Millions of people are practising this thing called Hatha Yoga, whereby a mat, postures, and breathing are a popular gateway to this sense of feeling the body here and now. Without a magic formula needed, the focus on the body and breath works to soften the edges of the most erratic minds, creating, perhaps, an unprecedented space in which the ‘Now’ is experienced.
The glimpse of this ever-present stillness stands out like a beacon amongst the overwhelming act of ‘doing’, and for some, becomes the motivating reason to embark on a path to feeling a little more whole, fulfilled, and ‘complete’. Yet ‘complete’ entails all, including the heady heights of joy and the plummeting depths of sadness, whereby circles are walked, and loved ones say “This yoga stuff is making you worse.”
What was left when my mind became still was not quietude but discomfort – and the discomfort certainly didn’t feel like oneness.
It was reading above sentence from Michael Stone’s Awake in the World that motivated me to conduct interviews with some dear friends in the yoga community about why we walk this path. Whilst there’s an element of doing this as a sanity check that I’m not the only one going crazy (half-joke), the motivating factor is to share the experiences of how the immersion into yoga is not about wearing more happy faces, but the ability to be an authentic face more often.
So over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing these interviews to encourage us to be authentic in both our successes and pitfalls. Kicking off Authentic faces is my friend and mentor, Kirstin Robertson who has taught Ashtanga Yoga for the last 10 years. Before teaching, Kirstin worked as a buyer for multi-national fashion companies and had a lifestyle that certainly matched the job!
1. How would you describe the first year of yoga practice and how has your attitude to practice evolved?
I came to yoga knowing nothing about it whatsoever & I pretty much fell in love with it straight away. It was an alternative to going to the gym but I understood early on that it was much more than exercise. Standing on one leg in an attempt not to fall I forgot about the stress of the day, the problems of work & what was waiting on my desk when I returned. I didn’t know it then but for those moments I was being in the present moment.
I didn’t immerse myself in books & social media wasn’t the same back then, I went to a couple of classes a week & that was enough. I bought my own mat & remember really looking forward to going to class at the end of the day. Looking back it wasn’t long before I was saying no to Friday drinks as I wanted to be fresh for Saturday morning yoga. I hadn’t thought about it until now but I guess it felt much the same as the students who arrive at the classes I teach nowadays.
Answering this question has reminded me of where it all began & what yoga means me. In terms of my attitude to yoga, this remains the same, I believe that yoga is for anyone who wants it & the practice is unique for each & every one of us. In that first year I knew nothing & I simply enjoyed the sensations of breathing & moving. It was as simple as that. Over the years I have discovered how easy it is to over complicate yoga, to be swayed or confused by opinions, to be over loaded with social media or to read books after book in an attempt to find answers.
When I have decision to make I can tie myself knots as I work out the pros & cons. I can confuse myself by listing every scenario and imagining all the possible outcomes. Or I can sit quietly for a while & listen to my body. More often than not, my gut reaction will tell me which way to turn. The answer is always inside. As my practice & attitude to yoga evolves, I am conscious that yoga really is an internal practice. It is an intimate relationship built on trust & when I trust yoga I am also trusting in myself.
2. Richard Freeman says that yoga ruins your life as we become more sensitive. Has yoga made you more sensitive and if so, how does this impact your life?
Rather than making me more sensitive I would say that I have become more aware of my sensitivities. Prior to yoga these were drowned out by white noise & general busy-ness of life. I was happy to be distracted from certain feelings (sadness, anger, frustration to name a few) rather than face up to them. However, inspired by yoga to lead a simpler, quieter life has increased my awareness of what is going on in & around me. As I have turned down the external volume the internal noise has increased. I can no longer ignore feelings & sensations that I previously would have pushed away or denied. I don’t always understand what I am experiencing or why but I am learning (albeit it slowly) to observe rather than trying to find a reason.
My biggest wakeup call was when I realised that yoga does not make unpleasant feelings go away. Unconsciously, I had imagined that yoga would heal me of the depression that I had encountered on & off for many years. A huge presumption on my part and a massive let-down when the reality hit home. I was angry, confused & fed up with yoga. This low was a turning point in my understanding & the realisation that yoga was offering me the tools to manage the condition. It is still a work in progress as I learn to listen rather than react to my emotions & to pay attention to my physical, mental & emotional needs. There is not one rule that fits us all, a big part of yoga is about finding our way and working out what fits for us.
I am still finding my way, exploring the practice & discovering what fits & what doesn’t. It’s certainly not a smooth path but I continue to keep it slow & steady and I will see what unfolds……..
3. Is there a correlation between your experience on and off the mat? If so, can you describe the relationship?
Yes! I have a tendency avoid difficulties in life & on the mat.
Being on the mat can feel clumsy, heavy, boring, tiring, difficult, relentless, frustrating pointless, hard work, mundane, an uphill battle! There are days when I don’t want to get on the mat, just like there are mornings I don’t want to get out of bed. On the contrary, practice can feel light, exciting, fun, funny, exhilarating & energising. And just like life, there are ‘ah’ moments when something seems to click into place. Last but not least there are the ordinary days & practices when nothing notable happens. In life I am used to this, the ups & downs of day to day living. It is only as a write this that I realise that it was much harder to accept the ebb & flow of the yoga practice. The high of starting a regular self practice, the newness of rising at 5am lessoned as it became the ‘norm’.
Then came the day (or days) when it felt like a chore, something I had to rather than wanted to do.
This was a really confusing period as I was resentful & felt a strong resistance to the practice. It was a bewildering time as I had invested so much into yoga but somehow it had changed into a duty……. Despite the unanswered questions, as with life I got up, I got up & I got on with it. My teacher, Matthew Sweeney, suggested not describing the practice as good, bad, strong etc and this gave me a much better perspective. As I dropped the need to label my practice I was able to let go of the expectation that I had (unconsciously) attached to practice which has evolved in to it being more intuitive. I am (trying to be) less critical & (am trying to be) more willing to let each practice unfold rather than having a preordained plan. I have often said that I do not want to get caught up in the dogma of (Ashtanga) yoga & now I am actually taking heed of my own words!
4. If you could, would you go back to life before yoga?
Had I known what I know now about yoga I might have had second thoughts about going to that first class!! But I didn’t, I am still here and I would not change that for a moment!
For a while it felt that there was a big separation between the pre yoga Kirstin & the Kirstin of today. As I embraced yoga into daily life it became all encompassing as I gave it precedence over everything. Early mornings, early nights meant that I stepped away from social engagements as I focused on a simple & clean living. I became quite isolated from family & friends as I immersed myself fully in the practice. It is often said that the physical practice comes first & from there the other limbs begin to unfold. Looking back this separation was the only way that I could break established patterns & create new ones. It was not a hard ship, it was something I wanted to do & I was excited about the transformation & all it entailed.
Over time the excitement mellowed as my relationship with yoga deepened. As with all relationships there are ups & downs. There have been times when considered walking away & times when I have clung on to it in the belief that I cannot live without it. I have questioned & doubted the practice. I have tied myself up in knots over what I should & shouldn’t do or feel. I have felt guilty for not practising. I have glared at my yoga mat as it sits innocently in the corner waiting for me to stop resisting and to come & practice. I stopped drinking wine. I stopped going out. I denied myself simple pleasures in the belief that this was yoga! And finally, I stopped fighting so much & started listening more. I trusted in myself & in my practice, letting it be more intuitive, less prescriptive. The relationship continues & my practices continue to evolve and deepen. It is a never ending journey of discovery, joy, confusion & a little bit of frustration.
I no longer feel a split with the old me. There is not an old me or a new me. It’s just me growing into the person I have always been! I still have the odd wobble but on whole I am comfortable in my own skin & the life I lead.
5. Why do you practise?
I’ve got myself into all kinds of muddles asking why I practice so these days I don’t ask why; I just do it.
6. Why do you teach?
I teach to learn. I cannot separate my personal practice with what I teach & vice versa. My students teach me just as my practice teaches me. Inspiration for teaching comes from my teachers, my students & my practice rather than what I’ve read in books. I teach from personal experience & this is what I love to share. For me this feels more real.