Thursday, 2 July 2015

My Advice is, Trust Yourself.


Before the Great East Swim a few weeks ago. I got shed-loads of advice, and tried to implement much of it. 'Enjoy yourself' featured most prominently, so that's what I concentrated on. Only on the day though; in the preparation period I concentrated on Getting in a Bit of a State, which was not part of the advice stream.

Almost every time I got in the water I wondered whether I was destroying my lifelong love of swimming. My head buzzed with puzzling instructions about how to swim better. The voices of my advisers played on repeat:
'You've got to swim crawl.'
'Roll more.'
'Sight every three strokes.'
'Sight every five strokes.'
'Don't sight at the same time as you breathe.'
'Sight when you breathe.'
'Don't stop!'
'Don't stop when you breathe.'
'Don't stop when you reach.'
'Turn your head more.'
'Keep your head low.'
'Keep breathing.'
'Imagine you're swimming in a low tunnel.'
Every time I remembered someone saying 'Don't stop', I stopped. Every time I remembered someone saying 'You've got to swim crawl' I switched to breaststroke. Breaststroke, which I have loved all my life, was suddenly a challenge with the unnecessary added buoyancy of the wetsuit. I have plenty of my own buoyancy. It was all a horrible mess, and I cried at least, oh at least several times. I think that's traditional when preparing for a challenge.

But the day came, and I got through the day (with a lot of support from Jeremy). There were 222 swimmers in my 'wave'. I came 145th. But I came first in my age group, and swam much quicker than I had thought I could, even though I turned over onto my back twice to admire the sky and just drift along for a few breaths. I got a medal. (Everyone did.) I loved the swimming itself.

Best of all, since then I've swum in the river (people warn you about Weil's Disease, swans, slime, punts, kayaks and enthusiastic short sighted naked swimmers), I've swum in the outdoor Lido (pray for rain; if the sun shines you can't get in). I've swum with Rose and Jeremy and friends and by myself and it has been heaven.

All that advice? It was a huge help, and a hindrance, and eventually gets assimilated or will do in a year or so. Of course, the most important thing was to trust myself. I did it my way.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Michelle - Yoga with a Stoma

This illustration of Michelle comes from Michelle and the Thought Baskets
Dr Michelle Lewin has worked in medical research for over 15 years, ranging from wound healing, cancer research, and nutrition to autoimmune disease projects. She took her first foray into yoga with Sally about 8 or 9 years ago, and trained as a yoga teacher in her spare time a few years ago (although she hasn't taught....yet!). Life without yoga would be all wrong!

Michelle has written this account for us of her experience with yoga through cancer treatment, including yoga with a stoma.

Yoga has been a mainstay of my life for over ten years. It has always felt mentally and physically good for my being, and emotionally soothing. I love that you can challenge yourself as much or as little as you like, and that it provides increased body awareness and focus, among other things. When I was diagnosed with cancer in January 2014, Sally was one of the first to ask 'what can I do to help?'. Sally kindly recorded her yoga nidra for me, which was amazingly soothing, and helped me maintain some calm and space for myself mentally. 

Yoga is a huge part of my sense of 'normal' life when the rest of my life is far from it. 

Even when I am exhausted from chemotherapy, yoga has increased my energy levels and helps me sleep better. I used yoga breathing during radiotherapy to keep anxiety in check, and continue to use breathing techniques.

After my surgery in September 2014, a gruelling 7 hour open surgery followed by 11 days as an inpatient, I felt the weakest I have ever felt in my life. The weeks that followed saw me take an hour to stumble around the block, which had been a ten minute brisk trot before surgery. Very slowly I started to heal, but was very easy on myself – a teaching from the yamas and niyamas. I tentatively tried a few gentle yoga moves 3 months after my surgery. I thought the scar tissue in any abdominal area would stop me doing much, that my stoma* would impede my movement, and that I had lost lots of muscle mass. After some cat-cows, big toe pose, down dog, supta baddha konasana, sphinx and lying twists, and some gentle sun salutations, I was pretty surprised. Although my flexibility and fitness weren't back to normal, I could manage all these poses, albeit with a bit of wobble! My first yoga class since my surgery was on the 8th December. I expected to find quite a lot of the poses difficult. Surprisingly I didn't need to modify many poses, but the props were a huge help. I managed camel, locust, trikonasana, down dog.....I think everyone was amazed, including me.

I have slowly managed to do more strong poses since then, getting back to doing saddle, and graduating to handstands against the wall recently. I believe that this level of 'rebound strength' is partly due to good  core muscles from yoga. This also helps to prevent a herniated stoma. I tend to wear a stoma support band when doing yoga, mostly for my peace of mind, and to keep my stoma bag a bit more secure. 

Yoga has also helped me regain my balance after surgery. 

A simple tree balance is still tricky as my balance isn't back to how it was previously, but I am seeing continual improvements.


*A stoma (from the Greek for 'mouth' or 'opening'), or ostomy, is a surgically created opening on the surface of the abdomen. This redirects the colon (large intestine), ileum (small intestine) or urinary bladder through the abdominal wall, allowing the output of faeces or urine to be collected in a removable stoma bag/pouch attached to the skin. The most common conditions resulting in stoma surgery are colorectal cancer, bladder cancer, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, and accidental mechanical injury to the bowel. 



Read more:
Another Cambridge scientist tells us about her practice - Fiona's Yoga - Criticism and Acceptance

A constant problem for so many - How to get to sleep? How to get back to sleep?

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Boat Pose - Strength, Balance, Fun





Boat Pose. Best thing ever. Do it so it's never dull, never ugh, this horrible tough boring thing. It is a great balance and strength pose, and you can find ways to make it interesting and different every time. Variation makes it more useful as an exercise to transfer strength into everyday life. If you do the same version every time you will perfect your version but you're engaging and strengthening the same few muscles in the same limited way each time and leaving out others which will become relatively weaker. If you have very sharp sitting bones, an unpadded bottom, or an injured tail-bone, sit on enough soft stuff to be able to find it fun.

Find the perfect level for you each day - never let your neck bother you in these kind of strength exercises - as soon as it does, do less. Choose a level of difficulty which lets you breathe comfortably and keep your face relaxed - no weightlifting faces. A level of difficulty at which you could sing while you're balancing. You can vary the level by having your knees bent or straight and by holding them or letting go. You can also vary how your back is - don't listen to people who insist it must be straight as a rod. If you straighten it, move gently, breathing, and don't force - the exercise works whether it's straight or not.

Vary it by changing where you're sitting. It's a good Sofa Yoga pose for example - sit towards the front of the sofa, lean onto the back and stretch your legs up. Because your back is supported this can be a nice gentle one, but you can make it stronger by not holding your legs. Sit on your bed and try it. Sit on a pile of cushions or a bolster and try it. Sit on a yoga block or a book (this isn't quite so comfy) and try it.

Vary it by changing the angles. Lean back further, even till you're almost flat to the floor. Sit up higher and bring your legs nearer. Take the legs wide. It may be surprising which of these is more difficult for you. Vary it by moving. Wave your arms and legs in the air like you just don't care. Jazz hands. Jazz feet. Swimming movements. Ballet. Twisting. Vary it by rolling. Let yourself fall backwards (keep your head curled in) and roll back up again. Notice how differently it works if you keep your legs straight, let them bend or do a bit of both.

You can also vary how you recover between goes - cross your legs and lean forward, cross your legs the other way and stretch back with your hands on the floor behind you, lie down and float your legs in the air. Try three variations each time, so you can use the three different recovery poses.

Stay just as long as you like each time. Then rest for as long as you like.


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?