The conditions for unconditional love


I’ve been thinking about love a lot lately. My sister is getting married this weekend, and I am going to be her witness, and sign my name on a document officially declaring her and Arek husband and wife (or the other way round, as the case may be). And this makes me feel happy and grateful and proud and a little in awe. But, my own role in this event aside, my bearing witness, both officially and unofficially, to what is truly and unequivocally an excellent thing, I cannot help but question the purpose of such declarations. Weddings, marriages, and their necessity in connection to love.

My sister and I are not wedding people. In fact, the mere mention of the topic as it relates to our own lives is likely to cause, in both of us, an almost phobic reaction. In addition to this, we share a – partly justifiable – mistrust of marriage itself, as exemplified by our parents and society at large. The phonecall in which she announced to me the fact of her engagement could be described, without exaggeration, as one of the happiest and most awkward conversations two people have ever had. We have never talked about weddings; we have never fantasised, as other girls, of dresses and engagement rings. This was a foreign land, full of dragons and booby traps, and we circumnavigated these terrors as best we could, to arrive, clumsily, at a mutual conclusion of joy. We weren’t trying to be obscure, or unconventional; we just don’t have the vocabulary for this sort of thing. None of us really do.

And yet we try. We try, with words, to explain why people get married, to define a marriage, to express love. To capture its essence, to measure it, quantify it, evaluate it – demystify it, perhaps, to make it more manageable, more attainable. We are, as a society, entirely preoccupied with love, endlessly producing quotes, metaphors, clichés and contradictions. They’re in our art and our literature, our everyday conversations, our highbrow theories and our pop songs. And, regardless of whether we subscribe to fairytale endings or take the cynical view and reject love and marriage outright, in our moments of elation and of pain we all drunkenly sing along.

And if you turn to Eastern philosophies in search of a more sober perspective, as I have, it gets even more confusing. The teachings of Buddhism encourage loving kindness and compassion, yet discourage attachment, while Buddhist monks are happy to bless a union that is basically a marriage by another name. The Buddha is quoted as having said: “He who loves fifty people has fifty woes; he who loves no one has no woes.” And I don’t understand whether this is a warning or simply a statement of fact; whether those woes are to be avoided, or accepted – welcomed, even – as a part of love.

It is then suggested that we should love, but love all creatures equally. And I don’t think that’s possible, sustainable or even desirable. I can see the virtue in approaching each person and each situation with love; it takes practice, but it can be done, and I call that kindness. But to enact love, to love, as a verb, is a different thing entirely and I, for one, cannot produce that level of emotion for everyone I meet.

And further: love, in its truest, purest form, should be unconditional. And sometimes it is. But the reason it became love, the reason it grew into love is because certain conditions were in place when it began. Conditions as in circumstances rather than terms, but conditions, nonetheless. Does this negate its unconditional nature, retroactively, once it reaches that stage? Perhaps I’m taking things too literally, and this is just another case of our vocabulary letting us down, but it seems to me that for all their dogma, these philosophies are placing conditions on who and how I love.

But love is not possession: this one I can live with. Yet I have lain in a man’s arms and felt, with my whole, entire self: “I am yours. You are mine.” And it has nothing to do with ownership, but with the fact that something in the way this universe moves has brought us together and that’s exactly where we should be. A place where all the definitions of love cease to matter. But when I try to explain it, these are the words that come out. They’re the only words I have.

But what does all of this say about marriage? Does a wedding validate a love? Is placing a ring on someone’s finger a declaration of ownership? Is it, as Beyonce suggests in the eloquent lyric “If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it”, all about staking a claim? I think in many cases, in many marriages, it is. I may find the notion of ownership incompatible with my understanding of love, but to many people, the idea of belonging to someone, of someone belonging to them, is an arrival, a homecoming – it’s where they want to be. Just like I want to be in that place of stillness and certainty that I have found lying next to a man I love, and most marriages are lands I never want to visit.

But there are other marriages. Ones where love needs no validation. Where commitment transcends the signing of papers, if papers have been signed at all. It depends on where you place yourself in this equation. You can stand next to someone, or you can follow them, or you can lead the way. You can stand next to someone and place a ring on your own finger, not a promise to anyone else, but a symbol for yourself, for how you feel. You can get married, or you can marry; you can be a passive or an active part of the grammar that makes up your relationship. You can have a marriage where nobody belongs to anybody else but perhaps, if you’re lucky, you belong together. And you can hold their hand, but loosely; if they want to go away, they will, no matter how tightly you grip.

Words, grammar, syntax. Xs and Ys and the mathematical formulas that bring them together. The laws of physics, the laws of nature. Symbols and signatures, rings and vows and altars. Faith, fate, god and endless theories. We summon all these things to try and explain the inexplicable, to express something that defies expression, as elusive as it is ever-present, as abstract as it is tangible, as extraordinary as it is commonplace; something that slips through your fingers like your lover’s hand when you squeeze too tight, but will happily settle in your open palm if you know enough to hold it out, and wait. And it’s the human condition that we keep trying, that we will always keep trying, because if there ever comes a day when we stop trying, it will mean we have captured something that shouldn’t be caught, demystified the mystery that keeps our lives in motion. And that, I think, will be the day that everything stops. That will be the day when saying the words “I love you” will express exactly what we mean, and I cannot think of anything sadder than that.

There is no such thing as a universal marriage, just as there’s no universal definition of love. Those are choices we make, each of us, for ourselves, and saying you don’t believe in marriage is not an ideology, it’s a cop out. Love no one. Have no woes.

I still think my sister is very brave, and there’ll be dragons to slay (or approach with love, and convert to household pets), but I’m not worried. I have every reason to believe that she and Arek will have one of those other marriages, the ones that don’t make me want to run away screaming. I think they have it already. Because neither of them is getting married: both are marrying the person they love. Because, at times when I’ve lost my faith, I’ve looked to them and seen that they have built their life in that same place of stillness and certainty, and though they may wander off sometimes, they always know how to get back. Because they’ve shown me that big love doesn’t necessarily equal big drama, and when you’re faced with it, you might no longer need to put it into words.

But words are sometimes all we have, and mine are all I have to give. So this is dedicated to them: in hope, in admiration, and in love. Not equal, but as unconditional as it comes.


Taken from This Reluctant Yogi: everyday adventures in the yoga world. View it on Amazon, or join my readers’ list and get an e-book copy for free.

Not #yogaeverydamnday

This has been building up for a while, and I can contain it no longer: I really resent the #yogaeverydamnday hashtag. I don’t know why it riles me up me as much as it does, but I’ve properly taken against it. It hits a special nerve in my head, the one that sets off my neon BULLSHIT sign, and it flashes on and off and sounds a loud alert and I just can’t make out anything good about it through the din. It’s irrational, and probably very unyogic of me; every time I come across it, it gives me feelings akin to rage and rage, as all good yogis know, has no place in the #theyogaworld. If I were a good yogi, I should have the grace to namaste this thing with a respectful bow of my head and wish it well on its travels through a million facebook, twitter and instagram feeds, but I can’t. Because: why?

I confessed this resentment to my sister. Tentatively, because I know she’s used the offending hashtag more than once. She was very diplomatic.
    ‘Oh,’ she said, and cleared her throat. ‘You know it was started by Rachel Brathen?’
    I didn’t. I didn’t know who that was.
    ‘Look her up,’ she said. And I did, and she seems like a lovely person. And many others who use her hashtag in their posts, they’re lovely people too; I know, because I’ve met them. They’re my sister; they’re my friends. But still – why?

Why every damn day? What bothers me about it is everything. The intention is good, I’ve no doubt. And I can tell this is meant to be bold, empowering, motivating – but all that filters through to me is compulsion. And yoga: I don’t think it should be practised compulsively. I don’t think it can. I don’t think it’s even yoga if it’s compulsive because where is the mind in that? Where is the heart? Where is the soul? It might be exercise, this thing that you do, compulsively, every damn day, but not yoga; not as I understand it. But I may have misunderstood. There are lots of things in #theyogaworld that I don’t understand.
    I might be taking this the wrong way, but it feels wrong. It feels like an imposition and I don’t want anything – not even yoga, especially not yoga – imposed on me, on any day. It’s a statement when yoga, in my mind, is an understated practice. It’s a label, and labels divide as much as they unite. Slap that hashtag on anything, and you’re immediately creating separation between those who practice #yogaeverydamnday and those who don’t. And the good yogi scales tip on the side of the former. And now, all of a sudden, you don’t have yoga: you have competition.
    And that word, damn. It has me fizzling with frustration. What is it doing there? It has no power. It implies a defiance that’s completely unnecessary, a challenge where no resistance has been offered. It’s like putting obstacles in your own path, just so you can kick them out of the way. But nobody’s stopping you from doing yoga every day, if that’s what you want; there is absolutely no need to be defiant, and with such an impotent word. Because I suspect the intention here is to emphasise, to use the shock value of a swearword to reinforce a point, but damn just doesn’t do it. As swearwords go, it’s emphatically tame. No one but the deeply religious – for whom damnation actually means something – ever flinches at using that word. To the religious, it’s offensive; to the rest of us, it’s just one adjective too many. And if there’s an element, too, of “Hey, look, I’m a yogi and I use bad words!”, well: I’m a yogi, and I’m not fucking impressed. And if that makes you flinch, perhaps it’s time to worry less about shock value and more about the values by which you live your life. Perhaps it’s time to rethink your hashtags.

Yoga every day: it’s a wonderful thing. It would make for a better world if we all made yoga a daily practice. But it isn’t about hashtags, and it’s not even about how much time you spend on your mat. There are days when I do yoga. There are days when I don’t. There are days when I wake up longing to do yoga, aching for it, and days when it doesn’t even cross my mind. There are days when I think about doing yoga and then don’t, and days when I just throw my mat on the floor and do it. There are days when I need to be talked into it and days when standing in tree pose just makes perfect sense. I don’t do #yogaeverydamnday but it’s my daily practice, because: grace. I think grace is what it’s all about. It’s what yoga teaches us, and it’s in the way we carry ourselves through each of our days, in how we conduct ourselves in this world, not #theyogaworld but out here, outside of the hashtags. It’s about bringing that grace we’ve been taught into our lives, passing it on to those who cross our paths, without obstacles, challenges or resistance, without defiance or statements or superfluous words. Without any need to make a point, because grace has a way of making itself known, without labels or introductions, and it cannot be mistaken for anything else. Out here, where we’re all doing the best we can, if we make grace the value we live by, that’s the very best that we can do.


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Shanti om, bowel.

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Did you know that it’s possible, in the magical world of yoga, to pass a chair? You know, as in going to the toilet. As in number two. I bet you didn’t. I’ll let you ponder that for a while, breathing deep into your bowel as you do so, and come back to it.

I decided to do a juice detox. I decided this on Friday night, in the midst of a feast to celebrate Katerina’s nameday, and that said detox would take place on the next day, the Saturday. Polyna happened to mention (while we all happily munched on patsitsio, the Greek version of lasagne) a concoction consisting of beetroot, celeriac, lemon juice and honey that’s apparently good for cleansing the bowel, and I latched on to this, and decided to incorporate it. I picked up the ingredients on my way back home that evening, and thus began my haphazardly conceived bowel cleanse juice detox.

Day one was OK. I did my work in the morning, dutifully gave myself a glass of juice (which had to be chewed, on account of my blender being a bit of a bargain buy) and set off on a lovely, meditative walk to the port of Kamares, feeling all kinds of virtuous. I arrived at Syrma, Katerina’s cafe on the beach, just over an hour later, serene and glistening with sweat, to be assaulted by the smell of food.
    ‘What is this?’ I demanded to know, in lieu of good afternoon.
    ‘Polyna’s lunch,’ Dimitra supplied. ‘What’s the matter with you?’
    ‘I’m doing a detox,’ I confessed.
    ‘What are you detoxing from?’
    ‘Everything! Except coffee and cigarettes.’
    Dimitra smirked. ‘Coffee?’ she suggested.
    ‘No. I’ve had one already. I’ll have a green tea.’
    Dimitra gave me a look of utter disdain. ‘A green tea,’ she repeated, as if I’d asked for dry twigs to chew on.
    ‘Please.’
    From the kitchen, Katerina sniggered. But kindly.

I took my (unsweetened) green tea outside, where Polyna, her husband and two friends were enjoying a spread of last night’s nameday dinner leftovers.
    ‘Join us,’ they said, but I shook my head bravely and explained my predicament.
    ‘I hate you all,’ I added. ‘You’re bad people.’ I took a sip of my green tea, and was overcome with remorse. ‘I love you, really. Enjoy your lunch. I’m going for a swim.’
    And with that I disrobed, and threw myself into the cold November sea. Resolutely not hungry. Which, actually, was true: this being 2pm, I hadn’t had a chance to get hungry yet. I often skip breakfast and go straight for lunch: my detox, at this stage, was entirely theoretical. Words, and a sour, chewy juice.

Katerina came over in the evening. We were going to do yoga, but she’d had a fall and bruised her shoulder and knee, so we had tea instead. A Fortnum & Mason blend that someone once brought for my grandma, scented with orange blossom and served in my mum’s best, daintiest chipped china. We talked, indirectly, of food; of how it’s a pleasure and a comfort, much less of a need than we imagine, and of the times – the exceptions – when thoughts of eating fall right out of our heads. Acute love, we agreed, and acute sadness. Being subject to neither, I confessed to dreaming of pasta. I showed Katerina the glass of juice that was to be my dinner, instead. We both sighed. ‘Be strong,’ she said.

Day two and I still wasn’t hungry, but I was pretty miserable. The detox headache had arrived, and I was possessed by a strange, manic, desperate energy that did not translate into the desire to do anything. It was pure momentum, with nowhere to go. I decided, nonetheless, to martyr myself to my cause and stretch the cleanse to another day. I distracted myself with making things: I made smudge sticks out of herbs I’d picked the day before; I made jam out of bitter oranges; I made bangles with scraps of vintage fabric. I made promises: to be better, to eat better, to look after my digestive health so I would never again have to resort to such extreme measures for giving my bowel a break. To eat fewer crisps. I made tea from peppermint and lemon verbena leaves and drank it, unceremoniously, out of a mug. The will to juice had gone out of me completely. I made an infusion from wild sage, hoping for wisdom. I went nowhere and spoke to no one; I barely even spoke to the cats but resented them, silently, for the meal of Friskies croquettes that they crunched on. I thought about doing yoga.
    In the evening, I was suddenly taken over by the absolute certainty that I should have a steak. A steak, yes, and a salad, from my favourite restaurant in town, which, gloriously, stays open throughout the winter. I could call them up right now, and ask them to prepare this salvation for me, and I could walk down and pick it up and bring it home and put an end to this madness. A battle of wills ensued, between my virtuous, martyred self who shook her head sadly, so disappointed, as the glutton screamed her petulant argument But I want! The martyr won, assisted by the fact that I had exactly 1.55€ to my name. She settled down, smug and free of desire, with her cup of wisdom tea, and decreed that, in addition to not having steak, I would stretch the detox into the next morning, whereupon I would perform Shanka Prakshalana, the yogic bowel-cleansing ritual. Yes, I thought. What an excellent idea. I was clearly tripping.
    I did not sleep well that night. My head thumped and my stomach churned; I dreamed of crisps.

Monday morning, and as I prepared the mixture of warm water and salt that I was to consume and eliminate in aid of purifying my colon, I thought I might refresh my memory on the particulars of Shanka Prakshalana. I chose one of the many articles on Google, and was reminded how the process involved drinking up to 16 glasses of the saline solution and performing, after every two, a set of five asanas designed to move the liquid through the intestinal tract. After the fifth set, practitioners are encouraged to go to the bathroom and perform the Ashvini Mudra (a.k.a. clenching and unclenching of arse muscles) to stimulate peristalsis of the intestines.
 At which point the writer of the article imparted the following extraordinary piece of wisdom: “If the chair starts,” he wrote, “great. If not, no problem.” You just carry on with the salt water and the exercises, he reassured, until the chair comes. He went on to explain that “the chair will be solid at first, but as time goes on it will be cleaner and more watery”.
    The chair? So frazzled was my brain that I accepted this as some sort of yogic lore, some super-technical/spiritual term that surely must be valid. Nevermind that in thirty years of actively studying the English language I had made my peace my shit being referred to as stool but had never, not once, heard of passing chairs. Solid or not. But it must be true, I reasoned, because the wise yoga man on the internet said so. Chairs would be passed and the bowel would be cleansed. Shanti om, brother.

I passed no chairs, but not for lack of trying. There came a time where I would have been happy to pass anything, any type of furniture at all, for the relief of emptying my bowel of all that salt water. I was drenched in sweat and bloated to fuck and even threw up a little bit (which was cheating, because throwing up salt water is actually Kunjal Kriya, the yogic stomach-cleansing technique). I did my asanas and my Ashvini Mudra and breathed and tried to relax, as advised, but no chair came. The stool did eventually, triumphantly, mercifully – and, on account of the two-day martyrdom that had preceded this exercise, it was as watery as advertised. It came several times over the next two hours. The rest of the day passed in a daze. There was food, which I ate, and there was furniture upon which I reclined. It was all very spiritual, I’m sure.

It is now Tuesday morning. I sit here, at my desk chair, with coffee and cigarettes and the bowel thoroughly at peace, and of clear mind once again, and ponder the lessons I learned during this weekend that, thankfully, passed.
    – A chair is an item of furniture that you sit on, and is not to be confused with a stool whose meaning can be dual.
    – Passing chairs must be avoided at all costs, especially in solid form.
    – The internet is a strange place, its strangeness matched only by the world of yoga. Venturing into either must be undertaken with extreme caution.
    – Decisions must never be made on an empty stomach.
    – When in doubt, eat a steak.
    – If you’re gonna stop eating, do it for acute love. It’s the best reason for everything.

Shanti om.


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