Thursday, 18 September 2014

Yoga for Travellers

Jeremy and I have been for another week at the wonderful Moulin de Chaves. It was a yoga, meditation, silence and cheese* retreat. I usually do some yoga when I travel, even when I'm not going to classes, but not with quite the dedication of the author of Yoga for Travellers, Jennifer Ellinghaus.

She has suggestions for everything, and this is Jon's illustration of the packing moment - Jennifer suggests that though you might choose to take a yoga mat, you can leave your other yoga props behind and improvise using socks, scarves, flipflops and a copy of Yoga for Travellers ...

This photo is the first evidence of my doing yoga on holiday - we were on a boat with the children and my parents so I used the quay. I'd been doing yoga for around 5 years and couldn't go without it for a fortnight, so used quite a lot of my luggage allowance on the heavy mat. I decided not to worry about any passing sailors wondering what I was up to. I can remember precisely how great this stretch felt, and how amazing it was to be doing yoga ON HOLIDAY. Even better than at home, somehow. Magic.

If there is enough space, it's also perfectly possible to do the yoga on the boat, as Lynne demonstrates here.

In the book Jennifer suggests sequences for different shaped spaces, different moods (including hungover - is that a mood?), different climates... It's packed with advice and ideas and Jon's gorgeous watercolours as well as the fantastic stick men that he designed to illustrate the practice ideas. A beautiful object, it's just the right size - small and sturdy.

So, today's post is by way of being an advertisement for my wonderful illustrator's latest achievement. Here he is in Seal Pose, just happened to be doing the pose when the photographer came along. I was proud then and I'm proud now.

Amazon link: Yoga for Travellers
and Yogamatters link: Yoga for Travellers. A perfect present for you or a friend.

*Other non-cheese food is also available.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Rotation of Awareness

This is a fabulous tool for balancing attention. The rotation of awareness, or rotation of consciousness, is the centre of the yoga nidra relaxation. I have sometimes sent the list I use to students who've asked, so now I'm posting it here for anyone. The rotation by itself is a valuable relaxation tool; you can say it in your head or record it - if you listen to a teacher regularly you may hear it in their voice and that can be delightful, but if you listen to yourself then you see you only need your own voice to balance and relax yourself!

You can visualise the places, you can repeat their names, and some people feel a pressure, a warmth or a tingling travel through the body.

We always begin with the right hand thumb, then second finger, third finger, fourth finger, fifth finger;
palm of the right hand, back of the hand, wrist, lower arm, elbow, upper arm, shoulder, armpit, 
right side, waist, hip, thigh, knee, 
back of the right knee, shin, calf, ankle, heel, sole, instep; 
right big toe, second toe, third toe, fourth toe, and fifth toe.

Now the left side, beginning with the left hand thumb, second finger, third finger, fourth finger, fifth finger;
palm of the left hand, back of the hand, wrist, lower arm, elbow, upper arm, shoulder, armpit, 
left side, waist, hip, thigh, knee, 
back of the left knee, shin, calf, ankle, heel, sole, instep; 
left big toe, second toe, third toe, fourth toe, and fifth toe.

Now the back of the body, beginning with the right buttock, left buttock, both buttocks together,
right shoulder blade, left shoulder blade, both shoulder blades,
the length of the spine, the whole of the back.

Back of the neck, back of the head, top of the head, forehead;
Right temple, left temple, both temples;
right eyebrow, left eyebrow, both eyebrows;
right eye, left eye, both eyes together;
nose; tip of the nose;
right cheek, left cheek, both cheeks together;
right ear, left ear, both ears;
upper lip, lower lip, both lips together
chin, throat,
right collarbone, left collarbone, both collarbones;
right side of the chest, left side of the chest, the whole of the ribcage, navel, abdomen and groin.

Be aware of the whole body. The whole body.

The relaxation, the energy and the attention balanced through the whole body. 

The whole body.

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.