helen hayward

life writing

Category: Society

my biggest yoga teaching fear

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Since starting to teach yoga, eleven weeks ago, my deepest fear has been this. I would arrive at the studio, put in the door code, switch on some music, light a candle, get out the mats, block and straps from the cupboard. And then nothing. No-one would come to class. I would be alone in the studio.

 

Two days ago, this nearly happened. Minutes after my 6.30pm class was due to start, I was alone in the studio. But then, thankfully, Sally and her gymnast daughter slipped in late. Sally usually comes to my Friday lunch-time class, not my Thursday evening class, so I was surprised – and relieved – to see her. And yet despite this relief, for the first ten minutes of class my brain didn’t work properly. I stuck to my sequence. I didn’t give the wrong cues. Still, my mind was all over the place. Questions kept coming at me, like an automatic ball machine on a tennis court. ‘Where were my regulars? Why hadn’t they let me know they weren’t coming?’ And then, the question driving all the others. ‘Surely this was confirmation that I was a bad yoga teacher?’

 

Thankfully, after the first ten minutes, I snapped out of my funk and focused on teaching the sequence I’d prepared. Sally and her daughter had come for a yoga class, I reminded myself, not to form the chorus in their teacher’s bad dream.

 

Yesterday morning I had just enough time to do some work before taking my dog to the beach so that he’d flop on the backseat of the car while I was teaching my lunchtime class. Arranging my morning to give Digger a run on the beach is inconvenient. Yet I love being by the sea when I’m there. I love the way it takes me away from everything that’s happening on land, and invites chats with other dog owners. Which is why I always leave the beach with a thank you to Digger for making me take him.

 

When I got to the studio, after being at the beach, there was only just enough time to switch on the light, pull out my notes, roll out three mats, light a candle and turn on some music. Perhaps this is why it wasn’t until a few minutes after 1pm that I looked at my watch. Only then did it hit me. No-one was there. I was alone. I waited to hear the click of the gate, but there was quiet. Did that mean no-one was coming?

 

Perhaps because I’d rehearsed this moment, so many times, panic didn’t come. Instead I sat cross legged on my mat and breathed. Then I had a distinct thought. I wasn’t completely alone in the studio. I was someone. And given the ache in my lower back, perhaps from the stress the night before, I needed to do some yoga. I could, if I wanted, do yoga all by myself.

 

Uncrossing my legs, I took a deep breath and stood at the top of my mat, as if it was the most usual thing in the world to start a class without any students. First, I did two roll-downs. Then I stepped back into plank, holding for a breath deep into my belly and, on an exhale, lowering into sphinx and up again into downdog.

 

At which point Ruth entered the studio, wearing her bike helmet and apologising for being late. Ruth is quiet, or at least quieter than my other students. Rather than feeling embarrassed to be doing yoga alone, I felt glad to be able to give Ruth a one-to-one, and to get to know her better outside the group. Except that then, just as Ruth and I were getting the hang of doing yoga together, Dee arrived and unrolled her mat. Without so much as a roll down, she joined in our sequence. ‘I just felt’, she said, by way of explanation, ‘that I really needed half an hour of me-time’.

 

I didn’t feel surprised when Dee arrived twenty minutes late for class. Because by that point I knew that I didn’t know what would happen next, apart from teaching the yoga sequence that I’d prepared earlier in the week, when teaching to an empty studio was still my big yoga teaching fear.

 

At the end of class, after I mentioned a break over Christmas and New Year, Sally and Ruth thanked me. ‘I feel that I’ve found your class at just the right moment’, said Sally, clicking the council gate shut behind her. ‘I’m so glad’, I said, as I headed for my car, where my dog was peering over the backseat.

 

Assuming I keep on teaching yoga, there will probably be more occasions on which I set up the studio and no-one comes to class. Perhaps my fear will keep on being realised until I move on from it, until I don’t need it anymore. Until, that is, I feel confident that I’m not a bad teacher.

 

Yesterday, when I practiced yoga in the empty studio, I was proud of myself for not losing it. My biggest yoga teaching fear wasn’t, it turned out, the horrible experience that my fantasy had told me it would be. My world didn’t cave in. Besides, there seemed no point being embarrassed when there was no-one there to feel embarrassed in front of. Instead, after a small wobble, I got on with my yoga sequence, as if I myself was someone worth teaching.

 

 

 

 

a brief history of housekeeping

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We like to think an attractive home is worth the effort required to maintain it. We want to believe that a cared-for living space adds to rather than takes away from a good life. Until, that is, we start running our own home, at which point our mixed feelings for domesticity come rushing in. The place of our own, that we once dreamed about, starts making demands on us that we can’t always meet and from which we pull back. Love and hate, joy and resentment, enthusiasm and reluctance – all these rise up during the time we spend at home.

This is a brief emotional history of housekeeping, not a social one; this is because, for many of us, our domestic thoughts and feelings prove as challenging as household tasks themselves. It traces a path from our childhood home, the dilemmas arising from our first flat or share house, the mid-life conundrum of balancing work and home, and the challenges thrown up as we age. It doesn’t address everyone’s experience of home; no appeal is made to the universal. Instead, it sheds light on the way a great many of us experience home across a lifetime.

So, back to the beginning. Before we’re able to pluck up courage to pack up and leave our childhood home for good – the home which, at an unconscious level, is a template for our every future home – we have to let it go. This happens slowly, bit by bit. We may grow critical of our family’s style of cooking. We might experience our parents’ help as interference, as meddling. Perhaps we bar the door of our bedroom and insist on cleaning it ourselves; only, always later. Our longing to be cared for – to be cooked, comforted and cleaned for – never ceases. However, at a certain point, we suppress this wish in a bid for independence. We shrug off our desire to be cared for as an unwanted comfort and, like a young bird leaving the nest, take flight.

It takes an almighty effort to leave our childhood home without looking back. So much so that we often wait until our new home starts to fall apart before we plug in the vacuum cleaner, pick up a cloth to dust, or do anything resembling housework. We wait so long for the fairies to come and rescue odd socks from under the bed that disgust propels us into a frenzy of cleaning up. And then nothing, for the next little while. Until another burst of disgust gives rise to a growing desire to keep our own cave clean. But this awakening is fitful. At first, we react to even the idea of a household routine. We may corral ourselves into doing bits of housework now and then, spurred by a fear of the chaos that ensues when we don’t. Even so, cleaning up after ourselves comes neither naturally nor regularly. Sitting back and hoping for the best, and the inertia that is its consequence, is what comes naturally.

In the coming years, we continue to avoid housework. Often without knowing it, we identify housework with our childhood home, with our mother’s sighs and nagging, with the humdrumness of existence that we escaped when we packed up our things and left. Those household tasks that we can’t avoid are like a thorn in our side, upending our plans for how our weekends should be spent. Unconsciously, they remind us of the mother (and occasionally the father) we are determined not to turn into. And so we stumble on, from one mountain of dirty laundry to the next.

We reach the next threshold. Perhaps, tired of renting, we start eyeing off property to buy. We may be encouraged to travel for work or study. Or something happens in our family to precipitate a big change. An event like Covid forever alters our perception of, and trust in, the world. Or we look around our home through the eyes of a soon-to-arrive baby, or a parent leaving home for a higher level of care. It could simply be that the pressures of our work keep on mounting. Whatever it is, something happens to make us realise that our home life is what we make it, that it’s an effect of our investment in it. The quality of our so-called ordinary life – the roughly quarter of our waking hours that we give over to looking after ourselves, those we care about and our home – is largely up to us.

As we approach mid-life, our home life tends to grow more complex. With more balls in the air, than ever before, we struggle to juggle work and, quite possibly, family. Family and work both feel essential. Yet together they are incompatible. They feel like different things and they won’t fit side by side. Some of us, at this point, fantasise about hiring a cleaner to swish in and out while we’re out. Or we might do the housework at night, when the kids are asleep and our standards are lower. Whatever we resort to, a continuous sense of background pressure means that our mixed feelings for housework feel normal, like the mixed feelings we have around having to work late, or dealing with a tricky relative. Such that when, one day, a friend confides to us how much they enjoy cooking, renovating or gardening, we can’t help hoping they’re being ironic. The domestic satisfactions of our friend show us up, making us feel our own shortfalls more keenly.

Despite a confusion about the value of domesticity, we continue to hope for a work-life balance. Surely it must be possible to square our longing for a pleasant home, with a seemingly endless parade of household chores? The answer that many of us arrive at, in response to this dilemma, feels closer to an existential decision than a conscious choice. Put simply, we decide that the benefits of waking up in a warm and attractive home outweigh the minuses of doing regular housework.

With this shift, our sense of housework expands to become housekeeping, a larger animal than the relatively tame task of keeping a home clean and tidy. Perhaps we start wearing an apron in the kitchen, and devoting an hour most days to household tasks. We may also realise that a large part of the stress that we previously experienced at home, and came to think of as normal, arose from our unwillingness to credit the time and energy that we spent housekeeping as valuable, as real work.

The domestic arts that many of us awaken to in mid-life – like cooking, renovating, gardening, entertaining – hark back to childhood. They bubble up from what we left behind when we gathered up courage and left home for ever. They reflect our wish to feel cared for at a deep level, and to mess about in ways that we enjoyed as kids. Except that we are no longer children. And even as we awaken interests at home, we are just as busy as we ever were. This makes it hard to find the time – and the head space – to explore our creative side. After a long day at work, or with our kids, it’s often easier to flick on passive entertainment than to pursue more demanding activities. The upshot of which is that increasingly we have daydreams about home life that we never act on.

Time passes and the web of our life keeps on spinning. We start to appreciate the therapeutic benefit of looking after our home, the fact that often we finish our housekeeping feeling better about ourselves and the world than when we started. And yet we shrink from the demands that domesticity makes on us. We make mental lists for the weekly cleaner that most of us still don’t have. We take a particular dislike to domestic tasks which, the longer we put them off, the more we feel humiliated by. The housekeeping that, just years before, felt like an invitation, shrinks back into housework, into a drudgery that depletes rather than adds to our life. And we cease to take pleasure in the very things which, when we were younger and less busy, enriched our sense of home.

Until the time comes for us to cut back on work, or at least to shift into a lower gear. Perhaps our kids, if we have them, leave home, and again cooking becomes the pleasure that it was before too much pressure made spending time in the kitchen less appealing. Now that time constraints have eased, we can heed our hunches about what matters most. But though we may work a little less, time passes more quickly. We exercise so as to be confident of living independently into the future, rather than to look good on the beach. Our resentment for housework lessens and, for some of us, even dissolves. We start to cherish housekeeping for the opportunities – and sanity – it affords. Through its rhythms, we find ways to express ourselves, and to feel at one with the seasons as they pass. We take pride in baking, in a plant grown from a cutting, in a spring-cleaned home. And as we look round our home, we wonder at all the hours that we were unable to savour when we were run off our feet with work and, possibly, family.

Not all of us arrive at this point. Tragedies befall people we know and love, which we know in our heart could have befallen us. We feel a humility, a glad-to-be-aliveness, that was somehow less available when we were young. We still admire expertise, but feel less intimidated by it. We take large amounts of pleasure in small things that tended to pass us by when we spent our days scampering to catch up on the business of life. For as long as our body doesn’t fail us, we take pride in running our home. We enjoy the same necessities – shopping, cleaning and organising – that, many moons ago, we resented. Thankful for the tasks that give structure and meaning to our days, we take comfort in housekeeping. We say ‘yes’ to ordinary life, knowing in our heart that nothing important is ordinary. We delight in baking for a neighbour. We enjoy taking a cloth bag to the local shops. Even wheeling out the rubbish bin feels less of a chore than it once did. Because by now we appreciate how closely housekeeping is tied to heart-keeping. We know that meaning and satisfaction can be found in the daily tasks of living. And that our ability to care about things that we don’t ultimately care about – and much of housekeeping is this – is a measure of our determination to do what it takes to live in this world.

We feel this so keenly that if, one day, we’re forced to leave our home, for a tick-list of sensible reasons, it shakes us to the core. Once the pain of packing up and moving is over, we react to being taken care of by staff we don’t know. We dislike being brought tea at odd hours in a disposable cup. We never signed up to spend our last days on earth feeling like a patient; yet here we are, nodding gratefully for services we never elected for.

Most afternoons, we sit in our comfortable chair by the window, hopeful of a visit from family or friends, none of whom can begin to imagine what it’s like to wait to be visited, for a missive from the outside world. Yet still we take comfort in small things – flowers from a friend’s garden, a warmed-up home-cooked meal. And as we look out our window, at a tree whose top boughs the wind shakes in line with our third-floor room, we recall an Emily Dickinson poem we once knew by heart, and now just the opening verse of:

Hope is the thing with feathers

that perches in the soul

And sings the song without a tune

And never stops – at all.

We so, as we come full circle, our housekeeping days are over.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

new website

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It started out as a new year’s resolution, of a kind I felt up to making. This year, I told myself, I will redo my website.

For a month I did nothing. The bushfires raging across the country burned a hole in everything. What a vain, shallow thing to want, I thought, whenever the idea of a new website crossed my mind. Besides, I reasoned, I still like my old website. It’s still beautiful. And who but me would know that the photo of my daughter, on its opening page, was taken seven years ago?

Me. I knew that the photo of Emma in a Scottish landscape, wearing a woollen beanie with donkey ears, was long out of date. Just as I knew that eight of the stories on the ‘other writings’ page were taken from a magazine that died eight years ago. Even if no-one else cared about this, I did.

At the start of February, my writing coach put ‘new website’ on my list of things to do before we met next. I nodded. I had in mind what I wanted the site to look like, and felt sure that I could find someone to do it without paying over the odds. Sitting outside at a café, that late summer morning, a new website seemed doable.

A month later, in the middle of mentoring an accomplished writer with a project of hers, she mentioned that she’d created websites for clients in her old job. ‘Really?’ I said. ‘Would you be up for making one for me?’ ‘Yes, of course’, Susie said, her eyes lighting up.

Then came lock down and we switched our meetings to on-line. Susie was upbeat. She liked not losing time to traveling and spending time on zoom. Besides, she pointed out, it would be just as easy to create a new website via zoom, as in person.

Having taken the lead in our writing workshop, I let Susie take the lead when it came to discussing my new website. Luckily, we agreed on most things. I needed a modern, fresh site. I needed google analytics to help me reach a younger, busier audience. I needed a user-friendly mobile app. I needed to promote my blog and to downplay the fact that the publisher of my last book went bust a month after publishing it. And yes, I probably did need to start a newsletter that drew more readers to my work.

The next day, walking my dog along the beach, I felt less certain. Did I really want to write a newsletter, and about exactly what? Or did I just think that I should want to write one?

As promised, Susie emailed a mock-up of my new website a week later. I clicked on the link on my mobile. It looked great. I texted Susie, thanking her warmly. The site looked different from my old one, in a good way. With this new website, I thought to myself, I’d be free of the old me. The dead magazine story links would be dust. My work would be fresh on the page. What a relief.

Busy with my yoga course, three days went by before I opened the website link again, this time on my computer in the kitchen. It was Sunday afternoon and the light was fading in the garden.

‘Take a look at this, will you?’ I asked Emma, who’d wandered into the kitchen. ‘It’s my new website. I think I like it, but I’m just not sure’.

‘What about these uneven margins?’ Emma asked, peering over my shoulder and pointing at the screen.

‘It’s still a draft’, I said, feeling defensive on Susie’s behalf.

‘And why are the fonts on this page all different?’ she asked.

‘Oh, come on’, I said. ‘There’s lots of time to change things like that’.

‘How much are you paying Susie for this?’ she asked.

‘$50 an hour’, I said.

There was a pause.

‘I reckon I could do a website for you’, she said. ‘I’ve got nothing on right now. And it will cost you less’.

‘But you’ve never done a website before’.

‘Actually, I’ve been looking at websites for a while. I think I know a site that might work for you. It seems pretty easy to work with’.

There was another pause.

‘Okay’, I said, rising to her dare. ‘It’ll be awkward with Susie, who may not forgive me. But I’m happy for you to give it a go. I bet you can do it. How long do you need?’

‘I dunno’, she said.

‘How does three weeks sound?’

‘Yep’, she said, and left the kitchen, her phone buzzing in her hand,

I sent an apologetic email to Susie, explaining that Emma had put her hand up and that I wanted to support her. When, the next day, Susie emailed back, she couldn’t have been nicer about it. Yet I knew that what she was feeling must be more complicated than what she said in her email. ‘Good for you’, I thought to myself.

The next Saturday, coming in from walking the dog, I found Emma slouched at the computer on the kitchen table. ‘Why does this software have to be so annoying?’ she asked. ‘What can they be thinking?’ Refusing to be drawn in, I started getting dinner, confident that Emma would find her own way through if I didn’t interfere.

But she didn’t. Emma hated the time that she spent making me a new website, as much as she’d once hated doing school homework. From her moans it was clear that it felt closer to a chore than a newfound passion. ‘Forget it’, I said, coming in from gardening one day to find her slouched yet again at the computer. ‘I can ask Jo, my old web designer. She might be able to do it’. ‘Would you?’ said Emma, sounding relieved. ‘I’m so sorry, but I just can’t do this right now. There are too many other things that I want to be doing’. ‘Fine by me’, I said, lying.

If Emma hadn’t wiped my old website from the Internet, I might have done nothing for a while. Instead, I emailed Jo that night, who got straight back. She had, she said, stopped doing web design. But as it happened, a friend of hers had just had a good experience creating a website with wix, and it had made Jo curious to try it. If I didn’t mind waiting until she got the hang of using it, she was game.

The next morning, I sent through the website material to Jo, and told her not to hurry with the site. And week later, she sent through a mock-up. I was thrilled. The site didn’t look modern. It wasn’t attention-seeking. Even better, it looked like my website. The only downside was that there were too many photos with me in them. However, I decided to let Jo make the call on this.

But still I worried. ‘Is a new website just self-promotion?’ I asked myself. ‘No’, I said, silencing my inner critic. It wasn’t about the me who wondered what to cook for dinner, or who did yoga in the bathroom in the morning. It was about something else.

A few evenings later, clicking again on the link Jo had sent, I felt less sure. Lots of small things that I wanted to change jumped out at me. How had I not seen them before? Was I being a fuss-pot? ‘Don’t overthink it’, said Emma, filling a hot water bottle at the hob. ‘But’, I said crossly, ‘I am thinking about it!’

That Friday, I sat at Jo’s side in her study, a novelty after two months of lock down. It was a relief to be able to point out the little things that I wanted her to change, and to sit by as she made the changes. One by one, Jo fixed everything that had bugged me about the site. As she worked, she never said, ‘Oh Helen, what does it matter if these paragraphs are merged or not?’ She never said, ‘Who cares if that photo margin doesn’t match the text margin?’ Nor did she say, as she must have felt at 3pm, ‘I’m hungry, it’s time to stop’.

Three more times, in the following week, I sent through further changes. Each time, Jo made the changes, emailing me back when she was done. During this time, I stopped feeling like a fuss-pot. It was okay, I told myself, to care about what my new website looked like, and how it read line by line. It wasn’t about being a perfectionist. It was about paying for a service and wanting a good job.

Even if I had the skills to create a new website, and even if I had photoshop on my computer, I wouldn’t have been able to create my own website. I needed Jo’s help, her emotional support along with her technical skill. The resistance and self doubt that creating a new website provoked in me was huge. There were moments when I hated the whole business of creating a site. At other times I marveled at the options that the software threw up.

Having Jo at my side gave me permission to create a new website, making it possible –  just last Thursday – to press ‘publish’ on http://www.helenhayward.net. At which point I posted a link to the site on facebook, hung my ego on a peg, and sighed.

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?

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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.