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Art directed by God

Jen Lynch on India, self-realisation and her true love – filmmaking

Excerpt from Issue 1 of YOKE

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“You know, it only takes one person to make pasta. And it’s nice to have other people around… But if everybody wants to stir it with the same spoon at the same time, it’s kind of a pasta cluster-fuck.”

 

 

Despite the Gods opens on filmmaker Jen Lynch perched in her director’s chair wryly surveying her Bollywood film set. It’s hot and dusty and there’s a background babble of car horns and scavenger birds fighting over scraps. A bored clapper loader strolls into shot and kicks at the dirt. Jen leans in towards us as if gossiping over a ciggie, “This is my pasta cluster-fuck.”

In the 1990s Jen Lynch made her mark penning The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, a spin-off from her father’s hit TV series Twin Peaks. At the ripe old age of 19, she directed her first screenplay, Boxing Helena. Shaken by the vicious critical reception to her “crazy fairytale” and spinal injuries sustained from a car accident, Jen did what she felt society wanted her to do – she became a mother.

Her desire to tell stories still burned.

In 2008, Jen made a splash with the successful indie psychological thriller Surveillance, and soon after formed a Bollywood/Hollywood alliance with producer Govind Menon to write and direct Hisss.

The plan was to modernise the ancient Indian legend of the Nagin, a powerful snake/woman, played by Bollywood star Mallika Sherawat. Jen uprooted her then 12-year-old daughter, Sydney, and relocated to India, where things didn’t quite go to plan.

Little did Jen know that she had signed up to explore her inner demons in a very public way. Australian director Penny Vozniak’s 2012 behind-the-scenes documentary Despite the Gods is the result. It’s a fascinating exploration of one woman’s struggle to do what she loves against all odds.

It’s early evening in LA when I Skype Jen at home. She finishes her cigarette, yanks the window closed as helicopters circle overhead, and apologises for rescheduling our chat after an unexpected 19-hour day shooting her new thriller, A Fall from Grace.

Jen has spoken about filmmaking doubling as a crash course in acceptance and self-realisation. In terms of Bollywood, I can see what she means about acceptance; union strikes, monsoons, artistic differences, scheduling delays, language barriers and heat waves appear par for the course. What I want to understand is why filmmaking for her is a course in self-realisation.

Jen pauses, her face framed by a melee of bleached dreadlocks. She furrows her brow then laughs. Jen Lynch laughs a lot.

“Wow. I love that you did this. Quoted me like that. I love it.”

Her large blue eyes search the ceiling for answers.

“In order to write a character and then help an actor fill the skin of that character, I sort of have to have been there myself. I have to learn about myself, where my soft spots and hard spots are. When I was writing Boxing Helena, Surveillance, Hisss, I asked myself, ‘What would it be like not being in the normal world, but to be you?’ I love to study people who are trapped somewhere or hobbled in some way, physically or emotionally.”

It seems apt that Jen found herself in a situation that was far from average – the unwitting hero of her own documentary/disaster movie.

“There were moments of joyous and hideous absurdity,” she smirks.

Many artists would have you believe the creative process is effortless. Those midnight doubts, external blocks and moments of deep despair are tucked safely behind the smoke and mirrors of the finished work. Yet on and off screen, Jen is willing to reveal all.

“My whole play on Hisss was Nagin, a strong woman who wasn’t going to take any crap. A woman who swallows men whole. I think they thought I was there to do one thing and I set out to do another. In the end it was a grand experiment in conquering my own inner demons – how do you express yourself when ultimately, that’s not what people are there to let you do?”

Pushing beyond exhaustion and frustration and making light of extremely trying circumstances, Jen exposes thoughts and emotions most of us would be terrified to share in real life, let alone on film.

I’m curious to know when Penny knew she had a documentary on her hands.

“After spending a week with Jen, I felt that she was a completely misunderstood filmmaker … complex, intelligent, often comedic … totally worth filming. She’s brave in her craft and these artists are ultimately crucified but they expand the genre, and we need them now more than ever. It was probably several months in that I really began to see the big picture …”

In the documentary, Jen is dogged in her conviction that she will survive the nightmarish shoot with a film – it just wasn’t the one she thought she was making.

 

Excerpt from Issue 1 of YOKE – Love /Loss

 

 

Despite the Gods is a feature documentary about Hollywood’s prodigal daughter. Jennifer Lynch is well known for making bold, if not ill-fated, choices in her filmmaking career. But nothing could prepare her for the unmapped territory of Bollywood-Hollywood movie making, where chaos is the process and filmmaking doubles as a crash course in acceptance and self-realization. Director: Penny Vozniak, Producer: Karina Astrup, Editor: Melanie Annan, Music: Jessica Chapnik Kahn & Nadav Kahn

Melita Rowston is a writer, director and sometime performer, and our fabulous regular contributor to YOKE.

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Kill your babies. And put out those candles.

An hour with Elizabeth Gilbert.

#howtobecreative

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The best place to be on International Women’s Day was at the Sydney Opera House’s All About Women festival. A sparkling harbour was my backdrop as I darted past tourists and Mardi Gras revellers to see Elizabeth Gilbert talk about creativity. It’s the subject of her new book Big Magic, to be released in September. In case you don’t already know, Elizabeth is the author of Eat, Pray, Love and The Signature of All Things and she’s also a bloody good speaker (her TED talk on creativity has received over 9 million views).

It’s been a year since I saw Elizabeth speak. She’s spent some of that year on the road speaking for Oprah’s Life You Want series and I think it’s helped her now approach public speaking with absolutely no fear. I could spy her in the wings itching to get on stage and shout, “Welcome to my party!” When she did rush on grinning and waving, she kicked off her thongs explaining she’d have to go barefoot because of an unfortunate incident with a couch, the outcome – a broken toe. Elizabeth then warned us that she was going to get a little blue, but assured us this was appropriate – only in Australia could one stand barefoot on the Sydney Opera House stage and swear like a sailor!

Being a bit of an Elizabeth devotee, I know many of her stories, but some took me by surprise. I’d like to share those with you today. They involve killing babies. And putting out candles.

But first, a quick aside, I was enchanted by the first story Elizabeth told. So in the spirit of Elizabeth’s childlike delight, I’d love to share this story with you before we get to killing babies.

One of Elizabeth’s literary heroes is the poet Jack Gilbert (no relation). They never met, but she took up his vacated post at the University of Tennessee. She took over his job, students and office, which she felt was still “warm from his presence.” When she read his work she immediately fell in love with it.

One of her students told her a story, which made Jack grow further in her esteem. Jack once asked this student what she wanted to do with her life. She cautiously voiced for the first time that she felt perhaps she could be a writer. He took her by the arm and said, “Do you have the courage to bring forth the work? The jewels that are hidden inside you are begging you to say, ‘Yes.’”

And that’s the provocation Elizabeth Gilbert presented to us on Sunday. “Do you have the courage to bring forth the jewels that are inside you?” She nudged us, “Please say YES!”

Elizabeth believes we’re all receptacles of hidden treasure and that a creative life hinges on finding, revealing and sharing these treasures. One of the best ways you can do that is to…

Kill your baby

Stop describing your creative work as your baby. Stop using metaphors about ‘conceiving’, ‘birthing’ and ‘nurturing’ your work. What do babies need? They need protection, to be held close, to be kept safe from the dangers of the world…

“Everything I have created has created me. My work nurtures me. It’s not my baby. I don’t want to protect it. I am its baby.”

Elizabeth talked about how women have gotten the message that they have to be 100% perfect to be loved. (A loud cheer filled the room when she followed that statement up with – “I’m not sure where we got that message from?”)

This perfectionism flows into the way we approach creative work. We hold it back. We keep it close because we don’t think it’s ready to go out into the world yet. It can’t be until it’s perfect…

“I don’t want to spend my life fussing over making any one thing absolutely perfect (whatever perfection means, anyhow). I want to make as many things as I can, taking on as many projects as I can possibly tackle. Each one exciting. Each one good enough. Each one DONE, to make room for the next, and the next…”

There’s something empowering about sitting in the audience and hearing this stuff. The two elderly women I’m sandwiched between agree with me. They haven’t read any of Elizabeth’s books, but they’re gasping and nodding in recognition when Elizabeth talks about perfectionism and women not feeling entitled to be creative.

Unlike many other writers, Elizabeth does not describe the writing of her books as something that just “happened” that “poured out of me.” She admits that fear is a passenger on every creative journey she takes. That struggle and disbelief and not feeling ready are her bedfellows. (Not to neglect joy, happiness, delight and discovery). That it’s hard. Really hard, but good. Really, really good when the work is done.

As always, there was a Q and A. This is the point where I start packing up, but Elizabeth’s response to one question really captured me.

The question was about creative block and having difficulty starting a project. The woman asking the question explained how she creates a special place for her writing. She lights candles and plays calming music, but she still can’t get started.

Elizabeth’s response?

Kill the candles

Don’t create a scared space to make art…

“You’re taking it too seriously, revering it too much. It’s not that big a deal. It’s just a story. We put creativity on a pedestal. We turn it into this hallowed, sacrosanct thing. You need to lower it. Go and create in a betting shop, at a bus station, on the subway… You know, sometimes sex is bad because people respect each other too much. Stop respecting your art so much. Spank it! Spank your art!”

This dropped into me with one almighty clang. I thought of all those times I’d lit candles as a way of coaxing forth the writing then spent anxious hours staring at the computer screen as it hummed nonchalantly back at me.

Then I thought of the times I was forced to write on trains, in lunch breaks, on planes and been surprised by the results. She’s right. As soon as we make the act of creating everyday, we’ll find that the fear subsides and the work flourishes…

It’s not hard to walk away from an event like this uplifted and full of hope. As the sails of the opera house shimmered in the heat, it felt like we’d been gifted the chance to do something wonderful with the information we’d been given.

How many of us have thought, “This sucks!” and given up? What if we’ve inadvertently stopped ourselves from bringing forth the jewels within us that the world needs to hear? Maybe they’ll be rough diamonds, but maybe they’ll take us on a journey towards the work that really shines. Or maybe we’ll just feel better for having done something instead of talking about doing something. I mean if any of this were easy we’d have done it by now, right?

So in the spirit of International Women’s Day, and to quote Elizabeth Gilbert, “Do not hold yourself back from the abundance you can bring forth into the world.” Whether you have difficulty getting started or finishing. Get out of your own way. Let go of the outcome. Just get it done. And put it out there.

 

YOKE Issue 2 is all about Balance. Check out what Elizabeth has to say about reconsidering balance.

 

Melita Rowston is a writer, director and sometime performer, and our fabulous regular contributor to YOKE.

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Entering The Land of Y

Today we take our eyes for a walk through Laurent Sanguinetti’s lunar worlds created especially for YOKE.

In conversation with Melita Rowston

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The streets and laneways of Paris’s 3rd arrondissment are bathed in a rare winter sun as artist Laurent Sanguinetti points out a charming vista of rooftops and cluttered chimney pots from his studio window. He tells me the trees are still bare of leaves, but little buds are emerging. Spring will be arriving in Paris any day now.

Unfortunately I’m not standing at that picture perfect window with Laurent, but am hunched over my fan suffering through another sticky Sydney heat wave. As Laurent settles in to chat with me over Skype, he tells me that someone has housed a rooster and chooks in the garden next to his studio and they’ve been screeching cock-a-doodle-doo all morning – it’s a very surreal sound for cosmopolitan Paris.

Laurent’s nocturnal wonderlands, which he affectionately calls ‘The Land of Y’, grace issue two of YOKE magazine. I’m fascinated by the other-worldliness of the work and what inspired Laurent to create such beguiling realms.

“Nocturnal and lunar are very beautiful words Melita,” says Laurent. “But I don’t know if I had a particular atmosphere in mind when I began to explore this inner land. I approached these illustrations through introspection. I sat still and gazed within.”

I’m struck by the use of eyes in Laurent’s work. For me, they are Renaissance in flavour, but also remind me of a more spiritual aspect – like the eye we see at the nave of a Cao Dai temple in Vietnam. I wonder what the significance of the eye is in the work and why we are continually being gazed at or does the eye gaze within too?

“I’m deeply interested in the notion of vertigo in art,” says Laurent. “Losing your footing in a world disconnected from reality. Where you try to grasp your bearings and chart your own way. Like looking into the trompe l’oeil ceilings of those baroque palaces or when Alice stumbles down the rabbit hole.”

Laurent points to his illustration on the back cover of YOKE, an anthropomorphic creature with a snout and one large eye.

“I like creating a very strange element, maybe an abstract shape, and somewhere within that strangeness placing an element that we all recognise and relate to.”

Like an eye…

“Yes, the eye calls us in and speaks to us,” says Laurent. “So the eye is not so much a symbol, but rather a point of contact within the abstract or dreamlike world I convey.”

Laurent loves the challenge of making a two-dimensional drawing ‘speak’ to the viewer. He feels that the eye has a voice, a voice we are drawn to or even disturbed by. In his work for YOKE, he is seeking to give voice or sound to abstract ideas. In another illustration, he explores the notion of how we express our inner selves. Here the inner self is depicted as a red energy, a molecule or organ that needs to be tamed in order to be expressed.

“The red creature is a fiery demonic energy that’s hard to control. It’s something we are all faced with in a way,” says Laurent. “How do we express our true self? At first we are often scared of it or don’t believe in it. It takes trust, love, caring and work to tame it. That’s why this creature is purposely faceless and muffled in its voice – as we all sometimes are.”

All artists at times face that terrible affliction called creative block. I wonder how Laurent approaches those moments when his own voice feels muffled.

“That can be the biggest challenge,” says Laurent. “I would say face the enemy, which most of the time boils down to fear. Fear of failure, fear of exposing ourselves, fear of judgement…. Milton Glaser once said that to fight fear of failure is to embrace failure!”

So how do you personally face the enemy?

“At the desk, pencil in hand, working and taking it easy at the same time. We are not supposed to make sense, just art, as William Kentridge would say. And no, the solution to creative block does not lie in a packet of Tim Tams Melita! I speak from experience…”

My favourite piece for YOKE is Laurent’s ‘Explore’ image in which a Superman in the Moon character drives a whimsical flying machine through the night.

“Conceiving the exploring machine was great fun,” says Laurent. “I wanted to consider how one would enter and explore the Land of Y. So I created a floating machine that seems very big, but very lightweight, as if it is buoyed by some invisible magic. The superman is the explorer in all of us as we go on this great journey into our inner selves. I liked the idea of putting him in a special suit.”

And who is this quirky little bird creature who’s hitching a ride on the back?

“That’s ‘Yes’,” says Laurent. ‘He’s a feathery creature who accompanies the explorer in all his endeavours like a faithful pet.”

Yes! How delightful. Of course, to go on any journey of discovery we must always be prepared to say Yes!

“And we mustn’t forget nature and its amazing creatures. The little bird is my very humble connection to that.”

Laurent has an Australian mother and a French father and has spent different periods of his life living in both countries. I wonder how two very different cultural experiences have impacted on his art.

“Having grown up in Versailles, a place where history is very present, I have a profound reverence for that history and what it has gifted to humanity,” says Laurent. “Being particularly attracted to 17th and 18th century art, I cannot imagine a world without it. Everything in Paris inspires my work – its intricate beauty and, at times, burdening detail. It took time for me to understand and accept this, but truly everything here inspires my work, who I am, how I think, how I breathe and how I dream.”

And what about Australia?

“Australia is a monument in my life. A place of wonder and magic. I think in a way, Australia is my Land of Y… where strong magic and mysticism lies at its heart.”

 

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LAURENT SANGUINETTI – a quick sketch

Current project: Illustrating a collection of scented candles for Haga, each scent is its own character.

Inspired by: Uncle Alain Sanguinetti – an incredible man and artist. Picasso – energy and relentless strength in the face of adversity. Quentin Blake – childhood books and spontaneous genius. Gustave Doré – intricate fairytale worlds. Opera –
Debussy’s haunting Pélleas & Mélisande, a dream in itself and with no connection to reality.

Last meal you ate: a Pain au Chocolat with confiture d’apricot and a warm Banania chocolate, oh oui!

Biggest challenge: Finding the time and space for really playing with creativity stripped of any boundaries or constraints.

3 most important things in your life: Love, hope and wonder.

 

Illustrations © Laurent Sanguinetti for YOKE magazine Issue 2

Interview by contributing writer Melita Rowston

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The greatest love of all

Illustration by Laurent Sanguinetti

My partner absolutely loves Valentine’s Day. He hates birthdays, Christmas, New Years, any other calendar event – but he just loves Valentine’s Day. He even believes it should be a public holiday. When we first started dating I told him I’d never ever celebrated a Valentine’s Day. How could I? It’s a cynical consumerist stunt where singles are reminded of their failure to find a soul mate and couples are pressured into paying for the ‘perfect’ night, in more ways than one. Ever the romantic, my partner looked at me with wide disbelieving eyes, “But how could you not believe in a day devoted to love?”

As another V Day passes, I’ve done my best to buy into my partner’s enthusiasm for the day-devoted-to-love. And its actually been quite lovely. We’ve picnicked on rosé and French cheese in Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden, we’ve written bohemian poetry to each other, we’ve lit candles, played clichéd music and even watched some tacky movies. But there’s still this anarchist part of me that stays loyal to the past single me, the one who feels our self worth shouldn’t be defined by our relationship status and that this day is another excuse to make a certain portion of the population feel like an anxious outsider hurtling faster on a lonely train ride to spinsterhood. I mean if a day is devoted to love, shouldn’t it be all forms of love?

I’m surprised and perhaps not so surprised that it’s a Vinyasa yoga class that brings me closer to embracing V Day and love. Self-love that is.

In fact, it was one of the worst yoga classes I’ve ever done. I hadn’t practised in over a month and I’d been sick in bed all week. A few minutes in I was already having a terrible time. There were cramps in my toes, legs, back and even my arms. I had to keep stopping to mop up my mat because the rivers of sweat pouring off me were becoming an ocean and if I wasn’t careful I’d slip ‘n’ slide out the door. But everyone else was having a great time! You know that feeling, when you’re the only one falling over, gulping at water or just trying to get a breath? As the rest of the class flowed effortlessly from Warrior 2 to Chaturanga Dandasana, my mind decided to take control of the situation and make everything a hundred times worse…

“Why did I think I could ever be any good at this? I should leave. I don’t belong. I am so shit – at this, at life, at everything!” Thoughts then turned to impending panic attacks, death and a fate worse than death – being trapped in a room with 75 superyogamodels in Lululemon gear… But that’s another story.

While we all hold Sarvangasana (shoulder stand), the teacher a self-described yoganarchist, uses this moment of relative calm to throw some pretty hefty philosophy our way, “We spend the first part of our life defining our identity and the rest of our lives defending it.”

“Yup,” I think as my dripping red swollen legs wobble in the air.

As we get older, doesn’t it feel harder to listen to our inner child, to take risks, commit to change, to finally realise those nagging dreams that have somehow still evaded us? We’re told it should be the other way around. We shouldn’t care what everyone else thinks. But aren’t the pressures of an adult world – managing our work selves, friend selves, family selves and all our other selves along with the rent and bills distract us so we lose sight of our true selves? Perhaps we’ve spent so many years cultivating all these outward facing selves, we don’t even know what our true self is anymore?

And then there’s relationships. Aaah. How many times have we surfaced from a failed one to realise how much we’ve subconsciously denied or tried to change in a fruitless attempt to hold onto love?

Iyengar describes Sarvangasana as the ‘mother of asana.’ As such, this is when my teacher loves to deliver the mother of all emotional punches – while my body is emotionally and literally turned upside down…

“I can see you’re all working really hard here. But the thing is; if you don’t love yourself, none of this is matters. You can do the practise. You can get every asana physically correct. You can chant and meditate all you like. But it’s all for nothing if you don’t love yourself.”

That’s it. I’m ready to fold up my legs and the mat and go home. I’m in serious pain. I’m a mess of discomfort and anger and I’m very aware of my limitations. It’s like I’ve been peeled open and forced to face up to all of my flaws. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. Over the last 2 hours my relationships, my career, my family and my health have all been shoved under the spotlight of my nasty ego brain and I’m beaten. So I guess it’s all been for nothing, because right now on this steaming slippery slide mat I’m not very in love with myself at all.

Oddly there’s a part of that same nasty ego that keeps me on the mat, I believe that part is called pride.

And finally we fall into Shavasana. Through the waves of exhaustion my frazzled mind returns to love. In love, we put ourselves in a vulnerable and open place. In love, we risk judgment and rejection. In love, we learn to understand our history. In love, we learn to understand others. And that’s only the journey towards self-love.

That’s when I realise I’ve just spent 2 hours facing up to these really uncomfortable feelings about myself and now, I seem to be okay with them. Dripping wet and exhausted on the mat, I’m somehow rinsed clean. I’m okay with myself. (For now). Just as I am.

That’s when I’m filled with overwhelming love. I love my partner, I love my body, I love the teacher, hell, I love everyone in the room! Sure, I’m shit at yoga. But yoga seems to be helping me be less shit at life.

I struggle with Valentine’s Day, but one thing V Day is great at doing is putting how we think and feel about love under the microscope.

What if next year we decided to devote Valentine’s Day to self-love? Sure self-love is a journey that’s in a constant state of flux just like our yoga practise, our moods, and most certainly our weight, but surely if we all spent one day trying to find a way to love ourselves just that little bit more… well it couldn’t hurt?

Melita Rowston is a writer, director and sometime performer, and our regular contributor to YOKE.

Illustration by Laurent Sanguinetti for Issue 2

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A daily practice to want what you have

Les Leventhal

Les Leventhal loves to teach the relief yoga class because he knows the regular students won’t be expecting what he’s got in store for them. “I have 90 minutes to change their life,’ says Les. “They’re like, ‘It’s Bali, I just want to get my stretchy on,’ but I make sure when they leave they’re like … ‘What the fuck was that!’”

Les grins and laughs. It’s a big guffaw, one I’ve heard often as I’ve become a bit of a regular in Les’s Yoga Barn classes during my short sabbatical in Ubud. Although, I’d argue there’s nothing regular about rolling out your mat in any of Les’s classes – you never know what’s in store…

Holding Mandukasana (frog pose) for the duration of a 1960’s recording of Harry Belafonte and Odetta Holmes singing There’s a hole in my bucket is certainly a memorable one for me. By the end of the five minute track, the entire top floor of Yoga Barn was singing ‘Dear Liza, dear Liza.’

I remember thinking, ‘So this is yoga…’

I ask Les to tell me a bit more about that.

“I took a really great class once back in San Francisco. This teacher could tell the energy of the class was just crap. So she flicked on the fluorescent lights and said, ‘Ok, everyone move your mats aside. We’re gonna do cartwheels!’ I was like, ‘This is insane!’ I loved it! She was like, ‘Who’s angry right now?’ Half the class were angry. She said, ‘Oh good, so you’re actually feeling something?’ For me, that’s yoga.”

Yoga for Les Leventhal is anything that brings mindfulness to physical sensations in the body: emotional feelings, the unconscious becoming conscious, dormant forces strengthening or sometimes even trauma and abuse coming to the surface.

“When I go through Asanas, I ask my students to go emotionally and spiritually to places some have never been before,” says Les. “I’m not giving them courage to go there, that’s God’s work. I’m just opening them up to that source working in, around and through all of us.”

I think back to the seventy of us in frog pose sweating it out on the top floor. As the pose became more intense, opening up our hip area and inviting a flow of emotions, people around me started to laugh, grit their teeth, go into child’s pose – and eventually sing along. I thought about how this group of people from all over the world, some expert yogis, some just starting out had made very different, and perhaps also very similar journeys to get to this place. How being on those mats in that pose united us despite our different journeys.

“The beautiful thing about practising yoga in a group class is if someone next to you is succeeding at an advanced pose and you can’t even balance on your hands, you can watch them and think, ‘Isn’t it great I get to watch someone else succeed?’” says Les. “Sometimes that’s how we experience poses, by watching, not by doing. That’s still yoga, because it’s a chance to practice cultivating happiness for others’ gifts.”

As he describes in his new book Two Lifestyles, One Lifetime, the real moment of awakening for Les was when he realised that yoga was not about improving his body, it was about accepting it.

“Yoga has let me recognise how great it is that there’s no one else like me. It has allowed me to be the best me I can be instead of trying to copy someone else. Instead of trying to have what I want, it’s a daily practise for me to want what I have.

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Pick yourself up a copy of Issue 2 of YOKE, and learn more about Les’s practise and his journey towards calling Bali home. THE FINDING IS IN THE SEEKING by our fabulous contributing writer, Melita Rowston who interviewed Les in Ubud, Bali especially for YOKE.

For those in Sydney and Melbourne, you can meet him in the flesh at his coming workshops.

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