John Grace, or My Old Man
13th June 2016
On what would have been your 68th birthday I cycle home early from graduate school with a plan to fry a steak and open a bottle of red wine in your honour. I lie on my bed, the sweet Los Angeles air easing in through the blinds, and study the only photo I have of you.
It's the early 90s and you and I sit at a wooden table in the morning light of the back yard in the south of France: it's where we had our holiday home. My back is to the camera, my green sweatshirt dappled with shade, my body sweetly small. Underneath the table my bare legs swing in my school shoes. You sit opposite from me in a purple polo shirt and your hair is thick and dark: you look like a man in his 40s.
The table's breakfast items are scant – a glass of orange juice and a gold foil-wrapped pack of butter – but I can tell by the gait of your body that you're spreading that butter on an invisible croissant. The tray with the jams and berries printed on it sits between us. A pot of mum's red geraniums stands on the table and to your side, a wheelbarrow of wooden-handled tools as if you've been up early, picking at the rocks that underpin the back yard. Your face is concentrated; I have no idea what the morning's conversation might have been.
Difficult to think now how many mornings or quiet times we spent together: I don't remember ever spending time alone with you, though we must have. The heft of your brow tells me you're worried: I carry the same expression between my eyes and look more and more like you as I age.
I wander down to the kitchen and throw the steak in a not hot-enough pan. I blanche some vegetables, open the wine to breathe and pull a smudgy plate from the cupboard. I lay a place for myself facing the wall and realise how unremittingly sad the scene I've created looks. I want to make a little altar to your birthday tonight, and I've decided that if I turn my back on the room my housemates might not be able to see me.
The steak is bad; grey throughout and crimped at the edges. I eat it anyway, and slather on a pathetic American horseradish sauce that lacks the crucial buzz to the nose pipes. In my sadness I've messed up the greens as well but I feel comforted by the sight of a meal drawn from home, of food that has a context beyond the overbearing optimism of LA. I look at my plate – the scraggly ends of a loveless steak, the woody branches of some undercooked broccoli – and I smile to myself at the thought of home, and of your favourite meal.
I return my knife and fork to the plate and wonder what we might have talked of over breakfast that morning, if there was a way for us to navigate together; an ease with which to start the day. Or whether, perhaps – as your expression suggests – you were somewhere else entirely, your mind caught on case notes and the pull of London life. In the end it doesn't matter and it's just one of the friendly questions for which I'll never have an answer. Tonight, instead, it has been your birthday and for the first time in years, I feel you there.
I wash the grease from the pan and my plate, noticing how the hot suds bloat and redden my fingers to look like yours. I set everything to dry in the rack, climb the stairs and tape the photo back up above my desk. Your hair is thick and dark; you look like a man in his 40s.
Yoga Woman is a documentary-style film about the rise and phenomenon of women yoga teachers and practitioners in the world. Though its focus is largely on the Californian yoga scene it also pays homage to a number of female teachers in India, Africa and Europe. Its narrator is female, as are each of the 'talking heads' who provide commentary.
The film opens by laying yoga's roots in the supposedly masculine discipline which was taught by oral and practical transmission from guru to disciple, making mention of the fact that post-Vedic (as well as Brahmanical and early Hatha texts) cited women as an impediment to abhyasa.
The film debunks these original treatises by charting the ascent of women in postmodern yoga schools, authorship and studios by suggesting that modern lifestyles have called for greater female participation in all spheres of life, not least in the multi-tasking of women's lives in the post-war period, and in the increased demands that such a lifestyle plays in women's health. Pregnancy yoga, yoga for cancer survivors and yoga for menopausal women feature prominently in the film's portrayal, and explicitly refer to the need in women's life cycles for specificity when working with the body in transition and illness.
Given that our study of original scriptures has shown repeated and insistent emphasis on yoga as a purificatory practice, the development of yoga in contemporary terms into the realm of health and wellness comes as little surprise. After all, we live in a globalised world where the borrowing of artefacts, practices and traditions from other native cultures is commonplace. We're also highly individuated in such a way as to give us an excuse to take what we want from the annals of history and re-shape it to suit our consumerist way of life. This is particularly true in the US and the European colonial nations that migrated to America, wherein cultural appropriation has been prevalent for the last 500 years. What's interesting to me is that in the West we have come to slough off the esotericism of tradition in order to replace (perhaps intended) academic study of the subject with a focus on experiential, physical practice that heals form the inside out (that is to say from felt, intuited, intrinsic experience rather than through secondary learning and transmission.)
Off the Mat and Into the World, a portrait of which is given in the film, is testament in my mind to the empowering effects of a modern yoga practice, wherein the subject, having undergone a process of inner transformation and intrinsic connection with the broader world, is moved to act 'in service' of the world. That this organisation – and the movement of many, many other yoga service foundations in dedication to the greater good – is largely composed of female teachers and practitioners is fascinating. Is this a movement that coincides with the rise of women's 'equality' and is it inherently more rooted, feminine and empowering as a result of being largely female in its citizenship?
Do we feel, as women, that without yoga we wouldn't have the power, voice, impetus and community with which to effect change? The film itself reiterates what I already feel and know from my own experience: that yoga unites us, opens our hearts and minds to the suffering of the world and moves us to participate in bringing greater health and wellbeing not only to our own mind-bodies but to those of just about every community of sufferers there is. Is modern yoga advertently benefitting the world of women everywhere in such as way as to bring us closer to political, economic and social structures? And have we feminised the experience of yoga by placing such hefty emphasis on the internal movements brought about by the practice in such a way as to alienate the male population?
Watching the non-profit's co-founder, Seane Corn, stand up on stage to address a huge gathering of festival-goers at the film's closing reminded me how particularly American the scene felt to me. Where the UK's intersection with yoga is – broadly speaking – more Hindu and Pagan in its iteration, the display of ballsy, earthy, community leadership Corn displays feels typically American to me, threaded with talk of empowerment, justice and equality in a way that draws, quite naturally, on the themes of the nation's own founding principles.
I can see how very quickly this brand of feminism is making its way to the UK but how it is currently unique here in the States. By contrast, we have a trend of 'the ladette' (a horrible, '90s term for potty-mouthed, 'women are equal so we're gonna behave like men to prove it' kind of thing) in Britain which has more recently emerged as a realisation that this isn't the way to handle gender issues at all. My point is that the feminism that I see very clearly here in studios, classrooms and the broader culture is one that is bolstered by the idea of free expression, wild, untamed beauty and a deep connection to the earth. I see how much space there is in America – both ideologically and physically – for such ideas to spring from and as before, how neatly these new feminist ideas dovetail with the constitutional rights (and the ensuing literature from the Transcendentalists) of this nation. Jean Baudrillard, in his wonderful book, America, writes, 'they [Americans] have a democratic culture of space. We [Europeans] are free in spirit but they are free in their actions. The American moving around in the deserts or the national parks does not give the impression of being on holiday. Moving around is his natural occupation; nature is a frontier and a place for action.' (102)
Given that to a large degree confidence, expression and entrepreneurship are culturally built into the American psyche, it comes as no surprise to me that yoga has been appropriated as a tool by which to generate change, business, a voice and a platform – indeed, there's a rich history here of oration, preaching and leadership that lends itself to the projection of grand ideas and progress itself. To my mind, America is a country in love with progress and advancement, far less shackled than Europe by tradition and convention: it is said that where Europe is theoretical, America is practical. In this light, it is remarkable how widespread the practice of yoga now is in a nation that has no colonial or geographical ties to India but which is highly adaptive of other cultural ways of life.
I can't watch or review this film without imposing my own feminine experience onto it: several moments in which yoga practitioners detailed their intimate relationship with the practice brought tears to my eyes. I've gone here and there wanting in many ways to undermine what I superficially see as an over-marketed, inauthentic transmission of teachings in many places in California, but ultimately what I always return to is the malleability, mutation and permutation of this tradition throughout its rich, 5,000 year history. I can't ultimately suggest that the incredible dissemination of it is anything other than a power for good – provided, of course, that we continue to train and inspire teachers and leaders who remain true to the values it upholds in such a way as to steer the future of women's rights and health into a more productive, conscious and heartfelt way of life.
This morning I got to do one of my favourite things in the world and that's to talk about The Power of Yoga. I joined Thomas Faustin Huisking in a live broadcast of his 30 Minute Advantage program and dived deep into the history of yoga, how to get started on a practice, what yoga can do at a psychological, emotional and spiritual level and tons more besides. So much fun!
You can watch the whole thing here on my Facebook page. Please share with anyone curious about yoga or get in touch if you'd like to know more!
Oof! I'm excited! So excited I couldn't sleep at all last night. My mind, a revolving door of ideas and images from a day spent recording our first podcast episode, 'What is a yogi?' is now live and ready to jump into.
Our opening session in the aptly-named Yoga Nest covers the sticky points of translation, history and experience when we deign to call ourselves yogis. How do you feel about it? Listen here and feel free to leave us comments and suggestions for us to pick up on in our next episode.
Thanks for joining us!
The issue of mental health is dear to me. The likelihood is that you - or someone you know - has been affected by mental health issues, the social and economic burden of which is enormous.
Before my dad, John Grace QC, passed away, he set up the UK's first charity to research the causes of and cures for mental illness. He was inspired by his sister who has suffered from schizophrenia the majority of her adult life and by his lifetime's work as a medical defense barrister. Click here for more info on Mental Health Research UK (MHRUK).
At least 1 in 4 Britons and 1 in 4 people worldwide are said to be affected by mental health issues at some point in their lives. At least a third of all families in the UK include someone who is currently mentally ill and yet the research into the causes of mental health remain woefully under-funded.
Since my dad died I've become a regular practitioner and teacher of yoga and meditation. I'm currently living in Los Angeles where I'm studying for my MA in Yoga Studies with a special interest in Buddhism, Psychology and Peace Studies.
I keep a practice because I'm firm in my belief that the traditional practices of yoga and meditation have profound effects on mental and emotional wellbeing. I currently volunteer my time at Venice Family Clinic, have trained in trauma-specific yoga teaching (both for war veterans and prison populations) and love to bring these beautiful, ancient teachings to beginners and vulnerable communities alike, confident that the maintenance of a robust mental, psychological, physical and emotional life is the key to a successful life. I am also due to teach an undergraduate course (aimed at reducing stress and depression in the undergraduate community) at my university - Loyola Marymount - starting next Spring.
I've launched a Just Giving campaign to dedicate my next year of voluntary teaching to fundraising for MHRUK.
Each year the charity looks to award the John Grace QC Scholarship in support of a PhD student in his or her mental health research. The cost of each scholarship is £100,000 and 9 of them have been awarded to date. The charity is an incredible resource for advancing this crucial aspect of societal health and wellbeing.
Please consider making a donation, whether big or small, to help make a difference to those affected by mental health issues. I would love to continue to promote the vital work that the charity champions and to know that researchers, patients, families and societies alike are supported through our campaigning. All proceeds will go direct to the charity, at least 95% of which go straight to fulfilling the aim of funding research into the causes of mental illness in order to develop better treatments with fewer side-effects.
Thank you so much!
I've just completed an introductory psychology class at Antioch University as a personal added interest alongside my MA.
For a few years I've been meeting psychotherapists and psychiatrists who are starting to recognise somatic practices – particularly yoga and meditation – as powerful tools in their therapeutic toolbox. Many of them are training to become yoga teachers so that they can offer their clients something beyond talking therapy, medication or any of the other healing modalities found in the clinical setting.
I'm trying to do things the other way round, and to bring what I know about the healing properties of somatic practices into my understanding of psychotherapy.
Part of our research in the psychology course is in learning about the work and advancements of the western world's most prominent psychoanalysts and therapists. Each week we've surveyed the contributions of maybe 20 key (white, male) theorists and their personality theories, the acceptance of which have been largely responsible for our private, clinical-based treatment of the self in western culture.
What struck me, as I was reading up on Albert Ellis – an American psychoanalyst of the 1940s who developed Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy as a way to engage his client's sense of responsibility for their thoughts, deeds and actions – is that his theories on positive psychology and thinking, of reframing negative thoughts and cultivating deep self awareness, all stem from early Indian yoga philosophies, chiefly those of the late Hatha and early Buddhist period.
In fact, not only did Ellis seemingly appropriate early spiritual psychology's understanding of the observer and the observed but he also understood just what yoga philosophy at a later date developed: namely that our world, our reality, is shaped by our thoughts and that the world 'out there' is a pure reflection of the world within. He understood too what neurosis and mental affliction are often caused by: an inability to separate one's self from one's thought processes; an over-reliance on the idea that we are separate and independent from others rather than part of an interconnected whole; and attachments to the pains of the past as correlative proof of a doomed future. Drawing directly, it seems, from the lessons of the Bhagavad Gita, Ellis asserts that the key to happiness is to act, to be involved and driven in one's life and to relinquish the idea of having absolute control over everything.
Ellis' Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT) has an ABC of procedures that are viewed in successive order when working with a client:
'A is for activating experiences, such as family troubles, unsatisfying work, early childhood traumas, and all the many things we point to as the sources of our unhappiness. B stands for beliefs, especially the irrational, self-defeating beliefs that are the actual sources of our unhappiness. And C is for consequences, the neurotic symptoms and negative emotions such as depression, panic, and rage that come from our beliefs.
Although the activating experiences may be quite real and have caused real pain, it is our irrational beliefs that create long-term, disabling problems! Ellis adds D and E to ABC: The therapist must dispute (D) the irrational beliefs, in order for the client to ultimately enjoy the positive psychological effects (E) of rational beliefs.
For example, "a depressed person feels sad and lonely because he erroneously thinks he is inadequate and deserted." Actually, depressed people perform just as well as non-depressed people. So, a therapist should show the depressed person his or her successes, and attack the belief that they are inadequate, rather than attacking the mood itself!' (C. George Boeree: Personality Theories, 2000)
I was stunned to read this short description of Ellis' clinical approach to the therapeutic process. What, in effect, he teaches, is what we teach ourselves when we find ourselves taken by a yoga practice.
The saṃskāras or mental patterns that groove and re-groove themselves into our mind (and all of us have them in various ways) through habitual, day-to-day thinking and rumination on past events or fears of the future, are actually re-oriented as a result of dedicated physical yoga practice. Not only do we start to sense that we are thinking differently – light, positive, compassionate thinking – but recent neuroscientific research has now 'proven' what yoga practitioners for the past two thousand years have known all along: that the yogic brain actively rewires itself, creating new neural pathways and new ways of seeing. It's partly why we become so inclined to return to yoga above and beyond any other form of physical activity.
Just one example from yoga philosophy's banquet of offers shows us man's relationship to his mind: 'Pratipaksha bhavana' is a Sanskrit phrase that translates as the ability to turn afflicted thinking on its head. Put simply, it's the practice of changing negatives into positives and it's an example of early Indian philosophy's ability to regard consciousness as a mutable, manipulable phenomenon. Yoga as a philosophy understands that we needn't be subjects of the wild and unfocussed movements of our minds (as Patañjali's Yoga Sūtras attest, 'yogaḥ cittaḥ vṛittiḥ nirodhaḥ' – 'yoga is the cessation of the endless fluctuations of the mind') and furthermore, that we have the power to change the way we experience the world. If Hindu and early yoga philosophy allowed us to see that the world is an illusion created only by consciousness (much like the proposals put forward by Ellis) then Buddhist thought picked up this idea and ran with it, developing the notion that just as we seek a way to avoid the persistent suffering of life, we also have the power to radically alter our perspective on that suffering.
In the fourth of five psychology classes, and sitting among a group of hopeful future psychotherapists, all of us excited and happy to be discussing brain function, behaviour and therapeutic techniques, I was illumined by the thought: 'YOGA IS THE BEST PSYCHOTHERAPY THERE IS!' Aware that I was no longer in the room with 15 other Yoga Studies graduate students who knew what I was talking about but faced instead by a body of people whose prime interest lay in discovering cerebral and cognitive methods of therapy, I tried to explain myself to the classroom, telling the story of how I'd come to yoga in the first place.
While in therapy with a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist to help me work with grief and depression, I was recommended to try yoga and meditation with the suggestion that they might ease the symptoms of stress, anxiety and low mood. At that point I didn't have the energy or wherewithal to try either. Some months later, something had shifted and I was able to make my way to a local meditation class. CBT itself had opened to me for the first time something about the working of my mind: my fears, core beliefs and behaviours, all of which was curiously interesting. Meditation, however, allowed me to bear witness to these things in a way that created a more tangible separation between me and 'my self.' The observer and the observed, as we call it. Yoga followed meditation and with it, the beginning of a series of layers being peeled back and revealed to me in a way that was both healing and entrancing.
And that's it: because yoga works at both the subtle and the gross level, it allows the body and the conscious mind to soften together, having the added effect of quieting the daily, ongoing, chattering, anxious, always-moving mind in order to let the deeper work and the profound messages from within to rise up. It allows you to get in and take a good look around. The more one practices, the more that sense of intuition, bodily wisdom and inner healing is advanced, and because the brain receives positive feedback messages from the rush of endorphins and GABA (one of the central nervous system's neurotransmitters responsible for calming nervous activity, low levels of which are thought to be linked with anxiety and mood disorders) – not to mention the extraordinarily powerful calming of the autonomic nervous system which is responsible for fight or flight but which, through controlled and regular breathing is soothed into a state of quiet trust and relaxation – it is not uncommon to leave a yoga class feeling grounded and soothed from the inside out.
The positive feedback system works like this: the body holds a posture, say Warrior 2, for longer than it might like to. The muscles work hard to keep the spine straight, the front leg bent, both arms extended and straight. After a few seconds, the mind chips in and asks to stop, complains about the pain and the tension in the lower back, gets bored and wants to do something else. This is totally normal. This is where the breath comes in and why it is so crucially important to our yoga practice: without it, we are simply not practicing yoga, but gymnastics. In order to quiet the mind and train the brain we draw on the breath, inhaling deeply and exhaling fully. We stay with the movement of the breath at all times, in every posture. And in a nutshell, this is why: the sympathetic portion of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) flares up in response to the stress of holding a pose, sending messages to the brain that puts us into 'fight or flight' mode. By breathing deeply and steadily, we activate the parasympathetic or 'rest and digest' response in the ANS that counteracts this stress signal, leading to a soothed state of being. The more we practice, the stronger the feedback between the two responses becomes, meaning that when we're faced with stressors and aggravations from daily life, our neural memory knows how to maintain our arousal at a comfortable and safe level. In short, we become calmer and more easily able to handle life's ups and downs with greater ease. This is why yoga has shown to be especially effective for war veterans and PTSD sufferers - in fact, any population used to running on 'high alert' in such a way as to exhaust the adrenal system.
So there it is: Yoga is not about the asana and how good it does or doesn't look, nor is it about flexibility, which is actually the byproduct of practice, the release of blocked emotion and a removal of the mind's insistence that the body 'can't' or 'won't' get into a certain posture. It is brain training and soul therapy, pure and simple. I like to think of it this way: We move the body to still the mind and we still the mind to move the spirit.
And in so doing, we dive deep into the essence of who we really are, far, far away from the associations that the mind or ego likes to make with itself and the world around us. This inner voice – the one that has been cultivated into silence by society, our families, the structures that we live in in the modern world – is at the centre of each and every one of us. Its voice is so damn clear that once you hear it, it is not only profoundly moving but impossible to ignore. It brings confidence, understanding, compassion, focus and in my opinion, the ability to dig out from the root the debilitating thought processes that hold so many of us back from being as brilliant as we truly are. It also has the power to deliver the grace of spiritual wisdom; a stillness and resonance beyond language. At a grosser level it lends us the opportunity to understand ourselves better than anyone else can, and to intuit what is best for us at a properly humanist level. The practice of yoga is not only a sort of clearance sale of the mind so that the body and soul can speak but in so many instances, it is a naturally intelligent way of enacting the original Greek meaning of 'psyche' and 'therapeuin': therapy of the soul. Or to go direct to the source, it is Sanskrit's own definition of yoga, meaning to yoke or unite.
It's my responsibility to say that psychotherapy has a wonderful, charted history of deep thought and great success and that I've used it as a client with great effect. In fact, it's what I hope to study next. It's important also to say that severe mental health problems – though shown to be responsive to yoga and meditation in some cases – deserve individual medical treatment. Each of us has our own healing path to tread and in that sense different modalities will work for different people, and at different times in our lives. What I love in the study of mind-body relations is that these various tools and techniques can find intimate, revelatory ways of talking to one another and offer us a picture of ourselves in totality, in our full, beautifully-flawed humanness.
For further reading, I can't recommend highly enough these two books:
The Healing Path of Yoga, by Nischala Joy Devi
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind & Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel Van der Kolk, M.D.
...Of my blog posts, at least. It's certainly not the starting point for my writings and meanderings about food and yoga, the former of which started here, several years ago.
I look forward to writing updates on yoga news, research, projects, insights and gatherings as the time rolls on. Thanks for reading!