helen hayward

life writing

Category: Real Life

3 questions

A good friend, keen for people to share the intimate meaning of their life with others, asked me to take part in her facebook page, TheKeyof3, by answering three questions. Here goes:

1. What is something important that you have learned in your life?

I have learned that an embarrassingly large part of my mental life is given over to resisting things – to putting them off. As I write this I can picture a sizeable cupbard in my mind, stuffed with things that I don’t want to do. From a 3-month-overdue letter to my mother-in-law, to niggly household admin. There is nothing new or surprising about this. Most of us feel nagged by the things we know we should do. However, where once I chastised myself and wrote admonishing lists, now I shrug and move on. I still keep a list. But I measure success differently. (Even ticking one item off my list each day feels like success.) For I have learned that I will never overcome my resistance to the things I don’t want to do. But nowadays I’m able to distinguish my resistance to writing to my mother-in-law (in my head) from picking up a pen and writing to her (in reality). Increasingly, but not always, I’m able to push myself over the hill of my resistance and to see tasks for what they are. What a relief!

2. What act of kindness has most profoundly affected your life?

For nearly 20 years I lived in London, after growing up in Adelaide. Although I flew to the UK in a plane, there is a way in which, existentially, I fled there after my father died. I didn’t feel at home on my childhood home, and decided that I may as well live on the other side of the world. I will ever be grateful to the people who befriended me when I got to London, who saw in me something that I couldn’t see in myself, probably because I was in flight from it. A young Australian in London, I was welcomed into many people’s homes – for a weeknight dinner, a weekend on the coast, an Easter-egg hunt. Countless kindnesses – little things that felt like a very big thing – were shown me. So powerful was this experience that I have spent the rest of my life returning my own kindnesses to others.

3. What have you done to overcome a significant challenge in your life?

This year I completed a yoga teacher training course, along with 22 others. I took the course as a dare. It was my way of preparing myself to age gracefully. It wasn’t planning to become a yoga teacher. However, the effect of the training was to plant the seed of a desire to teacher yoga to others, as a way of passing on something that has been of immense sanity-keeping value in my life so far. The average age, among the trainees, was 28, and I am well into my 50s. Mostly, during the 5-month course, I ignored my age. But despite doing handstands and the occasional wheel, the more I ignored my age the more it wouldn’t go away. My challenge, on completing the training, was to put aside the teasing of my grown-up kids and to book a studio, not knowing if anyone would come to my yoga class. I overcame this challenge, this fear, by trusting in something deeper than my conscious doubts, and by using as my mantra the phrase, ‘This is the yoga’, whenever blind fear breaks through my faith in something deeper. This is the phrase that the lead yoga teacher used as a refrain whenever obstacles – COVID, injury, any contingency really – came up. Because obstacles do come up. Doing this course taught me that I overcome obstacles by doing the scary thing anyway. And just maybe this, rather than success, is what matters.

finding time to make bread

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Lately I’ve been too busy to make bread. Last week, if any week can be described as typical, was typical. On Monday, the 25-year-old fridge which was in our house when we bought it, gave up the ghost. On Tuesday I sent off a manuscript. On Thursday I started teaching a yoga class. Add to that our dog has caught a nasty parasite requiring daily treatment. Then there is my 10-year-old computer, in the process of conking out, which refuses to send email. And two weeks ago, my daughter turned 21. All normal, everyday things which don’t allow much time for breadmaking.

Yesterday morning, as a form of therapy, I made myself make bread. Not because I felt like it. I never feel like making bread until after I start making it. But because it was Saturday, and Saturday, until recently, has always been my breadmaking day.

First, I poured out some starter from the pot which I refreshed and returned to the bar fridge that we borrowed from a friend. Next, I boiled the kettle and dissolved a teaspoon of sea salt and a halfish cup of linseed (I never measure) in a large bowl. After that, it was time to mix the dough. When I finished mixing, concentrating on the bowl that was balanced on a stool in front of me, I glanced up at the table and spied a glass jug full of starter which I’d clean forgotten to add, which required extra flour to get the dough to bind. Pant. This I did.

I never mix bread dough with my fingers. I use two plastic scrapers to mix the flour mixture until the dough comes together into a fat but flat ball. Before this point, the dough just sticks to my fingers and between my fingers in an annoying, hard- to-clean-off way.

For the rest of yesterday, the bowl of dough sat on the windowsill in the kitchen. Now and again, as I passed by, I washed my hands in the sink before kneading the dough, spraying the bottom of the bowl with water to keep the dough from sticking.

On entering the kitchen this morning, I noticed that the teatowel draped over the bowl was puffed up with the dough underneath, like a mushroom cloud. Surprising even me.

Making bread isn’t easy. If friends tell you otherwise, don’t believe them. Nothing important is easy. Nor is there a right time in the day or week in which to bake. When it comes to breadmaking, as with other important things in life, you have to make time for it, carving it out almost forcibly until it becomes habit.

I trick myself into baking by doing it step by unthreatening step. After breakfast on Saturday, I get the bread starter from the fridge. I do this because it’s Saturday morning, and not because I feel like baking. (When would that be?) I don’t let on, to my unconscious or to my ego, that I am making bread. Because my unconscious doesn’t think that I can make bread. And my ego insists that I haven’t time for it.

I make bread to prove to myself that I can. I make it to fill the kitchen with the smell of baking bread. I never make enough bread to last a family of four for a week. Still, as a gesture, it’s important to me. And the reward – of cutting off a crusty end of bread before plying it with butter and putting it in my mouth – is, well, like other important things in life, amazing.

pre-yoga

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I’ve never done my 10-minute morning yoga practice and then wished I hadn’t done it. I always thank myself as I roll up my mat. And each time I do, I wonder why I had to mentally force myself to unroll my mat before starting.

 

I blame the clock in the bathroom. No matter how obediently I turn off bedside alarm, count up to 20 and push of the covers, by the time I brush my teeth in the bathroom across the hall, peaking out the window to see what kind of morning it is, the clock on the bath tells me that 20 minutes have passed since I woke up. How, I wonder, can that be? My alarm went off at 6.30am, as it always does. And yet the clock on the bath is telling me, seemingly three minutes later, that it’s 6.50am.

 

Despite my befuddled waking, I do a short yoga practice nearly every morning. I do it because my body needs it, and because my day goes better when I do. I think of it as pre-yoga. Now that my body is middle-aged, doing yoga in the morning isn’t optional. It’s basic maintenance. To the point that when I don’t do it, my body soon tells me. And it certainly isn’t ready for the kind of yoga that awaits me in the yoga classes that I attend twice a week.

 

Habits are hard to make and easy to lose. Luckily, I cemented my yoga habit a few years ago, well before my yoga teacher training. It was a habit that arose out of necessity. I didn’t mind that, every year, I was getting older. But I did mind feeling less nimble, less flexy. I minded feeling less Tigger-ish, less bouncy. Doing yoga helped hugely with this. It helped me to stand up straight and to look life in the eye – an especially good feeling to have once my kids’ grew taller than me and started looking down at me from above.

 

10 minutes of yoga each morning, with or without a mat, is enough for me to bend with straight legs when I’m gardening. I even enjoy bursts of housework when I can throw myself into it, knowing that it will soon be over. Often, I’ll pull on yoga leggings before gardening and housekeeping. Because wearing them lets me bend into corners and down into a squat, without stretching the knees of my trousers. Plus, they’re easy to launder.

 

But then along came yoga teacher training, and lots of things went out the window to make way for it. The gardening and housework still got done, sort of. I still bent from the waist and felt fairly agile. However, once the training started, four months ago, my 10 minutes of yoga first thing had to compete with a lengthening list of morning must-dos.

 

Over the final assessment weekend of teacher training, I attended 8 sessions led by fellow students, not including my own. We were all nervous. But somehow we overcame our nerves to teach a good class. When my turn came round, I’m not sure if I overcame my nerves, or just kept up with them. During that hour I felt slightly out of control and, well, weird. That said, the final weekend was a positive experience, at the end of which I felt relieved, glad and a bit sad.

 

The day after the course ended, I felt a twinge in my hip which I thought nothing of. Too many standing balances, I said to myself. Too many mornings spent sitting crosslegged outdoors in front of my computer, during my son’s home quarantine. None of these things did I consider a problem. The osteopath, who I saw a week later, disagreed. Frowning, he gave me a complicated term for the sore spot on the top of my thigh bone and told me to rest it.

 

Looking back, I realise that the quiet hysteria surrounding the completing of my yoga teacher training course – of getting into the studio every other weekend by 7.30am and remaining there until 5.30pm – meant skipping the morning yoga that makes my body strong enough to do challenging yoga poses. Instead I’d been freewheeling tricky poses – crane and lotus and handstands – that assume either youth or a strong core.

 

So now I am back at square one. I am a green yoga instructor with a small bursitis at the top of my right femur. It is healing. I am taking turmeric, vitamin C and omega oils. More importantly, I am doing my 10-minute pre-yoga practice most mornings. I now know a lot more about yoga, and understand myself a bit better. ‘This’, our yoga teacher was fond of telling us, ‘is the yoga’.

waiting

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We spend a lot of our life waiting. For a test result. For an important email. For onions to cook. For dawn to break.

 

The thing about waiting is that, often, we don’t know when it will end.

 

My current waiting began last Tuesday, when I asked three friends to read two chapters of a manuscript that I’m soon to send to my agent, who I feel sure will say that Housekeeping: A journey is too memoirish for her to sell in the current market. I asked three friends for feedback because I wanted a sympathetic response from readers who ‘got’ the ideas I’ve written about, before I get all defensive in my attempt to describe, in a back of the envelope sort of way, what my manuscript is really about for the publishing world.

 

Five long days after sending this email to three friends, one of them got back.

 

‘Enjoying your ms a lot’, she texted. ‘What is the take out?’

 

I texted back. ‘The take out is that housekeeping grounds us and, when we do it in the right spirit, it makes us feel good about ourselves’.

 

‘Okay’, she texted back, sounding unconvinced.

 

I tried again. ‘Housekeeping is caring about countless things that we otherwise wouldn’t care about for the sake of a well-run, pleasant home.

 

‘More personal!’ she texted back.

 

‘Maybe just read the introduction’ I texted, and we left it there.

 

My manuscript is written in the first person, which makes the waiting for a response to it that much harder. Because if a reader doesn’t like my manuscript, I’m likely to feel, in an ungrown-up part of myself, rejected, disapproved of. This is awkward to admit. It makes me sympathise with Virginia Woolf, who used to fall apart whenever she finished a manuscript and posted it off to a friend to read. Except that I don’t write as well as Virginia Woolf. And I am, as far as I know, mentally stable.

 

The three women who I asked to read part of my current manuscript have all replied to me, promising to read and respond. Each time I received one of their emails, I emailed back, thanking them for their support and stressing that there was no urgency, and should take as much time as they liked. The ungrown-up part of me thought this reasoning of mine was very bad. Why should I feel sympathy for the busyness of my friends’ lives when I was desperate to know if my manuscript was readable, acceptable, interesting?

 

However, my grown-up self, knowing how easily my request for a favour from friends could feel like a demand, managed not to ask them to hurry up and respond.

 

Instead I wait. I distract myself with projects at home. I shampoo the carpets. I dig the garden. I write this blog, confident that the three friends who I asked to read my manuscript, don’t read my blog. I catch up on the work that I put aside to finish Housekeeping: A journey and my recent yoga course. And I wait for my son’s quarantine to end, counting down the days (three) before I’m allowed back into the yoga studio and am able to invite friends for dinner.

 

My agent has left Sydney for good, after living in the same inner city flat for thirty odd years. Last week, she taped up eighty boxes and headed for the mountains. Only the packing up proved so stressful for her that she landed up in a country hospital with an acute infection. This prompted a sympathetic email from me, telling her to let me know when the coast was clear, at which point I’d send through to her my manuscript for her to read. After all, I reasoned, how could reading my manuscript compete with leaving your home, your friends, and recovering from an acute infection?

 

From the outside, waiting is a pause, a hiatus. From the inside, it feels like a thing that I am doing. I am not twiddling my thumbs. I am not writing messages across the sky. I am waiting.

3 lessons from my yoga course

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‘So’, asked a friend, ‘what have you learned from that yoga course you’ve been doing?’

 

‘Well’, I said, ‘it’s really three things. And none of them have anything to do with yoga poses. The first is psychological. Doing the course has made me realise how much mental energy I give over to resisting things that I have to do in my daily life. Whether it’s doing my morning yoga practice, filling the dog’s food container from a bin in the basement, or getting supper on the table on time, I’m incredibly resistant to the parade of tasks that punctuate my day.’

 

‘Ha’, said Kate, ‘tell me about it.’

 

‘Perhaps’, I said, ‘if I sat on my yoga block for 25 minutes a day, as suggested by our yoga teacher, I wouldn’t struggle as much. But I don’t sit on a block nearly that long and I do struggle. For now, I’m just aware of how much I resist things. And occasionally I rise above it.’

 

‘Another thing I’ve learned is to accept things as they are. Things are not good or bad, they just are. I knew this before the course. But I hadn’t lived it. And living it makes all the difference. I don’t find accepting things as they are easy, it goes against the grain. It goes against all my instincts, which I now understand – like most of my thoughts – can’t be trusted.’

 

‘These days I find it easier to zoom in and out of my experience. When something gets to me, I try to stand back from it. I leave it alone. I don’t add to a problem by layering my own stuff on to it. It’s the mental equivalent of strengthening my core. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I have to practice not reacting again and again. But when I do manage it, it really helps. Because not reacting buys me time. It means that I can be in the middle of a situation and also observe it. And this gives me breathing space.’

 

‘Yeah’, said Kate, ‘anything is better than getting stressed’.

 

‘Yes’, I said. ‘Stress is horrible. Which leads me to the last thing I’ve learnt from the yoga course. Doing nothing, I now accept, is doing something. Taking time out – whether it’s switching off the wifi, walking on the beach, eating lunch on the grass, sitting on a yoga block – is equivalent to lying on the floor at the end of yoga class. It’s a positive sort of nothing. A yielding to the day, to life, to fate.’

 

‘Is that it?’ asked Kate. ‘I thought you’d have lots of good habits from the course’.

 

‘I guess I have a few’, I said. ‘I already knew, before I did the course, that there’s no freedom without discipline. But doing the course confirmed this to me. In the morning, I now do Indian cleansing practices in the bathroom. I book yoga classes a week ahead of time. I use my diary to keep track of meals, shopping and must do’s. I keep a gratitude journal and write down three good things from each day before sleeping. My phone screen is grey scale, to make it less appealing. And every week I try to do one thing – even when it’s inconvenient, and it’s always inconvenient – for someone outside my family.’

 

‘Really?’ said Kate, drily. ‘You sound like a saint.’

 

‘Sorry. I must sound like a prick. But really I’m exactly the same person I was when I started the course four and a half months ago. To be honest, Covid has probably had more impact on my life than the yoga course has. Although perhaps, after my assessment next week, everything will fall into place and I’ll find perfect peace!’

 

o.w.p. out without a phone

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I used to carry a phone so that the school nurse could contact me if one of my kids fell off the play equipment. It made me feel safe, knowing I was connected, out of sight not out of mind.

 

These days, when I go out in the morning, to walk the dog and to work outside, I leave my phone in the boot of the car. I do this so that I can be in nature and focus on my work. And to prevent my good energy leaking away into the innards of my phone.

 

I think less of myself when I keep checking my phone during the morning. Each time I do it, a bit of my life force seeps away. With each click on a New York Times story, my preferred poison, I feel my morning draining away. It’s not just time that I lose when I do this. It’s also self belief. How can my own writing compete with the slickly edited stories of weighty world events? But mainly it’s time that I lose. The number of minutes that I spend reading New York Times stories has to be doubled to reflect how long it takes me to get back to my own work, after reading on-line. It takes this long to silence the self-doubt that invades me when I read other people’s beautifully edited stories.

 

Last week, fed up with wasting time on my phone, I went into System Preferences, clicked on Accessibility, and faded the screen to grey. Then I wobbled into oblivion those apps that stole my time when I tapped on them compulsively. And I hinted to my family that I might not see text messages they sent during the morning.

 

I always assumed that one day my kids would pack their bags and leave home. And that, when they did, I’d feel inconsolable and useless. I’d feel left behind, like the family dog waiting in vain for the front door to open. But now I think that something else might have to happen before my kids leave home. I might have to leave my kids first, to give them unconscious permission to leave me.

 

I used to think that motherhood was all about surviving my kids unconscious attacks on me. Their taunts and criticisms were, I felt, their way of projecting on to me what they couldn’t bear about themselves. I had to appear stupid so they could be clever, that kind of thing.

 

I was right, I have had to survive my kids’ attacks on me. But now I face something just as hard, perhaps harder. I have to communicate to them, at a deep level, that I will be fine without them, without being sure of this myself. Going out without a phone, or at least having it switched off in the boot of my car, proves to me that I am fine on my own – just as my kids will one day be without me.

 

But perhaps the most important part of being out without a phone is that it gives me a freedom and spaciousness that I thought may never be mine again.

 

 

 

 

 

on needing to get away

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Not everyone feels a need to get away – from home, the people they love, housekeeping, work. I need it the same way I need food and sleep. When I don’t get it, I suffer, which is why I do just about anything to get it.

 

I am thin-skinned, and long since stopped wishing I was otherwise. For me, it’s like having brown eyes and a love of being outdoors. Sometimes I think that I started writing in order to secure time alone, to guarantee that at last some of my day would be given over to spinning out the thoughts inside my head.

 

This part of myself, that needs time alone to focus on the things I find important, hasn’t minded the recent social distancing measures. Not having to socialise, not being allowed to socialise, has been, yes, a relief.

 

I have a family at home, I am not alone. Perhaps I would tell a different story if I were. If anything, adjusting to the presence of four adults at home has heightened my need for time alone. Especially as one of them is currently at a loose end with her foot in a boot from an ankle injury.

 

I’ve liked knowing that I’m not missing out on anything, that there isn’t a party on around the corner to which I wasn’t invited. I’ve liked knowing that every night, after dinner, the four of us will play a game of some kind. This, more than anything, has helped hugely in the project of putting up with each other and bringing us out of ourselves for another night, rounding off the evening before we go our own ways.

 

I don’t want social distancing to last forever. It’s too queer for that. But it’s been interesting to notice what goes on being important even when so much has been put on hold. Trips to the beach with our dog. Surprise texts from friends. Good food at night. Piles of raked up leaves.

 

Will the changes I’ve made to adapt to this situation last? The blocked news sites on my computer, the radio that stays in the cupboard in the kitchen, the podcasts that go unlistened to?

 

What about all the things I promised myself that I would find time for during social distancing? The musical notes on the piano that I was determined to learn. The drawings that I promised myself I’d do every night before bed. The piecrust that I was keen to perfect. But then again, I haven’t caught up with all the movies I’ve missed on Netflix either, which must count for something.

 

I’ve enjoyed going to bed to read that much earlier than I ever did before. Each night I feel weirdly privileged to be able to do this. I like getting up in the morning, doing a bit of yoga, and taking our dog to the local beach. I’ve found real focus working at a picnic table at the local reservoir – sitting at tables that were there way before any pandemic but that I’d never thought to use. I’ve enjoyed getting to know my kids as adults – when they’re not teasing me, that is. Although, even this I know I’ll one day miss. It seems a blessing to have had this extra time with them.

 

When I was growing up, I was encouraged to choose a career that would lead me to be of service to others. And, for periods of my life I have done just that. However, these last few months have been a reminder of just how inessential the writing I currently do is to others. Society can get on quite well without me. I am not at the front line of anything. This is not a good or bad thing, it just is.

 

Three months ago, social distancing felt like a game. I didn’t like the rules of this game, but nor did I feel that it was my right to argue against them. Now that time has gone by and I’ve accepted the rules, I struggle to imagine my life without them. Have I grown used to the bars of my cage?

 

But I don’t think it’s that. It’s something very simple. I have enjoyed feeling less stressed these last few months. I like wearing fewer hats. I have just as much to do – I’ve never done more cooking, housekeeping and home psychotherapy – but I’ve had more time to do it in. The simplicity of paring things down suits me. Raking up piles of leaves because it’s autumn. Making chicken soup because it’s cold and wet. Hanging up washing because it’s sunny outside.

 

I feel nervous of returning to so-called normal life. I fear the return of things that I feel certain I should be doing. The emails I need to send, there are many of these. The people I imagine I owe something to. The work plans I need to make. The whole head trip, as one of my yoga teachers calls it.

 

I didn’t experience an enforced lockdown. I’ll be terrible at this, if I ever have to. Yet I have got something from this shake up. A feeling that perhaps what I have is enough. And this feels like a good thing to have realised.

my yoga philosophy class on zoom

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Most of my daylight hours, the weekend before Easter, were spent kneeling on two yoga blocks in front of a Zoom meeting discussing yoga philosophy – the third weekend of a yoga teacher training course that began before the coronavirus stopped just about everything. The morning class had started when I sent through a request to enter the meeting. I’d failed to do the class reading and was eating muesli as I scrambled to pull myself together before switching on the camera of my computer.

 

The yoga philosophy teacher, who I hadn’t met before, was explaining to our group of 24 students that the ideas which inform the practice of yoga are not philosophical in the Western sense. In yoga, she said, there is no mind-body split. All yogic knowledge is embodied knowledge. Because it’s experiential, it can’t be known abstractly. It can’t be held on to, only glimpsed. The aim of yoga, the smiling face on the screen was saying, is to smooth out our energy levels and so to manage the mind. My ears perked up. Manage my mind, I thought, how I’d like to be able to do that. But, the curly headed woman on the screen then said, as if she could hear me thinking, yoga practice isn’t aimed at managing the mind.

 

According to yogic thought, the teacher said, each of us is a spirit that, once born, comes into the material dimension. During childhood, our unlimited spirit becomes trapped by material conditioning (the food we eat, our parent’s values, our school friends). No matter how well-intended our parents, we become covered by an obscuring layer of dust that the practice of yoga seeks to lift. Through regular yoga practice, we free ourselves from ‘maya’, from illusions of the ego that form our greatest bondage. The transformation that occurs, via deep yoga practice, helps to realign us with our true nature. In this way, we recondition ourselves. And this in turn frees us to ask the most important question: What do I want to achieve in this lifetime?

 

Hmm, I thought, sipping green tea as I watched the teacher’s face on the computer screen. Half of my group, whose faces appeared like postage stamps along the top of the screen, nodded and gave a thumbs up.

 

Next, the teacher moved on to explain Raja yoga, the intellectual branch of Hatha yoga. In this practice, she said, there are no poses, just sitting, chanting and the reciting of sanskrit verses. I wriggled on my blocks, recalling the hour I’d spent chanting in the opening ceremony of our training, during which one foot had gone to sleep so badly that it was a struggle to get up to light a candle on the flowery altar. On returning to my seat in the circle, I’d looked across in wonder at the other cross-legged students who, eyes closed, seemed in a trance as they chanted a four-lined sanskrit verse 108 times. The sound of the mantra had not – as the philosophy teacher was explaining on Zoom – manifest its meaning in me during chanting. Perhaps I was too defended, I thought to myself, as I tried to get comfortable on my blocks.

 

The teacher moved on to the subject of memory. Your memory, she said, isn’t to be trusted. While every experience that we have becomes embedded in memory, these impressions – these samskaras – form a covering like dirt over us. Yoga, she said, aims to clean away this dirt and so to still the mind. There is no other aim in yoga. There is no religion, no dogma, no bible, no ethics, no single god. Instead, in the Indian yogi tradition, there are multiple texts and countless teachers. And all of them are valid.

 

Centuries ago, the teacher told us, Patanjhali wrote down what he called ‘complete instructions’ for yoga practice, from cleansing practices (like the nasal neti pot) to detailed instructions for the asanas, or postures. But however demanding crow pose may be for you, the teacher said, it’s significantly easier to get into a yoga posture, than it is to change the workings of your mind. The aim of yoga, the smiling face on the screen said, is not to tighten pelvic floor muscles, but to clear away mental clutter to allow prolonged periods of meditation.

 

Oh great, I thought. That means that for the 20 years I’ve been doing yoga, I’ve been doing it for the wrong reasons. I’ve doing yoga to stretch my body, not to prepare myself for meditation. I’ve being doing yoga to ease my anxiety about life, not to achieve a higher state of consciousness.

 

The teacher continued. Clearly there was still a lot of material to get through. I wriggled on my block and tipped the last drops of tea from the pot into my mug. The aim of yoga, the teacher said, is to block the mind, by consciously stopping those mental activities that are identified with the external world (reactive thoughts, complaints, rumination, excitement). The aim of yoga practice is to create a state of mind that doesn’t fluctuate, that doesn’t go up and down, that is at peace with itself. Yes, I thought to myself, catching myself nodding on the screen, that sounds nice.

 

So, the teacher said, this week your homework will be to observe the workings of your mind. Even one minute of total awareness, she said, will be an achievement. Fifteen minutes, for a beginner, would be amazing. During these periods of awareness, I want you to step back from your assumptions, even to catch yourself before they happen. I want you to avoid the head trips that we all make, the inner chit-chat, the making mountains out of molehills, and our reflex criticism of others. I want you to stop all the unreality that washes through our heads on an hourly basis. Lastly, the teacher said brightly, I want you to journal about this experience in long-hand, take a photo of your page and email it through to me.

 

If you can achieve this, the teacher said, if you can sit back and observe the workings of your mind, you’ll be in a position to do every other thing that a yoga training demands of you. Quite apart from smoothing your relationship to every person you know.

 

Is this clear? asked the yoga teacher. Are there any questions?

yoga

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I do yoga to smooth my rough edges, to help me feel at one with the way my life is, to give me permission to write, to give me perspective on family life, to strengthen my core and my lower back. I’ve been doing yoga for these reasons and more for over 20 years, never with a view to taking my practice further.

 

Until last weekend, when I started a yoga teacher training course. Applying for the course, four months ago, I felt confident that a training would challenge me in good ways. It would push me into the next phase of my life, whatever that would be, give me a break from the toils of writing, and fill the hole left by the departure of my kids. That was four months ago. Looking round today, there are no empty holes in need of filling, no windy spaces. My life is just as busy as it ever was, plus yoga course requirements to complicate my days.

 

Over and above the other things that I do to stay sane and to keep the wheels of my life turning, I now meditate for ten minutes each afternoon. I do 10 minutes of yoga most mornings. I attend two yoga classes a week. I sit in on other yoga classes and take notes on the way the teacher cues and sequences, sitting on a bolster in the back of the room.

 

Already I feel differently about the yoga poses – 84 asanas with Indian names to memorise – than I did a week ago, when I went to yoga to let the steam out of the top of my head, so to speak. Back then I went to yoga just for myself, to zone out in a way that made me brave for the rest of the day. Whereas now I’m doing yoga – if I pass the course – to be of service to others, or so my teacher tells us.

 

Doing surfer’s pose in class this morning, struggling to move from squatting into one knee then over to the other without putting my hand on the floor, I gave up my wish to be a yoga teacher. Squatting on my blue mat at the back of the room, my usual spot, I realised that my need to do yoga for my own peace of mind and core strength, was greater than my desire to become a yoga teacher. I knew, in that moment, that I didn’t want to have to care about how my asana looked in the mirror of the studio’s hot room, a room that I usually avoid for the searing heat which reminds me of hot summers from childhood. Nor I did I want to turn yoga into an asset on my cv, when really I needed yoga for my sanity and flexibility.

 

There’s another reason why I gave up my wish to be a yoga teacher this morning. I gave it up because I didn’t want to be the course contrarian. I didn’t want to be the ‘yes but’ older student at the back of the room. I didn’t want to spend the next three months of a 200-hour weekend course comparing myself to other students. I didn’t want to catch myself entertaining the thought that, at a pinch, I’m similar in age to some of the other students’ mothers. I didn’t want to be thinking critically, when I should be meditating, about the naivety of some of the group’s ‘shares’, and so feeling emotionally grubby.

 

What, then, do I want from a yoga teacher training course? I want to challenge myself and to see where this leads me. I want the course to complement the life that I’m leading, rather than to transform my life it into something newer and better. I want to develop curiosity for my practice, to enhance it from within rather than correct it from without. Ultimately I want to find out if the mind really does follow the body, rather than the other way round, which is what my education up till now had me believe.

 

It’s great to have more knowledge about a practice that I care about. However, I’m not looking for a guru. I didn’t apply to the course in a sideways plea for therapy. I’ll never fly to India to sit at the feet of a smiling, jiggly-headed yogi for a month-long intensive. Nor will I buy a big wardrobe of Lululemon leggings and tops. I don’t even want a new yoga family – right at the moment, one family seems plenty to be getting on with.

 

I’ve come full circle, back to my original desire, the one that got me over the line when I applied for the teacher training in the first place. Curiosity. It’s that simple. ‘Don’t overthink it’, says my daughter, when I try to describe my mixed reaction to starting the yoga course. Perhaps now I won’t.

learning to draw

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Ted, the course coordinator, wore a white linen shirt over blue jeans. Fifteen prospective students, including myself, stood in a loose group in the drawing studio, one floor up from the footpath. ‘This course’, said Ted, ‘is going to change your life. By the end of the first semester, you’ll be looking at the world differently. Even looking out the window, you’ll be looking through it as an artist. But don’t come expecting a holiday. Don’t come treating it as a break from work. You’ll be working harder here than you’ve ever worked before. And it won’t just be drawing, in the way you’ve done up till now. You’ll be taking photos. You’ll be going to exhibitions and reporting critically on them after. You’ll be completing assignments late at night, or on Sundays when you’d rather be at the beach. And in this way, week after week, you’ll be training your eye to see the world as it really is, and not as you want it to be.’

 

I stared out the arched window at the footpath below, and then back at the group. ‘I can guess what you’re thinking’, said Ted said. ‘How can a three-day-a-week course in drawing take over your life?’ He looked across at Julie, the other teacher on the course. Julie laughed. ‘Look’, he said, ‘this course used to be run as your typical adult education course. Classes were held mainly at night. There was no formal assessment. There was no expectation that students would return for a second year. But we’ve changed all that. These days, unless you’re in the running to become an artist, you won’t get a place on this course. Your place will go to someone who is ready to make a move into the art world. There just isn’t enough room, on this course, for hobby artists. This course is about training your eye in a way of looking at the world that will make everything in your life, so far, fall into place’. His blue eyes darting, Ted looked from one applicant to another, making sure of our attention.

 

‘Any questions?’ he asked. One woman asked a question about the portfolio required for the interviews, to be held over the next few days. Another asked about fees, and another about electives. I asked whether it was possible to do the course over two days, rather than three, and Ted frowned his reply. Then he clapped his hands to signal the end of the meeting. ‘See you at your interview’, said Ted, and left the studio with Julie.

 

Two days later, at my interview, Ted flipped through my sketchbook. ‘And did you do all these drawings at the same time?’ he asked. ‘No’, I said. ‘The main ones were done over a couple of years, with the bulk done during my recovery from illness in my late 20s’. ‘Sure’, he said. ‘Who is this?’ he asked, stopping at a line portrait drawn from a photo. ‘That’s Robert Lowell, an American poet’.

 

Ted snapped the sketchbook shut. ‘Look’, he said. ‘Your drawing is fine. It’s your dedication to the course that I’m worried about. You asked, at the end of the introductory meeting, about doing the course over two days a week. What’s all that about?’ ‘Well’, I said. ‘I was hoping to keep my writing projects alive, alongside the drawing course’. ‘Oh’, interrupted Ted. ‘That’s not going to work. We need total loyalty here, total commitment’. He tapped the table with his finger of his left hand and jotted a note on his pad with his right. ‘This course runs over three days. But really it’s a full-time commitment. Otherwise’, he repeated, drumming his long fingers on the table, ‘it’s just not going to work’.

 

‘Ok’, I said, ‘I hear you. I’m willing to commit. I do see your point. I’ll have to make arrangements for my puppy, but I can do the three days. The writing can wait. I’ve always wanted to draw properly and now, with my daughter away, I can do it’. ‘Right oh’, said Ted, ‘we’ll be in touch with an answer by the end of this week’.

 

The street looked different to the street that I’d left an hour before, as I rushed into the art school for my interview. If I got a place on the course, I thought to myself, there’d be no more morning yoga and there’d be less time for housekeeping. If I was organised before, now I’d have to be super organised. But it would be worth it. I would be doing what I’d always secretly wanted to do. Only now it wouldn’t be secret.

 

When I got home, I went straight into the garden and started cutting back plants. When it started spitting with rain, even the dog took refuge inside. ‘Are you sure you should be cutting those plants back as hard as that?’ asked my daughter, appearing at the back door with a worried look. ‘Sure’, I said. ‘I asked a gardening friend, who said that these respond well to being cut back’. By the time I’d finished gardening, the bricks below the side bed were carpeted with green. I was wet with sweat and rain.

 

My world was about to change and I felt free. I was reinventing myself, following my own lead. My daughter was leaving home for college. But I wouldn’t miss her because my days would be busy just keeping up with my commitments, and seeing the world through artist’s eyes.

 

‘Dear Helen’, the email began. It was a no from Ted, the course coordinator. The course, he explained, was oversubscribed and they were unable to offer me a place. Would I like to apply again the following year, once I’d spent more time drawing and was ready to commit fully to the course?

 

I knew, from the email in front of me, that two-thirds of the applicants for the course hadn’t got a place. But in my heart the rejection felt personal. I had paid a price for being cocky. I’d mentioned my PhD and three books. ‘Big deal’, the rejection email said to me. ‘We don’t care about any of that.’ I felt clumsy, naïve. I had misjudged. I was keen to work in a drawing studio. I dearly wanted some instruction. But I’d been vain in thinking that Ted and Julie would want me over other applicants. I had other opportunities, as the rejection letter politely suggested. Why should an oversubscribed art department offer me another?

 

I looked up from the computer, away from the unwelcome email. I’d been shown up as the self-centred dilletante that I really was. I’d been seen through. The side garden that, five days before, I’d tamed in the rain, now looked hacked at, messed about with. Why couldn’t I do anything properly? Why was I forever making things up as I went along? Would it always be this way?

 

My daughter, already practised in missing out on things, having recently left school, gave me a hug. ‘It’s nothing to do with you’, she said. ‘You’re just a name on a list’. Perhaps she was right, I thought. But in the days after I made up my own story. I’d been passed over because I wasn’t serious about art. And possibly for another reason. The course coordinator, on hearing me say that I wanted to write about my experience of being a student again, had arched ever so slightly. Why, I imagined him asking himself, would he want to be described in his crisp white shirt by a middle-aged female student keen to reinvent herself through art?

 

Then again, from Ted’s point of view, I could be seen as a financial risk. Perhaps the government would give his department a smaller subsidy for my place, than if they gave a place to someone on a welfare benefit. Perhaps my daughter was right. I was just a name on a list and it was a numbers game.

 

For a few weeks I didn’t pick up a pencil to draw. It wasn’t a decision that I made. I just didn’t get round to it. Was I proving Ted right, that I wasn’t dedicated to art? Perhaps. But the conflict felt bigger, and possibly simpler, than this. I had applied to the drawing course to take my drawing to the next level, not to become an artist. I was fine with my identity as it was. I didn’t want my view of the world transformed. I didn’t want to take on the mantle of the artist. Writing was hard enough, why choose something even harder? I didn’t draw because I was cross with Ted for telling me that I had to become an artist if I wanted to learn to draw.

 

Until one morning I visited the local art shop and sketched my story about the drawing course to the woman at the till, who was supporting her own creative practice by working weekends at the art shop. ‘I wouldn’t worry’, she said. ‘That course has changed a lot. Just get back to your own drawing’. ‘I was thinking’, I said, ‘of doing a drawing a day, and of going from there. Only I don’t want to make it into a chore, into something I have to do, to tick off a list’. ‘Yes’, she said, ‘of course you don’t. What about if you take a small pad? That way you can do a drawing most nights, as a way of unwinding, and look forward to it during the day’. ‘Okay’, I said, ‘that sounds good. What about if, in a couple of months, I come back and show you what I’ve done?’ ‘I would like that’, said the woman, smiling.

 

It was a hot day and I was glad to leave my dog in the car in the garage next to the art shop. An hour and a half later, I returned to the car to find the garage door pulled down. Knowing that my dog was locked in the car in a garage which wouldn’t open until Monday morning, I panicked. As I was speaking to the after-hours security, agreeing a sizeable call-out fee, the woman who’d served me in the art shop appeared jangling a set of keys. Her face was red. ‘I only stayed back’, she said, with quiet fury, ‘because I saw a dog in the car’. ‘I’m really sorry’, I said. But it made no difference. The woman was fuming. ‘There are so many things that I have to do this afternoon’, the woman said, fumbling with the keys in the roller door. I said nothing in my defence. I had no defence. I had used the art shop car park while I went to a shoe shop – I had a shoe box under my arm – and then to a bookshop. ‘Oh God, I do apologise’, I said, trying a second time. ‘And you were so kind to me this morning’. But it was no good, the woman still frowned. And so I jumped into my car and drove away, as if from the scene of a crime.

 

After a week or so, I took the small drawing pad out of the cupboard. My daughter was away and there was a gap to fill, which was just the right size for drawing in. I lit an oil burner and dimmed the lights. But no music. The quiet was better for drawing. I put the flowers that I’d picked out walking the dog before dinner under the arc table lamp of the kitchen table.

 

It was the same the next night. I waited until after dinner and the house was quiet. I put whatever I was going to draw – usually flowers, but not always – under the lamp that pooled light on the table. Then I’d just look at the plant, fiercely at first, until I decided which part of the plant – or object – to draw. Sitting there, in the quiet, it became obvious which part of the plant I’d focus on. Like cropping a photo, I left out most of what I could see and focused on just a small area.

 

Once I started drawing, that small cropped area came alive. Details of foliage and shadow, of colour and depth, that I spent my days brushing past, as I headed for the fridge, now spoke to me. Head down, a clutch of coloured pencils in my left hand as I drew with my right, I let the drawing become my world. I focused on the plant, not on the page. As I drew, I was struck by the strangeness of nature, the peculiar shape of a flower, in a more concentrated way than was possible when I brushed past the plant out walking my dog. I never looked at my watch when I drew, so I don’t know how much time went by. I tried not to stop drawing to look at my drawing critically. And I was always glad that my pad was small so that I could finish my drawing in one go.

 

Every time I started drawing it was the same. There was a hump that I had to get over before I got into it. I never started out feeling confident. It was more curiosity that drew me in. Curiosity for the plant I was drawing, which I’d never looked at properly, and for the drawing that might come out of my staring at the plant hard enough. And though I never truly captured what was in front of me, I did capture something else, a glancing likeness that satisfied me.