It’s All About the Core Or: The Freedom to Fly

I was doing yoga for nearly 5 years before I had the courage to even attempt a headstand. I still remember my first wobbly headstand against the library wall at home clearly. I purposely did it at home, because I didn’t want people in the yoga class to see me fail. I recall my fear at doing it, my surprise when I was able to do it and the confidence it gave me afterwards.

For me, it’s a bit of a cliche that Sirsasana is called ‘the King’ of yoga poses … the pose that you absolutely must do if you’re anywhere near serious about yoga. Go into a yoga class and people look at you with something less than respect if you can’t pop a headstand in the middle of the room. Personally, I think Ardho Mukha Svanasna is the ‘king’ of poses,  and -I’ll be honest here- it irks me that those same people can’t hold adho mukha svanasana and just be with it for 2 minutes to save their lives. But then, why do we need ‘king’ or ‘queen’ poses anyway? Which is a whole other post… so I’ll leave it there.

What I am interested in sharing is realisation that I had whilst figuring out my journey through Sirsasana, and whether I could apply the same principles to Adho Mukha Vrksasana (AMV/handstand). (I’m currently playing with AMV in my home practice).

Time to Back Track….

As a child I was told not to do headstands, handstands or anything that involved putting pressure on my neck because I might end up in a wheelchair. Or worse.

Now, I’m sure my mother told me this because she was worried that I might hurt myself. As both my brother and I are adopted, from an early age, I detected a level of protection on behalf of my parents which other children did not experience, and -unfortunately- was at odds with my independent personality. In the end, I just ‘did stuff’ and Mum never knew.

However, that early ‘tape’ about headstands, neck injuries, paraplegia and death was recorded by my brain. It’s still playing, although I’ve taught my brain that, as I have a healthy neck and no other medical contraindications, I am allowed to do headstands.

Fast Forward: 2010, My Bathroom

After I did my first wobbly Sirsasana against the wall at home, and then got up enough courage to go public with it, I spent a lot of time watching, talking and learning. There was something that I learned about Sirsasana which came back to me the other day as I lifted up into AMV -against the wall in my bathroom (was subsequently busted by my son, who asked what on Earth  I was doing!). The secret to headstand wasn’t just the pressing down of the forearms into against the floor, it was THE CORE!

In AMV, it’s all about the core. A strong switched on set of belly muscles meant that I was able to find an amazing sense of ease and balance very quickly, rather than just kicking up and hoping for the best.

Washing in the Rain

Later, as I was running from house to laundry in the middle of the biggest wet (translation: most rain) we’ve had in 8 years, something else occurred to me. Having a strong core is the key to everything. Not just on the yoga mat, but off the yoga mat as well. I’m talking about the metaphoric core here, the metaphoric central foundations, fundamentals, heart, basics of almost anything I do. I can run, because I can walk, I can walk, because I could crawl, I can crawl because I could sit … and so on, right back down to breathing.

So the lesson for me is: don’t be in a hurry to progress (not that I often am these days, when you pass 30, you learn patience), and spend a lot of time strengthening the core, no matter what it is that I’m trying to achieve. Go back to the core and love it very much. Admire it from time to time and just be with it, rather than lifting up into yet another headstand.

In loving the core, the basics, you find the strength and freedom to fly.


Cat Wheeler: Author, Environmental and Social Activist

Cat Wheeler is the author of Dragons in the Bath, a book I reviewed on my other blog Desert Book Chick earlier this week.

Cat lives in Bali, Indonesia, and is intensely involved in environmental education and social development:

Environmentalist, writer, Reiki master and remorseless optimist, Ibu Kat helps to raise funds, write proposals and design programs for a variety of environmental and community needs.

She lives in Ubud with three dogs, a bald parrot, and a succession of unsolicited wildlife.

Cat, who’s lived and worked in Bali for nearly a decade, has written a book that presents a rich tapestry -both humorous and informative- of life in Bali. Dragons in the Bath is rich with ritual, authenticity and understanding. As I have a strong connection with Indonesia (I went to university in Java for a while) and visit nearly every year, I enjoyed Cat’s insights into life in Bali. Being an anthropologist who specialises in environmental anthropology, I found Cat’s book and experiences both entertaining and sobering.

Although Bali (and most of Indonesia) is not stricken with poverty like other places, it suffers from underemployment, overpopulation, lack of infrastructure and is reeling from the effects of the Green Revolution and an obsession with plastic wrapping. Add to this the millions of tourists who visit Bali every year, and the pressure upon the island’s environment shouldn’t be hard to imagine. Indeed, it’s almost unthinkable that a tropical island like Bali would suffer from water shortages, but it does.

Keen to learn more, I decided to ask Cat (known in Bali as Ibu Kat) a few questions about her book and the issues it raises.

DBC: What has been the reaction to the book in Bali, especially from those people or the communities you write about?

Cat: So many expatriates living here have contacted me to say how much the book resonates with them, and how accurately it reflects their lives here.  They buy it for friends and relatives to help them understand the realities of living here.

When I write about issues and NGOs, I always tried to include contact details in the book so readers can follow up if they are so moved.  In several cases this has resulted in donations, visits and broader networks.

DBC: I enjoyed the manner in which you conveyed the complexity of environmental and social issues in contemporary Bali. For example, the collection of tropical fish by Balinese fishermen is not a simple matter of stopping or prohibiting people from collecting fish; rather you showed that there are communities and families which rely on the income from these industries, and the answer to ensuring the survival of endangered species and entire ecosystems might be education and the adoption of sustainable collection methods. In hindsight, how effective are education, community control and management in relation to sustainable harvests such as live tropical fish? What have been the longer term outcomes for the communities involved?

Cat: It is a slow process, of course, but community involvement is probably the most effective and sustainable method of environmental management. (If you want specific details about the tropical fish issue, please contact Gayatri Lilley whose project this is at  These situations need win-win solutions.  Outsiders, whether they be government agencies or well-meaning foreigners, can’t just walk into a community and impose a solution.  The communities know what their problems are and what will work.

DBC: In the book, you mention underground rainwater reservoirs in Australia. Rainwater collection from roofs into rainwater tanks is a primary water source for many rural and semi-rural Australians: rainwater tanks, gutters and downpipes are everywhere. Yet it is astounding to me that hardly any rainwater is collected in Bali (and other parts of monsoonal Asia), given the both the reliability of the monsoon and the well known problems about scarce water resources in these areas. Are rainwater tanks not culturally appropriate, too expensive or simply not widely known in Bali? Do you think they could offer part of the solution to securing household water supplies?

Cat: I believe part of it is cultural/social…  strategic planning is not part of the culture here!  This is probably due to the tropical abundance which ensures people will never go hungry, so the skills of planning ahead for survival through a cold winter never had to be developed (they are hard-wired into Scandanavians and Canadians!) (DBC notes: this is exactly what I’ve noticed after 10 years of living and working with Aboriginal communities in Central Australia. Strategic planning is a cultural meme descended from thousands of years of life in cold climates).  Around most of Bali until a generation ago, people went to the river to bathe and socialise and do the laundry, and collected drinking water from wells or springs.  The capital costs of large rainwater tanks, guttering, taps and perhaps pumps are still too high for most families. I believe rainwater is the best solution here — during a heavy rain it all runs off into the sea and a week later people are complaining that there is no water!  My Rotary club and other organizations are investing in simple rainwater catchment tanks in dry areas. I understand the government has started to build dams, but I am having trouble getting information about these.

DBC: Having read anthropologist Stephen Lansing’s ethnography of the subak system, Perfect Order, I’m interested in hearing more about it from a resident’s perspective. To what extent is the subak system still functioning in Bali, and what is people’s current awareness of the role of this system in Bali’s economic and social structures?

Cat: The subak system is still operating well in more remote areas such as Jatih Luih (one of Lansing’s study areas) but it is breaking down in places around Ubud. The water supply on the island generally is decreasing dramatically as water tables drop.  Half of Bali’s rivers have dried up in the past decade.  Some subaks no longer grow rice at all because there isn’t enough water; the fields are fallow or now grow corn or peanuts.  In other areas, rice farmers are quarreling about water and witholding it from other farmers (this has never happened before as far as I am aware).  And of course subaks in the south and around Ubud have become housing developments. Bali loses about 800 – 1000 hectares of agricultural land a year to development.

I talk to farmers about this and they are bewildered. These are unsophisticated people, and rice farming is all they know.

DBC: Can you suggest some local community development/ environmental projects in Bali that would benefit from readers’ support?

These are a few of my favourites: alleviation, sustinable agriculture, basic health care, water) Cataracts/TB/cleft lip (Friends of the National Park Fund – reforestation on Nusa Penida) (Smile Fund – facial deformities) (children with mental disabilities)

DBC: Lastly, have you plans for another book about Bali?

Cat: Well, the book came out of many years of writing the column, and I am still writing it… so there may be another one eventually.

If you’d like to learn more about Cat’s book and work, her website is here. If you’d like to learn more about  social and environmental projects in Bali, and get involved, please visit the links above. Finally, get hold of Cat’s book and give it a read. You’ll find find life through the eyes of an expat Canadian a hilarious and sobering read.

Once Upon a Time… or Yes, It’s True That My Body is Part of my Mental Health

This post follows on from yesterday’s post. I have down days, and writing about my feelings is the main way in which I process such mental states. Yesterday’s post was one such post. Today’s post is an archaeology of the self. A glimpse at the person behind the blogging persona… the real person who loves to exercise, who is and has been an endurance athlete and who was born with a naturally lean, hard athletic body.

I love my muscly calves (which look ridiculous in spindly high heels).  I love that I can ask my body to walk up mountains, to run 10 km, to hit the floor and pump out 30 push ups on my toes. I adore my small, almost flat breasts. In contrast to other many other women, working with the body that I was blessed with has been the doorway into my soul. Maintaing my bodily vehicle remains the cornerstone of my mental health.

Here is My Story. Straight from the heart.

As a child, I was outgoing, precocious and perhaps a little too confident. I was a slighty nerdy Tomboy, who hated dresses, Barbie dolls, playing mothers and fathers and all the usual things little girls did. Instead of dollies and make up, my life was one of adventure, bike riding, horses (I owned two), playing in the bush, reading books, inventing fantasy worlds and cultures with my friends (this is my best friend from primary school) and getting involved in a few outdoorsy-type sports. I was an explosive ball of energy. In essence, the child I was has shaped the adult that I am.

I was a disappointment to my mother who wanted a girly-girl, not a bookish, half-wild Tomboy. In many ways, my own daughter has fulfilled this role for her. I didn’t fail my father: I was his fishing, bushwalking and handyman mate (so was my brother). Dad understands me in a way that Mum never has.

At age 15 my boundless confidence and exuberance vanished. Overnight, I discovered that I was a young woman, and that I was sorely lacking many of the things that society dictates as being desirable in a woman: for example, being tall and long legged, being slender but not muscular, being able to fuss and primp endlessly over clothes, looks, hair, shoes and handbags. At that stage, I also lived near the beachside suburb of Cronulla (in Sydney’s south),  so having a good tan was a must. I failed on that variable, too.

Another other aspect of my retreat from self confidence related to boyfriends and bullying. I am purposely lumping together ‘boyfriends and bullying’. My first boyfriend was a serious, capital L looser whose repulsive actions resulted in me being bullied at high school.

The Loser was the kind of guy that most parents dread: a barely literate high school dropout with no idea about personal hygiene and no concept of responsibility. He was a guy with no work ethic, no job prospects (or interest in getting a job) and zero interest in going back to high school. The Loser was also mentally unbalanced: not only was he a compulsive liar (worse, he actually believed his own bullshit), he refused to leave me alone when I told him it was over after 3 months. Instead, he resorted to threatening self-harm or threatening to set his own house on fire (which he did). Eventually, he held up a petrol station and ended up in juvenile custody. A real quality guy…

However, my self esteem was so low at that time, I thought the Loser was the only kind of boyfriend that a girl like me deserved. After all, I lacked nearly all of the attributes that our society deems valuable in women.

The Loser, thankfully, was out of my life in a relatively short time (about 11 months), but his putridness stained me. He stalked me and my friends for another 18 months after my father told him to piss off at my request (I’d been trying to tell him to fuck off for 6 months but he refused to listen to me). He threatened a guy I started dating a few months later, who was a really nice, decent guy (this is Mark’s website. He is my daughter’s father).  Thankfully, Mark –who as far as I know has never been in a fight in his life- called the Loser’s bluff, and the Loser backed down from all confrontations, and apologised.

My point is this: the Loser and the period of time marked by his stain were responsible for creating in me an internalised belief that I was short, fat and ugly. This is a powerful tape in my life, and I revert to it now when I get depressed. Certainly, there was an element of truth in this belief. Whilst I’d been seeing the Loser, I recall living on fast food and doing almost no exercise. I put on weight.  Once I’d stopped seeing the Loser, some of this weight disappeared.

As a consequence of the Loser’s stain on my life, I underwent some pretty weird behavioural changes. For example, for years afterward, I could not go out of the house without:

  • Wearing full makeup, including (yechhh!) foundation (triple yech!!)
  • Wearing a collared shirt (for some reason, I thought this drew attention away from my litany of physical flaws)
  • Ensuring my knees weren’t showing (I hated my knees)
  • Ensuring that my hair always covered my ears (I thought they were big! Which they are most definitely not)

This kind of self-loathing continued until age 19.

And then I started cycling.

Cycling changed everything. Within in 6 weeks, I was eating a healthy diet, began going to gym classes, began running again. Of course, I lost some weight. (Please note that I was not overweight. I never have been). Yet these were only the outer, physical changes. Inside, the benefits of exercise wrought far deeper beneficial changes.

I regained the self esteem and confidence that the Loser had stolen from me. I was suddenly and unintentionally whole, both psychologically and spiritually in a way that I had not been since I was a child. My interest in spiritual development blossomed, my outlook on the world became positive. Everything I needed flowed effortlessly into my life, like some big 1980s new age cliche. In all, as I worked on my outer shell and my body changed, or should I say reverted to a truer form rooted in childhood, so too did my inner world and all aspects of life.

To be disconnected from this deep truth as I have been over the past 6 months is to be out of balance. Massively out of balance with dire consequences for my mental health.

For me, this precedes a descent into depression, a loss of self confidence and an accompanying social phobia. It has nothing to do with me conforming to society’s cultural norms about women’s bodies: women should be skinny but lacking muscular definition, women should not sweat, women should not be physically strong, women should not lift weights etc. Nor is this about me viewing myself as a ‘body’ and only being worthy as a body.

This is about me being true to my soul… me wanting to return to who I really am.

That was what yesterday’s post -a plaintive cry to the self- was about. Just like a shaman accesses inner worlds where transformation can take place, I access such places via my body. For other people, this journey comes about when they begin to study meditation, yoga, spiritual discipline.  For me, it’s exercise and the finely tuned vehicle. When I am in this finely tuned outer state,  everything -and I mean everything- in my life comes into balance.

Thus, the connection between my physical state and my mental health lies at the core of who I am. I don’t expect others to understand this connection… after all -it is my connection. Healthy body, healthy mind, healthy soul. It might sound like a cheesy marketing line for Metamucil, but it ain’t. It’s the simple, pure truth about who I really and truly am.

So yes, I am happy to say I am back at the gym and back into running, just as I went back to yoga two months ago, and I’m loving it all. I want to push myself simply because I enjoy pushing myself physically. It relaxes me -seriously!-I work out to relax like other people flop on the lounge in front of the TV. And I find pure, unadulterated joy in using my body and playing with its edges.

Sometimes I will have bumps on the road -like yesterday- where I look back and acknowledge that I’m not how I usually am –I allow myself to feel remorse sadness for what was. I allow it so I can write about it and move on.

Let the journey begin.

Tomorrow: Benny’s post and why it’s relevant to this discussion

The Yoga of Priorities

This week, I’ve had a few too many late nights and way too much time spent in front of a computer screen. After saving iTunes yesterday, setting up the new website over the weekend and beginning to dip my toes into the world of Photoshop, I’m feeling a bit tired.

And I’m feeling a little guilty. I started off with good intentions, I’ve gone back to the gym two days this week, did a hard interval running session on Sunday morning, lots of yoga and was intending to continue working on my distance runs (I’m back to 5km now). But the late nights and computer screen have taken their toll.

 Thus, this public announcement: do the run, do the class, get the reward.  This means: this afternoon, 5km run. At 6pm, Pump. At 7:30pm, visit my Amazon wishlist for a reward.

 Do you think it will work? I need a virtual cheering squad – can you help? 

Looking Backwards, Sideways, Forwards

Yeah yeah. I felt obliged to do it: write a year  in review post.

Except, I’m doing a non-sucky, non-New Year’s Resolution post. A commentary on my own failings and achievements for the past year. And something about 2010 for good measure.

This post written on the mighty EeePC powered by Eeebuntu.

2009: The Year I Went Blah

My daughter started university. I finished the thesis. I also went a long way to destroying Life As I Know It. I stopped going to the gym, doing exercise for several months, doing yoga. At one point, I even stopped reading. The thesis took over my life. Work got really busy. I burnt out. I was a bitch and treated my partner badly. I got depressed. I lost it and ended up in hospital. I discovered Turbulence Training. I rediscovered yoga, reading and love. My partner deserves a special mention. He is my hero.

I set out to read 52 books this year. I read 50.

My favourite books: The Book Thief, Marcus Zukac (fiction); Shadows on the Path, Abdi Assadi (non-fiction).

Honourable Mentions: Yoga School Dropout, Lucy Edge (non-fiction); The Van Gogh Blues, Eric Maisel (non-fiction); Yuendumu Everyday, Yasmine Musharbash (non-fiction); Cave in the Snow, Vicki Mackenzie (non-fiction).

Books That Sucked: Get Motivated, Tamara Lowe (so bad I couldn’t finish it); The Naked Entrepreneur, Hazard & Elita (two wannabes giving money grubbing pseudo-spiritual advice); Disordered Minds, Minette Walters (apparently, she’s a good writer!).

Things I Learned in 2009:

  • I do not have an Inner Fat Woman Waiting To Burst Out
  • Breaking BIG things down into the smallest possible parts works
  • Doing something everyday (or consistently) means even the biggest mountains will be climbed
  • Convincing myself to “…just do it for 20 minutes …” defeats procrastination
  • I can own an Ipod, provided it’s an Itouch
  • Macs are probably better PCs, especially if that means NEVER having to have McAfee again
  • Turbulence Training is nearly as good as Body Pump
  • Bill Harris of Holosync fame is a complete and utter pratt
  • The yoga teacher training I did in late 2008 psychologically damaged me

Missions Possible:

Thanks to Benny the Irish Polyglot for this inspirational rejection of lame, washed out New Year’s resolutions (NYRs). Why missions? Read Benny’s post. I’m not going to repeat it here.

Last year, I finished the biggest project I’ve ever undertaken in my life. Now I’m free, free, free to do what ever I want. Here are some missions for this year:

  • take better care of myself mentally and physically
  • read 10 books per month
  • read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Indonesian
  • start learning Hindi (mid year) for our motorcycle tour of India in 2011
  • go to 2 yoga workshops interstate
  • hang out with Svasti, Nadine & Linda in person
  • be able to run 10km again (I usually can do this hands down, but I’m the unfittest I’ve been in 20 years)
  • get my courage up and go back to the gym 3 times per week
  • prove to myself that Turbulence Training can give me the results that Pump does
  • do yoga at least 5 times per week
  • climb Mt Giles
  • in fact, go bushwalking and camping as much as I possibly can
  • go overseas at least once and twice if we can manage it (We’re going to Bali & Lombok on 29th Jan) (leave is the problem, not $$)
  • start a proper garden

Well. I hope you’re all puffed out, puffed up and ready to go. Review dates: 1 March, 1 June, 1 Sept, 31st Dec.

Let’s go…