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Practice Journal Excerpts, Australia 2015

23 Nov 15 Arcadia Farm, Maleny, QLD

After 48 hours of travel and no sleep, I lie on the floor with my legs raised and my calves resting on the low bed. The back of my head presses into the hessian carpet. I hear birdsong. Not the polite conversation of English birds, but the loud raucous whoop and craw of something much more exotic. I am held by the earth in just the same way as I would be at home, but I am aware of being in a different relationship to things. I am in a different place in space.

After a while of wondering why sleep doesn't come, my palms press down beside my hips and I tip into plough pose, my legs to the floor above my head. I am upside down Down Under. My knees rest on my forehead. I hang, smelling warmth dust and eucalyptus. I know that the flavour of the air I breathe has changed, but I can't say how.

24 Nov 15 Noosa Beach, QLD

I am alone whilst the others swim. From sitting, I push myself up into a Deep Squat, my feet hip-width apart, my toes turned out, my sit-bones almost touching the sand. I lengthen my spine and open my chest: I want to be as erect as possible. I push my feet further into the earth, spreading my toes. The sand is powdery and soft like flour. It is pleasing to be covered up to my ankles. The more I push into my feet, the taller and wider my torso becomes.

I cross my wrists in front of me, touch my palms and then extend my straight arms upwards, bringing them alongside my ears. A strong, warm breeze dances across my skin. I hear the sound of the ocean and the voices of those who enjoy her. I grow up and out of this fine white sand, reaching for the deep blue sky. I soak up my environment like a sponge. I breath it in, metabolize. For a tantalizingly brief moment, I become it. I release my arms and shift my weight back to sit again. I am open, satisfied.

As soon as the sun sets, jet lag grips me and my body wants to sleep. The desire is overpowering. The only way to stay awake is to stay upright. So I start to pace. I slide the screen door back and step onto the deck in the hope of being enlivened by cool air.

I continue to pace up and down, round and round. In the room behind I can hear laughter and chat and the sound of a meal being prepared. In the darkness in front, fruit bats swoop to the rhythm of almost deafening frog call.

The pacing turns into practice. I reach into an upward stretch, my body long and lithe. I curl down into a forward bend and hang loosely for what seems like a long while. I sway slightly. I engage the muscles of my legs and then soften them to reach forward a little more. I uncurl to standing and see sheet lightening flicker over far hills. There is the faintest rumble of thunder. I feel the texture of wood grain on the soles of my feet. I am aware of the gaps in the slatted deck.

My fingers interlace and my palms reach up to the night sky. I part my feet wide and press them down firmly. I pull my hands to the left, bringing my right elbow behind my head. I enjoy pressing my head into my arm to stretch out the shoulder area front and back. Maintaining this pressure, I lean my torso to the left and respond to a delicious opening all through the right side. This feels new, fresh. I try it on the other side and then alternate. Sometimes my knees are bent, sometimes straight.

Eventually I release and bring my arms down, aware of the tingling in my fingers as the blood returns. I turn left into a reverse triangle pose, fingers pressing into the deck, feet adjusting, torso elongating. As with the side stretch, I alternate right and left a few times, looking for the place of greatest ease and maximum openness. The I stand, bringing my feet together. From the house, I hear the strumming of a banjo.

25 Nov 15 Pat's Weekly Yoga Class, Montville, QLD (Iyengar-inspired)

The studio joins the teacher's house. I walk up the steps and leave my shoes on the deck. I fetch props from a side room and set myself up in a corner. I lay out my travel mat, a blanket, 2 blocks and a bolster and settle into Reclining Tailor.

The studio has a high-ceiling and a thin strip of window towards the top of the walls. It is dusk. The windows and doors are open, bringing a welcome breeze into the hot room. I hear the repetitive crack of a whip bird singing for rain. We move through a slow warm up, which includes 'Cane Toad' pose - Wide-Knee Child with an Aussie twist!

The core of the practice consists of balances moving into standing postures: Tree to Warrior II and Triangle, Tree to Warrior II and Extended Side Angle, Eagle to Reverse Triangle, Shiva to Warrior I. We try Standing Forward Bend with our buttocks on the wall, moving into Dog. We try Lifted Knee Balances, starting with wall support from behind. We sit in Staff Pose and move into Twists and Side Stretches.

We practice Shoulderstand with folded blankets and wall support. I am aware that I rush into the pose, unsure of how to maximise support of the props. The teacher tells me that my left shoulder is forward. I adjust and my neck feels freer. Once settled, I enjoy being upside down looking up towards my slightly swaying feet.

Darkness falls and suddenly there is the deafening sound of cicadas, as if someone flicked a switch and turned them on. Through the grilled windows I see shadowy palm fronds shining in the moonlight. I am surprised by how long I want to stay in this pose, but eventually I release, taking care to spread my shoulders into the blankets and extend my neck on the way down.

We settle into Relaxation Pose and taste Yoga Nidra, the manic cackle of a kookaburra filling the air. A light silk shawl is all that is required to keep me warm.

26 Nov 15 Arcadia Farm, Maleny, QLD

I am restless. I roll out the travel mat in the bedroom, wanting the comfort of a carpeted floor beneath me, but my practice doesn't flow. Asanas feel disjointed and Free Movement doesn't come.

I decide to set up outside instead, placing my mat on the fat-bladed grass in the shade of a tree. The ground slopes gently and it takes me a moment to find balance, but slowly I discover poses that work.

I sit for a long time in Cow's Head, enjoying the soft pull in my hips and re-meeting the familiar tightness in my right shoulder, the tendons taut like wire. Ants explore my legs and feet. A combination of breeze and sun warmth touch my skin.

Two small fighting birds tumble to the floor in front of me, too engrossed in their battle to notice my human presence. With a confusion of feathers and a cascade of song, they part, swooping so close that I can almost feel the touch of their wings.

I move into Seated Tailor and bow forward, grateful to be just a tiny, sentient part of this vast pulsing landscape that surround me.

27 Nov 15 Arcadia Farm, Maleny, QLD

It is difficult to find time and space to move as the house is full of comings and goings in the build up to the Big Party Weekend. But I find a square of sunshine in front of a window and grab a few minutes.

I roll forward and back, lifting and lowering my legs, conscious of wanting to strengthen my core both physically and energetically. Being around so many people is unusual for me and losing sight of centre is a clear possibility. So I focus on my navel, tensing and releasing abdominal muscles, breathing to my belly, filling the space with light.

I move into Headstand, testing core and balance by repeatedly touching my legs to the floor. The mosquito bite on the edge of my right hand wakes up and makes itself felt.

I come into Child, rest, then sit with my legs wide, disturbing the curtain with my foot. A tiny striped lizard runs out and looks, turning his head to one side, surveying me with an eye smaller than a poppy seed. Perhaps I am too big for him to comprehend, for he doesn't seem to mind that I am there. He makes for the patch of sun I'm in and we sit together in stillness, my body erect, his curving sinuously left and then right. The curtain flutters in the wind.

29 Nov 15 Arcadia Farm, Maleny, QLD

I am jaded from the excesses of the celebrations which went on until late last night. Meditation feels like wading through mud.

I stand and stretch upwards. I roll my shoulders. Slowly, I move through three rounds of Sun Salutation, my body heavy as lead, my muscles short and unyielding. I step into Triangle.

Outside, I hear them fill a bath with ice to keep the beer cold for the barbecue, but it is only 7am – surely the ice will melt?

I sit on the floor and twist, anxious to wake up the digestive process.

The wasp living in the chimney of the wood burning stove in our room begins his morning dance, the tinny buzz increasing in pitch and intensity.

I rest for a moment but find it hard to be still in a house so full of activity.

01 Dec 15 Club Lodge Apartments, Brisbane City

It is around 3.30pm. The weather is hot and sultry. I roll out my travel mat onto the hard wooden floor of the living room and step to the front of it. I spread my toes, push my feet into the ground, stand tall. Once again, I find myself moving through Sun Salutation – such a neat and complete mini-practice.

I start slowly, taking at least five breaths in each of the twelve positions. The mat slips on the floor and rucks underneath my feet. It is difficult to find good purchase, but I continue, allowing each round of the sequence to become progressively challenging.

I remember the pointers I give regularly when teaching: do I actually do them myself...? In Upward Stretch, I aim to extend my belly and relax my jaw. In Forward Bend, I engage the inside of my legs. In the Lunges, I watch the alignment of my knees and my pelvis. I try to keep things even, but the ganglion in my left wrist (aggravated by the heat) throbs and it is difficult to remain equally balanced. In Cobra, I press the tops of my toes to the floor, something I often forget to do. I am aware of the increasing tension in my neck and shoulders. The moment I start to move, this tension is there. Why? What am I trying to prove and to whom?

When the Salutations are completed, I conduct a few core strength exercises and then rest. I sweat, despite the air conditioning. Once my body has settled, I sit and read randomly from 'The Perfection of Yoga', a book I bought in the Hare Krishna restaurant on Elizabeth Street at lunchtime: “By training the mind, one attains tranquility … It is of utmost importance to make the mind a friend.” (p27)

In the background, the city rumbles and shouts. I fold the travel mat away and head downstairs to the basement for a swim.

02 Dec 15 45 min lunchtime 'Deep Stretch' class at Stretch Yoga, Brisbane City

The centre seems very new, the staff very keen. The practice space is light and airy with little shelves for trailing plants scattered randomly across one wall.

The class is floor-based. We move through a combination of Iyengar warm up stretches and longer-held Yin poses. The pace is slow and soothing, but I find it hard to settle – maybe because I am in an unfamiliar place?

Between postures, when the teacher invites us to release intuitively, I am abrupt, too fast, jerky. I am conscious of tipping into the autumn of my menstrual cycle and feel disjointed, as if my body and mind are out of step.

I am surprised not to hear the sounds of the city, just the grind of fierce air conditioning and some gentle background music.

We practice a pose I am unfamiliar with: kneeling with a rolled blanket behind the knees squashing the calf muscles flat. I wonder if I am doing it right as it feels so … wrong! I have walked a lot over the past few days and my calves are tight – perhaps this is good medicine?

As I listen to the teacher's instruction, I feel deeply grateful to be able to simply receive a class, rather than give it. Standing in Forward Bend with my toes pressed into the aforementioned rolled blanket, I ponder this contrast between giving and receiving and realize what a relief it is, what a luxury it is, to give myself permission to receive fully, completely and without judgement.

At the end of the session, the rolled blanket rests under my knees as I lie in Relaxation Pose, a Krishna chant murmuring through the sound system whilst the receptionist rattles away on a computer keyboard in the room next door. A gong sounds and we sit, offering each other 'namaste'.

I try not to pack up too quickly, wondering at my restlessness.

03 Dec 15 Riverside Park, Brisbane City

I take off my shoes and walk over to the base of the banyan tree. The trunk is vast, maybe six metres across. The leaves are oval, fat and lush green. I am pleasanly surprised by the softness of the wood chip beneath my bare feet, of how easy it is to put weight down.

I am awed by the size and sacredness of this tree and want to honour it somehow, so I find myself moving into vrkasana (Tree Pose), the sole of my right foot pressing clammily on to the inside of my left thigh. I don't raise my foot as high as usual, but I do raise my arms, my hands wide, my fingers reaching up into the airy canopy.

I am self-conscious, as this is a public place, but I also feel protected, aware of the tree's vast presence behind me. I lift my gaze to the blue of the sky, breathe deeply and marvel that I am in the middle of a thriving city.

04 Dec 15 90 min mid-morning Satyananda class at Maleny Yoga, QLD

I walk down the steps of the Rainforest Plaza to the centre, which is one long, rectangular room hung with ropes and amply stocked with props. The mats are already laid out: two side-by-side per person, plus a third placed centrally on top.

The class is small, only 2 us and the teacher. My fellow student has brought her pet dog with her – a tiny white Chihauhau curled minutely by the shoe rack, occasionally licking his nose with a tiny pink tongue.

We start with a seated meditation. It is a pleasure to be asked to focus on external sounds, as I can lose myself in exotic bird song and the rustle of palm leaves. It is overcast and the room is cool.

We move through a series of warm up exercises repeated many times in rhythm with breath. The repetitions allow me to become aware of the striking difference in feeling between the two side of my body - the right primed and overly responsive, the left slack and idle. It is as if I am split down the middle – an uncomfortable sensation.

Some movements are unfamiliar and I am surprised how difficult I find them: I sit in Staff Pose alternately lifting my legs an inch from the floor and my muscles shake alarmingly; we practice a Low Boat (arms, legs, head all lifting at once) and my core collapses with the effort. We work through some standing postures and a balance before sitting to engage in Pranayama. Although I do it regularly alone, it is a long time since I have been lead though Fire Breath with others and it feels good.

Finally we lie down and settle into Yoga Nidra, the hard slate floor making its presence felt even through three layers of mat. As we sit to chant 'om' to end, the dog gets up from his sleeping place, shakes his ears and has a good stretch. It seems that we are all revived from 90 mins of quiet, slow practice. I put on my shoes, give thanks to the teacher and walk out into a soft, misty rain.

06 Dec 15 Arcadia Farm, Maleny, QLD

Earlier, at Mooloolaba beach, I bought a small sandstone statue of Saraswati. I place it carefully on the bedside table in front of me. I had not planned to practice, but I find myself moving.

I explore some of the exercises I found difficult in Satyananda class the other day, Low Boat x 10, Leg Lifts x 20. Inspired by the benefits of repetition, I flow into 10 Seated Twists, held for 10 breaths each.

The tendonitis in my right shoulder makes Arm Bound Twists impossible, which troubles me. Why do I have such impenetrable rigidity within?

I open my legs wide and come into a Lateral Stretch, my forehead and nose pressing to my shins, sea salt from this morning's swim sticky on my skin.

I end in Up Plank, conscious that the pain in my left wrist compromises much of my floor based arm strengthening practice these days. I relax in Supine Tailor, feeling the pull of earth.

07 Dec 15 Botanical Gardens, Brisbane City

The dry bamboo leaves are luxuriously soft beneath my bare feet. I walk to a dappled patch of sun and sit, finding even ground. I move into a classical Half Spinal Twist, my legs bound, my right upper arm pressing into the outside of my left knee. Releasing, I then take High Boat, the first two fingers of each hand pulling on my big toes. My chest lifts, my shoulders broaden, my sit bones root to earth and the breeze that rustles the bamboo flutters my hair.

08 Dec 15 45 min lunchtime 'Gentle Flow' class at Atma Yoga, Brisbane City

The studio is square-shaped, capacious and cool. There are no windows. In one corner, a life-size statue of Krishna playing his flute, in another, a screen to change behind.

There are only four of us attending and I wonder how these centres make ends meet.

The 'gentle' flow is stronger than I anticipated and not what my body needs in these delicate moments before menstruating. As we move through repeated High Plank-Low Plank-Dog-Lunge sequences, I am conscious of having scant strength, my muscles weak and watery, my boundaries weak and diffuse. So I pace myself and modify as much as I feel the teacher will allow, athough she doesn't invite it.

The Chinese girl on the mat next to me puffs and groans loudly, pushing forcefully all the way. The postures are advanced and challenging and I notice strong resistance rising within. What purpose does such forcing serve? Why does the teacher not encourage my neighbour to find a more peaceful way to practice?

After a long 45 mins, the lights are switched off and we end resting in total darkness, in the middle of a very bright day. I am glad the class is short and that it is over.

We are thanked for coming and then the door is opened, allowing noise and chatter from the adjacent vegetarian restaurant to pour in and crowd us. I realize with surprise how quiet our practice has been. Silence in the centre of the city.

09 Dec 15 Club Lodge Apartments, Brisbane City

Day 1 of my period. Lethargic, dazed and in pain. I forgo the Yin class I had planned to attend at Shri Yoga and rest instead, spending many hours in bed.

Practice is restrained to a short meditation, gentle breath exercises and, inspired by images I saw at an exhibition of Contemporary Indian Art yesterday, some mudra work to honour the womb and the Feminine principle.

After staying in Child Pose for a long while (to ease the discomfort of my menstrual cramps), I read from a book I bought in a Tree Of Life shop at the Queen Street Mall - 'Extracts from the Teachings of Avatar Meher Baba' -

“Worry is the product of a feverish imagination working under the stimulus of desires … There are few things that exhaust energy so much as worry … Remain cheerful in all your trials and know that I am with you.”

13 Dec Tatura Farmstead, Kundabung, NSW

The combination of travel and my period mean that I haven't done any movement practice for a few days. Groggy and lethargic, I step out of bed and into a few clunky rounds of Sun Salutation. My body is unpliable, my mind full of self-judgement. I feel like an invalid. A deafening chorus of birdsong filters into the room from the wilderness outside, slightly different to the one I have become used to up north in Queensland. Great flocks of Lorikeets chatter in the eucalyptus, whilst other birds whistle or cackle or whoop. I try and absorb the sound as I move, keen to override the unhelpful commentary in my head.

The rest of the household are out working the paddocks and have been for several hours. It is only 8am.

14 Dec 15 Stuarts Point, NSW

It is twilight. The foot bridge arches gracefully over the wide but shallow creek, thick, weather-worn wooden slats for the floor, glistening white-glossed railings for the sides.

I turn towards the sun and place my left hand on the rail. I reach round with my right hand to catch my right foot as it lifts and pulls away from me. My left leg straightens and feels strong. With the support of the railing, I am able to bring my torso parallel to the ground and then lift my chest, feeling expansion across my heart. I let go support, raise my hand to the sky and balance in Shiva Pose, surprised at how easy it is to stay.

The gentle arch backward of my spine inversely reflects the arch forward of the bridge and the curve of the water. Overhead, a pelican flies, the white of its wings merging with the pink of the evening air. Below, a fish jumps from the water, tracing another arc through space before disappearing into the depths.

15 Dec 15 Grassy Head Beach, NSW

My feet sink down into the soft wet sand. My legs are together, straightening. I reach up and open my arms. My spine arches backwards, my shoulders broaden and fall, my chin lifts. I am aware of the roar of the ocean, of the ebb and flow of the powerful waves pulling at the shore. The sun blazes. I absorb warmth, light, life energy. Each breath draws vitality from the environment, filling me up. There is no life without light, without water, without fertile ground. So simple, yet so complex. I want to bend back as far as possible, to open as much as possible, but I am aware of my limits. I pause, suspended at my physical boundary, yearning for more but knowing that I have to accept What Is.

17 Dec 15 Tatura Farmstead, Kundabung, NSW

Preparing to teach a private session to Gay's neighbour, I sit on the floor with my legs out wide. I lean forward. There is a pull at my groin. I breathe deeply, conscious of being out of practice. I move into Seated Tailor, reaching, twisting, stretching. Then into Seated Eagle, my hips singing a loud complaint.

Over the past few days I have become disembodied, drawn out of myself by the majesty of the natural environment: the swoop of a hundred parrots, the curl of an octopus tentacle in the deep, the leap of a fish through the air, the crash of the sea in its bed, the sway of the endless eucalypts. But now I need to come back, to inhabit my own skin, to reconnect.

I pass through some standing poses, stretching and counter-stretching, creating symmetry and then becoming asymmetrical, connecting to earth and then moving away from it. After a while, I sit in Easy Pose and wait, wondering what this new client-teacher exchange will bring.

I am slightly anxious. Over the past few weeks, I have forgotten that I am a teacher. I have shed roles and identities and it feels good. Will my teacher-self return without effort, or will I have to search for her? I hear footsteps on the veranda and rise to meet them. As a shadow falls across the screen door, I slide it open, smiling as I welcome my new student inside.

19 Dec 15 75 min mid morning 'Essential Vinyasa' class at Yoga Time, Bondi, NSW

To access the studio, I go through and out the back of a chemist's shop, down some stairs and across a small, ramshackle lawn. Reception and props are in a garage (mats dangling from coat hangers). The practice area stands alone, a room devoid of anything except a sink.

20-odd students pack into a space roughly 5 x 4 metres square. It is a hot day, the temperature 30 degrees +, but the teacher slides the patio doors shut. There is no air con. To breathe is to sweat.

Practice is strong. I'm so glad to be on Day 11 of my menstrual cycle, energized and willing! I surprise myself by keeping pace. Taking particular care to 'stack' my joints throughout the many High Plank-Low Plank transitions helps my wrist issues. Sweat pours from me continually. It stings my eyes in Dog and pools on the mat when I sit. My (scant) clothes plaster my body, my hair sticks to my head. The teacher opens the patio doors an inch for ventilation and asks those near by to tell her 'if they get cold'.

There is an intensity in the room, but I am impressed by the lightness and humour of the teaching – forcing is not welcome here. We are reminded that asana reflects our relationship to the earth, and that it should be easeful. We are also told that slowing down and finding our own rhythm in a general class is a 'sign of mature practice'. There is mention of ahimsa (non violence) and santosha (contentment). This is the first Vinyasa class I have attended that genuinely invites non-striving and I am heartened.

20 Dec 15 Bondi Beach, NSW

I stand with my back to the railings next to the lifeguard tower. I interlock my fingers behind me, straighten my arms and place my wrists on the rail. My breast bone lifts and broadens. The muscles to the front of my shoulders creak and groan with tightness after yesterday's High/Low Plank antics. I breathe deeply, easing the tension through the side of my rib cage. On the beach below, a camera crew shoot footage for the reality show 'Bondi Rescue'. On the board walk in front, the whole world ambles by. The sun shines and everyone seems happy.

21 Dec 15 Bondi Beach, NSW

Our last day. In a few hours, we will board a plane and make the long, long journey back home. Remembering being on the beach at Noosa when we first arrived, I bring my Australian practice full circle by returning to a Deep Squat, as I did that first morning. Again, a push my feet into soft, powdery sand, joyfully spreading my toes. Again, I lengthen my spine, willingly opening my heart. I feel expansive, unbounded. I am so grateful for the sight, sound, taste, smell and feel of this extraordinary land, and for the sense of potential that it brings. It has been an honour to tread the earth here these last few weeks and I am enriched. The ocean sings, the sky soars and the moment feels timeless.

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