When you’re studying to become an environmental scientist, you learn about ‘the ecological integrity of environmental systems’. In the Netherlands, water bodies such as rivers get special attention. We have learned to leave their curves alone and plan around their natural flows and moods, as fighting it will inevitably end up in suffering through floods. As I’m jotting this down, these rivers start to sound like women’s bodies, which is a nice little bridge to what I really wanted to write about, the female body. My female body and yours.
I recently started teaching Hatha Flow yoga classes and dynamic classes at a wonderful wellness centre called Eve and Grace. We provide classes for Every Body, not just the lycra-clad 20-something yogini living on power food shakes trying to get her chakras aligned in her heart centre (see 'If Gandhi took a yoga class'). We teach and guide people in every age group, with all sorts of curves, sizes and physical backgrounds.
I always start my classes by mentioning that limitations of the body are okay. You can work on them, but also with them. You can try to figure out why they are there and what you can do to relieve them. No one body is the same, so don’t worry about comparing yourself to your neighbour. You don’t know what her/his journey has been, nor does she/he have a clue about yours. Accepting what you can and cannot do physically is a step in letting that Heart or Anahata chakra shine a brighter green (Chakra sceptics: this is your cue to start rolling your eyes). This is where the compassion, unconditional love and acceptance for the self, and inevitably others, will start.
It's not a coincidence that the morning after working with a class of beginners where I talked about abovementioned, these two TED talks were popping up on my Facebook news feed behind each other...
The first talk features the amazing Jennifer Brea. She speaks about struggling with a vague disease with equally vague symptoms, which doctors eventually concluded was "all in her head".
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Jennifer Brea: What happens when you have a disease doctors can't diagnose
The second one, from Brian Little, is about the vast differences between Extraverts and Introverts, specifically in handling external stimulation and recharging. He also speaks about the importance of acknowledging the uniqueness of your personality, because he’s “uncomfortable putting people in pigeonholes. I don't even think pigeons belong in pigeonholes.”
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Brian Little: Who are you, really? The puzzle of personality.
When I was in my late teens, I struggled with vague symptoms; my body was just shutting down some basic functions, such as my immune, endocrine and nervous systems, one at a time. Going into the hospital on a weekly basis, seeing one specialist after another, sleeping my days away, sometimes several days in a row, it made me lose contact with the ‘real world’, inevitably resulting in losing friends. It was difficult to explain to people around me what I had, when even the doctors didn’t entirely understand. I couldn’t describe it any better than “just” being very, very tired. Days went by when my legs just would not do the work they should do at that age. After being diagnosed with ME, or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), I felt even worse. I’d rather have something physical which people could see. I say “something physical” here because back then, it was still seen as “something which is in your head”, much like hysteria, which Jennifer Brea mentions. Most doctors did not acknowledge ME/CFS as a physical ailment, nor did the insurance companies, let alone did people suffering from it have any rights on social security when you’re unable to work. A quick Google-search showed me many, especially young, women suffered from the same wide variety of symptoms, in the end being diagnosed with ME. And that was it. No further research, just cope with it and go to a psychologist for mental help in dealing with it. Fortunately, presently there is much more research being done, yet still not as much as other widely known diseases. I believe this is also caused by the taboo surrounding the affliction. Who wants to complain about being tired, when everybody is? Being busy, and thus tired, is the new “good”, right?
Fortunately, the predicament I was in changed soon because of my very supportive parents, the friends that had stuck around, a clear-cut schedule for my studies, dietary changes, monthly vitamin boosts (injections) and help in setting priorities. I was lucky enough that my case of ME wasn’t nearly as heavy as Jennifer’s and over the years I have learned to adjust my life around it. This doesn’t mean that I cannot do the things I really want to do; it means I have to cut out the activities and people which drain me physically, mentally and emotionally in order to have enough energy for the people I enjoy being with such as family and the stuff that I really enjoy doing such as teaching yoga and taking care of animals. Having learned to stay true to my physical and emotional integrity with a body which gives me feedback almost immediately (AWESOME ♫), I am living a very fulfilling and energetic life.
One of the things that has changed the way I prioritise things is understanding my personality traits. According to the Myers-Briggs-Type-Indicator (MBTI), I am an ESTJ or 'the Executive'; in short an extraverted person. I talk like it, I walk like it and think like it, so it must be true. My father often says that I’m very much like my mother: very social and always busy helping people and animals here or saying hi to a neighbour over there. Growing up in a very stimulating household where there was always sound in the form of music, television or us visiting our very large extended family, there was little space for me to reflect on my need to find stillness. Sound was just a part of life, like breathing, and I thought I was just a naturally cranky child/adolescent/young woman.
However, over the years I have figured out that I am more a very social and open introvert, needing the time and space to recharge and reflect like every other introvert does. If I have social events booked on two consecutive days, I get agitated before it even starts. Fortunately, my lovely partner figured this out quickly and now makes sure I get my cat+book+tea-time after two busy days for some heavy recharging.
In the end, staying true to your physical and emotional integrity is the most important thing you can do for yourself. You do you. Do with what feels good for you and your body and stop comparing. Forget about that girl next to you who’s doing a headstand, while you’re struggling with your plank pose. Everybody has gone through a different, often difficult journey to come here in this moment. Just be compassionate to yourself.
The Dalai Lama said that “through compassion you’ll find that all human beings are just like you.” I think this also works the other way around. Through finding out that all human beings in their essence (or soul) are like you, with their own ups and downs (even that inverted lycra-clad girl), you will find compassion, tolerance and acceptance for them and yourself.