Authentically holding space

holding space

Holding space is a term used frequently to refer to therapeutic contexts such as counselling or the intention to create a healing environment in a yoga class. But actually it can also be used to describe the more day to day experience of deep listening to a friend who needs to talk or when we hold our own space to notice what we are feeling.

In this post I am talking about authenticity not to describe content (e.g. the authentic yoga teachings), but rather the personal qualities of the person holding space. Whether they really shows up, are as present as they can be and delivers something that feels authentic to them and that person/group, in that moment.

This week I attended an amazing gathering called Compassionate Mental Health. I arrived with the sense that I was going to learn something professionally to aid me both as a yoga teacher and in my other job as an occupational therapist. But I quickly realised this gathering wasn’t about roles and labels, and I was going to learn things for my whole self, not just the parts I box up and label as a professional.

Two things particularly struck me at this event. Firstly that it is a real practice to hold space skilfully. Secondly that to show up as your full self, authentically, is incredibly powerful.

Terms like holding space can easily become just more jargon and buzz words. So I like Jade Lizzie’s blog which talks about holding space in terms of support, care, preservation matched with a sense of freedom and expansiveness.  Practically I think what is meant is a balance of structure and openness which creates a feeling of safety.

The concept of space is particularly intriguing to me on a personal level too – what does it mean to create that space for myself for example with my own yoga and meditation practices? To ensure there is time and room for these daily spaces to explore. Take a listen to Godfrey Devereux podcast discussing just this.

In another way I have been creating space by choosing to take some time away from full time work this year. This choice to create a lacuna aka an unfilled space (thanks for the word Andy) is the polar opposite of my default mode of over filling each hour, day and week to bursting point. Not everyone will be able to quit their jobs, but the general principle of making more space I do think is possible for most people.

Beth Gibbs talks about holding space in terms of mental space to allow anything and everything to arise. At the compassionate mental health gathering there was an encouragement to be with discomfort – whether that was witnessing someone else’s grief, pain and sorrow or experiencing your own emotions. Really being with it. Not pushing it away, rationalising it or trying to do something to shortcut to a quick fix resolution. Culturally that feels like something we don’t encourage or allow to happen too often

It is so easy to play a role or portrait a sense of the perfection in our lives. This distorted sense of idealised self is projected visibly through the world of social media. But faking it is a disservice to yourself and those around you.

I recently stumbled across a theory from the 1980s by Hochschild called Emotional Labor which essentially states that in many professions people create a sense of acting which can impact on their stress levels and contribute to things like emotional dissonance (an internal conflict between how you really feel and what you are required to display externally), numbing and disconnection from your own feelings, and in the long term burnout. So there are very real consequences for ourselves if we don’t feel authentic.

It also doesn’t work, other people feel it. I might be emphatic towards a yoga teacher that is tired and trying to put on a show of being overly energetic but I think often subtle cues give the person away and on a intuitive level I feel that inauthenticity.

Then there is also an impact of modelling. When someone really shows up for me, it makes me more inclined to really show up in my life too. One of the most popular TED talks ever is Brene Brown’s Power of vulnerability which clearly illustrates that whilst we often feel we should be guarded and controlled, actually showing vulnerability is hugely empowering. She argues it is the cornerstone of connection to show up wholeheartedly, courageously and authentically.

I vividly remember many years ago meeting the wonderful yoga teacher Leila Sadeghee who addressed a room full of yoga students, many whom were as new to her as I was, and laid bare where she was at on that day. It was raw and real, she wasn’t in a good place but the class she went on to deliver was wonderful. She didn’t need to slap a fake smile on to be a good yoga teacher that day. She could be real and still provide that safe container for students to practice in.

Ultimately yoga is about connection to life, other beings and the self on all its many levels. The compassionate mental health conference was a wonderful reminder to me to show up as best as I can and to be real, whatever is going on for me on any given day. I might not always get it right, but it’s certainly something to aspire towards.


Truth and judgement


Have you ever been on a train looked out and wondered to yourself whether your train was moving or the one opposite you was? It’s a slightly disorientating feeling. That was my experience of being at a large yoga event over the weekend.

It is a place I have gone to intermittently in the last 10 years and a place where many years ago I met one of my first real yoga teachers. But this weekend when I attended I found it hard to connect with anything in the huge noise and busy chaos of the show. I was left wondering have I changed or has the event changed? Or is it a bigger shift in the whole yoga scene of Western culture? In fairness when I first attended years ago I had little awareness of yoga beyond moving the body and had not yet travelled to India. My yoga journey was just at the very beginning.

The event brought up questions about truth and judgement for me. I was helping on a stand for a yoga ashram in Wales and a number of people came up to the stand to ask advice. One of them told me about her life travelling and working on the road and trying to fit in yoga around that. She inevitably practices with different teachers at different times. She was concerned that it was the wrong way to do things and seeking reassurance.

Others talked to us about feeling lost in that environment – watching drum and bass yoga and wondering why they didn’t ‘get it’ when some people seemed to be loving it. Someone told me a story about a retreat he had been on when tantric practices of open sex and love had been discussed. His question, like so many others there, was ‘is that yoga?’. Each of these experiences are individual and nuanced, so whilst it feels like all of them were asking the same thing about the nature of yoga, each person needed to explore a response that was right for them.

For my own part I attended a few sessions and found myself bristling when told that something is ‘wrong’ or always taught wrongly and will lead to prolific yoga injuries. It feels sometimes like a giant squabble of ownership, authority and power. Interestingly as I drove home I listened to a podcast with Gregor Maehle when the question arose again. He was asked about whether there is right and wrong yoga. His response was that he did feel things were losing their way when anything and everything, including wine and heavy metal variations were considered to be valid forms of yoga.

In the spiritual world terms like non judgement and non attachment are often used. I was aware that when I attended a session with something I had a negative reaction to that perhaps I should keep an open mind. Having a rigid set of beliefs that yoga is only valid when it is one set thing, means excluding lots of opportunities for learning and development.

I also experienced lots of people reacting to the harmonium being played with fear (thinking – what is this weird cult/religion/brain washing) and judgement about what they assumed it conveyed about the ashram.

The conclusion for me is that not everything in the event I would consider yoga. I don’t think it is necessarily bad or should be banned. But they were not where my yoga practice is right now. As my teacher GD would say they are doorways people step through and have an experience.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be aiming for non judgement, but rather a gentler slower evaluation. I know that what our stall was offering was not the one ultimate truth of yoga for all those visitors. Truth invariably is a slippery fish, never fully graspable. It constantly moves and changes positions with the light and water changing your perception of where the fish actually is.

When you look out the train window wondering if you or they are moving, after the moment of confusion, it becomes clear again. So too after the chaos of the show, hopefully people will find they have somehow engaged with the parts of yoga they needed to, without unduly worrying about the definitive ‘truth’ of yoga.

We live yoga through our actions

Sometimes yoga is about moving your body… and sometimes it is about something else.

Yoga class Nirvanavan Foundation

My yoga class at the Nirvanavan Foundation, Rajasthan

At the start of this year, I went to India to scribe a book for GD, a very experienced and much loved yoga teacher. We set ourselves up in North India, in Rajasthan, the regal land of grand old fortresses and a few carefully guarded wild tigers. I stayed at the central school run by a Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) called the Nirvanavan Foundation. The founder, Nirvan was a swami at the Bihar school of Yoga at the same time as GD. But since 1999 he has dedicated his life to running a surprisingly diverse social change organisation, on virtually no money.

This area, which Nirvan discovered initially as a wandering penniless saddhu (spiritual person) is colourful, complex and challenged in many ways. Whilst steps have been made to represent and empower the traditionally lower castes of India, the hierarchy and individual limitations of this system are still evident. One caste that the schools work with were once known to be wondering entertainers and dancers for the kings and armies. Now a large number of the school girls will become sex workers in the big cities in India and the Middle East. The Nirvanavan Foundation is trying to create change through education and support with healthcare needs of this community. They do this without judgement of what is undoubtedly shocking to some, but has become a normal means of survival for this group.

It is worth noting that some of the people living in this area have large BPL markings on the outside of their small dwellings. This means they are officially classified asbelow the poverty line’ living on less than $2 USD per day and unlikely to be able to afford to eat two meals a day.

The schools are just one aspect of the charity. Nirvan also looks after around ten boys who live at the school permanently, some from difficult family backgrounds, others with their own specific needs such as communication or behavioural challenges. The boys currently sleep in one of the class rooms but it is hoped that enough money can be raised to make them a permanent room to stay in. 

The foundation hosts events to bring together the community including an annual Slum-boys Cricket Tournament and an Art Mela for World Peace and they run the local Childline service which advocates and intervenes for hundreds of children each year. He also champions understanding of environmental damage in the area from the excessive cutting of trees to feed livestock and use of the scarce resources such as water.

Nirvan lives a simple life, reticent to spend anything on himself and always trying to make the little funding they have, stretch to an extraordinary degree. But even with all the goodwill and respect of the community, it is tough to keep it all going. They are sometimes promised Government money, that years later still hasn’t arrive. The impact of Brexit on the value of the pound has also resulted in a significant drop in real terms income for the charity from donors abroad (as the value of the contribution in rupees drops).

I saw only the tiniest fraction of all the work which Nirvan was busily engaged in from first thing in the morning, until late at night. The phone rings almost constantly and some days it is impossible for him to do anything as a stream of visitors arrive unannounced, potential donors or locals in need one way or another, appealing for help. Whatever surprises the day brings, he seems to keep a calm and welcoming demeanour.

The children are the first generation of many families to go to school and it is exciting for them. They were curious about us, the foreigners but they smiled, waved and greeted us without much fuss. Everyday I heard them counting the numbers in English with astonishing gusto and enthusiasm. This new generation who will become young adults with an education, could radically change this area. 

The school I stayed at, Advaita Gardens Children’s Village, is an amazing place. The way the school is run is with a really different ethos from the tradition. Equality is encouraged between boys and girls, who share classrooms in the school but live almost entirely separate lives at home. There is also space on the busy timetable for joy (that is its official title). The children sing, recite poetry and make the beautiful pictures that adorn all the walls of the buildings. They giggle as they show me their yoga sequence and I teach them a few different poses.

I felt quite moved to see the whole school sit in a gigantic circle practising meditation together. They also love to play fiercely competitive cricket with a rotating array of objects used as the stumps – benches, boxes, polystyrene pallets.

There is strength and resilience in the people of this community. But you can also perceive some of the cracks and points of tension. This land is still very rural and wild. Peacocks, leopards, a host of different deer species, wild bulls and a scarce few tigers call this place home. They are however competing for the same resources of food and water, as the villagers.

It is remarkable what the Nirvanavan Foundation has achieved in the last 20 years. There are many stories of individuals whose lives were changed by the organisation. Young people, who were boys living here and supported by Nirvan in the early years, now own businesses and are prospering. But the projects desperately need funding. Money given to this project goes in a really direct manner to benefit this community.

Sometimes when I talk with GD we discuss all the people suffering and struggling in this world. He says you can help who you can help and then you accept that you cannot change it all. This is a place we can and should be helping, so please join with me to donate to them. We need to encourage the astonishing people of this world who operate like Nirvan. The world certainly needs more of the social change he is trying to create.