Interview with Yoga Teacher and Writer Jilly Shipway
Jilly Shipway is a yoga teacher, writer, and yoga website designer. On her popular Seasonal Yoga and Zodiac Yoga websites she draws inspiration from the Celtic Wheel of the Year, the changing seasons, astrology, and feminism. Jilly is writing a book on Seasonal Yoga and over 2016-17 she will have four Seasonal Yoga feature articles published in the Yoga Magazine.
ON THE PERSONAL SIDE…
What brought you to yoga initially and when did you fall in love with it?
It was love at first sight. Yoga had a really good chat-up line. He was like one of those older guys who seduce naïve young women by promising them the Earth, the Moon, the Sun, and the stars. It was 1972; I was fourteen years old, and a rash of angry, red pimples brought me to yoga. “Yoga for Women”, by Nancy Phelan and Michael Volin, was the first yoga book that I read. It promised me serenity, poise, magnetism, a good complexion, and a slimmer figure if I practiced yoga regularly. They even hinted that some yogis lived forever. Ok immortality sounded good, but what really clinched the deal for me was the promise that practising yoga could make me better looking. Yoga would be my secret weapon in competing with the Botticelli good looks of my best friend at school. It was low self-esteem and high hopes that brought me to yoga initially.
What does your personal practice look like?
The seeds of my present home yoga practice were planted when I was a teenager practicing yoga on an old, woollen blanket on my parent’s bedroom floor (I shared a small bedroom with two siblings and not an inch of floor space was available for yoga). At the time it seemed a real misfortune to me that I wasn’t old enough to go to yoga classes. I had to wait another two years until I was sixteen years old to attend. Now, looking back, I see those two years when I taught myself yoga at home, from books, as a fertile and formative time. Vanda Scaravelli says, in her book Awakening the Spine, that “you have to become your own teacher and your own disciple”. With only books to guide me I reinterpreted yoga for myself and made it my own.
Viewed from the outside in, my experience of yoga is not very glamorous. Over the years it has been much more draughty church halls, than sun drenched beaches in Bali. However, viewed from the inside out, I find my experience of yoga very beautiful. It’s more about Pratyahara than presentation for me. Each morning I get out of bed at about 5.30am and throw on a much-loved, holey T-shirt and leggings, and then do about an hour’s yoga.
As a teenager I would happily do shoulder stand, fish, or plough pose, over and over again until I got it right. I still enjoy that child-like pleasure of attaining a pose, or yoga vinyasa that previously has eluded me. It’s that same joy you felt when as a kid you practiced a handstand up against a wall, over and over, until finally you did it! Erich Schiffmann says that in our yoga practice we should always feel as though we are learning something new; and I do.
Although I have had many good teachers over the years, I am always happiest, a yoga book in hand, teaching myself a new yoga pose or routine. Yoga is something intensely personal to me.
How has your yoga practice changed you?
When I first started practising yoga as a teenager in the 1970s there were “serious” yoga books, mostly written by men for men, and then there were “Health and Beauty” yoga books aimed at women. Recently rereading my copy of “Yoga for Women” I realise that for me yoga in those days was like a bitchy best friend. Yoga was a friend who pointed out all your faults and you only put up with their bullying, because they promised that they could help you to become a better, slimmer, and more attractive person.
Although my initial reasons for taking up yoga were not very worthy (I wanted to be better looking than my best friend at school), the practice of yoga did work its magic upon me, and it did change me. Yoga is still working its magic upon me, but my motivation for doing yoga has changed considerably over the years. Initially, I did yoga for self-improvement, and it was self-loathing that fuelled my yoga practice. Now I do it to cultivate self-acceptance, and my intention is always to steer myself towards self-compassion and kindness. Also, within my teaching I avoid body shaming messages, and encourage students to enjoy their body from the inside out, rather than worrying about their outward appearance.
When I first started yoga I found it almost impossible to relax. During my childhood I was constantly in fight or flight mode, and consequently I can be prone to overwhelming bouts of anxiety. For many years whenever I lay down in Savasana it just seemed to make my anxiety worse. The more I wanted to be relaxed, the more frustrated and unrelaxed I became. So I tended to concentrate more on the physical aspects of yoga. That changed when I came across the Buddhist concept of meditation as simply being a way of being with yourself as you are in the present moment. If difficult emotions arise, you notice where you feel them in your body, and this becomes the “object” of your meditation. This has been transformational for me. Paradoxically, since I’ve stopped “trying” to relax I find that I drop easily into a very deep state of relaxation. Bliss!
Over the years my yoga has morphed from being a bitchy best friend into becoming a tall, proud, magnificent tree that nourishes and sustains me. My yoga tree has roots that go deep down into the soil; it has branches that reach up to the sky; it stands calm and steady through rain, wind, and snow; sunlight dances upon its leaves in the day, and it is bathed in moonlight at night; it breathes in and it breathes out; it is as spacious as the blue sky; and a river runs nearby.
Nowadays I combine my yoga practice with Mindfulness meditation, and in this way everyday my practice is a way of coming home to myself. In my teaching I try to create a safe, sacred space where my students can enjoy that same sense of unfolding and coming home to themselves too.
© Jilly Shipway May 2016