Guest post by my dear friend Claire Kleynjans:
Mindfulness seems to be everyone’s aspiration these days, and every second person owns a yoga mat. Well and good. But when there’s already zero spare time amid the chorus of work, family, obligations, and chores, how are you meant to carve out an extra hour to sit and gaze at your navel? Mindfulness seems irrelevant, impossible, and perhaps even vaguely insulting (sure, you’d love to be mindful – if you won Tattslotto).
The world we live in isn’t exactly gentle with us. Like an unfulfilled helicopter parent, our screens subject us to a consistent aspirational barrage: Achieve! Dream! Travel! Do more! Be more! Have more friends! Be a better daughter/sister/employee/dog sitter! Be happier! Look younger! Buy more throw pillows! Save the planet! Such directives are shouted at us every day, and soon enough we internalise them, saving everybody time by shouting them at ourselves (in our minds, of course. Out loud would be even more terrifying). It’s positively Orwellian. And no matter how admirable the intention behind it, all this bleating is not motivational. The sheer volume means we’re overwhelmed, dissatisfied and exhausted (why hello, dear Shiraz, Cadbury, Sofa and Netflix! Let us accompany each other into oblivion). And it gets worse – the common message underlying all these commands is simple and deadly: you’re not okay as you are. Not enough. In order to get anywhere, you must change! And so, in response, we push ourselves harder and harder to try and attain some unachievable, mythical standard of perfection. But guess what: You are not a unicorn! And achieving great things actually begins with knowing yourself.
So what does yoga have to do with all this? Well, yoga is a delicious paradox: it’s both the antithesis of getting shit done and the very thing that enables you to get shit done. And not only this, it’s the ideal gateway drug to mindfulness. Let me explain.
In our quest to achieve and be better, our bodies are often the casualty. We come to see our physical self as a mere tool to help us climb whatever mountain it is that we’ve selected. And in the process, we forget that these bodies are complex, finely calibrated, organic creatures, not machines. But many of us take better care of our cars than ourselves. A massage once every six months just isn’t going to cut it!
‘If you don’t take care of your body, where are you going to live?’
To compound this systematic neglect of our bodies, society has also bequeathed us the dubious teaching that our thoughts are the boss, and we should listen to and believe them. All of them. All the time. Back in 1637, a philosophical French fella called Descartes wrote ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ (I think, therefore I am). The intellectual western world was collectively thrilled with this notion, embracing it as a sign of moral and intellectual superiority. And it’s stuck around ever since – even now, we are slaves to our thoughts, and fail to consider ourselves as whole beings (mind + body, both in need of care and attention). We are disconnected from our essential nature (and we never cop a break from that nattering mind. How exhausting).
To navigate your life successfully – to even know what it is you want, let alone summon the grit and guts and gumption to go after it – you need to be coming from a strong inner place. And that’s exactly what yoga teaches you to find. By paying careful, kind attention to your body and mind, building strength, patience, commitment, and a practice of self-care (judge-y self-talk is not permitted on the yoga mat) you begin to live more authentically and richly, and learn to firmly close the door, even just momentarily, on the shouty world outside. And the constant mental chatter inside. And how do we begin? Why, exactly as we are, of course.
We all know that the things we do in our activewear (the actual active things, not the smoothie-swilling things) are good for us. So we’re (somewhat) down with the concept of exercise. And the movement/exercise aspect of yoga gives an over-achieving mind something to chew on while it’s getting used to this mindfulness caper. Just sitting on a cushion in silence for five minutes is enough to make some of us want to run screaming to the closest bar, so let’s make it as easy as we can, for goodness sake. Your yoga teacher’s job is to guide you physically and mentally, make helpful suggestions, and most importantly ‘hold the space’ for you (this simply means that while you’re in class, no one can ask you to meet a deadline, write a report, donate to charity, make them a snack, run them to soccer practice, etc). Yoga classes are kind and respectful – and everyone’s there for the same reason: to do their own practice, in a safe, supportive community.
As we know (enthusiastically or reluctantly), moving the body feels good. Our bodies were made to move! And after a short while of practising yoga, you will actually notice new things about your body, and maybe your mind too. Because the yoga mat is like a training ground for life. You might notice that you’re a bit stronger, that you don’t loathe bloody boat pose quite so much – but you might also notice how it’s possible to feel your breath with your whole body, and how patient, resilient, persistent, smart and kind you really are. How you are great, right now. How focusing on the body is the easiest way to quiet the mind, so you can hear what really matters. The real, authentic you, crying out to be heard behind all that white noise.
Yoga is a tool that can bring us back to ourselves, and back to the present moment (the fundamental essence of mindfulness). We come to yoga just as we are – no prep required. It’s a practice that teaches us, little by little, to be as kind to ourselves as we are to our best friend, or our beloved pet. Yoga is about just showing up in all our grubby glory and learning how to move our body in time with our breath, and building the courage to creep a little closer to that wildest of all frontiers – one’s own mind.
And the best part is that by doing the very last thing you feel like doing – the most counterintuitive act you could dream up, in your hectic, overworked, fragile state – you’ll find a space in which to care for and renew yourself. As the old adage goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup.
Not sure where to start? Try Yoga with Adriene on YouTube (it’s free), or even braver and better, find yourself a yoga studio not too far from home, where the teachers are kind and real. Let them hold the door open for you, as you come back home to yourself.
And just one last thing. It doesn’t matter what you look like. Gasp! That’s right. You don’t need to buy snazzy expensive tights, or practice/do research first, or wait for bikini season (FFS), or change anything at all. Just show up for yourself, and see what happens. Mindfulness – the real calm that enables us to hear what’s true and get important things done – might be so much sweeter than you ever guessed.
‘Self-care is not self-indulgence. It’s self preservation.’ Audre Lorde
Claire is a yoga instructor, poet, editor, and high school English teacher based in the beautiful Dandenong Ranges, Melbourne. For Claire, yoga is a powerful, peaceful way to reconnect body and spirit, calm the mind, and reclaim mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing (perfect recipe for “getting ahead” in your career!).
For more inspiration head to Claire’s Website.