What does strength mean to you?

Strength looks very different to how I thought it would.

When I was in kindergarten, my teacher told my mum that I would be a great leader. Mum used to tell me this from time to time and I remember thinking, what rubbish; I would be a crap leader. I hated being the focus of attention and blushed when I spoke in front of anyone. I was shy, full of self-doubt and it felt in many ways, counter-intuitive to trust myself.

To me, strength meant being indestructible. It meant creating an impenetrable armour around myself and trying so hard to be perfect that there weren’t any cracks or ways in.  As Brene Brown reminds us, “Perfectionism is a 20-ton shield that we lug around with us thinking is will protect us when in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen and taking flight”. It was exhausting and of course impossible to maintain and eventually, the walls began to chip away and crumble.

Taking on a studio 11 years ago meant that I would have to lead in some way. Initially I leant into Harry, my partner, asking him to have the tricky conversations and handle the business side of things. I didn’t want to talk money with people or negotiate with landlords. Instead I focused on creating the pieces around the edges, on keeping everyone happy. Having babies at the same time meant I could also hide a little behind being a mother and not really have to take full responsibility for holding the space of my business too.

A Marianne Williamson speech hung dog-eared on my wall, reminding me: “who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world.” Yet somehow, I couldn’t find it within myself to stand up and be counted.

Over the years, and with a couple of key mentors along the way, I have found ways to step out from that crippling shadow of self-doubt and to be accountable. In the beginning of course, it was terrifying. Having spent most of my life people- pleasing, I had to learn to follow my own truth, even if it upset people or wasn’t what they wanted to hear. The first few times I had to have these chats, I was very anxious. Sometimes, I still am; but each time it gets slightly easier. To trust my instinct, to trust my actions, to trust my insight. Then, to use my voice to lead myself, my family and my business in a way that feels integral to all of those elements.

When I haven’t trusted this in the past, it’s always gone badly. There have been a couple of times when I thought I would collapse under the perceived scrutiny of a staff member or colleague or friend but what I have learned is, I am a lot stronger than I thought. I trust and believe in my ability to act with integrity and in line with my practice of bringing yoga to life. I am also getting better at seeing when I have made mistakes and apologising for them.

Strength to me now looks more flexible, less rigid. It’s malleable, fluid and ever- changing and in its self-sustaining power, it’s beautiful. Like the waves in the ocean, it’s softer and more graceful than I thought it would be, less aggressive and quieter than I imagined it could be. I am finding that, through being at the helm of our business and family alongside my husband Harry; how to dance with life, to weave in between the disappointments and the joys and wins.

Working with people allows us to see the very best and the very worst of human nature. We get to learn a lot through this. When I first opened the studio I was often aghast at how some people would act. Once someone took off with the fresh flowers out of a vase we had bought for the studio and another time, someone lifted a vintage wooden box I was using for storing yoga straps in. We have had maverick staff members, twisted business dealings and rogue students but not much shocks me now. And as Viktor Frankl says: “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning”. I learn a lot each time something goes wrong or a person behaves in a way in which I can’t at first understand. Certainly the lessons are more valuable in this context, than if it all sailed along in perpetual harmony. I am grateful for these; and for the growth that’s followed.

I strive to trust that there is no need to be perfect to inspire others. Rather, I try to remind myself to let people get inspired by how you deal with your imperfections; to remember that strength is a lot softer than we think. When things have become serious, I have often reminded myself of Nietzche’s phrase, that what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger. Something I prefer these days is from Tedeschi and Calhoun: “I am more vulnerable that I thought, but much stronger than I ever imagined.”

Bryony Lancaster