Zephyr Wildman’s Life Secrets
Whether you’re angry or sad, anxious or fearful, drinking too much or eating too little, you need Zephyr Wildman’s life secrets. One of London’s best-loved yoga teachers, with a special interest in addiction and recovery, Zephyr candidly shares her own experience of grief and addiction, explains why we’re all addicts, and lights the path to our lasting happiness.
by LUCY EDGE
Lucy Edge: I know that you’re happy to share the story behind your interest in addiction. You see that as part of your service to the yoga community. So why don’t we start with you telling me where your story begins?
Zephyr Wildman: Well, I really fell in love with yoga when I was 19 or 20 years old, where I hit a physical rock-bottom as well as an emotional and spiritual one, and then I moved to London and I found myself on my mat crying all the time. I found myself experiencing loads of old memories because I didn’t have anything in London to distract myself or to deflect what was going on in my insights because I knew no one here.
I was from Boise, Idaho. I flew over here, kind of ran away from my life, escaped it in a way, but found myself where I landed. Like I said, my late husband was two years in NA and AA – Twelve-Step Fellowship – and he suggested that I find my own. And at that time of trying to cope with unmanageable feelings, thoughts and actions, I started turning to food and overeating, binge-eating. I went to OA, which is a food anonymous group, and someone suggested that I go and try Al Anon. And I tried Al Anon and I related so much to people who were sharing there. At the same time I was doing my yoga practice as well as starting to expose myself to how I was affected by the disease of addiction in my childhood, but also in my current relationship, having a relationship with a recovered addict, alcoholic. I started to take responsibility and accountability for my feelings and my part in how my life was unfolding. I’ve been in recovery as well as practicing yoga and they’ve kind of swam in tandem, like how we incorporate the breath and the mind at the same time – and they’ve complemented each other and shaped each other so it’s hard to take both of them and pull them apart. They kind of enmesh with me.
Six years ago my husband relapsed on drugs and alcohol on tour and he was a musician and he wasn’t as powerful as he thought he was, being stuck on a bus with a bunch of other musicians who were doing drugs and alcohol, and unfortunately relapsed. He was about two and a half years gigging and touring around the world but it became so unmanageable that we put him into a treatment centre.
Thank god I had my yoga practice. I had a strong sense of purpose. I had a strong sense of connection to my spiritual connection to the god of my understanding. I had a very secure family life because we had two children, so I was able to maintain my serenity within my physical practice of yoga and mental practice of yoga but then also my practice of the twelve-steps. After my husband came out of treatment after three months he was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer that had metastasised in his brain, lungs and liver, and they gave him two weeks to live, and it lasted nine months. During that nine months’ time, unfortunately, the clear and sober Adam – who was fresh from recovery – was put on morphine because the cancer was going to cause a lot of pain and they wanted to manage his pain. Unfortunately he died again because the drug addiction caught him. And so I had nine months of dealing with a man who was dying, a man who I had loved, and a man who was the father of my kids. How to do that gracefully? How to do that with the sense of authenticity? Because a lot of the time us yoga teachers are like “heart open, endless body” and all this kind of stuff but there’s no real people actually celebrating the darkness of actually saying, “I’m finding it really difficult.” Navigating that was really intense and thank god I had a recovery and thank god I had my yoga practice and meditation practice.
But I have a practice which I continually use to help navigate me down these difficult trenches, and I have teachers who are very real. I have a strong connection to my teachers, I have a very strong connection to my community, not only the yoga community but also in my Twelve-Step Fellowship community, so I was able to use those in supporting him passing away and supporting my family as they had to learn how to grieve and say goodbye. I really put into practice this stuff and I have to say, on a positive note, I used my practice to burn and to use my suffering as an opportunity to know that I’ve been very affected by my story but not to be defined by it.
I want to still grow and thrive and survive this suffering and find abundance in my life. And so my teacher gave me a practice. Adam had died in January and my teacher gave me a practice in June and by August I had fallen in love with a man who I’ve known since I was twelve, who I’ve always loved. He was a good friend of mine when I was a kid, and he dipped in and out of my life and Adam’s life – we were all friends. I married him and he’s been an amazing dad to the girls and husband to me, and my life has opened up again. When I look back and I think of the trauma and the drama and all that constriction, actually, if I would have held onto the pain and resisted it with “this shouldn’t happen” and “why is this happening to me?”, I would have restricted the ability of life to flow into this prosperous experience. So, I’m really grateful that both my practices have supported me and validated why I continue to practice.
“It’s the practice of letting go”
Lucy: Thank you for sharing that so openly and honestly. I’m sure the rest of the yoga community will join me in thanking you for that and also to say how sorry I am that you had to go through that but how amazingly inspired I am by how you have come through that and created something incredibly positive. Can I just ask about when you were talking about that really awful period of time where he was given two weeks and then he managed another nine months. That must have been so gruelling. How did each day look to you? How did you manage with each day? I’m thinking of people who might be going through that themselves at the moment. How do you cope on a day-to-day basis? Is there anything structurally that people could do?
Zephyr: Well, we practice on the mat, and we practice on the mat with the little things in order to be able to practice on the big things in life. It’s not just mindfulness, of being mindful of the way you move your body, mindful of the way you breathe and mindful of what you’re thinking. Behind it is that sense of lovingly, with kindness and compassion, perceiving and getting used to being in every given moment, even if the pose is really intense and you have strong sense of feelings and distraction, or this kind of very negative inertia of wanting to just implode. It’s a moment-by-moment practice and that sense of taking one moment at a time and using the technique of the teachings in the breath. The inhale drops you into this moment, right here, creating this space for you to abide in. It’s the birth of the breath, it’s the birth of awakening, the birth of being here, now, however you feel, allowing yourself to be as you are. And then there’s the exhale, it’s the practice of letting go; that idea in the Yoga Sutras of abhyasa – the practice – and of vairagya – the letting go. Of your practicing being the letting go of sensory observations and the attachment to storytelling, and it’s the skill of being able to be discerning in what you’re focussing on, and that practice of moment-by-moment awareness helps.
I remember teaching, walking down the streets of London, being in the hospice, being in the chemotherapy room with him, holding my chest because it felt like it physically cracked and it felt like it was going to fall out of my chest. So, yoga was an instinctual way of self-pacifying in the face of a lot of trauma. I have a strong feeling of breathing into it, knowing that the thoughts and the feelings which I’m experiencing – they’re transient. Everything is changeable. What’s unchangeable is that connection to the essence of what I am, and that’s what the practice of yoga, meditation and the twelve steps is leading you to; that spiritual science – not religious – but spiritual science of a relationship of not only body, mind and breath, but relationship to whatever energy is behind that.
If you are Buddhist, you put Buddha nature in your heart; if you are Christian, you put Jesus; if you’re Muslim, you put Allah; if you’re atheist, you put the highest virtue of man. Whatever it is, that sense of loving, kindness and compassion in present-moment awareness, and sometimes you have to fake it to make it. This is like walking down the street, off your mat, you kind of feel like: I don’t feel very loving, I don’t feel very kind, I don’t feel very compassionate, I feel very arrogant, angry, impatient, intolerant, judgmental and self-pitying. But I am aware of that, I’m mindful of that. But more so than being mindful, I am awake and aware not only how I feel and I perceive life, but also how I communicate and use my words. Why am I speaking in such a way? Why am I doing such actions? Why am I entertaining such thoughts?
And there’s the science that yoga provides – having different maps of understanding ourselves. And then the Twelve-Step Fellowship has maps in understanding ourselves, and then that gives us little opportunities for spiritual awakening of who we are behind our experiences, who we are behind our thought projections, who we are behind our karma. So, it’s moment-by-moment. It’s that sense of taking each moment at a time, one day at a time, five minutes at a time. Sometimes I just am like: “God please help me, guide me through this next five minutes. I hand my will and my life over to you.” Because sometimes it’s too overwhelming if I try to do it, but sometimes I hand it over and let go, because I consciously aware that I’m having a strong feeling or reaction. And I learn how to respond by inhaling right here and then I exhale and let go. So that’s my first way of working with strong life situations.
Lucy: Fantastic. I think that would be really helpful in the most intense situation, but even in just to take that time at your desk and to remind yourself that even if you’ve got an email you didn’t want to get, or whatever, it is just about that, the moment, and calling to your higher self or to the God in which you believe to help you through it. I think there’s a very simple idea but just to remind yourself of that you can kind of just come back to your deepest essence and bring forward your best self in that moment is a really good way of thinking about it.
“We are all addicts”
I was very interested in a blog post that you wrote a little while ago where you announced that you yourself was an addict and indeed that actually at some level we are all addicts, whether that’s to drugs or to alcohol or to sugar or even just to the way that we think about things. So just tell me a bit more about what was behind that statement.
Zephyr: Well, neurologically we’re all dopamine addicts and whether we get dopamine from positive behaviour, negative behaviour, desirable actions or undesirable actions, our brain wants dopamine. It can take many forms – going on social media and looking at soft, fluffy kittens, going to YouTube and finding something funny to watch, reading books, shopping, playing the lottery, fantasising… anything that we do to distract us from this moment is usually ego-lead in trying to either attach and grasp and cling to something or avoid having any negative feelings, or any kind of residue of something bad.
And this wheel of earth, life and death, of dukkha – of suffering – is ignorance, or avidya. Clinging to something addictively, chasing something is raga, while vaishya is avoidance, judgement, arrogance of this kind of repulsion and “get it away!“. So there’s the sense that we’re always kind of reacting in one of these ways. Usually, because we don’t spend that much time in the present moment, we don’t really want to be here or either fantasising and reflecting on past or jumping into the future because we find it really difficult to be in our skin, right now.
Delaying gratification’s another really good technique, from the previous question that you gave. Delaying gratification. Your phone buzzes and you know as you’re going to answer it you get an addictive pull, you get this addictive, like, “I’m gonna reach for it,” unconsciously, because it will give me a little hit of dopamine, because it’s a routine that that thing buzzes – whether it’s an email, a text, a social media notification – I’ll get a little hit and I’ll go, “Ooh, that was nice, I’m important.” We do it on all levels. We can do it with food, we can do it with anything. So, neurologically, we are dopamine addicts. And like I said in my story, I reached for food when I was having a huge meltdown in my early life because I was young and that’s what gave me comfort: chocolate, cookies, food, sweets, sugar. It was like easy access to trying to fill this void. But I realised that it was short-lived. It always needed more. And that’s the idea of addiction, is that it gets progressively more and more in some form.
We’re starting to see massive social media and phone addiction – to smart phones – and it’s changing our brain patterns and causing a lot of distress and harm. The people I’ve seen in the treatment centre, more so, nowadays. In the past ten years it’s mainly teenage girls, self-harming with food disorders, reaching for sex. Teenage girls in their teens and twenties, not managing, comparing their insides to everybody else’s outsides, not having the emotional intelligence or the guidance to be able to deal with their feelings, and so they reach for something else that gives a short-term Band-Aid or a plaster. Whether it’s positive or negative behaviour, it gives your dopamine a fix. But it’s short-lived and you progressively then seek more and more of it. There’s this real cycle, neurologically, that we get in this pattern and loop, and once a routine becomes a habit, we can’t break a habit. It’s like, in the example in my blog: once you learn how to ride a bike and then you stop riding a bike and in ten years you get back on the bike, you will know how to ride it because it’s wired so hard in your brain.
So how I dealt with emotional stuff when I was a kid was food. And so the first thing I reached for was like: “I’m feeling emotional, I’m gonna go for food.” And I can still emotionally overeat. But I now know not to give myself a hard time. Now I’m consciously doing it! “But I’m emotionally eating, I’m still justifying eating.” [Laughs]
Lucy: “At least I’m aware of it so it is fine.” [Laughs]
Zephyr: Yes, sure, so yogi! It’s that sense of unconsciously starting to choose, “Is this going to be of long-term benefit?” And this is where with the prefrontal cortex come in; you start to create more balance in your brain by doing yoga and practicing in such a way; and the Twelve-Step Fellowship really gives you a lot of slogans to be able to snap yourself out of ‘stinking-thinking’ and actually – almost like a mantra – pull yourself out.
“It takes a lot to combat that wiring of: “I’m stupid, I’m ugly, I’m fat…”
Slogans, Buddhist slogans, yogic slogans. recovery slogans, are kind of like bumper stickers, you know, you bump into them and they stick on you. That sense that, one negative thought in your brain, it takes five positive thoughts. So we have a negative bias in our brain that wants to go into a lot of self-loathing and reinforcing negative false beliefs. It takes a lot to combat that wiring of: “I’m stupid, I’m ugly, I’m fat, I’m old, I’m not pretty enough, I’m not smart enough,” and we do that cycle and it’s an addictive habit that we self-flagellate, whether it’s because we can’t control things on the outside and so we internalise it, or we act out and it’s everybody else’s fault. “I’m going to continue to blame, judge, criticise, shame, guilt and fear because I don’t want to take accountability for myself or responsibility; it’s everybody else’s fault.”
These practices give us the opportunity to create awareness about our habitual tendencies to addictively either go into chasing previous pleasures or go into avoiding things that we don’t want to look at. And so, as we delay gratification, we have to sit with the uncomfortable feelings and we have to practice sitting with those feelings:
You’re at the dentist surgery and you’re sitting there and you’ve got magazines there, you have your books there, you have your phone. Okay, which one am I gonna choice? Because I don’t want to sit here because I’m about to go to the dentist and it’s gonna hurt, I know it’s gonna hurt, and it’s gonna be loud, and I’m having strong feelings and I’m nervous. Do I reach for something or actually do I sit there and delay the gratification of addictively grabbing something to anaesthetise myself and avoid having to face the dentist soon, or do I sit here and breathe?
And that sense of actually embracing the power of the breath: Where do I feel my feelings? What am I thinking? As I exhale, I let it go, I exhale and let go of that which does not serve me. And then, after a few breaths, do I still want to reach for my phone, reach for a book, reach for a magazine? But I do it consciously instead of unconsciously – it keeps me practicing in moment-by-moment self-awareness.
“A simple way of talking about the neurological looping in the brain”
Lucy: What’s interesting for me also is that it’s just kind of biologically programmed into us and I guess, as a daughter of a scientist, I have this sort of feeling of: ‘if I actually understand where’s it’s coming from in my brain then I can stop blaming myself for feeling it’. I think it would be quite useful if you would just explain the basics of what’s going on when we have that craving and then we’ll realise that it is just part of our biology and we can deal with it; ‘it’s not our fault’, if you like.
Zephyr: There’s a great book by Alex Korb called The Upward Spiral and it offers a simple way of talking about the neurological looping in the brain. We have the prefrontal cortex, which is in the front of the brain. It’s like the CEO of the brain. It makes the conscious decisions. Left to its own devices it likes to worry and go into anxiety-fear patterns and so it thinks about us inside and how we feel and also projecting outside, trying to take care of us. It’s almost like the top of the tower of your mainframe office building. Then the limbic system is the more primitive part of the brain and it sits in the spinal cord and in it is the hippocampus which is our memory – to do with remembering how certain things feel and where we actually take short-term memory and log it into long-term. It communicates quite a lot to the amygdala, and the amygdala is right behind your eye and straight behind your ear so equidistant. It takes sensory observation from the eyes and the ears to actually make sure the environment’s safe. And all of a sudden there’s a loud bang and a crash and our eyes jerk, our ears jerk, and we react quite quickly, which then goes down to the hippocampus which says: I remember those sounds; it reminds that I need to actually keep myself safe, and it sound the alarms at the hypothalamus, which is the military base of the brain, which is always on red-alert. It’s like America. That’s a bad analogy [Laughs]. It’s like “there’s a terrorist attack soon!” and it’s just waiting. It floods the brain with norepinephrine, which is mental adrenaline, and it sends it straight to the pituitary glands, straight to the adrenals, and floods the system with adrenaline and cortisol. And there’s a high-loop pattern and it’s unconscious; a loop that actually kind of starts to wire itself quite well with the prefrontal cortex. And then the space in between – it’s called the striatum. The striatum is not conscious. It’s not interested in long-term consequences. It doesn’t care if you’re trying to change your life. It doesn’t care if you’re trying to improve it in some way. It just wants dopamine.
The dorsal striatum is where we create routines and habits – hence riding a bike – and that wires so strongly in there that we will always remember how to ride a bike. The bottom bit is called the nucleus accumbens – and this is the impulse part of the brain. It loves dopamine. It’s like the party-er of the brain. It loves to rave. Anything that creates impulsivity, it just loves. The problem with this area is that it forms habit that create impulses: ‘Ooh, that’s really nice, that biscuit; hmm, that feels good.’ We need to do that every time we have a strong, anxious feeling. Unfortunately, the prefrontal cortex goes: ‘What? We’re trying to actually lessen our sugar-load so biscuits probably aren’t very good’. The impulse part of brain is like: ‘No! We need sugar; it makes me happy.’ So you start to see how it can progressively get worse and worse because it wants more. When you’re feeling strong feelings, this part of the brain starts to stimulate; it’s craving for more dopamine.
For instance, for an addict who’s trying to get clean:
An addict’s walking down the street and he just had a massive row with his partner. He walks by his bar and the door’s open and there’s laughter coming out of the door and he can smell the smell of the bar and he can hear the clinks of the glasses and a football chant and he’s looking because: “I’m feeling really upset and this is what we always do; we always go and drink.” The prefrontal cortex goes: “No! You’re trying to stay sober. You should try to get yourself to a meeting or call the sponsor.” And this part of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, the party-er’s like: “No! We need to go and drink and party with our friends.” And the dorsal striatum goes: “You know what, whenever we feel sad and upset, this is what we do, this is the routine and this is our habit.” Two out of the three parts of the brain, if you don’t have something in your life that is either equal or greater that will draw you out of that habit, you’re probably going to go into that bar and drink.
There’s a really interesting equation that my teacher gave me and it’s from his book called The Four Desires. It’s from the Upanishads that we all have four desires in our life: Our desire to know our purpose or dharma – to know why we’re here; the desire to have the means and tools to support our purpose; the desire to have relationships, karma, sexuality, sensuality, family, artistic expression through writing and artwork; and then the desire to have spiritual freedom, the sense of freedom, the sense of wholeness.
The intention of your desire plus the energy you put into that has to be greater or equal to your resistance. So, if my desire is to stay clean and sober, I have to put a lot of energy into reinforcing this desire because the resistance is when I get really upset and I feel like my world’s imploding, I really believe the messages in my thoughts and my feelings in my body that life’s not okay and I’m going to go and use what actually made me feel better, and it might not be helpful and it might not be for the long-term benefit of what I’m trying to do. So that sense of practice, remission on a daily basis, is contingent upon your spiritual connection to your sense of what you abide to, because you practice every day on the little things to prepare for the big things, because unfortunately disease, age and death are common for all of us and this is the happy side of the conversation. How do we practice on these little things to be able to manage the big things because my husband didn’t want to relapse? I knew that. In his heart of hearts, he didn’t want to be a drug addict. He didn’t want to die of cancer. That sense that we have necessary suffering and we have unnecessary suffering. How much unnecessary suffering are we loading on this? How much do we desire having fulfilment in our purpose? How much energy do we put in creating structure to be able to fulfil our purpose? How much do we invest in having very intimate loving relationships, not only around us but with ourselves and with the higher power we align ourselves with? How much work do we spend caught in quiet time and contemplative quiet practices finding that taste of what it is like to be beyond our normal condition consciousness?
Then there’s inventory-taking. If we can actually create a formula in which we can create awareness going: ‘Ooh! This is not aligned with my desire. Ooh! okay, I need to put into practice things that keep me safe from my own neurological patterning and actually do things that actually point me closer towards my goal or my aim or my purpose or towards spirit than pointing further away.’
“It’s actually being present with the breath”
And there’s one more equation, and I think this is really essential to actually putting into practice a lot of that theory. The yogis figured out that your thoughts and feelings in yoga, they don’t separate. In the west, we separate thoughts and feelings. And I think, “I’m anxious,” therefore I feel I’m anxious. And it influences my nervous system and my breath pattern. And then I perceive and behave in life, anxiously. Or the opposite: I think I’m depressed, I feel depressed, I feel depressed, I think I’m depressed. It influences my nervous system, it influences my breath, and I behave in such a way that is depressing. So yogis figured out, instead of trying to control your behaviour or try to control your thoughts, pranayama is the best way to influence the breath and the nervous system. “I’m anxious and my breath is up here and I think I’m anxious and I feel anxious and I’m perceiving everything as a threat.” Let go [Exhales]. Practice exhaling. Practice re-grounding, reconnecting and calming the sympathetic nervous system, practices that really lengthen the exhale and get you to drop into your body and that letting-go pattern.
Depression is very tamasic, it’s very dark. What we need here is actually to inhale more. Feel that vitality, feel that sense of being in your body and actually getting that energy and stimulating the hormones that get us to wake up. The breath is probably the most therapeutic way and hence why a lot of my teaching of yoga, as in my practices, are breath-centric. It’s really breath-centric movements and the breath that are the key to starting to find this balance: balancing and harmonising ourselves to be able to support our path, our dharma, our purpose in life. I found that really helpful as a practical tool thats delaying gratification. “Is my breath up here? Am I having anxious thoughts? Is it really rajasic and very vata-imbalanced? Oh! I’m done here, I’m very kapha-imbalanced and I’m really very tamasic. How do I change that?” And usually it’s actually working with the breath. And it’s off-the-mat stuff. It’s not have to do it on my mat – dharma, breath retention and suspension. It’s actually being present with the breath.
Lucy: It could just be standing in queue at the bus stop, at your desk, and you could just start consciously breathing and that would really help. I think that’s a really good way to think about it, that you don’t have to go to a class, you don’t have to allow two hours; that you can just take a couple of minutes to do that.
Zephyr: It helps the prefrontal cortex a lot more in addressing the worry pattern, the anxious pattern, the depressed pattern. Then your prefrontal cortex can make a more conscious decision upon the primitive part of the feeling brain and the addictive, impulsive, behavioural part of the brain that just wants dopamine. And you can get dopamine in other forms rather than old patterns.
“Awareness, acceptance, action”
Lucy: So if somebody wanted to develop a five or a ten minute practice per day that would help them check in with themselves what would you suggest? Would it simply be watching your breath in and out, counting four or five on each inhale or exhale? Or is there something else that they could do, say, alternate nostril-breathing or Kapalabhati (Bellows Breath)? What would you suggest?
Zephyr: I think about the twelve steps – the first is about self-awareness. It’s about the sense of actually stopping, delaying gratification, and being in the moment and taking your own inventory. What is unmanageable in your thoughts, your feelings and your actions right now, and where are you feeling it in your body? Because a lot of the time we get it here [throat], we get it here [chest], we get it here [abdomen], and these are the physical, pyscho, emotional knots that lay over the chakra system. Maslow’s hierarchy is up here too. But there’s this sense of actually taking ownership and accountability, going: “My racing thoughts I just feel here [head]” and “I feel this contraction here [chest]” or “I feel butterflies in my tummy” or “I feel a contraction in my throat” or “I feel fogginess in my brain.” This using language to actually be your own parent, of raising your awareness; and then the process of not only the twelve steps of the fellowship but also yoga; both say this is not a programme for self-improvement, this is a practice for self-acceptance. Ultimately, it is to accept yourself as you are and allow yourself to be as you are. Your feelings of anger, your feelings of intolerance, impatience, of arrogance, of judgement, of sadness, of worry, of fear, of disgust… they’re okay. You’re human. You’re meant to feel this undesirable feelings, the essence of emotion.
Acting out, on the other hand, is not desirable because it creates this karmic backlog. Self-observation comes from the Vedic system as well. And then you go into self- acceptance, this self-acceptance of, “I see myself, I understand myself” and this sense of self-awareness, self-understanding, self-knowledge, of understanding: “I’m asking myself what is going on in my mind and in my body. Where’s my breath now? Okay, I accept that I’m finding it really difficult right now and my life is unmanageable. My thoughts, my feelings, my actions are unmanageable. What am I trying to be powerful over? I’m trying to be powerful for an outcome. Why? Because I want to feel safe, I want to feel loved, I want to feel valid, I want to be seen, I want to feel heard, I want to feel important.”
So we start to go, okay, we’re trading avidya, that ignorance, and we’re starting to shed light on vidya, so we’re able to see. So we have a choice in the way in which we then move forward. And that sense of going forward, we have more skill in action – awareness, acceptance, action. I’m aware that I’m stuck in traffic; I don’t accept it. Get out of my way! Honk! Honk! Honk! I arrive at my destination [angry noises]. There’s all of a sudden my action is a mean and intolerant mood because I couldn’t control traffic. I’m aware I’m stuck in traffic. Well, I can’t do anything about it. What can I do to actually calm myself down and maybe next time I’ll make a better choice of leaving earlier, maybe not this route. So I Iog it in and I arrive at my destination, apologise that I don’t get here on time and I’ll try to make an effort to be on time next time. I can then crack on with my day. So there’s this sense of the Upanishads, of the seventh way of transforming our consciousness. I have to go through that, it’s long [Laughs].
Zephyr: Awareness, acceptance, action. I’m aware and I accept and then I have better skill and action. The acceptance part is really hard for us because, you know, we in yoga and we who are drawn to the Twelve-Step Fellowship want to control everything and we want to bypass feelings and we’re trying to allow ourselves to change. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. But as soon as we see unmanageable thoughts, feelings and actions, and then take an inventory of “What am I trying to be powerful over?”, then we go into “What can I do to restore me to sanity? What do I do next? I go to a yoga class, I go and call a friend who I can reason this out with, I speak to a therapist, I go for a swim, I go for a walk, I sit here and breathe consciously for five minutes.” And then there’s this experience of handing your will and your life over to this new way of behaving, more positive way of behaving, rather than the old patterns that we tend to do to kind of anaesthetise ourselves, or addictively fill this void because we don’t want to feel what we’re feeling.
And then from that, then we have there’s more opportunity for a loving reflection, and going: “Am I resenting someone? Am I resenting something? What is it about me and my defects of character, my shortcomings that is creating this situation?” And so you take your responsibility for your stuff. And then you start to practice this. And as you practice this on the mat and in your daily life, you start to really realise [that] certain patterns of behaving, thinking, feeling that don’t serve you any longer. And this is the heat, the tapas. We practice tapas. This is from the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, the last of the niyamas. Tapas are practices that create some heat. We need the heat, we need practice. We need something to rough up like sandpaper. That yoga pose that really we hate – we need to learn how to not define ourselves by our struggle but learn how to actually move with grace in it, and how to let go, and be accepting ourselves in it, whether we’re trying to run off in fantasy and thought [or] whether we’re trying to project anger out on the yoga teacher. But we sit with just one breath at a time and then from that we become entirely ready to have these patterns, these defects, these shortcomings, these qualities of our characters, these attributes that we hold on to. We release them. And then from that release we have this sense of humility, that we align ourselves to the smaller ego that is quite big. Our ego gets it distorted in this kind of I’m more than; I’m less than; I’m the greatest yogi in the room because I can do a handstand; I’m the worst yogi in the room because I can’t do the handstand. And we get this distorted sense of self and get captured by the kleshas in this sense of ahamkara – egotism – and then we practice and we dissolve the kind of attachment to how we define ourselves and we get more quality of what it feels like to be in ourselves, abiding in ourselves, as ourselves, without that sense of craving or repulsion and blinded ignorance, and we’re here, just being. And from that quality then we get to just practice. We take it into our next experience and we take it in. But it’s a remission on a daily basis, contingent upon that spiritual connection. And that’s why I love Georg Feuerstein. He’s an author who’s passed away. He put the definition of yoga really simply: yoga is the art and science of disciplining your body, mind and breath. Yoga is the art. It’s a creative expression of whatever you find in yourself: angry, in love and passionate, lost and confused. Your yoga practice, whether you’re finding yourself, is this creative expression, but it’s a science, depending on your dosha imbalance, depending on your guna imbalance, depending on where you are as your age. It’s a science that benefits us, but individually. It’s a spiritual science because it actually creates this weaving of the science behind the spirit and whatever’s behind quantum physics, whatever it is. But it’s a discipline. It means a practice of body, mind and breath; this body, mind and breath; this relationship. Yoga is the relationship. It’s not that yoga’s bringing things together, yoga is the act of things already be brought together to create this stillness, this quietude, this kernel of consciousness that is awake, serene, quiet, content, peaceful. And so these practices point towards that experience of what is behind, whether it’s twelve-step, whether it’s yoga. It’s almost like banks on a river, drawing us forward on our path because sometimes if we don’t have that intention or those practices to guide us it just feels so overwhelming and we need those practices to refine our state of consciousness so we can actually manifest our desires, those four desires that I was talking about.
Lucy: I love it. You make me want to be a better human being. [Laughs]
Zephyr: I’m still practicing!
Zephyr: I have kids, I have a car, I have students. I’m practicing. So, I’m no better.
“Look at the source of your suffering”
Lucy: It’s still a work in progress, isn’t it? Just thinking about the year ahead as we turn our attentions to how we want to be, I think it’s always very tempting to start the new year thinking: Okay, I am going to be the new me, I’m going to be this whole different person, everything is going to be different, I’m going to be so much more this, that and the other. Thinking about what you’ve learnt from your own experience with your late husband and what you know about recovery in general, what would you say about how we transition as we move forward? How do we reconcile our sometimes juicy past with our current situation and how we want to project ourselves into the future?
Zephyr: Well, a lot of it is resolve. A lot of people put resolutions: I desire this and I want it. But it’s also resolving something that keeps us in this kind of old pattern. You know: This year my resolution is to get married, find a husband and get married. My resolution is to stop drinking so much. My resolution’s to decrease sugar. All these, you know, intentions. But, like I said, if you haven’t resolved your resistance, your karma, and you actually haven’t looked at the root of why you continue to suffer, then no amount of you trying to put a shiny plaster over something that brings you heartache or habitual dependency is going to actually resolve that. So it’s actually welcoming that self-reflection and welcoming the darkness, looking at your dark side, your shadow side. In yoga we call it a vikalpa, and there’s sankalpa. Sankalpa is your affirmation to a point where it’s specific to an aim/goal and fulfilling a purpose. Whereas the vikalpa is the old patterns which pull you back into the negative habitual tendencies – the little speed bumps in our lives.
Decreasing stimulation helps, like delaying gratification… trying to find ways of becoming less distracted, being very clear with what you need to resolve; this idea of looking at your past and looking at the core-root of why you’re suffering. And a lot of it is, is through the Twelve-Step Fellowship, we do a fearless moral inventory of ourselves. We actually call up all our resentments, everything you resent, but it has to be fearless moral inventory. Fearless means there’s no fear, there’s no anger, there’s no judgement. It’s this sense of going: Yeah, I’m really resentful towards my dad, I’m really resentful towards my mum, I’m resentful towards work, I’m really resentful towards this. And then, starting to actually look at those resentments and then looking at how this affected you [and] what were the causes of that resentment. And then, looking at your part and going: Well, when that resentment happened, what was it in you – your shadow side – that reacted in such a way? And what would you do differently next time? I find that it’s almost like a resentment in the present day life, right here. It’s like a bead on a string and then there’s another bead and then there’s another bead and there’s another bead and it goes all the way down to the root of the bead; and the root is something in our childhood or even karma, whatever it is, genetically. But usually it’s in our childhood, this root. And you tug this string and it opens this bead that all of a sudden opened that bead and that bead and that bead and that bead. So, this is where the work with trauma comes up – where every time this one resentment gets pulled it opens up all these other feelings that are linked with all these other situations. The same neural pathways of saying, if you’re in love with your partner and you’re like: Oh, my partner’s so lovely and all I can think about is lovely things about my partner, as soon as they piss you off, all of a sudden all these programmes open up on your software, all these files of everything that’s pissed you off about them [mimics machine whirring noises] and you remember all these resentments, and even resentments that are nothing to do with the situation, it’s to do with the old stuff. And so that’s where our negative bias is so strong; one negative thought fights ten positive thoughts. Jeez!
“Train the brain to not go into negative bias”
So when that negative bias opens up, it opens up all these other threads. So looking at the source of your suffering. This comes from the four noble truths, that life is suffering, due to our own hands, that we create our own suffering; due to other people who inflict suffering, and natural causes – earthquakes and storms. Life is suffering. But life is also suffering because of birth, death, but also change: illness, disease… So we start to understand the origins of the suffering. That’s the second noble truth: understanding the origin of your suffering. And that sense of embracing your suffering, that acceptance that life is suffering and you embrace it and you appreciate; you have awareness around the origin or the root of your suffering and then you make a plan. You make a plan whenever these strong thoughts or feelings or resentments or this suffering comes up.
When I was twenty, my sponsor, my mentor, gave me an English mantra to do every time I thought a negative thought. When I was in my twenties I started thinking about suicide again. I attempted it when I was a teenager and I started having thoughts again. I was really depressed and my thoughts would go into self-attacking, that I’m stupid, I’m ugly, I’m not enough; and my sponsor said: “Zeph, I want you to say ‘I love you Zephyr’ every time you think that.” A little sick came in my mouth. I’m like: “That is so naff, I don’t want to do that, that’s horrible.” She was like: “Good, it makes you rebel like that. That’s good.” But do you know what, it took me four years to believe it. And I’d walk down the street and I’d have like this random thought [and] I’d be like: “I love you Zephyr, I love you Zephyr, I love you, I love you, I love you.” And I would have to say it over and over and over again until it was gone and I could breathe through it and I’d drop myself in the moment. And that sense of becoming less distracted and just being present instead of constantly unconsciously or consciously going out of myself and thinking something can fill that void is that mantra practice – whether in English, your own language or Sanskrit – really helps train the brain to not go into that negative bias. And then from that I do that awareness: What am I thinking? Okay, where is it in my body? And now, what am I trying to be powerful over? People, places and things? What do I want? I want to feel aligned to my purpose? What is my purpose today? I don’t feel like I have a purpose. Or, I’m financially scared, I feel like I’m not going to be able to sustain my life. Oh. I don’t feel lovable today, I don’t feel loved and I don’t feel like I can love anybody. Oh. I don’t feel spiritually connected to anything, I feel like I’m all alone, I feel completely empty. Oh. What do I do now that would best serve to nurture me? Well, I can ring a friend who will lovingly hear me; I will go to a meeting; I’ll go to a yoga practice; I’ll do something different than my normal thing to find that ability – that practice – to handing my will and my life over to something greater than myself. And align me to that to find that sense of serenity and sanity and that quietude and that peace.
Sometimes it works immediately; sometimes I have to practice a lot over a few days. But that sense of living with clarity and sensitivity, I have less drama in my life, I resolve things quicker, I manifest things more, I am able to see things a lot, and relate and love people a lot more. So it’s an interesting way of just being, of living, living this yoga off our mats. But we have to practice and our mats are kind of a brilliant container in which the serenity prayer works brilliantly. I always see my yoga mat. I’m powerless over everything outside my yoga mat but I’m powerful of everything on the inside of this yoga mat: grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
I can’t change if my girls are going to die today. I could try to protect that and be there and hand-hold them all day long, because I have that reality that people die in my life. Am I going to go and try to walk them to school or hold their hands and prevent them dying? It’s going to cause me so much unmanageability in my life. I can’t control my husband dying, I can’t control politically what’s going on in the world, I can’t control what’s going to happen around Brexit and my clients leaving London. But what I have control over is myself, the way that I think, the way that I feel, and the way that I find resolve, and so, there’s that sense of constantly taking that opportunity of responsibility and accountability.
“Welcome that dark side”
With regards to the new year’s resolution, if you don’t resolve your dark stuff and shadow side, there’s no way that you’re going to be able to manifest the things that you desire in life so the brilliant thing about doing these practices, to have resolve or create a resolution or an intention for the next year, is welcome that dark side. It’s like the Bhagavad Gita, you know, the battlefield. There’s this relationship between aligning yourself to your purpose in life and then, even if it’s going to be painful and you’re going to be at the wars, at least you do your dharma imperfectly and you do yours rather than trying to be someone else perfectly. And that sense of really practicing in your life is the ultimate practice, you know, to sit in meditation and look.
Actually, my yoga practice is interacting with my kids, dealing with London life, dealing with students who are disrespectful, like this morning – where this student walked across other people’s yoga mats. I was just like judging, judging, judging, intolerant, intolerant, intolerant and I just had to smile and breathe into it and go Wow, that was a strong feeling. And I find my way back to centre and see that they’re just acting without awareness; they don’t realise.
“A faith-filled, fearless awakened life”
Forming an intention is key. I’ll share with you guys that I made last year an intention and I did a new year’s workshop on it and I’ve threaded it through my life and my life this year has be so full and abundant. If you want, I can share this with you guys?
Zephyr: I hope to remember it. I’ve been saying it so often now. My intention, is:
That we bravely face every day honouring ourselves, seeking joy, love, connection and contentment; ultimately celebrating a faith-filled, fearless awakened life; that we go into every experience fearlessly connecting to our unique power and experience wisdom with quiet confidence, self-belief and intimately sharing the beauty of ourselves; that we do these practices to open ourselves to receive the teachings of light and knowledge within us, as us, that works with us, to wake us up to its presence in everything.
And that’s why I practice. To have a faith-filled, fearless awakened life, because it’s so short. Next week I’m going to a memorial of a woman who passed away with brain cancer in her early thirties. I had another client last week die of a heart attack. Life happens and it’s very short and this is a gift. And if we get really bogged down in very mundane and petty little things and we can’t celebrate and see the gratitude. We need to shift our consciousness. We need a kind of evolutionary upgrade and practice that wakes us up to this reality that this is as good as it gets. My husband said that to me on his deathbed and I was crying and I was angry and I was just so pissed off. He was lying there and he looked like a holocaust victim, he was so skinny, and the terrible smell. And he goes: “Zeph, chill out. This is as good as it gets for me.” And I looked at him and he goes: “This is as good as it gets for both of us right now.” And I realised in that moment that he only had this moment with me and I was choosing to entertain my anger, entertain my grief and sadness. I almost lost that moment when I had a clear connection with him, because he was transitioning into the unknown. There was a beautiful moment that has changed my life. My husband, he was at the last part of his life, he got really scared because his comment was: “Zephyr, the angels are coming, the angels are coming, they tried to get me last night.” I was like: “What are you talking about?” He’s like: “Look at all the feathers outside the door.” And outside the terrace they’d be all these [feathers and] I’m like: “Those are pigeon feathers, honey.” He’s like: “No, they’re the angels, I can sense them, they’re here.” He was really frightened. Then he flipped into a drug-induced coma and you can tell that it was like five days into this coma and it was so painful watching him because he just wouldn’t let go. I said: “Ads, maybe there’s nothing on the other side but if there is something on the other side, just let go.” And it was beautiful. Right at that moment he took his last exhale. And the cycle of the breath: our inhale is the birth of life and our exhale is the letting go. And so within our own experience, every moment we get the opportunity to breathe it in. We breathe in the gratitude of what we have here right now. And we live with our hand open so we don’t cling on it, we don’t wish it away, we hold with the sense of curiosity of spirit and wonderment of life itself. And that as we exhale we become willing to let it go.
We’re all going to face loved ones dying. We’re going to face aging in ourselves and other people around us, and disease. And that’s practicing, with this sensitivity of the reality that we all have to lean towards, and this gratitude and celebration of a fearless, faith-filled and awakened life. And that’s my resolution, or resolve, of resolving all the petty stuff that block us from perceiving life as it truly is.
So I tried to use my story to wake people up. It’s not just to be mindful, it’s to be awakeful, awareful, and to live with this sense of authenticity that we have a unique insight into life. I’m not trying to be Yogarupa Rod Stryker, I’m not trying to be Doug Keller, I’m not trying to be Richard Freeman, those three being my teachers. I’m being me. I have unique experience and insight but I need a teacher or teachers to help guide me in the way to navigate, to give me the practices that lean me towards that sense of fulfilment in life.
Lucy: I feel quite emotional. I’m dealing with quite a lot of death in my own family at the moment so what you’ve said has really touched and helped me to see how I could work with what I have to face in these next few months with more courage and with that sense of deep faith and acceptance of what is, so thank you.
“We heal through relationships”
Zephyr: I would just say, on that note, that we heal and go through life in relationships. That Brene Brown has done an amazing service. In her book called Gifts of Imperfection she highlights that where we’re working with shame and vulnerability, we need to be courageous in being vulnerable, but also, find a community which will mirror that and hold us with compassion.
That you and I relating is that I experienced death and you are going through it and that we can actually help each other and inspire each other by, not just having a bitch and moan like a session of grief-Olympics, but it’s more about feeling heard, seen and validated of going: “Yeah, it’s dark down here.” How can we inspire each other? The techniques? We heal through relationships and that’s why going to a yoga class sometimes feels amazing because you’re not doing it alone. When I was going through my grief, and I’m sure you’re feeling like this too, you need to be around the living, around joyous people, around laughter. That heals sadness, that grief. And so do being around things, listening to audio books, reading books that inspire, going to workshops that expand your consciousness, doing things that support you down this path – practices in all forms. We heal through relationship and it’s through finding people in our lives that we’re able to feel, heard, seen and validated.
Practicing with Zephyr
Lucy: Where can people find you, thinking about what you’re doing in the next few months? Where can people come and find you to be with you, to practice with you, in general? And then perhaps in particular if they’re facing any issues around addiction and dependency and recovery?
Zephyr: I teach at The Life Centre in Notting Hill. I have five public classes there. I teach at triyoga in Ealing on a Saturday morning. I have two classes: a vinyasa class and a meditation class there. I’m doing workshops through both centres in the new year. Triyoga have given me a four-day workshop in April and May, on Sundays, on working with the twelve steps, working with recovery, but also working with the science behind yoga and showing different maps to actually learn how to put into practice some of these little techniques that we’ve discussed today. And The Life Centre, I have a few workshops coming up, and through Yogacampus as well in the new year. I also do retreats and I have about six retreats that you can find on my website at www.zephyryoga.com. Going on holiday, I have more of an intimate, longer experience of helping people, prescribing certain things for people to do. Also, on Movement For Modern Life, there’s a thirty-day transformation series where I explain little three to five minute preambles of the yogic philosophy and psychology and then put it into practice, so that’s also a really good platform on which to study with me.
Lucy: And you’re doing some work with Fearne Cotton as well, aren’t you?
Zephyr: Yes, I was so touched because I’ve been practicing and teaching her for years and my late husband was a musician and he was really good friends with her husband, Jesse, and his father Ronnie, and so I got the opportunity of meeting Fearne and she was such a natural yogi and she was interested but she was more of a gym buddy and we practiced together through her pregnancies and worked through some turmoil. And the year that she was writing her book Happy she allowed me a little chapter where I collaborated on yoga asana and breathing techniques. Her book is a really nice way of looking at different tools to maybe open your way of managing and putting into practice some things that might complement dealing with either anxiety or depression. I’m doing a blogger’s event at triyoga and she and I are going to collaborate on that so I’m really excited about that as well.
Lucy: Fantastic. So there are plenty of ways that people can connect to you.
Zephyr: She’s doing a podcast on the Happiness Project. It’s in January, it’s going to be launched, but she’ll have a podcast and she’s interviewed tons of celebrities, and me not being a celebrity, but I’m in there and I’m really excited to share my stories and path again to a wider audience. Hopefully, just inspiring people to try different things and to help raise awareness around mental health. The treatment centre that I consult for – The Recovery Centre, it’s in Knightsbridge, it’s a private treatment centre – but there’s loads of different treatment centres out there so it about finding one that works for you. Adam went finally to one in South Africa called Oasis and that treatment centre we had a lot of success with. And most treatment centres, as well as schools, start integrating yoga in the process of recovery so I think both go hand in hand. If you want to change your psychology, you change your physiology and so that sense of mind body connection – working with the body and breath – is key.
Lucy: Thank you very much Zephyr. You’ve been a true inspiration and you’ve certainly touched me and I know that you will do the same for anybody who’s watching this. Thank you for all of your wisdom, your love and your courage, and for sharing it with us so honestly and openly. Thank you, Zephyr.
Zephyr: Thank you.
Zephyr Wildman is one of London’s best-known and best-loved yoga teachers. In between raising two beautiful children she teaches at triyoga and at The Life Centre. She’s on the Yogacampus [Yoga] Teacher Training faculty, works with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and also at The Recovery Centre, a treatment centre for addiction, depression and other dependency problems. Find her at zephyryoga.com.
Lucy Edge is a yoga advocate, a champion of yogi makers and creators, and the founder of yogaclicks.store. She is also the author of three yoga-themed books including the bestselling travel memoir Yoga School Dropout and her first novel Down Dog Billionaire.