Seeing yourself through a new lens

It’s been 14 months since my Bell’s Palsy diagnosis and I still struggle looking at myself in the mirror or in photos. Doctors in London told me I’d never fully recover — from now on, I’ll have a wonky smile and one eye will squint when I pucker and one side of my mouth won’t move as much when I talk. The muscles on one side of my face always feel tight, especially when I’m tired or stressed. I try not to let it bother me, but whenever I see myself now in a photo, I think, ‘wow, is that really what I look like?’

Suffice to say I wasn’t too keen to take photos of myself for this website. I also doubted if I could get into certain poses and hold them long enough for my husband to click the camera shutter. While there are plenty of stock images of anonymous women in various yoga poses, I could hardly use somebody else’s image to promote my yoga teaching! I knew I needed to get over myself and pose, literally, for the camera.

I’ve never looked at myself doing a yoga pose. Unlike gyms, most yoga studios don’t have mirrors. It’s a way to help ensure we don’t focus on what we look like and instead focus on how our body feels in a pose.

When my husband showed me the photos he took, I thought, ‘wow, is that really what I look like?’ Six months ago, I couldn’t tilt my neck backwards without being in enormous pain. Twelve months ago, I couldn’t do much more than lie on the yoga mat. As much as I hated getting on my mat and thinking about what I used to be able to do, I knew in my heart that any yoga practice would help stretch and strengthen my body. Of course, being a new mom, I struggled to find the time to do any yoga! But 5 minutes here, 15 minutes there… it made a difference. Even when I had no time during the day and just had 1 minute to stretch my neck and breathe before bed — it made a difference.

So when I saw the photos my husband took, yes, I thought, ‘wow, is that what I look like? I am so glad I did not give up.‘ The photos are not meant to intimidate. They’re not meant to inspire. To me, they’re proof that doing yoga, even for a few minutes each day or every other day, makes a difference.

Why ‘Body, Mind and Spirit’?

When someone mentions ‘yoga’ to you, what image pops to mind? Super-bendy, toe-touching, back-bending postures that both impossible and Instagrammable? Is yoga just another form physical exercise?

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I took my first yoga class. In fact, I hadn’t even intended to join a yoga class, but I arrived at the gym at the wrong time, and that was the only class on offer. I figured it would be easy — a few stretches to some gentle music. 15 minutes into class, I was huffing and puffing. By the end of the 60-minute class, I was a sweaty mess.

There are many different forms of yoga — some focus on meditation and breathing, others on a continual flow of physical movement. My first class just happened to be the latter.

But at the end of the class, when the teacher had us in ‘Savasana’, the resting pose, something amazing happened: for once, in as long as I could remember, I thought of…NOTHING. Not my high-stress job which had nearly given me an ulcer. Not the list of to-dos waiting for me once I left the gym. Not the divorce I was going through.

Yes, my body was physically exhausted, but my mind was at rest. After that first class, I began to look for more yoga classes. I was looking to exercise the body but quiet the mind.

Yoga to me is a moving meditation. The type of yoga I practice and teach is called ‘Vinyasa Flow’. ‘Vinyasa’ in Sanskrit means ‘to place in a special way’. By linking movements and breath into a steady and thoughtful series of postures, we begin to flow in a way that strengthens and stretches our body and (hopefully) quiets our mind.

The third factor, the ‘spirit’, is difficult to explain. All I can tell you is that, to me, body, mind, and spirit are inextricably linked. Have you ever been physically exhausted, but your mind forces your body to push on? Or mentally worn out, but you physically force yourself to get up, get dressed, feed the kids, endure the commute, face the boss and angry customers, and repeat day after day? Think of the toll these activities take — not just on your body and mind — but your spirit. We’re more prone to anger, frustration, sorrow. We suppress one part of who we are and let the others (usually mind or body), take over.

At the end of a yoga class, a teacher typically says, ‘Namaste’, which means ‘the light (or the divine) in me recognises the light in you.’ A regular yoga practice helped me quiet my mind and turn physical movement into flowing meditation, thus helping my spirit, or ‘light’, to shine. Teaching yoga enables me to encourage the light in others.

Body. Mind. Spirit.


When your journey forward takes you backward

We love to see progress, whether in our careers or personal lives – and it’s the same with our yoga practice.  But what happens when we go backward rather than forward?  What if, due to injury or busyness or life in general, a hiatus from the mat results in us being so far back from what were able to do that what once brought us joy and peace now only causes frustration?  Can we let go of our pride and accept the retracing of steps?  Even more, can we enjoy the journey of progress a second time?

These are the questions I faced in the weeks following the birth of my son by an unexpected emergency C-section.  An extended stay in the hospital was stressful, to say the least; as an anxious new mom, I constantly had one eye on my son to ensure the tiny creature was still breathing.  When I did try to nod off, noises from other patients or doctors coming to poke and prod us ‘round the clock kept any chance of sleep at bay.

Waiting the recommended six weeks to exercise seemed an eternity, even though I could barely stand upright.  Determined to move after two weeks of being cooped up in the hospital and at home, I bull-headedly pushed my son’s wayward pram against January winds to the local market, likely contributing to the Bell’s Palsy I contracted 48-hours later.

Patience has never been one of my virtues.  Knowing what I was once capable of doing, how could I accept where I was?  I was jealous of my old self, comparing what I could do before and during pregnancy to my present state. 

I had to re-learn my body and re-learn my practice, day by day.  My once expansive pregnant belly, taut as a drum, gave way to a jelly-like mass of stretched-out, unused abdominal muscles that felt like a molten lava cake any time I poked at it.  How do you engage a core that hasn’t been used for 9+ months?

I couldn’t imagine rolling out my yoga mat and barely being able to move. I kept beating myself up mentally and emotionally thinking of what I was once able to do.

Patience.  Acceptance.  Focusing on the present — not the past, not the future.  Letting go of ego.  All the things we hear about but aren’t good at doing as Type-A, progress-driven people. On the plus side: we’re a determined lot.

At six weeks, Cat/Cow felt less foreign.  At eight weeks, Downward Facing Dog felt downright good.  Ten weeks on, I managed a Vinyasa using my knees rather than holding plank. I learned to rejoice in small victories.

I’ve accepted my body as it is now — the healthy body that was ready to squeeze out a 7lb baby boy. My yoga practice is for my current body, not my pre-pregnant or pregnant body.  I’m back to loving yoga again.