Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Monday, 27 February 2012

Stormy Weather: Politics and the Yoga of Speaking Out

We had a bit of a winter storm this weekend, our first of the season.  It's rare to have this mild a winter.  The snow is a late reminder of how things usually are before we head into spring.

There's another storm brewing across the land, a storm over election politics, which is looking to be dirty and ugly.  I don't often discuss politics here because it's not the intention of this blog, but I've decided that, if I'm attempting to walk the yoga path, I have to speak up because this particular political scandal strikes at the core of the voting process: our right to vote freely, without harassment, threats or deceit. Not speaking would imply I am indifferent to what has occurred or, worse yet, that I condone it.

During the last federal election campaign in 2011, people in several ridings--the count is up to 28 or so--received electronic calls purportedly from Elections Canada telling people of poll changes and directing these voters to other polls.  The problem?  The calls did not come from Elections Canada; there were no such poll changes. Worse yet, there are now claims that voters in some ridings received harassing, insulting calls from people claiming to be from the Liberal Party.  (This begs the question: why would a political party looking for your support harass and insult you?) 

These are not minor matters.  Such actions are election tampering and fraud, things we claim to abhor when they occur in other countries.  They're akin to stuffing ballot boxes, more sophisticated than threatening people at the polls, but with the same intent. They're illegal and immoral. Whether they affected the election outcome or not, they involve a mindset in which winning is everything, the ends justify the means and opposition is an evil enemy to be overcome in any way.  It's a rare, rare day when I agree with columnist Andrew Coyne, but he expresses the problem well in an article for the National Post.  (Click on his name for a link to the article.)

When we walk the yoga path, we do our best to practice ahimsa (non-harming), self-restraint, non-stealing and truthfulness in everything we do.  We don't always succeed; in fact, we may fail repeatedly, but the effort is always there.  It seems to me that there are many people who could use some yoga practice now. 


Thursday, 23 February 2012

The Circle Game: Kasturba Gandhi, Spinning and Satygraha

File:Gandhi and Kasturbhai 1902.jpg
Mohandas and Kasturba Gandhi (from Wikipedia public domain photographs)

It's Reading Week at the university and I've been researching material for my class paper.  One of the works I read is a biography of Kasturba Gandhi, the wife of Mohandas, written by her grandson, Arun Gandhi.

Contrary to popular belief, Mrs. Gandhi (born Kastur Kapadia, 1869), was not the subservient, long-suffering wife that many Gandhian biographers have deemed her.  Married to Mohandas in 1882, when they were both 13, Kastur became an essential part of Gandhi's Satyagraha Movement of peaceful protest.  In fact, Gandhi credits Kasturba with teaching him the basics tenets of non-violence, through her patient, but determined behaviour in the face of his often stubborn ideas and sometimes angry reactions when others did not follow his path.  It was Kasturba who kept house and home in order while Mohandas was away on his frequent political journeys, and it was she who cared for Gandhi during fasts and marches, sometimes enduring harsher prison terms than Mohandas himself. It was Kasturba who stayed behind to work on social and health problems with the women in Champaran, at the time of the indigo tenant farmers' protest in and around 1917, teaching them the basics of care and sanitation after the protests had ended.

The daughter of wealthy merchants who owned a trading house dealing in cloth, grain and cotton shipments, Kasturba learned to spin at the Sabarmati ashram in 1918.  Upon arrival at the ashram from Champaran, Mrs. Gandhi found that:
The women. . .had become wholly absorbed in spinning.  Mohandas had long hoped that his ashram could help start a renewal of India's self-sufficient village economy by reviving an age-old cottage industry, the spinning and weaving of the cloth known as khadi....Now, all the ashram residents, beginning with Mohandas himself, spent at least one hour a day at their spinning wheels.  Ba (i.e. Kasturba--my insert) quickly concluded that her first task at hand was to learn how to spin.  She did.  My grandmother became one of the ashram's most skilled spinners. (A. Gandhi, p.211)

From then on, until her death in prison in 1944, Kasturba made the symbol of spinning and the charkha her own. The shy, quiet child bride pictured with Mohandas in the above photograph, became a champion of Indian civil rights, rallying men and women to the cause and using her spinning as a sign of devotion and duty.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Testing, Testing

I wrote my yoga mid-term exam this afternoon and, from my perspective, it didn't go well.  5 questions, 50 minutes - nothing to it, right?  I had attended classes, done my reading, had pages of notes which I'd studied and reviewed.  I clearly knew what was going on.  So, what happened?

The truth is, I got trapped by what yoga practitioners call "samskara."  Samskara are past activators, ways in which you've handled events that affect what happens now.  When you're caught in samskara, you're afloat in the ocean without a life jacket, bouncing about on the waves without control.

Even though it's been decades since I wrote any formal examination, I reverted to past actions and thoughts as soon as I was handed the test.  I read the questions and my mind went blank. Completely.  (In that moment, I discovered the meaning of "empty mind," although not in a good way.)  I picked a random question and began to write.  I fretted about poor sentence structure and correct phrasing.  I wasted time worrying about the time.  I overwrote three of the questions, which didn't leave enough time for the other two. 

I was the last student out of the room and I left with a sigh. I could feel old habits returning, frustration, anger and disappointment arising.  In that moment, I could have added to the turbulent samskara waves.  What I chose to do instead was attempt to soothe them and use the aftermath as yoga practice. 

Of course I want to do well, but maybe my definition of "doing well" is too narrow.  The point of the exam was to write it and to get a feel for what it's like after all these years, not a bad thing if I have to write a three hour final.  Since I'm taking this class for my own interest and I know I've done the work, does it really matter if I fail to meet my own standards on a test?  As a teacher, I'm always spouting that failure is the best instructor; perhaps it was time for some of my own medicine.

Instead of fretting, I think I'll pack away my notes and texts for a few days.  Next week is Reading Week; I'm looking forward to outlining my term paper and doing some reading on Hatha Yoga.  Tonight, I'll put my feet up, finish some sock knitting.  I may ponder why I don't get upset if I mess up a sock, but fall apart at the thought of messing up a written test.

I'll try not to cry too hard into my glass of white wine.  That would be a waste of tears, not to mention a waste of perfectly good organic wine.

Have a great long weekend!

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Might As Well Jump!

Three summers ago, Morris the Bull Terror, went on a mission. Not content with ripping the laundry from my backyard clothesline, Morris set a goal of taking down the clothesline itself. (For anyone familiar with bull terriers, this isn't surprising. What makes these dogs so much fun is their boundless energy and sense of humour. What makes these dogs so exasperating is their boundless energy and sense of humour.)

All summer long, Morris would bounce out the back door.  Using the deck as a spring board, he launched himself at the line, attempting to grab it in his mouth.  We watched all this with great amusement. The deck is low and the clothesline fairly high - it was a stretch for me to reach it. No way could a 50 pound dog, even a determined bullie, pull that line down.  Sure, he was getting better at jumping.  Each attempt brought him a bit closer to the wire, but the line was always a foot or two out of reach.

On a sunny morning late that summer, Morrie flew out the door, leaped at the clothesline and, just like that, down it came.  A moment of triumph flashed in Morris's eye, then a realization.  He looked at me, looked at the tangle of wire on the ground and back at me.  Game over.

If ever a creature could register disappointment, that creature was Morris. He checked the sky a few times that day.  I swear he was hoping the line had reappeared. There was some moping, on his part and mine. (Don't tell me that dogs don't think.  If you think that, you haven't met a bull terrier.) 

When we believe that our goals are the prizes themselves, what do we do when we achieve the things we set out to do?  We can stagnate.  We can fill the space with "stuff" that only leaves us wanting more. We can set our goals so high that they are impossible to achieve, but that leads to frustration and depression.  We can tell ourselves that we have all the answers; apart from annoying everyone around us, at some level, we know this can't be true.

The trick is to understand that once we've accomplished our mission, we need to begin again.  If we've mastered using every spindle on the planet, resting on those laurels will likely leave us bored and perhaps a tad arrogant.  To counter that, we might then decide to master every existing spinning wheel.  An expert in knitting colourwork might set out to conquer cables.  There is always something else up that path to keep us contentedly seeking.

Morris recovered from the loss of his game and went back to being a dog. He's invented a few new games. (We shall not speak of the dark times involving Mom's knitting.)  Lately, he's been testing out shoe stealing, which is great fun when The People get excited, chase him and he can whack their shins while shaking the boot to death.

It may not be as satisfying as clothesline jumping, but Morris understands that he has to keep trying.  I just wish he'd find something that doesn't leave bruises up my legs. Maybe I should take up agility training.  Then again, maybe it's time to set up another clothesline.

What?  Me, trouble?

Shake Your Booty!

Morris thinks there's a gopher in the pipe on top of the truck.
(Original photographs courtesy of Richard M.)

All my love to family and friends!

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Ordinary People: Keeping it Real

Mr. DD claims that the hardest struggle in life is to become ordinary.  At first I was puzzled - why would anyone want to be just, well, no more than he/she is?  If you don't aspire to greatness, won't you miss reaching your full potential?

If we work at being just ourselves, disinterested in what others think of us while we treat our time on the planet as one great experiment, how can we not become things of wonder?  If we're not concerned about fame or fortune, but continue to explore our interests, where we excel will become apparent.  If we attempt to impress others, we will be drawn towards deceit because what we are won't be good enough.  (I was caught in this in my last blog post, when I unintentionally left the impression that the yarn I photographed was my own.  It's not.  Someone else reeled and plied it.  It's stunningly beautiful, but I didn't make it.)

This doesn't mean that we should never show anyone what we spin, or knit or weave.  We need to build confidence in our work in order to grow.  Praise can help us build confidence; sincere criticism can help us solve problems we may not even see.  Any decent teacher needs a bit of the performer in her.  If we didn't enjoy the attention, we couldn't teach.  But it's not hard to fall into the trap of believing we know more than we do or that others need to believe that of us.

Becoming ordinary may change your view of the world.  It certainly gives me a lot to consider.


A basket of my silk singles

Thursday, 9 February 2012

You Spin Me Right Round, Baby: Working Through Confusion

                         Yogash chitta vrtti nirodhah.
                       (Yoga mind whirling stopping.) 
                       --The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali 1.2

Almost everyone with a more than passing interest in yoga has heard of Patanjali’s Sutras and knows that these oral traditions/texts are important.  My question has been, “Why?”  These threads are not instructive epics or parables which capture the imagination through story-telling.  They’re not commandments providing explicit direction for behaviour.  Even allowing for the confusion caused by working with a translation of the Sanskrit and the fact that the commentaries were written long after the original oral form, the Yoga Sutra reminded me of the ramblings of a group of intoxicated people, sitting around a fire, entertaining one another with their Deep Thoughts.  There is much talk of whirling mind and how to stop this, but attempting to understand these sutras on my own just makes my head spin more.

Stoned camping may make for a good time, but it doesn’t often produce works which capture the human imagination for thousands of years.  Clearly, my “why” stems from my modern perspective and lack of understanding of these texts.  My course is providing an opportunity to study the sutras and some of the commentaries on them.  What I've come to understand is that Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is a shorthand guide for those attempting deeper practice of yoga.  Without a guide or guru, the sutras are difficult or impossible to understand.  With guidance, exposition and practice, they shine light.
There is a parallel in yarn spinning, which I think is rather fitting, given that “sutra” translates as “thread” and I am interested in both actual and metaphorical threads.  With proper instruction, a student will quickly understand what I want her to do when I say, “Spin Z” or “Ply S.”  Given two words, she knows that she is to work in a specific way.  If I add a few more common spinning terms, which are likely incomprehensible to a non-spinner, that student can spin a precise yarn.  (In order to understand the nature of that yarn, she must actually spin it, not simply think about what it would be like.)  Thus:

                “Spin 2Z worsted 6 tpi; ply 2S 3tpi” means “Spin 2 yarns using parallel fibres clockwise with a short backward drafting technique, giving each yarn 6 twists per inch.  Twist these 2 yarns together counterclockwise so that the finished yarn contains 3 twists per inch.” 
As much as we may enjoy discourses on string, we can't learn to spin without making yarn.  Not only that, our spinning skills develop more quickly and strongly if we have a knowledgeable guide to help us.  (If you doubt this, try learning to spin by simply reading Mabel Ross, Allen Fannin or Alden Amos.  If you're anything like me, trying to understand Ross's shorthand without actual spinning the yarn makes my mind whirl more that the Yoga Sutra ever could.) 
The next time your spinning practice gets stuck, do your best to find a living, breathing spinner to help you with your problems.  That spinner doesn't have to be a "realized master" or even an expert.  Just look for someone who studies her craft, with attention and some devotion, with a good understanding of how to help you with your problems. 

Be grateful that you probably won't have to do this by sorting through layers of translation from Sanskrit.  On the other hand, I'm thinking that learning Sanskrit seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do right now.

A knowledgeable teacher may help you get from here

To here

Friday, 3 February 2012

Let's Hook Up: The Finale

I finished the blanket yesterday, taming the edges with two rows of single crochet.  I threw the throw into the washing machine, set the cycle on "hand knits" and let her run. 

Everything went well.  Nothing snagged and my colours didn't run, not even the deep purple of the logwood section.  The Romney singles softened nicely, although the blanket texture is still quite sturdy.  She measures 107 cm x 107 cm or 42 inches x 42 inches, which is a good size for a lap blanket or a meditation blanket.

The pattern is very simple: start with your favourite granny square and keep going until you run out of yarn.  I used a pattern of three double crochet, chain one, with the double crochet stitches worked into the chain one space.  Each corner was increased by working three chains between the double crochet stitches (instead of chain one); on the next round, work three double crochet, chain three, three double crochet in that chain three space and continue with your regular pattern.

I'm pleased with my first attempt at crocheting a larger work.  Can you tell?

The colours are more accurate in this photo and in the detail below.