Finding presence in absence


A belated share here, this was my first piece published on anything other than my own humble blog. It’s about my brother, death, life and how his presence and his absence has changed everything. These are the truest words of my heart and I was so proud to share them on elephant journal…


Never too far from home.

Never too far from home.

These words could have been written by me for me, they so reflect my feelings living far from South Africa and family, but loving the place I live in. It’s complicated…Thanks for putting it so well Sara

Confessions of a yoga teacher: I am not a yogi(ni) and neither are you


I had a bit of a meltdown yesterday. It was an all-wheels-falling-off-non-stop-crying-I-have-to-take-the-afternoon-off kind of day. I was feeling really sorry for myself and I wasn’t in a good space from the time I got up.

I did manage to teach an ok class. It was a good turnout of 12 students at 7.15am, all of whom were ‘repeaters’ which reminds me that I have taught some above average classes in the past, enough to bring them back again. This morning though, at least from my internal perspective, was not my best.

I found myself getting irritated with one particular student though who I already knew pushed my buttons a bit.

This is something that shouldn’t technically happen as a yoga teacher – experiencing negative thoughts about your teaching or your students whilst teaching a discipline which incorporates in its inherent nature tolerance and serenity. But it happens, and I’m sure (or I hope) other yoga teachers will nod in agreement. I may teach yoga but I am not yet a yogini.

These days it is popular for people who practice yoga to refer to themselves as a yogi or yogini (feminine).
I tend to agree with one of my old Iyengar teachers in that the simple act of practising (or even teaching) yoga does not mean you are a yogi. She wouldn’t dream of referring to herself as a yogini and yet she was one of the most accomplished teachers I have ever practised under. defines a yogi as:

a person who is a master of yoga

The Yoga Word Wise definition of a yogi/yogini is

a yoga practitioner who is an adept; someone who has completed the path of yoga and is fully self-realized. Strictly speaking a yogi is someone who has attained complete union, or at least a degree of union.

T.K.V. Desikachar puts it well too. He describes a yogi as

one whose prana is all within the body.

I am the first to admit that I am not any of the above.

There are days, like yesterday when my prana is everywhere and anywhere but my body! I have days when I feel like I take the expression of being ”all over the place” to a new level. I may practise yoga, I may love the practise, I may live the practise to the best of my current ability, but I am not a yogi. Not yet, maybe not ever. I am only human and not even the bendiest human at that.

So, getting back to this student who is cunningly yet unwittingly reversing the roles on me by teaching me about my own weak areas…

The first time she came to my class she was 12 minutes late. Normally I would shake my head, smile and turn people away by this stage. Most people wouldn’t even have the gall to walk into a class 12 minutes late. But we had done a long pranayama and centring exercise at the beginning of the class and we were only just preparing for salutations so I went to the door to meet her and said in a low and, ok I admit, stern voice ”Normally I wouldn’t let you join this late but grab a mat and find a spot quickly and quietly.”

Then throughout the class she looked like this was her first time. She was flinging and flopping her body and going off in a direction other than the one I was instructing. I tried to give her a little extra assistance, but sensed a mixture of confusion and resistance. Maybe that was just coming from me. After the class she stopped to apologise for being late, and to tell me that what I had said when she came in had embarrassed her. She said she had been coming to yoga for years and questioned my hard line about time-keeping. I explained that yoga is a discipline after all. To be on time for class is to have respect for your teacher and other students. The conversation ended well, she seemed to take it in and understand the spirit of my correction and the importance of being punctual to class.

She was on time the next week, which I was pleased about. This quickly dissipated when she spoke obliviously on her mobile phone in the corner while other students were preparing for the class. Anyway, I tried to ignore it and trust her to stop on time. Which she did, more or less…More flinging and flopping throughout the class. This is normal, and completely manageable in a new student. But this lady has been doing this for years, seemingly uncorrected and unguided or just doggedly determined not to take that correction and guidance. It’s impossible to verbally cue her as either she doesn’t listen or doesn’t understand, so I have to physically adjust constantly. Where do I draw the line? My attention is becoming divided. I re-group as I go and afterwards she thanks me sweetly for the class. Now I feel worse for getting annoyed.

This week she was on time, there was no mobile phone, but she was teaching her own class in her head. What she was doing was not was I was instructing. I was at a loss. I tried a few times to help her gently mainly where safety was concerned. ”Soften your knees, try not to lock them etc” I think what got me yesterday was that I felt out of control with her.

Did I really just say that. Out of control? I am not in control of my students! Do I not say at the beginning of class after class: ”listen to your own body first and my instructions second. Your practise is your own” ?!

Anyway, the class progressed regardless and things went smoothly from the outside. When I instructed everyone into relaxation she proceeded to take herself into a shoulderstand…ignore it, let her do what she likes. I had given up on this occasion.

There were a few other things in the morning. An article I read about a woman who had a double mastectomy to avoid getting breast cancer, a photo online of a small boy wandering across the Syrian desert. At work I had to make some calls which I wasn’t too keen on making. The final straw was when I called a Russian agent who we work with and the person who answered spoke no English. Normally this would be no big deal. She spoke to me in Russian, which, incidentally I don’t speak either. I don’t know what it was about that exchange, but it just seemed so pointless. That brief non-sensical conversation became an allegory for everything…chattering away to each other and not listening, not understanding, nothing making sense, least of all my brother’s recent death. It all came up. I asked for the afternoon off. I went home, watched a sad movie and just let myself cry about it all. I gave myself permission to lose it. Then I slept.

When I woke up I felt groggy but better. I felt like I could breath evenly again, my legs felt steadier, my head felt clearer. I went to fetch my son. I joked and cuddled with him. I skyped my mom, I made dinner. I didn’t panic when he suddenly crashed and refused to eat or bath. I managed to coerce him gently into washing his hands and changing. I held him while he had a little cry because even that seemed too much for him. I felt as though I understood how he was feeling. I read him ‘The Poo Bus’ (don’t ask!) which made him smile and tickled his back while he fell asleep. The world felt in fragile balance again. For both of us.

This morning when I woke up, before I did anything, I went to meditate. So far today has been much better. Next time I have my challenging student, I will remember to practice compassion and discipline in equal measure in my teaching. I will remind myself that we are all still learning.

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Chickenpox, cancer and change


Real healing can only begin when we finally learn to be present in the places where we have been absent

What a cruel and crazy year 2013 was. If someone had told me at the start of it what we would all go through this year, I might have just curled up in bed, snuggled deep into the comfort of warmth and darkness and sameness, and asked them to wake me up when it was over.

When I look at my last post almost the same time last year, I have to smile to myself. What did I possibly know about holding steady on shifting grounds then? Hindsight is a marvellous and terrible thing. You only know you had it good when loss and change gives you some perspective. But then again, these yogic practices of centring and staying present have been my only salvation through the darkest of days. So it seems that this toolkit of wisdom that I started collecting at the beginning of such a year was well-timed.

2013 was the year my son got the most dreadful chickenpox, and I spent a week soaking him in oatmeal baths and watching The Jungle Book. It was the year of more change: a new job for me, a new job for D, a new school for C, a new home for the 3 of us.

And far and above all, 2013 was the year I lost my little brother to cancer.

It’s still very raw.

Even as I write those words I feel the prickle of tears welling up and my heart swelling with the weight of this loss.

On 29th August 2013 my 26 year old brother died after a 5 year-long on and off battle with Ewings sarcoma. The last time I sat down to write it seemed to all of us who knew him that he had won that battle, and yet here I am a year later navigating the waters of grief.

It’s a rough ride and some days I hold steadier than others. This grief is circular and all-consuming. It’s dark and deep and sometimes you think you might not surface. The thing about grief is that despite this, there are blessings in it. For me it has created a sense of urgency. It’s an urgency to connect more in real ways with the people I care about (ways that don’t include Facebook), an urgency to live in the moment (because if I’m truly living here and now my grief is bearable) and an urgency to live my life in the light of my own death. I say light because there’s nothing like the death of someone so young and so alive and so close to you to turn on the light in your head – the light that’s off whenever you are half-awake to the miracle of your own existence and how fragile it really is.

Better to be awake and in pain, than to bury your head under the covers. After all, the pain means that I have loved. The pain means that I am alive. So bring it on life.

My eyes are open. I am present.


Finding your way back to the centre


I’ve taught a fair few classes on core focus and centring in yoga and like some of my other favourite themes it’s one I keep coming back to and rediscovering every time I teach it. We hear a lot about core strengthening these days in the health industry, but it’s often more about powering up, tightening up and hardening up…than the yogic approach, and that of any other really good core strengthening protocol, of balancing strength and stretch, stability and ease, give and take. It’s a subtle art of learning how to support ourselves. When introducing almost every core class I’ve taught I’ve read this quote from Desiree Rumbaugh

The core is what supports us spiritually in our lives and physically in our yoga practice. If our core is weak, the ups and downs of life are much harder to take. A strong core makes us more resilient.

Even those of us who don’t know much about our own bodies, know that a strong core is good for us on a physical level. But what about centring and core work on a deeper level?

When I last taught on the core it got me thinking about the state of my own core. It’s not what it used to be in my 20’s that’s for sure and certainly doesn’t compare to my pre-baby central region. How is it then that I can do a free-standing headstand only now. That after practising and trying so hard for several years before, it came quietly and easily when my son was a few months old. Perhaps it’s down to awareness and connection with my centre? Perhaps all the goings-on and centre-of-gravity shifts that happen when carrying another human being around in there make you more sensitive to your core mechanics, or perhaps that little bit of letting go that you have to do to make space for a little person, helps you to learn to find that sweet spot between contraction and release, between muscle and breath that gets you up on your head with less effort that you imagined possible?

Whatever it is, core work is about more that crunches and planks, it’s about going deeply inward to find your centre and reside there as you move through the challenges of each pose, each unsettling thought or troubling emotion. To really develop a strong core it’s the give that you need to understand, the ability to absorb stress and challenge without becoming rigid, to continue to move through and with every breath and every moment, whilst remaining still and stable. It’s a peaceful power that springs from the deepest essence of your true being.

As only he can, Osho puts it magnificently,

Up until now you have lived as a chaos, a crowd. Yoga means now you will have to be a harmony, you will have to become one. A crystallization is needed; a centring is needed…A centre is the first necessity and only a person can be blissful who has got a centre.

So easy to feel on the mat compared to when life throws you completely off-balance. Perhaps the answer or the first step at least is to stop, breathe deeply and quite literally pull yourself together…find your centre and when you’re ready, move from there.

If that doesn’t work…keep practising your Navasana…


The tantra of tantrums


A tantrum is an emotional outburst, usually associated with children or those in emotional distress, that is typically characterized by stubbornness, crying, screaming, yelling, shrieking, defiance, angry ranting, a resistance to attempts at pacification and, in some cases, violence. Physical control may be lost, the person may be unable to remain still, and even if the “goal” of the person is met he or she may not be calmed. A tantrum may be expressed in a tirade: a protracted, angry, or violent speech (Wikipedia)

Although most people are drawn into spiritual beliefs and practices, they have a natural urge to fulfill their desires. With no way to reconcile these two impulses, they fall prey to guilt and self-condemnation or become hypocritical. The tantrik approach to life avoids this pitfall. Tantra itself means “to weave, to expand, and to spread”, and according to tantrik masters, the fabric of life can provide true and ever-lasting fulfillment only when all the threads are woven according to the pattern designated by nature. When we are born, life naturally forms itself around that pattern. But as we grow, our ignorance, desire, attachment, fear, and false images of others and ourselves tangle and tear the threads, disfiguring the fabric. Classical Tantr(ik) tradition uses two main approaches to the realization of (enlightenment): The first one is simply a gradual effort to release oneself from habitual or addictive behaviors. It is a preparation for the other, subtler system of practices, called yoga. (Tantrik Master Shri Aghorinath Ji)


When I my see 2-year old son starting to lose his grip on reality as he slides into the depths of an all-consuming meltdown, I would give anything to be able to talk him out of it, to say a magic word that would bring his little toddler world into harmony and his almighty emotions into balance. It may surprise you that it's not so much to save myself as to save him from himself. Although I admit I would rather not have to hold him like a rugby ball and pretend nothing is happening when he has a writhing fit because he wants nothing more than to push the button on the bus repeatedly and he can't, I know he's hurting more than I am. And it hurts me that he's in such despair over something that is both trivial and out of his control, though he has no comprehension of this of course. It's hard for a mom to watch the little person she's spent the last few years nurturing and protecting from the world so distressed when he realises he is not in control of everything around him. Of course he has to learn this lesson, but have any of us really learnt it?

That going kicking and screaming and fighting against the world when things don't go our way is not going to help us? Rather it prolongs and multiplies our pain and distress while we get the same result in the end. Are we really any wiser than a toddler sometimes?

I know I'm not. I've spent a fair chunk of the last few months fighting against my circumstances. I may not have thrashed around on the floor toddler-tantrum style but if my inner world showed on the outside I'd definitely be there. I've travelled from anger to frustration to despair and self-pity on my emotional rollercoaster…and really all because things didn't work out the way I wanted them to. I'm not saying feeling deep loss at having to leave family when a plan to be closer to family failed is wrong. Or that an ego-bruising sustained in going from teaching the most popular yoga classes in town to being the new kid on the block who has to build up your reputation from scratch in a very competitive place is not completely human. Or that feeling sorry for yourself in the middle of the English winter is unheard of. But the conflict and suffering caused by being consumed with these emotions is avoidable.

Should I really open my eyes and see my world for what it is right now, I would see that all is well despite my persistent longing for something that is not. If I could simply let go of the need to attain the object of my desire and calm down enough to take a few deep breaths between sobs I would feel the loving arms embracing me and know that they have been there all along.

A year of four winters


I am a yoga student, teacher and mother to a tiny person. I have a tendency for deep thinking (sometimes too deep for my own good!) and soul searching (when I find the time in between potty training, reading Dr. Suess and collapsing exhausted on the couch!). My husband and I have joked about the last couple of years, which have included qualifying as a yoga teacher, having a baby, moving from the UK to South Africa and back again, going from employment to unemployment and back again, reuniting with family and saying goodbye, highs, lows, joy, heartbreak and everything in between…we call them our long year of 4 winters…partly because of our ridiculous sense of timing moving from Northern to Southern to Northern hemisphere to catch every autumn and winter on offer and partly because at times it has felt in many ways like a very long trek through an arctic landscape.

And now we find ourselves back in the UK, back in the middle of winter and with yet more mountains to climb. We have big dreams, big ambitions for a prosperous life lived between two countries and a big credit card bill from all this moving about! We’ve a way to go yet on our journey, but finding peace and contentment right here and now is a choice we can make with every step we take.

All this makes for a pretty robust education as a yoga teacher. It’s not too challenging to be peaceful and present in the yoga studio, compared to bringing these qualities to the real world, especially when the real world isn’t following the script in your head. Discipline and clear-headedness can so quickly become clouded by self-pity and ego.

So I’ve decided to lay a trail of crumbs for myself: yogic wisdom for the trip that has been and for that which is to come. This blog is a place to regroup, breathe, collect scattered thoughts or let them go, find grace in even dark places, create some inner space and move on, finding my way back to the profound peace that I know remains always underneath all the noise that we create in our heads and hearts…I hope it will grow into an oasis of inspiration and refreshment for me and any other travellers who may pass this way.