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Author: Kimina

Orient to the journey

The other day I found myself you-tubing instructions for learning how to free handstand. On the one hand, it was astounding that I was even thinking a free handstand would be within reach for me. On closer inspection, it demonstrated that I had lost the yoga plot.

Let me rewind for a bit. When I first started practicing yoga, I had little ambition for my own physicality, preferring to reside almost exclusively in my busy mind. It was a little over ten years ago, I was living a crazy life as a foreign correspondent based in Bangkok, driven by deadlines, competition and sheer determination to succeed.

My local assistant tentatively suggested one day that I undertake a 10-day silent Vipassanna meditation retreat. “Can you see me turning my phone off for ten days?” I replied. The next day, she proffered a yoga pamphlet. And I thought, “well, that maybe I can do”

In those early days, I didn’t have any problem with the “non-competitive” nature of yoga, or so I thought. I was so physically weak that tadasana was strenuous and I spent most of the time in standing poses silently begging the teacher to say, “change sides”. One day he suggested we lie flat on the floor and lift our legs to a ninety degree angle and back to the floor again, ten times. I can still remember the shake and shock of pain wave as I struggled to complete just one.

But I did start to measure myself, consciously and unconsciously. I would peek a look at other students to see if my forward bend was deeper than theirs. I would berate myself when a pose I thought I achieved yesterday failed to flow today. I knew it was not yogic to think like that, but I would notice other students do the same. The teacher would work hard to dispel our undisciplined thinking. I remember him once explaining that there was no need to hurry to release a tightness in one muscle, because as soon as we did so it would simply open a door to the next, and the next, previously hidden, layer of tension.

Developing strength

Somewhere along the line strength came. I began to hold poses for longer, and attempt more difficult poses. One day, I stood in a wobbly against-the-wall handstand. For someone who had never had arm strength, this seemed something to be genuinely proud of. Then I changed teachers, and my new mentor shook his head at my handstand and forbid me from using momentum to kick up. Instead I had to use only my inner strength (whatever that meant?) to gently lift my legs. It was more than a year before I re-hit that “milestone”. On the day I reached that summit, he asked me to repeat, this time leading with my opposite leg, and I was back to the beginning again.

This variation came with a big hidden blockage – it took more than two years before my left leg would lift me into handstand. During this time, I was quietly obsessed. I would address the wall in dog pose, psyching myself into preparation. This was the day, I would tell myself, again and again, before I came crashing back to the floor. I would beg my teacher for feedback, “what am I doing wrong?” He would guide me to work on my feet, then my inner thighs, then the psoas muscle. Sometimes he would just say, “use your inner strength”.  I began to practice letting go of the need to achieve it.

All the while, almost without me noticing, other things shifted in my life. I began to lose my tolerance for stress. I became aware of a deep yearning for nutritious food.  I started to step away from conflict more often. I let go of things in the past that used to bother me. I am sometimes finding, as a spiritual guide once said to me, how to live at peace with unsolved problems.

Orient to the journey, not the goal

Then one day I glided into a wall handstand with my left leg leading. It felt light; effortless. Perhaps it had lost some of the weight of importance I had placed on it. Perhaps I was finally strong enough on the inside. Mostly, I can replicate it, but some days it still eludes me. Some days I still feel heavy. Some days I still compete with myself. It was one of those days that I stumbled across, without knowing quite how I got there, the video teaching free-standing handstand. In the 20-minute clip, the yoga teacher displays grace and strength, and a clear method of teaching (albeit using momentum!) her free handstand technique, which involves kicking up with both legs simultaneously. As I watched it, I found myself mentally rehearsing my next mat session, wondering how quickly it would take me, now that I’ve overcome the left-leg block that had been holding me back for so long.

Then she wrapped up the video with this final message: don’t forget, orient to the journey, not the goal. After all, she explained, it took her five years before she could balance in full handstand. I laughed and shut down the webpage. I can see I will need to live in peace with this unsolved problem.

Originally published here on Griffins Hill blog

Lift your heart up

I hate backbends. They make me anxious. I feel like I can’t breathe, and that something bad is going to happen while I am completely vulnerable and unable to quickly move out of the way. So for many years I have done what any sensible person would do faced with that scenario: grimaced through them in class and avoided them altogether in private practice.

Forward bends, on the other hand, are my friend. I love stretching my body out along my legs, and feel completely at peace and ease in any of the standing poses that involve hanging over my hips.

My favouring can be traced back to my pre-teen life as an aspiring ballerina. In ballet, forward bends are prized, almost as much (but not quite) as turnouts (rotating the leg from the hips to make the knee and foot turn outward).

I was hopeless at turnouts, but remember as a six-year-old proudly banging my chest on to the floor when asked to bend forward between wide straight legs (a ballet version of Upavistha Konasana – wide-seated forward bend pose).

If backbends are also taught in ballet, they arrived later in the curriculum than my truncated career allowed.

Once I told a friend who happens to also teach yoga about my loathing of backbends. She answered the way any good yoga teacher would: “That means you need more of them” and when I scowled, added: “You will fall in love with them. They are all about opening up the heart.” Ouch. Her words came at a time when I was experiencing and re-experiencing lifelong pain relating to a number of significant personal relationships. My pattern is to retreat from hurt, and keep myself closed. Her words rang around in my ears for some years before I began to embrace them. But it took my mother to finally bring the lesson home.

Mum is living in aged care. She entered there six years ago aged 67, as a strong, fit, slim woman who had walked her five dogs for two hours a day each morning on a long sandy beach in Western Australia. Her need for aged care did not relate to her physical health; instead it was her failing memory that needed care and intervention. While she remains in appropriate accommodation, one of the side-effects of her current care is the lack of physical exercise. Over the past few years I have watched her put on weight, and begin to shuffle rather than walk, staring at the ground in front of her feet. When we walked, I found myself asking her over and over again to lift her knees and look at the horizon, asking her to recall her long walks on the beach. My coaching had only momentary effect before she would once again revert to her navel. One day, I went to visit her and found her, sitting at the dining table, asleep, with her chin on her chest and her spine rounded like a walking stick. She had turned into an old person.

I wasn’t going to settle for that. I decided to reach back into her life, and remembered that when she was in her 20s and 30s, she had regularly practiced yoga. Thinking it might re-kindle a happy time in her life, I found a local yoga teacher willing to give her private lessons, once a week, in her room. Mum’s stiffness was so great that the first lesson involved little more than arm stretching. But Julia was intuitive. Hearing chest congestion and seeing the slumped shoulders, she asked Mum to place her hand on her heart. Then, whenever she saw her collapse into her chest she told her “lift your heart up”.

Mum has now had about six weeks of weekly lessons. I don’t believe Julia has yet had her on a mat; instead she has focused on that most basic of standing poses: standing. Usually, Mum forgets people as soon as she has met them and rarely recalls a conversation. But she has starting asking after Julia and when she is next going to visit. The other day my brother visited her and was stunned to hear her tell him to “walk tall, walk straight and look the world in the eye”. She’s started lifting her heart up.

That’s enough inspiration for me. I am ready to open my heart. And, when I’m 73, or 83, or 93, I want to still be looking the world in the eye. So Urdhva Dhanurasana (upward bow pose), here I come. I am ready to face my fear.

Originally published here on Griffins Hill blog

How I tricked myself into daily practice

What is it about home-alone yoga? I’m a grown-up, right? There are lots of things I can do every day, all by myself. I can eat. Shower. Brush my teeth. Check my emails. Even cuddle the friendly next door cat. These little daily tasks come easily, effortlessly almost, and I achieve them no matter what else is distracting me. But get on my yoga mat? Now there’s a tall order.

It seems to be not an unusual one. Lots of my friends, who have been regularly attending yoga classes for many years, admit they still fail in their aim for daily practice. For me, there’s been the usual excuses: I’m so busy, I’m so tired, I wouldn’t know what to practice (after all, there’s so many asanas to choose from!), I don’t have all the props …

Every now and then I have managed to get myself into a little routine. A few sun salutes, a forward bend or two, followed by a quick handstand. Or I might play for a few days with list I found on Facebook: the top ten yoga poses you MUST practice every day, or the Tibetan yoga routine or “five minute yoga”. These bursts of resolution are generally short-lived. Some days, if I am honest, the thought of unrolling the mat itself is just too much of a stretch.

About six weeks ago I decided to trick myself. One night, before I went to bed, I rolled out my yoga mat and placed it right in the middle of my room. When I got up the next morning and began stumbling towards the coffee pot, I got a little shock when I saw it lying there, quietly inviting. I stepped on it, and immediately straightened into Tadasana. Which led to a salute, and then some standing poses. Before I knew it I was rolling up the mat half an hour later.

I did the same thing the next night, and the next. Then I started to lay out some props as well. A blanket, a belt, a block. I realised I was giving myself a choice each morning: use this stuff, or put it away. So far, every day, I have used it.

Why has this approach worked where others have failed? I suspect it is about intention. With my little evening ritual – brush teeth, turn off music/computer/television, roll out the mat and props, I am setting an intention to practice in the morning. I guess it is like when I do the grocery shopping. I am setting an intention to cook. When I set my alarm, I am setting an intention to get up and go to work. When I write my friends’ birthdays in my calendar, I am setting an intention to call them on that day.

Come to think of it, intention is alive inside the asanas, too. When I lack the strength and control to lift my spine upwards in shoulder stand, or hinge at my hips in Uttanasana, or press the four corners of my feet to the floor in Tadasana – I focus on intending to do so.

The effort, it seems, is always in the intention. Who would have thought that would be enough?

Originally published here on Griffins Hill blog

It all started on Boxing Day

For a long time JP has wondered out loud that the Boxing Day quake had shaken up the earth so much it was causing all the other quakes around the region.

Tonight, the ABC’s 7.30 program interviewed Professor Kerry Sieh, a seismologist with the California Institute of Technology. Here is part of the transcript, which can also be seen (there’s a video link too), here:

“That sort of flurry of giant earthquakes has only occurred a couple of times in the historical records. We know there was a flurry of very large earthquakes in the 1830s, one of which Charles Darwin felt while he was in Chile during the voyage of the Beagle, and then again in the 1950s and early 1960s.

So the 2004 earthquake began a sequence that is now continuing through the Chilean earthquake of last year to the earthquake recently in Japan. We don’t know yet whether that’s going to be the end of it or whether in fact this extraordinarily robust sequence of great earthquakes will continue…

We can predict. We can’t predict the details of when a particular 8.4 or 8.7 or 9.2 or in the case of Christchurch a 6.3 will occur.

But we can say that there there be aftershocks to both the earthquakes that occurred last year in Chile, earthquakes that occurred in Christchurch and earthquake that occurred here in Japan.

For example, after the earthquake in 2004, we’ve had 50 earthquakes between magnitude 6 and 6.7 in Sumatra, we’ve had seven between, greater than 7.5. So we can say something about the numbers of aftershocks that will occur in that region of Japan.

We also have some long range forecasts of great earthquakes. For example, there’s an 8.8 that we forecast off the West coast of central Sumatra yet to happen. There are concerns about northern Chile, about southern Peru, which haven’t had great earthquakes for a long, long time. Similarly, between Taiwan and southern Japan and even parts of Japan still have the possibility of magnitude 8 or so in the next few decades.” – Professor Kerry Sieh

The terrible situation in Japan is a long way from being over. Even I, who lived through something similar, find it hard to comprehend what’s ahead for those communities. Until further notice, sales of my book (all of the income from the sales) will go towards disaster relief in Japan.


The situation in Japan is too terrible to contemplate. The people affected have all had their lives changed profoundly. Water, at its most powerful, is the most destructive (and creative) force on the planet. Most of us many hundreds of thousands of kilometres away can only weep from a distance. I know only too well how devestating the impact of such an event can be, so please be compassionate, non-judgemental and supportive of everyone involved. Be gentle with yourself and others. Life is a gift, if you have it please make sure you are using it to give to yourself and others.