The one thing guaranteed to calm me down was movement. Tom Norrington-Davies
In the summer of 2007, you might say I was living the dream.
I had been a successful chef and cookery writer for several years. And now I was co- owner of a popular restaurant in London’s West End. I was doing a job I loved. I was lucky enough to be working with some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. But I had a problem and it was getting out of hand. For as long as I could remember, I had struggled with high levels of anxiety. I mostly hid it well. People would generally describe me as confident and optimistic. In truth I was anything but.
This was an old problem. In early childhood, the anxiety would manifest itself as ‘ants in the pants’. I simply couldn’t sit still. My young mind would run away with itself in anticipation of some unspecified disaster or another and my jumpy little legs would follow suite. I was often told off for not concentrating in school. It wasn’t that I couldn’t pay attention. I just couldn’t do it and sit still. By the time I hit double figures I was an accomplished pacer. And if I couldn’t pace, I’d jiggle my knees or constantly reposition my legs on the chair. It drove teachers crazy.
The one thing guaranteed to calm me down was movement.
I was happiest in water. I trained avidly in swimming clubs. Matching breath to movement with the sound of water roaring in my ears could really calm me down. The tougher the swim, the steadier and more focused I felt.
It may sound strange but later in life a really busy restaurant service could take me to a similar place. Focusing intently on the stove, moving orders along the tab grab like pieces on a chess board and co-ordinating every move with my fellow workers brought the present moment into sharp focus. It was addictive.
In many ways, running a kitchen is good for the anxious mind. For a start, it’s a physical job. I’ve spent most of my adult life on my feet, on the move. Much of what makes cooking exciting is creating order out of potential chaos. At the stove you are choreographing time, fire and any number of unruly ingredients. Averting mini disasters like a curdled sauce here or a cremated steak there. Slowing down one thing and speeding up another so that everything hits the plate at just the right moment. Sadly you can’t control everything. You’re always at the mercy of delinquent equipment, late deliveries, missing staff, no- show tables…the list is endless.
As a fledgling restaurateur I found myself feeling responsible for every little thing that went wrong. My rational side knew this was daft. But we are not always rational. Every customer complaint, every minor staff quarrel, every blocked sink would keep me awake at night when sleep was already in short supply. I discovered that I was a terrible delegator and told myself I was ‘mucking in’ when I was interfering. I was miserable, exhausted and (worst of all) I was panicking.
I began to experience the same, terrifying panic attacks I’d had in my teens. Back then they usually occurred around exam times. But other tasks or assignments could just as easily act as triggers. Team sports were really bad. I’d convince myself I was going to fail or lose and let everyone down. My head would swim, my throat would close and I’d want to run away. However, for some reason I learned to hide these attacks in plain sight. I just had to go very very quiet and move very very slowly until they had passed.
At the restaurant they were coming thick and fast. It made no sense to me because things were going so well. My main issue seemed to be an inability to take any credit for our success. It’s hard to say why without sounding ungrateful for a life that seemed to have fallen into my lap. I’d walked into all the right places at the right times. Writing had given me a brief and very mild glimpse at something like celebrity. But the attention made me very uncomfortable. The more people wanted me to talk or write about cooking, the more I felt like a chancer. A lucky amateur who couldn’t even cook, let alone run a business. I was convinced that the place was going to fall down around my ears and it would all be my fault.
A few people had mentioned yoga as an antidote to anxiety over the years. I’d always been sceptical about its ability to do anything other than tie you up in knots (and make you a bit smug) but that summer I decided to give it a go. What did I have to lose?
My memories of my first classes are a bit of a blur. One thing stood out. Being told to synchronise breathing and moving felt a bit like swimming. So not wholly unfamiliar. It was harder than swimming…a lot harder. There was much more movement than I’d expected.
Walking out of the classes a crumpled, sweaty mess and going straight back to a busy kitchen seemed like an odd way to calm down. But it felt good. Really good.
Before long I was a regular attendee at the same class each week. I loved it so much I hated missing my fix if the erratic restaurant schedule got in the way. So one day I approached the teacher and asked if she knew of any books or dvd’s that I could use to try at home. And that’s how I discovered Mysore style self practice.
Self practice is the traditional form of Astanga Yoga. In a Mysore style class, dynamic sequences of therapeutic movements and holds (postures) are aligned with a simple breathing technique. You learn the sequences ‘off by heart’ through repetition. This leads to self sufficiency: you are able to practice when and wherever you need to. You work at your own pace and choose the level of intensity depending on how much time and energy you have. The Mysore class is not really a “class “ at all. It’s an open door session, you arrive and leave at your own time.
Self practice has a powerfully physical side and a deeply meditative aspect: because you are not waiting for instructions or trying to keep up with everybody else you get to fully concentrate on what you are doing.
This level of absorption- being in the moment – and repeating the same sequence of events methodically is second nature to a cook’s mind. And of course being fully absorbed in a task (perhaps you call it ‘being in the zone’) is familiar to people in kitchens.
Practicing Astanga yoga helps you access this ‘zone’ methodically. You don’t need everything to be ‘going right’. One of the first benefits I felt from practicing yoga was a huge reduction in stress and anxiety in the restaurant. It seemed to be infectious. I began to get a reputation for running a calm, light hearted kitchen. These were not attributes I would have previously laid claim to!
As a result I found myself on the mat again and again. It felt like a prescription. I wanted to stick to it. If I worked a day shift, I’d practice in the early evening. If I had a late start, I’d do it in the morning. Sometimes I’d be almost floored with with tiredness when I started. I’d finish full of a kind of energy I had never felt before.
Back and knee pains which I’d always thought were ‘part of the job’ started to vanish. Soon I began to notice when I slouched or stooped at work. The yoga practice always ends with a trio of simple postures for which you sit cross legged. I was taken aback by how difficult I found these, although my jumpy young schoolboy self could have told me why. Focusing on the highly regulated breathing techniques I began, painfully slowly, to learn to Sit. Still.
I can clearly remember a particular day, some months later, in the kitchen. We were fully booked, the place was jumping and just as my palms began sweating, my mind racing, my throat constricting… I began to slowly count my breathing as if I was on the mat. One…two…three…in my head you could hear a pin drop.
I haven’t had a panic attack for over a decade.
I hardly need to tell you that this yoga practice became a bigger and bigger part of me. It was like stumbling upon something I didn’t know I’d been looking for all my life.
I now teach Mysore style full time. How that came about is a long story for another day. To cut it short and to state it simply: I felt a powerful urge to share the practice that had helped me so much and one thing led to another.
When I started practicing no one in kitchens talked about mental health. When I first became aware of the pilot light campaign I knew straight away that I wanted to tell them my story and get involved. I was lucky enough to stumble upon this type of yoga almost by accident fourteen years ago. Perhaps through the campaign I could give more people the chance to experience it too.
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