16 April 2009

A Self Directed Retreat

Friday 17th April 2009

Image: my front windows

It will take a few days (or possibly weeks) to write up my retreat notes so I’ll just keep adding them to this one post, bit by bit rather than posting them all as separate entries.
The notes got more interesting as the days progressed...


My suspicions have been confirmed, this retreat is an extraordinary turning point in my life – the affirmation I needed that my spiritual practice is passionate and alive.

The original schedule that I’d mapped out was revised to incorporate a minimum of 6 hours of meditation and 3 hours of asana each day as well as a 1 hour walk along the river with my dog. As the first day progressed the original timing of these was changed (and this was revised again on DAY 3 as I settled into a more natural retreat mode and found myself engrossed in 4 hours of asana each day).

Sitting for 3 hours this morning was easy in one way, difficult in another: easy because I had no resistance, no pain, no boredom and the 3 hours passed quickly; the difficulty was keeping my mind present on my breath (as usual).
My solution was to set a reminder beep on my mobile phone that went off every 10 minutes, just a little beep. My reverie was caught at 10 minute intervals reminding me to return to my breath.

On Vipassana retreats we are given meditation instructions at the start of each sitting session, then left to work with that instruction uninterrupted for hours on end. If the mind catches a flight to fantasy island it may not return for hours. It's not until the bell rings to end the session that you realise you’ve been somewhere else all that time and have wasted another session.
On the other hand, when I used to go to 1 hour sits at Buddha House (the Tibetan tradition) we'd be expertly led into the meditation and then every now and then during the hour, the meditation leader would quietly drop in the reminder “bring your mind back to your breath”. That was all it took, and was incredibly helpful.

So my 10 minute beep was my wake up reminder, a little assistance until a stable meditation mindstate established itself.

Late afternoon I took a lovely walk along the river with Buffy (my dog) before warming up a tiny dinner portion of aromatic curry and rice.

Evening yoga practice started out with no plan, but as I felt my way in, it sculpted its own shape.
A few standard warm up poses: long Dog Pose, long Uttanasana, long Parsvottanasana with hands on the floor, and a long Prasaritte Padottanasana with hands in reverse namaste. From there I followed the whispers of intuitive guidance into some long, quiet standing balances: Vrksasana, Garudasana (which I hadn’t done for years), Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana and from there moving into a pose I don’t know the name of: standing with one leg in half lotus, you bend the supporting leg and lower your buttocks down until they rest on the back of the supporting foot, then you lift the spine up to vertical and balance on one foot with hands in prayer. Handstand and Pincha Mayurasana at the wall, Supta Virasana to prepare for floor poses, then a series of forward bends and twists. After that I set up a bolster for supported Setu Bandha before moving into a 10 minute Shoulderstand and a 9 minute Headstand.
It resembled one of Darrin’s Iyengar classes and was deeply nourishing so I felt quite grateful to him for instilling in me this method of practicing.

During the asana practice I found myself returning to Samastithi (Tadasana) with hands in prayer between the early standing poses. It was a spontaneous and natural gesture, a sacred pause where my heart relaxed and opened in gratitude, perhaps an unconscious expression of thanks to the universe for bringing together all the right conditions that have led to this retreat. It is the answer to my prayers.
Bringing the hands together in front of the heart both creates and emanates a powerful energy that contains gratitude, equanimity, hope and love, and how much more powerful it felt when my hands came together with the clear and pure intention that was filling me now.

End of DAY 1, my mind is relaxed and settled.
I feel at peace with everything in my life.


Image: my kitchen windows

Two days devoted purely to yoga asana, meditation and reflection and I realise I am truly a yogi, living in the middle of a consumer society gone mad. What joy, what relief to remove myself from the rat race and redirect my focus to the things of the heart and spirit.
Devotion and discipline, those two qualities that arise naturally in a heart longing for the Truth, were there all the time. I needn’t have imposed regulations on my daily schedules to try and develop them.
Everyday life, with its responsibilities and commitments to work and family, affords little time for their development and expression. They are quashed into a corner, into a few weekly yoga practices. The poor things wither up and die when they’re not nourished by sadhana.

“The constant practice of all petals of yoga will eventually repair all flaws inherent within the human system. The power we generate through yoga practice must become a coherent and indissoluble whole. Yoga sadhana is meant to knit the fibres to the skin and skin to the fibres so that they coil and interweave the outer kosa into the atma kosa. Only then can the Oneness of the power we create within ourselves be integrated with the universal power that surrounds us.”
BKS Iyengar, Light On Life

I practice yoga asana and I sit in meditation, observing the mindstuff, stilling the waves of my conscious mind...the impurities separate from the mix, rise to the surface and leave me in a sea of calm.

Morning asana practices on DAY 1 and DAY 2 were a little disappointing. The plan was to do a morning Ashtanga practice and an evening restorative Iyengar practice, but the Ashtanga sessions have fizzled out halfway through the standing pose sequence.
My conclusion…that Ashtanga, with its fiery heat-building ujjiya pranayama and sun salutes just doesn’t gel with the delicate mental states sustained in long hours of meditation.
Ashtanga raises my energy and sharpens my mind ready for action; it heats the mind and body, burns impurities and leaves me fired up for the day – very useful when I have to go into the working day battlefield. Not so conducive for meditation.
Likewise my meditative mind/body state is unable to cope with the energy generated by Ashtanga…hence early burn out during standing poses.

So the morning Ashtanga/evening Iyengar plan will be revised. Tomorrow morning I’ll try a different approach to my asana practice.

Evening practices have been strong. Mr Iyengar's classic Light on Yoga provided the basic sequence tonight (Course 2, 31st-35th week) though I reshuffled the sequence a little. Instead of starting with Headstand + variations and Shoulderstand + variations, I moved them to the end of the practice and started with some warm ups (Dog Pose, Uttanasana etc) then Jatara Parivartanasana and Supta Padangusthasana following the sequence only swapping Ustrasana and Paryankasana in order.
My body felt unusually heavy in Headstand as if I’d put on 5 kilos in the last 24 hours – so I only stayed for 20 breaths. The heaviness is probably from the long hours of sitting in meditation.
After practice my spine felt strong and alive, the base was hot, the top was tingly. I wonder if this is how people feel after chiropractic treatment.


Image: Buffy at my front door

Morning yoga session – 3 hours – that must be a record for me, where did the time go? Instead of working the internal and energetic dynamics of Headstand I played with correcting the external structure: pressing down the inner wrists, lifting the upper arms and shoulders, drawing in the lower ribcage etc. etc. The additional physical effort shortened my stay in the pose.
Savasana was more active than usual - not content just to lie and rest, I actively swept through my body from toes to head, led by the internal dialogue of my teaching voice telling me to relax each part and tune into the circulating energies. Lightning bolts shot through my lumbar, nerve impulses and electrical sparkles darted like fireflies.

"Savasana is about shedding. We have many skins, sheaths, thoughts, prejudices, preconceptions, ideas, memories and projects for the future. Savasana is a shedding of all these skins, to see how glossy and gorgeous, serene and aware is the beautiful rainbow-coloured snake who lies within."
BKS Iyengar

3 hours of asana was followed with 3 hours of sitting. DAY 3 and immersion in my practice is deepening. Lunch break was short today –eager to get back to the cushion. Lunch was fresh orange juice, vegetable curry and rice again and some thick sweet Greek yoghurt for dessert, all tiny amounts.

I noticed my mind staying with the breath for much longer periods today. What is it that notices and watches the mind…must be pure consciousness…a different faculty to the mind.
As I dropped further into the fully conscious meditation state, I played with letting go of the breath as my anchor.
The trainer wheels drop away and I glide, unsupported in full flight; I am sitting in pure and vibrant awareness, full presence, alert and still.
A voice interrupts: “Why am I doing this, what is the desire that burns such a hole in my heart?”
Pulling back from the edge and catching the in and out breath again, the same voice replied “I want to know God”.
My heart swelled until the vibration of love filled every cell. Recognising the enhanced landscape I thought “This is it”, which of course immediately separated me from the experience and broke the spell.
Over and over I repeated “We are That which we seek”, drinking in the Truth of the statement til my body and mind were soaked in it, the first stage of merging. I have known and experienced this, so WHY DO I FORGET? Why is my daily life lived in such forgetfulness?

“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting” said Wordsworth.

We practice to help us wake up.

Which reminds me of a favourite line in a Jackson Browne song… ”to open my eyes and wake up alive in the world…”

“The whole practice of yoga is concerned with exploring the relationship between Prakrti and Purusa, between Nature and Soul. It is about learning to live between the earth and the sky. That is the human predicament, our joy and our woe, our salvation or our downfall. Nature and Soul are mingled together. Some would say they are married. It is through the correct practice of asana and pranayama and the other petals of yoga that the practitioner (sadhaka) experiences the communication and connection between them. To an average person it might seem that the marriage of Nature and Soul is one of strife and mutual incomprehension. But by communing with them both, they come closer to each other for the purpose of a blessed union. That union removes the veil of ignorance that covers our intelligence. To achieve this union, the sadhaka has to look both within as well as looking out to the frame of the soul, the body. He has to grasp an underlying law or else he will remain in Nature’s thrall and Soul will remain merely a concept.”
BKS Iyengar “Light on Life”

Buffy and I walked along the river from 5.30 – 6.30, later than previous evenings. After a warm day the chill of an autumn evening was stirring. As we walked I felt the touch of the air, warm and cool whispery breaths simultaneously dancing upon my skin.

It’s 7pm and I decide to sit for an hour before the evening asana session.

It’s Saturday night. My mind wanders a little. I wonder what my boyfriend is doing, is he alone and forced to watch TV out of boredom and loneliness, or is he wondering what I’m doing. Thoughts coming and going, feelings of guilt for indulging in 5 days of practice, and a sliver of doubt – what am I doing it for…all mixed up and lurking in the shadowy corners. Now and then I enter the clear space of conscious awareness, watching the nuances of the breath, watching the thoughts and feelings arise and pass away.

My back is tender from two strong forward bending sessions, my energy low tonight.
I chose to do a passive, restorative asana session…Supta Everything: bolsters, blocks, straps and chairs – bring them all on.
I laid around in all the restorative, stress-reducing poses I could remember from my years of teaching.
The session finished with Ardha Halasana on the chair then Viparitta Karani (legs up the wall) with my lumbar lifted and supported on a bolster and rolled up blanket. These last two poses did the most to ease my achy back.
I finished at 9.30 then retired early for the night.

After this experimental retreat, I may not do another 10 day Vipassana retreat (Goenka tradition). The need to practice meditation in a group and to someone else’s schedule has been replaced by a need to direct my own.
Vipassana retreats inducted me into the rigorous and austere tradition of authentic meditation practice and gave me a delicious taste of deep Samadhi. That taste lingers forever in my memory.
But in the last two retreats I noticed my concentration slacking off, my motivation had worn thin. With those long hours of sitting, I often procrastinated, not applying my will to follow the meditation instructions until it was too late. Little excuses such as: “Tomorrow will be better when I’m fresher” or “I’ve got plenty of time” etc etc encouraged my lazy mental attitude.
But this self-directed retreat is only 4 days and a sense of urgency has prevailed. I can’t afford to waste a moment of my allocated sitting time and that has helped me to apply my will to the practice, to overcome the laissez-faire attitude, to invigorate it and give it a razor edge.
I am much more alert to the daydreams, the tendency to drift off into imagined conversations and situations, and more strict with myself.
The reward comes in the depth of my meditation, as rapture and bliss subside into deep tranquillity. These states leave permanent imprints on our minds and hearts. Once experienced, our hard wiring is altered. Deep peace becomes an intimate companion, always present in the back cupboard of the mind and becoming more accessible each time we call it forth through meditation.

“There is a great difference between just practicing and sadhana. Sadhana is the way of accomplishing something. That something is – by effective performance and correct execution – the achievement of the real. What is real must be true and so lead us toward purity and emancipation. This is yoga sadhana and not the mechanical repetition merely of yoga practice or yogabhyasa. The end of yoga sadhana is wisdom. You might translate yoga sadhana here as “the yoga pilgrimage” as it is a journey that leads somewhere, not the mere treadmill of thoughtless practice.”
BKS Iyengar – Light on Life.

This is the simple schedule that I settled on from DAY 3:
7.30 – 9.00 breakfast, walk dog, shower, chores
9.00 – 11.00 yoga asana
11.00 – 2.00 meditation
2.00 – 2.30 lunch
2.30 – 5.30 meditation
5.30 – 6.00 cup of tea break
6.00 – 7.30 long walk along river with dog
7.30 – 9.30 yoga asana
9.30 – 10.30 meditation/writing


Image: My bedroom window

Three accumulative days of meditation have calmed my mind. It feels cleaner in there, as if the windows through which I see the world have been polished and I can see clearly and objectively what is both inside and outside.

A two and a half hour practice this morning – without forward bends.
Sun salutes meticulously and lovingly performed, then all the standing poses plus Ardha Chandrasana, exploring most of the poses for up to 8 breaths, working the legs, feeling their strength and connecting it to the pelvic floor.
After one and a quarter hours of standing poses I needed to lay in Supta Virasana over a bolster to ease the earthy intensity out of my body. Then to the wall for Handstand and Pincha Mayurasana, my body still feeling heavy but not dull.
There was a version of Pincha Mayurasana that we set up with a chair in a Glenn Ceresoli workshop – I remembered the powerful shoulder opening it provided but after pulling out a chair, I couldn’t recall how to set it up (will have to look that one up in my past blog notes so I can practice it another day).
Janu Sirsasana was the only forward bend for today, a deep and gentle spinal twist.
Then a few repetitions of Salabhasana, Dhanurasana and Parsva Dhanurasana, an oddly fulfilling pose that permits a full bak arch without grounding into the floor through hands or feet. It always feels absurd to flip over onto my side and stretch like a writhing beached whale.
Continuing the backbends I set up a passive one that Kosta had shown me: Place a stool in front of the wall (or a chair side-on), put a bolster on top parallel to the wall, then place a rolled up blanket on top and drape a sticky mat on top of the bolster; lay over the mound with hands into the wall and feet into the floor. Position yourself over the mat so that when you press firmly down into the legs, the traction of the mat under the back body pulls the skin and fascia under the shoulders towards the waist – it’s the traction that makes the preparation worthwhile.
I pushed my heavy body up into one long, deep Urdhva Dhanurasana then settled into the inversions, following the same order of poses as the Ashtanga finishing sequence except that I held a 50 breath (5 minute) Shoulderstand and finished with a 60 breath (8 minute) Headstand – but who’s counting.

How I’m loving my asana practice. It’s simple, strong, connected and deeply nourishing. Physically it’s reconfiguring my body, especially my spine, but it’s also redefining my relationship to my practice. When you take full responsibility and ownership of something, and you love it, you take care of it with all your heart.

I am so grateful to all my past teachers. The methods, techniques and wisdom they have passed on are all coming together in this retreat: Iyengar and Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, Patanjali’s sutras and the Raja Yoga path, Tibetan, Theravadan and Zen Buddhism, the Burmese Vipassana and Anapanasati meditation techniques based on the Sattipathana sutra, the mystical traditions of the Sufis and early Christian mystics…no longer are they a mish-mash of accumulated information competing for my affections – instead they now coalescing into one evolving and coherent body of knowledge and practice that informs and inspires me. They may all represent a different path up the mountain but they all lead towards the liberating experience of our divinity, the realisation that there is ONE primal force of creation and love…and it has been within us all the time.

The retreat has revealed how much I’ve digested and assimilated the essence of all these teachings; they have formed the very bones and flesh in which I live and breathe.
My practice has finally come of age and matured into an intelligent approach to my life.
They no longer conflict with each other because I no longer subscribe to any ONE of them to the exclusion of any other.

What a relief and a revelation.

I’ve come to believe that the old advice not to dig too many holes or you will never find water holds true for the beginner. It is best to explore deeply and thoroughly one system at a time, not mix and match. But after years of exploring deeply and thoroughly many different systems, I’ve come to the conclusion that they can all be used for digging if you know where you’re going.
So at last my practice is my very own. The doubts that undermined my confidence have lost all substance.
I have practiced these last few days with a devotion and JOY that is breathtakingly glorious.

Full time working life is not helpful for the ardent spiritual sadhaka. Hours/days/weeks/months/years can be spent just trying to cope with the barrage of stress inducing situations that keep our crazy lives running on fast and empty. Retreat time is precious.
Removing myself from work and family commitments and reconnecting with the journey of a lifetime has provided a precious opportunity to relocate myself, redefine my priorities, invigorate my dwindling practice, dispel all doubt and place me back on the illuminated path of my heart.
I know that daily life is where we must put our practice into action, where it must manifest to be of any use, but we can’t contribute to uplifting our world when we’ve lost the plot and the higher meaning of it all.
Our ability to see clearly and draw inspiration from the light shining within wears out, and then it’s easy to get completely lost.
A period of retreat provides the physical and mental space to seek out that light once again.

Today I realised that I don’t know ANYONE who is really doing the internal psychological and spiritual transformative work of a true yogi. I know many people who are doing practices that make them feel PHYSICALLY and ENERGETICALLY better, which helps them go out into the world and do good things to make their EGOS feel good (one usually feeds the other). But any activity that strengthens and pampers the ego, or makes us feel ‘special’ is in opposition to the goal of authentic spiritual practice.

“Everyone wants to be special in some way. What if life was fine the way it was. What if there was nothing else?Ego wants some kind of advantage – to be stronger, better than everyone, secure. Ego wants to be protected against death, pain. Yet at the level of Reality, all the differences between us are illusory. You get to see that you’re all right as you are – no problem.Just imagine if, in this moment, who you were right now was all right with you. If everything about you was fine with you – your body, your hair, your personality. What would you do with all the energy that freed up? We devour a tremendous amount of energy being unhappy with how we are in the moment, struggling to be someone else, when we can’t be any other way.”
Lee Lozowick

I am so perfectly content to be just as I am, right now.
To just BE.
Alive in this world.
With whatever is.

Brick Wall
DAY 4 ended on a slightly lower note. Buffy and I explored a new route along the river for our evening walk. We went much further than I’d planned and didn’t get back home until 6.30pm. Physically tired from the walk and 3 days of asana, all my body aches were suddenly magnified. I decided on a trade off: the evening asana session for an hour of sitting. But fifteen minutes into the sitting session, my tired and stubborn mind refused to focus and my will was too weak to overpower it.

If this were a longer retreat, I could have written off the evening, recharged tomorrow, carried on with the rest of the retreat and redeemed myself without too much guilt.
Sadly this was the last night. Skipping the practice resembled a balloon slowly deflating and shrivelling up. ffffffffffffftht.

We can give up on something that’s beyond our capacity and either judge ourselves harshly, beating ourselves up, or we can let it go and cease any further suffering – letting go develops our wisdom and compassion.
So I just let it go.
Yes we must challenge our limitations in order to expand and grow, but we must also acknowledge our fluctuating limitations. There are times when we can rise to meet the challenges presented but there are times when we need to retreat and recharge. Knowing which way to go requires sensitivity and compassion, and by developing these qualities, the heart will grow soft and generous towards all others who are struggling with their own psychological limitations and demons.

I went to bed early, promising myself I’d get up early and use tomorrow morning wisely before finishing the retreat at lunchtime.

DAY 4 of a serious meditation retreat or DAY 4 of a yoga workshop seem to be when many people hit the wall. It’s an inevitable part of the process, a natural reaction to an unrelenting daily practice schedule that we’re not used to.
You hit this mental barrier and block; it’s hiding in a little black spot just after the initial novelty of the first 3 days has subsided but just before the routine of the practice has settled into the body/mind (which tends to kick in around Day 5). In between these two spaces lays DAY 4, and the brick wall.

That was my Sunday night.


Two and a half hours this morning - my final practice of the retreat.
Before starting I chanted the Ashtanga invocation (Vande gurunam caranaravinde…..)
5 As, 1B, Padangusthasana, Pada Hastasana.

I came back to Samastithi and chanted again, this time the Gayatri mantra, 3 times.
The tone of practice changed…my heart opened…practice became a prayer.

Moving in and out of poses, I noticed something different moving through my body. My hands carried and expressed a soft energy, strong but delicate, they opened and closed like flowers, extending out to the tips then returning home to the heart, sealing in the prayer.

I did all the standing poses with great love, and added Ardha Chandrasana again. Parivritta Parsvakonasana finally came together today, a promising sign that perhaps my lower back degeneration is reversing – I couldn’t stay long in the final pose but I held it with great inner core integrity, not just with a superficially flexible body.

Handstand and Pincha Mayurasana, then some seated forward bends and twists.

I’ve discovered Ardha Matsyendrasana, what a great pose, so much to master in this one. I’m nowhere near binding but the journey of discovery presents its own unique gifts – balance of weight, finding a vertical spine, moving attention and prana into the more expanded lung, the stability of mula bandha holding it all together…fun, fun, fun.
(I've been attempting the version where your foot is under the buttocks, not the one where your foot is next to the thigh.)

Then I challenged myself in Shoulderstand – got up to 100 breaths (clocked 10 minutes). I probably could have stayed longer: it got easier after 80 breaths because 100 was in sight and the little crest of excitement carried me there. Hands on bare back was helpful for grip but my belly was uncovered – yuk – I noticed when I lowered into Halasana that my navel was not centred, it was skewed at least one inch to the right - correcting it was interesting - my lumbar protested as I lifted my left sitting bone up and lengthened my left side – it really had been collapsed. How long have I been doing Halasana like this? And how many other poses are equally lopsided?

40 breaths in Headstand (5 minutes).

Noting the time I stay in Shoulderstand and Headstand is of no consequence to me. It’s purely childish entertainment. A little game I play with myself.

After asana practice I sat for an hour, the final sit before resuming ‘normal’ life.
I sat like the Buddha in a state and a place that is familiar to all those who have travelled the road to Samadhi. You feel like you’re sitting at the entrance of an enormous mansion.

To get there I had used a technique that helps gather the mind into a single laser beam of pure focus. It goes like this: after watching the incoming and outgoing breath for a while to concentrate the mind, you begin to notice and catch the very beginning and the very end of each breath, observing that split second, that micro moment where each breath action starts. This sharpens the mind like a razor. Then you observe the little u-turn between the in and out breath, until the pause between the breaths lengthens and you sit with that pause between every breath, suspended in absolute stillness.

From there I let myself enter the realm of God as if the source of all life were present in front of me, around me, inside of me. There was no boundary between my skin and everything else, I had no boundary, I had merged. The mind can not interfere with this for any thoughts create instant separation. I oscillated on the brink, one foot immersed in the rapture that filled my sparkling expanded body, the other foot flicking away the stray thoughts that wanted to describe and make sense of the rapture.
I remembered the jhanas – the 8 levels of absorption documented in Buddhist literature. Rapture comes with the second jhana. One must let go of rapture to descent into a deeper but more subtle mindstate. The next stage is contentment and equanimity (not as exciting as rapture).

I remembered Brother Lawrence: wasn’t his entire practice sitting in the presence of God? Buddhists don’t acknowledge the bhakti of devotion, the intense love that springs from union with the Divine. Rapture dissolved, leaving full awareness, a lucid presence in which there was only breath and a transparent body, no I.
nobodhi home

But as usual, it was short lived.

An automatic mechanism short-circuited the experience.
I’m sure I (or no I) could have sat in that state for much longer, the brush with eternity was short but sweet. Who turned it off?

If nothing else has come of these five sacred days on retreat, I know without doubt that my practice is alive, it is grounded and it is honest.
I don’t expect practice to give me the answers, but it must keep prompting me to ask the questions.

“Samadhi is an experience which is worth struggling to reach. It is transformative and utterly purifying. But what then? Samadhi is a state of being in which you cannot do. You cannot catch a bus when in Samadhi. Samadhi leaves the practitioner changed forever, but he still has to get dressed in the morning, eat breakfast and answer his correspondence. Nature does not simply disappear once and for all. It is simply that the realized yogi is never again unaware of the true relationship between Nature and Cosmic Soul. The yogi is aware that it is the Divine Breath that lives us. And he can see that Divine Breath in others. His insight penetrates at all times beneath the surface of appearances. Essence is more real than expression.
The realized yogi continues to function and act in the world but in a way that is free. It is free from the desires of motivation and free from the desire of the fruit or rewards of action. The yogi is utterly disinterested but paradoxically full of the engagement of compassion. He is IN the world but not OF it.
The challenge for the spiritually free man is to live according to five qualities: courage, vitality, right and useful memory, awareness through living in the present moment, and total absorption in his actions.
He lives form his heart in truth and expresses it in words."

BKS Iyengar – Light on Life

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart”


greenfrog said...

The pose you describe is one that Bikram calls a variant of padangustasana (http://www.thesecretsofyoga.com/Bikram/Toe-stand.html)

(0v0) said...

Thank you for sharing this.

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