There's a fat kid inside us all

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This weekend I watched the movie Dumplin’ with not only a rockin’ Dolly Parton sound track but the fabulous (and Australian) Danielle MacDonald and Jennifer Aniston playing the lead roles.  This is a beautiful story about life and death and grief and growing up different, all with a good kick of much needed happy ever after. 

And half way through the movie I had to hit pause because I really really needed to cry – like a lot.

Because half way through this movie a part of my life that still carries all of the emotional baggage and shame gremlins (thanks Brene Brown!) with it was being reflected back at me from this film.  Willowdean (played by MacDonald) is the small town local fat girl, full of fun and confidence and va va voom as she grows up, but arriving in her teenage years with the realization that she is judged by how she looks and being overweight she doesn’t look like everyone else, let alone the popular kids in school.

The film zooms in on Willowdean’s face as it dawns on her that she is different.  It is a moment of innocence and freedom lost and it totally floored me.    She had the look of not belonging and in a second it brought me right back to 1980’s small town Australia in my very own fat girl story.

I was probably about 9 years old and madly in love with ballet.  I dreamed of being a ballerina and I had read all the books about the great dancers, Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev (I can still write their names by heart and see their performances in my mind).  I was lucky enough to be taking ballet lessons and when I think back I realize what an effort it was for my parents, my mother especially, to organize life and work and the rest of the family (including my younger brother and sister) around my ballet craze.  I dreamed of being good enough to dance in pointe shoes and to take my first ballet exam.

And then one afternoon at my after school ballet class, my teacher Mrs Shriek (yes really!) literally shrieked at me in front of the entire class, telling everyone that I was too fat to be a ballerina and I shouldn’t waste my time.  Writing this almost 40 years later brings all of those 9 year old feelings right back into the now, the immediate knowing that your body, the thing that is intrinsically yours, the thing you can’t get rid of, is the thing that is just not good enough.  And it was my moment of sudden realization that I looked different to all the other little girls in the class and that not only they knew it, but the teacher knew it too.

For me it was a body that was different, for others it was wearing glasses, or being the only indigenous Australian in the class.  For some of you it might have been which street you lived in, where your parents were born, your freckles or wearing a second-hand school uniform or the fact that you had curly hair.

These things that fundamentally make up who we are in all our perfect imperfection are also the things that are often the root of our shame and the memories that if possible, we would put a lid on forever.

Watching Dumplin’ last Saturday evening let my fat girl out of the bag and forced me to consider the role she has played in my life for so long.  Is she a broken and ugly part of me that I wish I could bury and hide forever? If I’m honest, a part of me says yes.  There are photos of her that I still cringe at.  But this small child inside me that discovered in such a hellish way that she was different and did not belong in the world of ballet is also the small child that continued going to class in front of that damn Mrs Shriek, who took her ballet exams and who danced on pointe.  Apparently, you can be different and not belong, and you can still love ballet, be made of steel and defy everyone else to do what you love.

I believe we all have our own version of the fat girl inside us, the imperfections that cause us shame but which also make us whole.  We can choose what place these old memories and feelings play in our lives.  Watching Dumplin’ and Miss Willowdean do her thing throughout this brilliant film was a reminder that we don’t just get to bury the hard stuff.  It was a reminder that the hard stuff is still hard, and it was a reminder that feeling different, feeling like I don’t belong is also something that connects me deeply to most of the human race.

We are all broken and damaged and ugly in the eyes of someone.  And we are all also perfectly imperfect with a life and a history that have made us the most wonderfully real version of ourselves right now, in this exact moment.  My little 9 year old fat girl taught me not to quit on the things I love.  My chubby little wanna be ballerina is why every week in my imperfect 46 year old body I stand up in front of people and teach yoga even though Instagram tells me I don’t belong to its image of yoga teacher perfection.

As well as watching movies this weekend I was also reading the worldly wise American Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön who reminded me that we can make friends with what we reject or see as ‘bad’ in ourselves and other people.  Pema says, ‘Although it is embarrassing and painful, it is very healing to stop hiding from yourself…..By knowing yourself, you’re coming to know humanness altogether. We are all up against these things.  We are all in this together.’

And that’s a fact right there people.  For all our feelings of separateness and not belonging, of thinking that shame is an emotion, solely destined for us and us alone, the reality is that we are all in this broken, imperfect perfection together.

As watching Dumplin’ unexpectedly forced me to face a part of me I would have happily kept hidden, it also offered me a new realization.  This time it was not one of innocence lost but a realization of deep compassion.  Compassion for the 9 year old wanna be ballerina in me and all she faced in that very tough moment, and compassion for every person on the planet who has had a similar experience.

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How can we all allow the things we loath about ourselves most, the memories we would most like to bury, to also be our greatest teachers so that instead of shame and embarrassment, we feel love and compassion?  I know I’m still working on it and imagine I’ll be conversing with the fat kid inside me for many years to come. For now I’ll leave you with the words of the great Dolly Parton, ‘Find out who you are and do it on purpose’.  NAMASTE

 

Stuff I learned from mountains

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In 2011 , just a couple of years into my new Swiss life I wrote a little blog about what I had learned from mountains and here’s the updated version of that. Important to remember here that until I found Switzerland I’d been a die hard Aussie beach girl, (including being a Surf Lifesaver!), from an island who’s highest mountain is just over 2,000m and which is often reported as the country with the most dangerous animals.

The Matterhorn is always worth a visit

The Matterhorn is always worth a visit

Arriving to a land locked and ‘safe from wildlife’ country (albeit with beautiful lakes) meant I had to find an alternative way of getting outside and surrounding myself with Mother Nature. Early on a colleague recommended I learn to ski to avoid the grim and grey depressive winter fog. And so ski I did, learning at the ripe old age of 37 how to throw myself down slopes and après-ski. It was fun but it didn’t quite give me what I was looking for.

The thing that made me feel more at home in Switzerland than anything was hiking into the depths of the alps, on my own, spending hours without seeing a single soul, and arriving back home at the end of the day - still alive. It took me forever to figure out why doing this in summer rather than winter makes me feel especially nostalgic and it was only last summer that I realized it’s the smell of cut grass. This smell, a childhood memory of my dad mowing our eight acres or or my mum shoveling hay for the horses transplants me back to our family home in Queensland.

Now it’s been a decade that I’ve been in and out of Switzerland with my humanitarian life. At the end of last year I even bought a little mountain hut high up in one of the sunniest alpine villages, still a working village so I can smell the hay, the animals, the farm life and feel nostalgic for my Australian childhood. And in that decade I’ve hiked a lot of those high mountain trails, even run some of them and they have given me so so much.

Me in the mountains is me as my best self in my best moments, feeling deeply connected to ‘the source’ (whatever that means…..) Time in the mountains gives me incredible confidence in life, in being alive and those mountains have taught me a lot of really important stuff - lessons I am continually applying to the rest of my non-mountain life.  Here's some of what I learned so that when you have the choice to stay in bed or  get up and get into the mountains (or nature or wherever you are the best version of yourself), you might just choose the better option.

  • The planet is a gift to be loved, respected and protected - there is no ‘Planet B’

  • There are things in this world a lot bigger than any of us

  • I don't need to know everything before I start

  • Life holds surprises around every corner (including marmottes, chamois, 4000 meter views, wild strawberries, Daniel and his Tibetan yaks)

  • I'm not meant to understand everything in this life (including why there is a Tibetan yak farm in my village)

  • Staying connected to the planet is as essential as breathing for me - this is my bliss

  • Following the seasons and the changes in nature helps me understand life and cultivate patience

  • Confidence grows bit by bit but it also needs to be regularly filled up - exploring new trails is part of that

  • It's ok to trust your instincts but sometimes you have to learn them first

  • I'll always feel way better when I finish, even when the hills have broken me, than if I never started

  • Life doesn't have to be filled with words, silence is its own language

  • Staying with the tough stuff (including steep mountain ascents) generally yields better results than trying to escape

  • You shouldn’t always follow the most obvious path if you want to find bliss

  • Nature is our infinite teacher

The view from my alpine hut

The view from my alpine hut

So if you’re feeling lost or stuck or small or low, go find your mountains and get connected. As John Muir said, ‘…most people are on the world, not in it…’, but when we get outside, we choose to be part of our world and that feeling of belonging, of responsibility for what’s around us, has the power to lift us up, make us larger than life and place us back on our rightful path. And if you happen to find your path crosses some of those Swiss alpine trails, then I’ll see you there :-)

Life Lessons in Tango

 At the end of October, 2018 as I headed towards the end of a very hard year, I spontaneously booked myself on a two week trip to Buenos Aires with the Beunsettled crew.  I was traveling alone and I didn’t want the hassle of having to organize everything myself and dig deep for the extrovert part of me to be able to make friends on the road.  The Beunsettled ‘instant family’ option with awesome local ‘guides’ seemed perfect.  My only ambition for the two weeks was to dance tango.

Julieta and Ramon , tango stars of Buenos Aires and our final class together.

Julieta and Ramon , tango stars of Buenos Aires and our final class together.

I teamed up with a fab South African woman from the group, who was usually busy saving the planet and who also had tango ambitions and with our local contacts we were introduced to the fantabulous Ramon and Julieta, Buenos Aires tango stars.  And just like in Romeo and Juliet (although with a happier ending), Ramon and Julieta met at a tango milonga and fell in love.  Now married with a little tangolito they are teaching the world how to feel, breathe and love through tango.

Life Lesson 1 - don’t think, just feel

If you think learning tango is all about the moves and the choreography then think again.  The essence of tango is the malka.  Without this, you are not dancing you are just moving.  The only way I can describe the malka is that it is the moment when you are in the dance and when feeling, breath and movement become one and your thinking mind switches off.  If you’ve ever had a moment of enlightenment in another way, whether it be standing on a mountain top awed by nature, looking at your new born baby or lying deep in savasana at the end of a yoga class then this is the malka.  But here’s the thing, to really dance tango you need the malka ALL the time.  And the only way to find it is to stop thinking and start feeling.  Easy right? Wrong!  So so wrong. 

I found it ridiculously challenging to switch off the thinking mind and allow myself to feel my body – and this is from someone who practices yoga most days and teaches regularly.  Surely I would be a great candidate for feeling my body.  Feeling my body alone on my yoga mat - yep got it.  Feeling my body in the arms of someone I just met, i.e. Ramon, is a whole 'nother story.  And on top of that, tango means I have to not only let go of my thoughts and feel my body but I also have to tune in to know what Ramon is feeling to really understand the malka.  You can see why this is hard but you can also see why this is a HUGE life lesson.  Tuning in to what I and those around me feel deeply, wow - what a gift tango gives!

Life Lesson 2 - let go of control

Ramon the master leading me in the tango.

Ramon the master leading me in the tango.

Tango is also a lesson in control, either consciously taking it if you are leading or letting go completely if you are following the dance and your partner.  Julieta who is a sublime dancer told me she took lessons for an entire year before she danced at a milonga because she could not let go and let her partner and the tango lead her.  In our world today so much of what we learn is about taking control of our lives.  As women particularly we have had to take control in so many areas of our lives to ensure an equal place in the world.  I feel sometimes the only place I am ‘allowed’ to surrender is on the yoga mat or when I fall asleep at the end of long days of being in control at work.

So you think I would be relieved to find a practice that gives me full permission to let go of control. This is in no way as easy as it sounds. But in tango you see quickly that it doesn’t work to have two people leading the dance and there will without doubt be a lot of foot stepping and bumped shoulders if the person following doesn’t sit back, breathe, feel and let the leader lead.  As the follower in a tango you also need to learn the art of pause.  If I jump right in to the dance I can never know what my partner is feeling, what his breath is telling me, what signals his body is giving me and I won’t take the time to listen or understand the tango he is communicating or feel the malka.  In life outside of tango this often translates to a calendar with no breathing space and a life with no room for mistakes, illness or change. Having run my life like that in the past I can tell you it doesn’t feel good.  Tango teaches us to pause, to listen, to tune in and just to wait.  Without this there is no malka, no feeling, no flow in tango and it turns it into a set of robotic and ungraceful moves.  And have you ever noticed that the same happens in life?

Life Lesson 3 - intentional control

The reverse of letting go in tango is choosing control intentionally and then communicating that to those around you and most importantly to your tango partner.  Not only do you have to be clear on who is leading but you then have to adapt your actions and movements and use the  malka of tango to communicate that.  If I’m leading the tango and I want you to move backwards then I have to breathe in a way that lets you know that, followed by gentle, clear movements of my body that send me forwards and you backwards (or vice versa).  In life we are rarely upfront or intentional about when we want and need control. Instead we find ourselves having it forced upon us, or always being in control because we don’t know how to let go of it or even wanting to be in control but sort of hiding it because it doesn’t fit with social expectations. Wouldn’t life be easier if the passive aggressive (or just aggressive) control that we often experience could be substituted by being up front and intentional about when we need and want to be in control in the gentle, clear and heartfelt way of tango?

 Life Lesson 4 - bask in vulnerability

And finally, tango is a lesson in vulnerability.  I discovered that it is absolutely impossible to dance the tango with an emotional brick wall around you.  In a way maybe it’s natural that I felt my defenses go up as I was thrown into the arms of a man I just met (lo siento Ramon!). But very quickly the tango teaches us that there is no dance if the protective walls remain.  We spend so much of our lives protecting ourselves in small ways, whether that be from difficult colleagues or bad bosses, to homeless people asking for money on the street, to maintaining our space on a crowded bus.  How many of us are really living our lives with open hearts and open minds?  In tango those emotional brick walls kill our ability to receive communication from our partner and to feel the malka of the dance.  I find this to be such an important metaphor for our lives.  With our walls up, what do we not hear, what do we miss in the experience of this beautiful and wild life?  Our vulnerability is hard to wear because we fear getting hurt but our vulnerability is also the tool that enables us to connect and experience in full and tango demonstrates this to perfection.

My gorgeous  Mosh Mosh  tango shoes by Marithé

My gorgeous Mosh Mosh tango shoes by Marithé

I know not everyone has the privilege to learn tango from the very best and in the town in which it was born and I am so grateful that I was able to have this experience in incredible Buenos Aires. Muchas muchas gracias Ramon and Julieta and Beunsettled! I admit I thought it would be nice to dance and learn something new. I never imagined for a moment that tango would challenge the deep seated patterns that no longer serve me in the life I want to lead. I also never imagined I would dance at a real milonga! What this experience taught me is that I have to stay curious, I have to consciously take action to move outside of my comfort zone because tango is exactly where the magic happens. So don’t waste time gorgeous people, go out there and find your own tango and let the discomfort you experience in doing something new, open your heart and mind to the life you want to lead. NAMASTE

Life lessons in listening, health and happiness

Here’s a few little life lessons for not only finding health and happiness but for avoiding burn out - something in which listening to ourselves has a pretty big role to play. And what are the tools that help us listen? Yoga and meditation of course :-)

So finally I am willing to admit that I had a tough year last year. This was something very hard to say for a very long time because quite frankly I hadn’t fallen over and I wasn’t having a burn out so everything must still be fine - right? Last year my friend (and husband of one of my closest friends) was suddenly and violently killed , my grandmother died on the other side of the world at home in Australia whilst I was up a mountain somewhere in Switzerland, my body was wracked with asthma over the summer and I lost my voice completely on my birthday. But hey - still standing so I must be ok right?

I kept practicing yoga, I kept meditating because that’s what I do and these are two of my key investments in my own health and continued resilience but nothing changed. I still felt easily tired and regularly emotional, I still didn’t care about much, I noticed that long past dysfunctional eating habits resurfaced and all the usual hiking and nature appreciation injects of happiness lasted for a very short time but were quickly squashed by negative feelings. Honestly, I was worried I was depressed except I knew I wasn’t and I was really worried I wouldn’t find this incredible joy for life that I had been enjoying for so long and had worked so hard for.

And then at the end of the year I took two weeks holiday without much agenda and spontaneously found myself on a meditation retreat over the new year. When I stopped I could suddenly hear what my mind had to say and not all of it was pretty and positive let me tell you. Meditating with others and with guidance proved to be a timely reminder that I am (we are) never alone in our struggles. Through guided meditations I was able to start re-framing my compassion for others into something more meaningful and shifting what had become a very functional gratitude practice into something deeper and more genuine. This temporary stillness and silence also enabled me to begin to change my stale yoga practice from one of ‘doing the poses’ to one of slow listening and exploring what I needed to heal and rebuild my personal resilience.

Some of you will know that I had a meditation practice long before I ever busted out a single yoga asana. This mini-retreat over new year was an incredible reminder of all the old lessons I had learned through meditation and a kick up the butt reminder that when life throws you a curve ball it’s better to catch it than let it hit you in the face. But oh wait - here’s the reality…. for all these wonderful, motivational quotes, sometimes the curve ball hits you in the face anyway. And I’m writing this little blog to tell you that that’s ok. It happens to everyone at some point. Some days the curve ball comes when you’re not looking and there’s not a damn thing you can do about where it lands.

I find the curve ball to be a great metaphor because what any good Red Cross first-aider will tell you (and I’ve been one of those) is that if you’re suddenly injured then stay still so they can assess the situation and the extent of your injuries. But of course life in the 21st century is about picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and keeping moving. I think those first-aiders know a thing or two and I’ve decided after the last year that there is great value in standing still, listening and assessing after the curve ball hits. I can’t help but wonder if I had allowed myself to grieve, rest and heal in the moment if I would have felt so utterly beaten for so long by all those curve balls that 2018 brought with it.

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Yoga and meditation are both practices that allow us to pause and create the stillness in which we might just hear what we need to know to be the most well and happy versions of ourselves. For me the two practices are one and whilst they can be practiced separately, they have exponential positive impact when brought together. They are also practices of authenticity which is also a practice that keeps us healthy. It is VERY hard to be a fake version of yourself when you are alone with your mind or when you are on your mat with your body not following the orders you give it. In these moments the concepts of surrender and acceptance are transformational because they allow us to be ok with exactly who we are in whatever state we are in. This is the gift that yoga gives us all.

Teaching yoga is the most authentic practice of my life and my constant reminder to keep it real and deal with my own mental and physical health. I just cannot turn up on the mat with people and preach about self care and being present, and getting rest and surrendering and being kind to ourselves if I am not doing those things myself. It literally feels like my insides are tearing into two pieces, like I can physically feel myself un-aligning if I’m not keeping it real.

And so this is the deep gratitude that I have for every single person that turns up to one of my classes, retreats or events. It is all of you who keep me on track, who keep me authentic and who keep me healing. Because I am just not prepared to tell you to do that unless I am doing it myself. And what that also means is that we are all in this big messy, wild thing called life together and we are not alone.

And so I want to invite you to join me in being still enough to listen and hear what you need for your health and for your happiness. I want to thank you for keeping me authentic and for being an important part in helping me put some deposits in my own personal resilience bank. For every time you stepped on the mat with me whether in person or online, you reminded me to keep it real and that my own health and happiness are critical in being able to contribute to yours. My favourite translation of the word yoga is ‘to be yoked’ together and this year has been a reminder that without you I am not me and so I offer up my deepest gratitude to you all for the healing you have given me. NAMASTE.