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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

Do you have a charity you want to raise money for?

Hire me (I’m free!) as a guest speaker to a function or event to talk about my life-changing experiences in the tsunami and what I have learned about love, life and paying attention.

The proceeds of any books sold on the night will be 100% donated to your organisation. No conditions, no spin. I love telling my story and I love the opportunity to give back to the community.

I live in Melbourne, Australia, but am willing to consider travelling anywhere to acheive my goal and support your charity!

Contact me now to discuss!

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.

Australian Tsunami Research Fund

I wrote part of my book on Golden Buddha Beach, bizarrely feeling safer and stronger returning to the island rather than in the strangely foreign world of Melbourne. At the time, there were hardly any people living at the resort, as it was still only barely functioning. One day, I noticed a group of people walking down the beach. I greeted them as they approached and the explained they were scientists researching the tsunami. “Do you happen to know an Australian journalist who was here when the tsunami hit?” they asked? And so began an important friendship. One of those scientists, Professor James Goff, is now at the University of NSW in Sydney and he has established The Australian Tsunami Research Centre, a global leader in tsunami research. It is unique in the Australasian region in that it uses the combined skills of geologists, engineers, sociologist, policy scientists and ecologist to not only understand the SCIENCE of tsunamis but to understand how to properly educate people to understand that tsunami. Another of those scientists I met that day is Prof Walter Dudley, retired now from the University of Hawaii but no less passionate about his work. He has spent decades interviewing tsunami survivors in order to understand survival! He is in Australia at the moment helping researchers interview survivors of rips in Australian oceans. Fascinating work. I love the way these guys think about using their skills to actuallyl make a difference in future tsunamis. Walt was telling me the other day that there hasn’t been a “pacific wide” tsunami for more than 100 years, and normally there’s at least one every 50 years. But I can’t believe how frequent tsunamis have been since the 2004 one. Anyway the point of this post is to say I’ve decided to donate all the proceeds of my book now to the Australian Tsunami Research Fund. Apologies for the yellow post-it note at the top of the page still saying Samoa. Indirectly it is still helping Samoa as James is doing a lot of work there, but I need to get my coder to change that (I don’t know how to do it myself!). So thank you for continuing to be interested in my work and my book. Anyway you can find out more about the Australian Tsunami Research Centre: http://www.nhrl.unsw.edu.au/

End of the Red Cross campaign

It is with sadness that I report the closure of my “everyday hero” page through the Red Cross as they have closed their Pacific Tsunami appeal. I fell a long way short of my fundraising goal. Lessons learned: a. you really have to put HEAPS of time into something like this. It has given me a new respect for people who do raise thousands of dollars in their spare time for their favourite causes. b. Get onto lots of people’s lists. This I didn’t really manage to do, largely because I was a little shy asking people I know who have long lists and also because of a. (I didn’t put enough time in). Still, something is better than nothing and I haven’t given up … I will just be directing the money I raise from now on directly to charities in Samoa, rather than through the Red Cross. I’ll keep you updated. Finally, I want to send out a huge thank you to everyone who did support my goal and who either bought a copy of my book or donated directly. May all your dreams come true.

Journalists killed in Maguindanao, Mindanao

I have been stunned by the news that around 37 journalists have been killed in the Philippines while they were doing their job – following a political candidate’s ambitions to run for Mayor. In the Philippines politics is so often linked with violence, but as the link to the story below by Aquiles Zonio shows (I’ve also cut and pasted it), it appears that the politician concerned hoped and planned to use the presence of journalists and women in his family to protect himself from his expectations of an attack from his political enemies. This is one of the great functions of journalism: exposure. When actions by people in power are reported openly and are “seen” by others, it therefore follows that those people will behave better. It would be shocking to think instead that in this case the bandits targeted the media and the women-led entourage precisely to gain more notoriety and publicity for their cause.

According to Reporters without Borders, never has the media anywhere in the world lost so many in a single day. But journalists are not safe in the Philippines – the country has a reputation of being one of the worst in the world for killings of reporters. So get this: last year the Philippines maintained this reputation with 8 deaths during the year, according to Reporters without Borders. This week’s incident will see the country now become the new benchmark in a barometre of darkness.

The journalists I have met in the Philippines are passionate people – passionate for their craft and passionate for their stories. Many of them are paid very little, usually only by the story. They know the corruption on which they report could lead them to their deaths, but they believe, as we all should, that corruption must be exposed. Some of them, like reporters everywhere, have no grand ulterior motives, they just enjoy chasing strong, moving yarns.

Perhaps this incident will become a catalyst for change in the Philippines. I hope so. I fear instead however that reporters everywhere will become a little more cautious, a little more hesitant in their work as they know that the spotlight they bring to a story could become a beam on their own vulnerability.

There will be campaigns of support, for the families, for press freedom, for the recognition that journalists throughout the world do dangerous, honourable jobs. Please support those campaigns.

Here is the link to the story I referred to: http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/breakingnews/nation/view/20091124-238100/Inquirer-man-recounts-harrowing-tales-of-survival

Here is the article:

Hotel incident made us skip media convoy at last minute
By Aquiles Zonio
Inquirer Mindanao
First Posted 04:03:00 11/25/2009

TACURONG CITY—Ian Subang, a longtime friend and former colleague in the now defunct Gensan Media Cooperative, was in his usual jovial mood that Monday morning, poking fun and exchanging jokes with us.

Alejandro “Bong” Reblando, Manila Bulletin reporter covering Socsksargen (South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani and General Santos City), was, as always, in his fighting mood—insistent and persistent with his own opinions.

He was always late during media events, so we used to tease him “The Late” Bong Reblando.

That last joust among us took place outside the living room of the mansion of Assemblyman Khadafy Mangudadatu of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in Buluan, Maguindanao.

A few hours later and 50 kilometers away, Subang, Reblando and 32 other media practitioners would meet their tragic deaths in the hands of a ruthless band of armed goons in Ampatuan town, also in Maguindanao.

That painful truth refuses to sink in my consciousness.

Subang would usually play the role of a clown and he could easily make anyone in the group smile with his jokes.

Reblando, the most senior among us, was contented with acting as Big Brother. He was already a radio reporter when I was still in high school, way back in the 1980s.

That Monday, a few hours before they were kidnapped and slaughtered, we were enjoying a pastel breakfast served by our host. Reblando, Joseph Jubelag, Paul Bernaldez and I were discussing with Assemblyman Mangudadatu and his legal counsel, Cynthia Oquendo-Ayon, the security concerns and scenarios that may arise in an intense yet cordial exchange of ideas.

We were insisting that reporters covering the scheduled filing of the certificate of candidacy (CoC) of Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, vice mayor of Buluan, must be assured of their safety. Mangudadatu is seeking the gubernatorial position in Maguindanao.

Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr. ran unopposed in the 2007 elections. Vice Mayor Mangudadatu claimed that he had received reports that the Ampatuans threatened to chop him into pieces once he filed his CoC.

The Ampatuans are considered above the law, warlords and political demigods in Maguindanao, Mangudadatu said. Someone must come to the fore to bring about change and improve the lives of Bangsamoro people, he added.

He said he had requested for security escorts from Chief Supt. Paisal Umpa, ARMM police director, but this was turned down. A similar appeal for help to the Philippine Army went unheeded.

Had the police or military provided security escorts, the mass slaughter of defenseless women and journalists could have been prevented.

Massive movements

A week earlier, according to the Mangudadatus, there were massive movements of the Ampatuan political clan’s armed followers—police, civilian volunteers and militiamen—in the area.

Believing on the “power” of the media, Vice Mayor Mangudadatu, who felt helpless, sought help from journalists. He asked Henry Araneta of dzRH radio station to contact other media practitioners to cover the scheduled filing of his CoC in the Commission on Elections (Comelec) provincial office in Shariff Aguak town.

Araneta was able to invite 37 journalists from the cities of General Santos, Tacurong and Koronadal.

“Maybe, they will not harm us if journalists are watching them,” Mangudadatu had said.

Mangudadatu disclosed that he organized a support group of women, led by his wife Genalyn; elder sister, Vice Mayor Eden Mangudadatu of Mangudadatu town, youngest sibling Bai Farinna Mangudadatu, and lawyers Oquendo-Ayon and Connie Brizuela.

The women from Buluan should be the ones to file his CoC, no security escorts, only journalists to avoid creating tension, he said.

“Under our tradition, Muslim women are being respected. They should not be harmed just like innocent children and the elders,” Mangudadatu stressed.

Active role for women

Eden, his sister-in-law and younger sister were also in a jovial mood before departing to Shariff Aguak. She was even saying that Muslim women should play a more active role in Maguindanao politics to attain genuine social change and economic progress.

“This is women power in action. Let’s help our men chart a better future for the province,” she was heard as saying.

We were confident that nothing bad would happen as some of us in the convoy frequently visited the provincial capitol.

All in all, there were 58 people in the convoy—37 journalists, 16 Muslim women who carried Mangudadatu’s CoC and five drivers.

After several attempts, I was able to contact Maj. Gen. Alfredo Cayton, commanding general of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, through a mobile phone.

He gave an assurance that the national highway going to Shariff Aguak had already been cleared and safe for travel. He even added that police checkpoints littered the long route from Isulan town in Sultan Kudarat to Shariff Aguak.

Five vehicles, led by the L300 van of UNTV, left Buluan at around 9:30 a.m. that Monday. I was with UNTV reporter Victor Nuñez, his cameraman and driver, and Bernaldez.

Fuel stop

However, while the vehicles were refueling at the Petron station in Buluan, I decided to transfer to Joseph Jubelag’s vehicle to accompany him. Bernaldez followed me.

The convoy proceeded. We decided, however, to follow the rest of the group after dropping by BF Lodge in Tacurong, where we had stayed the night before, to get some valuables we left and meet some personal necessities.

Two hotel attendants approached me and said two unidentified men riding on separate motorcycles had just left three minutes ago and were asking for the names of journalists covering Mangudadatu’s filing of CoC. The hotel management did not give any name.

The revelation made us change our minds and decided against going to Shariff Aguak. On our way back to Buluan, we tried to contact our media colleagues several times but failed to reach them.

Upon arriving in Buluan, Vice Mayor Mangudadatu told us that the vehicles were seized by the Ampatuans’ armed followers. Journalists, his relatives and his family’s supporters were abducted and killed.

Several military sources disclosed that innocent motorists traveling from Buluan to Tacurong were seized and executed on mere suspicion of being followers of the Mangudadatus.

Dead journalists

I remember the names of only 24 of the journalists in the group.

They were Subang, Reblando, Leah Dalmacio, Gina Dela Cruz and Maritess Cablitas, all of Mindanao Focus, a General Santos City-based weekly community newspaper; Bart Maravilla of Bombo Radyo-Koronadal City; Jhoy Duhay of Mindanao Goldstar Daily; Henry Araneta of dzRH; Andy Teodoro of Central Mindanao Inquirer.

Neneng Montano of Saksi weekly newspaper; Victor Nuñez of UNTV and Macmac Arriola, his cameraman; Jimmy Cabillo, a radioman based in Koronadal; Rey Merisco, Ronnie Perante, Jun Legarta, Val Cachuela and Humberto Mumay, all Koronadal-based journalists; Joel Parcon, Noel Decena, John Caniba, Art Belia, Ranie Razon and Nap Salaysay.

Later that night, gory scenes of slain media colleagues kept flashing on my mind. For the very first time in my life, I didn’t have a decent sleep.

Once again, several working journalists shed their blood in the name of press freedom. This, however, will not deter or discourage us from doing our job.

Underpaid and under threat, be that as it may, we will continue answering the call of our beloved profession.

Back in Bangkok

I’m back in Bangkok for a fellowship on journalism and trauma for journalists across Australia, as part of the Dart Centre for journalism and trauma. It starts tomorrow so I haven’t met the fellows yet but it feels timely what with Samoa, Philippines and Indonesian catastrophes. We’re missing at least one participant because he is now homeless, and many more are flying in direct from these zones. These disasters take years to recover from for those people living right in the thick of it. See this great story by Stephen Fitzpatrick on the PTSD impact of the earthquake in Padang on the people in Banda Aceh. http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,,26184866-25837,00.html
Another interesting piece is speculation from scientists (after previously denying it) that the recent earthquakes are linked: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,26196445-5013404,00.html