Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Talk, Talk: A Scattered Post About Nothing in Particular

The festivities in this city around Grey Cup are winding down and I'm preparing for another adventure, so my thoughts are a bit unfocused at the moment.  Rather than attempting to bend my mind to my will, I've decided to go with whatever comes my way, although I've tried a few tricks to keep things in check, including scrubbing the house from top to bottom and knitting, knitting, knitting.

The themes of the week at the yoga studio are gratitude, symmetry and feet; in honour of that, I gave myself a pedicure this morning and finished the third set of Sarah's Soxy Legwarmers. They fit the theme quite nicely-two to a set, more or less the same (perfect symmetry is not necessarily the goal), they're for the feet and I'm grateful to have them done:

One of these pairs is for me, although I'm not sure which one.  I gave away all the other sets and now the yarn I favour for knitting these, Noro Bonbori, has been discontinued and is difficult to find. It's time to find a substitute.

The past week, we had lows of -25C to -30C, which felt much colder with the windchill.  In typical prairie fashion, the weather warmed to 3C on Sunday, but it's back down to -12C today, with a windchill of -20C, which is colder than normal, even for us.  This means that it's officially Excellent Winter Knitting Weather and the push is on to get busy with those intended holiday gifts.

Others cope with the cold differently.  Morris loves to play in the snow.  He insists on helping Mr. DD with the shovel, by chasing it, biting at it and jumping through the snow piles. What Morrie does not like is walking in cold weather.  Soon after his arrival at our home, some seven years ago, he informed us in no uncertain terms that he is far too dignified a dog to be caught out in public wearing boots and a coat.  As a result of this declaration, he spends much of his winter curled up on his couch, exploring new and decorative ways to burrow into his cozy blanket:

Morris, the Invisible!

He's convinced that we can't see him.  If there's any shake, rattle or possibility of food, he performs a modern miracle and reappears from his den:

He makes me laugh.  I'm grateful for that and for all things that come to me as I walk this planet.  I'm off on a new journey for the next few days. I hope to be back posting soon.  Until then, take care.


Monday, 18 November 2013

How to Change a Life: The Pain of Human Experience

I've spent the past five days in a workshop on pain and pain management, given by Neil Pearson, a yoga therapist based in Penticton, B.C.  Neil's insights and approaches to pain are life changing, not only in terms of what he teaches about pain, but how his message applies to every aspect of the human experience.

The brain's systems are complex pathways of information in which all experience is translated into messages for various systems in the body. The systems are integrated; everything that happens in the body affects the pathways and messages sent to and by the brain back into the system.  How we interpret and react to those messages trains the entire system, breath, body, brain, mind and spirit.

In the case of pain, we believe that the degree of pain is an indicator of the severity of a problem in the body, which is simply not true-Neil's example was a paper cut, a relatively harmless injury which can produce fairly severe amounts of pain. (Pain is actually one of the warning systems used to protect us.)  If we react to pain in non-productive ways, we can train the brain to increase the signals to our bodies and intensify the pain, extending it out to other places in the body.  We can also train the brain to numb the body so that we are no longer able to correctly interpret the data we need to live our lives fully.  (Think of "checking out.")  "Pain is pain" for the brain; it doesn't matter to the system whether the initial reaction came from physical or emotional experience.  Physical pain is always attached to emotion.  Emotional experiences can cause physical pain.

All of this is good news, because the brain is so adaptable.  The brain loves to learn; if we find the ways we need to teach ourselves to manage our human condition, whatever that may be now, we open ourselves up to rich, productive experiences with a potential for joy, no matter what is happening in our physical or emotional bodies.

This workshop was just the tip of the iceberg for me in terms of understanding and managing pain, which, of course, is part of the human condition-we all have pain.  I won't begin to advise how to manage that pain. For that, you need to head over to Neil's website, Life is Now. What I will ask you to consider how we can begin to approach pain differently. In Neil's words, we need:

  • Planning
  • Practice
  • Persistence
  • Patience

If you're a knitter, or a spinner, or a weaver, or you'd like to be, you know that the first thing you need to do in order to learn something new is to recognize that you want to learn something new.  In other words, we need to acknowledge that we want to learn to knit before we can learn to knit.  After that, we need some sort of plan to learn that new skill-perhaps we buy a stitch dictionary, sign up for a class, gather some yarn and needles. Once we've done that, we can proceed to practise casting on, forming the knit stitch, combining it with the purl stitch, finding just the right combination of knits and purls to give us the pattern we want.  We will have many false starts.  We will discover that what worked for someone else does not work for us.  If we are determined to learn to knit, we will keep practising, persisting in our efforts to learn what best suits us.  This takes time and patience, but we know that, in the long run, the combination of all these things will give us new skills which not only allow us to follow basic knitting techniques, but also provide us with opportunities to extend those new skills into more complex experiences, such as learning to knit garments, or using knitting as an art medium. 

How we adapt in one area will teach us methods for adapting in other aspects of our lives, which is why I find fibre arts so effective in building a meditation practice or in calming the breath, body, mind and spirit.  If you have learned to knit or spin, you quite literally have at hand the skills you need to manage other aspects of your life, including pain.  

As Neil says, "Pain is a troublesome human experience, much like love," and much like love, we need to learn not only how to manage it, but also how to listen to what it can teach us.


Tuesday, 12 November 2013

ABC/Poetry in Motion: Building a Practice

Yoga teacher training this weekend was all about the alphabet.  Saturday focused on anatomy, the foundation of sound, safe asana practice.  (I missed the session, for reasons which couldn't be avoided; sometimes the body will not do what the mind wants.)  On Sunday, we turned our attention to sequencing poses and began working on pranayama.  

Understanding anatomy in yoga is similar to learning the basic stitches in knitting. Although human anatomy is far more complex and intricate than the foundations of knit and purl stitches, when we master the basics of either, we can develop a feel for what the body or the fabric requires.  Learning the ABC's of anything helps us to ensure that what we do is structurally sound.

One of the things which stayed with me from Sunday was Colin's statement that Iyengar yoga is difficult to sequence because it provides you with the alphabet and expects you to create poetry.  Other styles of yoga range from rigidly scripted to "do what feels good." Each has its charms.  Just as some people love a well-structured sentence in a detailed work of non-fiction or the complexity of a lace knitting chart and others prefer spoken word performances at open mic sessions, every yoga practitioner will be drawn to a certain practice (which, by the way, may not be the practice you need). 

The equivalent to poetry for me is free-form knitting, in which one picks up needles, yarn and sets off, without a plan or a goal, other than to work with string and see what happens. Most of the time, the work is flawed (especially if you follow the rule of no frogging). Sometimes it's a total disaster.  Once in a while, you get a fine piece of fabric.  Best of all, whatever you produce is a "one off; " since you don't keep records and rely on intuition, the work becomes a "string poem," never to be duplicated.  Like good poetry, it captures the essence of its materials (in word or yarn) in specific moments of inspiration.

The current free-form work in progress, in various hand spun yarns, with its source of inspiration.  Right now,  the piece is headed towards disaster, but I'm not ready to declare defeat.  

None of these things-poetry, free-form fabric or a well-balanced yoga practice-comes easily. Each requires study, effort, practise, practise and more practise, all of it punched up with a good measure of frustration. We can also be inspired by the work of others-for me this includesWilliam Butler Yeats's poetry, Mizzie Morawez's fibre art and this little book, which I found in Kelowna: Awakening the Spine by Vanda Scaravelli. It's a blend of story telling, photography and personal yoga practice, a fine illustration of how one's yoga practice can move beyond asana into poetry, a blend of body, breath and life force taken to a level of art.

We must know the rules in order to break the rules-get it right and our work will flow. Our energy will be directed to suit our needs.  We may never achieve a practice that is acknowledged as "art," but with effort, focus and stillness will come.  Best of all, we will have the pleasure of the journey.  And that will be the finest poetry of all.


Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Man, I Feel Like a Woman: Ringing the Changes

I'm an old school Iyengar person.  When I began practising, poses were done in a certain way, as precisely as possible.  Every pose was deemed suitable for either sex-unless you were experiencing "female problems," as people so quaintly put it.  One of the cardinal rules of yoga was that the practitioner should "square the hips" in poses such as Triangle, Side Angle, Warrior and many, many more.  I was young; I trusted my teachers and I wanted to perfect the poses, so I did as I was told.  Apart from the occasional ache from overdoing things, I had no serious problems practising this way.

Flash forward a few years.  I'm older, with a couple of grown children, some issues from past surgeries, the usual challenges which come with the years.  As a yoga teacher in training, I want to do my best, so I'm in the studio a lot.  I recognize that I can't practise the way I did in my early years and I know when to back off on a pose.  I never "push through pain."  So, it came as a great surprise to me when a decades-old physical problem began to bother me again in the past few months.

Simply put, I was literally experiencing a pain in the butt.  (Yes, I do appreciate the irony.) The pain radiated from my left butt cheek down my left leg, and is most likely caused by problems with my SI joint.  I've been sleeping on floors, in chairs and on hospital beds the past few weeks, so I was sure this was the cause of the flare up.  I was also convinced that the way to fix it was to do more yoga asana and stretching.  While some poses brought a temporary solution, the pain increased until I've had to take painkillers once in a while in order to sleep at night.  I don't like taking painkillers.

Yesterday, I went to class, mentioned to Colin about the issues I was having and that I probably shouldn't practice lunges, or any poses which involved a lot of hip movement. Colin nodded.  Class started and he began telling us that we would be experimenting with Triangle Pose.  My heart sank. Things got worse when he called me up to the front to demonstrate the pose; I was so tentative that I nearly forgot how one moved into the pose and I couldn't resist asking if I was okay to do it.  Colin assured me that I was.

I should have known better than to question Colin about building asana.  (I do know better.) As I moved, in what I thought was true Iyengar fashion, I automatically squared my hips. At that point, Colin stopped me. "Let your hips move with the feet," he instructed.  (How shocking!)  Round went my hips, following the angle of my right foot as I moved to the right side.

Somehow, magically (not), my body moved without pain.  As I allowed my hips to revolve and then adjusted my torso to move upward, I felt a sense of freedom.  The pain in my butt eased.  There was none of the pinching I usually feel around my rhomboid muscle into my shoulder blade every time I attempt Triangle.  We used a strap to guide the shoulder and torso into place and I was amazed at the range of motion available to me.  Later, practising at home in order to remember the movements, I discovered that I could bring my bottom hand nearly to my ankle.  (This isn't a goal; however, we always practise these poses using blocks.  It's been years since I could move this far.)

After class, Colin told me about an article he read which discusses the damage yoga can do by not considering the differences between men's and women's bodies.  You can read that article by William Broad: Women's Flexibility is a Liability (In Yoga).  (Update: Since I wrote this post, there have been several rebuttals to Broad's article, including one by "Shari," and another response by Paul Grilley.)

In a well-rounded practice, we take what we learn on the mat and apply it to our lives.  My lesson from that practice was the importance of flexibility in all things.  When we insist on a rigid view of the world, when we bow to convention or insist that there is only one way to practise, whether that practice be in yoga, spiritual concerns, politics, or more mundane matters such as spinning and knitting, we run the risk of causing physical and/or emotional harm to ourselves and others. At the very least, our rigidity closes us at times when we most need to be receptive. When we learn to move past our fear of change and into the possibility of the "Happy Mistake," we begin to grow into openness.

The next time you think (or are told) that "This is the way it's done!," try something else. Sometimes, you have to challenge your habitual practice. Sometimes, you need to be a pain in the butt in order to rid yourself of one.

I took this photograph in Cuba.  Apparently, it goes by the unelegant name of "Bombax."  If you've seen it in bud, you'll know that it is a excellent representation of the union between Shiva and Shakti!