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.
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….
Since I started writing this blog I’ve found myself intrigued by the blogosphere and the many variations on the theme of body acceptance. I’ve noticed a curious tendency for people (let’s be honest, it’s mostly women) to express support for size diversity and then define themselves as either ‘normal’ or overweight aka curvy, large, voluptuous, fat. My favourite descriptive term comes from Alexander McCall (well that’s where I heard it anyway – you know the Number One Ladies Detective stories) who refers to ‘the traditionally built’. But no matter what words people use, the inherent judgment is the same isn’t it? I think this need to compare and categorise is perfectly normal, it’s part of how we order the world in our minds but it becomes problematic when our internal life is negatively impacted by the physical space we fill. For me yoga is the ultimate mind body medicine and I’ve practiced the whole range of limbs including plenty of asana and meditation at every size. When I started at 20 I was tiny but not terribly strong, now I’m about to turn 36, have had two children (and practiced and taught yoga throughout the pregnancy and breastfeeding years) and inhabit a much larger body which is strong and supple but has some limitations. For years I stuck with general hatha yoga classes under a range of teachers, from the very spiritual at Beacon Ashram to the cross section of suburban teachers when I moved to the northern suburbs. I enjoyed all styles for different reasons and when I started teaching I based my classes on the best of those teachers influences, especially the anatomical understanding of my mentor teacher Sheri Foskett. Yet even when I was prescribed asanas to balance my endocrine system from a teacher I respect, I found it hard to get into my home practice in a really committed way. I felt the need to move more, not find stillness, when my boys were little. For some months I enjoyed a long walk with the pram and the dogs to a gorgeous round park overlooking the ocean where I could let the dogs off leash and the baby would be either asleep or happy to cruise around the park while I did my yoga. It was during this phase that I felt I needed to learn how to make my yoga practice more of a heating, physical workout, as well as a mindful moving meditation. I added more sun salutations but still practiced the standing, seated, inverted and twisting postures in a static way, there was no real vinyasa in my repertoire. Through the wonderful workings of the universe I came into contact with Jean Byrne, one of Perth’s only authorised Ashtanga teachers. Initially I was influenced by my previous teachers (not Sheri but others) who had expressed concern about Ashtanga due to the prevalence of injuries and the appeal to the young and athletic. Maybe they hadn’t been outright critical but they’d insinuated that it was a more superficial form of yoga and not suited to a genuine seeker like myself. How wrong that perception turned out to be! The founder of the Ashtanga Vinyasa system Sri K. Pattabhi Jois is often quoted as saying that yoga is 99% practice and only 1% theory. His other famous phrase is ‘Practice, practice and all is coming’. It was winter 2010 and I co-facilitated a retreat with Jean where I expressed to her my frustrations with my practice. Her sage responses planted the seed and I took a beginner’s course the next month. It’s been over a year and I am still working on the consistency of practice but I can already say that Ashtanga has changed my yoga and my life. These days I am up at 5am, mostly willingly, and heading down to Jean and her husband Rob’s yoga school The Yoga Space in West Perth www.yogaspace.com.au at least three days a week. While my workload is light over the summer I aim to practice six days a week. Because I have found that even when my belly rolls do get in the way, the practice is so deep that I don’t judge myself harshly. In fact, after practice I feel like I can walk tall, knowing that my body is capable of great strength and stamina, and my mind can get past craving and aversion (well, mostly). Of course I still struggle with twists, especially the ones that require arms to bind – I’m certain that a narrower waist would help, since I doubt my arms will actually get longer. And sarvangasana (shoulderstand) is a doozy for the hefty folk – I nearly suffocate under my breasts and although the drishti (gaze point) is the toes, I can’t help but look at the rolls of flesh on my abdomen. No doubt this vigorous and challenging practice is off putting to people with a lot of weight to lose. I watched some US ‘Curvy Yoga’ and ‘Plus Size Yoga’ clips on you tube and they were demonstrating practices for the morbidly obese, stretches that can be done sitting on a chair, with little weight-bearing (definitely no jump throughs) and I didn’t see any twists or inversions either. That’s awesome work and I commend the teachers and students who are starting from where they’re at and finding all the benefits of yoga for mind and body wellness. But I haven’t found anyone like me on the net yet – someone who is heavy but athletic, who has a firm grasp of safe alignment, and knows how to use her bandhas to get some elevation. I’ve overheard other students comment about their fat getting in the way and I want to cheer them on. No matter what your size you can use your yoga as a gentle stretch, a meditation or pranayama practice, a subtle body awareness or all that AND a workout that actually will use stored fat for energy, that actually can improve body composition. Just like all therapeutic yoga, it’s not necessarily going to cure your disease, but it can turn your face in the direction of wellness and the effects of your diligent practice may just transform your body along with your mind and soul. That’s why I choose Ashtanga Vinyasa.