Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Important things to remember.

This is not a race. Nor is it a competition.

I don't need to gauge myself against anyone else, nor compare, nor wonder where I fit into some imaginary shala ranking system. I don't have to be jealous of somebody who can do the things that I can't.

I have the rest of my life to figure this asana stuff out. I don't need to have perfected it all by next week.

An injury needs to be rested, not pushed through and ignored.

Lastly, and most importantly, there is no spiritual benefit to be gained from bending further that the person on the mat next to you.

I know all of this stuff. So why is it so hard to remember sometimes? *Sigh*....yes, I am going through one of those phases. And yes, (surprise surprise), it coincides perfectly with my discussion this morning with our cover teacher that I should stop dropping back while I allow my newly paining SI joint to get better. And how did I hurt it? Oh, through my misadventures with eka pada/dwi pada to get into supta kurmasana, that's how. Hello ego!

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 this...you 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!

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Blue skies

Sometimes it's impossible to believe how beautiful a blue blue sky is.

Some days it feels like anything and everything is possible.

I'm getting a lot of this lately; I think not working really suits me.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Where have I been?

On an email today Susan wrote "Mel are you ever going to blog again??" - I think she had a point judging by how long it's been since my last post. So where have I been? You may well ask...

First off: geographically. I've been to India - hurrah! 
Second off: headspace wise. I've been EVERYWHERE. And then last week I lost my job - err, hurrah?

Maybe this goes some way to explaining my silence, given that I came back from 2 wonderful & fabulous weeks at Purple Valley with Tim & Kino to a whirlwind of job stress, which culminated last Wednesday in a rather unsurprising meeting terminating my contract.
Honestly, I don't even know where to begin in writing about any of this - but I know from previous experience that sometimes writing a mini-post will free me up to come back and write something proper later (I have no idea yet which way this one is going: mini or proper!).

The job thing wasn't really a shock, although I think I am still in shock (if that makes sense). The week before I went to India I was flown to Scandinavia for a meeting (I was flown all the way there to sit in a coffee shop in a shopping centre for 90 minutes...) where I was told that if I didn't meet a certain target in terms of the number of customers I went out to visit per week, starting the day I got back from India, that it was unlikely my probationary period would be turned into a permanent contract. I had been told this before, so it wasn't new news, but I had tried and couldn't seem to maintain the level they were looking for (and nor did I believe in the approach, but that's a different story). So there I was, India minus 1 day, with this overwhelming feeling of wanting to resign on the spot. Never mind the fact that I'd been given no time to prepare or book the appointments and would be coming back jet-lagged and having to hit the road in a big way, the major issue was that I didn't want to do this. But rather than make any snap decisions I remembered how spending time on retreat has a habit of making things seem clearer, so off I went, having faith that I would make a clearer decision once I was away from home.
And I think I got to day two before I had a thought: "Why didn't I do a proper job?". I was talking to K, a crazily-busy attorney with a kick-ass daily practice, and just had this feeling that I should have picked something real. You know: teacher, doctor, lawyer: something that can be described in one word. Instead I have found myself going down all of these no-through roads with funny jobs in funny little companies - or certainly nothing with an easily described or defined purpose. I let the thought settle, I left it where it was. Week one was mostly a process of not thinking too much about what was happening at home.
By week two I couldn't keep the thoughts down. Whereas on previous trips, my time in India has been consumed with thoughts of and conversations about specific elements of my asana practice, this time it was aaaall about "What am I going to do with my life?".
A conversation on Sunday evening led me to write the following in my notebook:
Feeling weird and sorry for myself today...Mental turmoil I've been trying to push down comes up now after practice. Last night's conversation with A who went to medical school at 38 and did a dual residency. Anything's possible? That's the feeling here, reality and finances and "being sensible" don't send these notions scurrying away....
Only Monday and already people are talking about the end of the week but it feels like we've been here forever, so we have that all still to come. But time marches on and reality comes more sharply into focus. What will I do?

Then on the flight home I wrote:
Allowing myself the luxury of a completely open mind - no such thing as a bad or impossible idea. I feel like I want to study, I don't know what, but to change direction, create a new path and more options - anything is possible?
Medicine kept coming up. I don't think that's the answer, I can't even really entertain the idea, but I allowed myself to. When money doesn't factor, hearing that A went to medical school at 38, P at 33, everything was blown open.
I went on to write my dream, to brainstorm ideas, but already on the plane I was editing and stopping myself writing down some of the thoughts. 

In one of our workshops Tim spoke about one of his students who had a very high-powered job in finance, and was able to use the stability he gained through daily practice to stay calm during the worst of the financial crisis (unlike everyone else in his office who went into meltdown). He was using the example to show to new students how we balance our lives as householders with careers, families, kids, ex-wives, dogs (whatever the situation may be) with our practice. All I could think while he was talking was that I wanted to ask:
"But what about when starting ashtanga means you no longer give a shit about your job? What then?" because the fact is, since I started my practice I haven't been satisfied with my work. 
Before ashtanga, work used to be my thing. I worked in a tiny company, working for a designer, and did one of those jobs where you do EVERYTHING as part of your remit (for no money). I was a total workaholic. I remember being on a week's holiday with some girlfriends during that time and by about day three lying by the pool I started to feel useless and frustrated. I needed that job to feel important and needed. Why hadn't they called me - surely everything was falling apart with me away? But then I fell out of love with that job, took another one doing something different, and didn't ever love it. After almost a year I left that job too, but three months later it all went wrong with job #3, and I found myself back at job #2 - which I didn't love but felt grateful and relieved to be taken back. It was around this time that I first travelled to India and started my ashtanga practice - and from that point on, yoga took the place of work as my main crush. Actually I jokingly asked Tim my question over dinner that night, and his answer was to laugh and say "well then it's time to do something new!". So maybe I didn't have to choose between my practice and having a job I can throw myself into as I had begun to think...

But reading V's very timely blog last night summed up exactly what I have arrived at: I am not defined by what I do for my work - I used to be, in my workaholic days. As V put it: "the practice stripped me bare". Now I think it's true that I define myself by my practice (maybe it's time to start weaning myself off that too!) and, like V, I may not know who I am, but I know who I'm not. And I am not a sales rep. Well, that's true enough now given my employment status! But in my first week after getting back I went through the mill - I was horribly jetlagged and running around all over the countryside to meet the target I had been set, but I could barely breathe all week. By the weekend I was in a horrible state of panic. So on the Saturday I took myself off to kirtan and, whaddyaknow, mid-chanting I came up with a big realisation, and a rather specific plan.
The big realisation was this: I don't give two hoots about being on some corporate (or other) wheel where I work my way up to the next thing, the next promotion, the next payrise. It's just not me.
What I want from my work is something which I like enough, and allows me the time and space (mentally and financially) to do what I love with the rest of my life. A job where I work from home and am expected to keep up with incoming messages and emails at all hours of the day or night is NOT it. The idea of studying and doing something completely new still appeals, but as no ideas are forthcoming for now, I'm looking into shorter term solutions to give me an income while I figure some things out. But happiness comes first - it might not buy me a shiny new car, or mean that I can finally stop renting out a room in my flat, but as long as it buys me the odd yoga retreat, and the possibility to practice every day without feeling guilty, then it will be enough.
Having decided all of this it was hard not to resign immediately - though as it turned out I didn't have too long to wait. With little more than 24 hours notice I had the meeting last week and was laid off with immediate effect. And you know what? In the immediate aftermath I was absolutely fine. For the first few days I was making a joke of it and enjoying telling people that I was unemployed. But since the weekend I have been absolutely exhausted - I have a heavy feeling in my lower back and hips, and it feels like I have weights tied to me dragging me down. My practice is stiff, my lower back is tight and refuses to feel open, my hips are tight, and the tiredness is overwhelming. I think this is my body's way of telling me that it has been through some trauma. And now I have noticed the last two days I get a lump in my throat when I tell people that I just lost my job - the laughing and joking seems to have gone. But I am consciously allowing myself some time out before I start frantically searching for new employment - I can keep going for a little while without too much trouble - although now I am beginning to wonder if this might be a mistake?
I should also mention that within four hours of being given the push I had a phonecall offering me work - so all is not completely bleak, though this would be a stop-gap rather than something concrete, but the thought of doing anything right now is just making me feel tired. Life eh?! Oh and I absolutely promise I will write about what happened in Goa (aside from my career worries) another day, I just had to get all of this out of my system first. Unless of course you've all read all about it on Susan's posts already (yep, lucky me, I got to go to Goa with the lovely Susan, we had such an amaaazing time!).
Super Susan (left) and me (far right) with Kino & Tim. Go us!