British-Asian poet, mindfulness coach, yoga instructor and French and Spanish language teacher Lena Shah—author of Impetus – No cover up, a collection of healing poems, prose and illustrations intended to soothe and inspire self-empowerment—writes exclusively for Female First about the painful, restrictive expectations placed upon her by her community, and how she managed to break free.
She says that irrespective of race or creed, most women will at one time or another find themselves subject to similar, gender-based social expectations. And while non-conformity can often come at a price, the reward of liberating your authentic self is more than worth it.
By Lena Shah.
Her beauty is raw,
rugged and wild.
it doesn’t need to be re-styled.
Extract from ‘Venus’ by Lena Shah (Impetus – No cover up)
The definition of success and beauty for women is so extremely paradoxical.
Having an Indian heritage but being born and raised in Yorkshire has given me freedom, choice, and access to opportunities but, at the same time, a kind of loneliness, isolation, and a sense of ‘never doing things right’ or conforming enough with either aspects of my heritage or environment.
On the one hand, most British-Asian girls are encouraged to take advantage of education and freedom (though I know of many who were not), but the constant beat we march to is all geared towards finding a man and getting married by a deadline: the Big Three Zero. Without that achievement, we are lacking and worthless.
Then there are the other components to being beautiful: being a pretty, pleasant woman who doesn’t speak out or challenge things, who always obeys and abides, who performs as expected at family and community socials, helps in the kitchen, wears nice clothes, and smiles a lot.
Indian culture is patrilineal, with the eldest males in a family having automatic dominance and authority over the rest of the tribe. These ancestral beliefs are deeply engrained in the Indian psyche, whether living in the East or West.
Being seen and not heard is what being a ‘beautiful’ Indian woman is all about. In short, don’t have strong opinions and be someone who potential in-laws won’t have to worry about disagreeing with. Being anything other than that gives you a reputation for being difficult, hard to control, and not a good-quality daughter-in-law. On top of this, the ‘fairer’ (the Indian term for saying ‘lighter-skinned’) the woman or man, the more power her or his family will have in marital negotiations.
The tune I grew up to was that it was OK to be successful at work and studies, but the priority was to find a husband. Without that, it felt that my whole life was seen as lacking, no matter how good or enjoyable the other activities were. Speaking to other women from my community, I know I am not alone in feeling this pressure.
While the driving forces behind these external expectations may be somewhat peculiar to the British-Asian community, many women, generally, still find themselves subject to such gender-orientated pressures—such as how to dress or how to act.
In my community, the benefits of conforming to this way of life mean you will likely marry well (and hopefully marry rich), not get into any trouble, always be ranked well in the patrilineal system, treated as a VIP at family dos, the relatives will spread the word globally about how lovely you are, and you will never be criticised or questioned. Your reputation will always be protected.
I want to be in a world where
marriage doesn’t mean submission
a good man doesn’t need to be bribed…
where false kingdoms don’t grant emancipation.
Extract from ‘Sun, please embrace me’ by Lena Shah (Impetus – No cover up)
Wanting to break out and do something different (the horror!), exercising your brain and voice, creating a vocation versus a ‘looks good on the CV’-type of job (ideally in finance or accountancy if you are from my community) or working for anyone other than your husband’s or Mummy and Daddy’s business, makes you unappealing, unsuitable, difficult, and less beautiful.
Cling on to the status—that’s the mantra. Don’t start anywhere from the bottom if you can avoid it, don’t live alone. Always stick to the easy, protected route. Stay in the fold, stay in the bubble.
This is all good in theory . . . if you don’t have any other desires or thoughts about living differently, and if you can switch off your authenticity and ignore any inner calling.
HOW TO OVERCOME THIS CHALLENGE
If, like me, you believe it is more important to find a more meaningful way of life that resonates with your soul then the good news is that this can be achieved.
However, like with any new growth—a lotus flower bursting through the dirt, a new born baby coming out of the comfort of the womb to a new environment—pain and challenges will be involved.
We must have the bravery to step forwards and embrace the yin and the yang of our authentic selves—the beauty and the brains, the pain and the love, the conscious living whilst letting go of (at times) mindless, consumer-based and status-centric living—in order to achieve a sense of true self-assurance. This is the way to ultimate positive change.
Once we give ourselves the space to drop the cover up with ourselves, a new, more fulfilling path has the chance to emerge.
I say goodbye to my old self
I shed my false identity
I dust off my coat
clearing away past redundant versions of myself.
I allow my guise to fall away.
NO COVER UP…
Extract from ‘No cover up’ by Lena Shah (Impetus – No cover up)
It is, no doubt, overwhelming and we are faced with the possibility of losing the respect and admiration of people we love, feeling vulnerable in the knowledge that the community will link any loss of perceived superficial status with bad karma.
Yet the authentic road, as it was in my own case, is essential. We often reach the point where there is no other option. We must save our lives. It is, however, so much harder than staying inside the bubble and there are risks to be taken.
HOW TO BREAK FREE FROM LIMITING, ANCESTRAL BELIEFS
My biological programming
taking over my mind
as if they are
the essence of me
Extract from ‘Meeting myself for the first time’ by Lena Shah (Impetus – No cover up)
The mindfully-aware way has been MY way. Whichever path you choose, however, it is the awareness and connection that matters.
This is not an overnight solution. Regular practice—if possible with a suitable coach, therapist or other professional practitioner—is recommended. For effective alchemy to take place during these interactions, chemistry is more important than the practitioner’s CV so choose wisely and go with your gut.
Below is a brief summary of mindful activities you can make part of your routine:
1. To engage, relax, reconnect with the body and nervous system, start with mindful movement, mindful breathing and then stillness.
2. Using affirmations (thoughts and words we say to ourselves that affirm a positive) to turn around limiting belief helps change self-sabotaging thought patterns (American author Byron Katie’s work is excellent for this). Please see my website, www.metaworkscoaching.com, for more examples.
The late self-help author Wayne Dyer was pivotal in helping me with my own shake-up of self-limiting beliefs. He said in a talk that when we ask ourselves what we want, we realise much of what we are doing is based on the expectations and definitions of success that other people have created on our behalf.
I virtually saw dominos falling as I began to recognise my own thought patterns and disengage from those that were not coming from my own core essence.
CALLING THE DEPARTMENTS OF GROWTH, CREATIVITY,
POSITIVITY AND ACCEPTANCE,
COMPASSION, EMPATHY AND TRUTH!
Extract from ‘Time for a restructuring…I am my own CEO’ by Lena Shah (Impetus – No cover up)
Slowly, over time, through regular practice you will be more open to becoming aware of your areas of limiting thoughts, self-sabotage, and unhelpful habits.
One of the founding partners of Mindfulness UK, Karen Atkinson, illustrates this beautifully through her Iceberg Model of Compassionate Inquiry, which can be found in my book with Karen’s kind permission.
You can also find some example practices over on my website, www.metaworkscoaching.com.
As I mentioned, this process won’t be easy or quick. Be prepared not to get praised for it or receive any short-term recognition or validation—especially from those closest to you.
Rest with knowing that a kind rebellion is possible, and necessary, for your own salvation.
Her energy is ignited by a new vibration.
Her spirit is leaning into a new dimension.
Extract from ‘The tide of her life’ by Lena Shah (Impetus – No cover up)
Impetus - No cover up by Lena Shah (Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd.) is out now on Amazon, Waterstones, Barnes and Noble, or via the publisher’s website in paperback and eBook formats, priced £14.99 and £9.99 respectively.
For more information on Lena Shah’s mindfulness coaching, including practice mindfulness routines, visit www.metaworkscoaching.com. For more information about Impetus - No cover up, visit the author’s website here.
Q & A INTERVIEW WITH IMPETUS – NO COVER UP AUTHOR LENA SHAH
British-Asian author and mindfulness coach Lena Shah tells us more about her new book, Impetus – No cover up.
Q. How would you sum up your book to readers?
A. A beautifully designed visual book of powerful poetry and prose to both soothe and ignite the soul, stepping towards a new sense of freedom and joy in the face of pain and angst.
Q. Who do you think your book will appeal to, and why?
A. My hope is that it will appeal to anyone who has emerged, or wants to emerge, from a dark place. Being a British-Asian woman, I have my own personal lens but the poems and prose are universal. The design and layout of the book will also appeal to people who aren’t keen on text-heavy books. It can be picked up and read at random. The size and weight make it easily transportable so it can be put in a bag and read whilst on the move.
Q. How do you think readers will benefit from reading your book?
A. Through the sharing of my own journey, I hope it will provide a sense of solace and connection and also the impetus to move forwards, no cover up. There is also a practical benefit from the mindfulness section at the back of the book, so readers get the story and the recipe.
Q. How did you come to write Impetus - No cover up?
A. The book is an accumulation of my 41 years! I actually started pulling it together shortly after my 40th birthday. The potent cocktail of inspiration from 19th century poet and artist William Blake at the Tate Britain in January 2020, breaking my own limiting beliefs, and the 2020 lockdowns all helped its physical appearance in the end!
Q. Can you explain how you came up with the title for your book?
A. I was doing a home ballet workout in January 2020 and the instructor said to “use your impetus” to propel the body. As soon as I heard “impetus”, I knew that was the name for my book! The “No cover up” is literally what it is!
Q. Your book has beautiful illustrations throughout. What do you think this adds to the reading experience?
A. The illustrations add to the spirit and feel of everything. They are integral to the book. Not only do they emphasise the prose and poems, but they also allow the reader to take a pause, reflect and enjoy the colours and musings, encouraging a more intuitive reading experience.
Q. Which three poems from your collection are you most proud of, and why?
A. This is a difficult one and the answer is likely to change depending on when I am asked!1. ‘A little credit to myself (Version 2)’—Because it was the first poem I wrote completely privately, with no intention of it ever being shown anywhere. Showing it to someone and then deciding to publish it has been a personal milestone achievement. 2. ‘Venus’—This one popped out one day and I just love it. 3. ‘Sun, please embrace me’—This one was an accidental poem that surfaced spontaneously and was added as a summary. I feel it covers a lot of what I have experienced in my own life.
Q. You had originally planned to write a non-fiction book on mindfulness. Why did you decide that going down the route of poetry and short prose worked better?
A. It was accidental. I first put together the mindfulness book before Covid-19 hit the West. By the time I had drafted and finalised it we were in full lockdown and I realised how much poetry I had, and also how much more authentic the personal poetry and prose felt in comparison to a mindfulness-only textbook. There are enough excellent instructional mindfulness books out there already as a resource and I did not feel it is my place to create another one.
Q. How would you say mindfulness training, and yoga have changed your life?
A. "The Body Keeps the Score", as psychiatrist and author Bessel Van der Kolk says. Yoga and mindfulness have been paramount in helping me stop the self-sabotage and limited thinking to find a new way, to engage in a new self-talk with a new outlook and a new way of seeing myself.
Q. What can readers expect next from you?
A. I cannot answer that! I did not know or plan last year to do what I am doing this year, further developing my 1:2:1 Yin yoga and mindfulness client work, writing this book, speaking at festivals, doing book talks and signing, or producing a book trailer. Anything great that has happened in my life has usually been as a result of an accident, not a plan.
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