Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Monday, 30 January 2012

Life is a Highway: Travelling the Yoga and Fibre Road

When we walk the path of yoga and meditation, there's no end to the journey, at least while you're on this planet.  You take yoga practice as far as you like - you can experiment with a few postures and stop there, go a little further along the path with meditation, or spend your life exploring the meaning and value of sustained practice.  What you do and where you go is up to you, with one caveat: if you decide that you've found "the answer" to it all, your practice will come to a halt.  Once you think you've stumbled across the true meaning of life, you've lost it.  Yoga travels along an endless, meandering path; that thing you think is home is really a giant boulder, an obstacle in your road.

It's that way with spinning, knitting and fibre arts, too.  As long as we continue to explore the arts we love, we continue to learn.  Although I have decades of spinning and knitting behind me, there are mountains of knowledge I haven't climbed.  Even small things can bring us joy when we discover them for the first time.

The crocheted blanket is coming along nicely.

I learned Norwegian cast on yesterday.  It's a simple variation on Long Tail cast on, but provides a stretchy edge which is great for socks.  I learned this technique from a DVD in the Deluxe Edition of The Knitter's Companion, by Vicki Square. I have the earlier edition and it's wonderful, but I'd meant to update to the new one.  Sharon at Golden Willow gave me a copy of the new version on Saturday.  It was a wonderful, helpful gift and the DVD's contain many demonstrations of things I do not know.

I know a fair bit about knitting, including several cast on methods, finishing techniques and blocking methods, but if I had decided that I knew all I needed to know about knitting, I would have missed the information contained in this knitting guide.  By staying open to new possibilities, I now have fresh ideas which can improve my own work and which may help me with my teaching.  What I learned isn't earth-shattering, but it's new and fresh and helps to keep my brain active.

The next time you are offered new possibilities and are undecided about taking them, ask yourself this: further down the road, will I regret not taking the opportunity to do . . . ?  If the answer is "yes," then take the leap.  At worst, you can only fail; sometimes failure is our best teacher.

If I didn't step away from the obstacle of knowing-it-all, I'd never have explored linking spinning, knitting and fibre arts to meditation.  If I believed I knew all I needed to know about yoga, I'd never taken a class I'm enjoying thoroughly.  If I thought there was no way I could guide a yoga therapy class, I would never have been given the opportunity to teach one.

It's fine to take a break from whatever you are exploring in life, but never stop travelling.  There are so many learning opportunities, even if those opportunities are small things, like a new way to start your knitting or a variation on how you build your spindle cop.  It's the small things that enrich us and expand our world.  Keep exploring.


Mickey (aka The Buddha) explores new possibilities for my sweater.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Let's Hook Up!

I'm having a reading and study day today, working on more ideas about yoga and how it applies to authentic teaching.  During breaks, I'm working on a project which combines destashing yarn and improving my crocheting skills.

There was a granny square frenzy at the store on Saturday.  Mar is exploring colour and value by making many, many granny squares, from carefully dyed yarn.  Mar is perfection personified and so are her squares, which are beautifully crafted and sorted according to gradient scales.  I'm sure note taking is involved because that's just the way Mar rolls.

So impressed were others by these squares, that granny squares became the test pieces for the new crochet hooks which had just arrived at Golden Willow.  Some people made squares from scrap yarn; one person had a large granny square blanket on the go.  Donna talked about how her friend used up all her scraps by crocheting them at random into an afghan.  Sharon and Mar helped Karen build a square that didn't turn into a flower.

They seemed to be having great fun.  I was working, or that was the theory, so I didn't think it fair to be crafting for my own amusement.  Besides, the thought of sewing together a batch of squares, or sewing anything for that matter, makes me cringe.  (I've mentioned my allergy to sewing, I'm sure.)

Still, the granny square challenge called to me.  The next day, while I was clearing out yarn, I came across a bag of hand spun and dyed Romney singles I'd spun years before for an unlikely-to-be-woven tapestry.  Donna's words about her friend's scrap blanket came to me and I had the solution!  I would crochet one granny square using the singles.  The square would be as large as the yarn allowed.  The only sewing involved would be darning ends.

I'm discovering that crocheting has a rhythm all its own.  It's also quick, so I'm caught up in the ever-changing colours as the square progresses.  I like the sturdy texture of the Romney yarn and, with crocheting, I don't have to worry about biasing from over twist in the singles.  I still have to count stitches; I've begun to connect the "one-two-three-one" count of the triple stitches with my breath, so there is a bit of meditation and pranayama involved in the process. 

Gandhi frequently spoke of work as worship, in practising devotion in whatever we do.  I'm not sure that I'm devoted to the work of granny square making, but this single square is coming along nicely, I think:

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Higher Again: On the Subject of Authenticity

Yoga, knitting and fibre arts are riding waves of popularity now.  All kinds of courses and websites are popping up exploring these subjects, often attempting to give fresh perspectives on old subjects.  You can take Yin Yoga, Hot Yoga, Yoga and Pole Dancing, Laughter Yoga, Holy Yoga.  If you're a knitter, you can explore colour work, brioche, free form knitting, Portuguese knitting, Andean knitting, knitting as art or political statement.  It can be overwhelming, especially for someone exploring yoga for the first time or for the new knitter.  How do we know where to start?  How do we determine what will help us and what will cause harm.  (This is more likely a hazard in yoga.  You can do real harm to your body in a yoga class.  In most cases, the results of bad knitting are frustration and, well, badly knit items.)

What is and what isn't "real" is problematic.  Colin (my professor) points out that "Real yoga tends to be everything I like.  Fake yoga is everything I don't like." That certainly is true for me; there are many things promoted as yoga and meditation that I dislike and even more things in the current knitting scene that rub me the wrong way. When you dislike something, it's a good idea to examine your reasons for the antipathy.  Let's see if we can begin to examine the idea of "real" or "authentic."

It's important to note that we are discussing skill level and commitment here, not personal worth. Taking an interest in something, whether you do it in depth or not, is not a measure of your value as a person. You may be the best knitter in the world - is there such a thing? - and still be a despicable, nasty being. There are a lot of skilled, but grumpy and unpleasant yogis around. If we can separate personality from exploration, we may be able to examine the subject more objectively.

Suppose you take up knitting and discover that you enjoy knitting dishcloths.  You knit these by the bushel load and you become very skilled at making dishcloths.  They're all you knit - you have no desire to try anything else.  You knit, but are you a real knitter?

Now suppose you take up knitting and discover that this becomes an in depth subject for you.  You explore as many stitches and patterns as you can.  You read about knitting, you search on line for anything that will improve your skills.  Perhaps you achieve accreditation in hand knitting.  Knitting becomes a lifelong pursuit.  Are you a knitter, now?  More to the point, is your knitting more real, more authentic than that of the dishcloth knitter?

If you are only knitting for yourself, what you do and how you do it affects only you.  When you move into selling your products or teaching, the issue of authenticity becomes more important.  We speak harshly of elitism, for good reasons.  Elitism used as a tool to control and oppress others is a danger; however, elitism may have value when we are looking for who can best teach us.

If you want to learn something, would you rather learn it from a person who has been knitting for a week or from someone who has spent time and effort learning her skills and how best to teach them, especially if money (sometimes a fair amount of cash) is involved?  Would you prefer to learn from someone whose primary interests are marketing and monetary gain or from someone interested primarily in passing along her knowledge?  Are these things mutually exclusive?

Move past knitting into yoga.  Can someone with a weekend certification in yoga practice be as effective a teacher as someone who has studied yoga in some depth, who has perhaps studied anatomy, and who practices on a regular basis? 

You may think that the answers are obvious, but a lot rides on intent (yours and the teacher's) and bias.  I know that I look for teachers in any subject who know their stuff, who practice what they teach rather than depend on theoretical knowledge and who are constantly exploring and pushing their own boundaries.  Then again, I tend to dive fully into subjects which interest me and I have the luxury of time that enables me to do this.  When the allotments of time and money are the same, I look for the teacher who has gathered the largest body of knowledge and who knows how to pass that information along to others.

The flashiest teacher or even the teacher who knows a lot is not necessarily the best. I've taken classes from well-known instructors who were clearly out of their depth as teachers, who didn't know what they purported to know, who didn't know how or didn't care to pass that information on to others and who would not consider other ideas, especially from students.  Most of the time, I look for the teacher who is open, clear about his/her biases and who enjoys what he or she does and teaches and who doesn't withhold that knowledge. As Colin says, these people tend to "beam" with the beauty of their knowledge.

Look for those people.


I'm so caught up in my class that I'm not knitting or spinning much, but I am working on stash reduction.  The yarn on the Hatchtown spindle is from a batt I blended.  I'm knitting the scarf from a 50/50 blend of qiviuq and merino.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Higher Part 3: Fibre Arts Meditation and Moving Inward

We sit on our cushions.  We meditate.  We spin.  We knit.  We're not looking for particular results, but it's in our nature to wonder: does any of this have practical benefits?

Fibre artists donate their time, efforts and money to many worthy causes.  Whether it be to premature infants, people struck by disaster or hapless penguins, crafters are always willing to donate hats, blankets, sweaters, whatever is needed, when they are needed.  The action can be political, too -  as witnessed by knitting support for the Occupy Movement.

Do more subtle changes occur as a result of our practice?  Given time, yoga and mindfulness can provide a shift in our perspective, a change in thought that may deepen our connections to other beings and the planet.

You won't be far along your spinning path before you realize the commitment and skill required to spin a good piece of string.  Spinning gives us new respect for the materials we use.  Instead of  always reaching for yarn that represents the best bargain for us, we may begin to think about the processes involved in supplying that yarn.  Just how can the $5 skein of yarn from across the world provide a living wage for its makers?  Would we be willing to make $5 yarn, even if we kept all the profits (never mind the numerous middlemen set to take their cut)?  Would it make more sense to buy locally?

If these questions arise, they are more likely to manifest slowly, subconsciously, rather than hit you over the head with moral dilemma.  I knit dozens of pairs of socks before I realized that I hadn't purchased myself a pair of Big Box Store socks for years.  Now that I understand the costs required to produce a pair of $3 socks and the likelihood that sock producers see very little return for their efforts, I no longer have the urge to buy cheap socks.  Apart from the ethical issues, sock knitting provides meditative moments in my busy days.  Besides, hand knit socks feel and wear better than inexpensive house brand footwear.

A word of caution: becoming aware of these connections among sentient beings and deciding on a course of action isn't a license for self-satisfaction or judgment.  I may no longer buy BBS socks, but I do stock up on winter tights every few years and I refuse to knit my own underwear.  We also never know the effects our actions have on others.  I may believe that knitting my own socks will contribute to the decline of sweatshops and child labour, when what I'm really doing is depriving someone of desperately needed income, no matter what the working conditions.

All we can do is live our lives in good faith and hope that we leave the planet a bit better, or at least, not make things worse.  Meditation practice brings us to awareness and connection.  It's a good place to start.


This week's knitting: working through my sock yarn stash

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Higher: Using Spinning as Meditation Practice

Much of yoga principle and thought is based on the notion of inward, outward and upward.  A yogini turns inwards to meditate and still the chattering mind.  She may then move outward, putting effort into right work and right action.  The ultimate goal is to move upward to a higher Self, an Absolute.  What all this comes down to, as I see it, is that we examine our "self," whatever that may be and make an effort to use any knowledge to make our world a better place.  Whether or not that involves an Absolute or just what that Absolute might be is up for debate.

How can we use spinning, knitting, etc. to practice yoga?  We know that intense focus on spinning and knitting can lead to calming states, although these states may be more "zoning out" than becoming attuned. It's fairly easy to extend this knowledge into deliberate yoga/meditation practice.  Find yourself a spindle, some fibre, a quiet, comfortable space to sit and begin.

Set a timer for 10 to 15 minutes.  That time will be devoted to spinning and only spinning.  You will not be spinning for a purpose; you will not be spinning to fill time, to busy your hands while you watch television.  You will not be spinning to escape anything; rather, your full attention will be on the spindle, the movement of fibre into yarn, the winding of yarn onto the spindle shaft, without judgment.  Every time your mind wanders (and it will), bring your attention back to the spindle.  If it helps your concentration, focus on one aspect of spinning, such as the turn of the whorl or drafting, or the feel of the yarn as it changes from fibre to string.

At first you'll be restless, even if (perhaps especially if) you are an experienced spinner.  You will wander off into thinking, judging your actions and their results.  When you become aware of this, gently bring yourself back to spindle and yarn.  The awareness of wandering mind is part of mindfulness.  You will think, "This is silly, boring, useless, fun, whatever."  None of this matters.  Remember, you don't have to like the practice; you just have to do it.  Stay with it, no matter how difficult or easy this practice seems, until the timer ends your session.  Slowly, put spindle and fibre aside and resume your usual activities.

Doing daily spinning meditation sessions, 10 minutes a day, is akin to the time you spent learning to spin in the first place.  Here, you're training mind to stay in the moment, to bring your full attention back to spinning, not allowing the muscle memory you developed when you learned to spin to lull you into mindlessness.  Keep at it and you may find that your "monkey mind" becomes a bit calmer and you move into stillness more easily.

It's a simple idea, but it must be practiced, rather than explained, in order to receive any benefits which may or may not occur.  Start now.  Pay attention.

Simple.  Not so easy.


Thursday, 12 January 2012

Higher: On the Subject of Lofty Spinning

Gandhian Philosophy of the Spinning Wheel

School is keeping me busy.  I'd forgotten how much time and effort is involved to study and participate effectively, even for a single class. 

In addition, I was asked to take over a Relax and Renew yoga class.  Although I've practised yoga for years and taught for a long time, I've never taught a yoga class.   I wasn't tapped for my brilliant asanas and instructional skills.  I was the only one available to teach this class and I was looking for a way to thank the studio for all it's given me.  So, in I leaped.

My experiences have me thinking: how did I get here?  At what point did yoga, meditation and fibre arts become my life?  How on earth did I decide to combine my spinning with meditation practice?  Why do this?

If the combination of sitting and string seems "weird" (as some so straightforwardly put it), the idea of combining the mundane with the spiritual has a long tradition, from spinning for magic and ceremonial purposes down to "The Man" himself - Mohandas K. Gandhi.

Even non-spinners know the association between Gandhi and the spinning wheel, especially the charkha.  Lesser known is the philosophy which led to Gandhi's commitment to the wheel and cotton spinning.  There is not a lot of popular literature available on Gandhi and spinning, but while I was searching for references to Gandhi and karmayoga (loosely meaning "yoga through action"), I came across a reference to a gem of a book, the cover of which is pictured above.  (I have no idea why the image insists on separating itself from the body of my post.  Sometimes the mysterious ways of the cyberworld defeat me.)

The book is apparently unavailable for purchase, but I've been able to read excerpts on line.  So far, it's the best synthesis I've found of Gandhi's philosophy and his commitment to spinning both as meditation and as a vehicle for the greater good.  The author, Mohit Chakrabarti, nicely sums up Gandhi's choice of cotton spinning as symbol and action:

Why does Gandhi take recourse to the spinning wheel when discipline is essentially a training of the mind which can be well-exercised by means of other media of exercise of the mind?  The answer, as Gandhi advocates, is quite clear.  He is quite aware of the two types of disciplines necessary for the growth and development of being viz., inward and outward.  Quite unlike other humanists, Gandhi launches his programme for introducing the spinning wheel to serve the twin purposes of inward discipline while undergoing outer discipline or discipline in the extrinsic form at the same time. (p. 11)
So there you have it: spinning, with its steady rhythm and repetitive movement is a means to draw us inward.  In the process, we make a product which can be used practically and symbolically.  In Gandhi's case, cotton spinning helped end British colonial rule in India.

Now, I don't have such lofty goals, nor do I fancy myself walking in Gandhi's footsteps.  The thing is, Gandhi was not "Mahatma" until others made him so.  Gandhi was no more or less that human, with all the faults and contradictions attached to the human condition.  Sometimes quick to anger, he was by his own admission, often unkind, especially to his wife.  Gandhi was a product of his time and culture, as are we all.  Yet he found a way to transcend his faults.  He used simple means to change his world, inch by inch, thread by thread, with a constant return to mindfulness and right practice.

Gandhi's devotion to spinning and the changes he effected is a practice worth exploring.  I'd like to go there for a while and see if I can apply some of Gandhi's ideas and actions to my life.

Let's go higher and see where we land.


Thursday, 5 January 2012

Werewolves in London and Other Scary Things

I don't make New Year's resolutions.  Resolutions are thoughts, good intentions, but they tend to fall apart when they get to the action stage - at least they do for me.  I work on effort, or attempts at effort, and I put them in to practice as the situation arises.

Often as not, those situations arise about this time of year, after a period of indulgence in which there's been too much "stuff" and not enough doing - meditation slides, yoga classes take a break, cold days curtail walking.  By the first week in January, I've had enough. My temper is short, my grievances are long - I would have been a wonderful participant in Festivus.  While I'm not quite howling at the moon or growing hair on the backs of my hands, I want to get back to my routine, my yoga, my work.  I need to get back on my cushion.

Routine can be wonderful, helping me plot a steady course through life, keeping me on track for what needs to be done now; however, too much routine can leave me in a rut, plodding along doing the same things the same way, dulling me down so that I miss adventures placed in my path.  I need challenges to balance my habits.

Everyone should do scary things in their lives.  Whether those scary things involve travelling to exotic worlds, bungee jumping or simply rearranging the furniture, a shift in perspective can change your view of life, making everything seem fresh.

Notice that I say "do" rather than "experience."  Life is full of scary things, most of them not by choice and many of them not by our making.  Illness or adversity may add spark to a dull life but that's not the kind of challenge I'm talking about here.  When facing those challenges, it's tough enough just to keep your act together, never mind trying to appreciate the adventure of the experiences.  It's the things we do by choice that keep our minds active and our options open.

What am I doing to ward off the werewolves of discontent this year?  It's a biggie - I'm going back to school.  It's only one course, but it's a full credit course involving academic papers, midterms and a 3 hour final. It's been a while since I've taken university classes; the last time I did this, tiny dinosaurs roamed the hallways.  (Well, maybe not quite, but the women in the Registrar's Office were mightily impressed by my old student card with the embedded metal plate which was used, as I had to explain, to make carbon copies of everything. I'm sure they were also stunned by how much I still resembled my very young self, although they were too polite to say so.)

The class?  Yoga: Teachers, Texts and Techniques, taught by Colin Hall, co-owner of the yoga studio where I practice.  Before you assume this will be a cakewalk, let me tell you that, as a yoga instructor, Colin is a tough master who expects the best of his students.  The main textbook contains 18 chapters on the history of yoga and its schools.  I hadn't made it past the introduction before it dawned on me that I might have a bumpy ride.

That's the point, isn't it?  When we act outside of our habitual selves, we have to stay alert, awake to all possibilities before us.  Off I go, silver bullet, or at least a shiny new silver pen, in hand.

Which reminds me - I need a haircut.


Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The Wall: Learning to Cope With Negative Experiences

I lost my voice last week.  A wicked virus signalled its arrival by leaving me exhausted on Christmas Eve.  I made it through Christmas Day, but woke up on Boxing Day, unable to make a sound.  Although Mr. DD was convinced I was hoarse from too much talking the night before, the next few hours proved that something else was happening.

I spent the next week in bed, pretty much.  Boxing Day gatherings, a family dinner, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day celebrations left me behind.  The children departed and the world kept moving without much of a contribution from me.

On top of this, a good friend is having a rough time and I am powerless to do anything but send good thoughts while he struggles.  Any words of sympathy I can extend won't help him ease his burden. 

It was all a bit much.  The next thing I knew, my literary "voice" had followed my literal voice.  Blogging, journalling, even simple thank you notes were beyond my capabilities. Meditation, knitting and spinning were out of the question.

What do we do when the world overwhelms us?  The traditional advice is to "buck up, look on the bright side."  Things will change and we know that, but when we're sinking in an ocean of tough experience, false cheer can seem more of an anchor than a lifeboat.

We experience emotions as physical responses to events, real or perceived. Objectively, anger and sorrow are as valid emotionally as are happiness and joy.  It's our labelling of the emotion and our reaction  and attachment to it that dictate whether our experience is positive or negative.  Rather than trying to play "Pollyanna" with unpleasant events, we can try to experience the event as it is, rather than how we feel it to be.

In other words, if we're sick, then we should be sick, fully and completely, allowing ourselves the time to experience what is happening, allowing ourselves time to heal, without fighting what is or being angry that we are not experiencing something else.  If we can't knit or spin, then we need to experience the reality of not spinning or knitting. Don't sulk because you'd rather be spinning than doing housework, studying, or being ill.  Just abide in whatever you are experiencing in this moment.

Simple, yes.  Difficult, yes, but if you focus your energy into being ill, you may find that the time you spend in illness before the next change occurs will be shorter than if you wasted energy fighting the inevitable.

It was only when I gave up, admitted that I had to stop moving for a while, and took to my sickbed fully, that I began to gather enough resources to feel better.  I missed a lot of fun last week, but at least I'm not suffering from anger or resentment from missing out.  I'm feeling much better now.

Sometimes, life sucks and we just want to punch a wall. That's okay - we may find that punching through that wall is what we need to move through our pain. The next time life deals you a blow and you feel like punching a wall, go ahead.  Just remember that some actions are better done in mind only!