19 November 2007

On the Mat - Sarvangasana

Tuesday 20th November 2007

Quite a mixed practice this morning, probably due to my increased sensitivity to all the subtle things that are playing out beneath the surface of practice.
I was able to observe when my focus started to wane, when it become dull, when it wandered off, when I got drowsy, when the energy picked up, when a sliver of fear arose, or the breath changed key.
And because I was noticing so so much, it seemed like I was all over the place going from one extreme to another. Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t.

At one point I was yawning in between poses, and then drifting off into what seemed like unconsciousness while holding a standing pose. It’s become really obvious to me lately that when my mental focus is scattered, the energy dissipates and practice just disintegrates.

“Where the mind goes, the energy follows”

So I forced my mind to stay on track, even though it wanted to vague out. Some days you can observe the mind jumping from thought to thought – monkey mind they call it because it resembles a monkey jumping from tree to tree. But it wasn’t like that today, it was vague and kept fading out as if the dimmer switch was being turned down until I felt almost unconscious, in a blank misty land. What is it that detects the whereabouts of the mind when it wanders? What is it that directs the mind back to the present?
This process is vividly clear during extended periods of meditation and I’ve been so lucky to have done a number of 10 day Vipassana retreats where one sits and observes the mechanics and the make up of the mind without interruption for 11 hours a day. You get to see how it works and all the crap it’s accumulated over the years. Then you go about cleaning it out.

Back to practice, I slowed down for the seated poses, only doing vinyasas between the poses and not between sides. The gallery was warm from a 3 day heat wave which allowed me to slow down the practice without my body stiffening up.
Again it felt right to stay a little longer than 5 breaths in the seated poses. I call these research practices because I get to know what each pose is really doing to me when I stay in it longer. Particular body parts have to give way to allow the pose to emerge and this doesn’t happen straight away. It’s hard to explain but fascinating to watch the body assimilating the pose…some parts readjusting, melting and releasing other parts taking up supporting roles and engaging naturally to allow for release, extension and mobilisation.

When I got to Sarvangasana, I tried my best to recall the internal work I usually do in Sirsasana and replicate it in this pose. It involves a strong mula bandha which pulls energy up from eh lower body and directs it straight up through sushumna nadi to the upper chakras. I don’t know why this comes easier in Sirsasana than Sarvangasana for me, maybe because my body as a whole is doing less supporting work in the Headstand than in the Shoulderstand. Don’t know.
In Sirsasana when I get this internal energetic flow going, my body instantly aligns itself in the pose, and I balance lightly on my fontanel with almost no weight in my body…defies gravity somehow. More difficult in Sarvangasana…but maybe I just need to practice it more often in this pose. I’d like to find the legendary “perfect alignment” in Sarvangasana – this pose is all about the throat chakra (Sirsasana stimulates the crown chakra). Imagine in Sarvangasana directing a strong torrent of prana from the legs through the pelvis and up a perfectly unobstructed pipeline into the whirling vortex where the throat area is closed off (chin should be pressed close to the sternum).
Often in Sarvangasana, students are so preoccupied with what’s happening in the upper body (neck, chin, shoulders) that their legs just hang forgotten in the air. But it’s not until every part of the body and mind id fully participating in a pose that it progresses away from gymnastics and into the realm of unified yoga.

In Sarvangasana the feet should be neither pointed, nor fully flexed, but halfway between and you have to keep half an eye on them constantly or they’ll keep sneaking back to their favourite position. The inner heels have to lift up to the ceiling as if being pulled up by a hoist. The quadriceps should be well engaged and pulled up and pressing back towards the thighbones, but this has to be balanced by two important actions:1) the sacrum pressing forward towards the pubis and 2) the pubic bone lifting towards the feet.
These actions will set up the foundation that will align the pelvis so the energy that's been drawn up by mula bandha won’t get blocked in the pelvic area.
The front of the body must lift strongly upwards from the collarbone to the pubis and not collapse and crease in the abdomen. The upper thoracic spine must move deeply into the body towards the breastbone.

Holding all these alignments for the duration of 20 breaths really isn't easy. As soon as the attention wanes, the pose is lost. I find my spinal muscles get lazy after a few breaths, my shoulders slacken off and creep towards my neck, I lose the foot position over and over and my leg muscles take it upon themselves to lighten up for a little break every now and then.
It takes determination to keep the alignment happening correctly while focussing internally on the subtle energetics of the pose and consciously directing prana up from the pelvic floor to the throat.
But when you get it right, you rocket into outerspace.

16 November 2007


Saturday 17th November 2007

Life is becoming interesting. I’m being gently moved on. Daily life is taking on depth. The lens through which my soul views the outer world is on high resolution. All my senses are picking up and transmitting data from deeper levels of reality. There’s calm, equanimity and a powerful sense of connectedness.

Whatever constellation it was that kept me stuck for the last year has begun to reconfigure and it’s being reflected in my outer life: my yoga practice is suddenly stronger, work challenges are not getting me down, my relationship is hitting a wall as I refuse to accept the superficial relating, I’m socialising more (compared to my obsessive seclusion over the last year) and I’m committed to bringing real soul-relating heart into every encounter. Cut the crap.
It’s like I’ve moved a little closer to that state of Divine awareness, the state I’ve occasionally glimpsed where one is permanently united and connected with the Source…life becomes a creative act… the gap is closing…the duality ceases...vitality imbues the body as Truth pulses through the veins.
There’s this flickering flame of love that’s burning brightly inside of me, a glow in my eyes as I look out upon the world. It’s like God is looking out through my windows.

Flow like honey

Thursday 15th November 2007

Dammit I feel good – perhaps I’ll start every post with that statement.
But if I’m going to post every day I’d have to practice every day to feel this good.

I had an interrupted sleep last night (dog was frisky and full of energy all night) and was wide awake at unmentionable hours but it made no difference to practice this morning.
I flowed like honey.
As early as the Surya Namaskars my perception of my body disappeared and I moved like a gentle spoon swirling through a big jar of honey. I didn’t impose this visualisation upon my body, the feeling just emerged and as I acknowledged it’s feelingtone, my body took it on even more moving through the viscous space with a delicious lusciousness…transitions in and out of poses, vinyasas, they all became as smooth as silk, not completely effortless like water flowing but delicious like honey flowing. And that elusive malleable quality was there today so it was a gorgeous practice to be doing.

I was enjoying being in every pose, even the challenging ones, so there was no shying away from all the uncomfortable moments. When they came up (Parivritta Parsvakonasana, Virabhadrasana A and in EVERY seated pose thanks to my lumbar) I felt myself staring them straight back in the eye, not backing off or backing down or running away. I stayed there unafraid and with the inner strength to face the discomfort with integrity.
What’s fascinating is that this is also emerging in my daily life, in my relationships, and especially at work. A strength of character borne of integrity and a commitment to Truth. By Truth I don’t mean not lying, but Truth in the BIG sense of the word, that Truth which is universal and which resonates with our absolute core. Iyengar speaks poetically (in Light on Life) of our conscience as being the nasty prick of pain when we don’t listen to our soul.

But back to practice, since all the nerves in my lower back and right hip joint are on full alert in the seated forward bends, these fundamental poses are quite a challenge right now. I know these things come and go - one day my lower back problems will pass and another block will emerge somewhere – but the lower back is my practice obsession right now.
Today I stayed in all the seated poses longer than usual – from Paschimottanasana through to Marichy C...every one. No escape. Long deep Ujjiya breathing and fully present with every sensation as it arose. It’s a bit too easy to whip through these seated poses without giving them proper attention, eager to get to the gutsy ones, especially when you’ve been dong them for so many years. but they have so much to reveal if you stay to explore.
After the standard 5 breaths I sensed myself wanting to move on (as one should after 5 breaths) but I stayed a couple of extra breaths just to see if I was running away from something. So much more comes up after an enforced stay in a pose…it’s a good thing to do occasionally.
So by the time I got to the looming Marichy D-Supta K hill, I’d almost drained my bank of energy and detmination.
Bad girl here – I jumped straight to Baddha Konasana
Bad girl again – I threw in Parivritta Upavista Konasana and Parivritta Janu Sirsasana after Upavista Konasana. The justification was that my spine just really needed some serious wringing out.
Another day, another practice.

Quiet inside the mat

Tuesday 13th November 2007

Dammit I feel good – why don’t I do this every day?
Thank God for Renate – if we didn’t have out Tuesday and Thursday practices together in the Gallery my practice might fizzle out to nothing.

I ignored the fact that it was day 2 of my period (supposedly a ladies holiday). It was much more important to get on the mat since I hadn’t been on it since last Friday. I presumptuously thought practice would end up being Surja Namasakars, standing poses, then a passive menstrual sequence. I was expecting to feel slow, heavy and femininely fragile, but it wasn’t so. Instead I had a really strong Ashtanga practice right up to the backbends, then cooled down with a few forward bends instead of doing the fiishing inversion sequence.

Parivritta Parsvakonasana
It was not an easy practice physically, but mentally I was right into it…plenty of strong determination and joy today. Parivritta Parsvakonasana didn’t faze me today, in fact I met it head on by doing the classic version for five breaths (arm extended overhead), focussing on keeping my back foot grounded without letting the opposite hip swing out, then I did five breaths in the bound version (arms wrapped behind the back and under the thigh), again keeping the back foot grounded.
Staying for 10 breaths, I really got to work the twist through my upper back and shoulders and increase my leg strength– if the legs aren’t working strongly in this pose there’s a collapse through the hips and the rising energy gets blocked in the pelvis instead of travelling upwards to invigorate the upper body twist. But I pulled it off today. Walking up all those hills on the weekend must have strengthened my legs which sure helps the yoga.
Often for this difficult pose I just assume the shape then count down the breaths until I can get out of it and on to the easy Prasarittas.

Supta K was again the low point of practice – low point maybe not a good description - perhaps its the high point because it presents the greatest challenge. All the other poses kind of build up to it.
Today I didn’t shy away from the pose, I did my best trying to set it up right from the start, placing my hsoulers as deep as possible behind my thighs first (from the standing forward bend position). Even here my lower back felt challenged, its like an instant energy drain. As soon as my lower back is put under stress, mula bandha disappears and I’m denied access to any energy. It just drains away and the tap is turned off.
Kurmasana was great – my legs were extended more forward than out (I think they’re not supposed to go wider than the mat) and the strong energetic extension through my legs kept my feet off the floor for the full 5 breaths – for me that’s a good indication of success in Kurmasana.

All the following poses were magical – from here I moved easily into a different dimension, that other reality where Truth resides. Prana pulsated through me, riding on the flow of the breath. Baddha Padmasana was deep and sonorous, I love it when that happens, then when I moved into the final Padmasana, my breath became otherworldly – real pranayama happened naturally…my body spontaneously paused the breath at the height of the inhalation without any mental intention to do so, and I remained suspended here with absolutely no effort for what seemed like half a minute…not needing to breathe at all…just resting in the absolute stillness of time, in that expansive dimension that exists between the inhalation and the exhalation. God it’s so deathly quiet here, but so serene. I didn’t need to breathe at all. There…is the experience of yoga.

Socialising from the heart

Monday 12th November 2007

Is every entry is going to start with “another day without a yoga practice”?
Blogging daily just rubs salt into the wound…what to write about?
Well, it’s spring – the air is alive with scented anticipation. It’s the season of new growth new life, budding and blossoming, and the sensual abundance has intoxicated me. I feel soft, loving, excited.

I’ve accepted three social invitations for this week. What is going on?

I’ve been saying ‘no’ to invitations for so long that people stopped asking me years ago. I really prefer to be alone, self contained and integrated, social frivolity wastes our vital energy. I’m a natural hermit and I don’t make excuses for it any more. It’s me, and it’s OK.

But lunch with a work colleague yesterday (at an organic café in the hills) was delightful. I was determined not to fall into superficial conversation about trivialities. If I’m going to socialise, I want to bring a gentle authenticity to all my encounters. Keep the conversation honest and from my real heart. It’s beautiful and empowering when you relate to people like this because you establish a direct line from soul to soul. That is the only way I can relate now, anything less poisons me through every layer.


Sunday 11th November 2007

Not on the mat
Another day without a yoga practice....It’ s becoming the norm not the exception.
I’m losing track of how many days it’s been since the last one. Was it last Tuesday – I hope not.
Today and yesterday I took off to Horsenell Gully and walked the vigorous 80 minute trek up and down the hills. My determined stride was interrupted by an echidna wandering just as determinedly across my path. These shy creatures with pinnocchio noses that tunnel into the earth are covered in spikes but this is so wrong….they should be covered in fur. Perhaps back in aboriginal dreamtime they did have koala-wombat fur and an evil spirit put a hex on them. Doomed for eternity to wear a coat of spikes so no-one will ever cuddle or pat them. A life lived untouched.

The Exhibition Opening

Saturday 10th November

A warm balmy evening at an art gallery in the centre of the city. People with glasses of wine spilling out onto the street, most conversations brief, shallow and awkwardly saccharine, an occasional moment of depth following a comment or a wink of an eye, an insecurity shared, a common feeling acknowledged.

It was Renate and Louise’s opening night, the one and only exhibition opening I’ll attend socially this year. Working in a tertiary art School for 10 years, I’ve gained a network of arty friends and acquaintances by a natural process of osmosis, some of them emerging artists, some unknowns, some despised, some highly regarded and some legendary in the counter-culture circles.

As a confirmed anti-social recluse, networking and socialising for me is like sipping on arsenic.

Yet how easily I can slip into real conversations with sculptors. They seem to think about things and express their creativity more organically – they think AROUND things, they explore the space which contains things, they’re experimenting outside the square. Their minds have that pliable quality that I’ve been finding in my practice lately. I tend to think of sculptors and 3D artists as the truly creative and misunderstood elite practitioners of the art world – not unlike Ashtangis in the yoga world.


Friday 9th November 2007

I’ve occasionally thought about trying to blog every day.
I write almost every day. I’ve become one of those dead set regulars at the local café at 8am every morning, the baristas know my name and just make my coffee without me even ordering. They must wonder what I write about so fervently every day while sipping my espresso, but they never ask. And good that they don’t because my privacy would be violated, my cover blown, and I might have to change cafes.

But do I get to publish what I scribble? It’s rare. With such a busy busy life, there’s not enough time for the thoughts and feelings that arise over that morning coffee to bear fruit. I desperately need a decent block of time to reflect, to allow the thoughts to meander where they will, gathering moss, gathering momentum til they form something of substance and insight. Two coffees perhaps. Then, and only then, once it is worthwhile and insightful, will I type it up, connect, copy/paste and publish.

Half an hour over coffee is barely enough time to even scribble my practice notes. If I tried to do daily blog entries (actually publishing them to my weblog) you’d get all the endlessly superficial thoughts, so is it worth me skimming off the scum from the top of my mind every day and smearing it over a screen?
Do I really need to advertise what preoccupies my small mind while my big mind is stting back in the armchair patiently waiting for my thoughts to stop flying around and settle into it arms?

On the Mat
Renate send me an SMS on Wednesday night saying she wouldn’t be coming to practice in the Gallery on Thursday morning. So Thursday practice was walking the dog again.Today I did a short practice along with Sharath’s CD, but only up to Janu Sirsasana (have I discovered a new exit point?), but that was enough to give me a kick start to the day.

On the Mat

Tuesday 6th November 2007

Fantastic practice this morning. Every primary pose attempted and conquered, well in my mind anyway (the only exception being Supta Kurmasana – attempted and defeated yet again).
Since it WAS such a good practice Supta K was particularly disappointing, my hands barely touched. It wasn’t so long ago that I could bind to the wrist and get my feet touching by myself before the teacher came round to cross my ankes behind my head. Now…well…let’s not rub it in.
This pose needs curve and stretch across the lower back and mobility in the hip joints, and my body just won’t comply. But I did get Marichy D on both sides today which was heartening. Funny that…it actually turned out to be less intense than Marichy A! Marichy A is currently triggering all my alarm buttons – the articulation in the hip joint of this position, coupled with the forward bend means I have to do some real deep breathing to calm the panic pains arising in my lumbar.

My Son

Monday 5th November 2007

A sleepless might worrying myself sick about my son. He looked awful last night, barely able to hold himself upright but still fighting against his body’s deterioration, still pleading for some kind of intervention.
We’ll see two more doctors this week, and a neurologist and endocrinologist in about two weeks time. I pray he can last that long. It’s unbearable for him. We were talking last night about admitting him to hospital – that’s the end of the line really. Whatever is wrong in his sytem has not shown up in any tests so far, so no-one is taking him seriously. Yet this once strong, athletic, powerful young man has wasted away to a ghost in 6 months despite eating well and trying to keep up his basic exercise routine.

I got up an hour after the alarm went off and did Surya namaskars, standing poses, a couple of forward bends, a backbend, and a cut down finishing sequence.
My head aches with the heaviness of anguish for the trauma my son is enduring.

Sunday 4th November 2007

I didn’t set my alarm or have any expectation of practising this morning so I woke up in a slightly better mood – no guilt or disappointment in myself.
I threw on some clothes and drove up to Horsenell Gully for a walk. At some point in the middle of the walk, the sun disappeared behind a cloud. A freaky torrent of rain poured down and soaked my clothes to my skin. I was drenched. Then the sun came out again as if nothing had happened. Sort of sums up my moods lately. One day I’ll be soaked in my son’s pain and anguish, drowning with the weight of it, next day I’ll rise above it, feeling strong and clear and sunny.
Horsenell Gully saves me from drowning in life’s dramas – the sheer physical work of walking up the steep winding paths reinvigorates my energy system and the energy in natural places is very healing. Good combination.

Too close to the core

Saturday 3rd November 2007

I woke up crying this morning – it happens occasionally when I get caught up in what my son is going through, but it’s not such a bad thing to cry – tears relieve the pain a little. But today it meant I didn’t have the emotional strength to go to mysore practice at the shala as I’d planned.
Every second Saturday I work in the art gallery. It’s a six day working week. How on earth did I manage to do this AND teach two yoga classes last year – no wonder my mind/body rebelled with injuries.

Even without the teaching, life is crammed full. The busyness keeps me on a superficially even plane. But when I have a full weekend off, when I take time to breathe more slowly with the natural pulse of life, I sink straight to the bottom and all the unacknowledged feelings are there waiting for me.
I wonder if this rings true for a lot people who keep themselves constantly busy. We purposefully avoid getting too close to our core, because as we get closer to it, all we can see and feel is an emptiness – deep down, past the ego personality, we have no substance and what we face when we’ve dug through all those layers of personality and character is nothing – nobody home – and for most people that can be scary.

Many people I know who suffer from depression are sensitive, perceptive people who live close to their core. They sense that our modern life is artificial, that society keeps us all on a pointless merry-go-round, and the average person in the street is sleepwalking in denial.
When you’re depressed you FEEL – REALLY DEEPLY. And what you feel is great sadness and emptiness because there seems to be no purpose to life, no reason to do, achieve, aspire, create or even live. So close to the Truth, but not close enough to recognise that in that empty space is God – waiting patiently, calling softly.

Buddha’s four Noble Truths (roughtly translated):
1) Life is suffering
2) Suffering is caused by our desires and attachments
2) There is a way out of suffering
4) The Way

Perhaps we get pulled into the centre of our dark internal Universe because this is the only place where the secret can be revealed, where the ultimate Truth of our Divine essence is hidden. But the trip there through suffering is hell.
Depression is that place where we hover at the edge of the precipice, looking into emptiness, overcome by fear, unknowing and darkness. We’ve come too far and the road that brought us here has disappeared so there’s no way to get back.
Depression is the edge of the precipice.

It’s often said that crisis and trauma bring many people to the spiritual search. When the superficial and petty concerns of daily life are replaced by life threatening ones they are exposed as fraudulent, and we are plunged into the dark death of unknowing, where all our beliefs are shattered and we are left naked. That’s when the instinct to survive, to go beyond, will expand our minds.
This is when we suddenly find ourselves opening to new possibilities. This is when parts of our old mental structure and limiting belief systems dissolve away, creating space for the neglected spirit to awaken and flow in.

I am fortunate to have discovered my divine core, that God is within, that I am It - though it needs constant reinforcement not to forget and fall back into the old habits of thinking. And when I do, when the inevitable trials of life threaten to engulf me, I have to remember what I am and who I am not. I have to reach in and touch heaven with my fingertips.
But for gentle, sensitive people like my son and my sister who still cling to the edge of the precipice, who are stuck between the two worlds, life is lived in hell.
If only I could reach out with my fingertips and touch them too, tip them softly over the edge into the real world of wonder.

Exit Points and Inner Thighs

Thursday 1st November 2007

Practice started off strong but the joyride only lasted for the standing poses. At that point it changed into a passive Iyengar practice. I seem to have created certain exit points in this sequence, different places where I get off, like a bus stop. Doing this practice alone, outside the watchful eye of a Mysore class, I’m more prone to giving up early.

Exit point 1 is at the end of the Surya Namaskars – it’s pretty sad if I get off here and I don’t even count it as practice.

Exit point 2 is at the end of the standing poses – this seems like a short practice when judged by Ashtanga standards, but at least I’ve done something. And besides I’ve been to many Iyengar classes in my time where the entire 80 minute class has consisted of the full repertoire of standing poses followed by inversions with all their variations, and ending of course with Savasana, so if I get off at this exit point and do a few inversions at least I can feel like I’ve done the equivalent to a real class.

Exit point 3 is after Marichyasana C. Exiting here means my energy has waned, the seated poses have become a chore and I’ve started skipping the vinyasas, so I know I won’t have the mental determination, stamina or will to attempt Marichy D so that rough little trip from Bhuja to Supta K is unthinkable.
If I exit at Marichy C, I usually attempt a few extra poses like Baddha Konasana, Supta Padangusthasana and a couple of backbends before the finishing poses, so once again it’s not such as bad practice by “other” standards (I tell myself).

Then there’s exit point 4 at Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana which only happens when I’m so emotionally exhausted that I can’t summon the strength or courage to face any backbending – this was a common exit point last year but happily I rarely get off here now as backbending is the highlight of my practice these days even if I exit early.

Inner Thighs
Here’s a little gem I’ve discovered in the Surya Namaskars: an awareness of the inner thighs. When I was teaching yoga I often instructed students in Downward Dog pose to roll the inner thighs back and lift the inner thigh flesh up to the ceiling (rather than rolling it around toward the back of the thigh). This gives the sensation of a subtle upward lift. Lately I’ve been remembering this in my own practice and applying it not just in Dog Pose but in sun salutes and vinyasas, and consciously combining it with mula bandha.

This simple instruction has the initial effect of helping beginners with the pelvic tilt forward, but when the pelvis is tilted too far forward you can’t engage mula bandha to its maximum and therefore the energy from the lower body is not being fully drawn upwards. So as practice becomes more refined and subtle, it’s fascinating to play with the degree of pelvic tilt that allows the best flow of energy.

To describe it more: I’m in the standing forward bend…inhale and look up…exhale bend the knees and jump back to Chaturanga Dandasana. Right at this point I focus awareness on my inner thighs, engage these muscles and roll them upwards. At first I didn’t feel anything happening and couldn’t make the connection – it’s a real dead area – but just by trying seomthing was stimulated. During the next two moves, inhaling to Upward Dog and exhaling to Downward Dog, all my attention is focussed on consistently lifting the inner thighs and engaging Mula Bandha.

I don’t’ know why I’ve got this sudden fascination with my inner thighs. Maybe they’re just waking up after all these years. It’s quite exciting feeling life and awareness return to long dead parts of the body.