Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Saturday, 31 August 2013

A Good Day to Dye: Ramblin' On About This and That

The world has been too much with me for the past few weeks.  I've been attending to life, not all of it pleasant, but no worse than most people face and less than many.  The yoga studio is taking a break; I've been working from home, editing and organizing. The weather has been hot, hot, hot-we had our hottest day of the summer last week and with it, humidity so intense that I had to stop and rest while walking home, which is pretty darned unusual. After that adventure, I stayed home, reading, spinning, knitting.

In preparation for my upcoming class on Breath and Meditation, I've been re-reading Jon Kabat-Zinn's Coming to Our Senses.  Kabat-Zinn tells us that we become what we practise: anxiety begets anxiety, anger begets anger and so on.  Our brains process emotions, physical experiences, information that we absorb and then our brains rewire so that whatever draws our attention becomes what we seek.  I see this most obviously in the pull that "social media" has on us-go for a walk and notice how many people are on the streets, texting, talking on their phones, earbuds in, attention to their surroundings off.  Stand on a corner and count the drivers in passing vehicles, cellphones in one hand, eyes not on the road.  Go for coffee and watch how many people check their devices in the middle of conversations, or stranger yet, sit in a group, playing with electronics, with nary a word spoken among it. What is so important that it leaves us unable to communicate with one another?  As far as I can tell, it's not issues that might require thoughtful attention and discussion; rather, we are caught up in the latest celebrity scandal, the current fashion, the fluff that skims the surface.

I'm as guilty of these practices as the next person-the main reason that I don't have a cell phone is that I'm afraid I'll never put it down.  I'm quite fond of my laptop and I waste a lot of time following unimportant things.  Because of that, I gave myself permission to withdraw for a while, to return to basics, to act, rather than react.  Today, I did this:

Dyes from top left to right: walnut hulls in iron pot; indigo and walnut hulls; indigo second bat;, lac, indigo, walnut and lac; fustic; top dyed with lac with walnut in iron pot. yarns in basket dyed with marigolds, alum; walnut hulls.

That dvd arrived yesterday.  In it, Nilda Callanaupa Alvarez talks to Linda Ligon (founder of Interweave Press) about spinning traditions in Nilda's home near Cusco, Peru.  Andean women use spindles like the one to the left of the dvd to spin some of the best wool and alpaca yarn in the world, from which they knit and weave exquisite, durable textiles. Those spindles are the only tools they have-anything else required for their work involves using their hands and feet. They spin and spin and spin-all day, every day, while attending to the necessities, cooking, cleaning, child care. The wonderful colours of the yarn balls on the dvd cover come from the dyes they produce themselves, usually from natural sources. Nothing is wasted; every bit of usable fibre is knitted, woven or made into ropes.  Tiny bits of yarn are burned so that the spirits don't find them and make the spinner lazy.

Inspired by this, I've been practising on my Peruvian spindle (courtesy of my friend, Coleen). It's kicking my butt.  I spin quite well, but working with raw wool, in the way Nilda demonstrates, is outside my comfort zone.  I'm used to commercially prepared fibres, with much of the work already done for me.  I spin on designer spindles made by expert woodworkers, rather than carving one for myself (although I do have a stick I picked up in the park that gets used once in a while).

Again inspired by Nilda, I spent today (thank you, cooler temperatures!) using up some bits of natural dyestuffs that I've had in storage.  As you can see from the photograph, the colours are subdued, compared to the vivid hues you can get from proper amounts of dyestuffs, but they're still nice, subtle and suitable for the knitter I have in mind.

After spending several weeks feeling overwhelmed, I feel myself settling. Nilda says that, when spinners have a bad day, they turn their attention to their spinning and it calms them "like a meditation."  Jon Kabat-Zinn says, "we need to get simpler, not more complicated."  What we seek is not inside this computer, that device, the tracking of the latest "controversy."  What we seek, what we know, is this:

Taking up the challenge of waking up to our lives and being transmuted by wakefulness itself is its own form of yoga, the yoga of everyday life, applicable in any and every moment (Coming to Our Senses, p. 91).

Not only to we need to, in the words of Ram Dass, "Be Here Now," we need to Stay Here Now.  Once in a while, step out of the vortex of social media.  You don't have to practise fibre arts or yoga or anything else in particular.  Simply, Engage.


Monday, 19 August 2013

Twisting By the Pool: Lessons from a Weekend Yoga Teacher Training Session

We moved the second day of this weekend's intensive yoga teacher training outside, to someone’s home, because of the heat and humidity. Yesterday was a day of “awareness of body, mind and spirit” under the sky. What a wonder to look up and watch the changing clouds, the variety of birds circling overhead and, yes, even the hornets buzzing around us, investigating why 18 people were stretched out on the driveway pavement and whether or not it was a good idea to taste them!  (By the way, I learned that it is indeed possible to get an impressive sunburn despite taking all precautions and staying in the shade.)

Even better was how well the theme fit the location; we focused on Restorative Yoga for the entire practice. People often assume that a Restorative Practice is simple, easy and doesn't involve much effort.  While the asana are fairly simple when compared to other Hatha Yoga asana, and while Restorative Yoga places much emphasis on relaxation, like anything else in yoga, meditation (and, yes, fibre work), each pose requires concentration, diligence, attention to detail and strength in spirit and body.

The best comparison I know in knitting would be garter stitch, the most basic pattern, all knit, all the time, so simple that anyone can do it, the first stitch pattern taught.  Just ask a knitter how difficult it can be to make an attractive, even garter stitch fabric or give someone who knits complex patterns the challenge of knitting a garter stitch garment that works to exact gauge.  A similar comparison can be found in spinning.  Most beginning spinners spin thick yarns and move into finer yarns with practice.  In my intermediate and advance classes, I often challenge spinners to spin a structurally sound, bulky yarn which doesn't feel like rope. Almost all experienced spinners I know find the return to what is often viewed as "easy" yarn to be far more difficult than they expected.

It requires dedicated effort to stay in beginners' mind, to remember what it was like before we were aware of how our shoulders move, how this muscle interacts with that joint, how hard it is to simply learn to "feel" again.  I have to remind myself of those first steps every time I step into a Renew class, despite the fact that I've had a few physical and emotional challenges in my life (as do we all).  It works this way with fibre arts students; I can't assume that beginning knitters know how to make a slip knot, let alone have any idea of what a knit stitch might look like, nor can I expect new spinners to know the difference between wool and alpaca.

I believe that every yoga practitioner should incorporate a Restorative component to her practice, just as I think that experienced knitters would do well to play with garter stitch and spinners should hone their skills making bulky, lofty yarns.  The thing is that, while we often think of such basic skills as, well, basic, it requires constant, dedicated attention to do any of them mindfully. Simplicity brings us back to the subtle, in movement and mind.  Like all good practice, it shifts our perspective and challenges our assumptions.

(Thanks to Lynn for hosting Day 2 of Yoga Teacher Training!)

Friday, 16 August 2013

Your Attention, Please: Meditation for the Oblivious

I was amused at a comment someone made to me about the Ten Breaths Meditation.  She said she'd love to practice this meditation, but she kept forgetting about it.  I enjoyed this, because I know what she means.  It sounds simple enough to take the length of ten breaths to notice the beauty which surrounds us, but it can be ridiculously hard to actually do this.

We are constantly running on autopilot, breezing through tasks and our days without having awareness of even things which require doing.  So, what if, instead of adding something into the mix, we started at the core and began to make notes on what we missed during our daily routine?  What if we began to work with being oblivious?

The thing about being oblivious is that, at least once in a while, no matter how often we fail to pay attention, something will wake us up.  You arrive at work and have no idea how you got there, except that it was by car and you were driving.  (That's usually good for a bit of a head shake.) You threw your house keys down somewhere-now it's time to lock up and you have no idea where those keys might be.  Those glasses you're looking for?  They're on your head.

The trick is to take note of what you miss without scolding yourself or adding items to your "Failure List."  Remembering what you didn't notice is a step in the right direction on the path to waking up to Now, because we can't notice that we're oblivious until we pay attention.   Besides, some of the things will be a source of amusement, if not for you, then for others who did notice. What's more fun than bringing a smile to someone?

I'll start you off with ten things I've failed to notice since yesterday. I wrote mine down, but making mental notes will work just as well.  Approach this practice with a sense of humour; meditation need not be Serious Freakin' Business:

  • The exact time I went to bed last night.  
  • The exact time I woke up this morning.
  • The colour of the yarn in the solar dye pot outside my back door.
  • Whether Morris pooped or peed when I let him out this morning.
  • The names of people who helped me in stores today, even when they wore name tags.
  • The way my balance shifts when I walk.  (No excuse for this one-I walk a lot.)
  • Exactly where Mr. DD parked the car when he waited for me to run errands. (Corollary: how long it took me to locate said car and driver.)
  • The particular way I draft when using my Tibetan spindles.
  • Where I left the meditation book I'm reading.
  • The open side zipper on the dress I wore while I was out doing errands all morning.  (So much for making a rare effort to dress up.)  

Ducks on the creek:  did you notice their colours?


Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Every Breath You Take: Practice in Difficult Times

I am involved in end of life care for someone I dearly love, whom many other people love dearly as well. My loved one has lived a long life and has touched those around her with her kind and open heart.  It's not easy to watch her preparing to leave us.  We all have her best interests at heart, but right now, the best action is inaction, according to her doctor and her own wishes.  As her primary caregiver at the moment, I'm facing the challenges of insisting on her right to these wishes; others don't agree and I don't always respond with my best yogic compassion.

It's been my experience that lifelines come when I need them, sometimes in unexpected ways.  I happened to pick up a copy of the September issue of Shambhala Sun the other day.  I'm not a Buddhist, but there is much in Buddhist philosophy which interests me.  This issue contains several articles on meditation, among them how to find the time to meditate, especially when facing challenges.  So it was that I came across a lovely and simple practice for those of us who tend to slough off our meditation, especially when other events seem more pressing.  It's called "The Ten Breaths Practice." (You can click on the practice name for more information.)  It's based on the knowledge that beautiful things-a dragonfly, a child's laugh, a piece of cloth-pass through our lives every day, but in our rush to be somewhere else, we fail to pay attention.  This practice challenges us to stop, to notice these wonders for the length of ten breaths.

Everyone has ten breaths in them (and if you don't, you don't need help in meditating), so this removes the excuse that we have no time to practice.  It challenges us to pay attention to what is happening now, several times a day.  We can practice anywhere, any time, without fuss.  There's no need to sit, no requirement to practice in a particular space, on a special cushion or to ignore whatever else may be going on with us.

If you're a fibre artist with a more practical inclination, you can apply this practice to your work.  The next time you're knitting a sock, for example, take the time to observe the beauty of the yarn, the clever shaping of the object, the wonder of your hands, just for the time it takes to knit one round.  My guesstimate is that one round of sock knitting requires between one and five minutes to complete, depending on the speed of the knitter and the complexity of the sock.  You're knitting anyway, so why not truly pay attention? The same effort can be applied to spinning; once in a while, rather than spinning mindlessly, bring your attention to what is happening as you spin an arm's length of yarn.  (It's not our goal, but I'm betting that your knitting and spinning will improve from the extra attention.)

We can apply this care for detail and the moment with anything we do.  If our attention insists on wandering, we can bring it back to that ten breath period and breathe in the beauty of Now.  We may find beauty in the cheerfulness of a bird singing; it may manifest itself in the grace of someone's departure from the planet.  No matter where it appears, pay attention, for the ten breaths that are in us all, until they are no more.

(for D.)

Thursday, 8 August 2013

I Can See Clearly, Now: Thoughts on a Less Than Perfect Yoga Practice

"Less than perfect;" now, there's an understatement.  The truth is, I'm not much of a yogini. (I don't even think of myself as such a creature.)  Asana practice is difficult for me. In yoga, we are warned of eventually hitting the wall or a plateau in our practice, a place where we can't seem to move forward.  In my case, that wall feels more like a rocky cliff I'm climbing, using only my bare hands and feet, and I can't see the top.  Sanskrit and anatomy terms don't stick in my head.  I do my reading.  I think I'm attentive, studiously highlighting passages and taking notes, but when asked to recite the eight limbs of yoga, I find myself tongue-tied. (Who would have thought?)  Far from being a shining example of a yoga practitioner, let alone an aspiring teacher, I feel as if I'm serving as the "horrible warning."

It's a long, rocky climb to those yoga peaks.

On Wednesday, Colin opened his Level 1 class by asking the question, "Why do I do yoga?"  His answer, for that day, was, "I practise yoga because it helps me see clearly."  He went on to explain that attention to asana charged his body-his skin becomes a heightened sensory organ which allows him expanded awareness of how he moves in space and how space moves around and within him.  We spent the next hour and a half exploring movements we often take for granted, beginning with a simple hand/arm moving meditation through precise alignment in Tadasana and into Utthita Trikonasana.  We explored the shifting of our feet as we moved from Triangle Pose into Utthita Parsvakonasana.  We took the postures to the wall, down onto the floor and drew our attention to the changes that occur when gravity is softened in the mix. We were encouraged to bring ourselves to the room, to the mat, to "the flick of the wrist" of which Kate Bush sings so poetically.  Then we were done. For now.

I think, maybe, this is why I continue to practise, despite knowing that my dreams of modelling for Yoga Journal will likely remain figments of my imagination, despite the frustration of no longer absorbing information the way I once did.  Although my primary interest lies in yoga therapy, I think that I might get what Colin means when he says that he practises yoga as an art form.

Practice as art is what calls me to fibre work, to drawing and painting, to writing.  I practise these things for the joy of doing, for the process. I can spin or knit or weave well when I choose to do so. I'm happy with the paintings, drawings and photos I produce.  I can write; sometimes, that writing is just dandy.  All this happens when/because I don't care about the results. Something calls me and I do it, over and over and over.  As a result of that repetition, that non-attachment to results, I become one with the act. It's there that I find the most success.

This didn't happen by magic.  None of it came easily to me-my first spinning instructor told me that I might as well quit (before the first day of a 3 day workshop was over) because I would never be a spinner.  I took all kinds of drawing and painting classes until I found a teacher whose response to my frustration at not drawing like the other students-"Why would you want to draw like everyone else?"-resonated with me and I finally allowed my personal style to grow.  The handful or so of paid writing gigs I've had would be lost under the pile of rejection letters, if I'd kept them.  (By the way, a rejection by email is not as painful for some reason.) A sensible person would have quit by now, but a stubborn person would not. I have been known to display a stubborn streak now and then.

So it is with yoga.  I practise and I make the effort to practise sincerely, in the best way I'm able in that moment.  Although I'm in teacher training, my goal is not necessarily to be a yoga teacher, or rather, I don't assume that I'll teach anyone but myself .  Most of the time, I struggle to find improvement, because I haven't learned to be unattached to results in yoga, but I carry on working.  Sometimes, just for a moment, I notice something about Tadasana, how a slight movement would improve my pose, how this muscle or that muscle is a bit stronger than it was a year ago when I move into Triangle Pose, how mental struggles are not as constant as they were a few months ago.  Once in a while, effort shifts into skill, the fog lifts and I can see the top of that mountain.  It's distant, perhaps unattainable, but the art is in that slight shift in my hands, attention to the placement of my feet, the feel of my body as it moves in space.  I'm not yet ready to let go and allow my practice to simply happen, but, when I look back, down to the valley, I can see how far I've come.  It's been a nice journey, so far.


Sunday, 4 August 2013

The Sound of Silence: Camping at the Farm

Looking east over the dug out

The first thing I notice is the silence. It's not the silence we think we have when we adjust to the cacophony of city life.  This is a quiet with spaces, where I hear a tractor in the distance, the sound of a jet overhead, faint reminders of urban machinery that punctuate the sound of birds, horseflies and the breezes blowing through the poplars looming over the dam-a silence that contains those sounds at the point of simply hearing, before my brain names them, before my mind organizes its thoughts. 

We’re at the farm. I’d forgotten how quiet it is out here, how “away” you feel, although you’re only steps from the gravel road and 5 miles from town.  Mike, the nearest neighbour, lives a half mile to the east.  He rents our fields and his durum wheat is thick, my shoulder height and green, so green, at least until the light changes with the sunset.

West field, durum wheat

Morris lies by my feet.  He poked around a bit this morning, chewing and digging his way into a patch of mud, after which he had his lunch. Now he’s ready for a nap.  He’s out here all the time with Mr. DD, but he has never stayed overnight, nor with me in tow.  A creature of habit, he's not sure he approves of my presence, but it does mean more attention-Mick the cat is too old and cranky to make the trip-so he's content, for the moment.

There's much to investigate.

It’s been four or five years since I was here. My last visit occurred when we cleared out my mother-in-law’s house in town.  It was a painful process; we were grieving and the day did not go well.  After that life happened and I never visited.  Until today.  There are good memories here, more happy ones than sad.  The old trailer where we spent most summer weekends with the kids is run down and raccoon-battered, but the fun we had there is not.  Memories of long, boring days for the children, nights spent playing cards and visiting by coal oil lamp light, amazing sunsets and terrifyingly beautiful thunderstorms are etched in my heart.  Pets are buried here, along with unknown ancestors.  Perhaps, someday, I will be, too.

Right now, I’m happy to sit by the camper that has replaced the old house trailer, with Morris napping as Mr. DD works on the old tractor, content to do what he does best, fixing things.  I write and read, spin, knit and paint, in the silence, as the wind cascades through the poplars, meadowlarks sing, a handsome garter snake slithers past my feet and the clouds roll on overhead.

All is well.