Thursday, 21 August 2014

Hearing and Emotion

Craving and looking forward to silence. Fortunately most of my classes are on holiday as are many of my friends, so I don't have to listen to my voice talking out loud. The voice in my head is of course a different matter, but I can stop and listen to my breath instead when I have time. Or the birds and animals in my garden and people, cars and planes outside my garden. Or my washing machine and the happy noise of our sun panels gathering their energy through their grey box of parts.

But not music. Not the radio.

You see, we went to the Cambridge Folk Festival, and it turns out that too much live music is very like a week of silence without any. My emotional barriers to music have been breached and I am over-reacting.

I first noticed the problem when I couldn't stay in the tent and listen to the extraordinary Sinead O'Connor. I felt as if she was in pain and the pain through the music was painful to me, but maybe it was in fact just me. No-one else I've spoken to who loved her set has reacted like this. My daughter says I think too much.

We heard and saw so many amazing relationships on stage over the weekend. We heard and saw so much physical, intellectual, spiritual delight in the playing and the listening.

We don't often go to the Festival even though, or because, it's round the corner from us. Most years we can hear it fairly well in our garden, unless we are on holiday. This year we weren't away. This year Van Morrison came.

I gazed deeply into his sunglasses from the front row. There was only a barrier, the space for the photographers to scuttle around in, and then the stage.

Not everyone loves Van, perhaps partly because he doesn't give his love away to the audience through the words of flattery we crave ('thank you Cambridge, the best folk festival in the world' - someone said this to the Cambridge audience, but it wasn't Van). He didn't speak to us at all but I'm loving his silence as well as his music, and in 10 days I'll be in the silence of the Silent Retreat again. Heaven.

NB - I've written at least 5 posts about the Silent Retreat with Sarah and Ty Powers, but the best is Jeremy's post!

Thursday, 24 July 2014


After Easter one of my newest students asked about her arches. She is 87 and has been told they are falling. It probably doesn't matter if your arches are 'high' or 'low', but foot pain is terribly debilitating. So we decided to stretch, move, strengthen our feet. Here are some of the exercises.

Stretching toes from standing
Stand firmly on one foot and work on the other, turning toes each way, moving the foot to vary the movement. You can also take the foot further back with the top of the foot down and feel the movement right up into the shin.

Fingers between toes...

and move the feet. Squeeze the foot with the hand and the hand with the foot. If you can’t fit all the fingers in, start at the little end sometimes. When you get good at this, put the toes of one foot between the toes of the other.

Pen Penny

Put a big coin under the ball of the big toe. You can freeze it first to make it easier to feel! Gently push a pen under the inner arch of the foot, towards the centre, not right out to the outer edge. Feel the foot touch both, grounding towards the coin and lifting away from the pen.

Walking meditation

Feel the heel settle to the ground, then the little toe joint, then the big toe joint as you take each step. Feel the heel lift, then the toes reluctantly peel away from the ground. Breathe. There are many different ways to do walking meditation - I've written about some of them here.

Foot warming squat

Lift and lower the heels while squatting. You can use arm movements to support and deepen the foot movement as needed.

Pull and turn toes

Gently or firmly, remember to pay especial attention to the little toes. They are naturally self-effacing. 

3 points of tripod - Part 1 

Stand and remember that the skeleton of the foot touches the floor at the heel and the base joints of the big and little toes. There are fabulous arches between the three grounded points.

Up onto toes

Move up and down; it’s also possible to lift your toes even when your heels are up high. 

3 points of tripod – Part 2

Standing, move yourself round the tripod in circles. Big, small, slow, faster. Keeping the tripod down but changing the emphasis or lifting parts. You can do this on both feet or balancing and on hard or soft surfaces (cushions for example).

Chi Gung bounce

Knees soft, hands by sides in gentle fists with index fingers pointing down. Bounce right through the body, shoulders moving too. Your heels can lift, but I prefer keeping them down. Find a rhythm which suits you. 

Thump heels

Stand, lift both heels. Let go and thump them down with gravity. Fast, slow, making tunes…

(The Chi Gung bounce and the heel thumping were from Monica Voss this summer)


Lower legs, soles, toes, big and little toes bunion joints (keep them mobile). Our favourite sole of the foot massage tool is a golf ball - you can stand or sit to roll the ball under every part of the foot.

Lifting toes

Just the big toes. All the little toes. The three middle toes. Hold the others down at first if the movements don’t come immediately. See how many different moves you can make - you can cross some of the toes for example, and you can curl some separately.

And finally, when you need to pick anything up, pick it up with your feet and either move it directly to where it needs to be, or lift it to a hand. In the class we sit in a circle and pass different sized marbles and dices. We sometimes lose our marbles. Use your feet to turn switches on and off. To set your alarm clock. Keep those feet awake. 

Thursday, 10 July 2014

The past is part of the present

Mindfulness is all about living in the present moment, we are told, over and over. Goodness, how naggy these yoga and mindfulness teachers can be. I believe it, of course. Living in the moment is just great. But for me, like most of us, thinking about the past (sometimes with joy, sometimes with regret) and thinking about the future (often with trepidation, often with delight) happens all the time. 

I don't like the parts of yoga and meditation teaching which seem designed to make the student feel like a failure. Often these tricks bind the student in to a teacher, who alone can put them right (over and over again). And if it's something which is very difficult to change, the teacher has a long-lasting and often paid relationship with the student. 

I've spent another weekend doing yoga with Canadian teacher Monica Voss, one of my all-time favourites.  She's done a little European annual tour for a good few years now; I'm always inspired by her ideas, which come thick and fast, and which appear in my classes with much 'Monica says' to balance out the 'Catherine says' of the rest of the year. But this time what I liked most of all was my understanding of her idea about mindfulness, and the past and future. 

Monica said something like this: Your mind is wonderful. Don’t use ‘mindfulness’ as an excuse to be unkind to it. The past is part of the present, the future is part of the present. You don't have to deny that. But you can learn to notice if your thinking begins to cycle negatively and try an intervention. Listen to your breath instead of your thoughts. To make this easier you could breathe more noticeably, sighing or maybe humming. She mentioned a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh's 'The Art of Power'. I found it easily through a google search, but also found many more quotes about staying in the present, so perhaps I'm not quite off the hook, and should to put in a little more work on the whole staying-in-the-now thing. Thought it was too good to be the only truth. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

“To dwell in the here and now does not mean you never think about the past or responsibly plan for the future. The idea is simply not to allow yourself to get lost in regrets about the past or worries about the future. If you are firmly grounded in the present moment, the past can be an object of inquiry, the object of your mindfulness and concentration. You can attain many insights by looking into the past. But you are still grounded in the present moment.” 

Thursday, 26 June 2014

'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all

Would it be bearable to live a life permanently drenched in emotional sunshine even if you could choose it? Can you imagine how difficult everyone would find you?

Permanent up is impossible, permanent down we don't welcome. That leaves up and down. That or living inside Tupperware, a land without shadows. *

Francesca's boyfriend Stephen was going to a Leonard Cohen concert.

'Why aren't you going, Fran?'

Fran had worshipped Leonard since she was 11.

'I'm afraid I would like it too much, and be too sad when it was over.'

We laughed at her (behind her back), and told our friends and relatives.

But after a weekend of barbeques, breakfast in the garden and most importantly a house full of people I love, the Monday quiet this week was not its usual peaceful self. It saw me with a knot in my chest and some difficulty settling to my workaday occupations (doing the washing, planning the classes, maintaining the admin). If I never had a lovely weekend, Monday would always be easy. If I didn't love my people, I wouldn't miss them. If I wasn't 'attached'... 

'Tis better to have loved, really 'tis. In the long run. Tennyson's poem for his friend was written over many years following his death; my post weekend blues only lasted a day. So it's easy for me to say it's better to have the great experience even if it leaves you sad. Better to risk the loss. And some of my strategies for these small sadnesses are:
Walking in the park.
Watching 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'.

The sadness is a small cloud lining the shining silver. But is it better to be in the dark following the light? Or is it better to live under permanently Tupperware skies? Or am I resorting to the rhetorical device of false dichotomy?

*Bill Bryson's description of a particular British summer in 'The Lost Continent'

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Shoes - variety is the support of life.

Here are most of the shoes I've worn this week, on our outside table:

I've worn slippers and flip flops, I've worn sandals and boots and I've walked barefoot in the house, garden and park. This is a British June we're having. The weather is REALLY variable. Highish heels, no heels, flexible, supportive, warm, minimal, rocker soles, flat soles, platform wedges...

I've been told recently about disadvantages to minimal shoes, to shoes with toes, to rocker sole shoes, to flip flops, to walking boots, to high heels, to walking barefoot...

And they all do have their drawbacks, and they all do have their joys. I've even heard an argument in the yoga world in favour of high heels. (You have to have very strong feet to be able to walk in them, apparently, thanks to Leslie Kaminoff for the news.) One of the drawbacks of the 'barefoot' toe shoes is that some people feel a bit ill when they see them. One of the advantages is that strangers talk to you, it's a bit like walking a dog. I met a lovely woman in the park who lives down the road from me; we've never spoken before.

So just, please, wear different shoes and go barefoot some of the time. Feet were meant to be used over varied terrain - they thrive on unpredictability - and we are mostly walking on the flat hard modern ground. Shoes can give us some variation and different shoes use different bits of foot in different ways. It's a chance to keep our feet healthy and it's fun. That is all.

Thursday, 29 May 2014


We have a visiting Teenage Cat. He's noisy, pushy; he swaggers. Our cat Olivia, who died at the end of summer, hated him. I think he's called Steve. Olivia and I spent much of her last summer doing yoga and meditating in the garden. You can read about it in Pets & Poets, Latin & Death. This has been our most popular post by far in the Ukraine, and in many other parts of the world.

As the summer drew to an end I was teaching outside one evening. The students were relaxing at the end of the class and listening to the sounds of the garden and road and park. The Teenage Cat began to pick his way between the students. In a surprisingly silent stand off Olivia drove him away. Not one student blinked. They had no idea of the drama, though they might have heard a proud quiet giggle from me. Before this Olivia had been bullied by him. I'd tried to frighten him off - roaring, bashing on the windows, throwing small objects. But nothing worked. He likes noise. He likes confrontation. For him that's like a video game.

A few weeks ago the Teenage Cat tried to get in through a window which was cracked open high above a bench. Twelve surprised students stopped doing Tree Pose to watch his ambitious stretch up to it. Last week the classes were back in the garden for a fabulous spring week, and the Teenage Cat approached, exactly as he had when Olivia was here to defend us. My students were lying and I was teaching. Startled into grief for Olivia by the memory I began to cry and then try to explain my tears. Sam stroked my shoulder while I talked. It was very soothing.
Teenage Cat fishing for newts.
I don't think I've ever cried during a class I've been teaching before, though normally crying is a big part of my life, as I explained here.

Last week I found out how I can scare off the Teenage Cat. He doesn't like Walking Meditation. He came into the garden. I was breathing in as I lifted a foot, breathing out as I put it down. Very slow. He was utterly terrified. He froze, stared wild-eyed, and belted away across the road. Five minutes later we met again as he tried coming back. Again, I scared the living daylights out of him, simply by walking very slowly.

One of my students said that's how cats move when they are going to attack, when they are hunting. Finally I know how to get him out of the garden. If only Olivia was still here to benefit from my new skills. 

Thursday, 15 May 2014



I was startled and excited to be asked if I would be interested in teaching at the British Wheel of Yoga Congress. Startled because of my mild imposter syndrome and excited partly because the name makes me laugh. I've read a lot of old books. Chronologically speaking the first meaning, from the 1520s, is 'a meeting, hostile encounter', the next, from the 1580s, is 'sexual union' and the third, 'meeting of delegates' only came in in the 1670s.

So I tried to grow up and regard the whole thing as being the third, a meeting 'for the discussion, arrangement, or promotion of some matter of common interest'. Yoga. Talking about and doing lots and lots of yoga. Also many shopping opportunities and chances to drink coffee in Costa, as articles I'd read about Congress had leant strongly on the consumer side of the whole thing.

And I was nervous and excited when I saw the list of other teachers - some of my very favourites, including Julie Friedeberger, who I trained with on her intense module 'Yoga for People Living With Cancer'. If I'd known she was going to be there I wouldn't have submitted one lesson outline involving all the practices she had taught me. My version was a one and a half hour class including Pawanmuktasana Joint movement, Breath and Movement, Breath Meditation and Yoga Nidra Relaxation. Julie was teaching for an hour and a half on each.

I admitted my nervousness to a friend who has taught at Congress before.
'But I've always found The Wheel People to be very open and welcoming’, I said.
‘Well, I think they are extremely critical’,  my friend replied, ‘But you'll be fine. They have asked you because they are interested in our kind of teaching.'
'Oh. I am not at all sure that I teach “our kind of teaching”. Bother. Now I'm more nervous', I didn't say out loud.

I had agreed to teach 2 classes together as a 'Masterclass' though was unsure what this meant. I called it 'Comfort Zone and Connection', planning, replanning and practising it on my regular classes, a workshop I set up for the purpose, and a supply class.

There were a few very nervous moments (or hours) in the run up to the event, and one wonderful one when the website went up and a friend let me know she'd got the last place in one of my classes. Rushing to the site I saw that of the 80 or so classes offered by 20 amazing teachers this class of mine was one of the first to go. Chastened later when the website upped the numbers allowed into the classes and suddenly I was unsold out.

Jeremy agreed to come with me even though there were no double rooms. I nagged and nagged the organisers about our rooms being next to each other. They were, and they were clean, small and rather beautifully basic with nice basic bathrooms, nice basic (very narrow) beds and nice basic views. We visited each other and recreated some of our first year together, when we were students. It was romantic, both then and now, but this time there wasn't so much drama.

By contrast, out there at the Congress drama was not in short supply. I was actually distressed by the Annual General Meeting. I had read in the BWY magazine reports and letters about last year's meeting but assumed the vitriol exchanged there was an unusual rather than an annual happening.

We arrived in the middle of the reading of the accounts, and were surprised to see a gentle student from one of my classes stand up and attack virtually every element of the accounting process. From then on it was up and down from the platform to the floor, every speaker being ripped to pieces, voices tense with anger, fear, pain. There were allegations of financial inefficiency or even impropriety; there were implications of other misdemeanors. There was a whistle blower who had cost us all tens of thousands of pounds and whose accusations were upheld or dismissed, and who had gained office in a recent election before we knew he was the whistle blower. His identity was protected by confidentiality agreements, but a floor speaker threatened to reveal him and then he revealed himself, leaning casually back in his chair. It was quite a moment. The organisation which was set up to run qualifications has been a drain on BWY finances and the BWY is now in a poor financial situation. These are some of the things I understood from the meeting, many of which I assume I understood wrongly.

The food was all vegetarian, with vegan options, except that we were sharing the canteen with an international business course and a medical conference and they were not vegetarian vegans, so meat and fish were available. No one seemed to be judging. In fact, generally I thought the atmosphere was fairly non-judgemental, though one student who I loved meeting said she called the 'yoga bitches' (her phrase) 'dementors' for the way they sucked life and hope out of the room (like the villains in Harry Potter). My first class (the one based on Julie's teaching) was one of the friendliest warmest groups I've ever come across outside my own regulars; I felt quite high after it.

My final class on Saturday evening was ridiculously laid-back; I had brought my colour change lamp from home and started the class with the lights very low. When we got up to standing I said I was going to turn the overhead lights on and was met with a polite barrage of objections so we did the whole hour and a half in a lovely low glow. In both my first and last classes, most importantly, the students laughed at my jokes.

The middle two classes were the 'Masterclass', which has a 45 minute break in the middle. Four very stressed students joined in after the break. They had all got lost on their way either to the University of Warwick (it’s in Coventry) or to the room the class was in. Deirdre, one of the late arrivals, told us her sat nav had taken her the wrong route so she had turned it off and relied on her physic powers. She had brought one of her students with her, as had a couple of the other teachers in the room. During the weekend we came across this a lot, usually a student who is training to be a teacher, or thinking about it. The student looks to her teacher for instruction rather than to herself or the teacher at the front of the class, and this can be awkward or entertaining. I particularly enjoyed a hissed:

‘We don’t do this like this’, about a leg stretch to the wall.

Deirdre did about half of the things I was teaching. The rest of the time she stared blankly in my direction. She was sitting directly opposite me, so this was disconcerting, to say the least. 

I had over-worked my lesson plan until it was a work of art, and it was being disrupted by a stream of questions ('Just for my own information. Do you think it's safe to move into this before being properly warmed up?) and question-statements ('I want to ask something. I always teach these forward bends using a block. I think it's important to tilt the pelvis.') The interruptions meant that I would not be able to fit everything in, and my perfect lesson plan pattern would be broken (rookie mistake).

During our meditation Deirdre asked for the window to be opened. I nodded and continued trying to get the teacher students to stop asking questions so they would have time to sit and breathe quietly. She repeated the request and I nodded again and again continued teaching, planning to open the window once they had closed their eyes. Jeremy kindly got up and opened the window. I closed my eyes to encourage the class to close theirs. The meditation began to the booming sound of the busy road outside. Jeremy got up and closed the window. I opened my eyes. Deirdre was staring balefully at Jeremy.

'If you are able to close your eyes, please do', I purred, 'I know it's not possible for everyone...' Deirdre's eyes virtually clanged on their way down.

After the class, she came up to me.
'I'm sorry about the window' she said. 'You obviously don't have my love for fresh air. You are a Scorpio?' she told me.

I stared, balefully. 'No.'

As she was leaving she stopped by again to tell me how much she had enjoyed the class. Very much, apparently. 

The Masterclass was incredibly useful for me, I learned a lot from my inquisitive and generous colleagues, whereas in the two easy classes I just coasted and had fun. 

Saturday night, after my class, with no class to teach the next day. Four whiskies in the bar. I started interviewing the BWY's new Diversity Manager about membership and Congress attendance numbers - men versus women, teachers versus students. Most of the members are women; most of the members are teachers; a disproportionate number of teachers are men; most of the people at the Congress are teachers. These are some of the things I understood from our talk, many of which I assume I have understood wrongly.

The next day I seemed to have developed a slight headache and an obsession with the numbers and kept talking about there being a preponderance of male teachers at Congress. In retrospect I'm not sure if I was right, perhaps it was just amongst the 'post-Scaravelli' teachers - Neville, Pete, Gary, John and me. It was lovely to meet Neville, a surfing writing yoga teaching Thai massaging charmer from Devon and we’ve known Pete for years. 

We had many animated conversations in the canteen and bar, almost all about yoga. Jeremy went to a Laughter Yoga class, which he loved. I met someone who'd been in the class with him.

'Tell me,’ he said, 'Your husband isn't a pilot who flies planes dressed in a clown costume, is he?'

I laughed, I cried, I got high on whisky, yoga and friendship. I recommend the British Wheel of Yoga Congress, but, if you are thinking of going to the AGM, you have been warned...

*NB - Jon has altered the order of the definitions for comic effect.