Sunday, 27 June 2010

Monkey Mind

Sometimes a vivid and colourful mind is a blessing during yoga practice, sometimes a curse. 

Thoughts float into my mind unbidden and I don’t stop them coming. This has led to some weird and wonderful realisations, profound ideas, pictures of my future and interesting occurrences. Once as I was sitting in my moment of quiet post-practice (which I traditionally use to practice gratitude but can become a bit automatic...) the Lord’s Prayer popped into my brain. Weird, I thought, but I let it continue, recited from the age of 5 at Sunday school in a strange stylised fashion. When I go to a kirtan I tend to find I can think clearly and have had some great realisations there – so I forgive my brain for not being quiet (if you can’t be still, at least say something worth saying). Feelings of resistance pop up during practice, moments where I want to run from the room, but I don’t consider these bad thoughts, just intriguing: where they pop up (and why) comes and goes over time. 

The most frequent unwanted thought during practice always comes near to the end. “There’s nothing left to dread” it says. Intellectually speaking, I don’t like this thought, and wouldn’t say that I even consciously agree with it. I don’t feel like I dread anything very much in practice, certain postures have moments of hesitation beforehand, but no actual dread. There did used to be dread in the run-up to headstand, but not anymore. But still the thought pops in more often than not, usually when I’m most of the way through closing – but not today. Interesting when the thought is there, interesting too when it’s not, but no judgements. It’s hard not to assess these things and just to allow them to come, or not, but that’s what I’m going for.

Savasana has become all about the visualisations. I sometimes used to focus on a point above the third eye, feeling something radiating out from there and covering my body, almost like the readybrek glow. Now it’s a point somewhere right at the centre of my body – since reading about the concept of Buddha mind there’s a strong visual picture of a small gold statue buried deep within me. I peel away the layers to let it’s light shine through, with every exhalation the glow reaches a little closer to the surface until finally it feels like I can barely contain it. It’s like lying in the hot sun, this feeling, and a smile becomes involuntary as I let the light radiate out through my skin, allowing it to reach out beyond my physical body.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

There's no place like...Yoga Place

(thanks to Jen for the revised title - much better than the original one!)

The biggest motivating factor in getting me into a regular practice has been finding the right shala and the right teacher. Although I started practicing ashtanga in March 2009 (when I accidentally booked an ashtanga retreat in Goa, mistakenly thinking I knew what it was...!!) it wasn't until after my second retreat this January that I settled into a regular practice. I tried a couple of teachers in London in the months that followed my baptism of fire at Purple Valley and although I loved the second of them (the first one was nowhere near traditional enough for my liking) I couldn't make it stick and at best was practising two evenings a week. I was convinced that a morning practice was impossible for me due to where I live in London, the cost of classes, the fact we have no showers at my office, you name it and I could come up with an excuse about it.
But then in October November (wow, was it really? I just re-read the post to confirm it...22nd November to be precise!) I rocked up at Yoga Place, having been encouraged by reading Susan and Globie's accounts of the teacher there via their blogs. But what with YP closing for Christmas and all of the madness in the run-up to it I didn't get there very often, just Sundays to begin with. But as I just reminded myself in reading what I wrote that first day, I instantly felt like I had found my teacher. Then for the first two weeks of January this year I was in Goa practising with Noah Williams, and despite being in a world of pain (it had been months and months since I had practised two days back-to-back before then, let alone 6 days - twice!) I came back determined to get to the shala more regularly. In conversation with one of my friends there I made my excuses as to why I couldn't get to the shala regularly before work (the commute, the timing of getting to work, etc etc)  and she matched every one of them with her own situation in Washington D.C. (actually she trumped me -as she has to be at her desk for 8.30am and I start an hour later). There came a point during the retreat that I just thought "Come on then Mel. 2010: the primary series. Let's do this thing." I vowed to throw away my dissatisfaction with where I was up to in my practice and just bloody get on with it.

And so far so good...I started off slowly, getting to the shala two weekdays plus Sundays, and it was hard to begin with. Going to bed really early, having my bag packed the night before with my yoga and work clothes all laid was like a military operation. The first few months really were tough. But then came the turning point where I stopped paying drop-in and and paid for a full month. Cary was so fabulously encouraging (she used to practically applaud every day that I showed up at the start) especially the first time I signed up for the month. Two weekdays became three and I settled into a pattern - practice Sunday Monday, rest Tuesday, practice Wednesday Thursday, rest Friday and Saturday. And then only in the past month or so I broke the pattern and started getting to led classes, and sometimes even *shock horror* practicing on Tuesdays! I broke the exception of "never having done three days in a row" and soon I had done four days in a row. Going to the shala became the rule not the exception (and gone were the clothes laid out and pre-planned...and the early nights!). 
But the thing that inspired me to write this today was this feeling of what has grown over the past few months for me - and that is the energy I get from practising with my shala-mates. Whilst my feeling that Cary was my teacher was immediate, the feeling that this was my sangha has taken months to evolve, but I can honestly say that the first few hours of every day are now my favourites. I am blessed to practise with such wonderful, lovely and supportive people who come from a variety of walks of life, some of whom I know well, some I speak to briefly but know nothing about their lives, others I just exchange smiles with. But all of them make the shala. On a bad day you can always find somebody to speak to in the changing room who will give you a suggestion or just somehow make you feel better. On a good day you can share you triumphs. They sympathise when you talk about your tears, tell you what to eat (or not to eat) when you have a cold, share recipes for the best ever curry, talk about where to get the best coffee - what's not to love? When I first visited Yoga Place I said that I felt what I had been missing before was the feeling of friendliness and community; there's no doubt I found it at YP. Having a wonderful teacher is of course massively important, but you will only get so many adjustments on any given day - and it's being surrounded by the familiar faces day-in day-out that really keeps me motivated. And when I take a day off (Tuesdays usually!) I miss it and feel like I've been away forever which means I will always go back the next day.

Now watch somebody go and spray me in the face when they're doing garba pindasana tomorrow morning and I'll take back all this soppy load of sap  ;)

But enough of the sarcastic ending...instead I'll finish with a picture of my touchstone - this is the sign on the front door, and every day as I open the door I make sure I touch my hand to it... and I leave behind my worries and take a deep, deep breath.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Slow down...

Thank you for the reminder London Underground (and Gandhi). I will resist the temptation to make a cynical comment about it being within the Underground's interests to convince us we don't need to be anywhere in a hurry...

This also brings to mind the phrase Sharath is so fond of (and even in the 1 led class I ever took with him he said it): "No hurry, no worry..."

But I noticed lately that even when I am not in a rush, I rush. After my hip-releasing-osteo appointment last week I realised how much tension I hold in my hips, which is even noticeable in the tilt of my pelvis (sorry, is that a little bit TMI?) and the speed at which I walk. Try it - when you are rush-rush-rushing, take a moment to release tension in your hips, tilt your pelvis back, and see what happens - can you still keep rushing? In my case the answer is no. So step one, having noticed this tendency, has been to stop rushing just from habit. I don't always need to be somewhere in a hurry, and when that is the case, do I really need to do the double-overtaking manoeuvre in the walkway to the Waterloo & City line? Do I need to huff and puff when the driver announces that the train is being held in the station? Of course not. All I need to do is breathe and accept whatever is being thrown at me, and do all that I can to accept it with a relaxed body and mind - being stressed about it doesn't change the status quo and actually just makes it worse. 

Step two of this is to not always be procrastinating and time-wasting so that I'm not having to rush about so often, but that bit is much more difficult to fix! I seem to find plenty of time to waste online every day and evening, but when it comes to things I need to do (or even want to do) I "don't have enough time" - even when it comes to taking long hot baths and getting to bed early - and these are not exactly unpleasant things! I don't know where this resistance comes from, I think it is my tamasic energy and a sort of inertia. It also stems from a slightly compulsive nature (an ashtangi with a touch of OCD? surely not!!) and maybe is just a part of my character. But I know that change is possible, and if I can, this is what I would like to change. So what can I do to get a bit more proactive and a bit less time-wasting? Any suggestions will be gratefully accepted! Meanwhile I will just give myself a pat on the back for using the hour before I go to meet a friend for dinner to blog - how's that for time-efficient? :)

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Fear and loathing in triang mukha...

I know it’s called triang mukha ekapeda pashimottanasana really but isn’t that just to much of a mouthful?
As I may have mentioned before, I have some serious issues with this pose. Innocuous as it may seem to others, for as long as I can remember I have been experiencing overwhelming emotions when practicing it, mainly on the second side. I remember asking Noah about it when I was in India in January, at which point my issue was anger. Now I always preface this with “I’m not an angry person, but...” which I am beginning to realise is a false statement. Just because I don’t consider myself an angry person, we all get angry, it’s just what we do with the anger that makes a difference. Some shout and scream and swear or break things (of course nobody reading this blog would do any of those things I’m sure...) but I suppose I fall into the "burying it" category - so which is healthier? Unless I’m at work that is, where I seem to just explode momentarily and then get back to normal quickly (and I’m going to blame the office environment for that!). Anyway, a few months ago I wrote that I got a really really strong adjustment in the pose and got so angry I actually thought I was going to yell or hit my teacher. For such a long time afterwards I would dread the pose just in case I got adjusted, and was probably rushing my 5 breaths – after the first side I would always think “yes!! I got away with it!” knowing I was unlikely to get adjusted on the dreaded second side as nobody likes an un-even adjustment. 
And so this continued, right up until I went to Edinburgh to study with Kino. And while I was there, the anger changed to border-line tears, which then became the status quo. Just as I approached the fifth count I would almost reach the point where the breath would become the deep inhalation that precedes sobbing. But as this would hit just as I was about to come out of the pose I would breathe my way out, relieved to have dodged it for another day. I was even modifying the pose to make the feeling less extreme, and something my friend J said about Cary spotting that she wasn’t flexing her whole foot made me realise I was doing exactly the same, with my right leg outstretched I could minimise the depth of the discomfort in my right hip by easing off the stretch. So all the while I was half wishing that the tears would come, and that this thing would shift and be gone, I was also cheating and backing off. This wasn’t a huge feature of my practice, just one of those many little things that goes on every day but has peaks and troughs. Until last week that is...
I have been reading this amazing book called Awakening the Buddha Within (sorry to those who know me, I have been raving non-stop about this for weeks) which started opening my eyes to a lot of things. So there I was during practice last Thursday morning, and as I reached triang mukha and I slipped into my recent routine where as I experienced the pull in my hip I started my mental trick of telling myself that it was actually a lovely feeling. I think I was doing this on and off for a few weeks, just trying to play a game with my brain and make it believe that something unpleasant was actually pleasant – it should be possible shouldn’t it? Surely it’s just conditioning? So there I was, pretending it was OK, and as I got to about the count of 4 I had a profound thought. My own voice said very clearly: “You can’t hide from pain, you have to experience it.”  And BAM! There it was, the floodgates opened.
I stayed in the pose for a few more breaths, trying to fight the tears, but also remembering what I had been taught that when these things come up, you have to let them (it was Kino who really emphasised this, she talked about “letting your ego bleed” though that may have been in a different context!). I moved through the vinyasa struggling to keep the ujayi breath going, but it turns iut it is contraindicated by sobbing. I moved into janu sirsasana A on the first side, I caught my foot, I bent forward, I took a breath...I realised I couldn’t breathe and it would be ridiculous to keep going. So I did something I never ever do, I got up from my mat and I left the room. I walked into our open plan changing room and I stood with hands on my knees and I sobbed. Just for a minute or two, but I let it go. And there was nothing specific happening in my mind, I wasn’t thinking about anything, or anyone, or even a situation, I was just crying. Then I found a tissue, took the pack with me for good measure, and went and got back on my mat. And the rest of my practice was OKish, though I thought I was going to cry again in savasana, but the other thing that was strange was post-practice. In the past when I have had tears, I’ve felt OK afterwards.But last Thursday this wasn't the case at all - I felt wounded and vulnerable. I just wanted to curl up into a ball until the world went away. Later my colleague said that I looked like I was smiling because if I didn't I might cry - and she hit the nail on the head. as the day went on the mood shifted slightly, a trip to Starbucks for a mocha helped, and by home-time I was feeling fine again. But what about the fear of what would happen next time I had to do the asana? Well Friday is led primary, so feeling like I wasn't doing the pose my own, there was no issue – in fact I had a great practice.

Then on Friday afternoon I went to see my wonderful acupuncture/holistic Chinese medicine/ osteopath guy (I need to come up with a snappier title for him) and I spoke to him about it. He believes fully in the theory that the body holds “trauma” (to use a very generic coverall term) in specific areas of the body which could relate back as far as since birth. Through yoga we start to rub up against these kleshas (this from Kino) in a way that we don’t in normal life which is why sometimes bizarre emotions can come to us unbidden during a yoga practice – for me, extreme hamstring stretches can make me feel intensely bored, instantly! A very long time ago I was told that hips relate to family issues, so my feeling is that this lock in my hip is the huge can of worms I DO NOT WANT TO FACE for fear of having a complete mental unravelling....hence the fact I have been completely backing off from it and just hoping it will go away without a big drama. So he did lots and lots of work on my hips as I have been experiencing some knee pain and other hip issues, and practice on Sunday was madly open – I felt like I was wearing somebody else’s hips. But when it came to triang mukha I got a sweet, gentle assist, and I was absolutely fine. And the next day, the same thing happened. In fact today was the first day since the meltdown that I practiced the asana alone. Getting adjusted in it these past few days felt like I was a child having my hand held through a bad dream. I had the overwhelming feeling that I didn’t have to go though it on my own, that I was being looked after. And having had the monsters chased away from beneath my bed for a few days, I was less terrified to try it by myself today.

So I suppose the big question is, how did it feel today? The total genius of the situation now seems to have moved to my left side. So I suppose I just have to keep breathing, keep working through it, and hope that this means something is shifting...and tomorrow is another day!

Sunday, 6 June 2010

If I could offer you only one piece of advice for the future...sunscreen would be it.

You know those days where you have a plan that you literally could not be any more excited about? And I’m not talking about the life-changing wedding-day/trip of a lifetime/buying a house stuff (because actually for me all of that stuff would equal anxiety in at least equal measure to excitement) I just mean the plans you make with friends where you know you are going to have a fantastic day, there will be no hidden agenda, no dark side, nothing said or done that gets your back up. Well yesterday was one of those days for me. What seems like months ago, my oldest friend and I had booked the day that I was going to go and visit her and her family in Worthing. So despite having had a very long day on Friday (leaving home at 6.15am and getting back at 11pm) I was up early on Saturday to cross London and catch the train out of town. And it was a beautiful day, warm and sunny, all of my public transport options worked out perfectly and despite leaving home really behind schedule I arrived in time to catch the train I wanted and grab a coffee and pastry before I jumped on the train. Maybe I was kicking off major good vibe smiles because the lovely man at Cafe Nero decided to give me 5 loyalty-card stamps instead of one (I only need to buy one more coffee now and I get a FREE ONE! I know...I’m a complete loyalty-scheme sucker) which just made me even happier. Getting on the train and settling down with my book (Awakening the Buddha Within – I’ll have to blog about it when I’m finished reading it, it’s changing my world!) I got that familiar old feeling of I’m just too happy, something has to go wrong. All of which was quickly chased by the morbid fears which are usually hot on the tail of boundless optimism for me. So I confronted my own logic, there was no reason for something bad to happen just because I was feeling excited, I talked myself down, got back to my book, got back to my smiles. As soon as the train pulled out of London and the town was replaced by green rolling countryside I remembered how important it is to get out of the city every once in a while, and how much better I feel the instant that I do. It helps to be reminded that there is more to life than London too. So the journey was good, but with lots of confusion for almost everybody on the train because it would split half-way and go in two different directions, so you had to travel in the right portion of the train, all of which meant that we were less British than usual and lots of people spoke to one another (I knew where I needed to be!). In this climate the lady in front of me peered through between the seats and asked if I could make a phone-call for her if she gave me a pound! Of course I refused any money, telling her it was free, she eventually agreed to use it without paying so I dialled the number for her and handed it over (she was an older lady and insisted she “can’t use them”). After she had finished her call she peered through again and passed me a sweet, and I got back to reading about karma :)
The friend I was en route to visit is the only friend from school I am still in contact with. Although we were at the same school from the age of 11, it wasn’t until we were in the sixth form and all of the classes were mixed up that she and I became friends (so from the age of 16). And from that point we spent an inordinate amount of time sitting on the very disgusting sofa in our sixth form common room, eating creme eggs and talking about the weekend (either the one that just went, or the one to come, or both...). Every weekend we went to the same bar with the same people, Friday and Saturday nights, and god only knows what we all found to talk about given that we spent all of our time together. But 13 years later, after years spent in different towns at different universities, with boyfriends, jobs and families changing in between, we are still in touch and although we haven’t seen each-other very frequently in recent years there is something unique and very special about this friendship for me. It always makes me think of that Baz Luhrman song Sunscreen – there’s a line in it about staying friends with people you knew when you were young which of course I just googled...     

Understand that friends come and go, but for the precious few you should hold on.
Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle because the older you get,
the more you need the people you knew when you were young

And how right it is! There’s something about being around somebody who has a shared history with you that can’t be beaten. Although we may not have spent much time in the same city for the last 12 years, we have followed each-other’s histories. She is the only person who knows the full story of all of my relationships. She knows my family history inside-out. She knows about most of the frogs I kissed when I was 17. She knows I wore nothing but mens’ 501 jeans, tshirts from Gap kids and a terrible cardigan for most of my sixth form. And I know all of this about her too. So although she has been married for 6 years (I think?) and has a two year old son now, the bond and the shared history is there and it’s really amazing. Add to this she is one of the loveliest, most caring people you could ever hope to meet and you can understand why I was so looking forward to the visit.
The day itself can be summed up mostly in pictures. We headed to the beach, a short walk from their house (where the Mr was holed up working) where we found ourselves a patch of sand, spread out the picnic blanket and stayed most of the day. We lunched on baguette with brie and grapes, drank apple juice, buried everyone’s legs in the sand (“again, again!”), paddled in the sea (that was just me), took photos and talked. And talked, and talked, and talked. And then once we’d done an awful lot of talking, I talked about yoga a bit and she egged me on to do some sandy asanas. So here they are.
The beach!

Making sandcastles with my new buddy
Headstand prep - at which point I was saying "I don't think I can get up!"

She asked to see my old party-trick...not really yoga!
I really hope my hands are a bit closer together than this when I do it for real...

Back at the homestead I handed over belated birthday presents to mother & son, and then helped with the new jungle animal puzzle until it was time for dinner, and then it was his bathtime and bedtime. Considering I only met him twice as a tiny baby, thanks to shared photos I felt like I knew him already (plus he is the absolute image of his dad) and we got on like a house on fire. I had a very sweet email from my friend this morning saying that when he woke up this morning, her little boy was saying “where is Mel sleeping?” and when she explained that I’d gone home he asked if he could play with his puzzle. So hopefully I have got myself another friend for life there :)

Anyway as the song was partly what inspired this post, I’ll leave you with the video. If you ignore the fact that it's a little cheesy, there's some good stuff in there...some of the better bits are towards the end... Oh and just to make for an interesting coincidence, when I looked this up I discovered that it went at number 1 in the UK charts exactly 11 years ago today. How weird is that? And the other piece of advice contained in this song that I really really should have followed yesterday? Wear sunscreen. It might not have seemed that hot but when I came home I was burnt like a bugger in a VERY silly shape on my back. So here it is....