Exactly 20 years ago to the month I had my first monumental wake up call. At 26 I burnt out as a young corporate lawyer after years of pushing myself to the extreme at high school, university and then at a top tier law firm. Too many long hours, poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, pressure-cooker environment, little sleep, and binge drinking all culminated in finding myself lying flat on my back for 2 months with physical and emotional burnout. Every time I got up to go to work, the universe would raise its finger and strike me down. Bronchial pneumonia, an immune system that was completely shot, an osteo skeletal system that was so tight and ropey I felt like a wound up spinning top, and migraine headaches that made me want to jump off a cliff to end the pain. The universe was sending me clear messages that the way I was living wasn't sustainable. But I failed to heed to the warning bells my body was increasing screaming out until the sirens became so loud that one night I found myself in a hospital bed having wet myself from all the drugs I was pumped with and feeling poignantly the pain of (a wet) rock bottom.
As I lay in that bed staring at the ceiling I knew that my lifestyle was unsustainable and that big changes had to be made. I needed to learn the hard lessons and rewrite my life from scratch. But what would it look like and how would I do it?
While I knew I wasn’t happy in my job I didn’t know what else to do. I had no idea what my passion or purpose was back then other than a realisation that I was deeply unhappy and unhealthy and that I wanted something better for myself. It was a realisation that unless I turned my health around I couldn’t live a life of purpose and was only a fraction of who I could truly be.
I had no tools, no mentor, and no one holding my hand through the process. Podcasts, blogs and social media did not exist. No doctor I saw ever asked about my diet, my sleep, whether I was exercising, whether I enjoyed my work or was happy in my relationship, whether I was stressed out of my brain or whether I ever saw the light of day. All I knew is that I felt broken, lost, confused and alone.
Until I worked out the bigger picture and hence my next move, in the meantime I would have to stay the course as a banking and finance lawyer BUT I instinctively decided to make 2 changes immediately:
Firstly I decided I wanted to spend my weekends bushwalking as a way of immersing myself in nature and getting some exercise and fresh air. This started a life long passion of hiking and trekking taking me to numerous places around the globe.
Secondly I wanted to try yoga. Back in 1999 yoga was still very alternative. People had only just started talking about it in the west and there were literally only a handful of yoga studios to choose from. I remember one of the partners at the law firm responding with "Why on earth would you want to do THAT?!" when I told him I was off to try yoga after work.
I don't know why or how these 2 things came to me but somehow they felt intuitively right. It was though I instinctively knew that they would provide nourishment for my broken body and depleted soul. It was these 2 things that kick-started my journey into healing myself and then my life’s work in health and wellness. My passion for traditional wholefoods followed in the ensuing years as one door opened another and another....
I can’t say I loved my first Hatha yoga class but afterwards the teacher looked me in the eye and said "You have a lot of fire in you. I think you should try Iyengar yoga." I had never heard of that before. I found an Iyengar yoga school down the road from me in Melbourne where I lived and I was hooked after my first class. It was like a light bulb that went off inside me and I couldn’t get enough of it. Like a child starved of nourishment, I lapped up every instruction and found myself counting down the hours to the next class. It was dynamic, intense, precision focused, and deeply relaxing all at once. It was exactly what I needed physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Iyengar yoga is not trendy. You won't find flashy yoga studios. You won't see instructors and participants clad in the lasted active wear. There's no slick sexy marketing campaigns. There's no franchises and you won't get the feeling that you're in the latest "it" place. But there’s a deep well of rich instructions that form a strong foundation for the most rigorous practice I’ve come across.
From there started a passion and deep respect that has lasted 20 years to the month. I've tried many systems of yoga during that time but I keep coming back to Iyengar. Before I had my kids, I would average approx 10 hours of practice a week but since having children my practice has been very sporadic and, at times (for months or even years), non existent. But like a cherished friendship with a life long friend, yoga is now so deeply ingrained in the fabric of my DNA that I simply pick up from where I left off when life affords me the opportunity.
What has 20 years of yoga taught me? More than I can articulate but set out below are 7 of the most unexpected and potent ways that yoga has enriched my life:
1. I’ve learnt that it all starts with becoming more conscious about ourselves
The point of yoga is to raise one’s consciousness. Starting with becoming more conscious about myself, I learnt how I was so out of deeply out of touch with my physical (and hence emotional) being. Yoga took me to places I never knew existed in myself. I learnt how unbalanced the right and left side of my body were, how the reason for many of my osteo skeletal issues stemmed from a broken collar bone from birth, and how inflexible I had allowed my body to become. Just to name a few.
2. I’ve learnt that physical strength flexes our emotional strength
By pushing myself to the edge of my physical limits, I soon discovered how this flexed my emotional resilience. The more physically strong I became, the more emotionally stronger I became.
3. I’ve learnt that inversions can help overcome fear
I went from being the kid in the playground at school who loved doing handstands all day to some 15 years later being petrified of doing the same thing even against a wall. Fear overcame me when it was time for inversions with clammy hands, sweating and increased heart rate. It took me 10 years to do my first unaided headstand. I discovered that the more inversions I did, the more I loosened my grip on fear in all areas of life. Inversions provide me with a sense of freedom, lightness and playfulness that have translated to all areas of my life. They are also an antidote for depression and heaviness, and give our internal organs a much needed break.
4. I’ve learnt to relax within effort
Holding a pose for what seems like an eternity is a characteristic trait of Iyengar yoga. The idea is that only after a certain period of time the muscles get the signal that they have no choice but to relax.
Within that time your body is screaming at you to remove yourself at all expense from the uncomfortableness of it all. My teachers taught me that how we respond in an uncomfortable pose is characteristic of how we respond to uncomfortable or intense situations in life. At first I squelched at how I would respond. A pose would trigger feelings of panic and rage that I wanted to escape from- typical of how I always responded to bad news (a trait I learnt as a kid from my mother). Over time I observed these feelings, and started to breath and relax into the messiness and uncomfortableness of it all. I can’t begin to tell you how this helped me tremendously in giving birth twice naturally without drugs to my 2 babies (averaging four kilos each). I owe my calm births to my years of yoga that preceded them. I greeted the contractions like a challenging pose and simply breathed and tried to relax within the effort.
Finding a way to relax within effort has been one of the most valuable lessons for me in copying with life in general. For life throws at us mess, discomfort, inconvenience and often downright atomic bombs and semi trailer collisions. It’s how we respond to these events that defines us.
5. I’ve learnt that support is not a sign of weakness but a way to strengthen our ability
For those not familiar with Iyengar yoga, the key point of differentiation is its use of props such as bricks, bolsters, benches, walls, ropes, chairs, planks, straps etc. These are used to support you in a pose and /or allow you to go much deeper into the pose than you otherwise would without props.
At first I thought the use of props was cheating. Then I discovered how much deeper I could go, how much more aligned I could be and/ or how I could stay in the pose for so much longer aided with props.
I learnt that it’s not only ok to rely on props, they were necessary to advance my practice.
In the same way I’ve learnt that it’s not only ok but essential to ask for support from friends or professionals when I’m feeling stretched, blocked or to move to the next level. It’s not a sign of weakness but a sign of being open to becoming a better version of yourself.
Just like it takes a village to raise a child, we can’t do it all ourselves. Rely on support when it’s available.
6. I’ve learnt that flexibly in the body translates to flexibility in dealing with life
When I started yoga I could barely reach down to my knees in agony. I would have described my personality back then being a reflection of my body- tight, rigid and uncompromising. I was startled that within 8 months of consistent practice I was able to get my hands flat on the floor. In learning how to increase the flexibility in my body, I also started learning how to become more flexible in my mind with how to deal with life.
A brilliant analogy one of my yoga teachers taught me was to become less mercurial and more like putty. When responding to life’s events (positive or negative), instead of spilling everywhere like mercury on a board, we can become more like a piece of putty that is firmly planted on a board and simply moulds to where it needs to go without bending too much out of shape or becoming imbalanced.
No matter what life throws at me, I’m learning to go more with the flow, responding gently and graciously than react outrageously. This one is still a big work in progress!
I will point out though that when it comes to matters of principles and values, I stand firm. In matters of fashion and style, sway with the wind.
7. I’ve learnt to redefine “all or nothing”
I used to think that unless I could devote at least 2 hours to a yoga practice it wasn’t worth doing it at all. I used to scoff at people who would do anything less than that thinking it’s not worth it. Then I had babies and they turned that mentality swiftly on it’s head. I mean, what mother of small children has a lazy 2 hours up her sleeve most days??
Ive learnt to redefine “all”. I’ve learnt that 5 minutes is “all” I have some days and that’s better than no practice at all. It’s the little small daily increments that add up and count for a lot.
Since having kids going to yoga classes has been replaced with doing my own yoga practice either at home or outdoors in sunshine at my local beach often using my kids as props
I wish to pay immense gratitude to the late BKS Iyengar and to all my yoga teachers over the past 20 years who have taught me so much (especially Tony Rothburg from Bridge Yoga School in Richmond Melbourne who started my love affair with yoga with his unconventional humorous and playful style).
Now I’d love to hear from you - what lessons have yoga taught you that you apply in day to day life?