The Jungle Physician

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Ashtanga Opening Chant

Each morning I treasure the opening chant of the Ashtanga vinyasa tradition. The Sanskrit is only partially understood but one phrase stands out to me- ‘nih sreyase jangalikayamane’, simply translated as ‘beyond better, acting like the jungle physician’. It makes me think that this is how I care for myself, without needing anything external to myself, I can increase my internal heat ‘ boiling out impurities’ as Pattabhi Jois has said, while burning up my mental angst, flushing my cells with well oxygenated blood, moving every single joint through its range of motion, exploring my own energy, accepting myself as I am in each moment. Some days it feels like jumping through mud, others, like soaring lightly just off the earth. Neither lasts, and that helps remind me of the impermanence of everything. Some days I experience a sort of melancholy sweetness, so filled am I with appreciation for this body that moves, a mind that can concentrate, and the opportunity to learn this practice. When I started Ashtanga in a Mysore room, I wasn’t sure I’d stick to it, but five years later, I’m considering getting serious! Actually my yoga experience adds up to twenty years in total, and as I turn 40 years old tomorrow that’s literally half my life.

Recently in a workshop on yoga therapy in palliative care, the facilitator took us through a reminiscence exercise. I found myself transported back to a childhood gymnastics experience- an event that I was well trained and prepared for, and my vivid memory was of mounting the beam feeling strong, light, confident, and immersed in what I was doing. I recall flowing through my routine, landing the challenging baranis and sticking my front sault dismount. In my flashback I viscerally felt the strength and embodied grace of being fit. It’s what I get now as an adult in my yoga practice and I’m so grateful for that joy.

Without yoga I know my health would be worse. As it is I use mindful asana to keep my mental health stable. Having grown up with a paranoid schizophrenic mother, I prize feeling sane, even though I’ve flirted with psychedelic drugs and other consciousness altering techniques. Maturity for me means being able to watch my mood fluctuate without leaping to any self diagnosis. Thankfully I always return to equilibrium. More than just staving off mental illness, yoga has shown me high level mental wellness.

As a naturopath I know a fair bit about healthy lifestyles. However being a voracious reader, I could easily fall into a bookish sedentary life. I became a vegetarian in my teens, mainly out of empathy for animals, but also a desire for peak health and an attraction to all things ‘alternative’ ( it was the 90’s just to give that the proper context). However a vegetarian diet can still have too much promite on toast, bean nachos, sweet treats and pizza, and even a great vego diet is not enough to feel truly well without the movement element. Yoga keeps my diet on track by causing me to tune in to the effects of yesterday’s food. Each morning I am aware of the energy and nutrients I absorbed in the preceding 24 hours. Like any athlete, I’m still seeking the right ingredients, enough fuel, but not too much. A Prana rich sattvik diet that’s good for my mind, body and all living beings is my goal. Though the experiment continues, I’ve found that a light, early dinner with a good long fast overnight, is ideal.

The jungle physician is within me, it’s my capacity for interoception that lets me know how things are flowing each day.

So when I work with clients, especially the people I am called to support in my work with cancer, I want to empower them to also be their own jungle physician. My own experience with malignant melanoma brought the often denied realities of mortality to the forefront of my attention. I believe we can thrive even in awful circumstances, if we have the motivation, access and skills to take charge of the things we can control. It’s true we don’t really have much control in this life. A health crisis can happen to anyone, and there’s an aspect of cancer that’s truly random, but even when these things happen, the tools of yoga can be a life raft. There’s ample research to support the practices of meditation, yoga and other mindful movement techniques like tai chi. All these things are proven to improve quality of life and minimise some of the negative experiences that can go with cancer, like fatigue, inflammation, anxiety and insomnia. Okay, so we still need doctors, surgeons, oncologists. I am grateful for the experts and their skills. But when the acute treatment phase is done, we are left with ourselves and our daily choices. I choose to be my own jungle physician, and to remind myself each morning on the yoga mat, when I chant the opening mantra, including jangalikayamane with my whole being, I really mean to dedicate my practice to the teachers who have come before me, and to use yoga as medicine for body, mind and spiritual self.

Having filled my pranic tank through my dedicated practice, I am ready to get to work, passing on the most practical of skills and philosophies. Tomorrow on my 40th birthday, I’ll do my practice in the busy Mysore room at the Yoga Space in West Perth, then head to Cottesloe to Cancer Support WA where I’ll teach people affected by cancer mindful meditation for 90 minutes. Then I’ll finalise next years program of wellness activities, educational courses and supportive care events, in consultation with other health and wellness providers, before coming home to my own studio, where I’ll teach a meditative vinyasa flow class to my small but serious group of students. I couldn’t really ask for more meaning and purpose in my life. I’m so grateful to have a regular sadhana to sustain me, and a supportive family and community, who inspire me to keep up my practice, and to be the jungle physician for myself and encourage others to find their own way to wellness.

Finding oneness in dual health paradigms

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I’m struggling to reconcile the health worlds I have my feet in. There is a wide chasm to bridge and I’m stretched like in Upavista Konasana.

I set out two years ago to upgrade my academic qualifications with the intent of becoming a better practitioner and retaining my lecturing work. The Master of Wellness course through RMIT achieved both those goals and also allowed me entry into the mainstream in unexpected ways. Now that I’m full bottle on evidence-based interventions and I have something of a handle on constructing both qualitative and quantitative research, my base qualification as a Naturopath has lost it’s importance and doors are opening for me as a cancer researcher.

For example at the end of this month I can look forward to a week where I will be lecturing to undergraduates in the Bachelor of Health Science (Naturopathy) courses at Endeavour College of Natural Health (www.endeavour.edu.au) , the students of Holistic Counselling and Mind Body Medicine at Life Academy (www.life-academy.com.au) and speaking to GP’s about self care and spirituality in cancer survivorship at a GP Education event. It’s all very exciting and I am so grateful to be able to do my life’s work in this way.

But I have no idea what I really believe anymore. Some 14 years ago I was able to wax poetic about spirituality and health to my peers at naturopathic college with the supreme confidence of the 22 year old. My mind and arms were wide open to all manner of trippiness and I was clearly anti the establishment. These days I wear shoes to work (mostly) and sometimes comb my hair (no dreadlocks in the office!) and I put more faith in science than the subtle realms of spirit. Yep, I’ve been brainwashed. Not into believing in gurus and siddhis, but into the opposite form of dogma – the scientific model.

From my office window I see nature but barely feel her effects. I got my mind blown though when the Masters was complete and I ventured outdoors to put my hand over a newly blossomed Pincushion Hakea. Woozily I allowed the flower to alter my consciousness. My legs shook as my intellectual overcoat dropped away and the structures of reason collapsed. The experience has stayed with me and stimulated  fresh contemplations of what my spiritual life might feel like. Perhaps there’s no way to reconcile the two paradigms in the current health discourse except through direct experience. It doesn’t matter a jot if there’s no recent academic articles to support it, the flowers deliver their message in their own language, no spell check required. This is all I can pass on to my listeners – the conflict inherent in the two views is part of the oneness of everything, there’s strength in diversity, nature is amazing and human beings are part of nature, the walls of the mind are transparent and the heart sees all.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes/Strong is the New Skinny

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2012 has lived up to it’s mythology – nope the world hasn’t ended – but it’s brought a lot of change to my life and I know to many others too. In February I resigned from a lecturing gig that in many ways I loved but that no longer served my highest ideals. I also decided to bow out of my monthly commitment to Nova Holistic magazine. Again something I derived some satisfaction from – it’s cool to be published in an actual hardcopy format on a regular basis – but that just didn’t feel right any longer. Leaving these two jobs has opened up space in my life for self care and creativity. I have more energy for my yoga practice when I know I can work from home rather than racing around town deranging my vata. My children are benefiting from my presence, especially when I am willing to spend chunks of time on homework and soccer training. I’ve had time for cuppas with the school mums and attending assemblies. This morning my eldest son sang ‘It’s not about the money’ with his classmates in a modern take on the story of Jesus throwing the traders out of the temple. So proud!

Here’s the link to my last Nova column ‘Strong is the New Skinny’   http://www.novamagazine.com.au/article_archive/2012/2012-03-strong-is-skinny.html

With my writing mojo unfettered, I’m setting my sights on guest blogging. Today I submitted a piece to elephant journal and I’ll be sending something to mindbodygreen soon too. I’ll keep you posted!

 

Adventures in Dermatology pt 1

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So I bit the proverbial and went to see a dermatologist about my ongoing skin cancer stuff. Some of you might know I had a melanoma removed a few years ago and also some basal cell carcinomas. I’ve been keeping a close eye on the bcc’s on my face and one in particular on the tip of my nose (makes nasagra drishti easy cos I can see it) which bleeds periodically. With my beloved for support I went to the professional dude who quickly diagnosed some solar keratoses amongst the multiple bcc’s. The treatment is as I expected; chemotherapy cream and then surgery. The cream sounds pretty nasty and was described as ’roundup’ to kill off the cancer weeds. Nice. I am not keen on spraying roundup on my face but I get the picture, it’s a sensible choice to make as it will minimise the chunks of face they have to cut out later. Sooooo I’m feeling raw and vulnerable already as I contemplate a month of no makeup and the likely reaction of my skin. The doc says it will be very red and ‘angry’ (I’m highly pitta dominant anyway so that’s kinda normal for me) and rather unsightly for a few weeks. Part of me wants to hide out and not face the world while the cream does it’s ugly work. I will take a break from seeing clients but unless it’s unbearable I’ll show up for my yoga and anatomy students. I’m all about wellness in mind and body and I think the lesson here is in being genuinely vulnerable and trusting that people are essentially kind. Luckily my face is not my fortune and I can actually do my work no matter how I look. So if you see me bare faced, inflamed and maybe pustulous, feel free to ask me about what’s happening but be gentle. I’m scared to be so naked yet I can feel a glimmer of light in this process. Maybe it will be liberating to not wear any kind of mask. Certainly it ensures my happiness is internally focused. I look forward to seeing you, and you seeing me, bcc’s and all.

The Four D’s

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What does yoga ask of you? It’s not enough to enjoy the aesthetic beauty of the human form, or to merely imagine the pure state of samadhi. The yogic path is far more rigorous than it appears. Generally the images we see are the ‘finished’ product, examples of highly adept asana practitioners, or sadhus displaying remarkable (occasionally ridiculous) siddhis, or the wise words of self-realised masters. What is less obvious are the years of practice, the emotional, mental and physical processes of breaking down and rebuilding that transform an ordinary person into their transcendent self. Along the way old versions of the self must be relinquished. Some people struggle more than others to let go. I am one of the fighters, valiantly clinging to old thought patterns, old habits and ways of life that once served me but must be sacrificed in the fire of tapas. When I heard Kino McGregor (ashtanga yoga teacher) repeating Sharath Rangaswamy’s 4 D’s, I was moved to share them, to ponder what they mean to me, and what they ask me to sacrifice, here.

Devotion: Central theme of bhakti yoga, devotion implies an attitude of humility and love before a force greater than oneself. Some people will avoid using the G words like God or Guru because they sound like forces external to the self. I feel waves of devotion wash over me in both vinyasa and seated meditation practices and my devotion is to the loving emanation that fills the empty parts of me. I am so grateful for the sacrifices the teachers who have come before me have made, and the detailed roadmap they have left for future travellers. I offer up the fruits of my practice to the masters who inspire and guide me and their names are important only in the sense that I honour them personally. But they have transcended physical bodies and earthly time to merge into the ocean of consciousness where all wisdom and love is continually dissolving only to be distilled again in diverse forms. My love is sometimes passionate like an infatuated teen (think of the swooning Gopi girls and Krishna), sometimes loyal like a stoic supporter (maybe Krishna and Arjuna) , other times settled like a long marriage of respect and kindness (Shiva and Shakti of course), but the feeling of fond familiarity with the beloved teacher who is God in one particular form, never wavers. A wise yogi once asked a sadhaka ‘who do you sacrifice to?’ The sadhaka realised he must sacrifice his lower self to his higher self. The real devotion is not to any external being but to your own higher self. The true Guru is the Guru within.

Dedication: The well known Vipassana teacher SN Goenka echoes Siddhartha the Buddha when he implores practitioners to ‘dig a deep well’. When I first heard this message I was in the throes of spiritual exploration, happy to tap into others’ wisdom wells and drink from any old cup I could find. I was utterly naive and undiscerning, like the archetypal fool. Fortunately the benevolent forces swept me under some kind of wing and I had only positive experiences of spirituality. Yet as the years have rolled on, I have narrowed my focus in order to sink more deeply a well that will nourish me sustainably. When it comes to asana I am convinced of the benefits of a systematic approach. No longer will I cast around for enjoyable practices or make up my own practices (though there’s wonderful creativity in doing so and I expect I will someday revisit and reinvent certain aspects along the way), so convinced am I that the primary series is working me thoroughly. Dedication to one path which is already well trodden is as scary as devoting oneself to a higher power. Does it mean I will miss out on other opportunities? Will I become rigidly dogmatic, thinking there’s only one way to proceed? I am a work in progress and my feelings might change but for this moment I am dedicated to a single path of my own choosing. I have laid down my preferences before my higher self and been guided to a single asana practice and a single meditation system, the two of which do not contradict each other as both are derived and inspired by ancient tantric insight. I trust my teachers, I trust my Self, I am dedicated.

Discipline: Here’s the corker, the one that causes me most grief. I would love to jump straight from where I am to where I want to be but alas, discipline is required to persist in the practices that moment by moment, day by day, create the future of my envisioning. There is so much fun to be had in the world and so many distractions, enough to keep me entertained for at least this lifetime. But somewhere inside myself I know that I want more than just amusement. So I discipline my appetite when I feel the urge to overeat. It helps that the yoga practices are made more difficult, that’s how I sell it to myself – do I really want that piece of cake? How will that affect my mind? How will that feel when I bend forward in a few hours time? Does that increase or decrease my available energy for practice? I have stumbled many times on this particular D. All last year I made a point of watching Survivor (mock me if you want – I love the whole not-reality TV genre) on Tuesday nights. Since it didn’t finish til 10.30pm or later it made getting up at 5am extra challenging. I missed practice quite a few Wednesdays although I also dragged myself up after less than 6 hours sleep in an attempt to prove I could have it all. I’ve tried to have it all in other ways too. Working too much, taking on a huge study workload in an effort to build a career rapidly (what’s the hurry?), talking too much and then wasting hours in mindless pursuit of ‘rest’. What I’ve learnt is that TV isn’t very rewarding, that food indulging makes practice gassy and uncomfortable, that good friends won’t mind if you go home by 9pm, and all the worldly distractions including facebook, gigs, movies, books and meetings won’t satisfy the cravings of my heart and soul for spiritual connection. In Yoga Mala Sri K. Pattabhi Jois advises (on page 26 after an expansive essay on brahmacharya) yogis to avoid mingling with the crowd. I interpret this to mean that people can be a distraction from the path too. I know my sociable nature would rather stay up at night chatting, and that I have an endless capacity for hearing people’s stories. These are not necessarily bad qualities, in fact being a ‘people person’ is quite helpful in my work as a yoga teacher, lecturer and naturopath. But while the yogic path is not exactly a lonely one, the spiritual life is a little quieter than the mainstream. I’ve neglected some wonderful friendships over the years because I just couldn’t reconcile my lifestyle with theirs. I love them still (and kind of hope they might be reading this) but I’m an all or nothing gal. I never could just have a little glass of wine or a toke on a passing joint. I wanted oblivion or nothing at all. You could say it’s inertia at work. When I start to do something I tend to want to continue. This makes the middle path counterproductive. Having a late night stops the rolling momentum of waking pre-dawn to practice. One alcoholic drink has been known to throw my mind off it’s spiritual base and into gossippy or egoistic soup. Hence the ‘rules’ are not arbitrary – it’s helpful to hear from the yogis who have come before what helped and hindered their paths. Sattvik food means no intoxicants either. So I apologise to my friends and family that my quest sometimes hurts your feelings. I don’t want to exclude or be excluded, I don’t think I’m better than anyone else. Just because I won’t come to your parties (or maybe I will and leave early, depends how established I feel in myself), doesn’t mean I want you to feel unloved or uncomfortable. But I am clear about my need for self discipline and this circumscribed lifestyle is not as rigid from the inside as it appears from other perspectives. In fact it’s liberating. Discipline is not solipsistic but allows intimate, ultimate connection with all.

Determination: The steel within, the conviction that I will continue even when I have doubts. That I won’t quit altogether when something hurts. The will to continue even when I’m so tired I could sleep for a week. I am determined that I can become a more consistent practitioner of yoga in its entirety. I resolve to mindfully observe my own experience and continue regardless of what my mind and body throw up. There will be obstacles of course. There have been many already and sometimes I have been waylaid. However I believe that a householder yogi can adopt a flexibility that allows for the needs of the family, but still keeps a central focus on sadhana. Determination is the flickering flame within that dims but cannot be extinguished. I will hold my inner light aloft to light my way. Without hesitation I will practice. The mental conundrums can wait, the outward goals can be achieved with an inward focused gaze. I know that this is a difficult path but with devotion sweetening my heart, dedication inspiring my practice, discipline removing many obstacles, and a mass of determination, I will prevail.

Word Nerd

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This blog places emphasis on my genetics, the dastardly inheritance of an apple shaped body and it’s ensuing health risks. But there’s something else I must remember to thank my folks for – the love of words. Neither of my parents were especially highly educated, Mum went to business college after high school, Dad pursued sport and a series of odd jobs before settling on the farm. However both of them were besotted with language. They harped on about correct grammar, manners and spelling quite a bit but they also read aloud to me, encouraged my writing ambitions, and never scrimped on buying books. As a result my brother, sister and I are all pretty wordy. Nowadays I do my own correcting of my children’s language (though I don’t object to their colourful expletives in the way my parents did). I’ve also written a lot, some for publication, most sitting in dusty drawers waiting for some attention. One discipline I’m grateful for is my regular monthly column in Nova Holistic Magazine. While I struggle each month to fit my ideas into 1500 words and most months my family suffer my grumpy pre-menstrual mood at the same time, the articles themselves usually turn out okay. So if you want some summer holiday reading along the themes of yoga and holistic health, check out the last year of my wordy nerdy writing life.

http://www.novamagazine.com.au/article_archive/2011/2012-12-spiritualityinhealth.htm

http://www.novamagazine.com.au/article_archive/2011/2011-11-body-and-beyond.htm

http://www.novamagazine.com.au/article_archive/2011/2011-10-everyday-reverence.htm

http://www.novamagazine.com.au/article_archive/2011/2011-09-findingflow.htm

http://www.novamagazine.com.au/article_archive/2011/2011-08-consciouseating.htm

http://www.novamagazine.com.au/article_archive/2011/2011-07-healing-connections.htm

http://www.novamagazine.com.au/article_archive/2011/2011-06-living-intentionally.htm

http://www.novamagazine.com.au/article_archive/2011/2011-05-mindbuilding.htm

http://www.novamagazine.com.au/article_archive/2011/2011-03-differentpaths.htm

http://www.novamagazine.com.au/article_archive/2011/2011-04-livingwell.htm

http://www.novamagazine.com.au/article_archive/2011/2011-02-compassionatecaregivers.htm

http://www.novamagazine.com.au/article_archive/2011/2011-01-soulsafari.htm

From Soil To Psyche

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Have I mentioned that I teach nutrition? My specialty is vegetarian nutrition and I like to think I’ve inspired at least a few meat free meals and triggered a handful of carnivorous consciences. So it is more than a little annoying that I don’t look lean and glowing (sometimes glowing like a horse is sweaty, or like Rudolf’s snout, post yoga) like a picture perfect advertisement for vegetarianism. Not that I would want anyone to go on any kind of ‘diet’ anyway. No, my choice to eat only plants was made as a teenager with lofty ideals about changing the world, one meal at a time. I think philosophy can create sustainable change in people’s habits because once you have had a realisation, it’s your own internal clash that drives you to match your behaviour with your own ideals. So I moved from a steak and veg standard to a basic vego diet at 16.

After a few years of drinking more than I ate (a possible explanation for the thin but not strong 18 -21 phase) I came across the yogic diet. The justification for a sattvik vego diet was easy for me to accept, having already had exposure to the Hare Krsna movement and their delish restaurants. Essentially what the ancient yogis were describing was eating only what is required and keeping one’s consciousness clear of food-derived obstacles to make meditation easier. If you’ve ever made a serious attempt at meditation you might have noticed that it’s challenging. The very adept might be able to meditate on a traffic island in Mumbai but for most of us, if you want to do it to the best of your ability, it helps to set the scene. A clean and quiet space is conducive; beautiful is nice but not necessary as your eyes will be closed. That’s when the real deal starts, when we are alone with our own thoughts. Personally I have a hard time not planning for the future and sometimes I allow that because wonderful ideas pop in when the rest of the external distractions are removed. The skill of settling into the silence within must be practiced regularly in order to go deep (though I did experience ‘beginners’ luck’ in my early dabbles with sadhana). There’s a gazillion books about meditation and some truly amazing teachers, yet it’s pretty normal to think you can rewrite the book and ignore all instructions. Exploring inner space without a guide is almost as delusional as following a train of thought when surfing the internet. One thing leads to another and you are amusing yourself rather than practicing the discipline of reflection or ideation.

What you eat really does influence these mental wanderings. Trust me, I’ve run the experiment more than once and I reckon it’s replicable. There’s probably something in the advice handed down from teacher to student over thousands of years. The recommended diet for consciousness is free of meat including fish, eggs, alcohol, intoxicants, onion, garlic and mushrooms. Fruit is held in high esteem as are whole grains, vegetables, sprouts, some legumes (ie chickpeas, lentils, soybeans, peas) and sweet food is fine as long as it is taken in moderation. Likewise dairy is fine for some constitutional types however it’s supposed to be from happy healthy cows who have fed their calves first and freely given the excess to humans – not sure the Dairy Board can claim that as fact. The yogic concept of the gunas explains what category food is placed in. Sattvik foods are elevating to the mind, healthful for the body and do no harm. Rajasik foods are stimulating, exciting to the senses and may be healthful or not, such as chocolate, coffee,chili, soft drink and tea. For tantrikas (depending on lineage, many paths draw inspiration from tantra, not the sexy stuff but the foot to the floor, lets evolve our consciousness pronto stuff) a small amount of raja guna is acceptable in a mainly sattvik diet. Tamasik foods are dead and make the mind dull, leading us towards expression of our more mundane selves, hence these are struck off the list of suitable food for a sadhaka.

Currently my version of the sattvik diet consists of: lemon water first thing (pre-practice), ‘brekkie on the deckie’ with my beloved is mango, berries, wheat free muesli, a dollop of natural yoghurt and a splash of organic soy milk. I luurve my soy latte – hit me with that rajasik rush. Without it I’m cactus which indicates addiction to me but anyway, I’ll deal with that one later. Lunch is cheese and salad rolls, heavy on the salad. T

Then I’ve been making a fruit salad to satisfy my ever hungry boys so I might snack on that plus cashews, macadamias or brazil nuts in the afternoon. When it’s my nights to do dinner I make brown rice, steamed veg and seared, marinated tofu. The abundance of lemongrass in the garden sometimes inspires a pot of lemongrass tea, otherwise I might have a chai if I need to power up for study when the kids have gone to bed.

My garden is a source of joy and nourishment to all my koshas. I think if I was able to live completely self-sufficiently I would be the archetypal lean yogi, however I still have to shop every couple of days. Here’s some pics of my garden in progress, hopefully summer will be a time for me to progress in my practice, nourished by the warm soil and sattvik food grown right here at home….