Janet Lowndes - Yoga, Psychology, Body Image and Wholeness
Janet Lowndes is a Melbourne based psychologist with over 25 years professional experience which includes psychological counselling, teaching, meditation training, and yoga therapy.
Her studies in yoga also go back 25 years - including time in the Swami Vivekananda Ashram in India. She is a registered senior teacher with Yoga Australia and is the director of the Australian Institute of Yoga Therapy.
In this conversation, we talk about her background in psychology, how yoga evolved her approach and understanding of the mind, and how she marries the two worlds together.
We also talk about her important work with eating disorders and body image and how to thoughtfully use language in our yoga classes to help shape a culture of self-love and acceptance. Finally, we discuss how the body focused aspect of yoga that is presented in social media could potentially be damaging.
This was an amazing conversation, and as usual I am honored to have been part of it!
Janet's website: https://www.mindbodywell.com.au/
Yoga Psychology Training: https://www.yogapsychology.com.au/
Picks of the week:
Janet: Connecting - Conscious Communication for Yoga Teachers and Therapists by Lucy Karnani and Jill Danks - http://www.yogacommunication.org/
Jo - Phillipa Stanton - https://www.instagram.com/5ftinf/
Please email us to report any transcription errorsThe Flow Artists Podcast
Transcript: Janet Lowndes, Yoga, Psychology, Body Image and Wholeness
Rane Bowen: Hello, my name is Rane and this is the Flow Artists Podcast. Every episode we interview inspiring movers, thinkers and teachers about how they find their flow and much, much more.
This episode is a recorded conversation between myself, Jo Stewart and Janet Lowndes. Janet Lowndes is a Melbourne-based psychologist with over 25 years professional experience, which includes psychological counselling, teaching, meditation training and yoga therapy. Her studies in yoga also go back 25 years, including time in the Swami Vivekananda Ashram in India. She is a registered senior teacher with Yoga Australia and is the director of the Australian Institute of Yoga Therapy.
In this conversation we talk about her background in psychology, how yoga evolved her approach and understanding of the mind, and how she marries the two worlds together. We also talk about her important work with eating disorders and body image, and how to thoughtfully use language in our yoga classes to help shape a culture of self-love and acceptance. We also talk about how the body-focused aspect of yoga that is presented in social media could potentially be damaging.
Now if you listened to our last episode, I might have mentioned that this week’s guest would be US- based podcaster and yogi, Ashton Szabo. Now that episode is still coming but we really wanted to get our interview with Janet out before the Yoga Australia Conference, which begins the 16th of March. Don’t worry, our talk with Ashton will become available very soon.
Anyhow, enough talk from me. Here is our conversation with Janet Lowndes.
Rane Bowen: Thanks so much for meeting us today, Janet.
Janet Lowndes: My pleasure.
Rane Bowen: We’re at your lovely little clinic here, near St Kilda.
Janet Lowndes: Close enough, yeah
Jo Stewart: Mind Body Well
Rane Bowen: Yes, that’s the one <laughter>
Rane Bowen: As we ask all our guests, perhaps you could start by just telling us a little bit about your childhood and where you grew up.
Janet Lowndes: Childhood questions are always interesting to ask a psychologist. It’s like, ‘Oh really, how long have we got, right?’ <laughter>
Jo Stewart: How deep do you want to unpack?
Janet Lowndes: Yes, we don’t get to talk about ourselves very much as psychologists….
Jo Stewart: Of course
Janet Lowndes: It’s interesting, so it, you’ve got to be careful. <laughter> Look, I grew up in a very small country farming area outside Bendigo, a little place called Emu Creek, which often people don’t believe such a place exists. There is apparently an Emu Creek on one of the horror movies, but it’s not the same one.
Jo Stewart: Aaah, were there emus?
Janet Lowndes: No Emus, no, lots of kangaroos, but anyway…
Jo Stewart: Oh, just a creek…
Janet Lowndes: So I grew up on a farm in the, in a large farming family. About as far away from the world of yoga and psychology as you can get, but, but interestingly, growing up in a large family I think is exactly what got me interested in human beings. And, you know, just observing my older brothers and sisters and just watching the interplay of relationships I think is part of what got me interested in where I’m at now really.
Jo Stewart: Ah, and that was of course going to be my next questions, like how, what got you interested in psychology… so, what got you interested in yoga? <laughter>
Janet Lowndes: Yeah, well the yoga part, so, often when you meet people who’ve got both, got dual professions, like yoga and psychology, the question I find people ask me a lot is, ‘which came first?’ So for me it was psychology first and I went to university thinking I was going to study PR – Public Relations. I wanted to be in something like kind of advertising and promotion kind of work, and in PR, in first year Psychology I thought, ‘Ahh, this is actually interesting. I quite like this’. And did really badly in the business subjects. Failed first year economics; did really well in Psychology and went, ‘Right, I might ditch that part’….
Jo Stewart: Yeah, ditch that boring stuff! <laughter>
Janet Lowndes: …and instead do Psychology and Philosophy, which was way more interesting. But I think that as kind of an 18-year-old growing up in country Victoria, I didn’t know really what psychology or philosophy were, actually. So I kinda discovered them at uni. And so became a psychologist and worked in the first, in my twenties really, in all the hardest work I could find, in the prison system and in palliative care with people with HIV and AIDS, and domestic violence and kinda did all, it was like I had to jump in, which is a little bit of my nature. And then turned 30, burned out, ran away from psychology and said I’d never do it again, and went to India to study yoga. Which is like, it sounds like an Eat Pray Love movie. <laughter> But, it wasn’t anywhere near that romantic. But yeah it was…it really…it kind of was I came to yoga as a personal practice in my twenties and then when the world of psychology just kind of wore me down, then I became more interested in yoga as a way of life, I guess.
Jo Stewart: And so, it was kind of part of your self care as you’re at work and you were like, ‘I need to immerse myself in this’…
Janet Lowndes: It was. But at that stage in my twenties, it was still very much one or the other. It was like I was living this life the majority of the time and then going off to this sanctuary of yoga for like an hour-and-a-half, a couple of times a week, like I think a lot of people are when they start yoga, and it was like my little escape from the real world. And so it wasn’t really until I went to India and studied in the ashram that I saw that yoga can be a lot more than that; it can actually be a whole way of living as you guys are nodding away at, are aware of. <laughter>
Jo Stewart: So could you tell us a bit about ashram life?
Janet Lowndes: Yeah, look, ashram, I, so I studied at the Swami Vivekananda ashram first, in ah, just outside Bangalore, which is an extraordinary place, if you ever get a chance to go there. It’s a yoga university, a yoga hospital and an ashram teaching environment all in the one place.
Jo Stewart: Wow!
Janet Lowndes: So it’s this incredible lived community of yoga, thousands of people living there out in the hills and it’s just, it’s quite extraordinary I think. So for me that ashram, and I gather from what I hear now that every ashram is different, but that ashram was this really extraordinary melting pot of thought and practice and community and bhakti and kind of everything all combined together, which was really pretty extraordinary.
Jo Stewart: And so did you research before you go? How did you land there?
Janet Lowndes: I researched a lot and I researched in the day when the internet was very slow. <laughter> I remember, ah well I don’t know how much time I spent researching but it seemed to be a lot. What I was really interested in was finding somewhere that I could really study yoga philosophy, so I wasn’t drawn to teachings that were very asana-based and I’m still not, really. But I really wanted to understand the psychology and philosophy within yoga. I knew there was something about that and I’d sort of understood just a kind of two percent on the surface of it, but I was really curious, because at that point I wanted to really get away from Western psychology but I didn’t know where to go, so I chose the Swami Vivekananda ashram because it’s a very, now there’s a real jnana yoga there, a real sense of deep understanding, being human, which is always interesting.
Jo Stewart: As a yogi and psychologist, obviously you are fascinated by the inner workings of the mind and that’s something that you’re really drawn into, multiple traditions and viewpoints, so did your understanding of your mind and your self and your approach change the more that you explored yoga philosophy or did the things that kind of resonate with you before, that you’d find in the yoga philosophy as well?
Janet Lowndes: I would say it changed my understanding of my mind and THE mind, you know - human minds, changed enormously when I went to the ashram and first started really studying the depth of yoga, because what I learnt as a young psychologist from a very Western tradition was about, I learnt about illness. You don’t, as a psychologist, generally, learn about mental health. Thankfully I think some of that has changed in the university courses now. But when I trained, the learning wasn’t about mental health and about the workings of the mind. The learning was about mental illness.
Jo Stewart: Like people would come to you in crisis and that’s what you were working with?
Janet Lowndes: Yeah, and you look for what’s broken and try and fix it. Which, that totally doesn’t fit with my paradigm now of humanity. I think we all have broken places, and we all have strong places and peaceful places and we have all of that within us all of the time. Actually, I’ll reframe that, I don’t think we do have broken places, I think we have bent and battered and bruised places, but I think intrinsically at our core, we’re never broken, we’re, you know, we are whole, we just get bent out of shape.
Jo Stewart: Or bent into a new shape! <laughter>
Janet Lowndes: Nice, I like that. That’s very yogic as well, isn’t it? So actually, I think my understanding of the mind totally changed through yoga. And continues to be challenged all the time. Thankfully, you know, it’s nice, isn’t it? You’ve learnt something new and what you thought you knew was no longer accurate or relevant.
Rane Bowen: When did you realise that you could perhaps marry the Western psychology and the Eastern yoga together? Or how did that evolve?
Janet Lowndes: Yeah, nice, you know, that’s a good point because when I first… when I finished being a psychologist, I really had a pretty serious burnout here in Melbourne and left Psychology before I went to India and worked in… I had a fantastic six months working in hospitality and I can now make a really good coffee <laughter> so that was really, that was great.
Jo Stewart: And aren’t they sometimes the best psychologists? <laughter>
Janet Lowndes: Oh, absolutely, man my barista now is one of my best therapists. <laughter> When I was in the ashram, I really thought I was going away from psychology and that I would never return to it. That I was done, I was burned out, I was jaded. I didn’t believe in the system of Western psychology and I didn’t want a bar of it. I didn’t know what to do next. I knew I didn’t want to make coffee forever. So when I went to the ashram I was still very, I was interested in exploring all these things but I didn’t want to do it for a job. But then I kept meeting people through the ashram who were mental health professionals in India coming from this total yoga, psychology and yoga philosophy perspective. Yeah, and I was really interested, especially, I remember meeting a psychiatrist there at the ashram and talking to him and I was sort of gobsmacked at first when he told me he was a psychiatrist and he worked with people using yoga philosophy and yogic tools and approaches which I’d never even conceived of, actually. Because I still had that idea that there was yoga over here on one side and psychology on the other side, and so I didn’t really understand at that point, which I got to find out at the ashram, that yoga is first and foremost all about psychology, and that’s really what yoga is. It’s a system of understanding humanness and, and I also learnt there at the ashram that there is no separation between psychology, philosophy, biology, spirituality. That this reductionist perspective that we have in the West, where we have all these ‘ologists’ and ‘iatrists’ and, that are very reductionist and carve a human being up into pieces, that I learnt through yoga that there is a whole other way that we can understand the human system. And that psychology is part of that wholeness. So I got excited again.
Jo Stewart: Yeah, yeah. <laughter>
Janet Lowndes: Yeah, so I was really fortunate. I met a few of those people at the ashram, I had a lot of conversations with them and started thinking, ‘Mmm, okay, maybe I don’t need to find a new career after all’.
Jo Stewart: Mmm. And when you got back to Melbourne from the ashram, that’s when you did the advanced diploma of yoga teaching, right?
Janet Lowndes: It is, yeah, thankfully. I really am so grateful. Well after the ashram I then travelled into northern India and I did a retreat with an Iyengar teacher in the north of India outside Rishikesh, which was extraordinary because he had just a small group of us and he taught us at his home and then took us out into the villages, teaching yoga to children in some of the schools.
Jo Stewart: Oh wow!
Janet Lowndes: It was a really extraordinary experience. And also a really strong physical practice, which at that time was totally new to me. It was like I said, I’ve never been really drawn to a strong physical practice, I’m still not, but at that point was really good. I really needed to experience that and to understand the benefits of that for the times in our lives when it’s appropriate. Um, so I did that and then I also then went up to Dharamsala and taught English to Buddhist monks for a while. And that fascinated me too, as another kind of form of lived spirituality, to see these people who don’t just go off to do their Buddhist thing for an hour and a half <laughs> but are living that life.
Jo Stewart: Dharamsala is so transcendentally beautiful.
Janet Lowndes: You’ve been as well, haven’t you?
Jo Stewart: Yeah, yeah.
Janet Lowndes: Rane, have you been?
Rane Bowen: No.
Janet Lowndes: You’ve got to go.
Jo Stewart: Yeah, we’ll go, there’s good food too. <laughter>
Janet Lowndes: That’s always an important part of any spiritual experience. <laughter> Um, except fasting I guess <laughter>
Jo Stewart: But after the fast you’ve got to start off with a good meal <laughter>
Janet Lowndes: That’s right. So I felt that the time in India was not, I mean, the ashram was a big part of it but also the Iyengar retreat experience was a big part of it and the Buddhist community, teaching English to the monks was an amazing part of it too, so I’d kind of felt I had so much juicy learning from so many different perspectives, and then when I came back to Melbourne I felt that I’d had this really interesting mind-blowing experience in India, and I, but what I felt that I needed to figure out how to do was how to translate that learning to an Australian audience. And to a, by then I figured that I do want to come back to psychology but I want to bring yoga into psychology. And in order to do that I really needed a kind of integrative um, language and way of, not bringing too ah esoteric a form of yoga into my professional world. So, then I found the course at the CAE and I thought…
Jo Stewart: And like, perfect course for that approach!
Janet Lowndes: Perfect! You know, my, one of my closest friends and most respected teachers, Leigh Blashki, who you had the lovely interview with. You know, Leigh, what he created in that course, as you know as well Jo, he created in that course a real opportunity for people to find their own inner teacher. And to not just parrot out or mimic somebody else’s teaching but to find their own voice, which is what I really needed to find, so, and to find a way to translate all this extraordinary yoga wisdom into an accessible way for the majority of the audience I see who are generally, often people who will never imagine stepping foot into a yoga class or a yoga studio. So that course really helped give me, I was going to say it gave me the breadth and India gave me the depth, but I think they both gave me each just in different aspects of the teaching. So they were very complementary. So, I felt like the Indian experience was so intense and transformative and then coming back and having two years of really then studying deeply and figuring out how to translate that transformation into the rest of my life actually, was what I needed. Because I think without that, I might, India might have been an incredible experience that lived like your favourite book on the bookcase, but might never have got the legs that it did from doing that two years then with an amazing Faculty there at the CAE.
Jo Stewart: And part of that course as well, there’s a lot of written work, there’s a lot of assignments, there’s lot of diary writing, like the integration is quite a big part of the course. Was there much of that in your Indian course?
Janet Lowndes: No.
Jo Stewart: No, ‘cause I could imagine that would be so helpful for clarifying your own thoughts and integrating everything to have to organise those thoughts into a form for other people to read…
Janet Lowndes: Absolutely, I think for me there’s that distinction between knowledge and understanding. And I felt like in, the ashram environment in India, Swami Vivekananda, was a very traditional Indian learning environment, which is quite austere, quite strict and so full of information, I would say the majority of which went way over my head. <laughs> I would actually love now to go back and do that course again. I feel like now I’ve at least got, it’s like I feel like I now have the USB slots in my brain. <laughter> But before it was like trying to jam a USB into a power socket in the wall or something. <laugher>
Jo Stewart: Oh like such a good metaphor, ‘cause you know every USB, you like try it once, try it the other way, and then try back the first way and then it fits <laughs>
Janet Lowndes: And then you realise you need an HDMI port. <laughter> This is the way I’ve been feeling with computers all week. You can probably hear it’s not my greatest skill but I’m learning, right. So yeah, I felt like I needed that integration and the personalising of it, the self study I guess, is the svadhyaya that that allowed, that really helped me understand yoga not just as another science. Because I know for me if I’m not careful, what I do as someone who’s been an academic in the past is it just becomes another something to study and academically understand. Whereas that two years of immersion, you know, it’s a very different experience, isn’t it, when you’re kind of journaling your own time on the mat and you know, your own breathing practice and what’s going on for you.
Jo Stewart: I could imagine as well, different from a strict teacher-student environment, just the chance to like ask questions and to share and to hear other people’s perspectives on the same thing is such a gift from a yoga teacher training course. Because you can read that stuff in a book and you can have your own really powerful experiences, but if then when you’re teaching, the person that you’re teaching to just doesn’t get what you’re trying to say to have already taken in other perspectives, other learning styles, it’s just so helpful.
Janet Lowndes: Yeah. Absolutely, and I think so relevant to how we teach yoga to a Western audience. That, you know, the guru-disciple model in Australia and in most Western cultures, for the majority of students, and I would actually say the majority of teachers, actually doesn’t work. And so, we don’t grow up with that relational pattern, I guess. So I think that coming into the course that I did with, you know, the amazing teachers, Leigh and Kay and Josie and Angula and you know, all these great people, it was really, they were just people like me, was very much how I, they presented themselves and very much how I saw them, and it showed me that I don’t have to become someone different than me to be a yoga teacher either. That it’s, we’re really, we’re no different to our students, we’ve just studied something else and explored something else that they may not have yet, but, we’re the same.
Jo Stewart: Mmm, I think that’s so great that you figured that out in your teacher training because I think it’s such a trap where people step onto the yoga mat and they feel like they have to be these perfect people, and it’s like a façade.
Janet Lowndes: Yeah. And sometimes yoga teachers put that expectation on themselves, sometimes I think students might like to be able to put us into that position. It’s interesting, I’m planning a workshop for the Yoga Australia conference in a couple of weeks and I’m talking about countertransference in the teacher-student relationship. So basically about how important it is for teachers to just watch your own hooks. And you know, to recognise that sometimes it might feel nice to be idealised by a student but that’s a very dangerous slippery slope. It's usually when we’re idealised it’s very easy then for us to be demonised. So it’s like, well we’ve gotta kind of watch what that relationship is really all about, and also are we empowering our students to find their own inner teacher or are we just asking them to just copy us?
Jo Stewart: Or sometimes people really hand their own power and like self-knowledge over to the teacher, like they’ll say something like, ‘What pose should I do for my back?’ or ‘What variation should I do?’ And you’ll say something like, ‘Well, how’s it feel in your back?’ And they’ll be like, ‘I don’t know you just tell me the one I should do’. And it’s like, ‘Oh no, that’s not what yoga’s about’.
Janet Lowndes: Yeah. Great, but see that’s your skill as a teacher, right? That’s great that that’s what you would say when they ask you that question. I think that if we’re not careful there are some approaches to yoga in the West that I think are becoming dangerously like allopathic medicine. Its like, ‘Oh if you’ve got a sore throat, take this antibiotic. And if we’re not careful when people say, ‘What should I do for my sore back?’ and people say, you know, ‘If pain persists, apply this asana’, that’s not what yoga is about. So your response, what you just said: exactly. It’s like, well, some self-enquiry, and some noticing and some curiosity and some exploring and some feeling into it and some listening to your own experience. That’s beautiful, like I think that’s what’s really important, that we don’t just say ahh just do this posture and everything will get better. What a load of rubbish, right? Yoga is not a system of fixing things. It’s about, you know, strengthening or um enhancing the wellness of the human system. It’s not, sort of symptom specific.
Rane Bowen: Mmm mmm. No, if you do look at some of the, I don’t know, twenty/thirty year old books, that there’ll be a laundry list of symptoms and… <laughs>
Jo Stewart: Oh yeah, yeah. <laughter>
Janet Lowndes: That’s an interesting point that I’m not sure what to say to that. I have wondered about that… some of those old books that do read like: ‘for this symptom use this posture’. I wonder whether those books came from a time and a culture of yoga in India where people already had the foundational understanding of the deeper philosophy and practices of yoga, so then they’re really just adding a slight tweak. That’s the only way I can actually make sense of that.
Jo Stewart: Another perspective I’ve heard as well is it came from a time when there was a real drive to legitimise yoga as something that wasn’t esoteric and spiritual. It was something, like to kind of make it a healing science. Or to, sell isn’t the right word, but to give legitimacy to this practice that was something that maybe the authors of those books thought would resonate with a wider audience outside of India, and it wasn’t just people levitating and meditating in caves, it was like a healing system.
Janet Lowndes: Right, yeah ok that makes a lot of sense too, doesn’t it? That push to be solution-oriented and actually I think that’s something that’s really important to be careful of as yoga teachers. To not just be, kind of, solution, quick-fix oriented. That there is no magic yoga practice that cures anything. That’s my belief. I know there are some people listening to this right now who might disagree with me so I’m just saying, this is not a truth or a fact or fiction, it’s just my perspective, that yoga has its greatest capacity for healing when it is, the key is about practice and regularity. It’s in many ways less relevant what you actually do.
Jo Stewart: Mmm, yeah beautiful. And that really leads us into some of your specialities of yoga and mental health, because I know that you do quite a bit of work with the yoga for depression and anxiety and Amy Weintraub system. Would you like to tell us a little about that and that approach?
Janet Lowndes: Yeah. So I had the honour of hosting Amy when she was here in Australia a couple of years ago, you guys were there too.
Jo Stewart: Yeah it was a great workshop!
Janet Lowndes: It was great. She’s an extraordinary teacher and has, you know, been one of those people who’s been really integral in helping weave this conversation between yoga and mental health professionals, and she’s continuing to do that work. And so I, you know learned a lot from Amy in that workshop and still use many of those practices. I think that what’s interesting though is that the way I’ve translated some of that in my work, is that I don’t tend to talk so much about yoga for a condition. It’s more about yoga for mental health or yoga for your mood or yoga for, there’s so many reasons to this because I guess that one of the challenges is, I just had this conversation with someone today who was kind of, she was in this conflict about whether or not she had depression or anxiety, and she’d been told by one psychiatrist that she had depression, by another she had anxiety, and she wanted me to answer that. And, you know, my response to her was, I said, ‘does it really matter what it’s called, right?’ And I think sometimes it does matter because diagnoses can aid treatment but, at other times I think if we’re not careful we just get so caught up on the name of something that we’re not reflecting on what is the imbalance. And, you know, yoga therapy, the world of yoga therapy is really very much about not focusing on what the condition is but more about what’s the, going on in the human system. Where is the imbalance? What are the experiences for that person? And I think it was even Hippocrates who said, ‘be less concerned with what condition the person has and more concerned with the person who has the condition’. Because my experience, after twenty-five years as a psychologist, is you could have a hundred people in a room, all with a diagnosis of depression, and there’s still a hundred people who are all different and who all respond differently and who all experience the world differently and who will benefit from different practices. So exactly as you said before Jo, about asking people to enquire into, well what happens when you do this, and what do you notice, and what sort of things do you find help to bring you to more balance, and what sort of things are more agitating? And, you know, then really helping people to develop that skill of self-enquiry and embodiment where they really notice what’s going on and then responding to that. So I think that's a very long answer, but I guess…
Jo Stewart: No, it’s a beautiful answer! It really comes back to what you were saying about when you left psychology and you left that practice of treating diagnosis and treating you know symptoms, to treating someone as a whole person and helping them feel into that for themselves.
Janet Lowndes: Yeah. Right. So now, having come back to psychology with this kind of whole, I was going to say extra tools in the toolbelt but that’s definitely not right, it’s like a whole new toolbelt. <laughter> It’s not, yeah, well it’s a whole new framework and paradigm and way of understanding human existence I think, that we have the opportunity to explore through yoga. And I feel like that shift has really helped me be more interested in the whole human system and less interested in the name of the condition. Like I said, that’s sometimes still relevant and still necessary but I don’t think we should ever lose sight of the person by just focusing on the condition.
Rane Bowen: You’ve been able to marry yoga into your own practise of psychology. How do you go about bringing yoga to other psychologists?
Janet Lowndes: Yeah, that’s the perpetual question <laughter> Thankfully, I’m really happy to be a psychologist in a time where I feel like the Psychology field is returning to some of its breadth, in pockets, right? And I think this is the same for medicine, you know, that what we are seeing in medicine for example, is a rise in integrative medicine and complementary medicine practises and doctors who also have Chinese medicine or you know other things in there. So they are broadening their understanding of not just that reductionist model but a broader system. So that’s also thankfully happening in the world of psychology as well, with the rise of something that always makes me smile a little bit, what’s called the kind of new wave psychotherapies, which are all very kind of based in mindfulness and more existential teachings, which of course…
Jo Stewart: something dance <laughs> (28.33)
Janet Lowndes: Yeah, and of course as we know they’re not new at all, right, yeah, really old. Um, but that’s great because it actually means that I think there are a lot of psychologists and other mental health professionals who are moving beyond, and not leaving behind the wonderful gifts of the more Western system, because there’s a lot of, we’re saving lives in this stuff, but actually broadening and including that so that It’s not, I often say to people, it’s not, we are fortunate that we don’t have to choose between Western medicine or Western psychology and a more integrative approach, we can have both. That’s what the word integration is about, yeah? So um, it’s the kind of non-dual perspective in healing too, isn’t it? Yeah, so I think my interest really, and the way I like to translate a lot of the work in yoga for mental health is that it’s less specific and more about recognising, Patanjali said it best, as he said many things best, about when there is suffering to try and kind of cultivate the opposite, so that we’re not actually fighting against what a person is experiencing, but we’re helping them develop the strengths and capacities to build their kind of healthy self if you like, rather than trying to fight an illness, which is like banging your head against a wall sometimes, isn’t it?
Jo Stewart: And it would just make your life all about that illness.
Janet Lowndes: Right, good point, yeah, we actually then become that and it’s like even languaging, you know, I often encourage people to just watch the way we self-define. We can say, you know, I work a lot with people with eating disorders and someone could say, you know, ‘I’m an anorexic’ and it’s like, wow that is such a self-definitive statement, ah you know, as opposed to, you know, ‘I have this condition’ or ‘I’m currently experiencing this condition’ or ‘I’m experiencing these symptoms’, it’s, because I think it’s really important to recognise the impermanence in all of our experiences, including our suffering.
Jo Stewart: And I’d love to talk to you more about your work with eating disorders and body image, because yoga could be such a tool for healing and yet often I see a lot of disordered body image being portrayed in the media surrounding yoga, and I also would like to ask you a little bit about, as teachers, what can we do in our classes that, there might be things that we might not be aware of that are not helpful, and what are some of the things we can do which are helpful? Sorry, long question <laughs>
Janet Lowndes: It’s great, wow, we need a day <laughter> It’s a great, multi-layered question and I think we are, we’re in a really new and interesting time for yoga in the West, because of the kind of objectification of yoga imagery I think that we are now bombarded with, from everything like selling watches to health insurance to cars to whatever, you know, images of usually young white women with thin privilege on, you know, selling stuff. It’s everywhere right, and so unfortunately, I also, I think that’s one layer, to see it in the world of advertising and marketing, but what really makes me sad though is when I see yoga teachers buying into that and really objectifying their own body to sell yoga. Ugh! I almost said, no that’s not what I mean but, it sort of is what I mean and I think it’s really an important thing to recognise, for people to really question themselves about the use of yoga imagery and what are they really, what’s the message they are really putting out there? I’m trying to be polite about this but I guess if I was speaking frankly I’d say, I think there’s just a lot of people selling out and using their bodies to sell yoga and it makes me very cross!
Jo Stewart: I think as well sometimes it can be a challenge to think of an alternative. Say you’re building your yoga website, most of the other yoga websites you look like would be that person looking really slim and amazing doing hard yoga poses. So, I mean there are definitely other options of things that you could put on your own website that say more about you and more about yoga. Have you got some suggestions?
Janet Lowndes: Such a great point, you know, I often say that the challenge is yoga can’t be photographed. So, you can photograph someone making shapes, you know that’s, a client of mine said that to me once, she said… she’d started studying, doing some retreats and things with me and one of the retreats she said, ‘I used to think I was doing yoga, but now I see I was just making shapes’. And she was someone who was a former gymnast; she was excellent at making the shapes. You know, the shapes could go into a yoga calendar very easily. But she’d started to recognise that in order to actually have a deeper yogic experience, she needed to be less fixated on the shapes and actually to do less shaping, if you like.
Jo Stewart: Yeah, yeah.
Janet Lowndes: So I think for yoga teachers it does actually require a bit more broad thought in this world of visual marketing, of how do I market myself and my practice and my business without relying on more of the objectification of the body beautiful. So I, look I don’t think, I’m not a marketing expert so I don’t have an easy answer to that and I don’t, I’m also not saying that I don’t think there should be any photos of yourself doing postures or whatever. Some potential students are quite motivated by that, but I think it’s good to question which students might be motivated by that. A lot of students living in larger bodies or students who don’t have thin white female privilege are actually likely to stay away from yoga for those reasons. If they, another client I once said to her, she was not going to yoga because she felt she wasn’t thin enough, and I said to her, ‘you don’t have to look any certain way to do yoga’, and she said, ‘well that’s not what Instagram says’. You know, what a sad reality, you know, it’s really, I think thankfully now we are seeing a bit more body diversity and race diversity, gender diversity, age diversity, all of these things and recognising that everyone can do yoga, and that there is a yoga for everyone. But I think for the individual teacher, especially teachers who have the thin white female privilege, right, it’s handy, you just wait till you get a bit older and you don’t have that any more right, <laughs> but teachers who do have that, I think that what it requires is just a little bit more lateral thinking about, ‘Does it always have to be photos of me?’ and also lateral thinking about, ‘Do I really need to be wearing a bikini on a beach?’ Really? <laughs> I think sand and yoga don’t mix, but anyway… <laughter> ah, to just you know, think a bit more outside the box about all sorts of other things that might represent yoga, and also recognising that even if it’s just taking photos of asana, it’s like well, which, that’s such a limited part of yoga anyway, but I do understand it’s very hard to photograph you know, samadhi <laughter> A field of flowers and a hammock or something, I don’t know. But it requires a bit more lateral thinking and frankly, I think that a lot of yogis have become a bit lazy about, ‘oh, I’ll just take another photo of myself in some very challenging posture’ and, again, you scroll through their Instagram feeds and it’s like really, I’ve seen enough of that.
Jo Stewart: Yeah totally, it’s like, if you want to stand out from that, then…
Janet Lowndes: Absolutely, take a photo of your feet and your dog or something. I don’t know, it’s like, there are other things…
Jo Stewart: Oh what I’ve seen as well, which really works really beautifully, is take a photo of some of your students, like with permission, but show diverse bodies, and, like you’re teaching a class, you’re not doing a handstand on a beach. So show that!
Janet Lowndes: Great! I think that’s really true about, if we really think about making yoga accessible to everyone, then you know that’s an important thing to consider about diversity and recognising that, and also a lot of yoga teachers don’t fit that, that kind of image of what a yoga teacher is supposed to look like. And I often get asked that question from yoga teachers, like ‘well how ‘bout how it feels for me when my students objectify me or when people say thinks like, ‘oh you don’t look like a yoga teacher’. And you know, it’s interesting because what does a yoga teacher actually look like? And the Yoga and Body Image Coalition who I’m a community member of, they have a great t-shirt that says, ‘This is what a yogi looks like.’ But it’s really interesting, I was running a workshop about this for yoga teachers and this you know, really switched on young female, you know fits all the privilege kind of, you know, young, thin, white yoga teacher, she looks like a yoga teacher and she came up to me and very astutely said, ‘But what would happen if I wore that t-shirt that said “this is what a yogi looks like”’. She said, ‘wouldn’t that then seem kind of a little conceited?’ And I was like, yeah, actually you’re kinda right! <laughter> But I said to her, ‘If you’re in amongst a whole group of us and we’re, showing diversity then that’s kinda different.’ But I guess that’s the point too that it doesn’t mean that people who do have that privilege that they shouldn’t, that they should feel ashamed of that, but I think that with any form of privilege what’s important is that we are aware of and careful with that privilege, that we’re careful that we don’t exploit or marginalise other people through our privilege.
Jo Stewart: That’s a really great point and a really great way of framing that because it can be a sticky issue. Like it’s not about feeling guilty.
Janet Lowndes: Uh uh. That’s right it’s not, ‘oh wow do I have to gain a whole lot of weight so I don’t fit that image or something’, it’s like, no no no, privilege is power and like any form of power, if we don’t recognise that we have it, we’re more likely to misuse it, so it’s really important to respect it and be more careful and gentle with it. It just requires some consciousness I think.
Jo Stewart: And so with that in mind, mindfulness in teaching, because I know that not all people who may be suffering with an eating disorder, it’s not always visible. You might not know they’re in your class, and there are many people who don’t have an eating disorder per se who might have insecurities, might not feel good about their bodies, might be going to yoga for that reason because they want a workout or so they want a practice that’s gonna help them feel good in themselves. Is there anything that you think that we could do better as yoga teachers across the board in terms of our languaging, in terms of our themes, things that we might not have thought of that can just help our classes be more helpful and inclusive for people who might have a bit of eating disorder or body image stuff going on?
Janet Lowndes: Beautiful. Firstly I would say that it’s safe to assume that if you’re teaching a yoga class in a Western context, that the majority of your students will have some issues with body image. You know, we know that concerns about body image are very high in people’s self-critic, kind of self-talk. So I think that there’s kind of a continuum but on one end of the continuum it’s people who have a totally healthy relationship with their body and are totally comfortable in their own skin. We’d like to think that that’s the majority of people but, and look maybe I’m, my perspective is quite skewed because I see a lot of people who don’t, every day, but I don’t think that is just my perspective and research says that’s not just my perspective. That we are taught to compare our bodies against ideals from before we even know we’re doing it, as two- and three-year-olds basically. So I think that it’s safe to assume that there, probably the overwhelming majority of people in our yoga classes are dealing with their own issues, some of which might be ah, challenges with their relationship with their body. And so that continuum starts from a totally healthy mind-body relationship and totally feeling comfortable in your skin, right through to then body image challenges, disordered eating and then eating disorders. And eating disorders at the most extreme end, I’m really pleased, as you said when people recognise that you can’t tell by looking at someone whether they have an eating disorder, that in fact there are so many hidden forms of eating disorder, that a lot of people have this idea that an eating disorder is just that kind of serious stereotypical person with anorexia who’s lost a very serious amount of weight and is significantly underweight. So firstly, you can’t tell if someone is very underweight, doesn’t mean they have anorexia. There can be lots of other reasons for that. But also there, even someone with anorexia may still be in a weight range that doesn’t look all that frighteningly underweight because they may have actually started at a higher weight. So it’s actually more about malnutrition and degree of pace of weight loss and things like that. And then the other thing is that there’s all kinds of other eating disorders. There’s bulimia and binge-eating disorder and so you absolutely can’t tell just by looking at someone, anything about them really, except maybe the colour of their eyes, even then they might be wearing contact lenses, right? So, it’s a tricky question because, as a teacher I think we can only work with what our students present to us. The first thing that I would say is we need to ask. And that doesn’t mean that we ask people do you have an eating disorder, but what I do mean is I’m struck, when I run the yoga psychology training with Michael de Manincor that we do for yoga teachers, one of the things that I say is that it’s very important that we’re actually asking questions about mental health on our intake forms for new students. It amazes me how often people tell me that they don’t even ask. Or what people say to me is that well there’s no point in asking because people won’t tell me, and what I would say is…
Jo Stewart: Well they definitely won’t tell you if you don’t ask!
Janet Lowndes: Exactly! They won’t tell you if you don’t ask but also, even if you ask and they don’t answer it, you’ve immediately told the student that it is actually relevant here and I am interested and it is important, rather than just, ‘Well I’m not going to ask because I don’t want you to tell me because I don’t know what the hell to do with it, so don’t actually tell me’. So, I think that we need to ask openly and not, ‘Do you have an eating disorder?’ but questions like, you know, ‘Are there any health challenges that might affect your practice?’ or kinda broader things like that. So we start there and then it’s also in the way we speak when we teach, about the examples that we give. That, you know, we might say that if you’re finding that you’re having a challenging day with your, how you’re feeling in your skin or in your relationship with your body, then you might try compassionately putting your hands on a couple of areas of the body that you want to send some love to or, you know, those kinds of examples where you’re straightaway saying that I am aware that this might be happening for people in the room. So I think there’s those kind of subtle layers of it and then there’s probably the more serious layers of when we become concerned and aware of problems that might be happening for our students, like we’re noticing them being very frail or dizzy in class or you know, we’re concerned about their health and wellbeing, we’re not sure if maybe it might be an eating disorder or something else going on. And in those circumstances, I actually think we need to consider our duty of care of teachers, that sometimes we actually need to ask our students for medical clearance to be practising. That’s, I feel like that’s something that probably requires a long conversation that I think, actually one of the things that I would like to see happening is more training for yoga teachers in sort of how to work with people with eating disorders. Ah, it’s happening a lot more in the fitness industry now because there’s a lot of problems with, in gyms of course, with people over training, but increasingly I think we’re seeing more of this in yoga, that there’s lots of people in yoga classes who have often quite serious eating disorders and I think that equipping teachers better for how to deal with that tricky kinda conversation is really important.
Jo Stewart: I’m already thinking I wanna to go to that workshop. Absolutely!
Janet Lowndes: Great! Well I want to run it, so let’s put it together <laughter>
Jo Stewart: Fantastic! And that leads me to something else. Say you’ve had that conversation with a student and you’re concerned about them, you know it’s beyond your scope as a yoga teacher, like you really feel like the right thing to do is to refer them on but you don’t happen to know any psychologists, how would you go about building a good referral network? Because I think it’s a bit, if you just tell them, ‘well I think you should talk to someone,’ it’s probably pretty unlikely they’re going to.
Janet Lowndes: Yeah, good point. So, firstly I love that you’re referencing Scope of Practice, right. Something that, like the ethics of being a yoga teacher, or being in any healing modality, I think the ethics are just so vital to be very very conscious and aware of. And so, if people aren’t already aware, there is a Scope of Practice for yoga teachers that Yoga Australia have developed, and other organisations have their own Scope of Practice documents and I think they’re important documents to know. Not to just read once and then forget about it, but to actually be very familiar with what are the boundaries and limitations of my role. Because the very reason, the very nature of the awareness that yoga can heal also means that it can harm. So therefore we do need to take the yoga teaching relationship very seriously and to be conscious of Scope of Practice issues. So look, I think that um, something that’s important is that yoga teachers even name that with students. Like when they recognise that they’re approaching the edge of a Scope of Practice issue with a student to let the student know that. Because I think some, the role of yoga teacher is a bit nebulous for some of our students they’re not sure if that means that we’re their priest or their mother or their sister or their best friend or their father or their boyfriend or their, you know, what is it? And if we’re not careful in being clear about where the role starts and finishes, people can assume sometimes, often because of very significant need that they have, and they have a need and you’re a nice person and therefore they might want to fit you into that spot. So, ‘I need a therapist. You’re really lovely. Let’s make that happen’ right? <laughter> Let’s make this happen for forty minutes after every single class, right <laughter> And if we’re not careful as teachers, we are nice people, we do care about our students and we like to be helpful, and if we’re not careful, all of a sudden we are doing that forty, fifty minutes, an hour.
Jo Stewart: And it’s really draining.
Janet Lowndes: … really draining, really draining. And you know it’s not the role, but it’s really easy to understand how we get into it, right. So, it’s like a kind of match made in heaven in lots of ways, right.
Jo Stewart: I think as well its non-threatening for people. Like they already know you as the teacher and sometimes I wonder if the thought of speaking to a psychologist means that they’ve got a real problem; like it’s that step further in their own minds. I see it with people with, say back injuries and things as well, it’s like ‘ah no, this is not a thing that’s serious. I don’t need to talk to a doctor about this, I’ll just tell you about it’. And I’ve kind of had to go, ‘oh no, actually I think this is really is one you need to talk to a doctor about’.
Janet Lowndes: Great! So you know, I think that sometimes even just openly naming it, like ‘as a yoga teacher, I have this document called the Scope of Practice and it talks about what the limitations are that I’m legally and ethically allowed to do, and we’re kind of getting right close to the edge of that, so this is, you know, what I can do now is I can give you some names, I can give you some recommendations and I can keep being your yoga teacher, but that has a limit and it means that I can’t do this next part of what it is that you’re wanting’. So I, you know, I’m a big fan of just being totally open with people about ‘I’m not allowed to do this; this is why I’m not allowed to do this; and also it’s not my skill set and I’d you know, it’s much better that you see someone who this is their skillset’ be it a physiotherapist or a psychologist or other mental health professional or doctor or dentist or whatever it is, right’. I did once have a student once ask me about a toothache, I was like, ‘are you serious!?’
Jo Stewart: Take that one to your dentist! <laughter>
Janet Lowndes: I know I’m good but I’m not that good, right, no idea about teeth! <laughter> So I think, you know, firstly I would say name the Scope of Practice and let people know that; and you, also your question about what if you as a yoga teacher don’t have the referral network: I actually think that’s something that is important to develop as a yoga teacher. To find out, you know, to do some research, to ask your other yoga teacher colleagues, like who are some great physiotherapists or who are some great dentists or who are some great massage therapists or acupuncturists or Chinese medicine or GPs or psychologists or whatever, and actually come up with a referral list that you keep in your yoga studio, in your phone, wherever it needs to be, so that then when people ask you can say, ‘well, here’s a couple names for you. I know of these people.’ The other people that are good to ask is your existing student group. You know, even to tell your students, ‘I’m putting together a referral list so I can tell my other students. If you know of any good health professionals, can you tell me their names because I’d really like to add them to my list. Because the students are a great wealth of…
Jo Stewart: Yeah, a great resource. And they vibe with you so they’re probably gonna have similar people that they see for other things.
Janet Lowndes: Exactly. Yep. So that’s often a resource that I think people don’t think to ask. Of course you’re not saying to the students, ‘Ah, Mary over there needs a new psychologist. Who would you recommend?’ <laughter> It’s you know, ‘I’m developing my referral list and can you help me with some ideas’. People are often you know, really happy to help like that. So that would be another suggestion and I also think that sometimes when it comes to boundaries, teachers need to actually be very assertive at a certain point about boundaries. Because boundary violation is a bit of a slippery slope and it usually starts by being too nice. And so it starts by wanting to help. Yoga teachers are, the overwhelming majority of the time, yoga teachers are very good people who are doing what we’re doing because we care about the state of the world, right? And want to do our bit to heal and to help, right? I think that’s a pretty universal statement. So we are a bit of a sucker then for someone who’s in need, right. You know, can’t sit on a tram without wanting to help someone... <Laughter> But what we’ve got to be really careful of is that we’re actually, that we catch these boundary slips early, name it early and, and really kind of recognise when we’re getting pulled into the need to be needed stuff. You know, it’s nice when people want us to help them actually, we do kind of like that, but it’s really like, when we’re starting to step outside role; that’s where it starts getting dangerous.
Jo Stewart: What would be some great phrases that a yoga teacher who felt like, ‘how have I set up this dynamic that there’s always someone who has something they wanna talk to me after class’? Because I think it’s sometimes it’s someone’s energy that people are drawn to. Are there some easy kind of go-to phrases that aren’t going to hurt anyone’s feelings, I’ve got to say, this isn’t very honest, but sometimes I’ll be like, ‘Sorry, I’ve got another class to get to so I can’t stay too long’.
Janet Lowndes: Yep, we all do that sometimes; there’s all the excuses. The thing is, excuses work when it’s a once or twice off. They also work with students who are pretty perceptive about the boundary: ‘Ah of course. That’s right, you’ve got a life beyond this moment, right. You’ve got other things in your life’. So the excuse stuff can work sometimes, but what tends to happen is the people who are either the most in need or the least perceptive or, well they’re usually the two things I think, that you can use those excuses all you like and its still the next time and the next time. So sometimes I think, you know as I said before I’m a big fan of actually just having really open conversations like, you know, sitting down with that person and saying, ‘We need to have a chat about this. What I’ve noticed is that after lots of classes we’re sitting and having really long conversations and I’ve been really drawn into that because I really care about you. But I’m really conscious that because of my Scope of Practice as a yoga teacher, we’re really kind of at the boundary of what it is that I can do for you, and I, what I really want to do is help you get the help that is more effective’.
Jo Stewart: Oh, and that’s such a better way to handle it than just being like, ‘Got to go!’ <laughter>
Janet Lowndes: And you know, totally understandable, and the ‘got to go’ might work and when it works, whatever, fine, just use it I reckon. You know, we do what we gotta do to get through you know. But I think sometimes what’s required is a more honest conversation, and that’s a hard conversation to argue with, isn’t it? It’s like, ‘I do care about you’. And there’s also the taking personal responsibility in that, ‘I notice that what I have done is stayed a bit longer each time and it’s because I do care about you, but I’m very conscious that you know, your needs could be better served through a referral’. So I think that sort of stuff is really important, that we’re still really holding someone and supporting them to get the care they need, but we’re also, you know, as a yoga teacher I also think part of our role is to help people see their own dynamic, including seeing when they are kind of stepping over into taking our time.
Jo Stewart: Absolutely, like knowing themselves, being real with themselves.
Janet Lowndes: Exactly, yeah yeah. And not being aware when they’re stealing our time or not being aware when their ah jangly jewellery is upsetting everybody else in mediation, or you know whatever it is, it’s like sometimes actually I think as a yoga teacher, if we’re not careful we can be too focused on being nice, and by doing that we might hinder the person’s learning experience.
Jo Stewart: Yeah. I have another interesting one I’d love your opinion on. Often there’s this dynamic, and my home studio, it’s really small; it’s three people, so even if people don’t know each other initially, often, you know, there’s a bit of chat and it’s pretty friendly, and just one thing that breaks my heart is the casual body hate, like so often someone will just like grab their belly be like ‘ooohh, look at these rolls!’ And because I work with aerial fabric they’re like, ‘oh, its digging into my muffin top, I hate these bits.’ And then it’s like this group energy, other people will be like, ‘oooh, I hate my thighs too’. And it’s this weird bonding experience of people just hating on their bodies. And it’s the last thing I want to be teaching in my class! I want people to feel good about themselves and I’ve even said, ‘Look, we’re all really unique, like what I want to do here is help you all feel really good in your bodies, like that’s what I’m teaching. And one person was like, ‘Oh, it’s easy for you to say, you’re really fit, you don’t have wobbly bits,’ which is totally not true! But its like, uughh! how do I just turn this around without making it into this phony kind of, people hiding how they really feel and pretending everything’s perfect when that’s not how it is.
Janet Lowndes: Yep, ahh I love that you’re aware of it and that you’re you know, already thinking, ‘I don’t want this to be the culture that I’m enabling’. It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because I think this is an issue that’s well beyond the yoga class but would be nice if people could at least escape from it in the yoga class. But you know people sit around and they catch up with friends and talk about what diet they’re on and whether they’ve gained or lost weight. I mean, how boring is that as a conversation? It’s like, really? There’s so many more interesting things about a person as a human than whether they’ve, you know, what’s going on with their outward appearance, right? So I think that when its starting to infiltrate the yoga studio, what I would suggest is that that is your space and you’re allowed to set whatever rule you like. So we have a rule here at this clinic, at Mind Body Well, that this is a no body hate zone.
Jo Stewart: Oh I’m putting that on my website!
Janet Lowndes: Yeah great! It’s a no body hate zone so we will not have conversations about body hatred. It’s like, ‘nah nah, not having it’.
Jo Stewart: Not in here. No <laughter>
Janet Lowndes: And you know, when you can be light like that and you hear it, it’s like ‘ooh, remember the sign at the door, or whatever. It’s like this, no body hate’ ‘cause it’s, and really what we’re doing with that and having a bit of fun like that is actually asking people to be conscious of how much of this is infiltrating their life. Like why are we doing that? Hating on our bodies and objectifying them like that. So, you know I think why not, put up some signs ‘This is a no body hate zone’ ah, you know, there’ll be no fat-shaming no fat-talk, no objectification of the body, all of that kind of stuff. And even just openly naming it like, ‘Look at what we’re doing here’. Because you know really, when we think about those deeper teachings of yoga, it’s about self-awareness and recognising the impact of our behaviours and the impact of you know, mind our thoughts, mind our speech, mind our behaviours because they become our destiny, you know. So if we’re just saying these things out loud to ourselves all the time, imagine how much more they’re actually saying it in their minds, which is really sad. But a) it’s not good for them; b) it’s not good for the other people in the room; and c) it’s not good for you as a teacher, I don’t want to hear it! It’s like I hear it everywhere else. I want this to be a safe place where I don’t have to come to feel ashamed of myself. There’s enough of that, there’s plenty other places that can encourage that.
Jo Stewart: Yeah, like this is where you can cultivate the love and the understanding of yourself.
Janet Lowndes: Exactly! So you know I think you can kind of say that in the subtle way but sometimes you just got to have the sign on the door that says ‘This is a no body hate zone’. And you know there’s other ways that we do it, like watch, be careful of what pictures we have on the wall and what sort of imagery we’re portraying again about yoga. And I think there’s also the skill in the teacher I think in encouraging more introception and more of a felt sense experience of the practice, is that we want to keep trying to bring people away from thinking, ‘what do I look like in the pose?’ you know, but the tricky thing is that we live in a world that is so externalised and the appearance of the body seems more important than just about everything else in lots of places, that we really have such an opportunity. I think yoga can be the greatest act of body acceptance and body love that we can ever have, that we can ever do, if we are doing yoga yoga. If all we are doing is making the shapes and thinking, ‘Gee I hope I look good in this pose and I hope the yoga teacher can see me right now, because I am hot in this!’
Jo Stewart: I am sucking it all in! <laughter>
Janet Lowndes: It’s all in place in this moment and then of course it all usually fall out of the sling or whatever you’re doing in that, when ego carries on like that. But we have that real opportunity as teachers I think to help people develop a totally different relationship and stance in regard to their bodies. A lot of people live, it’s like they’re, as if they’re a metre away from their body. That they’re always checking it out, you know, body checking and looking in mirrors and trying to imagine what I think you think I look like. Whereas yoga is really all about the opposite to that. About that kind of lived experience of an internal feeling of living our lives rather than a narrative of what I think it looks like from the outside.
Jo Stewart: Absolutely! And it’s like the window in, if all you’ve had is the surface imagery and the advertising and even movies and like a lot of literature as well, to actually feel into your body, often yoga’s the first place that we have the space to do that and the guidance into that.
Janet Lowndes: Mmm. Yup. And it’s the most powerful thing about it and its one of the things that makes me feel the most um passionate about the importance of having these conversations with yoga teachers about ‘please don’t mess up yoga too’. You know, ‘I feel like this body image focus and this objectification of the body and the body beautiful is messing up so many things, can we not just at least protect yoga from that, you know. That yoga is not a weight loss tool. It’s not a way to shred fat from your body you know, and again, it makes me so un-yogically angry when I see yoga teachers saying things like, you know, ‘Transform your body and get a yoga six-pack’, you know, what is that? Maybe six yoga mats in a box, I don’t know! <laughter> like, it’s just, I think we have to be really careful not to buy in to the message and the questions that students might ask, ‘Well, will I lose weight doing yoga?’. Well, I think it’s really important that we try and change the question. It’s, you know, ‘Can you have a better relationship with your body and your mind and your, other people in your life and your inner self?’. Yes, absolutely! Is yoga about weight loss? No, I don’t believe it is. And so, let’s stop trying to sell it like, you know another weight loss tool.
Jo Stewart: Absolutely! When I was looking through your website, I knew you were a busy woman, but it was like four people’s jobs! <laughter> Like Director of the Australia Institute of Yoga Therapy, your psychology practice, all the different Boards they you’re on and all the different study that you’re doing and have done in the past… ‘This woman must have some good self-care practices in place to manage all of this’. Do you have any kind of things that have really helped you, like anything you can share with other busy yoga teachers or busy anyone?
Janet Lowndes: Yeah, that’s an interesting timing question ‘cause I, you know, to be really honest, I am a work in progress and the last couple of months that balance has not been a healthy one. So you know, we all have our vulnerabilities and one of my vulnerabilities is to take on too much, ah and to overdo and to feel too responsible for all the problems in the world. So it’s a really interesting challenge because I think for all of us what’s important is that we know our vulnerabilities, that we recognise when we’ve stepped into them and then that we put in place the things we need to do to steer back. Realistically though I find that the steering back takes time and so I find often when I’ve dug the hole it’s actually like, ‘Oh bugger! I’m overdoing, this is going to take a little while to come out of it, and but that’s okay because I’m coming out of it’. But you know, even acknowledging that I think is important because, you’re right, you could remember that what we present on our website and our social media is the best possible version of things, right. But in reality, absolutely, I often have to be careful about the overdoing. So, in terms of what my, I guess, you know, I wouldn’t for a moment think that I’d sit here and say, ‘Ah yeah you just do all of these things and you never experience it ..’
Jo Stewart: Oh, you just schedule it very well. You know, plan your meals on the weekend!
Janet Lowndes: Ahh, yeah. But again that’s interesting isn’t it, ‘cause sometimes that’s the image of the person that’s got it all together and figured out, but you know the reason I’m still on this path is ‘cause I’ve still got a lot to learn, right and I still will be for this, at least this lifetime, I’m pretty sure. So I feel, it’s interesting, right, ‘cause this really, the last three or four months has been a really challenging time for me in lots of personal ways and business ways, and it’s been a time where I’ve really noticed and had so much kind of respect for the cumulative nature of the well, the reserve that we build through our practice and through our yogic life over time. It’s that you know, yoga is not a reactive.. It’s not, ‘Ah, if your life turns to crap do a bit of yoga and you’ll be ok’. It’s more about the, I often describe that it’s a multivitamin, not an antibiotic.
Jo Stewart: Ah nice, yeah.
Janet Lowndes: It’s like you build up your resilience over time, so that of course, we still fall in heaps sometimes but we don’t, I don’t fall as far and I have the, like a deep innate knowledge that I will be okay even when life is really difficult. That I, I’ve finally developed that through yoga. So a faith and a trust in that place in me that is calm and that is strong and that is peaceful and that is capable. You know, all of those things that it’s easy to think, oh, I wish I could be, but actually, I am those things. It’s just sometimes I forget them or things get in the way of that. So I guess my best recommendation isn’t one that says, ‘Ah well you do all these things and you don’t actually fall, sort of, sometimes in a bit of heap’. I think more realistically of my humanness and everyone else’s humanness, that sometimes we overdo, sometimes we grieve, sometimes we do all kinds of things and we need to honour that, but through our practice over time, we build a deep anchor to that place of okayness that we know is still there even when we’re not seeing it.
Jo Stewart: I guess as well that that observant part of your mind that clicks before maybe you do fall in the heap of like, ‘Oh I’m in this pattern again. I’m starting to feel overwhelmed’.
Janet Lowndes: Yeah, and that’s absolutely, that’s the ideal is that, you know, I think that our practice over time doesn’t stop us from still having our vulnerabilities, it just means that maybe we don’t go as far down the path before we realise we’re on it, you know. Maybe at step one or two we’re like, ‘Aaahhh hello! What are you doing? I thought we were done, right. You again!’ So we see it at one or two rather than seven or eight or nine or ten, hopefully. So, but yeah so I really think that I couldn’t sit here and say, ‘Ah, there’s a whole bunch of how to run your life tools because I think that’s really for the individual to reflect on themselves. But I would say it’s the deep well, the deep reserve of connection to our authentic self that we build over time that is actually what enables us to do all the things that we want to do and to cope in the times that are difficult.
Jo Stewart: Yeah, that’s fantastic advice.
Janet Lowndes: And cooking meals on the weekends helps too!
Jo Stewart: Yeah. Just make some extra, put it in the freezer! <laughter>
Rane Bowen: This might be a bit of a left turn, but you said you listened to our episode with Kara-Leah Grant on her kundalini experience and I was actually wondering what your opinion on those sorts of experiences might be from a psychology perspective, because I guess people in the yoga world do sort of seem to experience this a lot.
Janet Lowndes: It’s an interesting question because I don’t know Kara-Leah and when I heard that episode I found it really interesting and I don’t consider myself an expert in the kind of concept of the kundalini awakening, so I listened to it with the same curiosity that anyone else might. And I still don’t, I really know because I don’t have kind of context for understanding that through the yoga teachings that I’ve explored. It did make me think though about, there’s a chapter in a book called Yoga Psychology by Swami Rama and Rudolph Ballentine, and the chapter in this book, the title of it is beautiful. The title is Psychosis or Samadhi.
Jo Stewart: Ah, I’ve heard that phrase, yeah.
Janet Lowndes: Because that’s an interesting question. It strikes me that’s probably what it’s kind of like right, and my feeling about the difference from, but again this is not an expert opinion, but it got me thinking about it after that episode, I wonder whether what happens when we’re having a more enlightened experience or a breakthrough ah experience that some people might call a kundalini-type experience, I think that those kind of experiences from what I’ve heard about them, when people talk about them, and I’ve never had one, is that they’re actually more unifying and they’re about experiencing our oneness. Whereas I think that some of the things that people might refer to as more of a breakdown as opposed to a breakthrough and more, whether we’d call it psychosis or mental breakdowns, whatever, one of the characteristics often of those experiences is a feeling, is the opposite. It’s total isolation and a feeling of being totally different to everybody else. We all feel that on some level, but a feeling of total isolation and removal from humanity. That experience worries me more when I hear of people having those kind of experiences, as a mental health professional. We all have aspects of that at times in our lives but when we totally separate our self from our humanness, when the ego self you know, separates us from the more kind of, the unified consciousness, then that’s terrifying and can be sort of, it’s a crisis for a human being. So that’s kind of as far as I’ve got in my thinking about it. I think it’s a great conversation though, and I’d love to hear more people’s thoughts on it because I think it’s very interesting: ‘What’s the difference?’ To people outside any spiritual traditions, what we’re talking about, anything to do with these awakened experiences, could easily all be seen as just losing your mind, right?
Jo Stewart: Yeah.
Janet Lowndes: ..which still is, but in a different way, like I think that’s actually a difference too, it’s like maybe are we moving to a deeper level of self and deeper level of our understanding of the nature of existence; or do we feel like we’re removing ourselves from our fundamental humanity? I think that sounds a lot more problematic to me than the first version. So I think that’s a, I love that you’re asking people that question though, it feels like it’s a really sort of interesting reflection that I don’t, yeah I don’t know that there’s any easy answers to it. It’s a good enquiry I think.
Jo Stewart: Mmm, like we know a couple of people who it’s happened to and they weren’t yogis and it didn’t happen in a yoga context. And so, without even that yoga philosophy framework, which at least gives you some kind of context for what might be happening, like it’s, it just seems to be happening to more and more people, uninvited, so yeah I reckon, it’s definitely something that I do want to share more out loud so if anyone listening has had that experience and been too terrified to tell anyone, like they’re not alone, like this is something that happens.
Janet Lowndes: Yeah. You know what I would say though, that even with those experiences I think it’s important that we still don’t assume a uniformality… in the same way that I said before about all depression is not the same, that, because what could happen if we’re not careful is, a couple of people could say, ‘Well, this is what it is and this is what happens’, but I don’t think any experience is ever the same for any two people. There might be similar aspects, but I know it’s easier if we can say an experience is the same, and you know…
Jo Stewart: That this is this…
Janet Lowndes: Exactly, we can name it, we can label it, we can familiarise it. But actually, I think we should never lose the individual humanity kind of, that we each manifest things in a different way. So I think that’s the other tricky part of this conversation, because I would also as you know, as a health professional, I would never make a judgment about whether something sounds like a kind of healthy transcendence or an unhealthy kind of breakdown. I’d never make that assessment without assessing the individual person.
Jo Stewart: Hmm, and from your professional standpoint.
Janet Lowndes: Yeah, because I think it’s really, yeah could be so many different things actually.
Jo Stewart: I feel you may already have answered this because so many of your answers have come back to this central theme, but is there one overriding thing that someone, say someone went to a class with you, someone had a session with you, is there a key philosophy you’d like to impart? Like what is the heart of what you teach and what you do?
Janet Lowndes: I’d love you to ask that to a whole bunch of my clients and see what the answer is, ‘cause it’s, you know, we think, there’s the stuff we think we know about ourselves and then there’s what other people experience about us. But I guess my strongest response to that is that I think what’s really important is that we allow ourselves to gravitate towards the aspects of our lives that help us strengthen our own inner wisdom and our own inner teacher and our own inner therapist. That I think the yoga teaching that I respect the most and the psychotherapy that I respect the most, both equally are about helping people return to the pure wisdom, goodness, light, whatever we want to call it, pure self in them that is already there. I don’t believe that either yoga or psychology are about changing or transforming people in a way that is about helping them be someone different. It’s more about helping people bring to the surface their light. So the Psychologist, early Psychologist Karl Jung, used to talk about our light and our shadow. The light is there even when it is behind the shade and sometimes it’s a long way behind the shade, there’s a lot of shade <laughs> but I think that it’s really important and so helpful to speak as a yoga teacher, that teachers recognise that its not about us doing anything to a person or it’s not about, you know we actually need to take our own ego identity out of the equation. That really good teaching, good therapy I believe, um is about helping people return to that which is already there in them.
Jo Stewart: Yeah beautiful, yeah. Pick of the week!
Janet Lowndes: I had trouble stopping at one!
Jo Stewart: Oh you can have as many picks as you like! Yeah yeah.
Janet Lowndes: Can I? So the first one is my very dear friend, Lucy Kanani. Lucy is a yoga teacher and communication expert ah and Lucy and her dear friend, Jill Danks, another ah communications expert and coach, they are just about to release a book called Connecting and it’s about conscious communication for yoga teachers.
Jo Stewart: Aaah, so good.
Janet Lowndes: Fantastic, and I was fortunate to be one of their early readers of the book and this is a must-read I think for all yoga teachers and really useful book for all human beings. And they will be launching that book at, segue into my second recommendation, which is the Yoga Australia Conference <laughs>
Jo Stewart: Ah yes!
Janet Lowndes: … which is coming up in March, in the middle of March, and I’ll be speaking at the Yoga Australia conference and, will you guys be there?
Jo Stewart: Not this year, unfortunately.
Janet Lowndes: Oh you’ll be there in spirit, we’ll be thinking of you. So, Yoga Australia conference is always just a beautiful, amazing, wonderful experience so I look forward to seeing people there, that’s my next recommendation. And the third one is, I hope it’s not totally rude to do a little plug…
Jo Stewart: No, you can definitely plug.
Janet Lowndes: The yoga psychology workshops that I run with Michael de Manincor, we run them both for, yoga teachers is one group of the trainings we run to help yoga teachers develop their skills and understanding in kind of responding to mental health challenges of our students, which we know is a lot of people, and we also run them for mental health professionals to help mental health professionals learn about the psychology in yoga. So we’ve got, I think May is our next workshop for yoga teachers here in Melbourne and then in Sydney later in the year. So that’s just on the yogapsychology.com.au website. So that’s my little shameless self-promotion.
Jo Stewart: Oh no, fantastic! And I feel like you’ve already said so much great advice on the yoga for mental health sphere, that yeah I think everyone will want to come to your workshops.
Janet Lowndes: Oh good! It’s actually great and working with Michael de Manincor is fabulous and Michael’s extraordinary knowledge and application of the yoga sutras, it’s just a really interesting weave in between the things we’ve been talking about today, and then Michael keeps referencing it back into the sutras, which is just fabulous, it’s really, yeah, it’s great working with him.
Jo Stewart: Fantastic! So my one is just a treat for your eyes. I found this new Instagram account that I love. Ah it’s Phillipa Stanton and the account is number five ftinf and I’ll put the link, and she’s a photography and she has synaesthesia and she paints. So a lot of her photographs, like there’s one that is jasmine and then she used paint to depict the smells of the jasmine. So it’s beautiful yellows and purples. Or she’ll do things like just arrange a whole lot of objects on her wooden table but all the objects are periwinkle blue and tangerine orange and it’s like a pallet cleanser for your brain. It’s beautiful!
Janet Lowndes: Oh man, I’m on that straightaway this afternoon. Can I just add a fourth one to my list then because that reminded me. Another thing I was going to say, it’s not really pick of the week, it’s almost a recommendation. Clean up your social media. Get rid of images that make you feel bad about yourself or bad about your body or bad about your life. Just get rid of them. Gone. Blocked. Exited. Whatever. And put more of the beautiful stuff. We need more beauty in our lives so that is such a perfect kind of reminder, thank you.
Jo Stewart: Yeah, ninety percent of my Instagram is pictures of plants!
Janet Lowndes: Yeah, mine’s puppies, but anyway. <laughter>
Rane Bowen: My pick of the week is Spotify. I’ve only signed up recently to it but I’m actually really loving how it’ll actually start preparing playlists based on your history and they’re actually turning out to be incredibly accurate in what I like. So that’s really good. And the other thing I like is that it knows your friends and you can actually watch what they’re playing.
Jo Stewart: Which I think is creepy <laughter>
Rane Bowen: It is a little bit creepy but then you can go, ‘Ohh! I want to play that’.
Janet Lowndes: And you can say, ‘I didn’t realise you’re into Barry Manilow’.
Rane Bowen Yeeeah <laughter>
Jo Stewart: We’ve got this one friend who just plays like jolly hiphop.
Rane Bowen: So yeah if I want to feel uplifted I just go to that person’s Spotify playlist and yeah, I’m set. So yeah, that’s my pick of the week.
Janet Lowndes: I love that you guys are so into the senses, it’s your creative artistic kind of selves.
Jo Stewart: And technology <laughter>
Janet Lowndes: Yeah yeah, that’s really nice.
Rane Bowen: Thanks so much, that was such a great conversation..
Jo Stewart: Thank you so much, Janet. It’s so wonderful to talk to you.
Rane Bowen: I’ve learnt so much from that.
Jo Stewart: Me too!
Janet Lowndes: Aah, thank you! Well, thank you to both of you for what you’re doing, you know, I think anyone who’s out in the world trying to spread the good stuff, we’re grateful for your sharing and your generosity and contribution to me and everyone else whose listening.
Jo Stewart: Ah, it’s our pleasure, we get to talk to amazing people, it’s fantastic!
Rane Bowen: We get to learn so much.
Janet Lowndes: Likewise. This is fun. Anytime.
Jo Stewart: Yay! <laughter> Thank you.
Janet Lowndes: Thanks guys.
Rane Bowen: That was a great conversation. We covered so much and the time really flew by. Janet is an amazing and extremely down-to-earth individual. It was great to have the opportunity to talk with her.
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