Yoga Lessons: A year in front of Bikram’s mirrors

the 26 Bikram yoga poses

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. – Lao Tzu

When I first turned up to Bikram, I couldn’t believe that I would have to look at myself in a mirror for 90 minutes whilst I got hot, sweaty, and contorted myself into various positions.

I have always preferred my yoga super quiet with the lights down low because that is the only way I thought I would be able to concentrate on me. However, nearly a year on, from when I first committed to doing Bikram yoga, I now see that having mirrors in the yoga studio is genius.

Acceptance

To stand in front of a mirror and to truly accept myself exactly as I am and not cringe, not feel embarrassed and not want to change anything about my own dear self, is the first step, and could well be the only step, to inner peace.

I have a lot of grey hair which I have been covering up for years, but six months into my practice I stood on my mat one day and looked at my hair and asked myself why. Why am I pretending my hair isn’t grey? I am not 20 years old – well I had grey hair then too (but that’s another story). Why do I need to look the way I did when I was 20?

Then, a couple of months ago I swapped my t-shirt for a yoga bra which allowed me to gaze upon my midriff in an act of unbelievable not me-ness, because I have always thought of myself and my midriff as an Egyptian scribe.

In Egyptian times, only scribes could write and were well paid for their services, consequently they had prosperous rolls which would be on display in the market place as they sat doing their job. Nowadays we tend not to admire prosperous rolls so much, which is one thing, so to get them out in public and look at them without judgement, well that is another thing altogether.

It has also been a good way of seeing whether I really am following the script’s command of suck in that stomach which one teacher then followed up with basically forever, which makes me laugh even now. And, I have learnt to take that off the mat and do it wherever I go. It is a way of standing up taller and taking up the space that I am entitled to, which us women sometimes are unable to do (and is a whole blog in itself, coming soon). Of course, now that I have engaged with that part of my body, admired my prosperous roles, sucked it in (or mula bandha-ed it), my core is stronger, which makes me admire that strength and that part of my body in a way I never did before.

Letting go

At certain points in class the teacher might advise me, and everyone else, to let go of the mirrors, because sometimes I need to bend right back and trust my body. Also, sometimes when I am trying to attain a position, I am striking a pose instead of feeling what is going on in my body. And, some of the 26 poses especially in the standing series are very cool and very dramatic, and getting into them and doing them well is pretty fantastic. However, it is not about the glory of the pose, as one fabulous teacher puts it, it is about the shift taking place inside and it is about going to my edge – the area just outside my comfort zone – these things are not reflected in the mirror at all, so I have to let go of the mirrors to look inside.

Sometimes, a teacher might tell us to just let go, which is all powerful, all encompassing. I might have done a great pose, or I might have not quite managed it, but either way it is over now. I have to let it go to give myself the mental space and energy to do the next thing. In the same way off the mat, I have to let go of the thing I wish I had said, or hadn’t said, or the kindness or unkindness I did or didn’t do. That moment has gone. I have to let it all go. I am in a brand new moment which is the only moment I have. I only have the now.

Only what you are not giving can be lacking in any situation – A course in miracles

One day I was doing my usual thing of what I now call mental bartering, which sounds like this: If I do this pose, then I can have a rest, and miss the next one out, and do the one after and then I will a lie down and I will look like I am trying. It was a long monologue in my mind mainly about how hot, how tired, and how I wished I was anywhere else but in the studio. Then the teacher said: Pick up your foot, which I am guessing no one did, who knows for sure, I was busy talking to myself. And then she said: Just pick it up. Don’t think about it, just pick it up, and, she made us practice picking up the foot. It was a revelation. I became free. I had not been giving my full attention to the script and that was what was missing, I was busy mentally hoarding my energy, but by giving it up – the energy, the thoughts, the bartering – and giving my all to that moment, instead of spending all my energy, the act of giving up seemed to free up infinite energy. I picked up my foot in that moment, and every moment afterwards and I was and I remain gloriously free. When I am spent and have nothing else to give, I lean in, and trust that the momentum of picking up my foot will carry me further and create anything I desire.

I picked up my foot: Dandayamana Janushirasana (Standing Head to Knee)

Taking this off the mat, in the moments when I feel afraid, when it feels, for example, like someone not giving me what I need, instead of getting angry and aggressive, I can lean in, and listen to that person, or to myself and ask: What is missing? It is not easy, and I am not always successful. However, this is what I have learnt: If I am looking to someone else for something, it is that I believe that I will feel better in the having of the something that someone has to offer. But that is just not be true. I have everything I need. I don’t need anyone else to make anything better for me. No one else is in charge of my happiness.

No one else can pick up my foot. No one else can stop the monologue in my head. No one else can listen to the script for me.  It’s me who needs to give that which is missing, either to the situation, to the other person, or to myself, and then let the momentum of the giving create the very thing I desire.

To stand in someone else’s shoes you have to stand in your own shoes first – Pema Chödrön

Bikram’s mirrors are like life itself, it mirrors me. I am embodied so I see and interpret the world in terms of myself and my past experiences. I thought I needed silence and the lights down low to do yoga to concentrate on myself, because that was how I had learnt to do yoga, and where I got the best results. However, I have since learnt that there is nowhere better than when the heat is on and the lights are bright to connect with myself. To look at myself openly and honestly, with compassion and acceptance, and to take that off the mat and into my daily life, well that has been the greatest gift that practising Bikram yoga has given me, and I know, I have only scratched the surface.

Namaste!

Women in Storytelling – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Rey Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Source: http://www.comicbookresources.com

We always wanted to write Rey as the central character, but it was just one of the things we knew we wanted to do: to make the film look and feel more like the way the world looks and feels. – JJ Abrams, The Guardian

It is well known that Star Wars is based on the hero’s quest which is an archetypal story that transcends culture and time. According to Joseph Campbell, the hero’s quest is hard-wired in our psyche and so when our hero battles villains and the powers of darkness, it resonates and entertains each generation anew. The hero’s quest never gets old which is why the Star Wars franchise, begun back in 1977, has endured.

The pattern of our hero receiving a call to action, going on an adventure, doing great things, and returning home to great reward is very satisfying and appears in many of our stories:Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, to name just two. However, these stories have only ever had women in supporting roles as temptresses or goddesses, and other stereotypes (prostitute with a heart of gold, love interest, the really hot girl disguised in glasses) while men do the self-actualisation.

In Star Wars: A New HopePrincess Leia seems to be the only woman in the whole of that galaxy far, far, away. She is a born leader, but still has to wait around for Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Chewbacca, because everyone is following the rescue the princess trope. She may be feisty (*groan* = a terrible word. Why are men never described as feisty?) doling out snappy one liners and keeping her cool whilst in the clutches of Darth Vader, but she is still doing her best with a terrible supporting role.

Therefore, to watch Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens: a female character, a woman centre stage at last, is completely satisfying. And, Rey is not alone in this story. The ever fabulous Princess Leia is now a more rounded character as General of the Rebel Alliance, a mum and wife (possibly ex-wife). Leading the stormtroopers is Captain Phasma. And, wise guru, Maz Kanata, is the voice of Force wisdom.  So, we have female stormtroopers, female pilots, and female medical staff in the Rebel Camp. Star Wars has becomes representative of the world we live in today. No one feels the need to explain or justify these women’s place – it is the way of the world – a balanced world of equal opportunity.

The story which contains these women is brilliant. Not least of all because this episode of Star Wars reuses all the best parts of the previous Star Wars episodes, and sets up the promise of a satisfactory ending from the very beginning, whilst continuing to build momentum right to its resolution in the last frame of the film. I didn’t even realise I was holding my breath until the credits started to roll. We follow Rey right to that ending, leaving us to speculate about her full story, and looking forward to meeting her again in the next episode.

We believe in Rey because we first meet her on the planet Jakku where she lives as a scavenger who finds scrap metal and machinery from abandoned space ships to trade for not-enough food. It is a lonely existence in which she has learnt to become self-sufficient, and how to defend herself.

Like all great characters, she has worked long and hard to learn her skills. She is knowledgeable about spacecraft and how they are put together which has kept her alive all these years.

When her lonely existence is interrupted, first by a droid, whom she refuses to trade for food, we know that she is a good person. And, then when she is called upon in a crisis to fly the Millennium Falcon, we are not surprised that, not only can she fly it, but she can fix it too. It is completely plausible and logical that she is a talented pilot. She has learnt through many lonely long days of taking apart spaceships for food. Han Solo recognises her talent and offers her a job.

However, Rey has her own ideas about what she needs and follows the heroine’s quest of answering the call, transcending her circumstances, and creating new ones for herself whilst becoming happy (or at least happier) in the process of self-actualisation, which has only just begun.

At the end of the film, we know that Rey is a brave woman with still as yet untapped skills and powers, who does the right thing. But, she is still a mystery to us. There is still a lot more for her to discover about herself and for us to vicariously experience as she does.

Finally, we have a Star Wars heroine on her quest of her own.

Roll on Episode VIII. I can’t wait.

Women and Storytelling: Saint, Spy, Suffragette

Spy, Suffragette, Galadriel, White Queen, Princess Leia Pics

We’re in every home, we’re half the human race…

– Maud Watts, Suffragette

Two years ago, I wrote a blog I called Women Centre Stage. It was inspired by my girls, who had just started school, and had discovered that by using the open world or free play mode when playing Lego Lord of The Rings and Lego Star Wars, they could create their own stories, with all the female characters in the centre of the story. Each time they get a new game, they spend time tailoring it to reflect their lives – lives in which girls have the main roles.

It is 2015, but incredibly, there is a proposal to drop feminism from the A-level politics syllabus. In her column, Bridget Christie wonders why the new Creative United Kingdom passport, celebrating 500 years of British talent, only included two women yet seven men. And, why an Israeli newspaper digitally removed Angela Merkel and Ann Hidalogo from a photo. Women are literally being airbrushed from history.

I am a female computer scientist and on a recent IT course I taught, there were three female students to 40+ male ones. This ratio is a lot worse than when I was an undergraduate and, I didn’t really notice until my girls asked me at breakfast: How many girls do you teach, mummy? …Where are the rest? 

Where are the girls?

The other week, we attended Sung Eucharist at St Paul’s Cathedral and my girls asked: Where are the girls in the choir? Where are the female statues? Where are the girls’ stories? I thought about my childhood growing up in the Church of England. When I was about 12 years old, female lay preachers were still novel and I was one of many girl choristers. And, so it was easier to believe that it only a matter of time before things would change further. However, when I looked at the one woman standing at the front in St Paul’s the other week, amongst all those men, I felt like nothing had progressed at all.

It reminded me of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Women only appear in it as temptresses or goddesses, and they only have support roles. We don’t hear their stories or their trials and tribulations. Instead they are silent. They are faithful and they endure like Penelope. Odysseus is off living his life seeking glory whilst Penelope is stuck at home as a desperate housewife.

This traditional supporting and enduring journey of our heroine is described in three steps on Ribbonfarm:

  1. The heroine is yet undeveloped.
  2. Her worth and her ability to persevere is threatened.
  3. She endures gracefully and the more she suffers, the more dignified she becomes, until her dignity gives her strength and she regains her worthiness.

When I read Storytelling and Mythmaking by Frank McConnell, I loved that he said that stories save our lives, and that he used films as well as the classics to illustrate myths. However, he only briefly mentioned women and only enduring women in support roles. The discussion focused on male heroes and anti-heroes and their journeys. An alien visiting earth would think that there had been no movies made with strong female characters during that time span – none what so ever.

Not just heroes with boobs

In contrast to the traditional heroine’s quest, the hero’s quest or journey shows that the 1) hero is uncomfortable in the world, and 2) sees a call to adventure, 3) but refuses until life is unbearable and forces changes 4) the hero meets a mentor, then 5) the hero crosses the threshold of no return 6) is tested, meets allies and enemies 7) ready for the major approach or challenge 8) then the hero undergoes an ordeal and faces death and/or a greatest fear, until 9) there is reward, but still the hero is not out of danger – all can still be lost as the hero begins the 10) journey home, only to near get to home and is 11) tested once more, until all ambivalence about this quest has gone 12) the hero sets about transforming the world as the hero has been transformed.

On the fangirl blog series: the heroine’s journey, they look at what a feminine parallel to the hero’s quest would look like. Campbell looked backwards for his model so fangirl blog looks forwards to identify strong female stories who are not just heroes with boobs. They have feminine concerns, such as whether to have children or not, and they do not necessarily get a happy ending. Is this a reflection of our times?

Ribbonfarm defines the modern heroine’s journey in these three steps:

  1. The heroine is confused.
  2. Her value and dignity are threatened, and her ability to defend this value is tested.
  3. She proves her value by either transcending or invalidating the test and then she redefines what her worthiness means.

The reluctant Suffragette

Suffragette follows a group of women fighting for the right to vote. The lead character, Maud Watts, follows each step of the hero’s quest within the modern heroine’s journey. She is reluctantly called and refuses the call, until there is no alternative and she becomes convinced that change is the only way forward. She pays a high price for her value, but is able to save another young girl from living the life she has lived. Maud Watts’s goal is to find a different way to live this life, which is ultimately what she does. It is a poignant and moving film.

Suffragette’s writer, Abi Morgan said that many male actors turned down Suffragette because the male roles were only supporting roles.  It also took ten years to get the funding to get it made because it has a predominantly female cast and no romance – not a major box office draw? It is only aimed at half the population.

Incidently, I read a theory (for which I can’t, alas, find original references) that the reason only the women over 30 were given the vote in the UK in 1918, was because so many young men had been killed in World War I, Parliament didn’t want a female majority making decisions on how the country was to be run.

Would the UK and the rest of the world look different today if Parliament had decided that a female majority was a good thing?

Spy v Spectre

Spy movie also follows a heroine’s quest of answering the call, transcending her circumstances, and creating new ones for herself whilst becoming happy in the process of self-actualisation. It has plenty of great female characters too. The most successful spy, Karen Walker, is a woman, as is the boss, Elaine Crocker, and the baddie, Rayna Boyanov, who inherits the business from her dad. No one feels the need to explain or justify these women’s place – it is the way of the world – a balanced world of equal opportunity. A lot of the movie is played for laughs so it is very funny whilst turning the spy formula on its head. The deskbound agent grow into her brilliance in the field and at the end of the movie she turns down the hot guy to have a girl’s night, because she knows what is important. She values her friends and support network.

Spy has ruined all other spy movies for me because it was so good and like my girls, I love watching women come into their own on the big screen. It is much more satisfying. It resonates with us. Spy is particularly brilliant as the main character is a 40-year old woman who she doesn’t need to be anything else but herself in order to achieve success. Susan Cooper embodies a new fabulous heroine with a great message.

After Spy, I watched Spectre and in comparison it seemed very old-fashioned and formulaic, and no fun at all. Bond shoots people and takes parts in fantastically elaborate stunts. He is a maverick who saves a corrupt world whilst getting revenge. He is of course supported by women who endure until they need saving and who find him irresistible. Yawn! The women are only there to boost his ego.

I eagerly await the Spy sequel. Move over Bond, Susan Cooper has arrived.

Mind the gap! Or, is it watch this space?

pic of mind the gap on tube

Just after I got my PhD, I took a year off to go travelling.

A few people advised me that it was a bad move.  People would be publishing and getting jobs, and generally getting ahead of me and I would have trouble getting a job when I got back.  I didn’t, but I guess the message stayed with me. A few years later, I have another gap on my CV, ostensibly, because I have had kids, and it worries me.

Originally, I designed my life so that I would have no gap!  I would have kids and a career, after all I had had a job since I was 16 years old and I defined myself by working.  So, a couple of years into marriage, before starting a family, I set myself up to have it all.

I did a postgraduate diploma in journalism to get into writing,   I began lecturing part-time (instead of full-time) and started freelance consulting, so that once the kids came along, I would have choice and flexibility. This plan was so brilliant, only unexplained infertility could wipe the smile off my face – which it did.  I spent a couple of years feeling blue.

Finally, my longed for baby was born with 1% kidney function. She went onto dialysis on day 11 of her life and when she could finally leave hospital,  the dialysis machine came home with us.  I did one lecture when she was still in hospital and spent the whole time wondering about her blood pressure and how much she had vomited.  So, I came home from that lecture to become a full time mother and dialysis nurse.

Three months later, I fell pregnant again. One lovely nurse congratulated us for fitting it on top of dialysis which makes me laugh even now.  My healthy second child allowed me to experience normal baby stuff,  like carrying your baby around in your arms and not having it attached to a machine all night.  And when I pushed my beautiful babies around in their double buggy, people would shout, ‘Oh you’ve got your hands full,’ and I would say, ‘You don’t know the half of it.’

Then came transplant,  I ran between hospitals to see how donor (daddy) and recipient (daughter) were doing, with a four month old under one arm, and remember breastfeeding  her in the ICU next to my sedated toddler, who had always been too ill to toddle.  A few months (and emergency surgeries) later, daddy went back to work (I was completely jealous – but he earns more than me) and we moved house as we needed more space and a fresh start. I remember thinking, ‘Yes now life can start.’

Instead,we got burgled and I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  I found it completely exhausting to be responsible for two kids under three whilst on chemotherapy and radiotherapy and recovering from surgery. For the first time in my life, I was just so grateful that I didn’t have to work.

We had just finished two lots of surgery when my mum nearly died and then three months later, my dad did die.  So, our first holiday as a little family away from hospitals was spent going through all my parents possessions and dismantling what had been their life. My two small girls wandered around like Wall-E collecting up treasures to bring home.  I was still sore from surgery and weak from grief and guilt. For a long while afterwards I had recurring nightmares of my mum turning back into her old self and asking: ‘Where are all my things?’   Sometimes, I hopelessly wished she would.

Fast forward through a couple more surgeries and three years, externally the dust has settled, the kids are at school and I am completely lost because my job has been to look after them, but they are looked after by someone else 38 weeks of the year from 9am to 3.30pm and I miss them.

I have done some freelance website design, some writing, and some volunteering (Treasurer of the PTA to be exact. I tried to do some hospital stuff but kept crying on people) and when people ask me what I do, I have no idea how to reply.  I no longer know how to define myself.  But more importantly now I am free to have a job,  I no longer seem to know what I want to do.

I went to some networking/women back into work events, just to get some idea of what I could do, where kindly people said, ‘Oh with all that experience you can get a job no problem.’  But they mean work experience and the stuff I used to do.  They don’t mean the life changing experiences in that gap, which I am not supposed to mention at all, as it makes people run a mile!  I am supposed to behave like it never happened, and it cannot go on my CV.

One woman who was leading the back to work event depressingly said, ‘Don’t expect a job to change your life.  It is just a job!’  Aaargh!  And the worst  bit of (unsolicited) advice I ever got was: ‘Just put that cancer behind you and get a job doing data entry’.

Data entry, I ask you.  I used to get upset doing the washing, as I would think: I can’t believe I have lived through all that and I still have to wash everyones’ knickers.  But, then I got a tumble dryer and washing became infinitely more bearable.

I wish I could put my CV gap in the tumble dryer and then perhaps I would know exactly how to do what is going to make me happiest.

Lately, my favourite quote for the day is:

‘There is hope in being.’

I don’t know who said it, but it makes me feel better about my not doing.

I am so infinitely grateful for modern medicine and for our brilliant NHS which saved my daughter’s life, my life, my mum’s life, and prolonged my dad’s life, so we got some extra time with him.   But, I think, part of modern medicine and technology involves learning to live through things that were not possible 20 years ago which can be difficult yet amazing, both mentally and physically.

And, perhaps here is where I may have something to offer.  Who knows? I mind about the gap on my CV, but really, perhaps I should let it go and watch this space instead. I might end up doing something really exciting.

Women Centre Stage

women

During a bout of channel hopping, my daughters and I started to watch James Bond Die Another Day. NSA agent Jinx (Halle Berry) shot a baddie in a gene therapy clinic and then chased and shot at another one who escaped in a helicopter. She then dived off a cliff into the sea below and swam to her waiting speedboat. The next scene switched to Bond, but my girls weren’t interested, they wanted me to rewind live TV so that we could just watch Jinx.

It is the same when they play Lego Lord of the Rings and Lego Star Wars on our PS3. They always choose open world mode so that they can make up their own stories and play with just the female characters.

I was desperate to see women taking centre stage when I was a girl too. I just didn’t have the technology to do anything about it. Everything seemed to be all about men and this is because many stories were and still are based on the hero’s quest or monomyth identified by Joseph Campbell who said that women’s stories are to be found in fairytales.

Fairytales are more women-centred, but they are not the female equivalent of the hero’s quest. They are a historical reflection of women in society. For a long time, women didn’t have rights, possessions, or power. They needed to marry and have children in order to survive in the world of men.

So far, my girls know fairytales because of Disney, which are jollier than the Brothers Grimm. Tangled‘s Rapunzel going off to see the floating lanterns is much nicer than the Rapunzel who gets swapped for a lettuce. Even so both stories are about the girl in a tower who gets rescued and married.

My girls play at getting married a lot and I wonder if their exposure to fairytales will limit their expectations and aspirations when it comes to their own lives as stories have power. So, I was satisfied when my eldest said she was playing at the Princess getting her PhD and then getting married – even if she did wink when she said it.

We tell ourselves stories all the time and shape our lives that way. So, when my girls are playing video games I like to think they are moving women centre stage.

Over on fangirl blog there is a blog series about rewriting the monomyth and what a feminine parallel to the hero’s quest would look like. Campbell looked backwards for his model. So looking forwards would be a way to create a strong female stories which reflect feminine concerns and ambitions.

Historical novelist, Philippa Gregory has found a way of looking backwards to find strong female stories as she shifts women into the centre of the history we already know. She describes her approach in the back of Lady of the Rivers, part of her War of the Roses (or Cousin’s war) series. Gregory says that she has spent her life as an historian of women, their place in society and their struggle for power, especially that large proportion of women whose lives have been ignored by historians in favour of the lives of prominent men.

And that was what was so brilliant about the BBC 1’s historical dramatic adaptation of Gregory’s books. They intertwined three of her books about women to make The White Queen. It was the history that we know and love but with women in the centre. My girls enjoyed watching, more than once, the coronation of Elizabeth of York, aka the White Queen.

And, the BBC’s did a fabulous job of educating and immersing the viewer in that historical period using twitter, tumblr, and the internet. On their website you could find out more about childbirth and child care at that time to see if Margaret and Elizabeth enduring lots of time away from their children was common or just a plot ruse. You could watch again your favourite bits on the tumblr white queen site as they tried to exercise some influence over their lives by plotting and spying or with witchcraft and prayer.

And yet in the Guardian this week, there was a review of the latest films and books about witches and witchcraft stories for teenage girls. The article quotes YA writer Ruth Warburton saying that witch stories are timeless because there is a desire to see girls in less passive roles.

Great! But where are the stories of young females using their nous instead of their supernatural powers? I can only think of The Hunger Games in the hero’s quest mould which no doubt my girls will enjoying playing, reading, watching when they are older, even though it is not that jolly to be going off to fight to the death.

Or, perhaps we don’t need a female version of a hero’s battling quest. Already, my girls are using technology to design female versions of the stories they like in order to please themselves, which include a lot less fighting and more cape swishing and having a nice time. This appeals to me no end and I can’t wait to see what they do next.