Forty Days And Forty Nights

Last Tuesday was Pancake Day. Or, to give it it’s proper name, Shrove Tuesday.

Now I always have pancakes on Pancake Day, I love pancakes, but I rarely give a thought as to why we have pancakes on Pancake Day?

pancake day screen grab

NB: For the Americans out there, what we in the UK call pancakes you call crepes. What you call pancakes, I would probably call dropped scones. Or maybe not, I’m not entirely sure of the recipe. But anyway…

For those that don’t know, Shrove Tuesday (aka Fat Tuesday; aka Mardi Gras) is the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent in the Christian calendar. It’s your last chance to go big before giving something up for forty days and nights as a kind of spiritual cleansing and/or penance. And the reason you eat pancakes is to use up the eggs, milk and flour that would normally go off before the forty days of Lent are up.

Now I don’t consider myself particularly religious, but I thought this year that I’d give it a go. But what to give up?

once you pop, you can't stop

I’ve had this low-level Pringles addiction going on for a while now. Once opened, a tube in my house will rarely last til morning. I don’t blame the Pringles. I mean, they warn you in the advertising; ‘Once you pop, you can’t stop!’ But do I listen? Do I ‘eck as like!

So I’m going to lay off the Pringles for the next forty days (FYI: day forty is Palm Sunday, the 20th of March). In fact I’m going to cut out all fried crisp type things altogether. That includes Hula Hoops, Squares, Monster Munch, vegetable crisps, in fact anything that comes in a little pack and has way more fat, salt and sugar than they should. But mostly it’s the Pringles.

Denying yourself something like this is, I find, good spiritual practice. It allows you to exercise self-discipline, mindfulness, force of will, and in the end when you are finished you feel much better about yourself and what you have achieved.

But I don’t just want this to be a ‘negative’ experience, and have it be all about taking something away. So I’m going to meditate for thirty minutes every day too, to add something to my life as well. I’ve always found it hard to start a regular meditative routine, so this is my opportunity to give it a go and see how I get on. And it’s just for forty days. I think I can do it for that long… probably.

Anyone else giving anything up for Lent? Or maybe you’re adding something positive instead? Let me know in the comments below. I’d be interested to hear how you are getting on.

The Yoga Of Climbing

I just got back from a climbing taster session at White Spider Climbing – a little treat I gave myself in honour of my 42nd birthday tomorrow – and I’ve been wracking my brain as to how to incorporate yoga into the climbing experience.

receiving instruction

I mean you could talk about breathing. About how proper breathing keeps you calm and helps you climb better.

where next?

Or you could talk about relaxation. How keeping calm and relaxed helps you not get too tired too quickly (because you’re all tense and burning up energy) which in turn enhances your ability to climb.

nearly there

Or you could talk about mindfulness. How keeping your mind on where you are and what you are doing allows you to find a good route, while at the same time stopping you from panicking as you go higher and higher.

bouldering begins

But all of that applies to pretty much anything you do. It’s not unique to climbing. So how specifically does yoga help you with something like climbing and bouldering? Well, I’ll tell you: It’s upper body strength.

bouldering victorious

That’s the thing people in our group (all beginners) commented on the most; how much effort it was in your arms, shoulders, and upper back.

Now I’m not going to tell you I found it easy peasy. I still had to put a lot of effort in. But I have no doubt that if I didn’t do yoga on a regular basis, exercising my upper body and building up its strength and flexibility, I’d have had a much harder time of it than I did.

All told it was great fun, but in the end it was over far too soon for me. I wanted more! In fact I’m already looking forward to going back to have another go. And if yoga helps me up that wall then its just one more reason for me to keep up with my sadhana (as if I needed any more, lol).

When Does Mindfulness Matter Most?

Mindfulness matters. It improves your yoga and meditation, it stops you getting too lost in your thoughts and emotions, it basically improves your life all round. But when does it matter most? Or rather, when should you be most mindful of your mindfulness?

when mindfulness matters most

It’s easy to remember to practice your mindfulness when you’re doing yoga, or when you sit down to meditate, but I find those aren’t the moments when a lack of mindfulness is most likely to cause you problems.

I had a lesson in lack of mindfulness this week whilst I was making breakfast. I’d made my tea, buttered my toast, and I was just reaching around the kitchen roll for some multi-vitamins when *yoink!* I pulled something in my back! It was the twisting and reaching without thinking that did it. Nothing big, just a nasty little twinge; but it hurt, and it put the kibosh on my yoga for the day.

I don’t know about you, but I find that its not when I’m carrying a sofa or something like that that I injure myself (that’s when I’m most careful about what I’m doing), its those times when I bend down to pick up a pen without thinking about it that I pull something and end up laid up for a few weeks. Or to put it another way, those little moments when I’m not being mindful because I’m doing something I’ve done a thousand times before.

When it comes to mindfulness there are no small moments, no times that are more important than others. Mindfulness is an all day, every day kind of thing. Every moment matters, because when you take your eye off the ball… *yoink!* ;-)

Doing Things Properly

I told a friend of mine recently that “By the summer I want to do a proper forward bend!” But then I realised that that’s not entirely true.

I always do, or at least try to do, a ‘proper’ forward bend. I just can’t bend forward very far because of my tight hamstrings. So when I said ‘proper’ what I actually meant was ‘impressive’, or rather ‘one that looks good to other people’. It was, quite simply, an ego statement.

Allow me to elaborate:

a good sitting forward bend

This is my current forward bend. As you can see there’s not a lot of bend in my hips, I don’t have my index fingers hooked round my big toes, and there’s a lot of daylight between my body and my legs. Basically it doesn’t look very good.

But! My back and legs are straight, my feet are flexed, I’m bending from the hips, and my shoulders and arms are relaxed. In asana terms I’m doing it correctly. I am relaxed and surrendering to the posture.

Now look at me trying to show off.

a bad sitting forward bend

Looks good, right? I’m further forward, I’ve got hold of my toes, and my body is nearer to the ground.

But my back is hunched and tense, my shoulders are up around my ears, and my over-stretched arms are locked and not relaxed. In fact very little of me is relaxed in this position. This posture is not helping me maintain a calm body and mind.

We all want to make progress in our asana training, it’s only natural, and its great to have goals. But if we push ourselves too hard we just end up getting in our own way. Tension in the asanas is like driving with the brake on; it feels like you’re working hard, but ultimately you’re not doing yourself any favours.

You’ve just got to relax, and allow the asana to do the work. Go to your limit for that day, add your two pennies worth (go that little bit further), and then just let go. Over time you will improve, until one day you’ll be amazed at what you can do.

I still want to do a ‘proper’ sitting forward bend some day, but I really need to stop ‘trying’ to do one and just let it happen, which it will eventually if I just keep training in the correct way. And if not, well maybe there’s a lesson in non-attachment to be had there. Every moment is an opportunity after all.

And remember, if you can’t smile, it’s not an asana. :-D


Addendum: I mentioned this post to my osteopath and she reminded me of the word I should use instead of ‘proper’. That word is ‘full’; as in ‘By the summer I want to do a full forward bend.’ A much better way of looking at things I reckon.

My Sanskrit Top Three

If you do yoga you can’t avoid sanskrit. The chants are in sanskrit, the asana names are in sanskrit, the original texts are translated from sanskrit, and everywhere you go people are ‘om’ing and ‘namaste’ing you all over the place.

Not that I’m complaining. A new language brings new words into your life, and new words bring new ways of thinking, as they often introduce concepts you may not have come across before. Of course for every ‘zeitgeist’ there’s a ‘schadenfreude’, but in terms of language, as long as it increases our understanding of the world, it’s all good.

NB: If you want to get your head around an interesting concept, try the Japanese word ‘mu’.

There are so many sanskrit words we use every day I can’t list them all here, nut for now here’s my top three sanskrit words that make me think or make me smile (and quite often both).

1. Ahimsa

so cute!

From ‘a-‘ (the opposite of) and ‘-hims‘ (to strike)

Ahimsa is a simple concept. It basically means ‘non-violence’ or ‘compassion’, but its application (because ahimsa is something that you do) goes much deeper than that.

It recognises that the divine is within all of us, be it man or animal, and to hurt another being is to hurt ourselves. It encourages us to find understanding for others, even when they are being violent or aggressive towards us, and never to give in to our own aggressive tendencies.

Its a wonderful concept, and one we should probably all try and practice a little every day.

2. Satyagraha

nature walk vs fence

From ‘satya‘ (truth) and ‘graha‘ (insistence)

Satyagraha is a term coined by Mahatma Gandhi and was a key part of his non-violent resistance movement.

Its a tough one to sum up in a few words, but it basically encourages adherence to the truth in all things, and suggests that we gain great strength from such a thing (what Gandhi would call ‘Truth Force’).

For many, satyagraha is the practice of ahimsa. Or rather, “…ahimsa is the means; Truth is the end.” ~ Gandhi.

Satyagraha is ahimsa in action. It is the non-violent bringing about of positive change, even against great odds. It sees no separation between the means and the end, and as such means you cannot use violence to bring about peace. In many ways, if you practice satyagraha, you have already won.

Anyone who practices satyagraha is a Satyagrahi.

3. Mudita

a strange encounter

Mudita is ‘vicarious joy’. It is “…the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s well-being.”

It is the opposite of schadenfreude, and I like it because of its unselfish nature. To delight in other peoples’ happiness, what could be better than that?

“Mudita is a pure joy unadulterated by self interest.” ~ wikipedia


So what do you think of my top three? Are these words you’ve come across before? Maybe not. As I said, I just like them because they make me think about other ways of being, other ways of coming at the world, and that can only be a good thing. Because the more we think about things differently, the more we come to know.

Two Things

I recently saw Derren Brown’s new stage show. If you haven’t been I thoroughly recommend giving it a go. Mind blowing as always.

It’s ok, I’m not going to give anything important away, but there is one thing I learnt from there that I’d like to share with you all here.

company & kindness

He told us about Epictetus, a Roman slave and secretary to the Emperor Nero, who also had a passion for philosophy. He studied Stoicism, and through his studies he formed what is, to me, quite a simple yet freeing philosophy.

raw pineapple and lime cake

He said that there are two things in life; that which we can control, and that which we can’t. And of that which we can control there are only two things; what we think and what we do. And any attempt to control the things we can’t – “…our bodies, possessions, glory and power.” – will only lead to unhappiness: Or, as he put it, “…errors, misfortunes, [and] slavery of the soul.”

I like that idea, not only because it’s true, but because it’s easy to remember. It’s just two things, and two things.

captain ;O)

Think about it. If we could learn to differentiate between the things we can control and the things we can’t, and then exercise some control over the things we can, imagine how much happier our lives would be.

No more getting stressed because your train is late. No more feeling guilty because you didn’t measure up to someone else’s expectations. No more worrying about what’s going to happen tomorrow, or what you did yesterday, or even what you should do today. The world is a massive place full of things that will happen whether we’re there or not, so how much control can we really have over them?

But! We do have an effect. Of that there is no doubt. We just can’t control what that effect will be. All we can do is think clearly, act responsibly, and hope for the best. Whatever will be will be. And if our actions come from a well thought out, positive place, then we can rest easy at night knowing we have probably left the world in a slightly better state than when we found it.

That’s the way it seems to me anyway. Perhaps you disagree? And if you do, well, there’s not much I can do about that now, is there? ;)

Every moment Is A Chance

A friend sent me this in a message on New Year’s Eve;

“i wish you the opportunities to realize more and more of your dreams
     as every moment is a chance to start right away.”

That last part “…every moment is a chance to start right away” kind of made me realise the great many things I have been putting off recently. From regular exercise to cutting out white foods to doing some writing, it was always ‘after Christmas’ or ‘after these night shifts’ or even just ‘tomorrow’ when I would start. But tomorrow never comes (as when you get there it is today, and tomorrow is still a day away) so really the only time to start doing something is now!

It’s like this hat:

the furry hat

It’s been sitting in my cupboard for ages, never worn, waiting for an imaginary Future Me who wears that kind of thing. But when would that be? Probably never. You either become the kind of person who wears such a hat, or you let it go and go find a hat that suits you better.

And so it is, at the start of this new year, that I have done the Yoga @ Home CD every day that I have been not working, and I have been reviewing my latest bit of creative writing with the intention of getting the ball rolling again. It’s not much in the great scheme of things, and it’s far less than I would like to be doing each day, but it’s a start, and it’s something to build on.

And it’s certainly a lot more than I did yesterday, that’s for sure.