Yoga Alliance Registered Teacher
Lotus Leaf Yoga
Fran Keeley (56yrs)
Humanist yoga practitioner & teacher
Milton Keynes, UK
Influences: Barbara & Russell Keeley, Granville Callan, David Swenson, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Robyn Regula. And my present teacher: Peter Blackaby
My yoga journey
I wrote the article below in 2013, as a response to an assignment we were given during teacher training, where we were asked to write about our 'yoga journey' to that point.
A child of the sixties, I grew up running wild in a peace loving libertarian household, dressed in flared jeans and a browband, listening to Bob Dylan. It isn’t surprising I grew up to be a bit of a hippy.
I experienced a spell of adolescent depression. My father told me tenderly ‘just relax and be yourself.’ I remember thinking that was all very well, but I had no idea how to do it.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was the leader of the Transcendental Meditation movement at that time. Their headquarters, Mentmore Towers, was five miles from our family home in Bedfordshire. A friend joined the movement. We’d talk about Indian culture over tasty vegetarian suppers. I learned to meditate at Mentmore and was presented with my own mantra. It was a strange word I found awkward to pronounce.
The TM movement was interesting. Still - it wasn’t quite my time for Yoga and I let it go.
After leaving school I studied art and design. On my first day at college, I met my soulmate in the queue for a coffee. Granv is an atheist, passionate about science. I share his respect for science but, despite my best efforts, I’ve never quite managed to become an atheist.
During this time I had a motorcycle accident which damaged my knee and left me with a limp. Yoga had the consultant’s approval as a form of post-operative therapy. I bought a book of Iyengar sequences and began practicing asanas at home.
My leg strengthened. My limp all but disappeared. Still - it wasn’t quite my time for Yoga and I let it go.
After college, I took off with a rucksack to explore the world. I cherish images of Yoga from this time. A man in Virabhadrasana on the deck of a Portuguese fishing boat; figures in Urdhva Dhanurasana carved into the wall of an ancient Egyptian temple; myself, attempting a wobbly Shirshasana on a rickety balcony overlooking the rainforest in Costa Rica.
I travelled to India and stayed in an ashram in the foothills of the Himalaya. A small group of visitors practiced Yoga at dawn and dusk there, each day. I recall the breathtaking beauty of the Himalayan landscape. And the pilgrims from all over India, passing through on their way to the source of the Ganges. It was as if I’d been transported to a different planet, a poetic and mysterious otherworld.
After my travels, I returned home. That was India, this was England. It wasn’t quite my time for Yoga and I let it go.
I settled with Granv in Milton Keynes, and found work as a graphic designer.
The gym was loud and brash. My ears were still ringing when I got chatting with an Ashtanga practitioner, in Costa one morning. I told him I’d like to return to yoga practice and he recommended a DVD by David Swensen. I placed my order on Amazon the same day.
With the first play of the disc I took to Ashtanga. The more I practiced, the more I grew to love the feeling of a deep stretch. I began listening more sensitively and respectfully to my own body. It rewarded me with beautiful yoga echoes - little surges of subtle vitality, of prana, which surprised me, like a gift out of the blue.
More of a tortoise than a hare, I’ve continued to practice Ashtanga, in a quietly progressive way, with great pleasure, for the last three years. Asana practice works for me.
It wasn’t the influence of a friend that drew me deeper into Yoga. It wasn’t the need to recover from an injury. Or the inspirational beauty of India. Or the practicality of exercising at home with a yoga DVD. What drew me deeper into Yoga was a series of unfortunate events.
I became anxious and with anxiety came insomnia. I needed something to read in the middle of the night, to distract me as I lay awake, catastrophizing. I picked up a copy of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Studying the Sutras induced a feeling of deep calm. I was entranced. I returned to them every night as a sort of self-prescription for anxiety. That was it, I was hooked.
Insomnia was a blessing that introduced me to more beautiful Yoga books. BKS Iyengar’s ‘Light on Life’ is especially close to my heart. Studying Yoga philosophy works for me.
In the thrall of the Sutras, I began re-arranging my life to accommodate yoga practice. I found work at the Open University answering student enquiries. Shiftwork left me more time in the morning to practice. But I was uncomfortable in the corporate environment. When I was made redundant, I breathed a deep sigh of relief and promised myself I wouldn’t go back to that again.
It was a bit of a crazy long shot, still I applied to join the Whitespace Teacher Training Programme. I leapt with glee when I was accepted. Since then, it’s been my privilege to learn from inspirational teachers there - Deborah, Dawn, David, Sarah, Lizzie, Naz, Brigitte. I’m full of gratitude for their guidance, which is transforming my practice.
Alongside my coursework, Ashtanga classes, Yin classes, and self-practice, I’ve enjoyed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course. I want to explore mindfulness further. Mindfulness meditation works for me.
I love solitude. My natural place has always been at the perimeter of any social circle, with one foot outside, ready
In my fifties, my feelings started to change. I hoped coming to Whitespace would help make a delicate shift, from a solitary practice to a shared one. It seems to be working. I love Whitespace classes and the warm-hearted people I meet there.
I practice amongst friends now, in my yoga space. We have a cheerful time. They tell me they enjoy Yoga, feel calmer, sleep better. Apparently my home - once a scene of anxious pacing - is now an ‘oasis of calm’.
The more I practice Yoga with others, the less anxious I feel in company - not just in the studio but everywhere.
This path is firm, soft and warm underfoot. There are beautiful views. Now’s my time for the discipline of Yoga. And practicing amongst friends works for me.
Fran Keeley, Milton Keynes, December 2013
Update: Establishing Lotus Leaf Yoga
Fran Keeley, Milton Keynes, December 2016
Three years have passed since I first wrote about the journey that led me to retrain midlife to be a yoga teacher. Teaching yoga is proving to be a special joy and a true privilege. Even at my most challenged, I'm still profoundly thankful that redundancy shoved me unexpectedly onto this colourful vocational path. The delightful students in our practice enrich my life every day. Yoga teaching is well and truly what I do now. A yoga teacher is who I am.
Evolving a humanist approach to yoga practice
Update: A letter to my students
Fran Keeley, Milton Keynes, June 2018
This year has marked a significant period of change for me in my personal yoga practice. And as this effects my teaching, I think I should share it wth Lotus Leaf Yogis & Friends.
On my yoga journey, I’ve always practiced within a philosophical context, never purely as physical exercise. In my early years teaching, I delighted in studying yoga philosophy. It's been particularly helpful to me during times in the past when I was suffering from mild social anxiety and mild depression. I’ve always taught yoga from the heart, sharing my appreciation of classical yoga philosophy.
As time’s passed, I’ve found myself in a tangle in relation to yoga philosophy and my own understanding, knowledge and beliefs. While my teaching has been profoundly influenced by the classics, I’m not a practicing Hindu or Buddhist. And I do not subscribe wholly to the tenets of any form of yoga philosophy (it varies depending on which branch of the tradition you’re in.)
I’ve come to accept, now, that I’m simply a woman of my time and place. That I’m no longer an agnostic but an atheist. And that I am very much a humanist. Humanism now forms the philosophical and ethical foundation of all my yoga enquiries and my teaching. I wanted to let you know.
It'd be dishonest to say this shift has been easy or smooth. I’ve felt bereft at times, as I turn my gaze from East to West, letting go of one view and embracing another. I love the poetry and delicacy of Eastern traditions. I’ve always communed with a god of my own understanding. Even in solitude I still have a desire to communicate with another soul in the room.
This change of orientation was guided more by my head than my heart at first. But now I'm happy and at home with humanism and committed to it. While humanism looks to science for knowledge, it recognises that science is not enough to bring about progress. So it has an aim of maximizing human flourishing - life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience. It upholds the Golden Rule ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ in relation not just to humans, but to all sentient creatures.
As yoga teaching is what I do and a yoga teacher is who I am, I've felt the need to come out as a humanist! I really, really hope this doesn’t put you off Lotus Leaf classes. Love, kindness towards the self and others and an intelligent enquiring approach to life, through the entry point of the body, are my humanist intentions in sharing yoga. Discussions are always welcome.
Isn’t it funny that all this goes on behind a few hours each week, relaxing, stretching and moving the body with the breath. But it does!
I so hope you'll stay friends as I take this fork in my yoga path. If you have your own philosophy or a religion, whether it is Classical Yoga, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity - or any belief of your own - there is nothing to come between you and a humanist approach to yoga. We all have so much more in common than divides us.
Yoga is so simple and beautiful - taking us back to 'the ground of being’ (as the Mindfulness author Jon Kabbat Zinn elegantly puts it.) When we hold fast to the value of kindness towards the self and others, then for a few graceful minutes during practice each week, we’re all one.
More on Humanism
Yoga posture practice began as an element within Eastern philosophy and religion. Traditional yoga involves an exploration of the nature of consciousness and the self. It offers an ethical framework for living. And guidelines to cultivate a sense of healthy connection - to our native intelligence, to one another and to the world around us.
In it's journey from East to West, yoga practice has been informed by multiple international influences - so like any culture, it's evolving over time. In the UK today we have access to many different styles of yoga practice. Some approaches strip yoga right down to posture practice as a form of gym exercise. Others fully embrace the ideas and beliefs of Hindu and Buddhist religion and philosophy.
As a Humanist now, I've been profoundly inspired and guided by the work of the teacher Peter Blackaby, whose writing resonates with my personal perspective on yoga as an art an a science. If you'd like to learn more about the seam of ideas that inform Lotus Leaf classes, I recommend Peter's book: Intelligent Yoga: Listening to the Body's Innate Wisdom (Peter Blackaby) available from Amazon.
Honouring the poetic grace of Eastern tradition, Lotus Leaf classes continue to offer an exploration of the nature of consciousness and the self. An ethical framework for living. And the cultivation of a sense of meaning. The difference is that we do this this from a contemporary Western humanist perspective.
If you would like to learn more about a humanist perspective, Stephen Fry gives a nice introduction here:
Lotus Leaf supports Humanists UK. They provide a wealth of information on their website. There's an enjoyable questionnaire you can take, that helps you to understand what the humanist perspective is, exactly. And also figure out whether you may be a humanist too: How Humanist Are You?
I teach now from a humanist perspective as we move through our posture sequences. You're warmly invited to nest within your posture practice any ideas that are meaningful for you. It's your body, your yoga.
Fran Keeley, Milton Keynes, June 2018
Thomas More wrote of an ideal humanist society in his book Utopia
Roughly speaking, the word humanist has come to mean someone who: