Friday 28 February 2014

Meditation is the pudding of yoga
So, it was lovely to be back in my normal yoga class with the fire roaring inside and a horse mosying around the garden outside, in front of the window.  But at the end of the class I puzzled, as I always do.  When it's time for our final meditation, the vast majority of the class pack up and leave.  Why?  WHY?  I love the asanas, the vinyasas and so on but, well, meditation is the best bit of all.  Isn't it?  Leaving before meditation is like having a fabulous meal at a smart restaurant and getting up and walking out before pudding.   Or, if you'd rather have a sexual metaphor, it's like having tons of foreplay and then going, 'Nah, I won't bother with an orgasm, thanks.'
Each to their own, I suppose, but really the whole idea of physical yoga, yogasana, is to prepare oneself for meditation.
Yesterday Lucy and I were the only two who stayed and Miranda led us in a really lovely meditation.  I thought I'd run through it here in case you wanted to try it.  Truly, there is no one right way to meditate, you can do whatever floats your boat.  This is fancier than my usual practice but I like it.

Sit comfortably.  I tend to sit in half-lotus (purely because it's my most comfortable seated posture) but really just sit in any way you feel comfortable - cross-legged, or in a chair. But do try to keep your spine straight if you can.  If not, again it's fine - you can lie down if sitting hurts (but you might nod off!).  The main thing is to find a position which is easy to maintain.  You may well want to pop on a pair of socks and put a blanket or throw (snuggly of course) around you to keep warm.

Place your hands somewhere comfortable.  I usually have my hands on my knees, palms up, thumb and forefinger touching but yesterday we interlaced our hands in our laps, with our thumbs touching. Curl your tongue up so the tip touches the top of your mouth.

Become aware of all the sounds around you.  There's no need (and no point) in trying to block out the world around you - become acutely aware of it for a while.  If a sound intrudes when you're meditating, simply acknowledge it and then let it go.

Now do the three-part breath.  Breathe in to your belly and, two, three, four.  Without exhaling, take the breath further up into your chest and, two, three, four.  Now take the breath right up to the top of your head and, two, three four.  And then exhale, let it all go.  Of course, if you struggle to hold your breath so long, take it at your own pace.  Repeat the whole process once more.

Now become still.  Imagine you are sitting on the top of the highest mountain in the world.  You're calm, peaceful, warm and safe.  Bring your attention to the area just above and between your eyebrows, your third eye area.
The mountain drops away beneath you, becoming smaller and smaller as you find yourself floating up into space.  The Earth falls away beneath you and it too becomes smaller and smaller until it becomes a pinprick and then vanishes altogether.

You are alone in space, in perfect warmth and darkness.  You feel total peace.  You are a part of the universe and it is a part of you.  Feel it.  As you breathe in, you can say the word Relax in your mind.  As you breathe out, you can say the word Peace.

If you find your mind wandering  (and it will) don't be cross with it, just gently bring it back to the breath and return your focus to your third eye.
Stay like this for as long as you like.  It's pretty addictive.

Once you feel it's time to return, simply pause and become aware of the room around you, the world outside your mind.  Now perform the three part breath exercise three times to bring you firmly back into your body.  Rub your hands together vigorously to generate warmth and then place them over your eyes.  Open your eyes inside the palms of your hands and feel the warmth.

Bring your hands together in the prayer position in front of your heart chakra and give thanks to the universe. Namaste.

via Christina Renee

Thursday 27 February 2014

Kickstarter, Hooves and my hypocrisy

I love Kickstarter.  Not heard of it?  It's an online platform for crowdfunding creative projects.  In other words, if you have some great project but can't get (or don't want) funding from a bank, you can put it out on Kickstarter and people can pledge varying amounts of money.  It's not charity - you do get an actual product or experience for your cash.  Think of it as an up-to-date version of patronage.  In the old days, artists would have rich patrons who could support their endeavours.  Kickstarter lets us all be patrons in a small way.

Anyhow.  I've backed several projects on it.  I loved the idea of a grunge tarot pack, the Darkana, so I backed that and got to send my best friend a seriously cool kit for her collection.

I also snaffled Intuiti creative cards for another pal.  Then there was a movie and now...vegan desert boots!

See, I've had this uneasy feeling for quite a while now.  As you may know, if you're a regular reader, I'm vegetarian, verging on vegan (the odd egg or bit of goat's cheese catches me out from time to time) but, yes, I wear animals on my feet.  And yes, it's hypocrisy.  I know one can argue that the animal is dead anyhow but it's specious really.  If we didn't use animals for food, there wouldn't be dead skins hanging around for shoes and bags and wotnot.  Okay, so you could also argue that there wouldn't be a whole lot of cattle and sheep and pigs and so on, but that's another argument.  Come to think of it, does militantly vegan Liz Jones shun leather?  Kinda doubtful.  But anyhow...let's move on.

The trouble has always been, if not leather (and suede and sheepskin) then what?  My nose still quivers at the memory of vegetarian friends in the 80s with their plastic shoes.  Fine when on (if not particularly sartorially elegant) but, ye gods, once the shoes came off... let's just say I never had sex with a vegetarian in the 80s.

But that's all changed now.  Clever fabrics allow feet to breathe.  And breathing is good, huh, for all of us - people, animals and feet.  And if we're being good environmentalists (as well as being animal-friendly) we also want our footwear to be biodegradable, don't we?  Yet not too quickly...the last thing we want is for our shoes to start merging with the earth before we're done with them, huh?
Hooves...kinda cool, huh?  
All this is a long preamble to introduce you to Hooves.  Hooves are eco-friendly, animal-friendly, foot-friendly shoes.  Well, they will be - if you help.  Mark Bryceland is hoping to get £5,000 pledged so he can launch the first of hopefully many well-made,  nicely-designed shoes and boots.  There's only three days to go (if you don't hit your target within a certain time scale on Kickstarter, you lose your funding) and he's up to around £3,000.
Yes, women can look good in them too.
A pair of Hooves desert boots (in your choice of size and colour, of course) costs £60 (around $98 or 72 Euros) plus £10 postage if outside the UK.  Or you can pledge less (just to show support).  Or, of course, you can pledge lots and shoe/hoof the entire family.  If he reaches his target, your Hooves will arrive within the next couple of months.  If he doesn't, you pay nothing.  Honestly, I've done this before and it works.  No catches.
Yes, trendy men with beards and tatts wear them too! 
So, come on!  Take a punt on a pair.  But hurry!

Read about Hooves and make your pledge here...CLICK ME! 

You can also read more about Mark and why he wanted to start Hooves on this rather neat blog, My Non-Leather Life.

Tuesday 25 February 2014

Waving our hands in space and time

So I have been reading a book about a book.  'The History of Love - a novel' about a book called 'The History of Love.'  I picked it up somewhere, somewhen, somewhile a charity shop for 20p. Words are cheap, huh?

Anyhow, there's this chapter in the book (the enwrapping/bracketing book) called 'The Eternal Disappointment Of Life As It Is'.  And the chapter in the enwrapped/bracketed book is called 'Feelings are not as old as time.' And, see, the brackets are actually in the wrong place but what can one do, for meaning's sake?

'Just as there was a first instant when someone rubbed two sticks together to make a spark, there was a first time joy was felt, and a first time for sadness,' it says.  'For a while, new feelings were being invented all the time. Desire was born early, as was regret.' I bet.  
And then it goes on...'Even now, all possible feelings do  not yet exist.  There are still those that lie beyond our capacity and our imagination.  from time to time, when a piece of music no one has ever written, or a painting no one has ever painted, or something else impossible to predict, fathom, or yet describe takes place, a new feeling enters the world.  And then, for the millionth time in the history of feeling, the heart surges, and absorbs the impact.'
Tis a lovely thought but...I we like to think we're different, don't we?

And there's a bit about lost words, and string, and shy people...

I'm not really sure why I'm even telling you about this book. But still... (The History of Love) also has a chapter called The Age of Silence, which discusses how the first language people had was one of gestures. 'Naturally there were misunderstandings. There were times when a finger might have been lifted to scratch a nose, and if casual eye contact was made with one's lover just then, the lover might accidentally take it to be the gesture, not at all dissimilar, for Now I realise I was wrong to love you. These mistakes were heartbreaking.'
Yet then again, we manage to screw things up perfectly well, even with words, don't we?  And it goes on. 'Your hands remember a time when the division between mind and body,  brain and heart, what's inside and what's outside, was so much less.'  Yes.  I suspect they do.  Is there really a division?  Only in our minds.

But you have to love a book that has a once upon a time...because weren't we all kings and queens, or knights and princesses (or dragons) once.  And can you remember laughter?
Anyhow.  I liked this book.  Not in a gobble it all up way. Not in a let's be distracted from the realisation that we're minuscule specks of dust magneted to a larger speck of dust careering through the innards of what is probably just another marginally larger speck of dust and so on way.  Just in a ...yeah kind of way.

Anyhow.  There we go.  Waving our hands in space and time.

Tuesday 18 February 2014

The poustina of the yoga mat

The yoga mat can become a poustina, a place of retreat, a place in which to put aside the outside world and come back to oneself and to go out to a wider place, to expand and become one with the Everything. 
If you’re not familiar with the term ‘poustina’ (sometimes poustinia) it comes from the Russian Orthodox way and was, traditionally, a lonely place, a silent place, where one can go to listen to God.  It is a place in which to empty oneself, to enter into ‘kenosis’.  A poustina cabin or room is, effectively, a hermit’s cell – just a bed, a table, a chair, a cross and a Bible.
But the concept need not be Christian – it is, after all, purely a place of meditation, of self-expansion into dissolution.  In Spirit of the Home I talked a lot about making your home into a ‘soul’ home and yet I came to recognise that that isn’t always possible.  Usually we share our homes with other people; we cannot make them entirely suit our tastes, our inclinations, let alone our spirit.  But no matter how or where we live, we can find poustina – it could be in a chair, a corner, in the bath, on the loo. And, even if not in a physical place, then in our minds.

More and more these days, I find it on the mat.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that yoga is so generally confined and configured by the mat.  Of course you don’t need one -  you can sink into asana wherever you are – be it in the office, in the kitchen, up a mountain, in the forest, by the crashing waves on the shore. 
But there is something about a mat.  It says, ‘This is my space.  This is my world.  This is me – almost like the Vitruvian Man – stretched between Heaven and Earth, touching all points, starfish-elemented.  It becomes sacred space; hallowed space; a magic rectangle, a place of safety, of exploration, of self-awareness, of emptying, of sublimation.

It makes one become aware of one’s personal space – how we relate to other people; how far we let them in, how far we keep them out.  My yoga teacher relates how, at her training in India, they were jammed so close in class their mats nearly touched.  How, at first, it felt uncomfortable, yet – as time progressed – it became normal.  Each place was fixed, delineated, separate – and yet, from time to time, as asanas or vinyasas dictated, there was touching, adaptation, yielding, compromise.  Like stars dancing.  And, of course, everything that comes can be meditation.  No matter if it’s another person’s limb touching yours, or a shout from the road, the backfiring of a car, or a dog lying on your back.

Yes, I share my mat at home.  Curiously, the SP isn’t interested in my yoga.  Maybe he’s too much of a young soul.  But Asbo joins me every morning.  He sits at the edge of the mat as I do my warming up then joins me in a few downward and upward dogs as I salute the sun.  And this morning, as I was resting (flat on my stomach, forehead on my arms) after seven long minutes in Sphinx, he walked up and down my back (thank you, small dog, my vertebrae smiled) and then lay down neatly.

Is it still a poustina if it isn’t just you?  I don’t feel why not.  J 

Monday 17 February 2014

Bringing the peace back home...maybe.

So I’ve been to four retreats in the last couple of months, reviewing them for Queen of Retreats.  The Body Retreat.  Vital Detox. Middle Piccadilly.  The Sanctuary Somerset.  All very different and I’ve loved them all.  But, as someone pointed out on Twitter recently, it’s all well and good if you can afford to swan off to these places but if you can’t…?  And I thought, fair point.  I also thought that really, I need to find a way to bring the peace and serenity on retreat back into everyday life.  As Juls at the Body Retreat said, if you only make a few small changes, they will lead on to bigger changes.  And Paola, the yoga teacher at The Sanctuary said that, even if you do just one yoga move every day, you will start to shift.

So. Since I’ve been back, I’ve been getting up and hour earlier than usual. I light a candle, fire up a joss stick and bung on a CD of Tibetan chanting. And I’ve been doing some simple yoga moves before settling down to meditate for about half an hour.  Okay, so it’s early days but so far, so good. 
But I can’t do yoga, I hear you say. Oh, but the first few bits of this are so so easy.  Really.

1. Neck rolls.  Simply stand in a balanced easy posture and slowly, ever so slowly, let your ear drop down to your left shoulder, then circle down so your chin is moving towards your collar bone and then up to the right shoulder and (very gently) backwards.  Repeat several times...really really slowly... and then go back the other way. Releasing, letting go.  

2. Shoulder shrugs.  Arms by your sides. Bring each shoulder up to your ear in a rapid alternate shrugging motion.  It’s quite vigorous but you can alter the pace to suit yourself.  Keep it going for a few minutes.  Energizing, loosening, awakening, creating heat in the body. 

3. Now stand still.  Find the bottom of your sternum.  Place the first three fingers of your left hand under it. Take your right thumb and poke it into the point directly under the fingers.  Take away the left hand and start to massage the point with your right thumb in a clockwise direction.  It may be tender or even painful – adjust the pressure so it’s bearable.  Keep going for several minutes if possible and then swap thumbs and work the same point with your left thumb in an anti-clockwise direction.  This point is three finger widths from the bottom of the breastbone (sternum). This is a point called the Sea of Tranquillity and it’s helpful in the relief of tension in the chest, anxiety, nervousness, and depression.

4.  Let’s just finish with the simple standing forward bend.  Padahastasana. This stretches out the entire back of the body, from head to heels, lengthening the spine and helping it become more flexible.  It massages all the internal organs, especially the digestive organs (so can ease constipation).  It can relieve sciatica, invigorates the nervous system and increases the supply of blood to the brain. It’s also said to remove fat from the abdomen!  On an energetic level, it is grounding, earthing, energizing and it shifts inertia, allowing you to move forwards. It stimulates and balances muladhara chakra, the base chakra situated around the perineum. Not bad, huh? 

a. Stand up straight, shoulders relaxed, ankles and knees touching.  Now inhale as you reach up, arms straight over your head, arms touching your ears. 
b. Exhale and bend forwards from the hips (don’t collapse), keeping your back straight for as long as possible. Keep your legs straight.   Don’t worry if you can’t touch the floor, just keep the idea of it in your mind.
c. Stand firmly and visualise earth energy coming up through your feet and passing right through your body and down into your hands.  Eventually, with practice, you will be able to place your hands under your feet and bring your head to your knees.  But even if you just hang, that’s absolutely fine. 
d. Stay for as long as feels comfortable, breathing comfortably and enjoying the sensation of earth energy moving into and through your body.
Actually, she looks a bit unbalanced but you get the idea.
That’s enough for one day, huh?  Even if you just try one…it could be the start of something.  J

Saturday 8 February 2014

The Awful Vista of the Year - the Fantod Pack of Edward Gorey

'Close your eyes,' said Davina.  'And hold out your hands.'
I'd only popped into Number Seven to buy a sympathy card.  It was the first time I'd been out the house (apart from going to the gym) for a week.  But my little halogen heater had broken (this one has lasted all of three months) and it was warmer out than in.
Anyhow. I duly held out my chillblained, frostbitten paws, and felt something being laid onto them. Well, a vague sensation approaching feeling.
Something rectangular, a slim box the size of a large playing card.  As my eyes focused, I recognised the drawing and yelped with excitement.

The Fantod Pack by Edward Gorey.

'Oh my God!' I squeaked.
'It's a present,' said Davina.  Yay! I love presents. Having a birthday at the fag-end of Christmas means I don't score high in the present-receiving stakes and, if I do, I tend to get fobbed off with everyone else's unwanted Christmas gifts.  So unexpected, unusual and hugely welcome ones like this are triply appreciated.

I love Edward Gorey. As in, ever so slightly obsessed.  Have been so ever since my brother gave me a desk diary with his illustrations way back in the 80s.
How could anyone not love them, I wonder?  Lugubrious, with a humour the shade of bruises.
Anyhow.  The Fantod Pack is Gorey's legendary (piss)take on tarot.  First published in a limited edition in 1995 and long out of print - it consists of 20 cards with odd arcana such as The Limb, The Effigy, The Insects, The Bundle and The Burning Head.
'Don't you want to know what dreadful things lie in wait for you?' it asks.  Of course!
Instructions for use:  'To read your fortune, first shuffle the pack and take it in your left hand. Stand in the centre of a sparsely furnished room and close your eyes.  Fling the pack into the air.  Keep your eyes closed. Pick up five cards from the floor, keeping them in order.'  And so on, and so forth. Okay, let's do it...
Right.  So it seems I have thwarted ambitions and foot trouble in my past (so true). My inner self is a waltzing mouse (morbid cravings, brawls, involuntary seclusion, vertigo and shrivelling) - scary true.  My outer world involves unstable furniture, paranoia and loss of money (aaagh, stop it, Gorey!).  And my future involves a forged letter, false arrest, anemia and loss of teeth.  Now how cheeering is that?

Want me to read your future?  Just say the word (Yes!) and I'll pluck a card for you from my floor.

Pics from - apart from the one of my diary, obviously.

Thursday 6 February 2014

In which I have a large stone removed from a yurt in my belly and discover a universe inside

I went to Middle Piccadilly at the weekend.  It’s a place that’s been floating around my aura for decades. One of the old school retreat places.  I’ve always wanted to go but somehow never did.  When I had the dosh, I didn’t have the time and when I had the time, I didn’t have the dosh.  Anyhow…I was asked to review it, so off I went. 
It’s a curious place – not quite the serene middle-of-nowhere spa I’d expected.  To be honest, it’s caught in a bit of a time-warp – part seventies hippyshake, part eighties pinefest.  I itched to give it a makeover, to pull out a powerhose and to fill a few skips.  The raw food was amazing though (that might merit an entire separate post, come to nibble it) but what really blew me sideways were the treatments.

Now then. Some (good) places have one or two amazing therapists.  Most have okay ones.  And some (often the big anonymous hotel spas and day spas) have pretty mediocre ones. You know the type I mean –their hands might be busy on your body but their minds are necking cider or having a snog with someone else’s boyfriend.  Anyhow, I think MP has bagged an almost rudely unfair share of the seriously awesome ones.  

I had been prescribed three sessions by co-owner Lisa and first up was one of the best therapeutic massages I’ve had – serious deep fascial work, delving down into pressure points, hitting the ‘ouch’ button (in a good way).  Angela read my body like an orienteerer and went for the icky bits like an All Black making a dump tackle.  Then, while my physical body was still sighing with relief, caught quite unawares, I had my energy body opened up by Claire. While Angela was all no-nonsense, down-to-earth and practical, Claire was an earth mother, soothing, nourishing, comforting and…so tender.  She performed a lovely chakra-balancing nurturing treatment called Hand on Heart (using organic products from the fabulous Cornish company Spiezia.  Check them out, I’d forgotten how good they are). 

‘So, what’s the verdict?’ I asked at the end.
‘Your feminine side is very depleted,’ she said. I nodded.  That made sense.
‘Your throat is closed.  I wonder what it is you’re not saying?’  I remained silent.  J
‘Your heart and solar plexus are out of sync.  Oh, and your crown is fuzzy.’ 
‘Right. So basically, the only bits that are okay are my bottom bits and my third eye?’
‘Pretty much.’  And she shhhed me and took me next door to my bedroom and wrapped me up in bed with a mug of chamomile tea.  ‘Rest.’ 
‘Yes, Mum.’
And I did.  I slept. And slept.

But really, these were just the (very fine) support acts for my final treatment, a shamanic healing session with the wonderfully named Maya.  Now, I’ve done a fair amount of shamanism in the past – I’ve had healing sessions and I’ve done workshops and trainings.  So I thought I knew what was coming.  Wrong.

I’ve often wondered about my shamanic experiences.  They’ve been powerful but cerebral somehow.  Just more mind games?  Just vivid imagination?  Sometimes it feels that way.  So I went into the session feeling, not sceptical but without huge expectations. 
But the sage smudge was heady and the drum beat was soft, rhythmic, mesmerising.  Maya called up guardians, spirits, call them what you will, to guard the space and I waited, my energy body tingling with anticipation.  As she took me down the tunnel to the lower world I felt my third eye convulse.  I strained for ‘seeing’ but Maya caught the trick.  ‘Not in your head,’ she said.  ‘Feel it in your body.  Feel where you’re holding.’
My hands crept to my solar plexus.  I couldn’t deny the feeling – as if I had a huge stone lodged in my belly. 
‘Go inside it,’ she said.  ‘What do you see?’
It was a large space, like the inside of a vast yurt, a domed ceiling, a floor made of dry compacted earth, the air thick with dust. 
‘Is anyone there?’
‘No. I’m alone.’
‘What’s there?’
And the ceiling began to crack, like an egg, and the floor started to crumble away and pinpricks of light appeared and I was caught in the dance of stars. The entire universe inside my belly and me twirling and tumbling like an acrobat.
‘Now blow it all out into the fire beneath your feet,’ said Maya.  And I panted out the stone, my body convulsing like I was giving birth to a black hole.  And it moved, from my solar plexus to my womb and a wave of regret swept over me, for the neglect of my feminine (both earthly and divine), and I wept, big heaving sobs, tears streaming down my face.  And then it went altogether, leaving a lightness in my body, a space. 
And other things happened (she removed bits I didn’t need and put back bits I’d lost, some made perfect sense and others were well weird), but I think I’m stretching you too far anyhow, already.  You’ll either roll your eyes and go ‘yeah yeah’ and move on (and I wouldn’t remotely blame you), or you’ll go ‘Yeah’ in which case I’d say, go, go… try it yourself.  J

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Yoga is not competitive. So why do they want it as an Olympic 'sport'?

So.  It was at the end of a yoga class at Vital Detox near Glastonbury.  The teacher, Julie, taught a version called Zen yoga and she’d tailored it specifically to tie in with our fasting. It was incredibly gentle (we didn’t even stand up to do our sun salutes but knelt).   Just as well.  My blood pressure was lower than ever and my blood sugar levels were floating around at floor-level so even standing still in Mountain was a challenge.  Even the thought of Tree sent me wobbling. 
We all need somebody to lean on. :-)
But it didn’t matter. Yoga is not competitive. In fact, I do the majority of my yoga practice with my eyes shut so I don’t even catch a glimpse of what other people are doing. I confess I did feel a little irritation creeping in, that I couldn’t stretch as far as normal, that I couldn’t balance as well, but I put it aside.  Yoga is not competitive.  Most teachers say you shouldn’t even compete with yourself and, while it’s only human to want to progress, the point is just to be, as you are, on the mat, each and every time.  Yoga is not competitive.  It’s about being. About exploring that state of being. About being in the moment, in your body, here and now. 
I bowed to thank Julie, and I told her how much I’d enjoyed the class, and we talked a little about this and that and then she said. ‘Would you believe that they want to turn yoga into an Olympic ‘sport’?’ And my head nearly hit the mat.   I shook my head in disbelief but a quick Google shows it’s true.  There is a lobby to turn yoga into an Olympic discipline. 
How would it work?  Each yogi would have three minutes to ‘perform’ seven poses – five obligatory, two of the contestants’ choice – and they would be judged on flexibility, timing, strength and breathing.  The idea comes from Rajashree Choudhury of USA Yoga (wife of Bikram Choudhury, founder of the original ‘hot’ yoga) who already holds competitive yoga contests in the States.  But…but…
Like this?  Kinda weird, huh? 
Her reasoning is that yoga-offs have been around for years in India.  That’s true but, then again, a lot of Indian yoga teachers roll their eyes at the shenanigans.  If you fancy a real eye-opener on all that, from an Indian yogi’s perspective, read Sivananda Buried Yoga (a totally amazing book - highly recommended).
I can sort of see why they want to do it – and there is a part of me that would absolutely watch it. Why? Because when you see someone do yoga really well, it’s absolutely awe-inducing.  Quite quite beautiful.  It shows just what a human body can do and be.  And I can see it might encourage people to try yoga (but then again, it might put them off for life as an impossible aim).
I  Love those leggings too. 
But then again…no.  Because, bottom line…Yoga is not competitive.  And mainly it makes me feel sad.  I mean...what next? Competitive meditation?  Competitive yogic flying?  Now, actually, that I would like to see.  J
But hey, that’s just me.  What do you reckon?