Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Alive/Awake: Moving Into Asana

Application of  Signage Systems
Symbol for "Namaste"
(Google Public Domain Images)

I've been away from asana practice for a while. My body is transitioning - muscles are adapting to other muscles which are missing or have been shifted and every one seems to be protesting the changes. Even the mildest of poses has been causing interesting muscle spasms, which are triggering even more interesting chain reactions throughout my body. As much as I wanted it not to be true, I had to admit that yoga was making things worse, not better, so the sensible thing to do was to stop.

After several intensive rounds of physiotherapy, my therapist suggested it was time to test out yoga again. "Go to Colin's noon hour class," she said. "It will be a nice, easy transition back in yoga. See how it goes." So, off I went to a 45 minute asana practice. I'm used to 1.5 hour classes with Colin. 45 minutes would be a cake walk, or so I thought. Little did I know that he was on a hip kick and in pretzel mode to boot.

At the first class, a couple of weeks ago, everyone was either a yoga teacher or a teacher trainee. Sarah's and Colin's children were also there; although they're very young, they're also very familiar with yoga. Perhaps we inspired Colin, because we hit the ground twisting and by the end of class, I was in knots. My legs were in positions I never thought they'd go and then, to add to the fun, Colin gave me an adjustment, just because he could. I've never been in a yoga class with so much moaning, giggles and laughter. All I could think of (when I wasn't focused on the pose) was that, if Tracy the therapist could see me, she'd be thinking that this wasn't the nice, easy yoga class she'd imagined for me.

Yesterday was more of the same - a room full of teachers and trainees, with a new practitioner or two thrown into the mix. More hip openers. Intensive twists. More moaning and groaning. I tapped out a few times on poses. At one point, after coming out of a deep, seated twist, I made a face and Colin started to laugh. He interpreted that face to mean that I wasn't a fan of the pose, but that wasn't the issue. (I love twists.) What I was really thinking was that I was glad there was an emergency room doctor practising just in front of me, because I was beginning to feel that I'd need his services before class was over. We all made it through in one piece. (I was very grateful that Barb had offered to drive me to and from class. She dropped me off a few short blocks from home, but at that moment, home seemed miles away.) I slept all afternoon.

At the end of class, Colin spoke about the meaning of "Namaste," of the part in us that is always Awake. Yoga helps us discover our Awake Essence. Sometimes pleasant, sometimes painful, exploring Awake/Awareness is an essential part of allowing us to be Alive. We push our limits to stay focused, but it's important to know when it's unwise to push further. Sometimes, that's the hardest part of yoga.

I'm fine this morning, a little stiff in spots, but I feel better than I've felt in weeks. I smile every time I think of Tracy advising me to transition slowly back into yoga. I smile when I think of how deeply I was able to get into most of the poses, especially given my physical challenges. I know that going deeply into asana isn't the point, but it's fun to challenge yourself and be pleasantly surprised. It's great to give myself a "Yayy, Me!" once in a while. It's good to be Alive.

As Colin said, "Namaste" acknowledges that part of us that is always Awake, always Alive. "Namaste" bows to all Awareness in one another. So, thanks to all of you who help me in my practice - Colin, Sarah, Heather, Tracy, Alisa, Donna, Barb, all teachers, all fellow students. "Namaste" to you, my friends. Have a great weekend!


Thursday, 19 March 2015

Shiny, Happy People: On the Value of Not Presenting Our Best

Not long ago, someone asked me, "Why do you post your less than successful work? Why not post only your best stuff?" In the ensuing discussion, I came to understand that this person thought that my tendency to include samples of fibre work that just miss their marks in my blog was unprofessional. Professional people never display their failures, their unpolished drawings, paintings, the garment or tapestry that didn't quite work. We shouldn't see the false starts and discarded efforts it takes to get to a successful completion of a project. To do so is to give the impression that we don't know what we're doing and that just shouldn't happen.

After taking a few deep breaths and stifling my initial, defensive reaction: "It's my blog and I'll do what I want!," I came to the conclusion that this person's reaction was not unreasonable. We live in a time and place where social media allows us to present our best selves, real or imagined, as we omit the mundane, foolish and sometimes embarrassing moments of our lives. (We also live in fear that someone else will be more than happy to post those moments for us.) If we take Facebook at face value, we all live in lovely, polished homes, dine on stylish, healthy foods and travel to exotic places, as we soothe our social consciences by posting relevant click bait of war zones, natural disasters and animal abuse. We know perfectly well that this isn't the case. Life can be complex. If we choose not to dwell on every day ordinary or misfortunes, that's perfectly understandable and perfectly human. What we need to acknowledge is that this tendency to present nothing but our best faces builds false perceptions and unreasonable expectations for ourselves and others.

People are spell-bound by work done to perfection and rightly so. Producing a masterpiece in anything is inspiring and admirable. I'm a process person, though, so that final piece of perfection isn't enough for me. I want to see more of the path that led a teacher to that ability to teach, the struggles with paint and ink and fibres an artist had to resolve in order to attain her artistic goals. I love to see work done by those with passion - those who are not necessarily the best at what they do, but who are forever learning, testing and challenging their limits. I want to see the Beginner, not the Master, or, at least, I long for a glimpse of the Master when she dwells in Beginner's Mind.

I meander down whatever roads catch my attention. I present my failures, my not quite right works, along with my successes. I do the best I can to pull it all together and, if my weaving is not gallery quality, if my writing is unpolished from time to time, if things don't come together just so, that's fine by me. In yoga, every pose has a beginning, middle and end and each of those parts is equally important. If we want to apply our yoga to our lives, then acknowledging each of those segments can only help us grow.

Masks are necessary, but if that is all we display to the world, we'll lose sight of who we are. People will miss out on that shining light that is our True Self. Let the masks slip once in a while. Show some of that less than perfect work. Your Ego may take a bit of a beating, but allowing more openness into the mix will present a fuller, richer concept of the complex, perfectly imperfect humans that we are. Art and Life are messy. Embrace that.

Beautiful, but what lies behind the mask may be just as interesting.
(Google Images, Public Domain)


Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Chakra Roots: A Study

Years ago, when I was studying drawing, we were given an assignment to choose something from a well-known draftsman (no women were mentioned) and copy one of his drawings. Never one to back down from a challenge, I selected a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci (or perhaps the unknown Cesare da Sestos - attribution for this drawing is tenuous). It was a deceptively simple looking work, as I discovered, but the effort required to reproduce it taught me many things, not the least of which is that I do not care to replicate work, never mind how great the artist. On the whole, though, I did a not bad job. There's an issue with scale and proportion, which bothered neither me nor my instructor at the time. I discovered Leonardo (or Cesare) has nothing to worry about from the grave:

As I was told later, one of the goals of this exercise was to be able to step back and evaluate your own work, which was probably the most valuable thing I learned. I can look at my drawing dispassionately, measure its flaws and assets, and take note of ways to improve.

I've been meaning to apply this same exercise to tapestry for quite some time. Late last year, I discovered a small acrylic painting (18 cm x 23.5 cm) tucked away in a closet, which seemed to call out for duplication in tapestry. I jumped into the process, rather too hastily, which resulted in a host of problems as this post describes in detail.  I finished weaving on the weekend; the piece came off the blocking board this morning. Here's the original painting:

Here's the tapestry after blocking (35 cm x 44 cm):

Chakra Roots: A Study
Hand spun and dyed singles wool and mohair weft on commercial wool warp.

The weaving is not quite as distorted as it appears here, but it's more irregular than it should be to suit my tastes. (Tapestry weaving should either have enough distortion that it acts as a design feature or so little that it's non-existent, according to Dragondancer's Gospel of Weaving.) What does please me is how close I got to duplicating the painting, although you can see that I wandered off the path at the far right of the tapestry, which was the last bit to be woven:

I surprised myself with many amateur mistakes in this tapestry - I should be past inconsistent warping and lice (bits of warp showing through the weaving), but I also surprised myself with the close match in colours and the textural effects I achieved with soumak and knotting.

I'm glad I didn't follow my first thought, which was to abandon this project, because I learned many things from going back to Beginner's Mind, not the least of which is how much further I have to go along my weaving path.

I have two small looms warped and ready to go; I'm mulling over my next challenges, which will not include copying another painting, because, you know what? Copying is still boring, even if it's my own work. One of my teachers once scolded me, "If you're going to draw or paint, then draw or paint. If you're going to weave, then weave." Sounds like a plan.

Chakra Roots: A Study


(Happy St. Patrick's Day to my family, who are probably still sitting in the bar celebrating and thinking of you, Dad, ten years later.)

Monday, 2 March 2015

Monster Mash: Catching Up From Toe to Head

It's been a rough couple of weeks. Everyone came down with a virus which manifested itself in a variety of interesting ways. I ventured out of the house a few days ago, after many days on the couch. The positive side of being ill but not "I think I'm going to die" ill is that you can get a lot accomplished, although it may not be what you'd planned. I read Katy Bowman's book, Alignment Matters. I'm now more obsessed with feet than ever and have been walking around with lines drawn from my second toe to the front of my ankle as a reminder to keep my feet forward. I'm also the proud owner of some rather goofy looking Foot Alignment Socks, which I love and would wear even if they don't do what they claim: 
Foot Alignment Socks will comfort and rejuvenate your feet after a hard day of working, running, walking or just being active. . . . These socks give comfort and help to relieve common foot ailments such as bunions, hammertoes, plantar fasciitis, foot cramps, toe cramps, crooked toes and general foot discomfort. (Liner Notes)
Whew! That's a pretty tall order. So far, I've noticed that they widen the spaces between my toes (a good thing) which has lead to a purge of the last few pairs of narrow shoes I own (likely also a good thing).

I've also been weaving a small free form, no cartoon, no plan tapestry, which, if things go well, will be a sample for an article I'm writing. I'm weaving on a makeshift cardboard loom, which has its own challenges, but it's a pleasure to work with a tool so simple yet which holds many possibilities. Here is the front of the piece, woven with hand dyed, hand spun singles:

And the back:

I'm nearing the top of the loom and am planning the finishing techniques. There is trim and a lining involved, which means (gasp) sewing, which means I will have to find that old Singer machine I have packed away. Those of you who know me know that I'm allergic to sewing, so I have to coax myself into the process gradually.

Lastly, I spent yesterday at a workshop with Robin Golt, on aspects of the Mind in yoga philosophy. Robin's teaching were based on Kashmir Shaivism, a system unfamiliar to me, so I was thrown into Beginner's Mind. Robin had one of the most simple, clear explanations of the difference between practicing yoga and exercising that I've encountered: If you are not taking the time to reflect upon the poses, it's not yoga. In order to practice yoga, we must combine the work of the body and the work of the mind.

There you have it: a little bit of attention to the toes, some work with the hands and the eyes, a whole lotta thinking  and contemplation going on. It's been a productive illness, but I think I'm done now. I'm ready for some of those warm March winds that carry the promise of Spring. I can smell them. I can taste them. They're out there, somewhere. I can feel it.


(Happy Birthday to my sister, Shelley!)  

Monday, 16 February 2015

Making Contact: The Story of a Tapestry

Yesterday's post gave you a glimpse into the world of the Afghani weavers who make the pieces which have transitioned from using tribal, spiritual and natural motifs to including or being composed exclusively of images of war. The effects of war continue; this article on the current rugs and the living conditions of the refugees caught in Pakistan camps speaks of the ongoing struggles of the people forced from their homes and living under threat of constant violence. 

When I first learned of these rugs, I was fascinated by the beauty which can come out of such struggles. I wanted to pay tribute to the weavers I would never meet and acknowledge the suffering which I hope will end for everyone and which I hope I and my community will never experience. I knew I had neither the weaving skills or the knowledge of this culture to weave anything similar, but the subject matter called to me. Then, in March 2005, an article in the local newspaper caught my attention. A sixteen year old boy had surrendered to (or been captured by, according to which source you read) authorities while wearing a vest loaded with explosives. The photo which accompanied the article showed a terrified child, hands on his head, surrounded by soldiers, bombs strapped to his torso. Ten years ago, reports of strapping bombs to children and sending them on suicide missions was still uncommon and as horrifying as it should be. The idea that anyone would think this was a justifiable practice, coupled with the fact that this boy was the same age as my son, made me ill. The image of the young man haunted me. Surely, this couldn't be the way of the world? (Sadly, now, we hear these reports far too often. Recently, a 9 year old girl was turned into a bomb and sent to explode in a crowded market.) 

At the time, I was weaving a series about characters from various mythologies. The first was "Anni and Eve." "Minerva" had followed soon after, but I was unsure of what came next. When I saw the article, a tapestry appeared in my mind's eye - "Mars," the god of War. I sketched out a rough cartoon, set up one of my tapestry looms and began to weave. The result was this piece, approximately 27.5 cm x 40 cm (11 x 16 inches):

"Mars" was woven on a Cactus loom, with a four selvedge finish, using hand spun wool singles on a commercial wool singles warp. With the exception of the red letters in "Mars," the orange pineapple grenades and the sixteen candles in the border, the wefts are naturally coloured and naturally dyed yarns. I deliberately used fugitive dyes for some of the background; the theory is that the script in the tapestry will become more visible with the passage of time. (It seems to be working.) The portrait of the boy is based on the newspaper photograph and photographs of my son. The tapestry was completed in October 2005. It's a gift to Young Mr. DD. Hussam Abdo, the boy in the photograph, was sent to prison in Israel. As far as I know, he's still there.


Sunday, 15 February 2015

Road Trip: Afghanistan War Rugs

Afghanistan weavers have a long tradition of weaving intricate rugs using knotted pile, soumak and tapestry weaving techniques. A typical prayer rug is filled with intricate symbols and images of flowers, animals and daily life. Over the years, with the invasions of outsiders into their country, Afghan weavers began to incorporate images of another kind into their rugs - the constant of war and its intrusion into daily life.

I have read about these rugs for many years, the beauty and subtlety of their patterns and the skill of the weavers as they knot their rugs from wools dyed with natural materials and synthetic dyes. Apart from photographs, I've never seen one, so when fellow weaver and fibre enthusiast, Leslie C. sent me a link to an exhibit of these rugs in the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, I didn't hesitate to invite myself along on a road trip to see the show. We headed out on Friday for the day to spend time at Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan.

As a weaver, this was a trip of a lifetime for me. The show, organized by the Textile Museum of Canada, displays 118 pieces, rugs of various sizes, along with two bags, dating from around 1920 to the present. We had the gallery pretty much to ourselves and were allowed to take all the photographs we wanted, provided we didn't use the flashes on our cameras. (My point and shoot camera didn't care for that, so I apologize for the quality of the photos here. If you want to see more detail on these pieces, click on the link above.) I was like a kid in a candy store, running back and forth between the displays, which were organized by theme rather than chronology. Perhaps I should say I was more like a kid on a scavenger hunt; unfortunately (and surprisingly), there was no catalogue. Large, laminated cards provided some information on each section, but details on techniques, dates and the significance of the images were scarce. There were small "souvenir" battle rugs for sale in the gallery shop, accompanied by a pamphlet on these rugs:

Men and women are involved in carding and spinning sheep's wool by hand. Natural dyes (including from onion skins and pomegranate rinds) and synthetic dyes are used.
. . .The first Afghan war carpets, featuring stylized depictions of helicopters, tanks, and weaponry, emerged during the 1979 - 1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and Afghan carpet weavers incorporated these symbols of war into more traditional Afghan carpet designs. ("Souvenir Battle Rugs from Afghanistan," pamphlet, Mendel Art Gallery)

The rugs ranged from many square metres in area to much smaller rugs which looked as if they were designed to be wall hangings. Some of the rugs had technical problems, in that they had large amounts of draw-in, bubbling and were dramatically off square, but each one had its charms. As time passed, the weavers replaced images of camels, sheep and flora with the machinery which has become all too familiar to them. A few contained only one or two images of weapons, often Kalashnikov rifles, the Russian AK-47, while others were packed with tiny images which, at first, seemed to be traditional symbols. On closer examination, the symbols were images of helicopters, tanks and guns. Some of the rugs depicted New York's Twin Towers. The most modern of the rugs have shifted perspective completely; from the traditional overall depiction of pastoral scenes, mosques and Afghan cities, they show, in modern landscape format, what could be any bustling city.

While a preponderance of these battle rugs may have appeared during the decade from 1979 - 1989, the incorporation of symbols of the modern machine age goes back much further. This is the earliest rug on display; dating from around 1920, it shows a British Sopwith Camel airplane joining the bird in the sky over a placid natural scene (#1.58, 1920's,p. 3 in the link to the exhibit):

This rug was well-used, probably as a floor and/or prayer rug, as the detail shows:

The detail of the weapons is astonishing, showing both the weavers' skills and their familiarity with the weapons themselves. The tank at the bottom of this rug showed every detail of its machinations. (#1.90, 2001-2007, p.2):

Some images are more stylized, used in ways similar to traditional motifs, as borders:

#1.40, 1989? p. 1 

Some of the smaller rugs contain much less detail, but are far more poignant. This small rug, one of four depicting single images is, according to the exhibit information, "the saddest image in the exhibit." It caught my eye instantly. What was this woman's story? How had the shift from flowers which would normally be included in such a scene to grenades and tanks affected her life? (#L2008.408, 2001-2007, p. 2):

Words and blurry photographs cannot do justice to this exhibit; it's a once in a lifetime opportunity for local weavers and textile enthusiasts to see this large collection of remarkable textiles up close. The display runs until March 22, 2015; if you are anywhere near Saskatoon, go to the show. Plan to spend several hours in the gallery. If you are a weaver or a textile enthusiast, prepared to be humbled by the skills and beauty which can come from adversity. (If I lived in the city, I would be there every day, examining each rug and taking notes.)

Thank you so much, Leslie, for taking me to see this show. I am very grateful to have been your travelling companion.