June 10, 2012

Living Yoga Off The Mat. ~ Helen Sutermeister

The moment I stepped into a Mysore class for the first time will stay with me forever.

I stood there, wide-eyed, watching a sea of bodies moving fluidly between postures, each creating something different to the next. The beautiful, haunting soundtrack of breath, which felt like forty Darth Vaders, struggling with a cold, filled the room.

To say I felt intimidated is an understatement.

How do they know what to do? I thought to myself, thinking about my own disastrous attempts at self-practice.

Before long, out from amongst the moving limbs, my new teacher appeared and motioned for me to sit. I did so awkwardly, as she folded gracefully into lotus.

“So what brings you here?” she asks. I mention that a friend had suggested Ashtanga yoga, as I was looking for something a bit stronger than my regular Hatha class, implying stupidly that I was quite experienced and had been practicing yoga for a long time.

This I regretted immediately, as the corner of my eye caught the sight of a perfectly toned body, on the nearest mat, standing tall with one leg resting behind his head.

My teacher smiled knowingly, seeing my embarrassment. “One step at a time,” she says.

After explaining how the system works, with the occasional “Mary, gaze at your nose” or “Left foot pointed, John,” directed somewhere into the room, I am led to a spot that my barely fits my mat.

“Today, we will work through the Sun Salutations.”

I feel my heart sink.

I know how to do a Sun Salutation, I’m thinking, I want to try to get my leg behind my head like that dude, but I stand at the end of my mat and close my eyes, as she asked.

A moment or two passes and my impatience grows, so I open one eye and look around. I can’t see my teacher but I hear her behind me, from across the room. “Close yours eyes, Helen.” I quickly close my eye. How could she see me?

Soon, she is back. “Patience is one of the greatest lessons we learn in this practice.”

I feel silly but anxious and still impatient.

Over the next forty minutes or so, my new teacher took me through Sun Salutations A and B in more detail than I thought possible. Each posture I held until I understood where each limb, each bone, each part of me should be. I practiced and practiced until my arms were shaking and I was unable to lift myself into upward dog.

The sweat dripping off the end of my nose was mortifying. I had no towel to mop it up, as who expects a waterfall to cascade out of each pore in a yoga class? “Has it been raining?,” my boyfriend asks when I arrive home. The cheek.

Fast forward four years and I am a different person.

I can’t stand with my leg behind my head (yet) but I often practice next to someone who can. Instead of looking on with jealousy and frustration, I feel excitement of what is yet to come.

In my life off the mat, I apply this to seeing others already with the things I am striving so hard for. No envy, only acceptance and admiration.

Every time I practice yoga, I hit moments of difficulty—sometimes even panic—but the practice teaches me to breathe and relax into it.

In life, I aim for the same.

Being upset and frustrated will never make a situation better, so they are pointless emotions. I have learned to keep a clear head and breathe through life’s challenges and I find positive solutions come to me with much more ease.

Every day I learn patience by not forcing my body into postures they aren’t ready for or being frustrated when they don’t come as easily as some.

I transfer this patience into my day-to-day living, by applying it to relationships…namely to my partner, who has a habit of leaving the toilet seat up, which makes for a surprise splash for me in the middle of the night.

I may be in a slow-moving queue or watching someone do something I know I can do faster—instead, I wait patiently or offer genuine help.

But one of the most beautiful things that I learn each morning is that if you truly practice something, dedicate yourself to achieving it, it will happen.

That moment when you lift up or grab hold or balance for the first time is truly magical and you have to fight every sweaty thing in your body not to poke the person next to you and tell them what you just did.

If you’re lucky, you might even get a congratulatory nod from your teacher, who’s keeping an eye from afar.

It’s a moment of giddy excitement, just as finally achieving something in your off-the-mat world, that you have been working on for forever.

Dreams do come true, if you practice, believe, practice, believe.

Thank you Ashtanga.


Helen completed her yoga teacher training four years ago, on the island of Koh Samui. Having a penchant for glorious places, she then opened her own studio in Sydney but now resides in London. Helen is at her happiest travelling the world, meeting new people, being on her mat….and writing about it.


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Editor: Bryonie Wise

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