This article first appeared in 2011 in the magazine Australian Yoga Life. Some things have changed since I wrote it. For starters, I dye my hair and wear more makeup. And I’m no longer working towards handstand. But the essential principles have not changed: progress gently, with awareness, and practice equanimity.
All my life I wanted to be like my grandmother, so it wasn’t surprising I should take up yoga. My grandmother had a daily yoga practice, and as a child in the ‘60s I watched her perform halasana (plow pose), headstand and other asanas in the living room of my childhood home. She was strong, flexible and graceful, an inspiring role model.
As I approach the age she was then, I find myself enacting small homages to my grandmother. Like her, I don’t dye my hair, and it’s turning a similar soft silver mouse. As she did, I’ve reduced my makeup to little more than light brown-pink lipstick (hers was called ‘Cocoa’). And I practice yoga daily.
But by temperament I’m not much like my grandmother. In my 20s and 30s I used a calming mantra inspired by Gladys: “Resourceful, resilient, serene”. I had to repeat this a lot, because I really wasn’t those things. Instead, family members kept comparing to my grandfather. My grandfather, Gladys’s husband, was a remarkable personality, but the comparisons scared me. Despite his considerable achievements, all I could see was that my grandfather was mentally ill. He was dramatically bi-polar. In his later years he found some relief through the prescription medication lithium.
My life turned out turbulent too. My illness was nowhere near as dramatic as his, but I suffered from anxiety, depression and eating disorders. While my grandfather was successful professionally and widely admired, my history is littered with failed careers, failed relationships, failed projects.
No matter how often family members tell me biochemistry is nothing to be ashamed of (“No more than insulin dependency for a diabetic”), I felt the stigma of mental illness.
My yoga practice was helpful but inconsistent.
Early in 2010 I became conscious that my 50th birthday was looming. I had it in my head that saw my 50th as a milestone: this would be the defining moment to appraise what I’d made of my life. I decided that on my 50th birthday, I’d perform a handstand. This wasn’t a completely delusional ambition. I’d been a competitive gymnast as a child, so my self-image included the concept “capable of handstands.” My yoga class provided an environment where I could revisit handstand under the guidance of an encouraging teacher. I was up for it.
In fact I was impatient. The big 5-0 was still 15 months away, but I felt I should be able to perform perfect handstands immediately. Instead, within a few sessions of practice attempts I’d snapped my right big toe. I misjudged a landing, slamming my full weight, with momentum, into a toe I’d left beautifully pointing. The impact made a dramatic cracking sound.
That cracking sound marked a shift in how I perceived myself, and in how I experience yoga.
I saw at once that the handstand that resulted in my injury was not a genuine, focused attempt but instead a reckless flail, an accident waiting to happen. I’d flung my legs up in frustrated pique, annoyed that I couldn’t instantly command the poise and strength that I aspired to. My ‘handstand’ was an inverted sulk, with an inevitable crash landing.
I saw how my state of mind translated into physical outcomes.
I saw, too, that the particular state of mind that resulted in this injury characterised the way I was living my life – flinging myself into situations, driven by frustrations, by anger (often at my own inadequacies), as if I didn’t care about the fall-out, incurring unnecessary damage.
My project now is to challenge this pattern – to unlearn the habit of self-destructive flailing. Yoga class seemed a good place to start.
I now have a new mantra to supplement “Resourceful, resilient, serene”. Similarly inspired by the memory of Gladys, I start each yoga session with an intention: “Calm, grounded, balanced, graceful.”
I’m still working on handstand (coming along nicely, thanks), but rather than fixate on perfecting a particular physical action I’m finding it serves me better to focus on a state of mind. Some mornings I recognise I’m inclined to the opposite (“Agitated, unstable, unbalanced, awkward”). But gradually, with the help of my yoga practice, I’m dwelling more and more in a desired state of being.
Calm. Grounded. Balanced. Graceful.