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“Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape”

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God knows, TEFLing can be awfully hard on the ole physique. Without even getting into the less than state-of-the-art medical facilities one is often forced to rely on, the dramatic change of diet, climate and environment which comes hand in hand with TEFLing abroad for a living can knock your organism for six.

It’s none too gentle on the psyche either, it has to be said. The job often requires an individual to repeatedly subject him or herself to a combination of classic stress factors, such as moving home, changing job, living far from loved ones, financial instability and consequent concerns, and integrating oneself into new cultures on a fairly regular basis. Just one of those challenges is enough to send a person into a tizzy – your average TEFLer abroad deals with the combination of all of them many times throughout his or working life!

So, what to do when the TEFLing has started to take its toll, and you’re feeling a little ragged round the edges?

Yoga might well be the answer.

When East Met West

The precise origins and age of yoga are in themselves subjects for debate, however, charting the introduction and influence of the Eastern philosophy in the West is much easier to do, as it occurred relatively recently, though perhaps not quite as recently as one might think. Long before modern-day rat-race-runners halted in their tracks and turned to the East in their quest for inner peace, Norbin Chunder Pal, a graduate of the Bengal Medical College, published in London A Treatise on the Yoga Philosophy, under the anglicized version of his name, N. C. Paul. The year was 1851.

If you’re struggling to imagine stiff and starched Victorians trying to get into yoga poses, it’s because they didn’t – Paul’s book focused on explaining, from a scientific view-point, the physiological effects of yoga on the human body, including the decidedly spectacular phenomenon of a Punjab yogi’s capacity to ‘suspend life’ and survive a 40-day live burial; the book stimulated theoretical discussion, not actual practice, among its readers, who were, it has to be said, mostly from the press and the scientific community. So, although he may not have been responsible for hoards of New Age Victorian ladies busting out of their whale-boned corsets to salute the sun, he can certainly be accredited with getting the West talking about yoga for the first time.

About forty years later, a swami called Vivekananda made it to the USA and, once there, wowed the audiences at the Chicago World Fair with his exotic robes and turbans, and an undeniable stage-presence, getting a two-minute standing ovation just for his five-word opening: “Sisters and brothers of America!”. He too avoided trying to coax his listeners into tantric poses, but orated his way into their enthusiasm, speaking to them of Hinduism, Buddhism and harmony among religions with such eloquence that the American press nick-named him ‘the Cyclonic Hindoo Monk of India’.

From Treadmill to Transcendental

It wasn’t until the early 1960’s that yoga began to be practiced in the West on any real scale. No longer merely a subject for polite conversation, yoga was launched stateside primarily by an American called Richard Hittleman who’d completed his apprenticeship in India, and who filtered the religious element out of the very spiritual practices he’d learned from his guru, and made it palatable to large numbers of more secular Americans by focusing on the physical benefits to be had.

By the time Swami Satchidananda, sitting on stage at Woodstock, in 1969, had half a million very mellow young people chanting ‘Hari Om’, Westerners had finally got off their horsehair-stuffed armchairs and were able to sit cross-legged on the floor. Not only that, many of them had learned to maneuver their limbs into yoga poses, and some even to meditate. It is rumoured that about half a dozen or so of them even managed to locate their third eye during those halcyon Age of Aquarius days.

During the 1970’s yoga went mainstream, and yoga studios started popping up everywhere, although the general vibe was perhaps more Lycra than cheesecloth. The many benefits of yoga were at last available to those not graced with being born in the shade of an ashram, and, increasingly over the decades, yoga has come to be seen as one of the most effective antidotes to modern, post-industrial societal stress. Even if you never do quite manage to figure out where your third eye is supposed to be, the slow-stretching, non-traumatic postures and positions of yoga can do wonders for those destined to spend their working days hunched tensely over computers.

Yoga: what’s in it for you?

A faster metabolism

Weight loss

Better balance

Improved posture

Improved breathing

Better sleeping patterns

Calms and de-stresses

Protects your joints

What’s not to like? It’s certainly worth giving yoga a bash just in case it turns out to be the answer to your bodily and spiritual issues, though strictly speaking there should be absolutely no bashing going on whatsoever, which is probably one of the main reasons why other less spiritual fitness fads have come and gone, some even revealing themselves to be rather detrimental to the health (remember the jogging craze of the Eighties? Everybody and their eighty-year-old mothers were slipping on lime-green or canary yellow, high-cut, nylon running shorts and pounding the pavements, and, tragically, many of them didn’t live to rue the day they suddenly took up vigorous exercise after a lifetime of sedentary behavior), while yoga has had an enduring appeal over the decades – it’s undeniably gentle on the heart, joints and muscles, as well as being soothing on the psyche.

Hitting the Yoga Mat

Well, perhaps not so much hitting it, as lowering yourself gently on to it.

If you’re keen to get started, ideally, you will want a good yoga instructor to guide you serenely towards inner peace and a more supple and flexible physique. Yoga schools and personal yoga teachers can be found just about everywhere on the planet, though, as always in such things, if you can get a recommendation from a very satisfied and observably chilled-out, loose-jointed client, it’s always better than just walking into some unknown yoga centre which you just happen upon.

What if your TEFL post has taken you well and truly off the beaten track, and there actually is no yoga instructor, much less yoga centre, in the area?

If you take it easy, listen very carefully to your body and to any warning signs it might give out in the form of twinges and overly-taut muscles (a word with a doctor would also be advisable, if you want to be 100% sure that there are no contraindications for you, though the doctors you can now access probably have a very limited idea of your past medical history – still, you might want to try and fill him/her in as best you can so they can advise you), there’s always the Internet.

Not quite the same thing as having your own personal guru lighting candles and incense, and talking you quietly through the process, but the computer monitor does give off a bit of glow to create a smidgeon of an atmosphere, and if you stick to your guns about never, ever pushing yourself further than is totally comfortable, a chirpy, gently encouraging YouTube yoga instructor surely has to be better than sitting on your bum in front of the TV all night – at least to get you started.

Naturally, yoga has a great deal more going for it than mere body postures – the physical aspect is, I am told by an actual yoga instructor, just the preparatory phase for the main event, which is, of course, the meditation. I’m not even going to begin to suggest that YouTube videos will get you lost in transcendental meditation…but you never know…so here are a couple of links to YouTube pages with some videos which might get you started on breathing exercises and meditation techniques. The only real risk with doing these unsupervised is that you might just fall asleep. And since TEFLers can sometimes be a bit sleep deprived, that’s no bad thing.

Even if you are dependent on a video guru, once you get the hang of asanas (yoga positions) and work out an effective routine, you can get yourself outdoors and find yourself a pleasant spot to go through your moves – a beach at dawn or sunset, a desert dune, a grassy meadow or a wood all suit the purpose perfectly.

And who knows, the next job posting might be somewhere that actually has flesh-and-blood yoga instructors. You never know – by the time your current contract runs out, you might be ready to give up the rich and materialistic TEFL lifestyle and run off to join an ashram.

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