Ruth Stalker-Firth in Pincha Mayurasana, original drawing by Jasmine Stalker-Firth

Yoga at the still point of the turning world

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Lately I have found myself back in a routine of going to the park each morning to roll out my yoga mat on the grass so that I may find myself at the still point of the turning world.

This wonderful phrase is from T. S. Eliot’s 1936 poem Burnt Norton, which eventually became part of his Four Quartets, his exploration of the non-duality and the dance/not dance, of life. For me, it expresses the very essence of yoga, that moment on the mat when time stands still and I am one with everything.

I am that, I am.

My yoga mat is now a crusty blue thing which smells of cat, but once, it was a pristine present from my brother, back in the last century. However, when I roll it out, I connect back to that very first time I practised on it. Then further back to when, as a teenager, I would practise the yoga sequence, which felt like a dance, on the landing carpet at the top of the stairs, from a borrowed copy of The New Book of Yoga published by the Sivananda Yoga Centre in that far off place of London. Then, even further back to when my brother and eight-year-old me would copy the poses from the yoga magazines my dad had, back when yoga was just called yoga and only ‘weird’ people did it.

Time is momentarily suspended and the me right now joins with all the versions of me and not me throughout time as we practise together experiencing Eliot’s observation:

Only through time time is conquered.

I first discovered how much I enjoyed rolling out my mat in that spot in the park about thirteen years ago. I would drop my girls off at playgroup and go there to practise yin yoga, a gentle restorative lying and sitting yoga, after buying a book on it. This daily practice helped me and my body come back to me after two years of breast cancer treatment and all the changes in the two years before cancer, as a new mum of two baby girls, one on dialysis. Parts of me had been forgotten and I wanted a way to remember who I used to be before I had no choice but to become other versions of me.

Yoga felt like the easiest way to do that.

After a couple of years of yin, I graduated back up to the New Book of Yoga dance, and only then, did I finally feel strong enough to sign up to a Bikram Yoga class, the strenuous yang yoga of 26 postures done in a room heated to 42o celcius in my local brightly lit studio, with wall-to-wall mirrors. Even though it didn’t sound like yoga to me, to my delight, I discovered that it was very much yoga, a lovely sequence when done together with everyone else is like a beautiful flowing dance. I loved dancing in the hot room whilst thinking: This is it. This is what I want to do. Forever!

Forever came too soon

Alas, Forever came round sooner than I thought when the pandemic happened, and life and yoga seemed to resemble my childhood, my main entertainment meant going for a walk and I practised yoga once again at home.

My yoga mat stayed in the corner, which is probably when the cats started sitting on it, and I would creak my way through Bikram on the carpet often in pyjamas and sometimes in fluffy slippers, especially when it was cold. It was hard to bend up and down at 6am without the heat of the hot room, but once I let go of set times for the online classes and trying to recreate the experience in the hot room, I discovered that it was much easier to just dive on the carpet everyday.

During my Bikram hot room days I would go to the studio four or five days a week, as the intensity of the practice and scheduling it around the rest of life, made it hard to do daily, though I did successfully complete the famous Bikram thirty-day challenge a couple of times.

Doing yoga at home on my carpet, like I had as a teenager, changed my Bikram practice. It meant that all the old poses from The New Book of Yoga made their way back into my practice and I wanted to practise everyday, not least of all as there wasn’t much else to do. Actually that is not strictly true, I did a whole host of amazing things online, from past life regression to life modelling, which made my eldest daughter say: And people worry about teenagers online!

Once life opened up I joyfully went back to Bikram in the studio but my body had changed again – its thermostat no longer worked in the same way, so I was literally flushed, sweaty, bright red in the face and dehydrated for hours after class. The hot room was no longer a friend to my body, even though I really missed the heat, my friends, and the joy I’d felt in there. Whenever I went back I didn’t feel better like I had before, I felt punished, which is not the way I want to feel after yoga.

I tried out the less hot Hotpod Yoga with a friend. And though, I loved the whole package of practising with said friend, hanging out afterwards, cycling there and back on the cycle superhighways of London, the incense, music and darkness of the warm pod, along with all the Vinyasa flows, it just wasn’t enough to get me excited to commit to going in the long-term.

I then tried aerial yoga, dangling from silks like I was in the circus, which was really thrilling and really hard. But, without investing in a load of special kit (I’m always suspicious of activities which require a lot of kit), I realised I wouldn’t get very far as I wouldn’t be able to practise at home daily and I wouldn’t be able to go every day.

I did some weight-lifting to get strong in the hope of swinging up and down more easily, but weights really bore me. The only good thing about them is being able to watch TV while doing it, though to be honest, I’ve done yoga watching telly before and once I painted my toenails in the middle of a yoga practice. I did laugh a lot doing competitive chin-ups above the fridge with my girls as it was the only doorframe my chin-up bar would fit on and the only place the fridge will fit too.

I also tried to belly dance, to hopefully kickstart my menopausal metabolism, but it didn’t call to me, and so when life intervened again with family illness and bereavement, I didn’t go back to it and ended up putting all thoughts of getting fit in the later category, much later, after I’d eaten some cake and biscuits.

No longer fitting in my life

The yogis often say:

How you do one thing is how you do everything.

Isn’t that the truth?

It wasn’t possible to go back to the way things were before but instead of acknowledging that, I was trying to bend myself out of shape, getting red in the face doing things that no longer worked for me. But, sometimes you have to experience some of what doesn’t work to get to what does. This was happening all across my life not just my yoga; but that is another blog.

So! In January of this year, I signed up to Yogi Flight School (YFS) as I decided that I wanted to recapture the joy of yoga when I was eight-years-old trying out weird shapes and being pleasantly surprised by what my body could do. The reality though was quite different. I am nearer in age to 80 than I am to eight and YFS is really hard work, so much more so than Bikram. That could have just been because I’d forgotten how hard Bikram was when I first turned up in the studio, before it felt like a dance.

For the first few months at YFS, I found it hard to motivate myself to practice one asana a week and its variations that I couldn’t actually do, even though YFS is great and really practical for guiding me in to the complex inversions in a step-by-step fashion. The warm-up sessions were so vigorous and felt more like aerobic exercise rather than a dance, that often I would be too tired by the end of them to actually do any yoga and I felt like giving up.

This all changed one Saturday afternoon, about eight weeks in, when I was practising chin stand (Ganda Bherundasana) during a live online class when my youngest came in to stare. I’d never done chin stand before but I had made it through the warm up, and there I was, standing on my chin and shoulders with my feet straight up in the air. She was so impressed whilst all I could think about was that my yoga pants, which I’d split just getting into them, I’d gained weight again and, my shoulders were on blocks, so I wasn’t really doing it, was I?

Thankfully, all she could think was: Wow. I can’t believe she is doing that!

Ruth in chinstand
Me keeping it real in chinstand

My old New Book of Yoga

Bolstered by her reaction, I looked at my well-thumbed copy of The New Book of Yoga, which I bought way back after I’d had to give the borrowed one back. Sure enough, chin stand was in there, along with all the other poses taught on YFS and in Bikram, in Yin, in Astanga, in Vinyasa, in Iengar (I used to go to an Iengar class when I lived in Oxford) and all the other variations of yogas I have loved and left over the years.

There are also mentions of all the other yoga practices I’ve taken time to get to know and love: meditation, the Yoga Sutras, mantras, chanting, active breathwork, the Yoga Vasistha, and so on without even realising where I’d heard about them first.

I love The New Book of Yoga as it doesn’t make a fuss, it just says: Here, you can do this and then add this, in such a gentle way that it made me realise again for the zillionth time, that it is all yoga, my yoga, and yoga is a way of life and so much bigger than whether I look good doing it, or even if I can, whether I’m bursting out my pants or not, of if I’ve bought some new ones! It is how it makes me feel. And yoga makes me feel so free.

However, I hadn’t gotten upside yet which is where YFS came in because if I wanted to dance well I needed to know all the steps that YFS could teach me.

Inspired once more I decided to fit the ‘new’ YFS yoga exercises into my old Sivananda/Bikram mashup from the carpet and the park so that I could once enjoy the dance/not dance of life at the still point of the turning world. And then, in the online group of YFS I saw that some other yogis had had the same idea, and they too were demonstrating how they go about getting into some of poses in a way that suits their practice and all of a sudden it became a dance once more.

Moreover, I started to practice like I meant it.

Slowly, I began, putting in some twists into my sun salutations, practising all the poses, even the hard ones, instead of saying I’ll do those when I get better, side crow with variations for me are still impossible, but will be, until I practise them everyday, and they will then just happen. For many years I couldn’t do locust either and would skip it, but now I do it every day and love it. Well I don’t love it, but I can get on up there and when I do, I love the way it stimulates the gastric fire, makes the loins lean as my The New Book of Yoga says, and makes me feel nearer eight-years old rather than eighty.

Practise like no one is watching

Then, I focused on logical sequencing that is suitable for me, I like the dance so I attempt to move into Pincha Mayurasana (scorpion, the picture at the top of the blog) straight from Shirasana (headstand, picture at the bottom) even though I fall out. It is called a practice because it is exactly that – not a performance. I have to relax enough to fall with grace so that it doesn’t hurt and I don’t mind, especially on days when I can’t get into the pose at all and I’m distracted as it’s a busy day in the park or in my mind. But the real truth is no one is really watching and aren’t I supposed to dance like that anyway?

Yesterday, I added Anjaneyasana (the splits) into my dance, to honour the teenager I used to be in the hope that I am the woman she wanted to become. The New Book of Yoga says that the asana improves the circulation in the legs and will give me a wonderful feeling of balance and symmetry. It will also make getting into the inversions a little easier. Anything feels easier when it starts by leaving one foot on the floor.

When I was a teenager, my very first teacher, who was probably the age I am now, had her 80-year-old mum come in sometimes and show us how to do the splits. I went to class with my mam, and we did it on the carpet floor in a room in the Town Hall (James Finnegan Hall on Fabian Rd, Eston), sometimes we’d do in a little room off the main hall when the ballroom dancing was on. I loved those yoga days with ballroom music being played on the Mighty Wurlitzer. Little did I know, we were the embodiment of the time honoured tradition of Tantra, the interweaving of the tapestry of life – us on the floor, doing our thing, as the ballroom dancers, doing their thing, turned the world around us.

I could do the splits back then just about, but gradually stopped practising them as they were always hard and not very comfortable. Today’s inclusion was a salute to my past and also to my future, as I am nowhere near feeling wonderfully balanced and symmetrical but if I keep practising, by the time I am 80-years-old, I too may inspire a teenager to commit to a regular yoga practice that will teach her again and again – as she will sometimes forget – to be all of herself, to trust in herself and in her body’s wisdom.

She knows in her strong core how to stop at the still point of the turning world. Sometimes it is encouraging to have an older version of herself to meet her there.

This is the true wine of astonishment: 
We are not over when we think we are.
~ Alice Walker



  1. Loved this so much! It hads inspired me to pick up my grandmother’s old yoga books ! Keep writing X

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