Tag Archives: yoga

WORKING IT OUT

The alarm clock went off at 5:45 this morning. I dragged myself down the stairs, sleep still in my eyes, for a pre-work yoga session with my iPad (some apps are indeed useful), under the vigilant gaze of Ottie, strategically positioned in front of the open window, trying to catch whatever early morning breeze he could get. The yoga lady in the animation video, and her steady and soothing voice telling me to essentially do the millionth push-up when my arms already ache, is not helping the overall feeling that I should have stayed in bed for an extra 45 minutes. And then I think of my toned arms and I give in to her instructions.

I am not obsessed with exercise the way I used to be in my 30’s but I do make a point of finding time for a workout of some sort between 3 and 5 times a week. With a full-time job that can have crazy hours, driving distances that need to be factored in my social life, two dogs and a house to run it can be easy to find excuses not to work out, hence the early morning sessions from time to time. Going to a proper gym has rarely worked for me – my local yoga studio, 5 minutes drive from my house, is all I can muster. A gym would require a 3 hour time commitment I can rarely spare. So I get creative: besides a mix of hard-core and tamer yoga sessions at home or with a teacher, I stocked up on dance aerobics dvd’s and invested in a good pair of shoes, years of Pilates have left me with a solid mat work I still practice, I sprint and jog with the dogs up and down the surrounding hills where I live. If I am anywhere near a pool and nobody is watching, I will push myself to see how many laps of my shoddy swimming I can get to. Sometimes it’s challenging to find the motivation, sometimes I am really good at talking myself out of it but, mostly, I do it. Just like in those Nike commercials. Why? I have recently wondered.

Common sense and doctors tell us we should. I live in a city where looking fit and youthful has become a tourist landmark. It makes me feel good. These are all valid reasons I am sure I share with many of you but when I stopped to really think why on earth I would willingly rise before the sun to work out, I found a subtle shift in  motivation. In my ’20’s, 30’s and, possibly even 40’s, I wanted to look good – I wanted my legs to be mini-skirt worthy, my  butt to look perky in jeans and leggings, my abs to shine under cropped t-shirts. In essence, the motivation, if not explicitly, was sexual. Look at me: I could be your worthy mate, for a night or a lifetime.

Now that I have finally gotten to the point where that kind of validation has no meaning anymore, now that I am old and confident enough to like most of who I am and live comfortably with what I don’t, I really do it for myself. Now that I wouldn’t dream of wearing cropped anything or any skirts above the knee (unless thick tights and boots are involved –  maybe), it’s just for my  own pleasure that I gaze at my flat stomach or wear a 20-year-old pair of jeans.

 

Image Credit: Freepik.com

Last week  I noticed a co-worker, a bit on the heavy side, wearing a pretty white blouse I complimented her on. Yesterday she sported a lovely embroidered top that revealed her recent weight loss. She has still some way to go to get to where probably she wants to be but her pride and satisfaction make her glow and she has clearly rewarded herself with some new clothes. Herself, she is doing it for herself which is the biggest motivation of all.

 

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MONKEY MIND

Drawing from howstuffworks.com

In Buddhism, monkey mind is a term used to describe restlessness, that jumble of thoughts that clouds one’s mind and is often hard to untangle. Most meditation practices, all aimed at stilling the mind in order to reach detachment, teach us  to focus our mind on one item only for a sustained period of time, be it a mantra, an affirmation, a sound, a color.

Despite my 17 years of on and off meditation practice, I can still fall prey to stupendous cases of monkey mind and, even if, conceptually, I know I should drag my meditation cushion out of the closet and sit on it, I choose to remain tangled in the jumping jacks of my thoughts, none of them particularly helpful, unable to see the tunnel, let alone the light at the end of it.

Tiredness usually plays a part in this process. It all starts innocently enough, a minor annoyance maybe, followed by someone’s unhelpful comment or my version of how things should be and are not and it all snowballs from there. My worst habit is to revel in this momentary darkness, perversely enjoying where it will lead me, invariably to an unkind word, to shutting out those around me or to a generic black mood, unpleasant for anyone unfortunate enough to stand in my path.

Other times it is just an inability to focus. Have you ever tried to follow the inane train of your thoughts? The best way to do it is to actually sit still. It goes something like this:

What shall I have for dinner tonight?

There are some tomatoes on the counter I haven’t used yet

Forgot to call Richard back today

What did he want anyway?

I have plans with Meg tomorrow. Can I fit a work-out in?

All the while interspersing a mantra in between random thoughts to try and reel my mind in. If nothing else, I have learnt to forgive myself. If I could sit in the absence of thoughts for hours at a time, I would be Buddha and look like a female version of Keanu Reeves. For now, I content myself with a few minutes of stillness at a time.

A few days ago, during a particular ferocius episode, I chose to watch with some detachment what was happening to my mind and I observed that it was definitely I, and not outside circumstances, that was creating a chain of endless negative thoughts. Maybe sometimes it’s easier to blame the world at large for the minor unpleasant details of our life, when it would be so much easier to stop at the first annoyance and turn it around on its head, or sever it altogether after dealing with it.

At least, I can now recognize when this happens and know it is temporary – eventually I will apply the brakes and halt my downhill rush. I watch the dogs and how they focus on one thing, and one thing only, at every junction of their day. They make choices and stick with them, they go from chasing a bird wholeheartedly to sensing it’s time for dinner and devote their whole attention to the bowl of food. Funny, I trained them and they learnt some. Now I watch them and I learn more.

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BACK TO THE MAT

Image from healthcare9.com

A colleague sits in my office for half and hour and pours her heart out about her relationship problems. A friend calls me to ask advice on a recent quarrel she had with another woman. At the same time, my cell phone rings – another girlfriend, newly divorced, asking if she could stop by for a cup of tea (and for dissecting her defunct marriage). Emma’s post about a young person dying. Maybe that is why I feel incredibly sad, weighed down by so much sadness. Or maybe I should start believing in horoscopes and this has all to do with Venus transiting across the sun or one such astronomical happening I don’t know much about.

After 17 years of working things out on a yoga mat, falling in and out of love with yoga but always sticking with it, it’s a yoga mat I want to be on tonight. This intense desire hasn’t manifested in a while. Oh, I still go to class religiously, I even have a yoga app on my i-Pad for when I am too lazy to come up with routines and want to practice at home, but too often I feel like I am just going through the motions. I might have fun, I might get a kick out of it, a good workout or a good relaxation but the proverbial thrill had gone.

Yet, it was to a mat I took my sadness tonight, for a long yin classes with very few poses held for sometimes unbearably long minutes. When I leave class, the sadness has not gone but the weight has lifted enough to come home, eat dinner, sit at my laptop with enough enthusiasm to write a little.

Very few daily activities take me inside the way yoga does. My mother favours ironing but, unfortunately, I don’t seem to have inherited that gene. Getting my nose to my knees does it for me. Or dipping my hands into flour. When too much baking takes place in my kitchen, some problem or sadness is clearly being worked out.

And I am intensely grateful for these physical activities that are able to steer me back into harbour. Sometimes sticking with something, even when the thrill has gone, has its unexpected rewards.

 

 

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ON A QUEST

It must have been in my early 20’s that I wondered, for the first time, whether there was more to life than I was experiencing. For reasons long forgotten, I found myself one night at a meeting of followers of a branch of Japanese Buddhism, chanting “nam myoho renge kyo”, wishing for my dreams to come true. Or that is what I came away with. Plus the knowledge that Tina Turner was also an adept. This form of Buddhism was predicated on reaching your material goals first, leaving you free to move on to higher spiritual pursuits. My love affair with this group didn’t last long, mainly because of the pressure of bringing new adherents on a constant basis. And then I moved to London anyway, where I became more concerned with making ends meet, furthering my career of choice and just having a modicum of fun. Spiritual matters and the pursuit of meaning of life had to be shelved for over a decade.

It wasn’t until I relocated to Los Angeles, severely alone, with everything I knew left behind, that the question “What am I doing here?” became to encompass more than just my geographical circumstances. The quest every human being embarks on once their basic needs are met, had started in earnest. For some it’s just as simple as following the religious teachings they began to study as children. As to me, I always had trouble believing in an all sentient God that looked down on us and sent us terrible misfortunes on a global scale. But I always envied such blind and unquestioning faith – if there is a God, it’s his fault he made me so argumentative to question his own existence.

Whether there is a God, an afterlife, a parallel universe or spirits hanging around are all questions I stopped bothered asking as there will be no definitive answer. What I am more concerned with is how to live this one and only life I was lucky enough to get: with integrity, passion, fulfillment, compassion, love and ethic principles I could abide by.

Like most people, knowledge of self is where it all starts. I believe that getting to know ourselves intimately is sometimes harder than getting to know others. In my case, learning to embrace my darker side, the one I am not proud of, has been the most challenging process. Along the way, there has been Jungian therapy (twice), study of yoga and basic Buddhist principles, meditation and a lot of ink on blank pages. What I am left with, on the verge of turning 50, is a much better understanding of who I am and how I work, more forgiveness for my shortcomings and a realization that happiness is conquered one day at a time and not bestowed. Not by others, not by wealth or circumstances. It’s a fundamental choice.

When I look back, I know I have been given so much. I was born in a developed country, free of mortal infant diseases, in a family of means. Like everybody, I had my share of sorrows, heartaches, battles to fight, people lost, fears to conquer. But, by and large, I ploughed  on with enthusiasm. I really couldn’t have asked for more.

With all the books piled up I still have to read, I do hope for another 50 years ahead of me. But, were it all be taken away from me tomorrow, I can honestly say I gave as good as I got. And what I got was plentiful.

PS

If you are wondering what sent me spiralling on this tangent, I blame two recent posts: 100 Words by Emma, an exercise I encourage you to do (I couldn’t get to the end) and Gingergirl’s Let go and be happy and its 15 things to get rid of to achieve a better life.

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Filed under aging, self-help, yoga

RANDOM THOUGHTS WHILE IN HEADSTAND

My grandmother spoiled me rotten. It turned out it was a very good thing, as we got to enjoy each other’s company for only ten years before she was overcome by a sudden stroke, one evening, and she went swiftly and painlessly. In her bedroom, at the end of a long corridor that, in my imagination, has reached the same proportions as the one in “The Shining”, she had an oversized wooden carved crucifix that I was convinced would come alive at night.

A couple of years after her death, her large bedroom became mine, and my mother decorated it in bright orange and cream – the crucifix was put in storage but, for many moons, I couldn’t help look up at the wall were it had hung and wonder if Jesus was walking around the basement at the very same moment I was ready to go to sleep.

 

My grandmother had a favourite vacation place, on the Apennines not far from Bologna, a medieval village by the name of Castelluccio. Not related, and not as famous, as the homonymous Castelluccio di Norcia, this particular location whose name means “little castle”, was renowned for the one and only restaurant in town and for a small castle in the vicinities. While the heat of the Summer would have the city sweltering, my grandmother would whisk me away to this small oasis, where we would share a room in the only hotel overlooking the main square, and where I don’t quite recall how we spent our days. My grandmother was a tall, regal looking woman, with kilometric legs and a large bosom, and a blond chignon at the base of her neck. She walked erect and proud, giving orders to all and sundries but she would melt when it came to me, her only granddaughter.

I have vague memories of dinner in the hotel restaurant with my grandma conversing with other older women but I distinctly remember the parish priest, a rotund man with false teeth whom I hated to go visit, lest he came too close and flashed his chops at me or, worse, showered me with his spit every time he spoke.

Tucked away on one side of the square was a small stone fountain, where I loved  drinking cool water from. My memories seem to stop at these details, until last night, when I forced my body into an inversion during a yoga class, for the millionth time and, for the millionth time hating, the feeling of being upside down.t

Together with the memories of the stone fountain and the priest’s teeth, I suddenly remembered a roll of Charms candy. I used to love them – they were hard and square, multi-colored and stacked one on top of the other in a colorful wrap, half the excitement of eating them being not knowing what flavor would come next. I saw myself in the hotel room, sucking on one such candy and, suddenly, having it stuck in my 5-year-old throat. Did I go purple? Did I start wheezing? Whatever happened, it alerted my grandmother to what was happening. Probably unaware of the Heimlich maneuver, she resourcefully picked me up by the ankles, inverted me upside down and shook me as a rag doll until the candy popped out.

My life was saved but a lifelong aversion to inversions, cartwheels, somersaults and the like persists to this day. Who knew it would have taken 16 years of yoga to spark a memory?

 

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THE YOGA “NAZIS”

 

Mea culpa. I was one of them. A conversation between fellow yoga practitioners who are getting to know each other will invariably feature the question “What type of yoga do you practice?” Congratulations, we managed to label a thousand-year old discipline, divide it into levels and morph it into just another fitness class down at the gym.

Yoga practitioners tend to be very proprietary of their particular branch of yoga, be it ashtanga, flow, vinyoga, tantra, raja or any of the other branches, more or less legit, yoga has spun. And, worse still, they look down on those who don’t practice what they do as if “their” yoga was the “one”.  I know, because I was one of them. But let’s all take a collective breath (in and out of the nose) and hold our judgement.

The same way each body is different, so is each yoga pose and, despite some poses or sequences having being trademark (see Bikram), I don’t believe dogma has any place in the yoga world. A good teacher is  one who keeps you from injury, holds your interest and, maybe, will inspire you to want to know more, not the one who requires sworn allegiance to her/his yoga style.In defense of the yoga nazis, all I can say is that yoga does have the potential of changing one’s outlook on many things, including our bodies and how we go about life. As a person who started practicing yoga already pretty fit, I do remember engaging muscles I wasn’t previously connected with. It led me to wanting to know more and I sought out meditation and read the yoga sutras but none of it was rammed down my throat nor did I take all of it at face value.

I recently participated in a short demonstration of Qi Gong practice and the group leader was so inspired, so determined in making us believe that by practicing Qi Gong our life  would change, that was the way. Well, it was her way, her path, what made her click,  what she stumbled along in her search but it doesn’t make it more valid than what I found or what somebody else might get out of running marathons.

Many disciplines, especially Eastern ones, emphasize common points using alternative names: energy channels, mindfulness, breath observation, living in the moment. We are all different, we all require different stimuli and paths of engagement. Mine happened to be yoga but I cannot look askew at someone who practices a different type of yoga than I do or who finds their spiritual fulfillment in swimming 50 lengths. Observed from another angle, it’s all the same under different guises.

There is no one wand that will keep us free from injuries or disease or overeating or overstressing – the key is to find what works for each individual who is willing to even engage in such a search. Whether it’s on a yoga mat, a pool lane or a track field, it’s still the journey that matters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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