Writer Selina Sheth chronicles her ongoing journey of yoga and shares how her practice continues to help her reach for her true self.
I’m a writer by profession and lately I’ve been reading what is every storyteller’s bible for structure and character development: Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. The narrative is universal, and a monomyth that is found in all the great epics from The Ramayana and The Mahabharata to The Iliad and The Odyssey. There is a protagonist, and through a series of trials and obstacles that often involves encountering tricksters, shadows, demons, guardians and mentors, this individual ultimately comes face to face with true self and life’s purpose. In that sense, the hero or heroine’s trajectory is synonymous with the experience of the Yogi, who starts a practice and begins that unavoidable inner journey towards self-discovery, taking in all the freedom and discomfort that it has to offer.
Rewind to autumn of 2012. I was in my late thirties, burnt out from a hectic career of writing films and TV shows in Mumbai, exhausted from chasing unreliable producers for paychecks and cynical from too many ‘conditional’ industry friendships. I wasn’t in great health, physically or mentally. I also needed a personal time-out from the long relationship I’d been in with my partner. I desperately craved a sabbatical to think about the future, and a change in not only my lifestyle, but also my world view.
While visiting my parents in New Delhi, I stumbled (quite literally) upon a fitness chain that offered power yoga classes all over the country. I signed up, and found myself at a dynamic flow class one morning. I was an addict soon, doing classes thrice a day, and needless to say, within months I found myself fitter, stronger and more flexible than I’d been at 20.But this blissful phase came to a crashing end a couple of years later, when my trusted trainer and friend became emotionally abusive towards me. Just when I thought I had entered a purist sanctuary of wellness and positivity —very different from the level of toxicity I had seen in the real world—I found myself shaken, betrayed and deceived.
For the next few months, I was lost and depressed. I had achieved a level of physical fitness, yes, but that I could have gained even with other exercises, such as running or swimming. What yoga had given me was a high like never before, but now I suddenly felt like I had learnt nothing of real or lasting value. What I saw around me was an urban yogic industry that rode on monetary gains, with childishly vain ‘instructors’ vying for clients by floating pseudo-spiritual memes promising love, light, peace and inner transformation.
I was disillusioned, but I still loved yoga and didn’t want to give it up. I felt the need for the values that come with learning a traditional practice and the discipline, knowledge base and ethical foundation that the path of yoga promises. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long.
My Phase 2 began when I started my learning of the ashtanga primary series at the Ashtanga Nilaya shala in New Delhi in the summer of 2015. For the first time, I was under the guidance of mature and dedicated teachers. I was very nervous because I knew nothing about the ashtanga method except what I had heard from others—that it was “very, very hard”.
With that, I signed up for the biggest challenge of my life—a challenge that hasn’t eased in these past two and a half years!The practice is relentless, and some of the poses still seem impossible to me, an athletic woman of 45. But I believe sincerely in “practice, practice, practice…all is coming”. I am inspired by the discipline and the sheer courage that a daily, committed yoga practice requires. Early mornings at the shala are about intense practice in silence (aside from the sounds of varied breathing patterns in the room). It is a test of stamina as well as an ego check as I collapse a countless times before savasana. Sometimes, just as a particular forward bend feels like it’s getting easier, along comes a back-bending maneuver that I know will take me months of hard work merely to figure out.
Until recently, I was making the familiar mistake of seeing yoga practice as an escape from life, as a kind of alternate universe, as an ideology of perfection that my type—A personality aspired for. If I ‘failed’ at an asana, I would feel useless. If I smoked a cigarette during a break at work, I’d feel guilty. If I felt mistreated by someone, I would feel the hypocritical pressure to smile and forgive. For me, this proved self-defeating and unrealistic, like a forced separation of yoga from real living when the two are one and the same thing. I am slowly coming to understand that while yoga is an empowering practice, it isn’t an instant ‘miracle cure’ for feelings of depression or anger or sadness.
When I look back at the last couple of years, I see how I have gone through many different emotions and phases through my practice. There is always the buzz of elation, but it comes mixed with fear, anxiety, pain and resistance, depending on the kind of day I’m having. But even so, I’m learning to relax more now, to go with the flow. Some days I need the grit and detoxifying sweat of a full practice; on other days, I prefer the calmness that comes from stretching and light pranayama.
While on a one-month yoga practice trip at the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, I read a book by Yogani called The Eight Limbs of Yoga, based on Patanjali’s yoga sutras. The book ends on a simple note: The Guru Is In You. Your journey is unique, your standards are your own, your battles are your own. You are the protagonist of your story, and only you can write it and live it.
I remind myself that yoga has come into my life for a reason and that it has changed everything for me. I now know that any practice rooted in time-tested knowledge and positive intention is the best thing you can do for yourself. It teaches you not to give up, to value the baby steps of real progress, to bond with a community of fellow practitioners, to open yourself up to a deeper education and to feel the desire for more and more learning.
As a writer, I am impulsive, anxious, independent-minded, opinionated and emotional. Through yoga, I have stopped fighting these qualities, and accepted that they make me who I am. I know I need to work on myself, and yoga has its way of correcting one from within. Constantly. Whether one likes it or not.
And so today, emotionally, I’m somewhere at the start of my Phase 3. I’m seeing yoga as a liberating friend, as an ally, as a tool for strengthening myself in the world I live in and the world I have to negotiate, as a practice that will allow me to use my creative talents and personality to their best potential. It’s time to finish writing my (first) book and to get it out there, to find a balance between my career, my relationships and other responsibilities, to develop the hardcore will it takes to cut down on smoking. It’s time to let go of situations and people who do not value or understand me, to not take for granted the ones who do. It’s time to be kinder, less stubborn, more empathetic.
Well, one day at a time.
Selina Sheth is a journalist, screenwriter and content creator working in fiction and non-fiction formats, and is based in Mumbai. Her debut novel Any Time, Some Time, will be published in the coming year.
This article was first published in the print edition of Yoga Journal Singapore,which is now Yogahood Online.