When I was a girl and I used to go to my Grandma’s house with my mother, there was a picture on the sideboard of her (me mam) as a girl and she looked just like me. It was so like me, but not me, that I was mesmerised.
Now a mum with daughters, I am mesmerised when I look through old photographs which look just like them but are actually me. I have always liked my face, not least of all because it looks like my mother’s and whenever I look in the mirror, I see her and I am comforted.
One of my Bikram teachers has a thing about looking in the mirror. She is constantly saying things like: It’s hard to look at yourself in the mirror. Perhaps you feel old when you look in the mirror because you are grey and fat. And she says it with such passion and commitment that I find it hard to bear. It stirs all sorts of painful emotions within me.
I am very grey and occasionally fat, and most of the time I am okay with that. I actually like looking in the mirror at myself doing bikram, even when going through a mini Porker-Firth phase, like I did last year after eating all the cookies. I missed my mum and comfort ate my way through grief which created a prosperous roll around my midriff which my girls and I affectionately referred to as my cookie belt. I was okay demonstrating that if I comfort eat I put on weight, and it’s important to listen to our bodies, not our pain, where food is concerned. And, I was okay demonstrating that if I have grey hair, it’s ok embrace it and not dye it and not conform, as my youngest got her first grey hair at seven years old. Equally it is okay to dye it, though it took me long enough to grow mine out which was definitely less torturous than dying it every two weeks.
That said, I don’t know if it was the heat, but whenever my yoga teacher went on about feeling fat and grey and old, it made me want to say and do very un-yogic things even though Pantajali said that the first yama, or rule, of his limbs of yoga was ahimsa, do no harm. Instead, he advised that we act with loving kindness, or what the Buddhists refer to as mitri.
After writing the comfort blog, I asked my eldest if she minded looking like me, – I hadn’t always felt grateful to look like my mother – and this daughter of mine being smart and completely charming, mentioned Kung Fu Panda 3, when Po arrives at the secret Panda village and sees lots of pandas for the first time: You look just like me but a baby. You look just like me, but old. It made us laugh so much that we have been saying such things to each other ever since.
The day I came home from Bikram complaining about my teacher, saying that I just couldn’t believe that someone who practices yoga and teaches yoga daily is still focused on physical appearances, my daughter changed her phrase to : You look like me but old… and fat … and grey, until of course I was helpless with laughter, and that got me thinking: Why did I care so much what this teacher was saying?
I think it is because even though that I have made my decision about my grey hair, and I have shed my cookie belt after my bikram 30 day challenge last month, like my teacher, I still buy into society’s message for women who have grey hair, which is: I am disposable, invisible. This is utter nonsense of course (I stick out a bit with the grey) but the hair dye industry is so invested in selling hair dye to grey haired women that it has to tell us that we would look better with our grey hair covered up.
After all, selling is about making people feel less than, it is about hitting them as low down on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as possible. Consequently, it is hard sometimes to keep the grey hair faith, or the Graith, which disappoints me because it bothers me to look in the mirror and feel less than satisfied with my appearance, after everything I have lived through and all the meditation and yoga I do.
And if I am not squirming enough saying that out loud, I think just because that someone is a teacher, then they should have mastery over themselves, and be able to teach me things I cannot teach myself. I am so intolerant. It’s awful, and now I am judging myself as well as judging her which makes me feel less than.
I trained as a yoga teacher, and I have also lectured computing for many years, and one thing I have just come to realise and now know to be truth is that sometimes you have teach something in order to learn it. That is the beauty of teaching and learning, it is a magical exchange of energy. Even when I think I know something pretty well and I am teaching it, there always comes a moment part way through whatever course I am giving that I, the teacher, learn something new because someone in the room has a different experience and a different perspective regardless of their age and experience, hair, weight, lifestyle. Everyone in every part of our lives is a teacher, we just have to be willing to listen. And, this is why I love teaching. We are all in it together teaching and learning with each other, we resonate with a shared passion for computing or yoga or whatever it is that has brought us together.
This energy exchange puts me in mind of Tonglen, the meditation practice of breathing in and out and exchanging fear for love in those moments when life gets unbearable. It was something I started doing after reading buddhist nun Pema Chödrön.
So I was delighted the other day, when I was thinking about my feelings of intolerance and impatience with my yoga teacher, and I happened upon Chödrön’s meditation of equality practice, often simply called Just like me:
The equality practice is simple [..] You think, “Just like me, she wants to be happy; she doesn’t want to suffer.” …it lifts the barrier of indifference to other people’s joy, to their private pain, and to their wonderful uniqueness.– Pema Chödrön, Tonglen in Daily Life
After a few rounds of just like me, I realised that my yoga teacher is teaching me all manner of things I do not want to teach myself. She echoes the thoughts in my head, the ones I pretend are not there. She really is just like me, only braver.
The truth is, I am not as sorted as I like to pretend I am with my grey hair, nor am I as tolerant and yogic as I like to think. My teacher has the courage to talk about her private pain, well our private pain, which is why her words disturb me, she is just like me, but speaks up, when I keep quiet so that I don’t have to feel that people will think that I am less than. She has shown me that by speaking up, I am not less than because I don’t judge her as less than either, I see her as brave and authentic, and perhaps that’s how people view me or perhaps they don’t, as Deepak Chopra says: What people think of me is none of my business. I need to let go of that thinking altogether.
Lesson learnt – well not quite, but I am looking forward to her next class. I am ready to step into that magical energy exchange of teaching and learning, of yoga and meditation, and come out slightly different at the end, but not too different, after all, she is just like me, but different and I give thanks for that and for everything she has to teach me.