Destination Sensation

 

bw saddle web

Yoga is an inward journey, I fear this is increasingly forgotten. In the yoga studios and gyms lined with mirrors, I’m almost certain it IS being forgotten. It’s true that this is where we go, these studios, for motivation, or for convenience, for a certain teacher or style, an adjustment or two, to be a part of something, for a community of sorts, for a reliable heat source or a mat sized flat space to call your own for an hour or two. Or for a regular pay check without the frustration of self promotion. 🙂

But yoga is also solitary. Actually, yoga is primarily solitary. A solitary, inward journey. Every student coming to class regularly should ALSO be devoting time to self practice. Turning up on your own mat to your own time and doing something ( it doesn’t matter so much what, as long as there is breath and focus).

I hear, over and over, that you don’t have the motivation for self practice.. the discipline — but I beg to differ. If you can come to class you have that drive in you, already. You say you don’t know what asanas to practice. I say you’d be surprised by your kinaesthetic memory even if you’ve only been to a handful of classes.

( Sequencing poses is quite intuitive. In can be ‘pose and counter pose’…. ‘compressive followed by expansive’. And/or a series of poses working one group of muscles on one side of the body, perhaps building up in depth or strength or hold, followed by the other side. Breathing is even more intuitive. Upward movements ask for an inhale, downward for an exhale. The breath wants to be smooth and fluid by nature, not ragged and jittery. Not forced in. Certainly not forced out. Not usually held, but sometimes so quiet it drops away. Focus is all that is needed here. If in doubt just breathe naturally! )

Then, here is where the concept of a quiet practice comes in. A practice doesn’t always have to be based on the constant chatter of a teacher and her generalised ‘blanket’ cues ( as experienced as she is, she can’t feasibly speak for everyone).  Or paced with the prescriptive mantra of the breath of your fellow class attendees. Yoga doesn’t require an external noise source ( your teacher’s playlist ),  defining a choreographed plot line with a musical peak pose moment.

A silent, solitary, inward practice.

Self motivated. Without mirrors or selfie sticks.  Without the internet or a podcast. Without music. Without that hottie on the mat next to you. Without a teacher or his instruction. Without that ‘advanced’ student to follow along, in front of you. Without the back-drop of a rack synthetic hot pants for sale at the studio, or boxes of packaged vegan bars / trendy ( ok, delicious) cold pressed juices, the free coconut water that calls you to rush out of your savasana before it runs out.

Can I ask you to practice alone, in old, not particularly flattering but just comfortable clothes, on a no frills mat from Target rolled out in a little bit of space somewhere, with your eyes half closed?

A silent, solitary practice is where yoga takes flight. For here, without external reflection, the mind is drawn inward and you start to notice, and in time observe, sensation. The feelings of being in a physical body. The feeling of the muscles, bones, sinews, skin. The stretch of the fascia, the rebound. The sensation of the breath moving in and out of the body. And more subtly, the sensation of energetic movement and pattern. Each pose has an attendant sensation. Perhaps a little -or a great deal- different for every body. Perhaps changing every day. The actual quality of the sensation is not what matters. Noticing the quality, with curiosity,  without judgement or categorisation, is what matters.

This is the present moment. This is the gift we are given whilst placed in a physical body. Sensation which always already brings you to the present moment. The start and the end of the journey, sensation is forever present, woven through all experience.

 

 

 

 

The Habit of Yoga

My family and I recently packed up our lives and moved them elsewhere, from our lovely spacious home in a lonely part of the world to a smaller, kinda crummy rental home in a thriving community. For me, the most important thing, was to claim a mat sized space to call my own in which to practice my daily habit. Without that, I’d be lost.
Having moved from a place with a mini yoga studio to call my own, to a small and grubby room in which I also must have my writing desk and film making stuff and an increasing pile of bills, it seemed a bit of a bum deal at first. But once I rolled out that mat on the first morning, and did my practice, I claimed the little space and I was happy.
How lucky to have a space to call my own, with no lego to step on or under couch dustballs to ponder over in headstand. How lucky to have a daily practice, a damn serious habit… something that is a given, like brushing the teeth. Second nature.
Habit is a powerful thing, sometimes selfish, sometimes obtuse. Always there. Even when travelling, camping, sick, tired, busy, broke, distracted, upset- however we find ourselves.
Without it, we all are lost.
And of all the habits in the world, a self practice of yoga and meditation are the ones I have chosen. What a blessing.

Here is a quote from the illustrious Mary Oliver on Habit:
What some might call the restrictions of the daily office they find to be an opportunity to foster the inner life. The hours are appointed and named… Life’s fretfulness is transcended. The different and the novel are sweet, but regularity and repetition are also teachers… And if you have no ceremony, no habits, which may be opulent or may be simple but are exact and rigorous and familiar, how can you reach toward the actuality of faith, or even a moral life, except vaguely? The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to become real.

On the way to the Outback we camped at the Showgrounds at Burra and found the perfect open air shed to practice in.

On the way to the Outback we camped at the Showgrounds at Burra and found the perfect open air shed to practice in.

Finding presence. Yoga as Meditation.

In the first year or two of a solid, committed YOGA practice you are learning the asanas (yoga poses). Your body responds by cleaning out, your strength and flexibility increase, your energy begins to flow clearly and your muscles and joints re-calibrate. Your system is able to detoxify more easily and your metabolism increases. You may discover the breath and how very deep and wide- and how very shallow and still- it can be.

Over more years, more practice, more attention, you discover how the breath and the body and indeed the pose are all one and the same, simultaneously. You begin to find some acceptance of the body- as within the exploration of breath you realise the body is far bigger than you ever imagined. Without borders. You feel the breath as the ocean, swelling and subsiding, beyond the physical limits of the body.
You begin to know a pose as a path of energy encompassing the body mind and breath- often changing in nature from day to day. No longer a collection of arms and legs, muscles and bones- with the breath thrown in from the outside.

You begin to sense that – ‘hey… the body is not me. It is something providing sensation.’ You look at sensation and see – ‘hey… these sensations come and go like the wind, the sensation is not me.’
And the thoughts- as much as we believe they are us, and give them such primacy, such value- almost attributing them with substance- we come to realise:
‘hey… my thoughts are not me, they come and go but I can be aware of them’
You feel the flow of breath and you begin to have an idea that indeed, you are being breathed.

The mind, the breath and the body and the energies within are forever in flux- they can not be defined as self.

Within your yoga practice, especially evident in self practice, is the vital task of cultivating awareness of the sensations of the asana, and the movement in and out of each pose. Awareness of the way the breath feels as your lungs fill and your ribs expand. The sensation of the parts of the body that touch the mat, the stretch in the muscles, the skin, the placement of the bones. The shapes of the energy as it moves. The bodily feeling of being in yoga.

Naturally, with practice, with time and with intent, you begin to become aware of certain thought habits that tether you to a limited reality. The grasping towards the idea of singular self, the ‘me’. The ego at work. The self-categorisation ( I’m tired, I’m flexible, I’m strong, I’m hopeless at this, I’m so spiritual etc, etc ).
The self limiting boxes we place ourselves in.

The practice of becoming mindful of habitual thoughts is key to progress in yoga practice. It is an integral step towards going beyond the physical- finding the spiritual- in yoga. As you become familiar with your familiar habits of perception, the conceptualisations that we build and have had built around us, and you see that everything that is perceivable comes and goes in a state of flux- it becomes clear that what goes on in your mind has nothing to do with the Real.

They manifest in myriad ways, these patterns and constructs… it may be the way you are a little averse to poses that deeply flex the ankles ( yep, that’s me right there ), but love a good deep forward bend or could hang out forever in an incorrectly executed headstand.
It may be a habitual, unexplored way of doing a pose, or a stuck-ness in a joint or muscle system. A catching of the breath. A hesitation. The way a pose triggers a thought association that can lead you off your mat even as you continue moving the body…. the way the mind plays extended remixes of high drama, on replay, ad infinitum. These are only a few, but the ones I have personally seen play out, either staying around and playing for a while or slipping away as fast as they arrive- over and over- within the past 25 years of various Yoga practices.

Our awareness of reality is clouded by avoidance and attraction- our minds swing from attachment to aversion, aversion to attachment, grasping in a habitual way.
Once we begin to even notice this vacillation between thoughts of
‘Oooh yes, I like this, I want more of this, I’m holding on to this’ and ‘No, don’t like that, yucko, I’m pushing that one away ‘, we begin to let it go.

Yoga is all about letting go.

Letting go of the grasping, of the pushing, or the fabrications and constructions. Realising that they are not you. Releasing, as they arise, the judgements and the comparisons. The personal and societal perceptions. The false concept that mind and body are split.

The lonely lie of the limited self.

Finding the neutral spaces between the grasping towards and pushing away, is finding yoga, the raw spaces where future thinking and past reflecting are not in attendance.

Yoga is finding and developing- with intentional curiousity and exploration– those moments where you can drop in to the presence that is ALWAYS ALREADY there. Always has been, always will be. Learning and practicing this focus is discovering freedom, for when you let go of boundaries, you find freedom. The presence of being..

Wat Po, Bangkok- Yoga sculputre- utplutihi

Yogis CAN go camping, too!

Lookout meditator

Handy bench, amazing view. The weather changed every few minutes up here on a lookout hill on a private 4WD track at Alpana Station.

So quiet in the middle of everywhere and nothing with incredibly ancient rocks

So quiet in the middle of everywhere and nothing with incredibly ancient rocks

It’s been a long time since we went camping. I grew up camping- the real kind of camping, the find-a-spot-far-out-in-the-bush off the beaten track, far-from-the-maddening-crowds kind of camping. No services, no toilet, no shower, no reception, no nothing. Except everything nature supplies. The bring-everything-you-need kind of camping, including a shovel for when nature calls and plenty of water.

However once we had kids, camping became more of a hassle for these particular Yogi’s, more than we ( ok, I ) could imagine getting excited about. Hassles like sleep deprivation, like kids that liked to wander- but weren’t old enough to safely, like nappies and poo and no baths for days on end. Like the thought of tackling motherhood insomnia/ hyper vigilance on seriously uncomfortable camping mats, whinging kids on a long road trip, etc etc.

But recently the call of the desert returned in an intense way, and I wanted more than anything to take the family to the Outback, away from the easy green of our country home, away from the Thermomix and the I-gadgets and Mine-craft. Away from all comforts including my lovely little warm, flat and dry yoga studio at home.

The thing about a daily self practice in Yoga, if I am quite honest, is that it limits what you do in your life. It is a marvellous, transformational life practice, but limiting all the same.
‘No sorry I can’t have breakfast in bed I have to do my practice ‘…
Getting up at the cracker and rolling out your mat may be hard to make into a habit at first, but after 25 years of doing it, it’s a near impossible habit to break. It defines your life. Truly. So camping was out of the picture for more than a moon day night or two as it all seemed too difficult, and indeed quite selfish, to get the kids to wait around while we did our morning practice.

But then the kids GREW UP a little and started looking after themselves… So, quite spontaneously, we decided to go camping for REAL. With a few concessions from me (like leaving Weet-bix and tinned fruit out for them to serve themselves instead of a hot, nourishing kind breakfast.. oh the horror, the guilt, the shame ) and a shortened practice ( Ashtanga primary series only, often only to Navasana ) the kids were able to look after and entertain themselves in a wonderfully independent way. They were free to roam and wander through the bush as they liked, as long as they were within coo-eee of their parents and stuck together. The kids had fun in their freedom, the parents had respite in our freedom, and our bodies recovered from the rigours of sleeping rough and days crammed into the 4WD. I dropped the need to do all poses, everyday, and it was all good.
Here a some photos of our yoga and meditation on this recent trip to the Flinders ranges and Arkaroola. 12 days of sleeping on hard mats and doing less, gentler but utterly delightful yoga on ancient earth in sacred places.

On the way to the Outback we camped at the Showgrounds at Burra and found the perfect open air shed to practice in.

On the way to the Outback we camped at the Showgrounds at Burra and found the perfect open air shed to practice in.

Burra

Beautiful warm sun, so stiff and sore after the first 1000 kms or so.

salutes

Alpana Station- first morning, sun salutes

standing meditator

Free Ranging Kids

Free Ranging Kids

Roo watching

Alpana

Handy tarp for keeping off the bindi bindi’s ( nasty prickles )

upward

More free range kids- imagine having this many

More free range kids- imagine having this many

second morning- pre practice photo

second morning in Alpana- pre-practice photo. It was so lovely there we stayed longer than planned.

wilpena hike

Always save some energy to hike, (skip the 20 backbends sequence)

at it AGAIN

at it AGAIN

Above the amazing old Blinman Copper mine- fragments of malachite everywhere.

Above the amazing old Blinman Copper mine- fragments of malachite everywhere.

My turn- leave me alone for 10 minutes now, please!

My turn- leave me alone for 10 minutes now, please!

Sandy dry river beds have the perfect flat, firm and shaded ground for practice- Arkaroola.

Sandy dry river beds have the perfect flat, firm and shaded ground for practice- Arkaroola.

Ardha Baddha Padma in Arkaroola

arkaroola pranayama

headstand lift

supine in river bed

Supine in river bed

football heart opener

Football Heart Opener

footy hamstring support

Football hamstring support, shavasana

On the way home- Broken Hill motel. Not ideal but better than nothing- of course being smaller I got the dodgy spot. And a lovely hot shower.

On the way home- Broken Hill motel. Not ideal but better than nothing- of course being smaller I got the dodgy spot. And a lovely hot shower.

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.