Way back in March 2020, that much referenced time of pre-pandemia, I had said goodbye to colleagues as though I would see them in a few weeks and made my way home for something called ‘lockdown’. I left the favourite mint-green coffee mug from my brother-in-law on my desk and packed up my laptop, not to return for nearly 12 months.
Being at home was at first a welcome relief from a daily life that mostly felt hard and incredibly hamster-wheelish. Like most, I had always worked and commuted and overcommitted myself, and just like that I could be home with my then 3-year-old, bake, potter like never before and block out the world and all its obligations … somewhat. I narrowed my focus to the bounds of my home, while also fascinated in a train-wreck kinda way at this crisis on the outside befalling us all. The ridiculous local news of toilet paper wars in supermarkets was dramatically offset by news from our Italian family, a constant and sobering reminder of how bad things were elsewhere. Calls to Nonna in Milan became a daily occurrence, the dire situation there severely contrasting talk of sourdough and ‘do we actually know anyone who has Covid’, here in Australia. How the latter was to change.
Maintaining a travel blog during a time of prolonged stay-at-home orders felt kind of pointless. Global travel felt, and in some ways still feels, like a far-off concept from a bygone era; the ease with which one could travel between exotic locations a memory I have some trouble recalling. I would be lying if I said that the idea of travelling again doesn’t fill me with trepidation. Possible cancellations, becoming sick or stuck, borders closing and being locked out of one’s country (I’m looking at you, Australia) are all very real threats to the hop-on, hop-off times of yesteryear.
I turned my attention to yoga in these early days of the pandemic, after a dear friend mentioned in a zoom group catch-up (the first of a gazillion that were to come) that her yoga teacher was offering free meditations live on Instagram each morning. It had been some time since I had properly meditated and I was intrigued, so at 8.30 the following morning, I closed myself off in my room, opened up Instagram and looked up an account by the name of ‘@_thelightcollective_’. I clicked on the ‘Live’ circle up the top and up popped a serene and utterly magnetic woman, sitting crossed-legged and in a deep discussion with herself or somebody watching her (I had no idea about any of this back then!) about yogic philosophy. Thinking she could also see me, I sat up a little straighter.
As I listened to her, I became entranced by her voice and stirred by her words. Her name was Sian and, not really in the market for a guru, I had sort of stumbled upon one. (She would not like me saying that, humble as she is).
Each day after that I made sure I was in my room at 8.30 a.m., preparing my work computer just before so that I could quickly be ‘at work’ by 9. I would word up the Papa that he was on duty, given there was also no more daycare and we were now all home together (thank the heavens I didn’t know then that this ‘no daycare’ business was to last for seven whole months). Sian would begin with a 15-minute Satsang, a spiritual discussion, followed by a 15-minute meditation using a mantra. The use of mantra was new to me and took some getting used to. It felt strange to let these words roll around in my mouth; words that I did not understand and bore no meaning for me, but that felt good to say. There was a pull I felt each morning to sit and practice. And so I did, and have done every day since.
I signed up for my first course in July of that year, a weekend-long meditation course. Then a three-week course a couple of months later. Then another. And then another, until in December 2020 I decided to take the plunge and sign up for the year-long signature training, The Method, a 150-hour yoga teacher training. Each morning for the 12 months I was to do a daily Sadhana, or practice, which would last around 1.5 hours and included a 24-minute meditation, in addition to a one-hour live call with the group and teacher each week. I didn’t think too hard about this commitment and once I knew my friend was also in, I signed up. My lockdown ‘hobby’ had now become quite a lot more serious.
My year of The Method turned out to be the backbone to a big year of change: buying my first home, separating from Little G’s dad, more lockdowns, a short-lived and ill-timed return to university studies and entering the precarious world of dating later on in the year.
Each month we were initiated into a new Sadhana, a series of kriya practices, involving breathwork (pranayama), mantra and meditation, each with their own distinct focus as we deepened our practice month by month. I began to learn in the most confronting of ways my most limiting of beliefs, and how my yoga practice was a reflection of how I behaved in my daily life. My yoga friends were soon to learn more about my interior world than those closest to me. I drifted close to the edge of a vegetarian, caffeine- and alcohol-free existence, as my body became more and more sensitive to what I consumed and the noises and visuals I absorbed. I did get my three coffee-a-day habit down to one, which was a decent effort. I shook my body most mornings, in a practice called Virata, lifted and stretched my arms vigorously for several minutes at a time without dropping them and pushed past whatever ideas I had that I was not a yoga person to indeed become some kind of a yoga person.
I’m a few months out of The Method and look back on that year and wonder how on earth I did it. The commitment to a daily practice was entirely new for me; the commitment itself teaching me my own ability to be present and have my own back. It also taught me the power of discomfort.
I am someone who has never liked to make mistakes or taken criticism particularly well. I could analyse this and have done over the years, but I can say it has much to do with perfectionism and people-pleasing, as I’m sure many might identify with.
Yoga was the first pursuit I’ve ever said yes to with absolute certainty, while feeling like a mega-imposter at the same time. I didn’t believe I looked like a yogi, could talk like a yogi or outwardly appear as though I was spiritually-inclined. I didn’t have the right gear or a beautifully set-up at home complete with shrine and several thousand candles. But the practices didn’t lie. I focussed on the practices and each day faced myself at my most raw and groggy, somewhere in the vicinity of 6 a.m. I learnt that the practices themselves were neither bad nor good, as Sian would say, but just practices. Each day they shifted something, often only slightly, but sometimes in a frighteningly major way; the daily repetition either strengthening or shattering an idea or feeling or long-held belief. I learnt that there was no right way to ‘be’ in order to do the practices. It was just me and my Sadhana, entering into a stretch of time I had gifted myself, with practices gifted to me. Little by little I became acquainted with myself in this way. I came to understand how I function, confronting the many layers of feeling, learning how to sit with them and come to some kind of peace. I came to understand others in a different way. And I came to accept my own discomfort and the notion of being a forever student.
I am reminded of this daily now as my son enters his second term of his first year of school. He reads the alphabet each night, becoming frustrated around the ‘l, m, n, o, p’ mark. He rattles off a phrase his classroom teacher has taught him: ‘mistakes help you learn’ and in the next breath he might cry when he gets a word or a letter wrong. I am seeing in him what I see in myself and I try to tell him in a way he understands, ‘keep going, even if you make mistakes’. I want him to know he is safe to try, that he shouldn’t hold back or write something off completely if his first attempt isn’t a great success. I think of all of the opportunities I have said no to, for the very same reason, and I feel a great sadness and regret at this.
A few weeks’ ago I attended my first teachers’ conference in many years, having recently rejoined the world of languages publishing. The keynote from educational neuroscientist Dr Jared Cooney Horvath, about the reality of skill transfer, was of particular interest. His most salient point was that the only skill proven to enable the process of transfer to eventually take place, is learning. This, he told us, meant good old-fashioned repetition and hard work. The Japanese teachers quietly rejoiced. Teaching script to reluctant Year 7 and 8 kids was still done best with rote, according to those in the room. He also contested that the human mind needs to master information before it can transfer or adapt this information to a different context; that we can’t simply graze the knowledge smorgasbord, so to speak, and then hope to apply an underdeveloped skill or superficial knowledge to a different task.
I realised, sitting in that conference room, that in many ways I had become more of a grazer of information over the years. Unsurprisingly, this is mostly out of a deep fear that if I spend time applying myself to one thing, I will waste a whole lot of time being terrible at it and miss out the many other options available, options that have often paralysed me or added to my general confusion about life. The commitment to yoga had been my first steadfast one since I had decided in my 20s that oats were to be my weekday breakfast.
Horvath’s talk also reminded me of the concept of the ‘Beginner’s Mind’, or Shoshin, as referred to in Buddhist teachings.
‘If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.’Shunryu Suzuki
I don’t believe this popularised Zen master is dissing knowledge or the mastery of a skill. Rather, he is talking about how we approach learning, in much the same way as the esteemed neuroscientist did – without ego and with a willingness to be absolute beginners. That is, to make mistakes and continue anyway.
This year, I am learning Italian in earnest so that I can not just understand G’s other language, but also speak it. I am good at understanding Italian. I am terrible at being brave enough to attempt speaking it. And probably I am not great at speaking it, not that I know! But I must, if yoga continues to teach me anything. There is a safety line there … one where I can speak just enough to satisfy my ego and feel OK with my efforts. Over the line is that next level of fluency, where my attempts will result in so very many mistakes and I will feel all the frustration, anger and sensitivity at getting things wrong. Over the line is where I want to be and yet, I must feel the discomfort in order to sit in this stage long enough to get close to fluency. It is the beginners mind needed for mastery, without thinking that I’ve mastered anything and remaining curious and open. It is also that I must work for it, as the aforementioned neuroscience tells me.
I will lastly add to this musing that I will soon be resuming my guided hikes, but this time with a yogic slant. I am nervous as all hell to reveal this aspect of myself to friends, family members and perfect strangers who may join, but c’est la vie. It is time to quit rearranging my furniture, exit my Ladypad sanctuary and, with maximum awkwardness, attempt to guide fellow souls through some meditation in the forest and perhaps a little Virata shaking to delight the wildlife. I hope with that wonderful promotion one, or some, of you out there might like to join me. There will still be food … always! Until then. xx