Elly McDonald

Writer


1 Comment

Grounded (February 2011)

This article first appeared in 2011 in the magazine Australian Yoga Life. Some things have changed since I wrote it. For starters, I dye my hair and wear more makeup. And I’m no longer working towards handstand. But the essential principles have not changed: progress gently, with awareness, and practice equanimity.

All my life I wanted to be like my grandmother, so it wasn’t surprising I should take up yoga. My grandmother had a daily yoga practice, and as a child in the ‘60s I watched her perform halasana (plow pose), headstand and other asanas in the living room of my childhood home. She was strong, flexible and graceful, an inspiring role model.

As I approach the age she was then, I find myself enacting small homages to my grandmother. Like her, I don’t dye my hair, and it’s turning a similar soft silver mouse. As she did, I’ve reduced my makeup to little more than light brown-pink lipstick (hers was called ‘Cocoa’). And I practice yoga daily.

But by temperament I’m not much like my grandmother. In my 20s and 30s I used a calming mantra inspired by Gladys: “Resourceful, resilient, serene”. I had to repeat this a lot, because I really wasn’t those things. Instead, family members kept comparing to my grandfather. My grandfather, Gladys’s husband, was a remarkable personality, but the comparisons scared me. Despite his considerable achievements, all I could see was that my grandfather was mentally ill. He was dramatically bi-polar. In his later years he found some relief through the prescription medication lithium.

My life turned out turbulent too. My illness was nowhere near as dramatic as his, but I suffered from anxiety, depression and eating disorders. While my grandfather was successful professionally and widely admired, my history is littered with failed careers, failed relationships, failed projects.

No matter how often family members tell me biochemistry is nothing to be ashamed of (“No more than insulin dependency for a diabetic”), I felt the stigma of mental illness.

My yoga practice was helpful but inconsistent.

Early in 2010 I became conscious that my 50th birthday was looming. I had it in my head that saw my 50th as a milestone: this would be the defining moment to appraise what I’d made of my life. I decided that on my 50th birthday, I’d perform a handstand. This wasn’t a completely delusional ambition. I’d been a competitive gymnast as a child, so my self-image included the concept “capable of handstands.” My yoga class provided an environment where I could revisit handstand under the guidance of an encouraging teacher. I was up for it.

In fact I was impatient. The big 5-0 was still 15 months away, but I felt I should be able to perform perfect handstands immediately. Instead, within a few sessions of practice attempts I’d snapped my right big toe. I misjudged a landing, slamming my full weight, with momentum, into a toe I’d left beautifully pointing. The impact made a dramatic cracking sound.

That cracking sound marked a shift in how I perceived myself, and in how I experience yoga.

I saw at once that the handstand that resulted in my injury was not a genuine, focused attempt but instead a reckless flail, an accident waiting to happen. I’d flung my legs up in frustrated pique, annoyed that I couldn’t instantly command the poise and strength that I aspired to. My ‘handstand’ was an inverted sulk, with an inevitable crash landing.

I saw how my state of mind translated into physical outcomes.

I saw, too, that the particular state of mind that resulted in this injury characterised the way I was living my life – flinging myself into situations, driven by frustrations, by anger (often at my own inadequacies), as if I didn’t care about the fall-out, incurring unnecessary damage.

My project now is to challenge this pattern – to unlearn the habit of self-destructive flailing. Yoga class seemed a good place to start.

I now have a new mantra to supplement “Resourceful, resilient, serene”. Similarly inspired by the memory of Gladys, I start each yoga session with an intention: “Calm, grounded, balanced, graceful.”

I’m still working on handstand (coming along nicely, thanks), but rather than fixate on perfecting a particular physical action I’m finding it serves me better to focus on a state of mind. Some mornings I recognise I’m inclined to the opposite (“Agitated, unstable, unbalanced, awkward”).   But gradually, with the help of my yoga practice, I’m dwelling more and more in a desired state of being.

Calm. Grounded. Balanced. Graceful.

Image


1 Comment

Buddhist thoughts at Easter (18 April 2014)

Image

In my yoga teaching, I believe the most important part of the session is the concluding practice, which is generally termed Savasana. But the meditation that concludes most yoga classes, valuable though it is, is seldom “savasana” in the classical yoga sense. Instead, many yoga teachers, myself included, substitute some form of guided meditation, often a visualisation.

The meditation I often use to end classes, especially prenatal classes, is some form of metta meditation, “metta” being a word from the ancient Pali language – the language of the Shakhyamuni Buddha, the historical figure Siddhartha Gautama – often translated as “compassion”. It is perhaps more accurately translated as “loving kindness”, and in the book Cultivating Compassion (Broadway Books, New York 2001) author J Hopkins translates it as “unselfish and unconditional kindness to others”. A distinction is held between “loving kindness” (metta) and “compassion” (karuna), with “loving kindness” understood to mean “the desire to promote the happiness of others” and compassion understood as the desire to alleviate the suffering of others, “the heartfelt wish that sentient beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering” – a subtle distinction, but a distinction nonetheless.

The metta meditation itself is translated various ways, which you can locate easily via google. The version I most often use is this:

May you be safe
May you be well
May you be happy
May you be free
May you be at peace

I guide my yoga students into a meditative state, focusing on the breath, then cultivating the image of a soft golden-white light that gently pulses from their heart centre throughout their upper torso. Then I introduce them to the phrases of the metta meditation. I ask them to mentally repeat each phrase after I speak it. First we go through the meditation with each phrase directed to themselves: to their own well-being and happiness. Then I ask them to visualise a person they love, and we go practice with each phrase directed to that person. Then I ask them to visualise someone they have neutral feelings towards, perhaps a workmate or an acquaintance, and we direct each phrase to that person. Then I ask them to think of someone they have difficulties with, suggesting that they not choose the person at the very top of their “problem people” list, as the negative emotions evoked might be too strong for them to engage with effectively in the context of this yoga class, tonight: they might need to work up to directing metta towards someone they’re really struggling with, emotionally. Then I ask them to think of a category of people to whom we’ll direct the metta meditation phrases: a group, who might be a family, a community, a special interests group, an ethnicity, a nation.

Finally, I ask them to take their focus back to that soft, living, glowing white light at their heart centre, to visualise this soft healing light as an orb, and to release it towards the mental image of that category of people towards whom we’ve just directed metta phrases. This is based on a Tibetan Buddhist practise known as tonglen. Releasing the golden-white light towards the image of these people in no way diminishes the healing energies pulsating throughout the meditator. Instead, it extends love and compassion from that person – that mind-body that generally experiences itself as “separate”, as an individual – out into the environment to the wider community and by extension into the oneness that is our true state.

I love the metta meditation. It never fails to flood me with benevolent, healing feelings, and I believe almost always has a similar effect on my yoga students. Very often after practicing the metta meditation my students are reluctant to rouse themselves to conclude their yoga session.

Why am I writing about this, today?

This week I am struggling with metta. Truth to tell, metta is not always my default emotional state. Too often I hold onto resentments and mistrust.

In Buddhism, metta and karuna are considered to be incompatible with anger, hatred, envy and jealousy. Metta and karuna are two of the Four Sublime States, the Immeasurables, known in Buddhism as the Brahma Viharas. The two others are mudita – joy in others’ joy (the opposite of the German term Schadenfreude) – and upekkha, which is equanimity, being calm and even-tempered. Needless to say, I’m not a natural at these, either.

Given I need to consciously direct my attention to generate loving kindness, compassion, joy in others’ joys, and equanimity, I was extremely interested recently when psychologist and neuroscientist Rick Hanson shared on his Facebook site an academic research paper on the efficacy of meditations based on the Brahma Viharas when used in therapeutic contexts: variously, for psychiatric states such as depression, anxiety, chronic anger, personality disorders; and also for the relief of chronic back pain and other chronic medical conditions not considered primarily psychiatric.

The paper was published in Clinical Psychology Review 31 (2011) and is titled Loving Kindness and compassion meditations: potential for psychological interventions. Its authors are Stefan G Hofman (Boston University, USA), Paul Grossman (University of Basel Hospital, Germany) and Devon E Hinton (Harvard Medical School, USA). You can access this research paper via http://www.wisebrain.org/media/Papers/MettaPsychotherapy.pdf

In this paper, the authors cite the classical formulation of the metta meditation, from the Buddhist tradition Book 1, uraga vagga [the Snake Book], cunda kammaraputta sutta:

May this person be free from enmity
May this person be free from mental suffering
May this person be free from physical suffering
May this person take care of him/her self happily

I like this very much and have resolved that across the Easter period I will meditate on this rendering of the classical language, even though it’s a bit more unwieldy than the simpler version I’m more familiar with, and even though at Easter, Christian meditations might seem more appropriate. I love the Christian tradition, too – but in honesty, in terms of practical tools (how to cultivate love for my neighbour? How to cultivate love for my sibling, at those times when frankly I’m not feeling it?) – the Buddhist tradition gets down to brass tacks.

At the Last Supper, Jesus instructed his disciples: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I love you, you should love one another” (John 13:34).

We know we should. The issue, sometimes, is how.

So this week I am using the toolkit that is the Brahma Viharas to honour the life, and death, and life again, of that great Buddha, that great Awakened Being: Jesus Christ.

[P.S. If you’re interested in why what’s taught in yoga classes as “savasana” is generally not the classical Savasana, that’s a topic for another time.]