“How do I know when I’m getting better at yoga?”

This is something that I am asked fairly regularly by people that come to my little Stellenbosch yoga studio. Another question is: ‘How often should I practice ideally, in order to get the maximum benefits?’

There is no one or simple answer to either of those questions, and they are both worth asking. At the risk of being one of those annoying people who doesn’t give a straight answer but rather launches into a long-winded anecdote, allow me to tell you a quick little story…

I took a few days off work (my day job, not teaching) this week so I could go with my family to the gorgeous coastal town of Hermanus for a short break. It was such a treat to give my kids the undivided attention that they deserve and thrive upon, and I specifically didn’t take my laptop with me because I felt I needed to switch off and relax and recharge after a couple of pressurised weeks in the office . I was introduced to a lovely little studio in Hermanus called Yoga Heart by my dear friend and fellow teacher Leli Hoch a few years back and whenever I am nearby, I make a point of dropping in for a class. So, I was extremely excited about fitting in a ‘still’ class yesterday morning, at 10.30am on Wednesday. I elected to walk along the magical cliff path, my favourite thing about the town, rather than drive, and ended up hopelessly underestimating how long it would take me to get to the studio – I would have been almost half an hour late.

And this is where the answer to the above question started becoming clear: although I was initially annoyed with myself – really pissed off actually – at having got my planning so badly wrong, swiftly followed by a real sense of disappointment at the fact that I was going to miss my class that I had looked forward to for a while, both those feelings were gently wiped away by a real, deep-seated sense of ‘oh well, that clearly wasn’t meant to be; I guess that means I’m supposed to be doing something else then’. And to cut a long story short, I ended up finding a lovely secluded bench along the path where I rolled out my mat and did some fabulous breath work and meditation instead.

It was one of those really lovely moments where I really, genuinely felt that I have made progress in my yoga practice. At a time that I’ve been pulled away from my mat a lot, what with work pressures and family commitments, and through which I’ve been aware of a little voice in the back of my mind nattering on about how long it’s been since I tried out a new arm balance, for example, or why I haven’t taught a workshop for a while, or why I’m not meditating for as long as I would like to each day, it was almost a relief that find that I actually have come to a place – after all these years of practicing yoga – where I am finding a growing flexibility. And I’m referring to a flexibility in my mind and heart, rather than my body.

I am a bit of a control freak. I like things to work out, especially when I have taken time to plan well. I have often felt that people who say ‘it wasn’t meant to be’ are subtly making excuses for not having got out of bed early enough or who are just sugar-coating real disappointments because that’s what they think that they should do or say. And sometimes I need to think carefully when I find myself saying yogic cliches, like ‘everything happens for a reason’ (I say that a lot) as to whether I really think that or if it’s just another platitude. So, it was a wonderful, liberating, uplifting and reassuring feeling to find that I really didn’t mind missing the class after all. And that I didn’t beat myself up about not making the class. And that I really, genuinely, felt in my heart of hearts that I was supposed to be on the cliff path on my own rather than in a studio with a bunch of other people.

So, I guess the short answer to the question is you know you’re getting better at yoga when not just your body but your mind starts showing distinct signs of increased flexibility. The ability to go with the flow. When you find that you are having a real shift away from the negative ways and thoughts and habits that hold you back and keep you trapped. They can be big or small. They can change. I’ve been practicing yoga for almost twenty years and this is the first time I’ve really felt this particular shift. Made the entire trip to Hermanus worthwhile.

As for the question about the ideal amount that one should practice, I’ve always said that it’s whatever you can manage. Some folk say you should aim for at least 2 classes a week… I say that there’s no point in stressing yourself about getting to a class if it’s not working in your life. Do as much as you can, but by that I don’t mean as many classes a week as you can: just do whatever you can – even 5 minutes a day is good (my go-to home pose is Cat Cow) so that it’s a pleasure in your life and not a chore. If it works for you, you will probably find that you start gravitating towards making more time for yoga in your life. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t force it – but that’s probably a good indicator that there’s something that you may want to have a little look at, to figure out why there is resistance towards getting on your mat. We all have it sometimes. Nothing to freak out about, just a little flag that pokes up and says ‘hey, you may want take a deeper look at this’…

More about that in my next post!

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Life Lessons Learned from Riding a Bike

I’m busy going through the wonderful, if harrowing, rite of passage of starting to teach my 4 year-old how to ride a proper bicycle. Harrowing for me, that is – he is as fearless and plucky as can be. I have it on good advice from my sister (mum of 4 and, along with my BFF Cath – another mum of 4 – my go-to person in most questions in the child-rearing department) that the 2 or so years he’s spent on his ‘balance bike’ (otherwise known as a JD Bug, or a ‘Lady Bike’ as my Danny fondly and misguidedly refers to it) will ensure a smooth and painless transition to a proper bike, and that the stabilisers / training wheels supplied with the bike are wholly unnecessary and will in fact have the undesired effect of making him question his balance and start to rely on them instead. We’re both willing to try this theory out and so far so good, in that I’m spending long afternoons running up and down the driveway and path outside our house, hanging onto the saddle while I push him along, his little legs pumping up and down like pistons but not doing very much in terms of actually propelling him forward. I’m getting fit, he’s having a ball, and I’m confident that it’s just a matter of time before he gets the hang of it.

This whole experience has made me think about some very simple similarities between riding a bike and living a happy life. Indulge me, if you will, this is hardly rocket science.

You need to have a good idea about where you’re going, and you need to keep your eyes on the road, but at the same time you’ve got to expect, and be prepared for, obstacles to crop up when you least expect, want or need them to.

When they do, inevitably, occur, it seems that there are two ways of dealing with them. One is to tighten your grip on the handlebars, squeeze your face into a tight ball, hold your breath, speed up and try to blast through whatever is in your way. You may get through to the other side but you may well get hurt, and it’s not going to be much fun. The other is to loosen your grip slightly, slow down, take a few deep breaths, and have a good look for detours or ways around the blockage. Maybe even stop and take stock for a while. Perhaps put your bike down, lie back against a tree and listen to the birds for a while. Maybe go back to where you came from and try again from a slightly different angle. But go easy and go gentle.

I guess it’s all about not being too hell-bent on staying on a chosen course, but being prepared for things to change along the way, and finding a way to adapt so that you still get to your destination. Or choosing a new destination altogether.

Balance is an obvious one that is hugely beneficial. Not going too far one way or the other, but finding a middle ground that works for you. Or even if you’re not a middle ground kind of person, at least knowing where it is so you can get back to it if you need to.

The ability to recover, to dust yourself off and get back in the saddle if you hit a tree. As many times as necessary. Although if it’s the same tree you keep hitting, maybe it’s time to take a good long look at the path you’ve chosen and trying to figure out why you keep making the same mistake over and over.

It all makes me realise how this parenting thing is just so much more complex than going through the motions of getting the kids to eat, drink, brush teeth, bath, ride a bike, walk, talk etc but that ultimately you are their role model for much more important lessons. It simultaneously terrifies me and thrills me. The pressure! – especially when I am still learning so many lessons myself each day and have a semi-infinite number more to learn. And then I remind myself to loosen my grip slightly, show a little more flexibility, and instead of focusing solely on the destination, to live in the moment and enjoy the beautiful ride.

My Highlight of 2012: a 5 day Silent Retreat at Bodhi Khaya

I was fortunate enough to secure a last-minute space on the long-weekend silent retreat that Sue Cooper facilitated at the beautiful Bodhi Khaya in the run-up to Christmas, and it has got to rank up there as my number one experience of last year.

2012 was a year of huge change and upheaval for me, on many different levels, what with moving house twice, the loss of my very precious Granny, and a number of other personal challenges. So when I read about this retreat, entitled ‘Finding Balance in the Midst of Change’, I leapt at the opportunity to attend – even though it was just a week before it was due to run. Sue very gently let me know that it had been booked out for months already, but assured me that she’d get in touch if there was a cancellation. I can’t recall the last time I put as much energy into willing something to happen as I did that week, and with just days to go, I got the beautiful phone call to tell me that there had indeed been a cancellation, and I’d better pack my bags.

I’ve attended a semi-silent retreat before, with Cheryl Lancellas of SA Yoga Safaris at the Blue Butterfly Resort in Tulbagh (with my yoga besties, Nicole Shea and Leli Hoch) but never anything as intense as this promised to be, so there was an element of apprehension as the time drew closer, however this was replaced by a huge sense of relief, gratitude and curiosity as the day dawned. As I took the turn-off to Bodhi Khaya, between Gansbaai and Stanford, it struck me that this was exactly the road on which our very special family friends, the Harrods, used to own a farm called Grootbos (next door to what is now a game reserve by the same name), and as I drove into the actual gates of Bodhi Khaya, I realised that this was, indeed, the farm that the Harrods had owned a number of years back. It was an emotional realisation and led to an overwhelming feeling of coming home, of belonging, of being safe, and of being exactly where I was supposed to be. The last time I’d been on the farm was around 1998 or 1999, just before I left to go to London, and yet it felt like yesterday. At the time, I was in the process of getting over a very painful breakup, and I remember how the peace, quiet and beauty of the farm and its surrounds were like a balm to my raw emotions. And here I was again, feeling decidedly delicate, and once again almost felt that my breath was taken away by the natural beauty of the place.

The retreat was the most amazing, uplifting, healing and enlightening experience that I have ever had. The silence was simultaneously challenging and beautiful, and I honestly have never been in a place that appealed to my senses on so many levels and in such an intense manner. The crisp white bed linen, the green of the trees, the flavours and textures of the exquisite food that we were presented with each day, the blue of the sky, the silky feeling of the water in the two mountain ponds, the pinks of the water lilies, the breeze on my skin as we did Chi Kung under the swaying trees, the smell of the incense as we sat down to each of the many meditation sessions that took place each day, the sensation of the grass crunching underfoot as I walked to the horses’ paddock and the roughness of the path as I walked the labyrinth, the feeling of my yoga mat underfoot as I practiced every day, the sound of the chickens clucking as I lay on my back looking up at the clouds in the day and the sound of the night jars as I lay on my back looking up at the stars at night.. perhaps it was the silence that seemed to enhance everything about the long weekend. Whatever the reason, it was a tonic and a privilege to experience.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, of course – being alone with one’s self for such an extended period of time, and without all the usual distractions, means that you have no choice but to sit down with all the different emotions and issues that may arise, look them squarely in the eye, and figure out how it is that you are going to move forward embracing these things rather than trying to push them out of the way or pretend that they don’t exist. It was a safe and nurturing environment in which to do this, and I came away from it with a deep sense of peace and acceptance, as well as forgiveness – for others that I may have been harbouring anger and resentment towards for a long time, but specifically forgiveness for myself, for all the ‘wrong’ decisions and actions that I may have made and done in the past, and that I’m no doubt still going to make and do in the future. The theme may have been ‘finding balance in the midst of change’ but one of the biggest things that I got out of it was a rediscovery of what it feels like to be kind and compassionate towards myself. Sue, wonderful Sue, refers to ‘holding oneself in an embrace of compassionate awareness’, and this is something that I have carried with me every day since I got back.

On the last day, when we were permitted to talk again, I found that I just wasn’t ready for it. The chat seemed so noisy, so superficial, so intrusive. It took me a number of hours before I felt that I was ready to re-enter the ‘normal’ world, and to leave the magical playground of Bodhi Khaya / Grootbos behind, but of course life doesn’t stop – even though it did feel like a period of suspended reality – and now the on-going challenge is to attempt to maintain the same level of awareness, consciousness and mindfulness as I walk through my regular life. I have already signed up to go to Sue’s next silent retreat in the run-up to Christmas this year, and I cannot wait!