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The radical power of rest
Why slowing down is an act of resistance (and a rant about the yoga industry)
I don’t know about you but I’ve been feeling pretty overwhelmed recently.
Freelance life often involves juggling competing work strands, but I’m facing a particular bottleneck at the moment. I’m writing another cookbook, I’ve been commissioned to write a few pieces for different magazines, I’m doing campaigns consultancy for an NGO, I’m trying to get the house organized for Iranian New Year in a few weeks, and I’m in and out of fertility clinics more times than I care to mention.
So last week, while staring down a calendar that looked like a jigsaw puzzle of appointments and deadlines which I couldn’t quite make fit, I took myself off to Stroud to immerse myself in a yoga therapy teacher training to try and get some perspective. It was a unique yoga course as it had hardly involved any movement (yoga asana) and instead focused on rest (yoga nidra). It was so useful, I thought I’d share some of the learnings with you.
I’ve been practicing yoga on a daily basis for about 11 years, and on a semi-regular basis for 14 years. I wish I could say I came to it through some fascinating spiritual journey, but the reality is I started doing it for the exercise and mainly went to classes at my local gym. That all changed after I suffered a burnout in 2011, had to leave NGO campaigns work, and was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (I’ve spoken about this period in many interviews over the years but this one with Emma Gannon is one of my faves). I have lots to say about chronic fatigue, especially in the context of post-viral fatigue and Long COVID, so we’ll return to that another day. For now, let’s just say it was a terrifying time, when for the best part of six months I could barely walk to the grocery store and back without needing a nap. I felt I had lost the life I knew, lost trust in my body, and lost my identity as an activist. Signed off sick from work, in a moment of
despair inspiration, I googled “yoga + ko phangan”, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand which I had visited 10 years previously.
My trip to Thailand ended up re-shaping my life, in a really annoyingly Eat, Pray, Love kind of way — especially so as I hadn’t even read that book at that time. I stayed longer than planned, for a few years, on and off, picking up freelancing gigs at home and working in local resorts there. Along the way, I ended up in a long-term relationship with an American yoga teacher I met there and through him, immersed myself in yoga and its sister science ayurveda — both of which, I genuinely believe, saved my life. As I very slowly recovered and started regaining my energy, the idea formed for my first book, The Saffron Tales. The rest, as they say, is history.
Over the last 11 years, I’ve immersed myself in countless yoga classes, teacher trainings, workshops and self-study practices mainly focused on hatha and vini-yoga, breathwork (pranayama), mantras and mudras. Yoga is without a doubt one of the central pillars of my life, but I’ve always felt a bit cringe sharing anything publicly about it. Why? Because, in my mind, the vast majority of the yoga industry is deeply problematic and also a tad annoying.
Yoga in the West has become another product of patriarchy and capitalism - commodified and culturally appropriated, often taught inappropriately for people’s health, obsessively promoting one type of body (young, skinny, white, female, affluent), sexually exploitative (there are too many articles to link to on this so let’s just start with this one from The New Yorker, and enmeshed with the beauty and diet industry.
Nadia Gilani wrote about her experiences as a yoga teacher brilliantly in the Guardian earlier this year:
“Yoga was simply not designed as a quick workout or to be reduced to #LiveYourBestLife Instagrammable content. It was never meant to fit into a power hour on your lunch break, or as something to be combined with beer or puppies – as some classes do, charging an eye-watering £35 for the privilege. Yoga in the west has been so heavily commodified that “Namastay in bed” T-shirts and tattoos of decontextualised Sanskrit and Hindu gods have become commonplace. Bindis – an auspicious religious symbol with Hindu origins – are worn as fashion accessories, alongside bum-sculpting activewear”
And that’s before we even get into all the love and light ridiculousness that gets bandied about in so many yoga classes which sadly is so often devoid from actual service. Seeing the response of so many in the Western yoga community to the collectivism necessary for us to survive a global pandemic exemplified that.
All of which is to say, that when I came across the work of yoga teacher Uma Dinsmore-Tuli a few years ago, I was blown away.
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Uma is a visionary working-class yoga warrior. A sprightly and strong woman in her mid-fifties, she has been teaching yoga for 30 years, with a particular focus on women’s health, yoga nidra and yoga therapy. There is so much about her that I find joyous, from how she swears like a sailor and cracks jokes while she is teaching, how deeply knowledgeable she is, how good she is at communicating complex ideas (she has a PhD in communications), and her passion for ancestral wisdom. What makes her unique though, I think, is how she brings together politics with yoga. She speaks out about how impossible it is to balance the stresses of modern life without addressing the underlying causes of how our economic and social structure works and how it leaves us and the natural world depleted. Not to mention the exhausting impact of the structural discrimination, racism, colonialism, patriarchy and misogyny that runs through society.
If that all sounds a bit full on, and perhaps more than you’d want to fit into your weekly yoga chill session, it’s actually the opposite. By making space for all of the above, Uma helps the people she teaches understand that it’s not our fault we feel so shit so often, and that the system is set up to have that impact on us. It’s liberating to remove the individualistic narrative that so much of yoga focuses on and instead see that the path to peace and freedom involves trying to change the system as well as changing ourselves.
And what’s her biggest teaching on how we can all do this? By resting.
In our modern society, where we are overworked, undernourished, endlessly busy, constantly hustling, and productivity is seen as the highest form of human worth, resting is an act of resistance. No one came up with a great idea when they were exhausted. And none of us are good partners, parents, pals or public servants when we are running on empty. One of the best books on this in recent years is Rest is Resistance by Tricia Hersey, which is a call to action and a manifesto for those who are sleep deprived, searching for justice, and longing to be liberated from the oppressive grip of Grind Culture (follow her excellent Instagram page, the Nap Ministry, for more inspiration on this). In yogic wisdom, the best way to incorporate that into your life is through yoga nidra.
Yoga nidra is ancient yoga practice is super accessible and hugely powerful - it simply involves lying horizontal and listening to a voice guide you through a meditation. It’s as profound as it is easy. You don’t need to sit uncomfortably trying to empty your mind of its whirring thoughts. You don’t have to do anything other than listen. You can’t do it wrong. It involves the withdrawal of senses (known as pratyahra) that allows you to reach a state of relaxed consciousness as you settle somewhere between wakefulness and sleep You can read more about it here.
If you’ve ever struggled with meditation (which is, surely, anyone who has tried to meditate), then yoga nidra could be a great practice for you to try. I’ll bet it will leave you and your central nervous system feeling more peaceful, centred and soothed.
Uma and her husband Nirlipta Tuli have founded the Yoga Nidra Network to provide resources and free yoga nidra recordings to anyone interested in trying it. As I’ve been going through a bit of a stressful time, I’m trying to incorporate one daily into my life. I’ve found Nirlipta’s yoga nidra for a good night’s sleep particularly good as I’m prone to insomnia, as well as Uma’s pregnancy and fertility yoga nidra. The database has hundreds of recordings from all kinds of different teachers on a range of topics so, if you are interested, it’s worth trying a few and seeing if you can find a good fit. If one doesn’t resonate with you, it doesn’t matter, it’s like reading a novel, you’ll find one that you love if you keep going and try another. The Insight Timer app also has a good selection of yoga nidra meditations (I did this one for calming anxiety last night) and I always find Simone Mackay’s recordings pretty powerful too.
I hope you will take this week’s newsletter as an invitation to rest, however briefly, this week, and not feel guilty about it. Maybe even let one of the really important things on your to-do list slip and do a yoga nidra instead!
I’d love to hear if any of you have engaged with yoga nidra before and how you’ve found it. Let me know in the comments.