Doom is inevitable...

... gloom is optional*

1) I had such a tough class last Monday morning. Just a 60-minute 9am class, but I was on my knees for half of it, wondering whether it nudged out that class in Singapore that one time when I literally crawled my way out of the room afterwards, I felt so sick. (It didn’t, Singapore was worse. The worst was obviously my first class but I can’t even remember that.) The big difference this time was indifference. I was completely able to detach and just observe that it was interesting I was struggling so much. I went back to another 60-minute class at 4pm and it was much better. Every class is different.

2) I only teach one 90-minute class per week. This week’s was full, with one beginner whom I didn’t get a chance to chat with before class. She was what another teacher calls a “naughty cow”—they like to do their own thing, ignoring completely what you say. Which is fine if it’s just not doing a posture correctly, but not when it’s standing there rolling your head and your arms around while everyone else is just doing the first breathing exercise wondering what the hell they are doing. I asked her to just take a savasana if she was feeling like she didn’t want to do what I was asking, as otherwise it was distracting for the other students. I suspected she was annoyed, but she took savasana for a few poses, then she joined in, with quite a strong practice. I struggled initially to not let my fear that that one student was having a miserable time distract me from fully focusing on teaching the other students who were totally into the class. But after a while it seemed, I think, that she got swept up in their good energy and enjoyed doing what the group was doing instead of her own thing. She didn’t leave, anyway.

At the end of class, a woman who had just practised her first class in years, and after being treated for breast cancer, mouthed a big silent “Thank you!” as I left the room. Downstairs, a guy said a very solemn thank you, and told me he always feels great for two days after doing this class. He said it like he still couldn’t really believe it. Another guy told me he had had an epiphany during the class, where he realised that him not being able to put his heels together was just as adorable as him thinking that everything about someone he adores is quirky and adorable. Self-love, he understood it.

Later that day, someone else from the class sent me this image via Instagram:

As much as the 60-minute classes are great—and can still have you, or me, on our knees—you just don’t get those kinds of reactions afterwards. The 90-minute class is really when the magic (and the therapy) happens.

But, somehow, the beginner slipped out exactly the same way she slipped in. I hope she comes back.

READING

  • Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, who it turns out is Australian. I cried for the last hour of reading it and I haven’t cried reading a book for years. Guardian review.

  • Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. Finally seeing what all the fuss is about—it’s beautiful. New Yorker review (of the first two novels).

  • Draw Your Weapons by Sarah Sentilles. Also loving this, particularly that technique of using interconnected fragments to sketch a kind of picture gradually filled in. A review here.

I’ve started following Jaclyn Crupi on Instagram—her book recommendations are spot on (except we disagree on A Little Life, problematic!). I spent a loooong time going through her posts and adding books to my library reading list over the weekend.

*—Seth Godin

Why do you...

... do what you do

Someone asked me the other day what I liked about being a yoga teacher.

I can’t think of many things I would rather do than teach a Bikram class, but I had to really think about a proper answer. I think when you love doing something, it’s almost harder to answer, because the fit’s so right that there’s no friction driving you to start to look for reasons.

So I thought about it. I mean the obvious answer is because I want other people to discover how great doing the Bikram sequence in particular can make them feel and transform.

But the more nuanced, long-way-around answer is that it means I have to keep working on myself consistently in order to keep doing a (hopefully) good job. And I don’t mean just doing the practice, so I can show up authentically, but other kind of exploratory work, whether it be breath work or Reiki or another style of yoga or sound healing, that you need to do so you don’t go stale. It sounds like kind of a self-centred answer, but I think there’s a paradox where you need to work on yourself so that you realise too that you have nothing to do with the class — the power is in the sequence and the ancient poses. You’re just passing it along. You need to check your ego at the door, and that takes work on the ego.

Reading

  • The Animals in That Country. Laura Jean McKay has won a glittering away awards for this book, presciently set in Australia amid a strange flu breaking out around the country. Sufferers get to understand what animals are saying. McKay wrote this while recovering from chikunungya contracted at the Ubud Writers Festival a few years ago, sometimes in a hallucinatory state. I haven’t finished this (I loved her short story collection Holiday in Cambodia) but put it aside for a moment to finish off Flash Count Diary, which I had started a year or two ago. It was one of those beautiful synchronistic juxtapositions between books, reading about animals talking to people and all that might entail one moment and this the next:

Even though menopause has pushed me back onto my animal frame, I don’t kid myself that now I am one with them. In the presence of animals, I am thrilled by their physicality. But I also feel their deep inscrutability… [The writer Lidia Millet] warns against shallow interspecies enlightenment and claims that the fact we cannot fathom animals is a great and precious gift: ‘I cherish the reality that other animals are us, in that they have sentiences and are not us, in that the nature of that sentiences is an eternal mystery.’

  • The Rain Heron. A book group book, and it’s lovely.

  • Olive Kitteridge. Thoroughly life-affirming.

  • Now that I’m teaching yin, I’m learning the beauty of just being quiet in class. So this, “The Importance of Quiet”, by Austin Kleon, resonated.

  • Does your to-do list never get obliterated? This helps explain why.

  • Because you can never have enough good reading lists to explore, here’s another.

Too much?

... or just right.

I left the link for the Ann Patchett piece out last letter — here it is!

I almost completed a yin teacher training course today, with just a teaching class to go tomorrow. It fitted in well with Covid isolation—my case was super mild. (Losing close to all smell and taste was discombobulating but not devastating. I was lucky.) Of course the trainees and trainers all shared the easiest way to stay in touch with each other: Instagram. Feeds are filled with a lot of people doing a lot of yoga.

It got me thinking about how we represent yoga online. Did you ever hear the story about the women who were shown sexist ads consecutive over the course of a few hours for a research project? At first they were able to shrug off seeing them, but at a certain point they cracked and got furious about it all and wouldn’t watch anymore? I can’t find a source, but I remember hearing about it. While I wouldn’t go that far, I fear that the proliferation of images of people doing full expressions of challenging poses (and I’m not talking about the natural photos of my new trainee/trainer pals… more the Instagram suggestions of “influencers” that chase them up) actually turns some people off the idea of ever coming to a class. They are the people very closely related to the people who show up to class saying variations of, “I’m very inflexible, I can’t touch my toes, yoga’s not really my thing.”

But then I got to thinking about how I almost never post photos of me doing yoga (or me, generally) and how that is possibly much more about vanity and ego than anyone posting a photo of themselves doing say a classic standing-bow-at-sunset. Because even the most basic asanas, when done with the right alignment—and props—and not necessarily much depth, can look incredibly serene and beautiful. Perhaps diversity is not just about sharing posts of non-white, non-stick-thin people doing extreme yoga, but about people doing very simple poses, far from their full expression, to encourage more people to show up to class, any class.

Reading

  • Losing a sense of taste and smell was really strange—it was more dramatic than just a headcold, particularly with no congestion whatsoever. This piece on anosmia (pre-dating Covid) is worth a read.

    He is irked by the false cheer of people who say things like, “Can’t you enjoy texture?” He grabs the towelling barmat on the table. “This is texture! Do you enjoy this?”

  • Still closing tabs I opened around new year’s! I like this one.

    On days where I feel overwhelmed by the tasks ahead of me, I set a timer and get to it. I remind myself: you can do anything for 15 minutes.

  • Psychedelics. The key to connectedness?

    … (M)omentous shifts in perspective can come from fleeting moments of epiphany such as those experienced by Brand or the crew of Apollo 8.

  • Distraction. How to avoid it.

    When we begin to understand what we’re trying to avoid by clicking over to Twitter or checking the news for the 10th time today, we can begin to address the issue itself, and not medicate it through more distraction. We also begin to appreciate how habitual the act of avoiding discomfort via distraction can be, and how much it’s become a part of how we work and live.

Cooking

Watching

I’ve watched more TV the past week than the past year, possibly.

  • Lupin was delightful.

  • Schitt’s Creek is hilarious but hard to watch alone. You want to admire the brilliant lines (and looks) with someone. Still seasons to go!

  • Little Fires Everywhere. You have to watch this! It’s brilliant.

Purpose ...

... or maybe not

The longer I sit to work on a laptop each day as I get older, the more my body packs it in. If I wasn’t practising yoga, I imagine it would be a lot worse. It seems strange that I feel the need to get stronger to be able to perform the not-apparently-arduous task of just sitting at a desk. At the same time, I also need to come up with a back-up plan to be able to teach more physical things so I don’t need to spend hours on a laptop.

Which is how I have found myself at two reformer Pilates classes the past two weeks. I thought I’d give it a try to see if it might be something else I want to pursue. Two classes isn’t enough to make a judgement, so I’ve signed up for ten and we’ll see. While it feels like muscles are being targeted more precisely than in yoga, I don’t break into a sweat so it doesn’t feel like I’ve given 100%. I’ve come away feeling a bit like, is that it? It’s no better or worse than, say, a HIIT class — more precise, less sweat. Both seem to be exactly what they say on the can, nothing more.

What yoga seems to offer, or has to me at least, is more complete. It offers, through a consistent physical practice, a connection to something greater than myself. While it takes a while for this to emerge fully (and it just does — the postures are that magical) for me I had a feeling right from the start that it was about more than just healing a sore back. It’s a complete package: physical, mental, spiritual, and can create a real sense of purpose.

Which ties in to developments this week in the US.

Like the followers of ISIS, one of the reasons the followers of QAnon can get swept up into (batshit crazy) radical thinking is because they are looking for purpose. Rebecca Solnit looks at the trail from Al Qaeda to QAnon in the wake of the Capitol attack here.

Purpose. We’re all looking for it.

This is not to say that everyone needs to find yoga to find purpose.

In a way, yoga in fact makes you okay with coming to terms with not actually having, nor there being, a purpose to anything at all. It just seems to make everything all right. It lets you detach, but still care.

In my notes this week I wrote: “The goal isn’t to get anywhere in particular. It’s to move along in a particular fashion.” I don’t know whether I stole this from someone or what inspired it now, but that’s it, in a nutshell.

I also jotted down this Nietzsche quote: “There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.”

Yoga helps me, at least, tap into that wisdom. Not, so far, reformer Pilates.

Reading

  • Lucy Trelour’s Wolfe Island and Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age.

  • This essay by Ann Patchett (Truth and Beauty, Bel Canto, State of Wonder, Parnassus bookstore owner) is the best magazine piece I’ve read in ages. It features Tom Hanks, psilocybin, private planes and a lot more. Make a cup of coffee, put your feet up and read it slowly.

    I had set my intention to help my friend, to hold her hand and go with her while she went to peer over the cliff, the cliff that, coincidentally, I fell off.

    When it was over, I managed to make my way into the shower, perhaps the biggest single accomplishment of my life. 

  • In a compelling 30,000 words, “The Plague Year” dives deep into how the US has handled the pandemic.

  • Oliver Burkeman has a list of nine things to help you in 2021. I love this Joan Tollifson quote:

    In Buddhism, they call it no-self, emptiness, non-clinging or groundlessness. This emptiness isn’t a bleak, nihilistic void; it is the red fire engine streaking past, the aroma of morning coffee, the exquisite song of the hermit thrush at dusk, the listening silence that remains when the sound is finished. And that silence, like the emptiness of deep sleep, is not a dead void but a vibrant aliveness.

  • How Instagram helps launder misinformation to women in particular:

    Instagram is women’s work, as it demands skills they’ve historically been compelled to excel at: presenting as lovely, presenting as desirable, presenting as good, safe, nonthreatening. All of which, of course, are valuable appearances for a dangerous conspiracy theory to have. Ironically, following many of the QAnon hobbyists will lead to a suggestion from Instagram that you follow Chrissy Teigen, one of QAnon’s designated villains, who also happens to have created a brand based on a desirable domestic life. The platform itself is operating on its interpretation of beautiful surfaces, and far less so on what the people producing them are saying.

  • Pieces of a Woman is just out on Netflix. I don’t think I can watch a movie featuring a woman in labour for 30 minutes ending with the baby being still born, even if it’s Vanessa Kirby playing the role (she played Princess Margaret in The Crown). This profile of her is worth a read though.

  • Sadly no answers yet in my search for a doppelganger. Maybe you’ll find yours.

Journey...

... your eyes over this

My yin teacher training that starts in a few weeks (online, and I blame breathwork for leading me there) so, in the name of research, I attended a class tonight.

Aside from wanting to throttle the teacher for using journey as a verb—“now journey your arms above your head” (though I may steal it at some point )—it drove me nuts that she paced the room almost at the speed of a hot Pilates class teacher.

With yin, you hold poses for five minutes or so; the pace is glacial. With the teacher zipping around like an emergency worker, I kept thinking she was about to dive onto my mat to make a correction. There’s no touch at the moment, so she didn’t do that, but there also wasn’t any individual attention. “Your body, your class!” she quipped a few times.

Which leads to me to the most interesting piece I’ve read this past week or two, on reiki. Go read it, I’ll wait.

I’ve never had reiki done on me and until reading that piece, have been deeply sceptical. The line that interested me in particular was:

Ted Kaptchuk, a Harvard Medical School professor… theorizes that the placebo effect [of reiki] is, in the words of the Times article, “a biological response to an act of caring; that somehow the encounter itself calls forth healing and that the more intense and focused it is, the more healing it evokes.”

It stands to reason, if this theory holds up, that people feel great after a yoga class partly because of the attention that has been given to them by the teacher in a safe environment. It’s much more dilute than reiki, but it’s there nevertheless. And so when you go to a class and the teacher is completely impersonal, that feeling is missing. You may as well have done an online recorded class.

Given how much of our lives have shifted online—even pre-Covid—it makes sense that reiki possibly holds even more potential power now for those who are more isolated than before. We all already know that there’s a huge difference between seeing someone on Zoom and seeing them in person. There’s a particular healing or rejuvenating energy of being face-to-face with someone.

Which brings me to the power of attention. Not just on us but where we send it, too.

I would say the first rule in connecting with nature is to pay attention, and part of paying attention is choosing to listen instead of speaking. The most difficult part of being outside one’s comfort zone is understanding how much you’re being taught by not talking. In my experience traveling with indigenous people, nobody says much of anything while they’re on the move. Because language collapses experience into meaning, and if you do it too soon, you’ve lost all the other meaning that would’ve been there.

—Environmentalist/author Barry Lopez (cited in his obituary)

Paying attention feeds others, and it can feed us, too.

Reading

  • All Adults Here by Emma Straub. I liked it a lot—it’s almost Franzen-ish. It’s a lot more interesting and polished than

  • The Question of Love by Hugh Mackay. I read this because I did not realise the Australian social researcher Mackay was also a novelist. I didn’t love the construction, based on a piece of music, particularly, but I did quite like the story. As with All Adults Here, the focus is on the intricacies of family relationships.

  • “Even as we regret who we haven’t become, we value who we are. We seem to find meaning in what’s never happened. Our self-portraits use a lot of negative space,” writes Joshua Rothman in What If You Could Do It All Over?, a reflective piece on examining our unlived lives. What’s interesting to me is how wondering what else we might have done with our lives has become more of a focus as we have largely stopped believing in an afterlife: “Given just a single shot at existence, we owe it to ourselves to hit the mark; we must not just survive but thrive.” But this wondering also forms part of who we are.

In the sense that our unled lives have been imagined by us, and are part of us, they are real; to know what someone isn’t—what she might have been, what she’s dreamed of being—this is to know someone intimately. When we first meet people, we know them as they are, but, with time, we perceive the auras of possibility that surround them. 

If you are sad that you did not get to experience life working as say a potter as you once dreamed, then that sadness is very much a part of you. There’s something gently reassuring about that idea.

Synchronicity: I saw the episode of The Crown last night where Philip is regretting what he was not able to become (he blames marrying Elizabeth but maybe honestly maybe that’s just convenient).

“It takes a certain type of person to think that weeks of reading papers gives them more perspective than someone with a Ph.D. on that subject, and that type of person has gotten a lot of airtime in this pandemic,” says Colin Carlson of Georgetown.

Also from the piece:

“Medicine is a social science,” Virchow said, “and politics is nothing but medicine in larger scale.”

  • On rethinking the food pyramid that you probably learned in school. The TL;DR version: Cook from scratch as much as you can, even desserts.

To Monteiro, the bag of sugar on the kitchen counter is a healthy sign, not because sugar itself has any goodness in it, but because it belongs to a person who cooks. Monteiro’s data suggested to him that the households who were still buying sugar were also the ones who were still making the old Brazilian dishes such as rice and beans.

Anyone can fight the battles of just one day. It is only when you and I add the battles of those two awful eternities, yesterday and tomorrow, that we break down. It is not the experience of today that drives us mad. It is the remorse or bitterness for something that happened yesterday or the dread of what tomorrow may bring. Let us therefore do our best to live but one day at a time.

You find time the same place you find spare change: in the nooks and crannies.

  • A lot of good snippets are slipped into this Dr Rangan Chatterjee podcast, a selection of his best interviews from over the past year.

Perhaps you can use some tips as you journey yourself into 2021 ;)

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