The soothing shades of green outside my window in a 17th century stone farmhouse are blurred by the heat haze that clings to the slow moving days of August in Italy. I have chosen to stay in a tiny cottage on a small holding farm in rural Umbria with shoddy internet (not my choice; and unfortunate effect of my choice) and no one around save a few imprudent feral cats and two bounding Weimaraner dogs. The farm owners keep to themselves and I know little of them, save their pet parrot’s mimicking repetitions in the early morning. In shrill and mocking tones this parrot interrupts the placid soundscape of my temporary bucolic hideaway. Their favoured statements and iterations of the family lexicon are known to me now, although my Italian is so poor that I understand little more of the meaning of the words than the parrot does.
This parrot is particularly fond of repeating how the farmers call their dogs, Tibo and Dante, followed by a whistle. We all know that tone when you call a dog, and the little whistle that follows it - a universal whistle to call a dog. Then the parrot repeats a second call. This is also a universally recognisable call - when a dog doesn’t come immediately; there is a sharper shout of the dog name, and a higher pitch in a shorter whistle, impatience evident. The parrot loves repeating this. Over and again, it calls the bounding male dogs every morning. First in that standard tone, then with impatience. Tibo and Dante run around the property, crazed by the confusion of impulsive loyalty to the very closely mimicked human call, and the lack of humans calling.
This will be my last home in Italy for the summer, and I am here for over a month, strung in limbo between the yoga retreat I’ve just completed teaching on - in Verbier, Switzerland - and the two to come in September - Villa Lena in Tuscany, and at Borgo di Carpiano in Umbria. As I teach on more yoga retreats, more often, I am slowly discovering how my energy levels rise and fall, dip and peak along with the calendar. I find teaching and leading a yoga retreat the most rewarding and wonderful experience, especially because I get to travel with these retreats, feeding my wanderlust and passion for nature. However, it is an emotionally, mentally and physically draining job, with bursts of time (on retreat) when huge amounts of energy is required of me, and bursts of time (off retreat) when things mellow.
So as I am here on my own with a mellow pace to each day, I am building up reserves. This is the ‘trough time’, after the ‘peaks’ of Verbier in Switzerland. I try to observe my low energy as it washes through me, knowing that high energy will return. If I said I was serene and accepting of this process, I’d be lying. I get impatient and frustrated with myself, trying to squeeze in more projects, activity and productivity than my reserves allow. But I am trying to be better at sitting with and harnessing the fluctuations over the process, rather than fighting against it.
What I have noticed is that my frustration seems to arise from three thinking habits and compulsions: (1) when I compare myself to what I was capable of doing and achieving in previous times; (2) when I compare myself to other yoga teachers or contemporaries; (3) when I use labels and polarities in judgements of myself, ie, I’m a fit/unfit; I’m young/old; I’m healthy/weak; I’m energetic/lazy.
When I dabble with these thoughts, I seem to limit my understanding and appreciation of my present condition. I indulge these thought patterns and I loose sight of the fact that the present is a temporary state, not eternal, subject to change. Thus, these thoughts and labels become concretised and, in turn, lead to self-limiting beliefs: “I’m not naturally fit”; “I’m someone who gets tired easily”’ “I am not creative”, and so on. Beliefs are powerful, they’re sticky and they tend to stick to a lot of things - your physical body, your actions, your words, your dreams, and eventually, your destiny.
On the recent yoga retreat in Switzerland, there were a number of people who encountered self-limiting beliefs whilst being the majestic Swiss Alps. These beliefs people had about themselves were evident: “I’m not courageous”/ “I’m unfit” /“I’m afraid of heights” / “I don’t like to travel alone” / “I’m afraid of cows” / “I can’t do headstands” / “I’m not comfortable with strangers”, and so on. Many in the group of 13 were brought to encounter their self-limiting belief, and its manifestation as fear, over the week. What is remarkable is the number of them who, through the support and vitality invested in the group dynamic, were inspired to push on and shatter these limiting beliefs. Through positive participation and action, they proved themselves to be more capable in various ways than they ever thought.
So this shows that in order to grow and develop, we must push on regardless of fear. It’s a success and sporting prowess cliché, ‘face your fears, throw yourself into discomfort, overcome’, and it’s true in many ways. But it's not the whole truth. Sometimes the experience of fear is an indicator of our deep realm of knowing - our intuition - speaking to us. All too often as a yoga teacher, I have seen people push themselves too hard, past the point of healthy learning and development. I see people using the mantra of ‘face your fears’, or 'show up regardless’, as a vehicle for self-harm. Being reckless with ourselves, and indeed others, being too pushy and hard, seems wrong. Sometimes, we have to sit with difficulty and observe it, sometimes it’s unhealthy and harmful to keep pushing and fight against what feels uncomfortable.
So we have to learn what is the optimum degree of courage and effort, and distance ourselves from what is a destructive compulsion to self-harm, or a habit of unbridled competitiveness. This lesson is not dissimilar to the delicate learning of balance between novelty and routine.
Consumerist society encourages us to be magpies to novelty. New things are coveted as a way to show success or prowess. We challenge ourselves to be the fist to do ‘xyz’. We want to see new destinations, and find ‘undiscovered’ things to show others we are accomplished and special. Some of us even find the idea of monotony and mundanity as repulsive and regressive. We jump from one new shiny concept to the next. We use novelty as a way to feed a deeper lack - a gnawing hunger for self-acceptance and contentment. We’re so unsure and unaccepting of ourselves most of the time, and novelty serves as one of many modes of distraction from this uncomfortable truth.
Anyone who has excelled in a pursuit, or completed a really big project over time knows that consistency is key. In yoga class, people ask me often about how to do certain postures, and I can show them entry and alignment and so on, but ultimately, your practice is not built on one advanced posture, it’s built on years and years of consistency and sacrifice. You sacrifice time and energy, you choose to not do stuff you could otherwise be doing in order to be able to roll out that mat often enough. You build momentum through routine, you create space in your everyday through routine. You cannot wait for inspiration and the perfect moment and setting for your yoga practice to work, you have to work at it in spite of inspiration and/or distractions.
That said, sometimes things become mechanical and forced through our determination to cultivate routine. Sometimes we become attached to monotony and we use the mantra of ‘healthy habits’ or ‘my routine is my foundation for success/health/longevity’ as an excuse because we really fear change. Sometimes we do need novelty. The thrill of trying something new is energising and it shakes things up, allowing you to return to routine with a refreshed perspective, or new ideas. Trying new things displays an open-mindedness and stretches our brain to understand the world differently.
So here again the lesson is in learning the right degree of this, and a little of that. There is no absolute and there is no science involved, no fast rules. The key is clear-sighted observation and fleet-footedness, a readiness to change and give up our principles when the time is right. The lesson is in living with contradiction. Life is a series of contradictions it would seem and we have to learn to embrace this, and then dance with the imperfect patterns of change.
The point is that the absolutes we pin to ourselves through our self-limiting beliefs, and concretised principles, are only ever half the story. When we say to ourselves, “I am fit, I should be doing this”; or “I can’t do this, I am cowardly”, we are forgetting that we are cowardly and brave, we are fit and lazy, we are young and old. It is far closer to the truth to see oneself on both sides of a polarity, and to let contradiction expand your vision with boundless possibility. So as we progress through life we should seek not to uphold a principle with unwavering fidelity, or perfect an absolute, but rather dance with ever greater nuance, depth and awareness.