“Find out who you are – and do it on purpose” Dolly Parton
Part of the homework for the advanced level teacher training I am doing this year involves reading, meditating upon and writing about Stephen Cope’s book “The Great Work of your Life”. This is based on the seminal ancient Indian yogic text “The Bhagavad Gita”, a story of a young warrior Arjuna coming to terms with who he is and what his role is in life, via a conversation with God who has taken the form of Krishna. Cope mixes in the re-telling of this story with examples of people both famous and publicly unknown to examine the idea of dharma, or purpose, and how to live it.
I knew who I was when I was a child. A differentiator, a non conformist, a story teller, an introvert, athletic but also a voracious reader, someone with friends who liked being alone, someone who liked being outside and loved being in water, whether it was the bath or local pool or the sea. Not bothered about appearance or clothes, or social conformities. I remember I loved my ballet tutu as much as my football shirt; my Tom Cruise poster as much as my Liverpool FC poster. I was vulnerable and sensitive and often struggled to fit in, even though I was well liked by my peers.
Overtime, and via the social pressures of school, university and work, I moulded myself into being what I thought I should be. More feminine looking. “Nicer”. Part of a tribe. A heavy drinker and “fun to be around”. A cog in a corporate wheel destined for the never-ending path of ‘promotion’. A rule follower. The more I followed the rules, the worse my depression got. I had counselling, I took medication, both of which eased it a little so I could function, but neither of which got anywhere near to uncovering the truth.
To be honest, neither did yoga in it’s usual modern form. I could have spent years doing sun salutations and got nowhere near myself, if it hadn’t been for the blessing of some very special teachers. One in particular wasn’t at all interested in ‘advanced’ poses but was adamant about how opening the body was necessary on the path to knowing ourselves and integrating that knowledge into our lives. I also had one to one therapy, more akin to spiritual inquiry, sessions and attended a meditation circle. It was these things that started to peel away the armour that I had put on my vulnerable self.
Eventually, I started to come out. I went freelance and was no longer hamstrung by so many corporate demands. I had more freedom to be myself. I tried on several hats to see which fitted best: freelance consultant, psychotherapist, yoga teacher, life coach, Ibiza resident, maybe all of them as a portfolio life/career. But, ultimately, as I experimented I came to realise that I am an English homebody, a great story teller and that I wanted to teach yoga to people who really wanted to learn about yoga.
When I realised that I wanted to teach yoga, I first had to do it alongside other things. In fact, I had to do it alongside other things in order to just afford to teach in the first place, yoga teaching not being a route to massive wealth. But it was always very clear: I was a yoga teacher first, with some money generating things on the side. I did not have a job, and then teach in my spare time. There is a considerable difference. Yoga and how to teach it was and is my life. And the more I came to live my yoga, the more I was able to teach it, and the less I had to rely on other sources of income.
In the process, I have become more myself. More scruffy, less bothered about my appearance, more time spent reading, being active, playing with my nibblings and just being. Much more selective about who I spent time with. More sensitive to authentic connection rather than superficial chit chat. Back to the person I was a child. Much more in touch with my body, my feelings and my soul, no matter how uncomfortable this may be.
In doing so, I have found so much more that I want to teach – because for me this getting back to who we really are and then doing that on purpose – that is what yoga is all about. It isn’t about being more flexible, or making your back feel better, or relaxing. Those things might be what get you on the mat in the first place, but if your teacher and classes are not getting you in contact with who you really are, no matter how uncomfortable, then you are not practising yoga.
So this is what I want to, and try to, teach as best I can. How my students can get in contact with themselves and then live it. For many, it will be just relaxing, because you can’t do this work if you are tense. For others, it is actually physically feeling the body: because you can’t get in touch with the deepest layers of yourself if you cannot be in your ‘gross’ layer, the body. For some, it realising the importance of prioritising their own needs over all the other demands on their time for just an hour or so a week: that they are important and worthy. And for some, it will be a journey deep into themselves, leading to profound changes. I know this because I have been privileged to be part of it and see it. And it is wonderful.
Speaking of privilege, finding out who you are and doing it on purpose is made much easier when you life a materially comfortable life. My journey was facilitated by the fact that I don’t live in refugee camp, have not suffered terrible trauma such as abuse or serving in Afghanistan, do not depend on food banks or universal credit to survive, am not single parenting young children whilst my partner commutes to the city, am able bodied with no disabilities, am straight and cis-gendered. This is not to say that those in different and difficult places cannot do this work, but is an acknowledgement that it might be a lot harder, and that there may well be more pressing priorities than ‘finding yourself’. In this regard, as a yoga teacher, it is worth noting that using an ancient spiritual tradition in a theraputic sense comes with some very real problems – but that is for another post.
So who are you? Why are you on the mat week after week? Why are you practicing with that particular teacher? What is your purpose in this life? Are you living it deliberately? If you wanted answer some of these questions, where would you go to find out?