EWF blog post ~ Podcast: The Body of a Writer

20130813-213121.jpg

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.

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.

~

20130717-192416.jpg

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.

~

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.

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.

EWF blog post ~ Armchair Love: Posture, Thinking and Writing

Late last year, I was excited to become one of three mentees in the Emerging Writers’ Festival Digital Mentorship program. I’ll be writing about a post a month for them for the next six months or so (you can read more about the program, and the other writers on it, here.)

My first post, an argument for armchairs and an exploration of how posture affects thinking, went up yesterday. You can read it here.

Saying Goodbye

This is my last week teaching in Sydney. In fact, this is my last full week in this city full stop. Next week, I’ll be leaving Sydney to have a little holiday, and then moving down to Melbourne. Leaving a place is always strange and sad and exciting and scary. I’ve written here, here and here about some of the emotions I’ve come across in knowing that I’m about to leave a place. Transition creates such an odd frame of mind.

These last two weeks I’ve really started saying goodbye. I’ve started teaching last classes in places I’ve taught for some years, and saying goodbye to students I’ve known for as long. And, to be perfectly honest, it’s been exhausting. Every class I teach lately is tinged with sadness — my own, mostly. And it’s take a great deal more effort to stay focussed on the class.

The goodbyes themselves are always odd. Strange and sad and really very surreal. It just doesn’t feel quite real that I will not see these people next week. I will miss each and every one of them.

The student/teacher relationship is a surprisingly intimate one. The intimacy, I suppose, is surprising because it’s not always very obvious. As a yoga teacher, you spend a lot of time watching your students. Watching how their bodies respond to your instructions, to your sequences. You look out for minor (usually) alignment issues, you look out for signs of distress (physical or otherwise), and you come to care a great deal about how what comes out of your mouth affects the people in the room. When I plan classes, I keep in mind the make-up of regulars in my various classes, and think — sometimes in great detail — about how a particular shape or sequence might affect certain students with injuries or off-centre bodies. (Well, all of us have off-centre bodies, but some of us notice it more than others.) If there’s one thing that being a yoga teacher develops in you, it’s a really profound sense of tenderness and compassion for other people’s struggles.

Saying goodbye to my students is upsetting in a way I’m not quite sure yet how to deal with. It’s a sadness I’ll carry with me for some time, I’m sure. I’ve been trying to practice sitting with those emotions, just letting them be, letting them work themselves out. There have been tears. It hasn’t been easy.

But that sadness also makes me feel incredibly lucky. I’m lucky to work with people in the way that I do, to introduce them to tools that will help them through tough times. But, as is the case with any kind of teaching, I’m lucky because teaching others also shows me things about myself. I’ve learnt an incredible amount about my own strengths and limitations these last few years, and I hope I’ve become a better teacher — and indeed a more resilient person — as a result.

So, to any of my Sydney students reading this, thank you. And keep in touch.

Saying goodbye to Sydney, of course, means saying hello to another place. I’ll be teaching yoga in Melbourne, but I’m not sure yet of the details. When I’ve got a better idea, I’ll be sure to update things here.

~

This is cross-posted on my yoga blog.

Lying on the floor

Walking home from teaching one night, on the phone to my Mum, I rounded a corner to find a woman and her tiny dog, waiting to cross the road.

That dog’s on a long leash, I thought.

“Watch out for my dog, lady.” the woman said.

“It’s okay, I can see him.” I said, probably impatiently.

“Yeah well, how would I know? You’re looking down.” She snapped, and crossed the road.

“Yes,” I said, “Down. To where the dog is.”

And all of a sudden this woman and I were yelling at each other across the street, until she stormed into her apartment building and the door slammed, and I became aware of my Mum, on the phone I still held to my ear, saying “Sophie, who are you talking to?”

As I told her the story, and as is often the case for me, my indignation turned to guilt. “I can’t believe I yelled at her,” I said to Mum.

“Don’t worry,” she said “You’ll never see her again.”

And it’s true. I’ll probably never see that woman with her tiny dog on a stupidly long leash again. But it’s highly unusual for me to yell at strangers in the street. If I am, it’s a pretty good sign that there’s something not so great going on for me. Anger, frustration and grumpiness are usually an indication that I’m feeling overwhelmed by or stressed about life—often I don’t even know why.

I’m pleased that this is something I know about myself. It means I can make some little adjustments to how I organise my days, so I get enough downtime or rest. Because rest is usually the answer to stress. But it’s not always easy. In this recent piece, one of my favourite yoga writers, Yogi J Brown, discusses the ways we should (and usually don’t) deal with stress. Intimacy with ourselves, he says, is the best antidote—that is, spending time with ourselves in a way that allows us to see what’s going on. Noticing the anger or frustration is the first step.

When I was a teenager, I used to spend a lot of time lying on the floor or my bed, just listening to music. One afternoon, my Mum came into my bedroom to find that I’d actually fallen asleep on the floor, my head just centimetres from a speaker that was blaring music. It’s easy to be dismissive, to say that I could afford to do that then because I didn’t have the responsibilities I do now. But that’s a load of crap. Yes, I do have more responsibilities now, but surely that just makes it all the more important that I get some downtime, so I’m able to deal with those responsibilities… well, responsibly.

In my essay for The Emerging Writer, I explored some of the benefits for writing of doing nothing (well, almost nothing—listening still counts as something, really) with the physical body. To briefly summarise that part of the essay, doing nothing allows the body and the mind to process stuff, and potentially to make links between things that might not be immediately obvious, or that the brain might not have made otherwise.

Obviously, this can be good for writing. But it’s also just good for us on a more general level. Rest—waking rest, as well as sleep— is really important. (And ‘rest’, by the way, is just as metabolically active as activity—it just uses energy in different ways.)

In this piece on the benefits of the yoga pose savasana (which translates as ‘corpse pose’ and basically involves lying on the floor doing nothing), Sydney yoga teacher Brooke McCarthy writes in detail about what happens when we relax deeply—and how to do it. After reading this piece I decided I needed savasana to make an appearance in my life every day. I haven’t quite managed that yet, but on the days when I do get to it, everything seems just a little calmer. Honestly, lying on the floor for ten or fifteen minutes when I’m really busy makes the world of difference to my state of mind. And, really, if I’m feeling overwhelmed anyway, what am I really going to get done in those fifteen minutes?

And while I’m on the subject of ‘busy’. That words makes me cranky. I’d never really thought about why until I read this piece about the trap of busyness (interesting: my eyeToy autocorrects busyness to business). Writer Tim Krieder suggests that being busy is an avoidance tactic—if we’re busy, we don’t need to face ourselves, and all those things that are worrying us or upsetting us. And the more I teach yoga, the more I realise that everyone has at leat some of that kind of baggage. Facing it is hard, so makes sense that we don’t want to do it. But avoiding it doesn’t make it go away. For me at least, avoidance often makes the worry warp into something else—like yelling at a woman and her dog on the street.

My response lately to the question ‘how are you?’ has been ‘busy’. And after I’d said it a few times, I realised that it, along with the crankiness I was carrying around, was an indication I was doing too much.

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that, once again, I’m returning to that teenage habit of lying on the floor listening to music on a regular basis. I’m trying to get some nothing into each if my days. It’s amazing. I feel instantly less busy.