Unlike those who think resolutions are a waste of time, I have been guilty of (sometimes masochistically) engaging in this annual ritual. Needless to say I have often fallen into the pits of despair and self-loathing which fellow resolutionists have been known to plummet… but I have picked myself up afterwards, and fallen back, into the bittersweet embrace of comfort food and t.v in the typical yo-yo fashion which is to be expected from the kind of resolutions I have made, quite frankly! I decided I’d give up on resolutions in my early 20s, but this year is different. This year I toned it down, I got more realistic and I decided to set an intention that was sustainable and one which I actually wanted to make. Which brought me here, to Living Beyond the Mat.
…..but what does this really mean?
Basically it means I got an annual Yoga membership. It was the cheapest option to attend class regularly, and as I watched a juicy chunk of my savings disappear I knew I had to make some kind of promise to myself to keep this commitment alive. As for “Living Beyond The Mat”; people typically use this expression in relation to their yoga practice. Often you will hear great yoga teachers say:
“think about how you can extend this feeling beyond your mat, beyond this class…”
What they mean is to tune in to what you are feeling beyond the posture itself; perhaps it’s the strength and bravery required for back-bending or heart-opening postures, or the vitality of the vinyasana, or the restorative calm of child’s pose. Sometimes it’s even the pain and discomfort that comes with certain poses – in which case you are tuning into the skill it takes to create a balance between challenging yourself and finding freedom in the postures.
Throughout my teens and early 20’s anxiety and depression had a firm hold over my life. I saw various different therapists and alternative health practitioners, I pawed through dozens of self-help books and desperately tried all kinds of different approaches to gaining some peace and stability in my life, and so it was that, like many of us who struggle to find balance, I ended up inadvertently finding Yoga. Like many western people, I discovered Yoga at the gym (whilst in mid-masochistic-resolution-making-mode) and at the time it was my way of stretching and unwinding as well as a form of exercise. At that time (around 2004/2005, aged 17) it was becoming very popular in western mainstream fashion media. My only motivation in trying it came from the vague notion that I could replicate what I saw on the glossy pages of Cosmo and attain the body of my dreams…
I had long been suckered in to the grim world of women’s magazines and had tried just about every diet fad there was. In between anxiety attacks and self-harming I was Master-Cleansing and Atkins-dieting whilst achieving nothing but gaining weight and misery. I suffered in silence because the burden of shame was so heavy. I attributed my depression to being ungrateful and my anxiety to being a wimp. I saw self harm as embarrassing and my bingeing and starving as my ultimate, pathetic failure and inability to control myself. Naturally I became my own worst enemy and, with great effort, I tried my very best to make myself look incredibly normal on the outside. Sadly what I’m describing is extremely common. It only takes a glance at a few statistics and a scan at a “self help” or “popular psychology” section at your local bookshop to see that we are dealing with an extremely common and often devastating problem. Fearful that I was doomed to stay this way forever I began to look at my family history for mental illness and signs that might give me clues to my persistent problems. That, a few bad therapists and a naive internet search or two made me almost hopelessly resigned to my depressed, anxious state.
I began to deeply believe that this was my identity.
As always with these kind of magical, life changing encounters, the benefits of Yoga found me rather than the other way around. I wasn’t searching for a solution to my chronic back pain or psychological problems through Yoga; I only cared about my toned Jennifer Aniston-esque phisique. Sure I was going to class – but it was simply a “warm down” exercise within my workout routine – a stop-gap between the exercise machines and the swimming pool. But eventually, somewhere down the road of wobbly downward dogs and unbearable vinyasa sequences, I experienced it as a profoundly mind-altering practice. For about a minute or two. Look, before you think I’m getting all Eat Pray Love up in here (as much as I loved that book) – I was only 17 and my transient “proufoundly mind-altering” moments in class didn’t really serve me in the Real World™. I had no tools to integrate these beautiful, short moments of clarity into my messy world but I held onto them privately and knew deeply that I would return to them somehow. And I did. Years later, my self-hatred grew into self-acceptance.
10 years later…
At 26 I felt I didn’t have enough money or energy for any more therapies, or another self-made regime to try to smash through my depression and anxiety. It had swallowed me like a strong series of crashing waves where you’re hurled about so intensely you lose all sense of up and down, and yet throughout this violent storm I had endured. I kept my jobs (just about) and my relationship (thanks to my partner’s incredible patience and respect) and the ability to fake holding it together, just enough to get by. To the outside world I may have looked vaguely the same as before, perhaps a little tired and flakey (I cancelled a lot of plans), to myself I began to admit I was having a breakdown. I went to my GP and asked for medication. After a few months of group therapy, better diet and exercise, better sleep regimen (thanks solely to one meditation tape on YouTube!) I began to notice changes. With each small change I gathered momentum. I used tools I found on the internet and in self-help books to develop healthy habits, and I decided I would really take the time to learn to be well. Without the pressures of University, or a career, I have been dedicating my time to learning about health and wellbeing ever since. I returned to my yoga practice. My chronic back problems had seen me empty my pockets to chiropractors, osteopaths, acupuncturists, sports massage therapies and nothing worked like Yoga. For about a year I practiced alone, with my DVD, specifically working on strengthening my back. When I got the courage I enrolled onto Jivamukti classes, and this is where I found the most uplifting, re-vitalising practice I had experienced. Rather than a gym class, this was a studio dedicated to Yoga. I felt very much at home. I was clearly the beginner in the class, but that didn’t matter. I learnt about accessing strength and pushing myself. I learnt not to compare. At one point the only thing I could stomach was “The Art of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama. I clung onto that book like it was my only source of vital nutrients and breathed in the pages deeply… Again, like with my first Yoga classes at the gym, I held on to the beautiful things I learnt from it and knew I would return to them again… And I did! Months later I started learning more about Buddhism and Hinduism. I was awed by the profound appreciation of the impermanence of everything and especially the magnificent connectedness of everything. I began to let go. Eastern philosophies often refer to the idea that everything is in a constant state of flux; in many guided meditations you are encouraged to observe how sounds come and go, just as your breath comes and goes… What I like about all this is that it encourages a reflection on the fact that life comes and goes, and that feelings come and go. It brings about an immense freedom from what can feel like an enormous emotional burden. It sets you free from your attachments. It cultivates gratitude and acceptance for the smallest of pleasures but also for disaster, chaos, and pain. It brings your awareness into the present moment. The experience related to this realisation is called freedom. This freedom has roots in our intellect; in being able to choose, on a daily basis, how we process and react to the millions of voices we encounter; through the daily commute, the tv, the radio, the billboards and posters screaming out promises and creating imaginary problems through which they give you their magic cures… how to navigate through this chaos? This is where Yoga teaches us to Live Beyond The Mat: to tune in to how we are feeling and create that balance required to find freedom and joy in our lives. I am eternally grateful to this fresh new start and I welcome you in joining me to Living Beyond The Mat! Wherever you’re coming from, I would love to hear your thoughts and stories so please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org