Friday, December 9, 2011

Another little miracle

My experience over the years has taught me that it is invariably a good idea to wait and think before I hit the “send” button. Today I had the same experience all over again, and I am so glad that I waited those few moments before I made the “send” or “not send” decision.

Let me set the scene: I came back from Thailand a couple of weeks ago and promptly spent five days in the hot room. I expected it would be a tough process for my body to rediscover this stuff all over again, but it seemed to be going quite well until I turned over in class one day to lay on my stomach, and that's when it hit me. Vertigo.

I have had a few occasions in my life when the room was spinning or I was a little dizzy, but never anything like this. The hot room was moving rapidly around me, the floor was rolling underneath me – it was all I could do to hold onto my mat to stop myself from rolling off the edge. And then there was the nausea. It was quite a package.

I spend the entire floor series of class lying on my front just praying for the room to stop moving. At the end of class, I wait until everyone has left the room and then shuffle on my backside across the carpet to the door. Standing up is out of the question.

At first I suspect an electrolyte imbalance – understandable given my absence from the hot room for so many months and then five classes in as many days. Yes, that's it – electrolytes. I can even feel the pins and needles in my fingers to support the case. A coconut water, and a heavy dose of potassium when I get home should do the trick.

I stand up carefully and feel much better. After a few minutes I can walk and things settle down and I can make my way home. Driving seems OK as long as I keep my head still. Later that night, as I go to lie down in bed, it starts all over again. It gets worse as I roll over to one side so I try to sleep propped up on pillows with my head upright.

I believe that things get better in time; I cannot always support this position and I don't think it will work with everything, like cholera or frostbite or a gunshot wound, but my experience has been to wait things out – be patient; don't over-react. Fortunately my wife did not have this “wait and see” attitude, otherwise my children would never have survived past infancy. An absence of medical insurance also encourages this action. So I wait.

After four or five days, there has been no improvement; I am still incapacitated and my approach seems to be suspect. The next day I start the internet research and begin to suspect some kind of problem in my inner ear.  As I read more and see more stuff on You-Tube and consult with my friends at the studio, I am convinced that I have the most common form of vertigo, called BPPV, or benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. It is a relatively harmless condition caused by the dislocation of tiny crystals of calcium in the inner ear (sometimes called “ear-rocks”) disturbing the whole sense of balance and resulting in a serious case of vertigo. It is amazing how messed up one can be by just a few specs of debris breaking off from some other place in your ear and settling in the wrong place. Normal life is interrupted.

Fortunately, more research reveals that there are some relatively simple exercises that can be done to dislodge the debris and restore the proper functioning of the inner ear. I try the exercises and after about the second or third attempt, I begin to feel some relief. The exercises induce vertigo and severe nausea, but in time that all goes away.  There might have been other, more serious causes for the vertigo, but in this case I am convinced that it is this common BPPV.  

So back to today. I wake up this morning and the vertigo is so much better but I feel like crap. Some alien body has invaded my relatively healthy system: my head aches like crazy; my mind is all over the place; I cannot focus or concentrate; I feel myself slipping into a substantial well of self pity; I am miserable. I want to do nothing but enjoy my suffering.

I have promised my friend that today, ten days after the onset of this rotten vertigo and about five days after my fix, that I will go back to yoga – no backbends or movements that might induce the vertigo again, but at least I will take class. But my mind is working hard to find all the reasons why this is not a good idea.  It has only been a few days since I "fixed" the vertigo; it could easily return; this is just way too soon.  This is downright dangerous.  I compose the text message: “sorry but I cannot make it today; I feel like crap and I am not going to the 6 pm class”. I hit “send”.

On my phone, you have to hit “send” twice. The first time gets the message into a queue and the second one actually dispatches the packet of bits into the ether. I never hit the second time. I stop myself and think about it. Many years ago, when I was in the corporate world, I made a rule for me and the people who worked with me that read something like this: 

“If you receive an irritating e-mail from somebody who needs to be straightened out, and you are just the person to do it, then compose the message but wait 24 hours before you send the reply. Do not hit “send” when your emotions are high.” 

 I remember that rule today and stop myself from hitting the second “send”.

I know that once I send the message off into the ether, that would be that; I would be off the hook. Then I would be able to get deeper into my misery and refine how sorry I feel for myself. But I would not be “straightened out”.  There is a nagging uncomfortable truth that pops up in the corner of my mind and will not go away. The truth is that I know, deep inside, that I really need to go to that class. It is going to be hard work and my head will ache and I will feel sick and my vertigo will come back and I will be hot and sweaty and, and, and...

And I knew that I would feel better at the end of class. I always have and I always will. There has never been a class that I have regretted taking, and there never will be. I know that to be true. So I didn't hit the second “send”. And I went to class. And Jayna helped me. And all the students in the room helped me too. Because that is what always happens.  And the headache went away in the first breathing exercise.  

Like Robbie says, "It's only a miracle if you turn up to receive it".

It's good to be back.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Nuad Bo-Rarn

I have just finished my fourth week at the International Thai Massage School in Chiang Mai. Exams were passed and diplomas awarded, but I feel that I have barely scratched the surface. It was an amazing experience and I look forward to getting back home and practicing on some willing bodies. Because that is what I need: lots and lots of practice. Knowing the movements is one thing; making it flow together seamlessly with the correct pressure is something else. I realize that I am at the beginning of a long journey, rather similar to the feeling that I had when I finished teacher training for yoga – I felt like I was ready to start to learn. It was not the finish of a learning program but rather the beginning of a practicum.

I must say that this ancient form of Thai massage – Nuad Bo-Rarn – never ceases to amaze me. Each time that I have laid down and given my body for someone else's practice, I have closed my eyes and just floated off to some other place. As soon as their hands touched my feet, I was gone, in some other Universe. It was extraordinary. It felt like the rhythmic movements were directly in synch with the natural frequency of my body. When thumbs or fingers touched those acupressure points or stimulated those “SEN” energy lines I could feel buzzing all down my legs and arms. I walked back from class at the end of each day and my legs were like jelly. This was no ordinary massage; this was different.

At the beginning, when we practiced, we had difficulty in locating the acupressure points, since they are very precise. But now, when someone finds one on my leg or arm or torso, it is like an electric shock through my nervous system. My whole body lights up as the energy is stimulated – chi or ki or prana or whatever you wish to call it. This truly is the Universe at work.

It is at times like this that I feel a renewal of faith, a sense of comfort that at the heart of things, at the center of all of us, is an energy, a chi, a life force, a soul or spirit. It is not dependent on breath or food for its existence; it exists already. That spirit is not dependent on other people to maintain its purity or to prepare it for a better life: it needs no third party or translator. It just needs our own attention.

I believe this: we are given bodies for a while to allow the chi to move and live in a different dimension, a physical form. Then, when that time is over, there is another form, maybe the original or real form to which we revert. And that is why I realize now that I am not afraid of the concept of death; it is just a transition from one form to another. But the energy, the chi, the soul or spirit, will continue unaffected. I may regret that physical loss or even fear the act of dying, but the result is inevitable: I live now so that I may die at some future point. Bearing that in mind certainly helps me keep a perspective on the world around me. Remember the Delai Lama's comments on the humanity of Man.

There is a writing in the Bahá'i faith that draws a perfect analogy: 

“To consider that after the death of the body the spirit perishes is like imagining that a bird in a cage will be destroyed after the cage is broken, though the bird has nothing to fear from the destruction of the cage.” 

A good friend of mine sent me those words after Marianne died. They helped me then and they continue to help me now.

Each time I have practiced this ancient form of massage I have been reminded that the chi is there within me. I cannot measure it on an instrument; I cannot see it deflect a dial. But I can recognize its presence in the buzzing in my limbs, in the way I feel. It is my job to cherish it, to maintain it, to protect it so that it is fit and healthy for me when I need it the most – in my next life. I hope this ancient Nuad Bo-Rarn will be another way to do that.

I did not expect that studying this ancient form of massage would bring me to these conclusions. I don't know why I am surprised. It is really just one more way to open a door to the core of our being – another way to make that journey from the outside in. It is a connection between the body and the mind and eventually the spirit – just another kind of yoga.  

Same, same but different.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Art of Thai Motor Cycling

There are motor cycles everywhere in Thailand - from little mopeds to big Harleys. And everybody rides them.  Here are my observations on the art of motor cycling in Thailand.

1.  The little basket in front of the handlebars is for your crash helmet. If you have a helmet, do not wear it but display it proudly in the little basket.

2.  All the lanes on the road are available to you, regardless of the direction in which you are traveling.  The side walks are available to you. The inside of shops are available to you. You are allowed to tak special pleasure in whizzing up the very, very inside lane, close to "farangs" and scaring them to death. If the "farang" is walking on the sidewalk, then you may also use the same sidewalk for the express purpose of scaring the shit out of the "farang".

3.  Thais are made small enough so that three or four can easily fit on the same motor cycle at the same time.  This is to ease traffic congestion.  This would not work in America because the American butt is just too damn big.  The answer is smaller butts for America not bigger motor cycles.

4.  The space between the front of the seat and the handlebars is for very small children.  This is perfectly safe;  you can even install a special seat there.  Dogs may also ride in this space, although dogs prefer to sit on the flat platform of a sidecar so they can bark very loudly at the people next to them in traffic.  The preferred order from the front is therefore small child, driver, spouse, granny, larger child, dog.  Small dogs, up to labrador size, may also ride in the little basket if there is no helmet being carried.

5.  If no passengers are being carried, then the space on the seat behind the driver is for extremely large and heavy objects, such as propane gas cylinders, concrete construction blocks and very long steel poles.  They may be secured by a single, fragile, nylon bungee - preferably fraying at the end.  The cargo being carried should be large enough so that it will certainly kill an innocent pedestrian when it rolls off the seat.

6. You may park your motor cycle anywhere;  in shopping malls, the second floor is preferable – use the escalator for easy access.  In Boots the Chemist, park your motor cycle between Ladies intimate items and the cough sweets.

7.  When giving a ride to a "farang", never allow your speed to drop below 50 kph regardless of traffic conditions.  The relationship between "farang" passenger to Thai driver must never be less than 3:1.

8.  The appropriate rain protection for a driver of a motor cycle is a passenger holding an umbrella over the driver's head – preferably low enough so that the driver cannot see where they are going.  There is no reason to reduce speed when an open umbrella is being used.

9.  Texting when driving is permitted as long as the smart phone is held in the braking hand, not the throttle hand.  In this way, the driver can always accelerate out of a tight spot instead of braking.

10.  The appropriate clothing for a Thai teenage girl riding her motor cycle is platform shoes of at least four inches; the shortest skirt in the wardrobe; helmet in the basket; smart phone in the braking hand; and lastly, a similarly attired female passenger in case of inclement weather.  Toy dog goes in the basket if there is no helmet.

11.  Eating while motor cycling is perfectly acceptable for both driver and passenger.  That is why there are so many road side stalls selling food.  This may also explain why Thais use a fork and spoon and not chopsticks.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

This has recently been posted on Facebook.  I urge everybody to read this, absorb it, accept it and then live your life accordingly.

I have read no better observation on the frailty of Man's humanity than this.  I wish I had read this when I was twenty-something instead of now when I am sixty-something. But then I am heartened by the fact that sixty-something is no age – it is just starting.  There is always time to start anew, to change, to begin again.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Haiku: Thailand meets Bikram

Sequence stays intact
But class is always new.
Same same but different.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Same, same – but different

Sunday morning in Chiang Mai – a good time to pause and reflect at the end of the first week of this Thai Massage program, or Nuad Bo-Rarn in Thai. This week has produced a few surprises: for example, I did not expect to be spending Friday morning performing Qi Gong in the local park. After an hour of that I was ready to step onto the production line in a Toyota plant and start installing gearboxes. You have to keep an open mind to live here in Asia.

There is always a certain amount of adaption required to settling into a new environment: the climate, the language, the food, the culture. Life here is certainly different to my life in rural Spain. Chiang Mai is hot, humid and wet where Spain was hot, dry, and more hot. (Spain is often defined by Einstein's famous E=mc2, where E= España, m=mañana and c=calor or heat). The recent flooding has brought disaster to some other lower lying parts of the country but not so much to Chiang Mai in the north, where we are on higher ground. English is widely spoken and understood in the city, whereas in Spain, where I was living at least, you were pretty much left to find your way in Spanish. There are a reasonable number of expatriates and tourists here in Chiang Mai all year round; in rural Spain there was a local community of expatriate British, Dutch and Belgians but no tourists in the area where I was living. The Thai approach to eating is to graze all day long – lots of little meals throughout the day; in Spain, the tradition of the big lunch and afternoon siesta is alive and well. Life in Spain was very quiet – the villa was in a fairly remote location, far away from the busy beaches; in Chiang Mai, it is busy all the time. In fact, I have yet to find a time where there are not people on the street and motor cycles, scooters, taxis and tuk-tuks on the roads.

And then there is the Thai culture to figure out.  There is a saying in Thai that has come up a few times since I have been here. It is the answer to many of the questions that we put to the teachers at the International Thai Massage school – same, same but different. In fact, they even have T-shirts with the expression printed on them. It's a reflection of the culture where nobody wants to expressly disagree with you. It's akin to saying “yes, yes but no”. For example, we are learning a new posture in Thai massage and it looks like one we did earlier in the day, so we ask “isn't this like the one we did this morning?” and the answer is “same, same but different”. A simple “no” would have worked just as well.  This is a different culture.

Regular readers of this blog will see the yoga connection coming, but before I connect the big dots here, let me tell you about the Thai massage. It is simply quite an extraordinary and powerful body therapy. The origins of Nuad Bo-Rarn, or “ancient Thai massage”, can be traced back to India in the second millennium B.C. It is thought that the Indian physician, Shivago Komarpaj, was the father of Thai massage as we know it today. Shivago was thought to be a contemporary of the Lord Buddha, and the traditions of Thai massage have a distinctive Buddhist feel to them.

There are two principal families of Thai massage in modern Thailand: the southern or Bangkok style, often called the Wat Po style after the temple in Bangkok where it has been taught, and the northern or Chiang Mai style. Both styles are a mixture of yoga and acupressure, performed on a mat on the floor, where the giver uses his or her body weight rather than muscular force to transmit pressure and energy to the receiver. Bangkok style has more acupressure and less yoga, leading to a strong and deep massage. The northern style tends to emphasize the yoga stretching and a little less acupressure, resulting in a somewhat gentler massage, with a little more flexibility and mobility. A wide variety of stretching movements are used while pressure is applied with thumbs, hands and feet along energy lines of the body. The result for the receiver is an extraordinary feeling of relaxation and well-being. It has been called “yoga for lazy people”, since the giver does all of the work and the receiver is passive. So far, I am thoroughly hooked.

And this leads me back to the yoga connection that I hinted at earlier. It's a simple connection to the twenty six postures and two breathing exercises that make up the Bikram sequence: always the same set of postures but never the same class.  Same, same but different. 

No matter how many years that we practice, every class is different. We come into the room each time with a new set of experiences; our diet may be different; the people around us may be different, and they too bring an ever-changing set of conditions. May be the teacher is different; may be the studio is different. I took a couple of classes a while ago in Madrid in Spanish and they were certainly different. May be it's hotter than usual or perhaps it's cooler. For whatever the reason, the fact remains that each class is unique and our bodies respond in a new way each time. We are tested and pushed to a new place in each class.  Same, same but different.

I have heard a few people complain that they have found the Bikram sequence to be boring or repetitive after a while. Life can be a little that way too. But each day we have the opportunity to look inside and see something new. It is often hidden, deep in that corner of the room that we enter with each asana, suspended in that fleeting moment of stillness. Yoga is a journey from the outside in. The conditions are always changing, but each time we step onto the mat we have a chance to break through, to go a little deeper, to find a new place. How can that ever be boring or repetitive?

Same, same – but different.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

One big hot room

I am coming to the end of my stay here in Spain. In another few days,  I'll be flying to London – just to get a visa – and then on to Thailand, where I will be studying Thai massage in Chiang Mai for the next few months. This will be quite a change in my environment and in my daily routine. So it is the perfect point to take a step back and reflect upon my time here in the Hondon Valley.

It has been an opportunity for me to look inside, to consider what is important for me, to explore life in a very different way. Living alone in a different culture and in a rather remote location forces one to be self reliant – to see how comfortable it is in one's own skin.

But when I look inside, I don't necessarily like everything that I see.  Don't get me wrong; I like some of it, but not all of it. When I give myself the gift of time, then I like to think that I will use it well. But did I?  I wished I had taken some trips to the north, to the Pyrenees, to Barcelona. But then I consider why I took some trips and not others, and that tells me something about myself. I could have made more progress with my language study; I could have read even more books; I could have written more; and I could have made more inroads into my chess playing. And of course I could have practiced more – that's a given. But then I remind myself to stay in the moment, so I will not permit myself too much time to regret about what could have been!

But I do understand myself a little better: I needed to change my environment so that I could see what would happen. How would I react? Not necessarily in the way that I expected. So my time here, in this different environment, enabled me to learn quite a lot of new stuff about myself. That has been a good thing.

Time to connect some dots: trying out a new environment, stepping out of previous habits or established comfort zones, encourages change. And with change is the opportunity for growth. We don't always take it but nevertheless the opportunity is invariably there. Did I take advantage of all the opportunities for change for me in Spain? The answer is probably no, but I do not regret that. Instead I am grateful for the experiences and the knowledge that I found here – and I am confident for the growth that will follow. I am not sure of the direction where that growth will take me but if I keep my mind and heart open then I am sure that the Universe will shove me in the right direction. I believe in that.

Like breadcrumbs in the forest, those dots lead me back to the hot room, which is a challenging environment by anybody's definition. So is it not reasonable to expect change and growth to follow from every class? Every time that we go into that hot room, we challenge ourselves, not just with the heat and the humidity, but with the discipline of the practice. The discipline requires us to pay attention to the postures, to push our bodies to produce the best on any given day, and to focus our mental capabilities as we breathe and search for that elusive stillness.

We should expect that environment to encourage change – both physically and mentally. We talk much about the physical changes in the body that come from a regular practice, but our mental characteristics are equally challenged. Each class leads us to greater faith in our own capabilities; increased determination as we hang on when our hearts and nerves and sinews are screaming at us (remember Kipling?); extraordinary feats of self control as we hold ourselves in the asanas; better and better concentration as we find ourselves in the mirror, settle back on our heels and breathe; and finally the gift of patience, knowing that our practice and our lives grow in small steps, one slowly forming and then fading after the other, like footsteps in the sand, secure in the knowledge that such growth comes in fits and starts, and never, ever in a straight line. Such is our practice and such is our life.

Maybe I should think of my summer in Spain as having been one big hot room! So I can expect that change will follow on from my time here, but perhaps not in any way, shape or form that I might have imagined. I should have left my expectations at the immigration desk on the way in five months ago – just as I tell students to leave their expectations at the front desk before class. But I know for sure that change will follow, and just like every yoga class I have taken, I don't regret a minute of it!

Next time I write, I'll be in Thailand again. I cannot wait ...

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Some day soon

One day I will wake up and realize how stupid I am. 

 The scenario usually plays out like this: for one reason or another, I feel bad – sick, tired, lazy, whatever – and so I start to argue with myself about doing a yoga practice. Here in Spain, where I practice on my own, outside, on the terrace, there is nobody to witness the argument or to take note of my presence in or absence from the hot room. For the time being, it is me and my ego once again. I am answerable to nobody.

The argument can stretch out for some time; I restate my past experience, my certain knowledge that when I feel bad this is exactly what I need. I know that I will feel better afterwards. I always do; this practice has never let me down. Even in my darkest days of grief, it has still been there to help me find one tiny piece of peace. But I also know that it is hard work. And like many humans, I am inherently lazy. It is so much easier and attractive to find a way to get out of the hard work. I am a master of finding rational, sometimes even urgent, excuses for not doing my practice.

So I woke up yesterday feeling extra cranky: maybe I just slept wrong – sleeping has been a challenge for me for a couple of years now. I had a really painful, stiff neck, so that must have been the way I slept. And that generated a headache of some proportion. Many years ago, before I started yoga on a regular basis, I had suffered from migraine headaches, so I know that the predisposition exists. I napped a little during the morning but that did no good. I know that I needed the yoga; that was the only solution. But still I argued.

Where does that come from? I really have no idea. Over the years there have been countless occasions on which I have discovered something else that needed to be done just as I was getting ready to take a class. Often it was a business call, a meeting, an e-mail that had to be answered. I was too busy with the real world to take time out to do this luxury. And yet deep down inside, I knew what I was doing. It was stupid and I knew it.

Yesterday, I made a deal with myself: I'll just go outside on the terrace and do a little breathing, that's all, no commitment to do anything past that. I will do that slowly and with as much attention on that one activity as I can muster. I will do my pranayama breathing really well, like I am showing it to a new student. And if I want to, then I will just stop after that is done. That was the deal.

I did the breathing, two sets, nice and slow. I felt okay, in fact I had to admit to feeling a little better already. So I made another deal: I'll try one set of “Half moon with hands to feet” and see how that goes; but I'll do it really well, as far as my poor old body can manage on this day, together with some nice deep breathing, all the way in and all the way out, with all the attention I can muster. And if I want to, then I will just stop after that is done. That was the deal.

One set felt alright; I made myself pause for a moment, let everything go, and then thought that another set would be okay too. And that was alright; in fact I felt just a little better after that second set. The pain in my neck had eased and my headache seemed a little less intense. So I made another deal: I'll do one set of “Awkward” and see how that feels, but with no commitment to anything else, because I know that this posture takes a lot out of me and my legs are getting tired etc etc, so no promises here. I'll just give it a try. In fact, if I want to, I'll even cut the posture a little short because of, you know, some reason I have forgotten right now but at that time seems entirely acceptable. And if I want to, then I will just stop after that is done. That was the deal.

It was okay; not too shabby. I felt I could manage the second set, so I did. I even stayed in the postures a bit longer this time. A little rest in between; head feels a little better. Let's try the next one, but no promises, no commitment, I can stop at any time if I want. That was the deal.

You get the picture? That's how it played out for the next hour or so. When I laid down in final savasana, I was laughing at myself for being such a baby, for being so stupid. I had to remind myself of something I have told students on countless occasions: there have been plenty of classes that I never wanted to take but not a single class that I have regretted taking. I expect this to hold true for ever.

I felt that my whole day had changed after that practice. My neck was totally fixed and my headache was a thing of the past. I had kept my attention all the way through on just that one thing I was doing, and so I was surprised when the end came and there were no more deals to be struck. No more debate. Just complete relaxation as I sank onto the cool stones of the terrace. Never has hard stone been more comfortable.

Why do I put myself through this charade? I know what the end result is like and I want that more than anything else. I know it is the only way to repair my body and my mind – and then my spirit. But I am so full of frailties and weaknesses – always looking for the easy way out. It's a little disappointing but what can I expect? After all, I am just human.

But that is the enduring nature of yoga: when all is said and done, it is an essentially human activity – Bikram's “science of life”. I come to practice full of doubts and fears and [sometimes] expectations. It is so easy to find a way out – even for someone like me who should know much better. At my age you would think I would have figured all this out by now. It seems that I never stop learning. That's a surprise!

I expect to have another debate at some time in the future, maybe the next time that I come to practice. Maybe I will feel bad, sick, tired etc and I'll start to look around for some really good reason why I should do something else other than this hard work for the next 90 minutes. But the truth is that I haven't found a better way yet. The only way through is the only way through.

I'll accept that some day soon.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Recovery breath

Inhaling for three,
Exhaling for six,
Slows the heart and stills the mind.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Fiesta day

It is quiet, really quiet. Here in the Hondon, I own every sound that carries up, down and across the valley. The early morning traffic has stopped; today is Fiesta de Asunción María, so there is no work. No big trucks from the quarries carrying the huge blocks of granite and marble. Not on fiesta.

No farmers' tractors making their way from field to field, no barking dogs behind – even the loud, flashy parallel lines of ciclistas are at home with their racing bikes today. It is fiesta. No Mercadona for the expat couples to drive to for shopping – no markets – no café con leche at the bar – not yet – maybe later. It is fiesta.

At this time even the birds respect the silence. Earlier there were a few gun shots that ricocheted down from the hills above; always there is some hunting going on. But not now.

An hour ago, there was a farmer out on the other side of the Chicamo; I could see him in his orchard, moving slowly from tree to tree. I could make out the movements of the long pole in his hands well before I heard the dull crack of the wood against the branches as he knocked the almonds to the ground. But even he has rolled up his cloth, shouldered his pole and gone back home. It is fiesta.

Now there is a church bell, maybe from Macisvenda, maybe from further away, perhaps Barinas – it depends on the wind.

And now a few words of conversation that carry over the valley, floating, disjointed, a blue shirt moving in the trees and now gone again. More quiet.

I used to wonder how my Father could sit so quietly in his later years, left arm folded under the right, chin resting in his hand, eyes closed, not sleeping but lost in thought, or memory. For most of my life I could not tolerate sitting in such a way without a newspaper or book in my hand. I had to be doing something. But these days I find myself sitting the same way, looking back inside myself, moving from room to room in my mind, taking out a memory here and there, dusting it off and then replacing it back where I can find it once again – dimentia permitting of course. The quiet helps this process; nothing to disturb the filing.

When I was twenty-something I remember taking some battery of tests to figure out what I was good at – maybe it was at business school. I should not say “good at” but rather what I expressed a preference towards! And the result that stuck in my mind was “creating order out of chaos”. That's a fancy way of saying that I liked filing.

As I look back over the various jobs in my life the ones where I did really well reflected that ability to bring some measure of order to a dynamic situation; lots of moving parts that begged for capture, distillation and analysis. It was just another kind of filing.  It truly puts things into a different perspective when I realize that all those fancy jobs amounted to not much more than filing.  That's a healthy dose of realism.

Even nowadays, I take time to file the photos, music, papers, documents that track my life over the last thirty years. There is no doubt that I am a serial filer. There is a twelve step program somewhere for that.

Filing thrives in peace and quiet. I can order my life and then order my mind, explaining it away as part of the simplification program which I have signed up for. I am predisposed to a life where there is quiet. Maybe that is part of the attraction that brought me to the Hondon Valley, this very still part of rural Spain. My brother warned me that it is remote, and I cannot dispute that.

But does any of this add up to stillness?  Do I need quiet to be still?  My mind does a pretty good job of converting the same familiar cacophony of everyday life to white noise, something no longer of any importance to the brain so that I consign it to trash, dump it out of sight, file it in space.  Like the pool filter: my watch tells me that it should be working and I should be hearing it, but long ago my brain found it, analyzed it and threw it out as not important. Now I have to search for the sound, check the noise-dumpster for stuff I have thrown away, just to make sure that the filter is still running.

So here is the chance, in this quiet moment, to still the mind, even if it is just for a few precious seconds. To bring attention back to the breath, to follow the inhale to that point between the inhale and the exhale, that still-point, and then follow the exhale to that same point. And then do it again.

That was a child's voice. Not a cry or alarm, but more questioning, perhaps surprise, perhaps joy. It could have carried from a long way off, down the valley from the other houses, where grand-children have come to stay with grand-parents, just for a few weeks during the school holidays.

Back to the breath and start again.  Life is lots of "starting overs". No matter how hard I try to keep my attention on the one thing in front of me, my mind thinks better and starts to chatter and sends me stuff that I don't need, didn't ask for, cannot do anything with. It's just stuff – sometimes noise, sometimes images and sometimes full motion video. I have to remind myself to let it go and come back to this quiet moment, come back to this next breath and start again.

I've been surprised at the number of people who have written to me and asked directly or indirectly “what are you doing out there?”. I think they really want an answer that defines an activity that can be accepted and filed in their system. Something like “I'm volunteering at the local dog adoption group”, or “I'm learning Spanish cooking”, or “I'm fixing up the yard” - anything that is a recognizable or acceptable activity, something that would pass for an occupation.

The reality is that I am starting over. It is the coming to terms with this answer that is the difficult step. The quiet helps. A fiesta day is a good day to look inside and do some housekeeping. I fold my arms, left under the right, chin in my right hand, and find my way back to that point where I can start again. Not with regret or judgement on those memories but happy in this moment. A fiesta day moment – another kind of stillness.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Some thoughts on breathing

I have threatened once or twice to write about breathing. A lot of well-qualified people have written about breathing; just search the web and you will turn up all kinds of interesting stuff. Try it: google “pranayama” and read some of the stuff. It's a little arrogant of me to think that I have anything to offer. In addition, I used to talk about breathing every class I taught; so it makes me wonder what there is left for me to say about it. After all, it's pretty easy – most of the time. One of those life skills that we don't think about too much, until it becomes a struggle. I know that all too well since my Mother suffered from emphysema for many years. The very act of breathing can become just too difficult, just too much hard work to carry on every day. It's the first thing we do in life and it's the last thing we do.

Most of the time our body just gets on with the job. The autonomous nervous system takes care of that, along with heartbeats and digestion and a few critical items that are too important to be dependent on a conscious decision. We breathe when we need to; simple as that. So cannot we assume that it will be the same case in the hot room? What is there to talk about when it comes to yoga and breathing? Surely we will continue to breathe when we need to. What difference does it make whether we breathe one way or another, through the mouth or through the nose? As quiet as a mouse or as noisy as Watt's steam engine – who cares? After all, we're making a lot of effort in each posture, aren't we entitled to let those around us know that we really are trying hard? Huffing and puffing and grunting and panting says “listen to me and know how hard I am working”. Sounds to me that is something the Ego would say; the Ego is always on the hunt for recognition.

Some months ago, one of my students was having a really hard time with their practice; it had just fallen apart – balance was gone, flexibility was lost, it was hard for the student to concentrate; and I could hear the student breathing from the other side of the room! After class, I took the person aside and told them to come into their next class and just breathe; don't even do the first set of each asana for a little while until the breath has returned to some semblance of normality. Come into the room, stand still, breathe in and breathe out. That's yoga. Focus on the breath and the body will follow along, getting on with its job of healing itself.

For me, breathing is everything; it is the key to my practice. It is the place to come back to when my attention wanders, as it does often. How I wish I had understood that when I went to teacher training; perhaps my yoga classes there would not have been quite so stressful. It took some time after that experience for me to figure out that the practice, the sequence, all of the asanas meant nothing unless my breathing was controlled, steady, slow and deep, through the nose and quiet. And then everything changed for me. Each class became a journey; my attention improved (although my mind still wanders all over the place) and my concentration grew much better. It became easier to be still. I tried to minimize distractions – the biggest culprit being drinking of course.

[I was so proud of myself during teacher training for learning to drink water while lying flat on my back without drowning – kind of like self water-boarding – so then I could glug away to my heart's content in every floor savasana, much to the aggravation of some students around me who reminded me that it was not such a good idea. But I used survival as an excuse and just carried on. It took me a long while to get that one straight!]

I didn't try to force any posture but rather gave my aging, inflexible, tired body permission to go as far as it could without putting any stress on my breathing. I finally worked out that I had to allow my breath to define the posture. That was a personal break-through. And of course, everything that worked for me in yoga worked for me outside the hot room, in the “real” world. None of this was easy. But accepting the importance of breath was the single, most important lesson for me in yoga, and consequently in my life.

Many years ago, my speech therapist told me over and over again that proper breathing was the key to bring my stammer into some kind of control. For years I had lived with this wild animal inside of me – wishing so often that I was totally dumb so that I could wear a sign that announced “dumb – doesn't talk” and just write little notes to people. Instead, I had to unleash the animal and just let it run riot, totally out of control, one day incoherent and the next marginally comprehensible. Apparently quite normal on the outside but then frighteningly abnormal as soon as I opened my mouth to speak, to buy a bus ticket, to order lunch, to start a conversation with that really cute girl. I was well into my thirties before that beast grew a little tamer, but I know it lives there still, just waiting for the chance to stretch its legs and run again.

The act of breathing doesn't just move air around, bringing that oxygen in and expelling the toxins, but it also moves prana, ki, chi or whatever name that your culture calls it. It is that life giving energy that doesn't show up on x-rays or CRTs or in nuclear medicine and therefore, according to main stream medicine, does not really exist. But ask any acupuncture provider or patient and listen to what they say. There is so much that we don't understand because we cannot reduce it (yet) to measurement, but Asian practitioners have accepted its existence for thousands of years and indeed have built holistic health practices around its force. So when we breathe we are moving, directing, encouraging that prana to flow within and throughout our bodies. You can try this for yourself next time that some joint or muscle gives you a problem, in class or outside. Concentrate your mind on that spot and each time that you exhale, send your breath to that point; imagine the prana flowing in and out of that spot, bringing energy and life to whatever is causing the problem, unblocking whatever is stopping your prana flowing freely through that spot. Yoga is like acupuncture but without the needles. Try it.

Not so long ago, when I was the CFO of a small public company in the USA, I had to present the financial results of the company to equity analysts, fund managers and investors through quarterly telephone conference calls. My speech issues just exacerbated the situation for me and increased the stress level. That was like a roller coaster and then my speech became worse, spiraling downhill and so on. So I learned to take a couple of minutes before the call was scheduled to begin, to close my office door, and to practice my pranayama breathing. It wasn't for too long but it was enough to calm my mind, settle my anxiety and bring my breathing back to a nice slow, deep rhythm. It saved me each time. So my experience is to trust this stuff because it has worked for me; time and again it has saved my life. And the key for me has been breathing.

Maybe I will write more on this next time.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Soul food?

So what happens if you actually find that stillness? Is there some alignment of planets, the hitherto unattainable suddenly being attained – Disney-like fireworks – lottery check appearing in the hand? You get the picture – right? What exactly is the prize?

Stillness is pretty good just for its own sake; it's not often that we get to enjoy being still during a regular day. So if it just stopped there, and we got to enjoy a little peace and quiet, then that alone would be pretty good. But I think there's more to it.

One of my yoga friends sent a book to me in Spain: “Empowering Your Soul Through Meditation”. While sounding a little heavy, perhaps not what you might choose for a good read at the beach, the ideas behind it are pretty simple. And it connects with what I think happens to me in that little interlude of stillness. The author, Rajinder Singh, encourages the reader to explore the limitless potential of their own soul or spirit. An activity to start the process of empowering one's own soul or spirit is to find a state of peace and then just listen; give your soul the chance to talk to you.

And then I started to connect the dots: that feeling after an intense yoga class, the state of peace that follows from all that hard work – isn't that what keeps me going back and doing it all over again? And then there are the bonus points, those little glimpses of stillness that pop up from time to time within an asana, like the dollar note you find bundled up in the laundry. So I think that is when my spirit talks to me. Not a full-blown conversation but more like a little hum; a chance for my spirit to just buzz a bit. It let's me know that it's there – being happy, like it has just been fed a good meal.

It seems to me that all the work we do in yoga is to feed the spirit, or in more “yoga-speak”, to empower the soul. Maybe that will lead to greater self-realization or bring me closer to God or some undefined Universal spirit. Or maybe not. I tend to take it at face value and just accept that an empowered soul is a good thing, and that's enough for me right now.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Just listen

I have often said that for every two steps forward there is at least one step backwards. I have offered those words as encouragement, as explanation for one's yoga practice, and one's life in general, to take a tortured path – never coursing forwards in a straight unending line, but rather twisting and turning through a tangled web of emotions, reaching for its successes and leaving its mistakes still writhing by the side of the path.

But it still comes as a painful lesson to find oneself wrapped in that coil of confusion, feeling that one's role is nothing more than that of a processional caterpillar, nose to tail with the one in front, not controlling, not leading but following one's nose blindly, with no real idea of purpose or direction.

Those are difficult circumstances in which to be a single parent, and especially a single male parent, whose genes are directed towards problem solving. Surely sensitive and attentive listening is for those who don't have solutions at their fingertips. A father for all seasons has the solution-du-jour, the menu-del-dia, right there all the time. Just call it up – hit recall and up it pops. That's parenting sorted out. What's the next question? Was I listening at all?

Back when I used to work in the telecom industry we used to joke about clients or colleagues who were on “transmit” and not “receive” – clever code to distinguish people who were too busy talking and never took the time to listen. And now here I am, doing the same thing over and over again. Transmitting and not listening. Too many hours in the hot room? Or maybe not enough?

I wonder why it comes as a surprise when I remember Marianne's words, her reminder to me just to listen; just as simple as that – listen. Don't immediately jump to the conclusion that a solution is required or expected or even desired – just listen. Switch to receive; my partner has their finger on transmit and they need to talk. The very act of talking is healing in itself – thus explaining the counseling industry to a large extent.

It still comes as a difficult lesson to be reminded that one's role is often just to listen. That is hard enough: active, attentive, ask-me-at-the-end, let-me-take-the-test kind of listening. Hearing alone is never enough. I have to listen hard. It's a big job; conversation is a two way street, so listening is an essential part of the dance; and at the still point, there is only the dance.

My wish, when I go back into that hot room to take part once again in that dance, is to listen. Dialogue is a conversation between at least two people; it may be my voice and your body but I still have the obligation to listen to what your body is saying. And then modify our behaviour accordingly – both yours and mine. Otherwise I am not listening to you – not hearing your needs. That is a failing grade in my book. One cannot stand on the podium with the finger on transmit for ninety minutes and assume it all went well. If only life were that easy. We have to listen.

So now, as that single male parent, that all knowing role model, it's a hard thing to admit that one doesn't have a solution right there at the fingertips. But it is human after all. And maybe that is a better role model after all. We make mistakes and we don't always know all the answers. But we can give all of our attention when it is requested.

I'll try to do better tomorrow.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The best of days and the worst of days

Is this the best of days or the worst of days to write a blog? Why is the third anniversary of my wife's death such a milestone in my continuing life? It is, one way or another, and I must accept that life does continue, in fits and starts, forwards and then backwards, stalling for some indeterminate time and then picking up the pace, towards another place.

I just don't know where that place is. Last night I had decided that today, like the two anniversaries that have gone before, would be a quiet day; a day of thought, recollection, memories, and probably some sadness. It is also a day of laundry, cooking, eating, washing up – just like yesterday and probably tomorrow. Some things don't change. Despite the body blows of life, the mundane lifts its head and pressing its nose through the veil, reasserts itself as the daily process. For some reason, getting the satellite box to reset and actually transmit the BBC coverage of the British Grand Prix seems to be a priority. I remember the Chinese proverb: before Enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; after Enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.

When it is impossible to answer the question “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?”, dealing with the mundane and winning a few easy battles that grease the wheels of every day existence seems a worthwhile exercise. If the Big Stuff is too Big, then deal with the Small Stuff – but at least deal with Something. I tell myself that Small Stuff needs work too, and some work today is better than sitting around waiting for the day to end. At least with Addressing the Small Stuff I can still be in the moment rather than being lost in the past, wishing it were different, or frozen in time in anticipation of a future that has yet to reveal itself. Being busy is a good thing.

Writing is busy; it demands attention, some focus of thought, reading and re-reading what has been written; constant work to correct the bad typing and fix the spelling errors. If writing is to be read then it needs to be at least of a reasonable standard – at least coherent and grammatically acceptable. Anarchy is just a few small steps beyond bad grammar.

A few days ago a dear friend asked me for whom I was writing? And I had no ready answer at that time. Now I am sure that I am writing for myself; it is a selfish act of business. An act that could just as easily be achieved by writing my piece and storing it safely on some hard drive, rather than expose it to the withering public eye. But the reality is that the withering pubic eye is just a few friendly people who are already somewhat predisposed to some feelings of empathy and understanding – not that much risk at the end of the day. So I write for myself – and maybe my children. Maybe one day an absentminded Google search will reveal the existence of this blog and one or the other of them will follow it to the source and read a little, here and there. That would certainly be more than my parents left for me.

That is not said with bitterness or even regret. Surely it is possible to leave our children with an handbook for life, however short and concise that may be: a sense of right and wrong, driven by a value system that will stand the test of societal change; a sense of purpose in direction, driven by passion and the pursuit of happiness rather than the acquisition of useless goods and chattels; and finally the willingness to risk the exchange of love. Added together they represent for me a path to being more than I might have expected, a few steps towards that elusive goal of “self realization”.

But if I regret that I was not given such a handbook then I have to remember that my parents were engaged in survival: firstly through the ravages of war and then through the economic hardships of the fifties – keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table. I have many personal memories of those difficult times, when I was a very small child, but I can still remember the bread and dripping and the sitting quietly on the front stairs with my Mother as we waited for the rent man to pass us by. As a child, it all seemed very normal; as an adult, I can look back and recognize how very hard it was. Hindsight changes the perspective.

Even now, looking back, as I remember the last days with Marianne, I know there are things that we said and did not say. Such an illness is totally consuming; there is little time to consider what thoughts to share with family or friends. The act of clinging to life demands every ounce of effort – there is little opportunity to sit back and consider what thoughts to share with those around one. I am so profoundly grateful during those few days for every word shared, every hand held, every kiss given and received; and at the same time so profoundly regretful that those days were so short.

As each year goes by I remind myself to share my thoughts with those around me while I still can think beyond the basic needs of survival. Now is the time, while I am still in good health and vigour, to minimize my needs, to reduce my dependency on those cursed goods and chattels, to accept a need for a certain amount of selfishness – to read that book, follow that thought, and even write that blog.

So I expect my thoughts to wander over the months and years ahead, and I will write what concerns me on a given day. Perhaps I should start to include a few critical tag words for that future Google search. I wonder what they should be?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Starting over

During these last few weeks I have come to feel that this is like starting over. Sitting here in rural Spain, waiting for the Ph in the pool to drop down to 7.6. It's not easy. You have to be prepared to let go of what you have already done – maybe even let go of who you are and where you think you are going. When so many of us define ourselves by our jobs, our status in society, our possessions, our cars, our achievements, it's a big deal to put that on the line and start over. So why do it?

If you ask me, reptiles have got it right – the ones who shed their skins. They go happily about their business for some time, reproducing, eating, sleeping, reptiling about and then a little alarm goes off and it's time to change – get a new skin – become a new person – perhaps reinvent. I'm not aware of any big-shot successful reptiles who decide not to do that, but rather stick to the skin they've got. It's like they got half the river bank sown up, stashed away a few thousand eggs in some sand bar, and now they're looking forward to another successful season as one of Nature's possibly least attractive animals. And then, there's the buzzer and it's time for a new skin. They're starting over. I'm pretty sure I heard the buzzer some time ago.

It's a big risk to start over. But twentieth century wisdom suggest that with risk comes reward. That is perhaps not the best source of knowledge but it is where I am rooted. Even worse, I am grounded in finance, project management, accounting, double entry book-keeping – the indisputable logic that requires every credit to have a debit - otherwise a black hole immediately opens up and we are shunted off up some ladder to another, possible parallel universe where things might not be quite the same. We lose control – and for many of us, control has been paramount in our lives. Starting over requires the willingness to cede control, roll the dice and climb up the ladder or slide down the snake. Maybe even trust the Universe.

The yoga analogies are obvious: every time we fall out of a posture is an opportunity to start over; don't get cross and frustrated because your body is not performing like last time. Just accept where it is and try again. I think we all know that one. But what I think are the real gifts are the countless opportunities in class to bring our mind back to the breath, refocus and start again.

There are so many times that I have been lying there in savasana, grateful to my tired body for having got through another standing series, and waiting for my mind to settle down and be still. But instead, I get all kinds of junk – images from who knows where, from my past, childhood, that morning, tomorrow, just anywhere, anybody and anything. My mind just sends me stuff – what do you think of this one? Don't like it, try this – hey, here's another, and so it goes on.

And then I have to let all that junk go and bring my attention back to my breathing. That is my meditation – right there. Starting over. Meditation is full of little restarts – coming back to the breath and letting the mind follow what the body is already doing. If I am inhaling, then I follow the inhale; if I am exhaling, I follow the exhale. The body has figured this out already – it doesn't need advice or guidance from the mind.

Some times we make meditation so very hard: we try to make the environment right, some nice music, get the candles going, some pillows to get comfortable and then what? And then we are frustrated because our mind races off somewhere at top speed and that quiet, that stillness, that peace, seems unobtainable. My best meditation happens when I trust my body to do what it already knows. I bring my mind back again and again, as many times as necessary – come back to my breath and start again to follow the breath – look for that little still point between the inhale and the exhale – rest there for just a moment – and then follow the next breath. Not controlling it – not making it shorter or longer – but just allowing it to be what my body wants it to be. For me, my breath is the key to my practice. I used to say my yoga class was 90 minutes of breathing with a few postures thrown in to keep everybody from getting bored. Maybe next week I'll write about breathing.

And if it happens in the yoga room, then it can happen outside the yoga room too – in the office, in the sitting room, on the deck. Take the opportunity to be still during the day, maybe for just a few minutes, bring your mind to your breath and focus. Expect your mind to wander – that's its job. But gently coax it back to the breath and start again. The rewards are those little glimpses of stillness, and that's a pretty big deal in my books.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

So why this search for stillness?

It may be obvious for those of you who have shared the hot room with me over the past few years, but not all of my friends and readers fall into that category.  For the latter,  a few words of explanation may be helpful. 

I like to see my life through the lens of yoga;  my kids remind me of that each time that we talk and I offer up some words of advice, which tends to elicit the response " oh no, not another yoga metaphor!".  And, of course, that is exactly what falls from my lips - yet another yoga metaphor.  I am indeed that predictable.

It is a truism that aging brings with it the accumulation of experience. In the worst of cases, it tends to be the same experience over and over again. In the best of cases, and if you are really lucky in life, it brings many assorted experiences, gleaned from dipping your toes into this and that. I like to think that Bikram saw that when he said to me “just teach from your worldly experience and you will be alright”. It was one of our longer exchanges – barely a conversation – but I reached out and caught those few words, wrapped them up safely and carried them with me ever since. A rationale for what I do: share my experience.

And this conversation today, this blog, this short exchange of words that is offered to you, is simply that: a sharing of experience. It is no substitute for the learning and the healing that goes on in the yoga room. It is not didactic in nature nor in spirit. For that you need to keep on listening to the teaching, focusing on the underlying meaning of the words and staying in that pristine awareness of the yoga practice – you may remember that from our past conversations in the hot room.

This experience of mine with yoga has been good; but more than that, it has changed my life. I began to see things cropping up in my practice that were a direct reflection of issues that I was experiencing outside the hot room. More and more as I practiced, I saw a reflection of my life laid out before me, in the mirror and on the mat. Challenges in my life reappeared as challenges in my practice. The line between my life and my yoga practice became blurred, and then slowly, over time, disappeared. No wonder then that yoga metaphors now come so easily to my mind when I am seeking to find answers to life's everyday practical problems.

Bikram tried to define yoga for us one day. Of course we started with the simple definitions that we could write down in our note books and memorize: words like “union” and “yoke” and phrases that imply the partnering of mind and body. But it came down to the fact that so much of what we do is a combination of mind and body, and that can be simply explained as yoga.  It is all around us – all the time. He calls it “the science of life”. Reach for a glass of water: yoga;  stand up and stretch your arms above your head:  yoga; lie down and close your eyes and nap:  yoga; write a blog: yoga. I like that.

Each time that our mind and body connect, there is yoga going on – initially a battle, that coming together, that tension, that stress, that pushing and pulling. A conflict between mind and body - one wins and the other loses - unless the conflict can be resolved in some way so that there is no need for winners and losers.  And that's where yoga comes in. It resolves the conflict between mind and body.

Our physical yoga practice came into being many years ago ( roughly three or four thousand years) specifically to prepare the body for meditation.  Yoga was a set of preparatory exercises to quieten and relax the body so that the mind could meditate without interruption from cramps or spasms or the like. Nowadays, Bikram calls his practice, his sequence of postures,  a “moving meditation”, but its origin is firmly rooted in preparing the body for a still meditation.

Look carefully and in each posture you will find a little point of stillness. It might not last long – in fact it might not always be there. But if you are lucky enough to see it, then you know it. You don't have to be this year's yoga champ to find it. Just do the best you can, the best that your body can do on this day, and breathe. Then the stillness finds you. Remember the definition of a hatha yoga asana: executing the posture as best you can, in stillness, breathing always normal. That is my Trinity, right there, at the “still point”.

We borrow this term “ still point” from a poem written by T. S. Eliot in the 1930's. He is perhaps best remembered for his poems The Waste Land and the Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, or his plays like Murder in the Cathedral, or his work that resulted in Practical Cats – the source for Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats. But it was four poems written between 1935 and 1945 published as a collection called The Four Quartets that earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. The first of these poems, Burnt Norton, is where we find the term “still point”. 
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving”

I've seen this still point – albeit briefly and from a distance. But I know it's there, and that's what I am looking for now. It's there where the body does something special - it heals itself - and then that sense of quiet, that healing, that “white light” feeds straight into the mind and everything just slows down.  Perhaps not very much - maybe just a few cycles, but it's enough to notice. It's like body temperature:  a very small change in finite temperature can create a very large difference in the way you feel.  And that is my experience.

My yoga and now my life is about that still point – searching not just in the asana in the hot room but in everyday life, in getting the shopping and washing the clothes, in the mundane and in the ridiculous. I know that it's there. One day I'll get another glimpse and maybe inch just a little bit closer to that still point, where the dance is, and where there is only the dance.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A little slow?

It took me some time to understand what has been going on this week.  I thought I arrived here on my own, but in fact there has been two of us:  me and my ego.  So what's the problem with that?  It's rather like your shadow - you just cannot do what Peter Pan had done and cut it off - it's there all the time.  It's not that I mind sharing the villa but I like to be the one making the decisions.  And that wasn't the case this week.

But I didn't even know what was going on until the weather warmed up, the rain stopped and the wind died down - and then I could get a yoga practice in and there we were:  the two of us sharing the same mat, and that just doesn't work.

I had to get into each posture and make myself let go - each time - just let go.  Forget the past - forget what I used to be able to do - forget what is possible in the hot room - and instead, accept what my body can do today, in this moment, in this place, by the pool, in the wind and the sun.  Underneath it all we are all beginners.  And once I shoved my ego off the mat, then the practice made sense again.  It took a long time - the practice was slow and careful. 

And then the past week made some sense:  I had not let go.  I had found myself wandering around, not settling into any one thing, up and down, trying this and that - expecting that a new routine would just materialize out of thin air.  But it didn't.  So then I began to question what I was doing here. Was I going to meet the expectations I had when I got on the plane? And what would happen if I failed to meet those expectations?

Finally the penny dropped and I remembered all the times when I encouraged students to leave their expectations outside the hot room and accept each practice for what it was:  good, bad or indifferent. The big thing was to turn up and try;  let my body do its thing and not let my ego drive my practice by going further that my body was ready to go.  Accepting the situation and being comfortable in that moment.  Nothing happens unless you turn up.  As Robbie Schaefer wrote in Monroe, "it's only a miracle if you turn up to receive it".  The yoga is a miracle but it doesn't happen if you don't turn up.  But you cannot share your mat with your ego - as I found out today.

So do yourself a favour and ask your ego to stay behind while you go do what your body can do best - heal itself.  You just have to trust it.  You may not go as far as you expect to go, but it's better than not turning up at all.  We all have to be reminded of that lesson, and that was my big breakthrough this week.  Finally remembering something that I had been talking about for years!  Sometimes I'm just a little slow on the uptake.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The start of the beginning?

May 29th is a special day for me - it is my wife Marianne's birthday, so I like to have this day to myself.  I'm a little protective of this day.  I try to wrap it up in my arms and hold it tight all day, and maybe in that way it will be a little different and last a bit longer.  Ever since I lost Marianne, I make this day a quiet day.  Now that's not the same as "still"  - not parsing anything here but merely drawing a distinction.

Quiet involves saving the day for myself - no outside interruptions.  I practiced my yoga on the terrace before I ventured out to the local market - nice, peaceful practice, but not yet still.  I should have taken my dictionary with me to the market but I was pretty sure what I wanted.  So now I know what the Spanish word "medio" means.  Jumping to conclusions in the heat of the moment I ordered a "pollo medio", pretty sure I was getting a medium sized chicken.  I was a little surprised when I opened the package at home:  now I will remember that "medio" means half not medium.  I made up the difference in bread.

The days seem to slow down out here.  But there are no real markers to remind one of the day's passage. It can slide from morning into afternoon with very little warning.  And the the afternoon is so long - it hardly becomes evening until so late - we have light until 9:30 pm.  Of course it's almost June so the days are approaching their longest, but that always seems to be a surprise. Then, before you are ready for the change, they start getting shorter again and one has to fight the urge to countdown to Christmas.  Someone should mention this on the news, like a sort of public service announcement, and then I can be prepared for the days to start getting shorter instead of feeling slightly jipped when it happens, without warning.

As the afternoon slides by, so does one day slide imperceptibly into another, and very soon I will be two weeks into this new life without really having got started yet.  So I have done a little weeding, checked the pool water for Pl or Ch or something like that, hung out the washing and brought it back in again a few times.  There have been things happening, but nothing yet that I can point to and say "that's moved me forwards" - so I've started.  I think I'm just getting ready to begin.

So with apologies to Churchill, this is not yet the beginning;  it's not even the start of the beginning;  but it's kind of like the beginning of the start to get ready to begin ...  this new life.  I've got a couple of more things to get done - maybe this week, or maybe next - and then I should be ready to think about starting.  That seems pretty straight now.  Now where did I put that bottle of Rioja...  that's a full bottle not a bloody medio.