Thursday, 22 December 2011

Love Gone Bad

It’s the end of an era. Or appears to be. I have always loved and enjoyed alcohol – for its taste as well as for its mood altering properties. My consumption of the poison – for that’s what it basically is: hidden beneath delicious goodness and, nowadays, a lot of chemical shit – has varied over the years anywhere between two or three so-called units per week to 30 units per week. 

My recent spiritual oddysey (cliché, but true) to Rishikesh to become a yoga teacher meant that I went without for over two months. The longest I have ever not drunk alcohol in my entire life. Out there it was easy. You couldn’t get it in any of the cafes, restaurants or shops and the mindset out there is definitely not one where getting lashed and chundering everywhere is the objective.

Coming back to England I poured my first glass of wine with all the reverence of a priest at the altar and raised it to my lips with the excited expectation of a particularly pious child on her First Holy Communion. I sipped, I drank, I swallowed. It was like I had never been away. Or was it?

My experience with alcohol has changed dramatically. And so has how I experience life, for that matter. Whether this is down to heightened awareness from a substantially deeper yoga practice or simply down to moving into a different phase of life, I am not sure.

Alcohol is no longer affecting me in the wonderful way it used to. Instead of making me feel warm and uplifted, it is making me feel drowsy and lethargic. Even a couple of glasses of the stuff. Tinges of the old feelings flicker now and again, but generally it is a sure fire way to make me leave the party early, inciting admonishments from friends.  Maybe I am just not going to the right parties?!

The social awkwardness of not drinking presents itself two fold. First is not drinking in situations that call for it, around people who drink. You’ll be met either with derision, flack or incredulity for abstaining and left feeling uncomfortable and apologetic. It becomes even more tricky when you have always drunk in the past and so the choice not to comes as a shock for friends who are used to your old habits.

Debrett’s offers solutions in etiquette for both sides of the argument. They warn tee-totallers against acting the martyr and expounding the virtues of an alcohol-free existence. They also encourage the drinkers not to make prying inquiries into the reasons behind the abstinence. I do not consider myself a tee-totaller, although I am finding myself deciding not to drink alcohol more frequently. Not only so its effects fall short of what they were (the taste is still gorgeous), but the hangovers are getting worse.

So I have several options: to man up and endure any questioning looks and comments about why I am sticking to soda, to avoid situations where alcohol is drunk, to only drink within the vicinity of my bed… Or to wait until this period of silliness is over and my body can handle its liquor once more.

Monday, 12 December 2011

The Westbridge, Royal Court Theatre

Rachel Delahay got it going on. Model, playwright, actress, joint winner of the Alfred Fagon award 2011 (which supports Black playwrights) and her debut play The Westbridge currently showing at Sloane Square’s Royal Court Theatre.

Formerly called SW11 – the better name – The Westbridge delves into the madness wrought on an estate when an Asian girl is allegedly raped by a gang of Black boys. Tension sets in, especially between the half-White half-Black Marcus and the half-White half-Pakistani Soriya. Can mixed raced couples ever be happy? Confusions rise higher as Soriya’s Sloane/Wigger flatmate Georgina battles with her ongoing love for Soriya’s brother, Ibi. All the while, sixteen-year-old Andre has been kicked out of home and is suspected of the rape.  Clint Dyer’s production weaves the drama inducing none of the confusion involved in trying to summarise it in a few sentences.

The script is riveting – why can’t soap operas be this good?! – with some truly wonderful and original one liners (“I live in South Chelsea, not Battersea!”). At times the conversations are so slick and punchy that one couldn’t ever imagining them taking place in real life. But who cares. I watched the play completely unaware of this young woman’s credentials. Nothing about the characters or the script would have suggested that this was her first play. But then again, who else but a young person could have such precise insight into street slang and the culture of modern London and the youth of today. And who else but a young person would have the gumption to smash apart and stare taboos of today so glaringly in the face, without a shred of compunction. Rape, mixed race identity, mixed race couples, arranged marriages and vomiting up unchewed chips outside Dallas Chicken blend together to make a play that gives you all the buzz and insanity of a couple of quickly downed cans of Red Bull – it’ll leave you drained but exhilarated.

Delahay creates some loveable characters and manages to shy away from stereotypes. The casting is spot on and each actor brings a little magic to their character and their lines. Ryan Calais Cameron, as Andre, takes a while to find his flow and really standout but conveys the emotional cocktail of youth and being condemned of a crime well. Daisy Lewis’ tiny frame and blonde hair contrast with her loud, husky voice making for riotous entertainment and create a fitting disparity against the uncertainty and frailty she feels on the inside.

Ray Pathanki, as Ibi, shines during the dinner scene dialogue with Marcus (Fraser Ayres) – the two actors on opposite ends of the stage, which spans three sides of the square auditorium as well as some floor space – and is one of the many highlights in this short play. Chetna Pandya is every bit the strong, sexy and feisty Soriya, but it is the Goldie lookalike Fraser Ayres who really excels in this production. Ayres completely immerses himself in this role with vein-popping intensity and makes us squirm as we watch him trying to feel comfortable during the agonising and aforementioned dinner with Soriya’s family. The interactions between Andre’s mother Audrey (Jo Martin) and Soriya and Ibi’s father, Saghir (Ravi Aujla), are awkward and touching at the same time.

Ultz’s innovative design extends to the audience’s seating as well as the stage. The audience sits on chairs that are arranged at haphazard angles to the stage. The play’s action means that lots of swiveling in seats is required – welcome relief for someone such as I who has trouble sitting still: the older members of the audience certainly did not share this sentiment.

There were moments of inconsistency in the script when it was implied that Soriya’s family were Indian when, later on, it was made clear that they were from Pakistan. And later on there were moments when Indian/Pakistan/Asian were used interchangeably. This hair-splitting criticism notwithstanding, all who can must go and see this little gem: glorious and refreshing respite from the usual Christmas fare.  Until 23rd December.

Richard II at the Donmar Warehouse, December 2011

Here lies the end of an era – both on and off stage. Richard II as King of England and Michael Grandage as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse. After almost a decade of ne’er erring productions, Grandage gives us Shakespeare’s Richard II. The stage has the hushed and sacrosanct air of a church after benediction. The King sits in meditation on his thrown and frankincense hangs in the air like a ghost.

It is the end of the 1390s and King Richard is called on to settle the beef between Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray. Sadly, the two sadly don’t get to joust out their issues and are exiled from the kingdom – Bolingbroke for six years and Mowbray forever. Mowbray’s anguish at the prospect of starting anew at 40 years old in a foreign land makes one realise how times have changed, though people may have not.

Andrew Buchan plays the role of usurper to the throne, Henry Bolingbroke and makes for a wonderful contrast (fire and water are used throughout as metaphors for the two men)– in body and speech – to the poetic and impulsive nature of Richard, played by Eddie Redmayne. Much of the text is written in rhyming couplets and it is thanks to the seamless delivery by the whole cast that we are able to savour them.

Eddie Redmayne is already making headway as an actor. It is easy, upon first glance, to label him as another pretty face. He has a refined Mick Jagger quality of sex appeal (full lips, narrow hips) mixed with some of the androgynous beauty that makes him perfect for a Burberry campaign.

Historically, Richard II was tall and beautiful. And young. He took to the throne aged 10 and reigned until he was deposed at 32. Redmayne – an acquired taste, despite obvious talent – personifies the erratic and impulsive boy king perfectly with face twitching and bursts of manic grinning thrown in between wild tempers. His face has a fantastic range that can transform from gently beautiful to contorted at a change of mood.

Redmayne and Pippa Bennett-Warner’s, as his Queen Isabel, chemistry suggests a relationship of equality and respect. While the two enact the relationship well enough, a lot is left mysterious. Bennett-Warner’s stage presence and performance are strong enough to leave one intrigued about this French queen and what is in store for her as an actress in future.

Great things can be expected ahead for many of the young members of the cast – the strapping Harry Atwell, Stefano Braschi, Andrew Buchan (character actor in the making?), Michael Marcus (not entirely convincing as the Abbot of Westminster), Ben Turner and Ashley Zhangazha, especially. An appearance in a Grandage production is a huge leg up to getting noticed, as it was for Tom Hiddleston in the Donmar/Grandage 2009 production of Othello.

Richard Kent’s superlative gold-tinged wooden set gives the Donmar’s relatively small stage an expanse one would not think it capable of. Its decadently medieval look pairs magnificently with the costumes that are simple but some of the most beautiful I have seen in any theatre production (and anywhere, actually) and the raw silk finery looks even more wonderful underneath David Plater’s lighting. Adam Cork’s score and sound was sparing but aptly placed.

Grandage knows a thing or two about how to stage a solid production of Shakespeare. No technological feats in stage design and lighting or time travel. Just period costumes, understated scenery and music, and acting talent that lets the text do all the talking.
Come if you love and cherish Shakespeare. Come even if you hate Shakespeare but appreciate stabbing, treason and plot, a good script and pretty actors who can act.

The season ends in February, but it is with stealth and cunning that you will have to get to see it. A show as superb as this one sells out in a second.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Notes on a Small Universe

India is vast. I spent seven weeks there and experienced Delhi and its suburbs for a few days, and then a tiny subset of the small city of Rishikesh: place of pilgrimage and spirituality. I can as much say I have explored India as someone whose only exploration of London involved buying a cup of coffee at a service station somewhere along the M25.

Regardless, here are the notes on my India. My hitherto India, I should say. India is so vast that not writing about what little I know is tantamount to someone not writing about France because he hasn't also visited England, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy…

I arrived in Delhi deprived of sleep and slightly jet-lagged after a two-part flight, which involved the harrowing Doha airport (see a previous piece: Purgatory). At first, this behemoth nation conformed to the image I had constructed of it in my mind from films, books, the internet and the Indians I had known. Overflowing buses with people sitting on the roof, odours of incense and basmati rice, beggar girls holding babies with running noses banging on car windows at traffic lights, spice markets, rolling hills of rotting rubbish. The sights and smells and stimuli were all there and exciting, but they met my expectations. I wanted them surpassed. I felt, dare I say it, disappointed and short changed. 

I now know, and have it confirmed by Indians and tourists alike, that Delhi is not a pleasant place. It is by no means a yardstick with which to judge the rest of India. A 300 km car ride later (over 8 hours travel time: they are still working on the motorways) and I was in Rishikesh. A Hindu Lourdes. People travel from the southern most parts of India just to be able to bathe in the holy Ganges before sunrise. I was able to do this every morning. I was able but only got round to it once. An experience that will not ever be forgotten. The river is not only considered holy - it is holy. A quick plunge into the cold water is enough to feel this.

Ram Jhula is the "borough" of Rishikesh in which I lived and learned yoga for 6 weeks; Laxman Jhula its bigger and more metropolitan sister, a fifteen minute walk away. One of the many striking things about this sacred spot is that nature rules supreme. Humans make way for it: the river, the foliage, the monkeys, the dogs, the cows… and their excrement. Cows are revered here and amble about the streets like lords. Some sport coloured necklaces or red ribbons and bells. Like getting to know the commuters on your walk to the tube station, I got to know and recognise the cows. The one with the missing horn. The one with its horns pointing in different directions. The one with the bandaged ankle. The newborn ones, as fluffy and puffy as chicks. The cows move around as individuals, congregating in a herd - how we are accustomed to seeing them, as cogs in the wheel of livestock farming - only at night to rest.

I also got to know the beggars, who almost outnumber the tourists here. These are not beggars by British standards. Looking like a witch-doctor, shaman and Rastfari hybrid, they wear orange robes, smoke hash, smile a lot and greet you saying what they think is "how are you?", sounding more like "Hare-yoo". The exception which proves the rule is one who took to spitting at me and declaring his dislike whenever we would pass: "I don't like you. Not nice." One morning he had a change of heart and tried to entice me to join him for chai - chai that he would pay for, no less. But his initial presuppositions about my "no good nature" were confirmed when I declined and he hobbled off.

People smile a lot here. The media love to talk about India's GDP, huge population or the starvation in parts, but they never mention the happiness and optimism. India is a very happy country with some of the most consistently genuine and warm people in the world. When a beggar with polio, and one with stubs for arms and legs, sit on the street every day and still manage to beam at you, it really puts the plaintive British mindset to shame.

Some of Hinduism's core assumptions - that are closely linked to the philosophies of yoga - are that the present moment is all there is; the interconnectedness of everything and everyone on earth and the fact that underneath everything we see in the material world is love, happiness and understanding. Where do you think the hippies got all their ideas from?

Everything changes and everything returns according to Hinduism. Even we return. Just with different bodies. The assumption that this life is not the last - and certainly not the first either - has lent the Indian people a buoyancy that pervades everywhere, even if many people may not be actively religious or aware of their culture's ideaology. 

Family life is of utmost importance here, and this mentality spreads to a love of people in general. If a stranger wants to speak to you on the London Underground, he is either a freak or after something. If a stranger wants to speak to you here, 99.9% of the time they just want to be your friend.

The Rishikesh locals are the most trusting I have met. If you are short on cash or want to take a bowl of food back to your guesthouse and return the crockery later - no problem! There is a mentality in India that anything is possible. Anything. The stereotype of "developing" nations is that things take longer. In some cases it may be true, but things definitely seemed to get done a lot quicker in Rishikesh than in good old England. Floorboards for the new yoga hall at Rishikesh Yog Peeth were being laid down and nailed in minutes before the first class of the course began. Foundations of buildings are whipped up in a day, and building work takes place anywhere… including in the middle of an exceedingly narrow and exceedingly busy bridge. 

Outside my window a new building was being put up over the seven weeks I stayed there.  Not a health and safety handbook in sight, risks taken and working arrangements that would have had the council at back home up in arms, yet… NOBODY got hurt. And the building steadily grew towards completion with double the speed it would have had in the UK. How is this possible, you ask with incredulity. All the "contractors" were consenting adults (in case you were wondering) and worked with the tenacity of ants. Incidentally, my room in Korea also overlooked an under-construction apartment block. They must be one of my life's leitmotifs.

India is psychedelic. Colour leaves nothing untouched. The saris (Indian women just don't do demure), the Ken Kesey-style buses looking like they were decorated by enthusiastic children, the artwork and crafts, the murals in cafes, the homage to their deities, the deities themselves. The festivals are always exuberant occasions, more akin to parties than religious happenings. Diwali's display of lights can be seen from space - literally - and sets off more fireworks than the Fourth of July. I now know what it is like to practise yoga to the sound of artillery. Holi, celebrated in February, involves having paint fights and ending up looking like a modern art installation. And you should see how they dance- not a drop of Dutch-courage to drink and they leap and fling themselves about to music that even the most recalcitrant of party-poopers would have trouble not tapping his foot to. You are always sure to be treated to wafts of their gorgeous music everywhere you step: from shops to restaurants to slightly tinnier versions played from mobile phones in alleyways.

One apparent paradox is that of cleanliness. A lot of activity seems to go on in the name of cleaning. Even the beggars scrub themselves properly everyday at the water taps dotted around. Washing is always hanging out to dry. Shop fronts and guest house floors are maintained well. Contrast this to the Indian habit of urinating and defecating anywhere, making certain short cuts in town pungent and overwhelming. Think concentrated festival toilet. And when I say anywhere, I mean anywhere. And with no abashment. Forget ever finding toilet paper in facilities. That's what one's left hand and the water tap are for! The Indians also don't seem to need any sort of tissue-type equivalent when it comes to blowing their nose. Indeed, they let rip all bodily functions without an iota of self-consciousness.

This seems contradictory to their apparent modesty when it comes to exposing bare shoulders and legs. I often became the victim of disapproving looks and comments for my "bad dress" and  short hair. I was advised by several gurus, astrologers and yoga teachers that I should not have short hair as it throws my feminine energy out of balance. I assured them I was growing it as fast as my body and nature allowed.

If certain things take longer - the preparation of food in restaurants, the tuning of instruments before a concert - it is because the devotion and care taken in completing these tasks is so great. Food is made with love here. Instruments are played with love. These things are done for the sake of doing them, rather than to turn a profit. This thoroughness and work ethic is reflected in the way the women rinse and wring out the laundry and the cleaners scrub the floors. That is yoga happening: complete union with whatever it is you are doing. And not a yoga mat in sight. In India, everything is a celebration. Life is here to be loved.

One of the most difficult questions I will inevitably have to answer will be "how was India?" India was everything: good, bad, ugly; wonderful, uplifting, inspiring; exhausting, frustrating, overwhelming; alien, comforting, peaceful. India gave me so much. And it will continue to. In memories and when I return. If not in this life then in another one.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Sound of Silence

Week 5 of Yoga Teacher Training Course in Rishikesh, India. Six days to be spent in self-imposes silence. Here is my what happened.

Day 1

A small card declaring "I am observing a one week silence. Om shanti" lies ready and waiting. It will be my interlocutor for the next week whenever I find myself in situations which would usually require the exchange of words.
Already my inner monologue is whirring and at times even breaks into an inner dialogue: the imagined conversations I won't be able to actually have with people.

The morning yoga class is no problem (the mantra chanting and Om-ing at the start and end of class will not disqualify me). However, after presenting my flash card to my yoga teacher, he pockets it… not realising I was expecting it back. I laugh inwardly before an observant friend informs him of the cruciality of that small piece of paper and he returns it. I squeeze her shoulder to so thank you. 

At breakfast, one half of the dining area has been designated chat-free, for the group of us who are observing the week's silence. There is something respectful about the quiet and a sense of bonding arises just from being together and eating together, despite no audible communication. Eating in silence opens up a whole new world of experiences for enjoying and tasting one's food. I highly recommend you give yourself time to take a few meals a week in silence, if not every day.

Just by missing out on the breakfast banter, I already feel calm and can register the energy surplus from not expending it on chit-chat, however pleasant it usually is. I make a mental note to write some cards bearing the words "Chai masala" or "ginger lemon honey" so that I can place my tea order with the kitchen boys without having to play charades. My order might not otherwise make it across the cultural barrier.

In a shop, I enjoy the experience of having to write out that I want body lotion, and then pointing to the menu to give my order. The only minor problem came when I changed my mind about the tea. Instead of trying to mime this, I just left the tea shop!

I have allowed myself to communicate by writing - both on paper or over the internet. My tweets have gone through the roof. Having to write out everything you want or need to say to those around you really makes you choose your words wisely: separating the conversational chaff from the wheat. 

I made it through day 1 without any slip-ups.. save for singing along to a few lines of Adele in my room.

Day 2

This morning was the hardest yoga practice so far. My mind is distracted and runs away with thoughts more easily than usual. 

People's voices are beginning to annoy and I find myself wishing that a certain few were also observing the silence. Irritable and apathetic today. Body exhausted from a boot camp level of back bends. Trying to write more than two words on an iPhone in lieu of talking is too frustrating to bear, so hand writing on a napkin takes its place.

The Indian people I interact with are all very respectful and reverent when I show them my little card. I need to make a conscious effort to look people in the eye and smile - where one might just normally get away with a "hello" - making the exchange more heartfelt.

I miss not being able to speak the most during lectures, where I usually ask a question or two each class. I now have a growing list of questions to ask when the week is over.

The evening's yoga class was one of my best in the course so far and I had the urge to share this with Sanjay, my teacher. I wrote a note telling him it had been a great class. He was very touched and now will have the note as a permanent reminder. Imagine if we had every compliment ever given us on a piece of paper….

Day 3

Maintaining silence is becoming easier as the people I interact with on a daily basis become used to my not being able to speak. It dawned on me that this is not a very big challenge at all. I am in Rishikesh, where "fasting" and other acts of abstinence are commonplace, compared to your average municipality. I am living in a bubble at the moment, albeit a very fruitful and rewarding one. I don't have any of the responsibilities and obligations - social or otherwise - that I would at home. Contrast this to the Vipasana silence retreats where for 10 days nothing but introspection is allowed. No reading, writing, eye contact, touching, computer use. Even eating is kept to a bare minimum.

I concluded evening yoga with a very enjoyable cry, thus inventing Sobbing Child's Pose. Chai and lashings of rice pudding were on hand at dinner to console.

Day 4

Things are getting interesting. Last night I had a turbulent night's sleep. I awoke with what felt like the onset of a panic attack. I felt sick and unsettled and didn't go back to sleep properly. The half-sleep I had was filled with dreams which took on the form and content they tend to during "nightmares": viscera, gore, death, illness. I woke up grumpy and groggy. The knock on effect was a sore, stiff body and wanting to give up yoga forever. Well, not quite. Morning yoga turned out magically, proving that the greater the psychological barrier, the greater the benefits and outcome, indeed. Whether the previous night's experience be down to connecting with my subconscious, on account of greater introversion, or from yoga's cathartic properties… something has been dislodged inside and it is bliss.

My hastily scribbled (trying to keep apace with the speed at which it would be spoken) notes to people are used only when I feel it is necessary ("I am having problems with my internet again!") or when I feel as if what I want to say is valuable.
For example, this morning when I passed a note to my teacher, with a grin, saying "what is time anyway?!" after he had apologised emphatically for running 15 minutes over time. This made me realise that much of what we say on a daily basis is pure background noise, utterly pointless… yet apparently still gratifying. 

I am comparing my own perceptions of myself: now (during silence) and before (when I had the power of speech). There is a difference. Looking back at memories of myself in conversations, it is like watching a video of myself: is that really me? I feel, look and sound different. How will this perception change when I resume speaking? Incidentally, does the voice in YOUR head "sound" the same as it does out loud? Mine doesn't. It doesn't really have a timbre…

The inner me (made up of the thoughts and dialogue in my head) and the outer me (conversations I have and the way I behave) seem and feel very different to me. As if they are two separate entities. Is this the usual state of affairs for everyone or does this reflect something about me and how I perceive myself? And I think just fell down the rabbit hole.

Inspiration has exploded. The floodgates have been opened and I have to keep writing them down, lest my head turned into a mass of wriggling worms. It may be the creativity or the unexpectedly delicious Kombacha tea (the slightly fermented taste allowing me to pretend it's the hard stuff), but I am in excellent spirits: I don't even want seconds of chapati at lunch!

Day 5

I'm starting to get bored and frustrated and looking forward to breaking the silence. The insular, group environment of Rishikesh Yog Peeth is also starting to become slightly stifling: same routine every day, nowhere to escape to, limited variety of people to socialise with. Think boarding school with fewer distractions, no alcohol and no weekends out in the real world. 

Dying to speak, talk, converse, prattle, chew the fat. Social depravation beginning to be felt. This week of silence and the colonic purge tomorrow (part of our syllabus!) morning will make for a cathartic and cleansing week. 

Day 6

The last day of silence and I wake up feeling it is my birthday. Instead of the usual asana class this morning we are doing Shanka-prakshalan. In a nutshell: we are to drink 16 glasses of luke warm salt water interspersed with a specific series of asana and mad dashes to the toilet. The hardest part is overcoming the nausea from drinking so much salt water. I make it to 13 glasses of water and 4 rounds of the asanas and successfully manage to make the river run clear, as it were. A special meal of ghee, rice and lentils is prepared for us. The rest of the day is to be spent resting and not drinking any sort of caffeinated drinks. Tomorrow will be a day of celebrating with chai and chat. Today is for rest and rejuvenation.

Indulging in chai and sweets (I just couldn't wait!) was not a good idea in the long run after what was the expulsion of the entire lining of my digestive tract this morning. I should have realised the bad omen when the samosa man could not understand the message I wrote him. I had to shove my exercise book under the eyes of another tourist who happened to be in eye-shot to make sure i got my Nutella and banana samosa and chai (no sugar).

Day 7: the first day of the rest of my life

The first few conversations back were slightly anti-climactic. But then again, what was I expecting? Having a break from babbling has made me appreciate being able to  converse and, more importantly, connect with people all the more. Ordering tea is now a cinch, although I will miss the playful interactions I had with the tea boys, miming my order to them at each meal. I have to keep remembering I can talk again. I can ask questions in class.When I pass someone in the alley I can say hello as well as smile. 

Most interesting are the comments of my peers. They said I looked peaceful, that I emitted a positive and calming energy and that I also looked strong and focused. 

I feel like I have woken up from a sleep. The break from talking has been palpable. Like the Shanka-prakshalan, this was definitely a deep clean for something - my soul, my voicebox, my personality.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Is the woman extinct?

Over ninety years on from Emmeline Pankhurst, the Suffragettes and hunger strikes and gender equality is still one of our most taboo issues. After almost a century of us females battling it out for equal treatment, the interplay between the two sexes has changed dramatically and, most probably, irreparably. What started out as a desire to be acknowledged as equals from a political and legal standpoint has turned into a plight to become the same from a biological perspective, too.

Chivalry and courteous behaviour from a man to a woman can be interpreted as sexist: women want men to treat them like men… but then decry the fact that romance is dead when they are not treated like the damsels in movies and novels of old in private. It seems that what women really want is to be hermaphrodites: a man in the boardroom, a woman in the bedroom. 

The fact that men and women carry out different roles in nature - and thus, must necessarily be built extremely differently - is something of an uncomfortable truth and one which western society tries most adamantly to ignore. It is now almost laughable for a woman to give up a career once she has children. Those who do so are branded as lazy. Women are expected to have careers and fulfil their original function as bearers of the next generation. Can't conceive? No boyfriend or husband? That's what IVF and sperm banks are for, honey.

We spend the first half of our life pumping chemicals and concoctions into our bodies to avoid the encumbrance of a pregnancy. And then when the tick-tocking of nature's biological clock looms louder, we pump yet more chemicals in to try and welcome back said encumbrance.

The very thing that makes us women, makes us feminine, makes men want to stick their parts into us is denied and even detested. That monthly event is seen as a major inconvenience. Men don't have off days, weighed down by bloating, cramping and lethargy, so we can't have those either. How will we get to the top if we take the day off? The notion that menstruation should be circumvented began for me - and for many others - in school when getting an off games slip on account of Patricia (as we affectionately called it back then) was nearly always refused.

The constant fighting, denying and resisting of fluctuating hormones and undulating moods is making the "problem" just that. Women don't want to be women. We want to be men in make-up and women's clothes because being a woman is not acceptable - despite the exponential existence of highly sexed-up adverts, magazines, TV shows, films etc which seem to worship the feminine body. However, look closely and these bodies have more often than not been airbrushed into oblivion, leaving no traces of definitive womanhood behind.

Fighting nature creates conflict in the psyche of women, exacerbating the symptoms associated with PMS, a.k.a. womb fury. The symptoms are not the problem. It is us perceiving them to be a problem by believing it is unacceptable to succumb to the natural rhythms of our body. Indeed, PMS is very much a Western affliction. If we embraced the fact we are women, capable of creating LIFE with our bodies (with a few essential ingredients courtesy of men folk, of course) then maybe we would start to appreciate these vessels that inspire so much lust. 

We need to start respecting and listening to our bodies and be grateful for them. In Syria (not usually lauded for its progressiveness in gender equality), female employees are permitted to take one day off a month to rest when nature comes a-calling. That certainly isn't equality from a Human Resource Management point of view, but it certainly is compassion.

The menstrual cycle is divided into the yin and yang halves. Yin is the female aspect. The intuitive, introverted, quiet part of the month when we may feel more tired, reclusive and pensive. Yang is the masculine aspect (occurring after ovulation) when we are full of energy, movement and more extroverted. Both phases are necessary to carry out our biological function as females. Instead of trying to make the yin phase disappear, we should learn to adapt and work with the two phases. Catch up on some reading during the yin phase; go crazy during the yang.

Next time the usually dreaded day looms, take the time to be aware of your body. Appreciate it. Rest. Eat if your body asks for it. And enjoy the fact that you were born a woman with life creating capabilities.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Downward what? The Misinterpretation of Yoga

"No, I've never done yoga, I'm not very flexible." One of the most common answers I have received when enquiring as to whether someone has practised yoga before. The answer demonstrates how misunderstood and misinterpreted yoga is in the West, and also in the East outside the walls of ashrams. Yoga involves movement and is often held in gyms and sports halls across the land. People wear work out gear to practise and sometimes break out a sweat during class. It must therefore be exercise. Thus, the aim of it must be to be the most flexible, the most contorted and the strongest student in the group, right? Wrong. Yoga DVDs, yoga books adorned with models backward bending into statuesque positions and Bikram yoga have led the majority of people who have not experienced yoga - and definitely some who have - to believe that yoga can be interpreted and practised like a sport or exercise.

Sports are measured purely on a physical level. While there is no doubt that yoga encompasses a physical element, the practice goes so much further. Flexibility, playing with personal limits, breaking a sweat and advanced postures are no doubt an element of yoga… but these are "by-products" of the practice, and not the sole aim. Yoga is a process not a goal.

There does not exist a Western equivalent of yoga - now as essential and integral to my life as eating, drinking and breathing. Few of our physical activities encompass the mind, and much less the spirit, as well as the body. Yoga is holistic. It takes into account our whole being. Believe it or not we are not only our body. However, it is very hard to use words such as holistic, consciousness, meditation, and even yoga, without inspiring a negative knee jerk reaction in most people. They are immediately put off even before coming to a class.

In Western society we have been raised in an ego-centric and materialistic environment: the physical world is all there is. Competition is rife. It is all about pushing limits. Being the best, the strongest, the fastest, the richest. Limits are there to be pushed through and rest is only for the weak. Balance is not an option. We let our egos run the show. We act how we feel we should act, not how we really want to. We even feel how we think we should feel, suppressing what we really are feeling. We are not even aware of it.

A person's original reason for beginning yoga - whether to embark on a path of self-realisation or purely to get a perfect body - is irrelevant. The most important thing is that they are practising. It may take anything from months to years, but its subtle magic will work its way into the life of that person without them even trying. Yoga is a cure all. Mentally, physically, psychically.

Yoga means "union" - the joining and balancing of two things. What are these two things? The masculine and feminine energies in each of us. The left and right sides of the brain. The extroverted and introverted natures. The breath and movement. And on the more esoteric, spiritual level (N.B. spirituality does NOT equal religion), the supreme and individual consciousnesses. 

While one may study yoga for years and keep finding new ways of describing its essence, at its core it is very simple. Feel your body. Notice your breath. Relax. Each yoga practice - each posture, even - is a blank page. Enter it with no expectations.  You, and even the most experienced yogi, will never do the same position in the same way more than once. The important thing is to just OBSERVE what is happening in the body and in the breath. And then relax. That is all there is to it.

Contrast this with the majority of sports where the external is the measurement of success. How fast you can run, how high you can jump, how much iron you can pump. Success in yoga is how relaxed you can make yourself, how deep, slow and rhythmic you can make your breath (and mind) and how aware you are of what is happening in your body. The flexibility, strength, ripped abs and the rest will all come in due course.

In yoga we are constantly exploring and trying to go beyond our personal limits, and at the same time being respectful of how far over the limits we can go. It is completely inappropriate, unnecessary and unhelpful to compare the yoga practices of two people, regardless of whether they have been practising for the exact same number of yoga classes. Yoga is adapted to each person, and not the other way round. What is important is not how a posture looks from the outside but how it feels from the inside.

So why do yoga at all? According to yogic philosophy the body is the manifestation of the mind which is a manifestation of the spirit. The first aim of yoga is to relax. After relaxation comes health of the body. Thereafter, health of the mind and an ability to connect with our true nature: our soul, which connects us to everything and everyone else in the universe and which is always peaceful and happy. According to yoga, ALL disease - from colds to cancer - are psycho-somatic and caused by stress and inner conflict. Yoga dissolves mental conflict, allowing for a healthy body…. which is, after all, what the NHS spends billions each year on trying to achieve for the nation. 

Another question frequently asked of me is "what type of yoga do you do?" To satisfy anyone wondering about the type of yoga in which I am being trained to teach: Hatha yoga. It is a reflection of how entrenched marketing mentality is in our culture that now even yoga is branded. This makes the consumer - and potential practitioner - believe that these styles are very different. Not so. The subdivisions exist mainly as a way to get people coming back to a specific class. The fundamentals of all these yogas are the same. The postures are all the same. What may differ is the sequence the postures are practised in and the pace. The core principles are equivalent. Or should be. 

The mind is an ever-shifting, scattered place. Yoga encourages one-pointedness of the mind by honing concentration onto the body and the breath, inducing the relaxation we so badly need in our stress-riddled lives. If the breath and body are all we observe, there is no room for all the worrying, deliberating and wavering.

And by stress, we are not only talking about life quaking events and situations like bullying, break-ups or bereavement. Stress includes all the day to day activities like sitting in traffic, being irked by the d**k ahead of you in a queue or waiting for your turn to be served in a busy pub. That fist-around-the-stomach rush you feel when you see your crush is also a form of stress. 

Stress is required. But our modern lives are such that the stress response - a cocktail and rollercoaster ride of hormones - is on pretty much all the time. And we have no control over it. It is a completely involuntary physical response to events. Yoga helps turn this, and eventually ALL, involuntary physical and emotional responses into VOLUNTARY responses. We become the boss of our minds and not vice versa.

So, what you are all dying to know: can you lose weight with yoga? Hell yes. 3 weeks into my yoga teacher training course and I am slimmer, toned and feeling fantastic, even though yoga is currently my only form of exercise - bar some gentle walking on a daily(ish) basis. It is not just the calories you burn and the increased muscle tone you achieve through the postures. Through control of your mind you will be able to avoid over-eating. Being more aware of your body will help you realise whether you are actually full and when you are actually hungry. You will develop increased levels of energy so you won't need to fuel what might be a deficit in mental energy with food. And we all know decreasing the calories will bring bout weight loss.

Another aim of asana practise (i.e. practising a sequence of postures) is to put the body in a Sattvic (pure) state in preparation for meditation practice. We tend to fluctuate between either a Rajsic (restless) state or a Tamsic (lethargic) state. The idea is to reach a state of equanimity in which we can maintain a sitting meditative posture for an extended period of time.

Why bother meditating? Because it, too, brings about the health and calm which lead to happiness. And this is what we spend our whole existence trying to achieve through sensual pleasure, fast cars and iPads, isn't it?