Ahimsa

I didn’t expect to not hike when I booked this holiday in the Svaneti region of Georgia. I am with my hiking group and they have gone off ahead of me, booted and rucksacked, as I take in the view you see at the top of this blog post outside our guest house for one of the four nights along the route.

I managed to get a severe blister on my heel at the very start – a combination of not having hiked for a couple of months while I was in Goa, hot weather and boots that are slightly too big for me. I have been unable to walk uphill without the various compeed plasters and tape coming off so I’ve given up.

Instead of feeling devastated and down about this turn of events I have felt calm and peaceful – joyful even – at this new opportunity. An opportunity to have the restorative holiday my body was craving after two months of intensive yoga training. I feel broken physically, but very healed on the inside.

One of the values we learned on our course was that of ‘ahimsa’ – non-violence. This is one of Sage Patanjali’s ‘yamas’ – values attached to emotions in his ‘eight limbs’ (‘Ashtanga’) of yoga and I have thought about it a lot this week.

This non-violence applies to thought, word and action as they are applied to other humans, animals and plants. But perhaps the most important of these is non-violence towards oneself.

I began to apply this philosophy whilst yoga training because I had a shoulder injury that had come about by throwing myself punishingly into yoga classes during my first month in Goa. I tried to be kind to my body and allow the shoulder to rest. I could almost hear it thanking me.

In Goa and here in Georgia I have been struck by our need to punish our bodies in order to feel happiness. We have to do exercise in order to ‘deserve’ the food we’re eating or the drinks we have afterwards. Yet the yoga philosophy says that happiness is our true nature and that we don’t need to deserve any of it. It is our birthright and we just need to access it by stripping away the obstructions to it that our minds put in its way. This is the entire goal of yoga and it has worked its magic on me.

In Kyrgyzstan last year I had a terribly painful hip but was determined to hike up mountains until my body told me otherwise. The moment I allowed a horse to take my weight was one of the happiest of my life. Why did I have to climb every mountain pass to feel worthy?

Here in Georgia I was once again given access to a horse and this time took it gladly. I stopped thinking of this week as a hiking marathon with its rewards of cake and khachapuri (cheese bread) and started to allow myself to have the holiday I needed – a restorative one.

Good things happen when you give yourself permission to stop. You spend time with local people and that time slows down. You find that you enjoy riding a horse and are not so scared of them next time round. You learn to trust them when they take you through rivers and up steep hills. My horse this week was called Tornado – a name that filled with me with fear when I first heard it but it turned out the family he belongs to named him ironically.

Gegi, his owner, guided me around the paths the hiking group were taking and I got small insights into his world as we clip-clipped along. He knew every Georgian on the route and they greeted him like family, warming us and drying Gegi’s clothes when it poured down and giving me a seat by the stove, pressing hot coffee into our hands.

And now I have practised a little yoga in front of this glorious view while one of the young guys who lives here plays trance music that seems to match the mountain view. I am waiting for a car to pick me up to transport me to Ushguli but while I’m waiting I have created my first new vinyasa yoga class after getting my first call as a cover teacher.

I like this flexibility of thinking: turning what could be seen as a disaster into an opportunity. How great if you could apply this philosophy to your whole life.

I remember two things from the yoga training that really have become useful in my life. One, that we have the freedom to choose how we respond to any situation -I choose to reshape this holiday for myself into a restorative one. Two, that to avoid stress and anxiety we should simply do what needs to be done and get on with it. The simplicity of this last statement blows my mind. Just do what needs to be done: in my case, stop walking, take care of my open wound, hire a horse and enjoy the moment in this incredible landscape.

Ahimsa. Try it.

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You’re the Voice

I’ve been doing a three-week 200-hour yoga teacher training course in Goa and it’s coming to an end tomorrow. I can scarcely believe that this is my life but somehow I’ve been directed to Agonda, this beyond-special place, to study at Sampoorna Yoga School for Mind and Body. And it is a body- and mind-altering experience.

I can also scarcely believe that the one note I’ve been given from the start about my teaching is that my voice could be louder and more confident. What?? This is me!! The person who regularly chairs and appears on panels in the publishing world, who has presented to large, industry audiences, who loves to talk confidently in front of her teams, her colleagues and her peers. It’s my thing, if you will.

And yet here, in this jungle behind the beach, my voice was diminished. I knew when I was asking questions of the teachers that they couldn’t quite hear me and were screwing up their faces in that way that people do when they’re trying to hear someone. In my head, my voice sounded sonorous but clearly it wasn’t. On my first teaching assignment, I thought I was projecting loud and clear, but no – I’d done well but the one comment was that my voice needed to be louder. This came back in the feedback from my fellow students. Of all of the things I thought I’d need to think about, this was not it.

I thought about it during our breathing and mantra meditations. I heard my voice omming and repeating the Sanskrit mantras and I knew the feedback was right – there was something tentative and weak in my voice. My throat felt a little choked like there was something trying to get out. This was new. I always felt like I had a voice. It was the one thing I ‘did’ have.

Last night at dinner a group of us were talking about the way the world celebrates extroversion over introversion and how many of us loved our Silent Day because we love to be quiet, and with ourselves alone. I told them that I’d arrived in London as a quiet, introverted young woman and I’d had to work hard to adopt the extrovert practices of the people around me in publishing. Introversion appeared to be frowned on and only extroverts got promoted. I did two lots of training in one job where we did the Myers Briggs personality colour test twice. In the first year I did it, I was a quiet, calm, harmonious green. After working within an extroverted management team for a few years, the chart showed that I was now leading with my red leadership side. I was proud of that transition and of saying that I wasn’t the woman who arrived in London all those years ago. Who wanted to be green when you could be red?

The aim of yoga is to unite the mind, the body and the self, but more specifically, its goal is to unite the self with one’s true nature, which is unconditional joy. How beautiful is that? Over the last eighteen months where I’ve been practising it, I have found myself returning to a person I was years ago, when I was still in Wales and not working in London. In a previous blog post about giving up alcohol nearly five months ago, I refer to feeling like I’ve had a ‘factory reset’. I now realise that yoga (and a very good therapist) has led me to this place and giving up alcohol was just part of the journey.

Here, in Agonda, I have started to find a voice again, beyond the words I’ve written in my book and in this blog. I realised that my voice had been internalised over the past few years and I was swimming around in the noise I was making inside, some of it spilling out into this blog. It is a different thing, to stand in front of people and speak as your true self, no microphone to amplify you, no industry framework to prop you up. You are just you, standing there, trying to communicate with your students in the clearest, simplest way possible. I couldn’t believe, at first, that aside from my volume issues, the one thing I found most difficult about the teaching was finding the words to guide people into asanas (poses). I can talk very fluently about children’s illustrated books, but suddenly I found myself unable to find the words to guide someone who’d never done downward dog before into the pose. The simplicity was the problem.

Slowly, slowly, I have started to find the words, and the clarity and the volume needed to communicate effectively. I almost feel like I’ve had to learn to speak again. I’ve had to learn to look people in the eye again and talk to them from the heart. These have been the hardest things. I caught myself not being able to look our course director, Sudhir, in the eye when I first asked him a question in my weedy voice. I was horrified. This isn’t me! I thought. I wanted to sound strong and competent and clever and I just sounded like a woman trying to ask a question and not finding the right words or volume.

In the final week of training I noticed that my voice had changed in the chants and in the teaching. It felt easier to think of the words I needed and to find the voice to communicate them. Yoga practice is a humbling experience, especially the ashtanga we’ve been studying, and I’ve examined my need to be the strong, competent, clever one and realised that this needs to be laid aside (not least because Sudhir told me this ‘intense craving’ is one of the Bhagavad-Gita’s three gateways to hell).

I am simply a woman trying to ask a question and finding the right words and volume.

Stories We Tell Ourselves

I’ve just received my DNA results and my ethnic story has slightly rewritten itself. For most of my life I’ve felt very strongly Welsh but always with a strong pull towards Ireland. The first time I ever visited there (Donegal) I knew it was my spiritual home and in many ways my journey on Ancestry.com has been about confirming that. I found the link quickly, on my mother’s side – a very clear line coming from Ireland to Liverpool and then into North Wales. It explains the Catholicism and the twinkle in the family eyes.

Growing up, my mother told me her family thought there might be some French blood in there – she had a French nose, she said. She also had glorious cheekbones. There had to be something else mixed in. There is – 26% Western European (likely to be Belgian, French, German or Dutch – even Swiss). Later in my life, I’ve wondered if there was some Jewishness in me – it turns out there is – 4% to be exact – probably from Eastern Europe.

As well as an unsurprising healthy dose of Scandinavian blood, there is the very small matter of 1% East Asian. A friend tells me I’d only need to go seven generations back to find a full Asian parent in my ancestry. I wanted a surprise and I got one – how cool would it be to track that parentage back?

One thing’s for sure, I am a woman who feels connected with the world beyond our shores and this DNA test confirms it.

I’ve had some friends take this test and been wholly blindsided by the reversal of the narrative around their ethnicity. Barring the Asian curveball, I am pretty much who I thought I was. Perhaps a tad less Celtic than I thought but a strong European mix. But other people have discovered that their family story isn’t quite as it’s been told over the years. It makes me think of the Alistair McGowan episode of the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? when the impressionist was blown away by his father’s Anglo-Indian roots and the fact that his name hails from Ireland, not his beloved Scotland, where he’d always felt a spiritual pull. As my mum used to say, it just shows to go you.

It’s made me think about how we construct narratives around ourselves to make sense of our place in the world. I’ve spent years trying to place myself – ethnically, professionally, socially – and this blog is part of that exploration. If you don’t fit a pre-set narrative, this is what you do. As a fifty-one year-old woman I ‘should’ be juggling my publishing career with a bunch of teenagers and mid-life crisis man at home. I ‘should’ be holidaying in a cottage in Cornwall with my family, not preparing to trek through Kyrgyzstan with a group of mostly strangers. I ‘should’ be spending Christmas in a chaotic household filled with multiple generations, not walking along a Goan beach, solo, with an occasional white horse for company.

I’ve compared my own story with other stories of like women. I connected with Elizabeth Gilbert and her Eat Pray Love story, but over time I realised mine was not going to end with the Love bit so I looked for a new narrative to connect with. I found another with Cheryl Strayed when I read Wild, and then saw the movie. A woman who’d lost her mother and then gone wandering off into the wilderness to find her true self. But again, that narrative ended with marriage and babies. I’m sensing that this is not my true path.

In the search for my own narrative I’ve found pieces of others’ that have resonated hugely but no one story arc that matches mine. I’ve tried to find an essential truth behind what happened to me and why, tracing from my happy childhood, through the pain of early parental loss and the fracturing of a family, to a coupling and decoupling, and an establishment of my solo self. I want to get to an absolute truth and tell the story, and not hide the reality.

Over a number of years, I’ve developed a habit of seeking out and telling the truth (as I see it) about situations. I’ve also discovered that sometimes people don’t really want to hear it and prefer to believe a falsehood to make themselves feel ok. Maybe because I had to face reality so early on in life I prefer to look at things square on, and not flinch from the truth. I want to prepare myself for the reality, and not believe in false hope. I like to know what the exact weather forecast is and be ready for it, rather than ‘hope’ for the sun to come out. That way disappointment lies.

In the workplace over the years, I’ve become the ‘meme destroyer’ – running around throwing proverbial wet cloths over flaming untruths that gather around rumour and conjecture. I’m always amazed at how far these will go and what people are willing to believe. And also, how disappointed they are sometimes when you tell them the truth – when there’s nothing to complain about any more (ditto the weather).

I once worked for a company that was described to me early on as a ‘dysfunctional family’, when in fact it was more akin to a domestic-abuse situation. The staff who’d worked there for a long time described office life there as ‘rough and tumble’ and the boss as ‘a bit of a character’ – I called it being bullied by a manipulative narcissist. People refused to hear it at first, but gradually, even now, after a few years, I received emails from them saying ‘you were right’. I could see that they had constructed narratives to be able to cope with the situation and told themselves they were true. They didn’t want to hear me state the reality out loud. But I had to. The boss hated that I walked around with a folder containing the facts, not willing to listen, let alone believe, the gaslighting.

I’m not saying that I’ll never fall for a falsehood ever again, because I do all the time, because I like to believe people when they stand in front of me, talking. I was in Gower in Wales earlier this year and met a woman running her own coffee shop. Her other job was being an editor on films like Wonder Woman. I excitedly reported the news to one of the guys in the group. “And you believe her?” he said. “Well yeah, of course,” I replied. He was amazed at my readiness to believe and I was amazed at his cynicism. I instantly recalled myself showing a picture of me holding a sloth in Costa Rica to a local: “How do I know it’s real?” he said. “Do you have a video to prove it?”

In many ways I’m glad I’ve retained a willingness to believe someone’s story, in spite of being spun so many falsehoods over the years. I’m rewriting my own narrative on a daily basis, but I try to root it in the absolute truth – and here it is, on the third anniversary of me starting this blog.

You can choose to believe my story or wait for a video to prove it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Woman Can

I’ve been thinking about writing a piece on women and the workplace for a while, now. My own experience has thrown a few things into relief, and as I’ve got older, I’ve found myself wanting to support and encourage younger women as they navigate through earlier stages in their careers. Ladies, women and girls, this is what I say to you.

In the words of Paul Weller, stop apologising for the things you’ve never done. Practically every woman I come into contact with in a professional situation starts apologising from the very moment we meet. I had a meeting last week in which a young professional apologised for being pregnant, having to eat because she was pregnant, and for generally, well, just existing. She was asking professional advice, and my ultimate advice was, stop saying sorry.

I hear it all the time. Sorry for interrupting you at your desk; sorry for having this idea; sorry for having to say something out loud; sorry for having an opinion. Sometimes I think it’s the only word I can hear women saying.

Stop it. Stop saying it. If you feel it bubbling up towards your lips, stop speaking. Say what you were going to say without the apology before it. I will then stop telling you off.

If someone asks you to speak on a panel, say yes. Hear your inner voice saying, ‘I couldn’t possibly do that’ and immediately crush it. Time and time again I’m told by organisations that the reason why there are so many ‘manels’ is because women say no to the invitation to speak. I nearly did it a year or so ago – and this is after many years of speaking at conferences. It was a topic I wasn’t completely fluent in, but it was within the realms of the industry I work in. I heard a voice in my head – it was a friend and mentor in the industry who had given me many platforms in the past to speak from. She was telling me that I’d be great at it, if I just did some research around it. I did, and I was.

I chaired a panel at last week’s London Book Fair and it was interesting in that the three women (it was a one-man, two-female panel, me chairing) were the most nervous about it and did the most prep. The guy turned up with no notes and just spoke from the heart (he had been given my questions though). We were all talking just before the event and I asked the panel if they could just walk in now and wing it, without any notes or prepared questions. We agreed we could. We know our stuff.

But women question their fluency all the time – it’s so-called impostor syndrome. ‘Am I really an expert in this?’ our inner voice says, even when our combined experience in the topic was over 40 years between us. The prep we did do made it a greater panel than it would have been, but I know we could’ve just started talking and made for an interesting discussion.

Let your voice be heard in meetings. I heard some advice last year from a woman on Radio 4 – her tip for women in meetings was to say something first in the room, even if it’s just about wanting a window being open or asking if anyone else would like a glass of water. Her theory was that sometimes the timbre of a woman’s voice came as a bit of a shock in a male-dominated group, and to get it out there first, made the situation less of one. I think it would also help a woman feel more comfortable with her first professional words in a meeting scenario. If she’s already conversed with members of the group in an open setting, then it would give her more confidence.

I’ve noticed something very interesting about men coming into meetings. Whilst women come straight in and find the nearest seat and sit down, men often stand at the door, surveying the scene, at once both waiting for everyone to acknowledge their arrival and seeing which seat is the most effective for them. I enjoy carrying on talking while they stand there, no doubt waiting for the trumpets to herald their arrival. I also think that maybe they’re wondering where the throne is…

I’m not really into meeting-room politics, but sometimes it does matter where you sit. Never be that person who just drags a chair in from another room and sits at the back of a room whilst everyone else is at the table.

Be at the table. Be seen. Be heard.

Remember what you are being paid to do. I once walked into a meeting with a top media entertainment firm where we were meeting with a female financial director and a range of male directors. As my group arrived, the FD sprang out of her seat and started making the tea and coffee, while the other directors made jokes about her doing it. If you ever find yourself falling into a pattern of expected behaviour like this, make a conscious effort to stop. If the guys aren’t making the tea or doing the washing up, check yourself. Don’t become the office housewife.

Know that women have been socialised to compete with each other.

We have. Because patriarchy.

You will encounter women who purport to be your friend, but are actually preparing to stand on your head or throw you under a bus to reach the next level in their career. There will be those that present your ideas as their own or bad-mouth you to the boss. Yes, this does happen between men and women but it comes as more of a shock when the ‘sisterhood’ does it to you.

Don’t let it stop you being a team-player, just know that it is a possibility and become more robust. It’s never going to stop happening, all you can do is protect yourself against it and try not to be like that yourself.

It would be hard to sleep at night, for one thing.