30 October 2009

Morning practice notes

Thursday 22nd October 2009

Yoga practice wasn’t a dance this morning – it was a slow moving steam train.

Renate and I were both lethargic for different reasons. Renate had a very physically demanding day yesterday, and my day had been overloaded with work challenges.
Recently I’ve been waking up intermittently at night having just dreamt about work – it’s invaded all my mental space again.
An overactive mind uses a lot of energy and the mental energy drain is very obvious during a yoga practice. The mind has to be retrained over and over to be present and not obsess about the past or the future. That is yoga practice.

So I worked hard at this kind of yoga practice this morning, watching the obsessive thoughts invading my mental space, observing the physical drain, and trying over and over to bring my mind back to what I was doing in the moment – asana.

My first battle to fight was to get to practice: resistance is strong. I’m as bright as a bubble at 5.15am but my motivation to do a 2 hour yoga practice has been eroded by nagging doubts that manifest as the big question “What’s it all for?”
I ask this about everything now, and that’s not bad.
For now I ignore the narrative and just get up, get ready and go.
I don’t question the benefit of yoga practice as much as the 6am start. It feels like a commitment I could do without, especially as the urge to simplify my life is forcing the issue.

Practice starts slowly. Knowing I have the option to stop and sit in meditation at any point is a healthy bribe.
After one hour, Renate opts for meditation. I fill out the entire two hours with a pot-pourri of poses that my body asks for: after the obligatory sequence of standing poses, I go to the wall for one long handstand, lead weight heavy, all the accumulated rajastic body energy draining downwards into my wrists and hands. My 48kg body suddenly weighs a ton.
Two seated forward bends, two supported backbends over a block and then I lifted my spine up and off the block into Urdhva Dhanurasana, twice. Upavista Konasana then a twisted forward bend over each extended leg. I came to centre then hung out for a while over the wide open space between my legs, trying to relax and allow my hips to open passively rather than actively engaging the leg muscles to lift me up, out and down to the floor. Passive got boring. I nearly fell asleep. Is this Yin Yoga? I tried the same passive approach in Baddha Konasana, an emotionally challenging pose now, only because a year ago I could extend forward and down and eventually rest my nose on the floor. Now, post injury, I can barely move past upright. So I sit slightly forward of upright, breath light and love into my lower back and hips, waiting, secretly hoping for a miracle opening. It doesn’t happen
Tired of being stuck upright I move on to a few core exercises, including laying on my back, legs raised to 90 degrees and curling my head and shoulders off the floor, working incrementally through the spine, moving up and back with the breath.
Shoulderstand, Halasana and Pindasana, Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana before Matsyasana, then a long Headstand and the finishing Padmasana poses.
There…two hours…done.

Renate and I part. I change into my work clothes and wander out of the Gallery and down to the café for half an hour of journaling and an espresso shot.
Walking back to work I realise that the stress induced obsessive work thoughts must have subsided some time during practice. My mind is now calm, clear and receptive. Only a few stray yoga thoughts waft through my mental field like warm gentle, summer breezes.

22 October 2009


"Somewhere in every one of us, no matter how deep it may be hidden, is a latent germ of beauty...we dance because this germ of beauty demands such expresion, and the more we give it outlet, the more we encourage our own instinct for graceful forms. It is by the steady elimination of everything which is ugly - thoughts and words no less than tangible oblects - and by the substitution of things of true and lasting beauty that the whole progress of humanity proceeds."
Anna Pavlova

20 October 2009

Ballet Exercises

Wednesday 21st October 2009

"I dance til I am empty. I dance til I am full. My dance is my prayer"
To dance is to feel the breath of life flowing through the soul and creating harmony with the music. Once the torment and ecstasy come together: dance - magic - is created onstage or in the studio.
Oh the glory of ballet! What is it about ballet that sets it apart from all other forms of movement? Is it the music, the costumes, the line and fluidity of the dancers, or is it the purity and elegance of the art itself?
It is all of these and something more. Without the glitter, sans costumes, even on a barren stage, even in rehearsal clothes, ballet remains the most enchanting form of dance ever created.
I watched Mao’s Last Dancer on the weekend, the inspiring true story about ballet dancer Li Cunxin.
Having done ballet many years ago, dance is a part of my body, which is one of the reasons why I settled on the flowing Ashtanga yoga practice instead of the slower, more interrupted styles.
Since I stopped going to yoga classes, my yoga practice has become much more expressive – naturally. Ashtanga vinyasa yoga encourages a dancelike grace. Prana juices flow through my body, my limbs extend, my fingers tingle, grace, beauty and love overflow through my movements.
Our bodies and limbs are extensions of our selves, and our selves are creative instruments, expressions of the Divine source. When movement is performed with devotion, it enters the realm of poetry.
PeaceLoveYoga recenty posted a link to a lovely contemporary dance interpretation of Surya Namaskar which you can view here.

I was 16 years old when I discovered classical ballet, too late to take it up seriously, but I was smitten. I joined a class of beginners – 8 year olds – and felt completely out of place amongst those tiny bodies, bit it didn’t matter. I did one class a week for about 3 years until my life changed. Not until my early 30’s did I take it up again and I immediately fell in love with ballet all over again. I went to an adult classical beginners class religiously for years until yoga overtook my life and sadly I couldn’t afford to do them both.

If it wasn’t for my fragile hips and lower back I’d be tempted to go back to ballet class again, but it’s much too dangerous for me to follow instructions and risk doing more damage.
But I’m thinking a little routine of barre exercises, plies, pas de chats and arabesques in the safety of my bedroom will help quench my body’s thirst for some creative movement.

I borrowed an exercises DVD put out by the The New York City Ballet from our local library last week which I’m dying to watch and try out. It’s times like this I wish I had a TV and DVD player (momentarily anyway). I’ll have to invade someone’s house to be able to watch it before it has to be returned to the library.
The promotional line on the back cover of the DVD made me laugh out loud – it went something like:
“Kylie does it, and so does Madonna. So practice that plie.
After all, the lotus position is SO last year...”

13 October 2009

Morning yoga trip

Tuesday 12th October 2009

My yoga friend Renate just returned home after a 2 month trip to France and India with her husband. We resumed our longstanding (has it really been 5 years?) Tuesday and Thursday 6am practice schedule this morning, then caught up on the last 2 months over coffee afterwards.
Getting up at 5.20am was disarmingly easy. I slipped into yoga clothes, drove to the Gallery, lit incense and set up mats and blankets, quite enjoying retracing my steps over this well worn routine.

But practice wasn’t so easy; after 2 months of evening yoga, I’d forgotten about the stiff early morning body resistance that requires so much more patience and humility.
My mind was willing, even eager, my vitality was strong, but my lumbar, sacrum and hip joints had solidified in cement overnight and weren’t budging. Forward bends were stopped short by a piercing knife lodged in my sacrum.
I got to Marichyasana B without compromising, but the accumulated forward bends took their toll on my persistence.

I took the short cut route to the backbends, visiting a few more poses on my way there: Garbha Pindasana, Baddha Konasana, Upavista Konasana and Supta Padangusthasana.
Arriving in backbend territoryI went through the preps: Salabhasana, Dhanurasana, Ustrasana, Setu Bandhasana, then hit the pinnacle Urdhva Dhanurasana. It stretched open every tissue down the front of my morning body, painfully slowly. If I’d been smart I would have done a good shoulder opener first, because it took a couple of breaths before they opened enough to straighten my arms through the elbows. I held a reasonable backbend courageously for 10 breaths , then sunk back to the floor, satisfied.

Meandering through the finishing pose sequence was sweet, like a walk in a perfumed garden. Instead of counting the breaths in Headstand, I counted the length of each breath – 5 counts inhale, 5 counts exhale, then watched as the count gradually and naturally lengthened without any interference on my part. Quiet pauses began to appear at the beginning and end of each breath, then THEY gradually lengthened.
Pranayama in Sirsasana.

All up a surprisingly pleasant return to early morning practice.
No need to travel to India when I can travel through yoga.

5 October 2009

Walking, no talking

Monday 5th October

Just for the record:
Yesterday I did
- 100 breaths in Shoulderstand (8 minutes) and
- 100 breaths in Headstand (10 minutes)
at the end of my practice.

My brother and I went for our first walk together up in the mountains yesterday. I hadn’t seen him since Christmas. He’s a walker too. Tagging along were his two girls and his giant puppy of a dog. The girls are in their early twenties and couldn’t keep up with us!

This morning, I headed for the mountains again, this time alone. Being a public holiday today, the city was bathed in a leisurely atmosphere. Nobody shopping. Lots of bike riders and hardly any cars on the roads. Still it was good to get out of the city.
I turned off my phone for the whole day so I could spend it in silence with no interruptions.
Tonight, another walk, this one with my dog along the river (Torrens Linear Park) a much easier but longer walk.

Lots of walking going on…not much talking.

Tomorrow is the first official day of my one week of holidays so I’ll walk up the mountain again in the morning. The rest of the week I’ll be babysitting little Lily and I'm not sure what that will be like. could be great fun or really hard work (she's five years old).

No access to a computer for the next week.
Happily offline now...

2 October 2009

Nature and Mist

Saturday 3rd October 2009

Saturday morning arrives like a fresh breeze. I take off early for a walk in the hills before work. I’m halfway up the first mountain path when the mist creeps in.
Mist is mystical.
A long forgotten book I read many years ago emerged from my inner archives: ‘The Mists of Avalon’ by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Its a mythical tale about the Knights of the Round Table, Glastonbury, Sir Lancelot, Queen Guinevere etc… but a tale told through the eyes of a woman. When the veil of mist came, Priestess Morgaine would pierce it and pass through to the mystical Avalon.
'There was a time when a traveller, if he had the will and knew only a few of the secrets, could send his barge out into the Summer Sea and arrive not at Glastonbury of the monks, but at the Holy Isle of Avalon; for at that time the gates between worlds drifted within the mists, and were open, one to another, as the traveller thought and willed."

I’m halfway up the first mountain looking down over the valley shrouded in mist. It’s beautiful, another world lies beyond, a world I can’t quite see, a veil I can’t quite pierce.

Surrounded and immersed in Nature I feel whole again. The mountains and valleys, the bush, the forest, the wilderness, the ocean, the wind, the wildlife roaming free, all inspire me with new life and creativity and a glowing serenity.

I shall hereby confess: at night I sleep with my dog, an animal companion next to my body. She curls up into my belly instinctively as if we were the only two creatures left on earth, sheltering and protecting each other from danger. Civilized people would frown on me, a dog in the bed is considered unclean, but I love nothing more than debunking civilized thinking and flying in the face of convention if it is based on unnatural perception.
(A quick google search brought up only how bad this habit is - something to do with establishing hierarchy)
Deep down we are all as wild and as beautiful as our fellow pack animals who co-habit this planet.

Last night, snuggled up with the dog, I began reading about the life and philosophy of Henry Thoreau, a name I recognised from some famous quotes I’d kept, but a name that had no meaning or person or context attached to it – that is until I read Waldon recently.
Thoreau is fast becoming my soul mate, speaking to me through the misty veils of time.
He was a quiet anarchist, a writer, a Nature lover, a transcendentalist, a man who meditated and practiced what he preached.

The book is a collection of critical essays about Thoreau the man and his writings. It contains some real literary gems and insights. Here are a couple that I have bookmarked so far:

“(he) looked with the aloofness of an immortal upon the world out of which he had grown like a resinous and vibrant little hemlock, solitary and disdainful among the ephemeridae of an April meadow. For Thoreau, whose imagination never compassed the gelatinous mass of human kind, society meant nothing but the infringement of the individual.”
(my hero)

“…the book (Walden) is essentially dynamic rather than static, a movement FROM something TO something, rather than simply reporting of an experience.”
(I’d like to think of my blog in this new light)

Thoreau’s style of writing is painted viscerally in this description (by Stanley Edgar Hyman in the essay entitled “Henry Thoreau in Our Time”):
“…demanding sentences that are concentrated and nutty, that suggest far more than they say, that are kinked and knotted into something hard and significant, to be swallowed like a diamond with out digesting. Sentences which are expensive, towards which so many volumes, so much life, went; which lie like boulders on the page, up and down or across; which contain the seed of other sentences, not mere repetition, but creation; which man might sell his grounds and castles to build.”
Only a writer could describe writing like that!

I shall read further tonight (after my yoga practice). The next essay awaits to transport me telepathically to my twin soul. And I'll be scouring the libraries next week for more of Thoreau's actual writings.

Meanwhile some of his 'concentrated and nutty' quotes are published here.

Standing Poses

Friday 2nd October 2009

Another one hour practice tonight. It started energetically, pure Ashtanga, flowing and moving in perfect unison with the breath, following the Primary sequence without compromise, 5 breaths in each pose, vinyasas inbetween.
Up to Janu Sirsasana B.
Then without warning I stopped.
Instantaneous and unexpected.
Just like that, I ran out of fuel!
Oh well. I was enjoying myself so I continued on…did some nice quiet twists: Ardha Matsyendrasana, some seated Padmasana twisting, a long cross legged seated forward bend, and Upavista Konasana twisting and folding forward over each leg (wow, full fold and chin to knee on the left side but not even a third of the way forward on the right side – right THERE is where I come face to face with the lumbar/hip injury).
Grabbed my orange bolster for a few minutes in Supta Baddha Konasana then set it up for Viparitta Karani up the wall.
One hour all up.

I’m quite enjoying the shorter evening practices. Since I stopped beating myself up about not doing a regular 2 hour morning practice, I’m getting to the mat more often, almost daily, and the regular yoga is starting to reinvigorate my body and soul.
Inspiration and new energy are flowing into my life.

Walking home from work today I noticed how strong my legs felt, due, no doubt to a few days of standing poses. I’m a beginner again, feeling the effects of yoga - well maybe not a beginner, perhaps a born again yogi.
And I’m in love with yoga all over again.

That feeling of strength and power in the legs surreptitiously works its way into the psyche. That’s what I love about yoga…it transcends the physical and permeates all our other koshas, transforming us holistically in the alchemical process.

A strong physical base gives me a feeling of being grounded in reality, invokes a sense of integrity, solidity. I am more practical and ‘down-to-earth in my outlook, more resolute in following my ideals and more intent on making them real. The standing poses are empowering in an earthy way. They ground and earth our energy, connect us to our roots, firm our physical and psychological foundations.
I see the earth as an enormous ball that we walk over. It’s dense, solid, compact and we can take advantage of those qualities and hook into them when we do the standing poses.
But the earth isn’t just a solid ball, it contains liquid, heat and gases, just like us.
We are of the earth.
(which reminds me of a lovely saying: “Be humble for you are made of earth. Be noble for you are made of stars.”)

When learning yoga in my early years I was taught to consciously press my feet firmly into the ground in all the standing poses. Later on (possibly in workshops with Glenn Ceresoli) I learned how to draw the muscular energy upwards through the legs, so I had a sense of both pressing down and drawing up at the same time.
Sometimes I play with pressing down through a different part of the foot - the ball of the foot, the outer heel, the outer blade, the centre of the heel – and its interesting to observe the subtle changes in my body and mind as I do this.
My first (Iyengar) yoga teacher emphasised the ball of the big toe. My last (Ashtanga) teacher was obsessed with the outer heel. There’s no right way to do these poses as long as we remain fully present and sensitive to what’s happening on all levels as we play within them, that is the essence of yoga practice.

My favourite standing pose is Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana – it has been for a long time – but it just keeps getting lovelier. I look forward to it. I do it with love: the precarious forward bend over the front leg that demands a strong abdominal lift, the precarious transition from A to B taking the lifted leg from the front to the side and maintaining the height of the leg all the way, the precarious turn of the head in the opposite direction to the side lifted leg that destabilises your balance unless you’ve got the entire inner core grounded.

I relish the challenge of this pose, of simultaneously grounding, balancing and lifting, pressing down through the floor while moving energy (prana) up and around the body: up through the standing leg, the hips, the pelvis and the central channel, outwards through the arm and lifted leg, yet drawing in from the periphery to the core. There’s so much going on in in this pose - and every other pose.

I should stop writing now, and go home, and practice ...

1 October 2009

Backbend Hunger

Tuesday 29th September 2009

We all recognise the BIG messages sent from our body to our brain - like hunger and thirst, cold etc…they’re strong physiological messages urging us to take action to restore balance and homeostasis.
They become urgent if our survival is at stake.
We can also recognise LITTLE body messages...like an itch. The speed that these messages are transmitted to the brain and acted on is amazing…and we’re usually unconscious of our auto responses for corrective action...like a scratch!

I’ve had a few days where my body has been crying out for some backbending...an itch that had to be scratched. Sensing this need has had me wondering just how the body communicates such things to the brain. I figure it’s a rational physiological process that involves the relaying of information from the body to the brain through the nerve channels. We all tune into this message system with varying degrees of sensitivity and I’m certain that both yoga and meditation practice enhance this ability.

So after REALLY itching for a backbend practice, tonight I got the time to scratch the itch.

I stepped onto my mat at 6pm: surya namaskars, standing poses that dug deep into my joints and crevices, then straight into a sequence of backbends:Supta Virasana, Ustrasana, Salabhasana, Bhujangasana, Dhanurasana, a reclining backbend with a block under my thoracic spine (simulating a straight legged, passive Matsyasana), three deeply disturbing (but fantastic) Urdhva Dhanurasanas, then Viparitta Dandasana.
It was wonderfully satisfying.
A big smile spread from shoulder blade to shoulder blade.

After deep backbends the supporting muscles around my fragile lumbar go limp and play dead leaving my spine very vulnerable to injury, so easing my body very carefully out of the backbends is critical… laying on my back and drawing each knee alternately to my chest while curling up and reaching chin to knee is the best release, followed by the very unAshtanga reclining twist with double bent knees, then Janu Sirsasana to finish.
No inversions (menstruating), no Padmasana finishing poses (no excuse). Just a short Savasana to take practice time to just over one hour.

But the unmistakable urge for backbends that followed me around for a few days has got me curious. I want to investigate this phenomenon further.
Back to my questions…
What is the process through which my body tells me it needs backbends?
What is that little itchy feeling that something’s amiss or out of balance in the body and is in need of attention?
And here’s an interesting one…is it my body or my mind that is out of balance – with hunger or thirst it’s definitely the body, but backbends???? Has my loving heart closed off??
How do those subtle messages from the body reach my conscious mind?
Have scientists worked this one out yet?

Tonight I’m going to consult my body bible: Tortora’s Anatomy and Physiology, to see if it can give me at least some of the answers, but there’s a lot that goes on in the body/mind system that western science doesn’t acknowledge, even though other great civilizations have (Chinese medicine and Ayurveda for example)
But I won’t get started on how limited our western science of medicine is or I’ll never stop.