Standing Meditation- for those sleepy days

It is winter here in Australia and where I live, just over the Great Dividing Range in Victoria, it is freaking cold compared to Melbourne, and like a different planet compared to the intense heat of late summer. We get down to 0 degrees or a few below Celsius at night and a couple of weeks ago we even got snow… I missed it, it was at 4am.

I’m not sure if it is the cold, the dark, the change in diet that winter brings (more on that in the next post), the lack of sleep from my partner’s outrageous snoring or just general winter malaise settling in, but my daily mindfulness meditation has recently become a whole lot harder.

I practice two kinds of meditation practice daily ( and occasionally, most likely on the esteemed ladies holiday or moon days I may do some lovely sanskrit chanting )

First up I do an energetic/chakra/visualisation based yoga meditation technique for a while ( as I was taught by Gregor Maehle – see his awesome book here ) – to make the most of the energies generated from my asana and pranayama practice. It is upward moving from lower to higher chakras and, though increasingly complex and taking a lot of focus and effort, I love it. I see it as brain training.

Then I do mindfulness meditation for longer- as long as I have time for- as mindfulness meditation gives me that beautiful buzzy feeling that just makes my day. It’s mindfulness meditation that I believe can truly change someone for the better in time, as with this technique you deal with the detritus and trauma of the unconscious. Stuff comes up.

Asana alone is never going to do that for you. Never.

In the warmer months I tend to rise much, much earlier, do the kriyas, pranayama and meditations, then the asana to keep the body clear, light and healthy. Or if I’m not sleeping too well and need extra sleep, I do the first three, then go inside for some kid wrangling. Once they are safely at school I head back into my little yoga-studio-at-home for asana practice.
But in winter I often get straight into kriyas and asana to keep me motivated and warm as my heaters crank up. It sure is easier to hold lotus position after an hour or two of warming asana!

However at the moment, not long after I get settled into my seated meditation pose with my favourite cushion just right, and my leg blankie and favourite felted cotton shawl I got in Laos, my mind just baulks and off it wanders into the ether. I either sit there drifting off into inane thoughts, fitfully remembering to attend to the breath, or I just nod off like a junkie 😉
It has been driving me mad, which of course doesn’t help a bit.
I get a bit attached to the good times when meditation practice flows. Don’t we all. When it feels like it is being done TO you, rather than you trying to do IT.

But I don’t often get to that place in winter and for a long time I have been wondering why.
But it seems, for now at least, I have found, perhaps not the answer, but an alternative solution.
……drum roll…..

STANDING MEDITATION

Standing meditation is my new beloved… my sanity saver. I’ve been teaching it in mindfulness classes lately and most people just love it too…. ( although there are always a few people who don’t, maybe 20%, so if this is not for you don’t stress, just go back to sitting and be happy.)

Buddhist texts say walking meditation is the hardest, one of the more advanced forms of mindfulness meditation- try it, you’ll agree.
Lying down meditation is also in the bit harder basket- although delicious to practice- it is mostly challenging to do properly as we tend to drift off into la-la land when lying on our backs. It takes considerable effort to attend to sensation in savasana.
Standing meditation is seen as a moderate practice- not too hard, not too easy. Less concentration is required than for sitting, but more physical effort.
It is great for when you are sleepy ( tamasic energy dominates- see post on gunas ), for when you have sore hips, knees, back or bum or are unable to sit for whatever reason. It is also recommended to practice in between seated sessions if you are doing some kind of marathon meditation deliciousness.

I like standing meditation as it makes me feel alive, vital and awake- an energetic calm. I feel grounded and planted on the earth, and when I finish up I feel super connected to the world around me.

This meditation practice can be done indoors or outdoors, in a place where you will not be or feel disturbed. Shoes off on bare earth is ideal, however in warm socks or comfortable shoes is great too. Hell, do it in your ugg boots, it’s all good.

These are the basic guidelines:

1: Stand with your feet hip distance apart and your knees slightly bent- do not lock (hyperextend) the knee. Check over each shoulder to ascertain if your feet really are shoulder width apart. Turn the toes in very, very minimally. Just a tad, a wafer even….
Let your arms fall to your sides with palms facing up and out, hands naturally cupped.
Pull your chin in a little so your ears are over your shoulders- jutting your chin out aggressively won’t help any kind of meditation or indeed do much good for anyone or anything.

2: To begin with, don’t be closing your eyes on the job! Take a few long and deep diaphragmatic breaths, more if you feel tension in your body. Breathe into the navel and feel the connection of the breath to that area, expanding up into your chest and ribs in all directions, not forgetting the collarbones.

3: If you have just done asana including savasana, you can go straight into step 4. Otherwise spend a few minutes doing a simple standing full body scan, part by part, from the soles of the feet to the crown of the head with your eyes closed or the gaze softened.

4: If you haven’t already closed your eyes, do so now, or soften your gaze if closing them makes you feel too unbalanced or vulnerable. Bring your attention to your feet. Feel the soles of the feet on the floor or within your shoes. Notice everything about the soles of your feet. The parts of the feet that touch the floor, the pressure there, where there is firm pressure, where it is lighter. The arches of the feet. The individual toes on the floor. Spend some time looking closely at pressure, it’s differences and similarities. Do not attempt to visualise the soles of the feet. Though a mental image may arise, do not dwell on or try to cultivate the image as this is in the realm of imagination/visualisation- i.e. a different form of meditation.

Here we are attending to sensation, only.

If you are a visual artist of some kind ( pick me, pick me Fat Cat! ) a visual learner or a visually dominated person, this might be damn hard. Stick with it, just keep going back to the sensation again and again and gradually the internal imagery will back off and lose it’s agency…. hopefully.
Now begin to notice the temperature of the sole of the foot where it touches the ground, sock or shoe. Notice the differences in temperature in detail. Bring to your focus a sense of devoted attention, a curiosity, even a delight in the tiny details of sensation as you become aware of them.
Repeat with the sensation of texture as you scan your awareness over the soles of the feet, the fabric of your socks or the grass or sand beneath your feet. Do this with the same exquisite attention to detail as any other sensation.

Notice the movement within the sensations. Is there a feeling of flux and change, or a quiet solid stasis? Notice and accept these phenomena.
Notice and accept any sensations of discomfort or pain, and even perhaps comfort.

You may find an incessant, internal dialogue rambling along… ‘oh here is a hot spot, hot spot, I can attend to that for a bit, ooh, mind is wandering, ah here it is, pull it back in, hot spot, hot spot, yes, must stay on this hot spot what’s for breakfast, hot spot, oh that reminds me of….’ etc etc.
This is not ideal… although entirely normal. If your mind is the kind that wants to chatter to you ‘in words’ choose instead to do some simple labelling. e.g.- ‘Sole of foot, heat, heat, heat, cold, warm’ etc, etc.

The mind will and does wander. That is the nature of mind. No need to beat yourself up about it. Practice makes perfect and here you are practicing… well done! This is you time for you alone ( and by extension the entire universe benefits, ideally! ) To bring judgement into the practice is just not fair on yourself. You are just so damn lucky to have the time, space, presence of mind and life conditions to be able to give meditation a go, right?

Remember- as Jon Kabat- Zinn … says

‘Mindfulness meditation means paying attention, in a particular way. On purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.’

Spread your awareness to include the whole of the feet, outer edge, heel, inner edge, top of the feet, all sensations of the feet, the ankles, the shins, the calves, the knee cap, behind the knee, all of the lower legs including the feet, the front of the thighs, outer edge of the thighs, back of the thigh, inner thighs, groins, hip creases, buttocks, sit bones… all of the legs and feet. All of the legs and feet. Stay there a while.

Move your attention back down into the feet OR pay attention to the breath as it manifests at the navel or throat or nostrils or the whole cycle of the breath. OR indeed, as invariably happens in my practice, pay attention to the cycle of breath while being aware of the entire body sensations, how it feels standing, any and all sensations and the involuntary movements and automatic balance finding.

Choose one of these places in which to enquire- and if changing at all, change only once in the standing practice, as shifting from one to the other over and over is just another way for the mind to distract you with its tricky tricks.

Whenever the monkey mind wanders, gently and with kindness bring it back to the sensation at hand. Every time, over and over. And over. If you get lost and wonder where you were, go back to the grounded sensation of the feet and stay there a while until you reestablish yourself.

Ten to fifteen minutes is a great place to start, longer if you already have a solid sitting practice evolving. Five minutes is better than nothing. Depending on what you have been doing that day or if you stand on your feet a lot on an average day, you may be surprised at how tiring it isn’t!

Next post I will detail some of the things I have found out while trying to research why winter makes my- and others- yoga and meditation practice so much harder.

Just a backbend


There was a time, a short time, where I could grasp my fingers to my ankles in Urdhva Dhanurasana. Mysore, 2003 during my time at AYRI in my early 30’s. Between the adjustments from Guruji and Sharath, I would have gone this deep 5 or 6 times, but more often just touching my fingertips to my heels. Super flexible people around me going all the way, every day, perhaps several times. A well known Japanese yogi had his hands on the back of his thighs and his head pretty much touching his backside.. in backbend!!! The look of concentration and vulnerability on his face remains with me. On those surreal days in Mysore I would feel quite nutty for the rest of the day… ungrounded, dizzy… not quite on the earth. Deep backbends are a lot for the nervous system to handle.

And then, upon my return to Australia, with a winter, a brand new mortgage to pay- and real life- deep backbends were to be never again.

Within a few months of returning home I was pregnant with my first child ( pregnancy being the only time in my 25+ years of daily practice of various traditions of yoga where I have had days off- and plenty of them). He wasn’t a sleeper, that first baby, practice became maintenance only, and even though practice was daily, it was nothing on what was possible before. Back in those self centered days when I didn’t have responsibilities …. and wasn’t utterly, unfathomably exhausted.

After recovering my sleep, strength and sanity… getting back to drop-backs and coming back up, along came my second child. In there were 5 or so years in total of breast-feeding my children into toddlerhood (all that rounding of the shoulders greatly reducing my shoulder flexibility), the years of never, ever getting to a Mysore class for adjustment or advice from a senior teacher (how can one get to a class at 6am when you haven’t got to sleep until 4am?), some big life shake ups requiring mental strength and moral fibre and all those kinds of things that get in the way of physical progression. That get in the way of maintaining deep backbends.

At first I missed them dearly, along with the thrill of achievement, the whacked out feeling after such an intense curve of the spine… I even hankered after those side effects.
But whenever I expanded my practice back into deep backbend territory my body would tell me otherwise. Urdhva Dhanurasana exacerbated my carpal tunnel syndrome more than any other repetitive strain- and in my daily life I had quite a few of them adding to the condition.

The extreme flexion of the wrists required to be stable in UD irritated my wrist nerves so that often I was in extraordinary pain at night- I couldn’t sleep- my fingers tingling and going numb, my hands in claws. But the next morning on the mat I would, more often than not, find myself doing a basic backbend sequence anyway.

Yes, I ignored it, as you do with things that only happen at night and barely effect you by day… occasionally dropping the backbends for months at a time but pretty much ignoring the CTS for 10 years. Until I found myself dropping cups and plates by day with increasing nerve damage causing loss of sensation in my fingers. Every night a full nights sleep was impossible for the pain… even with the kids now sleeping.

It was the surgery that shifted things for me… many yogis will tell you, injury is a great teacher. For me, accepting that an injury had occurred at all was the hardest part. When I got nerve conduction tests done ( on the 4th separate time I was given a referral script from my doctor ) he told me I had severe carpal tunnel, unusual for my body type
( most carpal tunnel syndrome occurs in obese patients ), and asked me how I could have left it for so long. I didn’t have an answer.

I remember waking up from surgery- a very simple procedure- and straight away being able to feel my middle finger again. A traditional Ashtanga practice was out for months. I discovered Matthew Sweeney’s Chandra Moon sequence which was a saviour, adapting it to keep weight off my hands. I used blocks with grip bars in them to keep the wrists straight. (I still practice the moon sequence series regularly to mix things up with my Ashtanga practice, relieve the standing series boredom of a long term practitioner, shift some of that physical repetition on the joints and muscles, and to work fully into all areas of the hips).

After surgery it took more than 18 months to be able to support weight in the hands in such intense flexion. Most back-bending practice was from the knees ( Ushtrasana, Laghu Varjasana etc). I re-discovered bridge pose from my early Hatha yoga days- such a wonderful, simple pose as one can choose which areas of the spine to move into.

Then, back to trying Urdhva Dhanurasana.. Slowly, I could reach my fingers to the floor beside my ears- using a rolled up mat to reduce the angle of wrist flexion- and push up, feeling weak and oh so stiff, feeling awkward and old and nothing like I had back in Mysore, 2003.

Gradually I began to realise what a great pose Urdhva Dhanurasana is- practiced as it is, a simple wheel. Old school, no frills… a nice arc with a gentle evenness, the vertebrae working towards equilibrium. The feet and hands planted strongly, open through the chest and lungs, deeply centered through the abdominals, the groins rotating to allow movement in the sacrum.

Done this way, the wheel is grounding. None of that mad, untethered, spaciness that deep backbends can cause. Sure, it gets you a little high, a nice rush of joy to start the day… but nothing that prevents me from coming in from my morning practice to make the kids lunch, negotiating homework, shoes and socks and getting them off to school.

So that is how I practice backbends now- and plan to continue- happily, for the next 25 years.

fascia

Fascia:
“Fascia is a structure of connective tissue that surrounds muscles, groups of muscles, blood vessels, and nerves, binding some structures together, while permitting others to slide smoothly over each other..”

If you think of the membranes you see when looking between the parts of a raw chicken, between the muscle meat- that’s what fascia looks like. 

It should move freely without adhesions or obstructions. 

On a physical level, practicing YOGA affects the fascia in a particularly beneficial way, by enhancing blood flow and movement to the fascia itself- i.e. energy flow- and to the surrounding muscles and nerves through stretching and contracting. 

(Supplementing your practice or class with a bit of self massage with a foam roller for fascia release is another good technique, in fact if you have to be sedentary for some time- say on a long flight,  just use the side of your hand along your longer muscles, thighs etc.)

A good YOGA session has poses and counter poses to activate fascia, release fascial tension and restore equilibrium. These benefits last for 4 days.


So practicing yoga twice a week, whether that is a class or your own practice, should have your fascia covered!