My wishes for you in 2017: nurturing your inner and outer sanctuaries with love and compassion
Sawadee ka! Greetings to you all from Thailand where I have been for the last 6 weeks, journeying alone, taking space away just to be me: not something I have done in this way since I was in my 20’s, before my children, before Well Mother (born 1990).I went partly to nourish myself from the inside: to study and receive Thai massage, to keep practicing beginners mind. I also deepened my yoga, meditation practices and Qi Gong and began learning tai chi. I was lucky to have some classes with Ping, a teacher from the Yang Shu Tai Chi school in China. I also went to receive a different kind of nourishment from the outside by being in another landscape and culture. I’ve enjoyed the warmth, a break from the Yin winter of Europe, and being in a country where I don’t understand the language.
What I would most like to wish for you for 2017 is that you each take the space (especially if you are very busy! ) to create at least an hour each day, to nurture yourself with love and compassion. Find whatever way nourishes you most. This can involve drawing nourishment from what is outside you (your outer sanctuary): being in nature, with friends or family, with precious objects or engaging in outward activities. Or it can involve drawing nourishment from what is inside you (your inner sanctuary), resting, doing yoga, receiving massage or shiatsu, or simply just breathing and being. Ideally you need both inner and outer nourishment: Yin and Yang and the awareness that you are the microcosm of the macrocosm. Who we are on the inside is influenced by what is all around us. Especially with the work we do, caring, supporting and “mothering” our clients, we need to make sure we are nourished and supported, that we “mother” ourselves.
Outer spaces of sanctuary: the macrocosm
Travel is interesting as it highlights what supports us from the outside. I began and ended in the south, in Koh Yao Noi, an island about an hour away from Phuket. My initial destination: Island Yoga a yoga retreat centre created in 2005 by David Sharpe (www.thailandyogaretreats.com) The island is largely Muslim and not particularly developed, although cycling round I found worrying signs of land for sale and more development on the way. However it is still immensely peaceful and nurturing. I found it restful looking out from the peaceful beaches at the craggy limestone rocks rising out of the ocean. These karsts were originally coral and are amazing intricate sculptures, like Haolong bay, Vietnam. At times they are like frozen cascades of water, or curved fingers, or magical figures. Bond fans will recognize this scenery from the “Bond island” in “The Man with the Golden Gun”. At Railay, just across the bay, where I ended my trip, there are sacred caves dedicated to sea goddesses. It is not surprising that people saw magical and sacred figures in this landscape.
Inland there was lush green tropical vegetation, bananas, rubber and mangroves with swathes of hilly green views. Huge brightly coloured butterflies fluttered around in groups, often of 20 or 30. The yoga studios were beautiful: Thai wooden structures with banana leaf roofs and large glass windows to allow the outside world in. I tried to be at the front or edges of the room so I could look outside at the trees and flowers, butterflies and sea while I practised. We did tai chi on the beach to the sunrise looking out at the karsts. At full moon you could see the moon and the sun simultaneously.
When I arrived in Chiang Mai in the north, everyone had told me what a peaceful city it was, especially by Asian standards, but after the natural rhythms and simplicity of Koh Yao Noi, it seemed busy and it took me a couple of days to settle in and appreciate a different kind of outer beauty. The Wats, temples, were almost on every corner and incredibly beautiful and peaceful with their golden domes (chedis, stupas) and colourful, ornamental tiered roofs and gables often adorned with nagas (snakes). I had never seen so many Buddhas in one place! The main huge Buddha was surrounded by many other buddhas. There was always a place with a display of budhhas for each day of the week. As well as the hundreds of buddhas, there were usually many Indian gods, the most popular of which was Hanuman. Some wats had large tranquil gardens.
One day I went to a Kuan Yin (divine mother aspect of Buddhism) temple. The main Kuan Yin was outside: an enormous white figure the size of a house standing on a dragon. She was surrounded by many other smaller Kuan Yins in different postures, some of which I had never seen her in, sitting as well as standing. In some she was holding a baby, in most holding the pearls of illumination, along with the vase of healing water and the sheaf of rice branch. She was also surrounded by Indian goddesses. For New Year I went to a temple where the main monk led an incredible chanting session. Although I didn’t understand the meaning, the sounds were powerful and we took away candles with paper to set intentions for the new year.
I fell in love with the soy, the side streets of Chiang Mai. They offered a break from the busy-ness of the main streets. Often there would be no one in them, but they felt safe. Nature wove its way everywhere. The guest house where I stayed had trees growing up inside and the roof just made way for them. This was the same for one of the yoga studios I went to. Beautiful coloured flowers, often purples, decorated the spaces.
Where I studied some Thai massage was a beautiful place on the edge of Chiang Mai. A former paddy field now planted with lots of local trees, the buildings were traditional wooden Thai style. My room was an old rice barn with teak pillars inside. It is called “The house of sweet smelling herbs” (Baan Hom Samunphrai: http://www.homprang.com )Many of the herbs we used for compresses came from the gardens, as did some of the fruit we ate. There was also a herbal steam bath which we had each evening to draw the herbs in that way too.
The carvings and statues in this space were very beautiful and inspired me to visit Baan Tawai, a local carving village. As well as a covered market area, there were carvings placed outside in gardens and in beautiful temple like buildings. It was peaceful and almost overwhelming beautiful to enter some of these spaces, full of Buddhas and Kuan Yins in many forms and sizes. There were also whole tree trunks carved with intricate scenes: some of underwater fish, trees, flying horses, delicate flowers. It was like entering another world. Some of these scenes are carved into tables and intricate panels.
I travelled north of Chiang Mai to the mountains near Chiang Dao for a few days. Chiang Dao means the “City of the stars” as the mountains are close to heaven. Here too the wats were everywhere. There were sacred caves with buddhas inside and a wat half way up the mountain.
In these spaces, there were the people of all nationalities I met, sharing our different worlds and approaches, from the Thais, to other travelers and students, to the non- Thais who have chosen to make Thailand their home. These all helped open my perspectives and I saw more clearly what kind of energies support me and which tire me!
For me, all nature, from the grand spaces of sea and mountains to the tiny butterflies and flowers nurtures me. Sacred and precious objects also nurture me, but I need to have some space around and for it not to be too busy so that I can take some time to allow their more subtle qualities to enter inside me. I am nurtured by being with people but I also need my own space. What nurtures you from the outside? How you draw these qualities in for you in your daily life, especially if you live in a busy city, yet it is nature and quiet which support you? Maybe having a picture in your room, or plants or flowers? A garden, however small? Who are the people who support and nurture you?
Inner spaces of sanctuary: the microcosm
My journey also involved inner journeying through having more time to spend focusing on my body and what nurtures it. I have always found some form of movement, meditation and massage supports me, and this is partly what drew me to Thailand.
At Island Yoga we had a variety of teachers, including David, leading a 2 hour morning class, more Yang style, and a one and half hour more Yin style evening class. However each teacher was different and some of the evening classes were more Yang and others at times too Yin! I enjoyed challenging my body with more demanding poses but also knowing how to allow my body to rest and be still, even when sometimes I resisted and wanted to move. A more inward focus can equally be challenging. I found it helpful to be reminded again that both inner and outward movement practices are important to support our bodies. Sometimes more of one is necessary, and the balance varies, but both are necessary to some extent.
At Island Yoga I connected more deeply with Tai Chi. Although I have been practicing aspects of Qi Gong over the years, enjoying its connection with the spaces both within the body and outside, I didn’t connect so much to Tai Chi. I enjoyed the very different approaches of Ping and another teacher, Anthony Fidler (www.easternpeace.co.uk). Ping’s style is more Yang, drawn from martial arts it has dynamic yet soft movements. His stance was a bit wider and there was an emphasis on form and correct body movement as well as feeling the energy ball and the connection to heaven and earth. Anthony by contrast was a more inner, Yin, style with smaller movements, listening to the body and more spiraling. Naturally they were very different body types! Anthony also does seiki (a form of spontaneous, off the body shiatsu developed by a student of Masunaga, Kishi) and studied with Kishi.
I made sure I had massages everywhere. They were all quite different but all Yang, physically strong. This was what I needed, as I find this approach is harder to get in Europe. My upper back and shoulders, especially since my bike accident, have been very tight and I wanted to get some more physical release here to balance all the energetic and emotional work I have received. I experienced techniques I have never received before: some amazing elbow rolling and foot work and stretches. It was powerful to be opened up in new ways and I felt I was being remade! I feel I can breathe more deeply now and more easily do some yoga postures I struggled with before!
The massages at the place where I studied with the traditional midwife outside Chiang Mai (Baan Hom Samunphrai) were always at least 2 hours and did include some more gentle work. I also had the 5 hour womb lifting session, which is what I had gone there to study. Essentially this was 2 hours of preparatory work on legs and back, followed by one hour of deep work on the abdomen, an hour of compresses over the whole body, including the abdomen, and an hour more of Thai massage to integrate, this time with more stretches and including the arms.
I felt the abdominal work was more for the whole hara, rather than especially womb focused, but I have never had the hara worked in that way even with the Chi nei tsang session I had in Chiang Mai. I hadn’t realized how much emphasis Thai massage places on the “blood stop” ie deep pressure into pulse areas which then is released to improve circulation. The “blood stops” were done on various places on my abdomen. The pulses were incredibly strong, almost painful, but I did feel release after.
The preparation of the herbal compresses was beautiful. The therapist’s daughter tended a charcoal fire which she used to heat clay pots filled with
salt. The hot clay pot was then wrapped in a herbal compress to heat it up. When one was being used, another was heated. Ban, the therapist chatted to her daughter and it felt like a ritual. The hot compress part is traditionally what the family would do during the first few weeks postnatally to help with recovery. The woman also sits naked over burning herbs to heal her perineum and womb and has steam baths to support her body. The woman wouldn’t receive the physical abdominal work, if needed, till later. This is a beautiful way to involve the rest of the family in nourishing the mother while she rests at home for a month.
I studied how to do this session, but a lot of it was using the Sen lines and points of Thai. I was fortunate to be paired with a South African doctor of Chinese medicine who specializes in postnatal care so we worked out which acupuncture points we would include! When we did the abdominal work on each other we included points below the navel, Conception, Penetrating and Girdle Vessel especially, and I could really feel how those points did have a more direct effect on the womb itself.
As I had time, I was able to spend more time on my own body practices, as well as walking, swimming and even a little climbing. All of this work for me has helped me feel more connected with my inner sanctuary, my body and my thoughts. I feel grateful to have had the space to do this work. What type of practices nourish you and do you take enough time to include them in your life? Of course it is easier to focus on them when you are doing a course or on holiday, but their true benefits are when we integrate them on a daily basis. How can you do this in a supportive way for you?
Combining inner and outer sanctuary
My time has enabled me to value even more than ever the importance of valuing both our inner and outer spaces. I hope that you all get some time to nourish your spaces as much as you are able in your lives. For me to have this amount of time, has only been possible at this stage of my life, when my children are older so I don’t need to mother them in the way I did before. However, wherever we are, we can create some space each day to nourish ourselves.
I wish you well: sawadee ka