Traces of things from the past

Ceiling from the floor In the mornings, I roll out of bed and onto the floor, where I breathe and move my body through a series of strange shapes and stand still and move again and sit and lie down and breathe. Some mornings my breath is difficult, sometimes my back or my hips or my neck and shoulders hurt. Most mornings my bedroom carpet smells like the dog who used to live in the house with the people who lived here before I did.

My room is small. Over time, I’ve worked out where I need to stand at the beginning of a sun salute so I don’t end up kicking my bedside table half way through the sequence, where on the floor I need to lie so I’ve room to let my legs drop to the floor on my right side and then my left for a lying twist. I’ve worked out these same things about how my body fits into the space in each of my bedrooms for the last eight years or so. In most of those houses, I’ve also practiced in various shared spaces: the lounge room, sometimes the kitchen. The feel of carpet, floor boards or kitchen tiles under hand and foot; the layer of dust that gathers under furniture; the way hip bones, knees, shoulder blades dig into and are bruised or not by various floor surfaces; the way light plays on the ceilings and light fittings — these are things I know about the houses in which I’ve lived, these are the ways I remember those places.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Buddhist concept of ‘samskaras’, or ‘traces of things from the past’. Which is probably another way of saying that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own past. I recently had an essay about the traces of places in memory and the concept of ‘home’ published on Tabula Rasa. I’ve often wondered about how much what we think of as home is really just about familiarity, or whether there are also places for individuals that feel genuinely more like home than others, regardless of how much time a person has spent in that place. How much of ‘home’ is inherent and how much is learned?

My thinking about samskaras and place and home has done strange things to time. I’ve not been entirely confident about where I am in the week, and often where exactly I am in the timeline of my life. It’s a sentiment I’ve repeated several times in the last year, and I wonder whether it’s the effect of making a change in my life like moving interstate, and everything that’s come with that. Moving back to a place I’ve lived before has perhaps amplified that weirdness in time. It’s pushed me to see again past versions of myself, and to try and integrate both past Sophies and present Sophie into some kind of coherent narrative of identity. It’s an odd process. Not entirely unpleasant, but definitely weird.

Another way of thinking about samskaras is to think of them as habits — in doing, thinking, responding — that have formed because of the stuff of life. Of course, periods of great trauma or stress or joy leave traces, but so too does the mundane, everyday stuff of our lives. So it makes sense that a period of transition or big change like moving interstate, where many or most of one’s everyday habits are shed, would have the potential to shine light on some of the other habits or traces.

The shake-up of everyday rhythms and habits might also explain why time is so strange for me right now. In her post on Claudia Hammond’s book, Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception, Maria Popova summarises Hammond’s theory about why a good holiday feels at the time like it’s flying by, but long when you look back on it later.

“…the Holiday Paradox has to do with the quality and concentration of new experiences, especially in contrast to familiar daily routines. During ordinary life, time appears to pass at a normal pace, and we use markers like the start of the workday, weekends, and bedtime to assess the rhythm of things. But once we go on vacation, the stimulation of new sights, sounds, and experiences injects a disproportionate amount of novelty that causes these two types of time to misalign. The result is a warped perception of time.”

Change, they say, is as good as a holiday. I wonder whether that’s because, like a holiday, change injects this novelty into life. It gives us an opportunity to see things from a different perspective. And if, as research suggests, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are so important to our wellbeing, then what a great opportunity this is.

Something I love about the concept of samskaras is that it’s entirely neutral. There is no judgement; the traces are just there. Whether or not a habit is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a judgment value we place on it after it’s noticed. The idea in noticing is to have some idea of what we’re carrying around with us, because those things inevitably affect the way we think and behave in the present. They affect who we are. Figuring out what in that luggage (or is it baggage?) is helpful and what isn’t is a tricky process though.

I remembered the other day that when I moved to Sydney from Melbourne all those years ago, I wrote about packing memories into boxes. (But I also wrote about packing ideas for the future into boxes… and then abandoning them. Clearly moving and packing was a powerful metaphor for me.) My life at that time was incredibly confusing. I’d been through a particularly heartbreaking breakup, immediately after which I’d decided to move interstate. This meant quitting my job, then having to find a new one; it meant meeting lots of new people and learning to live with a whole new set of people. I had to get to know a new city. I felt like I had to get to know myself again too.

It’s been useful for me to remember that time now and how confusing it was for me. Partly because this time around I’m not hurting anywhere near as much as I was then, and partly because it shows me that perhaps, for me at least, prolonged confusion is just part of the process of making big changes.

But now, instead of figuratively packing and unpacking boxes, I’m breathing and standing and folding forward and bending backwards and twisting and sitting and lying down and breathing. Having that thread, the yoga, has become, unexpectedly, a way of remembering what it’s like to take up space in the world I inhabit now as well as what it felt like to do so in times and places I’ve left behind. It’s a way of remembering what it felt like — in every sense of that phrase — to be me at those times, and of noticing what it feels like to be me now. It’s a way of feeling time and all the things it changes and all the things it doesn’t and to see that things just go on even if it’s not always easy or straightforward. It helps me see that at some point I’ll be looking back on this present, perhaps as I roll around on the floor in some new place, and be seeing the traces, the samskaras, left by what’s happening now.

EWF blog post ~ Breathing, anxiety, writing

My next post is up on the Emerging Writers’ Festival blog this week. It’s about the relationship between breathing, writing and anxiety or distress.

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I am standing in the kitchen, in front of the toaster and the kettle, waiting for the toast to pop, when I realise I’m barely breathing. It’s a cold morning, and I can feel the cool floorboards through my thin socks and the colder-still granite bench top under my restless finger pads. My breath is shallow and quick and maybe even a little bit painful.

I start to count to four as I inhale, and again to four as I exhale — a familiar exercise and one I run yoga students through at the beginning of every class I teach. It helps, slowly. My breath begins to slow down, to feel calmer, even though I’m still aware of the tightness in the muscles between my ribs and in my belly.

This is a very distinct memory, although I’m sure it’s actually cobbled together from a number of different occasions where I’ve been dealing with some sort of anxiety and noticed it in my breathing. I know it’s happened often, because I remember so many different sets of small details. I remember exactly this situation, but with bare feet on a tiled floor, for example, and with shod feet wandering through a park. I breathe this way, and have to struggle to calm my breath, when I have deadlines looming or angsty life events.

To me, how someone breathes is one of the most intimate things you can know about a person. There are three reasons I think this: you have to be quite close to someone to notice how they’re breathing; breathing is quite literally the first and most enduring way in which we draw the outside world into ourselves; and I know enough about the anatomy, physiology and psychology of breathing to see how it’s useful as an indicator of how well someone is coping with their emotions.

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Read more here.

The Fortnight of Full

Yesterday afternoon, I found myself slumped in my chair at my office job, heavy limbed, unable to concentrate on the sentence I was trying to construct on the screen in front of me. I desperately wanted to crawl under my desk and go to sleep. Instead took myself to the bathroom, locked myself in a cubicle, and sat on the closed toilet, folded over my legs for five minutes. I let my breath slow down. Let my exhales become longer than my inhales. Kept my focus firmly on the cracks between the grey floor tiles so I wouldn’t drift off. I could feel my slow pulse in my arms and legs, that feeling like the very beginning of pins and needles.

When I made my way back to my desk, I wasn’t really any less tired, but I had realised I couldn’t ignore the fatigue anymore.

This last fortnight (and a half, really, since today is Thursday) has been full. I use the word ‘full’ instead of ‘busy’ quite consciously, and not just because this article from last year about the ridiculousness of ‘busyness’ still plays on my mind. I use the word ‘full’ because the last few weeks have involved so many things that require some level of mental or emotional processing from me, and not very much time to attempt that processing.

I can hardly complain, because most of what I’ve been doing, seeing, saying, hearing has been hugely positive and I’m incredibly grateful for all of it. But it’s possible to be overwhelmed by great stuff too, isn’t it?

I think often of this blog post by yoga teacher and writer Bernadette Birney, where she talks about the balance between work and rest (although she refers to work instead as ‘play’, which I love — especially now that much of my work is stuff I really love doing). The basic premise of her argument in the post is that there’s a limit to how much each of us can do, to how long we can be continuously active, and beyond that point we just feel overwhelmed. And really need to rest.

Some of the wonderful things I was involved in over the last fortnight included running a Yoga and Writing workshop at the Emerging Writers’ Festival this last weekend, and sitting on a panel for a discussion called ‘Keeping Active in the Arts’. So it’s probably not surprising that I’m more conscious of the interplay between activity and rest just at the moment, given that both those events touched on these ideas.

For me, that relationship between activity and rest, and how I attempt to know when to move between the two, essentially comes down to energy. I mean that in the least hippy-dippy way possible — I’m really talking about levels of fatigue. I took a yoga class (as a student) late last week that had been designed to support a flagging immune system, or for periods of heightened stress, and the teacher talked about learning to notice the difference between stress that gives you the strength and vitality to get things done, and stress that is masking deep fatigue.

Thinking here of a ‘stressor’ as anything that makes demands of the body and/or the mind, it shouldn’t really surprise me that today I’m feeling deeply fatigued. Overwhelmed. This last fortnight or so has stretched me in a few different ways and forced me to consider a number of different aspects of my life from a new perspective. And maaaan, as amazing and helpful as it is, that stuff takes up valuable energy.

One of the outcomes of not having a thyroid and instead taking a dose of thyroid hormones each day, is that I’ve only got so much energy each day. (The thyroid hormones are rather directly linked to the body’s energy levels — they control the metabolism, that is, the release of oxygen in the body, or the way the body distributes energy.) Grave’s Disease, which is an autoimmune disease, is the cause of my thyroid issues, and I gather that most people with autoimmune diseases deal with this battle with energy as well. I can’t really hope to outdo this wonderful explanation about the kind of decisions people with chronic illness need to make about what to do with whatever energy they have each day, but suffice to say that the notion of having to ration it out really rings true for me.

Rest is something I’ve been historically and consistently bad at (which ultimately could have contributed to my getting the Grave’s in the first place, but then Grave’s also causes a big spike in thyroid hormone levels and metabolism, so it’s a chicken-or-the-egg argument, really). For instance, I walked the hour home from work yesterday, instead of catching the tram, despite the irrefutable evidence of exhaustion from earlier in the afternoon. I’m an active person. I like to move. Moving is how I deal with the normal mental angst of being human. Plus, I have so many things I want to do! All of them right now! So rest is something I’ve really had to work hard at learning how to do, because when I don’t, I end up collapsing in a heap anyway. Which is rarely fun.

Strangely though, the collapse can be useful too. I’ve given a lot of thought these last few years to what it is that different emotional states can give us. For me, an exhaustion collapse usually involves anger or tears or immense anxiety (told you it wasn’t much fun), as well as the physical tiredness. Because I’m not very good at letting myself rest, sometimes this is what it takes for me to realise I’ve reached breaking point and that maybe I should just lie in bed and read rather than replant the garden and make a loaf of bread and ten litres of lemon marmalade and write those three essays and do all those hours of yoga I’ve been thinking about for the last month. Sometimes those emotions are what make me realise that something else is wrong, or that something bigger than just my activity level needs to change. At times, my periods of great activity are not imposed by anyone other than myself; they’re a way of distracting myself from something that’s troubling me. It’s definitely unpleasant, but I certainly get the message when one of the collapses occurs: look here, stop running away.

Other times, the busyness is really just accidental, or at worst, a case of poor time management. But even then, being overstretched usually highlights something I’ve been pushing away instead of facing, even if avoiding that thing is not what’s caused the busyness in the first place. What makes me really grumpy/sad/fuming when I’m exhausted often surprises me. If I manage to stay observant during an inner (usually) tantrum about the washing up, there’s frequently something other than sheepishness I can take away from it.

Tea and pyjamas

That said, I definitely do not consciously seek out these collapses. Trying to avoid them, useful though they may sometimes be, is what’s helped me begin to learn how to rest.

So this time I’m going to listen to that feeling of being overwhelmed, to that tingling tiredness in my limbs, and I am going to rest these next few days. I am going to be quiet and spend a lot of time in my pjyamas and potter about the garden and reflect on the wonderful fullness of the last fortnight or so, because I’m sure there’s enough I can take from that without the need for a meltdown.

Walking home

This last week or so I’ve been walking home from work on the three days a week that I’m in the office. It takes me about an hour to get from my office to my front door, which is about double the time that it would take if I caught the tram, but I much prefer it.

When I was teaching yoga full-time in Sydney last year, I walked fair distances very regularly. I didn’t realise until I started walking home from my current work just how much I missed it. Walking somewhere gives me a feeling of being capable, on a very basic level, in a way that catching public transport or driving somewhere doesn’t. My body can get me there.

And walking for an hour definitely gives me a good sense of my body – not really of what it looks like, but of what it feels like. When I walk, eventually all the little tight bits make themselves known to me, and the dodgy alignment of my hips and shoulders is increasingly obvious (a side note: when I walk long distances shortly after an osteo session, where my skeleton is nicely aligned, it’s absolutely magic). After an hour’s walk my feet are sore and I’m tired. I sleep better.

Now that autumn’s upon us, walking home in the evening means facing the chill in the air. Something I loved about walking places in winter when I lived in Sydney was watching my body warm itself up with movement. I’d leave the house layered up with jumpers, jackets, gloves and scarves, and usually by the time I’d reached my destination, I’d taken most of it off, even when it was a very cold day.

Walking home this last week or so, I’ve been aware again of that warming process, and I’m still amazed by it (even though it makes complete sense). In cool weather, walking warms me up from the inside, and I love the contrast between that internal warmth and the coolness of the exposed skin of my face and hands.

Walking home, Princes Park It’s always been my habit to end up with favourite sections of regular walks. They’re usually parks or nature strips of some description. I have a feeling my favourite bit of my walk home from Melbourne City to Brunswick will end up being the section along Royal Parade where I can walk along the edge of Princes Park (pictured). Walking, more than anything else, is what helps me feel like I’m really in a place. There’s something about moving through the same place on a regular basis that helps it really sink in.

Of course, the other fantastic thing about walking home is that by the time I get there, I’m calm. Walking, like yoga, helps me move my way through frustration and anxiety. Regular walking (and regular yoga, for that matter) makes me a generally calmer person. This can’t be a bad thing.

EWF, yoga, writing and keeping active

It’s May. I’m not sure exactly how that happened… but I am excited that this month is here, mostly because it means the Emerging Writers’ Festival is just around the corner. And this year I’ll be involved in some sessions at the festival, which makes it doubly exciting.

This year, the second weekend of the festival will be held at the beautiful Abbortsford Convent, which is one of my favourite places to wander around on a weekend anyway. That weekend, The Writers’ Retreat, is focused on wellbeing for writers, and the program includes events on parenting and writing, health and writing, balancing writing with life, and nature writing. You can view the full list of events here.

I’ll be involved in two events on the weekend.

Workshop: Yoga and Writing
11am-12.30pm, 1 June 2013
The Salon, Abbortsford Convent
Tickets $15, $12 concession

I’ll be running a workshop on yoga and writing on the Saturday morning. I can’t even begin to articulate how excited I am about running this. For me, yoga is an absolutely vital part of my writing practice. I use it in all sorts of ways, from a remedy for the physical ills that come with sitting hunched over a desk, to supporting and enhancing (I hope) the intellectual and emotional wrangling necessary to get words on a page.

The workshop will be an opportunity for me to share some of the ways that I use a yoga practice to help my writing, but I also want it to be a pretty open format. I’ll be running the class through some of the yoga postures and other practices, but questions and discussion will be most welcome.

I always hope in my yoga teaching to help people develop sovereignty with their own bodies (and minds, for that matter), so that they can begin to use on their own the tools yoga offers for whatever it is that they need. This workshop is no exception. So come along and ask me as many questions as you like!

Seriously. I love it when people ask me questions about yoga.

Symposium: Keeping Active in the Arts
2.30-4pm, 2 June 2013
Rosina Auditorium, Abbortsford Convent
Admission is free

I’ll also be involved in a symposium-style event on the Sunday called ‘Keeping Active in the Arts’. In this session we’ll be talking about the benefits of staying active, and how to actually do that.

Having recently gone back to a job that keeps me at a desk three days a week (as opposed to teaching yoga full-time, like I was in Sydney), I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few weeks mulling over exactly these questions. I’m really looking forward to discussing some of the ideas I’ve had, and getting some new ones from others.

But honestly, the whole weekend sounds like it’s going to be wonderful, so even if you can’t make it to my events, do come along. Here are some pictures I took on a recent visit to Abbortsford Convent — it’s worth coming just hang out in the place.

The balance between self and other

A few weeks ago I went to a workshop run by US teacher, Sarah Powers. Aside from being an incredible physical practice, what I really took away from the workshop was a sense that perspective is really important in a yoga practice (and, let’s face it, in life). At the very beginning of the practice, Powers talked about how many people think of the idea of self-improvement as a selfish act. She suggested that it needn’t be, if the improvements in self are also then used for the betterment of society as a whole in some way. That is, if we improve ourselves in ways which are beneficial to our relationships with other people, and indeed with other creatures and life forms. Ultimately, that kind of practice is more beneficial for us as individuals too.

Perhaps it sounds a bit namby-pamby to talk about realising and improving our connection with everything else. But I mean that in the most realistic and maybe even boring way possible. Every organism on this planet depends in one way or another on something else. We depend on other human beings, we depend on other species even, both in ways that we’re able to identify and perhaps quantify, and in ways that we’ve no idea about. We eat other species (even vegans and vegetarians eat other species — sentience is a whole other discussion and not one I’m going to have here just now), they eat each other. We rely on other human beings for friendship, but also to build the roads we drive on and the buildings we live in. For the most part, we rely on other human beings to manage our eating relationship with other species by growing our food for us.

My lovely friend and fellow yoga teacher (based in Seattle) Kat Selvocki, brought my attention to this article by Matthew Remski on how the ‘social good’ aspects of yoga are missing in the way most of us practice it. The idea of connectivity, both within and beyond ourselves, is certainly present in the philosophy of yoga, but it’s yet to take off in any concrete way in the way we practice yoga in developed countries. He writes about going to a church service and finding out about all the social services that church has on offer, and about then wondering why those sorts of services are not part of the way yoga generally manifests itself in our society.

I don’t think it’s a problem with yoga, per se. I think it’s symptomatic of broader issues of isolation and fading of community that can come with an increased emphasis on individual empowerment. I write about and do a lot of research into food systems, and I see the same problems there. In food systems there’s a huge disconnection between most people and the actual growing of their food — that is, most people don’t grow their own food, and have no idea who does grow it.

What buoys me as I do this research is the fact that there seem to be plenty of other people who are already aware of how problematic this is, and who are trying to do something about it. In the same way, pieces like Remski’s give me hope that some of these issues in the way yoga is practiced are being or will be addressed. The concept of ecological systems, which, essentially, are a way of examining the relationships between things in the non-human world and between the human and non-human worlds, is one that could easily be applied to the relationships between humans themselves. After all, we are actually our own walking ecosystems, made up of a community of our own genes and microbacterial life. (For a really interesting, if a little icky, examination of the bacterial make-up of human beings and how important it is to our health, have a listen to this short podcast about the medical practice of ‘poo transplants’. Gross, but really fascinating.)

But how does all this relate to a yoga practice? How might we keep a sense of perspective when we’re up close and personal with our bodies and all the physical, emotional and mental issues the practice might bring with it? Sarah Powers offered in her workshop a simple exercise that might help here.

As we held an uncomfortable but relatively supported and passive pose (you might do the same just lying on your back on the floor, or sitting upright on a cushion), Powers asked us to allow our awareness to travel around the body until we found the most uncomfortable sensation, and then to watch that sensation. To notice everything we could about it — where it was, how strong it was, whether it was tightness, whether it affected our breath etc etc. After a minute or so, she asked us to keep that point of discomfort as the centre of our awareness, but allow the edges of that awareness to expand out to the edges of our mat. Then after another minute, again keeping the original discomfort as the centre of our awareness, to expand the edges out to the sides of the room. After another minute, to the streets that enclosed the block the building sat on, then out to the suburb, the city, the region, the state, the country, and on and on, perhaps even out to the knowable universe. Once we’d expanded our awareness out as far as we could — still with the centre point being that discomfort in our own body — she asked us to notice how small our discomfort looked when compared to the rest of what we were holding in our awareness. Very small indeed.

This exercise was not used to try and eliminate that discomfort, or to suggest it wasn’t valid; it was merely an exercise in perspective that hopefully helped us to suffer less from the discomfort. And it worked. The discomfort was still there, but it didn’t feel quite as bad. I think it’s really important to remember that yoga isn’t supposed to just be exercise for the physical body. The physical poses are about realising that there’s more to life than what’s going on your head, and to see the connections between your body and your mind.

Additionally, the exercise certainly helped me to remember that there is more going on in the world (solar system, universe, whatever) than just what’s going on for me, even beyond my physical body. And this is hopefully what yoga is about, at least eventually. A big part of the way that Sarah Powers teaches yoga involves the Buddhist ideas of compassion and loving kindness, and an exercise like this one at the very least shows that we have an emotional capacity beyond our own experiences. The trick then, perhaps, is what we do with that capacity, how we put it into practice beyond an exercise on our yoga mats.

Mental ambling

These last two weeks, when I’ve put myself in yoga postures, I’ve found myself mentally traversing the streets of inner-western Sydney that I used to frequent. I’ve travelled mentally down King Street in Newtown, and down various side- and backstreets I wandered; through Darlington and Redfern; up and down Glebe Point Road. I’ve also found myself mentally inhabiting my various bedrooms and lounge rooms in Sydney — particularly those from my last two houses there. It’s an odd experience.

Up until a few weeks ago, I’d not been on the floor for yoga with any kind of regularity, and it seems that being back in my physical body now that I am yoga-ing every day again is putting me back in those places I spent lots of time in. It’s not really like reliving particular memories — although my memory of those places is obviously necessary for the experience. There’s no such specificity. Instead it’s like I’m wandering through those places anew; a mental experience that’s no doubt cobbled together from various more specific memories. It’s like a waking dream.

There’s a sadness to it, a missing. But it’s a missing without longing. Not at all like the way I miss the various important people it’s now much harder for me to see.

It’s almost as though my mind is taking me slowly through the various places that have been important to me — or at least places I went frequently — so that I can let those memories settle and get on with things here.

The strangest part is that these mental journeys only happen when I’m doing yoga. Not when I’m going about my day, not when I’m lying in bed at night trying to sleep, not when I go for a wander in the nearby park. Of course, the mental and emotional sorting that yoga seems to encourage is half the reason I do it in the first place, so it shouldn’t surprise me that the practice is bringing up all this stuff.

Melbourne and Sydney are compared with one another an awful lot, and I don’t really have anything to add to that conversation, except to say that they’re very different places and that each has its own list of pros and cons. But in a way this is a process of comparing my physical experience of them in my own mind. I had a conversation the other day with a friend on Twitter about my missing of Sydney’s farmers’ markets. There are, of course, plenty of farmers’ markets in Melbourne — a number of them a short way from my house. I said to my friend that none of them were quite the same, and while this is true, I think that what I was really trying to get at is that I’ve not yet settled here into the familiarity I had with where the markets in Sydney were, how to get there, what I might find there. Of how those places fitted into my life, or how my life fitted into those places. And this, really, is indicative of where I am with the move on a larger scale. Despite the familiarity of Melbourne itself to me, and despite my fondness for it, I’ve not yet figured out how my life fits in here, of what it is that this place means or will mean for me this time round.

Then I remember that I’ve only been here for just shy of four months and my not feeling completely settled makes a lot of sense. Before we left, a few people said to my housemate and I that it had taken them six months to a year to feel settled in a new place the last time they made a big move, and now I come to think of it, it probably took me that long to feel settled in Sydney when I moved there from here five years ago. So I’ve got a way to go yet, and probably a few more mental journeys through Sydney’s streets to take. In the meantime, it’s awfully interesting to watch those mental organising processes, if that’s what this is, occurring.

And as for the markets question, there are a few contenders that I think I might warm to over the next few months. Here are some shots I took the other day at Collingwood Children’s Farm, which has a market every Saturday that I’ll get to for the first time this coming weekend. (CCF is a city farm, which none of markets I frequented in Sydney were — it’s rather lovely.)