Sunday, 19 December 2010

Happy shalaversary

The alternative title of this post could be: for all the posts I haven't written.

I find myself entering again into one of those phases where it seems there is so much to say here that I end up getting overwhelmed and saying nothing. Some of these things are pretty landmark occurrences though so if for nothing more than my own benefit, I do want to mention them (even if I don't have time right now to elaborate). Outside of my yoga practice there is a huge amount going on too, perhaps mirrored on my mat, but discussing that will have to wait for another time.

1. I had my shala anniversary. Thanks to having written about it here, I was able to tell when it was exactly a year to the day since I first practiced with Cary and proclaimed that "I think I found my teacher". Funny to see now how right I was. 
2. I was given setu bandhasana, the last pose of primary (wait for it) - ON MY SHALA ANNIVERSARY! I didn't actually realise until a few days later (when I checked the dates), but even though I try not to attach any great significance to this, it seems interesting to me. One year ago, I rocked up at Yoga Place with a very shaky practice, finishing at bujapidasana, not able to get into headstand, not able to jumpback (no change there then!), and certainly not willing/capable of the early mornings needed to enable a daily practice. At that point (just to recap) I had been practicing on and off for 8 months, but having not found a teacher that I gelled with AND could actually get to regularly (I loved the evening teacher, but never managed to get to more than one class a week) my practice had become more off than on. 
I'll save the evaluation of the past year of practice for another time, but I like the fact that these two events coincided; it does seem to have some significance. When I had a moment to chat to Cary later that week (this all happened a few weeks ago now) and told her, she said that it is said that it should take a year to do primary (by which I assume she means a year of daily/almost daily practice, which discounted my on/off once a week period). And she finished by saying "and next week we're doing dropbacks!"

So, the thing which I have heard and read so much about. The thing which I began to fear about 5 new poses ago. The thing which (if I am honest) a little tiny bit of my brain illogically thought "maybe you'll just be able to do them easily - even though that happens to NOBODY, maybe you'll be the first one ever!". It's easy to have these thoughts when you have never tried something. So I turned up to practice last Sunday fully prepared to start dropbacks, and I have to say I was filled with anxiety. But the shala was busy, C wasn't around when I was doing my backbends, so I hung about for a while lying on my mat and then did the vinyasa into my forward bend. But later she came and told me, "tomorrow after your backbends, stand at the top of your mat and catch my attention". So there was to be no escape!
My overriding emotion though, aside from anxiety, was not to make too big a deal of it. Easy to say before having started them I know, but I did not want my entire practice to become about this, just like when I was struggling with other asanas I didn't want to give disproportionate headspace to them. My practice is my practice, it is not about one asana. I may need reminding of this in a few months time however ;) One further disclaimer - as I am trying to bash this blog out in double quick time it IS just about dropbacks. Of course for every day mentioned, there was a whole practice attached...I just don't have time to talk about all of that now!

So day one - C teaches it this way: hands in prayer, inhale, exhale go back (as she holds), hands touch the ground, inhale she brings you back up. Repeat three times. No fuss, no screaming or grunting, and actually no fear. My overwhelming sensation was that this was very like another big "first time" (think about it) where prior to the event you have so much build-up, and people in your class are separated in your mind into those who have done it and those who haven't...and then when it happened all I could think was "Is this it? It just feels WEIRD!!". 

Day two was much the same - it really didn't feel like it was about my back at all - at this stage it felt like it was purely about faith.
I should have known things were about to get more challenging...

Day three and we added in some extra tricks. Three dropbacks as before, then three supported hangbacks (arms across the chest), then a final dropback where you hold for 5 and walk the hands in. Coming up from there felt difficult, and for the first time this all started to become about my back. 

Day four was the same physically, but mentally a lot more difficult. I was feeling strange, and I just wanted to skip the dropbacks - but I stood up and waited for C anyway. And the drill was the same, but I felt like she really had to haul me up. After the first three dropbacks I tried to ask a question but was silenced with a one-word answer and told to do the hangbacks. After it was all over I had to fight the overwhelming urge to walk out of the room, skipping closing. I felt irrationally irritated and angry. I cried in paschimotanasana. The only reason I stayed in the room was because I knew that there would be no more adjustments through the closing sequence - i couldn't bear the thought of any more.
And then on Friday, when I would normally have done the led class (and hence no dropbacks), I was in Brighton for work and so I took my practice to another shala. The teacher there was wonderful, and gave me some great help, but I very very nearly went straight from UD to forward bending, feeling again that I just didn't want to do it. She has a different style, and had me move my legs much closer together so that I squeezed her leg between my thighs - and oh my god it's a lot more difficult! By the time we got to the final dropback where I held for 5, she practically had to winch me up. As she brought me back up I staggered around and grabbed her, making a load of noise, then told her it had got harder every day, nearly losing it as I said it. She gave me some lovely feedback, told me my back was very open and that I was doing amazingly for only having been doing them for a week. I think I needed to hear this at that point.

So today I was back the the shala, and silly me for thinking that it would feel easier after the difficult Brighton leg-squeezing version! Today as C came to the top of my mat she said to me "now we are doing the next phase". So now I have to hangback as far as I can with my hands in prayer on the exhale, inhale there, and then she takes me down to the ground on the exhale, and inhale back up to standing. We do this three times before the assisted hangbacks, then the final dropback I have to do the same again before she takes me right down and I hold for 5, walking the hands in. All I can say is that it very literally felt like somebody took away the safety net as I tried to hangback without her holding me. There were a few false starts but I tried to just get on with it and not think too much, but that overwhelming sensation was of the missing safety net, and that I was trying to do something which was wrong (you know, like that urge to step onto live train tracks...or walk the wrong way up an escalator). So I think the lesson I am taking from my first week of dropbacks is this. Just as soon as there is anything approaching a comfort zone, it gets taken away, The honeymoon is over, the hard work starts here!

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Why do we work?

Why do we work?
Aaah, a good question you may think (and no doubt one which triggers all sorts of gut reactions) - it's a fairly loaded word, "work", isn't it?

The Sunday moonday last month allowed me to go back to my original yoga teacher, the one who really got me interested in yoga and it's more spiritual side - found, incongruously enough, at my local weight-lifting/circuit-training-obsessed local chain gym. The funny story is that this class is sivananda style hatha yoga, but up until a few days before I went to India to take an ashtanga course, inspired by my love for this class, I was utterly convinced that this was ashtanga. Anyway I digress...
For quite some time I was a regular at this Sunday afternoon class, without really having much conversation with the teacher (N - a wonderful guy who looks for all the world like he just landed from another planet and is still trying to figure out what this one is all about - he is that spiritual. But after coming back from my first trip to India, all full of the joys of ashtanga, I quit my gym membership to spend the money instead on yoga classes. As I now always practice at the shala on a Sunday, there isn't really a chance to go back to his class apart from on the odd ocassion, like last Sunday's moonday for example. Well now that I am an infrequent visitor, and a yoga devotee, every time I do go to his class I am treated to a seriously amazing conversation with N afterwards. I wish I could suruptitiously record what he says, as I can't take it all in, but he has said some things to me in these conversations which have had quite an impact.
So last week, I took the class, which was wonderful (and let me say, as it is mostly the same each time, it's a great marker to see how my flexibility and strength has changed in the months since I last tried it) and afterwards he stopped me for a chat. "You look so well," he said, taking my hand, "What's happened? Did you get married??"
Well, funny suggestion, but no - I told him that I had a new job (and in the most part my "looking wonderful" was probably down to a lie-in and a post-yoga glow). So then we got into a discussion about work - when I say discussion I mean him talking and me listening, hoping against hope that I could remember it all and apply it later - but the essence of it was something like this (though I' paraphrasing of course).
Through our work we face the meeting of past and future - of our memories and our if something reminds us of a situation when we did the same thing before and it went badly (like chasing up money from a customer for example), then we remember the past experience and imagine it happening again in our future. To get the outcome we desire we need to remain completely in the present and not colour it with what has gone before or what we imagine might happen this time. Our work exsists to teach us an important lesson in our life - but if we are not careful, if we take our eye off the ball and sleepwalk through our hours spent at work, we risk missing the lesson, and "that is why we work, it's all about the lesson." And there was me thinking I just worked to pay for yoga ;)
He went on to talk about how people explain washing the dishes as a meditation, and how he watched an old film of Swami sivananda where he did everything with a reverance, a form of deliberate movement - tying this in with work, he decided to take a job (on top of teaching yoga presumably and - big surprise to me - writing film scripts) as a decorator, "because if I couldn't turn work into a meditation when I'm painting a wall white from one end to the other, then what could I?" Seriously - wow.
He said that this took him many years to understand, but once he realised it it held the key for him. He also spoke to me once in the past about how once you understand what life is (when we were discussing the yogic path) that it doesn't matter if you're sweeping the streets or having the corner office, because you can do either thing with a song in your heart, or a black cloud permenantly raining on you - the actual job is not important.


I was reminded of all of this this week, especially yesterday, as I am in Denmark this week as part of my training for my new job. The company I work for as a sales rep/account manager is based here, and they get all new employees to spend a few days (or a week for those lucky people based in Denmark!) working in the warehouse - the idea being so that we understand how it all works and won't make unreasonable demands on them later, haha! As my colleague was delayed in arriving by a day due to bad weather, I spent day 1 on my own, and our first task was unpacking a shipment of baskets which had just arrived from Madagascar. Surrounded by Danish people who spoke little English, I stood alongside them with my knife, slitting open the old rice bags used to pack the baskets, and thinking of N's words. In all honesty that morning, lugging these heavy bags, carving up my already sore and dry hands, having no conversation with my neighbours, was the first thing I have done since starting this job at the end of October which felt like "work" - as in, a hardship, something which I wasn't actively enjoying doing - not that I was unhappy, as I had all of N's words running through my head as I did it, but it defiitely felt like work in the traditional sense.

And surely that can't be bad? Having come from almost three years doing a job where I did very little but watch the clock and surf the internet, this is something of a revelation. And thankfully the unpackig section was just a short interlude before I was trained how to pick orders - but here there was another lesson. I was taken by one of the (english-speaking) staff on a cart like the one in the photo to be shown how to pick orders (it is done manually, travelling around the warehouse on the cart with it's attached trolley and matching up the orders to a handheld scanner) and let me tell you, I was terrified. These things can MOVE! And being a passenger was really quite scary - as was the thought that I'd be let loose myself before too long. But after the morning coffee break I was off, and after a shaky (and very slow!) start I was zooming around like nbody's business by the end of the day. When my colleague arrived today, I was the one who trained her, and yes I may have had a few crashes but I quickly had to let the fear go yesterday, to notice when my shoulders were rising up towards my ears in tension, and just to go with it and relax. And I couldn't have been more proud when the warehouse manager told me at the end of today that I had done a really terrific job and not made any mistakes with my orders :) And how did I forget to mention how much FUN we had?! Zooming around on our little carts, my colleague and I giggled our way through today - with the odd bang and crash to send us on our way. We decided to ask the warehouse manager if we might be allowed to come and work for them during our holidays, a thought which had us doubled over laughing, as did the moment when I stepped off the MOVING cart we were both on to look at a cushion I'd spotted, whilst saying "Oooh, PRETTY!". So after the fear, the fun :)
So I'm not entirely sure what my overall message is, maybe I don't need one, but just to say that sometimes you need to keep your ears and eyes open for the lesson that is there in your work. And one thing's for certain, thanks to N and my lovely new company, I have been reminded that work isn't just a means to pay for yoga holidays - though it helps with that too.