Expansion

Happily, I’m having one of those weeks where my reading keeps building and my thoughts keep expanding out, turning into this incredibly complex web of interests. I’m not quite sure where to look at any given moment. I’ve made some decisions to change things — in big ways and in small ways — over the last few months, and it’s like I’m looking at a map, looking at all the different routes I might take to get to where I’m going. Except that where I’m going is a very vague concept — like I’m headed to a suburb, rather than a particular address. It’s exciting*.

Yesterday I had a conversation with a friend about how I’m a bit of an airhead, a bit of a dreamer. I need things and people to pull me back down to earth from time to time, and I need to do my best to be really organised so I don’t forget to do things I’ve said I will, or be places I’ve said I’ll be. I’ve also been teaching an awful lot of yoga classes these last few weeks. Having my head in so many different places in such a short space of time makes me even more prone to forgetting things. So it probably shouldn’t surprise me that I’ve found my way back to sitting curled up with a book for hours on end. It seems to satisfy both the dreaminess and the need for some kind of grounding.

Among other things (I seem to have ploughed through books much faster than usual lately), I’ve been reading Anne Enright’s Booker Prize winning novel The Gathering, partly for sheer enjoyment, and partly for research. Today I came across this passage, where the character is thinking about St Veronica, who gave Jesus her veil so he could wipe his face as he carried his cross:

“I became quite fond of her; a figure leaning out of the crowd, both supplicatory and tender. I still think of her wherever wet towels are offered in Chinese restaurants and on old-fashioned airlines. We have lost the art of public tenderness, these small gestures of wiping and washing; we have forgotten how abjectly the body welcomes a formal touch.”

It made me think about how we touch. How a small gesture of touch from another human being can bring so much comfort, can calm you down. Of how the gentlest touch when I’m teaching yoga can change a pose entirely for the student. And of how that calming, that grounding, on a yoga mat or in life, helps set the base from which expansion can occur.

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* And, if I’m honest, at times also confusing and daunting. But then aren’t all the best things in life a mixture of exciting and daunting?

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Yoga: Changing The Brain’s Stressful Habits | Psychology Today

This is perhaps the most accurate description of why, once I started, I continued to practice yoga. Physical exercise, sure, but mainly because it’s helped me manage better my stress reaction. Think calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean.

As a neuroscientist, despite my initial incredulity, I came to realize that yoga works not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful. It is your attempts to remain calm during this stress that create yoga’s greatest neurobiological benefit.

via Yoga: Changing The Brain's Stressful Habits | Psychology Today.

On Yoga Injuries and the Ego

Last week the New York Times ran a story entitled ‘How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body’. A number of different people sent it my way, asking for comment. To be perfectly honest, my initial response was to roll my eyes. Of course you can hurt yourself doing yoga — just as you can hurt yourself running, walking, rolling over in bed. To move at all is to risk injury to a certain extent.

The problem, I think, lies less within the system of physical yoga practices and more in the expectation that’s placed upon them. Yes, yoga asana can improve your wellbeing, it can make you feel amazing, but it isn’t going to fix everything. And yes, it may in fact cause some injury. But yoga is not just the physical poses. It’s about finding balance between opposing forces — sometimes those forces are just within the physical body, but more often they’re in the interplay between our physicality and our thoughts and emotions. We think or feel we should be able to do something — or that we shouldn’t — and sometimes that’s in direct opposition to the abilities of our physical body. Our ego rears its ugly head; sometimes pushing us further than we should go, sometimes holding us back.

That’s part of the practice though, as far as I’m concerned. When you’re on a yoga mat, it’s just as much about testing and observing your own ego as it is about watching how your body works. The two are, really, inextricably linked.

The very first part of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (one of the seminal ‘how to’ yoga texts) says, ‘yogash chitta vritti nirodahah’, which translates as ‘yoga is calming the fluctuations of the mind’. Some people interpret this as ridding oneself of ego, but I find it more helpful (albeit more complicated) to think of it as stepping away from the ego (and the body) in order to witness their activities. And it’s in the witnessing that the calmness lies. The ego itself is not a problem; blindly following it can be.

All that said, as a teacher, I do worry about my students injuring themselves, and it’s a very real possibility that they will. It’s absolutely vital that I keep learning more about human anatomy and physiology so I can create a space that’s as safe as possible for my students to practice in.

In fact that word, ‘practice’, is a really important part of how I plan and conduct my classes — and how I think when I’m on the yoga mat for myself. It’s in taking our practice — practising, in other words — slowly but surely that we learn about ourselves. Slowing down enough to notice the breath, and to notice the physical sensations in the body is at the heart of a physical yoga practice. The body gives warning signals if you’re coming too close to injury; it tells you to back off by giving off the ‘pain’ message loud enough that your breath becomes laboured. But you need to be moving slowly enough to notice those signs — and to have practise recognising them.

In no way am I suggesting that yoga injuries are all the fault of the student — it’s a shared responsibility between student and teacher. What I am saying is that, as yoga teacher Bernadette Birney points out, yoga is a therapy and the risks are similar to the risks in any other type of therapy, physical or otherwise. It’s perfectly valid to be concerned about those risks and an excellent idea to talk about them. Slowing down will help, but my advice to anyone concerned about the risks is to talk to your teacher/s about them. Tell your teacher/s about your injuries, and about anything that doesn’t feel quite right, even if it’s not exactly painful. I’m certainly interested in building a relationship with my students so they can get the most out of my classes, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find a teacher who isn’t.

I should also add that yoga teaching in itself is a yoga practice. I certainly do not have my ego all figured out — if I did, I wouldn’t be interested enough in yoga to be teaching it. Keep this in mind if you talk to your teacher, just like you would if you were talking to your doctor or other healthcare professional about a treatment. Your yoga teacher is a person too, and they are not infallible. Chances are they’ve also had injuries — I know I’ve had my fair share, some from yoga, some not. Injury can actually be a fantastic opportunity for learning how your body does (or doesn’t!) work, and to observe your internal response to the injury. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we should all injure ourselves in the name of learning. But human bodies break sometimes, and they definitely wear out. We will not necessarily be able to do things today just because we were able to yesterday, injury or not, and, at least in part, the physical yoga practices are designed to help us find that elusive sense of calm regardless.

If you’re interested in reading some other responses to the article, look here and here.

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This is cross-posted on my yoga blog.

Rain and Restlessness

It’s raining outside. Really raining. This morning I walked to the shopping centre to get some groceries, and by the time I got home again my boots and socks were soaked through, and so was the bottom third of my pant legs. My planned work this week — other than teaching my regular yoga classes — is research and reading. So rain outside and a bit of chill in the air is perfect, right?

But I’m restless.

I’ve handed in my uni work, my week isn’t anywhere near as full as it has been for the last month or so. I’ve been planning various exciting things for next year — writing, yoga and general life stuff. I think the combination of those two things has led to this restlessness. This desire to be doing something that means I can’t actually do anything properly. I read half a page of the neurology text I’m looking at for a piece I’m writing, then I get up and wander to the kitchen. I stand in the kitchen, just looking at the bench tops, for a minute or so, then I go back to my computer and start watching a video on gardening. After two minutes, I find my way to the piano and play half a song… You get the picture. Not very productive.

I’m not sure how to let myself settle. And I’m not sure if I really need to. Perhaps this restlessness is good, for now, even if it means I’m not getting much done. Perhaps all the doing is happening between my ears; my mind is slowly processing all these plans I have.

Patience — especially with myself — is something I’ve always struggled with. Perhaps another cup of tea will help.

Gratitude, Writing, Future and Past Selves

I’ve been pretty quiet here for a while now. As usual, it’s because I’ve been anything but quiet everywhere else. I’m teaching lots and writing lots, and it’s left very little time to write here, and sometimes it feels like I’ve also very little time to breathe. But I shouldn’t complain, because I’m enjoying every minute of it.

I’ve given myself this week off writing though. I’ve told myself I can read, if I want to, but no writing. (This doesn’t count, right?) I handed in my major uni project last week (15,000 words), and immediately felt drained. I need a week away from words. In fact, it’s taken me at least four days to even turn my computer on, and I’ve not yet started the tedious task of tidying up the mess of my desk.

But, tidying up my thoughts (if not my desk), I came across this. I’m always pleased to see a post from Claire Bidwell Smith pop up in my reader feed. I actually read this post last week, but haven’t had a chance to process the thoughts or write about them until now. I’ve been reading Claire’s blog now for… I think about four or five years. I’ve read about her engagement, her marriage, her pregnancy, her steps into motherhood. Claire lost both her parents to cancer by the time she was 25, and she writes often about grief — in a way that’s both clear and accessible for someone who’s not experienced the kind of grief she’s describing.

Claire’s words have changed me, there’s absolutely no doubt about it. The way she writes about her life has reframed the way I think about mine. Such is the power of words, fiction or otherwise. And she uses them so beautifully.

Next year Claire’s memoir about her experiences with grief will be published by Penguin (Text Publishing have picked up the Australian rights). I cannot wait to read this book.

I spent most of the last week sitting at my desk, forcing words to make their way out of my brain and onto a page. The essay I was working on was proving particularly difficult to pin down — the ideas were many and varied; I had too much I wanted to say. After finally coaxing out a full first draft, I came to read this post of Claire’s. She’s written before about having a sense of past lives within the one that she’s currently living, past selves within herself, and it’s an idea that resonates with me. I’m often astounded at all the lives I appear to have already led within this one. The way she describes her present-day self talking to her 23-year-old self is just wonderful. And her description of her more youthful self’s determination gives fuel to my own. I wonder what the Future Me would say to the Present Me.

Quiet time

Last time I wrote here, I wrote about how lots of things were shifting, lots of things were up in the air, and I was hoping they’d settle soon. Yeah. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen anytime soon. In fact, things seem to be picking up, rather than settling down.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s all exciting stuff. But I do feel like I’ll be in desperate need of a very quiet holiday sometime soon.

While I wait for that opportunity, I’ve been rising ten or fifteen minutes earlier than usual most days, and just letting myself sit in the quiet for a bit. There is, of course, a whole lot of research about the benefits of meditation (and, being a yoga teacher, it’s not like I’m new to the idea that it’s beneficial), but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by just how much of a difference to my day ten short minutes of sitting still and quiet can make. Doing this with some kind of regularity (my meditation practice has always been sporadic, at best) makes those benefits even more noticeable.

Of course. It’s obvious. And I knew it already. It makes me wonder why it is that we avoid doing something even when we know for sure that it’s good for us — or, even more than that, that it will make us feel better immediately. Not some time down the track, not even in an hour, but straight away. Why avoid it? It’s very strange.

To Melbourne…

Tomorrow morning a very lovely lady writer friend of mine and I are off to Melbourne for the week. We’re heading down to attend various sessions at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, and because we both love to be in that city.

The picture above is one I took when I went down for a visit last December. I took it because I so often stood in that spot when I lived in Melbourne, watching the trams cross the intersection at the corner of Flinders and Swanston Streets, waiting to meet one friend or another. “Meet you under the clocks at Flinders Street,” we’d say.

I’m fully expecting this trip to be full of nostalgia and whimsy. Our eight days there will be the most time I’ve spent in the city since I left it three and a half years ago.

Tomorrow can’t come soon enough.