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Shifting balance

I think “work-life balance” is a strange term. For starters, it implies we are not living at work. Secondly, it suggests that balance is an ultimate goal (of what – life or work?). Thirdly, it implies that one requires an equal amount of work and life in order to get that balance. Presumably under this formula one must “work” half the time? Does that include sleep? Or is sleep outside of life, too? How much time must one spend calculating if the balance is right?

I’m being silly, I know. It’s just a term. It means different things to different people. But I do know that for me, balance is far from restful. In fact, as most of my yoga practice has taught me, balance is bloody hard work. In all its yoga forms – be it on arms, legs, or pelvis – balance is ever-elusive and often momentary.


What happens when I balance in headstand, or half-moon pose? For me, the first thing I notice is where my mind is. If it is anywhere other than in the asana, balance is immediately lost. But mental laziness is not the only thing that will throw the balance: the asanas are unforgiving of even the

Kimina balancing in headstand
Kimina balancing in handstand

slightest physical laziness, too. Balance requires the activation of the entire muscular system. In other words, it takes an extraordinary harmony of mind and body.

Like all work involving strength, at least for me, the ability to sustain it is limited. I understand, theoretically at least, that it might not always have to be this way. We are in fact balancing, in a relatively relaxed way, when we stand. And walking is shifting balance from one foot to another. We are used to these actions, however, and they feel relatively effortless.

But doing it upside down? That’s a different matter. If there is ever a time when I can float without effort in bow pose, I am certain it is a long way off. At the moment it requires intense mental and physical effort. The balance shifts, moment to moment, sometimes by millimetres or fractions of a muscle movement. When my practice is sound, I can make the adjustment easily.

Being steady, alert and relaxed

So, is balance just a means to a better ends, rather than an aspiration in itself? What could that better ends be? Effortlessness? That seems to be what the great yogis have always counselled: to be steady, alert and relaxed in everything we do.

What if I could get there in my yoga practice? I could spend a lot more time upside down, or on one leg, for one thing! But how would that translate into the rest of my life?

Could I practice being steady, alert and relaxed in my work? In my relationship? In my quiet time with myself? As I shop, and walk, and visit friends, and read books? Can I find not balance, but let’s say harmony, within everything I do?

It sounds like something worth working toward.

Originally published here on Griffins Hill blog

Find your boundaries

Last time I wrote this blog, I added an afterword, and then deleted it. The blog was about finding stillness in asanas, and I extrapolated from that to wondering if I could find stillness in my busyness. Looking back, the blog, as my life, was more about the busyness than the stillness, but we can only yearn for our own success. The unpublished postscript went something like this:

Afterword, six hours later: When I got up from writing this blog, I found myself in acute back pain that has since increased. I’ve had to abandon all plans for the rest of the day, and possibly the next few. A message from the universe? 

That was ten weeks ago.  As it turned out, an inflamed L5 disc has significantly changed my plans for most days since. Don’t get me wrong, this was no permanent injury (I hope). A couple of housebound weeks, take it easy, get some treatment and I’d be back.

That’s pretty much gone to plan.  Only my new “back” is not a lot like the old one. Some of my old favourite activities, including walking, are all but out of the question. My yoga practice has become limited to a handful of poses – mostly lying poses. Forward bends, once my delight, are now little more than an intention.

I do still roll out my yoga mat, if only for a few minutes, on more than a couple of days in the week, and I have relegated myself down to a less advanced class once a week. But I look with envy on others doing inversions, or even standing poses, and wonder if I will ever feel that strength and flexibility again.

The pain comes in bursts now, not constant as before, so I am improving. I can drive, carry small bags of shopping and do most of the day-to-day things that life demands. I can walk, at a calm pace, for about 15 minutes. If I push beyond that I am literally hobbling back to my car. It can be scary. Once the pain grabbed me when I was half-way through crossing a quiet street, slowing me down so much that a distant car had caught up and had to stop to let me pass.

Then someone said something that made me think. It was an osteopath, who happens also to be a yoga student. He was sitting beside the table I was lying on with his hand holding my sacrum, allowing it, I think to rest and let go of the tension, and I was complaining about my continued restrictions. “Disk injuries teach you where your boundaries are,” he said. “You know the instant you hit them. You have to learn to live within your boundaries”.

Boundaries? I looked around my life and saw few. My work has too often bled into my home-life. I haven’t been good at saying no to bad relationship behaviour, nor opening my self up to positive friendship. My conscious awareness of my own body is so limited that I often bump into corners as I pass through doorways. These are things I have been aware of for some time, and have been slowly doing something about improving upon. But the problem with vague boundaries, is they are, well vague.

The injury is my new gift. It tells me where my edge is. Within that limit, however, I can explore as much as I like. My regular yoga teacher is only too happy to assist. Last week he made me stand on my knees, and told me to work activate my psoas muscle all the way from my lesser trochanter, over my front hip and back to my spine beside my L5. I can’t even pretend that I succeeded. But I concentrated on the action for about half the yoga class. When I couldn’t stay on my knees, I lay flat on the floor and worked on the same action. It was physically and mentally exhausting.

Well within my boundaries, but a massive stretch as well.


Kimina Lyall with Clara the Cardigan Corgi

Still busy

I once heard a saying by a Buddhist teacher. It may have been the Dalai Lama, or another wise person. Asked how long one should meditate for each day, he replied: “Thirty minutes. Unless you are very busy. In which case, one hour.”

I wish I could say I followed that advice, in meditation or yoga or any other form of self-care. But I don’t. For me, busy begets busy. Right now I have rather a lot on, what with commitments to work, study, friendship, volunteering … and the list goes on. I’ve shaken up my life over the past couple of years, and the pieces as still falling back into place. I tend to bounce from deadline to deadline, scrambling to find time to squeeze everything I want to do in.

This is all my choice, of course. A couple of years ago a health problem prevented me from achieving much more than simply getting up and going to work each day. Now that I have energy, I want to expend it. I fill up my days, mostly, with things that bring me joy, or at the very least, satisfaction.

There’s a price, of course, and it can be measured in the things I let slip. Daily yoga practice. No-reason phone calls to friends. That extra hour of sleep. I can get away without these, for a time. And then I find myself getting faster and faster. I rush from one meeting to the next. I leave my desk at work with half-written emails on my screen, simply because I am suddenly late. At home, bills pile up, unopened. I multi-task – listen to a lecture while walking, make phone calls in the car, eat on the run.  These habits creep into my life like a slow-moving flood; unnoticed until overwhelm hits.

But it wasn’t until recently when a friend observed that I simply walk too fast to keep up with, that I got the wake up call. I started to ponder the difference between action and activation. And my thoughts turned to yoga.

My mat is the best mirror on how I am travelling internally. How easily do I balance? How tight is my pelvis? How heavy is my lift to handstand?

The asanas I practice take the Iyengar approach. This suits me as I like the focused awareness. It sends my mind into my body and helps alleviate my tendency to dissociate.  But there is another aspect I have only recently come to appreciate: the length of time holding a pose. This is one of the better measures of my inner peace. How long does my patience last? Of course, at the time, I don’t understand it is patience I am lacking. My mind complains: about the teacher having forgotten he’s left us in the pose; or about the pain in my muscles; the fatigue in my legs. Or simply about the pose itself (I have a few “most disliked”).

“Find the stillness inside the pose,” a former teacher once said, after she had left us so long the class was audibly groaning. “Stop resisting”. It is powerful advice, and, applying it, I have learned to search beyond the pain point to that place of peace and effortlessness. Interestingly, it doesn’t always eliminate the intensity of the stretch, but it does soothe it, or perhaps provide a counterpoint balance.

So my motto this month is to apply the yoga to this challenge and find the stillness in the busyness. Can I write two essays, get away a major project at work, begin plans for renovations, spend a weekend supporting a not-for-profit organisation I am a director of, and eat well, practice yoga, sleep well, walk slowly, breathe? Can I shift my focus from the stress to the ease?

Already, there is some success. This very commitment – writing this blog – has been my first conscious attempt at this. As the deadline has loomed, rather than getting stressed and anxious, I have focused on reminding myself that it will come together, in stillness, at the right time. And so it has. Now back to that essay.

Originally published here on Griffins Hill blog

Let go, Let in

Have you ever noticed when you hold your breath it is always with the air in? Have you ever “held your breath” after your out breath? It is possible to do for a few seconds, but not without conscious awareness and focus. Inevitably, the body fights for life. Yet holding your breath in is as easy as … well, breathing. For me, the practice is almost automatic. I especially do it when I am stressed, anxious, or stepping out of my comfort zone—in almost every difficult asana (and life situation), in other words.

In many ways, my Iyengar practice accentuates this problem. Don’t get me wrong – I love Iyengar, and I have had a number of extraordinary Iyengar yoga teachers who have guided me deep into the poses and deep into my body. Who’d have thought that I could improve my headstand by drawing the flesh on the soles of my feet toward my heels, for example? An Iyengar teacher taught me that (though I am still not quite sure how to do it!). Where else might I have learned that it is my legs that do the work in forward bends, not the spine? What other practice might have so successfully invited me to focus so deeply on distinguishing each muscle from the others that I find myself fully inside my body (rather than my head).

But recently, at a party, I got talking to a former Iyengar, now Ashtanga, yoga teacher. Her explanation as to why she shifted was breath. “Sometimes I look at Iyengar students and I get scared—they just don’t breathe!” she said. It got me thinking. A few weeks ago I found myself in an Ashtanga class, and while I did notice the lack of attention to posture detail, I also noted how vigilant the teacher was in guiding our each and every breath.

Horses for courses, perhaps. Ashtanga is dynamic and flowing. Iyengar is thoughtful and considered. But, I wondered, what if I brought breath into my Iyengar practice?

One of the things I played with was holding my breath, just to be conscious of the impact of doing this. I had always used breath to guide my sun salutes, but what about breathing in standing poses that I hold for minutes at a time?

First, it is hard! My mind actually fights the practice. My first urge is to hold the breath along with the pose, and to pull out of the pose at the moment I finally let go of my breath. This was so habitual it was a shock. What if the tiredness I feel when holding asana for a length of time has nothing to do with strength or flexibility, but is driven by my forgetting to breathe?

One way I have been playing with this idea is to hold the breath out. This is, as I have mentioned, extremely hard to do without awareness. If this were a proxy for all else in life, what does it mean? That it is easier to hold tight to something than it is to let go? That we need consciousness and discipline to live with emptiness? Or simply; that our lungs abhor a vacuum?

Regardless, it is insightful practice. When I hold my breath out, my body cries out for air. This small shift then helped me become more conscious of delivering oxygen to the part of the body that most needs it—the part doing the most work in the pose—rather than simply collapsing out of the asana.

What next? If I can let in, as well as let go, what else can I let into my practice, and to my life? Self-care, love, gentleness? From this small step I can see that my yoga practice doesn’t have to be a fight between my mind and body, in fact I can use my mind to draw what I need into my asana, and into my life.

After all, as I read on a sign in a studio recently: Yoga without mindfulness is just an exercise class.

Originally published here on Griffins Hill blog

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