What I’ve learned from yoga

I’ve been practicing yoga for sixteen years. Not consistently. I start and stop. When there’s a class nearby I go. I’ve attended classes for a few months or even years. But when I move someplace where there are no yoga classes, then my practice wanes. I lack the self-discipline to practice on my own. I’ve tried. I’ve rolled my yoga mat out on the living room floor and given it a go. But in twenty minutes I rush through a yoga practice that takes an hour in class, and I skip the bits I find tough. I never skip the tough bits in class.

I love yoga for so many reasons. Before I ever tried yoga I used to wish to be put on one of those stretching racks you see in old movies, so that I could have my limbs and back stretched. When I attended my first yoga class I was astounded to discover that yoga practice is like being put on a rack. I’m not sure what I thought yoga was before that, but I never guessed it would satisfy my desire to stretch my limbs and my back.

I love yoga because it keeps me flexible and supple, it encourages me to concentrate and work on my posture, and it has taught me relaxation techniques that I can put into practice anytime anywhere. While I’m not consistent in my practice, I have breathing, stretching and relaxation techniques that I can call upon whenever I need them.

Going to a regular class this summer has drawn my attention to the one aspect of yoga that has influenced me more than any other. It has to do with my mind far more than my body. And it is something that has come to influence the way I think about and engage with other people, the approach I take to raising my children, and the way I approach my life in general. Like my posture, it’s not something I have perfected, but it’s something I work on and try to improve all the time.

Every yoga teacher I have ever had has advised and encouraged students to focus on their own practice. Don’t worry what anyone else around you is doing. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Some students have more yoga experience than others, some are more bendy than others, some can stretch backwards but not forwards, some have better balance than others. Comparing yourself to anyone else is pointless. Focus on your own self – how your body feels, how it responds, how are you breathing, where is your focus. Don’t judge others for good or bad – look at him, he can’t touch his toes; I wish I could twist into a pretzel like her. Work on your own body and mind – on improving your own suppleness, your own breathing, your own relaxation.

Following the advice of a teacher I had a few years ago, I now practice yoga with my eyes closed for most of the class. If I open my eyes at all it is only to look at the teacher, so I can follow her example. Only she and I are in the class. I turn inwards, blocking out external sounds and the other students all round me, concentrating on improving and perfecting myself. Not comparing myself to anyone else.

And that piece of yoga advice infuses every aspect of my life. It’s made me stop comparing myself to other people. We’re all different. We have different body shapes and sizes, different life experiences, different dreams and hopes and fears. Why waste time comparing myself to the tall slim elegant woman that I will never be, when I could be focusing on working with the raw material that my genetic and environmental heritage has given me. Why compare where I am in life with the success or lack of success of others my age. Either accept myself as I am or work to change. And if I choose to change, accept that the change is mine. I will never be anyone other than who I am.

Don’t judge people because they look different to me – short, tall, fat, skinny, symmetrical or asymmetrical features. Don’t judge people because they live different lives to me – they have more money or less money, they work or they don’t work, they come from different cultures or backgrounds. It’s all a waste of the precious short time we have on Earth to compare ourselves to others. Yoga has taught me to accept people as they are, and to concentrate either on accepting myself as I am, or striving to change who I am in a way that is mine alone. It has taught me to live in the world in a way that feels right to me, not in a way that I think society will approve of.

My approach to raising my children and home educating them is also inspired by this yoga lesson. Don’t compare. I don’t compare my children to anyone else’s. I don’t care how my girls compare to other four and six year olds. We all develop differently. I’m not interested in when someone else’s child learned to read or do long division or recite the collected works of Shakespeare while unicycling up Mt Everest. And because my kids are home schooled, I’m not interested in comparing them to National Curriculum or other formal education targets. All our children are brilliant and just like adults, they are figuring the world out for themselves, each one is his or her unique way.

I also strive to not compare my children to each other. It doesn’t help me or them to compare the age at which either one developed particular skills, or to compare their motor skills or athletic abilities. They’re different. They’re built differently, they have different personalities, they approach learning in different ways, so comparing them is futile. I’m not saying I don’t ever do this, but when I do, I catch myself and put a stop to that train of thought.

And finally, not comparing myself to others has informed my approach to life in general. I live on a boat, for goodness sake, in a tiny space with very little money. If I compared myself to others I’d realise this is foolhardy – we have no rainy day savings, no pension plan, no fancy clothes or telecommunications systems. There are sailors out there who have bulging bank accounts and boats fancier than ours, and sailors who make us look rich by comparison. But we’re all following our own paths, each with our own unique goals. So it’s better to concentrate and focus on living my life, on my family, on my goals and dreams, on working with the resources I have at my disposal, than wasting my time comparing myself to others.

Banishing comparison frees the mind up to enjoy other people much more. When someone tells me about their child’s achievement I can genuinely enjoy what that child has done and not worry that my kids haven’t achieved the same. When someone shows me around their brand new half a million pound yacht I can genuinely enjoy the experience, congratulate them on their beautiful home, admire what they have, but not wish that we lived in such splendour. Because we have Carina, and our own lives are splendid. When I see a beautiful or elegant woman I can enjoy her beauty and not worry that I don’t look like her. I can enjoy the success of others and not compare my own achievements. There’s a great freedom in all that.

The breathing, stretching and relaxation techniques I have learned through practicing yoga are immensely beneficial to my life. They calm me, centre me, give me the skills and tools to de-stress and to self-heal aches and pains. But it is focus that has informed and influenced my life more than anything else. Just like my breathing and stretching and relaxation, I haven’t yet perfected my inward focus and concentrating on my own life’s practice. Years ago, when I lived in Japan, I thought it was silly that people could practice tea ceremony for decades and still never get it right. I missed the point. Perfection is unattainable. The important thing is striving for it. I may never have the perfect forward bend, but trying to perfect it feels good. I may never be able to completely banish external thoughts from my relaxation practice, but trying to feels good. And I may never be able to completely stop comparing myself to others, but trying to perfect my focus opens up a world of wondrous encounters with others, free from comparison and judgement.

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