Ben Parkes, also known as YogaBen, has been teaching and practising yoga for over twenty years. He trained with Swami Ambikananda. She, herself, trained with Swami Venkatesananda whose lineage goes up to Sivananda. Ben has been my teacher for the past five years and I have found his yoga lessons an inspiration both physically and spiritually. Therefore, I am delighted that Ben agreed to add his voice to this series of interviews with people willing to share their wisdom about what it takes to live more consciously for a better world. I firmly believe that yoga makes a powerful contribution to this.
Sue: Welcome Ben! How did you become a yoga teacher?
Ben: I became a yoga teacher because at the time I was lost and purposeless and without guidance. Like everyone else I started as a student. It provided me with some sort of some of consolation for what appeared to be the emptiness of life and the lack of anything meaningful. I was in my early twenties at that point and fresh out of University, thinking, ‘Is this it?’
Sue: What called you to yoga?
Ben: The seeds had been planted early on because there was a book about yoga on my mum’s bookshelf which I used to look at. Then yoga would just crop up through unusual ways that made me stop and take notice. The thing that finally got me into a proper class was when a friend turned up in the pub waxing lyrical about yoga. This was so striking to me. I knew there was something in it. So off I went to a class, which turned out to be the class which eventually guided me into teacher training.
Sue: When did you know you wanted to start teaching yoga?
Ben: It was at the end of a class, and I was having a chat with my teacher about something. She just said to me, ‘Have you ever thought about becoming a yoga teacher?’ As soon as she said it, there was a moment that is only really portrayed in films and stories where she literally disappeared, and I looked up and suddenly realised that’s what I’m going to do. It was like a dawning. I had no idea how I was going to achieve it because it wasn’t what I had planned to do. I didn’t think I was good enough or ready enough, but I knew that I was going to do it somehow. It took some years, but it all unfolded from that point.
Sue: How did this unfoldment take place? I really curious because it seems to me that when you connect with what you are here to do, it’s like a carpet starts to roll out in front of you.
Ben: Yes, that’s just how it felt – like a carpet rolling out. But as this yoga carpet rolled out, to the side in a different direction was the path that I was also busily creating, which was to become a newspaper reporter.
In the same week as this dawning took place, I had just been accepted onto a six-month intensive traineeship for a big press organisation, selected out of 400 people. This was a huge achievement for me, and I couldn’t let go of it. So, I went off to train as a newspaper reporter, which took up another six years of my life. As you can imagine, this was quite a contrast to becoming a yoga teacher. I eventually ended up with a job at the Wiltshire Gazette and Herald.
Sue: That’s what brought you to Wiltshire?
Ben: Yes. But I finally escaped from being a reporter when the biggest story of the year hit. My editor was trying to get hold of me in the evening and I was in a yoga class! That’s the point when I came full circle and thought, ‘Okay. It’s time to stop resisting what I really want to do and ditch the plans for what I thought I should be doing.’
Sue: That’s a wonderful story!
Ben: Yeah. Often with these things there’s a big catastrophe which just clears the path. My marriage also started to disintegrate because I didn’t want to have children at that time. It created a year of painful demise, descent, conflict, pain and loss. Only now when I look back, I can see I had nothing else to lose and this helped me to make the decision to do what had been calling me for so long. Through all the pain and loss of the relationship and our house, the yoga carpet rolled out again and I decided it was time to train as a yoga teacher.
Sue: How old were you when you started your training?
Ben: I remember making an internal secret promise to myself that I’d be qualified and ready to teach by the time I was thirty. I trained with a South African lady in Reading, who is also a Hindu monastic called Swami Ambikananda, whose yoga linage goes up to Sivananda. In fact, she was my first yoga teacher, so I just opened up to it.
Sue: Do you think you ever had any choice in this – that something beyond you was directing you?
Ben: It does feel that way. I describe my life now as a search for meaning and I’ve always been searching for meaning – but often in a naive youthful, futile way. By that I mean getting a proper job and training at University; then getting into the office and earning big money. But that fell away bit by bit into meaninglessness.
Finding meaning as a yoga teacher was always present. It would sit beside me. It didn’t bash me over the head, but it would just be whispering, ‘This direction…’ Sometimes it would shake its head as if to indicate, ‘How many times do we have to say it…?’ or ‘How many opportunities do you want?!’ Eventually through learning the hard way and making many mistakes and taking false paths I finally listened. So no, I didn’t really have a choice.
Sue: When you finally started training, did you feel a sense of coming home?
Ben: From the moment my yoga teacher suggested I should train as a teacher everything felt right and proper. So, everything that followed gave me the surety that I was in the right place. Even when the study was difficult there was a fire that carried me through and gave my life purpose.
Sue: It is extraordinary when you make the right choice how things just seem to slot into place! I am curious about your view of the way we in our western society relate to our bodies and the way we breathe.
Ben: For the first twenty years of my life, I would describe myself as disembodied. I didn’t live in my body. It felt as if it was ‘over there’, so being young I threw it around, hurt it and tested it, and trusted it would bounce back. That’s the invincibility belief of a 21-year-old. Having said that, I suffered from severe chronic asthma from birth, so the breath and the body were linked in damaging ways for me.
But that first yoga class immediately connected me to my body and my emotions. Somehow feeling my tight hamstrings I also felt anger or sadness or grievance or something else. I didn’t understand what was going on and at the end of class I would often be in tears secretively, because being in tears back then was dangerous as far as I was concerned.
Sue: I was really moved by The Body Remembers a book by Babette Rothschild. She speaks about how the body holds the memory of everything that happens to us, be that positive or negative. It seems to me that yoga is a way of getting in touch with our feelings, whatever they may be.
Ben: Yes, but if you were to present it like that to someone new who is interested in yoga, they would run a mile! When I first started, the beauty about yoga for me was being invited to stretch, breathe, slow down and relax. Without any compulsion, I was able to feel my own body and I wasn’t forced to go too deep. But it was just enough in that moment, through a particular posture or particular breath to feel something was there. I think that’s what yoga does if it’s taught skilfully. It meets people where they’re at and allows space for this.
Sue: I am thinking back on my own journey with yoga and how it’s helped me to safely connect with stuff in my body I was in denial about.
Ben: For me denial is about protection and survival. The more I work with my own body and other people’s bodies the more I understand what we do to survive a difficult time in our life, whether it is extreme trauma or just falling off a bike. Yoga certainly cuts deep into significant trauma such as physical, sexual or mental abuse. To be able to acknowledge that the trauma is there is the first step. It’s partly cultural thinking but we Homo Sapiens are bloody good survivors and we will stuff things down so we can just get on with it. Yoga says that’s great, but how about slowing down and rewinding so we can deal with what happened, because it’s still there and it is hurting.
Sue: So, your yoga journey took you into a greater awareness that you were connected to something more.
Ben: Yeah. Yoga has compassion and empathy at the heart of it because everyone’s got a body and when you start to realise that you’re one of these feelinghuman beings – and so is everybody else, even those you disagree with – it becomes multi-layered. For example, what is all this energy and movement? Where does it come from and why is it living in the body?
Then you can drop down another layer. For example, when you’re in a meditation state and you manage to get five seconds of quiet in your mind before it cuts out, you can suddenly realise that you are watching your thoughts, but you are not in your thoughts. What’s that? Who or what is this observer?
Go deeper still into conceptualised yoga philosophy, and you discover there’s just one source of energy or prana or chi or life force, and everything manifests from that. Then you go back to the origins of Om; in yoga philosophy this relates to the Big Bang Theory. The first thing to happen was a vibration. Are we a continuing vibration from that? So, yes, yoga can open you up to huge possibilities and a different consciousness of yourself.
Sue: I think this is the gift that Eastern traditions have given us. Obviously, yoga has been westernised for us to understand because we haven’t grown up with it as many Eastern cultures have. But I do see it as offering a multidimensional possibility. Of course, some people do yoga because of the physical benefits, but others go deeper into the experience.
Ben: Yes, it’s not saying you have to believe in the oneness of all creation manifested. It’s not ramming that down your throat. It might be enough to just experience the relaxation at the end of the class because you haven’t stopped all day or all week – even though this relaxation can also tune you into who you are underneath everything. So, it offers various invitations to do that, sometimes successful sometimes not. It can go deeper or remain on the surface.
Ben: They all have their own benefits. But it’s important to remember that yoga was presented in the West as this mysterious ancient craft, and it does carry that mystery within it. It’s also been developed by mostly men in the last 100 years. Both Mr Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois who created Ashtanga yoga, had their own stories and were taught by Jiddu Krishnamurti. He had his own story too. When you read his story and understand the history in the context of how he developed yoga, which was lapped up by the western world, you can see that there are some great things here. But they are driven by certain personal journeys and personal characteristics.
Decades later these influences are still flowing through the yoga that is taught in different classes. Even Sivananda (my own lineage) had his own story and therefore put his emphasis on different aspects of the yoga he taught. But, if you get really purist about it, maybe yoga wouldn’t have any physical postures other than sitting on your bum and meditating.
Sue: Really? I didn’t know that.
Ben: Yes, the postures are more recent additions. The early postures or asanas were just four or five different ways of sitting. Asana means ‘seat’ or ‘to sit.’ But that doesn’t mean the postures we practice now are not yoga. Yoga is continually shifting and changing to meet the needs of the people it’s trying to meet. Sometimes that gets a bit distorted. It depends on the teacher and what they are offering. Iyengar has a beautiful structure and alignment to help you connect more deeply. Ashtanga is great if you are aged 18 to 30 and then you would probably have come back to a more relaxed class!
Sue: I notice you know a lot about the physical workings of the body.
Ben: Yes, anatomy and physiology is incorporated into the training course. But yoga teachers were not experts. It’s more about understanding that when I am in this pose, how can I make it safe while I am exploring it. So, the anatomy and physiology assist the exploration process to make it safe and sound. And, for me, it also helps to zero in on a feeling in a particular muscle.
Sue: I think we are incredibly ignorant about our bodies. We have no idea about the names of our muscles, or what does what or how the body actually works.
Ben: Yeah, but maybe this is a defensive and a protective measure, because in the act of knowing your body, you have to turn and look at yourself and feel into what’s there. But why would anyone turn towards their pain? For many, it’s better to avoid it and numb it away.
Even to start intellectually looking at the body will inevitably connect you to what else is going on there. This is because you’re living in this body and therefore, you’ll feel it. Ignorance is helpful for us if we just want to keep on rushing forward.
Sue: I can certainly forget I’m in a body and disappear into my head. This is why I’m curious about the whole concept of breath and the role of breath. I think we’re as ignorant about breathing as we are about our body.
Ben: There’s a wonderful indigenous story which goes along the lines of how a rock knows how to be a rock, just as a tree knows how to be a tree and a bird knows how to be a bird. But human beings are unusual because we forget how to be a human being.
I can apply this to the act of breathing. Every day I forget how to breathe because it’s happening subconsciously, thank God. If we had to think about every breath, we would be in trouble. But it’s easy to fall into poor habits and our breath is affected by everything we do. For example, if we experience a little shock, our breath will change immediately. It’s the nervous system waking up to something’s happening. The breath will start to go faster, ready for fight or flight. Equally, if you’re lucky enough to have some time to relax and calm down your breath or sigh out, the nervous system also calms down.
Sue: Yes, yoga has taught me to be much more conscious of how to use my breath.
Ben: I was born unable to breathe properly due to chronic asthma and my body was surviving on as little breath as a body can survive on. I thought that was normal and I used to breathe with my shoulders. I don’t think I breathed into my belly until I was in my mid 20s.
But there’s consequences to that. When you’re only breathing in the top part of your lungs, you will experience the world with pure anxiety simply because this primes your nervous system into fear. There’s a loop that happens: your breathing comes shallow and your tummy locks.
But this loop goes the other way too. When you encourage the breath down into the belly you can move towards relaxation and calm. Yoga taught me how to breathe fully and lo and behold, the asthma I had started to disappear. I didn’t need to take the drugs anymore.
Sue: That’s remarkable!
Ben: Yeah. I think it’s a tragedy that we don’t get taught how to breathe. I believe there’s many asthma sufferers who could breathe their way out of a lot of their problems given the right guidance.
Sue: When we do the breathing exercises in class, you’ll often include hand mudras. I am interested how these works alongside the breath and why they are important.
Ben: Yoga has so many layers and different ideas from different practises over the generations that feed into it. Hand mudras are one beautiful addition – in fact all aspects of yoga are just different tools to assist with being human. The word Mudra means gesture or symbol. Mudras can also be expressed in the body or though thought, but mostly it’s with the hands. In India mudras are passed down through generations in families like secret recipes. So, there are thousands of different mudras, but in yoga we usually practice the most common such as the anjali mudra (tip of thumb to tip of first finger).
Yogis also believed that the earth is made of five elements and these energies are flowing through the fingers. For example, fire is expressed through the thumb and air through the first finger. When you join them together, they create a fire/air flow of energy.
Sue: So, the finger mudras act as symbols of the five elements and you can create different flows of energy through different hand mudras?
Ben: Yes. Mudras are another model of how the world is made up of five elements, which also crops up in Chinese medicine and Taoist traditions. If we drop underneath the mudras into Ayurvedic practices of seeking balance, you can calm and cool fire by consciously joining your thumb with your little finger, which represents water. This really helps, for example, when you are experiencing inflammation or headaches or have an overly busy mind. So, you can use mudras to subtly work with the energies in your body and learn how they flow.
Sue: Most western people are so ignorant about this, and the fact it’s all there for us to help ourselves. But we’ve never been educated into this. We have no idea how to do it.
Ben: Yeah. Maybe when we were still indigenous Britons and Celts, before the Roman invasion, we had some understanding about what it feels like to be made up of the five elements. However, it was pushed out by invading cultures and then forgotten. Yet, at the same time, this knowledge is still there, deep inside us. I think that’s why yoga is so popular in the West. It’s reaching out to something that we know already but have lost sight of. But we recognise it through a different culture.
Sue: It is a very different experience to practice yoga in India because it’s part of their culture. It’s not ‘learnt’ like it is here. Most Hindu households have an altar in a corner where to do their daily pujas (prayers). It’s just part of their life. We don’t have that. Yoga helps us to reconnect but there’s still a missing part for me, which is how do we bring that sense of the sacred back into our life.
Ben: I agree with you that there’s still a piece missing. I look at it as yoga being borrowed from India to help me understand and realise what I’ve lost and what my culture has lost. I think the missing bit for me is the sadness and heaviness of having lost it, and there’s a yearning attached to it.
Sue: Would you say it’s a yearning for the sacred?
Ben: In a way. But rather than creating sacred moments, I feel sacred moments emerge when I stop being so busy and distracted. I’m lucky enough to have young children and the sacred often just arises in their eyes. It also comes from things like noticing the birds singing or the lighting of a candle. It’s about the simple things.
Tracking back through yoga philosophy, we are made up of five elements – just notice and remember this. That’s the sacred and it’s about stepping lightly on the earth. But as a westerner, for me, the first step is remembering what I’ve lost before I can approach the sacred.
Sue: Do you feel ancestrally connected to the Hindu lineage – that you have incarnated to bring this lineage to the West through yoga?
Ben: In a way, yes. You have to remember that yoga is both the brother and sister of Hinduism. They grew up together, so they are intrinsically connected. You can practise yoga on its own, but there’s always this sibling hanging around in the background. But we don’t do very well with this in the West because we’ve been busy over the decades removing religion from our culture, for some good reasons and some not. This makes us believe we think we can have yoga but not the Hinduism, thanks. Well, you can’t actually separate the two – and, although yoga helps, I also believe what we are missing can’t be filled by someone else’s culture.
Sue: It feels me that that we have reached a crisis point. How we have lived doesn’t work anymore.
Ben: But to live differently, we have to confront the question, are we prepared to gift our children less than we had? To give them less as a gift. To go in the opposite direction of growth.
Sue: These are very painful and scary questions to consider. How can we start doing this?
Ben: I think bettering the world would be to stop running so fast and get to know yourself. Consciousness means grasping the nettle and experiencing your own pain in order that it doesn’t continue on down the generations. That’s hard but it’s necessary. Yoga is a gift which comes from the Himalayas and the forests of India where yogis went to develop it, completely unknown to us. And now we’ve got these beautiful teachings, which are tools to help us all to understand how to live more consciously for a better world.
To sign up for yoga classes, please contact Ben at: www.yogaben.co.uk
For other online classes, please go to Yogaben You Tube