31 January 2012

Ryokan and Han-shan

All day I walk in the forest gathering food
At dusk I enter my hut and close the door behind me
I kindle a fire with branches still bearing dried leaves
Quietly I read the poems from Cold Mountain
A rising west wind brings rain sweeping across the land
My little hut creaks and moans under the hand of the storm
But stretched serene upon the floor, I breathe and listen to the rain
There is not a doubt in my heart or a worry to disturb my mind.

Ryokan is a beloved Zen monk, known for his simplicity, humour, poetry and calligraphy.
He lived 1758 - 1851, mostly as a wandering hermit, spending his days and nights at peace in nature.
In the poem above Ryokan refers to Cold Mountain, so it seems he was influenced by the 8th century hermit Han-shan, whose poetry is singing through my soul.

Han-shan also left the world of men - he travelled to a remote area called Cold Mountain where he eventually found a cave, and lived in the wild, gathering fruit, growing vegetables, meditating and watching the moon. After he died his poems (about 600 of them written on cliffs, bamboo, wood, stones etc) were compiled under the title of the Cold Mountain Poems.

If you have Cold Mountain poems in your house
They are better for you than sutras
Hang them up where you can see them
Read them and read them again.

translated by Wandering Poet

The water of the valley stream
Never shouts at the tainted world: "Purify yourself!"
But naturally, as it is,
Shows how it is done.


Together, the poems of these two hermits are comforting me in my simple, reclusive life - wandering in the forests, watching the moonrise, the sunset, listening to the birds, observing the changing leaves and grasses, meditating, purifying the mind until it is as clear as a quiet mountain stream, eating little, smiling lots, wanting nothing.

30 January 2012

Han Shan Poetry

A thousand clouds among a myriad streams
And in their midst a person at his ease.
By day he wanders through the dark green hills,
At night goes home to sleep beneath the cliffs.
Swiftly the changing seasons pass him by,
Tranquil, undefiled, no earthly ties.
Such pleasures! - and on what do they rely?
On a quiet calm, like autumn river water.

Translated by Peter Harris

Once, my back wedded to the solid cliff,
I sat silently, bathed in the full moon's light.
I counted there ten thousand shapes,
None with substance save the moon's own glow.
The pristine mind is empty as the moon,
I thought, and like the moon, freely shines.
By what I knew of moon I knew the mind,
Each mirror to each, profound as stone.

Translated by Peter Stambler


We are like sand
Waiting for the next imprint
Always impressionable
Touched by every encounter.

We feel the silence
Of the bare aspen tree
We taste the sunlight
Rippling on the pond
We sense the yielding earth
Under every footstep

So why is it then we close
And harden into numbness
When to be like a sponge
Or an empty canvas
Or the nameless surface
Of the still water
Is to be open to grace
To be touched
And lifted from this moment
Into a world like no other

I suppose it means
We also bear our hearts
To the bruises and scars
We all carry within us
To feel the untold grief
Of so many, and open ourselves
To the inevitable losses
Feeling exposed and vulnerable

But if I had a choice
Which I always do
I'd rather be open, even
If it means being a pin cushion
Exposed to the piercing of life
For numbness is a quiet death
Where nothing touches us -
Locked inside our own prison
not knowing we hold the keys.

Author of 'Awake in the Wild'

The image is of the Tree Monster in a street near my home. A vine has climbed up a stobie pole and out onto the power lines and it resembles a monster with arms flailing, especially when it sways maliciously in the wind.
Once a year it blossoms into flowers.

23 January 2012

Yoga for a Stiff Neck

Yoga practice tonight was specifically aimed at alleviating my stiff neck.
The cause of this current malady isn't obvious, and since it's been bothering me for over 2 months, I doubt that its a temporary muscular stiffness due to overstretching.
More likely the stiffness is from inflamed tissues that are protecting a fragile area, possibly cervical vertebrae that have gradually moved out of articulating alignment, maybe due to some joint deterioration.

Maybe due to poor computer posture.
Anyone's guess really.

I won't go to a medical practitioner of any kind (Western or Eastern) until I've done all I can to self-diagnose, self-medicate, self-administer, self-heal.

As yogis and those with self awareness know, most (if not all) physical problems, and accidents for that matter, are the final manifestation of internal imbalances, which have their roots in psychological imbalances. You can trace it all back to unhealthy thought patterns.
So when physical symptoms arise for no apparent reason my curiosity is ignited - it becomes a challenging quiz to find the cause and a cure.

I ask myself: what are the possible psychological causes of my stiff neck:
Am I only looking in one direction instead of taking a broader 360 view?
Am I only willing to see what's in front of me?
Have I become rigid in my thinking?
Is the tunnel vision that I affectionately observe in my dog's stubborn behaviour manifesting in mine?

Or is the stiff neck an associated symptom of my sacral/lumbar/hip problem?
Has the physiological trauma moved up my spine?

Moving my head from side to side isn't so much painful as severely restricted.
There's a dull, numb kind of ache in my neck, a bit more on the left than the right side.
I can't drop my head backwards (Ustrasana - Camel Pose, is hell) but the forward bend movement, chin to breastbone, feels nice.

So tonight's yoga practice was an investigation into this stiff place:
What movement or stretch feels good?
What aggravates it?
What areas are hot or cold?
At exactly what point is the movement blocked and what are the accompanying messages at that point?
Can I alleviate the symptoms and stiffness with yoga?
Can I locate any tender or trigger points?
Can I breathe into the stiff area to release energy blockages?

Here is tonight's practice:
3 Surya Namaskar A's done very slowly, mindfully, with long, calm, slowly drawn out Ujiyya breaths. Reaching arms up I control how I drop my head back, extending the cervical spine upwards first, creating space between the joints; diving to Uttanasana, I draw my chin in to stretch the back of my neck and let the weight of my head pull the joints open; inhaling to look up my neck is stretched in the opposite direction, etc etc.
3 Surya Namaskar B's - with the same quietly intense attention to details.

Padangusthasana and Pada Hastasana - both with special attention to the neck and shoulders. We often let the shoulders drop towards the ground when not paying attention to this pose. Here we must pull the shoulders away from the neck, against gravity, and extend the elbows away from centre to create space across the collarbones and breastbone while extending the spine towards the floor.

Trikonasana (left) is a dream pose for a stiff neck. The shoulders and arms are extended in opposite directions and the head twists upwards. I stay here for 10 long breaths on each side, working strongly into my legs, keeping the fingertips of my lower hand just lightly kissing the floor. If the lower hand is resting on the shin (as in the image) it bears some the weight of the torso preventing the maximum use of leg energy from activating the spinal channel. Better to keep it free from weight bearing and extend both hands away from the heart centre.
When my 10 breaths are finished, I stay in the full pose and turn my neck and head to look down, then I rise up out of the pose. This little head turn before rising is delightful.

Parivritta Trikonasana - another nice pose that twists the spine and neck.

Utthita Parsvakonasana - two different head positions are possible here: in the Iyengar system, the drishti (gaze) is straight up to the ceiling so the back of the neck is kept long; in the Ashtanga Vinyasa system, the drishti is towards the palm of the extended hand, so the front of the neck is stretched and twisted at the same time.
Take your pick.
Parivritta Parsvakonasana - my ongoing problem pose due to the torso to knee relationship, still it's better than it was a year ago. I do it once on each side using a block to support my lower hand.
Then I do it again as Glenn Ceresoli taught us in a workshop: starting in a lunge with the back knee on the ground and leaning and twisting forward to get the arms in place, then raising the back knee and fully straightening the back leg while keeping the side torso as low as possible and tightly pressed against the front thigh.
Both ways are still problematic and I can barely get a quarter of the way which is disappointing only when I compare it with the beautifully deep and fulfilling twisted pose it used be for me. No matter. Everything changes...

Prasaritta Padottanasana - all 4 variations. While in PP3 with hands interlocked over my head, I considered grabbing some little weights in my hands to help lower them down towards the ground - didn't do it though, too disruptive at that point, maybe try it out another time.

Parsvottanasana - no neck twists here but the forward bend is deep enough to help release my neck with the flowing weight of gravity. And I really noticed the benefit of the shoulder/arm position for stretching open the upper chest and collarbones which I can now attest is structurally related to my stiff neck.

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasa
na - strong and balanced.

Ardha Baddha Padottanasana - this pose yielded a new insight.
Reaching my arm behind my back and grabbing my toe in preparation for the forward bend, there was an audible stretch across the collarbones and in my neck vertebrae, crack, crack, crack, massive realignment. I'd never realised the collarbone area was opened up so much before you even enter the pose. The stretch felt liberating too, so perhaps the stiff neck problem has its origin in my upper chest/collarbone area...

I left the standing poses at that point and sat down for some twists - there's usually nothing better than twists to wring out a stiff neck:

Baddha Padmasana (seated in full Lotus, each arm reaches behind the back and the hand grab the toe of the opposite leg) then a long, slow extended twist to each side.

Bharadvajasana 1 and Bharadvajasana 2

But these classic twists weren't doing much to wring out the tension.

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose, left) was calling.
This pose turned out to be the most useful one tonight.
Although it's a backbend, I think it must be one of the few where the head isn't stretched or tipped backwards. Instead it's a backbend with the chin pressed into the sternum. While in the full pose with my hands deeply clasping my ankles I could feel precisely where the floor contact was producing a pressure point at the base of my neck. Whatever cervical vertebra this was, it was THE ONE that responded to the acupressure.
I stayed for over 10 breaths in Setu B until my legs started to give way, then I came down, had a rest then went up again. The pressure, the neck stretch, the magical combination was immediately stimulating and healing in the needed spot.

After a quick counterpose Urdhva Paschimottanasana, Shoulderstand was next.
Stayed for 20 breaths, moving my hands higher and higher with every 5 breaths to lift, lengthen and straighten my spine, then moved into Halasana and Karna Pindasana for 10 breaths each.
After that I indulged in Setu Bandha Sarvangasana again.

Matsyasana (Fish Pose, left) - the full pose with legs in Lotus. My neck wouldn't stretch back all the way at first, it had to be gently coaxed. But this is a pose that can be deepened incrementally by pressing the elbows into the floor to lift the chest, take weight off the head and draw it closer to the buttocks, deepening the back arch bit by bit. And so I did.
From Matsyasana I laid down, staying in Lotus but laying out in Supta Padmasana with arms overhead, pressing my lumbar gently into the floor and feeling an uncomfortable (but good) stretch opening up in my right hip.

Supta Balasana - laying on my back with knees drawn into the chest and head lifted towards the knees to curve the lumbar and engage the abdominals.

The final pose was a sort of
Salabhasana. I remembered the relief I'd felt many times after doing Salabhasana then resting my head on the floor to the left or the right, so I laid on my stomach and just turned my head to the side, hoping for an unstiffening miracle in my neck. Didn't happen.
It did help to slightly raise my legs off the ground and stretch and lift my shoulders strongly away from my neck. The pose became active instead of passive though I kept my turned head on the floor.

Instead of Savasana, I just curled up into
Balasana (Childs Pose) for a while. In this deceptively simple pose, the contact point where the head touches the floor is halfway between the forehead and the fontanelle, a very soothing spot.

All up it was a strong, mindful practice, very intimate and full.
I still have the stiff neck, so the yoga hasn't helped much except to loosen it and allow a little further range of movement temporarily.

19 January 2012


In a moment of nostalgia I flicked back over some posts from my old blog.

I came across this one (copied below) from 28th May 2007 and was astounded at my brilliant insights and fluidity of writing back then.
"Gee whizz", I thought, "in 5 years I've totally lost all ability to think deeply and articulate poetically about the inner spiritual journey."

Sinking sigh...

A few minutes later, I realised it was actually a quote from "Essence with The Elixir of Enlightenment” by A. H. Almaas.

Ha, I haven't lost it, I never had it!

But how inspiring to read this again...

“The desire for freedom, liberation, enlightenment, self-realization, inner development or whatever it is called is not a response to a call from outside you. It is not that you hear of enlightenment and then you want to be enlightened. It is not embarking on the journey because other people you know are on it. It is not a fad.
It is not a desire for self-improvement. It is not an attempt to be some kind of an ideal model you have in your mind, It is not doing something according to some beliefs and opinions you have picked up someplace, recently or in the far past.

The search is a very personal concern, an intimately personal interest in your situation. It is a response to a call deep within you. The call at the beginning is a vague, almost imperceptible and mysterious flame. It shows itself as a questioning of the disharmony you live in. It is your disharmony, as you experience it. It is your own questioning. And it is your personal yearning.
The stirring must come from you, from your depths. The questioning must be of your situation, your mind, not of some system that somebody else has set up. You can use the system to help you, but ultimately it is your life, your mind, your quest.

Enlightenment cannot be according to any system. It has to resolve and clarify your own situation. The realization must satisfy and fulfil your heart, not the standards of some system. The liberation must be of you, you personally.
The quest does not bring about improvement or perfection. It brings about a maturity, a humanity, and a wisdom.

The moment essence (God/The Divine/The Source) is recognized as one’s being and experienced as such, a radical transformation occurs.
One’s life will never be the same.
Although the transformation can be total, it is usually partial. Nevertheless it is a radical transformation: the person knows for the first time what being is and that it is his true nature. This discovery initiates the process of inner transforation. The mind and personality are clarified steadily, and objectivity becomes more and more complete. Essence transubstantiates into its various aspects and dimensions.
Life is no longer the exclusive domain of the personality. As essence unfolds and expands, it exposes deeper and more basic sectors of the personality, bringing about knowledge and objectivity. And these in turn allow essence to displace the personality on more and more dimensions.
Life stops being the life of strife and frustration, the wish for success and the fear of failure. More than anything else, life becomes a process of creative discovery and discovery itself becomes the heart of life.

The unfolding of essence becomes the process of living. As this unfolding proceeds, it affects the mind, the personality, and the external life. The identity starts shifting from personality to essence. The individual starts experiencing himself as essence instead of the experiencer of essence.

Commitment to the truth is sufficient for the process to unfold.

It is a matter of letting go of the ego identity and living from the essence that is already present. One’s life with all its situations, comes into focus. One’s style of life – how one leads one’s life in all its aspects – becomes understood and modified accordingly. The individual becomes aware of his environment and ascertains whether it supports or inhibits the life of essence. Everything, everypart of one’s life, inner or outer, becomes conscious, no longer under the sway of the unconscious. This is very deep and involved work. It leads to responsibility and maturity.

One must shift the identity from ego to the essence. This is the most difficult part of the process. Even after essence in its various aspects is uncovered and freed, the individual finds that he still believes in his personality. The essence is present, but the individual still thinks of himself and very often acts if he is not paying attention, as if her is the personality. That is why the death of this identity is so strongly stressed by all true teachings.
This does not mean, as some teachings have it, that the individual must experience the essential self all the time, that he must hold onto it as the most precious thing. What needs to happen is to free this aspect of essence for it to become a station, to become permanently available so that it is there when its mode of operation is needed.

Experiences of ego death occur here. Inner aloneness is accepted. Personal boundaries dissolve. One starts to understand and experience boundlessness, timelessness, not doing, innocence, and purity. Essence and mind start becoming one.
Living one’s life and the work on oneself become one thing. The shift of identity from personality to essence is nothing but the realization of the true self, the high self of essence. Realization then becomes more and more expressed in living, in action. Practical action becomes the action of the true being. There is efficiency, economy, simplicity, directness. One fully lives in the world but is constantly connected to the Beyond, the Supreme Reality."

17 January 2012

Practice List

This morning's half hour yoga practice:

5 Surya Namaskar A
3 Surya Namaskar B
Parivritta Trikonasana
Janu Sirsasana
Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana (with an upright twist before bending forward)
Supta Virasana
Passive Matsyasana on a block
Setu Bandha
One pathetic Urdhva Dhanurasana
Prasaritta Padottanasana
Samakonasana, with a forward bend supported on forearms (pictured)
Coffee instead of Savasana

Kosta's led practice resumes tomorrow morning.
I'll be throwing myself in the deep end (having barely practised any yoga for four weeks), and just doing whatever I can.
No fear.
No need to meet anyone's expectations - not even my own.
Just practice yoga.
As the sun rises.
In a beautiful studio.
Inside my own headspace.


Caught up again

My camping trip is a cherished but distant memory...I've been back at work for nearly two weeks and it's hell busy.

I'm spending 8 hours a day imprisoned inside a computer screen, organising timetables, workshops, events, lecturers and classes, problem solving crises, resolving complaints, entering data into complex systems and reporting endless enrolment statistics to government departments.

My mind is kidnapped, brainwashed, and forced to deal with all this for the greater part of each day. No time to come up for air.

Meanwhile, the spirit voice that calls me to the contemplative, mystical life is growing fainter and fainter; vitality, nobility and wonder are seeping out of me again, and I feel a numbing over of my soul's yearning.

Deep down we long for a time when we can once again live in rhythm with the heartbeat of the Earth, and fly upon the uplifting wind of our spirits.

Out in the bush, Cooper Creek and Parachilna Gorge, primordial energy infuses my soul. Surrounded by trees, birds, wind, raw elements, I'm able to breathe long and deep, and relax into the pure joy that is my wild and natural state.

16 January 2012

Sunflowers and Buffy

Arriving at my front door, I am greeted by sunflowers and Buffy...

6 January 2012

Parachilna Gorge

"The shape of a landscape is a silent and ancient form of consciousness."

This photo was taken at a very special place deep in Parachilna Gorge.
From our campsite we walked for over an hour to get there, following a branch of the creek upstream to this gorgeous bush oasis. Water seeps up from underground springs, feeding the creek so it flows all year round.
We bathed in it, drank from it, followed it and blessed it for saving us from the scorching heat.

"A sacrament is a visible sign of invisible grace. The unseen world comes to expression in the visible world."

Close to the underground springs is this slender gum tree. She leans her head shyly against the shoulder of the rock.

Why didn't she grow straight and tall like the others around her?
Big rock attraction.
They make a lovely couple.

And this is Blinman, a tiny town about 20kms from Parachilna Gorge with a population of 22. It has the great honour of being the highest town in the Flinders Ranges (614m above sea level).

The main street in Blinman.

On our last morning we walked from our campsite to the start of the famous Heysen Trail. This magnificent walking trail meanders through 1200kms of rugged and mountainous country, ending up at the cliffs on the coast of Cape Jarvis.
Its the longest walking trail in Australia.
After an hour of walking the trail, the 38C midday sun was upon us and shade was getting sparse.

This is a view over the northern Flinders Ranges, from a hilltop just off the Heysen Trail, the point where we decided to turn and head back to our campsite.

Wild horses drinking from a waterhole in the desert just off the Birdsville Track.

Can you spot the camel?

One of our kayaks pointing toward the tent under the coolibah tree at Cooper Creek.

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled
"You'll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me"

Waltzing Matilda is Australia's 'unofficial national anthem. It narrates the story of an itinerant worker making a crude cup of tea (in a billy can) at a bush camp and capturing a jumbuck (sheep) to eat. When the sheep's owner arrives with three policemen to arrest the worker, he drowns himself in a billabong (small lake) and goes on to haunt the site. The lyrics contain a lot of distinctively Australian slang words.
The entire song and its origins can be found here.

Imagine driving along an endlessly straight, dusty red dirt road through arid desert and coming across a sign pointing to a hot spa bath. Clayton Wetlands is a tiny spot in the middle of nowhere. Apart from the 'wetland' area which seemed pretty dry to me, there is a toilet, a shower and a tub fed by an artesian spring. You put a coin donation in the box, turn on the taps and watch the tub fill up with bubbling hot spring water.

There is nothing and nobody for miles.
Its bizarre.

My travelling friend, and my anam cara, who I must thank for sharing photos with me (and for wearing those gorgeous red shorts and matching socks).
He truly has "a reverent attention to landscape, an outdoor spirituality impassioned by the erotic charge of the earth."

"We reduce the wildness and mystery of a person and landscape to the external, familiar image.
Familiarity enables us to tame, control and ultimately forget the mystery.
Familiarity is a subtle and pervasive form of human alienation."

Paddling Cooper Creek, at home and at one with the river and the birds.

"The recognition of our clay nature can bring us a more ancient harmony, it can return us to the ancient rhythm that we inhabited before consciousness made us separate."

"Solitude can be a homecoming to your own deepest belonging."

All quotes in italics are from the book Anam Cara by John O'Donohue (except for Waltzing Matilda).

5 January 2012

Cooper Creek

Paddling towards the sunset in a kayak along Cooper Creek.

Cooper Creek is in the middle of the Australian desert.
Its normally a dry creekbed but late last year it filled with water after the Queensland floods and flowed down to fill the dry Lake Eyre salt bed once again.

We travelled over 700km north into the arid central Australian outback last week with a couple of kayaks on the roof of the spunky little Hyundai Getz to visit Cooper Creek.

Then made our camp under the shade of a coolibah tree on the banks of the flooded creek.

We were in a hauntingly desolate landscape.
Ancient, stark, beautiful in its harshness.

The ferry at Cooper Creek is operating again just near the floodway section of the Birdsville Track.

Unfortunately we couldn't board the ferry because the Getz didn't have a high enough clearance so we camped on the southern side of the creek.

Temperatures hovered around 40 degrees C during the day.

The wind was our constant companion and our saviour, keeping the stifling heat moving.
Desert sand covered just about everything inside the tent, but we just couldn't cover the tent with its canopy and lose the endless sky.
I lay at night looking up at the stars, a powder spray of sparkles.

An obstacle course to test my kayak steering skills.

Taking photos before leaving Cooper Creek.

From there we headed back down the Birdsville Track, veering off to the east to visit Arkaroola before travelling on to my favourite place - Parachilna Gorge in the Flinders Ranges.

Rivers in central Australia are unusual in that they all rise in the arid zone and end in the arid zone.
In most of the world, desert rivers enter from humid areas. There is no permanent flowing water in any waterways except springs.
Central Australia does not have a wet and a dry season. However, large storms tend to be more common in summer when the occasional remnants of tropical cyclones drift over central Australia.
Australian rivers are up to 1000 times more variable in mean annual discharge than most European and North American rivers (Gale & Bainbridge 1990). The only occasion that stream flow occurs is after rainfall events. In small catchments streamflows are relatively short, perhaps a few hours to a few days. At any one site on a larger river, flow typically lasts for a few days to a few weeks; flows lasting greater than one month are rare.
Streamflow tends to travel slowly along the length of the river; Cooper Creek for example has gradients as low as 1.9cm/km (1.3in/mi). Thus, it may take one or two months for the water in the upper reaches to get to the lower reaches.
When in flood, rivers such as Cooper Creek may spread as wide as 50km. Most rivers contain very little permanent water. All the water exists in a series of waterholes, most of which disappear after a year or two with no flow.