10 Dec 2013

From Fasting to Sour Plums

Umeboshi Drying in the Sun, photo from here.
Since my three day water fast a few weeks ago I have fallen in love with Umeboshi - salt pickled sour plums.  I've never had strong feelings about them either way, but now I positively crave them.

I broke my fast with brown rice porridge topped with a little miso and umeboshi, after not eating for three days it tasted divine.  But this infatuation with sour pickled plums has continued long after.  Now I plop one in hot water in the morning, mash it up and happily sip the concoction.

I began to wonder why the craving, is there anything particularly good in these squishy red balls, I knew they were healthy but had never paid much attention before. So I  turned to my old faithful book that explains all about Japanese Foods that Heal.  I just loved what I read, and so I shall continue my love affair with this salty sour delicacy ; )  Which require a fairly lengthy process of soaking in salt and drying in the sun and adding red shiso leaf for colour.  Next year I vow to learn how to make them.

From the book:

"Japanese food authority Robbie Swinnerton compares umeboshi's taste to the culinary equivalent of a cold shower. Swinnerton writes, 'The abrupt, searingly tart, tangy, salty taste jolts the eyes open, shakes the stomach awake, sandpapers off any staleness from the taste buds, and gets the day off to an unforgettable start.'"

Yes, exactly I thought.

"Japanese pickled plums have remarkable medicinal qualities. Their powerful acidity has a paradoxical alkalinizing effect on the body, neutralizing fatigue, stimulating digestion and promoting the elimination of toxins and the absorption of calcium. In addition, umeboshi is said to help the liver process excess alcohol, restore the skin, help regulate sugar metabolism, prevent or cure anemia and relieve acute stomach and intestinal pain due to gas"

Wonderful!  And to think I was going out of my way to drink lemon juice in the mornings, when I had the local equivalent sat right on my kitchen table!

So I shall continue.  I guess my fast served it's purpose.  I had never properly fasted and the decision to do this one was very whimsical.  I wanted an exercise in self-discipline to get me back on track with my eating habits which had become rather yogically delinquent. So three days, only water. It was not fun, I was left very tired and cold, and no spare energy.

But the fast did make me realise how much unnecessary stuff I put into my body throughout the day as a treat, or form of procrastination.

Then two days of rice gruel with miso and umeboshi.  So simple and so delicious.

I am still enjoying simple food, have regained a modicom of self-control, and a new found love for the "Venerable Pickled Plum"

29 Nov 2013

A Tiger for Malgudi - R.K.Narayan

Narayan has become one of my favourite authors since visiting Mysore. His books are all set in a fictional town called Malgudi, yet have a distinct feeling of Mysore about them, as indeed the author lived there for a while. I love visiting India, and seeing as I can't go right now, I am arm chair travelling.  I love the way he captures the essence of South India, the sunshine, slow pace of life, how the spiritual and the mundane blend. I often go back to re-read his books, like taking a little holiday.

This book is a beautiful tale of a Tiger and a Yogi, both on the journey to enlightenment. The Yoga Master guiding the tiger.   Reading this always brings me a sense of peace and calm, and the enjoyment of a good story.

I was just re-reading it again, and these passages stood out this time, especially after my weekend of practicing in a group and remembering the importance of drishti.

This is the Master teaching the Tiger.

"This is one of the rules of yoga to steady one's mind, to look down one's nose and at nothing beyond. That's one way not to be distracted and to maintain one's peace of mind."

"The eye is the starting point of all evil and mischief. The eye can travel far and pick out objects indiscriminately, mind follows the eye, and rest of the body is conditioned by the mind. Thus starts a chain of activity which may lead to trouble and complication, or waste of time, if nothing else; and so don't look at anything except the path."

So true.

27 Nov 2013

Mysore Class with Matt Corigliano

It was a much needed weekend of warmth, shared practice and confidence building for me.  I'd forgotten the joy of practicing in a Mysore room, it's been so long, the sound of the breath, the help of a teacher to push a little, to encourage and support.  Nice to be in students shoes again.  Such a beautiful position. I do love teaching, but I also very very much love to be a student.  Not to mention to be able to practice along side many of those who come to my classes was just lovely.

Matt Corigliano created a beautiful space for us to practice in, great energy - everyone had a great practice.

Practice has been bared back to minimum recently, but it's coming along fine, Matt pushed me a little further than I'd dared to go by myself and I was surprised at how much more I could do.  Also noted the fear still residing in my knee and hips and how much I needed gentle adjustments to coax my body into an actively relaxed state.   To trust again.

There was also the added challenge of hiking with Matt and two guests to the top of  Mt. Zao, to the crater lake.  Usually a fairly routine hike for me, but I was quite nervous as to how my knee would take it. I used stocks, much needed on the descent.  But again felt great to be up in the snow, fresh air and mountain energy.

In the workshop Matt talked a little about his parents practice, about the fundamentals of Ashtanga, not necessarily anything new for us, but I think we all needed reminding and everyone walked away with something to ponder.

For me I am again excited about my practice and am slowly finding my strength and confidence again.

Recently, I hadn't noticed, but with all the focus on physio and the physical aspects and challenges the practice had been presenting me with recently, I had been neglecting my breath and drishti a little.  This was brought into sharp focus this weekend. Boy did I feel better for it physically, mentally and emotionally.  Been letting too much slip.  Nice to be brought back into line ; )

15 Nov 2013

Conflicting Advice and Tradition

The mountains are all gleaming white, snowboarding season is fast approaching.

My physiotherapist, and the general canon of yoga  is telling me to take it easy, go slow.  Step by step.  Which I have been doing as much as possible.

However, my husband, an ex-pro-snowboarder, and the Doctor, a  sports man,  are telling me to move more, do the sports I love.  Make muscle having fun. Get on your board and go!!

Up until now I have generally followed the word of the therapist as law.  More about this soon.  But I feel that I am filled with fear of moving and my energy is being depleted.

Also, yes the modern approach to yoga is one of gently gently, but I feel it hasn't always been this way.  When I first started practicing Ashtanga I was very gentle with myself, but after visiting senior teachers I was often shocked at how hard they would push me, and how I was actually fine. One thing we must learn is to know our limits and ride the edge.  It was the intensity of the practice that hooked me, not a gently gently approach.  Not that everyone needs pushing, but my weak point was to hold back. This holds true in all areas.

Snowboarding is an extreme sport and people around us have had all kinds of injuries, and to hear how they all overcame these and got back on the mountains is wonderful.

One of my most inspiring friends is Anna, she broke her back snowboarding.  I was with her. They did an emergency operation to fuse two vertebrae together.  This was in a hospital here in Yamagata,  the doctor left it to me to break the news that she would never walk again.  I went in and told her straight, her reply still stays with me, she said 'Ganbarimas!' which roughly means, I won't give up, I'll do my best, keep on trying. She has done just that, and more.  Total inspiration.

Keep the body and the spirit strong.

My husband also told me about his friend (in his 20's) who smashed his patella to pieces, had surgery and was limping for 6 months after.  How, he went snowboarding while still in a cast, went down The Wall, a particularly steep slope, infamous, he did a few turns and then tumbled quite literally head over heels a few times. On the wall once you tumble there is no stopping till you hit the bottom. Anyways, he finished up feeling no worse for wear, infact better than before!

Could be something in it.  I won't go down the wall, but I do need to let go of my fear and begin to physically challenge myself again.

It is in this spirit that I shall head to three days of yoga class. No teaching, just practicing with all the guys. Can't wait.

Currently,  practice consists of a  very stiff, punctuated primary, interspersed with physio to focus on weak points.  I think it fits in beautifully. Tarik did say, regarding asana practice, that when injured the rules go out the window (n.b. meaning, one needs to adapt the asana a little, not blindly follow the rules regardless of pain nor, conversely,  to throw the baby out with the bath water). I usually practice alone, so am wondering how I should practice in the Mysore room, this weekend.  I love the Ashtanga tradition, and believe that there must be space for individual differences.  Not tailoring the practicing because it's what you feel like, but objectively looking at what is needed to get the body back to strength, alignment, and health.

Haven't been this excited about a workshop in a while!

13 Nov 2013

Power of the Group

The other day I was teaching an english class in a kindergarten, we were getting reading to do the London Bridge is Falling Down song.  I put on the music and a couple of children started stomping to the beat, within seconds the whole class of 50 was pounding together, jumping up and down, 40 four-year-olds, carefully watching each other, synchronised and in perfect time to the music, it was tribal.

Made me think how we as humans like to be part of something greater than ourselves, how this can bring us strength, comfort, and a feeling of connectivity and inclusion.

I think that's what people who practice Ashtanga style yoga particularly like, the fact that we are all somehow connected to something much bigger than us, bigger than a teacher.  That we can visit any Ashtanga shala in the world and fit in, be a part of it, find common ground. That's why I am feebly keeping up this blog, to be a part of the cyber-shala.

To to tangibly experience the energy of the group is inspiring,  The togetherness.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts - Gestalt.


I always feel this, especially when meditating or practicing yoga in a large group.  Something happens, something beyond words and analysis.  Something different than when I practice by myself. The power of the group - a beautiful feeling.

One of my best memories so far of the group feeling was my first trip to Mysore, full led class on New Years Day, I think Pattabhi Jois was counting.  What stays with me most vividly is the sound and feeling of unison and energy as 60 or so people inhaled into upward facing dog.  Adequate words to transmit this sensation allude me. Let's just say it was a good start to the year.

Matt Corigliano is coming for three days of mysore style practice, we will be a group of 20 or so practicing together. I am very much looking forward to it, and to being bathed in the energy of a mysore rom. It's been way too long since I last went to a class.

I am practicing idiosyncratically and all, is indeed, coming. A punctuated primary, no jump backs between seated asana, using blocks to support my knee, slowly and gently and working on the breath, bandhas, relaxing and working.  Back to the fundamentals. Discovering what I can do daily.  It's a good reminder.   After surgery I wasn't able to bend my right knee for a while, and so couldn't open it out to the side, consequently things have really tightened up in my hips. But I am enjoying practice, and am integrating some physio exercises into my sequence.  Practice really needs to be adaptable during and after injury.

The mountains have turned white here now, talk has turned to snowboarding.   Doctor says I can,  that I should go boarding. Go make muscle. But to only put out 30-50%. In other words take it easy.  May have to keep out of the powder forests.  We shall see.

Anyway I am very excited.
Something about the fresh cold biting air and views of white mountains that makes me inexplicably excited and and energised. If I had a tail, it would be wagging wildly.

25 Sep 2013

Teaching Through Injury

The amount of posts I've read about everyone practicing through injury, the slow road to recovery.  Well teaching through an injury is a bit of a  practice too.

It's been two months since my surgery.  Still have a slight limp, can almost fully extend my knee, but flexing has a long way to go yet.  I have lost 5cms of muscle on the injured leg, it's horribly skinny.  I had no idea it would take so long, and such a toll on my body.  A very simple operation, but admittedly it was  in the slightly more serious category of simple operations.  Medial and lateral meniscus were trimmed after my knee locking well and proper.

I want to talk about teaching it is a bag of mixed blessings.  Something I love to do, find so rewarding, enjoyable, inspiring and supportive, and yet at times wish I could just selfishly channel all my energy into my own practice. But then, perhaps without the community my practice would fade away to nothing.

I took a month off teaching after surgery, naively thinking that after a WHOLE month I would return fighting fit.  The days ticked by, and I was still in no state to walk, let alone do anything akin to an ashtanga practice (yes, yes, what is an ashtanga practice, am talking orthodox asana sequence here).

The day came when I had to show up to my first class after a month off.  I felt like a child being dragged to school on their first day.  Scared, not ready to go yet.  I had thoroughly enjoyed 'me time' reading, doing the physio exercises, trips to the pool, naps up the mountains and books, books galore.  Getting lost in The Upanishads, enjoying the luxury of endless time to ponder it all.  Before class I'd wanted to cry and say I quit.  I really don't know what had gotten into me.  I guess I've always been strong, and to suddenly be so weak threw me.

It felt strange to be sat in the hall, ice bag on knee, waiting for people to show up. And show up they did.  One by one they came, my strange mood and reluctance disappeared with every smiling face and kind word.  Class was beautiful.  The energy was strong.  Despite my slow pace and limp I could teach.

So much gratitude to those that showed up that evening.

It was the first time to be on my feet for so long, there was a little pain, more ice and worry how I would make it for the next week and there after.

A month of class has passed now.  I made it.

The pain gets less and less, the need for icing slowly disappearing.  Yet the limp it is still there. Sometimes it is very frustrating not to just be able to show someone how to do something, often there is another student around who can help, but at other times, there isn't.  Certain adjustments have to be adapted. I really didn't appreciate how much I used my body in class. It was all so natural.

It is hard, and joyful, watching everyone around me so strong, working so hard, their practice developing week by week.  Yes, my knee is improving, but the road ahead is long.  I am eager to heal, so eager. But for now it's time that needs to do it's work.  As it does with practice.  We can only do so much, the rest is up to time.

Patience. Perseverance. Practice.

Last week saw two students finally drop back and stand up, another finish primary, the triumphs! As for me...ha ha well my knee is nearly straight!  I am duly inspired by the people in class.
I cannot wait to be able get my strong legs back!

It also takes energy to recover, I tire so easily, both because of the healing,  and the loss of muscle. Yet, I have developed a deeper sense of empathy for those weaker than me, those who are suffering and in pain.  Every painful experience in life teaches us to be more human, and to be grateful when we are strong.  I notice people limping and moving with difficulty more than before and send them support.

It's the end of summer here, and people's thoughts are turning towards winter and all that brings with it.  For me, this means snowboarding.  I have some hard work to do if I want to ride this winter.

For now though, I have a very individualised practice, simple, combined with the physio moves.  It feels great. The pool is also a big part of my life now, and I intend to keep it so.  It's like the simplest form of yoga.  Stretch, pull, kick, glide, breathing deep,  slow, and steady, engaging uddiyana bandha and counting the laps.


15 Aug 2013

Wisdom all around

Went for coffee time at my husband's parents after a session of physio. They live on the outskirts of town, in a modest little house, tending the land.  It is serene.  Always feel leave in a much calmer, happier frame of mind. This is in front of their house.

My  mother-in-law is an energetic 86 year old.  She grows most of her own vegetables, cooks amazingly simple healthy old style Japanese food and can sew anything from kimono, to futons, to suits. She has a contented, peaceful energy about her.  It's nice to sit down over tea and discuss fabric.

So I show up looking a little dejected after my physio, saying it's taking so long for me to get better.  My husband and his mother then tell me the story of his motorcycle accident at the age of 19 which could have resulted in his leg being amputated. The doctor said he had never been able to successfully treat this kind of complex fracture to date, but would try.  Everything was a first, an experiment.  I hadn't heard all the details before, certainly put things into perspective. He spent three months laying still in a hospital bed, a year on crutches and three years limping. The fact that he healed perfectly, and then went on to become a professional snowboarder, amazes me  Talk about an inspiring pep talk. 

The thing I found interesting was the point his mother lingered on the longest was about how important absorbing the sun's energy is.  Yes yes, we who do yoga salute the sun and talk about absorbing prana from the suns rays. I realise the importance.  But it was beautiful to hear this wisdom being yet again confirmed.  

She told me how important it is to expose yourself to the sun, to absorb the healing rays, to eat sun dried food in winter, to always dry your clothes outside in the sun.  Simple things. How she took these sun dried foods to her son in hospital, and provided linen smelling of the sun for him.  But, I see many around who have lost this sense of the sun's power. Especially here where women go to great lengths to avoid the sun brushing their skin.  Life is led inside so often here.  The skin cancer scare. In fact in the UK they have now decided that actually, it's fine to go out in the sun, it's good for you!  Yep.  

I need to go visit more often for coffee and listen a bit more. Much wisdom here.  Every time I see her I feel a little silly for dashing off to workshops here and there, and reading all these esoteric books, when here is this serene woman who knows, right in front of me.

Not just this conversation, but recently, because of this injury, people have been opening up with many stories of pain and injury and their own learning experiences, of all varieties.  Also perhaps as I have been more still, moving at a slower pace I can take the time to see and hear more.  Listening to those around us, every one, holds some of the deepest lessons, don't you think?  

So I have been spending more time outside, and how beautiful outside around here is.  

Today, this was my workspace. I have also commandeered the scooter, seeing as riding my bicycle is still a bit much for my knee to take. But the local outside pool is providing blissful exercise. 

4 Aug 2013

Hobble on the Mat

Well, it was a start.  Layed my single crutch down and hobbled onto my mat. Have promised myself to take this very slowly and rebuild my practice little by little.  Supplemented with physiotherapy.

One salutation to the sun.  So nice just to be back on the mat, perhaps a bit early for much, but no expectations, no judgement.  A little pranayama, and meditation.  Enough for today.  Good lady ; )

3 Aug 2013

Back to the Blog

It's been a while. I stopped writing for many reasons, one was I couldn't remember why I was writing this blog in the first place.  Feel like I've gone through a bit of a growth spurt of sort, or perhaps some growing pains, nothing much to say.  I practiced, thought, wrote, studied, taught, learnt, and got on with life and that was enough.

February my old painful right knee took a major turn for the worse.  So practice was paired back to only what I could do without pain.  But for a few weeks everything was painful.  Even sleeping.

Two weeks ago I finally had surgery on the knee.

I had avoided this for too long, thinking I could somehow magically fix my knee with yoga, will power, and muscle.

Nope.  Torn menisci don't work that way.  Really.  I tried.

The last straw was bodyboarding, an enthusiastic kick to catch the wave well and truly locked my knee.  The only way out a partial meniscectomy.  Have been feeling very lucky that my knee locked in the sea, and not up a mountain, that there just so happens to be a leading authority on knees in the local hospital who could operate on me the day I hobbled in on crutches in excruciating pain. Also that it is summer holiday, my work schedule was light anyway, lessons could be easily cancelled and covered while I recuperate.

Why was my knee such a mess in the first place??? Oh yeah, yoga is bad for you I can hear people thinking....no no it wasn't the yoga.  In fact I'm always so careful with my yoga practice, it was everything else.

The ski accident, being hit by three cars in my life, breaking my right leg the first time, and damaging the knee the second, extreme sports, followed by extreme web-surfing and sewing, losing muscle...earthquake induced fear, stress, indulging in more coffee and sugar than I should have.  At times focussing perhaps too much on the spiritual and philosophical side of yoga, not working out deep pelvic muscle enough..oh the list goes on and one.

The first time I had knee problems was after a ski accident, ten years ago, very minor, no doctor, pain walking for a few weeks.  All fine for years.  Would have little pains in the months between ski and bodyboarding season.  Muscle tone down a bit. All the skiers and boarders around me are a collection of pain and injuries, that's the world of extreme sports.  Bit of pain is normal.

Then came that big old earthquake and nuclear disaster.  I sat in front of my computer for hours and hours, paralysed with fear, researching, reading, watching the winds, checking radiation levels.  Weeks of this.  Yes I did practice yoga, but it was more of an exercise in mental health maintenance.  A primary flow with Sharath.  Working on the breath and dristi, reading the Bhagavadgita. And most importantly no bodyboarding. Little did I know what a vital role this sport had played in keeping me pain free for more than a decade until I couldn't do it.

I didn't realise I was strong until I got weak.

So one day, doing the usual yoga, my hip popped.  Horrible sounding, never heard it that loud before.  They had often clicked a lot.  But this was an almighty pop.  The next day I couldn't walk up and down stairs, or much at all due to the pain in my knee.  What the hell?  I've read all the relevant articles about knees and lotus, stiff hips and pressure on menisci.  So what was going on?  Went to the doctor, and received the news that I had congential hip dysplysia.  Basically shallow hip sockets, which I had managed to keep under control by coincidentally using all the right muscles bodyboarding.  Stop the boarding, lose the muscles and femurs wobbled and popped and damaged my menisci.  On the one hand I was pleased that I hadn't done something so 'wrong' with my yoga practice, but on the other devastated that I was deformed!!!

So, I guess I hadn't worked on those muscles enough, and well to cut a long story short, many knocks to the menisci caused a tear in February (while jumping up from sitting on a cold cold night.....) thought it was getting better by June, I could walk, climb up and down stairs, ride my bike and yoga was getting back to 'normal'.  Then bam.

So surgery.  Now I am feeling more positive, this pain has gone on and off for years.  Finally it has been treated.  But I have to accept that Ashtanga yoga isn't enough to keep my thighs in their sockets. Need to supplement and literally work my arse a lot more.  Get my bones back in line.

I am very thankful to be teaching Yoga and to have this opportunity to understand my body in more depth.  Physiotherapy is just fascinating, I am drilling the guy with questions.

Determined to come out of this stronger, stronger than before. But building upon the spiritual foundations I have carved out in times of pain over the last years.  Pain really is a great teacher.  But I've had enough for now thank you.  At least these varieties of pain.

So time to rebuild my practice on all levels from step one.  Today I could finally move about the house without crutches.  Tomorrow I shall start with the Sun Salutations. Pranayama.  Meditation. Physio exercises, including light weights.