29 September 2010

Tuesday practice

The alarm was set for 5.45am - 15 minutes earlier than usual. So I surprised myself and the two warm animals snuggled into my body when I got out of bed. No extra snooze this morning.

Buffy wasn’t well and didn’t really want to go for a walk. We wandered across the street and she turned back for home. The usual 45 minute walk was reduced to 5 minutes which meant more time for yoga. I showered and was on the mat at 6.30am with a whole hour in front of me.

Standing on the leading edge of the practice, I breathe…I move through the Surya Namaskars and the first few standing poses, semi-mechanical. I am careful to be gentle, the ache in my hips and back lingers from last night’s practice. Prana enters my body but doesn’t infuse me with any energy or inspiration. I am dull, mind-heavy, depleted. The ache has robbed my body of all bandha and core connection today.
The best I can do is fill out half an hour with a few more incidental poses then get up, let it all go, and make my way into the day.

Still, it was 30 minutes of yoga so I guess it was a practice.

Monday practice

Monday evening, I finish work, walk home, take a quick shower and step onto the mat at 6.30pm, a little jaded, a little hungry. Better to practice on empty than with food in my stomach. Besides, dinner will be a nice reward after practice.

Sirsasana cycle, 6 minutes. Despite my small breakthrough last week, Padmasana in Sirsasana doesn’t come on either side tonight, so Pindasana in Sirsasana is left out again.

Sarvangasana cycle, 15 minutes, with extra time working on Pindasana in Sarvangasana.
I come down from the Shoulderstand sequence and reconnect with the ground for a moment then move into Jatara, wringing the tension out of my shoulderstand neck with a full twist of my head.

Continuing to follow the week 26 – 30 sequence, I am sensitive to my body’s limitations tonight: The shoulderstand sequence has bent my upper spine too far for too long. I need to backbend it out, but the next poses are forward bends: Janu, Ardha Baddha, Triang, Marichy A and Paschimottanasana.
Instead of looking down in these poses, I gaze to my feet. This helps to lift the front ribcage slightly up from the legs and away from the pelvis, actively lengthening the front of the spine. It gives a more active forward bend experience than the gaze down orientation which tends to internalise the mind under a cloak of darkness.
The lengthening also helps to prepare for the next pose, Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana. I lift up through my ribcage and balance holding the outer edges of my feet; I lift up higher, compact body to legs and teeter upon two miniature sitting bones that seem to be shrinking by the moment. My heart blossoms up to the sky.

Prolonged forward bending is now aggravating the nerve roots in my spine, causing my hips to ache. Gomukhasana provides some relief. I squeeze my thighs to stimulate the root chakra, it stirs and unravels upward. Lolasana, the next pose, flattens it. I struggle to lift off, arms are strong but that doesn’t help. Whatever is needed to get my feet off the floor, I just haven’t got it…yet.

Taking a breather, I re-read the instructions for Simhasana. How extraordinary that in all the 15 years of attending yoga classes I never encountered this pose. I don’t quite get the legs. Mr Iyengar’s foot points out from behind his buttock in the photo, but following his instructions for how to cross and sit on the legs, the pressure on my feet and ankles is unbearable – the position must be wrong. I settle for kneeling – perhaps I’ll get some benefit from the facial contortions…it’s supposed to cure bad breath. I think it also cures vanity.

Padmasana, Parvatasana and Tolasana – I slip into them one after the other on the first side. But nerve ache is spreading out of my hips and the accumulated effects of the practice now echo mournfully through my joints. I consider stopping after making it through all three poses on the second side, but instead I refold my legs into Padmasana and lean back for Matsyasana. In stoic defiance of aching hips I try to keep an internal focus on Broomadhya drishte (inward gaze to the third eye).
This is my last pose for tonight.
A very high pain threshold is useful in childbirth, but not in yoga.
I lay back on a bolster in Supta Virasana for 5 mintues attempting to reverse all previous hip positions, then finally I lay out for Savasana.

Three quarters of the sequence completed in one and a half hours.

Not completing an intended sequence does prompt me to re-examine my motivation for practicing.
Not completing a sequence is not failure. Failure does not exist in my vocabulary because things are just as they are - there is no good, no bad, no judgement…just a continual flow of changing conditions.
A little twinge of disappointment lingers, so I let it go, then reconnect with my physical and mental condition as it is right now.
ANY form of disappointment shows up our unrealistic expectations.

When I rise from Savasana my body reveals how intensely I worked. I feel fully satisfied.
Working with and around the pain has brought a sharpness and sensitivity to my mind.
I may have earned my dinner…but for now I can only hobble to the kitchen like an old lady.

Its times like this that I wonder why I persist with asana practice.
Then I remind myself that asana, the third of eight yoga limbs, is an integral part of a whole system of mental, emotional and spiritual development.
So what of the higher limbs…why don’t I spend more time on the cushion training my mind, or out in the community helping the helpless, instead of stretching and challenging my body on a yoga mat?
What lures me to spend so much of my precious spare time playing solitaire within the deeper confines of my body and mind?

Tonight I see yoga as an internalised form of self entertainment.

Yesterday I saw it as a system of purification leading to enlightenment.
Tomorrow I shall see it differently.
And none of this matters…I’m just playing around inside of my head, entertaining myself…

26 September 2010

The Three Sisters

This blog page was way overdue for a renovation. The background I've used is an aboriginal dot painting called ‘The Three Sisters’ by Colleen Wallace Nungari. It depicts an aboriginal legend about the formation of the three large rocks in the Blue Mountains, close to the town of Katoomba:
According to the Aboriginal dreamtime story, the three huge rocks formation were once three beautiful sisters named "Meehni", "Wimlah" and "Gunnedoo" from the Katoomba tribe. The three sisters fell in love with three brothers from the Nepean tribe but their tribal laws forbade their marriage. The three brothers did not accept this law and tried to capture the three sisters by force. This caused a major tribal battle and the lives of the three sisters were thus threatened. A tribal shaman decided to turn the sisters into rocks in order to protect them and thought to reverse the spell only after the battle. Unfortunately, he was killed in the battle and the three sisters remained as the enormous and beautiful rock formations until today. The magnificent formation stands at 922m, 918m, and 906m respectively.

As a background this painting seems to sparkle with all the brilliance of the starry night sky in Central Australia.

Not much yoga in the past few days…well none actually. I spent the weekend climbing mountains and wandering along coastal cliffs.

23 September 2010

2 days of practice notes

I’ve been reluctant to publish another post because my rather dull yoga practice notes would then displace that extraordinary image on my last post...I don’t want it to disappear…it incites my wild nature…the dance, the stance, the tilt of their heads and facial expressions, the emu feather head and ankle decorations, the ochre body paint, the red earth beneath their feet and rocky mound behind them so typical of Australian topography…this particular photo of a Corroboree dance was taken at the turn of the century… it’s one of my favourite images from “Voices of the First Day” by Robert Lawlor.
Many of the photos in this book are amongst the earliest ever made of the Aboriginal people. They were taken by anthropologist Baldwin Spencer during his travels to the remote regions of Central and Northern Australia. At this time much of the Aboriginal culture was intact. The photos therefore provide an authentic glimpse into the oldest known human society.

Alas…on to my rather tediously self-indulgent practice notes from Monday and Wednesday:

Monday 20 September
Two practices today…

Monday morning
Another short morning practice – 25 minutes - which by my definition is the bare minimum for it to rate as a practice. What it lacked in time, it made up with intensity.

Five Surya Namaskar As, flowing through Dog Pose without stopping for the 5 breaths; I was flying early – breath flowing strongly, body moving, breathing, stretching open with feeling, it was full of life, courage and strength. I skipped the Surya Bs to avoid breaking the flow – stepping forward to a lunge is a simple move that often aggravates my back – and maintaining the flow felt more important today.
Padangusthasana and Pada Hastasana both felt strong and soft as I pressed my shoulder blades in and lengthened down. In all these forward bends my focus spreads fully through my body, but a little extra attention goes to concaving the space in front of my lumbar. Anatomically I’m probably nutating the sacrum and opening the back of L4-5 and L5-S1 discs, but the focus is more on engaging the deep core muscles that support this area and directing prana from the base into the central energetic channels. I marvel at what goes on in these simple poses – in an instant I can swim down through multiple layers.

Trikonasana – I keep the back of my lower hand against my inner ankle and gently press back to encourage rotation. By not resting weight on the lower hand I have to engage my legs more and use core energy to support and lighten my torso.
Parivritta Trikonasana – the hip and spine alignment feel correct but from experience I know we can be far out when judging from a warped internal compass. I engage Mula Bandha and draw the prana up through the central channel in this pose and my body finds its natural alignment around an invisible energy line.
Utthita Parsvakonasana – always a dangerous descent through my unstable hip joints, especially on the first side. Some days I have to rest my elbow on my bent knee for support, but today was a good day. I notice the tinge of fear as I move down into the full pose…it’s a split second decision on the way down whether to bend my elbow to my knee or to reach for the ground. Again I marvel at the processes involved in this decision - the nerve impulses from my dodgy weak hip carry all the raw data to my brain about the condition and strength of my hip joints in that instant. Following a split second evaluation and decision based on stored memory data, I know whether my hip can support the weight of my bent torso today, and the potential for pain, collapse, or injury in the movement.
In a second I have moved into the full pose having weighed up all this data and the risks on the way down. My fingertips touch the floor, fear turns to relief and I set to work, breathing into the pose, correcting alignment and directing subtle energy into my weak hip joint to strengthen and heal the damaged tissues and nerves. With the hip joint stabilised and energised, I’m able to lift strongly out of the pose through my legs.
Parivritta Parsvakonasana – I’m still on the modified version of this pose, wedging my elbow outside of my bent knee with hands glued together in Namaste. On rare, flexible days I attempt the full pose but not today, because as I twist, my lumbar vertebrae grind against each other cutting my core power instantly. I re-engage mula bandha and connect it to my Ujjayi breath, bringing intention, courage and strength back into the pose for another two breaths.
I step back to Samasthithi, then step out with the next breath to Prasaritta Padottanasana. Palms are flat to the floor for 5 breaths in A, I inhale and rise halfway, pausing there for the exhale. I notice the natural Uddiyana Bandha grip that occurs at the end of the exhalation, supporting the lumbar and torso in this half forward bend. Inhaling I rise up, exhaling I return to standing.
Continuing to flow with the breath, I move on to the other three variations: B (hands on hips), C (hands clasped behind the back) and D (holding big toes).
I breathe my body back to Samasthithi and step out for Parsvottanasana.
Here’s another pose that deepens endlessly with time (same as Urdhva Dhanurasana, or all yoga poses really). You can do it for 20 years and uncover hidden treasures every time.
I lift and enliven my inner thighs here – again I engage the two bandhas and the rest of my body falls into alignment. The pose deepens breath by breath, my legs become elongated tree trunks with subterranean roots, my hip joints release their hold on my pelvis, my spine lengthens forward and the tip curls under like a soft leaf softening my neck…I breathe through the intensity of this magnificent stretch.
Parsvottanasana is perfectly placed before Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana because it lengthens the hamstrings and teaches the importance of strong legs in supporting the spine during forward bends. The leg/pelvis/hip arrangement in Parsvottanasana is almost the same as in the forward bending position of UHP A…which I’m now up to.

I take an extra breath in Samasthithi to recover then bend up my right leg for UHP.
My arm reaches outside of my bent leg to grab my big toe – this way is a little harder than reaching inside the leg but it ensures from the start that the femur is facing forward.
Time is ticking away but I decide that the next pose, Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana is essential research for that crazy Lotus in Headstand pose in the Iyengar week 26 sequence I’m playing with in my evening practice. Ardha Baddha reveals my stiff hips today but I still manage to do the full pose on both sides. I’m always tempted to pry open my stiff parts too early, especially in this pose. It’s a habit established in Ashtanga led classes where you only get 5 counted breaths in each pose before moving on.
The hip opening in Ardha Baddha is a bit intense today and I come up quickly on both sides after 5 breaths.
Time’s almost up.
I do a Handstand to the wall and after a few breaths I look up at my feet. It suddenly occurs to me that I’m doing a kind of Jalandhara Bandha so I experiment with turning on the other 2 bandhas to see if I can ignite a fuse. Instead I get a little disorientated from the surge of energy to my head and come down.
Back on the mat for Savasana I slip in a quick Ardha Baddha Padma Padmottanasana, (extra research) before laying down for five minutes. My mind is a bit racy but I do what I can to seek out and relax any tension that has lodged in my muscles. Five minutes is not quite long enough for an intense practice to settle down in my body…

Monday evening
The Week 26-30 sequence blew me away tonight. It took 2 hours.

Before starting the official sequence I prepared with Supta Padmasana which could have sufficed as a whole practice given the intensity of this pose. From seated Padmasana, I slowly laid backwards onto the floor, but my Lotus legs travelled with me until I came to rest with my knees facing the ceiling - I felt like an insect trapped and bound up in a web. It took a few slow, agonising minutes for my hips to release the femur bones and for my Lotus legs to descend to the floor - my hips and lumbar spine were all bound up together. I just laid there, determined to stay with the process of breathing and releasing my body’s tight grip. It was going to be a full practice.

I spent 7 minutes in the Headstand sequence and came very close to getting my second leg into Lotus while up there. This sequence has a lot of Padmasana poses and the repetition is helping to re-open my hip joints – Padmasana in Sirsasana may come sooner than I expected.
In Eka Pada in Sirsasana my feet are about 8-10 inches away from the floor on both sides. Any closer than this and I tip forward out of the Headstand. This pose requires simultaneously opposing actions: energising the upright leg while progressively extending and releasing the lower leg out of the hip joint. It reminds me of trying to pat my head and rub my tummy at the same time…
The entire Shoulderstand sequence took 17 minutes tonight. In the first Shoulderstand, there’s no time to hang out and enjoy the inversion… I limit myself to 15 breaths here (knowing the marathon ahead) so I have to quickly find a perfectly upright spinal alignment before moving into the free-balancing variations that follow. During the Niralambas all my body weight is held up by the neck and shoulder area and although the pressure build up eases a little when moving into Halasana, the next group of poses from Halasana through to Parsva Halasana force a lengthy and extreme Jalandhara Bandha to be held.
The final inverted pose, Urdhva Padmasana in Sarvangasana was strong – I’m enjoying the intense stretch through the front hips and groins in this knees-up version.

When I finally come down from the never ending Shoulderstand sequence, relief is instant bliss.
After the marathon inversions, Jatara was weaker than usual. The first Navasana (arms extended forward, feet just above eye level) is an easy one for me but the second one (hands clasped behind the head and legs much lower) is a challenge to hold in correct position for 5 breaths.

Janu Sirsasana brought about a turning point tonight.
Something shifted.
My Ujjayi breath became quiet and deep as I slipped down that strangely familiar tunnel into deep inner space. Each pose that followed opened up into a fathomless eternity where everything was magnified.
I could clearly feel a tight band of scar tissue stretching horizontally across my lumbar like a bandaid holding my spine in place. It was higher than I’d imagined, over L2 I think. I tend to think of my lumbar problem as located much lower (though x-rays show that the facet joints between L4/L5 have eroded).
Scar tissue is very different from muscle tissue and once it has formed it won’t allow much stretch, but in Janu Sirsasana the release across my back was global and I felt this tight scar band give way ever so slightly. I breathed into my back body expanding it into a balloon full of air and light. My vast open mindstate was opening up my body. I was working way past the edge of my physical limitations without any intention to do so.

The following forward bends were equally regenerative. Ardha Baddha, Tiriang, Marichy A… for the first time in 2 years my nose touched my legs in Paschimottanasana and I managed a hand/wrist bind in Marichy A – not that these little achievements matter – they were simply showing the influence that my mindstate was having on my body.

After the forward bends, it was on to the Padmasana poses, then the Virasana poses, then the 2 twists and Baddha Konasana. After these poses, Ado Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog Pose) was a peaceful place to breathe and recover, its neutrality brought me back to equilibrium and rest…but not for long…I had to slide up into the first backbend: Urdhva Mukha Svanasana. It took me 5 breaths before my body would curve up at all which meant I had to spend another 5 breaths working fullness into the pose…intense. Part of my body’s protective mechanism is the loss of elasticity around the lumbar and hips. I guess this is necessary armour to prevent further damage occurring from sudden movements.

After the work in Upward Dog I lowered into Chaturanga but couldn’t hold it beyond 2 breaths. I collapsed to the floor then simply moved on…Salabhasana, Dhanurasana and Ustrasana, the three amigos! I did Ustrasana twice.
The action of standing up for Utkatasana after all the floor work still felt out of place but the pose itself felt nice – perhaps there is some intelligence to placing it here – grounding through my feet and legs and reaching upwards reconnected me between the earth and the sky.
Garudasana to end this sequence makes even less sense than Utkatasana did. I did it on both sides without losing my balance but my foot didn’t quite hook around fully on the second side. By this time I didn’t care, I didn’t correct, I didn’t repeat. It was good enough.
I scraped myself up off the mat at 8.30pm.

Wednesday 22 September

Wednesday morning

20 minutes this morning (5 minutes short of being a minimal yoga practice).
5 Surya Namaskar A
3 Surya Namaskar B
Padangusthasana (I skipped Pada Hastasana due to time)
Trikonasana – got a nice toe hold on the second side, maybe the first one in over a year…
Parivritta Trikonasana
Parsvakonasana – came up out of the pose slowly, deliberately and unsupported
Parivritta Parsvakonasana
Prasaritta Padottanasana A
Handstand to the wall
Baddha Konasana

I’m not sure where the impulse came from to do Baddha Konasana at the end. It’s been a difficult pose since the onset of my back problems - morning stiffness makes it an inaccessible pose on some days. But on a whim I returned to the mat after the handstand, sat down and pulled my feet in. My lower back wanted to curl to allow for more femur rotation in my hip joints so it was a challenge just to stay lifted upright without collapsing. I lengthened up through my spine and tilted the top of my pelvis forward a little, rolled the pubic bone down and held all this while externally rotating my thigh bones.
Looking down I was surprised at how far my abdomen was twisted to the right. To correct this I had to slide my navel about two inches to the left and elongate the left side of my body.
I had noted and been working on this scoliosis in Shoulderstand and Halasana where my body’s twist can’t be ignored…my off-centre navel stares right back at me when I’m gazing directly up at my abdomen. Funny I’d never noticed this quirk in Baddha Konasana before. I think the recent return to seriously regular yoga practice is starting to show up all the damaged areas that were blocked out.
Now I’ll be watching for this twist in all my poses from now on and trying to correct it from the inside out.

Wednesday evening
I did the week 26-30 sequence again and it turned out to be a similar practice to Monday evening, perhaps a few degrees lower on the intensity scale. I deliberately kept it at a gentle simmer.

I started at 6.45pm and spent 15 minutes easing open my front hips in the Supta Padmasana preparation pose (it could just as easily be called flat Matsyasana or a Dead Fish Pose).
The official practice started with my first Headstand at 7pm and it ended at 8.30pm; a 15 minute Savasana followed. 2 hours total.

An early surprise tonight was getting my legs into Padmasana in Sirsasana on the second side. Slightly puzzling because the first side (left leg on top) is the only side we do in Ashtanga. This has always been controversial as it seems to defy yoga’s emphasis on equalising both sides of the body’s energetic system. For years I only did Padmasana with the left leg on top so I can slide into this side much easier than the opposite ‘strange’ side. Which brings me again to the question of why, when standing on my head, I can’t do Padmasana on my easy side (left leg on top) but I can suddenly do it on the second ‘strange’ side….
So far in this sequence I haven’t attempted Pindasana in Sirsasana as I haven’t been able to do Padmasana in Sirsasana. Now I have to fess up and add Pindasana to the practice.
Another small (Padmasana) detail I noticed tonight…Tolasana - when seated in Padmasana on the ‘strange’ second side (right leg on top) my right knee is much higher off the ground than my left. But as soon as I press my hands down and lift off, both knees become an even distance from the ground.

For my own record I’m going to list the poses in the Week 26 sequence that are either still inaccessible or still need some work:
Eka Pada Sirsasana – I can do this pose quite well but lowering my feet further than 10 inches from the floor compromises the integrity of the pose.
Urdhva Padmasana in Sirsasana – is coming…on the strange side….
Pindasana in Sirsasana – still an unfamiliar pose until I get more confident with Urdhva Padmasana
Karna Pidasana – two years ago I could easily get my knees to the floor in this pose; six months ago I couldn’t even bend them in to touch my forehead because of my lumbar. Tonight my knees got as far as my temples. Minimal but discernible progress.
Pidasana in Sarvangasana – another pose I used to do easily, clasping my arms and hands tightly in around my Lotus legs. I’m optimistic that the fully bound clasp will come back in time. For now I’m happy that my back is allowing me to even hold my knees in for a little squeeze.
Marichyasana A – this week I finally got to clasp my wrist again. The fully wrapped arm and clasped wrist are essential help to squeeze and circulate the prana within a tightly contained area. Forward bending is still difficult, but on a good day I can get halfway.
Lolasana – impossible (for now). The day I lift off will be a day of miracles.
Marichyasana C – binding seems far away – the loss of articulation in my vertebrae when the knee is bent up prevents full rotation so I just hook my elbow around my bent knee and enjoy a mild squeezy twist.
Ardha Matsyendrasana – ditto Marichy C.
Baddha Konasana – I have almost no forward bending capability when my femurs are externally rotated in the hip joints but on another level I plummet to enormous depths by sitting upright with my head tilted forward, engaging all three bandhas and Ujjayi breath to the max.

The week 26-30 sequence is the last one in ‘Course 1”. There is much work to do so I’ll stay with it for a while. Taking up the challenge of Iyengar’s course has reinvigorated my practice at a time when my body is just beginning to respond again.
As I learned from years of Ashtanga Primary practice, doing the same asana sequence regularly has enormous benefits and the practice deepens with time. The familiarity may be comforting but the endlessly arising challenges aren’t.
It’s exciting to observe my body and mind changing and opening up again. My yoga practice feels vibrant, primal and imbued with purpose, no matter whether I’m flowing with the Ashtanga sequence or deeply exploring my limits in the Iyengar course, or just laying on my mat in a knotty Dead Fish Pose.

While ‘casually’ looking through Light on Yoga last night I ‘stumbled’ across the next sequence (Week 31-35 in Course 2). I can see a couple of extra Headstand variations, and twists in Pindasana in both Headstand and Shoulderstand. Additional poses: Supta Padangusthasana, some more Padmasana poses – Yoga Mudrasana, Kukkutasana and Garbha Pindasana; Upavista Konasana, Akarna Dhanurasana, and Parsva Dhanurasana. I’m familiar with all of these from my Ashtanga practice except Akarna.
In the sequence after that (week 36 – 40), the standing poses return and Urdhva Dhanurasana makes its first appearance…

I’m not in any hurry to move on to a new sequence until I feel more at ease with the one I’m doing now.

17 September 2010


Yoga and Buddhist meditation have been the foundational practices that have shaped my life. They are both explorations into the nature of our being, systematic methods of purification so we can progressively experience the deeper Truth underlying our ephemeral existence.
My journey has been a process of psychological rubbish removal, of peeling away thick, grubby layers of belief and conditioning that have accumulated over my formative and adult years.

The goal of this arduous journey, I believed was arrival at a place of essential purity where the ultimate Truth of existence and creation is revealed and experienced.
‘Believe’ is the word that I am investigating.
Believing there is an outcome or a destination gives meaning to what we do, otherwise we are wasting time on meaningless activity.

Learning about Aboriginal beliefs and how they lived for over 50,000 years has opened me up to a very alternative view of life and spiritual practices, not altogether incongruent with my mystical leanings. I’ve been challenged to step outside of my comfortable Yoga and Buddhist perspectives and from an objective viewpoint they look different – the sutras, noble truths, the asanas, the goals of awareness, enlightenment, Samadhi, the whole package is just another way of viewing life from which I’ve adopted a particular set of values and practices.

Viewed objectively, the work of ‘purifying one’s self’ can seem self indulgent, especially in comparison with Aboriginal beliefs. Western culture is obsessed with the individual and I cringe at the thought that my spiritual practice may have grown out of this culture of self obsession.

“The result of monasticism is that the human world is left to its own illusions and impurities, while the individual seeker establishes an isolated contact with the absolute. The “infolding” process of prayer and meditation is in stark contrast to Aboriginal spirituality which, through ever-deepening perception, opens outward to empathize and identify with every aspect of a living, active world.”
'Voices of the First Day' by Robert Lawlor

Is the process of inner purification a valid means of achieving the final goal of immersion/connection/communion with the spirit that flows through everything in this universe.
Big questions…

I love the analogy that likens conventional spiritual practices (yoga, meditation, contemplation, prayer etc) to vehicles that can take us from one place (ignorance) to another place (enlightenment/liberation).
Imagine them as boats: I’m paddling along in my boat, you’re paddling along in your boat, we’re all paddling away at our yoga and meditation practices, thinking our little boats are taking us closer to the final destination of liberation, that vast ocean of Truth where we can finally merge with the Source.
Sometimes we change boats if we see someone moving faster than we are…
Sometimes we dangerously straddle two boats that may diverge at some point…
According to the Sufis, all we need to do is discard those boats and jump into the water!
The ocean is all around us.
The belief systems and practices we adopt in an attempt to ‘get there’ are just another container separating us from immersion in God. They are like trainer wheels, keeping us earth-bound, preventing us from directly perceiving the multi-dimensional reality that we are immersed in.
Spiritual practice is necessary to bring us to this understanding, but then we must let go of attachment to our practices and freefall into the great unknowing.

16 September 2010

20 minutes

A week seems to have passed since I did any yoga – too many commitments after work each night, an unexpected menstrual period, and it’s been too hard to get my head out of bed any earlier in the mornings than what’s programmed into it at the moment.

This morning, walking the dog just after sunrise, I was surprised to notice a tightness across my chest, as if it had somehow shrunken while I wasn’t watching. It was a reminder of how important backbends are to keep this area around the heart open.
I got home, had a shower and had 20 minutes spare to do some yoga before getting ready for work.
I wanted to stretch open this tight chest. My body needed to expand, to be woken up, to be shocked out of its comfortable slide. I hadn’t done Urdhva Dhanurasana for at least a month, maybe two...my body ached for it.
So I launched into this morning’s 20 minute practice with no warms ups or sun salutes:

Uttanasana, bending alternate knees towards my nose (this is a tiny but effective isometric challenge for my lower back)
Dog Pose with alternate leg lifts
3 Urdhva Dhanurasanas – the first one was appalling – I could only straighten my arms half way. I did the second one with my heels lifted and I was able to almost straighten my arms. The third one started with heels lifted and fully straightened arms then I lowered my heels and stayed for a while, bathing in the extreme stretch of every tissue in my body. I pressed into my feet and brought as much body weight as possible over my hands to accelerate the stretch through my front chest and armpits.
Uttanasana, twisting to each leg
Janu Sirsasana
Headstand for a few minutes before I succumbed to the urge to press into my forearms and lift my head off the floor in a perilous balance for a few moments.
Childs Pose

Urdhva Dhanurasana was excruciatingly joyful this morning. I loved its intensity. Once you can push up into this backbend you can nudge out the edge of your limitations endlessly, for years.
It’s back on my playlist.

Tonight is a free night so I'm looking forward to playing with the Iyengar course sequence again...

7 September 2010

Week 26-30

This was my second attempt at the Week 26-30 sequence - I only made it half way through.

Still it was better than my first aborted attempt a few days ago:
Anticipating the Urdhva Padmasana in Sirsasana (Lotus in Headstand pose) I’d started practice with a series of Padmasana warm up poses. After 10 minutes of these I felt overcome with vertigo and had to abandon the yoga practice.
I’ve experienced this kind of vertigo a few times before (not in the past year) and I think it comes from the strong redirecting of energy that is stirred up in Padmasana poses - my head is flooded with prana (this is just a hypothesis). I do know that yoga practice gradually purifies our physical and energetic systems so that we can channel increasingly strong energies in preparation for the power surge that comes with enlightenment.

Tonight I may not have been in the best condition to try this sequence again: a long hard day at work, a half hour walk home, a one hour marathon caught at my talkative landlady’s back door in the chilly night air…I started practice at 7.15pm, hungry.

But figuring that any practice is a good one, I started…

Warmed up with Dog Pose, Uttanasana and lunges. The into Padmasana preps: the standing half lotus forward bend (Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana), the seated half lotus forward bend (Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana); seated full Padmasana, and from there I laid backwards and allowed my Padmasana legs to lift up before VERY gradually lowering them to the floor into a pose I’ll call Supta Padmasana.
This Supta Padmasana stretches open all the front groin muscles as well as the deeper internal muscles, and if I'd cupped my hands behind my head it would have simulated a horizontal replica of Padmasana in Sirsasana.

I didn’t feel physically or mentally ready to start the sequence but I did anyway.
Straight into the first pose: 15 breaths in Headstand, then the Parivritta and Eka Pada variations. I lifted back up to full headstand and spent a few moments dissolving my anxiety about the next pose Urdhva Padmasana in Sirsasana. I needed a clear, calm approach, not a scrambled one.
From Headstand, I bent my right leg into half lotus easily; although I could bend my left leg OK, my left foot just wouldn’t slip in front of my right shin into full lotus now matter what I did. I had to be content with a semi-lotus. Same story on the other side: left leg bent easily into position, but the second leg wouldn’t quite comply. I fell out of the pose landing safely.
With the hands cupped around the head in Headstand, you can’t reach up to pull the legs into the lotus position like you can in Shoulderstand. I guess the joints in my hips and knees have to become more and amenable to slip into lotus unaided.

Shoulderstand and all its variations took 15 minutes again tonight.
I made a point of trying Iyengar’s ‘legs up’ version of Urdhva Padmasana in Shoulderstand. It was more difficult for me than the Ashtanga version. Knees pointing up stretches the front groins and hip joints a lot more, and the tailbone has to move deeply into the body as the pubis slides upwards which pinched into my sacrum. Even so, this variation felt beneficial and oddly stimulating (as new poses often do). I look forward to working more on it.

Next: Jatara…then the abdominal poses…then on to the seated forward bends – nothing new here except the observation that my body is releasing a bit further into the seated forward bends.
Not wanting to burn out too early, I limited myself to 5 long Ujjiya breaths in all these poses.
Then came the four Padmasana poses and the realization that this sequence is ALL ABOUT PADMASANA.
Seated Padmasana

Four consecutive Padmasana poses doesn’t sound like much, but by the time I got to Matsyasana, I’d really had enough. My hips ached which drained my energy and I suddenly felt mentally and emotionally worn out.
On the second side of Matsyasana (with legs still in full lotus), Buffy climbed onto my lotus lap with her toy. I just flopped out of the pose and gave it all away!
I was tired and hungry.

This sequence will be a good test for my commitment because already I don’t like it. Even though I can do Padmasana fairly easily, staying in it for more than a few minutes causes strange, unearthly, unfamiliar sensations (mmm…yoga pain)

So it was only half the sequence but still a good practice even though I didn’t get to the backbends.
I’ll have to try again later this week when my evening is more settled.

3 September 2010

Snake Dreaming

I had an unusual practice this morning. I’d already had a coffee and had been reading about the Aboriginal culture and trying to understand why it is inspiring me. I had an hour and a half before I had to be at work and decided to embark on a flowing Ashtanga practice.
I put on a tribal Didgeridoo CD, turned up the volume and stood on my mat. Although time constraints limited me, I did the 10 Surya Namaskars, all the standing poses and then the finishing inversions, but I can’t possibly describe the most extraordinary quality that pervaded this practice

As I began the Surya Namaskars I noticed my movements quickly taking on a serpentine quality. Movement and energy flowed through my body from top to bottom. It was a snakelike dance - moving in and through and out of poses was unlike anything I’ve ever been done before. It was as if I was channeling the spirit of a snake. Even when I was holding a pose, the Ujjiya breath undulated up and down my core and my body pulsed gently in unison. It was powerfully transformative and liberating to release the constraints of how I’d been taught to do these poses and allow the snake-like spirit to guide the practice.

I’ve read how the best Aboriginal tribal dancers make the best hunters because they study the animals and internalise their essential quality. The ability of Aboriginal dancers to mimic the movements of emus, kangaroos, birds etc is extraordinary. They actually BECOME that animal.

2 September 2010


“Unlike many of today’s world religions, which reject the physical world and sensual experience in favour of transcendental or ideal states, Aboriginal spirituality considers the sensual experience of the physical world the only means to realize the truth, beauty and reality of the metaphysical creative powers.”
‘Voices of the First Day’ by Robert Lawlor

I spent a few hours with my son after work last night and didn’t get home til after 9.30pm. Skipped practice.

As I lay in bed flicking through the books in my current reading pile, something was bothering me. I felt a little niggle scratching away in a forgotten corner of my memory bank, an invisible tap on my shoulder…there was something unfinished that needed attention…a loose end in my dark subconscious was struggling to rise up like a sprout into the bright light of my conscious mind.
It was Urdhva Padmasana, the Shoulderstand pose with legs in Lotus, I wrote about it yesterday, but now I couldn’t remember seeing a picture of this pose in Light on Yoga.

I looked up the Week 22 -25 sequence to find the image reference number – that was when I discovered my mistake. The pose at the end of the Shoulderstand sequence was listed as Urdhva Prasaritta Padasana, but for the past week I’ve been doing Urdhva Padmasana instead, a pose that isn’t introduced until the next sequence (week 26-30).

What a poor memory. During my practice of the week 19-22 sequence I’d been doing all the correct poses including Urdhva Prasaritta Padasana, then at some point I must have misinterpreted the Sanskrit name and substituted Urdhva Padmasana.
A trivial matter really… I only mention it because I blogged so effusively about it!

Returning to my original enquiry I looked up the image of Mr Iyengar doing Urdhva Padmasana. He does it with his hand into his back and his Padmasana legs extended upwards like this. It’s a different version to the pose I did religiously at the end of the Ashtanga Primary series for years. In the Ashtanga version, the thighs are parallel to the floor, the hands support and press up under the knees, while the weight of the legs rests upon the hands like this.

I spent a moment considering the differences between the two (hard to evaluate when I can't remember doing the Iyengar version) before reading through the list of poses in the next sequence (week 26-30). There are two Urdhva Padmasanas listed – same name but they have different reference numbers: one is Padmasana in Headstand and the other is Padmasana in Shoulderstand. This sequence has a few extra Padmasana variations in the opening inversion sequence, but the only other new pose seems to be Garudasana towards the end of the practice. Also the backbends get moved to the second half of the practice, after the forward bends.

Tonight I’ll do the new sequence and test out Mr Iyengar’s Urdhva Padmasana. All the poses are familiar and the only difficult ones for me are Lolasana and the three Marichyasanas.

I’ve been doing some solid early morning standing poses to balance out the evening Iyengar sequences which focus heavily on inversions, backbends and forward bends (all floor poses). My body is craving more extreme backbends so I’ll work Urdhva Dhanurasana into my practice somewhere.

I have a few things planned for October:
- one week off work mid-October with no particular agenda, which I will probably use for a self retreat at home.
- at the end of that week I’ll take my daughter and granddaughter camping in the Flinders Ranges for a couple of days (we’re doing our best to convince my son to come as well)
- then off to the pristine wilderness of Kangaroo Island for 4 days camping at the end of October
I’m being pressured at work to use up some accumulated annual leave, so in mid December I’ve organised 2 weeks off work to do another 10 day Vipassana retreat – I think it will be my ninth Vipassana since the year 2000 – that’s one every year except for 2009.
I have mixed feelings and thoughts about doing another one…the process hasn’t felt relevant or useful to me for the last few retreats, but I’ve slogged away at it, sitting for 10-11 hours a day, unfortunately with a sense of wasting precious time.

I think my mixed feelings about Vipassana have been further eroded by my growing affinity with Nature and the desire to spend as much time as I can out in the bush, living and breathing with the trees, plants, animals, birds and insects.
Meditation can be a process of going inward and cutting off. The urge I have is to expand outward to embrace and fully experience the multi-dimensional universe with a deafening awareness.
To do this I need to cultivate an extraordinary state of pure, alive presence, uncluttered by thoughts - the opportunity to do another Vipassana retreat has rekindled my desire for uninterrupted immersion in concentrated meditation where I can develop this state.

I vividly remember on previous retreats how, after a few days sitting for long hours with a singular focus on breath or sensations, all my mental processes quietened. There were moments of extraordinary clarity, pure conscious awareness. Those moments are so potent that they bring about a great shift in consciousness. The mind expands into a new paradigm…a door opens and we enter into a completely new landscape.
Remembering that state of being, and comparing it with my current state of mind, I am talking myself into doing the Vipassana…10 days to sweep out the accumulated mental rubbish, 10 days to clean and purify the mind. With senses unclouded by filtering thoughts, we can experience this earth, this world and this universe with the uncensored clarity of the indigenous mind.

Practice Notes

Practice tonight was again the Week 22-25 sequence from Light on Yoga.

40 breaths in the Headstand sequence then 15 minutes total in the Shoulderstand sequence. Every Shoulderstand variation felt deeply comfortable and nourishing so I stayed longer than usual to soak each one of them up.
Before I went up into the first Shoulderstand, I prepared with Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana to open my hips ready for the final inverted pose Urdhva Padmasana. This is the pose where from Shoulderstand, you fold your legs into Lotus then extend your arms up to support the knees with your hands. It’s a favourite pose but not an easy one to get into at the start of practice when your body’s cold and hips aren’t pliable enough for Lotus. It was much nicer to prepare for it first and spend some quality time in it (15 long, slow, Ujjiya breaths).

Chakrasana was a very slow, carefully controlled rollover. After 15 minutes in various Shoulderstand poses with my chin pressed into my sternum, Chakrasana just tops it off, pushing Jalandhara Bandha to the max for about 2 seconds!

Although Matsyasana is the standard counterpose to Shoulderstand, in this sequence it’s Salabhasana. I don’t mind this - it’s a softer transition than countering with Matsyasana, and even more so because I normally look down in Salabhasana. I did the pose twice, focussing more on lengthening from toes to crown in the first one and adding maximum lift to the length in the second one. Mr Iyengar looks up in this pose. It was in Dhanurasana that I finally looked up and stretched open the arch, so this was a more effective counterpose to reverse all the chin locks in Shoulderstand. The deep stretching, compressing and releasing of the neck and throat in this sequence stimulates blood flow, and balances all the functions associated with the thyroid glands in the neck, as well as releasing a lot of accumulated sitting-in-front-of-the-computer tension in the neck and shoulder muscles.

I got a monkey grip, not a wrist bind in Marichy A and B, but all the Marichys put my hip joints into gripping discomfort. I imagine they’ll be problematic for quite I while. Nerve pain shoots from my lumbar to my hips in any tight knee to chest position, and in the Marichys, the pressure of my straight leg sitting bone into the floor can intensity it – the hip rotation of the half Lotus position in Marichy B lessens that pressure.

I’m not any closer to lifting off in Lolasana. If I were obsessed with improving, I’d be practising this pose daily – but I have no goals in this practice any more, except to increase awareness and presence. Still, it is fun to keep trying. Maybe my body will learn how to activate and strengthen the internal muscles needed for lift off in this pose, but 'm convinced there are damaged muscles that have completely turned off. Doing Lolasana regularly may or may not help, but what it does do is reveal any changes to the internal musculature - it's a useful pose for measuring any improvement or healing.

Tonight I did all three Lotus poses (Padmasana, Parvatasana and Tolasana) on the right side first then changed the cross of my Lotus and did all three on the left side. Being lazy? This sequence of progression was easier than folding and unfolding my legs six times which tends to stress my hips and lumbar, so I figure easy was smarter.

Marichy C is another pose that my body now has difficulty with. To sit up straight with the bent leg in its correct position is the first challenge especially n the right side. Humility, beginners mind and baby steps are required here, and I enjoy being humbled, having my Ego and expectations squashed. I am happy to just sit in the prep position and observe the myriad nerve sensations sparking through my hip and lumbar. I try to work out what is stimulating or pressing on those nerves, what is out of place, misaligned to cause the nerve pain. Probably all coming from degenerated facet joints in my spine where cartilage has worn away and bones are not articulating correctly.
Can the damage be reversed, can cartilage regenerate?
The best I could do in Marichy C tonight was to wrap my elbow around my knee and gently challenge the position of the femur into the hip joint by carefully squeezing my body closer to my bent leg.

The whole practice seemed to go for hours. I did every pose and could have sworn it was over 2 hours before I got to Savasana. My watch said 8.30pm as I was setting up for a well earned Savasana, so the sequence had actually taken me one and a half hours. I wondered if perhaps I’d started at 6pm, and not 7pm…I couldn’t remember. Time had passed very slowly during yoga tonight. I’m sure that time changes velocity – it’s subjective and relative, not linear and fixed. And as most people know, it speeds up as you get older…

“Because Indo-European language dictates that we express all our thoughts in past, present, or future tense, we have the notion that time is an abstract backdrop moving in one direction, like the hands of a clock, from past to future. None of the hundreds of Aboriginal languages contain a word for time, nor do the Aborigines have a concept of time. As with creation, the Aborigines conceive the passage of time and history not as a movement from past to future, but as a passage from a subjective state to an objective expression. The first step in entering into the Aboriginal world is to abandon the conventional abstraction of time and replace it with the movement of consciousness from dream (thought) to reality as a model that describes the universal activity of creation.”
‘Voices of the First Day’ by Robert Lawlor

1 September 2010

Voices of the First Day

Here are a couple of excerpts from the book that has been inspiring me beyond imagination for the past 4 weeks: ‘Voices of the First Day’ by Robert Lawlor

'All of our technology is an externalization of powers innate in the human organism.
Aerospace travel, computerization, electronic communication, the probing capacities of microscopes and x-rays, the remote viewing abilities of telescopes, and even nuclear fission are accomplishments that tribal shamans and mystics have experienced inwardly by cultivating the innate potentials of consciousness. The inner life knows none of the constrictions of time and space. The journey to other worlds and the adventure of exploring the universe beyond the earthly domain belongs to spiritual awakening, not technological development. The ancient myths assure us that when we reawaken in the reality of the Dreamtime, we will discover the expanse of cosmic time and space to be inwardly navigable and experiential."

"Every land formation and creature, by its very shape and behaviour, implies a hidden meaning; the form of a thing is itself and imprint of the metaphysical consciousness that created it, as well as the universal energies that brought its material manifestation. The metaphysical and the physical are held in symbolic integration, one cannot consider the visible and invisible worlds separately."

"The Western world denies an internal or subjective consciousness to all things and creatures except humans. The rest of nature, we believe, has no dreaming and consequently we feel justified in cutting down trees, gouging the earth, and killing and enslaving animals as if they were all empty forms. In denying the universe an internal life we imprison our own awareness, so that we live in only the shallow surface of our world."