Monday, 25 May 2015

Help Yourself

Make yourself at home.
Make yourself comfortable.
Help yourself to whatever you need.

These are the phrases I repeat at the beginning of the one day Silent Retreats I teach. Now I'm off for a week to be taught on a meditation retreat, mostly silent, taught in French. I'm not taking my laptop or kindle, my phone never works in France. All of this is suddenly seeming a very long way outside my comfort zone. It's to help myself I'm going, and I expect (or hope) it will help me to make me more at home with myself. I can't imagine being comfortable sitting for long periods (will we be sitting for long periods? I don't even know) but we'll see.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Will I Ever Learn How to Learn from my Mistakes?

Here I am striding out of the sea at Broadhaven in Pembrokeshire in early April. I think the sea looks rather idyllic, all that blue... but most people who've seen this photo just think it looks cold. 
It was cold, but felt a lot warmer than the sea in Brighton a month earlier -
Here's me getting ready for that adventure. I did take my layers and backpack off before getting in in the wetsuit. I had no neoprene gloves then (you can see I'm holding them in the Pembrokeshire photo) and my hands froze apparently solid as soon as I went in. It was 6 in the morning, there was no-one around except Jeremy. I drifted and splashed around happily for a very short time (seemed like longer) and then decided to get out. I stood up and walked a bit, then decided the waves were fun and played a tiny bit longer. Long enough to have all the energy knocked out of me. When I tried seriously to get out... I couldn't. The waves pulled me back out further than I was making progress to the shore. I was breathless from the cold and the effort. I had no feeling in hands or feet. I had not gone far out so eventually was able to crawl, stopping during the impact of each wave and trying not to be pulled out, then making a little headway each time.

It was idiotic. But it was fun. I've always been daft about water; I have a tendency to think it is my element and I don't have enough fear of it. I am going to reform.... I'm building up to the Great East Open Water Swim in June, and I am going to go in rivers and lakes and seas with others around...

I've been in the River Cam twice now (11.5 degrees) with some very wise people in support. They are giving me so much advice (in tiny chunks, so I don't get overwhelmed) I'm beginning to think I might finally learn whatever it is I need to know. Although I'm not sure if I needed to hear their first reaction to the swim I've signed up for: a long pause, then '....Brutal'.

When I started writing this I thought I might list my mistakes with rivers and seas and lakes but in the end I decided against it. I didn't want you to think so much worse of me. The trouble is, all those times were such wonderful adventures, in the company of some of my very best people. Would I want to leave those adventures out of my life story? People are very ready to condemn risky behaviour; lots of people feel entitled to tell me off when they hear I swim in the river for example, but don't we all take the risks that make sense for our lives? What would life be without risk? Perhaps I haven't learned how to learn from my mistakes after all. Maybe I'm with Peter Cook.

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in their 'Frog and Peach' sketch:

Dudley: Do you feel you've learnt by your mistakes here?
Peter: I think I have, yes, and I think I can probably repeat them almost perfectly. I know my mistakes inside out.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

'Just' Feel the Breath

21 years ago - this is the blissed-out person next to me in my second ever yoga class...

‘Lie down with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. If your head tips back put a little padding under your head.’

So far so good. I can do all of that. 

‘With your elbows still on the floor, move your hands to your belly. Thumbs near the navel, fingers spreading over your bump towards the pelvis.’

Yup. Got that. I’ve got this nailed.

‘Breathe gently. Hear the sound of your breath and feel it moving in the belly.’

Right! A nice quiet sighing sound. A movement in the belly. What! Where are my lungs again? They are absolutely not down here.

‘You’re feeling the movement in the belly because the breath coming into the lungs causes shape change, and the diaphragm connects the lungs to the abdomen.’

Wait, what! Hold on. How do you spell diaphragm again? (I’ve never learned this, and have to use my spell check every time.)

‘And as you breathe in, you feel the belly lift, and as you breathe out you feel it sink back down towards the floor.’

Now, stop right there, with your sing-song hypnotic voice. (All yoga teachers talk like this in the relaxing stages of the class.) That is SO not happening.

‘Breathe in, the belly rises. Breathe out, it sinks.’

I knew it. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do this.

My body flooded with tension and I gripped my belly harder to check again. No. it was definitely going the wrong way. I was… Reverse Breathing. When I breathed in my belly sank. When I breathed out it rose. I tried to force it to change direction. I thought I might choke. I gave up and thought about something else. Not about my breath. Probably about how I was a great big (5 months pregnant) ball of failure. When I came back to the instructions we had moved on to the ribcage. I hastily moved my hands there.

‘Breathe in. The ribs expand. Breathe out. The ribs sink back, down towards the ground and in towards the centre.’

            Yes! I was doing it! I had got it right!

And when we moved to the high ribcage, the collar bones, things went pretty well too. Breathe in, more air, so you increase in size. Breathe out, less air, you decrease. That makes sense. Why didn’t the abdomen thing work? Now I know what I was doing. I was pulling the abdomen in as I breathed in so the ribcage lifted even more. My grandmother lived in a tiny house and I vividly remember her chanting ‘Breathe in!’ as I squeezed between a chair and the wall. This kind of breathing in needs you to lift the ribcage and squeeze the abdomen to make space for the back of the chair.

My other problem with breathing was the adjectives:

Gently.’ ‘Smoothly.’

My breath gasped and juddered, even when I was only lying down, especially on the in-breath.

I gave up trying, and let my mind wander. I gave up trying and noticed (fairly accidentally) what was happening, and this meant, somehow, miraculously, that over time, over years, the two things changed. When I’m lying down now my breath has turned smooth and gentle. I save my gasping and juddering for the moments I’m trying to swim in a chilly spring sea. If I don’t force it to do something else, my abdomen lifts on the in-breath and sinks on the out, just like I was told it would all those years ago.

Breathing is a fascinating system, partly under our control and partly, for obvious reasons, involuntary. It carries on whether we think about it or not. There are many ways to breathe and many fun practices to change the way we breathe, but nothing beats lying down, resting your hands on your body and just noticing what happens, including ludicrously over-blown self-criticism. Then let it go. Rest. Give it time.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Finding Stuff

This is a small important example of mindfulness in action. All my early life I was known amongst my loved ones as a loser. I still leave stuff behind myself constantly. I stopped wearing watches because of my habit of taking them off, putting them down and walking away.

Now I think I'm rather good at finding stuff, mainly because when I'm looking for something these are the steps I tell myself to go through:

1 - Get calm.

2 - It's always in the first place you looked, so look there again, while breathing.

3 - It's always where it's meant to be, look there again.

4 - Don't panic. Remember to breathe.

5 - Ask someone else to help – if there’s no-one there with you phone someone up or mention it on facebook.

6 - Stop looking and start tidying.

7 - Don't despair.

8 - It is sometimes under the sofa.

9 - Don't call yourself names. Also, don't call someone else you hold responsible names.

And the classic

10 - Remember where, when, why and with whom you last had it. 

It usually works for me, often by the 2nd phase and almost always at the 5th. I've been wondering if these rules apply in the bigger Findings of my life. Finding Myself?  Finding my Purposes?  Finding and Re-finding Happiness?

Jeremy’s mother found things by praying to St Anthony, the Patron of Lost Things. Rose learnt from the television programme ‘QI’ that according to the 
University of Wisconsin, saying the name of a lost thing repeatedly does something to the brain which allows the eyes to pick it up more effectively.

Do you have any more tips? 

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Fiona's yoga - criticism and acceptance

Dr Fiona Menzies has worked at Cambridge University for the last 10 years and 6 days (not that she is counting), carrying out research into neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease. She started doing an early morning yoga class with Sally 4.5 years ago. Before starting yoga she was somewhat sceptical, as she was far more used to the type of class where you jump up and down to very loud music, but since the first class she has never looked back and is no longer sure she could make it through Fridays without the help of the morning class, so she never misses it if she can help it.

Here is what she has to say about her experience of self-acceptance, self-criticism and yoga:

I was thinking about our discussion about being able/not able to do certain poses however hard we try. We were saying about instructors who give people a hard time about not being able to do the poses, but I have a nice instructor (;-)) and so that is not a problem for me. However, I still have all those feelings, because my internal monologue gives me a very hard time about not being able to do things. Even though I am completely aware that it is not a competition and you are always clear that you should do what is right for you, I still find it very hard to accept what I can and can't do and work within my limits rather than hearing the voice in my head saying - "look at the others they can do it, why can't you,you are rubbish"!!

I am sure I am not alone in this, and I think that we probably give
ourselves a much harder time than any instructor would, and you can walk away from a class with an unpleasant instructor, but you can't walk away from your own thoughts as easily. In fact, I think if I were to stop doing yoga this would be the reason for it. You have so much time for all these thoughts, unlike in other classes I choose to do, which are purposefully ones that keep my mind occupied, doing choreography or suchlike.

Reading this back, it sounds a bit like I am making a
confession, but that is not my point. Really I was trying to say how
important I think what we have talked about sometimes is, about
coming to terms with the different abilities of different people.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

How to get to sleep? How to get back to sleep? Can yoga help?

There are so many tips; some I've heard are: 

'Going through the alphabet. One thing for each letter' - Susan Wilkie reminded us of this classic - you can use any categories - food, books, friends...

Lynne Knight's system for dealing with those pesky circling worries that can keep you awake at night: 'I say to myself: "I am breathing in. I am breathing out". If that doesn't do it, I use white light, which is positive energy, positive thoughts. The light floods into the negative thoughts and drowns them, until I have a vision of pure white. Like white paint concealing bad images on a canvas [Lynne is an artist] or the light zaps them, like a phaser in 'Star Trek' destroying evil!

Wendy Hartle's solution is to listen to the radio: 'I am usually tuned into Radio 4 Extra as neither music nor news broadcasts can lull me back to sleep in the way a favourite show that I really want to hear does - almost instantly! I have recommended night time listening to many others in the '3a.m. Club'. Whilst working at the Citizens Advice Bureau we discovered that people who are going through life's traumas, bereavement, divorce, menopause and so on who sleep poorly generally wake up about that time when we are psychologically at our very lowest. But avoid news radio! It is usually pretty grim.'

A quick list of other ideas:

avoid caffeine and citrus fruit after 6pm; 
have a hot bath; 
make the bedroom cool and open a window; 
sex, either by yourself or in company;
turn off all screens at least an hour before you go to bed; 
have a milky drink; 
do a shoulderstand or two.

These days I'm quite often able to be happy, awake in the middle of the night. This is partly a function of my life stage - no children who are waking me up, plenty of time to organise my days as it suits, including an afternoon nap if I need it. 

Of the yoga ideas I've tried, I like the rotation of awareness best, and this is what I use now. When we talked this term about what's useful these two breath practices came out on top. They are basically meditation practices but can also be used to help sleep.

1 – The Square Breath
You imagine drawing a square on the air in front of you. Vary it to suit you. It can be symmetrical or skew-whiff,  more of a rectangle or a line, colourful, vague, solid.
My friend Sarah draws an ornate gold frame around a bright pink square. Fiona's involves skirting board (on all sides of the square, though skirting board is usually found at the base of a wall) and a mouse (an animal, not a computer device). Mine is more like a cursor, very dull. You draw the square with your breath. Breathe in and draw the left side from the base to the top. Pause and draw across the top. Breathe out and draw down the right side. Pause and join it up again. Try to keep each side even, but don't worry if it goes crooked. Keep going till you fall asleep. Can also be useful to stay awake in meetings when your attention is not needed.

2 - The Spiral Breath
One breath for every joint on the fingers. I begin by resting the pad of my thumb against the base joint (where the finger joins the palm) of the little finger. One full breath - in and out. Then move the thumb to the middle joint of the little finger. One full breath. Then the top joint of the little finger, top joint of the ring finger, top joint of the middle finger, top joint of the index finger, middle joint of the index finger, base joint of the index finger, base joint of the middle finger, base joint of the ring finger, middle joint of the ring finger, middle joint of the middle finger. 

I call this shape a square spiral, like the Greek spiral I used to doodle. Carol Barker taught me it's called a Greek Key, and I see it's also called a Meander. Fabulous. 

You meander round your hand, one natural relaxed breath for each joint. You can make other patterns if this one doesn't suit you. Originally I had to stare at my hand, but most people can do it straight away with their eyes closed. It's easy to find the joints, especially if your hand's relaxed. You can do one hand, both hands together, or alternate. I've done it so often now that to get to sleep I just picture the spiral. The advantage of moving the thumb is that when your attention drifts your hand will usually maintain the shape so that you can begin again immediately. 

Keep going till you fall asleep, or use in stressful situations during waking hours. I use it in the dentist's chair. 

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Hands, fingers, wrists - keep them moving, keep them healthy

My fingers have a tendency to stiffen (I am 54 after all, and it is deepest dankest February in beautiful drippy defrosting English Cambridge). So I stretch and curl them, I turn and pull them, I flick them. Perhaps there's not really much more to say than that? Just keep them moving - bend, lengthen, massage, MOVE them. If you have some arthritis in some joints for example, you might want to be more gentle around those joints, but for goodness' sake don't neglect them. 

My favourite finger thing is the turning and pulling. You get hold of a finger or thumb, probably with the thumb & index finger, at the root & as far down into the palm as possible. Then gently, firmly, strongly (whichever suits) turn and pull along it. Be aware of each joint and bone. If you hold the hands up at elbow height you also work through a delightful straight line at the wrist. You can hold one hand still or move both. 

This next exercise is one of my favourite ever. I first found it on, here is the description from there: 

Place the right palm at the wall, spreading your fingers equally. Extend your elbow and press the palm fully into the wall. Wait a few breaths and then turn your head to the left, bringing the tip of the right shoulder blade in towards the front of your body. Hold and breathe.

What I like about this is that it looks like absolutely nothing, but is actually very powerful - wonderful Sarah Tuley, one of my first students from way back, could cope with absolutely anything but this. Notice where you experience this - it may well be in your fingers or wrists, but you never know. Favourite ever was the student who felt it in her opposite hip. Monica Voss works on finding all the possible variations - hand at every height, fingers pointing in every direction. You can put your hand up high, fingers pointing forward, and duck under and back, as if country dancing with yourself. Do the same movement on one side and then on the other, compare. Usually big differences from side to side.

Another one of my favourite ever exercises (what can I say - these are all my favourites!) is where you crouch or kneel, plant your hand firmly on the floor with the fingers pointing towards you and walk or crawl right round. It's quite like the one above in what it does, but even more fun.  

Wrists elbows and shoulders are affected by the same exercises, so you get effortless multi-tasking. 

Here's another one from which I haven't done or taught for ages, but it's lovely.

Bring your palms together in front of your chest in a prayer position stretching all the fingers fully. Relax your shoulders. Slowly stretch the heel of your palms down until they are the level of your wrists. If you can do this stretch without discomfort you can increase the stretch by moving the hands over to the right and holding for a few breaths. Repeat to the left. Stretch slowly and carefully, observing the sensations of your forearm and wrist.

Even more than with foot and toe exercises, these can be done anytime, anywhere. Well, to be honest, not the crawling round your hand one. That does draw attention. The leaning on the wall one is just perfect for a nonchalant look. No-one will notice you're doing yoga, though you may have to invent a reason for changing hands and leaning in the opposite direction. I haven't included strength exercises here, as I am thinking more about mobilisation and circulation.