Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Come As You Are: Being Comfortable in Your Space

Cary Grant, struggling with his knitting, in "Mr. Lucky."
(Google Images)

One of the biggest issues my beginning students have is accepting that they are beginners. Once they move past that first rush of learning something new, they quickly become frustrated when they can't cast on or fix a dropped stitch as "gracefully and quickly" as I am able.  (Thanks for that kind comment.)  What they forget is that there are hours, days, weeks and years of practice behind that apparent ease.  If it's true that 10,000 is a magic number for becoming an expert, then I have surely made that many mistakes in getting to where I am now.

It's not that I'm a particularly talented knitter, or spinner, or anything else.  Quite the contrary-I was the worst student in the first (and nearly only) spinning workshop I took.  I had years of starts and stops when I was teaching myself to knit.  (Others had given up in despair.)  I kept the first weaving projects I made, just so I can demonstrate to those starting out that you really can get better.

What kept me going was sheer obstinacy and a desire to learn.  My hardest lesson comes in learning not to compare myself to others, but to work with my body, my opportunities and the tools I have available.  I'm not there yet. Yoga is a constant reminder that I will always be a beginner, that I will never reach perfection and that, if I give in to the urge to compare myself to others, I will bring suffering to my practice.  This became apparent the other evening during our Level 2 class.  We were working towards head stands, practising balance, gaining strength to provide the support we need to achieve full inversions.  Heather was quite clear: there was no need to go into a headstand of any kind, no final goal to achieve.  In fact,  if we moved into Salamba Sirsasana before we were ready, we risked our necks, literally.

There was a time, long ago, when I could do full inversions, without the support of a wall, props or someone spotting me.  Life has thrown me a few curve balls since, some expected and some not.  My body has changed; my mind has changed; my life has changed.  I haven't done full inversions in a very long time.  It was foolish to think that I was ready to do one in that class, but, as soon as I saw others go up, my ego jumped out at me and said, "Let's go! You can do it!"  Every bit of me that is Ego was screaming to kick up into a headstand.  And I did not.

I did the arm strengthening exercises to the best of my ability.  I climbed up on the wall into as mindful a forearm stand as I could manage.  I kicked up a few times to see if I could build the strength to take myself up into a headstand when the time was right.  I acknowledged that now was not that time.

I'm learning, slowly, painfully, to be aware of where I am in this moment, to start from there and to be at ease  in the body I have now.  Just like my students, I am working towards those 10,000 steps or hours required to be an "expert," however one defines the term. Working on my practice builds empathy for others experiencing difficulty in life.  To paraphrase Pema Chodron, we can learn to be comfortable in "not knowing," in "not being there yet."  That, in itself, is a major achievement.

Working  Into the Pose


Thursday, 21 February 2013

She's Come Undone: Mindful Unknitting

I'm a knitter, not a frogger.  Although I will undo a project which isn't working while it's in process, once that item has been finished, it stays finished.  I may wear it or it may sit in a closet; I may use it for teaching purposes, or give it away.  Once I'm done with it, I'm done. Lesson learned.

Our yoga teacher training places great emphasis on applying yogic principles to daily life. Our practice is not isolated to the studio; we are given exercises to bring mindfulness to habitual actions.

As a result, Something is changing in my attitude towards basic things.  I am attempting to choose my words carefully, to avoid unnecessary speech (that's a tough one for me!) and to watch, rather than be pulled along by urges. Rather than react, I am making the effort to Act. The past few months find me undoing half-finished projects, rather than finishing them hastily or ignoring them.  A tapestry which has languished on the loom for several years calls to me.  (I haven't answered, yet.)  Items I have been content to deem, "Good enough!" tell me, "You can do better."

Last year, I knitted at sweater to take with me to Olds Fibre Week 2012:

It was pretty enough, warm enough, fit well enough. I never enjoyed wearing it.  At first, I assumed it was because the sweater had only an inch or two of ease; I like loose-fitting sweaters.  As time passed, I realized that this wasn't the only problem with this sweater. Somewhere along the way, "Good enough!" has become no longer enough.  A few days ago, I realized that I'd had enough.  Something had to be done.

That something was a mindful meditation on sweater ravelling.  For the first time, I decided to undo a sweater, rather than act on my usual impulse to give the thing away.  Over the past two days, I've been using the process of returning sweater to yarn as mindful meditation:

(The white rectangle at the top right of the photo is my yoga teacher training manual.  I forgot to remove it when I took the only picture of the sweater coming undone.  Mindfulness is hard!)

I discovered, or remembered, some things as I was rolling the sweater back into yarn.  I'd forgotten that I'd joined in different colours in an effort to transition colours more smoothly.  I had double stranded some yarns and added a non-descript texture pattern in the chest area above the sleeves.  These things made my efforts more difficult; as a result, I lost approximately 50 metres of the yarn and had many, many knots in my ball of yarn.  I ended with this:

Notice how kinky the yarn was after ravelling.  The usual thing would be to skein and wash the yarn; however, I could see that this yarn was underplied.  I was unhappy with all the knots.  I decided to re-ply the yarn before I washed it:

I knew this was risky because I would have no way of judging how much plying twist to add, but it was a chance I was happy to take, because the yarn was just not right as is.  I counted treadles, made sure my plying zone was consistent and away I went.  The hardest part for me was letting the yarn rest on the bobbin overnight.  Usually, I just want to get right at it, but again, I allowed the urge to flow past me and let the yarn stay where it was for 24 hours.  When I did skein the yarn, this is the result, 366 metres of  tightly plied, highly elastic BFL yarn:

This is an accurate representation of the yarn's colour.

Although I had rather hoped that the skein would retain this elasticity so that I could play with the plying twist, I suspected that the severe washing and fulling treatment I was about to give it would straighten things out.  I shocked the yarn in repeated hot and cold baths and then gave the skein a mindful whacking on the side of the bathtub, which tamed the twist. This is the finished skein, sans knots, changed in the ravelling and plying, no longer a sweater, but ready to become something else:

It will never be a really good yarn.  Many of the yarn splices have drifted, the twist, is improved but still inconsistent and the refinished yarn is not as soft as the original sweater.  Still, I think the yarn is preferable to the "Good enough!" sweater. Its value rests in its process from un-becoming a sweater and what that process taught me about mindfulness, attention to detail and the value of accepting changes.


Sunday, 17 February 2013

A Many-Layered Thing: Snoga Day

Sarah and Colin at Bodhi Tree sponsored the first Snoga Event in Victoria Park this afternoon.

As Colin explained to the interviewer from the community radio station, Snoga is an ancient form of yoga first practised by yogis in the Himalayas.  It was there, in the snow and ice of those mountains, that devoted followers of Himavat developed the special techniques required to keep them from falling off the side of the mountain as they stood in Vriksasana or to warm them as they did the traditional 108 cycles of Snow Salutations. (Okay, Colin may have made up some of that and I may have further embellished things.  Maybe.)

Whatever its history, about 25 to 30 of us took our practice to the park, as a fund raiser for Transition to Trades.  Our donations went directly to this cause; in return, Colin and Sarah led us through a variety of poses.

In case you are wondering, here is how one dresses for Snoga:

We began by preparing our space:

The practice started with Snow Salutations, in which snow may or may not have been thrown at others:

We moved into Virabhadrasana I  (with Loa leading):

Sarah and Colin doing Douglas Fir Tree Pose:

Shavasana was brief (okay, non-existent), but I did it anyway (because I could actually do this pose):

And then we were done:

Eat your heart out, my darling daughter-you may be doing yoga on a Costa Rican beach, but I will always have Snoga!


Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Have a (Kindergarten) Heart: Opening to Love and Compassion

Open-heartedness has been the theme of our practice this week.  On Tuesday evening, Heather spoke of allowing our "Kindergarten Hearts" to come to the fore.  When you're young, you are open to all possibilities.  You love, you fight, your sense of adventure knows no boundaries. Having a "Kindergarten Heart" means allowing the raw tenderness at our core to be exposed.  This exposure leaves us vulnerable, but it also permits us to expand love and kindness into the world.

I've talked about Lifelines in past posts.  Lifelines are those moments which come together in such a way as to provide meaning or assistance for you at a critical time. People often refer to these gatherings of moments or events as synchronicity.  I see Lifelines as moving beyond that, because, rather than just being connected events, they provide me with assistance when it's needed most.  I've found that Lifelines come when I allow my heart to open, when I face what I fear, what I'm unsure of, when I breathe into stillness.  

When you approach the world with an open heart, things come your way.  You may find yourself exploring careers, hobbies, places or people beyond your habitual territory.  You soften with compassion for people and their suffering, without taking on their troubles.  You develop Big Feelings, feelings which include pain and sorrow, but which also bring you great joy and happiness.  Your open heart allows you to leap.

In knitting meditation, the rhythm of stitches moving along needles, of fabric flowing from those stitches, reminds me that small actions can bring about large growth.  In honour of our week of open-hearted practice, I sit with my needles and yarn.  I work in stockinette stitch, because each stitch on the knit side of the fabric reminds me of a small heart.  With each new heart, I send loving kindness out to a beloved individual, beginning with myself. As the fabric grows, I extend that open-hearted love out to acquaintances, strangers, those who bring conflict to me and to others.  I open my heart to all Beings.  I feel that heart beat with the rhythm of the universe.  And I breathe.

Kindergarten Heart
(Wiki Commons Images)


Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Into the Fire: Taking Leaps, Shifting Perspectives

This weekend's Warm Yin/Vinyasa/Hot Yoga classes at Bodhi Tree may have had a few too many powerful moves for the old studio.  Sometime during Sunday evening's classes, the building began having electrical surges-some of the lights blew out, causing a bit of excitement. (Perhaps someone was channelling Beyonce at the Superbowl.) 

When I arrived for the Level 1 and 2 class on Monday morning, Colin asked me to put everyone through a few Legs Up the Wall poses while he met with the electrician. The pose is exactly as it sounds; you lie on your mat with your legs straight up, supported by the wall, and then move through a series of asanas designed to stretch out your legs, relieve tension from standing and reduce the higher blood pressure your legs have naturally.  We use this pose in Relax and Renew for Cancer frequently, because it helps bring chemotherapy medications to your core, where they're needed.  It's also effective in reducing anxiety and promoting sleep.  I was confident that I could lead people through this pose safely, so I was happy to help.

Fifteen minutes or so into the class, Colin popped his head into the room to tell me that he had to stay with the electrician and Surprise!, I was now the instructor for the rest of the class. I now had an hour and a half with 22 experienced yogis/yoginis, 6 of them teacher trainees.  No class plan.  No pressure.  None at all.

I muddled through the first half hour, running through the asanas I knew in my head and wondering what on earth I could teach that would meet class expectations. Colin is an impressive teacher, my teacher.  What to do?  Then, it occurred to me: I was Not Colin, so why would I try to teach a class like his?  I decided to go with what I know, which is Relax and Renew.  

For many people, Relax and Renew is a very different approach to yoga.  We move slowly through asanas, explaining why we are doing the poses and what specific benefits they may have for those who practise them. Props, lots of them, are often involved.  To some people, it seems as though you are doing very little; however, they are often surprised at how intense a stretch you can get from raising and opening your arms slowly or standing supported by a wall.

We all got through the class in one piece.  Everyone was very kind and understanding.  I was a bit concerned that some people didn't get enough of a stretch. Colin's response was, "Do you need to feel a stretch in order to practise yoga?"  It was an important question.  

Yoga doesn't require any particular action or effect.  Yoga is a process, a union of body and mind.  There are no particular goals, nowhere to go, nowhere to be, except Here and Now. We "stretch" in many ways.  The students in yesterday's class stretched by participating in an unexpected approach to yoga which may have tested their ideas of what a yoga class is or should be.  They certainly stretched their patience by the kindness they showed while working with an inexperienced, unprepared teacher.  I stretched by taking a leap of faith that I could walk through what felt like fire.  

In some ways, it was a good thing that I didn't have a class plan: I was forced to Act, not Think. Although I was unprepared for that class, past teaching experience and yoga practice gave me the grounding I needed to follow my heart.  For those 90 minutes, I was in the moment, in my body and fully in the experience.  In hindsight, it was lovely. When we are grounded, when we have the "bones" to steady us, we are able to release our perspectives and seize opportunities for new experience.  

On Saturday, I helped a new set of beginning knitters start down a path which, I hope, will help them to enjoy a new way of working with their hands. Some of them may not make it through all the sessions; others will get through but never knit again.  A few will move on to greater things and discover the fire that builds when we find passion.  All of us will stretch. Some of us will leap.  We will all grow.

Public Domain Photograph from WikiCommons


(P.S. The electrical issues have been resolved.) 


Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Take It To the Limit: Working With Our Limitations, Finding Expansion

Public Domain image (WikiCommons)

It's been a busy past week.  I've been at the studio nearly every day, either taking classes or helping out with the Relax and Renew for Cancer sessions.  I finished teaching my sock knitting class and am preparing for the next beginners' class. Most of Saturday was spent in Yoga Teacher Training.

Somewhere in that time, I did something strange to my back.  I suspect that the ballerina shuffle I did on the ice and snow on the way to class this weekend twisted a muscle, resulting in a fair amount of discomfort in my mid-back.  As a result, I've taken myself off active yoga duty for the week.  I'm still in the studio, but I'm observing everyone else move instead of moving myself.

It's interesting, but frustrating.  If you're a spinner or a knitter, think of sitting in a room surrounded by people making yarn, working with wheels and spindles, using their needles to knit any number of lovely things.  All you can do is watch.  Painful, isn't it?  I'm not sure I could resist the temptation to join my fellow fibre artists and I'm having trouble allowing the urge to practice an asana or two to pass. My body says, "Don't do it!" but that stubborn mind whispers, "Oh, go ahead. You'll be fine."

Fortunately, Saturday's lessons were about limitations and resisting temptation. More accurately, rather than engaging in resistance, we are allowing our urges and temptations to pass-"urge surfing," as Famous Yoga Guy referred to it.  We spent the day discussing "Urdhva Hastasana," Upward Hand Pose.  We studied how our arms moved as we raised them over our heads, learned to recognize our natural bony stops in our shoulders and to feel them in others.  We talked about how these natural limits changed our asanas. We transitioned into our assignment for the week, which was to sit in mindfulness, notice any urges which arise and see if we can just not chase those urges. We're not resisting them or giving in to them.  We're simply noting them as they drift by on our river of thoughts. Little did I realize how timely these lessons would be.

When the back pain hit, my first thought was to push past it.  Perhaps all I needed to do was a little stretching, a few Downward Dogs (Adho Mukha Svanasana), a bit of Forward Bending (Uttanasana), maybe a round of gentle Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskara)?  Deep down, something told me that, if I did that, I'd be waiting longer for my injury to heal. My practice would suffer for the doing, not the resting. It's time to explore my natural limits, including those bony stops as well as other limits which come to us through injury and time.  It's time to pay attention to what my body was telling me it needed, Now.  As difficult as it feels, I'm taking it easy, watching other bodies move, noting where their bodies tell them to stop and their reactions to that.

The truth is, those natural limits were never intended to frustrate and annoy us. Our bodies are designed to move and to keep us safe in those movements.  Our accommodation to desk work, driving, our reliance on gyms and, yes, even yoga studios, has taken us out of our bodies.  Somehow, we see pain as a badge of honour, as something to be ignored or conquered, instead of a guide to tell us to pay attention and to make the necessary changes which will allow us to challenge ourselves safely. We think there is a standard way to do things, anything, and when we deviate from that standard, we are probably "doing it wrong." What might be more helpful is to approach a pose or a technique in a way which acknowledges those limits and uses them to find our own way to our goals.

I have never cared for Short Forward Draw in spinning.  This drafting technique is often considered to be The Way and sometimes, The One and Only True Path, to achieving a true worsted yarn.  These days, true worsted yarn appears to be the Holy Grail of spinning (well, that and True Woollen) and, if you are to do it properly, you must maintain the parallel alignment of your fibres while preventing any twist from entering the drafting zone.  The common process for this is to draw your fibres forward while using your fingers to pinch ahead of the drafting zone.  (This is a very incomplete description of SFD, but sufficient for my point.)  The problem with this style of worsted spinning is that, for many of us, Short Forward Draw is uncomfortable and, sometimes, painful.  In my case, two surgeries for ganglion cysts and a well-broken wrist decades ago come back to haunt me when I try any pinching motion with my thumb and index finger.

There are other ways to achieve true worsted hand spun yarn.  It would be foolish for me to spin in pain while working within a given standard.  Instead, it makes more sense to use the limitations which occurred from those injuries to find a spinning adaptation which allows me to work in comfort while achieving the required results.  My spinning style for worsted yarn will look different from the classic worsted style, but the yarn will still be a true worsted. The result is that I not only know how to spin worsted yarn using traditional techniques, I also know ways to modify that technique so that others with similar challenges can spin worsted yarns.

Can you tell how this yarn is spun?

If we pay attention to our limits, rather than ignoring them or lamenting their presence, when we take note of a natural stop, we learn to expand.  Using our limits rather than fighting them opens us to other paths, new ways to adapt poses, adaptations which lead us safely around those limits to achieve our goals. As I begin to listen to my back muscles, to see how others move instead of focusing on demands for my body, I am becoming aware of how bodies adapt to postures, how those postures change and how I can use those natural processes to modify asanas to help others.

The next time you feel frustrated because your body won't move the way You want it to, take a moment to sit and breathe.  Pay attention to what your limits are saying-they are there to help, not hinder you.


(CN, you are in my heart all the time.  I am so sorry for your loss.)