Thursday, 16 October 2014

Being Judgmental

Yoga people are supposed to be - well, nice. As well as being bendy, obviously. I think these are the top two qualifications for being a yoga person.

When I tell anyone about some of the scandals, feuds and machinations of the yoga world, the first response is 'that's not very yogic, is it?'. I believe Christians have the same problem, but at least no-one expects them to be bendy.

Yoga teachers bend over backwards to be non-judgemental, and are often to be found on social media accusing each other of being judgemental. The trouble is, once you find yourself accusing someone else of being judgemental, you have automatically entered the judging arena yourself.

It's a minefield. Well, not a minefield exactly, but it isn't easy.

And of course, being judgemental is fantastic fun, so it's really hard to give it up. I went to London today, and spent many minutes of my journey being nothing but judgemental about the shoes people choose to wear. Well, actually just the women. I'm not even always happy when they're wearing flat shoes (a particular hobby horse of mine); if they have crammed their toes into tiny pumps I'm cross with them about that too. (If you are also crazy about flat shoes you should follow the en brogue blog.)

I'm also very often cross with (judgemental about) some of my neighbours. They are constantly complaining about unimportant things. A friend today explained to me that they are probably trying to bond by finding mutual areas of complaint, and I'm messing things up by refusing to join in. Perhaps they can complain about me when I'm not there, and bond that way instead (paranoia alert).

And even worse, I'm judgemental about the way people run. I say to myself that I'm worried they'll get injured. I've just taken up kayaking (well, I've tried it twice on the River Cam). My style is appalling and may well lead to injury. Am I going to give up? I hope not. Am I going to take any advice on improving? Ask Jeremy - he is a judgemental kayaker but can go in a straight line.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Silent Retreat 2014

With Sarah and Ty Powers in the Moulin de Chaves, Cubjac, France - extracts from Jeremy's Journal


4 men among the 50 women this year- a 100% increase in the male contingent. We are concentrating on the Five Hindrances: Craving-Aversion-Restlessness-Lethargy-Doubt. Plenty to work with there. 

Told to leave distractions behind, no phones, no laptops, no reading... and no journals unless written in Zen note style. Need to check what that is exactly.

Sally swims in river with me rowing beside in small boat. Bliss. During evening meditation a dog appears. Stress about how we are going to cope with a DOG all week before it’s whisked away with apologies- 'it’s not our dog!'. Into The Silence and off to bed.

In the afternoon yoga session someone yells as something gives. Sarah attends. I think he’s OK. I break the distraction rule and go mad with a quick painting.

Say ‘hello darling’ when I wake up. Oops. In the morning session, we build a fortress with people who support us, standing around us- like final scene in 'Return of the Jedi' when the dead Jedi wave goodbye to Leia and Luke.
Mindful walking in a “normal" way. Apparently we can do this in everyday situations like restaurants- I look around and think walk like this in a restaurant and you’d get thrown out. 

In afternoon session meditate on something we can't do, then bring in an expert. Find myself with an old friend hovering over me playing the guitar. Disturbing. Fortunately lose consciousness. 

Ty tells a good shaggy dog poo story (cleaning up, aversion becomes craving). Asks us to take a risk, not with dog poo but something much more profound- what does he mean? Hand in my notice on Monday morning to become a yoga teacher? Will ask. Then we imagine we are golden globes that grow and become one big globe. Brilliant. Later, we see our first ever moon rise! Like a powerful orange searchlight on horizon. We watch for half an hour as it climbs. 

On way to bed we see someone with THREE distraction devices- iPhone laptop and kindle! Feel less guilty about journal which is becoming rapidly less Zen.

Sneezing in the Dharma Hall. The cold is spreading around the room… are viruses beings I wonder? Croissants- yay! In second meditation concoct different versions of Five Hindrances e.g. addict-ascetic-dilettante-philistine-sceptic or gourmand-anorexic-glutton-fastfoodeater-restaurant critic

Some have taken to mindful eating- painful to watch. Eat the freaking nut roast already! After-lunch entertainment: watching someone try to get into a hammock while holding mug of hot tea. How we laugh! With loving kindness of course.

Sarah in angry mode. We are arriving late, writing messages, whispering in dorms after lights out, not doing our prep etc. Wimp out of ‘Pigeon’ pose (with my external hip rotation?) but Sarah will have none of my limp ‘Eye of the Needle’. 'Is it useful?' she asks. Meaning ‘is it painful?’ ‘Not really’ I whisper dolefully and she jacks up my knee until my hips bleed. ‘Thanks..that's much better’ I whisper hoarsely. 

Attempt pastel of nearby fields.

Later sit by weir and learn important astronomy lesson. The moon rises about 30 minutes later each night. Who knew?!

Say ‘oh no it can't be’ when Sally brings tea. Pre-breakfast meditation- obsess about pastel drawing. Just what Sarah warned yet act of drawing does make me feel in the moment. Wonder what to talk to Ty about at consultation / ‘confession’. Still tinkering with pastel and nearly miss croissants! A Close-Run Thing. After-breakfast meditation- as suggested I count un-deux-trois, eins-zwei-drei like crazy. According to Sarah Zen Buddhists say ‘Practice like your hair is on fire!’

Cold in yurt but beautiful backdrop. 

24 minutes meditation difficult- hip hurting. All four guys now in a row in the yurt. How did this happen?  Later one tells me 'we are a pool of testosterone in an ocean of oestrogen'.   

Confession with Ty- discuss the weather then get down to Serious Things. Such a great guy. Went swimming- electron supply now overflowing. Walked into Cubjac- Sally blurted ‘Supermarket?’ What is she craving I wonder? Evening meditation pretty tough. Imagine a special person/place. I think of our engagement at Stourhead. But then Ty's golden globes butt in and vision vanishes.

Morning sit easier, hips not hurting as much, mind didn’t race. Might be getting hang of it after all. Last-but-one session in the yurt- another fantastic discourse from Sarah- more than pearls of wisdom these are diamonds brought up from deep underground, clear, sparkling and multifaceted. But how to remember it all? What did she say about pride, envy? A surplus of what? A deficiency of what? Should be taking notes. 

Later, looking at river makes me think of something Sarah said. Who am I that can be aware of different things simply by focusing attention? I look at the surface and see leaves floating, then the reflection of trees behind, then into water with fish swimming, then the mud at the bottom. Cool.

Lying down meditation- think about what we found challenging- tried to focus as knew this would be subject for final dyad. Nod off anyway. Exit The Silence - nice friendly face to dyad with luckily. I talk about humour/cynicism- trying to find the funny side and missing important stuff. 'So many gems of wisdom this week- except the stuff about electrons' I say as Sarah walks by. Stifle laugh. ‘There,’ partner exclaims, ‘you're doing it again’... We chat on oblivious to Sarah's instructions about silence in the yurt and get shushed, quite rightly, by Sally.

Dinner and lots of talking. One guy who fought police and took drugs in the 80s before discovering Yoga and a lady who has an extra vertebra- no wonder she can fold in Butterfly pose like a door hinge. Another lady lost an inch from her spine because of parasites in India. That's what white water rafting in the Ganges can do for you. Yin and Yang eh?

Off to Dharma Hall for last session with Sarah and Ty. Lots of thanking and namastaying and then they were off. 

Will we go next year? I’m craving it already.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Michelle and the Thought Baskets

Michelle and the Thought Baskets

Years ago I was rabbiting away about how chatty my mind gets when I sit to meditate, planning to pay attention to my breath. Noisy. Annoying. I had recently found out that this happens to most other people too.

"You start chasing your thoughts around. Your thoughts start chasing you around. If you can put the thoughts into categories you realise it's the same stuff all the time, and then sometimes they give up chasing you around. My thoughts are always about Family, Work or Friends. I was a bit disappointed that my range was so limited. But now I can say to myself 'Oh, look, you're worrying about Rose again' (or Jon or Chris or Jeremy or my mother or my father or my brother) 'it's family again'. And it makes me laugh how my thoughts kept repeating - I didn't know that before. It had seemed like it was new and urgent each time. It helps me a lot", I said.

And then Michelle told us that she used a basket system to put the thoughts into, so they kind of disappear into the basket. You can just chuck the thought into its basket and get back to paying attention to your breath. It's not a failure when you get distracted, it's human, it's finding out about yourself. It is a bit of a triumph when you notice though, and when you successfully get that thought into that basket and begin again. The breath. This breath. This moment.

Your baskets can be labelled any old how. They could be different on different days, and they may change over the years. You just keep finding a system that works for you.
One for past and one for future.
One for planning and one for day-dreaming and one for worrying.
You could just have one basket and call it 'thinking'.

These days mine are often one for writing and one for teaching. I wrote this whole blog in my head when I thought I was paying attention to my breath. Oh, and I often need a basket for complaining that my knee hurts.

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.