The middle way
Keeping things real with yoga. By Meg Jackson
Up until yesterday you’d have thought I had the best fingernails ever to grace a yoga mat. They were painted beautifully, shapely and smooth, with cuticles smoother than an Ashtangi’s Chaturanga transitions. They were always just the right length – long enough to make a satisfying click on my laptop keyboard, but not so perilously pointy I’d puncture a student mid Downward Dog adjustment.
They were fake. Looking at my paws now, you’d think I’d been given a manicure by Edward Scissorhands. They’re so stumpy it looks like I’ve been munching on them for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the last three years. Their surface is rutted, scratched, uneven and stained. Thanks to having been suffocated by their acrylic masks over the last 12 months they’re as strong as a bit of wet tissue paper.
But I loved how they made me feel. There was something about having flashy fingers which made me feel like I’d got it together; that I was just the right amount of glamorous combined with taking good care of myself. As if having terrific talons showed the world that I had it all under control; that my real life was as manicured, curated, and controlled as the ends of my fingers.
So here I am – showing my stumpy little digits as God made them. And I guess I could be over-complicating my addiction to that Shellac-induced-high, but it has made me think about what else is going on in my life that actually isn’t as I want the rest of the world to see.
The truth is that my real fingernails are bearing the brunt of all the things I’ve been doing to portray something that just isn’t real. But if I give them a chance to breathe and grow and get strong, they’re going to be just fine. This healing can only start when I stop pretending and allow myself to get real; and that takes courage.
We’re taught when we’re on our yoga mats that the practices are there to fundamentally change the relationship we have with ourselves and the world around us. Challenging our bodies with asana, and our minds with meditation, allows us to start removing the barriers we’ve put up to stop us connecting with that core of awesomeness which is at the centre of ourselves and everyone else.
Yoga is trying to teach us that we spend so much time worrying about the stuff that people see from the outside, that we’ve forgotten that true connections in life happen when stuff gets real.
We’re eyeball-deep in a culture that screams at us every day that we should only be presenting the best version of ourselves to the outside world, regardless of how we’re feeling on the inside. That we should count our worth in the number of vacuous, meaningless clicks on a social media post; the digits in our bank account; or the words in our job title.
Let’s not think that the yoga world is blameless either. You don’t have to look too far to think that your worth as a yoga student (or teacher) is based on the length of your hamstrings, the depth of your back-bend, how many days in a row you’ve meditated, and how much of the Bhagavad Gita you can rattle off at the end of Savasana.
I know that for me to have a long-term relationship with yoga, I need to bring it into my real life. That means using the insights the teachings and practices it gives me to take a long hard look at the way I’m living and the patterns I’m falling into, but at the same time remembering that living my yoga isn’t the same as you living your yoga, or Bendy ‘oooh look there goes my leg behind my head again’ Wendy’s version of living her yoga.
It takes bravery to step up and step out and get real. Whether you’re feeling like a fake because you only go to one yoga class a week; maybe you’re pretty sure your hands are never going to get acquainted with your feet; or in the time between being on your mat you get jealous of people on Instagram/eat meat/binge-watch ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’, know that yoga doesn’t care.
Yoga cares that you are kind to yourself whenever you remember to be. It cares that you get on your mat when you can, and work with your body and mind with compassion and gentle focus. Your practices are there, waiting for you, to help you remember that you contain the same spark as that which brought this whole crazy world we’re living on into existence.
So you can’t get on your mat for an hour’s practice every day? So what? Our asana practice is there for our body and breath to get connected, and to give us the opportunity to move our muscles and focus our attention. Why not go out and do that on a run, or take a lunchtime walk, or just pause and stretch and breathe when you’re waiting for the kettle to boil.
Think that seething with rage as the pointy woman pushes in front of you in the supermarket queue makes you less of a yogi? Nope. It makes you human. Next time you’ve got nothing to do, delve into Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It was written thousands of years ago, but the human conditions it talks about are exactly the same as ours today. Use what your asana practice has taught you – that all feelings pass, and that there’s a space between feeling something and reacting to it during which you can make a choice.
Take great delight in pouring yourself a large glass of something boozy at the end of a hard day, but think that means you can never show your face in class again? First of all, most of your students (and possibly your teacher) are probably doing exactly the same. Of course, if you’ve got a serious problem with how you use alcohol (or any substance) in your life then get really real and find the support you need to deal with it.
If it’s a happy habit, first of all be clear about why you’re doing it and if it’s genuinely because it enhances your enjoyment of a lovely meal, the comfort of your sofa, or the conversation with joyous friends, delight in and savour every sip. Before you start you can give a little mental ‘thank you’ to the humans who made it, the ingredients used in it, and the fact that you’ve got the opportunity to enjoy it.
Yoga is an amazing, world-altering, life-enhancing way of living our life. But at the same time, it’s all too easy to get so absorbed in it, we lose sight of the fact that, for most of us, we’re still living in the real world too. Of course, if we want to feel the mind-blowing, five-star, enlightenment-here-we-come experience that yoga has the potential to be, then we have to decide how much of our real life we’re willing to sacrifice.
But I believe there’s a middle path. For those of us on it, our journey is of no less worth or wonderfulness than those who have taken a different approach. Our path is our path, and there should be no reason for us to be trying to convince ourselves (or anyone else for that matter) that we’re someone or something we’re not. The growth and development of a daisy is just as beautiful, mind-boggling, and beneficial to the world as that of an orchid.
Whatever flower you choose to be, be a real one. You’ll smell nicer, for a start.
Meg Jackson is the founder of Real Life Yoga – a movement to help real people bring a little (or a lot) of yoga into their real lives. Join her online for a 28-day yoga journey and go from Zero to Yoga Hero. Visit reallifeyoga.net to discover more and sign up.