Pity vs Compassion

Recently this is a topic that I’ve been thinking a lot about, mainly in relation to how my parents view me and other sufferers. It came into sharp relief after seeing their reactions to our recently departed cat.

Pity and compassion are very different concepts. If you pity someone the implication is one of ‘looking down on’ but not necessarily lowering yourself down to their level to really feel their suffering. Pity implies otherness; praying for people but not actually understanding or helping them. Being removed from their suffering, saying you feel it but maybe not feeling anything at all. It has a touch of a disdainful lip curl about it. Watch from a distance but do not do anything.

Compassion, on the other hand, is the wish to alleviate suffering. It is the acceptance that while we cannot know truly what suffering is like for others we can know that they are suffering and we can attempt to help them in their suffering. Not out of a sense of duty or for any personal satisfaction, just for the pure goodwill of wanting to give people a leg up out of their pain.

Compassion is hard for most people because it requires a selflessness, and the courage to act. This is hard. You have to forget yourself, let go of any fears that you’ll say/do ‘the wrong thing’ and not be strangled by that self-doubt. It is sad that the desire to help is often overridden by the fear of looking stupid. I learnt long ago that the worst thing to say to someone who’s suffering is “I don’t know what to say”.

My parents pity me and they pitied Marmalade. Both of us have spent a fair amount of time skulking around the house, him looking thin and blind and me tear-faced, mute and slow to the point of being stationary. My parents have never helped me, they look at me and they say “aw” or look sad. Sometimes I feel like they feel more sorry for themselves at not being able to ‘make me better’ than they do at my being depressed for the entirety of my 20s. My requests for help in dealing with my depression have turned into hysterical arguments with my parents telling me that I don’t let them help me, or they always make things worse, or they say the wrong thing, or they don’t know what to do. This then turns into a ridiculous competition about who suffers the most on their own: “I cry all the time on my own about you” vs “I’m getting very down about it”.

I may sound hard hearted but tears mean nothing to me. Tears don’t help me, pity doesn’t help me. Why are they so scared to help me? Are they scared that if they tried they might catch it?? They are good people but I think they may be addicted to misery, to pitying. Dad will watch the news and bow his head when some awful story comes on about a war or a famine. He’ll say “Christ it’s terrible, it’s fucking awful” and maybe a tear will come to his eye. But his tear won’t help those people.

Pity is easy, compassion is hard.


Active Recovery, and a very welcome sabotage

I am currently in a period of what my boyfriend calls: Active Recovery. Not bed rest as the Victorians liked to treat “hysterical women”, no, doing things is the way to beat this depression.

First of all I have told myself that this period up until the end of the year is dedicated to me feeling better. After week after week after week of feeling bad more often than good I said enough is enough and I contacted my counsellor again. I’m seeing her once a week on a Friday and it’s been good so far.

So I’m rediscovering what makes me feel good, or more stable (heehee) or gives me the hope I will recover. I’m trying to exercise when I’m not ill, which has been frustratingly rare this past couple of weeks. There’s nothing like going for a run on a windy beach to clear the misery cobwebs away. The yoga goes without saying and has been the most conflict-free part of my life since it’s been in my life all of these 3 and a half years.

Some of this doing is actually non-doing, or mindfulness. I bought Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book “Full Catastrophe Living” this summer and decided that this Active Recovery period is perfect to work through it. It’s been fantastic, I feel like I’m coming home. I’ve done a mindfulness book course before which I talked about here. This is more of the same but is not primarily for people with depression, it’s aimed more at people suffering with chronic pain or anxiety or stress. Stress and anxiety I know a bit about, so I thought it would help anyway. It’s all connected. So now I have a mindfulness meditation practice and I’m already feeling the (good) effects.

Finally I have been gently trying to rediscover joy in painting again, curiosity, fearlessness, un self-consciousness, all that wonderful stuff that came so easy when I was 18. I’ve been looking at a lot of other artist’s work and thinking more than producing stuff myself. I’m trying not to force it because I have this little “work work work you’re only as good an artist as your last painting so just do it and shut up” demon on my shoulder and it’s not good for my mind to listen to it.

What I have NOT been doing is pursuing other people for exhibitions, advice etc because that is a bad idea when I’m so vulnerable.

Then why the hell do I get an offer for a full SOLO exhibition in April? Why?? What are you doing to me universe??


Bad backs part 2

I talked about my dad’s bad back previously and I mentioned that I myself had had a bit of a back scare. This a bit of an overstatement but allow me to explain.

My dad has (I think, he’s never had it diagnosed formally and remembered any label) an exaggerated kyphotic curve to his spine. He’s had it for as long as anyone can remember and as he goes through his 70s it only gets worse. I grew up with the idea that my dad was a hunchback. It never seemed to bother him so it never really bothered me. Once a friend pointed it out to me and I realised it was quite pronounced but mainly it just highlighted her tactlessness. We were 10 but I was a very nice, kind child. You don’t say things like that about other people’s dads.

I was not a thin child and from the ages of 5-11 I did something that is terrible for all girls’ confidences and body images: I did ballet. One day when I was about 9 or 10 I remember looking at myself in the mirror in my little black leotard, and realising that my frame was not the same as the other girls. My back was bigger. Wider, rounded, bigger. I felt huge and I felt wrong. I tried not to look in the mirror after that. And I didn’t think about it again.

When I was about 13 or 14 I realised again that my back was round. When I looked at myself side on in the mirror it stuck out from the back of my arm. Other people’s didn’t do that. I know because I spent many a day looking and obsessing. The only person who looked similar was… my dad. My dad with the hunchback. I was terrified. I obsessed about it for months. I realised that if I did have a curved spine I would need it treated NOW or it would affect me forever with no chance of changing it.

My mum is not the best person at reassuring me. She’s vague at the best of times, full of stories of how I had my back checked when I was younger but then actually that may have been my sister.. but someone must have noticed if I had a bad back. You’re fine, your back is fine… probably. I just remained scared for years until I stopped growing and then thought if I’d had a problem it would have showed itself by now. No pain means I’m fine right?

So years pass and I find myself at 23 in my first yoga class with my first yoga teacher. She’s talking about her new chiropractor and I’m tuning out because she has a tendency to misdiagnose people with “forward head” and twisted spines and I’m really just there to do yoga. Then she turns to me and says: “You could really do with going”

What?! Why?

“Your back is curved. I’ve seen you, you have an exaggerated kyphotic curve.”

*thunder clap* dun dun DUN

I spent the rest of the class in a state of near panic. I have kyphosis! I’m going to end up in pain like my dad! I won’t be able to do yoga!

I went home and researched. And researched and researched. I found the following things out:

  • People with kyphosis usually have pain, uneven shoulders and shoulderblades, they have difficulty twisting or bending backwards and when they bend over there’s a visible bump.
I had none of these symptoms. In fact my spine was the most mobile in the entire class (including the teacher herself). The only pose I had trouble with was paschimottanasana which was due to a tight lower back. In this asana most people’s backs look rounded but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with their spines. People look different! They have different bones! This is not wrong!

I took myself to the doctor (not to the chiropractor) and I asked him to check my back. My spine is not curved.

And my rounded back? It’s a large rib cage, it sticks out in the front and at the back. All the better to take deep calming breaths when people misdiagnose me!

A Little Grief

Above is a picture of Marmalade my cat who died last week, right after I posted about him. Poor thing, I think his heart just gave up. It was a quick death, my boyfriend found him curled up under the dining table. It was not a neat death though. I have never been part of the mucky parts of pets dying before but strangely enough it was cathartic. It helped, to get an old towel and wrap him up. The other grosser parts helped too but I won’t write about them here.

We buried him in the garden with the dog, the other cats of old, several hamsters and the rats. This was the first time that I dug the hole and buried the pet. It was tough physically and emotionally. So strange to be wrapping him up so tenderly and then putting him in the ground and covering him up with all the soil and worms. But it was ok, it wasn’t so terrible. It’s what happens to us all in the end. I think being part of the process helped. I was able to acknowledge that when my boyfriend brought out his body I labelled that as “Marmalade my favourite cat” but when I covered him up he was no longer there. My cat has gone, there’s just this matter there that will rot and go into the earth.

It brought up a lot of discussion between me and my boyfriend about how different cultures deal with death. About how important it is to acknowledge death and treat it as a normal and inevitable part of life. It’s easy for me to say, death hasn’t touched my life much yet so I don’t know what it is to grieve. But with Marmalade I feel like I’m getting practice. It’s a little grief.

Harming through Inaction

I am a big cat lover. Currently I live with 3 cats, I say live with rather than own because as every cat lover knows, you can’t own cats. You live with them.  2 of our cats are overfed and quite happy, the third is pushing 20 and has an overactive thyroid. Marmalade has always been my favourite (you can have favourite pets, they’re not children) ever since he came through the cat flap when I was 12 and decided to stay. We did put an advert out to see if anyone had lost him but no one ever claimed him. Possibly because he was a very angry bugger, inclined to swipe at everyone and bite if you tried to stroke him. I have a theory he had had enough of being badly treated and had left one day. I knew underneath he was a pussycat, just needing a bit of love and understanding and patience.

So I showed him patience and love, and gradually over the years he has become more and more affectionate and less reactive. This meant that for a large part of my teenage years I was covered in cat scratches and bites. I didn’t mind, I loved him. Eventually he stopped biting and scratching and became the most lovely, aggressively friendly cat with the loudest purr of any cat I’ve known. He was happy, safe and ever so slightly chubby (my mum is a feeder)

But age catches up with us all. He got thinner, his heart beat got faster, he started yowling at strange times and leaving unpleasant surprises around the place. One day I noticed his mouth was swollen so dad took him to the vet. He came home with the news that Marmalade has an overactive thyroid but mysteriously with no medication. I left it, because this sort of thing is my parents’ job.

He got worse: he got ever thinner, he started to bump into things, he stopped wanting to be stroked, he seemed confused all the time and never seemed to sleep. Just sat there, his breathing rocking his tiny frame. I suggested he go to the vet again. At first this was seen as a good idea by my dad but he didn’t take him. When I brought it up again dad said that he didn’t think it was a good idea to take him anymore, it was cruel. I got angry and said I’d take him, I’d pay for it, I’d walk there, anything just to take him.

At that time I thought he was dying. Everyone thought he was dying, he was old, he was dying of old age. My dad’s belief is that it is cruel to take a dying cat to the vet because it is overly stressful. This is a misguided belief. This is harming through inaction. Hospitals are unpleasant but when we are sick we go to the hospital because that’s what they are there for. No one should be left to die because it’s easier.

Turns out no one dies of old age and Marmalade isn’t dying anyway. He has an untreated overactive thyroid and my parents stopped him from getting treatment. They didn’t want him to get a blood test because it was “too much hassle”. Marmalade, as me and my boyfriend were told by the vet last week, has gone blind because it was left untreated for so long. This was avoidable. He’s on medication now and is seeming a lot livelier but there is no happy ending. This poor creature’s suffering could have been alleviated sooner if we’d gone 15 minutes up the road and paid £130 for pills for him.

I want to say this is not about blame, I am trying to point out a faulty belief here. My parents (especially my dad) are professional pessimists. He didn’t take him to the vet because they just believed it would be bad. There would be a) bad news, b) hassle or c) both. So he did nothing. But this belief was false, there was something they could do but they didn’t even find that out.

And now our poor cat is skin and bones and blind.

What being able to do the splits hasn’t done for me

Hanumanasana is a real ego pose. It’s one of *those* poses, the ones that everyone envisions themselves as being able to do one day, when things are perfect. I say “everyone” but we all know that’s not what yoga’s about… right?

Recently I’ve found myself being able to get into hanumanasana. I can do the splits! My 10 year old inner self is rejoicing . The headstand AND the splits, just imagine, me of the past could show those little gymnast wisps a thing or two. The reasons for me being able to do this ‘feat’ are simple: naturally flexible hamstrings coupled with excessive hip flexor stretching. Every day I walk, run or sit and so I do my lunges to stretch my hip flexors. Stiff, tight hip flexors are not an option for me anymore, I cannot abide them. So I stretch and I stretch and I have done for 3 years. No surprise then that my flexibility has increased.

My reactions to being able to get so far into hanumasana have been complex. First of all shock and amazement-” WHAT is my leg doing THERE??” Then interest- “Ooh I can really lift my chest and stretch my hip flexors… nice” But this is just on my own, yoga classes are a whole different story. In my yoga class I am one of the few who can get anywhere close to being somewhat comfortable in this demanding, and potentially hellish pose. (One of the others is a ballet dancer and looks like she could stay there all day.) So when the times comes to attempt the slow slide into hamstrings and hip flexors it can be quite the performance. This annoys me because I am not a performer in my yoga class. I like to do yoga in my yoga class. The attitude in my yoga classes does can get a bit “show-offy” and it makes me very uncomfortable. I don’t want to be clapped when I balance and I don’t want to have to stop and watch someone else stagger on their hands for a minute. I want to do my yoga and still my mind.

For instance a few weeks ago I was taking a class taught by a teacher who doesn’t seem to have much patience with herself. She said she’d been practicing yoga for 7 years but she seems to treat her practice like a chore, like the point of it is to get into impressive poses like handstand, forearm balance and.. yes.. the splits. We did the splits in that class and I slid into it very deeply and somewhat comfortably. The teacher saw me and said she’d been telling herself she’d be able to do the splits by Christmas for about 7 years before saying “I wish I could do that”. The look of disdainful jealousy was something. And the tone. I looked down at the floor, wanting to disappear, hating my flexible hip joints and legs. How do you respond to that?

Her attitude is unfortunately one that is way too common. I’ve heard the tuts when people fall out of balances, seen the gritted teeth and felt the extreme tension that comes from a lot of frustrated, goal focussed people being in a room together, being made to do poses that bruise their egos. And I don’t like it. It’s not why I do yoga.

Because being able to do the splits does not change my life at all. I wanted to say to that teacher that yes I can do the splits but it doesn’t stop me from waking up feeling like I can’t get through the day, it doesn’t mean I won’t spend 2 days in bed because of my depression, it doesn’t help my dodgy digestion, it doesn’t make my life richer, or easier, it doesn’t improve anything about my life except it makes my hips that little bit more flexible.

Of course I didn’t, I was just silent. I just wish I could get it across somehow, I’m sick of being the quiet girl sometimes! Still if you can’t say anything nice…

Headstand success!

I got it! I finally understand! I can balance! Etc etc etc. After 18 months of fairly intensive practice (at least a few times a week if not twice a day) I can now balance in a headstand. I say balance, the wall is still my constant companion if I want to straighten my legs but I can come up and down from the balance on my own.

The actual eureka moment came a few weeks ago. I realised that I could begin to lift my legs and find the balance after a run but at no other time. I couldn’t work out why this is the case for a while, was it fearlessness after a run? Open hips? Sweat? Turns out it was none of those things: it was my shoulders. I stretch my shoulders after a run and so my shoulders have a greater flexibility thus enabling me to balance on the crown of my head unimpeded by gunky stiff shoulders.

So ever since then I’ve been regularly hanging out in this fantastic external shoulder rotation stretch I got from my Jill Miller Shoulder Shape-Up dvd. You hold a block lengthways between your hands and bend your elbows. Then you put your elbows on a surface round about hip level or higher and drop your head between your arms, in a dolphin like pose. It’s like a dolphin pose without the strength and it’s fantastic. Or dolphin’s fine if I’m feeling hardcore. Then I’m up and balancing on my head and imagining my two legs are one and it’s perfectly normal and natural to balance on your head and not at all scary. Who am I kidding? It still scares me witless!

So there you go, nothing exciting, just tight shoulders. Now this is where the fun begins… actually, you know, holding it.

All this shoulder stretching has had a side effect. Last night I suddenly found myself in this pose Eka Pada Rajakapotasana II being able to rotate my shoulder all the way round to bring my head to my foot (sort of). I was surprised as anyone!

Week 8: Moving Toward Balance with Rodney Yee

I did it! I finished the course. After week 7 I caught a cold and I found myself only doing yin (with a tissue during the long forward bends) or restorative or couch yoga (in front of the tv, it counts) When I recovered I couldn’t wait to get back to this course, to get it finished!

Week 8, the last week, was about creating a well-rounded home practice so there’s not really much new ground to cover in terms of new asanas. At this point I was just glad to be moving again after my mega-cold. The main thing that was different from the other weeks was the (relative) long holds in headstand and shoulderstand which I thoroughly enjoyed. I think it was this week I had a massive breakthrough with my headstand which really warrants its own post. It was bizarre, here I was recovering from the worst (or only) cold in a year and I was closer to headstand than ever and because I wasn’t able to walk anywhere my hip flexibility was incredible. It almost made me want to stop walking!

So to round off my Rodney Yee yoga adventure I will sum up some good effects and bad effects of following this course.

Bad effects:

  • Meditation. I’ve been keeping up a regular, non-demanding meditation practice since March which I kept separate from my yoga asana practice. Since Rodney included a short 5-15 minute meditation after the asana practice I gave up my other meditation time. This meant that when the course finished, so did my meditation practice. This had repercussions.
  • General vinyasa fitness. My yoga practice usually involves lots of linking poses together, practicing jumping back and forward in the surya namaskar and generally a lot of movement. I noticed after practicing Rodney’s mainly static sequences for those weeks my fitness in my normal yoga classes decreased.
On to the good effects:
  • Left knee pain: I’ve had some vague joint pain in my inner left knee since February. Nothing serious but it stopped me trying half lotus and squats were hard too. I noticed that it helped to sit in hero pose but didn’t think too much of it. After several weeks of Rodney’s repeated long stays in reclined hero pose the left knee pain is no more! A miracle!
  • Headstands and handstands: I am now more familiar with these demon poses and well on my way to thinking about calling them friends. Or at least calling them more often.
  • Longer holds: The course has made me aware of how short my holds in downward dog and up dog can be. After some shameful arm shaking it’s put me in the habit of longer holds which has led to a stronger me and a stronger practice.
  • Restorative poses: There’s some fantastic ones which I will definitely be adding to my regular practice. Hello bolster!
  • Long passive backbends: I’ve rediscovered the wonders of passive backbends: reclined hero, supported bridge and supported fish all help to open me up for a deeper backbending practice. Sometimes slow and steady wins the race. The race for healthy backbends!
  • Slower pace, fewer poses: This has helped shift me away from the constant go-go-go you get in vinyasa sometimes and to a quieter more contemplative practice. I need to be reminded of the value of this every so often.
So that’s it, the good outweighed the bad and the bad was only temporary. This concludes my little yoga experiment, relinquishing control of my own beloved home practice temporarily has taught me many things. But I was so glad to get back to my own practice!
What next? Maybe the 300 week courses in the back of Light on Yoga??

Week 7: Moving Towards Balance with Rodney Yee

Goodness! I’m writing about something that happened way way back in September. Nevermind,I’ve got a good memory, or at least I hope I have…

Week 7 was headstands. I’ve always been a bit take-it-or-leave-it with inversions. Maybe that’s because I can’t do any! Except for shoulderstand, my token inversion. So at this point I was doing fairly uncomfortable shoulderstands (somewhere along the way I forgot that you have to roll onto the tops of your shoulders one at a time from plough, and then lift up into shoulderstand), my headstands were non-existent although I was still struggling along. I wasn’t expecting to love this week.

Happily, I was wrong. It found me at a time when I had no time and I found myself only doing Rodney’s set sequences, no extra standing poses, no leaping around. I just did what he told me to and I loved that simplicity. Ah if only I someone tell me what to do with the rest of my life…

Rodney believes that standing poses are the best way to warm up for headstand and backbends are the best way to recover. Since I love both standing poses and backbends, who was I to argue? Headstand was the only problem: I couldn’t do it. So I improvised! I set a timer, got myself up against the wall and tried for the length of the timer to balance as best I could. It worked well, I found myself being more familiar with the pose and becoming friends with it. Listening to it wasn’t pretty: lots of banging as my feet flopped against the wall again and again and then a final THUMP as my feet fell to the floor after I finally lost my balance completely.

I re-befriended shoulderstand too, since I discovered my mistake. I was doing an upper back-stand! Now I’ve regained my shoulderstand lovely floaty mojo and it’s toe-numbingly nice. This week introduced the long shoulderstand holds I missed in the week 5 of inversions. I vowed to practice them more.

A couple of poses I did not befriend: elbow balance is impossible (tight shoulders) and handstand (I’m not a natural gymnast and I’m terrified) but altogether this week was great. I finally began to understand the reason why everyone goes on and on and on about the effects of inversions. They’re calming! They’re rejuvenating! I’m a believer now.

Thanks Rodney!