Me, Myself and (My 3rd) Eye

One of the things I am loving about India is how the spiritual and the secular parts of life are not compartmentalised but are intertwined and integrated.

Shrines and temples on every street; acts of devotion a no-nonsense, no-big-deal part of everyday life.

And people doing yoga, and meditating, in a similar, no-big-deal, just part of everyday life kind of way.

I admire that.

  
I’ve been struggling with a meditation practice for some time now (see  this post for a typical example of my experience), but in spite of nearly daily attempts, it hasn’t really happened for me.

The monkey mind remains untamed.

And so it was with some interest that I saw a place in Jaipur offering Ayurvedic massages that purport to open your third eye and facilitate the gaining of that elusive state of mental quietude that I was beginning to think was the yogic equivalent of the Emperors New Clothes.

So, in the spirit of Interest and inquiry, and it must be said, quite a lot of cynicism, I booked myself in for a Shirodhara massage.

It started, in a slightly startling fashion, by being told to take off all my clothes and put on a rather fetching pair of ginormous paper granny knickers (reminding me of the one time I went for a manicure in Leamington- but that’s a story for another time).

The lights were dimmed and I was told to lie down on the massage bed and relax.

At which point boiling oil was poured all over me.

Well, perhaps not boiling, but that’s how it felt at first to my unexpectedly exposed and goose pimpled skin.

Then the massage began – an hour of warm oil and expert pummelling, every joint popped, cracked and quite possibly dislocated.

After an hour, you are wrapped in towels, your eyes tightly blindfolded and then,

And then,

A stream of warm oil is poured continuously onto your forehead, the site of the “third eye”.

It is simultaneously slightly disgusting but also incredibly relaxing.

For twenty minutes or so I lay there, mind shifting this way and that, trying hard not to fall asleep and embarrass myself by a) snoring or b) dribbling.

And then the weirdest darned thing happened.

The thoughts stopped.

There was nothing except awareness of being.

Complete stillness.

It lasted for probably all of ten seconds.

And was frankly terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.
There may just be something in this meditation business after all.

  

A journey …

It’s been a long time coming.

Getting on for 30 years in fact (how did that happen?)

BUT

We’re finally here.

India.

An intriguing mix of the cutting edge, and the very traditional.

Secular and sacred

  
 Delhi airport.  Passport control and giant mudras.

And why not?

And actually, after battling with Indian bureaucracy and biometric data collection, you can see why people might need a bit of calming meditation.

So, in the spirit of immersing ourselves in the experience, youngest child and I had booked a yoga class at our hotel.

I had assumed this would be a gentle generic type of yoga, aimed at the flagging business person.

You should never make assumptions.

The class consisted of youngest child and myself.

The teacher, a 29 year old, dressed all in white with film star good looks, took one look at youngest child and myself and sniffed “I usually just teach yoga teachers, but never mind”

I’m sure I don’t know how  he could tell we weren’t yoga teachers.

Possibly the look of fear on our faces?

What followed was a very interesting hour of yoga, performed outside in the grounds of the hotel.

And probably a very entertaining hour for anybody who happened to catch sight of us.

Not only did we have to get into the postures, but we then had to hold them whilst performing a type of pranayama called Kapalbhati See this you tube link for an example .

And then, if that wasn’t bad enough, we had to do standing balancing postures on a hill.  Whilst doing Kapalbhati breathing.

At one point the teacher made the comment that this was very good exercise for the belly.

Before looking at youngest child and saying pointedly “Of course, you don’t have a belly”.

Don’t know what he was implying. 🙂

And then just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse he did a…

Chakra Reading.

I’m not sure what I expected.

But I know I didn’t expect to be sat in a room, just him, me and youngest child

Having to take turns chanting a 7 line long mantra.

Anyone who knows me will know I am vocally challenged.

But to my horror, and for some unknown reason, Halfway through, I found myself chanting in a pub singer stylee.

Occasionally throwing in a Mariah Carey type falsetto wobble, just for a bit of variety.

I could see the corner of the teachers eye twitching.

But reader, I found myself unable to stop.

We were all relieved when the session came to an end.

India.  It’s going to be an interesting journey.
  

 

Yogic Lit

I realise that I am in danger of becoming a yoga bore.

So I promise this will be the last time I mention it.

For a little while a least.

Probably.

But I have been asked for recommendations for books on yoga.

And given that I’m a Librarian with a degree in history, my ability to source books on yoga far surpasses my ability to actually do it 🙂

So coming at this as a complete beginner, the following have been really useful additions to the bookshelf.

And I’m sure sitting reading them with a nice cup of tea and a biscuit counts towards self practice time.

Svadhyaya, (tick), Pratyahara (tick), dharana (tick)

See, well on the way to enlightenment already.

Books to help with the Physical Practice

 The Ashtanga Yoga Practice Manual by David Swenson.  I’ve found this absolutely invaluable.  Clear photos and written descriptions of the asanas, together with variations for the more flexibly challenged.  I still struggle with so many of the postures but at least with this book my brain can get what   I’m supposed to be doing even if my body isn’t interested in joining in yet.

 Yoga Mala by the originator of Ashtanga Yoga, Pattabhi Jois.  If I’m honest I really prefer David Swensons book, but it is interesting to read a text that weaves together the physical and spiritual elements of the practice. And makes incredible claims for the healing power of yoga.

image Having freaky fingers that bend the wrong way and are also double jointed I am fascinated by mudras.

Yay, postures I have half a chance of being able to do.

This is a really good introduction to a selection of the hundreds of different hand positions that focus on different physical, mental and spiritual attributes. Nice clear photos and written descriptions.

Integration/Philosophy

image Still working my way through this one.  But as I am trying develop both a daily asana self-practice , and to integrate other elements of yoga into my life, this is a useful set of pointers and discussions.

image I love this book, it really makes me laugh (the description of the young boy who claimed to have awoken his Kundalini energy being given a good slap and told to get a grip by Iyengar is particularly memorable) as well as being thought-provoking and full of wisdom.image This is absolutely fascinating.  A bit “photo-journalist”, but given it’s a topic I knew little about that was fine.  The photos are amazing, and the descriptions of how these men (and it is largely men) live and journey towards enlightenment are even more so.  A word of warning, if you are male and read this book, be aware that some of the photos (I’m thinking in particular of one that shows them lifting heavy stones without using their normal four limbs) will make your eyes water.

image Be Here Now by Ram Dass.  Well, I’ve included this because it comes under the heading of “interesting”.

Dass was a renowned Harvard academic & psychologist who worked with Timothy Leary “researching” the use of mind altering substances such as LSD.

Not sure how academically rigorous the research actually was.

Anyway, the first part of the book is a really interesting autobiographical description of Dass seeking spiritual enlightenment, first through psychology, then through drugs, and then through his wanderings in India.  This is absolutely fascinating.

The second part of the book is a series of stream-of-consciousness statements and drawings which I must admit I struggled with as it reminded me too much of some “deep and meaningful” album covers I spent too much time analysing as an angst-ridden teen goth.

Lots of people swear by it as a starting point for their own spiritual journey.

but I think I’ll stick with The Sisters of Mercy

Breath

image I’m just starting on this, but have high hopes it will prevent a recurrence of the hair ball incident (see previous post) and my tendency to sound like Darth Vader during his death scene in Star Wars  VI.

Fiction

Who knew there would be such a rich seam of yogic fic. to tap into?

image Yes it’s chick lit, but it’s very very funny.  And the descriptions of the heroines first forays into a yoga class are hilarious.

And so true to life.

image I’ve mentioned this before, but it so good, and as someone who struggles with meditation this did offer hope that if I persevere  one day my mind may stay focused for longer than three seconds (and yep, See previous posts about meditation)

image  I really hated this book.  But if you like the sort of self-obsessed, narcissistic works of Eat, Pray, Love and the like then you’ll probably like this.  Marketing executive decides there is more to life than image and goes off in search of enlightenment by staying in posh ashrams with beautiful people.  It made me so cross I gave up half way through, but perhaps it gets better later on.

Maybe.

And just to finish off….Ayurveda

image Ayurveda is a sister discipline to yoga.  It works on the assumption that we have different body types, made up of a mixture of the doshas vata, pitta and kapha.  If these doshas become imbalanced then you will have illness -physical, mental or spiritual.  Ayurveda is a system designed to help you keep your life in balance.

There are much more complete guides to Ayurveda out there.  But if you want a light, easy introduction to the topic, this is a good staring point.

Just Breathe

You just know that any conversation that begins “Your practice is great, but” is not going to end in a way that makes you happy.

And so it seems that as well as persuading my body to form shapes it really doesn’t want to do, I have to try and control my breathing at the same time.

For some reason my normal method of holding my breath, gritting my teeth and grimacing, is somehow not yogic enough.

The key to mastering the postures is apparently ujjayi breathing.image

A way of breathing that uses the throat rather than the nostrils or the mouth

Sounds easy doesn’t it?

Ha!

Which is how I came to be stood in the middle of the self practice class, red faced, sounding like I’d just run a marathon

or was engaged in dubious phone work.

All around me the real yogis were engaged in ujjayi breath work as they performed effortless asanas.

The noise of their breath like a calming sea, waves undulating around the studio

As I stood there

Breathing with the nostrils

Still breathing with the nostrils

Still breathing with the nostrils

still, –  oh wait I think I’ve got it!

I’ve got it!

I’ve…

oh dear god I’ve made a sound like I’ve coughed up a hair ball.

Or something worse

Om.

Fiction Friday

22 days into a daily yoga practice.

You’d think it would be making a difference wouldn’t you?

But as I hobbled out of bed this morning, everything aching, I did think this was not quite the effect I was hoping for.

And tomorrow? 

I’ve signed up for a yoga workshop.

Which sounded lovely in the initial description.

And then the teacher released a leeetttle more information a couple of days ago.

Information which included the words “splits” and “tittibhasana”.

Yes I had to look the last one up too.

It looks like the evil older brother of the bhuja pidasana pose that has defeated me for the last 6 months.

May be crawling home tomorrow.

Or hitching a lift in an ambulance.

This Week I Have mostly Been Reading

   The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton.

I loved this book.

Set amongst the merchant class of Seventeenth Century Amsterdam it deals with the life of Nella a new, very young and naive, bride and her new family.  Given a dolls house as a gift by her new husband, Nella comes to suspect (hope? Fear?) that the miniaturist who creates charming tiny replicas of the people and things in Nellas real life is in fact a prophetess or seer, or perhaps something more sinister.

The claustrophobic, damp and dingy atmosphere of seventeenth century Amsterdam is evocatively portrayed.  The themes of race, class, greed, love and jealousy beautifully interwoven.

The ending? A little disappointing.  Having developed these great characters and plot twists, it’s as if the author just didn’t know what to do with them.

Or perhaps she’s setting them up for a sequel 🙂

Next Week I Shall Mostly Be Reading

   Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz.

A boy (who is really named Odd) who has two talents:  Manning the grill at a greasy spoon, and communing with the dead.  

Not at the same time.

Oh and he also hangs out with dead Elvis.

Need I say more? 🙂

Bhuja schmuja

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Yoga tonight.

A Mysore style “self practice” session.

Which means working through a series of postures in your own time, receiving help and adjustments from the teacher as and when you need them.

Which means furtively keeping an eye on where the teacher is and then rushing through the more difficult and uncomfortable poses when their attention is on another student.

Or perhaps that’s just me.

I struggle with a lot most of the poses, but there is one in particular which has become my nemesis.

Bhujapadasana.

Which basically involves squatting, tucking your shoulders under your legs, leaning forward and nonchalantly lifting your legs up off the floor, balancing on your hands.

Or, as happened to me tonight, squatting, tucking your shoulders under your legs, inching your feet painfully closer together until you can cross them and then finding you are completely and unmistakably wedged and stuck in this position.

The feet would not lift up.

Nor would they undo.

The arms were unable to help as they were happily wedged in place supporting the increasingly panic stricken body.

The choices?

A) shout “help” thus disturbing the real yogis who were deep in their practice and drawing attention to the fact there is a, rather rubbish, impostor in their midst.

B) stay in that position for the rest of the class, and possibly the class after that, pretending to have been overcome by a sudden spurt of advanced meditation.  Possibly staying in that position for the foreseeable future as Leamingtons answer to the mad stylite pillar hermits.

C) hoping that the teacher would become psychically aware of my predicament by virtue of the waves of panic emanating from my psyche coupled with frantic eyebrow wiggling.

Never been so relieved to have a psychic for a teacher 🙂

…In the Air

Happy Valentines Day 🙂

Yoga yesterday.

We had to do a pose that involved sitting on the floor, one leg pulled back, knee bent, to the chest.

then you had to slip an arm through the crook of the bent knee, twist the arm behind the back, take the other arm behind the back and clasp hands, and then casually straighten the bent leg so it was waving nonchalantly in the air.

all the while focussing on drishti and engaging bhandas.

what popped in to my head?

a roomful of cats all poised to, erm, wash themselves

You can see the meditation practice is doing a fine job of helping me control my thought processes. 🙂

So. Valentines Day. And what could be more appropriate then chocolate?

Gooey chocolate muffins with a gooey chocolate centre and gooey chocolate topping. With just a hint of orange to break up all that gooey ness a smidgen.

Perfect for a day that makes otherwise sane people go gooey.

You will need
80g softened butter
280g caster sugar
200g plain flour
40g cocoa powder
A sprinkling of salt
1tbsp baking powder
2 eggs
240ml milk
1 tsp orange essence
Grated zest of 1 small orange.

For the icing and filling
1 chocolate orange (175g) or a bar of orange infused chocolate such as Maya gold if you want to be a bit more upmarket
Plain chocolate to make the quantity of chocolate up to 250g
250ml double cream

Preheat oven to Gas 5, 190C

Cream together the butter and sugar then add the flour, cocoa, salt and baking powder. The texture will be very grainy, this is fine.

Ina jug mix together the eggs, milk, orange essence and zest.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix together very well until you have a lovely, smooth batterimage

Spoon into muffin cases and bake for about 20 minutes. When cool enough to touch, place on a wire rack and let them cool completely before going any further.

To make the filling/icing, chop up the chocolates
image
And place in a bowl. Put the cream into a saucepan and heat until nearly boiling, then pour the hot cream over the chocolate. Give it a stir and then leave for a few minutes for the chocolate to melt before stirring again to combine thoroughly. Allow to cool.

Take your now cooled cupcakes
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and with a sharp knife cut out a cork-shaped and sized lump from the middle of the cupcake
image
Fill the hole with the chocolate & cream ganache and replace the plug of cake, trimming it if need be.
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Top with a generous, artistically swirled blob of ganache and adorn with more zest or whatever other sprinkles you fancy and happen to have to hand.

I would have inserted a picture of the completed cupcakes, but they seemed to disappear. Strange.

Eat and enjoy.

I Love to Go a Pondering

I’ve been doing yoga for nearly a year now.

Still rubbish, still as flexible as a plank.

But I get it. I enjoy it (mostly, and in spite of the pain).

But I struggle with the meditation.

My mind?

It doesn’t do focussing.

Or stillness.

Or calm.

There’s too much stressing and worrying and pondering to do.

But I get that meditation is A Good Thing.

And so my intention for 2015 (I don’t do resolutions because my brains immediate reaction is to waggle its fingers in its ears, shout “shan’t” and blow a very loud raspberry) is to try and do a mini meditation every day.

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I’ve decided to do a counted meditation with eyes closed rather than staring at a statue or flickering flame or whatever.

Staring at things gives far too many opportunities for distraction.

So, for those of you who might fancy trying something similar, my meditation goes something like this….

Sits on zaku meditation cushion and tries not to think how much like a garden gnome (minus fishing rod) I look.

Painfully crosses legs and spends several minutes trying to shuffle buttocks into less uncomfortable position.

Closes eyes

One (breathes in and out, slowly)

Two (breathes in and out slowly)

Three (peeks at clock so can impress self with how long I have been meditating at the end)

Closes eyes again

Four

Five ( argh, right knee is now cramping up. Breathe into knee and try to relax muscles in right leg which appear to be in first stages of rigor mortis)

Six

Seven (wonder how much a trip to India would cost and then spend some time thinking of other places would like to visit whilst still keeping up with the counting)

Realise have lost focus and come back to meditation with guilty start

Fifteen

Sixteen

Realise am now slumped on zaku cushion like a yogic Jabba the Hutt. Straighten back and tuck chin whilst attempting to contract bhandas (still very unsure what these are or where to find them, but must show willing)

Nineteen

Twenty

Twenty one (remember it is Very Important that I swap the way I cross my legs and try to hook one foot on top of other in attempt to encourage legs towards elusive lotus position. Attempt to do so and wonder again how my body got so lopsided without me noticing)

Twenty two (realise new position very uncomfortable so swap back to original position)

Twenty three

Twenty four

Twenty five (remember have several teaching sessions coming up next week and stress over flipped classrooms and related stuff for some time)

Argh, should be meditating. Where was I?

Twenty three (must concentrate)

Twenty four ( I am breathing in, I am breathing out)

Twenty five (perhaps I should be meditating over a mantra instead. Did a Facebook quizz that said my 2015 mantra should be “I am open”)

Twenty six (realise from the pain in my hips that “I am open” is possibly the most inappropriate mantra I could have come up with)

Twenty seven (Focus! I am breathing in. I am breathing out)

Twenty eight

Twenty nine

Thirty. (Looks at clock. Yay, 15 minutes of meditation. I can feel benefits already!)

Slowly and painfully unclicks joints and attempts to stand up like youthful, yogic 46 year old rather than old and creaky 90 year old.

Fails.

Om.

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Snap crackle and pop

Today I went to a chiropractor for the first time.

All part of my constant, ongoing, and I fear, futile, quest to one day do the Lotus.

20141202-212043.jpg

Apparently I have boney growths where boney growths should not be

Explains a lot that does.

I lay on the torture treatment table, enjoying the gentle massage and chat of the chiropractor.

And then, with absolutely no provocation, she turned into a sadistic all-in-wrestler, jumping with all her weight on my back and getting me in what I can only describe as a half nelson.

A slightly surprised squeak may have escaped me at this point.

But that was drowned out by the alarming noises coming from my joints.

I did feel much better afterwards.

Though I fear this may be like the time I went to a Turkish Bath in Istanbul with Helen (hi Helen).

You could spot the Brits as they were the only ones still wearing clothing:-)

And the therapeutic massage involved being whacked with wet rolled up towels.

I know.

In retrospect I think there may have been an element of pay back for many years of Colonial rule.

Very therapeutic for the masseurs though.

Anyway.

Yoga on Friday.

I managed to do a sideways arm balance thing.

And drew an astonished “Where did that come from?” from my yoga teacher.

It’s always edifying to find that other people have as little faith in your abilities as you do.

I call it managing expectations 🙂

So for all those fellow doubters out there (I.e. everyone who knows me), I went home and did it again

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See those rigid toes? That’s fear that is 🙂

Om.