intrigues me is why so many women feel that they need to do something about the subtle but insidious southward slide of their breasts.  Is it a completely personal issue, or does it have more to do with the relentless pressure in our modern day lives to look eternally youthful? Is it to do with keeping our men happy and close to our sides? I have another friend (who shall also remain anonymous) who mentioned to her husband that she was considering having a breast lift done. His response: ‘Where is the benefit in that for me?’ He feels that a lift is pretty much pointless (sorry), and would much prefer a full-blown enlargement, both to justify the not-insubstantial cost as well as to know that he was also going to get something out of the whole thing. It made both my friend and I shriek with mirth at how her boobs had somehow become shared property – that rather than making a decision for herself to have an operation on her own body, paid for with her own hard-earned money, it also had to have a tangible – literally – ‘benefit’ for the spouse.

Now, back to topless swimming. Today was one of the hottest days this summer. At midday, my car thermometer read 43⁰ Celsius, and it was parked in the shade. This is hot. So hot, in fact, that when I dived headfirst into the pool in the late afternoon, it even felt too warm to wear my bikini top. Fortunately our garden is beautifully secluded and no one can see in from the street, so I did my 100 lengths sans bikini top. That in itself was a glorious, unrestricted and liberating feeling. But it got better. Way better. As I rested in the deep end after my swim, with my elbows supported by the pool edge and just my head and shoulders sticking out above the water, I happened to look down at my submerged body. ‘Halleluja’ is all that I can say. We all know about water’s ability to defy gravity. I have subsequently found out that there is an actual physical principle describing this very phenomenon. It is called Archimedes’ principle and is stated thus: “Any object, wholly or partially immersed in a fluid, is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the object”. And let me tell you what: it works with boobs too! Miraculously, I was restored to my former glory, resembling myself back in my early twenties, and was quite giddy with delight at finding myself buoyed both physically and emotionally by the kind, gentle water in our pool.

In a way, it was a dangerous discovery because it absolutely made me see how much room for improvement there is in my chest department. But for now, I am perfectly content to just whip off my top and go and loll about in the deep end should I ever feel the need for a fleeting moment of feeling pert and completely supported by the elements of nature.

At the end of the day, I believe in women having the right to make their own choices, particularly when it comes to their own bodies, and I genuinely support (oh dear, how do these tired puns keep creeping in here?) anyone who does something that boosts their confidence and makes them feel better about themselves, whether it’s having highlights put in their hair, their nails manicured, running a marathon, going on a shopping spree, a yoga retreat, whatever floats their boat, as long as no-one is getting hurt.

And when I look at my two precious children, I don’t regret a single cup size that’s disappeared as a result of their appearance.

** Roughly translated from Afrikaans: ‘a long rabbit lying on the bed next to me’.

Reaction to William J. Broad’s recent article in the New York Times

There has been such a furore over William J. Broad’s recent article in the New York Times titled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” (an excerpt from his book “The Science of Yoga” (subtitle: “The Risks and the Rewards”) and I’ve found it quite entertaining to watch the to-ing and fro-ing with everyone jumping up and down and getting their wee in a froth about how ‘dangerous’ yoga actually may be, yoga devotees leaping to defend the ancient philosophy, couch potatoes cheering and throwing their chips and soda into the air to celebrate what they always knew: that being sedentary is the safest option after all.

The thing about Broad’s article is that he is speaking very much about injuries that happen to people with super-rigorous practices, at one point referring to a man who would “sit upright on his heels in a kneeling position known as vajrasana for hours a day, chanting for world peace.” Not really a moderate practice then, and does make me think about that age-old adage about ‘everything in moderation’, for there seems to be no denying that anything done to such an extreme has the potential to do serious harm.

Nonetheless, it has been a real eye-opener in terms of condensing the whole piece down to what I understand to be one of the most vital points in teaching yoga: teaching your students to listen to their body, to not do anything that hurts, to lose competitiveness and stop comparing themselves to others in the class, and to keep practicing ‘ahimsa’ or non-violence towards not just the world in general but specifically to themselves, the first point of the first yama in the  classical eightfold path. Thanks to my teacher Anne Combrink at Ananda Sanga, I already had this message instilled in my mind and can almost hear her voice inside my head, repeating this message over and over, yet all this excitement about Broad’s article has brought it home even clearer. My students this week must be bored to tears of hearing me saying over and over ‘listen to your body’ but rather that than them feeling they have to follow every instruction I give, regardless of how it makes them feel.

yoga

To read the original article in the New York Times, follow this link: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/magazine/how-yoga-can-wreck-your-body.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

Yoga as treatment for colic?

Another really interesting article just caught my eye.  Titled ‘Yoga as treatment for colic?’ (by Claudia M. Gold, writing for the Boston Globe), it looks at  the benefits of yoga for the mum, not the baby, talking specifically about the importance of emotional regulation for stressed parents. I’ve always been very interested in the phenomenon of postnatal depression, having wrestled with something similar after the birth of my first child, and also having been blown away by how many of the mums who attend my baby massage courses struggle with it. For this reason, this article was of particular interest to me. It’s late and I have to get up early to teach a 6.30am class tomorrow morning, so I am going to be lazy and just copy and paste the original article below rather than paraphrasing and discussing. My bed is calling…

Just to clarify, I mean yoga for mom, not baby. In my book, Keeping Your Child in Mind, I tell a story of a mom who was struggling with both postpartum depression and a “colicky” baby. After one visit with me, she decided to take a yoga class rather than see a therapist. At a follow-up visit a couple of weeks later, their relationship seemed totally transformed. The baby smiled at her as she joyfully told me that she felt like he “had just been born.” I attributed much of the transformation to having a chance to be heard both by me and by her husband. I wonder if, in fact, the yoga had an important role to play. I’ve been thinking about recommending yoga as part of treatment both for colic and postpartum depression, two problems which often go together.

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Suzanne Zeedyk, a developmental psychologist in Scotland who is kind of my counterpart in the UK. She is trying to address a large audience regarding the implications of the explosion of research and knowledge at the interface of neuroscience and developmental psychology. She’s had quite a bit of success-of course its different because Scotland is a small place that has socialized medicine. The departments of education, health care and finance all seem to be listening to her. She has even gotten the cooperation of law enforcement in understanding the connection between violence prevention and supporting early-parent child relationships. In a piece from an early education blog : Early Years the Key to Reducing Violence, a detective talks about how the “Violence Reduction Unit” is supporting early years initiatives and work with parents.

So what does this have to do with yoga? Earlier this week Suzanne sent me a link to a post she had written about the importance of emotional regulation for stressed parents. She asks the question: “Is there a child protection agency out there that includes yoga as a mandatory element of their parenting programmes?” She describes the multiple demands on mothers whose children are in foster care, mothers who themselves often have a history of trauma, with nothing being offered to support their efforts at emotional regulation. But, she wisely points out, emotional regulation is perhaps the most important and most difficult task for a mother. It is through self-regulation that a parent teaches this essential skill to a child. She says:

In other words, children’s brains and bodies can only learn what self-comfort and containment feel like when they have first experienced comfort and containment in the arms of a trusted adult. If the brain does not have the opportunity to know this state, then it will not build the synaptic connections that are able to easily facilitate emotional regulation, later on in life. If a child does not have such neural pathways in place within the first few years of his/her life, then the battle to gain control of intense feelings may forever be a losing one.

A child and mother in the child protective services system is an extreme example. But when a baby has colic, or a mother is depressed, or both, this task of emotional regulation, of staying calm in the face of your child’s distress, is very challenging. Perhaps yoga should also be a routine intervention in this situation.

By coincidence, I had just come back from a yoga class when I read her post. My teacher, who is now pregnant herself with her second child, teaches a yoga class for pregnant moms (this is also a great idea, especially given what we are learning about the effects of stress during pregnancy on fetal development.) She then offers these moms the chance to come to her class after the baby is born. So while doing my down-dogs I listened to a cooing baby, who looked to be about 3 months old. He happily kicked his legs while he intently watched his mother. Interestingly, whenever her head was down ( they were right in front of me so I could easily observe, and as those who read my blog know, I am a professional baby observer!)) his cooing reached a crescendo. Then when she looked up and smiled at him he became quiet and gleefully smiled back- a great example of a young infant’s terrific communication skills!!

Of course yoga is not for everyone, and yoga classes are extraordinarily variable. The point is that moms, particularly under the stress of colic and/or postpartum depression, need help with their own emotional regulation. Using the body to help the brain, through yoga, martial arts, swimming or even simply walking can be an important intervention that is good for the whole family!

‘Sitting with Depression’ and an enlightening visit to the doctor

Following on from my Bah-humbug post, I may as well confess that the ‘joys’ of the festive season got on top of me so much (or rather, I allowed them to) that I ended up going to see a doctor, thinking that something dreadful must be wrong with me, seeing as I was the only ‘drol in the drinkwater’ ** and everyone else seemed to be having such a ball. He was very professional, asked a lot of questions, and eventually diagnosed me with stress. With all due respect, this wasn’t particularly helpful since that was the reason I was there in the first place, and also since when he posed the simple question, ‘How are your stress levels at the moment?’, my reply was ‘Through the *&%$*^& roof’ (to quote my dear friend Nicole).

Nonetheless, during his line of questioning, specifically about my history, I told him that I had had a pretty nasty and traumatic experience when I was in my teens, and that it had crossed my mind that perhaps this was rearing its ugly head (even though I was pretty confident that I had long since processed the whole thing and moved on). His advice was clear cut: Do Not Think About That Stuff. Ever. And he used the analogy of a drawer (actually pulling his drawer out from his desk to demonstrate, in case I didn’t quite get the analogy) that you can pack all this ‘stuff’ into and then firmly, decisively, push it shut again. You know that the ‘stuff’ is in there, but God help me, you do not look at it again. Just in case I hadn’t cottoned on to his theory, he then used the analogy of having a beloved dog that dies. He said that yes, you will be sad that the dog has died, but that you make a point of not thinking about the dead dog because you know it will make you sad.

At the time, I remember feeling something almost physical, like a switch that went in my head, where I realised that him and I have clearly different approaches, live on different planets and have totally different world views. I took it all in, gave him the benefit of the doubt and didn’t express my disagreement with him, but I definitely was thinking ‘hmmm, he clearly has some Stuff that he is too terrified to even look at’, whilst thinking about what Freud called the “return of the repressed” – the result of ignoring the shadow side of our personalities. I majored in psychology at university and admittedly only learnt enough to make me dangerous when it comes to having opinions in the field, however I do believe that by simply refusing to deal with, or acknowledge, any issues or traumas or whatever it may be, you run the risk of setting yourself up for trouble and discontentment further down the line, when these unresolved issues come bubbling to the surface. But that’s just me.

So, it was with great interest that I read an article in Yoga Journal a few days ago, touching on exactly this subject.

Mark Epstein is an author and psychiatrist in New York and has been a student of Buddhist meditation for 25 years. He describes himself as a ‘therapist influenced by the wisdom of the East’ and he recently wrote an article in Yoga Journal titled ‘Sitting with Depression’. The tagline is ‘Depressed people think they know themselves, but maybe they only know depression.’ This was enough to make me read on since the Black Dog (as Winston Churchill called his own depression) has hounded a few of my nearest and dearest in recent times, however as I read on I was intrigued to find that he, in a much more palatable manner, seemed to echo what my doctor was trying to say.  It also brought to mind a quote by Mark Twain that I have always loved: ‘Drag your thoughts away from your troubles…by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it.’

He talks about the merits of attempting to disentangle oneself from one’s problems, rather than going more deeply into them, and he expresses his confidence that ‘there is another direction in which to move in such situations: away from the problems and into the unknown. If we stay with the fear this often induces, we have a special opportunity to see our own egos at work, defending against the unknown while hiding out in the very problems we claim to want freedom from. Buddhism is very clear about how important it is to move in such a direction.’

It has been extremely thought-provoking for me to hear two clearly well-read and qualified therapists saying more or less the same thing within a two week period, and flies in the face of everything that I have thought for a long time. It’s not that I am a navel-gazer who gets enjoyment from obsessing about myself and my Problems (who doesn’t have them? Problems, that is, not navels), it’s just that I have always felt that it may be healthier to face up to them and deal with them directly and not pretend that they don’t exist. Now, I am revising my opinion. And as with everything in yoga, thinking that it’s surely all about balance.

It’s funny, ever since all our house guests have left and I have my home and my children to myself again, my stress levels have plummeted and I am more content and ‘chilled’ than I’ve been in a while, so there probably was no need to have gone to see that doctor in the first place.  That said, I’m really glad that I did as it has given me a whole new perspective on how to go about working with oneself and any issues that one may be carrying. To end with one of those dreadfully tacky quotes (which I secretly quite like): ‘Don’t look backwards. That’s not the way you’re going’.

For anyone who is interested in the full article (which is really worth a read), you can find it at http://www.yogajournal.com/practice/137.

** Afrikaans idiom meaning ‘the dung in the drinking water/town well’.