I see you as you are

In the spirit of tough love, the new year hoiks Mama J off a very comfortable sofa to honour the ventures that her Autumn self believed would be character building after a month of wanton slothfulness.  I am grateful to that Autumn self for two weeks in, January has already ensured my comfort zone has been left lounging on that sofa and some uncomfortable new learning has begun.

Yesterday, after a cheeky coffee (more yang than yin) with a fellow yoga teacher at our favourite farm shop, we roll up at the yoga studio for an afternoon workshop with a guest teacher.  I am looking forward to stretching my understanding of yoga and perhaps seeing how my ‘off the mat’ life can mirror some of my  ‘on the mat’ practices – I tell you, I am up for embracing uncomfortable learning this year.

I am expecting a studio full of other yoga teachers and yoga enthusiasts and there is no disappointment here; I am not expecting the most challenging part of the two hour workshop to come in the first ten minutes.

Our teacher explains that in South Africa a popular Zulu greeting is ‘Sawubona’ – ‘I see you as you are.’   I like the idea of such a greeting – particularly because I work with teenagers who struggle to even look up from their feet and mumble a ‘good morning’; when walking down a school corridor, a passing grunt is sometimes the only acknowledgement I get that I am not invisible and talking to myself.

I empathise, for even as a ‘Boomer’, I too find it a challenge to greet a stranger, look them in the eye and hold their gaze while I exchange pleasantries and hopefully a firm handshake.  Salutations can make me feel surprisingly vulnerable and exposed.

So you can imagine how I am feeling in the yoga workshop when we are randomly paired up and  asked to face each other with our right hand on our partner’s knee and our left hand on our heart. As ‘sawubona’ symbolises the importance of directing our attention to another person, we are asked to just sit and look into our partner’s eyes … for two minutes.


Seconds in and I just want to look away and run.  This exercise feels too intimate and also like a staring competition and it makes me want to laugh . I stick with it though and the teacher advises us just to breathe through the discomfort.  It starts working.

The exercise is to remind us to be aware of other people’s needs and to help us think about how we can integrate rather than judge by trusting our own first impressions – which are often formed in the first 3 seconds of meeting someone and are too often inaccurate. The Zulu people promote the need to see each other slowly and as they are; they have learned to feel and listen to other people. I think they may be on to something.

The two minutes go surprisingly quickly and I feel a sense of calm and integrity.  It all feels very grown up.  Although we know each other, when the two minutes are over, my partner and I share all sorts of insights about the feelings that have arisen during this exercise – feelings both for each other and about ourselves.

Later – when I explain the workshop to FM (Favourite Man or Fortunate Man, you choose) – he seems less surprised about the eye contact and more surprised that I actually sat still for two minutes and allowed someone to put their hand on my knee. ‘ By your own admission, you can be very socially awkward and can’t stand anyone invading your ‘bubble’; you even find handshakes awkward,’ he reminds me, ‘I am so impressed that you allowed someone to lay their hands on you.’  Harsh but true.

‘I’d like to see you try it, ‘ I respond.

‘Pick your time,’ FM answers, looking me squarely in the eye.

Consequently I find myself sitting cross legged facing FM . Well, nearly cross legged for this is the only bit of the exercise he finds uncomfortable after the muppetry of standing on a stool to fix a venetian blind at the top of the stairway while I am away at the yoga workshop.  His legs will be working fine again soon I am sure but apparently his triple somersault was something to be really proud of; I see you as you are FM and I try not to judge you…I  just need to edit ‘muppetry’ out of this paragraph later.  Hope I remember.

We set a timer so that we don’t have to guess how long two minutes lasts.  I am finding the exercise much easier with someone I know well but I still have to squash an urge to giggle or wink.  I settle into my breathing and feel calm and very lucky to be looking into those strong, kind eyes.  I don’t touch FM’s leg because he has some horrible bruising; I do touch my heart with my other hand though.

Two minutes is up and FM surprises me by saying how much he has enjoyed the experience.  I was expecting him at best to comment that he hadn’t noticed before that I have freckles of brown in my green eyes, and at worst to remind me that we are nearly out of coffee.

Instead he reads me like a connoisseur of fine wine (well, cheap plonk), telling me he read a hint of kindness, strength and healed pain from looking into my eyes.  I am flattered and also a bit miffed that he seems to have absorbed the teaching  from the workshop without even attending, however I am with the Zulus; who wouldn’t want to be seen and understood authentically?  I feel like I have been seen and heard and yet I haven’t opened my mouth.

Back on my sofa of learning (surely everyone needs a comfort zone to retreat to after experiencing some awkwardness?) I google an appropriate response to ‘Sawubona’ and am unsurprised to discover it is ‘Shikoba’ – ‘I am relieved to know that I exist for you’.

I resolve that if I can find time to sit comfortably on my own, then I must also be able to find time to sit, interact and really get to know the people that are in my life. Great in theory but I can hear my loved ones running to the door as I type this.  Instead I may start small and aim to maintain eye contact with the people I greet.  I’ll start on the school corridors and aim to keep my eyes open in yoga classes.  It may be a slow process, but then you can’t hurry marination.



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