Week 2: the Artists Way

I’ve had a complete turn around with this little self-imposed self-improvement project in the past 24 hours. I’ve been doing it quite half-hearted. I mean I’ve been doing the Morning Pages but not usually 3 pages because I found I was torturing myself to fill it all and meanwhile the morning was tick-tick-ticking away and I do want to do other things you know?! So I told myself just to do some writing. Some has been about 1-2 pages which is better than nothing right?

But the thing I’ve noticed about the Morning Pages is how mundane my thoughts are in the morning. I don’t usually do any ‘creating’ first thing and my thoughts are usually about whether or not I’m sad or anxious, how worried I am about the day ahead, that kind of thing. It’s dull to write. So I don’t know, I like the idea but does it have to be first thing? I’ll carry on for the time being.

The Artists Date was kind of tacked on retrospectively. I went out with my camera and sketchbook on a very sunny day and walked through a little glen I never go through. I then went down to the beach and did some sketches of the local heron! For me this is just work though, but I enjoyed it. Does this count?

So up until yesterday this was the full extent of my ‘creative recovery’. Then I remembered oh yeah, I’m supposed to actually be doing this. So I took a couple of items from my ‘things I like to do list’ which I hastily put together last week. I picked two that I hadn’t done for a while and did them. For me this was play my guitar and read poetry.

I used to play the guitar a lot. I started when I was 12 and I was very very good. Then I lost interest, at 16 I preferred talking to people online and attempting to code terrible websites. Last time I played it with any direction was when I was about 21, 4 years ago now. So I got it out and the smell… mmmm… I love that smell. My shiny Spanish guitar looks exactly as it did 13 years ago when I picked it out at the music shop. And my fingers knew (mostly) what to do, the left forming the right shapes, the right plucking the way they’re supposed to. I was playing! It was glorious.

When I first started playing the guitar I loved it because it just sounded good, even the simplest tunes sound good. Before that I played the violin which I hated because it sounded terrible (when I played it anyway) and it meant I had to play in the island’s youth orchestra. I had no friends in the orchestra. I would dread Saturday morning, until one day I had a meltdown one Friday evening and my parents let me leave. I was only allowed to quit the violin because I took up the guitar instead. My interest in the guitar was mainly because there are no guitars in the orchestra… but I immediately loved it apart from that. Funnily enough I got so good that within a year I was the youngest member in the island’s guitar ensemble, this was fine though because it was much smaller, had adults in it too and had no breaks so no enforced socialising.

So I think I’ll pick up my guitar again. I have a new attitude to practicing now, I practice many things daily, there’s plenty of room for another one. This time it’ll be for the fun of it, not to be the best young guitar player in the island. I love that, the lack of pressure. I can’t wait!

The other thing I did was I read some poetry. It was from the fantastic anthology Being Alive. I love poetry, I actually was a bit of a childhood poet. Bizarre. Now for me it’s about realising that there are other people out there who feel as much as I feel. I felt less alone after reading.

Next week I think I’ll be delving into my childhood again!

Week 3: Moving Toward Balance with Rodney Yee

Ah it’s week 3 already! My time with Rodney is flying by. It’s pretty tough relinquishing control of my yoga practice. When this is over I’ve promised myself that I will allow myself to do whatever I want. I have to say I’m really looking forward to it.

Having said that this week has been the most enjoyable week so far. The reason: backbends! I love backbending. I always feel so joyful and free and my spine feels amazing after backbends. Even better, a lot of the backbends were passive. As in I just got to lie there for a couple of minutes and then change position and lie in that new way for a couple of minutes. Fantastic!

There was one day in particular that involved a repetition of a supported bridge pose (setu bandhasana) with a block at its highest under the sacrum, a reclined heros pose (supta virasana) and lots of short holds of camel (ustrasana) I was in heaven!

However I did have a couple of not-so-fantastic moments. Day one was the usual prop fest. Yoga should not involve so much clearing up afterwards! Does anyone else find it hard to let go in shavasana if they know they have to put away multiple blocks, bolsters and straps afterwards?

There was also a pose which got my goat, but in a good way. A modified fish pose (matsyasana) with a block lengthways under the shoulder blades. That’s not a fantastic description. I took a photo but I cannot post it for the following reasons: I’ve lost the cable so it remains stuck in my camera and I have a very large ribcage which makes the photo look indecent. Maybe that explains my uncomfortableness in the pose. You’reĀ supposed to use a strap to hold the arms together but I couldn’t find a way to put it that didn’t make my arms go numb. My arm bones are a funny shape apparently. This pose felt bizarre. Having a block (also the blanket felt too rigid) under the boniest part of my back just felt wrong. As in hard to breathe properly wrong. A couple of times I freaked out and had to come out early. Fish pose used to have that effect on me but not for a long time now so this is interesting. It’s definitely one to put in my regular practice but god it’s cruel!

So not too many insights this week! I’ve noticed this with my depression-symptom diary which I do daily. If it’s a bad day I’ll write pages and pages describing the nuances of my bad feelings but a good day frequently sees me reassuring my boyfriend when I get out my diary “this won’t take long, I had a good day today”. I wonder why this is.

Bad backs

Thanks to Adan for the idea for this post.

First of all this isn’t about me, my back is fine. I did have a scare once but that’s an aside maybe for another day. This is about my dad. I feel a bit weird posting about my dad on the internet without his knowledge but with my slight anonymity hopefully that makes it ok. My dad’s a bit of a big deal in the island, he even has his own wikipedia page. Not everyone revives a dead language after all. If this post disappears one day you’ll know why.

My dad has a terrible curved spine, as in hunchback of Notre Dame type hump. I can’t say if it’s scoliosis, or excessive kyphosis or some combination of the two or something else entirely because I’m completely ignorant of the label that would be attached to his spinal curvature. Worse, so is he. My dad was born just before the war, as in the Second World War (my parents were getting on a bit when they had me) during a time when checking children for spinal problems and treating them was not a priority. I don’t know when he first became aware of his spine being curved, sometimes he says he noticed when he was a child, sometimes he says it was caused by a garage door hitting him on the back when he was a young adult. He just doesn’t care, it doesn’t matter to him.

Now he’s an old man and the curve is getting worse month on month. He’s frequently gasping with pain although he says the pain is intermittent and not constant. Sometimes his breath comes choppy as though it’s hard to breathe but then he still does his radio programme and he has a fine singing voice. It’s all a bit of a mystery to me.

What’s more of a mystery is the way that up until the curve was so bad as to become debilitating he did nothing about it. No X-rays, no doctor’s visits, nothing. He barely even talked about it until it became too obvious to not talk about. Recently, under the combined nagging of both me and my mum he has been to a doctor, had an X-ray (and promptly forgot what it showed), been to an acupuncturist and had an occupational therapist come to look at his home office.

Herein lies the problem: he spends all day working at the computer, with his only breaks involving sitting in chairs watching TV, sitting in chairs reading the paper, sitting in chairs eating, sitting in chairs drinking tea and sitting in chairs moaning to my mum. The latter being his favourite pastime. He has a bad spine to begin with and he fully knows all this sitting with the constant flexion of his hip muscles, the pressure on the back combined with the rigidity that sitting for a lifetime does to your lower back is even worse for him. But he does nothing.

Enter me, the fit, young, healthy yoga enthusiast daughter. What do I do? I am very much a ‘live-and-let-live’ kinda girl. This is how my parents raised me, they never nagged when I spent hours and hours of my teens online and developed a hump myself. Mind you they don’t usually congratulate me on my healthy spine either but that’s besides the point. I know that his lifestyle and lack of movement is making the pain worse. I know that yoga would help him. Even the pranayama would help him. Yet I do nothing. Why is this? Because it’s easier for me? Because I’m scared that I’ll come across as a know-it-all? Because I want to respect my father’s autonomy? It’s a problem that every grown up child has to deal with I know.

I just can’t understand how it is that he doesn’t want to learn more about his spine and learn how to cope. He says there’s no point because there’s nothing anyone can do, he’s too old. But this isn’t true, he can lessen the symptoms by doing gentle movements. I tell him this and he seems to believe me but yet he still doesn’t do it! What am I to do? The most I’ve done so far is let him borrow my Tai Chi dvds and strongly hinted that they’re very good. Is this enough? I just don’t want this lack of action to be something I come to regret.

Week 1: The Artist’s Way

I’ve been on a ‘self-improvement’ kick. First there was Rodney helping me go back to my yoga beginning and building me up better (there’s the hope anyway) and now I’m asking Julia Cameron to help me with my creativity.

Creativity. I’ve always had a problem with this concept. I’m a painter, so I create paintings. A writer creates stories. A composer creates compositions. A cook creates meals. I don’t know how you can be creative if there isn’t a tangible thing to look at, or listen to or taste and say Look! I created this using my creativity! Yet I’ve been frequently described as being creative my whole life. Even when playing musical instruments! I’m just reading what’s written and playing it, what’s creative about that?

It’s this attitude that’s made me regard The Artist’s Way with suspicion from the first day I discovered it when I used to work in a bookshop. It was the most popular book in the Art Techniques section and I was sorely disappointed when I opened it to find there was no artistic techniques in it at all! Just lots of waffle about God and self expression and dreams. (Can I just point out I also did work at this shop, I didn’t just read the books)

Anyway curiosity made me buy it again. I was looking for something to stimulate me. I’m a painter but in my past I’ve also danced, written poetry and stories and played the classical guitar and the celtic harp. I thought maybe having a multi-pronged pincer attack of creativity enhanced joy would help see off my depression once and for all. Such a monster cannot survive in the radiant, fully self-expressed soul that I would inhabit after this course!

That’s the hope anyway.

So, week 1. Main tasks: Morning Pages (3 pages of stream of consciousness writing done every morning) and an Artists Date (taking your ‘inner artist child’ on a date) I did my Morning Pages every day. I’m finding them quite enjoyable… maybe not mind blowing yet. I do a lot of writing as it is. We’ll see. The Artists Date I chose was really quite boring: I read a book. It wasn’t even a good book. Sigh. I need help with that. My inner artists child would not be calling me back after that date. Thank god she’s stuck with me.

There was also a few tasks, of which I only really did one and it was a bit half hearted. You are asked to choose 5 fantasy occupations and then asked to do an activity related to 1 of them. I chose: physicist, sculptor, poet, monk and a counsellor. So I then I sat by myself in a room with a sign on the door saying ‘occupied’ and talked to myself for 50 minutes about my life and my actions and analysed it accordingly…. No but that would have been good! What I actually did was scrawl out a pitiful poem that’ll never see the light of day.

A lot of the tasks were completely irrelevant for me because I’m not a blocked artist. I’m a working artist and I’m producing work. Also this chapter was focussing on people who encouraged you or discouraged you from being creative in the past and I’ve discovered that I don’t actually care too much what others say. I could barely remember anything positive or negative anyone’s said to me about my creative attempts. Anything I did muster up I honestly don’t think had much affect on me at all. Is this good or bad?

So, I start with a whimper. I’ve always been terrible at doing homework!

Jealousy and competition

This is where I wished my knowledge of yogic philosophy was greater because I could quote a passage or two from the yoga sutras or the bhagavad gita and show how it’s relevant to my everyday life. Alas this post is more of a question asked to the internet ether than any kind of philosophical revelation. I’m young, forgive me! I’ll learn.

I’m not usually a jealous person. Growing up I was very rarely envious of other kid’s possessions or friends or clothes or anything like that. I was brought up comfortable enough and my parents are kind and supportive. Still these things don’t always guard against envy. It seems to be in human nature to think the grass is greener, to always want more. I was much more accepting of what I had. I discovered that if you accepted what you had you were much happier. Oh wise child, I have so much to learn.

Also, and I think this is crucial, I was not competitive at all. I hated competition. Competitive sports I was terrible at anyway so I just accepted that. It was ok, because I was clever. In academic subjects I was always at the top of the class. I was curious and a quick learner, so I did well academically at school. But it’s lonely being “at the top” in your class. I was labelled the “clever one” and I wasn’t treated the same as the other kids. One teacher actually would goad me whenever I couldn’t answer a question or got something wrong. “I thought you were meant to be clever” he’d sneer. (postscript: he was fired some years later for hitting a child)

So all this meant that since I was so far ahead (or far behind in terms of sports) I had no one to ‘compete’ with. So I learnt my own rules to beat. I became a very good critic of my work, ultimately not really caring what my friends or teachers or even parents thought. I’m a sort of lazy perfectionist. It’s good and bad, good for bloody-minded motivation but bad for days when I can’t do anything ‘right’.

So I’m not competitive. A benefit in yoga, I couldn’t care less how far that person to the left of me is stretching. I rarely get jealous. But yesterday: I got jealous.

A painter has appeared on the scene who does very realistic oil portraits. She does idealised versions of women and politicians. Undoubtedly they take a lot of work and I admire her for that, even if the paintings are not my style. She’s had a lot of success and recognition and I was fine with that until I learned one thing: she’s my age. And she has a child.

The jealous monster reared its head. How can she have the time? Why is she so successful? Will anyone ever take me as seriously as her? Her paintings are so polished and mine are so scruffy. How can she earn so much money from ONE painting?? On and on my mind went. So how do I deal with this jealousy? How can I stop it eroding my sense of confidence in my painting and my life?

In the past the way I dealt with jealousy was, if for example someone of my age was better at playing the violin than I was I would think: that’s ok, because I’m better at writing poetry than they are. And vice versa. So by that pattern I could think: Ok this woman is more successful than me but I’m thinner.

That’s not very enlightened.

Ultimately I think I have to accept that we can live side by side. That she’s not done anything to hurt me. I have to have the strength to live my life and let her live hers. May she be safe, may she be happy, may she be healthy, may she live with ease.

Same to me too for suffering so! Jealousy is exhausting.

 

 

Week 2: Moving Toward Balance with Rodney Yee

I’ve given myself the challenge of giving up full control of my home practice and following along to Rodney Yee’s Moving Toward Balance course for the 8 weeks. Here’s how week 1 went down.

So here we are at week 2. It’s sun salutations week! I got to add back in my sun salutations to the beginning of my practice. Oh how I’d missed them for that whole week. Of course I followed the pattern of the previous week and rounded out my practice with some poses the sequence lacks, for instance some backbends and seated poses. I also gave up counting the poses in seconds and measured how many breaths I’d need to stay, for instance 45 seconds (7 breaths) and followed my breath. It was much more grounding that way, plus my ujjayi breath can be so loud I can’t even hear the clock at times.

Here are some things I’ve learnt in week 2 in handy list form.

  1. I hate being told what to do. I already knew this one because it’s always worth learning again. I have an inner rebel that absolutely detests a prescribed list of asanas, and will protest at holding for a prescribed amount of time. Dealing with this rebel makes for a very exhausting practice. Why do you think I do my own practice and have to force myself to go to classes?
  2. I love vinyasa! And following a set of static asana like in Rodney’s course is not stimulating enough for me. I got a bit bored… I like to move!
  3. I missed the jumping back and forward in the sun salutations. It’s been months since I made this a regular part of the practice and phased out stepping into lunges (actually it was from Rodney’s dvds that I first learnt that transition and it has been very lovely for my psoas muscles) and now I only don’t do at least a couple of jumps if I’m feeling ill. Taking them out this week made me realise they’ve stopped being a chore and a challenge and are definitely part of my yoga.
  4. I definitely need to work on holding down dog and up dog for more than a few breaths. In Rodney’s course on one of the days you hold down dog for a minute a couple of times and have a few 5 breath up dogs. I have to admit that my arms were shamefully shaking throughout.
  5. Using excessive props during a practice irritates me. Especially day one of the course where the room was littered with blankets, my bolster, blocks, my strap, pillows and I had to move everything whenever a new propped-up version of a pose was to be practiced. Which was often because there’s a lot of subtle variants of the poses and you only hold some of them for a minute! I love restorative yoga but I’ve noticed irritation when dealing with props during a restorative session too. I just want to settle!
  6. This version of supta baddha konasana is heavenly for my stiff ankles. There’s a bolster under my knees and 2 blocks under my feet. Mmmmmm.
  7. Extended, repeated stays in uttanasana still don’t do it for me.
  8. Sitting up against the wall in cross-legged position hurts my back. Why’s that?
  9. I also hate reading long descriptions of things, I’d much rather try it and see. I worry this means I’m missing wisdom along the way…
So I think that’s all the wisdom gleaned from this week I think. Next week: backbends! My favourite.

Hips and ankles

It’s a mega-autumn day today in my island home. I know it’s technically still summer but the sunniest and calmest of the weather is behind us now. It’s just been rain and winds for days, causing the leaves to be ripped off the trees instead of being able to turn those stereotypical autumn colours and gently fall at the more appropriate autumnal time.

Anyway weather report aside I wanted to do a little anatomy-lite post today. Ever since I started yoga I’ve been fascinated with anatomy but don’t actually know too much about it technically. I try not to worry, I’m sure it’ll come.

One of my little body quirks and personal struggles in yoga is with sitting cross-legged: sukhasana (easy pose), ardha padmasana (half lotus) and especially padmasana (lotus) were impossibilities for me in my pre-yoga days. I hadn’t been able to sit cross legged in any way for most of my life up until this point. I was so stiff! This is quite incredible thinking about it because the general assumption is that all children are flexible. Well I wasn’t, I hated sitting on the floor. I was more of a lounge-on-a-sofa kinda girl. I wasn’t made to sit cross legged I decided.

Then enter yoga at age 22 and I realised I was wrong! I could improve my flexibility so I could sit cross legged! This realisation (and, you know, not wanting to be so miserable and depressed all the time) drove my early yoga practice. I didn’t have to be stiff anymore! I’d always had painful knees and this stopped me doing much physical activity growing up (a blessing for me mostly at that time!) It soon became apparent that this pain was partly due to the incredible inflexibility around my hips. Because there was no give, no movement in my hips the stiffness would travel, if you excuse my crudeness, down to my knees causing intense pain whenever I jumped, or tried to run. This was a fantastic discovery! Now not only would I be able to sit on the floor like a nimble little pixie but I’d be able to live knee-pain free! It’s 3 years later and I’m glad to say that I can jump and run and I do often. The knees are only sore if it’s exceptionally cold out and I haven’t warmed up.

So after much research, and thanks to Paul Grilley’s anatomy dvd I gleaned some information about my hips: they are more keen to internally rotate than to externally rotate. My job now was to stretch good and to stretch often. Which I did with gusto. Any pose which had any kind of external rotation of the legs in it, or which stretched my inner thighs was in my daily practice. Warrior 2, triangle, wide legged forward bends, pigeon, lord of the fishes twist, etc. etc. made up the bulk of my practice and a couple of years my external rotation was no longer the torture it once was.

But I still couldn’t sit cross legged. Here’s some visuals. This is me trying half lotus.

And this is my good side!

I assumed for a long time that it was my hips causing this stiffness. I couldn’t externally rotate my femurs enough. But look at me in pigeon.

Supreme external hip rotation

I remember the first time I realised I could get my leg parallel after many months in the under-the-hip limbo it was all a bit well helllllo toes! I’d never seen my toes so close up before. Anyway it’s pretty clear here that this is not a hip problem. My second yoga teacher stopped the class one week to poke me. She discovered it’s not my hips, it’s my ankles!

Ah! It all makes sense now! The reason my knees are halfway to the moon whenever I sit cross legged is because my ankles are too stiff, there’s no give at all. So my job now is to improve the flexibility of my ankle. Gently. Too much and it hurts my precious knees. I think that’s the reason I didn’t improve the flexibility of my ankles earlier: I was trying to protect my knees.

So I can’t do lotus (or half lotus) and I can’t do headstand… yet. It’s a good job that I don’t have much of an ego. I can’t imagine how tough it must be for some people going to an ‘advanced’ yoga class and sitting out both lotus pose and headstand. No for me it’s the long haul, it’s the process. And I love learning, and I love yoga.

Sickness

I’m ill today. I’m a strange creature because to me this is a very reassuring state; I know why I’m ill, it’s not too bad and I know I’ll feel better soon. I also I know that all I need right now is rest. So I’m resting and I plan on enjoying it.

I put this down to my sickly childhood. I caught so many colds growing up and they were always real humdingers (love that word) I mean I caught the kind of colds people would refer to as flu and I caught them with such regularity and consistency that I was very familiar with the stages. I could recite them to you now, and they never varied.

I grew up with the knowledge that complaining and resisting would not help me recover faster so I would just wait and rest and try to enjoy myself. As a child who hated school and loved being on my own this wasn’t too much of a challenge. I innately understood the crucial lesson: we all get sick. I knew it wasn’t a failing in me, or a weakness. It was something that just happened, like getting rained on, and complaining about it would not change the situation one jot.

So I learned how to cope with being ill and with missing school. I became attached to these little breaks, a chance to withdraw from the world legitimately. Unfortunately I think I became too attached to them. Now, I’m a super-duper healthy adult who exercises, eats well and gets enough sleep. I stopped getting colds a few years ago. My cold-per-year rate dropped from well above average to well below. In fact in the past 2 years I have only had one cold.

But I still need breaks from the world, I still really need them but I never let myself have them. That’s the difference between a healthy accepting mind and a sick mind poisoned with the protestant work ethic prevalent in my society. When I’m healthy in body but depressed in mind I feel like I don’t deserve a break, I have to keep going going going going. As soon as I get ill, like today, my inner wise child comes back and tells me it’s ok to rest, because I’ll ill and I need to get better. It’s ok to look after myself.

So today my job is to listen to that wise child and to figure out how to make her stick around when I’m not ill.

Where my Yoga’s at right now

Yoga is a BIG part of my life. Before I did yoga I was depressed, now I do yoga and I’m still depressed but at least I do yoga!

I sincerely hope that yoga remains in my life at some form or other for the rest of my life. I’m committed, it’s until death do us part. This post is about where my yoga is right now, as of early August 2011. I like to do these little reviews every now and again but I’ve never posted one online before.

My yoga for me right now is stimulating, grounding, strengthening, reviving, calming, energising. Recently I’ve been doing a more active asana practice. This came on gradually, as my strength and my energy and mood has improved. Every day I try to do a vinyasa practice, with sun salutations, lots of standing poses, jumping back into down dog and forward, arm balances, abdominal strengtheners and my ever-hopeful attempts to get into a headstand. I think this has been influenced by the more demanding classes I’ve been attending but also because I want to get stronger, and I want to be able to do more. The thing that’s driving me is curiosity, I am dying to know what it feels like to be in a headstand. Is it calming? Is it energising? Is it vomit-inducing? I want to know!

To help strengthen my body in order to keep up in these classes I’ve been trying to incorporate abdominal exercises and lots of chaturanga holds and press ups. Planks are good, as are leg lifts and the side leg lifts I’ve forgotten the name of. When I say good I assume they are good for my long term strength but I did have difficulty getting out of bed this morning…

As well as all this asana I’ve been starting my day off with 5 minutes of pranayama and trying to get 10-20 minutes of meditation. I’ve found these are both easier after an asana practice but this isn’t always possible. And easier isn’t always better. I would like to add to this little non-asana routine a bit of studying. I studied philosophy at university and have always been interested in the yoga philosophy. I think it’s high-time I cracked open the books and had a look at what it’s all about.

Ultimately I’m working towards headstand, more demanding arm balances and handstand. I would like to incorporate more backbending into my practice. I love backbending and it comes easier to me than the arm strength stuff but I’m a sucker for punishment and I will only allow myself a strict quota of ‘easy’ poses per session. Why do I do this to myself? So I will do more backbends. The ones I want to work towards are kapotasana andĀ viparita dandasana. I wonder what they feel like.

So this is what my yoga is looking like as the summer comes to a close. It’ll be interesting to see how it changes as my energy changes and I get ready for the winter.