Jackie Heffer-Cooke was a stressed-out TV executive… until she discovered yoga. Here she tells her story
I am a former adrenaline junkie. For 14 years I worked as a TV producer and executive for the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, working hard and partying harder. When I broke from stress in 2003 it shouldn’t really have come as a surprise.
I developed insomnia in 2001, and the loops of endless repetitive thoughts was debilitating. The problem was I had no tools to deal with it; my nutrition was bad, I relied on crutches of wine and cigarettes, and I felt disconnected to everyone, including myself.
Luckily, I was in a position where in 2003 I could hand in my notice and travel to Asia to live for a year for some kind of recovery.
Yoga voyeurism came first. I spent hours watching others, from all cultures, meditate and move in asana, but it felt totally unavailable to me. I was a white, Western, 31-year-old TV executive. I wasn’t fit, or subtle, or bendy, or able to still my mind. Yet, I was drawn to it, something deep inside needed to pull me in.
It was after I had my first baby in 2005 that I first truly understood what it means to yoke. That truly empowering, full, complete, raw experience of birth ‘woke me up’. That’s why I train others now in pregnancy yoga and hypnobirthing. Labour is a primal experience, it introduces us to the idea there is a force bigger than us, yet completely within us. This experience, as it would, led to a deeper spiritual interest in what it means ‘to yoke’ and how comforting that is, in all aspects of life.
We know yoga is great on a biological level, breathwork, exercise and yoga nidra combats stress by keeping us in the parasympathetic nervous system, the system with all the good hormones and healthy physiology. We also know it is fabulous at reassuring our body through the proprioceptive system, that’s why downward dog feels so good! The extremities of the proprioceptive, the hands, the feet, the head, love reassurance through the connection to the ground, and the joints of the body like to know where they are in space, which stabilises the left and right brain into the here and now and calms the nervous system.
If we accept the eight limbs of yoga and if we really choose to live in accordance with the yamas and niyamas, then necessarily life will get easier.
The yamas are a way of living that removes conflict by their very nature. As we self-study and observe our behaviours through niyama, we recognise what is true and what is needed from our personality to enable clarity of mind. Asana trains and challenges us how to be in discomfort, how to ride, relax and dissolve tension, how to be resilient. It also gets our body ready and strong enough to be still ready for meditation. Pranayama – recognising the life force inside, and around us. Using breathwork for clarity, cleansing, burning away what isn’t of service and receiving all that is. Then pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses. This is where the real connecting work begins.
Then we come to the concentration and meditation. The true purpose of yoga as a route to yoke to all of energy and the stilling of the mind. When we recognise this flowing perfection of energy, within us, without us, expanding and whole, stress shifts away, without force, as we tune in with practice, to the higher levels of consciousness itself. That which means we are never alone.
The route isn’t always easy. We fall off, we get back on, we get bored and stagnant, we get over competitive and addicted, we may receive injury if we push too hard, we may need to dig deep into healing where we hurt. But wow is the journey worth it. And along the way you recognise all the islands of yourself; you respect them, care for them, bow to them, know which ones you want to visit, and which ones you at last can let go of and leave behind. Then, you just keep adjusting the sails, turn your face towards the sun, and move forwards step by step into the warmth of the light.
My work now, is to help others to experience this wholeness, whether they want to be a teacher to others, or to just realise this depth of meaning for themselves. The practice of yoga, the commitment to a yoga teacher training course, the experience of satsang with a swami, yoga itself, is not simply a stress buster, it is a life changer. Yoga v stress? Once you experience the yoke, stress doesn’t stand a chance.
Jackie Heffer-Cooke is a retreat leader and 200-hour yoga teacher trainer with freedomyogaandretreats.com. Training starts January 2022. Contact her at email@example.com. She also trains in pregnancy, baby, kids yoga and hypnobirthing with ZenMuma.co.uk.