EWF blog post ~ Podcast: The Body of a Writer

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I’ve got a podcast up on the Emerging Writers’ Festival blog about how important it is for writers (and people generally) to remember their bodies.

Have a listen here.

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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.

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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.

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.

EWF blog post ~ Make it a strong one: coffee and the brain

I’m a bit behind the eight ball with posting this here — my latest post on the Emerging Writers’ Festival blog was published more than a week ago. But here it is!

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I’m afraid I’m going to pick on coffee. I’m sorry. I know, I know, coffee is a writer’s friend. It’s my friend too, often, but I have an ongoing debate with myself about coffee. Most of the time I love it, but often it does strange things to my head, and occasionally I’m repulsed by it. That I could have such complex feelings about a drink fascinates me.

I probably spend far too much time thinking more generally about what I eat and drink. Which I suppose isn’t surprising, given that I currently get paid to write about food a few days a week, and am working on a larger writing project about food and eating. But really I blame my fast metabolism for the amount of time I spend mulling over what I put in my mouth — and indeed it’s probably why I do the work I do. For much of my life, I’ve been the type of person who finishes a big breakfast and is immediately thinking about what I’ll have for morning tea when I’m hungry again in two hours.

Many people don’t believe me when I tell them I eat a lot. I watch them eye my slender frame and raise a skeptical eyebrow. They think I’m joking about second (and sometimes third) breakfast. But hunger for me comes quickly and frequently, and can bring with it dizzy spells along with the kind of raging anger I wrote about in my post on running.

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You can read the rest of the post here.

EWF blog post ~ You’re getting sleeeepy (or not): sleep, sleeplessness and the brain

I’ve got another essay up on the Emerging Writers’ Festival Blog. This one’s about sleep, sleeplessness and the brain.

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It’s 3.37am. My bedroom is dark, the edges of all the things in it are fuzzy. I’ve been woken by the whirring of a forklift driving around inside a chicken wholesaler warehouse two doors down from my place in a semi-industrial part of Melbourne’s Brunswick. It beeps as it reverses. Every now and then, someone throws solid objects into a skip that sits outside the business’ front door. I lay awake for hours, fuming, despairing, turning from side to side. I get up a few times to look, unsuccessfully, for the earplugs I know I own.

It’s not a particularly warm night, but at about 4.15am, my body temperature soars, and I have to throw off all the covers, lie in a starfish shape in the middle of the bed, and consciously slow my breath down. I’m overheating because I’m angry. I’m seriously considering going outside in my pyjamas to yell at the forklift driver about noise rules in mixed-zone areas, but then I start to worry about what, exactly, a business is doing moving stock around at that time of day. What is it? Is it part of their legitimate business? Do I live a few doors down from a ‘business man’ rather than a business man? Might I be risking my safety if I complain? And the paranoid spiral continues until the noise finally stops at 6.30am.

Eventually, some time around 7am, I drag myself out of bed and stumble through the day not entirely sure whether I’m awake or asleep. My limbs are heavy and I can feel my body’s exhaustion like the very beginning of pins and needles. I manage, somehow, to call the council and make enough sense that they understand I’m making a noise complaint.

Every now and then I have a bout of sleeplessness, although I’d not go as far as calling myself an insomniac. Most often my sleeplessness is related to noisy neighbours — jackhammers at 7am on a Sunday, idiotic first-home-away-from-homers exploding aerosol cans in a barrel fire under my window late at night in their tiny inner-city back courtyard. Not sleeping fills me with dread; a long-lasting anxiety that, ironically but unsurprisingly, makes it more difficult for me to sleep. I worry about being as useless as I was the day after the all-night forklift.

After that night, I set out to find out what the relationship between my writing work and my sleep (or lack thereof) might be, and ideally to figure out how to encourage a good night’s shut eye.

Read more here.

EWF blog post ~ Move it or lose it: exercise and writing

This week my next Emerging Writers’ Festival CAL Digital Mentorship Program blog post went up. This one’s on the way exercise changes our brains and how that, for me, relates to writing.

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When I was a teenager I loved to run. We lived on the edge of town, not far from where the road turned from bitumen to gravel. Every afternoon I’d head for the gravel, and often I’d close my eyes as I ran, just to listen to the sound of my feet crunching, the sound of my own breath, sometimes the sound of my heartbeat.

I ran for physical fitness, in part. But mainly I ran because it made me feel good mentally, because it calmed my mind.

On days when I was particularly anxious, or even angry, I’d sprint the section between where the bitumen ended and the end of the street. While I caught my breath after those sprints, I’d stretch my legs on top of the white wooden reflector poles, gaze out over the paddocks and feel the tension — the anger, the anxiety — loosen and drop away.

I was one of those angry teens. I was angry for reasons I didn’t understand, prone to outbursts where things were yelled, doors were slammed and where I lashed out at my family. Running calmed me. I didn’t know how it worked, all I knew was that it did. I knew that when I got home I’d be better equipped to do my homework or study, less likely to blow up at the antics of my younger brothers.

My relationship with anger is still one of the strongest driving forces in my life. Anger motivates me to do things, to write things. Expressed in a helpful way, anger can carry passion and fascination, so I don’t think of it as a bad thing. But it can also become a (rather terrifying) hindrance too — it can cloud my judgement, it can leave me full of energy but with no idea where to direct it, rendering it and me effectively useless. None of this is particularly conducive to working or writing or living well.

Anger is why I’ve always been a highly active person; exercise helps me to turn anger into something useful.

Read more here.