Unhunch your shoulders

On Saturday mornings I do yoga with a truly fantastic teacher. Roman teaches Yoga Synergy, which is, I must say, quite hard work, but he is careful to reinforce the message every session that the most important thing is this: Do not force, do not strain.

Yoga, he says, should leave you feeling better. You should have more energy, walk taller, and have better posture after a class than before. This is not the typical Western approach to exercise, which tends to see it more as a competitive “no pain no gain” style activity. You push as hard as you can. If you’re not hurting, you’re not working hard enough. Push yourself further than the guy next to you. Pain is your FRIEND. Seek it out. Embrace it. Feel the burn.

I am often tempted to prove to myself that I can do more than others in the class. I want to be able to say that I can do the advanced postures. I feel good about myself if I am pushing really hard, approaching the absolute limits of what I can do.

Yet even though I feel good in class, working that way usually leaves me wrecked for the rest of the weekend. Sometimes it leaves me injured. It’s a style of approach that I first recognised years ago when I got into cycling – I’d ride out my front gate, hurtle up the nearest hill as hard as I could, and more often than not turn blue, collapse off the bike and occasionally pass out before I’d made it up the first hill. In those days a long ride was out of the question, because I would burn out in the first ten minutes.

I have to continually remind myself of Roman’s central message: Do not force. Do not strain. And just when we’re in the middle of a difficult posture, giving it all we’ve got, he’ll remind the class to “unhunch your shoulders,” and we’ll discover that we’ve contorted ourselves into positions The Grinch would be proud of, in an effort to really nail that posture. Thereby completely missing the point.

I find I also need to remind myself that Roman’s words apply equally well to everyday life. I am fundamentally bad at pacing myself. I force, strain and hunch my shoulders all day long, rushing at life like a bull at a gate, and often passing out halfway up that first hill. Yet those times when I take a deep breath, make time to meditate, and force myself to stop every now and then, are also the times when I am most effective, productive, and indeed sane.

When I remember to unhunch my shoulders, I can keep going almost indefinitely. That’s a lesson I badly need to apply to my work. I’m tired of passing out on the first hill. I am thinking of asking Roman to let me record him, so that I can make an app that pops up every so often and says “Remember: Do not force, do not strain. And unhunch your shoulders.”

Career Change

Changing career is a little like becoming a parent for the first time. Everything is new, strange, and exciting. You spend a lot of time terrified of getting something horribly wrong. You worry about the right way to do things, and whether you are handling everything properly. You are consumed with dread about what everyone else must be thinking.

Out in public, you are often convinced that your inexperience and nervousness show like big flags waving over your head. “Newbie!” the flags scream. “SHE’S GOT NO IDEA!” they declare. “COMPLETELY HOPELESS! SOMEBODY GET HER OUT OF HERE!” they declaim. You are overwhelmed, and completely certain that, sooner or later, someone will realise you are hopelessly unqualified to be in this position, and they will rectify the ludicrous mistake that gave you all this responsibility.

Slowly, little by little, you begin to relax into your role. Maybe you have a great day, or you get a little positive feedback, and it’s like your baby smiling at you for the first time. Suddenly you remember why you wanted to do something so insane. You start to think that maybe you could be good at this, in time. It’s still hugely, incredibly daunting, but there are thrills – not every day, but more and more often. This feels like it could be something fabulous.

Just as you’re feeling almost comfortable – WHAM! Something goes horribly wrong. You make a huge mistake, or handle something unbearably badly. It feels as though you have dropped your baby on her head. You may never recover from the guilt, shame and ignominy. What could possibly have made you think that you could do this? You are nowhere near good enough for something this amazing. Something this important. It was a horrendous, horrifying mistake to get into this position in the first place, and the sooner the earth opens up and swallows you whole, the better for everyone involved.

And then, if you are exceptionally lucky, an angel appears. Someone takes you by the hand and explains that nobody died, that everybody has bad days, and that perspective is a wonderful thing. They tell you their own horror stories about days that went catastrophically wrong. You realise that if someone so experienced, so obviously talented, can still have bad days, maybe there’s hope for you. You lift your head and smell hope on the breeze.

Exactly like that moment when you meet another parent who has “been there, screamed that, and lived to laugh about it afterwards”, you realise that these are moments that we all share. That there is nothing unique about your own situation, or your own fears. That even the best of us has times when we feel as though we are dragging ourselves along the bottom of the ocean. And that sometimes we all need a little help to find our way back to the surface.

To all the angels in my life, and especially in my workplace – thank you! You brighten the darkest days.

Poignant goodbyes


I have just got back from the funeral of a 16 year old friend of ours, Michael, who died suddenly, in tragic circumstances (not that the circumstances can be anything other than tragic when death strikes at just 16 years old). As we left the church and watched the coffin being loaded into the hearse, I was struck by the sheer size of the community that had turned out to show their love and support for this gorgeous family.

We were gathering around them to show our support, and the group kept having to shuffle around to make room. In fact it would probably have taken a football field or two to fit all of the people who were standing shoulder to shoulder, supporting the family and each other by
the sheer fact of their presence – and that’s just the ones who were physically able to be there. I know of a much larger number of people who could not make it to the funeral, yet they stand just as firmly as part of that supportive community.

This is a particularly special family. They have always had a gift for creating communities around them – drawing people together, loving and supporting them in a complete embodiment of the Christian ideal.  They are now reaping what they have sown, as their friends and neighbours rally around them in a hundred different ways.

I must admit that before the funeral I was fighting a sense of gasping, desperate panic, lost in the enormity of what had happened, and drowning in both my own grief and my horror at the lifelong burden our friends now have to bear. The funeral, though, was a great relief. There were, of course, floods of tears.  I was far too choked up to sing, even though I knew the hymns, and I usually find great solace in singing.

But there was great therapy in taking part in the outpouring of grief, and also in the happy memories of Michael. The speeches painted a vivid and glowing picture of him, and highlighted the love that unites us all. Love for Michael, love for his family, and our love and
concern for each other.

This is why funerals are important. They provide an opportunity to support each other. To share our grief and remember the good stuff. To hug each other tightly and reaffirm our commitment to friends and family. And to remember that we are not alone – that others share both the trauma and the laughter, and that life goes on.

There were kids at the funeral, and the occasional squeals during the ceremony – whether of delight or outrage – were a poignant affirmation that even in the bleakest times the sun still shines, children still play, and our hearts keep beating, even when they feel unbearably
crushed and broken.

The sun was noticeably absent today – it was a grey, cold and drizzly day that matched my mood on the way to the funeral. Although it was no warmer when we left, and the clouds had in fact descended even lower to enfold us in a misty gloom, my heart was lighter and I could finally see a way forward – hand in hand with everyone who ever knew and loved Michael.