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Mat On, Mask Off

Taken by Loving Earth

As my practice of Ashtanga Yoga continues, the community and wonderfully welcoming social side to Bristo Yoga School is expanding, and yesterday I had my first chanting session and Q&A with our visiting teacher, Jill Manning.

Although only asking a few questions myself, mainly about whether my runner’s hamstrings will ever loosen up, I came to see yoga in a subtly, but fundamentally, different way. Much like your own practice itself changes subtly, and so slightly, every day; almost unnoticed but fundamental. The way Jill worded her answers and explanations illuminated so much for me, and made me even more eager to step onto my mat at 7am this morning.

My awful memory has left me only remembering snippets and snapshots of what were beautiful explanations and conversations, but hopefully the most affecting of which stayed with me.

She started by asking all of us a question: What is yoga?

Union. Pain. A connection. An attitude.
My answer: awareness.

Through the daily practice of stretching my body in every which way, whilst focussing on my breath and drishti (gaze), I have become aware of the angle that my pinkie toe makes when I stretch my calf. And the feeling of the muscles under my shoulder blades stretching (ones that cannot be reached by pressured massage). And my hips, oh yes my hips, and how open or closed they might be.

But I am also aware of myself more, I feel as though for that one and a half hour each morning I am stepping onto the mat and into my own space, to work with myself (and my teacher), for me. Not in a selfish manner, but in an independent manner. I am fully aware of how I feel in that moment, every sinew in my body (even my pinkie toe. In fact, especially my pinkie toe) and how I am feeling mentally and emotionally that day, both before and after class. And as it’s daily, it’s a repetitive but ever-new process, as no two days are ever the same.

How do you focus the mind and stop it from drifting?

In the actual movements of yoga there are three elements: the asana itself, which Jill explained is like flossing. It’s the movement, the physical practice, the hygiene. Then there is the breathing, the ujjayi breath (an audible breath. Think Darth Vadar). The two together work as one (hence, yoga defined as union). And then there is dristde. This is when your eyes focus on a single point for each asana. Such as focussing on the tips of your fingers in Trikonasana (triangle pose) or the big toe in Parsvottanasana.

As Jill explained it, advertisers have known for years that the eyes lead the mind. We live in a visual world, and often one over-saturated. Call to mind the image of  Times Sqaure in New York. So to focus the eyes on one point is to allow the mind to focus. This is such a simple statement and concept, but one that is lost and forgotten in the fast-paced, too-full daily lives we rush through.

Relaxing is not collapsing.

At the end of every practice, we take some time (anywhere from two to ten minutes) to relax. Called Savasana, this means ‘corpse pose’ and is not in fact accurate to describe what we yogis here are practicing. Corpse pose, when acheived, is when the heart stops, the breath stops but life continues. Instead, we western yogis are simply going into relaxation. An attempt at slowing down the mind, and attempting to achieve a bodily state of sleep whilst the mind remains awake but still.

Jill made a very accurate observation; that in America especially (being American herself) but also quite likely in our Western society generally, people use the phrase ‘relaxation’ when really they are simply collapsing. We overwork, cram our day and week full and then take a day, or evening, to relax. And by this we mean collapse on the sofa, or lie in for half a day, and simply switch off.

Collapsing is not an accurate definition of relaxing. Relaxing is to centre yourself, to hold that awareness, and to be in control. As I see it, being in control takes effort. Taking control of a situation, of your own situation, of your own mind, of your own path. All takes a subtle effort. So if we collapse, and use no energy, we are not in control and simply disengaging.

This is not to say that mindful meditation is the only form of relaxing. It’s different for every person. For some it might be cooking their favourite meal; for others, gardening; or a long walk in the park; or listening to a good friend tell you how their day was. But I think most of us could do with making the effort to relax more, and collapse less.

I am guilty myself of blocking my calendar out weeks in advance with meetings, work, gym class, yoga (how ironic), dinners, movies, day trips. Some of which are my down time, or relaxation. I have 3 hours scheduled for lunch with a friend on Sunday, that’s my relax time. But in a way that is simply scheduled relaxation.

When practicing yoga, you can be no one but yourself.

This was, for me, the most insightful part of the discussion. Jill explained that when you step onto your mat and begin practice, you cannot hide who you are. Or as I thought of it, mat on so mask off.

The face you put on for work, or your children, or your friends, or the bus driver on the way to the studio, is removed. You are not consciously trying to ‘be’ anyone, you are just being. (And sweating, and twisting, and breathing, and reaching and gripping your big toe…) And your teacher can see you, for who you are. You cannot hide behind anything. It’s almost an unnoticed abandonment of any ‘face’ or ‘mask’ you put on during the day. Not to say that we are fake. But if you have had a fight with a spouse or friend, and go into work, you will for the sake of profesionalism and the comfort of others, try your best to hide it.

I have never noticed myself consciously taking off the mask, but when she mentioned it, I realise that I do just that. On the mat, I am simply me.

This is perhaps what has been the most powerful force in drawing me back to the mat, morning after cold, dark, windy winter’s morning. I’m still dwelling on exactly what that means, and when I ask Jill again what the exact quotation and phrase was for this I shall post it up. As it was completely illuminating (or a ‘lightbulb moment’ to use some management speak).

Shit Yogis Say

I’m totally aware that this might come across as self-satisfying, enlightened blether. I’m still the same scatter-brained, margarita drinking, steak-eating Jen. Just bendier. And day by day a little less wobbly and more grounded. Which can only be a good thing.

And here’s a video of Shit Yogis Say. It’s funny because it’s true.

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Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

2 weeks until I move, 4 weeks until I finish up this job, too many people and places to see and say goodbye too. I thought this was rather apt.

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White men dancing funky

Which is your favourite? The original, unexpected classic; or the younger, hotter number?

Hugh Jackman is hot, but Chris Walken is immortally cool. One’s a music video, and one’s a rip off of said music video for advertising. It’s like a mash-up of the Berocca ads and Fatboy Slim / Walken magic. But with Hugh Jackman. It’s a toughie.

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Just Jen #1

Inspired by my twirly partner in crime and her so-hot-right-now columns in, and in particular her Pop 5 segment, here’s a quick round up of the things that have been flitting through my mind as of late. The imminent move, new city and new job is taking up quite a bit of my time; and this is a month before any of it actually happens.

  • Fashion and fortunes. Two birds, one stone.
    Two things popped up on my Facebook news feed last week. The first, from ELLE, loudly proclaiming that “the days of the mini skirt are over!” The maxi skirt is back and here to stay. Skirts are once again ankle length at most, and below-knee at best (think Mad Men but without the smoking-chic chauvanistic ‘tude). The second was a BBC News article on the general economic doom and gloom. A stark reminder of that fabled fashion / economic growth  correlation between the length of women’s skirts and the general state of the economy. Backed further by the Italian town that has now banned mini-skirts entirely. My theory? The fashion industry is in on it all, and is now playing on this correlation by purposely bringing the maxi back to further furrow our brows in concern at the general state of the economy. Conspiracy theorist, moi? The real question is do we look at the catwalks of S/S 11 to plan our investments and stocks, or vice versa?
  • Rugby, the Law, and Poetry.
    I met Conrad Smith of the notorious New Zealand All Blacks today. As an international rugby star, you’d think he’s happy with his lot. But oh no. He’s got dem brains too, and is a trained and practicing solicitor on the side. So next time I think I’ve not got enough time to do everything I want to do, I just need to remember it’s only myself and my attitude that’s limiting my acheivements. Also, I am now a rugby fan after meeting one of these “rugby boys” in the flesh. Who also happens to read his team mates poetry on the tour bus. Swoon.
  • On the 33rd day before Christmas
    Everyone seems to be a lot more festive, and a lot earlier, this year than I remember. Or is it just me? I baked Christmas cookies, some people are half way through their Christmas shopping already, and I’m actually enjoying this cold snap. Fa la la indeed.
  • Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
    3 weeks until the city-hop. Better get packing.
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Finger-pickin’ good


According to the BBC News website report, guitar-based bands are a rare breed in the 20-teens. In summary “All the great anthems have been written…it has all be done a million times before.” I am glad to see, however, that they picked up on Mumford & Sons who are bringing back the banjo with pizzaz.

In response, and as an attempt at saving the youth of today from considering Lady Gaga as “good music” (good poppy, dancey, sexy, druggy sound yes. “Music”? No.) I would suggest they also listen to Bobby Long.

All art is imitation, and yes it has been done before. But I haven’t heard anything like Bobby Long in a while. I grew up in the wrong era, listening to the likes of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, The Who, Joni Mitchell, and teaching myself LedZep on my mum’s old acoustic. Bobby Long reminds me of that simplistic, beautiful sound without the “I’m retro-hipster-cool” vibe that a lot of one-hit wonders have.

…..Ok, I just clocked his hair style when google image searching and perhaps he’s got a slight Robert Pattison vibe about him. But the boy’s still got talent.

I stumbled across him on LastFM with a song that I couldn’t find on Spotify or iTunes, much to my dismay. So I bought “Left to Lie” instead, and have found “The Bounty of Mary Jane” on Spotify. Both are quite, hauntingly, acoustically guiarishly wonderful. I’d also highly recommend “Dead and Done” for another mellow number on his official Myspace page.

This isn’t  a plug, I haven’t done much research behind Bobby except to know that he hasn’t got much out there on iTunes or Spotify and I think he should. But I’d say its testament to his sound that it was his finger-pickin’ guitar tunes that popped into my head as soon as I read the BBC article.

The other thing that popped into my head on mention of “Coldplay” and “good music” was this:

It tickles me every time, especially around the 2.12 mark.*

*I don’t actually think Coldplay are “shit” per se. It’s more that this guy has done such a good job of dubbing all the vocals and instruments, and getting it just off so it sounds convincing.

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Inevitable post about cats

But in an oh-so-postmodern and self-conscious way. There’s a rumour flying around that the majority of all internet content is cats. As an out-of-the-closest LOLcats follower, it somtimes feels that way after seeing your 1000th omgkewtkitteh of the week (for the record, I can’t stand LOLcat speak. I’m only in it for the warm, fuzzy feeling the photos bring.)

After a quick google search of ‘internet’ and ‘cats’ in an attempt to clarify the statistic, I’ve found solid scientific evidence that the internet is indeed made of cats. And my favourite statement of the day: porn is so 90s, welcome to the real web 2.0: cats.

You get the jist. Cats rule the internet, by and large.

So, despite that this advert freaks me out slightly, and I can’t actually see the real reasoning behind it, it looks like Toyota have very much adopted the attitude of “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” And this is only episode 1….

Which in turn reminded me of one of my favourite adverts of the year, a much better use of cats I feel, Ikea’s “Happy Inside” ad:

This is the only post about cats I will make, promise. Normal blogging activity will now resume.

ETA: I am aware the Toyota ad is two years old now. Evidently it wasn’t a hit. The IKEA ad, however, was released a few months ago. I’m still up-to-date…ish.

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