Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The very long overdue post-Purple Valley report

It seems so long ago now that I was in Goa, but thankfully I am a serial note-taker, so revisiting my notebooks gives me access to some of thoughts that came to mind and lessons I learned whilst in Goa last month. I am going to have to split this up into parts as it is an epic post – even after it’s split!!
So just before I left for India my thoughts, practice-wise, were mainly focussed on back-bending. I  had hoped to drop-back alone with my teacher C (if that makes sense!) before leaving as she would go on maternity leave whilst we were away, plus I wanted to get over the hurdle and just get on with working on it. But I didn’t do it before I left, and so of course it became a major feature of my daily practice. More on that later.
Off the mat, my thoughts were the small matter of what I was going to do with my life (which I wrote about in my last post). Who is to say that the one thing didn’t affect the other (the on and off the mat stuff), let’s be honest we all know it does. But in addition to this question, I had some thoughts and expectations about the trip – here is a not-yet-posted start of a post I wrote about my “Goa goals”:

In a few days I am heading off for my third trip to Purple Valley in Goa to study with Kino and Tim - and I am so excited! Going as a repeat visitor takes away so much of the uncertainty I have felt before; I know the practical things which somehow takes away the anxiety of wondering how things work, or what I need to take. And for the first time I will be going with a friend, the lovely Susan, which will take away the other anxiety about getting along with people and making friends. Having made this trip twice before, once as a complete & clueless beginner, once as a lapsed but relative newbie ashtangi, I know that even a two week retreat can have a powerful effect on your life when you return home. I also know from my trip to Thailand in October that as I now have a daily practice, I won't necessarily notice earth-shattering changes in my asana practice. But there are a few things I would like to "achieve" while I am away...

Breaking addictions: Hitting the reset button:

To sugar...toast....the internet. I have been eating crap lately, and filling my brain with way too much social networking. Getting away from home is the perfect opportunity to reboot and refocus on the things that serve me better and make me happier (and although I may think that endless biscuit-eating makes me happy, in the long-run it doesn't). 

Two weeks away from home is a chance to break ingrained patterns of behaviour (not just the "addictions" I mention above). Silly things which become habitual like standing under the shower slightly too long, sitting inert on the sofa intending to move but not being able to make myself, hitting snooze too many times on the 5.15am alarm. All of these things I have found changed after coming back from retreat before and hope that I can do the same again.

Remembering what I'm there for:
Going away on retreat is the perfect opportunity to take time out. But in the past I have been aware of my tendency not to want to "miss out" on anything - to always be surrounded by people and chatting instead of taking time to be alone or quiet. This is actually a tricky one, because on the one hand I think introspection is a good thing and part of being on the spiritual path, but for me and my lifestyle right now, perhaps it's the reverse of what I need. Afterall I spend most days all alone, and what I need is a bit more social input - but I think there should be a way of finding a balance so that's what I will be aiming for.

Finding time to sit:

After savasana every day I take a moment sitting with my eyes closed before I head off to the chatter of the changing room. Recently I have felt that I don't want to (even that I can't) open my eyes, and that what I want most of all is to just sit for a while. Of course on a work day this isn't possible, but on retreat it should be doable. Past experience tells me that (apart from an empty stomach) the main thing that gets me  out of savasana and up to the terrace is the prospect of missing out on some good breakfast-time chat but this is a tendency I'd like to watch.

So against these “goals” how did I fare? Well, given the change in life circumstances since I came home, it’s really impossible to judge whether the trip chilled me out and got rid of some of my inertia. And I CERTAINLY didn’t do as I had hoped and take time to sit and be away from the constant socialising – if anything this was more pronounced this year than ever before. As Susan put it “to call it a retreat implies some sort of quiet reflection and contemplation...but we just spend all day chatting!!” As I responded – why do you think I like it here so much??! But as I mused in my blog draft, maybe this was what I needed after far too much time spent alone in the run-up to the trip. And I met some wonderful and lovely people – although we did decide that we were the Purple Valley Mean Girls (or the cool kids, we couldn’t quite decide...), not that we were mean of course ;) But being great friends with one of the two assistants had HUGE benefits – not least that you got extra attention, and the day that Zoe went around with the camera I think half the pictures were of Susan and I. Yay for practice pictures!
My girls at Anjuna market.Do they look mean to you?!
And what of the backbending? Well, having two teachers – Kino and Tim – meant that on any given day you may be working on this differently. Having been working with Cary on dropping back, and being told by everyone that I was this close to doing it alone, I assumed I would rock up in Goa and just do it. Not so. Day 1, I worked with Kino. With 60 people in the room, many working on later 2nd series and with at least a few on 3rd, there wasn’t a huge amount of time. And Kino seemed to be working me on standing up! Of course it is great to get exposed to different methods with something like backbending, because you are then gaining different skills for your armoury – and the more approaches you try (to a point) the more chance you have of connecting with what works for you. So with Kino she used a towel to drop me back (maybe because of my height? I’m a good 10 inches taller than her...), then she gets you to walk the hands in MORE than you think is possible, then  to rock to come up (which was new to me although of course I know this is a widely used approach). So I did backbends with Kino the first two days, but the second day I cried – the first time I had such a strong emotional reaction to backbending. It was triggered slightly by having seen my friend K backbending with Tim and get “the hug” after coming up; I got a big lump of empathy in my throat which turned to tears when it came to be my turn. No hug with Kino, just “You ok?” and on we go – business-like and focussed. Good stuff J
Yeah that's me!
Then the next day I did backbends with Tim – and it was a completely different experience again. That first day with him, I said afterwards that I got the feeling of how backbending could be beautiful. You know when you see somebody with effortless looking backbends where they float down to the ground with great control? Tim somehow assists you to do this. His approach is hands in prayer (I am used to taking the arms up overhead on the inhale, go back on the exhale), lifting up through the chest, lift up again, go back as far as you can keeping the legs straight, then bending the legs but keeping the butt relaxed (which is HARD!). But on the first day with him, I don’t remember it being particularly hard work (he was saving that for later), just this feeling of grace. Day two with Tim: and then came the tears. I think it was the feeling of walking in more than seemed possible, my breath became ragged, I was panicking, I was drowning, I couldn’t escape...and this on only the second dropback (not the final one where you hold for 5). Coming up to standing the tears came, and I got the hug. And can I say it was worth the hard work? It’s not just a hug, he tells you to relax and lean right against him as he leans back, so it is actually a great stretch, as well as being sweet as anything, and just exactly what you need after a rush of emotion.
The following day though, as I came to the front of my mat for backbends, I felt major anxiety. Yesterday was so hard, and now I have to do it again? I felt my breath go into panic mode – and this before the work had even started. So when it was Tim who came to work with me again that day, I told him before we started that I was feeling anxious because of the emotional reaction the previous day. And here is what he told me...
You need to add just a little drop of *doubt* to the panic – so in a whole ocean of fear, there is just one droplet of doubt. The natural reaction when you can’t breathe is to panic, and then your airway collapses. So now you have two choices: you can react to the panic, or you can panic. Introduce a drop of doubt and know that even if you can’t breathe for 30 seconds you will be OK. It won’t be very nice, but even if you faint I am here and you’re not going to die. This is the worst case scenario...but you have to remember that you are bigger than are an eagle...
For anyone who’s ever met Tim, they will know that he can get away with saying things like “you are an eagle”. Firstly, he’s Danish, so he has an accent and has a perfect excuse to say very quirky stuff and get away with it. Second, he is an amazing teacher with great insight, awesome adjustments, and the ability to say just the right thing to you (assisting Susan in durvasana one day he said: “And now you feel like God” – awesome!) whether that is esoteric, sweet and reassuring, or funny & just a little bit risqué. Great balance! But the fact is that this maxim – to introduce a tiny scrap of doubt OF the fear helped me so much. It helped that day with backbending, and it helped when I read these notes back on the train en route to meet my boss and get fired a few weeks later. Just reading the words “You are bigger than this, you are an eagle...” I felt this soaring sense of rising up above the day to day crap, finding the real self within the physical body and transcending the growing panic to feel a sense of serenity: pretty powerful stuff.


Flipping back and forth between backbending with Kino and with Tim, and still having my own teacher’s (different again) method in my mind, meant that as the retreat went on I was learning a lot, but I still hadn’t dropped back on my own. Then the second Monday after walking in really really far in assisted backbends I pulled something in my shoulder. After a chat with Kino that afternoon we established it seemed to be muscular (actually my tricep I think), but as it was I couldn’t raise my arm to plait my hair in the morning, and was popping ibuprofen to get started with daily practice. The first surya as I raised my arms over my head was agony, but by the fourth and fifth the discomfort was easing though I was still very much aware of it through my practice. Coming to check on me mid-suryas Kino suggested that we would go easy on backbending today and I felt my heart sink. My thought was “well what’s the point of any of this then?” I had been so desperate not to become somebody who was fixated on backbending when I first started working on it, and here I was doing that very thing. I spent the rest of that day feeling sorry for myself and really weird. Susan repeatedly told me that I was too hard on myself, that I should cut myself some slack, but this was a day of intense self-criticism where nothing I did/said/thought was right, and whilst hearing Kino give technical second series help to my neighbour that day I just kept thinking “why do we even do any of this?”.
Megan gets "The Hug"

Reading this back now, I can see that taking a two week retreat where all you do is practice, eat, chat and sleep (when the crazy wild dogs allow) is just like condensing a year of practice into a holiday – or it seems it was for me. You have good days and bad. You have days when you are flying and nothing can go wrong, you have days where you are injured and have to back right off and allow your body time to recover. You have days where the thing you are told in a workshop just SUDDENLY clicks into place and you engage with a whole new part of your body that you seemingly never knew existed before, and you have days where it is just practice. Having wanted so desperately to take the plunge and drop back on my own, it was inevitable that this would form a large part of my focus on this trip, but when I got to the Wednesday and I still hadn’t done it, I let it go. So many days I intended to take myself off somewhere quiet in the afternoon and try some hangbacks and then to drop back onto cushions, but it never seemed to happen – I had always just eaten (no, really!) or was in the middle of a fascinating conversation (remember that intention mel?).
When the food is this good, can you blame me?
..though apparently we still needed to supplement it with extra-curricular Villa Blanche re-tox trips
So on Thursday, the last day of mysore practice before the retreat ended, my expectations were all gone. Arriving a little later that normal, Susan and I practiced side by side in the middle of the second row that day, and the atmosphere in the shala was just so precious (and I mean that in a good way). There was much giggling, a hilarious “adjustment” from Tim is parsvatonasana where he ran his finger all the way from the inside of my foot up my body and out the top of my head (did he really just do that??!),  Susan calling me a bad lady when Tim asked how many times I had attempted buja that day (I was on special measures and supposed to do it twice, but I confessed I’d just done one...), then as we came to the end of our party-atmosphere practice Susan got a new pose (yay!). I stood to do hangbacks before my assisted dropbacks, and as I came back up from my second one, the beautiful Audra (our other practice assistant) said to me “you go back?” I said no. “You’re almost there. Just do it” she said, and she walked away. Now this isn’t the first time I had heard this, but it was the first time I had heard it during practice (several of my shala mates had been saying the same to me in the changing room for weeks). So what did I do?
Well I just did it of course. Taking the decision felt like nothing in the moment: an incredibly subtle movement, just millimetres separated me from staying or going. Then on landing, a soft and surprised “Oh!” followed by hands to my face and hysterical laughter, or was it tears, maybe a little of both – it was hard to tell but I couldn’t stop. Beside me in urdhva danurasana, susan tells the story that there she was in a backbend, and suddenly I was there beside her – I was so happy that we were neighbours that day! Then through my hysteria I hear my name, I thought Audra was asking if I was OK, but later found out that she was assisting K in post-backbend paschimo and the two of them were talking “did she do it? I think she did it!” with great excitement. Bounding up from practice to the terrace for breakfast I was just euphoric – nothing could take away that feeling or wipe the smile from my face all morning, and every time I saw Audra I just wanted to kiss her! The lovely K was waiting for me, I didn’t know that she knew what I had done, but she was excited to hear about it – and said that she absolutely KNEW I would do it that day as it was my last opportunity. Well I’m glad somebody did! But of course after the euphoria comes the hard work. What I didn’t realise was that several months of building up to go the extra millimetre would now have to be conquered every day once I was home. And whilst the landing on my first time was controlled and gentle, after coming home and not getting the same help every day, I started to find I was making heavier and heavier landings. Within a few weeks my wrists were starting to hurt through my practice and through the rest of the day too. So now, a month on, I am back to assisted dropbacks only...but that’s a story for another day (three steps forward, two steps back with this yoga...).
This post is epic, and I haven’t even opened my notebook with the workshop notes yet! So I think we’ll come back to those (hopefully) another day – I NEED to share my bujapidasana bootcamp story with you!


  1. Thanks Mel,
    I couldn't wait for the morning to read the Goa post. So pleased that you cracked the dropback and being next to Susan when you did it too. When the person next to you knows what a big deal it is, it's great to be able to share that moment of joy ( Susan was next to me when I got Pasasana). Dropback is as much about belief and trust as in technical ability. Be careful of those wrists.

  2. Thanks Kevin :) it was a really fun last practice and so it was nice that susan got a new pose and I did this for the first time too. But I would go for "openness" rather than "technical ability" in your comment - if your back isn't open enough then all the faith in the world isn't going to help. Once I had gained the openness *then* I needed the belief, and the last day in Goa was the perfect combination of the two.

  3. p.s. I also wouldn't say i "cracked it" - don't like that phrase as it implies that something is done and finished! and I am still very definitely learning it :)

  4. I think once you can do Urdva Dhanurasana and walk the hands in you have the openness, then it's about believing your arms will save your head, but once you do it and land safely you have "cracked"'the mental barrier, which IMO is the biggest hurdle with dropback. Once you have done it, it's then about refining it. You always had a good croquet hoop hangback, it's just that the mat always seems to look further away than it is in reality

  5. waiting for the bhuja bootcamp post!!

  6. Congratulations on the solo dropback! It's always when we let go of our ambitions and "go with it" that we get what we most wish for isn't it? Absolutely love your recap and can't wait to read the next installment :)

  7. This has had me smiling like a loon. Am so pleased the emotional rollercoaster that is PV ended on a high for you xxx

  8. This is great, I was going to save it until after I'd got some work done but started reading and couldn't stop! Brilliantly written as well.

    I'm also looking forward to the bhuja bootcamp post!

  9. Hang on, I forgot to say:

    Well done! It's everything coming together - the physical, mental, emotional etc. A lot of hard work paying off.

  10. Best. post. EVER. I think I felt a tear well up once or twice ;-)

    Also I love being in your blog!! That was so cool, reading it took me straight back there. Thanks :-)

  11. thanks for all the lovely comments everyone! Sarah & Susan - it was soooo fabulous sharing this experience with you and I loved both of your blogs while we were there. I'm just a bit late to the party ;)
    So the buja post *will* be coming, hopefully it won't be as long a wait again...!
    and this isn't the first time I have said "I give up" and then immediately afterwards have done the very thing I was striving for.This becomes a problem when you know it, hence my earlier post about doublethink (I give up = haha! i don't give up really!!! Now why can't I do it??)
    Anyhoo, as I say I have been resting my wrists the past week and a bit, and working on fabulously assisted dropping back to take the strain off. So i will look forward to having to restart the process again sometime soon...sigh....