Beata Beatrix, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1864-70
Before I started teaching yoga I studied History of Art at university. Paintings are still a major inspiration, especially ones that deal with the human psyche. This beautiful, ghostly portrait is of Elizabeth Siddal - the wife of the artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I’ve always loved this hazy, dreamlike painting but there’s a sad story behind it. Elizabeth Siddal died of a laudanum overdose, it is not known whether it was suicide or she simply took too much, but ‘Lizzie’, as she was known, had been addicted to the drug for some time.
Her husband chose to paint her at the moment of death. The dove flying towards her carries a poppy flower, a reference to the drug that killed her. The bird is a messenger not only of death, but of peace. Rossetti intended to represent Lizzie transformed by a 'sudden spiritual transfiguration’: her hands are open to receive, her already blue lips parted in an expression of ecstasy.
The red figure in the background symbolises Love (sharing its colour with the dove), and the dark figure to the right is the artist. Rossetti has cast Lizzie in these dying moments as Beata Beatrix (the lover of the Renaissance poet, Dante) who died in 1290, thereby drawing parallels between the two women who both died tragically young.
Lizzie, an artist and poet in her own right, modelled for Rossetti for years. Unfortunately, she suffered from mental health issues and sought refuge in the widely available laudanum. It is thought she suffered from depression and stress due to Rossetti’s unfaithfulness and the fear that he would choose a younger lover as his new model.
She started taking opium in larger doses to calm her down and help her sleep. Opium was commonly prescribed in the nineteenth-century and taken by many writers and artists (including Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley). The concept of addiction was not understood at this time but writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge described the agonising and terrifying nightmares he would experience as a result of opium withdrawal. He wrote that he was pursued in his nightmares by a ‘fiendish crowd / Of shapes and thoughts that tortured me’, he felt both ‘Life-stifling fear’ and ‘soul-stifling shame’. These descriptions bring to mind thoughts and feelings people sometimes experience during periods of intense anxiety: it's no small thing. It can be overpowering.
I often reflect on how fortunate we are now for all the scientific research into mental health and addiction and how symbiotic this knowledge is with Eastern philosophies. For thousands of years people have suffered and often viewed drugs such as laudanum as the only release. Of course this is still the case with millions of people today but the difference is we now have proven, powerful tools to help naturally shift these feelings. As a yoga teacher, I feel it’s important to share what I have learnt from my own teachers within my community (in my classes and online).
It is now accepted that we are not broken or damaged when we experience intense fluctuations of the mind. Yet due to conditions within or outside our control, the mind can find itself in an extreme state, easily slipped into when our thoughts have wandered too far away from the present.
This ‘wandering mind’ is what neuroscientists refer to as the ‘default mode network’. It is always active: ruminating over past events, rehearsing the future, self-evaluation, self-focus, me, I, my, mine, etc. While a little of this is obviously necessary, too much wandering (or an extremely active default mode network) leads to anxiety, depression and a huge distinction between self and other - a separateness.
Religions have long referred to this ‘dysfunction’ of the mind, this wandering far from ‘oneness’ (or non-separateness). Hinduism calls it maya, the veil of delusion. Buddhists refer to it as dukkha, translated as suffering or unsatisfactoriness. Christianity refers to the normal collective state of humanity as Original Sin. In his book, A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle describes how the original translation of sin from ancient Greek (in which the New Testament was written) means ‘to miss the mark’ or miss the point. Eckhart explains how Original Sin was misinterpreted and that it actually describes how humans are living unskilfully, blindly; pointing again to a dysfunction inherent in the human condition that can only lead to suffering.
Today, neuroscientists explain the default mode network as an inevitable (albeit unfortunate) development within the prefrontal cortex - the ‘new’ area of the brain which deals with planning, anticipation, social behaviour, morality, etc. This frontal lobe evolved as our ancestors adapted to living within tribes and had to process new types of information to deal with forming relationships, problem solving, reasoning, abstract thought, etc; all of which increases overall intelligence but takes us away from concrete, physical objects before our eyes.
This ability to think about what is not immediately happening is a cognitive achievement. However, it comes with an emotional cost.
It is the part of our mentality that judges others, that complains, that constantly wants more. Freud would have called it the ego. One of the goals of yoga is to transcend it.
No wonder Lizzie and countless other men and women felt so rough when their thinking spiralled out of control and they lost touch with the present. We hear all the time these days about the benefits of mindful practices and millions of people feel reset after a yoga class without fully understanding why it’s so effective.
When we’re thinking about what’s not happening, we’re not in our bodies. When we become embodied, we feel better. It’s a release from the sticky grip of the default mode network (or ego).
There are certain tools we can use to help ourselves when we feel unbalanced. If it’s particularly problematic, talking to people (ideally professionals) is a first port of call, but if that isn’t available there are methods to quickly check-in with the body and therefore re-root ourselves in the present. A simple way of quickly becoming embodied during periods of high stress or a ‘mental storm’ is to focus on our physical body and cultivate momentary awareness of sensations (it often helps to place your hands on your body). Ask yourself:
Am I in my body at this moment?
What sensations am I noticing?
What is the depth of my breath?
What is the pace of my mind?
Are there any areas that feel tight, congested?
Are there any communication blocks within the body?
If you don’t quite understand that last question, don’t worry. These are all just prompts to help you to stay present within the body from one moment to the next.
There are many centring practices within yoga that help gather energies of the body that may have gone array. One of these involves attending to the mula bandha, deep within the pelvic floor and far from the overactive brain (I’ll write more about this in another blog). But any embodying practice, whether it be qigong, tai chi, yoga, or mindful meditation will help strengthen your mind’s resilience so we are able to catch ourselves before we slip too far.
(Please note that this is not meant to provide an instantaneous cure. These are not quick fixes. It’s a subtle process and something that takes time. It’s important to make sure basic needs are met in order to progress in well-being. Google Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to check this out.)
Yogi Bhajan said, ‘Happiness is your birthright’, we’re all entitled to it. This is not to say that feelings other than happiness are bad; feelings are of course completely natural and we need to acknowledge them. I heard someone on the radio recently describe happiness as an absence of feeling. She said that we often carry around with us a feeling of ‘things aren’t quite right’. Happiness, she said, is the absence of that. It’s freedom.
From this point of view, happiness is our natural state when everything else gets out of the way, when we're focused on the present as it unfolds. How many of you feel peaceful when you’re completely absorbed in a particular task (especially a creative one)? Physical practices are particularly powerful because they immediately take the focus out of your head.
I like to think that Lizzie felt at peace when she was painting or writing poetry, and if yoga was a thing back in Victorian London it would've helped her out a lot more than the laudanum bottle. If she had known that there were simple steps she could take that would help her feel stable again, she perhaps wouldn’t have needed to escape by poisoning herself. Yoga helps us notice the attachments of our mind, and by noticing them, we distance ourselves from them.
I’m so grateful for this practice of yoga and all the teachers around the world who are doing the work to help people who are suffering. My intention in writing this is to send the message that if you or anyone close to you is suffering from a mental health issue, encourage them firstly to talk to someone (really important - communication is vital) and secondly to consider taking up an embodying practice of any kind. Let them know they are not damaged, they are not abnormal. This has been happening for millennia (it’s called the default mode for a reason). It’s becoming more prevalent now for a host of reasons (social media, increased competition, etc), but it has always been there.
Thankfully our culture is now raising awareness, letting go of the stigma and accepting it for what it is without judgement. However, there’s a long way to go. I’m a big believer that even though self-care is crucial to helping you through tough times, it is also the responsibility of the state, the work-place and the community as a whole to help create healthy conditions and environments for individuals to thrive. This is inspired by the African Ubuntu philosophy: I am better when you are better. The yogic perspective is that we are all interconnected. This is something I'd like to write more about in another post, but for now, try taking a few moments out of your day to place your hands on your body, acknowledge your feelings, observe your thoughts, locate sensations in your body, notice your breath...... and then see if something shifts.
Beata Beatrix by Rossetti lives in the Tate Britain, London.